Friday, April 20, 2018

Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers

When Émile Zola decided that he wanted to write a novel including characters belonging to his fictional Rougon-Macquart family set during the Second French Empire (1852 to 1870) that would most accurately and powerfully express his deeply anti-clerical convictions, arguing specifically against the Catholic Church's draconian insistence on the celibacy of its ordained priests, he created La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret,(1) that contains his usual naturalistic style describing how Serge Mouret, a 26-year-old priest, arrives in Les Artaud, a very poor and isolated parish in the south of France, about the extremity and austerity of his devotion to his faith, specifically as it pertains to an idolatry of the Virgin Mary, and about the complete indifference of the people of Artaud toward religious observance, their almost animalistic lives surrounded by farm animals.

While Serge's retarded sister Desirée delights in the natural surroundings, he finds himself bewildered by his attraction to Albine, the pretty niece of Jeanbernat, an old man who presides over a dilapidated estate called Paradou surrounded by a lush, overgrown garden. Jeanbernat is a rather bigoted atheist, and won't tolerate any talk of God. Albine is almost a wild animal herself - uneducated and passionate. She is attracted to Serge, and becomes his nurse when he suffers an emotional breakdown. Zola then adopts a different style of writing, more psychological and impressionistic, as if his settings come alive. Taken to Paradou after his breakdown, Serge forgets he is a priest and acts on his attraction to Albine, who encourages him to be her "husband."

Deeply symbolic, with obvious parallels to Adam and Eve in Eden, the second section of the novel is remarkably different from the first. These two contrasting parts of the novel reminded me of one of my favorite musical compositions, Debussy's "Sacred and Profane Dances," which begins with a stately severity but then dissolves into a hypnotic, sensuous waltz. But Debussy resolved the piece abruptly, whereas Zola carried it into third act. Serge suddenly remembers he is a priest and, overcome with shame and repentance, abandons Albine and Paradou to return to his priestly duties. Unable to comprehend Serge's rejection of her, Albine dies after she seals herself in her airtight room smothered in flowers. Serge performs a funeral rite for her, "Requiescat in pace," just as Desirée's cow is delivered of a calf.

Despite Zola's anticlerical convictions, he manages to make his priest, Serge, sympathetic by contrasting his faith, which is a gentle one centered on Mother Mary, with that of an altogether loathsome character, Brother Archangias, who chooses instead to worship at the feet of a gruesome crucified Jesus. Zola wrote in a style that became known as naturalism (though Zola didn't call it that), which is nothing but the presentation of things as they are and life as it is lived, not idealized or stylized in any way. No dramatic flummery. The style had its first impact on the theater around the turn of the century, and it was passed smoothly to film by some of France's first filmmakers, André Antoine and Louis Delluc. But Zola's unflinching descriptions of nature got him into some trouble with censorship. L'Abbe Mouret, for example, wasn't given an unexpurgated translation in the U.S. until the 1950s. (Strangely, the distribution of the film in the U.S. was held up until 1977. 

But Book II, set in an intentionally ethereal landscape within the confines of a walled-in garden, is written in a very different style - impressionistic, almost surreal. It was this part of the novel that, I think, attracted Georges Franju to make a film of Zola's novel in 1970. Often described as "fantastic realism," Franju's filmmaking style was at its best in his depictions of Serge and Albine's dreamlike idyll inside Paradou.

Franju is a fascinating figure in French cinema. After military service in Algeria, he worked as a theatrical set designer. On meeting Henri Langlois, together they created a film club, made a short film called Le Métro, and in 1936 founded the Cinemathèque Française. La faute de l'Abbé Mouret was Franju's next-to-last film. One wonders why he chose to plunge himself (and us) in Zola's distant world. Though best remembered for the horror film Eyes Without a Face, his best film is Thérèse Desqueyroux, based on the Mauriac novel. He retired from filmmaking to take over as artistic director of the Cinémathèque Française upon the death of Langlois in 1977.

Zola's novel and Franju's film question what is natural and unnatural in a man's life (particularly a young man) and what is sane and insane behavior. There is a cruel irony in the depictions of Serge's fervent observance of priestly rituals and his passionate prayers to a statue of a beautiful Holy Virgin. He is disturbed by the natural lives of the people of Artaud, their purely physical, sexual lives, and by his natural attraction to Albine. They lead him to total physical and mental breakdown. In Paradou he experiences a life of the senses for the first time. He becomes a man, a sexual being. But only because he suffers amnesia - he has forgotten himself and the strict, inhuman rules imposed by his calling. He returns to his senses  only to resume a life that denies the part of himself, perhaps the best part, that he discovered with Albine. He loses his innocence not at the hands of Albine but when his knowledge is restored, the guilt-stricken life of a priest.

In a related story, Pope Francis announced on April 11 that he committed "grave errors" in his handling of sexual abuse accusations made against a Chilean bishop. The Pope's appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros, the protegée of Rev. Fernando Karadima, found guilty by a Vatican judge of numerous acts of sexual abuse, has led to violent protests and, this past week, the firebombing of several churches in Chile. On an official visit to Latin America, the Pope stated that he refused to believe that Barros had any knowledge of the abuse without proof. On his return to Rome, however, the Pope apologized and begged the forgiveness of the victims. “From now on I ask forgiveness of all those I offended and I hope to be able to do it personally in the coming weeks,” Francis wrote.

This is only the latest scandal in the ongoing exposure of paedophile Catholic priests. The problem of sexual abuse carried out by ordained priests boils down to the Church's ancient insistence on celibacy - on the sexual denial of men and women under Holy Orders. The priests' enforced celibacy, their deliberate isolation from all sexual practices, has clearly led to serious sexual abuse committed by many priests. I wonder if Zola would've been surprised that, 143 years after La faute de l'Abbé Mouret's publication, the problem of the celibacy of Catholic priests would remain unresolved.

