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Saturday
Feb042017

La Môme (La Vie en Rose)

For a number of reasons the English-speaking world has been unable to rid itself of what it has been in love with since the beginning of the nineteenth century: a French goddess, fair and free. It has ruminated in drunken bewilderment on this obsession, and has gone so far as to take lovers from all ends of the earth, the more exotic the better; it has whiled away the hours in disavowal of France's strengths, its virtues, its breath, its scent; but it has returned to it again and again as the one woman it cannot deny. France has much of what we have come to admire about Northern Europe – science, philosophy, aestheticism, a precise sense of justice, and a taste for danger tempered with a greater taste for truth. If Germany is indeed the epicenter of all modern thought and disciplines, France is a muse lingering astride the battlements, a waifish reminder of a life less structured or, I should say, less ordinarily structured. It is still remarkable that France, awash in hedonism, art, and beauty, is still a Catholic country that has no qualms about praising something greater that it cannot understand. The average Frenchman may no longer be a churchgoer, but a sense of order – greater order – allows him to live his life with the knowledge that it is not all in vain (Russians adhere to a similar philosophy, which would explain the long and fertile relationship that intellectuals from those countries have enjoyed). Perhaps a better description of the feeling one gets patrolling the streets of Paris or Lyon or Marseilles is one of cultural gentility, of a confidence wrought through centuries of apprenticeship and mastery, a knowledge of the world based on principles, beliefs, and institutions. And for all of France's history and achievement, this feeling is refreshing. It is refreshing because our world today is still being assaulted by nihilists in the guise of cultural theoreticians who wish to posit relativism, contradiction, taboo, and irony as the lonely breakwaters in an ocean of nothingness and insignificance. Yet if these same theoretical men were to descend the ghat to the water they hope will flood everything civilized, proper, and beatific, they will espy in this blueness only their own loathsome specters. France, a resting place of many of these dullards, will always be the beacon of culture amidst the pagan hordes. And the songs it will sing in joyous abandon may very well resemble the soundtrack to this recent film.    

The story of Édith Piaf, née Gassion (Marion Cotillard) has the familiar ring of tragedy. Born in an immigrant-laden district of Paris to parents with Italian and Algerian blood, Gassion struggled repeatedly against hunger, destitution, and lack of respect – the plague of the poor – only to struggle later in life with alcoholism, drug abuse, embezzlement, and exhaustion – the plague of the wealthy. Along the way she would meet the usual passel of pimps, criminals, prostitutes, and other underworld surlies; some of her most tender moments are shared with a woman of ill repute named Titine (Emmanuelle Seigner) in the brothel run by her grandmother, a very convenient place for her father to abandon her. Once he finally returns and takes her away kicking and screaming (how a child can emerge with a semblance of security from such a setup is beyond conventional mores to guess) the waif Gassion (la môme of the original French title) has been sufficiently exposed to violence, cruelty, and lives without the possibility of change and improvement to know that she may not have much time on this earth and she'd best make good use of it. 

As such, and at the behest of her father, a professional contortionist, Gassion begins to sing. She drifts away from family (her mother, whose alcoholism would be passed on to her daughter, makes a brief and jarring appearance) and into circles of people who care about her even less but are enamored with her potential. In time and for stage purposes, she is dubbed "Piaf," "sparrow" in the local argot and representative of her diminutive size and powerful voice. There is the usual assortment of backstabbings, blowups, organized criminals, and one passionate affair with the polar opposite of Piaf – a famous boxer who was world champion until he lost to this American prizefighter and subject of another well-known film. The last years slip by in a wicked haze of ill-advised cocktails, iller health, and failed concerts, none of which did much to diminish her fame in the eyes of the general public – the sign of a true icon. When Piaf cannot perform, there are always her records, passed around like some inexorable drug, and the masses stay satisfied. When she dies and is denied Catholic rites for, among other things, having an affair with a married man, thousands gather at this famous cemetery to hum her songs until their notes turn to tears.

I have not detailed many of the film's twists and turns because they are all predictable yet, to the best of our knowledge, quite accurate. Given filmmakers' tendencies to romanticize and re-imagine their subjects' existence, one shudders to think of the misery and suffering that Piaf actually endured in her brief years, addled as she was by both fame and the contents of its barroom. That said, the real reason to see the film, apart from the music that may or may not have been part of your youth (it was certainly part of mine), is Cotillard. Thanks to skill, a constellation of genetic similarities, and clever cinematography, she transforms her very pretty self into the miniature cannonball that was Piaf with nary a seam or thread showing. The performance is extraordinary and utterly unexpected by us ignorant cinéastes who had only seen her work in some rather mediocre French films – the less said about them the better – and this adaptation of a book about southern France, its vineyards, and what can happen to people who actually take time to smell the roses. That's why "life through rose-colored glasses" (the English title and trademark song by Piaf) had as little to do with Piaf's life as the sentimental sweetness of her tunes has to do with many facets of our modern existence. But for a while, and perhaps longer, we can be convinced otherwise. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.

Tuesday
Jan312017

Akhmatova, "Ведь где-то есть простая жизнь и свет"

A work ("A simple world and life do wait") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

A simple world and life do wait,  
Transparent, warm and joy-filled land ...              
The evening cloaks the soft debate        
Of fences, neighbors, girlish fate,                        
As gentle bees their hum expand.               

So hard and solemn are our days,         
The bitter moments worshipped rites;    
When suddenly a reckless gale            
Rips through our words before their flight – 

Yet never do we dream of more       
Than plush cement of woe and fame,
The bluest ice, wide river shores,    
The dark and sunless gardens torn,
The Muse's voice, though faint, untamed. 

