Saturday, December 27, 2014

Shoggoths and Snowstorms, Gay Wizards at Christmas: some later-year musings on culture

I was going to write a year-end wrap-up, but that might not be happening; Christmas was busy, and we still have Karine's surgery looming. For those who haven't been up-to-date, there's a post on the latter here, and a fundraiser here. Feel free to support or spread the word.

This is a literature post of sorts, with some of my musings on culture, art, and its various interpretations. Specifically, three discussions arose recently which interested me:
  1. The petition to replace the bust of HP Lovecraft on the World Fantasy Award trophy with someone less problematic.
  2. JK Rowling's recent response to a question about LGBTQ students at Hogwarts
  3. The seasonal tradition of dissecting and defending the lyrics to the holiday classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside",

All three discussions are, at their heart, about how we view art, what messages we find therein and, especially in cases 1 and 3, how we engage in potentially troublesome content from yesteryear.

Discussion the First: Lovecraft
HP Lovecraft
This, for me, is the easiest one. For those who don't know, Howard Phillip Lovecraft was an American writer of horror fiction in the early part of the twentieth century. His best known work revolves around what has come to be known as the Cthulhu mythos - a pantheon of unknowable and amoral godlike beings far older than the human race. His is a canon about man's growing feeling of insignificance in a universe which isn't only not centered around us, but which is beyond our understanding. Lovecraft's stories often involve an encounter with something inexplicable (to the point at which the author can't even describe it) and inimical to humans. The stories often end with a loss of sanity. He's a tremendously influential author, not only in direct imitators recycling his imagery but also in the tone of the "weird tale" - both of which persist to this day. There also is, in both his work and his personal correspondence, an overwhelming undercurrent of racism.

That an author basing his work on the concept of  "fear of the other" is a racist should come as little surprise. What should be shocking to a modern reader is how Lovecraft used the same language to describe immigrants to his New England setting as he used to describe eldritch horrors from beyond our observable world. One friend described a particular Lovecraft story as follows, "This seems like it was just a list of things he [Lovecraft] didn't like. There were rats. IT was horrible! There were sea-monsters. It was horrible! THe people were praying in Polish. It was horrible!"

For his influence, a stylized bust was selected as the trophy for the World Fantasy Award. Some current writers - including winner China Mieville who turns his award backwards to symbolically write behind the old racist's back - feel uncomfortable with honoring a legacy which is hurtful to so much of the population. To them, I'll agree; Not only was Lovecraft was a racist even by the lower standards of his time, but we are not living in his time. By today's standards, his work has very, very uncomfortable messages. Can we read is as a historically artifact? Absolutely. Can we read it and enjoy the craft and his skill at setting a mood? Yes. Can we read it without regard to the larger message, and accept it unchallenged? I say that we should not.

Discussion the Second - Gay Wizards
A few years back, JK Rowling created a bit of a splash with her declaration that Harry Potter character Albus Dumbledore is gay. I've spoken to some people who tell me that they see hints of this in the text, but I think we can all agree that it's never explicitly written. Given that one of the flaws in the final volume is a surplus of indigestible chunks of exposition, it would have been quite easy to include a scene with Dumbledore holding hands with a male classmate. Or kissing a male wizard. Or anything like that. Leaving it as something perhaps hinted at reduces "Dumbledore and Griffenwald were lovers" to one of many interpretations of the work; that the author is the one making it does not, to me, make it any more valid or more interesting an interpretation than if anyone else had.

This issue came back to mind when I recently stumbled across a click-baity headline announcing that "JK Rowling was asked about LGBT characters at Hogwarts. Her response was awesome." [A digression on headlines: the purpose of a headline was once to present the main idea of the article. "Man Walks on Moon", "US Attacked", "Dewey Defeats Truman". The purpose of a headline appears to have devolved into an attention grabbing question with just enough information to make you click through to the story. It moved it from a means of communication to a means of advertising. End of digression]. Her response was that OF COURSE Hogwarts had gay students, being quite open about such things. It was forward-looking, open-minded, and completely unsupported by the actual novel. In the same vein, when asked about Jewish wizards she referenced a nearly anonymous Matt Goldstein who - if he appeared at all in the books - had a minor enough role to be completely forgettable. We never in the actual work saw Howarts students light a menorah, light candles on a Friday evening, or debate whether use of magic breaks the Sabbath.

This doesn't bother me as much as Lovecraft; while Rowling made some comments which weren't fully supported in the text, the text itself does have a largely positive message about inclusion and against racism. Lovecraft's text, to the contrary, supports tacism.

Discussion the Third - Holiday Cheer
Every year, someone brings up a discussion on the sexism inherent in the song "Baby it's Cold Outside". For those who either reside beneath a solid chunk of geology or hum along without listening to the words, it has some pretty creepy lyrics in the form of a call-and-response between a man an woman. That these parts are usually labeled as "the wolf" and "the mouse" respectively tells you something. If that's not enough, read a bit:

I really can't stay
But, baby, it's cold outside
I've got to go away
But, baby, it's cold outside
This evening has been
Been hoping that you'd drop in
So very nice
I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice
My mother will start to worry
Beautiful, what's your hurry?
My father will be pacing the floor
Listen to the fire place roar

Etc. The lyrics repeat a theme: the woman wants to leave, the man is persuading her to stay. It's a very old-fashioned style of seduction, with the "expected" roles that the man pursues and the woman has to at least pretend to retreat; it's the double standard that men are supposed to want sex, women to turn it down. It sends what is, to me, an uncomfortable message that  to be a woman is to retreat, while it is the man's job to chase. One wants it, one has to at least pretend to NOT want it.

Why am I discussing this today? Largely because blogger Lily Alice wrote an impassioned and well-thought out defense of the song here. Her larger point is that, viewed in the context of the decade when it was first written and performed, "man chases/woman retreats" was part of the standard mating dance. It's possible - and original intent would perhaps say preferable - to read the mouse's protestations as either playful or pro-forma faux-rejections (and yes, I know that that phrase sounds more than slightly pretentious) rather than actual distress. By this reading, the woman would be hurt of the man failed to pursue. She compared deconstruction of a tale of mid-twentieth-century mating with a re-reading of Shakespeare or the Bible outside of historical context.

To a large extent, she's right and I'm wrong; it's fully possible to look at a historical artifact as a historical artifact and read it in-context for the original meaning. From another perspective, I'm right and Lily is -- less so. I'll accept her analogy about Shakespeare and counter with one about Defoe; it can be argued that no racism was meant in Robinson Carusoe; the island native Friday elevated himself from savagery and cannibalism when the white, Christian European took control of him. Read in-context, it's the tale of an educated white-man doing his duty; read today, it's terrible and blatant racism.  My point is that a piece of art isn't a thing frozen in amber, nor is it a mathematical text with a single right or wrong answer. If you want to use songs, stories, and other artwork from the past to explore other times and how other people once thought and lived, that's wonderful. If you want to read them with modern eyes to throw a mirror onto today's world... that's also OK. So long as you take the effort to use reason, so long as what you say fits the text, and so long as you can have a respectful conversation, go ahead and do it. Listen to the author. Listen to yourself. Read history. Study current culture. Read what others have to say, and join the conversation.

Remember that any piece of art worth reading is worth analyzing. 

With that, I'll wish you all a Happy New Year. 

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