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 prehistory, 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 20,000 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 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 - or 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 Kanareen."

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 the 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. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Clive James Is Still Not Dead

For most people, dying is easy. Every few moments there are those who pass away, who expire, or who are extinguished like a candle snuffed out. Some suffer that most final of events, a cardiac arrest, which simply means that their hearts stopped. (Doesn't everyone's heart stop when they die? Even when they're decapitated?) Death is something that happens to us. Ready or not, here it comes. Finding the best way, the most meaningful way, to live the life we have left is the hard part.

Easily one of the most non-dramatic death watches of the past several years has been the decline, the dying fall, of Clive James. Since his diagnosis, or death sentence, of leukaemia, severe emphysema, and kidney failure in 2010, his inability to die has become a macabre joke, especially to James himself, who seems to spend much of his time announcing his survival. I must admit, living in the Boonies like I do, that I have to check up on him occasionally to make sure he is still there. My mother had an expression, "One foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel," that might fit James, except the banana peel has turned into something more like the abrasive Non-Skid used to surface the weather decks of aircraft carriers.

Like Poe's "M Valdemar," who was hypnotized - or "mesmerized" - moments before his death and who continued to speak as his body gradually putrified, James' condition has seemed to place him somewhere between life and death, so that he continues to write and appear occasionally on television from the precincts of his home in Cambridge - confounding even the most generous medical prognoses. His late, late poem "Japanese Maple," seems like it was written just a few months before his imminent quietus:

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

How unpoetic of James to live beyond such a lovely imagined end. Yet he lived well past autumn (in 2014) and into a wondrously lovely winter:

This Being Done

Behind the trees across the street the sun
Takes down its last pale disc. This being done,
No soft pale light is left for anyone.

There is a further comedown in the night.
Outside, unheard, asphalt is turning white:
White swarms of butterflies in the streetlight.

The morning comes, and through the spread of snow
In candy-coloured coats the children go.
Listen awhile and you can hear them grow.

"Japanese Maple" was published in a best-selling book of James' poems called Sentenced to Life. "This Being Done" is from a subsequent collection called Injury Time, an allusion to the extra minutes added at the end of a football (soccer) match. His Guardian column, Reports of My Death, follows Mark Twain's proof of life rebuttal to news reports that he was dead. I have always liked him - the man, Clive James - regardless of what he did. I can hear his distinctive voice in everything he has written. He has been a television critic (he likes television a lot more than I can), literary critic, novelist, and translator. He was the host of some irreplaceable TV travelogues (available on YouTube, dear reader), my favorite of which was Postcard from Bombay that contains a terrific gag. He is expiring from the heat and hails a taxi believing the moving air will cool him. He climbs in the back and waits for the taxi to move. "An oven would've been cooler," he says. When the taxi doesn't start and the driver gets out to push it, "An oven would've been faster!" His multi-volume memoirs, Unreliable Memoirs, is one of the best ever written. Now otherwise indisposed, he has returned to television viewing, which inspired his latest book, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook.

His poems are formal. No vers libre for James - it's really all about rhythm and rhyme, cadences that can be sung. He doesn't fuss about it. It works for him. He is an admirer of fellow Australian A. D. Hope, who was once described as "the 20th century's greatest 18th-century poet." In "A Perfect Market" he explains why:

Recite your lines aloud, Ronsard advised,
Or, even better, sing them. Common speech
Held all the rhythmic measures that he prized
In poetry. He had much more to teach,
But first he taught that. Several poets paid
Him heed. The odd one even made the grade,
Building a pretty castle on the beach.

But on the whole it’s useless to point out
That making the thing musical is part
Of pinning down what you are on about.
The voice leads to the craft, the craft to art:
All this is patent to the gifted few
Who know, before they can, what they must do
To make the mind a spokesman for the heart.

As for the million others, they are blessed:
This is their age. Their slapdash in demand
From all who would take fright were thought expressed
In ways that showed a hint of being planned,
They may say anything, in any way.
Why not? Why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they?
Nothing to study, nothing to understand.

And yet it could be that their flight from rhyme
And reason is a technically precise
Response to the confusion of a time
When nothing, said once, merits hearing twice.
It isn’t that their deafness fails to match
The chaos. It’s the only thing they catch.
No form, no pattern. Just the rolling dice

Of idle talk. Always a blight before,
It finds a place today, fulfills a need:
As those who cannot write increase the store
Of verses fit for those who cannot read,
For those who can do both the field is clear
To meet and trade their wares, the only fear
That mutual benefit might look like greed.

It isn’t, though. It’s just the interchange
Of showpiece and attention that has been
There since the cavemen took pains to arrange
Pictures of deer and bison to be seen
To best advantage in the flickering light.
Our luck is to sell tickets on the night
Only to those who might know what we mean,

And they are drawn to us by love of sound.
In the first instance, it is how we sing
That brings them in. No mystery more profound
Than how a melody soars from a string
Of syllables, and yet this much we know:
Ronsard was right to emphasize it so,
Even in his day. Now, it’s everything:

The language falls apart before our eyes,
But what it once was echoes in our ears
As poetry, whose gathered force defies
Even the drift of our declining years.
A single lilting line, a single turn
Of phrase: these always proved, at last we learn,
Life cries for joy though it must end in tears.

