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Archive for the ‘women’s lives’ Category


My front yard this morning after a night and morning long rain of icy-snow — daffodils in snow!

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you — A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh [he speaks for me now when I think of Jim whose Latin copy of this book I have in my house]

Friends,

About a month ago I wrote about an Iranian film by Ashgar Farhadi, English title, Salesman (2016); I praised it highly and urged people who wanted to begin to learn something of Iranian and Muslim culture to see it. Last week I watched another earlier film by Farhadi, A Separation (2011). It won many awards, and is a better film because it’s not shaped by a “whodunit?” format (who assaulted the wife), and there is no climactic pathetic denouement. In this case I had rented a DVD which enabled me to change the language so I could listen to the actors speaking in French and as the film went on began to pick up a good deal (as I cannot from Farsi) partly using the subtitles. Reviews more or less uniformly credited the film with presenting a portrait of a modern nation during a troubled period attempting to live under Islamic or religious law


The opening shots: the two are facing the judge, she reasoning with him …

The story is quite complicated because so much nuanced reality is brought out: we have a couple whose marriage is shot; Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave Iran in order that her daughter, Termeh (Sarian Farhadi) be brought up in a culture with different norms; Nader (Payman Mooadi) sees his father’s needs as primary (the old man has advanged Alzheimer’s disease). When she files for divorce and it’s not granted (her complaints are said to be trivial), she goes to live with her parents as she does not want to leave without her daughter. Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a devout Muslim woman desperate for money to stay with his father and care for him all day; the work is arduous, she has a small daughter with her and it emerges is pregnant. He comes home in the middle of the day to find her gone, his father seeming near death tied to a bedpost to prevent him wandering out of the house, and a sum of money equivalent to her salary gone. He goes into a rage and when she returns and has no explanation, he shoves her out of the house. A little later Razieh’s sister informs Simin that Razieh has miscarried. So this is the core event about one quarter into the film. The rest is consequences.

Razieh’s husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a violent man initiates a prosecution for murder. A long series of scenes brings a number of witnesses to a judge (a teacher, neighbors, the daughter) and among other suspicions, it may be Hodjat hit Razieh, she may have gone to a gynecologist on her own (regarded as very suspicious); we learn Hodjat is vitriolically angry at his lack of a job and incensed at his wife at every turn (she never asked permission to work), and he is pressured by his family into accepting “blood” money, only to lose it when Nader asks Razieh to swear on a Quaran that she believes he caused her miscarriage. Razieh cannot get herself to tell a lie lest God punish her. Continual bickerings go on, the judge’s attitudes towards the men (Nader begs the judge not to jail him), the inflexibility of the laws, all around these people the busy streets, cars and bikes everywhere, the run-down buildings, the expensive schools (with girls kept in), everyone else seeming to be on the edge of quarreling, male shouts, women in burkas following behind men in modern clothes; little girls with covered heads following the mother. As with Salesman, these people live in these tight-knit groups, almost never apart. As with Salesman we see how human nature works its way through and is exacerbated by Muslim norms. No one is seen as criminal (in the way the man who assaults the woman in Salesman is). The film ends with similar ambiguity: it seems the old father is dead, Simin is again asking for divorce and permission to take her daughter out of the country; this time divorce is granted and Tehmen is asked which parent she chooses. She won’t speak in front of them. We see them waiting on the opposite side of a corridor with a glass wall between them. The film has come to its end.


Razieh — characteristic shot


She also stands so silently and often from the side

The characters are granted a depth of psychological reality, the circumstances fully developed sociologically and culturally; it’s superior to the American trilogy I saw in January, The Gabriels, because there is no urge towards allegory; you cannot fit what is happening into a particular political point of view. For my part since the wife was not centrally part of the action much of the time, I didn’t bond with her as her intimate self was not seen; it was Razieh who occupies the center of many scenes of around whose conduct or presence everything swirls. One is driven to enter into the mindset of this Muslim woman who herself tells as little as she can get away with.

I mean to rent his The Past next. This also a critically-acclaimed film, and it too can be listened to as a French film with subtitles. The very least one can do now is to try to understand Muslim culture in the middle east. I have read the monster who is now the US president is hiring yet another 10,000 immigration agents to prosecute the military action of ejecting 11 million people from the US, and banning as many Muslims as the law allows him to from ever entering.

I’ll mention in passing that on Saturday night I managed to drive to see at an Arlington Theater a black spiritual music rendition of Sophocles’s third Oedipus play as The Gospel at Colonnus. I say manage because when I arrived, I discovered the wrong address, a different theater had been cited, and to go I had to rush out, using my Waze software on my cell phone (programmed by a young woman at the box office) following directions half-madly (it was dark and I kept not being able to read the street names so missing turns) to reach another theater where it was playing. For similar reasons to A Separation, everyone, especially everyone of white-European heritage should see it.

I got there late (really just on time with several others rushing over) and one of the ushers actually helped me to a much better seat as I could not see from the back, and then another patron exchanged seats with me so I could have a chair with a back (I do not look young or strong, gentle reader). It’s not great, but the depth of earnest emotion and intelligence, the strong reaching out in song, the beauty and well-meaningness of the anguished lines and powerful acting (they gave it their all) should be experienced. It’s not Hamilton but surely some of the feeling of a black ensemble was so analogous. They wore typical suits one sees young black men sometimes wear, church gowns for the choir, Ismene and Antigone exotic kinds of headgear with gorgeous gowns, the preacher well preacher-clothes and Oedipus clearly blind, a heavy man, with gravitas. I feel so profoundly ashamed to be a white person living in America today and stood to applaud as my way of endorsing all of us to live as equals, equally safe together.

So much harm is planned: to deprive 24 million slowly of health care. To cut off mental health services yet more. Many more people will now kill themselves: separated from their families and friends and lives with no recourse or help; snatched out of churches, streets, for paying their taxes; isolated. At least three Muslim and/or Indian people have been shot dead by white supremacists. Bomb threats and desecration of Jewish graves and institutions occur daily. The Ku Klux Klan wants a public rally in a major town center in Georgia. LGBT people and children in public schools now going to be subject to bullying and given less funds. This is what Trump and his regime (this is no longer called an administration) want: the Syrian president directly murders, bombs, tortures people who live in the land he wants to control; this new rump are more indirect but just as unfazed, unashamed and determined. Destroy as far as they can a whole way of life. I’ve known for a long time the Republican point of view is one which disdains compassion (why Bush fils called his brand compassionate conservativism); their scorn for protest is caught up in the word whine. Joy only for the super-rich. Beneath it all hatred for people like us.

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Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1995 Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

This has been a very stressful week. My doctor suggested to me a 10 hour trip was dangerous; consider the 8th hour of driving, consider, he said, the 9th; how easy to tire, how easy to lose your way, and then tired and anxious, it’s a risk; even a 5 hour trip on two days was something I needed to think about and plan for by being sure to have a comfortable place to stay overnight half-way. Then when I finally looked again into taking a plane, I discovered that there was one flight to and from Burlington, Vermont, on Saturday it occurred half an hour after I was to give my paper; and I had to go through Expedia to buy the tickets. And someone from the conference drive there to pick me up and deliver me back. I worry about my cats again as a contractor and his workmen may be here while I’d be gone for 4 days. I might have to board them. Still, I almost bought that ticket but was advised by the conference head as “an older sister,” maybe not. So I finished my paper, “Ekphrastic Patterns in Jane Austen,” and think it is splendid and sent it to the organizer of the Jane Austen and the Arts conference at Plattsburgh, New York. She offered to read it aloud, sparing me a difficult arduous trip.


A watercolor by Turner of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth (as in Persuasion)

I am turning my attention to my teaching, delving the Booker Prize phenomena in the context of modern book selling. I might set aside some of my on-going projects — though I will still write a full summary review blog of an important book, Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber’s Speaking of Torture and feature it in my central blog as something I can do against the present deeply harm-causing regime.

I am seriously thinking of trying a new book project, even begun work on it: a literary biography of Winston Graham, author of the Poldark books and by extension, the films; and am doing preliminary reading before writing his son to see if he would be agreeable to such a project and if he would help (for example, I would need to see Graham’s letters or private papers, the life-blood of biography). I would focus in the second half on his Poldark novels, so relationship to Cornwall, and finally the films.


The lizard, full sunlit — a paratext for season 2 of the new Poldark (2016)


One of the actresses’s cloaks …. for Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson)

The man I hired as a general contractor has begun work on my house, and already the porch is at long last enclosed by four walls, and has two windows which match the other windows in front. The whole process, all that needs to be done, will take about 2-3 weeks he says. (At most?) My beloved cats have to be put away once more in Izzy’s room while he and his workmen are about.


