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Simone de Beauvoir’s early existentialist essay

Frank: Might you have forgotten him, with time?
Claire: That amount of time doesn’t exist — “All Debts Paid” (Outlander 3:3)


Frank (Tobias Menzies) and Claire (Caitriona Balfe) — Boston, 1968: he the tragic figure

Hope is the thing with feathers — Emily Dickinson

Friends and readers,

I get so tired sometimes. I want to stand or to sit ever so still, and hold my head with my hand on my forehead, over my eyes, and to keen. To give way at last. I am so fond of my nearly furniture-less sun-room. I wonder what Jim would think of it. I’ll never know. He would laugh, not mockingly. I do not remember him ever laughing mockingly. No jeers. His laughter was ever kind, gentle teasing, cordial, lightening up life. If it were not that I fall asleep because my one plush rocking chair is so comfortable, I’d sit there many hours in sunpuddle reading.

I seem this summer to be feeling more grief than I have in a while. I was so stunned that first year. It may be how things accumulate: this summer I realized too late (typical of me) that the ISECS (International 18th century society) meet in Edinburgh in July was one to go to — I could sense it from the photos I saw on face-book. To have been there then. I would have known enough of the people. I would have walked new streets that I’ve not tried, alleyways, maybe seen a play. I had been earlier this year regretting that Jim and I didn’t go to a Renaissance Society meeting that was held in Florence: he wanted to go in the early 2000s, but I was still so seared from a time in the 1990s when I tried on my own and was shattered by the experience — I knew no one and found it an endurance ordeal. He was right: we could have learned so much while we saw what was worth seeing; he would have been with me this time. Not so here. Now it’s come to me my reason for resolutely turning away, that my idea that I wanted to teach to take up the full six weeks had not taken into account I could have gone by saying I would teach a 3 week session at the OLLI at Mason summer session; no one would have minded. Why didn’t I think of this? Ah, if there is ever a next time.

Jim used to say when I’d cancel a class at Mason where it was a matter of required courses with grades, and it seemed no one or few minded at all, why didn’t he have a job like that; one where when he didn’t show up, many were relieved ….


Giovanni Volpato and Louis DuCrois, Temple to Sybil, Tivoli (1750) — once the wallpaper on Jim’s laptop (now mine, with a different picture

And then I had a panic attack trying to find a restaurant on a central Alexandria Old Town Street — having been invited to lunch there by two thoroughly monied Northwest DC-resident women (from the OLLI at AU). But he has missed so much. I merely miss my friend, my partner, the daily absence, the easy fun together.

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Clarycat this past Wednesday morning ….

I thought for this entry I’d transcribe my notes from a remarkably at moments exhilarating class experience I’m part of at the Politics and Prose bookstore for 3 evenings, 6-8 pm: it’s called “3 Odd Humanists,” but it’s about three existential texts and writers: Sartre’s Existentialism is Humanism” (it’s not), Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity (Of Ambiguity is a more accurate, indeed close translation), and Weil’s The Need for Roots (Uprootedness in French). Ten highly intelligent some well-read people all reading the text, with a professor, David Johnson, from Georgetown who comes prepared. He startled me the first night by beginning with Plato and Aristotle. I remembered back to my early undergraduate days reading “selections” of philosophy by myself (300 people in the class, we sat in a vast lecture hall while the teacher talked on up front) for a required course whose absurd title I can’t quite recall.

I enjoy also when I come out around 8 and the sky is just darkening seeing how crowded the store is (a lecture upstairs will be going on), the people drinking, eating, reading and taking notes in the store (one guy at a table surrounded by books and papers), outside in the street everyone eating ice cream (I finally saw where the ice cream store is further along on the block), people sitting on benches, strolling about, eating out on the sidewalk by or in a restaurant, a good city life scene. Once three summers ago Vivian and I bought ice cream cones in a crowded store in Old Town in summer, it was around 9:30, people milling people all about us, two blocks from the river, an uncommon scene (some special event had occurred earlier in the day). I even ate mine. Then on both occasions, I could come home to my bed, my cats, my house, and relax. This time I ate supper and started this blog. I gather at Politics & Prose this kind of thing goes on almost nightly.

