Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Whitewashing


There is a TV commercial being aired here in the Philippines that is quite transparently and brazenly racist. Three pretty young women who walk into the scene together, all smiles. Until one of them notices, as if for the first time, that her skin is brown, compared to the other girls, who have the flesh tones of albino Scandinavian submariners, impossibly, inhumanly pale. The brown-skinned girl is noticeably upset at the contrast, so the white girls give her a bottle of a skin cream called Block & White, a schizophrenically formulated product whose name spells out its function: it simply combines bleaches and exfoliants (acids to make skin peel) to whiten the skin, and keratin-blockers and sunblocks to prevent further skin darkening. In other words, the lotion is designed to deprive brown-skinned women of their own natural sun protection and substitute chemicals to protect their raw, denuded skin from harmful UVA and UVB solar rays.

There are dozens of such products being marketed in the Philippines, as I pointed out in the post The Fairest of Them All a few years ago. Many Filipino women, convinced by the advertizing that their brown skin is ugly, buy such products and, because they cannot afford the repeated treatments that they instruct, only apply them to their faces. This results in the women acquiring a pinkish complexion on their faces, while the remainder of their bodies is brown.

In the Block & White commercial, the brown-skinned girl uses the product and her skin is shown to magically - and impossibly - grow whiter and whiter and whiter until, in the final scene, she is just as pale-skinned as her friends, and suddenly becomes noticed by passing men. The inference is clear, and outrageous: if you have brown skin you are ugly and unattractive. If you want to be beautiful and attractive to men you need to use Block & White and transform yourself into a white woman. Unfortunmately for the makers of the commercial and the manufacturers of the product (made in the U.S. by Beauty Creations, Inc.), the brown-skinned woman was, as Lady Gaga put it, "born this way".

Such products are also sold in other Asian countries in which skin color is associated with social status, like India and Indonesia, as well as in Latin American countries still suffering a hangover from colonialism. They are certainly not marketed in the U.S. the same way they're marketed everywhere else, since such marketing would cause an uproar and probably lead to arrests. In the U.S., Block & White is marketed as follows: "Bleaching cream lightens-brightens darkened skin areas and helps fade unsightly freckles. It's a greaseless vanishing cream that moisturizes and brings out natural beauty." It is recommended for use in gradually fading skin discolorations such as age spots, freckles, liver spots, or "Dark areas that can occur while using oral contraceptives."

The reason for this apparent confusion is the legacy of hundreds of years of European and American colonialism. It has resulted in a single - white - standard of beauty that is taking far too long to eradicate. Spike Lee made a film early in his career called School Daze (1988), which was, among other things, an eye-opening satire on how racism effects even its victims. Based loosely, I would guess, on his experiences at Morehouse, an all-black college in Atlanta, Lee portrayed the students and their fraternities and sororities discriminating against one another based on the varying lightness or darkness of their skin color. The lighter-skinned students, not surprisingly, considered themselves superior to the darker-skinned ones. The madness that Lee revealed in his film was brought to a - rather peremptory - conclusion by a character played by Laurence Fishburne running towards the camera and screaming to all the characters in the film to "Wake up!" Fishburne finally turns to the camera and quietly says, "Please. Wake up." The last sound we hear is of an alarm clock going off.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo


Even before the addition of sound to film production in 1927, Hollywood always reserved for itself the right to the remake. One of the latest is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). There were several stages of interest in the story, which began with a very popular novel written in Swedish (by Stieg Larsson), which was made into a film in Sweden (by Niels Arden Oplev), that drew international attention. The novel, whose title is Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women, won Sweden's Glass Key Award for the best crime novel of 2006, and found a huge following in Europe and the U.S., among whom - it's safe to assume - were Steven Zaillian and David Fincher.

The American film, despite its international cast and crew, is very Swedish. Most people know how many German and Austrian families have the skeletons of Nazis somewhere in their closets. Not many know how many Swedish families do. Sweden's official neutrality throughout the Second World War required, unlike Switzerland's neutrality, at least tacit collaboration with the Third Reich. Many family businesses got rich on such neutrality.(1) One such family in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Vangers, is left with nothing to sell the world nowadays but fertilizer. The patriarch, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) to help him find his missing grandniece, Harriet (Joely Richardson), who hasn't been seen since her disappearance from the family-owned island forty years before.