Kedi (2017, film about hundreds of thousands of Istanbul cats, genre: post-modern historical)

So I end on another film I saw with Izzy and my friend, Phyllis, this Sunday. I liked it so much I’m going again on Thursday with another friend, Vivian: Kedi. Kedi is ostensibly a film about the thousands of cats who live on the streets of Istanbul. We are told the story of at least 20 different individual cats and/or groups of cat (mother and kittens), usually (this is important) by the person who is providing food and care and often affection. The emphasis in some stories is the cat, in others the cat-lover and why his or her deep kindness and the good feeling and love he or she receives in return. I imagine much filming was necessary to capture the cat’s lives, and real social effort to get the caring people to talk to the director and film-makers .The film tells as much about these individuals and why they have taken it upon themselves (some of them go to vets for medicine or seemingly regular check-ups) to keep these cats alive and thriving — as far as one can thrive while living on a street: most of the adult cats look thin, and the babies are tiny, feeble. It’s really about Istanbul and its culture: vast areas of the city are impoverished, people living on the edge in a modern city. Erdogan’s name everywhere. A thriving garbage culture. The sea central to the feel of the place: I remembered reading Orphan Pamuk’s wonderful book about this world of Istanbul he grew up and lives in now.

It’s a movie made out of a deeply humanitarian spirit: real compassion for those who need the cats (the cats are therapy for some), identification and pity for some of the cats’ actions (one grey cat never goes into the restaurant, just bangs on the window in his or her need, stretched body reaching as high as possible). One of the sweetest moments (for a person like me who values language) was when one of the cat-caretakers in talking of the cat says in the middle of his Turkish a word sounding much like our English meow. So to Turkish ears cats make the same sounds. We watch cats doing all sorts of things, climbing high, fighting, eating, drinking, seeking affection, seeking prey, far too high up on a building, hiding out in cardboard boxes set up for them. By the end the cats are us; they stand for our own hard and at times fulfilling existential lives. I loved the one man on the ship who said he was so grateful for his cat’s love. Another who felt some divinity in the whole experience of life with cats in Istanbul. I, my friend, and Izzy were touched, vivified; for myself I knew some moments of shared joy as I watched so that tears came to my eyes. I just felt better about life after it concluded.

Of course I told Izzy about Christopher Smart, wrongly put into an insane asylum, treated cruelly, his only companion, a cat, Jeffrey, and read aloud to Izzy the famous lines:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.


One of Laura’s cats looking at her with loving eyes (very well taken care of)

Miss Drake

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Baldwin on the Cavett show

It is very nearly impossible…to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep. They suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas
what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be … both from Nobody Knows My Name

Dear Friends and readers,

As the Oscar Academy awards are given out tonight I thought I’d dedicate most of his week’s blog to a movie I saw this week: Salesman was duly awarded but I doubt I am not Your Negro will be noticed to the extent it should be — for someone having to live in the United States (as I must — for where could I go, since Jim’s death I have no second place I could belong to, return to –Teresa May has rescinded right of abode to spouses and widows of British citizens and yesterday a woman living and married for 37 years in the UK with grown children there was snatched up and deported) it is an important film: I am not your Negro, words by James Baldwin, produced and directed by Raoul Peck, mostly spoken by Baldwin in TV interviews, one of them on the late night Dick Cavett show, with Samuel L. Jackson supplying the narration and voice-over of those passages written or spoken by Baldwin which there is no film or audio for.

For quite a number of years I assigned texts by Baldwin in my classes. “Stranger in a Village” was once often found in textbooks for freshman composition: Baldwin comes to a village where all are white, where the environment is all snow, and he stands out as this terrifying object. It is a parable of growing up in America as a black man. I assigned his Notes of a Native Son; Nobody Knows My Name [More Notes of a Native Son]; The Price of the Ticket. I never did one of his novels or his memoir but rather his essays because I wanted to be sure his ideas got across. Mostly these are semi-literary criticism (the very great “Everybody’s Protest Novel”), sociological, and autobiographical. In reading his is an eloquent noble voice. So I was particularly eager to see which strings of quotations, which narratives were chosen.

This film gives us his life story, through an astute weaving together of film clips, it takes us through a history of black people in the US from the time they were forcibly brought here in huge numbers, enslaved and treated abhorrently so the whites here and in Europe could grow rich from their free labors and exploit their bodies, through the civil war (not much time on that) to where in “reconstruction” they were re-enslaved on new terms, through the early civil rights era, with film clips of the 1990s (the savage beating of Rodney King by a group of police officers) and now the common knowledge (though videos and cameras from cell phones and ipads) that every week in the US black people are murdered in the streets, in a mass incarceration system. The focus of Baldwin’s narrative are the murders of Medgar Evers (president of the NAACP), Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin knew them all, the latter two to talk to. None of them lived until 40. These three men, their lives, why they were killed with impunity, is partly what he is telling us about in what seem to be mainly three live films: one where he, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were interviewed on TV; one of him interviewed by Dick Cavett, and one of him giving a speech to at Oxford University in England. He is also seen talking in front of a fireplace before a group of fellow black people. We see photographs of the murdered men, clips of King speaking, leading marches. All three are seen dead.

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Medgar Evers

The thesis is basically for black people their position has changed very little since reconstruction. Yes a middle and tiny upper middle class has emerged; individuals with gifts, especially in music have lived fulfilled decent lives — Baldwin knew and we see clips and photos of Sammy Davis Junior, Harry Belafonte. The black man is given no place in American society; bitterly Baldwin says once he was not needed to pick cotton, he became superfluous and it’s astonishing, there are any black men left. Surely this is a nightmare vision, my reader might say, an exaggeration. Only somewhat. Baldwin is angry: how is it Bobby Kennedy has no trouble being Attorney General and has the gall to say as if this were progress to be thankful for that 40 years from now we could have a black president. We did, and we see clip of Barack and Michelle Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue hand-in-hand after he won the presidency. But it seems this was a blip in history and Obama was able to do very little to improve the general condition and status of all black people. Baldwin left the US to go live in Paris in order to protect his life, so that he should not have to fear murder each day as he goes forth on the streets; Ta Nehisi-Coates now lives in Paris for the same reason (he is also protecting his son).
So many photos of lynchings, so many clips of police in the streets beating black people up — some from Fergusson. The photos of so many young children, boys murdered. No police held accountable. How education is denied them; how the real estate and banking industries have prevented them as people from accumulating any money in most individual families.

One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.

The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… has to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — again from Nobody Knows My Name

The one caveat I have is it’s the story of black men and not black women. So Baldwin himself is guilty of exclusion, of (in effect) othering. Black women appear only as sisters, mothers, wives of murdered men. They have had an analogous history: used and abused horrifically sexually as slaves, kept as cleaning women, laundresses, cooks, housekeepers. Because their men were prevented from heading their families, many became perforce independent, and educated householders. They have held high office: we have had a black attorney general (under Obama two, Eric Holder and then Loretta Lynch): Truman integrated the military and we have had high ranking military officers, generals (Colin Powell) on down. Black women probably are by percentage doing remarkably well vis-a-vis white women who are not driven in the same way to provide for themselves and their families. But it has been and continues to be a very hard life for most: high mortality in pregnancy, huge percentage desperately poor.

I also regret that nowhere enough was given of his subtle readings of the texts and art and music of black culture. He is no false flatterer and delivers stinging criticisms of Richard Wright’s fiction, of the reasons for the respect given Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was apparently close to man black artists, among these Lorraine Hansbury, who died so young from cancer. She is the one black woman given individual treatment in the film. You can see her play in YouTube form on the Net.

lorraine-hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry

It’s important to see this film in this era of Donald Trump’s attempt at a (thus far) semi-dictatorship. It is now unsafe to be black, Muslim or hispanic on the streets of the USA. You need not do anything and you can be stopped and frisked, and harassed and humiliated into answering back or doing just anything to justify the officer killing, imprisoning, accusing you of a felony. Then you lose your right to vote. If you don’t have papers to prove you have the right to be here and have been here for two years you are in trouble. You are at risk in schools if you are gay; if you are a disabled person far less understanding will be encouraged by school policies.