I want to transcribe a few scattered notes in the context of my own reading of the three books thus far. My handwriting is so feeble, the class proceeds by conversation mostly, not lecture, but I suspect I’ll get more out of what was said or remember some of it by writing the notes out, turning my Pitman stenography and memory into readable English.

What is now wonderful about philosophy is I’m learning it’s about finding a rationale, an encompassing perspective for oneself (with others) which explains and predicts how things are and can comfort. A kind of meaning or patterns. And it’s fun to do. The last or only time I took a real philosophy course before was a small class where we read a new book each week, starting with Sophocles, moving “through the ages” and languages, to include Dante’s Inferno, and on to 20th century texts: each time, in a manic way I thought, interpreting what we read to show that this text too exemplifies Heidegger’s existentialism — as explained to us in a readable more or less coherent text by Magda King. And it worked each time! after a while I could parrot and apply the Heidegger as-told-by King outlook to the point of getting an A+ in that course. But I did not see my own thoughts, feelings, acts intimately in terms of existentialism; that is what we are encouraged to do in these grown-up sessions.

So, on to what I have from Sartre & Beauvoir & Weil thus far:

Sartre (translator Carol Macomber): “In reality things will be what men have chosen them to be. Does that mean I must resort to quietism [conform]. No.” So in my life that means that although I was born to very poor unconnected parents, I ignored all attempts to make me make a life’s choice based on making a middle class income. Instead I chose literature, writing, and ended with low paid teaching (because that’s what the society has chosen for someone like me who does this ….)

I see Prof Johnson said that Sartre shows us a paranoid view of reality and what Sartre says we must do is move deep into our own minds and remain true to them. We are obligated it seems to feel the reality of anguish and abandonment when we realize we cannot turn to others to create our own meaning; at the same time as irrespective of others, no matter how they might try to stop us, we must fulfill our talents. We find we are here existing. (This reminds me of Heidegger’s thrownness.) The individual exploration of the self is what matters. We are a presence to ourselves. At the same time we must be responsible for our acts. If circumstances are against your doing something, Sartre says it is still cowardly not to do it — he insists you have the potential or capacity to act so not to act is a choice. David Johnson said that for Sartre subjectivity is your presence in the world.

He asserts that human relationships are fundamentally hostile. I fear this is so. We must affirm the value of what we choose. Must we?

He seems to think morality must have a broader scope than sympathy and devotion to another. Yet the concrete goal of helping another (rather than the vague group) is more useful. Reality alone counts. Dreams expectations only serve to define us as broken dreams, abortive hopes, and thwarted expectations. I feel I am in Samuel Johnson’s world here.

One problem I found is that Sartre is prescriptive, not descriptive as I remember Heidegger was. I think of an old Bible story about how if you are given certain talents, you must use them or God will punish you. No one supernatural will punish you in Sartre’s scheme — but yourself. He is unforgiving. I also found him defensive — especially against communists (!) who he said demanded that we give ourselves over to group idea or set of ideas. Thus we lose our freedom. Why not just ignore them? He was very bothered by Camus’s Stranger because he felt the book argued for the futility of any attempt to explain the world. (This is a branch of nihilism, commented the teacher). He says we must ignore others and yet himself cannot dismiss someone else’s admired book. Sartre says what has happened today is a breakdown of central social systems, so that people are aware their way of life is not universal nor their norms or values: we daily live in close proximity to disillusionment, disenchantment because we have woken up. Now to me we are with Kant saying that the enlightenment is a movement where we are adults and our own authorities based on our own experience and developing judgement.

