Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Snapshots of A Child's Christmas in Massapequa

There's a whole literature of vibrant writing from writers looking back to the Christmases of their childhood for memoir or fiction.

My favorite is Dylan Thomas's wildly florid prose poem of A Child's Christmas in Wales:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

Dylan's writing is so exuberant it lead me to search for some memories of my own childhood Christmases . . .

years and years ago when the GI Bill first lead to the burgeoning of middle class suburbia outside of Gotham, and the next generation reaped the benefits of prosperity within its sprawl. A split level house meant having a staircase to bound down on Christmas morning. The anticipation of walking down those stairs made us all giddy.  As we descended, the living room came into view, dotted with brightly wrapped presents piled high in specific spots for each family member. It was a magical sight and the joys of the day were those that would never be matched again in quite the same way.

Katherine Anne Porter wrote the lovely "A Christmas Story"

When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. She had asked when she was three and when she was four, and each time had listened with a shining, believing face, learning the songs and gazing enchanted at the pictures which I displayed as proof of my stories. Nothing could have been more successful, so I began once more confidently to recite in effect the following:
    The feast in the beginning was meant to celebrate with joy the birth of a Child, an event of such importance to this world that angels sang from the skies in human language, to announce it and even, if we may believe the old painters, came down with garlands in their hands and danced on the broken roof of the cattle shed where He was born.


I shared my Christmases with my only sibling, an older brother. His presents were of no interest to me--a virtual litany of trucks, cars, trains, army men, model airplanes-- but we still were supposed to wait to watch each open one present at a time, so our parent's attention could focus on each of us, ping-pong like. There were some things he got before I was old enough to open presents that I liked, including styrofoam building blocks that you could build an igloo with and then get inside.

We don't know here that he will one day have his own family of two girls and a boy to share Christmases with and I could be the aunt in Porter's story.

Charles Lamb wrote an Elia story that also comes to my mind this time of year:

CHILDREN love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, . . .

We too liked to hear stories of our elders. Grandma O. told of one Christmas Eve she saw a spider on the ceiling, and thinking it was bad to kill a creature on such a night she let it live, and the family went out to Midnight Mass. When they came back, the spider had given birth and there were dozens of baby spiders "dropping all over the place" as she told it. That was too much for her and she got the broom.

We didn't sit upon our dear old dad's lap often, but this one Christmas Eve he wanted to read us "Twas the night before Christmas," and mom captured the scene that is so real it looks like a scripted movie set: the roaring fire, the stockings hung with care, the wreath, the hand-made paper chains lining the fireplace, the post war paneling and Eames-inspired chair and ottoman. 

We don't know here that my dad will die an early death from colon cancer, or that I will have more in common with Elia's tale of his Revery: Dream-Children than I would want:

"We [Alice and John] are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name”—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor armchair . . ."

But there has been music. More music than I ever could have imagined.

For Dylan Thomas too, who closes his tale with this:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Merry Christmas, One and All.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Everyone's Favorite Second Mrs. de Winter, and Much More

December 15, 2013 was the last day on earth for two Hollywood legends, Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine. I felt a connection to the O'Toole because of my high school love of T.E.Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom. My connection to Joan Fontaine is through my parents.

Impressionistic memories swirl of my mother reciting that famous first line of Dauphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" . . .  My father buying me 2 Dauphne du Maurier novels, Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel, both important to read. When I finally saw the films, there was Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter with Laurence Olivier as her Maxim, and then there was her sister, Olivia de Havilland as Rachel Ashley, along with Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut in 1952 My Cousin Rachel. I always loved that the siblings were a matched set for for these two great novels, in spite of their own longstanding feud. (Joan also starred in the less successful 1944 film Frenchmen's Creek, wonderfully articulated by Farran Nehme as Self-Styled Siren, based on another great DuMaurier novel.)

Bringing to life a character who has no first name is a particular challenge.  Every note of Joan's performance in Rebecca is stellar, from the girl paid companion, to the unsure bride, to the chew toy for Mrs. Danvers, to the sleuth who insists on working through all the little clues. Her Mrs. de Winter is like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett---you can't imagine anyone else in the role---except much more quietly.

My father had a crush on Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when he was a boy, Joan was in the later swashbuckler Ivanhoe. . . My father could recite most of Kipling's Gunga Din by memory, and Joan was in the classic 1939 film.

Joan won her Oscar for Best Actress in 1941 for her Linda in Hitchcock's Suspicion, another timid bride, this time trying to suss out if her husband is trying to kill her. For me Cary Grant's performance as Johnnie is the more compelling one, but either way Joan got to be associated with the most sinister milk in film history, and I love that.

The panoply of characters that the sisters brought to life is extraordinary.  And they played against some of Hollywood's greatest leading men: Joan got Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.;, Olivia got Errol Flynn, Richard Burton, Montgomery Cliff. That's a lot of sibling connection to the golden age of Hollywood.

Joan also made a crazy movie with Billy Wilder, costarring Bing Crosby, called The Emperor's Waltz (1948). It did not turn out the way Wilder intended, and Joan said that Crosby wasn't very courteous to her, and seemed to not know who she was. But it adds a lovely bauble to her overall career.

Variety said the film "has a free-and-easy air that perfectly matches the Crosby style of natural comedy. Costar Joan Fontaine, better known for heavy, serious roles, demonstrates adaptability that fits neatly into the lighter demands and she definitely scores with charm and talent as the Crosby foil." In the clip below, a skeptical Fontaine dares Bing to sing ("The Kiss in Your Eyes").

It is a privilege to have gown up with an appreciation of this film work, and the connected memories.

Peter O'Toole--a "dangerous man"--Leaves the Stage. Now for Eternity.

I wrote this post in 2007 when Peter O'Toole earned what would be his last Oscar nomination, for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, which he would not win. This looks at his deep affinity for that first role of Lawrence of Arabia and for T.E. Lawrence himself. Requiescat in Pace.

