All About Baths

Bathers: Degas and Boucher (study by Giovanni Civardi)

This week’s subject is bathtubs and baths and how artists treat and transform them. In the top right sketch, a study by Giovanni Civardi after François Boucher, we see two bathing goddesses looking ever so elegant even without clothes. Every limb tilts to form a triangle; the overlapping shapes create a fascinating rhythm. Top left, Degas captures a working-class woman bending awkwardly in a shallow basin. It’s an everyday ritual, the raw minutiae of life poured through the finest aesthetic filter.

In the novel, Ulysses by James Joyce, a middle-aged ad salesman daydreams about taking a bath in the middle of the day. These are his thoughts: “Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.” The man sees the world in physical terms; he’s comfortable with his body, which he imagines in water: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.” The character’s name is Leopold Bloom and, in this passage, he compares his penis to a floating flower.

Two artists picture Leopold Bloom in the bath. Right, looking down by Richard Hamilton. Left, cartoon of a tub in a lily pond by Robert E. Lee

The illustrations above show two artist’s rendition of this text. On the left, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton, most famous for designing the cover of The White Album by the Beatles, plays it surprisingly straight. It strikes me how Bloom, everyman hero of Ulysses, with his get-rich-quick schemes, curious mind, attraction to advertising and things of the moment, makes a fitting subject for Pop Art. Here is Hamilton’s definition in 1957 (five years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans): “Pop Art is popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.” In Robert E. Lee’s delightful cartoon, right, the flowers in and around Bloom’s tub are waterlilies, with one strategically placed between the bathing man’s legs. The flower that hides private parts recalls the well-placed fig leaf in Renaissance paintings.

Two Baptisms: Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, 1448, and  The Bible, miniseries, 2013. Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. John the Baptist (Daniel Percival) lowers Jesus (Diogo Morgaldo) in the waters of the River Jordan.

During the Renaissance, the bathing theme merged with Christian subject matter. In images depicting the Baptism of Christ, water takes on transformative properties. The baptism represents a new beginning, spiritual life. I like how, in this modern Biblical epic, the witnesses are in the water, in the thick of the action. An interesting aside, The Bible miniseries was produced by Mark Burnett. Burnett is one of the inventors of Reality TV with hit shows The Survivor, 2000, The Apprentice, 2004 (featuring Donald Trump) and Shark Tank, 2009.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The River, 1864

Bathing can have a spiritual or otherworldly aspect. Mythological scenes often represent bathing nymphs or goddesses and their attendants–a pretext for painting beautiful naked bodies. In Puvis de Chavannes’ dream-like image, the scene recalls a golden age in the distant past, when harmony with nature was the norm. Puvis was much admired by the surrealists of the 1920s.

Georges Seurat. Bathers at Asnières, 1884

In contrast, George Seurat painted bathers not as idealized ethereal types but as contemporary working-class people getting away from the inner city of Paris (note the belching smokestacks in the distance) for a moment’s leisure in outlying parks. There are faint hints here of Seurat’s later experiments with light and colour.

Tramps and Cowboys: Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood in the bath.

Baths can have a civilizing effect. In many cowboy movies, there’s a scene where a dusty traveller comes in from the frontier and must acclimatize to town life, which starts with a bath and a shave. Iconic film stars Charlie Chaplin (Pay Day, 1922) and Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, 1973), have their moments in the suds. I sense this tramp and cowboy are irredeemable, free spirits to the core–no scrubbing off their inner wild. Baths are sublime but open to kidding. See Jessi Klein’s humorous polemic on the over-ratedness of baths. (The New Yorker, May 2016)

Photographer Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, Munich, 1945

The photographer and collaborator with Paris surrealists, Lee Miller, travelled with the American troops who fought their way into Germany toward the end of World War II. Here Miller saucily and sardonically photographs herself  in Hitler’s private bath. She frames herself between a photograph of Hitler and a classical nude statue. Miller’s discarded army boots suggest the wartime setting and give a hint that she has worked hard for this moment–it’s the revolution of ordinary citizens invading the palace.

Death and Dreams: David, Death of Marat, 1793. Left: Frida Kahlo. What the Water Gave Me, 1938

Speaking of revolutions, in 1793, French artist Jacques-Louis David painted a touching tribute to slain revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was murdered in his bath, where he worked most days because of his debilitating skin disease. This was a real life tragedy. In Alfred Hitchcock’s fictional film, Psycho (1960), a woman on the run is killed in a motel shower. Both painting and film feature violations of private moments when people are unsuspecting and vulnerable. The artist David, who had a skill for surviving violent political upheavals (he was simply too useful a propagandist for tyrants to kill) would go on to paint stirring portraits of the great anti-revolutionary leader Napoleon.

Frida Kahlo imagines her bath water harbouring private and collective memories. For most of her adult life, Kahlo suffered terribly from leg and lower body injuries incurred in a bus accident when she was 18-years-old. Her pain and sense of isolation is represented by the bleeding right foot. The skyscraper emerging from a volcano, besides the obvious sexual connotations, captures the duality of living briefly in New York but coming from Mexico where land and nature captured her imagination. Kahlo makes reference to her dual European and Mexican ancestry, heterosexual and lesbian encounters, and traditional and modern ways. The waters suggests the unconscious material from which artists like Frida draw their inspiration.

Gods and nymphs, salesmen, tramps and cowboys, surrealist photographers, revolutionaries, wounded artists and daydreamers–what do they all have in common? They all take baths, make fun of baths, use baths for seduction, paint baths, glorify baths, daydream of baths or die in them. Warm waters stir human imagination even in small-sized tubs.

