Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Missing Yeats Pictures

Because I like to be thorough.The script, typeface, coloring, etc of this book are very pretty, do you not think?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Blog Gossip

One of my periodic State of the Blog updates.

Name Change? Even I admit that we have an awful name. I happened to be in despair at the time I started this page, and I succumbed to overdramatics I'm not sure if I can change it without starting a whole other page (not that that is not an overdue move itself). I had a dream the other night where I received correspondence from a (completely fictitious) female fan of the site who addressed me as 'Bishop Orgasm', which now that I am reasonably coherent I realize would not be a good name for a man of my age and station, though it is still better than "Bourgeois Surrender". The novel I was toying with that had the working title of "Bourgeois Surrender" I have momentarily changed to "The Benchwarmer", but there are already many blogs by that name out there. I could write under my real name of course. For some reason I don't want to do that yet, because I still consider this as a sidelight to my actual career, which I don't actually have. There is still a symbolic hurdle there.

The second volume of my novel is available now. I have not received my own copy of it yet so no photos. I will write about this more when I do get the book. I was overcome today by the desire to make this announcement somewhere. As you can imagine when I started writing this book many years ago I had very grand visions of the drinking and flirting and condescending I would be doing when it was published--I had an idea of going on an incredible bender, rendered allowable by my genius--how so many plans end in such sexless whimpers. I am also working on getting a paperback edition ready, which would offer my less well-off fans a more reasonable price if they are too shy to ask me to send them a free copy. Hopefully this will be ready soon. There are I think some pretty good episodes in the second volume. The denouement is drawn out a little longer than I would like--it is one of the harder things in novel-writing of course to control all your various storylines and try to tie them up in some way at the end, and I was not entirely successful in doing this--I can't say that one volume is definitely superior to the other however. The second is maybe slightly less conventional. (Do not feel imposed upon, reader. We authors have to talk about our work somewhere even if no one has asked us to. There is no lonelier career than that of the unsuccessful author).

I Guess the Blog Will Go On For Now. I hope that the final publication of this first book will free my mind up to go ahead and pound out another novel now, or perhaps a small volume of stories, which is an item lacking from my oeuvre. I haven't done much fiction writing over the last year or two, and I have been feeling the urge to try to work in that vein again. My hope is that that will help the blog too. The blog overall has been a disappointment, a much bigger disappointment than my novel, which I still think is decent in places. I have never been satisfied with what has come out on the blog. I just need too much time, and too many rewrites to ever have an effective blog, because I cannot overcome the insistent nature of the form that requires regular posting. Obviously I still like the idea of the blog, and I think I am getting better at it. I still think I could make it amount to something that would be of interest to a certain sliver of the potentially worldwide audience within its reach.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yeats--"Sailing to Byzantium" (1927)

I am breaking my usual pattern by doing two literary posts in a row, but I am not in the right frame of mind to address anything having to do with contemporary life this week, so much so that books and even literary theory appear to become attractive again. Sometimes my mood is the other way around, usually because I have for a time taken to approaching the books in the wrong spirit rather than that I feel any great affinity with actual life. While poetry is, in its finest manifestation, an attitude meant to be absorbed by and live through the actions of a vital spirit, the person who undertakes to read it and attempt to grope his way to an understanding is clearly seeking some intimacy with this type of vital spirit greater than that accessible to him by other means. My attitude towards anything is pretty much determined by my perception of the current degree of this accessibility. For some reason that I cannot make out right now, I am better disposed towards poetry this week than I have been in some time, and I want to take a shot at exploring therein.

As I noted in my rather flippant last post on Yeats, I have found in the past that I am not as stirred by him as I perceive many other people are. Since his reputation for high greatness does not seem to be going away, I think I owe it to myself to try harder to see what is there, and at least examine why his brilliance has failed upon me so far. That means I am going to have to take this line by line and tease it out for myself.

Title--There is a note in my edition which reveals that, as Ruskin did 14th century Venice, Yeats considered Byzantium circa 535 A.D. to have been perhaps the era in history when human beings were most wholly developed in all of their aspects, when ordinary craftsmen were able un-self-consciously to create artistic masterpieces such as would be beyond the capacity of the most celebrated geniuses of the present, when religious and aesthetic understanding were both perfectly realized and widely shared. Man in general could almost have been said to be an admirable creature. The "Sailing" I believe, is an appeal to the muse to convey us towards some insight as to what this rich intellectual and artistic atmosphere must have consisted of.

That is no country for old men.

This line, of course, has become very famous and frequently alluded to. Old, I am assuming, refers to anyone who has allowed the vital elements of his humanity to remain undeveloped or to wither and die within him, regardless of chronological age. The modern world is frequently spoken of as a place where would be men remain figuratively children until they are 30 or 35 and then progress immediately to old age without any period of capable dynamism in the prime of life. Many of the early modern poets and novelists seem to have been obsessed by this debasement of life.

