Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Junior #4

I suppose I should announce that I have another kid as of last Wednesday. He is a boy, just like the other three. It would be great if they formed a barbershop quartet someday, but people in our socio-psychological neighborhood don't seem to have those kinds of inspirations anymore.

This child did not have a name until the fifth day after he was born. For the record, he ended up with the appellation John Samuel, and he is going to be called Jackie. At this point I only call any of them by the correct name half the time anyway.

The process of the naming having been a rather drawn-out affair, I want to make an account of all the names I was seriously considering, and my motivations for doing so. The names of my other three sons are Oscar, Charles and George--all names with strong European and literary associations, as well as a notable presence in the jaunty 1895-1945 period of American history of which I have a certain fondness--and wanted the new name to fit in with these of course.

Samuel, which ended up as the middle name, is not a name I really like all that much (ed--I realized, too late, that this was because it sounds too Protestant for my inner sense of comfort). However, it became a late entry to the sweepstakes on my side when absolutely nothing else was passing muster, and I considered that a significant number of my most admired literary heroes had this name: Johnson, Beckett, Coleridge, even poor old Richardson to a certain degree. It was Mark Twain's real name as well, and while I am not as wholly enraptured with his writing as some are, I do admire his personality, or at least that part of it which was able to make things happen in a big way, which is a majorly desirable quality that I do not have at all.

I thought Ernest a very solid, unobjectionable name which has completely dropped out of circulation--on those timeline graphs of name popularity you can find on the internet, it doesn't just flatline after 1960, it descends off the page altogether and never returns--and which would seem to be due for a comeback. My wife wasn't having it however.

Harald--The Middle Ages may not have been a great era by our standards in most areas, but it was a veritable gold mine for names. Does not this evoke the romantic air of castles and knights and monasteries and bread ovens and the pure unlatinized consonants of the Saxon tongue? This got nowhere either.

Edgar--I knew this would be a longshot, but I tried to present it in terms of the image of medieval royalty and martial strength with which I think of it rather than modern social ineptitude with which the name has unfortunately become identified. This wasn't even taken seriously.

Other names beginning with E-d--Edward, Edmund--were disimissed because my wife believed there was a strong possibility the child might end up being called Ed due to circumstances beyond her control, and her hatred of the sound of "Ed" did not allow her to entertain the possibility of that risk.

Alfred was not treated as a serious suggestion.

Henry was rejected because the child's name would then have been Henry Miller, and my wife detests the author of "Sexus", "Nexus" "Tropic of Cancer" and whatever else he wrote. This sort of consideration also eliminated Arthur, though her feelings against the work and politics of this author--to which many have a fierce objection themselves--did not factor as strongly in the rejection as the mere notoriety.

Walter was not treated unkindly, but there was some fear, in my opinion unfounded, that the child would become known as "Wally". Apparently in New England this is still a common nickname for Walter.

If the baby had been a girl--and I never find out ahead of time what the sex of the child is, because they don't do that in pre-1970 novels, and I cannot construct a psychological framework for dealing with situations that cannot be referenced to this category of literature--its name would have been Zoey Sophia. But apparently it is not intended by the spirits at large in the world that I am to have any daughters.

For the record, and this probably isn't interesting to anyone but myself, here are the books I was reading at the times of the various births of the children:

Oscar--Henry James The Golden Bowl
Charles--Thomas DeQuincey Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
George--Addison & Steele The Spectator
Jackie--William Harrison Ainsworth The Tower of London

I don't see much constituting any kind of pattern in this list, though DeQuincey and Ainsworth are both natives of Manchester (England) which hasn't produced a ton of famous authors--indeed it is questionable whether these two guys even qualify as famous anymore.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Julius Caesar--Shakespeare (Part 1)

Cleopatra of course isn't in this one. It was doubtless thrown in at this spot on my list source as a deceptive answer.

I had read it a couple of times, but not for many years, and never officially for this reading program I have made more or less my fate (which increasingly appears to have been not quite the right choice).

With reference to an earlier discussion on Gil Roth's site, this is, I am pretty sure, the 14th Shakespeare play I have read. In any case, if I have read more, I have no memory of them. There are quite a few big ones still out there.

I still find Julius Caesar a great, ebullient entertainment. It is not usually reputed by most maturer and more advanced readers among this author's first rank of work. I am more of a pass/fail reader than one of those who feels compelled to rank everything into very distinct gradations of quality. Life is short and potentially grisly enough, I think, and decidedly good or pretty things are rare enough occurrences even to one of a generally generous disposition, that if a book or anything else has ought of excellence in it, and no obvious deficiencies or uglinesses by the usual standards of human existence, I am more than delighted to have it.

This prevents me from attaining real connoisseurship or expertise in any field, I suppose, and allows the possibility that my pleasures and insights are cheaper, if not catastrophically so, then they otherwise might be. However, if I were to prove unable, or were to succumb to the idea that I were unable to properly comprehend, for example, Hamlet--which if I were to take someone like Harold Bloom's word for it (which obviously I don't), no one currently living, apart from himself, does, and the culture and language are greatly diminished for it--I would run the risk of becoming unable to find delight in anything, which has actually been a problem I have struggled with for some years.

