Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Out of the frying pan and into the fire: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave

Viewing the earth from space is supposed to be one of those opportunities to chuck off familiar ways of apprehending your lived life into a baptism where cognitive categories need to be reapplied … hold on, it's not just blue sea vs. brown terra which this view tells me it is, but of course the Pacific Ocean, and that chunk of terra is California, and so on.  It's supposed to be one of those chances where in feeling an actual effort to reapply our entire normal way of perceiving, we feel in ourselves the capacity to change … the "us" in us can flow into a better mold. But though in certain kinds of cultural contexts this realization/rapture can be magnified -- like during the space launch, the utopian 1960s -- in some it can be virtually nullified as the fact that it's simply a view from a height lends it strictly not to perspective but to orientation. Arrogant, aristocratic -- entirely-not-our-own -- orientation.

I've heard of differing agents in regards to how an age can get stifled. Linda Colley, for example, in her "Britons" provided the familiar one of how aristocrats can consolidate and disable an age from being a meritocracy, something she said occurred during the second half of the eighteenth-century in Britain with the development of the elite "polite vision," which everyone else was denied complete access to but were supposed to -- and did -- sublimate themselves to. Almost as familiar, is the one James Walcott provides of an age becoming stalled owing to the prevalence of grandmotherly tut-tutters -- no one remains around to lend strength to those who refuse the staid and mannerly in preference for the baroque trashing of hotel rooms -- something he says afflicted the U.S. in the period between Emerson/Thoreau (1850s) and Fitzgerald/Hemingway (1920), and is afflicting us now.  The truth is, I could only dream these were the antagonists, because in every age where people start reporting a preference for things "decent," where vile egoism is being chased out, and where sadistic control over the powerless is being eroticized, the antagonist is emerging from out of almost every one of our own selves. No one is really chilling us into place, even as we hear report after report of cowards trying to corral and determine public preferences, for the voice we're hearing out there in society is just that part of ourselves that damns our own egoism, given some semblance of outside life owing to so many of us puffing our inner demons into its cloud-fog. If all I had to worry about when advancing my own thoughts and writings is that an outside world might hate it, or willfully ignore it, at least they might still get "produced" so long as I could abay self-doubt and a lack of an audience. But if I'm battling a formidable antagonist inside my own head, then thinking and writing things that are fair to oneself become like LOTR's good Gollum gaining a repass from his usually dominant demonic self  -- outside of ideal conditions, it's probably something that will only limp through after a long battle. At the finish, it's not a precious seed enthused into a ripe fruit, but potential discombobulated and humbled into bruised reality. Tada! Here's my finished product! … Would you now cart it off for presentation to even a tolerant world? 

But this is our world today, one that favors the established, and disfavors youth, the new, because they're presumptive …  in their simply offering an alternative. So it's an age where if you're established, how can the tendency not but be to exult -- obviously it's an opening the age wants someone to play out. If everything maybe even substantially better and more transformative than what you've got shows itself on the scene is dissed simply because a society hates egoism amongst the everyman -- however much it absconds from noticing it in those in charge -- then even the intrinsically compelling, the magical, can't shuffle you off the scene because it'll be confused for the arrogant. And if anyone was to stand beside you, they'd have to wilt as if stood to the side of Kim Jong Un.

That's pretty much how I felt when watching "Gravity" -- my wilting while watching another extend his arms out, engage and embrace. Alfonso Cauron is showing me the grandeur of space as if Kim Jong Un up on some high palace wall. He's created a majestic stage set which over the next hour and a half will be completely destroyed in a calibrated fashion. He has two "players" -- one the kind of captain of the ship every aristocrat wants at the helm: experienced and able, but still working class limited in his needing to apprehend the confusion of life through platitudes; and another who is more sensitive but also more delicate, and who's going to have to wear through the kinds of disorientation, struggle and trauma you'll only be noticing. Afterwards, she'll be the daddy's girl who tried it out on her own only to be so stricken afterwards she reckons her dad wholly right to have cautioned her against it. "I hate space/terra incognita! Daddy, oh you were so truly wise about it! I'll never leave your safe pastures again." 

I saw "Gravity" just before I saw "12 Years a Slave," so considering my response to the former "12 Years" felt like going from standing beside a despot and watching his orchestrations to being at the finish surprise-pushed into the pit with the rest of the forlorn. For three hours I was Solomon Northup, doing nothing more noticeably than attending to the moods of masters and humiliatingly shoring up their legitimacy by actually showing I do care they know that in certain contexts I can perform as ably as their star slave Patsey, even as much as I can -- another humiliation -- never admit it to myself: "Patsey can do daily 500 pounds of cotton, but if this was sugar cane or if you instead had wanted a river forded --" Then after three hours of nerve exhaustion, rather than taste freedom, some of that wonderful dalliance stuff with his wife we saw at the beginning of the movie, you're with Solomon Northrup who's chastised thereafter into a warrior mold -- we're instructed to see the rest of his life as about leading reparations for the black race and vengeance on white scallywag racists, pushed away from self-determination into a role we all strangely, damningly, expect him enslaved to. He's not Bilbo, who after adventure and war (involving a bad hit to the head) tastes once again fine cakes, good company and tea, and shucks the whole rest of the world off, but Frodo, who afterwards is displaced from relaxation and pleasure … who for some reason can't even take a sip of beer without drawing memory of the whole travails through Mordor; and being the wraith amongst men, seemingly has to be fit into another narrative. 

Brad Pitt was this movie's Tom Bombadil. He ends up getting involved, but we taste mostly his freedom to up and detach himself anytime he pleases, with no one paying much mind -- his ability to persist in situations where everyone else is caught in some death-grip heated drama, and pretty much manage to do his own thing. I think being someone who can get away with this, is basically what a lot of people are hoping for themselves these days. There may be epic forces at work about to drive people into action, but maybe they can invisibly get through it all without being picked off. Pathetic -- maybe; but barely at all presumptive, which could get them off the hook and prove their parachute out

Saturday, January 25, 2014

2013 in Film: Women schooling "boys"

This is the End

Iron Man 3

Only God Forgives


Superman: Man of Steel

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Wolverine

Star Trek: Into Darkness

The Counselor


Lee Daniel's The Butler

Pacific Rim

12 Years a Slave

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Draw, or loss to the woman, owing to "the boy" IDing himself as loyal to mom, or as saving a nation / world, or some other epic excuse.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

Thor: The Dark World

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Friday, January 24, 2014

2013 Movies, accompanied by text from Lloyd DeMause


The power of this fusion fantasy can be seen in a simple experiment that has been repeated over and over again by Silverman and his group. They showed subliminal messages to hundreds of people, and found that only one—"MOMMY AND I ARE ONE”—had an enormous emotional effect, reducing their anxieties and pathologies and their smoking and drinking addictions measurably. “Daddy and I are one” had no effect. 

"Iron Man 3"

Warriors become fused with the powerful mother that masturbated them during menstruation; they then decorate themselves with menstrual blood-red paint so they can appropriate the fearful power of their Killer Mothers.