The Young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations--at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

Images of fecundity, obviously. So much that death ceases to be haunting, or dreaded, because the life that preceded it was a full and worthy one. The reference to seas teeming with fat fish also conjures up images of a younger period of human history before nature's abundance had been depleted, and men intellectually and spiritually exhausted by increased understanding of the implications of his thought.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

I take this to mean that in such an environment present life is so vital that one lives in the moment, without nostalgia, or lament, or incomprehending idolatry of past mental achievements far beyond what is accessible to oneself.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;

Soul here I take to be an assertion, as it were, of one's essential dignity as a human, in spite of the obvious drawbacks (constant threat of mortality physical and spiritual, etc). The "singing school" reference I suppose means that this soul is not something that is transmitted through formal lessons and training from a master but is an intuitive response to one's surroundings if one is sufficiently alert (and of which the actualization in fact can be hindered by over-intellectualization).

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

The symbolic importance of sailing the seas and coming to a 'holy city' ought not to be overlooked in these otherwise primarily functional lines.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
First, two notes. The gold mosaic image was inspired by the frieze of the holy martyrs in the church of San Apollinaire Nuovo at Ravenna, which Yeats had visited 20 years before he wrote this poem (at which time he had been 42. These kinds of biographical/chronological facts are not relevant to any art object's importance as an object of art, of course, but I am personally curious about them). I should try to find a picture of this. I think this is part of it.
The second note is that the word "perne", which is a kind of spool, means here "to spin round".
I like the Blakean conceit of the 'holy fire', fire being ordinarily being considered as being a defining characteristic of God's main enemy and all of that, though Yeats is never quite convincing (to me) that this is something he really perceives in his soul. I suppose this is why he is calling on the martyrs to reveal its sense to him however.
Consume my heart away;
The heart as mortal symbol and weak point of the human superstructure is not a radical concept, but the sense in which it is cited here, as utterly disconnected from and unnecessary to the refinement of man's higher parts, I have not often seen asserted so decisively.
sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is;
The "dying animal" line is the other really celebrated one in this poem. That said, you need the contrast with the martyred saints appealed to previously for it to have its intended effects. If you don't believe there is anything to the saints, or even in the concept of something like saints, you don't really have anywhere to go. Which I guess is why you have to figuratively go to Byzantium, or medieval Venice, because they accepted these more ennobling (and therefore, the poet suspects, more true) conceptions as the terms of life, which modern people are largely incapable of doing.
and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Artifice is the important word here. Do we take this to mean that there is no objective sense of reality other than that which men make for themselves, and that they have, in a broad sense, some choice in the matter? He is expressing a preference for what he takes to be the Byzantine world view, which, however, he cannot believe in. He is thus a man not in harmony with his understanding of the world, which was certainly the dominant motif of his age, and would be of ours if we bothered to care about such things any longer; it is ultimately a serious and pretty insuperable problem for a poet however, I think.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
An assertion of the primacy of (good) art/imagination/cultivation over man in his natural uncultivated state? Yes, assuming the cultivation is bringing out truly extraordinary human qualities. My general impression of Yeats is that he was inclined to be a true believer in the desirability of truly high culture. Hence his desire to set up respectable cultural institutions and promote the flourishing of semi-official artistic movements in his own country.
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To Lords and Ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
It is a little bit of a confusing metaphor to see a poet express a desire to be a goldworked bird in some potentate's collection, but I suppose that is what even a poem such as this ultimately is--a glittering, speaking ornament that in its way defies the normal material and imaginative limitations of existence.
I haven't even touched on things like the meter and other matters of form. I am not really good at that. The poem I think reads very nicely, there are no awkward transitions or anything. Likewise there is nothing in the language that stands out as off, or not quite right, or forced. Still, Yeat's language, even where it impresses, never does excite me. Never is there an instant in these poems where I find myself saying, 'Yes, that is it, that is just what it is', or 'I love the way this is laid out, the means of expression, and the point to be expressed'. I think for one thing I find him too strident in his poetic nature. At the same time despite the theme developed in this poem he commits the double sin of having a tendency to over-intellectualize while not really having the pure intellectual habit--the chops, as it were--to do this in the convincingly natural way a poet must have. He lacks humor entirely. This is perhaps not a serious problem, but I am very partial to the sort of humor, even unintentional humor in the service of rhyme, that the likes of Byron and most of the 18th century poets inserted into their verses. I find his poems to possess neither the brilliance of conception that I admire in Wallace Stevens, the outrageousness that I find interesting in Pound, or the understated modesty of presentation that is attractive in the work of R. Frost. He is a good poet, certainly, but he leaves me cold.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thomas Hardy--"Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave" (1914)

I was having one of my especially pessimistic weeks anyway, so it is opportune that Hardy should be the next author on my list.

