Friday, July 17, 2015

Ray Donovan and the Decline of Muscular Prose

In his opening to a review of the essays of Max Beerbohm, Dwight Garner remarks that today’s essays have lost some of the verve and gusto that yesterday’s essays had. 

Writing in the New York Times Garner notes that over the past three decades we have lost a certain type of essay writing, the kind that is tough-minded, unabashedly offensive and brimming with wit, if not humor. The quality of the national debate has also declined, but that is for another time and place.

This is not to say that the writing that Garner (and I) miss does not exist. In the dark corners of the publishing world a precious few essayists are still writing the kind of prose that Garner—and yours truly—misses.

Consider a very recent James Wolcott review of  what he calls the "underappreciated" television series, Ray Donovan.

Ray Donovan—its antihero a charcoal etching in a sun-bleached world, a man (and what a man) of many moods, all of them monochrome—returns for a third season on Showtime for another bout of muscular angst amid the posh squalor and Charles Bukowski fleapits of Los Angeles. Played by Liev Schreiber with the sullen dispatch of a highly paid pro on permanent shit detail, Ray Donovan is a law-unabiding fixer, like Jonathan Banks’s Mike onBreaking Bad and Better Call Saul—the guy you call when you need a hostage rescued, an angry husband ice-bucketed, incriminating photos retrieved, a troublemaker forcibly dissuaded, or, as happens in the season premiere Sunday night, a celebrity has-been extricated from a glory hole where his penis is being held captive until he pays up. That the glory-hole stuckee, once we’re able to see his face, is portrayed by Bronson Pinchot, former star of the hit sitcom Perfect Strangers, is indicative of the quirky, grubby biosphere of Ray Donovan, its terrarium view of once-hot fame and success now scrounging around in the weeds.

You may or may not like that kind of gritty, muscular prose, but the world has been seeing much less of it lately. Garner is correct to say that we have lost something. For all I know it’s a symptom of a world that has so systematically devalued manliness that its cruder manifestations are barely even tolerated.

In Garner’s words:

It’s only in retrospect that we can recognize the 1980s as a great decade for contrarians and curmudgeons, for cheerful and sophisticated loathers of every sort of vanity and humbug.

Paul Fussell and Robert Hughes were publishing their best cultural and social criticism; P. J. O’Rourke had not yet become predictable; Florence King (at National Review) and Henry Fairlie (at The New Republic) were reliable dispensers of whirligig contumely; Spy magazine made its debut; Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott were dashing freshmen on campus; and Clive James, at the Observer in London, was searing on his griddle the crispiest television criticism the world had ever seen.

Each of these humans seems to have been guided by the principle articulated by Kingsley Amis: “If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.”

Nowadays we have many writers who can rise to the occasion when called upon and, like volunteer firefighters in reverse, burn a stupid thing to the ground. But we have far fewer essayists of the sort you can point in almost any direction and be certain they’d return merrily gnawing on the bones of the topic as if it were a tub of fried chicken.

What killed the dinosaurs? Was it the Internet? Global warming? Gluten? There’s been a journalistic version of Dutch elm disease.

As for the question, who killed the dinosaurs, I am surprised that Garner does not answer it. Clearly, political correctness and the Age of Obama killed it. More especially, a media and academic world filled with people who know little more about reading than how to find evidence of thought crimes has stifled and repressed these more manly writers.

Kingsley Amis thought that good essays should annoy people. Well, in our age where everyone is so thin-skinned that they can barely suffer the least suggestion of criticism, writers need to be careful, lest they be assaulted in the media for one or another thought crimes.

If writers are worrying about who they must never offend, they are going to constrain themselves. You will feel it in constipated prose where whiny platitudes and  self-righteous banalities have taken the place of corrosive wit.

If the general public and the general reader are thin-skinned, that implies, incidentally, a heightened sense of insecurity, a lack of confidence, a demoralized state that is akin to depression.

We live in the age of Prozac where everyone is acting like they are depressed.

In the Age of Obama all criticism of our manifestly thin-skinned president, in particular, always gets attacked as racism. Between the trolls and the thought police every column of prose, no matter how well written, is scoured for signs of thought crimes, whether of the racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic variety.

