Wednesday, June 27, 2007
I do think it may be slowly driving me insane. The patterns of thought and writing, the attitudes, etc, that I developed over the first 27 or 28 years of my life before the Internet existed on a mass scale are not really well suited to the requirements of that medium. In fact I am so distracted, so unable to concentrate on any precise idea or line of thought, so confused in my conviction that the Internet has not made me one whit wiser or better or more interesting as a person while seeming to believe at the same time that perhaps those things, being unmeasurable, no longer matter or have meaning in opposition to IQs, credentials, worldly achievements and income, the substantial qualities of Internet as well as current intellectual culture in general, that I cannot even write a coherent post on the subject.
This is going to be a week of bad, soldiering on types of posts for me. I do not know where my mind is or what has happened to it, but I sincerely hope it comes back before I start writing about girls I saw in drugstores in 1985 and that kind of thing.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
I am going to try to complete this at an early enough hour that my thoughts do not become so maudlin...
Temora Book IV continued: "Erin rose around him like the sound of eagle-wings". I like this description.
While there is much beauty in these books, the relentless emphasis on death makes the worldview a little too bleak. The majority of the characters are killed in the first flushes of youth, unformed as men, virgins, etc. I suppose it the society represented was one devoted to war, and these are the essential facts of war, but I cannot bring myself to shed the prejudice that there is, and ought to be, more to existence.
There is a humorous note on one of MacPherson's notes regarding an absurd image in Book VIII of Temora by a contemporary commentator: "The waves of a mountain lake suddenly frozen into the form of ridges, are undoubtedly picturesque; and the only objection to an image, `familiar,` as it seems, `to those only who reside in a cold and mountainous country,` is, that it never yet was realized, as every lake must acquire a plain superficies when frozen. "
Perhaps anticipating the decline of manliness, the poet taunts those who will come later in softer ages `When thou, O stone, shalt moulder down, and lose thee, in the moss of years, then shall the traveller come, and whistling pass away.--Thou know`st not, feeble wanderer, that fame once shone on Moi-lena.`
Note: `Byron was grateful to Macpherson`s duan for providing him with a rhyme for Don Juan.` (duan: composition in which the narration is often interrupted by episodes and apostrophes. A term supposedly used/created by the ancient Gaelic bards)
In the last bit of writing in the collection, Macpherson`s updated Preface for the 1773 edition, after it is to be speculated he had been deeply engaged in the gratification of his appetites which were alluded to in Part 1 of this series for several years, he asserts that `He that obtains fame must receive it through mere fashion; and gratify his vanity with the applause of men, of whose judgement he cannot approve.`
Tour: This promises to be one of the few literary-oriented tours that might appeal to the class of people who are both at least agreeable-looking and actually understand art, beauty, life, sex, man, travel, etc, though ironically most of the sites involved have probably no definite historical relation to the legends or the books. Ossian himself is said to have been born in the valley of Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands, and his burial place traditionally was in the valley of Sma` Glen, which is somewhat to the east, in the vicinity of Perth. Wordsworth passed through the are in 1803 and noted:
`In this still place, remote from men/Sleeps Ossian, in the Narrow Glen.`
Fingal`s Cave, on the uninhabited island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, has been a famous natural attraction for the last 200 years. It apparently acquired this named after the composer Mendelssohn visited as a young man and was inspired to write the piece Die Hebrieden, which
is known in English as Fingal`s Cave. In any event literary and artistic people have associated the spot with the spirit of the Ossian poems for a long time. I do not have a sense of how touristed these regions are (as essentially a novice traveller I have mainly confined myself to the most popular and overrun areas of Europe myself) but I cannot imagine that they are terribly crowded.
The traditional burial spot of Fingal is in the village of Killin, in Perthshire.