The film's weakest point is the casting of the lead roles, Serge and Albine. Francis Huster, who was 22 when the film was made, has the look and the fervor of Serge, but he is far too insubstantial to carry the film. Gillian Hills will be remembered - forever I hope - as "The Brunette" in Antonioni's Blow-Up. (Her hills were on display in virtually every film she appeared in.) She is pretty but utterly unalluring as the elemental wood nymph Albine. In the novel, she is practically a natural force and is completely pagan. In the film, her great sex scene with Francis Huster (in which they - ostensibly - both lose their virginity) has zero fire and cannot even rise to the level of softcore porn. There is another sex scene at the beginning of the film between Rosalie and Fortuné that is more successfully erotic, but only because the actress playing Rosalie (Silvie Feit) is clearly unabashed at being naked.

The character of Desirée was eliminated by Franju, but Franju's most significant alteration of Zola's novel was his ending. In the film, after the chaotic scene in which Albine's coffin is lowered into the grave, and Jeanbernat suddenly appearing to slice off Brother Archangias's ear, Serge returns alone to the church and, gazing rapturously at the statue of the Holy Virgin, he holds out his arms as the statue is transformed into a radiant image of Albine, whom Serge kisses tenderly. It is a striking and gloriously disturbing final image, accompanied beautifully by Jean Wiener's music. It is Albine's beatification, but for the exclusive use of Serge. I could almost hear Alex, the hero of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, saying "I was cured all right."


(1) The title has been variously (mis)translated as L'Abbe Mouret's Transgression and The Sin of Father Mouret ("sin" in French is "péché."). A more accurate title might be Father's Mouret's Mistake

Monday, April 16, 2018

Miloš Forman

News of the death of Miloš Forman was announced today. He died last Friday at the age of 86. I was astonishing to discover that he was an orphan and made only ten films in a fifty year career. 

It is always tempting when discussing the work of an émigré artist (especially an émigré filmmaker) to prize his work in his homeland (in this case, Czechoslovakia) over his Hollywood work - when there are so many examples of great filmmakers who answered the siren call of Hollywood and found a great falling off - sometimes precipitous - in the quality of their work. Forman would probably have pointed out that working creatively in an "Eastern bloc" country was like trying to conduct a symphony orchestra while wearing a straight jacket. But the limitations that communist censorship imposed on filmmakers did manage to result in good work. 

Having seen eight of his films, I found it impossible not to like his Czech feature films, Loves of a Blonde and The Fireman's Ball, even if they were not as good as the work of his fellow Czechs - Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer, and Jaromil Jireš. He showed an affection for his characters that I found lacking in his Hollywood work.

I think Forman's best Hollywood film was The People vs. Larry Flynt. It was a splendid dramatization of one of the most important legal cases in U.S. history - in which the 1st Amendment of the Constitution had to be invoked to protect one of the most repellent people in America (even if Jerry Falwell was immeasurably more repellent than Larry Flynt). But Forman will be remembered for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, both of which won Best Picture Oscars but are vastly overrated. I preferred Valmont, his adaptation of Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to Stephen Frears' desperately miscast version. His film of the musical Hair had the irresistible choreography of Twyla Tharp, even if it was about ten years out of date. And Man on the Moon was hamstrung by one of the creepiest impersonations (Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman) I've ever seen.

I hope that his death will spark renewed interest in the films of the Czech New Wave, which resulted in so many fine films, including Closely Watched Trains, The Cry, Romeo, Juliet and the Darkness, Intimate Lighting, and The Joke. Some of the directors of these films stayed in Czechoslovakia and, after seeing their films banned, worked under conditions that eventually crippled their creativity. Forman, who departed Czechoslovakia after the '68 Prague Spring, faced none of these problems, but had to endure the equally insurmountable one of scraping up the money to get his risky films in Hollywood made. It is impossible for me to tell which side came out on top.

Jan Tomáš "Miloš" Forman, 18 February 1932 – 13 April 2018.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Two Assassinations

[Even as the comic book superhero movie Black Panther continues to rake in millions in box office receipts, providing black people with - ostensibly - a positive role model, the 50th anniversary of a a real black hero's - Martin Luther King, Jr.'s - assassination arrived on April 4. The occasion was marked by reflections on King's great physical courage during his last days. Knowing that so many people wanted him dead and that an attempt on his life was imminent, he continued to make public appearances and refused to give up his civil rights crusade. CNN revisited the seedy Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, reminding us of what a tight budget the Nobel Peace Prize-winner was living on, with Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young, even the balcony where King was struck in the chin by the assassin's bullet. Looking at Jackson and Young, both portly old men, made me wonder how King himself might have looked if he were still living. He would be 89 this year.

The following was written at the time of the murder of Gandhi in 1948 by Dwight Macdonald, just twenty years before King's assassination. Though not as well known as George Orwell's "Reflections on Gandhi," Macdonald's essay is an impressive tribute to the man from whom Martin Luther King, Jr. learned the most about politics.]


SAINTS

GANDHI

"A moment before he was shot, he said--some witnesses believed he was speaking to the assassin-'you are late."' N. Y. World-Telegram, January 30, 1948


And indeed the man who killed Gandhi with three revolver shots was late - about two years late. The communal massacres showed that Gandhi's teaching of non-violence had not penetrated to the Indian masses. His life work had been invain - or at least it now appeared that he had taught a "non-violence of the weak" which had been effective against the British but that the more difficult "non-violence of the strong" he had been unable to teach. He insisted on his failure constantly, and constantly thought of death. "I am in thc midst of flames," he wrote last spring. "Is it the kindness of God or His irony that the flames do not consume me?" One imagines that he experienced a dreadful joy in the split-second he saw the gun aimed at him. 