 

 

Films about Cities

Fernand Léger. Animated Landscape, 1924. Cubist painters like Léger were fascinated by the geometric signs and competing signals of the modern city.

In James Joyce’s great modernist novel Ulysses, the city of Dublin emerges as a complex multi-storied universe. Fifty years earlier, Dickens and Balzac created similar effects with London and Paris. In these great city novels, fiction mixes with reality, satire and social issues. Joyce departs from the 19th century model by unfolding his story in a single day and by using a variety of experimental prose techniques that draw attention to the act of writing. Influenced by Cubist collage, Ulysses resembles a modernist work of art.

Modernism takes root in cities, where artists pushed for new ways of seeing. Cinema was at the forefront of this development. No film stretches the limits of perception more forcefully or imaginatively than Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, 1929. The film bursts with the energy of tram cars, large machines, and crowds eager to get somewhere, do things, and be entertained. What’s more, Vertov’s film uses odd angles, quick cuts, and visual tricks. The filmmaker is only too pleased to reveal the secrets behind his mesmerizing effects by including “making of” shots of how the film was made.

When critics and reviewers first saw Vertov’s film, they thought he was making impossible demands on the viewer. The editing was simply too fast, the variety of camera angles too bewildering, the leaps from one scene to another too disorienting. The film uses no titles to explain anything. No narrator describes the action. No voice-over makes an argument. No expert teaches a lesson. The city’s pace is unrelenting: people and their machines are shown as a dynamic network at work and play.

Man with a Movie Camera, 1929. Director: Dziga Vertov

In his review of this groundbreaking classic, Roger Ebert commented: “There had been ‘city documentaries’ earlier, showing a day in the life of a metropolis; one of the most famous was Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927. By filming in three cities [Moscow, Kiev and Odessa] and not naming any of them , Vertov had a wider focus. His film was about The City, and The Cinema, and The Man with a Movie Camera. It was about the act of seeing, being seen, preparing to see, processing what had been seen, and finally seeing it. It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it.” (rogerebert.com, July 1, 2009)

And now all these tricks, jumps, speed editing and behind-the-scenes “how to” revelations have been fully absorbed into mainstream media. Just about any music video contains several of these “disorientations.” It is impossible to imagine a thriller, spy movie, or summer blockbuster without scenes of a bustling metropolis, without a bevy of multiple converging storylines, without information transmitting at dizzying speeds, without information networks seeming all-encompassing and inescapable. This is Vertov’s world.

The Man with A Movie Camera shows how the film is made. Here cameraman Mikhail Kaufman perches on the side of a moving car to get an exciting shot.

In 2008, my wife and I spent a year in Berlin. Europe was vastly different from Canada: its food, housing, schools and public transport. No swiping of tickets, no turnstiles. The famous Ring line and U systems carried trains above and below ground to all corners of the city. My short film, Scratch Peck Fly, included some fun train shots, but its focus was on birds in the city. Like Vertov’s film, my short was equal parts documentary, travelog, and art film. It used no narrator, no voice-over. As far as I was concerned, Vertov was ground zero for the independent filmmaker who ventures into the world without script or budget. Gags, stunts, shooting from the hip in foreign cities, personal film diaries–it’s the very stuff of YouTube videos.

The Man with a Movie Camera, one of many trick shots that adds humour to the film

Another appeal of these early city films is the use of humour to offset the aggrandizement of cities and machines. In The Man With a Movie Camera, a cameraman is shrunk to tiny size to set up a camera inside a glass of beer. Later in the film, a camera and tripod assemble themselves and walk out of the frame. Can a film make itself with no human intervention? In a Russian avant-garde film, they can. In Jean Vigo’s surrealist city film, À Propos de Nice, 1930, tourists are shown (candid-camera style) reading newspapers at outdoor cafés. Before long, a man drops his paper and falls asleep. An older gentleman nods off. A lady in furs is next to slip away. The whole city seems to have fallen asleep, all in public, in the middle of a day. These scenes are amusing, but also carry an undercurrent of social criticism: the idle rich are so idle they can barely stay awake.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, 1982, a two hour long American art film, follows in the great city film tradition. The filmmakers use no narration, just dazzling camera work and the sort of optical effects you might see at a pavilion in a world’s fair to convey a sense of industry and urbanization overtaking the planet. A social critique is intended. But as vlogger Kyle Kallgren argues in his essay on the film, every shot of Koyaanisqatsi has either been used before or since to underscore the very opposite position, namely that cities are fast, fun and impossible to resist.

One cannot get too righteous or indignant over the pace of progress, the disasters of progress, the uncontrollable excitement of living in an environment that changes more rapidly than we can possibly comprehend.

In Wings of Desire, 1987, an angel (Bruno Gatz) falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin). She cannot see or hear him, but can only sense his presence.

Five years later a German film appeared, Wings of Desire, (Der Himmel uber Berlin)1987, directed by Wim Wenders, written by playwright Peter Handke, and starring, alongside a brilliant cast, America’s favourite detective, Peter Falk and Australian rocker Nick Cave. The film features a group of mind reading angels who wander the streets of Berlin eavesdropping on everyday scenes, but powerless to avert human tragedy. The angels are simply there to observe, to comfort, to record and empathize. Like the human characters, the angels are engulfed by the city and merge into its multitude of overlapping stories. After years of observation, some of these city-dwelling angels choose to become human. By choosing earth over heaven, human problems over divine equanimity, human love over spiritual compassion, the angels cross a line from observer to participant that many of us would do well to follow.

