Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Game of Art APPENDIX B(?): Household Art Edition

What do the art displays of disaffected provincial petit-bourgeois bloggers tell us? Today we are going to explore that very question.

Picture #1: Title unknown. Artist is the father of an acquaintance.

One of the few actual paintings in this collection, the small canvas hangs in the attic on some paneling near a chimney, and the whole arrangement gives that softly lit part of the room a cheerier appearance. It has been up there ever since I moved into the house, and for all these years I thought it had been left behind by some former tenant, an anonymous work, but now that I have been discovered/caught snapping photos of all the pictures in the house, the true identity of the artist has been revealed to me.

I assume that the painting depicts a New Hampshire scene. The rust on the roofs of the barn is the most intimate detail of place. The seasonal appearances of the natural elements--sky, grass, trees, light--strike me as perhaps more incongruent than one would like. Still, I find something in the picture reassuring. It projects an idea of existence as more or less benign, which is a sentiment I confess to being open to.

2. Renoir--Flowers in a Vase

I am not making up the title. On the pouring shelf in the refrigerator/pantry area, formerly known as the interrogation room for its charmlessness, lack of windows, and single severe lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. The fingerprints and other smudges on the glass make for a nice symbol of our current familial relation to the fine arts. Almost all of the pictures here are not mine, either by original ownership or inspiration by the way. I do not know what the origin of this particular print was, though the original is supposed to be in the National Gallery in Washington so perhaps it is a souvenir of a visit there. If I were decorating myself I would almost certainly have neglected any flower pictures and wondered what touch of delicacy or other the establishment was missing.

3. Gustave Dore, Illustration from the Inferno, Canto XIII (about the suicides)

In the upstairs "office", where I spend less and less time as the years go on. We had to pay some homage to the Great Books, I guess--it's a part of the household narrative. Back in the late 90s a used book store in our town that has long since gone out of business had an art section from which they sold color plates and illustrations that had been torn from or removed from books singly, almost as prints. These Dante pictures were from that stash. I recall at the time that we got and framed four of them. There is a second one further down on this page but I don't know what happened to the other two.

4. Harald Sahlberg--From Roros (Side Street)

Souvenir from our trip to Norway in 2000. We did not go to the actual town of Roros, famed for its copper mines, which is quite far north. Norway was a fairly poor country and was not even independent until late in the 19th century, so its art museums do not have much in the way of major foreign collections and are heavily domestic in orientation. This was good, as besides the considerable amount of Munch there was to see, I liked their old pre-World War I realist/academy school well enough at the time.

5. Vermeer, Milkmaid

Poster from an exhibit that we actually saw in London in 2001 (this painting is normally in Amsterdam, which I have never been to, though I once stood in a train station in Paris contemplating buying a ticket there and possibly seeking out a Dutch girl I had been pen pals with. It was only a couple of hours away. But, of course, I allowed the costs and practical difficulties for which I had not planned deter me from this romantic and possibly--why not?--fruitful plan). This is in the refrigerator room, on the wall opposite the Monet flower picture. I'm kind of surprised it's still up, though I guess it does have a kind of kitchen theme and it is a reminder that even I once had a different life before I had to fill out paperwork for kindergarten assuring my kid's 25 year-old teacher, that Yes, we have books in our home.

6. Alfons Mucha, Poster for Sokol Festival, which is a Czech Gymnastics-Calisthenic type thing.

Not one of my favorite efforts by this painter, whom I wrote about in one of my old "Favorite Women of Art" posts (#6 or 8, if I remember correctly). This poster had a companion, which was the illustration I used for that other post, but that picture was put away some years ago and I don't know where it is at present. This one is hanging up in the downstairs bathroom, or powder room, as we used to call it in Philadelphia (that would be the old Philadelphia). That wallpaper dates from the 1940s or 50s and is peeling badly in places, but I am going to cling to it as long as possible because whatever replaces it will never be as cool.

7. 1980s Tourism Poster, Limousin, France

This probably shouldn't count as 'art', but I tend to regard it as part of the visual collection. This is also in the attic, just below painting #1 and, as you can see, approaching the floor, or at least the top of whatever pile is stacked against this wall. As noted elsewhere, I am a bit of a nostalgist for the days when countries were a bit more a world onto themselves, less globalized, slightly fewer people speaking English and walking around with degrees from American and other great universities that get indigestion at the mere thought of people like me setting foot on their campuses even as a tourist. I regard France in this light maybe more than anywhere else. It had a lot of glamour and romance to lose by adapting more efficient and convenient modern habits, as well as becoming generally more accessible and accomodating to the global economy, and to my imagination it has lost a bit of it, but then again how reliable of a source am I on these sorts of things? The attic is a very suitable place for the poster.

