Sunday, May 30, 2010

Invisible Man--Part 3

Reading about Waugh and the other amusing but rather spoiled brats of his generation as I have been recently probably does not put one in the right frame of mind for considering Ralph Ellison in the properly serious manner. However, one's perspective is always being altered and distracted by one thing or another, and while the inclinations of my attention in these sorts of matters are often disappointing from almost any point of view, I am far enough gone now that I am no longer wholly untrustful of them, and am at least equally as curious as frustrated as to why certain generally frivolous things appeal to my interest more than those of greater real import.

I find it very hard to say anything about the Ellison book, nor is there really anything I wish to say but am unable to formulate into words. I took notes, but they don't add up to anything coherent. There are clearly episodes and images that I liked scattered throughout, but they do not seem to have had the effect of "making me think" very much which is supposed, I think, to be the book's most important quality.

Chapter 21--"I won't call him noble, because what's such a word to do with one of us?" I took this 'us' as referring obliquely to all Americans, though I doubt that is what the speaker would explicitly have been referring to by it.

Rinehart represents American reality, fraud and deception, illusion.

'White women rape fantasies' I wrote. 'Everyone believes women want black ****.' I think I am referring here to the fantasies of white men who seem in great part, apart from obvious studs and other more or less secure individuals, to consider themselves incapable of sexually satisfying 'their' women and are in awe at the idea of the presence on earth of a race of men who are perceived as being able to accomplish so easily and uncomplicatedly what is a major source of angst in and drag on the white male population (black men may have many problems, but judging from their art at least, sexual inadequacy, or feelings of the same, does not appear to be one of them). I remember reading about voyeur clubs where white men get aroused (as much as it is possible for them to) by watching a black guy do things to his wife or girlfriend sexually that are supposedly beyond his physical capacities. I don't have a good sense for what form these kinds of male-female relationships can possibly take when everybody goes home. Evidently for the men who have internalized their own inferiority to such an extent there is some sort of catharsis in this experience. I often experience a masochistic desire to have authentic writers, artists and other men and women of serious accomplishment methodically and systematically savage what remains of my person and pretensions in front of an audience, not merely recommending that I be shunned by all desirable company forever after, but ensuring that this will be the collective will. In my novel the main character is incapable of imagining himself giving sexual pleasure to the woman he 'loves', but can only imagine her enjoying herself with a parade of comparatively godlike studs who have just finished destroying him in some area of human endeavor or another. This kind of mental flagellation does not really have a racial component with me however.

The depiction of the race riot in chapter 25 was good, one of the stronger scenes. The looting woman carrying a broom with a dozen dressed chickens suspended from it for some reason especially stands out to me. I have never been in a riot of course, although on the other hand it seems curious that I, indeed most people, can live for 40 years and never have had so many of the signature human experiences that make up a huge portion of the subjects of literature and the other arts.

There was, I wrote, a 'Don Quixote scene' with Ras that I believed did not work because it was trying too hard to say something serious. I thought that these kind of scenes only have a chance of working if the writer plays them as absolutely straight.

I guess a lot of people have to read this book in high school, though to be honest it is hard for me to see what they would be likely to get out of it. The motif of the 'invisible man' didn't make a searing impression on me. There is something of a disquisition in the epilogue about affirming "the principle on which the country was built, and not the men". Is this suposed to be the lesson of the book? The meaning of this philosophizing at the end is not clear to me. It neither rings true nor seems to know exactly what it wants to say. It is not self-contained and full in its expression and language. I sort of know what he means but I have to manipulate the images to what I think they might/must be rather than knowing what they are at all confidently. There are some pretty good bits on diversity and accepting the fact of one's humanity at the end. Maybe this last is the lesson of the book. I don't know.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Fiddling Until Computer Implodes

I'm supposed to be being attacked by 5 viruses at the moment, one critical. My intention was to try to write a post of snippet-items anyway.

Boxing no longer generates the interest it once did in this country though one would learn much about interpersonal relations by studying it, for the techniques people use in argument, particularly those between husbands and wives, are akin to the styles or non-styles used by boxers. My mother, for example, unfortunately had a Gerry Cooney like style of arguing, wherein she would plant herself in a single spot, cover her face with her hands, and allow her opponent to rain blow after (verbal) blow on her with very ineffective resistance, hoping for the bell to ring, or, in some instances, for her opponent to leave the premises in complete triumph, often for days, with her still rooted and dazed on the same spot, the equivalent of a TKO. It thus caught me quite by surprise when my wife's style of argument turned out to be more akin to that of Sugar Ray Robinson, landing well-placed and stinging blows, frequently in combination, and then moving from room to room under the guise of "being busy", and never allowing herself to be drawn into a toe-to-toe exchange of punches in the center of the ring. I believe this method is more instinctive than studied with her, but it is brilliantly effective, for it is not easy for a lumbering fellow like myself to fight, hurl invectives, etc, against a moving target with a quick mind.

Applying the theory further, one sees how here too Mike Tyson was a bad role model for Americans, especially since he remains the last boxer to be widely recognizable across all strata of society. Tyson's method of fighting at its most impressive was to march straightforward into the center of the ring and pound his overmatched opponents senseless, often in spectacular fashion such as knocking them through the ropes or lifting them off the ground and sending them airborne several feet backwards. A good portion of the American public seems to have adopted this technique in their approach to debate. Once people with a modicum of skill figured out how to sustain Tyson's initial fury, he was exposed and began to lose, as no doubt would also happen to most of the bullies and demagogues who hold much of our public discourse in thrall. Unfortunately most people, including myself, when encountering a person of this type end up playing the role of one of Tyson's hapless early opponents--Marvis Frazier perhaps--who had to be carried out of the ring on a stretcher 30 seconds after the bell rang.

That ability to sting in conversation and dealings with other people is a crucial skill that I never developed--not so that I should be able to unload indiscrimately on everybody I came across, but just to keep people wary of me, make them have to be a little respectful, not get too comfortable. As it is, people pretty much dig in and occupy all the ground they want up to the very boundaries of my person, and I can do little about it without expending pretty much all of my force, which I am understandably reluctant to do in routine social encounters. I hope dearly that at least some of my children have enough light, quickly deployed mental power they can carry about with them to be able to establish some kind of presence in such situations. I am putting a lot of hope in my dear wife's excellent genetic qualities as far as the social fate of the next generation goes, myself having little to offer in that regard other than height, which I have have always considered more of a non-negative than a positive quality, though I have had several men express to me, and apparently believed it whole-heartedly, that if they possessed my height in combination with their other outstanding qualities they would be making six figures and dating beauty pageant contestants, or at the very least Hooters waitresses.