Saturday
Jan282017

Prefaces to The Flowers of Evil

Four introductions to this magnificent collection of poems. You can read the original here

I. PREFACE

France is passing through a phase of vulgarity. Paris, center and appeal of universal stupidity. In spite of Molière and Béranger, we would never have believed France to be marching on the path of progress. Questions of art, terra incognita. Great men are fools.

My book could have done some good; I’m not grieved by this possibility. It could have been harmful; this does not fill me with joy.

The aim of poetry. This book was not made for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters.

All the crimes I have recounted have been imputed to me. The base entertainment of hate and contempt. The elegiacs are blackguards. And the word became flesh. For the poet is of no faction. Otherwise, he would be a simple mortal.

The Devil. Original sin. Good man. You may be the Tyrant’s favorite if you so wish. It is more difficult to love God than to believe in Him; on the other hand, it is more difficult for people of this century to believe in the Devil than to love him. Everyone makes use of him and no one thinks him real. The sublime subtlety of that Devil.

A soul of my choosing. The decor. Hence novelty. An epigraph. Barbey D’Aurevilly. The Renaissance. Gérard de Nerval. We are all hanged or hangable.

I had incorporated some garbage to please the journalists. They turned out to be a bunch of ingrates.

 

II. PREFACE TO THE FLOWERS

It is not for my wives, my daughters, or my sisters that this book was written; nor for the wives, daughters, or sisters of my neighbor. I will leave this analysis to those who mistake good actions for beautiful language.

I know well that the lover fascinated by a rich, beautiful style exposes his body to the hate of the masses. But no human respect, no false prudishness, no coalition, no universal suffrage will restrain me from speaking the incomparable dialect of this century, nor from confounding ink with virtue.

Since time immemorial the best poets have shared the most flowered spaces of the poetic realm. To me it seemed pleasing, and more agreeable than difficult, to extract the beauty of Evil. This book, fundamentally useless and absolutely innocent, was made with no other goal than to provide me with some light entertainment and indulge my taste for obstacles.

Some have told me that poetry can do wrong; this does not fill me with joy. Others  good souls all of them  that it may do good; and I’m not grieved by this possibility. The fear of some and the hope of others surprised me in equal measure, and did nothing but prove yet again that this century has unlearned the classical concepts of literature.

Despite the assistance provided by some celebrated oafs to man’s innate predilection for humbug, I would never have thought it possible that our country could march on the path of progress with such speed. This world of ours has acquired a thick film of vulgarity that imbues a spiritual man with all the violence of passion. But happy are the shells which the poison has not and cannot enter.

Initially I had the intention of answering several critics and explaining at the same time some very simple questions totally obscured by modernity’s glare. What is poetry? What is its aim? What is the distinction between the Beautiful and the Good? What could be the Beautiful in Evil? I could have averred that rhythm and rhyme fulfill man’s immortal need for monotony, symmetry, and surprise. I could have spoken at length on the adaptation of style to the subject, of the vanity and danger of inspiration, and so forth and so on. But I suffered from the imprudence of reading this morning several papers. Suddenly an indolence not unlike the weight of twenty atmospheres came over me, and my actions ceased in the face of the horrific inutility of explaining anything to anyone. Those who knew me were able to guess why. And for those who cannot or do not want to understand, any explanations would accumulate in vain into a heap of misconceptions.

III.

How can an artist, through a sustained series of efforts, attain originality commensurate with his talent?

How can poetry become music through prosody whose roots dig farther into the human soul than any classical theory might claim?

How does French poetry possess a little–known and mysterious system of prosody like that of Latin or English?

Why are all poets ignorant of how words rightly incorporate rhyme unable to express any ideas?

How is it that poetry (in this way akin to music and mathematics) can imitate a horizontal line, a straight line ascending, or a descending straight line? How can it rise in steep path to the sky without shortness of breath, or fall perpendicularly towards hell with the velocity of all gravity? How can it follow a spiral, trace a parabola, or the zigzag of superimposed angles?

How does poetry relate to the art of painting, of cooking, of cosmetics by expressing every sensation of sweetness or bitterness, of beatitude or horror by the coupling of a certain noun with a certain adjective, analogue, or opposite?

How is it that every man, reliant on my principles and availing himself of the knowledge which I plan to teach him in twenty lessons, can compose a tragedy no more lustily booed than any other or structure a poem of sufficient length to be as dull and tedious as all other epic poems?

Quite a task, rising up against all this divine insensitivity! More so owing to the fact that I, despite numerous laudable attempts, could not resist the desire to please my contemporaries, as shown in various places highlighted like rouge, certain base flatteries addressed to her, Democracy, and even some other twaddle excusing the despondency of my subject matter. But my dearest gentlemen of the press were ungrateful of such caresses, and I omitted in this new edition the traces of this ingratitude as much as could be possible.

To verify once more the excellence of my method, I have suggested devoting myself in the future to a celebration of the joys of the dedication and intoxication of military glory, even if they are not known to me.

Notes on my plagiary: Thomas Gray; Edgar Allan Poe (2 passages); Longfellow (2 passages); Statius; Virgil (the whole part of Andromache); Aeschylus; Victor Hugo.

IV. PROJECT ON A PREFACE FOR THE FLOWERS OF EVIL
(perhaps to be incorporated with previous notes)

If there is some glory in not being understood or in being understood just a little, I can say unboastfully that with this slender tome I have obtained and deserved such fame in one fell swoop. Offered numerous times to a series of publishers, all of whom shoved it away in horror; harassed and mutilated, in 1857, following a rather bizarre misunderstanding, slowly rejuvenated, sharpened, and strengthened in the course of many years of silence; having disappeared yet again owing to my insouciance, this discordant product of the Muse of the last days, revived again by a few new violent strokes, dares today to confront the sun a third time with its inanity.

