Wednesday, October 03, 2007

# 72 A House for Mr. Biswas – V.S. Naipaul

While lunching with Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden noted an advertisement that struck a chord. After work, he arrives home, eager to tell his wife about a vacation cottage for sale, but the audience is against him. Norton has already spilled the beans to Alice and his own wife, Trixie.

The women don’t believe they can afford the cottage. Defensive yet defiant, Kramden cracks open the paper and declaims, “Come to Paradise Acres, the ideal place to spend your summer vacation… $989 buys you a dream house in this enchanted wonderland.”

Kramden argues that he needs a haven from the sonic assault of his daily bus route and from the noise and crowd of his miserable New York apartment. In his mind it’s a chance to partake in the Good Life. TV viewers know otherwise; the stage is set for another failure for the hero, “a dreamer whose visions of upward mobility are constantly thwarted,”
according to The Museum of Broadcast Communications.

The comedic bubble-bursting detailed in “
Cottage for Sale” is typical of The Honeymooners. The episode, the 43rd installment of the Kramden and Norton saga, aired on January 23, 1954. In the early ‘50’s The Honeymooners appeared in sketches on other variety programs; the show’s sole full season lasted from 1955 to 1956. Afterward the characters returned sporadically in skits and specials as late as 1976 on account of their enduring popularity, thanks in part to reruns in syndication.

Why is Ralph Kramden so funny and so resonant?
A Gallery of Archetypes cites him as an avatar of the Clown, “who does his best work as an Everyman.” The web site amplifies:
“The Clown reflects the emotions of the crowd, making an audience laugh by satirizing something they can relate to collectively or by acting out social absurdities. In general, the messages communicated through a Clown's humor are deeply serious and often critical of the hypocrisy in an individual or in some area of society.”
Jackie Gleason described his creation more matter-of-factly: “The poor soul hasn’t got a hell of a lot of ability. But he keeps trying… He's just an ordinary guy who is trying to make it and can’t do it.”

In conceiving The Honeymooners, Gleason based the Kramdens’ dreary dwelling on the Brooklyn apartment he grew up in, even using the same address, 328 Chauncey Street. The borough has embraced its fictional son: the
sign welcoming visitors via the Brooklyn Bridge quotes a Kramden trademark line: “How sweet it is!”

Three years after “Cottage for Sale” first ran, a writer at Oxford University began contemplating in fiction his father’s hardscrabble upbringing 2200 miles south of New York City in rural
Trinidad and then its capital city, Port-of-Spain. V.S. Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, finished in 1960 and published in 1961, describes another scheming Clown/Everyman lured by real estate.

As the cottage does for Ralph Kramden, the house for Mohun Biswas represents an opportunity for a little dignity. When Biswas very tenuously attains kingship of his tenement castle after numerous struggles, he takes pleasure in its relative tranquility (“to hear no noises except those of his family”), echoing Kramden’s desire to be free of clamor next-door, and in its relative autonomy from extended family (“to bar entry to whoever he wished”), mirroring Kramden’s irritation at the frequent presence of a domineering mother-in-law and neighbors such as Alice’s card-playing friends.

Biswas buys his home due to a slick, false piece of salesmanship in the same manner Kramden is victimized by the bait-and-switch of a con-artist salesman. Each hero is overmatched in the marketplace and too proud to admit it. Biswas pays $4,000, an exorbitant sum for his means. Accordingly his wife, Shama, disapproves of this purchase and all his prior rash expenditures—she carefully manages the family finances as Alice manages the Kramdens’ kitty.

The Biswas house quickly proves to be structurally deficient as does the cottage the Kramdens and Nortons buy together for $989 ($7,200 in 2006 dollars). When the New Yorkers first arrive at their new getaway, Ralph and Ed are ridiculously dressed in matching coats, displaying their naiveté toward “vacationing.” The Biswases demonstrate similar inexperience when traveling to the beach for the first time as a family; the underlying cause of poverty adds a melancholy strain.

Whereas the Biswases are stuck in their home and forced to make piecemeal upgrades, the Americans fortuitously shed their albatross and sell the cottage for $1,000. They then learn that the new buyer will flip it for $4,000 (this identical amount emphasizes the high cost of the Biswas house a decade earlier in Trinidad) to the state, which is building a highway through the property. This buyer has “advance information,” a commodity Kramden never has—he’s only a peon in the System and barred from the rapid accumulation of wealth. Biswas is also excluded from such information, whether licit or illicit, such as arson intended to reap insurance money, a tactic called “insuranburn.”

Biswas doesn’t commit arson but he does inappropriately set clearing fires to fields, nearly burning down a house. In his cottage Kramden is similarly inept; he dumps kerosene in the wood burning stove and almost blows up the joint. Neither hero is a modern-day
Prometheus, a master of fire, a defining role of Man.

Each hero’s essential incapacity is evident in his comically distorted physicality. Biswas’s calf muscles lack tone to such an extent that they are often compared to swinging “hammocks.” His poor fitness stems from malnutrition dating to early childhood—by harping on this detail Naipaul indicts a world-order in which billions cannot eat properly. Kramden is obese and the frequent butt of fat jokes, even in “Cottage for Sale.” In reality Gleason the
wealthy actor was a celebrated gourmand; in the context of The Honeymooners and the running barbs about Kramden’s appearance, we see an early depiction of beer-chugging gluttony as a characteristically American form of poor nutrition.

These unfit men don’t take insults lying down. In fact, they hurl more than they catch. The trading of invectives supplies the bulk of the humor in both A House for Mr. Biswas and The Honeymooners, and it points again toward the
archetype: “The shadow aspect of the Clown or Fool manifests as cruel personal mockery or betrayal.”

In 2005 a writer for The American Spectator, James Bowman, looked back at Kramden and
elaborated on the character’s depth:
“[He] looks more and more like a tragic figure. At least he was like King Lear or Othello or Oedipus in not knowing something about himself that the audience did know. In his case, what he didn't know was that his self-presentation was transparent to them, and that everyone could see through his bluster to the weak, vain, greedy, petty self that he thought to keep hidden.”
The episodic nature of the sitcom, Bowman adroitly notes, evokes a crucial difference between Kramden and the classically tragic character brought to “irretrievable ruin.” Kramden isn’t ruined—he returns every week, renewed for more humiliation and frustration. Bowman compares him to the ever beleaguered Wile E. Coyote; we can up the ante and compare Kramden to Sisyphus, whose eternal sessions of futile rock-pushing exemplify “thwarted upward mobility” to be sure.

The French existentialist
Albert Camus considered the doomed Greek in 1955 while the full season of The Honeymooners ran. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus sees the icon as “happy” despite the absurdity of his labor because “His fate belongs to him.”

Ah, Fate, the abstraction so compelling to the ancients. According to the Greek philosopher,
Heraclitus, a contemporary of Buddha, “A man’s character is his guardian divinity,” widely interpreted as “Character is fate,” meaning that our actions and intentions determine our life-paths. This notion significantly influenced Western thought: the German Romanticist Novalis quoted this fragment, and the English novelist Thomas Hardy in turn quoted Novalis.

The extents to which Kramden’s and Biswas’s character strengths and flaws determine their own fates could be debated forever. They are often at the mercy of mystical, natural and social forces beyond their control. For example, “A Cottage for Sale” opens with Alice Kramden and her friends playing bridge, a card game interweaving skill and chance. They commiserate that another woman’s husband “got a promotion.” They’ve gotten a bad deal in life, the scene suggests, and Kramden, the off-camera hero, is fighting against the luck of the draw.

Fate announces itself early in A House for Mr. Biswas. In the prologue we learn that the hero dies (and therefore the ruined Biswas resembles Lear, Othello and Oedipus more than does Kramden). In his last weeks he marvels at his “stupendous” achievement of home ownership, suggesting the state of happiness Camus described.

