When he arrived at the Djerassi Resident Artists colony from Portugal, composer José Pereira Valente – whose home is in a bustling European city center – became enchanted with the fevered courting song of the male crickets outside his studio. “I got into this cricket stuff!” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “So I recorded the crickets. And then I started composing etudes around the crickets.”
Andrew Demirjian, who seeks to upend the linear quality of time in his video installations, settled into the media lab on the 582-acre Djerassi compound, and soon decided that summering in the Santa Cruz Mountains was for the birds. No, really. Since June, when he came to the former cattle ranch from New Jersey, he’s been recording the birds. In keeping with the time-shifting theme of his work, he plans to play back the songs of birds recorded at 5 p.m. one day to the 5 p.m. birds at the same spot the next.
“So they can have a conversation with their former selves,” Demirjian explains.
I didn’t know that the colony, modeled on such famous predecessors as Yaddo, is the oldest and largest one of its kind in the West. It was founded in 1979 by the renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, the so-called “father of the pill” (I know… I know… it’s a contradiction), and its most recent residences have been dedicated to the memory of his wife, the biographer extraordinaire, Diane Middlebrook.
Worth a visit – but at your peril. Bruce Newman writes about it accurately in the Mercury:
To get to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, you must drive to a point likely to make the usually soothing voice of a GPS device nervously warn that you have reached the middle of nowhere. If you come to rocker Neil Young’s gate, you’ve gone too far. As many as 10 artists make this journey for each of seven rotations that begin in spring and end in the fall. No children or spouses are permitted, and there is no TV. The artists who arrive for the next session will miss most of the 2012 London Olympics.
Not much to miss. I wrote about the Olympics of the spirit here. Read the rest of the San Jose Mercury article here.
Kepler's now, not exactly low-tech but middling-tech
The Bay Area loves Kepler’s Bookstore, and its patrons know how to put their money where their mouth is: Nearly 700 locals recently donated about $750,000 to keep Kepler’s afloat.
I’ve written about Kepler’s before here, and covered many of its events, too many to list. Kepler’s was founded in May 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler. The Grateful Dead gave live shows there early in their career, and they, along with folk singer Joan Baez, often made appearances at the bookstore. (Management assumed by Clark Kepler, Roy’s son, in 1980.) It closed for two months in 2005; then the community rallied to reopen it.
Now Kepler’s is launching Kepler’s 2020, to jump-start a “next-generation community literary and cultural center.”
Madan: spanking new ideas
According to the website, “The project aims to create an innovative hybrid business model that includes a for-profit, community-owned-and-operated bookstore, and a nonprofit organization that will feature on-stage author interviews, lectures by leading intellectuals, educational workshops and other literary and cultural events.”
So far, so good. The Washington Post, in a 3-part article entitled, “How to Save an Indie Bookstore” (here and hereand here) describes the newest effort of ”Kepler’s Transition Team”:
“The most ambitious part of this reorganization may be what’s happening this week. Praveen Madan [the co-owner of an indie bookstore called The Booksmith in San Francisco] has invited almost 80 people from around the country to a three-day meeting to re-imagine what a community bookstore could be. Publishers, authors, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, bookstore staff, philanthropists and even loyal customers are holed up in a large conference room at the Oshman Family JCC.”
Funky days in 1955
Some parts sound good, some not-so-good. I could do without this: “Our three-day conference is filled with publishers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and authors determined to devise a store that’s much more Internet savvy, with a staff that’s constantly blogging, tweeting and interacting with customers on Facebook. They imagine live-streaming author events, offering virtual book groups, allowing customers to interact with author holograms and providing Web surfers with real-time access to the store’s inventory and staff.”
I don’t want a bookstore to do all those things, thank you very much. I spend my days blogging, tweeting, Facebooking. While I think author Kevin Smokler has something of the right idea when he says, “We cannot look at the advent of the e-book as a problem to be solved or a trend to be minimized. Somehow, I should be able to visit Kepler’s and be an e-book consumer at the same time” – I do not want Kepler’s to be sending “recommendations” to my smartphone as soon as I walk into the store, as the WaPo article suggests.
