Sunday, December 11, 2011

Myth Notebooks: Odyssey

On a day when I am catching up with notebooks, a poem by Simon Armitage
appears in my in-box, reminding me of another ongoing musing...

Myth Notebooks: Homer’s Odyssey

Ulysses weeping the stones white on Ogygia -
His “one last night” with Calypso (fit for a Strauss opera – a Letzteliebesnacht!)

The Odyssey as a poem on hospitality, old-school style –
epic sea-faring adventure with gods, mortals & monsters AND a morality play...

Ulysses: prototypical wanderer & exile -
dependent on the kindness of strangers

Kurosawa on Tarkovsky, vis a vis Solaris:
In this world there are (and should still be) many things unknown to mankind.

Ulysses is the first mortal to face so many unknowns & survive.
Enigma personified. The resilient human spirit embodied.

“This is not madness. It has something to do with conscience.” (from Solaris)

Ulysses as Boddhisatva warrior,
tossed to & fro upon the wine-dark seas:

Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma & neurotic thought,
Like the restless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara
(Nyoshal Khenpo)

Ulysses trials & natural disaster, version 2011
(Hurricane Irene, August 27)
The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched, You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it
. (The Hurricane, William Carlos Williams)

From Simon Armitage’s hipster update,
The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic

Zeus to Athena on our thickness:
When we send eagles / to signal our thoughts in the sky,
what do they do – stand and point and stare, / like…birdwatchers!

On reading Lombardo’s millennium translation
(Hackett, 2000) of the Odyssey

Homer’s compound adjectives, his colorfully imaginative metaphors
and his wonderful mixture of true-to-life realism and supernatural fantasy –
Shakespearean invention millennia before the Bard, distilled like purified water
by the spare, bone-dry language and the “swift narrative pace” of Lombardo...

the early-born, rose-fingered dawn
spreading its hands across the horizon
like a long-pining lover upon the skin
of his much-missed beloved…
(my Lombardo-inspired quatrain after / to Homer…)

The Odyssey and weeping, or “Real men cry – often!”
Odysseus: shedding salt tears
honing his heart’s sorrow…with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes

His eyes, his cheeks, his face perpetually wet with tears -
what kind of warrior have we here?

He was ashamed / To let the Phaeacians see his tears falling down
Tears / Welled up in his eyes and flowed down his cheeks

Odysseus weeping was contagious and spread to his crew,
group-therapy style:
with twenty-two men / All in tears…

Weeping as a symbol of despair:
This broke my spirit. I sat on the bed / And wept.

Grief in action -
the spontaneous emotional response to seeing the ghosts of loved ones:
I wept when I saw her…[his mother, Anticleia]
I wept when I saw him [his friend, Agamemnon]

The heightened emotion surrounding the reunion of Odysseus & Penelope -
one of the most stirring examples of true love in any genre from any period -

And as she listened, her face melted with tears…

So her lovely cheeks coursed with tears as she wept
For her husband who was sitting before her
[however unbeknownst to her]
…she wept until sweet sleep settled upon her eyelids…

The Odyssey and creatures – A Bestiary…
The touching scene of reunion with Odysseus & his dog Argus –

(again, after Lombardo)

a pitiful sight, the old & neglected,
lice-infested dog by the dung heap,
enough to make his master weep…

The aviary of the Odyssey – from the eagles of Zeus and Athena –
high-flying...of the hooked beak...mountain bred
Owl-eyed Athena
Apollo’s swift arrow Hawk
Ino’s flashing gull

Odysseus himself appearing like a soaring raptor

*Circe and her "manly beasts" of stags, pigs, bears
*The Sun-god Helios / Hyperion and his sacred cattle
*The Giants – from the Laestrygonians to the Cyclopes,
and Polyphemus’ flock of XXL sheep
*Dangerous beauties from the Sirens to Calypso
*Deadly sea creatures like Scylla & Charybdis

Multi-disciplinary mash-up of adventure & epic, history & myth, tragedy & romance, fantasy, extraterrestrial and oh-so-wonderfully human…

More Notes on Film...

Life is torture… / Notes on film / XI.11 / Roanoke

I. Isn’t life torture? (on Mizoguchi)

Without mercy, man is like a beast.
A man is not a human being without mercy.
Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

Teaches the Father in Mizoguchi’s poignant film, Sansho the Bailiff.

