Monday, September 25, 2017

The Scent of an Oscar

It always amuses me whenever an actor wins awards and praise from critics for playing a disabled person. Only someone who has never acted or who doesn't know what actors do would think that playing a disabled person is especially difficult. Richard Dreyfus had the acting opportunity of a lifetime in the film Whose Life Is It Anyway? when he had to play a quadriplegic - a man who was paralyzed from the neck down. Think about that from an actor's perspective. The only thing you have to use to express yourself is your face. You don't have to worry about what gestures to make with your hands, about how to stand, sit down or stand up.

Similarly, playing a blind man simply means that the actor has to pretend that his eyes don't work. It doesn't mean, unless he is wearing dark glasses, that he can't use his eyes, that he can't use them to create a dramatic effect. It gets even easier when the actor wears dark glasses, as Jamie Foxx demonstrated when he played - and won an Oscar for playing - Ray Charles in the movie Ray.

Now imagine the sentimental possibilities of the following plot: a young man is tasked with accompanying a blind former military officer on a journey. Not your typical blind man, the former officer is arrogant and offensive, driven by an insatiable attraction to women, whom he can smell from a distance. He tasks the young man to be his eyes, to tell him what every woman within range of his nose looks like. What potential for any decent satirical novelist or filmmaker! If handled carefully, the results have every reason to be eminently readable or watchable.

Anyone who has seen the film Scent of a Woman (1992) with Al Pacino will recognize the plot. Long before Pacino played Lt. Colonel Frank Slade, however, the plot was first used by the Italian novelist Giovanni Arpino, best known as the author of the novel Un delitto d'onore that Pietro Germi turned into the classic film Divorce Italian Style in 1962. Arpino's title for the novel was The Darkness and the Honey (Il Buio e il Miele), which was first made into an Italian film called Profumo du Donna in 1974 and eventually Scent of a Woman. Not having read the novel, I don't know to what extent Dino Risi and Ruggero Maccari, who adapted it as Profumo di Donna, kept faith with it. Bo Goldman, who wrote the script for Scent of a Woman, clearly took much greater liberties with Arpino's original story. I suspect that Arpino isn't to blame for the more blatantly distasteful aspects of both adaptations. 

I had heard of Profumo di Donna since it was shown in New York in the '70s but never had a chance to see it until recently. It is better than the American film in two ways, one major and one minor. The two films provided opportunities for two great actors, Vittorio Gassman and Al Pacino, to give award-winning performances. Gassman won three European awards, including a Golden Palm at Cannes, for best actor in 1975 and Pacino won the Academy Award (the Golden Bowling Trophy) for Best Actor in 1993. But the roles that these two actors play are, like the films in which they play them, worlds apart.

The American film is, like its protagonist, seriously impaired in its characterizations and its acting. It concerns a young man (played by Chris O'Donnell, a lifesize wet blanket) from a working class family in Oregon who is enrolled in an exclusive boys' school back east. Rather than go home for Thanksgiving, which he can't afford, he answers an ad to be a caregiver for the long weekend to an infirm Lieutenant Colonel. Once he has introduced himself to the Colonel, the young man discovers, once the Colonel's family is gone, that the old fart has planned a trip to New York City where, he announces to the boy, he intends to stay at the Waldorf, eat a fine meal, sleep in a magnificent bed, make love to a beautiful woman and then blow his brains out. The young man goes along with this escapade, since the Colonel is paying for everything and has assured him he will be returned to Baird (the name of the boys' school) in plenty of time to resume his studies. 

The Italian film, which has flaws of its own but which is at least original, concerns a young officer cadet named Giovanni who is assigned to escort disabled captain Fausto from Turin to Naples via Genoa and Rome. Fausto, who lost his sight and his left forearm in a peacetime explosion, decides to call Giovanni "Ciccio" (baby fat), is always impeccably dressed and is a menace to attractive women, whom he can smell from a distance. And it isn't their "perfume" he smells, but "l'odore di femina." He is going to Naples to visit an old army comrade who was blinded in the same accident. Unbeknownst to Giovanni, he plans to persuade his blind comrade to go through with a suicide pact.

The script, by Dino Risi (who directed the film) and Ruggero Maccari, is noteworthy in the extent to which it goes to make the blind captain as thoroughly unsympathetic as possible while still expecting us to be interested in his fate. In one scene, Fausto plays a trick on an unsuspecting young nun. Hiding his intact right arm inside his jacket, he tells her he needs help using the toilet. She accompanies him to the bathroom where she has to unzip his fly and hold his penis while he urinates. While a look of undisguised satisfaction spreads across Fausto's face, the nurse closes her eyes, perhaps wishing she were blind. It's like something out of American Pie.

One could argue that Fausto is out to alienate everyone, including his beloved Anna, an old flame, in preparation for his suicide. When he's confronted with Anna in Naples, who loves him despite his injuries, Fausto becomes genuinely cruel to her. Knowing that she loves him makes it that much harder for Fausto to drive her away. I don't buy this interpretation wholeheartedly, especially since I see no reason why everyone along the way from Turin to Naples has to put up with this impossible man's antics merely because he is blind. Giovanni does it only because he is under orders.  

The captain's intolerable behavior toward everyone around him is matched by his self-deprecation. He uses his blindness both as a weapon and as a shield behind which he can hide. We don't know until he arrives in Naples for his rendezvous with his old - and blind - comrade why he burned all of his bridges along the way. Because he finds his blindness unacceptable, he has decided to die. But in failing to carry out his own death sentence - and be his own executioner - Fausto realizes that even a life without sight is preferable to total darkness in death.

