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2016 12 03 In college, sophomore year or so, I passed the teacher who would become my favorite by the following year. I knew he was a John Donne man and Donne was my favorite poet. Th Donne teacher and I paused on the quad, he said something dismissive about Keats, I leaped to Keats’ defense, But Keats used to be my favorite poet, in high school. Mine too he admitted, but we outgrow that. I laughed and laughed, interpreting this exchange to mean that Professor James Zito had his tongue at least half in his cheek. Yes, we both still loved Keats: but really loved Donne. And Shakespeare. Etc.
But I confess: I’d read Keats in high school with the class, not much beyond: not then, little since. Everyone in the culture is steeped in Keats, but it’s not like I seek him out to reread him. Oh, I guess I did when I was sharing this and that with Jan, eight or so years ago: and Jan and I watched the movie Bright Star together …
So much for Keats. Until last night. Me & Orson Wells opens with the protagonist meeting a girl in the museum. She’s quoting Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn. My jaw drops straight down onto my chest. Oh, that’s so great, so profound, I’m unutterably moved. Why haven’t I read more Keats these decades?
Well, now I will: as I lose my sight, as reading becomes a chore, nigh impossible. Writing too.
2016 07 14 Lillian Hellman has been sneaking up on Jan and me. I’ve know a detail or two of her reputation all my life but no constellation of familiarity formed. But it is now. Last week or so we saw Julia, the movie with Jane Fonda playing Hellman, and very damn well. That seems mostly to have been accident: partway in I thought Oh, I recognize this, I’ve seen this before, half a century ago. A Hellman character, Fonda, presents a girlhood friend, Julia: rich, brave, adventuresome … hints of Judaism, and suddenly it’s WWII and Julia is neck-deep in Nazis and pogroms, and Nazi “science”. Deliberately I order The Little Foxes: a Hellman play from the late 1930s, movie 1941: Bette Davis, Theresa Wright. widepedia says it’s an American classic. Yes, and I see why: very damn good: and I’m sure glad Hellman is peeking in one us. Here too I thought I recognized the artifact. I’ll give at least one reasons, scattering other comments as I go.
Hellman portrays an Alabama family at the turn of the 20th Century, Jewish apparently, well-enough off: rich but not very: and they’re stuffed to the rafter with servants: darkies of course, all invisibly witness to multiple family sins: none murdered for their silence, not that I’d put murder past any of them. Bette Davis is the sister among brothers. They inherited this of that, she got married to someone with stocks and bonds in a bank box. Bette Davis has ambitions. Her husband, dying of heart diseases, is disgusted by her ambitions and devizes a marvelous way to clip her wings. Meantime, Theres Wright plays a daughter who isn’t quite as stupid and blind as darkies, and sisters, and daughters are supposed to be.
If you wonder why Lillian Hellman was blackballed under McCarthy, here it is: she’s disgusted by raw greed and common cheating. She would like people to be good Christians or good Jews: to behave like people who believed society should be something more than a carload of cannibals. See? Commie! Christian, Commie: no difference.
Crippled hubbie lives far from sister. Daughter is sent to fetch him home and into sister’s bosom once sister wants crippled hubbie to buy her a piece of a good bourgeois business. Brothers have access to hubbie’s bank, they borrow his RR bonds, like cash, as collateral to enough cash to buy a share of the town’s latest industrial scam. They’ll return the bonds to the safety deposit box before hubby even realized they’ve been borrowed. Brothers think it would be nbice to marry the schumuck bank teller who does the actual stealing to Theresa Wright, but Missie is already kind of soft on the drip across the alleyway.
Sickly hubbie sees that $60,000 is missing from his box, guesses correctly what happened, but foils wife/sister from benefiting: it’s so cute, he tells Belle Davis and he’s swear that he loaned her the bonds: she’ll owe him $60,000; not $1M! She’ll have done her brothers a non-profit favor; she will Not be their partner in some cotton monopoly.
