… as to be hurt is petty, and to be hard
Stupidity; as the economists raise
Bafflement to a boast …
… the flat patience of England is a gaze
Over the drop …
There is not much else that we can praise.
— Wm Empson, from Courage Means Running (not!)
Dear friends and readers,
Given that I live in a country where those who have the power to stop this a fascist regime from taking over its central gov’t, at its headed a narcissistic sociopathic man whose public positions veer like some weathercock, it’s hard to look forward to kind any of certainty in the future, much less count on or plan for a good one. I’ve spent the time since I last wrote a diary entry (nearly two weeks ago) in the usual ways of reading, writing, watching movies at home, punctuated by going to the gym, or shopping, two times out to lunch, once with a real friend. It’s been cold, rained, snowed.
As ghosts obscurely trail the past
She is posthumous
She haunts the future.
Late in the night
The lit house she comes back to
Is empty, echoing
— “Widow,” Barbara Everett
What can I share? It’s that time that people assess where they’re at, and so here are a few areas of my continuing life I’ve thought about a bit.
The nature of blogging has changed over the 15 years or so since I began blogging and what’s called the blogosphere emerged. I find I blog less because more is expected: blogs like mine (literary, semi-political, life-writing) could be seen as a form of privately-run mostly unpaid journalism, especially if you write about books where your reader is probably literate and wants good information and insight. I try for four a week (one on each of my four blogs), and know I invent projects (women artists is my latest series)-— the way other bloggers join in web-ring marathons: a group of people who’ve met somehow or other all read but more importantly write about a specific author or books published in a specific year around a certain date; or they agree to blog about this kind of movie or by this director in for a given month. Then they comment on another’s blogs, link into one another’s blogs. These are planned and controlled performances where a social world you belong to is presented.
I’m not bored with what I do. I pick projects that I love to develop: read about, write about as I learn what I’m thinking, enrich my experience by writing, it’s almost as if I didn’t have the experience or make it real to myself unless I write. But it’s hard to balance this with say my teaching, or doing papers for conferences, or going out to do something. There is a conflict: I would read more if I wrote less, watch another movie. I find I also respond to the audience: so if a particular topic gets more clicks I develop it more: so for example, my Poldark blogs are responsible on some days for as much as 3000 clicks (hits!) — though I don’t read the books or watch the two mini-series to get an audience. I love them: last night I was much moved by the death of one of the heroes in Warleggan and its presentation in the new Poldark as well as Debbie Horsfield’s script.
Teaching and offering readings of books and films
Since we already are suffering from a surfeit of false news-stories and popular entertainment which is becoming more frankly racist, sexist, intolerant pro-violence every day another topic to think about at this point for me is teaching. I choose to carry on teaching, if not quite for free, for very small sums. In a way writing blogs on books and films and the kinds of topics I chose (or postings to listservs and face-book) are forms of teaching, sharing insights and knowledge. I teach to get out and write to be part of a social world, but if I didn’t think these activities valuable in some way or other I would stop.
What should one do in such eras as a teacher? or writer? I re-watched John Berger’s famous four-part 1970s mini-series Ways of Seeing (he died recently) the other night and remind us all of what he said. (You can find and watch all four on YouTube.) I found I had forgotten or never realized some aspects of it.
I did not realize how quietly feminist it was. I say quietly because at no point is Berger overt about feminism, never goes near any of the terms associated. The first half hour seems t be the most famous: like people starting a book. Here he argues how the context of a work enforces how we see it, how hard it is to ignore this: it’s not just an imaginative understanding of the time of the work (he hardly goes into this) but how the era the person lives in, where they see it, how it is framed there (as a precious object in a museum), where it’s discussed, if reproduced what surrounds the image in the book. He has a funny imitation of the usual hushed tones within which the pictures are discussed. They are fetishes because sold for such huge sums. This contextualization and re-contextualization is so important that one must stop and consider it a bit.
Berger teaches us why a text that in itself is an enlightened and good one (teaching say good values or meaning) can in a different context, different era, different audience, have a pernicious effect. That’s what happened to the class I tried to teach Huckleberry Finn to. No matter what I said, the way they saw it was racist: several of the whites triumphing, the black kids feeling pain and (the one who gave a talk) anguish.
