Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

The fact that Charles Williams has not had quite the rise in stock as his Oxford associates C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is interesting, although I do recall that when I was an undergraduate in the early 80’s, the campus Christian book shop was quite well stocked with his novels. I attribute his relative obscurity to the fact that his fiction, which is opaque to a frustrating degree, does not appeal to juveniles (there are no Hobbits). The present novel, Williams’ last, is given a kick upwards on the legitimacy scale through an introduction by that grand dame of English letters, T.S. Eliot, who was also addicted to detective novels and Marx Brothers films (Eliot carried on a brief correspondence with Groucho Marx that does no great service to either of their reputations).

Early in his life, before he found theological comfort in the bosom of the Church of England, Williams had an association with the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross which testified to his lifelong interest in things supernatural. This interest colors his major novels, including War in Heaven, The Greater Trumps (referencing the Tarot), and All Hallow’s Eve, which concerns the spirits of the dead in immediate postwar London.

Londoners Lester and Evelyn (of course one would have to be an Evelyn) had the bad luck to be occupying the space where an airplane chose to crash, and now they are disembodied spirits wandering a transdimensional London that is even gloomier than its archetype. Lester has her newlywed husband Richard on her mind, whilst Evelyn, despite her transubstantiation to the ghostly realm, still cannot keep her mouth shut. Lester is not too keen to spend the afterlife with this chatterbox, and lets Evelyn know it. Evelyn spends the rest of the novel harboring resentments against Lester, and a good/bad duality tends to color the novel through their relationship.

Now, the girls had an acquaintance in their school days who just happens to be the daughter of the Antichrist, or at least an ancient Magus a couple hundred years old who has acquired a reputation as a faith healer, and who is well versed in the magic arts, being able to conjure female homunculi with little more than spit, dust, and a weird unearthly light that he emanates when the feeling strikes him. His daughter, Betty (and who would have thought that the Antichrist would have a daughter named Betty?) was sired upon some ol’ sourpuss who goes by the name of Lady Wallingford.

Betty is important to the Magus (Simon the Clerk), because she can disembody herself and wander the streets of London, listening for whispers of the dead and intimations of future events (Simon's goal, if you haven't guessed it, is world domination). Betty is betrothed to a London artist who paints with a God-given clarity, and who has done a portrait of Simon which, like the portrait of Dorian Gray, reveals something of Simon’s true nature. The descriptions of the malevolent Simon and his nativity are some of the most rewarding (evil is always interesting) in the novel.

Charles Williams is not one to spend a lot of time on action, so be ready to read a lot of obtuse blather about the inner motivations of the characters, with generous Christian symbolism, between the surprisingly few scenes where something actually happens. In the course of the novel, Lester learns something about grace and the healing power of love, and comes compassionately to the aid of poor Betty, whose father is just about ready to make her his tool and a permanent resident of the land beyond, an idea to which her loathsome mother is fully in support. Evelyn, on the other hand, becomes even more small minded and resentful, and is clearly headed for the outer darkness.

Williams is a masterful writer, although clarity is not his strong suit. Some of the passages of All Hallow’s Eve are indeed eerie, the kind of eeriness which comes from the realization that Williams himself must have felt quite at home in that nether land between the living and the dead, and had a profound imagining of it. The complex character of Lester is particularly well described, although this makes most of the other characters seem rather one-dimensional in comparison. Despite long stretches of dense prose and thinly veiled theology, there is enough suspense to keep one interested, and by the last chapter, the author is finally willing to let the characters act and speak for themselves enough to propel the action forward. All Hallow’s Eve is a highly literary ghost story with some good points, but overall, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth the effort.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar

The Longest Memory tells the story of a pivotal event in the life of an antebellum Virginia plantation - the whipping to death of a young slave - from the perspectives of several different characters.

The aged slave Whitechapel is central to the narrative. He has learned the art of compliance, of accepting the slave's lot without complaint. For this he has earned the admiration and respect of the plantation owner, and acts as an elder to the slave population. For Whitechapel, existence, despite its sorrows, has become comfortable. In the context of the novel, Whitechapel is an ambigous character. He ultimately loses his status in the eyes of the slaves, for it is he who has revealed (following a promise of leniency) to the plantation owner the location of Chapel, the runaway slave, whom he regards as his son, but whose lineage is more complex. Chapel has committed one of the great sins of slavery. The plantation owner's daughter has taught him to read, and fired by this Promethean knowledge, his head becomes full of his own verses, and of visions of freedom.

I will avoid any further synopsis. This is a short book, imbued with the poetic sensibilities of its talented author, a Guyanese poet. Mercifully, D'Aguiar does not attempt to recreate the vernacular speech of the characters, but rather allows them to speak to us with a precise clarity well suited to the narrative. Despite its brevity, The Longest Memory speaks eloquently of the universally corrupting effect of slavery.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

Soul Mountain is a metaphorical pilgrimage by a modern Chinese writer, undertaken after he is mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer, only to find several weeks later that the diagnosis is in error, earning him a reprieve from death. It is a grand work, but curiously, grand in its individual pieces, not necessarily as the sum of its parts.

In the early 1980’s, Gao Xingjian was a playwright under suspicion by the Chinese government. Faced with a threat of forced rehabilitation, he sets out for the mountainous regions of western China. Once there, he seeks to undertake a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Lingshan, or “Soul Mountain”. This is clearly a metaphor for a journey of self-examination, for although a mountain – or various mountains (ambiguity is a hallmark of this novel) – is explored, it is never explicit that they are the elusive Lingshan.

Wandering through villages and remote outposts, the misty valleys and isolated Daoist enclaves the protagonist encounters are almost timeless, like images from an ancient scroll painting. As a means of illustrating, perhaps, the transitory states of being of the protagonist, Gao never settles on a defining pronoun, which makes for some head-scratching until one gets into the flow of the narrative. Even the term “narrative” is somewhat misleading, in my mind, at least, for one could well shuffle and rearrange the 81 chapters with little discernable impact to the novel.

In addition to being an inward examination of the protagonist, Soul Mountain is also a book about the spatial and temporal immensity of China itself. It is replete with secret Daoist rituals, ancient ruins, folk songs and tales seemingly passed down from time immemorial. Bronze artifacts and stamped bricks seem to litter the landscape, and every abandoned bandit camp seems haunted by the ghosts of China’s deep past. There are abducted maidens and corpses of lovesick girls washed down the mountain streams, and at times the stories might well be updates from the classic anthology of weird tales, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. The protagonist muses on his fate and that of his family, he seeks tales of the legendary Wild Men of the mountains and collects folk songs and artifacts. Amongst it all, the specter of the Cultural Revolution – that forced agrarianism that decimated the intelligentsia – looms large.

