For a couple of years, I wrote for and was a contributing editor of Pitch Magazine, the erstwhile Louisville-based journal of art and culture. Below are the articles I published during that time.
“Rushing to Stand Still” (winter 2008)
From 1302 Fincastle Road, the first home address I ever memorized, it’s a twenty-minute walk to University of Kentucky’s frat row. For this article, I intended to go back to Lexington and bear witness to UK’s Greek scene during its raison d’être, rush week. The plan was simple enough: I would ingratiate myself to the brothers by slamming six-packs, boasting of sexual conquests and sentimentally singing the praises of the bluegrass state. I would charm the sisters with my sophisticated tastes, undeniable good looks, and a sympathetic life story: Kentucky boy made good in New York.
Beyond the thrill of passing, why did I want to go? To provide something Alan DeSantis’s Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige, does not—a first-hand account of the experience of being Greek, a glimpse of life within the confines of the stately brick buildings where the lion’s share of the city’s Naty Ice is consumed and Pantene Pro-V 2-in-1 Shampoo + Conditioner is purchased. (See the basements and bathrooms of certain UK fraternities for evidence.) DeSantis is a professor of communications and faculty adviser to Greek organizations at UK. He is not an anthropologist and, consequently, he excuses himself from witnessing, much less participating in, Greek society’s paramount ritual act: partying. Students tell him of their exploits, but for those of us whose images of the Greek joie de vivre come from Animal House and Old School, nothing short of the actual experience will do. I wanted to eliminate the interlocutor and all other mediating forces. I wanted hazing, tube tops, chest thumping, beer pong, mating rituals, and keg stands. But it was not to be.
The reasoning behind my exclusion from frat row is two-fold, and says much about the nature of Greek life. First, the fraternities at UK (and, to a lesser degree, the sororities) are reticent to have their more hedonistic activities documented by outsiders. UK’s drinking laws are one justification for keeping journalists at arm’s length. Brothers are hard-pressed not to publicize their flouting of the university’s dry campus policy, though it’s inconceivable that any administrator is not fully aware that this happens regularly. DeSantis skirts this prickly issue by referring to UK as Greek U—a measure sufficient to save face, but one that seems only slightly less ridiculous than calling the site of inquiry the Keniversity of Untucky.
Second, according to my editor, “[DeSantis] actually asked me what you looked like to try and determine if there might be hope for you to be a fraternity little brother. Think I did you justice. He thought the sorority girls would think you were cute and maybe receptive. He said best chance with them would be just to hang out late night at bar and approach groups of girls. The boys, well the boys he said have their own agenda. They will welcome you but noticeably mock you. Something along the lines of ‘not a chance in hell.’”
Not a chance in hell? What is their agenda? What could prompt such mockery? According to DeSantis, Greek U is plagued by an entrenched rejection of difference, whether it takes the form of race, social class, or sexual orientation. The role of each gender is strictly scripted and highly traditional, each serving as a “negative touchstone” for the other. Unorthodox thoughts and looks are met with repulsion and, University of Kentucky being the standard, I’m guilty of both. Not even the fact that I work at a men’s magazine in New York could save me.
What Women Want
Clearly, DeSantis was exaggerating for effect. When Pitch’s editor and photographer visited a few of UK’s fraternities and sororities, students were gracious, charming and funny, despite combating serious hangovers. Though they might have given me a hard time, I’m certain they would have accepted me into the fold as long as I kept my notebook hidden. But I cannot say the same would be true if I were not a straight white man.
DeSantis bases his observations on nineteen focus group interviews with members of five elite and four “aspirer” fraternities and six elite and four aspirer sororities. He also draws on individual interviews and follow-ups and his own significant experience as faculty adviser for Greek organizations at UK; in this capacity he has regular, intimate contact with these students, and is privy to the mechanics of their social life in a way that very few can claim to be. He is also an alumnus of a fraternity himself, an experience he recalls fondly. While his own involvement with Greek life plainly endears his interviewees to him, it also deepens the distress caused by what he sees as the system’s lamentable current state.
Ordinarily, a sociologist using interviews with sympathetic subjects as his primary evidence would be suspect; in this case, the alarming honesty of students—they go as far as to incriminate themselves—nearly banishes such concerns. The students speak as if DeSantis is either invisible or one of them. (Reading men’s evaluations of fraternity versus relationships—“Brotherhood is real. Pussy comes and goes.”—and the casual comparison by sisters of vomiting to “an undo button on a computer,” I also got the impression the students might simply have never developed egos.)
DeSantis reprints an email announcing an intramural football game between the Deltas and the Alphas, calling it “typical”: “Those fucking fags are going to have a ton of guys there so we need to have everyone come out and watch us kick the shit out of those pussies,” the Delta writes. (Never mind how one can be both a fag and a pussy.) “The more people…the easier it will be for those fudge-packers to understand their role on this campus. Let’s have a good turnout tonight.”
