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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.

Tuesday
Dec132016

There Will Be Blood

There is an adage about moneymaking that suggests it's not that hard if that's all you want to do with your life; in other words, if you are willing to trample anyone or anything in your way. In many countries around the world, citizens are no longer allowed to exploit their compatriots, charge whatever outrageous sum they'd like for their goods or destroy competitors' supplies in order to jack up their own profits. America is not, however, one of them. For all the freedoms it offers – and freedoms are privileges – America remains an immigrant land of financial opportunity, the paragon of Darwinian capitalism where demand and supply regulate one another in constant evolution and erosion of everything else. Its vast natural resources, enterprising spirit, and lack of anything resembling a common history allow it to do whatever it takes to get ahead (some will call history the conscience of a people or nation, but such a generalization becomes silly the moment it is uttered). However one feels about the American path to riches, no other country stands aside so passively to permit the tireless verve of the businessman to maximize its productivity; no other country protects those with ambition and resources against those who lack the same drive and material capacity; and no other country tacitly hints at unlimited power and unlimited wealth to those strong enough to want it. Perhaps "strong" is not quite the right word here; but nowhere else on our lonely planet could this great film have taken place.

Our film has the simplest of plots: a poor, unconnected, unloved man of Faustian ambition changes nothing about himself except the size of his bank accounts and what actually happens is far less important than how it happens. In films of such scope, the first scene will often be a metaphor for the entire work. And sure enough, before a word is uttered, we see a lean and hungry man, muscled and dirty, hammering away at a large chunk of rock, switching his blows from his right arm to his left, the peen of his hammer as sharp as the diamond of his gimlet eye. This man is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his one aim in life is to make money. His dedication to the ground and the forces beneath it will remind even the casual observer of devil worship. So will, as it were, his raising of a black hand when he finds petrol or when his son is dabbed on the forehead with petrol by a colleague. A close observer of these first, mostly wordless scenes, will detect the true relationship between Plainview and his son, H.W., so that the revelation at the film's end will shock only H.W., who perhaps, upon reflection, isn't that shocked at all. 

In the course of thirteen years (1898-1911) of toil and trouble, Plainview finds countless barrels of petroleum and no longer needs to bear the burden of his wealth. But as he finds more and more oil, oil comes to find him. He is approached by a young man called Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, in an extraordinary performance) who claims that his familial territory has black gold, and he wishes to strike a deal. What is remarkable about this first exchange is how quickly both Plainview and Sunday sense the fraudulence in each other's mannerisms, as if they were two animals sniffing in disgust at stuffed ringers. Plainview's first statement, "What can I do for you?" is as great a lie as any line in the film and the exact opposite of his purpose in every human interaction (later, at a weak moment, he would admit that he wants "no one else to succeed," that he hates most people, and that he wants to "earn enough money so that he can get away from everyone"). Sunday then asks Plainview to what church he belongs, to which Plainview answers – substituting in his mind "source of income" for "church," you can almost see the pause needed to change vocabulary – he "likes them all." Plainview eyes up the boy in that way some people have of looking at food or available women and determining the risk of satisfaction, then agrees to an advance. Sunday is only to be paid in full upon retrieval of the petrol. And what if there is no petrol, is the question hanging in the air. Then, adds Plainview, "I will take much more from you than my five hundred dollars," at which point Sunday should have run out that door as quickly as he could and never looked back. 

But Sunday does no such thing. When Plainview and H.W. arrive on his family's property, Paul is nowhere to be found; in his stead is his identical twin, Eli. Is Eli really a twin or the same person? Plainview looks at his son to see whether a child, unwise to the world, can tell and the camera gradually wraps around H.W. as Plainview watches him closely – but the matter is never explicitly resolved. Plainview charms the Sundays, and soon has his drills ripping up their riches. He has other suitors, and his method of selling his services to them bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a surgeon: "We have to act quickly," "the extraction," "These are men I know," all suggest some kind of miracle operation, when in reality he is offering nothing more than affordable exploitation for himself and himself alone. In the meantime Eli has become a preacher for the ridiculously named "Church of the Third Revelation," delivering his sermons with the raucous gusto of what we have come to expect from certain American sects although without losing his characteristic snicker, a method of smiling without really smiling that will remind the viewer of this actor. The awesome casting out of an old woman's arthritis, one of the more magnificent scenes in recent memory, is witnessed by Plainview against his will, and this is where his face tells us that Sunday's talk is as false and preposterous as his own rustling and hustling. What separates them, at least in Plainview's mind, is the oilman's directness and brutal (in the literal sense of the word) honesty. But the gulf between them is more than the difference between hypocrisy and ruthlessness. Sunday is always on the verge of implosion, of collapsing either under the weight of his sins or that of the world (importantly, we are never persuaded, even in the famous final scene, as to whether or not Sunday believes in his own preaching; the matter is left purely to our speculation), while Plainview, like the oil wells that explode and burn on repeated occasions during the film, is a walking volcano. He is capable of anything and he knows it, which makes him one of the most dangerous men alive.

