November 28, 2014
Image: "Untitled" (1950) by Willem de Kooning.
I left the book I was very enthusiastically and emotionally reading at a bar and I don't know what to do with myself. Also, my Shockwave Flash keeps crashing. Will existence never abate?
-Speaking of, but not a joke: if nothing else, you need to read the interview Jia Tolentino did with a woman who was, per verdict language, "sexually misconducted" at UVA in 2005. (Jia does great work consistently.) It is very detailed and lends a much-needed specificity to the now somewhat common—and thus somewhat taken for granted as merely vaguely "awful," "harrowing," etc.—campus rape narrative, which I know people who haven't experienced rape or something like it probably have a hard time really, truly getting.
Yeah. So you wake up super sick. Had you been feeling sick at all the night before?
I'd felt completely fine the night before. So my boots are off, my dress is on, but it's twisted. I have no underwear. I look around and see my underwear on the end of the couch, on the other side of the room. I tried to get out of bed but I literally couldn't move. I couldn't even crawl.
I lie there for a while. No one is in the room with me. And then I hear voices in the hallway. One is the guy in question, and there are two other guys talking to him. I hear one of them say, "[This guy] is a necrophiliac, he likes to fuck dead girls."
I realized they were talking about me. They keep joking, like, "What are we gonna do, there's a dead girl in your bed."
I went into immediate survival mode. I start thinking, I need to play this smart. I can't confront them and say, "You motherfucker, what the fuck happened." So he comes back in the room, like, "You're awake? I was really worried about you."
I was like, "Oh yeah?" I ask him what happened. I tell him the last thing I remember was sitting in his room drinking. He says, "We did some shit, we hooked up, and then you got sick."
That was the end of my emotional bandwidth. I stopped asking questions.
-Going to pause here for a second.
-Seems stupid to link anything else, but this is the nature of online: you'll read a 6000-word interview on rape (well, you probably won't, but it will hover in your consciousness piecemeal and in gist) and then click over to a slideshow of aestheticized photos of the filth of the Gowanus Canal. Not entirely aestheticized, because I think that's impossible without not actually saying what the photographs are, but at least in intention and indeed in practice.
-The interview with the Polish poet Ewa Lipska I posted yesterday without comment (except to say, somewhat obliquely, that it was good) is still very worth reading, e.g.:
EL: I am linked with my generation through history, birth certificates and friendships, but I have never belonged to any literary group simply because I have never liked them. A rebellion? It has always been part of my life. But it is also typical of young people. I remember when we read Jean-Paul Sartre and were fascinated by the philosophy of existentialism and we wanted to be different. Now you can dye your hair green, but then there was no such possibility. I started to smoke a pipe. Back then, it was something really astonishing.
LW: With tobacco?
EL: Oh that was awful! It was called Najprzedniejszy ("Excellent"), but it was impossible to smoke it so I quickly gave it up. Today, a rebellion is different because the society is different. There are different material goods and we live in a different reality. Young people leave the country, smoke joints and find shelter in the virtual world. I often talk to them about these things. I support rebellion, although I do not like all of its "shades".
-Brad Listi's interview with Meghan Daum is also great, though if you want to skip the platitudinous American geography small talk and get to the nitty-gritty ways being born in Lincoln, Nebraska, actually does affect one's essence, I'd advise starting in the middle-ish. Meghan also shuts down on the "But the depth of this love is profoundly unlike anything one could ever access via spouse or dog!" response to why she just didn't/doesn't want to have fucking kids, okay.
-And head's up for people who buy things: Melville House has a 40% off sale on their entire catalogue all weekend.
November 27, 2014
I am thankful for Ewa Lipska.
November 26, 2014
Go blind today already:-"Erblinde"/"Go Blind" by Paul Celan, whose Collected Later Poetry you must buy on December 2 and read every day after that
eternity too is full of eyes—
drowns, what helped the images
over the path they came,
expires, what took you too out of
language with a gesture
that you let happen like
the dance of two words of just
autumn and silk and nothingness.
November 25, 2014
It is not shocking at all, and that is what is shocking: to be back in America after two years, reading the stories and watching the news and thinking about donating to various campaigns from essentially the same safe vantage point behind my computer and feeling essentially the same combination of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion among similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion connected through expressions of similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion yet at the same time also feeling entirely different because of this essential sameness, this persistence, sensing that the difference in distance or time has done nothing to fatten up my paltry conclusions as I had been led as a child to believe distance and time would, that it's still totally and just awful, still horrible, still an actual tragedy, still saying I do think that, God, really, I do.
November 24, 2014
Image: From Goya's series Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820).
Being myself "bitchy," as well as cognizant of Elaine Showalter after reading her for a seminar class on Virginia Woolf in which I gave it a try so apparently desperately college that my professor apologized to me before saying she could not give me an A, which not even Yale's grade inflation could pretend I deserved, I was passingly interested in Showalter's review of Richard Bradford's Literary Rivals: Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books, from which the takeaway is, say it with me now, "But where are the women?" Or, rather, that's what the takeaway should be, or seems like it's going to be; a fun breakdown of the Wordsworth/Coleridge relationship moves into a list of the rivalries featured in the book, and the latter is mostly male in the red-flag-waving way that almost always signals a criticism of that quality will follow (if the reviewer is female, that is). That criticism does follow, sort of: "Above all, Bradford doesn’t notice that his literary feuds seem to be 'fight clubs,' forms of competitive male bonding. His only example of feuding women writers is the well-known legal case of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman." This, however, serves mainly to introduce an opportunity for Showalter to calmly go through some examples of female writers feuding, and the piece concludes with the coiner of gynocritics shying away into a "nevertheless," as in
Nevertheless, writers today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured. Richard Bradford might see this as a loss to letters. It’s certainly a demystification of the cult of the warrior artist. But in the absence of slashing rivalries in the present, there’s a vacancy for a compendium of the most entertaining feuds of the past. And Bradford has stepped up to fill it.
Am I naive to wish this were not so aggressively passive? I mean, the point about political correctness and the Internet might be true—there seems to be a "vacancy" for criticism that falls between pussyfooting around and 11,000-word misogynistic absurdities, and there definitely exists an amount of nostalgia for the days of asshole critics past. But Bradford's exclusion of female writers seems like it should put the book in the territory of the egregious, the Okay. Now do it again, but this time, better category. To transition to her calm examples, Showalter uses another lame construction: "If Bradford knew more about women writers, he could cite many more precedents." I mean, if you're writing a nonfiction book, is research not part of your job? The point here should be the lack of women featuring in Bradford's supposed survey, no? Once you train yourself to recognize that kind of thing, you can't not see it. I'm trying to think of a fun comparison to illustrate this phenomenon, but the closest thing I'm coming up with is something to do with deal-breakers in sexual partners—e.g., when they don't seem to care if you get off, or "about female pleasure" if you want to pussyfoot around. That comparison probably works, because just as I often "nevertheless" away men who obviously don't care about female writers, I always find myself making excuses for that sex shit, too, mostly founded on "He has strong hands and buys me pizzas!" NEVERTHELESS, I shouldn't do those things, so I'm just going to make the hypothetical comparison without actually making it.
Contrast with Jessa's review of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, in which she acknowledges that the book's author has done an admirable job in many ways before deeming the book an italicized, unequivocal failure for "insist[ing] that this is the history of homosexuality without including the stories of women."
