Saturday, March 19, 2011

This is not just a silly doctrine, it is Manichaean Heresy

I want the American people to know that the use of force is not our first choice, and it’s not a choice that I make lightly. But we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.

I have never been more disappointed for the Harvard Law School in my life, than to read this binary clap-trap from an alumnus who went on to teach the discipline in Chicago. How unutterably like the boy's cultiv-ation of the heroic scowl against inquiries into his nakedness, is this false, belligerent rectitude. What on earth do they feed the Presidents of that nation, that every single one of them feels honour-bound to launch at least an air strike of his own? They feed him self-love, Mr Murdoch, the revolting meal of America's divine right of violence. We sympathise with the boy's menacing discomfiture, but of a statesman we have the right to expect greater ease.

President of the United States
Brazil, 19 March 2011

Saturday commute xix: We crawl all over cities

Pushing winter out of the way - history will record, this all started with the discovery of an almond blossom by Valéry Lorenzo - and were we kind enough to winter this year; did we do it justice, not really entering our mind - we literally sweep the stage, as if clearing it for our spectacle; and this is a very heady time. People will say, we're in love, said the lyricist, putting his finger on these impulses, giving their acts a generic excuse.

But also giving them a not-very-endearing simplification. I would like to know the meaning of this tumult, too. 

An enormous vernal moon broke through an evening's shower this morning to confound my English cocker so, as to take my counsel in the matter - letting me know, en passant, that I was awake, whether I knew it or not. I led him out to chat up the worms, roiling the flower beds, and mark a trail for birds in search of breakfast. The same thing's true of cities, earthworks heaving with the extract of the hour.

Does the night begin with the day or conclude with it? It makes no difference, the outbreak goes on, as Whit observed this morning. In cities, the many little boxes stacked all over the place, which we see as such cute and prim containers of compacted, buzzing life, a swarming to their parapets is commonplace just now - one higher, one lower, making no difference, every one a crest whereon some man will stand, extruded, molting life, responding shirtlessly.

Horace heard all this, and the question caught in his throat:
So it's war again, Venus,
after all this time? ..

Then why, Ligurinus, why
do my eyes sometimes fill, even spill over?
Why, sometimes, when I'm talking
do I suddenly have nothing to say? Why
do I hold you in my arms
in certain dreams, certain nights, and in others
chase you endlessly across
the Field of Mars, into the swirling Tiber?

Odes, IV, i
Richard Howard, translation
Horace: The Odes
  New Translations by
  Contemporary Poets
J.D. McClatchy, editor
Princeton University Press, 2002©

Friday, March 18, 2011

Charles Dickens going once, going twice

I first read Oliver Twist in the high Summer of adolescence, and I know this because it coincided with a historic USGA Open which I attended as a guest of the host club. I discovered the unlimited power of the English novel, in this lone exposure to Dickens: to be one's friend, to be one's own book, even if laid upon a backdrop of dramatic athletic heroics and momentous contest. Boyhood times 10, and with eagles no less.

It has ever after been obvious to me that very profound sensations of growing draw companionship in the privity of reading, and never end.

We hear that adolescence is no fun, but you could have fooled me. If one's ever cut some slack for its extravagant chaos, and benignly enabled to conduct it amidst a few bemused and patient guides, it can be a comparative blast. I don't mean to equate it with the later decades of tomfoolery, but I can't say I regret it. 

The boy stirred and smiled in his sleep, as though these marks of pity and compassion had awakened some pleasant dream of love and affection he had never known. Thus, a strain of gentle music, or the rippling of water in a silent place, or the odour of a flower, or the mention of a familiar word, will sometimes call up sudden dim remembrances of scenes that never were, in this life; which vanish like a breath; which some brief memory of a happier existence, long gone by, would seem to have awakened; which no voluntary exertion of the mind can ever recall.

Graham Greene
The Young Dickens
  The Lost Childhood
  and other Essays
Viking, 1951©

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wherein an obscure taste is suggested if not confided

He was cut short by a bang and a blaze of light, which seemed close to his eyes. As the car sped on it left a floating patch of white smoke behind it, and Syme had heard a shot shriek past his ear.

My God! said the Colonel, someone has shot at us.

It need not interrupt conversation, said the gloomy Ratcliffe. Pray resume your remarks, Colonel. You were talking, I think, about the plain people of a peaceable town.

The staring Colonel was long past minding satire. He rolled his eyes all around the street. It is extraordinary, he said, most extraordinary.

A fastidious person, said Syme, might even call it unpleasant.

Those who cannot endure a little satire with their webs of knightly tripe ought to do all they can to avoid G.K. Chesterton, who carried John Buchan's gentleman amateur hero deeper into his inherent androgyny of form than the Presbyterian cavalier could have imagined. 

Yet those who welcome how a written thriller allows a voluntary rep-rieve from laughter, can only gain more respect for satiric pacing in film at the same time. Great comedy is more than merely polite in its deference to proportion, more than simply ethical in that deference's production of art. It sets a mark of humaneness, and we like to see it. The gentleman amateur hero of androgynous invention - from Cervantes, for example, to Peter Sellers - has the genius to dance girlishly with a globe, to let comedy lend courage against right-wing bullies; and was sorely missed in the bullhorn days of the nation that deported him.

