Archive for September, 2018

“The Maltese Falcon” vs “The Big Sleep”

There are some right ignorant arseholes who think The Big Sleep is a better film than The Maltese Falcon.

OK, that first sentence was a consequence of an online conversation I had recently: a friend of mine (she knows who she is) dared me to open my blog post with that. Now that I have comfortably won the dare, let’s start again.

Take two.

It is inevitable that…

No, wait, I have forgotten something:

*** SPOILER WARNING ***

If you have neither read nor seen The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, then it is probably best you read no further.

I had to post that, otherwise my inbox will be full of angry communications. But now that’s done, let us start again.

Take three.

It is inevitable that The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep will be compared to each other. Both films were made in the 40s, within a few years of each other, and both were based on what are now regarded (quite rightly) as classic crime novels, but what were then works of fairly recent vintage. And both feature at the centre a tough and cynical private eye who tries to keep himself free of corruption in a world where corruption is ever-present. And, famously, in both films, this private eye was played by Humphrey Bogart. So comparisons are, perhaps, inevitable. And it seems to me – I may be wrong, of course, basing my conclusion as I am on merely anecdotal evidence – that the current consensus of opinion favours The Big Sleep over The Maltese Falcon; that some go so far as to see The Maltese Falcon as a sort of preparation for the masterpiece that was to come later. I vehemently disagree.

I think what worries me most about The Big Sleep is that Marlowe seems to be having far too much fun. Raymond Chandler’s novel is dark and sleazy, and in it, Marlowe is disgusted by the wickedness and corruption that he sees all around him. Of course, a film adaptation is under no obligation to be true to the book it is based on, either to the letter or to the spirit; and it could further be argued that it wasn’t possible for director Howard Hawks to portray such sleaze in a Hollywood film of the mid 1940s. However, Hawks was a sufficiently good director to have implied that sleaze, had he so wanted. But he clearly didn’t want to. Instead of the sleaze, we have glamour – quite impossible glamour. Of course we expect the leading lady to be glamorous (and it’s hard to imagine anyone more glamorous than Lauren Bacall); and it is important, for the story to work, that her younger sister, Carmen, must also be good-looking. But, mixed up as she is in a rotten world of all sorts of shady goings-on – gangsterism, prostitution, pornography, blackmail, drug-dealing, you-name-it – it is important that she should also project a sense of corruption, of sleaze, of humanity blighted and decayed to such an extent that her beauty is but a grotesque parody of the purity it promises. And the very beautiful Martha Vickers, frankly, doesn’t convey any of that. What’s more, I don’t think she was meant to.

In the novel, Mrs Regan (Mrs Routledge in the film) is also involved in the corruption: here, to make her a suitable romantic interest for Marlowe, she is cleared of any such entanglement. Fair enough, I suppose – if you insist on incorporating a romantic story into all this, that’s what you need to do. But it’s that decision to incorporate a romantic story into all this that I find questionable.

And on top of all that, just about every woman Marlowe encounters (who is not on the side of the villains) is impossibly drop-dead gorgeous; and, even more impossibly, they throw themselves at Marlowe. Even the bookshop-keeper (played by Dorothy Malone) is gorgeous, and she closes her bookshop early within minutes of meeting Marlowe to do with him whatever it is that cameras in those days had discreetly to cut away from. Even a taxi-driver who is on screen for less than a minute (Joy Barlow, uncredited) is impossibly glamorous, and, within minutes of meeting Marlowe, she gives him her number and tells him to get in touch. Now, this sort of thing would be fine in a light-hearted comedy, and someone like Cary Grant, say, could have carried off such scenes with panache; but it seems to me to sit rather uncomfortably with the cynical tough-guy persona of Bogart’s Marlowe. One cannot be a cynical hardened tough guy and a charming skirt-chasing Lothario all at the same time.

Worst of all, there is little sense of evil. Or even of corruption. The chief villain here is Eddie Mars, and he is so under-characterised that, despite having seen this film countless times over several decades, I can barely remember what he looks like. The evil, in other words, barely has a presence in this film. Bogart does from time to time register disgust with what is around him, but everything seems so pretty, so beautiful, so glamorous; and Marlowe is having such fun in this glamorous world – what with such beautiful women throwing themselves at him, why shouldn’t he? –  that one can’t help wondering: what precisely is he disgusted by?

bigsleep

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep

There is one sequence – and a very impressive sequence at that – where the darkness comes very much to the fore: this is the sequence involving Elisha Cook Jr. The scene in the deserted office at night-time really is rather frightening. But this scene merely serves to highlight what is missing in the rest of the film: what is very conspicuously missing is a sense of evil as a palpable presence. There is too much romance, too much glamour; and Marlowe seems to be having too good a time. And even after going through all those glamorous ladies, he still gets the girl he really loves. Which is nice.

Of course, Hawks was under no compulsion to be true to the novel. He clearly wanted the glamour, and the fun, and so he put them there. And there’s no denying that it is indeed very glamorous, and great fun, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed. But the nature of the material seems to me to demand a far greater darkness, a far greater sense of corruption; it demanded that the evil be perceived as a real presence. And, apart from a single brief sequence, that simply doesn’t happen.

In The Maltese Falcon, the evil is more clearly present, even though it can manifest itself in forms that are charming (Sidney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman), endearing (Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo), or beautiful (Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, or whatever her real name is). And Spade himself is not entirely immune from it all: he had, after all, been having an affair with his partner’s wife.