Clearly, American film audiences are always having to be reassured that even the most despicable worm can be turned, that Scrooge will always have a change of heart, and that the world, though temporarily upset, will always be put right. In Scent of a Woman, the story refuses to end with the boy's foiling the Colonel's attempt to "blow his brains out," even after Pacino's cri de coeur, "I'm in the dark here!" Hollywood had to redeem him somehow, with a ludicrous trial scene at the boys' school in which the Colonel defends the boy's integrity when he refuses to "snitch" on his classmates. Stanley Kauffmann called it "the mustiest kind of old-fashioned hokum."(1)

Profumo di Donna's blind captain is granted no such reprieve. He finds that he can't go through with his end of the suicide pact - he shoots his blind comrade to death but doesn't have the requisite nerve to turn the gun on himself. Giovanni and Anna secure his escape to an abandoned church in a cemetery. Giovanni, having done his duty, departs, leaving Anna alone with Fausto. The film ends with her guiding him out of the cemetery to the strains of Armando Trovaioli's syrupy music.

Al Pacino saw the role of Lt. Colonel Frank Slade as a gift. But I think he failed to fully realize the man. As I mentioned before, playing a blind character relieves an actor of having to use his eyes in his performance. So Pacino assumes the same glassy stare in scene after scene.  

Vittorio Gassman, however, chose to use his eyes in some surprising ways in his performance. He is always seeming to concentrate on trying to see. (Pacino acts as if he was born blind instead of suddenly finding himself deprived of sight.) For example, Gassman often resorts to slightly crossing his eyes. There is a somewhat strange moment, when he asks for the blessing of a priest in Rome (2), when he looks up after the blessing has been given and gazes intently before him, as if he is trying to force his eyes to clear, somehow expecting his sight to be miraculously restored.

But if there is one aspect of Profumo di Donna that makes it unarguably superior to its sequel, it's in Dino Risi's impeccable eye for locations. In scene after scene, Risi places his actors in outdoor cafés or on terraces by the sea. Alas, the cinematography of these splendid locations, by Claudio Cirillo, uses far too much diffusion, as if everything is covered in the "honey" in the title of Giovanni Arpino's novel. 

I'm guessing that Profumo di Donna overemphasizes Fausto's predatory sexuality. But it is only when he is in the company of young women that Fausto seem to be having a good time. Dino Risi's alteration of the novel's title certainly reveals the extent to which he was counting on an audience full of Brunos, who would cheer Fausto's apparently insatiable lechery. 

Advocates for the rights of the disabled might argue that only a truly disabled person can properly impersonate a disabled character. But as long as there are actors looking for awards and critics foolishly prepared to give them one - or several - we can expect many more films in which unimpaired actors take on such juicy roles.


(1) The New Republic, January 25, 1993.
(2) The priest is played (uncredited) by the ubiquitous Vernon Dobtcheff.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Life Without People


"We're all out here 'cause we ain't all there."

Since I departed Alaska in 2007, the state has become a popular destination for reality television shows. I sometimes have the unsettling image of the region crawling with the casts and crews of reality shows, all aching to give viewers snug in the suburbs a glimpse of wild, pristine nature and the oddballs who live on its fringes.

Lately, two of my favorite television programs are "Life Below Zero" and "Where the Wild Men Are", both on BBC Earth. The first program follows some people ("four households") living rough in the Alaskan wilderness and the second, hosted by Ben Fogle, goes to places all over the world where people have abandoned their successful, conventional lives in the city (London, New York, Sydney, New Delhi) to go and live in some godforsaken outpost in an African desert or on a tropical island in Panama or the Philippines, or in the frozen north of Sweden. When Ben Fogle visited an older married couple living in the Alaskan wild, they assured him that they hadn't chosen the life because they don't like people. But it seemed to me they were simply trying to dispel a somewhat obvious conclusion about them. 

The BBC often opens the program with an warning: "The following contains scenes of animals being killed for food. Parental discretion is advised." The killing of the animals (caribou, moose, fox, lynx, etc.) doesn't bother me so much as the license with which they are killed. It's evidently federal land that these people are living on (except for a lone woman living in Kavik, close to the Arctic Sea). I'm sure they have all the applicable hunting and fishing licenses, but the strangely proprietary way in which they slaughter the wildlife is unsettling.

At first, like everyone else I suppose, I was fascinated by people who turned their backs on the life we all live in society, dependent on people we don't even know - farmers and fishermen - for our survival, working for someone else to make a living. They have developed skills that simply have no value in society, like how to build a shelter out of trees felled by themselves, how to set traps or snares to catch anything from a muskrat to a wolverine, or how to skin and gut a caribou to get at the meat that can keep them alive for weeks in the winter.

But the longer I watch the program, the more disenthralled I've become by these people and the things they are compelled to do, like destroying portions of the plant and animal life around them simply because they're there to be exploited. Having visited the Alaska Bureau of Fish & Game in Anchorage, and knowing how strict the hunting laws of the state are, I take it for granted that the people featured in "Life Below Zero" have valid licenses to hunt and fish. But who or what (in a broader sense) authorizes them to take as much as they please from the environment around them? I'm not arguing that they're putting any measurable dent in the population of fish and game, but where do they get the belief that it is all theirs for the taking? The animals are only being taken because these people are there to take them. It's acceptable if they are natives, whose people have been living that way for thousands of years. One episode features a seal hunt in which only natives are allowed to take part. But only one of the households in "Life Below Zero" is inhabited by natives.

