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Love in the Time of Maladjusted Behavior

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In Catherine Shoard's 2008 Telegraph review of the film version of Gabrielle García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, she asks a critical question:

Should our hearts flutter in the face of a love this enduring [the love Florentino Ariza harbors for Fermina Daza through the 50 some-odd years of her marriage]? I'm not sure. As with many literary adaptations . . . , what seems swoony on the page can seem plain sinister on screen.
In fact, what seems plain sinister on screen seemed just as creepy on the page to me.  Two examples suffice:

(1)  When Florentino Ariza seduces a married "pigeon fancier," Olimpia Zuleta, her husband discovers her faithlessness and slits her throat.  Florentino Ariza has sent Olimpia Zuleta signed love notes, and García Márquez reports,

For many years he [Florentino Ariza] thought with terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the murderer [Olimpia Zuleta's husband], . . . but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza's learning about his infidelity.
(p. 217.)  A woman is dead because of your sexual desires, and your main concern is that another woman not find out that you've had sex?  That's not touching.

(2)  Florentino Ariza's penultimate lover, América Vicuña, is 14 (to his 76) and his ward.  He abruptly dumps her at the death of Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza's husband, and in her inability to comprehend this rejection, América Vicuña kills herself.  Florentino Ariza reacts as follows:

The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow himself the anguish of that memory.  He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.
(p. 336.)  Another woman is dead - this one a teenager - because of your exploitative sexual desires, and you erase her memory?  Not romantic.

More than once, García Márquez describes Florentino Ariza as a "man who gave nothing and wanted everything" from his lovers (p. 216).    The fact that he's treating women so harshly while he bides his time waiting for his "true love" is, again, not sympathetic. 

A man who knows love for a woman ought to - we'd like to think - treat her sisters with dignity and respect.  Otherwise, what is his love for "Miss Right"?  Whether on the page or in the movie, Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza is the enabler of a life lived at an emotional and moral distance from beloveds; it is the romantic fig leaf that fails to justify a misogynistic reality.

To return to Catherine Shoard's perceptive question, Florentino Ariza's "love enduring" provokes, not a flutter, but a shudder.

(Image of Javier Bardem as Florentino Ariza in Mike Newell's film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The New York Times)

Overemphasizing ideas in art

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In the last four days, I've seen Israeli videographer Yael Bartana's show, "and Europe will be stunned," at the Moderna Museet Malmö in Sweden and Anselm Kiefer's self-titled show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  Between those two exhibits, I've been taken with the impression that contemporary art privileges ideas over artistic skills to its detriment. 

Yael Bartana has great ideas, but from a film-making perspective much of her work looks rough and amateurish.  Anselm Kiefer also has great ideas (I laughed out loud at "Martin Heidegger," a book depicting a brain partially black with rot), but neither his drawing, sculpture, composition or use of color strikes me as particularly exemplary. 

I can't help thinking, having recently been in Italy, that Renaissance painters and sculptors wouldn't have countenanced this divorce of concepts from skilled execution.  Of course, during the Renaissance, the ideas animating the paintings were less varied (e.g., mostly related to religion and patrons), and the importance of a human's artistic capacity was paramount: the glory of human capabilities was the point of the Renaissance.

Now, however, when photographs can render life more exactingly than a painter, and film can capture life even in movement and over time, viewing a human's artistic capacity as superfluous is tempting: why not use the technology?  Similarly, now that art has been unshackled from religion and (for the most part) from private patronage, why not prize the ideas over the the execution?

The reason is that ideas without aesthetics aren't art.  Art (when it's good) operates on an intellectual and visceral level simultaneously.  It presents ideas that activate the mind, but it also - through aesthetics - engages the viscera.  (The effectiveness with which Renaissance art accomplishes these twin objectives contributes to its overwhelming beauty; contemporary art's ignoring of the visceral is surely a cause of its often numbing ugliness.) 

This visceral engagement is neither fanciful nor a luxury: it is necessary.  Without it, a work is not art, but argument.  Without the visceral engagement, artworks communicate not intuitively, but rationally. 

Moreover, much of the rational communication must be conveyed, not visually, but through verbal texts that explain the ideas undergirding the work.  But explanatory texts, be they on the wall of museums, or published in exhibition catalogs, ought to be unnecessary.  Works should speak for themselves. 

Nonetheless, very little contemporary art speaks for itself.  Without textual explanation, the circumstances of Bartana's works, "Summer Camp," and "Wild Seeds," are opaque.  Kiefer takes the trouble to write words (often the title of the work) on his canvases; Louisiana provided a "Kiefer dictionary" to explain Kiefer's common references.  Going to these contemporary art exhibitions requires an awful lot of reading; so much reading, in fact, that a visceral (that is to say, irrational) response is practically suppressed.  