The original Kepler
In fact, I think that’s the single most annoying feature of Amazon. I check the publication date of a book to correct a reference, or look up an author’s previous books might be when I run across her name in a newspaper article, and based on such random data Amazon is assuming it knows my tastes and is shooting me recommendations. ”‘Smart shelves’ with integrated video screens would nimbly change to reflect buyers’ interests”? My worst dreams come true!
I’d be content if Kepler’s simply continued to sponsor top-notch readings for Jane Hirshfield, Dana Gioia, and others. I’ll be happy to purchase my Le Monde or Paris Review there. But then, I’m an old-fashioned girl. I think what it really needs is a few old couches, like the old Chimera on Lytton Avenue.
Kepler’s partisans still know how to put their money where their mouth is: members of this week’s conference pledged to raise another $250,000.
My introduction to Italo Calvino occurred some years ago via the poet Kay Ryan, who recommended Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which she seemed to view as a personal enchiridion. The essays were written in 1985, the year Calvino died.
Here’s one passage I marked with pencil from the essay called “Lightness,” as he recalled his beginnings as a writer:
“Maybe was I only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.
“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies on winged sandals…”
Joseph Luzzi calls the Italian author a “self-styled moralist” in a recent Times Literary Supplement article here – how does that lightness weigh against fascist Italy, then? Calvino’s newly translated Into the War, a trilogy of autobiographical works, takes a very heavy subject – war – and views it through the ambiguous and non-commital gaze of an adolescent, watching from the sidelines.
The beginning of the first story, “Into the War”, evokes Clausewitz’s famous depiction of the “fog of war”, a realm permeated by uncertainty and requiring – yet rarely finding – unusual powers of discernment: “The 10th June 1940 was a cloudy day. It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything . … We knew that Mussolini was to speak in the afternoon, but it was not clear whether we would be going to war or not”. … Mussolini makes only a brief cameo in “Into the War”, when he speeds past the narrator in an open-top car, on his way to inspect the troops. The only person who seems to be enjoying himself, Mussolini appears as a child playing a very dangerous game; less sanguine, the distracted Calvino can only comment, “the car was going fast; [Mussolini] had disappeared. I had barely seen him”.
Calvino described lyrical autobiography as enemy terrain. He had reservations about memoir and autobiography, once confessing to a reviewer, “Once you start on the road to autobiography, where do you stop?”
I seem to be the only person not watching the Olympics today. So maybe it might be timely to remind everyone of a more spiritual kind of Olympics. Spoiler: Raoul Wallenberg won.
Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who saved perhaps as many as 100,000 Jewish lives in Hungary during World War II. After the Soviets entered Budapest in 1945, he was last seen for certain going off with a Russian officer for a “meeting.” The Nazis didn’t get him, but apparently the Soviets did. Does he get a gold cup or medal?
The Swedish government has created a traveling exhibition, “To Me There’s No Other Choice,” which will arrive at the University of Michigan in February 2013 – and it will feature a good chunk on his time in Ann Arbor. Why did Wallenberg “Go Blue”? Although he was born to a prominent family of bankers, diplomats, military officers, and industrialists – the “Rockefellers of Scandinavia” – “The choice of a university was hardly automatic to his grandfather who wished Raoul to study abroad and who, [according to an earlier article] ‘disliked the snobbery of the British upper classes and ruled out Oxford and Cambridge.’ He apparently felt the same way about America’s Ivy League schools,” according to Sheryl James‘s article.
The choice suited: ”When I now look back upon the last school year, I find I have had a completely wonderful time,” he wrote before he graduated with a degree in architecture in less than four years. Also according to the article: ”A former classmate later said Wallenberg declined to join a fraternity, though he could have afforded it, because it would isolate him from other, less prosperous students. ‘There was just no snobbery about him,’ his classmate recalled.”
A Michigan hitchhiker
Too often martyrdom blots out an earlier life that was lived to the fullest. Wallenberg was someone who enjoyed his brief years. According to an earlier university article that James cites: ”‘He dressed in sneakers, ate hot dogs, and hitchhiked wherever he went … It is evident he was popular, energetic, and outgoing, endearing himself by his humor and unassuming ways.’ Classmates nicknamed him Rudy and remembered him as gentle and intelligent.”