How is existentialism humanism I asked the teacher: because we are centering ourselves on ourselves, on people relationships; through people the world is created. Well, I’d say in part. I read that Sartre says humanism is thinking man is the end we work for, humanity the supreme value. Well this is just wrong. Other animals count too and we must value them and act for them as much.


Ian this very morning on what was Jim’s desk, now my third library table, with the laptop on it too.

My notes on Beauvoir are more coherent and extensive. I felt that she was explaining Sartre — it is an early work, before The Second Sex, before any of her novels and long memoir.

The past is never to be used as a template for the present — David Johnson’s comment on a passage by Beauvoir which is not my understanding of her.  To me she subtilizes, nuances, and interjects an ethic of care. We might say hers is the woman’s point of view, his the man’s. She is concretely about politics and  the cruelties of fascism (as is Weil):

I know that Beauvoir write at her outset our nature has two basic impulses we must obey: to disclose ourselves to others and to will, to act out what we want or feel as mirrored by this disclosure. (She was accused of essentialism.) I thought how solitary confinement is a form of torture: the person can neither disclose him or herself, nor can he or she will an effective act.

Well, Johnson said for Beauvoir subjectivity is terrifying, as we are a mere small presence in a particularly unjust or evil world. She does insist that evil is real, that there are bad actors in the world, they rise to power and will evil. There can be no general ethics for all. We are left in ambiguity. We find ready-made values imposed on us by “serious” people, and these values veil our liberty from us. She is not a nihilist. When we genuinely act authentically we must not impinge on others’ liberty either – or speak or act for them.

Freedom for Beauvoir brings about transcendence, not in any divine but by opening up and providing for indeterminate possibilities. We do have to exist in the present. The last part of her text is her worrying over the Heideggerian idea that people to be human must thrust themselves forward into the future. The enslaved person is denied a fundamental need because he or she can have no future, can plan nothing as at any time he or she may sold or forced to do something he or she would rather not. Johnson remarked the future is the not yet. Religion tells us to throw ourselves into a future that’s is not so, so we must dismiss that. But many philosophies show how people live in terms of the future. I remember learning in the class on Heidegger that he explains why slavery is so de-humanizing: Nonetheless Beauvoir says we must live in the present; the future can be seen through what we are doing in the present, it is incarnate in the present. We must not lose ourselves in the not yet?

I was impressed by how often she brought up childhood, how many references to Rousseau, a long passage on Emile. She declared that “the child does not contain the man he will become.” At long last. There were several passages on how women have been enslaved, how even in cultures where there is opportunity to disclose themselves authentically to someone other than a trusted confidant, to act according to her will, she has been taught submission, struck by how she saw through the gaiety of women who are complicit with the wills of men, how quickly their graciousness can become hard, bitter fury. She too demands we not resign ourselves or we have failed. A piece on Mlle de Lespinasse’s abject letters in love, that Lespinasse is in love with suffering; she sees Lespinasse’s many renouncements, her dependence as frightening. So does Austen in Marianne Dashwood.

She gave me freedom when she said (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood) it is enough to be liberated in one’s thought. I felt comfort when she allowed for joy in history (and presumably historical fiction) because you assume a relationship of sheer contemplation and aesthetic enjoyment. The past is past.

Outside of time and far from men, we face history — Beauvoir, as translated by Bernard Frechtman

But I do know from Orwell “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls [our understanding of] the past.”

Johnson also seems to have talked of failure — or I have notes where he seemed to be saying how intentional we are, we may not be able to disclose ourselves to another. They are in their subjectivity. I cited RLStevenson, a favorite passage:

There is indeed one element in human destiny
that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever
else we are intended to do, we are not intended
to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business
is to continue to fail in good spirits. — Robert Louis Stevenson

To which one of the people said, Becket said that more concisely: fail better. I thought of all the exchanges on the Internet I’ve had over the years and how I misunderstand others and they misunderstand me, or how what I have said does not register as important to them, but some side issues or details I cited, and maybe vice versa too.