8. The World of Mother Goose.

This is a print of one of my father's illustrations. Naturally it is in the children's room. This artist is not afraid of producing a busy composition, as you can see. I suppose I have inherited something of this same quality in my own outlook--my instinct is to pile up facts or names or other people's ideas and mistake them for detail. Detail is more akin to penetration. It is honing in on what is most significant, and that is why it is considered an important property of high art.

9. Gustav Wentzel, Sjaakspillere

Yes, I believe the title in English is "Chess Players". Unfortunately I could not get a good picture of this. If I turned the flash off it was too dark. Bear in mind I had a break of about 10 minutes in which to go around the house and take all these pictures or I probably could have figured it out. Here is a link to the picture as it is supposed to look. The flash notably obscures the tasty-looking mug of beer set beside the board.

This is the other print brought back from the Norway trip. Its appeal, formerly its air of a kind of gentlemanly bohemianism, is now augmented by that of leisure and relaxation, but still in a cultivated context, all of which is largely inaccessible to me at the moment. The picture's placement contains one interesting coincidence, in that as you can see our own chessboard is stored right beside it--and it does get a good amount of use, though as yet our games are not very relaxed affairs--and one irony, in that the major item of furniture beneath it, atop which all of these miscellaneous items are sitting, is an antique piano, which however, no one in our house knows how to play, and which is so badly out of tune that even people who come over to the house who can play cannot play it, because the sound is too painful to them.

10. The other extant Dante illustration, from Inferno XIX

The simonists. Those guys get it good and hard in hell. Also in the office. Everything framed in that room is small in size, no larger than a standard sheet of typing paper. There are also barometers and such kinds of things as people like to look at and be surrounded by when they are taking refuge from their actual lives.

11. Covered Bridge, Somewhere in Pennsylvania.

This is one of my father's early pictures from the 60s, when he was taking after the style of Andrew Wyeth. I am about to contradict what I wrote in my last entry, in that this picture is also in the office but is somewhat bigger than an ordinary leaf of paper. However it is set atop an enormous and nearly immovable wardrobe that is in the corner of the room, so that if one is sitting down in the room he does not notice it too readily.

This picture was around during my childhood, and then it came into my possession after an interval of some 10-15 years through a third party whose hands it had fallen into. I don't know what it represents to me, other than a time--which the tendency is to imagine as a happy one though in reality it was no more or less happy than any other time--before I was born to which I have some relation. My father is not like me where his painting is concerned, angst-ridden and constantly suffering from crises of confidence and inferiority complexes. He paints not in a desperate attempt to become vital but because he is actually is vital, and as a celebration of that vitality. Obviously I can't really relate to that mindset.

12. Constable, Dedham Mill, Essex

Doesn't this remind you of the painting in Mr. Rogers's kitchen? This, along with at least one other picture in the same style, decorated the paneling in my grandparents' basement for around 35 years. Now we have it up in the children's playroom. I don't know what happened to the rest of the set.

I have written elsewhere about my affection for this school of painting. It shares an attitude in common with other things I like, which is a kind of hopefulness or even optimism judiciously larded with a sense of authentic melancholy. As ways to understand existence go this seems to me a reasonable and comforting one, especially if a grander understanding is inaccessible due to limitations of the intellect or spirit which prove impossible to overcome.

13. A print, but who the artist is or anything else I do not know.

The figure in this picture bears some resemblance to Mrs Bourgeois Surrender. It was given to us as a gift for that reason. It currently hangs in one of the niches of the dining room, above a couple of items I did not include in this survey, one a framed, waterstained tableau of some antiquity featuring a black and white image of some woods with the oft-maligned Joyce Kilmer poem "Trees" incscribed beneath them, the second a poster of Neuschwanstein Castle, which I have never been to, but which the children like. If it helps them develop an interest in learning about/traveling to Europe someday--apparently nowadays getting boys especially interested in anything traditionally associated with learning or culture has become a Herculean labor--then it will have served us well.

14. Postcard of our house, circa 1905

It is largely obscured by the elm trees, which unfortunately of course all died in the great elm blight of the 60s which devastated this quintessential New England tree (it is still the state tree in Massachusetts) all over the region. We have planted one. It remains rather frail-looking even after a couple of years, but it is still alive.

A curious note for baseball fans, the house next door to us on the left, which is not visible in this postcard, was, I have been told, the boyhood home of Red Rolfe, who was the 3rd baseman for the Yankees from 1934-42, played on five championship teams, had several outstanding years, especially 1939 when he led the leagues in hits, runs scored and either doubles or triples, and was arguably the best player at his position in the history of that storied franchise (though granted, he would have batted 8th in the lineup of that all-time team) until the arrival of Alex Rodriguez.

This item hangs in the dining room above the china cabinet.

