Wuthering Heights

October 20, 2013

Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered!  Well, not entirely:  This bit was no less fantastic then than now.

How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’

What is this book?!  It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances.  Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play.  The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable.  More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.

There is so much to this novel:  the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology.  For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.

The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England.  Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant.  There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth.  The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth.  Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.

The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip.  His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community:  is there a moral here?  Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor.  When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.

The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry.  In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen.  Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons.  Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich:  where did he get his money?  Nobody knows.  He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out.  No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!

In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest:  He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being  buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him.  In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book.  He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the  son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright.  Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan.  She, at least, had the good sense to flee.

But Heathcliff is undone by love.  His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction.  And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance.  Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff.  He just dies…

And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book.  She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do.  And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters:  after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong.  I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.

Man, what an imagination that woman had!

The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw.  Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love.  And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.


Catalan Cathedrals

September 10, 2011

The gothic cathedral style in Catalonia is a bit different from that of France, although you might not know it by looking at the façade of Barcelona’s cathedral.  When you walk in however, the difference is immediately apparent, and you see what is obvious in the plan, that there is no clear crossing making it into the shape of a cross.

Although the photograph below exaggerates the effect, you feel as if you have walked into a giant vaulted shed, and that there is no clear division of space into aisles, although everything does point towards the altar.  The French Gothic plan at the right, below, has a definite crossing aisle that is not present in Catalan Gothic churches.  Note that the crossing in the plan at the top, in Barcelona, is achieved by removing side chapels, not by extending the fabric of the church building outwards.

Why is this peculiar to the region?  It may be the more strongly lingering effect of the classical tradition, flowing from Rome, of the basilica form.  Basilicas are basically long, covered spaces that are rather wide, often with aisles formed by columns.  The are derived from the Roman public buildings used for government and social functions.  Catholic churches at first were simply basilicas with Christian symbols, and many important churches still are called by the name, e.g., Basilica of Saint Peters, the biggest of them all, despite its Christian plan with a crossing and dome at the  intersection.  The basilica form was retained during the Romanesque period, and never abandoned in Italy at all until the Renaissance.  At that point, a great debate ensued over the proper form for churches:  symmetrical with a central dome, which pleased humanist intellectuals but had pagan and Byzantine, i.e. Eastern Orthodox connotations, or the cross-form that was very respectable but associated with Barbarians by the Renaissance intellectuals.

French Gothic cathedrals often have dramatic flying buttresses to hold up their thin walls that are filled with glass, which cannot bear a load.  The outside of the apse of Girona cathedral shows only a few rather puny flying buttresses, and they ‘fly’ nearly horizontally – more like static braces.  The interior of the apse at Narbonne, not all that far from Catalonia, but definitely under the sway of the heretic-slaying northern French by the time this was built, shows the striving for lightness and soaring verticality that is just not part of the Catalan style.

The inside of Girona cathedral is big, but boxy, as is the façade.  The baroque era statuary and the tremendous flight of steps that was added accentuate the drama of its sheer mass.

You can’t talk about cathedrals in Catalonia without mentioning the church of the Sagrada Familia by Gaudi, begun in the late 19th century and scheduled for completion in about thirty years.  Some of the gothic cathedrals took centuries to complete, some were raised in a few generations.  Gaudi had his own style, inspired by gothic, art nouveau, and physics.  The main space of the Sagrada Familia is like no other interior I know or have imagined.  It seems utterly fantastic, like something that belongs in a set for Star Wars, but it is not built of plaster and steel framing – only hard, carved, heavy stones set one on another.  In this space, you seem to be inside a structural skeleton, yet unlike gothic interiors, the ribs and vaults seem to have a life of their own and they extend into and beyond the surfaces they support.

Gaudi favored the catenary arch in his buildings, a form that is developed mathematically, not from aesthetic preference.  They are often referred to as parabolic arches, but they are slightly different, as you can see in the plot below.  A catenary curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points without any load but its own weight.  A parabolic curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points and supports additional loads at even intervals of space, as with the suspension cables on a bridge.  Gaudi felt that the catenary arch, an inverted catenary curve, was best suited to carry the weight of his buildings, and he created this dizzying inverted model of the Sagrada Familia to test his designs.  Each hanging string and weight represents an arch in the stone structure.