Use the wrong word, the wrong figure of speech or the wrong image and you will be exiled to the darker reaches of the media firmament. You will be accused and condemned as a hater, as a perpetrator of the worst crimes the world has ever known.

The thought police do not hesitate to use the most bloated superlatives.

Many of them learned how to do it in college where they perfected the art of what is called deconstruction. They do not know, any more than their teachers do, that this technique was born of the mind of a Nazi philosopher and amounts to little more than performing a pogrom on a text.

It’s not quite the same thing as running a pogrom through a village, but it is certainly destructive—the word deconstruction is a translation of the original German word, Destruktion—and it has damaged the quality of public discourse and debate… as well as the quality of writing.

In practice, deconstruction involves seeking out, isolating and destroying any hints of a cultural contaminant to be found in a text. In the past these contaminants were associated with Judaism and Christianity, but the technique can be used on whatever offends a supreme leader—witness the uber pogrom that Mao Zedong called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

To engage in the kind of annoying rhetoric that Amis and Garner admired you have to be shielded by the heft of Vanity Fair or you should have grown some very thick skin.

Returning to Ray Donovan, we note that the central character—created by a woman, incidentally-- is a man’s man, a rarity on television these days. And yet, however popular the show is, the critical community has tried to ignore it. The show is so flagrantly manly that it is very difficult to accuse it of hidden or disguised sexism.

In his inimitable way Wolcott explains:

A big ratings slugger for Showtime, Ray Donovan doesn’t appear to have the fanatical hold on Talmudic students of every microfilament of narrative nuance, sexual politics, symbolic resonance, ominous portent, and Zeitgeist relevance that True Detective (its first season anyway), Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, and Louie command….

It’s a tough show to recommend to virgins, and not just because of its head-whomping violence and considerable backstory. Its Raymond Chandler–in-reverse approach to crime and depravity beneath the billboards and palm trees, with Ray Donovan as Philip Marlowe divested of all illusion, often turns masochistic and stilted in its posturings….

Basically, though, everything rides on Liev Schreiber’s shoulders, who manages to avoid monotony despite the narrow slit of affect and emotion permitted his persona through sheer force of concentration and imposing presence. He could do with a shave, but that might leave his face overexposed to signs of normal expression, which he can’t afford in his line of work. It’d be like removing Batman’s mask, and that’s what Ray Donovan is—the Dark Knight on retainer.


Sam L. said...

Interesting writing on a show I will never see.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"Clearly, political correctness and the Age of Obama killed it. More especially, a media and academic world filled with people who know little more about reading than how to find evidence of thought crimes has stifled and repressed these more manly writers."

Well said. Our culture is moving in a new direction. Our elites and leaders are "chicken shit" about... well, just about everything.

I suspect we are in the early stages of a new "soft fascism." The Wikipedia definition of fascism is "a form of radical authoritarian nationalism." When I say "soft" I mean social marginalization using communication, en lieu of physical force. It is "radical" in its plain Left-wing politics, no longer veiled for the sake of American consumption. It is "authoritarian" in its political mobilization, constraints on political institutions, and reliance on emotion in targeting opponents. Its "nationalism" is about replacing our traditional national identity with a new one, using sophisticated mechanisms of social conditioning. We are in transition from our Constitutional separation of powers to a regime of unchecked, unaccountable bureaucratic socialism.

This is emasculating, as evidenced throughout our culture... even with essayists. The "American cowboy" stereotype is fast becoming an American cow. The Marlboro Man is replaced with Caitlyn Jenner. This is our cultural trajectory.

We have a situation where people are not attacked directly, but by a coordinated, media-based coterie that is seemingly invisible, yet in plain sight... because few are looking, and even fewer are asking questions. Issues of outrage move at such dizzying speed that we cannot collect and evaluate them. "It's a crisis, so we have to do something." There seems to be a confederation -- whether it is loose or a formal union is irrelevant -- of politicians, journalists, academics and mainstream media types that are quashing any debate. It's kind of like Valerie Jarrett... looming in the shadows, outside of scrutiny, but in full control.

This may seem like conspiratorial bunk, but look around you and consider some of the strange things that are happening and how they are asserted and defended. I'm not claiming to know the endgame, but what we have in the end is a monitored, censored and supervised "conversation" that is filtered to allow the "correct" voices to participate. It's a setup. And it doesn't have to make sense. For example: We must remove all vestiges of the Civil War Confederacy, yet we must respect Islam as a "religion of peace." Mind you: not Southern people, but the Confederacy; not Muslims, but Islam itself. It's an odd cocktail, and it's founded on distrust. It starts out symbolic, and then gets personal.

