Monday, August 29, 2011

Is Biography Possible?

I have read many excellent biographies and quite a few disappointing ones over the years. It seems to me that the biographer's job is made extremely challenging by the realization that, after all the facts and quotations and information, we are always left to wonder: what was he or she, the subject of the biography, really like?

Do we ever know another person, really? If we remain mysteries to ourselves, at least in part, we are generally mysteries to those who know us. I continue to discover surprising things about my wife and close friends after many years' association. The inner life has depths and layers that often remain obscure.

If I were to write the life story of someone I had never met and known at all, someone from another era, I would be flummoxed, as the Brits like to say. For to me, a biographer has to deal with the inner life of the subject, not just the public achievements. It's the upbringing, the family, the personal life that explains the behavior. Somehow, the more scholars dig into the life of Lincoln or Dickens or even Mark Twain, the more questions arise, the more complex these men seem. The same is true of Nixon and dozens of other more recent public figures: we think we know them, but do we ever, really?

While reading recently about Calvin Coolidge, for reasons known only to me--I can't explain it even to myself--I looked for a biography, and I found a book, by David Greenberg, that comes close. But his book, brief at 159 pages of text, admits that Silent Cal never opened up to anyone, never revealed himself. So we have to be content with a largely external portrait of a man who seems almost to have lacked an inner life.

My search for a biography of Coolidge in the full sense seems doomed. Yet the sources reveal many interesting anecdotes (some amusing) and facts, including the tragic loss of his teenage son in 1924. According to one scholar (Robert E. Gilbert), the rest of his life, and presidency, was marked by clinical depression.

I don't know how widely accepted this view is but it makes sense, helping to explain Coolidge's often odd, rude behavior. His icy reticence was the product of his New England upbringing, making him one of the most unlikely men to occupy the White House. He hated small talk, yet gave speeches, greeted guests (helped greatly by his wonderful First Lady, Grace), and held more press conference than any other president, before or since. He introduced the practice of talking to reporters; the fact that he said little on most occasions, and did so in his laconic style, made him the object of many jokes and much speculation.

When he died in 1933, Dorothy Parker quipped, "How can they tell?"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Treasures from Trash

I am not a fan of garage and rummage sales, but when my wife dragged me to one two years ago, I found a gem among all the clothes and cast-off junk: a video on spiritual searching, featuring the painter William Segal. And it was made c. 1995 by Ken Burns (before he was famous).

One problem is that it is an imperfect VHS; the other that the program on Vezelay and its medieval church in France where Segal goes is brief. But the insights of the then 90-year-old American artist are important. Since the film was made, Segal died in 2000, at 95, and Burns, has gone on to do bigger things.

But I am grateful that he went to the Vezelay, whose doorways and cloisters and nave are captured in a series of slow, meditative shots as the philosopher-artist offers some spontaneous reflections on silence, stillness, and the importance of searching; he shows us how visual artists, as he says later, help us see reality in new ways, from new perspectives.

Even though the setting is religious, the focus of this early Burns documetary is on the spiritual. Still, he recognizes that the sacred location of a shrine like Vezelay enhances its potential for healing. Segal, too, is concerned with the spiritual search, seeing that, though we may go alone to such places and alone into ourselves, we remain connected to the larger community; as a result, he says, we become less self-centered. So he is, in effect, validing the importance of communal worship for the individual, whatever his beliefs may be.

Segal raises important questions, chief among them: what part of us is changeless, and what part comes and goes? In an ancient building like the church at Vezelay, one is aware of the past living on in the present, and universal questions naturally arise. We intuitively sense that there's something in us that is changeless: what do we call this part of ourselves? The soul? The true self?

Does it have to have a name? Spirituality, like faith, is beyond naming and understanding in a logical way. The search, which never ends, cannot end in neat answers.

In this quiet, eloquent little film, which I watched again this week while recuperating, William Segal, with all the wisdom of his years, articulates truths that can't be expressed in words; they involve the mysteries of life itself that strike us with wonder. These mysteries are prompted by sensory images of an inner reality that is captured in the biblical idea of the Kingdom.