So we fall back on “the appeal:” we try to appeal to others based on their groundwork to understand us and we try to respond to appeals. An ethic of looking to the other, but respecting (not fearing) them except when evil actors, she can be brought together with Carol Gilligan’s humane groundwork on the psychology of women. And hence l’ecriture-femme.

I have begun Simone de Weil – the cover to my edition of her book is silly: a photo of carrots (root vegetables anyone?). Translator Arthur Wills. I know she starved herself to death, so desperately hideous to her was the barbaric WW2. She is so different from the other two, though. Not just the belief in God but an assumption we must take this belief into account in our understanding of life, death &c The publisher has TS Eliot as introducer because he was an overt fervent (in his later poetry) Anglican. Then he’s right about Weil having a way of beginning with a very wrong idea, indeed lopsided (to my mind), sometime perverse, but then from this point A she leaps to Point B, where she is uttering a brilliant explanatory truth and moving from truth to truth, some just statements and others encompassing utterances … There is paradoxically a lot more pragmaticism and open politics about the 1940s wars and the horrors of Nazism. Yet the soul’s needs is what she is on about: what are “the vital needs of the human being.” She is very Samuel-Johnsonian.

She offers concrete alternatives to the anti-humane organizations of our society, their de-humanizing and uprooted values. I discover too I have her deeply anti-war commentary, The Iliad or The Poem of Force, ed and trans. Hames P Holoska.

I’ve been reading in these two Weils this morning. I am troubled by my discovery that in her Uprootedness (The Need for Roots), the central presences are men. Once she leaves universal needs and talks of society, it’s the working men who must be freed, the peasant is a man. Women come up only as pregnant wives, as prostitutes (which she want to outlaw) or sewing.

There is no more masculine work I know than The Iliad, and all Weil’s words are couched as universals, not as gendered situations, yet here most frequently she picks out passages about women’s grief, women’s subjection. I gave up on Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls because its realism made it so monotonous; the heroine never had any choice, any separate subjectivity; this makes me want to return to it but I know I won’t find there what Beauvoir, Sartre and Weil all claim is possible: freedom in subjectivity through the mind. Frederick Douglas was able to achieve it and then fled — barker did not want to dwell on the unusual person.

I find Weil’s analysis spot on, her memory of the poem is mine. A poem about force, exulting in brutality, incessant and at the same time including all these passages of poignant helpless loss.

***********************


Sissinghurst Kent: the gardens

I want to bring up all-day “course” I took at the Smithsonian a week ago Saturday, “The Splendours of English Country Houses:” Bonita Billman talked a nearly 6 hour lecture (putting it all together and eliminating the breaks and lunch) on “the splendors of English country houses,” historically conceived; we began with Bess of Hardwicke and Renaissance massive structures and ended on a renovaton of a 14th century castle by another filthy rich family with personally aesthetically ambitious people with their hands on great gobs of money, the Courtaulds’s Elthan Palace. She was genuinely informative, insightful, wry, lots of information. I’ve ten pages of dense stenographer, 5 pages of a xeroxed summary of what she said, names of houses, architects, places, a good bibliography. Pictures of architectural elements.  I just can’t transcribe this material.

So my faith in the Smithsonian as a place to go for reasonably intelligent lectures is restored. Once, one long summer day a miraculous nearly 8 hours by a man who knew all these is to know about the Beatles and their music, with accompanying music, pictures. But the last 3 lectures I went to at the Smithsonian were embarrassingly bad; one was morally moronic (about surgery in the 19th century in the UK). I worried I would be getting hours of talk intended to elicit gasps at the obscenities wealth inequality that made these places possible over the centuries (still supports some), or these irritating giggles. There was still this curious stupid laughter (common in film audiences). I like art history – I in effect minored in art history in college. One got only 2 credits for every course you took: so to me that just allowed me to take more of them and I did. The Smithsonian has many art history lectures, most mediocre — the speakers speak as if they never read any deconstructionism or theory. Still, the Smithsonian still has far fewer literary choices than they did when I first joined.