In the film, Spade plays along with the villains, and it is uncertain to what extent he is tempted by the evil. He is certainly tempted by Bridget O’Shaughnessy, even though he knows her to be evil. But although his role is morally dubious for most of the film, there are times when his disgust does burst out. When Gutman asks him if he knows what the jewelled falcon is worth, he bursts out that he knows how much it means to “you people” in terms of human lives; and yes, he is disgusted. And when the wife of his former partner – with whom he has been having an affair – reveals that she is quite indifferent to her husband’s death, Spade, despite not having cared for her husband, is nonetheless disgusted. The moral integrity he displays in the final scene does not quite come out of the blue.

And it is this final scene between Sam Spade and Bridget O’Shaughnessy that raises The Maltese Falcon, I think, to another level. Till that point, it was already in the top drawer (as far as thrillers are concerned, only Double Indemnity and The Third Man are, to my mind, in the same league): that final scene takes it a few notches higher. Here, it’s not about the falcon any more: perhaps it never was about the falcon. It’s now about something far more fundamental. Spade had been tempted – not by the money (Spade is no mercenary), but by Bridget O’Shaughnessy. By whatever her real name is. He had been tempted even though he had known she was pure evil. Unlike Marlowe, Spade is not totally immune to the temptation of evil, and he knows it. And in this scene, he confronts it. He tries to distance himself emotionally, listing in as detached a manner as possible all the reasons he has for handing her in to the police, and all the reasons he has for not doing so. But at the end of what he had intended to be a dispassionate speech, his passion flames out in one unforgettable line:

“I won’t do it because all of me wants to.”

The line is Hammett’s (as is virtually all of the sparkling dialogue in this film) but once we have heard Bogart deliver it, it is impossible to imagine it delivered any other way. Spade does what is right, but it is an immense struggle. Bridget O’Shaughnessy tries to play him, and, being the expert seductress that she is, she knows where his most vulnerable spot is: if he really loved her, she says, he won’t need any more reasons. But even this he resists.

maltese falcon

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon

This final scene has an emotional depth, an intensity, that may come as a surprise given the fireworks in the rest of the film, but which, one realises on subsequent viewings, had been simmering under the surface all along. And there is absolutely nothing at all like this in The Big Sleep. There, it is all just a bit of fun. There, the leading lady is exculpated from all nastiness and corruption so she could be worthy of the hero. Here, the leading lady is handed in to the police, and the hero, such as he is, is left free from corruption, but empty and desolate. He didn’t protect her and win her, though all of him wanted to.

The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

Any other actor would have played that for laughs, and any other director would have encouraged him to do so. But Humphrey Bogart and John Huston knew better.

***

Reading back on what I have written, I have probably been a bit unfair to The Big Sleep. It certainly is hugely enjoyable, and is great fun, and there are those who say that is all that the “Golden Age of Hollywood” produced, and that we should look for no more. Perhaps. But as far as I can see, The Maltese Falcon gives us considerably more than that.

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Reasons to be happy

I was feeling a bit down recently, so I started to think about everything that made me happy. And I came up with this no doubt incomplete list.

  • Toasted cheese suppers
  • Convivial conversation with friends over drinks
  • Curling up in my favourite armchair, whisky in hand, reading Sherlock Holmes stories
  • Branches swaying in the wind
  • Mozart’s piano concertos, Schubert’s chamber music, & Verdi’s “Falstaff”
  • A train journey through the countryside – just staring out of the window
  • Waking up early in the morning, and turning over to go back to sleep again
  • Snow
  • Pompous arses on television looking serious and spouting shite
  • Film noir
  • Seeing small children with happy faces come out of the Natural History Museum, and realising that not even the most sophisticated of gadgets will ever replace the plastic dinosaur
  • Books by bearded Russian writers. (And by Pushkin & Gogol, who unaccountably didn’t have beards. Although Pushkin’s sideburns were spectacular, I grant you.)
  • Autumn leaves
  • Smutty schoolboy jokes
  • Browsing in second-hand bookshops
  • Hammer horror films
  • People saying “thank you” to bus drivers
  • Those Proustian moments when your younger days return vividly to mind, and you remember what a prat you were
  • Watching University Challenge with daughter, & answering more questions than her
  • Laurel & Hardy
  • Winter light. (That is, the light you get in winter, not the Ingmar Bergman film with that title. I mean, I do like Bergman, but I can’t say his films make me very happy.)
  • The lady I saw a few weeks ago reading Paradise Lost on the commuter train
  • Sitting on a park bench watching clouds drift past & doing bugger all
  • Gothic cathedrals
  • The howling of wind outside on gusty nights
  • Shakespeare
  • Memories of the 1982 Brazil football team
  • Fermat’s theorem (not his last) that all prime numbers that can be expressed as 4N+1 (where N is integer) can also be expressed as a sum of two squares
  • Reading ghost stories in bed at night
  • Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter
  • My library
  • Spectacular thunderstorms
  • A Christmas Carol
  • Getting old, and not having to worry any more about keeping up with things
  • Repeats of Dad’s Army on television
  • Aimless rambles through the streets of London
  • Opera broadcasts in cinemas
  • Movie stars recommending you take coffee up the arse
  • Rabindrasangeet
  • Sitting by a blazing open fire in my local during winter months
  • National Gallery, London
  • A good biryani
  • That feeling of satisfaction you get when you put up what you think is a good blog post. (Somehow, I don’t think I’ll get that feeling with this one…)
  • Serious drama. ‘Cos you generally need a good, stiff whisky afterwards.
  • The Scottish Highlands
  • Looney Tunes cartoons
  • The unshakable belief that there will be garden furniture in heaven
  • Getting drunk and talking too much
  • Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
  • Gammon and Spinach

