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Entries from October 1, 2012 - October 31, 2012

Wednesday
Oct312012

The White People

Have you ever wandered through the British countryside in the early springtime's glory?  Or kissed the white lilies that line the pagan hillock paths?  Or watched the moon sit upon some crooked autumn branches, bare and baleful like a claw?  Or considered a sylvan scene that should never be considered, even if it be, for some, "that wonderful secret in the secret wood"?  And who are these some?  The some should not be known to you and me, or, in fact, anyone who wishes himself a happy, normal life.  For those, however, who long to be reft of the gladsome daytime sun and cast into a realm where every object seems animated towards an ulterior, not in any way beneficent purpose, there have always been methods and means to that end.  And hints about that perilous wish are strewn generously throughout this famous work.

All stories of the supernatural or uncanny need a skeptic, and we attach this regrettable agname to the very British and very serious person of Mr. Cotgrave.  Cotgrave the Skeptic sounds precisely like a lifelong fool, although this may change with the course of our narrative.  As we begin, however, he still counts himself among those allegedly learned minds who will never believe anything their five senses cannot relay within the thin framework of their realities.  What is particularly laughable about such types is that they often fancy themselves profound men of philosophy, as if philosophy, like beauty, were only skin and fossil deep.  For that reason Cotgrave has strong misgivings about the wisdom espoused by his host, a mysterious man by the name of Ambrose, who disabuses him of his notion of the nature of evil:

I think you are falling into the very general error of confining the spiritual world to the supremely good; but the supremely wicked, necessarily, have their portion in it.  The merely carnal, sensual man can no more be a great sinner than he can be a great saint.  Most of us are just indifferent, mixed-up creatures; we muddle through the world without realizing the meaning and the inner sense of things, and, consequently, our wickedness and our goodness are alike second-rate, unimportant.

One wonders how rapidly theologians would cavil at this generally accurate statement for fear of then equating great evil with great good, but we can and should put aside these cares.  The paucity of true saints, Ambrose argues, implies there are even fewer true sinners because the latter path is considerably more cumbersome.  The easy vices of everyday life, sloth, lust, and its merry companions, are just that – easy: the lazy and sensual recourse of those who only care about themselves and their basic terrestrial pleasures.  As loathsome as these people can become, they are not terrifying or even particularly flagitious; instead, their lives are shallow, dull, and fickle, a vacuous pendulum swinging between satisfaction and some lack thereof.  True evil requires an extraordinary desire to poison life, since the world generally guides minds away if not to good, then to (vicious) indifference.  And true evil has already been revealed to Ambrose in, of all things, the diary of a teenage girl with the innocuous title of "The Green Book."

The interpolation of this logbook creases our tale in three, but we should restrict comment on what it contains for the very simple reason that the author herself does not seem to know – at least not yet.  Once upon a time, when she was eight or thereabouts, she was taken by her nurse to some lovely country field where she saw something she shouldn't have seen, and it reminded her of something she believes she has always seen, namely "little white faces that used to look at me when I was lying in my cradle."  Our narrator informs us that everything about these creatures – their houses, their mountains, and their clothes – had the same colorless hue.  That is to say, white is the amalgamation of all color: it is black that has no light.  But in "The Green Book" there are also patches of black; take, for example, her twice-told tale about a young local woman:

Once upon a time there was a poor girl who said she would go into the hollow pit, and everybody tried to stop her, but she would go.  And she went down into the pit and came back laughing, and said there was nothing there at all, except green grass and red stones, and white stones and yellow flowers.  And soon after people saw she had the most beautiful emerald earrings, and they asked how she got them, as she and her mother were quite poor.  But she laughed, and said her earrings were not made of emeralds at all, but only of green grass …. And one day she went to the Court, and she wore on her head a crown of pure angel-gold, so nurse said, and it shone like the sun, and it was much more splendid than the crown the king was wearing himself, and in her ears she wore … emeralds, and [a] big ruby was the brooch on her breast, and [a] great diamond necklace was sparkling on her neck …. And she was so lovely that everybody said that her eyes were greener than the emeralds, that her lips were redder than the ruby, that her skin was whiter than the diamonds, and that her hair was brighter than the golden crown.  So the king's son said he would marry her, and the king said he might.  And the bishop married them, and there was a great supper, and afterwards the king's son went to his wife's room.  But just when he had his hand on the door, he saw a tall, black man, with a dreadful face, standing in front of the door, and a voice said:

Venture not upon your life,
This is mine own wedded wife.

Then the king's son fell down on the ground in a fit.  And they came and tried to get into the room, but they couldn't, and they hacked at the door with hatchets, but the wood had turned hard as iron, and at last everybody ran away, they were so frightened at the screaming and laughing and shrieking and crying that came out of the room.  But next day they went in, and found there was nothing in the room but thick black smoke, because the black man had come and taken her away.  And on the bed there were two knots of faded grass and a red stone, and some white stones, and some faded yellow flowers.

I suppose there are more hideous passages in the annals of literature, but not many.  Our young narrator seems to comprehend the true meaning of these events, yet believes they could not possibly befall her for one very good reason: she, unlike the bride bedecked in jewels, would be a far more willing mate.  Several other anecdotes arise, all of them almost inconceivably wicked, yet all of them inconceivably delightful to our narrator.  One involves moonlight dances and "secret things ... brought out of some hiding place," a scene where, "sometimes people would suddenly disappear and never be heard of afterwards, and nobody knew what had happened to them."  Another sequence details the hunting of a white stag of boundless energy and ends in what the pursuer believes is a kiss, even though we know otherwise.