There is some comfort in thinking that one is behind the times, when the times are currently what they are. We are all the beneficiaries of his experimental drug treatments. Perhaps James will find tears of joy at the end. If it can come too soon, it cannot possibly come too late.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A World More Attractive

I don't suppose it would surprise someone of my parents' generation, who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and who engendered the Baby Boom, of which I am a part, that in the second decade of the 21st century, we have arrived at an interpretation of the words American Dream in purely materialistic terms. A bigger house in a nicer part of town, a better-paying job (that is less demanding and requires less effort) - a better life, in other words, is what we mean when we talk about the American Dream today. When we remind ourselves of the labor that our parents put into securing for us the better lives we now enjoy, does anyone ask themselves, as I have always done, if it is exactly the kind of life that they had in mind?

Looking back on American literary criticism of the 20th century, it doesn't surprise me that the politics of almost all of the great critics was at least of the Liberal persuasion and occasionally leaning further to the Left. In his great book, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson chronicled the intellectual (as well as quite emotional) roller-coaster on which communism took him from the 1920s all the way through to the Cold War and beyond. Though somewhat disillusioned by the experience, Wilson remained, I think, nostalgic for the debate that Stalinism effectively stifled, but which subsequent cultural critics have never let go. 

Irving Howe was perhaps the last, and I would say the par excellence, of the line of great American critics that included Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Stanley Edgar Hyman, and Randall Jarrell, who witnessed and celebrated, as best they could, the rise and fall of the novelists Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Bellow, and the poets Stevens, Bishop and Lowell. Howe - alone it seemed - wanted to extent criticism to include life as he knew it and took it in, the life of the intellect as much as the conscience of his age. 

His introduction to a collection of essays that he called A World More Attractive, published in 1963, shows the extent to which Howe took the American Dream seriously, as a promise of something much more than just material comforts, of people rising not just out of poverty but into riches. He reminds us how hollow such promises ring when we examine the history of our country. Greater liberty (now known more simply as freedom) and equality are what upward mobility is about - a constant moving toward a better society. These values, however, are more threatened today than ever before. Conformity has intensified exponentially. Apathy is taking over. People have grown too comfortable to continue the struggle.

Howe would surely have cheered Bernie Sanders's run for the nomination of the Democratic Party as candidate for president. Even the failure of his candidacy was a thrilling spectacle for a democratic socialist (like myself) and every believer in the progressive political philosophy.  Here is Howe's introduction (I have taken the liberty of italicizing certain passages). 

Composed in the years between 1950 and 1963, the essays in this book range in kind from literary criticism to political analysis, from intellectual portraiture to cultural polemic. They cover a wide spectrum of topics and figures, but if varied in subject, they are, I believe, unified in outlook. Behind almost all of them can be found a stable complex of values and convictions, a persistent concern with problems and ideas, having to do primarily with that style of experience and perception sometimes called the "modern." By the "modern" I have in mind neither the merely contemporary nor the momentarily fashionable, either in our culture or our politics. I have in mind the assumption that the twentieth century has been marked by a crisis of conduct and belief that is perhaps unprecedented in seriousness, depth and extent.

The "modern," as it refers to both history and literature, signifies extreme situations and radical solutions. It summons images of war and revolution, experiment and disaster, apocalypse and skepticism; images of rebellion, disenchantment and nothingness. To claim that all of these are visibly present in the essays that follow, would be absurd; but I would say that the sense of their presence has been a dominant pressure, setting both the terms and the limits, of what I have written here. Whether it be strictly literary, or primarily political, or a crossing of the two — as in the study of T. E. Lawrence, which forms the centerpiece of the book because it brings together so many of its themes — the work presented in these pages takes its meaning and its shape as a response to the problem of the "modern."

A number of the essays are literary in character, written from the assumption that literary criticism, like literature itself, can be autonomous but hardly self-sufficient. There is strong reason to stress the integrity of the work of literature, as an object worth scrutiny in its own right and in accordance with its own nature; but I would also insist — and in the last two decades it has become quite necessary to insist — that the work of literature acquires its interest for us through a relationship, admittedly subtle, difficult and indirect, to the whole of human experience. The kind of detailed or close analysis of particular texts which has been favored in recent years and which I have occasionally undertaken in lengthier studies, will not be found here. What I have tried for has been to provide a description of the characteristic qualities, the defining mode of vision, by which a writer can be recognized and valued; I have hoped to isolate the terms through which he confronts the experience of our time.