Nakagimi-san’s Song of Lament (after Mizoguchi)

1. Like the howl of a white wolf
“Zushio!” echoes across the fields
of sorrow in Sado province

Like the Madwoman calling the Curlew
across the river of shadows
“Anju!” flies like a heron-cry
through the air, hollow as a drum

2. “Zushio!”
I weep as I speak;
I speak as I weep.
Life is torture
Without you!

II. Melancholy Dogs (on Antonioni)

In science fiction you can never say what’s true to life and what isn’t…
according to Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman

Antonioni’s homage to Vertigo:
agoraphobia as fear of intimacy, fear of falling in love?

It’s the water that’s sad. Listen to it.

Landscape and weather in as visual poetry in cinema,
like the fog scenes in Antonioni…

Now the misery is creeping back, like a melancholy dog
(Monica Vitti in La Notte)

Vitti’s hypnotically attractive eccentricity -
was that what made her Antonioni’s muse?
(Do I pine for her because she reminds me of an old flame? Does she represent an objectified romanticism or just a romantic object? Is all this kitsch, Milan?)

Those almond eyes, upturned and accented with just enough attention to command… The sensuous lips whose smile & frown cohabit with unnerving proximity… The long neck & the lithe limbs in a figure otherwise unremarkable, yet captivating and entrancing…

III. New Waves (across Europe)
1. The sui generis production team behind Visconti’s operatic melodrama, Senso (reenforced by Verdi's Il Trovatore...)

Tennessee Williams’ and Paul Bowles’ English-language dialogue – luxury casting complete with Franco Zeffirelli as Assistant Director…

Visconti’s so-called “betrayal” of Neo-Realism with the lush period drama which is arguably his masterpiece. Each scene a perfectly orchestrated canvas. Sweeping historical panoramas and finely etched miniatures. Romantic emotional excess and exquisite attention to detail. Bravo, Conti!

2. Nouvelle Vague
Godard: the most original / narcissistic / self-conscious?
Truffaut: the most emotionally open / conscientious?
Melville: the coolest, most stylish & entertaining?
Rohmer: the anti-Nouvelle philosopher?
Resnais, Chabrol, Malle: the independent & singular poets?

An assistant to Melville, Schlöndorff ushered in New German Cinema with his adaptation of Robert Musil’s Junge Törless. Philosophical and intellectually probing as Rohmer, literary and poetic as Mizoguchi. And featuring an evocative Henze score.

3. The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil: 6.XI.1880 - 15.IV.1942) / 6.XI.11
What does one make of Musil, one of modernism’s unsung iconoclastic heroes? Equal to Proust, Mann & Joyce...

The mysterious brain-phosphorus of inward illumination is one choice phrase among many in one of the most ambitious works of European literature. It is trenchant as it is epic (left unfinished at c. 2000 pages) in indicting a world benumbing itself to sleep in the early 20th century, presaging the dawn of the Second World War by evoking the era before the First…

There has obviously been a shift in our priorities. Certain concerns have been taken out of people’s hearts.

Ulrich, the so-called Man Without Qualities, our anti-hero “protagonist” is but one voice in the Dostoyevskian polyphony of perspectives,

revolted by this lethargic acceptance…this helpless contemporaneity, this mindlessly submissive, truly demeaning stringing along with the centuries…

Junge Törless is an early autobiographical portrait of the draconian military academies of the old empire, an expose of human cruelty and indictment of the venality of institutions. A study for his unfinished open-ended epic...

Clarisse is an idealistic naïf, one of the epic’s heroines, and a counterpoint to the philistinism and despair in a testosterone-driven, power-hungry world:

And now here she was, armed for the future with a new slogan: active passivism…a phrase that clearly smacked of a man without qualities.

IV. Saints on film: Rossellini & Tarkovsky (19.XI.11)

I talk and talk, yet accomplish little.

So instructs the eponymous saint in Rossellini’s film
The Flowers of Saint Francis

to a fellow friar from Assisi on how to begin every sermon…

“Oh, rose!”
(Not Rilke’s, but a monk’s succinct example of perfetta letizia – perfect happiness)

Elsewhere, Rosellini’s Francesco defines
perfetta letizia as
…triumphing over ourselves…and bearing every evil deed –
in this alone lies perfect happiness.