Indian civilization saw fate as broader than one’s ultimate state in this life. Karma, the “law of cause and effect,”
asserts that a soul’s destiny progresses or regresses during its reincarnations. Actions during past lives affect our present lives; our actions today will affect our subsequent lives.

In a novel by an ethnic Indian about ethnic Indians, replete with Hindu terminology, beliefs and rituals, Naipaul notably preferred to write the English “fate” to the Sanskrit/Hindu/Buddhist “karma.” One might see this as a small token of the author’s pro-Western stance for which he has been both
lauded and reviled.

Thanks to their
colonial presence in India, formalized in 1757, the British have digested karma more often and fully than have Americans. Three popular songs, all by British artists, entertain us with idiosyncratic interpretations of this concept.

John Lennon, the three other Beatles and fellow musician Donovan
studied transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in 1968. Lennon’s 1970 song, “Instant Karma,” sloughs off reincarnation and places cause-and-effect in the here-and-now.

“It’s up to you,” Lennon sings, investing every human with the power to love and live with meaning today. “You’re a superstar,” he adds, envisioning a radiant firmament in which “we all shine on.”

Naipaul presents a more complicated view. His ironical outsider, Mohun Biswas, is at birth cursed by a Hindu pundit to lead an unfortunate life—a message opposite to Lennon’s. Despite this damnation, Biswas doggedly struggles to shine, albeit dimly, against the bleak backdrop of Third World economics and cultural disconnect.

“Karma is important,” chirped
Thom Yorke, the tousled sparrow for Radiohead, a band from Oxford, about the 1997 song “Karma Police.” “The idea that something like karma exists makes me happy. It makes me smile.”

A post-modern composer par excellence, Yorke frequently displays cheeky irony when discussing the often sinister imagery of his songs. He
added, “’Karma Police’ is dedicated to everyone who works for a big firm. It’s a song against bosses.” The lyrics lament corporate suppression of individuality, as so astutely illustrated in the comic strip, Dilbert. The invocation of karma emphasizes the unavoidable presence of thought control.

Kramden and Biswas toil below Yorke’s subjects and Dilbert on the food chain. They are excluded from the management of and capitalization on ideas and people. Biswas for a spell directs plantation workers but he does so disinterestedly and without real authority. Like Kramden he follows his erratic dreams and urges, making him admirable but unsuited for institutional conformity. He is always a prime candidate to be fired.

In 1983 another Brit understood karma on his own terms. Concerning Culture Club’s worldwide hit, “Karma Chameleon,” Boy George said,
“The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature's way of paying you back.”
Noble sentiment there, smacking of aggrandizement. The
lyrics read more like the revenge of a scorned lover; they fit into the soap opera of Boy George’s break-up at the time with drummer Jon Moss, and it was widely noted that “George admitted that many of the songs he wrote and recorded with Culture Club were actually directed toward Moss.” For Boy George, the addressee of his song combats rather than accepts romantic destiny and his true self—he should embrace that he is a “lover” not a “rival.”

The injection of romance into cosmic cause-and-effect brings to mind the impotence, mainly socioeconomic, of Ralph Kramden and Mohun Biswas—neither has meaningful disposable income. Kramden is perpetually childless (and sexually impotent?), but he is also
happily married to Alice, “proving that love does not need glamour to survive.” He is paid back in sustained conjugal passion the way Boy George wants his addressee to be compensated.

Biswas, on the other hand, is certainly not sexually impotent. He has had four children by the time he is 33. The narrative’s repetition of this fact, along with references to a multiplicity of poorly governed, underfed children in the extended family, suggests a quiet but insistent authorial recommendation for birth control. Unlike Kramden, Biswas does not experience romantic love in front of us. One even wonders how and when his children are conceived; the Biswas’s relations are always fraught and the two do not express much more than a grudging simpatico.

The most negative expressions between the Kramdens and Biswases relate to domestic violence. “
To the moon, Alice,” Kramden often yelled, and it became a signature phrase. In “Cottage for Sale” he twice threatens his wife: “One of these days, pow, right in the kisser!” and “I’d like to belt you right now.” These empty threats—Alice never once feared Ralph—represented the height of comedy to the contemporary audience of The Honeymooners since they underscored Ralph’s futile attempt to exert power. There’s little comedy and much discomfort in viewing those threats today.

Mohun Biswas in fact hits his wife, to his discredit, but the context of the narrative also asserts his powerlessness as a traditional patriarch. Biswas’s violence is lesser in degree and frequency than that of the members of his extended family: other husbands beat their wives regularly, even brutally, and the women beat their children mercilessly. These beatings are not just condoned, they are bragged about. Again, there seems to be an insistent authorial protest toward a despicable, unproductive group behavior.

The preeminent feminist novelist, Virginia Woolf, calmly excoriated the commonality of this practice, as she
cited a canonical history book: “Wife-beating, I read, ‘was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low.’”

This comes from Woolf’s 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, which famously introduced the theme of modest spatial independence as a prerequisite for intellectual and artistic development. Mohun Biswas, a frustrated writer himself, intuitively grasps this concept while he yearns for not just a room but an entire house in which he can dream and over which he can lord. As a poor patriarch but a patriarch nonetheless, he partially attains an artist’s shabby dignity to which his wife and daughters are not entitled.

Biswas and Kramden could not frame their quests for real estate in such a context. Naipaul himself, at a
seminar, somewhat affirmed the constricted perspective of his hero, as seen in this exchange:

Q: What do you think are the larger themes of Biswas?
NAI: I think that the theme was outlined very simply - the theme about a man getting a house.

We can also read this as the author’s disingenuous simplification of the novel, in contrast to Boy George’s stretch toward greater meanings in his compositions.

The centathlete read A House for Mr. Biswas and meditated (though not transcendentally) on its meanings while often seated right next to ethnic brethren of Mohun Biswas. A rail commuter on New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line between New York City and Trenton will note the
substantial and rising number of Indian-Americans boarding and detraining at Metropark, Metuchen, and Edison. (Viewing the three stops’ linkage on a map, on a northeast-to-southwest diagonal, recalls the three stars of Orion’s Belt, Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. This asterism probably inspired the layout of the Egyptian pyramids at Giza.)

The lives of these fellow commuters, men and women carrying iPods, laptops and cell phones back and forth from suburban comfort, on the surface do not resemble that of Mohun Biswas. However, his tragic life, inspiring and disturbing, offers much food for thought as a train skims over the New Jersey wetlands, beside egrets and decrepit factories, under the northern sky. How sweet and sour it is.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

# 56 The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

From 1926 to 1929 Dashiell Hammett occupied an apartment at 891 Post Street in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin district. A young husband and father of two, “Dash” lived apart from his family because he suffered from tuberculosis. He wrote The Maltese Falcon in the flat which greatly resembles that of Sam Spade, his detective hero.

Other local buildings figure in the novel, some with their names changed. Gutman, the arch-villain, stays at the Alexandria Hotel, where he drugs Spade. The
model for the fictional lodging was the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, five blocks from Hammett’s apartment.

To this day a popular hotel and stately landmark, the Drake holds personal significance for the centathlete. In 1999, while attending a convention in downtown San Francisco, he ventured out after dinner with an entourage of salesmen in suits, some of them friends, some new acquaintances. It was a breezy but not overly chilly Monday evening. Someone suggested
Harry Denton’s Starlight Room as a destination.

This nightclub, on the 21st floor of the Drake, is advertised to party seekers by an illuminated rotating
gold star atop the hotel. The beacon lured the entourage west, as if they were magi, across Union Square.