The few strictly political pieces in this book are drawn from a larger body of writing in which I have tried to speak for, even while criticizing, the tradition of socialism. Being a socialist in the mid-twentieth century means, for anyone who aspires to seriousness, a capacity for living with crisis, doubt and reconsideration. The ideal of socialism has become a problematic one, but the problem of socialism remains an abiding ideal. Some traditional doctrines of socialism now seem to me outmoded or mistaken, but I remain convinced of the need for a democratic and radical renovation of society, through which to give a fresh embodiment to the values of freedom and fraternity. A good part of the effort to preserve the animating purpose of socialist criticism in the past decade can be observed by turning to the files of Dissent, the quarterly of which I have been an editor; but some of that effort, the more speculative and less topical side of it, can be found in these pages. 

If one side of my political writing has required the kind of self-questioning and reorientation which must today go on among serious socialists, another side has been devoted, in the years since the war, to an attack upon the growing acquiescence and conservatism of the American intellectual community. The early 'fifties in particular struck me as a time in which too many intellectuals abandoned their traditional privilege and responsibility of criticism. In "This Age of Conformity" — a polemic in which certain references maybe seem dated but the controlling ideas of which seem to me still valid — I joined in a counter-attack which a few intellectuals launched against the turn to political quietism and conformity, the acceptance of the social status quo, the dilution of liberalism into a kind of genteel conservatism. Now, only a few years later, I find myself especially eager that such writings speak to those younger people who have recently come to their intellectual maturity and seem not quite to recall what happened in this country only a decade ago. 

I have brought together in this volume about half my periodical writing over the last twelve or thirteen years. Whatever struck me as merely journalistic or too closely interwoven with a transient polemic, has been omitted. Yet I have included a few pieces that are journalistic and polemical, first because I believe them to possess a certain value in commenting upon significant discussions of the past decade, and second because I wish to write, not for some dim posterity, but for living men and women caught up, as I am caught up, with the problems and interests of our time

"In my eyes," Leon Trotsky once wrote, "authors, journalists and artists always stood for a world that was more attractive than any other...." One need not accept Trotsky's political outlook in order to appreciate the force of his remark, both as it indicates respect for the intellectual life and a complex, perhaps, ironic sense of the difficulties faced by those who would preserve a relationship between politics and literature, action and reflection. A world more attractive — from sentiments of this kind I have tried to live and work, . . .

A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics (New York: Horizon Press, 1963)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hidden Christians

The making of Martin Scorsese's film Silence was, in various ways, an act of faith. Its first act of faith was relying on the film's audience to know the history of the Jesuits in Japan. The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier first arrived in Japan in the year 1549 when Japan was a disorganized collection of clans at war with one another. His mission was successful far beyond his wildest expectations, and succeeding missions to Japan resulted in the conversion of thousands of Japanese people to Christianity and establishing churches. But the many "daimyos" - or fiefdoms - in Japan were being consolidated into a single centralized government which regarded the Jesuits and the Christian religion as a threat to its power. By 1614, when there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan (out of a total population of twenty million) along with Christian colleges, seminaries, hospitals and a growing local clergy, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the immediate expulsion of the Jesuits and the suppression of the Christian faith. By the time the action of Silence begins in 1643, most of the Christians in Japan had been slaughtered by government authorities or run to ground (the so-called kakure kirishitan or hidden Christians). News of one particular priest in Japan, Padre Ferreira, has caused special concern in Macao, the center of Christian leadership in Asia, and two priests are dispatched to Japan to discover Ferreira's fate.    

By the time I encountered Silence a few weeks ago, I knew how special it should be, since it took more than two decades for Scorsese to finally make it. In all that time, the film took shape in Scorsese's imagination - plenty of time to arrive at a precise shooting script and storyboard. Watching the film certainly gives one a sense of the exactitude of its conception and construction. I knew that Dante Ferretti, who designed the sets and costumes for the film, was brought on board to Scorsese's plans quite early. As it turned out, he was prevented from realizing his project until two years ago. I think it is a formidable achievement, but one fraught with problems that arise from its conception as a statement of Scorsese's own Christian faith.

Shusaku Endo's novel Chinmoku (Silence), published in 1966 and published in English translation in 1969, is a carefully-wrought and moving memorial to the people who were converted in the 16th & 17th-centuries by waves of Portuguese Jesuits. Losing ground in Europe to Martin Luther's Protestant faith, the Jesuits expanded the Catholic Church's reach to North and South America and Asia. The results of this attempted expansion, as Silence but also the Roland Joffé film The Mission (set in Portuguese South America) dramatically show, were a disaster for the native populations. Both novels/films are tacitly critical of the Jesuits' zealotry, inflicting a foreign religious dogma on people living, albeit precariously, under dogmas of their own. But Endo's novel has a broader reach: Christianity in Japan survived two centuries of suppression and persecution.

