Eve, Satan, and Sewers…

September 20, 2012

In discussing his fine illustrated version of The Old Testament, R. Crumb said he always thought that Adam and Eve had more fun in Eden than The Bible lets on.  In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the same view, emphasizing just how much our first parents enjoy one another’s company, all without sinful lust, of course.

This all changes of course.  I was very taken by the passage in which Milton describes Satan, in the guise of the serpent, spying on Eve in the garden.  So beautiful is she, that he is briefly transported out of his evil self, almost becoming good, until he comes back down to earth!  Milton uses the simile of a city-dweller, oppressed by the smell of sewer fumes, feeling transported on leaving the town for the country, and viewing the green prospect, smelling that pure air.

Yeah, well, just pointing it out, the sewer bit, that is… (emphasis added to make my tedious point, etc.)

 As one who long in populous City pent,
       Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,
       Forth issuing on a Summers Morn, to breathe
       Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes
       Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,
       The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine,
       Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound;
       If chance with Nymphlike step fair Virgin pass,
       What pleasing seemd, for her now pleases more,
       She most, and in her look summs all Delight.
       Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold
       This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of EVE
       Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav’nly forme
       Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
       Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire
       Of gesture or lest action overawd
       His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav’d
       His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought 

       That space the Evil one abstracted stood
       From his own evil, and for the time remaind
       Stupidly good, of enmitie disarm’d,
       Of guile, of hate, of envie, of revenge;
       But the hot Hell that alwayes in him burnes,
       Though in mid Heav’n, soon ended his delight,
       And tortures him now more, the more he sees
       Of pleasure not for him ordain’d   then soon
       Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
       Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

       Thoughts, whither have he led me, with what sweet
       Compulsion thus transported to forget
       What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope
       Of Paradise for Hell, hope here to taste
       Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
       Save what is in destroying, other joy
       To me is lost. Then let me not let pass
       Occasion which now smiles, behold alone
       The Woman, opportune to all attempts,
       Her Husband, for I view far round, not nigh,
       Whose higher intellectual more I shun,
       And strength, of courage hautie, and of limb
       Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould,
       Foe not informidable, exempt from wound,
       I not; so much hath Hell debas’d, and paine
       Infeebl’d me, to what I was in Heav’n.
       Shee fair, divinely fair, fit Love for Gods,
       Not terrible, though terrour be in Love
       And beautie, not approacht by stronger hate,
       Hate stronger, under shew of Love well feign’d,
       The way which to her ruin now I tend.

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Eugénie Grandet

February 10, 2010

This little tale from Balzac’s scenes of provincial life is one of my favorites, having a simple plot anchored by a character of monumental greed and miserliness, Old Grandet.  He has amassed a fortune in land, farms, shares, and wooden casks of gold coins that he loves to gaze upon, but he lives like a simple workman with not a centime to his name.  His good wife and lovely daughter, Eugénie, are completely dominated by his tyrannical personality.  Eugenie has never known any other life, and hardly dreams that one is possible, let alone that she is an heiress to millions.

Into this small town darkness flashes the meteoric path of Charles, Grandet’s nephew, whose father killed himself to escape the shame of bankruptcy.  Charles visits his relations in Saumur at his father’s direction, not knowing why, and learns the awful truth from his uncle.  He is a rich, spoiled, foppish dandy, but he is truly despairing when he learns of his father’s end, and he resolves to remake his fortune in the West Indies.  But first, through a few secret interviews, he and Eugénie fall in love.  To help him on his way, Eugénie gives him her entire life savings, a bag of gold coins, resolving to wait for him forever, blissfully enslaved to the only true love she has ever known.

Charles sails away, and Grandet finds out about Eugénie’s absolutely foolish, blasphemous action with her gold.  Initially, he punishes her by locking her in her room on a diet of bread and water.  The mother’s health fails, the town gossips, and the two top families scheme to get their sons married to Eugénie.  Charles grows rich trading slaves, and becomes corrupt and miserly – Eugénie is orphaned.  Charles returns to France and feels obligated to write Eugénie a “Dear Jane” letter so he can proceed to marry into a decrepit but prestigious noble family with a clear conscience.  Eugénie marries one of the sons, but insists that she remain a virgin, and lives a life of humility, austerity, and generous charity.  Her husband never gets to enjoy his wife’s wealth; he dies young.  Charles is shocked to learn that the pretty cousin he jilted, the one who lives in poverty in the country, is far more wealthy than he – he calculated wrong!

