Friday, February 28, 2014

The Unquiet Englishman

G.B. Shaw said that England and America were "two nations divided by a common language." CNN proved the truth of Shaw's quip by announcing that its talk show host, Piers Morgan, will be leaving at the end of his current contract, after just three years as the successor to Larry King. 

I was surprised that he lasted this long. Unlike King, whose territory was strictly Celebrity, and who cultivated a scrupulously noncommittal, almost faceless image, Morgan is unashamedly partisan. (To be a successful interviewer, you have to be a tool.) If he interviews a celebrity who is evidently crazy, Morgan will say so. If you are a wingnut, like the representatives of the NRA, making outrageous and/or ridiculous statements with a straight face, he will skewer you with language that transcended every language barrier. 

Unfortunately, he made the mistake - disastrous for a journalist and celebrity reporter, of baring his opinions on the air (and on Twitter). I think he is vastly more entertaining because of it, but that's because I am on his side in most of the fights he picks - the side of outraged common human decency. An Englishman, Morgan simply cannot understand Americans' love for their guns, especially after the many mass shootings he's covered. Nor can he comprehend our resistance to the simple concept of universal healthcare that Obama's Affordable Healthcare Act tries, albeit imperfectly, to address. 

I suspect that many of his viewers were simply put off by his superior-sounding British accent. He stepped on some toes by presuming to instruct Americans in matters of common decency. He had the effrontery to engage in our private debates over race and sexual orientation (I hate that term - it turns people into weather cocks pointing this way or that). But the Vox Populi - the Nielson ratings - has spoken. I will miss him.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Something Left Undone

While I was waiting (and waiting . . . and waiting) for my power to be restored last December, I had, as you might imagine, a few things on my mind that I found no opportunity to set down here on my blog. Since the Restoration, however, of first my electricity and then access to the internet, I decided to put some of them in their place. Here is a post I wanted to make on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Spirit of the Epoch

In his 1920 preface to the collection of stories in A Set of Six, Joseph Conrad wrote about the background of "The Duel" (which was adapted to film by a young Ridley Scott in 1977 and retitiled The Duellists [1]): "I had heard in my boyhood a good deal of the great Napoleonic legend. I had a genuine feeling that I would find myself at home in it, and "The Duel" is the result of that feeling, or, if the reader prefers, of that presumption."

Conrad, whose command of French was as enthusiastic - if not as dedicated - as his command of English (to the extent that some critics, like Arnold Bennett, could detect a decidedly French turn of phrase in his writing), found the idea for the story in a "small provincial paper" in the south of France. A report mentioned a fatal duel between two well-known men, and compared it to a series of duels between two officers in Napoleon's army. From this obscure reference Conrad set about to write "a bit of historical fiction" that, he hoped, might capture the "Spirit of the Epoch - never purely militarist in the long clash of arms, youthful, almost childlike in ite exaltation of sentiment - naively heroic in its faith."

As tempting as it is to see Conrad's story as a bit of quixotic nonsense - a fantasy of roguish honor set during a period of constantly shifting loyalties, when contests of arms, either on a national or a personal scale, were an all-too-common fact of life for most Europeans, I think it can be viewed today as a subtle satire of the era when duelling, which was seen as a horrifically stupid waste of manhood when Conrad wrote his story, was commonplace. You can find duels in so many 19th century novels, and the influence of Byronism that drove both Pushkin and Lermontov to die in duels was pernicious. Certainly the villain of Conrad's story, Feraud, is depicted by Conrad as a completely unreasoning lout who would never be satisfied until D'Hubert or himself were dead.

If you want a story that captures the true spirit of an epoch marked in equal measure by extremes of honor and brutality, with the map of Europe pitted with battlefields on which thousands of men perished and were buried in mass graves, you should read the novel Colonel Chabert by Honore De Balzac. Balzac was, after all, a contemporary of the epoch, and his story recounts the strange fate of a Colonel in Napoleon's cavalry who fought, and was apparently killed at the battle of Eylau on February 8, 1807.

