Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dalai Lama - Conquer Your Self

Here's a great snippet from the Dalai Lama about disciplining the mind. What strikes me most about this is how many Zen concepts he weaves into this short discussion. He's able to explain this stuff so clearly and easily and has such a command of it. Meanwhile, I have so much trouble getting my thoughts on the subject into words that I often just don't try.

I guess that's why he's the Dalai Lama!



Saturday, February 23, 2013

Georges Rodenbach - 'Bruges-la-Morte' (1892)


As noted in a previous post on Symbolism, Bruges-la-Morte is an example of symbolist literature. As such, Rodenbach's style is wordy and ornate, as if he is luxuriating in descriptions, vocabulary, and language. This makes Bruges-la-Morte feel like something halfway between poetry and prose, and that can be very appealing. Imagery conveys meaning more so that plot or characterization, and the novel maintains a darkly dreamlike tonality even when Rodenbach is describing something like a dance hall.

Rodenbach's style and atmosphere bring to mind Edgar Allan Poe short stories or Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Bruges-la-Morte, however, while there are elements of horror (the dreary setting, the morbid fixation on death), Rodenbach doesn't take his story into the horror genre. This gives Bruges-la-Morte a very unique feel, a feeling likely enhanced by the use of photos of Bruges published with the work upon its original release (see picture here for an example).

The plot concerns Hugues Viane, a melancholy widower obsessed with the memory of his late wife. Viane moves to Bruges, a city which to him seems to be in mourning for the loss of its past greatness. He feels a kinship with the city for this reason. One day, Viane encounters a woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. He becomes obsessed with her despite the fact that, beyond appearances, the woman is nothing like his wife. The situation slowly evolves like the opening of a narcotic black flower (don't worry no spoilers).

But as should be expected plot is not the main point here. Rodenbach is about imagery and - given the school he belongs to - symbols. I'm not sure how well this style would work in a full-length novel, but in a short work like Bruges-la-Morte that is under 100 pages, it achieves it's goal and sets a brooding - almost self-indulgent - air of emotion and atmosphere. As in poetry, it's up to the reader to interpret the symbols and imagery to find the meaning of the work.

Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Portrait of Georges Rodenbach 
For me, the Rodenbach's symbols conveyed several things. First, I saw a parallel between the omnipresent Catholicism Rodenbach paints in his Bruges and the literal shrine Viane builds to his late wife (even including a braid of her hair in a glass case!). Bruges seems to be lost in a fog of mysticism, while Viane is wrapped in blankets of mourning and sleepwalks through life. Neither appears to be geared towards happiness or progress.

Second, and related to this, is an element I noticed in Bruges-la-Morte, which I have also found in Poe's works and Huysmans' Against Nature (the symbolist novel I am reading now): a general antipathy toward human society and normal life. All these works focus on reclusive, highly intelligent protagonists whose morbid melancholy or obsessive behaviors are as desired as they are dreary and soul-destroying. Very much the feeling of 'once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.' This embracing of voluptuously described and self-indulgent melancholy, isolation, or doom may be the 'decadence' of which symbolism is accused of conveying.

Symbolism is definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed Bruges-la-Morte. I imagine I will reread it again at some point when I have an urge to dive deeper into it images...or if I want to re-experience the gloomy fragrance of its prose and imagery. Definitely a book for a gray, rainy day when you're 'in a mood'.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A New Poem!

It's been almost a year and a half since I wrote a poem of any kind. Yesterday, I had this knot in my stomach and was feeling very 'stopped up' emotionally. As if something was going to explode, and yet I didn't know what or why. As it got worse, I suddenly had this powerful urge to write. It was like an act of desperation to purge what I was feeling. And it helped.

As I mentioned in a prior post, most poems I write are not rhymed. However, when I do write a rhymed poem, it's often in an attempt to be direct about something. The structure of the rhyme and rhythm force me to think and then images take form around what I feel and...out it comes. I wrote this in ten or twenty minutes and only did minor edits to it. It's a rough little ditty, but I'm pleased to have written something!

