Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Periyar, Dravidian ideologues, and Tamil cinema

The imprint of Periyar is visible in the evolution and the trajectory of the Dravidian Cinema, particularly during its most significant period of the decade after India’s Independence when films like Nalla Thambi (dir. Krishnan-Panju, 1949), Velaikkari (Maidservant, dir. A.S.A. Samy, 1949), Manthiri Kumari (Minister’s Daughter, dir. Ellis R. Dungan-T.R. Sundaram, 1950), Parasakthi (dir. Krishnan-Panju, Goddess, 1952), Thirumbippaar (Look Back, dir. T.R. Sundaram, 1953), Rangoon Radha (dir. A. Kasilingam, 1956), and Annayin Aanai (Mother’s Command, dir. Chitrapu Narayana Rao, 1958) redefined Tamil cinema through the work of Dravidian ideologues like C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, Murasoli Maaran, Asai Thambi, and Udumalai Narayanakavi, among others. Nalla Thambi, written by Annadurai, focuses on undermining superstition and the significance of science, particularly through the song “Vignanatha Valarakkaporendi/I will nurture science,” written by Udumalai Narayanakavi and composed by C.V. Subburaman, advocating for health and happiness rather than destruction through (atomic) science in the aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings.

Velaikkari, written by Annadurai, revolves around the predicament of the titular character of the maidservant at the intersection of class/caste and undermines the superstition surrounding faith in the backdrop of the temple as a space of exploitation. Three years later, in 1952, Parasakthi, with dialogues by Karunanidhi, further expands on the dismantling of blind faith by positing temple and the sanctum sanctorum as the space devoid of sanctity as the priest tries to rape a desolate and helpless Kalyani, the unfortunate sister around whom the narrative revolves. Concomitantly, Kalyani’s character also epitomizes the women on the fringes who, though forsaken by the apathetic state and a virulent patriarchal society, refuse to give up their dignity and fend for themselves: Kalyani, who runs an “idlikkadai” or the sparse idli shop/café, is representative of the indomitable spirit of hundreds of such women who dare to survive, despite the constant impediments and threats from men regarding perceived licentiousness of women in public sphere, apart from the harassment of the state and its (corrupt) cops of the small businesswomen/entrepreneurs.

However, coexisting with the trope of the abalaippen or the desolate woman that sheds light on the abandoned and excluded women is the persona of the princess who learns to fence and follows her heart and falls in love with a swashbuckler (Maruthanattu Ilavarasi, The Princess of Maruthanadu, dir. A. Kasilingam, 1950; written by Karunanidhi). The film ends with the newly crowned king who proclaims himself as the servant of the people and announces the end of monarchy and the beginning of democracy. The year after, in 1951, the princess of Maruthanadu transforms into the suffering wife who tends to her sick husband in Devaki (dir. R.S. Mani; written by Karunanathi). 

The titular Devaki prefigures Kalyani of Parasakthi by opening a diner, which later grows into a restaurant. But after recovering his health, when Devaki’s husband suspects her chastity and tortures her, it is Devaki’s sister Leela who brings him to his senses. Leela, played by the iconic Madhuri Devi is a “London-returned” educated woman who boldly refuses her father’s choice of a “suitable boy.” Leela is portrayed as an independent woman with a mind of her own, and her persona/costume reminds us of Periyar’s claims regarding the space of women and their freedom to choose. Leela’s characterization is unique in the Tamil cinema of the 1950s for not mocking but providing agency to a young, bold, and educated/westernized woman.

The year after in 1951, in Manthiri Kumari, Madhuri Devi will play the titular role of the tenacious minister’s daughter in her career-defining role of an indefatigable woman who tries to mend the ways of her wayward and crooked husband. However, during the climactic moment when she senses her husband’s plot to kill her by pushing her down a hill, on the pretext of circumambulating around him, as a traditional mark of respect/the last wish of a wife, she pushes him down the cliff. More important, Manthiri Kumari, which draws from the Tamil classic Kunadalakesi for its climax, ends with a song where the surviving characters sing the praise of her ability to withstand and challenge the machinations and onslaught of patriarchy.

This image of the marginalized woman, despite the class she comes from, is reinvented in Poompuhar (dir. P. Neelakantan; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1964) to address the predicament of the iconic Tamil woman Kannagi who challenges the king for having charged her husband with the theft of the queen’s anklet unjustly. Eventually, Kannagi burns Madurai, the capital of the Pandya king. The film extols the virtue of Kannagi’s karpu/chastity, as in the original epic Silappathikaram, and the closure conforms to the diktats of Tamil mainstream cinema in coopting/appropriating Kannagi’s rebellious spirit as that of the fidelity of the wife of a markedly unchaste husband. 

Here the divergences of the narrative from Periyar’s ideology should be noted, in particular his mockery of the patriarchal concepts like chastity, primarily designed to keep the desire of women, especially those of widows and spinsters, in check. Later in Poomalai (dir. P. Neelakantan; written by Karunanidhi, 1965) the issue of rape is addressed. However, the resilient victim follows and gets married to the perpetrator-hero, thus prefiguring the more nuanced narrative ploy of rape to affirm patriarchy in the adaptation of the iconic Tamil writer Jayakanathan’s famous novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Sometimes, Some People, 1977).

Nyaya Tharasu (The Scales of Justice, dir. K. Rajeshwar; dialogues by Karunanidhi, 1989), adapted from an M.T. Vasudevan Nair script of a Malayalam film (Panchagni/Five Fires, dir. Hariharan, 1986), however, pushes the envelope further by having the protagonist, the activist and Naxalite Bharathi, killing the landlord Paramanandham–the rapist/murderer of a tribal woman. Later, when she is on parole from jail, she is ostracized by society. 

Towards the end, Bharathi is forced to encounter the rape of her dear friend at the hands of the latter’s own husband and his friends. Bharathi has no choice but to kill again, this time her dear friend’s husband, to save her friend from debauched degenerate men—the scale of her dread and violence increasing with the proximity of the perpetrator who, unlike the earlier landlord, is quite familiar. Nyaya Tharasu, although inspired by the original script of Panchagni, which was loosely based on the events from the life of the Naxalite K. Ajitha, the iconic rebel of the 1960s noticeably differs in its climax: the victim of the gang rape in the original is the amiable and benevolent adolescent maidservant of the friend who also helps the protagonist’s bedridden mother. 

The gun in the climax of Panchagni also transforms into a revolver in Nyaya Tharasu: the relative realism of the Malayalam film paves the way for its dramatic climax through the aesthetics of the mise-en-scene and politics of underscoring the class divide.

Nyaya Tharasu could be argued to be topical, yet continuing the legacy, reflexive of the compromises needed for consensual electoral politics by affirming the status quo through the safeguarding of the chastity of the wife-figure. Nonetheless, as I have argued elsewhere (Madras Studios, p.123), the singularity of Dravidian cinema lies in its intervention in mainstream cinema: “Parasakthi was released on Deepavali Day — October 17, 1952. It ran for a minimum of 50 days in all the 62 centers it was released, and in Ceylon, it ran at the Mailan Theatre for almost 40 weeks. 