Balzac's choice of Eylau, or Preussich-Eylau, in what is now Poland, couldn't have been better for his purposes. Ending in a virtual stalemate, it was one of the most savage and pointless battles of the whole bloody era. In the words of Napoleon's private secretary and biographer, Fauvelet de Bourrienne, "The battle of Eylau was terrible. Nearly the whole French army was engaged in [it] - one of the most sanguinary ever fought in Europe." The American historian, William Sloane, wrote that "the losses were virtually equal - about eighteen thousand men on each side. The dead were strewn thick over the field, and in someplaces were piled in heaps. On the white background of a Northern winter the carnage was terribly apparent."

In Balzac's novel, a man turns up in the offices of a young Parisian attorney named Derville, identifying himself as Chabert. Derville asks him, "The Colonel who was killed at Eylau?" "The same, monsieur," he replies simply. When the Colonel removes his hat before Derville, he reveals a hideous scar "beginning at the nape of the neck and ending over the right eye." He then relates to the attorney how he got the scar, in an account that is so strange and horrible that it could only be the truth:

"You know, perhaps," said the dead man, "that I commanded a cavalry regiment at Eylau. I was of important service to the success of Murat's famous charge which decided the victory. Unhappily for me, my death is a historical fact, recorded in Victoires et Conquetes, where it is related in full detail. We cut through the three Russian lines, which at once closed up and formed again, so that we had to repeat the movement back again. At the moment when we were nearing the Emperor, after having scattered the Russians, I came against a squadron of the enemy's cavalry. I rushed at the obstinate brutes. Two Russian officers, perfect giants, attacked me both at once. One of them gave me a cut across the head that crashed through everything, even a black silk cap I wore next my head, and cut deep into the skull. I fell from my horse. Murat came up to support me. He rode over my body, he and all his men, fifteen hundred of them—there might have been more! My death was announced to the Emperor, who as a precaution—for he was fond of me, was the master—wished to know if there were no hope of saving the man he had to thank for such a vigorous attack. He sent two surgeons to identify me and bring me into Hospital, saying, perhaps too carelessly, for he was very busy, 'Go and see whether by any chance poor Chabert is still alive.' These rascally saw-bones, who had just seen me lying under the hoofs of the horses of two regiments, no doubt did not trouble themselves to feel my pulse, and reported that I was quite dead. The certificate of death was probably made out in accordance with the rules of military jurisprudence.

Certain circumstances, known, I suppose to no one but the Almighty, compel me to speak of some things as hypothetical. The wounds I had received must presumably have produced tetanus, or have thrown me into a state analogous to that of a disease called, I believe, catalepsy. Otherwise how is it conceivable that I should have been stripped, as is the custom in time of the war, and thrown into the common grave by the men ordered to bury the dead?

When I came to myself, monsieur, I was in a position and an atmosphere of which I could give you no idea if I talked till to-morrow. The little air there was to breathe was foul. I wanted to move, and found no room. I opened my eyes, and saw nothing. The most alarming circumstance was the lack of air, and this enlightened me as to my situation. I understood that no fresh air could penetrate to me, and that I must die. This thought took off the sense of intolerable pain which had aroused me. There was a violent singing in my ears. I heard—or I thought I heard, I will assert nothing—groans from the world of dead among whom I was lying. Some nights I still think I hear those stifled moans; though the remembrance of that time is very obscure, and my memory very indistinct, in spite of my impressions of far more acute suffering I was fated to go through, and which have confused my ideas.

