Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Few More Notes on 'Poirot', a Modern Book Review, and a Telephone Poll

Still going through the Poirot programs; now up to 32 of the 36 episodes seen, including, most recently, "Triangle at Rhodes", which is often named as one of the highlights of the series. I did learn something I had not known before in this episode, which was that Rhodes, along with a number of other islands in the eastern Aegean, was a possession of Italy from 1912 until World War II (prior to that it had belonged to the Turks since 1522), and has only been a territory of Greece since 1947. I don't how I missed this--of all things I thought my knowledge of 20th century European territorial changes was airtight and whole. Had I actually discovered it on the internet I probably would have been annoyed, but once the program was over I pulled down my 1938 atlas, laid it open on the dining room table in the late night stillness and saw that sure enough, marked out by a fair-sized circular crimson blob with the chalklike texture of 1930s colored ink, the islands commonly known as the Dodecanese were outposts of the Italian Empire, and the aesthetic and private aspects of this discovery proved highly satisfying to me in a way that I cannot foresee the computer will ever be able to duplicate.

My favorite episodes tend to be those which pack the most extensive and various examples of my preferred types of persons, events and scenes of life into them, irrespective of the ingenuity of the plot. I like trains and train stations, art galleries, theatres, chop houses, London parties, nightclubs, the seaside, especially Brighton, explorations of high and low representative cuisine; outstandingly pretty girls don't hurt either. I suppose a top 5 to date would be (in no particular order): "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (Artist who won't sell his coveted paintings murdered, main clue revealed in chop house); "The Mystery of the Spanish Chest" (murder at a posh London house party, jealousy over a beautiful noblewoman at center of case); "The Affair at the Victory Ball" (really awesome Venetian carnival-themed costume party, caustic show business people, and one of the foremost collections of 17th and 18th century continental porcelain in the world); "Yellow Iris" (great looking English tourist babe murdered amidst the chaos of a military coup in Argentina); and "Dead Man's Mirror" (obnoxious art snob murdered at his castle, theosophy, and a secret love-child).

Like all sidekicks, Poirot's Captain Hastings leads a most enviable lifestyle when viewed through the eyes of such as possess a similar lack of cleverness or useful job skills and have to pay for this with lower occupational status and a dull social existence (Hastings does appear to have some mechanical ability, but practices strictly at the amateur level). By tagging along with Poirot Hastings is able to scoot around an England uncrowded by motor traffic in his sports car, travel 1st class by rail, golf, shoot and ride horses while staying at country estates, eat fine dinners for he always has a tuxedo, or more likely several, to hand, lounges around Poirot's apartment reading the papers and listening to cricket matches, travels on ocean liners, visits Egypt--again always with the appropriate attire for every activity and locale. If I weren't married--for it does not appear they can be married--I might be tempted to advertise for a position as a sidekick myself.

Regarding the last bit above, I say tempted because I suppose these men of genius/sidekick of pedestrian ability relationships always suggest a homosexual connection, that, more often than not when they occur in real life anyway, does indeed seem to turn out to be the case. Poirot has an appreciation for well-executed feminine style that he is able to cloak in a Gallic dress, and upon meeting a great diva of the theater or opera he will even succumb to gushing; but his admiration is purely upon artistic grounds; there is clearly nothing recognizable as sexual or romantic interest at work. Hastings at times seems to be more affected by women of overpowering (i.e., unsubtle) physical charms, and will take a more aggressively chivalric attitude than Poirot does; however he has even less real rapport with them, or the nature of the mental world which they inhabit. It is not clear to me how aware Hastings is of the true nature of his friendship with Poirot. He's a pretty unsophisticated guy who tries hard to be agreeable to almost everyone. Acknowledging the sort of thing under consideration here even to oneself would not do.