15. Degas, Portrait of the Belilli Family

The bourgeois family extraordinaire. To be honest, I flatter myself by insuinating that I am bourgeois. Real bourgeois are actually quite rich by the standards of the median income or wealth. Five years ago when I began this page my ego, believe it or not, was still nowhere near deflated to a level correspondent to the truth; it still is not all the way there, nor am I ready for it to arrive at that point, though it continues to make a slow and grinding progress. Anyway, I thought at the time that by being bothered with conventional things like jobs and children meant that one was bourgeois, which seemed bad enough. That the truth is, in fact, probably even worse is something that will take a further number of years to come to terms with.

This picture is big and used to hang on the large wall in the staircase. It has since been replaced by photographs of the children and has been retired to the attic.

The public library in our town used to have a collection of framed copies of famous artworks they would allow you to check out for 28 days. Sometime in the early 2000s they ended this service and had a sale of the pictures. This is one of them. There is another directly below.

16. Henri Rousseau, Family Outing

This is the other picture from the library fire sale. This is the 3rd picture in the very artsy refrigerator room, above the Vermeer.

I admit I was not a particular fan of Henri Rousseau, but my wife finds a lot of joy and life in his paintings, especially this one, and she is not somebody who goes around liberally declaring enthusiasm for artworks.

17. "Travel"

One of my father's prints--such money as there is in this type of art is the ability to sell prints. I have a reputation for being fond of travel, so I received one of these as a present. It is true, I have never been much of a homebody. I like to get out of the house, especially if I am not going to be able to read or write. This is probably the main reason I always envisioned myself living in a big city and renting, so I wouldn't have to be bothered with the responsibility of upkeep on a house, for which so many other people seemed to me so much better suited than myself, while I seemed so well suited for bohemianism and reflection and sensualism and all that.

18. The Prophet Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.

In the dining room. I like it, though it does not really fit in with the rest of the collection.

19. Postcard of the Former Union Station, Portland, ME

I doubt I need to tell you what my opinion of the destruction of so many of America's great railroad stations is. A few years ago I saw a calendar/postcard type book featuring pictures of various stations in New Hampshire alone that were no more...but time is up. I will save my ruminations on America's lost train culture and how that may or may not have negatively affected my life in another post. It is 9 days since I started this, and it is time to move on.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Pictures From the South

I went on this trip back in July, so (as with everything else) I've been a laggard at writing anything about it. Being the digital age there are of course about 7 or 800 pictures. I won't put them all up, but I will probably do 3 or 4 postings worth. They are easy and usually fast, so I can inflate my pathetic post total for the year a bit. Judging by the page views no one looks at the trip photos, and it is true that people do always talk about how much they hate looking at other people's vacation pictures. I do like seeing them however, provided there is anything at all interesting in the presentation. Unfortunately I have very little ability to judge my own presentation so you will have to take my word that the presentation is not meant to be boring. Like the movie of Forever Amber, a lot will still have to be cut out. As I have done before, my plan is to take a more or less random selection of pictures and incidents and hope that they give some idea of an overall story.

I was not certain we would be going on this trip until about three weeks beforehand, due to the new baby. Ladies often do not feel up to traveling for some months afterwards in the wake of childbirth. Mr Bourgeois Surrender was feeling pretty robust after just a few weeks however and decided she would be up for it. Given the short notice, combined with the circumstances that everyone had enjoyed going to the Smoky Mountains the previous year and my own sense that we had not had enough days there on this previous occasion, we decided to head back in that direction; for, despite all the commercialism and lowbrow culture surrounding it, it is one of the great national parks of the country. I thought we should go somewhere new as well. So returning to what has worked so well for me these past few years, I returned to my 1966 Encyclopedia, with its 431 different travel recommendations for earnest middle class white families, and played the lottery game I have devised for it to see what should come up.

The first draw was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This doubtless would have been spectacular, but as it was not reasonable for the travel gods to expect me to make it there on a few weeks notice this particular summer, I excused myself from the obligation to undertake this particular trip at this particular time, filed it on one of my to-do lists (the vast majority of which items are of course never going to be done, but it is always good to have a reserve supply of ideas) and selected another destination. The second 'winner' was the Talladega National Forest in Alabama.

This one was less easy to dismiss outright than Hawaii, though it was not unproblematic, mainly because one still has to persuade others to want to go there, and it is easy to imagine the many arguments that might be made against it. In the first place, it is about five hours drive beyond the Smoky Mountains, which are already nearly two full days from home for us, and this with five little children, including an infant. In the second place it is in Alabama; and people from the north are wont to recoil instinctively from the idea of Alabama, especially if they have never been there. I was not wholly immune to this reaction myself.

