Friday, March 27, 2009

A Dog's Life


On Good Friday - Biyernes Santo - last year a 6 year old girl in my barangay was bitten in the face by a dog. It caused something of a stir, and since I knew the little girl, I fetched my machete, which is a standard tool in these parts, and went over to where a crowd had gathered, expecting to participate in the dog's destruction. The crowd had gathered merely to hear what was to be done about the rabies shots that the little girl would have to get, since the dog had not. The decision was made that the shots would be paid for by the dog's owner and that the dog was to be "watched" for fourteen days in case it showed any symptoms of rabies. Only then, I was told, would the dog be destroyed. I tried to explain to whomever would listen that it didn't matter if the dog was rabid or not, that it had bitten a child in the face and could no longer be trusted around people - let alone children - and should, therefore, be destroyed.(1) Even if anyone understood my tirade in broken Taglish, they could not see the sense in destroying a perfectly good dog, provided it didn't have rabies. I took my astonishment home with me along with my unused machete.

The experience taught me a curious lesson about the relative value placed on human and animal lives in the Philippines. It wasn't as if anyone had placed the welfare of the dog above the welfare of the little girl. The people who live on the barangay level "adopt" dogs in roughly the same way that the dogs themselves "adopt" fleas. Their purpose has always seemed undefined to me. They make noise at night - that is the only function I have seen them perform. Since they are allowed to roam freely, which is a blessing since they would certainly be killed by other dogs if they were restrained, whatever property protection they might provide is eliminated. There is never an avowed intention that the dog is to be cared for in any decent manner, i.e., fed regularly, sheltered against foul weather, and given rudimentary veterinary attention.

While it is true, as animal rights groups always claim, that you can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their animals, what it tells you is far more political than ethical. If even the minimum standards for the humane treatment of animals were enforced in the Philippines, at least half of all dog and cat owners would be cited for animal cruelty. But there is simply no way that the same standards for the treatment of animals being enforced in prosperous countries can sensibly be applied in countries whose economic status is classified as emerging."(2) Organizations like PETA or PAWS, the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, are looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. Countries with spotty human rights records cannot be held accountable for the rights of animals.

One of Charlie Chaplin's short films, A Dog's Life (1918) features a man (Charlie) and a dog leading virtually identical lives. Charlie obviously feels sympathy for "Scraps," who eats out of garbage cans and sleeps wherever she isn't chased out, because he recognizes himself in the dog. Rilke once wrote about dogs that we "help them up into a soul for which there is no heaven," but Chaplin isn't so much worried about souls when lives are in peril. Chaplin's message in A Dog's Life is clear: when the world is unfit for a dog to live in, how can it be fit for man?


(1) By "destroyed" I do not mean "euthanized." I mean killed with a sharp or a blunt instrument. There is no money provided for any kind of "humane" destruction of animals in this country, such as gassing or lethal injection, except in the higher reaches of wealth and privilege. And since human birth control is not sanctioned, except the ridiculous "natural" kind, by the Philippine government, animal birth control is not supported either.
(2) Many of those standards are long overdue for reassessment even in countries like the U.S., in which more than half a million dogs and cats have to be euthanized every year because too many pet owners will not spay or neuter their pets.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Nevers My Love

In the late 1970s, Denver was blessed with four full-time commercial art houses: the Flick in Larimer Square, which was actually twin theaters, the Esquire, the Vogue, and the Ogden. It was at the Ogden, in Capitol Hill, that I first saw Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) on a double bill with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

The Bergman film had what I thought was a quite unearned emotional impact. Directing the then 77-year-old Victor Sjostrom, whom Bergman revered, as Professor Borg left poor Ingmar unable to pull the trigger on his character. His efforts to make old Borg seem undeserving of our sympathy were overwhelmed by Bergman's obvious love for Sjostrom. The film's ending is almost laughably out of keeping with everything that comes before it. Alas, a considerable number of critics still regard it as a Bergman masterpiece.

Perhaps it was watching Resnais's film first that made Wild Strawberries seem such a come down. I must admit that I found everything about Hiroshima Mon Amour fascinating. Its unremitting seriousness was certainly part of its appeal to me. Though Resnais became somewhat stigmatized by his manner of fractionating narrative and so completely displacing temporality, it works beautifully in Hiroshima Mon Amour. And I found myself taking strong exception to the way the film was received by three critics I esteemed highly. Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and Vernon Young all argued that the film failed to hold the ground it had so boldly staked out, namely that there was common ground between the experience of the catastrophe of Hiroshima and the experience of a Frenchwoman's unhappy affair with a German soldier.

Twenty years later, having seen the film a few more times and holding firm to my conviction that Resnais had resolved the thorny problem of Marguerite Duras's apparent equation of the experiences of the man from Hiroshima and the woman from Nevers, I watched the film again with a friend who was at least as impressed with it as I had been. I found myself drawn again into Resnais's extraordinary mastery of interweaving time frames and locales, making the absolute most of Duras's fixated and obsessive dialogue. But cracks began to appear in the edifice of my admiration for the film.

At first, I tried to deny that Duras and Resnais had actually intended to equate the two people's experiences, that the drama was really about how the woman convinces the man that she is capable of understanding the suffering of Hiroshima because she, too, had known suffering. But however great her suffering (and Resnais certainly makes a case for it), the suggestion that it somehow made it easier for her to grasp, even in personal terms, what happened in Hiroshima is sheer effrontery. What if Duras had decided to write a story about the Holocaust and had told it in the terms of a love story involving a Frenchwoman (since Duras was a Frenchwoman) and a Polish Jew, set in the town of Brzezinka, aka Birkenau? Would anyone have warmed to such a film if Duras had decided to devote three-quarters of the film to the Frenchwoman's attempts to persuade the Polish Jew that she had suffered?

I still think highly of the film. Resnais had already been an accomplished documentary filmmaker when he made Hiroshima Mon Amour. He was admittedly* reluctant to make any kind of film about Hiroshima. Francoise Sagan was approached to write a treatment but she declined because she felt inadequate to the task of using Hiroshima as her subject. Duras, obviously, had no such compunctions, and her script is the weakest element of Resnais's film. The facile uplift of the film's finale, in which the two characters, by now exemplars of Hiroshima and Nevers, appear to have accepted each other's likenesses, rather than their differences, is as phony as that of Wild Strawberries, where Professor Borg appears to have made peace with his past. When peace comes at so high a price, can war have been all that bad?


*In a 1986 interview for Le Cinema des cineastes, Resnais restates his original claim that "Of course, what has to be filmed is the impossibility of filming it."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Jesus Saved

Out of deference to the god-fearing people of these islands, I often find myself having to suppress my irreligious streak simply to avoid confusion. I was not always so careful. I am, however, unapologetic about my former self. I was an asshole, but I knew it.

In 1993 0r '94, one of my first of many romantic attachments to a Filipina, by the name of Maribel,* noticed that an air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror in my car had once been an image of Christ - before, that is, I had defaced it (I would have used the word improved) by applying horns and fangs. Maribel was deeply shocked and asked me if she could have it. Assuming she wished to get rid of it for me, I said yes. She put it away in her wallet.