Caliban’s Mirror

Djimon Hounsou as Caliban. The Tempest, 2010, directed by Julie Taymor

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Irish humorist Oscar Wilde defines two kinds of literature by the hostile reactions of readers: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. / The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.”
Professor John Hunt comments: “Wilde’s meaning seems clear enough: the self-absorbed bourgeois are like Caliban, the anti-hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest— resistant to all civilizing influences. When realistic art accurately imitates the bourgeois, they are outraged to see themselves represented so unflatteringly. But when romantic art offers an alternative, expressing the avant-garde genius of the artist, the bourgeois howl in protest at not seeing anything like themselves.” (Ulysses Project)
The opening chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, (published 1922), the subject of my blog last week, makes reference to Caliban’s mirror. In Joyce’s novel, two roommates verbally spar before they start their day, both trying to outshine the other. Mulligan, shaving, scolds his friend Stephen Dedalus for looking unkempt.
— Look at yourself, he said, you dreadful bard! Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me?

— The rage of Caliban at not seeing his face in a mirror, he said. If Wilde were only alive to see you!

Drawing back and pointing, Stephen said with bitterness:

— It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked lookingglass of a servant.

The Stephen Dedalus character, Joyce’s youthful alter-ego, adds a new dimension to Wilde’s metaphor. By focusing on the condition of the looking glass, Joyce suggests the artist does not start his work with a clean slate. Rather there is considerable baggage he or she must overcome. This baggage might include colonial conditions or biased assumptions. Form and context influence content.

Joyce’s “cracked mirror” reminds me of Flaubert’s “cracked drum.” Joyce was influenced by French novelist Gustave Flaubert, inventor of Madame Bovary. Flaubert is famous for his nuanced style and cool distance from characters, whose flaws play out without pity or remark. However Flaubert once broke this glacier demeanour by commenting abruptly in the midst of a story: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Oscar Wilde cartoon by Raine Szramski

Streams of Consciousness: James Joyce’s Ulysses

Cartoon of Joyce from Sam Slote’s animated lecture Why should you read James Joyce’s Ulysses

People love it or hate it. It’s either ridiculously hard, almost impenetrable, or saucy, smart and wildly amusing. It is epic, long, full of words. All books contain words, but not quite these words: “O! Weeshwashtkissima pooishthnapoohuck!” (a woman having sex).

Then there are the one liners. Great quotes. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” 

“I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” (referring to words like patriotism, religion and freedom)

“Our father who art not in heaven.” (Stephen’s reprobate father spends time in bars rather than providing for his needy family.)

The book abounds in poetic descriptions: A raindrop spat on his hat. He drew back and saw an instant of shower spray dots over the grey flags. Apart. Curious. Like through a colander.

Why am I writing about Joyce today? I grew up in a bookish family. My parents were book publishers. My older brother and sister were avid readers, checking off the classics in record time in their early teens. I tried to imitate them, snail-paced reader that I was. Hopeless. When I was sixteen, I discovered Joyce’s Ulysses. And became hooked. How can I explain this? I loved the book’s audacity and invention. I could barely understand what I was reading, but no one else could either. I learned to read without fretting. The whole enterprise felt like a game.

But I also learned to trust other sources, other writers and scholars to help me understand this strange treasure. Today the Internet is full of useful sites such as the Joyce Project conceived by Professor John Hunt of the University of Montana. This site has full text of the novel, with informative hyper-linked illustrated notes. It’s superb and indispensable.

James Joyce’s Dublin. Photos by JJ Clarke, c. 1900 and Lee Miller, 1946

Two outstanding traits leap out at me from Joyce’s Ulysses: its world-building ambitions and its interior streams of consciousness. One is physical, the other psychological. The novel is set in Dublin in 1904 and it recreates the city in such convincing detail that the reader comes away with an intimate sense of Dublin’s harbours, fortresses, streets, pubs, newspaper offices, theatres, and residential areas, as well as having a sense of the many personalities who interact within the city: the gossips, wits, bullies, bigots, educators, school children, rebels, flirts, drunks, artists and outsiders. The city is alive with activity and its portrayal is kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic.

You can hardly read a current book that doesn’t contain some form of stream of consciousness. What’s unique about Joyce’s method is how he differentiates one character’s thoughts from another’s and how these unique streams of consciousness evolve and change under the influence of others and under the influence of the city around them. Internal monologues pop disconcertingly and uncontrollably out of the descriptive text that embeds them. The book is a fascinating give and take of action and reflection, past and present, spoken and unspoken.

The plot takes place in a single day as multiple characters roam and crisscross paths in the city of Dublin. There is the super sensitive Stephen Dedalus, budding novelist and teacher who finds himself homeless after an altercation with an egotistical roommate, stately plump Buck Mulligan. Mulligan is a medical student who fancies himself a patron of literary talents such as Stephen, but has a tendency to ungraciously upstage others with mocking jibes and snobbish quotes.

There is Leopold Bloom, half-Jewish advertising salesman for a local newspaper. Bloom is introduced to the reader: Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Bloom has a curious mind, which often gets him in trouble. At a funeral, Bloom thinks of the horror of being buried alive and how telephones in coffins could prevent this. He imagines the dead conversing with the living through telephones and gramophone records, every house could have one. Bloom thinks of a record playing at the wrong speed, this is how the dead might sound, like a bad connection. At another moment in the novel, Bloom wonders if sculptors include full anatomical details in their classical statues. Do the marble gods and goddess have anuses, for example? He determines the only way to answer this question is to visit the National Museum and get down on his hands and knees.

