Sunday, August 20, 2017

Trumpism: Some benefits

Like many people disgusted by the events of the past ten days, when Trump shocked the world by failing to exert basic moral leadership following the neo-Nazi march in Virginia, I have been turning away from the news for relief.

Too much news, like too much reality, can be overwhelming.  Yet the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, long known for sarcastic put-downs, has shown in her column today why the era of Donald Trump may have ushered in a new golden age of journalism.

Dowd descended from the pedestal she has carefully constructed over the years out of wit and gossip and scorn and produced a piece of wisdom: she sees good coming out of evil (and the Trump administration, with its disregard for the common good in health, the environment, civil rights, etc., has been vicious and vile).  I quote her column:

"There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish--and they're the opposite of his."

If Dowd is right, as I would hope she is, we are beginning to have a much-needed discussion of racism and diversity in America, just as we are already seeing a rise in a resistance movement to the worst instincts of the Trump administration.  We are seeing politicians and others on both sides distance themselves from his bigotry, lies, and ignorance.

The issue goes beyond race but involves the lesson of the civil rights movement: that non-violence in the long run is more effective than violent protests. It attracts more people and will force the extreme alt-right white nationalists (for whom Trump is an icon) into the shadows.

This will take time; it will require patience, courage, and the wisdom Maureen Dowd shows in taking the long view of the current madness.

It is encouraging to realize that something good will eventually come out of the current disaster.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Escaping into Films

My wife and I tend to watch a lot of movies--too many, in fact. Perhaps we are tired at the end of the day or, lately, so weary of the horror that is the Trump presidency that we eagerly escape into the alternate reality of film since TV offers so little. Or blame Netflix, which makes it all possible.

So instead of venting my feelings about the latest racist outrage in Virginia, and the response, I savor memories of three striking films we saw this week, none of them mainstream Hollywood offerings.

The most memorable is a 2009 Italian movie with a perplexing title: THE MAN WHO WILL COME, directed and written by Giorgio Diritti. If I had known that his story was based on the massacre of 770 innocent villagers in central Italy in 1944 (the Marzabotto Massacre), I probably would not have ordered it, but the violence is offset and beautifully counterbalanced by the way the film unfolds: quietly, through the eyes of a beautiful little girl who seems fearless as she watches Nazis kill her family members and neighbors. She retains a hope that the baby brother being born will save her from the trauma of having lost an earlier brother, which caused her to become mute.  As a result, the film has a silence enhanced by a lack of soundtrack and by a remarkably understated style as one scene of village life unfolds after another.  The sense we are given is that life is a balance of good and evil, of violence and compassion; above all, of redemptive love, which keeps little Martina going and turns her into a little mother-figure caring for her infant brother. The style of the director, who gives us impressions of life in war-torn Italy, somehow minimizes the impact of the war and death and makes the dialogue almost unnecessary. 

THE PROMISE is a 2016 film of artistry and power about the Armenian genocide a hundred years ago, but the main focus is on the love triangle between an Armenian doctor, his lover, and the American reporter who also loves her. The cast in this long movie is strong, the impact unforgettable, as, once again, the theme of love and war is treated with artistry and originality.

Finally, another tale of wartime Europe but with an upbeat ending.  THE EXCEPTION concerns the exile of the aged German Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) in Holland in 1940, which is given a fanciful treatment and becomes secondary to the love story between a Jewish spy and the SS captain she loves and whom we come to like as a human being.

As someone said, the past is always a work in progress. And art of this type can give us an intelligent escape from present reality.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Names without limits

As new parents become more and more creative with naming their infants, some relying on familiar names while others inventing ones they like and still others borrowing famous ones, I wonder, should there be some guidelines on what is acceptable? If so, how do we reconcile freedom of choice with the specter of Big Brother?

What is to prevent a parent from naming his son Adolf Hitler Jones or Lee Harvey Oswald Smith?  Is it fair to the child to be saddled with such a name?  Or wacky names like Spaghetti, States Rights, and Kyrie (seen recently in the media)?

The French, always careful to preserve their heritage in language and culture, have long legislated such things, to the horror of many Americans. Apparently, the practice goes back to the French Revolution, when children where given political names (Rights of Man, etc.), leading Napoleon in 1803 to declare that French babies could only be named after the saints; this was later amended to included classical and historical names (Hercule, Diana, etc.). This remained in effect until 1966, when the laws were relaxed a bit.

