Open Heart Surgery

November 24, 2010

The Maximes et Réflexions morales (1664) of François de La Rochefoucauld is a collection of witty, cutting, cynical, funny, brutally honest, depressing, and occasionally comforting dissections of the human heart and spirit.  They are of a type of literature for which the French are known, and the tradition of which they are a part is still alive among the elite of modern France.  Consider the quotation from Claude Chabrol in his recent obituary from the NYTimes.  Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde also come to mind.

Here are a few favorites, not in their original order, from my recent dip into the text:

L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.
Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
Philosophy triumps easily over past misfortunes and those to come.  But present ones triumph over it.

Les vieillards aiment à donner de bons préceptes, pour se consoler de n’être plus en état de donner de mauvais exemples.
Old people love to give good advice to console themselves for not being in a state to set a bad example.

C’est une espèce de coquetterie de faire remarquer qu’on n’en fait jamais.
It is a way of flirting to claim that one never flirts.

Les vertus se perdent dans l’intérêt, comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
Virtues lose themselves in self-interest as rivers lose themselves in the sea.

Quand les vices nous quittent, nous nous flattons de la créance que c’est nous qui les quittons.
When our vices quit us, we flatter ourselves by believing that we have quit them.

Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire.
Great characters can say much with few words, while on the contrary, petty characters talk a great deal and say nothing.

Le désir de paraître habile empêche souvent de le devenir.
The desire to appear clever often presents us from being so.

La vertu n’irait pas si loin si la vanité ne lui tenait compagnie.
Virtue would never get so far if vanity did not accompany it.

La souveraine habileté consiste à bien connaître le prix des choses.
The greatest cleverness consists in knowing the value of everything.

C’est une grande habileté que de savoir cacher son habileté.
It is a great cleverness to hide one’s cleverness.

Ce qui paraît générosité n’est souvent qu’une ambition déguisée qui méprise de petits intérêts, pour aller à de plus grands.
What appears as generosity is often nothing but disguised ambition that has put aside petty self-interest in order to advance a greater one.

Une des choses qui fait que l’on trouve si peu de gens qui paraissent raisonnables et agréables dans la conversation, c’est qu’il n’y a presque personne qui ne pense plutôt à ce qu’il veut dire qu’à répondre précisément à ce qu’on lui dit. Les plus habiles et les plus complaisants se contentent de montrer seulement une mine attentive, au même temps que l’on voit dans leurs yeux et dans leur esprit un égarement pour ce qu’on leur dit, et une précipitation pour retourner à ce qu’ils veulent dire; au lieu de considérer que c’est un mauvais moyen de plaire aux autres ou de les persuader, que de chercher si fort à se plaire à soi-même, et que bien écouter et bien répondre est une des plus grandes perfections qu’on puisse avoir dans la conversation.
One of the reasons why so few people seem reasonable and attractive in conversation is that almost everyone thinks more about what he himself wants to say than about answering exactly what is said to him.  The cleverest and most polite people  are content merely to look attentive, while all the time we see in their eyes and minds a distraction from what is being said to them and an impatience to get  back to what they themselves want to say.  Instead, they should reflect that striving so hard to please themselves is a poor way to please or convince other people, land that the ability to listen well and answer well is one of the greatest merits we can have in conversation.

Dans toutes les professions chacun affecte une mine et un extérieur pour paraître ce qu’il veut qu’on le croie. Ainsi on peut dire que le monde n’est composé que de mines.
In all professions,  we affect exterior appearances of what owe wish people to think us.  So, one can say that the world is made of nothing but appearances.

Et un coup de chapeau à mon professeur de Français – cette  petite, vieux, Alsacienne, Mme Schmidt, qui m’a initié à cette maxime:
L’absence diminue les médiocres passions, et augmente les grandes, comme le vent éteint les bougies et allume le feu.

And a tip of the hat to my French teacher – that little old Alsatian, Madame Schmidt, who introduced me to this maxim:
Absence diminishes mediocre passions and strengthens great ones, just as the wind blows out a candle and kindles a fire.