Lovely forms of woman sculped Junonian. Immortal lovely. And we stuffing food in one hole and out behind: food, chyle, blood, dung,  earth, food: have to feed it like stoking an engine. They have no. Never looked. I’ll look today. Keeper won’t see. Bend down let something fall see if she.

This Saul Steinberg cartoon of a man overwhelmed by questions reminds me of Leopold Bloom, an ordinary man with a curious mind.

Joyce’s biographer, Richard Ellman described Bloom as a “divine nobody” who has little influence on the life around him. Professor Morton P. Levitt however regards Bloom as outsider, survivor, searcher, and comic foil to our age’s heightened notions of self. Levitt argues:

“In Bloom, Joyce created the archetypal Modernist figure. No character in modern literature so delight us through their comic diminishment, so powerfully engage our sense of our own humanity through the tragedy and dignity which underscore that comedy, so perfectly in the process represent and yet supercede their times.”

Bloom’s wife, Molly who is a singer of popular songs, and about to embark on an affair with her manager, while ruminating on her life with Leopold with its many drawbacks and occasional delights and surprises. She is described as a woman with an independent streak: The terribility of her isolated dominant implacable resplendent propinquity, her omens of tempest and calm …

Music Hall performers, 1920

Ulysses abounds in references to poems and songs. Lily of the Killarney. Fun on the Bristol. “I am the boy/ That can enjoy/ Invisibility.” “Those lovely seaside girls/ All dimples, smiles and curls …”  Lyrics from Mozart’s operas, snatches of children’s rhythms, newspaper headlines, advertisements, and popular ditties all make their way into character’s speeches and thoughts. These sources are quoted, misquoted, bowlderized and parodied depending on the speaker and his or her state of mind.

Joyce has two alter-egos: Dedalus and Bloom. One is a youthful intellectual, the other a middle-aged extrovert. One has grand thoughts of philosophy and the soul, and the other has absurd daydreams pervaded by all the sticky messy things of life. Throughout the novel, the two characters are on a collision course with one another, though they have no idea of it until it happens. The novel starts with intellectuals and their acts of unkindness and ends with the generous Bloom rescuing Dedalus from trouble. Bloom, the nobody who everybody overlooks, emerges as a hero. Kindness over unkindness.

The book alternates viewpoints of high and low. For example, the novel opens with characters on the roof of a demilitarized Martello Tower overlooking Dublin Bay where two bachelor friends live.  “God! he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea … Epi oinopa ponton.”

The first quote references Algernon Swinburne poem’s The Triumph of Time: I will go back to the great sweet motherMother and lover of men, the sea. This is followed by a reference to “snotgreen sea,” which is a parody of Homer’s oinopa ponton, or wine-dark sea. A loving reference to literature sets up a more jeering school-boy expression. This high-low duality (the Dedalus-Bloom duality) repeats throughout the novel.

Cartoon of Molly Bloom from Sam Slote’s animated lecture Why should you read James Joyce’s Ulysses

A second example concerns Molly Bloom, unfaithful wife and concert performer. When her husband asks what she’ll be singing in an upcoming show, she answers, “Là ci darem with J. C. Doyle, and Love’s Old Sweet Song.” The first is a cynical seduction song from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, (a woman is tempted to betray her fiancé) and the second is a sentimental ballad that affirms the constancy of love. The scene between Molly and Bloom proceeds. The wife asks the meaning of a word in a book she’s been reading. The word is “metempsychosis.” Bloom first describes it as the transmigration of souls. Blank look. He tries again with something about life after death, when Molly interrupts. She wants a new book to read. “Get another of Paul de Kock’s. Nice name he has.” The conversation turns from high to low. This sparks Bloom’s memory and he thinks of the word “reincarnation.” Searching for an example of the concept, Bloom remembers a picture that once hung over their bed. The picture showed seaside nymphs: a mythological subject featuring naked bodies. It is not just Molly who turns from high to low. Every character. Joyce seems to be saying this is the way all our minds work, with dichotomous ideas and sensations bursting upon us at every turn.

John Reinhard Weguelin. Bacchus and the Choir of Nymphs, 1888

Similar thoughts strike different characters. Bloom muses on reincarnation, so does Dedalus. He spots a dog on the beach and whimsically imagines the dog nosing about the sand and seaweed “Looking for something lost in a past life.” Wandering souls. The characters in Ulysses wander through the city of Dublin; they also wander through the history of ideas and the idioms of language.

Montage of two posters:  Joyce caricature from the James Joyce Centre, Dublin. The woman with flowers designed by Brooke Fischer for the Women’s March on Washington 2017. I could not resist replacing the words in the original “Let equality bloom” with “Molly Bloom.”

Ulysses ends with literature’s most famous stream of consciousness passage. Molly Bloom wakes beside her husband and muses on her day spent with Blazes Boylan, her new lover who satisfies her sexually, but who doesn’t measure up to her husband in other ways. Molly muses over her childhood, courtship, children, career, but keeps returning to Bloom, the man sleeping beside her. She thinks about his love letters. Though Bloom’s letters to her are peculiar and erotic, passionate and incomprehensible, deeply flawed like the man himself, they are flattering signs of devotion and she realizes that’s no small thing. Her epiphany about her love for Bloom strikes herself and the reader at the same moment in one of the most fantastic happy endings ever imagined as she reiterates her marriage vows.

