30 January 2011

Blackest Swan

There has been too much talk about The Black Swan starring Natalie Portman and directed by Darren Aronowsky. Brilliant acting, they say. Academy Award quality, they say. Complex themes, they say. 
Pshaw. I found the movie uncomfortably absurd; I thought it ugly and meaningless. Ostensibly, the film is about Nina’s obsession with the part of the Swan Queen in the new production of Swan Lake, but really it is about her obsession with the Black Swan: sexual, passionate, and alluring. The film is about her terrifying and violent transformation from the White Swan into the Black Swan; a necessity her director demands she must make for the principal role. Of course, in the process the director attempts to bed her and teach her sexuality—all, of course, in the service of the performance.  Why she is given the role in the first place given that she lacks the character to properly dance the part the film never attempts to answer. Nina moves through the world fantasizing about sex and sexual encounters, but her repressed psyche prevents her from acting on her Desires, and her domineering (and resentful) mother keeps her out of engagement in any world but that of formal ballet. How she ultimately achieves this transformation is suggested by her doppelgangers. The first is an aging ballerina whom she is replacing in the role. Denied the role, the veteran walks out of the reception and into traffic—permanently crippling her legs and disfiguring her face and body. Nina makes several visits to the hospital room but confronts only violence and ugliness. She can offer there no sympathy and she receives none. 
Her second alter ego is another young dancer, Lily, who tries in honest friendship to offer Nina some release from the tensions of the dance. This second dancer is sexual, passionate and alive, which is why Nina is both attracted and repelled by her. Indeed, on the one hand Nina fantasizes an erotic encounter with her, but also in her fantasy kills her to protect her role in the ballet. Of course, it is not Lily that Nina murders but herself. Finally, I guess, sexuality, passion and allure are necessary and destructive. One can perform but not live under their influence. 
Oh, the reviewers say that in the film none of the characters are who they claim to be, or at least cannot be trusted to be so, but I say ‘pshaw.’ The motives of the characters were all too obvious—and the plot all too predictable. I was appalled by the violence and befuddled by the plot. Who cared, finally? There was nothing about any of the characters that intrigued me. 
I wonder if it is the romantic portrait of obsession coupled with the violence that accompanies this obsession that makes this movie attractive to the public. We are a polarized society—a society obsessed with its own ideologies—and from those extreme positions take shots intended at elimination at the opposition. From this derives much of the extreme violence in our society. The violence that stems from our obsessions are romanticized and legitimated. And films such as Black Swan make obsession seem productive even though it be destructive. Nina’s final words describing her performance as ‘perfect’ speak to the value of her obsessions destructive though they be to Nina. Black Swan is a dark film suitable for these dark, dark times, and there is nothing redemptive in the film. I felt soiled when I left the theater, as I feel soiled when I have to listen to our politicians, hear the news or read the newspapers, or when I overhear the violent chatter of the crowd in the next booth at the restaurant.

25 January 2011

Of Idleness

Montaigne’s essay, “On Idleness,” seems really to be about what to do with such a state, and addresses exactly the dilemma I face while reading his essays. He argues that a rich and fertile field laying fallow remains prey to all kinds of wild and useless weeds, “and that to set it to work we must subject it and sow it with certain seeds for our service.” I think what he refers to here is the idea that without care and attention nothing of value can grow. “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself; for as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.” And so I am reading Montaigne’s essays with no fixed goal and I am everywhere and nowhere. I must to the hoe and the plough.
After a busy day at the office, so to speak, Montaigne arrives home and anticipates sitting in his comfy chair and allowing his mind to engage in a little idleness. But, that mind undisciplinedunweeded and uncared forbecomes too difficult to manage, “and gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose . . .” To focus himselfto prevent an unmanageable idleness from overruling himhe takes his unweeded, uncontrolled, even uncontrollable and menacing thoughts and puts them into writing. Reason will tame the beasts! Hence, the Essays. “I have begun to put [these monsters and chimeras] into writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.”
I wonder what he means by that last comment. Ashamed of itself for having experienced monsters and chimeras, or ashamed of itself for imposing reason on them?
So to read these essays I need some means of focus, of weeding the fallow garden that is my mind and yield some produce: I have to ask some questions of each essay and then of the Essays—some way to work the uncultivated but fertile field.
An idea? To put the thoughts concerning the essay into writing and produce essays. Though I might call them blogs. And all of them?

