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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from October 1, 2009 - October 31, 2009

Saturday
Oct312009

The Sorcerers

Those who believe in something greater than themselves  something almighty, something all-knowing and something all-encompassing  should not take umbrage at the arrogance of men of science.  Now it is true that that the discoveries of the last few hundred years have greatly changed how we view our universe, and how agreeably we exist within it.  But we should not forget the nihility of the physicist's black holes, the bondage of being nothing more than a link on a long chain of beasts, the emptiness at the bottom of the zealous chemist's alembic.  Through fortune and ingenuity we have surpassed all our predecessors in speed of communication as well as some creature comforts that we would not likely give back  yet this comes at a price.  Although we are advanced and equipped like never before, we no longer fend for ourselves.  For keys to all the things we value we consult a locksmith; for the meat we devour we need a butcher; for the software and computers that have transformed our lives in so many extraordinary ways, the vast majority of us still require the aid of a technology specialist.  We know the tools that science has laid at our feet, but their manufacture is divided among so many masters that we might conclude that for every step towards man's conquest of his planet he has become increasingly helpless.  Which brings us to a story from this collection

In a forest in Eastern Bolivia that is home to this tiny tribe, our guides are a pair of British anthropologists, Wilkins and Goldbaum.  Perhaps it is always the British, renowned for being emotionally distant, that feel impassioned by these miniature studies of miniature civilizations; perhaps the fact that one of them may be of Jewish descent makes us more sympathetic to their interests.  They have learned hitherto only a "hundred-odd words" of Siriono, much more than what English they have been able to teach "the most intelligent and curious man in the village," Achtiti.  And their struggles, already keen and daily, are exacerbated by the destruction  whether it was wilful remains one of the story's many mysteries  of their campsite.  They dare not leave the site with Siriono instructions since these might prove fatal.  So they decide to ask the tribe to dispatch one of its own to seek help from a contact, Suarez, in Candelaria, the closest town:

The following day, Wilkins prepared the letter for Suarez in Candelaria.  He had the idea of drafting it in two versions, one written in Spanish for Suarez and one ideographic, so that both Achtiti and the messenger could get the gist of the mission's purpose and put aside their evident suspicion.  The second version showed the messenger himself walking southwest, along the river; twenty suns were intended to represent the length of the journey.  Then came the city: tall huts, and among them many men and women in trousers and skirts and with hats on their heads.  Finally, there was a bigger man, pushing the motorboat into the river, with three men on board and sacks of provisions, and the boat going back up the river; in this last image, the messenger was on board, stretched out and eating from a bowl.  

The vision of Candelaria, a town of admittedly no more than five thousand inhabitants, differs so greatly from the tiny Siriono enclave that one might have imagined Wilkins was describing London.  In the meantime, there is little the two foreigners can do but hope that a boat returns with Sanchez and that they will not be slaughtered ("as they do with their old people") owing to their immediate uselessness.  Useless, that is, until the Englishmen survey their remaining belongings and find a tape recorder, gobs of currency, two watches, and most importantly, a box of matches.  The tape recorder was used before the story's events to record Achtiti's voice, playback that engenders fear and loathing; but when the explorers produce small sticks that burn after contact, the natives become very restless indeed. 

The story has a moral that is all too obvious, although sometimes the best lessons are the ones we have to repeat.  It is never determined whether Wilkins and Goldbaum are good men or even good ethnographers.  What can be said about their approach to one of the world's most notoriously primitive tribes is that they care for accuracy and justice in human affairs, even if there are many indications that they do not think all men to be equal.  Towards the end of our tale, we learn more about this tribe, so baffling in its simplicity:

They are not familiar with metals, they do not possess terms for numbers higher than three, and although they often have to cross swamps and rivers, they do not know how to build boats.  They do know, however, that at one time they were able to do so, and the story is passed down among them of a hero who had the name of the Moon and who had taught their people (then much more numerous) three arts: to light fires, to carve out canoes, and to make bows.  Of these, only the last survives; they have even forgotten the method of making fire.

One could envision a world without light or fire if the sun caressed our limbs in sufficient quantity; one could even more easily do without metal, canoes or transportation of any kind; but what seems unfathomable is a life no greater than three.  What of the endless universe and its innumerable questions?  Can they really be reduced to nothing more than parents and one beloved child, the sides of a triangle, the Trinity and its contradictions that are not really contradictions?  Perhaps there's something to the uncomplicated life after all.   