Another student comes perilously close to condoning rape while DeSantis interviews him. “Everybody says they were raped,” he explains. “I think most of the time it’s a girl that feels guilty for having sex…or they end up saying no during sex. And, you know, you can’t just stop and turn it off just like that. That’s kind of bullshit.” When DeSantis informs him that failure to “turn it off” would constitute date rape, the student responds nonchalantly, “Well…if it is, then that’s kind of bullshit, you know? What, you can do everything,” he asks, referring to an anonymous young woman, “let him go down on you, and then just tell him he has to go home?”
DeSantis approaches today’s fraternity brothers and sorority sisters with a significant store of fellow feeling; that it is not exhausted by the end of the book, where he offers some suggestions for improving the Greek system, is proof of his commitment to improving the lives of the students who enter into it. For the lay reader, it is difficult to muster such sentiment or see any reason why a system that is fundamentally at odds with the ostensible values of higher education in this country merits any support. DeSantis’s strongest defense of the system is that it offers students “four or five uninterrupted years of talking time in a safe, nonjudgmental, familial, and nurturing environment.” Ignore for a moment that much of the evidence presented by DeSantis indicates the environment is anything but nonjudgmental for anyone besides the students who have achieved perfect conformity. Banding together around the vague notion of ‘brotherhood’, a word repeated ad infinitum by DeSantis’s interview subjects, seems unhealthy for Greek students and society as a whole. Friendship and regular honest exchanges—both readily available outside the fraternity system—come at the cost of reinforced homophobia, racism, violence, misogyny and backward thinking. Especially among fraternity brothers, a packed schedule of heavy drinking and lifting weights leaves little room for reading and studying, nor does the culture encourage it. The price of ‘brotherhood’ for these young men is the failure to take advantage of their extremely privileged position as students at a decent university. After reading DeSantis’s defense of the Greek system, I couldn’t help thinking: I bet Hitler Youth provided a wonderful opportunity for bonding too.
The Emotional Life of Boys
DeSantis’s tack is to divorce the system itself from the students who comprise it. These are fundamentally good kids, he implies. Kids whose investment in a system they hope will help them grow as people ultimately works against them—knowingly or not, they enter “organizations that demand even greater obedience and conformity and promise in return even greater acceptance and popularity,” a Faustian bargain in the form of a twelve-pack.
What DeSantis fails to adequately address is the dissonance between the students for whom he harbors so much fondness and the deplorable behavior of the fraternity-as-group. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud observes, “In a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instinctual impulses. The apparently new characteristics which he then displays are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition.”
Sound like an overstatement? To wit: “We don’t hate black people; it’s only the niggers that we don’t want,” assures one brother. “Getting blown by some whore” is no big deal, testifies one Sigma brother. “A guy can love his girl but still want a little stray ass. There is something really strong about picking up a total stranger, one with no ties or commitment, getting her naked, and fucking her. I mean, you look down at her face when you’re on top of her, and you’re like: Who is this person? It’s hot. Just don’t get caught.” In an individual, this might be merely demented. As a consensual feeling, it’s something else—in Freudian terms, group membership has de-civilized these men, laying bare a collective unconscious that takes the form of T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: “Above the law, below the panties.”
Other factors shape these students, certainly. But whereas college is meant to broaden students’ horizons, fraternities produce a culture whose members spend four formative years drinking, attempting to trick relative strangers into sleeping with them, picking up heavy objects and putting them back down (with the help of performance enhancers). By failing to take seriously those who fail to conform, DeSantis laments, they allow “their own race, class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation…to masquerade as natural and universal.”
“The absence of malice does not mitigate the effect” of such behavior, DeSantis acknowledges. But the malice, while not overt, seems quite apparent, even integral to the Greek system DeSantis describes. He positions Inside Greek Uwithin a wider literature of adolescence that includes Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys—DeSantis asks what happens once these girls and boys have grown up. Or, more specifically, what happens to the children whose parents failed to learn the lessons of those books. Writing about kids, one has the convenience of blaming the parents. But here the subjects are old enough to go to war, vote, and drink, which begs the question: At what point do you hold them accountable for the behavior of their group?
Never, the answer seems to be. While today’s fraternity alumnae might have difficulty reconciling the blissful oblivion of their college years with what awaits them in the real world, as do a number of DeSantis’s subjects, many more will find their way into the ranks of power. Three-quarters of US Senators, eighty-five percent of Fortune 500 executives, eighty-five percent of Supreme Court justices, and eighteen presidents since 1877 were fraternity members. Hopefully, the current crop of Greeks will mature some before assuming such positions. But the present situation indicates they will not be pushed too hard. George W. Bush confirmed as much in Yale’s 2001 commencement speech: “To the C students, I say, ‘You too can be president of the United States.’” Bottoms up.
“The Curse of Gonzo: Hunter S. Thompson in America” (spring 2007)
Long before reclining in his favorite chair and shooting himself in the mouth, Hunter S. Thompson had designed a 153-foot tower in the shape of the Gonzo logo—a closed fist grasping a peyote button. The structure was crowned with a cannon equipped to discharge his earthly remains. On August 15, 2005, in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were catapulted into the firmament above his Woody Creek, Colorado ranch. (He referred to it as a “fortified compound”). That evening, family and friends listened to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” watched red, white and blue fireworks illuminate the sky, and, of course, drank heavily.
