We have goats, two Nigerian pygmies, ex-boys, 9 weeks old.
Ella ((10), returning home from a session with the kids. "The black goat totally tried to eat my pants." A perfect sentence, utterly original, utterly wonderful.
The new Much Ado is a charming, understated success. The actors are not trained Shakespeareans; they're tv series folk, and they say the lines conversationally and casually, paying scant attention to the verse or to the mannered prose rhythms. It works, on the whole, although some of the great lines are delivered so unemphatically that they're swallowed and lost. Whoever would imagine that Benedick's "the world must be peopled' could slip by an audience without e'en a giggle. The text is judiciously pruned -- the only major omission the nighttime ceremony for presumably dead Hero -- but that's a scene that has always made me uncomfortable so I wasn't sorry to see it go. The Dogberry-Verges sequence is a brilliant deadpan triumph. There's very little added business, thank you, but what there is. is choice. The actress who plays Beatrice (Amy Acker) has borrowed so much from Emma Thompson's delivery (in the last filmed Much Ado) that if you were to close your eyes, you'd think that you'd time-traveled back to 1993.The director, whom I had never heard of but is apparently famous, is Joss Whedon. Thanks, Joss.
I've seen many many modern films in which hero and heroine don't get on at first but little-by-little find themselves in love and in marriage. But Shakespeare was there first. Beatrice and Benedick are the mom and pop of a half-a-zillion subsequent comedies. It's good to see them as alive and thriving as they are in this realization.
Some years ago, I was doing time at a world-famous research library. One of the other inmates posed a problem to the assembled denizens. A Frenchman, he was translating an American novel into his native tongue and there was a passage in the book that he could not understand. He thought it might be a joke but he couldn't make heads nor tails of it. He read us the passage. "Two men are in a bar. The first man asks, 'What do you do with a giraffe who has three balls on him.' The second man answers, 'Walk him and pitch to the elephant.'"
As I remember, everyone in the room "got it," but no one could suggest a good solution to the translation problem. Word-for-word wouldn't do and an equivalent was impossible to indentify. I don't know what the poor fellow decided. Something elegant, I hope.
There is an ocean of difference between colloquial conversation in real life and the dialogue that appears in Shakespeare's works, even when his plays are at their least artificial and most mimetic.
In its most ordinary use, the word "conversation" means nothing more that the talk in which real men and women engage in the greater part of their social lives. These conversations might include formal or semi-formal events such as oration, debate, interview, negotiation, interrogation, official inquiry, ceremony , arbitration, sermon, lecture etc. -- all of them linguistic interactions that are governed by specific although for the most part unarticulated rules. "Colloquial" conversation, on the other hand, refers specifically to the wave of informal, unplanned, unregulated and unrehearsed exchanges that occur over dinner, on the street, by the water-cooler, at the tavern. Such conversations, although not incapable of eloquence, are on the whole disorderly, sprawling and haphazard. They are brimful of uncompleted or suspended thoughts (or thoughts introduced by one interlocutor and then either completed or re-directed by another), with syntactic collapse and improvisation , with references to shared experience that may seem to be grand leaps of logic to an eavesdropper but that are perfectly intelligible to the participants, with mumbles and grunts, extended pauses (some meaningless, some momentous), with apparently inexplicable ellipses, with overlaps in which a number of participants speak simultaneously, with unmediated zigzags from the profound to the trivial, with repetitions and backtracks, with mis-speakings, mis-hearings, clarifications, false starts, fragments, non-verbal but sometimes significant ecphoneses or "response crises" (ooh-ooh), and with a flotilla of other very ordinary and very natural curiosities. Real colloquial conversation is spontaneous; it is the activity of two or more intelligences working together to shape meaning. Real talk is essentially untranscribable, and students of conversation who have made an effort to set such interactions down on paper have had perforce to resort to elaborate and imperfect diagrams and codes.
In strong contrast, dialogue in Shakespeare's plays very seldom attempts to approximate colloquial conversation. And with good reason: Elizabethan dramas seldom stoop to represent the casual situations in which conversation is likely to occur. Instead, the circumstances upon which the plays dwell are typically formal or ceremonial, and the dialogue in which they are enacted consists for the most part of speeches that delineate an emotion or moral response to a conflict, of debates over the proper course of action, of reports on past or distant events, as well as judicial or ritualistic confrontation, soliloquy, meditation, prayer, boast, threat and counter-threat and various other kinds of regulated discourse in which the artless and random quality of ordinary talk would be entirely inappropriate. The dialogue in comedies, though in a different register, is equally artificial, consisting as it does, of wit-combats, jests, and the conceits that clownage keeps in pay. Shakespeare's most colloquial exchanges, unlike real-life conversation, are on the whole orderly, sequential, composed in intelligible syntax and in complete thoughts. It goes without saying that dramatic dialogue is, with the exception of the rare improvisational moment, not spontaneous at all but the studied product of a single controlling intelligence.
During the first years of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare experimented with a variety of revolutionary ways to compose dialogue (not generally, but on propitious occasions) that, although not in any real sense congruent to actual spoken conversation, nevertheless managed to create the illusion of a natural and colloquial sound. The employment of dialogue that might pass for real utterance was not an inheritance from earlier dramatists but was a craft that Shakespeare had to develop on his own. The fabrication of such dialogue is an unobtrusive art that does not call attention to itself -- in point of fact, colloquial conversation is most successful when it is least noticeable. While the great leviathan examples of Shakespeare's rhetorical mastery have been subjected to exhaustive analysis, colloquial conversation is so small and so inconspicuous a fish that it has managed for hundreds of years to slip the nets of critical analysis.
There is a finely-crafted instance of seemingly-natural colloquial conversation in Othello.
As Emilia helps Desdemona prepare herself for bed, the two women gingerly feel their way toward an issue of great sensitivity -- the domination of women by men. It is a relaxed and intimate conference, all the more obviously so because it follows in the wake of an anguished and highly-wrought -- and rhetorically elevated -- scene in which Desdemona has been slandered as an adulterer and as a daughter of the game.
What techniques does Shakespeare employ to make the exchange between Desdemona and Emilia appear quite so marvelously natural?
Attempting to console her sorrowful mistress, Emilia offers the opinion that it would have been better if Desdemona had never known Othello. Desdemona contradicts her serving-woman:
Des. So would not I: my love dost so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns
(Prithee unpin me) have grace and favor.
"Prithee unpin me" comes as a genuine surprise because it is syntactically discontinuous from the sentence in which it is embedded. It's a separate topic. Dialogue in Elizabethan drama ordinarily deals with issues sequentially rather than simultaneously, but dialogue begins to sound a bit like conversation when the interlocutors engage more than one subject at at time. That the two themes of the discourse are located on different rhetorical levels (the rather formal series of nouns in parallel -- stubbornness, checks, frowns-- in contraste to the offhand parenthetical instruction), suggests that something interesting and different is about to occur.
The progress toward real or realistic-sounding conversation, initiated with "unpin me here," continues when Emilia's response engages neither Othello's mysterious anger or Desdemona's unpinning, but introduces a third subject: "I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed." With this sentence Emilia does more than simply resume a discussion of so ordinary a matter as bedclothes, she also replicates a common feature of colloquial conversation -- its practice of referring without overt signal to a past mutual experience -- i.e. "you bade me."
Now Desdemona drifts off in a direction of her own.
All's one: good faith, how foolish are our minds?
If I do die before, prithee shroud me
In one of these same sheets.
"All[s one" -- with its variant "all's one for that" is a common Elizabethan demotic catch phrase: here it serves a meaningless filler. Desdemona's meander from death to shrouds to sheets is designed to reflect her own private, internal non-volitional synaptic leaps. Her apology - "how foolish are our minds" - reflects both Desdemona's and Shakespeare's knowledge that the sentences violate the habit of dramatic dialogue in that they are ordered not by logic but by association.