Tuesday
Oct272009

A Very Long Engagement

It is rare for me to praise a work of art whose plot convention is the raw futility of organized violence, that old pastime of the bully-boy and his mindless minions.  Nothing good ever comes from the promotion of strife, from bludgeoning other humans to get one’s point across or simply to protect one’s own interests, and, as the song goes, nothing ever could.  Yet for those who lived through the two global wars of the twentieth century this is the only event that has ever taken place, and one that keeps repeating like the death of Emanuel Zunz.  Schoolteachers were very adamant about making us read a litany of allegedly brilliant novels that dwelt in the dark and loathsome realms of these catastrophes, where morality was suspended because it was not practical and because – and here we shudder – the enemy was utterly and irrevocably immoral.  Readers of these pages know what I tend to think of such rot.  It is certainly more tragic for someone to die for nothing in combat than to die at peace and rest in the comfort of one’s own home, at a jolly old age, and surrounded by one’s loved ones.  But such tragedy does not make art; it does not make anything at all except death, the opposite of everything we want and cherish.  It strips us of this life, whatever you may think this life might be worth, and pushes us into a chasm with the rest of humanity, a strange hold in an infinite ship on course through some nebulous field.  Perhaps the best tonic to these horrors is a tale of love set against a motley assortment of effects that do not seem real because had we experienced their proximity ourselves, we would not be here to recount them.  And in this regard, we have a strangely modern film

It may or may not be symbolic that our heroine Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is herself a cripple.  She was born with the century, on January 1, 1900, and has become engaged to her beloved Manech (Gaspard Ulliel); but he is young and French, and the year is 1917, so the prospects of future bliss are hardly dazzling.  Still, Mathilde persists in her faith that Manech, whom she truly adores in a way that we all hope to be adored at some point in our lives, will return, safe and sound, or at least healthier than she is.  Her shin splints allow her to limp about awkwardly and distract us from her angelic countenance enough for her to play her part (for all the vapid or cutesy roles that made her famous, Tautou does this simple bit remarkably well).  She waits for a sign of life at a small house in Brittany with her aunt, who makes her struggle with polio a tad easier.  When news comes at last, after the war itself is concluded, it is not what she expects: Manech and four other members of his battalion were convicted of voluntary self-mutilation and tried at a military tribunal as deserters.  Hardly renowned for their mercy, military tribunals often tend to look at deserters with as much disdain as they regard turncoats, which explains the horrific sentence of no man’s land.  Here they are sure to die, which Manech surely did, killed as he must have been by a German bomb at some point during his miserable incursion to the lowest ring of hell.  No cadaver, but no one survives no man’s land.  A preponderance of evidence that does little to convince Mathilde.

She departs to Paris and begins her investigation.  She hires a detective, asks all the persons who might be involved or might have heard of survivors all the questions movie heroines are supposed to ask, and gets some answers.  Most of these answers are confirmations of the impossibility of her quest.  A series of unfortunate events befalls many of these witnesses, whom guileless Mathilde could not have dreamed of harming.  We are then presented with her foil, another widow (Marion Cotillard), who has less patience for the squeaky crane that is the French bureaucracy and no sympathy for the officials who casually wave off names of dead young men as if they were cigarette ash.  In a way, both approaches  the waywardly optimistic and the vigilante – make perfect sense, although our instincts tell us the film will end with one path being the true path and the other simply mocking its audacity.  And nothing is more audacious than the cinematography, which should have won every award it could possibly have accrued.  You may have heard of Mathilde and Manech's story before, but you have never seen it in such uncompromising vividness, untenable in the bestselling novel which generated the script.  Some things, some wild, unorthodox, woeful things, are best left for the screen.

Thursday
Oct222009

White

Until a recent reviewing of this film, the middle part of a legendary Polish–French trilogy, I had an odd conception of what actually took place.  Both the beginning and the end were, I discovered, perfectly etched in my memory.  But of the middle part, when our down-and-out protagonist Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski) escapes back to his native Poland and his fortune takes a sharp turn, I had but scraps.  I would like to think that this is owing to my internal ethical mechanism that purges me of the most superficial and materialist information to which I am exposed, leaving only the sweet and bittersweet traces of love, warmth, art, curiosity and nostalgia.  However much I wish to delude myself, my own disposition may indeed have had something to do with it.  But the main reason is because the film is really nothing at all without its climax, so perfectly woven and yet so cruel, and the whole tale resonates, stinks, and flashes with the slow destructiveness of revenge.

White is not about love, despite the fervid claims of Karol, who is impotent and married to the lovely Dominique (a nymphet-like Julie Delpy).  The film begins in front of a courthouse and ends with a strange exchange outside a prison, and both main characters have something to hide from their partner.  Karol is a hairdresser who has come to France to make his mark, leaving behind a rather popular practice outside of Warsaw.  We understand the changes that were occurring in Central Europe at the time (early 1990s), and sympathize with those who believed that the formerly socialist states might not survive the overhaul.  Karol, one of these sceptics, finds a way to Paris and then finds a French wife in Dominique.  One wonders what exactly Dominique might want with this small and scruffy Pole.  Looks notwithstanding, his French is limited to two- or three-word phrases that inevitably spurt out of his mouth once the other person has resumed talking, and we can suppose that advanced Polish was not an elective in her Paris lycée.  He is neither rich nor, as we are painfully informed, gifted in pleasuring his partners.  Love is blind, true enough.  But dumb, patient, and sexless?  The match is more than unlikely, it is nonsensical. 