Thirty-five years earlier, a Thompson article that might be called the Gonzo moment was published in Scanlan’s Monthly, a short-lived magazine devoted to New Journalism: “Looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened,” Thompson wrote, reconstructing the weekend he spent covering the Kentucky Derby. “The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:” And off they go.
The rest of the article chronicles the half-remembered antics and imbroglios with locals that left Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman in a wretched state by Monday morning—eyes “swollen almost shut,” sunlight leaving Thompson “stunned and helpless like a sick mole,” Steadman “mumbling about sickness and terrible heat.” The story was no longer the point: Thompson, watching it, was. “We didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track,” he explains. “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”
To really watch the beasts, Thompson became one.
Thompson was a tireless self-iconographer, hawking his own brand of writing and living in print and documenting it in a body of photographs collected for the first time in Gonzo, a lavishly produced tome published by Los Angeles’ American Modern Books and introduced by Johnny Depp. But by the time Thompson killed himself, he had become a caricature of the persona he had fashioned over the span of sixty-seven years and fourteen books: a fearsome wild man holed up in Woody Creek, performing a familiar routine with the same props—guns, booze, drugs—but without a purpose, without a story.
Among the photographs, notes, documents and other memorabilia culled for Gonzo, a kaleidoscopic self-portrait taken by Thompson in his old age shows the man overwhelmed by the myth: “When at the same time your collected works are coming out, a movie’s being made about you…and then you’re in the comic strips,” the accompanying quote laments, “somewhere along there I became a public figure. Somehow the author has become larger than the writing. And it sucks.”
When Thompson says ‘somehow’, it is to be taken with a grain of salt. Thompson knew very well how: he was his myth’s principal proponent, though he fumed when it began to overshadow his writing. New Journalism transformed the American literary landscape in the sixties and seventies at the behest of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and a host of similarly restless writers Under its rubric, the author’s own experiences and writing were necessarily intertwined. Under the dictates of Gonzo, the relationship merited an ad campaign: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”; “Buy the ticket, take the ride”; “Too weird to live, too rare to die”; “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” All Thompson originals, all bandied about the pages of Gonzo.
Though Thompson settled in Woody Creek in 1966, it was more a headquarters than a home. Gonzo follows Thompson across nearly fifty years of peregrinations: born and raised in Louisville, shipped out to Eglin Air Force Base (Florida), a stint in New York City, on assignment in Puerto Rico and across Latin America; onward to Big Sur and San Francisco, then running for Sheriff in Aspen on the Freak Power ticket in 1968. (He shaved his head so that he could refer to the incumbent as “my long-haired opponent”).
Traveling the West’s “Proud Highway” after leaving the Air Force, Thompson records a terrain of abandoned Buicks decaying beneath Martian buttes, wrought iron skeletons bridging endless dust-breathing. Thompson hitchhikes across this land in Bermuda shorts, and boasts of setting the world record for distance hitchhiked in such attire—3,700 miles in three weeks. From Puerto Rico a decade later, Thompson writes of “hopping from one part of the world to another in a frenzy of greed and violence,” but his position—lazing in a beach chair on a stretch of bleached sand, beer, pen and paper in hand—indicates otherwise. Thompson looks equally at ease in Big Sur, blissfully traversing cliffs, strumming the guitar, typing by the ocean—practicing “the simple art of living your own life,” as he put it in an article about the nascent Big Sur scene for Rogue magazine.
Thompson’s photographs are presented not just as evidence of his own exploits, but as an element of the Gonzo project. Part journalism, part landscape, part self-portraiture, they fit easily with the photographs taken by Danny Lyon while on the road with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club and other gangs between 1963 and 1967, published in 1968 as Bikeriders. But while Lyon’s eye was honed by the years he spent as a politically committed photojournalist during the civil rights struggles, Thompson is less sure of where to focus. Lyon’s photographs glorify the motorcycle life. Thompson’s own pictures from his time traveling with the Hell’s Angels in 1965 show a claustrophobic, depraved community of outlaws, outcasts, misfits, cultural dropouts. “Crazies always recognize each other,” Thompson avows, declaring his kinship with the feral men feasting on speed and open road, whiskey and cocaine, violence and unfettered freedom. But the trip ends with Thompson receiving a “stomping” when the Angels grew suspicious he might make money off his book, off them. He left bloodied and bruised, but grinning, and then he made his money off them.
Thompson’s vision of America is rooted in “the ride,” as he put it—not a frantic search for anything in particular, just frantic searching, the endless pursuit of a destination constantly retreating beyond the skyline, the next motel. The work of Stephen Shore, whose photographs taken while crisscrossing America in the 1970s were collected in Uncommon Places (1982), similarly captures a landscape of roadside diners, vacant street corners, the architecture of Middle America as seen through the eyes of an outsider passing through. Shore’s status as a stranger is implied—who else would find these banalities worth photographing? But Thompson constantly reminds us he is there, living the story, whether grinning stupidly and exhibiting the wounds inflicted upon him by the Angels, mugging maniacally while brandishing a firearm, or, typically, gazing off toward where he came from or where he’s going.