Baedeker Blues

I am an anagram
whose letters spell no words
My feet mired in earth
while I'm dreaming of birds

My compass spins
between what I feel and know
I doubt my direction
but my map says to go

Tears in my eyes
I take all the blame
Wondering if every road
would have ended the same

Looking forward does not help
for I'm coasting on prior dreams
whose realized realities
carry me off in chaotic streams

It's time to stop it all
running to nothing, regretting could-have-beens
Brave an uncharted path
until I am happy again

- Peter Cholewinski

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Jean Moreas - 'The Symbolist Manifesto' (1886)

Jean Moreas
The next two books on my reading list are Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach and Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans. I was led to the books while reading an article in Apollo magazine (on of the art mags I subscribe to). I forget which article. Anyway since these are both Symbolist novels, I thought I would post The Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moreas.

I didn't really know very much about Symbolism but, in getting to know more about it, I ran across this quote from French symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme: "Paint not the thing itself but the effect that it produces." As I've read more, I've sensed that Symbolism may have been one of the movements that ultimately launched the trajectory of modern art that fueled movements like Fauvism, Surrealism, Cubism, and Dada. The movement was embraced by novelists and poets, as well as artists and seems to embrace the decadent, the ornate, the wordy, and the imagination. The mythic image of Edgar Allen Poe is very much part of the Symbolist ethos.

I lifted this translation from the website Mutable Sound. As some of the sentences seem a little odd, I'm thinking this was either translated a long time ago or is simply a somewhat indifferent translation. But who cares? Stuff like this needs to be preserved in some form! Enjoy (I've included examples of Symbolist art throughout the post).

Gustave Moreau, Young Thracian Woman
Carrying the Head of Orpheus

The Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moreas (translator: C. Liszt)

As with all arts, literature evolves: a cyclical evolution with strictly determined returns and which become more complicated of various modifications brought by the step of time and the confusion of circles. It would be superfluous to point out that every new progressive stage of art corresponds exactly to senile degeneration, at the ineluctable end of the immediately previous school. Two examples will be enough: Ronsard triumphs over the impotence of the last impressionists of Marot, Romanticism unfurls its royal flag on the classical debris badly kept by Casimir Delavigne and Steven de Jouy. It is because any demonstration of art succeeds inevitably in becoming impoverished, in exhausting itself; then, of copy in copy, simulation in simulation, what was full of sap and freshness becomes dried out and shriveled; what was the new and the unprompted becomes banal and commonplace.

So Romanticism, having sounded all the tumultuous warning bells of uprising, had its days of glory and battle, lost of its force and its favour, abdicated its heroic boldness, became ordered and classified, sceptical and full of common sense; in the honorable and mean-minded attempts of the Parnassians, Romanticism hoped for a false resurgence, only finally, such a monarch had to fall into senile decay, and in the end was only able to be dethroned for the naturalism in which one could grant seriously a value of protest only, legitimate but poorly advised, against the insipidity of some novelists then in fashion.

One waited for a new manifestation of art therefore, necessary, unavoidable. This manifestation, brooded for a long time, has just hatched. And every insignificant practical joke of the cheery-eyed press, all the anxieties of the serious critics, every bad mood of the surprised public in its sheepish carelessness, are only bringing about this actual evolution in french letters more and more every day, this evolution which impatient judges have noted to be, by an incredible antinomy, decadent. However, decadent literature is principally tough, stringy, timorous and servile: all the tragedies of Voltaire, for instance, are marked with these signs of decadence. And for what of these reproaches can be claimed as regards the new school? The abuse of pomp, strangeness of metaphor, a new vocabulary or harmony go together with colours and lines: characteristics of any revival.

We have already offered the name of symbolism as the only one able of indicating reasonably the actual tendencies of the creative mind in art. This name can be supported.

