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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Worcester cathedral was built with a mix of stones; something grey, sometimes red sandstone. Although placed in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Close still has a rather self contained feel to it, as one passed through Edgar's Tower and enters a complex of ruins where halls and other monastic buildings once stood. A watergate remains, something that only serves to emphasise the self contained character of the cathedral. The most interesting aspect of the interior is undoubtedly the Norman crypt begun by Bishop Wulfstan in a style reminiscent of Repton. Similarly, the tombs are especially striking, such as the Beauchamp tomb with its black swans or the ornate gothic tomb for Prince Arthur. The rest of the cathedral shows the evidence of Gilbert Scott's restoration, such as the painted ceiling. A graveyard is placed in the centre of the cloisters (monks who has tended the garden would once have been buried there) while figures from English history are depicted on stained glass in the arches. The town itself is a mixture of Queen Anne (such as the Guildhall and Hospital with its heraldic white swans), Georgian and Victorian buildings. The majority of the church towers are in red sandstone, excepting one where a grey baroque tower had been built onto an earlier gothic foundation. Another exception is the slender grey spire of St Andrew's, which rises far above the other buildings and rivals the cathedral. A Victorian structure, the building is nonetheless a ruin; nothing remains except the tower.

The Priory Church in Great Malvern rather resembles a cathedral as well, though there is something more colourful about its external appearance, with its patchwork red, yellow and grey stones. The stained glass is also a patchwork of fragments dating back to the time of Richard the Third. Victorian minton tiling sits alongside the original medieval designs it was based on. There's also some new windows stained in a more impressionistic style. The round arches on the interior date back to the Saxon period, sitting alongside baroque monuments and a chantry chapel containing medieval stone tombs.

The church of St Mary the Virgin in Ingestre, has the distinction of being the sole Wren church outside London. Although the stone is duller than the city churches, the building that stands next to Ingestre's Carolean hall is recognisably of the same design (particularly to St Mary Somerset). The interior is decorated with plaster carvings, Gibbons woodwork and Burne-Jones stained glass, showing blood dripping from a pelican onto Adam and Eve, who bear crimson halos and wings. Unusually, the marble monuments have been painted and gilded. Nearby in Hoar Cross, Holy Angels is GF Bodley's miniature cathedral standing stop a hill and surveying the valley beneath. Yews line the walk to the door, while winged gargoyles look down the roof, statues stare ahead from their niches and lonely stone angels on the graves stare at the sky. The church of St Paul in nearby Burton on Trent where it sits adjacent to the town hall, is also by Bodley and shows a similar style. More unusual is the church of St Modwen in the marketplace there. It's tower is blackened but is still in a recognisably baroque style. The interior is also quite unusual, with plain stone columns and round arches lining the nave, while the altar and sanctuary are 'high baroque.' Filled with dead leaves when I visited, the churchyard looks out over the then flooded river Trent and is filled with elaborate tombs. Finally, the church of St John the Baptist in Croxall presented an especially melancholy prospect. It stands high on a hill, above the river Trent next to the local hall. Like St Modwen, the churchyard was filled with elaborate eighteenth and nineteenth century tombs and framed with fallen leaves and bare tree branches. But the tombs here have fallen into desuetude; a celtic cross tips over as it sinks into the earth while the walls of box tombs crumble. The church is also in a poor condition; the windows are broken and the crudely repaired walls patched with brick seem less than steady.

Visiting Kensal Green Cemetery last spring, the central avenue was hidden in shade beneath the trees that lined it. In winter, the leaves had fallen and the grandiose tombs felt oddly naked and bereft. The decay of the tombs was also far more evident; since my last visit a section of the outer wall had collapsed and the resulting breach made it feel far more ramshackle than before. Since I wasn't as distracted by the novelty of the architecture this time, I also noticed far more that most of the modern graves were from other countries; Ethiopia, Yugoslavia or Greece. It seems oddly appropriate given the pagan symbolism of much of the funerary architecture, from Egyptian to Roman and Greek. I wondered if this reflects the increasingly multi-ethnic character of London or whether it was simply that people from these countries were more likely to be drawn to the same traditions that its Victorian creators were. Many of the more modern tombs also seem to display a sentimental and trivial approach to death, with cuddly toys left on the them, that were at odds with the cold stone that surrounds them. I also notice a jay perched on a nearby tomb, a pigeon nestles on a quatrefoil above a tomb door and a squirrel disappears through a tomb wall. Afterwards, I move on to walk around Camden market, somewhere else with Victorian roots that has given way to a more multi-ethnic London. Or at least so that might seem; despite the oriental food stalls and melting pot atmosphere, the predominant aspect is of white counter-culture; gothic clothes, new age and punk. The following weekend was occupied with Mapledurham church with its diamond patterned redbrick and flint by Butterfield (the house's original chantry chapel with alabaster tombs remains alongside the gothic revival building). Later, I visit St John's Gate, a hyperreal Victorian interpretation of a medieval Priory, even down to its reinvention of the Knights Hospitalier as a chivalric order in keeping with the Victorian emphasis on medieval tradition. I also returned to Limehouse churchyard, which was covered in a carpet of purple crocuses and daffodils.