My latest off-topic reading project, which took me about two and a half months to get through, was a rather clunkily executed work called A Guinea Pig's History of Biology by an Englishman named Jim Endersby. I finished it because I always try to finish books on subjects that I do know not know a good deal about. The premise of the book is to give an outline of the history of genetic studies especially, with each chapter devoted to a particular plant or animal or virus that had has been instrumental in moving these sciences forward--oenothera, drosophila (fruit flies), phage, maize, silverfish, a type of cress whose scientific name I have already forgotten. One cannot help but be impressed with the progression of this work, both the results and thought processes leading to the results of which contain much of great beauty and elegance, which are always the identifying characteristics of perceived truth. Unfortunately the processes of determining which plants or tiny animals might be suitable for experimentation, collecting and breeding various specimens of them, making meticulous records of their traits, isolating certain desired traits and breeding these apart from the rest, making more meticulous records, and so on, while the essential part of the science and doubtless important to work into the narrative, grows rather tedious over the course of a 432 page book to read about.

I have to confess that I greatly appreciated the all too brief interludes when we were given peeks into the more prosaic aspects of the scientific life. As most of the people featured in this book were identified as serious talents early in life, career progression for them was a relatively orderly affair--not everyone was always supportive of their aims, but most were able to procure good university or foundation positions--even if they themselves made the positions better than they at first appeared to be, the opportunity to do so had still been present. There was not a ton of romance--a few guys ended up marrying women who had worked as their lab assistants, but in all of these instances there appears to have been a prolonged relationship strictly relegated to the intellectual realm before evidence of a more animal attraction presented itself. While Cal Tech is not known for its party scene in most of the outside world, if you are a legitimate science genius it is a social as well as intellectual mecca; Nobel Prize winners host spaghetti and wine dinners where lighter but worthy topics such as Shakespeare and serious high level music are often discoursed upon as well as current mathematical and scientific conundrums. Scientists who complete their course of study in Pasadena and depart to take up positions in cultural backwaters where social life resolves around football such as the University of Oregon naturally long for this camaraderie and often have a great struggle to recreate some semblance of civilized intellectual life in their new locale, though, being energetic geniuses, they often succeed. Indeed it is one of the great disappointments of my own life, even moreso in some ways than the lack of having an interesting vocation, though both of these states I suppose are of a piece, that I have been unable to recreate anything like the charged and elevated mental atmosphere one can find, in pockets anyway, at a decent college even in my own home, let alone the wider community where I live. I have enough of the props--books, musical recordings, an antique house and furniture, a decent liquor cabinet--that our life need not be totally devoid of connection to the higher realms of activity and understanding; however I am not capable of transmitting the spirit of these realms in the least degree via my own agency, especially by way of discourse.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I received an automated phone call the other day that was administering a political poll. I usually go along with these polls until they come upon a question I don't like or for whatever reason don't want to commit myself to an answer for. On this particular poll I was done at the first question, which was "Do you believe marriage should be between one man and one woman?" I did not want to answer yes, because the way the question is framed annoys me--you just know that whoever decided that this was the proper form to present the matter think that they are clever as hell--how about just coming out and asking if you support gay marriage, since that is all this is about? However I could not bring myself to say 'no' either, because, even at the risk of being hateful, I just cannot muster any enthusiasm for gay marriage and the prospect of coming out publicly for it in any way makes me feel ridiculous. If it were to come up as a plebiscite in my state--which I do not believe however that it can--I suppose I would abstain from voting on it. Pretty much everyone I know is virulently pro-gay marriage and talks as though anyone who harbored any reservations about it must be completely deficient both of brains and human decency. I do not agree with this position, but one must recognize that it is how people seem to regard the matter, and to me it is not worth losing friends and family members over. It is already the law in my state as it is, and no, it has not as yet noticeably affected my life, (though neither to this point have the laws regarding abortion, torture, capital gains taxes, eminent domain and many others which we are nonetheless expected to take positions on). Yet I cannot feel any sympathy for it or take it as an institution as seriously as I would doubtless be expected to. I suspect the sense that I am being browbeaten into claiming to hold a viewpoint I would prefer not to hold, or at least am not yet ready to embrace, or risk total ostracism from such respectable society as I know feeds into this resistance a little. It will be suggested that I have not given any reasons for even this emotional opposition I seem to feel, and that therefore the opposition is groundless. I suppose someday, if I cannot come around on this issue, I will have to examine with a finer eye the basis of my attitude on this subject. But right now I am going to leave that examination for a later day.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Anticlimax: Greatest TV Themes of All Time #s 1-5 (!!!)