There is a certain self-conscious indulgence in some of the writing, especially in the chapter where the author defends the fluid use of pronouns in the novel, in the end telling the reader that there is no point in even reading the chapter he has just finished. There is also an underlying misogyny in the work: many of the chapters alternate with encounters between a man and a woman (or multiple women – that ambiguity again). The women come across as frivolous, needy, or na├»ve, and the author seems preoccupied with describing their positive and negative physical attributes, and one of the later chapters is a long complaint of having to listen to an uninteresting narrative spoken by an “ugly” crone whom the narrator finds particularly repulsive.

The curious thing about this novel of personal pilgrimage and discovery is that, despite flashes of awareness, there seems to be no fundamental shift in the mind of the protagonist, no summit to the mountain except the pessimistic reinforcement of the idea of the transitory futility of human life, and the awareness that, despite his attempts to break away, he is not ready to abandon human society. Anyone approaching Soul Mountain in search of spiritual uplift would likely come away, assuming they have gotten through the 500+ pages, seriously disappointed. Still, the writing is lyrical and compelling in places, enough for a serious reader to stay engaged. For its faults, it remains a fascinating document of a man’s restless and troubled inner life. It is, on its own terms, a masterful book.

Gao Xingjian received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. He lives in Paris, working as a novelist, playwright, critic, and painter.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pale Fire

From the archives, some old notes on a classic. Vladimir Nabokov is one of my favorite authors.

A poem with commentary, the telling of a man's ordinary life and thoughts, interpreted by a exiled king, who sees in every word a reflection of lost Zembla. Or, alternatively, a lost king invented by a poet and interpreted by a madman, or someone's dream world, inhabited by shades.

An ultimately perfect work, and a book that can be read many times in many different ways, Pale Fire is by turns touching and overwhelmingly comic, the rage against tyrants and cruelty and the forces of mediocrity is always just below the surface. One suspects that the deepest compassion of the author (the true author) is particularly evident in this work, portions of which are some of the most clearly spiritual (I use the term loosely) that I've come across in Nabokov's work. Speaking of sins, John Shade states: "I can name only two: murder and the deliberate infliction of pain." Despite his biting criticism and strong opinions, Nabokov never comes across in his works as particularly judgemental.

Nabokov's calm assurance regarding the sort of afterlife he envisions is eloquent, as is, as usual, his precise and exhilarating style of writing. Kinbote, for his insufferability, is a masterful creation of pathos and hedonism, a dim cousin of Humbert Humbert. The poet Shade is less well envisioned, in the commentary, at least (which forms the bulk of the book), but he is a warm enough figure as seen through "his" poem, and the canto dealing with his daughter's death is heart-wrenching. But in the shifting mirror of this complex book, neither identity nor reality is fixed, yet a sense of loss and distance comes through in every word. 09/01

Monday, September 15, 2008

Accumulated Wisdom

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

-Bertrand Russell, quoted in a letter to the editor of NYT Magazine (9/14/2008)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss

I revisited this book in 2004 after 20+ years (a boarding pass bookmark is dated June 1982). Rereading a book after a number of years, especially if it is a good one, rewards one with new insights and perspectives. At times, one is disappointed. I believe that in rereading Levi-Strauss, with his sense of sorrow and the futility of the human race, his sense of the human and environmental catastrophe we have wrought upon the earth these last several hundred years (and accelerated in the 20th century), one must see the truth in his dire perspectives.

Written in 1955, this account, primarily of Levi-Strauss's researches among Brazilian/Mato Grosso tribes in the 1930's*, contained a damning enough account of the miseries of disease, deforestation, and cultural collapse which, true to his prediction, has had a devastating effect on native Brazilians. Other meditations on the miseries of Calcutta; the wasteful cycle of land use in the Americas; the authoritarian, frozen in time deficiencies of Islam; and the transcendent truths of Buddhism tie into the author's narrative.

Finally, this memoir is an excellent exposition of the mental makeup and the cultural rootlessness which characterize the anthropologist. The last few pages, which I have revisited many times over the years, are a beautiful, lyrical (in a book characterized by its lyricism) exposition of man's beginnings and his ultimate significance in the universe. An anthropological classic. 3/04

*Levi-Strauss was the editor of the Tropical Forest volume of the Handbook of South American Indians.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Black Spider

Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is an overlooked masterpiece of horror, a novella telling the story of a Faustian pact made in the Middle Ages, with repercussions through the centuries.

A Teutonic Knight makes cruel and impossible demands upon his subjects, involving the transplantation of one hundred full grown beech trees across a mountain to serve as landscaping for his newly constructed castle. While the peasants are driven to despair by this order, one brave and foolhardly woman makes a pact with a mysterious huntsman, dressed in green with a red beard and devilish eyes. He will see that the task is accomplished, but his price is the unbaptised soul of a newborn infant. The woman, Christine, believes that she can reneg on her end of the bargain with the careful connivance of the peasants and the local priest, but with each child withheld, dire afflictions and death overtake the peasants.

At the conclusion of their deal, the Huntsman had given Christine a peck on the cheek, which immediately burned as if she were being pierced by a red hot poker. Over time, the black spot grew and took on the appearance of a large venomous spider. At one point it bursts, sending forth innumerable spiderlings to plague the valley. Eventually, Christine is subsumed into the spider, which goes on an apocalyptic rampage. In the midst of the carnage, one brave soul finds the inner strength and resolve to trap the spider and cheat the Huntsman, but like the Satan of Revelations, the creature is bound for only a certain number of years, until the morals of the mountain folk degenerate again and the creature is again briefly let loose.

The tale is framed in the context of a 19th century baptismal celebration, and is told by the old grandfather to a group of fat and ruddy faced villagers, who listen with growing terror. The tale is a warning of the necessity of staying on the narrow Christian path, for the spider and it's master, while temporarily defeated, are ever present, ever ready to strike.

The horrors of the arachnid, so well described, contrast vividly with the sunny vitality of the prosperous villagers at the feast. Gotthelf was a "militantly conservative" Christian who wrote this allegory as a cautionary tale. The slow growth of the spider on Christine's cheek, and her growing sense of despair bear unavoidable comparison to Kafka, and although the narrative in summary sounds like something from a B movie, the writing is effective in inducing the sense of terror that grips the valley. The Black Spider is an excellent example of early horror writing.

There are several anthologies which include The Black Spider. The translation I read was in German Novellas of Realism, Volume One in the excellent series The German Library, published by Continuum. The old Anchor editon of Nineteenth Century German Tales, edited by Angel Flores in the 1950's, includes this story in a different translation and, as an added bonus, has a fantastic Edward Gorey cover.

Much more information can be found at a journey round my skull (see favorite links).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Accumulated Wisdom

From Michael Lind's NYT review of Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (8/17/08):

Frank's analysis of why there are so many libertarian think tanks in a country with so few libertarians is dead on: "The reason that we have so many well-funded libertarians in America these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grass-roots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas...Libertarianism is a politics born to be subsidized."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Letter to a Christian Nation

Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is an unvarnished polemic against religious belief in the modern world, occasioned by the voluminous hate mail from Christians that Harris received following the publication of his previous book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. While particularly addressed to the Christian Right in the United States, reference is also made to the Islamic fundamentalist worldview, in itself a Judeo-Christian offshoot.