Hockney as an artist always seems to me to be oddly hollow, someone who flits through different styles and media while the essential subjects remain the same, both in terms of the people being depicted and how they are depicted. Self-portrait with Blue Guitar shows him drawing naturalistically while all the objects around are shown in abstract terms that reference Picasso. Picasso recurs in his photographic collages, simultaneously showing the same subjects from different angles and at slightly different times. Conversely, his portraits combine modernist techniques (the collages recalling Cubism, his portrait of Divine recalling Matisse) with a surprising traditionalism; the portraits of his mother and lover against deep blue patterned backgrounds is heavily reminiscent of the Holbein paintings I had seen earlier, while a picture of the artist at work deliberately echoes Velasquez and Las Meninas. For all of this, there's a fundamental similarity to his work. His My Parents shows his mother staring out of the canvas at the viewer while his father sits at right angles to her. They are separated by a table where a vase of flowers stands (a favourite prop). Similarly, his portrait of Fred and Marcia Weisman shows her staring at the viewer while he stands at right angles to her, separated by one of the art objects they collected. The painting of Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott shows Geldzahler sat looking at the viewer while Scott, wearing a coat as if about to leave, stands at right angles to him (a glass table with a vase full of flowers rests in the foreground). Although his painting of Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool is the most famous work, a later one finds Schlesinger sat alone, slightly at right angles to the viewer but still staring back, the pose used on Divine. Later, I walk around the National Portrait Gallery - I still think it an institution more marked for its commitment to historical narrative than to artistic excellence but I was struck by Roger Fry's portrait of Edward Carpenter, showing him in a spartan interior and his reflection only half visible in a mirror, leaving his figure to nonetheless dominates the room.

The BBC adaptation of Dracula was surprisingly original. It bends the novel to fit the conventions of the horror film (as with the deaths of Harker and Holmwood), but foregrounds the theme of occultism (rather reminding me of Huysman's The Damned) and the more obvious theme of syphilis, as opposed to Coppola's Faustian interpretation of the role of plague in Herzog's film. It did occur to me that the renewed 'threat' of immigration from Eastern Europe has given the novel a new resonance; this is after all the year Romania joined the European Union. Volver is a welcome return to the the camp humour and magical realism of Almodovar's earlier films, especially What Have I Done to Deserve this? (whose plot it resembles), combining this with the Hitchcockian plotting of Mala educacion. Children of Men falls uneasily between the apocalyptic and political genres, failing to formulate a consistent political critique on the one hand while failing to abstract those concerns into the the nihilism demanded by the former genre. Every part of the film refers to minor extrapolations of what can be seen in daily news broadcasts; low fertility rates, ethnic violence, immigration, state authoritarianism, terrorism etc.

Lawrence's Mornings in Mexico finds him once more enraptured by male beauty during Indian dances while only noticing the women's clothing; "the men are naked to the waist.. they are handsome, and absorbed with a deep rhythmic absorption." In describing the Indian culture, he celebrates themes of unity in a manner that is reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ("creation is a great flood, for ever flowing. in lovely and terrible waves. In everything the shimmer of creation and never the finality of the created") but as with Pirsig, the narrator figures as an outsider throughout (something emphasised by the absence of Frieda from the domestic setting), even finding himself uncomfortable with the presence of tourist crowds at the Hopi snakedance. Last Words by William Burroughs, reminded me of TS Eliot's complaint that Blake had concocted his philosophy from bits and bobs left around the house. Throughout, Burroughs reads an assortment of mystical and conspiracy theory writings designed to gull the credulous. He dotes on his cats and his collection of guns (reminding me of Self's waspish comment that Burroughs hated women and loved guns).

Turgenev's Home of the Gentry presents a fable of a rootless man like Rudin ("you're a thinking man - and yet you lie around... you're all well-heeled layabouts.. this ecstasy of boredom is the ruin of the Russian people"), which is complicated by a rival fable of rural virtue and urban corruption. The Russian admiration of the peasantry complicates a novel that could easily have become a narrative of individual damnation like Madame Bovary and instead gains a sense of the diminishing effect of the environment that has more in common with The Return of the Native or Ethan Frome. For example, Mikhalevich exhorts Lavretsky to work on the land and to concern himself with the welfare of his peasants, a fate that ultimately only manifests itself as a form of punishment. Russia destroys its own children and those that linger too long, such as Lemm's death in impecunious exile, feeling like "a fish out of water". Although Lavretsky and Panshin differ on issues of westernisation and slavophilia, neither worldview is material to their respective fates in the narrative which effectively share the same end; "we're sick because we've only become half-European; we must cure ourselves with more of what has made us sick." The realist context of the novel with its complex of patterning of economic, social and political strands is thus at odds with a metaphysical theme that sees life in Schopenhauerian terms; "he had actually ceased to think about personal happiness... he had become tranquil"

Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs is unusual in American fiction for its emphasis on community and place (the very name being reminiscent of Middlemarch (the statement at the end of Marsh Rosemary being akin to that at the end of Middlemarch) or Cranford). Men figure throughout as objects of ridicule or of cruelty (Captain Littlepage and the pompous Minister that visits Joanna on the one hand, or Joanna's betrayer himself on the other) in contrast to the supportive community of women symbolised by Mrs Todd and her mother; "Mrs Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever society can give or take" (although events like Mrs Todd knocking the Minister down do challenge ideas about gender, Jewett is essentially a traditionalist on this score, blaming William for lack of ambition in a way no female character would be treated). Nonetheless, the location of Dunnet next to the sea introduces themes that recall Melville more than Austen. Both men and women yearn for the sea ("a far-off look that sought the horizon... inherited by girls and boys alike") and the novel foregrounds themes of individual isolation repeatedly, as with Joanna again ("doomed from the first to fall into melancholy... 'twas her poor lot") or the neighbours that never see one another from one year to the next ("for three generations the people had not spoken to each other even in times of sickness or death or birth"). Joanna's role is given to a male character in The King of Folly Island, where it is his daughter once more that stands for the feminine social virtues. Fishermen are portrayed as being at one with nature ("you felt almost as if a landmark pine should suddenly address you") more than with humanity, while the community is made up of women, but in stories like The White Heron this is reversed and it is women who are seen as being at one with nature (as with Mrs Todd's herbal medicines being opposed to the Doctor's remedies).