I am currently reading a book which is giving me a great deal of ninth hand pleasure, The Brideshead Generation, by an Englishman named Humphrey Carpenter. Everything I read about them further persuades me that this crowd--the Bright Young People of 1920s London--were unspeakably awful, but at the same time I can read about them all day and never weary of them. Their style of life is as close to my ideal as I have found, especially among the English-speaking peoples, though I do also like the coffeehouse and tavern haunters of the 18th century. They drank a great deal, they traveled, they wrote, they chased women (and boys, I concede), they were witty, they had an excellent taste for characters and scenes. The Oxford Railway Club, for one example, was a group of aesthetes, homo- and heterosexual (in the womanless world of 1920s Oxford these distinctions did not impose the social boundaries among men that they seem to today), dedicated to taking midweek excursions around the rails of England, having a five course dinner on the outbound train, jumping off at Leicester or some such place and riding back in the bar car to make the midnight curfew, accounts of which excursions were dutifully written up for one of the myriad campus publications. Of course if you are on the railway club outing on a Tuesday night that means you aren't studying. But it's 1923, and you are of the right class, so you can still recover from getting a third in history, or not managing to get your degree at all, and manage to do something fairly interesting and prestigious. These guys struggled a little to get their careers going in their mid-20s, and of course some of the most brilliant ones never panned out as writers or anything else, but the ones who really made it big, at decisive moments in their development were able to produce something of reasonable value, and were close enough to the sources of power and influence to have a fair chance of having someone in a position to aid them take on their projects. One of the notable circumstances of the Oxford chapters are the confidence that as every generation must have its writers and poets, it is taken for granted that a good number of those in the rising one are surely present, and that therefore their little college poems and general literary education are in fact serious matters. There appears to be something of a similiar attitude at Harvard and other Ivy League schools, perhaps not so much in literature, but the expectation that numerous of the young people sitting in your class at any given time are going to be prominent and influential--of what degree of quality is not for the moment in the question--seems to be in operation from what I know of their graduates.

It is clear that someone in our family--evidently it isn't going to be me--is going to have to buckle down somewhere and figure out how to make a pile and push us into that realm of society where our more talented members have access to people who can show them how to really get on in life. In my family we are on at least the third or fourth generation of capable enough intellectual ability that never seems to amount to anything because they don't know how to work or ingratiate themselves with the right people or something. I came across my three year old son the other day essentially teaching himself to read--he had a little book open and was sounding out j--a--m--and I thought, well, he'll end up a little office clerk like his father, being spoken to by people with 8 week correspondence course certificates as if he were seven steps beneath them on the class scale, and deservedly so, but why? How does this keep perpetuating itself, and why can no one make that leap to the next stratum?

But I digress. There is some dispute as to how fun the parties of the 20s actually were--some people are fastidious as to detail--but since I am reading here in May of 2010 about, among numerous other fetes, Babe Plunkett-Greene's and Elizabeth Ponsonby's Swimming-Pool party of 13 July 1928, I am going to guess that it was at least as much fun as anything most people who are interested in this scene will have ever known themselves. "Bathing costumes of the most dazzling kinds and colours were worn by the guests," the Daily Express reported, "Dancing took place to the strains of a negro orchestra, and the hardy leaped into the bath, of which the water had been slightly warmed...A special cocktail, christened the Bathwater Cocktail, was invented for the occasion." Further, back to the main narrative of the text: "...the women one met at such parties were not especially sexually liberated; they 'expected to have passes made at them', but were well able to fend these off. One heard stories of debs who could be got to bed, but...such sexual contacts as were achieved at or after these parties (being) brittle and transitory...They might bruise and press each other's flesh...No hearts to break and nothing to linger afterwards behind." This doesn't sound all that bad. One remarkable thing about this group is that while they went nuts with affairs and freaky sex in their 30s, 40s and even beyond, many if not most of them appear to have remained virgins as far the opposite sex was concerned for several years beyond college age, 23 and 24 and 25. That certainly was not healthy for them. The best age for that sort of thing seems to be 17, as far as your best chance of being well-adjusted and healthy down the line goes, some people probably handle 16 and some would be best advised to hold off till 18, but beyond that I really think you start to see unnecessary derangement.

Humphrey Carpenter views Waugh as the central figure of this group of writers, not merely socially but from the literary; personally I would be inclined to disagree, but I have only read Brideshead Revisited, which seemed to me the weakest of all the books I have read from this general group, which includes Anthony Powell, Graham Greene and Henry Green, not to mention Orwell, who is not part of this crowd socially but was the same age and was at school with many of them. I can go along with the premise though because the book is so damn entertaining. Carpenter also was "a musician and the founder of Vile Bodies, a band that recreates the music of the Evelyn Waugh era at the Ritz Hotel in London." I don't know if this is still going on (this was written in 1990), but I think it might be too much even for me to take. (Note: Carpenter died in 2005. The band does not appear to play anymore). The Ritz is so prominent in the literature of this era especially, which I have been gorging on and living vicariously through for much of the last decade now that I am thinking I may have to make a splurge and have dinner there if I ever make it back to London (which dinner will probably cost more than my plane ticket, at current rates anyway).

Of Mice and Men (movies--1939 & 1992)

I've seen both of these versions lately, as each is rated a top rank film by various major publication or other, the '39 one more frequently, though the '92 has its fans as well. The two movies are quite similar, and almost look at times like they were filmed on the same sets. You would think I would be partial to the '39, but I am leaning towards the '92 which seemed to me a little better acted (Gary Sinise & John Malkovich in the main roles versus Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr, and Sherilyn Fenn has it all over the simpering ninny they had in '39 as the girl). The '39 has the advantage of being contemporary with the book and it had a very capable director in Lewis Milestone, who did All Quiet on the Western Front. I don't love either of them, and as such it is actually interesting to see two versions of the same story.

The story seems to have been regarded almost since its first appearance as being profoundly and vitally American. Like many such American stories, it features a prominent character who is retarded, in this instance one who is a tireless worker ignorant of his own strength, which I presume is supposed to be symbolic of the vast American proletariat. An agreeably sinister stand-in for corporate America, and the American dream, more modest but no less elusive than it is in our era, are also portrayed. I have to say the story has never resonated too much with me--the characters and milieu are not the type that I am really drawn to, especially since there is not much humor in them. I find it hard to love people who are both earnest and ragged--the combination doesn't work for me.

In short I think if you haven't read the book at least one of the films is worth seeing (they are by no means bad--I just wouldn't think of them as great) just to become more familiar with the story and the place it occupies in American culture, where for whatever reason it has become recognized as a classic by many influential people.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Untitled With Lists

I've alluded before to the long list of literary sites I have been compiling over the years. I haven't been to see any in quite a few years now and while I haven't lost all interest in them the lists have become lopsided and unwieldy in places, as well as inconvenient to keep up. Nonetheless I have been keeping them up, and I'm going to run some of the statistics here (this only counts things I have yet to see), starting with "Nations"

1. England--216 I organized my countries according to FIFA regulations, so England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are counted as separate countries (no literary site on my current list is located on the Isle of Man)

2. United States--126

3. France--63

4. Ireland--33

5. Italy--32

6. Scotland--30

7. Greece--22

8. Russia--21

9. Israel--19

10. Turkey--16

11. Germany--14

12. Egypt--13

Obviously I need to read more German literature, and where are the Spanish? (Spain is in 14th place currently, with 7 sites) Italy's number is inflated due to the Romans and the circumstance that a lot of English authors either lived there or wrote stories and poems about specific and easily identifiable places.


1. Middlesex (London)-71

I should have stuck to the ancient county boundaries, but when I began my listings, I recorded them according to the re-organization of 1974. Apparently there was a further re-organization in the 90s however, so many of my designations no longer signify anything.

On another note, the re-organization of internal boundaries that have sufficed for centuries has been one of the obvious symptoms of a nation's decline (widespread epicureanism is another), going back at least as far as the Roman Empire. This is why emotionally at least I am against doing this in the United States (or tearing up the Constitution and writing a new one, as some have argued is necessary) even if there are valid arguments for doing so.

2. Kent--14. I am continually surprised at how well Kent, which is not thought of as a literary region, does. Canterbury is the leading point accumulator in this county; besides the oft-referenced cathedral, a lot of writers either were born or lived there (Marlowe, Fletcher, Conrad, Maugham). Henry IV, king and also Shakesperean character, is buried in the cathedral as well.