There are two accounts of how Scorsese was introduced to Endo's novel, but he must have known that it had already made its way to a film adaptation in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. Whatever Endo's intentions in writing the novel were, an important qualification is the fact that he was a Catholic. Some critics (without a trace of irony) called him the Japanese Graham Greene. Shinoda, a non-Catholic, was one of the best filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave. Writing his script with Endo's collaboration, Shinoda evidently approached the novel as a work of historical literature rather than as a work of religious art. This would account for the closing scene (in stark contrast to Scorsese's), in which Padre Rodrigues, now living as a Japanese named Okada San'emon, forces himself on his Japanese wife as Ferreira (now Lord Sawano) peeps in on him. Endo reportedly hated Shinoda's ending. All Endo gives us of Rodrigues's fate is from a fictional contemporary Japanese diarist who describes how Rodrigues lives out his final days in Nagasaki. Scorsese follows this account in his film's last scene, but includes what is known as an "auteur's touch" by showing us Rodrigues's body as it is being cremated with a tiny crucifix enclosed in his hands. Some critics even called it a "Rosebud moment." No one bothered to ask Scorsese how the crucifix got there.

Looked at objectively as films, the two versions of Silence both suffer from the sheer lack of spectacle. In fact, the action of the story, if it can be called action at all, is restricted to confined spaces, to huts and prison cells. It makes one wonder what could possibly have attracted either Scorsese or Shinoda to adapting the novel in the first place. It seems strange to me, given the similarities between the two films (the pacing of each scene and the framing of individual shots, even the buzzing of the cicadas) and the qualities to be found in Shinoda's film, why Scorsese wanted so badly to cover the same ground again.

Shinoda's film, photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, famed cinematographer of such classic films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, is handicapped by its use of two unknown foreign actors, David Lampson and Don Kenny - chosen, I suppose, because of their command of Japanese. Neither actor is the least bit compelling in their roles, and their style of acting clashes unflatteringly with that of the Japanese actors. This clash in acting styles reaches its climax when Rodrigues is finally confronted by Padre Ferreira, played by none other than Tetsuro Tamba, whose false beard and bushy eyebrows fail to conceal the Japanese actor beneath. Further, the role of Kichijiro, the man who is in a perpetual cycle of informing and begging forgiveness, is played by the Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu, better-known as simply Mako from such American films as The Sand Pebbles and a well-known face on 1960s & 70s American television.

Shinoda's film has, I think, the right tone of remoteness and abstraction, and his use of music composed for the film by Toru Takemitsu further diatances us from the action.  He clearly wasn't trying to bring the world of Endo's characters any closer. And for all the comments about Scorsese's depiction of the tortures inflicted on the faithful, Shinoda includes a quite hair-raising scene of torture in which a Christianized samurai is buried up to his neck and a man rides a horse back and forth over his exposed head while his wife is forced to watch. Only her placing her foot on the holy image (fumi-e) makes the horse and rider stop. But her sacrifice doesn't prevent her husband from being stabbed to death moments later. This same woman, played by Shinoda's wife Shima Iwashita, is given to Rodrigues as his wife after he himself apostatizes.

Two threads run through Silence, intersecting and intertwining: identity and faith - or nationality and religious allegiance. Significantly, at the start of the film, Kichijiro is asked two questions, Are you really Japanese? and Are you really a Christian? At the end of the film, with apostatized Padre Rodrigues adopting a Japanese identity and a Japanese wife, he knows that he is neither Japanese nor Christian.

As much as I dislike end-titles curtly announcing people's subsequent fates, I expected to see them at the end of Scorsese's film. I think it is significant that he excluded an historical note telling us of the astonishing survival of Christianity in Japan. All he gives us is a kind of dedication: "For the Japanese Christians and their pastors Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam." It's the motto of the Jesuits and it means, To the Greater Gloria of God.

In his translator's preface to the English edition of Endo's novel, William Johnston wrote: "in 1865, when Japan was reopened, the crypto-Christians came out from their hiding, asking for the statue of Santa Maria, speaking about Christmas and Lent, recalling the celibacy of the priests. They are still there in  their thousands, in Nagasaki and the offshore islands, clinging tenaciously to a faith that centuries of ruthless vigilance could not stamp out. Some of them are united with the world-wide Church; others are not. In their prayers remain smatterings of the old Portuguese and Latin; they preserve pieces of the soutanes and rosaries and disciplines  that belonged to the fathers whom they loved; they retain their devotion to Santa Maria. And it was while living among them that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence."(1)

I think that Scorsese excluded this information deliberately because he wanted to concentrate our attention on Rodrigues and Ferreira. In so doing, I think that Scorsese has misread Endo's novel, because it isn't about Father Rodrigues or Ferreira and their strange transformations into ordinary Japanese men and their subsequent fates. Nor, indeed, is it the story of Christianity and the remarkable cruelty with which it was inflicted on uneducated and unsuspecting peasants. Silence is the story of the Japanese, and how they managed to cling so tenaciously and steadfastly to their faith in a foreign religion, a foreigner's religion.

The film that Scorsese's Silence reminded me of almost immediately was a half-forgotten film made by the Australian Bruce Beresford in Canada in 1991 called Black Robe. It, too, tells a story of a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Also based on historical accounts of the native Americans' first encounters with Christianity and its disastrous effects on their lives, it, too, ends with a sense of the futility of it all. Father Laforgue has at last arrived in the remote Huron village in the dead of winter only to find the inhabitants are afflicted with smallpox, one of the foreign diseases introduced to the natives along with Christianity. The villagers plead with Father Laforgue to baptize them, hoping perhaps that God will cure the disease. The film closes on the baptismal service and a title informs us of subsequent events:

"Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec."

