Friday, September 23, 2011

Libra’s National Holiday

It’s Autumnal Equinox day! To most people that means equal length of day and night. Of course it’s much more complicated than that, but at the least it’s when the sun “appears to cross the celestial equator from south to north.”

The sense of evenness, of balance, is the cornerstone of most new age therapies (followed closely by fighting “inflammation”).

For we Librans— born under the stars that are The Scales--balance is in our DNA. We strive for peace and harmony and evenness. We like when things even out, and are no longer off keel, out of kilter (keel I know from sailing, but what is a kilter?) Making the time of equal light and equal light our national holiday.

The Even Steven of “The Opposite”

Leave it to Seinfeld to bring this idea to the quartet. The subtheme of the classic “Opposite” episode---where George finds success by doing everything the opposite of who he is and what he does—is Jerry, Mr. Even Steven.

Jerry: “Yesterday I lost a job, and then I got another one, and then I missed a TV show, and later on they re-ran it. And then today I missed a train, went outside and caught a bus. It never fails! I always even out!”

Kramer to Jerry: "You know who you are? Even Steven."

Jerry: “Elaine, don't get too down. Everything will even out. See, I have two friends. You were up, he was down. Now he's up, you're down. You see how it all evens out for me?”

Jerry Seinfeld the comedian is an Aires. I couldn’t find a birth day for the character, but I’d bet he’s a Libra.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Great War & Modern Memory: The Sublime Gash of War Horse

"Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Millions were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress."
Paul Fussell

I entered college with an attachment to the First World War, if that’s what you can call it, because of T.E.Lawrence. I had read through Seven Pillars of Wisdom in high school and fallen under its heady romantic spell. Lawrence was a gifted writer who embodied the English literary tradition from the inside, and he wrote his own mythology simply because he could: he knew the power of the trope and how to wield it (and saw an opportunity in the newsreels of his own personal Barnum, Lowell Thomas).

To my Freshmen amazement, there was a class on World War One Literature, taught by Paul Fussell, based on his own National Book Award-winning The Great War and Modern Memory. It’s a cultural study/close reading of the literary tradition before WW1—particularly poetry--- and how it changed during and in relation to the war. We didn’t study Lawrence, but I discovered the vast and profound literature of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, John Keegan, and Bernard Bergonzi.

All of which came to mind at a recent performance of War Horse at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

The Western Front

The play is an adaptation of a children’s book written by Michael Morpurgo and published in the UK in 1982. Morpurgo knew a WWI veteran from his local pub who had been in the Devon Yeomanry and worked with horses. He wrote the book to tell of the experience of the last war with substantial cavalry forces, and all the suffering modern warfare brought to man and beast alike.

And so the story of Albert, a boy from a poor farm family, and Joey, the horse he raises from a foal amid a tangle of family tensions and sadness. His dad sells Joey into the army, and when the captain who promised he would look after Joey is killed, Albert runs away to France and joins the Yeomentry to find him.

The play is engaging on many levels. The puppetry of the horses is as spectacular as everyone says it is. It doesn’t take long before you don’t even “see” the talented puppeteers. The story draws you in, although in the second act it devolves into clichés, and the French mother and child are shrill and painfully overacted. The battle scenes are compelling, with their flashes of painfully bright lights and seriously loud shell explosions.

But for me, the piercing artistic element is Rae Smith’s gash of a rear projection screen that hovers above the action.

The Rend in History

On her website Smith calls the screen shape a “torn page,” referencing the sketchbook of Captain Nicholls, who draws Joey. Sketches of the town and the farm are projected there as scenery, as well as more abstract images for the shell explosions (which one critic saw as Vorticism echoing the short-lived literary magazine, BLAST).

But it’s so much more than that, even if not by conscious design. It symbolizes the great gaping gash in the universe that was World War One, which cut the 20th century off from the rest of history. The carnage was so unspeakable—-from the use of gas warfare to the 500,000 who died in the mud of Passchendale--that civilization shattered.

Artists captured that shatter, not always consciously, but simply because it was real. T.S. Eliot reflects the rupture in The Waste Land: April is no longer the sweetest month (Chaucer) but the cruelest, breeding lilacs out of the dead. Voices are adrift; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Hemingway knew that language could no longer be trusted, language that once talked of the glory of dying for your country. He could use no adjectives, no adverbs, just safe, simple words. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

And so that piece of stagecraft is a startling visual, in the 21st century, of where we have been. It’s the rend in the universe we are all still suffering from. I felt comforted that this concept was an element in the play. In the middle of one of the battle scenes that gash is filled with a projection of enormous poppies. It's a beautiful visual moment.