The huge success of Parasakthi attains significance in the context of the stiff competition Tamil films faced from Hollywood, Hindi, and Telugu films in the 1950s.” The critically acclaimed and commercially successful Parasakthi’s trenchant subnational subtext, which recalls the preoccupations of the Third Cinema practitioners and politically-driven art cinema auteurs, remains unequaled in the mainstream studio-era cinema.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Periyar in Tamil cinema is not restricted to the decade after India’s Independence and could be traced from a much earlier to the later period. As the Tamil cinema historian Theodore S. Baskaran has pointed out, there was the progressive but hegemonic outlook of upper caste (Gandhian) filmmakers regarding the “upliftment” and accommodation of “Harijans” and widows, as emblematized by films like Balayogini (1937), Sevasadanam (1938), and Thyaga Bhoomi (1939) of director K. Subramanyam. 

Parallel to those social-reformist films from the top were the films foregrounding the predicament of the non-Brahmin others from below. Consider, for instance, the authorship of Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan. His balancing act of combining comedy with a social message remains unparalleled in its success in the history of Indian cinema, as exemplified by his role of the lewd Brahmin priest in Uthamaputhiran (The Noble Son, 1940). Through the portrayal of the prurient priest who keeps chasing a Dalit (washer)woman, N.S. Krishnan, known for writing/improvising the comedy scenes with his fellow-actors, questions the stupidity and hypocrisy surrounding purity/untouchability.

Additionally, through the sequence of appeasing the dead parents/ancestors by offerings (thevesam), N.S. Krishnan and his team point to the exploitation at the hands of a priest, who exploits death/grievance in the name of religion and ritual. Thus, Krishnan’s parallel text of comedy directly invokes Periyar and contemporary ground reality even in a period melodrama like Uthama Puthiran, which was inspired by James Whale’s Hollywood version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). It would be worth our while to reread the melodrama-inclined Tamil cinema through the lens of caste, just as Linda Williams has astutely and provocatively read The Birth of a Nation (dir. D.W. Griffith, 1915) and Gone with the Wind (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939)as a/effectively playing the “race card.” 

The specter of caste as it haunts the Tamil psyche cannot be understated. So also, the continuing relevance of melodrama to address issues related to caste and its inhumane oppression, not just in the above-mentioned films of the Dravidian ideologues but also in the contemporary Dalit cinema, spearheaded by Pa. Ranjith

However, the melodramatic aesthetics of the rhetorically driven Dravidian cinema of the 1950s is unique. It uses the sentimentality and excess of melodrama not only to intensify its plot progression but also in its utilization of an ornate/florid style of language that is littered with alliteration, while marking its disjunction with the archaic usage of Tamil in its distinctly Sanskritized and literary form of an earlier cinema. It also uses the pathos surrounding the abalaippen and the melos/music to engage the audiences both with the narrative and its ideologically imbued lyrics, enabling the dissemination and entrenchment of ideas through repetition/reiteration. 

More importantly, it marked its protagonist, the voice of rebellion and sub-nationalism, as the antihero. If the hero of Parasakthi (1952) is shocked and dismayed to be engulfed by beggars on his arrival from the war-torn Rangoon to an Independent India, the protagonist of Thirumbippaar (1953) is a plagiarizer and philanderer who in a drunk and disoriented moment would solicit his own elder sister, prefiguring such a climactic moment in Ritwik Ghatak’s immortal Subarnarekha (Streak of Gold, 1965). 

As the retort of the Dravidian ideologues, Thriumbippaar mocks at Nehru’s response of ‘nonsense” to the secession and autonomy of the Dravidanadu/Dravidian Nation: the hero Parandhaman not only wears the Nehru coat sporting a rose but also keeps responding with a curt “nonsense” repeatedly during significant moments in the film.

The philanderer becomes a cunning scoundrel who abuses and tortures his ingenuous and graceful wife, in Rangoon Radha (1956), which loosely borrows its plot from Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944). 

The manipulative protagonist in the Tamil version not only holds his wife as a captive to his evil designs of projecting her as delusional to the society at large but also, on the pretext of her insanity, tries to usurp the wealth of her family by forcing her sister-in-law to marry him. The scenes surrounding the warding off of the ghost/spirit from the possessed wife offered the space for the (Dravidian) critique of superstition and blind faith and the disavowal of reason/science. 

Thus, one could see a (cinephilia-driven) link between the story writer Arignar Anna’s self-confessed predilection for classical Hollywood, particularly his investment in recycling/appropriating the narratives for their melodramatic potential, and the screenplay/dialogue writer Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s penchant for the specificity surrounding the local, in terms of the discourse surrounding bigamy, possession, etc.

The unprecedented approval and acclaim of the Tamil audiences for films like Velaikkari and Parasakthi had an impact that spilled over beyond the circle of the closely-knit Dravidian ideologues of the DMK (Federation for the Progress of Dravidians), as could be seen in films like Andha Naal (That Day, dir. S. Balachander, 1954), produced by the Congress Party enthusiast/supporter A.V. Meiyappan of AVM Studios. 

Andha Naal, which had the hero of Parasakthi and Thirumbippaar, Sivaji Ganesan playing the dark antihero Rajan further pushed the envelope by marking its protagonist as the antinational Japanese spy, with his locked room and espionage (radio) gadgets for secretive long-distance communication. It is a milestone in Indian cinema in having the hero vehemently challenging the idea of a coherent nation, in the aftermath of the Independence, which, according to him, has led to a dystopia by denying him (equal) opportunity to grow and flourish. His destructive impulse aids the Japanese bombing of Madras, despite his Gandhian wife, who is a Congress party sympathizer, trying in vain to stop his falling into the dark abyss. Unlike in Parasakthi, the intransigent antihero, who is eventually shot dead by his wife, disallows his cooptation into society till the very end. On the other end of the spectrum, the Tamil cultural unconscious’s misogynist strand reaches its fruition with Annayin Aanai (dir. Chitrapu Narayanamurthy; dialogues. Murasoli Maaran,1958). 

Sivaji Ganesan’s dark persona as an antihero is further pushed to the limit in an oedipal drama wherein to honor his (dying) mother’s command regarding avenging his father’s murder by a cruel business partner, he marries the daughter of the murderer and holds him captive right in his basement, thus torturing his wife and her avaricious father and seeking revenge.

Any discussion of melodrama in Tamil cinema would be incomplete without the mention of director K.S. Gopalakrishnan and his canonical films like Karpagam (1963) and Kaikodutha Deivam (The Benevolent Savior, 1964). K.R. Vijaya, one of the rare actresses to have consistently acted in significant roles over five decades in the male-centric Tamil cinema, not only made her debut in Karpagam under Gopalakrishnan’s stewardship but also had him as the director for her 100th film, Nathayil Muthu (Pearl in the Snail, 1973). 