November 21, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading (or Not)
Awards are stupid, but sometimes this truth is obscured by 1) the fun of awards shows, the first-world+late-capitalist necessity of constructing anticipation and something to do; see also: Christmas; 2) the fantasy that we will one day be the recipients of the stupid awards; and 3) the frequent goodness of the people winning the awards. I mean, Louise Glück—what a genius! She is a genius. Still, it's kind of absurd that our feeble human brains cannot go on functioning without the crutch conception of the world as a potato-sack race, but you know, capitalism. I'm all for some people being more talented and/or better writers and/or more in possession of an ineffable something special than other people—I really hate lameness! It needs to be stopped!—but it just seems that perhaps vaguely defined LEVELS, rather than INDIVIDUALS, provide a more productive framework for this need to classify and categorize merit. Honor is important, because how else will we go on if not for the hope of being differentiated from the idiots that plague us (see below), but can we try to cultivate honors that do not have such needlessly severe consequences, by which I mean both positive and negative ones? You all know this—is it not why everyone is much happier to bleed content about Ursula's hazier and (somewhat, thus) more deserved "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" than on the books/writers that/who won the ridiculous right to say they published the BEST book last year? I mean, she is also potentially on ANOTHER LEVEL, but I think the point stands even ignoring the disparity in yearly vs. lifetime achievements.
This is not unrelated to Jennifer Weiner's insistence on Jonathan Franzen's hegemonic grip on the New York Times as being so strong that to read her work you'd think they printed something about the guy every single day. Her focus on the New York Times as the "paper of record," despite attempts to dismiss its possible status as such by including that bitterly sarcastic quotation-marked distinction alongside her criticism of its misuse of power—that focus is both valid and not, given that getting with the times (OR NOT, amirite?)—and trying to value cultural capital over actual capital—means knowing that there are many publications that earn more respect and exert a stronger gravitational pull, at least for, ahem, liter-a-toor, than the New York Times does. I'm not denying the power of Institutions, because 1) that would be naive; 2) they do have the money and influence much of the money they don't have; and 3) indeed I exploit my association with them—not ruthlessly, but moderately, and I probably can't not. NEVERTHELESS (and ignoring that this focus of Jennifer Weiner's belies the not-so-literary aspects of her work that she is so quick to blame on patriarchal/institutional perception, because not ignoring it would require me to delve deeper into my idea of LEVELS so as not to contradict my point about the problems of hierarchies, which I don't want to do right now): no one important actually cares—by which I mean cares about something beyond their money/influence—about the National Book Awards or the New York Times. They are placeholders that sometimes do good things. There is a reason intellectuals and otherwise literary types sequester themselves in a small and cliquish industry that is largely irrelevant to anyone outside it, so it's stupid that we then persist in recreating the tedious categorical imperatives of the wider world.
Also, like, YA guy, really? Why are you an idiot? You have all of life's advantages, and still you are an idiot. IT'S NOT THAT HARD.
There are probably many obscure news and thought topics I could bring to your attention from this lofty vantage point as a loosely employed 24-year-old book blogger, but there are SO MANY OTHER Link Roundups! that I will just save my links! for another day. Read the Melville House blog if you're bitchy but ultimately right and Asymptote's if you fancy yourself a cosmopolitan sophisticate.
November 20, 2014
The affliction I'm speaking of is moral relativism, and you can imagine the catastrophic effects on a critic's career if the thing were left to run its course unfettered or I had to rely on my own inner compass alone. To be honest, calling it moral relativism may dignify it too much; it's more like moral wishy-washiness. [Ahem!] Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things, be ready to pronounce on or condemn other people's foibles and failures at a moment's notice whenever an editor emails requesting twelve hundred words by the day after tomorrow. The severity of your condemnation is the measure of your intellectual seriousness (especially when it comes to other people's literary or aesthetic failures, which, for our best critics, register as nothing short of moral turpitude in itself). That's how critics make their reputations: having take-no-prisoners convictions and expressing them in brutal mots justes. You'd better be right there with that verdict or you'd better just shut the fuck up.
-From "Juicers," in Laura Kipnis's *~*new*~* Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
November 19, 2014
Literary and historical heroines on Grindr. So far, my favorites are Molly Bloom and the Titanic.
November 18, 2014
In this part of The Thing Where We Watch All of the Henry James Adaptations and Slowly Die from the Inside but At Least Get Content Out of It (I am so good at branding), Gary Amdahl and Jessa Crispin watch 90 adaptations of Turn of the Screw, and slowly go mad from all of the off-screen whispering and spooky music. Also, you should buy our Henry James Tribute Album, because it is very good. (I am also so good at subtle salesmanship.)
“Is that how you like to appear? Dark and cold as if you are about to be evil?” Stephanie Beacham to Marlon Brando, playing—so the cast list insists—“Miss Jessel” and “Quint” in Michael Winner’s prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The Nightcomers. Much may be learned from this hilariously flawed and brutally pornographic variation on the timeless allure of appearing dark and cold as if about to be evil.
Assertion #1: we all like very much to appear dark and cold as if about to be evil. But not all the time. I have a speciality in this regard: I give the impression I am on an ice floe that has just calved away from its parent-ice, and the only thing that is saving my near and dear ones from unspeakable wrath is the gradually widening gap of icy water between us. But even I get bored with this. If only Frank Frazetta could have painted me, I could be done with this once and for all, leaving it where it should be, in B movies with billion-dollar budgets.
James was susceptible to this common urge, just as he was to the common tale of the plain woman who inherits a fortune and learns to fend off assholes and idiots at the expense of her sweetness. But he suggested, with crazy literary swagger, that appearance is only one small shiver of a reality that is neither good nor evil—nor beyond good and evil, at least not the way Nietzsche had it.
Assertion #2: we can learn more from bad adaptations of James than good. But who wants to do that? You and I are trying to be rigorously complete in our survey, but why should anybody else have to do this? If Miles and Flora had been forced to watch The Nightcomers, they could not but be traumatized, and not just because it’s poorly directed and acted, but because it caters to and decries at once the desire to watch one person being hurt by another.
Though James trades on psychological pain, he does not participate in the catering and decrying. His Demons are temptations of mind, not flesh. His tortures are constrictions of mind, not flesh. All the while is telling a ghost story, a horror story, he allows the reader’s mind to not simply remain unbound but to expand. That is to say: he writes about the torment of mind from the viewpoint of a free, capacious, healthy mind. He writes about fear and pain with the calm acceptance of an artist who does not ignore evil but who does not seek to profit from it. His profit depends on his ability to “make life,” as he put it. Fear and hatred and pain and violence are inherent in the life he made out of The Turn of the Screw, but they are not the focus, not the point, not the reason it exists. Movie-makers have been drawn to the characters and plot of Screw, its scenes and tableaux for all the wrong reasons: they make absorption in dread and violence the only way for a viewer’s interest to be gratified. It’s a kind of commodified catharsis, pseudo-catharsis, a cheap thrill in place of harrowed understanding. We are the People of the Cheap Thrill, and we get what we pay for. To expect Hollywood to “faithfully adapt” James is misbegotten.
