Sunday, May 27, 2007
Some further observations:
This book is surprisingly quite dark too in its outlook on human nature. It is, as they say, utterly unrelieved by humor, and very little happens to the hero that is not in some way a mortification to his sensibility.
The conversations in the book are uniformly unnatural.
(Illustration: This is a picture by an artist named Rowlandson titled The Man of Feeling. While this particular scene does not directly refer to the novel, it was painted during the period of the book's popularity and it seems not unlikely that the title of this comedic drawing is in some way a play on that very earnest and sentimental work. It also seems to me to reflect something of the spirit of that time that I have always found genial.) There is an interesting passage on the nature of the poetic versus the more material(?) soul, which is relevant to the present, when pragmatism rules the day to such an extent that serious thinkers seem to be skeptical that such a thing as the poetic soul genuinely exists, and is not simply a pose intended to secure the poseur some refuge from or excuse for his failure in the challenges of economic and social competition in which he has no chance of success.
"Jack, says his father, is indeed no scholar; nor could all the drubbings from his master ever bring him one step forward in his accidence or syntax: but I intend him for a merchant...Tom reads Virgil and Horace when he should be casting accounts; and but t'other day he pawned his great-coat for an edition of Shakespeare.--But Tom would have been as he is, though Virgil and Horace had never been born, though Shakespeare had died a link-boy...'Tis a sad case; but what is to be done?--Why, Jack shall make a fortune, dine on venison, and drink claret...Tom shall dine with his brother, when his pride will let him; at other times, he shall bless God over a half-pint of ale and a Welsh-rabbit..."
There is one extremely pitiful scene where a farmer fallen on hard times is evicted from the tenancy where he has lived and toiled all his life. His old dog is unable to make it out of the yard, but drops dead upon reaching the spot where he was formerly wont to bask in the sun. The modern reader is more likely to find it hilarious than affecting.
As in all these old books, there is a generous amount of fainting among the characters. I have seen one actual person faint in my entire life, when I was eight years old (this incident took place at the historic Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1978. I vaguely recall that it was provoked by an explanation of colonial medical practices, which gives even this modern instance of this curious phenomenon an 18-century origin).
The man of feeling expresses some angst over the conquests and activities of the British nation in India. His objections are not argued with much manly force in opposition to the dominant-type males who drive the engines of history, but I suppose they are consistent with the attitudes of this once-neglected class of character.
I do not know that I have ever read a book that collapses so utterly as this one does at the end. With five pages to go MacKenzie, in the guise of the editor of the man of feeling's posthumous papers, announces that the remaining chapters are not really worth printing, being more or less the same as what preceded, and that "a few incidents in a life undistinguished, except by some features of the heart, cannot have afforded much entertainment". Three pages later, the man of feeling expresses his desire to "meet death as becomes a man...a privilege bestowed on few" (he had already been ill as a result of failure in love) and proceeds to collapse in death while declaring his earnest love for the local beauty who is betrothed to a more successful and desirable man on the beauty's parlor floor.
Mackenzie was 26 when this work was published, and on the strength of it maintained a leading role in Edinburgh literary life for the next 60 years. He was also an attorney and was the Comptroller of Taxes for Scotland for 32 years. He published two more novels, at the ages of 28 and 32, later edited and wrote for a couple of Spectator-type magazines, as well as published a play and some political pamphlets, his collected workings extending to 8 volumes (quarto, I assume) in toto. He married the daughter of a baronet with the unusual name of Penuel and had 11 children. The most recent edition of The Man of Feeling published in the Oxford World's Classics series came out in 2001.
Mackenzie was born on a defunct street in Edinburgh where the George IV Bridge now stands. He was buried along the north side of the Queen Street Gardens in that city. I am not certain whether his grave remains viewable or not. I have never been to Edinburgh.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Before going on to write Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, among other novels, Henry Fielding wrote twenty-six plays before the age of thirty. I believe he may also have been a lawyer for a while. One suspects he demonstrated a similarly indefatigable and agreeable energy with the ladies as well. While it is hard to say that he is forgotten or undervalued as a writer, he seems not to have much of a presence in the contemporary literary-oriented imagination as someone people really like or consider to be one of the foremost models of all time of a good English style. The structure and pacing of the plot of Tom Jones are always given their dutiful praise in textbooks and critical histories, but it is one of those cases where it is so unique, so impressive and on such a large scale, that is actually impossible to understand how good it is unless you have read it, because there is not really another novel like it. A close semi-recent example would be something like One Hundred Years of Solitude (a book I wanted to dislike because the kinds of people who affect to love and relate to it tend to annoy me, but it is really very good). Thomas Pynchon is famous for this kind of madcap and convoluted plotting too but it is so encumbered with brainy matter as to be not so nimble in its flow and twists of narrative as these other books. It is bizarre that in creative writing schools, if we are going to have them, people like Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, along with many other modern short story authors, are studied and celebrated and emulated to the almost total exclusion of the likes of Henry Fielding, one of the great treasures of all English literature, and a staple of every competent writer in our language`s education for two centuries.