You may retort that we are watching a fairy tale, and I concur.  Yet the result, while appropriate and correct, has little of the magical justice that a fairy tale espouses.  It then behooves us to determine why on earth this couple ever became a couple.  Dominique obviously has no interest in children, nor in learning Polish, but she does like both money and sex.  Karol was an award–winning hairdresser in the old country, and it is no stretch of our little grey cells to imagine that he could have saved up “quite a nest egg” (a line used in the film in a later context) in order to travel to France and set up shop under the Paris sky.  Just as easily, he could have made Dominique – who shows no signs of employment – a very generous offer in return for French citizenship.  This premise explains not only Dominique’s interest, but also why the dream wedding sequence that pervades Karol’s consciousness is just that, a dream.  They never had a white wedding, or anything more than a perfunctory mishmash of vows before a justice of the peace.  Once Dominique has Karol’s money, there is nothing left to do except throw him to the dogs.

Amidst these street urchins, Karol is found by Mikolaj (Janusz Gajos), who suggests that he return to Poland and work for him there.  Well, that’s not quite how the matter is phrased.  They take a walk by Dominique’s apartment, and he catches sight of his wife in the window with, Mikolaj informs him, no real intention of going to sleep.  A phone call confirms Mikolaj’s supposition, and Karol’s trust is won.  Then Mikolaj asks Karol for a favor in repayment, a favor so painfully clear to the viewer that we understand the significance of white’s symbolism.  Now, color coordination with symbolic meaning is a lowly pursuit best reserved for interior decorators with no imagination.  Yet the white in this sequence harks back to the whiteness of the wedding that never took place, the naïveté and innocence that Dominique is supposed to embody, but which more accurately characterize her husband.  White then becomes the symbol of purity in post-Communist Poland, of the ubiquitous snowfall that makes everything shine and glisten as if there were nothing filthy or reprehensible underneath.  Karol does proceed, in rather spectacular fashion, back home and begins to take advantage of the new economic freedoms granted to him and his countrymen.  Soon the old Karol, the stuttering doormat and cuckold, is replaced by an oily tycoon with infrastructure and influence.  The transformation is as preposterous as Karol and Dominique’s marriage, so we should not be surprised at the end when both absurdities merge into a coherent allegory.  And Karol’s sentimentality in the final scene, at once utterly sincere and utterly fraudulent, is not to be missed.    
Tuesday
Oct202009

The Bruce-Partington Plans

Unless we consider his virtuosity on the violin, we see our protagonist at the beginning of this story enthralled by a new hobby quite out of sorts with his previous monographs.  What could the study of medieval music ever offer Holmes?  Amusement, certainly, and perhaps keen artistic satisfaction; yet there is nothing forensic or organizational to be enjoyed.  From his other pastimes – codes, bicycle tracks, chemicals, ash – we detect a pattern of knowledge that could only appeal to the fanatic or crank.  Holmes's veil of cold precision notwithstanding, he evinces appetite for all forms of crime so that, with years of practice, brief observation would yield understanding as easily as color betrays acid.  Such knowledge would allow his resolution of the most trivial questions of everyday science to the broadest anthems of human motivation.  One such motivation has always been the opportunity to forego a plain existence that will result in plain dreams and a plain spouse for the risk ushered in by opportunity, by a mystery that promises reward or glorious failure.  And the mystery in question commences by way of that éminence grise of the British government, Holmes's brother Mycroft.

The problem?  Submarine plans of the highest technology and secrecy.  Its status?  On the verge of completion, unbeknownst to the public at large, although the weapons remain a project that Mycroft believes everyone has heard of in the same way that everyone has heard of the Yeti: an impossibility that might one day actually be proven to exist.  Holmesian scholars have not hesitated to note that such submarines, at least in terms of their allotted destructive forces, would not drift out of blueprint for another dozen years – but we do not read these adventures for historical accuracy.  The time was undoubtedly ripe for such speculation, as was the grim specter of war that abetted the naval subterfuge between Germany and England in the North Sea (as depicted in this prescient work).  So when a young man by the name of Cadogan West is found murdered in an underground railcar one November morning, little is made of the matter (Holmes even calls the case "featureless").  Yet Mycroft's telegraph indicates that his worrisome task involves no one other than this young clerk at this defunct arsenal.  The Royal Arsenal is one of those government buildings that have more locks than secrets.  The plans, ten in all, were housed under the watchful eye of Sidney Johnson, another among the canon's memorable secondary characters:

He is a man of forty, married with five children.  He is a silent, morose man, but he has, on the whole, an excellent record in the public service.  He is unpopular with his colleagues, but a hard worker.  According to his account, corroborated only by the word of his wife, he was at home the whole of Monday evening after office hours, and his key has never left the watch-chain upon which it hangs.

