Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 17 Years in Heaven

 Princess Diana died 17 years ago today. Mother Teresa died six days later. I wrote this post seven years ago on the tenth anniversary of their deaths.

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been ten years since Diana died in a car crash, just as we are absorbing the news of a book coming out that reveals the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 10 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was—-young people with all the earthly gifts possible dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. At this ten-year mark we learn of the forthcoming book with letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.


I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Borges Updated: Happy Birthday Jorge Luis!





Umph.

I’m pretty sure I’m not seriously hurt--no broken bones, a skin scrap on my leg that’s all. Not terrible for just climbing out of a Borges labyrinth.

It started in the light well enough, as it often does. I was looking at a book on my shelf—a collection of essays by Christopher Morley—and I went from the world of 20th century Man of Letters to the idea of canine vivisection in the 17th century to solve the problem of maritime longitude. (This could make a great Simpson’s episode; I’m sending Matt a spec.)

This spiral started twenty years ago in a Methodist church thriftstore. My father had the habit of picking up used books for me for a quarter, or fifty cents, to build my library

One very quirky selection is the Christopher Morley collection. His is a dusty, dusty name from the 1920s. If we sweep away the cobwebs, we see he was a Rhodes scholar to New College, Oxford; cofounder of the Saturday Review of Literature in 1924 with Henry Seidel Canby; founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only club for Sherlock Holmes fanatics, which is still in existence; and the author of "The Bowling Green" column for the old New York Evening Post.

Morley also wrote the novel Kitty Foyle in 1938, which went to Hollywood and brought Ginger Rogers a Best Actress Oscar, beating out Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord.

I have a miscellany collection of his called The Powder of Sympathy. The short musings, from the 1930s, are blog posts before their time, and so I was drawn in by their familiar feel and sound.

“Hail, Kinspirit” is one essay, about an item in the Personal column of the London Times.

“Lost in Taxi last week, small portfolio containing colour diagrams and newspaper print of Lamb’s portrait of Lytton Strachey. Finder rewarded. Y. 1926. The Times E.C.4.”

Pica for pica, Morley’s essays are more jammed with old Big Lit names than the frames of Mrs. Parker and her Vicious Circle.

“Well, well, we say to ourself: then there is one other person in the world who felt just as we did about that gloriously entertaining portrait of Mr. Strachery, and who carried it about with him just as we did ours, clipped from the Manchester Guardian.”
I think we can forgive Morley his royal plural, because we so like the sentiment of his post.

From there I wandered into the world of the book’s title, “The Powder of Sympathy,” and Sir Kenelm Digby.

The book is excellent, but I need to know more. I start Googling and learn that Sir Kenelm Digby was an eccentric privateer and a member of the Privy Council of Charles I. He advocated the concept of the Powder of Sympathy—-a sympathetic magic first proposed by the German physician and professor of physics, medicine, and mathematics Rudolf Goclenius. The idea was that you treat the agent of the wound, instead of the wound, with a salve. The salve is made from Roman vitriol [copper sulphate] and the Sun when it is in Leo.

I want to break out and watch a Friends rerun, but I’m in too deep now.

I imagine someone stabs me. My 17th century doctor applies the Powder of Sympathy to the knife, and my wound heals. I Google deeper into the e-labyrinth: there are 2 more very important points: the healing is not contingent on geographical proximity; and when the salve is applied to the knife, I will be affected, and may cry out.

I can't stop clicking deeper down, more pages, more connections: I learn that some bright mind decided to apply this "system" to the very serious issue of “the longitude problem.” The Brits ruled the waves in the 17th century, but a staggering number of them died in shipwrecks because captains were never certain where they were.

Latitude reckoning was determined by the stars. But longitude is a measure of time from a fixed, constant point.

More search, more clicks: I find Dava Sobel to explain it:

“As early as 1514, navigators well knew that the secret to determining longitude at sea lay in comparing the time aboard ship to the time at the home port -- at the very same moment. They could then convert the hour difference between the two places into a geographical one. Unfortunately, although navigators could figure out their local time at sea by watching the sun every day to see when it reached its highest point in the sky (at noon), they could not keep track of time at another place. For that they would have needed a clock or watch set to the home port. But pendulum clocks went haywire on the decks of rolling ships: they slowed down, or sped up, or stopped running altogether.”