The wise guys exited the hotel elevator and spilled into a throng of glitterati—a pleasant surprise on a worknight. A red booth was secured. Conversations unfolded rapidly with neighbors, local suburbanites in for a swank night on the town. Slurping a Manhattan, the centathlete scanned the crowd and the main seating area.

“Hey—there are
The Go-Go’s.”

Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin, those glam-punk goddesses of the ‘80’s, were holding court around a lengthy table. They looked good, more mature since their MTV salad days, but decidedly good. Their three bandmates were absent but not missed on account of a gaggle of women, dressed in skimpy, retro-mod outfits suggestive of the ‘60’s, and a few contemporarily mod rakes. Their giggly colloquy was pierced by Wiedlin’s nasal fife of a voice.

This observation passed largely unremarked in the booth—the entourage was preoccupied with mingling—but one of the neighbors reported having seen The Go-Go’s in concert days before somewhere (California geography means nothing to a Manhattan-slurping business traveler) to the south of the city. The women accompanying Carlisle and Wiedlin, entertaining them with lurid commentaries and accounts of racy exploits as far as the centathlete could tell (maybe he was only projecting), were actual go-go dancers who flanked the band when they performed.

At the far end of the lounge the DJ was churning up the dance floor. The entourage, which the centathlete now privately termed “geeks in wingtips” in light of the stylish company, attained the space and boogied, power-ties flapping flaccidly.

The collective energy was revved up by the opening notes of the mega-smash, “
Livin’ la Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin. That infectious track instantly compelled The Go-Go’s to the floor. Carlisle was radiant, bouncing next to the centathlete and blind to his presence. She was buoyantly engaged with her gal pals, a couple of whom avidly demonstrated their go-go skills on the ledges of the windows displaying panoramic views of the San Francisco night skyline.

As the DJ spurred on the floor with successive numbers, a fellow wingtipped geek engaged one of the go-go dancers in mutual bumping and grinding against the glass. The spectacle was positive and the mood all around was high. Eventually the celebrities’ presence was called out: the DJ played the early ‘80’s hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” For a few delightful moments the centathlete danced to The Go-Go’s with The Go-Go’s, but Carlisle and Wiedlin abruptly returned to their table—apparently their own
beat didn’t make them get off their seat anymore.

The flow eventually subsided and the entourage sat down as well. Desultory conversation ensued. Then, the centathlete noted Carlisle and Wiedlin leading their group out a side door.

“Where are The Go-Go’s going? Let’s follow them.”

The salesmen and a few neighbors proceeded out into a service stairwell not meant for public traffic. Up a few flights they stepped, and out on the
roof itself. The perimeter was ringed by a walkway sunken between stout, chin-high outer walls and a central peak. Down this trough the Go-Go group was smoking and drinking. The geeks satisfied themselves with the impressive vistas and the thrill of the illicit excursion, except for the one salesman who resumed his burgeoning relationship with the window-grinder.

But she had other fish to fry. Upon quitting his company she and her fellow go-go dancers, to the geeks’ astonishment, crawled one at a time up the central slope. They reached the roof’s apex and stood directly under the gold star, yelping triumphantly. After they came down the entourage again followed their lead. The centathlete mounted and ascended the
ladder, which rose above the visual comfort of the outer walls. Vertigo was combated with clenched hands and a steady downward gaze at the rungs. The terminus was a short gangplank around the star’s supporting pole.

The entourage stood on the summit, their tentativeness giving way to exhilaration. The star twirled above their heads. It was gusty and chillier. There was an urban mysticism in the moment and it seemed that an affirming ritual was required, but the surrounding skyscrapers offered no guidance or commentary.

When the geeks descended to the trough and then to the Starlight Room, The Go-Go’s were finishing their drinks at their table. Wiedlin was still chirping. Most of the patrons were gone. Eventually the salesmen traipsed off to their hotel and requested their wake-up calls. The next morning on the convention floor it was established that most of them had not recognized, nor did they care, that they had been in the presence of The Go-Go’s. They had brochures to distribute and quotas to meet.

The centathlete has since returned to that unforgettable gangplank, which can only be accessed surreptitiously, without the knowledge of the Starlight Room staff. Creep and climb at your own peril.

The night with The Go-Go’s— a Low Brush with Fame to be sure—could, in retrospect, serve as stock for a Dashiell Hammett story if embellished appropriately. The centathlete would be a hard-boiled private eye like Sam Spade. His entourage would include seedy characters selling gambling accessories and contraband. Their interaction with the celebrities’ group would be more intimate, involving both overt and ambiguous sexuality, eliciting jealousy. Fog would enshroud the rooftop.

One of the go-go dancers would shriek and fall off, the event not directly seen by the narrator and (most of) his entourage. The celebrities would vanish with their harem. The centathlete, on returning to the lounge, would be met by the management and the cops, who would informally accuse of him of witnessing or perpetrating a murder. The urgent mission, under the suspicion of the SFPD, to find the real killer would ensue…

Many readers applaud such ingredients, now familiar to consumers of literary and film noir, and of much other detective dramas, and they eat up the straightforward, monotone presentation. In 1929 Hammett’s laconic, “objective” narrative style in The Maltese Falcon was
admired and compared to Hemingway’s. The opening paragraph includes:
“Sam Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v… The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows…”
The centathlete found the repetition and passive grammar, here and throughout, downright clunky. Hammett used “was” whenever possible; colorful verbs did not appeal much. “He's an unindicative writer—not a lot of adverbs,” one critic further

The noir atmosphere of The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade’s “existential” mystique attracted countless fans (
Gertrude Stein, for example, who considered Hammett and Charlie Chaplin the two people she wanted to meet in America, according to an interview with the playwright Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s companion) and imitators. However, Hammett himself disengaged from the genre he helped create and he futilely dreamed of producing artistic novels.

The centathlete enjoys noir to a point but he won’t reread its progenitor. He prefers John Huston’s 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon—the third adaptation of Hammett’s book—and he will watch it again.

23rd on the American Film Institute’s Best 100 movies of the 20th century, this adaptation celebrates a triumvirate of thespian magnetism: Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. You can’t beat the stiff swagger and snarled calculations of Bogart (who looked nothing like Hammett’s “blond satan”), the eyelids and insinuating purr of Lorre, and the jowls and learned bluster of Greenstreet. In their roles the masters draw in and repel each other, the minor characters, and us.

By contrast, the novel’s narration kept the centathlete mainly and mildly interested in the puzzle. We know Spade will bring the criminals to justice relatively quickly (the book is short), we just don’t know how. Today the derivative, expedited formula of virtually every TV detective drama (the crime scene, the red herrings, the main suspect, the twist, the confession, justice) is a triter shade of stale. Each new installment makes one mix another Manhattan.

Thus weighing in on the two Falcons, the centathlete considers the general question—the book or the movie?

While common experience prefers the book, minds of varying potency have sought to enlighten us toward a more tolerant perspective. Charles Taylor, a contributing writer to,
railed against bookish snobs who “believe that only words are capable of conveying nuance, distinction, sensibility, thought.” In the desperately polemic and contrarian style typical of many e-zines, he sought to debunk:
“…the old canard that reading is active while watching is passive. Doesn't it depend on what you're reading or watching? It's just as easy for a reader to tune out reading pulpy trash (or, if they're really unlucky, a ‘literary’ snoozer like Michael Ondaatje) as it is to tune out at a movie or in front of TV.”
The allegedly soporific Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and other novels, plays and poems, refrained from casual slander when he
discussed for the Times of London literature and cinema with his friend, the art critic, novelist and intercultural essayist, John Berger:

As a writer are you influenced more by writing than by art?
I think I’m most influenced—only when writing fiction—by cinema.
Why cinema?
First of all, cinematographic editing seems to me to be close to a form of written narrative. Also, that one can have long vistas and close-ups one after the other. And lastly, because of the relationship of the cinema to its public. It’s in the dark. There are people together and yet each is listening and looking alone. People can’t look at paintings like that; they can’t read books like that and somehow, that image is an image of collaboration, the collaboration of the spectator who is no longer a spectator but part of the telling of the story. That image, which comes from the cinema is, to me, more encouraging.