While one reads, or has the option of reading anyway, a great deal about the ever-ongoing decline of a traditional, largely literary-informed understanding of education and the world itself, at least most of these critics have some small consolation in considering or knowing themselves to have absorbed a substantial part of this traditional and solid body of human learning and wisdom. The failings of the age in partaking of and contributing to the further vitality of these areas one can believe with some confidence lie largely with others. Being a serious person almost wholly surrounded by unserious people throughout most of life is doubtless a lonely and frustrating consolation, but still, it is a consolation.

It is not a consolation I am able, except on increasingly rare occasions, to feel myself. The great challenge of all education that would call itself good really is to synthesize one's varied learning in such a way as to become a person of worth to any reasonable community somewhat commensurate with one's potential. I have no sense of having attained this. The obvious solution is to work harder, albeit I suppose in some other direction which I am either resisting or cannot at this time perceive, for I seem to have reached the upper limits of my potential in the direction I have gone in hitherto, and where that has left me is not really acceptable I would not think. I would think that in this mindset the wisdom of meditative poetry, a rhythm and process of thought so noticeably lacking from contemporary life, would be a great help to settling my mind. However I cannot seem to focus on it with the necessary clearness and easiness of intellection. I am too distracted. Hardy of course famously wrote pessimistic novels until, at age 56, he stopped doing that and began writing pessimistic poems. These poems he wrote in his old age are much praised, to the point where I think the most up-to-date experts consider him to be more historically significant as a poet than a novelist. I hadn't read any of his poems before this, though I had read 3 of the novels. Jude the Obscure, his last novel, I thought was the best, though that may be because the unhappy protagonist has superficially a lot in common with me. It is certainly one of the most relentlessly grim books ever written. Tess of the D'Urbervilles I remember thinking was good too, though I was quite young when I read that. The Mayor of Casterbridge I did not like as much as the other two, though its depiction of the narrowness and general lack of appeal of rural life in Victorian England was even more convincing than in the other two books, which at least had some characters I found sympathetic. Hardy is thirty years younger than Dickens, but there is very little sense of anything modern, let alone of the energy and bustle, or outrageousness, that one finds in Dickens's books. Hardy's is a world where people walk ten miles (and back) to post a letter at the end of a long day of work as if it were nothing, go to market in the county town every Wednesday for forty years during which nothing substantially changes, taverns are either dreary or dangerous places where no one ever has any fun, and sex is primarily a lure to personal ruin (did I say I liked this guy?). This contrast in the general approach to reality between two obviously talented writers who were more or less contemporaneous is part of what makes literature interesting however.

I like this poem. That is to say, it scans well, it would probably not be difficult to memorize, and it fits in very nicely with the tradition of English meditative poetry of this type (which even had a "Graveyard School" in the 18th century, four or five of which poets I read, including Young's interminable and now inexplicably once-celebrated "Night Thoughts". Fortunately this was all before the blog). The theme appears to be pretty straightforward. If you haven't read it, the soul of a dead woman perceives someone to be visiting her grave and digging up the earth about it, she asks in turn if it is her husband, her kinfolk and her enemy, all of whom have largely ceased to think about her. Finally she gives up and asks who it is, the visitor reveals itself to be her old dog, who is merely burying a bone and had forgotten that the remains of his old mistress lay there. As far as I can tell that is all there is to it, but the pace, the patter of the poem is very effective and affecting.

Just a couple of observations:

(ll 5-6) The husband's statement on his remarriage (the implication being that it was rather too sudden). H's characteristic pessimism, though really cynicism:

"'It cannot hurt her now,' he said,
That I should not be true.'"

(ll. 26-30) This reference to the English faith in dogs is obviously meant as a joke:

"Why flashed it not on me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog's fidelity!"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

More Reasons for my Stunted Development Revealed

One day recently, stumbling home after happy hour or wherever it was I had been, I entered the domestic sanctuary, where I was greeted by the voice of Carol Channing explaining that when we see a cheerful, beaming woman doing housework on a television commercial, to keep in mind that we are watching an actress. "What the hey is this?" I demanded authoritatively.

"You don't recognize it?" responded the ever alert lady of the house. "This is your record."

"It most certainly is not," I replied, indignant at this association of such rubbish with my exalted person.

