Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Something I Wrote (January)

Each month I will post a link to a previous publication.

First up: "Dissertations as Fictions" from College English.

Quote of the Day (1/1/09)

Each thing in nature—each bird, tree, and flower— is, as it were, a question containing its own potential answer, meaning and explanation. All phenomena— light, color, sound—and all natural processes—germination, growth, digestion, fermentation—contain the power to evoke, in the prepared observer, if he does not shoot them down, the true response that is their meaning.
--Christopher Bamford

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/31/08)

One senses that Hegel was possible only in German, and finds it natural that Locke in a language where large and red precede apple should have arrived at the thing after sorting out its sensory qualities, whereas Descartes in a language where grosse et rouge [large and red] follows pomme should have come to the attribute after the distinct idea.
--Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era

Monday, December 29, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/30/08)

Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.
--Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Red Watson's Descartes Biography

My review of Richard Watson's definitive biography of Descartes was published in Georgia Review.

Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes
Richard Watson
Boston: David R. Godine, 2002, 375 pages

In his 1580 essay “Of Repentence,” Michel de Montaigne wrote,

If I had been able to see Erasmus in other days, it would have been hard for me not to take for adages and apothegms everything he said to his valet and his hostess. We imagine much more appropriately an artisan on the toilet seat or on his wife than a great president, venerable by his demeanor and his ability. It seems to us that they do not stoop from their lofty thrones even to live.

More than four hundred years later, Richard Watson notes in Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes that “We are so in need of squeaky-clean heroes that we present our great thinkers as Paradigms of Truth and Virtue rather than as the cranks they really were. Of course great men have to get only one or two major things right for people to forget the hundreds of things they got wrong.”

On 18 January 1982, a member of the extremist Animal Liberation Front slashed a portrait in London’s Wellcome Art Gallery with a knife and escaped without being caught. The victim was a representation of René Descartes, who, as the ALF would later proudly point out, was also one of the founders of modern vivisection. In a new, aspiring-to-be-definitive, forty-years-in-the-making biography of the father of modern philosophy, Richard Watson makes use of subtler weapons in ripping to shreds received opinion of the French thinker.

Offering the first life of Descartes in nearly a century to be based on substantial new research, Watson is through-and-through—as he readily admits in the introduction—“skeptical.” Iconoclastically disenchanted with the centuries-old coverup by the “Saint Descartes Protection Society,” he blasphemes regularly, presenting strong, inferential evidence against many a treasured Cartesian myth.

We learn that Descartes was probably not the late-sleeping “chambriste” at La Flèche, the Jesuit school he attended for eight years; that the legend of his fateful first meeting with Isaac Beeckman, the polymath who would prove so influential on Descartes’ developing scientific interests, is just legend; that the location of the 10 November 1619 “Pentacost of Reason” (in Jacques Maritain’s memorable phrase)—the night of Descartes’ famous seminal dreams—is quite likely misidentified; that Descartes almost certainly did not, like a demented Terry Southern character, seduce a chambermaid in order to study the mechanism of reproduction; that it is doubtful his father’s supposed denunciation of his son, “Celui-la' n'e'tait qu'a' se faire relier en veau” ("He is fit for nothing but having himself bound in calf"), was ever spoken; that most of the existing portraits, including the one in the Wellcome, may be inauthentic. (The most likely bona fide likeness, by Jan-Baptist Weenix, graces Cogito’s cover.) Perhaps most surprisingly, we learn that Baillet’s often psychoanalyzed versions of the dreams are probably made out of whole cloth.

Throughout Cogito, Ergo Sum, Watson leaves us in no doubt about his own opinion of his subject. In an introductory chapter (“The Curse of Cartesianism”) and a conclusion (“The Ghost in the Machine Fights the Last Battle for the Human Soul”), he joins the company of such anti-Cartesians as Maritain, Johann von Hamann, Giambattista Vico, Karl Jaspers, Morris Berman, Allen Wheelis, Susan Bordo, Marjorie Grene, William Barrett, and Arthur Koestler in blaming the multiple failures of modernity on Descartes’ methodological legacy: “The modern world is Cartesian, then,” Watson insists, “not because it led professional philosophers to seek certainty (and to end up peering into their own navels) but because Descartes’s method of analytic reasoning allows ordinary people to be masters and possessors of nature. Descartes made control easy, step by step.” Watson even calls Descartes names—many names: “the father of machismo,” “the most vilified innovator this side of Karl Marx,” “a drone, a family parasite,” “a proud, excitable, egotistic little man.”

Expert at debunking the myths of Descartes, Watson is equally skilled at uncovering fresh insights about one of the most examined figures in the history of thought. We learn about how Descartes was probably toilet trained, his likely height (five feet one or two), the governing logistics of his many moves in the Netherlands, the rationale for his obsequious correspondence with his brilliant critic Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, the likely breed of his dog Monsieur Grott (“Mister Scratch,” Watson remarks, was—given his master’s fondness for vivisection—quite lucky to have been sent back to France from the Netherlands), and about Descartes’ almost certain fascination with the Rosicrucians. We learn, too, that Descartes may have been the first to describe the conditioned reflex, probably slept in the nude, may have been a mathematically gifted gambler, and likely smoked pot.

Like any good biographer, Watson is just as fascinating off-message as on. American vs. Dutch licorice, porridges, swaddling, wet nurses, the use of mustard in weaning, the “Little Ice Age” of the seventeenth century, childhood considered as a disease, diets at the time of the “health nut” Descartes, the construction and maintenance of zeedijks (the low walls the Dutch built to hold back the sea)—these and a hundred other tangential matters attract his passing attention, and each visit remains memorable. The Library of Congress classification for Cogito will place it on the shelf with other books on Descartes and “Philosopher—France—Biography” (B1873.W38). But it is much more, most notably a travel book in which Watson takes us along on his scholarly perambulations, which are geographical, serendipitous, and autobiographical as well.

Of all the complex moments in Descartes’ “torn and jagged . . . life curve” (the words are Karl Stern’s in The Flight From Woman), none presents a greater conundrum to a biographer than the great French thinker’s acceptance of Queen Christina of Sweden’s invitation to become her tutor, a decision that would prove fatal when Descartes succumbed to congestive heart failure in 1650. Watson is more than up to the challenge. In an earlier version of his chapter titled “On the Zeedijk,”* Watson had offered an academic analogy for Descartes’ fatal choice. Queen Christina was able to "add Descartes to her collection" because he was "like the professor in the sticks who waits all his life for the fabled call from Harvard. And lo, one day it actually comes. But it is too late, he is past his prime, he is an extinct volcano, recognition is as much a burden as a joy to him now. But he has to go anyway." Unwilling to entirely reject such a hypothesis, Watson now finds his analogy flawed (“compared to the French court, Stockholm was the minor leagues—not Harvard; Ohio State maybe”) and offers a new, more reductionistic, but well argued elucidation (“I believe Descartes went to Sweden because he was nearly flat broke”), and a more complex psychological interpretation that includes his own motivation as a writer.

Two hundred seventy five pages into Cogito we realize conclusively what we have suspected throughout—that Richard Watson is not entirely a disinterested scholar. Contemplating Descartes’ journey to the far north, he makes a startling admission. Throughout Cogito, Watson often mixes both modes of life writing, autobiography and biography, foregrounding the scene of writing (and researching), intruding into his narration to speak to us in person in a colloquial style. (Watson is certainly the first biographer of Descartes to use the word “Yech” or to state, in the context of the Cartesian debate about the souls of animals, “Jesus didn’t die for no stinking dogs!” or to relate a Morris Raphael Cohen Descartes joke with all the shtick of a Borscht belt veteran.) When he is about to go into elaborate detail about genealogical matters or family finances, Watson warns readers (whose attention he hopes to keep) that what follows will likely be boring. And, contrary to generic norms, the biographer’s wife Pat becomes an important character, his fellow climber on a perilous journey in the Alps in search of a Descartes locale, the skeptical spouse who questions his plan to reenact Descartes’ journey to Sweden, the woman who joined him on trips to Lourdes “just to see the show.” (“The procession of the cripples,” Watson observes, “is fabulous.”).

But up until Chapter XIII, Watson has not been this personal, this confessional. “Once you reach this stage of awareness in life,” he explains, thinking of the mental state in which Descartes found himself in the late 1640s,

you can never recover timelessness—not even in the most idyllic moments. Gone forever is that sense of vast and endless horizons that thoughtlessly framed your life before. The transition takes place at different times for different people. I am sixty-nine (having lived already more than a dozen years longer than Descartes), and it seems to me that sometime between forty-five and fifty, I began to calculate how much time I was spending doing this and that. I started eliminating projects that I had undertaken without thought in the past, before the change. There comes a time when one begins to worry whether there will be time, not just to do all the things one wants to do but time to finish even one last good one, like writing this book.