Such is the plot – another French tale of sharp provincial dealing and financial chicanery – of which Balzac is a master.  It is the character and psychology of Old Grandet that makes it an epic of obsession and sexual repression.  Grandet seems hardly human, a mass of granite, and completely devoid of feelings.  He drives hard bargains always, and only shows delight and humor when he manages a particularly crafty financial triumph.  He has a wen, a cyst or wart, on his nose that is his principle indicator of internal passion – it becomes inflamed and pulsating when he is agitated or angry.  The symbolism is obvious.

Eugénie, his daughter, is a beautiful young woman who is practically living the life of a nun, married, in bondage, to her father and his gold.  He gives her gifts of coins on special occasions, but his gifts come with strings.  He asks now and then to view the coins with her -“Go and bring your coins, girlie. Looking at them warms me up.”  His use of the diminuitive is unsettling – Eugénie is a fully grown and lovely woman.  The coins give him heat and life: money is always something supernatural in Balzac, and here it is the life-sexual force itself.    There is nothing else for Old Grandet.  Locked in his office, gazing at his barrels of gold, Grandet is like a boy ashamed of his sexual longing, hiding himself away with his favorite girlie magazines.  At one point, he exclaims: “You ought to kiss me on the eyelids for telling you the secrets and mysteries of the life and death of money.  Really, coins live and swarm like men’ they come and go and sweat and multiply.”  Such are the facts of life according to Monsieur Grandet. Swarming, multiplying, sweating…only gold lives.  It’s the only sex education Eugénie gets.

When Eugénie gives Charles her coins, he gives her a golden casket of his mother’s in return, to hold for him in trust, promising to repay her the value of her coins.  Eugénie and her mother, who sympathizes with her, delight in looking at the box, rehearsing their memories of the handsome cousin, now far away.  Upon learning of this exchange, Old Grandet leaps upon the casket “like a tiger” and begins clawing it, almost destroying it to get some goldwork that he can sell to recoup her idiotic squandering of her treasure.  Eugénie tries to stop him, shouting that the cask is neither hers nor his, it is only held in trust against Charles’ return and repayment of the  loan of her coins.  Grandet shoves her aside, hurting her, and cries, “Why were you looking at it if it was given you in trust?  Looking is worse than touching.”

Ah, yes, the looking!  His gloating over his coins has an element of sexual looking, voyeurism.  This is more explicit when, after punishing his daughter with house arrest, he fumes and walks in his garden, but can’t resist looking at her as she mournfully brushes her hair at her windowsill.  His gaze is filled with anger, love, paternal and avaricious, and sexual?  The scene made me think of this painting by Thomas Hart Benton and the story of Susanna and the Elders – young women wronged by crude, dirty old men.  When Eugénie tries to evade his requests to see her gold in order to forestall revealing what she did with it, Old Grandet wheedles:  “Listen, Eugénie, you must give me your gold.  You won’t refuse your old daddy, will you girlie, eh?” sounding like a increasingly frustrated pedophile with a recalcitrant intended victim.

Eugénie, disappointed in love, agrees to marry only to procure a service from her notary-suitor that will rescue the honor of that cad, Charles, and with the stipulation that she remain a virgin.  Her fate reminds me of Zeus impregnating Danae with a rain of golden coins – another woman done wrong by gold.


Kubrick – Falling Woman

July 25, 2008

On my noir journey, I just watched Stanley Kubrick’s first film (oh, second – he removed his first feature from circulation himself), Killer’s Kiss. The title doesn’t make all that much sense to me, despite the labored voice over on the theatrical trailer that leads up to announcing it, (“Her Soft Mouth Was the Road to Sin-Smeared Violence”) but the film is pretty good.  Not great, not even really good, in fact, it’s seriously flawed, but Kubrick is so imaginative, and it has such great location shots, and so much weird and fascinating imagery, that I like it.  Of course, I am a huge fan of Stanley K.