A week or so later, when one of her days off coincided with one of mine, I picked her up outside her boarding house. On the way to my barracks, which on Okinawa was at the end of a peninsula that had only one road in and out, Maribel opened her wallet and held out to me an air freshener. It was Jesus again, and my first thought was that she had bought me a new one. But when I looked closer at it, she pointed out how she had used nail polish to match the colors of His face and had carefully painted over the fangs and horns and the 666 she reminded me I had written on His forehead.

He was good as new, though not much good any more as an air freshener. So I thanked her and, crestfallen, put Him in the glove compartment, since I somehow knew even then that I was completely unworthy of such a thoughtful gift. Or, for that matter, of such a thoughtful girl.


*A guy in the barracks told me there was something regal about her, which was obviously such a far-fetched word for him that it stuck in my memory.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Camus and the Necessity of Unbelief


"Le monde est beau, et hors de lui, point de salut." ("The world is beautiful, and beyond it there is no salvation.") Albert Camus, L'Ete

I was first attracted to the writings of Albert Camus in my late teens. The qualities I found there were an intellectual fearlessness and a love of sensuality for its own sake. James Wood is a literary critic and the author of a novel, The Book Against God. The following essay was first published in The New Republic in its November 8, 1999 issue.


Camus and twentieth-century clarity

The Sickness Unto Life
By JAMES WOOD

I.

The tradition of atheism and agnosticism has been somewhat shallow, philosophically speaking. It has had a tendency to harden into hob-nailed anti-clericalism, or to soften into rationalist serenity. There is a veering between a rather charming optimism and a rather petty naughtiness. One thinks of the calm ironies of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, in which the heaven of the ancients is likened to no more than "the little fluff" that surrounds the cocoon of the silkworm, or of Hume mocking the idea that heaven could be large enough to contain millions of souls. For many unbelievers, it seems self-evident that religion is not our salvation, and thus hardly worth the argument. For Stendhal, to judge from his fiction, the priests are all hypocrites, and therefore religion is all hypocrisy and nonsense.

The deepest struggle with Christianity may well be bloodily intramural. Thus the fiercest objectors to Christianity are often themselves believers; their belief is doubt-intoxicated, while by contrast the atheists are merely drunk on certainty. Perhaps the most formidably skeptical book in the history of theology, Pierre Bayle's Historical and Skeptical Dictionary, appears to have been written by a Christian. It logically devastates one orthodox position after another, only to return, at the end of each entry, to its own thinly orthodox position--that Christianity is not rational, that if we were rationalists we could not possibly believe in it, and that therefore we cannot be rationalists and should simply cleave all the more strongly to our thoroughly irrational faith. One understands why there has been argument since the publication of this book in the seventeenth century over the ratio of Bayle's blasphemy to belief.

Bayle, who influenced Melville's religious torments, is hardly alone. Kierkegaard often seems to oppose the prison of Christianity with all his loathing, before masochistically deciding that one can live only within that same prison. "One must be quite literally a lunatic to become a Christian," he writes in his Journal. In Works of Love, he argues that the Christian preacher should preach "against Christianity." And that troubled believer, Dostoevsky, in the "Grand Inquisitor" section of The Brothers Karamazov, delivers a hammer-blow to the cathedral-door of orthodox faith.

To all this, Camus is a fierce exception. Although he was not of course a Christian, it is within this tradition of unstable belief that his thinking breathes its unbelief. It is in this respect that The Myth of Sisyphus constitutes an exception to the discourse of atheism and agnosticism. For Camus does not proceed as if theology can simply be killed off by philosophy or by philosophical arguments. He proceeds as if religion is best countered by a rival form of belief, the belief that one cannot, must not believe in God.

Sartre and others dismissed Camus's essay for its muddled philosophy. But The Myth of Sisyphus is not a treatise, it is a tract, a tract aimed at evacuating God, and a promise to live by the rigor of that evacuation. It is an oration, a personal statement written by a young man living in narrow exile in Paris during the bleakest early days of the Second World War. This young man offers a necessarily vulnerable summation of the little that he has so far learned: "I don't know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know this meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it."

Faced with this vulnerability, we should not mark Camus as if he were sitting a metaphysical exam, but judge his essay as a work of art. That is to say, we should judge it by the dignity of its argumentation, not by the rigor of its proofs; by the beauty of its effort, not by the conclusiveness of its attainment. In this light, it is indeed a moving and impressive work, still able to stir those readers willing to waver.


II.

Camus cannot know that God does not exist; he is determined to believe that God cannot exist. Camus opposes religious faith not with rationalism but with a negative faith of his own, a faith in negation. Often he seems to invert the processes of the religious beliefs that he criticizes. In particular, his work can seem to be a reply to Dostoevsky and to Kierkegaard, and to the battered paradox whereby those two writers acknowledge the absurdity of the universe only to embrace more strongly the scandal of belief in God. While Kierkegaard insists, in The Sickness Unto Death, that Christianity "begins" with the concept of sin, Camus insists again and again that we are innocent. While Kierkegaard argues that paganism is no more than being in a state of despair but being ignorant of it, Camus delights in paganism, and in a paganism that is not ignorant of itself but self-aware and relentlessly vigilant. While Dostoevsky proposes suicide as the only logical response to an awareness that God does not exist, Camus proposes that the person without God must not kill himself, but realize instead that he is condemned to death, and live his life saturated with that terrible knowledge. Camus proposes, in place of faith, awareness itself.

As both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky seek a world with meaning, so Camus, because of his sense that the world is "unreasonable," is thirsty for meaning. He has none of the rationalist's calm at the idea of an entirely rational universe, and none of the agnostic's serenity that it does not matter that the universe is meaningless. It matters very much to Camus, and it is the contradiction between what he calls "the human need [for meaning] and the unreasonable silence of the world" that drives him towards the position that he calls "the absurd."

He writes that Moby-Dick is a truly "absurd" novel, and like Melville he appears at times not quite able to relinquish the idea that God does not exist. At such moments, it is not so much God's absence that seems to provoke him, but God's silence. In his hunger for religious meaning, Camus sometimes resembles the Melville who complained in Pierre that "Silence is the only Voice of our God . . . how can a man get a Voice out of Silence?" And like both Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, whom Camus criticizes for their "leap" into irrational faith, Camus is forced into his own kind of leap, which is the assertion--and it is not much more than this--that we must oppose the world's meaninglessness with our revolt, our freedom, and our passion.

Camus's own leap begins in his apprehension that the world lacks providential meaning, and that therefore human beings must be meaning's providers. This is our "absurd" task. Camus feels the meaninglessness of life because he cannot believe in God, or in transcendent design, and because he sees clearly that everything he does is menaced by death. The Myth of Sisyphus is an extraordinarily death-visited book. Indeed, throughout Camus's work, and above all in The Stranger and The Plague, the very image of the human is the man condemned to death.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the "absurd man" is the man walking toward the hangman's noose who sees, in a burst of freedom just as he mounts the scaffold, a shoelace or some such triviality of life from the corner of his eye. It is understood throughout the book that death at every moment makes life a broken circuit. Reading Camus, we feel that death stands at the end of our lives as an enormous negation, the assassin of memory, a kind of official torturer telling the poor citizen: "You saw nothing, you did not experience the things you thought you experienced. You did not live. You are erased."

