Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Timothy Spall as J. M. W. Turner as Mike Leigh

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am

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.

Philosophy Weekend: A Dangerous Method

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 25, 2014 05:52 pm

We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.

A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.

Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre and Parody by Carolyn Williams

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 25, 2011 10:33 am

When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three wildly popular masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).

Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.

Romania's Literary Star, or Why Americans Are Obsessed With Dracula

by Claudia Moscovici on Monday, January 31, 2011 10:30 pm

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.

Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

A Pooter Revery

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 11:16 pm

1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.

Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.

It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter, the respectable father of Lupin Pooter and the diarist who calls himself a "Nobody". When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:

I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!

Proust's Lost Time: Beyond The Madeleines

by Michael Norris on Monday, December 13, 2010 10:29 am

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

William James: Henry James’s Smarter Older Brother

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 23, 2006 10:42 pm

This is the last installment of my three-part study of William James, a philosopher I find uniquely compelling. William James was born in New York City in 1842, spent most of his adult life at Harvard University, and died in 1910 at his home in New Hampshire. He originally trained to be a medical doctor, and in this capacity he spent his early academic career absorbing the fascinating writings of new European "psychologists" like Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud. He represented America at international conferences devoted to this then-controversial discipline, helped found Harvard's psychology department, then left the field to turn his attention towards epistemology and philosophy, where he would have his greatest influence.

William James's best books include The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Principles of Psychology and Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. His books are a breezy pleasure to read, and the arguments they present are not only enlightening but also heartening. Reading a book by William James can feel like escaping from jail. His approach to difficult or age-old philosophical debates like the free-will question is to point out that taking any stance on this question is a self-defining action that will determine the apparent "truth" about the matter. The truth does not define the stance; rather, the stance defines the truth. James demonstrates this with his answer to the free will question: "My first act of free will is to believe in free will".

James's concept of truth, which he labelled "Pragmatism" (building upon the work of an earlier American philosopher, Charles Peirce, who used the term "pragmatism" in a less forceful way), became his claim to fame. Interestingly, William James was not the only famous intellectual in his immediate family; the great novelist Henry James was his younger brother.

These are two of the most remarkable American minds, and yet surprisingly little information can be found about the relationship between the brothers. What follows is the evidence I've been able to gather by examining three sources: the biographical record, the published letters, and the fiction of Henry James. Here's what I found:

According to Leon Edel's classic biography of Henry James, the two brothers were close in age but never in temperament. William, the family's eldest, conducted himself with a purposeful moral seriousness, whereas Henry had a puckish sense of humor and a wholly artistic view of life.

In the way that close siblings sometimes do, William and Henry seem to have strictly defined their intellectual borders to oppose and exclude each other. William was generally disinterested in literature and fiction, and Henry scoffed gently at philosophy. The two even seemed to avoid each other physically; William left New York for the green pastures of Harvard University, and Henry abandoned America entirely, so fully losing himself in the rich pleasures of English dinner parties and literary salons that he is often mistaken for a European writer.

A thick Penguin Classics edition of Henry James's letters gives us a direct glimpse at the relationship between the two brothers. They clearly liked and respected each other, but they did not write often, and when they did they tended to chat about the health of their parents, the activities of their three younger siblings and other impersonal matters. But what, I am dying to know, did William think of Henry's remarkable novels? And what did Henry think about his brother's groundbreaking and controversial academic work?

They don't waste much time with praise. In 1905, William wrote to Henry about his latest weighty novel:

I read your Golden Bowl a month of more ago, and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind. I don't enjoy the kind of 'problem,' especially when as in this case it is treated as problematic (viz. the adulterous relations betw. Ch. & the P.), and the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary. Your methods & my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other -- and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?

Amazingly, William James seems to have wished for Ernest Hemingway as a younger brother, though the world would be much poorer for it.

