News from Ampurdan

May 5, 2014

Salvador Dali - The Pharmacist of Ampurdan Seeking Absolutely Nothing - 1936

I like that dusty, maritime region of Europe known as Catalonia, and, in France, Languedoc.  Josep Pla is from that area, specifically Ampurdan.  His diary from the period at the end of WWI, heavily reworked over the succeeding decades, has just be translated and published by the NYRB.  It is a delightful read.



Catalonia and Pla

This book is long, and before starting it, I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend this much time in this man’s life?”  Almost immediately after starting, I realized that the answer was yes.    Here’s a bit from one of his countless arguments in a café:

Literature,” he said, “should be idealistic, delicate, out of the ordinary, It should come from here” — and he placed his hand over the heart.

“And why must literature be like that?” I asked.

“Because literature is for moments when there is nothing to do, when nothing is pressing, the only time there’s a vague possibility that people might want to curl up with a book.  Man wasn’t brought into the world to read books.  Make no mistake…the single serious problem we face in this world is how to get by, that is how to earn or spend money.  Men and women devote ninety-eight percent of their conscious life to that.  And that’s probably an understatement.  So, literature will always be a Sunday-afternoon activity, a moment on the day in the week when maybe — and this was truer years ago, since nowadays people to the movies — maybe they’ll feel like some distraction from their abiding obsessions.  And you expect them to pine for your raw, spare, realist fiction?  Why?  They’ve already had more than their fill of your real life.  Your kind of literature is redundant, flat–footed, commonplace, blindingly obvious.”

Well, I like fantasy, and I like realism.  And Pla hardly wrote any fiction at all – perhaps none at all.  And yet he gives full billing to these somewhat crackpot ideas in his journal.  And clearly, he’s somehow sympathetic, at least to the spirit of his friend.   Then there’s this;

Today Enric Grigola said that he knows a big fat man with a sensitive soul who feels immediately relieved of all material needs and worries , in a state of grace, whenever he loosens his belt a notch.

Coromina laughs when he hears this piece of information, and Frigola launches into him with feigned indignation, half ironic, half annoyed.  “You mock everything!” he says.  “I give you physical proof of states of mind that are purely spiritual, and you laugh.  What more do you want?  You’re never satisfied.”

Another book that I am reading takes up the theme of distraction, in an almost medical sense, and with a good deal of irony. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox is remarkable and entertaining for several reasons.  It was written by a woman, who had help in the writing business from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson; it is very funny; it is an inversion of another Spanish tale, i.e. Don Quixote.  Instead of a man bewitched by tales of chivalry, bent on rescuiong damsels in distress, we have an intelligent and sharp-witted young lady intent on playing the role of female heroine of romance.  She insists on interpreting the behavior of all around her through the lens of her books, but though she is ridiculous, we end up rooting for her.  Maybe it’s because she’s a woman in a man’s world, or maybe it’s just the sheer determination she brings to having things (in appearance, at least) her own way that is so winning.


Warhol’s Work

December 19, 2012

Watching the movie Capote (2005) yesterday, and it was pretty good, I got to thinking of Warhol.  Turns out he was fascinated by Capote and his portrait on the back of his first book.  Seems a lot of people were taken by the photo, and it became as much, or more of a cause célèbre than the book itself.  Warhol wrote fan letters to Capote and called his first gallery show Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.  

Yes, I think the visual influences are clear.


There’s a scene in the movie when Capote is talking to the New Yorker editor, William Shawn, after his successful preview reading from In Cold Blood:  he asks breathlessly, “Should we do more readings?”  Shawn replies that they should not; they will let people talk about the book, build interest.  “Let them do the work.

Well, nobody could accuse Capote of not doing his work.  As one character in the film remarks, “You’re nothing if not hard-working.”  But then there’s Warhol…

I think Warhol realized that popular culture in the early 1960s was ready to step lightly over the homosexual bar, and Capote’s unabashedly affected and effeminate manner were probably an inspiration to him.  His great insight was that if he just played himself straight, people would not know how to accept – process – his personality, and would assume he was ironical, sophisticated, in other words, an artist.  Then he could do the things he most wanted to do: get rich; hobnob with the rich and famous; be famous; and play with pictures other people made, while others did his publicity and produced critical laurels and justifications for him. He was dead on, and his blockbuster success was the proof.  The only irony was that he assumed others would assume he was an ironist, and he was happy to let them.

There’s really not  much to Warhol’s work, unless you enjoy his colors and designs, at least, not much that isn’t created and put there by others.  But that never mattered to him.

21 Grams – Darwinian Fable?

October 24, 2012

Click for explanation.

21 Grams (2003), is a tale of the intersection of strangers’ lives, by Alejandro González Iñárritu.  In structure, it is similar to his later film Babel, although in this film, the story does not follow a linear path forward through time.  The actors are great, but I did not find it credible or compelling.

