mercredi 19 août 2015

Perception in Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938)

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a deceptively simple play, using the ordinariness of small-town American life, configured in the classic (conservative) “birth, marriage and death” narrative to examine subjects ranging from Puritan ethics to existential questions to ideas about the nature of perception. The play proposes that perception is always partial, subject to change and limited by the one-directionality of time. Memory, however, provides for perception to expand our understanding of life. Memory helps us travel back and forth through lived experience thereby helping us make sense of our existence. The play suggests to us that while the meaning of what we perceive the moment we live an experience is partial, revisiting that moment can grant us better understanding, even wisdom. Emily Webb begins her journey to enlightenment when she dies and revisits a particular already-lived day in her youth. Here she is simultaneously experiencing past and present: she talks to other wise (albeit dead) fellow townsfolk at the cemetery and as she relives part of a day in her past she talks to the seemingly omniscient Stage Manager. When she tells him, “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” she is reiterating something that we all suspect: nothing is ever fully known. When Emily asks the all-important question, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?” a short time before the play ends, the Stage Manager replies:”No...The saints and poets, maybe - they do some.” This must be Thornton Wilder’s philosophical guiding principle in abbreviated form: let us frequent the sage and the artist amongst us!

jeudi 23 avril 2015

Celine: A Biography by Patrick McCarthy (1975)

The quality of a literary biography depends in part on the amount of material available on the author's life and any writings the author has left to us on his craft and influences. In the case of Patrick McCarthy's biography of Celine — the literary name of Louis Ferdinand Destouches —  McCarthy does the near impossible: he manages to find enough material to satisfy the public’s curiosity about the life and art of Celine.
Little is known of Celine's childhood and early life and what is known comes second hand from stories (sometimes contradictory, sometimes false) that Celine told friends as a man. Celine was a famously bristly character, avoiding interviewers and admirers alike until late in his life. When finally agreeing to speak to the public he was his own most ardent apologist, claiming he was a victim, misunderstood, never an anti-semite (even while standing by his contention that Jewish-led conspiracies exist in the financial and literary worlds!).
McCarthy admits that the task he sets out for himself is made difficult because so little verifiable material is available but he reminds us that Celine’s core material - the characters, plots and ideas that inspire his stories - is largely autobiographical. McCarthy suggests that Celine, an almost pathological pessimist, wrote about what he knew but exaggerated the nastiness he found in himself and the world. War in “Voyage au bout de la nuit” is more horrible and dehumanizing than what he really experienced working as an army doctor in the first world war. Childhood in “Mort a credit” is more precarious and stultifying than Celine’s early years ever were.
Celine enjoyed tangling fact and fiction but McCarthy spends three hundred pages separating the two while building a case for his assertion that Celine the man was a complex, troubled figure but that he was also a revolutionary writer who introduced the vernacular and stream-of-consciousness to French literature.

mercredi 18 mars 2015

Klimt Beethoven Frieze

In the didactic poem The Theogony written in about 700 BC, Hesiod recounts the origins of the cosmos and lays out the genealogies of the ancient Greek gods. He describes Typhoeus as a grotesque, deadly man-god who can reach the stars, flames flashing from his eyes, arms extending east and west across the skies, fingers bearing dragon heads, his lower body composed of gigantic hissing viper coils and his whole body supported by huge wings.
One hundred and fifty years later an artisan decorates a Greek pitcher with a painting of Zeus hurling lightning rods at Typhoeus, this time depicted as a winged creature with a human torso, an animal head, pointy ears, supported by coiled serpent legs.
Nine hundred years later, in 1652,  the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kirchner describes Typhoeus as a human-like figure who shoots flames from his mouth, blows wind and clouds from his ears, grows snakes for fingers and feet and is covered in little, slithery snakes.
Another two hundred and fifty years pass and in 1902 Vienna, Gustav Klimt finally breaks the mold: on a wall in the Secession Building, instead of painting a human-like god-monster, he paints a giant, brown, winged ape, two meters tall and four or more meters wide and calls him Typhoeus. Somewhere below the extended blue, grey and beige wings is an intricately patterned (Persian carpet-like) body that ends with snakes uncoiling, their ends reaching upwards.