Comedian and actor Stephen Fry declared: “It is a book associated with difficulty when in fact it should be a book associated with joy … it’s comic. I think all great art is comic because comic art is about joining. The last word of Ullysses is ‘yes.” In fact the last three words are ‘yes, yes, yes.’ It’s the most affirmative book. As you may know, it’s the retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, the greatest story ever told. And it’s told in one day, in Dublin, the 16th of June, 1904. Instead of Ulysses, this great Greek hero, there’s this little Jewish man called Leopold Bloom … Read it and you’ll be astonished at how beautiful it is.” Stephen Frye on Ulysses, “Why I love this Book, 2011

 

Mountains of the Moon

Macmillan Collector’s Library edition

Last week I posted about the children’s classic, Wind in the Willows. What struck me about this delightful book were the characters and their adventures. Today, I’d like to explore the implications of one particular phrase used in the book, “Mountains of the Moon.”

The phrase appears in the first sentence of Chapter 9: “Restlessly the Rat wandered off once more, climbed the slope that rose gently from the north bank of the river, and lay looking out towards the great ring of Downs that barred his vision further–his simple horizon, his Mountains of the Moon, his limit behind which lay nothing he had cared to see or to know.”

In this instance, “mountains of the moon” refers to the limits to a person’s curiosity. There’s only so much room in your brain. We like to learn new things, but there are some things we’d rather skip. They’re boring, they’re irrelevant, they’re noisy distractions, they’re too far away.

What intrigues me is how these limits can be challenged. For some people I suspect the limits never change. For others, there might be interesting exceptions. For example, I like most forms of music, but don’t particularly care for country music. However, I like Willy Nelson, I like Johnny Cash, I like Patsy Cline. When I met my wife and she also liked Patsy Cline, we started walking after midnight together.

The opposite can also happen. We’ve all probably had this experience. There’s a piece of music, a painting or film that you just don’t care for. You don’t get it. It’s meaningless and annoying. And then you meet a special person. Maybe the person is a teacher or mentor, a friend or lover. The important thing is you value the way this person sees the world. One day, to your shock and dismay, you learn that the one piece of music that you so detest is one of your friend’s favourite pieces of music. Now it may be that the two of you agree to disagree. Or it may happen that you begin to revise your strongly held opinion. Your resistance to the music begins to fade. Your friend’s enthusiasm persuades you to give it a chance. And once you do that, you begin to like the music just a little at first, then more and more. You realize you’ve had a transformative experience.

Art requires an audience. However there is never just one listener who forms a single impression. A whole galaxy of listeners form many different impressions and their conversations around what they’ve seen and heard are vital to the art experience. The mountains of the moon shift depending on who we’re with and the conversations that arise.

Wind in the Willows

EH Shepard’s illustration of Ratty and Mole on the river.

My wife and I recently read Wind in the Willows together. We found the book more charming than we remembered from childhood and marvelled at how many points of connection we were able to make to our own present-day lives.

It’s a story of friendship and small adventures, life along a river, having fun, having too much fun, lessons learned, sharing and gratitude. The characters include Mole, Ratty, Mr. Badger and the flamboyant thrill-seeking Mr. Toad. I particularly identified with Mole, who starts things off by emerging from his underground burrow to be born into the world (the opposite of Alice who tumbles down a rabbit hole to experience the topsy-turvy Wonderland).

Mole is an innocent character, yet shrewd enough to evade dim-witted rabbits who want to tax him for no good reason. Mole dismisses them with the phrase, “onion sauce!” and continues on his way. He discovers a friend on the riverbank, Ratty, who introduces Mole to the delights of boating. Ratty’s philosophy is: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Mole insists on learning how to handle a boat himself. Ratty is the ideal teacher and the two learn to depend on one another.

However there is much talk of the wealthy Mr. Toad, who flits from one whim to another with enthusiasm but with little regard for safety or the needs of others. Toad and Mole are opposites. Toad is lovable, but egotistical and mischievous. He ignores his friends’ advice and doesn’t learn from his mistakes as he drifts ever farther afield. Mole gets homesick and has to choose between spending time with his friends and living like a hermit by himself. Ratty suggests a solution. Mole can visit his home whenever he likes, and still see his friends. In other words, his spirit of adventure doesn’t have to end because he wants to go home from time to time.

The book encourages adventures, but also suggests that one can easily go too far. Good adventures cement friendships and lead to shared experiences. Bad adventures disrupt friendships and lead to distrust and misfortune. The river is the perfect symbol of the good adventure. It offers variety and novelty, yet connects all the friends in a lively and delightful environment.

Definition of a good book

Milton and Satan illustrated by Edward Sorel

Milton wary of Satan, New Yorker illustration by Edward Sorel

Poet John Milton defined a good book as: “The precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” (Areopagitica, 1644)

The quote appears in Areopagitica, a defence of free speech written by Milton after visiting the famous astronomer Galileo in 1638. Galileo was then under house arrest in Italy, having been forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. The New Yorker article, Return to Paradise, June 2, 2008, describes Milton’s visit. The article contrasts the modernity of Galileo’s view of the world, with Milton’s rather more old-fashioned notions of God at war with his rebel angels. What I find interesting is that the English poet seeks out a scientist and in some ways sees him as a kindred spirit–a man struggling to understand and convey a picture of the universe.