An evening at the Darbar

Most concerts last for a couple of hours or so. So when I walked into the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank in London last night for a concert starting at 5:30, I was expecting to be back home in time for a bit of supper. Not so. After a marathon four-hour session (including, admittedly, a twenty minute break), I finally came out of the hall at 9:30, and by the time I got home (for getting home from Central London always takes time), it was nearly 11, and my empty stomach was making all sorts of comical noises. Well, at least I can’t complain about not getting my money’s worth at the concert.

The Darbar Festival is now well established in London, and, in an increasingly depressing world, it really is something to be cheerful about, something worth celebrating. It is a festival of Indian “classical” music, and features every year some of the very finest exponents of the genre. But the genre itself isn’t easy to describe: I have placed the quotation marks around “classical” quite deliberately. This term was obviously introduced to parallel the concept of Western classical music (which too is not an easily defined term, but let us not go into that now). However, the parallels between Indian and Western classical music are tenuous at best, and drawing parallels between the two is not, perhaps, very helpful. What is termed “Indian classical music” is perhaps best described as “traditional music”, but a traditional music distinct from what we understand as “folk music” (which, of course, is another imprecise term). This is music that was cultivated in darbars (courts) and in aristocratic salons. It acquired a brief popularity in the West in the 1960s, when many regarded it essentially as “music to get high to”, but even then it was pretty niche stuff. But in the subcontinent, and within the diaspora, it is, of course, another matter.

In the next paragraph, I shall summarise my understanding of this music. This explanation is likely to be pretty boring, so the reader may want to skip it.

There are two very distinct types, the Hindustani (from Northern India), and the Carnatic (from the South), the former incorporating, I understand, many elements from Persian music. Within these two main categories, there are many different schools of practice (gharanas), handed down across generations. The main form is the raga, (or raag, or however you wish to spell it); there are different kinds of raga, many associated with particular times of day or seasons of year, with each defined by specific ascending and descending scales, and also by characteristic melodic patterns. Within these parameters, the musician (instrumentalist or singer) has to improvise, following a structure (which may of course be varied) consisting of alap (an introduction, without a time signature); a jor (where there is a time signature, but where cross-rhythms of often extraordinary intricacy make it difficult for people like me to tap my feet to the music); a jhala, where the tempo increases to quite exhilarating effect; and finally, a number of composed (i.e. not improvised) sections called gats to round the thing off. A raga can last for anything from a few minutes up to about an hour, or longer. The upper bound appears to be around 80 minutes, but as my knowledge in these matters is derived mainly from CDs (which don’t last longer than 80 minutes), I am not certain on this point: I am sure performances could go on for longer.

Those who skipped the last paragraph may rejoin here.

If all this makes me appear some kind of expert, this is because I am quite adept these days at bullshitting. However, it is one thing bullshitting over a few drinks in a pub amongst friends who know even less than I do; it is quite another thing bullshitting on a forum such as this where one is liable to be found out. What I have written above takes me to the very limit of my understanding. And even there, I may have said a few things that will no doubt have connoisseurs smiling patronisingly, and shaking their heads. I don’t deny it: I am certainly more enthusiastic than knowledgeable. But however poor my understanding, this is music I love, and, increasingly, I find this music very important to me.

There was a large audience last night. I am bad at estimating numbers, but Queen Elizabeth Hall is a fairly large hall, and it was almost full. I was, however, a bit saddened to note the relative paucity of Westerners in the audience: most of the audience consisted of people like me from the Indian diaspora (or, at least, the diaspora from the subcontinent). But then again, I am saddened also by the paucity of Indian faces at western classical concerts. When we are privileged to enjoy the best that the whole world has to offer, almost literally on our doorsteps, it does seem a shame to segregate ourselves in this manner.  But then again, this may be turned on to me also: how many jazz concerts do I attend? How many folk concerts? Do I rush out to buy tickets when the South Bank Centre or the Barbican Centre puts on concerts, say, of Andalusian flamenco music, or of Balinese gamelan music?

I may plead in mitigation that I can’t cover everything. And also, it is unlikely that I would be able to take in too much of anything without diving into it deeply. But in truth, a little learning is not necessarily a dangerous thing: as long as one is aware that there is more to the Pierian Spring than one tastes, tasting a few bits here and there may not be a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary. If one were to follow Pope’s famous dictum to the letter, one would end up not knowing anything at all about most things.

But as ever, I digress. I am no expert on Indian “classical” music (as I guess I have to call it for want of a better term), and it is true also that my musical tastes are centred around music of a very different kind (the piano concertos of Mozart, chamber music of Schubert, the operas of Verdi, and the like). Nonetheless, this music does not appear strange or exotic at all to my generally western-tuned ears. Not for a moment did I find my attention wandering during last night’s marathon session.