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”

So wrote T.E.Lawrence in the introductory chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Peter O’Toole could have written it about his own acting:

All men act, but not equally. . . .
Those who act by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the actors of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

 Like Gable as Rhett Butler, O’Toole as the strange, enigmatic Lawrence was a feat of casting that allowed sensibility—as best we can articulate it—to be embodied. Tall and stunning, he is clearly an idealization of the short, average-looking Lawrence. But he wasn’t actually portraying the man—he was giving life to the deeply lyrical nature of the Lawrence of Seven Pillars. And in the tradition of mythic characterization, O’Toole’s extreme beauty served that purpose well.

Roger Ebert once called O’Toole a strange actor, and he is. His elegance, charm, and aristocratic manner have a discomfiting side in a way that Ricard Burton, Peter Finch, and Richard Harris did not. Sensualists all, O’Toole exudes a unique combination of generic hedonism and British eccentricity of the intellectual kind.

It’s not surprising, then, that the actor eccentric became obsessed (his own word) with the military one (I was stuck there myself for a bit, once upon a time). E.M. Forester called Seven Pillars  “a masterpiece.”  David Garnett wrote,  “As a writer, one of T.E.’s most striking qualities is his relationship with language. He uses English, both in his original writing and in his translation of The Odyssey, as an inventor, or a self-trained mechanic uses familiar materials and tools for quite new purposes. He is completely free from affectation. . . . This gives his style an astonishing, unexpected richness, which is yet the furthest removed from the sought-after richness of a Pater.”

Beyond the achievement of SP lies a universe of interesting people: Robert Graves, Bernard Shaw, B. Liddell Hart, Churchill, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Garnett, Jonathan Cape—the list is long, and particularly literary. For anyone with such yearnings, O’Toole included, it’s intoxicating.

And that’s in addition to the psychological quagmire, which can tantalize.

Lawrence was the illegitimate son of the Anglo-Irish Sir Thomas Chapman of County Westmeath and his governess, Sarah Lawrence.  Chapman left his first wife and four daughters and moved to Wales with Sarah as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, where Thomas Edward was born. The Lawrences eventually settled in Oxford, with five sons.

Those who have seen Lawrence of Arabia know the basic outline of how Lawrence became involved with the Arab Revolt. What's not covered in the film is where/how he came to be on that motorcycle that caused his early death at 46.

 After Lawrence returned to England, he reenlisted in the RAF under the name John Hume Ross, about which he wrote a short, startling memoir called The Mint (not published until 1955), best known for its vivid passage of extreme motorcycling. Lawrence’s true identity was shortly found out and he was discharged. He was then formally permitted to enlist in the tank corps under the name T.E. Shaw, and then to transfer back to the RAF, where he served from 1925 to March 1935, two months before his death, (which was three years after Peter Seamus was born in Ireland). It is a tortured, remarkable story, from every angle. He was not ordinary. “All right, I’m extra-ordinary.”

And so the little-known English actor from Ireland took it all on. His performance is informed by this knowledge. It hits the right spirit and tone, and it’s knowing and comfortable with its subject in an intimate way. Both Lawrence and O’Toole are Celtic souls in an English world—both loved language deeply and were unique, natural masters of it. They had many communions.

Nonetheless, O’Toole lost out to the Gregory Peck's quiet Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, and six times more. Now he is nominated for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, the custom-fit role that has been described as creepy and “still” masterful.

Maurice has elegance and wit and a love of literature and its offshoot, acting. He also insists on the pleasures of the flesh to the end—however it needs to happen. O’Toole is at ease in that “dirty old man” place, seeming to like a raw counterpoint to the frou-frou but sweet dancing in the church (a wink to The Stuntman?)

O’Toole chose a role that demands that we not just swoon over his ascots and sonnet speak—the bread and butter of his own life—but that we acknowledge and accept the side of the life force that does not quench “respectably” with age. I always had the feeling that flaunting his outré side throughout his career buffered him from feeling contempt for being so damnably adored.

The son of the bookie has been lobbying heavily recently, and the Irish bookmakers are upping his odds to win. A friend’s brother saw him at the nominee’s luncheon, and insists he was wearing heavy white powered make-up to look even more cadaverous so the Academy would say, oh, he’s going to die soon, give him the Oscar. “Yes sir, that’s my baby,” as Arthur Kennedy said in the film Lawrence of Arabia when TE's showmanship was flashing.

But the films. His body of work is the real thing. His stage work is masterful (except for that MacBeth). He is extra-ordinary. It may be that the Oscars can only measure degrees of excellence between the ordinary actors, not the dangerous ones. Too bad for Peter.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The New Yorker: Rea Irvin Covering the Season for Us.

"New York City is the capital of the American Christmas. The Puritan settlements to the north banned the holiday as Popish and pagan; and so it was, descended from the ancient Roman solstitial Saturnalia."

Thus saith John Updike in his foreward to Christmas at the New Yorker, a compendium of thematic stories, poems, humor, and art since its 1925 founding. It is a terrific book, a veritable universe of stellar writing from Thurber, Perelman, Mencken, Nabokov, Keillor, and so on.

The Puritans didn’t get their way, and so we continued to have the annual December celebrations, for some connected to the birth of Christ, but for many, not.

The weekly covers of The New Yorker---a cultural epicenter of the capital of the American Christmas--are haikus on the spectrum of the season, from the holy to the wholly kitsch.

Some of the most appealing are from Rea Irvin, the father of Eustace Tilley himself. Born in San Francisco in 1881, he had an extraordinary range of styles and visions but is not referenced much these days.

Here is Emily Gordon on Irvin, from a 2008 article in Print: "Despite his pivotal role in defining The New Yorker in its earliest years, Irvin has not garnered the attention given to his editorial counterparts, and much of his life and work remain a mystery." Wiki tells us that he died at the ripe old age of 90, in 1972, in Frederiksted, Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Irvin's Christmas Covers
The cover up top is one of my favorite: A chic turn on Gloria, In Excelsis Deo, hovering above what might be Palm Beach of the 1930s. Since he died on St. Croix, I like to think he got his vision for seeing that chic archangel.

Next I like the roaring twenties (1925), toy Daddy Fat Cat plying the Toy Ballerina with pearls, one of those hints of the adult world that ebbed and flowed over the years in the magazine.

