Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Reviews, essays, and translations

Du fährst zu oft nach Heidelberg

I have often been to Heidelberg. I studied, as it were, not one hundred fifty miles away, in another small German town renowned for its university, and would travel north, west and south through Heidelberg to other, fabulous German cities. Those cities are fabulous because, in the most complimentary way possible, they are indistinguishable from one another. Surely many were razed in those dozen demonic years that converted Europe's most civilized nation into its most barbaric; but since Germans are sticklers for documents, details, and archives, many of the buildings were reconstructed according to the original blueprints. One can compare pre- and postwar photos and detect an uncanny continuity. That they were so akin in genteel beauty, in cleanliness, and in comfort to begin with is not lost on the circumspect historian, who smiles that they will now remain so forever.   

One thing I did not do that most people do in Baden-Württemberg is make use of that most basic of human vehicles, the proverbial two wheels on a stick, the smokeless, dirtless bipedal Draisine, invented two hundred years ago in a town immediately outside Heidelberg. Embarrassingly enough, I, an urban stripling par excellence, never quite mastered what was the only activity some of my toddling contemporaries (a few of whom could barely speak, much less read or write) could do well; heaven knows they practiced long enough. Perhaps had I bothered to rectify this problem I would have slipped more seamlessly into the green-hilled splendor of Freiburg, or the evening harbor lights of Hamburg, or even the artisan throb of Berlin. In all these places bicycles were replacing cars, the wicked metal boxes which a century ago had tried – in devastating portention – to annihilate them. The motorized death traps were ultimately unsuccessful in Germany, although they still reign supreme in countries more abstentious from democratic habits. Yet among Germany's moneyed stratum – a slim but robust layer, a bit like a champion arm wrestler – you will find some of the most exquisite cars the world has ever known, crafted for and in Drais's homeland. You see, despite its intellectual and economic clout, Germany prides itself on equality. It believes, and rightly so, that you may snarl and snicker all you want in the Kneipe, but in the public eye and print, you must champion the ideals trumpeted by their famous compatriot. A Moonlight Sonata may evoke the lonely, Romantic poet and his eternal dreams, however grandiose or wishy-washy they may be; but there is little doubt as to the meaning of the brotherhood of men. 

One such brother is a young German by the name of – well, we are never actually given his name. It may not be an important omission. I mean, when do we hear stories about people that don't have names? Doesn't everyone have a name, even if, as we get older and accumulate lists of names and faces attached to those names, we as readers automatically scrutinize a protagonist's identity? In any case, our nameless German seems to be a fine young man in his mid-twenties, the springtime of intellectual and spiritual development. He lives somewhere in the vicinity of Heidelberg – one of the most magnificent regions on our divisive planet – and makes the most of it: he keeps in shape with long, early-morning bike rides; sees his parents and his older brother Karl regularly, even if the three treat him as one might relate to a bright schoolchild who mistakes his reinventions of the wheel for epiphanies; studies for his exams, including an unusual minor – Spanish language; and is engaged to an equally fine young woman called Carola. We know he is serious about Carola because he picks tulips with which to surprise her mother, who, with that intuition unique to mothers, suspects he would be the type of young man who might do just that. And one day, as he is about to leave to see Carola and her parents, his father steps out towards our man's car, checks the tires, and poses what seems to be a "random, harmless" question: "Do you still often drive to Heidelberg?" Whether the question may safely be deemed harmless will depend on its recipient; but when our man's mother tells him, in that tone of voice unique to mothers, that he shouldn't "drive to Heidelberg that often," the notion of randomness loses a great deal of plausibility. That his mother then punctuates her warning with the afterthought "in that car" sounds just as dimly coincidental.

What car, you say? An old car, obliged to make "an eighty-kilometer round trip two or three times a week," which may be a lot to ask of such a banged-up lemon. Our hero explains to his father that one reason why he still drives such an unseemly metal box is because "it will be a while before [he] can afford a Mercedes" – not that it appears as if he would burden himself with such luxuries even if his finances permitted them. Indeed, although our narrative is in the third person, we have more than a hunch that the omniscient voice that refuses to reveal the narrator's name – perhaps now, we consider, to protect him – shares his character's world view:

The terrace was larger; the blinds, if somewhat faded, were more generous; the entire scene was more elegant; and even in the hardly noticeable decrepitude of the lawn furniture, in the grass which grew between the gaps of the red tiles, was something that irritated him as much as loose talk had at many a student demonstration. Such things and clothes in general were subjects of annoyance between him and Carola, who always accused him of dressing in too bourgeois a fashion. He talked to Carola's mother about different types of vegetables and her father about cycling, found the coffee worse than at home, and tried not to let his nervousness devolve into irritation. They were, however, nice progressive people who had accepted him without any prejudices whatsoever, even officially, when the engagement was announced. Since that time he had come to like them genuinely, even Carola's mother, whose oft-uttered epithet 'charming' had initially annoyed him.

On second thought, perhaps the narrator – he is supposed to be omniscient, after all – does know a few things our man does not. As the title work in this collection should we take the query, that is so much more of a warning than a query, at face value? Does our man really travel to Heidelberg too often? And what on earth might he be doing in that serene and scholarly town known for its cosmopolitan learning and library? If you recall, our man, apart from being a conscientious, hard-working, thoughtful, and caring fellow – just what the world needs more of, if you ask me – has for a while now studied Spanish. In fact, his parents frequently ask him whether he knows the Spanish word for this or that, even though one never gets the sense that they care about the response. Perhaps they are simply loving parents indulging their child's creative whims? This is unclear, although we come to suspect the narrator knows a lot more than he is letting on. And we haven't even mentioned a man known only as Kronsorgeler.


Pasternak, "Во всем мне хочется дойти"

A work ("In everything I want to grasp") by the Russian poet more immediately associated with this famous novel.  The original of the poem is here.

In everything I want to grasp
The essence underneath the nerve;
In work and on my chosen path
The languor that my heartstrings serve.

The essence of the days long past,
What are their purpose and design?
Which principles, which roots will last,
What core within the ball of twine?

And all the while to hold this string
Of life’s events and sundry fates:
To live, to love, to feel, to think,
To enter new and uncrossed gates.

If I could but elucidate
My passion whole or just in part;
Then I’d describe in lines of eight,
What sparks reside within my heart.

Outlaws and sins would be my stars,
Pursuits and flights their lone resort;
And happenstance beguiled by scars
Would hasten palms and elbows forth.

Its law I would uncover bare
And show its source, its wellspring pure;
Its name I would repeat and wear
Upon my sleeve and soul demure.

And verse would grow in gardens mine,
A quiv’ring vein in every patch;
And there would bloom a linden line
Of single file and common back.

This verse would bear a rosy scent
And breaths of mint, and meadowed gaps;
And hay and sedge would too be lent
To scenes beneath my thunder claps.

