Monday, November 04, 2013

Ender's Blues

The song above is from Miles Davis's performance at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, Friday and Saturday night at the end of April, 1961.  There's some performances on this album that stand with some of his best.  This particular version of "If I Were A Bell" hits all the highlights for Miles Davis: Its modal, a form he invented, which frankly turns jazz from a collection of major-scale solos - certainly beautiful, but limited nonetheless - into a new form of music; its indescribably cool; its a sentimental favorite that he does something new with; its both technically proficient and accessible; and its catchy.

Do you see the woman in the bottom left-hand corner?  Her name was Frances Taylor, a model and dancer who'd appeared in West Side Story, attached to Miles at the time as his primary girlfriend and then later as his wife.  At the time Miles was an addict - in the story I've heard, and so this might be wrong, to cocaine, as he'd already kicked his addiction to heroin years prior.  (His heroin addiction explains the progressive decline in quality in this box set: from bright and thoughtful to nodding sludgey carelessness.)

I can't find the clip - the internet isn't as useful as its cracked up to be - but she once explained the photo, which is famous in the Miles Davis iconography, as being a pure expression of fear.  She looks fearful, or at least guarded, and that's because Miles was a paranoid cokehead at the time, and she dreaded every day and every night, and though she loved Miles she feared what he'd be like coming down off the bandstand, what the hangovers would do to his mood, what he'd do to compensate for the hangover, what he'd do to her.  She was a very matter-of-fact woman in the clip I saw, as I suppose you must be if you learn to survive something like that.  A couple of days after this appearance he would chase her around their apartment with a butcher knife, after a three-day binge during which she hit what she thought at the time was the apotheosis of her terror.  And soon after that, they were married.

Of course you hear none of this in "If I Were A Bell."  He doesn't sound like a psychotic maniac who's turned from his polite middle-class upbringing, the man who wears sharp suits on his album covers, into some kind of pimp/hustler-wannabe.  He's every inch the cool professional.

(And frankly a sartorial role model.  I can't remember who said it, but true revolutionaries are not usually the ones with ratty jeans and unkempt hair; Marx, for example, was always well-turned out, and so was Miles, and just because you're changing everything doesn't mean you have to dress like a slob.) 

I was reminded of this story by the release of Ender's Game as a movie, and a whole series of public discussions (this one in Grantland is one of the best) and private discussions with friends.  What do you do with a work of art who's author appears to disavow all the things you see in the work of art?  In the case of Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender's Game, he's not just on the wrong side of history, he's taking some kind of wishy-washy cowardly position advocating violence to protect the privilege of his ideology, but only if he's threatened, but maybe not only.  Ender's Game, as Jazayerli points out at the Grantland piece I linked to above, is (among other things) about how how people learn to understand empathy and their differences and what it means to be different, and the value of our individual Otherness for all of us.  And yet the guy who wrote it doesn't seem to have read it because, we all tend to think, if he had he wouldn't be the violently (if only rhetorically) homophobic anti-Muslim guy he apparently is.

There's a whole line of people like Card that I've struggled to understand.  Here's another apt example: The philosopher Martin Heidegger thought National Socialism was the purest practical expression of what he was getting at in Being and Time, and in the period from 1933-1942 he was a good Nazi and a good German.

Here's the Starbucks version of Being and Time: Human beings are what Heidegger calls "dasein," or thinking beings that are in the world, moving around and bumping into stuff and getting hurt and experiencing joy.  Dasein are thinking beings who know they will die, and also that they are separate from all other thinking beings, that they're alone in here, inside their minds.  The insight of Being and Time is that dasein knows it will die, and that its alone, and that, at a very high level, dasein experiences time as that separation and loss - each tick of the clock reminds us that we will one day run out of tocks, and that all the way through we are alone.  So this has a number of implications about the world and human behavior which is teased out in turgid prose for roughly 600 pages.

And then things went south for Hitler and Heidegger started to see some problems with fascism in general and Nazism in particular.  And he ended up living out the rest of his years with Hannah Arendt, of all people, who loved him. So on the one hand: Heidegger has produced one of the most incredibly rich insights into the human experience the species has ever had. On the other hand that insight came from a guy who for whatever reason - small-minded university politics, provincial anti-semitism, political immaturity - choose to ally himself with one of the most genuinely evil groups of people ever.

So what do you do with that? I don't know what to tell my daughter, who loved Ender's Game, what I think about Card the homophobe and racist, except that artists don't know what they're doing.  Even really great artists. We may think that Card's characters and plots - plots here indicate a teleology, obviously, because the author chooses to take the narrative in a specific direction, no? - indicate an insight into the human condition that's just awe-inspiring.  But I've started thinking of Card in analogy with Miles Davis: The insights of Ender's Game as a novel don't require that Card as a novelist is conscious of those insights, any more than while Miles Davis plays "So What" and changes music forever, partly for technical reasons and partly because when Miles comes in at 1:31 and announces "So what?  Yeah all that bad stuff we thought was going to happen didn't happen.  It might still but who knows?  Also, look at this thing over here, which is pretty cool.  And have you met John Coltrane?", was conscious of the fact that his girlfriend was terrified he was going to beat the crap out of her after the show?  Because for all we know, the beautiful piece of music we think conveys cool, nonchalant confidence and purpose in the face of global thermonuclear war, Jim Crow, the Holocaust may actually be, from Miles's perspective, about how he doesn't care what anyone ever tries to do because we're all just trying to fuck him over, especially the women.
I've personally built some software applications that people used for things I didn't know they could do, and I'm always in awe because that means the application is functioning like art. I never think when that happens that I should get credit for the utility of the thing; its like it took on a life of its own, and I was just clever (or stupid) enough to get the pieces put together in the right way. This isn't false modesty: I can really only claim credit for the stuff I intended it to do, after all, and while anything else that happens can be described in mechanistic epiphenomenal terms appropriate to my cold atheist's soul its still mysterious and beautiful.

I think the same thing about Ender's Game, and Jazayerli's piece does a good job of getting to the core of that problem. I think if you wanted kids to feel better about themselves - as Muslims, as gay, as short and picked-on, as Other - and learn that their Otherness may very well be to their deadly advantage (and every kid wants to feel powerful), that being empathetic and doing the right thing are not necessarily the same thing, but managing both is a critical skill, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better delivery mechanism for that teaching than Ender's Game.

It is Ender's curse that no one really close to him understands who he is; they just understand him instrumentally, as a means to their end.  That's true in his world and in ours.  Its a pity the man who created that inspiration doesn't understand it.   

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