Historian and biographer Edmond Morris’ authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch (1999), provoked substantial controversy by including a fictional version of the author as a participant-observer in various events of our fortieth President’s life, events which occurred long before Morris had become Reagan’s official Boswell. How dare a biographer make use of an imaginary persona in a supposedly scholarly work, critics and pundits questioned?
The inextricable role of the fictional in the making and interpretation of autobiography has been recognized for decades, but biographers, we still hope to convince ourselves, are in no way akin to novelists. Watson, however, is not just a distinguished professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis and a Cartesian scholar; he is also a novelist (The Runner, Under Plowman’s Floor, Niagara) and a non-fiction writer (The Longest Cave, The Philosopher’s Diet). So it should not surprise us that he makes use of all the tools at his disposal, even the biographically unorthodox, in order to tell his story.

The narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea, Roquentin, seeks to write a biography of the eighteenth-century figure M. Rollebon, but he finally abandons the project—for how can a man who finds his own existence unfathomable pretend to write the life of a spectre out of history? If Richard Watson experienced Roquentin’s dilemma during the multi-decade creation of Cogito, Ergo Sum, he certainly did not capitulate. With astonishing perseverance, rich historical imagination, and revelatory skepticism, he has succeeded in producing a life that dethrones both biographer and subject, making Richard Watson the biographer more human and Descartes the crank more real.

Monday CBS Sitcoms

Over the last hour and a half, I have watched Big Bang Theory (first time ever), How I Met Your Mother (second time ever), and Two and a Half Men (third or fourth time) and loved them all.

I really need to get caught up on my sitcoms.

"In my day . . ."

Preparing a CD of readings on television for my Lost course next term, I found myself reading an essay on the RCD (remote control device) which I wrote for the first scholarly book on remotes (1993).

I began the essay with this anecedote:

In a recent "Arlo and Janis" comic strip, a man bores his son with obligatory tales of "when I was your age," but instead of the traditional 1950s tale of walking miles to school in freezing weather, this Baby Boomer father's memories of how tough life used to be have become increasingly "remote": "My Dad would holler, 'Fix the TV!'" Arlo recalls, remote in hand, "and I'd jump up and fiddle with the vertical hold until it was clear and as soon as I'd sit down, the horizontal hold would go!" In the last frame he delivers the final, cliched moral to his hopelessly bored, eyes-rolled-to-the-top-of his-head boy: "You've got it easy."

I am still Arlo, still a child of vertical holds and hands-on channel changing. And I had to walk uphill, both ways, to school through five foot high snow drifts.

Dickensian Television

[Some of the following is adapted from a forthcoming essay in Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives.]

According to Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory, every new poet (aka creator) must, in quasi-Freudian fashion, slay his father/patriarch/precursor who came before, in order to establish the “illusion of priority.”

In a talk I gave on Lost’s intertextuality, I had this to say about television’s place in the anxiety of influence:

If, according to Bloom’s theory, Virgil must misprise Homer and Milton, Virgil and Wordsworth, Milton, and Stevens, Emerson; if Hitchcock must find a way to supplant Lang and Bertolucci, Fellini, and Bergman, Dreyer, and Altman, Hawks—what are we to make of a television show like Lost which comes up against the wind of not only an astonishing variety of literary fictions, but movies, too, and other television series as well? The ephebe of television—and is not the medium itself a splendidly naïve novice, unaware of, and hence capable of dreaming beyond, its limitations, as is every new quality small screen narrative—faces formidable challenges in its aspiration to establish an “illusion of priority” against all that has come before.

As unlikely as it may seem, the particular patriarch with whom television now seems obsessed is a certain Victorian novelist, a narrative patriarch embraced rather than targeted for elimination.

Everywhere we turn these days, Charles Dickens (pictured) seems an influential figure on and behind our television screens, and not because Masterpiece Theatre is re-running one of its Dickensian adaptations or the BBC is airing its more recent Bleak House miniseries.

On a 2005 episode of the Doctor Who, “The Unquiet Dead,” Dickens assists the 9th Doctor and Rose’s investigation of a zombie outbreak in 1869 Cardiff.

In “Scene in a Mall,” a Season Four episode of the supremely literary Gilmore Girls, Lorelai explains (complete with affected British accent) that while e-mailing she likes to imagine Dickens writing letters, with his dog and pipe and “fancy feathered pen,” exclaiming “Cheerio old bean!” and asking “How’s Big Ben?” Gilmorisms commonly make reference to Dickens. The following episodes all evoke/mention him: “The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton” (1.2), “Christopher Returns” (1.15), “Girls in Bikinis, Boys Doin’ the Twist” (4.17), “Tippecanoe and Taylor, Too” (5.4), “Pulp Friction” (5.17): “A House Is Not a Home” (5.22). [Thanks to Scott Diffrient for the catalog.]

The first episode of Lost’s third season, “A Tale of Two Cities,” evokes Dickens, but it was at the end of the previous season where Dickens announced himself in the Lostverse. Dickens' Our Mutual Friend puts in a major appearance in a colloquy between Desmond and a prison guard and even becomes one of The Island’s literary denizens:

Master Sergeant: Set of keys; one pocket watch, gold plated; one photograph; one book, Our Mutual Friend. Why didn't you bring that inside?
Desmond: To avoid temptation, brother. I've read everything Mr. Charles Dickens has ever written—every wonderful word. Every book except this one. I'm saving it so it will be the last thing I ever read before I die. (“Live Together, Die Alone,” 2.22)

Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, Lost's prime movers, BTW, got the idea for Desmond’s choice of death-bed book from American novelist John Irving, who has similar plans for Dickens’ own last completed work.)

Not surprisingly, "Darlton" speak often of Dickens as an admired ancestral serial storyteller. In a podcast, for example, they offer the following:

Cuse: [Dickens]'s getting a lot of play on Lost, isn't he?
Lindelof: He is indeed. He's a favorite writer of ours. He wrote serialized stories just like we did. He was accused of making it up as he went along, just like we are.
Cuse: That's right. . . . He didn't even have a word-processor. (Official Lost Podcast, Oct. 3, 2006)

A month later, Darlton would disclose more about their Dickensian affinity.

Cuse: And Charles Dickens was also a wonderful inspiration, because here he was, writing these great, wonderful, sprawling, serialized books . . .
Lindelof: Also, Dickens, the master of coincidence. Y'know. . . . His stories always hinged on the idea of interconnectedness. . . . in a very strange and inexplicable way. (Official Lost Podcast, Nov. 6, 2006)

Tim Kring, the creator of the NBC series Heroes, likewise acknowledges Dickens as an inspiration. In an interview with the Superhero Hype website, Kring admits that

One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one chapter segments from the newspaper, so that's why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We're doing obviously a very similar thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people's lives come together, and it's a very fun way to tell stories.

Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly, names the Victorian novelist his favorite writer ("Fresh Air" interview with David Bianculli).

And David Simon's brilliant The Wire, often deemed Dickensian, puts him (sometimes profanely) in the text: a pusher speaks of being left "standing here . . . holding my Charles Dickens" and an episode of the final season is entitled "The Dickensian Aspect."

Why Dickens? Why now?

A soap opera scholar, Robert C. Allen, draws on Dickens in order to illustrate the usefulness of reader-response criticism for understanding television. A critic, Sean O'Sullivan, contemplating HBO’s Deadwood’s seriality, draws extensive comparisons with Dickens’ work and, in particular, to the novel Lost’s Desmond saved for last.

“During Dickens’s lifetime,” Allen writes in a seminal essay on “Reader-Oriented Criticism and Television,”

most of his readers read his novels in weekly magazine installments, rather than as chapters of a single book. In fact, says [Wolfgang] Iser, they frequently reported enjoying the serialized version of The Old Curiosity Shop or Martin Chuzzlewit more than the same work as a book. Their heightened enjoyment was a result of the protensive tension occasioned by every textual gap (What’s going to happen next?) being increased by the “strategic interruption” of the narrative at crucial moments, while the delay in satisfying the reader’s curiosity was prolonged. By structuring the text around the gaps between installments and by making those gaps literally days in length, the serial novel supercharged the reader’s imagination and made him or her a more active reader. (84)

With Our Mutual Friend, “a serial fiction about seriality,” in mind, O’Sullivan observes that

Dickens understood how the serial, by its nature, exists at the crossroads of the old and the new. Unlike the stand-alone novel, or a feature film, which presents itself to us in toto, the serial offers constantly the promise of the new—the new installment next week or next month, often bringing with it a new plotline or character that will change everything. Given its leisurely unfolding, however, the serial also draws us into the past, as old characters appear and disappear, as old green covers pile up by our nightstand, or old episodes of a program burrow into our memory, creating a history commensurate with our lifespan, unlike the merely posited past and present of a text we can consume in a few hours or days. Every reading, or every watching, requires a reconnection of old and new, an iteration of past and present; and within a week or a month, what was new will get funneled into the old (117).