Whereas the realist novel typically works by assuming an empirical worldview, contrasting the individual consciousness against the social setting, Jacques the Fatalist operates in the conditional tense, continually disrupting linear narrative with a series of what if 'butterfly effect' discursions and interruptions. This feeds into the dialogic character of the novel, where the narrator simply notes of the debates between Jacques and his master; "and they were both right... has not everyone his own character, according to which he either exaggerates or attenuates everything?" The repeated interjections from the narrator also emphasise the fictionality of events and their arbitrary character. Diderot accepts Hume's critique of the reliability of the evidence of the common senses but is less certain when it comes to Hume's critique of causality. Throughout, Diderot uses ambiguous language ("what is written up above.. is it we who controls Destiny or Destiny which controls us?") to describes Jacques's fatalism, leaving it unclear whether a mechanistic materialism (adopting Spinoza's ideas over Hume's; "good brings bad after it and bad brings good") or a sense of religious destiny is being described (for instance, the idea of providence leading Jacques's brother into the Lisbon earthquake accords with a religious satire along the same lines as Voltaire's Candide).

Prevost's Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it... or else a christian... I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux's crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel's core.

De Nerval's writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval's Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer's Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame's imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie (set in a landscape associated with Rousseau) similar emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends's opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life... Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless... there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

Baudelaire's poetry reminded me of Arnold's line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold's response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire's is considerably more complex. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen... as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel... but the damned rebel always answers "I won't!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks pf throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire's poetry owkrs by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Zola's The Earth bears a surprising resemblance to Hardy's novels (Nenesse is described as being proud of his roots as if he were a tree, centering the issues of place and displacement in exactly the same way Hardy does); both situate their characters within a rural environment that is being displaced by modern industry and commerce, both present their characters in quasi-Darwinian terms of their connection to nature, and both present them in terms of their struggle for existence. Zola's propensity for biological explanations of human behaviour is dominant here, with characters repeatedly described as animals (Buteau is "like soem great carnivorous beast") while only Lequeu is seen in more environmental terms in so far as his education has left him deracinated ("a country boy who through education had become imbued with a hatred for his class. he used to brutalise his pupils who he called savages" - a hatred it should be said that Zola shares as all of the educated characters despise the peasantry). Although the novel is replete with references to the oppression of the peasantry, there is something distant too it in so far as the peasants are described as being too lazy to take any effective action. The novel accordingly lacks the political engagement in Germinal and events effectively play out their own logic without reference to the overall social context in the way that Zola's urban novels tend to. Modern innovations are frequently seen as immaterial in the country so that Hourdequin's agricultural improvements simply breakdown and avail him little in spite of his predictions that the French soil is dying of exhaustion without them. Further intimations of decline, such as talk of declining faith and the villager's indifference to the absence of a priest equally prove themselves as irrelevances as the customary pattern of things reasserts itself for reasons of nothing more than social convention.

White's A Fringe of Leaves presents an especially interesting dialectic between civilisation and nature. The protagonist and her dual identities of Ellen Guyas and Mrs Roxburgh represents both of these aspects, rendering the disjunction between individual consciousness and the environment in the novel rather inconsistent. On the one hand, the novel depicts women as vulnerable and dependent on men; the murder of Garnet Roxburgh's and Chance's wives, while it is the modern Eve (the title being an implied reference to Genesis), Ellen, who best survives the expulsion from Eden, as her civilised husband is killed. The novel seems to constantly refer to Pygmalion; Ellen is both rescued from her wild early life by her husband but later comes to depend on that part of her nature after the shipwreck.

Niedzviecki's Hello, I'm Special presents an argument I have much sympathy with; that in a culture where individuality and rebellion are continually lauded as socially desirable, rebellion and individuality cease to be meaningful. Partly, Niedzviecki's concerns stem from a feeling that modern culture lacks a means to engender consent, but the argument seems confused on this score; the rebels he presents living on isolated islands are surely part of the same culture of rugged individualism in the United States that goes back to Thoreau and which has its trite expression in the films and music Niedzviecki denounces, rather than being a genuine expression of something the mainstream is faking. Equally, Niedzviecki notes that religious traditionalism may be more rebellious than commonly accepted ideas of rebellion, although his arguments invariably proves sufficiently elastic than almost anything can be regarded as a manifestation of 'individualistic conformity,' even when he himself notes that modern society is both homogenous and conformist.