He worked at odd jobs and, on his vacations, hitchhiked around America. He wrote to his grandfather: “When you travel like a hobo, everything’s different. You have to be on the alert the whole time. You’re in close contact with new people every day. Hitchhiking gives you training in diplomacy and tact.”
One of his professors recalled, “He had no fear—that’s my impression of him … I can understand why he took the job in Budapest.” James writes: ”The Hungarian Jewish population was the only one of any size left in 1944 Europe when President Franklin D.Roosevelt created the U.S. War Refugee Board (WRB) to help save victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. The WRB sought aid from a neutral Sweden—and Raoul Wallenberg, just 32 years old and already connected in Budapest, agreed to lead the Swedish effort.
I disagree with James on this score, I do not think it would have been “selfish, thoughtless, superficial” had he chosen to stay in Ann Arbor and live a normal life raising a family and making use of one’s talents. In fact, as one who is Detroit-born, I can say that living in Michigan requires a courage of its own, though perhaps not for a Swede:
“I have spent this entire Christmas in Ann Arbor, as I had quite a lot to do,” he wrote to his grandfather in 1935. “However, I haven’t bored myself at all. We have been having fine weather, snow most of the time and a few days of quite severe cold. One morning something peculiar happened. Due to changes of temperature, I presume, the street pavements, lawns, and even tree trunks were coated with a layer of perfectly clear ice almost an inch thick. It looked very strange and very beautiful.”
I am glad to be liberated from the Michigan winter – I understand that it’s actually colder than Moscow – and under the relentlessly sunny skies of California.
Horrific things are happening – in Syria, Nigeria, or the Sudan. We don’t send troops in – and face universal censure. We send troops in – and later, when the bodies of American soldiers are dragged through the streets, or we face a long, debilitating war in a far-flung place, we want out. Any commitment to human rights is cancelled. It’s their problem, after all.
We don’t want war. We can’t make peace.
So what’s the answer?
The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, doesn’t have an answer either, but he challenged some current household gods in a provocative talk at Stanford last night. In particular, he questioned “human rights absolutism,” finding that the lens that human rights organizations bring to issues is sometimes “freezes time,” without historical perspective or historical judgment, capturing complex events in one moment that clearly divides victims and perps like oil and water.
What would Human Rights Action have said about Abraham Lincoln? He suggested that, with Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Sherman’s March, and “obvious gross human rights abuses,” the president would flunk the human rights test today. Yet we can also view these moves as bad actions in a cause we judge as good, rather than funneling them through a “single measure,” he said.
Of course, Lincoln’s drama unfolded over years. Today’s immediate 24/7 media coverage means complex situations are frozen in a single, horrible moment almost instantly. Think Abu Ghraib. “If there’s a famine in Somalia, now you’ll hear about it” – Gourevitch snapped his fingers – “right away,” We seem to be living in an anti-historical, freeze-time era, fast as a camera shutter.
“A premise in our culture, in most religions, in the human rights movement and the law, is that we are united by a common humanity,” said Gourevitch, “that the suffering that is happening far away might be our business.” However, he said, “In reality, few of us live that way. What is near to us is near to us, what’s far away is far away,” he said. But now it’s on CNN or twitter and in our living rooms – in an instant.
“Americans’ reaction is ‘why don’t we do something?’” said Gourevitch, a former editor of the Paris Review. “Why should I expose myself to grievous suffering if I can’t do something about it?”
“Frankly, it is naïve to think we know what’s right” – and even more naïve to think we can implement it. “Action is often a story of distortion,” he said.
He questions "human rights absolutism."
Human rights groups are the “last universalist organizations still standing.” They are neither left-wing nor right-wing, but rather they “take the side of the suffering,” and demand that human rights abuses be adjudicated as crimes.
They’ve met with success in public awareness: 20 years ago, there were no summer sessions in human rights and no human rights majors.
But their vision is “not entirely accurate,” he said, because “none of us live in an extra-statal world.” Without considering political reality, “you might provoke a worse atrocity.”
“Human rights abuses are often a symptom,” Gourevitch said – a symptom of more systemic problems. While a human rights agenda is essential, it tends to be a legal agenda. It’s “an entirely negative measure” – in other words, you find human rights abuses, and then you penalize them. In such a view, “it starts to look like there are no politics,” he said.