"But there was something more awful than cries; there was a silence such as I have never known elsewhere—literally, the silence of the grave. At last, by raising my hands and feeling the dead, I discerned a vacant space between my head and the human carrion above. I could thus measure the space, granted by a chance of which I knew not the cause. It would seem that, thanks to the carelessness and the haste with which we had been pitched into the trench, two dead bodies had leaned across and against each other, forming an angle like that made by two cards when a child is building a card castle. Feeling about me at once, for there was no time for play, I happily felt an arm lying detached, the arm of a Hercules! A stout bone, to which I owed my rescue. But for this unhoped-for help, I must have perished. But with a fury you may imagine, I began to work my way through the bodies which separated me from the layer of earth which had no doubt been thrown over us—I say us, as if there had been others living! I worked with a will, monsieur, for here I am! But to this day I do not know how I succeeded in getting through the pile of flesh which formed a barrier between me and life. You will say I had three arms. This crowbar, which I used cleverly enough, opened out a little air between the bodies I moved, and I economized my breath. At last I saw daylight, but through snow!

"At that moment I perceived that my head was cut open. Happily my blood, or that of my comrades, or perhaps the torn skin of my horse, who knows, had in coagulating formed a sort of natural plaster. But, in spite of it, I fainted away when my head came into contact with the snow. However, the little warmth left in me melted the snow about me; and when I recovered consciousness, I found myself in the middle of a round hole, where I stood shouting as long as I could. But the sun was rising, so I had very little chance of being heard. Was there any one in the fields yet? I pulled myself up, using my feet as a spring, resting on one of the dead, whose ribs were firm. You may suppose that this was not the moment for saying, 'Respect courage in misfortune!' In short, monsieur, after enduring the anguish, if the word is strong enough for my frenzy, of seeing for a long time, yes, quite a long time, those cursed Germans flying from a voice they heard where they could see no one, I was dug out by a woman, who was brave or curious enough to come close to my head, which must have looked as though it had sprouted from the ground like a mushroom. This woman went to fetch her husband, and between them they got me to their poor hovel.

"It would seem that I must have again fallen into a catalepsy—allow me to use the word to describe a state of which I have no idea, but which, from the account given by my hosts, I suppose to have been the effect of that malady. I remained for six months between life and death; not speaking, or, if I spoke, talking in delirium. At last, my hosts got me admitted to the hospital at Heilsberg.

"You will understand, Monsieur, that I came out of the womb of the grave as naked as I came from my mother's; so that six months afterwards, when I remembered, one fine morning, that I had been Colonel Chabert, and when, on recovering my wits, I tried to exact from my nurse rather more respect than she paid to any poor devil, all my companions in the ward began to laugh. Luckily for me, the surgeon, out of professional pride, had answered for my cure, and was naturally interested in his patient. When I told him coherently about my former life, this good man, named Sparchmann, signed a deposition, drawn up in the legal form of his country, giving an account of the miraculous way in which I had escaped from the trench dug for the dead, the day and hour when I had been found by my benefactress and her husband, the nature and exact spot of my injuries, adding to these documents a description of my person.”

The Colonel had come to the attorney not only to establish that he was alive but also to get back some of the fortune that his widow had inherited. Chabert had written to his widow, who was now remarried and carried the title (coincidentally with Conrad's story) of "Countess Ferraud," but he was dismissed as a meddlesome lunatic. Charenton, the notorious French lunatic asylum, was of course a place that Chabert wanted to stay out of. The only thing that Derville could promise him was some kind of settlement from his widow - whose second marriage, if Chabert were proved to be alive, would therefore have been illegal. After many months of legal maneuvering, which included a face to face meeting between Chabert and his wife, Derville closed his case in defeat. Years later - in 1840 - he was visiting Bicetre, an old age infirmary in which he discovered Chabert, now very old and senile, was one of its inmates. When they approach the old man, Derville tells his assistant, "That old man is a whole poem, or, as the romantics say, a drama."

"Halfway up the avenue [at Bicetre] they found the old man sitting on the trunk of a felled tree. With his stick in one hand, he was amusing himself with drawing lines in the sand. . . ." They gave him two twenty-franc coins, to which he says,

"'Brave troopers!' He ported arms, pretending to take aim at them, and shouted with a smile: 'Fire! both arms! Vive Napoleon!' And he drew a flourish in the air with his stick."

"What a destiny!" exclaimed Derville. "Taken out of the Foundling Hospital to die in the Infirmary for the Aged, after helping Napoleon between whiles to conquer Egypt and Europe."