This is as much of the film's labyrinthine plot as I need to mention, since the only thing that kept me watching the film to the end (it is 158 minutes long) is Rooney Mara (pictured above), who plays Lisbeth Salander, an investigator with blue-black hair, a large (dragon) tattoo, and several body piercings. We are told that she has had a difficult life. Although most of those difficulties are left to our imaginations, the girl's appearance, a gauntlet that she throws at our feet, tells us some of her story. Her behavior, especially the speed at which she drives her motorcycle (she puts far too much trust, I think, in the slogan "speed kills"), suggest the depth of her unhappiness. Other people, especially men, treat her badly, but she defends herself with style. When some people treat her decently, as Mikael does, she is drawn to them and makes the apparent mistake of lowering her defenses. When, at the end of the film, she is deeply hurt, the forlorn look in her eyes is priceless.

There is an arresting credit sequence at the opening of the film that was made by Blur Studios, featuring music by Trent Reznor, formerly of Nine Inch Nails. It is a computer-generated animation of onyx-like human figures which form and melt into one another to a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song". David Fincher, the film's director, made music videos of some of Trent Reznor's music in the 1990s, and the credit sequence has much in common with them.

Fincher has a taste for brutality. An atmosphere of menace pervades his previous films, Seven and Zodiac, making them both superior thrillers. But what gives The Girl nearly all of its fascination is the character of Lisbeth Salander and her nude eyebrows concealing a multitude of possible sins. Tattoos and body piercings aren't evidence of an experience of - and a taste for - abuse, but they seem to an outsider like efforts to suggest it. The look that I mentioned above in Rooney Mara's eyes as she watches Mikael walking away arm-in-arm with another woman is one of "Here-it-is-again-I-should've-known-better" looks, as she tosses the Christmas gift (with a card expressing her love for Mikael in the pocket) into a waiting dumpster and speeds off into another frigid evening.

Everything else in the film is somewhat perfunctory, including three sex scenes with Lisbeth. Though presumably lesbian, we see her being raped from behind by a despicable lawyer (she pays him back in kind) and twice she jumps on Mikael like he's her motorcycle. What her advances mean to Mikael is anyone's guess, but her feelings for him overshoot their mark.

David Fincher is following a predictable course for a once-talented Hollywood director. The savagery that made Seven and especially Fight Club so brilliant and edgy has cooled down considerably into somewhat perverse poses. What was original a decade or more ago has become formulaic. Rooney Mara makes the film eminently watchable. Otherwise I have to agree with the director of the original Swedish film, Niels Arden Oplev, "Why would they remake something when they can just go see the original?"


(1) Kurt Vonnegut opened one of the first SAAB dealerships in Connecticut. He had difficulty selling the cars in 1950s America, and requested the Swedish company refrain from taking credit in their brochures for the manufacture of the Stuka and the Messerschmidt.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where Did I Read That Before?


Quite by chance, in August 2010, I read an article in The New Yorker (on its website, that is) by Richard Brody called "Truffaut's Last Interview", reprinting an interview with a seriously ill Truffaut (he died soon after from a brain tumor) purportedly conducted by Bert Cardullo. An observant reader left a comment mentioning the coincidence of the wording in the interviews with material included on the Criterion DVD of The 400 Blows. Since I had the DVD with me, I checked them for similarities and published my discoveries on this blog in October 2010, "Francois and Bert, Parts I & II".

When I brought this to the attention of Gary Morris, who had co-edited the book of interviews with Cardullo, he forwarded my articles, including one I wrote in 2006 for Senses of Cinema which I then republished concerning the first instance of plagiarism from Cardullo that I discovered, to Richard Brody, who discovered even further examples of Cardullo's plagiarizing and published them in another article, "About Truffaut's Last Interview".

This inspired further revelations from other readers, and what I believed, and perhaps hoped, would be my last word on the subject, "An Unravelling" in December 2010. That article inspired yet further comments from readers, including two from just last week, that I have decided to reprint below - if only to get them more out in the open.