"I'm sure it is," the lady, who, never having to, never does concede an assertion once she has made it, "I found it in a box of your old childhood possessions." I insisted that the sleeve of this record be produced at once. (Note: I have not mastered control over the flash on my camera--ed) "I have never seen this thing in my life," I proclaimed, the swell of triumph flooding into my breast. "What is this nonsense? Alan Alda!? Mel Brooks!? Rosey Grier!? Rosey Grier was big when I was a wee child. Well, he was always big. He was a defensive tackle for the Giants back in the stone ages. He played at Penn State back when Joe Paterno was an assistant coach in his 20s. He weighed 285 pounds, which in the 50s and early 60s made him like Refrigerator Perry crossed with a sumo wrestler on the field. Then in the 70s he was on TV all the time. Doing commercials. Doing needlepoint. Guest starring on hit shows (he's the enormous sensitive black guy). Then around 1978 he suddenly dropped off the face of the earth and was never heard from again. I wonder if he's even still alive." (ed--he is)

"Yes, he's the guy who sings 'It's All Right to Cry.' It's the children's favorite song. I knew you would like it."

"No!" I said, trying to disguise the note of horror in my voice.

"Except for Georgie. He likes 'William's Doll' the best."

(Flipping album over furiously) "Alan Alda & Marlo Thomas. Good lord. Marlo Thomas. She was kind of a babe, wasn't she? She fell in the same hole Rosey Grier did in my consciousness (hopefully Rosey was on the bottom wherever they landed). And that smarmy Alan Alda. What a slimeball! You know what he was thinking. Oh, sure, Marlo, I'll do all I can to help to help with your project, sassy, liberated, free love advoc--"

"Now stop it. Is that all you can ever think about? I think it is very sweet that you listened to this record as a little boy. I can just see you sitting there with your legs crossed in your little mustard turtleneck with your white hair falling over your eyes and ears and collar earnestly absorbing the messages of equality and common humanity."

"I absorbed no such lessons. Not in the least. Yes, and that reminds me. I have been researching some right wing websites which explain how a man should properly manage his wife, and it was a real eye-opener. Things are going to have to change around here starting immediately."

"Are they indeed?"

"Yes. Indeed. I'd no idea what disgrace I have been living in these many years, and what contempt other men must hold me in. It has been a great shock to my system. For example, I am never to let another man who is not a relative speak directly to my wife, but I must speak for the family on all occasions. This signifies weakness to other men, and leads them to believe they can have their way with either of of us whenever they wish. One of the writers had just returned from a trip to those Sodom and Gomorrahs of the East, Vermont and Massachusetts--right in our neighborhood--and seen unspeakably disgusting things there, people, men and women alike, who have lost any sense of shame or self-respect."

"Unspeakable things? In Vermont? Where?"

"Well--I don't know exactly where. The point is, the men were weak and shuffling, not ready to defend themselves or their children or their property, without honor, enthusiastically supporting socialistic policies, bearing noncompetitive postures, pushing strollers, allowing their nominal wives and girlfriends to make purchasing decisions and dictate the terms of their lifestyle. I can't help but think he must have seen me that it is really I he is talking about. After all, I have been in both of those states within the past few weeks."

"You are a fool. Haven't you seen those old photographs from the depression, and earlier, of men rocking babies and pushing strollers. We have one of my great-grandfather himself around 1918, still wearing his work suit, taking my grandmother out for a spin in the pram. And he isn't carrying a gun with him either."

"We don't know that he hasn't stuck a piece in the baby carriage. But anyway, it was different back then. He was a man of proven respectability and capacity. Being shot by a thug or a madman on the street would not have been interpreted as a judgement on his fundamental inadequa--"

"Stop. Listen, it's time for Rosey Grier's number."
"You know, this can't be good for boy children. They may not have known better in 1974, but I do. And I still say, this is not my record."

(Yes, this is my faux-retro made in China $50 record player. Laugh all you want. I like it.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Yeats--"The Dolls" (1914)

A DOLL in the doll-maker's house
Looks at the cradle and bawls:
That is an insult to us.
But the oldest of all the dolls
Who had seen, being kept for show,
Generations of his sort,
Out-screams the whole shelf: Although
There's not a man can report
Evil of this place,
The man and the woman bring
Hither to our disgrace,
A noisy and filthy thing.
Hearing him groan and stretch
The doll-maker¹s wife is aware
Her husband has heard the wretch,
And crouched by the arm of his chair,
She murmurs into his ear,
Head upon shoulder leant:
My dear, my dear, oh dear,
It was an accident.