Balzac made no claims for capturing the Spirit of the Epoch in that old man's panache, but how much closer it gets, I think, to the true face of the Napoleonic era. He closes the novel with an honest confession from Derville:

"Do you know, my dear fellow," Derville went on after a pause, "there are in modern society three men who can never think well of the world—the priest, the doctor, and the man of law? And they wear black robes, perhaps because they are in mourning for every virtue and every illusion. The most hapless of the three is the lawyer. When a man comes in search of the priest, he is prompted by repentance, by remorse, by beliefs which make him interesting, which elevate him and comfort the soul of the intercessor whose task will bring him a sort of gladness; he purifies, repairs and reconciles. But we lawyers, we see the same evil feelings repeated again and again, nothing can correct them; our offices are sewers which can never be cleansed.

"How many things have I learned in the exercise of my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret, deserted by two daughters, to whom he had given forty thousand francs a year! I have known wills burned; I have seen mothers robbing their children, wives killing their husbands, and working on the love they could inspire to make the men idiotic or mad, that they might live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teaching the child of their marriage such tastes as must bring it to the grave in order to benefit the child of an illicit affection. I could not tell you all I have seen, for I have seen crimes against which justice is impotent."

(1) The hero of Scott's film is neither D'Hubert nor Feraud (played, inexplicably, by two Americans - the colorless Keith Carradine and the original "bad lieutenant," Harvey Keitel), but the cinematographer Frank Tidy, who conjures up vistas, especially in the film's last astonishing scene, that match the romantic atmosphere of the story.
(2) Colonel Chabert, too, was made into a film in 1943 with Raimu and in 1994, with Gerard Depardieu in the title role. Depardieu was marvelous, but how I wish I could see Raimu in the role.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Lost in Yalta

Since I made it my custom every year since 2009 to devote Valentine's Day on this blog to a distinctive film on the subject of love, I've covered a few fairly obscure items, like the Hungarian gem, Love and the nearly forgotten American film, Falling in Love. If there is such a thing as a "small miracle," which is sometimes nothing more than a happy combination of commonplaces, the 1960 Soviet film, The Lady with the Little Dog (Dama s Sobatchkoi) qualifies as one. Based on one of Anton Chekhov's most celebrated stories, which captures within a few pages the sense of lives being lived, of time passing by, it is one of those hard-to-find films that I knew by reputation long before I ever had a chance to see it in 2006. It is unforgivable that there remain so many treasured films that are unavailable for home viewing - which is the only place such films will ever be screened outside of a film archive. I have written before about some of the more conspicuous missing masterpieces (see Sins of Omission).

Given the many stories and novellas that Chekhov wrote, and his status as one of the foremost Russian authors, it's initially surprising that so few of his works have been adapted to film. But when you see Josef Heifitz's film, which is only eighty minutes long, and read Chekhov's utterly concise story, only thirteen pages in Constance Garnett's translation, the dearth of adaptations becomes obvious. Very little that is dramatically useful takes place in the story (1) - which is one of the reasons why the film is such a beautifully faithful realization of it.

The story of two people leading lives of apparent comfort and contentment, who meet and suddenly decide to reach out, together, for happiness has precedents going back to Homer.(2) In Chekhov's hands, the story reveals both the extreme courageousness of such an act, as well as its ultimate futility. Chekhov's understanding of human beings denied him any faith in the power of love to make them happy. It is simply the means by which his characters learn the truth about their lives.

Chekhov believed implacably in progress, in the slow but steady improvement of human society and of the people within it. The world is imperfect, there is far too much suffering, too many people are unhappy and unfulfilled. Chekhov believed that some time in the future - a hundred or a thousand years - people will learn what to do with themselves and with their lives. At the end of his novella The Duel, Laevsky watches a boat move in heavy seas from the shore to a distant ship:

"'It flings the boat back,' he thought; "she makes two steps forward and one step back; but the boatmen are stubborn, they work the oars unceasingly, and are not afraid of the high waves. The boat goes on and on. Now she is out of sight, but in half an hour the boatmen will see the steamer lights distinctly, and within an hour they will be by the steamer ladder. So it is in life. . . . In the search for truth man makes two steps forward and one step back. Suffering,mistakes, and weariness of life thrust them back, but the thirst for truth and stubborn will drive them on an on. And who knows? Perhaps they will reach the real truth at last.'"