3. Dorsetshire--13. Famous for Hardy, but Shelley and his wife and her parents, all noted authors, have connections to Bournemouth.

4. Cumbria--10. The Lake District. Wordsworth, Coleridge, DeQuincey, et al.

5. Somerset(shire?)--9. No dominant town or author (Bath used to belong to this county I think, but in my system is listed under the post-70s abomination of "Avon"), just a variety of different people.

Oxford and Cambridge come in much weaker than I would have thought. All of Cambridgeshire only has 3 sites on my list.

"United States"

1. (Tie) Massachusetts/New York-24

Nearly all of these places are within easy driving distance of my house, which should be proof to you that I have not been carrying out the project of visiting the actual places with same fanaticism with which I have kept up the lists.

3. Mississippi--8. Not surprising. I was actually on my way to Mississippi once, getting as far as New Madrid, Missouri, before my wife made me turn around due to severe tornado warnings all across the area to which we were heading. That was in 2003, so I have still never made it there.

4. Ohio--7

5. (tie) Connecticut/New Jersey--6. These are mostly just birthplaces and graves, some of them obscure. For example William Ellery Leonard was born in Plainfield, NJ--I can find no other information on him, though I assume he is buried in Madison, Wisconsin. The Revolutionary War poet Philip Freneau, according to the 1904 edition of his collected works, is buried at the "Philip Freneau cemetery" in Matawan, NJ, but as I cannot find any mention of this place on the internet, I question whether it actually exists or not.


1. Westminster--15

This is mainly people buried in the Abbey.

2. City--12. The square mile. This is where pretty much everyone pre-1800 lived and died. Unfortunately not much of that era is left.

3. (tie) Bloomsbury/Unknown--4. Unknown refers to people (usually very remote, like Spenser) whose birthplace is given as simply 'London', no street or house known.

5. (tie) Marylebone/Strand--3. A lot of people seemed to live in Marylbone in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, 1880-1914 or so. It's where Sherlock Holmes lived, I'm pretty sure. I don't remember what's in the Strand.


1. (tie) Ayrshire/Dumfriesshire/Midlothian--6

Another competitive country. Burns, who is the subject of more literary sites (10) than I think anyone (that should be another category) is resonsible for 5 in Ayrs, 4 in Dumfries, and 1 in Midlothian. Midlothian is otherwise where the very literary city of Edinburgh is located.

No other county in Scotland notched more than 2 sites.


1. Seine--23. This is obviously Paris. Again I am going by their modern departments, which date I believe back to Napoleon at least, rather than the traditional ancient regions.

2. Seine-Maritime--5. In Normandy. Rouen the major city. Joan of Arc, Flaubert, & Racine are identified with this region.

3. Vaucluse--4. In Provence. Avignon the town. Among the figures associated are Camus, John Stuart Mill, and Alain Chartier, author of the medieval love poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

4. (tie)--Eure-et-Loire/Gironde/Indres-et-Loire/Loiret--3. The broken-up & famously castled and vineyarded Loire region showing some strength. Eure-et-Loire: Chartres and Proust's Cambray. Gironde is in Dordogne, capital is Bordeaux. Montaigne is the big guy there. Indres-et-Loire is the Tours (Balzac) and Chinon (Rabelais) neighborhood. Loiret is Orleans (Joan of Arc).


1. Lazio (Latium)-10

2. Tuscany--7

3. (tie) Campania/Emilio-Romagna--4. My impression is that Emilio-Romagna is not as overrun with tourists as the rest of Italy, but still has the kind of rich, beautiful, artistic ancient cities (Ravenna, Bologna, Parma, Ferrara, plus Rimini, the Blackpool/Jersey Shore of Italy), but on a smaller scale, that people love. Maybe I'll base myself there if I ever go back sometime.

5. Veneto--3


1. Dublin--17

The capital areas are far more dominant, and the universities much less so (Germany may be an exception), in most European literatures than New York has even been in this country, though it doesn't always seem that way. I used to lament a lot that Philadelphia had never really nurtured much of a literary scene or apparent talent, and that something in the environment must be inimicable to a literary sensibility. However, Reading, a dump of an industrial city of a 100,000 people about an hour west, managed to produce both Wallace Stevens and John Updike (Philadephia's most famous authors by comparison are Ben Franklin, who grew up in Boston, Louisa May Alcott, who moved to Boston when she was about 5, and the 30s communist playwright Clifford Odets).

2. Galway--7. I forget who is responsible for all this Galway stuff. Yeats probably.

No other Irish county had more than 2 spots.

"Top Cities"

1. London--71.

2. Paris--22

3. Dublin--16

4. New York--8

5. Concord, Massachusetts--7. It's a little embarassing that this is in 5th place, but a lot of people lived there and there are a lot of museums and such. It's only about a hour from where I live, and it is a really beautiful and rich little town with delightful pastry shops and so on. I've only been there once, 13 years ago. This is the kind of place I ought to go to once every couple of years just to hang out in for a few hours and decompress from the vulgarity of most of modern life, but I never get around to it. Maybe this upcoming weekend.

6 (tie) Cambridge (Massachusetts)/Canterbury (England)/Edinburgh/ Jerusalem/Moscow/Rome/Troy (as in the Iliad)--6. That's a pretty good group there. Troy gets a point every time either one of its natives or itself is the subject of a work, usually a poem. I know there is nothing there but a bunch of stones and dirt and a reproduction of the Trojan horse. I've endured far more boring places.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Blog of Death (or Florida 2010, Series 2)

Overtired this week, frustrated with the outcome of the previous post, and reading in my spare minutes snatches from another book about the generation who attended Oxford in the 1920s, I was going to confess on an extravagant scale the truth that the day a person starts a blog is the day he has conceded that he has given up on life and is henceforward counting down the hours until the grave is finally reading to receive him, but, while I do think this is to a certain extent true, I have had a couple of hours to think it over and have decided not to take such an extreme line today.

My frustrating experiences, especially in recent years, in trying to compete against others in mastering ideas and perceiving the reality of events and situations in the real world has convinced me that I will never be able to do so, and has caused me to retreat into trying to find a framework by which to live ever more in forms and patterns, of writing and language, of traditions and stories, of aesthetics, of logical systems that are adaptable to my individual level while still remaining inspiring as well as possessed of meaning...Enough for today. Baby steps. My meanings will reveal themselves blatantly enough in time.

This is a Zoo/Park Featuring Exotic Animals. I will spare you more pictures of these, though there are some nice pictures of tortoises, my son holding a baby alligator, and so on. They Have a Shrine at this Zoo. Inside those windows are plaster dioramas featuring scenes from the life of Christ. I have a weakness for that kind of display, though these dioramas were especially amateurish as well as in need of some kind of cleaning/restoration.

Boat Tour of Lake Myakka, Myakka River State Park. This is a very pretty and well-maintained park about 20 miles inland from Sarasota. I think this lake might be man-made, though I forget. Though it is quite big, it is only 6 feet deep at its greatest depth. The Myakka river drains into it. The evil imported tilapila have totally infested it and have choked off the native aquatic life. The recent cold spell (note the attire of the people on the boat) meant that the edges of the lake were clogged with dead tilapila. The day that we went the sky above the lake was darkened with the circling of vultures all around it.

Alligators Out in the Sun. I saw more alligators elsewhere but it wasn't convenient to stop and gawk at them.