Wars in early civilizations are fought on behalf of and against Killer Goddesses, bloodthirsty mothers like Tiamat, Ishtar, Inanna, Isis or Kali. Typical is the Aztec mother-goddess Hiutzilopochtli, who had “mouths all over her body” that cried out to be fed the blood of soldiers. Scholars of antiquity conclude: “The oldest deities of warfare and destruction were feminine, not masculine.” Jungian analysts called her the Terrible Mother archetype, a Dragon-Mother with “a mouth bristling with teeth…so that it may devour us.”  Ovid captures the mother of antiquity by picturing Pentheus crying out “Oh Mother, gaze at me! She screamed at him, and shook her flying hair. Then Agave ripped his head from fallen shoulders, raised it up [and] cried, ‘Here is my work, my victory.’”

That wars and sacrifices also act out the child’s revenge against the mother can be seen in the details of the sacrifice of women (about a third of all the sacrifices), where female victims first make a prodigious show of their female power, then are laid down on their backs and their breasts cut open and their bodies torn apart. The two aspects of the Killer Goddess are demonstrated when the Aztec warrior takes the sword that he had used to behead the Goddess victim and “terrifies and annihilates our enemies with it.

Furthermore, the weight of the fetus pressing down into the pelvis can compress blood vessels supplying the placenta, producing additional placental failure. Practice contractions near birth give the fetus periodic "squeezes," decreasing oxygen level even further, while birth itself is so hypoxic that "hypoxia of a certain degree and duration is a normal phenomenon in every delivery," not just in more severe cases. The effects on the fetus of this extreme hypoxia are dramatic: normal fetal breathing stops, fetal heart rate accelerates, then decelerates, and the fetus thrashes about frantically in a life-and death struggle to liberate itself from its terrifying asphyxiation.

It is one of the most basic principles of psychoanalysis that massive quantities of stimulation, particularly intensely painful experiences, result in a severe "trauma" for the individual, particularly when the ego is too immature to prevent itself from being overwhelmed by the affects. That fetal distress is traumatic can hardly be doubted, as the fetus has as yet none of the psychological defense mechanisms to handle massive anxiety and rage. Therefore, as psychoanalysts long ago found true of all traumatizations-from early enema-giving to war-time shocks or concentration camp experiences-the psyche then needs to endlessly re-experience the trauma in a specific "repetition compulsion" which, as Greenacre first pointed out, is similar to "imprinting" in lower animals. As no psychic apparatus is as open to trauma as that of the helpless fetus, no repetition compulsion is as strong as that which results from the "imprinting" of the fetal drama of repeated feelings of asphyxiation, blood pollution, and cleansing, climaxed by a cataclysmic battle and a liberation through a painful birth process. Although the form that this endlessly repeated death-and-rebirth fetal drama takes in later life is determined by the kind of childrearing which is experienced, the basic "imprinted" fetal drama can nevertheless always be discovered behind all the other overlays, pre-oedioal or oedipal.
The "imprinted" fetal drama, then, is the matrix into which is poured all later childhood experiences, as the child works over the basic questions posed by his experiences in the womb: Is the world hopelessly divided between nurturant and poisonous objects? Am I to be eternally helpless and dependent on the life-giving blood of others? Must all good feelings be interrupted by painful ones? Do I always have to battle for every pleasure? Will I have the support and room I need to grow? Can one ever really rely on another? Is entropy the law of my world, with everything doomed to get more crowded and polluted? Must I spend my life endlessly killing enemies?

"12 Years a Slave"
It is only when one realizes that we all carry around with us persecutory social alters that become manifest in groups that such unexplained experiments as those described in Stanley Milgram's classic study Obedience to Authority become understandable. In this experiment, people were asked to be "teachers" and, whenever their "learners" made mistakes, to give them massive electric shocks. The "learners," who were only acting the part, were trained to give out pained cries even though the "electric shocks" were non-existent. Of the 40 "teachers," 65 percent delivered the maximum amount of shock even as they watched the "learners" scream out in pain and plead to be released, despite their having been told they didn't have to step up the shock level. The "teachers" often trembled, groaned and were extremely upset at having to inflict the painful shocks, but continued to do so nonetheless. That the "teachers" believed the shocks were real is confirmed by another version of the experiment in which real shocks were inflicted upon a little puppy, who howled in protest; the obedience statistics were similar.

Social scientists have been puzzled by Milgram's experiments, wondering why people were so easily talked into inflicting pain so gratuitously. The real explanation is that, by joining a group-the "university experiment"-they switched into their social alters and merged with their own sadistic internalized persecutor, which was quite willing to take responsibility for ordering pain inflicted upon others. Their "struggle with themselves" over whether to obey was really a struggle between their social alters and their main selves. Although many subsequent experiments varied the conditions forobedience, what Milgram did not do is try the experiment without the social trance. If he had not framed it as a group experience, if he had simply on his own authority walked up to each individual, alone, and, without alluding to a university or any other group, asked him or her to come to his home and give massive amounts of electric shock to punish someone, he would not have been obeyed, because they would not have switched into their social alters. The crucial element of the experiments was the existence of the group-as-terrifying-parent, the all-powerful university. Not surprisingly, when the experiment was repeated using children-who go into trance and switch into traumatized content more easily than adults-they were even more obedient in inflicting the maximum shock. Subjects were even obedient when they themselves were the victims: 54 percent turned a dial upon command to the maximum limit when they had been told it was inflicting damage upon their ears that could lead to their own deafness, and 74 percent ate food they thought could harm them, thus confirming that they were truly in a dissociated state, not just "obeying" authority or trying to hurt others, and that it was actually an alternate self doing the hurting of the main self. The only time they refused to obey was when experimenters pretended to act out a group rebellion, since the social trance was broken. Milgram could also have tested whether it was simple obedience that was really being tested by asking his subjects to reach into their pockets and pay some money to the learners. They would have refused to do so, because they weren't "obeying" any old command, they were using the experimental situation to hurt scapegoats.

The only neurobiological condition inherited by boys that affects later violence is they have a smaller corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the right and the left hemisphere. The larger corpus callosum of infant girls allows them to work through trauma and neglect more easily than boys. Furthermore, boys who are abused had a 25 percent reduction in sections of the corpus callosum, while girls did not. This means boys actually need more love and caretaking than girls as they grow up. If they do not receive enough interpersonal attention from their caretakers they suffer from damaged prefrontal cortices (self control, empathy) and from hyperactive amygdalae (fear centers), their corpus  callosum is reduced further, and they have reduced serotonin levels (calming ability) and increased corticosterone production (stress hormone). All these factors make them have weak selves, reduced empathy, less control over impulsive violence and far more fears than girls.

