Sunday, January 29, 2017

Revisitations: A Snowball's Chance





http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-RArtUAX1qQM/UZGqgWZBdII/AAAAAAAAB50/GEBbeLaALHI/s1600/Charlie+Brown+Snowball.jpg
[Revisiting a post from May 14, 2013 - I should point out that I still have that snowglobe.]


A Snowball's Chance



Among the things my brother packed for me in my Christmas package last year was a Charlie Brown snowglobe. It wasn't as grand as the one that Charles Foster Kane was holding in his hand when he expired at the beginning of the movie Citizen Kane, speaking his last word, "Rosebud!" He dropped the globe and it rolled across the wood floor and shattered against a stair step.

My snowglobe is made of plastic. But when I found it in the box, I shook it a few times and watched the snowflakes swirl around Charlie and settle at his feet. Four companions - Lucy, Snoopy, Linus and Peppermint Patty - stood behind him, except they were two dimensional figures painted on a flat plastic semicircle, and only Charlie stood alone in three dimensions. I put the snowglobe on my bookcase and I look at it every day.

Helplessly, as the weeks since then have passed, I have watched as the water in the globe fell noticeably lower. Within a month, the level of the water was getting almost to the top of Charlie's brown winter cap. When I picked up the globe, I found a drop of water beneath it. I figure that the pressurization of the plane that transported the package from the U.S. to Manila had created a tiny leak. And the difference in temperatures of Denver and Manila, which was at least sixty degrees Fahrenheit in December, probably contributed to the leak.

By now, Charlie's head is above the water, and it's sunk to the chins of his friends. Only Snoopy remains underwater - but now he looks like he must be drowning. If I should shake the globe - which would only make the water leak faster - the snowflakes no longer swirl around their heads. They have no more room except to sink, bereft of life, to the ground.

What a sad spectacle to be subjected to, as the figures once suspended in a winter wonderland, now stand up to their chins in tepid, warm water, which now refracts their bodies distortedly, as if their heads are coming off. Snoopy still thumps his tail happily, oblivious of the fate that awaits him. He might as well be drowning in a half-empty pool.

In his Paris Interview, Billy Wilder said of Raymond Chandler that he knew how to write beautiful sentences, like "There is nothing as empty as an empty swimming pool."

I think there is nothing sadder than a half-empty snowglobe.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The 700 Club

My first post for 2017, A Future Life, was also my 700th published post on this blog. It would be remiss of me to let the occasion pass without a little fanfare. The last time I took time out to observe a milestone was when I passed my 500th post in 2013.

Looking back at my last 200 posts makes me feel a bit like David (a little bit, anyway), patriotic Hebrew, who is reported to have uttered, upon seeing the corpse of King Saul: "How have the mighty fallen." While my posts prior to 2013 revealed, I think, more conviction, they were also better composed. There is a reason for this. Prior to 2013, I published my blog posts after carefully writing them down in notebooks and, only when I considered them complete down to the last word, going to an internet cafe to copy them down in my favorite font (for personal reasons, Georgia) and attaching an appropriate picture, clicking on the "Publish" button.

The acquisition of an Android tablet, courtesy of my brother in Colorado (now residing in Arizona (because he got sick of the snow) in early 2013 gave me word processing capabilities, as well as a wifi internet connection, at home. Oddly enough, this has led to a falling off of both the number of my posts and, at least from an editorial point of view, their quality. Something - I don't know exactly what - knocked alot of the wind out of my creative sails. (I don't think it was Typhoon Haiyan, which came ashore close to my location on November 8, 2013.)

One of the problems I have faced on this blog has been trying to balance my professional posts (film or book reviews and political writings) and my personal posts, dealing somewhat obsessively with my struggles to survive on my Philippine island. Whatever interest the former might have earned me was mitigated, I should think, by the momentary perplexities of the latter. Living in a place not even most Filipinos could place on has been fraught with too many unforseeable - by me - hazards, such as the neverending onslaught of the insect kingdom (or, to be accurate, queendom), the aggravatingly routine power outtages, and the day to day imbecilities of living in a society beyond anyone's control.

