Caligula Again

(Photo source here)

The production of Caligula I saw  recently has been on my mind on-and-off for the past few weeks.

In the play, Caligula is always there, always speaking. He acts and defines the actions of the people around him. While I was watching, I focused on what he said, what he thought about, what he discovered and did. How could I not? I also took his preoccupations as if they were synonymous with the play, and as I thought back to the play later, I continued in the same vein.

But I’ve decided Caligula isn’t Caligula.

Caligula gives us a character who achieves a point-of-view and is convinced of its essential rightness as something greater than simply himself. Thanks to his position (as emperor, as protagonist), he has the power to push that view beyond himself and onto his subjects (the Romans, the spectators). Over the course of a performance, we watch as the people around him are slowly erased from their own lives and made less than human. Some become converts (Caligula’s certainty in his vision is not non-religious). Others die. Everyone suffers miserably.

I don’t know what Camus has said about his text, but with time to reflect, I see more clearly its preoccupation with moral certitudes, both religious and secular, and with the suffering they inflict. I also think that the play invites misrecognition of it’s concerns as part of its poetic strategy.

Which obviously brings me back to that set I hated so much in the production I saw—the one that hid all the bit players under a black box or pushed them to the front of the stage where Caligula was pacing and raving—I’ve begun to think it’s an elegant and expressive engagement with the problem I now think this play is presenting to it’s audience. The cheaper your seats and the farther you are away form the stage, the quicker and more often the bit players disappear from view. The people sitting at Caligula’s feet won’t see this at all, even though they probably think they see everything clearly.

A set that makes not seeing visible and then comments on that not seeing in terms of both a spectator’s physical situation within the theatre and their proximity to the protagonist is operating thematically.

Fireworks

Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks was one of the first films I fell in love with when, in my first semester of film school, I started watching American Underground film from the mid-century. After saw it, I spent a good five, six months obsessing over his small body of films.

Over the years, I’ve seen and liked a lot more underground films of the period, some of them better, but none of them have managed to dislodge this film from it’s pride of place. It’s too knowing and too young at the same time to be anything but wonderful.

At home and in a mood I found myself watching it tonight alongside Genet’s objectively better Chant d’amour.

https://youtu.be/vARJ6t5owGA

The Rain

I stumbled across this short dance film years ago. I hadn’t seen it since, but for some reason, tonight I sat down and watched it, and I was as moved by it now as I remember being then.

The film, a montage of long shots, close-ups and tableaux organized by a shared dance and the rhythms of the soundtrack, has a cast of six dancers in three couples: a man in a suit and woman in a dress, a gay couple in sweats and marcels, and a young straight couple wearing underwear.

The film aims to be beautiful, romantic and sexy simultaneously. It rains continuously, so how could it possibly miss its mark?

Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue

This is the second of James Purdy’s novels that I’ve read and I was not prepared for how different it would be from the first in style.

This novel begins as the narrator’s elderly husband tries to recover from a stroke. This event has brought his eventual death into view and Carrie, his younger and extremely deferential wife, copes by turning her attention to her memories of her long-dead daughter, a successful artist. The narrative is Carrie’s memoir telling of her coming-into-herself as a person as she steps out of her cloistered, conservative home to investigate her daughter’s sexual adventures and to understand her bohemian life.

As the story begins, Carrie is like soft clay, untouched by anything except her own sense of her untouchedness. As she meets other people—first her sister-in-law, then a man-hating Elizabethan obsessed with Edmund Spencer, and finally a man who reminds her of her first love but who was one of her daughter’s lovers—as she meets these people, she receives their way of being in the world into herself. She is not, however, adrift. What others mistake as impressionability and lack of identity is in fact a budding openness to life made possible by her not-yet-defined and not-yet-understood (but still weighty and valuable) sense of herself as having a self. At the end of the novel, Carrie is sensitive, loving, and strong.

This solid simplicity does not exhaust, however, the sophistication of the text we’re given. Although written in Carrie’s plain voice—simple sentences, naive diction, stacks of short paragraphs—the text is run-through with allusions to the myth of Persephone and The Fairie Queen. The resulting complexity of this memoir is extreme. There are echoes and repetitions and allusions galore. This complexity may not be Carrie’s alone—Purdy’s voice is there too, the allusions may belong to him—but it isn’t not Carrie’s voice either and so her simpleness can be read—at least possibly—as a bright reduction of life to essentials. In some of the best moments, this reduction manifests the dark clarity of a dream. All of this is handled with such a sureness and lightness of touch that the book reads as small and particular even though it is also, simultaneously, a heady meditation on the artist’s creation of the self.

As was the case in In a Shallow Grave, the ending here is happy, self-consciously so. But Carrie has earned her happiness in a way that the war veteran in that earlier novel hadn’t. I think the other characters are lucky to have her in their lives.

Shifting gears, this novel reminded me during long stretches of Washington Square. This in turn made me think of Wright Morris, a now more-or-less forgotten mid-century novelist I read a lot of in the 90s. My sense of him then was that many of his novels were working through the style and subjects of his immediate predecessors, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, etc. Purdy is a much better writer than Morris and possess a much stronger point of view. But given the way both Purdy’s novels evoked other works for me, I’m curious to what extent the stylistic differences in the two I’ve read might be the sign of a similar hearkening back and working though.

In a Shallow Grave

In a Shallow Grave is the first novel I’ve read by James Purdy, an author I know next to nothing about.

