Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


The Devils – When Church and State are one

December 12, 2010

The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that.  Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it!  The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have.  It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.

Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master.  Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it.  Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace.  Richelieu will have none of that:  he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.

Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like.  Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins.  Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose.  His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead.  The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power.  Church and State – no separation…

The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’.  The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild.  Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths.  (Click to enlarge the images.)

The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion.  The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”

Oliver Reed is great as Grandier.  Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town.  Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example).   These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life.  The expressionistic set design is fabulous.

Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.

She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.

In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair.  She is beautiful, not a cripple.

Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.

Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…

An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross.  She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied.  Religious fervor can go too far.

Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls.  He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them.  Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice.  “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told.  The king is impatient.  He’s having fun taking aim

at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds.  Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king.  A plot is hatched.

An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going.  A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill.  Yes, such things did go on.  And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses:  was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day?  I don’t know.

The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film.  Devils?  Within and without.

Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft.  He understands the situation perfectly.

Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in.  His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn.  The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard!  Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!

With his death, the Cardinal has his way.  The walls come down.  The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary.  Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.


Superman at Canterbury?

January 17, 2010

Was Thomas Beckett, murdered archbishop of England, a Nietzschean Superman?

Despite my raging Anglo-philia of boyhood, I never saw Beckett (1964) with Peter O’Toole as HenryII, and Burton as Thomas Beckett, his Chancellor, and then archbishop of Canterbury.  Based on Jean Anouilh’s play, it is the story of an intense friendship between two men who understand power a little differently.  King Henry, a bit of a spoiled child and also a lonely soul, rages at the stuffy imbecility of his courtiers, but he takes his royal job seriously, and he has no intention of ceding royal power to anyone.  Nay, he wishes to increase it.  Beckett, his friend, his servant, then his chancellor, seems to be happy to go along for the ride, the food, the girls, but he knows that he has a tiger by the tail, and he knows how to keep himself safe when he is so close to the live wire of absolute power.

Then Henry makes a mistake – he makes Beckett the head primate of the Church in England, thinking he will then rule heaven and earth, with his friend a pliable and cooperative bishop.  Beckett is transformed by his new position, and finds the higher vocation that has eluded him thus far – he commits himself to the defense of churchly principle against secular power, driving his former companion to his wits’ end.

This was a central conflict played out during the Middle Ages again and again:  sometimes the brute kings won, as when the French king kidnapped the pope and dragged him off to ‘Babylonian’ captivity in Avignon, bringing on the Great Schism; and sometimes the Popes won, as when Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire was reduced to waiting in the snow at the door of the papal palace in Canossa.  The State lost this round – Henry’s thuggish courtiers murdered Thomas while at services, thinking they were doing the king’s bidding.  Henry did severe penance, Beckett was quickly made a full-blown saint.

Both characters in the play are motivated by the ‘will to power,’ and their different allegiances.  Henry is left to rule the miserable earthly realm, while Thomas, standing tall while he is murdered without resistance, triumphs in true Nietzschean-Jesus fashion, over the pigs who think they can really kill him.  His person becomes venerated, and he casts his spell for centuries over England and its kings.  Good thing too, or we wouldn’t have gotten the Canterbury Tales!  He knows what he’s about:  His last words as he dies are, “Poor Henry…”

Of course, when one thinks of Richard Burton, one cannot help thinking of his on again, off again mate, Elizabeth Taylor.  As a very young boy, I asked my mother who was Elizabeth Taylor, and was told, “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”  Well, maybe so…

Finally, back to Chaucer, Beckett, and Canterbury, sort of…  I post here what I think is the most hilarious pastiche from an amazing book, The Holy Tango of Literature.  (Earlier post here and the text online here.)

CARRY HUGE COFFEE
anagram of GEOFFREY CHAUCER

In tholde dayes of the towne Seatel,
Of whos charmes Nirvana fans yet pratel,
Al that reyny land fayn slepen late.
Thus ofte a sutor failled to keepe a date;
And werkers reched offices at noon,
Noddyng of although the sunne shoon;
Husbondes were too tyred by the eve
A staf for plesyng wyves to acheve.

Now to this citie in a languor stukke,
Came a fair knyght cleped Sterrebukke,
Beryng benes from a forein land
Ygrounde to a poudre in his hand,
From which a potent brew could he deryve
That causeth wery peple to revyve.
Whan word aboute his draghte hadde sprede,
To his shoppe the custumers al spedde
Til everich veine felte a rush of blood,
With humours boyed upward by that flood.
Soone men who herd the crowyng cok
Wolde rise withoute cursyng at the clok,
The thoughte of facyng daylight not so bleke
With coffey bryngyng roses to the cheke
And helpyng them to holde their swords alofte
And shethe them before they falle softe.