MacPherson himself was born in the village of Ruthven, in Inverness. He is actually buried in Westminster Abbey, and at his own request too, which given the literary persona he cultivated with such great success is most interesting.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
There are few images more horrible to me in all of literature and history than that of fleeing armies in ancient warfare being cut down and butchered by their pursuers, as it appears without being able to offer any effective resistance. Rationally this is not more disturbing than any number of means by which history relates people to have been killed, murdered or otherwise humiliated. I think it is the sense that the battlefield is in some way supposed to be a fair test of a man`s ability and character, and that to be killed from behind comparatively effortlessly by one`s opponent while in flight, anonymous, bespeaks such an utter failure of both such as is quite painful to contemplate for any man who can easily imagine himself in the same unfortunate position.
The custom of sending the bard before one with songs prior to appearing oneself to cast accusations and issue challenges I like. There is real old-school gentility in it.
In the Dissertation which precedes Temora, MacPherson offers an appreciation of the barbaric mode of life:
"The nobler passions of the mind never shoot forth more free and unrestrained than in these times we call barbarous. That irregular manner of life, and those manly pursuits from which barbarity takes its name, are highly favorable to a strength of mind unknown in polished times. In advanced society the characters of men are more uniform and disguised. The human passions lie in some degree concealed behind forms, and artificial manners; and the powers of the soul, without an opportunity of exerting them, lose their vigor. The times of regular government, and polished manners, are therefore to be wished for by the feeble and weak in mind. An unsettled state, and those convulsions which attend it, is the proper field for an exalted character, and the exertion of great parts. Merit there always rises superior; no fortuitous event can raise the timid and mean into power..."
As in most observations of this nature, the criticisms of the weak strike more forcefully as having something of truth in them than the exaltations of the strong. This is because strength of will or wrath or personality has, in some degree, to operate in a vacuum where the sense of itself always remains relatively unperturbable. Immoral, or wicked strength seems to me have some advantage over moral, or good strength in attaining this vacuum, and by extension attaining the sovereignity in times of weak or non-existent government. Of course, such distinctions are only of importance to the impotent of spirit who are incapable of overcoming or even contending with strength, though I think it is acknowledged even by the most vigorous authors to be a shame when weak but otherwise unobjectionable people have to suffer under brutal rulers.
Still in the Dissertation, MacPherson gets in a dig at the establishment which received his work with less than the near-universal enthusiasm of the public:
"...I am thoroughly convinced, that a few quaint lines of a Roman or Greek epigrammatist, if dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum, would meet with more cordial and universal applause, than all the most beautiful and natural rhapsodies of all the Celtic bards and Scandavian Scalders that ever existed."
In ridiculing the Irish claim as the fatherland of Ossian he refers to a poem of that nation in which Ossian is made contemporary with Saint Patrick, noting that `The saint sometimes threw off the austerity of his profession, drunk freely, and had his soul properly warmed with wine.`
Continuing on the theme of the worship of Greece and Rome he argues that `Tho` their high merit does not stand in need of adventitious aid, yet it must be acknowledged, that it is an advantage to their fame, that the posterity of the Greeks and Romans, either do no at all exist, or are not now objects of contempt or envy to the present age.`
Temora Book II: `Erin`s clouds are hung round with ghosts.`
Later in the same: `The stone shall rise, with all its moss, and speak to other years. `Here Cathmor and Ossian met! the warriors met in peace!`--When thou, O stone, shalt fail: and Lubar`s stream roll quite away! then shall the traveller come, and bend here, perhaps in rest. When the darkened moon is rolled over his head, our shadowy forms may come, and, mixing with his dreams, remind him of this place.` This is a characteristic specimen of the better sorts of romantic charms to be found in this work.
Temora Book III: `I glittered, tall in steel: like the falling stream of Tromo, which nightly winds bind over with ice.`
Later in the same: `Like the bursting strength of a stream, the sons of Bolga rushed to war.` In isolation this line seems a little hackneyed, but within the buildup of the rest of the poem with its heavy images of nature and war it actually makes a more vivid impression than it would appear to.
With the human population being so tiny and, especially at the edges of the British Isles, so isolated from any contact with the greater world in the settings of these poems, the idea of personal possession and lordship over all the lands and seas that one knew was far more plausible than it is to the average man of the 21st century in these countries, and doubtless had an effect, probably positive, on the psychology of these ancient men.
