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CounterPunching Arthur Miller on Tennessee Williams’ Death Date
Special Note: It would be an asset to have Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire under one’s belt in reading this, but if one doesn’t insist upon getting each reference/all coloring…there should be plenty to chew on here.
"If it’s true that there’s no solidarity worth speaking of and none’s been possible for quite some time, what are all those political websites doing, Rich?"
– The Ox’s unhooked-up Euro cousin
"They’re really like people who complain about a lover asking for advice. You give direction…and, then, they don’t follow it. They remain in the embrace of the abuser. It’s as if they’re in love with complaining. If you’re a relative, and they’re complaining about a family member, not a lover, the whole process can drag you down too."
– Tennessee Williams touching upon how blood can be the basis for the worst kind of bathos.
My father served in the WWII Seabees with Buddy Newman, the boy that Arthur Miller’s (Death of a Salesman) Biff was based on. ‘Cause they kept in touch, I always had a soft personal spot in my dramatic heart for Art. And it gave me blue moon entree to the great playwright from time to time. But Marilyn’s ex-to-be once suggested that Ten was primarily interested in passion and ecstasy, the reality in the spirit in lieu of "reality in the society." He thought that Williams’ interest in the South’s sociology was limited to not wanting Philistines with brutality and unfairness. And that made me take a step back from AM. For years.
He deserves very special attention, especially so hard on the heels of his passing February 11, way beyond his sweet dramatic treatment of dark desires and hidden agendas. For reasons other than his consistently gorgeous stance vis-a-vis capitalism, corruption, etc. His paving the way on Broadway.
But the closest he’ll get to the wheel in my hotrod is the shotgun seat. The guy who drives me, moves my soul is sad, mad Tom from St. Louis.
And on February 24th…the anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ NYC death from a bottle cap in the Hotel Elysee (1A), I’ll have a chance to spend a little time in my mind in the backseat of that vehicle…that never runs out of gas.
I wrote two pieces (1B) immediately following Iris Chang blowing her brains out around the corner from me on Highway 17th on November 9, 2004, but I don’t do obituaries as a rule. Not straight-up ones that dwell where the money is. ‘Tis a sordid activity, or it can be…that business of hanging on to the recently deceased with the interest of a Princess Diana fan.
No, Ten deserves much better. Much better than the Miller rap, and much better than the pandowdy pap that passes for praise.
The long line of Tennesse Williams characters who try vainly to plant elegance and refinement in soil that is too coarse begs for celebration. And it calls for left acknowledgement. For more reasons than the sociological slant which Miller imposed on Williams’ outlook affords. For that anti-Philistine phenomenon is precisely what we’re up against in facing left folderoll. The useless ornaments that are festooned alongside so much of the very best of left online offerings exist…because Stella Kowalskis (2A) have taken over editorial judgement.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Ten created Blanche’s sister/Stan’s sister-in-law, in part, so that there would be a bridge between two diametrically opposed worlds. But there are some fierce struggles between relations that cannot be reconciled.
And that’s the case with individuals like Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair trying to house irreconcilable differences under one roof. I choose Counterpunch as an example ’cause they’re more difficult to criticize than most…considering their fine efforts/accomplishments. Most others would be far too easy to poke holes in. AC and JStC deserve respect regardless of how readers may differ with them on this or that.
But…to get back to the constructive criticism: Advancement is simply not encouraged if one tries to accommodate writers ranging too far from one another on the political insight spectrum. Not talking about leftishness on the spectrum here; I don’t expect to see Common Dreams fare on CP, and I don’t. The problem can only be seen from an oblique angle that goes undiscussed; hence, we have a difficult challenge.
To wit, articles like Alison Weir’s "Russian, Israel and Media Omissions" (2B) don’t belong on the same page as Gary Leupp’s "Meanwhile in Nepal…." (2C) Why? For one, the former covers material we’re unlikely to come across elsewhere in a general survey of sites; it’s valuable, heady stuff…well-documented…that holds some promise –however unlikely– of someone doing something with it; it’s pregnant with potential. The latter Leupp offers no such legup. And, worse, it makes a suggestion that’s either quite disingenuous or…quite ignorant. In an effort to put down Fukuyama and Huntington –two soulless souls who do deserve a tweak or two– the Tufts prof proffers the notion that we should put the discussion of capitalism vs. communism back on the table.