Some of the most basic assumptions of Judeo-Christian religion are taken to task, particularly the absurd role of the Bible (a deeply self-contradictory text) as a book of moral instruction. Hot button issues in the United States, such as abortion and the evolution/creationism
“debate ”are also discussed and dismissed as being based on emotionalism born of religion-based ignorance and wishful thinking, rather than on one iota of common sense or scientific fact. This book also effectively dismisses the bogus “atheism is a religion, too!” argument, and the bizarre assumption that atheism and immorality are equivalent.

At 96 pages, Harris blows through a lot of issues at hurricane force. While there are not pages and pages of point-counterpoint, the simple common sense of Harris’s rebuttals show the absurdity of viewpoints based on supernatural prejudice and provincial bigotry rather than on observable and logically conceived facts.

Please take note that your humble reviewer does not lay all hope on rationalism. Particularly in the realm of human creativity, the irrational is invaluable. But as a matter of public policy, the irrational is dangerous. This is a verity that we in the United States must come to terms with. Religious fundamentalists can no longer be stereotyped as backwoods kooks, handling snakes and singing about “that ol’ time religion”. They are now policy makers with sophisticated tools and plenty of money at their disposal, and they have no compunction about establishing policies which diminish the rights of nonbelievers while leading the United States down a path of scientific ignorance and apocalyptic longing which will have real repercussions for the country, if not for the entire planet.

Good luck to Harris. Separating people from their tightly held delusions is, practically speaking, an impossible task. As so many other reviewers have noted, the people who most need to read this book will be those most resistant to it. Harris doesn’t sugarcoat his approach to the religious right. He is acerbic and mocking, but the simple fact is that one sometimes must come to the stark realization that what is invisible is invisible precisely because it does not exist. The future of humanity depends upon our liberation from these harmful paradigms.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

People of the Abyss (New Links)

I have added a couple of new items to my blogroll: David X and A Journey Round My Skull. Both are denizens of the Chapel of the Abyss, a LibraryThing group dedicated to decadent literature and other such obsessions. Decadent Literature is a genre that I enjoy, but my expertise pales in comparison to these gentlemen. (The Grand Master of the Order is the redoubtable Ben Waugh, who puts us all to shame.)

Another new listing is Honey, Where You Been So Long?, a site dedicated to those intoxicating pre-war blues. Currently, one can find well over 100 different recordings of the morbid masterpiece of New Orleans classic, "St. James Infirmary."

I hope you discover something new via these links!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature

I don't usually read anthologies from cover to cover, but Robert Irwin’s Night and Horses and the Desert is the exception.

The interesting thing about this book is that the real meat of it is Irwin's commentary. The author of the modern classic The Arabian Nightmare (as well as a companion guide to the Arabian Nights), he's a very astute guide to this world, and I looked forward every night to reading something that gave me a smile. This is to say, there is just enough humor in the commentary without being precious or silly. Perhaps due to Irwin’s interests, there is an emphasis in the anthology on the gothic (for want of a better word) and the fantastic. There are minimal religious texts, but plenty of texts relating to wine and debauchery.

The breadth of Irwin's knowledge is amazing. There might be room for quibbles about what has been put in or left out, and some readers may lament that the book is rather light on actual texts, but as a crash course in Arabic literature from pre-Islamic times to the rise of the Ottomans, it is a fascinating read. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Lavoisier in the Year One

Antoine Lavoisier, the "discoverer" of oxygen, had the money, talent, and intellectual curiosity to be a shining star in the new science of chemistry, and the ill luck to have a position in the General Farm, a private taxing entity leased out by the French monarchy in the years before the French Revolution and the Terror.

Lavoisier was not born into the nobility, but his family had gradually improved their position in French society over the course of the previous century, ultimately giving Antoine the opportunity to establish himself in its highest circles. In the golden years of scientific discovery after Newton, during which chemistry blossomed forth from the shadow of alchemy, young Lavoisier was drawn to science and chemical experimentation. He quickly began to make a name for himself, and ultimately disproved a predominant theory of heat called phlogiston, or "matter of fire" - the idea that a particular type of "sulfurous earth" was responsible for combustion. (He would also prepare a sort of precursor to the Periodic Table of the elements, and devise the metric system which most of the world uses today.)

In keeping with the other titles in Norton's "Great Discoveries" series, Madison Smartt Bell, the author of this volume, is a novelist. One would expect a novelist's flair for narrative, but, sadly, this is largely absent. The large middle section of this book is taken up with rather dull descriptions of the experiments which ultimately laid to rest the idea of phlogiston. The promising narrative which begins the book with Lavoisier's detention under the Terror is only really taken up again in the final pages. Lavoisier's role in the Farm, including his role in the creation of a wall around Paris to control the entry of contraband into the city, as well as his earlier snub of the radical Jean-Paul Marat, who once had pretensions of scientific accomplishment, did not sit well with the Revolutionary crowd. A later misunderstanding in which Lavoisier appears to have been facilitating a suspicious removal of explosives from the Arsenal, where his laboratory was located, didn't help either.

Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined on 7 May 1794. In recognition of his achievements, his friend Joseph-Louis Lagrange boldly stated "It took them no more than a moment to make that head fall, and a hundred years may not be enough to produce another one like it."

One assumes that Bell's idea was to juxtapose Lavoisier's role in a scientific revolution with the political revolution that he ignored until it was too late. Despite the author's best efforts, Lavoisier passes through this book as little more than an enigma. A true sense of the man is missing.

Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution
by Madison Smartt Bell

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Library at Night

For the bibliophile, one’s library, even if it is just a corner nook, is the most comfortable spot in the house. Some of us let our enthusiasms get out of hand, and have to endure that impossible question – “have you read all these books?” (my stock answer is that I’ve read some of them twice). Books, even those that sit unread for years, are powerful objects. I find it almost magical that a book picked up by a young man in 1981 can be rediscovered and read, with no diminishment of enjoyment, by a middle-aged man a quarter of a century later. A book is infinitely patient.

I have had a library in every house I have lived in as an adult. One of the first, in a house I occupied alone for almost ten years, was perhaps the most organic, growing slowly over time, acquiring new limbs and patinas, overtaking shelves and taking over the floor before ultimately growing out of the room with tentacles reaching throughout the house. When I finally moved to cohabitate with my own true love, it seems to have been a bit of a shock to the library, now uncomfortably crammed into a spare bedroom of a small apartment before finally being able to spread out again in the large basement level of a Maryland townhouse. There have been a couple of moves since then, and now a good number of the books are neat and tidy in a converted dining room, with a big table for convivial conversation as the books politely look on, perhaps slightly pitying their second-string cousins in exile in the garage.