The Scum Also Rises
Thompson’s most celebrated trip is recounted in the picaresque Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Here, Thompson fuses the beleaguered character of a Kentucky boy hopelessly and perpetually out of his element with the vitriol of a demented crusader waging war against an army of sleepwalking squares: an ideal type for the counter-culture. In the photographs, the sinister grin of Dr. Gonzo has supplanted the mischievous expression of the young hitchhiker in Bermuda shorts. What happens is history: The nightmare invades the conscious, the conscious goes haywire and the Gonzo brand is minted.
After the Las Vegas coup, followed by the stellar Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, the seventies unfolded and unraveled, and Thompson with them. He loses his hair; clad in short shorts, he waves semi-automatic weapons in the air; he marches through the suburban night in a Lawrence of Arabia outfit with Bill Murray looking on. He leaves empty bottles of Chivas Regal and spent bags of powder on the tables of hotel rooms across the country. On the dock of some unnamed beach, a giant Marlin hangs upside down next to Thompson the victorious fisherman. He gives the thumbs up, rattling his can of beer.
Gonzo documents Thompson’s own documentation of his transformation from provocateur to demiurge, sometimes willingly, sometimes regrettably. Between the myth and what became of the man, it can be easy to forget that Thompson was, in a sense, a serious, even fastidious journalist, though he would never have called himself one. He covered the fall of Saigon, the US invasion of Grenada, even the 1992 presidential campaign (albeit exclusively by watching it on television), and remained on Rolling Stone’s masthead under the slightly ironic title of ‘political correspondent’ until his death.
Thompson eventually paid a hefty price for his commitment to Gonzo; the living was not easy, and it took its toll on the writing it had enabled. If Thompson’s life eventually overshadowed his work, Gonzo is a pointed reminder that the former existed in subservience to the latter, which explains the chagrin Thompson often felt in his later years. (After Gary Trudeau created the ‘Uncle Duke’ character in his Doonesbury comic, Thompson informed an interviewer he would light the cartoonist on fire if they ever met.)
Campaign Trail is perhaps the zenith of Thompson’s Gonzo project, and one of the most enduring pieces of political reportage in the second half of the century. For twelve months, Thompson crashed in a D.C. hotel room and alternately covered and lampooned the 1972 Democratic campaign, from the absurd grappling among candidates to George McGovern’s demeanor at the urinal to the kinship shared by political junkies and amphetamine users. (Nixon, described by Thompson as a man who “could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time”, is skewered from a distance.) Today, the most resonant aspect of Campaign Trail is Thompson’s criticism of the pack mentality journalism he witnesses, the incestuous relationship between writers and politicians that affords newspapers access to power and information, and the conceit of objectivity. “The only thing I ever saw that came close to Objective Journalism was a closed-circuit TV setup that watched shoplifters in the General Store at Woody Creek, Colorado,” Thompson drawls. “The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
Thompson never once makes a genuflection toward ‘fairness’, nor does he prostrate himself in the presence of power. George McGovern, he reminds us, pisses just like anyone else. Though there are a few exceptions, the possibilities represented by New Journalism—it never achieved mainstream status—have largely been silenced by the inane mantra of “Fair and Balanced,” Thompson eclipsed by Bob Woodward, the longtime Washington Post reporter and author of the deferential Bush at War trilogy. Dissenters on the left struggle to adopt the voice of the right, or rail against it rabidly on blogs—as far as one can get from actual experience while still breathing. (The current state of Rolling Stone is best left unmentioned.) That New Journalism in general and Thompson’s salvo in particular had an effect on the way people wrote and read news seems equally as astounding as the fact that, today, its impact has been leveled even as his stature has grown.
Joan Didion has described Woodward’s reports as “books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent…not only inductive reasoning but ordinary reliance on context clues appear to have vanished.” Woodward does not have subjects, he has sources. He is not an interpreter, he is a reporter. If this is the degree to which today’s journalists are willing to parse meaning from political life (if that word is not to charitable to describe what happens in our nation’s capital), they would be better off writing from home, taking Thompson’s lead and reporting from the recliner. Washington was, and remains, a place “where the candidates, their managers, and various ranking journalists are wont to gather for the purpose of ‘talking serious politics’—as opposed to the careful gibberish they distill for the public prints.”
Football Season Is Over
It’s fitting that Gonzo was born at the Kentucky Derby. Louisville, for Thompson, was home. Perhaps because of this intransigent fact, he could not have felt more alienated from it. Here he could play the consummate outsider’s insider: tossing back mint juleps, planting conspiracy theories, trashing hotel rooms, identifying the local animals for Steadman, all the while warning, “Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place…Just pretend you’re visiting a huge outdoor loony bin. If the inmates get out of control we’ll soak them down with Mace.”