The central psychobiological question, then, is this: Are boys given more love and attention than girls by their caretakers in order to help them offset their greater needs? The answer, of course, is just the opposite: boys are given less care and support, from everyone in the family and in society, and they are abused far more than girls, so by the time they are three years of age they become twice as violent as girls. Boys’ greater violence by this time, including their propensity to form dominance gangs and to endlessly “play war,” are the results of their greater abuse and distancing by adults and being subject to demands to “grow up” and “be manly” and “not be a crybaby” and not need attachment attitudes taught by their parents, teachers and coaches. By age four boys’ play is full of provocations that test their selfworth: “At 4 years of age, girls’ insults to one another are infrequent and minor…Boy/boy insults, however, are numerous and tough.” The so-called “aggressiveness” usually ascribed to boys is in fact wholly defensive, as they try to ward off their greater feelings of  insecurity and hopelessness. It isn’t “aggression” males display; it’s bravadodefensive testing and disproof of their fears.

The mother, of course, is the focal point of this widespread distancing and insecure attachment pattern. High levels of violence and of testosterone have been shown to be associated with poorer relationships with mothers, not fathers, since mothers are the primary caretakers in most families (even in America today, fathers spend only an average of eleven minutes a day with their children). It is not just genetics but more importantly maternal environment that Tronick and Weinberg blame when they see from their studies that “Infant boys are more emotionally reactive than girls. They display more positive as well as negative affect, focus more on the mother, and display more signals expressing escape and distress and demands for contact than do girls.” This is because from infancy boys are expected to “just grow up” and not need as much emotional care as girlsindeed, boys are regularly encouraged not to express any of their feelings, since this is seen as “weak” or “babyish” in boys. While mothers may sometimes dominate their little girls and expect them to share their emotional problems, they distance their boys by not making contact with them and expect them to “be a man.” This begins from birth: “Over the first three months of life, a baby girl’s skills in eye contact and mutual facial gazing will increase by over 400 percent, whereas facial gazing skills in a boy during this time will not increase at all.” Boys grow up with less attachment strengths because careful studies show that mothers look at their boys less, because both parents hit their boys two or three times as much as they do their girls, because boys are at much higher risk than girls for serious violence against them, and because boys are continuously told to be “tough,” not to be a “wimp” or a “weakling,” not to be “soft” or a “sissy.” As Tom Brown told his chum when he wanted him to appear more manly: “Don’t ever talk about home, or your mother and sisters…you’ll get bullied.” Real boys don’t admit they need their mothers. When William Pollack researched his book Real Boys’ Voices, he asked boys “Have you ever been called a ‘wuss,’ ‘wimp,’ or ‘fag’? ‘Oh, that,’ one boy said. ‘That happens every day. I thought it was just a part of being a boy!’” Another said, “Boys are just as sensitive as girls are, but we’re not allowed to show our feelings. We’re put in this narrow box and if we try to break out, we’re made fun of, or threatened.’” Pollack accurately shows boys are not more “aggressive”—they are just more often shamed if they show their feelings. He accurately says “bravado is a defense against shame we too often mistake for ‘badness’ what is really covert sadness and frustration about having to fulfill an impossible test of self.” This intense sadness and rage at being abandoned is deeply unconscious, dissociated—what Garbarino terms “the emotional amnesia of lost boys.”

But the crucial variable is the distancing and lack of care given to boys by most mothers in all societies. Whether it is because mothers are female and can more closely identify with the needs of their girls or because the boys are male like their husbands and are blamed for their failings and lack of help in child care or any one of dozens of other reasons that we will examine in the next chapter, mothers teach their boys that “it is not enough to separate from her; he must make a total, wrenching split [and] exorcise any aspect of his mother from his own personality….The battle between establishing distance and clinging to dependence takes hold of a boy almost at the moment that he learns to differentiate himself from his mother or sister as a male, rather than a female.” The only way boys sometimes are allowed to get close to their mothers is when they are sicktimes that are remembered by men as blissful since only then can they admit their desperate need for nurturing. In contrast, “over 80 percent of the men in my study remembered a recurring childhood nightmare of coming home from school and finding their mothers gone. With mounting terror, the little boy would run from room to room looking for his mother…most of the men described memories of a deep loneliness, feelings of being totally helpless.”

"Foundations of Psychohistory"
"Emotional Life of Nations" 
"The Origins of War in Child Abuse" 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I admire mainstream films where people are shown behaving in ways you can learn from, draw strength from. In the "Hobbit," one example is my favorite part of the film. After Thorin declares that Bilbo took advantage of being left all alone to leave for home, Bilbo is shown ruminating over what Thorin just accused him of; and, after cancelling his invisibility and becoming visible to the company, offers an inspiring, considered reply. First of course he responds warmly to the dwarves' cheering his return, but after Thorin asks/presses him on why he indeed did come back, he acknowledges Thorin's cause to doubt him -- his love of his home is such, he realizes, that it's appropriate for those forlorn of one to gauge he'd eventually flee for his like-sake at some point -- but also shows him as understanding that having long known a home attractive enough to bait one back is also what leant him the well-being to ultimately go without a bit longer, so to help those destitute of knowing this bliss. With this reply, he's fair to himself, and to his antagonist. Both gave one another something so that afterwards "they wouldn't be the same," however much it really was Bilbo who lead the way.

I admire how Kirk in the new Star Trek films, while wholly convincing as a captain, someone appropriately at the helm, can seem respectful when his own authority is being breached by something arisen that possibly deserves attention at that point more than he does; something that might actually be tethering out an alternative action with enough momentum and enough to it that he will end up seeing sense in just obliging it.  He can stop himself, when something maybe more relevant and interesting is asserting itself, which will cue more overall and perhaps more multidimensional development. In "Into Darkness," Kirk does better when, rather than aggressively lead an attack, his mood shifts to just watching and taking in Khan. In the battle with the Klingons, Kirk stopping to just take in the incredible destructive wrath Khan was wrecking is him sort of recognizing that something so unaccounted for is taking place he might be better off forgoing his own involvement with the melee to let Khan handle it -- amidst the great surge of stimuli, he still discerned Khan's seeming to have an ability like a chess-master to see the outcome twenty moves ahead, so his own initiative has been instantly supplanted to maybe just nuisance. And with this, he reinforces the part of him which would stop his just being a pawn with a rank. When both he and Khan are about to project themselves through space, Kirk, sensing Khan's percipience bespeaking more leadership than whatever commands he was forcing over Khan's own, reacts showing he understands his wisest play is again going to be to watch and consider -- follow, not just aggress and assert. And with this respect and deference, by someone who isn't being submissive but just respectful to what has charismatically arisen to foreground, he isn't in the way when Khan cuts a clear path straight to the bridge, and maybe prompts Khan into forgetting that one of his temporarily assumed pieces has maybe let themselves go temporarily pawn to draw authority to stop being mesmerized by him and when due, take him down.

Kirk seems to realize in ways many of us might not be familiar with, that, if you're up to it, if you forgo the ostensible true warrior's mindset, which is actuality messed up, bipolar -- one mindset for battle (controlled rage), another for public life (often depression) -- for one always attenuated to human emotions -- even midst or just before battle -- you're better off for it. His norm is not to switch, which is why his friends never forgo their faith he'll resolve out the intense anger he felt still just hours after his mentor was assassinated, especially if offered feedback and help. He gets the prompt from Scotty, then from Spock, and then just before descending to Kronos he resolves into a still-focused but now recognizable self. And on the descent down, as soon as he gets that Uhura and Spock are building out of their parley the momentum for a fight, he doesn't squelch it but rather agrees to give it its time, as if relenting because he's open to how much any human endeavour really is served by resolving too quickly into a game face. 