Careful directors and writers will invariably place an image or motif of great significance at the halfway point of their work, and at the center of There Will Be Blood, Plainview stares at an alternative reality of himself. He is greeted at his doorstep by his long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor). Henry has failed as much as Daniel has triumphed: his moustache and hair are far thinner than Daniel's, he possesses none of his brother's athleticism or energy, and he appears as passive and armed with as little foresight as Daniel is aggressive and conniving. Needless to say, Henry is also unemployed and penniless. Through his half-brother, who was conceived with their father's mistress Mary Branch, Daniel learns the details of his past again, from a slightly different perspective and, for a brief time, Daniel becomes confessional and sentimental. He talks about the house he loved when he was a child, his struggles to make it as an oilman, and dismisses his initial failure with the words: "I went to Kansas. I couldn't stay there. I don't like to explain myself." Apart from the very real threats that Plainview makes and often carries out, this admission might be the truest statement in the entire film. Plainview wants his actions to explain everything – his insatiable lust for money, his misanthropy, his hatred of the Church, and his soothing, intoxicating way of making people do exactly what he wants by being utterly unpredictable. This modus operandi is maintained until the bitter end of the film and Plainview's bottomless glasses of bottomless moonshine; and in the end, however off-kilter it has been accused of being, there is nothing that we could put past him.

While Dano is consistently superb, Day-Lewis exceeds all expectations: his performance is simply one of the greatest in the history of cinema. Although allegedly molded on the affectations of this famous director, Plainview's persona throbs with vibrant authenticity without being an imprint of anyone in particular. Many actors have won accolades for channeling historical figures through assiduous study, physical resemblance, and, of course, a great deal of talent, but Day-Lewis creates a stunning, complete, and yet mystical figure. We understand his general motivations but not the small, distant reasons behind them, and, despite his volatility, his actions correspond perfectly to his intentions. During his unwanted baptism in Sunday's Church, Plainview famously mutters "there's my pipeline" as he is declared a new member, and his sparkling, half-drunk diatribes to H.W. and Sunday towards the end of the film will be quoted for years. And what should we make of the blood in the title? Considering the heartless drilling methods Plainview employs regardless of the welfare of his workers, we immediately think of indentured servitude, of the exploited labor force that begot some very misbegotten ideas about class structure, and the weak and poor who died so that Daniel Plainview could live out his days in luxury. But the blood is also the earth's blood, oil itself; it is the watchword featured in Sunday's Church; it is the lineage passed on to H.W., who might harbor some doubts about his father's love after a freak derrick explosion renders him deaf; it is the bloodline of Henry and Daniel, the Plainview brothers who couldn't be more plainly opposite. Perhaps in a universe of frauds, impostors, and changelings, Daniel Plainview is the realest of them all. He hasn't the faintest inhibition about anything in this world, which he considers a sham, and the next world which, his rhetoric notwithstanding, he seems to fear. Yes, he fears death because in death, unlike in life, there is no inequality. Except, of course, for those who will be damned. And some people know precisely what's coming to them.

Thursday
Dec082016

Envy

Of all human vices, Schadenfreude is most likely the worst: those afflicted do not seek their own success but the failure of others. Hoping that your neighbor, your brother, or that lovely girl in the office meets with some disastrous circumstance just so that you may feel better about your own mediocrity hints at another form of malicious glee. The one which arises when you daydream about stripping a fellow human of his or her accolades, spouse, money, or anything else they might have earned. In countries where egalitarianism is promoted and preferred, it is not uncommon to see others looking over their shoulders at your small plot of land which, in essence, is just like everyone else's. Or so you think. Upon further scrutiny you realize that in contradistinction to adjoining plots yours boasts, in a small, shaded, almost inconspicuous corner, one dark blue violet of infinite beauty. You have not really noticed this violet before, but everyone in your vicinity cannot take their eyes off it. After a certain amount of time, you begin to hear rumors of others' having had similar flower seeds and good earth, only to have seen their flowers killed by an errant footprint or simply scooped up by an enterprising passer-by. What you will never hear is that everyone tried with equal effort but unequal talent to grow such a violet, and only you succeeded. In fact, you will soon learn that you, of all people, tried the least and were also granted by whatever grants people such powers, the least amount of talent to make a violet bloom. And yet only you have it, which can only mean skulduggery. Germany, a country of unabashed egalitarianism, even coined a word for such a "conspiracy of feelings," a Neidgesellschaft, or society of envy, a place where people are supposed to be equal or close to equal, or at least given as many opportunities as possible to be equal, but where oftentimes human beings' competitive nature gets the better of them. Which brings us to this sensational novel.

The time is the 1920s and the scene is the New Russia. Today we have, admittedly, another New Russia; but back then the legacy of the Soviets was yet to be sensed by anyone except the most prescient and cynical among us. A new society meant reinventing not only the wheel, but also poetry, government, sexual relations, sports, and, perhaps most importantly, simple creature comforts such as sausages and pillows. The sausage maker is a man called Andrei Babichev. He is a large, boisterous fortyish businessman – appropriate socialist terminology is "Director of the Food Industry Trust" – drunk on his own salubrity and boundless, throbbing volition (calling him energetic would be incredibly unfair to marathon runners and other such slouches). As all good citizens do, he dreams of a new world where everything is better than it once was, and where men like Andrei can rule because they have the greatest amount of resilience to creeping mortality. He sings, bellows, and generally expects to be the center of attention wherever he finds himself drumming up business. Despite being a self-made man, he was attacked by some hooligans about ten years ago and survived only thanks to the timely intervention of a burgeoning soccer star, Volodya Markov. Since that fateful incident Markov and Andrei have been like son and father to the point that Andrei would like Markov to marry his lovely niece Valya. Valya is sixteen and Volodya twenty-seven but soon to be capped by the Soviet squad and therefore very eligible. His stated goal is to become a football "machine," to have no superfluous movements or thoughts in the perfection of his craft – the purest allegorical illusion that the Soviets could foist upon their supporters and citizens. This all sounds like a dandy setup for a new, improved society bereft of any malice, underachievement, or selfishness. And it would be were it not for the introduction of two characters – Andrei's older brother Ivan, and a mysterious fellow called Nikolai Kavalerov.