All provisos aside, I am presenting to you over the next few weeks some of what I think are the best posts of the last three years. As always, I read them and descant on mine own deformity.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Earthling

The late Stanley Kauffmann, like every other great film critic before him, was much more than just a film critic. He turned to film criticism in mid-life after writing plays and novels, and working for a time in book publishing. In 1958 he submitted a film review, unsolicited, to The New Republic. On the strength of that initial essay, Kauffmann became The New Republic's resident film critic for the next fifty-five years.

One of the many things that made Kauffmann a great critic was not just that his judgements often left him alone, but that he obviously didn't mind being alone. A good case in point is his disappointment at viewing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. When he embarked on the production of 2001, Kubrick already had a considerable body of work behind him. He was a singular inspiration of hope for American film, whose coming of age has been an interminable wait.

But it isn't Kauffmann's disappointment at 2001 that is the most interesting part of his fifty year old review. A year before the first moon landing, Kauffmann used his review of 2001 as a platform from which to inveigle against what Kubrick's film celebrates: space travel.

"His film has one special effect that certainly he did not intend. He has clarified for me why I dislike the idea of space exploration. A few weeks ago Louis J. Halle wrote in The New Republic that he favors space exploration because:

'Life, as we know it within the terms of our earthly prison, makes no ultimate sense that we can discover; but I cannot, myself, escape the conviction that, in terms of a larger knowledge than is accessible to us today, it does make such sense.'

I disbelieve in this sophomoric definition of 'sense,' but anyway Halle's argument disproves itself. Man's knowledge of his world has been increasing, but life has, in Halle's terms, made less and less sense. Why should further expansion of physical knowledge make life more sensible? Still it is not on philosophic ground that I dislike space exploration, nor even on the valid practical ground that the money and the skills are more urgently needed on earth. Kubrick dramatizes a more physical and personal objection for me. Space, as he shows us, is thrillingly immense, but, as he also shows us, men out there are imprisoned, have less space than on earth. The largest expanse in which men can look and live like men is his spaceport, which is rather like spending many billions and many years so that we can travel millions of miles to a celestial Kennedy Airport. Everywhere outside the spaceport, men are constricted and dehumanized. They cannot move without cumbersome suits and helmets. They have to hibernate in glass coffins. The food they eat is processed into sanitized swill. Admittedly the interior of Kubrick's spaceship is not greatly different from that of a jetliner, but at least planes go from one human environment to another. No argument that I have read for the existence of life elsewhere has maintained that other planets would be suitable for men. Imagine zooming millions of miles all those tiresome enclosed days, even weeks in order to live inside a spacesuit.

Kubrick makes the paradox graphic. Space only seems large. For human beings, it is confining. That is why, despite the size of the starry firmament, the idea of space travel gives me claustrophobia."(1)

Kauffmann's reservations about space exploration might be regarded by some as just another way of saying, "If God had wanted us to fly, He's have given us wings." But it goes much deeper than that. I have never been a star-gazer. I know very few of the constellations in the night sky, and I certainly pay no attention to astrology. This lack of knowledge should perplex me, I suppose, but space has always disinterested me. One of the reasons why I don't take most of science fiction seriously as a literary or a film genre is its general acceptance of the notion that in the future human beings will be scattered throughout space, the other planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

The reason, I think, that space doesn't interest me is precisely the possibility of living there. I don't care for sea exploration, either, and for the same reason: both water and space are not our element. We are incapable of inhabiting the oceans or space without being enclosed in air-tight ships or suits that allow us to use our lungs to breath. In both elements, we are like fish out of water - we would die after a few short minutes under water and instantly in the absolute cold of the vacuum of space.