Who’s War Was It Anyway?

Who'll sing the anthem and who'll tell the story?
Will the line hold? Will it scatter and run?
Will we at last be united in glory?
Only remembered for what we have done

I first saw War Horse in London, in the West End in July 2009. As the second act battle scenes come to a close, I kept waiting for some reference to the American troops. Not a whole scene, just a line of dialogue about the Yanks coming over. Just some nod that something happened between the battles in France and Armistice Day.

But there was nothing. This struck me as bad history at the least, and a terrible cultural snub at worst. Especially in a play that opens with a man singing “Who’ll tell the story? Only remembered for what we have done.” So this story does not remember the American allies.

The forgetting goes beyond the play. Last year before the 2012 London Olympics I wrote about my recent experiences of Englishmen of a certain age honestly not knowing the Americans fought in World War 1, offering a photo of King George pinning a medal on an American Doughboy, and the list of the 8 American World War 1 cemeteries in France, Belgium, and England.

Paul Fussell offers some explanation for this cultural blind spot in an intro he wrote for the 25th anniversary edition of his Great War & Modern Memory in 2000. He was commenting on the reception his book was given twenty-five years earlier:

“From England came evidence of further annoyance at my book. There, some readers seemed to feel that no American has a right to probe into what they regard as their business.”

National identity is a deep-seeded construct. Tribal feelings can only be “civilized” out of us so far. That’s something I can respect.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Why I Want to Remember

Because the tales of the few survivors from near the impact zones are harrowing beyond belief. The 911 tapes released reveal the desperate, terrified people calling for help, screaming about the heat and the flames and the smoke, begging for someone to “come get us,” until they succumbed to the fire or died when the towers collapsed.

Because the tales of people who weren’t killed on impact had to choose——try to go higher in the buildings because they couldn’t breathe or battle to walk down-—and too many chose to go up and walked to their certain death.

Of course there are layers and layers of issues and reality to “9/11.” And the cultural personification of all of that can sometimes be bewildering, tedious, crass, empty-feeling.

But none of that is important. All that matters is remembering, as best we can, that so many of the nearly 3,000 had the agony of knowing they were in mortal danger---whether trapped in an airplane hijacked by terrorists, or in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon--with absolutely no preparation or context, and they died violently, into oblivion. So few bodies were recovered from any of the attack areas.

Our brothers and sisters were murdered for no other reason than that they worked in one of the world’s great symbols of freedom.

We simply can’t remember these people enough.

Rest in peace.

(Flag from back page of NYTimes from Sept. 16, 2001)

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

My Own Open Window: The Literary Meets the Culinary

“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn."

Nowhere does our inner sensibility get such an intriguing expression than in the furnishings of our home. It’s a part of human nature that Restoration Hardware, West Elm, and Pottery Barn have codified for the middle class in a multimillion dollar industry.

I needed to update my small, UWS galley kitchen. I had resurfaced the cabinets and countertops 5 years ago, so this was just cosmetic: the wallpaper was peeling, the light fixture was cracked, the floor was yellowed from it original 1984 setting.

Wallpaper is an under-sung tool in the home decorator’s arsenal. By enveloping you with a pattern or a scene, a color or a texture, it has the power to set a tone and a mood. Originated in the ancient rice papers of China in 200 B.C., it grew in Europe alongside the rise of papermaking and woodcuts, with a guild of paperhangers first established in France in 1599.

The variety of today’s wallpapers is dazzling beyond description.

But from the moment I knew I was going to clean up my kitchen, I had a vision of what that wallpaper needed to be: a mural at the end of the galley kitchen to look like French doors opening onto a garden, with a sense of vines on the wall of a conservatory (like in Clue, not Oberlin).

It’s the fantasy that my imagination wanted to see. I don’t have a country house, and am not likely ever to. But I can transform some of the space that I do have to evoke that idea, which is a yearning of my sensibility.

And I know that Saki’s beguiling short story, The Open Window——which made a huge impression on me as a child——helped to inspire this vision.

As the “very self-possessed young lady of fifteen” narrates her little tale about her poor aunt . . .

“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back.

“In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.”

Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. ‘Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk.’

They can walk through my kitchen now any time, as can countless other figments of my imagination.

Saki's story has a wonderful twist that I won't give away. It's very short, I hope you'll read it. The Open Window