Over the past few years I have documented the breaking down of my apprehension of traveling in the south, which, not having been to much at any time of my life, and not at all between approximately 1981 and 2006 or so, I had become convinced through my extensive exposure to internet and media accounts of the area's dominant socio-political passions, that as a comparatively effete and probably liberal yankee, I was going to be treated with cold hostility at best, and should expect the occasional encounter with someone whose anger was worked up to a hotter and less restrainable state. I was pretty sure that the days of the Deliverance-style treatment of unwelcome intruders were over; but in such matters one is never really certain either. Of course I told myself I must embrace such challenges and be eager to defend my own choices in and situation of life if I were unable to sniff haughtily upon such detractors as I might meet from a secure height, which is supposed to be the educated northerner's preferred stance in such matters. But after passing at various times over a period of several years through parts of southern Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee without any unpleasant incidents--there was the one gas station in the mountains of North Carolina whose windows were plastered over with pro-gun and anti-Obama signs where a crowd of unsmiling guys in overalls were looking over me a little overly hungrily, but even here nothing openly antagonistic transpired--as well as through the power of the internet slowly came to realize perhaps more palpably than I was able to through the haze of myth and reputation that the south is overwhelmingly populated with people who are in fact normal for the most part. But still...

A third problem was that, especially compared to the Smoky Mountains, there was a real dearth of practical information about the Talladega National Forest, and apparently not much of a developed tourist industry. This last of course offered itself as a potential bonus, though it might also have been an indication that the place was comparatively boring, since the competition for tourists is so well-developed nowadays that any place which does not have a sophisticated organization for promoting itself and is not well known to be favored by rich people is almost suspicious. Also I was concerned lest camping was the only option in the area, as we were not going to do that with a baby, and, to be honest, though I have become more enthusiastic about nature and exploring America and all of that in the past few years, I have not yet gone so far as to prefer this to sleeping indoors with showers and those kinds of things. Finally I found a guidebook (Lonely Planet's Southern Road Trips) which had a very short section on the Forest, in which it revealed that the best, and practically only accomodation requiring less than an hour's driving each day was in the Cheaha State Park, which is located on Mt Cheaha, which is Alabama's highest mountain, and is in the middle of the national forest. This state park was built in the 1930s by the CCC and had a hotel, cabins, chalets, and a restaurant, attractive enough in themselves and in a lovely setting, but not expensive. Friends of the hotel on Facebook gushed about it as well, so all this was enough to sell me on staying there should there be any spaces left for seven people on such short notice, which there was.

The fourth concern was that going to Alabama in July in itself seemed an invitation to ridicule from anyone in the north who should hear of it, though I reminded myself that the place is much more populated than Northern New England and presumably people go outside and do things in the heat. Though I must admit I was worried about what it would be like.

1. I-78 between Allentown and Harrisburg, PA, after stopping at Wawa.

As we travel frequently to Philadelphia to visit my relatives we are no strangers to Wawa, most likely the world's greatest convenience store chain. As Wawa's fledgling empire is still largely confined to southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, and Delaware, with a few outposts as far afield as Maryland and northern Virginia, it was not a given that we would have the good fortune to come across one on this trip, as our route barely skirted the northern boundary of this territory in the Lehigh Valley. But we did.

2. Rolling hills adjacent to Exxon station, Natural Bridge, VA, off I-81.

The Natural Bridge itself is a famous attraction, considered by some to be an overhyped one, though Jefferson and Patrick Henry, among other early patriots eager to promote such sublimities as were to be found in these lands as equivalent to their celebrated counterparts in the old world, were reputedly fans. We did not take the opportunity to see it this time, though maybe someday we will be back. It is among the 431 sites highlighted in the 1966 encyclopedia.

3. We are arrived at the Chalet in Cheaha State Park, Alabama.

Alabama, along with Mississippi, and maybe Arkansas, about which nobody in the north knows very much at all, are still regarded as the hard core of the south and maybe, especially when one gets away from the interstates, still trapped in something of a nightmarish pre-civil rights era time warp. One sort of knows this is not true, but until you get there...

The first day we drove from Concord all the way to Harrisonburg, Virginia (the home of James Madison University), arriving around midnight, at which time it was still around 90 degrees, which only added further to my concern that we were driving a third of the way across the country only to find ourselves unable to do anything once we got there due to the weather. The second day we proceeded through southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee, which latter has a rather comforting geography, hilly but with a lot of green farmland, horses, etc, visible from the road practically all the way to Chattanooga, which itself is situated in an interesting and dramatic setting, amidst mountains and a serpentine river, I presume the Tennessee River. After Chattanooga we went through a small slice of Georgia--about 20 miles--on I-59. This stretch of land is unihabitated, largely empty of traffic, hilly and profusely forested and green, almost junglelike, with lots of kudzu. The road is not in the best repair. It was well over 90 degrees of course, and there had been a shower or even a light thunderstorm, though not enough to clear the air of tension, and the sky was cranberry red. I was a little spooked out. When we finally made to Alabama darkness was starting to fall, and this somehow made it calmer, less sinister-looking than I was anticipating, though there was at least a further hour of driving through deep, dark woods with very few indications of human presence. My image of 'Alabama' had consisted of endless cotton fields, one (blinking) traffic light towns with brick city halls and austere white churches presiding around a tired looking grassy square. I knew this probably only described a small number of real places anymore, but I was not anticipating that the whole of northeast Alabama was basically sparsely inhabited hill country, with comparatively few black people or immigrants, at least that I saw.