This is not any fault of mine. The person to blame is the publisher insisting that he thought himself strong enough to brave the public’s distaste. “This book will remain forever like a blemish on your life,” one of my friends, an important poet, said to me from the very beginning. As it were, all my misadventures up to that point had affirmed the correctness of his observation. But I possess one of those happy personalities which derive a certain pleasure from hate, and which are glorified in their contempt. My taste so wickedly bent towards stupidity coerced me into finding particular pleasure in the travesties of calumny. As chaste as a sheet of white paper, as sober as water, as devoted to devotion as a communicant, as inoffensive as a victim, I do not mind passing for a debauched drunk, an impious lout, or an assassin.

My publisher continues to pretend that I, like he, would gain some benefit from explaining why and how I created this book, what my means and ends were, and from detailing my design and method. A critical work in that vein would surely amuse those minds enamored with profound rhetoric. For those dear souls I will write something later, perhaps, and have it printed in about ten copies. But, upon further scrutiny, doesn’t this all seem superfluous and wasteful since some will know or guess its essence and others will never understand it? I am too afraid of ridicule to insufflate to the masses the intelligence of a work of art. And I fear that I too greatly accommodated those Utopians who want by some immediate and magical decree to render all Frenchmen rich and virtuous.

And then, my most important reason, that most important reason of all: such acts bore and displease me. Should one then lead the rabble into the dresser’s and decorator’s studio, or the actor’s box? Should one reveal the tricks and levers of our gadgetry to the crowd so impassioned today and so indifferent tomorrow? Should one explain to them the edits and daubs and the variants improvised at rehearsals, or to what extent sincerity and instinct combine under the banner of indispensable charlatanism? Should they know of all the wrecks, makeup, pulleys, chains, regrets, and smears  in short, all the horrors that compose the sanctuary of art?

Besides, I’m not in the mood for all this today. I have no desire to demonstrate, surprise, amuse, or persuade. I have my nerves and my erratic whims. My goal is absolute rest and endless night. Bard of the mad pleasures of wine and opium, I thirst for nothing but a liqueur unknown on earth which even the celestial pharmacy could not provide me. A liqueur containing neither vitality, nor death, nor excitation, nor nothingness. To know nothing, to teach nothing, to want nothing, to sense nothing, to sleep, and then sleep more, this is today my one and only pledge. An infamous and disgusting pledge, but a sincere one.

Nevertheless, as superior taste instructs us not to be afraid of contradicting ourselves a bit, I have gathered at the end of this abominable book testimonies of sympathy on the part of certain men whom I value most. In this way, the impartial reader may see that I am not absolutely deserving of excommunication and that, having learned to make myself loved by some, my heart, although I no longer know on what printed cloth, does not perhaps have the “horrific ugliness of my face.”

Finally, by unmatched generosity, whereby my dear critics ...

As ignorance, more and more so ...

I myself denounce all imitations ...

Saturday
Jan212017

Beneficence

I only know how to sculpt and how to love. This was not enough for you.

It is exceedingly rare that I will recommend a literary work as wholeheartedly as this one, which, while a survey of fifty years of genius and subject to many rewrites, is staggering in its precision and scope. There is simply no world like Nabokov’s. No prose writer of the twentieth century is so succulently correct about nostalgia, about love, about memory. And his images are repeated and enhanced over time: a violet bulb expands into a lilac curtain; the distant flutter of a cramoisy wing becomes the softest hair on the softest of cheeks. His familiarity with all levels and outlines of nature’s greatness makes his emotional insights far more rewarding than the sloppy generalizations of existentialists who, crippled by their ignorance of the natural world, can only describe their solipsistic (or perhaps "slop-sistic") feelings. So when Nabokov turns his attention to a single person and that person’s private tragedies, we sense a cosmic importance, as in this magnificent story.

Our narrator, a sculptor in Berlin, has spent the whole night without the woman he loves. She has betrayed him with another body, but it seems as if she has been betraying him all along. With his only weapons, “shards of plaster of Paris” and “congealed plasticine,” he tries to combine her swathed image with the unique blue of Berlin’s evening skies (which I, too, once worshiped) and create a refuge from the loneliness of this world. He fails, and awakes the next morning, nervously giggly, filthy, forlorn. He thinks, as all artists do every day, of redemption:

My love for you was the throbbing, welling warmth of tears. That is exactly how I imagined paradise: silence and tears, and the warm silk of your knees. This you could not comprehend.

They are to meet by the symbol of Berlin itself, the same monument that would split the city in halves for forty-four bitter years. The crowd does not share his happiness or anticipation. So many bureaucrats speed on by, all masked by “weary, predatory faces,” all with the same “turbid nausea” in their eyes. But he is free. He can create and shape the world as he sees fit. By a guardhouse window he finds a stand with postcards, maps, photos for hasty tourists. Before all this, on a stool that is too tall for her, sits “a brown little old woman, short-legged, plump, with a round speckled face.” She is waiting just like he is waiting. Except that she is waiting for the whole world and he for only one person, which might mean that she is actually the lonelier, the more desperate of the two.