Emilia's mild but polite rebuke ("Come, come, you talk") is followed by a sentence in which Desdemona introduces the fourth separate and distinct subject of this unfolding conversation.
My mother had a maid called Barbary.
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad,
And did forsake her.
Desdemona has fallen into a reverie in which she re-lives an experience of the childhood that Shakespeare has newly and spontaneously invented for her. In these two-and-a-half lines, Shakespeare audaciously allows Desdemona to introduce three new but extremely pertinent characters: Desdemona's mother, hitherto unknown to the audience, her mother's forsaken maid Barbary, and the maid's lunatic and inconstant lover. The effect of Desdemona's brief but poignant recollection is to reinforce the illusion that she is an autonomous speaker, giving shape to her sentences as they precipitate out of her battered and not-entirely-disciplined consciousness. An astute audience (or readership) will certainly notice that Desdemona projects her own plight onto these imaginary meta-beings, and although the psychological ramifications of their creation are rich indeed, Shakespeare's use of these improvised beings to mimic the habits of real talk is as fully wonderful.
She (.e. Barbary) had song of willow.
An old thing 'twas, but it expressed her fortune.
And she died singing it. That song tonight,
Will not go from my mind. I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.. Prithee dispatch.
To enforce the quotidian quality of the dialogue, Shakespeare invokes a phenomenon familiar to every reader or hearer: the tune that seems to repeat of its own accord in one's mind. The result: Desdemona has been provided with a memory, and her memory holds a song, and that song is now apparently going to sing itself independent of the character's own will. But what occurs is not only the illusion that Desdemona reveals an inner experience; it is also that these reflections are cast in such courageously monosyllabic language. And just to assure us that the characters not not float from their dock in the material universe, Desdemona's instruction to Emilia --"Prithee dispatch" - sustains the exact colloquial mode initiated by "Prithee unpin me" and anchors both women in the real present.
Both song and reverie are now shunted aside as the conversation comes to a small climax. The two ladies contineu to imitate the randomness of real talk:
Emelia. Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
Desdemona. No, unpin me here.
This Ludovico is a proper man.
Emilia. A very handsome man.
Desdemona: He speaks well.
Emilia: I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.
Desdemona and Emilia drift from topic to topic: nightgowns leads by some unarticulated but easy-to-imagine route to Ludovico and his masculine allure, thence to Ludovico's habits of speech and at last to the very vivid and memorable 'lady in Venice" -- a colorful personage who springs from Emilia's fabricated pre-history, and who flashes across the stage in a hyperbole of brilliant but unstressed beauty (and whose inexplicable passion asserts that women can prosecute love-longing fully as irrationally as men). And then, just when it seems as if the maid Barbary has been left in the lurch and forgotten, the conversation turns back upon itself and Desdemona breaks into the song of the poor soul who sat sighing by a sycamore tree. To reinforce the apparent spontaneity of the moment, Shakespare makes Desdemona repeatedly interrupt (and even amend) her own singing : "Lay by these"... "Prithee high thee; he'll come anon"... "Nay that's not next. Hark who is't that knockes." This broken series of syntactically independent units, periodically intruded into the song, are invented for the sole purpose of giving emphasis to the naturalness and immediacy of the moment.
Shakespeare has therefore created the appearance of spontaeous conversation by forsaking the straight path of normative dramatic dialoge. Desdemona and Emilia intertwine present and past, real and fanciful, public and private, high language and low, song and speech, understatment and exaggeration, syntactic coherence and syntactic collapse, all within a context of shared knowledge and almost sisterly intimacy.
The colloquial moment is fleeting, for even before the scene comes to a close, Shakespeare returns to a more traditional dramatic idiom. Nevertheless, the episode has done important work: Emilia's great feminist manifesto ("Let husbands know,/ Their wives have sense like them") which will follow immediately after this exchange, has been so effectively grounded in a real, earthy, and contemporary context that it must stir every sensitive intelligence with its grand appeal to equity.
It has long been acknowledged that the exotic Moor speaks in a highly particularized, elaborate, and picturesque idiolect of his own - the music that sweeps in with the icy currents of the Pontic sea and allows the Moor's great dignity to find its expression. Desdemona and Emilia sing a far calmer but more original song, and their impromptu domestic duet is surely no less and perhaps even a greater artistic achievement than Othello's stupendous arias.
On the whole, Fowles, as befit his name, was a birder rather than a "snaker," so I don't know how he stumbled upon Clifford Pope's The Great Snakes. I am not surprised that the one fact that Fowles gleaned from Pope's herpetological knowledge that "snakes copulate for hours, sometimes a day at a time." A very Fowlesian piece of information.
I am surprised that he also reported in his journal the same snake anecdote that Dr. Metablog noted right here on this very blog. Back in 2006, Dr. M. made mention of the instructions provided to early African missionaries on the proper response to meeting one of those 25-foot-long, 300-pound reticulated Burmese pythons. I found it in a book called Man the Hunted. Here's the story:
Remember not to run away; the python can run faster. The thing to do is to lie flat on the ground on your back with your feet together, arms to the sides and head well down. The python will then try to push its head under you, experimenting at every possible point. Keep calm, one wiggle and he will get under you, wrap his coils round you and crush you to death. After a time the python will get tired of this and will probably decide to swallow you without the usual preliminaries. He will very likely begin with one of your feet. Keep calm. You must let him swallow your foot. It is quite painless and will take a long time. If you lose your head and struggle he will quickly whip his coils around you. If you keep calm, he will go on swallowing. Wait patiently until he has swallowed about up to your knee. Then carefully take out your knife and insert it into the distended side of his mouth and with a quick rip slit him up.
In 2006, Dr M. wrote: "Well-meant advice, I'm sure, but perhaps difficult to follow. Suppose you're just not in the mood to allow the python such liberties with your person. Suppose you've forgotten to bring your knife; suppose the python decides to start with your head rather than a foot. Suppose you involuntarily wiggle just a teensy bit. Suppose you just don't feel that it's a good day to be engulfed." Fowles' comment is shorter but equally pertinent. He writes: "And spend the rest of your life in an asylum."
When I realized that Fowles and I had a common interest in giant man-eating snakes, I decided that the least I could to honor his memory was re-read The Magus. Which I did, at first with enthusiasm and then with increasing dismay as the the novel's flaws began to overwhelm its beauties. The Magus is too contrived, too obvious. Nicholas Urfe, the naif, is so unsuspicious that he is fooled by Conchis, the magician, over and over again -- many more times than is remotely credible. The reader (the 2013 reader, that is, not the 1965 reader) catches to the repeated gimmickry. But then after Urfe realize that he's been sadistically manipulated, he stockholm-syndromes his tormentors far too rapidly and cursorily. It should take as much time to heal as to be harmed. As a result the book is out of balance -- too long in the middle, too short in the resolution. And then on top of that there's the heavy-handed Jungstuff and the grade-school pop Freudianism!! O my gosh. I was embarrassed. And in addtion, there is the deeply, unliberated Victorian attitudes toward sexuality in a book that claims to be "advanced." Anyway, it just did not work this time through. What a disappoingment.
And I'm disappointed in Fowles as well. I began to read his journals in the hope that he would be complex and philosophical and aware, but, no, he was just like me -- simple, defensive, insecure.
And what a snob: so much and so often worried about his bourgeois background and so ashamed of his well-meaning parents.
Most unforgiveable is not that he ran off with his best friend's wife, but that he wouldn't let Elizabeth keep her daughter. He made her choose between him and her own child. In my view, a man should never come between a parent, a mother, and her offspring. It's a violation of the natural order, if there is such a thing as the natural order.
Nevertheless, I'm clinging to my most positive memoriesof Fowles The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I still believe to be a novel that will last. But frankly, I'm just a tad frightened to re-read it.
Amnesia movies continue to thrive. This latest, The Vow, made a bunch of money but was widely panned. And should have been. It's a sad sad day when the amnesia is more credible than the male lead.
