As Mike Leigh's majestic new movie Mr. Turner begins, the famous British artist J. M. W. Turner's father buys pigments for his son in a dusty London shop. The vast psychedelic arrays of glass jars filled with powders of viridian, chrome, cobalt, barium and ultramarine seem as magical as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter or the Cheese Shop in Monty Python. The pure pleasure of this visual moment is a happy indication that Mike Leigh intends to luxuriate in the beauty of 19th Century England as joyously as he did in Topsy-Turvy, his previous biographical epic, and for Mike Leigh fans this is very good news.
It's a telling fact that as I settled in to watch a movie starring the great actor Timothy Spall as the influential British painter J. M. W. Turner, the artist I was mostly thinking about was Mike Leigh. He is one of my favorite living film directors, but he mostly turns out sensitive modest-budget films about regular people in contemporary settings (I wrote about one of these, Happy Go Lucky, last year). He is known for a low-key natural style, but when he delves into grand history (as he did in Topsy-Turvy, in which Gilbert and Sullivan debut The Mikado at the Savoy) he spares no expense on sets, costumes and period detail. I can think of no other historical film director who achieves such a convincing sensation of realism. When Mr. Turner strolls the riverfront at Margate, we can practically feel the refreshing spray on our cheeks.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard never married, but he anguished for years over the existential personal puzzle of love and marriage. He transformed the question into a revolutionary book, Either-Or, published anonymously as Enten-Eller in 1943. This debut work immediately captivated readers, and would turn out to be not only his breakthrough work as a philosopher but also the most successful book he would ever write. Originally published in two volumes, it pretended to be a miscellaneous set of documents found in a desk, loosely edited by a nonexistent person named Victor Eremita.
The documents present a literal "either/or" representing two attitudes: a young Copenhagen fop who writes essays and speeches expressing his dread of the idea of marriage, and the young man's uncle urging his nephew to take the leap. The book also includes texts collected by these men: a "diary of a seducer", a sermon by a country priest. Later commentators have characterized the first figure in Either-Or as a representative the lifestyle of the "Aesthetic Man", and the second figure as the representative "Ethical Man". In this set of documents, neither side wins the argument clearly, suggesting that neither the aesthetic nor the ethical attitude towards life can ever exclude the other. There may be a third implicit voice presented in Either-Or, the voice of the philosopher who apprehends both sides of the question and realizes the impossibility of ever solving the puzzle. This voice has been characterized as that of the "Existential Man", and can be presumed to represent Soren Kierkegaard's own attitude as he fabricated the eternal opposition represented by this book.
(Today's blog post is by a guest philosopher, Tim Hawken, who lives in Western Australia and is the author of two novels, 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts from Deakins University with a triple major in Philosophy, Literature and Journalism.
The image of an Immanuel Kant tattoo is by Aron Dubois.)
Picture yourself walking into a bookstore with a friend. You pick a copy of Les Misérables off the shelf, party because of the shiny ‘movie edition’ cover, party because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Turning to a random page you read the quote:
When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar.
Stunned by the beauty of the words you read them out loud to your companion. He snorts in derision and picks up Ann Coulter's latest book. Running his fingers across the jacket photo, he says to you, without a hint of sarcasm: "Now, she’s beautiful."
(This introduction to a too-little-known French author is the Litkicks debut of Eamon Loingsigh, whose novella An Affair of Concoctions can be sampled here).
I didn’t come across Comte de Lautréamont right away. I found him only after a long search for the most furious literature I could find, and I suspect others don’t find him quickly either, if they find him at all.
As a disgruntled teen, mainstream writers like Stephen King and dusty fuddies like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stephens could not slake my brooding brain. Poe turned my head and Coleridge was my favorite Romantic in school, both with drug addictions and personality disorders that were sent desperately to the pen in order to relieve their burdens, financial or emotional. But when I found Bukowski and Kerouac and those who influenced them, I eventually bumped into Comte de Lautréamont, who quickly became even more interesting to me when I heard that translations abound in many languages, except English.
Lautreamont was born as Isidore Lucien Ducasse in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1846, and left it during a time of great turbulence. His mother died soon after giving birth to him, in the midst of the Argentinian-Uruguayan War, and he was raised by his father, a Uruguayan public official of French ancestry. He was sent to school in Paris, France at the age of thirteen. By seventeen he was known at his Lycée as a quick student, yet morbid and sardonic in humor. Memorizing the Romantic writers as well as Dante, Milton, Baudelaire and Racine, he soon decided to become a writer in order “to portray the pleasures of cruelty!”
A link on Terry Teachout's blog to a super-rare full-length kinescope recording of The Fantasticks from 1964 brought back lots of memories for me, and not just ancient ones, because I've seen this great Off-Broadway musical at least eight times, most recently only a few years ago with my kids. It's a musical comedy about two young lovers whose fathers pretend to be in a bitter feud (they secretly like each other a lot) so their children will want to rebel against them and marry. The ruse works, until the young lovers find out they'd been set up, at which point a whole lot of romantic confusion and angst ensues, followed by a happy ending. The moony overtones of the story are nicely undercut by a deliberately frothy, self-consciously aesthetic staging: there is a character known as the Mute; sets and props are minimal; the orchestra consists of a piano, a small drum kit and a full-size harp.