As a connoisseur, philosopher and historian of virtually all the visual arts from Cro-Magnon
cave art (“a metaphysical arena of continually intermittent appearances and disappearances”) to modern photography, Berger is especially qualified to issue meditations such as:
“Compare...the cinema with theatre. Both are dramatic arts. Theatre brings actors before a public and every night during the season they re-enact the same drama. Deep in the nature of theatre is a sense of ritual. The cinema, by contrast, transports its audience individually, singly, out of the theatre towards the unknown.”
In many of his writings Berger emphasizes a socialistic need to uphold connections with the Past, the Environment and the Community. His high-minded appreciation of cinema, as performance art in which the moviegoer is also a collaborator, provokes more than does Taylor’s high-handed dichotomy of “reading vs. watching.”

The centathlete does prefer books to movies; far, far more of the former have enriched as they entertained. That said, after grappling with Berger, the notion of comparing literature to cinema as comparing apples to oranges becomes inapt. If a book is an apple, a movie is a group of oranges dancing on a screen against the dark.

The customary primacy of books matters, perhaps more than the different experiences of reading and watching. In most cases the movie is an adaptation of the book (not vice versa), and originality counts a lot; we must grant that a story’s source material enjoys heavy favoritism, in the manner of parents to a child, in our psyche.

Skimming the web yields several forum
threads about movies that, for some, bettered their inspirations. Certain titles recur:

The Godfather (the centathlete agrees)
The Lord of the Rings (the centathlete disagrees)
The Wizard of Oz
The Shining
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harry Potter
Forest Gump
Fight Club
Gone With the Wind

Further investigation has begun—your opinions and additions are crucial. If you don’t post soon, a man in a trench coat will be making the rounds and asking questions. And if he has to slap you, you’ll like it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

# 84 The Death of the Heart – Elizabeth Bowen

“A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Alexander Pope wrote and the centathlete affirmed through his own dubious example.

While touring western Ireland the centathlete stopped at a B & B in
The Burren, the timeless, rocky region of County Clare. Taking an introductory stroll down the lane, he met a gray-haired woman tending to her bushes. Greetings were exchanged and the gardener issued a welcome and a wish to enjoy the local flora. The centathlete responded with a recap of his travels through Celtic hamlets, across peat bogs, and up The Reek, where St. Patrick meditated. Then, as he was brimming with a tourist’s freshly acquired pack of historical facts, he impulsively sought to emphasize the formidable history of his own hometown, Huntington, NY, founded in 1653 and named in honor of Oliver Cromwell.

The gardener met this information blankly, reiterated her wish, and returned to her pruning. An indefinite period later the centathlete learned that Cromwell is
“the most hated man in Irish history” and therefore that reference on the lane was tantamount to egregiously gross misconduct.

Geez, whaddaya gonna do? To
paraphrase W. Somerset Maugham, the centathlete blogs on occasion to disembarrass his soul. You can’t undo a faux pas committed years ago in the presence of a stranger in a foreign land; you only hope to make yourself a little less dangerous…

When three men bought a sizeable parcel of Long Island from Raseokan, Sachem of the Matinecock tribe, they called it “
Huntington,” as Huntingdon was the birthplace of Cromwell, the Protestant civil-war hero and the soon-to-be Lord Protector of England. (John Major represented Huntingdon in Parliament for years before and after he was British Prime Minister.) The naming would have asserted the English heritage of the settlers and set them apart from the Dutch constituency to the west, centered in Brooklyn and New Amsterdam.

Peter Stuyvesant, the peg-legged Governor of New Amsterdam, and the Dutch had initially welcomed the English, but international politics were threatening the coexistence on Long Island. Across the Atlantic, Cromwell had begun the First Anglo-Dutch War, which ended in April, 1654. The war’s second installment on various fronts resulted in part in the 1664 English capture of New Amsterdam, immediately renamed New York.

In the years before Huntington incorporated, Cromwell suppressed the Catholic, pro-monarchy Irish rebellion, killing thousands at
Drogheda, Wexford and Kilkenny before returning to England to combat the Scottish. While Huntington added to its initial dwellings, Ireland underwent a rapid, calamitous transformation: “Cromwell and the Parliament passed the Act of Settlement of Ireland in 1653 whose goal was the massive transfer of land from Irish hands to English hands.”

One beneficiary of this transfer was
Henry Bowen, an atheistic Welshman who had abandoned a Puritan wife to become a colonel in Cromwell’s army in Ireland. More than 300 years later, this military force inspired Elvis Costello, born Declan Patrick MacManus, to write his 1979 song, “Oliver’s Army.” Having grown up in England of Irish descent, Costello explained his youthful, musical understanding of Cromwell:
“He was a devil incarnate to the Christian brothers. We used to sing very Catholic pieces, they’d be frowned on today as not being in the spirit of church unity, things like “Oh Glorious Spirit of St. Patrick’s” and “Faith of Our Fathers,” lots of take on the history of England from the old-religion martyr’s perspective. And we'd sing the Latin mass without knowing what it meant but loving every line.”
After the campaign Henry Bowen, as a charter member of the “pseudo-aristocracy” of Protestant Anglo-Irish landholders called the
Ascendancy, was given an estate in County Cork. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) directly descended from the colonel; she inherited the estate and its mansion of Bowen’s Court, built in 1776, which she managed until economics dictated its leveling in 1960.

Ireland, its fading “big-house” society, and war do not factor in Bowen’s 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart; the author addressed those subjects in other books. This story takes place in London—where Bowen also lived and frequently engaged with the intellectual
Bloomsbury society—and a southeastern village on the English Channel.

A refined sensibility manifests itself initially through the description of a wintry park scene, and throughout the narrative via perceptions of flowers, the sea, the sky, the woods, and the contemplation of the true inception of Spring. The apprehension of Nature and the Seasons suggests changes and cycles which the characters must obey as they interact and age.

Suggestion is an apt term for the literary style on display; intimation (the word itself appears several times in the text) is better for several reasons. Grown out of the Latin intimatus, “intimate” originally was used in the late 1400’s in English to mean “to publicly or formally announce.” According to the O.E.D., more than 100 years passed before a second meaning was cultivated: “To make known or communicate by any means however indirect; hence, to signify, indicate; to imply, to suggest, to hint at.”

If one person “owns” this latter, more familiar definition, it’s
William Wordsworth, on account of his 1807 poem, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Even an infrequent poetry sampler like the centathlete here recognizes the celebration of an infant’s view of Nature with “the glory and freshness of a dream.”

This joyful innocence is soon forgotten. A six-year-old already mimics the artifice of human affairs: “Then will he fit his tongue/To dialogues of business, love, or strife.” The adult’s best recourse is to fleetingly, partially recapture the earliest perspective, even while praising “those obstinate questionings/Of sense and outward things,/Fallings from us, vanishings.” The final lines sum up the romantic’s heightened perception of the world and his passage through it:

“Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Elizabeth Bowen upholds the heart as the same source for a fulfilling appreciation of life. Her novel displays a nuanced treatment of Wordsworth’s theme of innocence—personified by her heroine, Portia Quayne—corrupted by experience.