G.K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday
  A Nightmare 
Penguin Books, 1986©

Charles Chaplin
source: Ancient Industries

Another day and counting

In almost all respects, Thursday furnishes a percolating anticipation, which places its remove from Friday in a less excruciating light than the dull addition of days since Monday morning, would suggest. But, still, it has been several generations, it seems, since that great charm we associate with only the last weekend had suffused us with its manifold solace. We have, heretofore, been reluctant to discuss Thursday, and if with this posting we should find ourself at odds with the placid readership of any of our friends, we'd be sorely contrite. For the many who lead the domestic life with accepting grace, perhaps it's just as well if today's sublime suspense were lost.

Gert Muyldmans

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Don't make a Seine

The other day, our bituminous New York correspondent wrote in on the matter of the new toy, waxing sentimental on the Age of Tummy. In the genealogy of the soundly planted context, we were put in mind of the valour of tummy displayed in the most celebrated art acquisition of the year (which this is not), and from there, very naturally, reflections on clothing the tummy flooded the mind with their inherent ambivalence of regret and raptest resolve to reveal the line. 

But as we have learned to our betterment [!], it doesn't pay to make a Seine with tummy too far above the fold [or was that, too low beneath it]. This same principle instructs us in how to introduce the young to Peter Arno, an honest enough construction, but too wry to be sprung immediately upon the earphone generation. 

How, then, to ease into that advanced moral choice for the élan to be found, cloaked in the absurd? Why, how else but by allowing them to reason backwards, from what passes for cheek in the architecture of their time? Those whom the gods would acquaint with wit, would first be dunked in .. the prevailing pool. Get them wet, and guide them from there, &c.

The Arno in question may then be placed before them, at such advanced descent on the page as almost to reach the drain, itself. Even there, of course, there's always the risk of laughter's breaking out, to say nothing of that merriment of scrutiny which sometimes attends upon the spontaneously intimate occasion. What is to be done, but to recall the cardinal purpose of tummy, which is to be clothed but not unseen? And for this process, this consequence, this effect and this consummation, the gods allow us the example, still, of how it's done, in film imagery we forbear to exhibit, for its flaunting of excruciating tummy.

Every boy has his bar, his drink, his pianist and his song. Peter Mintun would play this faultlessly for me at L'Étoile as they served our champagne. It's the happiest reflection on getting dressed I ever expect to hear. I learned it at home. What are they playing for children these days?

Con Conrad, music
Herb Magidson, lyric
A Needle in a Haystack
Fred Astaire
The Gay Divorcée
Mark Sandrich, director
RKO, 1934©

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reading Kazantzakis as a friend

Judas sighed with vexation. This fellow just can't be caught, he reflected; he can't be caught, because he has no fear of death .. 

I have a friend who is Greek, who knows I like to study modern Greek poetry and pretty much all I can get my hands on, that's excellent from Greece. He tells me, if I want to understand Greece, I have to read Nikos Kazantzakis' Last Temptation. I've been putting it off for years, although I've started it several times. It disturbs me.

This problem arises because I want to understand my friend. I think I cannot do this without going to Greece, which I intend to take the time to do. Until then we meet in Greece by other means, and so this novel weighs on my mind as every Lent rolls around. 

I still haven't been able to read it except as an obligation to someone's advice. Coupled with the narrative's exotic subject matter, the ordinary problem of reluctance is compounded by the haunting question, What if I should like it. A bachelor resists a new passion, and can ill afford escalation in a rapport with a distant friend.

At the moment, he's deeply in the Balkans, for his final ski holiday of the season. I think of him at play in these ancient fastnesses of the Greek diaspora, fortress slopes, such playgrounds for the moment that their history all but vanishes in white. The sense that he's away seems to open a window for reading Kazantzakis as if it were one's own idea.

Sentences of friendship close upon us surrep-titiously, casting us into something that can't be contemplated alone. 

Judas, my brother, lie down next to me. The Lord will come in the form of sleep and carry us away. Tomorrow, we'll start off bright and early to find the prophet of Judea, and whatever God desires, that is what will take place. I am ready.

I am ready too .. 

Nikos Kazantzakis
The Last Temptation
  of Christ
P.A. Bien, translation
  pp 158, 206
Simon & Schuster, 1960©

Windmill, Mykonos
Photo: Norman Parkinson, 1962©

Do we note the recurrence of the archetype?

Bob Dylan
Fare the well
The Witmark Demos
Columbia Records
Sony, 2005©

Monday, March 14, 2011

What shall I row for now?

There is no one to say to me, anymore, You did great. No peer, no pedagogue, no protégé comes to me to tease my noggin with emoluments of even seeing what I do, who I am. This is not unusual. The other, was. Oh, one lacked for noth-ing in encouragement, including its secret, treasured corollary, scourging for some good not done. My sibling was my nemesis in this, which made his praise unreason-ably sweet, for no one could ever match it.