That’s about as appetizing as Bob Avakian’s hairdo. (3A)
Such talk will only lead to…talk. Maoism, placed on a pedestal of sorts –which is what Leupp does– will come to nothing. Maoism is not on the move. Worst case scenario reveals a spotlight on it actually moving us backwards. And that’s because THERE’S NO TIME to provide the easy praising of communal living against the backdrop of the obvious evils of capitalism. I mean, not in light of what another Counterpunch piece was hawking recently (3B): Gary Braasch’s World View of Global Warming website reminds us that the dialogue which has been so in fashion in academic circles throughout my lifetime –the debate re commies vs. capitalist pigs– has to take a back seat to direct action. (3C) Just like I do when Tennessee Williams drives the buggy.
And editors the world over have to get behind getting off the horse they’ve been riding on, and charge into town with a new look…in their eyes (pony’s nostrils flaring real advocacy journalism!).
It’s not elitist to make such distinctions as I have here; dissent does not equal doing. To point out that there’s a fine difference between Mitch and suicidal Allan (the young spouse Blanche danced with…before Streetcar’s action proper). Mitch, resisting, is of the moment, but the tortured Allan represents only…a void…a regret…the past. And to avoid falling into the mental (clap)trap that says talking rebelliously (crying) is revolutionary, one must point out such niceties. (3D)
I am not posing as Director of Relevance for Political Thought online. I’m not interested in playing Bill Owens to any left writer’s Ward Churchill. But readers with the sensitivity of a Blanche might detect a glaring light on the web that makes them recoil, and consider my thesis. To wit, there’s too much exposure to too much on the internet. And nothing comes out in the wash.
The Slapstick Tragedy we are living signals the end of the line for political romantics who think we can continue to go back and forth with gorgeous, literate treatments of subjects…which go nowhere. The Milk Train don’t stop there no mo’. Just like the characters in Camino Real who had to keep on the move…to retain their way of thinking, leftists progressing from one piece to another stay busy enough to not notice that we’re now merely huddling "together for some dim-communal comfort." That’s what’s passing for solidarity "on this terminal stretch of road that used to be royal." (3E)
When I look at articles like Ross Gelbspan’s "People’s Ratification Of The Kyoto Global Warming Treaty" (4A) which describes how a small group is attempting to launch a nationwide signature-gathering drive to pressure political representatives to do the right thing, I’m reminded of how incompatible that is with other pieces which have appeared on the same site…which insist that we don’t have the time to play that game any longer. (4B)
The Independent’s "Apocolypse Now" piece (cited in footnote #4B) is diametrically opposed in spirit to articles like David Cromwell’s "Fears For A Finite Planet," which ask readers to address the problem by writing to…The Independent!!! (5) What gives here? Are we, or are we not facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions? You’d never know what’s the case picking up on the mixed messages put forward on Michael Albert’s site. Contradiction 101. And you’d never know anything was very amiss judging by the ZNet Home Page (6), which makes sure to spotlight the Parecon Section (highlighting the editor’s book) at the top…while placing the Ecology/Science Section (with the words about our imminent catastrophe!) at the very bottom. Catastrophe 101.
In the above Gelbspan article (from Grist Mill, by the way), he keeps repeating the mantra: "What on earth is a person supposed to do?" Eventually, he answers: It may be a long shot. But it’s the best shot we’ve got." He’s talking about his worldwide petition to pressure politicians there.
Excuse me, but it’s not the best shot we’ve got. And we’re not gonna find out what that might be as long as editors are trying to work it out so that Stella, Stanley and Blanche can live together. These contributions are creatures of different orders, contradictory perspectives.
In a story that TW sketched out in 1940 (which evolved into The Night of the Iguana), he describes characters who "were condemned to live beneath the same roof with relatives whom they could only regard as monsters." (7)
One cannot simultaneously accommodate articles that look fondly upon flag burning as protest against U.S. Imperialism and pieces that discuss the niceties of reform within the public school system…which will ALWAYS insist upon saluting. Not in good conscience.
If left writers really took a good look at what’s above and below them on the various sites…which list a diarrhetic stream of contributions for progressive consideration (and took the time to think about the differences therein), they’d surely find monsters aplenty. Then it might dawn on many…exactly what they’re involved in. And some might…act…differently.