Tom Thumb is my first encounter with a Fielding play. It is a very short satire on the absurdities and manglings of the language in the dramatic writing of the day, including dozens of footnotes with humorous commentary on ridiculous lines that were in some instances lifted entire from other contemporary works. I am surprised that it is not put on more, by amateur and school groups especially. Besides being extremely short and brisk it contains much humor, mostly of the absurd variety, which would be easily understood by middlebrow or unpractised theater audiences, and my impression is that it would be an excellent play for people who are not really good actors, nor have any talent for or pretensions towards becoming such, to put on in a still entertaining manner. While it is a minor work, it is the minor work of a decidedly gifted, and probably great author. Authors of this obviously rare type are less dependent on their subject matter and the cohesiveness and sense of their plots to be interesting than ordinary writers; they in fact bestow interest on subjects and stories by their manner of writing about them. When they do harness their talent for a major work and see it through, achievements of a very high order are in their grasp; though very few even of this already small group of authors manage to accomplish this.
One of the Princess Huncamunca`s maids, Mustacha, on the absurdity on the princess` being in love with Tom Thumb (who has just defeated an army of giants in pitched battle):
`Tom Thumb the Great--one properer for a plaything than a husband. Were he my husband, his horns should be as long as his body.`
This one is actually from Nathaniel Lee`s Gloriana, a source of many ludicrous and hilarious verses which were referenced by Fielding in this play:
`Jove, with excessive thund`ring tir`d above/Comes down for ease, enjoys a nymph and then/Mounts dreadful, and to thund`ring goes again.`
Thumb`s rival, the courtier Grizzle, on Huncamunca`s breasts:
`Thy pouting breasts, like kettle-drums of brass/Beat everlasting loud alarms of joy/As bright as brass they are, and oh, as hard/`
Grizzle ridiculing Thumb:
`And can my princess such a durgen wed/One fitter for your pocket than your bed!`
He soon returns to his favorite subject however:
`One globe alone on Atlas` shoulders rests/Two globes are less than Huncamunca`s breasts/The milky way is not so white, that`s flat/And sure thy breasts are full as large as that.`
After dispatching of Grizzle, Thumb speculates on his enemy`s future prospects:
`With those last words he vomited his soul/Which, like whipt cream, the devil will swallow down.`
The last page of the play features six murders and a suicide, which Fielding boasts in a footnote beats the previous record of five corpses lying on the stage when the curtain falls, set in the play Cleomenes, which I believe is by Dryden.
In the entertainment world, there seems to be no more surefire way to popularity and a comfortable income than the introduction of a live midget to whatever one is doing. The audience falls for it every time. In recent memory alone we have witnessed the success of the Mini-me character in the Austin Powers movies, the minor cult that formed in honor of Fantasy Island sidekick Herve Villechez, the Webster television show (and star Emmanuel Lewis's briefly becoming part of Michael Jackson's entourage of freaks), perhaps Gary Coleman (my wife informs me however that he is not properly a dwarf). The career, or whatever it is, of the repulsive music industry figure Kid Rock was going nowhere until he incorporated a leprechaun alter ego into his act. The surviving actors who played Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz film, which came out in 1939, are still in demand and getting paid hard cash for personal appearances. The flamboyant boxer Sugar Ray Robinson back in the 50s kept a French dwarf in his entourage who was supposed to be his translator, though I am certain the keeping of translators was fairly uncommon among American fighters of that period. Before World War II hunchbacks seem to have been in competition with and frequently preferred over dwarves for these positions, but this condition has apparently become so rare in our time to have become grotesque and disturbing rather than riotous to modern audiences, as dwarves remain.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Hopefully this will be the last Clarissa post.
I wrote at one point, evidently in a momentary lapse of despair, that what had been done to Clarissa was similar to what had been done to my writing. This was a statement of emotion rather than reason, of course. One`s writing, at the low amateur level, is not really capable of being ruined by outside agency.
Quotation p.1114. "Oh my dear, how many things happen in this life to give us displeasure! how few to give us joy!"
p.1194 Richardson's subconscious confession (through the agency of Clarissa) of his own feelings about the book?: "I am very much tired and fatigued--with--I don't know what--with writing, I think--but most with myself, and with a situation I cannot help aspiring to get out of and above."
Lovelace's repeated taunting and condescension of the bourgeois is effectively done. In fact, all the parts where Lovelace is being a horrible bully and daring anybody to do anything about it are the best-written in the book. Such scenes of browbeating and cruelty in all his works are Richardson`s specialty for the student and connoisseur of literary skill.
This was certainly a race of men attuned to the reality of death and the processes of the common (collective) human soul with regard to it.
No one in literature can single-mindedly draw out death like our author. There is a character in The Idiot who is hundreds of pages in dying of consumption, but the story leaves his deathbed alone for the most part and concerns itself with somewhat more vigorous actions and characters.
The scene where Clarissa, who is starving herself to death, orders her coffin, decorated with inscriptions from Job and other relevant texts, and has it delivered to her sickroom in order to save those who will survive her from the expense and trouble of arranging for it, is really hilarious, though of course it is not intended to be. The last 200 pages, in which Clarissa`s virtue and the exemplary attitude with which she approached the grave are delineated ad nauseum, are really treacly.
The latest Penguin classic edition sells for $24.95 in the U.S., which, given how long it takes to read it, comes out to a bargain of $7.20 per month book bill during the duration of the reading. The listed price for the U.K. is 25 pounds. At the current exchange rate, this is a $51 paperback novel.
