Thursday, February 18, 2010

Brideshead Revisited--Part 3

With pictures from the recent film adaptation, which look to be well researched.

I was on vacation for a week or so, which is why I haven't posted anything. I didn't take a computer with me, and I'll be honest, I didn't miss it. The last few posts before I left were quite grim. Hopefully it will be at least a couple of weeks before I descend to that state of mind again.

Among the many old school delights of Brideshead Revisited, we get one of my particular favorites, traveling in the developing world under the colonial system, such that one arrives in say,Fez, as Ryder does at one point, rings up and dines with the local British consul in "his charming house by the walls of the old town" and carries on such discourse as "the Moors are a tricky lot; they don't hold with drink and our young friend, as you may know, spends most of his day drinking."

"I loved buildings that grew silently with the centuries, catching and keeping the best of each the last decade of their grandeur, Englishmen seemed for the first time to become conscious of what before was taken for granted, and to salute their achievement at the moment of extinction." This sentence doesn't mean a lot to me personally, and I am not sure that I believe the second part of it is true, but it is stated in a very compelling way, and neatly. The vulgarization of civilization is a common lament of the most cultured people seemingly in every era, but the 30s variation of it had a little more sting than it usually carries because many of the people leading the lamenting were uncommonly well-cultured, and in the case of the English at least were frequently walking repositories of that nation's entire linguistic and literary history and development. Still, I don't have a lot of patience for such snobbery. What do such people expect, to rule unchallenged and unabated forever? Even if their ancestors did build a great nation and create a dynamic culture, after enough generations the multitudes who do not care about this, either native or domestic, will reach a critical mass and force the old regime at least out of its extreme comfort zone. It always happens.

The characters in this book always have excellent comebacks whenever they get into arguments. I frequent get into similar arugments, only I never have the comebacks to stay in them longer than 10 or 15 seconds.

There is a reference to Popeye on page 221 which I was not expecting, so naturally I thought it was hilarious. Lady Celia trying to explain to a dull-witted American senator at a dinner party that an acquaintance of hers resembles the English comic newspaper character Captain Foulenough. The American doesn't get this, so it is explained that he is something like Popeye.

There is a good section in which the extraordinary skill of a barber is described. The excellences achieved by various members of the British servant class under the old system were nothing to scoff at, especially when compared with that same class today, which seems to be constituted of some of the most degraded human beings on the planet.

These people really knew how to arrange their affairs. When Charles returned to England after being away from his wife and children--one of whom he had never yet seen--for two years in South America painting and doing research, he puts off going all the way home for another week to keep canoodling with Julia. The diaper-changing, stroller-pushing marmot men of my generation don't even know how to politely decline their wives' orders to get up and feed the baby a bottle at 3am. Have an affair with a woman you encountered on a boat and put off coming home for a week, without consequences? Dream on.

I'm not sure it is in good taste to admit it, but I really have always wanted to belong to a private dining club (I added in parentheses "Not a gay one though", which I assume refers to the prevailing atmosphere in such a club in the book).

"I have the fancy for rather spicy things, you know, not for the shade of the cedar tree, the cucumber sandwich, the silver cream-jug, the English girl dressed in whatever English girls do wear for tennis--not that, not Jane Austen, not M-m-miss M-m-mitford." I don't like cucumber sandwiches either, but Miss Mitford in tennis dress with a silver cream jug under the cedar tree, well, I'm all over that.

"You are not a young man. You do not seem strong to me...No, I don't want to be trained. I don't want to do things that need training." This is me. I guess I am just very aristocratic.

Though I am gushing over these characters' brilliance a lot, especially their fluency of speech, at one point I did write 'Are these people really smarter than middlebrows? They sure think they are.'

When Lord Marchmain returned to Brideshead after many years abroad, it is described as a spectacle, with banners being hung in the village and the houses of the common people decorated. This sort of thing was still going on in 1939? Jeesh.

A main character dies at this point. This process is rather drawn out and boring. Being me, all I could think was, Christ don't these people ever have to do anything? The answer to which, by the way is, No, they don't, thank you for inquiring.