Oh Yeats. I've never loved you much. The greatest English language poet of the 20th century, more experts say of you than of any other, and I don't love you. It is mostly me, there is no question of that of course. I have never taken the time to learn either to feel or read you properly. But I think it is a little bit you. That foppish hairstyle, for one thing, has always really bothered me. And the whole Maud Gonne drama. Artists of your stature are supposed to be either dominating alpha males who set the very terms of the common consciousness through force of will, or completely insane and misunderstood geniuses, like Van Gogh. You, Yeats, always come across as affected and prideful in a pitifully bourgeois manner, which I cannot help but imagine has infected your poetry. Always simpering for the camera--have you no innate gravitas, man! What a fuss did people make, and still do make, over the Abbey Theater, and the Nobel Prize, and your strivings on behalf of the Irish people, and your love affairs as an old man--all of which you did achieve, yes, and also thought much of yourself for specifically, such as is not in keeping with the tone, and thus the dignity, of an artist of your supposed stature.
Oh Yeats, yours is a most frustrating variety of greatness if I have ever seen it. A great understanding of this your lovely poem is inaccessible to me. The contrast between art and life, yes, and the imagery is affecting, yes, and the imperfect, uncontrollable nature of life, yes, and how appalling it is, yes, and then in line seventeen the word 'murmurs', yes, always laden with meaning, I never use it myself except when I wish to convey an idea of deeper than usual import. But what there is more than this, what I would need to put together to absorb, I cannot do it. I have read it over 50 times, and I think I am certain it is a pretty good poem, but I feel...nothing for it.

I have some pictures of my pretty edition of Yeats's poems which I have not gotten around to uploading or downloading or whatever loading that operation is onto the computer. There is another Yeats poem coming up, so I will put them up then. The obtaining of this book was another occasion where I stopped off at an old used book barn on Route 9 on the way to Vermont, left the family in the car and ran into the store to get the book. The necessary quickness of this purchase caused the proprietor, who you would think would be happen to be making a sale ($8.50 it was), made a comment along the lines of 'couldn't go any longer without some Yeats, eh', which annoyed me at the time, in part no doubt because the circumstance of my having this big Yeats collection on display is a big fraud anyway, not that I don't like the language and even the themes, but I just don't get it on that visceral level where poetry has to hit you. I'm sure the guy was just looking to make small talk, but being a squirrelly bookish fellow has no idea how to do it without coming off as pretentious. I did not handle the situation with the grace that I should have liked to.

Friday, October 16, 2009

This Week's Movies: Oldboy (2003) and Rembrandt (1936)

As you have may have noticed, I don't write about recent movies very often. I still have occasion to see one from time to time but they don't usually do much for me. It may or may not be their fault, but they lack either the poignancy or sense of spirited elevation from the mundane that I like most about the old classics, many of which may have only obtained these effects themselves with the passage of time. I don't know if this is what the professional critics have in mind when assessing movies, but I find that most of the ones I use as resources for what to see do not think much of most films made in the last twenty years either, and rarely give them their highest rating. So when I saw that Oldboy had earned almost universally enthusiastic praise not just from antisocial geeks but from the kinds of people who get excited at the prospect of a Billy Wilder retrospective, I was very curious to see it despite the indications that it was packed pretty much end to end with cruelty and extreme violence.

One review I read stated that "This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino wishes he could make" which is probably true, though why he, or for that matter even Chan-Wook Park, the director who did make the movie, have desires leaning in this particular direction, is something that eludes me. This is a really sharp, good-looking movie. Except for the more egregious scenes of physical torture (I didn't even find the part where he eats the live squid as disturbing as apparently other people did) I got a pretty big kick out of watching this. The commentary on the DVD, which I only listened to about 20 minutes of, doesn't give a lot of insight into the meaning of or motivation behind what the movie is all about, but there was some interesting technical information, such as the manner in which films are bleached in the final production process, and what kind and how many light bulbs are used to create a particular effect, etc. There are some obvious similarities to the situation in Kafka's The Trial, but in other important ways there are not. There is nothing entirely implausible or incommensurate with normal experience in the Kafka novel, which is the key to its brilliance. Not only psychologically but also in its practical measures it eerily mimics actual life, only with a more attuned sense than most people ordinarily can call on. The machinations of the plot do not hold together so well in Oldboy. Still, a lot of things were done well. I am impressed with how Asian filmmakers in general handle erotic scenes, which have become mostly ridiculous in Hollywood and overly serious/intellectualized in Europe in recent decades.

This film is Korean, and it is my impression, and I am certainly not alone in this, that South Korea--I won't even touch the north here--may be a society that is extremely psychically unhealthy. Stories about the competition to get into the best schools and so on, both in Korea and abroad, are legendary, the fanaticism of the parents, who sometimes send their children overseas as early as 8 or 9 years old so that they might learn English, making their hyperambitious American counterparts seem almost to have a rational perspective on what life is all about. Americans I have known and consider myself to be friendly with who have taught South Koreans have noted that while they are diligent students and test well across the board, they don't detect in them what might be called a love of learning for its own sake, or that they have much of a sense of education in the humanistic sense of development of the whole man or woman (not that many Americans do either, but the idea is still floating around out there in a few places). The Korean educational approach of course has been very successful at producing high achievers in terms of grades, test scores, mathematical ability, etc, compared to our own, so naturally there is some sense among our technocrats especially that we need to become more like them in our approach to schooling and learning. Except for the mathematical prowess, which I do think is impressive and which perhaps we should look at to see what they do, because we have too many capable people in this country who should know more advanced mathematics than they do, something in this approach strikes me as lacking. It certainly is not the answer to our existential problems.