I saw the play most often at the Sullivan Street Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City, where it ran for four decades. The 1964 kinescope now viewable for the first time is an abbreviated version shown only once on Television. Cut to an hour, the show omits a few characters and at least two songs "It Depends On What You Pay" and "This Plum Is Too Ripe". Still, I watched the whole thing with joy and appreciation, especially relishing the chance to see the two great comic stars Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway harmonize as the two fathers (Lahr was the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and Holloway was Doolitle in My Fair Lady).
Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.
Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009
Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009
Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009
(Please welcome a second Litkicks appearance by Claudia Moscovici, who recently told us about her experience writing the novel Velvet Totalitarianism. Today she introduces the main idea behind her book Romanticism and Postromanticism, an art-related idea that resembles some of the theories I've recently heard about genres and literary fiction. Enjoy ... -- Levi)
Artistic freedom and aesthetic value are interrelated. Art that is not considered valuable by the artistic establishment -- art critics, museum curators and art historians -- doesn’t even get the chance to be evaluated by the public. Such art doesn’t make it to museums of contemporary art like the Guggenheim. It also doesn’t get discussed in the art sections of influential newspapers and art magazines. Analogously, literature that is not considered valuable by the publishing establishment -- literary agents, editors, publishers and critics -- doesn’t get a readership because it never makes it into print. (Granted, of course, the Internet has recently opened up possibilities to express more diverse points of view that didn’t exist before.)
So artistic freedom isn’t just about creating whatever one wants in the privacy of one’s home or studio without the fear of being arrested or shot for it. Although this basic freedom is very necessary, artistic freedom also entails a correlate liberty: namely, the public’s freedom to be exposed to a wide variety of artistic and literary styles. That way we can make our own choices and express our personal tastes. When there’s only one politician or political party to vote for on a ballot it generally means there’s no real freedom of choice in politics. When there’s only one artistic current or style displayed in museums of contemporary art it means there’s no real freedom of choice in art.
You folks did great this time -- not a single wrong guess! Indeed, the answer to yesterday's quiz question is the La Mancha region in Central Spain, north of Toledo and south of Madrid, where Miguel de Cervantes set his great comic novel Don Quixote.
Cervantes did not live in the La Mancha region himself, but he was born nearby in Central Spain and was certainly familiar with the area. A town called Cervantes can also be found in this vicinity, though I have not been able to figure out whether he was named for this town or it was named for him (if anybody knows, please fill us in). Some literary experts believe that he chose the La Mancha region as the home for his hero just so he could name him "Don Quixote de la Mancha" (this was apparently funny, as "mancha" meant "stain").
1. "Detroit Housewife Writes Play". That's how Joyce Carol Oates says she was received as a young beginning writer as she reminisced during a special event Monday night at the Smithsonian Institution. I've heard this writer speak before and in fact enjoyed it enough to want to hear her again (even though, to be honest, I haven't read a whole novel of hers since Black Water in 1992). This gathering found Ms. Oates in sharp and snappy form. She spoke of her stark one-room schoolhouse childhood, cited Lewis Carroll as her earliest literary influence, and charmingly called her interviewer "naive" for suggesting that she might ever allow her characters to tell her about themselves ("how," she asks, "would a character tell me anything?"). On a roll, Ms. Oates also scolded a questioner from the audience who asked if she'd met famous people such as US Presidents, telling him "perhaps there are more important people in the world than male Presidents for me to meet". As always, Ms. Oates' willowy manner and Pre-Raphaelite affect has a breathtaking impact on audiences, and the folks at the Freer Gallery ate her up. She should be in the movies -- she could win an Oscar. I still don't know, though, if I'll find the time to read her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven.
2. I think it's great that Oprah Winfrey has picked Uwem Akpan's Say You're One Of Them as her next influential Oprah's Book Club selection. She has made several brilliant choices over the years, and Say You're One Of Them (which was reviewed on LitKicks here) is a bleak, straightforward book with a strong and highly focused humanitarian message about political violence against children in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Gabon. I'm sure Oprah intends this book is to stand alongside Elie Wiesel's Night on the bookshelf. The author, a young Jesuit born in Nigeria who has traveled through Africa and the world, is as much an activist as an artist, and the book is short on ostentation and long on horrifying truth. A lot of people -- adults and children, often together, often huddling in their own homes -- get killed in this book, but the book is no thriller. Oprah has made an unusual and brave choice.
3. Somebody recently asked "Should literary blogs get political?" Yeah, well, I think we should. It's not like critical issues aren't at stake, like the health care debate, which I find myself following carefully these days. I strongly support a health care bill and a public option, I am 100% behind Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they deal with this difficult challenge, and I really like Will Ferrell's latest commentary on the whole thing.