My relationship with my library is like something from a Bunuel film. I can make a resolution to go into it and read at any time during the day, but inevitably events conspire to prevent me from doing any more than a cursory browse of a text, a quick fact check, or a dreamy running of the eyes over the spines. My library never allows me to read in it until late in the evening, when the house is quiet and I can give it the undivided attention it deserves. A library is a selfish mistress, and it begins to stir only after night falls.

Being interested in books about books and reading, I tend to devour them as soon as I get them, without letting them age on the shelf. Alberto Manguel’s most recent book, The Library at Night, reaffirms his place as a kinsman in the family of bibliophiles. This volume is a meditative series of 15 essays on libraries private and public. As in his previous book, A History of Reading, Manguel looks back to the ancient libraries of Babylon and Alexandria, the latter of which has attained mythic proportions in the minds of serious booklovers, and enumerates modern tragedies, such as the destruction of Jewish archives in occupied Europe and the looting of the National Library of Baghdad after Iraq’s “liberation”.

A disciple of Borges, Manguel seems to look at books through his master’s eyes. The joys of night reading run through these essays – those leisurely hours of reading and reverie, surrounded by a circle of light with the books dimly visible in the gloom. Manguel’s library is a rebuilt stone barn in the French countryside, overlooking the Loire Valley, and for that he deserves our envy. The essays brim with anecdotes, book lore, and biographical sketches. The obligatory bows to the virtual library are made, but the book mostly revels in the joys of the physical object and its dwelling place. Nicholas Basbanes’ books, while pleasing in their own right, tend to overly dwell on the collectors, the pride of possession, and the pecuniary issues around the hunt for rare books. Manguel tends to view books from a more metaphysical perspective. He dwells on what books (the Bible and some Portuguese volumes, most likely including the Lusiads) Crusoe might have had with him on that imagined island, rather than what the monetary value of those books might be today. Alberto Manguel is a man who easily gets lost in the labyrinth of books. He’s a reader after my own heart.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Devilry Afoot

I have recently viewed two silent films, both of which were interesting (among other reasons) for their demonic/occult imagery.

L'Inferno (1911) is hailed as the first Italian feature film, and fittingly uses the Dante epic, via close parallels to Gustave Dore's inspired imagery, for the poet's excursion through Hell. While the actors playing Dante and Virgil have all the finesse of a high school drama club, the visual settings are interesting. We don't necessarily get the wide vistas of Dore - huge lakes of the damned writhing in agony - but each circle is a set piece showing the agonies of heretics, usurers, gluttons, and other medieval ne'er-do-wells. The torturing demons, with their large strap-on wings listlessly flapping, are a hoot, and the special effects are state-of-the-art (for 1911). An acquaintance with Dante's poem, or a copy of the Dore illustrations on your lap so that you can follow along, are recommended. The modern soundtrack by the electronica band Tangerine Dream is forgettable.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), a Swedish film, is a more satisfying production, replete with little old ladies riding brooms through the air and kissing the Devil's buttocks. An attractive young woman is tortured, with the filmmaker dwelling lovingly on the torture devices, and there are also lecherous monks. Particularly giggle-inducing is the seducing Devil, with his perpetually wiggling tongue. The film takes the form of a rational essay on how witch hysteria during the Middle Ages arose from psychological disorders and persecution of social misfits. Several vingettes tell the story, which, after the introductory "chapters", moves a bit faster than most silent films. The end of the film provides "modern" examples of hysterical activity. *

Watching silent films, especially if you haven't been exposed to them before, can be an exercise in patience. My son and I have made a game of reading the story cards as many times as we can before we get back to the action. Apparently, people in the early 20th century read veeeerrrryyy ssssloooowwwwlyyyy. But once you get into it, it can be a satisfying experience, especially for anyone interested in history of the cinema.

*Addendum: I neglected to mention that the Haxan disc also includes a 1968 reissue of the film with narration by everyone's scariest uncle, William S. Burroughs. He supplies a suitably spooky incantation at the beginning, but, as I didn't discover this version until I had already sat through the original, I didn't watch much of it. A soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, among others, is also featured.

Both films are available from Nexflix and Amazon.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Little Men

Sven Delblanc (1931-1992) was a well-regarded Swedish author who, according to the sources I've seen, often used fantastic themes in his fiction. Homunculus: A Magic Tale (1965) was a product of its time, a lampoon of Soviet and American military fanaticism during the Cold War. The object of their military/industrial interests is Sebastian, an unpleasant and unemployed chemist who, having discovered the elusive "Essence", creates a homunculus (literally, "little man") named Bechos in his bathtub.

Now, the homunculus is an interesting concept in alchemical and scientific tradition: the famed Golem of Prague was a kind of man-made man (but more monstrous than a true homunculus), and renaissance alchemists/charlatans could proudly display their little humanoid creations cavorting in glass beakers like some tiny detail in a Hieronymus Bosch painting as evidence of their chemical prowess (see also the menagerie of the campy Dr. Praetorius in the film "Bride of Frankenstein"). In science, early physiologists posited that each sperm contained within its head a very tiny yet well-formed homunculus, obviating the need for the mother's genetic influence and, apropos of that paternalistic era, making her essentially a simple vessel for the maturation of the wee nipper. Any resemblance of the mother to the child must, I suppose, have been shrugged off as coincidence.

But I digress. Our hero Sebastian lives in a mental world all his own, derived from mythological and alchemical tradition and alternating between paranoid states and episodes of mental and physical abuse of the various women making up the furniture of the novel. As the story is set during the Cold War, Sebastian's experiments are closely monitored by operatives of both sides, broadly caricatured in the best Strangelovian style as psychopaths and sexual fetishists. Each wants Sebastian's secret in order to create armies of homunculi, although why that would be necessary, since each side already bristles with arsenals of nuclear weapons, is unclear. It is essential to the story that these same nuclear weapons have foolishly been left in the hands of ideologically fanatical perverts for use at their own discretion. Both sides have in mind the vaporization of Stockholm, rather than allow Sebastian's secret to fall into the wrong hands.

I will cut the synopsis short in the unlikely even that you wish to search out a copy of this book for yourself. The book was passably enjoyable, but rather dated. I was perhaps too uninspired to puzzle out all the mythological/Jungian references, although the Sibyl who encounters Sebastian and the Prime Minister in the park was all too obvious. In the corpus of Delblanc's work, it does not seem to rank too high, so I wouldn't wish to pass judgement on the man based on this early work.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Particle Physics

My seven year old begged to stay up late tonight so that he could watch "The Ghost Particle", a Nova program on PBS about neutrinos. Despite being very tired, he watched the whole thing intently.

Some (well, a lot) of the concepts were pretty arcane. My wife asked him during the show if he was following it. I interjected that the show gave a good portrayal of the scientific method. He interrupted - "Yes, I got that...."