This is the standard 10th grade English Shakespeare play in American high schools, which probably accounts for a good deal of the surprising lack of fervor for it I detect among large swathes of the current grown-up intelligentsia. The play does seem to lend itself, even in years long afterwards, to a sort of tenth-grade level interpretation no matter how much additional knowledge and experience you bring to the reading. As I was not at a tenth-grade level of reading or anything else when I was actually in tenth grade, at this late date it is not so much irritating, as it is moderately pleasant, to feel oneself having attained somewhat of that status of proper sophomorehood at last.

Many of my notes on this play are enigmas to me as I finally get ready to post my thoughts on it. I said--probably mouthed--"One can see it is the work of a man in the unfolding of construction, matter of fact language of introductory scene." Did I mean here man as opposed to woman? Or man as in man--mensch, philosopher-king, etc? If the first why did this strike me as important? We are talking about Shakespeare, it is hardly of interest that he wrote in some way characteristic of one sex, which he probably was, rather than another. I don't understand.

Cassius's famous speech at I.ii.135 ("Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men, etc...") demonstrates succintly why there had to be war; there were too many great (in the sense of largeness of presence and self-conception) men, independent men, spirited men, strong men, what have you, yet active to allow for a bloodless submission to Caesar. This is often the case during the origins and ascendencies of great peoples--this is where England considered itself to be in the 1590s incidentally, and with reason--but maturity and decline largely winnows such spirits as a percentage, almost even as an identifiable type, of the population.

"One goes over every line not gotten because of the anticipation of its importance." I wrote this, and certainly I meant something by it, I was trying to express that the play was not in fact wholly dead to me, that there was something in it comprehensible that had resonance in my mental if not my visible and social life. It is still a conflicted and tortured relation to literature however.

II. i. 63-65 BRUTUS: "Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream:"

"The Roman code of honor as painted by W.S. has 'universal' application...Tension of action/necessity--would have been avoided." More of my notations. I don't know what the second refers to. The first I think is the old bit that the Roman code of honor, or the chronicles of the Hebrews, or anything else that is a product of a particular society in a particular time, has lasting resonance and importance across time not in themselves and on account of their original purposes but because writers of genius caused the ideas in them to be formed as fundamental developments and ideals in the collective imagination.

Apparently at the time I read this play I was quoting from it in arguments with my wife, and seem to have especially proud of employing a variation of the "Upon what meat doth this Caesar feed/That he is grown so great..." speech in such a combat, which seems to have momentarily disarmed my tyrannic opponent, for the end of the note states with rare assurance, "Women love W.S."

II. ii. 30-33 CALPURNIA: "When beggars die, there are no comets seen,
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
CAESAR: "Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once."

These are accurately expressed ideas, the real dint of which I need to try to impress upon my sons before they develop too strong a stake in death and cowardice.

"What is W.S.'s position regarding this action (the murder of Caesar)? Crowd is silly--Antony's rhetoric silly." Wow. That's a rather bold assertion for me. I guess I was thinking maybe he was subtly sympathetic with it.

Some other quickie observations:

Brutus sees Cassius as self-possessed, but himself as not.

Brutus shows concern on numerous occasions for the will of the people as opposed to the will of the conspirators.

Cassius's speeches denouncing Caesar nonetheless reveal grudging, perhaps even unconscious, acknowledgements of his leadership and other virtues.

Cassius laments that "Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods/When went there by an age, since the great flood/But it was famed with more than one man", though ironically, admittedly in large part due to the conspiracy, this age in the end produced more famous Romans than any other.

Caesar notes of Cassius that he cares not for representations of life (art, music, etc) and that this indicates danger.

I thought it noteworthy to state that this play is funnier than Coriolanus.

Whereas the greatness of Coriolanus is acknowledged throughout his play, that of Caesar is minimized. Caesar also appears more affected by the crowd. The ideas in this play are lighter. Life and death themselves are lighter.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I Do Think This is Groovy

I like the young girls they have dancing around at the end in this video (there is a similiar selection lining the aisles in the one for "Your Mother Should Know" too). My wife points out that they are most likely all professional models, but nonetheless they look more like the sort of person one might encounter in the course of a normal life than models today do. In the first years of the hippie/awakening era--especially '66 & '67--the women did look great, and there were lots of 18-20 year olds bursting on the scene. In addition there was no pronounced obesity epidemic among the young comparable to today, and I think the basic level of schooling and acculturation of that age cohort, again considering normal, mentally unspectacular people, was better for the nurturing of a liveliness of mind than it is today. The subtle understanding of how to choose and wear clothing that really enhances one's appearance, for some reason a totally lost art among the majority of the population nowadays, including, regrettably, myself, was still held valuable in 1967, and was adhered to even by the early experimenters in hippie fashion, which was a lot more interesting and attractive than what was soon to follow.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Moonlight in Vermont

Not much in the way of music has come out of this part of the world. I don't know how much really dynamic potential it has, given the climate, the lack of major cities, the ethnic composition and comparatively sober temperament of the population, but I am surprised there haven't been more pop bands at least of the slightly offbeat, depressive, dreamy-sounding type such as frequently comes out of the north of Britain. The people who try to take up music around here don't seem to identify real strongly with what they are, musically anyway; they want to connect with what they perceive to be going on of some kind of importance out in the Real America, which in musical matters is always assumed to be so much more interesting and advanced than here that there isn't even a sense of what a good "New England sound" would possibly be like. Whatever is the reason, songs do not flow naturally out of the patterns and habits of day to day life in these parts.