The film left me wondering…is Iñárritu a Darwinian ironist of some sort?  Mr nice-guy architect, married to Naomi Watts, is run over and killed with his two young daughters by del Toro, who is shown above suffering in mental hell for his sins.  Sean Penn, a self-centered jerk,  gets Mr. Nice-guy’s heart as a transplant, and ends up “staying in his house and fucking his wife,” i.e Watts, widow of dead Mr. Nice-guy:  her words.  And in the end, Watts is pregnant again, and Penn’s estranged wife is going to get pregnant by artificial insemination with Penn’s sperm.

So Mr. Nice-guy is dead and gone, along with his biological progeny, while Penn’s character, also dead, lives on in the form of two children to be born with his genetic legacy.

Nice guys do finish last.

Pudd’nhead Wilson

September 26, 2011

I owe a note of thanks to the Argumentative Old Git for his comment that led me to Pudd’nhead Wilson, a rather neglected work by Mark Twain.  This very funny, very darkly humorous and ironic tale is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper and all those switched-at-birth fables and comedies – this time, with a slave and a slave owner as the subjects.

The title character is not really the main character, nor is he the fool (puddinghead) that everyone takes him for on the basis of one offhand remark he made twenty years before the main action of the novel in Dawson’s Landing, Missouri.  Of course, the slave woman Roxy doesn’t seem to be what she is, because she is white to the eye, but a certified, bought and sold negro.  So too with her son, Valet de Chambers.  She cares for him, and The Master’s son, Tom, whom her own child resembles.  As with all slaves, Roxy lives in fear of being ‘sold down the river’ to hard servitude in the deep South, but she fears even more for her son:  What might happen if her good and kind master dies and his heir or creditors are hard hearted?  She resolves to protect the future of her son by switching him with Tom, and Tom’s rather negligent father is none the wiser.

Her son, now Tom, grows up to be an arrogant, profligate, disreputable gambler, while the real Tom grows into a typically obsequious house slave.  So much for blood telling all.  There are some Italian twins who visit, a murder, a trial, and a thrilling resolution by Wilson, a frustrated lawyer who finally gets his chance to show his wits in court, saving the falsely accused twins with his fingerprint collection, a hobby he has pursued for years.  Of course, these same prints reveal the secret about Tom and Chambers, and their situations are set right, in traditional comedic fashion.  Of course, the story was originally called The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson because things don’t turn out so well, when people are restored to their proper places within the social system.

Twain is savaging just about everything in this short novel.  The reader has the sense that he was throwing up his hands with disgust at the fatuousness and cruelty of the human race.  You can read the entire text of this strange work, and view some fascinating illustrations and associated materials at this excellent website.

Sublimity on Route 4, New Jersey

May 18, 2011

Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp,
The throne of nations fallen; obscured in dust;
Even yet majestical: the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft, upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crushed columns, rifted moles,
Fanes rolled on fanes, and tombs on buried tombs.

Deep lies in dust the Theban obelisk,

Immense along the waste:

John Dyer, The Ruins of Rome, 1740,

Some notes on the sublime, ruins, and romanticism.

Romantic, sublime… ironic?

March 14, 2010

Ah, back to one of my favorite hobbyhorses – Man & Nature!  Over at the civilized roundtable hosted by Man_of_Roma, there was a little exchange about irony and nature, apropos of religion.  Personally, I see little irony in the relationship of man and nature (if we can just sort out what that relationship is…) other than the fact that we humans are so smart, yet so blind at the same time.  We insist on thinking that the universe somehow cares about us, or is, at least, cognizant of us.  That something is out there that …um…well, thinks about us.

I don’t think so at all. Voltaire, such a clever fellow, was shocked, yes shocked, that God, if he exists, could destroy such a fair city as Lisbon with all its innocent inhabitants. (Is that ironic.  I mean, didn’t he read any history?)  Rousseau was more phlegmatic in his response, and he’s considered the blustering romantic.  (Another irony?  Note, they are all cultural ironies.)  I’ve posted about their exchange of ideas on the Lisbon tsunami/earthquake here.

Here in my town, we had a little bit of Nature’s irony last night.  A ripping storm moved through with terrific winds, knocking down 150 trees in in Teaneck alone.  (Amazing – our power didn’t go out for once!) I’ve posted pictures from this morning below.

Two people were killed last night by a falling tree or power lines.  They were out walking.  Why?  Could they have been members of the sizable orthodox Jewish community in town?  They have to walk to and from temple on Saturday.  Killed performing their duty to God?  Is that ironic?  Would a pagan have acted thus, or would they have stayed put in their home, and made some small burnt offerings?  I guess if you’re orthodox, this is a little bit of a theodicy problem – how could God permit this to happen to people carrying out his will?  (Who knows – maybe it will turn out they were atheists out boozing – I haven’t heard for sure.)

Ah yes, the trees!  Trees are so good!  Protect trees, be green.  No, trees kill!  Trees are the instrument of evil Nature!  Or is it the weather, the storms?  Whom, what do we blame?

