Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Capitalist Universe of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Screenshot 2018-12-27 at 14.49.56

The film’s main character is Stewart from Bedford Falls, New York, who inherits a savings and loan association from his father, and runs into financial difficulty due to the machinations of Barrymore, a representative of Big and therefore Bad Business. Barrymore owns everything in Bedford Falls apart from Stewart’s Savings & Loans. During a meeting between the two, Barrymore mentions they were the only two businessmen were the only two to keep their heads during the depression and presumably this means, to hold sufficient amounts of liquid assets to keep afloat while others haemorrhaged funds and lost everything. It should be noted though, that Barrymore seems to have done significantly better out of the depression, and that Stewart has not only been bested by old money, but all of his contemporaries; his brother is a war hero, one of his best friends from college became an auto parts magnate, etc.

In this way, the film anticipates the television series Breaking Bad, in representing the travails of hypercapitalist men too invested in doing what they do well to make it in the world as the ‘success’ they should have been, while being swept up more in the process of accummulating capital according to some masculine ethic of domination, despite their claims to be doing it for the benefit of their wives or children, who they in fact transparently resent and certainly aren’t above threatening with violence. Stewart does almost nothing around the house but scream at his kids, kick or punch objects, and I don’t think it’s an egregious overreading to suggest that the ending will mark only a temporary improvement on his mood, based on his wife’s reaction to him coming home on Christmas eve.

In all this, the film represents nothing less than the religious imaginary of the bourgeois, especially in their incarntion as ‘small to medium business owner’. despite owning a financial institution, Stewart is a proletarian, put upon by Barrymore, providing the poor working people of bedford falls with a service, rather than inflating speculative bubbles with their money and turning a decrepit building into a mansion just by virtue of having a plucky wife willing to slap up some new wallpaper. The film is a dream of speculative capital redeemed by its putatively collective qualities, as if the negotiation of a mortgage was not a stratified relationship, as if goodwill rather than politically enforced imperatives were what was actually connecting a bank manager with his customers.

More than all this though, is the film’s cosmology. The angel sent down to convince stewart not to commit suicide does so due to heaven being a tiered workplace, with each angel seemingly required to spend a few generations in the lower tier as a guardian angel. Now, i don’t think we get sufficient insight into heaven’s overall functioning to tell whether or not it is capitalist rather than a bureaucracy, preventing one’s charges from committing suicide being the only clear means of advancement we see, but one should note its apparent similarity to Stewart’s building society, a vision of philanthropic capital which can work from both sides of a fundamentally unequal relationship. The bartender ringing the bell on the till and declaring that he’s giving out wings is heavy-handed, but indicative of the profound incuriosity and myopia of bourgeois art. Even in the furthest reaches of the known universe and inthe next life, the extent of their social vision is high-financial capital incentivised in the direction of philanthropy

Brand Modernism and Hemingway’s ‘Torrents of Spring’

Ernest Hemingway’s novel Torrents of Springis not very good. An author’s note at its end informs us that it was written in ten days and if this account of its composition is true, it very much shows. The reason I am choosing to inflict this reading experience on myself is because of my PhD research; my stylometric analysis of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, which involves identifying words which are particular to each author, informs me that Torrents of Spring marks a departure from Hemingway’s usual range of expression, away from words like ‘hell’, ‘bottle’, ‘drink’, ‘hit’ and ‘you’re’, to words like ‘wife’, ‘woman’, ‘happiest’, ‘agreed’, and ‘herself’, words Hemingway does not use anywhere else in his oeuvre. It’s worth pointing out that Hemingway wrote Torrrents of Spring as a satire of Sherwood Anderson’s novel Dark Laughter. How successful it is in this regard I don’t know, what I am more interesting in tracing, is the opportunity Hemingway takes to launch a broadside against the modernist project at large.

There’s not a page that goes by that Hemingway does not satirise the prose styles of either Gertrude Stein (‘Yogi Johnson walking down the silent street with his arm around the little Indian’s shoulder. The big Indian walking along beside them. The cold night. The shuttered houses of the town. The little Indian, who has lost his artificial arm. The big Indian, who was also in the war. Yogi Johnson, who was in the war too’) the more folksy thoughts of Leopold Bloom (‘What is that old writing fellow Shakespear says?’) or the weightier thematising of D.H. Lawrence (‘In some ways the pump-factory had hardened him. His speech had become more clipped. More like these hardy Northern workers’). More than these individual examples however is the broader alienation or discomfort intergral to modern life in industrialised Anglosphere after the first world war, summed up in the persistent refrain: ‘What was it all about? Where was it taking her?’

This is a familiar story underpinning literary modernism’s emergence, and we know well the formal strategies which emerge as a means of containing the modern sensibility, be it fragmentation, referentiality, the drawing on literary antecedents as a guarantor of one’s own fundamental seriousness. And none of these emerge unscathed either. The waitress at the diner to whom one of the main characters becomes engaged is from the Lake District (‘Wordworth’s country’ comes the helpful gloss), for instance.

The culmination of all this comes in Hemingway’s solicitous addresses to the reader which are interleaved throughout the text, about his luncheons with John Dos Passos and how F. Scott FitzGerald’s just been by, and how difficult it was to research the history of Native American tribes in the last chapter and if the reader has a manuscript themselves to drop it by one of the cafés, etc. Subtlety is obviously not what Hemingway’s about here, but it’s an interesting observation on the tension between what the modernist project said about itself and how Hemingway regarded it in practice. Rather than being founded on autonomy and transcendence, it inculcates a cult of the author and whatever mastery they exhibit over their materials. The insular gossip culture of Paris travels as far as Petoskey, Michigan, with factory workers and waitresses trading anecdotes about Henry James’ last words and Ford Madox Ford’s encounters with high society. It is this sublimated, parasocial aspect to the modern that is most noteworthy in Torrents of Spring, and certainly appears to be the most enduring, based on how the vast majority of them are now marketed (‘just think of it, H.G. Wells talking about you right in our home. Anyway, H.G. Wells’). The final author’s note, injuncting the reader to tell their friends about the book if they enjoyed it because of how hard it is to shift units these days, make clear in precise terms what these poses, aesthetic though they may be, are really all about.