So that was the problem. Then an anonymous pamphlet called “Curious Enquiries” suggested that a wounded dog be put aboard ship, leaving the knife and discarded bandage with a trusted timekeeper on shore. He would apply the Powder of Sympathy at agreed upon times, and when the dog yelped, the seaman would know the exact time on shore.

Apparently it’s not known if this pamphlet was “in jest” or the idea of desperate, desperate men as the sailor body count rose.

As late 1712 the British Empire was still searching for better navigating instruments, which was a major plot point NBC's short-loved Crossbones, with John Malkovich as the pirate Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard.

Umberto Eco uses the Powder and the longitude problem as a major plot point in his 1994 novel The Modern World.

Now I’m really worried. With Eco in the picture, I’ll never get out of here. I can't see my living room anymore, just pages and pages and pages of connected ideas that keep pulling me into my computer. Eco is a labyrinth himself—-I could rattle around here for hours more. I want to come up for air.

Finally, between clicks of the website Porta Ludovica, I’m able to free myself from the endless information on Eco and make my way back to Morley, hoping he is a piece in a breadcrumb trail that will let me find my way out.

Morley echoed Digby: “This theory of treating not the wound but the weapon might be well meditated by literary critics. For instance, when some toxicated energumen publishes an atrocious book, the best course to pursue is not to attack the author but to praise Walter de la Mare or Stella Benson. This may be termed the allopathic principle in criticism.”

I’m rising toward the surface--Morley’s quip is funny--but I don’t know who Stella Benson is. I’m so close but I can’t quit out of Firefox just yet. I Google her to a literary encyclopedia, which is edited by Janet Todd.

Janet Todd. I know her. I studied at Southampton University in England with her. A real person I have known.

Ahh, that does it-—I can see the way back. Just one more tight passage to squeeze through, then . . . .

Umph.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Trip to Assisi, the Land of Saint Francis


Another summer, another workshop of Renaissance polyphony. This year, it's Assisi, Italy. The repertoire is yummy: Palestrina, Victoria, Josquin, Richafort, Clemens, Morales, Gesualdo.

I have never been particularly drawn to St. Francis. The Pope taking the monk's name was the first tangible sign that he would try to bring a sense of simplicity  and sanity back to that exalted office, which much of the world found encouraging.

The Feast of St. Francis means the blessing of the animals in many Catholic & Protestant churches, because of the monk's association with nature.

To prep for my trip I read Chesterton's appreciation of the saint, and found that he tried to reestablish the seriousness of the Friar, and save him from the Disney-fication that is easy to do when nature is invoked. Case in point: the drawing below looks like it's right out of Enchanted, with Amy Adams just out of the frame.

"St. Francis was not a lover of nature. Properly understood, a lover of nature was precisely what he was not. The phrase implies accepting the material universe as a vague environment, a sort of sentimental pantheism. In the romantic period of literature, in the age of Byron and Scott, it was easy enough to imagine that a hermit in the ruins of a chapel (preferably by moonlight) might find peace and a mild pleasure in the harmony of solemn forests and silent stars, while he pondered over some scroll or illuminated volume, about the liturgical nature of which the author was a little vague.

"In short, the hermit might love nature as a background. Now for St. Francis nothing was ever in the background. He saw everything as dramatic, distinct from its setting,  in action like a play. A bird went by him like an arrow; something with a story and a purpose, though it was a purpose of life and not a purpose of death. In a word, we talk about a man who cannot see the wood for the trees. St. Francis was a man who did not want to see the wood for the trees. He wanted to see each tree as a separate and almost sacred thing, being a child of God and therefore a brother or sister of man." G. K. Chesterton

The other thing that I learned is that Wiki says that "The Prayer of Saint Francis," which most of contemporary Christendom knows well because of its hymn setting, is not from Francis's writings at all. There is no record of it before 1912, in French! 