Seeing this film about the search reminds me of a favorite line from Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks): "You search frantically from room to room for the diamond necklace that's already around your neck."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ignoring the Critics

Anyone who wants to go public with their writing or other art form faces the inevitable audience waiting out there to evaluate it; this includes reviewers and critics, many of whom are not helpful. The terror of the blank page that faces many writers owes something to the past (the echo of harsh English teachers), it seems to me, and something to the future: what will the reviewers say?

As one who has been on both sides, as writer and critic, I know how easy it is to let fear paralyze the creative process and how tempting it can be to unleash one's frustrations in a piece of negative criticism. If you have read a movie critic's trashing of a particularly bad film, you know how enjoyable it appears to have been for the critic to be cynical, sarcastic, and smug, and how many readers can enjoy reading a savage review, as if it were a type of witty entertainment. Some of the same thing, in more sophisticated form, takes place in academia.

Robert Pinsky, in a recent Slate article, talks about this, using an especially venomous (and famous) review of the verse of John Keats in which the critic, assuming a sneering pose, admits he has not read the work, although "we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it." By dismissing the work of this young Romantic poet as unworthy of even being read and honestly evaluated, the critic (it was said) hastened Keats's death, which was actually due to tuberculosis. But his chilling words ("tiresome and absurd") can still sound like a death knell to many insecure young writers encountering that 1818 review.

For those with such fears, I recommend searching for Rotten Reviews (there was once a little book of that title) to see how wrong-headed the critics often are. And how often they overlook their evaluative function and become like attack dogs, discouraging the author and any of his or her fellow would-be writers.

Criticism should be, after all, a balanced judgment, based on solid criteria; its aim is to illuminate the text under review and show its strengths as well as possible flaws. It is not a self-serving opportunity for the reviewer merely to toss off his or her opinions and tastes. It should not determine the way the book or other composition is received by the public, who should make up their own minds.

Luckily, as the following examples indicate, many critics can and should be ignored since they have been proved wildly wrong.

1. "Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You'll never be a writer." This from a publisher in 1852 to Louisa May Alcott, author of the most famous and popular children's book of the 19th century.
2. A few years later, a French critic wrote: "M. Flaubert is not a writer." This would come as a surprise to the millions who have read the classic novel Madame Bovary.
3. Critics in 1922 attacked T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and even The Great Gatsby, called by one "an absurd story."
4. Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was called "an emotional hodge-podge" by one idiot masquerading as a reviewer; even Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 23 publishers. The 24th company made $6 million on the book.

I've focused on writing since that is my field, but I know performance artists, especially actors, have been wounded by unkind, unhelpful remarks that say more about the limitations of the reviewer than the work under consideration.

The obvious conclusion: do not be put off by an initial response that is likely to be hasty, unthinking, and simply stupid. Get a second and third opinion. Ask good readers for positive criticism. Seek praise, too: What did you like about my story? This is an essential question in any writing workshop. And: How can it be improved?

When you are asked to wear the critic's hat, remember to be fair, to think of the author and the work, not yourself. It took years for me to learn this since, like many students, I was sometimes the recipient of harsh judgments, and as a young teacher, given to handing them out.

I like to think that with age comes wisdom.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Cat People

I recently saw the 1942 horror classic, Cat People, expecting it to be laughable in a campy way but instead was impressed by its acting and style. It is full of shadows and the moody atmosphere that only a black-and-white movie can suggest as it works on the imagination with its understated tensions and fears.

The story, based on producer Val Lewton's story, stemmed from his fear of cats (and perhaps of females who prey on men). As much as I admired the skill of this low-budget production, I could not help think that it is part of that unfortunate chapter of anti-feline history, in which cats (black, preferably) are associated with witches and evil and are blamed for the evil that men do. They are typically associated, at least in the West, with the feminine.

The ambivalent appeal of the cat is something that intrigued me in the research I did for a little book, published in 2003: Writing with Cats,
a mostly whimsical look at the influence of cats on writers, suggesting that cats may be the secret source of inspiration writers need. Why else did Hemingway, Mark Twain, Colette and countless other authors praise cats and want to be surrounded by them?