West is accorded a less laudatory review, and his "hot-headed and impetuous" tendencies will certainly decide his fate; but it is Johnson who should draw our attention.  Johnson embodies the steady banality of petty government work, of officials who for all their malingering cannot commit to a barefaced lie.  The few sentences offered on his disposition indicate not so much a stereotype as an inevitability, the uniform reactionary that haunts the halls of every strong governmental institution.  Considering the novelty of submarine warfare, such an official would be in principle the least likely among all professions to place greed and deception before a planned and secure life.  Although this same official and his ilk remain the closest citizens to the vault of state secrets.

There is a pleasing fervor to The Bruce-Partington Plans that only compares to the more attenuated tension of a well-made thriller.  It is one of the longer Holmes stories, and one of the best, and its effectiveness lies in the intricacies of the crime.  A transfer of the plans could drastically shift military advantage, which suddenly endangers empire and citizen alike – but neither Holmes nor we, as it were, are concerned with empire.  From all indications West had a hand in the blueprints' disappearance as he was found with seven of the ten on his murdered person.  Granted, these were the seven least important prints; and there is the implication that the submarine could be passably engineered on the basis of the three others.  What is more, West was about to marry (Watson and Holmes interview his sobbing bride), and could also have used the money were he planning to purchase separate quarters or start a family.  Yet compare Mycroft's impression of Johnson cited above to what he thought of the younger clerk:

He has been ten years in the service and has done good work. He has the reputation of being hot-headed and impetuous, but a straight, honest man. We have nothing against him. He was next Sidney Johnson in the office. His duties brought him into daily, personal contact with the plans. No one else had the handling of them.

My copy, a venerated edition which must be right, contains "impetuous"; but an online search also yields "imperious," which cannot possibly refer to the callow and naive West.  Unless, of course, he took the whole notion of global domination more seriously than first imagined.  Strange what ten safe and sheltered years can do to human desire.

Saturday
Oct172009

The Man Without a Past

Amnesia is one of the most common conceits of the noir genre, and one should not wonder why.  A loss of one's identity and past inevitably begets an investigation, and the greatest investigation that art allows us to make is self-discovery.  Having an amnesiac mimicking memories, pain, joy and reflexes also reminds us of how instructive our past can be: we may never overcome the tribulations of years before, but from these mistakes and injustices we may improve our lot. The audience may also learn details about a character without or before his knowing them, even if this knowledge does little to lessen the mystery.  Which brings us to this celebrated film.

Our Man (the late Markku Peltola), who bears a certain resemblance to this Irish actor, sits with his luggage on a train alone, silent, and smoking – his three defining traits.  Although his purpose of travel is later revealed, his precise destination is not.  He exits the train and sleeps in some otherwise innocuous park on some otherwise innocuous bench – but we know that public places are hardly safe havens in Kaurismäki's world. Perhaps it is of importance that his run of very bad luck begins in his dreams; perhaps this fact helps palliate the suffering he is about to endure.  After running afoul of a triptych of marauding bandits who beat him badly and abscond with everything of immediate value, our Man is left for dead beneath his bag's remaining contents.  Only his welder's mask is gently repositioned on his face, suggesting a robot alien trapped in a grounded starship.  His next stop is the local infirmary wrapped in bandages reminiscent of this fictional creation.  Although the staff seem dubious, our mummy soon awakes, escapes the hospital after an unsuccessful attempt to unbandage himself – a masterful detail given most on-screen victims' intuitive skill in such matters – and wanders without aim or assistance until he collapses beside a nearby port.  Here he is rescued by the token benevolent and poor family, and a mere eight minutes into the film, his adventure begins.

An adventure, but for some reason not a quest.  As off-putting as an amnesiac may seem, one that has no real interest in regaining his past must be nothing less than terrifying.  Our Man is neither embarrassed nor scared that he cannot remember his name, his childhood ("a gloomy night," he tells an acquaintance), or his line of work; he is simply annoyed that everyone wishes to pigeonhole him on the basis of this information (the welder's mask, for example, is corroborated by a suggestion made later that he has worker's hands, an accusation to which he does not take kindly).  Yet the lives of the people encountered along the way towards societal reintregation are even less appealing than his own.  His first friend, an alcoholic in an unhappy marriage who says his wife "hits him, but not in front of the kids," is fascinated by our Man because he too would like to start his life again.  His only happy memories, it would appear, are of his licentious youth.  "You're only young once," he mutters.  But some platitudes are particularly painful. 