It's one of those odd cultural mistakes. It's a shame, because it does "sound" like the teachings of Francis, so I doubt he minds the error.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 Follow me on Twitter for thoughts from Rome & Assisi. 

Westminster Abbey Choir, singing the hymn at Lady Diana's funeral.



Monday, August 4, 2014

England Declares War on Germany Aug. 4, 1914: Oh, What a Lovely, 4-Star War


Update, August 24, 2014: Sir Richard Attenborough died today. Born between the World Wars, in 1923, he lived to see the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. I've never seen Jurassic Park, but I am very happy to have recently seen this first film that he directed. I highly recommend it.

The centenary of World War One is being played out against our current multiple world crises. The pain, death, and confusion of a commercial airplane shot down during a civil war and Israel and Palestinian annihilating each other are being processed in the daily news narratives that are the first draft of history. CNN just gave a recap of the death of 3 Israeli teenagers and how it did or did not lead to the current situation. That's what we do, we continually try to connect the dots of our personal lives, and our world events.

Amid such atrocities there is an implicit privilege in being able to spend time and energy to commemorate a 100-year-old touchstone like the beginning of the Great War.

I don't know if we actually ever learn from the past, regardless of Santayana's exhortation, but human nature yearns to understand how we got to where we've gotten to, and cultural memory is a big part of that understanding. And so we gather, in different ways, to remember.


August 4, 1914, is the day that the ultimatum for a cease fire that England issued to the Germany that invaded Belgium following the assassination of the Archduke expired at 10:59 pm, and at 11:00 England was at war.  There is a candlelight ceremony at Westminster Abbey tonight, which will end in the darkness that consumed the world for 4 long years. It's part of a country-wide #LightsOut commemoration, 10:00 to 11:00pm, bringing to life a grave pronouncement by Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, as the clock struck 11:00pm:
  
 “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”


Oh, What a Lovely War & Roger Ebert

Another gathering was on Twitter and the #TCMParty for their recent screening of the 1969 film, Oh, What a Lovely War, during TCM's month-long salute to WW1 films. It is the first film Richard Attenborough directed, bringing the 1963 stage revue of the same name (except for dropping the musical's exclamation mark) produced by Joan Littlewood & her Theatre Workshop to the screen.


The film is a fantastical re-imagining of the stage revue, kicking out the confines of the stage into cinema's fullest power. I found it completely riveting. It is the visualization of a nation adjusting its cultural memory, its national identity, fifty years after the horror.  Much of the action takes place on the pier and pavilion at quintessentially English Brighton, which starts as a fanfare for the Edwardian visitors and slowly gets darker and more sardonic in tone, including the appearance of a cricket board tallying the deaths on the Somme and Passchendale day by day, with the ground (rarely) gained. 

Another connection for me was finding Roger Ebert's original 1969 review of the film when it popped up in a general Google search for the film. He gave it fours stars.

 It's a mistake to review "Oh! What a Lovely War" as a movie. It isn't one, but it is an elaborately staged tableau, a dazzling use of the camera to achieve essentially theatrical effects. And judged on that basis, Richard Attenborough has given us a breathtaking evening.

As a student of WW1, I found it very moving to hear his own connection to the history:

"Like most people, I know World War I at second or third hand, through such sources as Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That." The most dramatic point Graves makes is that the war almost literally exterminated the generation that would have ruled Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Something like 90 per cent of the field officers were killed on some fronts.

And so this tragic event sank into the bones of the British memory. America, which came into the war rather late and sustained much lighter casualties, could afford the luxury of a "lost generation" in the 1920s. England literally lost her generation; it was dead and buried, and we seem to see it beneath the countless crosses stretching out behind John Mills in the last, stunning graveyard shot in "Oh! What a Lovely War."


As always, his whole review is worth reading.



The stage revue was based on a radio program by Charles Chilton, from 1961. He never knew his father, who died in the Great War, and he wrote a musical documentary in his memory that layered facts and figures about the war within a scripted story,  surrounded by songs of the period. The statistics of the deaths are staggering, and in this form, they were so clear and easy to understand, perhaps for the first time for the nation.