And often the results need a rethink. In 2009, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for crimes committed against the people of Darfur and issued a warrant asking the rest of the world to arrest him.
“They’re calling for a coup d’état. What’s your response?” he asked. “Do you care who comes next?” When considering atrocities, “It’s always important to remember that the nastiest thing you see can be exceeded.”
We hope indictments, sanctions, and other actions act as a deterrent – but where does this confidence come from? he asked. “Right now it’s pure speculation.” We know that the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, “but the same exact people are arguing for the deterrent effect on heads of state.”
News board in Monrovia during Charles Taylor's trial
Often, we are dealing with nations where “there have always been wars about succession” and where “there’s never been a head of state who has left office alive.”
For these leaders, “the primary fear is not that you might wind up being in a Swedish jail,” he said. “It’s bad for your image – but it’s not the worst option.”
Is it appropriate to let dictators “sneak out the door”? Such arrangements were made for Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who had a safe exile in Nigeria for awhile. He was eventually apprehended and turned over to Liberia – a series of actions that undermined such safe options, anyway. Are such deals “promoting a culture where there is no accountability”?
“These are problems we should be thinking about,” he said, rather than focusing on them simply as legal issues. “Is this in the interests of that people? Is this better for the people in that place? A lot of the time it has nothing to do with the people in that place. What they [human rights organizations and activists] are interested in is international law. They’re lawyers.”
In such cases, “the consequences for Rwanda are irrelevant. It’s a different set of issues. Moral clarity rams into political reality every step of the way. It’s impossible to solve problems without it.”
And are these issues as black-and-white as they seem? What would human rights scoresheet have looked like during, say, the Siege of Troy? Would Homer’s lines be less moving if they described UN blue helmets and post-conflict resolutions for the Greeks and Trojans? Or what about Macbeth? “We look at those stories in their complexity,” he said. (Incidentally, he’s providing another small argument for the study of literature.)
Gourevitch recalled meeting a survivor of a Rwandan atrocity, after school students refused the Hutu guerrillas’ orders to separate into Hutus and Tutsis, and were massacred. “That dark courage – that’s what hope looks like in that place,” he said.
But the story didn’t stop there. The guerilla commander who is alleged to be responsible for the massacre has now been reintegrated into the Army – he’s even been promoted to colonel. Gourevitch was able to get his phone number within a day. He met the officer, who said that he had nothing to do with the slaughter. Yet it’s widely believed that he did, and there has been no trial.
“All of this is completely at odds with human rights thinking,” Gourevitch said. But he was told by one Rwandan, “if we keep adjudicating, we’ll never build a nation and integrate the army.”
“It’s a very troubling proposition,” he said – but he suggests that the alternative may be even more troubling.
Justice? Write to your congressman, attend a protest, send off an op-ed. Instead, Gourevitch quoted the first line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? – you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.”
Meanwhile, Gourevitch below on the Paul Holdengräber Show:
We received a charming reply today from the eminent Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who edited the small volume and wrote a commentary (in another letter below, R.S. Gwynn writes that Boyd’s “close reading of the poem is masterly”). It’s so much fun we thought we would publish the note as a separate post. Boyd writes:
999-line poem on file cards, as the author intended.
“I was also an adviser on the 1994 Arion Press edition of “Pale Fire,” which is an exquisite thing, with a moiré cloth box and cover that manage to capture the interplay of sun and moon in the passage of “Timon of Athens” from which Nabokov and Shade pick the phrase “pale fire.” But that was a limited fine edition of the whole novel (at $600 on release), including the poem of course, but also with a separate booklet for the poem (also in a moiré cloth cover), as part of the same boxed set, typeset as if typed on index cards and bound into booklet form.