Three historical events have moved me deeply of recent years: the murder of Trotsky, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the murder of Gandhi. That all three should be simply catastrophes - hopeless, destructive, painful - is in the style of our period. The Spanish Civil War was the last of the 19th-century type of political tragedies: the fight was lost, as in I848 or the Paris Commune, but it had been a fight; there was hope while it was going on, and defeat might be due to some temporary relation of forces; there was a basis for a future effort. 

But Trotsky and Gandhi were killed not during their great time of struggle to realize "Utopian" ideals, not while they were still fighting with a hope of success, but after their ideas - or at least their tactics - had been shown by the brutal logic of events to be inadequate. They were not shot in battle. They were executed. And their executioner was not the oppressive, conservative forces they had devoted their lives to fighting the bourgeoisie and the British imperialists - but the scum that had frothed up from their own heroic struggle to liberate mankind: young fanatics representing a new order - of Stalinism and of Hindu nationalism - which is hopeless, deadening, corrupting and monstrous, but which is also, alas, partly the product of their own revolutionary efforts. In the 19th century, czars and governors and secret-police chiefs were assassinated by radicals; today, it is revolutionaries (out of power) like Trotsky and Gandhi who are killed by our modern Nihilists, while Stalin and Hitler and Zhdanov and Himmler and Mussolini, and Molotov escape (unless they lose a war). OUR Nihilists have terribly perverted Liebknecht's slogan: "The main Enemy is at Home". Or perhaps they are just more prudent than their 19th-century ancestors. Which would be in keeping, too. 

Gandhi, like Trotsky, was killed after his most profound ideas and his lifelong political activity had been rebuffed by History. But, also like Trotsky, he was still alive and kicking, still throwing out imaginative concepts. The ideologue is baffied, but the human being - and by this sentimental phrase I mean the acute intelligence as much as the moralist - is not through: he has plenty of inspirations and surprises in store for us. Both men were still giving, by their personal example and still more by their unwearied experimenting with general principles, some kind of meaning, of consciousness to modern political life. Their assassins killed not only two men, but also two cultures.Which makes it all the more painful.

There was obvious irony in the great pacifist being killed by a gunman. But there was also an esthetic fitness. Gandhi was the last eminent personage who insisted on dealing directly with people, reasoning with them face to face as individuals,not as crowds roped off, watched by plain-clothes men, sealedsafely behind bullet-proof glass. It was a matter of principle with him not to deny anyone access to him, mentally or physically. He refused all police protection. I have heard people say he was a damn fool and got what he might expect to get. They are, of course, right. Our world is so structured that the "public man" can survive only by being private, and the most dangerous thing he can do is to meet his public face to face.

Gandhi was the last political leader in the world who was a person, not a mask or a radio voice or an institution. The last on a human scale. The last for whom I felt neither fear nor contempt nor indifference but interest and affection. He was dear to me - I realize it now better than I did when he was alive - for all kinds of reasons. He believed in love, gentleness, persuasion, simplicity of manners, and he came closer to "living up to" these beliefs than most people I know - let alone most Big Shots, on whom the pressures for the reverse must be very powerful. (To me, the wonder is not that Gandhi often resorted to sophistry or flatly went back on some of his ideas, but that he was able to put into practice as many of them as he did. I speak from personal experience.) He was dear to me because he had no respect for railroads, assembly-belt production, and other knick-knacks of liberalistic Progress, and insisted on examining their human (as against their metaphysical) value.Also because he was clever, hurnorous, lively, hard-headed, and never made speeches about Fascism, Democracy, the Common Man, or World Government. And because he had a keen nose for the concrete, homely "details" of living which make the real difference to people but which are usually ignored by everybody except poets. And finally because he was a good man, by which I mean not only "good" but also "man". 

This leads into the next point. Many pacifists and others who have an ethical-and really admirable-attitude toward life are somewhat boring. Their point of view, their writing and conversation are wholly sympathetic but also a little on the dull side. 

Intellectually, their ideas lack subtlety and logical structure. Ethically, they are too consistent; they don't sense the tragedy of life, the incredible difficulty of actually putting into practice an ethical concept. They have not succumbed to temptation because they have never been tempted; they are good simply because it has never occurred to them to be bad. They are, in a word, unworldly. Gandhi was not at all unworldly. He was full of humour, slyness, perversity, and - above all - practicality. Indeed, the very thing which leads people to think of him as unworldly - his ascetic ideas about diet, household economy, and sexual intercourse - seems to me to show his worldliness, or at least his imaginative grasp of The World: how could anyone be so concerned about such matters, even though in a negative sense, without a real feeling for their importance in human life, which in turn must come from a deep drive on his part toward gluttony, luxury, and sexual indulgence? 

The Marxists, those monks of politics, were shocked by his intimacy with rich men like Birla and Tata, just as the Pharisees, the Trotskyists of their day, were shocked by Christ's sitting at table with bartenders. (The Marxist has a richer intellectual tradition than the pacifist, but his ethical sense is equally simplistic.) It is true that Gandhi "compromised" with the rich, those untouchables of the class struggle, living at their villas (though carrying on there his own ascetic regimen). But he also "compromised" with the poor, spending at least as much time in the "untouchable's" quarters (he constantly complains of the smells and lack of sanitation) as in the Birla Palace. In short, he practised tolerance and love to such an extent that he seems to have regarded the capitalist as well as the garbage-man as his social equal.