Once upon a time, we are told, there were three Babichev brothers: Roman, the eldest and most gung-ho about defending the homeland; Ivan, a devout non-conformist and a bit of a parasite; and Andrei, the bright-eyed baby who went abroad to pursue his studies and whatever else needed to be pursued. Roman was executed for his role in a revolutionary force's terrorist actions, and we all know what happened to Andrei. But what about Ivan? It is an accepted premise that artistic types, bless them all, often have little inclination to do anything else except engage in their art, a formula which this philosopher rationalized and ultimately justified in a famous discourse. Ivan is most definitely such a man: creative, moody, impractical to a preposterous degree, he too dreams of transforming the New Russia – but not by means of the platitudinous robotic achievements that would so typify Soviet culture at its apex and nadir. No, Ivan is a true artist, which means his genius stems from both originality and a thorough knowledge of the work of his forerunners. While Andrei wants to build a better salami, Ivan's brazen mind envisions a dream machine, soap bubbles that would expand to the size of a hot-air balloon, and his most enigmatic creation, the so-called "Ophelia" machine. What this latter construct entails is not immediately revealed, although it is clear that Ivan considers it his masterpiece and legacy. He finds, however, few sympathizers. Andrei wants no part of him and is only interested in Valya for the sake of Markov; everyone else seems to think him raving mad, a Bohemian louse or some combination of the two. His disheveled appearance and crushing negativity regarding the achievements of his younger brother are reflected in his overwhelming ambition to annihilate Andrei, an ambition shared by Kavalerov, who dances innocuously across the novel's stage without affecting anyone or anything. He and Ivan share a striking number of opinions on matters great and small, and even end up bedding the same widow despite her repulsive demeanor and shape. Kavalerov talks to Andrei, but is brushed aside as if he doesn't really exist; Ivan does exist, or at least we think he exists, and is given similar treatment. Neither one can dissuade Valya from her upcoming nuptials with Volodya, and the effete duo continue to stir up trouble in local pubs with the overt intent of overthrowing Andrei or some substantial chunk of Andrei's world. Ivan – or Kavalerov, a bit hard to tell them apart at times – even mistakenly absconds with a letter from Volodya in which the goalie recommends that Andrei sever all ties with Kavalerov. This infuriates Ivan and Kavalerov in equal measure, which leads them to do, of course, nothing of consequence except scheme.

There are more than a few indications about Ivan and Kavalerov's real identities, although secondary literature conveniently tends to overlook them in lieu of more traditional reading approaches. One important clue is Valya's reaction to both men: she does not treat Ivan like her father, nor does she even acknowledge that Kavalerov, who becomes obsessed with her, actually breathes much of the same air she does. Another hint might be derived from a solid knowledge of the oeuvre of this writer, who specialized in long-winded diatribes about the humiliated, those in life who do not have voices because they are drowned out by guffaws of ridicule. Unlike Dostoevsky, Olesha presents his tale in the most compact of forms, and one that bends in a green arch over every last sumptuous detail. The "Vainglorious and Thoughtless Man," Kavalerov, will be known forever and ever for his envy, just like Iago – and just like, for that matter, Ivan, who once grew a blue violet out of a wart after claiming he had a remedy. But some people have more ambition than simply growing exotic flowers.

Saturday
Dec032016

Bely, "Меланхолия"

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

An empty bistro by first glow,                                      
Makes whispers and soft organs mate.                     
Smooth leather mats that fairies know,                                      
Show lackeys rumbling with their plates                     

Between the cabinets. Like shade                         
I wander through the smoky webs.              
Soon golden day will launch its raid                       
On window panes as dreamtime ebbs,                      

And cut off cinder in its fist,                 
Aflame in mirrors, diamond-bright...             
Gas lanterns fill with fiery mist                
And pierce each window with warm light.                           

Above the city and the streets,                       
Black cinder clouds from earth-mounts rise.
Beyond our ken, our senses meet                        
Unanswered arias' demise.                         

I lived and died in yearning pure,                      
My tears unseen upon my face.                           
The ceiling waxed in light demure                        
As garlands of ethereal lace                                     

Stretched past our eyes.  And for a time  
All seemed burned hot by tawny light.           
By mirror's glare my double rhymed;           
My silhouette with endless night.                 

He nears, and nods to me alone;                                 
In torture I cannot escape;                          
Then breaches depths of mirrored gloam                  
His hands aflail at life's mad cape.

