Castle of Love Besieged

December 25, 2012

Trebuchet – lower left

A common secular theme in medieval artifacts, often in beautifully wrought ivory cases for whatnots and mirrors.    Knights attack the castle of love, defended by maidens who have only buckets of roses with which to repel the attackers.  Sometimes Cupid lends a hand…to whom?  The knights use the usual run of siege tactics, and sometimes a trebuchet is present.

Another view of the one above


Lower left – another trebuchet


Trebuchet on the right

For a change of pace, the two left-hand panels on the case below show the story of that lovable old coot, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great, being humiliated by Phyllis.  The ones on the right tell the tale of Pyramus an Thisbe, from Ovid, and known to most through its later incarnations, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Fantasticks.


More siege craft and love below.


Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L’Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?

Sarrasine’s cynosure

September 13, 2009

La Zambinella performs

“He entered and took a seat in the pit, crowded between two unconscionably stout abbati; but luckily he was quite near the  stage…Suddenly a  whirlwind of applause greeted the appearance of the prima donna.  She  came forward coquettishly to the footlights and curtsied to the  audience with infinite grace.  The brilliant light, the enthusiasm of a  vast multitude, the illusion of the stage, the glamor of a costume  which was most attractive for the time, all conspired in that woman’s  favor.  Sarrasine cried aloud with pleasure.  He saw before him at that  moment the ideal beauty whose perfections he had hitherto sought here  and there in nature, taking from one model, often of humble rank, the  rounded outline of a shapely leg, from another the contour of the  breast; from another her white shoulders; stealing the neck of that  young girl, the hands of this woman, and the polished knees of yonder  child, but never able to find beneath the cold skies of Paris the rich  and satisfying creations of ancient Greece.  La Zambinella displayed in  her single person, intensely alive and delicate beyond words, all  those exquisite proportions of the female form which he had so  ardently longed to behold, and of which a sculptor is the most severe  and at the same time the most passionate judge.  She had an expressive  mouth, eyes instinct with love, flesh of dazzling whiteness.  And add  to these details, which would have filled a painter’s soul with  rapture, all the marvelous charms of the Venuses worshiped and copied  by the chisel of the Greeks.  The artist did not tire of admiring the  inimitable grace with which the arms were attached to the body, the  wonderful roundness of the throat, the graceful curves described by  the eyebrows and the nose, and the perfect oval of the face, the  purity of its clean-cut lines, and the effect of the thick, drooping  lashes which bordered the large and voluptuous eyelids.  She was more  than a woman; she was a masterpiece! In that unhoped-for creation  there was love enough to enrapture all mankind, and beauties  calculated to satisfy the most exacting critic.

“Sarrasine devoured with his eyes what seemed to him Pygmalion’s  statue descended from its pedestal.  When La Zambinella sang, he was  beside himself.


Stolen Light, Pale Fire

November 12, 2007


The moon is a thief, and steals her pale fire from the sun. So says Shakespeare, and so Nabokov has named one of his books, a novel, it’s called. So, the moon’s light is not its own; the author’s story is not his invention, but is partly a biography; artists steal tales, people invent false identities, one story reflects, repeats, alludes to another; is anything what it seems? So it goes with Nabokov, but first things first.

Lolita has become synonymous with sleazy, nymphomaniac sex, a fact which seemed to disgust and amuse VN in his lifetime. Before that book, and the subsequent Kubrick adaptation of it, he was a “niche” author, known to few, but Lol made him world famous. The story of another immigrant from the Old World, another madman, another unreliable narrator with some murderous passions to control.

Madmen with revolvers seem to crop up in VN’s work a lot – might have something to do with the fact that his father was killed by some fanatical monarchists who shot the wrong man – it would almost be funny if it weren’t true. Of course, in his books, it is almost funny…and we wince when we realize what we are laughing at.

The “hero” Humbert is in love with Lolita, or he thinks he is. How else can he justify raping and kidnapping her? He takes her on a road trip through America, a landscape transformed by the deranged, ironic, brilliant point of view of the disturbed narrator. We, the readers, cannot help laughing at Humbert, and with him – he’s so witty when he puts down American pop culture – his use of language is dazzling. In the end, a shootout. He addresses his readers, his jury, seeking to excuse himself – “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” Is he mocking Dostoyevsky here?

Pale Fire tells the story of an American poet and how his masterwork came to be written, or how it should have been written if he had been listening to his close friend who was feeding him such glorious and romantic ideas, and how this friend has come to publish this poem in a book that is overwhelmed with his own obsessive “commentary” on it. Yes, there is a shootout in the end of this one too, the wrong man is killed, a madman fires the gun. (A madman tells the story.) The blizzard of truths, half-truths, non-truths, beautifiul lies and delusions is so thick in this book, such a tightly woven fabric of biography, memory, fantasy, invention, satire, and pathos that you feel dizzy when you finish it. “What was that?!” That’s what a friend asked me about another Nabokovian tour de force, Invitation to a Beheading, after he finished it, and it could just as well have been Pale Fire he was asking about.