Fidel Castro –very few know– wanted Tennessee to go to live in Cuba and write about the revolution. (8) What even less numbers know is that he almost did.
On the 22nd anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ death, I can do him no greater honor than to underscore that he was made of great compassion, and inspired compassion among others…in the face of fighting terrible personal demons. He wasn’t quite what Miller thought he was, and very little like what the general public still thinks.
It stinks that the passions of progressives are being bandied about as if there are no boundaries to be drawn. Like Mitch in the last poker-playing scene of Streetcar (staring down at his hands on the table, defeated), we seem destined to realize too late the beauty of vulnerable voices crying out to be heard…begging for understanding…screaming for us to separate ourselves from the insensitive. Not acknowledging the destructive environment that we live in…with people we have gotten too used to having around us…hovering over us with arrogant arms folded, fingertips dripping with animal fat from Stanley Kowalski’s butcher.
Or with equally inappropriate stances.
As a member of the audience, I’d like to see the real life play doctored up a bit. I’d like to see Mitch take Blanche by the hand and walk out of the French Quarter, turning their backs on the (blood-relation) beasts. Then, perhaps, we’d get down with a different denouement. (9)
We are not intellectual specialists. While different forms of oppression have hidden from men the fact they are in essence free, the engaged writer reveals to them their freedom and participates in their liberation.
Tennessee may have failed with respect to part of this Sartrean sentiment, but he’s got a lot of company. (10) Doesn’t he?
For me, there’s a strangeness amidst the kindness of compassionate leftist writers. But, like I said, my driver’s not dead. He keeps me on the road.
RICHARD OXMAN has submitted this piece a few days before Williams’ death date, so that some readers will have time to forward it to influential others at various academic, cultural, theatre, political, etc. websites and beyond. For the purposes of distributing it widely. He asks readers to forgive his presumption, but he’s got no time to do so. He looks forward to hearing from contacts made and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1A) NYC Pathologist Dr. Michael Baden suggested there was something very suspicious about the position of the bottle cap in Tennesse’s mouth. And, as can be found in Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers (Paul Morrissey is quoted on p. 303), there were such accusations leveled. Respecting the notion that Williams had been murdered…police were asked to reopen the case ten years later.
(1B) The pieces will be linked shortly; I can send them to readers now, however, upon request.
(2A) The glaring contrast and fierce struggle between the two worlds of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois are two main themes of Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Stella’s character was created to enable those two worlds to meet. It is a character inclined, but unable, to serve as a link for both worlds.
(3A) This should be taken at face value. I’ve written some positive things about the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party before, and my present reservations aren’t relevant here, aren’t necessary to indulge in at this juncture. First things first.
(3C) The immediate (personal/local/cheap) variety, not the kind that comes from building a movement…in solidarity with numbers which don’t and can’t exist…across vast expanses…at great expense.
(3D) In Sartre’s Literature and Existentialism (Secaucus: Citadel, 1972) — in the last section of the book ("For Whom Does One Write"), p. 135, Jean-Paul points out that the modern writer from Flaubert to the surrealists is a contradictory "rebel, not a revolutionary," who serves as an "accomplice" for the bourgeois classes. Barthes notion that political writing reinforces the police state is too complicated to discuss here, but the fact is that just complaining, in general, and just describing with a broad stroke…is not going to give a stroke to The Powers.
(3E) The words of Marguerite Gautier in Camino Real.
(7) Ronald Hayman, Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is An Audience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 181.
(8) Kenneth Tynan, Right and Left (London: 1967), pp. 333-336.
(9) People have to stop demanding full-blown scenarios respecting what’ll happen if…. By getting rid of what is undesirable, one opens up various possibilities. On a personal basis. Short of left outlets slimming down with a radical focus (instead of slumming with muckrackers in general), solidarity will not be waiting in the wings. This is arguably one of the most radical theses being advanced among the left today, and I’d like to see the word spread to the appropriate departments on college campuses, radio stations, print publications, etc. Most left writers –so busy with their careers and/or unknowingly reinforcing the very status quo about which they are complaining– are not even familiar with the work of Adorno, Sartre and Barthes; in particular…the writings that provide ideas about what constitutes critical art.
(10) Arthur Miller did NOT fail in this respect.
RICHARD OXMAN’s recent writing can be read at: www.SelvesAndOthers.org