Temora Book IV--MacPherson wrote a note on the sentence `In the lonely vale of streams, abides the little soul,` which deserves to be printed in its entirety. Here it is:
`From this passage we learn in what extreme contempt an indolent and unwarlike life was held in those days of heroism. Whatever a philosopher may say, in praise of quiet and retirement, I am far from thinking, but they weaken and debase the human mind. When the faculties of the soul are not exerted, they lose their vigour, and low and circumscribed notions take the place of noble and enlarged ideas. Action, on the contrary, and the vicissitudes of fortune which attend it, call forth, by turns, all the powers of the mind, and, by exercising, strengthen them. Hence it is, that in great and opulent states, when property and indolence are secured to individuals, we seldom meet with that strength of mind, which is so common in a nation, not far advanced in civilization. It is a curious, but just, observation; that great kingdoms seldom produce great characters, which must be altogether attributed to that indolence and dissipation, which are the inseparable companions of too much property and security. Rome, it is certain, had more real great men within it, when its power was confined with the narrow bounds of Latium, than when its dominion extended over all the known world; and one petty state of the Saxon heptarchy had, perhaps, as much genuine spirit in it, as the two British kingdoms united. As a state, we are much more powerful than our ancestors, but we would lose by comparing individuals with them.`
This all reflects on me, not merely with regard to war, but to business, science, technology and the other arenas of competition which sustitute for war among men of parts and abilities in our era, arenas in which I have no purpose to even be in. But I have to go to bed. I will post this and leave 1 more Ossian post for the week. This site needs to be producing copy above all else. That is the raison d`etre for it.
Monday, June 18, 2007
Among many echoes of the Iliad in these writings, our author has an especially deft touch with blood, particularly when swords are coated with it. He shows as well a proclivity for strange flashbacks, the beating of the black waves of the ancient northern seas, the vaunting before a single combat, etc.
These works, no doubt aided by their remote setting, evoke even in warfare a sense of wild silence compared to doing just about anything in our own times. I believe modern man's capacity to produce and endure incredible volumes of noise and his acceptance of this as a normal state of existence has been widely remarked so I will not go on about it here.
One cannot but comment in writings of this type on the passion for war and willingness to die violently displayed by its characters, and especially the apparent conviction of the authors that this is the finest, most proper and most uncorrupted personality a man can attain. While such characters are undeniably exciting and irresistible to the ladies, obviously civilization can only advance so far if producing such men becomes the only end of a society. Of course many authors, MacPherson included, have expressed misgivings about the effects of advancing civilization on the manly spirit. I am not immune to such suspicions myself at times, though in truth following the progress of civilization, mainly through reading about its past and present and wondering what news of it will come to me in the future (I do not experience much of anything at first hand) is the primary interest I preserve in life. While characters who live by this sort of extreme code in the modern world do hold a certain fascination for me, I do not generally find them to be very interesting in themselves, but only in the opposition of their mode of life to, well, mine.
This description of the nature does make one desire to go on a (peaceful) walking tour of some duration in the regions where the poems are set. I would even like to go in the fall when it is really quiet and dark and gloomy (I assume if you get to a village the pubs stay open year round). That is the kind of guy I am.
There is much lamentation in the poems about the fame of the heroes dying with them after a generation or two. As Fingal the great king remarks in Book VI of the work named after him: "to-day our fame is greatest. We shall pass away like a dream. No sound will be in the fields of our battles. Our tombs will be lost in the heath. The hunter shall not know the place of our rest. Our names may be heard in song, but the strength of our arms will cease." Later in the same book, mourning over the tomb of his fallen son, he remarks that "The sons of the feeble shall pass over it, and shall not know that the mighty lie there." Indeed, even if these stories are rooted in actual personages and sentiments, and the names have miraculously survived down to our time, it would still be difficult to say what of real fame remains attached to them, since anyone currently living is separated by so many layers from the impact of their actuals deeds, personalities, etc. I am not sure where I am going with this.
There is a character named 'Connan of small renown'. This is a good appellage to carry down through history.