Two of the "households" that the program depicts are inhabited by one person, living in total isolation in an environment that is not just indifferent to their survival but actively hostile to it. When you have to worry about where you're standing outdoors, about whether you're upwind or downwind from an apex predator like a bear, a wolf, or a wolverine - when you realize that you're a potential meal for these creatures, your perception of that environment changes drastically. Besides, thinking about the sheer amount of solitude that such an isolated person endures, with such a storehouse of memories of all the things they've seen and thought and no one to share them with exposes the ultimate uselessness of such a life. George Orwell was right when he asserted that, if Daniel Defoe had actually been a castaway on an island, he would never have written Robinson Crusoe.

At certain points in every episode of "Life Below Zero" someone says something like, "this is better than a 9 to 5 job," or "it's better to hunt and kill your own food than buy it at the supermarket." Having repudiated the responsibilities of living in society, these people have also forsaken its obvious advantages. Very often when they go hunting, we see these people come away empty handed. There are either no moose or caribou to shoot at or they're out of the range of their rifles. One of the show's regulars has a modest arsenal of firearms but obviously, even with telescopic sights and a tripod, couldn't hit the broad side of a bear at 50 yards. When I cash my steady paycheck and go grocery shopping in the market, I never come away empty handed.

It was impossible for me to watch the resourcefulness of these people surviving - some of them thriving - in the wild without being reminded of Christopher McCandless [see photo], whose sad story of failing to survive in the wild was told in Sean Penn's film Into the Wild. This evidently intelligent young man died in the Alaskan wilderness after eating a poisonous plant that he mistook for an edible one. He had to eat the plant because he was starving to death, having failed to find and kill any wild animals that he hoped would provide him with sustenance. 

Reviewing a film on a similar subject, Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, Stanley Kauffmann wrote:

"The places that are relatively untouched by civilization [the film implies] are the best treasures of that civilization and must be preserved. We might think, however, that it is only the existence of civilization that makes these places attractive - for some. Most of the thought and energy of the human race has aimed at taming the wilderness."(1)

I think the presence of these individualists on America's Last Frontier is probably transient. In one episode of "Life Below Zero," one of them comes across a cabin that had been abandoned - he estimated - for thirty years. It showed signs of having been ransacked recently by a bear, which strew the cabin's contents, some of which were still usable and valuable, all over the ground outside it. There were no indications of what might have become of the person or persons who built the cabin. Perhaps it was a structure constructed to provide shelter for a season by someone just like the man who discovered it thirty years later? 


(1) The New Republic, October 3, 2005.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Best Remembered

Since the appearance of the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in 2001, I have had the distinct impression that Harry Potter is where British actors go when they die. So far the franchise has claimed four of the greats: Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore) in 2002, Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) in 2016, and this year, John Hurt (Mr. Ollivander) in January and Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge) in July. Whatever these marvelous actors accomplished in their decades-long careers, in many people's minds they will always be a "Harry Potter actor."(1)

This is a shame, since these older actors accomplished so much in their professions, performed so many roles in so many plays and films. But I suppose it's a good thing that it is thanks to Harry Potter that a great many more people felt a sense of loss at the deaths of these actors than there would otherwise have been, people who wouldn't otherwise have known who they were or everything they accomplished. 

And this sad phenomenon is certainly not restricted to actors. How many people know Louis Armstrong for the song "What a Wonderful World" that he recorded in 1967, while remaining utterly ignorant of his towering accomplishments as a jazz trumpeter? Last April, the death of film director Jonathan Demme inspired numerous tributes, all of which mentioned two films for which he is best remembered, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, while neglecting to mention the two films he made near the beginning of his career - Citizen's Band and Melvin and Howard - that were far superior.

I remember a particularly fascinating panel discussion about adapting novels to film I watched in the early 1980s with Avery Corman, John Gregory Dunne and E. L. Doctorow. Corman was the author of the novels Jacob's Ladder, Ghost and Kramer vs. Kramer. Dunne had written True Confessions. And Doctorow was the author of Ragtime. When Corman claimed that a successful film adaptation could increase the shelf-life of a book, Doctorow told him, "I don't think you should admit that, Avery!" How many great writers are doomed to be remembered for writing the "underlying story" of a popular movie? How many millions more people have seen the movie version of A Clockwork Orange, clever as it is, than will ever read the brilliant novel by Anthony Burgess?

When the death of John Hurt was announced last January (and the words "Harry Potter actor" appeared in every one of his obituaries) some of the tributes to him made it quite obvious that, while making worthwhile appearances in dozens of films for more than fifty years, many of which I have seen over the decades, a sizable portion of his fame as an actor rests on his stage performances, not one of which I had an opportunity to see. Most of the notices of Hurt's death mentioned that he was a theater actor, but that he is "best remembered" for his many movie roles. His obituary at the Guardian, written by a contemporary (Michael Coveney) who followed his career with great enthusiasm, gave a balanced assessment of him and his impact as an actor, emphasizing the importance of his theatrical performances, since the roles were, from a purely cultural perspective, immeasurably more significant than the mostly moribund films in which he appeared.

I remember a college professor in the '70s resurrecting the famous debate between theater critics Max Beerbohm and George Bernard Shaw over the comparable talents Eleanora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. Ancient film footage of both actresses exists that offer tantalizing glimpses of exactly what Beerbohm and Shaw were arguing about, without providing convincing proof that Duse's subtleties outshone Bernhardt's grand gestures (or vice versa). The debate lives on as a purely literary dispute between brilliant theater critics.