Sunday
Nov272016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 2)

The conclusion to the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

The final periods, made more somber by oratory pauses, were supposed to be eloquent; Unwin guessed that Dunraven had tried them out many times with identical aplomb and identical inefficacy. In feigned interest he asked: “How did the lion and the slave die?” The incorrigible voice answered with somber satisfaction: “They too had their faces destroyed.” The noise of their steps was now joined by the noise of the rain. Unwin thought that they would have to sleep in the labyrinth, in the central chamber of the story, and that this great inconvenience would be an adventure in his memory. He kept silent; Dunraven couldn’t contain himself and, like someone who cannot forget a debt, asked him: “Isn’t this story inexplicable?” As if thinking aloud, Unwin answered: “I don’t know whether it is explicable or inexplicable. But I know it is a lie.”

Dunraven broke into a litany of filth, then invoked the testimony of the eldest son of the rector (who, it seems, had died) and of all the neighbors of Pentreath. No less astonished than Dunraven, Unwin apologized. In the darkness, time seemed to run on and on; the two men were afraid that they had strayed from the path and were very tired when a thin clearing above showed them the first steps of a narrow stairway. They went up and came upon a circular room in ruins. Two signs of the ill-fated king’s fear persisted: a constricted window ruling over the uplands and the sea, and in the ground a trap door that opened over the curve of the stairway. The room, however spacious, had much of a prison cell about it.

Urged on less by the rain than by an eagerness to live through memory and narrative, the friends spent the night in the labyrinth. The mathematician slept in tranquility, but not the poet, plagued by verses his mind deemed detestable:

Faceless the sultry and overpowering lion,
Faceless the stricken slave, faceless the king
.

Unwin believed that the story of Bojarí’s death had not interested him; nevertheless he awoke with the conviction of having deciphered it. That whole day he was preoccupied and unsociable, adjusting and readjusting the pieces. And two nights later, he summoned Dunraven to a London brewery and told him these words or words like these: “In Cornwall I said the story I heard from you was a lie. The facts were certain, or could be certain, but recounted as you recounted them they were very clearly lies. I will start with the greatest lie of them all, that of the incredible labyrinth. A fugitive does not hide in a labyrinth. Nor does he have one built on a high point on the coast, a crimson labyrinth which sailors could see from far off. If someone truly wished to hide, London would be a better labyrinth than a vantage point to which all the corridors of a building led. The wise reflection to which I now subject you came to me last night as we listened to the rain fall upon the labyrinth and waited for a dream to visit us; admonished and bettered, I chose to forget your absurdities and think about something sensible.”

“The theory of mathematical sets, let’s say, or the fourth dimension of space,” observed Dunraven. “No,” said Unwin in all seriousness, “I thought about the labyrinth of Crete. The labyrinth whose center was a man with the head of a bull.” Well versed in detective fiction, Dunraven thought that the solution to a mystery was always inferior to the mystery itself.  The mystery took part in the supernatural, if not in the divine, while the solution was the game of human hands. To postpone the inevitable, he said: “On medals and in sculpture it is the Minotaur who has the head of a bull. Yet Dante imagined him with the body of a bull and the head of a man.” “This version works for me, as well,” agreed Unwin. “What matters is the correspondence of the monstrous house to the monstrous inhabitant. The Minotaur wholly justified the existence of the labyrinth. No one would say the same thing about a threat perceived in a dream. Once the image of the Minotaur was evoked (a fatal evocation in the event there was a labyrinth), the problem was for all intents and purposes resolved. I confess, however, I did not understand that this ancient image was the key, and as such was necessary for your story to grant me an even more precise symbol: that of the spider’s web.”

“The spider’s web?” repeated Dunraven, perplexed.

“Yes. It would not astonish me in any way to learn that the spider’s web (the universal form of the web, we understand, the web of Plato) could have suggested to the assassin (for there is an assassin) his crime. You will recall that el Bojarí, in a tomb, dreamt of a web of serpents and that upon waking he discovered the dream had been prompted by the web of a spider. Let us return to that night when el Bojarí dreamt of this web. The vanquished king, the vizier, and the slave flee to the desert with their treasure. They seek refuge in a tomb. The vizier, whom we know to be a coward, sleeps; but sleep does not come to the king, whom we know to be valiant. So as not to share his treasure with the vizier, the king kills him with a dagger; the vizier’s shadow menaces him in his dreams for nights thereafter. All this is unbelievable. I understand the events to have happened another way. That night it was the king, the valiant king, who slept; and it was Zaid the coward who lay awake. To sleep is to be distracted from the universe, a distraction difficult for those who know they are being pursued by drawn swords. Greedy, Zaid leaned over the sleep of his king. He thought of killing him (perhaps even fumbled with his dagger), but did not dare. He called the slave, and they hid part of the treasure in the tomb and fled to Suakin and then England. Visible from the sea he built an old labyrinth with red walls, not to hide from el Bojarí but to lure him and kill him. He knew that ships at the ports of Nubia would bring rumors of the red-haired man, the slave, and the lion, and that sooner or later el Bojarí would come to look for him in his labyrinth. In the final corridor of the web awaited the trap. El Bojarí underestimated him severely; he did not stoop to take the least precaution. The coveted day arrived.  Abenjacán landed in England, made his way to the door of the labyrinth, considered the blind corridors, and had already set foot, perhaps, on the first steps when his vizier killed him, maybe with a bullet from the trap. The slave would then kill the lion and another bullet would kill the slave. Then Zaid disfigured their three faces with a stone. He had to do it this way; one body with a disfigured face would have hinted at a problem of identity, but here the beast, the black man and the king formed a series and, given the first two terms, the last would be assumed by everyone. It is not strange that he was seized by fear when talking to Allaby; he had just finished carrying out his horrible task and was preparing to flee England to recover his treasure.”