Ah, but he has one of his attacks. He drops the medicine, pleads with Bette to trop upstairs to fetch his backup. She freezes! watches him dying. He tries to climb the stairs, ha ha. She’s staring him to death.
Now daughter wants to know what papa was doing dying on the stairs. Eventually she’ll figure something out, or close enough. Anyway: hubbie is out from under Bette’s evil thumb, and so is daughter.
Bette Davis had told the neighborhood drip that she would not approve of drip courting daughter. Drip says that if he courts daughter he won’t care whether she approves or not!
Wow. The darkie servants see, hear and repeat no evil, but man if they did, they’ve seen and heard Everything!
William Wyler directed. Hollywood ganged up on Talulah Bankhead (actually from Alabama), squeezed Bette Davis in. Davis squeezed Hollywood for more money, a lot more. The movie is quite stagy, in the best way: I bet it looked great on the stage. It certainly did the way Wyler mounted it, especially with the high windows, the lace curtains, the gas lighting … Another great example of “black and white” drama.
Poke around K. here: there are more Hellman comments since.
Bravo Bronte, Gender Roles, Reversals
2016 04 24 Jan and I watched the 2011 version of Jane Eyre last night. Marvelous. My favorite, for the moment. We’ve seen several of them together, who knows how many more individually: a lot. Some movies are one-offs, some come in families: some stink, some are a marvel, but classics have a life of their own.
I said to Jan, not for the first time, that Charlotte Bronte’s gem is unique in one respect: the governess doesn’t trip over the stile and get helped up by a gentleman who happens to be passing by; Rochester falls off his horse, the hors startled by the exexpected presence of Jane, and Jane helps him up! Then Jane saves Rochester from his burning bed, the fire started by his made wife whom we have yet to meet. Blinded in another mad-wife-caused fire, Rochester, now widowed thus, can be morally cared for by his beloved Jane, she herself now rich as sin through a series of unrelated events.
Men and women have murdered each other, seduced each other, raped each other, helped each other, nursed each other, exploited each other for a long time: indeed, that how we survived, by taking each other in, all of us orphans, widows, living on the edge. But in literature it’s been the female who needs a hand up, the male who provides it: and he gets some nooky along the way.
I encountered Wuthering Heights, sister Emily’s opus, in high school. Jane Eyre I didn’t read until college, actually, I may not have read it till grad school: I’ve read books since childhood, long books, heavy books, but I’ve never been good at reading long books on assignment: I read far more than is assigned, but not necessaryily when it is assigned. Anyway, then the movie comes out. In the case of the Victorians, and Jane Austen before them, then movieA, B, C comes out: some for the theater, the public paying at the door, some as trash-TV, the preposterous BBC, the Babylon-revisited whores of Hollywood: some dreary half-hour bull, some nearly-national projects.
Well, I marveled throughout this Jane Eyre at the casting, the costumes, the details of the garden, the interiors … Bravo.
But had it been done badly, no matter how badly, the one fact is immoveable: for reverse sexism in western mythology, Jane Eyre is first: a first.
Think of it, Jane and Rochester, in relation to this: The 1001 Nights. Scheherazade joins a long line of virgins to be wedded, bedded, beheaded by the shah: disposable wives. But this virgin tells him a story, sends him to the bed halfway through, he spares beheading her to hear the end. But the next night goes the same: Perils of Pauline cliffhanger after Poor Pauline scrape: Sinbad is walking the plank, Ali Baba is hiding in the cave … At least one resourceful girl coexisted with all the male doers, shakers, adventurers.
But you know, the shah has always known that his myths are bull, the life can be quite different from the formula.
The contemporary fictions can be as false as always: we watch Arnold Schwarzenegger wield a massive sword with his massive arms and torso, now here’s a ninety pound blond, a fourteen year old, doing the same. Here’s a condemned carpenter palmed by nutty Jews as a god, now here’s an infinite string of real gods getting tortured so the underarm-pimple shah can pretend to run the world, actually running it into the ground.