But proponents of space travel regard it with what seems to me an almost religious zeal. The search for an "earthlike" planet with a more amenable environment has acquired an impetus of its own, even if such possible planets are many light years away. It gives me the feeling that, as the despoliation of the earth is reaching an alarming stage, many people are considering travel to another earth as a last resort for humanity.

2001, though disappointing, still represents a pinnacle of the science fiction film genre. It even became the object of pseudo-mystical wonder by technologues. In a postscript to his review of 2001 published in his collection, Figures of Light, Kauffmann mentions a number of letters he received from people who wanted him to see what they saw in the film:

"Usually letters that disagree with my reviews do so in pretty angry and direct terms. I got a number of such letters about 2001, but I also got a quite unusual response: about two dozen very long letters, from four to eight typewritten pages, calmly disagreeing, generally sad but generally hopeful that I would eventually see the light. They came from widely scattered parts of the country, from students, a lawyer, a clergyman, a professor, and others. Most of those letters must have taken their authors a full day to compose and to type, and I felt that this disinterested, quite private support (none of the letters was sent for publication) was the best compliment that Kubrick could have been paid."(2)

Subsequent films in the science fiction genre have been far less ambitious than Kubrick's and have met with varying success. While aiming at much more accessible targets, the degree of their success is proportionate. Look at the latest space adventures, like Gravity or The Martian. Gravity begins with the serenity of an extended space walk that turns deadly. In an important sense, all of the weightless wonder that the first minutes of the film inspires is belied by the lone astronaut's incredibly hazardous struggle to return safely to the surface of the earth - to the very gravity that she had been sent at such enormous expense to escape.

The Martian is kind of like Cast Away on Mars - an astronaut, believed to be dead, is left behind by his crewmates on Mars and is forced to find creative ways to survive until he is rescued (a conclusion as foregone as the prisoner's escape in Bresson's A Man Escaped). I thought the film was a total failure because it never convinced me of the hero's absolute solitude on Mars, or indeed that he was stranded on Mars (which is as yet, I know, impossible) and not some desert mock-up of Mars somewhere in Patagonia. (And I couldn't bring myself to believe in the film's premise - that a man believed to be dead based on sketchy eyewitness conjecture would simply be abandoned by his crewmates.) The Tom Hanks movie Cast Away (2000) at least succeeded in making us feel the isolation of a FedEx efficiency expert on that South Pacific island - so much so that the intervening title "4 Years Later" comes as a shock.

I sense, in so much of the passionate faith in the inevitability of departing our planet and relocating to another - the promise of a life after earth - a strange renewal of a "next world" salvation once promised by religion. Like every good humanist, I reject such a prospect outright. A few years ago I published a post on this blog that presented my reaction to the prospect of the earth becoming so uninhabitable - no breatheable air, no potable water - that it had to be abandoned and humanity evacuated to another world. When the time came to climb aboard the rescue rocket and take my designated seat, I would politely decline. Even if it meant perishing on a poisoned and poisonous earth, I would face extinction with the only world I cared to know. Robert Frost said it much more beautifully:

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world's embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius' disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.(3)


(1) "Lost in the Stars," The New Republic, May 4, 1968.
(2) Figures of Light, New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
(3) "Bond and Free."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Future Life

"The following story is told by the Balolo of the Upper Congo to explain the continuance, if not the origin, of death in the world. One day, while a man was working in the forest, a little man with two bundles, one large and one small, went up to him and said, 'Which of these bundles will you have? The large one contains knives, looking-glasses, cloth and so forth; and the small one contains immortal life.' 'I cannot choose by myself,' answered the man; 'I must go and ask the other people in the town.' While he was gone to ask the others, some women arrived and the choice was left to them. They tried the edges of the knives, decked themselves in the cloth, admired themselves in the looking-glasses, and, without more ado, chose the big bundle. The little man, picking up the small bundle, vanished. So when the man came back from the town, the little man and his bundles were gone. The women exhibited and shared the things, but death continued on the earth. Hence the people often say, 'Oh, if those women had only chosen the small bundle, we should not be dying like this!'"