It was said at the beginning of this article that the developments of art offer cyclical extremely complicated differences: for example, to track the exact parentage of the new school we should go back to certain poems of Alfred de Vigny, and on up to Shakespeare, even mystical, even further. These issues would require a volume of reviews, saying that Charles Baudelaire therefore must be considered the true forerunner of the current movement, Mr. Stéphane Mallarmé subdivides the sense of mystery and the ineffable Mr. Paul Verlaine broke his honor in the cruel hindrances to poetry that the prestigious fingers of Mr Theodore de Banville had softened up before him. But the Supreme enchantment is not yet consummated: a persistent and jealous labor invites newcomers.

***

Enemy of education, declamation, wrong feelings, objective description, symbolist poetry tries to dress the Idea in a sensitive form which, however, would not be its sole purpose, but furthermore that, while serving to express the Idea in itself, would remain subjective. The Idea, in its turn, should not be allowed to be seen deprived of the sumptuous lounge robes of extraneous analogies; because the essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself. So, in this art, the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas.

The accusation of obscurity that has been made as regards such aesthetics by readers with broken staffs is not surprising. But what do we make of this? The Pythian Odes of Pindar, Hamlet of Shakespeare, the Vita Nuova of Dante, the Second Faust of Goethe, the Temptation of Saint-Antoine of Flaubert were not they also taxed by ambiguity?

For the precise translation of its synthesis, it is necessary for symbolism to take on an archetypal and complex style; of unpolluted terms, periods which brace themselves alternating with periods of undulating lapses, significant pleonasms, mysterious ellipses, outstanding anacoluthia, any audacious and multiform surplus; finally the good language – instituted and updated–, good and luxuriant and energetic french language from before Vaugelas and Boileau-Despréaux, the language of François Rabelais and Philippe de Commines, Villon, Ruteboeuf and so many other free writers hurling their acute language in the same manner as the Toxotes of Thrace hurled their snaky arrows.

Rhythm: the ancient metric enlivened; a chaos learnedly ordered; the rhyme illucescente and beaten as a buckler of gold and bronze, to rhymes of unintelligible fluidity; the alexandrine with numerous and mobile stopping; the job of first certain numbers – seven, nine, eleven, thirteen – bold in the various rhythmic combinations of which they are the price.

***

Here I ask the permission of you to act out my small INTERMEZZO drawn from a precious book: The Treaty of French Poetry, where Mr Theodore de Banville made to relentlessly incite, such the God of Claros, monstrous donkey ears on the head of many a Midas.

Attention!

John William Waterhouse, The Crystal Ball
The figures who speak in the room are:
A DETRACTOR OF The SYMBOLIC SCHOOL
MR THEODORE DE BANVILLE
ERATO

THE DETRACTOR. – oh! these decadent! What a grandiloquence! What a rigmarole! Our grand Molière was right when he said:

This style represents a vainglory which they call

Fate of good character and the truth.

THEODORE DE BANVILLE. – our grand Molière describes two evils towards which they themselves bring out as many good characters as possible. Of what good character? Of what truth? Apparent disorder, bright insanity, passionate grandiloquence are the truth of lyric poetry. To fall in the excess of figures and colour, the evil is not great and it is not thereabouts that our literature will perish. In the most poor days, when it expires undoubtedly, as for instance under the first Empire, it is not grandiloquence and abuse of the ornaments which kill it, it is the platitude. Taste and the natural are nice things surely less useful in poetry than they think. The Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare is throughout written in a style as affected as that of the marquis of Mascarille; that of Ducis shines with the happiest and most natural simplicity.