But, some literature is marvelous.
20107 04 14 Last night Jan and I caught up on Hollywood’s take on Emily Bronte’s indelible Wuthering Heights. That is we saw Samuel Goldwyn’s 1939 version, William Wyler directing, Lawrence Olivier & Merle Oberon starring.
First: now I adore Emily Bronte like few others! I’ll string a bunch of response here.
Here is THE goldmine for kicking culture in the teeth: gender relations, class … Goldwyn made free with the material in such a way that it should get him crucified. Heathcliff and Cathy wander their wuthering moors in immortality?!
I haven’t read the novel since my first time, say around 1954. And god knows when I last saw the movie: maybe around the same time. So, it’s difficult for me to know how much of my imaging of WH is Goldwyn and how much pk out of Bronte. Guy lost in storm begs shelter, is put in a dusty room, a ghost tries to enter though the window! That’s vivid no matter who did it!
Heathcliff is rescued from starvation of the streets of Liverpool: but was it Christian charity? or enslavement? Well, Heathcliff pays them all back a few times over: and Cathy maybe pays him back a few times more: wandering immortally by their castle? Not happily, I’ll wager.
But best of all are the kicks in the teeth to Victorian complacency.
Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation
2016 02 02 I just started to read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Know please that though I have begun to read On the Road I have never finished any Kerouac. Indeed I’ve never gotten far with any of it. I decided to launch this note, as it occurred to me why. I was put off in the 1950s, and have remained put off ever since. I was sitting with my favorite friends, jazz friends, in the West End: me, Myron, Pete Heim … Pete was hailed by music entrepreneur David Levy as the most lyrical talent he’d encountered: in private, amateur, student life that is: he wasn’t counting Bird, or Getz. Anyway, beaming, Pete lauded Karouac, read us a passage from On the Road: something about “Hold on, Baby, I dropped my needle”. Then Pete announced, “We truly are the beat generation!”
That was the first time I ever heard the phrase: and I didn’t think — Hindu cosmology! I didn’t think, oh, beat: like a rhythm pattern. I thought needle: junk, junkies!
It was bad enough that my friends were alldevoted pot smokers; casual talk about heroin was an abomination. Suddenly I was less anxious to love Pete. That was 1957ish. Little did I know that Pete, like Myron, was already a stone junkie. I wish I had known, it would have saved me money and heartache if I’d known to avoid them then, and from then on.
I’ve met people though who seemed like they were already half-genuflecting when they learned that I’d spent years in that milieu, treading Kerouac’s path, breathing his air. I don’t know: he tires me.
2016 02 03 Not comfortable with the story as told yesterday. I just thought to check that memory of Pete citing On the Road: I load the text in kindle, I search for “needle”: find only one usage. I search for “Baby”, find a dozen, but none what my memory assures me Pete read. So: Pete was intruding a new passage? I never thought till now that the quote could be false. I could delete the whole story, or think about it a bit.
Another thing could be wrong with the memory: it seems to me now that we must have been sitting in a booth in the Lions Den, basement of John Jay Hall, on campus, not in the West End.
More Kerouac: Castro’s Cuba
Robinson Crusoe Scrapbook
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: a classic I’m finally, 2015 10 05, actually reading
I’ve read an enormous amount, far more than most others I meet these days, far less than my friends in college: except I keep chugging away at it, I could well have passed most of those friends by now: don’t know, can’t know, don’t want to know.
Professor Nobbe’s 18th-century English lit class assigned Crusoe. I cut an awful lot of the classes, didn’t know what was going on whether I was there or not, but in one such class I came into temporary focus. I remember clearly what Nobbe was saying, and reading from the text. It’s only now, old and half-blind, that I’m catching up on this particular classic: enjoying the hell out of it.