In a controversial book a cognitive science popularizer argues that “mass culture,” including television, reveals not the end of the world as we know it, as its adversaries so often insist, but a “progressive story” in which our entertainments are “growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year” (Johnson xiii).

And of course he finds Dickens

The classic case of highbrow erudition matched with popular success, . . . who for a stretch of time in the middle of the nineteenth century was the most popular author writing in the English language, and also . . . the most innovative (Johnson 133).

central to his considerations.

I take all of this as further confirmation that my colleague's bigotry against television is misplaced--that television may well be literature's most prominent heir and not its death.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/29/08)

A flight of fantasy, whether in dreams or daydreams, is no mere sleight of mind. But only children will accept it as being equally as profound as the arbitrary awareness we are taught to regard as reality, and hence, only they are nurtured by it. Later, of course, many of us comprehend our self-imposed poverty and try to double back, but the bread crumbs are always missing and our failures are immense. A true belief in the validity of non-ordinary reality—with all that it can teach us—seems beyond the capabilities of every practicing adult, with the possible exception of Federico Fellini.
--Garry Trudeau

Painting of the Week (12/29/08)

Klee, Ancient Sound

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/28/08)

A flight of fantasy, whether in dreams or daydreams, is no mere sleight of mind. But only children will accept it as being equally as profound as the arbitrary awareness we are taught to regard as reality, and hence, only they are nurtured by it. Later, of course, many of us comprehend our self-imposed poverty and try to double back, but the bread crumbs are always missing and our failures are immense. A true belief in the validity of non-ordinary reality—with all that it can teach us—seems beyond the capabilities of every practicing adult, with the possible exception of Federico Fellini.
--Garry Trudeau

Friday, December 26, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/27/08)

Art means keeping up with the speed of light.
--Edgar Varese

Leo Kottke

On "On Point" this morning, Tom Ashbrook is re-running an interview with former Phish Tom Gordon and the great guitarist Leo Kottke (now 63, photo from earlier days), who collaborated on an album in 2005.

Never met Leo but when I began my MA work at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, his presence there was still felt. The older TAs knew Kottke and spoke fondly of him. He had dropped out of pursuit of a degree in English, word had it, after he had failed a course on the American Renaissance because he wrote his term paper on a chronologically unapproved writer, John Greenleaf Whittier.

I would later see him in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Gainesville, Florida, sometime in 1975.

Interesting Rolling Stone piece on Kottke here.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt

The news today that Eartha Kitt (photo from CNN) has passed away at 81 reminds me of a story about her from a colleague's husband in London.

Several years ago, John was driving a bus for London Transit when Miss Kitt boarded late one evening after appearing in a West End show. She demanded that the bus deviate from its normal route and take her to her door. The bus's conductor wanted to honor the preposterously prima donna-ish request, but John refused, fearing the move would get them both fired.

Bianculli's Top Ten

My friend David Bianculli names his top ten for 2008 on "Fresh Air."

No major objections to any of these--except, of course, Boston Legal.

Nota Bene: yet another top ten for Dr. Horrible, which was never, ever broadcast on television.

1. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
2. Mad Men
3. 30 Rock
4. Pushing Daisies
5. The Shield
6. Boston Legal
7. Dexter
8. Friday Night Lights
9. 60 Minutes
10. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Quote of the Day (12/26/08)

In me is every animal, though I'm not conscious of it. The animal a person loves most is the part that is most awake in him.
--Karlheinz Stockhausen

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/25/08)

If America didn't have Blacks it would be Switzerland.
--Attributed to Roy Blount

"Bones" Doubts

Ken Tucker wants to know why Bones never quite enthralls him. I feel the same way. It's a show I like very much but never quite love.

"Secret Shit"

Watching The Man Who Wasn't There on HBO today reminded me of a Coen Brothers anecdote with which I begin my recently published “Secret Shit”: The Uncertainty Principle, Lying, Deviation, and the Movie Creativity of the Coen Brothers."

On the DVD of Joel and Ethan's The Man Who Wasn’t There. Billy Bob Thornton, who plays Ed Crane, the film’s zero-charisma lead, an affectless barber entrapped in a fatal, film-noir-destiny as the result of his use of blackmail to further his ambition to become a dry cleaner, engages in the following exchange with the filmmakers:

Thornton: People ask me a lot of times in interviews “What have you learned as a director when you’ve worked with other directors,” and they most often ask me about you guys. . . .
Ethan: Well there isn’t anything, right? Remember we were kidding about that . . .
Joel: I remember when we were shooting you were about to work with Barry Levinson, and Ethan was always admonishing you not to tell Barry any of our secret shit. . . .
Thornton: Then I actually showed up on the set with this bag and told the crew I had the Coen Brothers’ secret shit in it.

Movie Quotes

A selection of pithy quotes about the movies (from my Film History website).

The Great Movies, Directors


--links to the IMDB pages for "The Great Movies"
--links to the Senses of Cinema pages on "The Great Directors"

Admittedly arbitrary. Created for my Film History class.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/24/08)

It must have often puzzled scholars and physicists of our time that just in the degree to which we penetrate the lowest layers of non-literate awareness we encounter the most advanced and sophisticated ideas of twentieth century art and science.
--Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

"Your Holiest Inspiration: Literature and the Experience of Death"

This talk, still unpublished, was originally given at a Kentucky Humanities Council-sponsored conference on the Near-Death Experience, Northern Kentucky University, February 1988.

A friend, Dr. Scott Quimby, and a colleague in the NKU art department, Howard Storm, who had himself had an NDE and would later make the spirituality he acquired as a result his life work, invited me to participate in the gathering.

At the final round table discussion that ended the conference I was the only individual on the dais who had not yet died.


“Your Holiest Inspiration”:
Literature and the Experience of Death

and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.
Rainier Maria Rilke, Ninth Duino Elegy

In April 1975 I sat alone in my apartment in Gainesville, Florida, reading. I had asked my Introduction to Literature class to read for the following day a poem which I had myself never understood, Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,” and it seemed only reasonable that before I taught it to them I should finally figure out what it said. As often happens with the most difficult poems, my knowledge of it had over the years increased incrementally with each reading until the day had finally arrived when the poem became transparent: words long opaque and obscure became clear and I heard the voice, experienced the mind beneath and behind.

I held in my hands a dialogue between a woman and the poet himself concerning faith and doubt, earth and heaven, life and death, a dialogue which comes down full square on the side of this world, that teaches that Earth may well be “all of paradise that we shall know.” And in its fourth and fifth stanza I discovered, overcome by that “felt change of consciousness” (the phrase is Owen Barfield’s) which poetry can deliver so powerfully, lines so mind-expanding that it seemed I could not possible have read them before:

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. . . .

Death is the mother of beauty mystical
In whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.

On my rented sofa, the Florida sun shining brightly through my open window, the word “death” in Stevens’ poem, so help me, became Death, became my death. I felt myself dying; my soul ebbed out of my body, and the cares and contingencies and doubts and fears and ego mechanisms (I am the owner of a sizeable menagerie of such) dispersed, evaporated, and I glimpsed for a moment the “beauty mystical” of a world beyond the confines of the ego, a world—as virtually all religions had correctly identified it—of light. A knock on the door brought me out of it, a visitor from Porlock in the form of a newspaper boy collected his due.

The next day, I taught my class with a visionary gleam in my eye, but I must have sounded a little like the man who escapes from the cave in Plato’s allegory reporting back to those in love with shadows about the real world outside. I don’t think I was understood. But the memory stays with me to this day. My encounter with poetry as Near Death Experience will stay with me until the day I die.

ARTISTS, SIGMUND FREUD ADMITTTED, discovered and colonized the unconscious mind, guided by the navigation of the creative imagination, long before psychoanalysis had even reached its shore.