I am combing my brain trying to think of a way to make this worth the exercise of both doing and reading it, but I am forced to admit at this point that that likely cannot be achieved.

5. Hogan's Heroes

For the drumroll alone. Reminiscent to me also of the opening theme to Closely Watched Trains. Both have a similarly punchy mock-martial style. Obviously his program was ridiculous on numerous levels, but it did have a kind of raucous quality about it that I like, and that I don't encounter much in my own life. It is not so much that I am (other people are) deadly serious, but I (they) seem to have become deadly humorless. Real time instances of any kind of spontaneous or irreverent mirth are few and you know the rest...

4. The Munsters

I never cared for the show, the reruns of which old Philadelphians will remember to have aired on the now defunct WKBS-TV Channel 48 for many years. I associate this song with the quiet and retired life of my childhood, old people, the momentary illusion of mischief or the promise of some kind of youthful assembly or party, goldfish crackers, glasses of ginger ale, and a fleeting sense of freedom and relief from the peculiar oppressions which I have always felt to dog my life.

Al Lewis, who played Grandpa, lived in Maine for some part of his retirement, which coincided with the years I lived there in high school. He was a devoted fan of high school basketball and was often spotted at big games all over the state, though as my team was terrible and did not play in any of these, I never ran into him personally. I believe he may also have held some important official position, such as grand poobah of referees or some such thing, though my memory as regards this is hazy, and I cannot find any confirmation of this on the internet, which with regard to his involvement in youth basketball only mentions that he was a "scout". Though seeing as there is not really anyone to scout in Maine, I am not sure what kind of scouting he could possibly have been doing.

3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

I was too young to develop the emotional attachment to this much-beloved show that the late Silent and early Baby Boomer generational cohorts did, but the song makes one remember those 70s as an almost heady time. Its anxieties were not our anxieties, and indeed the problems which dominated those years seem in hindsight either so trivial or so easily resolved that we look back at things like the comparative economic security, the ease of obtaining health insurance, the cheapness of real estate, the more carefree attitudes to eating and drinking, with more longing than perhaps they merit. It's still a great song though.

2. I Dream of Jeannie

A great number. I have added words to it to sing to all of my children and bounce them around after I've changed one of their filthy diapers and made them smell like they're supposed to smell again, which is close to what Barbara Eden no doubt smelled like when she came out of the bottle. If there is a TV hall of fame, Barbara Eden should be a first ballot inductee. There were multiple 1960s, the serious civil rights/Vietnam 1960s, the indulgent Woodstock/LSD 1960s, etc, but how about the insipid content but with really gorgeous babes 1960s? I find I'm starting to like that 1960s a lot lately.

1. All in the Family

It was not a clear-cut number 1, but the sentiments in the lyrics are timeless all around. I almost identify with them myself now. I have always found it interesting that Carroll O'Connor was only 46 when the show started, and, I am pretty certain, was supposed to be around that age in it. I am 42 and I still often feel like I am not fully accepted as a real adult by most people around me, and that my life could still take some unforeseen positive and rewarding direction that I just have not become aware of yet (unlikely). The program worked of course because he was not atypical of his generation. People who were 45 and 50 were 'older' than people are now at that age, and of course their station in life, even if it were a modest one, was also well established and conveyed meaning, which also seems a rarer occurrence nowadays. I feel (yes, I am emoting here) like people my age have little solid ground on which to relate to anyone else. Everything is discounted except for professional station, which a good many people do not have, or do not have in anything like the degree required. At least I feel that way myself.

Carroll O'Connor was almost a dead ringer for my father-in-law. The latter gentleman had many similarities of habit at least to his television counterpart, though he was staunchly liberal in his politics, far more than almost anybody I know in my own generation who is possessed of any sense where such matters are concerned.

