Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Splitting -Rails- Hairs

Full Disclosure: this blogger is going to a nearby boutique cinema (iPic Theaters at The Domain) tomorrow to see "Lincoln." Further Full Disclosure: this blogger attended only a single meeting of the Rock Island (IL) Civil War Round Table in 1966 and discovered that he didn't know squat about The War of the Rebellion/War Between the States. So, this blogger will see the film without a personal fount of knowledge: tabula rasa. The sole clinker about the film, thus far, is that the film script was inspired by the plagiarizer Doris Kearns Goodwin. If this is (fair & balanced) Teabagger conspiricist thinking, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Lincoln Uncompromised
By Adam Gopnik

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Universal praise goes, rightly, to the Spielberg/Kushner/Day-Lewis “Lincoln”—though the exasperating American habit of praising the director as though he wrote the words, took the pictures, and applied the actors’ makeup and the spirit gum that holds on their (in this instance, sometimes very stagy-seeming) beards, persists. What directors do, as actual directors know, is to inspire the actors—often as much by silent trust as by specific instruction—and lead the team. All praise to the much-sainted Steven, then, but let us add a few words about, well, Lincoln’s words, so perfectly imagined and recast by Tony Kushner, and so perfectly inhabited by the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who in his last few roles has been acting on some other plane than any we have been familiar with before. (Though has anyone mentioned that his voice here—not high really, so much as a clear tenor and firm—as well as his gait, is uncannily like that of James Taylor?)

The best scene in the picture, from this doubtless prejudiced perch, is the one in which Lincoln explains why the anti-slavery amendment to the Constitution, in spite of apparently duplicating the Emancipation Proclamation, is essential. It’s a tortuously ornate courtroom argument, written fearlessly by Kushner in all its complexity, and delivered by Lewis at what in lesser hands might have been tedious length. The point is that, in Lincoln’s view, the Southern rebellion is not just wrong but manifestly illegal: the Rebels have no more actually seceded from the Union than a bank robber can declare his secession from the laws against bank robbery. Rob a bank and you’re still a crook, no matter what you may say about it; put a Confederate army in the field, and you’re still a citizen of the United States, just one who happens right now to be shooting at your fellow citizens and burning down their houses. This means, Lincoln argues, a little paradoxically, that the laws of the South as they existed in their pre-war state still apply and must be respected—since if one doesn’t respect them, or acts as though some fundamental breach or disjunction has actually occurred, then you undermine the whole premise of the absolute argument, which is not that secession is wrong and should be undone, but that secession has never actually taken place, because it cannot. Therefore, the amendment is absolutely necessary and supersedes the Proclamation—which has been justified as the militarily necessary seizure of contraband “property.” If Lincoln is right, then the slaves are still slaves despite the Proclamation, unless the amendment is passed.

It’s a tricky lawyers’ argument, and in a certain sense ignores the way winners make up the laws, as the winner makes up justice for the losers. It was, ahem, the theme of my 2009 book, Angels and Ages, begun in these pages as an essay about Lincoln’s language, that for Lincoln the law was the lingua franca, the heart and the spirit, of his life. He made that kind of close legal argument, ornamented by bald plain speech, the sound of liberal rhetoric. (Kushner and Spielberg, too bad, couldn’t slip in one of the best scenes from the negotiation with the Rebel commissioners, who play a big part in the film. One of the commissioners said, intending to underline the absurdity of Lincoln’s absolutist case, “You mean that we are rebels according to your view of the case and we are all guilty of treason and liable to be hanged!” Lincoln replied, simply and coolly and in a manner not even unfriendly: “Yes, that is so.”)

There is another side to the film that needs some airing, though. The movie is inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much and justly praised Team Of Rivals [2005]. But good books often cast strange shadows, and Goodwin’s account of Lincoln’s enormous instinctive shrewdness in managing his stroppy cabinet of prima donnas has been confused with the idea that Lincoln’s genius was for conciliation and compromise. This leads, in turn, to the notion that Lincoln was a kind of schmoozemeister, reaching out across the aisle, a sort of Tip O’Neill on the Atkins diet. It can’t be said too often, or too clearly, that the whole point of Lincoln is that he—and the Republican Party he then represented—marked the end of the policy of conciliation and compromise and cosseting that had been the general approach of Northern Presidents to the Southern slavery problem throughout the decades before. When the South seceded, Lincoln chose war—an all-out, brutal, bitter war of a kind that had never been fought until then. “Let the erring sisters go in peace!” the editor Horace Greeley recommended, and Lincoln said, “Lock the doors and make them stay.”

A rational case can be made that this was mistaken, or even immoral. A friend, himself no ally to racism, God knows, wrote after seeing “Lincoln” that the real question is “whether he would have embarked on the Civil War had he known that its toll would have been so unfathomably great.” And, the details of Fort Sumter aside, it was a war for the North to make. The South did not seek to conquer the North; it merely sought to withdraw. It was the North that acted like some deranged abusive husband: “You’ll never leave me, not alive!” How, my friend asked, could the slaughter that followed provide an object lesson in the glory of democracy? Many quavers and objections might be raised to the above: if any one side had been the provocateur, it was, after all, the South; more important, secession from the Union would have involved the unwilled secession from all hope of the black population of the South. Still, any honest account of Lincoln’s life and its meaning must turn honestly not around conciliation and its joys, but around confrontation and its horrors, even when the confrontation is necessary and the horrors can be seen as honors. Spielberg and Kushner attempt to raise the question of confrontation, in the visual language of the movies, simply by having Lincoln, unhistorically, actually tour the battlefield of Petersburg, with the dead bodies all still gory and in place.

And the right answer, the plausible answer, remains that of the Gettysburg Address: that what was at stake was not just Unionist self-aggrandizement but the idea of government by the people (the male ones, anyway), itself, and by act and implication, as the movie demonstrates, thereby the ultimate end of slavery. Slavery was always the question, and to insist that, had the South seceded in peace, its peculiar institution would have vanished on its own is to suppose an inevitability in history that history never provides. (I am always reminded, in this instance, of the final absurd title card in the Kubrick-Douglas “Spartacus,” which explains that though Spartacus’s rebellion failed, it pointed the way towards the eventual abolition of slavery—which indeed happened, about two thousand years later.)

In any case, the liberals in Europe did look at the American experience and say: that’s exactly what we want—the great John Stuart Mill first among them. Both the Reform Act, in Britain, and the rebirth of the French Republic in the 1870s, drew direct inspiration from the demonstration of the power of democracy in America to end slavery and keep itself intact. Mass death and mass dying seem no barrier to moral envy, as we might recall if we remember the Greatest Generation mania of the nineties. Wouldn’t Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” with its brutal images of mass slaughter on the Normandy beach, have told you that so much death and dying might not have been worth any prize, especially given that by that point Hitler was not about to cross the Atlantic? Instead, everyone looked at it and said, why can’t our generation be less prosperous and peaceful (and lecherous), and more like theirs, dying face down in the surf! They were heroes, it’s true—but we are right to recall that heroism has a real, not a rhetorical, cost. Lincoln was an uncompromising man who sponsored violence on a hitherto unimaginable scale; that he paid the highest price himself for the noble but hugely costly morality in which he believed is one of the things that makes his story still so fateful and, in its way, uncompromised. Ω

[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA from McGill University. Later, he studied at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.  In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011).]

Copyright © 2012 Condé Nast Digital

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