What is my last item? The priest's art questions ("Would you say now, Mr Ryder, that the painter Titian was more truly artistic than the painter Raphael?") I do know that people who really understand things don't like being asked questions by stupid people who cannot have the slightest understanding of the level on which the superior mind operates. So I don't do it.

There are hundreds of clips from the 1981 miniseries all over the internet. I have to say, it does look pretty good. I think it's like 13 hours long though. That would take me 3 or 4 months to watch the whole thing at least. Civilisation also had 13 episodes and it took me 6 or 7 months to get through that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Well, I Was Attempting to Cheer Myself Up

Judy Garland, though by most rational considerations an extremely depressing, as well as spiritually desperate and unfulfilled person, really does cheer me up most of the time, at least up until 1945 or so. She understood instinctively more than just about any other pop singer/movie star I have ever seen that Hollywood movies and optimistic swinging pop records are to their consumers primarily gestures and bulwarks against despair; this at least is how she seems to me to interpret her roles and songs. To me, any 20th century American standard, if she did a version of it around 1940, hers is the best, and most piercing, version.

This song was completely off my radar until a couple of months ago, when I heard the Dean Martin version on the radio and it struck me all at once as being another perfect popular song, much in the same way "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" struck me a couple of years ago and reignited the Judy Garland flame in me. Her version of this, such as I can find, is only about a minute, one verse; but it is poignant. I don't think any other singer has topped that verse (something tells me Michael Buble's recent rendition will not be anything to change my mind). The first part of this video by the way is a piano rendition of the same song by Chico Marx, which is also a wonderful little thing.

Here is yet another version of the song which actually works in spite of all it looks to have going against it. It's just a terrific and uplifting song.

One of my favorite Judy Garland songs is the stirring number "F.D.R. Jones", which I admit I had not realized she had sung in blackface in the movie Babes on Broadway until I saw it. She actually appeared in blackface in films quite often, especially in the movies she made with Mickey Rooney. These scenes are really appalling to sit through to anybody who has grown up since the 60s, even, I would think, if you are ordinarily fairly indifferent to racial matters. There isn't any way around it. The white actors in these movies seem utterly unself-conscious about it compared to the way anybody would respond to doing such a thing now. I suspect putting on blackface was a pretty standard routine in the type of vaudeville shows that Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney, came out of, and even a cursory familiarity with the history of pre-war entertainment gives a good indication that this was a mainstream phenomenom of which most white people thought nothing whatsoever. But still. My God.

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to put this song in tonight. For one thing, I've always thought it was a great song, and the rendition in the movie, with the militaristic Busby Berkeley choreography, the gloomy modernistic, totalitarian lighting and decor, and the raw racial offensiveness, struck me when I saw it as extremely dark, almost a complement to the famous Nazi movies like Triumph of the Will. Dark, but also in a way emphatic, perhaps especially to a modern viewer, because the whole blackface part is so unnervingly direct and unapologetic and you feel you have entered a kind of psychologically unfamiliar and rather scary place that you feel are not supposed to be, and that you certainly wouldn't want anybody to know you had gone there. It is tempting to say, you were fascinated and drawn to these old white people's freedom from any kind of negative racial consciousness, and I will admit that there are other, less ugly and blatant manifestations where such thoughts have crossed my mind, but this was not an attractive picture of that type of mindset.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


I'm succumbing to it this week. I have had a dozen or so ideas for posts in the past couple of weeks, but now I don't feel like selecting the most pertinent aspects of them, and organizing them into coherent paragraphs. When you are a novelist there is no pressure to be mentally vigorous every time you sit down. If you cannot remember the ideas of form or content you had when you were out driving, or lack the concentration or energy to put them all down in one go, eventually you will sense what a passage is missing or what has not been properly worked through in it, and the thought as well as the will usually come back. Even the weekly blog post is more of an informal, momentary impression, a glimpse of a man's thought in something resembling its raw and natural form. This immediacy of expression of mental activity is not, needless to say, anything at which I excel.