Several of the characters who assisted in Clarissa's torments suffer immediate and painful deaths shortly after hers is achieved, their mode of departing this world in decided contrast to her model, the approach of hell being actively apprehended to the terror of the mind encountering it. I am too bourgeois of course to even conceive of hard or eternal punishment of any kind. The actions of men do not, in imagining such a system, seem important enough, nor for the most part their minds intelligent enough, for their souls to merit such intense usage in the afterlife. Obviously this exposes me as someone in whom the idea of any serious human grandeur has died utterly. This of course was a common attitude among the serious thinkers of the 20th century, but the fact that the strong sense of it has trickled down to the likes of me indicates that the strong mind now is the one that is either so far beyond this (i.e. in the realm of high science) as to no longer be able to perceive this loss as a serious problem, or is moving back in the opposite direction, with the ability to make sense of the noble ideas and mindset regarding the human race of those forebears whose achievements represent to the attentive mind what is generally thought of as civilization.
Whenever I come across the idea in a novel or poem that the sensual temptations some character is facing is due to the active agency of the devil I can not help but to ask why he never tries to tempt me with the same. The only answer I can come up with is that he must have found my soul easy enough to secure by cheaper and to me less pleasurable means that there was never any need to resort to throwing a lot of beautiful and willing women into my path.
I mentioned earlier that I read what I do read--long, largely dull 18th century novels, dozens of Restoration comedies, 10,000 line blank verse poems from the graveyard school of the 1740s--as a form of intellectual penance. This has become too very therapeutic to me, and I have come through dogged habit to actually enjoy becoming acquainted with all of these historic pieces, even though the literary value of many of them is dubious to say the least. I take the idea of penance seriously however. I failed to develop my intellect, personality or body adequately in youth to be able to participate fully and productively as a student and later as a twenty-something and thirty-something man when those times came, and I must never forget this while I live. How does reading Restoration comedies serve this purpose? I am too tired to answer this today. It will come up again, it is an important point, it informs almost everything I do. I just need time to compose the explanation of it.
Monday, May 21, 2007
I reason somewhere around page 850 that if the book did not ring somewhat true, it could not be so disturbing as parts of it are.
Of the incident where Lovelace has the fallen women (fallen by his machinations) impersonating his noble relations wait upon Clarissa I thought that a more athletic author like Fielding would have seized on the opportunity to introduce some humor and had the real people being impersonated happen to show up at the same time. There are several situations in the book which cry out for this kind of plot device, which probably explains Richardson`s being such an inviting target for parodists.
After endless wearying pages of Lovelace in obsessive and repeated detail arguing in defense of rape and subduing women by force ("the haughty beauty will not refuse me, when her pride of being corporally inviolate is brought down"), I began to think the author might actually have been afflicted with some disturbance of insuperable attraction in his mind at the contemplation of these subjects.
On a lighter note, whenever I am reading a lot of 18th-century material, some of the goofy slang of the period naturally gets into my head and I take to addressing Mrs Bourgeois Surrender as "My ownest", "My dearest life", etc. This does not go over big with the object of these effusive sobriquets.
It took me about 900 pages to realize how serious our author and his heroine were about the proper preparation of the soul for the world after this. Pretty much the entire last third of the book (Clarissa is actively dying due to the loss of her honor for 300 or 400 pages at least) is given over to the excruciating details of this preparation.
I know this was one of the first novels, and that therefore the whole thing is kind of an experiment, but whereas in a normal book where a person is confined against her will in a locked room one or perhaps two hopeless attempts at escaping will be described, Richardson gives us ten or fifteen. Does it work? As far as inducing a feeling of claustrophobia and hopelessness of delivery on the part of the reader I suppose it does, though readers being free agents it is not certain why any would choose to submit to this (I view much of my own habit as a form of penance, but I will elaborate on that later.)
The time--not just a few days--that Lovelace gives up hanging out with the guys or basically doing anything to single-mindedly pursue this seduction does not convince as consistent with his character.
A major theme of the book is that once one enters on a bad course, it is hard to turn back and escape serious damage. What, you weren`t looking for something comforting, were you?
The relentless pressure and deceptions of Lovelace, aided by a large cast of hellhounds under his direction and employed upon one single person, is actually very reminiscent of the (more pretentious of course) `godgame` in The Magus.
This book arouses no desire whatsoever to spend so much as an hour living in this time period, which other authors such as Johnson, Sterne, Fielding, on and on, make appear at times at least to be a good deal of fun.
Illustration: Samuel Richardson, Surrounded By His Second Family, by Francis Hayman
With all the declamations and hysterics about Clarissa`s honor I cannot help but think of the scene in Crime and Punishment where Sonya`s (is that the right name?) mother is about to send her out to be a prostitute and ridicules her for her delicacy and pride when she recoils.
Other characters such as Lord M and the vicious members of the Harlowe family were interesting and would have helped the book considerably by being utilized more, instead of completely disappearing for 800 pages at a time.
Clarissa is imprisoned either by her relatives or by Lovelace for almost the entire novel, until she takes it upon herself to die.
Why shouldn t I believe the world is generally as wicked as it is made out to be in this book? Do I not myself hate and rave inwardly against pretty much all of the people in it?