One of Macpherson's notes: "The practice of singing when they row is universal among the inhabitants of the north-west coast of Scotland and the isles. It deceives time, and inspirits the rowers." I can hear the Celtic Woman being cued in the background.
This was an age of truly high and unforgiving parental expectations. You were going to war, you were hopefully going to kill, but at the very least if you were inadequate you would be put out of your misery right away. Cowardice and dodging the fight was not an option, whether you were sensitive or prone to anxiety or whatever, if you wanted to see or be received by your family, by your entire community, ever again. Effectively you had to conquer in battle, or else.
For me as a reader it is refreshing to get out of 18th-century London and the south of England generally for a little bit, as if I were actually taking a vacation into the country from the literary point of view.
From the address to the sun in `Carthon: A Poem`:
`Who can be a companion of thy course! The oaks of the mountains fall: the mountains themselves decay with years; the ocean shrinks and grows again: the moon herself is lost in heaven; but thou art forever the same; rejoicing in the brightness of thy course...But thou art perhaps, like me, for a season, and thy years will have an end...Age is dark and unlovely; it is like the glimmering light of the moon, when it shines through broken clouds, and the mist is on the hills; the blast of the north is on the plain, the traveller shrinks in the midst of his journey.`
It goes without saying that medicine, or even the conception, or non-conception of it in these works is extremely primitive. Once you have a wound, apparently you are given up to bleed to death where you fall. There is not a single instance in 334 pages of anyone actually attempting to physically heal or assuage the misery of someone who has suffered an injury.
The descriptions of the ghosts forming from the mists and dissolving again in the winds are very beautiful and affecting images, as good as I have seen done anywhere. Where I went to college there was a largely deserted corner of the campus near the boathouse where there was a monument supposedly containing the graves of French soldiers killed during the American Revolution. I am not saying I ever saw ghosts there, either of French soldiers or departed students, but I used to wander there late at night a lot and be affected by the kinds of thoughts of the temporary nature of life and of the unsettling mysteries of more eternal things such as are evoked by the Ossianiac ghosts.
Death among young lovers is endemic in these poems to the point of becoming tedious. Also every maiden who appears in these poems is seventeen and the most beautiful creature her designated hero has ever seen, after which vision he immediately goes to war and is killed, his lady whom he has spent five minutes with never surviving him much longer than a hour after receiving the news.
As the book moves along, there is more rolling on the waves, something about which always grips the imagination and adds considerably to the excitement.
It is enjoyable to read about brave men of a indisputably superior bearing who are not worried about their diet and wine knowledge. In fact, apart from the feasts thrown before and after battles as a matter of ceremony, dining for its own sake appears to be considered frivolous.
I may be able to finish the rest in part 3.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
poems. As late as 1854 the future famous author Oscar Fingal Wilde, though in his own character not particularly evocative of the laconic, cave-dwelling, warlike race of men celebrated in the poems, was named by his fanatical Irish nationalist mother after two of the primary heroes in these nominally Celtic epics. The modern consensus, however, seems to hold that the magic which these works once held for men of intellect and sensibility has died, and is unlikely to ever be rekindled again. As for Macpherson, after these early successes in his 20s he did not pursue much more literary work, and according to the website from which I took the above picture of him, he moved to London and devoted himself to fornication on a scale that was notable enough to attach to his reputation forever. I am going to seek other sources to confirm this last bit of information, which to read about in literary types is always unsettling to me; for this is going into doors of a type that I know for certain I will never be entering myself, and I cannot help feeling that here I am definitely being left out of the fun, or at least the gritty reality, of life that is one of the main aims of studying literature at all.
This book is an example, to me, of the value of having some kind of list to follow and be working on as the main course of one's reading/study, for I would never have gravitated to or sought out or finished it left to my own inclinations. Though repetitive and difficult to follow at times due to the similarity of a lot of the characters, and battles, and names and so on, it has some not inconsiderable beauties and provokes the mind to a train of thought that is serious without being unpleasant or completely demoralizing, which is perhaps the primary advantage that literature dating from a time before men of a type too generally similar and identifiable with one's self existed has over more contemporary work.
