Dear friends and readers,
The week and a half since I last wrote has been one of seeming ceaseless activity as I for the first time tried to arrange for money, checked on needed papers, looked out for appropriate clothes, not to omit revised my paper a little and practiced reading it aloud. I wrote two syllabi, one for reading Tom Jones, and the other for reading the first two Poldark novels, in both showing and discussing two film adaptations. Amid the much else of everyday life: shopping, paying bills, blogging (women artists anyone?) even paying attention to the garden to the extent of watering my poor baby magnolia tree (if that’s what it is), here not to omit phone calls, cats, going out with a couple of friends for walks or coffee, even a visit to a friend for talk and wine.
I did want to record an excellent lecture given to the Washington Area Print Group this past Friday: Pamela Long who gave a talk on the politics and printed books swirling around, resulting from the building of architecturally beautiful places, increase of roads, public water works, spread of pavement all over Rome from in the later 16th to early 18th century. Her abstract may not convey amusing and entertaining as well as instructive about geography, geology, traveling about (how to), rival guide books, and kinds of mappings that resulted but here it is:
From mid- to late-sixteenth-century Rome, the capital city of Christianity was a booming construction site, a vibrant center for engineering projects involving aqueduct repair and flood control, a focus of intense investigation of ancient ruins and other antiquities, and a center for numerous print shops. The proprietors of these shops sold books, maps of Rome, and images of Roman monuments, while at the same time they engaged in intense and sometimes murderous rivalries.
In this period Roman urban topography was altered by the construction and renovation of huge churches and palaces; by the repair and reconstruction of two ancient aqueducts, and the creation of numerous elegant new fountains; by the building of new streets and the widening and paving of existing streets; and by the transport of the great monolithic Egyptian obelisks from their ancient locations to new places that marked important basilicas and plazas. In addition, numerous efforts were made to control the flooding of the unruly Tiber River. At the same time, numerous individuals surveyed the city walls and other parts of the city and constructed maps—of ancient Rome as it was imagined and maps of the contemporary city.
This talk is about how engineering, cartography, and antiquarianism were tied together and driven by the culture of print in late sixteenth-century Rome
It brought me back to more than the world of Vittoria Colonna and the hundred years after, for Ms Long brought in pictures and connections between what was done about flooding in Rome in 1557 and in 2007 (a bridge first built in 1598 destroyed by rotting). Patronage networks mix with trading and print shop rivalries; building and stocking museums; she talks of artisanal practices, translations of older Greek texts, new ways of measuring, new kinds of carpentry, naming names I’d heard of (I could try to cite people and texts and dates, but my notes are not precise enough any more), and showing pictures of painted facades. People fought over where ancient places had been located; found acquaducts and looked to see where they derived from. We heard about books about springs, waters, soil; where shall canals extend. Since there was as yet no degree in architecture or engineering, anyone could become involved merely by educating himself, and a culture of engineering blended with antiquarianism. Engineers were well paid once they were recognized as good. We don’t know what kind of math training they had, only that they did have a good deal and knew how to survey. This is the world Galileo grew up in. I asked how did people find their way to places; she said you asked others you met! For all that maps show a great deal of what was happening architecturally and about an imagined past could not be used to find you way: as today say MapQuestc can or google maps once could. GPS’s unimaginable. They were often not seeking literal accuracy, and only towards the end of the period did proportional representation begin to be used in maps.
Afterwards a group of us went out to dinner. The evening was pleasant, food and talk good. As luck would have it, this week’s TLS had a review by Nigel Spivey of a exhibit in several English museums and a couple of these great houses (Chatsworth, Derby Museum and Art Gallery) on the development of the Grand Tour in Italy — and England too as people visited great houses and looked at gardens and art; how did Inigo Jones learn his art (the vade mecum, Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture), what were his models, how write about it (from Italy) as he traveled about with say the Earl and Countess of Arundel. Now ordinary people can visit such places. I thought about Anne Radcliffe’s astonishing knowledge of such books and her visiting such places too.