But a theater critic's review is as close as most of us can get to theatrical performances in Paris, London, or New York. That is the nature of theater. Even if a stage performance is later recorded for film or television, seeing the recording of the event isn't at all the same as having been there, in the same space, breathing the same air the actors breathe. 

Among John Hurt's theater triumphs, according to Michael Coveney in The Guardian, were in David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and Pinter’s The Caretaker. He himself claimed to have made more than 150 films, choosing to play “the unloved … people like us, the inside-out people, who live their lives as an experiment, not as a formula.” 

The number and variety of roles played in films by John Hurt is more than enough to attest to his greatness. Unfortunately, many other great stage actors never managed to find film roles to equal their best performances on the stage. The most obvious example is John Gielgud, inarguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation. While he was famous enough to the public to have enjoyed plenty of parts in films as long ago as the 1930s, he was certainly no matinee idol. But he was also not nearly as brilliant on screen - with notable exceptions through the years - as he is reported to have been on the stage. One longs for a time machine that would take one back to the Old Vic in the 1930s to witness any one of a number of productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest in which Gielgud - not to mention other great actors of his generation like Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Peggy Ashcroft - performed. Gielgud died at the age of 96 in 2000, having missed the Harry Potter sweepstakes by just one year. Who knows but that, had he lived long enough to make only one film in the Potter franchise, even he would've been eulogized as a "Harry Potter actor."


(1) I write this mindful of the fact that it was Star Wars that suckered Alec Guiness into playing Obi Wan Kenobe. Poor Alec, stalwart veteran of stage and screen, is remembered by millions today for that role alone. The Star Wars people have lately persuaded Max von Sydow (with a handsome check) to play in one of their latest numbers. Who knows but that the man who gave us so many unforgettable performances in Swedish films by Bergman and Troell will be stigmatized with the moniker "Star Wars actor."



https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/28/john-hurt-obituary

Friday, September 8, 2017

The White Sheik

Bernard Shaw said that he became profoundly irritated when he caught himself laughing at certain comedies. When I took one look at the BBC's list of the "100 Greatest [Film] Comedies of All Time" last month, I knew exactly what he meant. I won't pretend that some of the more horrible films on the list didn't cause me to chuckle every now and then. But the more I chuckled, the more irritated I got.

I would have to be dead, I suppose, if I didn't succumb to some of the terrible gags in Top Secret! or Step Brothers. Laughter is a kind of autonomic response after all, like your leg kicking when the doctor uses that rubber hammer on your knee. But it becomes irritating if you laugh when you don't want to laugh - when it becomes clear that the people trying to make you laugh have done so little to earn it. This is especially bothersome when you realize that you are one of the few people alive, apparently, who has seen René Clair's Le Million or It's a Gift with the magnificent W. C. Fields. Is the absence of the near- perfect Smiles of a Summer Night the result of negligence? Whoever is convinced that Raising Arizona is "funnier" than these great films is undeserving of either the title "critic" or "scholar." Clearly, they are nothing but fans.  

Federico Fellini is represented on the BBC's list - at number 85 - by Amarcord, which has some incidental humor but is hardly a comedy. By the time he made Amarcord, Fellini had long since lost his way as an artist. How could anyone find the spectacle of his decline the least bit funny? 

But why is his early masterpiece The White Sheik nowhere to be found on the list? For his first film on his own (he co-directed Variety Lights with Alberto Lattuada), Fellini used a script about the "fumetti" - cheap photo-fantaserials - that had already been prepared for what what would have been the first film of Michelangelo Antonioni. Fellini developed it with his usual script-writing partners of the Fifties, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli. It is the story of newlyweds Ivan and Wanda Cavalli who have come by train straight from their wedding in their hometown of Altavilla Marittima to Rome in order that Ivan can show off the lovely Wanda to his Roman relations. Entirely unbeknownst to Ivan, however, Wanda has a clandestine second life as "Passionate Dolly" (Bambola Apassionata) - a devoted fan of the fumetti featuring The White Sheik. "All week I wait for my magazine on Saturday. I buy it at the station, hurry home and shut myself in my room. There my real life begins." Wanda's fanatical devotion has no contact with reality, and she has written three letters to The White Sheik telling him she is coming to Rome, and he has responded with one typewritten letter, telling her "If in Rome soon, come and see me. We'll spend unforgettable hours together."

Upon checking into a hotel in Rome, where Ivan tells Wanda about their tight schedule, meeting with his family, seeing some monuments and an audience with the Pope, Wanda asks a porter the directions to the address The White Shiek gave her and suggests a long bath to Ivan as a pretext for her escape. What follows is a great deal too much experience for both of these innocents.(1)

For his three leads, Fellini had two veteran Italian comedians - Alberto Sordi and Leopoldo Trieste - and a newcomer. Sordi is perfect as the ridiculous sheik, whom we first glimpse (through the dazed eyes of Wanda) on an impossibly high swing suspended between two trees. Fellini even indulges in a bit of cinema sleight of hand for his graceful dismount. Wanda is so mesmerized by his antics that the only thing that spares her from becoming another of his amorous conquests is when a timely sailboat boom raps him on the skull.

Trieste is hilarious as he proceeds from pride to bewilderment to near- hysterical shame. In one of Fellini's signature night scenes, having spent the day in search of his missing wife, he collapses at one of the innumerable fountains of Rome. Splashing water in his face,  he looks up at the indifferent stars. Around the corner come two rather well-heeled prostitutes, one of whom is Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) whom Fellini would later follow in The Nights of Cabiria. Seeing Ivan, they wonder if he's thinking of suicide. They listen to his sad story, until a man appears whom Cabiria persuades to perform his specialty, which is fire-breathing. It's a strange, surreal moment in the scene, that presages many such moments in Fellini's later films. 