But afterwards I realized that there were serious lacks in her talks. She omitted to evaluate what we were seeing from a truly aesthetic and moral standpoint. If we divest ourselves of alluring richness-worshipping preconceptions about showing off wealth, prominence, making a stage or set to emphasize power, status; many of the rooms Billman showed and a helluva lot of the objects were anything from ludicrous, ridiculous and to objectively seen obscene. Useless. Extravagant and done on the backs of the abysmal low wages and fierce hard physical labor of huge numbers of people. Imagine what John Berger would have said — he’d have perhaps produced an hour’s lecture of what was worth looking at truly, the rest cultural study of the super-rich and super-powerful. I did fall asleep for a while over the long part about Palladian houses and objects. Thank you for this critical funny observation.

The TLS for August 2, 2019 had a review by Michael Hall, of yet another of these books which insist on sheer celebration of the houses the rich for themselves, which had this aware perspective. The houses named were most of them Billman discussed. It is no longer true the 1% must give up these houses; they are buying some of them back and re-converting them into luxury palaces for themselves and their friends. Take Eltham Palace, a renovated 14th century castle:

Inside the house the decor is strictly and unqualifiedly art deco, with the accent on name furniture interior decorators:

Someone on my timeline commented: “This looks like the lobby of the headquarters of a life insurance company. I trust it comes across better in person.” This fits into these existentialists: we are to ask whose subjectivity, what values are these houses imposing on us, at what cost to whom and why cannot this money be spent on the poor, the vulnerable, the refuge (a section of Weil is on the ultimate uprooted, the refuge), or some social services program, how about comfortable for free buses and trains.

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Izzy and I at the neighborhood summer block party Tuesday evening this past week — it’s talked about as if a central event; for the second of two times we’ve come, we found it sparsely attended

So I come back to where I began: this summer or this time of this summer is again hard. Truthful talk of a widow’s life. At that lunch I did after all make at the fine restaurant, with the two women we discussed what it is to be an older woman alone.

One said she was a widow of 40 years and epitomized her experience thus: “yes you get to go out for lunch like this,” but then spend your life as an outcast come evening: suddenly you are not invited to places you were because you are not a couple; how other women regard you as a threat. Yes. The other has been widowed twice, on her third and now unhappy marriage; her first husband was simply shot to death one day in their house; she came home to find the corpse; no one ever discovered who did it or why; she was left with three young children. The second a successful companionship, died of cancer. I remembered a third woman (online friend) this week told me (as she has before) of all the reproaches she has been the target of if she brought up she had been unlucky or looked sad — her husband died when she was 37 and he in his mid-40s:  the speakers seem to resent that she got a social security check, and pension as this man’s widow. She too left with two children. Why do people resent the minimal needs of others their class being met by some group set up for this through some shared scheme.  Jim was dead two weeks and I was told “it’s your own fault now if you are miserable” (but someone I hadn’t realized disliked Jim very much for his reclusive ways); that first year:  “get over it!”

We have been reading and discussing Trollope’s mid-career Miss Mackenzie on Trollope&Peers: its focus is a 35 year old spinster, left a lot of money, and trying to make a choice of life for herself and we’ve been discussing what were and are attitudes towards people who never marry, never have a partner, nor children. Why people marry? Why have children? One of the most moving modern plays of the 20th century of the realistic kind I’ve seen is by Lillian Hellman, The Autumn Garden; it focuses on a 50 plus year old woman now divorced (the husband left her for a much younger woman) whose 3 children are anywhere from indifferent to scornful. How lonely she is, how unappreciated she feels. Maybe I’d like a deeply compatible relationship once again, but I don’t think I’d get one like what I had where I’d again be allowed all the the time to read and write and watch what I want on TV, and nowadays go where I want (to classes) and (as a single man said on our list) I’ve an idea that no relationship could be worth giving up those freedoms for me — even if the price is years of nights alone and coping with my disabilities.