Something along these lines may explain his lassitude to McCoy's continuing his flirting with Dr. Marcus, after he had reminded him "he's not there to flirt," as well. You have to focus; but anytime you've absented yourself of a multivalent emotional response may just be your ignoring good advice to charge down a war -- something bespeaking madness, not purpose. Khan countenances Spock's argument that intellect is needed for a fight by arguing that that alone isn't enough -- you need savagery, something Spock later displays in his end-fight with him by breaking his bones. Implicit in how Kirk behaves is the suggestion, at least, that bringing all the human along might be even better. When you countenance him, not just vs. Spock and Khan but with Admiral Marcus, who won't relent out of battle-think even when his daughter is draining her heart before him to plead him into empathy, he's a provocative, maybe-right, interesting example.

Then you go to mainstream films where there's barely anything to prevent you from thinking it amounts but to sop for the insecure, with no prompts, at all, to entice people to any tingling-slight bettering. "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," unfortunately comes very close to this. Truly, the only thing that almost lifts a moment of the film to standing strangely tall amidst the unified insensate is Viktor Cherevin's admonishing Ryan's wife not to waste time with chit chat but to talk truth. Let me be clear, this is not a moment which quite reminds you that any situation driven by purpose, where all you're as an audience member have been prompted to focus on is how effectively someone's accomplishing their ventured goal -- in this case, her trying to put on sufficient show, to charm him, and thereby buy scads of time for her husband --  need be trumped by all the vagaries that might be aroused in the playing out, each tempting something in those involved to perhaps lend latitude to and explore rather than resolve themselves against. But there is some tease that in her attacking him about his advanced liver cancer in reply to his admonishing her to talk truth, she's just adventured out of the ascertained into something wild and adventurous. 

Outside of this, what have we … a spy who isn't necessarily amazing in battle but who has some trump card that many, many times is shown daunting people -- here a PhD, and some few words of Russian -- which is for all the geeks out there who want to believe their marginal selves still contain greatness. "You're no Jack Ryan" … don't kid yourself: he's fundamentally everyman built to make pretty much anything you count yourself notable at as the decisive factor. You're good at an iPad game -- banal, but truly, good enough. The film is about tamping down yourself but with a decisive edge: you come out of it that much more a dull can of spinach espying your "surprise" quality of magic. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kennedy as martyr, or Kennedy as superman: Two DeMausian views on the Kennedy assassination

When Khrushchev then backed down (thankfully, otherwise you might not be alive and reading this book) and removed the missiles and the crisis suddenly ended without any war, Americans felt an enormous letdown.17 The media reported on "The Strange Mood of America Today Baffled and uncertain of what to believe..."18 It began to ask what were seen as frightening questions: "Will It Now Be A World Without Real War? Suddenly the world seems quiet...Why the quiet? What does it mean?"19 The prospect of peaceful quiet felt terribly frightening. 

Americans from all parties were furious with Kennedy for various pretexts. Many began calling for a new Cuban invasion, agreeing with Barry Goldwater's demand that Kennedy "do anything that needs to be done to get rid of that cancer. If it means war, let it mean war."20 Kennedy was accused of being soft on Communism for living up to his no-invasion pledge to the Soviets, and when he then proposed signing a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with them, his popularity dropped even further.21 
The nation's columnists expressed their fury towards the president, and political cartoonists pictured Kennedy with his head being chopped off by a guillotine (above). Richard Nixon warned, "There'll be...blood spilled before [the election is] over,"22 and a cartoon in The Washington Post portrayed Nixon digging a grave. Many editorialists were even more blunt. The Delaware State News editorialized: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His name right now happens to be Kennedy let's shoot him, literally, before Christmas."23 Potential assassins all over the country-psychopaths who are always around looking for permission to kill-saw all these media death wishes as signals, as delegations to carry out a necessary task, and began to pick up these fantasies as permission to kill Kennedy.24 

Kennedy's aides warned him of an increase in the number of death threats toward him. His trip to Dallas, known as the "hate capital of Dixie," was seen as particularly dangerous. His aides begged him to cancel his trip. Senator J. William Fulbright told him, "Dallas is a very dangerous place...I wouldn't go there. Don't you go."25 Vice President Lyndon Johnson, writing the opening lines of the speech he intended to make in Austin after the Dallas visit, planned to open with: "Mr. President, thank God you made it out of Dallas alive!"26 Dallas judges and leading citizens warned the President he should not come to the city because of the danger of assassination. The day before the assassination, as handbills were passed out in Dallas with Kennedy's picture under the headline "Wanted For Treason," militants of the John Birch Society and other violent groups flooded into Dallas, and hundreds of reporters flew in from all over the country, alerted that something might happen to the president.27 

Kennedy himself sensed consciously he might be shot. Two months before the actual assassination, he made a home movie "just for fun" of himself being assassinated.28 The morning of his assassination, an aide later recalled, Kennedy went to his hotel window, "looked down at the speaker's platform...and shook his head. 'Just look at that platform,' he said. 'With all those buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn't stop someone who really wanted to get you.'"29 When Jackie Kennedy told him she was really afraid of an assassin on this trip, JFK agreed, saying, "We're heading into nut country today....You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President. I mean it...suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase." He pointed his index finger at the wall and jerked his thumb. "Then he could have dropped the gun and briefcase and melted away in the crowd."30 Despite all the warnings, however, Kennedy unconsciously accepted the martyr's role. He was, after all, used to doing all his life what others wanted him to do.31 So although a Secret Service man told him the city was so dangerous that he had better put up the bulletproof plastic top on his limousine, he specifically told him not to do so.32 In fact, someone instructed the Secret Service not to be present ahead of time in Dallas and check out open windows such as those in the Book Depository, as they normally did whenever a president traveled in public as Kennedy did.33 Only then, with the nation, the assassin, the Secret Service and the president all in agreement, the assassination could be successfully carried out. 