The concert itself was described as a “double bill”. The first half featured sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee (no relation, as far as I know), with tabla player Sukhvinder Singh. The main part of their concert was an extended performance of Raga Patdeep, which is … Oh, look it up! I’d only be getting my own information from Wikipedia anyway! It was real virtuoso stuff, with both musicians by the end playing music of the utmost rhythmic intricacy at exhilarating breakneck tempi. I felt breathless just listening to it, but the musicians themselves seemed quite unruffled by it all. They followed this up with the considerably gentler and more romantic Raga Manj Khamaj. There was a point where some of the melodic phrases Purbayan Chatterjee was playing reminded me of a Tagore song (Bhenge mor gharer chabi niye jabi ke amare), and, while I was wondering if I was imagining it, he put us out of all doubt by playing a few phrases quite explicitly from that song, incorporating these phrases seamlessly into the flow of the music. Well, why not? He is Bengali, after all! (As I was coming out of the hall for the interval, a gentleman in front of me was singing that song under his breath: I doubt there was any Bengali in the audience who didn’t get the reference.)

The second part featured the very distinguished singer Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, a lady with the most extraordinary range, both in terms of octaves covered and in terms of expression. Her session alone lasted some two hours – two hours of her singing almost continually, without breaks. And, as far as my admittedly inexpert ears could determine, her voice was as fresh at the end as it had been at the start. It was extraordinary.

(I was going to write a paragraph of purple prose describing her singing, but frankly, why bother when you can go straight to YouTube?)

So, no doubt you’re all wondering why I am writing all this in what is supposed to be a book blog. It is partly, I think, to communicate something of my enthusiasm for what I heard last night. And also, I think, to encourage anyone reading this within travelling distance of Central London to have a look at the subsequent concerts in this series. (There are a few concerts at the Barbican next month, and some performances of dance – dance being perhaps more central to the arts in India than it is in the West – in Sadler’s Wells in November; and in March next year, the festival returns to the South Bank.) I speak often in this blog of the importance of sharing each other’s cultures, and when so enterprising a project brings such riches to us virtually on our very doorsteps, it seems only reasonable to let more people know about it.

Just one word of warning though: be prepared for a marathon session. No doubt in the darbars and the aristocratic gatherings of old, the patrons of this music did not have to catch the train the next morning to commute to the office, and this could have gone on all night. But even cut down to four hours, it is considerably longer than the concerts I am more used to.

And, unless one wants the rumblings of one’s stomach to counterpoint the music, bring some sandwiches for the interval.

Confessions of a charlatan

It’s quite easy to pose as being well-read. I know: I am a past master at it. I go on long book-browsing sessions in bookshops; I come home each time with a handful of books that I shove in wherever I can on my shelves (these shelves already full to bursting with multitudes of books, with books to boot, and books in overplus); pepper my conversation with a few casual and learned references (as I did just now); and so on, and so forth … and people will think I am bookish. So bookish, indeed, am I now considered, that I can quite easily save myself the immense trouble of actually having to read the damn things.

No matter how honest you like to think you are with yourself, you end up believing about yourself what others believe about you. So I believed myself bookish. And thinking myself so, I decided to start a book blog. But nothing brings home to you your misconceptions about yourself more effectively than that. For, very soon, I had to disclaim this was a book blog at all. Oh, I wrote about books all right, but I started writing about a whole lot of other things too. Meanwhile, looking through other book blogs, it became patently obvious that I hadn’t read anywhere near widely enough to live up to the image I had so assiduously cultivated.

It can get quite embarrassing at times. For instance, on the few occasions I have agreed to take part in group reads with other book bloggers, I have fallen hopelessly behind, coming up with my own post about the book long, long after everyone else has already said everything worth saying. And when others make to me no doubt excellent recommendations for further reading, I politely assure them I will follow up these recommendations, while all the time asking myself “When? When?”

I think the problem is I am just a very slow reader. And not just a slow reader: I am also a slow thinker. I rarely “get” things right away. I read very slowly, often re-reading paragraphs I have just read to make sure I got them right the first time round; and often revisiting earlier sections of the book if it strikes me that some later section may cast new light on what I had read before. And after reading, I have to sit back for a while, silently, mulling it over. Frequently, I feel I need some time away from the book before I can move on, to think over to myself some difficult or complex passage. In short, it takes a long time for anything to sink in, to penetrate through my thick skull.

And now that I am, I suppose, a book blogger of sorts, I frankly find myself somewhat in awe of, and more than a bit intimidated by, those other book bloggers who can read through the most difficult of books in next to no time. How do they do it? And I have no doubt that they do actually take in what they are reading: the quality of their blog posts is sufficient evidence that they do. It beats me how they do it, though!

And then, when it comes to bedtime, and I know I should be ending my day with an improving few pages from some of Plato’s dialogues, or maybe some essay by Montaigne, my eyes wander furtively towards the collection of ghost stories and Sherlock Holmes stories that have for very many years now been near my bedside. Yes, yes, I know, Plato’s dialogues are among the very peaks of human thought – they bring us like no other literature closer to the truth of what it is to be human.

But then again … “The Bruce-Partington Plans” …

Oh well – at my age (I’ll be sixty in less than two years, and I’m not at all sure how that happened) it is pointless to desire this man’s art and that man’s scope. Why should an aged eagle stretch its wings? (See! I just did it again!) I know I’ll never be anywhere near as erudite and as well-read as some people seem to imagine me. But as long as I can find riches in what I have read; and as long as I can enjoy “The Bruce-Partington Plans” as much as I used to back when I was a lad; I think I can rest content. It’s not a race, after all.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. It makes me feel a whole lot better.

