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.

But even when Mike Leigh delves into British history it's his emotional intensity that is really epic, and every Mike Leigh film will eventually (after much charming misdirection and improvisation) offer a clash and a resolution. Mr. Turner's affective axis turns on the gruff artist's impulsive and secretive love life. He cruelly manipulates and ignores several women, but eventually manages to find his home in a quiet arrangement with a sea salt's widow, played by Marion Bailey.

Like W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy, it's clear that the dyspeptic J. M. W. Turner craves the companionship of a loving woman, though he never manages to come to terms with the moral implications of a caring relationship. Turner the celebrity artist is far more confident with his adoring public than with any of the odd human beings he is forced to interact with, and it's impossible not to imagine that Mike Leigh must be painting a portrait of himself with this vision of a stumbling famous artist who lives for his visionary work, while somehow barely managing to survive his everyday life.

Mr. Turner features performances by several regulars in the Mike Leigh acting troupe, like Martin Savage, whose failed-artist character unfortunately doesn't have the dimensionality of his unforgettable George Grossmith in Topsy-Turvy, and Dorothy Atkinson, who played Jessie Bond in Topsy-Turvy and here nearly steals the show as a sickly and silent housekeeper who allows Turner to molest her whenever the impulse strikes. Timothy Spall is also a longtime member of the Mike Leigh troupe (though many film viewers will only recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter), and when he paints by violently stabbing his canvas with a thick brush in Mr. Turner he recalls the dumb London punk he played decades ago in Leigh's Life Is Sweet.

These fine actors appear here as tiny objects in a gigantic world: gorgeous skyscapes and mountain surfaces, railway apparitions, marine infinities. Mike Leigh the cinematic painter is certainly competing with J. M. W. Turner the oil painter in Mr. Turner, and since we're on Mike Leigh's home field he very nearly wins the battle.

I came to this film with no special interest in J. M. W. Turner's art. Like most people today, I am more familiar with the French Impressionists than their British predecessors, and I also find Turner's blues, grays, browns and yellows a difficult palette to love. (I learned in my post-viewing research that Turner's paintings were made with inferior crimsons that have badly faded, which may be why many modern art lovers like myself have trouble feeling as rapturous about Turner's paintings as did critics of his era like John Ruskin, who is portrayed in this film as an eager fanboy with a hilarious upper-class English drawl.)

Turner's paintings have faded, but Mike Leigh's film will certainly give his legacy new life. It occurred to me last year as I wrote about the American director Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that Richard Linklater may be the closest thing the USA has to the genius of Mike Leigh, and I thought about Boyhood again as I watched Mr. Turner. Linklater and Leigh have a special quality in common: neither director is afraid to present a simply happy film.

Like Boyhood, Mr. Turner is a happy film not because it ignores tragedy and cruelty and pathos, but because it incorporates them into a stunning grand vision of redemption and love in an uncaring natural world.


Timothy Spall plays the artist J. M. W. Turner in a beautiful new film directed by Mike Leigh.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015 04:56 am
Actor Timothy Spall with director Mike Leigh
Levi Asher

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.

The passage of fetchingly hysterical Sabina Spielrein to mature and productive work as a psychologist forms this movie's basic plot, and the famous rivalry between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud swirls around Sabina's success story. The menage a trios plot frame probably helped to make this film possible (a conventional love story always helps an ideological dispute go down) but unfortunately the romantic subtext doesn't particularly gel at any point, and the inevitable comparison to Truffaut's Jules and Jim (or Paul Mazursky's wonderful American knockoff Willie and Phil) doesn't help. Kiera Knightley gets to chew on a lot of furniture in the opening scenes, but once she is cured there is only tepid chemistry between her and the stiff, dignified Carl Jung. This is the least satisfying aspect of A Dangerous Method, and perhaps better chemistry between actors could have helped. (We know that David Cronenberg can film great love scenes; sparks flew like crazy between Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum in his best film, The Fly.)