Her title reflects the inevitability and totality of this eclipse, updated in the materialistic, manipulative environment of London of the late 1930’s. Decades later, two American musicians, Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby, echoed both Wordsworth’s and Bowen’s outlooks in their 1989 song, “The End of the Innocence.” The
lyrics begin:

Remember when the days were long

And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn't have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standin’ by

The song’s
video presents first the view of a child, perhaps Henley (although he seems more of a slick reincarnation of Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in Our Town), in engaging, comforting small-town surroundings of 1950’s America. The parental security he references was not so cut-and-dried for Elizabeth Bowen or her heroine Portia: both were raised in unstable households and lost their mothers as teenagers (Portia also lost her father).

Continuing with Henley and his video’s director,
David Fincher (who has gone on to direct movies such as Se7en, The Game and Fight Club), we fly over windblown treetops and admire teenage lovers kissing as the “tall grass waves in the wind.” In The Death of the Heart the 16-year-old Portia attempts a similar tryst in bucolic environs but she fails because the older Eddie can’t reciprocate or honor her ardor and innocence.

In another parallel motif, we see Henley lip-syncing in front of a blank movie screen, followed later by a young mother or older sister captivated by a film. Portia first attends a Marx Brothers movie and enjoys the company of Anna and Thomas more than the entertainment; later she attends the cinema with Eddie, Daphne and the Seale entourage, and she is betrayed. Cinema, the dominant medium of man-made illusion, in both works proves to be compellingly necessary yet somehow unsatisfactory in modern life.

In his brief evocation of a girl in Nature and in his chorus (featuring “Offer up your best defense/This is the end of the innocence”), Henley voices a philosophical kinship with Bowen, for whom Portia offers an offense of intense emotional authenticity as her defense. His wistful demeanor in his video suggests he holds thoughts like Wordsworth’s, “too deep for tears,” but his sunglasses toward the close prevent us from really knowing. Henley grafts on a political theme (Bowen and Wordsworth eschew politics) that augments his sense of resignation or, we could imagine, causes him to attain the “slow indignation” with which Bowen’s swans swim in her introductory paragraph. At any rate, “The End of the Innocence” laments an inevitable process.

A Chinese
proverb states, “The saddest thing is the death of the heart,” which can be interpreted as “There is no greater sorrow than a heart that never rejoices.” Wordsworth presents the child’s perspective as the cause and medium for rejoicing. Bowen has her adult characters, Anna and Thomas Quayne, Eddie and St. Quentin, bring about this symbolic death; she would have their own lives enriched by Portia’s alternate rejoicing and awkward missteps.

Her missteps and those of her guardians and acquaintances are muted. Although love and sexuality provide the grist to this dramatic mill, there is no frank depiction or acknowledgment of their physical consummation (Bowen was happily married for almost 30 years to Alan Cameron yet their union was apparently always “
passionless.”). The relations—such as those between Portia and Eddie, Portia and Matchett, Eddie and Daphne, Anna and St. Quentin, and Anna and Eddie—unfold on a charged platonic plane.

Intimations of fulfilled and challenged intimacy (its
meaning of “sexual intercourse” also stems from the same Latin root as “intimations”) charge this plane. Bowen has been compared to Top 100 author Henry James, in whose novels “intimations” appears liberally. Like James, she sees hints of immortality in purely human interaction.

In The Death of the Heart and in James’s The Wings of the Dove we find similar subjects for contemplation. “Sacrificers are not the ones to pity,” Bowen’s narrator writes, “The ones to pity are those they sacrifice.” James’s narrator employs “sacrifice” more than 10 times to describe various attitudes and behaviors. The titles of the three sections of The Death of the Heart—“The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil”—underscore the quasi-religious sense of love and friendship.

A Sufi religious scholar, jurist and philosopher,
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, wrote, “The death of the heart is ignorance; so avoid it.” We might, after reading this novel, think that Bowen would argue that the heart’s death is actually effected by knowledge of human affairs—it can’t be avoided but it can be mitigated by a sympathetic consideration of innocence, a reappraisal of a child’s ignorance. Like an adept cleric, Bowen superbly condenses her observations and lessons into maxims such as, “Illusions are art, for the feeling person, and it is by art that we live, if we do.”

For Bowen, time-old behavioral “patterns” also provoke a religious, pre-Christian, outlook. When Portia anticipates Eddie’s arrival in Seale, the narrator provides another maxim: “The wish to lead out one’s lover must be a tribal feeling; the wish to be seen as loved is part of one’s self-respect.”

The narrative takes its time building psychological and emotional momentum toward this event. When the reality of Eddie’s unsuitability proves devastating to Portia, she says, “But, Eddie, they thought you were my friend. I was so proud because they all thought that.”

With such a simple, candid delivery, Portia powerfully reveals that her expectations of love have been shattered. She loses her innocence in a different, meaner way than she intended. The pride irreparably damaged is complex here: it relates to the social, egoistic and sexual selves. Portia’s status as an innocent 16-year-old woman adds greatly to the damage done, even though it isn’t physical.

Maybe it was pride that prevented the gardener in The Burren from responding at all to the centathlete’s Cromwell gaffe. An older woman, she would likely have frequently experienced a man’s conversational missteps and, unlike Portia, she likely would have recognized that polite silence can be a valuable defense.

The next day at The Burren the centathlete took a most informative and enjoyable walking tour. The guide,
John Connolly, discussed the geography, wildflowers and Celtic folklore and myth. He also addressed the many stone walls pointlessly traversing the barren countryside—they exemplified “futile labor,” ordered built by the British to occupy the starving native Irish during the famine years and keep them from revolting. In Connolly’s polite, matter-of-fact explication, there was the intimation of a pride informed and tempered by History and Nature in your backyard.

More recently the centathlete, at a New York City pub, encountered a group of Irish visitors. Again impulsively, this time lubricated by Guinness, he sought to commune by stating that he is “Irish” in light of one maternal grandfather. “No, you’re of Irish descent,” the young man firmly corrected him. Just one more prompt to get a little more learning.

Monday, May 21, 2007

# 78 Kim – Rudyard Kipling

The apprentice travels far and seeks out his self-appointed master, bringing enthusiasm and formidable, developing talent. Their encounter validates the young man’s worship and makes the path ahead more attainable.

Let’s delve into two real-life instances of this scenario. First, a 20-year-old aspiring musician and college dropout arrived in New York City from the Midwest. Through radio play, albums and an autobiography, he’d identified with the simple, painfully authentic sound of a singer/songwriter fervently committed to a fairer society. A composer and performer of hundreds of songs over more than two decades, the 48-year-old hero was debilitated by
Huntington’s Disease, confined to the Greystone Park psychiatric center in Morris Plains, NJ, where his admirer visited him in 1961.

Bob Dylan played his guitar and sang for Woody Guthrie. He subsequently brought other folk musicians to visit the guru after his transfer to hospitals in Brooklyn. The influence was so profound it was observed that Dylan “dressed, played, and even posed for cameras like Guthrie.”

The second instance took place in 1889 in Elmira, NY. A 23-year-old British journalist voyaged from India for a tour of Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and then the United States, which he entered at San Francisco. He filed reports all along the way, eventually crossing America and making a point to call, unannounced, on a world-famous author who himself had been a newspaperman in his early years. The 53-year-old celebrity was financially troubled despite his immense renown as a writer and raconteur.

Rudyard Kipling presented his credentials, then interrogated Mark Twain tentatively and intermittently; more often he listened and took notes as the white-haired man groused about copyrights and solicitations. Twain, the master of comedy and observation, later said of his guest, “Between us we cover all knowledge. He knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”

Both Dylan and Kipling produced direct testimony of their awe-inspiring meetings. The singer introduced “Song to Woody” on his 1962 debut album,
Bob Dylan. The reporter published his account first as an article and then, 10 years later, as part of his non-fiction collection, From Sea to Sea.