After a century of charting the heights and depths of the unconscious, we have in its final decades now reached a peak in Darien from which we can espy yet another unexplored ocean at land’s end. Stopped in our tracks at the final frontier of death certain individuals among us—some of whom are assembled here tonight—have immersed themselves at least for a moment in the long-dreaded waters and returned to describe their baptism. Certain others—psychologists (and cartographers) like Dr. Moody and Dr. Quimby—have sought to record and to map these accounts. But, as in the discovery of the unconscious, artists—in particular the writers—have, it seems, been there first. For literature, I want to suggest, can itself offer a kind of Near-Death experience.
Literature has long been a form of vicarious experience. When the Athenian government required attendance at the performance of the great tragedies, it did so out of a profound understanding of art’s ability to train the mind and emotions in preparation for experiences still to come. Greek drama in general, it has been observed, was “a concerted attempt to elevate the consciousness of a whole community,” and tragedy in particular served as an “early warning system,” a way of facing finiteness without neurotic repression, of losing your life in imagination in order to retain it longer in reality, and of studying the consequences of moral choices in dramatic simulation. Hence when the real crisis comes you are innured not to scientific disapassion but to the emotional resilience and moral courage demanded by life. We might call this the theory of “literature as immunization.”

Now among the “real crises” against which literature has innoculated us, death is, of course, the most prominent, and so it is not surprising that the literature of death is vast. (D.J. Enright’s wonderful, 350 page compendium, The Oxford Book of Death, only skims the cream.) If literature has provided (in Kenneth Burke’s precise term) “equipment for living,” it has likewise provided “equipment for dying,” equipment which we seem more and more to require.

“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry,” Montaigne could state definitively in the sixteenth century. “Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job for you; don’t bother your head about it. . . .” But in the age of the self-help book such faith is seldom understood. Now we need Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s wise aid. Sixty years ago, the Austrian poet Rainier Maria Rilke could imagine the death of the Chamberlain in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as being so loud, so profound and real that it could be heard and felt for miles around. Now we live in a time in which, if Ivan Illich’s—-the sociologist, not Tolstoy’s character—-prediction is correct, we may soon die in passive voice; our obituaries may one day announce that “David Lavery has been died today.” And yet a wide and wise reader would likely know much of what Kubler-Ross has had to remind us in our growing ignorance. They might well even find the insights of NDE’ers not completely new.

THE DEAD, SO THE SAYING GOES, tell no tales. But in literature the dead can speak from the grave. Consider, for example, Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died” (1862). The poem’s speaker (I will assume for the sake of convenience that the speaker is a woman) is—as the title indicates—a recently deceased individual who describes for us, in poetic subjective camera, her last moments, her final perceptions.

In the nineteenth century, human beings seldom died alone; loved ones, relatives, friends, and neighbors surrounded the dying, not because of morbid curiosity but in the hope that a person existing momentarily between two worlds—between the kingdoms of the living and the dead—might just bring back a message from the beyond before the end came.

“I heard a fly buzz—when I died--,” the poem begins, though we do not yet understand the significance of such an observation. Why should a meaningless image be her most vivid memory? Then we see the dying’s surroundings. We hear the hush, see the witnesses crying, feel the intake of breath as they await the final moment, the “last Onset.”

The stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—

The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—

Having made her last will and testament, having “Signed away/What portion of me be/Assignable--,” the dying likewise awaits her end. And with the religious questioning so typical of Emily Dickinson, what she sees is hardly a divine vision. For as her eyes close on the world,

There interposed a Fly—

With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—

Her audience had hoped "the King” would appear; but ironically the dying witnesses only a fly: instead of a vision of light, life everlasting, release, serenity, her dying moment—a second later, we are told, “the Windows failed—and then/I could not see to see—“—reveals only a figure of decay and corruption. As an imaginal death, Dickinson’s version—like that of an NDEer, a report of a subjective experience of being dead—is a truly bleak one.

PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS, PERCEPTIVE, and ruthlessly honest depiction of the experience of death in western literature is Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886). The story of a minor Russian bureaucrat and judge who dies of the long term effects of a curtain rod accidentally jammed into his side, Tolstoy’s novella meticulously traces the original denial, subsequent anger, rebellion, bargaining, and eventual resignation of Tolstoy’s everyman in a story that, if Kubler-Ross’s had not written over eighty years later, would seem to have been consciously plotted in imitation of her five stage theory.

Like all of us, Ivan Ilyich knows that he will die, and yet, numbed by fear, he has never realized it. In a famous passage Tolstoy tells us that, as a schoolboy, Ivan had learned the standard syllogism “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal” without really grasping its significance. For the syllogism offends his subjectivity, his particularity.

It had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others.

Man, the existentialists have taught us, is “being toward death”; we are the species which knows that we mortal, creating whatever meaning we can find and leading as authentic a life as we are able in the face of impending death. But Ivan’s sentimentalism, manifesting itself in a series of rhetorical questions which serve as a shield against the reality of his condition, makes him unable to understand that each individual—himself included—is likewise a being toward death.

He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse. . . . What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did?

“Caius,” Ivan manages to convince himself, “really was mortal, and it was right for him to die,” but he is an exception to the rule—the first in the history of the race:

but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.

And yet on his death bed, Ivan Ilyich no longer sees through a glass darkly; taught by death, he sees death face-to-face. The last pages of Tolstoy’s tale, section XII, are an overpowering emotional experience. Tolstoy’s vivid imaginal rendering of Ivan’s final moments can itself become for the reader a kind of near-death experience and does in fact share much in common with a typical NDE.

“For three whole days,” Tolstoy tells us, “during which time did not exist for him,” Ivan finds himself struggling to escape from what he thinks of as a “black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible resistless force.” (This “black sack” of course calls to mind the region of extreme darkness often mentioned in NDE accounts.) “He struggled,” we are told, “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself.” But the realization begins to dawn on him that, at his being’s core, he actually longs to enter into it.

He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.

And he knows too what prevents him:

He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him the most torment of all.

His body, however, leaves him no choice which way to turn:

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.

Like those NDE voyagers who have also seen this light, Ivan is attracted to it; he seeks to—he needs to—merge with it: “At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and caught sight of the light. . . .” Now in the light, Ivan discovers how to die. He comes to feel sorry for the living and no longer for himself. He feels a growing sense of peace:

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. . . . “How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

Searching for his former fear of death, Ivan discovers that it simply does not exist; that death, as John Donne had likewise foreseen, can itself die.

IN A SHORT STORY ENTITLED “The Secret Miracle,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a Jewish writer named Jarmomir Hladik, sentenced by the Nazis to face a firing squad in Prague, 1939, terrified in the face of death. “In vain,” Borges tells us,

he repeated to himself that the pure and general act of dying, not the concrete circumstances, was the dreadful fact. He did not grow weary of imagining these circumstances: he absurdly tried to exhaust all the variations. He infinitely anticipated the process, from the sleepless dawn to the mysterious discharge of the rifles. . . . he died hundreds of deaths, in courtyards whose shapes and angles defied geometry, shot down by changeable soldiers whose number varied and who sometimes put an end to him from close up and sometimes from far away. He faced these imaginary executions with true terror (perhaps with true courage).

What most dismays him as he imagines his end is, however, his failure as a writer. None of his works please him; none, he is convinced, will guarantee him literary immortality. At the time of sentencing, he had been at work on a play entitled The Enemies, but now he has no time to complete it.

The night before his death, Hladik prays to God that he might be granted the time to finish his work-in-progress: “In order to bring this drama, which may serve to justify you,” he pleads, “I need one more year. Grant me that year, you to whom belong the centuries and all time.” In a Kabbalistic dream in which he searches through all the letters on all the pages in the Clementine library’s 400,000 volumes, a “ubiquitous voice” announces that “The time for your work has been granted.”

The next morning, as he faces the firing squad, his prayers are answered, his dreams come true; his bargaining achieves it end. As the rifles that are to slay him are lowered, “the physical universe stood still”: German lead would kill him, at the determined hour, but in his mind a year would elapse between the command to fire and the execution.” Hladek notices that “Upon a courtyard flagstone a bee cast a stationary shadow.” His surroundings become very like a painted picture. A droop of rain water freezes on his cheek. In his mind, he finishes his play; he writes and rewrites and revises:

Meticulous, unmoving, secretive, he wove his lofty invisible labyrinth in time. He worked the third act over twice. He eliminated some rather-too-obvious symbols. . . . There were no circumstances to constrain him. He omitted, condensed, amplified. . . . He brought his drama to a conclusion: he lacked a single epithet. He found it: the drop of water slid down his check.

