This Provincial Life

January 3, 2014

Chekhov Family and Friends
My recent visit to New Orleans got me reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I thought was very fine, and somehow that led me to Anton Chekhov.  Maybe it’s because I read some of Chopin’s short stories, a literary form I don’t spend much time with, that I decided to try Chekhov’s stories.

First, I read “A Chorus Girl,” which introduced me to the sad humor and unflinching perception of the author, and then I read the novella, My Life:  The Story of a Provincial.  It was a free ebook, and the translation was by the prolific and oft disrespected Constance Garnett, but nevertheless, I was deeply impressed.  I felt that I was reading a kindred spirit to Italo Calvino, perhaps my all-time favorite writer, with his critical and accurate eye that makes observations tempered by a very deep sense of connection to all things human.  Indeed, the story of My Life, with and the somewhat hapless but likeable, and fundamentally honest main character, reminded me of one of my Calvino favorites, “Smog.”

Written and taking place at the end of the 19th century, the story tells of Misail, a young man born to an architect-father who is, in some way, never explained, of noble extraction.  Misail, to the father’s dismay, decides to abandon the pursuit of a “respectable” career, as a professional, in a government clerkship, or in some other walk of life that requires no manual labor, and becomes a simple workman.  This makes his narrow-minded and class-obsessed father apoplectic, and matters are not helped when Misail’s adoring younger sister starts to take after him, at least as far as not acting the part of a proper young woman of means.

At times, the story seems to be running along the lines of the old plot of a young and foolish idealist who is chastened by exposure to the hardships of the real world, but Chekhov is deeper than that.  It turns out that Misail actually does have the courage of his convictions.  He is, diverted, however, by an attractive young woman, who also has a “sledge-driver” of a father, who marries him, and sets them up on a defunct estate, with dreams of creating a model society there.  Her convictions don’t run so deep, and she dumps poor Misail, running off to the metropolis to carry on properly as a sensitive intellectual with visible means of support.

Misail’s sister gets pregnant by a married man, a pompous doctor, and then falls ill.  He goes to their father, half convinced that now is the time to fall on his knees to beg forgiveness, if only to get help for his sister.  After his father makes clear that he despises both him and his sister, and that he blames Misail for his sister’s plight, that notion is put to rest for good, and Misail delivers a blistering indictment of his father’s self-centered life and mentality:

“And who is to blame?” cried my father. “You, you scoundrel!”

“Yes. Say that I am to blame,” I said. “I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured…. My poor mother! My unhappy sister! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man—not one! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground.”

Not a pretty picture of provincial life.  Nor is it a nice picture of those who criticize it, and those who live it.  As Meville would have it, …ah humanity!

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Altered States

December 27, 2011

Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980.  Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated.  Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:

“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”

Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context.  All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension.  Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields.  Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!

In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.

That Andalusian Dog

 

 

 

Man meets his inner lizard.

 

Pagan Goddess

Adoration

…………………  …………..

 

In stone, for eternity.

As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable:  it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw.  I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep.  Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.

During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:

Could be Kiss Me Deadly.  What’s in the damn box?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!


City of God, Cities of Hell, Cities of Self

September 16, 2010

Saint Augustine discusses the two cities, that of The World and that of God, but they occupy the same place, are co-extensive!  We choose our citizenship in one or the other, but we do not relocate.  And the City always is referring to Rome, the sack of which, was the initial impetus to the writing of Augustine’s massive work.  In Part II, Saint A. finally leaves off trashing the pagans and their stupid arguments for why the Fall of Rome is all the fault of the Christians, and gets down to business:

My task is to discuss, to the best of my power, the rise, the development, and the destined ends of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, the cities which we find, as I have said, interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another.

City of God, Part II,  Book XI, Chapter I –  The subject of the second part: the origins and ends of the two cities.

In his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe has Mephistopholes advance a similar view of the geography of heaven and hell – they are the same place, but we don’t all occupy them together.  “I’m feeling good.  I’m in a good place today.”  “Oh yeah!  Well, I’m right next to you and I feel crappy!  Aren’t we in the same place?” 

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven

Italo Calvino wrote a book called Invisible Cities, and one of them was the City of the Inferno.  It too occupied the same place as all the other cities, which is to say, the world.  Inferno makes us think of Dante, but his hell was in a specific location and was well mapped.