Since I am presently living in the Sticks (provincial Philippines), I am in no position to verify any of the claims made. I therefore present them without any editorial caveats. I leave it to someone in a better position than I to assist me in this rather important process. I take the charge of plagiarism very seriously. Even with incontrovertible evidence of it, I try to be careful with the word. After reading from all the links I included here, some might agree that we have been too careful with Bert Cardullo.

Anonymous said...
This is indeed not the only plagiarism that Cardullo has undertaken. The introduction (which he "wrote") to Theater of the Avant Garde, a book he coedited with Robert Knopf, has whole passages in it directly out of Christopher Innes's Avant Garde Theatre. It's so disappointing to look at a career that prolific and realize it is built on theft.
November 17, 2010

Jerry White said...
I read what you wrote in Senses of Cinema, largely because I had read and enjoyed Cardullo's writing. I found what you wrote there sad; I suppose a more intense emotion was probably called for. Anyway, I wonder if you have seen this, specifically the first blurb there: http://goo.gl/NfnPH
December 17, 2010

Dan Harper said...
I suppose the less intense emotion you felt when you read my article is a general one, but I suspect that the cat may finally be out of the bag for Cardullo.
December 17, 2010

Jerry White said...
Well, I think you oughta see this. These are the blurbs on the publisher website for his new book, Screen Writings, published in March 2010:

'Among my contemporaries, the best film critic writing in English in America is Bert Cardullo, and 'Screen Writings' proves why.' Dan Harper, American film scholar

'A lot of what Bert Cardullo has to say about contemporary world cinema would be interesting to a very wide audience. He is someone with an impressive and stimulating command of the difficult dance of the film review.' Jerry White, University of Alberta

'Bert Cardullo's articles and reviews are invariably intelligent, original, and highly informed. I have been a sturdy admirer of his work for years; he's a solid writer and an equally solid judge.' Frederick Morgan, American poet


The full link is at http://www.anthempress.com/index.php/subject-areas/browse-by-type/anthem-monograph-edited-volume/screen-writings-1.html
December 18, 2010

Dan Harper said...
That blurb is also on the Amazon page. Just shows you how a favorable blurb can be extracted from even a negative review (mine was as favorable as I could make it, under the circumstances).

The late Fred Morgan gave Cardullo a job at The Hudson Review in the '80s. It's a mercy that he isn't around any more to see what a mess Cardullo has made of his trust.

But I'm beginning to believe that Cardullo would have to commit murder before anyone else would notice how much "borrowing" (I'm in a generous mood) he's been doing over the years.

Thanks for the link.
December 19, 2010

Anonymous said...
Pages 70-72 and pages 85-86 of Cardullo's "Vittorio De Sica" are plagiarized from Stanley Kauffmann's reviews of "Two Women" and "A Brief Vacation" in "The New Republic" (May 22, 1961 and March 8, 1975 issues). Several sentences are lifted verbatim; Kauffmann's reviews are not quoted, cited, or acknowledged as sources.

Pages 56-58 and page 195 of Cardullo's book "Waves from the East" are lifted directly from Kauffmann's "New Republic" reviews of "Turtles Can Fly" and "What Time is it There?" (March 7, 2005 and February 4, 2002 issues).

Cardullo's two-volume "Screen Writings" is replete with plagiarisms from Kauffmann's old reviews. In Volume 1: pages 94-98 are stolen from the reviews of Olmi's films "The Sound of Trumpets" and "The Fiances" in the August 17, 1963 and February 15, 1964 issues of "The New Republic"; and pages 198-199 are taken almost vebatim from Kauffmann's review of "The Last Picture Show" in the October 16, 1971 issue of "The New Republic". In Volume 2: large portions of pages 16-21 are stolen from Kauffmann's reviews of "The Goodbye Girl" and "Manhattan" in the December 17, 1977 and May 19, 1979 issues of "The New Republic"; and pages 36-46 include several paragraphs Cardullo lifted from Kauffmann's reviews of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Me You and Everyone We Know" (April 5, 2005 and July 11/18, 2005 issues of "The New Republic").

Cardullo's "The Films of Robert Bresson" includes an essay ("Dostoyevskian Surge, Bressonian Spirit") in which he plagiarizes virtually all of Kauffmann's review of "L'Argent" (April 16, 1984 issue of "The New Republic").