There is also the requisite villain, a pedantic policeman who calls himself "The Whip of God" (presumably, a flagellum dei) and turns out to have been a victim just like our Man, and the even more requisite damsel Irma (Kati Outinen).  Irma works at the Salvation Army and first spots the tall and handsome amnesiac while helping to feed Helsinki's homeless and underprivileged.   They, of course, say nothing to one another; but the looks exchanged betray some of the only emotion our Man expresses during his entire plight.  After espying some welders on the docks, he suddenly remembers that portion of his past existence, shows off his skills and is hired on the spot.  Even the bureaucratic impediment of having no name seems to be negligible if he can open a "numbered bank account, like in Switzerland" (in Finland, as it were, this turns out to be impossible).  While he and the only employee chat, the bank is robbed by a client with the requested sum in his account, if frozen because of his having had a loan called in.  The Man's refusal to give a name leads to his temporary incarceration, a fabulous scene with a lawyer and the local head of police, and a reencounter with the bank robber in one of the many bars on Helsinki's landscape.  The holdup also results in a tabloid front-page picture with a headline usually reserved for comic book heroes or criminal masterminds: "Who is this man?"  As if anyone would bother to identify a chain-smoking welder from Northern Finland.

The film is the middle part of Kaurismäki's Finland trilogy, and his motifs and symbols will be familiar to connoisseurs: laconic dialogue, eternal dawn or twilight, emotionally taciturn characters who communicate with their eyes and bodies what their hearts and lips hold back, and a healthy dose of music from the fifties and sixties.  The music is, as always, thematically linked to the progressions in the film (in this case, a dreary Christian band who expands their repertoire to blues upon the Man's recommendation), just as a Greek chorus might have foreshadowed coming events or underscored feelings and thoughts vital to the plot's advancement.  Along the way, we perceive thinly-veiled criticism of the State, capitalism and the methods, although not the teachings, of the Church.  As one character aptly comments, "God's grace reigns in heaven.  On earth you have to fend for yourself."  Even if who you are doesn't mean a thing to you.

Tuesday
Oct132009

The Faith and Industrial Capitalism

Everything about Industrial Capitalism its ineptitude, its vulgarity, its crying injustice, its dirt, its proclaimed indifference to morals (making the end of man an accumulation of wealth, and of labor itself an inhuman repetition without interest and without savor) is at war with the Catholic spirit.

                                                                                                                         Hilaire Belloc

From the title of the above essay in this collection and the opening citation, it may be concluded that we mean the doctrine of the Catholic Church against that of another entity, namely the belief in the power of enriching oneself without limit or conscience – but the true issue lies elsewhere.  The true issue has as little to do with the Catholic Church, or any Church, as it does with the motors and levers of factory growth and maintenance, or even with the gold bullion that factory owners tend to hoard.  We cannot deny a person his ambition to make his life better; indeed, the vast majority of emigration is fueled by precisely that desire.  Nor can we correctly persuade him to forsake almost every penny he has earned for the benefit of a society that did little in his promotion.  He will bellow and bay at our demands for his contribution to the nation that did not want him or his forefathers to cross its border, and will be equally vicious at any charges of chauvinism or selfish interest.  He was poor; he departed a life whose fate was already determined; and he arrived in a land of opportunity, which for a person of proper attitude and energy can be practically any land.  In this land he built a fire.  On that fire he did not roast the morsels that mendicant activity might have secured, or even the stale bread that a laborer gains at the end of another black day.  Instead, he forged an iron scythe and with that scythe he revolutionized the harvest.  And soon enough his invention became the most profitable means to reap what he or any of the enterprising and ruthless persons who copied his scythe certainly did not sow.

Now property in and of itself has long been a principle espoused by the Catholic Church.  After all, it was the Church itself that owned a large amount of Europe before the Reformation, and what was once servitude developed in time into something positive and even dignified – there are, admittedly, few things less dignified than servitude.  Belloc phrases it thus:

The antique world was a servile state; the civilized man of the Graeco-Roman civilization based his society upon slavery .... The Church did not denounce slavery, it accepted that institution.  Slaves were told to obey their masters.  It was one of their social duties, as it was the duty of the master to observe Christian charity towards his slave.  It was part of good work (but of a rather heroic kind) to give freedom in bulk to one's slaves.  But it was not an obligation.  Slavery only disappeared after a process of centuries, and it only disappeared through the gradual working of the Catholic doctrine upon the European mind and through the incompatibility of that doctrine with such treatment of one's fellow men as was necessary if the discipline of servitude were to remain efficient.

Whatever one may think of the Ancient world – and many prefer it still to our current reality – the claims that Belloc makes are undeniable and decidedly pervasive.  Yet to debate whether the Church was primarily responsible for the liberation of the average man from the yoke of decadent overlords is again missing the point by a significant margin.  Christianity does not need a church to implement its ideals; and as its detractors never tire of emphasizing, it often implements policies by which no true Christian could ever abide.  What the Church facilitated, in a form intelligible to the persons who existed at the time as well as to subsequent historians, was a code that could be specifically called Christian and more accurately called moral.  Much of recent philosophy has been devoted to showing that we need no Church or even an Anointed to be moral, which is at once true and untrue.  We can indeed be moral if we understand what pity and love really mean; when we see the history of man, however, we might see something even Greater.  But what we cannot reconcile is the urge to enslave others to make us millionaires with our duty to treat all like equals, equals in dignity, equals in respect, and equals under the law of free will to decide our own fate.  

