Friday, December 16, 2016

"LA LA Land" Meets My Thomas Hardy's "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic"

Ryan Gosling as Sebastian in the film LA LA Land.

Well, that was surprising.  I went to see Damien Chazelle's LA LA Land, knowing nothing about it beyond "it's a musical."

Well. It's not just a musical. It revolves around a jazz pianist, and an aspiring actress, but the pianist is the important part. OMG.

I was once involved with a jazz pianist. Not just jazz, he was an extremely talented piano artist of all modes, but particularly improvising. It didn't end well, which lead me to write a post some years ago about Thomas Hardy's poem "Lines on the Loss of the Titanic" because of its vivid depiction of the iceberg hitting the ship. It's the perfect metaphor for a devastating relationship. Read below.

I haven't thought about the post, or of him--whom I dubbed "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which will give you some idea of who he turned out to be-- in a long time, but then there I am watching LA LA Land, and Ryan Gosling being a talent jazz pianist.

My entire life I have loved the piano to the very core of my soul. I never learned to play as a child, I tried as an adult, which lead to the devastation. Mr. Ripley came with me to test out various pianos before I purchased one. He would sit down and start playing big, lush, improvisations on whatever was in his head, and inevitably, the jaded store salespeople would come over and listen, mouth agape.

For my birthday one year he wrote an a cappella arrangement of "Blackbird" that we sang at my party in a quartet. (We recorded it live, I'm singing alto, he's on bass doing the snapping, with friends on soprano and tenor. From the safeness of more than a decade, I'm happy to listen to it.)

My shattered heart over Mr. Ripley never diminished my love for that extraordinary instrument and those who command it with such artistry. Still, I was numb for a bit of the movie, in a little emotional shell shock.

But all is well. And I offer the original post for all those romantics out there who had to come to terms with a cold reality.

• • • • • •

I don’t remember when I first read Thomas Hardy’s poem “Convergence of the Twain---Lines on the loss the Titanic,” but it is a haunting piece whose theme, unexpectedly, offers a comforting way to look at heartache.

It has one particular phrase—"and consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres"—that strikes all who hear it. I know, because of the literally thousands of people from around the world who have Googled the phrase and landed here. Hardy is in the unique echelon of "world literature."

The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the Loss of the Titanic
Thomas Hardy

      In a solitude of the sea
      Deep from human vanity,
And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.
      Steel chambers, late the pyres
      Of her salamandrine fires,
Cold currents thrid, and turn to rhythmic tidal lyres.
      Over the mirrors meant
      To glass the opulent
The sea-worm crawls -- grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.
      Jewels in joy designed
      To ravish the sensuous mind
Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind.
      Dim moon-eyed fishes near
      Gaze at the gilded gear
And query: 'What does this vaingloriousness down here?'...
      Well: while was fashioning
      This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
      Prepared a sinister mate
      For her -- so gaily great --
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
      And as the smart ship grew
      In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
      Alien they seemed to be:
      No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
      Or sign that they were bent
      By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
      Till the Spinner of the Years
      Said 'Now!' And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.

Rudyard Kipling put the word twain (from Old English twegen, meaning two) on the poetic map with one of his Barrack-room Ballads in 1892, declaring, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  In 1912 the sinking of the Titanic was so overwhelming that Hardy needed to use the language of the Empire—perversely inverted to be the convergence of the twain—to start to make sense of the tragedy.

He begins the poem with a harrowing description of the Titanic on the bottom of the ocean, where sea-worms crawl over the “mirrors meant to glass the opulent.”

“Jewels in joy designed to ravish the sensuous mind lie lightless.” And moon-eyed fishes query “What does this vaingloriousness down here?”

Hardy explains that “The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything prepared a sinister mate" for the ship: “a Shape of Ice.”

"And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too."

How chilling, to think of the ship being built as the iceberg is simultaneously growing larger. In Hardy’s worldview, the twain meet in time and space when

 “the Spinner of Years said ‘Now!’ 
And each one hears, and consummation comes, 
and jars two hemispheres.”

Those Jazz Pianists--They Are Trouble with a Capital "T"

It is the definitive poem on the tragic fate of Titanic. It also had a very personal meaning for me several years ago. After a failed romance, it popped into my head as an amazing metaphor for when two people collide, and one sinks.

Most of us have experienced a catastrophic meeting of the twain: who hasn’t been sunk by another person, particularly a love? And from the black stillness of the ocean floor, as you lay stunned, trying to rally your senses, you start to think, how could this have happened?

Well, it happened much like Hardy imagined the epic sinking: you were growing “in stature, grace, and hue” and somewhere, so was he.

Then “the Immanent Will” or fate or chance or said “Now!” and you hit. It turns out that this, too, is a sinister mate. The extent of the injury from the impact is not immediately known (surely, there are 16 watertight compartments). But slowly you realize things are amiss, and then rapidly you are going down.

The comfort in Hardy’s poem, for me, is the sense of inevitability. The ship was built and the iceberg grew, and fate deemed they were going to hit. From that macro-view, it’s a no fault disaster.

On a personal level, I can accept that a catastrophic impact was going to be a part of my history, just as the Titanic sinking is part of world history.

IF he had never moved from Tennessee . . .

IF I hadn’t learned to play the piano . . .

IF IF IF . . .

IF things had been different, we twain would not have met. I would have been safer in Kipling’s world than in Hardy’s-—but I didn’t get to make that choice.