Food cooked: Tiramisu, Baron of Hare, Vietnamese chicken with coconut, Singapore Laksa, Chinese chicken glazed with Orange and Apple, Singapore curry, Keralan Crab Curry, Thai hot and sour duck, Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng, Pork with parsnips, pears and maple syrup, Duck Vindaloo, Vietnamese curry, Tapas (Egg stuffed with Manchego and Sardine, Flamenco eggs, crab with flaked almonds), Mustard Spiced Indian chicken, Indonesian pork with soy sauce and nasi kunung, Moroccan chicken with lemon and olives, Pearl Barley rissotto with crab, Pork Stroganoff, Romanian Duck Jubilee, Louisiana Jambalaya, Chicken Mole, Poulet al'estragon, Kefta Mkaouara, Vietnamese chicken with sweet potato curry, Thai green curry, Red Thai Curry, Italian chicken stuffed with pear and chestnut, Spaghetti with Salmon and cream, Morroccan chicken with lemon and honey, Lamb tagine with ras el hanout, Vietname duck with nuts and dates.

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posted by Richard 7:40 AM

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

"A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies."
- Larkin

It was a delightfully misty morning today, with all the trees and hedges silvered with frost. Braving the cold, I travelled into London for the British Museum's exhibition on the Persians. Arriving a little early, I wandered around the Great Court and some of the other exhibits, including the Sutton Hoo finds, a double headed turquoise Aztec serpent and Chinese miniature landscapes. The largest room in the exhibition was taken by a series of exhibits from Persepolis and Susa, combining original sculptures and friezes from Iran and nineteenth century casts held by the museum. The walls were lined with friezes showing the differing peoples of the Persian Empire paying tribute to Darius, as well as a frieze of faience glazed bricks showing one of the 'Immortal' guards (a similar style to the Ishtar gate in Babylon). This room also had one of the bull-headed columns that would have supported the roof of the Apadana at Persepolis. Most of the other exhibits were rather smaller, showing intricate gold jewellery and tableware, finishing with the Cyrus cylinder, describing the conquest of Babylon.

Derby's Cathedral is an odd mixture of architectural styles, its tall gothic tower where peregrines nest being joined to an understated neo-classical chancel. Light effortlessly flows into the interior, causing the gold and white that covers the Baldachin and broad columns to shine. I'm not sure I don't prefer the more enigmatic gloom of a gothic cathedral to this sunny and typically English idea of religion (Lichfield, for instance, always seems to hide so many small details that are easy to overlook, such as the Green Man carvings I saw recently at the top of columns in the Chad's Head chapel); the one contrary aspect to the cathedral is yet another of Fyodorov's icons, this time of Jesus.

Derby museum houses a diverse range of exhibits, the most interesting of which is the gallery of Joseph Wright paintings. These veer from Arcadian views of the Italian countryside, Mythical scenes, rustic views of the Midlands and his most famous works, showing various industrial and scientific scenes from orreries to blacksmith's workshops (not to mention that many of his portraits are of industrialists, such as ). It's an odd combination, which reflects the rapid changes wrought by the industrial revolution. In many respects, this is something I find rather depressing; the Midlands was a technological and economic powerhouse, the home of Lunar Men like Erasmus Darwin, Boulton and Watt. Today, most of the industries they helped to create have vanished from the region. Some pictures, showing the sea through a cave (black and turquoise) reminded me strongly of Arkhip Kuindhzi's Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, though the rendering of the waves was not particularly well done.

Elsewhere in the museum are some smaller exhibitions on Egyptian Mummies, as well as pieces dating from the Viking occupation of the Mercian capital, Repton, including a boar's tusk and crow's foot from a Viking burial (offerings to Odin). I note some small orange ladybirds in a garden nearby; odd for the time of year. I call at St Wystan's in Repton on the way back, including the crypt where the Mercian Kings were buried. The modern church is largely 15th century, but the crypt largely remains Saxon, supported by barley sugar columns. I went round a few churches in the area as well; most interesting was the church in Abbot's Bromley, where the antlers for the horn dance are kept.

As the days passed, the snow came. Only the lightest dusting but enough to change the aspect of trees and buildings into something rich and strange (especially the sudden visibility of cobwebs on bushes). It was also enough to leave the local birds feeling rather hungry and Tits, Robins, Dunnocks, Blackbirds came to feed at the table, while Greater-Spotted Woodpeckers, Yellowhammers, Greenfinches, Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Jays and even a Tawny-Owl were seen nearby.

I'd been to Wightwick Manor before, but it's a place I loved going to, ranking easily alongside Kelmscott Manor and Leighton House as one of my favourite places. It's a wonderful concatenation of Victorian redbrick and hotchpotch ha lf-timer, much like Little Moreton Hall but more ornate. This time, I noticed many new details like the Phoenix and Dragon carvings by the fireplace or the Dragon and Owl carvings by the doorway. Much the same can be said of All Saint's Church in Herefordshire, surrounded at this time of year with the dead flowers of wild Clematis and Mistletoe thriving in the bare trees. An arts & crafts building constructed around 1900, it combines an awkward miscellany of differing architectural styles; a wooden spire (above the porch rather than the chancel) and a thatched roof, with a low building carved from the pinkish local stone. The interior is whitewashed with low arches sharply pointed upwards while diamond-shaped lamps hang down. The effect of this is oddly art-deco but most of the interior is emphatically different; the altar is flanked by two Burne-Jones tapestries while the window frames are patterned with ribbonwork designs.