Machen's shadowy world has garnered him both recognition and scorn (alas, the two are common companions), but even the most impartial of observers cannot deny the beauty of the English countryside, a beauty that has set off a thousand poets' imaginations.  There are numerous moments in The White People of such startling vision, filtered through the diction and imagery extant to a teenage child, that one shudders at what that same child's mind would have produced had she lived long enough to carry out her deeds.  A last, unremittingly horrible passage has to do with a woman known as Lady Avelin, although she was also known as Cassup, and her ritual of forging an object called the glame stone.  And what can you do with a glame stone?  The same thing, one supposes, you can do with a statue "of Roman workmanship, of a stone that with the centuries had not blackened."  If you happen to know what to do with that.   

Friday
Oct262012

Death and the Maiden

We will die from so much past.

                                                                       Gerardo Escobar

I will let the past become the past.

                                                                       Paulina Escobar, quoting Gerardo Escobar

Politics and art have, wonderful to say, very little in common, which is why an artistic mind will typically shun the affairs of state and its denizens as the hapless pursuit of the mediocre, the greedy, and the petty.  This is hardly an exaggerated assessment.  Yet those of us fortunate enough to live in a nation where we can place and replace our leaders may take for granted suffrage, privacy, and the slew of other freedoms which has predicated many a revolution.  We may bemoan small inconveniences and frivolous mistakes; we may demand more of our government than we need to demand, just because our government has kept us peaceful and prosperous long enough to raise our expectations; and we may forget about some other places, less fair and less free, where the government is built not to serve the people but to breed and devour them like cattle.  Much like, we are told, the recently deposed government in this film.

That other place will be "a country in South America ... after the fall of the dictatorship," the film's sole caption, flashed a few minutes into our story – but we should say something about those first few moments.  We are in a luxurious concert hall that could be in Europe or the Americas, with our eyes on an attractive, cygnet-necked woman around the age of forty.  Her eyes, however, are directed in horror at the stage, where a quartet plays this famous piece.  A man in the next seat, probably her companion for the evening or much, much longer, stares achingly at a person who, he believes, may reveal herself at any moment.  We do not know what memories stir within her, what images are summoned by these frenzied notes, but they cannot be those of happiness or glory.  After that brief glimpse at our heroine, we are left to contemplate the quartet in tempestuous concentration until the aforementioned caption drastically changes our scenery.  We enter an isolated house and behold an isolated woman, the first of our cattle and the woman from the theater.  Her name is now legally Paulina Escobar (Sigourney Weaver), but once upon a time, fifteen years ago, to be exact, she was Paulina Lorca.  Fifteen years ago – to wit, in the early months of 1977 – Paulina Lorca was a student activist who had the very bad luck of loving her current husband, at the time a pseudonymous newspaper editor, Gerardo Escobar (Stuart Wilson), so much as to have literally gone through hell to protect him.  They have lasted twenty years; they have no children; and when Gerardo shows up in the pouring rain, the passenger in a car not his own, they seem to have almost nothing to do with one another.  Gerardo arrives, soaked, out-of-shape, and apologetic to find a chicken dinner already sampled by his wife during that long wait ("unceremonious" was a word coined for how she serves herself).  A wait during which she just so happens to hear that the President has just appointed Gerardo Escobar head of the new human rights commission to investigate the evils of the not-so-ancien régime.  And in the middle of this thunderstorm, her husband, the victim of both the elements and his wife's forgetfulness, pulls up in a car driven by an ostensible good Samaritan, a small, wiry, and unpleasantly energetic man called Dr. Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley).

His wife's forgetfulness?  Given the cyclone of subsequent events, critics have tended to overlook the fact that when Gerardo incurs a flat tire, he has a spare in his trunk.  The only problem is that the spare itself is flat, having never been replaced by Paulina after her own breakdown a while back.  This will prove to be an important detail, because if Death and the Maiden has one motif, it is willpower and choice.  Yes, the heavens flooded the earth and obliged Gerardo to "leap in front of" Miranda's car; yet it was Paulina's lack of foresight that enabled chance to take its course.  As he deposits his grateful passenger at his isolated home, Miranda's ears prick up at the name Escobar ("Escobar, the lawyer?"), and he scrutinizes the house with no small interest.  Is this a dramatic glitch?  Could he possibly know that Paulina is inside?  The matter is never quite clarified, and, in any case, we will get more than one version of the truth.  And the truth is a poorly guarded secret: in the same fateful year of 1977, Paulina Lorca had been distributing copies of an anti-government newspaper when she was abducted by the forces she had long sought to oust.  Two months later, after a sixteen-hour-a-day living hell in which she was subjected to evils that no human being should ever conceive of, much less physically endure, she was released because it was determined that she did not know the editor's true identity.  She came home to her Gerardo, the boyfriend and editor whose life she had just spared, and found him in bed with another woman.  "How many times did you sleep with her?" she will ask him late in our film.  He cannot count how many, but they had been lovers for about a month at that point.  A month, her whole body asks.  Yes, because it took about a month for him to believe, with all the plausibility of experience, that Paulina Lorca was no longer among the living.  This revelation to her is payback for what she reveals to him: that not only was she tortured for two months, but she was also raped repeatedly, and the perpetrator was none other than Dr. Roberto Miranda.    

