The Clare Spark Blog

May 23, 2014

Gentleman’s Agreement, Remains of the Day, “professionalism” and “prejudice”

tabudergerechten Who defines professionalism nowadays? In Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), “the Man from Missouri” casts a jaundiced eye on the soporifics offered by the herb-doctor. Should we not be equally skeptical? Should we not be more aware of elite resistance to modernity, a modernity that has elevated and emancipated ordinary people, including Jews, women, and labor from the “professionalism” that turns out to be yet another variant of servitude to the ambitions of arbitrary and irresponsible elites? Where are the social justice warriors when you need them?

After seeing the much-admired movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), I was curious to see how it might have departed from the best-selling novel. It turned out that Moss Hart’s screenplay stuck very close to the Hobson novel; moreover, both novelist and playwright were the children of Jewish immigrants; both married non-Jews, and Wikipedia reports that Hobson’s parents were socialists, while silent on Hart’s parents who are described simply as “English-born.”

It is worth noting that Hobson’s novel, like the movie, gets off to an agonizingly slow start as the hero, Phil Green, searches for an “angle” that will help him avoid the boredom of statistics and worked-over arguments regarding the Jewish problem. So, remembering that he had pretended to be of the working class in prior magazine exposés, in a Eureka! moment he decides to assume a Jewish identity. He is stunned and infuriated by the rejections he experiences and goes on to write a masterpiece of journalistic guilt-instilling that even converts his now-and- then genteel girlfriend away from silent disapproval to “action” in confronting “prejudice”. (Was this an anticipation of “the action faction” of the New Left?)
Peck-Maguire

Both novel and movie carried the same theme: antisemitism was a “prejudice” that was decidedly un-Christian. Such class disdain for “the Jews” interfered with the tolerance advocated by the Founders of the US, and with the internationalism promoted by FDR and his progressive supporters. Hobson’s novel paired anti-Negro racism with antisemitism as if they were variants on the same theme. I wonder if her parents were communists in the 1930s, because the CPUSA famously opposed both antisemitism and racism during the Depression, blaming such Nazi-like appeals to the mob on Republicans. Whatever Hobson’s motives might have been, she brought up, but was non-committal on the hairy question of Zionism and Palestine, a hot and controversial subject while she was writing her big interventionist and daring book. Such identification of “prejudice” with intolerance was an effective strategy for assimilating Jews for it cleared the way for “socially responsible capitalism” and later, the notion of hate speech and political correctness in order to assuage social conflict.

Then I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s postmodern tour de force The Remains of the Day. Like Gentleman’s Agreement, the screenplay stuck fairly close to the letter and spirit of the novel (though it made “Miss Kenton” somewhat anarchistic, a departure from the novel) , and like Hobson’s novel, brought up the question of antisemitism in the British upper-classes (especially in the “Cliveden Set”, manifested in their misguided sympathy with the Germans: “gentlemen” do not abuse a defeated nation, and the Versailles treaty was un-sportsman like.

Powderham Castle/Darlington Hall

Powderham Castle/Darlington Hall

What I have written so far is easily gleaned by the attentive viewer and reader of these important works of art, but they do not address the theme of “professionalism” – a word that is repeated over and over in Ishiguro’s novel. Moreover, the theme of “professionalization” is one major focus of cultural histories that take on the trendy theme of “institutionalization.” What these studies leave out is the observation that hierarchies breed deceit, arguably the theme of Melville’s “Billy Budd.” Postmodernist critics (academics) who have praised Ishiguro’s skillfully wrought novel do not bring up the problem so obviously tormenting “Stevens” the butler of Darlington Hall, perhaps because such an emphasis would cast doubt on their internalized allegiance to their own masters.

This morning’s NPR offering waxed indignant over the Koch brother’s alleged control of economics and related fields in the University of South Florida’s colleges. It was suggested that without such “conservative” bribes, there would be no crisis of objectivity in the university system, as if today’s pacifying postmodern professoriate in the humanities adhered to the search for truth. Click on the illustration below and see what standards evaluate today’s “professionals.”

professionalism

Among the sources consulted:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Z._Hobson
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentleman’s_Agreement
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moss_Hart

April 21, 2014

“Remains of the Day” revisited

dukewindsorwithitlerI saw the 1993 movie Remains of the Day, adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s prize-winning novel, and was appalled by the shallowness of the script (though it was better than most movies for a mass audience), and by the unpreparedness of the novelist to deal with such a momentous period in the history of the British class system. The following internet sources summarize the plot lines and major interpretations of both the acclaimed movie and novel.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Remains_of_the_Day_(film)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Remains_of_the_Day

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazuo_Ishiguro

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Economic_Consequences_of_the_Peace (authored by John Maynard Keynes, made a Lord in 1942).