Moving on to my general observations and amusements in the course of reading this book:
(This picture by the way is The Vision of Ossian by Ingres. He did a series of them, though whether this is the same work that was commissioned by Napoleon I am not certain at the moment)
I have never cared much for stories, common in ancient literature, where people accidentally slay their friends/lovers, who are usually in some type of disguise and have entered the fray out of some misguided notion of helping or protecting the hero whom they love. This is such an important motif that clearly early writers saw it as expressing something essential about the human condition, but in the Ossian poems it comes across as a tired and unwelcome convention.
The Edinburgh edition is very luxuriant in its use of paper (which I like). There are lots of blank and nearly blank sheets devoted exclusively to titles, brief Arguments, and the like.
I do try to keep in mind, especially after having read so many 18th century books, how to an English-language reader in 1762 this would have been a real departure from the usual fare, as well as exciting in its suggestions of a wild and heroic, as well as mythical past in the British Isles themselves, which learned people did not think of them as having before that time, similar I think to the sense that Americans who care about such things have now about the prehistory of their country, which is not generally looked to for inspiration or as anything with which the modern inhabitants of the nation have much affinity or relation.
The sociological impression made by the work is not one of great vitality but one in which the vast majority of the best men--and the most beautiful women, their broken-hearted lovers--are killed practically in the first bloom of adulthood, before they are able to do anything. Obviously this has happened to generations of peoples in recent times as well, but the impression is made perhaps even more strongly here, for besides there never being peace and cultural renewal of sorts there is never even expressed a desire for peace. War and early death are seen as the constant, natural and even desirable conditions of life.
The appeal of the romantic past in its ability to give us something we want that we are convinced we cannot otherwise get is really a remarkable phenomenom. Although I have never been to one, out of fear of being ruthlessly ridiculed by the semi-cool and cool friends I did have, as well as my shrewd and perceptive wife, I have always had an attraction to the ridiculous Renaissance Fairs that go on all over the western world. These fairs have a reputation for being about unattractive, socially inept, intelligent but usually haphazardly educated people having found a milieu in which they can play at being, witty, sexy, manly, etc without the interference of too many competent interlopers who will expose the mirage (though some of the women at them at least are quite good-looking and any guy who gets to dance with them, let alone rip their bodices off, even if he is wearing chain mail and talking in faux-Middle English, is going to have to have some muscles and an ability to function reasonably well in the greater society). Still, the illusion of sanctity is offered. One can imagine and perhaps even experience a world in which he has standing, and a personality, where he carries weapons and uses them successfully in contest with other men, in which he is invited to dances and is even permitted to dance with a girl showing a considerable amount of cleavage (we are ignoring that she may be a little chunky or pimpled for mainstream tastes for the nonce). People will do anything they can to experience these feelings for themselves, if they are in any way available for them to have.
All this said, the life of endless warfare must have been very taxing for non-alpha males unfortunate enough to live in these ages.
MacPherson, from the Preface to Fingal:
`Poetry, like virtue, receives its reward after death. The fame which men pursued in vain, when living, is often bestowed upon them when they are not sensible of it. This neglect of living authors is not altogether to be attributed to that reluctance which men shew in praising and rewarding genius. It often happens, that the man who writes differs greatly from the same man in common life. His foibles, however, are obliterated by death, and his better part, his writings, remain: his character is formed from them, and he that was no extraordinary man in his own time, becomes the wonder of succeeding ages.--From this source proceeds our veneration for the dead. Their virtues remain, but the vices, which were once blended with their virtues, have died with themselves.`
This is perhaps true only so far as writing of good quality goes, I presume.