So did Chopin infuse his staves
With wondrous life in greenest green;
Etudes of parks, of groves, of graves,
Estates which lived behind his sheen.

Both pain and joyous play arise
In all victories achieved;
A bowstring taut before our eyes,
Released in triumph unretrieved. 


A Perfect Murder

Someday I may come to appreciate this director more (with this glorious exception); but, for the time being, the original, family-rated genre of noir – even noir with a moral foundation as almost all of Hitchcock's works possess – seems to miss the point. Noir is based on the presumption not only that we are fallen, but also that our plight is irreparable. Life with a moral end is for fools; charity is feckless because everyone is trying to exploit everyone else; the only thing worth doing is surviving, however enormous the price for that survival. Noir has led to subsets of modern genres of cinema, most notably those glorifying professional cozenage that only seem to please people who like seeing others squirm (I cannot count myself among those sadists). Yet for many years ostensible prudishness and family values – two things that can be both admirable and nauseating – ultimately prevented noir from doing what it was made to do: namely, be as sleazy as possible. Sexless, bloodless noir, as it were, is worse than alcohol-free beer; it's more like alcohol-free vodka. Modern cinema, however, allows for practically everything and often to great gory excess, and noir has rightly claimed its portion of the fun. Now tough-talking gumshoes actually see the marrow of murder with their (and our) very eyes, and the guileful gals who routinely attract these gumshoes – along with a lot of other unsavory types – do more than kiss and smoke cigarettes. This evolution would explain the rather smashing improvement on one of Hitchcock's classics in the form of this film

We are trapped in the eternal triangle that has spawned so many stories of every quality level: a husband (Michael Douglas), a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and a paramour (Viggo Mortensen). Our husband, Steven Taylor, is in love with money, himself, and his wife's money, in that particular order. His wife Emily, about twenty-five or half Steven's age, has a gaudy family inheritance coming her way and so spends her time learning languages for work as a United Nations interpreter; that Emily's knowledge of languages appears to straddle the supernatural should tell you the film's exact proximity to reality. The third component in this fine set to accompany the wealthy materialist and the hyperlearned ingénue is, of course, the womanizing, penniless artist, who has the rather unfabulous name of David Shaw. David is a character who obviously has done some bad things in life, mostly, we suspect, to unsuspecting women. His artistic ability lies predominantly in his image: he is relaxed and cool in a studied way, always ready to emphasize art's superiority to life, always indifferent to the vicissitudes of the daily grind, which, as any genuine artist will tell you, is a sure sign of a fraud. Real artists constantly vacillate between plunging headlong into the creative world they love and embracing the realm in which everyone else seems to exist. The dichotomy has led many fine minds down to path to a total disconnect with common activities, words, and thoughts, and ultimately to dreary isolation in the darkest corners of their ever-lacerated psyche. Our David, who paints rather shabby, omnifarious blurs, as well as a few bathetic portraits, is not who Emily thinks he is. She is madly in love with him while he keeps a certain distance abetted by an occasional semi-confession that suggests he might be changing his ways. Apart from the explicit lack of evidence of change in womanizing charlatans throughout history, there is also the tiny matter of sweet Emily's moneybags ancestry – a fact that does not elude the watchful, leering eyes of Steven.

Douglas has long held the title of most loveable sleazeball, and for good reason. There is something in his speech and mannerisms that expresses selfish desire in such an aesthetically pleasing way that we cannot help thinking how one goes about maintaining such an aura. Near the beginning of our tale he confronts David with extensive knowledge about his adultery, a revelation that would have brought someone truly enamored to plead for the well-being of his soulmate. But this is precisely what does not occur. Once his game is exposed – that is to say, once Steven phrases his suspicions in such an unambiguous way as to show exactly what he thinks of David – the artist retreats to the impecunious and helpless persona that has served him in the past in the pluming of many a silly goose. A satanic pact is then struck that should tell you all you need to know about the two men at work. Of course, as satanic pacts go, this one dooms both sides when it goes awry owing to one party's hesitation, a quite justified hesitation at that, to trust the other party. Steven insists on attending his weekly card game, Emily is instructed to take a long, hot, reflex-deadening bath, and I will leave matters right there.

The original Hitchcock production was based on a play that functioned by having oblivious characters being offscreen at crucial moments, one of the easier conceits of drama since the Greeks began plotting a bevy of bad things during their soliloquies. The annoying stage details notwithstanding, what Dial M for Murder suffers from is the old adage of all talk and no walk. The characters scheme and dream with such malice but then behave so civilly to one another that it would take superhuman acting to overcome, which while good is not on hand. A Perfect Murder, in its reluctance to pull punches, transforms an intriguing story that could easily have originated as a barroom test of oneupmanship into a greasy, messy parable for getting what you wish for. And for Steven and David, what they really want lies far beyond the young blonde heiress who ricochets between them.


Der Verdacht

Novels are cumbersome beasts, for one very good reason: they are expected to coalesce into a solid shape. Modern novels have recognized this awkwardness and decided, rather stupidly, to eschew the tightness of structure altogether in favor of a hippie motto such as "life is a mess, so why shouldn't art be as well?" Surely, there are certain patterns in life, both salubrious and detrimental, and people can be wholly aware of the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and still persist in their bad habits (dating the wrong type of partners; smoking; picking arguments and criticizing others instead of ameliorating their own conditions; lamenting their lazy bourgeois fate). Yet few are those who assume the Archimedean point and absorb the wavelengths of their existence in their totality. When we reach the twilight of our days we may reflect on what has and has not passed, the opportunities forsaken or abused, the lives we touched and those we could not reach, but it takes a certain attitude to weave these threads into a tapestry. Much easier to leave it all in an untangled knot – and here I'm afraid I must dissent. I may walk the beach of my past, step gently into the spindrift, and recollect all at once every other moment in which I inhaled the sea air, but leaving the shreds of life in a corner unattended is beyond my capacity. Closure is not as important as knowing what lies at the heart of our machinations, a basic but paramount premise and one that fuels this fine novel.

Little can be expected of a dying protagonist, which might work to his advantage. We are therefore necessarily underwhelmed by the appearance of Bern police commissioner Hans Bärlach, a crusty, deathly ill old snoop whose faith in his own abilities wends its way through treacherous paths. For a large portion of the novel, Bärlach is bedridden and visited by a motley crew of colleagues: Hungertobel, his physician and friend, Gulliver, a ragamuffin behemoth and alcoholic, and Fortschig, a penniless, slightly mad writer of a feuilleton called the Apfelschuss (in the tradition of this Swiss hero). And it is precisely leafing through a magazine during bedrest that our Commissioner finds a picture of a certain Doctor Nehle who worked for some unwholesome forces at their worse outposts in the recently concluded Second World War. What is interesting about this Nehle, otherwise a common barbarian made famous by his cruelty, is his resemblance to a Doctor Emmenberger, who happens to run one of the choicest private clinics Switzerland has to offer. Sick and somewhat delirious, Bärlach pursues the likeness to the point of suggesting that this haphazard photo is anything but the residue of design and that Emmenberger and Nehle have much more in common.