The Vow purports to be based on the story of Krickitt (sic) Pappas, who lost the memory of eighteen months of her life in a automobile accident. Her husband re-courted her. and re-won her; they lived happily ever after. They're sticking to the story that she never regained her memory of those lost months.
i have no particular reason to doubt the tale, improbably though it might seen. The brain is another country; they do things differently there. And Rachel McAdams, who plays Krickitt, is the most persuasive amnesia-victim I've yet encountered. Because she doesn't take the amnesia for granted, Hollywood-wise, but struggles to figure it all out, she seems to be genuinely afflicted.
Nevertheless, it's incredible that she should be in love with that lump of all lumps, the lumpish Channing Tatum, who turns his character, Kim Carpenter, into a affectless lump. I've encounted talentless actors in my life, but Tatum is something special.
Nor do I believe that the lovers either met or were reunited at the "Cafe Mnemonic."
The Vow is pure, unashamed soap opera, although it is more credible about the disease than most amnesia offerings, perhaps because it offers no cooked-up, nonce oversimpliication of what's going on in the brain.
Shakuntala Devi, who died in India a week or so ago, was an incredible arithmetician. She once "accurately multiplied two random 13-digit numbers in a few seconds." "On a visit to this country, an American psychologist set her two problems: the cube root of 61,629,875, and the seventh root of 170,859,375. Shakuntala Devi gave the correct answers - 395 and 15 - even before he started his stopwatch."
No one knows how she did this. No one has even advanced a persuasive theory.
It's difficult for me to remember a thirteen-digit number. I don't think I could remember two thirteen-digit numbers. It's beyond my imagination to think about multiplying them (to produce the correct twenty-six digit answer).
I'm wondering whether Devi's abilities seem so astonishing because she's out there all by herself. If there were a cohort of people who could easily multiply 8, 9, or 12 digit numbers it wouldn't seem so wonderful that she could do 13. But she's unique.
But then I'm intimidated by Mozart, whose feats are also beyond imagining.
I wonder whether Ms. Devi carried some sort of genetic mutation. Is remarkable proficiency at mental arithmetic an inheritable trait? Which makes me wonder, when did homines sapientes acquire the ability to learn the times table? When did the mutation for that trait first appear?
I telephoned my consultant on such matters, the blogger Political Mammal. He says that the ordinary brain, yours and mine, does so many calculations just when we walk down the street and compare this storefront to the one that went out of business and to the similar one on the next block that, well, we should be just as astonished at quotidian events as at mental arithmetic. I see his point. Who knows how many synapses are firing now, even as I'm writing this simplicity-itself post.
But writing a few words is a commonplace miracle; extracting seventh roots -- now, that's something else.
It had been a long time since I'd read a decent hyena book, so I opened Mikita Brottman's Hyena (London, 2012) with great anticipation.
I'm sorry to report that it was a bit of a disappointment: not nearly enough biology and too much undigested "reception history." Yes, it's true that hyenas are regarded with almost universal fear and revulsion. perhaps because they dig up corpses and run off with young children. But I knew that. And although Brottman mentions the unusual sexual apparatus of female hyenas, which causes so much difficulty with copulation and childbirth, she neglected to remind us that hyena males lack a baculum.
Good pictures, however. Here's one.
I've seen a lot of stuffed animals in baby's cribs, but I've never seen a cute stuffed hyena. Merely a sampling error, it turns out. Stuffed hyenas suitable for your newborn are available on the internet,
Nevertheless, I a bit skeptical that hyenas will ever outsell the bunnies and puppies.
Now only one of my teachers survives -- and then only because he's a centenarian. Steve Parrish, next-to-last, who was very kind to me back there in the 1950s, died a year ago at the age of 90. News travels slowly. I now realize that Steve was only a couple of years out of grad school when I met him (his career started late because of two Navy stints, one in WWII and one in Korea). He was disarmingly casual, but nevertheless learned and intelligent. In retrospect, I am stunned that he was able to listen to my adolescent blather with a straight face. I also remember a dinner at his home where his genial demeanor was taxed by the ferocity of his then-wife. Of his famous grandfather,I tried but never got him to say a word. Letters and postcards from him were appropriately signed, "Affably, SMP. I remember that he helped me with my undergraduate thesis, helped me to win a Wilson, and wouldn't let me quit the "large Eastern university" to which he had sent me when I wanted to come back home to the alma mater far above Cayuga's waters.
I should have thanked him. Too late.
We were not always the earth's sole hominid. Neanderthals (and Denisovans, and Homo floresiensis (if they were truly distinct species) overlapped our time. Here are two skeletons, one of ours and one of theirs.
The first Neanderthals appeared perhaps a quarter of a million years ago and certainly by 170,000 years BP. They seem to have supplanted Homo heidlebergensis, a more distant cousin of ours, and they flourished from Spain to Israel, as far north as Finland, and possibly as far east as the Altai mountains in Siberia. In order to live in cold climates, they would have clothed themselves, though of course not a trace of a garment has survived. Neanderthals, it's been newly determined, carried a gene associated with pale skin and red hair. Their brain cases were slightly larger than ours, but shaped differently -- bulging at the sides and protruding in the back. Their rib cases flared at the bottom and their pelvises were broad, which meant that their strides necessarily involved a lot more hip rotation than our straightforward gait. They were more robust than we, with heavier bones and muscles, and they were much stronger. They ate more than we did and matured more rapidly -- their wisdom teeth developed at six years of age. Earlier Neanderthal populations appear to have been scavengers, but later ones were predators, capable of taking mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses. The plaque of Neanderthal teeth reveal traces of phytoliths which occur in the roots and leaves of plants. It's known that they ate dates, barley and legumes. Both meat and plants were cooked. There is some fragmentary evidence that they practiced cannibalism, but, I'd prefer to think, only "survival cannibalism." Neanderthals lived in bands or perhaps 8 or 10 members. They occasionally buried their dead, but left behind no evidence of ritual or ceremony. They knapped chert and flint into scrapers and hand axes and the knew how to bind stone to wooden handles with adhesives and sinew, but they did not make use of bone tools.
They were gone from the earth about 20,000 years ago, displaced by homines sapientes and perhaps reduced by changes in the climate or by other destructive natural events.
Humans of European origin (but not of African or Asian) interbred with Neanderthals, so that as much of 4% of human DNA is Neanderthal. On ther other hand, no Homo sapiens DNA has been discovered in Neanderthal populations. No one knows why the one and not the other.
This report is filched from Ian Tattersall's Masters of the Planet (2012), an excellent book that brought me up to date on human origins. I recommend it with genuine enthusiasm. It's learned, clearly written, and sensible. And it displaces the cartoon history I grew up with in which monkeys lead to apes and then to Piltdown (!!!) man and then to insurance salesmen in tie and jacket. The modern picture is more complicated and far more fascinating and also replete with unsolved puzzles.
In the beginning there was Tonto, the "faithful Indian companion" and there were "renegades" who didn't want to live on the reservation. I was a perfectly naive urban lad, and of course I bought the whole package.
In my defense, I early developed serious qualms at the Saturday westerns where buckskinned redskins were regularly drilled by six-shooters to fall picturesquely from pinnacles or palaminos. My first serious movie, Red River, featured a memorable and even-then-revolting scene in which redskins were remorselessly and shockingly slaughtered.
I'm proud to say that early on I started to identify with the underdogs. Renegades indeed? But some of my sympathy was bought with eroticized stereotypes of women (such as Debra Paget in Broken Arrow). And then there were Rudy York and Allie Reynolds, who were real people. How to reconcile the stereotypes to the facts? Beyond my childhood abilities.
It's astonishing how much of my view of our native cousins was generated by the movies. And by Fenimore Cooper as well, although at this present moment the only clear remembrance of the Leatherstocking saga that remains in my mind is a gruesome scene in which fiendish Mohawk "squaws" torture a white captive.