Assertion #3: The Buddhist monk and writer Jack Kornfield wrote that one can be freed from the past through forgiveness. “Forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.” Something like that. No act of forgiveness is dramatized or referred to in Screw—that’s part of how his ambiguity serves to intensify the already taut strings of the created life: it’s there but tragically never realized—but James’s art is all about living in a present that has given up hope for a better past, not to mention knee-jerk hopes for a better future; art that looks backward and forward with equanimity. Movies would rather die than do that. I think movies would die if they tried to do it. Even the best adaptations of Screw fail miserably because they cannot dramatize the open strong mind that presents the story to us. They can only animate characters.
Assertion #4: It’s too easy to beat up on the actors in these adaptations. It wasn’t Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fault in Washington Square: it was Agnieszka Holland’s fault. And if Brando was calling the shots in Last Tango with The Governess, he didn’t write script, the prequel that is doomed before it starts because “the story” must be told without it.
More on what the other two hundred people do to make a movie good or bad when we consider The Innocents, the 1999 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jodhi May, Redgrave’s 1974 production, the BBC of 2009, and Britten’s opera.
Yours in the loosened bonds of art,
On the night before Halloween, I was going through my regular ritual of reading and watching things that would freak me out so badly I would have to lie on the bed, eyes wide open, constantly checking my thought processes for hallucination and delusion. It's not really stories of murder and abduction that freak me out. I mean, whatever, someone can break in and kill me while I sleep, there's nothing I can really do to prevent that so I'm not going to be freaked out worried about it all the time. I've lived alone and traveled alone for too long, I know it's a giant waste of energy to freak out at every shadow and every strange sound. It's the stories of inexplicable madness and unexplained ends that freak me the fuck out. All of these women left in a dot dot dot -- Joyce Carol Vincent, Elisa Lam, and then the countless others who packed their bags one night and, without any sign of a struggle, checked out. What scares me is losing myself to myself, if that makes any sense. Of my mind just wandering off beyond my ability to bring it back.
It's like when I was a kid and all of those UFO stories were really big, and I used to read big volumes of abduction and experimentation because why not. At that age it is fun to experiment with darkness. And I was never afraid of being taken by aliens, but I was seriously scared that I might one day believe that I had been. Because then you would never get back to yourself, would you? You would have to haunt conferences and talk madness to people and insist on a reality that is totally at odds with everyone else's reality.
That's how I felt when I read Turn of the Screw for the first time, this terror of maybe losing myself inside a belief or an idea. I read it, by the way, hopped up on pain pills because I had fucked up my back and so that didn't help the feeling of slipping into something. But the terror of that is far greater, and far more difficult to convey, than the easy and boring sexual sadism of The Nightcomers. That whole opening metaphor of the toad and the cigarette -- "he likes it so much he'll kill himself not to stop" or whatever, I'm not rewatching the scene to get the line perfect -- is wearying. Just because you notice something, that there are women who sometimes like it when you hurt them, doesn't mean you have anything to say about it.
Did the Turn of the Screw need a prequel? Not this one, obviously, but even then. I hadn't thought, until watching The Innocents, how traumatized those kids must have been. They lose their parents, their new caregiver doesn't care about them, their governess dies horribly, the boy stumbles upon the dead body of the only adult who cares about him. When the little girl starts screaming in The Innocents and finds she can't stop, I was only wondering why she hadn't been doing that the whole time.
It's a different kind of trauma than the one the Governess was terrified would take them over. But there's that thing that kids do, performing this kind of chirpiness even though they are not okay, because it's expected, all the while keeping your reptilian secrets under your apron.
I can see why people want to expand on the tale, those few sentences about Jessel and Quint's relationship are provocative, and all of those off-screen deaths are tempting to put on screen, because instant drama. But the real terror isn't in, dead body on the floor. The terror is in what follows. It's the way your brain tries to recover and can't, it's the way you are left forever vulnerable after and the way people either dance around or take full advantage of that vulnerability.
That line at the beginning of The Innocents, the employer asks the governess, "Do you have an imagination?" Jesus, yes, she does. And the imagination is as destructive as it its creative. Certainly all of us know the wrong turns out imagination has taken us on. And "The Innocents" is the best at conveying that, but I have found myself resisting writing about what a good film it is. Let's talk about the lighting, I guess? Deborah Kerr's nightgowns? Those preternaturally adorable and so obviously some sort of monstrous fairykind children? It is a brilliant film, but it tells us little about James.
So you are right that the bad adaptations do more to show us what James does brilliantly. But I suppose I feel the best adaptation of Turn of the Screw would have been no adaptation of Turn of the Screw. Unlike Washington Square, which I believe could and should live in a thousand different forms, from films to ballets to paintings and whatever the fuck else (please no sequels, though), it seems a really great director would have looked at Turn and said, "Yeah, there's nothing to add here." It's one of his intricately built spider webs, trying to take one down off the wall and rebuild it in another area would necessarily left it with large gaping holes in some areas and tangled messes in others.
See? I can't somehow make myself write about the adaptations at all, although I will have something to say about Colin Firth the next time we converse.
I thought I saw someone in the window, I'll be right back I have to check,
This is where the prequels and sequels properly belong: in letters of friendly criticism. And by friendly I don't mean only letters between friends with a common interest that calls out for the kind of thinking that comes only of writing, I mean criticism like Emerson said it ought to be written: to the unknown friend.
You're right about the nature of fear and demonstrations of pseudo-violence. (No, wait, let's call it faux violence, because it is consumed in terms of fashion, not as the sharp stark meaningful opposite of truth.) Blood and brutality and pain and screaming are just disgusting, and if, for some reason, a watcher continues to wade through it, it becomes boring. It becomes so boring the boredom itself is disgusting. (The only way out is through comedy, which is why I briefly held some hope for the 1996 Kensit "Screw.") Anybody who's experienced real fear and real violence will confirm this.
Which brings me to trauma. I have witnessed and participated in trauma that is stretched out over a wide spectrum: my friend the motorcycle-riding drug-dealer who crashed his Harley and messed his brain up to the point where he could walk only after years of therapy, using a walker, and whose conversation was limited to:
ME: "How are you, Gerard?"
GERARD (thick CT accent, on bad days): Faih.
GERARD (on good days): Spahk-uh-ling.
And the Green Beret, suffering with PTSD before they were able to brand it, who murdered my uncle. ("Narrow Road to the Deep North," if anybody wants to read about that.)
Then there's the stuff that I feel is personally traumatic and which I keep to myself precisely because it is traumatic.
I am inclined, probably to your dismay, to not think of what happened to Miles and Flora as traumatic. I mean: I, the observer/reader, am inclined to see the events of the story as possibly something they felt to be what we now (specifically us and now) call traumatic, but which James presents as something else altogether.
Well, no, not altogether different: directly related but effectively different, emphasis on effect. And I would like to point to the weird etymology of "trauma." Now I'm no philologist, I just play one on the Internet, but...the word comes from the Greek for wound, but makes a mysterious detour in Old German before it arrives in English: daydream. There are wounds enough in daydreams to satisfy any sadist, any masochist, any unwell person of any sort. I used to have a saying (in fact it might be in "Narrow Road"): "Every daydream crests in a fistfight. And there was a time, a long time, in which I depended on my daydreams to propel me into daydreamy action in the non-dreaming world, just because I loved that sense of bifurcation: white figure on black background, suddenly black figure on white background...but the sharpest contrasts always blurred into gray. People, in other words, can take anything. What is the greatest miracle of all? That horribly wounded, degraded, brutalized people do not destroy themselves, do not hurl themselves into the abyss, don't overdose, blow their heads off when they know it will end the misery!