The last video is a bonus track. Remember a few months back when I determined that 1964 had been a really good year for attractive women? I've been mining the archives of Youtube to find some further proofs for this position (I confess I've been contemplating a Dianne Lennon versus Marianne Faithfull 1964 smackdown post in which I argue, against overwhelming sentiment, the case of Dianne, which I believe to be a strong one; I fear I won't be able to carry it off in such a way as will allow those confused in the business to see the light however). As a kid and even a teenager I never thought Elizabeth Montgomery to be especially sexy--she always came across as a kind of generic 30ish mom/wife who was like to nag you to death; but boy does she look good to me now. As well as very: 1964, which was, as we have established earlier, a great year in the annals of feminine beauty.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

More Pictures From My Vacation in Alabama Last Summer

I realize it is the following January. I am behind, though, after all, I do strive to be as non-topical as possible. As far as that goes, I went to a wedding last night where they had great food. Especially the hors-d'oeuvres. I imagine wealthy people as eating the equivalent of a good wedding spread every day. I would. Anyway it was a good time. Large Irish Catholic family (the bride was one of twelve children), an open bar which, for the first time in some years, numerous other people at an event were hitting as much as or even more than I was. Thus despite not knowing anybody (the bride was an old friend of my wife's), I was in my comfort zone. In recent years I have actually begun to prefer going to parties where no one knows me; such is the shame I feel upon encountering any old acquaintance worth seeing in my current state of development. The day was beautiful, around 14 degrees, with a light snowfall of around 2 to 3 inches, the temperature dropping to 6 degrees by the time we left the reception in the evening. Winter weddings in a cold climate are great (I had one myself). People are really eager to go to a party, but they usually don't realize it until they get there. I had myself forgotten all about it until the night before, but I enjoyed myself when I got there. Hopefully I still have a few parties left to go to in what remains of life to me, though certainly the vast majority of social activity for me is now behind me.

But to return to Alabama in July: Above, you can see we got in some night swimming in the pool. My children are great at swimming and diving, or at least leaping into water. I never took any pleasure in these--I was a real dud of a kid, it's no wonder my parents weren't motivated to stay together and devote themselves to promoting my wordly success--and while I can by some means struggle from one wall of a pool to the other without having to touch the bottom, I cannot really swim, and certainly not with any kind of force. So this is another physical skill that I am pleased with in the children.

Here is part of the Talladega National Forest. I believe that is the waterfall that we hiked to. This one was only a 1/2 mile along the trail. There was supposed to be a second, bigger and even more spectacular waterfall around 3-3 1/2 miles in, but we did not get there, for reasons which will be relayed in due time.

I am a poor botanist, though I am getting better than I used to be. These plants I am going to go out on a limb and identify as some kind of fern. Because the internet and modern life in general are starting to have some effect in convincing me that the only people with any solid claim to being intelligent are those with high competence in science and mathematics I try occasionally to read books vaguely connected with those subjects. One book about biology that I spent about two and half months slogging through recently in the pursuit of greater awareness had an anecdote about lab geneticists who map the genomes of plants and engineer genetically modified food and so on being unable to properly identify weeds that were the subject of years of their researches when looking for examples in the wild. I'm not really in a position to accept this as some kind of belief even if it is true, but I thought the idea was amusing and sad at the same time.

Here we are about 2 or 3 hours into the same hike, shortly before we gave up and turned around. I don't know how far we got or how close we got to our waterfall because while there was an identifiable trail there were no signs indicating whether we were on the right trail or any distances as there are in most National Parks and Forests that I have been to. I was really ailing at the time of this picture. It was well over 90 degrees, I was carrying my 2 year old boy who has the density of a computer hard drive, and unfortunately my cardio-respiratory fitness is not all it could be at this point. About five minutes after this picture however a very intense lightning storm swept through and while I did have some concern about members of our party being struck by lightning or hit by falling trees, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees and I found my energy for hiking much revived. It was the kind of outing that is fun to look back on now as having done.