The antidote to Capitalism was the most radical political movement of the twentieth century, and despite its alleged novelty, there is nothing new to Socialism or Communism or Marxism-Leninism or whatever you wish to call it.  Socialism is the realization that very rich people do not really pay more taxes than an aggregate of citizens making the same amount of money, nor do very rich people really serve any purpose at all apart from enriching themselves further. Socialism is also the realization that trickle-down economics, one of the biggest travesties that economists have ever created, is absolute hogwash.  What trickles down is what the very rich don't need – and you'd be surprised at what they decide they do need – leaving those tasks well below their perceived level or class; you know the kind, the menial errands of the disenfranchised and servile.  But neither is Socialism the answer for a person of moral principles:

What is vaguely called 'Socialism' of which the only logical and complete form worthy of notice in practice is Communism, directly contradicts Catholic morals and is at definable and particular issue with them in a more immediate way than is capitalism.  Communism involves a direct and denial of free will; and that it has immediate fruits violently in opposition to the fruits of Catholicism there can be no doubt .... To promote conflict between citizens, to engage in a class war with the destruction of capitalism as the main end is also directly in contradiction with Catholic morals .... We may say: 'You have a right to fight to prevent the conditions of your life becoming inhuman,' but we may not say, 'You have a right to fight merely because you desire to have more and your opponent to have less.'  

Some rather petty minds may conceive of free will as the right to take what is theirs and leave what they do not need, but that axiom will quickly remind you of another theory.  We may also remember the paradigm case of this English dramatist about two thieves, one of whom was offered Paradise and was saved.  And that other one?  No need to make any presumptions.    

Monday
Oct052009

Dr. Haggard's Disease

What I believe in the morning I doubt at night.  What I'm sure of at night is fantastic in the morning.

                                                                                                                    Edward Haggard

That our emotions and fears are hardly trammeled by our nightmares may seem an obvious point, but at least our nightmares have boundaries.  We all know the sensation of being ensconced in some terrible predicament and then realizing that this situation so differs from the world we know that we cannot be awake (a deceased loved one is alive and kicking; persons of the same age appear twenty years apart; and a job and a country we have never known now constitute our everyday).  Yet another feeling is equally familiar: in the midst of some perfunctory task, we are reminded of something that occurred and yet could not have occurred, and we impute this event to our second existence.  Our second existence comprises a motley collection of thoughts, sentiments and visions – some utterly trivial and peripheral, others clearings in the hedge of our soul's labyrinth – two worlds that bend into one another like a weeping willow and its lake, mirror reflections distorted by the ripples of wind that disturb our serenity.  We are drawn to that willow and that lake like we are drawn to the oxygen they contain, but we sense a strained hum in the clouds that gather upon our approach.  A distant melody that brings us to this fine novel.

We begin on the eve of the Second World War on the seaside villas and villages that surround this body of water, although we will return to London in short order.  It is in London that the eponymous physician, a  callow resident at St. Basil's, one of England's preeminent teaching hospitals, comes to meet an older woman called Fanny Vaughn.  What separates Vaughn from all other women in the world will not be immediately obvious to the reader, nor is it to Haggard himself.  All too often fiction assumes the idealistic shapes of legend, and the flawlessness of the goddesses that haunted the Hellenic mind is imposed upon the earthbound mortals from which we may choose our beloved.  With Fanny Vaughn, however, little advance is made towards her coronation.  She is a simple and bright woman who appeals to a niche within Haggard that the diffident doctor had always hoped would exist:

That night, dear James, your mother took my heart by storm took it without a struggle.  In those first moments I can't have been very articulate, I never am when I'm excited, I tend to become formal, but she understood .... As she leaned over, her gown rippled with reflected light from the chandelier, and what a truly lovely woman she was, I thought already I was fascinated by her, the pale, perfect skin, the slight, slender figure in the shining sheath of satin.  Her dark hair was cut close to the head and gleamed in soft waves in the candlelight.  

Faint light tends to fawn over blemishes, and Haggard spends most of his days before and after Fanny Vaughn in natural dimness.  Yet the more important question is why Haggard is addressing Fanny's son when stories like these, if in second person, are usually made out to the object of their affection.  Unless of course we are dealing with a confession.