Then there is a pair of strange Santa depictions. 1926 speaks to the universal need for Santa, with ethnically diverse men all sporting Santa hats and fake beards. A very global vision for its day.


1931 brings a disturbing, hulking Kris Kringle, menacing what I imagine is a "nonbeliever in Santa" while he sleeps with a garish, serpent-like toy. Some tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear. Let’s leave it at that.

1932 brought a trio of angels bearing tokens of Wall Street: a banker's tie, box of cigars, and basket of cash. Their upward gaze suggests they are entreating the Higher Power with these early gifts, which is a little chilling given the Crash of 1929 and Great Depression with so many people's lives ruined. 

1944 saw a somber cover for a readership still at war.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's an Angry Life: Capra's Confounding Holiday Classic

Several years ago Dan Eisenberg of put out a call for a one-day Blog-a-thon, when those things were happening, on It’s a Wonderful Life. He wanted people to either explain what all the fuss is about, or agree that it could be added to Mary and Yale’s Academy of the Overrated, (joining Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Karl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman).

Oh, the fuss is well deserved.

I love him, dear Lord. Watch over
him tonight.

Please, God. Something's the matter
with Daddy.

Please bring Daddy back.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells a story that would exist whether Philip Van Doren Stern had ever written his 1943 short story it's based on, “The Greatest Gift,” or not. It’s part of being a sentient person to wonder what would things be like if you weren’t here, either from your death now, or backdating the idea to never being on the planet.

But what raises it up to a great film is its earthiness and common-sense sensibility. It draws situations with just a few strokes that have deep resonance for the experience of the solid middle class after World War II and following generations, like the family dinner scene before the high school graduation dance, the father’s fatigue at working at a job he doesn’t like, and George’s ideas of getting out: “I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world.”

But most importantly, it captures the anger that lies just beneath the surface of so much of “nice” domestic life, a byproduct of all the primal life forces held in a precarious balance for family life to be possible at all.

Jimmy Stewart’s performance is strong throughout, and his anger is particularly convincing in various scenes.

In the phone call scene with Mary he portrays “panic of commitment” without cliché.

Script direction:
George can stand it no longer. He drops the phone with a crash grabs Mary by the shoulders and shakes her. Mary begins to cry.

“Now you listen to me. I don't want any plastics and I don't want any ground floors. And I don't want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”

He’s angry and his sexual energy is dangerous as he’s drawn to Mary, his lust overwhelming his wanderlust. This is not a sentimental vignette. It is a clear-eyed look at one of the age-old realities of civilization: men don’t particularly want to participate.

George’s anger at Uncle Billy when he discovers the money has been lost is sharp: “Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me.”

When George gets home he isn’t able to tell Mary what’s happened, he can only RAGE against the pedestrian details of his life: the broken banister, the kid banging on the piano, how cold the house is, the teacher who sent ZuZu home sick.

He is a hulking presence, terrorizing the family with his anger:

Mary (in an outburst) “George, why must you torture the children?”

That’s when George runs out of the house and to his appointed destiny with Clarence.

Is Daddy in trouble?

Shall I pray for him?

Yes, Janie, pray very hard.

Me, too?

You too, Tommy.
(on phone)
Hello, Uncle Billy?

George’s sojourn in the universe where he never existed is carefully plotted, and the details are deep. The town is ugly and the people mean and crass. He finds his mother is a harsh, suspicious landlady and Mary a withered, mousy woman. Mr. Gower is a rummy child murderer, his brother is in the cemetery and by extension, all the men in the transport because his brother wasn’t there to save them. The dots are strongly connected, and his actual impact on these lives is clear. Again, I see no mawkish sentiment here.

George’s nightmare is short-lived, as he returns to the bridge and prays to live again: "I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again."

The snow returns and he is back to his life. My favorite part is him running through the town; it is the perfect visualization of a feeling of unbridled hope and joy. For the moment, anger—-which is fueled by the maddening details of life and experience-- is banished by the desire for life itself.

I think it is an excellent film. I think if Clarence’s line “Ridiculous of you to think of killing yourself for money,” helps one person gain perspective and stop from hurting themselves when things are grim, then it’s more than an excellent film. And I like its realistic depiction of prayer. It reminds us that we don’t know how grace works, but people have experienced its power, and so it should show up occasionally in our cinema lives in a real way.

Here’s a great gift from Imdb: the whole script is online.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Two Murders of John, Across the Universe, That Changed the World

There’s a cosmic intersection between John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, besides both being named John and both being murdered by guns. I first noticed it during the Paley Center for Media’s documentary festival in 2010. Its October lineup opened with two films about John Lennon: the bio pic Nowhere Boy, and the new American Masters documentary, LENNONYC; and it closed with a new film from cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew, In the Company of JFK, a compilation from four of his extraordinary films about Kennedy, with startling footage from the unprecedented access he was given .

These films were chosen for their subject matter and obvious merits. It was just happenstance that it meant the festival was bookended by two of the most culturally important murders of the 20th century.

Then, on November 22, 2010, on the 47th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, PBS premierd LENNONYC nationally, bringing the two deaths near each other again. It’s as though the universe itself still needs to reconcile the violent, early death of these two icons of the last century who meant so much to so many people.

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world

John, Pre & Post Beatle

The two Lennon films were to honor the 70th anniversary of his birth on October 9, 1940 and acknowledge the 30th anniversary of his death on December 8, 1980. The bio pic Nowhere Boy takes a lot of poetic license, but the Quarrymen who were at the Paley Center screening said that it captured the essence of their teenage years together, rising from a skiffle band to rock & roll. LENNONYC captures the last 10 years of John’s life in New York with Yoko (and Los Angeles without her). The archival material is amazing, with home movies and studio footage you’ve never seen.

In the fictional Nowhere Boy we meet the boy who was abandoned by both his parents when they divorced and was raised by his Aunt Mimi(his mother’s sister). His uncle dies early, and he reconnects with his mother for a few years before she’s hit by a car and dies. He’s on his way to Germany with fellow townsmen Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and you know the rest.

LENNONYC captures John’s story with Yoko, after the band broke up in 1970. It’s a story that is not as well known as the Beatles years. As Rob Salem of the Toronto Star says, it’s about the various John Lennons: “peace-seeking protester; avant-garde artist; philandering party boy; Nixon-designated national threat; beleaguered refugee and blissfully domesticated dad.”