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A rescued cat

It’s been a very hard week. As I am a powerless individual in an as yet republic with a few understood human and civil rights — I have the vote, I can blog, I can speak, I have taught undergraduates. This past week I went to a rally in Northern Virginia in Senator Warner’s office: #resistTuesday where goals are being sought through pressure on Warner and his activities. I am now contributing regularly to ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Common Cause beyond my membership in WETA (small amount each month), DemocracyNow.org (ditto). But I have to watch the most vulnerable in our society at risk (literally, snatched up in the streets, in churches, meeting places, airports), under attack and know I and my daughters are targets in attempts to deny us our rights to form a society and together make life better for us all (through social security, medicare, public education, arts and science facilities). There is an on-going attempt to destroy a whole way of life, destroy the press, suppress truth. Each day I get upset when I read the latest news of who has been appointed to head an important agency (with the aim of destroying it). This morning the Sierra Club an ancient forest in Alaska is about to be cut down; Trump rescinded an order to protect an area in Alaska where there is much left of the natural world, with many animals, plants. I joined the Sierra Club.

Here are the first 100 lies Trump has managed to promulgate across US life

irst hundred lies: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-administration-lies-100_us_58ac7a0fe4b02a1e7dac3ca6

This is what we are in danger of from him: Timothy Snyder, NYRB: how the Reichstag fire was set and used.

A new attempt to let loose predators to fleece and cheat at will. No more protections anywhere — every effort is being made by the republicans to prevent all consumer protection and allow corporations and businesses to fleece the individual at will. Money for opportunity and self-improvement only at high rates of interest. I feel sick with new grief, anxiety and pity for people — wanton unnecessary cruelty for none of these people have hurt anyone. The super-rich will be more super-rich.

As to what’s called social media: while enjoying friendships and sharing online, one must remember on places like face-book there is a great deal of falsity, of showing off an acceptable social identity to make others admire you, to fit in, to reinforce conformity. Photos of people as successful surrounded by adoring families and friends, sometimes absurdly idealized, with money and ordeals left out. Pay attention to ordinary every day life insofar as it gets through. Pictures of our now hot February.

The center of my life used to be, its staff, was Jim; I have fought a hard fight to make a new life and have realized this is out of the question for a 70 year old woman. I cannot re-make myself and have learned how alone a widow in our society is made. In order to remain calm because this fourth year of being mostly alone is making me worn, so I must focus my mind on that some stable secure center of existence. I would like to reach people like myself but I’ve found travel deeply anxiety-producing and unless I have a companion, I suffer a great deal. The longer and further away the trip, the worse. Sometimes when I am there the experience is ambiguous; alone at night in a hotel is hard on me. Tiring. This is what people need one site I trust tells me: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others might make a slightly different list, but the important concept is that meaning stems from addressing real human needs. Where it’s tenuous for me as yet is affection, understanding, participation. So for me what can I hold onto: books, writing, movies, study. In these I find some peace. In sharing them with others — reading online with others, talking, friendships, art I can find understanding, participation, friendship. How other widows fare I pay attention to also as I find many analogously like myself.

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Tom Story and Jacques Aaron Krohn were strong — melancholy the one, funny the other

I went to As You Like It (see Marshall Bradshaw’s far too favorable review) at the Folger Shakespeare Library this past Saturday. It was not a successful production: the director seemed determine to ignore the bitter and hard meaning of many of the words, the whole difficult framework in which the characters have to live, that the time in the forest is an interlude. Thus its kindness, generosity, love and forgiveness lose their heft and context. The actors did not know what to do with the enormous amount of wit; at times the play felt like Love’s Labor’s Lost without understanding. But some of the actors played their roles very well: especially the Touchstone, Jacques, and Rosalind.

goodmoments
Lindsay Alexandra Carter carried the play (Rosalind) with Lorenzo Roberts as Orlando and Antoinette Robinson as Celia her supports

It was such a relief to hear sentiments of trust, friendliness, cooperation in public after outside the building having to endure the continually spouted spite and threats of the US gov’t attempting to torment the majority of US citizens with fear. And it was lively, without pretension, with wit, music that was contemporary and effective dancing.

By contrast, my first attempt to go to the Shakespeare Theater Company the Sunday before landed me in front of Charles III: ludicrously reverential, so tame. The comedy was we were supposed to laugh at “Harry” as having unacceptable (black) girlfriends and being given the most juvenile advice by a street vendor. It was about Charles taking power he didn’t have in a good cause (on behalf of immigrants) but the slightest real knowledge of British politics would tell you he couldn’t begin to get away with it, of culture he wouldn’t care about was he was said to. It was for a naive complacent American audience. Embarrassing. I left after the first act.

My books for this week included many on the picturesque, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Kenneth Johnston’s Hidden Wordsworth. I’m watching Donald Wilson’s 1978 Anna Karenina, brilliantly well done, moving, adult (about 10 parts). I’m studying ekphrastic poetry by women. Adrienne Rich’s Matilde in Normandy, Love in a Museum. Marianne Moore’s Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns. I spent an hour this afternoon reading her very great Transcendental Etudes. I was moved and comforted as I drank wine.

My pussycats are well. Nowadays Ian does not hide in the morning though he goes off to have his quiet private time: on his cat tree high in the front room where he can see what’s going on. The assistant to my IT guy came this Thursday to update my garmin (a GPS) for me and Ian didn’t run away! He growled as the young man walked up the sidewalk, but then quieted down. Around 2 each day Ian comes into my room to sit on my lap and for the rest of the day be with and around me.

Miss Drake

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A recent photo of the woman who should right now be our president and is not — and a gov’t is being set up in the courts and elsewhere which endangers us all in every way

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d start this week’s diary with a couple of incidents that seemed more significant than my having seen a brilliant production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliette at a rerun of the HD screening at movie-theaters, and heard two (to some extent) informative lectures on another opera, Carl Maria Von Weber’s Magic Marksman (English for Der Freischutz) about to be staged at George Mason University this Saturday evening, which I’m not yet sure I’ll go to. It was an slightly dramatic occurrence that helps explains why Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college, why it seemed so acceptable to excoriate her in public hearings repeatedly (and “lock her up” is still a rallying cry for Trump’s “base” — a scary bunch they have become) and accuse her of doing things called crimes which are in fact everyday business in top gov’t executives’ lives: Trump and his gang use private email servers — meanwhile she was not allowed to use a reasonable excuse that it is common, especially among those not so good at computer programs. Another example, commonplace, of what Rebecca Solnit wrote about so brilliantly last week in the LRB. In the case of Romeo and Juliette, the actress-singer was put into an outfit near falling off her; for the Weber opera, a member of the Virginia Opera Company made a mishmash of perhaps great art.

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Susan Herbert’s ballerina

I still go to a gym (in the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center) two mornings a week (maybe I should go three) where I take an hour long strengthening class. As with so many of these classes I teach or go to everywhere (not the individual lectures at the Smithsonian though) the ratio is 5 to 6 women for every man on days when there are a number of men. Some days there are few men (they are much less joiners of institutionally-formed groups). I’ve noticed (and thought to myself does the instructor knows she is doing this?) she calls on men all the time to count, to do attendance, she kibbitzes with them, she consults with them in front of the class as authorities. The other day I thought she was flirting. She is 60 and in good physical health, a grandmother as she likes to present herself, living alone with dogs, gardening. She does sometimes address women and there I’ve noticed she has the curious social impulse to talk to women I recognize as alpha types, respected, sometime previously in their life, asking them how they are doing. So maybe the calling on men was not a totally aware act.

But this Monday the man who counts as we exercise and another favorite male who sometimes replaces him were not there. She seemed to ask someone to count as we exercised. She keeps up a patter of talk and she watches to see if people are okay (the average age is 55-65 and older). So I started. I felt a curious frisson. So I changed to French numbers for two sets and that seemed to somehow break tension but then I returned to English (as I had no intention of showing off if it would be seen this way). Then — and this is what I want to communicate — between sets one woman near me quickly came over to me and said how strange to hear a female voice. Yes,she said that and did not look glad. Another said I was not quite carrying across the room. So I spoke louder. And finally one or other of the women half joined to count as if one woman could not do this alone, as ifshe should not.

In other words, they knew and approved of her behavior to men.

Today I realized had I any doubt, she knows it too. When we finished the first half hour of dance, and it was time to exercise, I was not sure she would like this, not sure it was not pushing myself in to be the counter even though both men were not there again. Clever lady, she encouraged me when she saw me begin. I am doing it differently than the men. They seem to sing out a number only at intervals (five, fourteen, and then the last), rather carelessly as a joke, drawling sometimes, but I did it throughout regularly on a regular beat. She said aloud she liked that and my voice was carrying. I wanted to say I’ve taught for over 33 years and think I know how to project. She then went to the trouble of indicating first she always demonstrate so the second movement is no. 1. Then as I continued, she complimented aloud, and said this was very good. So did someone else — a woman. I’m not her and not strong, so some of my numbers start to wilt or groan as we proceed and there was laughter –congenial as if I was expressing what others felt. She indicated a thank you when this part of the strengthening hour was over.