More briefly, Izzy and I drove many miles (it felt like) into remote Maryland to see another of Michael Weiss’s ice-skating shows: these occur once a year to showcase new talent, build funds, bring together people in mid-career and those now at the peak — like Olympian champions Merrill Lynch and Charlie White who were there. They skate together with a smooth strength and grace that seems to capture lyrical energies within their bodies.
I got myself to the Folger to see an HD film from a live performance by the RSC of The Merchant of Venice, and managed two local movies with a friend, and went to the film club for a third. Two I have strong reservations about: A Brilliant Young Mind and A Walk in the Woods. The first about an autistic young man is a genuine attempt to present this condition sympathetically, and the portrait is closer to reality than I’ve seen, but it is still hostile and exaggerated. Its general theme is disability: Rafe Spall plays another person gifted in math, but he fails in life — as this is understood by which I mean to say it’s suggested it’s he who fails others not the whole social structure that couldn’t accommodate him. I found it deeply emotional painful because of the brilliant performance of the boy’s mother, early on in the film widowed because of the autistic boy. It’s his fault his father turns away from an on-coming car in the father’s efforts to lead the boy respond to him. I have not seen a widow’s continued grief so frankly shown — Sallie Hawkins should get an academy award.
But it bothered me too. She was all utter self-sacrifice. When the boy murders a fish she loved and tries to hurt Spall because she is developing a friendship, she forgives him. Never a moment of anger or selfhood at all, She is the side issue of the movie dismissed rather like Hermione’s 16 years in Winter’s Tale. A Walk in the Woods has Emma Thompson delivering the most moving performence of the film but she is functionally in the margins, the wife who waits, and if you die, lives with it. Again a passive role. She could be Hermione waiting for 16 years; the threat of his death has terrified her:
Beyond that Hawkins is super thin in the way of Cate Blanchett, painfully so — in order to get any part, Jodhi May (Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl in 2003; in the 1999 Aristocrats, the most vulnerable sister) in 2015 no longer looks like Jodhi May she has become such a bag of bones. And Hawkins is too young still to be a near grandmother. Thompson is in her late fifties and is paired as of an age with Robert Redford who is 80 and in this film allowed to look it. Women are consistently made into passive pillows, all self-sacrifice, cast as women much older than themselves (so the public idea of how real women look at a given age is screwed). The movie had the sort of good moments one of these long walk movies do — but its kind of slapstick humor did not make me want to read any Bryson …
Grandma with Lily Tomlin though comes through. By contrast, it is a film attempting to present women’s lives more truthfully than usual — though contrived and flawed in the presentation. It’s an indie (Paul Weitz wrote, directed and produced it). Lily is Ellen, a woman in her later fifties, a poet, ex-professor, and in effect widow. Her lesbian partner of 38 years has died within the last year and one half and as the film opens (prologue) she is throwing out Olivia (Judy Greer), a 20-something young lover she has had with her for the last four months callously. This is a modern grandmother. Up to her door comes her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner who is anything but sage) who it transpires needs an abortion and has not money. The young man she is involved with takes no responsibility and shows no affection, concern, and certainly won’t pay for Sage’s procedure, and since Grandma is now unemployed, cut up her credit cards (one of the contrivances) cannot supply the needed $600, the movie shows them on a kind of quest to friends to round up enough. Each of the stops brings us another of Elle’s friends and another part of her past is revealed: it’s not a pretty one as it includes a broken marriage, an abortion of her own, an artificially inseminated daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden, Sage’s mother), and people she’s hurt and embittered along the way. Sam Elliot was Grandma’s ex-husband and as in I’ll Dream of You delivered a moving performance as an older man now alone (but for pictures and occasional visits of the people he’s met, dropped and kept up with along the way). She has a rough tongue and insists on commanding her own time and space unsentimentally.
When they finally got to the abortion clinic (with money provided by Judy out of her ATM), and Sage was invited to have a “serious” talk with a counselor before the procedure, I began to worry that we would after all have an anti-abortion film (with intense emotionalism about women and babies) and I think the film did tease for Garner came out (it was said) 20 minutes later and looked no different. But that was the point: abortions in the first trimester are minor procedures when done in well-run clinics; she would have cramps in an hour or so, but her nausea was gone. The girl had said she thought she might like to have a child someday, but not now: she is just in high school, utterly unprepared, without resources and has yet to begin to build her life.
