The Humanities and Matricentrism

A remote talk for the University of Winchester, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, 11:30 a.m. New York time, and 4:30 p.m. England time.

I gave a talk (remotely) for the University of Winchester and here’s the nub:

What’s it all about? — novels, paintings, pop culture, movies, musicals? Some say “capital versus labor,” some say “Lacanian mirror theory,” some say “signifier-signified instability.” What if it’s really all about the mother?

The full title of the talk is: The Humanities and Matricentrism: Finding the Mother in Literature, Film, Music, and Theatre.

Inspired by the philosophy and research of Dr. John Diamond, along with many others including anthropologist-archeologist Marija Gimbutas, I will outline ways to find the maternal in works of art.

Favorite Teaching Memories: Hellzapoppin’

In American Film class:

We watched the first twenty minutes of a 1941 movie called Hellzapoppin — a zany, surreal comedy full of slapstick and gags and fantasy elements. Afterwards, a student came up to me and said: “I sat there saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’ I’m still reeling.” He got all excited and had to go investigate the whole film.

So often I tell people about teaching film history, and they say, “Oh, I suppose those young people don’t like the old films.” But the vast majority of my students really do like them — admittedly, often to their own great surprise! (Perhaps they just need the right companionship while watching them.)

Student questions: Why are so many of the great songwriters Jewish?

My students sometimes ask me why there was such a preponderance of Jewish people among the great songwriters of Broadway musical theatre and Tin Pan Alley, the popular music publishing business. (Among the examples are: composers like Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern – and lyricists such as Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Leo Robin, Gus Kahn – the list goes on and on.)

There is no definite and sure answer. Nevertheless, here are some factors.

Jewish people were excluded from so many of the old established industries. Railroads, cotton, tobacco, oil, wheat, beef – all the established big businesses were closed to them.

But show business – as a nationwide big business – was new. Therefore, Jewish people got into Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, and the movies.

Show business was a meritocracy. If you were good, you were employed. The rest of society was still, to an extent, an aristocracy.

Then the prominence of Jewish people in show business became self-perpetuating, because it is always easier to imagine yourself in a profession that somebody in your family is in, or that is found among the circle of friends surrounding your family.

Once you’ve proved your merit, those kind of family and friendship connections also help you remain in a business and become enough of a success to stay in it.

Of course, there are the beautiful traditional melodies of Jewish culture. The characteristic minor mode of many of these melodies contributed to the Tin Pan Alley style. In addition, there may be more specific spiritual or aesthetic reasons, too.

There is the cantorial tradition, which seems important in a way that I cannot pinpoint. Among other aspects, various anecdotes hint that the cantorial tradition overlapped nicely in style (and soulfulness) with African American music.

Also, Tin Pan Alley and film music continued the tradition of tonal music, even while the classical music tradition was abandoning it. (Or so writes Henry Pleasants.) So if you had this cantorial music in you, you would be attracted to music that was tonal – popular music and film music.

Before about 1900, if you wanted to make it in classical music, you had to convert to Christianity, like the poor Mendelssohns, and Meyerbeer, and Mahler.

After about 1900, you could make it in classical music and stay Jewish, like Dukas, Milhaud, Schoenberg, and Bloch. Or you could stay Jewish and straddle pop and classical, like Weill and Gershwin. Or you could stay Jewish and move from the concert field to film music, like Korngold and Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Or you could roost in the pop field, despite classical training, like Kern, Romberg, and Rodgers.

Dr. John Diamond, psychiatrist-philosopher, has outlined how the positive trait of warmheartedness, while found in individuals among all cultures, is notably common among those born into the Jewish faith, i.e. who have Jewish mothers. Perhaps this contributes another factor. Maybe the classical tradition is “cool,” so if you are warmhearted you would be more attracted to the friendly pop field.

A family story, to illustrate the point about show business:

In the early 1940s, while in college, my father was going to invest in a Broadway musical. (He claimed it was Oklahoma!, but it couldn’t have been – he was probably mis-remembering or perhaps just making the story more colorful, as he was wont to do.) An older family member or friend of the family had a sober talk with him, about how that just was not the thing to do. Being involved with show business was shady and disgraceful to a staid middle-class family, of mostly WASP strands and one Irish-Catholic branch that had striven to become, and finally succeeded in becoming, white-collar and accepted by WASPs. It was taboo not because it was associated with Jewish people, but simply because it was not respectable, and had been demimondaine for centuries and centuries. If just putting some money into a show was so taboo, how much more would actually being in the music business or show business! It was a field of endeavor ignored by the close-minded establishment and therefore left available to the open-minded and the outsiders.

It is a point made by Gerald Mast, in his book Can’t Help Singin’, and amplified by various writers since. The field of popular music and entertainment was left relatively open to those who were kept as outsiders in society, like the Jewish, the Irish and Italian Catholics, the Pacific Islanders, the Blacks, and some homosexuals. Only relatively, of course, for indeed one found prejudice and discrimination even within show business and the music industry.