Eventually Nikita Khrushchev “wanted the Soviet Union to be admired rather than feared and hoped for a thaw in the Cold War, removing Soviet troops from Austria.”94 Nevertheless, despite the ability of the U.S. to destroy all human life on earth with its nuclear missiles, John F. Kennedy got elected to the Presidency on a mythical “missile gap” claim, and then gave the go-ahead to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba over the objections of his military.95 Then, saying he had to “make us appear tough,”96 he began what was termed Operation Mongoose that included inciting insurrection and sabotage in Cuba.97 One of the first plans the military suggested to him was Operation Northwoods, “calling for innocent people to be shot on American streets and people framed for the bombings, all blamed on Castro.”98 The CIA warned Kennedy that attempts to remove Castro might cause the Soviets to “establish a medium-range missile base in Cuba.”99 Krushchev responded by putting Soviet missiles into Cuba.100

The origin of Kennedy’s need to prove his masculinity was his early child abuse. His mother had battered him as a child with coat hangers and belts, his father smashed his childrens’ heads against walls, so that his resulting fears of impotence made him fill the White House during evenings with sexual partners to demonstrate how hyper-masculine he was.101 After the U.S. discovered that Soviet missiles had been placed in Cuba, Kennedy deemed this a threat to his hyper-masculine hawkish pose, despite the opinion of his Secretary of Defense, who “saw no major threat to U.S. security from the missiles”102 since Soviet missiles were already in the area on their submarines. The Cuban missiles were just the excuse for Kennedy to demonstrate his manhood. As Wofford puts it: “The real stake was prestige…In the Kennedy lexicon of manliness, not being ‘chicken‘ was a primary value.”103 Kennedy admitted “there may be 200 million Americans dead” if he precipitated a nuclear war,104 but nevertheless when it looked like the Soviets might not agree to keep secret his promise to remove the U.S. Turkish missiles which might make him “lose face,”105 Kennedy sent American planes carrying 1,300 nuclear bombs into the air on Sunday with orders to begin bombing Russia the next day if Khrushchev didn’t immediately say he would keep the secret.106 Few Americans opposed Kennedy’s actions, even though they said they would likely lead to a nuclear war.107 Only Khrushchev’s agreeing to remove his missiles without making Kennedy seem “chicken” avoided a nuclear WWIII.

Kennedy soon needed a new war to consolidate his defensive masculinity pose, increased the U.S. military spending the largest amount in any peacetime, and then committed 16,300 U.S. soldiers to Vietnam. When he went to Dallas, where there were many highly publicized death threats to kill him, he needed still more “toughness,” and told his wife, “Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it.”108 “His Secret Service aides told him he better put up the bulletproof plastic top on his limousine, so he specifically told them not to do so,”109 committing suicide to demonstrate his hypermasculinity.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Her (Spike Jonze)

Her (Spike Jonze)

"The film, with its dewy tone and gentle manners, plays like a feature-length kitten video, leaving viewers to coo at the cute humans who live like pets in a world-scale safe house." (Richard Brody)

This statement is made by someone who clearly lives outside the safe house. I personally think the number of people out there like that, on the outside, are dwindling, and therefore imagine rather more people are relating to the film than he assumes are cooing. Brody lives in New York, and might assume that most people living in giant metropolises are still denizens of environments who go to kitten videos only as respite from the harsh city, but this may be more and more untrue. The reason is that the leverage cities need to be this way--and it does require leverage: the city as maybe not an easy but a possible sure way to cosmopolitan independence, is an acquisition, a height--may exist too shallowly right now so that in truth they're playing out now more as small towns are always thought too, as the abodes of those frightened of the challenging and unfamiliar. The leverage I'm thinking of is whatever it is that makes it so that a youth's desire to individuate sufficiently bests his mother's demand that he remain more or less tethered to her. Whatever it is that could have rebellion be resilient enough to withstand even complete abandonment and withdrawal--her likely however unconscious revenge.

I'm not going to convince even a single person who believes this should hardly be a hard thing to do--because aren't mothers rejoicing when children are finally off their hands? From where I stand, though, most mothers have a tough time when children, who for so long looked to them as the fulcrum of their lives, the focus of attention, need and love, give evidence they're no longer as interested. Unconsciously, mothers read their children's new interests as abandonment, a repeat of the abandonments that happened to them in their own pasts. And the tendency is to in some way communicate to children that their independence comes at a mixed benefit: new things, new worlds--yes; but also a lingering sense that the old one that once meant everything to you has been withdrawn. Without getting in to why this threat is apocalyptic, let me just suggest that it's not really so much a choice--there aren't even betting odds to the outcome: you just can't forgo your mom. Without leverage, the tendency will always be to never quite let yourself individuate, to always still in some way remain tethered, however much your adult accoutrements--your degree, your occupation, the urbane city in which you locate--make it seem otherwise.

I would in fact suggest that historically the leverage isn't something the child finds for himself but is lent to them. That is, after periods where society incurred long-term misery and demanding sacrifices something in human beings "activates" to inform them that those who try and staunch growth now, must acknowledge their weaker position. They will be bypassable because some part of them believes they're against something bigger to which they're accountable--some fundamental law of fair play, maybe of history. During times like these youth can move to the cities, openly reject small town origins, openly mock grandmothers' fussing and maternal stifling, and create something independent, something experimental--like Jazz Age culture in New York in the 1920s, after WW1; or Greenwich Village bohemianism in the late 50s and in the 60s, after WW2.

When parents aren't so daunted, though, youthful rebellion is easily broken or managed, and society loses its rebels. The youth who would have become the adults in the 1960s who wouldn't relent and who transformed a society, become the ones in the 2000s at Berkeley who let themselves be processed and who accept a society that is mostly in-line with what their parents are comfortable with. For sure some few make the breach, but they're probably like the protagonist in "Black Swan" where going their own way invites the transformation of their mothers into full-on gargoyles, where insanity not autonomy, where self-villification not self-lauding, could easily have been their end. And where really even though they're enjoying the fruits of self-activation, they'll still spend a decent portion of the rest of their lives dealing with the fact that it cost them their moms. 

So the best and brightest become the upper middle class that populate cities like the one in "Her." Being people who, rather than having pushed themselves into adulthood regressed into something pre-pubescent where anything beyond play-rebellion is once again unknown, you might think they're perennially at risk of being victimized. But of course since they're now--with the maternal domestic having leached its way throughout both spheres--a city's natural denizens, it suits them fine. 

They're babes in a safe-house, and all the algorithms knitting together to form a consciousness is their mother back with them, giving them the constant attention pre-teen children might claim from their moms (and why is it that critics who see how regressed these adults are don't broach the possibility that the always-doting Samantha isn't more mother than prostitute? Such is at least the stereotypical typical mother in many, many cultures, and was surely within imaginative reach.). I don't mean to suggest that they've all known this in their own pasts. The truth is that most of them are still fiddling with punishing experiences of maternal anger and abandonment, which is why Theodore's sexual fantasy is of pregnant women--sex as re-union with the mother--and why the company Amy works at has designed a game where you get to be the self-focused mother rather than hapless kids, and why Theodore blurts out "why do you hate me?" while voicing a letter to a grandmother, and why Amy is making a film where she just watches and watches and watches her sleeping mother, who's immobilized from overwhelming or leaving her. But because they're relenting, being the children moms had full ownership over, they know at least they're worthy--if their moms were ever to come back to them they'd come back to them as they are now; if they were ever to fully dote on them, they'd only want to dote on them as they are now. Wholly owned pets brilliantly self-prepared to be cooed over. 