I watched the two most famous Frankenstein films at a recent video evening; the Universal film (starring Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye) and the Hammer film (starring Lee and Cushing), with the customarily interesting reception differences. In the Universal Film, Frankenstein is both a hero redeemed by his love for Elizabeth into destroying the monster and the insane criminal that created it (similarly, the monster is both mistreated and simply a vicious animal that can do no other); two separate endings were filmed that reflected this difference, one where he dies as a punishment and another (the one we saw) where he is allowed to marry Elizabeth. Conversely, the Hammer film shows Frankenstein as a ruthless sociopath who keeps the monster chained up and treats it like an animal; the violence that follows is largely his own doing. One thing both films have in common is that although they depict his work as unnatural and immoral, they both suggest that it would have been eminently feasible for the experiment to have gone perfectly had events taken different course; not an idea in the original novel and one that the Hammer sequel, Revenge of Frankenstein, used to excellent effect, depicting Frankenstein much more sympathetically as someone essentially undone by events.

Brokeback Mountain originally fitted into a collection of stories, dealing with the harshness of life against the American landscape, Proulx's narratives are concerned with the quasi-mystical connection between man and the landscape (especially contained in the romanticised image of the cowboy) in the first instance and the hardness of life in impoverished and conformist rural communities in the second. The original context weaved homosexuality as a single thread within a larger pattern. Once it becomes the pattern in the film, the result seems somewhat unsettling; homosexuality is foregrounded as something aberrant from its setting but is still treated in similar terms to the way Proulx wrote the other stories.

Proulx describes the story thus "It is a love story. It has been called both universal and specific, and I think that's true. It's an old, old story. We've heard this story a million times; we just haven't heard it quite with this cast." To some extent, this could apply to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin but more than any other, it reminded me of Hardy and The Return of the Native or even Wharton and Ethan Frome. The mountain displaces Egdon Heath while Jack and Ennis play the same roles as Eustacia and Damon. In both cases, fate is something ineluctable and changing social mores are not to be conceived of; class and environment are paramount. By contrast, gay writers have tended to present matters differently. To take Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Baldwin's Giovanni's Room or White's A Boy's Own Story, the narrative typically has its protagonist abandoning his rural background in favour of the city (or Europe, in Baldwin's case), with the liberation that follows from that being balanced by their sense of internalised homophobia. Sexual identity is a sufficient case in its own right and other issues are more easily transcended, dealing as these books do with middle-class life (though Baldwin did later write novels that took considerations like class and race into account). In Proulx the question of a gay identity is surprisingly absent (Jack and Ennis lacking any vocabulary to describe it) and questions of class are at least as important.

As such, it's not surprising that there has been some ambivalence over the political implications of the film. On the one hand, the film takes an icon of American masculinity and subverts it; on the other it predicates the audience's acceptance of the characters on their masculinity, (whereas femininity would have been more subversive), their lack of a sexual identity and their status as victims. Accordingly, the film chooses to dwell on Ennis as the lead character, too unimaginative and bound by the internalised homophobia bequeathed to him by his father to be able to consider breaking free of it. By contrast, Jack is less constrained, and is able to imagine the possibility of another life with Ennis or at the very least furtive escapism over the Mexican border (which revealingly represents the film's only portrayal of the urban gay lifestyle). While Jack's death is certainly eminently plausible (the parallel with the Matthew Shepherd murder being introduced in the film) it does nonetheless come over as a form of judgement on him for daring to imagine too much.

Radio 3 has been broadcasting Bach continuously, including the Toccata and Fugue as played on the organ and the violin (the latter being suggested to be the instrument the piece was originally composed for). Having previously heard Stokowski's orchestral arrangement and Grainger's piano arrangement, I was a little surprised by the violin arrangement. At some points, it sounded rather thin (lacking the reverberation produced by an organ and therefore simply falling silent), in others the sweetness of the sound did seem to lend the piece a different aspect. On the whole though, I'm not convinced.

Pamuk's The White Castle uses the format of a picaresque adventure in the manner of Rasselas or Candide, but is rather more detached from its allegorical aims (the castle of the title simply represents something unattainable). Pamuk treats phenomena as a matter of differance, where, lacking any attainable noumenal aspect (the ending mentions "some infinite-point in the emptiness... some non-existent focal point"), phenomena acquire an undifferentiated character, which only become distinct through interpretation (that of the Sultan, for example); "I began to believe that my personality had split off from me and united with Hoja's."

Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary presents a disorientating set of viewpoints, between theism and atheism, treatise and satire, philosophy and polemic. Somewhat surprisingly, the clearest parallel to it is Swift's Tale of a Tub. Voltaire's style is essentially deconstructive and parasitic upon the discourses he dismantles, leaving the question of his own viewpoint largely elided. On the one hand, religion is described as leading to violence while even the taboos on such matters as cannibalism are dissected (though not those on homosexuality or anti-semitism, where it is uncertain as to whether Voltaire's prejudice is theological or racial). On the other, Chinese philosophy and Quakerism are praised for their record on toleration, as he distinguishes between dogma, superstition and morality, between artificial and natural religion. Instead, he repeatedly emphasises the limits of human knowledge, stating that the purpose of the Dictionary is to ask questions; "he concluded that beauty is decidedly relative; in the same way that which is decent in Japan is indecent in Rome, and what is fashionable in Paris is not so in Peking."

