Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lord Clark's CivilisationKenneth Clark's Civilisation was a 13-part BBC TV documentary originally shown in 1969 (there was also a companion book, shown in the photo above). The program was a great success at the time in Britain, and in the U.S. was shown on Sunday mornings to standing room only crowds at the National Gallery in Washington until the PBS network, which had previously rejected the series as unlikely to appeal to American audiences, picked it up, and it became a pioneering hit in this country as well. It continues to appear regularly on lists of the greatest and best-loved programs of its type. Despite all this notoriety I had been completely unaware of this project until a couple of months ago. It happened that I was reading a few chapters of a modern history, the premise of which was basically that very little of what has been passed down to us over the last several thousand years as History is either accurate or accurately considered, certainly not when compared with the version currently being presented. This particular book took especial issue with the traditional emphasis on the significance of the deeds of Great Men in our civilizational understanding of history, and this nowhere more than in the area of human endeavor broadly know as the Arts. It is not surprising that anyone living in this era, even a scholar, might naturally conclude that Arts of any sort are, and therefore must always have been, a remote and insignificant factor in ordinary people's lives compared to economic and social organization, which is perhaps true, though if so I think in the most prosaic sense of the word, and that is coming from a person who is practically the embodiment of prosaism in every thought or action he undertakes. The book itself was actually called Civilization, in part, the author, whose name unfortunately I cannot recall now, even acknowledged, to set itself in contrast with the Clark series and book and the patrician worldview which informed them. Though Clark was only referenced 5 or 6 times in this recent book it was evident whenever his name came up that the contemplation of his work gave something of a rise to the contemporary scholar; and as I found the approach and manner of this contemporary unlikable and dispiriting--there was not much hint of any sense of brotherhood with or affection for actual human beings, or even representations of actual human beings--I began to think that Clark sounded like he might be the kind of guy I like. Upon this intial consciousness, as so often happens, especially now when one can easily look anything up on the internet, I found that he was referenced all over the place, and in so many such places as I have been poking around for years that it is remarkable I should not have run across him before. At this point I was to beginning to become almost mildly excited, and the next time I went to the library I made a point of looking for the series. It was, indeed, checked out, but they had a copy of the book in storage, so I got that instead.

The book was enjoyable enough. While it is often touted as a "comprehensive survey of Western art and civilization" it actually narrows its focus pretty tightly upon a few examples, favorites of the author, in each epoch, but the choices are almost uniformly interesting, display excellent taste, and are legitimately great works of art or thought that have managed to remain relatively obscure compared with say, the Mona Lisa. Unfortunately I have had to return the book and no longer have it before me, but I remember especially finding the chapter on Bernini enlightening: I had not had a sense previously of what a gigantic as well as idefatigable figure he was in art history (the description of a contemporary opera noted that "Bernini painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, wrote the comedy and built the theater", all of course comparatively at or near the highest level of skill found in all these areas). The description of the Naval College at Greenwich, hardly one of the most famous buildings in London to the general public, and particularly its fantastic Baroque dining room, in which he declared that any society which thought it fit for military students to live in such a building and dine in such rooms must be acknowledged to have a high degree of civilization, also made a strong impression on me. The section on Jefferson and colonial American domestic architecture, of both which phenomena Clark was an admirer, being placed in juxtaposition with the Enlightenment from the European point of view, which is an angle from which I think it is often difficult for Americans to regard their own country, was satisfying if perhaps a little too neat for contemporary acceptance. Indeed most of the book has something of this quality of neatness--Clark states many times that he believes in genius, and I suspect that for him one of the qualities of genius is that it cleans and clarifies the march of history into some more sensible as well as elegant form that really is ultimately more significant than the messy life as experienced day by day. Above all perhaps the book gives the impression that being Kenneth Clark would be a most pleasant way to experience life. He is, as he more or less states in his book, free from much worry about whether his views on anything are 'correct' or not. He is Lord Clark. He is of the class of men that runs not only his own society, but that of a good deal of the entire world's. He has his own castle, he has been exposed to beautiful objects, brilliant people and a very high level of culture from the womb. If you want to take another scholar's or intellectual's word about the meaning or importance of all these things rather than his, his feelings aren't going to be much affected. He knows both the sort of men who made such works and the sort of men for whom they were made intimately enough, moreso certainly than most scholars and mediocre artists ever will. His confidence in his own understanding of that milieu cannot really be shattered in the bourgeois understanding of the word.