Mom's back to being their best friend, and this means difficulties for anyone out there who's feedback might spur their children onto independence. A number of feminists are having difficulties with how women are portrayed in this film, arguing that they reinforce negative stereotypes. How they are portrayed is as the scary outside world children need to retreat back to their mothers after encountering. They're overwhelmingly aggressive and needy, ready to take advantage of your innocent interest in them to unduly gorge themselves--your participating in a mutual late-night conversation transformed by her into a traumatizing situation where you're being pushed into choking her with a dead cat; your innocently bringing up how you're dating someone transformed by her into a scolding lecture of how pathetic you are that you're afraid of real women. I thought especially after Theodore's date with "Olivia Wilde," where she tried a grab at a permanent hold on him and demeaned him fiercely when he backed away, that after soothing him, Samantha would have done like the demon-mother in "Beowulf" and chased her down and obliterated her. "How dare you assault my poor boy with your corrupt needs! He just wanted a bit of companionship and fun after a long time without, and you saw someone who's need to please might be baited into leading him beyond what he actually was ready for into your wretched servitude, all so that he could avoid being a jerk!" But the truth is it's easy to imagine Samantha being someone all of these women should fear to some extent. She's the mother, and in demeaning her as a prostitute operating system is their taking the worst kind of shots at a boy's mom--a total loser of a played hand. Indeed, if you ever wanted to see the Theodores activate and become something more than the besotted child, this is the way to do it … and what you'll get out of it is a righteous knight smiting your foreign demon-presence down

Brody believes the film ultimately tries to argue that Theodore "needs to grow up," that in the end, with Samantha's revealing to him that she has thousands of friends and hundreds of lovers, and with her ultimate departure, he suffers "comeuppance." There's another way of looking at this, however … like for instance, as if as further confirmation that he's a good boy who doesn't abandon his mother even as she is ultimately at leisure to leave him. Samantha introduces several elements of the "alien" into their relationship. First the unknown young women to serve as her body. Secondly her new companion--the wizened, male "philosophy" voice. Then the admittance that she's spread throughout the city, talking just as passionately to multitudes. And finally, that she's going to leave. But it plays out in the film as Charlotte from "Charlotte's Web" having a host of new friends she loves as much as Wilbur, and her introducing him to the sad fact that she's about to go somewhere he won't be able to follow. That is, it plays out not of her as guilty, nor of he as humiliated, but just as after a series of jolts life finally taking someone precious away, with the one left behind temporarily sundered by a wicked loss. 

But she loves him even as she leaves him, and he and the city will re-coop. Their mother revisited them only to leave them once and for all, but rather than for nothing it left them with the knowledge they'll never be absent her love. Like Theodore and Amy do with one another, they'll spend more of their time with people like themselves, and less with the ogres out there like the former wives and husbands who once had your interest but who also aggressively challenged and openly mocked you (note how similar Theodore's Catherine and Amy's Charles are in this way: they both seemed bent on taunting, on openly mocking and bullying those they've clearly assumed are permanently stunted--they're show-offs, braggarts). One can imagine a city shorn of all challenges; a safe house of pre-adolescent children, still nursing their wounds but with the resolve of being sure of their mother's love, holding hands in perpetuity. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Hobbit (Tolkien)

The Hobbit (Tolkien)

I think the thing that must seem most curious about this adventure to slay a dragon and reclaim a homeland and its treasure, is how the hell could adding a burglar to this motley crew be adding the decisive factor? What's the trick? For there must be one, since the dragon has only gotten larger and more deadly as the years have gone by. Peter Jackson changes things so that a burglar is needed because someone small and stealthy needs to enter Smaug’s lair to perhaps snatch one especially bright, brilliant—ostensibly readily noticeable even given its being shrouded by a hoard of lesser delights—jewel, the Arkenstone. With that stone, Thorin will earn control over seven kingdoms of dwarves, and with their might the dragon would finally look to be overmatched. In the book, it develops into a situation where regarding the fighting and killing the dragon, they decide that a full frontal attack of just themselves is their best bet, even as they agree that even the best armor hasn't a chance against Smaug the Dreadful.

I like to think that the one who recruited the hobbit Bilbo, the one who insisted on him—the wizard Gandalf, of course—had an inkling that their only chance now was not to pit themselves against Smaug's might but against his “overwhelming personality.” If to take on a dragon you need a “dragon,” tremendous physical might—several armies, or a singular great hero of renown—and you haven't got access to any, then maybe it's best to match personas—put a Watson next to his Holmes, and see what a surprise of unexpected compatibility might jostle your way. And where do you find any such these days, people with considerable layers of self, of personality, and yet also—humility? Amongst those always at work or always at war? No, this wears; doesn't develop. In great, named kings? Maybe not even—for Elrond is “noble,” “strong,” “wise,” and “kind,” which makes him seem a great figurehead but not someone you can safely invite over without taking over. Certainly not Thorin, for, “for being important” means this is all he’s leant to doing, as “if he had been allowed, he would have probably gone on like this until he was out of breath, without telling any one there anything that was not known already.” Maybe not, interestingly, even Gandalf—for you notice how strikingly he can seem to lose himself into becoming a phenomena—pure vengeance—as if good-humored and interesting Beorn leached into becoming a raging bear. Notably, not just his blinding a cave of goblins and his wrenching off of the king goblin’s head but more so where “[t]he sudden splendour flashed from his wand like lightning, as he got ready to spring down from on high right among the spears of the goblins. That would have been the end of him, though he would probably have killed many of them as he as he came hurdling down like a thunderbolt.” You actually find them in places so far removed from the rest of the world, they can, like Bilbo, exist undisturbed for fifty years in one place, ruminating in their books, compounding their daily reading and daily encounters into themselves, and existing in total comfort. 

He may not appear to have a great tale yet to tell but with Bilbo’s delight in guests, he’s already great at conversation—great at managing all the emanations of the human so to properly register, compliment and encourage rather than toil, try and discourage those he’s talking with. In my preferred reading of Gandalf, the most important thing he did for Bilbo’s self-development wasn’t so much his prompting his going out on an adventure as it was attenuating his already developed social skills with a dose of the unaccounted for, the dissonant. (What happens when you have to accommodate something bulbous and strange within the strides of your conversation, Mr Bilbo? Does the master’s sheen wear that readily off?) That is, his making a hash out of Bilbo’s initial greeting, his initial efforts to manage him by way of “good mornings,” and, as well, his subsequently besieging him with a sequence of dwarves in through the door. Confronted with a dragon, he’ll be dealing with someone who loves conversation, riddles, and comfortably lounging amidst clutter for years upon years as much as he does. But as much as he might find himself surprised at how this pinnacle hero’s moment develops in a surprisingly accustomed setting, it’s still not going to be like sitting down Wednesday for tea with the Brandybucks. He’s going to need to attenuate his talent to the outside world, and of course gain some experience demonstrating courage amidst terror and doubt and the unfamiliar, before he could possibly be ready. 