Though (according to the Internet) written by one guy from California and another from Ohio who came to Vermont while travelling with a puppet theater group, "Moonlight in Vermont" is a rare classic featuring the area. Though the song was written in 1943, the state still looks and feels like the winsome atmosphere evoked by both the lyrics and the tune. If one were to hear it when far away from home, and had spent any time there as a younger man, it would call up all those associations of youth and one's rawer, more hopeful self as experienced through this prism of nature quite beautifully I would think.

Another song that I have always found reminds me of the psychological atmosphere of this part of the world, winsomeness running up against the realities of the climate, the past-orientation of much of the actual geography of towns and routines of living that this still necessitates (which I also think accounts for the extreme popularity and identification with the game of baseball and the Red Sox in particular, compared to people living in more blatantly 21-st century regions) is the Neil Young song "Harvest Moon". I feel somewhat manipulated by it and suspect it isn't a very good song, but it does capture something in the mood of that end-of-fall time in a northern country, where you think you are, or must be, sad, but actually you are happy and optimistic, though this is not apparent to outsiders, which the record of your life, if you keep one, will demonstrate.

I chose to put the Sinatra version on the page here because it is famous, the video had some live action, and, as one of the commentators on Youtube put it "Frank owns this song". I like girl singers though, so I thought I would check some of them out. I found Jo Stafford, who is one of those singers you think isn't so good when you try to intellectualize about her, but then you don't get tired of hearing her versions of songs over and over, and prefer them almost unconsciously to ones you are sure are better. I used to have one of her records in college and I listened to it all the time. All the while I knew other guys were putting on Billie Holliday albums and drawing girls into their rooms and rendering them powerless to resist their advances by the elevated atmosphere; but I never liked Billie Holliday a tenth as much as Jo Stafford. She is like ice cream to me. Margaret Whiting did an early version of the song, which is also good.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I recently visited one of my second-rank favorite places, the scrap-metal yard. If you are familiar with the old book or movie The Magnificent Ambersons, which is about the decline of a once-flourishing family and the small town where they formerly lorded it over everyone, the Amberson's house and that town are where I live, only with 70 additional years of decline. The property having been in the family for a long time, and there being an enormous catacomb-like cellar and decrepit carriage house which serve no vital purpose to a modern household, several generations of broken tools, appliances, motors, radiators, and the like have accumulated, enough to periodically gather up a haul of good old 20th century heavy, rusted iron that has a value of $100 or more on the scrap metal market. The scrap metal yard itself is a fantastic dislocation from the present to the atmosphere of the beginning-to-teeter industrial America of 1970 or so, scarcely a sensation of any plastic or other synthetic materials in sight, corrugated-metal sheds, enormous front loaders and bulldozer-like machines roving all over the site, the earth a permanently torn up and disfigured slough of mud, and of course piles of discarded metal, our national inheritance as it were, heaped up everywhere you turn.

This has nothing to do with Caesar except that when I tried to think of associations that Caesar's name invokes in me, I thought of the scrap metal yard, and when I am at the scrap metal yard I think of Rome, or probably more precisely the Roman and Roman-inspired literature that used to be the heart of the course of study at the finest and most beautiful private schools, and the nodding, romanticized ideas of olive groves and temples overlooking the warm seas that often come to people who encounter such works for the first time in such a setting. Sculptural representations of Caesar strike me as more consistently beautiful works of art than those of other great men. The pictures of these others are often uncompelling apart from the association of their work or other feats, but the depictions of Caesar radiate a palpable strength and superiority that manifests itself in the physical person as much as the mind. He is usually shown as having a perfectly-shaped head, neither too round nor too long, but achieving a happy proportion between the two, with a very lean lower half of the face over the expressions and twitches of which his mind appears to have perfect muscular control, always in perfectly orchestrated unison or counterpoint with his eyes. It is, perhaps deceptively, a reassuring face. Samuel Beckett closer to our time had one with a similar effect. It is reassuring because it strikes one as what a man's head and bearing ought to look like, and gives us a higher view of our nature than we ordinarily possess.