Outside, the facades look almost traditional compared to what’s within.


Gaudi too, honored the classical tradition, sometimes in odd places.  Here, in a detail from the pavilion at the Guell Park, is a variation on the Greek Doric motif, complete with drops of water placed on the dentils in the frieze.


Jo sóc un jueu autèntica.

September 2, 2011

Wandering around the medieval quarter of the wonderful town of Girona, peeking into the courtyards in the Jewish quarter, reading plaques about this and that bit of Iberian Judaica that vanished with the Inquisition of 1492, never to return – no Jews here now! – I felt like declaring to the curators or restauranteurs, Jo sóc un jueu autèntica!  (Catalan for, “I am an authentic Jew!)  Maybe get a free snack, or a discount museum admission?  I thought better of it.

Gerona is beautiful and fascinating.  It’s one of those medieval towns that urban planners like to rhapsodize about:  the organic growth; the variety of spaces and spatio-temporal experiences as you walk through it; the multiple uses assigned to spaces – street, square, parking lot, market all in one!  The old town sits on a rock at the confluence of rivers, and is filled with winding streets, surprising squares, a fine set of walls, and a stupendous set of steps to the cathedral.

Urban views don’t get any better than this one from the old bridge in town, up towards the ‘new’ bridge, a metal affair designed by Gustave Eiffel.  The image on the right is of a Romanesque portal to an abbey near the cathedral.   Most of the time, I only get to see this sort of thing in museums, in pieces, but here it is intact, although the paint that originally livened it up is long gone.  The shapes are weird, looking almost like diatoms.  (Click the image for a shot of the full portal.)

The cathedral itself is monumental, and a bit surprising.  I plan another post on the characteristics of Catalan Gothic, but suffice it to say that although the arch on this side portal is pointed, this is not your Frenchman’s gothic.  The church is enlivened, or ruined? by an enormous late baroque façade applied over the original sober elevation.  At that time, the steep and positively enormous flights of steps to the main entrance were added.  I imagine that before that, a winding ramp led the faithful to the door.

Drainage always and everywhere…


Chartres Cathedral – The Real Thing

January 16, 2011

A few months ago, I watched Orson Welles’ strange and fascinating movie, F is for Fake, a real Orson tour de force.  He gives a moving speech about art, monuments, and authorship while regarding the gothic cathedral of Chartres (watch it here).  It’s been a very long time since I stood beneath Chartres’ vaults, but I decided to do a bit of studying again since I can’t just pick up and go there.

I happened upon a wonderful book, Universe of Stone:  A Biography of Chartres Cathedral, by Philip Ball.  It’s a popular treatment, but quite thorough, ranging from structural analysis of buildings to Platonic analysis of ideas.  Along the way, he is quite short with historians of architecture who show no interest in or knowledge of how a large building is made to stand up, and he is refreshingly commonsensical discussing knotty intellectual disputes such as just how much are gothic cathedrals reflections of medieval scholastic philosophy, as Erwin Panofsky said they were.

As an art history student with a passionate interest in historical architecture, I was vaguely suspicious of pronouncements on structure and aesthetics that I read – I always wondered if those writers knew whereof they spoke.  Later, after taking a degree in civil engineering, I realized my doubts had been solid.

One of the fascinating points Ball makes, partly by way of debunking the popular myth of the cathedrals as communal achievements erected on the basis of heartfelt contributions by all members of a deeply religious society, is that these amazing buildings were mostly paid for by the Church.  Yes, the kings and nobles gave some money, and local town burghers did too, but not nearly enough to pay the huge costs of building a cathedral.  Chartres, not an especially rich town, did have church institutions that were rich, rich in land.  And almost all wealth of that time was from land.  And so, the churchmen of Chartres built themselves a glorious cathedral to celebrate their faith, and their power we must suppose, and paid for it from rent on their vast holdings of land.  The land that grew the grain to make men’s bread.