A thoughtful, or perhaps incredulous, silence followed the words of Unwin. Dunraven requested another tankard of stout before commenting.

“I accept,” he said, “that my Abenjacán is Zaid. Such a metamorphosis, you will say, is one of the genre’s classic artifices, a true convention whose detection makes demands on the reader. What I hesitate to admit is that a portion of the treasure remained in the Sudan. Remember that Zaid fled from the king and the enemies of the king; it is simpler to imagine him absconding with all the treasure than delaying himself by burying a part of it. Perhaps there no coins were found because there were no coins remaining. The bricklayers had exhausted a fortune that, in contrast to the red gold of the Nibelung Alberich, was not infinite. So we would have to see Abenjacán crossing the sea to reclaim a dilapidated treasure.”

“Not dilapidated,” said Unwin. “Invested in a land of infidels in the arming of a large circular trap of bricks designed to lure and annihilate him. If your conjecture is correct, Zaid was urged on by hate and fear and not by avarice. He stole the treasure and then understood that the treasure was for him not the essential part. The essential part was that Abenjacán would die. He imitated Abenjacán, killed Abenjacán, and in the end was Abenjacán."

“Yes,” confirmed Dunraven. “He was a vagabond who one day, before being nobody at death, would remember having been or having pretended to be a king.”

Friday
Nov252016

Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto (part 1)

A translation of the first half of the Borges story ("Abenjacán el Bojarí, Dead in his Labyrinth").  You can read the original in this collection.

... They are comparable to the spider who builds a house.  

                                                                                    — The Koran, XXIX,  40

“This,” said Dunraven with a great gesture that did not refuse the cloudy stars but covered the black upland, the sea, and a majestic and decrepit structure that seemed to be a rundown stable, “is the land of my elders.”  Unwin his companion removed a pipe from his mouth and emitted some modest and approving sounds. It was the first evening of the summer of 1914; tired of a world without the dignity of danger, the friends appreciated the solitude of this corner of Cornwall. Cultivating a dark beard, Dunraven was the author of a considerable epic which his contemporaries almost could not scan and whose motif had not yet been revealed. Unwin had published a study of the theory that Fermat had not written in the margin of one of Diophantus’s pages. Both of them — could what I say be true? — were young, absentminded and impassioned.

“It will be a quarter of a century,” said Dunraven, “since Abenjacán el Bojarí, the leader or king of some or other Nilotic tribe, died in the central chamber of that house at the hands of his cousin Zaid. Now years later, the circumstances of his death continue to be murky."

Unwin tamely asked why.

“For many reasons,” was the answer. “In the first place, that house is a labyrinth. In the second place, the house was under the watchful eyes of a slave and a lion. In the third place, a secret treasure vanished. In the fourth place, the assassin was already dead when the murder took place. In the fifth place …”

Tired, Unwin stopped him.

“Don’t multiply the mysteries,” he said to him. “They ought to be simple. Recall Poe’s purloined letter and the locked room of Zangwill.”

“Or the universe remembers complicated things,” replied Dunraven.

Sloping over sandy hills, they had arrived at the labyrinth. As they approached, there appeared a straight and almost interminable wall, bricks without end, almost as high as a man. Dunraven said that it had the form of a circle, but its area was so dissipated that you could not perceive its curves. Unwin mentioned Nicholas of Cusa, for whom all straight lines were the arc of an infinite circle … Towards midnight they discovered a door in ruins which gave onto a blind and perilous hallway. Dunraven said that inside the house there were numerous crossroads, but that if they kept left, they would arrive in a little more than an hour in the center of the web. Unwin agreed. Their cautious steps resonated in the stone floor; the corridor forked into other, narrower corridors. The house seemed as if it wanted to drown them, the ceiling was very low. They had to advance one after the other through the complications of darkness. Unwin went along slowly. Dulled by the roughness and angles, his hand flowed endlessly along the invisible wall. Slowed in the somberness, Unwin heard the story of the murder of Abenjacán from the mouth of his friend.

“Perhaps the oldest of my memories,” related Dunraven, “is that of Abenjacán el Bojarí in the cove of Pentreath. He was followed by a black man with a lion; they were doubtless the first black man and the first lion my eyes had ever seen, apart from the engravings in the Scriptures. So I was a boy, but the beast the color of the sun and the man the color of night impressed me less than Abenjacán. To me he seemed very tall; he was olive-skinned with black, half-closed eyes, an insolent nose, fleshy lips, a saffron beard, and proud chest, sure and silent in his gait. At home I said: ‘A king and a vessel have arrived.’ Later, when the bricklayers were working, I enhanced this title and made him the King of Babel.