They had collaborated on Kurathi Magan (Kurathi’s Son) the year before. Both these films are significant for naming the (oppressed) caste of the main characters: if the nomadic Narikurava community occupies the center stage in Kurathi Magan, the heroine Chellamani is from the Dalit community and is married to a Brahmin in Nathayil Muthu. Tamil cinema has been notorious for erasing the caste of its characters, particularly if they are Dalits or belonging to other communities on the fringes. 

Although occasionally condescending in tone, Kurathi Magan and Nathayil Muthu openly acknowledge the Gandhian ideals of its maker, for instance, overtly through the song Ragupathi Raghava Raja Ram during the climax of Nathayil Muthu. Nevertheless, the one sung by the “Harijans,” Nillappa Konjam Nillappa, points to the affirmative action policies of the state from 1967 onwards, and the need to avail and grow.

Earlier, the lyricist Vaali also wrote a song, Nanga Pudhusa Kattikitta, where the protagonists, as the newly wedded couple, imagine themselves to be the free-spirited Narikuravas and dance with abandon. The song references their Seerthirutha Kalyanam/reformist marriage, which eschews the traditional (Vedic) rituals and pomp, as advocated by Periyar. Oli Vilakku (The Shining Lamp, dir. Tapi Chanakya) was released in 1968, just a year after the DMK came to power in 1967. 

Vaali’s lyrics allude to Dravidian ideologues’ glorious legacy as poet/lyricists, including the preeminent Bharathidasan, who penned the inaugural song Vazhga Vazhgave in Parasakthi that was a paean to Periyar’s envisioning of the Dravidanadu. Even Tamil cinema’s most famous lyricist Kannadasan, who had a tempestuous relationship with the DMK, celebrated the unconquerable Dravidanadu in his critically acclaimed anti-colonial period drama, Sivagangai Seemai (The Sivagangai Province, 1959): … Veerargal Vaazhum Dravdanattai Vendravargal Kidaiyathu/Dravidanadu, the land of the brave, is unconquerable.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge my own cinephilia and investment in the 1950s and 1960s Tamil cinema, which has helped sketch one of the many possible trajectories of Periyar’s legacy in Tamil cinema and summarize my presentations on the studio era Tamil cinema in many conferences over the last decade. The other major trajectory I am invested in is the ideologically permeated imbrication between the politically driven theater and cinema, particularly in the works of the preeminent Periyarist M.R. Radha. 

Many of his roles on stage and cinema continues to haunt the Tamil psyche, even after four decades of his passing away, as could be seen in every young actor/villain trying to mimic him to varying degrees at key moments. His provocative and controversial star text also adds to his enigma as an iconoclastic rebel. Raththakkanneer (Bloody Tears, 1954, dir. 

Krishnan-Panju) could be argued, despite its misunderstanding and misinterpretation of a debilitating disease, as a profound meditation on oppression and abjection. Based on Radha’s most successful play, written by the Dravidian ideologue Thiruvarur Thangarasu, the film continues to be successful in questioning the status quo and its scathing critique, in the Periyarist mode, of the passivity of the Tamil populace and its indiscriminate acceptance of tradition.

(I am grateful to my friends Prof. Ram Mahalingam for his response, and filmmaker Amshan Kumar, and writer/critic Yamuna Rajendran, Prof. Ma. Senthilkumar, and editor Nizhal Arasu for sharing some of their insights.)


Baskaran, Theodore S. The Message Bearers: The Nationalist Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India, 1880-1945. Madras: Cre-A Publications, 1981. Print.

___. The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema. Chennai: East West Books, 1996. Print.

__. History Through the Lens: Perspectives on South Indian Cinema. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2009. Print.

Chakravarthy, Venkatesh. Suvadukal – Thirai Vamarsana Thoguppu (Part 1). Chennai: Pragnai, 2018. Print.

Eswaran, Swarnavel. “Cinematography and the Poetics of 1950s Tamil Cinema: Maruthi Rao and Visual Style.” Screen. 58.1 (2017): 73-81. Print.

___. Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema. New Delhi: Sage, 2015. Print.

___. “Periyar As a Biopic: Star Persona, Historical Events, and Politics.” Biography. 40.1 (2017): 93-115. Print.

Hughes, Stephen P. “The ‘music Boom’ in Tamil South India: Gramophone, Radio and the Making of Mass Culture.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 22.4 (2002): 445-473. Print.

Kurai, Rajan. Kathanayaganin Maranam. Chennai: Kayal Kavin, 2013.

Manaa. M.R. Radha: Kalathin Kalaignan. Chennai: Uyimmai, 2007. 


Manoharan, Karthick Ram. “The Tamil Villain.” The World of Apu. 10 Nov 2020. Web. Accessed 31 Dec 2020. http://theworldofapu.com/tamil-cinema-villain/

Narayanan, Aranthai. Nagareega Komali: N.S. Krishnan. Madras: New Century Book House, 1992. Print.

Paaventhan. Era and V.M.S. Subagunarajan. Eds. Dravida Cinema. Chennai: Kayal Kavin Publications, 2013. Print.

Pandian, M S. S. “Parasakthi: Life and Times of a DMK Film.” Economic and Political Weekly. 26 (1991): 759-770. Print.

Ravindran, Gopalan. “Rhetorical Bodies and Movement-Images in the 1949 Tamil Film Velaikari (house Maid),” In Deleuze and Guattari Studies, 12.1 (2018): 45-65. Euppublishing.com. Accessed 31 Dec. 2020.

Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.j. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.

Author Bio

Swarnavel Eswaran is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, the premier film school in Asia, and the prestigious film studies program at the University of Iowa. His documentaries include Nagapattinam: Waves from the Deep (2018), Hmong Memories at the Crossroad (2016), Migrations of Islam (2014), and Unfinished Journey: A City in Transition (2012). He is currently an associate professor in the Department of English and the School of Journalism at Michigan State University, and his research focuses on the history, theory, and production of documentaries, and the specificity of Tamil cinema, and its complex relationship with Hollywood as well as popular Hindi films. His books include Manudamaum Mandiyiduthalum (Parisal, 2019), an anthology of essays on cinema and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015). His fiction feature Kattumaram (Catamaran, 2019), a collaboration with Tamil’s cinema’s leading director Mysskin, is currently on the film festival circuit.

(Source: The Periyar Project)

Monday, 11 January 2021

How a specially-abled bangle seller became an IAS officer

 There is nothing under the sun that one cannot touch the pinnacle of success with individual talent. At any time, life can change and all one can do is to set goals high and to march towards it each day of life. 

Nobody could know it better than Ramesh Gholap. The 2012 batch IAS officer who started in life as a bangle seller and now nine years later, posted in Jharkhand as Joint Secretary in the Energy Department. Ramesh also known as Ramu faced a lot of ups and downs in life. But that’s didn’t stop him from becoming what he is today, as he told The Better India

The story of Ramesh Gholap will surely inspire you in many ways and let’s go through his journey. 

His father Gorakh Gholap ran a cycle repair shop, enough to provide an income for his family of four, but the business did not last long as his health suffered from constant drinking. He passed away when Ramu was still in school. 