A Three (Five?) Story Tower Gets You Above the Treetops. This structure is buffeted terribly by the wind, so I didn't care for it too much. I'm gussing by the shadows this view is facing south. Good illustration of Florida's flat terrain. The state's highest elevation, which is up in the panhandle near Pensacola and all that, is I believe 381 feet, which I think is the lowest high elevation of any state, even Delaware! (Research confirms that this is true. The high point in Delaware is 448 feet. Florida's is actually only 345 feet.)

Probably a Hopeless Cause, But Trying to Add Scientific Activities to Our Repertoire. So far I have been moderately successful in focusing the moon clearly for about a half-second or so. The most satisfying use I have gotten from the telescope so far is turning it on distant buildings such as churches, old houses and such and examining the details of their roofs and upper storeys. We'll have to get it out in Vermont this summer and try to work on the sky again.

We Say Goodbye to the Beach. It would have been a good day for kite flying.

It Doesn't Look that Bad, But it Must Have Been Cold. Usually there are people walking back and forth up and down this beach all day.

Dinner at Sonny's Bar-B-Q Pit. More chain fun. I sort of excuse myself because for years we didn't actually have all this stuff in New England (and they still don't in Vermont) so it was kind of like seeing the real America. Sonny's isn't the best food, but my three year for some reason has developed a great love for the idea of it, so we stopped there for him. The two times I've gone the waitresses have been the kind of sensible, healthy, unpretentious and good-looking All-American girls I like, so I guess I'll have to go back until my luck runs out.

This was in central Florida on the way back. According to conventional wisdom, while the coasts have been colonized by affluent east coasters and the panhandle in the north across to Jacksonville is still the redneck south, the center area, especially away from Orlando, has been settled by people from the midwest, which accounts for that area's being friendlier and less bombastic than the rest of the state. I don't know if that is true, though I am willing to believe it, but I do like the way the center still retains a little more of an old fashioned look, more orange groves, more train tracks, more one horse towns and farms and so on. There are some older sights there I mean to get around and see some year if I can ever plan my time properly. I wanted to visit the Bok Tower Gardens, which is a large preserve left by Edward Bok, Dutch immigrant, editor of the Ladies' Home Journal and author of the once-classic but now forgotten autobiography The Americanization of Edward Bok, to the state when he died in 1931. The site is not especially well known either--I only read about it in my 1962 encyclopedia--but it's still there, still kept up, and people who have been say (on the internet) that it's really a great place. So maybe next year I'll get over there.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Invisible Man--Part 2

Chaper 13: "Men grow old and types of men grow old." I guess I thought my type had grown old. I still believe there is hope for regeneration, hopefully in the next generation but at least somewhere further down the line. Confidence, ability, success, determination, vitality, involvement with the prevailing spirits of the day, now for some inexplicable reason all dead to the world, must be lying there in some latent form, waiting for the imagination to suddenly comprehend again to what uses its strongest qualities need to be put to, and how to use them, which is what seems to be most lacking now.

There is a litany of "old heroes" named--I am always interested when capable authors reel out lists of superlatives, or what they perceive others to believe to be superlatives. Here we get "Jefferson, Jackson, Pulaski, Garibaldi, Booker T Washington, Sun Yat-sen, Danny O'Connell, Abraham Lincoln..." Not sure how Jackson fits in with this crowd. I guess he was the first man from the common rabble to become president. Also his ungenteel followers were empowered and became a more meaningful force in the national political life than they had been before. That is the official story anyway, not the Noam Chomsky/Howard Zinn version.

One of the white communist women is referred to as having a "thin New England face". Now there is a type that is dying out, or at least is being driven, like the Basques and Bretons, into remote and thinly populated enclaves in the main out of common view.

"One thing about the people at the Chthonian (i.e., the white communists), they all seemed able to say just what they felt and meant in hard, clear terms." My own inability to ever develop this skill rates as one of the 5 or so greatest disappointments of my life. On page 332--the end of chapter 15--out of 581, I finally betray myself as beginning to lose a little faith in the book. "Do black people really like this book," I asked, "or is it white people?" The book's literary sensibility struck me as more self-consciously after the 'white' (Euro) model than I was expecting.

"I stumbled in a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time." I like that sentence. Another example of the sense of the world in this period being a giant mechanism, with these great clocks as the primary symbol (See also films "The Clock" and "Modern Times").

In Chapter 16 there is a discussion on Joyce and the infamous line about creating the uncreated conscience of his race which is a recurrent theme in the life of everybody who encounters insuperable problems creating individuals and a serious culture out of his available materials, and thereby can never feel intellectually secure.

The super-seriousness, paranoia and backstabbing of 1930s communist intrigue was a whole lot of possibility and fun that as usual most Americans got left out of.

Around page 360 I make a note that 'the pace/direction of this book are very odd.'

"He take one them strumpets and tell the black mahn his freedom lie between her skinny legs..." Ras, the dynamic black activist who it is my impression is a much-studied character in this novel, is explaining one of the means by which blacks get manipulated by whites. The love in question here is white girl love.

"On the day of the parade they drew crowds faster than a dogfight on a country road." Dogfighting was in the news ceaselessly at the time as one of the most horrible things that went on in the world, so I had to take note the reference to it that is obviously intended to be at least some way comic.

Around page 440 I scribbled a note that that this was 'not as good as Salinger. Just not as good. Same year, not as romantic. A different city.' Obviously I really feel this. Of course it has nothing to do with what Ellison is trying to write about, but effective art is very much about presenting a spirit, a picture, a sensation that resonates strongly with people, and this book for the most part failed grandly to accomplish this with me.

This is a Sculpture Commemorating The Invisible Man. It seems to be in Harlem.

I did like his comment on the blues. "Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words?" The stuff I listen to is at least as bad, and most would say worse, so it's not like I'm feeling triumphant or anything. I actually wish everything were more adequate, especially music, if for nothing else that to make the music people happy. When they are unhappy because there is no good music coming into their ears, they tend to be quite mean and assume your lame self must have a great part in the whole sorrty state of affairs.

I have to do one more on this anyway and I'm tired, so I'm going to cut it short.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Lennon Sisters--October 1966

Watching these old Lawrence Welk shows from around '66 and '67 you can just feel the cultural tension rising. Welk wasn't cool and he apparently was a crummy musician, but as long as he had the Lennon Sisters on every week, he could go toe to toe with any program or cultural movement on the air in raw babe hour, and you better believe he knew it, and that even as an old Republican it put a little bite in his step, to mix a couple of metaphors. When they finally left him either in '68 or '69 he fought like a rabid dog to prevent them, and apparently remained bitter for years afterwards for, for as you can imagine it killed his show deader than the ascendance of rock of roll could ever have dreamed of doing. All right I know it's late at night and I'm probably a little out of my head but God damn, look at these girls!!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Music Post--Cole Porter Edition