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I tend to think that Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is yet another one of these cities, maybe a city of the self, certainly of the world, and it is everywhere.  Desolation Row is not just the Bowery, it is, as they say, a state of mind.  Is it someplace you want to get out of or escape to?  Not clear, maybe both.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

To Desolation Row – B. Dylan

Finally, we have the City of the Self, the city within.  We all live in our own city, of one.  Is this city heavenly or hellish?  Seems it can be either one.  We make the city we live in the city of our self.  For some people, living anonymously in the midst of stone and asphalt can be the most beautiful and relaxing state of being; the country subjects us to the hell of other people.

I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysees.

Stendahl – The Red and the Black

Others, who won’t join the City of God, live in the city of the self that is obsessed with the world.  Ahab, the bad king of the Old Testament was one.  His modern incarnation sought the world out of obsession with whiteness, and wasn’t he really just self-obsessed?  He tries to bribe his crew into joining his metropolis of insanity.

Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!  Melville – Moby Dick

But for some, like Starbuck, even as they live their lives in the mini-city of the Pequod, the unfortunate New England whaler, and certainly no microcosm of a City of God, the city of self shows unexpected depths of peace.

And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yes, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.  Melville – Moby Dick

More at the True Binnacle:

Amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being… you can see all the way down to the calm center, where there is no city at all.

                


Eat the Book

November 9, 2008

eat_the_book

In the Valley of the Loire, at Chateau d’Angers, the Apocalypse.  A tapistry, image thread by thread, fabric mosaic, here transferred to pixels, and come full circle.  Is it the true color?  L’envers & l’endroit:  I saw the front, faded, old, but now they have revealed the reverse, under the linen backing, and the nearly the full color is there.

The Angel gives the Book to Saint John and commands him to eat it.  The word is digested to flesh, after being fixed on parchment.  Is this why I read?  To eat the book and have it become my reality?  Calvino explains “Why we read the classics,” but why do I?  Escape, guilty pleasures.  Later freshened up with appreciation of literary art.  The Book is OF revelation.  I see it several times a year at the Cloisters.  I’d like to see it every day.

No one will let it go. The Revelation trails us everywhere.  The millenium is always being pursued.  Even in 1944, in Cat People. Revelation 13:2 “And the beast which I saw was like a leopard,” which, as the zookeeper says, pretty much describes the panther in the cage, or the woman who is the star?

Was 2001:  A Space Odyssey a revelation?  …and just what is the connection to Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite and the Negative Theology?

It is so much easier and safer to read, to flow down the river of words into the pseudo-reality, to avoid the stillness of now.  Reading keeps me afloat, with my head above water…otherwise, what to do with my time?  Aggghh!  I would have to be..here..how?


Jim Woodring and …

October 18, 2008

Jim Woodring is the latest comics artist to come to my enthusiastic attention.  Though he no longer does comic strips, he is legendary for his color and black and white stories about Jim – autobiographical I guess – and Frank, a humanoid figure who wordlessly moves through a landscape that exceeds the bounds of  the surreal.  In fact, to use that term, “surreal,” to describe him is to sink to cliche.  His stories of Frank are dreamlike and terrifying, but in a way that lacks the self-conscious arti-ness of so much surrealism, while being no less powerful.  I’d say, his images smack more of what I have experienced in my rare spells of delirium, but his stories all make sense, often moral sense.

The color page below will give you an idea of the eerie weirdness and humor that “Frank” brings to the world.  You can visit this link to see a faithful animation of his Frank character, but I think I like the regular old ink-on-page comics better.

The black and white page is from an issue of his “Jim” comics, and as usual, it is more structured along the lines of a wordy narrative…but of course, there is that giant talking frog!  I love this story for its wit, subtlety, irony, and sly philosophy.  It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino’s story, “The Aquatic Uncle.”  The mastery of tone in this page, keeping to a steady highminded satire while portraying a sexy “girl-form,” a pompous and sensitive frog…prince? philosopher? demon?…and a tense socratic dialog on fear and human potential is amazing.  BRAVO!