The confession reveals nothing unexpected.  Haggard falls in love with the wife of the hospital's chief pathologist (that the latter wastes most of the novel in vain attempts to diagnose his wife's indifference must count as one of its least subtle motifs) and relinquishes the details of their intimacies, albeit with little grunting and moaning, as a diary made out to Fanny's only begotten son.  There are scenes of exquisite tenderness made even sweeter by the fact that Haggard is now a morphine-addicted cripple with little appetite or vim; there are also more than a few observations on the state of his wretched soul.

I understood that our love affair would influence me profoundly define me profoundly for the rest of my life, and this being so, I chose, freely, not to forget.  I would not, I decided, allow the memory to atrophy, to wither and fade, I would keep it fresh, I would nurture it, make of it an object of worship and construct an altar in my heart where I could perform, nightly, my devotions.  I'd realized you see that I was one of those rare men who, having loved, come to understand love as the most significant spiritual activity a man can undertake.  Love, for me, is not ephemeral, it is not a transient emotion, a passing state, a passage or flight into madness or ectasy; I see it, rather, as an exalted or even sacred condition, a condition in which all the highest and best of human faculties are exercised.

Somehow Haggard understands that happiness will inevitably elude those who sit and read poetry on the verandas of their discontent; those quiet minds wait and wait for life to resemble poetry, which it cannot.  True poetry's path must resemble the entrails of life, the pain and redoubtable joy that can only be lived firsthand and relived through the magic of art.  I suppose it would be kind to mention that for much of our story Haggard is indeed depicted as a faithful lover in the spiritual sense.  He loves Fanny for what she is, not what she means to him, which could be a fair definition of genuine affection.  But the errors he commits, and they are numerous, force his delicate, womanly hand into gloves that suit a much bolder personality.  Could anyone truly love a sappy underachiever, if Edward really is cut out to be a physician, which is not the sustained opinion of some of his superiors?  Edward has answers for all these questions, copious answers, but not things he would like to hear repeated.  

Apart from a luxurious yet concise style, McGrath's great asset is his immunity to popular culture.  Never do the banal and easy comforts of lesser writers whisper to Edward, who sits impeached in Elgin, a cliff-bound manor inherited from a recently deceased uncle – the same uncle, mind you, who he had claimed was ill to provide excuses for his adulterous absences.  And when Fanny finally decides to call the whole thing off, he is neither surprised nor hurt.  For him to be surprised, she would have had to leave everything, including her burgeoning pilot of a son, and be with him in a world that was not amicable to betrayal; to hurt him, she would have had to tell him that all this meant nothing.  But she does, in a way, neither.  She pays him a specific compliment whose opposite is implied of her husband, a brutish man who always smells of formalin and chooses to examine cadavers without gloves (The explanation?  They restrain him in his analysis; and after all, he reminds his colleagues, pathology only works upon the failure of organic functions).  Haggard proceeds with the affair knowledgeable of his unrequited devotion, at least outwardly, and then incurs a stab of recognition that will only be hinted at from the following passage:

Do you know the feeling you may not be old enough the ghastly lurch of shock, I mean, that comes when, having thought about a thing for days on end, and then suddenly encountering a point of view in which previously unimaginable categories are employed, all values abruptly shift?

On more than one occasion does Fanny ask Edward to "use his imagination" instead of informing him properly of the minutia that always make adultery a futile romp.  The complications that arise, however, are more than he could have ever imagined.  On second thought, there is little that Edward Haggard's imagination cannot concoct.

Thursday
Oct012009

Poetics (Περί Ποιητικής)

Most people want to believe that we learn enough from books in adolescence so as to be able to do without them in adulthood.  Books are associated with schooling, the symbol of ignorance and immaturity, as well as the concomitant struggle to gain control of one's life, and over time they become less and less necessary because "real life" emerges as the greater priority.  What is "real life"?  I suppose one can presume that what is meant by "real life" in conventional parlance involves the practical features of our existence – money, grooming, cleanliness, the palpable peace of private quarters – and there is nothing inherently wrong with such priorities.  They contain the germ of bourgeois life so widespread and uniform across cultures and centuries that one is almost tempted to dub it human nature.  Until, of course, one takes a closer look and finds the categories and desires outlined distinctly in this seminal work.

Poetry may have infinite meanings for the modern listener who wishes no moral structure upon himself, but for Aristotle and some subsection of his contemporaries the very act of versification implied a certain standard of mimesis of life.  Poetry's aim was neither to educate or intoxicate, but to reconstruct.   Comedy, an art form treated in the Poetics's lost second part, was in any case inferior to epic and tragic poetry, as has remained the case among those of discerning taste.  Without elaborating, Aristotle offers us an explanation as to why pain and suffering seem more vital: comedy finds its foothold in the mockery of those below the average citizen, while tragedy and epic exalt those well above.  This dichotomy would change in the eighteenth century with the advent of what has lamentably been termed a "bourgeois tragedy," but the principle remains true: we look to tragedy and epic poetry as exaggerated summaries of our fatal flaws and regale ourselves in their identification.  And while he acknowledges our attraction to images of "vilest animals and corpses" as our most human method of contemplating the repulsive in an effort to understand it, tragedy and epic have their own rules and regulations.  Tragedy "tends as far as possible to stay within a single revolution of the sun" (which may call to mind this famous modern novel negotiated on those terms), while epic "is unlimited in time span" and, indeed, multifunctional and multidimensional.  He adds the following synopsis:

Tragedy, then, is mimesis of an action which is elevated, complete, and of magnitude; in language embellished by distinct forms in its sections; employing the mode of enactment, not narrative; and through pity and fear accomplishing the catharsis of such emotions.