The visuals of Littlewood's film made the juxtaposition of the slaughter with jaunty songs even more powerful than on radio. And so the film is often credited with contributing to the shift in the British cultural memory in the 1960s from a general support for WW1 (though never reaching the "popular" stasis of WW2) to seeing it as an enormous, generation-destroying, soul-crushing catastrophe.

The film is a who's who of British actors: Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Corin Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, Paul Shelley, Malcolm McFee, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Nanette Newman, Edward Fox, Susannah York, John Clements, Phyllis Calvert, and Maurice Roëves.

Pauline Kael did not very much like Oh, What a Lovely War, calling it a "big, heavy anti-war musical in the pukka-sahib tradition of English moviemaking," along with a swipe at Attenborough, who "has a stately, measured approach--just way the 50 musical numbers don't need."




I don't agree. I found it an engrossing tribute to the British nation coming to terms--50 years after the slaughter--with the slaughter and how it plays into their national identity.

The final scene is a helicopter shot of thousands of crosses on a green field. Oddly, they did not go to one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries in Europe for it.  Wiki tells us instead that they put the crosses up on hills around Brighton. It's an extraordinary shot,  done "for real" with no CGI.

Something like this cultural reckoning will need to happen in Ukraine. Russia. Israel. Gaza. Syria. and too, too many other places, in the decades to come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jim Rockford: My Last Innocent Girlhood Crush



Where the generation before me found daydream crushes in the leading men of the movies, my girlhood stirrings founds their objects of desire squarely on TV.

I fell for my first three when their prime-time shows from the 1960s were shown in syndication in the 1970s, and my older brother and I watched TV together in the playroom as I roller skated during the commercials.



My crushers were: Captain Lee Crane, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; James West, The Wild, Wild, West; and Captain Kirk, Star Trek. I had an active nighttime fantasy life around each of these characters, spinning my own stories of our daring feats together. I even had some crossover episodes, where Captain Kirk and I beamed into the Seaview, and he and Lee Crane would fight over me. (Maybe I should follow my friend Lynn Messina into writing Romance novels. Hmm.)

By the time The Rockford Files came on, I was old enough to stay up and watch it in prime time with the family, and so it took on a deeper emotional dimension in general, but my daydreams about Jim Rockford were still my own personal joy.

The attraction of course was felt by legions and has been well articulated. Both character and actor were handsome, witty, dry sense of humor, smart, and capable. In my personal series of The Rockford Files, I modeled my look on Gretchen Corbett, who played Jim's lawyer and sometimes girlfriend, but my character was a private detective, like him. Because he wasn't married and had no children, it was easy to spin stories of us working together without destroying the narrative of the series [not that I had this structural vocabulary yet] and the romance that naturally ensued. You see, I really understood his inner hurt and pain, and could bring a warmth to the trailer that he secretly yearned for . . . .

The series itself was so very hip and visionary in many ways: using the new technology of the answering machine in the credits; the very look of the credits with the freeze frame photos and quick cutting, which still looked fresh and innovative when Homicide: Life on the Street credits used a similar sensibility 20 years later!

The whole focus on the father/son relationship 20 years before Fraiser, when adult children living with parents and vice verse became a cultural reality. Rockford didn't live with Rocky, but the series focus on their relationship was unique, with an authenticity that made it compelling.

The mad, 70s plaid jacket. Garner made it look good as few men could.

There were a few earlier touchstones before Rockford. I went with my brother to see Support Your Local Sheriff in the theater, and as a family we had watched The Thrill of It All on TV.  So I had an idea who James Garner was when The Rockford Files came on.

But TV has that power of intimacy. In your home. Every week. And that's how my guys filled my fantasies, as serialized, episodic daydreams.

I was "over" Rockford by the time the great Polaroid commercials with Mariette Harley started in 1978, but of course loved their banter as TV's best couple. Bruce Weber's appreciation in the NY Times got one thing horribly wrong:

"One of his most memorable roles was as a perpetually flummoxed pitchman for Polaroid cameras in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in droll commercials in which he played a vexed husband and Mariette Hartley played his needling wife."