In school there were maps of territory inhabited by the Navajos and the Iriquois and the Comanche and the Pawnee. All very exotic but I for one had no concept that these names signfied people with lives and identities and histories. P. S. 217 textbooks certainly did not use the word "genocide."
In the 1960s, I read perhaps a hundred "captivity narratives." And also Theodora Kroeber's very moving biography of Ishi. Exposure to these books opened my mind.
And since then I've visited the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and read about the vast city of Cahokia. But my knowledge remains literary, rather than experiential. Although I live in the great west (and just two blocks from Arapahoe Avenue), I've rarely encountered genuine native Americans -- they're mighty scarse in these parts. And the few folks whom I've met who claim Indian "blood" are far blonder than I.
Because he plays with infectious enthusiasm. Because he's undersized for his position but unfazed. Because he plays a better game today than he did last week. Because he's so often the first man down the floor, outrunning and outhustling his opponent. Because he's not the most gifted athlete in the league, but he makes the most of his abilities. Because he plays within himself and doesn't force up bad shots. Because he can score fifteen or twenty points a game without a play being called for him.
Sure, he's occasionally out of place on defense.True, he hasn't yet learned how to play the pick and roll. His offensive games is limited to putbacks and short jumpers. And sometimes he has a bad game because the opponent is bigger and better.
But he's learning. He's coachable.
And because he's the first NBA player to pledge support for gay rights. (Kenneth has two mothers and he "loves them both.") Congratulations, Kenneth Faried, for speaking out.
I remember that my first and until yesterday sole viewing of Bergman's The Seventh Seal took place in August of 1958 at one of those big old downtown Brooklyn movie palaces. I was in the company of Leigh Anderson and Alice Bruno, who might not remember the day -- or remember me, for that matter.
It was a memorable occasion because Bergman mattered, or so it seemed at the time. Like everyone in my age-cohort, I had grown up on westerns and crime and horror and musicals. I knew what to expect in a movie theatre. A beginning, a middle and an end, for one thing. A resolution. But then along came Fellini and Kurosawa and Bergman and the rules changed. It was exciting and puzzling and like other observant college kids, I was trying to figure it all out. Movies had been Saturday entertainment; I did not know that thee could be "intellectual."
The Seventh Seal took me by surprise in all kinds of ways. It was episodic and the episodes didn't tie together into a linear narrative. Its emotional range -- from sexy to sordid to brutal to picturesque to ruminative -- was more than I could fathom or follow. It didn't have a Hollywood plot -- no one ended up with the money or the girl. And then there were these long brooding silent shots in which the point lay in the cinematography (I word I didn't wouldn't learn for twenty years). I had no vocabulary to help me understand what I saw -- I didn't even know the word "allegory", or if I did, I didn't connect it with movies.
Last night, The Seventh Seal came around again, this time not in a palace but right there on the big hdtv. I was hoping it would still be as magical as it was in the 1950s, but alas, not so. It seemed, I'm sorry to say, stagey and contrived and pretentious. The allegory -- the despairing knight's search for meaning in a godless universe -- came across, last night, as shallow. The discovery that there ain't a god out there does not shock this born and raised atheist, although I do feel for Bergman and all those others whom it cost so dearly to surrender the illusion.
My mild animosity toward the sexual silliness of our ancestors originated in my childhood. My father, though in most things a font of good common sense, was, sexually speaking, very much a old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool Victorian. Whenever a discussion of sex or anatomy or reproduction would arise in our house, he would immediately turn red and stumble out of the room. Early on, I learned not to ask. On the few occasions when my poor papa mumbled something before he bolted, his information was always uninformed, frequently wrong, and occasionally dangerous.
My father inhabited an earlier psychological universe and he couldn't possibly have imagined how the invisible worm has turned. If he were alive today, he couldn't watch movies or TV or read novels. Too much gross language, too much frankness, too much nudity, too much casual coupling. He would have been aghast and embarrassed.
Nevertheless, repression has its compensations. It is absolutely clear to me that people of his generation and earlier experienced pleasures that cannot be realized now. The brave new libertine world of hooking up and sloppy drunken sex and XXX sites gratifies the instincts, but at significant cost.
Return we now to the last years of the nineteenth century, when Helen and the great poet Edward Thomas went a-courting. In their young twenties, a couple of years into their anguished relationship, they (in Helen's words)
were sitting in the undergrowth of a little copse in a remote part of the common. Edward had said that he had never seen a woman's body, and I do not remember quite how it came about, but I quite naturally and simply without any feeling of shyness, knelt up in our secret bower and undid my clothes, and let them fall about my knees so that to the knees I was naked. I knew my body was pretty, my breasts wre firm and round and neither too small nor too large, and my neck and shoulders made a pleasant line, and my arms were rounded and white, and though my hips were small, the line of the waist was lovely. I was proud of my body, and took the most innocent pleasure in its lines and health and strength. So we knelt in the grass and dead leaves of the copse opposite to each other, he silent and I laughing with joy to feel the air on my skin, and to see his enraptured gaze. For as he knelt he gazed wonderstruck and almost adoring, quite still, quite silent, looking now and then in my eyes with a serious ecstatic look, his eyes full of tenderness and love, searching mine for any sign of regret or shyness. He did not touch me, but just knelt there letting hie eyes take their fill of the beauty that was filling his soul with delight. When, without a word, I lifted my clothes about me, he helping me, he only then said, 'Helen, I did not know there was such beauty.'
Scoff as you will, ungentle readers.
I know -- it's prettified and romanticized. But it's an innocence that cannot be invented. And I'm not scoffing. I don't think that there's a person on our continent or in our century as naive as Edward Thomas was in England in 1898. Nor do I think that there's anyone who could say what he said, and say it with such bedazzled and wonderful sincerity: "Helen, I did not know there was such beauty."
It's a world that we have lost.
(Helen Thomas unveils in her memoir, Under Storm's Wing).
As far as I can remember, and I've read the stories many times, Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with amnesia, which in those days of reading and writing had not yet become the most routine of plot devices. The Holmes of Billy Wilder's movie runs into amnesia straight off the bat, when Gabrielle Valladon, a handsome though mighty bedraggled woman, appears at 221-B Baker Street apparently suffering a loss of memory precipitated by both a bump on the head and a near drowning in the Thames. But there's a gimmick within the gimmick: Mme. Valladon's amnesia is totally fraudulent. The lady is in "fact" a German spy pretending loss of memory in order to insinuate herself into Holmes' sympathies.
The audience falls for it, which is not a surprise, because we watchers have been indoctrinated to willingly and enthusiastically suspend our disbelief at the slightest hint of film's most common malady. But that Holmes should succumb -- well, that's a bit of a disappointment. Fictional Holmes would have been a lot more discerning, amnesia-wise, than filmic Holmes.
When I saw Ingmar Bergman's Persona in 1967, I was pretty much baffled. Oh, I understood the translated dialogue, and I understood the general idea that the two women were similar and possiby melding into one, whatever that might mean, but I didn't understand what it all signified, or how the "plot" was related to the repeated abstract collages and to the heavy-handed religious symbolism. It's hard to recall whether I was intimidated by the film or resented it -- I think both, alternately and sometimes simultaneously. Did I mumble under my breath, "pretentious fraud?" I can't say for sure.
I saw Persona again last night. I would like to tell you all, faithful readers, that I have grown and matured into a discerning viewer, and that the once-opaque film is now transparent. But I can't. It's still just as mysterious as it was almost fifty years ago. And I'm just as slow, or insensitive, or unaesthetic.
Even the "self-reflexive" moments -- i.e. when the audience is allowed to see the camera -- seem obvious and not especially clever. Everyone has always known that films are films. So what?