Of course some people do just that: wounded, they wound, and depart in flames. But the percentage is unbelievably small. Most of us learn to pin our misery on the fear of freaking out, just as you say. We hear about atrocity and it stands out in the clearest horror. We shrink back in fear, our imaginations run wild, and the fear becomes so magnified it paralyzes us. Sometimes this is a good restraint! Sometimes it is a bad restraint.
Back to James and particularly The Innocents. Screw is about A) the sad and wounding things that happen to children; and B) the exponentially more sad and wounding things that we can imagine happening to children. To the children that we are, the children that we have, the children that we do not have. I say "exponentially" because the imagination is rhizomatic in possibility and instantaneous in its choice of path at every fork.
Very briefly, because I am rattling on as usual: there are two kinds of Screw. One solidifies or manifests the qualities of fear, the other leaves them in ambiguity, in suggestion, below the surface. Johdi May's (beautiful) eyes must be widened in fear or fear of fear from the get-go. Pam Ferris (a lovely woman and terrific actor) must confine herself to one of her best bits: stern regard blanking into malevolence. Virtually all the boys playing Miles must be preternaturally predatory in their precocious charm. And all the Floras...! She cannot be bookish, or introspective, or god forbid sercretive, or even outright mysterious in an imagination she owns wholly, with all the good and bad that implies, no, she must be the receptacle for our imaginations. How else can the innocent become terrifying?
Here come the Buddhists again, and the non-dualists. (I should say I enjoy inquiries guided by these "not-two" philosophies, but am in no way a follower or practicer.) They say that evil and good are one, that fear and calm are one, that violence and...what is the opposite of violence? That they all come and go in the mind, shit happens, worse shit happens--no one knows what will come and no one can control what comes, and it is therefore in our imaginations only that the worst happens, because there we can hold it in place, run and re-run it, make prequels and sequels. Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself. That is how this miracle of "enduring" occurs.
James always gives us the tranquility of art to bear our imaginings. No movie can do that. The Innocents comes closest because its efforts are towards making that world seem as ordinary as possible, so as to show us something, rather than subjecting us to it.
yours in the surly bonds of imagination,
"Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself." Gary! Stop saying perfect things!
How many adaptations did the BBC do of Screw? Because I feel like I watched eight of them. There was the one with Colin Firth as the children's guardian, the one with Michelle Dockery as the governess... There was a lot of whispering. So much whispering. One would think that the BBC would know what to do with James. One would think there is some sort of reliquary at the BBC headquarters with chipped off bits of James's bones and perhaps one of his fingers. And yet neither of the productions really understood what to do with the material.
It was that weird two minutes with Julian Sands in the 1992 version with Marianne Faithful that really got the children's guardian and his disinterest in their well being. Nothing else in that movie worked, but that two-minute scene was perhaps the best adaptation of the bunch, barring The Innocents. Because that figure is so cold, the whole "Do not bother me with this" written on the letter forwarded from the boy's school, the "my London lifestyle is just not suitable for children." Colin Firth plays that character like Colin Firth and he's not believable for a second. Colin Firth totally wants kids, he wants to gaze into your eyes and hold your hand while the two of you walk through the park, Colin Firth wants to read you poetry as you lie in the bathtub. Julian Sands doesn't want the children to interfere with his opium addiction. (I miss Julian Sands. Julian Sands, come back to us. He's always so dangerous on the screen, I can't look away.)
But when the BBC versions were playing, I kept getting up to do the dishes, to check the mail, to sort through books, especially in the most recent Colin Firth-less version. I felt no dread, and not only because I had just watched five other versions of this film and knew exactly what was going to happen. But I do find it interesting that the BBC produced two entirely different and wholly unsatisfying productions of Turn of the Screw ten years apart. We are set for another in five years if they keep up the schedule.
I don't know. I feel like I've hit a dead end here, numbed by too many bad Turns of the Screw. Too much whispering and shadowy figures. I watched something horrid with Leelee Sobieski and that's just part of my brain I'm not going to have access to ever again.
Any last thoughts before we move on?
You're absolutely right about too many bad Screws! It's dispiriting! In a way I did not see coming, which makes the lack of spirit embarrassing. But never fear. I have another thought or two.
I temp-teach workshops in non-fiction and non-non-fiction. They are less workshops than sermons. I could not care less about the quality of their craftsmanship if it's in the service of stories of inconvenience while flying or the mass rape of debutantes at a cotillion ball by an army of robots. Oh, wait, sorry: that last gets you a Guggenheim and a Lannan. (Oh, when I think of all the great writers laboring in sci-fi hell, churning out much better stories in the 60s and 70s for a penny a page...) The sermons all have as a central theme my belief that there is only one story that has ever been told, that ever will be told -- what it's like to observe that you are alive -- and that of the countless variations of that one story there are good stories and bad stories. The bad stories are about a single suffering martyr of a hero trapped in a world of other people who have no existence outside their hatred of the hero. They are narrow-minded. The good stories are open-minded and cultivate the idea that other people are just like us, and cannot believe that their lives have to come to "this," just as we cannot believe it.
Two nights ago, we considered a story about a student's unhappiness at the hands of a step-mother, who was carelessly washing the student's clothes and would not allow interference. There were other grievances. The father appeared to be an asshole and an idiot. The mother was a refuge, but had only limited custody. The class went berserk with enthusiasm for the nastiness of the step-mother, and equally berserk with sympathy for their fellow-student. It was an unprecedented show: the heretofore silent class could not be quieted.
It is not surprising that marriages can be destroyed and even lives lost over issues like improper laundering, but it was very surprising that no one had the slightest interest in the unspoken story. One student shyly asked how, if the mother was so good and the father/step-mother so bad, they got custody. The writer said, "My mother made some bad choices. She accused my father of sexually abusing my brother and me, but he was proved innocent."
Back they surged, possibly in a kind of fear, to the laundry, and the character of the e-mail exchange between the step-mother and the student: the colors chosen to highlight text, the spelling of "socks" as "sox," and so on.
The One True Story includes everything and everybody, implicitly and explicitly. There is sympathy and acknowledgement and, finally, an acceptance: everything and everybody. The Countless Bad Stories are antipathetic and acknowledge nothing that runs counter to the version the Self tells and re-tells. The One True Story evokes all of existence with sympathy; the Countless Bad Stories seek to control existence, that of teller-writer and listener/reader alike.
James's art was precisely controlled but always in the service of the sympathetic imagination. The narrating Self was always in the service of the narrated other. He gave space for the observers of trauma to deal and heal, even when--especially when--his characters were nasty, vicious, weak. His adaptors do just the opposite: they confine and restrict so as to inflict trauma. They do so because most of the people watching enjoy safe trauma. They clamor for it. They want to see that the Improper Laundress is truly and sensationally depraved. This allows the (sometimes genuinely) traumatized and day-dreaming 14-year-old that we incontrovertibly remain to keep the Story of the Self free from danger or even interference as it loops endlessly from synapse to synapse around our three pounds of electrified Jell-O.