Facts are then gathered: Emmenberger went off during the war to Chile, where he continued publishing esoteric articles and developing his fantastic career; Nehle, on the other hand, opted to serve the devil and would die by his own hand in a Hamburg hotel. His specialization were procedures without anesthesia, whose survival was rewarded with freedom – but he made sure that no one survived. No one, that is, except the giant Gulliver, a learned man of tremendous spirituality who one night tells Bärlach of his horrifying experiences in a torture camp:

This figure with countless victims on his conscience became something legendary, an outlaw, as if even the Nazis had been ashamed of their own. And yet Nehle lived on and no one doubted that he existed, not even the most diehard of atheists, because one most readily believes in a God who concocts devilish torments.

Putatively, Gulliver is talking about Nehle; but Emmenberger keeps surfacing as someone who could have attempted to force Nehle, a less cultured man with no classical education and an overly Berliner flavor to his German, to do his bidding. It just so happens that Hungertobel and Emmenberger were at medical school together, which leads Hungertobel to narrate a climbing accident from those years involving both doctors and three other young colleagues:

We knew full well that there was an emergency operation that could help, but no one dared think about it. Only Emmenberger understood and did not hesitate to act. He immediately examined the man from Lucerne, disinfected his knife in boiling water on the stove range and then performed an incision called a cricothyrotomy that occasionally has to be used in emergency situations in which the larynx is pierced between the Adam's apple and the cricoid to open up an air passage. This procedure was not the horrible part .... it was what was reflected in both their faces. The victim was almost numb owing to a lack of oxygen but his eyes were still open, wide open, and so he must have seen everything that happened, even if it all appeared to be a dream. And as Emmenberger made his incision, my God, Hans, his eyes also opened wide and his face became distorted; it was as if suddenly something devilish gleamed in his eyes, a kind of excessive pleasure in inflicting torture, or whatever you want to call it, a gleam so great that fear seized my every joint, if only for a second.

This description may be labeled a "filthy wealth of coincidence," and we can hope it is only that, even in the mid-twentieth century where such butchers were suddenly abundant. On the basis of the data from his two friends, Bärlach attempts to infiltrate Emmenberger's clinic as a terminally ill patient in need of special attention. Yet the attention he ultimately receives goes above and beyond any oath, Hippocratic or otherwise.

Some of us may think of Switzerland as a fecund and neutral land with persons of all ages and languages cycling around town on their red-and-white pillions (a quaint and lovely picture, and not wholly untrue). Dürrenmatt wisely refrains from destroying our paradise with hard-boiled noir based on cynicism, selfishness and skulduggery. What he presents, albeit shortly after a war in which his compatriots did not participate, is a soft haven, a reef amidst the endless storms of man's ambitions, a pocket of nature still susceptible to plots and craven silence. It is perhaps most telling that the novel does not harbor any pretense of ambiguity as to the guilty parties, nor really how matters will be settled. Suspense is replaced by the slow stream of the commissioner's suspicion, hence the title, and the elaborate details that comprise its development. On several occasions the very sick Bärlach's doubts are gently dismissed as the whims of someone well on his way to his final destination, but the text's narrator never allows us for a minute to share in that doubt. One hundred twenty pages on a criminal about whose guilt we haven't the slightest reservation? Perhaps that's why the only person in the novel who claims the devil doesn't exist can neither speak nor hear.


The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

Nothing is more vague than impressions of individual identity. Each man recognizes his neighbor, yet there are few instances in which any one is prepared to give a reason for his recognition.

                                                                                                                Auguste Dupin

You may have heard of a recent film with the name of a masterpiece; you will surely know the inspiration for what critics have almost uniformly understood as an excuse – albeit a clever and original one – to allow yet another serial killer to wreak havoc on the national census. Perhaps this is what remains of minds like Poe's (many self-proclaimed admirers of Lovecraft, for example, praise his 'gory science fiction plots,' or other such nonsense) to those who cannot appreciate the sonic rapture of his prose – I know and care not. A true lover of literature preserves deep in his memory the enchantments of the best works of a given author and finds, in time, that certain authors can be trusted and certainly simply cannot. Those who love topicality, who are inspired by the latest hue and cry, can and should be returned to the shelf whence they came and left to rot. Only the authors who consider their own works and own genius eternal, bereft of the shackles of the news hour, are worth our time. Which brings us to a famous literary experiment.

The crime involves a sumptuous young Parisian who helped her mother run a pension until the age of twenty-two, "when her great beauty attracted the notice of a perfumer." The latter obviously has a saleswoman in mind, at least for the business side of things, but we do not. As readers of literary fiction discerning enough to enjoy Poe, we expect that something romantic if not diabolical will absorb poor Marie Rogêt. Now if a pretty young woman is discovered by one man, she will be discovered by dozens of others, because nothing is more beguiling to a man than a woman on whom other men have their eye. It can be concluded therefore that Marie Rogêt, at the time of the onset of this 'mystery,' had become a favorite among those Parisian men lucky enough to frequent the 6th arrondissement. She had gotten herself engaged to one of those men, a certain St. Eustache, who had actually taken up residence in the Rogêts' pension (which commitment came first is left to the reader to surmise), and one fine morning in June she had informed that same St. Eustache that she would be visiting an aunt about two miles away. Thus our story unravels:

St. Eustache ... was to have gone for his betrothed at dusk, and to have escorted her home. In the afternoon, however, it came on to rain heavily; and, supposing that she would remain all night at her aunt's, (as she had done under similar circumstances before,) he did not think it necessary to keep his promise. As night drew on, Madame Rogêt (who was an infirm old lady, seventy years of age,) was heard to express a fear ‘that she should never see Marie again’; but this observation attracted little attention at the time. On Monday, it was ascertained that the girl had not been to the Rue des Drômes; and when the day elapsed without tidings of her, a tardy search was instituted at several points in the city, and its environs. It was not, however, until the fourth day from the period of disappearance that anything satisfactory was ascertained respecting her. On this day (Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of June), a Monsieur Beauvais, who, with a friend, had been making inquiries for Marie near the Barrière du Roule, on the shore of the Seine which is opposite the Rue Pavée St. Andrée, was informed that a corpse had just been towed ashore by some fishermen, who had found it floating in the river. Upon seeing the body, Beauvais, after some hesitation, identified it as that of the perfumery-girl. His friend recognized it more promptly.