Nobbe read us a passage, I jot my memory of it: Crusoe finds the wreck of his ship breaking up on a reef, swimming distance from shore. He strips off his clothes and swims to the wreck. There he finds the ship’s treasure in gold and silver. Crusoe soliloquizes on the uselessness of gold to a lone survivor of a shipwreck. Then Crusoe fills his pockets with the gold. He further loads himself up with tools and dry goods and swims, thus laden, back to shore. Nobbe wanted to know if we had noticed the total absence of realism in the narrative: if he stripped naked then how did he get pockets to hoard the gold he’d commented on the uselessness of? No, I hadn’t noticed: I hadn’t read it! Did I object? No. I didn’t see anyone in the class objecting. (By the way that class contained such notables and future notables as Arthur MacArthur, his father was General Douglas Mac; Terence McNally, future dramatist; Michael Peter Khan, soon to direct the US’s first performance of Shakespeare’s Pericles, and, following that, Shakespeare in the Park …)
I recall that class today because I’m at least a third of the way through. Crusoe has seen Friday’s footprint in the sand but has yet to meet Friday: or any native. But in my reading Crusoe walks to the wreck, no need to swim: storms have washed the wreck into the shore. He writes about where he stores his goats, his grain, his tools … his desert isle homes are provisioned adequate for the Titanic. But I don’t see no gold, yet. How can I remember Nobbe’s passage so clearly but not yet recognize anything of the details? 2015 10 09 I’m about half way through now. I came upon a passage that I thought would turn out to be the passage of my memory, but it’s not his wrecked ship, it’s another shipwreck: and he sails and rows to it, doesn’t strip and swim. He takes the gold, but doesn’t put it in his pockets, doesn’t swim carrying an added several hundred pounds; but it does soliloquise on the subjective value of coins: no market, no prospective trade partner, no value.
I’m remembering what a one-time teaching office mate, Bruce Spigelberg, told me his doctoral thesis on the subject: not yet completed then (1967), no more than mine on Shakespeare. Bruce said that Robinson Crusoe lands on a desert island and there recreates 18th-century England. Sounded right to me even when I didn’t know the novel any better than any kid with a classic comic. Profound. I hope Bruce finally did write it. I hope more than two people paid attention.
Robinson Crusoe is also reminding me of some hilarious associations: Mark Twain’s satire of James Fennimore Cooper, for one: Twain illustrates the frontier simplicity of his judge’s houseboat on Lake Glimmerglass on which he lives with his two daughters. He humbly has only one Tintoretto over the couch! (You recognize of course that Tintoretto executed huge paintings: huge.)
Image evaporated, insert any Tintoretto.
Crusoe in the same way is also reminding me of Samuel Beckett’s absurd specificity, where the math is accurate but the logic, the sense, insane.
2015 10 06 I just read a passage that delights me: Crusoe observes natives visiting his island by boat, and executing and devouring captives on the beach: ritual execution, cannibalism: and who knows what other, to Crusoe, blasphemies. But then he considers that he doesn’t really know what the judgment of God himself would be in the circumstance! He reflects that the natives are not committing a crime in their own minds. I’m impressed.
This evening I watched the Pierce Brosnan movie. I’d forgotten I’d seen it several years ago. Wonderful. In the movie Robin and Friday go to war against the natives who’d been in the midst of sacrificing Friday. Robin and Friday boobytrap their fortress. Each device is a Rube Goldberg machine: the intruder steps on rigging A, a gear turns, a cock is opened, water flows, turning a wheel, the mouse eats the cheese, and forty pounds of powder blows up thirty invaders. Leonardo could have learned from Robin.
2015 10 09 Almost half-way I come upon another native-savage-cannibal passage: Defoe’s Crusoe’s experience on this island, now twenty-some years in duration has been mostly benign, the danger that torments him seems exclusively to issue from the savagery of cannibal natives. He hasn’t been stung by a jelly fish, no crocodile has lain in ambush for him, he hasn’t been swallowed by an anaconda, bitten by a black mambo … Defoe was imagining narrative about what he knew; not about what others would come to discover. His novel is revealing in the juvenility of his experience. Dig it, eighteenth century, European transocean venturing dating from the fifteenth century, English experience from the sixteenth century, English dominance really just getting extablished.