Cardullo's "Screening the Stage" is filled with plagiarisms: pages 47-49 are taken from Kauffmann's review of "Betrayal" (February 28, 1983 issue of "The New Republic"); and a large portion of the essay "The Sounds (and Sights) of Silence: 'Way Down East' as Play and Film" (pages 91-99) have been stolen from Kauffmann's essay "D.W. Griffith's 'Way Down East'" in the journal "Horizon" (Spring, 1972).

In the January, 2011 issue of "Notes on Contemporay Literature" the following notice was published:

"This is to inform the readership of 'Notes' that 'Marguerite Ida-Helena Annabel in Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights,' Vol. 40.4:4-6, by Bert Cardullo, is largely plagiarized from pages 82 through 85 of Professor Sarah Bey-Cheng's book 'Mama Dada: Gertrude Stein's Avant-Garde Theater' (Routledge, 2004; reprinted in paper 2005). We condemn Bert Cardullo's dishonesty and apologize to Professor Bey-Cheng and our readers that it escaped our editorial scrutiny."

Cardullo is not a scholar, but, rather, a charlatan and thief who has ransacked the work of critics he professes to respect and admire.
March 30, 2012

Dan Harper said...
Your pains-taking (!) is appreciated. There is an interview of Mr. Kauffmann conducted by Cardullo online. I wonder if Kauffmann was even there? My chief reaction is surprise that all this has gone unnoticed for so long.
March 30, 2012

Anonymous said...
Do you know what's disturbing? As a professor, Cardullo had a history of being extremely strict about plagiarism, warning of expulsion and other consequences for those who plagiarized.

Also disturbing? Sarah Bay-Cheng, from whom he stole material as listed above in the comments, was once his student.
April 15, 2012

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Depths of Loss


When the reputedly "unsinkable" R.M.S. Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic one hundred years ago tonight, the irony was not lost on Thomas Hardy.


The Convergence of the Twain

(Lines on the loss of the "Titanic")

I
In a solitude of the sea
Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.


II
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.


III
Over the mirrors meant
To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.


IV
Jewels in joy designed
To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.


V
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: "What does this vaingloriousness down here?" ...


VI
Well: while was fashioning
This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything


VII
Prepared a sinister mate
For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.


VIII
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.


IX
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,


X
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,


XI
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.


One of the first great shocks of the machine age, which had led some deluded observers to conclude that nature was finally beaten and that man was now the master of his destiny, the Titanic disaster was a tragedy of such unimaginable scale (1,514 people went down with her) that, even today, having found the wreck and explored it, it still arouses a sense of awe. Not even the latest and most uninspired film reenactments, James Cameron's Titanic, with all its expensive "effects" and the interpolation of a ludicrously implausible love story, could come close to the enormity of the actual event.

In his book, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton Paterson examined the

"The loss of the Titanic . . . and the search for her have taken on something of a mythic status, combining semi-archaeology with the qualities of a quest. Since this is a secular age, sacred relics will no longer do as quest objects (the recent demotion of the Shroud of Turin from holy trophy to medieval forgery ought to have dealt the final blow to the sacred object industry). Things swallowed by the sea will do excellently in their place, however, especially if there are TV rights to their finding. Dr. Robert Ballard's search for the Titanic was on his own admission obsessive, and such things arouse wide interest. 'My lifelong dream was to find this great ship, and during the past thirteen years the quest for her had dominated my life.'(1) It had also cost huge sums of money. Yet the ideal thing about this quest was that it could be rationalized by turning it into a research project. In the 1970s the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution decided to increase the depth range of its deep sea submersible, Alvin, from 6,000 to 13,000 feet. Since 13,000 feet was roughly the depth at which Titanic was supposed to lie, searching for it would be the perfect way to test the improved submersible and a new generation of robotic vehicles which could be deployed from Alvin on cables and guided by remote control. These in turn would be prototypes of the entirely free diving robotic sleds which are intended eventually to replace manned submersibles altogether. The enterprise was further legitimized by first being put to military use. The Woods Hole research vessel Knorr, needing to try out the Argo/Jason equipment Ballard had helped develop, made a practice run over the wreck of the US nuclear submarine Scorpion, which was lost with all hands in 1968. The wreck was comprehensively filmed though the pictures are still classified and have not been released. Thus exonerated, Ballard could turn his attention to the Titanic and later that same year, 1985, did indeed find her.