Inasmuch as I've seen many more films by Bergman (and many that I admire tremendously), I am prepared to indulge the auteur. I think Persona is just so personal to Bergman that it doesn't communicate. Whatever else it might be, it's astonishingly self-indulgent. I confess that, at heart, I'm still suspicious of the people who claim to understand and who are eager to explicate.
To the MGM DVD of Persona, an interview with Bibi Andersson, who spoke almost all the film's dialogue, was appended. Ms. Andersson said that she knows that some people considered Persona to be Bergman's masterpiece, but that she herself didn't understand it.
I admire her candor.
At about this time last year, I posted, right here on this blog, pictures of a couple of objects that I thought would make good birthday presents for yours truly. Those of you who are skeptical that I did so can access the link here.
But what a washout -- not one person took the hint. There was not even an inquiry, even though my suggestions were eminently sensible.
I'm going to try again this year. After all, the economy is picking up, and there's more loose change out there.
So -- friends, relatives, fans of Vivian de St. Vrain, and Vrainites everywhere -- what about a castle in Ireland? There are many for sale, and they're quite reasonably priced, as castles go.
For example, here's Ballindooley, a "starter" Castle in Galway.
Even though it's small, it has undeniable "curb appeal." The realtor claims that it was built toward the end of the 15th century in the Norman style and probably for the DeBurgo family. The realtor also notes that there's "a new stone parapet and that there have been recent repairs to the machicolations"
Inasmuch as I wouldn't dream of owning a castle where the machicolations were all busted up, I'm happy for the reassurance. The price: a bargain at a mere 950,000 euros.
Though I wouldn't turn up my nose at Ballindooley, I would certainly prefer Killaghy Castle at Mullinahone in Tipperary.
It's a better value. The original castle was built, the realtor claims (I haven't seen the documentation) in the first decade of the 13th century, a "long house" was added during Tudor times, and two more buildings were attached during the 18th century. So it's already been updated.
Plus there are two walled gardens with "excellent mature specimen trees." An ominous note though: "price upon request."
So, loyal readers, it's time for you to chip in your pennies and farthings and join together for one big happy birthday for me.
And please, don't forget that in order for me to care for your gift properly, I'm going to need a bit of an endowment -- which I do not see as much of a problem. Plus furnishings.
And by the way, for those of you who are not "in the know" about castles, a "machicolation" is a "projecting gallery at the top of a castle wall, supported by a row of corbeled arches and having openings in the floor through which stones and boiling liquids could be dropped on attackers."
I like a castle that says, "everybody welcome."
Before there were dikes there were terpen.
I was disgracefully ignorant of terpen until I read Robert Van de Noort's North Sea Archaeologies: A Maritime Biography, 10,000 BC to AD 1500 (Oxford, 2011). Van de Noort devotes many pages to terpen, which are artificial islands constructed between 500 BC and 1000 AD in parts of the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany. The earliest terpen were simple mounds on which a house was built; later several or more would be joined together to form small elevated villages protected against high tides and flooding. They might be as much as forty feet high. With the coming of dikes (c. 1000-1200 AD), terpen ceased to be constructed.
Here's a terp, viewed from above.
And here's another, photographed from ground level.
I've been to the lowlands and might have seen these peculiar topographical features with my own eyes, but I certainly didn't register them. Even if I had, I might have confused them with the grave barrows or tumuli that are common in Scythian Bulgaria, or even with drumlins, which have a similar look to the uneducated eye -- although drumlins are natural rather than man-made.
I love it that "terpen" retains its ancient plural, along with words such as oxen and brethren. There aren't many such words in the language (children is a reduplicated plural, the original "-er" plural supplelmented by an -en plural -- and some day to be superseded, I predict, by "childrens").
Van de Noort's book is fascinating reading for those who like terpen and bronze-age sewn plank boats and such. It's rich in detail but might have been even richer if the author hadn't felt the need to waste space by calling the seashore a "place of liminality" and shipboard "a heterotopia sailing upon the Deleuzian ocean" -- and also indulge himself with many unconvincing speculations dependent on such peculiar, modish, transitory vocabulary.
When it comes to odd words, give me the old ones every time. Here are some satisfying lovely words that were as new to me as terpen: saltern (an area in fenlands set aside for salt manufacture); cofferdam (a temporary dam), thwart (a seat in a rowboat), leister (a two-pronged spear for fishing), dromond (a medieval galley) and broch (a dry-stone tower).
Mountain lions frequently wander from the foothills right into the heart of town. It's routine for them to "take" a pet cat or dog. A full-grown mountain lion can jump over the 8-foot chain link fence behind which you've sequestered your golden retriever, kill it, and then grab it with its mouth and bound back over the fence. The young lion pictured above has found itself on someone's back deck. Good thing that there are no children enjoying themselves on the swings to its left.
The lion doesn't seem to be fazed by her near-cousinhood to behind-glass-door domesicated kitty. Stay inside, Muffy! You'll have a better day. .
A few months ago, wildlife officers killed a lion that had followed the deer downtown and "showed no fear of humans." More commonly, officers shoot the lions with tranquilizer darts and then banish them deep in the mountains west of town.
Mule deer are totally at home in our city. They're so common that no one pays them much mind, except when they eat the shrubbery and the early spring flowers. They're so acclimated to humans that they don't even shy even when you come right up to them. They just stare right back at you and go on eating your tulips.
Black bears are also frequent visitors. They patrol unsecured garbage cans, especially in the fall when they're fattening up for hibernation. Recently, one of them became quite a celebrity:
It was shot with a tranquilizer dart and dropped from its perch in a tree on to a mattress, and was then transported back into bear country.
We have another celebrity animal this week, but the story behind it is not so felicitous. A bull elk has been hanging out, for the last few years, right at the western edge of town. He's become a friend, or perhaps a totem, to his human neighbors. But for some stupid reason, two police officers (one of whom owns a taxidermy studio) decided to kill it. Which they did, with a shotgun. The "Mapleton Elk" has been mourned with a candlelight vigil; the police officers have been charged with "suspicion of forgery, tampering with physical evidence, attempting to influence a public official as well as unlawful taking of a trophy elk, conspiracy, killing an elk out of season, unlawful use of an electronic device to unlawfully take wildlife and first degree official misconduct." I'm not proud of them.
Our local coyotes have also been in the news. Although we've always known they were around, they've been discreet. But lately, they've taken to harrassing joggers on the Creek Path.
Be sensible, coyotes! Stay out of sight. No nipping at the heels of strollers or bikers.
I listened to an interview with Markwayne Mullin, a new member of the House of Representatives, and had a hard time believing my ears. It wasn't that he was inarticulate or stupid. It was that he was so utterly smug, so absolutely and entirely certain of himself. He has no doubts. He knows exactly what ails the country -- too much government -- and he knows how to fix it -- lower taxes, less regulation, more free untrammeled capitalism. He does not seem to be aware that the United States of America is a big, complicated, multi-faceted country. Markwayne Mullin possesses all the arrogance of ignorance, in spades.
Here's some proverbial wisdom: "For every complex problem, there's a simple solution, and it's wrong."
My father, who was not a military man, always liked to vote for people who had served in the Army or Navy. "At least," he would say, "they have met people from other parts of the country. Maybe they've served abroad and seen something of the world."
Markwayne Mullin hasn't served in the military and there's no evidence on his website that he's traveled far from his home of Westville (population 1596) in Adair County in eastern Oklahoma. Here is Main Street, Westville:
He went off to college (Missouri Valley College, which, curiously, doesn't teach foreign languages) but didn't stay long. His website says he's a successful businessman, a plumber. More precisely (and I'll let his prose speak for itself), "Mullin is proud to have turned a family trade into a thriving business. Mullin Plumbing is most recognized due to its advertising and the more than 100 employees known for their hallmark red vans visible servicing Oklahomans across the state. For his part, Markwayne personally promotes the company through television and radio advertising. One of his favorite jobs is to produce and host the radio call-in talk show “House Talk.”