THE DETRACTOR. – but the caesura, the caesura! They violate the caesura!!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE. – in his remarkable prosody published in 1844, Mr Wilhem Tenint establishes that Alexandrine poetry accepts twelve different combinations, on the basis of poetry with its caesura after the first syllable, to arrive at poetry which has its caesura after the eleventh syllable. It amounts to saying that in reality the caesura can be put after any syllable of Alexandrine poetry. Also, it establishes that it is acceptable to have poems with caesuras after the sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth, or tenth syllables, of all manner of variety and diverse placement. Let us go further: let us dare to proclaim complete freedom and say that in these complex questions the ear decides alone. They perish always without ever having been too audacious but rather not having been audacious enough.

THE DETRACTOR. – terror! You do not respect the alternation of rhymes! You know, Mister, that the decadent dare to afford even gaps! even gaps!!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE. – gaps, the diphthong clearing up syllables in the poem, all other things which were forbidden and especially the facultative job of the masculine and female rhymes provides the poet of genius one thousand means to create delicate effects always various, unforeseen, and bottomless. But to use this complicated and learned poetry, genius and a musical ear is needed, while with the fixed rules, the most mediocre writers can, by obeying them truthfully, make, alas! fairly good poems! Who therefore earned anything in the regulation of poetry? The mediocre poets. Themselves!

THE DETRACTOR. – it seems to me however that the romantic revolution…

THEODORE DE BANVILLE. – Romanticism was an incomplete revolution. Whatever misfortune Victor Hugo, that victorious Hercules with his bloody hands, is not an absolute revolutionary. He let live a party of monsters who were his responsibility to exterminate with his arrows of fire!

THE DETRACTOR. – any renovation is madness! The simulation of Victor Hugo, here is the starting point of french poetry!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE. – when Hugo emancipated poetry, those who taught using his example had to think the poets to come would like him be free and only constrained by they themselves. But this has become for us a love of servitude which the new poets have copied and imitated in their envy for his forms, the combinations, the chalice, the further habits of Hugo, rather than endeavoring to find the new. That’s how, manufactured for the yoke, we fall again from one serfhood into another one. After the classical banality, there was the romantic banality, the banality of the chalice, the banality of sentences, the banality of rhymes; and the banality, that is to say the commonplace become a compulsive thing, in poetry as anywhere else, it is Death. Contrariwise, let us dare to live! and to live it is to sniff the air of the sky and not the breath of our neighbour, this neighbour he should be a God!

Scène II

(Invisible) ERATO. – your Treaty of French Poetry is a delightful, chief work Banville. But the young poets have some blood until with eyes battling against monsters they graze by the side of Nicolas Boileau; they claim you in the field of honour, and you are silent mister Banville!

THEODORE DE BANVILLE (dreamer). – curse! I would have failed in my duty of elder and of lyricist!

(The author of the Exiles pushes out a pitiful sigh and the intermezzo finishes.)

***

Prose – novels, news, stories, fancies, – evolves in a similar sense as does the poem. Elements, seemingly heterogeneous, coincide in that place: Stendhal brings the translucent psychology, Balzac the swelling vision, Flaubert the cadenzas of sentences in ample volutes. Mr Edmund de Goncourt his evocative modernist impressionism.

The comprehension of the symbolic novel is polymorphous: sometimes a unique figure moves in circles distorted by his clean hallucinations, his constitution; in this distortion lies the only reality. Beings in a mechanical gesture, in shaded silhouettes, fidget around the unique personage: these are to him only pretexts to feeling and to guess-work. This in itself is a tragic or farcical mask, of a humanity nevertheless perfect although rational. – sometimes the mob, superficially affected by the ensemble of ambient representations, itself borne along with these alternatives, these conflicts and stagnances towards acts which will abide in incompletion. By instants, individual wills manifest themselves; they earn, gather together, spread for a purpose which, attained or missed, disperses them in the primitive elements. – Sometimes mythical recalled fantasies, from ancient Démogorgôn through Bélial, from Kabires through Nigromans, appear sumptuously grouped on the rock of Caliban or by the forest of Titania in mixolydian modes of the barbitons and octocordes.