Began selling bangles with his mother

It was then that Ramesh’s mother Vimal Gholap started selling bangles in nearby villages to support the family. And though Ramesh’s left leg was affected by polio, he and his brother joined their mother in her little venture. Ramesh and his brother would yell out loud, “Bangde ghya bangde (Buy bangles!),” and their mother would help the women try them on. 

Became a teacher after graduating 

Ramesh is from a remote village named Mahagaon in Barshi Taluka, Solapur district of Maharashtra. There was only one primary school and Ramesh went to stay with his uncle in Barshi for education. Despite thriving in academics in school days, Ramesh did a Diploma in Education as it was the only course he could afford. He didn’t stop there and also pursued a graduate degree in arts from an open university and in 2009, he became a teacher. 

Went to prepare for UPSC exams

Seeking inspiration from a tehsildar he had visited during his college times, Ramesh wanted to be one too. After his mother borrowed some money from a self-help group, Ramesh quit his job and went to Pune for six months to prepare for UPSC. 

He told The Better India, “The first teacher who met me was Mr Atul Lande. I requested him to write down the answers to a few of my questions, like what is UPSC, can it be taken in Marathi, am I eligible for it, etc. And he told me there was nothing to stop me from taking the UPSC. It is only because of that one statement that I finally did it.” 

Ramesh tried for UPSC exam in 2010 but he did not qualify then. 

As per a report by The Logical Indian, Ramesh cracked State Institute of Administrative Careers (SIAC) exam, which offered him a hostel and a scholarship. To meet his daily expenses, he painted posters besides focusing on studies. 

Now, he is joint secretary in Jharkhand's energy dept

Finally, he cracked the UPSC examination with an AIR of 287. After a few months, his MPSC results were also out where he topped with the highest-ever marks of 1,244 out of 1,800. At present, Ramesh plies his trade as joint secretary in Jharkhand’s energy department. 

“Whenever I cancel the licence of a PDS shop owner who has been black-marketing kerosene, I remember my days when I had to turn off the lantern for lack of kerosene. Whenever I help a widow, I remember my mother begging for a house or for her pension. Whenever I inspect a government hospital, I remember my father’s words when he had left drinking and just wanted better treatment. He would ask me to become a big man and take him to a private hospital. Whenever I help a poor child, I remember myself, I remember Ramu,” he told in an interview with The Better India.

(Source: India Times)

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The unreality of time

 I was listening to an episode of the BBC podcast In Our Time, on which a group of English scholars was discuss­ing the French philosopher Henri Bergson, when one of them mentioned an essay called “The Unreality of Time,” originally published in 1908, by a philosopher named John McTaggart. The phrase startled me—I was writing a book called The Unreality of Memory. It’s possible I’d heard the title before and forgotten I knew it—as the scholars note, it is a famous essay. (“Is forgotten knowledge knowledge all the same?” is the kind of question we asked in my col­lege philosophy classes.) In any case, I had never read it. I paused the podcast and found the essay online, curious what I’d been referencing.

McTaggart does not use “unreality” in the same way I do, to describe a quality of seeming unrealness in some­thing I assume to be real. Instead, his paper sets out to prove that time literally does not exist. “I believe that time is unreal,” he writes. The paper is interesting (“Time only belongs to the existent” … “The only way in which time can be real is by existing”) but not convincing.

McTaggart’s argument hinges in part on his claim that perception is “qualitatively different” from either memory or anticipation—this is the difference between past, pres­ent, and future, the way we apprehend events in time. Direct perceptions are those that fall within the “specious present,” a term coined by E. R. Clay and further devel­oped by William James (a fan of Bergson’s). “Everything is observed in a specious present,” McTaggart writes, “but nothing, not even the observations themselves, can ever be in a specious present.” It’s illusory—the events are fixed, and there is nothing magically different about “the pres­ent” as a point on a timeline. This leads to an irresolvable contradiction, to his mind.

Bergson, for his part, believed that memory and percep­tion were the same, that they occur simultaneously: “The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devour­ing the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” He thought this explained the phenomenon of déjà vu—when you feel something is happening that you’ve experi­enced before, it’s because a glitch has allowed you to notice the memory forming in real time. The memory—le souvenir du présent—is attached not to a particular moment in the past but to the past in general. It has a past-­like feeling; with that comes an impression one knows the future.


Bergson was hugely popular in the early twentieth century. He was friends with Marcel Proust—and married to Proust’s cousin—and his ideas influenced many other Modernist writers and artists. He is less well-­known and celebrated now in part because of a years-long debate with Albert Einstein over the nature of time. Bergson believed that “clock-­time” and what he called capital-T Time—time as we experience it, a lived duration—were en­tirely different. It was this other kind of time, time in the mind, that interested Bergson. Einstein thought this was poppycock. “Il n’y a donc pas un temps des philosophes,” he said on April 22, 1922, at an infamous lecture in Paris: There is no philosophers’ time. Einstein felt his theory of relativity was the final word—time is what clocks measure, in their own frames of reference—and that Bergson did not understand the theory. Einstein thought the separation of time and space was dead as a concept, that he’d killed it. He was wrong—we still think of time and space as differ­ent, even if we grasp relativity. Nonetheless, many took his side, and it did lasting damage to Bergson’s reputation.

Philosophers and physicists still speak of the specious present. “The true present is a dimensionless speck,” Alan Burdick writes in his book Why Time Flies. “The specious present, in contrast, is ‘the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible’ ”—he quotes James. The specious present, Burdick adds, “is a proxy measure of consciousness.” It is what we think of as now. Not the gen­eral now, as in “the way we live now,” but right now.

And how long is now? In an eight-­minute YouTube video with over one million views, called “What exactly is the present?,” the physicist Derek Muller attempts to explain. According to Muller, engineers working on the problem of syncing video and audio in preparation for the first live television broadcasts found that viewers didn’t ac­tually notice if they were a little out of sync, but there was “an asymmetry”—the sound can lag the video by up to 125 milliseconds before people notice something’s wrong, but if the sound leads the video by more than 45 milliseconds, they know it’s off. Of course, sound and “video” aren’t synced in the real world either: When we watch someone walk down the street, away from us, dribbling a basketball, the sound takes longer and longer to reach us, but we still perceive the bouncing sounds and the bouncing visuals as simultaneous. That’s because “now” is not a speck but a span, of about a tenth of a second. During that interval, Muller says, “your brain can perform manipulations that distort your perception of time and rearrange causality”—syncing up the audio and video, like a live broadcast on a slight delay. It’s as though your brain takes in the infor­mation and processes it a little before you do. 

Researchers have exploited this discovery to fool people into thinking a computer program can read their minds, that it knows what they’re going to do before they actually do it. We’re capable of perceiving an effect before we realize we’ve caused it.

The neuroscientist David Eagleman has said, “You’re always living in the past”—meaning not that the past haunts us, though it does, but that what we experience as the present is in fact the past, the very recent past, the just past. In a way, then, time is memory—not clock-­time, perhaps. Not Einstein’s time. But human time is human memory.