Zola's La Bete Humaine presents, like Crime and Punishment and Bleak House, an early instance of the detective novel (anticipating the role trains were to play in Agatha Christie's fiction in particular). Where much of Zola's fiction deals with the extent of environmental and genetic influences, La Bete Humaine heavily weights matters in favour of the genetic; unlike many of his other novels, much of this is set in rural environments, while none of his characters are compelled to kill for financial reasons; "but wild beasts are still wild beasts, and however much they go inventing still better machines, there will be wild beasts underneath just the same." To a large extent, this seems surprising; this period of urbanisation and industrialisation gave birth to modern policing, the idea of the panopticon and the idea of the detective novel. Indeed, Zola's withering portrayal of police ineptitude more resembles those of Wilkie Collins than Dostoevsky; the biological basis for Jacques' distemper is not one that is susceptible to the normal techniques employed by society (which instead chooses to preserve itself at a time of unrest by covering the matter up). Instead, the interest of the novel is with the portrayal of Jacques. Where Raskolnikov's crime is motivated by material concerns and forms the nexus point for a set of metaphysical concerns, this is only true to a limited extent for Jacques, who more resembles the protagonist of American Psycho; "at certain times he could clearly feel this hereditary taint... at such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him." Jacques is both unable to control his instincts and aware of them from afar, caught between Zola's materialism and a more metaphysical portrayal.

A Year in Thoreau's Journal and Walden offer a contradictory picture of their author, Most obviously, Thoreau's view of science is not dissimilar to that of Blake but he meticulously documents the botany of Concord while citing Linnaeus, Humboldt and Darwin. Equally, there is considerable ambiguity as to whether his eremitic existence is a product of misanthropy or mysticism (what we might now consider either a counter-culture lifestyle); "I go through the fields endeavouring to recover my tone and sanity & to perceive truly and simply again...a fatal coarseness is the result of mixing in the trivial affairs of men. Though I have been associating even with the select men of this.. I feel inexpressibly begrimed." However, Thoreau is rarely consistent, elsewhere observing that "what recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery." When Thoreau refused to pay taxes as a gesture of civil disobedience regarding the Mexican war, he explained it as "men with pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd fellow society." In part, such narratives seem the product of social resistance in part of rugged individualism; his view that "the best government (is) where the inhabitants are least often reminded of the government" is after all as much a product of American suspicion of central government as it is of romanticism.

The tendency with Thoreau is to aestheticise social questions, often seeing poverty through the lens of his own asceticism; "my greatest skill has been to want but little... I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles." For example, when hearing a factory bell, Thoreau's tendency isn't to imagine toil but to envisage matins in a spiritual community of holy knights; "of what significance are charity and alms houses? That they live unmolested.. a certain wealth of nature not poverty it suggests. Not to identify health and contentment.. with the possession of this world's goods." When looking at said workers (his reactions to Irish labourers in particular are rather reminiscent of Carlyle), his typical reaction is one of snobbishness; "the filthiness of his house... I am reminded there are all degrees of barbarism even in this so-called civilised community." But equally, this leads him to call for the state to educate such citizens to 'refine and civilise' them (a curiously Whiggish conceit for Thoreau). Conversely, at the other end of the social spectrum he writes that "give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable to me and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor - poor farmers." In spite of the railways and telegraph Thoreau invariably attempts to see the country as being isolated from its social and economic aspects.

Umberto Eco's How to Travel with a Salmon presents a number of differing versions of irony, from the clearly ironic assertions of the ludicrous in place of the commonplace (advice on how to smuggle bodies through customs) to sly insinuations of oblique views to displace the commonplace (creating a chain of reason to demonstrate that such hated devices as faxes and mobile phones could only be the preserve of the common and vulgar). Rather than clear exercises in irony and satire, his object is more to show the slippery relation of signifier and signified, often dwelling on sign systems such as road signs and instruction manuals.

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posted by Richard 7:10 AM

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Sunday, October 5, 2003

I've visited the Gardens at Wisley, which, while rather more mannered and less curious than those at Kew, are certainly not without interest. This year the English autumn has been more of a New England fall, with vivid golds, reds and yellows everywhere. But these gardens were caught in that liminal moment between summer and autumn; a bonfire tree's leaves turned flaming red, while lilac crocuses flower.

The most striking feature is a country house built in 1903 in imitation of a seventeenth century manner; a testament to the English ability to invent tradition (or to travels in hyperreality, depending on your point of view). Although the gardens have large areas dedicated to woodland and lakes, the two most striking areas for me (perhaps rather predictably) were the glasshouses (less striking than those at Kew, but with some interesting bromeliad displays) and Japanese garden (filled with slate stones amidst gravel, bamboo, Acers and bonsai juniper).

Another event was a second video evening, again showing two versions of Dracula; the first with Bela Lugosi, the second with Christopher Lee. The Lugsosi version benefits considerably from his presence and that of Dwight Frye or Edward Van Sloan, as well as some well designed sets. On the other hand, it is resolutely (brazenly, some might say) cast in the mould of melodrama and features some rather amusingly unconvincing bats and spiders (not to mention the somewhat bizarre presence of armadillos). The sequel, Dracula's Daughter is a more staid affair, in which the eponymous heroine decides that Freudian psychoanalysis is the obvious means of curing her vampirism.

I've read The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. The novel reflects Pericles striking Phidias' statue of Athena to force it to speak; "What does it mean? What do you mean? The paper, of course, yields, no answers;" there is, quite literally, nothing outside the text. Accordingly, the novel grafts an anachronistic postmodern view of language onto ancient Greece; "words simply lead to other words, thoughts to other thoughts and the truth remains unattainable... Someone else would, with utter confidence, produce a different version, evoking different images... to another reader they might be something quite different.. images change, they're imperfect. " Within this context, a debate on Platonic ideas ensues; each chapter of the novel uses differing phrases to build up eidetic images corresponding to the Platonic notion of ideas. These ideas would not vary for differing readers; the discovery of such a consensus would point to a discovery of a world that is rational, beautiful and just. However, the novel characterises such attempts in the mode of tragedy, with the discovery of a Bacchic cult within Athens, and the more postmodern deus ex machina of exposing the translator and his footnotes as being as much a textual construct as the other characters.