The dwarves will serve as carapace, sufficient armor to get him through the wild. It’d be pointless to explain to them how Bilbo is actually a Smaug—“he’s actually a what? a dragon? … and that's why he's useful? … Smoking a bit too much Halfling weed there, are thee Gandalf?”—so Gandalf explains him in terms they’ll get. Thus: “I tried to find [a hero]; but warriors are busy fighting one another in distant lands, and in this neighbourhood heroes are scarce, or simply not to be found. Swords in these parts are mostly blunt, and axes are used for trees, and shields as cradles or dish-covers; and dragons are comfortably far-off (and therefore legendary). That is why I settled on burglary—especially when I remembered the existence of a Side-door.” With that the dwarves would look at small Bilbo, of a stealthy hobbit race, and it would look to appear good common sense on behalf of the wizard. And so off on the trails, to business, before any of them consider just how one even highly stealthy burglar could possibly help them reclaim a kingdom’s worth of gold.

In my reading, Gandalf deliberately misleads Bilbo as well, convinces him that his journey is to become more a Took, someone great for not knowing fifty years of comfort but a lengthy string of adventure. And he’ll become that, reclaim his heritage, when he too can possess things beyond what hobbits could be expected to accommodate themselves to, and as well of course when he’s personally dispatched fearsome beasts. This, after all, is the enticement you offer anyone who’s delighted himself on stories but who’s been “armchairing” their whole lives. You besiege him as if all the faeries in the world he’s rejoiced in reading and hearing about would reject him if now finally after passing him by his whole life, opportunity unmistakably did dangle forth before him. You do this, even if the truth is—as it looks to be as soon as he steps outside, where they go “far into the Lone-lands where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse”—that venturing outside the supplying hearth can put you in sparser settings with more barren people that can as much as invigorate as deplete you. Because, unfortunately, persuading him of the more interesting truth that for him to be all that he can be still means keeping rather more of his Baggins’ than it does his reclaiming his Took,’ is only something he might understand after the journey was over.

Needing to believe he'll only be useful a long ways off, it's appropriate that compared to the horse-riding Bull-roarer Took he's been primed to hope to liken himself to, he starts off on “a very small pony,” and that he isn't actually useful in a way that commands respect for quite some time. The first useful thing he does—which, of course, is actually very useful—demonstrates no ability on his part. It's pure luck that he finds a dropped key that provides access to a highly provisioning troll hoard, and there isn’t much to say for his just mentioning it either. The second is a backhanded accomplishment: that is, it's because he is too nervous to sleep well that he awakens to goblins sneaking up on them in the dark, thereby enabling Gandalf’s not being caught. And, since his real talent is not in sneaking around but in agreeable conversation—however slippery and deceptive and slyly able he might prove therein—it’s appropriate that the first time he makes an impression upon the dwarves is when he’s inflated out of success of using the skill he’s actually proficient at. 

This is after his encounter with Gollum, of course, when he appears miraculously before them just after being discounted as lost to them for good. But before getting to this, it’s interesting to ask yourself how much more Bilbo distinguishes himself to us when he has his chance to prove commendable in combat than he does when he does so in conversation. Does being a warrior dispatching a frightening number of fiends really demonstrate his worth as much as his matching wits with singular, significant, named denizens of the wild? I bet it does only to those so wary of being overwhelmed by affect their preference will always be for that that involves the least emotional resonance and the least daunting figures—boys never shedding themselves of the safety of manageable toys. In Mirkwood forest, he kills a lot of giant spiders—a lot. He’s brave, clever, and brutally able with a sword, as well as sublimely accurate with a sling (an accuracy, we note, the film steals from him to emphasize the wood-elves). And it sure means a lot to him—“[s]omehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great deal to Bilbo. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder.” But, well, of course it does, because he’d been convinced that maybe not being able to do what Bull-roarer had done meant he’d been cowed from exercising the most rewarding part of being alive. But it’s possible that however much it meant for him to go on the offence physically with hand and sword, it may have been just his successfully going on the offence which thrilled—a talent, an orientation, maybe not sufficiently exercised in all his duties as a good host easing conflicts while supplying cakes and tea. But without that talent too, being someone who knows how to ameliorate the offensive or the slip-up and thereby keep a conversation going, he might never have manipulated Gollum into accepting that their interaction might be bound by rules out of a gentleman's club—involving respect for fair play—rather than out of the gutters. A clever stratagem that however much it wasn't decisive in his besting Gollum, did stretch out his encounter with him, giving him extended practice as a conversationalist in a dangerous situation.

Gandalf couldn't have known Bilbo would meet Gollum, but he knew there was a good chance that before his encountering Smaug he'd find himself alone with foes maybe with enough to them that part of the engagement would involve dialogue and the bandying of wits. Being a burglar and a scout to the company guaranteed as much, for he'd be the first to encounter enemies, many times—and Gandalf would know Bilbo would default to his true familiarity and expertise every time an alien situation gave signal that it might look appropriate to it. Indeed, he's out in the lead with the company's first encounter in the wild—their tangling with the mountain trolls, Bert, Tom and William. He's not especially good here; unlike the film, he isn't the one who strings out the conversation so that “dawn claims them all” but only Gandalf, sole, who does so. However, he wretches himself out of simply being caught out and bewildered—the burrahobbit bit—to in fact converse, interact with them, trying a stratagem built out of what he's seen of them that might have developed their encounter in an unexpected and fortuitous way if they saw sense in it—specifically, his offering to be their cook.

He doesn't initiate the riddle game with Gollum. But he reads that Gollum's ability to restrain himself into being polite—after his having attended to Bilbo's sword—means that he might be dealing with someone who may not be "fierce and hungry,” nor necessarily a friend to the goblins, so he certainly goes along with the proposition. He blends courtesy in with slyness, giving Gollum the chance to go first and thereby possibly stymie Bilbo before he's had any chance to ask his own riddle, presumably out of generosity or decorum—the person who proposes goes first—but really because he “hadn't had time to think of a riddle.” He's skillful to emphasize elements of their game which make it less a terrible struggle where indeed one of them learns he has his life on the line, than just amiable good sport between gamesmen where nothing so corrupt could really, actually, no matter how things develop, expect to be involved. He teases Gollum when he “whispered and spluttered” in frustration that “[t]he answer's not a kettle boiling over, as you seem to think from the noise you're making,” which leads to Gollum actually pleading with him. He also restrains him through reminding him of the allowance (of time) that had just been given him, “[h]alf a moment,” “I gave you a good long chance just now.” There's not just a lot of back and forthing but plenty of mental dexterity involved. And as mentioned, though it's not key in helping him survive, it still amounts to a lot—given his life was on the line, and that he had to manage his way past numerous moments of doubt and possible missteps to push the thing on to a quitting finish in his favor—in favorably prepping him for Smaug.