Sparks do fly here between Fassbender's shy, hesitant Jung and Mortensen's intense, domineering Freud. A Dangerous Method wastes no time getting to their core conflict: Freud saw sexuality as the key to every mental illness, while his younger protege searched for wider and more general causes. When the two first meet in Freud's office (decorated, as seen above, with a wonderful array of significant objects that feel positively Jungian), they already feel the tension of their eventual break. They banter about whether or not Freud's place in the field of psychoanalysis resembles that of Columbus (who saw the shore of a new world, but did not know what shore it was) or Galileo or perhaps Moses, with Jung as his Joshua.

Jung is disappointed to find Freud locked into a defensive and embattled stance against the critics of psychoanalysis, and he gently refuses Freud's urgent invitations to become a partisan in this cultural battle. Jung's interest in the social nature of consciousness and the possible validity of religious impulse alienates Freud. The break as depicted in this film matches exactly the story known to historians of the movement, and is presented with more clarity than theatricality. Cronenberg's artistic restraint is admirable, though perhaps a cinematic flight of fancy or two might have actually helped this work to soar. As it stands, the most emotional moment in the movie comes at the very end, when it is revealed how various heroes of this story were suddenly destroyed in World War Two.

Was the promise of psychoanalytic research itself lost in that disastrous war? I liked A Dangerous Method best as a reminder of the importance of the mission that inspired both Freud and Jung (and other early psychologists like Otto Gross, who also appears within this film's menage). I have written about Carl Jung on this blog once or twice, but not as much as I would like to. His importance is barely recognized in the world today, his reputation nebulous, his ideas considered quaint. His greatest idea was to explore the collective unconscious -- the ways in which we think, feel and act in groups rather than as individuals. This is a vitally important project that has been largely abandoned since the murderous maelstrom of the mid 20th Century. It was not abandoned because it was not important. Perhaps it was abandoned because it was too important.

Carl Jung was once massively famous, but when his name today comes up the context is often biographical or artistic, as when books like his curious creative work The Red Book are newly published. But it is not Carl Jung the person who is most important today -- rather it is the project of understanding the gigantic but often invisible influence that collective consciousness has on individual human existence that is important, and needs to be carried on. Perhaps it's a good thing that David Cronenberg's film A Dangerous Method presents Carl Jung as such a bland character. The real importance of Carl Jung is not in his personality, but in the forgotten project he began.


A David Cronenberg film about the rivalry between two key founders of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

view /ADangerousMethod
Saturday, January 25, 2014 05:52 pm
Jung and Freud in A Dangerous Method
Levi Asher

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.

That's exactly what Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre and Parody by Carolyn Williams is designed to help you do, and these insights are organized with a particular focus in mind. The book is part of Columbia University's "Gender and Culture Series", and analyzes the operas in three sections: the early ones in terms of genre, the middle period in terms of gender, and the late work in terms of ethnicity and cultural identity.

The time/topic structure feels a bit arbitrary, but the author has so much material to share that it barely matters; one imagines that Carolyn Williams could go on to write a second book that rotates the arrangement in round-robin nature, and then a third. I would happily read all three. Williams knows what we already think we know about Gilbert and Sullivan, and she skillfully deconstructs our preconceptions with precision and gusto.

In the first section on genre, Williams explains that Pinafore, Pirates and Iolanthe were rooted in two dramatic memes well-known to audiences of the time, the nautical melodrama and the extravaganza. This fact would have been plainly obvious to anyone who attended their shows, but many of the connections are obscure today. She shows how Gilbert's authoritative use of parody allowed him to delve into these blatantly audience-pleasing genres without apology. For instance, HMS Pinafore was written as a parody of the nautical melodrama, which always involved a conflict between a commanding officer and a "Jolly Jack Tar". But parody can be a great preservative: Pinafore now stands as one of the only instances of this genre (along with Mutiny on the Bounty and Billy Budd) to survive into the canon.

Carolyn Williams is particularly good on Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan's most literary opera, which was as packed with insider-ish gossip and snark as any Twitter feed today. It's widely known that the character of Bunthorne is based on Oscar Wilde, but Williams turns this on its head and makes the case that Oscar Wilde, at the time a young literary upstart whose great works were yet to be written, actually based his famous persona on the character of Bunthorne! She also helps us understand how Bunthorne and Grosvenor (the two dueling poets in Patience) were meant to represent entirely different literary fads of the time: Bunthorne was a leader in the Aesthetic movement, Grosvenor the Idyllic movement (a la Alfred Lord Tennyson).