These two incidents went well beyond making a minority of people in the room comfortable. Not just to the men but for the women a woman having any authority disturbs the group. She complimented me to give me legitimacy to give me legitimacy. I was doing it differently, more plainly and seriously. Not cavalierly as if we were above our exercises, didn’t care about our bodies this way.

Even in such an unimportant powerless kind of assertion, this society is made uncomfortable when an ordinary women is given some kind of authority that is not granted because she is a trained teacher. I know as a teacher at OLLI I find the men raise their hands and tend to dominate the discussion; my unashamed feminist outlook is not liked and when I did Tom Jones with a class I got into contentious altercations with men that women in the class had to interrupt and stop.

Sickening when I think of what this past couple of months would have been — only that a ruthless horrific attempt to impeach Clinton would have begun. Reporters actually asked Trump if he would accept the election if he lost. Would they have asked her? Wisers head might have prevail as gov’t is needed and she not be impeached, and then we’d have had a repeat of the Obama frustrated years, but not lose ground and end in a nuclear war. She was demonized to the point she was likened to him which anyone with brains after a week or more sees is governing as a dictator and looking to turn the US gov’t into a male white supremacist fascist oligarchy for a long time to come. Hillary Clinton would have done nothing like what he’s done to Muslims, she’d be improving our social services, not shutting agencies up, putting idiots and corrupt people at the heads of those he wants destroyed, and planning to eliminate health care and slash social security for millions. Soon he will attack voting rights directly. She was going to try to get rid of Citizens United and fight for a constitutional amendment so that money could no longer carry doing what it’s succeeded in doing over 40 years and we could slowly resume our republic.

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Susan Herbert’s Fidelio

So what shall I say of the HD Met’s Romeo and Juliette? what was remarkable was how everything beyond the central love relationship was carved away from Shakespeare’s play. You were given the minimum story line you needed to have to understand the lover’s desperate situation. the set made a single slab the center which became marketplace, bed, tomb, a place for ghosts to wander.

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Set designer Bartlett Sher

There was a powerful actor-singer for Mercutio (Elliot Madore) a part necessary for the plot-design: he must be killed by the fiercely hateful Tybalt (Diego Silva), and we must have the nurse (Diane Montagu), Friar (Mikhail Petrenko) and at least one parent: the librettist has Juliette’s father. Other than these it was simply a chorus. The major songs and long scenes between Diana Damru and Vittorio Grigolo were not only beautifully, alluring, magnificently sung, but acted. They really were psychologically persuasive. All the actors looked the roles too — dressed as young twenty year olds in outfits redolent of today’s teenagers or people in movies in Renaissance garb. Despite my anxiety-ridden and troubled state of mind I was moved. Is it patriarchal? Not as strongly as the Kenneth Branagh production I saw at the Folger (also HD screened, with Lily James as Juliet) because Damru did not seem as much a victim as James, as a passionate woman choosing her fate: but throughout she wore this nightgown which displayed as much flesh as could fall out of the gown, arms, legs, thighs, breasts, this flowing blonde wig. Was it necessary for her to be on the edge of such exposure from the the middle of the first act on.

02romeo-superjumbo

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A typical poster

The two lectures on The Magic Marksman were part of a four session course on Opera given by the “community outreach music director of Virginia Opera company, Glenn Winters, and his lectures function as advertisements and explanations (pre-opera lectures so to speak) for the productions the company mounts at Mason. I went because the dates of the composer, Carl Maria Von Weber (1786-1826) and his opera are in the romantic era and looked so interestng. I thought I might learn something about the 18th century. I hesitate to go the opera because while years ago Jim and I saw a marvelous production by this company of Aaron Copeland’s The Tender Land, a deeply thoughtful meditative opera, more recently three productions have been awful: there was a boring Marriage of Figaro and Jim said if you make Marriage of Figaro boring something is wrong. And Winters was excruciatingly condescending; tasteless jokes he thought would go over well (one of them with a semi-racist poster); he seemed determined to reach an audience he set up as stubbornly bored and hostile to this opera by making as many popular vulgar comparisons as he could.

The story is a folk-fairy tale one of a young man who is mocked by his village when he fails to win a shooting contest, and who is tempted by a devil with his sidekick to take some magic bullets, and who with these wins but in doing so cheats and almost causes the death of his beloved Agatha. He has to go before a trial, is judged guilty but is not executed; compassion makes the sentence a year long wait in exile. He can then return and marry the heroine. Mr Winters said music is a follower of style, not an innovator (he made large general assertions over and over), yet the interest of the opera is how it anticipates Wagner, and substitutes the old witty rational stories for a this folk one. Winters retold The Sorrows of Werther in a mocking way, but I could see the character of the sensitive alienated young man is that of this hero.

The transformative forces are from witchcraft and the famous scene set in a “Wolf’s glen” in the forest where our hero and he devil Samiel; and the man who has sold his soul already, Caspar, meet to forge seven magic bullets, the seventh of which (unknown to our hero) will kill the heroine. There is a dead mother’s ghost who comes and warns the hero — and when the clip was played this audience (alas) laughed. I had a hard time asking if he thought the center was gothic because he wanted to liken it to Star Wars and showed a clip of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the central Flash Gordon sequence of one of the movies as the opera’s equivalent. He did respond when I asked if Weber was influenced by Anne Radcliffe and Mysteries of Udolpho with a yes, and looked at me, curious, but didn’t want to go in this direction. I would have liked to say gothic movies are done today but he was intent on his male action-adventure with stunts super-popular comparisons.

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I did find a staging of the Wolf’s Glen which is reminiscent in an austere way of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, with one of her male-father villain type stalking along

He himself seemed to think the contemplative tranquil arias of the heroine were exquisitely beautiful but he talked of them as if we his audience would be bored, and want the passionate arias found in Puccini in all operas. Agatha is not sexy, not sensual he repeated over and over. It seems strange to me to try to appeal to an audience by talking to them half-hostilely about how they’ll be bored, seeming to complain and then playing music which is so appealing. At least I thought so. Maybe he did not and only liked the Wagnerian forceful macho magic music of the Wolf’s Glen which he did take a little time out to describe musically.

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To my dismay I discovered most Agathas are dressed ludicrously sexily or they are put into witch outfits (in dark red): here is a rare attempt at some tasteful fidelity

He did mention that Beethoven’s Fidelio is exactly contemporary with this piece and described Fidelio as a flop (not popular, not making money). Fidelio is to me a neoclassic opera moving into austere romance, with serious ethical themes in a story about prisons and liberty: in other words Enlightenment. What was the shame was I could see he might have given such an interesting talk on this opera and yet did not, substituting crap comparisons because he thought these might get the audience to come see this opera. The Magic Marksman was a tremendous hit and has remained a staple of German opera since it was first played. His argument was Max is undergoing an existential crisis, his identity is threatened and the opera teaches him and us to lose yourself in the German world, its community, its rituals. You must be a huntsman and not by cheating.

I do worry that if he had anything to do with this production he’d be so cowardly as to ruin it by downplaying what is best about it, and going for spectacular scenery and special effects so I am still not sure if I should go. For all I know the costumer will have been directed to make an outfit for Agatha as searingly revealing as Damrau’s for Juliette: she is supposed to be all innocence, virtuous, all obedience to family, a coming mother. What he could not stand perhaps is this is an opera for a sensitive romantic person which uses folklore; that its sources include a female gothic which I doubt he will know anything about any more than he really did Goethe’s masterpiece. He opened the lecture by saying there were three kinds of operas goers, papa bears (dedicated, knowledgeable for real), mama bears (casual) and baby bears (hostile and ignorant). This was embarrassing to listen to but note the knowledgeable is the male. He then said for years he was bored by people watching car races and had to learn it’s as legitimate an activity as opera lovers (perhaps they are fantastically mechanically learned). I was waiting for him to try to bring in football but he never did. He was content with the father-son battle in Star Wars.

An opera with a Werther at the center, a sensitive ethical heroine, caught up in the dark forces of the natural and gothic world, becomes a variant on Star Wars …. This is a stupid mishmash of an opera to try to make it appealing. As I write this out (and see what I think) I realize I’m not going. I am glad I have learned there is such an opera and have been able to gain some insights into it by listening against the grain.

But I am losing my thread. A male hegemonic order which intensely sexualizes women was seen in Gounod, and in this man’s drawling discourse was dismissive of anything intellectual, sensitive. And oh yes to be good and valuable it must be popular and make money.