I started writing The Unreality of Memory in 2016, in what seemed like a state of emergency. In the months leading up to the elec­tion, I was following reality like it was TV, as though every day ended in a cliffhanger. There was something addictive about Donald Trump’s incredible rise—incredible in the original sense, unable to be believed.

This profound sense of unreality reached its culmina­tion on the night of the election. Earlier that day, I’d felt light on my feet, optimistic—I risked jinxing it by purchas­ing proleptic champagne. I remember the moment, late into the night, when a win for Hillary Clinton had become vanishingly unlikely, though not technically impossible. John and I were watching the returns come in on his lap­top, and stress­-drinking, though not champagne—that stayed in the fridge. We watched a newscaster nervously talk through the maps showing Clinton’s last outs. John turned and looked at me in horror and said, “He’s going to win.” A bottomless moment.

In the summer of 2017, I spoke on a panel called some­thing like “Art in the Age of Trump.” One writer on the panel insisted that the role of the artist is empathy; with an air of limitless patience, he suggested writing a story or a novel from the perspective of Donald Trump—to at­tempt to understand him. I felt a portion of the audience grow increasingly restless and frustrated. One man cried out, “There’s no time!” I recognized the note in his voice, a note of urgency unto panic.

That panic, for me, has mostly passed. It has not passed for everyone—not for trans people I know, or for immi­grants and the families of immigrants. But as scared as I am of the future, I must admit that for now I’m fairly safe, even comfortable. When news of another school shooting hits—the word “another” seems inadequate—or when I read calm, measured reporting of slowly progressing disasters like ice melt in Antarctica (or, or … I hate these placeholder lists of atrocities), I’m disturbed—logically I’m disturbed. I recognize the facts as disturbing, though what’s no longer shocking or even surprising can verge quite horribly into boring. I still find Trump evil, but I no longer find him interesting. And I still have to work (how can it be so, that I have to waste my life this way, when the world is ending?), eat, sleep, and start over again. I move through the days in a flux of anxiety and denial. But that fear in the background changes things. It changes how I make decisions. I can’t say how long this relative safety will last. It feels like a suspended emergency—like the specious present has been extended in both directions. Now feels longer.

Is the world ending? Which end is the end? For a while I told people, facetiously I suppose, that I was writing a book about the end of the world. Once at a family lunch, my aunt asked me what I was writing about, and I said I was writing about disasters. “What about disasters?” she asked, and I wasn’t sure how to answer. My mother stepped in with a much better elevator pitch: “Isn’t it more about how we think about disasters?” My own thinking, at least with regard to the disaster—the end—has shifted. To be clear, I do worry that civilization is doomed. (The word “worry” seems inadequate; I almost wrote “believe.”) But I’m not sure the doom will occur like a moment, like an event, like a disaster. Like the impact of a bomb or an asteroid. I wonder if the way the world gets worse will barely outpace the rate at which we get used to it.

I don’t have faith that my sense of history, from here inside history, is accurate, or that the view through the rickety apparatus of my body is clear. Eagleman notes that “most of what you see, your conscious perception, is computed on a need-­to­-know basis.” We ignore what our brains—independently!—deem unnecessary. There is no other self, to tell yourself what to do. The German bi­ologist Jakob von Uexküll had a term for what animals pick up on in their surroundings: the Umwelt. The Umwelt is always limited by the organism’s equipment, by its imme­diate needs. Eagleman, explaining Uexküll’s ideas, writes: “In the blind and deaf world of the tick, the important signals are temperature and the odor of butyric acid. For the black ghost knife fish, it’s electrical fields. For the echo­-locating bat, it’s air-­compression waves. The small subset of the world that an animal is able to detect is its Umwelt. The bigger reality, whatever that might mean, is called the Umgebung.” The Umgebung is the unknown unknown, the unperceived unperceived.

There’s the matter of perspective, and there’s also the matter of scale. A young poet I know noticed that I often write about the self watching the self. He quoted an es­say in which I wrote that I fantasize in the third person, connecting this to another piece, which mentions Robert Smithson’s earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty. “Do you think land artists moreso desired their work to be experienced within (standing on the rocks, beside the hole) or from above (via camera, airplane)?” he asked me in an email. My mind spiraled off. It’s very hard for me, I told him, to be “present in the moment”—I’m always going meta, narrativ­izing, thinking about what I’m thinking about, imagining the future—and then in my specious present, I’m com­paring what is happening to what I had imagined would happen, my souvenir du présent to my memoire de l’avenir. I didn’t say that Smithson didn’t mean for Spiral Jetty to be seen at all, or at least not for long—he built it when the water levels in Great Salt Lake were unusually low: a comment on ephemerality at epic scales. Finished in 1970, the jetty had disappeared by the time he died, in 1973, in a plane crash while surveying sites for a new piece. It stayed hidden for thirty years. Since 2002, drought has kept the water levels low, so it is now usually visible. The ephem­erality doubles back: The design exposed, it’s Smithson’s intention, human intention, that’s ephemeral.


I’ve grown tired of reading about disasters. Friends send me links, and I click them and skim halfheartedly. One article, published just after the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was partially destroyed in a fire, references the so­ciologist Charles Perrow’s 1984 book, Normal Accidents, which notes that safety systems increase the complexity of technology, inevitably leading to unforeseen errors, which can be catastrophic. The Chernobyl meltdown was trig­gered by a safety test. (In 2019, HBO made a series about Chernobyl, but I didn’t watch it; I’m tired of disaster mov­ies.) Another questions the slippery use of “we” in writing about climate change, as in “We are emitting more carbon dioxide than ever.” “The we responsible for climate change is a fictional construct, one that’s distorting and danger­ous,” writes Genevieve Guenther, a writer who founded a volunteer organization called EndClimateSilence.org. “By hiding who’s really responsible for our current, terrifying predicament, we provides political cover for the people who are happy to let hundreds of millions of other people die for their own profit and pleasure.” It provides cover, in other words, for the giant corporations, like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP, that are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Report revealed that a hundred companies account for more than 70 percent of those emissions. “Always remember that there are mil­lions, possibly billions, of people on this planet who would rather preserve civilization than destroy it with climate change,” Guenther writes. “Most people are good.”

That sentence gives me pause. “Most People Are Good” is also the name of a country song I hate: I believe this world ain’t half as bad as it looks, the guy croons in the chorus. The more I think of it, the more I disagree. I don’t think most people are good, or bad, for that matter. I think people are neutral. From a distance, they look almost interchangeable. It seems to me that “good people” can become “bad people” when provided the opportunity within an existing power structure—to claim and exert power at a deadly cost to others and get away with it. It is not an act of empathy for me to say that Trump is not inherently evil, but “we” have created opportunities for him to be evil. To say that most people are powerless—that evil is a role. In some novel I once read, one character reminded another that a “revolution” is simply a turn of the wheel; it doesn’t break the power structure, it just changes who is on top. I think about that all the time. I think about these lines from an Ilya Kaminsky poem: “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?” We, you and I, are not corporations, but we do give those corporations godlike power. “They” is a dangerous construct, too. There’s no one to dismantle them but us.