4. View of the Talladega Forest from the Cheaha State Park swimming pool area.

This is the only nature picture that made it into this first set. This place was more beautiful than I thought it was going to be, and it was very uncrowded. Other than fifteen or so families staying at the park and a small number of day trippers/hikers there were scarcely any people for 20, 30 miles around in any direction, which when you have lived on the east coast all your life, even in New England, is practically unheard of roominess. It was extremely pleasant and rejuvenating. I could happily have stayed there for a week.

5. Making the trail mix for the next day's hike.

When we arrived--about midnight, after about a half hour of driving through pitch dark woods without seeing a single other car and only the occasional haunted looking sign directing us to our destination--it was a still sweltering 87 degrees or so and the chirping of the crickets/locusts/cicadas/boll weevils or whatever the local insect life was almost terrifying. Right now as I type this it is around 1:45am and I can hear some crickets outside the window. If the volume of these crickets is a "1" then that of the crickets in Alabama was about a "17". If these things had somehow been able to decide in unision that they wanted to swarm over and eat me, my life expectancy would have been about 4 minutes. As I clambered up to the office to get my keys I was still having my doubts as to whether this place was going to be fun or not, and I was really hoping that my semi-rustic chalet somehow had air conditioning, which in New England of course, such places never do. But in Alabama I guess they know and accept the evil necessity of air conditioning, because our cabin had it going full bore the whole time. I am something of a connoisseur of air conditioning--I spent most of my formative years in the very hot mid-atlantic, remember--and this was good air conditioning.

6. Antique Playground Equipment of Cheaha State Park in Twilight.

This place had some of the oldest playground equipment still in use that I have ever seen.

Of course anytime you go somewhere in the south that is more than 40 years old and that is at all nice, you are aware that at the time whenever the place was originally built black people would almost certainly not have been allowed to go there. It is not that one has never been in such places before. My college in Maryland for example did not admit its first black student until 1947 and most of the buildings long predate that, and it is something one scarcely thinks about at all. But in Alabama one is highly conscious about all of these kinds of things, especially as when we were there every single person staying at the park was white, and in our whole four days there apart from one hispanic family that was having a picnic we did not encounter any non-white people in the entire preserved area at all. The atmosphere was really kind of 1950sish, which obviously I kind of was going for, though I guess I am always surprised to actually find it. As always in the south the other people were pretty outgoing and friendly to us, even though they were almost certainly pro-business, pro-Jesus, family values Republicans who think of themselves as disliking hand-wringing, goody-goody, meddling, socialistic whiny New Englanders, though I suppose we do not present ourselves as blatantly being of this type. There were two families, one from Texas and one from Florida, that I suppose regularly came up to the mountains of Alabama in the summer to "cool off" for a few days. I found that amusing.

7. Baby Susanna in Alabama.

She is only half the age she is now here.

8. A redundant playground equipment picture.

Should have made another selection. However I will do another set from Alabama before we go back to Tennessee.

I really would like to post more frequently. I have a lot going on, and I am a slow writer and thinker. The time constraints will not always be this way (I hope).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Price of Art?

I am going to open this posting--every new one holds, at the beginning at least, the promise of attaining its aims, which are, tritely, liveliness, interest, and a suggestion of timelessness--with a very short excerpt I have read recently. The story, fictitious as far as I know, though perhaps it was based on a similar 'real' legend, regards the history of a piece of fine art, a spectacular ebony statuette of a turbanned, muscular moorish slave:

"Two hundred years ago (note--the time intended would have been circa the 1460s) there was a Venetian lady--very beautiful, as all ladies in legends are--and she owned a gigantic black slave whom her husband imagined to be a eunuch. But he was not and when the lady bore his black child she had the infant killed and a white one put in its place. The midwife, from some motive of jealousy or revenge, told the husband of his wife's infidelity and he killed the slave before her eyes. She had the ebony statue made, secretly of course, in her lover's memory."