They wait in tandem; an hour passes. A procession of slow and dulled people, many people, attracted like wild animals to the gaudy colors, approaches the stand but cannot bring themselves to buy. The autumn weather becomes more typically Berliner, spouting and pushing its puny citizens about like the insects we mock and swat with few scruples. Of what did this old woman dream? Of a “rich foreigner … who would buy all her wares, and overpay, and order more, many more picture postcards and guidebooks of all kinds.” This is, we understand, her paradise, relief from subsistence, from the miserable task of depending on the megrims of uncaring strangers. A soldier finally does approach, but the old woman is already in the midst of satisfying her need for happiness in a cup of coffee with milk which she drinks “with such utter, profound, concentrated relish” that our narrator stops thinking about his love. He thinks instead about how much he wants that soldier to buy everything he can from that old woman, how only in that exchange of favors can the most basic necessities of life be procured. And then he thinks:

Here I became aware of the world’s tenderness, the profound beneficence of all that surrounded me, the blissful bond between me and all of creation, and I realized that the joy I had sought in you was not only secreted within you, but breathed around me everywhere, in the speeding street sounds, in the hem of a comically lifted skirt, in the metallic yet tender drone of the wind, in the autumn clouds bloated with rain. I realized that the world does not represent a struggle at all, or a predaceous sequence of chance events, but shimmering bliss, beneficent trepidation, a gift bestowed upon us and unappreciated.

It is here that another couple arrives to the newsstand that reminds our narrator not a little bit of himself and his faithless siren. He smiles upon his gift and does something we could not possibly expect, but which is the most laudable of human actions. And the most laudable of human actions is our gift, especially when its ambit includes us as well.

Monday
Jan162017

The Coup

We Africans like de Gaulle.  He reminds us of the giraffe, of the gods that no longer visit us.

                                                                                                                    Félix Ellelloû

 

Many splendid books have come from the pen of this American writer (who died eight years ago this month), none finer than this monograph on the fictional African kingdom of Kush. The Kush of Félix Ellelloû, our cultured and self-serving narrator, is certainly fictional, although Kush has a real history in the Upper Nile region, a fact which most readers forty years ago would not have bothered to verify (perhaps no better are the readers of today, who would limit their curiosity to the trappings of a single intergalactic search engine). And Ellelloû, “short, prim, and black … produced, in 1933, of the rape of Salu woman by a Nubian raider,” has an almost mystical sense of his value to us and the annals of great men and their evil deeds. His tale is well-known to students of literature: that of the talented, educated, artistic, and yes, at times, brilliant mind who just so happens to have his all his iron fingers in the political cake. Philosopher-kings are what we used to call these individuals (we moved on at some point to the hilariously oxymoronic “enlightened despots”). But by now we have witnessed and shuddered at the fall of so many first-rate minds to the rosy couplets of their own Machiavellian romanticism that we yearn for the simple man whom money and power could never change; indeed, one wonders whether a truly first-rate mind would bother with such stupidities. Then we remember endless legends of great men and women wanting more and, in their avarice, losing their souls. But let us return to our half-Nubian, half-Salu.

The Coup does not boast nor need a discernible plot. It is the memoirs of a great man, now no longer great (usually the only time such individuals can stop to reflect). One might ask whether a reader might expect a violent overthrow of a government in these pages, and the response would simply redirect the reader to the word "memoirs." The only people who write about coups are victims or failed rebels; the results of successful coups are included in the newly amended constitution. Our man in Kush has plans and musings, which usually biomagnify as he meanders the large halls of his few superiors. In addition to the school-mandated French and Arabic and a smattering of other languages for cosmopolitan effect, Ellelloû is distinguished by his mastery of English, acquired stateside at, in no small irony for the era, a certain McCarthy College “deep in the reign of Dwight Eisenhower.” He is at his ministerial best when left to consider in smiling disdain the details of simpler existences. He walks outside and beholds “the clay of the square … accepting yet another day’s merciless brilliance”; the sand around him and one of his mistresses “was strange, black and white like salt and pepper, and at moments seemed an immense print of page too tiny to read”; and a Kush drugstore becomes:

Like a witch’s hut of murky oddments hurled to infinity by omnipresent mirrors, even mirrors overhead, circular suspended convex mirrors which foreshortened into dwarves the slack-faced toubab sons and daughters as they shuffled along these artificially cooled aisles like drugged worshipers selecting a pious trinket or potion from the garish variety of aids to self-worship.

He is a proud Muslim and husband to four wives. He has served in the army and attained the rank of Colonel, a title which seems to merge into his surname. He cavorts with an array of operatives, agents, visitors, and government officials with the hackneyed sarcasm of the majority of raconteurs forced to chat with lesser lights and surprised when, on occasion, one of these dim bulbs actually says something worth remembering. He thinks constantly and aloud about God and hopes the favor is returned. By his own humble estimation, he has much in common with his Creator:

What can be purer than non-existence? What more soothing and scourging? Allah’s option is to exist or not; mine, to worship or not. No fervor overtops that which arises from contact with the Absolute, though the contact be all one way. The wall of pale-blue tiles echoed the repose and equilibrium within me, a silence never heard in the lands of doubt and mockery.

An option is one way of looking at it. And these lands of doubt and mockery? We only hear about them when Ellelloû needs a strawman for his Marxist rhetoric, which is scattershot and insincere, and somehow not in conflict with his faith.

For all his faults, Ellelloû (likely patterned after this leader, Updike's exact coeval on a six-month delay) has more than glorious talent wasted on totalitarian aims. He can also triage any group of frauds, con artists, and aspiring thinkers into the necessary pigeonholes. One such figure is his professor at the Government department of McCarthy College, Frederic Craven:

In that sinister way of American intellectual men, he had grown handsomer with age, his boyishly gaunt figure filling out without ceasing to be essentially youthful; kept tendony by tennis and tan by sailing through September on the cerulean, polluted surface of Lake Timmebago, he had created in time a kind of vertical harem of undergraduate mistresses, whom graduation disposed of without his even having to provide a dismissive dowry.

