Mrs. Clarke’s Preferences

May 16, 2011

The latest addition to my collection of Regency satirical prints:  A Parliamentary Toast by Thomas Rowlandson.  Alas, mine isn’t so clean and bright, and it’s mounted on card.  The officers are bantering on the price they paid to get their commissions.  The recipient of their bribes was the Duke of York, or his mistress Mrs. Clarke, who was proven to have worked her will on him to corrupt the military promotion process.  She wrote a scandalous memoir that was suppressed only with difficulty.

Of course, there had to be more than mere money involved, don’t you think?  The fellow sitting on the far right urges, “Come Jack, honor us with a toast,” and the standing officer obliges with a pun on the male anatomy: “Here is the Lady that can raise five hundred members!!

Rowlandson did a series of prints on this scandal.  The one directly below makes an oblique reference to Mrs. Clarke’s female anatomy, which is the sure road to advancement.


Divorce Italian Style

May 8, 2011

This film is a pitch-perfect satire of male chauvinist culture.  The photography is wonderful, the plotting is hilarious, and Marcello Mastroianni is simply fabulous as the smug, morally corrupt, defunct aristocrat in a Sicilian backwater.

The Baron lives in a decrepit palace that he shares with his wife and another branch of the family – the rest of the building is unused because they haven’t the money to keep it up.  His father is a filthy minded gambler, his wife is a voluptuous, dark-haired southern woman (they all have faint moustaches) who is childishly and effusively loving.

He despises her now, having married her in a moment of weakness brought on by her marvelous hips.  He is lustfully infatuated with his sixteen year old first cousin, a fair-skinned blonde vision of loveliness.  On a family outing to the beach, he takes a break from the sun to retreat to a flowery glade where she is gathering blossoms.  It is their first loving encounter – the cool, lush hollow makes a stark contrast to the blazing sun and white sand where the families remain.  Is it real, or a dream?


Divorce is not legal – the baron’s only recourse is murder.  He dreams of liberation from his fawning spouse, and hatches a plan to lure her into adultery with a long-lost admirer who returns as a professional


art restorer at work on the palace.  A local trial of a woman who shot her adulterous husband gives him the idea – crimes of passion and of honor are approved in his world.  The woman, she is a woman after all, was given only eight years.  Certainly, he will get off lightly with less than three:  after all, he is a man, an aristocrat, and he has a college degree!  The defense lawyer was marvelous:  he will be sure to retain him.

The ironies of the presentation are many-layered.  We know that the baron is a selfish and corrupt brute, despite his slick exterior, but we can’t help rooting for him as he plots his crime.  His wife and her silly lover are so stupid and absurdly melodramatic, not to mention the fact that the lover is a philanderer with a family and that he can’t keep away from the palace serving girl.

We watch the story from several points of view:  the neutral camera view; the baron’s point of view, guided by his self-serving narration;  and the point of view of the male-dominated local culture, expressed in the soaring melodrama of the defense attorney’s speech which the baron hears in his head as he executes his plot.  The bombastic legal schtick is a brilliant counterpoint to the limp but determined evil character of the baron.  The lawyer’s script is balanced by the sermons of the local priest who unctuously reasons out why the congregation must vote for the Christian Democrats: democracy + Christ – spokesman everywhere reinforce the oppressive status quo.  The oppressive heat is a visual metaphor for the suffocating power of social convention.

The baron’s planning is given a luck break when Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita, comes to town.  The entire population buys tickets to see the orgiastic cinema spectacular, but his wife does not wish to attend.  Aha!  She will have a tryst with her foolish lover, and the baron can catch them in the act, shoot her, and be done with it!  Of course, Marcello Mastroianni is the star of the movie, lending a delicious self-referential irony to the entire affair – we never see him on    

screen, that is, not in that  movie, on this screen!  The stolid audience is not impressed by the hifalutin antics of Fellini’s cinema.  Things are very simple down there in Sicily.  People are more impressed by another sort of spectacle, such as that trial of the woman who shot her husband.  The defense attorney entrances them…

There are many little touches of humor and irony throughout.  A favorite of mine is when the baron finds his wife’s cache of mementos from earlier days, souvenirs of her romance with the artist.  We see his imaginings of their affair, a photo shoot in some ancient ruins.  He examines the picture:  It’s terribly blurred!  What an awful photographer!  What kind of a souvenir of love is that?  Just what sort of evidence…is…this?

The baron gets his wish, it all works out for him.  His wife dead, a short stint in prison, and a wedding to his delectable cousin.  He’s all set up to be a cuckhold, for real, this time!