What if we had a body of opera by women? It would tell such different stories.

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An example of one found in Menabilly began DuMaurier’s The King’s General where the heroine is crippled; Rose Tremain’s Restoration focuses on a mental aslyum and the plague in London — women’s historical fiction is a site for disabled characters, filled with grotesquerie

I am deeply engaged in my reading of Austen and the picturesque, in my reading for my coming teaching of a course on Booker Prize winners: I’ve now reread Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece, The English Patient, Anthony Minghella’s screenplay and watched the movie. I carry on exploring historical fiction and the sources for Sontag’s Volcano Lover: a volume of fascinating essays called Vases and Volcanoes (collectors and wild geological and political forces). I watched the interesting film adaptation of Rose Tremain’s Restoration, have been listening to Gabaldon’s Outlander and browsing in Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. I’m still reading about Surrealism and women artists (Whitney Chadwick’s book). About these more anon in separate blogs. I’ve much to do to interest me as long as I can stay among my books in my house. But I should not stay in alone altogether. Friends on the Net are not enough. I become desperate, and have panic attacks because of what is happening to the US and may hit Izzy and I hard. I was going to go to a local concert at someone’s home in Fairfax on Sunday, but it is the day of Izzy’s first social club of the year and I must drive her there.

So that’s this week from Lake Woebegone. Where we are really and truly Woebegone.

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Susan Herbert’s mad Edgar from Lear: Tom’s-a-cold

Ellen

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Leonora Carrington (1917-2011): Owls

Peace, where art thou to be found,
Where, in all the spacious round,
May thy footsteps be persued?
Where, may thy calm seats be view’d?
On some Mountain doest thou lie
Securely, near the ambient Skie,
Smiling at the Clouds below,
Where rough Storms, and Tempest grow;
Or in some retired Plain,
Undisturb’d does thou remain.
Whre no angry whirl-winds passe,
Where no streames oppresse the grasse,
High above, or deep below,
Fain I thy retreate wou’d know;
Fain, I thee alone wou’d find
Balm, to my ore’wearied mind …
Anne Finch (1661-1720), “An Enquiry after Peace”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written here in nearly a week because I’ve been putting semi-autobiographical blogs on two of my other sites. Since I wanted my report on the massive demonstration in DC and Los Angeles (actually as big as D.C., both half a million people) and many other cities and towns inside the US and beyond (Europe, Asia) to reach more than my modest number of subscribers here, I put it on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two site, where I have well over 300 subscribers, more email people and (unaccountable to me) some 2000 hits for periods of time on my Poldark and other blogs: The Rump versus Wall-to-Wall People: a few thoughts too.

Today I saw another great play relevant to what is happening in the US today: August Wilson’s Fences, the film starring, directed and partly produced by Denzel Washington where Viola Davis was nominated for an Academy Award: I was so distressed by how he treated his wife, and sons, as well as his own anguish, his brother’s disability, felt so vulnerable, and helpless, and then was confronted by the closing peroration justifying the vindictive irrational cruelties of the central male, Troy, on the basis that a man so crushed has the right to behave destructively to others. It was made plain the man was deranged by the way his society’s arrangements kept him from ever achieving anything higher than a driver of a garbage truck. He had had a great talent for baseball but as a black man had been thrown off the team it seemed for being so good at it — and black. He could not bear for his son to try to achieve anything out of jealousy but also in a perverse rational to protect him. Still the speech at the end was not about this, not about racism, but stood up for unqualified patriarchy within the black community for men. I left the movie distraught for the wife who this man had bullied and betrayed by having an affair with another woman and refusing to give it up; having a baby by her (she then conveniently dies). He won’t sign for her son to join a football team; he insists the boy stay with a demeaning job at a supermarket. Yet she justifies him as her God at the end. He was the only person who did and could protect her. But she could not escape him, for the only job she could have gotten was to a lowly paid cleaning woman. I was overcome with emotion.

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Viola Davis as Rose

Then I come home and felt another daily (sometimes it seems hourly) assault from the news — now Trump and his gang accuse those who reported on the protests inaugural day where pepper spray and tear gas were used against peaceful protesters trying to march — and read Rebecca Solnit’s starkly accurate analysis of the ceaseless misogyny behind Hillary Clinton’s inability to take power even with the majority of American voters voting for her. Read it and weep. Two hours ago that the man picked to head the FCC is determined to do away with Net Neutrality. Will I be able to write blogs? reach others?

I just don’t know how to live in fear, perpetually anxious. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I did not realize what a dictatorship the US constitution potentially sets up. I can’t sleep as long as I should — maybe 4 hours at most, and then I will wake with a pain on the right temple, the whole of my right side sore and weak. Should I stop getting and reading the Washington Post daily, and the New York Times on Sunday. I want to support them as they are now becoming rare outlets for accurate news inside the US. I feel I need to know what’s happening. I’ve been reading a book by Whitney Chadwick about surreal art and the women artists involved in the movement and can see how their art is an attempt to express how living in conditions like ours today feels to women.

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Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (recalls Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale)

Adrienne Rich, one of the great poets of the later 20th century put it this way in Contradictions: Tracking Poems:

The problem, unstated till now, is how
to live in a damaged body
in a world where pain is meant to be gagged
uncured    ungrieved over    The problem is
to connect, without hysteria, the pain
of any one’s body with the pain of the body’s world
For it is the body’s world
they are trying to destroy for ever
The best world is the body’s world
filled with creatures    filled with dread
misshapen so    yet the best we have
our raft among the abstract worlds
and how I longed to live on this earth
walking her boundaries    never counting the cost

In her powerful memoir, Almost There, Nuala O’Faolain quotes another poem by Rich:

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters    a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other    slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep    they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair    you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened . . .

What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold    taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
— this continent of changed names and mixed-up
     blood
of languages tabooed
diasporas unrecorded
undocumented refugees
underground railroads    trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of warworn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
— will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you?

I’ve been listening to Frances Jeater reading aloud (performing) Virginia Woolf’s great masterpiece of a novel, half prose-poem, The Waves, an attempt to get down the core experience of six lives through inside their minds impinged upon by all their outward experiences, what they read, where travel, some in war. Six begin in young childhood together, move across a lifetime where the turning points of years are represented by italicized sections describing a day from earliest to dawn across the morning to twilight to evening to dark night. To me it is superior to Joyce’s much lauded Ulysses: less self-indulgent, more humble, equally registering three women’s lives as well as men’s: from the central wife, mother, home-maker, Susan, sewing away in some scenes, putting her children to sleep in others (Viola Davis as Rose, the wife, in Fences spends her time cooking as well as sewing, washing, hanging out clothes),

“Vision begins to happen in such a life
as if a woman quietly walked away
from the argument and jargon in a room
and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap
bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,
laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards
in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells . . .
Such a composition has nothing to do with eternity,
the striving for greatness, brilliance —
only with the musing of a mind
one with her body, experienced fingers quietly pushing
dark against bright; silk against roughness,
putting the tenets of a life together
with no mere will to mastery,
only care . . .” (Rich)

to Ginny, independent, lesbian, to Rhoda, terrified from a young age by the abrasive sexuality and competition, aggression she finds inflicted on her. Three males: Bernard, the writer (probably has a lot of Leonard Woolf in him), Neville, super-successful at signing, meeting in government, Louie, the dominating business man. Only Perceval, the old-time hero, gone to India, was thrown off by a horse pushed too far, and died. Inside the minds of people living according to or working against moulds.

This comes from The Waves: “I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street.”

Today I lost another friend over a political discussion. I was trying to say the comparisons between Bernie Sanders and Trump as “both populists” by centrist democrats and others are so misleading: two men could not be more unlike in their attitudes. She took great offence, began to accuse me of attacking her in some long ago blog, how dare I speak this way when I was supported by the Pentagon, and so on. How to remain calm? Without Jim I feel so vulnerable. I don’t understand my taxes — they are very complicated and I doubt unless I were to sit and study for 2 weeks I would not get it and if I tried to make them out I’d do it wrong. I was meant to and did live in Viola, Susan, Demelza’s way: as the wife of a loving man, in our case at the time, feeling in charge of his fate. I just don’t know where to find a place for calm, for feeling safe or secure. Each day I expect a blow on me or my daughter.

I fear above all losing this house and my books. This is my nest, my comforts, what I live life through: reading research writing. Others may regard my house as shabby, small, the neighborhood eyesore. My real atttidue is its a splendid solid house, large enough for so many books, comfortably for three and more people, two cats. I watched a cleaning maid come out of another house today: I hired a team too. I hired someone to mow my lawn. I can’t do that at all myself. I am so surprised and lucky and yet withoiut it now after all these years I’d know a personal death, it would be losing Jim all over again, losing my life, existential. Like the elderly woman in The Gabriels. I’m here too.