This passage occurs about three-quarters of the way into Kathleen Winsor's scandalous 972 page 1944 novel, Forever Amber, a Gone With the Wind-style blockbuster set in the first decade of Restoration England which was my bathroom/poolside reading for much of the summer. This was from my "B" reading list, which consists of things I take up that have piqued my interest for whatever reason and which I do not feel compelled to read all the way through if I don't want to. Sometimes I write about these books here, though usually I do not. Forever Amber is not quite refined and penetrating enough in its perceptions to be literature, I suspect, but there is nonetheless some skill and vision in it that approach to being enviable. It is not a book that I would always pick up eagerly, but I did find often upon getting started that it was easy to become absorbed in the frequently outrageous story and be carried for 20 or 30 pages at a stretch without being conscious of keeping up an effort either to follow the author's genius or endure her banality. I suspect that Kathleen Winsor, a 28-year housewife, and evidently a rather boisterous one, at the time of the book's publication, was plenty bright; as a normally adjusted middle, probably professional class, midwestern American of her time, subtlety and the inclination to experience life as something which primarily took place in one's own head were perhaps not overly developed in her. As can be seen below, she was quite conventionally attractive, and by most accounts enjoyed, and was capable of having, a good time in the conventional sense of parties, drinking, dancing, flirting with men and so forth. This book is almost certainly most famous for all of the sex in it, almost all of which occurs in a very direct, matter of fact manner, that is much in accordance with the probable way most men, and to judge by the sales of the book, apparently many women as well, dream that their own sex lives were like, though far contrary to the way they usually actually are. To cite some statistics, the attorney general of Massachusetts, in banning the book, noted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, and 7 abortions (as well as 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men). It seemed like there were a lot more than 70 instances of the Grand Act that to so many people is for the most part something not quite real. Sex in this book is bluntly understood to be for men a token of and duty paid to their personal power, and for the women a currency through which to obtain resources and position. Such people as do develop tender feelings for particular individuals are quickly made to suffer for them, frequently onto the point of death. Amber is supposed to be "in love" with Carlton, but it seems more that she is obsessed with the glamour he represents that, by the end of the book practically alone, she can never have. It's not surprising that such themes resonated deeply with the mass American public.

Kathleen Winsor appears to have had an even more extreme than usual hunger for what are known in contemporary parlance as alpha males, in her case the highest of the high, as well as a complementary eagle eye and searing contempt for male weakness or inferiority in any form, and delight in its exposure. She would have fit in well at Duke or Southern California or any of our other contemporary universities where the social competition is especially noted for its ruthlessness and lack of pity towards losers. Bruce Carlton of course is the ultimate male of this story--the recent civic disturbances in Britain would have been very short-lived if men like Lord Carlton and his pals still predominated in the upper ranks of that nation. He is a noble born cavalier, he recoups his fortune privateering, he is the greatest swordsman in England, and probably the world, he has rock hard abs and a gorgeous dark complexion. He does not come on to a single woman, that I remember, in the book; they beg him to ravish them, heedless of all possible consequences. He promises them nothing and openly goes to bed with whomever he wants, and the women remain powerless to do anything but nurture irrational hopes that somehow he will be moved one day to commit to them more or less exclusively while expending their fury on the rivals with whom they share his love. When he does get married it is to the most beautiful and purest virgin of the noblest birth imaginable, who lives for nothing but to serve her husband's happiness. The other main alpha males in the story are the "sexually driven" (as the book's introduction, written by a woman, approvingly puts it) King Charles II, who gets to pretty much order up whomever he takes a fancy to to his bedchamber, though those receiving an invitation are invariably delighted with the honor, unless they're supposed to be getting it on with Lord Carlton that same night; and the sadistic, brilliant and impeccably, for social purposes, educated and bred Lord Buckingham, who also has his way with pretty much whomever he wants, sexually and otherwise, and makes them feel his domination of them to the innermost core of their psyche. These are thus our role models of what a man should be.

The great book I suppose for getting a sense of what English society, and particularly London, was like during this period, is Pepys' Diary, which I have not however read to this point. Forever Amber attempts to paint an idea of this world within a fairly wide, if not deep, scope, and I think it is handled pretty well. The different aspects, of nature, of social classes, of historical events and personages, of amusements, of the idea that the various characters and customs in the book constitute a single people or nation, do not hold together at all times in the reader's mind, as complex ideas are supposed to be able to do in superior works of literature, and often are temporarily forgotten about or neglected all together, which is doubtless a flaw in the composition. Still, I was reminded at many instances in the book of the flow of history, and of the rise and decline of peoples and generations and institutions and beloved customs, set against a background, in some cases more or less permament than others, but all at least longer lasting than a single generation or even three, of nature, climate, geography (including human settlements, roads, etc), language and human lineage. Perhaps the picture produced was an especially superficial and inaccurate one, but the effect at least was produced.