For all the praise heaped on these sensitive little creatures, for all the attention we lavish on our house cats, there remains a minority of the population that hates cats, a hatred often born of fear. What is it that people fear about the feline?

For many men (Napoleon, e.g.), I suspect it is the inability to control these highly independent animals; for others, it is their unpredictability, or their often mysterious, penetrating gazes, or their odd, wild behavior, as when our cat will suddenly race down the hall as if the demons of hell are attacking her. I can see why people in the past would sometimes think cats were possessed and treat them in terrible ways.

This dark history came as a revelation to me after observing our first and only cat, Lizzie, and discovering how sensitive, gentle, intelligent, highly affectionate and playful a feline can be. This was the basis of my conclusion that cats, as quiet, contemplative creatures, make ideal companions for writers since they set a mood of reflection and interiority that writers need. Those who bought and praised my book were true cat people--great cat fanciers--and I was invited to join the Cat Writers' Association, which promises to fight any defamation of the cat in print.

So in watching the movie Cat People I faced yet again the other side of feline history, the side I had ignored in my book, involving the cat's power to frighten people. What's intriguing is the ambiguity of cats: mysterious yet lovable, cunning at times while also charming and usually hilarious. And of course, we are intrigued by the more interesting ambiguity of human behavior, motivated by irrational fears of the unknown, torn by sexual tensions that we are often unconscious of. Beyond this is the mystery of evil, which can be alluring as well as alarming, more interesting to explore than the good (as the great writers have consistently shown).

What better material to build a story around, as Val Lewton saw: the cute pussycat can also be the nocturnal, sneaky, half-wild, potentially dangerous symbol of the female as she confronts the male. No wonder many men have hated (i.e., feared) cats with the type of hatred that can lead to violence.

Of course, if you are, like me, a cat person in the usual sense who simply wants to enjoy a classic movie like Cat People, don't let my commentary deter you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Not feeling in top form yesterday after a minor accident and visit to a doctor, followed by a look at the news with its economic and political horrors, I needed to relax with an uplifting movie. Instead, we opened our cheerful red envelope from Netflix and watched Mike Leigh's Another Year.

I guess it sounded promising when we ordered it, and it was well acted and intelligently conceived. But this close-up of a group of Londoners, most of them in despair over their lives, is almost unendurable, especially the non-stop talk of Mary (Leslie Manville), a lush who visits the main characters, played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, who have more patience with such people than I would have. And Ruth, playing a mental health counselor, should know how to deal with friends like Mary instead of pouring more drinks for them.

She could also tell Leigh that his film should be edited--unless you like to watch four seasons pass with nothing but talk, all going nowhere, with little to uplift the spirit. He seems to want to give us portraits of suffering souls, as if channeling the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" ("Ah, look at all the lonely people") and applying it to contemporary British life, with its many disappointments, especially to the late middle-aged failures.

Here everyone is unhappy in his or her own way. Soon, one of the characters says, we will be history, part of the past. Death is the inevitable end, and we must endure day by day.

I wish one of the clever English screen adapters like Andrew Davies would adapt one of David Lodge's novels. I've just finished "Therapy," his whimsical study of a middle-aged man in search of fulfillment; it would make a great movie. It would help us laugh at ourselves instead of reach for another drink.

I know that my life is circumscribed by problems, most of them beyond my control, but I make an effort to make each day, however hum-drum it may be, unique and special. Today, I enjoyed seeing the smiles of the clerks at the local supermarket, many of whom recognize me, one of whom tells me jokes (even though she is crippled and has a lot to complain about but never does).

I enjoyed the music I heard during my lunch, enjoyed watching the cat do nothing with her usual grace and with rapt attention to every sound.

Watching her is invariably amusing and can be one of the little things I do to make a quiet day spent at home recuperating filled with moments I can enjoy and be grateful for. I don't know how many more days I will have on earth, but I am determined to make each one mindful and rich and worth living.