St. Eustache will leave one of literature's most magnificently described farewell notes ("Upon his person was found a letter, briefly stating his love for Marie, with his design of self-destruction"), which does not, of course, preclude him from possible involvement. What follows this and similar paragraphs lifted from all the newspapers of the day is a quilt of speculation and hysteria that the renowned Auguste Dupin will spend the second half of the story tearing asunder from the friendly confines of his sitting room. Without revealing his methods, which are as usual pedantic in a most enlightening manner, one aside remains particularly trenchant:

The town blackguard seeks the precincts of the town, not through love of the rural, which in his heart he despises, but by way of escape from the restraints and conventionalities of society. He desires less the fresh air and the green trees, than the utter license of the country. Here, at the road-side inn, or beneath the foliage of the woods, he indulges, unchecked by any eye except those of his boon companions, in all the mad excess of a counterfeit hilarity the joint offspring of liberty and of rum.

The town blackguard? What town blackguard? Our year was 1844 and we still tended in that era to blame small, roving bands of criminals for all the ills of society while robber barons were becoming billionaires and slaves still roaming plantations. The curious reader may discover the rest for himself.

It has been often lamented that The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is the weakest of the Auguste Dupin adventures, and, on the whole, one of Poe's least flavorful works. Yet Poe is one of the few writers whose style is invariably impeccable; his subject matter, however, may be of dubious value. His fascination with the macabre cannot be conveniently explained away by his use of laudanum, nor by some psychological perversions (his marriage to a thirteen-year-old cousin is commonly cited) concocted by some very modern and very ignorant minds. No, Poe had all the attributes of literary genius – style, precision, strong opinions, touchiness regarding any criticism in his direction, and something we can loosely term a sadistic streak. Literary genius thrives in tragedy, not comedy or the doldrums of historical codswallop (as one writer famously quipped, every author should make horrible things befall his fictional underlings to see what they are made of). We are mortal beings and the implications of this limit should and do scare the writer of genius into a labyrinth of unending nightmares. What he finds therein depends principally on what lies in his own soul. Even if it be entrapped in blackest night.   


What's Wrong With the World

Philosophy, we have heard many a time in many a formulation, is a luxury of the rich. A keenly true statement even if genuine philosophers tend to side with the poor because siding with the rich means endorsing what has already been accomplished – but I digress. It is no surprise that national suicide rates in peaceful places are often in direct proportion to two factors: the level of the country's economic development and the degree of its secularization, and the correlation seems frightfully clear. The closer to money and the farther from God, the more likely your earthly business will hasten you to contemplate closure and finality, and the less the smaller pleasures in life – which are, of course, really the greater pleasures – seem to be worthwhile. Readers of these pages know of my passion for Northern Europe and its pagan prosperity; they may also suspect that I have always believed in Something far greater than myself. How one might go about reconciling these ostensible incongruities is outlined in this fantastic book.

You may have heard the argument before, capitalism versus socialism, but you will have rarely heard it so eloquently summarized. Capitalism certainly has a handful of advantages, the most important of which is social mobility; after all, bloodlines and banquets were overthrown with the Bastille. The freedom of social mobility means allowing the poorest and hardest working to break their cycle of indigence and achieve a better life. But capitalism left unchecked becomes as ruthless and self-justifying as any evil prince wont to getting whatever he wishes, explaining his affluence with a terse motto from a coat of arms which, as it were, will uncannily resemble a company logo and slogan. Socialism, on the other hand, chokes these robber barons into sharing everything with everyone but then prevents anyone from enjoying it. This naturally has led in socialism's numerous earthbound manifestations to hoarding, complete and unwavering corruption, and an utter lack of trust in the government. Somewhere in between these distant towers lies paradise, the sane, Christian approach to society, and much of our problem has to do with how we have perceived the past:

There are two things, and two things only, for the human mind, a dogma and a prejudice. The Middle Ages were a rational epoch, an age of doctrine. Our age is, at its best, a poetical epoch, an age of prejudice. A doctrine is a definite point; a prejudice is a direction. That an ox may be eaten, while a man should not be eaten, is a doctrine. That as little as possible of anything should be eaten is a prejudice.

The modern mind, steeped in its bewildering ignorance, may snap a crooked smile at the notion that the Middle Ages – often darkened by their detractors – could have been anything in the way of rational. But they most certainly were. What needs to be clarified is the definition of rational. It is rational to want the salvation of man, and quite irrational to settle for his survival. It is also rational to change the world so that man's soul may flourish while it is grossly irrational to change man's soul so that the evils of the world may seem like logical inevitabilities. Rational and religious are held by some of these same unlearned contemporary thinkers as polar opposites, when any religious person will tell you how much more rational it is to believe that someone died for our sins two thousand years ago, someone who was both God and man, than to believe that a universe created itself billions of years ago out of absolutely nothing. That same religious person would tell you that the notion that our conscience is our guiding force through this life makes much more sense than claiming we are simply a very complex chemical experiment that can be shaken and stirred like an alembic. The corollary to such an understanding of the world, of course, is not that science and its shape-shifting pundits have replaced religion because the latter failed, but that religion never failed at all. In fact, says our author, even at the height of its dominion it was never close to attaining its ends.   

The ends of the Middle Ages can be attained with the help of, well, everyone. Democracy may have once been the rule of the people, but the people have grown unwieldy. Now we have nations of millions who elect hundreds to make decisions that will affect every home of one, two, three or more individuals. What the Middle Ages had, for better or worse, is a code of how things should be and how to make them that way; what we have now, greatly for the worse, is how things will be and how to make ourselves into those things. Instead of the world changing to suit the man, the man changes to suit the world, which leads to the very dastardly notion that man's position is to adapt, and that those who don't adapt were meant to die out anyway. Thus when industrialists get filthy rich, they drop the filthy and keep the rich. Their rise to the top is as pure and unchallengeable as the rise of a virtuous soul to heaven because that is where each of them rightly belongs. But how great amounts of money that no good person could ever possibly need have become equated with great amounts of beneficence that no bad person could ever endure is one of the most baffling mysteries of mankind. Then again, perhaps it is one of the simplest. The modern mind thinks religion has failed, when religion has not begun; the very modern mind thinks property has failed, when property was usually hoarded and thus also hardly begun. One tries to abolish the other and aggrandizes its own achievements as natural, when there is nothing more natural than a small, self-sufficient familial unit in a decent, safe home with enough food and enough space. And, it should be said, a certain amount of creative latitude:     

For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors he admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

Something akin to such self-expression, wonderful to relate, has been facilitated by that awesome leveller of playing fields, the Internet, which doesn't quite allow everyone to see everything, but does allow most people to see most things, a few flights of steps in the right direction. Indiscretions and mistakes can really no longer be concealed, and personal tastes now rule our senses as if the ineluctable modality of the visible came equipped with a like button. You may opine, and you would not be entirely wrong, that both Chesterton's description and our current reality plagued by ego surfing and solipsistic rants suggest that permitting the simple man his motley home makes the man a narcissist. But a man is only a narcissist if he gladly comes home to a house full of mirrors. If he comes home, however, to be greeted by a partner and smaller versions of themselves, and if he understands that all that he does is for them and that they are his world, then he can create a love and life in his own image as love and life have been created for him.