I'm proud of that boy.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vacation Bible School

And don't forget to join us for our annual
"Running of the Semites"!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Holy Mountain

Some of the themes and imagery of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain" are reminiscent of Bunuel, run through a Roger Corman meat grinder. Excremental, absurdly sexual, violent (with blood supplied by Sherwin Williams), this is the cinematic equivalent of a Butthole Surfer concert. Grotesquely compelling, image piles upon image - I reached satiety just shy of the halfway mark, but stayed with it until the end.

The story, such as it is, involves an alchemist who assembles 9 archetypal characters for a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, with the intention of gaining power and immortality by displacing the old gods. The journey is both physical and mystical, a rite of initiation. The central figure, from the viewer's perspective, is a thief - a Christ figure who carries around as his spiritual/psychological double a deformed figure with truncated limbs. He is followed by a prostitute and a chimp. In one of many sacrilegious images, the alchemist's assistant, with long stiletto nails, washes the thief's anus. If you are anxiously awaiting the next Indiana Jones movie, this film probably isn't for you.

I found the end to be a bit of a cop-out, but it was perhaps the logical (logical?) conclusion. All in all, if you enjoy surreal imagery and aren't afraid of the grotesque and disgusting (please take note of these caveats), this film is a must-see.

"The Holy Mountain" is available through Netfix, or from Amazon if you wish to add to your permanent collection of extreme cinema.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Conversation with My 3 Year Old

Me: I need you to eat the food I make for you. You just can't eat donuts and cookies.

3 Yr Old: Why?

Me: Because they aren't good for you. You need to eat healthy food...

3 Yr Old (interrupting): Why can't I shoot fire out of my toes?

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Old Man of the Mountain

Alamut is the story, told in a style of oriental romanticism, of the origins of the Assassins, an 11th century Ismaili sect of Islam specializing in what today would be called terrorism and political assassination. As described in Bernard Lewis's The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, the reputation of the Ismailis as masters of deception and violence reached Crusader Europe quite quickly, although the primary target of the Ismailis (itself a sect of Shi'ism) was the dominant Sunni heirarchy in the Middle East.

Vladimir Bartol was a Slovinian writer with no particular expertise in Islamic studies. Published in 1938, the obvious analogues to Hasan ibn Sabbah, the fabled "Old Man of the Mountain", were Hitler and Stalin, pressing on Yugoslavia from west and east. But thinking of this novel in such terms is limiting: the subject is universal and relevant even today, the question of how one creates an ideology for which one's followers will be ready, without hesitation, to kill and/or be killed.

To persuade one to die for an abstraction, be it "freedom" or "paradise" is apparently not that difficult, given the bloody trail of human history. For Hasan, the key to the abstraction was to make it real, down to the last details. In the temperate valley behind the fortress of Alamut, Hasan created a pleasure garden, a paradise on earth with dark-eyed Houris (the most beautiful girls from far-flung slave markets), exotic fruits and delicacies, marble pavilions and tamed leopards, guarded over by muscle-bound Nubian eunuchs and administered by two women from Hasan's past.

As warriors, Hasan collects the cream of Ismaili youth, including ibn Tahir, whose grandfather was an early martyr for the cause, and who abandons his life and family to serve Hasan in Alamut. Doctrinal training and the arts of war are pressed upon these isolated youth. Ultimately, the best of them gain access to the holy of holies, the living prophet on earth, Hasan, who assures them that Allah has given him the key to Paradise. After some wine with hashish, the youths are quietly carried into the pleasure gardens, where they awaken to all their dreams fulfilled. After a night of revelry, the hashish is secretly re-administered and they awaken back with Hasan, astonished at their memories of a visit to an unworldly paradise, and willing to do anything Hasan commands for the opportunity to die in the Ismaili cause and return to their eternal reward.

As the novel progresses, Hasan's nihilistic philosophy is revealed to the upper echelon of his command. The supreme Ismaili motto is "Nothing is true, everything is permitted." By this motto, Hasan has freed himself to manipulate his followers towards his own end. He places himself as a prophet above even Muhammed, and his word is law, even to the point where he is able to coolly condemn his own recalcitrant son to death.

Bartol's Alamut is full of the violence, sex and oriental splendor one would expect from a Western fantasy of the East. I began the novel fully expecting it to be a story of star-crossed lovers who find each other in the sham pleasure garden, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sentimentality of the story has definite limits. Without giving away too much of the plot, there is no such romantic denoument. Hasan is a complex psychological being, a kind of Iranian ubermensch who has set the wheels of history in motion, and whose legacy survived, inspiring fear, for generations.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Invisible Chains

Perhaps it was coincidence that it was the year after 1984 that Doris Lessing gave this series of lectures on the theme of how the individual is manipulated by mass psychology. In Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, Lessing discusses social research pertaining to how group thinking, particularly in a political context, stifles individuality of thought. Social psychology provides tools for encouraging the revitalization of society, however, the encouragement of individualistic thinking is anathema when the state seeks to maintain a general state of complacency and manageability through propaganda and "patriotic" groupthink.

As an example, Lessing insists that, in time of war, rationality goes out the window as "war fever" spreads through the citizenry. A study of history, which Lessing believes the young are disinclined toward, shows how time puts these mass enthusiasms in perspective. World War I, for instance, approached with a sense of foreboding, but during the war years, propaganda regarding the "enemy" galvanized societies into enthusiasm for the cause. Only from a longer perspective, after the war, did society at large come to recognize the futility of the conflict and the nature of the propaganda that stoked the citizenry into support of the war.

Given in 1985, these lectures surely have resonance today.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Imagining the Tenth Dimension

Something to exercise the brain on a Monday morning.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two Westerns

I enjoy movies that stay with you, even if they put you in a dark mood for a few days. I'm one of those filmgoers for whom substance is important, and a film that is forgotten as soon as you walk out of the theater or hit the eject button is usually not worth the time it took to sit through. Luckily, I can usually find some scrap of meaning in a movie (even if I have to bring it myself), but even then it doesn't work if that meaningfulness is buried under truckloads of sentiment. I was thinking about this last night as I pondered two very different Westerns I viewed within the last couple of weeks.

Before watching the disc, I read Elmore Leonard's short story "3:10 to Yuma". Almost a kind of "Waiting for Godot" in spurs, it is the soul of simplicity. A poor simple rancher must get a killer on a train at an appointed time. The killer's gang is out there somewhere, determined to see that it doesn't happen. Within the confines of a hotel room, the killer is the voice of existential reason. Take a bribe, look the other way, and you will live and be so much the richer for your trouble. The rancher struggles between choice and necessity.