I can choose this prayerful approach, or I can be pulled down by my problems and by the state of the economy, by the injustice of the world. I can also choose my evening's entertainment more carefully.

Yet even Mike Leigh's movie may not have been a disastrous choice after all; it has prompted a few thoughts about happiness and why our lives are often so bereft of meaning. And it has given me something to write about, stimulating my brain and perhaps prompting a thought or two in one of my readers. (I remain surprised, and grateful, to learn how many there are!)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Where is God?

I have just read a comment by blogger Brian Jay Stanley, who says, following a disappointing visit to some of Europe's cathedrals, that they "sublimely evoke the absence of God." God was never there amid the greed and ambition that helped build these now empty structures, he concludes.

As a cathedral crawler from way back who has made an informal study of Chartres and several other great churches in France and England, I was surprised to find this on the Internet. I can understand his take but am saddened that Stanley has allowed cynicism to darken what might have been a journey into light.

Of course, God is everywhere and is especially present to the believer who prays, whether he does so in a great cathedral or a tiny chapel or a meadow. Whatever secular reasons were involved in the construction of a cathedral, such as raising huge sums of money, they are also---and for us today primarily--testaments of faith. There is no way to separate the secular totally from the sacred since, for the Christian who believes in Incarnation, everything human can be sacred. If God is not found in a church, it is because we have not brought hearts of faith there.

To say, as Stanley does, that secular society banishes the sacred while religious society defiles it with the human is to denigrate the human role in the sacred; and it is to create a false dichotomy. The lust for money and power that played a role in building the cathedrals does not defile them for those who come there with an open mind and heart; it does not diminish their role as places of prayer and inspiration.

I have never encountered anyone who has been to Chartres or the other medieval Gothic cathedrals and not been spiritually moved. People don't go there looking for God in the stone or glass, as if the cathedral were the unique respository of God; they bring God with them into a place where prayer has always been valid (I allude to T. S. Eliot).

I'm sorry that Mr. Stanley found in the cathedrals' past only a story of greed and ambition and that he has allowed this aspect of their history to obscure the bigger picture. I hope he will return to Europe and look again. But he will have to bring God along with him if he is not again to be disappointed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Too Much Freedom

Freedom is generally a good thing unless we fail to handle it right. In this land of liberty, unbridled freedom of expression, dress, and behavior is often thought to be the greatest good, yet it can easily become license--the freedom to do anything irrespective of the consequences to others (like loot stores, smash windows, burn buildings).

But lest I get carried away, to keep this on a micro scale, what I really mean by "freedom" is simply that sometimes we are given more options than we can handle. This occurred to me yesterday when I was trying, after several months, to master our new cooktop stove. It has more settings than a Cordon Bleu chef working for NASA would ever want or use.

There must be fifteen places on each of the four dials: low simmer, medium simmer, simmer, several types of "medium," etc. And then there's "warm" and "melt" (as in chocolate). Do I want to cook on medium high or low high? With one setting, nothing happens; with the next one, the pot boils over. The old stove was better because it was simpler.

Listen to the options banks give you on the telephone: these messages contain a confusing welter of information, most of which I have no use for.

Or consider bread. When an acquaintance came here from Ireland a few years ago, he was overwhelmed by his first visit to a supermarket in Florida. He was used to his little village where the bakery sold two or three types of bread. Here he found cracked wheat, whole wheat (with and without sodium), high fiber bread, low carb bread, gluten-free bread, rye with and without seeds, barley bread, sourdough, which is one of the ten types of white bread (never called this, of course). All these by one company. Now multiply these by a dozen bakeries. And don't forget the imported and frozen breads and the store's own freshly baked bread in dozens of shapes and sizes.

Why, the Irishman cried, can't I just buy some bread?

Should we be grateful for all the variety we are given in nearly every area, at the ever-changing types of i-phones, i-pods, i-pads, with an endless array of apps? Do we need so many choices? No, but companies need to make money from our consumer-driven culture, and many of us fall into their trap, believing that the more choices we have, the happier we will be.