Some of the best moments in LENNONYC are from producers Roy Cicala and Jack Douglas, and guitarist Earl Slick who bring the musician John to life with their stories. They articulate beautifully the sheer talent in John’s music, which is the root of why we all fell in love with him in the first place. What's also striking about the documentary is how much voiceover they use of Lennon himself. It really feels like he's still with us.

And then, on that horrible day in December, 1980, when John and Oko were returning home, a madman shoots John four times in the back. He was pronounced dead 15 minutes later. What a shock. How is it possible that a Beatle is murdered in New York, on his own front doorstep? Our rock stars have died in plane crashes, they’ve died from drugs, but pop culture icons just aren’t murdered in cold blood, are they?

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

John, on November 22, 1963

Robert Drew’s film A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK draws on footage from four of his early films: Primary; Adventures on the New Frontier; Crisis; and Faces of November. It is an astonishing new work that captures JFK from the Wisconsin primary against Humphrey, through to his state funeral.

What Drew’s film doesn’t touch on is this cosmic coincidence: Wiki tells us that on November 22, 1963, CBS Morning News ran a 5-minute piece about Beatlemania that was sweeping Great Britain. The piece was to be rebroadcast in the evening, but it was canceled because of the assassination. Walter Cronkite then decided to run it on the CBS Evening News on December 10. It lead to a spike in sales of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and 8 weeks later the Beatles were at John F. Kennedy International Airport (which had just been renamed on December 24, 1963).

Kennedy’s assassination still haunts the country. The Lee Harvey Oswald/ Jack Ruby explanation becomes less and less satisfactory, but the country had to move on. Some say The Beatles invading ten weeks later were part of that healing process with their youth and style and new sound.

“Anybody here seen my old friends John”

Let’s imagine John Lennon on February, 7, 1964, arriving at JFK airport with the Beatles, full of excitement in the rush of their gargantuan success at home and number one hit here. Even with the depth of his poetic soul and all his hidden mysticism, he could not have imagined that 46 years later, a documentary about the last nine years of his own life—-which artfully deals with his murder—-would be premiering to an American audience on the date that JFK was assassinated. We will not know their like again. Such is the nature of the journey of souls, across the universe . . .

Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

John Lennon on his song “Across the Universe": “It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best." Rolling Stone interview 1971

(JL NYC photo ©Bob Gruen. The Quarryman Leslie Kearney 1957©2010 The Quarrymen. Andy Warhol/JL photo in the Bar Louis, Hotel Fauchere, Milford, PA taken by Lance Mannon. JFK images are screen grabs from the Drew film.)

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor Awaits

Remember Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister in Love, Actually? He gives an updated pop-culture version of the John of Gaunt “This royal throne of kings, this sceptr’d isle . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” speech:

“We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that.

How is it possible that Doctor Who didn’t make the short list? Now there's a national treasure.

The debut of Doctor Who joins the notable anniversaries this week: Gettysburg Address 150 years on November 19; Kennedy assassination 50 years ago on November 22; and the next day, Doctor Who premiered on the BBC, on November 23. It was a hit in Britain for decades, then ended in 1989, and when it came back in 2005, it found a large American audience.

I only started watching Doctor Who on BBC America in the 2005 reboot led by Russell T. Davies.  I caught the tail end of Eccleston, driven there by the incredible recap writing about the show from Alan Sepinwall and Ross Ruediger. It was a little hard to follow the idea of a Time Lord at first, but Eccleston drew me in and sold it, in spite of Billie Piper. I am not a Rose fan. But no matter.

What I love about the series is how deeply imaginative it is. The stories go back in time to the days of Shakespeare or Pompeii and ahead in time to the end of the world in this and other galaxies-—following a Time Lord means all things are possible.

One Martha Jones episode with the Tenth Doctor, “The Lazarus Experiment," is set in today’s London. The villain of the week is a 72-year old doctor looking for the a fountain of youth, which turns him into a raging, really scary-looking CGI monster. In his lucid moments, he remembers back to the London Blitz as a child, when his home was destroyed. The last scene is in St. Paul’s, where he was brought as a child for safety, and where he ultimately goes from monster back to man. I found the story very moving, and important that a show basically targeted for children would create a plot around the last of the generations who saw WWII.

The monsters in general are the creepiest, most elaborate, scariest things on tv. And yes, there was a really gross spider monster, the Empress of Racnoss, which, as I discussed, my arachnophobia, was hard for me to watch.

And then there are the Daleks, the evil nemeses of the Doctor with the really cool voices. You could write about them forever, but it wouldn’t do them justice. They are one of the great fictional destructive forces of all time.  (See photo below, but don't be fooled by their party hats.)

Quick Doctor Recap & The Original Fans
1. First Doctor, played by William Hartnell (1963–1966)2. Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton (1966–1969)
3. Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee (1970–1974)
4. Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker (1974–1981)
5. Fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison (1981–1984)
6. Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker (1984–1986)
7. Seventh Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy (1987–1989 and 1996)
8. Eighth Doctor, played by Paul McGann (1996)

The Time of the Time Lords War

9. Ninth Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston (2005)
10.Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant (2005–2010)
11. Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith (2010 - 2013)
12. Twelfth Doctor, will be Peter Capaldi

Russell’s new incarnation of the show had a deep, rich history to build on, now with great CGI effects and the modern Doctors of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.

I envied the original fans who first started watching as kids and have seen the Doctor through all his regenerations and all his companions. However, when it returned in 2005, they were not all happy.

Some impassioned hatred from one blogger: "Why do I hate it...? Where do I start? Bad dialogue, bad plotting, bad acting, bad jokes and bad science. Sentimental, patronising, inconsistent and too eager to please. Some of it is so cringeworthy I actually blush while I'm watching it."

From blog comments on The Telegraph: "The earlier Doctor. Who, of the Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton eras, were paced much more slowly allowing for the drama to develop, whereas this series is all flash bang wallop, and strangely seems stuck in the 1980s, in its sensibility. Just not very good at all.”