November 17, 2014
I won't have to pay money for it, but nevertheless: I'm going to read that Jonathan Franzen book, and I'm probably going to like it or be disappointed because I thought I would like it. ("Not strict realism," eh, I don't know—as long as there aren't any ghosts, please.) Either way, I will feel compelled to write a long and guilty/defensive justification of why it is not dismissable outright, because I am young and insecure about my position as heir to the blog of a vocal Jonathan Franzen hater, so this is just a head's up that you can start preparing your intrusively concerned, older, wiser, you'll-grow-out-of-your-Jonathan-Franzen-phase-sweetie reader emails now! I think perhaps the attention lavished (not so much anymore, though, at least not within "the scene," as I heard to it referred at baby's first publishing party last night) on Jonathan Franzen and thus directed away from other writers is, you know, not problematic but a problem. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers suck and that Jonathan Franzen doesn't, even keeping in mind his get-off-my-lawn-like uncoolness, and this is one of the great questions that keeps me up as my two-night-stands snore lightly and pointlessly beside me, what is merit and why does it matter?
I will concede, though, that, regardless of the sentimental position The Corrections holds for me as the novel that made me feel like I wanted to write fiction, or rather like I wanted to and could, Purity sounds fairly ridiculous, title-wise.
November 14, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Image: "Crossroads" by Alex Roulette, which has nothing to do with anything except that I discovered him via It's Nice That and really like him.
-More in great titles: "Bonfire of the Inanities," Jacqui Shine's history of the New York Times Styles section
Bohemia, said Flaubert, was “the fatherland of my breed.” If so, his breed, at least in America, is becoming extinct. The most exciting periods of American intellectual life tend to coincide with the rise of bohemia, with the tragic yet liberating rhythm of the break from the small town into the literary roominess of the city, or from the provincial immigrant family into the centers of intellectual experiment. Given the nature of contemporary life, bohemia ﬂourishes in the city—but that has not always been so. Concord too was a kind of bohemia, sedate, subversive, and transcendental all at once. Today, however, the idea of bohemia, which was a strategy for bringing artists and writers together in their struggle with and for the world—this idea has become disreputable, being rather nastily associated with kinds of exhibitionism that have only an incidental relationship to bohemia. Nonetheless, it is the disintegration of bohemia that is a major cause for the way intellectuals feel, as distinct from and far more important than what they say or think. Those feelings of loneliness one ﬁnds among so many American intellectuals, feelings of damp dispirited isolation which undercut the ideology of liberal optimism, are partly due to the breakup of bohemia. Where young writers would once face the world together, they now sink into suburbs, country homes, and college towns. And the price they pay for this rise in social status is to be measured in more than an increase in rent.
-Speaking of intellectuals, Europe still has some! The LARB has a great interview with the Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (who is also greatly titled):
Be they military or civilian, life experiences cannot but imprint themselves — the more heavily the more acute they are — on life’s trajectory, on the way we perceive the world, respond to it and pick the paths to walk through it. They combine into a matrix of which one’s life’s itinerary is one of the possible permutations. The point, though, is that they do their work silently, stealthily so to speak, and surreptitiously — by prodding rather than spurring, and through sets of options they circumscribe rather than through conscious, deliberate choices....
And so a word of warning is in order: retrospectively reconstructing causes and motives of choices carries a danger of imputing structure to a flow, and logic — even predetermination — to what was in fact a series of faits accomplis poorly if at all reflected upon at the time of their happening. Contrary to the popular phrase, “hindsight” and “benefit” do not always come in pairs — particularly in autobiographic undertakings.
I recall here these mundane and rather trivial truths to warn you that what I am going to say in reply to your question needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
November 13, 2014
I got a copy of Chéri in the street the other day, because it was Sunday and Sundays often involve purchasing items in the street, as well as thoughts of affairs. It (the copy of Chéri) has an author bio for which I am so grateful that I am tempted to "close-read" it for you here:
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, twentieth-century France's greatest woman writer, was born in 1873. At first a music-hall dancer and mime, she began writing only when her husband, a literary hack whom she soon divorced, locked her in a room and ordered her to produce novels for him to sign. Madame Colette went on to write some eighty books that are as much admired for their dazzling style as for their unerring psychology. She died in Paris in 1954. Her last years were spent in an apartment in the Palais Royal. There, on a garden wall, a plaque now reads, "Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide-open on life."
I won't close-read it, because that's obnoxious, but I will say that I think this is the kind of copywriting we need, we as a people.
November 11, 2014
In the November issue of Bookslut, Ravi Mangla wonders why literature hasn't given us the outsiders that visual arts have given us and suggests language as the main culprit – more exactly, the high prestige dialects specific to literature.
Among the outsider artists mentioned by Ravi Mangla is also Henry Darger. While it's true his written work hasn't enjoyed the same attention as his illustrations, perhaps the very fact that his writing hasn't been edited and published (yet) guarantees his status as an outsider writer. For more on Henry Darger, here are a few suggestions:
A quick and accessible entry point into Henry Darger's world is the PBS documentary In The Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, 2005). The documentary manages to seamlessly highlight the way Darger's Catholic faith (as well as his struggles with it) is (are) echoed throughout his 15,000-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Jillian Steinhauer recounts a visit to the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) to see the Darger archives:
It turns out the novel [In the Realms of the Unreal] wasn’t the only thing Darger wrote. There’s also a second novel, called Crazy House; an autobiography that apparently contains only a small amount of autobiographical information before turning — on a simple phrase along the lines of, “Oh yeah, there’s one thing I forgot to mention … ” says Miller — into another fantastical story; and, my favorite, a series of weather journals, in which Darger wrote on one side the predicted weather forecast for a given day, and on the other, what the weather actually was.
Jillian Steinhauer, On Henry Darger's 15,000-Page Novel | Hyperallergic
(Kevin Miller, a former Darger fellow at AFAM: “anybody that wrote a 15,000-page novel probably needs a good editor." What to make of this remark? It certainly raises the same question Vivian Maier's photography has raised: who has the right to edit the work of an outsider author who is already gone, who hasn't left any instructions regarding their entire life’s work?)
The weather journals ("book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer") Jillian Steinhauer mentions are analyzed in detail by Lytle Shaw, in conjunction with the weather descriptions from In the Realms of the Unreal.
For Darger, moral anchoring points pop up now and again amid hundred-page descriptions of hurricanes, land battles and sweeping conflagrations: "Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls." Realms is full of descriptions of characters breaking down when meeting, or even hearing about, the Vivian Girls. For most readers and viewers, though, it is this very gap between the simplistic moral rhetoric, a rhetoric of pathos and obligation, and the multivalent, pathological detail that makes Darger's work so fascinating, and so disturbing. In "illustrating" his claims (I'm thinking here of his drawings, but one might make a related argument about his text), Darger invents a world whose psychotically proliferating detail—wearing outright its fascination with inventing new ways for grown-men marauders dressed in Civil War outfits to dismember little girls' bodies—renders those very same claims intensely inadequate as an explanation of what one is presented with. This patient rendering of carnage is made all the more unsettling and bizarre by its placement within highly elaborated atmospheric and horticultural settings, which demonstrate Darger's pleasure in cloud formations, lightning patterns, overflowing garden plots, happy diagrammatic houses, and verdant storybook hillsides.
Lytle Shaw, The Moral Storm: Henry Darger's Book of Weather Reports | Cabinet Magazine
(Concerning language and editing, the note that accompanies this essay is rather significant: "All Darger quotes are verbatim, including grammatical and typographical idiosyncracies.")