This story is included by James G. Frazer at the end of his book, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead. In his preface for the book, he wrote:

"Of all the many forms which natural religion has assumed none probably has exerted so deep and far-reaching an influence on human life as the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead; hence an historical survey of this most momentous creed and of the practical consequences which have been deduced from it can hardly fail to be at once instructive and impressive, whether we regard the record with complacency as a noble testimony to the aspiring genius of man, who claims to outlive the sun and the stars, or whether we view it with pity as a melancholy monument of fruitless labour and barren ingenuity expended in prying into that great mystery of which fools profess their knowledge and wise men confess their ignorance."

Over the past few centuries, the concept of personal immortality has been gradually disappearing. At the end of the 19th century, the literary critic George Saintsbury could safely say of the 17th century poet Robert Herrick that he was "The last — the absolutely last if we take his death-date — of those poets who have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another."

In his "As I Please" column for Tribune in the 1940s, George Orwell quoted a poem by John Skelton from memory:

Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Rumpopulorum,
Per monia saecula,
Saecula saeculorum.

"It has stuck in my mind because it expresses an outlook totally impossible in our own age. Today there is literally no one who could write of death in that light-hearted manner. Since the decay of the belief in personal immortality, death has never seemed funny, and it will be a long time before it does so again." (14 February 1947)

"I find it very rare to meet anyone," Orwell continued on another occasion, "of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in his hands, a fairly large number would admit the possibility that after death there might be 'something.' The point is that the belief, such as it is, hadn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia." (14 April 1944)


I think that one of the reasons why Dante's The Divine Comedy is not as widely known as has been for a thousand years is because a guided tour of heaven and hell, no matter how exquisitely composed, is no longer of interest to people who never believed in the existence of either.

George Santayana was an American philosopher, poet, and Harvard professor who had a profound influence on an entire generation. It was Santayana who Wallace Stevens immortalized in his moving and magnificent poem "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."

It is poverty’s speech that seeks us out the most.
It is older than the oldest speech of Rome.
This is the tragic accent of the scene.

And you – it is you that speak it, without speech,
The loftiest syllable among loftiest things,
The one invulnerable man among
Crude captains, the naked majesty, if you like,
Of bird-nest arches and of rain-stained-vaults.

Edmund Wilson, in his 1945 updating of Europe Without Baedecker, described the same scene of Santayana living out his last days in self-imposed poverty in a Roman monastery. Santayana wrote fearlessly and beautifully on a wide variety of subjects. In the excerpt below, from the collection Little Essays, he tackles the subject of life after death in philosophical terms.


"A FUTURE LIFE

Many a man dies too soon and some are born in the wrong
age or station. Could these persons drink at the fountain
of youth at least once more they might do themselves
fuller justice and cut a better figure at last in the universe.
Most people think they have stuff in them for greater
things than time suffers them to perform. To imagine a
second career is a pleasing antidote for ill-fortune; the
poor soul wants another chance. But how should a future
life be constituted if it is to satisfy this demand, and how
long need it last? It would evidently have to go on in an
environment closely analogous to earth; I could not, for
instance, write in another world the epics which the
necessity of earning my living may have stifled here, did
that other world contain no time, no heroic struggles, or no
metrical language. Nor is it clear that my epics, to be
perfect, would need to be quite endless. If what is foiled
in me is really poetic genius and not simply a tendency
toward perpetual motion, it would not help me if in heaven,
in lieu of my dreamt-of epics, I were allowed to beget
several robust children. In a word, if hereafter I am to
be the same man improved I must find myself in the same
world corrected. Were I transformed into a cherub or
transported into a timeless ecstasy, it is hard to see in what
sense I should continue to exist. Those results might be
interesting in themselves and might enrich the universe;
they would not prolong my life nor retrieve my disasters.
The universe doubtless contains all sorts of experiences,
better and worse than the human; but it is idle to attribute
to a particular man a life divorced from his circumstances
and from his body.