David Tennant: THE Doctor
The BBC has been running documentaries for each doctor. It's a wonderful history of the creative life of a series, and of each actor, as they progress, talking about "their" Doctor, the one they grew up with.

For me, and many, David Tennant is the Doctor, the way William Shatner is James T. Kirk. There may be other actors who play the role for various reasons, but they don't count.

Tennant showed a deep and unique understanding of the potential essence of this character, over 900 years old, sad and happy traveling along, knowing he needs a Companion to temper the darker side of his nature.  Tennant expressed the sheer power of the Doctor in a way that Matt Smith cannot. (Eccleston had flashes of that good/evil power too.) David Tennant is also a true fan of the series, in a way Matt Smith is not. I count the Tennant episodes as some of the most enjoyable TV watching of my life. And what are the odds that the tenth Doctor would be named TEN-Nant? Mystical, right?

Doctor Who: A True "We Are the World" Experience
Big Kudos to the BBC for celebrating 50 years of this creativity with a worldwide simulcast of their anniversary special. Literally. Uniting fans across the globe to experience the story at the same time.  I am very luck to be heading down to see it in a theater. See you on Twitter.

[Updated from a 2008 post]

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"A little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg"

Rhett Butler utters this description to Scarlett when she asks how much longer the war will go on. He says it won't be long now, there's "a little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg" that will pretty much do it. When you watch Gone With the Wind it's a moment of real historical connection within the fiction.  We know it's considered the war's turning point, for the characters, it's just another battle to try to regain territory.

Four and a half months after the Union's "win," Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery to battle dead on Nov. 19, 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago today.

The speech is prose poetry of Biblical beauty when the nation was just 87 years old.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What strikes me today is the interplay of life and death, not surprising to dedicate a cemetery, but extra poignant in this week of the last day's of President John F. Kennedy's life fifty years ago.

Lincoln & Kennedy: Deeper Than the Old "List"
It's not surprising that a "list" of all the coincidences between our two great assassinated presidents became an Urban Legend. But there are deeper intersections.

We know that JKF was a genuine history buff, and that he asked Ted Sorensen to study the Gettysburg Address (among anther speeches) when drafting his own inaugural speech.

So November 19, 1963, the 100th anniversary, had some meaning for JFK personally, and politically as well. It is noted how presidents treat this anniversary. 

It's the math that makes this all a little chilling. If it hadn't a big anniversary year for the speech, the date would probably have gone unnoticed. But the spotlight was on, as it had been for Woodrow Wilson and the 50th anniversary, and FDR at the 75th anniversary in 1938, both of whom made official visits to the cemetery. The article of this history is titled, Obama Snubs 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address.

Kennedy did not make an official visit. The article said he "made only an unannounced visit with no speech." That made it a private thing,  a personal thing, to honor his predecessor's rhetorical and political brilliance. Perhaps he found inspiration anew, as many do, at the entreaty of what "the living" need to do to for the "unfinished work" and the "great task remaining before us." The stakes during the Civil War were as high as they could be: the continuation or disintegration of this nation. Kennedy had inherited the very best of the continuation of "we, the people."

All this focus on the living in the face of his scheduled trip to Dallas, his appointment in Samara. That's the important connection for me, of these two public servants, killed in the line of duty.

For the Living: Learn the Address!
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, documentarian Ken Burns, along with numerous partners, has launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the Abraham Lincoln's famous speech. The site is Learn the Address.

Here are the kids from a high school in Alabama. You can't beat that for what the speech is all about.

(Photo from USA Today story about the project)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"Venice. Streets filled with water. Advise"

This quip came via telegram from Algonquin wit Robert Benchley to the delicious David Niven, although I'm certain that had it been the 20-teens instead of the 1930s, it would have been a tweet.  [The quip has multiple permutations & attributions, all wonderfully tracked down by Quote Investigator]

Earlier this year the polyphonic segment of my life brought me the opportunity of singing a concert of Venetian masters Gabrieli and Monteverdi with a brass quartet in Venice.  I planned the trip months ago, which give me the time to read a trifecta of Venice literary nesting dolls:

Geoff in Venice, Death in Varnasi
Jeff Dyer

Venice is the city that never disappointed and never surprised, the place that was exactly like it was meant to be, exactly synonymous with every tourist's first impression of it.

There is no real Venice: the real Venice was—and had always been—the Venice of postcards, photographs, and films. Hardly a novel observation, that. It was what everyone always said, including Mary McCarthy. Except she'd taken it a stage further and said that the thing about Venice was that it was impossible to say anything about Venice that had not been said before, 'including this statement.'

Venice Observed
Mary McCarthy

The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations (the Bocca del Leone), the gambling casino, and the Ghetto. The idea of the Suez Canal was broached by Venice to the sultan in 1504. They were quick to hear of new inventions and discoveries and to grasp their practical application.

Casanova had the true Venetian temperament: cool, ebullient, and licentious.

In the traditional Venetian serenades, played from cruising gondolas, the songs today are all Neapolitan. Foreigners cavil at this, but the Venetians point out that there are no love songs in the Venetian repertory—only witty exchanges between man and maiden.

Death in Venice
Thomas Mann

When Aschenbach first feels the urge to travel, he sees in his imagination a landscape like that of the Ganges delta; the climax of this vision is the frightening epiphany of a tiger in the thicket. When he calms down and makes realistic travel plans, he decides he need not go "all the way to the tigers."

And so we go full circle back to Dyer's Geoff doing what Aschenbach did not, and going to the Ganges for his oblivion.

Please ignore McCarthy's warning about saying anything about Venice that hasn't been said before, and follow me on twitter for bulletins from the canals of 2013.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lou Reed: Your Silent Night at Carnegie Hall Made Me Cry

I was saddened with much of the world at the death of Lou Reed last Sunday. A daughter of Long Island (Massapequa Park) by way of Brooklyn mourning one of its sons (Freeport) via ditto.

I was not an intimate fan of the rocker outside of his classics that are ingrained in the soundtrack to life of my age eschalon.

But two things brought me a little closer to this distinct voice, this rocker talking to my generation.