His positions are straightforward and clear (and red, red, red) -- an entirely unoriginal litany of right-wing simplicities and pieties.
We are taxed enough. Cutting spending, not raising taxes, is the answer to paying down debt.
The 2nd Amendment is crucial to ensuring our freedom.
Excessive government regulations, like those promulgated by the EPA, harm job growth.
We must restrain an out-of-control bureaucracy.
Life — from the moment of conception to natural death — is sacred. I am a 100 percent pro-life conservative.
Our United States troops must NEVER be under control of the United Nations.
We spend too much on foreign aid. Our challenges here at home must come first.
Private industry creates jobs. The government creates dependency.
Traditional marriage, between one man and one woman, is a sacred institution that must be preserved. Strong, healthy families are the heartbeat of our nation.
Parents should have final decision-making authority in the education of their children, because they know better than Washington, D.C., bureaucrats how to best educate their children.
ObamaCare must be repealed.
Ensuring access to quality, affordable health care is one of America’s greatest challenges today. The free market will meet the challenge if the government will get out of the way. We must cautiously seek comprehensive reform that protects the solvency of Medicare and Medicaid.
We must protect America’s borders to stop illegal immigration. Amnesty proposals should be rejected.
Penalties should be strengthened against illegal immigration and law enforcement given the resources for enforcement.
If it had been one of those call-in radio shows, I would have liked to ask Mr Mullin a couple of questions, such as, how are we going to get the lettuce picked and the roof fixed without all those immigrant laborers? How come life expectancy is lower in the US than in socialist Europe, even though we spend more on health care? How much do we actually spend on "foreign aid"? Who exactly wants to put US troops under the control of the United Nations? Are people like me, retired teachers who worked only for the government, really all that dependent? and compared to whom? Who's attacking your traditional marriage that you need to get all in a twist about other people's marriages? How come when a not-for-profit hospital is taken over by a for-profit hospital, the mortality rate immediately rises? To whom should we turn when the cantaloupe is contaminated? Should we worry about global warming? Should we be concerned by the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of families.What happens when a big hunking tornado rips through Adair County?
My hope is that Markwayne Mullin, who as he begins his congressional career is superficial to the very core of his being, will come to Washington, meet some folks from different parts of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds, learn a little about the world, come to an appreciation of the complexity of things, and grow up to be a useful broad-minded compassionate public servant. It's not impossible, but it's not going to happen until Mullin realizes that he doesn't know everything about everything, and that the practices that made Mullin Plumbing such a success may not be the same practices that will promote the general welfare over all of the US of A.
I'm hopeful, but frankly, I'm not at all optimistic.
Edward Thomas died at the battle of Arras, in France, in April of 1917. He was thirty-nine years old.
In this picture, he looks intense, suspicious, soulful, possibly even poetic, -- but not the suffering-soul-kind of poet. When he joined the military, he transformed himself into the stereotype of an officer. The new "look" was not a success, in my opinion.
Before he went off to the war, Edward Thomas conducted a flirtation and possibly an affair but more probably what they called in those inhibited days a "romantic friendship" with Edna Clarke Hall. She was a beautiful, intelligent woman, an artist. Here she is looking positively post-Pre-Raphaelite.
After Edward died, his wife Helen, herself a gifted, attractive and certainly long-suffering woman, wrote to Edna. "Why wasn't I beautiful to Edward? Oh, I did so long for your beauty not to take it from him, not take but give, to have hair & eyes & mouth & that something else.... I remember you so clearly standing for all I longed to have to give him."
I am moved by Helen's grief and also by her generosity.
Edna Clarke Hall died at age 100 in 1979.
I did not know that Edward Thomas sometimes made use of the entries in his journal as the raw material for his poetry.
His practice is not unique. Ben Jonson boasted that he wrote all his poems in prose first, then re-wrote them into verse.
So I decided to try an experiment. I took a blog post, written some years ago, called What My Father Ate. For ease of reference, I reproduce it here.
"Sardines, by the tinful. Herrings, canned, either in wine sauce or in tomato sauce. Whitefish. Lima beans which came into the house dried but which were soaked to plump up, then boiled and mashed (but not for me, if I could possibly avoid them). Potatoes in any form, but usually mashed and buttered. No chicken or lamb chops, but lots of tongue. (When I left home, I vowed never to eat tongue again, and I've kept the faith.) Chopped chicken liver. Steak, when we could afford it. Roast pork with applesauce. Delicatessen meats -- salami, baloney, corned beef, frankfurters. Baked beans, courtesy of Heinz. Apples, right down to the stem. Chocolate in any form, but especially white chocolate. Halvah, a particular favorite. Dates and figs, dried. Black radishes and onions, covered with gribbinis. Tschav, borsht with huge helpings of sour cream. Corn on the cob. No alcohol, nary a drop. On hot days, no beer, but instead iced tea or iced coffee. Cheese, either Velveeta or swiss. Good bread -- pumpernickel or rye. Crumb cake direct from Ebinger's Bakery. Bacon and two eggs, sunnyside up or soft-boiled. Cream o' Wheat. Swee-Touch-Nee tea. On Sunday morning, bagels and rolls, warm from the oven, eaten while reading the Times (25 cents) and the Eagle (10 cents). Ice cream, the more exotic the flavor the better."
And then I turned it into a sonnet, with these results.
Fragrant, oily iridescent sardines,
Herring by the tinful, gefilte fish;
Lima beans, soaked, boiled, mashed and then buttered
Crowding the flesh to the edge of the dish.
Salami, baloney, baked beans, and tongue.
Chopped chicken liver, calf liver with bacon,
Corned beef, frankfurters slathered with mustard
Pastrami -- and anything delicatessen.
Roast pork with applesauce, roasted potatoes.
Black radish, gribbinis, onions, and rye bread,
Cheese -- cream, Velveeta or Swiss -- on a bagel.
On Sundays, Ebinger’s crumb cake instead.
Apples, core and all, gnawed down to the stem.
The flesh, the seeds, the skin – all gone just like him.
Doesn't seem to work for me. I guess you have to be a poet, which I obviously am not. Or perhaps there's a problem with the raw material.
I've just finished a genuinely wonderful new biography by Matthew Hollis called Now All Roads Lead to France, a Life of Edward Thomas. I'm dazzled, and glad to be so. The book is carefully and comprehensively researched, literate, sensible, and compassionate. Its author is confident enough not to overwhelm the poor reader with pounds of extraneous detail. I'm not easily rivetted, but this biography was truly rivetting. Thank you, Matthew Hollis.
I'm a longtime Edward Thomas enthusiast. Thomas learned how to employ the language really used by men more successfully than some of his highly-regarded predecessors. I didn't know much about Thomas's life, and therefore hadn't realized (though I might have guessed had I been more astute) how much Thomas had learned from Robert Frost. The two became inseparable friends during Frost's English years and spent hours and hours together, neglecting their wives and families but talking poetry and poetic language. Clearly, they cross-fertilized.
In fact, if you listen closely, you can hear overtones of Frost in Thomas's best-known poem.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The first line of the poem is so casual and demotic that it sounds like what later came to be called "found poetry." I'm glad to know that there is an actual Adlestrop up there in the Cotswolds, though surely Thomas was well aware that "Adlestrop" sounds as though it were invented by the Ministry of Silly Names.
The poem is a latter-day pastoral which contrasts the hiss of industrial steam with the with perennial birdsong and cloudlets. A brief ecstatic revelation.
My all-time favorite poem by Thomas is this blank-verse masterpiece:
As the team's head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker's round hole,
The ploughman said. 'When will they take it away? '
'When the war's over.' So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
'Have you been out? ' 'No.' 'And don't want to, perhaps? '
'If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn't want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more...Have many gone
From here? ' 'Yes.' 'Many lost? ' 'Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
From a mosquito bite to his lip.