When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he concluded: "I will not reveal the conclusion of the film, other than to say that when it was over, I sat there in a state of depressed suspension, wondering if that could possibly be all there was."

Heavens, is that all there is to the story? What uplifting conclusion was he expecting? I wonder which film version of Silence Ebert would've been more gratified by - Shinoda's, in which Padre Rodrigues is last seen "making the beast with two backs" with his Japanese wife, or Scorsese's, in which Rodrigues's dead body is secretly revealed to be clutching a crucifix? 

(1) Silence by Shusaku Endo, William Johnston, translation (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(2) see

Friday, February 16, 2018

Antebellum Blues

The past is never dead. It is not even past.
- William Faulkner

There is American exceptionalism - the belief that America is unique and unprecedented, that it cannot be classified or compared to any other country at any other moment in history. It is used to defend all manner of wonders and outrages. It is a watchword for conservatives, a favorite expression in speeches and manifestos, a kind of explicit faith. As some of us have known for a long time, America is not nearly as exceptional as others would like it to be. But the relative newness of America is an excuse for disingenuousness or naïveté. The Greeks may have invented democracy. The Vikings may have practiced it. The Swiss may have codified it. But America perfected it. For awhile anyway.

So, there is American exceptionalism, which affects one side of American life, the side that is found in the great hinterlands of the country, in places like Montana and Iowa and Texas. (Texans seem to have an exceptionalism peculiarly their own - but that is another matter.) But then there is a Southern exceptionalism, an exemption, an anomalous history, that is distinct, in addition to, the national exceptionalism. It is so exceptional that it declared its independence from the Union in 1861, provoking the Civil War, the costliest war in American history in lives lost than all our other wars combined.

In a real sense, for the Southerner, since 1865 nothing has happened. A shattered agronomist culture that was dependent on slavery was made to pay for its own defeat for decades. The South when I knew it in the 1960s and '70s was backward compared to the rest of the country. It is still the region of the country that is most economically depressed, where poverty levels are the highest in the country.

Last August, after the demonstrations in Charlottesville, I wrote about what sparked the violence - the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park.(1) Just a week or so ago, I got an email from someone I've known for most of my life. We don't agree about many things, but we've known each other too long for any of that to come between us. With her permission, I quote a paragraph from her email:

In 2017 all we have done is bully people.  We bullied the president, bullied other people about misconduct, bullied people to get rid of statues, bullied people to change names of schools & streets.  I don't care what anyone says it is bullying.  But, no one sees it as that.

I must admit that I didn't see it as bullying. I saw it as another correction in a long line of corrections going back to 1866. It isn't at all a major correction, like the end of Jim Crow or indeed like the Emancipation Proclamation. It's mostly cosmetic - like the British royal family changing its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (which sounds too German) to Windsor in 1917 when Britain was in the depths of an all-out war with Germany.

History may indeed be written by the winners, but it is curious that no one seemed to mind that people erected memorials to the Southern dead until recently. How the South chose to remember its past didn't alter the fact that the Confederacy was a failure and that slavery was abolished for good. But the official version of events is now superseding all others. It's almost as if people only learned their own history in the past decade or so.

It should be pretty clear from her remarks that my correspondent is a Southerner. I, too, was born and raised in the South. But, strangely, I would not - could not - call myself a Southerner. Why? My father was from an old family in LaGrange, Georgia that likely owned slaves. I guessed as much when he repeated a family story to me of an old gentleman who had a rumored fortune in a locked chest in the attic. Upon the old man's death, the chest was cracked open and was found to contain millions in worthless Confederate cash. My father spent the last several years of his life trying to arrange to die in the South, which he accomplished at last in South Carolina in 1988. I think the reason why I don't consider myself a Southerner is because my mother - who was a much greater influence on me - was from Ohio, and had grown, over the course of her 42-year marriage to my father, to hate the South.

When he was awarded the National Book Award for his novel The Moviegoer in 1960, Walker Percy was asked why there were so many good Southern writers. "Because we got beat," he replied. Knowledge of defeat, of standing up and getting knocked down for values that are so scabrous to us today that it's impossible for us to comprehend how the standing up for them could have once been thought to be an incredibly romantic gesture, romantic precisely because they were so indefensible, informs the works of so many Southern writers. Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and James Agee are just a few of them. 

By far the greatest Southern writer was the novelist William Faulkner. He seemed to carry the full burden of the South's fabled and sinful past, and he knew his subject well:

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods, and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet. . . ."