In this post, I focus on Milton’s definition of a good book. The definition is one sentence charged with several metaphors and paradoxes. For instance, “precious life-blood” is a metaphor referring to the human body. In 1628, Milton’s English contemporary William Harvey published his book De Motu Cordis, outlining for the first time the precise way that blood circulated within the body. This “life-blood” contrasts with a “master spirit.” A spirit is immaterial: a personality, a way of thinking and being. The blood of a spirit or immaterial being is a paradoxical concept as ghosts usually lack physical attributes like blood. To modern ears, the phrase “master spirit” sounds pompous and ominous, emerging out of an era of masters and slaves. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833, a century and a half after Milton’s death. However, Milton most likely meant “master” in the sense of “master of himself,” an independent thinker. The phrase “master spirit” also reminds me of the apprentice system. One is not born an artist; one learns to be an artist through experience and the mastery of a craft. Canadian critic Northrop Frye uses the phrase “the educated imagination” in much the same way. When Milton combines these two metaphors, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit” he suggests that books have a physical element that relate to the laws of nature and science, as well as a spiritual aspect that is more elusive but still shaped by tradition, upbringing and study.

Milton’s phrase “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” presents a fascinating mixture of associations. Embalming was practised by the royalty in Britain at this time. For example, King James I had his two-year-old daughter Margaret embalmed when she died in 1600. This same period saw a proliferation of funerary monuments, and the wide-spread use of epitaphs on graves, identifying the occupation and interests of the deceased, reflect a new belief in the importance of the individual. “Embalmed and treasured up” the writer acts as mortician and pirate. He is both preserver and thief, with his stolen observations of a particular time and culture. This buried treasure is hidden and the readers of a good book must uncover the rich secrets that lie within. There is a further implication that the value of a good book, like buried treasure, increases as it lives beyond the disappearance of the world in which it was created. That it can give “life beyond life” gives a book a kind of supernatural power. Through books, we move forward and backward through time and converse with the dead. Books promise fame and immortality to their creators, but anyone who reads a book written in the past, participates in this powerful exchange that exceeds the limits of a single life.

Milton uses the word “life” three times in his short definition. Life can mean vitality, as in “he is full of life.” There are kinds and degrees of life: “a life of action and purpose” or “a meager, frightened life.” When we say, “Tell me about your life,” we are asking for a story. A good book is above all else a good story. Ecology is the study of the interaction of many life-forms, as when we speak of “life on earth.” Life beyond life suggests resurrection and a religious state of nirvana or transcendence.

There’s a paradox in this as well. When Milton says, “life beyond life,” isn’t this the same as saying “life beyond death”? Life is also death. A good book is a recognition of this and also an escape from it. It is a recognition of the human condition, with an escape clause built in.

In summary, a good book for Milton is blood, spirit, monument, treasure and time capsule. It is life, but also death and an escape from death. That’s quite a definition.

The Ghosts of Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

When it was announced this week that short-story specialist Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature, Canadians from coast to coast shook their heads in wonder and smiled inwardly with deep satisfaction. Canada has produced many great writers, but no other writer has such unequivocal support or is more admired than Alice Munro. She writes with modesty, with precision, with insight into human character and has the skill to evoke a powerful range of feelings with subtlety and nuance. She is truly Canada’s Chekhov.

The following quote by Munro has appeared in just about every tribute and news-story about the author: “I want to tell a story in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.”

But how exactly does Munro achieve this? I approach this question by looking at two stories about neighbors, “The Shining Houses” (from Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968) and “Fits” (from The Progress of Love, 1985). One is the story of the cruelty of supposedly good people; the other traces a town’s reaction to the murder/ suicide of an elderly couple. Both stories have an outward action and an inward action. Events trigger reactions and it is the contemplation of these reactions that awaken a new sense of understanding in the central characters.

Munro's first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades

Munro’s first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

“The Shining Houses” has a single narrator and the story revolves around her sudden awareness of the vulnerability of an individual who stands apart from the impulses of the community. In a neighborhood that is being gentrified, rapidly changing from sparse unkempt hobby-farms to densely-packed suburb with well-attended gardens and manicured lawns, one old lady who refuses to change is seen as a bothersome nuisance; her home is an eyesore to the movement of progress. A plan is put in place to evict the old lady and have her house torn down. The narrator sees the callousness of this scheme, and the uncharitable lack of sympathy for someone who represents part of the history of the place. The new neighbors act selfishly, but disguise this self-interest as community virtue. This is how Munro describes it: “And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assurance and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behaviour as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.”

When the narrator refuses to go along, she realizes, as an individual acting in opposition to the group, she opens herself up to a similar kind of targeting. So why does she take the oppositional stance that she does? She is powerless to help the old lady who will be evicted. She has no influence within the group. Still there is a sense that by voicing her opposition, she has performed a small act of courage and held true to her own conscience. She may pay a price for this in the future. In fact that price has already begun as the narrator starts to separate herself from the others in her mind.

The Progress of Love

The Progress of Love, 1985, winner of Governor General’s Award for fiction

“Fits” has a more complex structure with its diverse narrators and multiple back-stories. Reactions to an unexpected and gruesome crime reveal striking differences among the characters, whose values are shaped by long-ago events. A husband thinks back on his former love affairs with married women, affairs he now regards as an avoidance of reality. Munro writes: “‘There are things I just absolutely and eternally want to forget about,’ Robert had told Peg. He talked to her about cutting his losses, abandoning old bad habits, old deceptions and self-deceptions, mistaken notions about life, and about himself. He said that he had been an emotional spendthrift, and had thrown himself into hopeless and painful entanglements as a way of avoiding anything that had normal possibilities. That was all experiment and posturing, rejection of the ordinary, decent contracts of life. So he said to her. Errors of avoidance, when he had thought he was running risks and getting intense experiences.”