For a more in-depth look at Henry Darger's life and work, there's Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge, recommended here at Bookslut by Coco Papy:
Elledge seeks to destroy the mythologies that have haunted Darger and his work, giving a radical new view that is equal parts empathetic and explanatory. As a society, we have a fetish for troubled artists, often romanticizing the all too real aspects of poverty, mental illness, and the costs of existing on the frays of society. It is equal parts naïveté and popular opinion, one that comes all too easily in death, an aggrandizing view that takes away the trauma of the actual lived life and co-opts what it means to be an artist.
Coco Papy, Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge | Bookslut
Michael Leddy writes about the influence of Darger’s work on John Ashbery, an essay that doubles as an attempt to find the connecting thread between Darger and other outsider artists who could be counted among Ashbery’s influences. Ultimately, the message we’re getting is that for an outsider’s work to matter it needs to be co-opted by insiders. By the mainstream culture.
The identification of insider with outsider becomes particularly poignant when we think further about Darger and Ashbery. Certainly there are artistic affinities between them — most notably their shared fascination with the primal reading-matter of comics and their collaging of found material. But I think that a deeper, more personal identification helps to account for Darger’s claim on Ashbery’s imagination. Girls on the Run signals such an identification early on:
Write it now, Tidbit said,
before they get back. And, quivering, I took the pen.
Drink the beautiful tea
before you slop sewage over the horizon, the Principal directed.
OK, it’s calm now, but it wasn’t two minutes ago. What do you want me to do,
I am no longer your serf,
and if I was I wouldn’t do your bidding. (1–2)
Michael Leddy, Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger | Jacket Magazine
November 10, 2014
Everyone published their Berlin Wall content and their "amazing, rare photographs" today and this weekend (last night was the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down), and it's unfortunate that it all falls (eh? eh?) under the umbrella of "content" because on one hand you see one set of photos of people with huge hair and jackets expressing obvious and genuine joy at their "freedom," you've seen them all. But on the other hand—and maybe this is the Lauren Who Just Left Berlin After Two Years There talking—it's a very singular and fucking amazing historical event that is very cheesily heartwarming even despite or because of its not-wholly-goodness. I would say "problematic" here, but you've read that essay!
I put "freedom" in quotation marks not to be snarky or make some kind of confusing political point that I'm not entitled or knowledgable enough to make, but because Jenny Erpenbeck's discussion of it in the Paris Review—their Berlin Wall content—rightly questions the conventional wholly goodness of the concept. And the essay has a great title!
What was I doing the night the Wall fell?
I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn’t just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn’t need pots anymore.
There was a lot of talk of freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with this concept, which was suddenly drifting about in all sorts of different sentences. The freedom to travel. (But what if you couldn’t afford to?) Or the freedom of expression. (What if no one was interested in my opinion?) The freedom to shop. (But what comes after the shopping trip?) Freedom wasn’t just a gift, it was something you paid for, and the price of freedom turned out to have been my entire life up till then. Everyday life was no longer everyday life: it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.
November 9, 2014
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Christus als Schmerzensmann
On a personal note about the Daphne Awards…
The post-1945 era in literature is perhaps the spottiest in my literary history. The names that we associate most strongly with that era — Mailer, Roth, Updike, etc — are all of this macho pose, this high masculinity. They dominate our view of what the post-war novel is supposed to be, and everything else kind of hides in their shadow.
But long ago I decided I did not want to read literature where women were not women but just kind of walking around vaginas. And so that rules out all books by those macho guys.
(By the way, it’s okay to do this. People will freak out at you, oh my god how can you not have read Philip Roth he is like so important he is like a living god but you can just dismiss them, it is allowed.)
Reading through the nominees for the first ever Daphne Award, books published in 1963, was like an instant little history lesson. There were writers I already knew and loved, like Heinrich Böll and Hannah Arendt, and then there were writers I had never heard of, like Tarjei Vesaas.
It was a weird era. Coming out of World War II, so in some ways dominated by the voices of those who had fought in the war, and yet this younger generation who was merely raised during it scrambling to be heard. And coming in this still very stuck in the ’50s conservative era, the revolution of 1968 still to come. So things are shifting, things are seething. You have a lot of books about the war, trying to come to terms with it, and a lot of books about aftermath, and then some that are just like, oh my god can we talk about something else please?
Lots of bombast, and some big swinging dicks, but the novel that enchanted us all was Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, a book about surviving tragedy. And a nonfiction book, Primo Levi’s Reawakening, about surviving tragedy. And the poetry book, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, about surviving tragedy. (And then the children’s book, about a lion who is almost shot and killed until he gets a gun is about…) We were all on different panels, it was an accidental theme for what we were all looking for, I guess.
And The Ice Palace is exquisite. It’s about two young girls who bond deeply and then tragedy strikes. It is weirdly able to capture the thought processes of young girls, their rhythms and their inner monologues. At first everyone on the panel complained, I think this is a weird translation. It’s so start and stop, so brittle. But no, that’s just what happens to your brain when the world takes from you what you love, things go start and stop, you can only take in so much at a time.
Our list of winners is not macho. There are no walking around vaginas, there’s no display of bravado. It’s a list of compassion and humanity and witnessing.
I can’t wait to do this again.
November 7, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
In case you missed our Day of the Literary Dead celebration last night, this weekend's recommendations come in the form of the first Daphne Award winners, the best books of 50 years ago in
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
Thanks to all who turned up—see you next year.
November 6, 2014
The sooner you come to our Day of the Literary Dead/Daphne Awards celebration tonight at Melville House, the sooner I start writing about actual books again. Catch up on the nominees here, and remember that AbeBooks will be gifting someone at tonight's festivities copies of all the winners. Come! See you there! At 7:30!
November 5, 2014
What We're Reading
Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism: Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life by Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić
Once the Berlin Wall fell, everything changed for the Eastern Europe now proudly called former Eastern Europe. But what happened next seemed more like an occupation than the unification that was advertised. Subtle at first and quite “shameless” later, the occupation took the form of massive privatization, aggressive immigration laws against the Other (freshly represented as second/third grade citizens and non-citizens), and the shinning brand of individualism in which the self is autonomous only as long as it’s an efficient and productive self that competes successfully against others. And this is precisely the starting point for Marina Gržinić’s book, a book that focuses on the structural racialization that had already been internalized in former Eastern Europe and its current policies of death—the let live and make die line of the war state that tries to erase those who are undesirable, those who do not conform and are not interested in doing so. It addresses the issue of Balkan nationalism and the revival of fascism both in disguise and in plain sight in former Eastern Europe, while also pointing to the ways art, culture, and its institutions have become just another system of production of goods for the global elite. Necropolitics, or using death to produce more and more profit: necropolitics as a version of contemporary racism; necropolitics as the perfect tool for dehumanization, for creating and enforcing the social differentiations and exclusion of the Other; necropolitics as an invisible lubricant for the current unrestrained advancement of globalization. Necropolitics in all its forms leads to the normalization of the current social reality and the erasure of the structural connections between that reality and neoliberal and global capitalism.
Today the EU as the fortress Europe is a regime that produces an accelerated legally sanctioned system of restrictions, discriminations and economic dispossessions; a space of intensified racialization that has at its core racism. Racialization refers to a process by which certain groups of people are singled out for unique treatment on the basis of real or imagined physical characteristics. Mostly it targets activities of those termed as (ethnic) minorities. It transforms societies into racialized societies. This process is today going so far that we have a process of racialization being imputed, without any “race” prerogatives but serving as a measure of class discrimination, subjugation and finally dispossession. We have today “different types of racisms’ that are “more vicious and more deadly” than ever. The EU is providing the grounds for not only a state of exception but for a racial-State, giving a free hand to detention, segregation and discrimination under the veil of the protection of nation-State citizens and even the protection of refugees from “themselves”, from their “drive” to try to illegally enter fortress Europe and therefore probably being in a situation to die.