His work complete, the rifle blasts finally hit home and Hladek dies. Perhaps all of us, in the timelessness of our final moment, have a similar sense of infinite possibility, of creativity. Thanks to the imagination’s ability to probe the Near Death Experience, Borges, too, has helped teach us how to die. For in his secret
miracle, Hladek has come to realize with the philosopher Wittgenstein that

Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through. If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present. Our life is endless in the way that our visual field is without limit.

“The Secret Miracle” is a story about death’s creative possibilities.

IN A POEM ENTITLED “Couplets 20,” in lines which would appear to allude specifically to Dickinson’s poem and to answer her doubts, the contemporary poet Robert Mezey provides a kind of phenomenology of the dying process, cast in the form of a set of poetic instructions.

“Don’t be afraid of dying,” Mezey counsels, for the individual consciousness is always ready to return to consciousness-at-large; the particular soul gladly reunites with the Oversoul, once the ego is gone. “the glass of water,” Mezey explains, “is quickly poured into the waiting goblet.”

In death,

Your face that will be of no further use to mirrors
Grows more and more transparent, nothing is hidden.

When “It’s night in the remotest provinces of the brain,” Mezey tells us, in imagery evocative of the NDE, “Seeing falls back into the great sea of light.” Even Dickinson’s ominous fly can bring no fear:

How strange to see that glittering green fly
Walk into the eyeball, rubbing its hands and praying.

There is, in fact, no cause for fear; for death is an eternal return:

Don’t be afraid, you’re going to where you were
Before birth pushed you into this cold light.

Death’s light, Mezey assures us, like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, like that of many who have undergone the NDE, is warm, welcoming and sheltering. It is the light of home.

IT WAS THE ANNOUNCED GOAL, THE LIFE’S WORK, of Rainier Maria Rilke (1875-1926) to speak the word “death” without negation.

In January, 1912, while sojourning at Duino Castle near Trieste on the Adriatic, Rilke walked out onto the castle’s bastions into a howling wind and bright sunlight. Mentally fatigued from agonizing over an unfinished letter, he would not seem to have been in the proper mood for inspiration, and yet as he stood looking out at the sea he heard a voice speaking to him the words which would later become the first line of the Duino Elegies: “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels’/hierarchies?”

Other verses followed, though not at Rilke’s bidding, and he wrote them down, but then the voices stopped. Convinced that the dictated lines were fragments of a longer series of poems, perhaps a song-cycle, Rilke waited patiently for the voices’ return, working sporadically and with limited success toward their forced completion until, nearly ten years later, at Chateau de Muzot in Switzerland in February, 1922, the voices began to speak again, dictating over a period of a few days in a “nameless storm, a hurricane in the spirit,” the remainder of the poems that were to become the Duino Elegies and then, as a “forestorm” and an “afterbirth,” the bulk of The Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke would later refer to these days—during which, he explained, “eating was not to be thought of, God knows who fed me”—as the “most enigmatic dictation I have ever held through and achieved” and “a single breathless act of obedience.”

It had been “like a mutilation of [his] heart that the Elegies were not—here,” Rilke wrote to his confidante Lou-Andreas Salome soon after the outburst. But thanks to this “irresistible act of creation which convulsed [him],” finally the sequence stood complete. “It was not mine ever,” he wrote to Fra Wunderly. “I was never more humble, never more on my knees: oh infinitely!”

And at the end of the Elegies, he finds a way to say yes to death. In the closing lines of the Ninth Elegy, Rilke turns to the Earth itself in poetic direct address, and he knows at last what to say to her. In poetic direct address, he speaks to her as a being at once both lover and mother. He finds a way of saying yes to the world, of accepting at last the Earth’s wooing of her prodigal son to return.

Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer need your springtimes to win me over—one of them, ah, even one, is already too much for my blood. Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first

An obedient son, he agrees to do what she says:

You were always right. . . .

And he recognizes at long last that

your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.

Three years after this astounding burst of creativity, Rilke discovered that he had leukemia after a cut caused by the prick of a rose thorn would not heal. As his condition deteriorated, during the whole of a long and difficult death, he refused much of the medical treatment that was offered him. He pleaded with his doctors not to explain his illness to him, preferring to believe that he was in the possession of a metaphysical and not a merely physiological process. “Help me to my own death,” he told friends, “I don’t want the doctor’s death—-I want my freedom.” “Don’t ever forget,” he insisted near the end, that “life is a glory.” And its “holiest inspiration,” as both the NDE and the literary imagination of the end speak as if with one voice, “is our intimate companion death.”


Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “A Secret Miracle.” A Personal Anthology. Ed. Anthony Kerrigan. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Dickinson, Emily. “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985: 2458-59.
Enright, D.J., ed. The Oxford Book of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Hampden-Turner, Charles. Maps of the Mind: Charts and Concepts of the Mind and Its Labyrinths. New York: Macmillan, 1981.
Illich, Ivan. Interview. Psychology Today.
Mezey, Robert. “Couplets 20.” News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness. Ed. Robert Bly. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980: 195.
Rilke, Rainier Maria. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage, 1983.
-----. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. And Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Vintage, 1982.
Salis, J.R. von. Rainier Maria Rilke: The Years in Switzerland. Trans. N.K. Cruickshank. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Stevens, Wallace. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: vintage, 1971.
Tolstoy, Leo. “the Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Fifth Edition. Ed. Maynard Mack, et al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1979: 1084-1131.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. C.K. Ogden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922.

A Dream

I seldom remember my dreams, but this was one has stuck with me for years.

It's from the 1990s. Close to the time of the publication of my first book (Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age, 1992).

In the dream I am walking through the side yard of my childhood home (112 East 6th Street, Oil City, Pennsylvania) and come upon my mother, who is hanging up clothes to dry on a line. The scene is right out of my boyhood; I would often sit at her feet and talk as she aired our no longer dirty laundry in public.

In the dream we likewise began to talk--the adult-child-me and the Martha Lavery of circa 1960. But I was surprised to see that it was not shirts and sheets and underwear being clothes-pinned to the line. In the laundry basket at her feet was the manuscript of Late for the Sky, which, one page at a time, she was pinning up for all to see.

Suddenly a pack of annoying neighbor kids came running through the yard. Except they weren't children but young adults, and I could recognize among them some of my then current students. Hoisting the manuscript basket at my mother's feet, they made off with it, lighting out for the territory across our neighbor's yard. In desperation, I pursued my stolen book and then awoke.

My manuscript disappeared only in the dream world. The book wss published that year. But methinks I was concerned--as I still am--with establishing the right balance between my teacher and scholar sides, fearful, the dream seemed to be saying, that the demands of my students might just be incompatible with the life of my mind. Was this not why I triple scored this passage from Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men?

The students ruined his eating; they ruined his sleep. They spoiled the songs of birds. And they were taking his books and calligraphy from him too; no time now for his own reading, no time to practice his own writing. Teaching was destroying his literacy. He was spending his brains picking out flaws and pouring over them. School was the very opposite of reading and writing. The books that he taught had lost their subtlety and life, puns dead from slow explanations, philosophy reduced to saws. He could not read without thinking up test questions and paraphrases. He shrank poems to fit the brains of peasant children, who were more bestial than animals. . . .

Monday, December 22, 2008

Quote of the Day (12/23/08)

How to explain the cachet of deconstruction, the way it has infiltrated public discourse? At the crudest level of its appeal, the word announces the writer’s knowingness: I’m hip to what’s hip. I know what’s happening in the world of big ideas. A Los Angeles-based screenwriter named Mark Horowitz, trying to explain the current French enthusiasm for movies starring Mickey Rourke, places the deconstruction craze in the perspective of "a constant war between the U.S. and France." In Horowitz’s words, "We sent them Jerry Lewis, so they retaliated by sending us deconstruction and Jacques Derrida. . . . Deconstruction conforms to an American preconception of the cerebral French in the same way that Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor represents a Frenchman’s impression of an American type.
--David Lehman, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul De Man

What I Want for Christmas

My family refuses to believe me.

Madoff vs. Chigurh

"Bernard Madoff and Anton Chigurh: the Con Man as Serial Killer"--the title alone demands a read. Richard B. Woodward's piece in Huffington Post lives up to the promise.

Did Obama Lose His Shirt?

Andy Borowitz reports.