Little more strongly marks Camus's apparently anti-religious thought as secretly religious than his sense that death poses a metaphysical problem for life. For many rationalists or atheists, the fact that we die is not such a large problem: death is merely a dark continuation of the general meaninglessness--it is merely, as it were, the even smaller print to the already small print of life. Death only becomes a problem for those religious believers who see life as something more than material existence, which is why Christians must announce that death has been conquered by Christ.
Inverting this, Camus tells us that death conquers us. He believes death is a problem because he works within the essentially religious apprehension that life, if it is to have have meaning, must in some way be extended. The religionist has a solution to this, of course, and locates that extension in heaven, in eternal life. Camus's secular solution lies in an extension of life in life itself, a kind of aeration of life. Camus eventually finds the figure of this extension, for better or worse, in the idea of repetition, and especially in Sisyphus's repeated task of rolling his rock up the hill. But this is really a figurative or metaphorical extension, something a little like the idea of repeated curtain calls, or of adding extra songs to a concert; and indeed, Camus announces that the absurd person must concentrate on a greater quantity of experiences, not on a greater quality: more life, not purer life. Camus cannot evade death; instead he will (in both senses of the word) entertain death, and keep it busy.

Aware that life is futile, Camus feels himself a stranger to it. He wrote The Myth of Sisyphus and The Stranger almost simultaneously, in the late 1930s and in the first few months of 1940, finishing the essay in Paris, far from his native Algeria. Exile and estrangement, though used a little loosely by Camus, are imbued with metaphysical resonance. Camus describes himself as awakened to the absurdity of life, for "in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity."

The biographical hint--the young Frenchman from Algeria condemned to an uneasy life in Paris--is there, of course, in this language of exile. Yet Camus rings meaning from these words so that they become a metaphorical fluid in which his enquiry can swim. The stranger or the exile is absurd, painfully awake to the impossibility of reconciling himself to his situation. He cannot return to the homeland, to the Eden of consolation. Camus finds fault with the Christianity of Kierkegaard and the existentialism of Jaspers because, in ultimately deciding to find rational "a world [they] originally imagined as devoid of any guiding principle," they fall prey to "the spirit of nostalgia." Husserl, too, proposes an abstract "leap" that Camus refuses, because it m eans "forgetting just what I do not want to forget": the unreasonableness of the world.

So Camus refuses nostalgia, though he admits to living under its shadow: "It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together." He admits freely enough to "my appetite for the absolute and for unity." The "contradiction" between that appetite and its disappointment constitutes the absurd. The absurd person, then, cannot leap into any kind of faith or belief, because this is a leap into forgetting; but Sisypheanism is a most vigilant remembering of exile, a permanent remembering.

Sisypheanism is refusing to forget where one is from (Eden), where one toils (exile), and where one is headed (death). The pain of the absurdity, as Camus seems to suggest, is that one can admit to the spirit of nostalgia but one cannot enact it. Camus can dream of his lost country, but he cannot return to it. In other words, he is not a nostalgic so much as an elegist; in a sense, The Myth of Sisyphus is an elegy for belief.

III.

The Myth of Sisyphus proposes to substitute a tragedy of repetition for the ordinary, unwitting comedy of repetition. The absurd person is someone who has seen through the ridiculous repetitions of daily life, the gray routine and the stifling calendar of existence: "Rising, tram, four hours in the office or factory, meal, tram, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm--this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the `why' arises [le `pourquoi' s'eleve] and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement." Suddenly, the absurd person sees through this routine, and "the chain of daily gestures is broken." Now everything begins to seem pointless and comical: "At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime make silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him but you see his incomprehensible dumb-show: you wonder why he is alive."

Henri Bergson, in his essay on comedy, offers one definition of the comic as watching a room full of dancers but with one's own ears stopped so that one cannot hear the music. Bergson also finds a strand of comedy in the idea of the human turned into a machine, and in the idea of repetition, of repeated meaningless actions. Both Bergson and Camus, then, find in modern industrial society an emblem of the comic. Camus, of course, is concerned not merely to laugh, but to find some kind of solution, outside the religious, to this comic-uncomic "chain of daily gestures." One cannot escape this comedy, but one can at least metaphysicalize it, and see it in its largest universal dimension, and then resist it, fight it with Pyrrhic integrity.

The first step is to turn the comic into the absurd, to convert futile daily repetition into eternal Sisyphean repetition. The comic becomes the absurd precisely when we are made to see its comedy: the absurd is, in part, the awareness that life is a comic dumbshow. Then the absurd person must begin the long, always repeated struggle against the terms of that dumb-show. This is a fight that is never over, that lasts exactly the duration of a life, that is indeed a life--which is why the absurd person cannot commit suicide. And because it is a chain of repetitions, the absurd life may be hardly discernible as different from ordinarily comic daily routine. Formally, it may not look very different. Presumably, the absurd person may go to work, and stand in the subway with everyone else. Internally, of course, the absurd life is entirely different, because the absurd person knows the difference between ignorant routine and rebellious repetition.

It is this moment at which the comedy of repetition turns into something like tragic repetition, what Rieux in The Plague calls "a never-ending defeat." The absurd person is fighting the terms of existence, the sentence handed down by non-existent gods: "If I see a man armed only with a sword attack a group of machine-guns, I shall consider his act to be absurd." (One sees why Camus considered Moby-Dick an absurd novel.) The absurd spirit might be said to be tragic stoicism: "Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage." This struggle "implies a total absence of hope (which has nothing to do with despair), a continual rejection (which must not be confused with renunciation), and a continuous dissatisfaction (which must not be compared to immature unrest) . . . The absurd has meaning only in so far as it is not agreed to." And so Camus rises to his stubborn declaration: "I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone." He continues: "the absurd is sin without God. It is a matter of living in that state of the absurd."

Why is the absurd "sin without God"? Again, we see how Camus inverts all religious categories, in the process converting them out of their baleful literalism and into the metaphorical. The absurd is like living sinfully because Camus means that, like sin, we cannot escape it: it is a kind of original sin but without the origin, which would be God. It is the sentence passed on us by life. (Here one feels the inevitable shadow of Augustine, the great proponent of original sin, on whom Camus wrote a thesis. And, indeed, throughout his life, Camus may have been "answering" Augustine more systematically than perhaps he knew. For in place of Augustine's asceticism, Camus proposed pagan sunlight, in place of Augustine's sex-recoil, Camus proposed--and enacted--the role of the seducer.) For if it were passed by God it would become a religious problem. Yet Camus is not like one of those rationalists who believes that once God is removed from the picture, metaphysical problems disappear. Quite the contrary. Camus believes that once God is removed, our religious problems end, but our metaphysical problems begin.