One is that he came to the Museum of Television & Radio in January 1994 when we had the US premiere of the TV documentary, Curious: The Velvet Underground Live in Europe.

I didn't get to talk to the man, but I had some conversation with his entourage, including Peter Gabriel. He had the bluest eyes this side of Paul Newman, and we talked about the English choir tradition, he being of the Ralph Vaughan Williams school, where I prefer the slightly lesser loved Herbert Howells.

I went out to dinner with the entourage, I think Penn Jillette was at my table, because as it was breaking up, Laurie Anderson and Lou came over to our table, and he was zipping up her parka. It was a very cold evening and they were bundling against it. They looked like little kids getting ready to go out and play in the snow. A friend commented that there was an inner youth about them, that they would never seem old. I don't know why that struck him then, but it did and he was right.

With Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hal

Several years later, December 13, 2006, to be exact,  I went to The Wainwright Family & Friends Christmas Show at Carnegie Hall. It was a magical evening that I wrote about in the early days of this blog:

The Christmas Show is unique because it included Rufus Wainwright's sisters Martha and Lily and Aunt Sloan, and guests Jimmy Fallon, Teddy Thompson, Laurie Anderson, and Lou Reed.
How can you describe the Rufus voice? It is wildly distinct. It’s a clear, pointed sound, with a nasal but not unappealing undertone. He swells note to note in well controlled verbal scoops. His sound has a sexiness that pretty much defies gender categories.

He sang What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, channeling Rosemary Clooney. If he had been in a black strapless dress, it would have seemed perfectly natural. His Cantique de Noel, with a beautiful piano accompaniment, was elegant and very moving.

There were other great numbers: Martha and Jimmy Fallon singing Baby It’s Cold Outside; Laurie Anderson droning a hurdy-gurdy to all verses of O Come All Ye Faithful, which she graced with the O Superman inflection; and Sloan singing a knockout, uplifting, joyous rendition of Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas.
And then there was Lou.

He comes out wearing a bright yellow, wild jacket—must be his idea of festive—and sings White Christmas with Rufus. It's campy and sweet at the same time, with Lou giving his version of a crooning bass.  He was born in 1942, the year that Holiday Inn, which gave us Irving Berlin's White Christmas, came out. So there's a wonderful connection there.

And then he sang a solo Silent Night that was poignantly hallowed, in its way. He gave it his driving rock beat under a jagged—jarring semi shout of SILENT NIGHT. And yet there was a sense of respect for the words, and . . .  all 3 verses. Not even Bing Crosby did that. The third verse usually makes me cry, and this was no different:

“Son of God, Love’s pure light. Radiant beams from they holy face; with the dawn of redeeming Grace. Jesus Lord at thy birth. Jesus Lord at they birth.”

All with.----The Reed rhyyyyth-mnic----phrasing.That----we know---and love.

He is our aural e. e. cummings. This rocker, this drug addict, this malcontent, offering the classic hymn, during Advent, in Carnegie Hall.  Nunc dimittis.

Someone at that December 13 concert filmed the White Christmas duet. The video is very blurry, but the audio is good enough to capture the moment.  No one has posted the Silent Night.

Reed would later go on to sing at the Jubilee concert in Rome for JP11, and the Vatican's pop cultural guru in the curia, Gianfranco Ravasi, tweeted words to Perfect Day when Reed died. Clearly because he speaks to the true humanity in us.

Good night sweet prince (as Laurie has called you). And flights of rockin' angels sing you to your rest. The life of a rocker, it's a bitch on the body. May your soul rest in peace.

(Top photo: From the  Kate and Anna McGarrigle: A Not So Silent Night DVD, backstage at the Knitting Factory, 2009, similar to the Carnegie Hall concert.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Finally Meeting Keats on the Spanish Stairs

October 21 is a fateful date for John Keats and myself: he landed in Italy in 1820 in a last-ditched effort to find relief in the warmth of the Italian sun to cure his diseased body, and I landed on the earth (as did Coleridge). 

“Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs...”

When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

I first began visiting Rome in 1999 when I enjoyed the friendship of an American Benedictine monk studying at Sant'Anselmo, whom I will call Cadfael.

The graves of Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery were top priority for my very first days. And then the Keats-Shelley House at the Spanish Steps.  The house was closed when I went, and back in that day, it wasn't easy to find out when it would be open.

I visited Rome throughout the aughts, and each time the house was closed. (When I finally did first enter, I met Catherine Payling, the museum's curator. She told me that instituting regular open hours for the public was one of her big missions.)

And so it was in August 2010 that I arrived when the building was open and the pilgrimage was achieved to finally enter the apartment where John Keats died on February 23, 1821, at the shockingly young age of 25.

What Is It about Those Stairs?

The Scalinata is one of the strangest of tourist phenomena, because we all have steps. These are the longest and widest in Europe, but that in itself wouldn’t attract so many visitors. They connect the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti church, which dominates the view of the stairs. It is one of the French churches of Rome, built in 1585. The stairs were built in 1723 to 25, bequeathed by a French diplomat to link the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the Holy See.

So yes, it was Spain and France vying for Roman cultural power that produced this magnetic spot. Oh good, glad something explains it.

Then Came the Brits

It is hauntingly lyrical that two giants of English Romanticism—Keats and Shelley—died and are buried in Italy. Keats was in a very weakened state when his doctor and friends thought a last ditched effort to get him in the Italian sun would help his TB-shattered body.

Keats leaves London in September 1820 with his friend Joseph Severn, and lands in Naples on October 21— today—which happens to be my birth date (and Coleridge's in 1772). It’s a small factoid of history that has given me a cosmic connection to him even beyond my English major’s love of his work. He arrives in Rome in November, settles into an apartment at 26 Piazza di Spagna, and three months later, on February 23, 1821, he dies at 25.

Capturing the Bright Star

I saw Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star on the plane to China in April 2010, four months before my successful pilgrimage. Even the tiny size of a seat screen couldn’t diminish the sense of the poetic life she captured on film. From Roger Ebert’s review:

“What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats' verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description.”

What struck me is the shot of Fanny in her white room with the white muslin curtains softly blowing. It’s a visualization of the “bliss” that overfills Fanny after her first walk out with Keats. It also captures the soft, light feeling that reading Keats’s poetry can create.