Trump is said to have read All Quiet on the Western Front (he seems to be a functional illiterate). I went back to it: it is characterized by very easy language, simple sentences, a very easy reading book, one you could give to junior high school students (12 and up). I remember teaching it — like HF fruitlessly to even most in a sophomore level general education literature class, though not with the same evil effect. When we came to the end of AQWF, a number of the students raised their hands (a number) and said how disappointed, dismayed, angered (!) they felt at the hero dying — I added so meaninglessly, hopelessly. Today I’ll add the same is true of the death of Francis Poldark in Graham’s Warleggan which I watched last night. I tried to tell them the book is anti-war, anti-heroism, that it fits the meaning; if I wrote that in huge letters and talked with examples till i was blue in the face it would not matter. Many in the class had actually read it; it was seen as a man’s book. But they had read the book in the context of 2006, many of them having fought or having relatives who fought in of our colonialist wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It must be for them something
that was pro-war and pro-fighting people. They were able to read it literally but not able to understand what was meant in 1929.
What they objected to (even vociferously was not having an ending where the hero was rewarded. Again it was useless to argue a book can have ambiguous endings. I have been told most in American audiences do not accept ambiguous endings and British movies are changed to have them or the larger numbers in US audiences object, won’t go. I remembered how Hitler hated the book, burned it, and to take revenge on the author had his sister beheaded (literally did this).
As I stopped teaching ghost stories after I realized so many in the class believed in ghosts and I was reinforcing atavistic ideas, never assigned HF again, so after that I knew it was useless to assign All Quiet on the Western Front to class of American college students of average intelligence. I brought up Graham because I discovered that for reasons I don’t quite understand they did respond in the way intended to Ross Poldark (the novel); hence I assigned it again and again. Also Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Why they understood this one or were capable of understanding (empathizing with) Bolt’s play as intended by the author I never figured out.
Re-contextualization is inescapable Berger says. Learned books surround pictures with abstract discussions that deflect the reader’s attention from the content of the pictures and what the viewer might intuitively see accurately if left out unintimidated. Berger says it is also the whole context in which the work of art is experienced, the photograph, the sounds. Many people don’t read literary criticism because it asserts things about texts they can’t see themselves and in classrooms there are students who don’t believe or don’t like when teachers present readings of books — it’s elitist. They can’t see what you are saying or react negatively from their culture.
I know my attitude is not common in the academy. I have no faith I’ve made any difference whatsoever (like Leonard Woolf) and when I see a person in pain in classroom (as in the HF experience) I know in my gut I’ve done wrong to that person. I can see that. As in the movie adapted from LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener, the heroine (tortured, raped, murdered for her pains) says we can do good for that one person if we act like our brother’s keeper and the hell with the law so I can refrain from doing harm. Maybe there were people in the classroom who learned from reading AQWF but no one said. It was me talking and I won’t do it again. It was feeding the beast. One can find books where there is no harm done and something good in it. I mentioned two, another was Jane Goodall’s books on chimps.
For the second segment Berger demonstrates and reiterates over and over how women are made to see themselves first and foremost as they assume (from this culture) how others see them which turns out to mean how men see them, and then a particular man. Their destiny is defined by how they look. The woman before the mirror is the truest way women see themselves. He shows so many pictures of women, how they do dominate advertising, how attention-grabbing they are made. Men he says are not self-conscious about their looks in the same way at all: they see themselves more generally in society as free agents. Naked women; he goes over Kenneth Clarke’s famous book filled with beautiful reproductions of naked women in European art where he said he was looking at nudes, not naked woman. The difference seems to be these are fine art, not coarse salacious calendars and presented as goddesses or Biblical figures in Bibles or high culture stories.
After this second half hour the third and fourth can be seen to have these images of women throughout, which I would not usually notice. He has made the point and now it lingers. And endlessly for four half hours the The pictures of women with unreal bodies (only gotten for a few short years after dieting, exercise, efforts of all sorts) to resemble a white European norm of sexual objectification (recently intense thinness is associated with youth) or nurturing women for strong agressive men.