…and gore…

Yes, somewhere there is a graduate student laboring on a Ph.D. dissertation on the comparative treatment of gore in Richard Sala, Tony Millionaire (two other of my favorites) and Woodring.  Consider first, Richard Sala:

His “noir”, Edgar A. Poe-esque adventure stories are filled with hacking, stabbing, decapitation, skull crushing violence.  Still, it evinces a laugh because he works within a genre and its anti-universe, always keeping it at a considerable emotional distance from us.  When I see those knives flashing, or helter-skelter piles of semi-clothed dead maidens…I chuckle or leer.

Tony Millionaire goes for the grand guignol, with a devilishly funny twist.  He’s not trying to scare us out of our seats.  More likely, he’d like to get us up and running to the can to vomit in disgust,

maakies_worms2a

even as we nearly choke for laughing.  When I look at his sliced up bodies (Everything always seems to grow back fine for the next page!) and buckets of throw-up, I grimace with disgust and chortle.

Then there’s Jim Woodring.  His violence is cool, often wordless and soundless.  Sometimes we don’t even know what is devouring or mutilating what.  Sometimes, however, it’s just straight out barbarity, but with no visual change in tone from the other actions.  Consider below:  Manhog observes Frank having a picnic with his dolls and grows distraught at his exclusion from the fun.  He rushes in and upends Frank’s picnic spread and runs off.

Later, Frank walks alone, despondent, but he happens on the debauched Manhog sleeping.  Watch him take revenge!

Is there any more clinical depiction of the savagery of human violence?  It is truly disturbing, distilled to its terrible essence by the magic of the strange, ridiculous incongruity of the cartoon format.


Italo Calvino

December 14, 2005

italo-calvino-02

Calvino ranks with Flaubert on my list of all-time great writers, though they are as different as black and white. Only in their masterly control of tone do they compare, and isn’t that a trait of all great writers? Italo Calvino wields language (as far as I can tell from translations – would that I could read Italian!) like a magic wand that sparkles as he waves it, leaving trails of glittering light particles, evanescent, memorable, brilliant, subtle. His best work has a light surface, like a polished childrens’ story or a fairy tale, that encloses, without hiding, a deep and complex interior of thoughts, allusions, witticisms, and references. He is funny in a profoundly deep way, and he is humane in the best sense of the word – gentle, mocking, compassionate, insightful. Brilliant.Some of my favorites from his short stories:

The Aquatic Uncle: A recently evolved land creature is engaged to a beautiful female from a family that has lived on the land so long, they sneer at the recent arrivistes. He quakes with shame at the thought of introducing his lovely one to his great-uncle who remains, unrepentantly, a fish in the water! With horror, he sees that his fiancee is attracted to the old, aquatic vulgarian!

The Dinosaurs: The last of the great lizards comes down from the mountains to find the world overrun with New Ones, non-reptiles. To them, the dinosaurs are a distant memory, a boogey man to use to scare children. He makes his way among them, unrecognized for what he is, and tries to deal with the extinction of his kind, the new order now in place…until he fears he is found out!

Leonia: A city where everyone uses everything only once. All commodities are disposable – sheets, toothbrushes, dishes, furniture…The streets are filled with mounds of garbage and the the trash men are the heroes of the city who make the endless consumption of novelty possible. But surrounding the place are unstable moutains of refuse, piled ever higher…

How Much Shall We Bet?: Two gamesters at the beginning of the universe, before time starts, creating it all.

His work had its flops, I think, and I’d rate T-Zero as one of them. He diverted too much into semiotics and mathematical-language puzzles that are rather dry, whether you get the joke or not. But even in that collection, he had the brilliant reworking of Zeno’s paradox, in the situation of the hit-man chasing his prey in a Roman traffic jam. Should the quarry stop, get out of his car and run? Would he be caught? Should he advance two car spaces, while the assassin moves up one? Like one of those puzzles with the squares, and one empty space, that you try to move around to make a figure.

In The Baron in the Trees he creates a fairy-tale fantasy about a boy in the Enlightenment who climbs into his favorite tree after a argument with his father and never comes down. The Baron becomes an arboreal Voltaire, renowned the world over, and the story is a delicious satire and homage – typical of Calvino’s deft complexity – to that glorious cultural epoch. And it ends, of course, with the coming of Napoleon, who wants to see the great man. The Baron helps out the new leader by prompting him with his lines so that he can reenact the meeting of Alexander and Diogenes. The scene is a wonderful set-piece on cultural transmission, and a satirical deflation of the powerful.

In the end, Calvino did what he advised here:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.