Against all this LIFE is a story of almost unmitigated tragedy. A short summary from the Guardian:

“Keats’s life was not merely bookended by tragedy but invaded by it at every turn: when he was 8 his father was killed in a riding accident. His mother’s second marriage collapsed, but not before her husband took possession of most of her wealth. She returned to her children but died when Keats was 10. His brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis and the poet diagnosed the same fatal disease in himself not long after: one night, having coughed up some blood he is recorded as saying: ‘I know the colour of this blood: it is arterial blood . . . that drop of blood is my death-warrant. I must die.’ “

In the House Today

And that brings us to the foreigners’ quarter of the Piazza di Spagna. The house is very much as Keats found it. His and Severn’s rooms were on the second floor, divided from their landlady’s by a curtain.

I went straight to his bedroom. None of the furnishings are original, because Vatican law decreed that everything be burned after he died. But the structure hasn’t changed, and the most important piece to me is the window looking out onto the Scalinata (my picture from Keats's window). Here Keats would spend hours watching the river of people meeting, strolling, selling up and down the steps, and the children splashing in Pietro Bernini’s boat-shaped fountain. It was mesmerizing, even in 2010, to see the beauty of the steps from the window: the gorgeous Italian light, the coloring of the surrounding buildings, the sparkling blue sky.

And the saddest part of the apartment is the ceiling: what Keats would have spent hours staring at when his body was too weak to drag to the window.

Keats was a nova for this world: a bright star that was burned out by disease. His story would make anyone think of mortality, especially on their own birthday.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing

My father often quoted the first line of Endymion, usually in a sardonic way. He died in early middle age. Keats and my dad will never pass into nothingness. Wings have memory of wings. (And I've always loved that Yeats and Keats are separated by just one letter.)

My 2014 visit: the Pietro Bernini fountain, under renovation.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Four in the Morning" :The Go-to Time for "It's Really Late"

I love this compilation, via Andrew Sullivan. And there's a with more.

It's like a zoom-in detail to Christian Marclay's The Clock, which only spent a few seconds on 4:00 am. Now there are people giving the 'dark night of the soul' hour it's due. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

National Poetry Month: The L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales (with thanks to Chaucer)

I was born in Brooklyn, but grew up on Long Island, so I have Commuting in my DNA. My dad and brother worked in Manhattan, and there was no doubt I would too.

I started commuting on the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan at 16 for an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and continued on and off until I moved into the city at 24.

I was horrified by the depressing suburban commuting experience, and ranted about its Dickensian dark side in a small piece that the NY Times ran in a Sunday Long Island opinion column.

Wordsworth tells us that "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility."

After I had moved into the city, I thought about my fellow suburbanites who were still grappling with a twice daily struggle with the commuting monster. Hmm.

Chaucer gave us The Knight’s Tale, Second Nun, Monk’s Tale, the Wife of Bath, etc., enroute from London to the pilgrimage site of St. Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.

My L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales offers a look at some of the types I met on the rails: the Dashing Dan, the Bridge Players Four, and the Angry Young Man.

The L.I.R.R. Commuter Tales by Ellen O'Neill


Drawn by the power of the almighty dollar
Thousands don the starched-white collar.
Through the bowels of the earth they make their way,
Five times a week, twice a day.

The Commuter is a complicated class
With its varying breeds traveling en masse.
View them not as a homogenous whole
Their characters differ as their stories unfold.

The Dashing Dan

The Dashing Dan flies off the bus
To make the 5:36 it’s an absolute must
To sprint a 440 around the block;
He is confidently playing “Beat the Clock.”
The stairs of the station are now in sight,
In one mighty leap he has bounded two flights.
The digital clock that decides his fate
Whether he will arrive home on time or late,
Viciously displays 5:34
As the trainmen threaten to close the train doors.

But Dan does not fear
That the appointed time draws near!
His strong sturdy legs enable him to pass
The slow, sluggish movements of the bovine mass.
It is 5:35 and one staircase more
Then a second-wind sprint to reach the train door.

He smiles as he crosses the threshold,
Another day a master, a pro.
With a move of the hand, his tie knot to fix
The train pulls away, it is 5:36.

The Bridge Players Four

The Bridge Players Four, as the may be named,
Have come into a small bit of fame.
The regulars on the train expect these four
To occupy the facing seats to the left of the door.
Before the train has pulled away
The Players prepare for the long journey’s play.
Coats, ties, and briefcases are stored on the rack,
While bad remembrances of the day are sacked.
For the game is an escape for their overworked minds
And they do not allow intrusions of any kind.
The ad for Cosmopolitan is taken from its space
And sits across their laps as the playing base.

North, the dealer, is boisterous and loud.
He enjoys his games, and of his group he is proud,
For they can talk and laugh and enjoy a good cigar
While depression and fatigue fill the rest of the car.
His feigned hearty laughter bellows out to chime
How in the midst of other’s misery, he is having a good time.

South, his partner, seated across the board
Flinches ever so slightly each time that North roars.
Refined and reserved, he also enjoys the game
But never spots wishing that North were more tame.

Though East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,
The two join forces twice a day, the North and South to beat.
East and West became fast friends as part of their master plan,
Each wanting to associate with the followers of Pierre Cardin.
As North and South already enjoyed the benefits of that fame,
So East and West sought them out and joined their little game.

Thus East pals with North by laughing just as loud,
While West appeases South, complaining of vulgar crowds.
And so they bid the long way home.
Though it’s not often plain,
The game they play continuously to further person gain.

The Angry Young Man

There appears on the scene the Angry Young Man
In a three-pieced grey suit with diploma in hand.
He has mastered Economics and Management 304,
International Banking, Finance, and more.
They have taught him well the classical business form,
Now he descends upon Wall Street to take it by storm.

For how clearly he sees the evils of the past
Which his elders, his teachers, have permitted to last.
And that Troubled Grey area which perplexes the wise
Separates into White and Black in his eyes.
As it was obvious to that noble man of Spain
So it is to our Man blatantly plain
That he must go forth with his luminous pearl
And enlighten the floundering businessman’s world.