Rupert Brooke was an immensely talented young poet, best known today for the hyper-nationalistic World War I sonnet, "The Soldier." He lived for just twenty-eight years and his death was a tragedy for letters.
It's easy to be skeptical about the mosquito. I've been in the company of these insects many times, and I've never been bitten on the lip. Mosquitoes seem to avoid the mouth area -- at least, they avoid my mouth. But then, I don't know anything about the habits of eastern Mediterranean mosquitoes.
Brooke was a sub-lieutenant with Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; the mosquito attack took place while his ship was anchored in the Aegean. He developed an abscess and sepsis and as a result was transferred to a French hospital ship, the Duguay-Trouin. He died at 4:46 pm on 24 April, 1915 and was buried in an olive grove on the island of Skyros.
An unlikely death-- as odd and irregular as that of Aeschylus (struck on the head by a tortoise dropped by an eagle), or Isadora Duncan (strangled by a scarf entangled in the wheels of a motor-car). Or the unfortunate composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who, while conducting in the traditional manner by beating time with staff, accidentally knocked his own foot, causing an abscess which became gangrenous and fatal. Alas, no antibiotics in 1687.
My guess is that if Brooke had not been bitten and had survived Gallipoli (where his ship was headed), the "pure and elevated patriotism" displayed in "The Soldier" might have become less enthusiastic. Brooke might have evolved in a direction similar to that of his jaded-about-warfare contemporaries Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, and Edward Thomas. But we'll never know.
My lifetime tobacco consumption consists of one cigarette. Actually, half of one cigarette. I believe it was a Lucky Strike. Or perhaps an Old Gold. It was certainly one of these:
It was 1952. My older brother came home from a summer job in the Poconos with a cigarette tucked into the sleeve, like this. So cool, so macho:
That's not my brother, but it might have been (although he drove a Dodge). A pack of Luckies in the shooulder was just about the most glamorous thing I had ever seen.
So I tried one. I stole one of my brother's coffin nails, hid in the cellar, and lit up.
It was hideous and I was bilious.
I confessed as much to friends who were already secret smokers. The word of advice -- "After you do it for a while, you get over feeling sick." Not a persuasive argument, at least to me. It seemed stupid.
There were some years there when I faulted myself for not being as adventurous as my peers. Just another example of my conservatism and caution. But now I think that not finishing that cigarette may have been the single wisest act of my otherwise brainless adolescence. If I had smoked that cigarette to the nub, I'd still be fighting the addiction.
I was, in those days, surrounded by smokers. My father smoked an occasional cigar but mostly a pipe, filled with Prince Albert tobacco. It came in a can something like this one:
My mother smoked cigarettes, lots of them, until she came down with the ulcers. I was often sent around the corner to the candy store to buy her a pack of Chesterfields (no problem selling cancer sticks to children in those benighted days). Our house always stunk, especially when friends of my folks would visit. Everyone in their crowd smoked. Mostly chain-smoked.
No air in our home, just smog.
It's hard to know how tall I would have been, or how intelligent, if I hadn't been raised in a blue haze.
In college, my roommates all smoked. It didn't like it, but I didn't have the courage to complain. In those days, the deck was stacked in favor of the smokers, who had the rightaway. To object was to be fussy, or finicky, or unmasculine. Some of the professors smoked while teaching -- an act which gave the students permission to light up as well. It was nasty. Abstainers had no purchase.
Then things began to change. We went from this
to this (in 1964):
And then throughout the '70s and '80s, there were the constant revelations about the fakery and lying of the big tobacco companies, who chose profits and destroying lives over honesty and public health.
Nowadays, no smoking in anyone's home, no smoking in buses or planes, no smoking in restaurants, no smoking in government buildings, and no smoking (as of next month) on the mall.
But I'll tell you what still makes me sick. It's a bunch of teen-agers, hanging out in front of the coffee shop, puffing theatrically and addicting themselves -- and subtracting an average of ten years from lives. In the old days, when doctors smoked Camels, or were reputed to do so, there may have been some excuse for smoking; but now, when the evidence is all in, a kid who starts to smoke is a complete raging fool.
I'm sorry but I have no nostalgia for the great age of cigarettes, though they were, as a Lorillard executive once said, "the perfect product; make it for a penny, sell it for a dollar, and it's addictive as hell."
There can't be a disease in fiction that demands more vigorous suspension of disbelief than movie amnesia. And Now, Ladies and Gentleman, a latter production of the great Claud Lelouch, pushes the disbelievery to the breaking point. It asks us to accept not one but two identical and fanciful cases of the affliction. Both Valentin Valentin, played by Jeremy Irons, and Jane Lester, played by Patricia Kaas suffer from symmetrical "blackout" periods in which memory evaporates.
What, prithee, are the odds?
Duelling amnesias are mighty unlikely, but such is the premise of the film. Although I doubt that there's much in the scientific literature about the romantic potential of mutual amnesia, in this film the disease becomes a mild erotic stimulant. Why the heck not, I say.
Inasmuch as no one but confirmed amnesiaphiles are ever going to see this film, let me spoil it at once by saying that both Valentin, a jewel thief, and Jane, a chantoosie, find themselves in Fez in Morocco. There they are healed, and after much ado, set out to circumnavigate the earth in a racing boat called Ladies and Gentlemen (hence the film's odd title). Valentin, a traditionalist, takes the orthodox medical route and goes to a local surgeon, who shows him and us an MRI generated picture of his brain disfigured by a great white splotch ("It's a wonder he can remember anything," says the Doc.) Valentin undergoes radical surgery but Jane, taking an easier route, is cured by making a pilgrimage to a local Moroccan saint. How unjudgmental and egalitarian to equate medicine and mystery; and also, by the way, how very nonsensical.
The film is well made -- replete with all kinds of fancy effects and flashbacks and dream sequences. I love the idea of draining color from the characters' faces to signify that they have begun another of their symmetrical "blackouts." But aside from the amnesias, there's not much to wonder at, at least not if you've seen your share of caper/jewel thief films.
I loved the exotic North African locales. I'm chagrined to report that I didn't recognize the wondrous Claudia Cardinale, who was 63 when the film was made. Claudia had been a great friend to my youthful imagination.
The amnesia that afflicts Valentin and Jane is, as far as I know, unique in that it comes and goes, appears and disappears. Less like an amnesia than an allergy -- here one moment, then gone. But as a plot device, constant.
Fifty years ago I enjoyed arguing with people of religion about the existence of god, but nowadays I find it to be a singularly unprofitable exercise. The believers and the atheists are so entrenched in their positions hat no one ever convinces anyone of anything. Moreover, the faithful are so damned touchy that it's no fun to talk to them! They are easily offended, I think, because the weaker their evidence and logic, the more intense their compensatory passion.
I give thanks that at this my moment in history and geography, the true believers may be angry with me but they don't have the power to bludgeon me into obedience. (In general, the less intelligible the religion, the greater its reliance and economic and corporeal sanctions to compel allegiance.)
These philosophical musings are inspired by a New York Times article that has received an ungodly amount of attention. Maureen Dowd, who has made a career out of cracking wise at figures of authority, especially Clintons, has given over her space this Christmas week to a column on theology (or, as it is sometimes called, the Subject without an Object). She endorses the argument of a priest-friend. He (the priest) makes an end run around the classic Problem of Evil -- which is, that inasmuch as the world is very obviously a thoroughfare of woe, then an omniscient god must be either powerless or malicious. Here's Dowd's priests's formulation: "If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?"
A very good question indeed and one that believers in a beneficent deity have failed to resolve yea all these many centuries. Dowd's priest's answer (which is loaded with a bunch of transparently obvious smuggled assumptions) is that "for whatever reason, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us.... We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."
Let me try to understand this argument. This new twenty-first century god, the "dowdgod" let us call him, has entirely disappeared. He doesn't actually do anything at all. He's so hidden -- absconditus, in the traditional language of theology -- that he permits all kinds of suffering and instead chooses to manifest himself merely as a comforting presence.
