Tuesday, November 18, 2008

[outsidleft] Fordlândia: Hubris, Art, Duty

Jóhann Jóhannsson


I am sitting in the former Senate chamber of the former Louisiana State Capitol building, awaiting the next step of jury duty to begin. The Old State Capitol is a recently restored Gothic castle on the lower Mississippi, once famously maligned in print by Mark Twain who called for its destruction due to sheer hubris. Fires and typical Louisiana boondoggles and the natural degradation of grand and beautiful things in hot climates nearly honored our National Satirist's wish, but a proud restoration plaque bearing the name Bobby Jindal, a whip-smart young Governor of Indian descent, former exorcist and plausible Republican challenger to Obama in 2012, welcomes me to its vault of polished wood and stained glass, conscious that the spectre of arch populist Huey Long is watching, though he might bear Sean Penn's drowsy grimace, where I sit and wait to do my civic duty.

This a perfect setting in which to peck out a review of Jóhann Jóhannsson's Fordlândia, an elegant suite of lush string music straddling the austere and the populist. It swoons and swells like it is quietly bolstering for something spectacular to occur, much like my fellow citizens jockeying for aisle seats in this gracious hall, more a chapel than a reasonable place of business.

The back-story behind Fordlândia fits this complicated venue. Henry Ford sought to undermine the rubber cartels of Asia, so he carved out a rubber plantation in the jungles of Brazil. Countless things led to its spectacular failure: the eschewing of botanists in favor of engineers in the planning, staggering setup costs, and the development of synthetic rubber during the Second World War. None of these proved to be more lethal to the project than was Ford's own need to solve a problem philosophically, and Nature's reliable resistance to philosophy.

As I type this, Jóhannsson's slow organ and winds and strings endlessly unfold and refold like the flag atop this building, limply signifying America in the weak breeze. The setting, the music and the congregated duty-pressed strangers has me sat in the closest thing to church in decades.

Ford built Fordlândia as a perfect slice of apple pie out in the jungle: white picket fences, strict Prohibition, 9-to-5 ethical dignity. They had Sousa marches and square dancing in the evenings. The imported engineers braved malaria for this endeavor gladly - you can swallow any man's ideology when a fat pension is at the other end - but the locals revolted. They, like any reasonable people, preferred to toil in the less taxing crepuscular hours, and to drink away the evenings. Jóhannsson's sad orchestra soars over Ford's doomed utopia like a reconnaissance glider, bearing witness to another inevitable replaying of man's folly. The jury coordinator has arrived, offering up the conditions by which we can opt of the proceedings through a tinny microphone. I just heard the first of many "I don't pay taxes for this" that will be voiced throughout the week.

Incompatible with Ford's scripted Americana, the native workers set up an island of bars and brothels upstream, luring the transplanted Industrialists to discreet Third World charms. The rubber trees proved to be just as unwilling to play the game, wilting in tight rows of shoddy soil. Unbeknown to Ford's planners, natives need prostitutes and rubber trees need to grow scattered throughout the jungle. I recognize someone in line trying to get out of jury duty because a nephew being named for him is due to be born this morning. His success in this is as likely as Ford's was in Brazil. Jóhannsson's strings are being undercut by a crying baby brought against its will into this event, while the jury coordinator cheerfully bounces it on her hip.

Never underestimate the resilience of a good plan; my friend waves his release form at me as he darts off to the hospital. The woman in front of me bookmarks her copy of The Audacity of Hope as the instructional film started. The glare from the church-like windows renders the film nearly invisible from my seat. We are told about lunch breaks, our $12/day compensation and the general judicial process. Pens are passed out, and we are informed by the video judge that we should use these pens to aid our recollection of the facts presented during the trial. "The trial is being held in search of the truth," explains the narrator.

The truth I seek is generally a looser one than that of the process in which I am engaged, but then the stakes are more real here. Jóhannsson's velveteen sadness gives the mundane process of paperwork a marked gravity. His string techniques resemble the stretched jangle of his fellow Icelanders Sigur Rós and the protracted melancholy found in the similar work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt; layers of unabashed emotional gauze overlap until the hues become deep as blood, boundless as a dramatic cloud- choked sky. I can imagine a defendant either being set free or hauled off to jail to this music. I can see Ford's hired thugs beating the workers into submission as clapboard houses, Main Street in exile, burn to the barren ground. The higher goal of narrative art is to hover at the optimum height, one where you can see the action on the surface as well as the way the landscape becomes the horizon. In this process, this music, this place, these things converge.

We are released to wait at the library across the courtyard. As with most situations in Louisiana, the servants running the show are adorable and sweet and the served are mealy and atrocious. One introduces herself as "Miss Bobbie" and says that there is a homeless woman that frequents the library that likes to dismiss jurors, so if we don't hear it from Miss Bobbie, we are to stay put.

I love Miss Bobbie and her cheery dedication. The ring on her iPhone is a church hymn. I love that homeless woman, and hope she appears to disrupt the wheels of justice. I love those drunken, whoring natives in Brazil and even old Henry Ford, a little. In mechanizing one's philosophy and greed, the two required ingredients of true hubris, the richness of humanity still rumbles through, wrecking one thing while setting another right. And most of all, I love the way art can soar above it all, the way a stained glass castle will eventually outlive the protests of our greatest cranks, the way history cycles churns through wars and lives and all people great and small, ground everything up to convey just a little context for anyone who might be listening, the way some simple sustained tones working in concert can embody the whole of the world. It is for these things I patiently wait for my opportunity to serve.


Photo of Henry Ford from this article about Fordlândia on Damn Interesting

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