There are a lot of similar type posts here getting bunched up together, which is the result of a confluence of various things I am doing at the moment and am also interested enough in to think about being in fact similar, combined with the inability I seem to have at the same time to come up with anything to say about fresher and more timely subjects. I know the internet scarcely needs another paean to the music of Cole Porter, which besides belongs to a time that, while it had its considerable charms, is rapidly receding into the distant past, and whose sensibilities are not terribly pertinent to the realities of the contemporary mental environment, which ought to be of more interest to any man who has not mastered it enough to comfortably see over, around, and through it; it is not my intention to give a paean. The fact is, I have been reading a book of his lyrics and seeking out some of the earlier recorded versions of the songs on the internet, and wanted to do a short and hopefully enjoyable post about these while they were still near the front of my mind. Since it looks like I may have missed that phase of life wherein one has a career in which his talents and position develop and change in an interesting and successful manner over some course of years, I have become of late more interested in the mechanics of this development in capable and celebrated people than I probably paid attention to formerly. Cole Porter seems, for a songwriter, to have been an unusually late developer as far as reaching his peak goes. In the first place, he wrote somewhere around a hundred to a hundred and fifty songs before coming up with any of the ones he is remembered for today, that being I believe "Let's Do It", at which point he was already 37, which in recent decades especially is ten years past most songwriters' prime. Porter was not unemployed and waiting around hoping to get a foot in the door before this, but had been professionally writing for Broadway shows and revues since his mid-20s, in addition to the 5 full musical shows and a dozen or so football/school spirit ditties he had written and had performed while he was at Yale. Almost all of the songs from these years have been forgotten however, as have most of the 800 songs--only half of which ever ended up being published/performed in his lifetime--that he wrote altogether. The lesson in all this I suppose is, keep working. Of course Porter had obvious musical talent from an early age, and there doesn't seem to have been a ton of controversy that he belonged in the business even before he became hugely successful, and it still took him a fairly long time to really put it together. So maybe the lesson is to give up and put your finances in order, the better to be able to offer support to somebody who might actually be able to do something inspiriting with his life.

I think it's time for a song. I like to keep it obvious, to start anyway, so how about Artie Shaw's version of "Begin the Beguine"? Artie Shaw just died a couple of years ago at age 94, one of those people you were astounded to find out had actually still been alive. He was a holy terror where women were concerned back in the 40s, a mixture of studliness and indifferent cruelty that you don't seem to see much of anymore. He retired from music at a fairly young age and turned to writing novels, which, if they weren't great, seem to have been respected. He lived and presumably died as a real artist. Here is Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell's tapdance to the same number in the film Broadway Melody of 1940. Fred Astaire is a guy I didn't appreciate much when I was younger because I assumed that even if he was the best of all the white male dancers, he still must have been comparatively terrible beside any black person. It may sound insane, but this is what I perceived the psychic atmosphere I grew up in to be. Since real dancing was supposed to come from the soul and be a natural expression of one's coolness--i.e., it did not seem possible that lessons, say, would be of any use--I knew for myself from an early age that even attempting to get on the dance floor would be hopeless and just serve to invite ridicule which I was not emotionally equipped to receive with grace, so I never danced.

But I have a lot of songs that I want to do, so I can't keep going on these asides. Some of the earlier songs of which no recordings exist had amusing lyrics which I may sample from, such as 1930's "Say It With Gin": "Don't say it with candy,/Don't say it with flow'rs./Don't give her something high-brow to read,/Maybe she doesn't know how to read...In case to make you sweetie fall,/You find you're unable,/Our gin is guaranteed to put her under the table..." There is a whole subgenre both in Porter and other songwriters of the era of sort of Prohibition-resistance tunes, the heartfelt fervor of which is one of the many signs to me that I may have fit in better with the spirit of America's past than it's present. Of course as I have said before, if I had been alive in the 20s I probably would have been stuck out in Kansas or somewhere where everybody enthusiastically supported the policy.

Fred Astaire, "Night and Day". This seems to be considered by most historians the greatest Cole Porter song. I like it too, though it is not my favorite.

Bob Hope, "You've Got That Thing". Nice clip, though unfortunately doesn't include the best verse: "Since you first blew in like a boisterous breeze/I have often wondered, dear,/Why gentlemen all seem to fall on their knees/The moment that you appear?/Your fetching physique is hardly unique,/You're mentally not so hot;/You'll never win laurels because of your morals, But I'll tell you what you've got..."

My favorite Porter song is "Anything Goes." The Ella Fitzgerald version that was a staple of the dances at my college will probably always hold the first spot in my soft heart for sentimental reasons, but this one, where Cole Porter himself actually appears to be doing singing, is also great, has some different (and funnier) lyrics, and reveals a whole other, and almost certainly truer, more 30s-inflected aspect of the song.

Another recurrent theme in the Cole Porter ouevre was the use of communists as comic fodder, as in the song "I Still Love the Red, White & Blue" (not to be confused with the Toby Keith song): "A bunch of Bolsheviks, one day,/Were working out an easy way/To make this hellish world a perfect heaven,/And among that thickly bearded clan/To discuss the five-and-ten-cent plan/Was a pure American girl of thirty-seven./The leader rose and said to them,/'Is this the flag you love?'/As he waved a scarlet banner to and fro,/To which they all, with great success,/ Pronounced the Russian word for 'Yes'/Except the American girl, who cried 'No.'" This was from "Gay Divorce", which is the same show that gave the world "Night and Day" This number didn't make it into the movie version however.

Besides Fred Astaire, the main immediate beneficiary of Cole Porter's genius was Ethel Merman, a famously unusual talent who by the time I came along unfortunately had become considered a joke. She must have been something of a show-stopper in the 1930s however, since she was repeatedly cast as the lead on Broadway in Cole Porter musicals, of which the main problem as far as marketability went was that its core audiences were perceived as being too limited and too sophisticated. A lot of the songs associated now primarily with people like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were originally performed by, and in some cases written for, Ethel Merman. I admit, I am not quite sure where I stand in my feelings for Ethel Merman. Her voice really is odd, and is not exactly beautiful, though it has a ringing quality that I do like. While there isn't much footage of her on Youtube when she isn't 100 years old, you can find some of her old recordings of these songs on various internet music sites, and there is a poignancy and 1930s roughness in them that is not delectable in some of the slicker versions that came out a couple of decades later. So I'm more interested in her than I was before. Here are a couple of clips of her singing with Sinatra from a 50s TV show, I'm guessing early 50s even, because Frank is still looking pretty lean. "I Get a Kick, etc..." and "You're the Top". I had also always imagined Ethel Merman as being about four feet tall, but seeing as she seems to be about the same height as Frank Sinatra, this evidently was not the case.

"You're the Top" inspired some great parodies at the time, which were happily reprinted in the book I was reading: "You're the top!/You're Miss Pinkham's tonic./You're the top!/You're a high colonic./You're the burning heat of a bridal suite in use./You're the breasts of Venus,/You're King Kong's penis,/You're self-abuse..."

A German Expressionism inspired dance to "I've Got You Under My Skin".

Two classics from the film "Rosalie", sung by Nelson Eddy. The title number and "In the Still of the Night".

"In July 1936, dance director George Hale said at a press conference held during auditions (for "Red, Hot and Blue") that 'no bad-looking babies were wanted...Watch me come up with swell-looking bimbos...The hard type is out...So is the languid type...Men like fresh, sweet girls--peppy, talented, and untheatrical.'" This is essentially true, though I probably could have developed a weakness for languid types if necessity had prodded me to it.
Ethel Merman in 1934. She's definitely a sassy one. I'm not going to put myself out so far as to say I'm sweet on Ethel Merman, because I may be in an unreliable psychological condition, but I am intrigued.

A 1930 recording of "Love For Sale". Porter reputedly often referred to this as his favorite among his songs.

Ethel Waters, "Miss Otis Regrets", 1934. Now that I'm hearing the older versions of all these songs the snazzier postwar recordings seem to be almost out of context.

"So Near and Yet So Far", from the film You'll Never Get Rich (1941) Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. I only looked this up because there was a more than usually striking photograph of Rita Hayworth in the section of the book on this movie. I knew she was a celebrated bombshell of the time of course, but having never seen any of her films, I hadn't realized that she danced (the commenters on the dancing videos point out that her mother was Mexican, to which Latin origin her dancing abilities are attributed). This is going to sound odd, but she has really beautiful arms, which for some reason I always take especial note of when I see it.