I have looked far and wide for an explanation for the substitution of an ape for the more conventional depiction of the god but have found nothing convincing. Klimt himself was famously tight-lipped about his inspiration, liking the public to delve into their own unconscious minds to find links to his work. Did he choose an ape because in early Christian art the devil is sometimes depicted as an ape? In Romanesque art the ape represents lust and the pleasures of the flesh. The ape sometimes stands for syphilis, a condition that plagued Klimt himself. Perhaps Klimt saw the vices that threatened his time and chose images, sometimes conventional, sometimes not, that best represented his vision.

The Beethoven Frieze is in the permanent collection in the basement of the Seccession Building in Vienna and the travelling copy is presently on display at the Pinacotheque in Paris.

mercredi 28 janvier 2015

Evguenie Sokolov, 1998, Serge Gainsbourg

“On this hospital bed, over which dung flies are hovering, images of my life come back to me...and if they were placed end to end they would make up a film at once grotesque and horrific, since it would have the peculiarity that the soundtrack, parallel to the longitudinal perforations along its edge, would emit nothing but explosions of intestinal gas.”

This is the opening paragraph of Serge Gainsbourg’s first and only novel, called Evguenie Sokolov. It is a surrealist-inspired tale, semi-autobiographical in content, mock-confesional in tone, and employs both low-brow and learned language to poke fun at the modern art world which is depicted as pretentious, unsophisticated and deserving of our scorn.

It is, of course, all tongue-in-cheek, tasteless and funny but the underlying message is clear.

The conceit is utterly original: Evguenie Sokolov is the protagonist and narrator whose life is complicated by a condition of extreme flatulence which, while at first socially and artistically debilitating, soon enables him to penetrate the art world.
Initially, he wins over the commercial art world by inventing a  successful comic strip character (under his most aptly conceived pseudonym “Crepitus Ventris”) called the Jet-Man, ”a new Batman propelled by his own wind”. Later, Sokolov introduces his main contribution to the serious art world: “hyperabstractionism which resembled the electro-encephalographs of epileptics”, more crudely known as “gasograms”. These gasograms are the result of a happy accident of timing (the simultaneous firing of fart and brushstroke) facilitated by the rigging of a chair-like device consisting of a tripod and a metal bicycle seat with coil springs “which gave my perch a variable power of amplification and the sensitivity of a finely tuned seismograph.”
And then, when he loses the ability to synchronize brushstroke with passing wind, he learns to make “shit stars” which he is paid to paste on to the  embassy ceiling in Moscow. But of course, like so many geniuses before him, Sokolov dies an early death. His, appropriately enough, is brought on by “peritonitis resulting from an especially powerful explosion of intestinal gases”.

The novella ends thus,
“Just as one of the gravediggers was about to throw down the first shovelful of earth, and Gerhaart Stolfzer, complying with the wishes expressed in the artist’s note, put a light to a cigar, there was a muffled report which lifted the lid of the coffin. Evguenie Sokolov had just breathed his final anal sigh, and rendered a last, gaseous, posthumous, poisonous salute to the memory of mankind.”

The final paragraph, like the first, maintains the irreverent tone of the work while simultaneously signalling its intentions: Gainsbourg is writing about himself and his reputation as an outsider, a bad-boy, one who breaks all the taboos and invites us to look truthfully at our culture.


jeudi 11 décembre 2014

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll (1974)

Heinrich Boll's 1974 novella "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum" can be read as an easy indictment of the press's propensity to choose sides, sway public opinion and even ruin lives. The book recounts how a young woman and those near to her lose control of their lives when she confesses to the shooting of a journalist whose aggressive investigation destabilizes her.

Other less obvious readings are also possible. In fact the first chapter, which is only one page long (in a short book made up of 58 chapters) sets the stage for multiple conversations, one of which takes the novel out of its manifestly political and sociological context to explore questions of form and narration. These investigations ultimately lead to epistemological considerations: what can we as readers actually know? what is the truth? how do we get at it?

The novel begins with the narrator (journalist? friend? neighbour? concerned citizen? novelist? — we never find out) naming his sources, which include the transcripts of the police investigation and the names of the defense attorney and the public prosecutor. Then, before the third sentence ends, the conceit of impartiality breaks down because he reveals that his “account” is “supplemented” with unofficial and ultimately subjective material acquired from the public prosecutor who is a childhood friend of the defense attorney, a man who is, bizarrely enough, implicated in the life of his client, the accused. The narrator himself admits that “the case of Katharina Blum will...remain more or less fictitious”.