Francesco, giullare di Dio
("Francis, God’s Jester" being Rossellini’s original Italian title)

Lest we take it all too seriously...

His principles harm his career. One critic’s observation on the title character of Andrei Rublev, equally applicable to Andrey Tarkovsky, the film’s director.

The sense that the world itself is trying to force its way through the screen.
Wagner’s “total work of art” transferred to Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” according to the same critic’s (J. Hoberman) take on Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.

The Passion According to Andrei, to cite its complete title.

The “total cinema” includes extraordinary natural beauty. The wordless soundtrack of nature as grass billows in the water like a woman’s hair – organic, sensuous, mysterious.

Clumps of paint dispersed underwater become flecks and dots resembling stars in the nighttime sky. Such liquid impressionist imagery casts forth a connecting filament to Tarkovsky’s “sci-fi” film, Solaris…

God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself.
Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment.
Rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, protect the widow.

So the spirit (or ghost?!) of Theophanes instructs Andrei in the arduous path of sainthood, artistry and authenticity…

The happy accident of inspiration as discovery: Boriska slipping down a slope in the mud and landing in just the right spot to find just the right clay to cast the great bell!

Boriska as Andrei’s successor – a true artist: visionary, solitary, young & brash, fearless and bold, uncompromising and indefatigable. And a bit mad…

“Don’t burden your soul, for it is an awful sin to deny the divine spark.” Kirill’s words to Andrei mirroring Martha Graham’s advice to Agnes De Mille – “if you block it, it will never exist and be lost…”

What a day for the people: you’ve brought them such joy, and you’re crying!

(Andrei’s consoling embrace of Boriska, intended for every self-doubting, tortured artist…)

Notes on Cocteau

Notes on Cocteau (quotes from The Difficulty of Being and Criterion film collection edition of Orpheus)

The muses are like beautiful praying mantises who devour their beloved.

Hence inspiration / artistic creativity always comes at a high price to the artist. Jonathan Harvey’s book Music and Inspiration is a compendium of quotes like Mahler’s

My symphonies exhaust the content of my entire existence.

Cocteau likens the creative process to what Dalì called Phoenixology – the mythical bird arising from the ashes – dying in order to be reborn.

All poets are mediums and laborers, channeling the praying mantis muse, laboring to arise like the phoenix, seeking the myth-key to open for the poet the most locked of human souls…

Wanting to be understood is a particular obsession of mankind.
In particular, it is the eternal why that obsesses thinkers.

Such an obsession motivates fellow initiates Cocteau compliments as blood donors – the only artists I respect – whose long red train fascinates the polymath writer, painter, filmmaker and designer…

We artists are the humble servants of a force that lives inside us…we are taken by a force that is not external to us…

Philistines have always been a sore subject for artists like Cocteau, whose rhetoric must always appear cryptic to the uninitiated:

What do they know of the great river, those who only want to enjoy the ports of call?

The transformation through Phoenixology is the boon for the servant of art, while death changes a member of the academy into a chair. Make yourself comfortable, Professor…

Such grandiloquent righteousness might be mere posturing were it not for the single-minded dedication in which distinctions between life and work (read: life and art) are rendered irrelevant.

Our commitment is a matter for the soul. It consists in not keeping for oneself one iota of comfort.

Tending inspiration is like stoking a fire. Keeping the artistic through-line alive. Inspiration is literally the breath of life…

That is what’s important. The life of the line is always in danger of dying.

When asked what one thing he would take if his house were burning,
Cocteau wryly replied,

I’d take the fire.

Soaring in dance & film

I. The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly (Nietzsche)

I turned on the TV last month and PBS was airing a fall fund-drive episode of Great Performances with a 10-year old starlet of the moment and my jaw hit the floor in flabbergasted disbelief. This qualifies as a "great performance?!?" As the producer-profiteer waxed on about this new-found “great performer” talent I turned off the TV. The last station of so-called taste in art and culture caved and capitulated to commercialism, ratings-driven sensationalism and the pop-culture spectacle of the latest fad. We have culturally devolved from the discovery of true prodigies (Mozart, Mendelssohn, Picasso, Britten) to the creation of interchangeable products…

In the name of playing up to one’s audience, honoring their intelligence and challenging them to participate in this adventurous – not always smooth and photogenic – journey of art and authenticity, I put in an art-house DVD: Martha Graham / Dance on Film.