Trollope is having an Italian renaissance …

It’s called facing or accepting one’s lot, which I am doing this summer.

Ellen

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ClaryCatApr215
Clarycat between Izzy’s window and computer, turning round to look at her

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:

AncientRomemapfrom17thcentury
A map of ancient Rome made in the 17th century — in Rome

    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

Kircher's museum in Rome. 17th-century artwork of German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (circa 1601-1680, at right) showing visitors around the museum of curiosities he established in Rome. Kircher published in numerous different areas, including oriental studies, geology and medicine. His wide knowledge has led to him being described as 'the last Renaissance man'. The museum included Egyptian obelisks, animal specimens, celestial artworks, fountains, magic lanterns, talking statues, and optical and musical instruments. This artwork is a copy of an engraving from a 1678 catalogue of the museum by Giorgio de Sepibus.

Kircher’s museum in Rome. 17th-century artwork of German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (circa 1601-1680, at right) showing visitors around the museum of curiosities he established in Rome. Kircher published in numerous different areas, including oriental studies, geology and medicine. His wide knowledge has led to him being described as ‘the last Renaissance man’. The museum included Egyptian obelisks, animal specimens, celestial artworks, fountains, magic lanterns, talking statues, and optical and musical instruments. This artwork is a copy of an engraving from a 1678 catalogue of the museum by Giorgio de Sepibus.

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.

Hawkins
Sally Hawkins as the mother who exists for her son, no matter what he does — try to kill her suitor, kill her fish, and he was partly responsible for her husband’s death which left her bereft

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:

Thompson
When he comes home safe at last

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 …

Lily-Tomlin-Grandma.jpog
Tomalin attempting to get her granddaughter the healthcare she needs

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.

FriedanFM
Betty Friedan

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.

JerwoodCenterLakeDistrict

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.

Ah me.

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.

Quilt
Idealized dream of a Quilt (found on face-book).

Miss Drake

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Munch_DanceOfLife
Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life

That bookshop where the Longleys and I,
drifting among the levels and chambers
of its peristatic convolutions
on the last morning of the festival
were lured in different directions, sucked
and digested in the dreamy caverns,
until we lost sight of each other and
they disappeared — or, as it seemed to them,
I disappeared — (backtrack as we might
here was no reuniting under that roof),
but now itself, apart from its online
phantom, vanished. As they do. As they do.
— Fleur Adcock (one of my favorite modern women poets)

A friend is another self, a self far more than the self one is — my own play upon some Renaissance words on friendship,

Dear friends and readers,

We are told in some traditions this is Twelfth Night. Well, by way of observing this date, during these hard three weeks I came across this video of people in the streets of Connecticut somewhere:

I write though not because it’s the 6th of January, nor because it’s deeply frigid out there after a snow storm that did bring Caroline for a visit (she was stranded in non-moving traffic) while Yvette stayed home in the morning; nor because I found Adcock’s poem about the disappearance of wonderful used bookstores for people to get lost in, find friends and new experiences in the forms of unexpected books.

No, I feel impelled to write from an experience I had in reading today: I’m making my way through a frequently irritating and unconvincing book for professional review (which will go untitled — how I miss Jim’s voice making fun of its nonsense, its continual support of elitism and wealth in order to justify elite lesbians of the 18th century) and came upon a deeply moving section about elegies and mourning.

pain, pleasure and death are no more than a process for existence. The revolutionary struggle in this process is a doorway open to intelligence” ― Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait

A number of critics and philosophers (from Cicero to Derrida to Jodie Greene, a female editor for an issue of GQL) writing about friendship have shown that elegies have been intensely important as genres for gay people and also anyone deeply in love with someone who has died –- for LGBT people because when the person dies, immediately the biological family takes over and they are often excluded from all recognition, all rites (rights too) after a lifetime of frequent hiding where there has been no ability to live the life you want in dignity, peace, ordinary daily fulfillments, and for anyone who loved deeply because most societies do what they can to demand something called “healthful consolation” after a relatively brief period. For me it was a moment of important insight to read that those who write mourning poems before the person died (and I translated 600+ poems of Vittoria Colonna, most mourning the death of her husband, and some 90 by Veronica Gambara, many doing the same thing) are expressing their intense attachment now and the fears it brings.