The story of "The Lady with the Little Dog" (3) consists of only a few scenes - the meeting in Yalta, her return to her husband and his return to Moscow, his visit to the town of "S_____" (identified as Saratov in the film) to find her, their meeting in a provincial theater, their meeting in Moscow. This necessitated that additional scenes should be created by the writer-director Heifitz to pad the film out to something close to feature-length. The film was made by Lenfilm for the centenary of Chekhov's birth in 1960. The director, Heifitz, had been making films since the Thirties. A Russian audience's close familiarity with the story is one thing the film had to contend with. Minor details in the story, like Gurov eating a slice of watermelon in Anna Sergeyevna's hotel room after their first intimate encounter, can be found in the film, and all the dialogue is preserved. But one advantage the film has over the story is the vivid presence of Yalta in the early scenes, which occupy half an hour of the film. Although Chekhov doesn't dwell on these scenes in the story, Heifitz and his cinematographer, Andrei Moskvin (once an assistant to Eisenstein's Edward Tisse) make as much of the spectacular scenery as possible. These scenes contrast quite effectively with the subsequent dreary scenes of snowy Moscow, and reinforce for us Gurov's growing nostalgia for Anna and their lost days in Yalta. I was lucky enough to see the DVD produced by Ruscico, the Russian Cinema Council, which features a flawless, bright and beautiful new print of the 54 year old film, looking like it was released yesterday, along with a choice of subtitles in six different languages.

One lovely scene takes place at the train station as Gurov sees Anna off. As the train pulls out of the station, Gurov walks pensively forward. He finds Anna's glove, dropped on the platform, and fondles it for a moment before placing iton an iron railing. The lost glove is absent from the story and presents us with a beautiful visual metaphor for Gurov's thoughts:

"Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the chirrup of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had only just waked up. And he thought, musing that there had been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory. . . ." Or so Gurov, the egoist, convinces himself. Except he has, without knowing it, fallen in love with Anna Sergeyevna, as the days and weeks to come in Moscow will show him.

It is in the following scenes in Moscow that most of the "padding" I mentioned takes place. The ellipses in Chekhov are there to put us in mind of everything he leaves out - all the moments that make up the lives of his characters. We are made to feel the passage of lifetimes in a few pages. But a movie has to show us so much of what Chekhov merely suggests. Hence, there is a boating scene in Yalta, a dinner party in Moscow, a lengthy scene at Gurov's club, an extended sequence in which Gurov, drunk, wanders the winter streets of Moscow. Where Chekhov could inform us of the emptiness of Gurov's life after meeting Anna Sergeyevna in a few lines, a movie has to show us instances of Gurov's misery. And some of the thoughts of Gurov and Anna, especially in the last scene, are turned into dialogue:

"Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages."

And again, leaving their fates in suspense at the end of the story, Chekhov wonders hopefully about their future together:

"And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning."

The film closes with the same irresolution in which Chekhov ends his story - with Gurov gazing up at a window in which Anna Sergeyevna looks down at him, standing alone in the snow. They can find no solution to their predicament

It is the same tone of desperate wistfulness in which we part from "The Three Sisters":

"IRINA [lays her head on OLGA'S bosom]. A time will come when everyone will know what all this is for, why there is this misery; there will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live . . . we have got to work, only to work! Tomorrow I'll go alone; I'll teach in the school, and I'll give all my life to those who may need me. Now it's autumn; soon winter will come and cover us with snow, and I will work, I will work.

OLGA [embraces both her sisters]. The music is so happy, so confident, and you long for life! O my God! Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before. Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet. We shall live! The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew -- if we only knew!"