I just don’t know how to live in this atmosphere, I can’t live this way. Order, stability, social cooperation, courtesy, consideration, kindness, some feeling of safety are a core for me. I shall try to return to Jane Austen’s Emma tomorrow morning, but it is not easy to lose myself in my books any more. I shall now listen to Anne Finch in my blog on the poetry of retreat: how to do it for enough space each day to remain steady.

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Joseph Farrington, The Oak Tree (1785-90)

Fair tree! for thy delightful shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds dost shelter give,
Thou music dost from them receive;
If travellers beneath thee stay
Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee they spend
And thy protecting pow’r commend.
The shepherd here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy dancing leaves his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks, bestows
Her flow’ry chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No; let this wish upon thee wait,
And still to flourish be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untouch’d by the rash workman’s hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy summer’s ornament;
Till the fierce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatness whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifeless hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end;
Their scatter’d strength together call
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall;
Who then their ev’ning dews may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like ancient heroes, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy urn.

Another:

Kind birde, thy praises I designe,
Thy praises, like thy plumes should shine,
Thy praises, should thy life out Live,
Cou’d I, the fame I wish thee, give.
Thou, my domestick Musick art,
And Dearest Trifle of my heart.
Soft in thy notes, and in thy dress,
Softer, than numbers can Express.
Softer than love, Softer than light
When just escaping from the night;
When first she rises, unaray’d,
And Steals a passage, though the shade.
Softer than aire, or flying Clouds,
Which Phoebus glory, thinly Shrouds.
Gay as the Spring, gay as the flowers,
When lightly strew’d with pearly showers.
Ne’er to the woods shalt thou return,
Nor thy wild freedom, shalt thou mourn.
Thou, to my bosome shalt repaire,
And find a Safer shelter there.
There shalt thou watch, and should I sleep,
My heart, thy charge, Securely keep.
Love, who a Stranger is to me,
Must by his wings, be kin to thee.
So painted o’er, so Seeming Fair,
So soft, his first addresses are;
Thy guard, he ne’er can pass unseen,
Thou, Surely thou hast often been,
Whilst yet a wand’rer in the grove,
A false accomplice, with this Love.
In the same shade, hast thou not sat,
And seen him work some wretches fate?
Hast thou not sooth’d him, when in the wrong,
And grac’d the mischief, with a Song?
Tuneing thy Loud, conspiring voice,
O’re falling Lovers to rejoice?
If soe, thy wicked faults redeem,
In league with me, no truce with him,
Do thou admitt, but warn my heart,
And all his Slye design impart,
Lest to that breast, by Craft he get,
Which has defy’d, and brav’d him yett

These are texts in the manuscripts of Anne Finch at the Folger Shakespeare library; they are not the ones printed in the recent edition which consistently prefers the later often censored and somewhat inferior texts (FWIW)

He left me here among all these books in front of this computer 4 years 3 months and 16 days ago. If he were here, I’d have a better idea how to feel about what’s happening, how to think about it. Can a minority of people force the majority to lose their way of life?

Miss Drake

P.S. Someone just sent me this: How to stay outraged and yet not be torn to pieces, not lose your mind

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About 2/3s the way through Hungry, Part One of The Gabriels, the family begin to talk about the election campaign supposedly 8 months before election day, and when they come to talk of Hillary Clinton, and talk of how she is disliked, and women are not keen on her because of what seems to be her privileged background, they make this vague reference to Trump without using his name, too “unthinkable” and “dreadful” to contemplate. Then one character says: he feels “something very bad is just about to happen.” The audience as a group made this sound, not a laugh, but a real groan of what felt like semi-distress. The reference in immediate context is now Inauguration Day …

Dear friends and readers,

During this week seeing Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels has taken enough time from my wide awake hours to write about. I was more moved by Parts 3 (“Women of a Certain Age?”) and 2 (“What did you expect?”) than I’ve been at any movie, play or opera, for a very long time. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, comes closest to doing justice to the whole trilogy and making available what is so tremblingly relevant to us, two days before “a very bad thing is about to happen” (a line from Part 1 (“Hungry,” written and first produced months before Trump gained the nomination of the Republican Party).

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From The Gabriels… Part Three: Women of a Certain Age? (Maryann Plunkett is Mary leaning over the mother, Patricia played by Roberta Maxwell; George, her son is played by Jay O Sanders is comforting his mother who has lost her house; Hannah, his wife to the back, is played by Lynn Hawley; Joyce, Patricia’s daughter round the back (Amy Warren)

Let me begin with Part Three first, Women of a Certain Age, as I began there Saturday afternoon into early evening. Here is a brief synopsis (scroll down).

I loved it. The experience might be regarded as aesthetically old-fashioned, but the realism is done in such quietly rigorous naturalistic ways I’d call the technique innovative: how the talk was delivered, the gestures, the rooting in private realities brought forth indirectly was among the most naturalistic experiences on offer I’ve seen. The directors included Oskar Eustis and Patrick Willingham. It is about previously comfortable white middle class people who have lost out badly. The house owned by the mother, Patricia, is being foreclosed because she fell for a con-artist and went for a reverse mortgage and didn’t understand what this meant; she has been quickly fleeced at an assisted living facility and is now bankrupted by them. Mary, a widow, a doctor by profession, has not kept up her license to practice, as a result of four years of caring for a beloved husband who had Parkinson’s disease, intense grief. We gather over the play that his marriage to Thomas Gabriel, relatively late in life, was her second: she has a daughter from a previous husband (divorce ending it) and her one daughter feels so hostile she tells her mother not only can Mary not count on her for a place to stay however temporarily and to move near, but the daughter wants Mary to stay away from the whole city she lives in (Pittsburgh) or she’ll never even speak to her again. All three plays open with Mary (as the action takes place in what she discovers is nominally her house from her mother-in-law, now foreclosed). The relevance of details is obvious: the foreclosure king is now in charge of one of Trump’s departments of government, Treasury I believe and he was convicted (though had no money to pay or prison term) of foreclosing over thousands illegally to enrich his bank (himself and associates)

Hannah has taken a job as a maid in a hotel working with Hispanic people to try to get some money and keep her son by George (Gabriel), until late years a deeply proud carpenter — in college, which seems their own (however forlorn) hope. What George has had to endure in the last years is the very wealthy no longer think they need to pay him much (when they do pay him). The play has quiet tragedy beyond anguished humor — as the Gabriels are gifted people. Karin, Thomas’s first wife, now teaching play-writing, and come to live with the Gabriels (allowed out of Mary’s kindness) and trying to find a venue for her play on Hillary Clinton, can never tell if she has a date: she shows up for appointments to discover the man wants to exploit her monetarily, to learn about the house Mary has allowed her to rend a room in. The place is the Berkshires where there are many sites of memory, summer culture for the very wealthy. They are hard put to name Trump. At one point someone says what if “he” wins, and Mary replies, well, we’ll just all take a walk to a cliff and jump off.

Among other things, the play puts paid to the notion that it is declining standards of living, a feeling of being left out of globalization and technology led to voting for Trump. This group of people is not super-educated at all. But they are not racist, not bigoted, are mildly feminist (they would be with five women there), not into glamor– the audience for the New Yorker. It’s Edward Albee without the wrenching, Terence Rattigan in American mode.

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Hungry Public Theatre LuEster HUNGRY Written and Directed by Richard Nelson  Featuring Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders, and Amy Warren Sets & Costumes  Susan Hilferty Lighting  Jennifer Tipton
From The Gabriels … Play One: Hungry: beyond Joyce (Amy Warren) leaning over on one side; next facing us to the left is Thomas’s first wife (Mary was his second wife), Karin (Meg Gibson) who was once Patricia’s daugher-in-law and Hannah’s sister in law (but divorce cancelled that); and then Hannah (Lynn Hawley), George’s wife so Patricia’s daughter-in-law & Mary’s sister-in-law; then facing Joyce on the other side, we see Mary (Maryann Plunkett), also Patricia’s daughter-in-law

Onto Part One, Hungry: there is this problem if you choose to see the plays separately. And I admit not everyone has the time, stamina, to say nothing (at the Kennedy Center where it’s $23 to park in the garage) of the price to see all three plays (nearly two hours each) in a row. Partly (for me and a woman I sat next to who was so un-entertained that she said she would not go on to see the other two when she had planned to with friends) Nelson is expecting too much of a theater experience, which is unique and cannot be replayed, rewound, fast forwarded.