The South was not some foreign nation that was conquered. It was defeated in a civil war - an internal, internecine conflict that pitted family against family. Lincoln suppressed a poorly organized, dimly conceived but valiantly fought rebellion. It took as long as it did only because the Union army underestimated the Rebels' determination. What the hell were they fighting for? For what did almost three-quarters of a million Americans die? The Union fought to preserve itself. The Confederacy fought for the same thing. Was the war fought over slavery? If not, then what was it about? We haven't yet made up our minds. The issue of slavery came up in 1776 when the Constitution was being drafted, but the southern states, whose economies depended on it, forced the postponement of the ultimate resolution of the issue. "We have the wolf by the ear," Jefferson wrote in 1820, "and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." They finally let it go, knowing full well what would happen next, forty-one years later.

If it means something to be a Southerner, as I believe it does, then a Southerner has to account in some way for his past - the same past that every American must account for, as America's Original Sin. But Southerners were the ones who "got beat." For them, the Civil War was not a great leap forward from what Lincoln called the "dogmas of the quiet past," but a demoralizing defeat. Whatever the Rebels were fighting for (what they convinced themselves it was), the outcome of the war made them appear to have been fighting for slavery. Not against the tyranny of the federal government that was trying to take away from the states their right of self-determination, their right to decide for themselves how they might live. Because the Civil War, one of the defining events in our history, was for a Southerner a catastrophe from which in some places it has never recovered. In the Official History of the American Civil War, the problem of slavery was solved in 1863. We have been absolved of our sin. But have we?

In his brilliant essay on Faulkner, "The Secret of the South," Alfred Kazin wrote:

"There was a great guilt incurred in the South, a curse was put on the land that was given to all men freely to enjoy. Faulkner does not excuse this guilt, he does not apologize for it, he does not evade it. He is a Southerner and has a great story to tell. Man's immortality, if he can be said to have onecat all, reaches into the past, not into the future: it lies in a candid sense of history." (2)

(1) See "Victory to the Victims".
(2) Alfred Kazin, The Bright Book of Life.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Unintelligible Disasters

I watched a program on the Deutsche Welle channel last weekend in which American and Russian scientists found themselves in total agreement about the threat to our planet from climate change. They even commented on the comfort they derived from their agreement, having once worked against one another during the Cold War. At an historic moment, when there are some quisling scientists interpreting the data of melting Arctic ice differently, and politicians aggressively rejecting the message and rhetorically shooting the messenger, it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the efforts of these scientists to raise awareness of the gravity of the threat of climate change.

The people who refuse to believe that human behavior has pushed us to the brink of possibly catastrophic environmental changes have been dubbed "climate change deniers," deliberately reminiscent of the term "Holocaust deniers" - coined for the people who still refuse to believe that the Nazis exterminated six million Jews. There was a moment during the war, in 1942, when the nations allied against Hitler were completely unaware of what was happening in Poland, the actions being taken by the Germans against the Jewish population. A clandestine meeting took place in Warsaw in October 1942 that had a potentially far-reaching impact for the Jews and for the ultimate outcome of the war. Watching the program about the scientists' attempts to warn governments about climate change reminded me of the strange, almost surreal meeting that took place in Warsaw in 1942.

Jan Karski was a professor at Georgetown University. At one time he was an agent of the Polish Government in exile who was acting as a courier between the Polish underground resistance and the government in London when he was approached by representatives of two Jewish leaders - a Zionist named Bermann and the "Bund" leader Leon Feiner - in Warsaw who requested a meeting with him. His account of the meeting was presented in an interview with Claude Lanzmann in 1978, and is shown in the last part of his great Holocaust documentary, Shoah. Here is a small part of his account:

A meeting was arranged outside of the Ghetto. There were two gentlemen. Now, what transcribed [sic], what happened in our conversation. First - I was not prepared for it. I was relatively isolated in my work in Poland. I did not see many things. They described to me what is happening to the Jews. They described to me, first, that the Jewish problem is unprecedented, cannot be compared with the Polish problem or Russian or any other problem. Hitler will lose this war, but he will exterminate all Jewish population. Do I understand it? The Allies fight for their people they fight for humanity. The Allies cannot forget that the Jews will be exterminated totally in Poland - Polish and European Jews. They were breaking down, they paced the room, they were whispering, they were hissing. It was a nightmare for me. At various stages of the conversation, they lost control of themselves. I just sat in my chair. I just listened. I did not even react. 

They realized, I think they realized from the beginning that I don't know, that I don't understand this problem. Once I said I will take messages from them, wanted to inform me what is happening to the Jews. And I didn't know this. I was never in a ghetto. I never dealt with the Jewish matters. This was their problem, to impress upon me, to impress upon all people - and that was my mission. 

So now, in this nightmarish (two meetings I had with them) nightmarish meetings, well, they presented their demands. The message was: Hitler cannot be allowed to continue extermination. Every day counts. The Allies cannot treat this war only from purely military strategic standpoint. They will win the war, if they take such an attitude. But what good will it do to us? We will not survive this war. The Allied governments cannot take such a stand. We contributed to humanity. We gave scientists for thousands of years. We contributed great religions. We are humans. Do you understand it? What is happening never happened before in history - what is happening to our people now. Perhaps it will change the conscience of the world.