I have strayed a bit from the opening question, as it were, of the post, which was essentially whether the capability of producing great art, clear thought, and an overall high level of culture required long centuries of hard and dispassionate action with severe and frequently deadly consequences for weakness and failure as the working ethos of a society. This idea was very popular in the 1940s--it is redolent of Orson Welles's famous cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man--and can be found as well in numerous 20th century works chronicling (sympathetically) the passing of the old aristocratic Europe. This was doubtless a result of some insecurity on the part of the more sensitive and astute representatives of the New Order, with the comfortable and self-consciously 'nice' masses of America leading the way, both with regard to the desire to live up to the cultural achievements of their predecessors, as well as justification for the brutality of the wars and harshness of other political and economic policies they had undertaken to maintain and expand their newfound power. The main problem with modern culture, America perhaps especially, is not that they are too nice and naive to produce art, but that at the mass level there are too many nice and naive people who want to produce art, without having any idea what they are about. There are people at the heart of the culture who know exactly what is going on and what being a human being in present day society really means, and some of them doubtless are expressing this artistically and beautifully, but is there a substantial and coherent enough audience for this work to make it influential in any social milieux?

Linda Darnell as Amber in the 1947 Film Version of FA.

The movie of Forever Amber is not supposed to very good, and I regret to report that this is an accurate assessment. Given my usual affinity for the period and the fact that Linda Darnell, whom I wrote about positively in these pages for her role in the Letter to Three Wives ('49), was starring, I thought it was worth a try. In the first place, the length of the book necessitated cutting out 80-90% of the story right off the bat, and otherwise often combining two or more episodes into one scene. Various characters make a single 60-second appearance whom, if you had not read the book, you would have no idea who they were.The sex also had to be toned down quite a lot, though not to the extent that it was not still more than a little tawdry; the effect that was needed however was that of total and unrelenting moral dissipation, which is not achieved. The prolific and ubiquitous (not in a good way; rather in the way girls who were tired of seeing me at beer parties in my youth used to say that I was ubiquitous) Otto Preminger was given the assignment to direct the movie by 20th Century Fox--this is getting scary, I am finally starting to pay attention, in the old movies anyway, to which studio was behind each project, like a real film scholar--which was envisioning a possible Gone With the Wind-like success. Preminger apparently hated the book and called the movie the worst one he ever made, but compared to the greats and very goods I have been concentrating on these last few years, the clunkiness of the direction really stands out. The material is not perhaps ideal, but no one involved with the movie seemed to have much of a feel for it. It seems that someone could have wrung some spirit or magic out of it, but it is for the most part just dead on the screen.

Bruce and Amber Seeking Refuge in London During the Plague of 1665

Unlike, apparently, most people with a pulse, I did not feel much emotion with regard to the 10th anniversary commemorations that were everywhere in the media this past week, and wherever I found them I usually skipped over them or changed the station. I do not handle talking about that kind of thing well, and neither, quite frankly, does almost anyone else. That said, the event for whatever reason does not seem to have had the same impact on me as it has on other people. Of course I did not personally know anyone who died, nor am I a New Yorker or a fireman or any of the other people who felt the impact of this in a personal way which is hard for me to understand. To me the whole episode felt extremely random and impersonal, and perpetrated by people who knew very little about either America or New York City. While at the moment the event was certainly terrible and shocking, I did not find it surprising that such an event should ever have happened, as evidently most people did, and still do. I was surprised by the form, bordering at times on hysteria it seemed to me, which the emotion aroused by the event took. I had not recognized it as such a predominant character in the American people up to that time. I suspect a good number of my countrymen would take great issue with my fairly blase response to these phenomena and would feel compelled to question what was so horribly neglected in my upbringing, education, and so forth, to leave me so devoid of ordinary human feeling and instinct, and I do feel a lack in this area which does bother me; which is why I felt compelled to write anything about the matter at all.

Some good searches found their way to the site this week. My favorite was "females being taught to surrender sexually", a subject on which I thought there would be more expert information than that which I offer here, though "what did they wear for clothing in norway in the early 1900s" a subject which to my knowledge I have never addressed here or anywhere else, was also inspired.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Best and the Brightest

Though it may not be evident to the reader, I do know that it is unseemly for me to protest too stridently that I am just as good as people who have achieved exponentially more worldly success than I have, and this does effect some restraint upon my writing. Still. my heart dies a little whenever I see Wall Street multimillionaires extolled as the best and brightest minds of my generation. That this frequently occurs in articles or other fora decrying the deprivation of all this dynamic talent from other fields such as the arts, academia, and even science, which have presumably been left with very little for themselves, rubs the wounds of failure that much harder. All I can say, since I personally seem incapable of either effectively combating the image of this as truth, putting some curb on these people's ability to amass such an extent of power and wealth within an evidently largely closed system, or to succeed to a comparable extent in some alternative system, is, I dearly hope it is not true.