Both Ivan and Wanda are mistaken for lunatics, and Ivan, when he has finally run out of excuses to his family, collapses in the hotel lobby. But his efforts to save Wanda and himself from the shame that her foolishness might have caused is heroic. Both of them emerge physically unscathed but emotionally purged of whatever illusions they may have entertained about each other. 

The film abounds in tiny but beautifully observed details. The hotel desk clerk who looks and sounds like he's seen everything, and is incessantly pushing postcards on the clientele. The man in swimming trunks who shows up on the set of the latest fumetti number. "What do you want?" the director asks him. "I'm an admirer of the Tenth Muse," he says. The morose police detective trying to comprehend Ivan's disjointed tale of a disappearing wife, and then calling for a psychiatrist when he becomes convinced that he's crazy. Sordi's fantastic dance with Wanda. 

Listening to Nino Rota's instantly unforgettable music, especially the sad waltz in the final scene, before it returns to the jaunty theme from the beginning of the film as the Cavalli family is hurried off to meet the Pope, is an unadulterated pleasure.

As it turned out, The White Sheik was Brunella Bovo's first and last film. She granted an interview on the film's 50th anniversary, carrying those fifty years with surprising grace. 

Now regarded by everyone (everyone except the BBC's 253 fans) as a classic, The White Sheik was not well received in Italy in 1952. Unperturbed, Fellini moved on to make I Vitelloni in '53, another classic but in a different mode. 


(1) When Wanda assures Ivan at the end of her escapade that she is still pure, he looks toward heaven and announces that so is he - despite his having spent the night with a prostitute the night before. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Departure Rehearses Death





Who’s turned us round like this, so that we always,

do what we may, retain the attitude
of someone who’s departing? Just as he,
on the last hill, that shows him all this valley
for the last time, will turn and stop and linger,
we live our lives, for ever taking leave.

- Rilke, "Eighth Duino Elegy," Leishman & Spender translation



For some lucky people, life is full of nothing but arrivals. A new house, a new place to explore, a new view to take in and make one's own. But for me, as I grow older, it's the departures that matter more, as I find myself looking back over my shoulder at where I've been rather than forward at what is ahead. Nearly ten years later, I think about my departure from the United States. My sister drove me to the airport on a typically icebound November morning in Anchorage. I was in a hurry, which is how journeys always affect us. There is no time to relax until we are safely waiting outside the gate. My sister drove past all the airline entrances without finding the one for my airline. I got angry with her when we had to go all the way back around to look again. Having found it, I got out of her burgundy Ford Explorer - that she had named "Victoria" - and we embraced on the sidewalk, my two overstuffed duffel bags beside me. She must have been crushed with me leaving her alone in Alaska for an uncertain duration. I felt the rush of travel, the impatience to be off. But all I have ever been able to think about in the decade since that day is my sister's long drive home across Anchorage to a house empty but for her little dog. No one told me what became of "Lucky," a Scottish Terrier, when my sister died last October. I wonder if her friends didn't simply return him to the shelter where she found him.

Tomorrow my small family and I are moving kit & caboodle, from a large two-storey house into a small two-bedroom apartment a little more than a hundred yards down the highway. It's my sixth move in nine years here on my Philippine island. Moving is always a sad affair - packing up memories, all the while having to quickly decide which mementos are worth saving and which ones have lost their lustre and are ok to throw away. It is also a cleansing experience, a chance to make an accounting of where I am in my life, how far I've come and how much farther I'm prepared to go before I quit all my wandering and try and find home. Having learned a long time ago to "travel light," I 'm afraid that a memento must have more than mere sentimental value to convince me to save it.

Reading The Collected Stories of John Updike, at least half of which I first read about thirty-five years ago, my memory guided me to one particular story. According to the Note on the Texts in the back of the first volume, Collected Early Stories, the story '"I Will Not Let Thee Go, Except Thou Bless Me" was written in London. It was submitted to The New Yorker on May 4, 1969, and was published in the issue of October 11, 1969. It was collected in Museums and Women (1972) [where I first discovered it] and The Early Stories (2003). The text from The Early Stories is used here." That means it was revised by Updike, who liked to revise. So it wasn't the same text I read thirty-five years ago after all. Evidently, Updike didn't believe in the development of his art, not in its ascent and definitely not in its decline. He expanded on his great mentor's [John Cheever's] brilliant pictures of life in the American suburbs with the addition of sex.

In "I Will Not Let Thee Go...," Updike tells of the Bridesons and their last days in Connecticut before they move to Texas where Tom Brideson, in computer software, has a job waiting for him. They are both visited by bad dreams inspired by their imminent move from the comfort of the familiar to the disturbing unfamiliar. "Lou (for Louise) had been sorting and packing and destroying for days, and her sleep was gouged by nightmares of trunks that would not close, of doors that opened to reveal forgotten secret rooms crammed with yet more debris from ten years' residence - with unmended furniture and outgrown toys and stacked Lifes and National Geographics and hundreds, thousands, of children's drawings, each one a moment, a memory, impossible to keep, impossible to discard."

"And Tom, hurriedly tying up loose ends in the city, lunching one day with his old employers and the next day with representatives of his new, returning each evening to an emptier house and increasingly apprehensive children, slept badly also. The familiar lulling noises - car horn and dog bark, the late commuter train's slither and the main drag's murmur - had become irritants; the town had unravelled into tugging threads of love. Departure rehearses death."