Examining each testimony, we find of course the heartfelt tribute. We also find second-hand imitation and forced diction. In his
lyrics, the rhyme-happy Dylan affected speech that he and most Americans did not use. He dropped his g’s and liberally wielded the “a-“ prefix (“It looks like it’s a-dyin’”)—a take-off on Guthrie, who had given voice to the vernacular of his beloved subjects. Although he was the balladeer of the Okie, the miner, the migrant farmer, and the common man, “Guthrie was not some rube, some natural-born poet who just fell off the turnip truck in the big city. [He] was raised in a middle-class home... The hick was his stage role,” Ed Cray noted.

While it was insightful at the time to uphold the somewhat neglected Guthrie and his style, Dylan’s lines and imagery in this particular song are hackneyed and fall well short of his model’s emotional and political immediacy. For example, the first verse of “Song to Woody” concludes, “I'm seein' your world of people and things/Your paupers and peasants and princes and kings.” The vague language and archaic titles of the referenced characters evoke, ironically, not the charged pleas of Guthrie—who wrote on his
guitar, “This machine kills fascists”—but the sardonic fairy tales of Mark Twain, whose novels’ titles include a prince, a pauper and a king (Arthur).

Kipling’s tribute to Twain began, “You are a contemptible lot, over yonder,” and thus the apprentice affected the folksy parlance of his guru. (Like Guthrie, Twain gave voice to rural dialects after educating himself sufficiently to converse on the most erudite levels, according to his company.) His reporting, like Dylan’s playing, is engrossing enough, but the mimetic relation to his subject, coupled with his starched Victorian rhetoric, makes the centathlete cringe. Here is Kipling going over-the-top as if he were regaling an audience the way Twain did at
public readings:
“Once, indeed, he put his hand on my shoulder. It was an investiture of the Star of India, blue silk, trumpets, and diamond-studded jewel, all complete. If hereafter, in the changes and chances of this mortal life, I fall to cureless ruin, I will tell the superintendent of the workhouse that Mark Twain once put his hand on my shoulder; and he shall give me a room to myself and a double allowance of paupers’ tobacco.”
There’s the “pauper” again—it seems that a fawning apprentice (Kipling/Dylan) has to invoke medieval poverty as if it were a tarot card that must be turned over in such a reading… Whereas Dylan never lyrically protested as directly as Guthrie, Kipling never amused as deeply as Twain. However, the two apprentices each found their own voices and audiences shortly after sitting at the feet of their idols, and they magnificently transcended the humanities on their own terms.

Kipling’s 1901 novel, Kim, reminded the centathlete immediately of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Each book presents a street-smart vagabond on a rich, illuminating voyage toward manhood. Each hero has a senior, loyal sidekick with his own provocative quest.

Kim and Teshoo Lama navigate not the Mississippi River of the U.S. circa 1840 but the arteries and terrains of India circa 1885, especially the
Grand Trunk Road which, according to Lonely Planet, “literally bound India together for centuries, providing a vital link for trade and communication across the empire.”

The escapism of Huckleberry Finn agrees with the American frontier history and sensibility—anything can happen out West in recently established, sparsely populated hamlets. In contrast, the escapism of Kim is curtailed by the ubiquity of other humans (even in remote Kashmir the local society engages the travelers), an entrenched cultural history, and a thriving British regime managing Empire through military force and geopolitical espionage known as “the Great Game.”

As Kim traverses India and what is now Pakistan he exhibits remarkable adeptness, owing to his untraditional upbringing, in run-ins with representatives of many cultures, castes (there are approximately
3,000 castes and 25,000 subcastes in India) and professions. Joe Sixpack will remark that detailed knowledge of this region is vital today.

Such an observation is not lost on the American military as it operates in Afghanistan (referenced in Kim, and the terminus of the Grand Trunk Road) and Iraq. Following is a
passage from a MOUT (Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain) web site:
“The ability to support operations with intelligence in urban areas requires Battlefield Visualization (the “what”), the ability to depict and analyze urban terrain, objects and events in three dimensions; and Situation Awareness (the “why”), the commander’s understanding of the people, resources, and a wide range of forces (such as: culture, politics, religion, economics, etc.) and their relationships.”
Culture, politics, religion, economics—what was ultimately parenthetical for the author, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, is in fact the substance of Kim. Moreover, Kim stands as the avatar of, to use contemporary espionage terminology, first-rate
HUMINT (human intelligence). By upholding Kim and by mocking or punishing culturally myopic and insensitive characters in the novel, Kipling was telling his English audience that more authentically multicultural operatives were essential in order to maintain colonialism. The lesson would apply to a neo-con or like-minded reader in favor of “winning the war on terrorism” abroad.

In Kipling’s narrative Kim acquires fluency in many Asian languages and customs through immersion from birth to adolescence—a pedigree rarely found among Americans. Geography and resources have limited the U.S. Military’s ability to cultivate a legion of Kim’s, but urgent conditions call for an immediate, rudimentary commitment in that direction, as the lieutenant colonel noted:
“HUMINT operations require time to establish even basic relationships between people and are inherently more time consuming to develop than other forms of intelligence. Two weeks is probably the minimum time the urban force would need to be on the ground before it started to pay dividends but once the results
start, they would increase exponentially.”
Any reader should grant that multicultural literacy is positive; the question is, toward what end? Kim accepts the goal of maintaining order and justice under British rule—a point of view that placed Kipling’s work out of favor with anti-colonial perspectives. For example, George Orwell, a Top 100 author who lived for five years in Burma,
labeled Kipling “the prophet of British imperialism in its expansionist phase.”

Orwell’s two essays on Kipling are fun reading for their trenchant, magisterial commentaries and asides, which can read like counterintuitive conundrums (like Noam Chomsky’s confounding observations) the more you consider them:
“There is no ‘Law,’ there is only power. I am not saying that that is a true belief, merely that it is the belief which all modern men do actually hold. Those who pretend otherwise are either intellectual cowards, or power-worshippers under a thin disguise, or have simply not caught up with the age they are living in.”

“All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”

“Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.”
(Americans, switch “Conservative” with “Liberal” and listen how the last sentence rings.)

As a hater of fascists and a sympathetic spokesman for the poor in the 1930’s, Orwell was a spiritual brother of Woody Guthrie. With regard to spiritualism and religion, the two men were not, as one might expect of ardent socialists, simply antagonistic.

admirer of Orwell wrote, “…although [he] wasn't a religious man and didn't go to church (except for the usual occasions like marriage) he ‘loved the land and he loved England and he loved the language of the liturgies of the English Church.’”

Guthrie, as a young man, read up on “eastern religions.” His third wife,
Marjorie Mazia, was Jewish; the couple lived with their children in the Jewish neighborhood of Coney Island. According to one interviewer, their son Arlo “grew up with an awareness of the Jewish roots on his mother's side, but in practice the family was not aligned with any one religion.”

Arlo related a poignant story that elucidated his parents’ views. Before he was born, the Guthries’ infant daughter was terminally injured in a fire, and then:
“She was brought to the hospital, still alive, and my mother rushed in and the nurse said, ‘Mrs. Guthrie, you filled in everything but what religion the child is,’” he says. “She said, ‘All.’ The nurse said, ‘We can't put that.’ So she said to put ‘none.’” Twenty minutes later my father came in and, thinking to get around the confusion, the nurse said, ‘You need to fill in the religion.’ He said, ‘Put “all.” She said, ‘We can't do that.’ So he said, ‘Put “none.”’”
Kipling’s Kim exhibits an “all” religiosity. The boy engages five of the world’s six
largest faiths— Christianity (Catholicism and Anglicanism), Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism—how many novels can claim that diversity?

The hero’s respect for each religion is underscored by the portrayal of universal rituals. Teshoo Lama constantly prays over his “rosary beads” (Kipling does not use the native term
“mala” for them)—a practice that began in India in the 8th Century B.C. At the story’s end he baptizes himself in a river, then asks Kim to follow suit and wash away his own sins, satisfying Buddhist, Hindu and Christian alike. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who spent a lifetime stressing such commonalities, would have been pleased.