So contemptuous of the babyish method of naturalism, – Mr Zola, shone, was saved by his marvellous writer’s instinct – the symbolic novel – impressionism will build up its edifice of subjective perversion, based on this axiom: that art would not know how to search into the objective, what an extremely succinct and simple starting point.
Ferdinand Hodler, Night

Monday, February 18, 2013

Amy Herzog - '4000 Miles'

As mentioned in a prior post, I have assigned myself a reading list for the late winter early spring (maybe it just seems like late winter since we've hardly had any snow!). While I just finished a Zola novel, the official start is now. I have seven books stacked on my desk in order of length (starting with short stuff to build momentum). So my first read is very short, a play. Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles. I decided to add this after reading a conversation with Herzog in BOMB.

I've always found that reading drama is a bit dicey. It's a play; you're supposed to watch it be performed. You're not supposed to read it. Plus, I think I'm also below average at successfully reading drama. But anyway...

My first reaction after finishing the play was: "That's it?"  It seemed like nothing much happened. However, as the play simmered in my mind a bit, I started to realize what Herzog was doing. As it began to sink in, it made me think Herzog is a really good writer! Very adept at avoiding those cheesy melodramatic 'moments of truth' and yet still giving us the payoff such moments usually deliver.

As usual on this blog, I'll avoid saying too much about the plot since I hate to be a spoiler. However, what this play seems to be about is closing distances (hence the clever title) in relationships. The two central characters - Leo and his grandmother Vera - live very far apart from each other. He ends up crashing a her place after riding his bike across the country. At the start of the play, Vera has her dead husband's name on the buzzer and trades calls everyday with a neighbor she doesn't like to make sure neither dies and rots for three days before they are found. This is clearly a disconnected woman.

Leo, on the other hand, seems to be breaking up with everyone in his life for one reason or another. In the middles of crossroads in his life, he decides to bike across the country (almost as if running away). In Scene Two, he professes that "if you approach people with love and trust you can count on getting the same things back from them". However, he approaches his grandmother as if he's a pest and seems more than a little wary of her. He uses his approach with absolute strangers but not his own grandmother.

4000 Miles is about closing these distances. It's very well done in that, like I said, it avoids any unrealistic and maudlin moments. On the other hand, I think I might have enjoyed to see and feel the transition a bit more in the characters. The scenes in the play are windows into the unexpectedly long visit that Leo has with Vera. You can see the progress the characters are making with each other and the way connection is forged. However, for me, it would have felt better to see and feel the relationship build as opposed to the scene-by-scene 'progress reports'. Now I imagine that much of that feeling is up to the actors to convey in their performances, which means Herzog gives her cast a lot of room to drive the emotional core of her story.

I enjoyed reading 4000 Miles and will probably re-read it at some point to deepen my grasp of what Herzog is dealing with. I'd would love to see it performed live or to see another play by Herzog (assuming this one has finished its run). Best of all, I feel as though I encountered something very subtle and natural in her approach to characterization and plot movement that feels very special and unique. Enjoyable to see such control and confidence and certainly something to learn from.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

BOMB

This entry is a plug!

I'm a bit of a classicist as far as art and literature go. Pretty much always reading and viewing stuff by dead people. If it's survived, then there's a better chance it's good right? I'm probably that way mostly with literature, while with art I enjoy more contemporary work and definitely with music I'm into digging around into current stuff. Lately, I've become more interested in being aware of current literature and art than ever before. It's not easy finding a way to do this outside of just randomly buying books, which seems inefficient. One magazine that has been helping is BOMB.

What I enjoy most about BOMB is the format. In a lot of magazines which feature interviews with creative people, you get a writer who rattles on about what they think and feel for a page and then a short quote from the creative person in question. Then more explication. It can get so bad sometimes that I feel like I'm reading an essay rather than an interview or a profile. I'm just not interested in the journalist. In BOMB, the format is having artists interview each other. As a result, each issue is a series of transcripts of conversations between creative people. I find this much more insightful, and I get a feel for the person behind the creativity and how they think about things.