When I see my neighbors' kids, with rooms full of toys and games, do I see happy, contented kids? Often they are bored, tired of all the stuff they've been given, maybe yearning just to run wild with their imagination--or just to run, free of the stuff they think they want.

I could quote Milton at this point--something about freedom without restraint being dangerous--or Thoreau on the need to simplify our lives, but that would take us back to the macro level, and it's too hot to be too philosophical. At least today.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cinema Masterpiece

When I saw that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) was showing "The Third Man" earlier this week, I knew I had to watch it again--for at least the 8th time. I never tire of it.

Other films have greater plots and characters, but there is something unique about this 1949 classic, shot mainly in Vienna with the ruins of World War II still apparent in the dark streets so masterfully shot in black and white by cinematographer Robert Krasker, with his love of harsh lighting and shadows. The director, Carol Reed, owes much to Orson Welles' expressionistic style. And to a great screenplay by Graham Greene. (I didn't know all this until I just looked it up on Google!)

So the scene is part of the perfection, the look of the place, those wet streets at night, the aura of corruption enhanced by the ruined buildings and, of course, by the haunting, sad, strange music of the zither (played by and composed by Anton Karas). This music makes this classic the supreme example of film-as-atmosphere.

But mainly it's the look of the people, including ordinary people like the little boy with the ball who appears in front of the building where the mysterious Harry Lime has supposedly been killed.

The faces of fear and desperation in the cafes and streets of old Vienna are unforgettable. I believe that great films are essentially perfectly shot scenes of memorable faces, of characters who move us. At least, that is what draws me back to certain movies.

Joseph Cotten is perfect as the oddly named American writer, Holly Martins, who has come to search for his old friend, Harry Lime, and meets instead Lime's girlfriend, played with a sadness bordering on despair by Valli--another great face.

If "The Third Man" is new to you, find it and look at those faces. Watch for the cat in the doorway by the man's feet, which belong to Orson Welles, who finally appears mid-way in the movie, smiling enigmatically. Watch the fingers that emerge from the sewer opening near the end. Just savor that zither score. You will see why I think this is not only among the top ten movies I have ever seen but why it is high on most lists of cinema masterpieces.

If you ever had doubts about movies being art forms rather than just popular entertainments, see "The Third Man."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Death and Eternal Consciousness

In a recent New Yorker article, Stephen Greenblatt, the noted Shakespeare scholar, includes in an interesting essay on the ancient philosopher Lucretius a revealing story about his mother. She was obsessed with a fear of death.

Not, her son writes, a dread of what might lie beyond the grave but of the act of dying itself, the end of her existence. She brooded on this, especially when any family member would leave the house; and her worries about her heart and her health, along with her intense anxiety, got passed on, as such things do, to her children.

The irony is that Greenblatt's mother lived to be almost 90. Yet what she suffered! Her son takes comfort in the words of Lucretius, from his 2000-year-old poem, "On the Nature of Things," an idea found in other literature: 'Death is nothing to us.' When we are gone from this earth, we won't feel because we won't be.

For the person like me who wants to believe in some idea of the soul, or of some immaterial me, living on, Lucretius is of limited comfort. Still, his is an important voice in the vast literature of mortality. What poet has not reflected on the cruelty or inevitability of death? On the need to value and be grateful for the years we are given rather than live in dread of the big sleep that awaits us?

I have come to see my death as a long, peaceful sleep, the end of the "slings and arrows" that age has brought: the slowing down of the body, the medications and doctors' visits, the pains and aches. I could not imagine going on forever with this body and will be relieved to give it up when the time comes.

And if the body, with its brain, is gone, how can consciousness survive? If I cease to be my conscious self, in what sense can I say I survive in an afterlife? What part of my "true self" continues? Any answer we give is a speculation about the ultimate mystery.

If we become one with God, does our individual essence cease to be? Not according to orthodox Christian belief. One contemporary theologian, John S. Dunne of Notre Dame, even speculates in his book The Circle Dance of Time about an eternal consciousness.