Perhaps the problem is that this conclusion is an ineluctable as that of a Greek tragedy (with the possible exception of the fact that both Heracles' rationalism and Diagoras' idealism are thwarted by the text). As such, while the parallels this has provoked to Pale Fire and The Name of the Rose are well earned, I am not quite as persuaded by this curiosity, which seems perhaps a little too geometric; as John Bayley argued literature perhaps needs to be a little untidy; "The conventional novel depended on our "not knowing" in life, its function being to supply the omniscience that life denies. James has now found how to turn into art the fact that in life we never find anything out. " In essence, The Athenian Murders denies its characters the omniscience it comes close to claiming for its author by proxy Philotextus. The ethos behind conceiving an author as puppet master seems opposed to the emphasis on plurality of meaning.

I've also been reading My Education: A Book of Dreams by WS Burroughs. It's been described as a book of the mythology that underpins the Burroughs cannon and certainly much of what we would expect in that regard is present and correct. However, the absence of the cut-up technique changes both context and meaning; the land of the dead or post-apocalyptic landscapes are peopled with figures from his own past, and disquisitions on the possibility of immortality. Given these intimations of mortality, the novel, like Queer to some extent, provides a curiously intentional aspect to the Burroughs oeuvre.

Finally, I've also read Sartre's The Reprieve (read alongside Pullman's The Subtle knife; a disturbingly appropriate combination), The structure of this book, flitting from the stream of consciousness of one character to another leaves me oddly reminded of a Victorian novel; in the sense that Dickens and Eliot showed the interrelation of otherwise unconnected characters through the plot devices of their respective novels. Sartre does this to some extent (as with the meeting of Philippe, Mathieu and Irene) but relies on stylistic techniques to achieve a similar effect; "each dimension was an autonomous consciousness...yes, each of those consciousness, by imperceptible contacts and insensible changes, realises its existence as a cell in a gigantic and invisible corral." Where The Age of Reason retained a much more conventional bourgeois form at odds with its themes, The Reprive is more experimental. However, this should be viewed in the context of the Sartrean tension between existentialism and humanism, which is why the structure of the novel largely sees its characters remaining separate from one another, unlike in Dickens or Eliot. Accordingly, at some points Sartre tends to agree with Merleau Ponty that "Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open" and elsewhere tends towards a Marxist critique of freedom.

For example, Mathieu considers that "If I had done what I wanted, if I had once, only once, succeeded in being free - well, that would in my case have been an ugly deception, since I should merely have exercise my freedom in this false piece.. I am free for nothing." Daniel faces the same predicament; "Why can't I be what I am... a loathsome object that does not even manage to exist." The novel is certainly dialogic on this point; is this being-for-itself or the frustration of one's freedom. In the similar case of Philippe, we decides that he is condemned to freedom and faces his own cowardice, but his predicament is couched in the same terms as those of Daniel. The absence of a defined structure allows for a polyphonc interplay between the characters; for example, being-for-others ("I am seen therefore I am" as Daniel puts it) being represented by the unthinking conformity of a bourgeois character receiving his call-up papers, some of the female pacifist's showing for being-for-others for the opposite reason, while Gomez's commitment to fighting is another aspect of being-for-itself.

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posted by Richard 2:50 PM

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Wednesday, January 1, 2003

I visited Wightwick Manor over Christmas. It's a decidedly odd house. As one approaches the rather ramshackle building one is struck by the contrast between the mock Tudor facade and the Victorian redbrick. Similarly, the medievalism of the house contrast within the plumbing and electricity (rather like the New Palace at Sanssouci).

Inside, the house has some wonderful William Morris rugs and wallpaper, Kempe stained glass, De Morgan pottery and paintings from Ford Madox Brown. The main highlight of the Manor is the hall, which has a marvelous Venetian mirror and a Burne Jones painting. It also has a Bison head mounted on the wall, who was suitably attired with seasonal decorations.

I got through quite a great deal of reading; The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer, My Idea of Fun by Will Self (a rather queasy mixture of magical and social realism; I have to conclude that Self seems mainly best when confined to short stories), Misreadings by Umberto Eco (a rather carnivalesque series of parodies based upon the idea of distorted perspectives; perhaps a little too contrived and simplistic in this form), Chroma by Derek Jarman (a set of meditations upon the differing significances of colours; perhaps at its best when Jarman becomes distracted from his rather rigid theme), Becoming a Man by Paul Monette (not unlike White's A Boy's Own Story) albeit rather more politically strident, and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was rather disappointing; a rare case where the film version, Tarkovsky's beautifully eerie rendition, was much better. The novel does address some of the themes more fully (particularly suicide), but suffers from being rather excessively discursive; the descriptions of Solaris adding little to the book. Update: I've now seen the more recent remake of Solaris (remake of the film as much as the book, I suspect), which was considerably better than I expected. The disconnected quality to the filming (more reminiscent of Kubrick than Tarkovsky it should be said; perhaps a 2001 remake is in order) and the special effects both work quite well, and the film introduces several interesting ideas; e.g. concerning the morality of killing the duplicates, especially with the idea of Snow attacking and being killed in self defence by a duplicate of himself. On the other hand, I do agree somewhat with Lem's own critique of the film; it does dwell excessively on Kris and Rheya, and excludes some of the ideas concerning the Solarian organism's attempts at communication.