Politics, Winter, 1948

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Poet of Unhappiness

I read somewhere that A. E. Housman, Oxford scholar and author of the stubbornly popular poem cycle A Shropshire Lad, was a pallbearer at the funeral of Thomas Hardy. While there is plenty of reason why Housman should be a prominent player in the ceremony, I wonder if the anecdote is apocryphal, since Housman was 68 when Hardy died, and Oxford dons aren't known for their physical fitness.

It is now 82 years since Housman's death, since his being eulogized as the greatest elegist since Gray, and since the inevitable reaction against such fulsome praise - Cyril Connolly's critical attack on his poetry, Edmund Wilson's devastating demolition of his character (based on his life's work as a scholar of Latin), and a poem by W. H. Auden (which he later suppressed):

A.E.Housman

No one, not even Cambridge was to blame 
(Blame if you like the human situation): 
Heart-injured in North London, he became 
The Latin Scholar of his generation.

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust, 
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer; 
Food was his public love, his private lust 
Something to do with violence and the poor.

In savage foot-notes on unjust editions 
He timidly attacked the life he led, 
And put the money of his feelings on

The uncritical relations of the dead, 
Where only geographical divisions 
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.(1)

Connolly may have provided a much-needed correction of Housman's overblown reputation ["(in A Shropshire Lad) the word 'lad' (one of the most vapid in the language) occurs sixty-seven times in sixty-three poems"], and Wilson, who only wanted to discover something new about Housman, gave us a window through which Housman's extreme professional jealousy - or zealotry - became clear. As for Auden, who perhaps might have been relied on to express some sympathy for Housman's extreme emotional limitations, the great wall he built around his love's grave, he knew well enough by then (1936) that real poetry could never enjoy as much popularity as A Shropshire Lad enjoyed. There must have been another reason for Housman's fame.

What was it? In his essay, "Inside the Whale," George Orwell noted that "Housman's poems had not attracted much notice when they were first published. What was there in them that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born around 1900?" Orwell identified the deep nostalgia of a newly urbanized people for "country matters" and for rustic folk in much closer contact with the elements and the elemental nature of life.

But he also noticed that "all his themes are adolescent - murder, suicide, unhappy love, early death. They deal with the simple, intelligible disasters that give you the feeling of being up against the 'bedrock facts' of life." The power of Housman's poetry derives from its severe limitations. No matter where you open a volume of his poems, whether it's A Shropshire Lad (1896), Last Poems (1922), or indeed the posthumous More Poems (1936) and Collected Poems (1939), "It is all more or less in the same tune." 

Edmund Wilson got more personal. Limiting his analysis to Housman's classical scholarship, whose life's work was the editing and annotating of the extant works of Manilius, the Astronomicon in five volumes, a Roman author whom Housman himself believed was, according to his colleague and earliest biographer A. S. F. Gow, "a facile and frivolous poet",(2) Wilson concluded that "It was a queer destiny, and one that cramped him - if one should not say rather that he had cramped himself.... There is an element of perversity, of self-mortification, in Housman's career all along.... Housman is closed from the beginning. His world has no opening horizons; it is a prison that one can only endure. One can only come the same painful cropper over and over again and draw from it the same bitter moral.... And Housman has managed to grow old without in a sense ever knowing maturity." Grouping him with the "monastic order of English acetics, Walter Pater and Lewis Carroll, Wilson comes closest to Housman's problem without actually naming it: "Alice and the Shropshire Lad and Marius the Epucurean are all beings of a looking-glass world, either sexless or with an unreal sex which turns only toward itself in the mirror of art."

Yet Wilson was moved sufficiently by Housman's fate to write a paragraph that glows with brilliant insight and emotion:

"It is only in the Latin verses - said to have been called by Murray the best since the ancient world - which Housman prefixed to his Manilius, in his few translations from Latin and Greek, and in his occasional literary essays, that the voice of the Shropshire Lad comes through - that voice which, once sped on its way, so quickly pierced the hearts and the minds of the whole English-speaking world and which went in vibrating for decades, disburdening hearts with its music that made loss and death and disgrace seem so beautiful, while poor Housman, burdened sorely forever, sat grinding and snarling at his texts. Would he have called back that voice if he could, as he recalled, or tried to recall, so much else? There are moments when his ill humour and his pedantry, his humility which is a perverse kind of pride, almost makes us think that he would."(3)

All of this suggests that Housman as a poet is a "special case" and undeserving of his fame. But, as Orwell suggested, "There is no need to under-rate him now because he was over-rated a few years ago. Although one gets into trouble nowadays for saying so, there are a number of his poems ('Into my heart an air that kills', for instance, and 'Is my team ploughing?') that are not likely to remain long out of favour." Within his limits, Housman remains a fine - minor - poet.

I'm not sure if close textual analyses as that commonly practiced today would have disclosed the nature of Housman's great "fault" or if it could've been inferred from certain individual poems. A. E. Housman's brother Laurence was entrusted by him with his literary remains, among which was a diary that he'd kept when he was a student at Oxford in 1888-1891. Out of fear, perhaps, that it would tarnish his brother's reputation (which he had so scrupulously cultivated), in a move that now seems incredibly - almost calculatedly - prescient, in 1942 Laurence Housman handed a sealed packet containing the diary along with a 20-page essay in Laurence's handwriting titled "A. E. Housman's 'De Amicitia'", over "to Trustees of the British Museum with the stipulation that it was to remain unopened for twenty-five years."(4) True to the terms of their trusteeship, the packet was unsealed in 1967 and its contents turned over to Jonathan Cape, Housman's publisher. Laurence Housman's essay was published in the magazine Encounter