I recently read my friend Chip Cheek’s novel about a honeymoon gone wrong. It starts off feeling escapist—the publisher clearly marketed it as a beach read—but it turns into a kind of apocalypse novel. It’s about what ruin really looks like; there are consequences for the couple’s immoral (and stupid) behavior, but in the end we’re de­nied the pleasure of an all-­out catastrophe, the realization of what Sontag called our “fantasies of doom,” our “taste for worst-case scenarios.” The novel is set in the fifties, but even period fiction written now is climate fiction, I real­ized; it’s always on some level aware of what we’ve reaped. The storms have levels of foreboding.

My research into past disasters—the plagues and the almost nuclear wars—was often oddly comforting. We’re still here, after all. But I can only take so much comfort in the past. This point in history does feel different, like we’re nearing an event horizon. How many times can his­tory repeat itself? It’s generally accepted that our memories are fallible—that they’re missing information, that they include new details we’ve simply made up—and that over time they are less and less reliable, as we keep rewriting the inaccuracies. We’re more trusting, though, of what we take to be our direct experience, our experience of the present. I’m drawn to Uexküll’s idea of the Umwelt; like a tick or a bat, we only know what we know. I’m drawn to Bergson’s idea that perception and memory are coterminous. It sug­gests that we don’t experience reality as it is, and then warp it in recall, but that even the first time we live through X, we are already experiencing our warped version of X.

(Source~: The Paris Review)

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

The myth of self-reliance

 There’s a treacherously placed bookstore in my neighborhood. To go almost anywhere from my apartment, I have to pass Walden Pond Books, and it’s next door to my usual coffee shop, so even if I didn’t decide to go in on the first pass, I probably will on the second. Many of the references in my own book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, are ones that I encountered here, in books like Braiding Sweetgrass, Spell of the Sensuous, and The Genius of Birds. The influence is so strong that when I see my book at Walden Pond, I think of it as a mushroom that grew in the store.

This past October, I found myself in the store looking at a 1990 Vintage Books edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. Not having read much Emerson before, even as an English major, I was quickly drawn into his writing about time and perception: nature was a “mutable cloud, which is always and never the same,” and the task was to “[detect] through the fly, through the fly, through the caterpillar, through the grub, through the egg, the constant individual; through countless individuals, the fixed species, through many species, the genus; through all genera, the steadfast type, through all the kingdoms of organized life, the eternal unity.” There was an acid-trip quality to it that I both recognized and admired.


Reading Emerson’s essays did not feel like reading other books. Later, when I tried to describe the experience to a friend, I asked, “Have you ever read a book that made you feel, like, drunk?” Emerson’s aphorisms are forceful, his cadences dizzying, his appeal to individual will seductive. Normally I am an orderly, chapter-per-day kind of reader, using up a pack of Post-it flags and then typing up the important quotes later. But my copy of Emerson’s Essays has only one Post-it flag, in the introduction by Douglas Crase (an Emerson quote: “It seems the one lesson which this miraculous world has to teach us, to the sacred, to stand aloof, and suffer no man and no custom, no mode of thinking to intrude upon us and bereave us of our infinitude”). After that, I lost my bearings. I was always just somewhere in the book, underlining and circling, hunched over, my face too close to the page.

I had been primed for Emerson’s vision of transcendence. A month earlier, I’d taken my yearly trip to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, just north of Monterey, California. My ostensible purpose was to see the migrating shorebirds—including the sandpipers whose murmurous flocks contain more than a little of the transcendental—but it was also just to recover and hear myself think. I had never been much of a public person, and I’d been caught off-guard by the publicity around How to Do Nothing. I was soon buried under the pile of obligations and opinions that followed. At times, it felt like I no longer knew what my book was about, or what it was that I actually thought. I felt desperate for some kind of clarity.

After roaming the hills at Elkhorn Slough until the preserve closed at 5, I decided impulsively against going straight home. Instead I drove due east and, even though it was 100 degrees and I’d already been walking all day, started up a steep trail near Fremont Peak in San Juan Bautista. I was propelled by more than mere curiosity; I was trying to leave something behind. There was an unforgiving quality to the dry and tree-less hillside, with a hot wind that drew a rasping, rattling sound from the pods of alien-looking milk vetches. Both literally and figuratively, I felt I was gasping for air. When I reached the top of the trail, the sun was beginning to set on the Diablo Range across the valley, casting it in an otherworldly shade of purple. I was filled with a volatile mix of emotions. Sweat evaporating, I wrote in my notebook that “the pain I feel is the will trying to act” and that “the real self, let out of the cage, doesn’t want to go back in again.”

The “will” I wrote of was not exactly mine; it was an artist’s will, an out-of-range frequency to be listened for with great effort. Emerson’s Essays addressed and galvanized this self-as-listener, especially in “The Over-Soul.” I felt drawn to his theological model of self-abandonment and visitation, not unlike the way the writer Simone Weil described love and attention, or the way the painter Agnes Martin would wait, alone for days and weeks, for a vision of perfection. Emerson writes, “The soul gives itself, alone, original, and pure, to the Lonely, Original, and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads, and speaks through it.” I recognized my own longing for absolute clarity, my own breathless hike, in Emerson’s description of an “ascension of state,” where “[w]ith each divine impulse the mind rends the thin rinds of the visible and finite, and comes out into eternity, and inspired and expires its air.”

“The Over-Soul” is my favorite essay, but Emerson is better known for “Self Reliance,” that famous paean to individualism. This is the one where Emerson declares that “[w]hoso would be a man must be nonconformist,” and disdains society as “a join-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” Again, the writing is seductive. For anyone adrift in the world, it is reassuring to hear that “[n]othing can bring you peace but yourself,” or that mental will can triumph over fate. It can really be this simple: “In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.”

I was far from immune to this essay. I underlined “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” But the more I looked back on it, the more I began to wrestle with the essay’s blind spot. I didn’t immediately see it, because the blind spot was also my own.

The wrestling started when I went home for Thanksgiving. My family gatherings are small: my parents, my uncle, and I gather in my grandmother’s house, which is part of a community of small houses for the elderly. This year, as soon as we walked in the door, I was confronted with a dilemma. My mother immediately joined my grandma in the kitchen, whereas my dad went down the hall to a room where my uncle was sitting. When I asked my mom if they needed help in the kitchen, she shooed me away, so I headed down the narrow hallway to hover on the periphery of a conversation about the upcoming election primaries. This division will be all too familiar to many: women working in the kitchen, men talking politics in the next room.

As I leaned awkwardly against the wall because there wasn’t a third chair, the conversation continued as if I weren’t there. My gaze wandered over to an interesting tableau across the room. Resting on a shelf was something I’d never noticed: a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that favorite novel of libertarians. The main character is an uncompromising, iconoclastic, and self-made modernist architect who shared Emerson’s disdain for society and certainly followed his advice, to “suffer no man and no custom, no mode of thinking to intrude upon you and bereave you of your infinitude.”