The net result is that we are empowering everything we don't want. We now identify as victims, impaled by "micro-aggressions," and making excuses for why our lives are the way they are. Meanwhile, there is precious little discussed about the people who really make American work, who hold families and towns together, and contribute to our communities. It's all ass-backwards. And it's all okay, because no one wants to criticize our president. Our society has lost courage and suffers from a feminized malaise that few enjoy, but don't dare talk about. Instead of a virtuous, productive, moral and free society, we now collect... checks for entitlement benefits.

Look at who's running the conversation. Look at who's winning. How are they doing this and that? It's not through the ballot box. Their legitimacy comes from the Glowing Box It all comes back to television. Conservatives are losing because we don't have a strong, clear, optimistic presence on TV. American life is consumed on the other side of a Glowing Box. Until we realize that, huddle up, an have an answer, everything we cherish is going to slip away. Everything.

Anonymous said...

Is Ray Donovan still looking for his reputation back?

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

To follow up, we must begin to ask harder questions about what is going on. All of us, as I somehow doubt my fellow countrymen of the opposite political persuasion would find the present circumstances palatable, should they be placed in the position of being the “loyal opposition” amidst such a non-conversation and in the face of this bureaucratic tyranny, which is exactly what it is.

The executive is to enforce the law, not the laws that he chooses and to rewrite the laws he doesn’t like. By his enforcement and non-enforcement, President Obama has made his contempt for this country, its history, its power and its traditional values. He believes them unfair. Fine. Then engage in the battle of ideas in a way that is above board, not a radical perversion of executive prerogatives.

No one wants to not like the President of the United States. This feels unpatriotic and unseemly, as we recognize all states need a leader, and want one with popular, broad support. With that as a given, I must admit that I do not understand this president’s motivations and interests. To quote Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign remark: “Everything that should be down is up; everything that should be up is down.” We’re feeling good about ourselves in championing the interests of all the “downtrodden,” and forgetting the rest of us. Murders in Milwaukee are up 180% this year. Is that “social justice”?

The question I will ask coming out of this comment is "Who are the people defending or advancing this agenda?" Not the organizations, think tanks, politicians, reporters, media outlets. We need to start being curious about who the PEOPLE are who are creating this environment -- their names, connections, motivations, worldview and the outcomes they seek for our country. Until this happens, the president and his advocates will continue to push "Forward" and their opponents will look like paranoid boxers swinging at phantoms. There are real people behind all this. The most powerful among us appear invisible, yet they are hiding in plain sight. We just have to know what to look for, and how the pieces connect.

I suspect what is at stake is our most basic, most personal freedom: our conscience. We are not being protected from the state, we are being forced to participate. This is a creeping form of thought control. That goodness is not about results, it's about intentions, feelings, emotions, empathy. Those who have "bad intentions" are met with dizzying attacks, and then the attackers slip back into the jungle. It's a battle of ideas, but one side is fighting in a guerrilla style, while the other is lining up to fight set-piece battles using tactics that worked in the 1980s. First we have to identify our enemy, then move to neutralize or destroy him in this battle of ideas. Right now, they are winning. We have to find out who "they" are, because they’re not only the politicians and office-holders themselves. There’s a cunning supporting cast.

It’s time to man up. Otherwise, we will be virtual slaves, living a virtual lifestyle, and lose everything that’s worth having: the freedom to fail, the opportunity to succeed. You can’t get that from a government check, a reality TV show, Oprah, the New York Times, political speeches, etc. You have to go out there and take it for yourself. It’s never given. That’s what it means to be fully alive.

America is about the man who doesn’t have to, but chooses to be great. And it doesn’t have to be at a billionaire level… it can be in a family, on a school board, in a church. Being on the Glowing Box is not the key to success. Living life on your terms is the key to individual greatness. And people should be able to find that for themselves, not because an unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat approves of their choices, ends or means. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. termed it: “The free struggle for life.” That’s not some anesthetized, emasculated, vanilla way of life… it’s the real thing, not an image on a Glowing Box.