The third and fourth had a series of themes: how pictures are still and silent. He reads aloud typical academic style literary criticism which ignores the relationship of the author’s life at the time to the picture, and is general and abstract and often erases what people are seeing in the content. He has a group of youngsters and then women simply give their uneducated responses – in one we are show the famous Manet where men fully dressed sit on a blanket with a naked woman (Lunch on the Grass). One woman frankly says how she hates the Manet. It’s mortifying. This lead to the most refreshing discussion of his famous cool portrait of Olympia (a prostitute) I’ve ever heard. The last ten minutes allow us to see (or he interprets for us — for he’s not neutral nor can anyone be) how painting and today most photography are about presenting wealth, most often people but sometimes landscapes and rooms and the point is see all the objects this person has and what they mean symbolically about the person’s prestige, the room and landscape as a symbol of wealth, power, control.
The last segment ends on advertising and shows modern ads all around us are utterly ideological, teaching us that we will be happy if we have all these wonderful things. The thing sold often has nothing to do with the image attached to it for real.
Nowadays when I go to museums I am so alive to the third perspective — all this is the patron showing off — I am sickened and need to go to rooms of paintings of landscapes or mythical figures or simply pictures which don’t do this, but I equally find deeply distasteful deliberate ugliness, over the top preaching (so that I need to read the card next to the object to understand why it’s there), grotesqueries. If our large and sometimes local social political and economic world is vile, and so the psychological one underneath this, presenting vileness doesn’t help. This does come out in the fourth half hour of series where he juxtaposes photographs of the powerful, of displays of luxurious food,dresses and so on with photographs of refugees and the poor, miserable, and imprisoned and tortured. These latter are not vile and grotesque; they are simply photographs.
What Berger does enable, encourage me to do (paradoxically) is carry on. His idea is to encourage people on their own to discover what they think and feel by becoming aware of how they are manipulated. The idea is to help them free themselves to feel and think. To show also how to go about conventional close reading. The task though thorny and often vexed can do a little good if genuinely throughout with the underlying notion of do no harm. So my last are trying to enact something of what Berger encourages.
Two films: the HD Screening of Nabucco and Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado About Nothing (on DVD)
Izzy and I went on that Saturday (January 7th) and left at the first intermission. I don’t say it wasn’t interesting — the opera is one of these museum pieces, and I felt watching it, How different from most previous operas, the music was different, and whole sense of some natonalistic seriousness. We probably listened to one of the best or famous arias. A soprano (Liudmyla Monastyrska) who has sung Santuzza (Cavaliera Rusticana) was Abigaile (she thought herself Nabucco’s daughter but has learned she is a slave) was powerful: seething, angry, and singing away. There was a man who was priest of some sort, Ismaele (Russell Thomas) with an aria like the one in Magic Flute — base voice. Very Verdi though. I noticed the parallel with Mozart’s Magic Flute: the women aria singers are all seething, spiteful, erotic, powerful; the men singing low base music, also powerful aria singers are singing of reason, enlightenment, and are commendable. The gender faultline never ceases.
I couldn’t stand the story matter: wikipedia quoted some contemporary critics who were candid enough to express loathing of its material: rage, bloodshed, murder. If in modern context (a la John Berger) it could be seen or felt as pro-Israel, all it did was make me remember a video online I saw briefly of a Palestinian man lying on the ground and then a Israeli officer comes over and shoots him point-blank in the head; a towel is fetched to cover the eye-sore, and when the officer is not indicted even a judge protests some Trump-tweeter in training tweets how the judge should be cut up into pieces and fed to dogs. There are Bible stories where this happens. Izzy said it was Christian opera because we are to rejoice at conversions. The set an imitation of the barbaric — and seemed thus to connect to our present political era.
Domingo sang the part of the aging Nabucco who has declared himself a God and is a murderous tyrant. He is now too old; his voice didn’t carry; he just doesn’t have the strength. I felt sad to remember another video (a feature in one of these HD operas where a young “Jimmy” Levine playing a piano and a young Placido singing next to him. Now we saw Levine already set up in that chair of his looking so weak. But I often do think such operas are better in concert form.