Rembrandt is a very nice, pleasant, pretty little movie, and I mean that in the best possible way. I don't know all that much about Rembrandt so I am not sure if the film captured the essence of the man or not, but if Rembrandt was really anything like the man he was portrayed as here, he was as much as we might want him to be. This movie, which is British, has great stars; Charles Laughton, whom if I am not seeing him for the first time here I can't remember where else I saw him, is legendary among cinephiles, and it is not hard to see why. He may be playing an idealized Rembrandt, but he has a damn good sense of what that ideal consists of; the incomparable Gertrude Lawrence--now this was a talent: being this good means never having to sink to playing earnest (Kate Winslet and your ilk, take note); the absurdly gorgeous Elsa Lanchester. The stylized Dutch-themed sets are of course modeled after the famed paintings. They are beautiful. If the movie doesn't exactly lay out the nature of Rembrandt's genius, it evokes an attitude of appreciation and respect for it that has the air of being somewhat comprehending and of a worthy, affecting but not grovelling spirit.

I am going to share with you a couple of my favorite classic movie blogs, both by women, and both actually quite popular. (Given that I am not popular, and never been popular, you would think I would take the hint and give up--after all, nowadays we barely have time to give to all the popular people that we like--but of course I won't). They are The Self-Styled Siren and this one which is actually done by an 19 year old college student, but one who has an near encyclopedic knowledge of 1930s-50s cinema. She does memes with questions like: Your favorite post-Mildred Pierce Joan Crawford film or Columbia's 1930s archive is on fire; you can save one film; which is it? The thing is, it is pointless to lament that I didn't know people like this when I was 19, because if I had, I either wouldn't have, or couldn't have, hung out with them.

Classic film blogs--some of them anyway--tend to be more fun than classic book blogs. I guess great books are just too serious and too difficult and too important and too beyond the functioning sensibility of ordinary people to create a plausibly joyous atmosphere in writing about them at the level of intellectual camaraderie I would need to seek. The level of intelligence required to enjoy 1930s Hollywood movies well is of course much lower, but still high enough to exclude most of the contemporary riffraff, which is about all I'm looking for at this point.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of Those Interminable Essays I Get Sucked Into Doing to Try to Prove That I Have a Lot to Say or
I'm Bored By the Obsession Contemporary Smart People Have With Our Food and Where It Comes From.

Believe me, I like a superior meal when I can get one as much as any reasonable person, but the extent and tenor of the mental energy being expended on it by my generation especially is getting out of hand. Listen, I know that anything you buy from any entity that makes a lot of money is never as good, or as good for you, as something made by hand from small scale enterprises featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients. My preference would even be to have such meals whenever they are practicable. However, I don't care enough to put this quest at the center of my life, even though increasingly I see people insisting I should. I can easily enough live with most of the slop sold at supermarkets and served at the Olive Garden if I have to. I can't seem to bring myself to hate white bread, store-bought salad dressing, factory farmed meat, and highly processed crackers, cheeses and pies, as much as I ought to. Given the class issues so pointedly involved in this whole food movement, the passion for which I do not so fervently share, I am a little resentful that this is becoming such a big issue socially. Politically it seems to have aims with which I would be inclined to be somewhat sympathetic but I would like it better if I felt a little more of the spirit of say, Jefferson, and less that of Robespierre (i.e., humorlessness tending towards authoritarian fanaticism) among its advocates. Not that such people don't already run most of what passes for cultural life at the local levels in this country. We can never have everything we want, and for my part I would far rather have entertaining company whose basic interests ran somewhat along similar lines as my own over some horrible salty dish than have an exquisite meal acceptable to the stringent requirements of the food police, given that it seems difficult to have them both at the same time.

Of course I am threatened by these enlightened modern eaters. They are the same ones who have always had lots of coll friends, known in the long run how to position themselves to land desirable and comparatively lucrative jobs, been aware of the best bands and on top of all the latest trends and gadgets in technology, while I continue more or less eating a 1940s diet and catching up on the art and ideas and scientific advances that were current in that era, while having nothing to talk about when confronted with contemporary adults. He who subsists mainly on eggs and bacon, pancakes, butter, steak, roast chicken, potatoes, peas, pork chops, corn, gravy, chicken broth, tomato soup and dinner rolls, and has never had caviar and still thinks of it as something only rich people eat does not get invited to many groovy dinner parties. In my defense I also like a lot of the Mexican dishes and so on that have entered the culture since then [as long as they existed in Mexico in 1940], the year-round availability of salmon, and I have come a long way in my appreciation of lettuce drenched in corporate salad dressing in the last five years or so [though not other salad ingredients for the most part]. In beer I have even become somewhat demanding after spending my year overseas; I haven't bought a mass-market American brand in 13 years, and will argue to anyone who will listen that the taste tests where domestic microbrews defeat esteemed Czech and German pilseners are frauds, that the samples of the foreign beers being tested are almost certainly not the same product sold in their domestic markets (In wine, alas, I'll pretty much drink anything, though I have begun of late to shy away from anything under $7.99 a bottle). In the end, though, there are just too many fronts in the food wars to keep up with. Such as:

Vegetarianism: Obviously I am not a vegetarian. Among other things (such as that I really don't like vegetables) I'm not convinced that it's really that healthy for people, certainly for children. If humans, and Northern European types in particular, have not in fact evolved to need and thrive on a meat-based diet, any understanding or sense of this as possessing real truth has eluded me. Is not our height, our strength, our increased brain capacity the result of a diet rich in animal proteins? Are not vegetarians kind of, well I don't want to say boring, because I am boring, but they become rather a sect apart from other people, because you can never really share food with them, which as we all know often substitutes for sensual communion in a pinch, and the crowd over on the veggie side, while some of them are tempting, are more tempting in a way that makes me strongly desire to see them digging into a steak at my table than that I should go gnaw on a cucumber on their blanket.

Then of course there is the cruelty, the brutality issue. A lot of people seem to think that the typical meat-gorging, comfort-loving, essentially disgusting modern suburbanite would never have the stomach to be able to kill an animal themselves, which means that they therefore shouldn't be eating them. But I don't think these people get around much, because apart from a few sensitive overindoctrinated types such as myself who might struggle with this at first, I am pretty sure this would not generally be a problem among the general run of the population (and anyway, I have also been assured, often from the same quarters, that if a fascist regime with snappy haircuts and uniforms ever seizes power and commands this same overfed class to set violently upon certain of its neighbors that it will set to bludgeoning them gleefully and without a second thought). After one such occasion of being pummelled by a militant vegetarian in a moral debate regarding the horrors of meat-eating, in which this argument was among those raised, my wife suggested that anybody would be able to kill an animal if he was hungry enough. Of course the point is in modern middle class life no one is ever hungry enough to justify killing an animal, and that there is more than enough lettuce and sprouts available for us all to live well and sustainably, and due to the health benefits, for much longer than we do now.

As you can see, I am really unwilling to concede this ground in my life. It would be one thing if my friends and people I admired were exhorting me respectfully and as a mental equal to consider the arguments, but this is almost never the case. The culinary philosophers are obsessed by how far removed modern man has become from the sources of his food--this is lamentable, but probably necessary given the population explosion and therefore in a way rather admirable--but people seem to have had much less angst about killing pigs back in the days when those beasts and humans lived regularly on much more intimate terms than they do now. One can think of so many examples from the arts in which the reality that farmers kill farm animals is simply an unconscious fact of life, something taken for granted. Jude in Jude the Obscure had some problems turning the knife in the pig's throat, it is true--his lusty, bawdy mismatched first wife had to help him because he wasn't controlling the blood flow properly--but he was a sensitive soul who continuously had trouble confronting and dealing with the messy realities of existence. I don't remember that he became a vegetarian. In the Laura Ingalls books, the acquistion of a new animal is immediately anticipated in the form of a steaming Sunday dinner somewhere down the road. This art exhibit of paintings from the 30s I went to in Washington recently had a couple of cheerful, totally unironic Grandma Mosesish pictures by a lady from Iowa depicting the simple pleasures of farm life one of which was titled "Slaughtering Day" in which several pigs are in the process of being hung up, gutted and butchered by the hardworking menfolk. Even in the movie Oh Mr Porter I wrote about recently, some pigs being left at the station by their owner, the instinct of the railroad employees (and I know this was a joke, but still) is to turn them into bacon in time for the morning's breakfast (the joke comes when the farmer comes back and asks where the pigs are as the stationmaster is lifting a slice of bacon to his mouth). I know none of this quite justifies slaughtering individual beasts on an individual level, even if I take the egotistical human chauvinist route and posit that my existence is more existentially substantial than a cow's. I am not however convinced that my well-being as a whole human, in this world certainly, will be improved by abstaining from meat. Perhaps morally it will; I have always been morally weak, though this has always seemed to me as much a matter of assertiveness as anything else. The people I think of in my life as the staunchest moralists are those who let it be known that not only do they live by a code, but that they insist upon others following the same code, or at least deferring to the moral authority of the moralist while in his presence. I never do this.