Some further thoughts on “The Wild Duck”

It is no original or startling revelation that Brand, Dr Stockmann (An Enemy of the People), and Gregers Werle (The Wild Duck) are cut, as it were, from the same cloth: all three insist that their fellow humans accept the Truth; all three make moral demands that humans aren’t, on the whole, capable of living up to. However, the family resemblance between the three should not be pushed too far, as there are salient differences between them also; and exploring these differences gives, perhaps, some insight into the way Ibsen’s thought was developing.

Of the three, Brand is the only one who is explicitly religious. He demands that humans accept the truth because God wills it so, and because God’s will is paramount. The question of human happiness barely enters into it. The God that Brand envisages loves Man, but he is, in Geoffrey Hill’s translation, “imperious in his love”.

My God is the great God of storm,
absolute arbiter of doom
imperious in His love!

your God can hardly move;
he’s weak of mind and heart,
easy to push about:
but mine is young, a Hercules…

To follow Brand’s God is to forswear earthly comfort; it is also perhaps to forswear happiness, joy. It is to engage in endless struggle. For Brand’s view of the world is God-centred rather than Man-centred: human contentment, human comfort, human joy, all mean nothing when placed next to God’s will, and if carrying out God’s will is to forfeit happiness and comfort, so be it. In this, though in little else, Brand’s vision corresponds with the views of Pastor Manders in Ghosts:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam! 

Pastor Manders is very unlike Brand because he has neither the strength of character nor the unflinching and uncompromising intelligence to follow through his premise to its rightful conclusions; but their starting points are perhaps not too different.

Stockmann and Gregers Werle are different. Dr Stockmann is, specifically, a man of science: for him, the Truth is not something that is divinely revealed, but rather, something that Man arrives at by exercising his own intellect. And Gregers Werle never mentions God: he never even refers to him indirectly.

But Gregers’ moral code is very Christian: he places great emphasis upon sacrifice, and upon forgiveness. (It may be argued indeed that in his emphasis on forgiveness, he is more Christian than Brand: Brand’s God is “imperious in his love”, and unforgiving.) But Gregers’ reason for making such moral demands of his fellow humans is not to carry out the will of God: rather, it is to make men happy. For once man discovers his innate nobility and learns to sacrifice and to forgive, then the whole of mankind can, he believes, live together in harmony and happiness and joy. This is a consideration that is as alien to Brand as it is to Pastor Manders: “What right do we mortals have to happiness?”

It is Dr Stockmann’s insistence on Truth that is perhaps the most puzzling. He certainly makes no mention of God, but neither does he seem an idealist concerned with human happiness. In purely scientific terms, yes, the water in the spa is indeed polluted, and, unless the fault is corrected, people will suffer. But is his motivation ultimately to prevent human suffering? It hardly seems so:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

So what does motivate Dr Stockmann? Truth for its own sake, yes: but why? Why should a man who, speaking from the depths of his heart, is happy to see the “entire people eradicated”, care whether or not these people grasp the Truth?

And for that matter, why should Brand be so tortured by the end? Yes, he is rejected and reviled; yes, he has lost everything that he has loved – his wife, his child. But had he not rejected the concept of earthly human happiness in the first place? Had he not told himself that carrying out the will of God is a hard task, and that those who set out to carry out the task must have no expectations of earthly comfort?

These are not easy questions, and these inconsistencies perhaps indicate no more than that we, as humans, are complex, and not perfectly rational creatures. But the most intriguing of the three, perhaps, is Gregers Werle, who, though clearly mad, seems to me particularly interesting. He does not mention God or religion, but his moral code is nevertheless Christian, and he acts by it because he genuinely believes that this will bring about human happiness. And even after his convictions bring about tragedy, he refuses to let go of them. At the start of the play, there had been thirteen at dinner, and, at the very end of the play, Gregers declares his destiny: to be thirteenth at table – that is, to be the odd one out, the one who refuses to abide by what the rest of the world thinks. For he cannot let go of his convictions, regardless of what people think, regardless even of what happens: for to give up his convictions is to accept Dr Relling’s formulation that humans need to live with lies and illusions, simply to make life bearable. But to Gregers, such a life is not a life worth living. This is why he has to adhere to his principles, no matter what: life cannot be worth living without them – there can be no reason to exist.

Ibsen was writing in the post-Enlightenment era: belief in God was still possible, but was by no means a default position, dictated by reason. And the question of how can justify life once we no longer take as given (as Brand had done) a divine overriding purpose is not an easy question. Without belief in an overriding divine purpose, the focus falls on what makes us humans happy.  And the realisation that the Truth does not necessarily make us happy is a terrible realisation: how can we live with that? And it’s not even that there exists a middle ground between Gregers and Dr Relling: either humans are noble beings capable of accepting truth, or they are not. And if we are to reject Gregers’ idealism, what option do we have but to accept Dr Relling’s cynicism, and the contempt for humanity that goes with it?

There still seems to be an image of Ibsen as a purveyor of bourgeois drama – reassuring, comfortable, and perhaps a bit stodgy. All I can say is that this is far from how I see them.

 

 

[The passages from Brand quoted above are taken from the translation by Geoffrey Hill. The passages from the other plays are from the translations by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik. All translations are published by Penguin Classics.]