The book treats lesser known works like Thespis as equal to the big hits, and I probably won't be the only reader who skips the chapters relating to shows like Yeoman of the Guard. But I'll keep the book around, and if I ever get a chance to catch Thespis or Yeoman I'll surely be rushing back to my bookshelves immediately afterwards to read up on what I just enjoyed. For a Savoyard like me, Gilbert and Sullivan: Genre, Gender and Parody is nothing but pleasure reading.


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 masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado ...

view /GilbertSullivanCarolynWilliams
Monday, April 25, 2011 10:33 am
Carolyn William's book about Gilbert and Sullivan
Levi Asher

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:

1. Exoticism. The original Dracula legend is set in a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you tell an American you’re from Romania, often the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade or Herta Muller, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes. Which leads me to my second reason ...

2. The lure of evil. Vampires – these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human – represent the dark powers over which we have only limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by these deviants as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, butboredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires give a more bearable expression to a sinister presence we already know. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts in junior high or high school. Even then, students are exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S.A. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand in my own life, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations.

It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism and in my new novel, The Seducer, which is about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.


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 ...

view /RomaniasLiteraryStar
Monday, January 31, 2011 10:30 pm
Vlad the Impaler
Claudia Moscovici

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!

This composite lyrical character calls his house "Shangri-La" even though "now the houses on the street all look the same". It's always been my theory that Ray Davies was inspired by George Grossmith's novel, especially because he grew up in the same North London suburbs where Diary takes place. These neighborhoods are also the settings for most Kinks songs (as well as, for what it's worth, Zadie Smith novels): Holloway, Muswell Hill, Willesden Green, the latter also the title of a quintessentially Pooter-esque song:

... there's one thing that keeps calling me back
to my little semi-detached.

There's no end to the Pooter connections. Author George Grossmith, then a popular man in British entertainment circles, was also the celebrated comic lead baritone who created the starring roles in the best Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy. He created the role of Sir Joseph Porter in H. M. S. Pinafore, the Modern Major General in Pirates of Penzance, Bunthorne in Patience and Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado. Amazingly, he was neither a trained stage performer nor a trained writer. The character of George Grossmith can be glimpsed in a stirring performance by Martin Savage in Mike Leigh's film Topsy-Turvy (from which the photo at the top of this page was taken). Nervous, brittle and pasty-faced, the theatrical dandy portrayed in this film somehow channels Charles Pooter as well.

2. Lev Grossman's Time cover article about "Person of the Year" Mark Zuckerberg is pretty good. I particularly like this:

The reality is that Zuckerberg isn't alienated, and he isn't a loner. He's the opposite. He's spent his whole life in tight, supportive, intensely connected social environments: first in the bosom of the Zuckerberg family, then in the dorms at Harvard and now at Facebook, where his best friends are his staff, there are no offices and work is awesome. Zuckerberg loves being around people. He didn't build Facebook so he could have a social life like the rest of us. He built it because he wanted the rest of us to have his.

I've sensed the same thing about Zuckerberg (who I've written about here and here). The movie The Social Network depicts Zuckerberg as grasping for popularity, but I think he was obsessed with popularity as a puzzle. He wanted to figure out how it worked, how it could be engineered. I think it's safe to say he found the algorithm.

3. Vice Magazine interviews playwright Edward Albee.

4. Russell Brand imagines wrapping himself up in the Jack Kerouac scroll.

5. A Russian production team is turning Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita into an animated film.

6. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is coming to life in Indianapolis! Meanwhile, D. G. Myers takes Vonnegut down a couple of notches, though I think posterity will be very kind to Kurt's reputation.