We want an official declaration of the Allied nations that in addition to the military strategy which aims at securing military victory in this war, extermination of the Jews forms a separate chapter and the Allied nations, formally, publicly announce that they will deal with this problem, that it becomes a part of their overall strategy in this war -  not only defeat of Germany but also saving the remaining Jewish population. Once they make such an official declaration, they have an air force, they drop bombs on Germany. Why cannot they drop millions of leaflets informing the German population exactly what their government is doing to the Jews? Perhaps they don't know it. Let them make an official declaration that if the German nation does not offer evidence of trying to change the policy of their government, German nation will have to be held responsible for the crimes their government is committing. If there are not such an evidence, to announce publicly, officially, certain objects in Germany will be bombed, destroyed as a retaliation for what the German government is doing against the Jews. Who knows? Perhaps it will shake the conscience of the world.

One of the Jewish leaders offers to take Karski to the Ghetto so that he can see it with his own eyes and add conviction to his testimony to the Allies. Three hundred thousand occupants of the Ghetto had already been deported to the death camp. But what was left there was enough to leave an indelible and horrifying impression on Karski, some of which he relates in the Shoah interview. 

Upon his return to London, Karski fulfilled his mission and presented his report of the meetings in Warsaw and what he saw in the Ghetto to the highest officials. In 1944, he met with President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in Washington, D.C., and gave them his report. Astonishingly, Justice Frankfurter, who was a Jew, didn't believe him. Already, before the Holocaust was revealed to the whole world, there were people who denied that it could possibly be real.

Even now, despite everything we know about Hitler, the physical evidence and the eyewitness testimonies of survivors, the Holocaust remains difficult to comprehend. Even when Raul Hilberg in Lanzmann's Shoah places the Holocaust in an historical context that contradicts the assertion that it was an event without precedent in human history, it is still difficult to fully grasp.(1) This does not mean, however, that we have any reason to disbelieve it.

Claude Lanzmann's interview with Karski was extensive and covered much more than the material he incorporated in Shoah. In 2010, he released a film that is a sort of addendum to Shoah, The Karski Report, that gives Karski's unique testimony center stage. Though Karski fulfilled his mission to report to the Allied leaders and deliver his vitally important message to them, he failed to convince them to take action. Why? At the opening of The Karski Report, he states:

What is knowledge? What can information about a horror, a literally unheard-of one, mean to the human brain, which is unprepared to receive it because it concerns a crime that is without precedent in the history of humanity? Whatever one may say, once Hitler’s war against the Jews had begun, the majority of Jews could not have been saved. That is the tragic side of history, which forbids retrospective illusions that overlook the depth, the weight, of the illegibility of an epoch, the true configuration of the impossible. Raymond Aron, who had fled to London, was asked whether he knew what was happening at that time in the East. He answered: I knew, but I didn’t believe it, and because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.

Although its effects could be catastrophic to every human being on earth, climate change deniers differ from Holocaust deniers in the respect that we have been given warnings about the adverse effects of pollution on the environment for more than fifty years - plenty of time to be prepared for the inevitable bad news that has resulted from our ignoring the warnings for so long. It was never the job of scientists to deliver a message that what we wanted to hear. Verifiable facts are what they present to us, and the facts are inarguable. Something is happening to the climate on a global scale, and carbon emissions - CO2 - is responsible. The source of most of the carbon emissions is not natural, but the direct result of human use of fossil fuels.

But the fossil fuel industry is such an inextricable part of the U.S. economy, and Donald Trump is a businessman who is acting on behalf of American businesses to eliminate regulations on coal mining and on oil exploration and production, that climate change could not have become such a serious problem at a worse time in our history. The only people who disbelieve in climate change are people who are misinformed, misled, or who have corrupt motives for refusing to accept the increasingly irrefutable data. These people - Donald Trump and his cronies - are not concerned with the ultimate impact of their rapacious acquisitiveness, determined to make as much money as they can before it's too late. If someone informed them that they will be judged severely by posterity they would probably express nothing but contempt for it - even if their children will be forced to live with the consequences of their denial of climate change.

It reminds me of the poem "The Parable of the Young Man and the Old"  by Wilfred Owen. Owen, who was killed in World War I (The Great War) just before the Armistice, knew first hand how the youth of a generation paid for the blindness of their elders.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in the thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

(1) 'From the earliest days, from the 4th century, 5th century, 6th century, the missionaries of Christianity had said, in effect, to the Jews, "You may not live among us as Jews." The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages had then decided "You may not live among us." And the Nazis finally decreed, "You may not live."' From the interview with Raul Hilberg in Lanzmann's Shoah.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Hidden Fortress

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire!
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire!
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream
Burn with abandon!