Class-Conscious Comedic Consequences

April 2, 2011

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is another Alec Guiness/Ealing Studio gem of a comedy.  Small in scale, understated, but with a vein of wicked satire, the pure pleasure of viewing it is all in the characters and the dialog, the little touches.  Guiness plays Sidney Stratton, a misfit chemistry genius who finally perfects his process for creating an indestructible fiber.  It doesn’t wear out, wrinkle, or get dirty.  Here, Miss Birnsby, the daughter of the mill owner that finally sponsors his work tells him that he is a knight in shining armor, relieving the world’s masses of the drudgery of doing laundry or working for money to buy clothes.  The shot captures the naive idealism of the characters, the irony of the film, and the wonderful, uncertainly proud character that Guiness projects.

A fiber that never wears out…that’s not good for business!  The aged, no-nonsense textile king, Sir John comes in to set Birnsby straight, and the assembled magnates decide to suppress the invention.  Stratton runs out – “How can we stop him?” shouts the wimpy Birnsby.  “Force!” retorts Sir John.  He’s a real capitalist!  They capture Stratton and hold him locked in the attic.  They nab him when he backs into a wall and knocks down a plaque showing Labor and Capital reconciled.  “Is he all right?”  “Yes, I think so…”  “Pity.” says Sir John.

Stratton doesn’t care for money, so they decide to use sex to get him to sign off on suppressing his find.  The textile magnates engage in some hard bargaining with Miss Birnsby who demands 5,000 pounds to seduce Stratton.   They agree reluctantly:  her father has some moral qualms, but for the others, only her high price is painful.  Sir John looks like he might be the model for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns.

Miss Birnsby loves Stratton,  and she goes through the motions of seducing him only to hear him say that, no, he will not do it.  Just as she thought!  She’s elated, and helps him escape.

He escapes into the lower town where the workers live, only to get a rude reception there.  They want the invention suppressed because it will mean the end of their jobs.  They lock him up too.  While he’s struggling to get out, a worker’s delegation meets the magnates in Birnsby’s mansion.  One clever fellow points out that they, Labor and Capital, are in the same boat, they need each other…as always.  The scene is the most delicious send-up of class politics I’ve ever seen.

I suppose you could analyze the (middle class) politics of this film to death, but the point of satire is to demonstrate with humor the foibles of the human race, and here we see naked and short-sighted self-interest on hilarious display.  Just before the denouement, Stratton encounters his old landlady, a wrinkled little old woman who makes  some money on the side by doing laundry:  “What will I do when nobody needs my washing, Mr. Stratton?  Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?”  Stratton is abashed – unintended consequences he never foresaw in his single-minded pursuit.

Tolstoy Epilogue – Boney Demolished

December 30, 2010

I am wrapping up my re-reading of War and Peace, and have reached the Epilogue in which Tolstoy gives us a peek at the settled lives his characters lead after the tumult of 1812.  He starts off with another round in his demolition of Napoleon and The Great Man Theory of History, and then descends into rather tedious domestic relations, before returning to a lengthy essay on causation in history.  A few years later, Tolstoy would begin Anna Karenina with one of literature’s most famous first lines:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

but in his Epilogue, he hasn’t realized this yet, and he is quite boring and almost sentimental in his description of the endless happiness of his happily married figures.  It’s only a few false steps after a journey of a thousand miles though, and they are preceded by one of Tolstoy’s wonderfully condensed valentines to young lovers on the brink of joy as Pierre and Natasha get together:

She glanced back.  For a few seconds they looked silently into each other’s eyes, and the distant and impossible suddenly became near, possible, and inevitable.        .            .            .             .              .              .          .              .            .

What could be the stuff of soap opera melodrama is nothing more than this.  The two lines of evenly spaced dots are in the original.

Tolstoy then goes on to dissect and discard the myth of Napoleon Bonaparte, treating him as an egotistical, short-sighted, vainglorious man, with “childish boldness and self-confidence,” (which echoes Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s sally at Austerlitz),  who managed to be at the right place at the right time to ride the crest of historical waves, and then be crushed beneath them as they broke.  He was certainly making a valuable correction to the romantic hero-worship of people such as Carlyle, but he goes too far, confusing and conflating the moral and historical meanings of the word “great.”

He describes the invasion of Russia in 1812 in pseudo-scientific, metaphorical terms as waves of migration moving one way and another, causing backwashes, as though he is discussing the great Asiatic migrations of the 5th or 12th centuries, that gave us the barbarian invasions of Rome and the Mongol Hordes.  He never says what causes those waves, and he doesn’t entertain the idea that perhaps a “great man” is simply one who knows when he is at the right place in the right time.  He sees it as simply chance upon chance.  He refers mysteriously to the “purposes” of history, and uses metaphors of the theatre – the last act, the script, the role figures play – and so on.  Perhaps he thinks that God is the director, but it’s a short jump from Tolstoy to Karl Marx who thought he had scientifically described the same laws of history that Tolstoy mystifies.