November 4, 2014
Our Day of the Literary Dead party approaches. Not only does it offer you the opportunity to meet me in a weird outfit—grammar there intentionally vague—but it will also feature a talk called "So your favorite dead writer is a Nazi/rapist/murderer?" and an altar, which I'm sure I've spelled wrong at least once in trying to hype. PLEASE COME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And thanks to Volume 1 Brooklyn for mentioning us.
RSVP to the Facebook event here.
November 3, 2014
Gary Amdahl and I (Jessa Crispin) are going through all of the Henry James film adaptations to declare one the best of them all. So join us for corsets, emotional repression, and arch wit.
First up: we go through three adaptations of Washington Square:
The Heiress, the 1949 adaptation of the stage play adaptation of Washington Square, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson.
Washington Square, the 1997 adaptation starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, and Albert Finney.
"Catherine," a BBC short adaptation from their Affairs of the Heart series
Catherine Sloper is a problem. Not only to her father, to whom she is so unbearably embarrassing, but also to the actresses asked to portray her. How does one do ugly and awkward? How does one inhabit the body of a woman who is loved by none, even her father, and is abandoned by all at the end of the film?
Well. If you’re Jennifer Jason Leigh (an actress I feel I should declare I have a great deal of love for), you portray her as mentally challenged. Leigh as Catherine frowns and squints and trips over things and falls down over and over again and leaves her mouth hanging open and does all but drool on herself. For a brief time she has a lisp, but then she drops it later on. She looks at all times as if she has just or is about to wet herself. Near the end, when he has left her, she runs chasing after his carriage in the rain, falls in the mud, and rolls around in her corset in the mud and horseshit wailing.
Which to me says, look, don’t worry, there’s a reason why Catherine will spend the rest of her days alone. I mean, look at her, she’s a mess, you wouldn’t fuck her either. Not even for her massive inheritance.
I should just say I take this shit personally. I identify with Catherine and all her abandonment issues, all of her ugly awkward weirdness to an insane degree, so I can’t be partial. And James may portray Catherine as the girl without any virtues that I love and treasure, but he doesn’t give her a goddamn lisp.
Which is the problem with Hollywood trying to do “ugly” at all. Just put a beautiful actress in bad lighting and no makeup and it’s fine. Of course Lynn Farleigh in Affairs of the Heart's adaptation is not great, either. She just mumbles and looks down at her shoes a lot, she is a beautiful woman pretending to be shy.
But then beautiful women have no conception of what ugly women’s experiences are like. What it’s like to go years without anyone even so much as flirting with you, of watching men fall over themselves for your prettier friend when you go out to bars together while you just silently down your drink, of even your parents preferring and doting on your prettier sisters. There are a lot of social graces ugly girls don’t ever learn, because we are not initiated into them. You learn how to interact smoothly by others by being invited into conversation, not by watching it from across the room. And so you hold your body weird and you’re never sure what to do with your face and your elbows get in the way of things and you’re not always great at modulating your voice or laugh or conversation.
Which is why I think Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine is remarkable, especially considering how beautiful and seductive she is in every other film she made. De Havilland’s Catherine has no idea what to do with her face, she moves her body a bit too fast and jerkily (without it ever drifting into the over the top stuff Leigh was doing), and all of her emotions are based on what is happening this very second, there is no potential future where things might improve, where another man might come along, where her feelings might lessen and become more bearable. It’s all just NOW NOW NOW, finally someone is paying attention to me, I need to lock that shit down. That openness of her face, trying to take in every moment of affection from her suitor, trying to convey her panic and desperation to her father, it is undignified in exactly the way it would be.
Obviously there is more to talk about then just, who is the best Catherine, but that is where I have to start.
I had not thought to bring myself into this, hoping that for once I could leave the tiresome asshole to wallow in self-pity to his heart’s content, but the door is wide-open and I do see the point, the value of letting him traipse in with his vaudeville gestures and profound comedy, because Catherine Sloper’s problem is his problem as well. Your problem is to Catherine’s problem as my problem is to yours. I will leave the elucidation of those ratios unwritten.
It is a common problem, and James picked it up precisely because he wanted a common problem. He says he heard it as an anecdote, implying he’d never heard such a thing before, but there must have been ten thousand such anecdotes floating around. A common problem and an old one. I don’t quite understand why, having picked it up and used it so admirably, he set it aside with apparent distaste, why felt the need of disavowal. Perhaps he found the problem as he worked it out to be much closer to his own problem than he had at first guessed it to be—and, being human, felt humiliated by the association.
I have never known if I was handsome or not. My social-sexual history could be characterized in very much the same way you characterized your own: you are the sophisticated, urban champion of an intriguing party in the court of world literature, while I am a gaping Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bumpkin autodidact privately assured that my references to Robert Klein routines will win me friends if only I can get a word in edgewise, somewhere, anywhere. Where I think you have really hit the target is in your description of de Havilland’s face, the demands made on it theatrically and cinematically, because that is exactly how I made up for the crippling ambivalence I felt when marketing myself socially-sexually, and which I still do feel, doubly so, triply, with my writing! As far as everybody around me—outside my brain—was concerned, I was the elf of the moment, acting with reckless improvisatory skill in response to whatever happened, with only a memory of weird but safe rehearsals in the past, and in the future only the imagination of applause as the curtain falls: your NOW, NOW, NOW!
This, as you say, the terrifying and humiliating present, is the problem of all the Catherines, not beauty or absence of beauty. In James’s story, it does not matter how beautiful or ugly she is. Dr. Sloper dislikes all women, probably because none of them are his dead wife. He says the reason is that they lack reason, that reason is beauty, making it impossible for any woman to be beautiful! But no one else in the story buys that—except maybe Catherine herself. Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter. But all the while she believes that, she is living another life, a Jamesian life beneath the surface, a life it is all but impossible to convey on stage and screen. And that is why all three of the adaptations (four if you count the original Broadway “Heiress” and its revivals) we are considering hold my attention only so long as they are moving swiftly from scene to scene…of the story on the surface.
There was stupefying pressure on Leigh and de Havilland and Farleigh to make non-entities of themselves when all they had to work with overwhelming entity! No wonder that the estimable Leigh was driven to drool and to idiocy, the even more estimable de Havilland to sweet blankness, and (in my opinion) the most estimable Farleigh to that spectrum that starts at demure and ends in bitterness. Their performances were perforce centered on the id, all possible cultural reference spiraling into the self because there was nowhere else to go.
Hollywood does not operate in a vacuum. They operate in a super-saturated medium that claims what is able to void as its product. Hollywood and Hollywood-like movies, 99% of all the movies that have ever been and will ever be in the world, can entertain adults only when they abandon interest in everything but the story they are telling. All the other elements of filmed stories will be present, but they will be in the service of the story.
There is your fidelity to James. There is your true Catherine: everything you and I and the actors and the directors bring to her is abandoned in our service to the story. Everything you and I bring to James our Literary Hero is abandoned in service to a story that is less and less “his” the more and more it becomes a good play or movie or TV show.