I was re-reading some Plato lately--yes, it is ridiculous, especially as I seem to understand anything important about it less now than I did when I was twenty, though I still do not think reading it is completely valueless--and I was struck by a statement in the Republic in which Socrates (I assume) observes that the "best and strongest natures are most thoroughly corrupted in bad environments". I thought this might apply to certain aspects of the contemporary scene, where the perception among much of that part of the public that are not possessed of the best and strongest natures is that for a critical mass of their superiors life has gone beyond mere triumph and claiming the positions of leadership and wealth that are rightfully theirs, but of actively making life more unpleasant and unnecessarily difficult for everyone beneath them. I know this has been the case more or less in all times and all places, but the degree and kind of the pressure fluctuates in different eras, and it is my impression that currently we seem to be in a fairly severe downturn in the cycle, in which the brightest and strongest people, or those who are supposed to be they, are dissemenating very little in the way of joy, or optimism, or sense of shared humanity through the greater society, and are applying the hammer instead. I am probably more optimistic than most that the mood and tone of society, if not concrete economic and social conditions, will eventually improve from what they are today; while I don't see myself ever taking much of a part in that change, my children, if they live, will be able to pass much of their youth and young adulthood in, I hope, a more generally positive atmosphere than what I have perceived to be the norm in my own life. Properly, it seems one should take some delight in the most intelligent and energetic people, or at the least a good many of them-- else the alleged desirability of these qualities seems difficult to conceive; yet I find most of the people who are supposed to be the best educated to be nearly as dreary in personal intercourse as I am, which leads me to believe that something is missing.

Why are the strong so strong? What is the source and nature of this mental power? This is not a minor question, for whatever this quality is the lack of it not infrequently has the effect of rendering a human life in a post-religious society, in particular that of the male of the species, essentially worthless, whatever other positive qualities he may have. Not necessarily unpleasant or devoid of simple delights, but not usually, except in rare instances of unique talent, a life befitting a Man. This life properly demands a high, or at least comparatively high degree of testosterone combined with an equally virile and energetic intelligence, the two traits constantly feeding off of and amplifying their counterpart. Other than working harder and more purposefully than most people in our society have any idea how to go about doing, there seems to be little the person of mediocre mind can do to actually improve his intelligence; what seems to be hoped for in his case in that education will persuade him somewhat of the breadth of his limitations and he will defer more readily to those of greater understanding. It would seem that the testosterone deficiency could easily be cured by medical means, and that the general population would be pleased by this, as it hates languid and effeminate men, but the tendency to be over- and perhaps unnaturally aggressive seems as yet to outweigh any of the more positive effects of this treatment.

On Debt

I have to finish this post in the next 25 minutes--as well my 2-year old is refusing to take a nap--so I am going to truncate this section on debt in order to rush it to the press. In short, I have always for the most part been afraid of it, and have tried whenever possible to avoid it assiduously, and now I realize in middle age that that was in many ways as foolish as indulging every idle whim. When I think now of certain experiences I missed or places I did not go to or improvements to my appearance I neglected to undertake because I didn't have 50 or 100 dollars and I refused to even consider the possibility of enhancing my daily life through the power of credit, I wonder if it was really worth it. Men with high testosterone and self-regard do not let the lack of present funds get in the way of living, and they tend not to worry about or be much stressed by the consequences of being in or even defaulting on debt comparative to what I would be. The regrets I have in life are primarily the lack of interesting experiences and social interactions, and the failure to develop either proper adult talents or skills. Money obviously was not the only obstacle preventing me from attaining these things, but allowing myself a little wider vision (of that substitute for real money, credit) to operate in might have allowed for a little more expansion of life itself, wherein the world I inhabited was not such a pinched and constricted one, both of experience and possibility to generate income.

I also note that while I have at various times taken out loans, for college, cars, household necessities, etc, and while in the past especially this debt always weighed heavily on my mind and sense of possibility, the instant they were paid off all memories of the worry they caused me seemed to dissipate into nothing and seemed as if they never existed; yet as this worry was a dominant part of my life, the result is that it seems as if my life has consisted of very few actual episodes or events or periods even of fervent mental activity, spaced out at very long intervals.

Titles/Phrases Read in Youth That Stick in the Mind All Life Long

1. Ja, the Rebels Eat Babies

This was the title of Chapter 1 of Gettysburg from the 1950s Landmark series of children's history books. This expression pops into my head about once a week. The bit about eating babies referred to wartime propaganda, but I never figured out where the Ja came from.

2. You Can't Do Business With Hitler

This was the title of a Reader's Digest article from 1938 or thereabouts that had been ripped out of the magazine and stuffed into the pages of an old (but cheap) book I bought at a book barn in Bucks County, Pennsylvania when I was a teenage (circa 1985). I'm sure the article was ridiculous, but the title caused my grandfather, who rarely laughed at anything, no small amount of amusement for a few minutes, enough for the incident to be memorable more than 25 years later.