I'll close off the main body of the post here with the famous Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters "Don't Fence Me In" from 1944. I suppose I know it isn't really much compared to the high German tradition, and I know some people care a lot about that distinction, enough to determine the kind of personal and professional relationships they are willing to enter into, but I have to concede to myself that I can never attain that level of discrimination, and consequently have always liked this song.

I know there is way more stuff on here than anybody would ever go through and look at, but perhaps somebody will drop by and pick and choose something based on his or her individual taste, you never go. It will be a good reference page for me if nothing else. That said, I couldn't let the subject go without seeing what some of the notorious sirens of this site had to do with Cole Porter. The inimitable Gertrude Lawrence, as it turns out, was actually in several of Porter's early (late 20's) shows. She turns up on celluloid singing a tune called "They All Fall in Love" from a 1929 movie called The Battle of Paris. Judy Garland didn't seem to do many Porter songs during her best years. In 1948 she starred in The Pirate, a musical for which Porter, by then 57 years old, wrote most of the songs, which don't rank with his best material. Although Judy Garland was still only 26 at this time, she unfortunately had already embarked on her campy period, though to be fair so had everyone else, the decade after the war ended bringing a serious drop-off in the overall quality of musical productions both for stage and film. So nothing from her here. Then the poor, but still super dreamy Lennon Sisters seem to have been kept a great distance from any Cole Porter material whatsoever, with its myriad suggestions of drinking, staying up all night, sophisticated (for the Lawrence Welk audience) wordplay and topical subjects. Now that I've gotten onto them though I have found a doozy that I'm going to have to have to put up in the next post.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Florida 2010--Series 1

It's been a while since I've done any picture posts. This year's Florida pictures weren't very exciting, which is why I've let them linger until the middle of May. However it has become kind of a tradition here on the site, and not having any up seemed to leave a hole in the pattern so I guess I'll do a couple.Gas Station in Georgia, About 5 Miles From the Florida State Line. At this point we are already about 24 hours into our trip, which we did without stopping to try to squeeze an extra day in, and people are holding up astonishly well.

Field Adjacent to Same Shell Station With Sorry-Looking Palm Tree. Breathing in that southern air.

Acorn Found in Parking Lot, Still Same Gas Station.

The Baby Psyched Up For Dinner at the Cracker Barrel in Melbourne, Florida. Unfortunately he was not able to drive. Miami at this point is still three or four hours away, and I had already been spent for the better part of the day.

Miami is Reached. This is supposed to be evidence of that. Move the narrative along.

Enjoying Some February Outdoor Grilling, which of course we don't do much of in New England. I am looking like the whale being stalked for the main course, though people assured me that I was not really that fat, I was still overtired from the drive down, I had not eaten well during those couple of days, the sudden change in climate had overrelaxed my flesh, rest and fresh air would revive me and similar dubious excuses. Authentically good-looking people when they come to Miami actually look better than they do normally. Their desirable qualities are enhanced. Likewise, if you are hideous, this truth will be mercilessly exposed.

Lunch in Naples. Or perhaps Venice. It was an Italian city in any case. After a couple of days in Miami we are now on the way to Sarasota. We are still anticipating that the temperature is going to be warm because we are in Southern Florida, though actually it is only in the low 60s. I learned on this trip that a team of researchers had concluded that 83% of the time one orders grouper in a restaurant in Florida, he is in fact served something else, usually tilapila, a foreign fish which has apparently taken over lakes and rivers all across that state. I am pretty confident this occasion was not one of the happy exceptions to this deception.

I know I am going to a lot of mediocre and bad, and even sinister, restaurants, in these pictures. I feel bad about it, but with the time constraints and a baby and a toddler among four young children this year I lapsed into a weak and mindless satisfaction with convenience. I will have to try a little harder in the future.

Trying to Liven Up Naples a Little. No one was much out, I suppose because it was too cold.

We Make It to the Beach! The famous white sands of Siesta Key. This was our one day that we spent on the beach. It got chilly again the next day, dropping down to the 50s, where it remained for the rest of the trip.

Another Scene However From Our One Warm and Glorious Day on the Beach.

To be continued...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ralph Ellison--Invisble Man (1952)

In my posting of July 24, 2009, I put forth the suggestion that this book, which I read for the first time when I was 38, might be overrated. My basis for this seemingly ignorant judgement was the expectation of surpassing greatness that had been aroused in me by the decades of reverent hype regarding it that I had been exposed to, such that it was a turning point in American literary history, a candidate for the greatest post 1945 American novel, was to the 20th century what Moby-Dick had been to the 19th and so on. I was anticipating something, if not at, then very near the Tolstoy-Dostoevsky-Proust level, which category I do think Melville is in as well. While I won't dispute that I likely don't grasp more than 2% of what is going on in such books, I have read enough of them to recognize the kind of scope, vividness and freshness and liveliness and uniqueness of thought and vision and language and purposefulness and interestingness of action that sets this class of book apart from merely excellent and distinguished novels. Invisible Man did not strike me as being of the same quality as these superior types of books in any way. To quote myself, "I found it to be slow-moving, with long episodice stretches that never seem to pay off with value equal to the investment of writing that went into it. 300 pages, 400 pages in, I'm thinking, this just isn't taking off, something is going to happen, something is going to happen, and then at the end (which I guess the real end is actually at the beginning) the whole thing just kind of peters out. Either there was something really big and monumental that I somehow missed totally, or the book was (is) overrated."

I wonder if this book has not reached the stage in its career that has come to many classics two or three generations after their first appearances and been widespread acclaim, that being that the innovations and ideas which caused the original excitement of audiences have either become so internalized by them after a certain passage of time that their power becomes dulled, or else they have come to be seen as contributing to an attitude that now stifles where once it liberated, such that the book passes through a period where it does not speak to people as intensely as it did on its first appearance. Hemingway and Eugene O'Neill and Steinbeck and a number of other 30s writers have seemed to me to be in this position for much of the last 20 years, there was a backlash against Dickens and Tennyson and other Victorian writers in the 1910s and 20s, and even Shakespeare fell somewhat into oblivion 50-60 years after his prime, certainly during the period when the Puritan revolution took over England and closed down the theaters for 12-18 years, and even in the Restoration period there was a sizable school of critics who thought his writing barbaric and immoral. What is working against Ellison I think at this particular time for the purely literary point of view is that his book is most celebrated for its merciless depiction of a thoroughly racist society, presented in a way which was evidently a revelation to most of the intelligentsia in the 1950s; for someone my age however this particular point of view is one that we have been fairly well immersed in all our lives. A lot of the most famous incidents such as the 'battle royal' where the top students from the black high school are forced to fight with each other for the entertainment of the local white civic leaders, which I presume were based on real events, don't have the shock value they are promoted as having because so many similar stories have now been told during the interevening sixty that, while one is not dulled to it, you know pretty quickly when certain situations in the book are being set up what is going to happen, and this, combined with the very slow pace at which events unfold, means that very little happens in the course of the story which will seem new in 2010 to anybody who has been living in America for the last 40 years. However, as time goes on and the Jim Crow period passes out of living memory, and a greater and greater portion of the American population consists of people whose ancestors were not even in this country in the 1940s and 50s, the ubiquitousness and immediacy of this history in everyday experience will fade, and the power of the truths contained in the book will be revealed in a greater vividness at that further remove of time when the greater part of the specificities of circumstance and direct general influence will have largely ceased to be important. Ellison is a famously conflicted writer, who had trouble finishing anything, and he very often gives the impression of wanting to say one thing while actually saying, or at least believing, something else. In the introduction at one point he explained his intention in his writing of choosing the affirmation of humanity as opposed to despair or nihilism, citing Hemingway, of all people, though I thing the comparison was from his vantage point a good one, as an example of someone whose work was a struggle, only sometimes successful, to achieve this. I don't know know that Ellison succeeds as much. The inclination of his spirit was really at odds with that of his mind, and while he is smart, that is not the same as being equal to the myriad situations that arise in the course of life, and I am not talking about institutionalized racism and that sort of thing, I mean things like connecting with people. Ellison writes like a man who has no friends, no intimate or serious contact with interesting people. It is not surprising to me that he was only able to finish one book in his lifetime.