These paragraphs rhyme in Miranda because Paulina's world has always rhymed in the same smell, the same voice, the same manner of speech, all aspects of a past that has become an unbreakable fortress of ice frozen around the present.  As she was blindfolded in captivity, she never saw her purported captor, whose name comes from mirar, to look or watch (in delightful irony, the name Escobar evokes escoba, a broom to sweep all the dirt under some rug).  Could she be mistaken?  Some may say it would be impossible to be wrong unless one were deluded; but people do modulate their behavior, habits, and voice, especially when they have something to hide.  But there is one more proof: every time her invisible assailant entered her, he played Schubert's stormy piece for ambience.  While sadists have been known to aspire to culture or what they perceive as culture, this sidelight, which informs the entire play and christens it, has another implication: that the educated, the sophisticated, and the cultured were as involved in the evils of this unnamed country as the quick-twitch thugs who existed solely to destroy the disobedient.  Miranda revisits the Escobars' residence that fateful night, allegedly to return a tire but also to wax more than a bit toady to the new head of the human rights commission.  "I've followed your career ever since you petitioned on behalf of the missing prisoners in –" but Miranda does not attempt to finish this compliment and Gerardo waves it off modestly.  Miranda is insecure, or so it seems, and a bit too bent on coming off as an intellectual: he is a little too sardonic, too interested in quoting famous thinkers, too smug about life's vicissitudes.  And as he is invited in for a drink to celebrate his kindness, his voice is recognized by a hidden Paulina in a very effective sequence of gestures and actions.  Within a couple of hours, Paulina will have hijacked and demolished Miranda's car (not before, however, she finds a damning object), effectively stranding him in that isolated house, and Miranda and Gerardo will have drowned themselves in booze and low-key misogyny.  Believing Paulina to have left him for good, Gerardo retires for the night only to wake up and find his bleeding, gagged guest bound to a chair under the gun-toting watch of his long-suffering wife.  And this wife has a long-devised plan for Dr. Roberto Miranda.

Since we have only three characters, more or less one set, and a whole lot of talking, we may safely assume that the work was originally a playPolanski elects to maintain the cadence and projection common to the stage; the dialogue seems overfraught with meaning; even asides come off as histrionic.  What lies behind this artistic choice?  Probably the implication of a façade: Paulina, Gerardo, and Miranda are all playing roles, roles they have taken up to protect themselves from memories, pain, or criminal prosecution.  More natural dialogue might have reduced the whole production to a cheap thriller; as it were, we are constantly reminded we are watching great tragedy unfold.  Weaver is a rather attractive woman, but possesses a tomboy quality, as well as a strong jaw, a man's height, and shorter hair that all lend her much-needed toughness.  While it is perhaps not fair to say that a more delicate-seeming female would not have survived the same ordeals, we also do not know how she was before April 1977.  That she seems scarred but determined makes her a very plausible victim (flagellation marks spider across her back), especially considering the events of the film's second half.  While this is indeed Weaver's show, and her acting is splendid (Kingsley, with a far less challenging part, is likewise excellent), it is, interestingly enough, Wilson who has the toughest role and he is bizarrely flawless.  The victim who can soliloquize on the evils committed upon her person (the camera gives her the entire frame for minutes on end as Weaver unfurls wickedness after wickedness) lends itself to melodrama, self-loathing, and bloodlust; the ostensibly malevolent doctor has been performed a thousand times, although Kingsley brings a particular emptiness to the role, a concentrated effort to have absolutely no personality and yet still be a 'normal' citizen.  It is the portrayal, however, of a pasty, cowardly, weak, and indecisive lawyer who not once – not the entire film – shows an ounce of courage that is nearly an impossible feat, and Wilson acquits himself grandly.  So when, very late in our film, he tells Paulina, "I love you.  I love you.  It has been the logic of my life.  But I have a feeling it's going to destroy me," he is utterly and wonderfully convincing.  Alas, the same cannot be said of Dr. Roberto Miranda.

Monday
Oct222012

La otra muerte

A short story ("The other death") by this Argentine.  You can read the original here.

A couple of years ago perhaps (I have lost the letter), Gannon wrote from Gualeguaychú and announced he would be sending me a version, maybe the first Spanish version, of the poem The Past, by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In a postscript he added that Don Pedro Damián, of whom I would retain some memory, had died the other night from pulmonary congestion.  Devastated by fever, the man had relived in his delirium the day-long bloodbath of Masoller.  This news seemed predictable, almost conventional, to me, since Don Pedro, when he was about nineteen or twenty, had fallen into the ranks of Aparicio Saravia.  The Revolution of 1904 led him to sojourn in Río Negro or Paysandú where he labored on a farm.  Pedro Damián was from Entre Ríos, an entrerriano, from Gualeguay to be exact, but went where his chums were, fully participating in their excitement and their ignorance.  He fought in a skirmish and then in the final battle.  Repatriated in 1905, he reassumed his field laborer duties with humble tenacity.  As far as I know, he never again abandoned his native province.  He would spend the last thirty years of his life in a very isolated place a league or two from Ñancay. 

Around 1942 or so, amidst this state of neglect, I chatted with him one evening; I should say, I tried to chat with him.  He was a taciturn fellow of feeble intellect.  The Masoller sound and fury had swallowed up all his other narratives, and it did not surprise me that he relived those memories at the moment of his death.  Knowing I would never see Damián again, I wished to remember him.  So poor is my visual memory that I only recalled a photograph of him which Gannon had taken.  There is nothing strange about this fact if we consider that I saw the man only once, in early 1942, and then many times in effigy.  Gannon sent me this photograph.  I lost it and have not looked for it.  I would be afraid to find it again.        

A second episode took place months later in Montevideo.  The entrerriano's fever and agony gave me the idea of writing a fantasy tale about Masoller's defeat; Emir Rodríguez Monegal, to whom I recounted such a plot, provided me with a few lines for Colonel Dionisio Tabares, who had taken part in this campaign.  The colonel received me for an after-dinner talk.  From a rocking chair on his patio, he recalled with little structure but great affection the days that once had been.  He spoke of munitions that never arrived, exhausted horses, sleeping, earth-colored men weaving in their labyrinthine marches; he spoke of Saravia, who could have entered Montevideo and who turned off route, "because that gaucho was scared of the city"; of men whose throats were cut all the way around their necks; of a civil war that to me seemed less like a collision of two armies than a crafty gaucho's dream.  He talked about Illescas, about Tupambaé, about Masoller.  He did so with passages so dignified and in so lively a manner that I understood that he had mentioned these same things many times, and I feared that behind his words almost no memories remained.  During a respite I managed to interject Damián's name.    