Like Napoleon, Caesar's historical reputation seems to me to have been consistently quite positive, or at least his greatest qualities and achievements are seen as offsetting the negative effects of his ascent and imdomitable will, such as for example the extermination of entire nations of people in his Gallic campaigns. He was one of the great generals, or at any rate one of the most important ones, in history. His administration of the Empire when dictator is widely admired, though his skill in this may be oversold by people, and there are many such, who live in more democratic or less centrally organized states and have a strange unmet craving for more competent and efficient administration. Assuming that he wrote the books that have been published under his name for the last 1000 years, he is still, I think, a canonical, or near-canonical author, his writings both seminal documents of ancient history and models of terse prose composition. He appears to have had no small amount of sexual virility either, and enjoyed substantial and enviable success with beautiful women. Aside from a very few stout and hyper-confident iconoclasts like Samuel Johnson, I think there has been historically a general sense among scholars and artists alike that such accomplishments and such stature in the specific time and society in which he lived, with its unique set of political and cultural conditions, and the intellectual talent which abounded in and about it, demands respect. I think a more classical approach to understanding human beings and history, if it does not require this, strongly pressures one to lean in that direction. Caesar becomes in this view a repository for the whole Western tradition, its learning, its outcome, its mythology and narrative flow, for the tradition has gone too far down the particular path that he, along with others, set it on, and if Caesar is not actually "great" in the substantial ways he has been honored as great, the traditon becomes at the least unreliable, and there is a good chance as well that it is an abomination altogether. Of course a truly developed post-modernist intellect--(well, I was getting on a roll but at this point I was interrupted--I forget for what reason--and I forget what a truly developed post-modern intellect would know--probably that the tradition is irrelevant, or that Caesar was just another person like anybody else, who snored and had to clip his toenails and so on, but happened to be a hyper-privileged, overconfident bully type).

I have often thought that people who care about such things are not as emotional about particular events and episodes in the history of the Roman Empire as they are with that of other peoples and periods. One reason I suppose is that Roman life and the Roman spirit, so to speak, never wholly died or were irretrievably lost to us. Rome was a practical, adaptable, and universal state and culture, its achievements and organization familiar and really the basis for all of Western civilization that followed it. No one has the sense that Rome died too soon, or that it might have, with some different luck, achieved or advanced humanity to any higher level than it did. Unlike the Athenians or the medieval Florentines or the seventeenth century French or other outbursts of spectacular and unreproduceable brilliance among a smaller and chronologically limited set of people, one doesn't think with even the greatest Romans that he has missed something he can't get a fair way up to speed on. Thus I do not think that the thought of Caesar as an usurper of the tradition and laws of his country, and as one who in large part opoosed its collective will, upsets anyone too much. Either they don't love the ideal of the Republic, and its traditions, its meaning, or they think after 700 years it perhaps had gotten a little stale and it was time for someone to shake things up a little and grab the reins of the state. I think there is a consensus that Caesar was probably wrong, and that we should not like to be so ruled ourselves, but we know enough to feel that nothing so grand for us is really at stake...

I am really tired, and I am done this post. I don't even know what I wrote at the end, but obviously the hypothetical students whose emotions are not fired by the real story of Caesar per se but by...yeah, it's me. I have to stop.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Antony & Cleopatra Part 2

I have a poor edition of the collected works of Shakespeare for someone who tries to present himself as whatever it is I hope to present myself as, something called the Cambridge Edition Text of 1936, with "The Temple Notes" which are quite the most useless notes I have ever encountered, and illustrations by the 1930s Socialist-Realist artist Rockwell Kent. I actually don't mind Kent, but I have been present when others of great knowledge and strong opinions regarding art and the world in general have sneered at the drawings and critical writings of this artist, and thus suspect that any project which had an association with him must smack of second-rateness through and through. This edition doesn't even seem to agree in its scene breaks with most of the ones in common use, Act III of Antony and Cleopatra for example having 13 scenes in this book, which does not appear to be the case elsewhere. I really ought to get something better, at the very least something more attractive, or less cumbersome, or with easier to read print (this book having the dreaded old-fashioned small print double-column type). Currently I am not getting even a modest visceral thrill from pulling down and fondling the family volume of Shakespeare, something of which sort I think should be the case to some degree in the life of a person such as I am.

Act III Scene xiii: ANTONY: "I found you as a morsel cold upon
Dead Caesar's trencher; nay, you were a fragment
Of Cneius Pompey's; besides what hotter hours,
Unregister'd in vulgar fame, you have
Luxuriously pick'd out..."
These are some cold words. Wherever we love with any especial fervency or significance to ourselves, we can never forgive the object of our passion for coming to us in any but a completely undefiled state. So long as our beloved is wholeheartedly engaged in attending to our happiness, and ignoring all else, we can forget these harder sentiments, but they must ever rear themselves at the slightest neglect or other disappointment.

Act IV Scene iv: Beautiful line:
ANTONY: "This morning, like the spirit of a youth
That means to be of note, begins betimes."

Artist's Conception of What Cleopatra May Have Looked Like. That's what it says anyway. Obviously I would be content enough to imagine it were so. Antony does not really come off too good to me in this play, either. I guess I just can't warm up to him. His character is kind of an arrogant jerk, all the while he's getting worked over by both Cleopatra and Octavian. This play is usually listed with the tragedies, so I assume the title characters are supposed to have tragic flaws. Cleopatra is pretty much synonymous, fairly or not, with sensualism and vanity, and I can't see that Antony's downfall is morally the result of anything more direct than that. Being more obtuse than the people one is contending with does not seem to qualify one as a tragic figure.