Advertisements

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.

                


Kant – Dylan – Botul!

February 26, 2010

In an earlier post, I chortled about the gaffe of BHL citing the non-existent philosopher, Jean Baptiste Botul, founder of the philsophical school, Les botulistes, and his book The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant. Thanks to the silly Monsieur BHL for leading me to Frédéric Pagès, the brilliant satirist responsible for it all.  His book on Kant is, as one reviewer called the author of another book of parody that I adore, a work of “gob-smacking genius!”

Consider this:

Quatrième Causerie

DES GRILLONS PLEIN LA TÊTE

Le Dégoût de Vivre:

Ne soyons pas dupes de sa vie apparemment tranquille.  La régularité de son emploi du temps et la montonie de cette vie studieuse cachent des aventures épouvantables, des excursions aux confins de la folie.  Les monstres rôdent.  Les lubies kantiennes sont une camisole de force qu’il s’applique héroiquement pour ne pas bascule dans l’immonde.

Inventé-je?

My best effort at translation:

Fourth Presentation

A HEAD FULL OF CRICKETS

Disgust with Life:

We must not be duped by his [Kant’s] apparrently tranquil life.  The regulated way he spent his time and the monotony of his life of study hides frightening adventures, voyages to the edge of madness.  Monsters prowl there.  Kantian ideas are a straight-jacket that he made for himself in a heroic effort to keep from falling into the filth.

Am I making this up?

All this about a man, the apex of Englightenment, nay, Western philosophy, who had habits so regular and dull, that you could set your watch by his schedule of walking around the castle grounds of his university town.  Monsters prowl there, indeed!

The brilliant humor of this parody is that it appears to take on the corpus of Kant’s philsophy, but with only one question in mind:  Did he or did he not have a sex life?  As one who has dipped into biographical material on Wittgenstein and Nietzsche to make some critiques of their work, I was mightily amused!

And the connection to Dylan…you may ask as J. P. Botul rhetorically asked in the passage above, “Am I making this up?”  The phrase, a head full of crickets has, by my reading, the same sense as Bob Dylan’s well known lyric from Maggie’s Farm:

I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
Well, I wake in the morning,
Fold my hands and pray for rain.
I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin’ me insane

It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.

Kant as tormented, alienated artist?  Oppressed and unappreciated Everyman?  Venture no further – monsters prowl there!


Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?


2001: A Space Odyssey

December 28, 2008

2001_space_odyssey_fg2b

Once or twice a year, I watch 2001, my favorite movie, although I don’t always watch it straight through.  I have seen it so many times!

2001:  A Space Odyssey is Kubrick’s masterpiece, and, I believe, one of the greatest movies of all time.  It is a poetic statement in movement and music, almost a ballet, of ideas and fantasies about the nature of man in the universe.

The brilliance of this movie is apparent in so many ways, but I will list a few of them that always strike me:

  • The special effects are stunning, imaginative, and convincing.  No other science-fiction film has produced imagined futures that continue to look so credible after forty years!  The technology he presents is not flashy, sometimes it even seems dull, but it always looks real.
  • There are several profound themes at play in this movie:  the nature and source of intelligence; man’s condition as a special sort of animal; man’s relation to his machines and the danger of dehumanization in technological society.
  • Kubrick has succeeded in distilling the poetic essence of the story that Arthur C. Clarke produced, and he has jettisoned the adolescent and simplistic element that Clarke’s writing always has.  [See my post.]  In much of sci-fi writing, a good idea is given a poor treatment.  Kubrick takes Clarke’s idea, and turns it into an epic meditation on human consciousness, and he avoids the literalness that torpedoes Clarke’s writing.  The story ends up ambiguous, provocative, puzzling, and engrossing the more you allow yourself to be teased by it.
  • The pacing of the film is wonderful – slow and stately, with minimal dialog.  The images and the music tell the story at a level below the consciousness of speech.