"It is a happy man who can spend other people's money and indulge his own ingenuity to fulfill a lifetime's ambition. The triumph of Heinrich Schliemann when he discovered Troy stood for Freud as the perfect image of happiness, but it also begged questions about what exactly was being satisfied. The problem of Troy was that it had disappeared to the extent that people wondered if it were mythical, or maybe a composite like Homer himself. To have proved it existed and to have stood in its ruins must have been even more exciting than finding Tutankhamen's tomb was for Howard Carter. Troy had been legendary for 3,000 years whereas the young king was a footnote in dynastic history. Carter had only dangled his name in front of his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, to induce him to let him have a last dig in the Valley of the Kings,which by then had been turned upside down in the search for dead pharaohs.

"Dr. Ballard's quest was like neither of these, precisely, in that it was not an act of archaeology. Everybody knew the Titanic's fate, it was no legend. Nor was there any mystery about how she had sunk, as in the case of Affray and Scorpion. Bland reasonableness ('It's down there somewhere and I'm going to find it') is always unsatisfactory as an explanation for a life's dream and thirteen years of searching. When in such cases the search is described as being more important than finding the object, one is entitled to ask what is really being looked for. Such avidness is normally reserved for things of great personal significance that one has lost oneself, and soon gives way to resignation. What private thing, in short, sis the Titanic stand for? The question must be left unanswered, but it should be asked. What can be said of such ventures is that they seldom stop there.

"Dr. Ballard did indeed go on to find the Bismarck and, no doubt, much else besides. In the long sequence of searchings and findings such men undertake, success is a temporary setback, a resting place on a much larger and grander journey to find the one thing that will satisfy a loss which can never be specified. The sea is the perfect place for it, since whatever it hides beneath its dark leagues of surrogate tears it makes timeless. One might announce one was looking for a lost submarines but a thick, wounded shadow dimly glimpsed at the edge of a monitor screen would seem a thing immeasurably ancient in its melancholy, weeping 'rusticles' from its iron plates, and the thrill of discovery would always carry with it the minor guilt of intrusion. It would also be imbued with the knowledge that what one finds never fits the cavity which the search hollows out. 'In a way,' said Dr. Ballard of the Titanic, 'I am sad we found her.' Such hulks will always feel privately significant to their finder. At first they may appear to be playing a game with him, being deliberately, almost flirtatiously elusive. Later they become in their stately woe repositories for his own unassuageable loss. So it was that Dr. Ballard identified with the object of his quest to the extent of expressing anger at the teredo worms which had devoured her woodwork. 'After years of gluttony the creatures starved and dropped dead at the table. I have no sympathy for them . . .'

"In the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that so much emphasis should be laid on not touching. This perpetually lost object cannot be touched because at that instant it will turn into something else: an ordinary ship, an ordinary battleship, which sank, which has a salvage value, which will attract looters. Not to touch leaves it exclusive, an object of vision, in some sense still not wholly found, while heightened as the public myth. The underwater camera records the details, the mystery remains intact. How could one not sympathize with a man who dreads to think his adroitly publicized private quest might merely stimulate greed rather than a proper solemn wonder? It would be as if Sir Percival were to learn that his companions on the Quest only wanted to find the Holy Grail so they cold melt it down."


Melville once wrote that, if you seek immortality, you should chisel your name onto the face of a rock and drop it into the deepest ocean. In Moby Dick, in Nantucket, before the great voyage is underway, Father Mapple preaches about Jonah and the "whale".(2)

"Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters - four yarns - is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah's deep sealine sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish's belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!"

Father Mapple vividly re-tells the story of the Book of Jonah and arrives at his glorious moral.

"Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and 'vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;' when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten - his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean - Jonah did the Almighty's bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!"

But then he recites to the congregation a second lesson of the story.