Next to The Fountainhead was a careful pencil drawing of a black-headed gull in a frame. After staring at it for a few moments, I finally recognized this drawing as my own. I wondered why I would have drawn my grandmother a black-headed gull, an East Coast bird that I’d likely never seen, and then realized that I had drawn it years ago, before I had become a birder. I had likely been looking for a pleasant and generic subject for a drawing, googled “seagull,” and drawn one of the results, without distinguishing among them. (There’s technically no such thing as a “seagull,” only different kinds of gulls.)

Unexpectedly, everything congealed in that moment: the different rooms, the drawing, The Fountainhead, “Self Reliance,” and the critiques I had seen of How to Do Nothing. Just as I had studiously reproduced the form of the gull without knowing what it was, I saw that I had absorbed from my family and my upbringing a specific brand of individualism, valorizing and transmitting it unknowingly. I’d done this throughout my entire life, but especially in How to Do Nothing. Around my favored versions of contemplative solitude, so similar to Emerson’s, a whole suite of circumstances appeared in full relief, like something coming into focus. The women in the kitchen made the mens’ conversation possible, just as my trip to the mountain—and really all of my time spent walking, observing, and courting the “over-soul”—rested upon a long list of privileges, from the specific (owning a car, having the time), to the general (able-bodied, upper-middle-class, half white and half “model minority,” a walkable neighborhood in a desirable city, and more). There was an entire infrastructure around my experience of freedom, and I’d been so busy chasing it that I hadn’t seen it.

Just the night before, I had watched Astra Taylor’s Examined Life, a series of interviews in different locations with contemporary philosophers. While the documentary’s other subjects appear alone, Judith Butler takes a walk around the Mission District of San Francisco with Sunaura Taylor, an activist for disability and animal rights. Taylor was born with arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair. At one point, Butler says, “I’m just thinking that … nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk outside of ourselves. And that maybe we have a false idea that the able-bodied person is somehow radically self-sufficient.”

Taylor, whose condition affects the use of her hands, tells Butler about the time she lived in Brooklyn and would have to sit in a park for hours psyching herself up to get coffee alone. “In a way it’s a political protest for me to go in and order a coffee and demand help,” she says, “simply because, in my opinion, help is something that we all need.” After they stop into a vintage store to get Taylor a sweater because it’s gotten chilly, Butler revisits this story:

My sense is that what’s at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency. And I think, you know, when you walk into the coffee shop … and you ask for the coffee, or you, indeed, even ask for assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question, do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs? And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal, individual issue or your personal, individual issue? So there’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup. And hopefully, people will take it up and say, yes, I, too, live in that world … in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs. And I want to organize a social, political world on the basis of that recognition.

This conversation came back to me in that little house at Thanksgiving. My grandmother, otherwise healthy, had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After we all assembled in the living room, she showed me the medical alert device (also known as a “panic button”) hanging around her neck, and pointed to a small console in the corner of the room that would contact my parents if she pressed the button. Weeks earlier, she had fallen in this same living room and, unable to move or reach the phone, lay on the floor for many hours until my dad came by for his regular visit.

My immediate reaction to her story and to the button was one of terror at the contingency of the whole thing. It made my grandma seem uniquely dependent. But as I reflected on the panic button in the context of Butler’s “challenge to individualism,” it began to look more like an advanced, concrete version of an interdependence that we each bear in some form from the moment we are born. If my grandma was now hanging on by this particular thread, it simply highlighted the many other threads that keep us all aloft. It was also an intense physical illustration of the way that freedom is constrained by factors outside of one’s control—the very “wheel of Chance” Emerson thought we could afford to ignore.

In 1930, James Truslow Adams, the writer who coined the term “American dream,” wrote an essay called “Emerson Re-read,” in which he tried to account for why Emerson’s essays enchanted him as a youth but felt hollow for him as an adult. This image of independence just feels too easy, he says, noting that “economic evils trouble our sage not at all.” Adams suggests that Emerson’s self-reliance was part of an optimistic current in American thought that went hand in hand with material abundance and westward expansion. Indeed, “Self Reliance” was written five years before the term “manifest destiny” was coined, an era that celebrated the lone, able explorer setting out to tame a (supposed) wilderness. The contemplative tradition has often been supported from the outside, a hallmark of the affordances of leisure—the way that philosophy in ancient Greece was dependent on a servant class. The concept of self-reliance has always relied on something else.

None of this is to say that “Self Reliance” isn’t useful as a model of refusal and commitment. In his own time, Emerson was an outspoken opponent of slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the removal of Native Americans from their land. In our time, we could surely use the reminders to examine our relationship with public opinion and to maintain a sense of principled intuition. The best version of Emerson’s individualism is bracing, like a splash of cold water to the face, or a friend shaking you by the shoulders in order to snap you out of a daze. But for me, as for many others, everything outside the self fades away too quickly in “Self Reliance”: all of the people and circumstances that have influenced my experience of independence, my conception of my self, and even the very terms with which I think. It hides the losses that appear as my gains. And by placing the will so high above circumstance, it projects an untruthful image of equal opportunity in which the unfortunate should have just tried harder.

The tensions between agency and situation, between the individual and the collective, have never been easy to resolve. I’m trying to learn to live in the messy space between. Here, you can be both your own and not your own, responsible to communities without exhibiting the dreaded groupthink, and bound by one commitment: to examine your commitments, forever. Sometimes—many times—I’m wrong. And when I am, that is a time for listening to others, not for “keep[ing] with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” I’m reminded of an archaic form of the noun “reliance,” where it means the opposite of a dependent; a reliance was someone on whom you depended. When I examine my identity, I do see an inalienable spirit grasping for infinity. But in the very same place, I also see an intersection of historical and cultural vectors, held up by a web of countless reliances.

Emerson’s writing contains a version of the self-not-self paradox, even if it’s with eyes directed upward and inward, not outward. After all, besides “Self Reliance,” the other thing he’s most associated with is the philosophy of transcendentalism, which can entail a transcending of the self as much as it does transcending society. This is the stuff that made me feel drunk, where the boundaries of the self are breached in a meeting with something else. In “The Over-Soul,” “[o]ur being is descending into us from we know not whence … I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.” In “Circles,” the universe is “fluid and volatile”; the soul “bursts over that boundary on all sides”; and the heart “refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.” In “History,” an individual is not a single entity but “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world.”

When Emerson writes that “[t]houghts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and … go out of minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened,” it almost sounds like he’s describing that day at Walden Pond Books, when the Essays found their way into my unsuspecting hands. I think of my book-mushroom growing there, the “flower and fruitage” of my encounters so far. It’s a story that belongs both to me and to my reliances. I will keep coming back to the store, retreating to the mountain, having conversations, sitting alone, tracing a path that is more a spiral than a straight line. And hard as I might work, I will be anything but self-made.

Source: The Paris Review)

Monday, 4 January 2021

The forgotten female action stars of the 1910s

 Even before women won the right to vote, a slew of films from the early-20th century featured heroines who chased danger and adventure.

