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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe

Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe
by Peter Burke
p. 1978
Harper Torchbook Edition

  Although the time period under discussion is remote (1500-1800) the topic covered is one which has seen a lot of action since the late 70s.  In this sense Burkes Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe reads more like an anticipation of much scholarship in this area from the 80s onward, then a definitive statement on the topic.  It's certainly no fault of the author.  The field of "indo european poetics" literally did not exist when Burke was writing, so you can't blame the guy for not being hip to certain characteristics of indo european poetics that seem to united much of the early popular culture of Europe.

   To give a simple example, in Calvin Watkins excellent survey of Indo-European poetics, How to Kill a Dragon,  he describes the common Indo-European feature of descriptive alliteration the "saucy servant" for example.  Burke describes a similar feature as being common to European traditions of recited poetry, but can only speculate as to how this similarity came to pass.

   Burke's task is also complicated by the fact that intellectuals didn't pay much attention to "popular culture" until the German-lead "Discovery of the People" in the late 18th and early 19th century.  Thus, for the earlier periods surveyed in this book, Burke is left with the tools of supposition and guess work.  Burke is more on target when he describes the general themes of Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Like many a diligent scholar of the 60s through 70s, Burke adopts a "structuralist" approach to his subject, first laying down "the structures of popular culture": Its transmission, forms, important themes and events, before discussing how popular culture changed in the later part of the period.  His description of the structures of popular culture in early modern europe is hampered by the lack of primary sources.  I didn't really need a book to tell me that wandering minstrels played a crucial role in transmitting folk songs in the 1500s, nor do I need a professor to elucidate the fact that there was a continuum between religious and popular culture during this time period.

   Burke is more valuable when he describes the two fold change in  Popular Culture which took place between 1500-1800, the first part of this change Burke dubs "The Triumph of Lent" (over Carnival.)  This was a time period where Church authorities- both Protestant and Catholic, took action against the popular festivals which were the hallmark of Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Their actions were grounded in a variety of concerns, from religious to aesthetic, and the Triumph of Lent took place in two distinct phases- the period before the 1650s, and the period after, when the spread of the printing press and economic development made the transmission of their anti-popular culture ideas easier and more effective.  Another way to look at this Triumph of Lent is as an attempt by religious authorities to remove Church rituals from the realm of Popular Culture as well as an attempt to remove pre-Church attitudes and practice from the realm of Popular Culture.  Did they succeed? Yes.

   The second type of change is that brought about by Social Change.  This Social Change is largely attitrubted to the Commerical Revolution of the 18th and 19th century.  During this time, poorer people became wealthier and more literate, which created greater demand for the Popular Culture in circulation. Ironically though it was at this point that the wealthy began to disengage from the masses and their culture.  In that process lay the groundwork for the distinction between "high" and "low" culture, which, in my opinion, continues to haunt discussions of artistic merit down to the present day.  The separation between Popular and "High" art which began to occur in the 18th century almost immediately spawned the counter trend of the "Discovery of the People."

  It is from this counter trend that we derive many of our modern ideas about the value of popular culture.  For example, the "Folk" movement is a direct result of the 18th/19th century counter trend.  Unfortunately, this counter trend focused mostly on collecting existing works of Popular Culture and little attempt was made to conserve older sources, leaving us with the aforementioned lack of primary materials (at least as of 1978.)

  In Burke's description of the upper classes abandoning popular culture in the late 18th, early 19th century one can see the fore-shadowing of our own time period, where intellectuals and the wealthy disparage mass media as being unfit for consumption.  Think of the stereotype of the Volvo with a PBS sticker on the bumper.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Movie Review & Book Review: JANE EYRE AND VILLETTE

Jane Eyre
d. Cary Fukunaga
Mia Wasikowska as Jane Eyre
Michael Fassbender as Rochchester
based on the novel by Charlotte Bronte

by Charlotte Bronte
p. 1852
Bantam Classics Edition
w/ introduction by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

  What's the first rule of adopting a novel by the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen into a movie?  NAIL..THE...LEADS.  I would go so far as to say that a Bronte/Austen joint is only as good as the lead actors.  By that token, Cary Fukunaga (d. of Sin Nombre 2009) really has a good jump out of the gate.  For Jane Eyre he got Mia Wasikowsaka, who was an unfortunate victim in Tim Burton's uninspired Alice in Wonderland.  Victimhood aside, you can see why Burton cast her as Alice and why Fukunaga would leap at the chance to make a 29th version of Jane Eyre: Wasikowsaka is that good.  Likewise, Fassbender is an apt choice as Rochester, and their chemistry, is tangible.

   I've seen critics refer to this version of Eyre as "gothic" but one shouldn't make that reference without mentioning that Bronte's work is steeped in the literary Gothicism of the late 18th and early 19th century.  A most cursory review of the Bronte's biographical details coupled with the time period in which they were forming their writing style, should be sufficient to apprise even the most ignorant modern of the gothicism which is laced throughout the work of ALL the Bronte's. 

  Aside from that, Fukunaga handles the gothic aspect of Jane Eyre as well as can be expected in that he makes a cheesy, clunky back drop come to life through his camera lense.  Jane Eyre is an enduring classic yes, but as a work of literature, it is far eclipsed by Bronte's last work, Villette.  Jane Eyre was published in 1847,  Villette in 1852 and to consider the stories back to back is to see the difference between a young writer trying to establish her place in the literary world by aping convention and a mature, successful writer trying to cement her literary legacy.

   In Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, he does a great job with everything but the very plot devices which make this such an enduring tale.  I.E. the ole crazy wife in the attic plot twist, which is not adequately foreshadowed or anticipated by his straight forward directorial style.  For me, the heart of Jane Eyre is the way that Bronte takes this very Gothic/supernatural scene of the haunted castle and then ties it into the love story between Eyre and Rochester. In that way, the ole crazy lady in the attic is both the most "popular" event in the tale AND the most sophisticated literary device in the novel, and Fukunaga's failure to give a unique spin to that contrast is what prevents this Jane Eyre from being great.  But it is good- and a great date movie.

   After seeing the film I picked up a copy of Villette that my wife has owned since her college days.  The Bantam Classics edition is no Oxford Worlds Classics series edition, but no matter.  You don't need a PHD in 19th century British literature to grasp the appeal of a Bronte Sisters novel- psychological depth of character coupled with precise, realistic observation of scene and social interaction.  In many ways, it's hard to believe that Villette was written  in 1847, so attuned to psychology in a time before psychology was a discipline. (Freud was born nine years after Vilette was published, to give you an idea.)

  I can truly say that the depth of field that Bronte brings to Villette far, far, far surpasses ANY of the 18th century novels I've read in the past two years.  You can clearly see the evolution of the novel as an art form by the progress of psychological sophistication in the protagonist, and by that token, Charlotte Bronte and her sisters represented a real step forward.  It's no wonder their work has proved so enduring over time.

  Here is one thing I wanted to mention: Villette contains a thirty page sequence at the end where Lucy Snowe (main character) is dosed with morphine and instead of sedating her it has an energizing effect, and she basically wanders around time on a heroin high for forty pages.  Not that kind of stuff prim stuff one would expect from a Bronte, and it made me all the more intrigued by the Bronte sisters.  One wonders what experience inspired such a scene.


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