That sense of presentness being the case with the blog form, it is not auspicious for this week's postings that I have been feeling especially emotionally empty and even indifferent. It is odd that this should be the case. I had a pleasant weekend, among other things getting a new mattress, replacing one that was 12 years old, though I wonder if the sudden upgrade in comfort did not unsettle my mind. I was not looking forward to going to work this week, though starting Friday I will be off for 10 days, which is the first full week I have had off since last July. The Olympics are kind of depressing, not, surprisingly, because I am not starring in them, but because the generation that has been in all consuming training since the age of nine, or lower, professionally coached, their families uprooted, their schooling tailored to fit the needs of their sports instruction, their international rivals and the circuit of their competition the friends and community most familiar to them, is now fully entrenched as the dominant type in the competitions. I find these people and their biographies more depressing than inspiring. Some version of this model seems to be gaining acceptance as necessary to have a chance at succeeding in any kind of desirable field in the contemporary world. I think it is still granted that it may not be optimal in the development of some idea of the whole person, but the whole person does not necessarily make the optimum use of his talents, if he has any good ones, that the specialist does, and the cultivation of specialized talents is the main concern of society's energies where the young are concerned now. Obviously part of this is my discomfort at never having done anything at a "serious" level myself, so that when people start talking in this language it seems forbidding to me. There is also the dread that my children will be cut off from everything in life they might be interested in too, because I do not know how to prepare them to do things in a serious manner. Oh, I think a lot of it is employed as a convenient means of control, both economic and cultural, protection of professional privileges and conceptions of self-importance and so on. I don't like the game, and I don't want to play it, but at the same time my personal bearing and achievements are not making an especially compelling case for my side. People crave what they perceive to be manifestations of the forces of dynamism and innovation. I appear to symbolize for them almost the polar opposite of these lusted after qualities.
As so often happens, one of the more astute insights into the current pessimistic mindset I have encountered came in a review of an art exhibit. The theme of the exhibit was futuristic visions of the turn of the twentieth century, and the observation was about our contemporary attitude toward the future compared with that of a hundred years ago. Whereas then thoughts of the future generated a good deal of excitement, the writer argued, today people tend to regard it as an endless continuation of our present problems, ever worsening. There is something in this, though I do tend to believe that the size of the global population has grown so large and consequently the pace of historical change has accelerated so much that the most serious problems will at least not drag on for years in a constant state of malaise and uncertainty. I do not have a good sense of what the solutions will be, or what form they will take--mine is, like too many of my contemporaries, not an innovative mind, the overall dearth of which nowadays is constantly thundered upon as a primary reason for long term pessimism. I persist in thinking some kind of sensible arrangements will eventually emerge out of the current disfunction with regard to debt, education and educational funding, male-female relations, health care, old age provisions, affordable housing, living wage employment. Right now we are at the unpleasant juncture where everyone knows the current arrangements can't really go on as they are as far as society as a whole is concerned, but they are not yet willing to give anything up themselves yet. Eventually one suspects people will either make some concessions to try to restore some measure of plausibility/equilibrium to the common good, or the turning of events will dictate change anyway.

Originally I had planned to go into more detail on various points brought up, but this is already the work of a week. Pitiful. Anyway, I repeat myself a lot, so I am sure the issues will come up again.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Brideshead Revisited--Part 2

The twit Anthony Blanche had some funny lines. "I have told Cocteau about you. He is all agog"..."Real G-g-green Charteuse, made before the expulsion of the monks. There are five distinct tastes as it trickles over the tongue. It is like swallowing a sp-spectrum." I have never had Chartreuse, green or yellow. When I was in my late 20s I had a cocktail book out of which I was going to make and know all the cocktails, much as I keep lists of books and movies and places, all of which, the idea went, was going to make me a brilliant and desriable figure in company. It was a drink calling for yellow Chartreuse that largely threw me off this plan. I scoured every liquor store in my area--due to the state monopoly, this was not hard to do--for more than a month in search of the stuff, finally finding a bottle at a gourmet booze shop in Cambridge, Mass. It was $30--much more than the green by the way, which ran around 12. This was too expensive for me, and I didn't get it. Now I am 40, and I still haven't had it. Would it even be worth it now? Any hope I once had of ever becoming a sophisticated drinker is probably gone. My 30s, that crucial, make-or-break decade in so many area of life, was a wholly lost one to me as far as drinks go. I don't think I added anything to my repertoire in the entire decade apart from sloe gin fizzes, which at one point kept turning up in various media from the 40s I was consuming to the point that I felt I had to have one. But otherwise I don't really have any friends near to hand, certainly none who are anymore who are imaginative drinkers, I don't go to cocktail bars and I just don't have that interaction with people that keeps one in a stream of new experience.