7. Litkicks poet Mickey Z. interviews Bill McKibben.

8. What Laurel Snyder did when her children's book Up and Down the Scratchy Mountain went out of print.

9. Pens With Cojones reviews Bill Ectric while Bill Ectric ponders Steve Aylett and Voltaire.

10. Bat Segundo interviews Cynthia Ozick.

11. I caught a TV show called The Sing Off that includes Ben Folds as one of the judges, and I noticed that Ben Folds looks a hell of a lot like Jonathan Franzen. For whatever it's worth, which probably isn't much.

view /APooterRevery
Tuesday, December 14, 2010 11:16 pm
Levi Asher

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

Pondering Proust IIIb: More On Guermantes Way
February 9, 2010

Pondering Proust IV: Sodome et Gommorhe, or Cities of the Plain
March 28, 2010

Interlude: The Proustian Obsession
May 26, 2010

Pondering Proust V: The Prisoner
August 4, 2010

Pondering Proust VI: The Fugitive
September 14, 2010

Pondering Proust VII: Time Regained
October 18, 2010

Vision in Combray: Pondering Proust (Conclusion)
December 13, 2010

David Richardson and Michael Norris present a visual glance at Marcel Proust's masterpiece.

view /BeyondTheMadeleines
Monday, December 13, 2010 10:29 am
Proust's Swann, an imagined portrait by David Richardson
Michael Norris

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.
view /WilliamAndHenry
Tuesday, May 23, 2006 10:42 pm
Levi Asher
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.

Indeed, deQuincey's life experience was well rounded. Born in 1785, the son of a successful linen merchant in Manchester, England, Thomas deQuincey was an exceptionally bright student. He excelled at Latin and Greek but became restless and ran away from home, first to Wales, then London. Refusing help from his family, he lived in poverty in London, reading books and hitting the streets. He eventually enrolled in Worcester College in Oxford, studied there from 1804 to 1808. During this time, he wrote fan mail to Wordsworth, tried opium for the first time, finally met Wordsworth, inherited a large sum of money when his father died, and left college without a degree. From there he went to live in a cottage in the Lake District where he began his associations with the famous poets about whom he would later reminisce. Over the next few years, deQuincey gradually spent all of his money, and when he married Margaret Simpson in 1817, he turned to writing for magazines to earn a living.

My favorite deQuincey book is the aforementioned Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, in which he dishes on both the good and bad qualities of the literary masters, recognizing the public's taste for tell-all and presaging the frankness of more modern biographies.

DeQuincey called Samuel Taylor Coleridge "the largest and most spacious intellect ... that has yet existed amongst men." He clearly respected this man who penned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but he does not shy away from discussing Coleridge's addiction to opium or the accusation that Coleridge may have, on rare occasion, translated ancient texts and used them in his writing without acknowledging their origin. When the Royal Institute commissioned Coleridge to give a series of lectures in London, the use of opium debilitated him so often that he had to cancel scheduled appearances. Keep in mind, this was after Coleridge had done much to enrich the world of literature. DeQuincey gives us a picture of an overmedicated Coleridge, sad and degraded like the latter-day Jack Kerouac, in bed clothes and a nightcap, "surrounded by handkerchiefs ... shouting from the attics ... down three or four flights of stairs ... 'Mrs. Brainbridge! I say, Mrs. Brainbridge!' ... his soul attendant, whose dwelling was in the subterranean regions of the house."

As for William Wordsworth, deQuincey was in such awe of his talent that it took years of correspondence by mail before he could build up the nerve to meet Wordsworth in person. This didn't stop deQuincey from telling us that several women confided with him, behind Wordsworth's back, that Wordsworth had ugly legs. What made the poet's legs so ugly is not explained.

In a later chapter, called The Estrangement from Wordsworth, deQuincey says that, although Wordsworth was "a man of principle and integrity ... in many respects, of amiable manners," but that "men of extraordinary genius and force of mind are far better as objects for distant admiration than as daily companions." The chief complaint in this chapter is Wordsworth's tendency to ignore others' opinions on the effects of "form and color" in the natural beauty of nature. According to deQuincey, Wordsworth seemed to believe he had a lock on this kind of knowledge and would rudely turn away from anyone else who tried their hand at it.