But, as Lauren Collins reports in the current New Yorker, a government registrar in France today is required to accept any name (mon Dieu!) EXCEPT one that might not been in the child's best interest, in which case the naming is referring to a magistrate from the Department of Justice.   Recent rulings include such statements:  Fanciful, ridiculous names are likely to create difficulties and embarrassments for the child. So the government has suppressed such names as Happy, Nutella, and Prince-William, which must be replaced by names like Roger or Raymond.

Many here, in the land of individualism, where the "nanny state" is loathed, are likely to storm the equivalent of the Bastille and file suit, demanding their rights to use whatever name they conjure up from films, books, or their own imaginations for any new baby.

I do pity the child sometimes, who must, at age 21 or so, go through the legal process of changing Reality Game Johnson or Barefoot Soles to something more mainstream. But, if everyone had a Tom, Dick, or Jane kind of name, how bland the world would be.  So I'm all for freedom while still  admiring the standards maintained by the French, even if they seem like a relic of another age.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Terror, anxiety, and grace

I have saved an interview with actor Andrew Garfield from the magazine America (January 2017) by Brendan Busse because it deals with something that is part of my life and something I have written about: anxiety.

Garfield is one of the many performers I have read about (Barbra Streisand, among them) whose stage-fright has often prevented their going on stage.  The fear of being seen and watched and judged has affected me, not on the stage but in more ordinary circumstances I won't go into.

What's interesting is how Garfield, on the verge of suicide while preparing for a Shakespeare performance in London a few years ago, felt hopeless. "I feel like I'm going to die, " he said.  He had never before felt such terror or absolute dread at the idea of revealing himself.

People who hate to give public speeches can understand this common phobia.

To calm himself, he took at walk and encountered a street singer with a mediocre voice singing Don MacLean's "Vincent." Garfield remembers the imperfection of the performance:  "If that guy had thought he had nothing to offer and told himself he was not ready to perform in public, I would not have been given what I needed."

He needed a bit of outside inspiration, and it came from that song, which he considers a gift from God, just as his despair came as a moment of grace, a sign that he had to suffer before seeing that his depression was a kind of prayer, a cry for help.

Garfield then began to cry, feeling that God was telling him, "You think if you go on stage, you're going to die. But actually if you don't, you're doing to die."  And so he went on to this and other performances, always aware of the tension between the deep fear of being seen and the deep need of this.

As several self-help books tell us, feel the fear and carry on anyway.  Maybe your inner self will experience a moment of grace, as Garfield did,
when your inner self moves you from despair to participation in life.

A writer who has analyzed (in his book "Monkey Mind") his own acute anxiety is Daniel Smith, who reminds us of the universality of fear, an essential emotion essential for a full experience of life. Acute anxiety and terror are also common and can, he says, be dealt with despite their daily horrors and discomforts (by exercise, meditation, counseling, medication perhaps).

Before such anxiety leads to despair, he says, we must fight it. Keeping up the daily fight, I would add, is a holy struggle. It can be a form of prayer, a reaching out to the God outside us.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The enigma of desire in a fine novel

I am always attracted to writers whose style, whose attention to sentences, inspires me to do better work or to return, revived, to an old draft of a story.

Such is the case with The Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a novel about a bisexual man or perhaps more accurately a man who at various stages of his life goes from a schoolboy crush to lust and jealousy with people of each sex--along with regret, fear, sadness, and worry and all the emotions that make sexuality so complicated.

But I am glad I stayed with it. I must confess to having been intrigued by the title, an allusion to Elgar's piece of music, and even more to the multiculturally rich background of the author: He was born in Alexandria,Egypt of Turkish-Jewish parents who spoke French at home and introduced their son to Greek, English and Italian, which he then perfected when the family moved to Rome.  Then as an adult, Aciman came to America, to Harvard to study comparative literature, which he now teaches in New York City.

It is no surprise to learn from this latest of his books that he is an expert on Proust: the intense, closely observed and analyzed states of feeling that become almost claustrophobic as we follow a man named Paul at various stages of his life.