Ball points out that baskets of bread are seen in many images throughout the cathedral, in stone and in stained glass.  Insofar as nearly everyone then was laboring on the land, we can say that since the wealth they created was what paid for the monument, it was a product of everyone in the society.

Incidentally, Welles makes much of the fact that Chartres, one of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements, is unsigned.  It’s true: we don’t know who was its master builder, but for many cathedrals, we do.  The fact that his name has been lost to us may be nothing more than the results of poor records retention.


Division of Opinion

August 27, 2009

ruskin Adam Smith - Enlightenment

I have been reading The Lamp of Beauty, a selection of John Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art.  The preface states that one reason for reading him is to find the source of so many ideas about art that we take for granted these days, and that’s true.  Even when I come across a theme with which I am familiar as one of his, say, the importance of craft, I am struck by the force of his statements and the depth of his critique of industrial society.

Here’s a little face off between Ruskin, the romantic godfather of the English Arts and Crafts movement, and Adam Smith…you all know who he is.  The topic is the division of labor in industrial production.  For Smith, an unalloyed good; for Ruskin, the source of mental and physical slavery and aesthetic degradation.

from the beginning of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.
. . .
In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labor are similar to what they are in this very trifling one [the making of pins]; though in many of them the labor can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labor, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labor. The separation of different trades and employments from one another, seems to have taken place, in consequence of this advantage. This separation too is generally carried furthest in those countries which enjoy the highest degree of industry and improvement; what is the work of one man in a rude state of society, being generally that of several in an improved one. In every improved society, the farmer is generally nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer. The labor too which is necessary to produce any one complete manufacture, is almost always divided among a great number of hands. How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!
. . .
This great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.
. . .
I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labor is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we may falsely imagine the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the more extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must, no doubt, appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it may be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so such exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.

from The Stones of Venice: The Nature of the Gothic

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, — that we manufacture everything there except men . . . It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour.

And how, it will be asked, are these products to be recognized, and this demand to be regulated? Easily: by the observance of three broad and simple rules:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which  Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.


And here you will stay…

August 26, 2009

Denoument

How did I not know that Richard Sala’s Delphine No. 4, the final issue in his reworking of the Snow White story, had been published?  I just happened to wander into Forbidden Planet, and there it was, with some looking, on the shelf!

The story is sort of like Snow White from the Prince’s point of view, and it’s dark, gothic, and a downer.  Did you think there would be a happy ending?  (That’s as much as I’ll give away.)  No, Sala is into the rich soil of the real stories behind the Disney fairy tales.  They are not that hard to find – just go to Brothers Grimm.  You may be surprised at how goth they are!  (And for a wonderful essay on fairy tales in the raw, check out Robert Darnton’s book, The Great Cat Massacre.)

Sala’s style here is at its most muted, more “realistic,” less far-out weird than his stuff has been in the past – this suits the tone and pace of the story.  His art in Delphine is like a subtle basso continuo that sets off the hysterical, shrieking, hilarious weirdness of earlier pieces like One of the Wonders of the World. It’s  one long tone-poem on obsession, frustration, longing, illusion, fear, and some other not too pleasant topics.

One reviewer commented:

He is a sorely under-appreciated storyteller and I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps because his influences are decidedly anachronistic, out of pace with current pop culture in spite of the work being deeply entrenched in popular culture’s folklore

I hope he’s getting the attention he deserves, but I don’t keep tabs on the comics business world.  The reviewer makes a fine point when he touches on the paradox that Sala is out of sync with todays pop culture (explicit sex, vulgarity, explosions, violence, knowing irony and sarcasm…am I a crank?) while his work is “deeply entrenched in popular culture’s folklore.”

Sala doesn’t make “references” or “allusions” to “pop icons.”  There’s nothing knowing or arch about him.  He has absorbed vast realms of imagery and literature, and he writes and draws what he loves – in this sense, completely “in genre.”  (What is his genre, though?)  I see him as an exemplar of the personal mythologist, and as it happens, his myths are very sympatico with mine!  A very brief and incomplete list of “influences” that I detect in reading him:

Judex, Dante’s Inferno, Dashell Hammet, Film Noir, Grimm Brothers, Surrealism, Max Ernst, literary grotesque (depictions of monstrous transformations) and Gothic, Louise Brooks, Poe, Kafka…

The Mole's destinyAnd speaking of Kafka, at his new site, Sala has an old story, Herman, the Human Mole, that brings to mind that author’s story, The Hunger Artist. (Also Nightmare Alley).