This connects to musings on art and music and the "Listening to Paintings" programs I've presented at the Taubman Museum of Art (See my Vissi d'arte posts).

The most modern and severe piece of the set is Night Journey, Graham’s angular take on the Oedipus myth to a taut neo-classical (and haunting) William Schuman score.

Schuman's ballet score reminds me of Elliot Carter's The Minotaur (December 11 is Carter's 103rd birthday. His earliest work dates from the 1930's and his latest work was premiered in NYC earlier this week).

The critic Joan Acocella describes Graham as a “woman called to a high destiny and forced to overcome fear.”

Graham herself labeled the “lonely, terrifying gifts” every true artist confronts, and with whom - like Jacob facing the Angel of God - she must wrestle. I recall her inspiring letter to Agnes De Mille:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a
quickening that is translated through you into action.
And because there is only one of you in all of time,
this expression is unique. And if you block it, it
will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to
determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it
compares with other expressions. It is your business
to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the
channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly
to the urges that motivate artist is
pleased. there is only a queer divine dissatisfaction,
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than others…

I think of how her protégés - from De Mille to Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham – interpreted those directions, forged their own paths and opened new ones for today…

(And I connect again to "Listening to Paintings." The Taubman's exhibit of Nick Cave's remarkable "Soundsuits" reflects their creator's role as an Alvin Ailey dancer. Merce Cunningham was John Cage's partner. Cage worked on some of his watercolors in southwest Virginia; they are among my favorite canvases at the Taubman)

Acocella observes the artist following “a divine command to penetrate into the interior of the human spirit no matter what comfortless truths she might find there.”

Graham sought to portray in her art an aspect of our inherent collective split:
“America, forever torn…between a Puritan heritage and a bold, pioneering spirit…”

II. With a shriek birds fly across the black sky, people are silent,
my blood aches from waiting
(Mesa Selimovic)

That quote from the Bosnian novelist is the epigraph to Milcho Manchevski’s masterpiece film Before the Rain. Ostensibly “about” the Balkan conflict of the ‘90’s seen through three generations around a small Macedonian village, the film is lyrical, poetic and brutally honest.

Dealing with history and myth, the film can be viewed as a triptych of “baroque variations” inside a “circular form” (Ian Christie) indebted to the labyrinthine world of Borges and the new wave inventiveness of cinematic auteurs like Resnais.

The intersection of myth and history is reinforced by realistic modern characters set in the “antique landscape” of the newly independent Macedonia.

The poetic links are classical (Homeric repetition) and connect the settings & characters with details from the elegiac to the banal – from aged cemeteries and freshly dug hillside graves to the recurrence of insipid pop-songs on hand-held radios across Europe.

The interconnectedness is etched & imprinted by the central character (a photographer) and the use of photos in the film – images within images, pictures linking to pictures…

The film critic Ian Christie suggests a strong link to Max Ernst’s desolate surrealist landscape of WWII, Europe After the Rain. A lengthy essay would be required to explore the web-like filaments spun across time from Homer to the present where art and human conflict meet and converse in various media. Ernst’s canvas is but one link in a chain of Borgesian infinitude.

The connection across myth and history of war-torn landscapes with all* their inhabitants is deeply felt, experienced and enacted in works such as Before the Rain.

*Before the Rain features striking images of animals – another strong link to both myth and surrealism. The graphic and touching birth of a pair of sheep contrasts with the senseless, brutal shooting of a cat. The earthy farm animals - from a rooster to a donkey to a herd of cattle - are set against a lone eagle soaring above the mountains. The expressionist painter Franz Marc asked “Is there a more mysterious idea than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thomas Bernhard & the cathartic purging of bile…

…incipient thoughts bat around inside my skull…
I think my head will break apart when I move from one subject to another…
there is a continual imaginative assault, which is driving me half crazy…

Reading Thomas Bernhard can be dangerous. One confronts all kinds of sickness – mental and physical, congenital, degenerate, terminal and psychosomatic. And one faces death – sudden or slow-and-painful, accidental or purposeful as suicide (an omnipresent threat). Bernhard’s through-composed stream-of-conscious style is claustrophobic and oppressive, relentless and obsessive. His vitriolic bile spews forth with vehement toxicity. His white-hot rage burns to a crisp and chills to the bone. His poison is intended for the philistines and petit bourgeois of a society corrupt to its core.