"But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him--a far, far upward, and inward delight--who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight, - top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath - O Father! - chiefly known to me by Thy rod - mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own. Yet this is nothing: I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"


(1) Robert D. Ballard, "A Long Last Look at Titanic," National Geographic, December 1986.
(2) The Book of Jonah tells of a "great fish", and not a whale.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Sun Stood Still


Some time ago I mentioned in passing a saying of Leonardo da Vinci's: "nothing can be loved unless it is first known." I speculated about the veracity behind the remark, arriving at my own conclusion:

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.

Despite his growing fame, thanks largely to a silly work of fiction implicating him in a ridiculous historical conspiracy, I have always had the feeling that Leonardo was a failure. Only twenty of his works are extant, and some of them are unfinished and/or in great decay. The recent "discovery" of the possible presence of Leonardo's fresco “The Battle of Anghiari”, that was believed lost for centuries, on a wall behind Giorgio Vasari’s “The Battle of Marciano" in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence has once again put the great painter in the spotlight.

In his groundbreaking essay on Leonardo, Sigmund Freud examined what he saw were the two great impulses of Leonardo's genius, that of the artist and the investigator:

Although he left masterpieces of the art of painting, while his scientific discoveries remained unpublished and unused, the investigator in him has never quite left the artist, often it has severely injured the artist and in the end it has perhaps suppressed the artist altogether. According to Vasari, Leonardo reproached himself during the last hour of his life for having insulted God and men because he has not done his duty to his art.

Freud mentions the very fresco is now being debated in Florence: "The picture of the cavalry battle of Anghiari, which in competition with Michelangelo he began to paint later on a wall of the Sala de Consiglio in Florence and which was also left in an unfinished state." Because of Leonardo's deliberate working methods, he abjured the customary fresco techniques, which demanded that the painter work quickly while the background is still moist, Leonardo opted for oils instead, which is the most significant reason that his "Last Supper" is in such sorry condition today. If he used the same technique for his fresco of the Battle of Anghiari, it may have suffered the same fate.

Freud observes that "It seems here as if a peculiar interest, that of the experimenter, at first reinforced the artistic, only later to damage the art production." Freud comes to the conclusion that two at first complimentary but eventually opposing character traits in Leonardo - that of the artist and of the scientist (or "investigator"), with the latter eventually usurping the former, explains his inability to complete so many of commissions:

For the combination of manifold talents in the same person was not unusual in the times of the Renaissance; to be sure Leonardo himself furnished one of the most splendid examples of such persons. . . . The turning of his interest from his art to science which increased with age must have also been responsible for widening the gap between himself and his contemporaries. All his efforts with which, according to their opinion, he wasted his time instead of diligently filling orders and becoming rich as perhaps his former classmate Perugino, seemed to his contemporaries as capricious playing, or even caused the, to suspect him of being in the service of the "black arts". We who know him from his sketches understand him better. . . . The effect that this had on his paintings was that he disliked to handle the brush, he painted less and what was more often the case, the things he began were mostly left unfinished: he cared less and less for the future of his works.

Freud traced the origins of Leonardo's dual impulses to the saying that I quoted above:

In an essay of the Conferenze Florentine the utterances if Leonardo are cited, which show his confession of faith and furnish the key to his character. "Nessuna cosa si può amare nè odiare, se prima no si ha cognition di quella." That is: One has no right to love or to hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature. And the same is repeated by Leonardo in a passage of the Treaties on the Art of Painting where he seems to defend himself against the accusation of irreligiousness:

"But such censurers might better remain silent. For that action is the manner of showing the workmaster so many wonderful things, and this is the way to love so great a discoverer. For, verily great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you little know it you will be able to love it only little or not at all."

The value of these utterances of Leonardo cannot be found in that they impart to us an important psychological fact, for what they maintain is obviously false, and Leonardo must have known this as well as we do. It is not true that people refrain from loving or hating until they have studied and became familiar with the nature of the object to whom they wish to give these affects, on the contrary they love impulsively and are guided by emotional motives which have nothing to do with cognition and whose affects are weakened, if anything, by thought and reflection.