What makes the Gingko edition so unprecedented–and here the credit belongs, if first to Vladimir Nabokov, then next to artist Jean Holabird, who proposed the project, is:
a) that it is of the poem alone;
A poet as well as novelist, and perhaps a pugilist, too
b) that the poem appears as if handwritten on index cards (just as Kinbote describes it), with the last 50 lines as if in first draft rather than fair copy (and with the twelve cards of legitimate variants kept by Shade also downloadable from Ginkgo), as if the reader has direct access to what Shade wrote, without the intervention of Kinbote;
c) that the poem is also presented as a booklet, for easier reading, almost as if it might have been published had Shade been real, and Kinbote had not intervened (with a brief note About the Author and a page listing Other Books by the Author), and with Jean Holabird’s delicate art work, as it were, belatedly launching Shade’s last poetry volume;
d) that there is also a booklet with two essays, by R.S. Gwynn and myself, that focus only on the poem. The focus on the poem, in design and detail, the play throughout with the fiction that readers are for the first time allowed immediate access to a major American poem of 1959, is unique to the Gingko edition, and the result of an admiration for the poem, and a sense of regret that it has been overshadowed by the novel as a whole, however much we might like it (it’s my favorite novel in the world), that is shared by Jean Holabird, Mo Cohen of Gingko Press (and those at the press who became entranced by the project), and Sam Gwynn and myself.
And the Gingko “Pale Fire” pack is not a fine limited edition, but both a literary intervention–very successful, indeed, in inviting people to read and discuss the poem as poem–and “an almost ridiculously lovely package” selling for only $35!
Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Slate, announces the next hot Nabokov controversy, and the story is making the rounds in the blogosphere. The poem “Pale Fire” is about to be liberated from Pale Fire. The 900-line poem at the center of what many call Vladimir Nabokov‘s finest novel, written presumably by the murdered John Shade, will be published separately by Ginkgo Press: “Nabokov wrote it, and the question of why he wrote it and who he modeled Shade on is the subject of what will be an equally controversial essay accompanying the edition, by poet and poetry professor R.S. Gwynn.”
David Orr‘s New York Times review writes that the the long poems comes in “an almost ridiculously lovely package”: “the poem itself is printed in a small booklet, the note cards upon which Shade ‘wrote’ the poem are recreated (complete with faux ink stains), and an accompanying critical text contains helpful essays from the Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd and the poetry critic R. S. Gwynn (who makes a smart case for Nabokov having used couplets partly as a response to Robert Lowell’s early work).”
“But does it work? Can the poem ‘Pale Fire’ exist without the novel Pale Fire? [You see, contra Josh Landy, here is where the Chicago Manual comes in handy. The finky New York Times style italicizes "Pale Fire" both as poem and novel. I have corrected the ugliness. – ED.]
There are reasons to think it cannot. In a New Yorker blog post last year, Paul Muldoon conceded that ‘Pale Fire’ is ‘a quite wonderful poem,’ but he asked, ‘Isn’t it like one of those tall buildings which incorporates in its core the very crane that raised it?’”
Sam at the helm
What can I say. I wanted to reach out across the continent, shake them both, and cry out: ” Dr. Zhivago! What of the poems of Yuri Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago?” They’ve been published separately for years and years and years.
“I’m very fond of Pasternak’s poems from Doctor Zhivago,” Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky told Solomon Volkov. “They’re remarkable poems, especially ‘Christmas Star.’ I think of them often.” No talk of buildings and cranes here.
However, Orr continues: ”This is beautifully put, but there is another way to look at things. When authors write ‘as’ a character, particularly in a third-person novel, we usually understand that the text created by that character is subordinate to the world in which the character exists. In Persuasion, for example, Jane Austen brings the novel to its emotional peak with a letter written by Frederick Wentworth — which we understand is really written by Austen and dependent for its resonance on the world of Anne Elliot, the Musgroves, Lady Russell and the rest. It’s hard to imagine anyone reading the letters of Frederick Wentworth for their own sake … In general, the writing of fictional characters is dependent on the larger work, and it is the larger work that reflects the author’s worldview.”
Orr makes a bigger point, about the lyrical “I,” which is a mask and the poet at once. ”There is obviously great potential for confusion as to who is saying what in this arrangement,” he writes. I’m not quite sure why it matters at all. In the end, he rather concludes the same: “No poem is ever on its own. And the poem is not Nabokov’s any more than it is John Shade’s. ‘Pale Fire’ is a voice within a voice — a mirrored and thoroughly modern sensibility. And that sensibility, whatever name we give it, is one hell of a poet.”
There’s just one problem. The poem ‘Pale Fire’ was “freed from the shackles..free at last to be a poem on its own,” extracted from the novel and published in its first separate edition in 1994, by Arion Press in San Francisco.