They begin with death. Yet Camus's answer to death is more active than the notion of stoicism perhaps suggests. There is no resignation involved; always an endless signing-on to new tasks. Obviously, says Camus, the absurd person cannot commit suicide. For suicide, "like the leap [of religious faith], is acceptance at its extreme. Everything is over and man returns to his essential history." To kill oneself is to allow both life and death to have had dominion over one. Determining to live in the absurd, on the other hand, is "simultaneously awareness and rejection of death."

So the absurd man begins the battle. What does he do? Here, Camus's argument is somewhat vulnerable. For it is here, if his proposals are to be usable, that Camus must reconvert his struggling metaphors--and what is Sispypheanism but a furious metaphor?-- into the literalism of actual struggles, as actual people might live them. It is merely metaphorical (or rhetorical) to speak of fighting the terms of the absurd with "my revolt, my freedom and my passion." But Camus--and it is part of his appeal as a writer--wants to be more local than this, more practical than the merely metaphorical. He would like to suggest a number of possible absurd roles or lives.

He proposes "the seducer," "the actor," "the conqueror" (who is always engaged in "a campaign in which he is defeated in advance"), and "the writer." These, says Camus, are examples of people who live many roles, and who, in living so much, flourish a pagan provisionality in the face of the narrow absurd. In other words, these people are rebelliously alive, and in being so, they defy the absurd. For the absurd man must substitute "the quantity of experiences for the quality . . . What counts is not the best living but the most living."

The suspicion is stirred in the reader that although Camus is writing as if he has forsaken the figurative and rhetorical for the literal and usable, he is merely applying the figurative and the rhetorical to actual lives. Indeed, what he seems to like about the roles he has chosen is that they involve acting, they involve an inhabiting of the metaphorical, a dressing-up in likenesses of various kinds. And one notices that as soon as Camus describes the strategies of these lives of rebellion, he merely repeats the large exhortations of the earlier theoretical passages. The seducer, the conqueror, the actor and the writer are symbolic figures, on which to hang symbolic possibilities of revolt. (They also seem, as models, painfully limited by their epoch: decidedly French masculine ideals in a time of war.)

Though Camus would not admit it, he can counter the terms of the absurd only with a leap of his own, a leap into negative faith. "Being aware of one's life, one's revolt, one's freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum." Camus's leap may perhaps not at first resemble one, and this is partly because he so widens the terms of what constitutes "revolt" that his leap may involve nothing more than simply remaining alive, simply refraining from killing oneself. Where Kierkegaard demands a fierce and fateful choosing of God, where Dostoevsky demands a grotesque paradoxical decision to see the horror of the world and then to use it as what Camus scornfully calls a "tremplin d'eternite," a springboard to eternity, Camus tells us, in effect, that we cannot avoid the leap unless we kill ourselves. Camus does not quite say anything as simple as "We can only choose life," but that is the brunt of his assertion.

And in the end, this, too, is only a religious assertion, a determination, a faith. Camus proves nothing. Nor is he necessarily right, even within the terms of atheism. Perhaps Camus is right that to kill oneself would be to allow death to have dominion, and that to live rebelliously is to both be aware of and to reject death. But these are the essentially religious terms--or the shadows of religious terms--that Camus has himself inherited and adapted. One can imagine another atheistic argument for rebellion that also advocated suicide: Kirilov, in The Possessed, believes that only when we all have the courage to kill ourselves, will we be free. Or one can imagine another argument that did not involve rebellion but a certain kind of resignation: the Czech novelist Karel Capek liked to say that "a short life is better for mankind, for a long life would deprive man of his optimism." In other words, in place of Camus's mixture of tragic stoicism and pagan revolt, there might exist a more simply tragic vision (as in Sophocles and King Lear), or a more blandly stoical acceptance (as in Epicurus and Lucretius).

The difficulty of Camus's proposal for rebellion is that at times he seems merely to be describing life itself, which is tautological. And if he is only describing life itself, he is also describing it metaphorically, at a remove--as an endless campaign of defeats, a choosing between roles, a vigilance, living like the condemned man and so on. These images are powerfully worked in his fiction, and perhaps fiction is where they most happily breathe: one remembers the image of Grand in The Plague, writing again and again the first sentence of his novel. But The Myth of Sisyphus is not a novel, and there is a danger that when Camus comes to tell us how we can live with the absurd, he can do no more than tell us to do what we already do (which is live)--but tell us to live figuratively, to live as if.

Nothing is more obviously an example of this figurative tendency than his choice of Sisyphus as the ultimately absurd man. Sisyphus is condemned to roll his rock up a hill, so that it can roll back down. Then Sisyphus's task begins again. Here is the emblem of the absurd, says Camus, of our repeated struggle against the obscure terms of our existence. But, adds Camus, there may be a moment when Sisyphus is walking back down the hill when he is briefly free, when he is "superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock." Sisyphus, then, is both prisoner and rebel.

This is moving, and Camus writes with great delicacy at the end of his essay. But it is movingly useless. What moves us, in part, is the spectacle of Camus's belief; what moves us is that Camus's emblem of the absurd is so hopelessly metaphorical, but that Camus believes in him so fiercely, and so sympathetically describes his fate and his revolt, that Sisyphus appears to be real to Camus, and becomes almost actual for us. This is the quality of Camus's thought, and it is why he is such a powerful novelist: he takes religious terms, turns them into secular metaphor, and then, by dint of his sympathetic concentration on them, appears to reconvert them back into an unmetaphorical, usable reality. What he does, in fact, is act as if they were real while using them metaphorically. We are reminded that his essay is not philosophy at all, but a kind of storytelling.

Sisyphus is not only a metaphorical answer to the terms of the absurd, but also a religious one. Camus had perhaps read Kierkegaard's essay Repetition, in which Kierkegaard describes the various ways in which the pleasure we take in life is menaced by repetition. We fall in love, for instance, but then repetition takes over, and kills the originality and novelty of our experience. Characteristically, Kierkegaard concludes, somewhat arbitrarily, by asserting that the only way to outwit ordinary repetition is by making it religious, and by seeing repetition as the truly religious way of life. Repetition, writes Kierkegaard, is "a religious movement by virtue of the absurd." The final repetition, of course, is eternity itself, in which heavenly existence repeats itself endlessly. Kierkegaard's proposal is the absolute opposite of Camus's.

Camus makes no mention of Kierkegaard's essay, but he was of course familiar with the notion of eternity as a kind of repetition-without-repetition. The Christian wants religiously to extend life, and finds this extension, as I mentioned earlier, in heaven, in its repetition without end. Camus wants to extend life on earth, and can do this really only by inflating a metaphor, an emblem. This is not necessarily a weak inversion if, as the atheist thinks, the Christian heaven has only ever been a metaphorical emblem anyway. Seen in this light, Camus offers his secular metaphorical extension for the Christian metaphorical extension, his secular repetition for Kierkegaard's eternal repetition. He offers Sisyphus's hell for the believer's heaven. Earlier in his essay he writes that "the present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man." This is Camus's eternity: an endless repetition of presents. And since, unlike the literalist Christian vision, we die and are cancelled--since heaven does not exist--Camus can make this repetition endless (or eternal) only with the help of the flexibility of artistic metaphor. For life is short, but art is long, especially the art of metaphor.