Tiring of these passionate but difficult entanglements, the man marries a practical woman who shares his desire for a home and family. Unfortunately, his wife lacks imagination, as well as the ability to share her deepest feelings with others. This failing becomes glaringly clear after the wife discovers the bodies of the murdered couple. The wife informs the police but neglects to tell a single member of her own family of her horrific discovery, nor does she confide to them any sense of her reaction to this shattering event.

The way people talk and interact with one another is one of Munro’s chief concerns, the bridges and barriers created by the slightest of gestures. She sets up the differences between husband and wife like this: “His friendliness and obligingness were often emphatic, so that people might get the feeling of being buffeted from all sides. This is a manner that serves him well in Gilmore, where assurances are supposed to be repeated, and in fact much of the conversation is repetition, a sort of dance of good intentions, without surprises.” In contrast to the husband’s garrulousness is his wife’s reserve. “Peg smiled as she would smile in the store when she gave you your change–a quick transactional smile, nothing personal … Robert once told her he had never met anyone so self-contained as she was. (His women have usually been talkative, stylishly effective, though careless about some of the details, tense, lively, ‘interesting.’) Peg said she didn’t know what he meant.”

The husband contrasts his wife’s non-reaction to the crime to the over-reaction of the town’s people who can’t stop talking about the murdered couple and the possible motives for why it happened. The husband is aware of his own over-active imagination. It’s a flaw, but at least it is one he’s able to share, along with his struggle to manage it in appropriate ways. After a long winter walk, he decides to return to his wife, though he remains troubled by her cool demeaner.

The story ends with new information, information unknown to the husband. This information suggests the wife was indeed affected by the scene she witnessed. She was so affected that she lied about certain details in order to cover-up what she went through. The husband doubts his wife, but his understanding of her is incomplete and imperfect. This is where the story ends, with doubts, lies, and an imperfect understanding of the other. It is not the murder that is strange in this story; it is the way the murder leads to a maze of unexpected connections and misconnections, misgivings and unresolved needs, among the seemingly unimportant characters.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

I’m tempted to link Munro to the movement of Magical Realism often associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salmon Rushdie, and other writers who mix fantastic elements into otherwise closely observed and detailed stories. While Munro’s prose is not as saturated and flowery as these more ‘tropical’ writers—she has that Northern coolness of temperament—two key features of Magical Realism abound in her work: the multi-layered stories-within-a-story and the presence of ghosts. By ghosts I mean the sudden (often inconvenient) eruption of the past into the present and the feeling of characters being haunted by a force not known or knowable by others.

In the stories I’ve cited, the evicted woman in “The Shining Houses” serves as a kind of ghost and she affects the narrator in ways that her other neighbors will never understand. The evicted woman is the only character with a back-story, which tells of a ghost-like husband who abandoned her. Munro has her narrator uncover this fact: “She did not talk to many old people any more. Most of the people she knew had lives like her own, in which things were not sorted out yet, and it is not certain if this thing, or that, should be taken seriously. Mrs. Fullerton had no questions of this kind. How was it possible, for instance, not to take seriously the broad back of Mr. Fullerton, disappearing down the road on a summer day, not to return? ‘I didn’t know that,’ said Mary. ‘I always thought Mr. Fullerton was dead.” “He’s no more dead than I am,’ said Mrs. Fullerton, sitting up straight … ‘he’s just gone off on his travels, that’s what he is.'” The old woman refuses to move from her rundown house because otherwise how will the ghostly husband ever find her? The eviction, which she does not know is in the works, will cause a metaphysical rupture from which it is unlikely she will recover. This is the purpose of the ghost.

“Fits” draws its title from a theory advanced by the character Robert: people behave like landscapes that are prone to periodic earthquakes, eruptions, and other fits, the causes of which are largely hidden and invisible. The ghost in this story is also a husband who has deserted his wife and disappeared in search of a place that is equal to his imagination. The ghostly husband represents the need for imaginative or psychic connection with another person. Without this, one encounters the ghost state of metaphysical rupture. Robert has taken the ghostly husband’s place and sees a similar dilemma opening up before him. “A man doesn’t just drive farther and farther away in his trucks until he disappears from his wife’s view. Not even if he has always dreamed of the Arctic. Things happen before he goes. Marriage knots aren’t going to slip apart painlessly, with the pull of distance. There’s got to be some wrenching and slashing.” Fits of strangeness reveal the truth that any life contains its fair share of secrets and scars that can never be entirely erased, as well as images and emotions that cannot be communicated adequately from one person to another.

I’d like to thank my sister Janet Pope for suggesting the topic of this post and for lending me copies of the two stories by Alice Munro. Along with the books, Janet wrote me the following note to add to this blog:

“Like an archaeologist assigned an unpromising site, Alice Munro takes ordinary people and starts digging through layers, accumulations, detritus of the past till she uncovers evidence of a richly imagined life. This patient exploration in story after story changes the reader. She enlarges the assumptions we had about others which are usually narrow and static. She makes us see that people are endlessly complex, ‘moving out of their prisons, showing powers we never dream they have.’ Through the Munro process, we, as ‘ordinary people,’ learn to recognize and respect our subterranean depths.”

The Flying Change

Kathleen read me this poem last night from one of May Sarton’s journals (After the Stroke):

I see that age will make my hands a sieve/ But for a moment the shifting world suspends/ its flight and leans toward the sun once more/ as if to interrupt its mindless plunge/ through works and days that will not come again./ I hold myself immobile in bright air/ sustained in time astride the flying change. — Henry Taylor

It made me think of forces I cannot control. Getting into a mind space where I am less of a control freak, where I just allow things to happen, accept the things that do happen, while also contributing to making things happen. To participate in the forces of change enjoying both “the moment the shifting world suspends” and  the “mindless plunge” alike.