Armed with his youth he boards the train
Defiantly standing, for there is no strain
In commuting four hours a day when one is twenty-two
And sturdy legs and a pure heart easily support you.

On the way home he judges his peers:
The middle-aged man content with his beer;
The suburbanized man with his middle-aged spread
Who sprawls out in his seat like it were his bed,
And unconsciously snores with his mouth open wide
Upsetting the tired young assistant who sits at his side.

The Angry Young Man feels contempt and scorn
For his elders who should have corrected all ere he was born.
Not yet knowing the injustices of life,
The Angry Young Man continues his fight
Against that which silently oppresses his peers,
Whose faces reflect the frustration of years.


The Commuter is a hardy breed,
A descendant of the pioneer, who, with his steed
Trekked three thousand miles is search of hope:
The Commuter travels that far, but in a narrower scope.
All of his efforts focus on getting there and back again,
His traveling takes him nowhere but where he’s already been.

PoetryDayUK: Hello John, from a Daughter of Your "fair defect of Nature"

 Reposting from 2008 in honor of PoetryDayUK 2017

John Milton would turn 400 years old today, if we lived in a Doctor Who universe and Doctor/Donna could take us to a planet where the 17th century is still thriving.

This pillar of English literature, this oceanic talent of the English language, is generally unheralded today, like Dryden, Ben Jonson, Alexander Pope, even Samuel Johnson, although Adam Gopnik is shining a little light his way in a recent New Yorker essay about his love/loss of Mrs. Thrale.

The Puritan is not entirely forgotten: Cambridge has put together a site with lots of lectures, exhibits, and music for the Milton Quatercentenary.

The academic rogue Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar himself, has been tracking the birthday celebrations in his NY Times blog, bestowing some new life to the epic in the comments. When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers, one of his acolytes, Walter Benn Michaels, was visiting for a semester. I took his literary theory class, where I entered the heady if sterile world of reader response criticism. My friends and I were positively giddy when Fish spoke at a conference at Brooklyn College and we went and sat in the front row.

166 people are now debating whether a new “translation” of the poem Paradise Lost into prose by Dennis Danielson is PL for Dummies, or an insightful way to help readers through the dense syntax. The verdict is about even.

The subject of PL is no less than how the human race came to live in a world of pain. It amplifies the idea from the Bible that God made a perfect world, and then man and woman, but their disobedience got them thrown out and we have all been coping with the pain and torments of life outside of Paradise ever since. As an epic it has a loftier goal than the “I gotta get home” of the Odyssey or the “here’s what happened in the war” of the Iliad. The concept of original sin is a creation myth to some, faith-based fact to others. I find debating questions like this uninteresting: we will all learn the truth when we die. I can wait.

“Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . . .”

Besides, there is so much more going on in the epic. Milton’s depiction of the “reasonable” beguiling Satan is a surprise to many. The Puritan’s intellect behind the characters of God, St. Michael, Satan, Moloch, Mammon, Beelzebub, Belial, Adam, and Eve is staggering.

The Mother of All Mistakes

Ah, Eve. I did well in Benn Michaels's theory class, which allowed me to take graduate English classes as a junior. And that is how I found myself in a small class with the intimidating Catharine Stimpson. First day she asks the 10 of us, “what literary depiction has done the most harm to women?” I suggested “Milton’s depiction of Eve.” Yes, she said, and on she went with a feminist analysis of PL. But I actually see it differently.

Milton does enormous justice to the complexity of the Fall. Satan’s own envies, torments, and desires to corrupt God’s new creations, man and woman, is seductive reading itself.

Adam, on the other hand, whines a lot, particularly in Book 10. He’s blaming everyone:

"O why did God,
Creator wise, that peopl’d highest Heav’n
With Spirits Masculine, create at last
This novelty on Earth, this fair defect
Of Nature, and not fill the World at once
With Men as Angels without Feminine
Or find some other way to generate

He goes on for pages like this. It’s pretty harsh toward Eve and women and our role in procreation, but to my ear it’s whining. But this is an interpretation from the vantage point of a modern woman. Dean Stimpson is right: centuries of pain was caused by Milton’s vision of women as the cause of the loss of Paradise.

I, however, feel no gender guilt at all. Eve was conned by a professional—-and not just a professional, but the incarnation of evil. She thought she would be enlightened, and by that light, love God all the more. Who knew that the primacy of “obedience” was the be all and end all? Kind of a Catch 22 there, since knowing, knowledge, is what was being withheld in Paradise.

As for Adam, if he had stayed at her side, or at least in shouting distance, and protected her, she would not have been vulnerable to the con-Devil. And, he could have said “no” when she offered the forbidden fruit. Suck it up, Adam. The fault lies not in Eve, but in yourself.

And this is all relevant, Why?

Why would anyone care about Paradise Lost almost 400 years after it was published?

One of the comments on Fish’s blog raises the relevancy question:

“I am too distraught at the moment trying to understand what drives young men on the other side of the earth to murder scores of people they don’t know, and too confused by the disintegration of the world financial order, to concern myself about some dense and irrelevant old poem. Pardon me for visualizing here with disdain your mussed up grey hair community of commenters, content in all their elbow patch tweed jacket and nondescript brown shoe erudition.”

To which another answers:

That Milton wrote “a great poem describing as best he could just why humans start wars and torture people and form tyrannies to slaughter innocent people in other countries and enslave whole continents in the name of religion and civilization who overcomes.”

It is an epic of big, eternal ideas. And it has much to teach us all about this English language that we glibly wield, right from the opening ambiguity, with that teasing verbal venn diagram.

“And justify the ways of God to man”— What does Milton mean here? Is it:

(Justify the ways of God) to man


(Justify) the ways of God to man

Two VERY different ideas.

But my favorite is the last line of the epic, as Adam and Eve leave Eden:

“They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
through Eden took their solitary way.”

“Their solitary” way. A beautiful oxymoron. Solitary cannot be plural. Yet it is. They are alone, because they are separated from God, but man and woman have each other. Now we’re off to the races. And once that “greater Man” hits the scene, well, it’s the beginning of Christmas, among other things . . .