As befits their lifelong pattern, Henry adopted a bemused shrug when discussing his older brother's important books. He never argued with William's conclusions, but sometimes pretended (the pose is hardly believable) to have had to struggle to follow them. In 1907 he apologized for failing to respond more quickly to William's Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, claiming that the book waylaid him even as he agreed with it:

I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission and assimilation that any reaction, very nearly, even that of acknowledgement, would have had almost the taint of dissent or escape. Then I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have (like M. Jourdain) unconsciously pragmatized. You are immensely & universally right ...

Two years later, Henry writes, ending a long friendly letter:

All this time I'm not thanking you in the competent way for your 'Pluralistic' volume -- which now I can effusively do. I read it, while in town, with a more thrilled interest than I can say; with enchantment, with pride, & almost with comprehension. It may sustain & inspire you a little to know that I'm with you, all along the line -- & can conceive of no sense in any philosophy that is not yours!

Praise is the major note in this letter, yet Henry sneakily speaks in negative outlines: the novelist can conceive of no sense in any other philosophy, but it is not clear that he conceives of sense in any philosophy at all.

Henry James grasped the power of pragmatism, but many of his novels feature pragmatic and manipulative villians who destroy the lives of starry-eyed innocents. Gilbert Osmond, Doctor Sloper and the Marquise de Cintre are entirely willful and pragmatic (if not Pragmatistic); Isabel Archer, Catherine Sloper and Christopher Newman are their victims.

There is a danger of over-dramatizing the intellectual gulf between these two liberal thinkers, who clearly respected each other tremendously. Perhaps it's best to conclude that vast significances lie between the Apollonian opinions of the Harvard professor and the Dionysian observations of the London socialite. Both brothers seemed to have liked their younger sister Alice better than they liked each other. Maybe there was just too much brilliance abounding in the room for a single family dinner table to comfortably contain.

Thomas deQuincey: Victorian Confidential

by Bill Ectric on Tuesday, September 20, 2005 09:00 am

I admit to pleasures that some literary academics frown on. Sure, I love the classics, but I also like books about scandal and skullduggery. Bob Woodward's Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi; Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Ed Wood; and Penny Stallings' Rock'N'Roll Confidential are fun to read.

Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called "Lake Poets" of the 1800's (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.

Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey's best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today's standards it's a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn't admit to "slumming" back then.

Merchant of Merchant-Ivory

by Levi Asher on Thursday, May 26, 2005 07:22 am

Let's take a moment for Ismail Merchant, co-creator of some of the best literary films of our time, who died yesterday, May 25, in a London Hospital at age 68.

From 'Shakespeare Wallah' in 1965 to 'The Golden Bowl' in 2000, the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced films steeped in the greatness of Victorian and modern literary traditions, often adapted from books by authors like E. M. Forster and Henry James.

'A Room With A View' was their first breakthrough success, though in my opinion the team hit its peak in 1992 and 1993 with the wonderful 'Howards End' followed by the soaring, sublime 'Remains of the Day', featuring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler in a grand mansion. This film contained a smaller cast and fewer costumes than most Merchant-Ivory productions, but was probably their most thrilling work of all.

Literature's Final Table: An Imaginary Poker Match

by Levi Asher on Saturday, April 16, 2005 02:00 am

Thanks to all of of you who responded to last week's post about how Literature's Final Table would play out. Here was the question I raised:

If William Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet, Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote, William Makepeace Thackeray's Becky Sharp, Herman Melville's Captain Ahab, Henry James' Isabel Archer, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Florentino Ariza and Mario Puzo's Michael Corleone were at the final table in the World Series of Poker, who would win the million dollars?

After careful study, I have prepared the following summary which I believe represents the most likely outcome. I was glad to see that many of you came to the same conclusions I did about these "characters", and I was also interested when some of you came to different conclusions. I stand by this account:

Herman Melville's Captain Ahab is not cut out for the game of poker. He's permanently on tilt, which makes him a fish (if you'll pardon the pun). Personal vendettas and revenge fantasies don't mesh well with no-limit poker games, and Ahab's poker defeat will be simple and quick. He'll probably ride his first two pair all the way up against anything, even against an obvious straight or flush or full house, just to prove how tough he is. He won't feel very tough as he's knocked off the table, the first player removed.


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