Another Campbell called Rudyard Kipling “the first modern science fiction writer.” John W. Campbell, who as an author and editor of
Analog magazine helped usher in “the Golden Age of Science Fiction,” was among many in his genre who idolized Kipling on account of his “approach and technique,” according to Fred Lerner:
“He was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story… Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on… A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.”
The centathlete, a devourer of sci-fi as a teen and sporadic binger as a world-weary adult, would add that another aspect of Kim applies to the work of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Gibson, et al.— is it great children’s literature or adult literature?

Before Kim’s interfaith purification ritual, Teshoo Lama and the Muslim, Mahub Ali, conduct a tête-à-tête in amicable terms yet with divergent perspectives on the recent events and on Kim’s future. The narrative parallel with the final scene of the sci-fi trilogy The Matrix—in which The Oracle and The Architect agree to an entente between the Machine and Human worlds—seems to back up Lerner’s assertion.

After The Architect retreats, The Oracle (an African-American woman) is joined by the Chinese martial arts practitioner and the Indian girl whose father previously discussed “karma” with Neo. The movie’s symbolism reflects the writer-directors’ omnivorous appetite:
"The script was a synthesis of ideas that sort of came together at a moment when we were interested in a lot of things: making mythology relevant in a modern context, relating quantum physics to Zen Buddhism, investigating your own life," said Andy [Wachowski].
Kipling did not need to invent religious and philosophical diversity in Kim; it existed already in India. His boy hero adds the necessity of Action to the many dogmas. This practical bent is exhibited early in the story through his personal symbolism: a red bull on a green field (the insignia of a British military unit, we find out).

To participate sensually in this iconography, the centathlete tried his first Red Bull energy drink. On the palate the beverage recalls vitamins sweetened for pre-teens, begging the question: is this a drink for children or adults?

Invented in Thailand in 1962 and reformulated and marketed in Austria in 1987,
Red Bull employs a logo of two clashing red bulls on a yellow sun, “the epitome of the kinetic virility and pugnacity the beverage claims to provide,” in the opinion of The promotional copy on the can emphasizes the quaff “improves performance, especially during times of stress or strain” and “increases concentration.”

Already high on literature, the centathlete can’t testify to the vitalizing effects, but members of the U.S. military can. Red Bull is “the preferred combat zone pick-me-up,”
according to The Army Times, “which easily moves more than 30,000 cans at contingency exchanges each week.”

The movement toward greater American HUMINT in Asia is thus facilitated…

Sunday, April 22, 2007

# 73 The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West

I’ll wait here
You're crazy
Those vicious streets are filled with strays
You should've never gone to Hollywood

The composer of these lyrics,
Daron Malakian, the guitarist and sometime singer of one of the most popular rock bands in the world, System of a Down, was born and raised in Hollywood. An only child, he and his parents “lived in a one-bedroom apartment in one of [its] ‘ghetto neighborhoods,’” according to an interview with PlayLouder. When Malakian was 13 the family moved 15 minutes away to a house in Glendale. He now lives on a nearby hill, where he was visited by The Explosion, the newspaper of his alma mater, Glendale High School.

Malakian had “dark times” growing up and was a “bad student.” He himself was a “stray” for a time on the “vicious streets” he sings about: “I had friends that were gang members, so it made me open my eyes. I've had enough knives and crowbars pulled on me, but I try to avoid stuff like that now.”

They find you

Two-time you
Say you're the best they've ever seen
You should've never trusted Hollywood

System of a Down was “found” and
signed by American Recordings President (and possible reincarnation of Rasputin) Rick Rubin, who saw the group at L.A.’s Viper Room. Having produced artists including LL Cool J (his first production credit), Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as Shakira, Mick Jagger, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash, Rubin has been one of the foremost tastemakers in American culture for more than a generation.

The centathlete has discussed the role of a music producer with a friend who is a musician and a producer. It’s amorphous. Some producers “turn knobs,” practicing their expertise with studio consoles, some make strong artistic decisions and leave the engineering to others, some mainly sit and chat with their wives and girlfriends about dinner plans.

Malakian described Rubin, who does not turn knobs, as “like a doctor you really trust.” Here’s what he
told Connect about the song containing the lyrics cited above and below:
“I gotta admit when I brought in "Lost in Hollywood" I was like 'Wow - this is the greatest song.' And he's like 'It's alright' and I was like 'alright??!?!'.... I was so pissed that I went home... I had to prove to him and myself. It's just when you got that extra push and when someone second-guesses you like that when you already think you're badass... and you think 'Maybe I'm not so badass.' You go back home and you kick your ass a little over it. And you come up with something better... It's about the song. So that's what Rick brings to the table - that second-guessing. And sometimes I don't understand but it always makes the song better [It's the] simple ideas that make big differences.”
Somber and cautionary, “Lost in Hollywood” concludes
Mezmerize, the first of two albums System of a Down released in 2006.

I wrote you

And told you
You were the biggest fish out here
You should've never gone to Hollywood

Although Malakian was proud of the song (and the centathlete likes it fine), at least one
reviewer found the lyrics “clichéd” because the song addresses “very familiar subject matter about how tough Hollywood is because a lot of people who come out to realize their dreams get used up and spit out.”

This subject was not a cliché in the late 1930’s, when
Nathanael West wrote The Day of the Locust. Born Nathan Weinstein, West was an indifferent student like Malakian—he even used another student’s transcript to transfer from Tufts to Brown University.

After college West
lived in Paris in the mid-1920’s among writers and painters. He returned to New York City, where he worked as the night clerk at The Kenmore Hotel and The Sutton Club Hotel, providing free or steeply discounted rooms to his friends such as the writers Dashiell Hammett, James Farrell, Erskine Caldwell (all Top 100 authors), S.J. Perelman and Edmund Wilson.

In 1935, after publishing three commercially unsuccessful novels, he moved to Hollywood and worked as a screenwriter. His hotel experience surfaced in one character from The Day of the Locust, a former hotel bookkeeper named Homer Simpson.

To come across that name in a book that is nearly 70 years old is startling to anyone acquainted with The Simpsons, which became the
longest running primetime sitcom in 2005 after surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. In two more years it will have outlasted Gunsmoke, the longest running primetime drama.

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, named his Homer Simpson after his father, Homer, and chose the last name whimsically—he dreamt up the animated series in 15 minutes at the Hollywood office of James L. Brooks, a screenwriter turned producer (is Brooks a “knob-turner”?—the centathlete presumes the role of a TV producer is as variable as that of a music producer). Several web sites state that The Day of the Locust is one of Groening’s favorite books but a substantiating quote is not immediately available. In any case, Groening, who is from Portland, moved to Los Angeles as did West and West’s Homer Simpson; his lovably gluttonous Homer stays put in Springfield.

In analyzing The Simpsons, Dan Korte
referred to Groening’s “subversive comic sensibility.” The Day of the Locust displays similarly black humor (ex. when the naïve Homer, in asserting that he knows what a “fairy” is, misreads Tod Hackett’s lips and says “Momo” instead of “Homo”). Moreover, its overall brevity, truncated chapters, and multiplicity of grotesque characters—all set against an awareness of pop culture and glamour—will remind readers of the TV show. Korte cited another writer, Ed Bishop, who considers The Simpsons revolutionary entertainment:
“But the appeal of The Simpsons goes beyond its humor. There's an angst, a kind of doom, in The Simpsons that's unlike anything else on television. The Simpsons are a family of losers and they know it…Yet, though there's angst and even self-pity in these characters, they are not defeated.”
This appraisal could easily apply to The Day of the Locust, but on Bishop’s last point the book goes blacker: its characters are routed.