The stuff that gets written about how to feed children and so on, that you must control their diets and deny them french fries and so on, I think are ridiculous. Obviously there are things I don't let my children eat and drink, but one can be reasonable. The occasional french fry or prepared dinner isn't going to retard anybody's development. As in all matters, moderation is the key.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Few Old Notes on Old Shakespeare Readings (From the Pre-Blog Archives)

Coriolanus: The traditional interpretation in the circles in which I moved was that W.S. is sympathetic to Coriolanus's greatness and superiority, being a great and superior man himself after all, and is equally disdainful of the masses as a concept (qua masses), but judged that (Coriolanus) exercised his superiority unwisely. Of course these struggles between the truly superior type of man and the vermin become more acute and uncomfortable to hold an impassioned view of if one gets older and understands that the side he naturally belongs to is not the one with which he breezily identified as a younger man.

Macbeth: I was impressed by the manner in the many longer speeches in which image after image after image bursts out, each seemingly at an extreme of human possibility, language, characterization and meaning. The standard of expression established in itself makes the writing self-evidently important in a way that is unknown except among the very small number of the truly greatest writers in history. I don't know how many constitutes the number of those possessing this quality, but it is a small minority even of those whose work is recognized as literature, even of those whose work has legitimate historical importance.

Othello: If one can find everything in Shakespeare, one ought to write about him every chance...

All is found in all. The answer was indicated in every pattern... (on Iago's speech comparing the body to a garden in I, iii).

More human condition in all its glory and squalidness (sic). O. never one of my favorite plays. Problems perhaps not my problems (?). The demonstration of active will is a proper chastisement to me, however. Much irony, half-true observations by Iago. Is Othello sensitive or just intemperate? I suspect the latter. Was does W.S. think about life, as gauged by this play? A hard call...

Iago achieves his ends by speaking exact truth in a manner of a man of philosophy and poetry...wise, yet evil...more dangerous because paradoxical...convinces Othello that women are devils and dishonest by nature, or at least that all desirable ones should be...He believes he cannot enjoy what he loves, and thus believes that Iago is wise and honest (I used to struggle with a problem similar to this)...Because his reason is powerless, he is already lost...

The wordplay and poetry serve direct purposes and augment such language as was already necessary, unlike in other, less mature Shakespeare. Poetic power and literary experience (tightness, immediacy of action, etc) are here combined at one of the highest levels ever attained.

I post this because it is a kind of tradition in our language for literary men to record their personal impressions of Shakespeare from time to time, probably in order that others may better know them, by what they like, what they take from him, how they come off against and amongst the idea of humanity that he has put forth and in which the at all competent reader (or player) of him must be immersed. If there are very specific, esoteric meanings in him only to be gotten at by a specific intelligence and education and upbringing, I certainly will not be one of the people that has them. I really don't think that is the case, however. Certainly not the whole case, in any event.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Music Post

This is still not about serious music, but videos I have been watching lately. And I am fully conscious that they are not the best I could be watching. I am tracking my general state of mind by what songs produce some emotional response in me at various times.

My real goal as a blogger you know is to become one of those guys who constantly goes on about how he is the only genuinely educated, courageous, and free man left in America, and how everybody else should be ashamed of themselves. Knowing one is of that degree of superiority has to be somewhat satisfying.

I remember liking this song when it first came out. I never saw the video at the time, so I didn't realize quite to what extent the guys in the band were flaming.

This was a big Euro-hit when I was in Prague. I have never heard it in this country, so I am guessing it didn't make it over here. It calls up to memory the five months of continuous grey sky that lasts from mid-September till February in that land and the excitement of all the "firsts" one experiences during a long stay in a new foreign city. It is in a way like having one's freshman year of college all over again. I apologize for the singer not being as attractive as we might like.

I need a new theme song, and this one pretty much encapsulates my life, right down to the ever-flowing fountains of Asti Spumante.

I am not the biggest James Brown fan in the world, but the allusion to him in the last song reminded me that this particular number, at least, is about perfect, expression and entertainment-wise.

We might as well get as many hyper-gay groups out of the way as possible. Yes, I'm talking about the Pet Shop Boys. I don't usually go with the extended version, but this has to be one of the greatest music videos of all time. Yes, it is also supergay, but I am man enough to handle it, I think. Obviously the ridiculous chick trumps all of that other stuff. Here's another good one. Love the chorus girl in the 1950s NHS-issue glasses.

1972. If not the Ground Zero year for totally ordinary suburban people engaging and exulting in raw and unbridled sensualism, it must have been pretty close. Sometimes I think I wish I had been there, but then again, sometimes I don't.

As far as my new theme song goes though, in reality it's always going to have to be something like this. Man, is this a sweet, sweet song, or what? If this isn't a SJC Waltz Party standard--and I don't remember it being one--it should be. This is like the extreme essence of an SJC waltz party song