Sparknotes (no relation) synopsis of Lord Darlington’s character in the novel:

“Lord Darlington is the former owner of Darlington Hall. He dies three years before the present day of Stevens’s narrative. Darlington is an old- fashioned English gentleman who feels regret and guilt about the harshness of England’s treatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. This guilt is compounded by the fact that a close friend of Darlington’s, Herr Bremann, commits suicide after World War I. This event, in conjunction with the dire economic situation Lord Darlington witnesses on his visits to Germany, inspires him to take action. In the early 1920s, he organizes conferences at Darlington Hall to allow prominent Europeans to meet and discuss ways to revise the Treaty of Versailles; later, he invites British and German heads of state to Darlington Hall in an attempt to peacefully prevent the Second World War. All the while, however, Darlington never understands the true agenda of the Nazis, who use him to further Nazi aims in Britain. After World War II, Darlington is labeled a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor, which ruins his reputation and leaves him a broken and disillusioned old man at his death. Stevens always speaks highly of Darlington throughout the novel; he says it is a shame that people came to have such a terribly mistaken view of such a noble man.”

remainsofthedaydarlington

[My comments:] There is no excuse for such carelessness with a crucial period in the history of the West. Hence it should not shock us that one of its stars, Emma Thompson, has supported the movement to boycott Israel. She is not the only confused leftist associated with the movie. Perhaps in spite of its invincible ignorance and even cynicism, the film does demonstrate some of the themes in this website that most interest me:

First, movies rarely capture even small truths about the past; they are directed at a mass audience or at the half-educated moviegoer who has absorbed a touch of class. Thus, viewers are expected to focus on the undeniable spectacle of the stately homes of England, with all their gew-gaws and medieval trappings, set in the calming rolling countryside, far from the madding crowd. Ignored are the working class elements in Oswald Mosley’s British fascism, along with long-standing ties between British aristocrats and Germans of the same class.

Second, the movie demonstrates, through the failure of the relationship between “Stevens” and “Miss Kenton” (beautifully enacted by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson), the dumb loyalty of the servant class to its masters. Hence the touches of sadism and masochism in the interactions between the two protagonists, and Stevens’s humiliation while being dressed down as an ignoramus by an antidemocratic guest of his boss, who has seen the future and it doesn’t work for his outnumbered class.

Why does “Sally” even regret her departure from Stevens? Did she have a repressed, distant, and priggish father, or was the real object of her affections Lord Darlington, an apparently asexual character who functions as a symbol for dozens of other British aristocrats (and their obedient public servants) who appeased the Nazis, and who blamed the rise of Hitler on excessive reparations after the Great War—but not on diplomatic errors and the monarchical coalition that appointed Hitler Chancellor in order to defeat the Soviets and the growing red labor movement at home?

Third, no one should be shocked that Emma Thompson supports BDS. “Sally” calls herself a coward in the movie script (for not leaving her job when her employer dismisses two German-refugee maids—an incident not in the novel). The film makes much of Nazi antisemitism, distancing itself from the British Labour Party and Ernest Bevin, whose postwar conduct was profoundly “anti-Zionist” and heartless. Where did “Sally” get her advanced views on the Jewish question, in contrast to her boss’s impulsive gesture after reading Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s famous rant against Jewry? Was there no strain of literary and political antisemitism in Britain that infested all classes of society? Moreover, the “anti-Zionists” of today take great care to profess their anti-antisemitism, the more to justify their purity in denouncing Israelis for their allegedly nasty “imperialist” treatment of Arabs—exactly the position of the postwar Foreign and Colonial Offices. In real life, Greenpeace member Emma Thompson describes herself both as a “libertarian anarchist” but admits to being a supporter of the Labour Party nonetheless. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Thompson.)

From the Wikipedia description of the movie and novel, it appears that the protests against Nazi treatment of Jews in 1936 were inventions of the screenwriters. I could go on and on (for instance about the implausibly significant American Congressman Mr. Lewis, played by Christopher Reeve, who forgets that he stood up against Darlington’s guests in 1936), but shorter blogs are more likely to be read. By focusing on the fine acting of the cast, viewers, critics, and explicators are missing the deep structures that determined the fate of the British aristocracy in the twentieth century. That should be the focus of our “regret”—not a relationship that was doomed to fail. remainsposter

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