We plant hundreds of trees in town to keep up property values, make streets look nice, lower temperatures, preserve that smalltown American look, but we crowd the trees into little spaces so their roots can’t develop well.  Another irony here?  The unintended effect – death, disruption, property damage – from a beneficial action, planting trees.  Shall we cut down all the trees?  Then we would be safe!  Or, as Jean Jacques observed, if we did not insist on living in such close proximity to one another, falling trees would hardly be such a problem.

Please don’t think I’m heartless and cruel – I sympathize with those residents who have to deal with the fear and aftermath of a storm that blows huge trees into their houses, and of course, I’m not happy to see people killed to prove a point.  But, I could go on, it entertains me so . . .the ideas that is…

Into the Vortex…

May 16, 2008

As I was walking back to my office during lunch, I passed a framing shop with a lot of junk in the window – “sexy” pictures, sports images, that sort of thing – and a four-panel image of a smiling child’s face done a la Warhol, like the image here. Who’d’a thunk it, but it is a popular thing – creating a Warhol image of your favorite photo, like putting your kid’s face on your T-shirt. You can do it here!

What got me going was the dizzying irony of it all. The utterly unbearable weight of all the self-referentiality. Warhol runs The Factory where he makes ‘art’ by churning out prints of ‘found’ images. He ‘ironizes’ art, or so the critics said. Did he care, or did he just have fun, and enjoy making lots of money too? His images become so famous that they are “popular” in the truest sense. Now people, wanting to add creative cachet to their pics dress them up in Warhol’s ‘style’ to make them seem cool and artsy. Anyway, it’s so decorative.

Of course, Andy understood decorative – that’s all he cared about. He didn’t give a fig for art, so it’s funny that he is the Artist that so many think of now. Art rejecting art and pretending to be life so that years later life can embrace this antithesis of itself and call it art. Truly, we are in the fun-house of images and culture…

…but has it ever been any different? Isn’t that how visual and literary culture change? It just happens faster now. And there is less barrier between the haute culture and everyday culture. It has always been a dreamscape of images and references.

Living Green

April 12, 2008

With the recent death of Charleton Heston, I took myself to the local library to check out the DVD of the last of his dystopian trilogy that I had not seen, Soylent Green. The other two are The Planet of the Apes, and The Omega Man. These movies have been commented on so much by so many fans and detractors that I don’t have much to add – I just wanted to see Soylent becuase I’d heard about it for so long…yes, I knew the secret before I watched. (Oh, yes, for those of you not in on it, the stuff that everyone eats, Soylent Green, it’s made out of dead people. If this surprises you, you haven’t seen or read much sci-fi.)

Heston was a remarkable actor – extremely limited and generally totally unconvincing, I think – but one of kind. Who else could teeter on the edge of camp in total seriousness? This film plods along as a police procedural after making a great start during the opening sequence simply by using a rapid montage of still photographs of life from 1900 to the date of the story, 2040. In a series of images, we watch the environment and civilization going to hell through pollution and overpopulation – there’s even mention of the Greenhouse Effect. E.G. Robinson, in his last role, does add some emotional heft to the story, but for the most part, it’s like a TV movie.

Omega Man, if you can take it, is even worse. The opening scene of Heston tooling around a depopulated LA in a 70’s gas guzzler is a good one, but that’s about the last cinematic plus this film has to offer. You might find the film of interest for its wacky, but also daring treatment of race – Heston has a sexual affair with a big-afro black woman. No question, that was pushing it a bit in the early 70s.

Jesus came to complete the Old Law, so after being Moses, it makes sense that Heston would be Christ too. He dies for his role in the apocalyptic sins of humanity (he developed the bacillus that kills everyone) but as he destroys with science, he saves with his science, and his blood. The final scene shows him being embraced in a pose taken from hundreds of Depositions, after dieing in a cruciform position and having his side pierced by a lance from the deformed zombies he is constantly battling. The saving serum for humanity is made from his blood itself.

Then there is Apes, which in itself, with its sequels, has become a cultural touchstone of sorts. How strange, I think, that the movie reverses the logic of the Pierre Boule original book.  (Boule seems virtually unkown in the Anglophone world, despite his large impact on pop culture in the 60s and 70s.)  In that story, Heston’s character escapes from the Ape planet and returns to Earth. When he steps out onto the tarmac, he is greeted by apes. Sledgehammer irony, but pretty good anyway!

Stranger still to think about the other blockbuster adaptation of a Boule novel, the Bridge on the River Kwai. In that novel, a British commander is so proud of and obsessed with the accomplishments of his men who have been forced to build an important bridge for their Japanese captors – the enemy, in case you weren’t around for WWII – that he kills a British commando sent out to destroy the structure. That dark irony was too much for Hollywood, so in the movie, he realizes his ghastly mistake and sets the charges to destroy the bridge himself just in time.