Moreover, the tone of the text is exhortatory:  viewers will be questioned about . . .; viewers will confront . . . ; viewers are made to feel / think . . . .  When I read what I'm supposed to be thinking and feeling, all I can think is: bullshit.  The text is telling me what to think and feel because extracting that experience from the art itself is too difficult.  Often, the work is too boring to hold my attention.  I have to exert my will to stay and look at it.  Aesthetically engaging work doesn't encounter this problem.

I am struck, as well, by the difference between contemporary visual art and literary art.  While visual art seems to be losing its aesthetic capacities, literary art is refining them.  In fiction and poetry, the way an idea is expressed is often more important than the idea.  "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimimanda Ngozi Adeche's novel about the Biafra war, is hampered by dull ideas; but it's well written.  Kay Ryan doesn't tell me anything I didn't know in her poem, "Turtle"; but the poetry is transporting. 

Good ideas presented in bad writing is only acceptable (and only unofficially so) in non-ficton (and explanatory texts for art exhibits); in the realm of fiction or poetry, scintillating ideas encased in bad writing isn't called art.  It might be a guilty pleasure; it might be a commercial success; but it's not art.

I don't see anything wrong in expression of rational argument in broad varieties of media, be they films, performances or paintings.  I'm not suggesting that Yael Bartana or Anselm Kiefer are unworthy of their audiences. 

But humans need art as well as argument, aesthetics as well as ideas, visceral as well as cerebral engagement.  The systematic preference for ideas to the detriment of aesthetics in contemporary art reflects a painful imbalance in our modern lives.  While this message may correspond to reality, humankind has known eras when art was more than a cry for help.

(Image of Anselm Kiefer's statue, "Das Sonnenschiff," from White Cube)

Note to Self

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If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation. 

I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.

Granted, I recognize that the problem is common.  Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs.  Also, that they can screw a lot.

But I don't like to dwell on it.  When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:

Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183).  Please!  Gabriel!  Spare us!

Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation.  And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!

Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction.  He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza?  Really?

When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.

(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The Telegraph)

What The Witness saw

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At the Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark, floral arrangements complement the displays of furniture, paintings and tchotchkes from Karen Blixen's house.  The flowers come from a special garden, specifically tended to provide fresh flowers for the Museum's arrangements.  (After a slug invasion in the early nineties, a special, shin-high, slug-proof metal fence was erected around the garden to protect the flowers.) 

The care and attention paid by the Museum to the details concerning the flower arrangements are because Karen Blixen herself was an accomplished floral arranger and considered arranging flowers a form of art.  Photographs were taken of arrangements she'd made during her life, and the Museum claims that it "recreates" her arrangements.

Learning of this attempt at recreation, I thought of the Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Witness."  In this slender piece, a man dies in a stable.  He dies in the Kingdom of England,

but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners.  Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again.  The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.
(p. 161.)  Borges goes on to remind us that,

one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death . . . . In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of one man.
(Id.)  He wonders, "What will die with me the day I die?  What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?"  (Id.)  His proposals, in contradistinction to the preceding examples, are intimate, personal and apparently historically insignificant:

The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?
(Id.)

Perhaps Borges believes that he has written down everything he witnessed worth preserving, so that when he dies all that remains will be meaningless outside his personal context.  Or perhaps Borges believes that he lives in a time that cannot parallel the greatness of the ancients, so that anything he witnesses cannot be of historical significance.  In any event, nothing in "The Witness" suggests a propensity on Borges' part to preserve his bar of sulfur in the drawer of his mahogany desk, and to project over it (on an endlessly repeating loop) an image of a bay horse in the vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, accompanied by a soundtrack of the voice of Macedonio Fernández.

In contrast to Borges' modesty, the efforts of the Karen Blixen Museum to ensure that Karen Blixen's flower arrangements do not die with her suggest a certain hubris that often accompanies hagiography.  Immodest and immoderate love cannot distinguish the important from the trivial aspects of the beloved. 

Similarly, the Karen Blixen Museum doesn't seem to appreciate that recreating Karen Blixen's floral arrangements is the kind of silly tribute that obsessives pay their objects of attention.  The effort doesn't present itself as an obvious priority for a museum dedicated to preservation of and promotion of a legacy that, like Karen Blixen's, is thoughtful, subversive, humorous, and controversial.  Rather, the emphasis and labor expended on the flowers suggests a focus on the fleeting and the decorative aspects, a preference for the pretty over the challenging.