"Damián?  Pedro Damián?" said the colonel.  "He served with me.  A pansy whom the boys called Daymán."  He let out a loud laugh, then stopped just as suddenly, either out of feigned or genuine discomfort.

In another voice he said that war was like a woman: it served as a test for men.  And before entering into battle no one knows who he is.  Someone could think himself a coward and turn out to be valiant; by the same token, the opposite could occur, which was what happened with poor Damián, who went prancing around the local stores with his white insignia and then lost heart at Masoller.  In some shootouts with the zumacos, he comported himself like a man; but it was another matter when the armies drew up, the cannonade began, and every man felt like five thousand men had united to kill him.  Poor lad, who had spent his days bathing sheep and who was quickly dragged off by that jingoistic lot.  

Absurdly, Tabares's account embarrassed me.  I would have preferred that the events had not happened this way.  With old Damián as I had glimpsed him one evening many years ago, I had fabricated, without intending to do so, a sort of idol; Tabares's account destroyed it.  All of a sudden I understood Damián's reserve and obstinate solitude: these actions had been dictated not by modesty, but by embarrassment.  In vain I repeated to myself that a man hounded by an act of cowardice was more complete and more interesting than a man who was merely spirited.  The gaucho Martín Fierro, I thought, was less memorable than Lord Jim or Razumov.  Yet if Damián, as a gaucho, were obliged to be Martín Fierro – above all, before eastern gauchos.  In what Tabares said and did not say I perceived the rugged flavor of what was called Artiguism: the (perhaps incontrovertible) awareness that Uruguay was more fundamental than our country and, in the end, more brave ... That night, I remember, we bid farewell with exaggerated effusiveness.

In the winter, one or two details for my fantasy tale (which stupidly was not assuming the needed shape) still eluded me, engendering a return to the house of Colonel Tabares.  I found him with another gentleman of his age, Doctor Juan Francisco Amaro of Paysandú, who had likewise taken up arms in Saravia's revolution.  Predictably, they had been talking about Masoller.  Amaro recounted a few anecdotes and then added, slowly like someone thinking aloud:   

"I remember we spent the night in Santa Irene, where some others were incorporated into our ranks: a French veterinarian who died on the eve of the action, and a young skier from Entre Ríos, a certain Pedro Damián."

I interrupted him acrimoniously.

"I already know that," I told him.  "The Argentine who lost heart before the bullets."

I stopped; the two were gazing at me perplexed.

"You're wrong, my dear sir," said Amaro finally. "Pedro Damián died as any man would have wanted to die.  It was probably four o'clock in the afternoon.  At the top of the mountain range the Colorado infantry had made themselves very strong; our troops charged them with spears.  Damián was at the head of the attack, yelling, and a bullet hit him in the chest.  He stopped his stirrups, concluded his yelling, rolled to the ground, and remained between the horses' legs.  He was dead and the last charge of Masoller passed right over him.  So brave and yet not even twenty years old. 

He was speaking, doubtless, of another Damián, yet something made me ask what the lad was yelling.

"Bad words," said the colonel.  "Which is what one yells during a charge."

"That may be," said Amaro.  "But he also screamed, 'Viva Urquiza!'"    

We remained silent.  At length, the colonel mumbled:

"It might be a signal were he not fighting in Masoller, but at Cagancha or at India Muerta." 

Sincerely perplexed, he added:

"I commanded these troops, and I would swear this was the first time I heard anyone talk of a Damián."

We could not manage to make him remember.  

In Buenos Aires, the stupor engendered by his forgetfulness was repeated.  One afternoon, in front of eleven delightful volumes of Emerson in the basement of Mitchell's English library, I met Patricio Gannon.  I asked him for the translation of The Past.  He said he did not intend to translate it and that Spanish literature was so tedious as to make Emerson unnecessary.  I reminded him that he had promised me that version in the same letter in which he had written about Damián's death.  I told him this, all in vain.  In horror I noticed that he was listening to me with surprise; consequently, I sought refuge in a literary discussion on Emerson's detractors, on that poet more complete, more skillful, and undoubtedly more singular than unhappy Poe.       

A few facts should be noted.  In April I received a letter from Colonel Dionisio Tabares.  He was now no longer uncertain or obscure and remembered very well the little entrerriano who had headed the charge of Masoller and who, that same night, had buried his men at the foot of the mountain range.  In July I passed through Gualeguaychú; I did not pass by Damián's hut, and no one remembered him.  I wanted to ask the rancher Diego Abaroa, who had seen him die; but he too had died before the winter.  I wanted to etch Damián's features into my memory.  Months later, while leafing through some albums, I realized that the gloomy face that I had managed to evoke was that of the celebrated tenor Tamberlinck, in the role of Othello. 

