I broke a promise inadvertently and then somewhat purposefully. I watched an HBO show. This one stars Steve Buscemi and is full of topless women, sadistic cops and sleazy situations. One scene stands out in my mind this morning.
Jean Jacques Rousseau is a foil for my conservatism, as he stands for the more ugly end of revolution, that which is arbitrarily against human institutions in and of themselves. The romance of Rousseau is about the natural beauty of the unadorned human spirit. This morning over at First Things, RR Reno writes of Rousseau:
Here, I think, we approach deepest appeal of the bohemian mystique. Because Rousseau shamelessly reveals his sometimes “vile and despicable” actions, he shows himself to be just that: shame-less, a person free from psychological bondage to the oppressive and corrupting judgments of others. This tell-all freedom functions as a peculiarly modern form of innocence.
Or at least it functions as a gambit to gain the moral authority of innocence, which involves invulnerability to judgment—and to do so without having to be innocent. If I write a memoir that recounts my romances with transgression in the spirit of proud announcement rather than regret, I’m demonstrating my psychological independence from social norms. I’m outwitting the judgments of others by defiantly announcing my own failures.
There was a scene in the episode of the HBO show that I was watching in which a gangster's moll is trying out new clothes. She stands naked in the mirror as an immigrant woman, newly hired, attends her. This was one of many scenes in which the characters linger overlong in what generally passes quickly in your standard vulgar entertainment. It suddenly appeared to me that the length of the scenes are an invitation for the audience to become that person for that moment which doesn't exist for any other purpose than to embody the basic titillation.
What you can see in this still I was able to capture is the haughty attitude the woman has towards her servant. What can only be seen by watching the episode is the scene in which the moll holds her hands above her head fully naked as the servant stoops at her feet and pulls up a camisole, head bent down in shame at the crotch level of an utterly shameless woman.
Nudity means one thing in private with oneself, another in private with a loved one. But what about nudity in front of an one considered inferior? It is a striking moment of powerful filmmaking to stage such a scene and to evoke the absolute power of one over another. It is a moment of contempt that the audience is invited to savor and one of those commodifying images of women that I find so subversive of our dignity. It is the reason I shield myself from HBO as they move their dramatic series from corruption to corruption according to their tried and true formula - the challenged kingpin surrounded by crime and perversion. This time, Atlantic City during Prohibition.
The characters of the HBO dramatic series are all shameless and innocent by our standards. We in the audience are to understand that they live in a distant and dangerous world in which survival depends on doing dirt. There are no options for their dignity. And so we can manage to ingest all of the 'adult' situations for which their TV-MA ratings are well deserved. All the main characters suffer little from the misery of their predicaments except for the protagonist, who must be ruthless and sensitive at once. It is by drawing attention to the existential suffering of the protagonist that these shows manage to keep the attention in the more lurid offerings. For example, there is not only the haughty nude, but there is a brutal interrogation, a gruesome surgical procedure and a scene showing the results of a lynching.
How this has become an entertainment may or may not speak to a problem afflicting America in general. America is not necessarily in tune with HBO. But I think it's a fair assessment of the attraction to the bohemian - the romance to be had with those who are quick to flaunt social convention, and more particularly the emotion of shame. This is the creation of Hollywood that wins awards year after year, and speaks loudly about the tastes of its critical profession.
It is my hope that this thread of shamelessness will be one of the many that may seem too big to fail at the moment but will eventually collapse. Yet we have seemingly done a good job in preparing a generation to consume that which now commonly goes by the acronym NSFW - not safe for work. There is no irony in that acronym, celebration of the bohemian is antithetical to productive work. When our need to work, which must be invested with meaning and dignity is sufficient, then we will avoid such corruptions, and with any luck we'll see back to Rousseau and find little to admire in the implications of his dirty romance.