So now seeing Part One I began to better understand Part Three. Bad events are about to happen in Part one (foreclosure on the mother’s property) I hadn’t understood everything in the third play, and upon seeing the first, much was explained. Even the names of the central characters and how they related as “long-time” family and friends. I now from seeing Hungry know a lot more: who the characters are, their relationships. Now I’d like to re-see Play 3 — which one reviewer whose reviews I trust said is the best. There was a standing ovation for Part 3. But understandably, not so Part 1. It was scene setting and character and situation explication. Since I had seen Part 3 I was more moved by Part 1 (relatively hopeful than people who’d seen none: a woman sitting next to me who said she was disappointed and would not come to see the others. I knew more of what these characters were hiding (Hanna about to go to work the next week as a “maid” in a vast luxurious hotel, the only white cleaning woman. Nelson’s problem is he is expecting too much for a theater goer who has literally to get him or herself there. The experience of The Gabriels (cooking and preparing food, political discussions reading aloud to one another taking 4 hours to develop his story to intense engagement.

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THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family Play Two: WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? September 10 - October 9 Meg Gibson Roberta Maxwell Jat O. Saunders Maryann Plunkett Amy Warren
From The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, Play Two: What did you expect?: George and Hannah the married couple, son and daughter-in-law to Patricia (brother- and sister-in-law to Mary)

Part Two, What did you expect?, the last I saw: I felt unbearably moved tonight (Wednesday) at the close of Part Two. If anything Part 2 is the most moving of the three. Since we are not encouraged to weep, I cannot liken it to Chekhov but the experience is closely analogous.

In Part Two the hard economic conditions under which this group of people are living emerges. What is conveyed is the inexorable lack of any help for the average person from gov’t or any other entity, and how family groups as individuals with no group to belong to (no union comes to mind, but there could be other entities such as I remember in the UK: Friendly Societies for mortgages, Building Societies, school programs), they are fleeced and cheated so fundamentally that they cannot win to security, and in the present gov’t induced “austerity” are condemned to struggle which gets them nowhere. They have lost the family house they are now living in because the mother was preyed upon by mortgage in reverse people — she agreed to give her house away and get payments for it because her social security was so small. She did not understand what she needed to pay and now she has lost the house. She must leave her assisted living because the charges are way too high and she now owes them thousands she cannot pay. The charge is $4500 a month for living in a single room, for meals, and for the individual dinners she had with her son and daughters-in-law. The discussion over this that suddenly breaks out is painful in the extreme to watch because it is the kind of discussion families avoid and allow to come out only in parts.

The one saving that George, the son, and his wife, Hannah have done, has been for the boy’s college and they must use that just to get the mother debt-free; they will have to borrow to pay for the boy’s college. We the audience know he may not get a decent living from this degree. They live in a community where super-rich people come for the summer to their summer homes. George wants to go on a picnic with a rich friend he recently made because they will go on a literary walk, but it emerges he is hoping to be hired to build bookcases for this man all over the man’s house. The man’s wife has three times since buying the house renovated the walls. We have seen how easy it is to cheat him of his pay. Hanna says the man agreed to it because he’s hoping to hire George to carry things for him (be a handyman-drudge). She has been asked to provide the picnic because George told these people she caters sometimes, but it was put as a favor, and she is not to be paid. We see the whole family preparing this picnic in What Did You Expect?

It’s just endless. The election as backdrop is a show, there is no sense that this Hillary or Bill who come round will do anything in gov’t for them. Nelson seems to know that Trump will win. We see a hollow government order. There are hidden powers these people don’t come near that are keeping them this way. They live in a vacuum. These powerful people are what is putting Trump (or Hillary) in power and it is they who call the shots. Nothing will be done to help these people, and they sink more and more. George we are told is not well but does not go to the doctor. He is not an aggressive man and during the second play we see how easy it is for a woman to buy a precious piano for much less than she should pay. It’s an upright no prestige, has these scratches (just what the Toyota store used to give me much less money for the car I traded in); it breaks his heart to lose the piano and he gets so much less for it than he should. He is a kind good-hearted man. I thought to myself that now that Trump won he will take power not because the constitution is being obeyed: when Obama wa sin power the constitution was not obeyed over senate appointments and they congress stopped him from passing everything they could. Becaus of Citizens United (put in place by the courts and corporations who brought the case) huge sums have put Republicans in power in all states and in congress. Now these powers will back whatever Trump does to the to the hilt now no matter what he does or says as long as he gets rid of the New Deal, and runs a gov’t by billionaires for millionaires.

That is the larger political reality this play slowly conveys. Not through speeches and a strong allegorical mirroring situation but in bits and pieces through real talk. In this talk we see a group of people who are good to one another and supportive: these characters are luckier than many. They have known griefs. Thomas whom Mary so loved and who was her meaning and mainstay for the last ten years did divorce Karin who now has come to live with Mary. In the first act Karin comes for a visit to commemorate Thomas’s death (Mary’s birthday), by the second she is renting Thomas’s old office to live in; by the third she has to find herself a new place she can afford. Not easy. She is alone, and at first Patricia and Hannah are not sure Mary should even let Karin stay the night (which is how she begins to insinuate herself into the family group). Mary’s one daughter will have nothing to do with her and it breaks her heart. Joyce, the third child of Patricia’s family now grown has intense “issues” with her mother who favored her two sons, George and Thomas, heavily. She has come each time because of an important occasion: Mary’s birthday where they commemorated Thomas; the mother moving out of assisted living. She is an assistant dress designer and like George services the super-rich. Hanna clearly loves George for him, what he is. The desperation is Chekhovian, the delicacy of the talk that moves into anguish only at heights. It seems that both George and Joyce resented Thomas’s success and his search for an “identity,” which seems to have meant really him trying to break away from this group and be a successful playwright, which he didn’t manage.

Something is omitted: like other middle class vehicles which play to white audiences (all three audiences were mostly white people): the systemic racism that fuels the refusal of the average person to identify with social programs and want to end them. This is a group of people seemingly not bigoted, the only time ethnicity comes up is when Hannah says in play three she will be the only white woman on the staff. Rhinebeck where they live is apparently heavily white in the native as well as the summering rich groups of people. It does show that immiseration does not have to lead to voting for Trump. These people are for Hillary Clinton because they are not racist; they never bring up immigrants either. This is probably improbable. Never to mention these as issues. Only Bill Clinton’s sex life, the bill that let the bank loose on people. Never as women to mention the end of welfare — since they are women who might need to go to unemployment offices. So there’s the flaw if made acceptable by its placement.

There is self-reflexive talk by the playwright too as when Karin is going over Thomas’s plays to see if anything can be sold. Talk about playwriting, what people go to plays to see. Nelson justifies his technique and goals in some of this. When George is pretending the sole reason he is going on the picnic, he goes on with great warmth over Hawthorne, Melville and Emerson and other American writers who lived in the area once upon a time. They read from a novel at one point (a graphic charged description of a scene of sexual intercourse from a woman’s point of view). And how could it not be implicitly truly feminist with five women on stage, and it’s deeply humane social vision. As with Austen’s Emma, the play has other invisible presences or characters so intensely talked about they are there: Thomas, the dead man; Paul, George and Hannah’s son, someone George gives a piano lesson to, the cruel women who drives down the price of the piano and lies she has another she might buy, and plays games like going to leave; the two dates that Karin goes out on, only to return quickly as they wanted only to exploit her (she is too old to attract a man); others they describe in their stories.

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whatdidyouexpect
Women of a Certain Age as title fits this scene: going round the table left to right: animated Joyce, single (never married); Mary, widowed (previously married with one estranged daughter); Hannah, married but now must work as a maid in a hotel; Karin divorced and no where to go, a stray (in patriarchal arrangements that’s what women of a certain age frequently become … )

So I came near tears at the end of the third play, and my last night at the end of the second didn’t dare speak or look at anyone or I would have burst into crying. Each play opened and closed with Mary, and her grief and loss. Here I sit week after week writing what I do? why? it’s the only way I know how to communicate with people.

So many thousands years in solitary confinement in the US. The extreme symbol. It was the play’s human dimension that hit me hard. The acting is so persuasively real and not at all overdone. What a relief. I did recognize people in the audience from Part 1, there for Part 2, and a couple from Part 3 on both nights. So I was not mesmerized alone.