But still, he was there, and he went back year after year—not to Louisville, but to people and places like it. He raised an American flag at Woody Creek, he nearly became Aspen’s sheriff, he shot his own ashes out of a cannon under a barrage of red, white and blue fireworks. What more can we ask of a patriot, if not to spend an entire year embedded in a Democratic campaign pitting George McGovern against Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey?
While Steadman’s grotesque sketches turned self-described Kentucky gentlemen into beastly blobs of ink, Thompson did not consider himself a man apart, and asked with only a modicum of irony, “Why must you scribble these filthy ravings and in broad daylight too?…This is Kentucky, not skid row. I love these people. They are my friends and you treated them like scum.”
Once the persona wore thin, Thompson found he was no longer occupying the fringes of life in America, but had run into the frayed edges of his own psyche—no more journeys and, as Gonzo shows, few photographs. Though his suicide letter announced “Football Season Is Over,” an earlier note, jotted on a piece of scrap paper from an undisclosed fishing locale, is a more fitting farewell: “It was a fair fight. The bugger outweighed me by 110 pounds. And I had to kill him with the war club—at very close quarters. So much for sport. HST.”
“Bright Lights from the East” (winter 2007)
In early 2002, the scantily clad odalisques who routinely greeted visitors to the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas disappeared, along with their male counterparts—guards bearing plastic scimitars, turbans and balloon pants. The genie presiding over the hotel’s main bar reluctantly returned to his thirty-five-foot-high golden lamp for another thousand-year sleep, his grim blue countenance replaced by a $2.9 million Planet Hollywood globe.
A flagging twenty-four-hour dream of the Orient was imploded by six hundred pounds of gelatin-based dynamite on April 27, 1998, when the old Aladdin disappeared into a cloud of dust. On August 8, 2000, the new Aladdin opened in its footprints. The hotel struggled from the outset, but was in dire straits after 9/11. Industry analysts and the Vegas rumor mill attributed the dismissal of the harem greeters to a newfound aversion to excessively Middle Eastern imagery. The Bellagio had buried the Dunes, the Venetian had risen on the embers of Sinatra’s beloved Sands: tourists, it seemed, were no longer sufficiently enticed by the allure of an Oriental pleasure palace.
Over the course of the American century, the Aladdin story provided the definitive images of the Orient. As of June 20, 2003, the Aladdin became “the future home of the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.” When it opens, the genies, mosques and magic carpets of The 1001 Arabian Nights will be gone, and ‘Los Angeles’ will emerge from the rubble. The pounded mud and straw buildings of the Dessert Passage, one of the “world’s most exotic marketplaces,” according to hotel literature, will make way for reproductions of the palms and faux-colonial boutique malls of Miracle Mile.
Visitors will no longer be “transported from Morocco through North Africa and on to the Arabian Sea and India” via Build-A-Bear Workshop, Cheeseburger at the Oasis, and Victoria’s Secret. The “vividly authentic streetscenes” that currently “enable visitors to not only observe, but also to hear, taste, touch and even smell the experience of Arabia,” will be uprooted, the North African musicians and Persian contortionists summarily fired.
Stores like Aveda, The Body Shop and Clinique, which “offer the finest in lotions and potions, much as one would have found exotic oils from India and Asia in an ancient Moroccan market,” will likely endure.
Desecrating the Temple
The 1704 appearance of The 1001 Arabian Nights in English secured the place of Orientalism as an area of scholarship and a mode of representation. Edward Lane supplied the first British translation of the classic Persian folktales in 1838-40, and the tome was popularized as a sort of ethnographic pedagogy, teaching the West about the East.
Renaissance artists, Rembrandt being the most prominent, had commonly employed Turks in turbans and, later, Arabs in headscarves, as prototypes for their portrayals of biblical characters. Delacroix embodied the specific genre of Orientalist art, which focused almost exclusively on images of the harem and the odalisque.
With the sick man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire, practically debilitated, and Japan recently opened to the Western world, the mid-nineteenth century found the continent enchanted by the products, sounds and images of the East. Parisian composers and Viennese courtesans wrote blithe gypsy waltzes and donned flamboyant Persian gowns; an apocryphal account traces the most widely used Oriental themes to the Turkish martial music supposedly heard from within the walls of Vienna during the unsuccessful siege of 1683.
Opera embraced the entire spectrum of the senses, celebrating the full extent of Oriental splendor. Taking a stroll through the Aladdin’s Desert Passage illuminates how much the paradoxical tropes celebrated in the grand operas of the nineteenth century have persisted: decadence and religiosity, exoticism and backwardness, the simultaneous repulsion of the other and its intractable allure. Some things we have been taught to abhor and others we have been taught to desire.
Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers was composed in 1863, when Bizet was 24. Though less famous and generally thought to lack some of the musical and thematic complexities of his masterpiece, ‘Carmen’, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is a hallmark of Orientalist art, steeped in romantic passion and its inevitable backlash, jealous rage. The story is a love triangle set on the shores of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where villagers arrive annually to dive for pearls. Ramshackle tents dot a desolate seashore, which is crowned by the ruins of a Hindu temple.