A city editor orders an armed female reporter to chase down a con man and “get the story.” A railroad telegrapher seeks vigilante-style justice against two robbers who attacked her. An adventure-seeking heiress outruns a giant boulder Indiana Jones-style … decades before Harrison Ford was ever born.

In the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

The actress Ruth Roland in an advertisement for the serial Hands Up in 1918 (WIKIMEDIA)

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called “serial” or “chapter” film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic. The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and 1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released, totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says, is its “extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.” Protagonists exhibited traditionally “masculine” qualities like “physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.” Then, by the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called “serial queens,” disappeared.

What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process—a phenomenon that helps explain why today, even after women have shattered so many cultural barriers, action movies still continue to be dominated by male stars.

To understand what happened in the 1910s, it’s necessary to put the emergence of the serial film into context. During this period, two film formats jostled for dominance: what we’d now call “shorts” and “features.” But short films weren’t labeled as “short” at the time—they were simply the industry standard, and were usually described by their length (in number of reels). Features, meanwhile, were the newcomers, with higher production values, more ambitious plots, and greater production costs. Serials were something of a bridge between the two formats. Each episode in a serial was the length of a 15- or 20-minute short film, but over several weeks, a serial could tell a more complicated story.  

Serials focused on women action heroes from the start, possibly thanks to the format’s tie-ins with magazines and newspapers, which aimed to draw female readers because they were attractive to advertisers. In 1912, Thomas Edison’s film company teamed up with Ladies’ World magazine to put one of the earliest instances of a serial film, What Happened to Mary?, into print. This example of cross-promotion would continue as other “chapter films” were serialized in newspapers. The Chicago Tribune printed the story of The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913) while the film episodes played in theaters. (Incidentally, Kathlyn was the first film serial to have a narrative thread that continued from week to week instead of relying on the same leading character to provide cohesiveness.)

The focus on heroines seems also to correlate with the film industry’s fascination with the “New Woman.” “She wore less restrictive clothes,” the film curator Eileen Bowser notes, “she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries.” 

The proliferation of women in all areas of the film industry during the 1910s—not just as actors, but as screenwriters, theater managers, gossip columnists, film producers, and directors—reflected the increasing number of women in the American workplace, and also the efforts of the vocal and energetic women’s suffrage movement. It’s important to note however, that the abundance of serial-queen films in the 1910s wasn’t caused by women producers or directors pushing for them; the female stars of these movies often provided ideas and sometimes directed, but for the most part, serial films were written and directed by men.

In 1914, a breakout year for the category, the actress Mary Fuller played a daring reporter in The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies. The same year, Grace Cunard appeared in Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery, which was billed as the “Most Sensational Series of Pictures Ever Produced … AEROPLANES—LION—TIGERS—CANNIBALS—SHIPWRECKS …” Also in 1914, Pearl White, perhaps the best-remembered serial queen of all, made headlines as the fearless heiress Pauline Marvin in The Perils of Pauline, and Helen Holmes began her stint as the brave railroad telegrapher in The Hazards of Helen, which went on to become the longest-running serial, with 119 episodes over six years.

A clip from a 1916 episode of The Hazards of Helen exemplifies the heroism on display in “serial-queen” films. In it, Holmes, the railway telegrapher, battles vagrants, who’ve caused her to lose her job, atop a moving train. She spies them from a distance, makes her way across beams suspended above the tracks, jumps onto the moving train, grapples hand-to-hand with one of her antagonists and falls into the water with him. In the end, she gets her job back.

Perils of Pauline, which established White as one of the era’s most popular stars, features a different kind of bravery: one in which the lead character pursues her explorations to the point where she has to be rescued—usually by her beau, Harry. Over the course of the series, White (in the title role) is set adrift in a hot-air balloon and kidnapped on horseback by bandits. In an episode titled The Goddess of the Far West, Pauline charges down a steep hill to avoid being crushed by a massive boulder hurtling behind her, like Indiana Jones would do in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark nearly 70 years later.

Harry lassoes her out of the way in the nick of time. But make no mistake, it’s Pauline, not Harry, who carries the show. Although she’s bound and gagged and subjected to every sort of danger, her agility, resourcefulness, and strength are constantly on display as she runs, jumps, tumbles, fights off villains, or burrows her way out of a cave. The challenges she faces are the result of her own desire to push the boundaries, and she returns in each episode, unharmed and eager for her next adventure.

Though these serial queens are rarely remembered today, in their time, actresses such as Grace Cunard, Gene Gauntier, Ruth Roland, and Kathlyn Williams all boasted their own devoted followings. White’s enthusiastic audience of all ages and genders voted her as one of their top three favorite actresses from 1916 to 1918 in a Motion Picture magazine survey. Her fandom was also global: She was particularly beloved in France where she was seen as the incarnation of the “athletic, good-natured young American girl,” and she inspired spin-offs as far away as India, where the actress known as “Fearless Nadia” channeled “Fearless, Peerless Pearl” in her movies for the producer Homi Wadia.

Unfortunately, the celebrity of White and her cohorts would be short-lived. Serials like The Romance of Elaine and A Daughter of Uncle Sam adapted to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 by introducing plotlines featuring German saboteurs and spies as villains, with women starring in patriotic roles. But by 1919, after the war had ended and women had won the vote, serials and their female stars faded from popularity. The action heroine didn’t really make the transition to features. Or if she did, then as now, it was only in sporadic titles.

World War I also sparked a seismic transformation in the American film industry. Previously, the United States had been just one of several nations that produced and exported films. While the war crippled its European competitors, the U.S. film industry, now firmly based in Hollywood, succeeded in flooding foreign markets with its product. Movie-making became a big American business, and expensive-to-make features were Hollywood’s calling card.

Serial films were, like short films, demoted to a cheaper, less prestigious B-genre. The once-plentiful mom-and-pop production companies couldn’t compete with new studios that could finance and distribute large slates of lavish features, and serial queens, along with a legion of female directors and producers, also found themselves out of work. By the late 1920s, the movie business, which had once been relatively welcoming to women at all levels of the filmmaking process, now relegated them to only a few behind-the-camera roles, such as screenwriter or costume designer. Those who directed, like Dorothy Arzner in the late 1920s to the early 1940s, were in the minority, and no women headed major studios.

As movies became big business, filmmaking became more of a boy’s club, and women were pushed to the sidelines, with their disempowerment behind the camera reflected by female characters’ shift away from action roles. This persists to some extent today, even though, as movies like last year’s Mad Max and Melissa McCarthy’s Spy or the Hunger Games franchise show us, there’s certainly an audience out there for female-driven action movies.

So why do the 2010s lag behind the 1910s in terms of a robust body of films with female action leads? No doubt, industry experts could pull out a formula filled with box-office returns to explain and justify this. But perhaps looking to the past provides an equally compelling, if less intuitive, answer—that when women flourish in all aspects of the filmmaking process as they did during the early days of the business, when the current massive gender imbalance in the industry is corrected across the board, the conditions will be ripe for female action heroes to once again take over the big screen.

(Source: The Atlantic)