Small, prim, dark Ellelloû finds his counterpart across the seas, a man whose teaching load includes “U.S. vs. USSR: Two Wayward Children of the Enlightenment,” a man who insists on addressing Ellelloû as “Hakim Félix” as if he were a Russian boyar. Why then are we not surprised that it is Ellelloû, not his instructor, who seems to be the congenial man of letters we trust with our imaginations? “I hope,” says the young African, “you will forward my parting regards to Mrs. Craven,” to which Updike rejoins one of the finest lines in English literature. There is also the matter of that titular putsch. But I think you know how that will end.

Wednesday
Jan112017

Wolf

Casual readers of these pages may assume that the numerous entries on the horrible and supernatural betoken an unhealthy obsession, but this is not the case. What we perceive in our world, the mundane simplicity of money and biological needs, is only a fraction of what might actually exist. That doesn't mean, of course, that the monsters stalking us when darkness falls are any realer, cached away in some corner that conspiracies and good luck prevent us from ever detecting (not impossible, but very unlikely). Nor do they express, as pseudo-science has put forth in their computerized mumbo-jumbo, unconscious desires to kill or enslave; those urges are nothing more than the products of very sick minds whom reason, love, and charity might never reach. No, all of this has nothing to do with reality because it has to do with the greatest mystery of our world, that of the human soul. We neither rightly know whether we possess souls, nor, if we do, what on or beyond earth might happen to them when our bodies twitch and exhale for the last time. Some faiths are convinced that our souls move on somewhere – to another body, another plane of existence, even perhaps another dimension – and those bodies are not limited to fellow humans. And although this review's title is also a translation of my surname, it actually refers to this diverting film.

Our protagonist is Will Randall (Jack Nicholson, in a last hurrah before age triumphed), a literary editor and loyal employee of publishing magnate Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer). Randall's rapport with his staff, who obviously care about his well-being, perhaps extended his long and generally productive time at the publishing house – exactly enough time for Alden to take Randall's steady work for granted. As it were, the fiftysomething Randall with his soft reserve, mild manners, and inability to come up with new ideas almost obliges Alden to look towards a future with someone not a few years from social security as the house's steward. The future turns out to be a smarmy and revolting fannycushion by the name of Stewart Swinton (James Spader), who also happens to be Randall's protégé and in every way his foil. While Randall is good-natured, dull, unimaginative, and sensitive, Swinton's boisterous creativity is devoted utterly and completely to his selfish advancement regardless of the obstacles or societal conventions. Alden breaks the news to Randall with the smug cowardice of someone who thinks that he's being kind to lower creatures ("Will, you should really consider working for our East European section" – contempt that only the rich and merciless can think of as honesty). Despite booming political interest in the region, East European books were more popular when they weren't allowed to be published in their home countries; there also lingers the unsubtle hint that a second-rate editor should be handling the "second world." Randall is shattered; Swinton's blinking claims of innocence are undermined by his greasy, almost fanged grin; and the new East European editor retreats to the childless house he shares with his indifferent wife (Kate Nelligan) – a physician who often looks at him as if he had just been pulled out of a morgue drawer – and, exhausted, he falls right asleep.

It is still dark when he awakes. His wife returns home and informs him that it's eight o'clock – in the evening. How tired does someone have to be to sleep twenty-two hours? A good question that Randall does not immediately answer because he's too preoccupied with a weird realization: not only does he feel completely rejuvenated, his five senses have been heightened to superhuman levels. He walks through his office building and distinctly perceives the details of phone conversations a few hundred feet away; he can smell the vodka on his coworker's breath from across the floor; and, much more pertinent to his work, he can speed through manuscripts without the pharmacy rack spectacles he's relied on for years. Randall is not a particularly brilliant man, but he knows intervention when he sees it and consults an Indian mystic (the late Om Puri) on the nature of his ailment – if that's really the right word. The mystic weaves him a tale around the curse of that old fiend, the canis lupis, one of the most feared and misunderstood of the earth's predators. "One doesn't need to be bitten by a wolf to turn into a wolf," avers the mystic, "some people can become wolves because of their souls," or something to that effect. But Randall has already stopped listening: he was, in fact, bitten by a wolf (one evening after slamming into the animal on a snowy deserted road at the film's very beginning) although the fur trade made them extinct in upstate New York centuries ago. The mystic concludes his briefing with a strange request with which Randall probably does not comply, and the plot devolves in very entertaining fashion into a love triangle with Swinton, Randall, and Alden's stunning and rebellious daughter (Michelle Pfeiffer). First-rate acting (especially from Spader, who is stupendous) and a wealth of amusing detail separate this story from many others with similar themes, structure, and violent revelations. And the ending, apparently refilmed many times, will remind you of an old phrase: homo homini lupus – man is wolf to man, or in this case a whole pack of beasts.

Friday
Jan062017

Heine, "Abenddämmerung"

A work ("Dusk") by this German poet.  You can read the original here.

Upon the wan-lit ocean beach,
I sat alone with worried thoughts.
The sinking sun beyond eyes' reach
Striped waves with burning rays so hot. 

These white and frothy mounts did shake,
Pale slaves at but the tide's command;
And closer-close, foam'd noise did make,
In oddest whispers, whistling sands.

A murmur, laugh, a sigh, a sough,
And then some secret lullaby;
Like hearing now old tales long-lost,
Sweet ancient stories cast aside.

Tales I first heard as a small lad,
From neighbors' children passed along;
When we, on summer evenings glad,
Sat on stone steps, a doorside throng,

All hunkered down to hear the words,
With tiny hearts and curious eyes;
And listen; while the older girls,
Some fragrant flowerpots nearby,

Would gaze upon the glass panes clear,
Each face just like a garden rose,
Which seems to smile, yet seems to fear
The endless moonlight as it grows. 