Perhaps history is bunk, or just one damned thing after another.  Or perhaps there are causes to be discerned in history, but they only hold true for specific instances, and are never universal laws.  Or perhaps causes only exist in retrospect…Tolstoy seems to prefigure Lichanos’ Iron Law of Historical Causation when he says:

Why did it happen this way and not otherwise?                                                                                                                                            Because this is how it happened.

Tolstoy did his historical debunking of Napoleon some fifty years after the fact, but James Gillray was onto the same ideas while Boney was in his glory.  One of his caricatures is at the top of this post, and another, a comic strip political cartoon nearly two centuries before Doonesbury, is shown below.  It illustrates several of the episodes alluded to by Tolstoy in his acid recounting of the rise of the Great Man.

For more Gillray images of Napoleon, visit this excellent site:  Brown University Digial Library

Double-plus good!

August 5, 2010

During my vacation, I am taking an intensive class in beginning Spanish, so I have the language-thing on my mind a lot.  George Orwell spend a lot of time thinking about language too, and his essay, Politics and the English Language is a milestone in the desconstruction of deliberate mis-communication.   Along with many other things from his magnum opus, 1984, the word, Newspeak, has entered our English lexicon as a term for politically motivated distortion of the language.

Newspeak was the language of Ingsoc, the ruling party in the society of 1984.  In a candid moment, its developers state that the purpose of the new language is to make it impossible to think independently.  Language is reduced to a mechanical tool to convey information, with shades of meaning rubbed out.  Not good, better, best, wonderful, etc, but good, plus-good, double-plus good, and triple-plus good.   The instrument of this linguistic assault on truth and independent thought was the Ingsoc dictionary of Newspeak.   Ingsoc lexicographers looked forward to a day when Oldspeak would be forgotten, and children would grow up with Newspeak, knowing, and thinking, nothing else.  The power of Ingsoc would then be unshakeable.

I believe that Orwell had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.  Can’t you imagine him gleefully writing an entire appendix to his novel, spinning out all his ideas to their logical and absurd conclusion?  We forget that there are elements of deep, deep black humor in 1984, and that it is in some respects a satire. 

Steven Pinker, a linguist who studies and writes about language, dissected this idea and dismissed it.  He argued that thought precedes language, at least much of the time.  As a consequence, there would be no way for Newspeak to prevent new languages and words from developing, which could, in turn become subersive and intellectually critical slang, jargon, argot, etc. etc.  Just get a few 1985 kids together, and they’ll start inventing new words, if only for insults!

[An interesting aside on this theme is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s often cited phrase that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.   This is from his novel The Crackup.  Did he mean it, or was he being ironic?  I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know, but people often cite it as though he was being straight.  And then we have Orwell’s O’Brien, who says that you must accept that 2+ 2 = 5  if you are told to, and that, of course, freedom is slavery.  Were they all geniuses?]

Language is simply amazing.  It grows like mushrooms after a rain wherever there are people.  Be you an Einstein or Joe Schmoe, your ability to use and play with language is a given, and not at all related to your education and social accomplishments:  Education simply teaches you a specialized use of it.  Language grows up around us just as the younger generation does.  Language pedants are fighting a losing and foolish battle.  As Sancho remarked to Don Quixote,

Once or twice, if I remember correctly, I ‘ve asked your grace not to correct my words if you understand what I mean by them, and when you don’t undertand, to say, ‘ Sancho, you devil, I don’t understand you,’ and if I can’t explain, then you can correct me.

Descartes – pothead?

May 13, 2010

Monty Python did a song about famous philosophers that included the lines:

Réne Descartes was a drunken old fart,
I drink therefore I am!

Now the real truth has been brought to light by that brilliant scholar of the great thinkers of the West,  Frédéric Pagès.  Monsieur Pagès, better known today for his championing of the thought of the forgotten philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, wrote this book, Descartes et le cannabisPourquoi partir en Hollande in 1996.  All of France was celebrating the 400th birthday of the man who started modern philosophy, the one who coined its most famous proposition:  cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am.]

Well, what he should have said is, I think, therefore I know that I am, but that’s a trifle.  Of course, how does the I know that it knows, before the I has determined that it knows that it, the I,  is? Pretty obscure.

Pagès brings light to this dark murk by applying the Cartesian method to the mystery of why the most French of philosophers lived most of his adult life in Holland.  And why did this man change his residence practically every year?  The answer: cannabis.  Descartes was a dealer and toker. Amsterdam is the place to be for that.

This explains so many things.

The greatest philosopher who never was!

May 5, 2010

You don’t know who he was?  Read these posts

Et puis, achetez-vous votre T-shirt ici!  Or for you non-francophones,

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