He wonders if our union with God after death may be conscious rather than a perception of God as an object. Distinguishing between consciousness and perception, he suggests, following Nicholas of Cusa, a mystical theologian, that there is a oneness with God that is "nonetheless conscious." And if we can say there is oneness with God after death, "we can also say there is consciousness after death." (emphasis added)

I have never heard anyone else suggest quite such a possibility. No one knows what such consciousness would consist of: whether we remain aware of ourselves, of others, of life on earth, etc. I am sure that every poetic rendering of heaven, including Dante's, is totally inadequate in expressing what being in the presence of Ultimate Reality would be. Such an experience is beyond words, beyond knowing.

In my youth, I lived with a fear of death, not as acute as Mrs. Greenblatt's; but I could see that the fear of the unknown end, which could come at any moment, was at the root of my other anxieties. Now, as one of the benefits of being a senior, I have found greater peace with this reality. I see myself at the moment of death entering a realm of pure light and peace, not knowing what to expect except that it will be good. As John of the Cross wrote, "I don't know what lies beyond for me; I only know that a great love awaits me."

His is a voice of faith. For all those who, understandably, lack a faith in eternal life, death does not mean a new beginning, but it is not something to be dreaded. It might just be a long, long welcome sleep. And maybe they will wake up surprised to "be" in a wholly new realm.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Living Well in the Slow Lane

One of my recurring preoccupations is the need to slow down and savor the fullness of the present moment. I admire what Eckhart Tolle has to say in The Power of Now and other books.

The speed of our culture, of course, makes all the more valuable those moments of solitude and silence where where ordinary time seems to stand still. This is the topic of a few of my recent articles.

Related to this idea--believe it or not--is a seemingly materialistic concern with living a life that is made into a work of art. I admire those friends of ours whose style of dressing, cooking, reading, and other entertainment marks them as discerning individuals who take the time to pay attention to every detail of their lives, from the decoration of their homes to the clothes they wear.

Often, simplicity is best. I recall a 2006 movie about Beau Brummel, hardly a model of spiritual living, yet a man whose pursuit of elegance made him more than a footnote in the history of modern culture.

As portrayed by James Purefoy, Brummel was far from the Oscar Wilde type of effeminized dandy; in fact, he revolted against the perfumed, powdered, colorful extravagance of the late 18th century fop, preferring instead understated, fitted clothes, dark suits with trousers, and a cravat--precursors of the modern man's suit with tie.

Unlike many is his time, Brummel was fastidious about his cleanliness, bathing every day (a novelty at the time), shaving every day, and spending much of his inherited fortune on clothes and the perfect maintenance of his outfits. It reportedly took him five hours to dress, and his friends, called (by Lord Byron) the Dandy Club, would come to watch him get dressed. (The dandy always needs an audience.)

Alas, his expenditures and gambling debts forced him to leave England in 1816 and live out his days in France in penury and madness. But before this sad end, B.B. devoted himself to one cause: taking pride in all that he did, including his conversation. He altered the concept of the gentleman, which became a paramount issue in the 19th century, as the emphasis shifted from inherited wealth to men who tried to revive some of the old chivalric ideals of honor with social accomplishments, the result of their own efforts.

Although Beau Brummel became one of the first men to be famous for being famous, accomplishing little more (some said) than being a witty clothes-horse, he helped advance the idea of a gentleman as one who takes great pains to do whatever he does well, with panache, and with that air of feigned indifference the Italians (following Castiglione) call sprezzatura. This cultivated nonchalance is the product of education, reading, imagination, good company, money, and attention to detail; and it is, I suggest, a hallmark of being civilized.

What bearing the dandy (in the true sense embodied in the life of Brummel) has on our culture with its great informality seems to be minimal; yet I like to think that the old idea (again from Castiglione) of making one's life into a work of art is still possible. It has something to do with paying attention to the everyday, making the ordinary things around us (food, clothes, furniture) into reminders of beauty and of the importance of caring passionately about getting the details right.