A custom from the Isle of Man described: -If a single woman there prosecutes a single man for a rape, the ecclesiastical judges impanel a jury; and, if this jury finds him guilty, he is returned guilty to the temporal courts: where, if he be convicted, the deemster, or judge, delivers to the woman a rope, a sword, and a ring; and she has it in her choice to have him hanged, beheaded, or to marry him.- The writer of this letter, Clarissa`s sauce-box friend Miss Howe, goes on to add that -One of the two former, I think, should always be her option.-
I think I had better stop here and do one more post on this.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
As this is only a blog that no one reads, and not a commissioned essay for the Times Literary Supplement, I am just going to post my observations singly and not try to compose them into a comprehensive piece. The theme of female obedience is a dominant one in the early part of the book. To those of us in the modern age for whom the idea of compelling any woman to do anything we should bid is beyond the scope of plausible reality, this model of society under which our ancestors operated, seemingly comfortably and confidently, for so many generations, cannot help but be a source of some fascination. Clarissa demonstrates however, albeit with its usual overkill, that this obedience did not actually proceed as the course of nature unimpeded by modern ideologies(though it was proclaimed as such), but that its inculcation was an unrelenting project undertaken by every responsible member of the society, constituting almost the entirety of the genteel and aspiring genteel young woman's upbringing and education. In cases where women are headstrong and of high intelligence, it is always taken for granted in books of these types that she must find a man worthy of her submitting to the control of, or misery and disaster must inevitably follow. The progressive writers of this era were the ones who acknowledged that it was cruel to expect a woman who was superior in spirit and intellect to her husband to submit to his tyranny. Their solution however was to secure more appropriate matches for these viragos; allowing them to run their own lives under any circumstances was the last thing to be desired.
The rapist and all-around bad guy Lovelace emphasizes repeatedly that women are especially easy to control by fear if treated and threatened with brutality, which he possesses the temperament and the will to effect to achieve his ends. This aspect of his character is convincingly and repulsively drawn, for he really is relentless in his energy and brutality, drawing women into his power, isolating and forcing constant pressures upon them that it is beyond their capacities to resist alone (for he has enslaved/bribed many minions into his service in his seductions). This energy of ruling by fear is still the primary condition of life in most economically and educationally deprived societies. In such areas as this (i.e. poor parts of the West) where the bulk of poor and uneducated men lack the ability as well as the backing of society to have authority over a home or an extended family or a community the traditional structures of child rearing/family life/community have collapsed noticeably. This is not really related to the book any longer though. Lovelace s particular misogyny is actually quite strange and perverted. It serves no purpose other than his individual pleasure, to which extremes it really seems unnecessary for him to go, being acknowledged by as handsome, intelligent, witty, rich, etc.
When Lovelace is with women he is really a tiresome and repulsive character. His boasts too much and is witty too little of the time in these chapters. His elaborate contrivances are also too much to be credible. He writes and dispatches false letters, he arranges false actions and introduces false people to deceive Clarissa, involving dozens of people, all of whose actions and conversations he controls, none of whom ever stand up to him or refuse him. It is too much. Economists would be aghast at the waste of human industry devoted to these shenanigans.
When I was on page 400 I was curious to see what the abridgements were like. I am not any longer.
At some point when I was reading this the NYT ran an article on how the invention of cell phones had rendered so many devices and dilemmas of classic novels obsolete. Certainly Clarissa s physical entrapment and isolation from the outside world would seem impossible now.
There are about twenty or thirty characters in the book more evil than anyone in Fielding or Sterne. The most similar 18th century book to this I have read is William Godwin s Caleb Williams, which is about a servant falsely accused of stealing from his master and the relentless persecution he undergoes from society. It is likewise dark and oddly devoid of a sense of atmoshere or of any life outside the principal characters and settings of the story. There is a vivid part when he is prison where his drinking water is fetched out of a muddy ditch.
I will post and do a part 3 tomorrow.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Illustration: Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)For anyone who was wondering why there haven t been any of my periodical essays about my reading for a while, it is because I was tied down for 3 1/2 months with Clarissa, Samuel Richardson's small-type, 1,499 page epistolary novel that was among the first, and is still among the longest, works of fiction in the English language. It took me 104 days to finish it, a seemingly unimpressive clip of 14.41 pages per day, but I could hardly have gone much faster. Though (remarkably) this book remains in print in a gigantic unabridged Penguin edition, and can be found right on the shelf at Borders taking up space that could hold half a dozen or more contemporary novels, by page 400 I was certain no one living in modern society who was not being paid to do so could, or would, possibly finish the entire book. I was not certain I was going to be able to finish it myself, and I am an automaton where fulfilling the duties of my various lists are concerned. Somewhere in the middle wilderness of this endless and remote pine forest of words, in desperate search of any possible camaraderie, I went onto the Amazon.com site and found that 41 people had reviewed the book, which is an above average number, and an astounding one to me for this particular book. One person claimed to have read the whole thing in 8 days (187.38 pages per day, even at ten hours a day almost 19 pages an hour--I don't believe it). A good portion of the reviews came from England, where apparently a certain taste for the old warhorses of the national literature has yet to die out completely. Most were positive in some manner and I would say that half were downright enthusiastic. I cannot say whether these are people I would want to be good friends with or not but I am certainly curious about them. The blurbs on the cover and first page of the book proclaim it several times to be one of the greatest of European novels. That is misleading at the least, if not technically a lie. Within the subcategory of great novels, or famous works of prose literature, there are many more books noticeably superior than inferior to it.