“The news that the stranger had installed himself in Pentreath was received with pleasure; the extension and form of his house with astonishment, if not with scandal. Few seemed to accept that a residence of one person might have leagues and leagues of corridors. ‘Moors might have such houses, but not Christians,’ said the people. Our rector, Mr. Allaby, a man of strange learning, exhumed the history of a king whom the Divinity castigated for having erected a labyrinth and spouted such information from the pulpit. That Monday, Abenjacán visited the rectory; the circumstances of the brief interview were not known at that time, but no more sermons ever alluded to its grandeur, and the moor was able to hire the bricklayers. Years later, when Abenjacán was killed, Allaby made known to the authorities the substance of their dialogue.

“Abenjacán told him, standing, these words or words like these: ‘No longer can anyone censure what I do. The sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to repeat for centuries the Ultimate Name of God, it would not be sufficient to mitigate even one of my torments; the sins that damn me to infamy are such that were I to kill you with these hands, it would not worsen the torments of Infinite Justice to which I am destined. My name is unknown in all lands; I am Abenjacán el Bojarí and I have ruled the tribes of the desert with an iron scepter. For many years and with the assistance of my cousin Zaid, I despoiled them; but God heard their clamor and allowed them to rebel. My peoples were worn out and riddled with stab wounds; I managed to flee with the treasure collected in my years of exploitation. Zaid guided me to the tomb of a saint at the foot of a mountain of stone. I ordered my slave to watch over the face of the desert; then Zaid and I were overcome by sleep. That night I dreamt I was imprisoned by a web of serpents. Waking in horror, I found Zaid sleeping at my side as dawn appeared. The friction of a spider’s web on my flesh had made me dream such a dream. It pained me to see that Zaid, who was a coward, was sleeping so restfully. I came to think that the treasure was not infinite and that he might claim a share. In my belt was a dagger with a silver hilt; I unsheathed it and cut his throat. In his agony he gurgled forth some words I could not hear. I looked at him; he was dead, but I feared he would rise so I ordered the slave to smash his face with a rock. Then we wandered underneath the sky and one day we came across a sea. On it sailed very tall ships; I thought that a dead man would not be able to walk through water and decided to look for other lands. The first night we sailed I dreamt that I killed Zaid. Everything repeated itself, but this time I heard his words. He said: I will blot out your dregs, wherever you may be. I swore I would thwart this threat; I would hide in the center of a labyrinth until his ghost was gone.'

"That said he went on his way. Allaby tried to convince himself that the moor was crazy and that this absurd labyrinth was a symbol of and clear testimony to his madness. Then he thought that this explanation coincided with the extravagant construction and extravagant story, but not with the energetic impression with which Abenjacán left the man. Perhaps such stories were common in the sandy regions of Egypt, perhaps such rarities corresponded (like Pliny’s dragons) less to a person than to a culture … In London Allaby reexamined back issues of the Times; he checked the truthfulness of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat of el Bojarí and his vizier, who was rumored to be a coward.

"Hardly had the bricklayers concluded their work when he installed himself at the center of the labyrinth. He was no longer seen in the village; sometimes Allaby feared that Zaid had managed to reach him and annihilate him. At night the wind brought us the lion’s roar, and the sheep of the fold squeezed together with old fear.

"Then ships from oriental ports were said to have dropped anchor at the small bay, direction either Cardiff or Bristol. The slave came down from the labyrinth (which then, I recall, was not pink but crimson in color), exchanged some African words with the crews, and appeared to be looking among the faces of the men for the ghost of the vizier. It was rumored that these ships carried contraband, and if alcohol and ivory, why not then shadows of the dead?

"Three years after the house was erected, the Rose of Sharon dropped anchor at the foot of the hills. I was not one of those who saw this ship, and maybe in the image I have of it lurk lithographs of Abu Qir and Trafalgar. But, in any case, I understand it to be one of those elaborate ships that do not appear to be the work of seamen but of carpenters, and more of cabinetmakers than of carpenters. It was (if not actually, then in my dreams) burnished, dark, silent, and stealthy, and manned by Arabs and Malays.

"It dropped anchor at dawn on an October day. Towards dusk, Abenjacán burst into Allaby’s house. He was seized by the passion of terror; hardly could he articulate that Zaid had entered the labyrinth and that his slave and his lion had been killed. He then asked in all seriousness whether the authorities would be able to protect him. He left before Allaby could answer, as if plagued by the same terror which had driven him to this house for the second and last time. Allaby, alone in his library, thought in astonishment that this frightened creature had oppressed tribes in the Sudan and knew that fighting and dying were two different matters. The next day he noticed that the ship had already set sail (direction Suakin in the Red Sea, it was later learned). He thought it over and decided that it was his duty to verify the slave’s murder, so he set off to the labyrinth. El Bojarí’s breathless tale seemed fantastic, but at a bend of the galleries he came upon the lion, and the lion was dead; at another bend he found the slave, who was also dead; and at the central chamber he came upon el Bojarí, whose face had been destroyed. At the man’s feet was a chest inlaid with mother-of-pearl; someone had forced the lock and not a single coin remained."

Sunday
Nov202016

The Vane Sisters

Many years ago now, I happened to be visiting one of America's most ravishing college campuses, a green Gothic strip where I would end up completing my graduate studies. Fresh air, the charm of the young and untried swimming nearby, one of the most awesome libraries machines and minds could ever erect, and a friendly welcome from the professors all settled my choice. One of those erudite gentlemen, himself a Russian émigré, was kind enough at the end of our chat to autograph one of his books as a parting gift. Since we shared an unabashed admiration for the book's subject, this was as fine a token of goodwill as could possibly be expected between two people who had been verbal strangers only twenty minutes before. I read most of the book in one sitting, filed it away as I almost always do for reevaluation, then swallowed the rest in small chunks during my coursework. The tome and scholar need not be mentioned here; anonymity is one of the blessings of non-conformist genius. But his theory was groundbreaking, original, and meticulous, and is perhaps best buttressed by the motifs in this sensational work of art.