ACT IV SCENE xv, CLEOPATRA: "...then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us?..."

A lot of legendary Romans fell on their swords, or had swords thrust into them by others, in a comparatively short period of time, as noted above: Pompey the Great, Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Antony, Brutus. Whatever one thinks of these people, that was by our standards a considerable collection of intellect, energy and talent to be consumed in internecine struggle, though of course their involvement in that struggle was in most cases what caused their great abilities to attract so much attention and renown. Still, the general attitude of Roman society at that time certainly was not that talented people were such precious resources as to be unexpendable. Indeed, the greater ability you showed in some instances, the more likely you were to pass a significant portion of your life with that life imperiled. This seems to be a common trait among well-developed aristocratic castes, the to bourgeois sensibilities shocking indifference to exposing the most brilliant, capable and highly refined young men to a casual death, the willingness to do which, is, I suppose, expresses in the plainest manner what is known as a sense of tragedy, which most intellectuals seem to consider a very desirable thing to possess in one's person.

Millenial Generation Antony and Cleopatra, I Presume. Chicks like this, you can argue, aren't worth getting worked up about, but I have always sensed that figuring out how to get in favor with this general type would have been the key for me, given the era in which I lived, social environment I had some possibility of hovering around, etc, to have had a more satisfying social and romantic life in my youth. Of course I never came close to figuring it out, and women like this, who would seem to be the nearest thing I have to a natural reasonably attractive, opposite-sex peer group, always held me off at such a great distance that I am not sure I managed to get the ball even past midfield in my entire youthful career.

ACT V SCENE ii, CLEOPATRA: (Good example of poetic power) "...If your master
Would have a queen his beggar, you must tell him,
That majesty, to keep decorum, must
No less beg than a kingdom: if he please
To give me conquer'd Egypt for my son,
He gives me so much of mine own as I
Will kneel to him with thanks."

Later in the same scene, more good lines, also from Cleopatra:

"...saucy lictors
Will catch at us like strumpets , and scald rhymers
Ballad us out o' tune: the quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' the posture of a whore."

I am guessing that Shakespeare, being an actor and writer of dialogue, would have spoken in a somewhat similar manner to that in which he wrote. One of my great mistakes in undertaking to be a writer was to completely discount the relation between one's talking, in which area by the way I am wholly incapable, and one's writing. Given enough time--weeks, months--one can untangle and hammer out one's impressions and thoughts enough on the page to make a somehwat coherent idea, but the problem of course is that the person in the real time of life who requires such an amount of time to make any sense of the impressions he has and the people who speak with him is simply going to have a very constricted experience of life and other men, and certainly cannot be a novelist, which requires its practitioners to comprehend and record the world at a rate somewhat akin to the pace at which it actually happens. The person such as myself who carries single assertion or exchanges from much larger and forgotten conversations about in his mind such as I do, and in some instances comes upon a potential response to an assertion made by the other 20 years--20 years!--after the actual assertion was made in real time is going to be at a real handicap in trying to create a fictional world that has enough life and fullness in it to be interesting to any reader.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

50th Anniversary of the French New Wave

I am doing this in order to take part in a blogathon on this event . I don't know the host. I just stumbled upon it. A blogathon seems to be a combination of a special magazine issue and a conference where people give learned papers translated to the milieu of the blog form. The host is a much more intense student of the cinema than I am--in addition to breaking down the classics from a multitude of perspectives he does rankings such as "Top 25 Horror Films", with references to a hundred others, none of which I have ever seen. I fancy however that I will be up to a little piece on the French New Wave, though I am not sure I have seen more than five movies that would definitely qualify under this heading : The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Breathless and Contempt. I assume My Night at Maud's is not counted among this group, having come out in 1968, which I would think somewhat late to really be part of the Wave, though it does have stylistic similarities. Likewise with Truffaut's movies from the 70s, which I imagine would be strong reverberations from the Wave, but not the Great Thing itself. One year when I was in college the film society's annual Wednesday night winter series featured the works of Truffaut. As this had been endowed by somebody and was therefore free, as well as featured work that had enough conventional attractiveness and comprehensibility for me to enjoy--I probably could not have made it through a Godard festival--my attendance at these showings was regular. I did not think too much about them at the time, other than of certain images from them that appealed to my sensibility: the drab mist of winter, grubby Parisian sidewalks, the shrine about the picture of Balzac (my wife once kept a picture of Edgar Allan Poe that she had cut from a magazine on our kitchen table for several months in a similar manner to this), the dull glimmer of bar bottles and worn wooden tables, the bare trees lining the side of the road. I was also impressed, to the extent I was capable of receiving such impressions at the time, by--in a positive sense--the naturalness of the story progession, the dialogue, and all the little details of action that make artworks the heightened and more interesting representations of experience that they are supposed to be. The five or six weeks of that winter that this festival went on were an interesting time (for me--the members of Van Halen or their like would have thought themselves in some kind of extreme detox/sensual deprivation program). For one thing I drank every night, which of course is very bad for you in so many ways but at the time did have a rather thrilling aspect about it for the first hour or two the quality of which I still find I miss and have not found an adequate replacement for in terms of getting a daily jolt (please don't suggest exercising). Socially I was at the peak period of closeness with various friends I had, past the initial feeling-out months and before the high intimacy of that time had run its course and the various members of the group--including me, doubtless, though I have always lived and felt and reacted at a far slower pace than everyone else and did not fully pick up on this dynamic until six or seven years later--needed to progress in various directions. In short, I felt that my life was in some way starting to take on a more distinct and not wholly uninteresting character, rather worthy of a French New Wave movie.