Laurence Housman's essay explicitly discusses A. E.'s feelings for a man, a Canadian, named Moses Jackson,[see photo] whom he had first met at Oxford in 1877 at the age of eighteen. They became close friends and remained so even after leaving Oxford and working in the Patent Office together until 1887. But A. E. had fallen in love with Jackson, a love that Jackson could neither accept nor return. "Around 1885," according to Laurence, A. E. and Jackson had a falling out and A. E. went what we would call "off the radar" for an entire week. No explanation was made for the disappearance, and it was never mentioned again. Jackson departed England to work in India at the end of 1887. In his diary of the period, A. E. tracks the progress of Jackson's ship all the way to its destination. Jackson didn't return to England until October 1889. His purpose for returning wasn't divulged to A. E. until afterward, when he was informed that Jackson had been married. Jackson and his bride departed for India without A. E. ever meeting him. They met for the last time on May 22, 1891. 

A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896. Although Housman continued to write poems, it wasn't until 1922, when he learned that Moses Jackson was dying in British Columbia that he submitted Last Poems for publication and he inscribed a copy and had it sent to Jackson's family. Jackson died the following year. However much Housman's sexuality was a secret to the general public, some of his poems that had something closer to autobiographical content suggested as much on close reading. Housman left these poems for his brother to publish after his death.

Et ce fût tout. Moses Jackson doesn't explain Housman's sad life, but Philip Larkin, who called Housman "the poet of unhappiness," said of him that "no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently." Reviewing a biography of Housman in 1979,(5) Larkin  closes with a curious paragraph:

“To be more unhappy than unfortunate suggests some jamming of the emotions whereby they are forced to re-enact the same situation even though it no longer exists, but for Housman it did still exist. If unhappiness was the key to poetry , the key to unhappiness was Moses Jackson. It would be tempting to call this neurosis, but there is a shorter word. For as Housman himself said, anyone who thinks he has loved more than one person has simply never really loved at all.”

Larkin was probably telling more about himself than he wished to, but he was saying what he knew about love, and at a point in his life (only a few years before his own death) when he was certain that it was true.


(1) Ironically, what is today probably Auden's most popular poem, "Stop all the clocks," is quite Housmanesque.
(2) Laurence Housman included in Additional Poems, an inscription "written by A.E.H on the flyleaf of a copy of Manilius, Book I, which he gave to Walter Headlam":

Here are the skies, the planets seven,
And all the starry train;
Content you with the mimic heaven,
And on the earth remain.
(3) Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (London: John Lehman, 1952).
(4) Sixteen days after the publication of Laurence Housman's essay, on July 27, 1967, homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain under the Sexual Offences Act .
(5) Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (London: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Who Wants To Be a Samurai?

Anytime from the mid-1950s, after the first wave of postwar Japanese films swept across Europe and America, until the late '60s, every male (and probably every female) cinephile wanted to be a samurai. Even Ingmar Bergman admitted in an interview that he wanted to be one, and it inspired him to make The Virgin Spring

From the beginning of film production in Japan, the samurai had been a staple of period films, or jidaigeki. Samurai - or chambara - films were as common a fixture of Japanese film as Westerns had been in Hollywood. While the two genres are often compared, more than one critic has observed that the central action of a samurai film - the sword fight - is immeasurably more cinematic than a gunfight.

Of course, there had been dissenting voices all along from Japan that tried to remind us, in films like Kobayashi's Seppuku, a scathing attack on bushido - the samurai code, that being a samurai wasn't necessarily such a good thing. And by the time the filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave were done, the image of the heroic samurai was in tatters. Kihachi Okamoto's 1968 film, Kill!, accelerated the decline. 

In Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character, one of those reference books that, in the 1970s, was considered "indispensable" for any student of Japanese film, Donald Richie wrote: "Kihachi Okamoto made the satirical comedy Age of Assassins (Satusujinkyo Jidai, 1966) and then went on to make such ordinary period films as Kill (Kiru, 1967-68) and such unexceptional war films as Human Bullet (Nikudan, 1968)."(1) So much for Kihachi Okamoto. Except that I have seen both Kill! and Human Bullet, and though they are not up to the level of the best films of the Sixties, pace Donald Richie, they are neither ordinary nor unexceptional.

Richie must have seen dozens of period films to have arrived at a definition of what was "ordinary" that is far more exact than my own. But I have seen enough Japanese period films to know just how boringly ordinary they can be in the hands of an uninspired director. (Hiroshi Inagaki's stylistically petrified version of Chushingura [1962] heaves to mind.) 

A formulaic samurai film is one that indulges in clichés rather than avoids them, that adheres strictly to the terms of the genre without attempting to expand them or explode them. For me, a good illustration of the difference can be found by comparing two films made back to back by Akira Kurosawa: Yojimbo and Sanjuro.(2) The first is a direct and brilliant send-up of the genre, while the second, which was a sequel to Yojimbo with the same scruffy samurai played by Toshiro Mifune, is a almost a self-parody. In Sanjuro, Kurosawa was clearly capitalizing on the success of Yojimbo. Audiences expecting him to repeat himself didn't realize that such a feat was beyond even Kurosawa's powers. In artistic terms, Sanjuro is a pallid shadow of Yojimbo.