Tuesday
Jan032017

Dead Man

He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved by men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
The wanton boy that kills the fly
Shall feel the spider's enmity.

                                                                             Blake, "Auguries of Innocence"

When I began graduate school twenty autumns ago I enrolled in a rather promising class with the simple name of "Literature and Film." Unfortunately, a large chunk of that literature turned out to be the yawn-inducing theories of the trendy; even more unfortunate were some of the cinematic selections that ranged from dull to mindlessly pretentious – but these are the wages of academe. Still, among these wax figures roamed works of tantalizing genius (such as this fantastic film) and a few others that engendered little more than indifference, including this film heralded as a landmark in independent cinema. The best thing I can say about Stranger than Paradise is that the foreign destination is Hungary. Studying Jarmusch's works, apart from a couple of more recent and commercial releases, one notices a curious and recurrent decision to portray the outsider against the basic plot conceit of flight or travel (Jarmusch's characters always seem to be fleeing). Another structural method is his unorthodox use of literary texts as motifs, with one author in particular being featured in this film.

Our premise is most unusual: a Native American takes William Blake the late nineteenth-century accountant and aspiring apiarist (Johnny Depp) for the long-dead poet of the same name. Yet before their fateful encounter, Blake must commit the crime that will justify the film's title; and since the setting is a Western, there are crimes aplenty to be had. Blake – who goes by Bill and hasn't a clue about poetry much less his glorious eponym – is first seen on one of those endless trains that seemed to travel for days through the American West. The other passengers smile at him with some pity because he, by all indications, is nothing if a mild-mannered gentleman quite out of his element in this Darwinistic morass. Responding timidly to the questions of a coal-charred fellow (Crispin Glover), Blake reveals that he hails from Cleveland, near Lake Erie, his parents are deceased and his fiancée is with someone else – in other words, he is absolutely alone. He arrives at the office of his prospective employer, the despotic John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his last role), is mocked and almost killed, and leaves without the job he was promised two months before. Broke and friendless, Blake wanders into a saloon. He is a boy in a man's world (he cannot even afford a large bottle), and we suspect that his only way out of this fix is to meet a girl. Not the right girl, mind you, but a girl (this is a Western and not a romantic comedy). He does indeed meet a girl; and he meets her the way you're supposed to meet a girl in Westerns – through a random act of cruelty or misfortune. The girl he finds, Thel (Mili Avital), is a very pretty former prostitute with the requisite organ donor requirements (including the heart of gold) who has become a "paper flower girl." More importantly, she has a crazy ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne). The boyfriend walks in on the couple in bed, tries to shoot Blake but kills Thel, and is then shot by a reluctant Blake, quite obviously a first-time gun handler. When we learn that the ex-boyfriend was called Charles Dickinson and was the son of Blake's near-employer, a price is put on the accountant's head and our bumbling story devolves into a chase.

The Native American in this Cowboys-and-Indians tale is Xebeche or, as he prefers, Nobody (Gary Farmer). Spurred on as a young boy to hunt elk by tribal elders, Xebeche is captured by British soldiers and eventually makes his way to London as a circus sideshow. His enthusiasm for British ways – he perceives assimilation as his only hope of freedom – leads to his education in the finest of British literature, including Blake, whom he rightly deems a visionary. These two lonely men (Xebeche has been shunned by his people for his foreign manners) meet by chance, decide that they can only delay death for so long, and wander as the requisite odd couple through the American West. Xebeche explains his mores, his ways, and the ways of nature that are afflicted upon the "stupid whites" who continue to destroy his culture and land. But his description of his captivity is even more elegant:

And each time I arrived in another city, somehow the white men had moved all their people there ahead of me. Each new city contained the same white people as the last, and I could not understand how a whole city of people could be moved so quickly.

The duo are soon followed by three Dickinson-commissioned hitmen (in a great scene, we see them pointing guns at the huge portrait of Dickinson in his office before he arrives), one of whom is perversely deranged in a very modern way. And here I must permit myself an aside: there is a certain charm to Westerns that appeals most notably to teenage boys but which has always been lost on me and I mentioned before what some people think of rebels and rulebreakers. Perhaps I care little for them because they evince Darwinism at its worst, the predatory, vulturine methods of squatting, hunting, defending and not caring about anyone else except themselves. Dickinson, the embodiment of survivalist thuggery and greed, is a bully who likes fine clothes, a ruffian who likes fine wine, someone who will never forgive a wrong, whose grudges and vendettas extend through generations, someone who is sexist, chauvinistic, peevish, and childish in every sense, someone who will live and die by violence. In other words, he is nothing more than the gangster of today. That Blake misses his opportunity to work for him should be seen as kismet, especially given the events that ensue.

Yet something happens to Blake along the way, and it may be on account of the strange war paint that Xebeche leaves on his face while sleeping. He does not become the poet Blake so much as a modern interpretation of the poet, part decadent dandy and part vigilante murderer. Not that Blake has much to do with killers or any type of violence; but his poetry, glorious and beautiful and wonderfully prophetic has a scourge-like quality to it much in keeping with a Biblical avenger (mentioned in passing, as it were, by three loathsome fur trappers). The accountant Blake's last visions suggest hell, with the strangeness of pagan faces and their unholy rituals, garb and language. Perhaps the poet Blake might have lamented the crimes against the poor by alleged Christians in the New World as he lamented them in London. Whatever the case, some are indeed born without the faintest sliver of light or hope, and we who do not count ourselves among them must remember our privileges before we trespass against those of others. Not, admittedly, a very Western epithet. But the poet Blake was as far removed from such bedlam as anyone else, which brings us back to those sagacious auguries:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

Friday
Dec302016

Borges, "Ajedrez"

A work ("Chess") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original here.