All right, I am going to have to do a second post on this. I wanted to get it done in one nice, concise essay, but I just can't do it. Not this week.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac (ca. 1461?)

This is an example of the genre of literature known as medieval mystery plays. Though they are similar, and flourished in the same age, as those dramas which have come down to us by the name of morality plays, there is a distinction between them which I have made a point of looking up; the mysteries dramatize important events in the Bible with the intention of making them more real to the unlearned, while the moralities are allegories of the struggle between virtuousness and sin which rages in every man (indeed, Everyman is perhaps the most famous specimen of this type).

I am fond of this short play (it is about 15-20 pages). Its language is about as pure and uncorrupted a variation of refined English as it is probably possible to attain. The King James Bible is by comparison a monument conceived with a sense of grandeur as much human as divine. That is of course a much greater work than this play. At the same time I don't know that this play, or any attempt at a truly simple, naturalistic religious expression can by definition achieve "greatness" in any artistic or cultural sense accepted by modern westerners. The expression is nonetheless interesting in its effects, particularly those of a strain of gentleness and tenderness which impressed me as being characteristically English. I would have quoted an example here, but having been unable to find any copy of the play in a printed book I read it off the internet, which I don't like doing anyway (though this scanning of books is a great project), and now I cannot find the version whose page numbers, etc, correspond with the notes I made.
Keeping on the subject of this peculiarly English gentleness for a minute, which one so often senses in English artistic productions even up to 1990s pop songs (in the last decade it seems to have disappeared all of a sudden, and been replaced by a wholly brutal, acerbic attitude that people apparently think is cool but which I do not find at all admirable). This other attitude was almost a wholly inward characteristic, a way of seeing or responding to life in one's private thoughts, and yes, it was often melancholy. Obviously many people who are not English possess this quality, but it seemed to be found in a higher than usual concentration, or at least was more frequently finely expressed, in that population. This quality was not generally elevating in the heroic sense, though it has long won the English nation a certain degree of goodwill from similarly sensitive people; it perhaps tended to be directed at objects either limited in number or insignificant in consideration, and often did not prevent its possessor from getting on in the world in any number of apparently contradictory ways. It is the point of view, I think, of people who are culturally hardened in certain areas propitious to the expression--language, tradition, geographical place--but relatively unhardened in others--politics perhaps, love, sentiment, artistic expression. That is about as far as I can carry it this week.

As I grow increasingly aware in mid-life of the vast areas of worthy knowledge I will never possess in any meaningful degree, let alone dominate on a global scale, I have had to add Biblical scholarship and interpretation to the long list of fields that have defeated me. This area of course is and has long been well-covered by armies of obviously very intelligent and driven people, and millions more of perhaps more modest scholarship but considerable fervor have managed to elbow their way into this arena either as actors or influential commentators. This is not even counting the people, many of whom appear to be employed by well-regarded universtities, who devote enormous amounts of effort to demonstrating how Noah's Ark would have had to have been the size of Cleveland to carry two specimens of every living beast, plus provisions for the same, while others have written long, meticulously cited, wholly incontrovertable papers about the inevitable waste issues that would have ensued on that much-celebrated watercraft. Such papers are ridiculous of course, but I understand why they are written. Indeed I write practically the equivalents of them myself without even being paid or at least ensconced on a pleasant campus for them.

In keeping with the last paragraph, I am therefore not going to offer my personal view on the significance or meaning of the Abraham and Isaac story at this time. It is only in the last few years that I have finally gotten, I think, pretty clear as to the main elements of the case, its relative position in Biblical chronology, fairly instant recognition of the scene in Old Master paintings, etc. I know that the story appealed greatly to philosophers of an especially energetic and combative sensibility, Kierkegaard in particular. Much staggering meditation exists on the subject. As far as I am concerned however, it all belongs to a different world, an interesting and at times attractive world, no doubt--I am speaking now of the world of scholarship and intellectual understanding, the basic elements of the story still provoke a somewhat confused and commonplace reaction--but I can't say that I have been able to understand and consider this story in the light of being one of the central expressions of what it means to be a human being, though I do believe it perhaps is so. I am also not certain that when people talk about "humanity" or the human being as a type or abstraction, that I am really included in whatever definition they might have in their heads.