By the time Kihachi Okamoto made Kill!, he had already distinguished himself as a versatile director in multiple film genres and was sought after by the biggest names in Japanese film. He had what can only be called a jaundiced view of Japan's past and present.  Age of Assassins, the title of his best film, could be the same title of many of his films of the Sixties. He made Samurai Assassin (Samurai, 1965) with Toshiro Mifune and Sword of Doom (Daibosatsu Toge, 1966) with Tatsuya Nakadai. In the latter, Okamoto was challenging the popular version of the well-known tale of Daibosatsu Pass (which first appeared as a serial novel by Kaizan Nakazato), made in color in 1960 with the screen idol Raizo Ichikawa in the role of Tsuke Ryunosuke. Okamoto's version was shot in freezing black & white and is uncompromisingly inky black in tone, making no concession to audience sympathies. As performed my Tatsuya Nakadai, Ryunosuke is an obvious psychotic murderer, made worse by the total absence of motivation for his evil deeds.

With Kill! Okamoto made a direct assault on the samurai as an institution in Japan. The film opens in a dusty, deserted outpost called Joshu in the year 1833 with a chance encounter between Hanjiro, a farmer who wants to be a samurai, and Genta, a samurai who quit his position two years before to become a yakuza. Both starving (we can hear their stomachs growling - at one point in harmony), they become embroiled in the criss-crossing plots of a murderous chamberlain named Ayuzawa trying to consolidate his power over a provincial fiefdom. 

Hanjiro has taken the name "Tabata" (rice paddy) because he sold his land for a sword. "Two years ago," he tells Genta, "There was a riot near my town. I saw peasants die like ants. I won't be an ant." But Genta is taking an opposite trajectory. Two years before, he was ordered to kill his best fiend for the sake of the clan. "I was disgusted with samurai life, so I left it." He watches as Ayuzawa orders his men to kill one another and recognizes it as familiar samurai treachery.

There seems to be a single prevailing message in so many samurai films - that the samurai as a class is corrupt and oppressive and it is better to be a poor farmer (or, in the case of Genta, a lowly yakuza). You find this message at the end of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and in Yojimbo. At the beginning of Yojimbo, an old man tries to stop his young son from running away and becoming a gambler. "Who wants to be a gambler?" the father pleads. "Stay at home and farm!" 

"Who wants a long life eating mush?" his son replies. "A short, exciting life for me!" Near the very end of the film, this same young man is confronted by the nameless samurai played by Mifune. Screaming for his mother, he cowers as Mifune approaches him. "A long life eating mush is best!" Mifune tells him, as he lets the young man run away.

The same message also appears in Kill! At the film's climax, which takes place on the day of the spring equinox, all of Ayuzawa's plots end in a bloody melée. But just as Hanjiro learns of Genta's heroism and calls out for him in vain, a crowd of peasants arrive to celebrate a life-affirming festival. Ecstatic, hysterical life in the midst of death. Ending where the film began, in the same deserted outpost town (where it is now raining), Hanjiro tracks down Genta. After finally becoming a samurai, Hanjiro complains to Genta that his formal clothes make his shoulders ache and that his shaved head is "freezing." Then he tells Genta that he quit and wants to go with him, wherever he is going. Hanjiro, too, has learned what Genta knows - a very un-Eastern philosophy. As E. M. Forster put it, "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

The film is superbly and quite elegantly constructed. Okamoto deploys a masterful technique, using the widescreen (2.35:1) with surprising ease. Tatsuya Nakadai is once again brilliant. Japanese film acting is often difficult to gauge by Western standards, but Nakadai, who was a favorite of so many great directors, including Ichikawa, Kurosawa, and Kobayashi, is remarkably versatile and a pleasure to watch. The same cannot be said, however, of Etsushi Takahashi, who plays the farmer Hanjiro. Evidently trying to imitate a horse, especially when he runs (or gallops), his facial expressions are too broad even for a partial comedy like Kill! One feels - or hopes - that no one could be that stupid. Masaru Sato's music is virtually a character in the film. Though it sometimes "telegraphs" some of the action, with a sound effect slightly anticipating the image it accompanies, it is as carefully intertwined with the action as Sato's music had been in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

I couldn't help noticing some references to Kurosawa: there are seven young samurai (shichi-nin) who hole up on a mountain called Toride (Toride-yama, the word means "fortress," like The Hidden Fortress); Genta finds that he must defend the young samurai "to find out what I lost as a samurai," just as Sanjuro did; and, like Mifune in Yojimbo, Genta is captured and severely beaten before he triumphs using - instead of Mifune's knife - a pair of small sharpened fire tongs. These "references" may have been unintentional, but I noticed them - a clear sign that I've probably seen too many Japanese films.


(1) The Human Bullet, which Okamoto made for the Art Theater Guild, is like Sergeant Svejk in the Pacific War. A young man is conscripted in the Imperial Army, but is found to be so useless, he is chosen to be a "human bullet" - piloting a surface torpedo in a suicide attack. At the close of the film, set today (1968), his skeleton is still at the controls of his torpedo, heading toward a beach crowded with unsuspecting bathers. 
(2) The story that Okamoto used as the basis of Kill! was derived from a collection of stories by Shūgorō Yamamoto - the same collection of stories that provided Kurosawa with the story for Sanjuro.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Grappling With "The Bear"

Reading Bright Book of Life, Alfred Kazin's book of ecstatic essays on American "novelists and storytellers," I got to part 2 devoted to the "Secret of the South," where Kazin singles out William Faulkner's "The Bear" as a great example of his "belief in thought as rumination over a past completed, final, irrevocable":

'Surely this explains the attempt, in "The Bear," to make a single sentence out of so many pages. This is the most famous instance of what Faulkner described as "my ambition to put everything into one sentence - not only the present but the whole past on which it depends and which keeps overtaking the present."'