“The Wild Duck” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

HEDWIG: It’s only a loft.

GREGERS (looks hard at her): Are you sure?

HEDWIG (astonished):  That it’s only a loft?

GREGERS: Yes. Are you quite certain about that?

It is hard either to read or to see The Wild Duck, and not be aware of its various symbols. Of course, Ibsen had used symbols in his earlier plays too: if, as I increasingly think, the point of serious literature is to force language to communicate matters language is not primarily designed to communicate, then symbols becomes virtually unavoidable, and all serious writers, to some extent or other, use symbols to refer to that which cannot be stated directly. But in The Wild Duck, we seem so firmly enmeshed in a network of symbols, we can barely move without running into them.

The loft, for instance. It’s a strange concept in what is still a “realistic play” – by which I mean a play that takes place in the world we inhabit rather than in some dreamscape, features characters from walks of life familiar to us, and tells a story that we can believe could conceivably happen in our real world. This loft, which in performance is just offstage and can be just tantalisingly glimpsed, is a dark place, done up like a forest with what Meyer’s translation refers to as “Christmas trees”, and populated by chickens, pigeons, and rabbits. We don’t need to be told that this loft represents more than a mere literal description can convey.

And what’s more, the characters know this as well. But to each character, it means something quite different. For instance, to Ekdal, once a fearless bear-hunter in the great forests but now reduced to a pathetic shell of a man, it is an image of the forests he used to love, but which he now does not have the nerve to go to. Once he went into the forest to hunt bears; now, he goes into the loft with his gun to shoot rabbits. He speaks of the forest “taking its revenge”, and when the final tragic act of this drama unfolds in this loft, he returns to this theme: “The forest has taken its revenge,” he says quietly. So to Ekdal, the loft is a symbol of the forest, and the forest itself is a symbol of some mysterious impersonal force that punishes humans for their encroachments – though why, we do not precisely know.

Meanwhile, the teenage girl Hedwig associates the loft with the “vasty deep” – the depths of the sea, where a former lodger, a sea captain, is now drowned. And this “vasty deep” she associates with the world of the imagination, a magical world removed from the solid, quotidian concerns of real life.

And inside this loft, this mock-forest, this “vasty deep”, there resides, amongst the pigeons and the rabbits and the chickens, the wild duck of the title. And, of course, this too is a symbol for something. But it’s perhaps best not to try to interpret these symbols too precisely, or too rigidly: the play is, after all, a play about humans interacting with each other, and not an abstract interplay of theoretical symbols, or some intellectual crossword puzzle to be solved. But the preponderance of these various symbols, and the various different interpretations that are attached to each of them (often by the characters themselves), create in this play a powerful poetical dimension: alongside the reality – the  real world that Ibsen by now was so expert in depicting on stage – we are shown another world, a mysterious and poetic world of the imagination, or, as Hedwig would call it, of the “vasty deep”. And these two worlds co-exist, each inter-penetrating the other, on the one hand giving the real world a poetic depth, and, on the other, anchoring the flights of poetic fancy to the solid and the everyday. While, in the four earlier plays of this cycle, we had mainly inhabited the real world of solid things, with The Wild Duck, I get the impression that Ibsen was moving into new directions: we are now in a world that is increasingly suffused by the poetic, by the mysterious and inscrutable powers of the imagination, by the “vasty deep” itself – by all those things that language unaided by the poetic sensibility is so ill equipped to communicate. And, however solid the real world had been that Ibsen had presented to us in his previous four plays, he was – as Brand and Peer Gynt should remind us – as much a poet as he was a dramatist. If his previous play, An Enemy of the People, was, as I had suggested, a sort of step back, then we can see it in the light of the subsequent plays as a sort of consolidation, a restatement of what Ibsen had already achieved, before setting out on a new and adventurous direction.

But to say we shouldn’t be too rigid in interpreting these symbols doesn’t mean we shouldn’t interpret them at all: we need merely to remember that each interpretation is at best partial – that these symbols can mean all sorts of different things simultaneously, and that what they mean at bottom is as elusive and as intangible as the workings of the human mind itself.

The wild duck, for instance, also means different things to different people. It is Hedwig’s pet, and she loves it; and Gregers, the fanatic, knowing how much it means to her, suggests she sacrifice it in order to prove her love for her father – an act of pure symbolism to demonstrate that which is real. But Gregers himself sees the duck as something else. This duck had been winged by his father (from whom Gregers is now alienated); it had fallen into the lake, and had gone down to the “vasty deep”; and from there, it had been retrieved by his father’s dog. And now, wounded and flightless, it resides in the loft that is at the same time real and symbolic. In one sense, this duck is Hedwig’s mother Gina, once violated by Gregers’ father, and now living her life in quiet, unassuming domestication. But that “vasty deep” into which the duck had sunk means to Gregers something other than what it means to Hedwig: to Hedwig, it represents the world of the imagination; but to Gregers, it represents a world of lies, of delusion. And he sees Hedwig’s father, Hjalmar, as the duck that has sunk into this world of delusion; and he sees his own self as the dog who is to bring him back to the surface, into the clear light of day.