It is no coincidence that another great artist once defined art as "beauty plus pity": the beauty of life, love and the amazing moments that swell in our memory and pity for losing them all to death or tainting these waters with the blood of inequity and wrongdoing.  The word catharsis has drawn out longer debates as to its precise meaning, but one would do well to emphasize the cleansing effect that first-rate art has on the human soul.  Recalling a lost love, lost happiness, a mistake that ended a friendship or marriage, the death of a relative – all of these instances reinforce the pain that we as adults must endure and watch our contemporaries endure.  A work refracting this suffering in elevated language and with an eye for the most beautiful and memorable details would then qualify under the definition of true tragic poetry.

More interesting still are the criteria for good tragedy, which are six.  Spectacle, diction, lyric poetry, character and thought may seem self-evident, but plot, which is at once the engine of tragedy and pure contrivance, is allotted a special place among its requirements.  Indeed, Aristotle goes so far as to grant it preeminence:

The most important of these features is the structure of events, because tragedy is mimesis not of persons but of action and life; and happiness and unhappiness consist in action, and the goal is a certain kind of action, not a qualitative state: it is in virtue of character that people have certain qualities, but through their actions that they are happy or the reverse .... character is that which reveals moral choice – that is, when otherwise unclear, what kinds of thing an agent chooses or rejects (which is why speeches in which there is nothing at all the speaker chooses or rejects contain no character) .... [Therefore] a plot is not unified, as some think, if built around an individual.  Any entity has innumerable features, not all of which cohere into a unity; likewise, an individual performs many actions which yield no unitary action.  So all those poets are clearly at fault who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, and similar poems: they think that, since Heracles was an individual, the plot too must be unitary.

The solipsism of twentieth-century letters, the dreadfully dull tales that never really look beyond their authors' own crooked noses, might find its anathema in this passage.  It is remarkable that many of these books eschew plot, structure and any form of cohesion for the emotional merry-go-around of the unenlightened, then have the gall to attack the classics' sublime symphonies – but this argument has already won its battle.  That the characters react according to their own decisions and in so doing form a web of intricacies that yields a tragic result seems like a very fundamental premise, yet how often do we heed this advice in our days of me and mine?  There is also the matter of probability and necessity that need not detain us here; suffice it to say that for all its imagination and wonder, poetry triumphs in its universal aspects, in the likelihood or plausibility of what it depicts, even if what it depicts has not quite occurred. 

Other observations complete the portrait that Aristotle desired: the inferiority of the episodic plot; the four elements of characterization (goodness, appropriateness, likeness and consistency); the reservation of deus ex machina for very select circumstances; and every tragedy's need for complication and dénouement.  Much is also said regarding epics, yet one gains the distinct impression that Aristotle thought less of their capacity to imbue us with emotion than the simple and plain plots of the tragic.   Yet perhaps the most crucial element is what the characters realize and how they change over the course of the plot, what are termed "reversal" (περιπέτεια) and "recognition" (ἀναγνώρισις):

The kind [of recognition] most integral to the plot and action is the one described: such a joint recognition and reversal will yield either pity or fear, just the type of actions of which tragedy is taken to be a mimesis; besides, both adversity and prosperity will hinge upon these circumstances.

We know exactly what turn of events he means, but another point should be mentioned.  Real tragedy cannot involve the evil becoming prosperous, or the prosperous incurring greater prosperity, or even the evil getting their comeuppance; nor can the dual purpose of epic so evident in modern cinema become a factor: that is, there cannot be a good ending for the good and a wicked ending for those who have always been immoral.  No, the truly tragic must involve someone prosperous who tumbles into adversity owing to a mistake – in other words, his own moral choice, however well-intentioned at the time.  It is the lifeblood of fine drama that Stephen chooses Anna, that Ali chooses Emmi, and that Christian chooses to fight back.  There were other paths, paths cleared from snow, paths already well-trodden and as solid as a twenty-year marriage between two people who love and respect each other.  Tragedy is triggered, however, by the impulse that distinguishes us from automatons and allows us to fail; it is the epitome of free will and the fulfillment of a fate that we might have always suspected.  Not that these choices were all mistakes; but then again, erring is really only human.