As it is first absorbed, What's Wrong With the World, like many books of pure genius, seems as true and reliable as oxygen, so a clarification should be made regarding its portrayal of women. When Chesterton says that women should not vote, he means – and is probably correct – that if women really were the rulers of every household and every household were more important than any town or city, then voting for some local umbrella organization to see to the erection of a public house or a statue would strike a woman of even average intelligence as more than a bit daft. Since households have been replaced by statistics for household income and women have been given all the rights of men and women except their inalienable rights to be women and different, these same familial units, the backbone of any society, have crumbled into fractured ruins, roofless huts after the wrath of a tornado, and skinny shacks teetering on a precipice. Women are not inferior to men, but they are also not men. And the most important way in which they are not men is the only way we have been able to propagate our species and win a modicum of terrestrial immortality. The world's basic shortcoming is that we have demeaned the family, the notion of hard work and equitable payment, the notion of fairness and justice, the notion of ideals that will allow man's soul to bask in its innate glory, all in favor of a theory that what has happened was bound to happen and what will happen may be streamlined but cannot be stopped. And there is something very wrong in thinking that we live in a world that cannot be wrong simply because it is supposed to be inevitable. 


Bend Sinister

There is a certain tinge we recollect in bright colors, and that tinge is the love of persons relegated inexorably to our past. What we have lost over a lifetime will define us far more precisely that what we have gained. By this simple truism I suppose one can conclude that a priceful sportscar wrapped around a lamppost will constitute, to the plaintive materialist, a more substantial agenbite of inwit than the beautiful sedan he ended up driving for a good dozen years thereafter – but no more of this silliness. You and I have both loved and lost; we have both loved for reasons unknown to us and reasons imposed by us; we have both loved and laughed and loved and cried bitterly, oh so bitterly; and we have both loved knowing that love would be all the more annihilative were there nothing beyond our crepuscule but nox perpetua. A soft and comely path to this novel

Our protagonist is Adam Krug, a philosopher of genius whose insight is reflected by his actions and thoughts instead of snippets from his tedious tomes (I say tedious in the same vein that all philosophy without art is tedious, and all art without moral grounding is a sham). Krug has recently parted from his wife Olga, who dies as the story begins and leaves her beloved with something divine, their now eight-year-old son David:

All he felt was a slow sinking, a concentration of darkness and tenderness, a gradual growth of sweet warmth. His head and Olga's head, cheek to cheek, two heads held together by a pair of small experimenting hands which stretched up from a dim bed, were (or was – for the two heads formed one) going down, down, down towards a third point, towards a silently laughing face. There was a soft chuckle just as his and her lips reached the child's cool brow and hot cheek, but the descent did not stop there and Krug continued to sink into the heart-rending softness, into the black dazzling depths of a belated but – never mind – eternal caress.

David and Krug will join hands many times in the novel in the best type of father-son relationship: one based upon mutual respect, interest, tenderness, and a mother and wife who adores them both. David will ask about his mother, whom he has not seen well in weeks, and wonder aloud whether she may be elsewhere in the universe. And for his part, Krug will belay the climbing rope with the intention of pulling David up with him to some ethereal summit safe from harm, from death, from evil, from everything a father might wish as far from his child as possible given the physical obstacles.

The physical obstacles, one notes, are plenty. Krug, a polyglot of East European extraction has the distinct misfortune of inhabiting a nameless police state whose demagogue dictator was once his classmate and the butt, in every sense of the word, of his ridicule and violence. It will be assumed that Krug's early victories over Paduk, the bloated, pasty, and rather androgynous tyrant, will not be duplicated in the latter half of his existence; it will also be assumed that Paduk has forgotten neither the grievances suffered at the large, virile hands of a man his superior in every way imaginable except in cruelty, nor, for that matter, his nickname, the Toad (since he is also called "paddock" at one point, the derivation seems clear). Our Toad is a rather remarkable fellow, but not in any fashion that you or I would care to admire:

Paduk's father was a minor inventor, a vegetarian, a theosophist, a great expert in cheap Hindu lore; at one time he seems to have been in the printing business – printing mainly the work of cranks and frustrated politicians. Paduk's mother, a flaccid lymphatic woman from the Marshland, had died in childbirth, and soon after this the widower had married a young cripple for whom he had been devising a new type of braces (she survived him, braces and all, and is still limping about somewhere). The boy Paduk had a pasty face and a grey-blue cranium with bumps: his father shaved his head for him personally once a week – some kind of mystic ritual no doubt.

Without belittling the hobbies of Paduk père (I, too, dine meatlessly), one understands the caricature more from what this childhood probably lacked, that is, the genial warmth so prevalent in a loving family devoted to genuine self-betterment. After Paduk's father created the padograph, an odd contraption devised to mimic human calligraphy, its sales numbered in the low thousands, with "more than one tenth ... optimistically used for fraudulent purposes." In their inevitable tête-à-tête, Paduk will offer Krug a padograph, among many other, far more useful implements, in an inevitable attempt to avoid the inevitable fate of those brave political dissidents who will not cower to the broad band of mediocrity that is the true mantra of all totalitarian regimes. Krug will refuse, we will join him in splashing the wine in the flaccid face of his alleged benefactor, and both he and we will pay dearly.

The plot? It is not much because Padukgrad – ah, it did have a name after all – has little to offer in the way of intrigue and much in the way of sadistic efficiency. Krug will ignore advice from trusted friends to quit his native land and these friends will miraculously disappear. He will also prowl about remembering Olga at certain locations (including one very late and very ill-timed revisiting), love his son dearly and tenderly, spit on the mindless thugs dispatched to intimidate him, ponder the mysteries of Hamlet in many tongues (an important if recondite middle section), revise his own philosophy of consciousness, that while eloquent has, by his own admission, very little to contribute to an already massive edifice, and wonder what would have happened had David been sent abroad, safe and warm if parentless and alone. He ponders these matters and one other matter:

And what agony, thought Krug the thinker, to love so madly a little creature, formed in some mysterious fashion (even more mysterious to us than it had been to the very first thinkers in their pale olive groves) by the fusion of two mysteries, or rather two sets of a trillion mysteries each; formed by a fusion which is, at the same time, a matter of choice and a matter of chance and a matter of pure enchantment; thus formed and then permitted to accumulate trillions of its own mysteries; the whole suffused with consciousness, which is the only real thing in the world and the greatest mystery of all.

So they will flutter and fly off from a city named Padukgrad, a capital of another nation torn to shreds by human vanity and terror, the three blue butterflies that exist in a peaceful land in peaceful times, far away from the endless ocean of man's divisions and strife. And there, all the mysteries from all the times they have spent together and apart may very well converge.