I will close this post. I think Ossian might merit a 3 or perhaps 4 part recap. We will see.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
As all of my computer time is either at work or with my wife and children in the next room, I do not spend a lot of time looking at anything on the internet that comes with sound, especially such videos as involve young women talking about themselves or other subjects that would be considered controversial for the likes of me to be indulging in. Thus whenever I do venture onto Youtube, it is usually in search of some quick hit of inoffensive (in the context of bourgeois taste) pop culture candy that feeds whatever particular emotional hunger I have lately been feeling. Last week I stumbled upon exactly the sort of thing I happened to be looking for (I hope this works). I was indeed so much taken with this little snippet that I rented and watched the whole movie, which I had never seen, nor had had any particular interest in seeing, before; and while as expected it is not really very good, it is the sort of movie that if I were reduced to living alone in a trailer park or dreary hotel room in Arizona and it came on TV at 2am I would watch the whole thing, because I feel a connection to it, one that is obviously satisfying. But whence this connection to a really silly movie from a foreign country made before I was born? I have my suspicions.
The Song. This is odd because when I was growing up I did not like the song at all, thinking it too precious or contrived perhaps, the kind of thing that somebody in the 60s thought was cool when it wasn't. This last is still more or less my impression but the angle from which I regard it now is more attractive. That is, while it still is not cool by the standards of the authentic cool people, by those of the comotose poppy mainstream, and the dreary social and sexual lives it is well established that they lead, it is comparatively high fun without being hopelessly inaccessible. I think actually this is the secret to the whole movie, because it also has...
London. This is not today's too cool for people like me, multicultural, everybody is cosmopolitan London, but still the dowdy, rainy, somber, fish and chip eating, schoolboys wearing short pants, shabby black jacket and necktie wearing London of the postwar years. It has taken me until my 30s, probably because the idea seemed too hopeless, but I finally realize that London is, and always has been, even before I went there, my favorite city, and of all the great world-cities the one most compatible with my mind and temperament. Everybody can laugh if they want, but I am pretty certain that this is true. When I saw the opening clip, where Georgy is running up and down past all the storefronts, so many of the details, the faces in the store windows, the signs, the store displays, the staircase she runs down, the sinks in the bathroom, etc, were all familiar to me. Now I was born not long after the film was made and therefore certain qualities and details of the period, even in England, would have been recognizable or come back vividly enough to my memory, but not every movie from this period inspires such a recognition. One of the disappointments of the rest of the movie is that after the opening sequence the crowds and car traffic on the streets thins considerably, and the sense of London as a bustling city is diminished. But for me at least there are other aspects of the movie to identify with. Namely...
British Sex circa 1940-1970. The sex scenes, or at least the foreplay scenes, in the movie, even those involving Charlotte Rampling, who is of a very high type of desirability such as the most successful seducers of every age eternally contend for, are to me among the more accurate representations of what these events are really like to appear on celluloid. For me many of the most realistic, as well as endearing, sex scenes, both in writing and film, are in works made or set in Britain during the period noted above, with an especially heavy concentration between about 1960-1966. The downside of this of course is that the quality of the sex that was had in this era by the types of characters having it is generally considered to be substandard to awful by the standards of most desirable people of the present day. But as I am pretty certain I will never have sex like a sophisticated Frenchman or Spaniard; as cinematic Swedes are too good-looking, smart, deep and serious for me to relate to their understanding of the subject; as American movies and books are mainly about triumphing over one's rivals to win the cheerleader or the doctor, or scoring as a way to attain status (men) or sophistication (women, usually by having affairs with Europeans or older millionaires) rather than about actual intimacy between people with something in common; I think the old fumbling with buttons and brastraps scene in a London flat or Brighton hotel following an evening in a grimy pub will always maintain their place in my affections as a reminder that somewhere, at sometime, there were intelligent and even kind of sexy people whose life somewhat resembled my own, which is one of the more comforting thoughts available to a man of my biography and circumstances.
The year 1966 of course was a major transitional year in Western culture/lifestyle. It has always loomed much larger to me than perhaps is really warranted, on account of my having been born shortly after this year, so much after which seemed to be a complete break with what seemed to me even as a small child the far more attractive and more pleasant world that my parents and grandparents, and indeed everyone I knew, had lived most of their own lives in. Whatever was going on in the 60s that was somewhat cool, '66 was the last year of it. Without writing a dissertation on this well-worn subject, many of the developments, particularly in fashion, sociability, education, scholarship, etc that began to kick in after that year did not seem to me as an uninformed child, and still do not as an only slightly more-informed adult, to be great improvements over what had prevailed formerly.