There are other symbols too – weaving its way in and out. There’s the recurring image of vision (or the lack of it), and of light; there is the image of hunting; and so on. We can quite easily get to the stage that we start looking for symbols in everything. So, for instance, when Gregers fails to light his stove properly and the room fills with poisonous fumes, and he throws water over the stove to put it out and floods his room, we can’t help wondering what it symbolises. I personally think it is no more than a comic episode, and, far from symbolising anything, merely demonstrates Gregers’ inadequacy in dealing with the real world of solid things – an inadequacy that, in a different context, leads to devastation. But if we wish to tease symbolic meaning here too, I’m sure we’re entitled to: as long as we do not allow this interplay of symbols obscure the very human drama that Ibsen presents with such clarity. For the play does not merely inhabit a poetic world of the imagination: it is as firmly rooted in reality as is any of Ibsen’s earlier plays in the cycle.

And it has a very well-defined plot. The principal protagonists of this plot are two young men who used to be schoolfriends, but who are very unlike each other. There’s Hjalmar Ekdal, good-looking and vain (he speaks admiringly of his own curly hair), indolent, self-obsessed and self-dramatising, and living a blissfully contented life. And there’s Gregers Werle, who is (we are told) physically ugly; he is son of a very wealthy local businessman, but he is not on good terms with his father: his father had been a philandering type, and he cannot forget the misery this had caused his late mother. He has tried to stay away from his father, and on returning to his home town, finds he cannot forgive him:

WERLE: Gregers – I believe there’s no-one in the world you hate as much as you do me.

GREGERS (quietly); I have seen you at close quarters.

WERLE: You have seen me with your mother’s eyes.

Their respective fathers had been in business together, but Hjalmar’s father, Ekdal, had been found guilty of business malpractice, had served a prison term, and is now a broken man. Gregers’ father had been indicted too, but he had been found not guilty: Gregers does not believe his father had been innocent, although we, the audience, never know the truth of the matter. As far as Gregers is concerned, his father had merely used Ekdal, letting him go to prison while he himself had thrived.

And old Ekdal has a further reason for shame: when found guilty, he had a gun in his possession, and honour demanded that he turn the gun on himself; but he, the fearless hunter of bears in the forest, had proved (in his own mind, at least) a coward. And now, he is utterly broken, reduced to doing some menial copy-writing work given to him by his former business partner, and shooting rabbits in his own loft.

Hjalmar speaks sentimentally about his father, and speaks of rehabilitating him once again in society; but in reality, he is ashamed of him, and fails even to acknowledge him in public. He is married to the submissive Gina, who does all the work – and even, we find out, runs his business, as Ekdal is too lazy to run it himself. (He has been set up by Werle as a professional photographer.) And Ekdal is blissfully unaware that his wife Gina, when she had been housekeeper at the Werles’, had been Werle’s mistress; and Hedwig, the girl he thinks is his own, is, almost certainly, Werle’s.

It is into this atmosphere that Gregers intrudes. Unable to live under the same roof as his father, he becomes a lodger with the Ekdals. And he is determined that his old friend Hjalmar must not live with his delusions; he must know the truth about his wife, and accept that Hedwig, who loves him unconditionally, is not his own daughter. And Gregers is convinced that once Ekdal’s eyes are open, he will forgive, and that they will all live happily in perfect understanding of each other, and with perfect love – that a new life will open for them, based not on lies and illusion, but on Truth, which is the most important thing of all.

Gregers is quite clearly a fanatic, as Brand and Dr Stockmann had been; and he is also, quite clearly, mad. While it is possible to see his forerunners Brand and Dr Stockmann as heroic, it is hard to discern anything at all heroic about this strange character who insists on seeing life in terms of ideals, and who is so much at odds with the rest of humanity that he cannot what really is so blindingly obvious – that a man as shallow and as self-dramatising as Hjalmar Ekdal is not capable of living with the Truth, however valuable that Truth may be.

But the principal conflict in the drama is not between Gregers and Hjalmar: the weak and indolent Hjalmar is not really strong enough character to carry the burden of such a conflict. The conflict is between Gregers and Dr Relling. Dr Relling, unlike Gregers, takes a much dimmer view of humanity: humanity, he feels, cannot live with the Truth, and it is better for them to live contentedly with whatever illusions they need to get through life. So he has convinced Hjalmar that he has the talent to be an inventor; and he convinces the rather pathetic drunkard Molvik that there is actually something “daemonic” about his character. Contrasting as he does with Gregers’ lunacy, it is tempting to see Dr Relling as the voice of sense – the chorus, as it were, commenting sensibly on what is happening, but unable to prevent the tragedy. But this won’t do.  At the very end, after the almost unbearably tragic outcome (which, seen in a good production, really does tear the heart apart), we get a brief scene between Gregers and Relling, where Relling says that, despite the uncontrollable grief of Hjalmar’s, he will not be ennobled by his experience, that he is incapable of being ennobled – that he will continue to be the indolent, self-dramatising and self-pitying man he always has been. Gregers’ can’t accept this:

If you are right and I am wrong, life is not worth living.

And while we may agree with Relling on this specific point, we would be wrong to dismiss Gregers: if life does indeed consist, as Relling insists, merely in drowning ourselves in illusion so as to avoid facing truths, then life really isn’t worth living. Gregers may be mad, but in this, he is surely right.

In An Enemy of the People, it was Dr Stockmann who held the people in utter contempt: this is because he saw them incapable of being the noble searchers for Truth that he feels they should be. But it is not just the idealists who can become enemy of people: here, it is Dr Relling who holds humans in contempt; it is he who knows Molvik to be merely a pathetic drunk, and Hjalmar a self-deluding fool. Can the case not be made that it is Dr Relling, so contemptuous of his fellow humans, and, indeed, of himself, who is, indeed, the Enemy of the People here?