They take you
And make you
They look at you in disgusting ways
You should've never trusted Hollywood

Early on, The Day of the Locust recounts the protagonist Tod Hackett’s first meeting with Abe Kusich outside a prostitute’s room in a seedy hotel. West himself lived in similar quarters—The Pa-Va-Sed Hotel (the centathlete thought of “perverse”)—among “stuntmen, extras, and midgets,”
according to Richard Simon.

Kusich is a combative dwarf; his prominence recalled for the centathlete David Lynch’s movies, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, in which a dwarf represents a
master spirit, and Mulholland Drive, in which the studio chief was played by a little person who wore a prosthetic “normal-size” body.

A dreamy, violent, grotesque exploration of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive reminded one reviewer, Joan Dupont, of a certain novel, prompting the following
exchange with Lynch:
“When you tell him that his film has the mood of Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, he says ‘Bless your heart,’ in warm tones straight from the heartland. ‘I love that book, I love the ‘30s and Sunset Boulevard.’”
Lynch expounded partly on the appeal of the actual Mulholland Drive: "It’s the wilds, in many places it’s desert, and you could run into a coyote, or who knows what? It’s easy to imagine almost anything happening.”

The desert outside L.A. is the setting for strange doings between Hackett, Earl Shoop, Faye Greener and The Mexican in The Day of the Locust.

Originally from Missoula, Lynch went to school in Philadelphia and Boston, where he
roomed with Peter Wolf, the future singer of The J. Geils Band. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles and currently resides in the Hollywood Hills.

Lynch’s fondness for music appears as stagey, transgender lip-syncing and cabaret in Blue Velvet. The Day of the Locust includes a performance at a club featuring female impersonators.

From his own hilltop close by, Malakian referenced the lechery of Hollywood, which also intrigued West. The novelist’s recipient and exploiter of numerous “disgusting” looks, Faye Greener, the 17-year-old wannabe starlet, could easily be the dedicatee of “Lost in Hollywood.”

When Hackett visits a party at an upscale Hollywood brothel, the madam, Audrey Jenning, readily evokes
Heidi Fleiss. Greener opts to work for Jenning to pay for her father’s funeral; the centathlete thought of Lynn Bracken, the fetching prostitute played by Kim Basinger in 1997’s L.A. Confidential. That movie updated the genre of film noir, created in part by West’s friend and boarder, Dashiell Hammett, through books like The Maltese Falcon. Certainly West drew on and contributed to literary noir.

The disgusting ways on parade in The Day of the Locust are not restricted to adults. Adore Loomis, an aspiring child star accompanied by his stage mother, entertains Hackett and Simpson with a rendition of “Mama Doan Wan’ No Peas.” The little boy embellishes the traditional blues song with “extremely suggestive” gestures and “sexual pain.”

The centathlete and another
blogger thought of the prepubescent Britney Spears on Star Search, swiveling her shoulders and kicking out her heels, singing “I Don’t Care” like a spurned, defiant woman.

I was standing on the wall

Feeling ten feet tall
All you maggots
Smoking fags on Santa Monica Blvd

This is my front page

This is my new age
All you bitches put your hands in the air
And wave them like you just don't care

Malakian’s lyrics now address the same mob that West portrays: the star-obsessed poseurs and sheep. The musician’s use of “maggots” and “bitches” is sneering (not misogynistic), in keeping with the edgy, confrontational style of his previous compositions. At a System of a Down concert we can imagine the audience obeying the condescending exhortation, waving their hands, and thereby complicating the boundaries of mob behavior.

The writer has more room for sustained treatment of this motif, as in the relatively lengthy (13 pages), final chapter of the riot. This conflagration occurs outside a movie premiere hours before the celebrities have arrived. West was perhaps the first novelist to focus on the mob and the wannabes rather than the stars—there are no established actors or producers in The Day of the Locust, although the book is very much about Hollywood. The only character who has “made it” in the industry is Claude Estee, the “successful screen writer,” but he is shown to be a debauched poseur himself.

West’s unorthodox perspective, ingenuity, reflexiveness and humor reminded the centathlete of the screenwriter
Charlie Kaufman. Late in the novel, when Hackett is processing Homer Simpson’s incoherent outburst, the following passage jumps out:
“He hit on a key that helped when he realized that a lot of it wasn’t jumbled so much as timeless. The words went behind each other instead of after. What he had taken for long strings were really one thick word and not a sentence. In the same way several sentences were simultaneous and not a paragraph. Using this key, he was able to arrange a part of what he had heard so that it made the usual kind of sense.”
This conception of a non-sequential story, told within a sequential story, anticipates the surreal blending of narrative with meta-narrative that Kaufman employed in Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The “usual kind of sense” that follows an initially absurd situation applies to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For the centathlete, West’s skill is on par with Kaufman’s; both writers provoke and engross, yet their craftsmanship is less ambitious than their ideas. Their respective works are self-consciously constrained—every chapter or scene has a “hit or miss” quality. That said, the centathlete has enjoyed every Kaufman movie, and he will always wait with relish for the next one.

Although The Day of the Locust was largely ignored when it was published, one reader “was impressed by the pathological crowd.” This was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who for a time lived next-door to West in Hollywood, working at screenwriting like his neighbor and friend. Fitzgerald
attended a party at West’s only a week before he died in 1940. West was vacationing in Mexico with his new wife when he learned of the death; the two were killed in a car accident in El Centro, CA as they drove to attend Fitzgerald’s funeral. Ironically, in his novel, West described and complicated a paltry funeral, attended by vacuous, somewhat sinister celebrity-hounds.

Look at all of them beg to stay

Phony people come to pray

West revels in the evangelical quackery of Los Angeles—he lists many upstart sects and quirky sermon topics such as “The Crusade Against the Salt” and “Brain-Breathing, the Secret of the Aztecs.” The mob’s longing for meaning seems desperate and ridiculous—this same longing leads it to pray to idols on Earth, the stars of Hollywood, to which Malakian apparently refers. West employs a very similar turn of phrase to the one above: his characters “come to California to die.”

You should've never trusted Hollywood

You should've never gone to Hollywood

These final words warn against the same dangers that West dramatized. Of course Malakian himself didn’t “go” to Hollywood; he never left. But he knows better, we can assume, and he doesn’t play the empty, untrustworthy game of “Old School Hollywood,” the title of the song that precedes “Lost in Hollywood.”

In his introduction to The Day of the Locust, Alfred Kazin set out to emphasize that times were different when the novel was written, beginning with, “Hollywood in the 1980’s is not the glamour capital and dream factory that once excited millions of Americans as the most magical but improbable place on earth.” If that were in fact true then, it isn’t now. Who can deny Hollywood’s primacy in the current American psyche—and in the global zeitgeist? The praying, longing and relocation/tourism remain robust; the red carpet is more crowded, surrounded, and watched via TV and the Internet every season.

Kazin also observed that West insightfully argued that the mob, rather than adulate, “really wants to kill its idols.” Nowadays we see that wish enacted by stalkers and, by proxy, by encroaching paparazzi, articulated on numerous “death pool”
web sites, translated on the pages of the tabloids, and tacitly affirmed in the much-watched coverage of the deceased such as Anna Nicole Smith. In short, the motifs of The Day of the Locust are all too recognizable today, and the sensibility lives on with “outsiders” such as Groening and Kaufman, who moved to L.A. to write films, just like Nathanael West and so many others.

And there are outsiders like David Lynch who wouldn’t add their voices to Malakian’s—they wouldn’t tell Faye Greener or you to stay away. Ever the cryptic dream weaver, Lynch said, “I like Los Angeles. There’s smog, and there’s gangs and trouble, but, at the same time, there’s an optimistic sort of feeling.”