An important part of the sense of transition adhering to the year 1966 that does not seem to me to get enough attention is that is was the last year large numbers of movies and TV shows were filmed in black and white. While there may have been a few stragglers in '67 and '68, I cannot think of any offhand. Everything pretty much went color starting in '67. But in '66, besides Georgy Girl, I can think of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, as well as the great Czech new wave films Closely Watched Trains and Loves of a Blonde (Lasky Jedne Plavovlasky--sorry, but it is a great title in Czech. I'm sure there are others. Anyway, these four films look completely 'natural' in B & W, and give absolutely no indication that they are to be among the very last of their kind, which kind constitutes an entirely different experience from color, and even today continues to prop up the idea in the public mind of the cinema as something glamorous, romantic and exciting, apart from being possessed of artistic merit, which modern films, even those of a high quality, can rarely duplicate. This last is in part due to the nature of the filmviewing experience. Most movies now being watched at home, on television, the flow of the images controlled by the viewer, he is susceptible to the distractions of normal life, which is significantly different from going into a darkened theater for several hours and giving oneself up from all other stimuli and concerns, which is apparently too much to ask of busy people in the 21st century. But the shift from black and white to all color should not be underestimated either, I think. Black and white cinematography puts a much greater emphasis on the human face vis-a-vis natural scenery, furniture or other backgrounds which have come to play so prominent a part in films now, and while colors allow for spectacular effects in certain circumstances, it has changed the nature of filmmaking so strongly that characters become less existentially central to the process, and therefore less prominently delineated in the writing and the mind of the viewer.
I am going to stop here.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Though the reputation of this play traditionally has been as a transitional piece between the more ribald productions of the Restoration era and the insipid sentimental drama that dominated through most of the 18th century, I thought it was rather enjoyable. The main characters are upright and decent without however being prudish, dull, sluggish or unsexy, which makes for a very admirable picture of humanity, albeit a difficult one to actually pull off in all its aspects. We last encountered Steele (on this site) as the decidedly junior partner of the Spectator writing team. I found his contributions to that paper so lackluster in fact that I had very little expectation that his play would bear any mark of a talented or superiorly intelligent writer at all that I was surprised by how competent, and if I may say so, mature his composition was here.
I have before offered my opinion in these pages both that the personality of our current age seems to be marked by a particularly strident worldliness, as well as that it bears some similiarities to that of the period of the reign of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian succession in which Steele flourished. Steele does not strike me as being by nature of the worldly or pragmatic type of author or man, but the atmosphere of his time seems to have inclined him to respect and submit to the prevalent status of these attitudes in his writing. In The Conscious Lovers, the result of this is largely positive. The action of the play centers upon a love quadrangle in which two of the principals, though in love with other people, have been contracted to marry each other by their families. Though the marriage is not what either desires, the betrothed do not express any idea of its being outrageous, and seek a means to avoid it without openly defying the duty owed to their parents; if this last cannot be found, each maintains that he will submit to the terms of the arrangement contracted for them. Such jokes as are made at the expense of the custom, the professions that profit handsomely from it, etc, are light, and while they hint at the absurdity and mockery of the ideal of marriage that this custom makes, it is done carefully and cynically enough to insinuate that the author has no real problem with it if it is what the ruling powers desire. Here is a selection of quotes:
The son of Lord Bevil to his father--'For as you well judge, a woman that is espoused for a fortune is yet a better bargain if she dies; for then a man still enjoys what he did marry, the money, and is disencumbered of what he did not marry, the woman.'
The same, later on, as the hour of the wedding approaches--'If the lady is dressed and ready, you see I am. I suppose the lawyers are ready too.'
The lady Lucinda(the betrothed of Bevil Junior)`s maid, Phillis, explaining to her lady why she allows her footman boyfriend to *kiss* her--'...we poor people, that have nothing but our persons to bestow or treat for, are forced to deal and bargain by way of sample, and therefore, as we have no parchments or wax necessary in our agreements, we squeeze with our hands and seal with our lips to ratify vows and promises.'