Now I shall run through the conjectures.  The most simple, yet also the least satisfactory, holds that there exist two Damiáns: the coward who died in Entre Ríos around 1946, and the hero who died in Masoller in 1904.  The flaw in this conjecture resides in the fact that it does not explain the truly enigmatic component: to wit, the curious swings in memory on the part of Colonel Tabares, the oblivion which annuls in little time the image and the name of the person who had returned.  (I do not accept, I do not wish to accept a conjecture that is too simple: that I had been dreaming all along.)  More curious is the supernatural theory posited by Ulrike von Kuhlmann.  Pedro Damián, said Ulrike, perished in the battle, and at the moment of his death he begged God to return him to Entre Ríos.  God hesitated for a second before granting this wish, and he who had made this wish was already dead, and several men had seen him fall.  God, who cannot change the past, but can change the images of the past, changed the image of death into that of a faint, and the shade of the entrerriano returned to his native land.  He returned, but we must remember the shade's condition.  He lived in solitude, without a wife, without friends; he loved and possessed everything, but from far off, as if from the other side of a crystal.  He "died," and his image was lost like water within water.  

This theory is erroneous, but to me it must have suggested the truth (that which I believe to be the truth), which is at once the simplest and most unprecedented.  In an almost magical way, I discovered the truth in Peter Damian's treatise De Omnipotentia, the study of which I owe to two verses in Canto XXI of Paradiso, presenting exactly the problem of identity.  In the fifth chapter of this treatise, St. Damian claims, against Aristotle and against Fridugisus, that God can make what once was into something that has never been.  I read these old theological discussions and began to understand the tragic history of Don Pedro Damián.

I divine the truth as follows.  Damián behaved like a coward on the battlefield of Masoller and dedicated his life to correcting this embarrassing weakness.  He returned to Entre Ríos; he did not lift his hand to any man, he did not mark anyone, he did not seek out a hero's fame.  Yet in the fields of Ñancay he became hard, struggling with the mountain and the untamed estate.  He was preparing, doubtless without knowing it, the miracle.  He thought most deeply: if destiny brings me into another battle, I will know how to be worthy of it.  For forty years he maintained this battle with dark hope, and in the end fate brought him a battle, at the moment of his death.  It brought it to him in the form of a delirium, but as the Greeks already knew, we are the shadows of a dream.  In his death-throes he relived his battle and he comported himself like a man, and he headed the final charge and a bullet hit him in the middle of his chest.  In this way, in 1946, owing to a long-held passion, Pedro Damián died in the defeat of Masoller, which occurred between the winter and the spring of 1904.  

In the Summa Theologica, it is refuted that God can make the past into something that has never been, but nothing is said about the intricate concatenation of causes and effects, a chain so vast and intimate that perhaps it would not be possible to annul a single distant fact, as insignificant as it may be, without invalidating the present.  Modification is not the modification of a single fact; it is the annulment of its consequences, which have to be infinite.  To say this in other words: it is the creation of two universal histories.  In the first one (let us say), Pedro Damián died in Entre Ríos in 1946; in the second, in Masoller, in 1904.  The latter is what we are now living, but the suppression of the former was not immediate and produced the incoherencies which I have mentioned.  In Colonel Dionisio Tabares all the different stages were gathered: in the beginning he remembered that Damián acted like a coward; later, he forgot him entirely; then, he remembered his impetuous death.  No less corroborative is the case of the ranch farmer Abaroa; he died, as I understand, because he had too many memories of Don Pedro Damián.

As far as I'm concerned, I do not believe I am running a similar risk.  I have guessed and recorded a process not accessible to man, something akin to a scandal of reason; yet certain circumstances mitigate this fearsome privilege.  For the moment, I am not sure I have always written the truth.  I suspect that in my narrative there are false memories.  I suspect that Pedro Damián (if he existed) was not called Pedro Damián, and that I remember him by this name so as someday to create his story as suggested to me by the arguments of St. Peter Damian.  Something similar takes place with the poem mentioned in the first paragraph that versifies on the irrevocability of the past.  Until 1951, I believed I had created a fantasy tale and had recorded a real event for posterity.  So then did the innocent Virgil, two thousand years ago or so, believe he was announcing the birth of a man and foretold the birth of God.     

Poor Damián!  Death took him at the age of twenty in a domestic battle in a sad, obscure war, and yet he achieved what his heart yearned for, and took a long time to achieve it, and perhaps there is no greater happiness than this.       

Tuesday
Oct162012

The Flower of Evil

Many years ago a friend of mine commented that she did not understand why anyone would read a book or see a film more than once; surely, she implied, we all have better things to do with our time.  That her literary and cinematic tastes differ greatly from mine might be an easy inference by regular readers of these pages, but the matter is more complex than it might seem.  We repeat activities that we enjoy, sometimes owing to the content of the activity, othertimes to the memory of the very first experience (some high-profile drugs apparently pertain to the second category).  Do we watch films for added information and perspective or simply to repeat a high like the reviewing of a wedding video?  Are we drawn in retrospect to films that supported our ideals at the time or the ideals that we have developed with age?  The question is indeed complex, because it skirts that rather nebulous pond as to why we read at all.  Modern critics will inevitably tie our reading habits to the indulgence of our worst neuroses (modern critics, it should be said, think little of us and less of themselves), and could not possibly imagine that certain people would want to edify themselves from the pure joys of artistic creation.  Nor could their jargon-addled brains ever describe what real artistic pleasure entails since they are bound by edicts thankfully unclear to us to reduce everything to some theory of social, sexual, or national gibberish.  We, however, have no such restrictions.  It is possible for us to watch and re-watch a film about a well-heeled but highly unorthodox family in southwest France and revel in the strangeness of its details.  Their life is unlike ours but needs no category, and the film in question is this unusual production.