The recurring theme of the five interlocking stories that comprise this novel is one of memory and desire, as our narrator takes us deeply into his mind and soul as he moves from a gay to a straight experience and back again, suggesting that these terms and categories are useless in describing, like Shakespeare's sonnets, all the emotions associated with lust and longing, with men and women,with time and regret, with joy and sadness.

Aciman, a master of subtly described arousal, shows us that all of us are various people at various points in our life.

In an elegant style that is almost hypnotic, Aciman has crafted a very original type of novel analyzing in agonizing detail what being in love is like, from various perspectives. It is also, my students will be happy to learn, full of those long sentences that I admire and urge upon them.

So, even if you at first find that the desire analyzed here turns you off, you will find the tone poetic--wistful and melancholy--and the style and the central character memorable.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On "Silence"

I began this blog some years ago when I was writing and thinking a lot about silence--not as the absence of sound but as the presence of a spiritual reality that comes to those who practice contemplation.  I was, at the time, studying the work of Thomas Merton.

The silence in Martin Scorsese's film of that name, which I recently saw, is rather different, although the soundtrack is marked by quiet.  Rather it is the silence of God found in those who struggle with their faith amid terrible suffering.   As one of the Portuguese Jesuits says in this stunning film, set in 17th century Japan, "I would die for you if I knew you were there."

The interplay of faith, doubt and  temptation, rather than its characters, makes "Silence" distinctive. It could only be made by a director like Scorsese, whose Catholic faith underlies his work in subtle ways.  "Silence" is a three-hour, often bloody meditation on religious faith.

No wonder it received minimal attention at the box office and among many reviewers. I postponed seeing it until I could do so at home, via Netflix, because of its intensity and violence.  My first impression was to be struck by the beauty of the cinematography, which, with its light and dark contrasts, reminded me of Caravaggio, whose paintings are filled with Gospel stories illuminated by dark, sordid reality.

Here I found the converted villagers more moving and fervent than the actors portraying the Jesuit missionaries. These are peasants willing to suffer and die to protect the last priests in Japan, which was then repressing all foreign religion with violent executions.

Scorsese's film raises many questions for people of faith to debate: why is belief so often interwoven with doubt?  Why do people of faith often feel abandoned by God?  How can men of faith be seen by some (the church) as traitors to God (by apostatizing) yet heroic to others?  Why must human suffering be so terrible?

And finally, the cry from the Cross: "O God, why have you abandoned me?"

I recommend this beautiful film to all who want such religious questions presented in unforgettably striking images.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hemingway and Writing

Three new biographical studies of Ernest Hemingway are out, even though they may not be needed.  The life of this overly celebrated writer has been thoroughly researched by many others.  I am more interested in the writer than the man who became a brand name.

Hemingway remains, says Fintan O'Toole in the current New York Review of Books, a fascinating object of study: behind his "outlandish public image," O'Toole says, is a trauma caused by World War I and a complex sexuality that resulted in a hypermasculine swagger that I have commented on before. He became, in the words of his third wife, a "loathsome human being."

But was he also a genius?  How influential is he today as a writer?  Well, he has been a major influence on the modern short story, especially its style; he was a master of the story form and produced at least three significant novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Old Man and the Sea) that reflect his cold-blooded view of human life in memorable tough-guy prose. Although he re-defined American prose fiction in the mid-20th century, he also wrote much that was disappointingly mediocre, the result probably of his drinking and multiple injuries.

Still, in his prime, Hemingway was a serious reader and fine craftsman who gave some valuable advice to writers.  Having revised the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times, as he said in an interview, he reminds us of the importance of crafting each sentence carefully and revising the resulting paragraph.

Revise endlessly, he said: "The main thing is to know what to leave out."
He mastered the iceberg theory of literature whereby three-fourths of what happens in a story is unstated, implied, as in his famous six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

"The way you can tell if you are good," he said, "is by what you can throw away."  He claimed to throw away nine out of ten stories he wrote.

Since all style is personal, he said, "don't ever imitate anybody."  Writers, of course, steal ideas freely from one another but not style, which has to suit the subject, as it does in Hemingway; it also reflects the author behind the words.

I think the wannabe author can learn many techniques from reading Hemingway, such as the use of dialogue to carry the action and the value of concise, understated sentences. His work is a reminder of the axiom that suggestion is more powerful than statement.