To Be and to Have (Être et avoir)

There are numerous miniature delights in this film, yet perhaps the most magnificent scene comes during a springtime thunderstorm. A sixtyish teacher (Georges Lopez) accompanies two students with two umbrellas from the door of his schoolhouse to a waiting van, a much more complicated task than one would imagine. The two children are not nearly as different in age as some of his other pupils, yet one of them follows his instructions precisely, covers his head with his satchel, and understands the principle of the fragile device keeping him dry; the other, however, seems to get none of this, even though a small child instinctively knows what to do when it rains. A microcosm for Lopez's remarkable world, at once tiny and enormously large.

The smallness comes from the location of our documentary, rural France (we begin and end our visit with cows and green fields as interminable as Sahara dunes). Without a spot of research you would not guess that the population of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson numbers no more than a few hundred, in no small part to the warmth Lopez imparts to both his immaculate classroom and his pupils, ages four to ten. At the beginning, we have a lesson in orthography using a word that every French child will have mastered before he sets foot in school; later, Lopez will teach his youngest prodigies the male and female versions of "friend." That the children of different ages have to interact and yet retain more than a little discipline and decorum in that interaction does not bother them, and it certainly doesn't bother Lopez. He is courteous, caring, immeasurably patient, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly calm. His voice only goes up in mock emotion or to emphasize a part of a sentence not quite understood. At one point we are told that he shares teaching duties with a certain Tatiana, but no evidence of such partition ever manifests itself. When the younger ones are playing (Lopez understands they will learn nothing if they are browbeaten all day), the older ones are assigned projects that harness some of their strengths as well as delve into their weaknesses. We get little of the home life of the students apart from a quick glance into the farmhouse of the class heavyweight, Julien. Julien helps his mom sweep the stalls of their farm then struggles with her through his math homework with an alarming lack of confidence – perhaps because every wrong answer is met with the back of her hand (another relative suggests the equation, "What's six smacks a day for two days?"). Julien has a tense relationship with his only coeval, Olivier, who is more sensitive and therefore more the victim than the bully. When we find out Olivier's secret towards the film's end, we nod in recognition. Such are the simple concerns of children, rarely mysterious, cynical, or evil. Their pain is reflected in their attitude, and a great teacher like Lopez knows the truth before they sob it to him quietly.

About two-thirds through, our documentary halts its depiction of daily events to interview the schoolmaster. A man of infinite serenity, Lopez surveys the plight of his father, a farmhand from Andalusia and, as he puts it, "what we call an immigrant." His father, like all good parents, especially those of humble means, only wanted his son to have a better life than he did. And Lopez always knew what he wanted to do. He never boasts that he was especially talented as a schoolchild, although if the aim of education is to prepare one for adult life, then few could have been as successful. "I used to love being in school so much as a child," he says, "that I would spend my free time playing the teacher for other kids, even some my age." The pleasure that crosses his lips as he relates this oddity is not one of self-satisfaction, but of contentment with the world. How can the world be wicked if it allowed him to identify his vocation as a child and pursue it with such zeal? And aren't children the future of this world? His father died twenty years ago, right before he arrived in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, but Lopez has been teaching for thirty-five years and is only eighteen months away from retirement. Upon hearing him confess his plans, his children resort to a stereotypically French fail-safe strategy and threaten to strike.

It is perhaps sad that the film engendered a lengthy legal dispute which can easily be researched online, a dispute motivated, it should be said, not by finances but by what is perceived as a breach of privacy. What is more interesting is the film's title, a pair of helping verbs, to wit, the two ways to conjugate compound verbs in French. You could also say that some things are and some things have things that are; perhaps there are people who are themselves owing to personality and people whose personality is based on their possessions. We are never told whether Lopez has a family or whether, like a nun or priest, he has simply adopted a community as his own. Nothing interrupts our enjoyment of the quiet moments shared by trees and snow, the plain road, the simple beauty of winter. Lopez seems in harmony with all these pacific elements, as if his wisdom were as natural as the rapport that the children develop because they understand that squabbling and pouting will never take them far in this life or any other. They cook together, breaking eggs and pouring flour; they correct each other in the mildest way; they rarely tease or push – and such instances are met with swift intervention by Lopez. And what of the turtle seen crawling through the schoolhouse at the film's beginning, or the vivarium of chelonians seen later on? A mawkish image for the torpor of modern education? As it were, it most likely indicates that for some a vocation is not thrust upon them but grows within. And if the beauty of the world is within you, you will remark little difference between a tiny little town in France and the sunset beaches of Tahiti. Not that everyone has any interest in Tahiti.   


Lights in the Dusk

At the beginning of this film, a young man who will end up being our protagonist cowers in the corner as three natives of this language scurry by discussing some of the great authors in their literary tradition. It is of no coincidence that the last name we hear as distance mutes their voices belongs to this writer of genius whose "shadow is so big you can't see the sun." It is likewise appropriate that Gogol's most famous short story features a protagonist not unlike Seppo Ilmari Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), the sweet, loyal, and utterly hapless security guard around whom the film revolves.

Koistinen, as he is referred to exclusively apart from one vital scene, has all the makings of a soul for whom society has neither patience nor space. In a quick series of vignettes, Koistinen incurs the annoyance of his superiors who assure each other once he leaves the room that "he will learn," gets bullied by his colleagues (what we understand to be a regular occurrence), orders a drink and gets rebuffed by the blonde to his right and threatened by the large man to her right, almost gets smashed by a bathroom door as he wallflowers himself to an awkward spot, and is generally stared at by other bar patrons with the repugnance that overcomes some people upon the sight of incorrigible floundering. He claims this will all end with the establishment of his own business (we see him in some class or consultation taking furious notes), but he is abused in his loan interview and forced out the side door like some embarrassing relative. Unlike most underdogs, Koistinen is a handsome fellow who under normal circumstances would not have any trouble getting a date; what normal behavior entails, however, remains to be seen. His behavior is identical to everyone around him, but the results of his actions do not even sniff the others' success or efficacy. This strange hitch can be attributed to Kaurismäki's typically laconic methods whereby the only real character is Koistinen and not one of his actions is real at all. While he struggles to behave the way society dictates – in other words, the way the privileged and powerful behave and prevent others from behaving – the entire supporting cast, with a few allies to be revealed in time, provides nothing more than obstacles to his own development. So if everyone else reacts in a predictable way because they are predictable and clichéd, Koistinen reacts that way because he thinks that is what he needs to do to get ahead, not realizing that as a sensitive and benign exception in a cold, malefic world, the opposite would help him. 

