I think it was Rilke who so lamented the inadequacy of our symbolism — regretted so bitterly we cannot, unlike the (was it?) Ancient Greeks, find adequate external symbols for the life within us — yes, that’s the quotation … we must not blame our poor symbols if they forms that seem trivial to us, or absurd, for the symbols themselves have no control … the nature of our life has determined their forms. A critique of these symbols is a critique of our lives, Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve
Friends and readers,
Spring is here. Two of the patches I tried to start flowers are in are not flowering. Green stubs and stalks come up but no flowers. I’m told that the unusual warmth in November and December made them start to flower then, but in the intensely cold time of January and February, with a major snow storm (huge amounts of precipitation) these vulnerable patches (one gets less sun, the other too much water) were confused and now won’t flower. But I have a circle of flowers and crocuses and narcissus around the small maple tree I put Christmas lights on in December
Monday I was gone from home for a few hours in the afternoon teaching — the second week on “Making Barsetshire” at the OLLI at AU — and thought I had thoroughly looked at every crevice and corner of my study or workroom (where I keep my two computers, where my desk is, my library tables with different piles of books I mean to read, and in which spend much of my waking hours as I watch movies at night on my PC) to make sure no cat was left in the space on the other side of the door. I have a hook that is latched to close my study off from my cats when I am gone because I’ve seen Ian chewing the wires. When I came in, I said, as I usually do nowadays “Here I am, Clarycat!” for she often trots up to me once I’m in. Maybe a minute later (maybe more) I hear a repeated and intensely felt mewing,loud. I walked over to my study, undid the latch and there he was, waiting patiently. He appeared to have done nothing to anything but simply waited there at the door. The unappreciated patience of cats.
I’ve seen this patience in Clarycat when she’s been inadvertently locked in or stuck somewhere she cannot get out of by herself. I am not sure what suddenly makes a cat mew to tell their “person,” for I’ve known Ian to be missing (in effect) for hours before he’ll mew or I’ll find him say on top of Izzy’s hutch (for keeping books) where there is suede grey cat (with black lines) whom he sits near (as a pillow probably). In the above case I think he worried because he realized I was out of the house, and my coming in, my voice produced in him intense relief. At least I know he’s not deaf. Izzy has said she has gotten in to the house when both of us have been gone for hours, come into her room, been there for a while, and then said something, or made a noise, and then heard the same repeated intense mewing and followed the sound to discover Ian towards the back of an almost closed drawer, stuck. He had done nothing, but waited until she got there, but not quite as immediately voiced his need. I wonder if this waiting had gone on for days, Would he have become frantic and tried to break out?
This behavior of cats is instructive. Human beings show similar patience, but in the very different situation of self-control and repression in order to fit in with a what is imagined the general tenor of a group of other human beings. for safety? Lacan says that in our minds is this mirror in which we envisage what we think or feel “most people” would say and we behave in ways that obey their norms, or justify ourselves for not so behaving in terms of these very norms.
I’ve been to three enjoyable events in DC in the last three weeks. About eight times a year the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG as it calls itself), a local offshoot of Sharp (an international organization studying book history) organizes a lecture at the Library of Congress. Last Friday later afternoon Marija Dalbello spoke about “photoplay novels,” a hybrid popular form of novella which flourished in the earliest period of film-making to the coming of sound. Published by Grosart and Dunlap, they combined stills of the famous actors/actresses from what the public regarded as thrillingly erotic and violent movies embedded in narrative and discursive writing to fill out the story line, nuances and even depths silent films could not begin to satisfy. They are popular lurid material.
Prof Dalbello studied 465 novels of this type: she was herself mesmerized by and spoke of the “punctum” of these stills and/or photographs (intense engagement) rather than the drive to rationalize them. I found parallels in the use of stills in those publications of screenplays that appear. It seems the stilted intertitle and silent films so defended by film artists in the 1910s were early on recognized by the public as frustratingly inadequate. In watching the Outlander mini-series at night at home I was struck how Gabaldon’s books were used as scripts with invented voice-over providing this deepening of emotional affect and identification rationales.
I connect Dalbello’s emphasis on the sheer punctum, the image she wanted to stay with, to Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past (early 21st century!), which I also watched at home. Poliakoff’s argument (a movie with an argument!) is how necessary it is to keep a rare vast photo collection together, because without context their specific real meaning is lost. Memory calls out for words and other photos, for documents, and knowledge of precise events media put before people. The ultimate context is the BBC archives: they must be kept and made available, not just what’s left of old videos and films but the library of scripts, of documents. Pace Dalbello’s fascination with and idea that it was the images people bought these books for, the words mattered as long as there were none or they were inadequate in the silent film era.