While most modern students of literature are overcome with a sense of dread even at the prospect of reading a Richardson book, I was caught off guard on this occasion, having taken up Pamela a few years ago and, while agreeing that at least two hundred pages of moral instruction (not that I don t need it) could happily have been edited, been otherwise deeply impressed by it. It is a dark book--Richardson I am quite certain had the overall darkest worldview of any English author of his age, almost so that one begins to feel bad for him--but the dark parts were written with such an evident urgency and agitation in the authors mind as made them absolutely believable. I do not, as many people always seem wont to do, understand this to mean that the nasty and depraved side of human behavior is the one in the most, or perhaps the only important truth, is ever to be found. Tristram Shandy, despite appearing to be full of outrageous and nonsensical episodes and conversations, is executed in such a way, so deftly in its details, as makes it seem to have really existed, as well as to relate a story well worth relating on the basis of the very specific and peculiar charms of its narrator s and other character s minds. Clarissa being considered Richardson s real, if neglected masterpiece by seemingly most of the experts, my anticipation was of a slog, but a slog that would give me in places a vision of life that would meaningfully expand my understanding of its possibilities and myriad truths. What I found was a book that I think induced a modest depression in me, to which I am already highly susceptible, over a period of several months
The massive popularity of the book on its publication indicates to me the extent of the hunger bourgeois society evidently felt for works of fiction in those days. Though there are several episodes in the story where it appears events and plotlines are building up for a grand crisis where action follows swiftly upon action, as in, say Tom Jones, this never happens. When Clarissa is locked in a room and threatened with all sorts of imminent danger, 400 pages go by before anything happens. Colonel Morden s return to England, at which event it is indicated, things will be shaken up, is anticipated and alluded for well over a thousand pages before the man actually appears, having missed everything that his possible presence threatened on so many occasions to make interesting. Coleridge s famous observation that reading Fielding after Richardson was like emerging from a damp sickroom into a sunny spring afternoon is, especially with regard to Clarissa, most astute. I was reading another book the other day where a character was walking on a dirt road and had to sit down on a rock to take a pebble out of his shoe. This was a fairly nondescript little detail, but it leapt out at me because not one instance of this sort had happened in Clarissa in 1500 pages. The book is claustrophobic, because there is no air, no atmosphere in its world. Characters spend hundreds of pages in rooms that present themselves to the imagination as blank places, so devoid is our author of any kind of telling description. Likewise carriage rides take place in the readers mind as if there is nothing outside the windows, or if a white curtain has been drawn over it as the Soviets used to do on their trains before passing a munitions factory. The book being told by a series of lengthy letters (535 in all) the characters must needs spend a great part of their time writing, even to the detriment of their sleep, which in their health both Clarissa and her persecutor Lovelace rarely indulge in for more than one or two hours a night! Richardson s whole approach to the subject of death is extremely bizarre even among the authors of his age though I suspect it was more representative of the general population than we usually say. I will expand on this later in the other posts.
I do not know much about the Clarissa BBC movie that I have a picture from here. I don`t know that it ever appeared on TV in the U.S. Certainly they must be running out of classic novels to adapt if somebody thought this one a good candidate for the Masterpiece Theatre treatment. Unlike the aforementioned Tristram Shandy, which despite its reputation for being unfilmable, actually has a good number of sections that would make interesting scenes in a series, the possibilities suggested by Clarissa are not really very exciting, being of the standard classic-European novel variety--duels, balls, grounds of country estates, devious servants, etc--better illustrations of which are available elsewhere. This Saskia Wickham looks kind of pretty though, in the great tradition of lovely actresses who appear in some BBC serialization of a classic novel and are never seen again. Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, is a past favorite of this type, and I have to confess that I found Sarah Pickering, the mousy, tiny, almost childlike star of the Little Dorrit movie, to be rather adorable in that role. They are all probably around my age too. Where are they now?
Sunday, May 13, 2007
I have been trying for several days to write something short and humorous about how I often find myself listening to The Music Of Your Life when I drive around, especially in the morning, but the task has defeated me. It is a thin subject for humor to begin with, and this week in particular all my capacity for mirth seems to be drained out of me. When my Internet connection was knocked out during a thunderstorm at 2am as I strained to reach some conclusion to my main argument that Engelbert Humperdinck's 1976 hit "After the Lovin'" was an especially unnatural and unsexy piece of art, I accepted it as a sign to employ my life and mind on more worthy subjects.
My frame of mind this week has been unusually blank and pessimistic even for me, which makes it difficult to write about anything. I am experienced enough with these low sorts of spirits to know that it will pass, or at least be moderated, though how or why this happens remains mysterious to me. My present mode of life in my present state of mind seems unbearable to continue in, yet I lack any mental force at this time even to conceive what realistically might be done, let alone bring it about. I have at the moment lost in my mind my connection, or my imagined connection, even with literature and all other areas of learning in which I formerly believed myself to have some stake, and in which I took my consolation. This complete collapse of any identity with the interesting parts of the world will pass and maybe in a week a different spirit will be apparent on these pages. Right now attempting to think, talk, read or write seems utterly pointless and hopeless, however. Would that the burst of intelligence that only can clear mood would come upon me.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
As I grew older and had children, being increasingly limited in the opportunity to watch movies of any kind (about two a month being the maximum now), it no longer did for me to go about rummaging through the shelves of the video store hoping to come across something amusing, as it is easy enough to go months without finding anything that is not actually an embarrassment to the artistic tradition of the human race, and such as makes me really wonder what contemporary people think art and artists are (I mean, good God, presumably intelligent people praised the Miranda July movie!). I decided I needed a system of choosing that ensured a certain level of quality and/or historical importance, which would over time be broadly educational, exposing me to such things as silent movies, Laurel and Hardy pictures and, of course, Japanese samurai films, which I would never be inclined to endure otherwise. After a good bit of tinkering I finally decided to make a list of movies that had been rated five stars by reasonably knowledgeable critics who had five star rating systems, which require a much stronger commitment than four-star rating systems, or merited effusive notice in some august publication such as The Oxford Guide to Film. With this I do not work down a list in alphabetical or chronological order but drop in at odd places in the alphabet depending on what my secret word or phrase of the week is, which is usually taken from my current literary reading.