His artist-subjects’ self-loathing is everywhere apparent in darkly hilarious rants and tirades against colleagues, civil servants and most of the other members of the food chain. The following quotes are from his first novel Frost, “about” the “so-called” painter Strauch, his madness and obsessions, and the goings-on in a village filled with “morons in short sleeves” (one of his choice phrases for what “country people” represent to this disaffected child of Saturn).

(from Frost, trans. Michael Hoffmann, Vintage, 2008)

Drowning among country people is a miserable way of drowning.

Petit bourgeois businessmen fare no better.

A lawyer is an instrument of the devil…a fiendish idiot.

So-called (Bernhard’s favorite jab) artists suffer the worst fate. There is no kind of hatred quite like self-hatred. Nicht wahr, Herr Bernhard?

You know, the painter said, that art froth, that artist fornication, that general art-and-artist loathsomeness, I always found that repelling; those cloud formations of basest self-preservations topped with envy…Envy is what holds artists together, envy, pure envy, everyone envies everyone else for everything…I talked about it once before, I want to say: artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its peripheral puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions…I want to say: artists are the great emetic agents of the time, they were always the great, the very greatest emetics…Artists, are they not a devastating army of absurdity, of scum? The infernality of unscrupulousness is something I always meet with in the thoughts of artists…Artists are the identical twins of hypocrisy, the identical twins of low-mindedness, the identical twins of licensed exploitation, the greatest licensed exploitation of all time…Artists, as they have shown themselves to be, he said, are all dull and grandiloquent, nothing but dull and grandiloquent, nothing…

Bernhard is the Dionysus of despair whose elixir is the bile of loathing. Whose speech is colorful as peacock feathers – he has absorbed the poison and his tongue spews it forth

like maggots in space…in the shattering fat of history, in the quarterstaves of the insoluble diluvia…

No rest for the wicked made weary (or the weary made wicked) by their unresolved dissonance with the world. The painter Strauch goes to bed
not to sleep but to howl to myself in the silence of horror.

Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.

And anathema to one so brutally honest is
the nausea of a trial by public opinion.

And sometimes Bernhard is just the ticket. Any artist who has cursed her witless critics, faced the provincialism of “popular taste” or the philistine capitulation to “commercial success” can identify with Bernhard. His inimitable voice resonates in a soulless world, corrupt by ravenous greed and numbed by a self-perpetuating system fueled by the replacing of substantive depth with surface sheen.

Everything is barbarous kitsch…Petit bourgeois sordidness…it’s too revolting.

His is like Kafka’s axe – not picking but pounding – at the frozen regions of the heart. The cacophonous volume of his vitriol threatens to drown out its pathos. The ice is so thick one forgets the affirming presence of deep water stirs underneath.

In winter, pain falls in the form of snow…Songbirds sing pain. The weak man has no law that will protect him.

Bernhard’s ostensible subject is laid bare in his debut novel, Frost. The signifier of winter’s arrival is variously described as this extraordinary frost…an iron frost…numbing frost…the ubiquitous and almost daily advancing frost… Bernhard’s pick-axe pounds relentlessly.

Frost disfigures all men…The frost eats everything up…There are many men who have been marked by frost…Frost may also signify the end of a world empire…

Life is the purest, clearest, darkest, most crystalline form of hopelessness…There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair, past the adultery of reason.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, eh Thomas? Bernhard is bracing, horrifying, excruciating and essential. One Bernhard is enough to counteract a legion of so-called page-turner fiction, froth & pulp for the market and masses. Lattes for the alleged literate. Bernhard’s dissenting tenor has always been a lonely voice, the irascible minority of a skeptic courageous enough to articulate the grotesque nudity underneath the emperor’s clothes. Such dissonance threatens to assault our senses. And it dares to wake us up.