So is Camus's rebellion only metaphorical and not actual? Perhaps not. His own conduct in the war suggests otherwise. And four years after Camus finished his essay, Primo Levi faced an intolerable temptation in a concentration camp. It was a temptation to pray, and Levi, vigilant and lucid as perhaps Camus could not have imagined or feared, resisted the temptation. He gives an account of the episode in The Drowned and the Saved. Instinct with Camus's language of lucidity and absurdity, it is an extraordinarily "rebellious" passage of secular writing:



I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated
and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its
frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still
prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice .
. . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the
temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of
1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death.
Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the "commission" that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Some Friends - From a Distance

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. -Genesis 32:24-26


One of the sadder consequences of the internet is that the better part of an entire generation will probably never write a letter. Now they only send and receive email, without ever having to add their signatures. Handwriting - the ability to write legibly or even elegantly with pen and paper - is being abandoned. Nobody bothers any more about the notion that a handwritten letter is a personal creation passed from one hand to another. Now such personal contact is deemed unnecessary or even unsanitary.

Since I left the States, probably the last thing I expected was finding - or being found by - old friends. And yet three people put forth the effort necessary, two of them on the internet and one by telephone, to locate me - without, of course, expecting to find me here in the Philippines. I had not seen or heard from two of them in fourteen years. It was not exactly as miraculous or moving a reunion as it might have been if we had bumped into one another in the street somewhere, but it was just as good to have them back.

Coincidentally, I seem to have been lost, purposely or neglectfully, by several other friends. And two of the ones who found me last year have since drifted away. I still have the means to communicate with them, which is better than nothing, I suppose. But their willingness to reach back has somehow evaporated into extremely thin and inhospitable air - the same dead air one might hear on the other end of a telephone line when the person one has called puts down the phone to fetch something . . . and never returns. For some people, it seems, even the internet is too far to go after a change of heart or of mind. Too much water under the bridge, or over the dam, or just the ocean of water between us.

Somewhere Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that "nothing can be loved unless it is first known." I used to think that Leonardo, being an invert, had got it backwards, that nothing can be known unless it is loved. Now I know that there are few things more irreconcilable than love and knowledge. But it is a beautiful thought - and perhaps all the more beautiful for being so untrue.

At the end of his book, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton-Paterson takes his leave by ship:


"The departure of a ship is slow, celebratory, mournful. It gives time to think and the proper space in which to let fall one's lesser salt into the greater below. Something of moment is happening, part of whose subtext is a fear or resentment of the sea as the agent of long absences, slow letters and terrible news. Whoever they are, down at the docks one windy afternoon - friends, lovers, siblings - they are already separated. There are those on the quay and those already on board, though both are watching. The ship is about to sail. Gangways are lowered, ropes cast off. Heavy nooses splash into the slot of oily scum between truck tire fenders and iron cliff. Cries go up. The siren's blare, of such low frequency it shakes the stomach and jars loose fresh tears, sounds once, twice. Yet an illusion of unparting is preserved by the streamers, cheerful strips of paper sagging and twirling between the thousand pairs of widely separated hands.

"Over the whole scene hovers loss looking for somewhere to settle. Is it in the already spoken good-bye? In the last touch of bodies? In the cries of the gulls? Or does it now pulse along that thin paper nerve? It parts; they part. Yet still they remain visible to each other while loss fills up the space opening between them, stretching out between ship and shore, between hull and headland, dot and smudge, before spreading across the face of the globe.

"Travel is like death in that it requires mourning. The light melancholy of watching a coastline recede is a necessary observance. The caves sucked into the water's surface by the turning of invisible propellers - each subtly different, each marbling a dissipating track which stretches back, an elastic streamer - becomes hypnotic. They set us adrift on inward voyages where we barely have enough sarcastic energy left to stop ourselves seeing our frail barks upon the vasty deep as paradigmatic. Behind us the ocean is crisscrossed with thousands upon thousands of multicolored streamers, a planet festooned with farewells."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Michael Clayton

"And then I realize, 'No, no, no, this is completely wrong,' because I looked back at the building and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I realized, Michael, that I had emerged, not through the doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison , the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity." - Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens



What is it about the legal profession that makes it such a favored target in popular fiction and film? Every few months, it seems, another trial of the century ends either with a bang when some rich and powerful defendant is acquitted, or with a whimper when he is handed a light sentence like probation or community service.*

In either outcome, the lawyers who defend or prosecute get most of the blame for what is generally believed to be a broken justice system. Why this is so, when it is juries and judges, and not lawyers, who hand down judgements, is difficult to comprehend. When a lawyer is tasked with the defense or prosecution of a case, it is his sworn duty to do whatever he can, within the limits of jurisprudence, to win the case. To do otherwise could not only endanger his reputation but shorten his career as a lawyer.

Whatever it may be that so many people dislike about lawyers, it is regularly reinforced by Hollywood, which has a bad habit of indulging people's prejudices. The 2007 film, Michael Clayton, while it is certainly cleverly constructed and executed, is no exception to the popular rule that lawyers are the devil's advocates - or, in this case, advocates of U/North, a corporation that manufactures a weed killer that poisons small-time farmers. The film's titular hero, played with self-effacing charm by George Clooney, is, in his own words, his firm's "bag man" or "janitor," whose considerable skills at cleaning up legal messes are called upon when a colleague, Arthur Edens, takes leave of his senses - and his clothes - during a recorded deposition in Milwaukee. Arthur, who has had such breakdowns before, tells Michael that he has had enough of defending U/North against a $3 billion class action suit. What he fails to tell Michael is that he also intends to leak a confidential study that incriminates U/North in the farmers' deaths.

To make sure that Michael gets Arthur under control, U/North sends in their lead counsel, Karen Crowder, who takes matters into her own hands by contacting a pair of assassins to take care of Arthur. The way they go about tracking him down, watching his every move and then, at Karen Crowder's signal, killing him is easily one of the most chilling film sequences I have ever seen.

Michael is such a successfully imagined character, with his young son from a failed marriage, his father a retired cop and his brother a police detective, and another brother relapsing in his drug addiction and forcing Michael to sell the bar on which they had gone into together, that it is a shame that the film had to resort to the star lawyer who has an ethical meltdown and the corporate lawyer who makes decisions that crush people but who has panic attacks when she is alone. It helps that both of these roles are played by outstanding actors: Tom Wilkinson as Arthur and Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder.

Some of the dialogue is brilliant. It shows just how much Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed the film, cares about the people he has created. Gabe, who has handled the loan for Michael's failed business, talks to him about his brother Timmy's drug problems: "I had a wife who was a drunk. She was a beautiful girl, young girl. But live like that? Even they do a program. She did, I think, once, two years. And then they slip? Forget it. It's like you're strapped to a bomb."