Robert Southey fares much better in deQuincey's Recollections, evidently having no addictions nor ugly legs. Thus it is proved again that normalcy is a barrier to great fame. Southey seems to have been too busy to sit around discussing escoteric themes all day. In fact, deQuincey marvels at Southey's well-kept schedule and industrious habits. He reports that Southey always arose from bed around 8:00 AM and made it a point to write until breakfast at 9:00 AM. It seems that Southey even had a goal to write so many lines of poetry or prose before breakfast, and what surprises De Quincey even more is that this writing almost always turned out to be good. Furthermore, Southey receives many letters and always makes it a point to answer them all, the same day he receives them. The only problem deQuincey can find with the disciplined scholar who penned The Battle of Blenheim is that he will not, or cannot, enage in as lofty and prolonged conversation as Wordsworth, preferring to budget his time and conserve his speech.

I don't want to give the impression that deQuincey's Recollections is all gossip and derision. The book transported me into the fascinating world of the Lake Poets -- the scenery, habits, customs, and humanity of the time and place; long walks in the countryside, sometimes miles, from one town to another; the warm simple pleasures of the Wordworths and their guests at tea or supper; or deQuincey's thrill at hearing these intellects speak critically of their government (De Quincey himself had little interest in politics and had always assumed that men of Lake Poet stature were unreserved supporters of royalty), all make this book quite satisfying for anyone interested in this time period and these writers.

If deQuincey were alive today, would he write for People Magazine? Maybe, but I must say that his 19th Century style can be a dense forest at times. I found myself re-reading certain paragraphs to make sure I understood what deQuincey was saying. Other times, he goes off on tangents and takes a whole page to make a point that today's magazines would dash off in a couple of sentences. It's all worth it, though. DeQuincey's Recollection of the Lakes and the Lake Poets held my attention and was an enjoyable read.
view /DeQuincey
Tuesday, September 20, 2005 09:00 am
Bill Ectric
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.

The team occasionally slipped up, as in their questionable attempt to film Tama Janowitz's 'Slaves of New York', featuring Bernadette Peters as a neurotic 80s party girl (she had the right hair but the wrong attitude). They also produced some excellent films that nobody saw, like 'Mr. and Mrs. Bridge', based on Evan Connell's memoir about a Kansas City family, which featured excellent performances by Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and really deserved more attention than it ever got.

The Merchant-Ivory brand became so closely identified with a certain type of lit-film adaptation that they are often believed to have created films they had nothing to do with, like 'A Passage to India', which was directed by David Lean. They also had nothing to do with the Nicole Kidman version of Henry James' 'Portrait of A Lady'; if they had, it would have starred Helena Bonham Carter and would have been a much better movie.

Two thirds of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team had Asian roots, although it is hard to detect this influence in most of their works. It was their achievement to represent the European/American tradition in literature in ways no Europeans or Americans had done before.
view /IsmailMerchant
Thursday, May 26, 2005 07:22 am
Levi Asher

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.

Miguel De Cervantes' Don Quixote is another terrible player. I admire his idealistic fervor, but delusions of grandeur do not bode well for a poker career. A guy who can't tell a windmill from a giant has no chance at being able to tell a busted flush from an ace-high straight, for instance, and therefore he has no chance. Quixote is also, for all his generosity and idealism, a selfish and self-obsessed person, oblivious to those around him (just look at the way he interacts with Sancho). Poker is brutal to players who underestimate their neighbors, and this is one of the great knight's flaws. Don Quixote is a disaster; deal him five full houses in a row and he'll find a way to lose money on it. He quickly joins Ahab in the loser's lounge, the eighth player out.

It would be nice if Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty had a chance, because he's a lot of fun at the table. Unfortunately, he has none of the focus and patience required to win a game of poker that does not involve clothing. Dean is also too friendly and generous to bully anybody around, and he rarely raises unless he doesn't have the hand. Deal him a high pocket pair, and he'll probably flash it to a neighbor to share the good news. Everybody will be sorry to see Dean Moriarty go down in seventh place.

Henry James' Isabel Archer is in a better category of player than the above three, and she becomes a crowd favorite for her dignified demeanor and intelligent decision-making. However, she is a classic example of a type of player known as "tight weak". In Portrait of a Lady, this promising and charming young woman rejects one desirable suitor after another, only to finally and grandly make the choice that turns out to be completely wrong. A "tight weak" player is overly careful, folding too many hands and giving up too many chances to capitalize on the luck that comes their way, until they are finally forced to make an undesired choice. Isabel Archer will lose it all on the river in a particularly tragic showdown. She exits the game in sixth place.