Take a look…

At the “dawn of man,” a mysterious slab appears and excites the ape pre-men.  They act as if they worship it.  What would you expect them to do in such a situation?  Is this the nature of religion?  What is this slab?  We never know, except that it is clearly sent by a superior intelligence.  This idea, fundamentally absurd, was seriously believed by Clarke, and is championed today by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.  What was the origin of that life, I wonder? Kubrick isn’t fazed – he grabs the essential weirdness of the idea, the feel of wonder about how we got here that is at the center of it.

Contact with the slab sets off a spark in the ape’s mind.  The notion of a tool is born.  Tools to hunt with, to get meat, to make the group stronger.  The entire clan must know of them.  And tools for defense, or offense against rival clans!

Ape men excited      Hmm..tool.  Good idea.   Visions of meat!

1-ape-meets-slab 2-what-is-tool 4-images-of-food

Power!  Culture…teach the kids  Power for life or death!

3-figuring-out-the-tool-thing 5-passing-it-on-to-the-kids 6-bad-use-of-technology

The ape roars and throws his bone tool in the air – it rises, rises, falls, rises and falls into the most breathtaking cut in history, leaping across four million years into the Space Age.  It’s such an outrageous edit, it demands that we accept it as artifice (Imagine a caption…”Four million years later…”) yet it astonishes and delights.

Exaltation: the power of life, and the power to bring death!

7-triumph 8-jump-cut

A space shuttle and an orbiting station dance to the Blue Danube’s waltz.  A man dozes, alone in the passenger cabin while a pedestrian romance plays on the screen in front of him.  Of course, it’s a man and a woman in a car – a machine had to be there!  The shuttle lands on the station in a choreographed rotation, the first of many images of penetration acted out by machines. [A Kubrick trope:  Recall the opening refueling sequence in Dr. Strangelove.]  Machines that have human traits, humans that seem devoid of human traits, machines pulsating with sexual imagery – it’s a strange Kubrick world.

10-on-tv 9-docking

Leaving the space station, a pod takes the traveler to the moon base.  The seed-like capsule is accepted into the interior of the moon through an enormous set of mechanical petals.  The interior is bathed in red light evoking the womb.

11-docking 12-entering

After a briefing, the traveler flies with his colleagues to a secret excavation on the moon where the slab has been uncovered.  The men eat sandwiches and drink coffee, seemingly uncaring or incapable of absorbing the enormity of what they have found – clear and irrefutable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.  They know nothing of the slab, except “that it was deliberately buried two million years ago.”

“Hmm…deliberately buried…Well, you fellas have certainly found something.”  “More coffee?”

At the site, the men pose for a group photo, as would any tourist.  Once again, Kubrick captures the cliche and the mundane, and puts it to work.  While they pose, the slab emits a piercing signal directed at Jupiter.

12-some-coffee 12-photo-op

A mysterious space mission to Jupiter is launched to get to the root of all this slab nonsense – the Odyssey begins.  Odyssey, a mythic, epic journey.  Also, let us not forget, a homecoming.  Odysseus was going home to his wife and son – is the crew going home to Jupiter, returning to the origin of their intelligence?

The ship looks like a giant phallus, or a mechanical sperm.  The all seeing eye of the on-board computer, HAL9000 is everywhere.  He speaks with a casual, flat, almost cloying warmth.  His ‘eye’ looks to me like an egg or a growth in a petrie dish – biologico/mechanico.

12-male-principle 13-hal9000

Hal has his problems.  Only he knows what the mission is about, and he’s not sure that the men, i.e., the non-machines are up to it.  It seems to go to his head, and he makes an erroneous prediction that a component is going to fail.  Or was it all a clever stratagem to get the crew off the ship together?  Frank and Dave realize that HAL is kaput, so they retreat to secluded spot to plan their next move.  HAL, however, can follow their conversation by watching their mouths move.  Some say we will know we have developed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

HAL kills Frank, and Dave goes out to get his body.  On returning, HAL refuses to acknowledge the command, “Open the pod bay, HAL.”  An awkward conversation ensues across empty space; HAL on the giant ship, Dave in the pod.  The mechanico-genital imagery is in evidence.  HAL tells Dave the obvious – “This conversation can no longer serve any purpose.”