"For this reason a future life is after all best represented
by those frankly material ideals which most Christians
— being Platonists — are wont to despise. It would be
genuine happiness for a Jew to rise again in the flesh and
live for ever in Ezekiel's New Jerusalem, with its ceremonial
glories and civic order. It would be truly agreeable for any
man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad
in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by
the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence
and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself
and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on
earth. He might also find his friends again, which in
somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that
chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But
to recognize his friends a man must find them in their
bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests;
for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could
find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyn-
crasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life,
to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not
the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a
reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the
prospect of awakening again among houses and trees,
among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of
wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental
past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect
wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through
these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not
time for each soul to rest?

"Dogmas about such a posthumous experience find some
shadowy support in various illusions and superstitions that
surround death, but they are developed into articulate
prophecies chiefly by certain moral demands. One of
these requires rewards and punishments more emphatic
and sure than those which conduct meets with in this
world. Another requires merely a more favourable and
complete opportunity for the soul's development. Con-
siderations like these are pertinent to moral philosophy.
It touches the notion of duty whether an exact hedonistic
retribution is to be demanded for what is termed merit
and guilt: so that without such supernatural remuneration
virtue, perhaps, would be discredited and deprived of a
motive. It likewise touches the ideality and nobleness
of life whether human aims can be realized satisfactorily
only in the agent's singular person, so that the fruits of
effort would be forthwith missed if the labourer himself
should disappear.

"To establish justice in the world and furnish an adequate
incentive to virtue was once thought the chief business
of a future life. The Hebraic religions somewhat over-
reached themselves on these points : for the grotesque
alternative between hell and heaven in the end only
aggravated the injustice it was meant to remedy. Life
is unjust in that it subordinates individuals to a general
mechanical law, and the deeper and longer hold fate has
on the soul, the greater that injustice. A perpetual life
would be a perpetual subjection to arbitrary power, while
a last judgment would be but a last fatality. That hell
may have frightened a few villains into omitting a crime
is perhaps credible; but the embarrassed silence which
the churches, in a more sensitive age, prefer to maintain
on that wholesome doctrine — once, as they taught, the
only rational basis for virtue — shows how their teaching
has to follow the independent progress of morals. Never-
theless, persons are not wanting, apparently free from
ecclesiastical constraint, who still maintain that the value
of life depends on its indefinite prolongation. By an
artifice of reflection they substitute vanity for reason,
and selfish for ingenuous instincts in man. Being apparently
interested in nothing but their own careers, they forget that
a man may remember how little he counts in the world
and suffer that rational knowledge to inspire his purposes.
Intense morality has always envisaged earthly goods and
evils, and even when a future life has been accepted
vaguely, it has never given direction to human will or
aims, which at best it could only proclaim more emphatic-
ally. It may indeed be said that no man of any depth
of soul has made his prolonged existence the touchstone
of his enthusiasms. Such an instinct is carnal, and if
immortality is to add a higher inspiration to life it must
not be an immortality of selfishness. What a despicable
creature must a man be, and how sunk below the level
of the most barbaric virtue, if he cannot bear to live and
to die for his children, for his art, or for his country!"

The passage that stands out for me in this excerpt is when Santayana mentions how, in the afterlife, a man "might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence." As James Frazer showed, the belief in immortality is an ancient one. Excavated Stone Age burial sites that reveal an incipient belief that the person laid to rest was not entirely lost to the living tell us that the origins of belief in immortality were not, as some may think, a selfish wish to assuage a person's own fear of death, but a wish that the loved ones who have died before them are not lost to them forever, that they abide in a place as yet unknowable where they wait to be reunited.

How can anyone fear death when they think of everyone who has died until now? Some died humbly, some died badly and some heroically. My father, George Sr., and mother, Alice, and my two sisters, Virginia and Elizabeth, are all dead. I will join them when my own time comes, in death, whatever - wherever - that may be.