The fop Cimberton (being wooed by Lucinda`s mother to marry the daughter in opposition to the father`s wishes) affecting to be turned on (there is a good fortune at stake) by the womanly form of Lucinda, to her mother--'Madam, there is no reflection, no philosophy, can at all times subdue the sensitive life, but the animal shall sometimes carry away the man.'
I am surprised that the BBC Masterpiece Theatre/Historical drama division has not done more with the enormous quantity of material afforded by the Restoration and 18th century theater. This would seem to be an obvious step for them, having (incredibly) nearly exhausted the 18th and 19th century English novel, and wrestled with Shakespeare seemingly to a point of cinematic and audience fatigue as well. Of course a taste and enthusiasm for this often coarse and comparatively outrageous time period would have to be cultivated in the audience but that is what these types of productions most excel in. The gallery of fops, rogues, loose women, drunkards, sword brandishers would be a transition from their more sedate, measured and psychologically complex descendants who constitute the current favored programming, but if some engaging and interesting actors, who respected and could take up the spirit of the material without being concerned to be cheeky or demonstrate how cool, clever, etc they are, could be found, I have no doubt it would succeed.
In act IV the witty Phillis observes to her lover, who is showing a lack of daring and ardency in relation to a potentially dangerous scheme that might win her to him utterly, that 'we hear every day of people's hanging themselves for love, and won't they venture the hazard of being hanged for love? Oh! Were I a man--`
There is a spinster aunt/chaperone to the marriageable young ladies in the play, which is a stock character in this genre of the theater, however, this one is notable for her revelation of her age, which happens to be 34!
It took me a long time, and the reading of many Restoration dramas to realize that the fop characters who are ubiquitous in these plays constitute one of the more solid blocs of blatantly homosexual characters in all of canonical literature. It is hard to gage how hip to this the authors of the time actually were because the subject, certainly as moderns would think about it, is never alluded to. The much ridiculed Colley Cibber, at least, whom Pope made the king of the dunces, one would like to think had no idea what his stock fop character Sir Novelty Fashion was really about. Nonetheless the whole parade of Lord Foppingtons and Fopworths and Cimbertons who populate these comedies are probably the most flaming gang ever to appear in the pages of anything, and really they don`t make any sense otherwise. This whole race of character is entirely given over to fancy dress, headgear, attending the theater and other fashionable haunts, expresses little romantic interest in women apart from trying to connect with a fortune, shuns horsemanship and country pursuits entirely, does not appear to carry, or at least certainly to relish using, weapons, and endures endless ridicule from the more conventional male characters, and some of the women, all of which strikes the reader as an improbable state for any semi-intelligent man to wish to persist in, until the obvious explanation offers itself. It also explained a question that pops into my head from time to time, which was, who and where were all the flagrant homosexuals in the 1700s? particularly in England, which seemed to have fewer religious/musical/artistic societies vis-a-vis the continent for men of those inclinations to take refuge in.
Richard Steele did not have a great work ethic and was encumbered with debt most of his adult life, to the point that he had to finally leave London altogether and take refuge in Wales, which was even more of a career killer in the 1720s that it is today. Most accounts of him inform the student that he was devoted to his `beautiful wife`. I tried to find a picture of her, but was unsuccessful.
Tour. Steele was a native of Dublin, being born in Bull Alley, near St Patricks Cathedral (where Swift was dean and is buried; Anglican). He was buried with his beautiful wife in St Peter`s Church in Carmarthen, Wales, which church, and these graves in them, still stand. There is a well known painting by Constable of the view of London (the dome of St Paul`s being prominent) from Steele`s cottage at 94 Haverstock Hill in Hampstead, which is now of course an outlying and totally built-up part of the city but especially in Steele`s time was a country village. I do not know what the view is like now (the cottage is gone), though apparently there is at least a Sir Richard Steele pub in the area. Perhaps it is not worth going to as a tourist, but I must say if I could wake up tomorrow morning and go have lunch at it the prospect would be most delightful to me.