We begin with the return from the United States of a prodigal son, François Vasseur (Benoît Magimel).  Apart from good looks, money, and the swagger that studying halfway around the world usually begets, François has a certain surliness to him that we also see in the person who picks him up from the airport, his louse of a father Gérard (played up rather filthily by Bernard Le Coq).  Gérard has no redeeming qualities about him.  He ensnares his son in petty arguments as soon as he arrives, talks up the town council campaign of his second wife, Anne (Nathalie Baye), with inappropriate sarcasm, and generally gives the impression of someone who only likes money, power and being right.  His grin indicates something more: he envies the youth of his son because his son's obvious attractiveness allows him countless opportunities with members of the opposite sex.  If he accomplishes nothing else in life – especially considering that most of life has already been accomplished for him – François is determined not to be like his father.  He may get along with his stepmother, but his real interest (and a typical attraction given the circumstances) is his stepsister Michèle (Mélanie Doutey).  Modern critics' pedestrian conclusions regarding the deep-seated need for such a relationship notwithstanding, its occurrence in real life is rather frequent for one very good reason: both participants know beforehand that it will never work out (some people purposely seek out married partners to afford themselves the same exit strategy).  That said, François and Michèle really, really like one another.  Their desires have certainly been abetted by François's prolonged absence, but they do not hide what they want to do to one another and what life would be like if they could just be left to their own devices.  And they never get the chance they want, or, I should say, as many chances as they want, because of that electoral campaign.

The campaign is for a spot on the council of a small town in Bordeaux, an uninspiring if quaint dominion for a woman who has everything.  Anne is undoubtedly that type of woman, and one gets the impression that the position replaces her need to buy fine clothes or dine out at expensive restaurants.  The fact that the town severely lacks both of these amenities makes her turn towards politics all the more likely.  Through Anne, who is elegant, pleasant, and pretty if self-absorbed in a harmless way,  we begin to perceive the outlines of a far graver concern than the lascivious misdeeds of the stepsiblings.  "Everything in this family is a secret" (said more than once) seems to be the motto of a home formed twenty years ago when Anne's husband and Gérard's wife were killed in the same car accident.  And so we are hardly surprised to learn that someone has been writing poison pen letters against Anne indicating that her family has a sullied history, a history that may have bottomed out during this regime.  Although she lets on that she knows who is behind the accusations, Anne proceeds undeterred in her ambition to govern, if that is the right word.  After all, shouldn't a politician, especially of a somewhat backwater locale, be representative of the rabble?  Wouldn't the modest dimensions of such power not suffice for someone accustomed to the finer things in life?  But Anne will not be denied.  Even when she visits low income housing and displays her utter lack of sympathy with and knowledge of the plight of the everyday, we understand that she and her reptilian campaign manager (Thomas Chabrol, the director's son) will stop at nothing to ensure her election.  She shakes a few hands, pets a few children reluctantly on the head, and tries to stay positive about her chances in a manner reminiscent of a shopper bent on getting what she wants even if it means rummaging through every shelf in every store.  This dominative drive does not ebb even in the face of Gérard's unabashed opposition – at which point we consider a rather hideous probability and then put the matter aside as the streams of thought convene into a large pool.  The only question is whether we actually have the intestinal fortitude to look down to the bottom of that pool for old bones.

The critical reception of La Fleur du Mal was decidedly mixed, perhaps owing to a couple of contrivances that surface in the film's final scenes.  Its subtleties more than make up for its plot twists, and there is a sense of justice in the personal choices a couple of the characters make in the end.  Chabrol has directed better and more profound pieces, but few that contain all the elements of a thriller and yet slip into a literary study from a series of perspectives.  The titular reference to this French poet might have to do with the nature of the crimes committed, or simply with a cynical and apprehensive view of humanity in general.   I have also intentionally refrained from mentioning one last character who plays a valuable role in our realization of the truth, even though an attentive viewer might guess the truth early on.  And given the weird clusters of details about  this family, the truth may seem rather banal.

Sunday
Oct142012

Footnote

A man can be jealous of anyone but his son or his pupil.

                                                                                                            Eliezer Shkolnik

For some of us gentle souls, no explosion, alien, or free fall could be more thrilling than intellectual discovery.  Surely, physical achievements in sport or on other battlefields may distract us, even inspire us, because youth's brawn and bravery will always possess a certain appeal.  But for those who believe this world to conceal another existence, one of spiritual and intellectual purity, if that is indeed our fate, it is ultimately what we do with our brain and our soul that really matters.  To wit, our soul should be clean of all wickedness and our brain should be brimming with many lifetimes of knowledge, of understanding, of insight, so that we may pass into our next existence with an idea of what this life is for.  An albeit thin idea, but an idea nonetheless.  And it you would be hard-pressed to find thinner and subtler ideas of what life may constitute than the choices depicted in this fine film.

The coy title of our first vignette is "The most difficult day in the life of Professor Skholnik," especially coy when we consider that shkol'nik is the Russian word for "schoolchild."  We quickly learn that there are two Professor Shkolniks: Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), a Talmudic scholar already past retirement age in many countries, and his fortysomething son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), also a scholar, if one of both lesser and greater ambition.  Eliezer spends his days in silence in the national library and his evenings with ear plugs at home pursuing precisely the same interests: a comparison of a vast and indefinite number of versions of the Talmud in search of discrepancies that may help future scholars better understand the glorious history of the Hebrews.  Uriel, bearded and bug-eyed in that manner commonly incident to madmen and charlatans, is a great popularizer of pseudo-academic works, and very much embodies what the faddish among us like to term a 'rock star.'  As such, it is Uriel not Eliezer who has won nearly every Israeli academic prize imaginable and, as we begin our film, it is Uriel not Eliezer who is being welcomed onto a stage and into the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  An average film would spotlight Uriel as he spouts one platitude after another; a more serious film, however, would, if possible, pan to the person in the audience most affected by the speech, which in this case is a grumpy old Talmudic scholar who happens to share his last name.  Uriel expresses his gratitude to, in order, President Shimon Peres, an academic by the name of Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who will figure into our story's plot in more than one way, and last and perhaps least, his father.  Even if his father is thanked almost perfunctorily as a segue into one of those 'real-life' stories so lame as to justify the need for fiction. 