Abraham and Isaac are recorded as having been buried in a great tomb at Hebron (Israel) along with others of their line. I believe this tomb, or something which has the name of it, can still be seen by pilgrims today. Abraham was said to have been born in Ur (or Tell Mugayar, as it is shown on some modern maps) in Iraq, of which I believe some decent ruins remain, while the traditional birthplace of Isaac was in Beersheba (Israel), of which I am not certain what, if anything, survives from antiquity.

I have had a hard go with writing lately, hence the infrequency of my posting. I am leaving for Florida in a couple of days, so it will probably be some time before I post anything else, though I am going to try to get something up before I go. I know that many of the top bloggers never announce when they are leaving town lest someone get the idea of coming and robbing their house but I am going to show trust in my readership and risk this possibility.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Alan Alda Film Festival

I heard this particular grouping of words recently on a right-wing talk radio program, the context being something like "You have a better chance of running into Bubba at an Alda Alda film festival than you do of getting him to submit to Hillary's socialist agenda". Such a statement of course is not correct, even assuming that the lady named actually has a socialist agenda; however the power, equal parts merriment, revulsion, and contempt, which the invocation of the name "Alan Alda"--and it is invoked quite a lot on this type of programming--summons up seems to, if handled in an appropriate measure, merit some brief commentary.

Now even I know that, in a serious society and culture, Alan Alda would not exist, or at least would not be a prominent public figure about whom anyone would have to bother to consider (indeed, in a serious society the likes of me would not be attempting to consider anything either, but would be kept steadily at work on tasks appropriate to my ability level and directed away from all mechanisms and outlets for individual expression by my wiser masters); however, as Alda's oeuvre seems to be considered an embodiment of at least one major strain of what is substandard in our collective intellects, characters, and souls, and since so many people, including myself, feel a visceral recoil at the sight of the man that is far beyond what either his work or politics in themselves would really seem to warrant, I am going to task myself with trying to describes what exactly it is that is so dreadful, and what it means. It will, in contrast to my usual no-contact, unacknowledged attempts to play footsie with real works of art, be disconcertingly sweaty, intense, and embarassing stuff. But this is roughly the toll I have to pay my personal gods to be allowed to play with the shadows of the other things.