Ellison lived on a Vermont farm for a while during the 40s while he was working on his writing--the level of financial support and encouragement he received from well-placed persons as a black man and relative unknown during seven years of writing seems impressive to me--and one of the nearby villages put on a blackface performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. They don't have this sort of thing there anymore of course but I asked around a little and apparently these kinds of shows were quite popular in this area at that time, before television. People affect to have been largely unconscious of the full racist implications of the performances and regarded them as innocent entertainments, actual black people being almost as completely unknown in rural Vermont in the 1940s as Hindoos or Polynesians would have been, as indeed they still were in these northern states even in the 80s when I first lived up here, though that is finally changing a little bit now.

"Yet I recalled that during the early, more optimistic days of this republic it was assumed that each individual citizen could become (and should prepare to become) President." Say what? Well, maybe they did--certainly as a child I had something like that impression but I got taken in by everything as a child--and I'm sure the country could not help but be improved if this kind of attitude was promoted, in the serious hypothetical way it is intended here at least, in the upbringing of young people.

The book starts. Prologue: "Those two spots (Broadway and the Empire State Building) are among the darkest of our whole civilization--pardon me, our whole culture (am important distinction, I've heard)..." It is hard to tell whether the prologue was written first or last. This edgy, defiant tone was not kept up through most of the rest of the work, though I suppose it is meant to be inferred that the narrator only adopted it after the action of the book

The narrator has an image of white people--a certain class of them anyway--at the beginning as "striking, elegant and confident". It struck as an unsual sentiment that you would be unlikely to hear couched in such terms nowadays.

Plantation imagery, or even the suggestion of it translated to more modern circumstances, is oddly evocative and powerful, almost as if there is something primal in it. The plantationesque scene in this was reminiscent of an incident in another book (Dorian Gray?) where a blind black boy climbed through the window of the manse to play the piano.

It appears that I did think in the beginning--at least up to page 118--that this book had the kind of natural, organic flow of production and form that I admire and strive to achieve. I'm sure I had the sense that it was building up to something spectacular which was never arrived at, or really felt like it ever came near being arrived at.

I'm not going to go through these books and do the quotes and all anymore. It takes too much time and the pieces don't really work. I'm not sure why it took me three years to figure that out.

Unless it's funny. Chapter 7, an acquaintance on hearing the narrator is going to New York: "And listen,' he said, leaning close to whisper, 'you might even dance with a white girl!'" I laugh and I cry at the same time, because I don't think I've ever actually gotten to do that in New York myself.

The terror of touching a white person is an oft-repeated theme.

In New York: "...I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic--and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world."

"White folks were funny; Mr Bates might not wish to see a Negro the first thing in the morning."

The part where he works in the paint factory awakened some unpleasant memories for me of my days at the J.J. Nissen industrial bakery in Portland, Maine. Cubicle life may be monotonous, deadening and garishly unsexy, but factories are these things in addition to being physically painful, hot, pressured, demeaning. There is nothing appealing about doing that eight hours a day for thirty years.

Symbolism. Whiteness ubiquitous. The factory's specialty pain ("we make the best damn white pain in the world") the glare of light bulbs, the hospital, of course white people and the massive world of objects and buildings and institutions and roads and so on that they had made (in the narrator's eyes) and owned utterly.

I guess I will still have to do a second post on this. Why shouldn't I, it's a major book?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Place In the Sun (1951)

Just as it is always exciting in the course of list-following to come upon some delightful work one had never heard of previously, it is often equally so to finally sit down to a standard classic one has been aware of and seen casually alluded to for years but has never taken up, especially if one has been able to avoid in that time picking up any sense of what it is about. This still happens to me a lot with movies, my familiarity with the classics of that art even now remaining surprisingly narrow. Today's subject for example marks my first experience of both the director George Stevens and the star Montgomery Clift, who are, if not colossal, at least significant figures in the lore of Hollywood. As this is also still pretty much in the time period from which I like watching just about anything if it is at all good, despite the rather grim subject matter I on the whole had a satisfying time of it.

If I were rating this movie, which I am not, because earnest film criticism, both good and bad, is one area of endeavor that the world has a more than adequate supply of, I would give it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, maybe 4 for the style and unusually strong visual appeal of the two main stars, though I have to say I wasn't impressed by Montgomery Clift as being any especially great shakes as an actor. I know it's the Method, and mumbling and a certain languidness are part of the approach, but I thought he came across as too flat and limp all around. Elizabeth Taylor, who I usually imagine as being an awful actress because she comes across as more than usually deficient in her overall mental development, was, I won't say good, but effective for what she was supposed to do. Of the various romantic ideals that Hollywood has presented over its history, she is not one of my personal favorites--the promise of voluptuous, luxurious, vapid lotus-eating without any forseeable end I take to be what she is supposed to represent--but she has a undoubtedly timeless quality about her as a movie star. Unlike most of the stars of the past, she doesn't seem to be a product especially of the specific period in which she was between 17 and 25, and it is not difficult to imagine her as a twenty year old getting roles in inane movies and TV shows today, and being effective in them. Her relation to media is like Wilt Chamberlain's to basketball, a genetic freak in which is embodied the prototype of the various qualities that their industries seek in a performer. An Elizabeth Taylor clone could get a movie contract in any era just as a Wilt Chamberlain clone would be the #1 pick in the NBA draft every year.Though set in the postwar times in which it was made, this film is avowedly based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy, which was published in 1925. I haven't read it, so perhaps the economic circumstances of 1951 portrayed in the movie were greatly exaggerated to accomodate the plot, though I don't get the feeling that they have been much. I note this because 1951 was right in the middle of the period in which the income tax rates for the top earners in the U.S. were supposedly 91%, and were purportedly much higher for well-off people across the board than they are now. It is true that the lifestyles of the families in this film who are supposed to represent an unattainable fantasy of wealth and privilege would be laughed at by the likes of Donald Trump and Aristotle Onassis and people of that ilk. Their children go to private schools and they have a nice but hardly ostentatious vacation house with a speedboat on a lake in Indiana or someplace like that. That Elizabeth Taylor's character has lots of nice clothes and is able to spend the summer sunning herself at the lake while the less privileged girls have to go to work in a factory is depicted as a cruel injustice and cause for resentment, though again, compared to the possibilities for expenditure, extravagance and opportunity open to wealth in our times, this seems like a rather quaint idea of how to spend the summer.

