This Week In My Classes: Men, Mopes, and Munro Day

valdezBoth of my classes are focusing a lot on masculinity right now, particularly on representations of or challenges to ideas of masculine heroism.

In Pulp Fiction, we’re working our way through Valdez Is Coming. Valdez epitomizes a certain kind of Western hero: he is a man of few words, a man whose actions speak for him, whose principles are hard for him to articulate but are nonetheless non-negotiable for him. Leonard really emphasizes, though, that living up to his principles is not a no-brainer for Valdez, who often seems a bit frustrated with his own compulsion to do what he thinks is right. “What do you need besides this?”he wonders, sitting with the horse-breaker Diego Luz listening to Diego’s children play around the house:

To have a place, a family. Very quiet except for the children sometimes, and no trouble. No Apaches. No bandits raiding from across the border. Trees and water and a good house.

But he doesn’t stay put: he goes back again to Mr. Tanner, the man who instigated the situation that led to Valdez shooting an innocent man, the man Valdez needs to persuade to go along with his plan to provide restitution to the dead man’s wife. “I’m talking about what’s fair,” he tells Mr. Tanner, a seemingly simple statement that says everything about the difference between them.

Valdez doesn’t particularly want to be a tough guy: he doesn’t go to Tanner’s seeking a confrontation, though it’s clear to him by this point that he’s going to get one. He is resolute, and once the conflict begins he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win it, but I find it interesting that Leonard makes it seem like an act of will, not an inevitability, as if to say that being such a man is a difficult but necessary choice. That puts the novel’s less principled characters (like the miserable mope R. L. Davis) in a worse light, because they aren’t just weak (Valdez too has weaknesses) but choose their weaknesses (including moral weakness) over real strength, including moral strength.

Valdez is a somewhat reluctant hero. He doesn’t ride into the novel like a man on a mission–at first, he’s just a man doing his job, and he’s not even that committed to his job:

He didn’t have to say here. He didn’t have to be a town constable. He didn’t have to work for the stage company. He didn’t have to listen to Mr. Beaudry and Mr. Malson and smile when they said those things. He didn’t have a wife or kids. He didn’t have land that he owned. He could go anywhere he wanted.

ladyaudleyOnce he faces injustice, though, and especially once he’s felt the full force of Tanner’s malicious bullying, he becomes the unrelenting agent of retribution he needs to be. In that sense he’s an interesting parallel to Robert Audley, whom we are currently discussing in Victorian Sensations. When his novel begins, he just wants to laze around Fig Tree Court and read French novels and not be bothered; like Valdez, he’s forced out of his relative placidity by an injustice he can’t leave unaddressed. The morality of Robert’s mission is murkier, though: what exactly the stakes are in his pursuit of the truth about Lady Audley is something we’re discussing a lot at the moment. It’s true he believes she has murdered his best friend, but he often seems more concerned about the pain her presumed duplicity will cause his uncle than anything else.

Also like Valdez, Robert Audley is not 100% committed to his quest for justice–again, at least at first. We talked this week about his initial lack of interest in “being a man,” from his general indolence to his indifference to his besotted cousin, who keeps throwing herself at him. Robert Audley starts the novel as a mope, albeit a charming and good-hearted one, and only his strong bond with the mysteriously vanished George Talboys eventually stimulates him to principled action and self-assertion. It’s a bit hard to tell if the newly amped-up Robert is supposed to be truly heroic or whether Braddon is poking fun at him, especially when he starts ranting about how much he hates women for always causing so much trouble:ingres-joan-of-arc

They don’t know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arcs, Queen Elizabeths and Catherine the Seconds, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamour, and desperation. If they can’t agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups. . . . They’re bold, brazen, abominable creatures, invented for the annoyance and destruction of their superiors. Look at this business of poor George’s! It’s all woman’s work from one end to the other.