It tells the story of a traumatized and disfigured war veteran who haunts (and eventually loses) his family home, which is a former slave plantation. The veteran spends his time reading books he doesn’t understand and writing letters to a young widow he is trying to court. These letters are written in an affected language imitating the incomprehensible books, and she accepts them only out of pity and only after being told to do so by a minister. The veteran’s only friends are his “applicants,” a black man and a handsome wanderer who keep him company and deliver his letters. The latter eventually sacrifices his life for him.

The language and the plotting of this book are disarmingly simple but self-consciously off-kilter. The narrative frame of reference is clearly gothic.  As I read two novels kept coming to mind: Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Harry Crews’s The Gospel Singer. I’m not sure either is is very much like Purdy’s novel, but something in the veteran’s efforts at love reminded me of McCuller’s love triangle, and his oddly sophisticated and manipulative naiveté reminded me of Crew’s protagonist.

What all of this means for me is that In a Shallow Grave reaches back to and evokes one of my very first adult literary passions. It’s one that predates this blog by years, and since I don’t read much of what gets called post-war “Southern Gothic” anymore, it has remained mostly invisible here. But it’s real and deep-seated, and as a result, I read this novel warmed by a deep reserve of sympathy for it’s project and style. Happily for me, it paid back the good will by being fresh rather than mannered.

Montaigne on listening

I have often noticed this flaw, that instead of gaining knowledge of others we strive only to give knowledge of ourselves, and take more pains to peddle our wares than to get new ones. Silence and modesty are very good qualities for social intercourse.

—Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Education of Children”

Rogue One

I was never tempted to watch Rogue One in the theatre and wasn’t sure I’d even watch it once it was available for rent. But then Tuesday night on a lark I did. Then last night, I watched it again.

This is the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. I actually don’t think there’s any competition for the spot. In fact, this may be the first good “movie as movie” in the series since The Empire Strikes Back.

What I admired most here was the way it breaks the stranglehold of the original story by imagining in a creative and compelling way a world that is larger than Luke, Lea, and Han. The familiar story is there, popping up again and again in visual references and narrative links. (My favourite was the initial shot of Felicity Jones that echoes a similar shot of Carrie Fisher in A New Hope.) But unlike in J. J. Abrams’s weak stab at the franchise, these references operate primarily as sign-posts indicating 1) that the familiar story is nearby; but 2) that the present story is decidedly not that familiar story.

I have no idea if the movie will stand up over time, but I think it is wonderfully effective variation on an established generic formation. And killing everyone off was brilliant and unexpected. Doing so declares bluntly that not all stories in this world have to be serial narratives.

The Writing Life

I stumbled upon this book seven or eight years ago in a used book store just down the street from the Stanley exit of Peel metro station in Montreal. I was writing my dissertation, and walking helped me sort out my ideas. Sometimes I wandered for hours.

That day the window display caught my eye, and I took a break to browse the bookstore’s shelves. When I saw this slim but enticingly named volume, I was curious what it was, picked it up and started to flip through it. Right away I saw Dillard compare a sentence to a worm inching forward in the darkness. Not long after I learned a manuscript left overnight was like a circus lion gone wild again. This was inventive wonderful stuff, and obviously I bought the book. Back home I read it through, felt recognized by it, and for the next few months kept it close at hand as I struggled to cobble together, for the first time, a book-length argument.

Last week while rearranging books in my library when I should have been working, I found myself standing and flipping through Dillard’s book again, and again I found myself amazed by what I read there. Seduced by passages that echoed in memory, I sat down and read it through for the first time in years, remembering those months spent writing as I did.

However my experience of the book this time around was more complicated than simple nostalgia. I was struck anew by how good Dillard is on writing and how good her writing itself is. But I was also surprised by how bad she seems to be on life and living. We’re all mysteries to each other, and I won’t pretend to know the terms of Dillard’s happiness. She certainly doesn’t need me to suggest how she should live. But I’m certain that how she lives would make me very unhappy if I imitated her.

There is a deeply religious sensibility in Dillard’s work that sits on its surface. But in this book, it seems cruelly monastic in ways that poison her conception of literary sensibility and literary pleasure. Beneath Dillard’s beautifully compact sentences are a hair shirt and tightly cinched belts of thorns, and her endurance of these pains feel competitive. The effect as a whole is ecstatic, apocalyptic and, somehow, inhumane.

Years ago, I needed desperately Dillard’s words about writing. I’m grateful she wrote them and grateful I found them. But the parts of the book I hadn’t gone back to over and over as I wrote and that, as a result, I hadn’t remembered, these parts have likely put me off this book for a long while.

Poetic Justice

Nussbaum offers an explanation and a defence of the contribution that imagination and emotion can make to public discourse. In doing so, she pushes back against a naive conception of rationality that demands abstract, coldly technocratic approaches to public policy and law.

When first written her book engaged with important debates raging on the public stage. But reading it now in the first months of Trump’s presidency and as Republicans and far-right ideologues work brazenly to make life worse for so many people, her optimism and her faith in humanism feels like a voice from another world.

Regarding the judiciary and justice system, Nussbaum’s specific topic, I came away convinced that Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become pointless because they ask the wrong questions. Who is this person? Where do they come from? What is their sensibility? These questions—which hint at what kind of judicious spectator the nominee might be—are what matter, not questions about legal principles that invite nothing but dissimulation and the repetition of carefully prepared platitudes.

I mentioned something like this before, but we’ve accepted a radically deconstructive historiography & textualism as the basis of our public discourse, and it’s shredding the political fabric of our society.