A new rowing machine ar-rives in the house today, and Whit has been alert to clearings of one of our large windows over the pond, to prepare for it. The kinks in the neck of blogging are no fun; the nature of our life calls for resuming old play. I know these devices well, they all have their deficiencies. But now the producers of the 'breed standard' have introduced a machine to resemble our stroke under movement over water, and we are one of its "early adopters." We're excited; we miss this kind of exhaustion.

There is no outgrowing the spurrings of this sport, and there is no outgrowing the affections at its core. I know there are single scullers; I know the bliss of what they do. But those indulgences are available by other means - the taking of pictures, for one. 

I row to defy the probability of the absurd, that there is no one with me. I row to celebrate that company. Every stroke I take, is weight I never lift alone, and indeed have never known without its sharing. Besides .. it's a toy.

Sir Hamilton Harty, arr
Georg Frideric Händel
Water Music, Air
Herbert von Karajan
Philharmonia Orchestra
July, 1952
Walter Legge, producer
EMI, 1953©
EMI Records, Ltd., 2005©

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Have you any idea, what it feels like to be read in Jersey?

I feel I can impart some of the excitement that settles upon the house of an English dog, when one or another of HM's elegant dominions accounts for itself in our circulation. Without making too much of it, it's unquestionably cause for a conspicuously unbroken biscuit, and an unscheduled run before naptime on a Sunday afternoon. Readers will well remember the stir that was caused by our reaching Kuala Lumpur, but our taste for Kipling is containable with a fond pat on the rump and a ruffling of one's ears. Jersey, on the other hand, conjures Isabel Adjani as Adèle H, which is to say, Isabel Adjani for so much as an instant's reprieve from gravity, itself. Readers of the ineffably worldly Little Augury will need no introduction to that jejune, spontaneous daub of enthusiasm we splashed for her there, merely to encounter The Face, with nowhere to turn. Now, to think that the same demure tectonic relic she paced while pining for Lieutenant Pinson, furnishes shelter to a reader of ours, is to lift the whole fulcrum of our resolution overhead, to trod the very galaxies for traces of her sighs.

Isabel Adjani
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

François Truffaut
L'histoire d'Adèle H.
Les Filmes du Carrosse, 1976©

I think I have Hazlitt's problem with Michelangelo

More and more, I respect William Hazlitt. I would always have conceded his genius as an essayist and polemicist (not the same thing, unless you're a Republican); but I never would have thought to mature with affinity for his arbitration of Romanticism's distinction between imagination and understanding, as life seems to encourage these days.

From my father's example I acquired the gift for feeling love for a man where, to most people, I suppose gratitude would have to do. His response to Michelangelo locates an unease I regard as natural and undeniable, yet so percipient as to be attractive and brave.

We are likely always to have to deal with Michelangelo's grandeur, but with Hazlitt's perspective I think we can heal ourselves of idolatry. We desire this relationship with a cre-ative form which is about ourselves, unless we are Republican and need one to dominate us. With On Gusto, he begins:

Michelangelo's forms are full of gusto. They everywhere obtrude the sense of power upon the eye. His limbs convey an idea of muscular strength, of moral grandeur, and even of intellectual dignity: they are firm, commanding, broad, and massy, and capable of executing with ease

the determined purposes of the will. His faces have no other expression than his figures, conscious power and capacity. They appear only to think what they shall do, and to know that they can do it .. the gusto of Michelangelo consists in expressing energy of will without proportionable sensibility.

A false and tragic, sterile eroticism hoists this famous figure as its idol to this day. It was important for Hazlitt to detect the automaton within the mold we know so well. It was important for Simone Weil to frame its character for us in her wartime masterpiece on the Iliad: 

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away - that 'x' that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.

Hazlitt's great essay on Coriolanus anticipates Weil's reading of the Iliad completely, and illustrates the comparison he draws in On Gusto, between Michelangelo and Correggio - In Correggio's faces as well as figures we see neither bones nor muscles, but then what a soul is there, full of sweetness and of grace .. There is sentiment enough in a hand painted by Correggio to set up a school of history painters.

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another. The one is a monopolising faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of present excitement by inequality and disproportion; the other is a distributive faculty, which seeks the greatest quantity of ultimate good, by justice and proportion.

That our news is full of a culture spun off its core by accelerating aggrandisement over proportion and justice, has brought Hazlitt from the classroom of the well-educated to the ramparts of humane dealing in all our callings. Merely to think of Wisconsin is to embrace Hazlitt's qualms with David, his horror of Coriolanus - in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase though they do not share in the spoil. We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books, they will put in practice in reality.

We study the Iliad, and Coriolanus as its relay in our language. Do we not remember being given this language, as spoils to be distributed; and was this gift no spark of purest gratitude, to draw on even in a darker time? We have friends to care for, lives to live for with it still.

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)
Ronald Blythe, editor
Selected Writings
Penguin English Library, 1970©

Simone Weil
The Iliad, or the poem of force
Christopher Benfey, editor
War and the Iliad
New York Review Books, 2005©