14-lets-chat 16a-open-the-door 15-conversation-over

I offer the image below – Dave cradling Frank’s body with the mechanical arms of the pod – as an example of the only scientific “error” I have noticed in the film.  The lamps of the space pods and of the lights around the excavation on the moon are always shown with a corona glare – there is no such thing in space where there is no atmosphere to diffuse the light rays.  Was this an accident or poetic license?  (Kubrick never gives us sounds in deep space, unless we are meant to understand that they are heard by humans inside their suits or vehicles.)

14a-hazy-error

Here we have it, the epic struggle.  Man vs. his monstrous antagonist.  Man vs. machine.  Man vs. himself, his own creations?  Dave, in his haste to retrieve his comrade, Frank, left the Mother Ship without his space helmet.  He resolves to re-enter the ship through the emergency airlock, something that HAL cooly observes “will be rather difficult without your helmet, Dave.”

Dave is, however, our Odysseus, and Odysseus was always called “The wily Odysseus.”  He is clever, and never at a loss for an idea.  The essence of man the tool-maker triumphs over his own super-computer.  Dave blasts himself into the vacuum of space inside the airlock in the climactic moment of the struggle, and manages to activate the mechanism to close the door.  The abrupt transition from dead silence to the defeaning roar of life-giving air rushing into the sealed lock signals his sucess.

Dave moves resolutely to wreak havoc on the brain of the one-eyed cyclops, HAL, disconnecting his “higher functions” while the repentant computer pleads piteously with him to stop.  Are not these higher functions, the same ones that sent man on his trajectory to meat eating and war?

HAL reaches his second childhood and asks if Dave wants to hear him sing a song.  “Yes, HAL, sing it,” replies Dave.  Dave, too, will get to his second childhood.

17-the-hard-way 18-sing-it-hal

With HAL shut down, the rest of the crew killed by the computer while in their coma-cacoons, Dave learns from an auto-activated recording the purpose of the mission, and sets off in his pod to Jupiter, led on by the slab that mysteriously appears  in front of him.  In a tour-de-force of special effects beloved of potheads and acid-freaks everywhere, Dave goes to “Jupiter and beyond the infinite.”  What that means, we don’t know exactly, but we don’t care.  Dazzling sights, weird sounds, and frightening stop-action imagery, derange our sense of time and space as we join Dave for his, and humanity’s last voyage.

19-off-we-go 20-flying 21-stop-action

29-jupiter

The cold, airless, and lifeless reaches of interstellar space reveal themselves as strangely organic in yet another metaphoric transformation by Kubrick.  The mineral shall be made flesh – is that not what we ourselves are, living, thinking matter, all of a piece with the elements of the universe?  We are mostly hydrogen and oxygen, i.e. water…

There is a hint of the birth to come in an image that resembles the star child at the end, and the purpose of Dave’s journey is made clear in the interstellar spermatazoa shown at the lower right below.  He is the seed.

22-organic 24-organic 23-red-organic

25-organic 26-pre-baby 28-stellar-sperm

The mind-bending sequence that follows goes way beyond surrealism.  It succeeds in totally disorienting the viewer in his conceptions of narrative, time, space, and location, without resorting to easy avante garde tricks.  The music by Georgy Ligeti is wonderful.

Where am I?  Where is where?  When am I?  Where am I going?

30-bedroom 31-where-am-i

Why am I here?  What was that noise?  Oh, there I am.  On my deathbed.

32-what-was-that 33-there-i-am

The slab returns once more.  Dave knows what he must do, he must touch it.

34-last-rites 35-knows-what-he-must-do

Something new is born.

37-born-again

A pair of pictures related to this final image:  Christmas & Christmas

The enigmatic blogger, Pancime, commented in an exchange begun  on the esteemed blogger Jahsonic’s pages (He thought 2001 was boring!) that he thought the story of  David Bowie’s  Man Who Fell to Earth might be the tale of what happened to 2001’s starchild once he actually landed back “home.”  An excellent observation, as that film is clearly influenced by and a comment on 2001.