Like the Gingko edition, it’s reproduced just as Nabokov described it in the novel – on file cards. Read the rest here.
Dana Gioia‘s new volume of poems, Pity the Beautiful, is getting some early buzz (including a Philadelphia Inquirer review here). The poet (and former chairman of the NEA) recently sent me the latest issue of Gregory Wolfe‘s Image Journal which includes a satisfyingly long interview – even better than a review. None of it’s online, so I’ll include a few excerpts from the interview with Erika Koss. Besides, it meshes nicely with some of the Book Haven’s earlier posts, so I couldn’t resist.
The Book Haven was pleased to include his long poem “Special Treatments Ward” in its entirety, in an earlier post here. Here’s what he said about the poem in the new interview:
“This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished. So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.”
We also had a post describing “Haunted,” Dana’s ghost story – it’s here. From the interview:
“Actually, this poem began with the first two lines:’”I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “Such nonsense./But years ago I actually saw one.”‘ As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.”
‘Haunted’ is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality …”
And the winner is...
He lists among the influential philosophers of his life Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard. What odd bedfellows that crew would be.
But who was the most important philosopher of all? Surprise.
“One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine‘s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power – be they business, government, or academia – in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades the world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács – not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.”
Here’s a kind of egalitarianism that goes well beyond Marx: “Beauty is not a luxury,” he insists. “It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.”
The Making of the film "U S" – triumph and tragedy rolled into one
Some time ago we wrote about W.H. Auden on stage, in a new Broadway musical. But how many know of his work on film?
David Collardwrites in England’s Literary Reviewabout Auden’s lifelong fascination with film. For six months from 1935 to 1936, Auden worked for the General Post Office Film Unit (GPO), which included the time that it produced Night Mail, the Citizen Kane, Coal Face, Negroes (released as God’s Chillun), and The Way to the Sea – “all four films featuring brilliant modernist scores by the young Benjamin Britten,” according to Collard. “No artists of comparable stature had collaborated so closely since 1691, when John Dryden and Henry Purcell worked together on the ‘dramatick opera’ King Arthur.”
Collard also writes that GPO, “despite its prosaic-sounding title, was for five years the most exciting, innovative and progressive cultural project in Britain, staffed by a dazzling cohort of international talents. In a short-lived flurry of commitment to the cause, Auden also lectured on film, wrote reviews, provided subtitle renderings of Russian peasant folk songs for Dziga Vertov‘s Three Songs of Lenin, and collaborated on various other projects, even appearing in front of the camera (disguised as a department store Father Christmas in Evelyn Spice‘s spirited Calendar of the Year).”
But all was not well:
Naturally insubordinate, however, Auden soon began to question what he saw as the compromise and hypocrisy implicit in a state-sponsored organisation that purported to criticise the state’s shortcomings. He resigned from the Unit following publication of a Listener article in which he attacked the documentary movement, before Night Mail became the Unit’s one great critical and popular success. The film has since tended to overshadow his other documentary achievements.
His favorite films...
Auden later seemed indifferent to films. During a talk at Cambridge, his student host Paul McQuail recalled, “We sat and talked for an hour in a relaxed way, much of it about films: Auden’s most memorable remark, though we didn’t know how to take it, was that the films he liked most were the ones where animals talk with human voices. He mentioned Francis the Talking Mule as an example.”
The story has a happy ending, and then a sad one. Auden returned to films with 1962′s Runner, where he wrote a “verse commentary” for the documentary about the young Canadian distance runner Bruce Kidd. A few years later, he participated in U S, a film about the U.S. and, well, us. It begins with breathtaking clouds and panoramic vistas, but didn’t pull back from the plight of Native Americans, slaves imported from West Africa, and America’s underclass. The last caused problems.
From what Collard has cited, it appears that celluloid did not elicit Auden’s best poetic efforts. I should know. The rhythms of Auden are in my blood, thanks to Joseph Brodsky, who made us memorize hundreds of lines of poetry, many of them Wystan’s. It was not a popular activity then, and even less now.