Seen on a Someecard E-Card (II)

Movie Reviews (X): "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

Everything is Going to Change
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Steve Kloves and J. K. Rowling
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Brendan Gleeson, Miranda Richardson, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon

3.5 Stars
Rating: PG 13
Running Time: Two hours and thirty seven minutes
Reviewed by David Lavery

At 734 pages, almost twice the length of its predecessors, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the most popular book series of all time, presented a new challenge to its readers. The novel likewise tested Steve Kloves, the screenwriter of all four Potter films to date, who has described the book as “fiendishly intricate” and “far and away the hardest one yet to crack.”

Veteran British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brosco), the original choice to do the first Potter adaptation back in 2001, has given us a Goblet likely to produce more complaints from fans than any before. Even at over two and a half hours, many events, characters, monsters, and nuances had to go. What happened to that giant squid? Why is Hermione not fighting for house-elf rights?

Goblet is nevertheless overflowing with virtuoso special effects and set pieces: the absolutely astonishing Quidditch World Cup stadium; the frightening attack of Lord Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters; Harry’s thrilling airborne battle with a dragon; a face made of fire; an amazing maze, the final duel. The film’s narrative pace is just as breathtaking. The novel requires almost 150 pages to get our hero to Hogwart’s; the film accomplishes the task in less than fifteen minutes, allowing Newell and Kloves to concentrate on the core of the story: Harry’s unexpected and perilous participation in the Triwizard Tournament.

Now faced with the ultimate challenge of the opposite sex (in Goblet Harry must conquer ballroom dancing as well as dragons), Radcliffe (Harry), Watson (Hermione), and Grint (Ron) continue to improve as actors (Radcliffe’s performance deserves particular praise), and the supporting cast, especially Brendon Gleeson (as the grotesque new defense-against-the-dark-arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody), Miranda Richardson (as the obnoxious Daily Prophet reporter Rita Skeeter), Michael Gambon (as Dumbledore, a now more than acceptable replacement for the late Richard Harris), and Ralph Fiennes (as You-Know-Who), are always engrossing.

Make no mistake, The Goblet is a disturbing film full of real terror and honest emotion, very much deserving of its PG-13 rating. As Hermione announces at the film’s close, “Everything is going to change.” From here on, the saga of Harry Potter gets darker and darker. From here on Harry Potter movies could even rate an “R.”

Movie Reviews (IX): "V for Vendetta"

V for Vendetta

Director: James McTeigue
Screenplay: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt
4 Stars
Rating: R
Running Time: 132 minutes

A cover story last month in Entertainment Weekly asked “Is V for Vendetta the next Matrix? The question is natural enough. Scripted by the Wachowski brothers, directed by their protégé, the Ausie James McTeigue, starring the earlier film’s evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), V is, like The Matrix, the story of an attempt to topple a totalitarian government in a future dystopian society. And, like the original Matrix, it may well be a masterpiece.

Adapted from a 1980s graphic novel by the influential Brit Alan Moore, V was originally intended as an indictment of England’s shift to the right in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Its seventeen year path to the screen resulted in a change of targets. A Dick Cheney-like second in command, torture, wiretaps, the insistence that “blowing up a building can change the world,” Islamic terrorist attacks, Orwellian doublespeak that has transformed the words “collateral” and “rendition” into terms of fear, religion used as a tool of oppression—all seem strangely familiar, while other facets of V’s world are complete fictions: herding homosexuals into concentrations camps, ownership of the Koran punishable by death, the USA (deemed the “Ulcered Sphincter of Asserica” by a newscaster) now a Third World country. Unimaginable!

A one man revolution, Weaving’s Zorro-esque V, wears a Guy Fawkes mask and seeks to reenact the famous 17th century British radical’s most famous plot: to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Natalie Portman, in her first leading role, plays Evey, a teen rescued from a horrible fate by V early in the film, who becomes his co-conspirator and disciple. With or without hair (undergoing torture, she is brutally shorn mid-film), her performance is compelling, as is Weaving’s, who never emerges from behind his mask.

A man of culture in a world determined to eradicate individual thought, V has filled his lair, “The Shadow Gallery,” with books, paintings, music, butterfly collections, movies. His favorite film, not surprisingly, is The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). When he introduces Evey to the classic, she asks if it has a happy ending. “As only celluloid can deliver,” he replies. Though a tad maudlin at the end, V delivers as both an enthralling entertainment and a powerful political statement, a movie about the nature of fear that is itself absolutely fearless.

Movie Reviews (VIII): "Holes"

Digging Holes
Directed by Andrew Davis
Written by Louis Sachar (based on his novel)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Shia La Beouf, Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Winkler, Dule Hill, Eartha Kitt
MPAA Rating: PG
Three Stars
Running Time: 111 minutes

Reviewed by David Lavery

Adaptation of a popular novel is always a risky business. Ready-made viewers for the screen version (and thus beloved by studios), fans of the original can be a tough, hyper-critical audience. A great novel can be transformed into a second-rate film. A forgettable literary fiction may become a completely unforgettable movie. Not all good movies made from novels are faithful to the original, nor are all bad adaptations unfaithful. Almost one hundred and ten years into the history of film, the precise formula for translation from book to screen remains unknown. Masterminded by its author Louis Sachar, whose screenplay, not surprisingly, is mostly faithful to his novel, and by its more-inspired-than usual director Andrew Davis (A Perfect Murder, The Fugitive), the metamorphosis of the Newberry Award winning novel Holes into a movie succeeds.

Holes takes place at a middle-of-nowhere juvenile-detention camp in Texas. Its brutal warden (a not-afraid to be unattractive and unsympathetic Weaver) believes that "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy." Her mad approach to criminal justice is not without method. A buried treasure, a family legacy, lies somewhere beneath Camp Green Lake, and she intends to find it, assisted by her henchmen, the grotesque Mr. Sir (Voight, who continues to be one of our most dependable character actors) and the goofy “Dr.” Pendanski (Nelson, just as comic as he was in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and by her colorfully nicknamed slave laborers Barf Bag, Squid, Armpit, X-Ray, Magnet, Zig-Zag, and our hero Caveman/aka Stanley Yelnats (La Beouf).

Both book and film splice genres. Essentially a prison drama with an evil warden, scheming, but not too bright, guards, and attempted escapes, Holes offers us, in seamlessly integrated flashbacks, a mini-western as well, complete with a female outlaw, the kissing bandit Kate Barlow (Arquette), not to mention an interracial love story. The result is a delightful sploosh of genres (you’ll understand the metaphor after you have seen the film).

Sachar’s original book is a wonder, adolescent fiction that enthralls in both past and present tense even the adult reader and transforms plot contrivances into a wonderful synchronicity. When everything, even the smallest narrative detail, comes together in the end, when events spanning two continents and two centuries conspire to make possible not only a happy ending but the perfection of an antidote for smelly shoes, the reader is pleased to be part of its magic realist universe. On film, compressed into two hours, the coincidences come to seem contrivances, and viewers may feel a bit manipulated. But the movie enhances the book’s mythic qualities and heightens the visual dimensions of the story. Midway through Holes, for example, a beautiful match cut (worth a thousand words) takes us from moonlit early twentieth century Green Lake to the parched lake-bed lunar landscape, punctuated with holes, of today. It’s a moment no novel can provide. Fans of the book as well as newcomers to Camp Green Lake are likely to dig Holes.

Movie Reviews (VII): "Eight Legged Freaks"

Itsy Bitsy Spiders—Not
Eight Legged Freaks
Directed by Ellory Elkayem
Screenplay by Jesse Alexander and Ellory Elkayem
Starring David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug, Leon Rippy, and Rick Overton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
90 minutes (approximately)
Three stars

Reviewed by David Lavery

From first frame to last, Eight Legged Freaks goes about its business efficiently, effectively, and with a wicked sense of humor. Ten minutes in, the whole story, set, as all self-respecting giant insect films should be, in a small town in the American southwest and narrated by a conspiracy-obsessed radio talk-jock (Doug) terrified of anal probes, is laid out: a barrel of toxic waste (replacing the nuclear radiation of 50s big bug film) falls off a truck, mutating crickets fed to a wide variety of arachnids at a spider zoo located conventionally nearby. And we have met all the key characters: the Fargo-inspired heroic female sheriff (B movie queen Wuhrer) and her goofy deputy (Overton); the prodigal son (Arquette) of the owner of the local gold mine, who has long loved the sheriff; the evil mayor and developer (Rippy) responsible for the toxic waste; the sheriff’s brainy son (Terra)—a stand in for the all-knowing scientist of the 50s version—and wild daughter (Johansson). The stun-gun which will play a pivotal role has been introduced. Anyone who has seen a television ad for Freaks—anyone not comatose for the last month, that is—knows exactly what to expect, and the movie, produced by the Devlin/Emmerich team that brought us Independence Day and Godzilla (a fact unaccountably touted in publicity) and directed by New Zealand import Elkayem, doesn’t disappoint.