At the core of these two books is terrible sadness, even more poignant and painful to us because we see it in glimpses, in between the flashes of idiocy and comedy that inundate us as we move through the plot. It’s like meeting an attractive person at a party, chatting a while, being a little dazzled, then, later, glancing over and noticing him or her sobbing alone in a corner. What was going on? Did I miss something? You never know with people, what their stories are.

Lolita, the little nymph, the vixen, the sexpot – she’s a young girl with no father, raped and stolen away when her mother dies. Humbert keeps her under his thumb by scaring her to death with fictions about what will happen if she tries to escape, but in the end, she does. How do we allow ourselves to be complicit in his crime by not taking his book – so charming, witty, almost believable – and throwing it across the room? How can we be blind to what is really going on here?! And in Pale Fire, we have the pathetic delusions of the mad commentator on John Slade’s poem, and we have the sadness of the poem itself – the poem that we can almost forget about as we read the “novel.” The story of a man, his wife, and their homely daughter, and what happens to her.

Another of VN’s characters, Pnin, in the novel of the same name, is a hapless refugee in America, an academic, rather bumbling. He never feels comfortable in his new home, his new culture, his new language, despite his considerable intelligence. People find him amusing, sometimes laughing at him openly. Once or twice, VN tells us his thoughts as they stray to a loved one who died, years ago, in a gas chamber or shot at the edge of a ditch, somewhere in the empire of the Reich. When you read that, your breath is taken away, as if by a full body blow.

Nabokov had a very particular view of art and what it should be. He was not shy about trashing other authors, especially dead ones who were regarded as “classics.” He wasn’t interested in writing books of “illustrated ideas,” as he contemptuously referred to the works of George Orwell. The idea of “identifying” with a fictional protagonist was, he said, “adolescent.” His is not the only valid notion of art, though he may have talked as though it were, but he thought that art should change the way the reader sees the world, and his can.

Abelard and Eloise

March 4, 2005


I’ve heard about these two for so many years, but I never read their letters. They figured in the film “Being John Malkevich” – the J. Cusak character used the text as the salacious dialog for one of his marionette shows – and, of course, there’s Cole Porter:

As Abelard said to Eloise,
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo’s ear,
“Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear”It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings

A bit of a shock to find that the passion in the epistles is mostly a one-way affair, from her to him. He’s rather a drip, filled with self-pity, condescension, pedantry, and a desire to justify himself at length. As a sample of the heat generated by Eloise’s letters, I offer the following:

The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. … God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Talk about being a love-slave! And this from a woman who was renowned for not only her beauty, but her incredible erudition, all the more remarkable in an age that did not look to her sex for intellectual guidance. Despite Peter’s unappealing correspondance, it is a great story, a love story the likes of which we can hardly imagine today:Peter was the intellectual superstar of his day, the late 11th century in France. When I say superstar, I mean it – crowds come to hear and see him engage in learned disputes with other theologians and philosophers. His pronouncements on logic were pored over by intellectuals everywhere. Someone had to worry about which was correct, nominalism or realism, right? And what of the status of universals? I can’t even remember which stands for what anymore! (I think that realists held that univerals did, in fact, exist. There IS a perfect triangle, somwhere. Nominalists held the reverse point of view.)

He grew rich from the largesse of his students and patrons, and this was before the founding of the great universities of Europe – he was a freelancer! Fair and handsome, a spellbinding speaker, he had the world at his feet. Then he encountered Eloise, a very lovely, and VERY smart young lady. He became her tutor and used his position to seduce her, though from many accounts, the desire for a liaison was mutual right from the start. She becomes pregnant, they marry secretly, although Eloise, slave to love and to Peter, consents only after extended argument. What does she care for marriage, convention, society? She is in love!

The whole business is discovered and publicized by Eloise’s uncle who becomes enraged, and sends his henchmen to castrate Peter. Yes, no holds barred in those days. Peter orders Eloise to become a nun, which she does, and he becomes a monk. This is the time during which their famous letters are exchanged. In her subsequent career as an abbess she is renowned for her administrative skill and intelligence – he lives on as an increasingly curmudgeonly, cranky, intellectual. Understandably, he could never quite live down the humiliation of his condition, and this in a time when such punitive barbarities weren’t that uncommon. [By the way, in case you are under the illusion that castration (after puberty) renders one impotent, guess again. Harem women were said to prefer sex with eunuchs – merely sterile – since they could hold erections longer, and, of course, there was no risk of pregnancy. See: Eunuch – Myths]