The series was not without more insidious influences for me however, who have the misfortune to be one of those people who takes what happens in movies to be a more accurate depiction of life than what is actually occurring all around me. The early New Wave films especially, as well as the mythology surrounding them, give an impression of life in which (compared to the one I knew) one creates art, dresses snappily, hangs out with beautiful women, drinks, smokes, reads newspapers and slim modern novels and books of philosophy, and has incisive conversations, all without ever doing much of anything the least bit strenuous. To be French, it is suggested, is almost to be born in many ways a perfectly-formed human being. One may have to be taught a few things to attain adulthood in such a perfect state, but it is rather unimaginable that any able person would not learn them, given the perfected state which French education and culture have reached. The New Wave broke out, it is often recounted, when Truffaut and Godard and a few others, working as magazine critics in the late 50s who specialized in condemning the tepid French cinema of the time, were challenged to make their own films, and Voila! six months later two of the fifty or so most acclaimed movies of all time burst on the scene, and if there was any great difficulty or Herculean effort required in the production, it does not seem to be considered relevant to the final work on the screen.

This is the impression an impressionable young person can take away from these films, that the mechanical aspects of life are easy. Yes, in Godard films people are forever dying in car crashes or whatever that are somehow directly brought about by their ennui and essential emptiness, but these are largely irrelevant problems to the casual filmgoer, as the empty characters are hopelessly good-looking, have hopelessly good taste in "design" (furniture, bathroom tiles, etc), gorgeous cars, apparently plenty of money, have had sex with numerous of the most beautiful specimens of their preferred gender--if they're bored with this then it makes sense they should die. I have often observed that many of the hippest people either remain childless, or have but one child. This is doubtless because they perceive they have carried their genes to the extent of greatness and fullness of life that is possible for them, and this instinctively; I suppose the point of Godard is that this dead end was reached by a wrong turn, that their perfection is wholly deceptive, which they also sense though within their understood value system it is impossible for them to refute it, and accurately perceive the more true perfection towards which their unconscious and undeveloped soul is still striving.

I cannot hold the French responsible however for my lifelong aversion to and total misunderstanding of the necessity of hard work. For it is certainly emphasized plenty in all manner of America media and my youthful self was oblivious to it, didn't recognize it, and did not realize how early one needed to set at it--the foundations of today's triumph were laid decades earlier and build up slowly and with unrelenting effort every day during that time. For contrast I would like to write about an American movie that came out around the same time as the French New Wave, was set and filmed in France, and even featured one of the New Wave's icons, Jeanne Moreau, fresh off Jules and Jim, in a comparatively pointless role, the 1964 World War II action flick The Train. The Train is a decent movie if you really like the culture of railroads, especially in Europe, and everything associated with them, which I do, but otherwise the plot is a bit clunky, the capers dated and amateurish (the various tactics employed to deceive and foil the Nazis would never have worked in a million years) and the casting off. On the positive side it is attractively filmed, and has the aforementioned great footage of the railyards and stations of old Europe, particularly the night shots, nighttime rail travel being variously romantic, lonely, eerie, reassuring. There is a lot of conscious hard work and effort visible on the celluloid, both in the story itself and in the production; elaborate scenes involving explosions, derailments, aerial bombardments, constant track switching and repair on the locomotives, the overly complicated schemes employed to deceive the Nazis. The biography of the director, John Frankenheimer, indicates a vision/aesthetic theory forged during and over years of hard and constant working experience rather than as abstractions. This is the American way, and it is probably really the French way too if one looks into it prosaically, though they choose to place the emphasis, the importance, the interest of the finished work, elsewhere, and I think properly so, so long as one is not naive and deceives himself as to where such advanced abilities have by necessity a considerable, if not the greater, part of their origins. One cannot be overly conscious of and fascinated by his own processes in art or any other manly area of life; one must have them, and to a fairly advanced degree starting at an early age, however, to make a worthwhile figure in anything.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ingrid Bergman Screen Test

I see that we have some Ingrid Bergman fans among our commentators, and this is a pleasing little movie--where do people find this stuff?--which will spruce up the blog, make it look more purposeful, stylish, all of that, so I am putting it up