Sterrebukke so bygan to thynke
Of other ways to selle the same drynke.
With stemed milk and sprenkled cynamone,
’Twas fit, he sayde, for kynges on the throne;
The capuchino joyned thus his wares,
As wel as mocas, sweter than eclares,
And lattes riche in creme, ofte fresen
And beten to a froth in sumer seson,
And tall espressos armured with cappes
To stoppen scaldyng spilles into lappes
As may hap when one is in a hurry
Upon a pilgrymage to Caunterbury.


A Few of My Favorite (Prohibited) Things

February 18, 2008

auto da fe

After 200 years of religious freedom in America, we have difficulty remembering why our predecessors fought so hard for the separation of church and state. Here I present excerpts from one of my favorite documents in the history of ideas, reprised from a time when church and state were one! I am particularly fond of the prologue to the enumeration of thought-crimes, emphasis is mine.

Faculty of the University of Paris:
The Condemnation of 219 Propositions (1277 A.D).

We have received frequent reports, inspired by zeal for the faith, on the part of important and serious persons to the effect that some students of the arts in Paris are exceeding the boundaries of their own faculty and are presuming to treat and discuss as if they were debatable in the schools, certain obvious and loathsome errors, or rather vanities and lying follies which are contained in the roll joined to this letter. …Lest, therefore, this unguarded speech lead simple people into error, we, having taken counsel with the doctors of Sacred Scripture and other prudent men, strictly forbid these and like things and totally condemn them. We excommunicate all those who shall have taught the said errors or any one of them, or shall have dared in any way to uphold them, or even listen to them, unless they choose to reveal themselves to us or to the chancery of Paris within seven days…Given in the year of the Lord 1276, on the Sunday on which Laetare Jerusalem is sung at the court of Paris [the condemned propositions follow]:

1. That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.

2. That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.

3. That one should not hold anything unless it is self-evident or can be manifested from self-evident principles.

10. That nothing can be known about God except that He is, or His existence.

22. That God cannot be the cause of a newly-made thing and cannot produce anything new.

53A. That an intelligence or an angel or a separated soul is nowhere.

66. That God could not move the heaven in a straight line, the reason being that He would then leave a vacuum.

67. That if the heaven stood still, fire would not burn flax, because God would not exist.
..

83. That the world, although it was made from nothing, was not newly-made, and, although it passed from nonbeing to being, the nonbeing did not precede being in duration but only in nature.

84. That the world is eternal because that which has a nature by which it is able to exist for the whole future,
has a nature by which it was able to exist in the whole past.

86. That eternity and time have not existence in reality, but only in the mind.

87. That nothing is eternal from the standpoint of its end that is not eternal from the standpoint of its beginning.

89. That is impossible to refute the arguments of the Philosopher [Aristotle] concerning the eternity of the world unless we say that the will of the first being embraces incompatibles.

99. That there is more than one prime mover.

100. That there was no first man, nor will there be a last; indeed, the generation of man from man was and always will be.

188. That it is not true that something comes from nothing or was made in a first creation.

180. That creation is not possible, even though the contrary must be held according to the faith.


Onward Christian Soldiers II

May 11, 2005

At at recent meeting of the Family Research Council (FRC), it’s head, Gary Bauer, formerly a candidate for president, voiced the following sentiment in favor of “non-partisanship:” It’s not so important we elect people with an ‘R’ next to their name as people with a ‘C’ next to it. Well, there are parties, and there are parties…of God. C is for Christian, of course. No J(ew)s, B(uddhist)s, M(oslem)s, J(ain)s, H(indu)s or others need apply. Not to mention the A‘s, i.e. atheists and agnostics. Our majority leader of the Senate, Bill Frist, was happy to speak there and endorse many of Bauer’s claims.

Such is the sorry state of church-state relations in the USA today. Do these people not understand that it is precisely the separation that gives them the freedom to practice their creed, however literalistic and narrow-minded it may be? Do they honestly believe that by making our nation more Christian, they are honoring its commitment to religious freedom and tolerance? (No, they have no interest in that – they are theocrats.)

This sort of thing is often referred to as ‘muscular’ Christianity. It was in vogue during the heyday of the British Empire. I suppose it’s at least more up-front than the whining pseudo-victimhood so often adopted by the bashers of secularism, i.e., the claim that religion is being persecuted in the USA! I often hear and read comments that religion is ‘denigrated’ in the public sphere!! An atheist, even one that is genuinely and openly respectful of religion (and there are many) couldn’t be elected dog catcher in this country. I’d say religion is pretty safe, and is, in fact, on a roll, seeking to extend its sway. Here is the link to my Christian Soldiers I.


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