The most thrilling musical passage comes early in the opera, when Zurga, the baritone, is reunited with his childhood friend Nadir, the tenor. The two recall falling for a priestess in Kandy during their travels, then renouncing her in order to preserve their friendship. A torpid duet celebrating the male bond follows, reaching a frenzied finale rarely heard outside songs about death, war, betrayal and heterosexual love spurned or consummated.
A short time later we see that Leila, the priestess, has arrived in Ceylon to protect the pearl fishers, warding off the demons of the ocean with her song. Though she is veiled, Nadir recognizes her singing, approaches her, and before the night is over her vows have been thoroughly violated.
Nourabad, the priest, discovers the two lovers and immediately whips the superstitious natives into a frenzy, demanding Nadir’s death. Zurga attempts to intervene, but when Leila’s veil is torn from her face and Nadir’s betrayal is revealed, he, too, condemns the couple. Eventually, Zurga recognizes the couple’s love, and identifies Leila as having sheltered him when he was a fugitive, years before. Obligated to return the favor, the chief distracts the villagers by setting fire to the camp and frees the lovers from the sacrificial pyre.
Typical Orientalist operas were characterized by farcical libretti drawn from the commedia dell’arte tradition—Turks or Persians acted the part of rank buffoons or backwards despots, outwitted by young lovers or humbled by the knowledge dispensed by Western gentlemen. The ‘The Pearl Fishers’ lacks Westerners, but Bizet’s characters hardly stray from the images of the Orient produced by the West, for Western audiences.
Zurga, who occupies the role of Oriental despot, vacillates between irrational fury, unbridled sexual desire and effeminate posturing. Leila is at once a holy virgin and a destructive vixen, a Madonna tainted by uncontrollable erotic desire. The whole affair is a bit torturous, but not in an unfamiliar way: Zurga, Nadir and Leila may be Orientalist constructions, but they are sympathetic. They are not so much victims of their own cultural deficiencies as casualties of opera’s standard killers: love and betrayal. Ceylon titillates, but ends up an arena for the enactment of mundane Western moral melodrama. The scenery is fantastic, the music exotic and the libretto weak; but anyone paying too much attention to the words misses the point.
Holidays from History
Along with Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, Verdi’s ‘Aida’ is perhaps the most famous of the Orientalist operas, as much for Edward Said’s biting criticism of it in Culture and Imperialism as for its own estimable qualities. While the Scramble for Africa placed countries like Egypt and Algeria under the yoke of the West, Verdi’s ‘Aida’ staged a fantasy of timeless splendor that belied the horrors—or, at least, political and ethical dilemmas—of colonialism. Tragic melodrama and Cairo court intrigue glossed over the violence and political machinations that characterized the construction of the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. (The opera itself was commissioned for an 1871 performance in Cairo by Britain’s Egyptian client, Ismail Pasha.) Verdi’s Egypt was not drawn from life, but from accounts of scholars who had tagged along during Napoleon’s conquests. The opera’s legacy, Said asserts, is the artistic equivalent of antiquities being “dislodged and transported to Europe” by Napoleon’s army, obelisks being carted away to crown Paris’ grand plazas.
Like ‘Aida’, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ is less interested in a realistic rendering of the East than an unbound representation of it. Ceylon is an unabashed figment of the imagination: much of the libretto was appropriated from an earlier story that took place in Sicily, and Bizet’s opera was originally set in Mexico. “In a system of knowledge about the Orient,” Said commented, “the Orient is less a place than a topos, a set of references.” The audience enjoys the sublime product of its own imagination, and colonial powers subjugate with impunity.
Said defines Orientalism as a Western mode of imagining and speaking about Islam, the Middle East, and the subcontinent. Orientalism enabled Western domination over the Orient by producing knowledge that justified the colonialist enterprise, whether or not this was the intent of Orientalist scholars and artists.
In fact, many Orientalist scholars opposed colonialism, however problematic the political basis for their stances; as often as not, Orientalism was characterized by sympathy, if not empathy, for the populations it aimed to describe. From Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which two travelers to Europe serve as mouthpieces for the author’s own cultural critique, to Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’, which imagines an Arab despot as a benign philosopher king, the East served as a platform from which to question the values and social mores of the Victorian world. Early scholars of the Orient were drawn to Arabia as the root of biblical culture and, thus, the birthplace of Western civilization. A common Freemason saying served as a reminder of the West’s proper orientation: “Ex oriente lux,” or, ‘light comes from the East’.
The Sick Man Has Risen
In art as in war, Said’s Orientalist “sees himself as accomplishing the union of Orient and Occident,” but this is done “mainly by reasserting the technological, political, and cultural supremacy of the West.” The desire for an unequal union has persisted. Today, image seamlessly fuses with reality in the political equivalent of the Aladdin, a disorienting spectacle that finds its justification in a pursuit of pleasure and domination so historically entrenched as to appear as a right. By October of 2001, the Aladdin was no longer tenable and no longer necessary.