Leonardo only could have implied that the love practiced by people is not of the proper and unobjectionable kind, one should so love as to hold back the affect and to subject it to mental elaboration, and only after it has stood the test of the intellect should free play be given to it. And we thereby understand that he wishes to tell us that this was the case with himself and that it would be worth the effort of everybody else to treat love and hatred as he himself does.

And it seems that in his case it was really so. His affects were controlled and subjected to the investigation impulse, he neither loved nor hated, but questioned himself whence does that arise, which he was to love or hate, and what does it signify, and thus he was at first forced to appear indifferent to good and evil, to beauty and ugliness. During this work of investigation love and hatred threw off their designs and uniformly changed into intellectual interest. As a matter of fact Leonardo was not dispassionate, he did not lack the divine spark which is the mediate or immediate motive power - il primo motore - of all human activity. He only transmuted his passion into inquisitiveness. He then applied himself to study with that persistence, steadiness, and profundity which comes from passion, and on
the height of the psychic work, after the cognition was won, he allowed the long checked affect to break loose and to flow off freely like a branch of a stream, after it has accomplished its work. At the height of his cognition when he could examine a big part of the whole he was seized with a feeling of pathos, and in ecstatic words he praised the grandeur of that part of creation which he studied, or - in religious
cloak - the greatness of the creator.

Solmi thinks that Leonardo's investigations started with his art, he tried to investigate the attributes and laws of light, of color, of shades and of perspective so as to be sure of becoming a master in the imitation of nature and to be able to show the way to others. It is probable that already at that time he overestimated the value of this knowledge for the artist. Following the guide-rope of the painter's need, he was then driven further and further to investigate the objects of the art of painting, such as animals and plants, and the proportions of the human body, and to follow the path from their exterior to their interior structure and biological functions, which really also express themselves in their appearance and should be depicted in art. And finally he was pulled along by this overwhelming desire until the connection was torn from the demands of his art, so that he discovered the general laws of mechanics and divined the history of the stratification and fossilization of the Arno-valley, until he could enter in his book with capital letters the cognition: "Il sole non si move" (The sun does not move).



As Leonardo understood better, perhaps, than anyone in history, there is no such thing as useless knowledge. When Socrates had fathered his friends and followers together to witness his last moments before he drank the hemlock, he heard a flute player playing a beautiful melody and he stopped to learn how to play it himself. A member of the gathering cried out to Socrates, "Why do you waste your precious time learning to play a tune when you are about to die?"

"So that I will know it before I die," Socrates replied.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Among the Converts*


[The painting on the right is "The Procession to Calvary" by Peter Breughel the Elder. From afar it looks like an unremarkable village market day, until you look closer - click on the image - at the center of the crowd, where a man is hauling a cross in the direction of a distant hill on the upper right.]

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Matthew 23:37

The history of Christ is as surely poetry as it is history. And, in general, only that history is history which might also be fable.
Novalis, Aphorisms (Frederic H. Hedge, tr.)


In his great book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, V.S. Naipaul suggested that Islam is a religion of the Arabs, and for everyone else - Indians, Pakistanis, Bagladeshis, Malaysians, Indonesians, et al - a religion of conversion. In other words, the Quran is a book filled with messages and meanings that are valid only for the men who created it - the many social and moral teachings it advances have their origins in Arabic custom and cultural tradition. "There probably has been no imperialism," Naipaul wrote, "like that of Islam and the Arabs....Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone, they have nothing to return to."

Of course, Naipaul, an Anglo-Indian from Trinidad, provoked a great deal of controversy among the believers themselves - Muslim scholars, who were quick to refute his findings. Naipaul's defense was that he was simply reporting what he observed, without trying to impose an agenda. But what Naipaul's book does not assert is that Christianity is just as much a religion of conversion, that it is a religion that was radically re-designed when the people for whom it was intended - the Jews - rejected it, that in fact it requires a dual conversion, first to Judaism, without which it is meaningless.

Why else would the Christian Bible contain so much of the Tanakh if it were not to establish a context, both historical and prophetic, in which Jesus can be put forward as the Messiah? The Tanakh follows a trajectory that rabbinic writers gave it to establish a divine history - one that concludes in the Book of Chronicles with the restoration of the Jews in the Promised Land. Christianity had ultimately to alter the trajectory of Jewish history to accommodate the prophetic references to a Messiah and to establish Jesus as the logical candidate for that figure.