Our narrator is a nameless and perhaps typical Frenchman (one who prefers "the grape to the grain"), with an atypically magnificent command of written English and a literature professorship in 1950s New England. Not ours to worry, in any case, since in more than one way he will only serve as a conduit for the descriptions and jeremiads of others. He begins his eerie tale by observing, with the cautious glee of someone who has lived his life for art's thrills, "a family of icicles" drip down the ultimate gables of a roof and defiantly into the setting sun. After staring at a multicolored windshield's reflection, he is nearly run over by an almost as anonymous acquaintance and fellow academic, D. D. immediately informs him that Cynthia Vane, a painter and the elder of two somewhat flighty sisters known all too well to our professors, has died of a weak heart. The news is as shocking to us as it is to the narrator because no one called Cynthia Vane should ever really be dead. 

In time we learn the links. D. slept with and discarded that other sister, Sybil (a borrowing from this work), to whom our narrator once administered a disastrous French exam that concluded with Sybil's quite finite jest: "Monsieur le Professeur, contact ma soeur and tell her that Death was not better than D minus, but definitely better than life without D." The next morning she is no longer among the quick, her own hand blamed by her own handwriting. Four or five months later, the narrator consoles the sister with the warmth of all his hairy strength and discovers to his mild chagrin and amusement that our survivor believes she is puppeteered by specters. He initially imputes this to a heterodox form of Puritan fatalism, underpinned as it simply must be by charlatan chums and astrological calculations. And yet (igniting a domino-like trend) he turns out to be wrong:

For a few hours, or for several days in a row, and sometimes recurrently, in an irregular series, for months or years, anything that happened to Cynthia, after a given person had died, would be, she said, in the manner and mood of that person. The event might be extraordinary, changing the course of one's life; or it might be a string of minute incidents just sufficiently clear to stand out in relief against one's usual day and then shading off into still vaguer trivia as the aura gradually faded. The influence might be good or bad; the main thing was that its source could be identified. It was like walking through a person's soul, she said. I tried to argue that she might not always be able to determine the exact source since not everybody has a recognizable soul; that there are anonymous letters and Christmas presents which anybody might send; that, in fact, what Cynthia called 'a usual day' might be itself a weak solution of mixed auras or simply the routine shift of a humdrum guardian angel. 

Amidst these phantoms Sybil's personality "had a rainbow edge as if a little out of focus" – what one might reasonably expect given the age and method of her extinction. Actually, "extinction" is most definitely not the right word. Their affair drags on, as all affairs of physical convenience do, well past any semblance of affection or mutual understanding (one is reminded of that old, women's monthly adage that every failed relationship devotes its latter half to dysfunction). One especially fateful night collects the narrator, Cynthia, and a gaggle of "sociable weekend revelers" into a single bourgeois home for what would pass to most people for amusement, but can only horrify someone who finds society at large, well, repellent. Does this antipathy explain the added antipathy to the shaded powers of the afterlife? Or is our narrator simply an overeducated snob toying with a fragile, frowzy woman who probably enjoys this lack of control when confronted with the tools of adult pleasure? Our narrator mulls these and other oddities, but does not land at the conclusion we think these oddities might deserve.   

You may strum your fingers or race to your shelves, but you will be hard-pressed to find a better short story in this century or any other. Nabokov's genius resides in his ability to take forceful, almost unnecessarily subjective opinions and coax therefrom a choir of paradise. With the possible exception of this incomparable man of letters, no other writer has possessed this talent to such a degree. The ending, so famous and yet so unprecedented in serious prose, brought Nabokov his first accolades as an inventor, a fact that would be painfully obvious to those of us who do not suffer gimmicks fondly. Cynthia does not, however, see matters that way. And since we and the narrator seem to like a few things about Cynthia, we can, should, and must be sympathetic; it is the only way we know how to relate to lesser beings. So when we coddle her with kindness and platitudes ("These rather tasteless trivialities pleased Cynthia hugely as she rose, with gasps, above the heaving surface of her grief," one of the most exquisite sentences ever composed) – the two are so coterminous at times we can almost claim they come naturally – we are doing the right thing. Her sister is dead, after all. We can also aver that icicles and parking meters will never feel quite the same again, nor will the sounds of those things that go bump in the night. You know, those things.

Wednesday
Nov162016

The Elephant Man

It is rare among reviews of this film to find something negative or dissuading about the affective power of the title character's plight. There are such opinions; yet the dissent voiced inevitably comes off as captious. For whatever reason – the biographical discrepancies, the poverty of London, the dim, piebald tenements, the elephants and the nightmares they trample through at the film's beginning – some element rings false, as if we were not watching a tragedy with its necessary melodrama and instead scrutinizing the real life and times of Joseph Merrick. This approach is fundamentally incorrect yet, as we shall see, no impediment to enjoying the film. 