This is the porch of our 1940s CCC cabin, with my then 2 month old (now 8 month old!) daughter. It is curious how these state parks in the supposedly poor southern states can stay open year round and maintain these really nice facilities such as cabins and restaurants while in New Hampshire and Vermont our parks are only open and staffed from Memorial Day to Labor Day and have very little comparable in the way of facilities, and yet our legislature in New Hampshire at least considers it practically the height of extravagance to (barely) fund this. This last summer I went to 2 parks that were not staffed at all, at which the bathhouses and toilets were locked up and the parking lots cracked and sprouting mini meadows (Clough State Park in Dunbarton, which is really starting to look skanky, and Forest Lake State Park up near Lancaster near the White Mountains, which for the moment at least is still redeemed by its beautiful setting). I believe I have read that New Hampshire is the only state in the country that expects its state parks to pay for themselves. I think it's an embarassment that a huge part of the eleectorate can't bear to even fund our state parks. What do people think is going to happen?

This is Pulpit Rock, a large promontory/lookout also right in the Cheaha State Park. A lot of people say this is the most beautiful place in Alabama. It's a prime spot.

Pulpit Rock overlooks a very long and easily mortal drop, so we kept child #4 safely away from it.

These weren't so bad. I think I am also going to do a couple of sets from when we went back to Tennessee after leaving here, which we did within a half hour of this last picture, and then I'll be all caught up, since I haven't gone anywhere else since.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Anatomy of Melancholy V

As I slink wearily over the keyword to produce this post,
With nary a spark of the human vigor of our Enlightenment forefathers,
My mind a broken shadow of a machine, vaguely recollecting images of coherent ideas now shattered.
I dreamt in confusion of old breasts and stale Christmas candies,
I gave a go at subconscious self-abandon, but my brain and vital power were not in it.
To sleep, to wallow, to procure an abacus and tally the days till death,
Is the only remaining instinct.
There are no prospects for productive action,
No universes, no signifiers to be revealed.
I am perhaps dangerous, but only to myself, and only in an absurdist state of existence,
Which we may however inhabit.
Don't tempt me, don't tempt me, don't tempt me.
But of course you won't.
Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Cancun, Ibiza, Johannesburg, Bombay, St Petersburg, Beograd.
Albany, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Newcastle, Glasgow, Gdansk, Kaunas, Vichy.
All offer the equivalent life, the equivalent temptations to me.
I overheard a woman say she wanted to quit her job and go to the Burning Man Festival.
If I quit my own job and went to the Burning Man Festival I would not even have any fun there.
If I checked into a Super 8 in Rochester and pulled the curtains tight with the goal of sleeping in I would be stone awake at 7:30am with nothing to do.
Whether I pay for bottle service on 5th Avenue or go to $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon night in Crown Point,
Whether I go to the concert or the exhibition or the film festival of the Earnest and the Trite,
My own proper crowd, with our shared secret knowledges and confidential intrigues, is never to be found there.
It doesn't exist.

Now that I have had my little amusement let us move onto Burton:

" is better to sharpen toothpicks than to beg the favour of the great with literary productions." This is true.

On the neglect of learning by the contemporary European aristocracy: "Thus they reason, and are not ashamed to let mariners, prentices, and the basest servants be better qualified than themselves. In former times, kings, princes, and emperors were the only scholars, excellent in all faculties...Julius Caesar mended the year, and writ his own Commentaries: '(from Latin--Lucan) In the midst of warfare he found time to study the stars, the heavens, and the upper world.' I would write out the Latin if I felt I understood it and had some sense of the literary quality of the passage. In most instances however, I do not.

A ten year's lawsuit, inevitably unhappy for the personage referenced by Burton, is described as "as long as Troy's siege".

There is a whole section devoted to Bad Nurses, the premise, on the authority of "Favorinus, that eloquent philosopher", being "that there is the same property in milk as in the seed", which provides several good anecdotes. Cato, for instance, "...for some such reason would make his servants' children suck upon his wife's breast, because by that means they would love him and his the better, and in all likelihood agree with them." There is also an unnamed "...Queen of France, a Spaniard by birth (I don't recognize this person offhand), that was so precise and zealous in this behalf (viz., that a mother should suckle her own baby), that when in her absence a strange nurse had suckled her child, she was never quiet till she had made the infant vomit it up again".