So I was intrigued to learn that I have unexpected company as I champion the loving labor of memorization. Over at poetryfoundation.org, Josh Warn (any relation to the ezine’s founding editor Emily Warn?) recalled reciting Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” while dragging welding cables on a construction site, as a response to his companion wittily recounting Eminem’s rap lyrics. Wrote Warn, “the poem’s sixty-seven lines you restrain yourself from the familiar flurries of contemporary mediaspeak and follow phrasings that come from a deeper place.” On the whole, it sounds more like he was showing off, especially since the floor grinders began whirring away and drowned out both of them.
He writes: “A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves. I first learned this through my practice of memorizing Psalms. But even nominally secular poems recited aloud soothe, and not merely by providing a distraction from disturbing matters, but by the steady rhythm of their sound, and their effects on the breath.”
Beyond that, “The intense familiarity of a work known by heart allows happy moments of sensing the poem as a whole and in details. This pleasure is not simply the kick of solving a puzzle, nor my ironworker affinity for structure. There is also pleasure in sounds and rhythms, even the mouth pleasure of ‘unintelligible multitude’ [from Auden's "Shield of Achilles"]. But at its best the experience of a good poem has to do with trying to apprehend a deeply known truth that another person could communicate only with a precise set of words.”
Auden’s film U S , on America ended the American way, with a murder. While filming in Appalachian Kentucky, Scottish-Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O’Connor was shot dead by a local landlord, Hobart Ison, who was infuriated by the filmmakers on his property, and enraged at the media images that he felt exploited and stigmatized Appalachia during Lyndon Johnson‘s War on Poverty. Some of the jurors agreed.
“Following a hung jury at the end of his first trial, Ison pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years and paroled after just one.”
I had a pleasant visit with Marilyn Yalom the other day, on the sun-drenched patio of her Palo Alto home. According to the Publishers Weekly, the “avowed feminist, confessed Proustian, admitted Simone de Beauvoir groupie, the erudite and charming Yalom is the perfect companion.” And so she is. She talked about French literature, she talked about her time as a doctoral student under René Girard, and she talked about love.
Her new book, How the French Invented Love, will be out this fall. From a June Q&A interview in Publishers Weekly: “The French believe that love is embedded in the flesh. They have little tolerance for ethereal ideas of nonconsummated love.” But… but… but… what about all those troubadours? Isn’t France the home of amour lointain?
Too much time on their hands
She talks about that, too. From her book:
In the north, minstrels known as trouvères took up troubadour themes, though the music itself was heavily influenced by the Parisian school of Notre Dame, which was devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary. When you listen to this music from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, you discover that sacred and profane songs sound much alike, even if the words are different. Enough manuscripts still exist to give us a sense of the music, which was sung to the accompaniment of a small harp. Love in the north of France appears to have become more and more idealized, and the beloved lady more and more inaccessible, with the poet-minstrel downplaying his expectation of a physical reward. Unlike their southern counterparts, northern minstrels emphasized a love of longing rather than fulfillment.
Clearly, however, consummated love is more to her liking. In a frivolous mood, I recently sent her a link to an article on “How to Love Like a French Woman.” Did she agree with statements like this?
American women (and Americans in general) tend to be very goal-oriented when it comes to love, sex, and dating. Rather than setting things in motion and embracing the unknown, Americans generally prefer to set things in stone with a list of clear objectives, goals and outcomes: Is he/she my soul mate or my future spouse? Where, exactly, is this relationship going? Does he/she love me, or not? From the time we’re little girls, we grow up thinking about love in terms of total love or absolute rejection — unlike the French. …
When relationships don’t pan out, we tend to interpret that as the failure of the whole experience instead of doing what the French do — which is to say, they consider that the emotional integrity of a relationship might lie solely in the experience of it and not necessarily in its outcome or ultimate resolution.
The American woman’s approach to dating is heavily influenced by the extent to which sex has either been sensationalized or pathologized in her mind. People are either having mind-blowing encounters — and women’s magazines are cluttered with tips/techniques on how to achieve it — or their libidos have gone into permanent retirement and need to be “fixed.” There’s always a notion that things can be bigger or better. Ditto for whom we are in general, given our culture that expects constant self-improvement and self-transformation.
” I agree with her on almost everything she says,” Marilyn dashed back in a emailed note. Almost? I forgot to ask her about her reservations.
Here’s mine: Why are these columns almost always directed to women? I don’t see men curling themselves into pretzels trying to analyze their women or shopping for exotic underwear.