Their "friends of over a decade" throw the Bridesons a going away party. Tom looks at them as if for the last time, knowing that in a week they will all still be there but he will not. "These women: he had seen their beauty pass from the smooth bodily complacence of young motherhood to the angular self-possession, slightly gray and wry, of veteran wives. To have witnessed this, to have seen in the sides of his vision so many pregnancies and births and quarrels and near-divorces and divorces and affairs and near-affairs and arrivals in vans and departures in vans, loomed, in retrospect, as the one accomplishment of his tenancy here - a heap of organic incident that in a village of old would have moldered into wisdom. But he was not wise, merely older."

We inhabit places for a time and the places inhabit us. Robert Graves once wrote about having some friends stay in his house. Sleeping in the guest room, they told him the following morning of the strange, unfamiliar dreams that visited them during the night. "Ah," Graves told them, "Norman left those behind for you." The bi-polar poet Norman Cameron had been the last guest to sleep in the guest room.

I can't say that I encountered anyone's left-behind dreams in this house. There were stories of a ghost, but none of us encountered it. In another house I lived in nine years ago, I was positive (or as positive as one can be about such things) that there was a dwende (from the Spanish "duende") in the house. I had several encounters with a very small invisible something touching me where I slept and even shoving me in the sala.

No such thing here. The twenty-three months of our stay here have given us two memorable Christmases. My girlfriend placed our little Christmas tree in the corner of the upstairs landing and bedecked the balustrade with Christmas lights colored red, green, and a color somewhere between orange and yellow (the Chinese manufacturer couldn't afford quality control). 

So much - too much - drama inside these walls. The news of the deaths of three people dear to my girlfriend and I arrived over the course of eight months last year. What if Updike got it wrong? Maybe it's death that rehearses departure?

I suppose I should be happy to leave, but I am not. The photo above was taken by me on the day I moved in. It shows the view looking east from my bedroom window upstairs. Every morning I looked at that view over the rooftops, past the power lines and the palm trees, at the weather that might be coming, or that was going away. Ready or not, here we go.


(1) Rilke, Eighth Duino Elegy, Leishman & Spender translation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Life Without Living

I recently stumbled upon a curious web page calling itself irelease.org. Visiting the home page, I found links to various pages like "Want to Be Happier? Ask Yourself This Question Every Morning", "7 Habits of People with Remarkable Mental Toughness", or "Chronic Negativity Can Literally Kill You, Science Shows". One of them sparked my curiosity, "Once you learn these 5 brutal truths about life, you’ll be a much better person". Curious to know what "brutal truths" it could be referring to, I followed the link to the page. What follows is what I found.

1) Worrying is useless…Worrying is simply in the mind and really doesn’t help with any issues in our lives. Can worrying really change what’s going to happen? No, it’s a waste of time. As Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh says below, try to remain in the present moment without putting labels on your “future conditions of happiness.”“Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
2) If we want to be happy, we must see reality for what it is…Buddhism teaches us that we must see reality for what it is if you want to be truly free. Instead of being set in our own ideas and opinions, we need to stay open to and accepting of whatever truth arises. So many of us try to remain positive by avoiding all negative emotions and situations. However, we need to confront them and accept them if we are ever to be truly free. Buddhist master Pema Chödrön says it best:“We have two alternatives: either we question our beliefs – or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality- or we begin to challenge them. In Buddha’s opinion, to train in staying open and curious – to train in dissolving our assumptions and beliefs – is the best use of our human lives.”
3) We need to accept change actively…Life is change, you’re born and eventually, you will die. The weather changes every day. No matter which aspect you look at in life, everything changes. Many of us attempt to keep things “fixed” and “constant”. However, this only goes against the true forces of the universe. By accepting and embracing change, it gives us enormous liberation and energy to create the lives we want. Buddhist Daisaku Ikeda says that accepting change allows us to take initiative and create positive changes in our lives.“Buddhism holds that everything is in constant flux. Thus the question is whether we are to accept change passively and be swept away by it or whether we are to take the lead and create positive changes on our own initiative. While conservatism and self-protection might be likened to winter, night, and death, the spirit of pioneering and attempting to realize ideals evokes images of spring, morning, and birth.” – Daisaku Ikeda
4) The root of suffering is pursuing temporary feelings…So many of us crave those feelings of happiness. We think happiness includes excitement, joy, euphoria…but these are only temporary versions of happiness. And the constant pursuit of these feelings only turns into suffering because they will never last. Instead, true happiness comes from inner peace. It’s found by being content with what you have and who you are. Yuval Noah Harari describes it perfectly:“According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings and stop craving them.” – Yuval Noah Harari
5) Meditation is the path to reducing sufferingMeditation teaches us that everything is fleeting, especially our feelings. It teaches us that the present moment is all that exists. And when we truly understand this truth, we become content in ourselves, according to Yuval Noah Harari:“This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realize how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasizing about what might have been. The resulting Serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it.” – Yuval Noah Harari


I am not sure that these so-called Buddhist principles (except for the promotion of meditation, it all sounds suspiciously like stoicism) stand up very well to their encapsulization. What little I've learned about Buddhism over the years hasn't inspired me to learn much more. But its principles sound to me remarkably political. Insisting on a degree of detachment from life, on a dispassionate attitude toward the excitements and enticements of life in order to also avoid its disappointments and despondencies is powerfully political. As George Orwell put it, "The opinion that [one] should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." ("Why I Write," 1946)

Siddartha, the man who would eventually establish Buddhism in his own lifetime, was born into a Hindu ethos. It was due to the apparent hopelessness of the Hindu understanding of life and death that Siddartha was inspired to discover a "middle way" that allows human beings a way out of the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. The middle way is compassion, which makes me wonder what Marx thought of Buddhism, if anything. The extreme asceticism practiced in Hindu "bramahcharya" was adopted by Gandhi, whose political influence not just in India but all over the world, continues to be seen and felt. "If one could follow it to its psychological roots," Orwell wrote about Gandhi's asceticism, "one would, I believe, find that the main motive for 'non-attachment' is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work." The ultimate goal of Buddhism, it seems to me, is no different from every other extant religion - some dimly-conceived next life that no living human being has ever proven exists.