Very late one night two or three years ago--around three or four am or thereabouts--I happened to be awake giving one of my babies a bottle, as is wont to happen to people with babies, and as the child required rocking as well, I was flipping through the television channels to see if anything bearable might be on when I came upon the opening theme of an old M*A*S*H episode. I had used to watch the reruns almost nightly for a period when I was twelve or thirteen--I watched a staggering amount of television as a child, it is really unbelievable--and, I suppose in a fit of nostalgia for something related to that time, though I cannot imagine what it would be, I decided to watch some of the show, anticipating that I would now find it abysmal. To my disappointment (this with the serious people in mind), I have to say that I did not find it abysmal, or even particularly stupid; at the very least, I was taken with the characters, and found them overall, just as I did when I was twelve, a more likeable specimen of homo Americanus than most characters one sees either on television or in actual life; this especially as it was one of the earlier shows, when Henry Blake, who was always my favorite character, was still on the scene. It is of course impossible to imagine the U.S. Army being portrayed now in anything close to the same light as it was on this program--almost none of the major characters on the show, except Colonel Potter and Hot Lips, I think, were professional military people; on the other hand, the idea that we used to fight very bloody wars with conscripts, many of whose devotion to the military ethos was ambiguous at best, is equally hard to imagine. Another interesting thing is that although almost all the major characters act in ways that would be considered unprofessional and immature now, they seem to be more "grown up" as in being more developed and complicated adult people, than similarly aged characters with similar educational and professional credentials, and more focused ambition, are, to my mind, in contemporary shows. It is also odd that all the main characters are Northeasterners, Upper Midwesterners, and Californians, and that no one is from the South, which region preponderates in the real army: New England is well-represented, with Pierce being from Maine, and Winchester being apparently a neighbor of John Kerry's on Beacon Hill; Henry Blake of course always sported his University of Illinois sweater though an absurd war in a country that I presume was little to never thought of by Americans prior to 1950 was raging all around him; Radar was from Iowa, Klinger from Ohio; I don't know if it was ever given out from Father Mulcahy was from, but it does not appear to have been Mississippi, or anywhere remotely proximate to it. Even the jerk Frank was from Indiana, which most coastal people have mixed feelings about (James Dean, small-town basketball games, good; perceived higher than average historical rates of Ku Klux Klan participation, bad). The social atmosphere of the unit was also probably too sophisticated and collegiate to be plausible. The educated doctors were running all the parties as well as setting the tone of dialogue and conduct for the enlisted men, though at least with regard to the latter perhaps this is the norm in medical units. As far as Alda is concerned, while there is undoubtedly an unpleasant mix of smarminess and self-righteousness always emanating from his Pierce character, it is not a disaster within the context of the show; there is, after all, a war going on, which he frequently expresses he is not really into in the conventional military sense, so it would likely be necessary for such a man to be a bit of a jackass if he was going to maintain his inner dignity, and perform his functions adequately, in that setting. Apart from people who just cannot handle any portrayal of the Army that is not worshipful, especially if the viewpoint taken of it is that of someone whose emotional investment is heavily directed outside of its organization, I don't think this show alone was sufficient to take Alda to the level of despisement that he currently enjoys. That is why the film festival is necessary. The series of films that Alda starred in in the late 1970s--works whose names I cannot bring myself even to write, so upset does the idea of them still make me--are perhaps the worst films ever made that clearly set out with some intention of being art. If one had to choose to live out the remainder of one's life either trapped exclusively in such a world as that depicted in Expressionist films of Weimar Germany or in that of a 1970s Alan Alda movie, anyone with a remote attachment to intelligence or humanism would have to pick the German option, for if you chose the Alda world you would be guaranteed to never encounter either of those states again. On the other hand you would have ready access to plenty of extra-marital sex, you would sip a lot of chardonnay and ogle your friends' teen-aged daughters, and, it being the 1970s, perhaps even commit that most, to us, egregious bourgeois sin with one of them (about which you will be tormented afterwards with horrible guilt, and go right back and repeat the action every chance you get), you would listen to a lot of classical music pieces that movies like this and the types of characters portrayed in them have made disreputable. These films are essentially suburban/gentile versions of Woody Allen's movies that were popular at the time, which are themselves in large part an American interpretation of the mysterious adult pleasures and alluring deviances that Europeans, the French in particular, give off that they enjoy. By the time all this gets filtered down to the Alan Alda demographic it is pretty unbearable gruel. The great problem of this demographic when confronted with artistic endeavor is that they bring to bear the deadly combination of minds that lack structure with personalities that lack force...

O.K., I am giving up. There are certain subjects to which one can only allot so much time and then one needs to move on.

In these types of movies it is quite remarkable to note how much sexual tension is expected, as well as accepted (as well as acted upon) in situations in which it would be considered completely inappropriate, even borderline criminal, to even hint at today. It is of course much more agreeable on the whole that most men, or many of them at least, are now considerably restrained from attempting to pursue every whim of desire that strikes them. At the same time it is a little odd, and and even a little silly, to find oneself really in the prime of one's life, at least by traditional standards, fairly strong, reasonably educated by the standards of the day, etc, and a figure of no real interest, even 'harmless social' or intellectual interest, to anyone. Of course we are all egomaniacs, and have to imagine that somebody ought always to feel something for us even when there is no reason to whatsoever. But it impossible to feel the truth of this (that in fact they needn't) at all times and with all people.

I am not particularly an Audrey Hepburn fanatic, though I do like her. For some reason this picture came up in a search among a whole page of Alan Alda pictures and I thought, that's a pretty picture, I'd like to put it on my page. But as to romance, I don't believe Audrey and I would have made a very good couple even if she had just been someone who went undiscovered and worked at a coffee shop. The connection I don't think would be there.

February is a bad month for the blog. I thought about giving it up again, but, I am getting 3-5 views a week on the author page or whatever it is (I still don't have one of those services giving me more statistics, page views, how many hours, where they're from, etc). This does not really justify keeping it up, but, until I can find another habit, other than gambling, that will at least offer some similar hope of eventual satisfaction, I find it is actually hard to stop. The office where my computer is at my house, I should add, is unheated, so that discourages from going in there sometimes (it is still 45-50 degrees even at the worst; one assumes it was frequently colder in Dostoevsky's apartment).

I have to stop now.