We all know F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby can bluff, and he would be a strong player if he only had the ability to read others. He doesn't. Just as he fell like a fool for every one of Daisy Buchanan's silly bluffs in The Great Gatsby, he will be a pushover here. Also, Gatsby's overwhelming sense of boredom and anomie will harm his stamina. He will slink sadly away from the table in fifth place.

Now we're down to the final four, and the game takes on a new intensity.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera presents us with Florentino Ariza, a man who has one great superhero-like attribute: patience. In Marquez's novel, Ariza loves Fermina Daza so much that he devotes his life to waiting for her, convinced that her husband will eventually die of old age, and when this finally happens countless decades later Ariza makes his belated move and attains his lifelong dream. In poker terms, Ariza is a "rock", a player with infinite ability to wait ... and wait ... and wait for that killer hand (or that killer chance to bluff). Of all the qualities a person needs to be a great poker player, patience is one of the hardest to hold on to, and this quality gives Ariza a great advantage. However, it is not enough to secure him the victory, and he exits the table in fourth place, a satisfied smile on his face.

William Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet is the crazy-style player, like Paul "Quack Quack" Malgriel or Phil "Unabomber" Laak. These types of crowd favorites like to distract their opponents with bizarre behavior while leading them into bidding traps or sneaking their own way out of bad hands. Does this technique work? It sure as hell does, and if you hang around a poker room long enough you'll find yourself up against an opponent who seems to be clearly either insane or ... just very very clever (as he rakes in your chips). The crazy act gives Hamlet a big advantage at the final table, but in fact the melancholy prince also has another rare quality that makes him great at poker, which is his empathy and sensitivity towards those around him. Notice how, in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet's personality changes depending on whether he is speaking to Horatio, or Ophelia, or Polonius. This ability to sense, absorb and rapidly adapt to the mental energies of those around you is exactly the empathetic skill that Don Quixote lacks. Hamlet's only problem is that he's slightly distracted due to that little incident with his mother and his father's murderer, and who can blame him for being on tilt? Still, Hamlet fights it out to the grueling end, finally exiting the tournament in third place, a crowd favorite but not a victor.

Now we're playing heads-up with the two potential champions. Becky Sharp is simply a great poker player. She's all force, always raising, always controlling the game, in the super-aggressive style associated with star players like Gus Hansen and Doyle Brunson. In Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, we see Becky go all-in time and again, as she schemes and cajoles and sweet-talks her way from an impoverished childhood to the finer realms of high society. Becky Sharp plays like her life depends on it, and poker statistics show that this type of play is most likely to prevail in a high-stakes tournament.

Still, Becky Sharp is up against no ordinary opponent, but rather Mario Puzo's dreaded Michael Corleone (okay, let's admit it, it's actually Al Pacino's dreaded Michael Corleone we all know and love, but this is a literary site and not a film site, so I'm going to talk about Mario Puzo's dreaded Michael Corleone). Corleone is Sharp's opposite, a master of the quiet slow play who loves to make his enemies underestimate him. Like Chris Moneymaker in the 2004 World Series of Poker, Michael Corleone doesn't want you to fear him. That would ruin his plan of attack. And, just as much as his opponent Becky Sharp, Michael Corleone is focused on nothing but winning. You cannot distract, exhaust or confuse either player, and Literature's Final Table will spend an incredible twelve and a half hours in back-and-forth heads-up play before a bleary-eyed Michael Corleone finally takes it all with a straight to the six over Becky's trip deuces. And that, my friends, is how Literature's Final Table plays out.


If Prince Hamlet, Don Quixote, Becky Sharp, Captain Ahab, Isabel Archer, Jay Gatsby, Dean Moriarty, Florentino Ariza and Michael Corleone were at the final table in the World Series of Poker, who would win the million dollars?

view /LiteratureFinalTable
Saturday, April 16, 2005 02:00 am
Antique poker cards
Levi Asher