Andrew Sullivan , one of America’s most prolific and admired bloggers, reports (with a generous quote and a link that helped my ratings significantly) that I’m fascinated with THE HELP. Right he is. Maybe it doesn’t take much to fascinate me. But he also quotes another expert who complains that the middle-class white women are portrayed in such a cartoonish way that they don’t really challenge the audience. It easy for everyone to feel different from and superior to them.
In my second post on the fascinating film (linked below), I explain that the cartoonish presentation might be accounted for, in large part, by the fact that these women (who, like all women, if you look closely, have their good points) are viewed through the lens of both their rightly hugely disgruntled “help” and their somewhat snobbish aristocratic friend (Eugenia [Skeeter], the film’s official heroine). It’s the tendency of aristocrats to be too hard on the middle class, although in this case middle-class almost quasi-slavery is, let’s face it, an extraordinarily easy target.
That leads me to Carl’s wonderful, pathbreaking contribution to TRUE GRIT STUDIES, a contribution that could only have been made by a card-carrying Tocquevillian. The novel TRUE GRIT, written by a Confederate or southern aristocrat, is a literary version of what Tocqueville called aristocratic history, an (Homeric journey or) epic that displays virtue and nobility as real and effective. It exaggerates, maybe, human greatness and perhaps slights the limits of heroes’ self-understanding (including the limits of their understanding of justice). (I’ve only read the book quickly, so there might be all sorts of subtle ways of showing those limits [as there are Homer etc.] that I missed.) Meanwhile, the film turns the epic into democratic history, which is all about the futility and self-deceptiveness of human striving in a chance-and-necessity or impersonal, “force-dominated” world. But as even the excellent, aristocratic, Confederate defender of the book [linked by Carl] against democratic [Northern?] nihilism admits, the movie isn’t completely nihilistic. There are jarring and unexpected moments of real heroism, as well as even (maybe) room for grace. The book is surely the more “coherent narrative,” but the movie might be the Coens’ least nihilistic effort ever (as if they couldn’t quite negate all of the Christianity and the Southern Stoicism of the book, and maybe of the South itself.)
The Coens’ all about negating artistic efforts to display the personal faith and personal heroism of the “southern consciousness.” NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, for example, meant to be a chance-and-necessity answer to TENDER MERCIES (consider the Tess Harper character in both films etc.).
So if Tocqueville is right that the partial truth of democracy needs to be corrected by the partial truth of aristocracy to properly appreciate both who we are and what human liberty really is, then lots of political philosophy types need to look to the South more than they have. Tocqueville couldn’t find much to work with there, it’s true: One reason for that, of course, is that the literary energy of the South was consumed prior to that big war by the defense of slavery. Southern literature (and, I think, a more admirable aristocratic consciousness) is a “postbellum” phenomenon.
The reason I’m fascinated with THE HELP is that it takes this consciousness fairly seriously.