The point of all this is that when you make a point of watching only five-star movies, you see a lot of Japanese samurai films. The critics love Japanese samurai films, more, apparently, than they love anything else, Chaplin, Fellini, Bergman, John Ford, you name it. My wife has a running joke whenever I have a movie to ask if it is about Japanese people fighting before she will commit to watch it with me (Mrs S has bailed on the genre, though she retains a fondness for many of its most indelible images, especially the custom the warriors have of laying their heads on blocks of wood rather than pillows when they sleep, and the timeworn question of why it often happens in these films that angry speeches of fifty or so syllables will be translated as `No` or some other such laconic construction). Toshiro Mifune, and I cannot think of an exception offhand, is the star of all of these movies. Based on my system, he has starred in more five star movies than anybody else by a wide margin. If I had to guess I would say Marcello Mastroianni was (a very distant second). Charles Dickens and Jane Austen get honorable mention as sort of ghost stars hovering over numerous acclaimed projects, sometimes for different versions of the same story (Similarly The Hunchback of Notre Dame has spawned 2 or 3 five-star adaptations all by itself). For newcomers to the genre it is helpful that Mifune is in all the films, because after a while even the most hopelessly unworldly student begins to recognize him among all the other seemingly identically dressed Japanese people enacting historical periods and places and families and people that may or may not be real in various degrees, of all of which I think it is safe to say the vast majority of even clever Western audiences has little no idea. His usual persona--the manliest, strongest, most competent and impeccably self-mastered warrior in medieval Japan--thus provides the bearing around which I suspect most Western understandings of these films ultimately pivot.
As I indicated above, I forget offhand how many of these films of I have now seen, all of which rate supposedly among the all-time classics of their art. Rashomon, of course, but being one of the first I sat through, no deep emotional impression or connection with any character was made upon me. Same for Yojimbo--I inwardly experienced nothing. Recently there was a story in the New Yorker magazine where a character goes to see this film, supposedly in total innocence of the genre, and is completely blown away by it immediately. I don t doubt it could happen but nothing in the story persuaded me of it. It had the stench of a reach, which is always bad form in fiction writing. I watched Kwaidan, and was generally lost. There must have been a few more whose titles I forget, but then all of a sudden the films finally began to be somewhat intelligble and more satisfy as a whole experience, and not just a camera shot here and there.
The first of these was The Hidden Fortress, from which it is widely known, and confessed that Star Wars is a direct ripoff. I have never--and I must be about the only boy my age with good mathematical test scores who can say this--been able to make it through any of the Stars Wars movies, even the first one. I find them incredibly boring. I don t know why. Even Joseph Campbell, who apparently everybody thinks is a moron compared to themselves nowadays, though I still consider him a wise and admirable person, starts to lose me when he begins talking about Star Wars. With regard to The Hidden Fortress, it is not as if great insights began to rain down upon me: it was more that I was able to remain engaged with the plot for the duration of the film and begin to form questions, such as: Why were these stories and settings such popular themes/what purpose did they serve in their time? and Why is Toshiro Mifune the star of every single movie? I should also observe that death in these movies tends to be more cruel, violent and personal than it is in Hollywood movies, and the camera will find and linger not merely on fresh but not disfigured corpses but on bludgeoned skulls and skeletons being picked over by vultures long after we are supposed to have moved on in a Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone-type film, which tends to be extremely unsettling as one can imagine.
Another positive step was taken with Throne of Blood, Kurosawa s 1957 take on Macbeth employing the familiar setting of the samurai era. Obviously familiarity with the general outline of the story is of great assistance here in allowing for a greater attention to and appreciation of the considerable beauties of the production. Mifune, in the Macbeth role, departs from his usual persona as the good and necessary hero, which is actually a little unsettling. The strength of this movie is in its grasp and depictions of the idea of supernatural forces that is essential to most classical stories, which have rarely been executed so convincingly.
My favorite work in this genre to date is undoubtedly the Samurai trilogy (1954, 1955, 1956), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, about whom I however know nothing else. This movie is frequently touted as the best introduction to the genre for the uninitiated, and has been heavily extolled and borrowed from by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and his ilk, so I am hardly breaking any new ground here, and if anything represent a weakening of the successful ties these movies managed to forge with people in this country. Each of the films has a fairly difficult to remember title featuring Japanese proper names and are usually packaged in our country under the more helpful appellations of Samurai I, Samurai II and Samurai III. As someone who tends to like long books and has begun to appreciate the advantages of longer BBC-type adaptations of literature, the epic dimension of the story, where we know when we begin that, like life itself, we will be ending somewhere more or less unrecognizable and very far away, appeals to me. Whether it is the nature of the terrain of that country or the Japanese people, or the interaction of the two in the artistic mind, Japanese filmmakers are the masters of creating tranquility, or at least the impression of it, in scenes set outdoors, even if a head is momentarily to be chopped off in the midst of it, and this film is especially reassuring and beautiful in that regard. The most interesting part of the film is that Mifune s great rival (he is the Samurai of course), played by the enigmatic and very appealing actor Koji Tsuruta, who was also apparently a famous singer, is a worthy man in every way who has great admiration for the Samurai, who accepts and understands that his superior abilities require him to seek out and engage in what seem to lesser men unnecessarily dangerous and brutal contests with his peers if he is to attain fullness as a man. This is a difficult concept and attitude to convey if it is not somehow embodied in one s own person; this ethos however is one of the more important currents running through all these films, that I can see.