Or when Michael reassures his son that he not like his uncle Timmy: "Your Uncle Timmy, and I mean this, on his best day, is never as tough as you. I'm not talking about crying or the drugs or anything. I'm talking about in his heart. You understand me? And all his charming bullshit, this Big Tim, Uncle, Boss bullshit, and I know you love him, and I know why. But when you see him like that you don't have to worry. That's not how it'll be for you. You're not gonna be someone that goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky around them. I know that. I know it. Okay? I see it every time I look at you. I see it right now. I don't know where you got it from, but you got it."

Gilroy has done nothing to prepare us for the serene beauty of certain scenes in Michael Clayton. People point to the slick efficacy of his scripts for the Bourne movies like they are anything more than assured commercial work. Despite the problems with the Arthur Edens and Karen Crowder characters, which supply the film with its melodramatic conflict, Gilroy manages to make us wonder at what it could be that causes a 45-year-old disenchanted lawyer to make a wrong turn at dawn on a cold country road, and get out of his company car to walk a hundred yards up a hill to get close to three beautiful horses.


*Football legend Jim Brown, convicted of trashing his wife's car, expressed his contempt for court-ordered community service by choosing to serve 40 days in jail instead.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Luck of the Irish

If we could make chains with the morning dew
The world would be like Galway Bay
Let's walk over rainbows like leprechauns
The world would be one big Blarney stone.
-John Lennon, "The Luck of the Irish"

When a movie becomes associated with a particular holiday, it is doomed. Who wants to watch Miracle on 34th Street (1947) in July? Of course, many films are only bearable because they are only shown on holidays, like The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) or It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The Quiet Man (1952), a John Wayne movie set in Ireland, which is unbearable even on the single occasion, St. Patrick's Day, when it is shown all across America, is like a time capsule of Irish cliches, and it is too bad that it cannot be cemented into the foundations of a building under construction so that some unsuspecting future generation can puzzle over its appeal when the building is torn down.

A much less offensive film, The Luck of the Irish (1948), should be the one that is universally aired on American TV on Match 17. Even if it, too, is presents a disfigured and sometimes grotesque picture of the Irish. But I would take Anne Baxter over Maureen O'Hara any day of the week, even if Baxter is no more Irish than the backfield of the Notre Dame "Fighting Irish."

Tyrone Power plays Steven Fitzgerald, an American journalist who loses his way in the Irish countryside, where the location shots fit in nicely with those of the studio back lot, sees a shoemaker with a green coat and brass buttons, played by the cherubic Cecil Kellaway, beside a waterfall, and spends the night at an inn where he is assured by the inn's keeper that what there was no waterfall where he said it was and that the little man was a leprechaun, and that if you manage to catch one of them you must make him give you his "pot of gold." (By now we have been introduced to the innkeeper's daughter, Nora [Baxter]). Later that night, "Fitz" as everyone calls him,(1) goes back downstairs to fetch his pipe when he sees the innkeeper leave a bottle and a glass on his stoop. When Fitz sees out the window the same little man he saw by the waterfall take the bottle, he runs after him into the woods and manages to tackle him. Only kidding, Fitz demands that he be given his pot of gold, whereupon he produces a shovel and digs it up. Of course, only Tyrone Power would fail to realize that the little man is really a leprechaun, and, not wanting to take the little man's life's savings, he gives it back to him. Whereupon the little man swears to him his lifelong loyalty and gives him one gold coin as a keepsake.

So the story begins - written by Philip Dunne, who had a knack for this sort of thing (he also wrote How Green Was My Valley (1941) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). The Luck of the Irish, which everyone should know is an ironic saying, is whimsical enough and charming enough to make up for what it lacks in originality, not to mention credibility. There is an altogether unsettling moment that you should look for. When Fitz's manservant in New York, who is none other than the leprechaun disguised as a manservant, says goodbye to him and goes into the kitchen of his ultra-chic New York penthouse apartment, Fitz follows him, only to find there's no one in the kitchen. Fitz stands there, peering into the empty kitchen, with a sorry look on his face. He leaves and, for some reason, comes back to look again. This quiet moment more than makes up for the blarney of the rest.

And here I sit, on the other side of the world from Ireland, where leprechauns were probably hunted to extinction centuries ago.


(1) A bit of Irish trivia: Fitz is a corruption of the French word for son - "fis." When the Normans invaded Ireland, the French knights produced such a number of illegitimate children that their Irish mothers took to calling them "Son of Gerald" or "Fitzgerald" (or "Fitzsimon" or "Fitzgibbon," etc.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Belle


[One of the first articles I published at Senses of Cinema, too old to revise. The film is still unavailable for home viewing.]

Andre Delvaux's Belle (1973)

Recently, having seen Visconti's The Leopard (1963) after a thirty-seven year interval, Stanley Kauffmann expressed shock that his opinion of the film could have changed so drastically. How could he find so much to disparage in 1963 that he now found excusable, even laudable? He speculated that criticism is inherently "diaristic," that even when we attempt to apply Olympian ideals to any given work at hand, we are actually being far more subjective than we think. Rather like grocery shopping on an empty stomach, we are directed by the contents of our guts as much as our heads when we attempt to form even the most abstract judgments.

With this in mind, I present to you my shamelessly subjective reclamation of a film that is as good as lost. I can just hear it, crying out to me from the vault in which it rots. How or why on earth I happened to see it one evening twenty-two years ago at an Alliance Francaise screening in Denver is another of film-going's great mysteries. In those days, long before video, catching a film as it was passed around from theater to auditorium to classroom projection was, as Truffaut remarked in La Nuit Americaine, like seeing a train in the night: if you aren't there to see it pass by, how can you tell that it was there at all? It is no accident that film is an event that transpires in the dark.

After delivering a lecture at a poetry society meeting in backwoods Belgium, Mathieu Gregoire, a happily married archivist, takes the scenic route home one impenetrable night through the primeval Walloon Fagnard forest. In the darkest, deepest part of the forest he hits a large dog with his Volvo, but discovers he hasn't killed it. He returns the next day with a shotgun but cannot find the animal. He hears a whine from the nearby woods and discovers that the dog is alive, but mortally wounded. Following at a safe distance, he tracks the poor dog to a ruined farmhouse. There he encounters a beautiful but strangely mute young woman who is presumably the dog's owner. To reassure her, he lays his shotgun aside and follows her around the farmhouse. Just as he realizes she has backtracked him, he hears a shotgun blast from the other side of the house. He hurries back only to find the woman standing over the dog she has just mercifully killed. Sobbing, she hurls the gun at Mathieu and rushes inside. Mathieu walks back to his Volvo and drives home.

Thus begins Andre Delvaux's 1973 film Belle. It has infiltrated my dreams, both sleeping and waking, rather as Mathieu was ensnared by his strange Beauty. Jean-Luc Bideau, who would make a career playing schlemiels, plays Mathieu Gregoire, the role of his life. Daniele Delorme plays his long-suffering wife, Jeanne. Adriana Bogdan plays the enigmatic woman whom Mathieu christens "Belle." Ghislain Cloquet, himself a Belgian, who photographed Bresson's Balthazar, Mouchette, and Une Femme Douce, gives the locations precisely the brooding mystery Delvaux required. And Frederic Devreese wrote the appropriately haunting score. The film was nominated at Cannes for 1973's Palme d'Or. It lost to Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow and Alan Bridges's The Hireling, neither of which were nearly as compelling or original.[*] But then, Cannes is no more infallible than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (do I hear a drum roll?).