The word "entertainment" has been abused and overused at least as much as the word "art" - to which entertainment is supposedly subordinate. Yet a work of solid entertainment is almost as hard to find as a work of art. No one has any reason to sniffle at good entertainment. According to Stanley Kauffmann, "I know that, in a good year, 95 percent of the world’s films were trash, four percent plus were good entertainment, and there was a small fraction of seriously good films. In a good year." (1)

The late Donald Richie assured us in his monumental monograph on Akira Kurosawa that when he made The Hidden Fortress (right after Throne of Blood, his imposing transposition of Macbeth), he was aiming to make a rollicking entertainment. That he was resoundingly successful in his ambition doesn't lessen the degree of difficulty that his task presented to him. Kurosawa had already made the great films upon which his reputation rests - Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. The international success these films enjoyed was not enough, evidently, to earn for Kurosawa the independence that he wanted. The Hidden Fortress was so successful at the box office (it was the top-grossing Japanese film of 1958), it enabled Kurosawa to form his own production company.

What he accomplished with The Hidden Fortress is too often overlooked.  As comical creations, the two farmers, Matashichi and Tahei, approach the dimensions of Falstaff. The whole "adventure" presented by Kurosawa in marvelously muscular strokes can be seen, from the perspective of these two hapless n'er-do-wells as one prolonged calamity. We are introduced to them in the opening scene, the camera following them from a slight distance as they traverse an immense wind-scoured plain, jabbering and blaming each other for their miserable fates. Trying to enlist in the ranks of a warring clan, finding themselves mistaken for the enemy, forced to dig graves, they proceed through the course of the film from captivity to crime to scavenging, scammed by an apparent thief into carrying, like beasts of burden, stolen gold concealed inside pieces of wood to the safety of a neighboring province, not knowing that the thief is General Rokurota of the defeated Akizuki clan and the mute girl who travels with them is none other than Princess Yuki. At their worst, the two are the quintessence of cowardice, disloyalty, and selfishness. At their best, they are friends for life: believing he is doomed, Tahei even asks Matashichi if they can remain friends in the afterlife. These two miserable specimens are human beings, after all, survivors of the calamities their unscrupulous rulers bring down on them. 

The crucial scene is the fire festival, in which ordinary farmers and townsfolk build a bonfire and dance and sing ecstatically around it. Princess Yuki is entranced by her first close contact with her subjects, the common people whose lives would never otherwise have caught her attention. Later held captive and awaiting execution, the princess tells the disgraced Yamana general Hyoe Tadokoro (played by Susumu Fujita, unforgettable as Sanshiro Sugata, the hero of Kurosawa's very first film): "The happiness of these days I would have never known living in the castle. I saw people as they really are, I saw their beauty and their ugliness with my own eyes." Then she sings the song she first heard at the fire festival: "The life of a man - burn it with the fire!" 

One could argue that, like the surviving samurai at the conclusion of Seven Samurai, Princess Yuki and General Rokurota are the losers. The real winners are Matashichi and Tahei, rewarded with one measly piece of gold (one ryō), who are going home to their village, having learned that their humble lives as farmers are immeasurably preferable to the perilous adventures they have endured - that a living dog is better than a dead lion. 

Kurosawa's command of his material can best be seen in its minutiae. The great crowd scenes in the ruins of Akizuki castle reveal the mastery of the director, with every single character - among hundreds - delineated, every actor locked into his role, no matter how tiny. Watch how the armed guards swagger, with each showing off his ability to control the crowd of captives, but also hiding his terror at their sheer number. When the slaves rise up against the guards at night, we are caught up, just like Matashichi and Tahei, in an irresistible tide of movement. 

I first saw The Hidden Fortress in a movie theater in the 1970s. Since then I have seen it a few times on home video and lately on DVD on a 16:9 LED TV. It's like first love - trying to re-capture the original experience of watching a film where it belongs - on a big movie theater screen. Alas, the experience can't be re-created. It's a new experience, accompanied by different people in our lives. I feel blessed that I came of age as a filmgoer a decade before video gave us the irreplaceable pleasure of taking our favorite films home with us. But it's the memory of that first event that stays with me, that I hold in my heart.

Ah, lost innocence! When I saw The Hidden Fortress in the 1970s, I was unaware that it inspired George Lucas to make Star Wars. I have since learned that Lucas borrowed plot elements from Kurosawa's story not just for Star Wars but The Phantom Menace as well. I suppose that my immunity to Star Wars and its sequelae is due to the fact that I was 19 when it was released - a well-adjusted adult having finished my first year of college. In his review of Star Wars, Stanley Kauffmann wrote: "This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded."(2)

Out of gratitude to Kurosawa, Lucas helped finance a film Kurosawa made in 1980 called Kagemusha. It was a funny kind of gratitude, since the film was cut by almost 20 minutes for its US theatrical release.

Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, whose Japanese title translates as "Three Villains in a Hidden Fortress," is honest-to-goodness entertainment. It makes the word clean again.

(1) Stanley Kauffmann, "Old Ark, New Covenant," The New Republic, July 5, 1981. Kauffmann made this remark in his review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which didn't measure up to his standard: "I don't want to be a child again, not even for two hours. I reject the Raiders pact."
(2) Stanley Kauffmann, "Innocences," The New Republic, June 19, 1977.