In this respect, if not others, the world is a little poorer for Karen Blixen's death.
  
(Photograph of a flower arrangement in the Karen Blixen Museum gift shop taken by Maya Alexandri)

A voice of her own

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Visiting the Karen Blixen Museum today in Rungstedlund, Denmark, I took advantage of the opportunity to listen to a 27-minute recording of Karen Blixen reciting her story, "A Letter from a King," in English, before an audience.

I had known, from Judith Thurman's biography, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, that Karen Blixen intended her stories to be read aloud and listened to.  Hearing Karen Blixen tell her own story in her creaky-resonant voice with her old-lady inflection, I understood why.  The story on the page was two dimensions to the oral form's three.

Karen Blixen had a sense of humor, but - unlike Rabelais - it wasn't primarily scatological, physical or premised on misunderstandings.  These types of humor are sturdy vehicles that can survive the abuses of time and transmutations into different formats. 

Karen Blixen's sense of humor, on the other hand, is a fragile tone, easily lost in the migration of form and context.  On the page, I could understand why Karen Blixen might be thought to have been funny.  Hearing her tell her story, it was funny.  She earned her laughs from the audience. 

Moreover, in the oral form of the story, I realized that she was poking fun at herself with her account of how her friends in Denmark thought she was a snob for sending a lion skin to King Christian X; her self-deprecation - obvious in the oral form, muted on the page - made her likable.  Listening to Karen Blixen's tale, I was transported to a younger time, when I sat at my grandmother's kitchen table, listening to her tell stories with gentle punch lines.  (For this reason, I selected a photo of Karen Blixen, above, that reminds me of my grandmother.)
  
Beyond the restored humor, however, the oral form of the story took on a completely different meaning.  "A Letter from a King" begins by recounting an event that Karen Blixen describes in Out of Africa: a New Year's Day outing that ends with Karen shooting a lion perched on the carcass of a giraffe.  When they see the lion, Denys Finch-Hatton hands Karen his rifle and tells her to shoot it.  She doesn't like to use his gun; it's too big.  But, she says, the shot is for love, so shouldn't it use the largest caliber weapon?

The anecdote is a significant one to Blixenania lore.  Karen Blixen herself repeats it in both Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass.  Errol Trzebinksi begins her biography of Denys Finch-Hatton, Silence Will Speak, with a retelling of the episode.  Judith Thurman interprets the shot of love as being for Denys Finch-Hatton. 

But when Karen Blixen tells the story, the love is unquestionably for the lion.  Hunting, she insists, is like a love affair.  Usually, she admits, the passion is one-sided.  The hunter is in love; the prey, not so much.  But with lions, she insists, it's different: they want to kill her as much as she wants to shoot them.

This meaning (and its attendant humor) were largely lost on me when I read Shadows on the Grass and Out of Africa.  I was busy focusing on where the text betrayed clues of her love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton (who she refers to as her "friend" in "A Letter from a King"). 

But this subtextual obsession is exactly what Karen Blixen's oral performance obviates.  Reading from the page, I capitulated to the temptation to wander from her path, to sniff - like a pig hunting truffles - for buried treasure, to read with my own agenda.  Listening to Karen Blixen tell her tale, however, I was led where she wanted me to go, directed to the treasure before my eyes, engaged by her story in her voice.

For whatever reason - whether the clamor of her personal life has deafened readers to her literary voice, or whether English is too foreign a vehicle for her voice to carry on the page, or whether she's simply a storyteller in the ancient model of epic poet, and her tales work better orally - Karen Blixen's storytelling voice only emerged fully for me when I heard the recording.

It's a voice worth hearing.

The Karen Blixen Museum would do well to make her oeuvre available, where possible, in podcast.

(Photograph of Karen Blixen by Hugo Hellsten, taken at Rungstedlund, in 1957, on Kulturplakaten)

Becky Sharp, c'est Thackeray

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Melusina.jpgI've already blogged about how William Makepeace Thackeray's bitchiness to Becky Sharp fouls up his plotting in Vanity Fair.  But the more I think about his lack of compassion for Becky, the more compelled I am to take issue with his behavior simply as an affront to women and the poor. 

Thackeray creates Becky as a creature of few advantages.  Her mother dies when she's very young, and her father dies of delirium tremens when she is a teenager.  Moreover,

[Rebecca] had the dismal precocity of poverty.  Many a dun she had talked to, and turned away from her father's door; many a tradesman she had coaxed and wheedled into good-humour, and into the granting of one meal more.  She sate commonly with her father, who was very proud of her wit, and heard the talk of many of his wild companions - often but ill-suited for a girl to hear.  But she never had been a girl, she said; she had been a woman since she was eight years old.
(p. 10.) 