Shooting the Past is superlatively well done — the topic or story is what makes it. An ancient library — huge old building, first castle, then country house, now library houses a remarkable collections of photographs from the 1880s to the present. A corporation has bought it, wants to sell the photos that will fetch a lot of money, get rid of the rest, and rebuild the building to be a business school. Liam Cunningham is the American businessman, who is presented as not ruthless. Lindsay Duncan the librarian who seeks to hold onto the collection; Timothy Spall her assistant who is to a man like the American business man a wreck, unemployable, nor tech-savvy at all. His vast information is all in his head. After he is interviewed, it’s declared he should not be let near office buildings.
Timothy Spall (as Oswald Bates) shows the photos of the past to the American businessman determined to sell what fetches big prices, the rest ditch (Poliakoff, Shooting the Past) — it’s about how memory is put together
It’s about the photographs. At intervals someone brings out some of these on a particular theme and the movie then turns its attention to these — it’s they who have great power. It’s not about film as such except maybe a documentary: what holds you is these are photographs from the past recording what was really happening, even the set up ones are revealing when put into context. It’s about context, about not losing context. The super-expensive photos would lose their meaning or be switched and meaningless when plucked out of context. And it’s also about telling the truth of lives, how sad, how courageous, how at the end people are wrecks but have known some moments of compensation.
Poliakoff’s much praised Almost Strangers fills us with similar stories of hidden lives: I’ve started this mini-series at night too: it features an extraordinary — magnificent performance by Michael Gambon playing a man who tries to tell his in public, mortifies everyone and breaks down in the effort. Lindsay Duncan is there in a subtle performance of a widow. Also Timothy Spall and Stephen Frye as chorus. How could one go wrong? Well it’s too upbeat; Poliakoff too determined to give the stories from the photographs an inspiriting perspective.
Gentle reader, I have not begun to tell my hidden life here, nor my past. People manage it in published novels (autobiographies in disguise) and some life-writing in published books.
Last Saturday Izzy and I saw the latest production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream done with as much theatrical flair and emoting and fun as the actors could manage with Adam Posner directing. It received glowing local reviews ,and it was enjoyable if wholly unoriginal.
Tonight I went to a sort of pre-program or preface to the last night of the season for this Midsummer Night’s Dream which did have some original thought: four actors performed a dramatic reading of an original play by one of the actors in the production: Eric Hissom (who played Theseus and Oberon)’s The Tragical Comedy of Thyramus and Pisbee: he plays Philostrat, then Shakespeare then Elizabeth I as deux ex machina. It was not as funny as the determined laughter of the audience (over 1/4 members of the cast as well as several of the Folger new “outreach” programs were there) tried to project, but it was an insightful commentary on how we or at least Hissom thinks we are happy to see Shakespeare himself nowadays (as gay, promiscuous [!], not caring about conventions but about money, as on a genius-level absorbed in his poetic visions). The conceit is a nervous actor, Henry Crosbie (Adam Wesley Brown) is trying to rehearse the play within a play and is interrupted and thwarted by Philostrat (the master of ceremonies), a woman (Rachel Zampelli as Rosemary Bassanio) who has written a version of The Tempest, about to be plagiarized by Shakespeare, and another egotistic male actors, (Henry Worthy (Tom Story, an exlover of Shakespearel’s). Henry may be literally or biologically be a son of Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s famous acting colleague; Rosemarie literally or biologically a daughter of Shakespeare’s. All are in their souls, minds, heart, history children of Shakespeare. It was most effective when it took Shakespeare’s own lines and re-contextualized them by the hidden lives of the Hissom’s invented players.
I’m entering a new phase of widowhood. I have to try to appear cheerful because by the time one is a widow three years people really won’t tolerate anything else. I’m now following a Future Learn course on “Why we post,” and have been somewhat surprised to to be told that research shows (9 graduate students and 1 professor in 15 countries) that selfies and other photos of the self that people put online are not an expression of individuality or self, but almost consistently are embedded in socially approved forms of success, usually social, familial. It’s more than showing off. They say these photos function as a form of policing: as they lay out what those who don’t post pictures are supposed to be like and do. The majority of people on the Net hardly post words except to friends (their research suggests) and in the proliferating closed groups “memes” become another form of moral police that stands up for this value and disparages that.