The recent remake of "3:10 to Yuma" buries this plot beneath so many layers of crud, sentiment and hardware that it almost made me want to cry. Of course now the killer is a sort of Ubermensch, in his little black outfit, spouting bible verses that he learned when his momma abandoned him in a railroad waiting room. The rancher, of course, is a wounded warrior, a Civil War veteran who ran when he should have fought and who now must redeem himself in his son's eyes. And of course the special effects department went into overdrive, supplying enough guns and squibs to re-stage an entire Civil War battle as the two men, now apparently buddies, beat cheeks for the train amidst a hail of gunfire that makes Butch and the Kid's last run look like a walk in a light sprinkle. Overdone and eminently forgettable.

"There Will Be Blood", apparently loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel, suffers from no such excess. The language and diction is appropriately turn of the century, with that precision of speech that is beautiful to the ears, even though as we reach the end of the film, Daniel Day-Lewis' John Huston impersonation gets pretty heavy.

Daniel Plainview is a classic misanthrope, who brings new levels to the term "conflicted". He begins the film literally down in a hole, in a dank dusty silver mine pit underneath the New Mexico desert. We don't even hear a human voice for a good 10-15 minutes. He longs to get rich so that he can go far away, away from any human contact because, as he tells his (supposed) long-lost brother bluntly, "I hate people." His monologue in the dark, his ode to misanthropy late in the movie is a classic, like Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" telling Captain Willard of the piles of hacked-off childrens arms that brought a fundamental shift in his thinking.

You see the world from behind Plainview's increasingly jaded eyes as people come into his life, provide some glimmer of hope or recognition, and then fail miserably to conform to his expectations. There is a (supposed) son, a (supposed) brother, and a young desert Elmer Gantry with whom Plainview wrestles (literally and figuratively) in a humiliating battle of wills.

The acting is superb, the story builds slowly, with layers of complexity, the emotion is visceral, not sentimental. There was only one slight disappointment for me, which I won't speak of, as I am still puzzling out whether the action was, in the circumstances, appropriate. It is the kind of dark, uncompromising, kick-in-the-gut film that comes along very rarely. If you like cinematic novels, rather than light and forgettable filler, you should see this movie.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Memoir of Total War

Ernst Junger, who lived to a ripe old age of 103, was lucky to have gotten out of youthful manhood, judging from his memoir of the First World War, Storm of Steel. At the end of the book, he makes a tally and reveals that he was hit a total of fourteen times (leaving out "ricochets and grazes") in the course of the conflict, including 5 bullet wounds. He relates these injuries, as he relates most other information regarding the war, with a certain sang-froid, clinical in his assessment to an almost inhuman degree. Despite how one may feel about how Junger describes the conflict and the enthusiasm of men under fire (many see it as a glorification of war), Storm of Steel is a classic and harrowing first hand account of total war.

The German Junger was a controversial writer, politically to the right for most of his life, with a Spenglerian pessimism regarding the fate of man in the 20th century. Storm of Steel, his first published work (which he revised several times throughout his life) is an exhilarating, if curiously detached, view of trench warfare. The bloodlust which apparently characterized earlier editions has been largely expunged, still, for Junger, the 20th century was to have been an apocalyptic one, full of blood and violence, and in these he is in his element. The term "Homeric" comes up in the translator's introduction, and one does feel at times that we are with Achilles or Hector in the trenches. Walls of fire and thunderous shell-bursts transform the Belgian landscape into a vision of hell; warriors die valiantly, on their feet and never in retreat. A more apt comparison than Homer might be the Teutonic Valhalla, where warriors die a thousand deaths, to feast in the afterlife and return, reborn, to the fray.

In 1918, Junger received Germany's highest military honor, the honor pour le Merite (the Blue Max) for his leadership and heroism in battle. His honors were to provide some protection against the Nazis. After some anti-Hitler statements in the late 30's*, he was compelled to don the uniform again, serving as a kind of cultural attache or intelligence officer in occupied Paris. Bruce Chatwin's essay on Junger's life and work (see Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here) notes that as the Second World War wore on, Junger became disgusted at the perversion of the military ethic under the Nazis. It is noted that one of the rare instances when Junger seems to be truly ashamed to wear the uniform is when he sees three women walking down a Paris boulevard arm in arm, wearing the yellow star. Still, in his written work, the young gentleman who read Tristam Shandy in the muck and mud of the trenches, and who carefully picked through the finest wine cellars of occupied Paris in his middle-age comes across as fairly oblivious to the suffering of others.

Reading Chatwin's essay on Junger in the early 1990's compelled me to search out Storm of Steel. Once in the parking lot of a rare book shop in suburban Maryland, an austere and strange gentleman offered me his card after hearing me make inquiries about the book. Penguin finally issued a new translation of Storm of Steel in 2004. Ernst Junger was the author of more than 50 works, and was one of only a handful of German authors (Goethe included) who saw publication of his Collected Works while still among the living. He also enthusiastically pursued entomology (beetles to Nabokov's butterflies) and included hallucinogens amongst his enthusiasms. His novels On the Marble Cliffs, The Glass Bees, and Aladdin's Problem have all been translated into English. One day, I hope to find an English edition of his Parisian Diaries.

*Junger had also written On the Marble Cliffs, a grotesque fable reputed to have been anti-Hitler, but enjoyed Hitler's protection, even though he never became a member of the Nazi Party. Junger was also a peripheral (and unpunished) character in the unsuccessful "General's Plot" to assassinate Hitler.

New Links

I've added a couple of interesting links to fellow LibraryThingers. They are either geniuses or madmen. Not that those are mutually exclusive categories....

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Christopher Robin

My boys, taking a break from the world of Pokemon, have discovered the simple pleasures of the old Disney "Winnie the Pooh" adventures. Perhaps I can entice them with some of the original stories? In the meantime, this piece, written by Czelaw Milosz, I offer with love for them.

I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continue to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment.

Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. "Old bear," he answered. "I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won't go anywhere, even if I'm called in for an afternoon snack."

Awaking with Blood in the Mouth

A pseudo-romantic satire on the "Arabian Nights", Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare is a fun and engaging read. Intricate plot devices mirror the famous 1001 Nights and The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, challenging perceptions of reality through the adventures of a young Englishman in late 15th century Cairo.

The subject is reality and its manipulation through suggestion and dreams. As a medievalist, Irwin knows his setting, and the David Roberts etchings of Mamluk Cairo are a nice touch. The plot gains convolutions page by page, and I confess that I may not have puzzled out all its intricacies - is the narrator the talking ape on Yoll's shoulder, or the ventriloquist? If the later, what is his relation to the rest of the narrative? The title refers to a dream/disease causing excruciating but unremembered pain in the afflicted - could this be anything but life itself?

A delightful and rich reading experience, and deserving of a place on that exclusive list of books to be read again.

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Decadent Jewel

William Beckford's Vathek is a decadent jewel and a masterpiece of faux Orientalism. The Caliph Vathek seeks ultimate knowledge, using violence and sensory indulgence (precursor of Rimbaud!). He finds this knowledge, and eternal damnation, in the subterranean kingdom of Iblis, the Islamic Satan.