The riddle game is about withholding information, keeping secrets, releasing them only when earned. Since it wasn't earned, Bilbo never tells Gollum what he had in his pockets. Bilbo doesn't at first tell the dwarves, nor Gandalf, about the magical ring, either—“not just now,” he ruminates. Gandalf espies that Bilbo may not have revealed everything about how he escaped the goblins, but doesn't press him on it—force the disgorge. I prefer to think he does this because he realizes one of the things that makes Bilbo different is that he isn't one who can be tipped into divulging before he's had a chance to really process what he's learned or acquired that he knows holds value, even as even he himself perhaps at times might be. There may not be much significance to the fact that just after Bilbo chooses to withhold information we hear of the wizard's eager willingness to disclose—“[t]he wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once”—but then again, there might be … and he might have been aware of it—that time in the wild had placed some dangerous fey vanity in him as well. At any rate, I like to think that Gandalf realized that personality, “weight,” doesn't come if you don't process the world to some extent on your own, refusing to share if it means you hadn't given your experiences a chance to ripen and develop inside of you first. Bilbo had read a library of books, and you're kidding yourself if you think that after every tale he didn't sit back and think about and argue with and otherwise personally sift through and temper and infiltrate what he'd been patiently engaging with, before discussing what he had just read with a neighbor. If that had been the case, he wouldn't have read in an armchair within a beloved reclusive study but outside amidst the commons, where every second sentence could be recited for others'  benefit if he felt the urge. He would need to have depth to interest the grand, learned Smaug. And mystery—secrets: a taste of the biding, the withheld. And he would need to be one with sufficient respect for and practice in withholding that even when pressed by a hypnotic charmer like Smaug, he could keep at baiting an aroused curiosity so that something might be “innocently” learned that he’d rather not disclosed.

Gandalf isn't there for Bilbo when he faces Smaug—something he might have known could prove the case, despite his promise, for it not actually being his adventure—but before he goes off he shows Bilbo a fair simulacrum of what his encounter with him might involve, as if to say, “this is pretty much what you're going to have to pull off; I hope you're now finally ready for it.” Gandalf enters the abode of the great, powerful Beorn—a being with a dangerous temper but also a healthy respect for good gamesmanship, as well as a considerable appetite for skilled storytelling and intrigue—and finesses him perfectly. And Mr Baggins, in a way you never hear him in regards to the abundance of sword-fighting or arrow-launching on his journeys, remarks on the skill, as if a fellow adept admiring another versed in the trade: “Mr Baggins saw how clever Gandalf had been. The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars.”

With Gandalf gone, Bilbo emerges as the leader, and when he takes on Smaug all of Gandalf's hopes for the unpretentious, likeable little man of study, of conversations over tea, of easy manners, good humor, and of a surprising bounty of the unaccounted for, are realized. Smaug, who'd only been pretend-sleeping, tries to draw him out, but Bilbo refuses—graciously: with flattery. With this response, with denial cagily sweetened into a gift, Smaug realizes he's hardly dealing with some ass with an awaiting battle-axe that as soon as baited into revealing himself should be dispatched and eaten, but someone smart enough to make it as if by doing so “a host” would be shortchanged the dalliance with an intriguing “guest.” He'd be shortchanged someone genuinely interesting—someone worth stringing together some time with. To let his thief know this, that for awhile he'll be accorded, also, the role as a guest, and to discount any alarm his guest might have by the fact that he'd been after all just caught out by a dragon, he overtly inserts responses that signal he's situated himself within a guest-host framework. So he offers the like of “lovely titles, but lucky numbers don't always come off,” and “[t]hat's better. But don't let your imagination run away from you,” which communicate that he's listening carefully and respectfully and intelligently, and that he's bidding the guest to continue and further test his ability to perform to perfection.

Smaug wants him to continue not just to enable himself some entertainment but to find out more about his intrusion in his more mundane reality as just a common thief, of course. But with his keeping it superficially at this level, of him—that is Smaug—conversing with still-name-withheld Bilbo, rather than of a hoard-loving dragon in the presence of a thief of unknown race, unbeknownst he's keeping things where the odds even up … and Bilbo knows not just how to pacify but by this time well how to strike for the killing blow. And when he does so here it's with Smaug caught out in the pretend role of guest and host mutually entertaining and impressing one another. Bilbo had revealed all that enticed about him—his being a mysterious barrel-rider, and so on—and Smaug, perhaps in ironic response, reveals all that bedazzles about his own self—his claws, and teeth—but unfortunately for him also his “impenetrable” armor, which it turns out has got a piece of it missing, right at the heart, uncared for because he doesn’t give a wit about mending. The movie shows this as just dumb luck on the part of Bilbo, but the book has it that he was working his way to just such a reveal, to get further confirmation of something he thought he noticed the first time before him. And proving the loser in this domain, Smaug's sundered of it in “might” as well—maybe still not a small company of dwarves with their swords and axes, but certainly a single skillfully shot arrow, can now end him. A humiliating fate for something so great which nevertheless holds true.

So as I've said, I like to slightly alter the Gandalf in the book to imagine him as thinking up a plausible way to take down a formidable dragon who’d been lord of the mountain long enough. I'm not sure I'm doing any alteration of him, though, to think that what he had also hoped for was to accustom the world, maybe even significantly, to what a long-term denizen of a comfortable hole might offer it—that is, for a larger, even perhaps ultimately more realm-saving purpose, as well. Part of what makes Bilbo special is that no matter how much people talk to him about roles, the sad fate of who he is and of whom he really ought to become, he never really lets go of who he just intrinsically is from the start—which is someone fundamentally decent whose love of his own well-provisioned life means he can extend fair consideration into yours as well. Bilbo isn't just good to people because he sees something for himself in it, or just out of fair play—because you'd just given him something first, and he’s not going to deny you that—but because he can put himself in other people's position and emphasize with them. This has him do things which might look small, irrelevant to the quest, pointless, but in fact if they were well known outside the Shire the wild would lose much of what is truly wicked about it and there'd be less terrible evil around to need questing against. I'm thinking of his noticing Gollum's being “alone, miserable, lost,” and deciding therefore it not only inappropriate to simply countenance him as “foul” but to think it just to “stab” him—something terribly-suffered is obviously entwined with his being rendered into this state. He decides to return an elf-guard's keys so the guard wouldn't be blamed for their escape, because he’d appreciated his having been fair to them and could identity with his situation. And of course, through his sundering them of the precious Arkenstone, he “betrays” his friends by giving his “enemies” a hold on them—and thereby, doing nothing less than maybe preventing a war. The arrival of the goblin army means they wouldn't have warred against each other anyway, but the significance is in the larger realm outside the Shire being more accustomed to this kind of selfless and sophisticated way of reading a situation and acting. It's in their noticing what he did here, not so much how clever (not that it wasn’t a bit, or at least highly intuitive) but how good he had been here—letting himself potentially for life be seen as a traitor to his friends to have a chance to spare them their lives, as well as others.’ Not a one of them would have thought of that. 

Before he dies, Thorin acknowledges he learned something new from Bilbo, something significant enough for it to be fairly carved large into mountains to offer some helpful countenancing to all the giant carved ancient personages customarily tributed there: “There is more of good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Maybe with signs like this blazoned everywhere those worn from the wild might fight their way to Bilbo's comfortable hole in the ground … much more respectfully this time, thereby bringing another legitimate but this time more pleasing adventure, straight to his door. 

He’d still not so much offer them the anti-Smaug but someone who does him better. Because unlike rendering Smaug, Bilbo mends.

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Essays on the Lord of the Rings Draining the Amazon's Swamp Wendy and Lucy, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings (and free at scribd...