I reflect further that “boy”‘s lit from Crusoe to Treasure Island mostly concerns dangers and adventures imaginable from the society’s classrooms, not from trekking through the Congo. From my own experience I add Bomba and Tarzan.
An hour later I’m still thinking of that last. England at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century was as benign to humans as land got: a little cool, a little wet, but great for sheep, for agriculture: the snakes had been killed, the people tamed … By the end of the Eighteenth Century England had turned as toxic as land got. Blake’s green and pleasant land had come to serve Lucifer with its dark satanic mills. And Scots Robin lives in plenty, without taxation, without the state of Britain telling him when to breathe, except for the a-Christian cannibals.
Ponder, England, Britain, is an island, a couple of islands, temperate, well-watered. History brought agriculture and animal husbandry to its shore, read Jared Diamond, history is geography. I also recommend Rene Dubose on how civilized humans mistake developed land, pacified land, customized land, for “nature”. But realize also that if the land weren’t relatively safe and benign we couldn’t have evolved into ourselves on it. Transforming things for our supposed advantage is seldom safe, for long, and seldom wise.
Defoe wrote a hell of a story even though he’s got thing after thing wrong. I’m so glad I’m finally reading it. But greatest finally-getting-around-to-it of my old age has been Don Quixote. (And I still have Book II to go!)
Ever closer to half-way, thank you, Zeno, Robin has a dream. (He’s seen Friday’s footprint, but has yet to meet Friday.) He dreams that he attacks a troop of natives commencing their cannibal ritual, he rescues their intended victim, the rescued native, bowns down to him, behaves as his servant: now Crusoe can have an assistant to help escape from his benign island and get back to the one becoming satanic in his own time. Robin has the most wonderful reflections on the morality of a Christian killing nine men because he’s afraid of them. How come I can’t argue before the Supreme Court and before the Pope and Dear Abby that I’m entitled to kill everyone else in the world because they might be a danger to me? States use that logic, why can’t I?
Btw it now occurs to me: we talk of Robin seeing “Friday’s” footprint in the sand on the beach. But decades pass between Robin seeing a human foot print and Robin meeting the native he calls Friday. Not at all likely to be an identity. Robin himself tallies his time between wreck and rescuing Friday as twenty-five years!
Crusoe is a wonderful review of Protestant theology, a couple of sticky difficulties acknowledged.
Thus we never see the true state of our condition, till it is illustrated to us by its contraries; nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it. …
… That whenever he thought fit, he would take the cause into his own hands, and by national vengeance punish them for national crimes …
gratitude was no inherent virtue in the nature of man; nor did men always square their dealings by the obligations they had received, so much as they did by the advantages they expected …
rather be delivered up to the savages, and be devoured alive, than fall into the merciless claws of the priests, and be carried into the Inquisition. …
Defoe commits careful confusions between country and nation: so do we still, blurring geography, history, politics …
At one moment he says to leave things up to God; then he puts himself in posistion to be an extension of God’s arm, waiting for instructions from God. Blur, blur, blur. If a stand here with my rifle aimed at that savage, and God tells me to shoot him (my hearing and interpretation being infallible), then it’s God who shot him, not me.
2015 10 12 This famous book has surprised me in a series of ways: the latest is that I’m half way through the narrative, and find Crusoe back in England! Remember all that gold he carried from a series of wrecked ships? Back home he says it won’t provide him with a comfortable retirement: talk about inflation.
But I’ve had enough for the time being: I’ve gone back to reading Nock: and Arthur C. Clarke. I really should read part two of Don Quixote before I worry about reading all of Crusoe.
Dante, Inferno, Infernal Blasphemy, moved to anonymous blog