When Uriel was but a wee lad, eight or thereabouts, he was tasked with a school questionnaire that included the query, "What is your father's profession?"  He had wanted to put "professor," but didn't know whether that was really a "profession" (hysterical laughter from the crowd; perhaps the Hebrew pun is less insipid than the English).  His mother had gently suggested "Talmudic researcher"; his father insisted simply on "teacher."  He was disappointed and ashamed.  "Who boasts at school about his father, the teacher?" wondered an eight-year-old Uriel to his favorite person, himself, and told his father: "I have teachers at school.  You're not a teacher!"  His mother then proposed "senior lecturer" (more hysterical laughter).  But, in the end, a dutiful son heeded an overbearing father's orders and learned to appreciate the profession of a teacher, of "taking from the past generation and passing down to the next."  Uriel's speech concludes with vaguely sincere thanks – sincerity is not his most natural trait – to his father, who all this time appears to have been wincing in pain. 

Then comes one of those scenes that seem to occur only in movies but which actually do happen in real life, in perhaps somewhat less dramatic a fashion.  Our dear Professor Shkolnik – the elder, that is – wanders outside from the fabulous reception and all the fabulous guests and sits for a while alone, his head still down.  Someone on a cell phone is screaming ebullient plans to return to New York for a fundraiser; the guests are all inside, all happy to be with one another; in short, the world is continuing, as it always has, without Eliezer Skholnik's direct participation.  As he attempts to reenter the reception, however, he is stopped by a menacing guard who looks at his hands and asks him the occasion of the reception, a question he refuses to answer.  "Are you a member of the Academy?" asks the guard.  "No," his whole body replies, his face still examining the pavement.  When the guard, with some pity in his beady eyes, finally admits that all he wants to see is a blue wristband (of the kind intimately familiar to binge-drinking American college students), Shkolnik senior has an epiphany of sorts: he looks at all the guests and sees a blue wristband on each one of them.  Now he is not only the one person who doesn't belong at the reception, he also recognizes a deep irony in this oversight as a manuscript expert trained to block out big-picture cohesion for the sake of every individual detail.  At the reception once again thanks to the suddenly benevolent guard, Eliezer's ears are assaulted by those ridiculous 'academic' theories and buzz words that make one cringe in their fraudulence, and then his eyes meet those of the newest member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.  And one look exchanged between the Professors Shkolnik indicates that father has always considered son to be one of those frauds.

Here surfaces one of the hardest of family dilemmas.  Every good parent wants his child to fulfill his potential and succeed to the utmost; but what if the parent thinks his child's success is wholly undeserved?  This is not merely a case of jealousy or envy, but of objective discernment.  Most everyone with enough ambition, luck, and a car salesman's sense of what people want to drive this year can write bestselling mumbo-jumbo; very few can make lasting and original artistic contributions.  What Footnote wisely does not do, however, is sidestep this dilemma by spouting off some nonsense about the meaningless of writing for the future, for immortality, for the perfect reader who may be born decades or centuries after the writer's death.  From its bold introductory music to its rather tantalizing ending, Footnote takes its subject matter very seriously.   The result is twofold: we are inexorably drawn into one crisis after another, and the characters become hilarious because they are not indifferent.  In one scene, Uriel's clothes are stolen from a gym locker room, which leads him to don full fencing garb, a disguise in which he will accidentally spy on his father talking to a female coeval far prettier than Uriel's mother.  In a second, Shkolnik senior grudgingly gives the best-looking journalist God could have ever created (Yuval Scharf) an interview whose most memorable line involves potsherd.  And in a third, Eliezer, who has walked the same route from home to the National Library and back every day for forty years, pauses at a plaque for another scholar, murdered on a similar commute twenty years earlier, which makes us wonder whether the pause has become part of his routine.

Yet for all its comedic wisdom, Footnote remains a generational struggle between two men who go about similar jobs so differently that the distinction must be intentional.  The title itself is proof enough: while Uriel is an unabashed glory-hound, Eliezer contents himself with his once having been mentioned by name, a long time ago it seems, in a footnote in the most authoritative scholarly work on the Talmud.  So when at the very middle of the film a decidedly marvelous event takes place – an event that will embroil both father and son – we begin to learn a great deal more about these two arrogant men and their commitment to their discrete concepts of fairness (perhaps unsurprisingly, the only time that Uriel sounds sincere is when he defends his father's academic achievements to others).  The result is a masterpiece of timing, subtlety, and understated acting the likes of which we rarely see in our days of big, bang, and boom, but this quality in and of itself should not astound us.  If one indeed believes that the written word can endure for millennia and triumph over the trends and trash washed ashore every generation in slightly varied forms, then it is through the written word that we will arrive at the truth.  And why does Uriel's wife call him a coward after he admits that he never cheats on her?  Perhaps because she knows that certain types of people like their truth whole and lovely like an old pot. 

Sunday
Oct072012

Der Husten meines Vaters

An essay ("My father's cough") by this German writer.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

When my father became as old as I am now, he seemed to me (perhaps naturally) to be older than I feel.  Birthdays were not celebrated at our house – this was seen as a deplorable "Protestant habit" – so while I cannot remember a party, a few details come to mind about the mood that reigned in October of 1930.  (My father shared a birth year, 1870, with Lenin, but, I think, nothing more.)