I

So grave, so cold these corners whence
Slow pieces move upon a slate;
Til dawn they hold the masters tense, 
So do two shades each other hate.

The magic rules like spells are cast                                 
Through forms: Homeric rooks, fleet knights,              
Thick queens-at-arms as kings stay last,  
Aggressive pawns and bishops slight.

And once the players have departed
Consumed by time as if by fire,
The rite will certainly not end.

In the red East a war had started     
Whose stage was now the world entire,
A game too of infinite bend.

II

Faint king, fierce queen, and bishop skew, 
Straight rook in league with cunning pawn, 
Across the black and white path drawn, 
They seek and launch their armored crew. 

Not knowing of the telltale hand 
Of destiny long since foreseen, 
And that these laws adamantine
Subject their will and work to man. 

Each player sits imprisoned, squeezed
(Khayyam so said) on other charts,
Of blackest nights and whitest days.

God moves the hand that moves the piece, 
But then what god past Him shall start  
This game of dust, time, sleep, and pain? 

http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/index3.htm
Tuesday
Dec272016

Count Magnus

Discussing any type of ghost story with the modern mind is usually a pointless endeavor since so many enlightened thinkers want nothing to do with the spiritual aspect of life or are convinced – at least until their ratiocination leads them into a rather dark corner – that we have evolved past such daydreaming. If the thought of an abstract benevolent force sounds like gobbledygook, think of the snickering directed at the possibility in our clear and simple world of not-so-benevolent forces. Our nightmares, products of a bad conscience or neurotic fears, have also progressed from describing some kind of indescribable evil to exposing a humiliating tidbit of personal history long denied. Now I am all for getting to the crux of an obsessive idea (art has much to do with this trope), and I accept with much head-nodding theories on eternal explicanda such as "practically every human culture has evinced an antipathy to snakes because, being tree animals, snakes and monkeys are natural enemies." Yet there remain questions about those creatures who do terrify us, usually those most biologically dissonant from humans, such as birds and reptiles (who are, as it were, closely related to one another), and these questions extend past the biological like the unsheathing of a long and wicked claw. There is something inherently unpleasant about their beady, soulless stare, their plumed or scaly sleekness, and, perhaps most of all, their laughter. Which brings us to one of the most sleep-sapping tales ever written.              
 
We follow, somewhat timidly, a certain Mr. Wraxall, a British traveler and scholar who journeys to Sweden "in the early summer of 1863." Research and a bit of luck steer him to an ancient manor house in Vestergothland, where he will be able to examine at length "an important collection of family papers," even if these papers will steer his fate more than that of its inheritors. The scholar declines an offer to be put up at the manor proper, and chooses instead, for reasons of both privacy and any good scholar’s preference for walking above all other forms of transportation, to stay at a nearby inn. The commute to and from his center of research is less than a mile and careers through a dark wood featuring a church of unorthodox design:
It was a curious building to English eyes. The nave and aisles were low, and filled with pews and galleries. In the western gallery stood the handsome old organ, gaily painted, and with silver pipes. The ceiling was flat, and had been adorned by a seventeenth-century artist with a strange and hideous ‘Last Judgement,’ full of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and smiling demons.
A seventeenth-century artist, indeed. This odd bit of architecture also includes astride the north aisle another building, officially categorized as a mausoleum, with a black roof and white walls (the latter resembling those of the church). But there is no access to this mausoleum from the church, a fact that plagues our poor Mr. Wraxall for a while, although he will be plagued by far worse.

Soon thereafter it is announced that he would like to know more about the ways and reputation of the "almost phenomenally ugly man" and ancestor who built this manor house, Count Magnus. History has not looked kindly upon this overlord, who had unruly peasants flogged and particularly recalcitrant ones burned alive in the middle of the night by chance fires. Magnus is also known to have made a Black Pilgrimage, whose purpose is outlined in a text called Liber nigrae perigrinationis:
‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince ...’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr. Wraxhall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aëris ("of the air").’ 
A round trip to Hades would be bad enough if Magnus had returned in possession of preternatural  properties and an itch to try them out on the local folk. That was not, however, all he brought back. So when Wraxhall finally does ingress the mausoleum, he is only half-surprised to find an effigy on Magnus’s tomb, "round the edge [of which] were several bands of similar ornament representing various scenes." And in one of those scenes
Was a man running at full speed, with flying hair and outstretched hands. After him followed a strange form; and it would be hard to say whether the artist had intended it for a man and was unable to give the same similitude, or whether it was intentionally made as monstrous as it looked.
More detail is given, which is not necessarily a good thing for your peace of mind, so I will leave matters as they are.  
 
The creator of these texts is this remarkable scholar, with whom I humbly admit to sharing a passion for languages and all things Scandinavian. His prose, very influential on the development of the modern horror of many bestselling writers (including this American whose greatest fame would come posthumously) exhibits his thorough academic learning without dipping into pedantry. In fact, his cold and articulate manner makes the odd subjects that more plausible, although plausibility is probably not the reason you’ll pick up his work. For both his learning and style, James is a favorite of horror connoisseurs but ought to be republished and read more often by the rest of us. Unless, of course, you value your sleep.      
Thursday
Dec222016

Dracula

Let us forget for a moment all associations with the name of this novel, the subject of hundreds of books and films and owner of permanent territory in the landscape of our nightmares. While such an exercise is almost impossible, we might imagine a world in which the vampire had not yet been accorded the title of legend and to a certain segment of Europe was still very real. What then would be the response to a Western work that tried with solemn research and Victorian restraint to capture the essence of fear? Fear of an aristocratic and evil genius, practically immortal and unstoppable, capable of feats of superhuman strength and diabolical skill? Do not think that I subscribe to the ridiculous theories about the sexuality and foreignness of Dracula as indicative of Victorian England’s threatened moral structure and pending hoards of migrants who will suck the British Crown dry. Nor is the repetition of the Mongol invasion to blame; instead, it is the fear of esoteric truths that conflicts the minds of the steady, righteous Victorian citizen, and of lust, greed, and cruelty as the new traits of the new century. England is not afraid for England; rather, it is humans who are afraid for humanity.   