Mathieu returns home. He tells no one of his encounter with the strange woman. He goes back to his studious but airless life in the archives of a provincial town, cataloging several centuries of births, marriages and deaths. Days later, he goes back to the farmhouse in the woods only to discover the mysterious woman lying in an upstairs room deliriously ill. He recklessly rushes back into town and returns with medicine and food. She recovers. Emboldened by his restorative powers, Mathieu teaches her his name and, realizing she doesn't comprehend him, he calls her "Belle."

Over the next several weeks, Mathieu finds excuses to be away from home and work. Before long he doesn't even excuse himself, but his disappearances become the subject of curiosity rather than suspicion. After all, where would someone like Mathieu find the requisite passion for anything so outlandish as infidelity? And with whom?

Mathieu's daughter is soon to marry a hippie-ish lout whom he disapproves of. Jeanne, his lovely, loving wife senses something has disturbed the stolid contentedness of her husband. In one scene, a friend asks Jeanne to play something on the piano. She begins to play a stately piece, when she happens to notice, across the room, how Mathieu is staring rapturously into space, lost in his secrets. On the soundtrack, at the moment when Jeanne looks at Mathieu, the piano music is joined by a disembodied soprano vocalise, passionately repeating the tentative notes Jeanne had played.

Fissures begin to appear in Mathieu's scrupulously average façade. His lectures in 17th-century French poetry become more passionate and demonstrative. He quotes from the incandescent love sonnets of Louise Labe and Maurice Sceve with a startling but unaccountable urgency. His audiences - mostly the usual provincial types - become indignant with his near-pornographic recitations. He attempts to confide in a colleague, Victor, only to discover that he is merely a pervert.

Amid his domestic and professional struggles, Mathieu discovers that a swarthy foreign man has suddenly joined Belle in their idyllic love-nest. And Belle has apparently told him everything about Mathieu. He makes trouble for Mathieu, even "borrowing" his Volvo for a spin through town. Not about to submit to a ménage a trois, Mathieu quickly resolves that this hairy interloper must go. With Belle's collusion, he shoots him with the same shotgun used on the wounded dog. Mathieu musters the courage to pull the trigger at the decisive moment, but he can't figure out what to do next. Belle strides forward, throws a tarp over the body and screams "Volvo!" Together, they dump the body down one of the many bogs nearby.

Back home, his daughter marries, and Mathieu sees her off at the train station for her honeymoon. Aloof throughout the ceremony, Mathieu suddenly embraces her and flees. He impetuously drives back to the farmhouse only to discover that Belle has disappeared. With events closing in on him, he drives toward town and is shocked when he realizes that the local gendarme is following him. But rather than confess to a broken taillight when pulled over, Mathieu confesses to murder. He leads the police to the hole in which the body had been dumped, but all the poor deputy can dredge out is the carcass of a dog. Distracted, Mathieu thinks he may have confused one hole with another, and one carcass with another, consoling himself with the promise that by Spring, with the thaw, the truth will reveal itself and Belle will return. The film closes with Mathieu standing on the brink of the hole ["un trou" rather than "le trou"], totally lost at the impasse where his apprehensions and delusions have led him.
Was it a set-up? Was Mathieu the ultimate dupe of the foreign woman and her foreign man? Or was it all a dream that Mathieu had last night?

In a cultural context, Delvaux had created a work entirely congruent with the concerns of two of Belgium's greatest dramatists, Maeterlinck and Ghelderode: the juxtaposition of the medieval with the modern, the dressing up of primeval concerns in modern dress - the pursuit of a mysterious woman by a schlemiel in a Volvo.

All this said, with allowances made for a faulty memory, I must admit that little in the way of motivation was offered by Delvaux for Mathieu's surreptitious double life. Jeanne was patently lovely and in love with her husband. His daughter may have been a trifle flaky, but the man she married, while unkempt, was far from what one might consider a bad choice. And the life of an archivist in provincial Belgium must have had its own rewards, what with local records going back to feudal times.

Then why did Mathieu succumb so quickly to the dubious yet pulchritudinous attractions of this unwashed foreign Beauty? And why did it become such an overpowering escape for him? The surrealist Amour fou explanation of the irrational male attraction to a beautiful yet speechless woman is insufficient. Mathieu was already married to a beautiful and articulate woman who obviously loved him. There is always the entomological explanation - the male who mates with the female within her lair only to be eaten by her. And yet men and women are somewhat more sophisticated in their matings.

And yet. And yet. Such are the doubts that a jealous memory sometimes elicits. The characters in a film, unlike those on stage, always seem to have lives that came before and that continue after the film has ended. We cannot leave poor Mathieu, as Andre Delvaux - or Belle - did, standing on the brink of a frozen bog, anticipating what the Spring might reveal of his faithlessness.

September 2000

*[2009 Note: In fairness, The Hireling is a superb film.]

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Young Frankenstein: The True Story

In early 1975, I was winding down what would be my last year of high school at Columbia High, a few blocks from Main Street in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. Like Atlanta before it, Columbia had been burned by Sherman's army on its march to the sea. If you had asked me at the time, I would have suggested that Sherman should have done a more thorough job.

When Young Frankenstein opened at the Miracle Theater on Main Street, my brother and I went to a Saturday matinee showing. We had seen Blazing Saddles the year before, so we knew what to expect from a Mel Brooks film. Over the next several weeks, we saw Young Frankenstein more than a dozen times. On one of those occasions I even smuggled a cassette recorder into the theater, sat way down front and got the whole thing on tape.

I cannot explain what it was about this particular movie that captured my imagination. Whatever it was, going to see it so many times and listening to the tape until I could recite the dialogue verbatim was soon no longer enough for my brother and me. We came up with the idea of writing directly to Mel Brooks, care of United Artists, of my representing myself as the president of my high school drama club and explaining how much the club wanted to perform Young Frankenstein on stage.(1) Whatever we may have expected in reply, my brother and I certainly did not expect what arrived at our address a few weeks later.

Two packages arrived from Los Angeles, California: one of them was a tube that contained a full-sized movie poster of Young Frankenstein and the other was a manila envelope containing a short letter with United Artists letterhead signed by Mel Brooks, five 8X10 glossy photographs of Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Marty Feldman and Brooks, and a shooting script of the film, signed "Good luck! Mel Brooks".


Aside from the slight embarrassment at having misrepresented ourselves to such a famous man obviously generous enough to take the time and go to the trouble of sending two kids such a invaluable gift, my brother and I were ecstatic. We went to see the movie a few last times before it closed, feeling somewhat obliged to contribute to its box-office success. Then we used the tape I had made to match the scenes in the movie with the shooting script. We quickly discovered that there were many scenes in the script that had apparently been cut from the finished film. For example, there was an early scene in the shooting script that takes place in a lawyer's office where the will of Victor Frankenstein is read, and where pandemonium breaks out when everyone assembled there learns that the old man left everything to his grandson, Frederick. This scene is not in the film. In fact, the only thing close to it shows someone having to yank the will out of a dead man's shrivelled hands.