It was a dreary year.  Total financial collapse, and not your run-of-the-mill 'going broke,' either.  Instead, a baffling transaction called an "insolvency proceeding" took place.  It did sound much more noble than "bankruptcy," and was linked to the collapse of a worker's bank whose director, if I recall correctly, ended up behind bars (credit abuses, expired securities, frivolous speculation).  Our house out in the country had to be sold, and not a penny was left over from the amount we received.  Very disturbed by this event, we all moved into a large apartment on the Ubierring in Cologne, at the time directly across from the vocational school.

Bailiff after bailiff, bailiff's seal after bailiff's seal.  We would rip them off provided they had been freshly applied, in defiance of this premature attempt to seize our belongings.  In time, however, we grew indifferent and let the stickers be stuck.  Soon we noticed that some of the furniture had truly become 'seal colonies' (the piano, for example).  We got along with the bailiffs; sardonic remarks were exchanged, of course, but neither party ever strayed into vulgarities.

I also remember the politically-charged design of the four-pfennig coin involving an emergency decree and a tobacco tax.  This four-pfennig piece was a large, beautifully sculpted copper coin, although it may be that the coin first came out in 1931-32.  The Nazis marched triumphantly into the Reichstag; Brüning was still in office then; and the paper we read then was the Kölnische Volkszeitung.  My older siblings, however, swore by the RMV (Rhein-Mainische-Volkszeitung).

No more playing games outside.  Very painful.  In the suburb of Raderberg we used to play street hockey with old umbrella crooks and empty milk boxes, rounders sometimes, football less often, in the park by the promontory.  The park's roses were also snipped with what we called a Flitsch, a crotch, but which in other German regions is referred to as a Zwille.  When tossing tires we would slip old bicycle rims down a mild meadow cliff; the person whose tire rolled the farthest was the winner.  Records were set; tire battles went around the entire extended block; but using purchased wooden tires was considered inappropriate.  Ping-pong on the terrace, scarecrows in the garden; target practice with air rifles on unused light bulbs which still had bayonet screws.  We saw nothing military in these shooting exercises, much less anything war-like.  Ten years of freedom and too many idle games for me to count.  (The blazing torches on St. Martin's Day, the paper kites we would build and launch, the marbles we would play.)

In the long hallway of the Ubierring apartment we continued our target practice, now with standard-issue targets and pins called Flümmchen (which, I find in old Wrede's dictionary, comes from Flaum, "down" or "fluff," which in turn comes from the Latin pluma; looks like our pins had swabs).  Whoever happened to be in or going into the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom during these exercises had, of course, to be warned.  The general mood was insouciance and fear, so they cancelled each other out.  Of course not all of our income was reported to the bailiff.  We were paid under the table for certain jobs, while also earning money by renting out our appliances for joinery and carpentry work.  Recently, I came across this passage in Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies: A Love Story: "If you wanted to live, you had to break the law, because all laws condemned you to death."  We wanted to live.

Things proceeded modestly and yet modesty did not become our watchword.  We had enough worries and debts as it was: rent, food, clothes, books, heat, electricity.  Against all this only temporary insouciance was of any help, and only because it was temporary.  Somehow money had to be drummed up for the cinema, for cigarettes, for the coffee we could not do without, all of which was met with only occasional success.  It was during this time that we got to know all the pawnshops.

Yet all of this was not as much fun as it might sound.  The more modestly life rambled on, the less of a watchword modesty became.  I recall with gratitude the loyalty of my older siblings who spared me, the youngest, from so much, even now and then hiding certain things.  Yet what most distressed me during this time was my father's cough.  He was a svelte man: between the ages of nineteen and eighty-four his body weight fluctuated only by one or two kilos; only when he turned eighty-five did he begin to waste away.  He did things in moderation, but he also liked to smoke; yet he never inhaled and never let anyone take away his Lundis (at least not entirely!), thin, pungent cigarillos in small tins.  In this respect he was sad, as well as powerless against the circumstances, and I think sometimes that we children did not properly take part in his mourning.

His cough even outyelled the powerful roar of the number sixteen streetcar; we could hear the cough then from a good distance.  But his cough most distressed me on Sundays in the overcrowded Basilica of St. Severin.  We never went 'all together' to mass, always individually, and it was rare that two or three siblings shared the same pew.  And so we would wait, each in his seat, full of dreadful tension, to hear our father's cough, which would suddenly break out, rise almost to suffocation levels, then, as my father exited the church, peter out anew.  We also understood that he would then stand outside and smoke a Lundi to better his cough. 

Now that I am as old as my father was then, I see that I seem to have inherited his cough (and I am not alone).  There are a few of them in our household who, if I parked on a street choked with cars, would recognize me by my cough, even during the loudest traffic.  I rarely need to ring a doorbell or stick a key in a keyhole; the door is already open before I can do either one.

My cough must lie on wavelengths which penetrate not only traffic jams and screeching brakes, but also many a tap and tattoo, although I do not think one may call my cough "penetrating."  It is composed of variations of different forms of hoarseness, usually expresses some kind of embarrassment, and is only rarely a sign of a cold.  And there are those who know that it is more than a cough – as well as less.

My one-year-old granddaughter, for example, seems to understand it as a form of language or address.  She imitates it, and the two of us converse in coughs, which assume an amused and ironic character and in which we clearly have something to express.  Here I think of Beuys, who once addressed someone solely by clearing his throat and coughing slightly, a very clever way, as it were, of addressing someone.

Perhaps we should establish throat-clearing schools, at the very least experiment with throat-clearing as a school subject.  We should likewise free throat-clearing from its dumb index finger function – a sort of warning of impending tactlessness during a conversation.  The art pour l'art of coughing and throat-clearing.

We should also consider whether some very smart people might want to devise a throat-clearing letter to the editor.