(1) Of course, the same is true of his plays.
(2) Unless, of course, you believe that Helen ran off with Paris unwillingly.
(3) Chekhov identifies the dog as a Pomeranian.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Walk Around the Block

"Someday we'll go places
New lands and new faces
The day we quit punching the clock.
The future looks pleasant,
But at present
Let's take a walk around the block."

- Song by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg

We all know, or ought to know by now, the difference between a tourist and a traveler. As defined by Paul Bowles in his novel A Sheltering Sky: the traveler doesn't know where he's going and the tourist doesn't know where he's been. And Bowles's story of a young American married couples' disastrous journey off the beaten track should be seen as an emphatic warning against such excursions. But most of its readers are drawn, nonetheless, to the idea of getting lost. Just as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was a powerful allegory of the fate of civilized men when they voyage too far from civilization, has been giving readers ever since the vicarious thrill of immersing themselves in exoticism, Bowles's writings actually nourished the neurosis that they were attempting to diagnose. By elaborately destroying the young American couple he turns loose on Morrocco, was Bowles tacitly trying to tell us that neither the tourist nor the traveler belong in such places? Maybe he was attempting to head off the inevitable wave of tourism that his novel might incite? If so, he failed miserably.

Tourists have been reviled by writers at least since the creation of "package tourism" - the "14 Days, 10 Cities" tours that were devised to optimize the short vacations that Americans have typically taken to Europe. As early as 1908, E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, A Room with a View, touches on a phenomenon that was already somewhat passé - looking down on the tourist. When asked by Mr. Eager if she is traveling, "as a student of art," Lucy Honeychurch replies, "Oh, no. I am here as a tourist."

"'Oh, indeed,' said Mr. Eager. 'Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little - handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get "done" or "through" and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: "Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?" And the father replies: "Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog." There's travel for you. Ha! ha! ha!'"

Six years ago, when I ceased being a tourist and became a resident of the Philippines, I wrote on this blog:

"Somewhat miraculously still in the Philippines, I have had a tough time adjusting to being a resident rather than a tourist. It's easy being a tourist. You're here for a fixed number of days and you have a certain amount of money to spend. So you know exactly how much you can get away with spending every day. And even if you screw up, there's always the return ticket.

It's completely different when you come here to live. Since your stay is "indefinite," whatever amount of money you bring can never be properly budgeted. You know when it will run out, of course, and you know when and how much will be coming in next month. But you'll never know how much it will take to get you to the other side of that great divide called "indefinite." There is, in fact, no other side out there to be reached. You're already there - it's right under your feet."

Little did I know, but John Cheever wrote virtually the same thing, though far more beautifully, in his story, "The Bella Lingua":

"For the tourist, the whole experience of traveling through a strange country is on the verge of the past tense. Even as the days are spent, these were the days of Rome, and everything - the sightseeing, souvenirs, photographs, and presents - is commemorative. Even as the traveler lies in bed waiting for sleep, these were the nights in Rome. But for the expatriate there is no past tense. It would defeat his purpose to think of this time in another country in relation to some town or countryside that was and might again be his permanent home, and he lives in a continuous and unrelenting present."

Of course, what I've learned (the hard way - which always seems the best way) after six years living poor in an all-too-quiet backwater of a poor country, is how much better it is to experience such places as a tourist. Living in a resort hotel, even a resort as unassuming as the ones here on my island, is a luxury that I, quite frankly, miss terribly. How I long to take risks, to live always on the cusp of my budget, knowing full well that my return ticket will save me if I should happen to go too far off the beaten track. I have learned that I am not, as some of my friends would suppose, an actual expatriate. I am an exile, pure and simple. I banished myself to this place in 2008, just as surely as Ovid was exiled by Emperor Augustus to the edge of the civilized world, to what is now Romania (which, after twenty-one hundred years, remains a bit on the edge). The reason for his banishment is obscure, although Ovid himself attributed it to carmen et error - a poem (Ars Amatoria) and a mistake. I suppose I should attribute my own exile is the result of karma and error. (Coincidentally, Ovid turned 50 in the year of his exile [8 C.E.]. I turned 50 in 2008. But there, alas, the resemblance between us stops.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Letter from Home