Is that the argument that Dowd thinks is worth a column of valuable newsprint? Yes, so it seems to be. Astonishing.
Faith," the priest continues, "is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be in God’s presence...." (No god for the solitary, then.) "When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh.... The many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong." His animating idea: the love of friends is a manifestation of the deity. Wow. How shallow, how trivial, how wrong!
No one would disagree with the notion that suffering isolates us and that friends and family console us. I can't argue with such a proposition. It's plainly obvious. But what in the world does such an observation have to do with the existence or the nature of a supernatural being? It's not evidence for god, it's not proof of god; if anything, it's the contrary of a proof. Human beings console us, not "god"; the god part, the theology part, is utterly supererogatory and unnecessary. What Dowd's priest has done is to change the word "compassion" into the word "god." But we know that compassion is not supernatural; it's entirely and essentially natural.
So the dowdgod turns out to be no more than a feature of human nature that "soothes broken hearts." But what does it mean to believe in, or worship, the dowdgod. Not much. All a person has to do is to notice that it helps to have some folks around when you're in pain -- and then to re-label the good feelings that emanate from friends as god. It's so very easy, so undeniable. And utterly meaningless.
And what a nice old friendly god it engenders. Whatever happened to Augustine, Calvin, Luther. Those tough old guys are turning over in their graves. The dowdgod is a far cry from from Jehovah, from Allah, and certainly from the demanding Jesus who came to bring not peace but a sword. Those were gods to reckon with. But now, out with Jupiter Tonans, the thunderer, and in with Jupiter Manus-tenens, the hand-holder. Or Jupiter Sussurans, the whisperer.
It hardly matters whether one believes or doesn't believe in a god so weak-kneed and thin-blooded, so positively humane.
Maureen Dowd might say, if she were surrounded by compassionate friends "You make me feel god." In the same situation, I might might say, "You make me feel good." The difference is only one minuscule "o" vowel, which, honestly, is very like a zero. And zero is all that this new theology offers.
I doubt that I know any more about strigils than your average man in the street. I had read about them for years, of course, but I had never seen one with my own eyes until yesterday, when I took myself down to the Pompeii exhibit in Denver. There they were, kind of stuck away in the corner -- two bronze beauties.
Strigils were used for cleaning the body, ancient Roman style. Early loofahs. The one posted below looks a lot like the one I saw yesterday -- a garden-variety Denver/Pompeii specimen that was retrieved from under 20 feet of Vesuvian ash:
Here's another strigil, this one a little more elaborate.
They're kind of formidable, aren't they?
If, two thousand years ago, you had been patrician enough to go to the thermae for your ablutions, you would have left the calida piscina, the warm bath, and hastened to the destrictarium, which was a room dedicated to strigiling. There you would have applied a mixture of olive oil and pumice to your skin, and then one of your slaves, who might be an aliptes, a masseur, or a simple balneator, a bath attendant, would have strigiled you clean.
But why olive oil and pumice? Greasy and gritty. Why not soap? Did the ancients have soap? Who invented soap?
Fortunately, there's a website devoted to these important questions. Its forthright, unapologetic url is soaphistory.net.
The first traces of soap appeared among the Babylonians, some 5000 years ago. The recipe: mix animal fat with wood ash and boil. So soaps were around, but -- mirabile dictu -- they weren't used for personal hygiene. They were used for cleaning wool and cleaning pots; Pliny, who was there for the explosion of Mt. Vesuvius, and knew all there was to know, records only that soap was used as a hair pomade.
The world we have lost was a far dirtier place than we like to imagine. In point of fact, our familiar cake soaps and their widespread use are an industrial revolution-nineteenth century invention.
Considering the effectiveness and convenience of modern soaps, I'm not looking for a strigil revival -- no Mr. Strigil at every streetcorner. Nevertheless, there's not a brush or a washcloth in the modern world that can match the beauty of the best of the ancient strigils. Here, for example, is an old Etruscan strigil with a naked-girl handle (she herself brandishes a mini-strigil). It's less useful than a cake of Ivory, but -- let's face it-- a heck of a lot more glamorous.
George Drysdale (1823-1904) wrote, anonymously, Physical, Sexual, and Natural Religion (1854), a pioneering guide to contraception and sexual disease that was condemned by the pious as "the Bible of the Brothel."
Drysdale arrived at his progressive ideas after an adolescence and young manhood crippled by sexual ignorance and sexual panic. At the age of fifteen, he "accidentally'' discovered masturbation and found that the practice offered an 'easy mode of satisfying his passions, which had long been the source of unrest and torment to his vivid imagination.' He masturbated, poor Victorian fellow, two or three times a day and involuntarily endured occasional nighttime 'discharges'. He was overcome with guilt and even more so tortured by the fear that, as he was instructed by prevailing doctrine, the 'loss' of semen would sap his strength and inevitably lead him to madness. Hard to believe -- but such notions were commonplace among our recent, ignorant ancestors.
It gets worse. He was so distressed by his uncontrollable onanism that on trip to Hungary, he faked a suicide, leaving his clothes and identification beside a river.
And worse still. While in Hungary, he underwent a series of procedures to deaden and destroy the nerve endings of the penis "by inserting into the urethra a thin metal rod coated in a caustic substance. He submitted to this procedure seven or eight times." It didn't work -- at least in the sense that it didn't diminish his passion for masturbation. I also suspect that it might have hurt.
It gets better, though. He resurrected himself and came back to his family after he consulted a doctor who offered the breathtakingly brilliant prescription that he "try coition." Intercourse with prostitutes, he discovered, quite cured his urge to masturbate. Holy moley, what a revelation! What a fucking breakthrough!
Drysdale never married but in later life he lived for many years with a woman named Susannah Spring.
Now, if you were writing a novel about a person who "dies" and returns to life and you called his mistress or partner or whatever she was by the name Spring, with its obvious overtones of rebirth, you would be justifiably accused of moralism or allegorizing or heavy-handedness. Nevertheless, truth is truth to the end of the chapter and Susannah Spring she was.
I hope George and Susannah were happy together. I hope they frequently and joyously "tried coition." The poor boy deserved a few good years.
(I've pilfered the story of George Drysdale from Kate Summerscale's revelatory Mrs.Robinson's Disgrace [New York, 2012]).
Every year, football becomes harder and harder to watch. When the quarterback is blitzed and has his clock cleaned, or a receiver on a crossing pattern gets his bell rung, I no longer think, brilliant play. Instead, I think, pain and concussion.
Not a game goes by but that a lineman leaves the field of sport on a gurney, to admiring huzzahs and applause from the comfortable spectators.
Have I become more timorous -- or more compassionate? I still admire the skill level of the players but I'm distressed because these gladiators have become permanently injured for my amusement.
There's a Washington Post article about a lineman named Tre Johnson, who left the game in 2003 after nine seasons in the NFL. Johnson, who earned two degrees before he was drafted, is now a highly-regarded middle-school social studies teacher at the private Landon School outside Washington. His is a post-career success story.
The Post article offers some information about Johnson's present state of health. He's forty-something years old and for three years has been walking three miles, twice daily, in order to shed some weight. More power to him, he's now under 400 pounds and hoping to get back to his playing weight of 275. He suffers from diabetes, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. He's already endured nineteen surgeries (seven on his shoulders, seven on his knees, an elbow, hands and Achilles’ tendon). "He can't sleep more than three hours at a stretch. There’s not a morning he doesn’t wake up in pain, and it takes a full hour to get moving in tolerable discomfort." Although when he played, no one kept track of concussions, Johnson has some sort of brain injury, because he can't tolerate bright or fluorescent lights. To what degree his banged-around brain has been seriously disabled will not become clear for a few more years.
Tre Johnson is doing well, but what about other ex-players who are not quite so healthy?