I felt sorry for Eric Owens who was host and trying so hard to be unnaturally ebullient and just going on about how ecstatic he found the whole thing; I know he’s paid very well so I must not be embarrassed for him. He repeated what one scholar has said is not true: that the audience was so deeply moved by an aria about freeing Israelis as a metaphor for themselves (“Va pensiero”), according to this scholar, it was another aria altogether, a hymn thanking God (for what I don’t know) TMI
I had brought in the New Year in typical evening fashion. A kind friend had sent me a DVD of the Kenneth Branagh film of Much Ado About Nothing. As a film or interpretation of the play it didn’t work: he did all he could to eliminate the Hero-Claudio plot, downplay it, and what we were left with was a brilliant performance by him and especially good Emma Thompson of Beatrice and Benedict but it was not rooted in anything, they were deeply emotional in fact, more than these characters usually are. But all around all the actors were grinning for nearly 20 hours, hectic dances, silly pictures of Italian rural life as a happy place. Early on it seems Branagh liked to have a whole concept within which he would pour Shakespeare …
The TLS carries on
I sometimes think that if I had to give up all my subscriptions and just keep one, it would be the Times Literary Supplement. When Murdock first took over, it took a bad dive: became 1/4 its size, the reviews began to be so reactionary that you could no longer trust the information. About three years ago, it changed back: never as long, but the reviews suddenly improved, went back to the previous mostly disinterested or at least seeming neutral point of view (literary) that had dominated. Recently the editor has begun to include more political reviews (with the excuse books on politics) but by no means do they overwhelm the issues. It’s not as good as being in London, but I do learn what has been on in all sorts of venues with a review that gives me a real sense of it. Where else can you learn the latest in academic politics about classics? Their bloggers are very good (include Mary Beard).
Last month they had a fine review of poetry published in pamphlets and by small presses: “Safe from Devaluation” by Paul Batchelor, two pages of four columns each: 12 books covered and much apt quotation. That was followed up by a “Seven Poems” by Barbara Everett. I know I must not quote the whole set but only a selection in good critic’s fashion. She was capturing the experiences of a day: who the poet might see (“Workmen”), what she might experience (“Storm”), a dog and his or her owner hard-put but happy because together). Here are three (the fourth is my preface): the first a tragic story, austerely told; the second reminds me of how I am now so close to my cats, we are one another’s company on and off all day, in communication, the boy daring now, he persists in keeping both Izzy and my doors open; the last how I feel when I come out in the morning to pick up my copy of the Washington Post:
Seeking answers, she
Plunged, and finding the water
Lethally cold, drowned.
He skated on thin ice, always
Upright, in motion
He walked the streets by
Night, and when retrieved, asked the
Way back to Warsaw
The loved dog saw no
Difference, or at least chose
Not to speak of it.
The world was sometimes
So empty the slow grace of
Snails stealing breadcrumbs
From the paving-stones
Outside in early morning
Was almost welcome
I have decided to hold off on enclosing my porch. Given the attitude of those in power to federal workers (Izzy’s job), to people on social security and medicare (me), the looting of the US treasury for corporations that is about to begin (justified as giving them tax breaks to hire people with no guarantee they will), it’s foolhardy. I have longed to do this for years. The porch floor is cement; it becomes filthy easily; the screens have again torn. Had Jim lived, even with my mother’s money, he might have said this is unnecessary: you don’t need the extra space for living. I know if I sold the house it would still be a “tear-down,” so I’d gain nothing there. I guess this was not in the card for the likes of me. I will still pay to have my fuse or “switch” box replaced later this spring as it is so old. I have been embarrassed for twenty years now about the blueness of my house. So I may yet pay to have it painted a decently unobtrusive cream color, but next year, and then I’ll put out for the first time a little sign with the house’s address (from Home Depot or some such place).
I am beginning to teach myself to accept my mostly solitary life. Sometimes I am quite cheerful. Almost at peace. Because of my real long-standing friends here, my cats, my reading presences, the Internet, my movies it doesn’t feel so solitary. Better than seeking elsewhere for what is not going to be there. I am trying harder to go to better plays, concerts, movies I might really enjoy, and if there is nothing out there I’m sure of, stay in.