The idea is that anybody could play her, and they could play her under a 60 watt bulb in some damp basement with a Super 8 movie camera. The pared-down story does not become generic, it becomes essential. It is no longer Washington Square, the novel, but it satisfies. There was a moment in British television, in the 70s, when they had a mandate to tell stories, but no time and no money.
This has become too long. I look forward to your response, and remain
"Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter." All of my problems, summed up in one sentence. I feel like I owe you a big therapist bill for that.
No one wants to write about the sexually unwanted because there is not a huge audience that is going to be willing to project themselves into that, or even have empathy for that. We project our fears of abandonment and rejection, our fears that perhaps we are deep down disgusting and repulsive, onto the unwanted. We can laugh at them, we can delight when they are punished, because we want to annihilate that part of ourselves. Look at all of the reality programs about sad, lonely women desperately competing for husbands, and the way we laugh and laugh and laugh at them. So it is not surprising to me that James distanced himself from the book. He had enough empathy to write it, enough connection (the poor dear), and then wanted Catherine out of his sight. But then I am projecting, too, now.
And what of Morris Townsend, her penniless suitor? Conman slash romantic hero. Can anyone really compete with Montgomery Clift’s magnificent brow?
Although to me all three actors’ performances rather blend into one another, none delve into pathetic slapstick. But then maybe men have more practice at feigning interest to get what they want. All three men rather look alike, too, just dreamboat dreaminess, all that has been dreamed of and longed for manifested. One wants to shout at Catherine to gird her loins, but at the same time, that fall is so lovely. Even if it ends badly, one would not want to deny her, it might never happen again. But I like that all three men come with their own fog special effects, the audience is never clear what is their percentage of scoundrel and what is their percentage of genuine. Would he murder her on their wedding night, seizing all her assets and heading off to the Continent? Or would he be satisfied to do his spousal diligence at pretending the loving husband. Knock her up, talk down to her patronizingly from behind a newspaper. She has a thornbush for a father, it’s not like she’s going to expect much in the way of affection.
But we have not yet solved the problem of which Washington Square is the winner, and part of that I think has to do with where each Catherine ends up. In “Washington Square,” Leigh is still kind of drooly but at least knows what to do with her hair now. In “Catherine,” yes, that tone of bitterness. And in “The Heiress,” that magnificence. Like the nun who closes herself off inside of her veil. Do I prefer “The Heiress” because I want to believe I have attained some sort of magnificence in my loneliness? Like I said, I have no distance. And I am probably more drooly than I would like to admit.
I do not mind when a movie takes a hatchet to the novel it springs from, a movie cannot move like a novel does. And perhaps that is why the unfaithful “Heiress” does more for me than the other, more loyal, two. By making the end of the engagement a more definite, shocking moment than a kind of disappearance and the slow leak of hope until all that is left is its deflated rubbery shell, only really works in prose. And Montgomery Clift banging on the door as she carries her light away from him and back into the recesses of the house, it stops my heart, every time.
It is up to you to illuminate the father. I can see no real father, just the Patriarch. Saturn devouring his child. For me it gets mythological too fast.
Montgomery Clift is far and away the best Morris Townsend. He made me realize how hapless Morris is, how stupid, and how much I see in him of myself. This is the problem in the ratio I declined to elucidate: I am Morris. The other Morrises are merely functional cads. Clift is handsome with just a hint of rogue and dash that he is oblivious of, owner and proprietor of a single trick: sincere charm. It is “charming” by luck, as are the good-looks, and “sincere” by nature: so natural that the dumb cluck really doesn’t see it as a trick. (If he were better-read, he’d be able to sit back and spot all the gambits.) This is why I think Catherine never really fell for him: we can accept that she is plain, but not that she is stupid. the beautiful Morris is nothing but a talking bouquet of flowers that delights her while it is still fresh, but which she sees wither before her very eyes—precisely because she is intelligent: she understands the nature of things.
Dr. Sloper is something else altogether: he is formidable. Albert Finney is not formidable. He was best as Geoffrey Firmin, Malcolm Lowry’s “consul.” In “WS” he is merely a partner in a physical comedy team: Hardy to Catherine’s Laurel. I just rewatched Affairs of the Heart’s “Catherine,” and I’ve already forgotten who played Sloper. Ralph Richardson was one of the very best actors of the 20th century. (If we judged by the work of the actors alone, “The Heiress” would win easily. Clift, Richardson, de Havilland? It wouldn’t even be a contest.) RR does something in the first scenes that is crucial: he appears to like Catherine well enough to be friendly towards her! I warmed to him instantly, in just the way Catherine herself does.
I do not see him devouring his child. I do not see him as mythic. This may be a stretch that snaps in two, but I see him as the brilliant and erratic William James, who, cast by his little brother in a role he had no idea he was playing, is struck a nearly fatal blow by the death of a young and beautiful wife, and becomes, as a direct consequence, austere and arrogant about everything else—not just Catherine, who, like all emotionally abused children, is simply the only other person in the room. Just to be clear: I am not saying WJ was anything like this. I’m suggesting HJ took certain qualities in WJ and made them monstrous. Sloper is brilliant and might very well have been as erratic as WJ had his wife lived and allowed him that special audience erratic people find in loved ones. Denied that audience, he trades the erratic brilliance in for a steady scalpel. Sloper is paradoxically as popular a man as he is forbidding, as brilliant as he is austere.
He does not devour his child because she is long dead. Everybody is long dead. His wife was everybody and she is gone, gone, gone. He can only be Dr. Austin Sloper, the brilliant and wealthy man of medicine so long as he marks himself off from everything else—from everything else in the scene or on the stage. That is perhaps Richardson’s particular gift: to draw his audience near and yet hold them off: a winning smile and then the eyes go dead.
"The Heiress" is an excellent film, no question. The only reason I cling to "Affairs of the Heart" is that it is like community theater, for which I have a very large soft spot, with truly great work-a-day actors in the major roles. If Grotowski had been a TV producer, his "poor theater" would have found expression in the BBC’s "Play of the Week."
Well, isn’t that what Catherine is doing, too? Putting all one’s hope into one person, until they become not a human but life itself? The sins of the father and all that. The potential of the person looms so large that you can no longer see their human qualities. If only Catherine could see Morris, before the break that shocked her back into herself, I mean. And she, in the end, has more potential than her father, because the spell for her breaks. Even if love for her is a broken thing, she gets clear eyes with which she can plan the rest of her long life.
We have to move on at some point, but I will only say this final thing about the film versions of “Washington Square”: did you notice there’s a moment when each Catherine finds her beauty? In “Washington Square,” Leigh blooms under the attention of Ben Chaplin, she starts doing her hair normally, her dress becomes simpler and more flattering, etc. But with “The Heiress,” it is only after the betrayal that she becomes comfortable in her body. To me, that says a lot about each film. “Washington Square” still thinks love solves things. (Deluded.) “The Heiress” knows it’s only when you regain your sanity that true growth can take place.
From here we go to even more sexual repression, in our “Turn of the Screw” adaptations. It gets dark here in New England so early. I hope I don’t start seeing specters in my big empty apartment.
"I had nothing to gain,"
Yes, it is time to move on, but I plumb fergot to say how much I disliked everything about Holland’s “Washington Square.” It was as bad as “The Heiress” is good. I will save this rant, however, for other stories and other movies, equally awful. Let’s Screw.