Can Orientalist art and opera still be said to mask the latest colonial enterprise? Can ‘The Pearl Fishers’ be viewed not just as an entertaining reiteration of a particular historical moment, but as an indication of our own radically altered relationship with the world it represents? Can we watch the East we created without immediately recognizing the East with which we are now confronted?
If Orientalist discourse dictated the terms by which the Arab world was maligned and defended, from ‘The Pearl Fishers’ to Lawrence of Arabia, at least the harems, despots, and revered Eastern wisdom offered a glimpse of an alternative to the West’s cultural and historical grand narrative. The East helped the West get over the Victorian era, and the West defined the terms by which the East combated its own imports in the areas of government and commerce. The political phenomenon now branded Islamic fundamentalism (or, worse, Islamo-fascism) is rooted in a reversal of the terms of Orientalist discourse exemplified by the anti-Western, anti-materialist philosophy of Muslim Brotherhood founder Sayed Qutb, the grandfather of today’s political Islam.
With 9/11, the Orient found a form of talking back—Western audiences could not help but hear, but could not bear to listen. The War on Terror has denuded the West of difference, severed its historical relationship with the East, ossified the poles of an arcane discourse. The West is secular and individualist, governed by democracy; the East is fanatical and perversely communalist, masses ruled by the whim of sociopathic dictators; ego versus id.
“The only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people,” President Bush uttered, smirk intact, Tony Blair at his side, in July of 2003, describing the prisoners being transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay. “They don’t share the same values we share,” he had confirmed in March of 2002. Given the opportunity, the proper instruction, a bit of therapy, and a few lashes, he seemed to imply, they will come around and embrace those things we value.
In the context of such brash inanity, ‘The Pearl Fishers’ offers a welcome respite, a holiday from the grim remains of Orientalism now hawked on Fox News. It also begs the question: Did Orientalism moderate the Western urge to distance itself from and dominate the Orient? By placing the West and East on the same stage, did it enable the subversion of those values whose intransigence is now counted as a matter of immense national pride, whose defense is offered as a primary justification for violence?
Flatness characterizes the current view of the East from the West—a familiar spectacle without the redemptive qualities of fetishism, fear having displaced fascination. Even the Las Vegas kitsch inherited from Walt Disney’s imagination has been expunged from the historical record. The light no longer comes from the East unless it is transported via CIA aircraft to Guantanamo Bay, with a brief stopover in Egypt or Morocco for a painful farewell to old friends.
“Inverted Commas: Yinka Shonibare, MBE” (fall 2006, written with Sarah Kessler)
My now lapsed keffiyeh fixation began on the streets of Copenhagen, where I noticed packs of attractive young blond women shopping, going to the cinema, and biking to and from university, all with black and white patterned scarves loosely draped around their pale necks. I knew that these textiles were in some way Middle Eastern, and that Yasser Arafat wore one, and that perhaps a red one might signify something controversial. This was my rudimentary understanding of the garment’s cultural significance. What really interested me, though, was the edgy role of the keffiyeh in the context of Danish fashion. The palpably foreign, ethnically coded scarf substitute lent these impeccably Scandinavian girls an aura of cool, even sexy, subversion.
Neither the contrast nor my reaction was anything new. Think of Irving Penn photographing his wife in a turban. Browse Said’s Orientalism and its progeny. But the question remains: why fall in love with the keffiyeh over the kimono? The first time I laid eyes on Yinka Shonibare’s work (at the opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s reinstallation of its contemporary wing last September) I had a similar thought: why fall in love with wax-printed cottons over the keffiyeh?
Upon seeing the MoMA’s presentation of ‘How Does a Girl Like You, Get to Be a Girl Like You?’ (1995), I did a triple take. First I saw exotic sculptures, then dressmakers’ dummies adorned in African finery, then, finally, a scene recalling Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Sumptuously clad and anonymous, Shonibare’s otherworldly creatures haunted MoMA’s vaunted halls. My most tactile impression was the same desire I had felt in Copenhagen—to wear what is by definition not of one’s own world, or to don selected parts of another world. While my keffiyeh fixation may have arisen from my Jewish upbringing, which endowed the fabric with a thrilling hint of blasphemy, why not take on other “others” as well?
Shonibare may be best known for his textile-based work, which often pairs the long interred (but far from forgotten) regalia of a stuffy British upper class with brightly colored, heavily patterned wax printed cottons, seemingly African in origin. High-necked Victorian-style dresses and ruffled cravats are re-imagined—the forms remain the same but the medium differs almost violently, incorporating saturated hues, organic and geometric designs, and the occasional appropriated high fashion logo, all realized immaculately and modeled by headless mannequins. The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer depicts a technologically augmented future devoid of national governments. Society is organized by cultural preferences and identifications, among other things, and the day’s elite clique of the moment is a community of “neo-Victorians” located on the coast of China. These superior beings have embraced a sort of haute conservatism, corsets with élan and decadence with discipline—they might as well be on today’s runway.