Having an affair, it is explained on page 52, is more or less compulsory at Cannes. I am always on the outlook for sexy spots. No, I can't afford it, but it is often remarkable how little different one feels from someone who can.

p.66 "It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me." This is more my speed. Charles is like 19 here, by which time nowadays if you haven't already had a least a few women quivering under your stare, you can pretty much forget such things happening ever.

"The masters who taught me Divinity told me that biblical texts were highly untrustworthy." Lord Marchmain: "This house seems to have been designed for the comfort of only one person, and I am that one."

Charles (narrator): "I was nineteen years old and completely ignorant of women. I could not with any certainty recognize a prostitute in the streets."

Mr Samgrass (pedant): "She has a birdlike style of conversation, pecking away at the subject in a way I find most engaging, and a school-monitor style of dress which I can only cal 'saucy'." Stuff like this just kills me.

These literary and artistic circles one encounters in British novels of this time period are remarkably complete and self-contained little societies. People like me are forever looking outside themselves, their own environments, to have vitality and self-realization miraculously bestowed upon us. This is a pitiful mistake.

The people we aren't supposed to like in this book, to be honest, seem a lot more interesting than these twits we are supposed to like.

I liked the part where Charles rhapsodizes over the bathroom he used to be given during his stays at Brideshead, and its contrast with the "uniform, clinical, little chambers, glittering with chronium-plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world." The modern world really does stink, no matter what age you are living in (of course in 1945 when the book was published more than 50% of British households still did not have indoor plumbing, but when reading this genre of literature, one really doesn't take that level of society into consideration, so it is not fair to nitpick over such matters).

Along similar lines, I was certainly convinced that Julia was dishy, and I kept wanting more of her, at least in the early sections.

"I need my third glass of port; I need that hospitable tray in the library...I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his." These comments follow on discussions of the Marchmain's declining fortunes. People in books of this class are really into drinking, which I guess I like. It's hard to imagine anybody in them over forty training for a triathlon, or eschewing a second helping of beef.

"...the ball given for Julia, in spite of the ignoble costume of the time, was by all accounts a splendid spectacle." This ball took place in 1923. The 20s generally are my favorite period for fashion of all time, though there was a peak around '22-'25 even within that decade, I think.

"There is proverbially a mystery among men of new wealth, how they made their first ten thousand..."

The General Strike of 1926 provided some good material (Waugh was not on the side of the strikers):

"We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes." I used to know a guy like that. He became very successful in business.

"'You should have been inBudapest when Horthy marched in,' said Jean, 'That was politics.'" Ha-Ha! I love this stuff.

Really though--what a life it was. Was it ultimately empty and unhappy? Was its upbringing, its education, of an inferior quality? Compared to what? At the very least, such unhappiness as they have is not from any desire to be substantially other than what they are. Shame and convictions of profound personal inferiority are largely absent from their lives.

I am tired and am going to close this here. Also I was sick this week, besides my usual busyness, and I'm still coming out of that. Wanted to get a post in though, you know. Hello to all the spamming commentors.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

I Have a New Scanner I Need to Try Out

This one is a piece of cake to use, which means, I am afraid, you can expect to see ever more of my detritus as time goes on. I believe a few months ago when I was recording my reading of something by Shelley that I threatened some Rome vacation pictures as accompaniment, only to discover that my old scanner was broken. So I give them to you now. I have tried to keep in mind that everybody already is familiar with the major monuments and sights in that city and tried to keep the photos to relative novelties.