The archaic 18th century prose drips of a heady perfume, a reflection of the baroque pleasures of Vathek. There are dim echoes of Dante's Hell, and of the sorcery of the Pharsalia, as the Caliph's mother raises the dead for necromantic purposes. The halls of perdition reflect Piranesi's labyrinthine prisons, and the palaces of the five senses are a libertine's paradise, with fantastic abundance of sensual pleasures for a man with a truly gargantuan appetite.

Borges wrote an essay on the novel, noting that Vathek's reward and his punishment are one and the same. Lured by a mysterious sword with ever-changing characters, Vathek's odyssey is an inversion of the spiritual quest, as he descends from his station as a beloved, if arrogant, defender of the faith, through cruelty and blasphemy to find himself in possession of all the riches and knowledge he desires, at the price of eternal damnation and torment. A rich and brilliant fantasy, the Arabian Nights as seen through the lens of a decadent 18th century British aristocrat.

French Whine: The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Considered an early example of "warts and all" autobiography and long considered a classic of the western canon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions is a bizarre book.

The first portion, covering the philosopher's life up until 1741, is pleasant enough - a picaresque study of a wandering eccentric youth told, at times, with an alarming frankness.

The second part, chronicling his life as a writer with growing influence, gets stranger as the narrative progresses. Put simply, Rousseau had a full-blown persecution complex, and he relates in excruciating detail his perceptions of a growing cabal of opponents who have apparently (from his perspective, at least) committed themselves to making his life a veritable hell on earth. Prominent among Rousseau's tormentors are the encyclopediests Diderot and d'Alembert, as well as various members of the French aristocracy. The reasons for this persecution are never really explained by Rousseau, but the Confessions turns into one long protracted whine.

To himself, Rousseau was a noble, pure-hearted soul with never a mean or false word against anyone, unfairly attacked and hounded by those whose motives he claims never to have understood. Reading this, I longed for a good, objective biography of the writer - one that could explain just what the hell was really going on. Years ago, I read and enjoyed Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker, a series of writings which attempt to justify the author's character, with reference to his past indignities. The Confessions, which I believe predate that more melancholy work, doesn't clarify anything, other than Rousseau's paranoia and misanthropy. He protests that he is aloof from humanity, seeking nothing more than solitude and a life devoted to the contemplation of nature, while at the same time revealing his own penchant for gossip and intrigue. The Confessions strikes me as the writing of an entirely self-absorbed, deluded man.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

In the Land of the Blind

In Jose Saramago's Blindness, a sudden, inexplicable epidemic of blindness sweeps an unnamed city, plunging society into chaos. The squalor and violence that accompanies the blindness is vividly portrayed. One woman escapes the curse, and becomes responsible for guiding a small group, pilgrims in the land of the blind, to safety as an unchecked brutality descends upon the populace. The collective will and support of the group sustain them through unimaginable horrors.

Saramango shows how one vital change causes an expanding disruption of the social fabric, where human degradation and brutality rise quickly to the surface as opportunities for the abandonment of social norms arise. In the pilgrimage of the group, one thinks of the paintings of Breughel or Bosch, of the blind leading the blind through an apocalyptic landscape, through streets choked with corpses, wild dogs and the stench of human excrement. The basic necessities - food, shelter, and safety - become consuming obsessions as the comfortable trappings of modern life are stripped away.

The story is a descendant of Camus' The Plague, of the Decameron, and of the post-apocalyptic narratives of science fiction, most recently revived in Cormac McCarthy's harrowing The Road. In an Edwardian short story I read years ago, author forgotten, a blinding fog descends upon London, the consequence of environmental pollution, and society descends into violent chaos. Blindness is an expansion of that narrative, and in many ways a mirror of it. Saramago, writing in Portugese, is probably one of the few philosophical Marxists writing today. His Blindness is a remarkable and pessimistic exposition of the fragility of social order in the modern world.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pynchon Clearinghouse

One of my favorite authors, and also one of the most frustrating, is Thomas Pynchon. Clearly a genius, but for every Gravity's Rainbow there is a Vineland, for every Mason & Dixon, there is an Against the Day. Actually, I shouldn't badmouth the latter, as I have yet to read it past the first 150 pages. One storyline is compelling, but another is so excruciating that I had to put the book down. Anyway, I now present for your enjoyment and argument a few short notes I have made over the years on some of Pynchon's work.

Slow Learner

Five early stories, with some of the same rambunctiousness of Pynchon's later novels. The only story that particularly feels out of place is "Under the Rose", a foray into John Buchan territory - a real yawner. "The Secret Integration" and "The Small Rain" are perhaps the most successful stories. The remainder seem to have something essentially Pynchonian missing, but of course they were written as the author was finding his voice. Pynchon's introduction attempts to put these stories from the late 50's - early 60's into perspective, and acts as a sort of apologia for the deficiencies of the stories. Necessary reading for the die-hard fan only.

The Crying of Lot 49

A short and readable novel by Pynchon, with a characteristic blend of paranoia, zany humor, and pathos. Oedipa Maas and a supporting cast try to decipher an underground postal network with roots in the Italian Renaissance. Entertaining but ambiguous: is Trystero a real conspiracy, or a practical joke being played on Oedipa by her ex-lover? Pynchon has spawned many imitators since this novel's 1966 publication, but seen as a product of its time, it is a lively and intriguing cultural document.

Gravity's Rainbow

Almost 900 pages of rocket equations, 1940's hepcat slang, surreal visions, druggie humor, occult arcana, homoerotic fantasy, orgies, tenderness, paranoia, coprophagia, chemical formulae, colonial American puritan theology, and a guest appearance by Mickey Rooney. Threads of meaning come through in a story that shifts time, voice, and focus. Catalogues of depravity and broad slapstick, like Rabelais on acid. Gravity's Rainbow, for me anyway, is a slow read - dreadfully slow in places - and one knows that much has been missed in a casual read. The story of priapic Tyrone Slothrop and his unique connection with the V-2 rockets that blitzed London in the Second World War is ultimately a dark cautionary tale of the dangers of power and technology. My next reading will be accompanied by Weisenburger's indispensable A Gravity's Rainbow Companion, an essential roadmap to this complex novel.

Mason & Dixon

I loved this rambling, rollicking, daffy funhouse mirror of an 18th century novel. Weird and anachronistic, it is also one of the sweetest and clearest of Pynchon's works. The general outline follows the work of the famed surveyors of the Maryland/Pennsylvania hinterlands, but the personalities and adventures recounted here are classic Pynchon. The duo smoke hemp with George Washington (as Martha bakes up cakes to satisfy the munchies and a slave does a fair imitation of a Catskills comic), receive recreational shock treatments from Ben Franklin, converse with a talking dog, dodge an apparently psychotic mechanical duck, and befriend a Chinese feng shui master as they clear the path between the Penn and Calvert estates. This path, it is revealed, serves as a conduit for a vast, ancient, and unnameable telluric force. There are Jesuit conspiracies, lost souls, giant cheeses, and tender loves lost and found. Mason and Dixon are drawn in comic contrast, but they are complementary in their humanity and ultimately quite sympathetic figures. A grand, fun, and, in the end, wistful novel.