But another drawback to Buddhism, as expressed in the above "5 brutal truths", is its subjection to the fallacy that the object of life is to be happy. This seems to me, from what I have read about Buddhism, to be a distortion of its basic tenets, which have to do with avoiding everything that causes suffering, which includes emotional attachments to the people and to objects around us. Only by assuming a scrupulous detachment and a strict avoidance of passionate involvement in anything can we achieve a kind of serenity. Granted, such serenity has always seemed to be inhuman. Beng a good Buddhist requires one to abdicate one's responsibilities as a human being. Life is reduced to a passionless sameness that is as distant from what I regard as a full life as possible. 

Some people make the mistake of thinking that because Buddhism doesn't have a god to worship or any emphasis on personal morality that it's fundamentally different from other religions. When it is observed closely, however, Buddhism bears a resemblance to other religions in its striving to alleviate suffering and the general and quite natural fear of death. It teaches, for example, that an extreme avoidance of emotional attachments to the world and other people can reduce our experience of suffering and that meditation can reduce worry and stress. Unfortunately, the ultimate goal of buddhism, a disengagement with our passions and living without hope, turns out to be not just an avoidance of suffering and pain but a disavowal of life itself. The "quietude" that buddhists cultivate is deathlike. Hasn't a corpse attained the ultimate quietude (quietus)? As Philip Larkin put it, "Death is no different whined at than withstood."

One of the most powerful rebukes to the dispassionate Buddhist approach to life can be found in a story by Chekhov called "In Exile." Chekhov wrote the story after a visit to a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, in Easternmost Siberia. In the story, two prisoners operating a river ferry are sitting at night by a fire. One of them is Semyon, aka Canny, a longtime resident of the penal colony (and a virtual Buddhist philosopher according to the precepts outlined above). The other is known only as "the Tatar," who is a newcomer. The suffering meted out to the prisoners is the catalyst of the story, as each prisoner finds divergent ways of dealing with the hardships that life has to offer them. 

The Tatar is lonely without his mother and his wife. He looks around him at the desolation and cries, "'It's bad! it's bad!'" 
'You will get used to it,' Canny tells him. 'I want nothing and I am afraid of nobody, and the way I look at it is that there is nobody richer and freer than I am.'"

Canny tells the Tatar the long story of Vassily Sergeyitch, a "gentleman" prisoner who arrived fifteen years before. He missed his wife so badly that he wrote to her every day and sent her telegrams. Finally, after two years, the gentleman's wife arrived in the camp. She stayed with him for three years but she couldn't tolerate the life of the colony, the terrible weather and the drunkenness. Finally Vassily's wife ran away with a young man. He tried to pursue them, to no avail. 

Alone with his young daughter, Vasily Sergeyitch flung himself into making her life as pleasant as possible, pampering her with whatever he could acquire for her. But she becomes afflicted with tuberculosis, and Vassily spends all of his time and money trying to find a doctor to cure her. 

Canny continually tells the Tatar that all of the gentleman's efforts, all his running about trying to make his life and the life of his daughter the slightest bit better was a waste of time. Finally, a man on the opposite bank calls for the ferry. When the men, including Canny and the Tatar, reach the opposite bank they discover it is Vassily Sergeyitch. He has heard of a new doctor and is going in his coach to find him and bring him to his daughter. Canny only laughs at Vassily's hopeless fussing over his sick daughter.

"'She is certain to die,' Canny says, 'and then it will be all over with him. He'll hang himself from grief or run away to Russia — that's a sure thing. He'll run away and they'll catch him, then he will be tried, sent to prison, he will have a taste of the lash. . . .'
'Good! good!' said the Tatar, shivering with cold.
'What is good?' asked Canny.
'His wife, his daughter. . . . What of prison and what of sorrow! — anyway, he did see his wife and his daughter. . . . You say, want nothing. But "nothing" is bad! His wife lived with him three years — that was a gift from God. "Nothing" is bad, but three years is good. How not understand?'
The Tatar went up to Canny, and, looking at him with hatred and repulsion, shivering, and mixing Tatar words with his broken Russian, said: 'He is good . . . good; but you are bad! You are bad! The gentleman is a good soul, excellent, and you are a beast, bad! The gentleman is alive, but you are a dead carcass. . . . God created man to be alive, and to have joy and grief and sorrow; but you want nothing, so you are not alive, you are stone, clay! A stone wants nothing and you want nothing. You are a stone, and God does not love you, but He loves the gentleman!'"

Vassily Sergeyitch does the opposite of what the Buddhist doctrines laid out so heartlessly above. But, unlike every good Buddhist, who, like Canny, has learned not to strive after anything and never to surrender to his emotions, to be a "stone," the gentleman is alive, and has something, no matter how fleeting, to show for his life. His life may indeed end badly, but at least he tried, and his failure is, after all, proof of his belief - however misdirected - in love. That is more than Buddhism would've given him, for all of its dubious serenity.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Victory to the Victims


In 1994-95, as celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the last battles of World War II were spreading across the Pacific, I was in the U.S. Navy stationed in Japan. When the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa arrived in April of '95, Japan declined to join in any commemoration whatsoever. I suggested to my superiors that the U.S. Navy should raise the Yamato, the great Japanese battleship that was sunk in the Battle of Okinawa, and then sink it again. My suggestion was not passed up my chain of command.