This particular trip was in February/March 2001. Before I had children instead of going to Florida every year for winter vacation I used to go to places like Italy, and clinging to the idea that I might someday be able to do so again, remote and perhaps even trivial as it seems, does offer a strange kind of psychological satisfaction during the grinding weeks and months and years of daily life. Doing the sights and sitting around sipping cheap red wine in a cafe in Rome is the kind of thing a lot of the smarter and more conscientious modern kids are moving on from, preferring to seek out nobler and more mutually enriching experiences like laboring on farms and learning how to make artisanal cheeses in Armenia, or digging wells and building schools in Africa. I still found it pretty exciting to be there though. I guess arriving at the station or amidst one of the signature scenes of one of the great European capitals gets old for some people, though I have not been enough places for it to have happened with me yet.

On the Spanish Steps. I know this is a famous sight, but some people would be disappointed if I didn't include any pictures of pretty girls if I had them. I know I am when others don't. As for myself, I was looking rather bloated and had a bad haircut and an especially inane expression on my face on this trip, so there won't be much of me on view either.Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, a wealthy tribune of the early Empire, died 12 B.C. Now just outside the walls of the Protestant Cemetery.

Grave of Devereux Platagenet Cockburn. Wealthy Victorian-era Romantic/foppish type who died in Rome at the age of 21. I thought his tomb was interesting. He isn't otherwise anybody notable.

Unlike this Guy. There we are, the grave of Shelley, who actually drowned off the coast of, I don't remember where, Lerici and Leghorn (Livorno) are standing out (It was Leghorn). Some part of his body, probably his heart, was returned to England and interred at Bournemouth with his wife and her famous parents. He is not alone however, as his good friend and I believe biographer Edward Trelawny, who lived until 1881, dying at the age of 88 (grave not shown) is buried alongside him.

I Pose at Shelley's Grave. I am not sure what the purpose of doing this is, I admit. It is less of an oddity with the Romantic poets since it is the sort of thing they did themselves all the time. I'm sure I've seen an etching somewhere of Shelley or Byron at the tomb of Dante in Ravenna in the posture of trying to channel the master's spirit. With more modern writers, and the growth of the active, or wannabe active, segment of the literary world beyond reasonably intimate limits, these kinds of attempts at commiseration are a little more problematic. I saw that of course J.D. Salinger is not going to be buried, and doubtless whatever is done with his remains is not going to be revealed to the public. Einstein I believe took a similar approach, in large part in distaste at the idea of his tomb or whatever becoming a kind of shrine. On the other hand, when Norman Mailer died he was interred with some fanfare at Provincetown in Massachusetts; one suspects that the prospect of his monument's attracting attention after he had passed did not displease him.

Oppian Hill; Scant Remains of the Bath of Titus (with Colosseum in Background). Before the baths of Titus this was also the site of the villa of Maecenas, the great patron of Horace and other poets and artists whose name indeed became synonomous with patronage down even to our own time.

Ancient Country, Grounds of Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli. Even some cypresses in there.

I know a lot of people aren't big on ruins, but if you have some sense of or feeling for the world of antiquity--even a Victorian one--they can be very inspiring, especially if the surrounding landscape has retained a plausibly ancient appearance.

One of the Pools at the Villa. It wasn't crowded when we were there, so the place was nearly silent, it is you practically all alone on the vast estate of one of the greatest Roman Emperors, the remains of pools, theaters, baths, a Greek library and a Latin library, beautiful scenery, no cynical or jabbering or critical voices dampening your absorption. It is really a quite heady experience.

But now look at all the things I did not see when I was there. The famous statue of Moses by Michelangelo in the church of St Peter-in-Chains; various of the other celebrated churches (981 in all) such as St John Laterano and St Paul outside-the-walls. The Borghese Gallery. The grounds of the Forum itself. I should still like to see those things. Perhaps I should do something for the world first, and earn the privilege. That seems to be the attitude the most proper people from my social class anyway take nowadays.