Robert’s maturation into a responsible adult is certainly the result of women’s interference with his privileged do-nothing existence. They may end up making a man of him, but he clearly resents it, and one way of reading the ending of the novel is that he gets his revenge–which may or may not be heroic, depending on how you read the rest of the novel, especially Lady Audley herself.

My personal hero this week is George Munro, patron saint of Dalhousie’s much-appreciated February long weekend. It has been a tough couple of weeks of bad weather and frayed nerves, so I am happy to have no classes tomorrow. I have tests to mark and reading to do, but neither of these tasks requires me to venture out in the snow.

Recent Watching: House of Cynicism Cards

house-of-cardsI’m not in any position to evaluate how accurately American politics is depicted in Netflix’s remake of House of Cards, but if people even think that Congress and the White House are run solely on greed, ambition, and ruthless back-stabbing, as the show suggests, no wonder voter turnout is so low. The series is one of the most dispiriting things I’ve ever watched — not just because of its relentless cynicism about both human nature and democracy but because it seems to have embraced that nihilistic cynicism so wholeheartedly. Imagine how different the show would be if it wrapped the story of its sociopathic central characters in some irony, or developed their story as tragedy, so that we could be caught up in their rise — as we are with Shakespeare’s Richard III or Macbeth, or with Thackeray’s Becky Sharp — but also see them suffer and fall. Instead, their vicious dishonesty wins them triumph after triumph, while the few around them who so much as raise questions, never mind try to stand for something else, are weak and ineffectual — or just dull. “She did what she had to do,” one character says in Season 2 about another who betrayed him for her own political gain: the show does not provide any alternative narrative, so even if we are repelled watching we have to look outside the box (literally!) to find a critique that goes beyond wishful thinking.

Richard III is definitely an apt point of reference (even the wink-y addresses to the audience, which I know are a carry-over from the original British series, are reminiscent of Richard’s gleefully oversharing monologues). But Shakespeare’s play is about ambition and greed and politics in a way that I don’t think House of Cards is. The show seems to me to reduce villainy purely to spectacle. It was just interesting enough that I kept watching (how far can they go? will they perhaps meet their match, or get their comeuppance?) but it didn’t provoke any serious thought about the issues its plot-lines touch on: unlike, say, The Wire or Deadwood (both of which are much more graphically and disturbingly violent but which reach for insight and explanations — and improvement), House of Cards operates purely at the level of individual malice (or, much more occasionally, good intentions). Francis is also much less charismatic than Richard, which is at least partly the fault of the writers (who often mangle idioms or resort to cliches) but I think can also be blamed on Kevin Spacey’s performance, which (like everyone else’s in the show) seemed extraordinarily limited in range. Most of the characters require at most two facial expressions over the whole series, and since the show is premised on deceit, the dominant one for almost everybody is a kind of grim deadpan stare.

The other inevitable comparison is to The West Wing. I joked on Twitter during Season 1 that I’d need to watch it all the way through (again!) as an antidote to House of Cards, and now that I’ve finished both seasons of House of Cards I don’t see any reason to take that back. Whatever its faults, The West Wing at its best shows recognizably human people struggling to make the messy process of democracy — with its competing interests and different ideologies and, yes, its components of greed and ambition along with its idealism — serve the common good. It works with the clash between what Francis characterizes (self-servingly, of course) as “ruthless pragmatism” and a high-minded commitment to public service. It has a quality of sincerity as a show, and allows for the same possibility in its characters. Where are the people in House of Cards who give a damn about ideas, or about other people, including — crucially, in a show that could be about governance in some deep way — those they are supposed to serve? Where is even the possibility of gravitas? Where is the capacity for real and difficult moral struggle? You might with justice say that these are simply not House of Cards’s concerns: that it’s not that kind of show. And you’d be right — and that would be exactly why, though I did watch it all, I won’t watch it again, whereas the show that gave me the episodes “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or this extraordinary confrontation between an earthly and a higher power is one I’ll go back to over and over.