The conflict between Judaism and Christianity is one of the oldest and oddest in history. It started when a man claiming to be the Jewish Messiah was rejected by his people, accused of blasphemy and insurrection, handed over to the Romans and executed. The man's followers, who soon became known as Christians, then constructed a mythology about their dead leader, involving his resurrection from the dead, ascending into heaven and a promise to return at the end of days.(1) These followers were persecuted by both Romans and Jews until, in 73 CE, the Romans annexed Judea as a Roman province and expelled the Jews from their ancestral lands after brutally suppressing a Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christians were then forced to prove to the Romans that they were not Jews and to invent pro-Roman, anti-Jewish propaganda explaining that it was the Jews who caused the death of Jesus. They also invented prophesies indicating the destruction of Jerusalem and the Diaspora.(2)

What all this necessitated was a radical redirection of Christian conversion away from Jews to non-Jews. Acts 13:46 makes this explicit:

It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.

But how was it possible for a Gentile, a non-Jew, to embrace the teachings of a man who professed to be the son of the Jewish God without first becoming a Jew? This problem clearly caused some controversy. Some Pharisees suggested the ritual conversion of Gentiles first to Judaism:

Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. (15:1) and That it was needful to keep the law of Moses. (15:5)

This was a thorny issue, particularly since it required Gentiles of whatever age to forsake their foreskins. Paul, who began his career as Saul, a Jewish persecutor of Christians, solved the problem:

In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. (Colossians 2:11)

The problem is, Judaism is not a religion of converts. You can no more convert to being a Jew than you can convert to being Chinese. The notion that a Gentile could be converted to Christianity without being introduced to the law of Moses is preposterous. Jesus was (incorrectly) tied to the house of David, as the scriptures prophesied. But who was David and what are the scriptures? The introduction to the law of Moses had to be a cursory one, because a more thorough one would lead inevitably to the discovery that every good Jew already knew: that Jesus was not the Messiah but a false prophet. A good Jew must deny Jesus. So a good Christian is a failed Jew.

The scattering of the Jews should have been the end of the conflict between Christians and Jews. But the rise of a Roman general named Constantine to Roman emperor in 306 CE, and the establishment of Christianity as Rome's official religion resurrected all the old enmity, wherever Christians and Jews found themselves in direct contact. The persistence of Judaism was, among other things, an embarrassment to Christianity. The presence of the people for whom Jesus was born, lived and died in vain in the midst of Christians meant that questions about the legitimacy of Christianity would persist.

Some movie critics who took offense to the apparent anti-Jewish slant of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ were rather disingenuously informed by Gibson that he was merely following the gospel of Matthew, which is notorious for its sometimes hysterical incrimination of the Jews in the death of Jesus. Why did Matthew go to such lengths to vilify the Jews? The short answer is because the Jews rejected Jesus's claims that he was the Messiah. They had seen enough false prophets by the time Jesus arrived on the scene and both his credentials and his message were considered suspect. He didn't fit the profile of the Messiah. But the Jews quickly became enemies of the Roman state, and by calling themselves "Christians", the followers of Jesus managed to persuade the Romans that they were not simply a sect of Judaism.

After the Second World War, Pope Pius XII was criticized for not doing enough to help Jews to hide and escape from the German Gestapo. But the number of "pogroms" that the Roman Catholic Church had either presided over or stood by and watched in its history, not to mention the Holy Inquisition itself, must be countless. Surely a pope can be forgiven for taking the long view?

In fact, when seen from the Jewish perspective, the Holocaust is not an historical anomaly. It was only one phase - albeit the last - of an historical process. In the film Shoah, the Jewish scholar Raul Hilberg makes a chilling statement:

From the earliest days, 4th century, 5th century, 6th century, the missionaries of Christianity had said, in effect, to the Jews, "You may not live among us as Jews." The secular rulers who followed them from the Late Middle Ages had then decided, "You cannot live among us." The Nazis finally decreed, "You may not live."


(1) This return was believed to be imminent - see Mark 9:1.
(2) A Greek word, διασπορά, meaning "scattering" or "dispersion".