He was decidedly NOT flummoxed. His voice is always measured and declarative for The One-Shot, and vexed is far too strong a word.

Weber does offer Garner's very best line about his approach to acting:

“I’m a Methodist but not as an actor,” he wrote in The Garner Files. “I’m from the Spencer Tracy school: be on time, know your words, hit your marks, and tell the truth."

* * * * *

There were just a few other fantasy dreams after Jim Rockford: briefly Remington Steele and Sony Crockett in particular. Life and men had gotten real, which was exciting and sometimes disappointing at the same time, and there was less time for daydreaming.

But Jim Rockford was the last of my innocent girlhood crushes, something I hadn't thought about in years until today's news. I'm so lucky. It couldn't have been with a nicer guy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

July 8, 1822, and the Burning, Reckless Heart of Shelley

It is to-day a hundred years since that sultry afternoon when Edward John Trelawny, aboard Byron’s schooner-yacht Bolivar, fretted anxiously in Leghorn Harbour and watched the threatening sky. The thunderstorm that broke about half-past six lasted only twenty minutes, but it was long enough to drown both Shelley and his friend Williams. . . .
  Christopher Morley The Powder of Sympathy


One of my favorite finds from a used book store is Christopher Morley's The Powder of Sympathy, a 1923 collection of essays from this true man of letters, and the godfather of bloggers.

The title of one essay is simply "July 8, 1822," the date that Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Tuscany. Morley was struck that 1922 was 100 years hence, and decided to commemorate the date of the great Romantic poet's death by copying out part of Edward John Trelawny's description of the cremation of Shelley's body on the Italian coast from his indispensable Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And so I follow suit, on our July 8, 2014.  It is quite a graphic description, so let's  pick it up with

Byron could not face the scene; he withdrew to the beach and swam off to the Bolivar. Leigh Hunt remained in the carriage. The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to redue its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some framents of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all, was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt. 

Morely in 1922 was able to say “There are those still living who have shaken the hard, quick hand that snatched Shelley’s heart from the coals.”

We in 2014 can make no claim. Trelawny gave the heart to Mary Shelley, and it was found among her things when she died and buried with her at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth. So while Shelley ashes are over in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, his heart is in England.

Morley's other personal commemoration was to reread Francis Thompson’s essay entitled “Shelley,” “which remains in our memory as a prismatic dazzle of metaphor.” That’s one thing to call it. Francis Thompson is an odd, ascetic figure on the literary landscape whom I wrote about because he is on the list of Jack the Ripper suspects. His Shelley essay is here [God bless the Gutenberg Project and all who partake.]  It is dense, baroque, almost insanely passionate, and brilliant.

Shelley’s work has, of course, inspired great passion from the actual greats. Here is Yeats: “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”


Morely muses upon a weekend meditation on Shelley and "what he still means to us."  A fair question in 1922, even moreso in 2014. What Morely did not have in his day was epic television. Yeats was brought into the pop culture consciousness through The Sopranos and A.J. studying "The Second Coming" at college. And Shelley's "Ozymandias" had a huge resurgence because Moira Walley-Beckett built season 5, episode 14 of Breaking Bad around it. These guys were cultural rebels, I think they would have liked this eschalon of TV, breathing new life and generations into their work.

But on this 192nd anniversary of Shelley's death by drowning, "Ozymandias" and its decay is not the voice to listen to. It's Morley himself, in his closing thought about the poet and what he brings into our lives:

"Though lulled long ago by the blue Mediterranean, that burning, reckless heart survives to us little corrupted by time--survives as a symbol of poetic energy superior to the common routines of life."

And we'll follow Yeats into Prometheus Unbound to see that burning, feverish heart for a momentary break from our daily routine:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

(Top image: Famous, but factually flawed painting of The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier; my picture of Shelley's grave in Rome. Updated from an earlier post.)

