Art and Literature

Comp Lit Tuesday – an almost midweek meditation on — yes, we couldn’t resist — GIRLS

Dear Friends –

To engage or not to engage in the semi-lethargic furor that seems to rotate (whirl is too strong a word) around the continuing controversial success of GIRLS?

That was the question at our house this past Saturday.

One of the reasons the folks at my house are big fans of Comp Lit is that you get to compare things with other things – always fun – and you get to see connections and lineages that you might not see otherwise.

So let’s put Lena Dunham’s GIRLS next to Arthur Schnitzler and see what happens.

Schnitzler was an Austrian Jewish playwright writing in early 20th Century Vienna. He was a good friend of Sigmund Freud’s and he was interested – above all – in writing about sexuality. He was middle-class and very well educated. Trained as a medical doctor, Schnitzler moved in smart, sophisticated, privileged circles.  Rosa Luxemburg, he wasn’t, in other words.  Emma Goldman, he wasn’t either.

He was a strange sort of writer. While not belonging to an officially avant-garde sect — not a Dadaist or an Expressionist – he was in his own way, doing something interesting and unsettling with narrative and with dramatic plays. In both forms, Schnitzler wrote weird, out of sync stories where the plot doesn’t seem to move. Things happen, but nothing changes. We suspect Beckett liked him.

As a result, Schnitzler’s lead characters are often psychologically unattractive, because they are so static.

The case in point is Anatol, the sort-of protagonist of a series of 7 playlets by the same name, involving a young directionless man and the woman of the moment that he is (for the moment only) interested in. Critics have talked about Anatol as a playboy, but the fact is he isn’t exciting or excited enough to be a “player” to use the more recent parlance. He blunders about from one failed relationship to another with his buddy Max keeping the dialogue snappy because Max is witty and likes to make fun of his friend. It goes without saying that the characters are wealthy (enough), white, heterosexual, and never visibly or statedly Jewish.

GIRLS makes a kind of structural sense when we see it as a female version of Anatol, with Hannah playing the title character, and the friends taking turns playing Max. The men are Anatol’s women – disappointing, obnoxious, pathetic, droll, only intermittently desirable, and/or a combination of the above.  This being the early 21st Century, Jewishness is foregrounded, there is a gay white man, a republican black man, and a couple of office workers (and a doctor) or who are people of color stomping around in the background. But really, this is still Anatol’s world of privileged, world-weary Vienna – slightly updated to be Brooklyn.

What is GIRLS doing or saying? Or is it doing or saying anything at all? People wondered the same thing about Schnitzler’s play which has been adapted many times in Europe and here, and was made into a silent film that was one of Cecil B Demille’s early successes.

The fact that HBO is producing work that has a lot in common with Viennese turn of the century theatre is perhaps something worth talking about. That tv in general seems to be working off of forms that derive from the 19th century (melodrama, the novel of education etc) is also something worth talking about.  I just watched the first episode of Revolution and spotted a variation on the Western, which is a variation on the quest romance. And there smack dab in the middle of it all was the guy who played Bella’s dad in the Twilight  movies (btw– am I crazy or is there also a kind of weird post Civil War theme going on in that show?).

In his own weird little way Schnitzler was writing about the impossibility of “realism” to depict what life felt like in 20th Century Vienna. And that we are a collection of “Stimmungen” (moods) rather than having a unified self.  GIRLS may be doing these things as well.

On the other hand, it might be nice to tell, hear, and see a different sort of story.

Welcoming any thoughts you might have on GIRLS, and the questions/problems it raises.

2 replies »

  1. I have only read about, not watched, Girls. (I do not have a TV, here or there. Maybe I will stream it online soon, to see what all the fuss is about.) That being said, this is a great comparison. Hammer, you continue to amaze me with the depth of your knowledge and ability to make connections.

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