Archive for December, 2013

Have a great Christmas, everyone

As usual, this blog will be closing down for Christmas and the New Year.

May I thank you all for reading my ramblings over the last year. And may I wish you all a very Happy and Peaceful Christmas. I hope to see you all again in January.

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The Nativity, by Giotto, courtesy of Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

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The cause of thunder

What is the cause of thunder?
– From “King Lear”, III, iv

It’s a recurring theme in the plays of Shakespeare: a man is overcome by jealousy, and falsely suspects his wife or his betrothed of infidelity. I suppose one may speculate why Shakespeare kept returning to this theme, but such speculation is pointless: more interesting is what he did with this theme. It occurs quite spectacularly, of course, in Othello; and it occurs also in Much Ado About Nothing, where it pulls what had till that point been a sparkling comedy into a tragic direction; and in The Merry Wives of Windsor, this same motif crops up in an unambiguously comic mode. And it crops up in two of his very late plays – Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. In the former, the threatened catastrophe is averted at the end, but in The Winter’s Tale, the catastrophe cannot be avoided: the worst that can happen does happen. But where, in a conventional tragic drama, this worst is the promised end, or an image of that horror, the drama of The Winter’s Tale continues beyond this point: it journeys beyond the tragic, and presents a vision of penitence, of atonement, and finally, of reconciliation. It presents, indeed, a vision of the Resurrection itself. We are, of course, given the option of believing that Hermione had not really died, and that her survival had been kept a secret, but so unlikely is this explanation that we are more prepared to believe the impossible rather than the improbable: at the end of this play, Hermione is brought, like Alcestis, from the grave. It is a dramatisation of our most deeply held desires: reconciliation with those we have lost, forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done each other.

But before the reconciliation, we must face the tragedy, and the tragedy, when it occurs, leaves behind utter devastation, and the utmost desolation. All innocence, all tenderness, all that we like to think of as “human”, is swept aside as if by a whirlwind. Where does such immense force of evil come from? What, as Lear had asked, is the cause of thunder? This issue raises its head many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays: Why is Iago evil? What makes Othello commit such a horrendously evil act? How does evil make its way into the souls of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth? There is no easy answer to these questions, but they  must nonetheless be raised in any intelligent consideration of these works. However, in The Winter’s Tale, even raising these questions seems pointless. It’s not that the answers are difficult and complex: rather, there is no answer. Leontes we first see as a loving husband and father; but then, abruptly, he turns into a raving maniac, convinced that his wife has betrayed him. There is no dramatic preparation for this eruption – no Iago, not even a handkerchief; there’s not the slightest hint of psychological instability that may make Leontes prone to jealousy. It just happens. It just is.

The lack of any ostensible cause of the thunder makes the thunder even more horrific. The evil descends as a sort of illness, a disease. Hermione, Leontes’ wife, even at her lowest, sees it as such, and can even feel compassion for the man who is torturing her:

                 How will this grieve you,
When you shall come to clearer knowledge, that
You thus have publish’d me!

Hermione’s prediction proves correct: once the illness passes, all Leontes has left is a life of grief and guilt – grief because all that had been to him of value is now destroyed, and guilt because, illness or no, it is he who is the destroyer.

This motif of a man overcome by madness and destroying all that is most precious to him had occurred also in a play that Shakespeare is unlikely to have known: Euripides’ Heracles. The structure of Heracles is as unorthodox and as daring as that of The Winter’s Tale. From the opening lines, the drama concerns itself with the fate of Heracles’ family – his wife, his children, his aged father – who, in Heracles’ absence, face being slaughtered by the tyrant Lycus; and the drama appears to be  resolved by the sudden appearance, just in the nick of time, of Heracles himself, who had been thought dead. And so, some two thirds of the way into the play, as Heracles goes off-stage to dispatch the evil Lycus (the violence in Greek drama always taking place away from the audience’s view), it seems that all that remains to see the play through to the end are the final choruses of triumph. But there is a sudden and savage twist that takes the play into an entirely unexpected direction: even as the chorus is rejoicing in anticipation of Heracles’ triumph, and in the deliverance of his innocent family, there appears above the palace Iris, the messenger of the goddess Hera, and the fearsome figure of Madness. As with Leontes’ murderous jealousy, nothing has prepared us for this: it is the seeming arbitrariness of it all that shocks. No reason is given for the appearance of these figures, other than Hera’s hatred for Heracles; and no explanation is given for that hatred. Hera and Iris, for reasons they do not feel necessary to divulge to mere mortals, are determined to infect Heracles with madness. And in his madness, he murders his own family. The family he had gone off-stage to rescue from slaughter, he himself slaughters.

Afterwards, when the madness leaves him, he knows, as does Leontes, that not only has all that had been most precious to him been destroyed, but that, further, he is himself the destroyer. “Never did I know such sorrow as this; there must be a limit to endurance.” But there is no limit. Not in Euripides’ tragic vision. In the original legend, Heracles killed his family in his madness before he embarks on the labours: the labours, indeed, were intended as an atonement. But Euripides places the slaughter of his family after the labours: there can be no atonement for what has been done.

Shakespeare’s vision, at least by the time he came to write The Winter’s Tale, was a bit different: here, there is atonement, there is reconciliation, and forgiveness. But the reconciliation is very subdued: the tone is not that of ecstatic joy, but of a muted serenity. Mamilius, after all, is still dead; and nothing can bring back those years of separation and of desolation: what has been suffered cannot be unsuffered. Not even with a mystical resurrection can all losses be restored, or sorrows end: nothing can wipe away fully the consequences of our actions. But although the joy is muted and subdued, it is nonetheless there, and it is a thing of wonder.