To understand the drama in realistic terms rather than as an abstract clash of  theories, we need to try to re-create something of these characters’ past. Gregers had been quite devoted to his mother. When Hjalmar speaks of his feelings when his father had been indicted and sentenced to prison, of how the world seemed at the time to collapse around him, Gregers is immediately reminded of how he had felt when his mother had died. It does not require too great a psychological insight to deduce that Gregers blames his father for his mother’s unhappiness, and that his present actions may be (albeit unknowingly) motivated by this hatred. But the nature of his parents’ marriage is not easy to unravel. Towards the end of the first act, we get the following exchange between Gregers Werle and his father:

WERLE (lowers his voice a little): But you should remember her vision was sometimes a little – blurred.

GREGERS (trembling): I know what you are trying to say. But who was to blame for that? You were! You and all those – ! And the last of them you palmed off on Hjalmar Ekdal, when you no longer – oh!

WERLE (shrugs his shoulders): Word for word as if I were listening to your mother.

The vision being “blurred” is a reference to the image of sight and of blindness that runs through the play: old Werle is going blind, as is the young Hedwig, presumably through some hereditary defect. And here, this reference to blurring is also, quite obviously, a euphemism: Gregers certainly understands what his father is driving at: though it is never made clear, we may infer that she was becoming mentally unbalanced. And that, at least as far as Gregers is concerned, it was his father who had driven her to madness. Now, it could be that Werle was simply an unprincipled and ruthless sybarite, who was cruel to his wife; or it could be that their marriage had already broken down for other reasons. We cannot really tell. We see Werle now as a successful and respectable businessman, but of course, that means nothing. We see him also as a man who is careful to do his duty: he may have escaped prison (rightly or wrongly), but he spends his own money to set up his disgraced partner’s son in business, and later, makes sure his illegitimate and unacknowledged daughter Hedwig will be more than adequately provided for. And we certainly don’t see him as dissipated: he is clearly living with his housekeeper, the very self-possessed independent minded widow Mrs Soerby, and in the course of the play, announces his engagement with her. Dr Relling and Molvik go out boozing  together, and often visit a certain establishment run, we are told, by a Madame Ericsson: Werle is not the type of person to frequent such places. Now, it could be that with age, and, possibly, under the good influence of Mrs Soerby, Werle has grown out of his past habits; but it could equally be that, though far from morally pure, he was not quite the monster his son thinks him to be. We cannot be sure.

But Gregers has, for better or worse, taken after his mother. And so disgusted is he by what he sees as his father’s moral depravity, he is determined to see other humans as essentially noble beings. Or, at least, as the noble beings they would be if only they were to perceive the Truth. He is certainly a fanatic, and in this, he recalls Brand, but the differences are important: for one thing, Gregers does not mention God. Brand had insisted on the highest moral standards for humans because that is what God wants from Man: it’s not as a means of achieving happiness, but rather, to carry out God’s will, for only in carrying out divine will can the soul be purified. Pastor Manders too, in Ghosts, had asked why we humans should search happiness: we have our duty, given us by God himself, and that is sufficient.

But if God is no longer part of the equation, then what can we live for? How then can we justify life at all? Gregers may not mention God; he may not even believe in God; but his moral compass is very firmly rooted in Christianity all the same, and is centred, as Christianity is, around the concepts of forgiveness and sacrifice. Search for Truth, take this Truth to our hearts, forgive, and sacrifice for the sake of those we love; for only through that can we achieve for ourselves happiness and joy, and make life worth living. We may think all this hopelessly naïve, but before we dismiss it as such, we should consider Dr Relling’s position: live in delusion, he says, for we are not good enough or strong enough to live with the Truth; and, far from searching for happiness and joy, take solace instead in drunkenness, and in the joyless pleasures of Madame Ericsson’s establishment. Is this really any better than Gregers’ naivety? If Dr Relling is right and Gregers is wrong, then is life really worth living?

The Wild Duck addresses some of the most fundamental of questions about our lives: how should we live? How can we justify our lives, and make our lives worth living? But there is nothing abstract about the drama: it is a very human story, peopled with weak and fallible people who nonetheless demand our sympathy and understanding; and it culminates in a tragedy that really does break the heart. Hjalmar may be weak and self-dramatising, but seeing him weep over the body of one who had loved him unconditionally, but whose love he had in his moral blindness rejected; and to see also the equally helpless tears of the mother Gina, who saw the terrible tragedy unfold before her eyes, but who was helpless to prevent it; is among the most heart-rending of all scenes in drama, and even brings to mind the final scene of King Lear.

And interfused with this tragedy is the poetry – the deep and resonant imagery of the loft, which is at the same time the forest and the “vasty deep”, and whatever associations the forest and the vasty deep may have; and of the wild duck itself, winged, brought up from the vasty deep, and now, wounded, residing in the mock forest in the loft. The point is not to identify what these things mean, but, rather, to allow this world of dreams and of the imagination to intermingle with the worldly solidities, and reveal to us some of  the most hidden compartments of our consciousness.

Ibsen in his later plays was to go much further in using theatre, the most public of all art forms, to delve deeply into our unconscious: The Wild Duck is only the beginning.