Thackeray bounces orphan Becky from one demeaning environment (Miss Pinkerton's School) to another (the Sedley house, Sir Pitt Crawley's house in Queen's Crawley, Miss Crawley's house in London), marries her to a gambler solider without a penny, promptly revokes the soldier's inheritance, and then gleefully watches Becky make do (dishonestly) in genteel society.

Social climbing (particularly in Becky's time and place), of course, is vulgar, and people who do it well are invariably insincere, insecure, shallow and vain.  (Becky is all these things.) 

And, yes, vanity is a sin.  But one of the great innovations of Judeo-Christian ethics is proportionality: Inspector Javert, the policeman - not Jean Valjean, the thief - is the sinner in Les Misérables because hounding a man for a lifetime is a disproportionate punishment for stealing a loaf of bread when a man is starving.

In the same way, casting vanity on par with murder and cannibalism is hardly in the enlightened Judeo-Christian spirit.  Here, for example, is Thackeray giving an account of Becky after she's been ruined:

In describing this siren [Rebecca Sharp], singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all round, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water?  No!  Those who like may peep down under the waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, and curling round corpses; but above the water-line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous, and has any the most squeamish moralist in Vanity Fair a right to cry fie?  When, however, the siren disappears and dives below, down among the dead men, the water of course grows turbid over her, and it is labour lost to look into it ever so curiously.  They look pretty enough when they sit upon a rock, twanging their harps and combing their hair, and beckon to you to come and hold the looking glass; but when they sink into their native element, depend on it those mermaids are about no good, and we had best not examine the fiendish marine cannibals, revelling [sic] and feasting on their wretched pickled victims.  And so, when Becky is out of the way, be sure that she is not particularly well employed, and that the less that is said about her doings is in fact the better.
(p. 620-21 (emphasis added).)  

I bridle reading this indictment.  Becky, without question, exploits those foolish enough to allow her to do so - her lady companion, Briggs, and her landlord, Raggles, in particular (both of whom she ruins financially).  She's beastly to her husband, Rawdon Crawley, and utterly cruel to her son. 

But, frankly, her crimes are the usual run-of-the-mill misdeeds of the impoverished.  The fever pitch of Thackeray's accusations is unwarranted.  (Besides which, his constant excuses that propriety prevents him from recounting her bloody - as opposed to economic and emotional - crimes is scarcely credible and makes the whole passage seem gratuitous.)

Thackeray's excessiveness surprises me because I believe he loves Becky Sharp (in contrast to Amelia Sedley, who I think Thackeray comes close to despising).  I don't think Thackeray would've made Becky so beautiful, intelligent, witty and resourceful - nor would he have given her an adventure with so many men and opportunities - if he didn't adore her.   

And yet, I feel that, in spite of himself - in spite of Thackeray's certainty that those of high birth and spotless reputation are as decrepit in their moral conduct as those of their opposites - Thackeray can't really accept a smart, resourceful, poor woman who isn't a monster.  Cerebrally or ideologically, he knows that poor women aren't deserving of especial reprimand; but viscerally Thackeray connects them with terror.  (As I discussed in another prior post, I think Thackeray attributes too much power to women, which may relate to this fear he manifests in respect of Becky.)

Thackeray's treatment of Becky also put me in mind of another novel about a rapacious, social climbing woman, a woman who exploits and abuses everyone she can, a woman who comes from crushing poverty and who dies desperate and penniless.  The book is The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Bad Girl is based on Madame Bovary, an ambitious book with which to compare one's work; and yet Vargas Llosa more than lives up to the company in which he places himself. 

The reason is his compassion for his bad girl.  Despite all her bad behavior, Vargas Llosa made me believe that poverty - not original sin or some other form of damnation - had tarnished her.  With this tactic, Vargas Llosa is not simply being sentimental: he's making his story work.  Although I never came to like the bad girl, I did feel emotionally engaged in her fate (and that of her steadfast lover) in a way that never happened with Vanity Fair.  I read The Bad Girl in a matter of days (not a month, like Vanity Fair), and the bad girl's scar of poverty has resonated with me for years after I finished the book. 

Speculating about the sources of authorial limitations and strengths is always risky.  Nonetheless, I'll hazard the following guess:  Vargas Llosa has compassion for the bad girl because he's well-acquainted with his naughty side; Thackeray thought Becky a monster because she was too close to what he didn't want to know about himself. 

(Image of Melusina from Wikicommons

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