My first encounter with "The Bear" was as a part of Three Famous Short Novels by Faulkner that I was assigned to read in my first college English course. The three "short novels" in the book, "Spotted Horses," "Old Man," and "The Bear," had been extracted from three previously published novels, The Hamlet, The Wild Palms, and Go Down, Moses. Like everyone else unaccustomed to Faulkner's style (which Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to the Viking Press' The Portable Faulkner characterized as at times "putting the whole world into one sentence, between one capital letter and one period.") I found reading "The Bear" rough going. 

I didn't know it then, but "The Bear" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on May 9, 1942. But it was published in only four sections. Two days after it appeared as a short story of a little more than 6,000 words, it appeared in Go Down, Moses And Other Stories, published by Random House. "The Bear," now with five sections, is the largest of seven stories in Go Down, Moses. Random House imposed And Other Stories in the title, despite Faulkner's insistence that it was a novel. Other sections had appeared as short stories as early as 1940 in four other periodicals. Faulkner wasn't being entirely misleading by calling his collection of the stories a novel. All of them bear a "family resemblance." In Go Down, Moses, "The Bear" takes up 140 pages, with the interpolated fourth section occupying 61 of those pages. Faulkner called this section "just a dangling clause in the description of that man [Ike McCaslin] when he was a young boy." In his introduction to the Viking Portable Faulkner, published in 1946 (when all of Faulkner's books except Sanctuary were already out of print), Malcolm Cowley wrote that "if you want to read simply a hunting story, and one of the greatest in the language, you should confine yourself to the first three parts and the last, which are written in Faulkner's simplest style."

The problem is, without the fourth section, a synopsis of "The Bear" makes it sound like a Hemingway paean to masculine virtues, a story one might find in the Juvenile section of a publc library. In 1955, Faulkner placed it in another collection called Big Woods, without its fourth section. Some critics suggest to readers that the fourth section should be omitted. 

Near the end of the story as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, the scope of "The Bear" is encapsulated in a single sentence: "He had heard about a bear, and finally got big enough to trail it, and he trailed it four years and at last met it with a gun in his hands and he didn’t shoot." But it would be an understatement to say that the fourth section of the story in Go Down, Moses takes the story to a greater depth. Within it, Faulkner explains to the reader why Ike McCaslin makes his peace with the wilderness. It isn't because of any bear or all the lore that Faulkner dwells on in rich detail about Ike's many encounters with it through the years and the many hunts in which he is included by his elders.

Relinquish. Relinquishment. Repudiated and relinquished. These are the words with which section 4 of "The Bear" ring out. At 21, Ike McCaslin stands before his second cousin McCaslin Edmonds and, in an impossible outpouring of words, refuses to accept his legacy, the legacy left him by his grandfather Carothers McCaslin, who first bought the land from a Chickasaw chieftan - the same Chickasaw tribe that was cast out of Mississippi in 1837:


"'I cant repudiate it. It was never mine to repudiate. It was never Father's and Uncle Buddy's to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never Grandfather's to bequeath them to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never old Ikkemotubbe's to sell to Grandfather for bequeathment and repudiation. Because it was never Ikkemotubbe's fathers' fathers' to bequeath Ikkemotubbe to sell to Grandfather or any man because on the instant when Ikkemotubbe discovered, realised, that he could sell it for money, on that instant it ceased ever to have been his forever, father to father to father, and the man who bought it bought nothing.

"'... Because He told in the Book how He created the earth, made it and looked at it and said it was all right, and then He made man. He made the earth first and peopled it with dumb creatures, and then He created man to be His overseer on the earth and to hold suzerainty over the earth and the animals on it in His name, not to hold for himself and his descendants inviolable title for-ever, generation after generation, to the oblongs and squares of the earth, but to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood, and all the fee He asked was pity and humility and sufferance and endurance and the sweat of his face for bread.'"

In their grandfather Carothers McCaslin's commissary, Ike and McCaslin Edmonds take down the ledgers with their heavy binding and yellowed pages in which their twin uncles, Theophilus and Amodeus accounted for every slave, their price at purchase, their dates of birth and death, how many offspring, for the decades before and after 1865. 

Having found the beneficiaries of Carothers McCaslin's legacy of $1,000 to each, Ike learns of another crime against nature committed by his grandfather - a child by his own daughter. It is all too much for Ike to inherit, not just his grandfather's land, but the "truth" ("there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart"). After presenting his long argument to McCaslin Edmonds, his interlocutor in the fourth section, even he pronounces that Ike is "free." And then, topping it off - o'ertopping it - is the "silver cup" filled with gold coins, a last legacy to Ike from his drunkard uncle Hubert Beachamp. This is clearly a symbol of the heritage of the South, when Ike and McCaslin Edmonds take the object, wrapped in burlap, and place it on a table and Ike unwraps it to find the silver cup has been replaced by a tin coffee pot filled, not with gold but with copper coins and pieces of paper on which Hubert Beachamp wrote his I.O.U.s. "So you have plenty of coppers anyway," commented McCaslin Edmonds. That's all that was left of the story of the South - a fortune reduced to an unspeakable history, translated into the lowest currency and empty promises to pay all of it back.

After all this, with the course of the harmless story about the hunt for an old bear changed to the story of how a young man learns how power and corruption have changed his legacy into something obscene, repugnant, and unacceptable - with such an overwhelming change of course, one would think the story couldn't possibly end the same way it ended in The Saturday Evening Post. And, indeed, it does not. Ike returns to Major de Spain's land only to find a large part of it, the primeval Mississippi forest in which he had hunted for so many years, has been leased to a logging company. Granted permission to hunt once more, on condition that he bring back a "small squirrel" to Major de Spain, Ike follows the now familiar trails to a place he has treasured in his memory all his life:

"Then he was in the woods, not alone but solitary; the solitude closed about him, green with summer. They did not change, and, timeless, would not, any more than would the green of summer and the fire and rain of fall and the iron cold and sometimes even snow"

It is there that Ike finds Boon, the man who had shot and killed the bear Old Ben, sitting at the base of a gum tree, hysterically smashing to pieces the gun he used to kill him. A powerful image summing up Faulkner's "dangling clause," making "The Bear" one of his most compelling works.   