20 January 2011

Hamlet and the State of the Union

I believe tonight is the State of the Union Message. I have some sense of that state and will head instead to a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I’ve been thinking lately of Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet in Act II. In his antic mood he has abused Ophelia whom he loved and she, innocent and hurt, approaches him. She has been set up by her father and the King and Queen in an attempt to learn the cause of Hamlet’s madness. Polonius, mindful of her social status, has cautioned Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet’s advances, and dutiful daughter that she is, she has been coy with him.  Everyone assumes Hamlet’s madness has resulted from her rejection. While she engages Hamlet, the King and Polonius eavesdrop from behind the curtain on the conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia.
Ophelia approaches Hamlet with these words: “My lord/I have remembrances of yours/That I have longed long to redeliver./I pray you now, receive them.” It is a plaintive and unhappy moment. Ophelia, alone, frightened and abandoned by Hamlet, is also being used to spy on her lover. I have great affection for Ophelia at this moment.
And what I love especially in her lines is the rhythm of the language: the word ‘longèd’ is here pronounced with two syllables, and the mellifluous quality of her words mirror the beauty and innocence of her character. I love the rhythm of languagethe sound of English in discourseand Hamlet is filled with this beauty.
I hope the State of the Union Message is significant, but I cannot imagine it will be beautiful. And I hope the Senator from South Carolina, at least, will keep his rude and racist mouth shut.

16 January 2011

The First Blogger

Montaigne is the first blogger. He attributes the production of his Essais to an excess of idleness: the mind, he avers, requires activity or it becomes cluttered with an overgrowth of useless weeds. The mind needs tending. He returns home from some public commitment and according to Frame’s biographical chart, Montaigne falls into some sort of depression out of which he hopes his essays will raise him. He is oppressed by the things he experiences in his mind, and he recognizes that it is in the structure of the writing that he might cure himself—the talking cure begun as writing. “I findthat like a runaway horse, [my mind in idleness] gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” That is, alarmed by the uncontrolled (and uncontrollable) absurdities that occur in his thoughts, he means to transforms those chimeras and monsters by actively writing them out and turn respectable the disreputable nature of his idle mind.

What a wonderful project—to give some order to the thoughts in his head and therefore make order of his thoughts. And to acknowledge that perhaps what he considers worthy of contemplation might be amusing or even interesting to some one else. And his essays give his mind, as he suggests, location—it is there, on the page, at least for the present.

And this blog, OF CLAY AND WATTLES MADE, a place to rest, and I shall have some peace there, for peace may come dropping slow.

13 January 2011

Montaigne 1

I am reading Montaigne’s essays after reading an excellent account of his life and work by Sarah Bakewell (How to Live: A Life of Montagne, 2010). I like getting to the original, even if the original is in translation. It is the problem with my provincialism. And I am only at the very beginning.
But from Bakewell I have learned that Montaigne seems to have devoted the final twenty years of his life writing and (re)writing the essays. That is, the essays were in a constant state of revision and expansion; thus it is that any single essay can contain quite contradictory material. Of course, this reminds me of Talmud where contradictory opinions joyously abound and need not be reconciled. The process reminded m as well of Walt Whitman’s single great tome, Leaves of Grass. Undoubtedly, there are other publications from the American Bard, but it is Leaves of Grass by which he will always be known and on which he continuously revised and expanded. Whitman said early on, “Do I contradict myself? Well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” So with Montaigne, and his essays display not only what but how he learned from life, because in the essays one may read his history. More than most autobiographies I have read, there is no teleological purpose here. Montaigne admits that in his book “ . . . I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have no thought of serving either you or my own glory.” But having acknowledged that this is autobiography, Montaigne immediately dissuades any reader from spending anytime reading his work! “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.” Ha!
He notes interestingly in the second essay, “On Sadness” (yes, I am only at the start) that he is one of those freest from this passion. This almost suggests to me Emerson’s dismissal of grief in his essay “Experience.” Except: Emerson goes out of his way to explain how grief has had no effect on his life (Emerson lost his wife, his brother and his son within a few short years), and Montaigne suggests not that sadness has no effect but that true sadness is inexpressible. Emerson says that grief falls off him and leaves not a scar, and Montaigne says that his sadness (and it is grief he means, and especially for his deceased friend La Boétie) so overwhelms that it benumbs and paralyzes. Later, when the extreme moment has passed, then tears may come. The tears are a relief from the paralysis; tears and lamentations are freedom of the soul.
Desire doesn’t paralyze, but it is inexpressible—except in action. Desire I think frees the soul and sadness paralyzes it. Perhaps in the throes of grief Desire becomes paralyzed.
Perhaps opposed to Desire is Sadness.  And are tears and lamentations merely expressions of the end of grief?