Noting that I don't often write about films on this page, I thought I should mention two films I rediscovered; Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and u>Matador by Pedro Almodavar. The latter perfectly balances the Freudian dilemma; on the one hand the liberation of the lovestruck pair of sociopaths (civilisation and its discontents) and the convergence of Thanatos and Eros. On the other, the consequences of repression through Angel and his mother. It's interesting that similar themes should re-emerge in Almodavar's latest, more naturalistic, film Talk to Her, though there the characters are left deprived of dignity and stature. Stalker reminds me of T S Eliot's description of Hamlet; in the absence of the fabled room, there is no objective correlative. As ever with Tarkovsky, the lingering footage of the landscape is especially haunting conveying so much more than the landscape in Apocalypse Now. But it's also about our stunted capacity for wonder; a kind of postmodern fairytale.

HG Wells pleasantly surprised me somewhat. In the same way that the socialist morality fable of The Time Machine is subverted by having the stereotyped characteristics of the Eloi/Proletariat and the Morlocks/Bourgeoisie inverted, The First Men in the Moon is equally ambivalent. In some ways the film seems a denunciation of colonialism; " What business have we here smashing them and destroying their world?" as the explorers attack the Selenites who spare cavor in return. The film is less than sympathetic to colonialism; "Governments and powers will struggle to get hither, they will fight against one another." The perspectives of Cavor and Bedford are deliberately counterposed; one is belligerent to the Selenities in the capacity of a practical man, while the scientific interest of the other leaves him cold and removed from concern for others. Accordingly, Cavor's account of the Selenite socialist utopia is deliberately undermined as he records overcoming his irrational practices to the imposition of roles upon the Selenites ("trained from their earliest years to give a perfect respect and obedience"), or even the drugging of workers between shifts.

I also read some of E F Benson's horror stories. On the whole, I do not consider his apparent obsession with either slugs or spiritualism to be healthy; much of his work is unpleasantly reminiscent of some of Conan Doyle's ill advised ventures into this field. Algernon Blackwood is, overall, the better horror writer. Also read John Wyndham's The Seeds of Time. I like Wyndham, but he is so much better when his pessimism shines through his whimsy.

Wightwick Manor

Juan Goytisolo's novel, A Cock Eyed Comedy was especially interesting.
Essentially a picaresque rendition of Orlando, the novel perfectly matches Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia and carnival; "in church language.. in order to parody it from within and expose its hypocrisy," a subversive intent that recalls Genet. That said, the carnival form is not ideal for subversion, since carnival is dependent (parasitic, even) on the order it seeks to invert, something Goytisolo partly acknowledges; "why don't you denounce tout court the backwardness and oppression.. contradiction and ambivalence nourishes your literary work."

However, the best read was The Garden of Secrets by Juan Goystisolo.
Told by differing narrators, this is a truly polyphonic novel with differing
perspectives and styles; "to realise a creative mix of perspectives and possibilities ... with digressions and alternatives." Elsewhere one of the narrators comments "I strive to see myself from someone else's point of view." As such, differing narrators lambast each other, accusing one another of lack of scientific rigour and of introducing anachronisms; "circumscribed by severely blinkered vision." Some of them describe the central character as an ascetic, some as an epicure; "I felt watched from a thousand differing anglesand sides, harassed by a prismatic gaze, a multiple, polyhedral eye." Like Kundera, Goytisolo equates the steely examining eye of the omnipresent narrator with that of the panopticon.

Leaving fiction aside, I read Bagehot's The English Constitution and Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. Of the former, I recall Zizek's comment on how the most persuasive radical argument often from conservatives like Pascal; certainly it is a much more insightful document than The Federalist Papers. Of the latter, Nietzsche is as gloriously complex as ever. This is the text that comes closest to presenting the ubermensch in partly racial terms, but Nietzsche also bitterly attacks anti-semitism as a mark of slave morality; "they are all men of resentiment. " Nietzsche is perfectly alive to the ambiguities of the idea of the ubermensch; "consider what a problem it is, Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman." Georg Brandes described Nietzsche's philosophy as "aristocratic radicalism," combining the concept of the elite who define their own values instead of tradition with a commitment to meritocracy rather than to heredity. This text is also the one that comes closest to reconciling these ambiguities in a dialectical, almost Hegelian pattern, in which the re-evaluation of all values will be produced, but it is for these complexities (for example) between regarding science as an aspect of the will to power and a decayed aspect of the christian resentiment of the desire for an impossible truth, that makes Nietzsche so fascinating.

I went to see a performance of Powaqquatsi at the Barbican (it's not often that you see palm trees covered in snow but that was the case outside the building. I still say that the inside resembles a nuclear bunker decorated by Ikea). The music is rather more varied than Koyannisquatsi, and perhaps rather a little too varied. Similarly, the film lacks the visual language used in Koyaanisquatsi (though it does overlay some frozen and moving imagery to good effect). The film seems less than persuaded as to whether it is concerned with the greater spiritualism of the third world (the film is rife with fire and water imagery) or with the destructive effects of economic inequality between first and third world (the two not being quite congruent, but with the latter explanation being suggested by the meaning of the title). In particular, the film has a rather unpleasant tendency towards cheap sentimentality; children in front of guerilla warfare messages or next to trucks on dusty roads.

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posted by Richard 1:25 PM

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