With this setup in mind, the plot – as film noir cookie cutter as all its characters – suddenly becomes very dynamic. Koistinen's duties as night watchman include security for a jewelry store, and so we are hardly surprised when a young blonde (Ilkka Koivula) takes an interest in him and almost demands that he return the favor. They go out on one of the most unilateral dates in cinematic history, most brilliantly embodied by the movie house scene in which she is watching something coy and light and he is only watching her as if the real film were taking place in the pinna of her ear. The abrupt cuts from scene to scene give one the impression of how futile an existence like this can quickly become – even in a privileged and beautiful country like Finland – although those in love are supposed to get along and separate themselves from the rest of the world. The blonde's true intentions, or at least those of the people who are interested in Koistinen, would only come across to the most callow of viewers as novel and require no explanation here. Yet at every step the photography is impeccable, such as the extra time given to the band whose lead singer has everything a young woman interested in rock singers might desire, another contrast to our seemingly talentless protagonist. A film as unimaginative and impatient as most of the cast of Lights in the Dusk would let her carry on with him, throwing salt and fire into a very open wound. But unlike the vast majority of his peers, Kaurismäki has no interest in cruelty or subjugation. All that he wants to show is the possibility of redemption, the bad stuff occurring off-screen so that we are often left staring at just-vacated premises. 

Another fascinating conceit is the polyglot soundtrack, which associates a certain stereotype of the language with its scene. It begins in Spanish, almost as a harbinger of a Carmen-like character, moves to American rock when consummation seems possible, drifts into snowy weather and Russian when Koistinen has lost all hope (Russians also seem to be partly responsible for his predicament), has Finnish when he regains his freedom, as if he were restored to his "natural surroundings," then seems to conclude in French when he and one of his few allies accept their fate. There are countless people just like poor Koistinen and their routines in both work and love are as hopeless as his. Many more live to take advantage of such people because that is really the only way they can satisfy their selfish urges, not to mention feel better about their own shortcomings. That's why Koistinen should have been paying more attention to that radio description of a scorpion: its abdomen might indeed resemble a string of pearls, but at the end there is only pain.


Gumilyov, "Ужас"

A gothic piece ("Horror") from this Russian poet.  You can find the original here.

gumilev_1.jpgLong, long I walked the corridors,
A circling, wordless enemy;
Niched statues gazed at my rogue course,
And pierced my soul with enmity.

In sullen sleep all things grew dumb,
And grey obscure its strangeness kept; 
As if an evil pendulum
Were measure of my lonely step.
And there where deeper gloom arose,
My burning eyes went cold with fear:
A figure, hardly seen but close,
In crowding columns’ shade appeared.

To it I went, but then withdrew,
A beast in horrified escape:
A vile hyena’s head did spew
Upon a girl’s soft comely shape.

Its snout leered forth in bloody blade,
Its eyes evinced an empty cast,
'Twas then I heard base whispers fade:
"Here have you come, all mine at last!"

And fearful moments passed in dread,
And darkness swam around my bones,
And countless mirrors rose instead
In palest horror’s deadly moans.


On Legend

Earlier on these pages I mentioned that "myth" was the favorite word of a famous actor; what I failed to add was the audience's reaction to such a pretense: the cooing and hollering so typical of the easily impressed. Kingsley's religious beliefs I cannot hope to know, and such a point bears no relevance on a discussion of the difference between his favorite word – sadly abused for over a century – and another, related term, that of "legend." As children, pupils, listeners, we come to associate terms that a more mature mind would cleave asunder; instead of learning at an early age the fine differences between vocabulary, we tend and are in fact pedagogically encouraged to list alleged synonyms as if they were eggs in a carton, all white, unbroken, and indistinguishable. Countless times as a schoolboy I found myself perplexed by this methodology. What good can it do us to know similarity if our world is founded on difference? What passion can be elicited from the average pupil by the average schoolmarm if we cannot take pleasure in separating our reality into its natural categories? Let us be clear: a myth is falsehood taken by the right gullible soul as historically true so that it then becomes a banner for our own mores; a legend is an exaggerated truth or plain fiction with a moral aspect, a glorification of what has already been accepted by the listener as worthwhile. This distinction and several others inform an essay in this collection.   

Legend, according to Belloc, serves the only need that we should ever consider, that of the spiritual (which may explain its earliest English meaning). Are we amazed by mystery and incomplete knowledge of the world and thus prone to flights of fancy? No, we are simply spirituals who must rekindle the imaginings that allow us to glimpse something beyond what our five dull senses might perceive:

It is in the essence of Legend that its historical value is not in question. It has not to be believed as witness to an event but as example; or even as no more than a picture which does us good by its beauty alone. We are not, in using legend, affirming a belief in a particular occurrence, but listening with profit to a story; and if the moral of the story is sound if its effect is towards truth, goodness, beauty that is all we ask of it.

There then follows a nice example of legend deprived: an "inhuman child" does not absorb this children's tale and dream of courage, but rather requests that the Giant's Castle be located "on the ordnance map." Why would a child ever think of committing such folly, given that he is supposed to know what he hears may not and indeed probably could never be true? Because that child is no tyro, but an incredulous adult who from arrogance's throne has decided that anything that his senses cannot pick up is a sham. Now when I heard the tale of Saint George and the Dragon as a child, I immediately sensed that I was listening to fiction; not because, as it were, dragons could not or did not exist; but because the tale itself was too clean, too buttressed by stylistic accretions to resemble the news reports I watched every night on television (my parents, at one point at least, used to love television news). I then learned that dragons, if that's really the right term for them and if they weren't simply this beast, died with all the fantastic creatures in a child's universe because of snow, lots of snow. There still lurks somewhere in the snowy plains of my imagination a slow-falling and gigantic lizard crumbling beneath its incapacity to survive in cold climates. Whence comes that image, or whether it isn't a montage of many memories, is what is meant by legend.

Belloc also touches upon this hallowed site, believes its fame to be perfectly plausible, and then adjoins one final phrase: "I am sure I appear absurd when I say that I believe this legend to contain historical truth." Historical truth is, mind you, not what can be proven through empirical testing – ultimately, almost nothing, since not having been there can stand as proof alone of its impossibility – but what gilds logic according to our sensibilities, not just our senses. Surely it is sensible to think that creatures like us came from other, less evolved creatures, but where we all emerged from is a black hole of knowledge that has been explained away, at least for now, with some preposterous theory of combustion and explosion that is more mythic and nonsensical than any miracle or divine interference. A basic law of physics is that you cannot get something for nothing – but we were, apparently, uncreated and therefore at one time nothing. To remind us of these past lives we have forged the annals to delude the stupid into believing in grace and providence, all the while concealing the truth: that those dragons are nothing more than an amalgamation of birds and snakes, our two tree-bound enemies, and that we are monkeys who have become something more than monkeys. Again, evolution has its merits and it is perfectly logical according to our senses, our actions, and our physical instincts of survival. But to say it completely explains our provenance is a little like saying sharks explain the pelagic food chain or kangaroos explain Australia. In other words, we have a species but not a world, existence without origin, and effect without cause – the last of which will not make the modern scientific mind particularly happy.