Along with these inconsistencies between the script and the film, we learned something about how scripts are written, with terms like "SCENE 25. EXT. DAY". Using the script as a model, my brother and I typed a second script that contained only those scenes in the film so I could follow the recording with the revised script in front of me.

But we also learned that a script can only give one the vaguest idea of what a film will look like when it is finished, and why it is also called a screenplay, since it consists almost entirely of dialogue and non-specific technical directions. It could have been adapted easily to the stage, if my brother and I had actually been associated with a drama club. But our association with Young Frankenstein went no further.

Later that year, my family picked up sticks and we all moved to Colorado. Since I had "failed to advance" at Columbia High, I talked my mother into letting me drop out rather than have to repeat the tenth grade. Making the Dean's List twice in my first year of college a year later gave me the sneaking suspicion that high school was a complete waste of time. My brother, three years older than I, had taken possession of our Young Frankenstein material and had gone his own way. When I asked him some time later what became of it, he broke the news that he had lost it when he was in a tight spot. Since it was a time of tight spots for a few other members of my family, I was not entirely surprised, however much I was sorry that the proof of our brief association with Mel Brooks was lost.


(1) Columbia High was a zoo and I do not believe there was any such thing as a drama club.

Friday, March 6, 2009

My Gun is Long

I got this in an email from my old Navy buddy:


"Those who hammer their guns into plows will plow for those who do not."
-Thomas Jefferson

FIREARMS REFRESHER COURSE

1. An armed man is a citizen. An Unarmed man is a subject.

2. A gun in the hand is better than a cop on the phone.

3. Colt: The original point and click interface.

4. Gun control is not about guns; it's about control.

5. If guns are outlawed, can we use swords?

6. If guns cause crime, then pencils cause misspelled words.

7. Free men do not ask permission to bear arms.

8. If you don't know your rights, you don't have any.

9. Those who trade liberty for security have neither.

10. The United States Constitution (c) 1791. All Rights Reserved.

11. What part of 'shall not be infringed' do you not understand?

12. The Second Amendment is in place in case the politicians ignore the others.

13. 64,999,987 firearms owners killed no one yesterday.

14. Guns only have two enemies: rust and politicians.

15. Know guns, know peace, know safety. No guns, no peace, no safety.

16. You don't shoot to kill; you shoot to stay alive.

17. 911: Government-sponsored Dial-a-Prayer.

18. Assault is a behavior, not a device.

19. Criminals love gun control. It makes their jobs safer.

20. If guns cause crime, then matches cause arson.

21. Only a government that is afraid of its citizens tries to control them.

22. You have only the rights you are willing to fight for.

23. Enforce the gun control laws we ALREADY have. Don't make more.

24. When you remove the people's right to bear arms, you create slaves.

25. The American Revolution would never have happened with gun control.

IF YOU AGREE, PASS THIS 'REFRESHER' ON TO TEN FREE CITIZENS.


My buddy stated that he agreed with most of these articles, but didn't specify which. I agree with numbers 8 and 9. How did number 9 get in there? It contradicts nearly all the other articles. I did not pass the email on to anyone.


The right to bear arms is one of the oldest concepts of liberty. As soon as the first tyrant told his subjects a few thousand years ago to turn in all their swords, their knives and their bows and arrows, depriving them of their power of self-defense, the free possession of arms became a prominent item on the ever-expanding list of fundamental human rights.

Since the invention of the automatic gun, which gave a single individual the firepower of several people, the right to bear arms has had to be restricted. The reasons are understandable, whether or not one accepts them: it threatens law enforcement's ability to protect itself from the public, which is a perilous position for law enforcement to be in. The freedom of the public to possess firearms of any specification has always been problematic to law enforcement. Proponents of gun ownership claim that firearms somehow ensure their safety and keep their government honest.

A gun is not a precision instrument. It does not require special skills to operate one, and proper training in its handling is not a requirement for ownership. All that is required is that its owner register the gun's serial number with a law-enforcement agency. This makes the gun traceable if it should happen to be stolen from its rightful owner. It is not as if the gun's registration somehow creates a chain of custody, like a piece of registered mail. It simply gives law enforcement an idea, however imperfect, of the dimensions of the black-market in stolen guns, which is of its nature incalculable.

A liberal society is especially vulnerable to crime precisely because the powers of the police are limited and because penalties for crime are, at least in theory, humane. And crime, as Hollywood loves to point out, does pay. This environment has created the career criminal, who fully expects to spend some of his life behind bars, but who is not in the least deterred from his crimes because of it. Add to all this a folk tradition of reverence for successful criminals and a kind of in-bred contempt for authority and you have crime's happy hunting ground.

If one listens to proponents of the liberty of gun ownership, it becomes clear that, to a substantial degree, their arguments are informed by a paranoid siege mentality. They often sound as if they are being hemmed in, not just by crime and criminals but by the government and the police. Crime is threatening their property - the age-old shibboleth (1) - and laws and their enforcers are threatening their rights. I have a friend who, aside from possessing some extremely reactionary political views, is an unbending believer in gun-ownership and, of course, owns at least one gun, which he quietly and reverently showed me. He and his wife are convinced that the shooting sprees that seem to be happening every day somewhere in America would come to an end if everyone carried a gun. The only victims would, of course, be the people without guns. Not only does the use of a firearm keep one safe, so goes the logic, but the very possession of a gun makes one somehow invulnerable.

I have owned a gun. I no longer do. It was required that I own one by an employer. I carried it, loaded, in a holster at work. When I went home I removed the holster and hung it, with the loaded pistol, in my closet. I was married at the time and my wife and I regarded the gun with mingled respect and distaste. Were it not for the job I would never have owned it. If I were pressed to define the distaste I felt toward that gun, I would say that it was derived from a feeling of dread at the lethality of it and the sense of inhuman malice that it seemed to give off. As anyone who has made use of a weapon or seen with his own eyes the results of its use, the weapon itself, untouched, possesses a peculiar power and a threatening presence.

I must admit that, if I lived in a society - or, more to the point, perceived that I lived in a society - in which I did not feel safe enough inside my apartment or going to and from work or shopping for groceries without having to arm myself with even a snub nose .22 caliber pistol, I would move somewhere else. I love my country, but not so much that I would find living in Canada intolerable. For all the mistrust and lack of confidence that gun-owners tacitly demonstrate in the ability of their government to make laws and in the police to enforce them, they might as well move to another country too.


(1) There is a chilling exchange of dialogue in the film The Good Shepherd (2006). Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a CIA director who has come to the home of Joseph Palmi, played by Joe Pesci, a Mafia boss recently chased out of Cuba by Castro. The dialogue encapsulates two very different, even opposing, attitudes about America:

Palmi: Let me ask you something. We Italians, we got our families and we got
the church. The Irish, they have their homeland. The Jews have their traditions.
Even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people? What do you
have?

Wilson: We have the United States of America. The rest of you
are just visiting.