Is Polar Tourism Really That Dangerous?Polar tourism has been a moderately hot topic around the fringes of the respectable press lately. None of the scientific experts that I know of approves of it, and I see that President Obama has announced that he wants to restrict it, I assume by international agreement among reasonable and civilized men and women like himself, and myself as well. I concede I have not been to either the Arctic or Antarctic regions to observe and confirm first hand what is going on, but I don't doubt that the reports of dramatic melting of ice shelves and glaciers, or the softening of the permafrost in Alaska that is destabilizing the foundations of buildings there and so forth, are true. While I am not absolutely convinced that all of this is the direct result of human fossil fuel energy consumption--overall the earth and the atmosphere still seem, intuitively, rather too vast and complicated and inexorable to be affected by human activity to that degree--that it might be so is I suppose plausible. Apparently we are getting very close for example to depleting some of the major fish stocks in the world's oceans, which also seems intuitively impossible. Yet right here in New England the cod, which was one of the foundations on which the entire region was settled and built, has, it is said, been virtually extirpated from the seas, and is not expected to come back in anything like its former numbers any time soon.

Granting all that however, I still don't see how a few cruise ships full of largely docile tourists is a threat to the polar ecosystems that needs to be stopped right away. While I am partially reassured by their ads that the Exxon corporation does care deeply about the environment, I would think activities like oil exploration would have the potential to be a lot more damaging. The continent of Antarctica is bigger than Europe. Baffin Island in the Arctic is far larger than Britain. There isn't a hotel or resort or casino or railroad line or anything resource-depleting directly attributable to tourism there to my knowledge. Greenland is half the size of Australia and has a population smaller than that of Portland, Maine, which my relatives in Pennsylvania mistook for the end of the world when they came to visit us there. I have driven around quite a bit in the sliver (on the map) of territory in Quebec that is along the U.S. border--supposedly the inhabitated part of the province--and it is for the most part staggeringly, almost terrifyingly vast and empty. A hour or two north of Montreal the roads and settlements end altogether and you've still got 7/8ths of the province of Quebec before you, untouched woods, rivers, and so on, for the most part. And after that you still aren't to the polar regions. The idea that 35,000 people over the course of a year passing through that area on ships is a mortal threat to that environment seems preposterous. I guess the idea is that they are uniquely sensitive and crucial, that the ice levels affect the ecological balance of the whole world in a way that bludgeoning all remnants of nature from the British countryside or the coast of Florida does not. Being my uncredentialed, half-educated, petit bourgeois self however, I of course think that the experts and the powerful--the really powerful, since anybody booking a cruise to Antarctica is probably in the top 5% of income and educational distribution himself--it isn't a cheap ticket--just want to nip this trend very early on, before the idea does start to trickle down--horrors beyond imagining! (and I mean that in all sincerity)--to people like me, who are the great ruiners, the great enemies, of all the finest and noblest thoughts and creations, of man and nature alike.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Shakespeare--Antony and Cleopatra (Part 1)

I was always partial to the Roman plays. Not that everyone else isn't, or that I hold the other ones in any lesser esteem, but these have always been especial favorites of mine, along with the Henrys. Possessiveness, jealousy, haughtiness, exclusivity, and the like, are conditions to which many are susceptible where Shakespeare is concerned, and as these are attitudes which I am particularly ill-suited to carry off well, I try to keep a certain emotional distance from most of the more beloved and contended-for plays, feeling, I suppose, that they can never really be mine anyway. The Roman plays, such as this one and Coriolanus, even Julius Caesar, seem comparatively to inspire a lower level of general intensity and rapture. If the Bardosphere could be conceived as a beer garden, I would likely be sitting at one of these stately but relatively sedate tables--perhaps alongside a Victorian era faux-ruin of some Roman gate or other--at a safe remove from the tumult, high-spiritedness and glamour of those devoted to the Dane, the Star Crossed Lovers, the Crookbacked Usurper or other of the grittier and more naturalistic heroes of the repertoire.

When I first looked into it some years ago, I thought Antony and Cleopatra just as good as any of the other major tragedies, with the exception perhaps of Hamlet, which doesn't resemble the other plays in the same ways that most of them do each other, and that opinion was not shattered, and was if anything enforced, by this latest misreading. The writing, the construction, the economy, the characterization, is so very expert and smooth, that one almost has the impression that the author's mastery of this particular form, and way of understanding the great issues of man's existence, is so thorough, that he is not properly challenging himself, or the audience, by insisting on pressing on to a more dangerous and scary level, which, if we have been properly bred up as thinkers, is what we crave most.