As it were, these predictions were hideously accurate. The book itself, a masterpiece of the epistolary genre, is composed in the lush style of the Gothic romances such as these earlier novels, with a scrupulous eye for detail and no frail moral backbone. Stoker was never quite able to replicate the magic of Dracula in any other of his many works, perhaps because the subject matter was not as compelling. Consider this novel or this one and their forays into, respectively, the pagan worship of a giant snake and the revivification of an Egyptian mummy, and we see that these are generally subjects for horror buffs, even if the books themselves are fantastically beautiful. But a vampire has an added element that urges us to read on and wonder about the damnation that may ensue, however silly the whole premise must seem to a logical mind, if certain criteria are not met. The legend was born because death itself remains a mystery.

Dracula’s beginning has no parallel in modern literature: it is simply the best opening to a modern novel of suspense or horror ever written. Until Jonathan Harker is abandoned in Castle Dracula to the whims of a triptych of female bloodsuckers, the book is hypnotic and impeccable. An excerpt does small justice to the precision with which Stoker describes the indescribable: 
Suddenly, away on our left I saw a faint flickering blue flame. The driver saw it at the same moment. He at once checked the horses, and, jumping to the ground, disappeared into the darkness. I did not know what to do, the less as the howling of the wolves grew closer. But while I wondered, the driver suddenly appeared again, and without a word took his seat, and we resumed our journey. I think I must have fallen asleep and kept dreaming of the incident, for it seemed to be repeated endlessly, and now looking back, it is like a sort of awful nightmare. Once the flame appeared so near the road, that even in the darkness around us I could watch the driver’s motions. He went rapidly to where the blue flame arose, it must have been very faint, for it did not seem to illumine the place around it at all, and gathering a few stones, formed them into some device. Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle.  
One wonders whether a better account could be rendered of the hellfire that will surround and plague Jonathan for the entirety of the novel. How is a modern author able to present demons on earth without evoking suffocating laughter? Perhaps as the most evil of humans, with communion with the vilest beasts (although I have a soft spot for wolves), and control over the harshest weather. This is the world into which a naive young barrister enters for the sake of career advancement and for his fiancée, Mina Murray, and which they may never leave unscathed.

What happens after this first seventh of the novel is less satisfying: Dracula comes to England aboard a ship whose crew meets with a horrific fate; he seduces Lucy, a close friend of Mina’s and tries to get to Mina herself; and he is supported (if mostly in spirit) by Renfield, a former barrister now held in a London asylum. Fraught with twists typical of any modern thriller, the end chase is decidedly humdrum in comparison with the onset of this great expedition. In the intermediate scenes we are plagued by the stratagems of scholar and physician Abraham van Helsing, destined to become almost as famous as the monstrosity he has hunted for decades. Van Helsing’s diction is curious to an English ear, and has much of his native Dutch about it although it often makes for poetic interludes. His organization of a team to destroy a centuries-old source of evil is undermined by the frenetic pace of the plot, needlessly weaving together side stories to make it seem that Dracula is fenced in on many fronts, which he certainly isn’t. In the end, he is forced to scamper back to his native Transylvania, and we still do not know why he chose to forsake his local omnipotence to brave the dangers that the distant post of London provides. No particular explanation, apart from plot furtherance, is ever given. If it is boredom or isolation that drives the Count to pick up and move, one wonders what he has really been doing all these centuries. Why not take London during the Great Fire or interregnum? Let us hope that it is indeed boredom, which would be much more plausible for a character of ambition.                
 
The origin of Dracula is notably never revealed in full. He may very well be this historical figure known for impaling his opponents in battle, but he is hardly the first despot to inflict horrific suffering on his enemies. Why then would he be chosen as king of the damned? Many modern films and books have delved in speculation ranging from the most mundane (psychological and scientific references to acute taphephobia and the concomitant madness) to the most vivid (this most famous of betrayers). If it is indeed Judas behind the slaughter of centuries, then the character is well chosen and portrayed. There can be no greater penalty on a soul than a mockery of life sustained by death after death.
Sunday
Dec182016

Pushkin, "Предчувствие"

A work ("Premonition") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Above me met the clouds anew, 
In silence breeding envious woe. 
That hour will torture me, I know, 
If I a threat therein construe. 
Does second sight betoken fate? 
Should I embrace this vast design
With patience and tenacious brine,
My prideful youth's far-flung estate?

Fatigued am I of restless life, 
Indifferent to the roaring storm: 
Perhaps I can be saved and borne 
To safest pier away from strife ...
Yet premonitions of our end, 
A thankless and most dreaded chime, 
Lead me to hurry one last time, 
And squeeze, my angel, your white hand.

Serene and gentle angel mine,
Forgive me now and speak but soft:
So sad's your tender gaze aloft
That you must hold or fast decline.
Your memories my own shall glaze, 
And fill my weary soul with force,
With pride, with inspiration's course,
And bravery of younger days.