With goofy deputy Dewey from the Scream films front and center, Freaks, not surprisingly, is self-consciously aware of its own genre and its history. At one point the sheriff’s son, the first to understand the threat posed by the now giant spiders to his small, impoverished Arizona town, is watching Them!, an ancestral classic 1954 sci-fi/horror film about giant ants. Because he has seen such films, and because he is in one, when he tries to warn others of the threat he knows in advance that “no one will believe the kid.” His mother is convinced that he is the victim of a “media-induced paranoid delusional nightmare.” More aware of the genre conventions than the sheriff, the audience knows she is wrong and has paid good money to watch just such a nightmare.

I have a friend who gives movies thumbs up or thumbs down based on their on-screen treatment of animals. Though the credits may insist “No animals were harmed or injured during the making of this motion picture,” she is likely to become incensed if they are badly treated in the film itself. Eight Legged Freaks will likely send her over the edge. Hundreds of mutant spiders die, of course, but so do parrots, dogs, cats, and ostriches. Not to mention scores of two legged creatures as well. Though Freaks does avoid killing several characters genre conventions usually mark for termination, it cruelly slaughters others for whom we have developed some affection. (Though the parental advisory warns only of “sci-fi violence,” the film is actually quite gruesome in spots.)

First-rate CGI effects (I especially liked a chase scene involving jumping spiders and dirt bikes); a frustrated giant-spider attacking a stuffed and mounted moose head; Arquette mumbling a polite “thank you” through a spider cocoon that enshrouds him to the sheriff who has saved him; a townsman wearing a hockey mask and doing his best Jason imitation ready to do battle in an all-hands-to-the-task final stand against the spiders at the mall (he is, of course, immediately killed); an elderly barber stalked in a sporting good store by a spider-propelled shopping tent to the accompaniment of a Muzak version of “Strangers in the Night”; throw-away lines about miner’s hats and the Florida presidential vote count. These and numerous other small touches demonstrate that the filmmakers were having quite a lot of B movie fun. Audiences are likely to as well.

Movie Reviews (VI): "Cinderella Man"

Cinderella Man

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman
Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko, Darrin Brown, Paddy Considine
Three Stars
Rating: PG 13
Running Time: 144 minutes


A down-on-his-luck boxer whose career has hit a dead-end. A wife who cannot bear to watch him in the ring. An out-of-the-blue chance to contend for the heavyweight championship against a seemingly unbeatable foe. Stop me if you’ve heard this one . . . But we’re not in Philadelphia anymore, and Sylvester Stallone is nowhere to be seen. It’s New York during the Great Depression. A once-promising light heavyweight named James J. Braddock (Crowe) struggles to provide for his brave, boxing-averse wife (Zellweger) and plucky children after his days as a boxer have seemingly ended. Then opportunity knocks, thanks to his colorful manager (Giametti), and Braddock finds himself on the path to a showdown with the glamorous and womanizing Max Baer (Bierko), who has killed two opponents in the ring.

Cinderella Man (the title comes from Damon Runyon’s name for the real boxer who became as much of an American working-class sports hero as his race track contemporary Seabiscuit) is full-to-overflowing with underdog clichés and one-dimensional minor characters and often heavy-handed (that juxtaposition of a Catholic church full of downtrodden listeners to Braddock’s big fight on the radio with a solemn Madison Square Garden crowd awaiting their messiah’s entrance into the ring). The performances of Crowe, Zellweger, and Giametti are nevertheless superb, Salvatore Totino’s cinematography is as gritty and realistic as an Ashcan School painting, Thomas Newman’s likely-Oscar nominee score is rich and evocative, and Ron Howard’s direction is surprisingly crisp and fluid for a two hour and twenty four minute film.

Next to the baseball diamond, the ring has proved to be the sports venue most conducive to the movies. Last year’s big Oscar winner, after all, took us behind the scenes of the sweet science. But the best boxing movies, Body and Soul, Requiem for a Heavy Weight, Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, have always been more about souls on the ropes as pugilists. Working from a screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and his Beautiful Mind collaborator Akiva Goldsman, Howard joins that tradition, offering a stirring (though sometimes a bit cloying) portrait of the boxer as an Horatio Alger hero both in the arena and under his own roof.

Movie Reviews (V): "Alexander the Great"

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis
Starring Colin Farrell, Anjolina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins
Two stars
Running Time: 165 minutes

Reviewed by David Lavery

Making epic films is, well, an epic undertaking: casts of thousands, huge battle scenes, massive egos--all make for difficult filmmaking. From Cleopatra to Titanic to Alexander, epics routinely spawn legendary stories behind the story about how the movie overcame insurmountable odds just to get on the screen.

Oliver Stone’s biopic about the Macedonia king and military conqueror (356-323 B.C.), one of two Alexander projects in the works (the other, directed by Moulin Rouge’s Bazz Luhrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, promises to be quite different), has already been much talked about. A troubled production, lurid homosexual scenes, problems in the editing room--these and other aspects of Stone’s first film since the awful Any Given Sunday (1999) have generated significant buzz. Once seen, however, it seems certain no one will be talking about the forgettable, tedious, confusing Alexander.

Alexander begins at the end in Babylon with the death of our hero (a lame, wimpy, blonde, and unconvincing Farrell), then flashes forward forty years to the movie’s present tense, as the elderly Ptolemy (Hopkins), in his youth a warrior who fought alongside Alexander, dictates his memoir of his leader, then flashes back to Alexander’s youth, then flashes forward in order to chronicle his long campaign to conquer the known world, to bring it under what Ptolemy calls a single “empire of the mind.” This sequence takes up most of the remainder of the film, except for a flashback to 336 B.C., when his father Philip (a one-eyed, blustery Kilmer) is assassinated, possibly at the behest of his estranged witchy woman wife Olympias (a scenery-chewing but riveting Jolie) in order to put her son on the throne, before we end up back in Babylon for a closer view of Alexander’s death, and then back to Ptolemy for his final pontifications on Alexander’s greatness.

Sound confusing? Thought Natural Born Killers had the most confusing narrative structure of any Stone film? Word on the street has it that the studio was very unhappy with the movie’s first big battle scene, finding it incomprehensible, but that Alexander’s editors saved it in post production. Not so: it’s still unintelligible. Scene after scene, moment after moment, choice after choice left me shaking my head in disbelief. Why, for example, does Hopkins speak with a British accent, Alexander's Batrian wife Roxane (Dawson) with a Puerto-Rican one, and Farrell with an Irish brogue? What’s up with the eagle?

The hanging gardens of Babylon, Alexander on Bucephalus in a face-off with an elephant, the largest cavalry charge ever captured on film--Alexander does have its moments. But for the most part it’s simply dull, so unengaging I found my mind wandering, pondering non-cinematic questions: contemplating if Alexander would have almost conquered the world if the Macedonian army had enforced a “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy”; wondering whether Alexander’s dream of bringing freedom to all the people of the world at the point of a spear and his pursuit of that escaped Persian mastermind into the mountains were intended to be comments on current world events.

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis
Starring Colin Farrell, Anjolina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins
Two stars
Running Time: 165 minutes

Reviewed by David Lavery

Making epic films is, well, an epic undertaking: casts of thousands, huge battle scenes, massive egos--all make for difficult filmmaking. From *Cleopatra* to *Titanic* to *Alexander*, epics routinely spawn legendary stories-behind-the-story about how the movie overcame insurmountable odds just to get on the screen.

Oliver Stone’s biopic about the 4th century BC Macedonia king and military conqueror, one of two Alexander projects in the works (the other, directed by *Moulin Rouge’s* Bazz Luhrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, promises to be quite different), has already been much talked about. A troubled production, lurid homosexual scenes, problems in the editing room--these and other aspects of Stone’s first film since the awful *Any Given Sunday* (1999) have generated significant buzz. Once seen, however, it seems certain no one will be talking about the forgettable, tedious, confusing *Alexander*.