In this novella, police station truth will vie with courtroom truth which will vie with opinion coloured by loyalty, mixed with the claim that truth is not transparent and if it is at all available, it is available through the creative act. Truth is not singular or self evident and Boll tells us elsewhere that it “must be assembled” through language which is “inexact”. He writes,“The fact that a word has a multiplicity of meaning, not only within a language but also outside of it, makes it important to try to get to the root of words and language. That is the constant striving of literature. The absolute meaning exists somewhere; we just haven't found it yet.”

The telling of Katharina Blum’s story is a successful experiment in modern, committed, philosophically driven literature.

samedi 11 octobre 2014

Lucio Fontana

The same artist who carved, painted and fired small ceramic figures borrowed from medieval European folkloric tradition also slashed his modern, abstract canvases.


Argentinian-born, Italian artist Lucio Fontana lived through the first half of the twentieth century and responded to the cultural currents of his time. Modernism, Futurism, Catholicism, the recuperation of archaic art materials and the development of installation art were the movements (some of which veered to the left, others to the right) that informed his practice. Fontana even added his own manifesto to an era that was rich in new ideas. He called himself and his followers Spatialists, people who sought to transcend the restrictions of traditional genres in order to create art that could synthesize colour, movement, sound and space.


In the case of Fontana's small clay sculptures (made at the same time that he began experimenting with rough perforations and smooth cuts to his canvases) the subject matter was traditional — he crafted harlequins, warriors, battles and Christ-figures on the Cross. And yet, the odd colours, the shiny glaze, the active or emotive stance of the characters proclaimed a new way of seeing. In Fontana's hands, a Harlequin (a comic servant from Renaissance Italian musical theatre) could be made of traditional clay, be glazed like an Etruscan pot, declaim like a Baroque statue and exaggerate the rough texture of some of Rodin's and Giacometti's work.  


Fontana's perforated and slashed paintings, despite their apparent simplicity, also subvert established ideas. These paintings become three dimensional, not through trompe l'oeil or perspectival lines but through the effect of the light behind the canvas coming through the tear, giving physical depth and a changing vista to the viewer — the eye receives differing impressions as it moves from one end of the canvas to the other.


The simultaneously brittle and flowing look of the small sculptures and the shimmering optical effect of these paintings cannot be reproduced by photography. Lucio Fontana's work is interactive and only a trip to a museum will do.

lundi 29 septembre 2014

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1876

In the history of literature, some books have complex lives, falling in and out of favour with critics, readers, school boards and even courts of law. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, unlike its sibling The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has had a relatively smooth ride for most of its 140 year life. Of course, the presence of the despicable Injun Jo
e and the occasional use of sensitive racial tags has led to debates about the appropriateness of teaching Tom Sawyer, unexpurgated, in secondary schools, but in large part the book remains on reading lists and library shelves.

One way to test the appeal of a book that is being read today, whether it was written generations ago or is newly published, is to read the book reviews. In the case of Tom Sawyer the verdict of the initial reviewers was largely the same, summed up by The London Examiner in 1876 as such: "the book will no doubt be a favourite with boys … (but) it might be most prized by philosophers and poets". Essentially, there is something there for everyone.

The opinion of both American and British reviewers was positive, with the exception of a couple, one of whom conflated the purpose of literature and a preacher's homily: "One gets very fond of Tom notwithstanding his grave faults, some of which you almost wish had been omitted. One cannot help regretting that so fine a fellow as Tom lies and smokes...".

The review which best summed up the contribution that Mark Twain made to American letters and to the psychological and sociological understanding of his country came from W. D. Howells who wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1876, "The whole little town lives in the reader's sense with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the Wilder West which has passed away." The whole review is worth reading because the opinions stated and the quality of the analysis are as valid today as they were when Howells published the piece.

Now, we might want to add that race and class are the determining categories through which we view the institution of slavery, puritan-based religion, rural and small-town prejudices. Similar ideas, slightly different language.

Regarding the style, both Twain’s contemporaries and readers today would say that Mark Twain’s wit, timing and good writing breathe life into the complex humanity of pre-civil war America. Quite a feat for the father of a fictional twelve year old orphan who just wanted to play hooky and search for pirate gold!