This story is in my favorite Sala vein and style, and has now supplanted Wonder of the World as my all-time favorite.   It features a variation on this character from 13 O’Clock, another favorite.  Outcast, Peter Lorre-, sensitive-type.

Reading this story is like diving into a maelstrom of genre-moods:  noir, geek stories, tortured adolescent, loser kid, crazy misunderstood artist, mama-fixated psycho, I-was-framed-for-murder, culminating in a sick and hilarious reprise of the feral-child cum geek.  Is this what artists are?  Is this a self-portrait?


Silent brothers

May 3, 2009

aaron_small

A couple of weeks ago, I dipped into the Met for a quick visit, and came upon this figure of Aaron, from the Cathedral of Noyon.  I was struck by its monumental aspect, its mesmerizing representation of the fabric wrapped tightly around the figure, and the serene expression on Aaron’s face.  His brother, originally disposed opposite him on the cathedral facade, hasn’t fared so well with time.


El Pantera – La Monja

May 27, 2008

I was flipping through cable TV the other night, and I hit on a Spanish language crime show. It features some lean, handsome young guy with spiky hair who rides a Harley chopper and hangs out with an old, hatted, portly detective. The show, The Panther, I have since learned is based on a comic strip, and it always takes place in Mexico City. I was intrigued because it had unusual editing, used split images, and the atmospherics were highly unusual for a TV crime series - very noir.

The video sequence above is a series of stills from the first crime in the show. Apologies for the quality – I couldn’t find a clean way to get this posted.

The woman enters a large, ancient church to steal antiquities. She is surprised by a priest, and she shoots him! She delivers the loot to her boss outside, and then makes her way…where? Is that a dance show? That 60s style decor?! Who are those women watching her as she strips her nun’s habit and does her sexy dance? Why is she there?

The feel of this sequence struck me as if Bunuel had been employed doing TV serials. And the theme of the sexy, murderous nun – such imagery is lacking to us denizens of protestant countries.  And she is murderous – later on in the episode she hacks a woman to death, and uses a paper cutter to decapitate a scholarly gentleman.

The episode is called “The Nun”, but it  makes me think of another bloodthirsty, gothic celibate, Matthew Gregory Lewis’s creation, The Monk!)

If there are any Spanish speaking viewers out there who are familiar with this episode (no.5) please explain!


I Feel Justified!

February 14, 2008

jameshogg.jpg

Psssst! Want to read a really weird book? Try Mr. James Hogg’s Scottish concoction, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Yeah, that title, that alone drew me in. What the heck..?

Turns out it was far more of a wild ride than I had anticipated. An early gothic novel with a vengence! It is the bizarre, supernatural story of a sociopath motivated by religion! Yes, he’s a Calvinist, and understanding that most are irrevocably damned from birth, he decides to do a little earthly clean up on his own. After all, the lost, the preterite, the un-elect, are not worthy of life and the justified can do no wrong – their destiny is sealed from all eternity.

I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had for ever rendered impracticable. I could not disbelieve the doctrine which the best of men had taught me, and towards which he made the whole of the Scriptures to bear, and yet it made the economy of the Christian world appear to me as an absolute contradiction. How much more wise would it be, thought I, to begin and cut sinners off with the sword! For till that is effected, the saints can never inherit the earth in peace. Should I be honoured as an instrument to begin this great work of purification, I should rejoice in it. But, then, where had I the means, or under what direction was I to begin? There was one thing clear, I was now the Lord’s and it behoved me to bestir myself in His service. Oh that I had an host at my command, then would I be as a devouring fire among the workers of iniquity!

The book does drag a bit near the end, but the Scottish local color, customs and dialect, add to its interest. The entire text is available online.


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