So many poems come clear: Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard perhaps only one of the more famous; his profound loss in his sonnet on the death of his friend, Richard West.

In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And redd’ning Phoebus lifts his golden fire:
The birds in vain their amorous descant join;
Or cheerful fields resume their green attire:
These ears, alas! for other notes repine,
A different object do these eyes require:
My lonely anguish melts no heart but mine;
And in my breast the imperfect joys expire.
Yet morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men:
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain:
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more, because I weep in vain.

I thought of the film Yvette and I saw several years ago where Colin Firth played a homosexual man, professor left to solitude after his (male) beloved has died and he is cut off from all memories of him, A Single Man, and yes, he does kill himself.

These writers and the tradition of elegy suggest that what one is doing by memorializing is also not just keeping the person alive but attempting to speak to him (or her); that overcoming is not sought, but rather remembering all the friend was, what he wrote (or read) or thought, and this kind of recuperation is central to the experience of friendship and love too. Why we do all we can (those who love) to support the beloved’s inner life; and the terrible thing afterward is the inaccessible spirit and mind of the beloved –- we cannot reach them; the sources the author quotes (about men or by them) have it the person grieving wants the physical relationship back (certainly I hated cremating Jim), but it is more that they lived together and the relationship itself as well as the person’s mind/heart/character that it is so unendurable to lose and should not be forgotten -– all explains so many elegies and melancholy mourning poetry in general (famous and not famous).

So, for example, this week I was reading in Anthony Hecht’s Essays in Criticism, his final piece on landscape and great country houses: Jim read some of these and liked the poetry of Hecht very much. The essay is on the deeply ambiguous realities of the existence of these country houses, the poetry about them, how they have been portrayed as central symbols in all sorts of English genres: it seems to me to comment on the course I followed this summer on the Literature of Country Houses (of course that feeble thing did not know of Hecht’s essay nor were any poems but Jonson’s Penhurst quoted from it):

ANCESTRAL HOUSES

Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns,
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious pains;
And rains down life until the basin spills,
And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains
As though to choose whatever shape it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call.
Mere dreams, mere dreams ! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
As if some marvelous empty sea-shell flung
Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
And not a fountain, were the symbol which
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known;
But when the master’s buried mice can play,
And maybe the great-grandson of that house,
For all its bronze and marble, ‘s but a mouse.

O what if gardens where the peacock strays
With delicate feet upon old terraces,
Or else all Juno from an urn displays
Before the indifferent garden deities;
o what if levelled lawns and gravelled ways
Where slippered Contemplation finds his ease
And Childhood a delight for every sense,
But take our greatness with our violence?
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take our greatness with our bitterness?
— William Butler Yeats

A burlesque of Downton Abbey (based on a great house dream): these entr’actes are multiplying as season follows season.

Burlesque
PoorEdith holds her own … Mrs Hughes switches from Scots to posh (accents)

I’ve been continuing my reading of texts about widows too. Last night it was Doris Lessing’s masterpiece, “An old woman and her cat.” Unbearably moving — and great, one of the world’s many great short stories. Once Hetty’s husband dies and her four children marry and move far away, the two creatures, she and “poor Tibby” (her cat who wanders out-of-doors but comes home to sleep with her and eat with her, providing the occasional pigeon) are ignored by their society except continually to eject them, from wherever they are; they move into smaller and more derelict places, the old woman starves more; Hetty is rescuing her cat as from about the middle, as it’s clear if the authorities get their hands on him, they’ll kill Tibby. When she finally dies and is found two weeks later, the foolish cat (himself in a bad way) hoping they’ll help him, allows himself to be found. You know the ending. As my good friend (mirable dictu) wrote, it’s terrifying because it could happen to any woman or cat.

