Monthly Archives: January 2009

Celluloid Notes

It’s fun to watch movie stars age along with you.  Last night the wife and I caught a showing of Revolutionary Road and I was pleased to see that Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio (both about my age) are showing the same kinds of lines, the same crow’s feet around the eyes, etc., that I am.  It’s an odd comfort between strangers: we’re all in this together, I guess. 

The movie itself was about as bleak and devastating, and stylishly achieved, as one would expect from Sam Mendes (dir. American Beauty), with strong performances all around but especially from Ms Winslet, who is my Great Film Heroine these days.  Yes, she got a Best Actress nomination for The Reader, which I haven’t seen yet, but Winslet was snubbed by the Academy when she didn’t get a nod for this one too.  Michael Shannon got one for his supporting role as the mentally disturbed grown son of the Wheelers’ realtor (he’s a dead ringer for Robert Lowell circa 1955).  But I find it strange that Mendes, a Brit, should spend so much of his creative energies on the mores and domestic tribulations of middle-class Americans.  I wonder if he’s just pulling a Christina Stead. Stead, of course, was the gifted Australian novelist who set her semi-autobiographical masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, in the U.S. so that, one supposes, she’d have more luck cashing in on it.

Overall I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with Oscar-bait films this year.  Sure, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (except for the disfiguring-children scenes) and if Man on Wire doesn’t win for best documentary, I’m going to break something.  But I’m polishing a grudge against Darren Aronofsky and so I’ve delayed seeing The Wrestler, despite all the praise it’s getting.  Aronofsky’s last, The Fountain, was such an abortion of a film and such a waste of a perfectly good Rachel Weisz that I’m still sore about it.


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John Updike, 1932-2009

He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let [him] live forever.

~ John Updike, Pigeon Feathers

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Marginalia, no.42

[T]he extinction in his life of the element of suspense was such in fact as to surprise him.  He could scarce have said what the effect resembled; the abrupt cessation, the positive prohibition, of music perhaps… What it presently came to in truth was that poor Marcher waded through his beaten grass, where no life stirred, where no breath sounded, where no evil eye seemed to gleam from a possible lair, very much as if vaguely looking for the Beast, and still more as if missing it.

~ Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle

Life for the child is a sort of wild game park.  There are monsters hid in the closet and fairy things that scratch at the window, and the imagination is thick with all manner of wonderful, improbable creatures.  But the days flit through the calendar like bullets in the leaves and by twenty the list of threatened species is dismally long for most of us.  The danger, of course, is that in the end you’ll find yourself entirely disillusioned and safe.  How awful to be the most terrible thing left lurking in the woods.

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Notes toward an Arboreal Anthropology

1: Herman Melville, from a letter to Hawthorne:

This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in it.  You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day.  Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth.  Your hair feels like leaves upon your head.

2. Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Winter:

Arcimboldo's Winter

3: Jean Giono, Joy of Man’s Desiring:

They say that man is made of cells and blood.  But in fact he is like foliage: not pressed together in a mass, but composed of separate images like the leaves on the branches of the trees and through which the wind must pass in order to sing.

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Through Every Human Heart

I’ll be blamed (by myself at least) for posting on politics again, which I have generally ruled off-topic here at TNP(s), but I’m haunted by two particularly discordant public statements made yesterday – and I can throw in a literary reference by way of comment, so that makes it all copacetic, right? 

The first statement was uttered by our departing president in his Farewell Address.  He reminded us of the sense of “moral clarity” which he had always sought to preserve for himself and to provide for the nation:

I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.

The second statement was made by the Attorney General-designate, Eric Holder, in his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Responding to Patrick Leahy’s pet question, which he has posed to all recent AGs and nominees for AG, Holder gave the senator his first-ever flat affirmative:

Water-boarding is torture.

Now for my literary reference, from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments…Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.

This is precisely what was obscured by the sort of “moral clarity” on offer these past eight years: the admission that even the worthiest of human endeavors is built on compromise, and the sober conviction that we always have it within ourselves – as individuals and as a nation – to become our own worst enemy.

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Marginalia, no.41

We write to taste life twice.

~ Anais Nin

Sometimes, I think, we write to taste life even once.  We revisit it on the page to slowly suck the marrow from what was thoughtlessly swallowed whole the first time round.


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Tracking Metaphors in the Wild

There are furtive joys and obscure pleasures known only to the very bookish.  Last night I was making a sentimental stroll through Book I of Paradise Lost and came across the following passage, a description of fallen angels mustering in their legions on the plain of Hell:

……………[I]n even balance down they light
On the firm brimstone and fill all the plain;
A multitude like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins to pass
Rhene or Danau, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibraltar to the Libyan sands.

It was too oddly familiar: the image of barbarians flooding southward, the “frozen loins” of the north, etc.  Then came a leaping Eureka! moment as I snatched up an old notebook and found copied inside this passage from Herman Melville’s marvelously weird (however imperfect) Pierre, or The Ambiguities:

Sudden onsets of new truth will assail him and overrun him as the Tartars did China; for there is no China Wall that a man can build in his soul which shall permanently stay the irruptions of those barbarous hordes which Truth ever nourishes in the loins of her frozen, yet teeming, North, so that the Empire of Human Knowledge can never be lasting in any one dynasty, since Truth still gives new Emperors to the earth.

Melville, it seems, had Milton on the brain.  As a general statement this is no great revelation – not since the unearthing some years ago of Melville’s own copy of Milton’s works and the publication of his annotations to Paradise Lost.  But as a particular instance of Miltonic influence, I like to imagine I am its sole discoverer.  It feels something like playing Galileo and being first to glimpse the lunar mountains or to measure the tail of an unknown comet.

Was it a conscious reference on Melville’s part?  Likely not.  The transposition of truths for devils is intriguing, but there’s not enough to go on, I think.  Still, it’s a great find.  Just there, for the briefest moment, we catch a sort of celestial alignment of the minds and Melville (who is quite opaque most of the time) becomes temporarily transparent: along the axis of metaphor we see right through him all the way to Milton.

Literary detective work like this, when done in the way of duty, is the daily sweat and toil of graduate students locked in cold, dim reading rooms of university libraries.  They note each minor find dispassionately and move on.  But when made years out of school in the embrace of a plush armchair and solely by power of chance and memory, such discoveries are moments of rarest serendipity, enough to sustain us for a week, even two, in the long march through the Vale of Tears that is our life.  Only those who suffer from my particular malady will understand.

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Marginalia, no.40

The number of books is infinite.

~ Joseph Joubert

Not long ago my wife caught me reading a book she couldn’t recall me buying.  She accused me of making purchases on the sly and gestured to the double-stacked shelves to emphasize her point.  How do these things keep filling up otherwise?  I denied it.  Books beget books, I said.  They’re like rabbits.  You start with two or three and they multiply quietly without your much noticing.  Before long your little hutch has become a village, a city, a metropolis, a nation.


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On Holidays

Washed up again on the unknown shore of another January, another island year – the roar and crash of the holidays already receding, just so much stress and tinsel and fireworks. 

The holidays are for children, it seems; so we try to force on the too-small clothes, the half-remembered habits of anticipation and wonder, the lust for lights and bells.  But the year is old and we are too and it’s never quite successful.

Those holidays with most power to restore us to fresh senses are never marked on any calendar.  They are microscopic.  They drown between the hours and the half-hours.  They lurk in quiet corners and take us unprepared.

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