 

Treacherous Waters: The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Cover of the 1st edition, published by Coward-McCann in 1955

Tom Ripley is a counterfeiter, con artist and murderous anti-hero, yet his journey of self-discovery is strangely compelling in Patricia Highsmith’s gripping crime novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, first published in 1955. There are many ways to regard this novel: as a portrait of human pathology, as an adventure story, as a travelogue, as a critique of American values of the 1950s. Today I approach this novel as part of a series of blogs on water imagery and symbolism in art & literature.

The cover of the first edition gives some hint to the meaning of water in the novel. It serves as a barrier separating characters, preventing their understanding of one another. Water also runs a meandering, unpredictable course–like the twisting plot that features false identities, murder, pursuit and cover-up.

Early in the novel, Highsmith upsets expectations of water signifying anything romantic. “The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on … As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage. Or maybe he was afraid. He hated water. He had never been anywhere before on water, except to New Orleans from New York and back to New York again, but then he had been working on a banana boat mostly below deck, and he had hardly realized he was on water. The few times he had been on deck the sight of the water had at first frightened him, then made him feel sick, and he had always run below deck again, where, contrary to what people said, he had felt better. His parents had drowned in Boston harbour, and Tom had always thought that had something to do with it, because as long as he could remember he had always been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim.” (p. 25)

The Queen Mary steaming down the Hudson River in 1946. Tom would have boarded a similar ship on his passage to Europe.  Photo by Andreas Feininger

The author connects water in Tom’s mind with childhood trauma. But the ocean voyage also has a liberating effect on Tom. “He began to play a role on the ship, that of a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him … He was starting a new life. Goodbye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. He felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and their relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America. A clean slate!” (p. 34-35)

Patricia Highsmith at work

The story reflects aspects of Highsmith’s own life. Her self-exile from the USA, restless travels, learning languages, making new friends and growth as a writer. The excitement of fresh encounters is tempered by memories of an unhappy childhood and the persecution she felt living as an openly gay woman in McCarthy-era America. She spent time in Mexico, Italy, and France before settling in Switzerland and finding a receptive ear at the Swiss publishing house Diogenes Verlag.

 

In Highsmith’s novel, the first function of water is to separate the characters into two realms: the worldly but rootless Europeanized Americans and the vulgar money-making stay-at-home Americans. The next function of water is to set Tom on his way to discovering what kind of person he is, identifying and developing his own unique talents. This is the classic hero’s journey, something the reader might well identify with. Perversely Tom’s talents involve lying, deception and murder–all socially unacceptable traits. Tom tries to fit in with the people he encounters, and is stung by their rejection of him. The rejection is largely based on class prejudice. Tom is not rich and independent like the others. He does not own a yacht. He lacks their education and knowledge of art and foreign languages. However he is a quick study and is able to mimic their ways quite easily. At first this mimicry amuses the superficial young aristocrats, who nonetheless feel themselves to be innately superior to Tom. This smug superiority arouses a murderous resentment.

The novel changes moods abruptly. These changes often occur around water.  The first murder takes place on water. Tom Ripley kills a man, but has trouble disposing of the body. In the process Tom is accidently knocked overboard. “He was in the water. He gasped, contracting his body in an upward leap, grabbing at the boat. He missed. The boat had gone into a spin. Tom leapt again, then sank lower, so low the water closed over his head again with a deadly fatal slowness, yet too fast for him to get a breath, and he inhaled a noseful of water just as his eyes sank below the surface. The boat was farther away. He had seen such spins before: they never stopped until somebody climbed in and stopped the motor, and now in the deadly emptiness of the water he suffered in advance the sensations of dying, sank threshing below the surface again, and the crazy motor faded as the water thugged into his ears, blotting out all sound except the frantic sounds that he made inside himself, breathing, struggling, the desperate pounding of his blood.” (106-107)

This terrible scene is followed by a couple of pages detailing Tom’s escape from death and his recuperation in a nearby town. He boards a train and feels himself begin to change. “The white, taut sheets of his berth on the train seemed the most wonderful luxury he had ever known. He caressed them with his hands before he turned the light out. And the clean, blue-grey blankets, the spanking efficiency of the little black net over his head–Tom had an ecstatic moment when he thought of all the pleasure that lay before him now … other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases, shirts, years of freedom, years of pleasure. Then he turned the light out and put his head down and almost at once fell asleep, happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.” (p. 111-112)

Actor Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley in the French film, Plein Soleil, 1960 (directed by René Clément), the first of many adaptations of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Water suggests a reversal of fortunes. From grovelling subservience to wealthy independence. A powerless working-class youth, unrecognized by the world, becomes a resourceful self-confident criminal. But Tom’s confidence periodically gives way to paranoia. Just as water covers up evidence of Tom’s crime, the fear arises that either the body or the stolen boat will wash ashore or resurface in some incriminating way. It is part of Highsmith’s perverse genius that she encourages the viewer to root for the villain, to cheer when he eludes capture, keeping this addictive story going.

The novel ends as it begins on a passenger ship. The sea as barrier and divider of people, as deadly, deceptive, ever-changing in its moods, is an appropriate symbol for this reckless adventurer who counts on luck and his own devious improvisational skills to make his way in the world.