I am still not sure how best to react to this deeply enigmatic final scene, that seems to express simultaneously both the deepest joy and the deepest sorrow; but I find myself moved more deeply at each re-reading. This ending seems to come from the deepest recess of Shakespeare’s imagination, which has gone beyond the realms of human tragedy into some other world. Even more so than The Tempest, it is this miraculous play that I like to think of as Shakespeare’s last artistic testament. It is a work that, perhaps, we still have not come round to fully understanding.

[The line quoted from Heracles is taken from the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics]

It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!

A bit of self-indulgent nostalgia about films

As yet another year starts winding down to an end, I, at my age, can’t help feeling nostalgic. Indeed, at my age, I can’t help feeling nostalgic at any time of the year: everything nowadays reminds me of something from the past. Except for modern films. They don’t remind me of the past at all – but they do remind me how good films used to be.

And I don’t mean arthouse movies, or films you really have to go out of your way to see: I’m sure there are a few nuggets to be found if one looks hard enough.  I mean mainstream films that are likely to come to my local cinema.

Last night, I watched on DVD a film from the mid-70s – One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. I can’t remember the last time I saw this film, but I can certainly remember the first. I had just turned 16, and was in my final year at school, just outside Glasgow. My father had obtained a new post in Lancashire, and my parents had decided to go down there for a week in search of a place to live. However, with my final year examinations coming up, it was out of the question for me to miss school: so I was left home alone. I have no idea how legal that was either then or now, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. A week on my own, doing as I pleased, seemed like heaven to me.

So that Saturday afternoon, I wandered around a wet Glasgow city centre, looking for a film to see. It had to be an X-rated film, because, after all, I was an adult now … at least, I could easily pass for 18. Not that I wanted to watch a porn film, as such: I knew which cinemas specialised in porn films, and, adult or not, would have been far too embarrassed to be seen queuing at those places – although what those cinemas in those days were allowed to show was no doubt very mild and innocent compared to what now seems acceptable even in mainstream cinema. That is not to say, of course, that I would have objected to a quick artistic flash, perhaps; but what I really wanted to see was a grown-up  film – a drama aimed at a grown-up audience: I disdained the very idea of watching some kiddies’ movie..

And I remember still that after walking round the city centre cinemas, my short-list consisted of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (with Al Pacino), and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go round the cinemas now and be presented with a choice of such quality? But let us not digress. On the toss of a coin, I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an adult film – in the sense that it was a drama that was aimed at grown-ups, and demanded much of its audience.

A few months afterwards, my parents had moved down to Lancashire, and I was living in a students’ hall of residence on Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the big films of the year, and all my fellow students with whom I associated – most about a couple of years older than me – had seen it. And the discussions we used to have about it in each others’ rooms, or around a few beers in the pub! (Yes – I can admit now I was an under-aged drinker…) Never mind Hamlet – was Randall Patrick McMurphy really mad, or was he merely pretending to be? Did he really care for the other inmates, or was he just out for himself? Did he have a therapeutic effect on the others? Did Nurse Ratched actually understand Billy better than McMurphy did? Why did McMurphy not escape when he had the opportunity? And so on. I won’t pretend these discussions were particularly profound or in-depth, but the very fact that  we could come out of a film and have so many issues to discuss does bespeak a certain degree of complexity in the film. I wonder what kids have to discuss nowadays affter a showing of the latest biggest and baddest action-adventure-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects-extravaganza. The sort of thing, in other words, which, even had they existed in my time, we would have disdained as being “kiddies’ movies”.

Watching this film again inevitably brought back a great many memories, but, beyond the nostalgia, I was reminded once again how good it is as a film. Of course, it would have no chance of being made these days. Several individual scenes last ten or more minutes at a time – with no fancy camerawork or anything like that, but focussing merely on people as they talk, and as they react to each other: for that, after all, is the substance of drama. Right at the very start of the film there is a scene lasting nearly ten minutes of two people – McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the head of the psychiatric hospital – just speaking to each other. Nowadays, even a scene lasting a mere two minutes would be considered overlong, and likely to tax the attention span of its no doubt sophisticated audience.

The film itself is set almost entirely within a psychiatric ward, and most of the principal characters are inmates. The drama as it unfolds involves electric shock treatment, a particularly nasty suicide, frontal lobotomy, and euthanasia – not exactly feelgood stuff. And the laughter that is encouraged at the behaviour of some of the inmates would certainly be considered non-PC these days, especially by those who appear not to realise that laughter does not necessarily imply denigration: I cannot think of any other film in which psychiatric patients are presented as humans, as individuals; and where, even as we laugh, we feel for them both sympathy and empathy. We come, indeed, to like them as people.

Milos Forman’s  expert and unobtrusive direction strikes a path through very difficult territory without putting a foot wrong, and, while Jack Nicholson is obviously the star of the film – this was back in the days before he would turn up on set merely to roll his eyes, do his Jack-the-Lad routine, and collect the cheque … mind you, when you are playing merely in big-budget kiddies’ movies like the Batman films, what else can you do? – this is by no means a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece and the performances of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, of Brad  Dourif, Danny de Vito, Cristopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, etc. as the immates, are all outstanding. Add to that an intelligent and perceptive script (adapted from what I am led to believe is a pretty mediocre novel – though I could be wrong on that), and the cinematic experience on offer makes, even on repeated viewing, a huge emotional impact. It made me feel very nostalgic indeed for the days when one could just wander into town and have a choice between films of such quality as this and Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t realise then that that era in the mid- to late- 70s, when I first became a student, was the fag-end of what, in retrospect, we may think of as a sort of golden era for mainstream Hollywood films. For soon, along came the Star Wars films and Spielberg, and cinema became not just juvenilised, but infantilised. Oh well – I still have my memories!