In any event, whether the movie is an accurate portrayal of economic life in 1951 or not, I have read enough accounts of the era to have gleaned pretty convincingly that rich and privileged people were still plenty rich and privileged even in a time of much higher taxation on income. Contrary to the argument one sometimes hears from anti-tax zealots who have allowed themselves to become overheated, that the American system is set up to "punish success", monetary success in particular is hardly rewarded more desirably anywhere else. To imply otherwise is misleading and insulting whatever your opinion is on the morality of taxation. It was a bogus argument in 1950, and it is certainly one now. I was reading one of Paul Theroux's travel books recently--the Mediterranean one, I've been reading one every year or so the last few years--and (though I take him for a rich person himself) he made the observation that when you hang around rich people they constantly talk about how they don't have any money. And look, I'm sure that when your tax bill is six and seven figures a year that it does seem cruel and tyrannical and that one is being taxed to death, but however exorbitant income taxes are, wealthy people still have more money than everybody else does, usually significantly more, as well, usually, as a continued ability to generate or gain access to substantial income streams. Once you reach a certain level the system for wealth generation is so stacked in your favor that the mediocrities and failures, who are made thus by the mechanisms of this system which by and large they cannot escape and are told they have no right to escape or agitate against, after a certain point have to regard progressive taxation at least as much of a self-defense measure than a shameful plundering of their betters. The concentration of wealth and laws which facilitate this among privileged castes have no benefit to people outside these castes, and there is no reason why such people should support such a system unless the society has a whole has become otherwise diseased.

I was looking for a good music video that took this movie for its subject, but I didn't find anything I liked. A lot of people have made maudlin tributes to Liz and Monty's supposedly deep platonic friendship (the gay Monty being supposedly the only man she knew at the time who did not desire her sexually), which has always struck me as preternaturally uninteresting. We all know nowadays that no woman is only good for Just One Thing, but if anyone was ever close to fitting that description, it was Elizabeth Taylor. There was one video of clips from the movie set to "Total Eclipse of the Heart", which might have been funny if the song weren't seven minutes long. Next time try the 90s disco remix version at least.

Mahalia Jackson--"In the Upper Room"

This is the last of the songs from this book.

"She put on a record by Mahalia Jackson, In the Upper Room, and sat at the window, her hands in her lap, looking out over the sparkling streets."

It takes a couple of minutes to get going, but I have to say, when it does, this is a ferocious good number.

Gospel music is yet another of the many genres I know virtually nothing about, though it is one of the great musical forms of our nation. As I have noted before, I seem to live in perhaps the most unmusical corner of the whole country, though it is not clear to me why this should be so. It just isn't important to people, even those with an earnest desire to know about it, in the same way it is elsewhere. The heretic church that I have been known to attend from time to time will sometimes slip an American 'spiritual' into its program--they had "Go Down, Moses" a few weeks ago--these really are great songs, absolutely on the level of the better traditional hymns. I suppose everybody else knew this already, but I had to see it played out over a period of months in the church setting, etc, before I could sign on wholeheatedly. I consider myself signed on now.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Billie Holiday--"Billie's Blues"

Another Country, Book III, Chap. 1: "In the background, he heard Billie Holiday singing Billie's Blues." I presume that unlike in War and Peace where the character "Napoleon" is actually the great general himself in the flesh, the "Billie Holiday" referred to here is only a recording.

I am not going to pretend to being the world's greatest Billie Holiday fan going back to my days in swaddling clothes, though believe me there have been plenty of occasions when I have fervently wished I were. Like a lot of this type of material, I sense that this song is something more good than bad, and maybe in the right atmosphere its greatness would become crystallized to my perception, which I am always hoping for; but ultimately the whole genre of "the blues" just doesn't seem to be my thing. If some condition of too extreme whiteness or something of the sort is the cause of this, I have enough assurance in my general sensibility to be at peace with that. I have certainly not rejected this type of music out of hand--indeed it rather saddens me that I don't seem to be able to love it the way others do--and I have been exposed to the recorded music of Billie Holiday enough over the last twenty years or so to have come to the acceptance that for whatever reason it just doesn't resonate with me.

When I was a schoolboy, Billie Holiday records, of which of course I had none, were often utilized in successful seductions of bourgeois white girls, whose attraction to and--identification?--with the art and wretched life of this singer is one of those phenomena that has never ceased to astound me. The poster with a photograph of Billie Holiday staring down at the floor looking exhausted and desperately gripping a three quarters empty glass of whiskey was well circulated among a certain type of young woman in the 90s, which type however as far as I can make out was not actually especially ruined or jaded or even all that alcoholic, but evidently harbored secret longings to be, or at least give off the appearance of being, all those things. I wonder if this is the case anymore, or if not what old records the studs are breaking out, not so much to 'seal the deal' of course, but to give it that extra dazzle so that the girls won't be able to resist telling all their friends about it with a sense of lingering excitement afterwards.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Dmitri Shostakovich--5th Symphony

From Another Country, Book II, Chap. 3:

"The Shostakovich Fifth Symphony was on his record player; the play, Happy Hunting Ground, lay open on his bed, under his night light...A brief silence fell, and her we resounded more insistently than the drums of Shostakovich."

(I apologize for forever bringing up old stories from college and other scenes long past, but unfortunately the years since I was about twenty-seven have not yielded as many of the kinds of anecdotes that are useful for the pretensions of this site)

I was at a party in college once when a man with whom I had never spoken before began explaining to me about that momentous day in 1908 or 1909 or maybe even 1910 when Gustave Mahler, having completed one of his symphonies--the 5th? the 7th?--announced that the tonal order on which Western classical music had been based for centuries was exhausted, and that epoch of musical history closed, with which, remarkably, everyone of any importance in the European musical culture of the day seemed to recognize and agree at once, and all further composition in the established mode ceased from the instant of Mahler's proclamation forward. This explanation of a phenomenon both undeniable and to the untutored highly mysterious, was immediately pleasing to me, being both so neat and evidently uncontroversial, and it has remained with me all these years though I have never even looked into it to confirm that it is true.

I mention this because while what I and the class of people of whom I am respresentative think of as classical music more or less ceased all over Europe right around 1910, a definite variety of it continued in Russia well into the middle of the century, highlighted by the celebrated composers Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who certainly sound classical and serious to the untrained ear, combined with a romantic/sentimental streak that is especially pleasing to the same. I like all these guys, whom I equate as well in spirit with the Impressionist composers Debussy and Satie--in classical music I have a tendency at times to tilt towards the French/Russian axis in my deepest darkest preferences rather than the German/Italian, which I think is considered bad form (in another college incident my volunteering the information of a certain fondness for Debussy that I thought would be acceptable was swatted down with an incredulous laugh at such naked, innocent idiocy and the observation that "the French are good at many things; music is not one of them"). This makes it sound though as if I am wholly unaffected by Strauss and Puccini and B/B/M and all those fellows, which is not the case either. The quality of the emotion one feels from some of the French and Russian music, because it is apparently less general than that of Bach or Mozart, on the extent of whose greatness everyone is more or less in agreement, is often of a more interesting nature depending on the circumstances, I think.

Here is another famous Shostakovich piece that I like. Perhaps it is derivative, not much of originality in it. I wouldn't really be able to tell. I don't have any instinctive feel for what the various forms of music mean. I think a piece of music good if it calls some kind of dream-image, usually a meadow, or a hill, or a small cluster of trees, a sky, a cloud, sometimes a pretty girl, movements, in rare instances something abstract will be summoned, a remembrance of the intense nature of youthful hope, or belief. None of these things expresses what exactly is going on when a cloud or a hill or a long forgotten memory are summoned to the imagination by the vibration of a few piano keys....