Despite my living Beyond the Pale (the entirety of Ireland outside Dublin that Queen Elizabeth I designated as beyond her control) - blown beyond the rainbow by a super-typhoon, I have always prided myself with staying up to date, keeping abreast of the news of my homeland and the wider world. I have mentioned that loss has become like a litany here, and Haiyan took away with her (assuming it's a girl's name) countless things, and every day since then has been a painful step in the progress of a recovering patient. 

Electrical power was restored to my island province after nearly six weeks of living in more than just figurative darkness. Other deprivations continue. Almost every day, the grocery stores in the capital city look like Vikings got there moments ahead of me - shelves are empty, prices are jacked up. The local company that has provided me with cable TV since 2009 has been making repairs at a snail's pace, so slowly that in my outlying barangay there is still nothing to watch on television except dvds. The only alternatives are satellite TV at an unreachable price or a primitive TV antenna to hoist above my roof just so I can receive the only two Pinoy stations available over the air (they are, frankly, unwatchable). This doesn't just mean that I have no television entertainment among the screaming coconut palms. Most importantly, it means that I have no access to news of the world whatsoever. Yes, I can now (since January 15) go online to find news, but limitations of both time and money (not to mention a ridiculously tiny bandwidth) make it impossible to find out what I need to know on the few occasions in which I can go online any given week.

Imagine what I felt when, just a few minutes ago, I went online to find out that Philip Seymour Hoffmann was dead at the age of 46. Or when I was informed on Facebook that the Super Bowl, which I believed was being played tomorrow, was nearly over and that my home team was being crushed. It was like being kicked in the stomach. That was the news for today. But what was the news for the two months I lived here without any source of information whatsoever. The people here live in a darkness that is both imposed from without and self-perpetuated. They have lived in this darkness for so long that their minds have adjusted perfectly to it. I have been forced to live in that same darkness against my will.

The comparison may seem odious, but I don't feel much different from a Russian caught in Leningrad during the German siege who longs for news of the world outside that isn't tainted by propaganda; or a Berliner living under the Soviet blockade; or a North Korean today who looks out every day at his occluded horizon and wonders what's going on in a world he isn't permitted to see.

Or, more likely, I'm like a soldier on a far frontier, standing his post, who waits every day for mail call in vain for nearly three months, with no news of his family in so long that he feels almost like he's been forgotten. Letters, dozens of them, have been written and mailed. He may get them all at once or not at all.

On the 50th commemoration of a World War Two battle (Anzio, perhaps, or Salerno - I don't remember which), I heard a beautiful story about a woman in the States who got a letter from her newlywed husband, written on the eve of that battle. Except that he had been killed in the battle fifty years before. The letter, along with many others, had lain forgotten in a mail sack that a mailman had simply neglected to deliver. The mailman had died, and his son, not knowing what to do with the sack of forgotten mail, handed it over to the post office. Working diligently to locate as may of the letters' recipients as possible, the post office discovered that most of them had died or couldn't be located. 

The woman who got her lost sweetheart's letter had neither moved nor remarried, so the latter was delivered along with a letter of explanation and an apology. Upon reading the letter, she confessed that what upset her the most about the mix-up was that it made her aware, for the first time, of how her husband hadn't altered in fifty years, but that she was now an old woman.

I want to know about everything I've missed - and continue to miss - since a natural disaster (and human incompetence) took the world away from me. What famous people whom I've followed and loved over the years have died? There must have been a few - unless Death took a holiday along with this country's disgraceful government. Have there been any more mass shootings in the States? What have people been saying about them? Is there another Fiscal Cliff Looming?

I had my finger on the pulse of the world - whose vital signs are vital to me - when the lights went out, and now I can't find it. I know that its heart cannot have stopped.