The film was also about the absence of feminism in life. Grandma has 1st editions of The Feminine Mystique, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and other classic feminist books in her library which she decides to sell to make money. No mention of Virginia Woolf; the choice is Germaine Greer — as more about practical life? Sage has never heard of these books. The word “mystique” she recognized from a trash action-adventure fantasy story she knew from junk movies. The book-dealer says they are worth $60 at most. Judy has a money-making career as a psychologist, but there is no sense she is doing what she does out of any idealism or compassion; she sneers at her clients at one point as “losers.” What was remarkable was how each of the characters were seen as having individual lives apart from family roles, aspirations, and emotional pain that just gets worse over time.
There were serious flaws paralleling those of A Walk in the Woods and A Beautiful Mind. We were expected to believe that Tomlin is 50; she looks so much older than Greer that the love affair not believable. Funny how we are used to seeing this kind of unreality with men. Probably the film-maker’s executive producer feared that giving Tomlin a lover that would be creditable (a woman in her fifties) would turn audiences off — two old women? The screenplay and dialogue lack nuance and is irredeemably vulgar throughout. Then at the end everyone apologizes and asks to be forgiven and is. Contrivances include a cab leaving Tomlin on the curb (improbable in context) so that in the last scene we can see her walking off alone, lonely, but shouldering her burden of life, back to her flat.
Still I recommend it in the same spirit I did I’ll Dream of You earlier this summer. It’s another movie with people living apart in a hard world. Emma Thompson enacted what the good characters in all the films I’ve seen this summer long for: a loving person to whom you mean everything and who waits for you and comforts, strengthens, consoles you.
I’m following a useful (thought-provoking) Future Learn course on Wordsworth, his poetry, people around him (Dorothy thus far) and places (especially the Lake District and Jerwood Center where the Wordsworth manuscripts and rare editions are kept), and find myself in the unusual position of being the one not to give details and to write briefly when it comes to explicating some of the passages and poems the professors have picked out so very well. There is revealing talk about the pragmatic making of the poems as they appear in the manuscript and rare editions of the poems; the reading aloud and explication of these poems is highly innocuous, uncontroversial, but you can think for yourself if you know more about Wordsworth’s life and intellectual and psychological context than the course is offering. But when it’s over (4 weeks), I will try to combine my notes on the franker and thus more excellent Richard III and His World course and make a blog recommending both.
I can’t take with me on the plane the super-heavy Folio Society the complete and deeply felt The Duke’s Children with me — though I’ve begun comparing it with the (I now see) gouged out and abrupt stacco, abridged DC we’ve been reading all these years and some examples of the manuscript in Yale and getting closer to Trollope than I have before. I am taking a fat paperback of Tom Jones with me for the long airplane hours and trains. I’m learning to like it very much: what one has to do is read it as if it were a 10 line poem by Samuel Johnson: it’s the idiom of the language and continual ironies within ironies that prevent readers from seeing the depths of the characters felt by the narrator and profound pessimism and originality of the novel.
And I had a shock, another death. I received an email letter from the husband of a longtime old friend of mine to tell me she died 2 weeks ago. She was 69. She had deliberately attenuated the friendship in the last years, but still she and I went way back — we were close friends in graduate school. She had had a bad or serious heart attack last year. It was a heart disease and she didn’t survive. Her husband of 40 years was rare male to be a friend to Jim. Thus we once visited them as a pair of people at their beautiful Edwardian vacation home on Shelter Island. It just took my breathe away for some time, and I cried helplessly for a while. Gone. She won’t know tonight’s news. She liked Jim: she, he and I went to see Gone with the Wind one summer night in NYC in an old movie-house, sitting upstairs so he could smoke and then out to a good Deli- diner then on 57th street. The three of us had other evenings together. Now they are both gone and I’m here still. Her husband actually read my book, Trollope On the Net; he’s a marvelously intelligent kind man, did good work as a lawyer in his life I wrote him a letter this evening.
I regret leaving our pussycats as they will miss us badly, but Caroline will come once a day for an hour. I am keeping grief at bay, fear and sadness, loss of and with friends too, trying to live some kind of life.