I get so involved with literature that allows me to be with others and talk to others (or write) because (from Virginia Woolf on novels) “they are about people, they excite in us [me] feelings that people excite in real life.” This play attaches itself to an idea of what life is about, what makes it valuable, beyond community people need self-esteem, they need to be comfortable and secure, they need to feel good about themselves, need to value their activities and think of them as worth while. The Gabriels are a form of angels because they do want the finer values, not sheer material wealth, though they need some of that too. It’s about America’s spiritual condition which is being torn down and torn apart. In my solitary life I am representative of a lot of people. Karen in the play is closest to me but I recognized myself in all the women and recognized men I’ve known in George and Thomas (including Jim, in his last years an adjunct dressing down the way George does).

As I looked at the audience last night I saw displeased faces. People there did not like what they were shown. All three times the audience auditorium was about half full at best. There was a standing ovation at the end of the third part, but only applause (and standing has become a new standard) at the end of the second. I almost did not stand at the end of the second, but I so respected these actors for conveying such a depth of intelligent understanding and Maryann Plunkett for what it is to be a widow, containing in herself such stifled emotion and loneliness even amid these family members that I stood. I caught the eye of one of the actresses, Lynn Hawley who played Hannah and saw she was grateful to me. My standing made her feel better. Another woman had stood up too.

E. M.

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treeputout
January 2nd, 2017

… 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.

(i)
As ghosts obscurely trail the past
She is posthumous
She haunts the future.

(ii)
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.

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blogging-cat
A blogging cat …

Blogging itself.

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.

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herbertshrew-jph
Susan Herbert’s Taming of the Shrew — the key to all of these is they re-contextualize by replacing people with cats, and are done with a slightly parodic feel

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.

dejeunersurlherbe
Edouard Manet, Dejeuner sur l’herbe

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.

herbertladyanner3
Herbert’s Lady Anne (seduced, enthralled, abused, murdered by Richard III)

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.

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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.

nabucco-lyudmila-monastyrska-placido-domingo

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.

escena-nabucco-placido-domingo

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

herbertshakespearecats
Susan Herbert’s Shakespearean Cats — this is too charming not to offer an enlargement

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 …

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izzy
My daughter, Isobel, with whom I am fortunate to live

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:

Partners

Seeking answers, she
Plunged, and finding the water
Lethally cold, drowned.

Wiser, luckier,
He skated on thin ice, always
Upright, in motion

Alzheimer’s

(i)
He walked the streets by
Night, and when retrieved, asked the
Way back to Warsaw

(ii)
The loved dog saw no
Difference, or at least chose
Not to speak of it.

Snails

The world was sometimes
So empty the slow grace of
Snails stealing breadcrumbs

From the paving-stones
Outside in early morning
Was almost welcome

To conclude:

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.

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New Year’s Eve night this year — looking out my window

Miss Drake

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Susan Herbert for Anne Boleyn (her Shakespeare’s Cat)

Friends, readers,

It’s common to list the ten best new-to-me books one read this year as the year ends; my problems with this are

I often cannot remember what I read specifically this year, so at first I included Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing (a historical novel centering on Marie le Jars de Gournay, her maid and Montaigne); Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (a revelation of sorts);and Linda Porter’s Katherine the Queen [Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife], but they were what I remembered best from last year. Paula Byrne’s A Life in Small Things [Jane Austen] was the book I most remembered from the year before (no new good books on Austen, though some superb individual essays on Austen films): I so love Austen and she shed genuine new insight into Austen and her texts, taught me new relevant contexts, evidentially sound facts about Austen (though she’s wrong on her new portrait, it’s the only book on Austen’s texts to do this written in the last couple of years).

I reread a lot and in rereading I find new things, re-discover old in a new way — as I just did in Oliphant’s ghost story, “The Library Window;” and

It’s hard to choose and impossible to list in any meaningful order

Books are so different; genres, functions matter.

Nonetheless, to join in and look back on what I took real pleasure in: which books taught me, absorbed me deeply, I felt sorry when I came to the end, enjoyed so much. That’s a lot to ask, so let’s say did some of the above. In the order I remember them (which must say something)

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Herbert’s Russian Blues (Movie Cats)

My very favorites:

1) Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (mostly Maude’s translation; spent best part of year if I include listening to David Case’s reading of Constance Garnett’s text, deeply satisfying text)
2) Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover (most brilliant and relevant for politics today book of the year for me)
3) Anne Boyd Rioux’s Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist (you are missing out on a great American later 19th century writer if you’ve not read any of her books)
4) Judith Cook, Melissa Hardie, and Christiana Payne’s Singing from the Walls: The Life and Art of Elizabeth [Armstrong] Forbes (moving, beautiful pictures)
5) Daphne DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall: The Spirit and History of Cornwall (uplifted and told truths)
6) Charlotte Smith’s Collected Letters (about courageous abused woman alone)
7) Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (for the first time, close to Woolf)
8) Angela Rosenthal’s Angelica Kauffmann: Art and Sensibility (on women’s art)
9) Jane Jill’s The Art of Carrington (revelation)
10) Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley (about 3/4s of Shelley’s life I hadn’t known and her other great writings)

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Herbert’s Adelaide Labille-Guiard with her pupils (a painting cat, imitating Labille-Guiard’s picture)

Runners-up or a not-quite my very favorites:

1) Diane Reynolds’s The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (I won’t forget her portrait of Nazi Germany)
2) Carla Sassi’s Why Scottish Literature Matters (insights into how literature works, into an unusual colonialized people)
3) Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist (three brilliant novellas, historical fiction one of them: “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn;” the extraordinary feminist “Mysterious Case of of Miss V” (a woman alone, how thwarted, how silenced)
4) Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (unforgettable, a middle class kind of Cathy Come Home)
5) Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (taught me the mini-series distorted this deeply compassionate book about a wise woman not well understood)
6) Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love (deeply Middle Eastern historical novel as Neo-Victorian epistolary narrative)
7) Charlotte Smith’s Marchmont (for its depictions of life in a debtor’s prison)
8) Carol A Martin’s George Eliot’s Serial Fiction (for reading Eliot)
9) Margaret Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, together with Lady Car (a continuation) (so rich and painfully insightful)
10) Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter (I’m just now reading Frantumaglia: mothers-and-daughters her true theme)

Best new-to-me greats plays I read (and saw) — texts becoming plays and/or movies:

John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (Scotland’s history, a masterpiece of song and words)
1979 Danger UXB (everyone should watch this profound anti-war mini-series once a year)
Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark Scripts for Seasons 1 and 2 (bit of a disappointment because no indications of camera work or thinking behind choices & themselves could have been better but drew enormous strength from where faithful to Graham’s historical fiction)

My favorite long poem reread this year: Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head
My favorite (new) movie (not a mini-series): 45 Years
My favorite mini-series: 1972 Jack Pulman’s War and Peace (one of the best of the 1970s BBC and that’s saying something)
Undefinable: both series of the BBC The Hollow Crown (Shakespeare’s history plays, Wars of Roses and Henriade)

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Susan Herbert’s drawing for Duchess of York (Shakespeare’s Cats)

Old books made new, seen in some new way:

1) Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
2) Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

I did not like yet read to the end (worth citing because they are strong, possibly widely-read and/or reviewed texts as what is bad in them is importantly bad):

1) Henry James’s Aspern Papers and The Other House (I detested the cruel spiteful Greville Fane) (perverse in who he critizes and accepting evil)
2) Patti Smith’s M Train (she’s posing as a man, seems hardly to have heard of any woman writers or musicians)
3) Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (pernicious in several crucial ways, pro-violence, and against women, seriously anti-LBGT, yet as women’s historical romance and about Scotland in others it sent my spirit soaring; the mini-series, especially from its adapted scripts & acting much better)

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Jacobite cats (Herbert, from Millais’s “Proscribed Royalists”)

I asked Izzy if she could name some new great best books for her this year, and she cited two I know she read and re-read slowly:

1) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Caste: Hamilton: The Revolution [stageplay, music book)
2) Mary Beard’s SPQR: The Senate and People of Rome

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Herbert’s “Ice-Skating” (from Victorian Cats) — Izzy read and wrote a lot (professionally too now) about ice-skating

I promise you I omitted some: many good ones were rereads e.g., first five Barsetshire books by Trollope, read and taught; Rachel Ray; Shelley’s Frankenstein, read astonishingly eye-openly aloud by Gildert Jackson (and taught); several I didn’t finish but recognize I should have e.g., Adhaf Soueif’s very great In the Eye of the Sun; Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights on 19th century women of letters, especially on Jewsbury Sisters, Jane Carlyle; some I reviewed and wrote about for conventional journals and/or blogs (Martha Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley), a few more novels, literary critical books, film studies, biography, autobiography …

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Susan Herbert’s “Train Riding” (Victorian Cats)

Miss Drake

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