The film is short – 67 minutes – and is narrated by Davy while he waits for a train in Penn Station, NY.  The use of that glorious setting, now long gone, gives the film an unintentional kick for the architecturally aware.  Davy is a nice guy and a boxer, but a has-been boxer.  He’s just had his last chance in the ring, and he failed.  He needs to start fresh in life.  Kubrick shows boxing as unglamorous and brutal.  Just the shots of Davy being prepped by his trainer are disturbing.

Davy lives in a tiny one-room apartment across an airshaft from a pretty girl who works nights in a sleazy dance hall.  They are aware of each other, and intrigued – they watch each other through the window, each unaware of the other’s gaze.  Voyeurism, objectification of women, mediation of sex – the usual Kubrick drill.  Here Davy watches her undress, and later she, in a perfectly composed shot, watches him.  Kubrick’s background as a Magnum photographer shows here.

At the dance hall, we are treated to the sight of the advertisements showing busty women, “Couples Invited,” “Dance with Us!”  More women as objects for sale.  And the girl’s name is Gloria Price.  She’s the not-so-willing lover of the owner of the hall, Rapallo, and they watch Davy’s last fight on TV together.  At least one of them is getting very turned-on by the spectacle of a man being beaten…and Rapallo suspects that Gloria may be keen on him anyway…

When he returns to his apartment to rest after his defeat, Davy gets a sympathetic call from his uncle.  As he talks to him, he looks at Gloria undressing across the way.  In this wonderful sequence, Davy looks out at us who stand in the space occupied by Gloria.  We see him looking at her in the mirror behind him.  You can barely make her out in the bright window in this still, but he’s watching!  Space, mirrors, the two lovebirds watching each other through windows and on TV…will they ever get together?

Davy falls asleep, but awakes from a nightmare of driving through Brooklyn to the jeers of the audience at his last fight.  The dream is in negative, another Kubrick favorite.  Remember that trip to Jupiter in 2001? 

When he awakes, he hears Gloria screaming as she is threatened by Rapallo.  He rescues her, and that’s the start of their romance.  Rapallo is the jealous type, so he orders his thugs to rough up Davy, but they grab his manager by mistake, and then kill him.  This all happens in Time Square, the source of some great NYC location shots c. 1955.  At times, the camera is hand-held and jumpy.

From there, it gets nasty, as Davy uses his wits and brawn to get even.  Rapallo has kidnapped Gloria, so the fight is over the woman too.

Talk you scum!  Where is she!?  They drive to a deserted loft neighborhood.

There’s a chase over the roofs of NY that is remarkable again for the location shots, and then the final duel to the death between Davy and Rapallo in a mannequin warehouse.  As they fight, female figures are hacked to pieces, skewered, used as weapons, and tumbled upon.

As a surreal commentary on this brutal chivalry, these body parts tremble in the dark, silent and mysterious like a de Chirico painting.

In the end, he gets the girl…


Koons Roof People Pictures

May 26, 2008

Today, a holiday, was a beautiful day. Or at least, I think so. A friend of mine demurs – too much sun! Courtesy of Mayor-Midas Bloomberg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was open, while it is usually closed on Monday. So I took myself in to see the Comics and Fashion exhibit (dumb) and the Jeff Koons sculptures on the roof garden.

One of the things I like about going to a museum often is that I can take the time to observe the other people, instead of devoting all my attention the art that I may not have the chance to see again in a long time. I love to look at people looking at art. What are they thinking? Do they like it? Does it move them, impress them, bore them? Are they just enjoying the thrill of being here?

Lately, I’ve become more and more aware of people and their phones and their cameras – who hasn’t? Since they are so cheap and easy to use now, people use them everywhere, and often. I particularly like to watch people taking pictures of “attractions” and events. Here are a few from my rooftop visit to the Met. Voyeurism? Voyez vous!


Dog and Pony Show —- ——– Reflections in a Candy Apple Heart

Which Way is It? ————– Why I Prefer a Viewfinder

Paying Homage ————- Creative

The Classic Group Shot ————— Art, Monument, Idol?

Looking at..?