What would become of a person like Shakespeare today? Who would he hang out with? In what form would our noticing them, assuming such could even exist, consist of? Surely poetry in the contemporary world would strike a man of such dominating talents as too sluggish, effeminate, devoid of genius and culturally irrelevant a pursuit to be worth taking up; he would naturally want to direct those talents to some contemporary arena that was worth dominating. Would he find one though? Some have suggested that this class of person manages hedge funds or directs scientific research now, as if genius were of such a general and unsuppressible quality that anyone who possesses it must be apparent, and easily direct and establish itself it whatever area of activity currently most requires and rewards it. This reminds me a little of the American sports commentators who used to opine that if Allen Iverson and Michael Vick had been adopted or kidnapped as infants and raised in France they would be the greatest soccer players in the world because of their innate athleticism. I used to wonder if there was not something in this, that business and technology were dynamic, and the literary and teaching professions moribund because the former had siphoned off all the exciting talent that used to fill prep school faculties and the great urban literary scenes of the past. I was even convinced for a time that the qualities of mental talent, energy, and personality in the truly successful author were generally the same as those in any successful man of affairs, and if such men were to direct their fervor and appetites and primary means of understanding the world towards literature rather than commerce, etc, that humanistic studies and accomplishments would be flourishing again, and the masses as eager to idolize and follow the lead and outlook of these great men in matters of learning as they are in matters of economics. But obviously there is something more to it than just that. I will go more into that another time.

My commentary the other day on Mark Antony was of course preposterous. I am casting grand judgements on his abilities and character as if I were the one who was one of the great figures of my generation, and he the typical slavish sort of fellow. That is part of this game of pursuing literature that people like me play, the reader little less than the writer to a certain extent has to imagine himself raised to a level of equality, in some instances even superiority, to the subject under contemplation, however comparatively exalted. Success in writing or any art is to a great degree success in pulling off this conceit of elevation, making some ill-fed debtor scribbling lines in a garrett possess a historical stature equal to or greater than that of an emperor. If Antony was lacking of the finest qualities, what does one say of Lepidus then? You will remember he was the unfortunate third member of the triumvirate along with Antony and Octavian, who was snuffed out rather quickly with apparently little exertion and without arousing any protest from a potent camp. Shakespeare presents him as a loser and weakling whom the other prominent Romans are comfortable insulting to his face and making plans to dispose of as casually as they would make plans for their next orgy. We all know and many accept that if the comparatively weak put themselves in the way of the strong and don't recognize their inability to contend and attempt to resist, it is going to end badly and humiliatingly for them. I think people with any kind of well-developed spirit like it in high art productions when weakness and inferiority in men are not tolerated and punished severely. It is fearful, but also genuinely exhilirating to know that real demands might be made of your brain and character, failure to live up to which will cost you not merely your life, but any illusion of respect from your countrymen, your friends, and your foes.

This play does have two of my favorite classic Shakespeare quotations, the "infinite variety" speech, which is of course about Cleopatra, and the "O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!" tribute to his godlike appearance and bearing.

Though I was trying to read this more closely and seriously so as to glean some insight as to what our author is really saying, I still came to the conclusion that he was in fact emphasizing the sexy parts at the expense of more serious geo-political analysis, and that that was actually the stuff he liked the most about the story. It can't possibly be true, but it was what I kept thinking, after my ever too easily entertained misled manner.

Octavius Caesar I thought comes of rather badly in this play compared with his depiction in Plutarch (who always refers to him as young Caesar), where it is difficult, given the pre-occupations of that author, not to feel some admiration for him. In that book his extreme youth--he seems to have been in his early twenties at most--lack of military credentials compared to all his rivals, and the manner in which most of those same did not take him very seriously when this crisis broke out are much more palpably felt. Yet he ended up the last man standing atop a large mound of very famous corpses and ruled the Roman Empire pretty much unmolested for the remaining 40 years of his life. In Plutarch he is presented as calm, prudent, possessed of self-control, steely of purpose without being given over to the bombast and grand gestures of the previous generation. Obviously much is left out of the Plutarch account, such as who/what sort of men formed this young man's army/base and how did he win their support? but I am simply noting an impression. Being a dramatist and a man of the hottest spirits both of body and mind, Shakespeare most likely found his dry, only too successful pragmatism and efficiency boring and cold. Overall the reign of Augustus has not offered much batter that writers wanted to make confections of compared either to his predecessors or successors.

Cleopatra is called a whore on several occasions in the play, and not in a means meant to induce sympathy. (Caesar: "...He hath given his empire up to a whore...", etc). Whether the result of this affair was a real, and if so staggering shift in the whole course of human history, or its significance has been overblown by art, how could Antony have flown the battle and given up all, including in some sense a last remnant of the spirit of the old Rome which in literary accounts he is often made to embody, for a woman? Yes, I would probably do the same, but even I would know it was a stupid thing to do. I wrote at the end of Act III, 'a sad juncture of the story. Antony (& C) are diminishing to ever more human dimensions, as is the essence of tragedy though in S. 'human' is invested with grander meaning than usual. Enobarbus only voice of accurate perception,' etc.

Some other notes:

On Antony, "that would make his will Lord of his reason" I wrote 'contrast with Iago.' Apparently I took the latter as taking the opposite approach.

I noted again that the 'language in this one superlative' next to "The itch of his affection should not then have nick'd his captainship...half to half the world opposed...leave his navy gazing."

Antony 'always underestimating young C' next to "...he wears the rose of youth upon him, from which the world should note...his coin, ships, legions, may be a coward's, whose ministers would prevail under the service of a child as soon as i' the command of Caesar..."

I'll have to do a short second post on this.