Burton is those authors who is fond of making a very long argument on behalf of some point, to which the average reader will long have submitted, and then switching and making an equally long and persuasive argument against it.

Burton seems fascinated by the idea of Iceland. He refers to it a lot.

"...milk in gold cups, wine in silver, beautiful maidens at his beck..." When the rich man goes a-visiting.

On the learned and noble but impecunious man: "'If he speak, what babbler is this?', his nobility without wealth is more worthless than the seaweed on the beach, and he not esteemed." The expression and the expansive understanding of man's unhappy lot--not much is neglected--is what makes for the appeal of these otherwise long-acknowledged truths.

There is much that is wise in the depiction of the lives of slaves and servants, but I am going to pass over it because taken out of context the examples come over as crass and gratuitous, I think.

"A Sybarite of old, as I find it registered in Athenaeous, supping at the public tables in Sparta, and observing their hard fare, said it was no marvel if the Lacedaemonians were valiant men; 'for his part, he would rather run upon a sword-point (and so would any man in his wits) than live with such base diet, or lead so wretched a life'."

"If we may give credit to Munster, amongst us Christians in Lithuania they voluntarily mancipate and sell themselves, their wives and children to rich men, to avoid hunger and beggary; many make away themselves in this extremity". My people.

These last few examples are all from the section "Poverty and Want". Continuing in that vein:

"Dante, that famous Italian poet, by reason his clothes were but mean, could not be admitted to sit down at a feast." The citation for this is Gomesius (no, I haven't heard of him either; he does turn up on internet searches on pages that are basically catalogues of antique books, but I don't see any casual information about him). This (Dante) besides being perhaps the greatest Western poet of all time other than Homer, is the personage Ruskin called "the central man of the world". Yet even he was unrecognizable as such in inferior clothes, which is to me really a major point to be grasped here.

I don't like to recount atrocities, which sorts of things people know to happen even if they usually suppress that knowledge in their conscious daily life. But I suppose I need to remind myself of what people can really be like more frequently than I do. Because even if Burton's anecdotes are not completely accurate, one knows similar actions of the sort happened sometime.

"Alexander commanded the battlements of houses to be pulled down, mules and horses to have their manes shorn off, and many common soldiers to be slain, to accompany his dear Hephaestion's death; which is now practised amongst the Tartars, when a great Cham dieth, ten or twelve thousand must be slain, men and horses, all they meet..." This is from the section "Loss of Friends".

"Conradus the emperor would not touch his new bride till an astrologer had told him a masculine hour".

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Anatomy of Melancholy IV

It's been a while, but I thought a few book-notes might make for a good space-filler right about now.

Theory of the aid of pictures in conception, with examples: "Persina, that Ethiopian queen in Heliodorus, by seeing the picture of Perseus and Andromeda, instead of a blackamoor, was brought to bed of a fair, white child. In imitation of whom, belike, an hard-favoured fellow in Greece, because he and his wife were both deformed, to get a good brood of children...hung the fairest pictures he could buy for money in that chamber, 'that his wife, by frequent sight of them, might conceive and bear such children.'" Should I have put up pictures of geniuses? Or hipsters?

"...Tully (Cicero) confessed of himself, that he trembled still at the beginning of his speech; and Demosthenes, that great orator of Greece, before Philippus." This would be surprising to me if it were true. I tend to think of fear as one of the many unfortunate qualities of which superior men are blissfully unburdened, particularly in their especial areas of superiority. Nervousness suggests doubt of success, which largely means doubt of one's own superiority; which it would seem impossible a truly great thinker would be capable of feeling, especially when one becomes accustomed to the bombast and self-assuredness of the more prominent men of intellect at work in public life at any given. The longer view assures us that this is not always the case however.

The book is a compendium of human life, or at least human life as understood by a certain kind of male intellectual mindset, which formerly was often mistaken for the thing itself. I am not as yet always persuaded that it is not the thing itself, but it is true that old habits die hard, especially in the aged.