A double life. There are phases of this experience of widowhood and as I’ve said the experience is individual, dependent on who you are, what age, importantly if there is any long-standing community you belonged to. More and more the Kubler-Ross and other formulaic models (used in the Mental Health and Literature course on Future Learn) turn out to be a form of moral, social and emotional policing of anyone who is bereaved: I come across references that are jeering to: someone whose point of view is mocked is called in Kubler-Ross’s first phase: “in denial.” I’ve never been in denial: I knew Jim no longer existed from 9:05 pm on October 9, 2013. And I went wilder because I knew he was better off, that he knew no more suffering and this ordeal of his body fighting annihilation. First I was in a lunatic phase, stunned, cannot take in the consequences of all that happened and shut out memories so devastating in all ways; then a long phase of sanity in contact with sheer emotional pain where I at least remembered much and managed to set up a daily life on the Net, as a teacher, working as an independent scholar, going to a Jewish Community Center for exercise. I was given advice to go out, build a new life, a social world. Right. Now I see this phase has been learning to keep up a public veneer. I now know the attractive idea I was still in the same play, but going on for a second act, is too neat, pat, and false. The condition of widow at my age, where I live, who I am and never having achieved place precludes local true companions (was not J.B. Priestley’s title to a book of yearning The Good Companions? I remember loving the book). I am in the same act only without him, which is all the difference in the world.
Maybe many people spend their lives making faces to meet faces that they meet as Eliot said (TS). Not all can manage. Some widows to avoid this making a false face, go into a partial retreat so that the double life becomes only a small part of her waking hours. Some every once in a while break out and write to newspapers. I’m teaching myself to stay in with my books, writing with friends on the Internet for company, blogging, watching movies at night. Somehow it’s not easy and that is a paradox as even now and all my earlier life I was and am happiest at home. A deep rootedness is my nature, and my home place has been my comfort. It’s only since Jim’ death I havee had this need to go out — and secondarily, be amongst people. I find myself remembering Julia from Brideshead Revisited, how she vows to keep what she feels strong so she can carry on feeling it (she will eat, devour, drink it down) and stay alive that way. I’m still going out but my expectations are now simply a hope I enjoy the lecture, the play, the movie, the exercise, no more, heeding Pascal’s reminder that “all humanity’s misery derives from not being able to sit alone in a quiet room.” Recognition is when you make yourself fully conscious of what you are doing. Trying to get used to this life — That’s what Fanny Price in Mansfield Park achieves as she grows up in the book’s first three chapters: she gets used to it without ever losing what she is, staying true to her self. She will not act because she will not let go, not be unguarded, not let herself be made a spectacle of (how I identity with that).
Part of this phase of recognition: I notice recently as I get used to fending for myself, doing things one step at a time, I feel more nervous because I’ve faced the insecurity and enforced autonomy as ongoing; at the same time I lose my fear of death; it becomes release. I won’t hasten it, but I accept it coming. All my regret would be for my beloved Yvette. I don’t want to leave her. I’ve been deep sleeping the last few days and known the peace of apparent oblivion and this enabled me to feel this new peace. I can wake up with spasms across my lower calves in the midst of such spells so I do dream. Each night I read in the Widows Handbook, ed Jacqueline Lapidus and Lise Menn, and find more and more of its poetry can now speak to me.
Old Woman Dreams
He came to her finally in his torn jeans and soft
tan jacket, came from feeding the horses,
their sweat still on his palms,
came redolent of hay, honey from his hives-
Solomon’s Song on his lips.
Came with the old scar on his cheek where
she left the chaste imprint of a kiss.
Younger, impossibly younger,
he told her what she wanted to hear.
But only in dream, night, the color of his black hair.
Around him, her arms wound like his branches,
his eyes were a garden she ached to lie down in.
They met in a wind-rush, and what she remembers
is a craving to follow where he was leading.
Also the impression of dissolving
against the astonishment of his chest.
Her desire seems to have its own life and will not be
expelled no matter how often she tries to banish it.
Somehow an old woman feels all this. Is it so odd?
She’s heard a dream embodies a message
from the totem spirit, like the fox
who emerges in flame from the forests
and goes to hide in the morning hours.
— Patricia Fargnoli