*Alexander* begins at the end in Babylon with the death (at thirty three) of our hero (a lame, wimpy, blonde, and unconvincing Farrell), then flashes forward forty years to the movie’s present tense, as the elderly Ptolemy (Hopkins), in his youth a warrior who fought alongside Alexander, dictates his memoir of his leader, then flashes back to Alexander’s youth, then flashes forward in order to chronicle his long campaign to conquer the known world, to bring it under what Ptolemy calls a single “empire of the mind.” This sequence takes up most of the remainder of the film, except for a flashback to 336 B.C., when his father Philip (a one-eyed, blustery Kilmer) is assassinated, possibly at the behest of his estranged witchy woman wife Olympias (a scenery-chewing but riveting Jolie) in order to put her son on the throne, before we end up back in Babylon for a closer view of Alexander’s death, and then back to Ptolemy for his final pontifications on Alexander’s greatness.

Sound confusing? Thought *Natural Born Killers* had the most confusing narrative structure of any Stone film? Word on the street has it that the studio was very unhappy with the movie’s first big battle scene, finding it incomprehensible, but that *Alexander’s* editors saved it in post production. Not so: it’s still unintelligible. Scene after scene, moment after moment, choice after choice left me shaking my head in disbelief. Why, for example, does Hopkins speak with a British accent, his Batrian wife Roxane (Dawson) with a Puerto-Rican one, and Farrell with an Irish brogue? And what’s up with the eagle?

The hanging gardens of Babylon, Alexander on Bucephalus in a face-off with an elephant, the largest cavalry charge ever captured on film--*Alexander* does have its moments. But for the most part it’s simply dull, so unengaging I found my mind wandering, pondering non-cinematic questions: contemplating if Alexander would have almost conquered the world if the Macedonian army had enforced a “Don’t ask, don’t tell policy”; wondering whether Alexander’s dream of bringing freedom to all the people of the world at the point of a spear and his pursuit of that escaped Persian mastermind into the mountains were intended to be comments on current world events.

Movie Reviews (IV): "Finding Nemo"

“With friends like these, who needs anemones?”
Finding Nemo
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton
With the voices of Albert Brooks, Alexander Gould, Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Daffoe, Brad Garrett, Geoffrey Rush
MPAA Rating: G
101 minutes
Three and a half stars

Reviewed by David Lavery

Stephen King once wrote that the scariest movie he had ever seen was Bambi. The traumatic death of Bambi’s mother left a permanent scar on his psyche. The new Pixar film Finding Nemo may spawn the next horror master. In its first five minutes not only is another mother, the title character’s, killed, three hundred and ninety nine of Nemo’s siblings are slaughtered by a barracuda attack.

The lone survivor, an adorable clownfish named Nemo (Gould), is raised by an overprotective single father named Marlin (Brooks), but of course a dad’s zealous care cannot protect him against the dangers of the world. Nemo, seeking to impress his friends at school, by swimming into open water, is caught in a net and ends up in an aquarium in a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia. A father’s quest begins.

As in other Pixar marvels (A Bug’s Life, both Toy Story films, Monsters, Inc.) what makes Nemo so utterly captivating is the great care given by the animators to the creation of a fully realized imaginary world. Scores of sea creatures and birds (a wide variety of fish, octopi, tortoises, pelicans, sea gulls) are given clearer, more believable personalities than in some human dramas, and with over-the-top anthropomorphism, their worlds, whether at sea or inside glass walls, enthrall us with their hilarious particularity.

New parents are thrilled to have found a home (inside an anemone) with an “ocean view.” Everyone assumes (incorrectly) that a clownfish can tell a joke. (By film’s end, of course, he will.) Fin-to-fin underwater traffic is, of course, controlled by a crossing guard. A school of fish becomes, well, a school of fish, taught by a manta ray. A tortoise is a surfer dude, an underwater Jeff Spicoli, much older than he acts. A fish proves to be “H20 intolerant.” A young octopus tends to prematurely “ink” when frightened. Sharks (with Australian accents) attend a twelve-step program that teaches that “Fish are friends not food.” (When a shark named Bruce [!] goes off the wagon, he’s transformed into Jack Torrance from The Shining.) Dory (a pitch-perfect DeGeneres), a blue tang fish who accompanies Marlin on his quest to find his son, is afflicted with short term memory loss but can speak whale and other underwater languages (or thinks she can). The denizens of the dentist’s aquarium have come to know everything about proper tooth care.
Though its basic Pixar formula is anything but new and its buddy film pairing (of Marlin and Dory) no major departure from Buzz/Woody or Sully/Mike, Finding Nemo’s hook is so tempting that we bite early, willingly, and can’t wait to be reeled in.

Movie Reviews (III): "The Thunderbirds"

Saturday Morning Imagination
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Screenplay by Peter Hewitt, William Osborne, Michael McCullers
Starring Bill Paxton, Ben Kingsley, Brady Corbet, Sophia Myles, Ron Cook, Anthony Edwards, Vanessa Anne Hudgens, Soren Fulton
Rating: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Reviewed by David Lavery
1 Star

Saturday mornings as a child (and many a weekday as well) were spent fantasizing myself as one of those DC superheroes I read about constantly in my beloved comics or playing with self-constructed plastic and clay superhero action figures on the living room floor in front of television cartoons. When, as an adult, I have recognized at work in a movie or TV show the sort of puerile weekend inspiration I knew so well back then, I have, with a shock of childish recognition, named it Saturday Morning Imagination (SMI).

Thunderbirds is the worst kind of SMI. Based on a 1967 British animated adventure series, done in low-tech, cheesy “Supermarionation,” from Gerry Anderson, the creator of such earlier shows as Fireball XL-5 and Supercar, this high-tech, cheesy, Americanized live-action version stars Bill Paxton as Jeff Tracey, the billionaire former astronaut (in Apollo 13?) and widowed patriarch of a family of blue-eyed blonde-haired boys who comprise “IR,” International Rescue, aka The Thunderbirds; Brady Corbet as his anxious-to-be-part-of-the-team teen black sheep son; Sophia Myles as the left-over-from-the-British-original Lady Penelope; and Sir Ben Kingsley, in perhaps the most embarrassing performance of his career, as The Hood, a clichéd Bond villain with psychic powers who seeks revenge against the Traceys. Because here the good guys have the fabulous, secret tropical island base, from which they jet all over the world and into outer space to save those in danger, the villain must, in a reversal of the 007 formula, invade it, and so The Hood does, and, in a completely shocking development, only the kids--the bad Tracey son, Tintin (Hudgens), the never-before-noticed beautiful daughter of a Tracey servant, Fermat (Fulton), the nerdy, bespectacled boy named after a theorem--must save the day.

At a Saturday morning preview screening of Thunderbirds no one over ten was laughing at the pre-pre-pubescent humor--most of the film’s supposedly “comic” moments involve the hilarious stammer of the Traceys’ resident genius, Brains (Edwards)--and I doubt anyone over six found The Hood’s invasion of Tracey Island the least bit suspenseful. From its cartoon opening credits, to its retro narrator, to its prolific verbal and genre clichés, this inexcusable film invites us to think little of it, and, surprise, surprise, by its silly end, we do.

Thunderbirds, of course, has a lesson to teach, delivered father to son, during the movie’s final showdown between Thunderbirds and Hood in London: ‘”You can’t save everyone.” This film, for example, cannot be saved. Thunderbirds clearly aspires to be a franchise, perhaps one with the appeal of, say, the Spy Kids films or, perhaps, Austin Powers. It succeeds, however, only in being one of the worst films of the year. Any eight year old could have imagined a better movie--any Saturday.

The Grotesque

When I was doing my MA work, I took a course at St. Cloud State University taught by Dr. James Gottshall, then the English Department Chair, on "The Grotesque." Though not one of my all-time favorite classes, it was an influential one. We read Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World, Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, Amost Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard. It was the beginning of a life-long fascination with the subject.

My M.A. thesis would be on that very grotesque novelist Nathanael West, my doctoral dissertation on Federico Fellini, the grotesque's poster child. And many of my interests over the last thirty years are unmistakeably practitioners of the grotesque: potographers Diane Arbus, Weegee, and William Wegman; painters Arcimboldo, Francis Bacon, Dali, Magritte, Goya, Bosch, Brueghel, Otto Dix, James Ensor, and Frida Kahlo; writers Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, Grass, Raold Dahl, Flannery O'Connor; filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, David Cronenberg, Fellini, and David Lynch; the television series Carnivale, Celebrity Death Match, Ren and Stimpy; cartoonist Garry Larson (The Far Side); performance artist Stelarc; musicians Patti Smith and Talking Heads.

I have developed a (seriously in need of updating) website on the grotesque, and at a not-yet determined date in 2010, I will be the keystone speaker at a conference on the grotesque at the University of Colorado.