P.S. One of my favorite Pynchon websites, Spermatikos Logos, is at

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Found Art

Interesting doodles found in my paperback copy of Henry Miller's Black Spring.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Hatred That Does Not Die

The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945
by Lucy Dawidowicz

The single minded effort of the Nazis to annihilate European Jewry remains one of the most brutal, incomprehensible events in the history of the world. The consolidation of power by a group of extremists, who plotted and carried out murder on a massive scale, was accomplished precisely because no one thought such a thing to be possible. The destruction of the Jews was one element of Hitler's dream of transforming, with atavistic zeal, the social fabric of Europe and Asia. Dawidowicz's book, exhaustive in scope, attempts to deal with this by looking first at the history of German anti-semitism from its beginnings, through its 19th century renaissance, to its carefully plotted policy under Hitler. She then examines the Jewish response to the Nazi threat, conditioned by a centuries old cycle of active, then dormant, hostility.

The cunning of the Nazis in making a rhetorical call for the destruction of the "Jewish vermin" a historical fact is well-known, but it cannot be adequately explained without a metaphysical understanding of the potential for human evil and depravity. Arendt famously wrote of the "banality of evil" - the institution of bold laws and regulations, so clear in their intent as to be incomprehensible are described, but can we today, while recognizing the brutality of the Nazi leadership and the intoxicating power of its functionaries, truly understand the complacency of the German populace as they see a significant section of the population quickly being deprived of their most basic human rights?

Dawidowicz deals with the death camps only in an appendix, perhaps because their story is so familiar. She focuses instead on the formation and maintenance of the ghettos of Poland, in essence a different, urban sort of concentration camp. The institutions established by the Nazis for control, such as the Judenrat, ingeniously served to break the Jewish spirit by degrees. The misplaced optimism which rationalizes that things that are horrific cannot get worse only collapses when the trap has already sprung, and no hope remains.* The brave resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, doomed by its lateness, is well documented, and an attempt to rationalize the ghetto mindset is hard to accept by later generations who, with hindsight, see the enormity of the tragedy. But we draw back, unable to comprehend the evil and suffering that - even after Stalin, Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, etc. - has never been equaled.

*I am sadly reminded of the film "Schindler's List". After each encroachment and degradation, the constant refrain is "it can't get any worse" or "the worst is over". Alas, fatal optimism!

Postscript: I read this book in 2000, and it was a rather old book even then, having been published in 1975. Despite a plethora of Holocaust books since that time, I believe Dawidowicz's book is worthwhile reading. For a number of years, I read several works relating to the Holocaust, including the excellent memoirs of Primo Levi and Elie Weisel. I recall an acquaintance asking why I was so interested in this, since I "wasn't Jewish". Leaving aside the banality of the question, I respond now that I believe the Nazi program was an example of a successful and horrific enterprise - the manipulation of public consciousness to allow for the perpetration of an absolutely evil agenda. Unfortunately, the potential for such manipulation and abuse did not end with the fall of the Nazi Regime. In the words of Herman Goering, interviewed at Nuremberg:

Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

An Interpretation of Faust

The legend of the alchemist and magician Johann Faust has been around for centuries, and has been retold in various ways, from the sublime works of Goethe to the ridiculous manifestations of Hollywood (see the Pacino scenery-chewer "Devil's Advocate"). This evening I enjoyed a film by Czech director Jan Svankmajer which explores the Faust legend through the words of Marlowe and Goethe, and through the techniques of live action, puppetry, and claymation.

Set in the present day, a Czech man follows an enigmatic map to a subterranean theatre, where he re-enacts the story of the doomed magician with the help of various puppets (including a very funny jester) and shape-shifting demons. There are echoes of other stories of magic gone awry (the Golem, the Sorcerer's Apprentice) to give a bit of added interest. With apologies to Goethe, there is no redemption for Faust in this version - he is run over by a driverless car, and a wild-eyed old man makes off with his lower leg, presumably to replace the leg he previously had to throw into the river to fend off a black dog.

Quite imaginative and entertaining: I look forward to seeing other films by this director.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

In Search of Lost Time in the Piedmont

For years, I knew Cesare Pavese mainly through his diaries - a seemingly bottomless pit of existential despair and suicidal thoughts. To discover that he killed himself only a few months after the completion of this novel hardly comes as a surprise.

The Moon and the Bonfires is a sort of backwards look - a longing for a past that was brutal, yet somehow tenderly regarded. The narrator begins his life as a foundling in the Lower Piedmont, taken in by a family of dirt-poor sharecroppers not out of affection, but because he provides an extra set of hands, and because they can count on a yearly stipend of 5 lire for his upkeep. As a child, he works for his daily bread and the opportunity to sleep in the barn with the animals. He later ends up working for a more prosperous family, and is fascinated by their life of comparable privilege.

Following his mandatory military service, the narrator ships out to America, where he makes his fortune. He finds himself rootless in America, and so after the war he returns to survey the aftermath of fascism in the Piedmont. He meets up with his old friend, the tight-lipped Nuto, a partisan who plays a semi-mute Virgil to his Dante. Providing background to what happened during the war, Nuto is a Marxist who sees no reason for optimism. When the narrator finds, on his old farmstead, a lame boy who is a mirror of his younger self whom he hopes to inspire to cast off his poverty and drink in the wider world, Nuto sees no point in fostering such futile dreams. Yet Nuto takes pity when the boy's father goes mad and murders his family, burns the farm to the ground, and hangs himself from a tree. It is only by the narrator's gift, a penknife, that the boy is able to defend himself and avoid his family's fate. Nuto takes the boy in to help him learn a trade, and pledges to work with the narrator to better his life.

Much of the novel is taken up by reminiscences of the fascinating daughters of the prosperous landowner, yet even they cannot persist in their idyll. They all come to tragic ends, and the murder and cremation of the youngest, Santina (who may or may not have been a fascist agent), is the culmination of the novel.

In the local folklore, bonfires lit on the feast of St. John help to regenerate the world. In his essay "Pavese and Human Sacrifice" Italo Calvino notes Pavese's interest in the idea of blood sacrifice and purification by fire, learned through his reading of Frazer's The Golden Bough. The burning of the farmstead and the cremation of Santina (ostensibly to keep her body from being defiled) are the signal events of this novel - modern sacrifices in an endless cycle of madness and regeneration - private holocausts in a poor and obscure corner of the Piedmont, under a cold and uncaring moon.

The Moon and the Bonfires is a minor masterpiece of fatalism.