The great controversy sweeping America over the past few years about all of the symbols, statues and memorials to the Confederate side in the Civil War is an important one. The past has a great deal to teach all of us, but exactly what is the lesson to be learned? Events of the past few weeks have shown us that some memorials mean different things to different Americans. 

Comparisons have been made with Germany and how the German people have come to terms with their much more recent past. The Germans have been scrupulous in their renunciation of Nazi ideals, and while there is still controversy about certain aspects of its treatment of the past, contemporary Germany is a model at how a society can come to terms with a terrible past.

Part of how Germany has dealt with its past was thanks to the U.S. occupation and its strict ban of any and all demonstrations or representations of Nazi doctrines after the war. The U.S. occupation of Japan was similarly strict, and its success at suppressing militarism and feudalism in Japan was startlingly thorough. But there were some compromises made by the U.S. in its pacification of Japan, like the immunity of the Japanese emperor from prosecution for war crimes, that have since caused problems for the full acceptance of the Japanese people of their responsibility for the war and for the horrific crimes carried out by Japanese forces in Asia in the name of their emperor.

Lately, Japanese prime ministers have openly visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the soldiers, sailors, and kamikaze pilots who perished in the war. The memorial includes the names of more than a thousand Class-A war criminals. The German Kaiser was stripped of his title at the end of World War I, but the Japanese Emperor, in whose name all those soldiers and sailors and kamikaze pilots fought and died, remained on his Chrysanthemum throne.

When I lived in Japan one of the things I learned was that there are no war memorials anywhere in the country. There are, however, numerous peace memorials, the most famous of which is in Hiroshima, the site of the first use of an atomic weapon against civilians. The Japanese have used their defeat by Allied forces in World War II as the inspiration to become the greatest peaceniks in history. In their constitution, Japan limits their armed forces to a strictly defensive role. If you go to Hiroshima, you will find innumerable reminders of the terrible ending of the war, but no reminders of how or why it started. The Japanese like to think of themselves as the war's greatest victims. Foreigners are routinely reduced to tears by the exhibits in Hiroshima. Some American tourists even feel overwhelmed by guilt and find themselves apologizing for the dropping of the bomb. Harry Truman is sometimes represented as some kind of villainous, racist monster who cared nothing for the innocents who perished in a flash on August 6, 1945.

Similarly, many people in the American South like to think of themselves as the victims of Lincoln and his imperialist federal armies violating their sacred soil at the end of the "War Between the States," imposing crippling "reparations" on their broken economy - made worse by the loss of millions of slave laborers who no longer felt either compelled or obliged to pick the cotton rotting in the fields. The cause for which Confederate soldiers fought, which was nothing less than the freedom to buy and sell human beings like livestock, to break up their families, and to subject them to savage physical and mental abuse, became, for them, the Lost Cause, romanticized in fiction so horrible that one Southerner, D. W. Griffith, made a play called The Clansman into the first feature length motion picture made in America, The Birth of a Nation in 1915, in which liberated blacks were portrayed as apes who wanted nothing more than the liberty to rape white women and the heroes of the film, riding to the rescue of the film's virtue-threatened heroine, were the Ku Klux Klan, created right after the war by a former Confederate officer named David Bedford Forrest.

Over the past week, commentators have drawn comparisons between our extremely strange manner of remembering our calamitous civil war to the way that Germans remember the Nazis and the Third Reich. The parallel they should be drawing, however, is between Civil War memorials and Japan's peace memorials - between the unwillingness of Southerners to face the truth about the Civil War and the way that the Japanese have absolved themselves of all guilt for the disastrous war that they started, first by invading Manchuria in 1931 and by attacking the United States at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Some Japanese historians continue to argue that the attack on Pearl Harbor was "provoked" by American expansionism in Asia. (Coinciding with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces also attacked U.S. bases in the Philippines.) To hear the Southerners and the Japanese tell their war stories, they were the great victims, not the villains.

As American historians have reminded us over the past few weeks, most of the numerous monuments to Confederate generals and statesmen found all over the South and even in Northern states were erected in the era of Jim Crow and were intended to be monuments to white supremacy. The American Civil Rights movement which culminated in the 1960s didn't change people's minds so much as it changed our laws so that the people who refused to accept the equality of black Americans could no longer commit acts to enforce their prejudices. 

In the state of Alabama, Martin Luther King Day (the 3rd Monday of January) is known as Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Since the two holidays are so close together on the calendar (King was born on January 15th and Lee was born in the 19th), the governments of Alabama and Mississippi simply to incorporated them.(1) It is just one of many incongruities in the South, like accepting integration and affirmative action as the laws of the land and tacitly supporting the principle of racial equality, while Confederate flags and enormous stone and bronze monuments to "heroes" on the losing side of the American Civil War stand as eloquent rebukes to the law. Every one of them must come down, and the pedestals should be left empty to remind us of the emptiness of the ideas that they once supported.


(1) According to the official Alabama state website (www.al.com), "Alabama and Mississippi have celebrated Lee's birthday since the 1800s and King's since 1983. The Lee/King holiday is one of three Confederate-related days on Alabama's official holiday calendar. The state also marks Confederate Memorial Day on the fourth Monday in April and the birthday of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the first Monday in June."