There is a reminder here, I think, of living fully in the present and enjoying what life offers, of valuing simplicity and the natural; so I can see the spiritual dimension of the slow movement in Italy and elsewhere, which has to do with caring enough to live well.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Milton at the Movies

Thanks to a former student, I've been updated on the forthcoming film by Alex Proyas of "Paradise Lost," the epic poem by John Milton. When I taught a course in Milton's poetry, as I did for 30 years at the Univ. of Central Florida, I often told the students that the long poem from the 17th century, despite its off-putting language, would make a great screenplay, maybe even an actual movie.

According to an article in First Showing, the producers of the film, to begin production in January with Bradley Cooper in the starring role, plan to be faithful to the great poem. I wonder whether this is possible, given what I know.

For one thing, the article emphasizes the (predictable) clash between good and evil, between Lucifer and Michael, as the main event, whereas it is really a poem about the fall of Adam and Eve. How important will they be in the final screenplay, I wonder.

The most colorful character, played by Cooper, is called Satan, not Lucifer, a name Milton studiously avoids, never showing us the unfallen archangel of that name. Satan, the adversary of God, dominates the opening of the epic, nearly stealing the thunder from the other characters, including God, Adam, and Eve. To call him Lucifer, as the movie presumably does, is heretical to any self-respecting Miltonist.

Is Mr. Cooper going to portray Milton's quasi-heroic rebel Satan, or Lucifer? We know that Benjamin Walker, who has a suitably angelic face, will play Michael. Based on this early information, I suspect that the film will go for the obvious battle scenes and minimize the real subject: the temptation, fall, and regeneration of the human characters in a way that makes the poem more positive than the title might imply.

Paradise, that is, is lost on earth, but a greater paradise, Milton contended, is to be found in the human heart (of the Christian believer). So whether this emphasis will be included in the upcoming film remains to be seen.

However, it turns out, the film of "Paradise Lost" is something I look forward to seeing, analyzing, arguing about, and (I hope) enjoying.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What's in a Name?

I've always wondered about the effect of weird names on people as they grow up. I once had students named Sky Rocket and Forrest Stump, and they seemed amused (or pretended to be) by the invariable comments by strangers encountering this monikers. Their parents no doubt enjoyed bestowing a unique, memorable name on their baby, but what about the child growing up? Were they tired of being amused?

I have the name Fanny Fangboner on my list of "Amazing Names of Real People." Also Harmony Hoot, Hyacinthe Ringrose, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Ima Mae Sprinkle, and States Rights Jones, Jr. I forgot one: Easter Lily Gates. I hope these people did not have traumatic childhoods and did not murder their parents.

It's one thing for a performance artist to choose a colorful name, like Blinky Palermo or Bent Hamer (I assume this director was not born with that name) or Googy Withers. But some names should be outlawed. Here are some first names I would not allow if I were running things:

Jazz, Aria, Shadow, Talon, Trinity, Apple. I could go on.

In France, laws are on the books prohibiting parents from assigning names that are "offensive" (a bit vague) or will "cause prejudice to the child or others," according to a 1990 website (things may have changed since.)

City hall officials generally will allow any name that's part of the family's ethnic or religious heritage, but when parents proposed naming their daughter "cerise" (cherry) a few years ago, the name was not accepted; the parents later went to court and won. So too the name Babar (after the cartoon elephant): denied.

Sixty or so years ago, the name had to come from the list of saints in the Catholic calendar; offbeat names could only be used as second names. Now, apparently, certain Americanisms are allowed if they sound French: Jonathan becomes Djonotane. Maybe that spelling will catch on here for Americans desperate to be trendy.

I don't know what the French do with Brad, Kelly, Scott, Brenda, or Shirley. It's part of a sensitive cultural debate since the law is open to uncertainty and wide interpretation--and indidivual rights are involved. Can you imagine a Tea Partyer here allowing a government official to decide that a name (Bristol, Trig come to mind) is inappropriate?

The French, who are horrified at the Canadian stance of "anything goes," have always tried to legislate in matters of language, with the French Academy once passing judgment on what words could or could not be used. Such efforts are invariably hopeless since people will speak as they wish and the language will change: usage dictates.

What the current situation is in France is something I will investigate. If any of my readers know what is de rigueur en France, please let me know, when it comes to naming babies.