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A blind cat rescued in one of these new cat cafes — how vulnerable this creature really is …

Lessing’s greatest writing is on cats.

As to eating, I eat what I can get myself to eat.

Sylvia

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filmmaking

Dear friends and readers,

I ask your patience on this one: I’m going to make this a handy site in this blog for Future Learn courses. Thus far I’ve followed, Literature of the Country House and Shakespeare and His World (click here for summaries, scroll down for links); I’m in the middle of following World War 1: Trauma and Memory) and I’ve signed up for Explore Film-making; Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Much Ado about Nothing in Performance. I doubt I’ll follow all 3, but I’ll begin them all and this post makes it easy for me to reach them.

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Recreated Globe Theater in London

Brief explanation: while the Literature of the Country House was a disappointment, there were a couple of marvelous weeks and I did learn enough that was new to make the experience worthwhile, Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and His World has been remarkable as an experience; and I’ve learnt and been salutarily reminded and what I knew enrichened by WW1: Trauma and Memory. So I am going to try for three more. I don’t read the comments by others much (these exist in the hundreds) and have now only twice read the new texts, though I’ve re-skimmed many of the others (which I’ve read), but on my listserv about WomenWritersthroughtheAges @ Yahoo we had a reading and discussion of 3 18th century novels by women as a result of our shared experience. All that I can garner about film adaptation is central to my studies of all sorts, and I’ve long loved Shakespeare. What do I have to do with my late nights?

Big Sue and Now Voyager

Her face is a perfect miniature on wide, smooth flesh,
a tiny fossil in a slab of stone. Most evenings
Big Sue is Bette Davis. Alone. The curtains drawn.
The TV set an empty head which has the same
recurring dream. Mushrooms taste of kisses. Sherry trifle
is a honeymoon. Be honest. Who’d love me?
Paul Henreid. He lights two cigarettes and, gently,
puts one in her mouth. The little flat in Tooting
is a floating ship. Violins. Big Sue drawing deeply
on a chocolate stick. Now Voyager depart. Much,
much for thee is yet in store. Her eyes are wider,
bright. The previous video unspools the sea.

This is where she lives, the wrong side of the glass
in black-and-white. To press the rewind,
replay, is to know perfection. Certainty. The soundtrack
drowns out daytime echoes. Size of her. Great cow.
Love is never distanced into memory, persists
Unchanged. Oscar-winners looking at the sky.
Why wish for the moon? Outside the window night falls,
slender women rush to meet their dates. Men whistle
on the dark blue streets at shapes they want
or, in the pubs, light cigarettes for two. Big Sue
unwraps a Mars Bar, crying at her favourite scene.
The bit where Bette Davis says “We have the stars.”

— Carol Ann Duffy

RussianPark
A park in winter in Russia (sent by an Internet friend)

Miss Drake — aging scholarly woman, lives alone, ever wanting to improve herself (as you’ll instantly recall from Gaudy Night)

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Bifron’s Park? Kent, 1695-1700

Dear friends and readers,

As I’ve just joined a course that looked good, but (as is common with me) cannot manage to bookmark the site, I thought I’d put the URL here so I can get back to the place when I want to:

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/country-house-literature

It looks like fun — and completely part of all my interests. I have nowhere to go this summer and as yet no drivers’ license to allow me to get anywhere with ease or convenience. My only worry is lest I have trouble with the site. The “how it works” YouTube seemed so easy, but as I have already had my first problem, it remains to be seen if I can pull this off.

At around 8 pm: update: Yvette home and with a flick of her fingers, bookmarked the site for me.

Sylvia

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