Here is the Wikipedia article on Toshiro Mifune. I had no idea he was in so many American productions in his later years.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
As I noted a couple of posts back, I (and the family) went to Montreal last weekend. A few years ago it dawned on me that I lived rather close to this city, and to the province of Quebec in general, and, having made it now two years in a row for the first time, my visits are threatening to become an annual event. I am considering as well going to either Nova Scotia or the Gaspe Peninsula when I have a week off in August. Why this sudden infatuation with Canada you ask? I think it is because it seems first of all to be cheaper at the present time to do things there that were formerly normal in the United States, such as eat decent but not extravagant meals and stay in decent but not extravagant lodgings, which , especially with children, is an important consideration. In Quebec particularly there is a little bit of a type warp effect, much of the scenery of the country, the farms as well as the larger cities, and the general attitudes of people, even in touristed areas, seeming to be like the U.S. was maybe 30-40 years ago, which again strikes me being "normal". There is a noticeable relief from the onslaughts either of excessive wealth or the increasingly unignorable armies of the distressingly woeful that have gradually divided up most of the spaces of public life in the U.S. over the last 20 years. The province of Quebec is supposedly a doomed entity, economically enervated, its population sclerotic and unmanned by a soft socialism, its birthrates anemic, its determination to preserving a Francophone society making it unattractive to the most enterprising and ambitious immigrant talent, its 4 or 6 million (and shrinking) French speakers in a hopeless position surrounded by 300 million+ Anglophones, many of them tireless in their quest for global domination of one form or another. The Atlantic Provinces to the east, though mostly English-speaking, apparently are in a similar position as far as attracting any fresh and vigorous blood goes, either cultural or economic. Montreal is a partial exception to this general malaise, as, due to its large college population and historical status as a cultural center there are a lot of young, multilingual, multicultural people there who undeniably bring the city a lot of energy. At the same time there seem to be, judging by the ubiquitous `a louer` signs in the windows, a lot of empty office buildings, storefronts and apartments. Hard-driving business types are not much in evidence either, especially when compared with such truly terrifying but economically triumphant American metropolises as Atlanta or Dallas, where hardly any other type of person (except among self-acknowledged failures and the impoverished classes) seems even to exist.
French Canada is surely one of the spookiest and most interesting places to visit in all of North America. I went to Quebec City for my honeymoon--in December, at which time that part of the world has already been deep in winter for a month and is covered with several feet of snow. Once we got there, though I believe the high temperature during the entire 4-5 days was around -5 degrees, it was a wonderful place, but after we left the town where we live, which has around 40,000 people there was not another one even 1/2 that size until we got to Quebec City--7 hours away. I thought it would be a good idea to drive all the way up route 3 to the top of New Hampshire and go to Quebec on the provinical roads from there. The border crossing there is a little hut with one guy in it. At that time (1997) I dont think they even bothered to staff it at night. It is in the mountains so of course everything was buried in snow. They dont even bother to plow the roads there but pack it down with steamroller type machines. Fortunately there was not a blizzard that day, nor did the car break down, because that would likely have been the end of both me and my lovely and adventurous bride. The road maps indicated that there were towns every ten miles or so, La Patrie and Scotstown being the first two on that route, I believe. These "towns" are basically the places where another road intersects with the route that is a continuation of US 3, with a handful of buildings--all darkened as I recall--clustered near the corners right up against the road. Mostly this way is all woods, that time of year it gets dark about 3:30 or 4pm, and of course the temperature outside was easily -20. After about an hour of this we came to one of these intersections where something actually had a light on, which turned out to be a small store. This place is at least fifty miles from anything, and I mean anything. It is the darkest, coldest place I have ever been to. It is in fact so dark on the road, with no indication (i.e. signage) that the road actually leads anywhere, and the surface of it buried under a foot of packed snow, that I became half-worried it was just going to suddenly end deep in the middle of a forest with my gas gauge on E. We decided to stop at the store. Now I knew theoretically that once we entered Quebec we would be among French-speaking people, but I must admit, I do not generally identify French-speaking people with frigid, remote, dark, gloomy mountainous outposts in a Godforsaken part of Canada. Yet there it was. French music was playing on the radio. All the labels and newspapers and food products were entirely in French, though the U.S. was not more than 30-40 miles away. There was a girl working there who was probably about 19, with a classic horsey French girl face, and the long brown hair like a horse's too that goes with it, but thin and vivacious enough that one was moved to wonder what in the world she was doing in that place. I was certain when we drove off back into the pitch dark woods that that there was something cruel in having left her there all alone, or that if we were to turn around and go back the place, like Brigadoon, would have disappeared.
I am going to confess that it is often our habit when we go to Montreal and other places in Canada to stay in the youth hostels, which are well set up to accomodate families there. I find this to be the case in Scandanavia and Britain outside of London as well, that certain hostels (usually the official HI-affiliated ones) have nearly as many families with young children as rowdy backpacker types in them. Of course we have a certain affection for rowdy backpacker types too, some of whom still, I was rather astounded to find, aren't actually all that much younger than I am. Besides being cheaper than a Motel-6 or Holiday Inn type place, the atmosphere is considerably cheerier and encouraging for interacting, or at least making eye contact with the other guests, which is less oppressive to me, and I assume must have some positive effect on the children. The Montreal hostel has a very good little cafe as well, with good music (such as cool, cosmopolitan people listen to--I don't try this at home), interesting pictures, games, etc. It gives the children something to do when they wake up at 7am besides watch television in the room, which I would invariably have them do at an ordinary hotel so I wouldn't have to get my morose patoosie out of bed until the day was half spent.