Of envy: "...the Sicilian tyrants never invented the like torment." That's funny. Sort of.
Alexander's ambition to emulate Achilles is described as "modest", followed up by this observation: "'Tis a sluggish humour not to emulate or to sue at all, to withdraw himself, neglect, refrain from such places, honours, offices, through sloth, niggardliness, fear, bashfulness, or otherwise, to which by his birth, place, fortunes, education, he is called, apt, fit, and well able to undergo..." This should be read as a lesson at my funeral; preferably by a winner, if any can be found to show up at it.

The brazen bull, the horrors of which were oft-reported by Roman authors--now that was a torture device. For anyone not familiar with it, this was a hollowed-out bronze cast in the shape of a bull in which the victim would be placed while the bronze was heated over a fire. Seems to have been frequently employed as entertainment at dinner parties, I presume among the more rapacious segments of the Roman elite, as the writers pretty clearly disapprove of the practice.

"This for the most part is the humour of us all, to be discontent, miserable, and most unhappy, as we think at least...Hadst thou Sampson's hair, Milo's strength, Scanderbeg's arm, Solomon's wisdom, Absalom's beauty, Croesus his wealth...Caesar's valour, Alexander's spirit, Tully's or Demosthenes' eloquence, Gyge's ring, Perseus' Pegasus and Gorgon's head, Nestor's years to come, all this would not...give thee content and true happiness in this life..."

"For particular professions, I hold as of the rest, there's no content or security in any...To be a divine, 'tis contemptible in the world's be a physician, 'tis loathed; a philosopher, a he could find no tree in the wood to hang himself, I can show you no state of life to give content." He is honing in on the essence of the case in these last two snippets..

The life of royal courts with its attendent ambitions, jealousies, lusts, etc, is described as "the suburbs of hell itself", which I thought not only humorous, but consoling, that a person who lacked not some capacity of force should state the idea. Of course I am only just now figuring out that in their own lifetimes most of these now celebrated writers were not substantial players in the power games of their times, and that that does matter to a greater extent than is often allowed for, for even if the writer is telling truths, it is usually only a small and limited view of matters that does not reflect how even the vast majority of clever people experienced at the time; which I think is more problematic than perhaps I was wont to formerly.

"Others, I say, are overthrown by those mad sports of hawking and hunting; honest recreations, and fit for some great men, but not for every base, inferior person..." The problem here of course is that ultimately most of civilized, or at least advanced life is not properly fit for inferior people, which is inevitably most of them.

There are a lot of quotes about the desperate quest for fame, the multitudes of books that died with their authors, and the like, which I am going to skip over as ground well-covered. It is never tedious however to be reminded that Xerxes was a moron:

"Such a one was Xerxes, that would whip the sea, fetter Neptune, in his stupid pride, and send a challenge to Mount Athos; and such are many sottish princes, brought into a fool's paradise by their parasites."

There is an extensive section on excessive devotion to scholarship as a source of insanity and a sapper of general vigorous powers. The anecdotes here include a Thomas Aquinas at dinner story, which is always promising (Aquinas is usually depicted in paintings as having the physique of a small tank):

"Fulgosus...makes mention how Th. Aquinas, supping with King Louis of France, upon a sudden knocked his fist upon the table, and cried (in Latin), 'This proves the Manicheans were wrong'; his wits were a-woolgathering, as they say, and his head busied about other matters; when he perceived his error, he was much abashed."

Sanicidae. = killers of healthy people. Funny name (I thought) for notoriously incompetent physicians and other quacks.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Knife In the Water (1962)I don't have anything personally unique to say about this movie, which I do however think is quite good. It is, rather incredibly in a way, the first film of the controversial director Roman Polanski's that I have seen. As most people know, it is also his first full-length movie, and the only one he made before leaving Poland. Successful movies are more collaborative affairs than is sometimes acknowledged by hack fans like me, and there was a good amount of artistic talent collaborating on this one. Still, cinematic and theatrical talent seems to flourish best under superior direction, and it is apparent that Polanski in his youth at least had something of the soul of an artist. The movie is distinctive, forceful, bracing, and, most importantly, attractive. Doubtless many people possess these qualities, or the germs of them, in youth; few however seem to benefit enough by technical instruction or the association of comparably talented artistic or near-artistic spirits to make any kind of real artistic impression.