We have come a long way from myths and legends. Now we know nearly everything there is to know about our world and have invested an indefinite amount of money into exploring others. Millions of years ago, chants a chorus of men of science, beasts walked the earth whose bones we still have and whose shapes we can reconstruct owing to our utter brilliance in reconstructing the past, predicting the future, and discarding the present in favor of both. These men of science, as learned as they might claim to be despite the fact that they are inevitably destined to be contradicted and exposed by the following generation, will then talk of ice ages, asteroids, and other events that are quite probable but completely and utterly unprovable. They will sneer at any talk of supernatural events, although any fifteenth-century person claiming dinosaurs once roamed the earth would forcibly attribute such an occurrence to powers beyond that of mankind. But something is bothersome about all their formulas, fossils, and filibusters: there is no accountability. The myth itself, if that is the right word, has come and not quite gone until another, better myth has been substituted:

But if there enter into the controversy side issues which have logically nothing to do with it, if the controversy arouses passions on matters which the reason should see to be quite distinct from the original statement, then at once the breeding soil for Myth, the atmosphere favorable for its growth, has appeared. So that the next stage is the prodigious advance in strength and wide dispersion of the false statement; it is, so to speak, mobilized and armed, and goes out to battle on a large scale. 

You may have heard of these battles; they are still being waged by those who believe in nothing except stars they can barely discern and animals whose lifetimes cannot be quantified. They believe that we owe each other nothing because we are but links on an endless chain of death, an assembly line to build a perfect beast that will ultimately develop the capacity to obliterate itself.  Once upon a time we were amoebae – that is their legend, myth, and holy scripture. But an alternative prevails upon the spirit during hard times – even occasionally, I suspect, on theirs – and indicates another path, a golden road which may look like the plainest soil but which ascends gradually to a higher level of what we believe and what we have taught ourselves to think. And there we may find the greatest legend of them all to be something more than that.


The Wolfman

A few years ago a friend called a film we both admired, to my budding surprise, a political allegory. When asked by a third person and someone who had not seen the work to justify his statement, he proffered a couple of short sentences thankfully not smug or discomfiting. The name of the film need not be mentioned here, nor the remarkable parable he detected. What is important about such minor revelations is the thought invested in the symbols of the written or filmed word. Critics have always tended to praise works that can sustain more than one reading even if all the possible interpretations are rather thin. And what of works that really only have a single possible meaning yet internally wrestle with two or three? A question that may well be asked of this film.

The premise is so imbedded in literature that it requires little introduction. Upon a dark Victorian moor, someone or something has carved up three men, including Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells), son of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), a local landowner and widower. The town elders are less superstitious than one might have supposed and expect a scientific explanation from the gypsies stationed on a nearby meadow. The Roma settlement possesses the usual assortment of trained animals and necromancers – the former suspected as dangerous, the latter suspected as fraudulent – but we learn other details. Namely, that Sir John's late wife was also a Roma who committed suicide about twenty-five years ago – just when, it turns out, another local remembers finding a shepherd and his flock slaughtered in a most barbaric fashion. This wife is buried in a sepulcher with an adjoining shrine graced with nightly visits by Sir John. By his own estimation he is quite dead (he speaks in a hurried, breathy, almost overfamiliar tone like a busy ghost), and he might as well have been for the last twenty-five years to his elder son, Lawrence (Benicio del Toro). Sent to America after the familial tragedy, Lawrence Talbot has become a world-famous stage actor, although you would never guess so given the brief snatch of this play to which we are treated. However improbable a film’s hodge-podge of accents may be given its plot and setting, they should never detract from the overall effect – yet this is precisely what occurs. Del Toro's looks and gestures are convincing, but his cadence is distinctly Spanish and his voice, I suspect, too high-pitched to qualify him as a Shakespearean lead (his Yorick speech smacks of parody). Lawrence is summoned to the moors, specifically to Blackmoor, as the family estate is called, by Ben's fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Their first exchange in his dressing rooms induces the other cast members to clear out, he makes a poignant remark about the "shifting character of man," and we understand, even if we have never seen or heard of the original film, that Lawrence will go to Blackmoor and discover some horrible things. 

In the train moorward he is buttonholed by a sinister elderly gentleman (Max von Sydow) who, for reasons unknown to everyone including Lawrence, wishes to bestow upon the actor his walking stick with wolf’s-head pommel acquired "lifetimes ago" in Gévaudan.* After looking at his fellow traveler sidelong a few times (one of the film’s lovely little touches) Lawrence falls asleep as the eternal countryside glides on. When he awakes he finds the vanished old man, who was dapper and well-spoken in a very ingratiating way, to have been in all likelihood a figment of his tortured mind. If it weren’t, of course, for the cane left leaning against the opposing seat. As Lawrence finally makes it to Blackmoor a series of unfortunate incidents occurs, some of which are roundly predictable, others not. We are not, in any case, overmuch concerned with predictability as Lawrence is destined by the laws that govern dramatic convention to assume the responsibilities and ills of the title character. He views Ben’s grisly remains kept in a butcher’s shop beneath gigantic, looming pincers and then tells his father he came because of “Ms. Conliffe’s letter,” when she visited him in person (the letter is mentioned at some other point, but this may be a dramaturgical glitch). The suspected killer is described as “a fell creature,” a nice pun for those who like old words, and the villagers continue to bandy about some theories until the beast strikes again. Given the sheer numerical disadvantage, we may harbor some, ahem, grave reservations about the wisdom of the beast’s attack, which is so ostentatious as to seem forced. One wonders whether any animal would attack a lit camp of almost a hundred people – unless, of course, it thought it could kill them all – but another explanation whispers to us. 

Some fantastic chiaroscuro occurs in a cemetery that will remind you of Stonehenge with fog that assumes the shape of claws and teeth, as well as some odd looks between Ms. Conliffe and Sir John and between Sir John and his faithful manservant Singh (Art Malik). These moments serve pure atmosphere and the atmosphere is most evil at every corner and bend of The Wolfman, even when the requisite Scotland Yard investigator (a glowering Hugo Weaving) gets involved. Weaving plays Inspector Abeline, whom Lawrence rightly identifies as having been part of the investigation of this mysterious figure. Abeline smirkingly addresses Lawrence with the platitudes always directed towards screen stars even if he doubts he is talking to a sane man. “There are no natural predators left in England,” he tells the American, “who could inflict such savage injury,” but the natural has long abandoned Lawrence’s terrible daydreams. Towards the film’s middle, Abeline takes us on a very different route that some claim pads the script with an unwarranted derailing. Yet it is this very premise which lands Lawrence back in the asylum to which he was consigned for one year following his mother’s death that makes the most sense. The double-talk and psychobabble that ensue (and that are given cameos throughout the film) are eradicated in a fantastic scene resulting in a few glorious minutes of unadulterated havoc before the film succumbs to the necessities of the plot. Not that there isn’t time for a medallion and a curse or two.    


* Note: this scene appears to have been cut from the theatrical version, but included on the DVD.