I have not been to Montreal yet, I don't think, when it was not precipitating in some manner, so we have mostly been relegated to indoor activities there. We seem to like the Biodome, which is housed in one of the arenas built for the 1976 Olympics. It contains, in divisions of the building, a tropical rain forest, a typical Quebec/Vermont/Maine, etc type of temperate forest, and a sub-polar/polar area, the deep polar areas being behind glass in refrigerated compartments, I suppose, in which various fish, birds and small animals live. There are about 100 penguins living in one of these refrigerated areas, which is furnished with rocks, ice and a swimming area, just like home. The penguins are the star attraction of the Biodome. This place is very popular with the family crowd, as you can imagine, French Canadians I suppose loving to gawk at displays of live exotic beasts as much as anyone else does.
Montreal is the best city for churches, certainly for big, grand churches, that I have been to in North America, though the Northeast U.S. (yes New York City, I have not forgotten to honor you) has more really beautiful small churches, and not merely of the waspy white clapboard variety either, than I think is generally realized. The churches in Montreal of which I have been so enamored, are all by the highest standards rather gaudy, over the top French Catholic affairs, though not unlike such later (and iconic) French churches as Lourdes or Sacre-Coeur. I am by immediate ancestry an old Catholic myself, of Irish-Lithuanian descent (is there a more underachieving combination to be found among the nations of Europe? These peoples between them can't even produce a contender for the papacy) , having even been Christened in the Church by my young parents before my father got up the fire to live in the open antagonism to all religion and religious people that animated his true spirit. I suppose this ancestral memory however induces a certain affection for the particular kind of architecture and ornamentation that is characteristic of these churches. The Basilica of Notre Dame, known for its blue ceiling, is an old favorite, though there is nothing austere about it. The interior, with its candles, softly-lit pipe organ, densely packed lavish altars and sculptures and stained glass and gorgeous dark woodwork of the pulpits, pews and balconies produces a feeling as much like being in a library or a dining club from which to come in out of the cold and take a pleasant doze (sitting upright of course) as it does a place for serious religious exercises, though I of course am none the less grateful for its existence.
The Oratoire-St-Joseph, however, on the Mont Royal hill, is the most all out Catholic experience in town, and an extremely moving place to wander about for the afternoon, even for one whose ego is as wary, intellect is as skeptical, and spirit is as estranged from the powers of real religious faith as mine collectively are. The complex was founded in 1904 by the much beloved local divine Brother Andre, to whom were attributed extraordinary healing powers (this is the kind of place that has rack after rack of old, abandoned crutches lining the walls of the chapels), and who was beatified in 1982. The place is enormous, built on an incredibly steep hill with zillions of steps and a gigantic dome with lots of different things to look at, many of them on an over the top scale, some of a more pointed religious nature than others. I really love it. I will try to describe some of the essence of this place by enumerating some of the highlights.
1.The Votive Chapel--10,000 candles, many of them red, interspersed with hundreds of crutches and canes left behind by supposedly healed cripples.
2.Brother Andre`s tomb--You cannot have a shrine without one, of course. To illustrate the importance of this, I have known many people who believed Lincoln was actually buried under the floor of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington (he isnt), for whom the discovery of the absence of the great man`s bones diminished greatly for them the emotional power of the monument. I had never heard of Brother Andre before so I paid my respects from a respectful distance, but other people were kneeling and very fervently gripping the sarcophagus and praying. It was quite intense.
3. The Crypt Church--Mass was actually in progress. Service, hymns in French. Very beautiful.
4. Scale Model of the Shrine--You have to be good to pull off this kind of entertaining stuff and still offer a first-rate religious experience. They are. Which brings us to...
5. Concourse Hall/Terrace on the Roof--After taking the elevator to the 3rd floor (2nd floor off limits to visitors, offices, etc) we can go to the bathroom, buy soft drinks, postcards, rosaries, etc, and then wander out to the terrace, which has a panoramic view of the city on a clear day, which we did not have. They have some of those binocular device-things set up as if you were at Niagara Falls or the Empire State Building. Large granite surface for the children to run around on.
6. Some rooms in honor of Brother Andre (includes wax figure)--His heart is also preserved and on display in a little hexagonal container. Pilgrims often stop and pray before this heart.
7. The Way of the Cross--This is an outdoor garden with statues and a pool intended for meditation and prayer. As absolute silence is required and we had our rambunctious children with us, we had to skip this part of the complex. Overall the Oratory is quite welcoming of children (They are Catholics)
8. The Museum--76 more wax figures from the Bible, plus some religious paintings and sculpture. Is this great or what?
9. The Basilica--I.E, the main church. Completed in the 50s, has a very Vatican II atmosphere about it. Still, by now youre in the mood for anything.
10. 2 more chapels, Brother Andre`s room, and the Pilgrim`s Pavilion (i.e. the main gift shop). Wow.
The church in the picture above is the city`s cathedral, Marie-Reine-du-Monde. I have not been inside but the building is quite striking at street level. The facade and the apostles on the roof are of course taken from the Vatican but the sides have the fat round towers and turrets of a medieval French chateau, which is a good look.
In Montreal the English college has quadrangles and statues of Queen Victoria and neo-gothic Oxfordian style halls while the French college down the street has these chateauesque towers and buildings with steep Norman roofs and is surrounded by a stone wall that resembles a medieval fortification. I thought this was rather humorous.