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sun Also Rises on The Festival of San Fermin: aka The Running of the Bulls



Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think that I am very much impressed by that as a as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly  to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.        The Sun Also Rises

The big news this year for San Fermin aficionados is the upcoming release of a new edition of The Sun Also Rises, first  published in 1926, with Hemingway's alternate opening. Not with Robert Cohn, as above, but, as Patricia Cohen in the NYTimes explained: "Originally, Hemingway began his tale of the Lost Generation by introducing its beautiful and heartsick embodiment, Brett Ashley: 'This is a novel about a lady.' ”

Wow. That would have put a whole different perspective on this post World War 1 tale of searing hopelessness.

Each generation finds The Sun Also Rises, which limns the fervor of the Festival of San Fermin as experienced by the brittle, crushed, shredded souls who lived through the Great War. Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley & crew are always talking about water of some sort—to bathe, to drink, to quench the bottomless thirst for humanity & connection that was destroyed in the trenches. They are the Lost Generation, which doesn't seem as much of a cliche this year, the centennial of the start of World War 1, when attention is focused on just how devastating that world event was.

The Feast Is Not in Honor of Bulls
The festival's roots are in Roman times. Wiki tells us:

Fermin is said to have been the son of a Roman of senatorial rank in Pamplona in the 3rd century, who was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus, a disciple of Saint Saturninus. According to tradition, he was baptised by Saturninus (in Navarra "San Cernin") at the spot now known as the Pocico de San Cernin, the "Small Well of San Cernin." There is no written record of veneration in Pamplona of the Saint until the 12th century. Saint Fermin, as well as Saint Francis Xavier, are now the two patrons of Navarre.

Bullrunning appears in 17th and 18th century chronicles together with the presence of foreigners and the first concerns on the excessive drinking and dissolute behavior during the event. The Giant's Parade was created by the end in the mid of the 19th century. The first official bullring was constructed in 1844. 


Here is a schedule of these year's ceremonies that are held from July 6 to 14. The "run" started because bulls to fight in the evening were kept in off-site corrals, and had to get from point A to point B.  Good overview article in Newsweek.

I Happen Upon Pamplona, Iruna in Basque
In 2002 I did a tour in Spain & Portugal performing with a small acapella group from the Upper West Side.  I knew the itinerary included singing at Santiago de Compostela and the Bilbao Guggenheim (where I had to suffer the Jeff Koons Puppy in person).

I did not know that some of the group was planning to get up at 4:00 am to drive over from San Sebastian,  Donostia in Basque, and I went along.

This was quite a journey for me. The Sun Also Rises startled, rattled, and rocked my college world. And now I was making my way through the endless sea of red and white, looking for the sophisticates of Jake and Lady Brett, only to find hordes and hordes of drunk English college boys.

My friends and I didn’t even try to see the actual run, but went to the bullring, where they enter at the end of the three minute run.

We found good seats right above the door of the ring, and saw the bulls charge in at incredible speeds to a deafening roar from the crowd. The pulse of the entire scene is enormous. Blood is hot and pumping everywhere. When the fever of the run is over, there is a playful time with baby bulls and cows in the ring. The sun rises further and further, and it gets hotter and hotter still until you find a cool wineskin to drink from.

I got separated from my friends amidst the pandemonium of leaving the bullring. I made my way through the narrow, stone streets packed with people moving in every direction at once. I managed to break through a particularly bad body jam, turned a corner, and was amazed to see 6 Gigantes--30 feet figures of a Moor, an Indian, a King and Queen--literally towering over the chaos, with a majestic stillness and quietness. It was eerie and beautiful, medieval and carnival all together.

The Festival of San Fermin is so much more than the bulls. It is a mélange of folklore and Catholicism--people go to the main Mass each day, and the procession of the saint is important. I was struck by how many families were there. The Basques and the Spanish are very elegant people, with strong family bonds.

Everything about Pamplona shouts of life and it takes on the inherent difficulties of the human condition: like the crazy hubris to goad and run with bulls to the darker side of cruelty to animals. I can't defend bullfighting, but I believe in primal forces, not all of which can be "civilized" or intellectualized out of humanity. And, no one ever said humanity is smart. 15 runners have died since they started keeping records, in 1923.

Hemingway took it all in, and couldn't let it go. He did what he could: he wrote to underscore the frailty of our lives:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”



(My photos of The Feast of San Fermin, Pamplona)