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Old Country

There has always been an Old Country. Find the most ancient civilization, in India or China, whose history stretches back into the Iron Age, and their mythology, their religious writings will tell of how they got there from somewhere else. 

In all their desperate wanderings in the world, human beings came latest to the Americas. The first people came across the frozen ocean from Asia 12,000 or more years ago. They are called Native Americans, even though their nativity can be traced, through their DNA, all the way back to what is now Siberia. And like all people, they, too, kept on wandering until they had settled the whole of North and South America. Only when they reached Patagonia, in southernmost Argentina and Chile, did they stop, because they had run out of new land. 

The first people from Europe to reach North America were Vikings, then fishermen from Ireland, who stopped in what is now northeastern Canada. Christopher Columbus was the first official delegation from Europe, who mistook the natives he met in the islands of the Caribbean for the natives of the East Indies, and called them "indios." The second wave of Irish immigrants didn't arrive in America until the 19th century, which is why I now call myself an Irish-American. Generations since, the descendants of those Irish people still speak fondly, if rather dimly, of The Old Country - a place only a small fraction of which is by now a real place, and the far greater part of which is a mishmash of memories and sheer fantasies. Americans who arrived from Europe have an insatiable homesickness because they have been Americans for only a few generations, not nearly enough time to develop a sense of belonging there.  

Last April, a relation sent me a package in which was enclosed a great gift - The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely, Irish novelist and storyteller, historian, travel-writer, broadcaster, and lecturer. I had read every Kiely story I could get my hands on some time in the 1980s, and one particular story had stuck in my memory more vividly than all the others. It is the story "The Dogs of the Great Glen" which was published in 1963 in Kiely's first collection of stories called A Journey to the Seven Streams. I remember it because it tells of an Irish-American who, after listening to the stories passed down to him from his grandfather, has decided to go and see if the stories are real. It is the same fantasy shared by everyone in the world who has listened to the stories of his parents and grandparents - stories many hundreds or even thousands of years old - about the place from which they came: going back, retracing the outward journey to the place or origin, their original home. In his introduction the book I got in the package last spring, Kiely quotes Antoninus Pius: "Whatever happens is as common and well known as a rose in the spring or an apple in autumn. Everywhere up and down, through ages and histories, towns and families are full of the same stories."

Strangely enough, the story is exactly as I remembered it from reading it once thirtysome years ago:

"The professor had come over from America to search out his origins and I met him in Dublin on the way to Kerry where his grandfather had come from and where he had relations, including a grand-uncle, still living.... 'All I remember is a name out of my dead father's memories: the great Glen of Kenareen.'"

All he knows for sure is that it's in County Kerry. No such place as Kenareen could be found on the most detailed maps of Kerry, but the narrator of the story - who may as well be Benedict Kiely - tells the professor, "At the back of my head I feel that once in the town of Kenmare in Kerry I heard a man mention the name of Kenareen."

So the two of them set off by car and are given the most vague directions pointing them up and up some mountains, which they eventually have to climb on foot. And as they ascend, the world around them seems to etherealize into a mist. It may be the altitude affecting the oxygen flow to their brains, but the higher the go, the more indistinct the landscape around them becomes, exactly as if they are entering not any real place but a dream they are dreaming together. "'Now that I am so far,'" the professor says, "'I'm half-afraid to finish the journey. What will they be like? What will they think of me? Will I go over that ridge there to find my grandfather's brother living in a cave?'"

Along the way the professor recounts the stories that his grandfather told to his father. "'He would tell stories for ever, my father said, about ghosts and the good people. There was one case of an old woman whose people buried her - where she died, of course - against her will, across the water, which meant on the far side of the lake of the glen. Her dying wish was to be buried in another graveyard, nearer home. And there she was, sitting in her own chair in the chimney corner, waiting for them, when they came home from the funeral. To ease her spirit they replanted her.

"'My father told me,' he said, 'that one night coming home from the card-playing my grandfather slipped and fell down fifteen feet of rock and the only damage done was the ruin of one of two bottles of whisky he had in the tail-pockets of his greatcoat. The second bottle was unharmed.'" 

When they reach the watershed, noticing how the trickling stream was flowing with them: "So we raised our heads slowly and saw the great Glen of Kenareen. It was what Cortez saw, and all the rest of it. It was a discovery. It was a new world. It gathered the sunshine into a gigantic coloured bowl."

"'It was there all the time,'" the professor says. "'It was no dream. It was no lie.'"

But was it hallucination? As the two of them walked toward some thatched houses, large dogs came to them and followed. As if he knew the way, the professor opened a gate and found an old man as tall as he was sitting there with some children. The old man got up and "He put out his two hands and rested them on the professor's shoulders. It wasn't an embrace. It was an appraisal, a salute, a sign of recognition.

"He said, 'Kevin, well and truly we knew you'd come if you were in the neighbourhood at all. I watched you walking down. I knew you from the top of the Glen. You have the same gait my brother had, the heavens be his bed. My brother that was your grandfather.'

"It was moonlight, I thought, not sunlight. over the great Glen. From house to house, the dogs were barking, not baying at the moon, but to welcome home the young man from the card playing over the mountain."

It is a beguiling fantasy for everyone who ever wished to return to the Old Country.