10 January 2011

Violence Still

 Actually, there is not much I want to add to all the rhetoric surrounding the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll and four other victims. Five of the six have died, including one nine year old girl. Paul Krugman writes in the Times today that he was expecting something like this to occur, and I suppose that I, too, have waited for this event. I mean, my life has been punctuated by assassinations and assassination attempts. America is a culture of violence. And the far right—though I suspect they are no longer very far right—uses the language of violence as if it were school yard bullying rhetoric. Sarah Palin’s cross hairs on the district represented by Gabrielle Giffords is how Palin deals with the world. Mama Grizzly? Oh no, I think of her and her accomplices as no more reputable than a lawless gang of bullies. And the attempt of she and her cohorts to distance themselves from culpability for establishing this climate is just as violent as the violence she promotes. She disowns her role in the violence and permits the violence to continue unabated.
The Rabbis say, “If I am answerable for the care of a thing, it is I that render possible the injury that it may do. If I render possible part of that injury I must make restitution for that injury as he that rendered possible the whole of that injury.” Take that, Sarah Palin!! It is the United States that has been injured by her violent stance in the world that she would pass off as cute and appealing.
I do pray for the recovery of Gabrielle Giffords, but I have no hope that the country will ever again recover.

05 January 2011

Déjà vu All Over Again

I pick up the newspapers these days and all I can recall is the Sheldon Harnick “Merry Minuet.” I think I first heard it sung by the Kingston Trio or perhaps the Chad Mitchell Trio, I can’t remember which, but the lyrics have stuck in my mind for almost forty-five years now.
     The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
     The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.

     Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
     And I don't like anybody very much! 
     The Republican majority in the United States House of Representatives and in, at least, the Wisconsin and Minnesota legislatures (!) are volubly and gleefully threatening to eliminate whatever legislation that the Congress passed during the past two years of the Obama administration. Ideologically, I abhor the Republican agenda. But the rhetoric emanating from Washington D.C. sounds like the new Congressional session is to be nothing more than a rather low-level boxing match in which two relatively untrained contestants will get in the ring and slug it out attempting to inflict as much bloody damage as is possible. I have no sense that occupying the Capital today are lawmakers; rather, they appear to me nothing more than crude (even cruel) brawlers, bullies on the playground threatening to steal the lunch monies of those preoccupied with other matters. I hate opening the papers and hearing yet another gleeful threat by the Republican/Tea Party members of Congress to take the country back to when it was safe for rich people to safely thrive without having to be at all concerned with the welfare of anyone else. Carnegie may have given away half of his wealth, but he acquired his money by robbing (and even killing) his workers. I am tired of the social Darwinsim (at best) and the fascistic rhetoric at worst of the Republican/Tea Party cabal. What country are they talking about that they aim to take back. And take the country back to where exactly? I would trust them as I would two adders fanged. They fool me to the top of my bent.
     I will return to my books and leave the paper to training the animals not to defecate in the house.

03 January 2011


It is a new year2011and I think this might be the one. On New Year’s Eve I ordered a glass of wine and the server asked me for my ID. I was a bit shocked but happily acceded. After all, I haven’t been asked for proof of age in over forty years. And my gray beard and age-cut lines bespeak do not suggest some masquerade. I received my pinot noir and looked at the menu. There, at the bottom of the page the following was printed: “We ask for identification for anyone who appears under the age of 50 years old.” So, I thought, is it possible that I do look under 50? My daughters say, of course, but they have ulterior motives, though I do not know what they might be. I am not asked for identification when I request a senior ticket at the movies or the theater, and so I assume for their purposes I certainly look beyond sixty years of age.
So I anticipate a good year, one in which I will alas, grow older—even beyond fifty years of agebut one in which I will only appear to be some ageless fifty year old.
For New Years I watched Monk, a police consultant with a serious case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The episode I viewed starred John Turtorro as Monk’s brother. He suffers from agoraphobia and has not left the house in . . . 32 years. I like when the really neurotic people catch the bad guys.
Beethoven has been much on my mind lately. He has also been much on the radio. Yesterday I listened to thee magnificent recording of Daniel Barenboim’s performance of the 4th piano concerto, and right now plays Beethoven’s Piano Trio, #7. I have read that Beethoven was not always the most pleasant of men, but he carried about with him the most beautiful sounds.
And public schools go back into session today after Winter Break. It’s a long haul until Spring.