In the worlds of Stephenson’s techno-cultural elite and Shonibare’s cheeky pastiche, questions of cultural origin and innate symbolism are eclipsed by those of cultural displacement and the subsequent draining of the symbol’s purity. The poles of Orientalism have given way to the nodes of globalism. Shonibare’s fabrics, to which he sometimes adds his own flourishes, are designed in the Netherlands and only marketed in Africa—in the artist’s brave new world, to look like Africa is at once uncomfortably close to and worlds away from the real thing. The object and the viewer (or the wearer) are no longer of distinctly “other” worlds, and the original world is no longer of itself.
Apart from his three-dimensional tableaux, which range from Henry James (1843-1916) and Henrik C. Andersen (1872-1940) (2001) to Three Graces (2001) to The Swing after Fragonard (2001), his answer to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1767 painting The Swing, Shonibare has used similar fabrics to create multi-panel abstract compositions displayed on the wall in grid formations, as well as to upholster dollhouse furniture. He has experimented with tribally patterned shoes, and even dildos. Whether children’s or adults’ toys, the effect is one of an alien presence, an invasion of sorts. The effect is also, almost incomprehensibly, one of “everything in its right place.” This same contradiction is present throughout Shonibare’s work in all media.
Dorian Gray (2001), Shonibare’s twelve-part still-frame version of Albert Lewin’s 1945 screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s timeless tale, as well as his 1998 photographic “essay” Diary of a Victorian Dandy, both feature the artist himself as inexplicable protagonist. Diary functions as a sort of “day in the life” portrait of the excesses of foppish existence; Shonibare lives it up surrounded by adoring and sycophantic friends, lovers and servants, a knowing glint in his eye. In Dorian Gray the artist assumes the role of dandy blinded by vanity, who ultimately destroys his own image (and thus himself) when it manifests traces of the corruption of his soul.
In the photographs, the alien finds a host—Shonibare, whose impressive acting ability cannot go unremarked. Though mired in a veritable sea of whiteness, he appears utterly at home in his surroundings, at once outsider and native, and again, all scenes are flawlessly executed. As the narratives unfold, it becomes eerily apparent that though Shonibare’s figure is in front of the viewer, he is behind everything—the costumes, the lighting, the sets, and even his own image. Shonibare’s charged identity is his most decisive prop, and he wields it accordingly.
His seemingly innate prowess in shaping his own character, or at least in convincing his audience of all the different characters he might be, explains Shonibare’s deep kinship with Oscar Wilde, and with the general ethos of the dandy. Wilde’s oeuvre demonstrates an obsession with the human process of self-construction and its attendant benefits and drawbacks. While The Picture of Dorian Gray emphasizes the “cons” of dandyism, much of his work engages the idea that “producing” one’s identity can create misunderstandings that lead to interesting and provocative multiplicities. A first-rate dandy, Wilde (a gay man before it was fashionable) was able to create a unique self-image that permitted him to act out taboos that might otherwise have been shunned outside the spheres of literature and theatricality. Shonibare works similarly, employing his objects and his image, already injected with meaning by his viewers, towards an unfamiliar end. The glossy final product that results confounds our assumptions of singularity.
Shonibare has said, “I am actually producing something perceived as ethnic in inverted commas, but at the same time the African fabric used in my work is something industrially produced and given its cultural origins, my own authenticity is questioned.” Ethnicity, too, can exist in an abstract form, as another commodity manufactured in a number of locations, carrying only the stamp of its most recent port of departure.
Asking that his written name be followed by the designation “Member of the British Empire,” Shonibare doesn’t mourn or celebrate the confusion of worlds or the dilution of culture. In fact, his work profits from the ironic levity of someone who is a member of the global elite with the indelible stamp of the excluded, a multinational artist who retains the exoticism of his skin color and childhood home alongside the advertised MBE accreditation. Born in England, raised primarily in Lagos, and educated in England from age sixteen, he appears to move fluidly between borders, embodying the producer on the periphery, the designer in the metropole, the model on the runway, and the consumer in the marketplace or gallery. Furthermore, he gets away with lampooning them all, and having them buy it.
Operating in the rarified realm of one who can flaunt and flout power, Shonibare presents an essentially futuristic vision—a world in which the increased mobility exemplified by his own personal history permits a picking and choosing of outfits and identities; an arena of limitless play rather than old-fashioned hybridity. Claiming all rights as an artist, Shonibare, as Wilde and Baudelaire did before him, maps his own world with fragments of those he has traversed, all the while looking toward the camera.
Writers and politicians from Mario Vargas Llosa to Tony Blair have heralded multiculturalism as a matter of volition, urging various degrees of assimilation as the proper point of graduation for the millennial generation. The neo-Victorians at the top of the social ladder might just look down and shrug, kimonos hanging from their walls, illuminated by track lighting. Those who envisage the future usually provide us with surprisingly lucid pictures of our own past, albeit in altered form. Yinka Shonibare’s work wryly showcases the specter of globalism in all its counterfeited glory.