The fictionalized version of the story is better known than the truth: rambling around late Victorian London, a celebrated physician, Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), comes across a circus sideshow featuring a being known only as the Elephant Man (John Hurt). What or who this man could be is not immediately apparent; whether he is even fully human can be termed dubious by the superstitious soul. In any case Treves, a man both of science and faith, pays his way to a viewing and discovers a sad, horribly misshapen being that he hopes secretly is an ament. The sentiment behind such a whispered wish is clear: should this poor creature actually be able to recognize his hideous separation from the majority of mankind, his fate would be all the more intolerable. Treves's medical interest in the Elephant Man may be likened rather coldly to a philologist's interest in an undeciphered manuscript: he does indeed pity this being, the origin of whose malady is at once both fantastic and terrifying, but is not so much interested in attempting to cure him as in availing himself of the obscure knowledge that might explain his disease. Treves mentions his credentials and prestigious jobs at the London Hospital and Medical College, is summarily dismissed by the wicked handler Bytes (Freddie Jones), and retreats to his offices with his imagination racing. We understand that the Elephant Man will find Treves and continue the conversation they never had, but we cannot possibly foresee the subjects of their discourse.  

Shortly thereafter Treves's offices are visited, to the great chagrin of the nursing staff, by a man with his head under a makeshift mask that makes him resemble a mummy, although he may be more accurately compared to this fictional character. Treves ultimately finds him crouching alone in the shadows, asks for names, how long he has been in this state, and, as a medical precaution, about his parents. But the masked man does not answer and stares like a ghost waiting for its victim to guess the reason for its spectral visit. We next see some of him in a lecture hall full of, one supposes, London's most renowned physicians and anatomists. Against a light and curtain with his silhouette now resembling that of this famous movie monster, he is subjected to objective comments on his affliction as well as a few pseudo-comforting asides ("entirely intact genitals; perfectly normal left arm"). He eventually identifies himself as John Merrick, a twenty-one-year-old Englishman of humble birth but some learning; this latter detail is not made evident until Merrick recites the twenty-third psalm, again recalling the cultured and sensitive Frankenstein's monster. In many ways the film hitherto has proceeded as such films are supposed to proceed: the misunderstood creature is discovered by chance by a scientist who has both a kindly and self-aggrandizing side; numerous peripheral characters deride him and suggest that making him a patient is pointless; and the scientist is in turn protective and frustrated with his creature as if it were an impudent child. It is also quite typical that the cruelty everyone inflicts upon him is due to the notion that he is somehow not quite human, a bestial hybrid of heavy breathing and mummy wraps, a degradation and insult to the human condition itself.  

Yet the twist comes when Merrick is accepted as an intelligent and righteous Christian who has been dealt one of the hardest of lots. For a while our black-and-white pictures come alive with color: Merrick has been redeemed; Merrick is one of us. After a letter from Victoria carried by Alexandra, the Princess of Denmark, establishes Merrick as a permanent resident of the London Hospital (overriding the barbarous rant of an allegedly beneficent doctor who claims he only wishes to help the poor), we know that this bliss will not last the entirety of the film and not only because we know something of the real Joseph Merrick (mistakenly called John in the film following the error in Treves's memoirs). Merrick is constantly harangued by the mobs wishing him no real harm apart from the mockery to which they believe that he, as the circus sideshow freak, must be relegated. In a strange way, he goes along with it; one can tell when they show him his mirror and he waits a few seconds before uttering a histrionic howl. He is both appalled at such ridicule and playing along in a role he cannot avoid, a fate not dissimilar to that of the bullied child tired of denying his tormentors. And alas, despite the differences between the life of the real Joseph Merrick and the slightly Romanticized screen version, we are well aware of how matters will end.  

About those few who did not admire the film: dissent against The Elephant Man has been uniform, which means there is at stake a philosophical not an aesthetic argument. Critics seem to believe that the extremity of Merrick's condition coupled with the smoothing over of a couple of important facts – most notably, that the real Merrick required several jaw operations before being able to speak – point to a schmaltzy attempt to win hearts and minds. As it were, this could not be further from the truth. Apart from the unnecessary opening nightmare scene (repeated much later with factory workers or stokers, a mob with a mirror, the long trunk of an elephant, the boot of a lyncher, and swirling, ominous clouds as if he were born from God's turmoil), the film does not veer from a straight dramatic plot. It does less to tug on our heartstrings than present a situation whose every facet could easily be deemed tragic. Merrick's favorite words are "my friend," on which he lingers, relishing them like the name of the person he will always adore. When a well-known actress (Anne Bancroft) invites him to the theater, he states as plainly as in a police report: "I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know that I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not say that were it not for you." At that same production Merrick sees the woman in the cage, the fairy, the swans, the whole atmosphere of discovery and wonder, and understands that he must always view this world from the outside. And indeed, each scene of The Elephant Man is ended so abruptly we are allowed but a moment to mull it over; ripostes are not provided, simply the mood is broached and left as that, a shift of mood. The brevity of these vignettes suggests that we are leafing through a photo album, the last remains of a tired existence. So Treves is quite right when he admits to his spouse that, "I'm beginning to believe that Mr. Bytes and I are very much alike." For him and most everyone else, the life of Joseph Merrick will always be a spectacle he can watch in a comfortable seat from afar.

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