Idle thoughts about the movie:

It would have been interesting to have one or two more films from this director made in Poland before he left the country, though I guess his first few movies after his emigration are among his better ones, and among the defining movies of their time. He was not bound to a particular place or system or culture--I suppose we are all bound to a particular time to some extent but he at least exerted a greater influence over the direction and character his time assumed, for better and for worse, than most people do.

I like the depiction of the men in this movie. They have personalities, everything they do in the film, and one supposes in their lives, has a purposefulness to it; the direction of the young man's life perhaps is still in doubt, but one is certain that it will not be totally devoid of assertive action, conflict, sensuality, all of which are certainly hallmarks of the director's persona.

While the film is most handsome to look at, and contains a lot of outstanding camerawork, it still consists entirely of three characters who are on a small sailboat on an otherwise empty lake for 95% of the movie, so that most of the interest of it has to be generated by the dialogue. The skill with which this was accomplished I found admirable.

The DVD, which I believe was from the Criterion Collection, had 8 of Polanski's short student films, some of which were clearly exercises in shooting conventional type situations, others of which were narratives told in a pretty conventional form, and others that were early attempts at expressing something of his distinct spirit. None of them were anything great, though a few had bit parts for Polish college girls, which is always appreciated. While it did not exactly show how he progressed from having conventional instincts to be able to illustrate a more interesting vision of humanity, it is important to be reminded that that is a process that even talented people have to struggle through.

I don't have anything else to add about Knife in the Water.

Despite the long break from movie reviews I don''t have anything else to write on at this time because I have gotten bogged down watching the Poirot television series from the late 80s and early 90s, which one of my video guides rated as 5-star fare. It is not that, but is bearable and often entertaining enough, and the break from cinematic films will have me raring to go when I start up with those again. I believe there are 36 50-minute episodes of this series, and I have gotten through 23 of them. I am pretty confident in saying that I am not much of a fan of the murder mystery genre either in literature or film, or at least not of the Agatha Christie portion of that genre. I don't usually figure out who the murderer is, but I don't actually care all that much. The interest for me in the Poirot program, of which I can watch about two or three episodes a week with modest enjoyment, is in its nostalgia for 1930s Britishness (even though the title character of course is a foreigner), which comes across as an especially pure and well-developed strand of that historical phenomenon, and which the series does a good job of evoking.

I noted to my wife that the world of the Poirot stories, echoing those of other writers of the time like Waugh and Graham Greene, was for the most part almost entirely devoid of children, the prospect of which seems odd to me now, to which she made the sensible rejoinder that children and murder mysteries are not a natural mix, and probably wisely avoided.

The murder rate of aristocrats and other wealthy men with ambiguous wills or lines of hereditary succession while being visited by/attending a social event with Poirot is so stratospheric that one wonders after a while how the man can get invited anywhere. It is also remarkable that despite the high incidence of murder that takes place on properties where he is known to be present, he himself never comes under scrutiny as a potential suspect. I know this is arguing along the same lines as to say that in real life Sir Topham Hatt would be fired as director of the Thomas the Tank Engine railway if his trains kept continually plowing into buildings full of people like they do on the TV show, that (adherence to certain aspects of reality--there is a better word for this idea that however I cannot remember now) is not important in this particular instance. However I find this aspect of the stories to be so incongruous as to diminish my sense of their quality considerably.

Other than Poirot, who is distinguished and talented and non-needy for acceptance enough to be generally accepted, foreigners are depicted uniformly negatively. At first I thought the Americans were the only ones getting the cringe-worthy treatment, but since then there have been equally gruesome representations of Egyptians, Russians, Italians, Germans of course. The Argentines got off all right in their individual depictions. People seem to like them.

It is a good series for fine-featured Anglo-Irish actresses wearing beautiful clothes, if you lke that sort of thing.