BOMB also provides photos of artwork, short stories, and poetry. Some of it I dislike of course, and some of it makes me go 'meh'. However, given my love of the old, I'm amazed how much of it I connect with and/or piques my curiosity. I've picked up several things I might never have heard about as a result of BOMB. Musically, I bought All Hell by Daughn Gibson and Ascent by Six Organs of Admittance. I've just read the play 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog and my reading list for the next few months includes Ether by Ben Ehrenreich and Cervantes Street by Jaime Manrique.

It feels good to start getting in touch , in some fashion, with contemporary output.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Emile Zola - 'The Ladies' Paradise'


It's been seven months since I read my last Emile Zola novel, but I have not given up. I'm still working my way through the twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. The Ladies' Paradise is the eighth book in the series (reading them in the order Zola desired), and its most notable aspect is its happy ending. I'm so surprised by this that, at first, I half believed I'd completely missed some critical thematic element of the book! "If only I'd caught what he really meant, then I'd realize how terribly things ended." But, no, it truly does have a happy ending.

The Ladies' Paradise picks up a few years after the end of Pot-Bouille, the previous novel in the cycle, and focuses on the same member of the Rougon-Macquart family: Octave Mouret. Octave is creating an innovative retail business, a department store called the Ladies' Paradise, that crushes all the small family shops around him. Zola uses the story to delve into the rise of the modern department store, including sharing with us all the various (often underhanded) tricks of the retail trade. As with other novels of his that explore an aspect of Second Empire French society, his adherence to the school of Realism means that the book is like a trip into Professor Dumbledore's pensieve.  Zola provides such detailed descriptions of Octave's store and its operations that you feel like you are getting see a fascinating slice of the past unfold before you!

While this is a tremendous strength of Zola and makes for fascinating reading, this time out it also can be a bit of a weakness. Zola's descriptions of the Ladies' Paradise recur so often and in such similar style that it slows down the advance of the plot. And the novel operates on a fairly thin plot, despite the vast scope of characters and plotlines Zola weaves into the fabric of The Ladies Paradise. Of course, for a Naturalist like Zola, these observations would probably be seen as a sign of success. The novel is not boring by any means, and I found it to be a very quick read. Some readers may just want to skim through a few of the descriptive sections, although keep in mind that it is in these sections where Zola often surfaces his themes...almost like he's a closet Symbolist (sorry, Emile, I know you're probably rolling in your grave at that jab!).

Mouret remains an interesting character. In him, his merchant father's meticulous attention to detail and his mother's overactive imagination fuse to create an innovative retail genius who has "Paris yielding in a kiss to [him]". This is an apt analogy for the womanizing Octave, who continues to be as libidinous in The Ladies' Paradise as he was in Pot-Bouille. "I've got the women!" Octave repeats over and over to explain his unending success. And his relationship with his customers is almost always described in terms of sexual penetration, possession, and - ultimately - exploitation. The best example of this is a passage where Octave is surrounded by lady customers in the drawing room of his mistress:

"On their laps they could feel the caress of the miraculously fine material, in which their hands fondly lingered. And they kept Mouret tightly imprisoned, overwhelming him with further questions...He had to bend forward now and again...lightly brushing against their hair with his beard as he did so. But in the soft voluptuousness of dusk, surrounded by the warm odor of their shoulders, he still remained their master...they felt penetrated and overcome by his delicate understanding of their secret selves, and they forgot their modesty, overcome by his seductive charm..."

source: The Modern City as a Cultural Object site
The entire process of the store's operation, allure, and the behavior of the women who shop there is constantly described in terms of sexual abandon, complete with the consequences of such abandon. In fact, the introduction makes a point that the rise of department stores (Zola based the Ladies' Paradise on an actual Paris department store, the Bon Marche, which is still in business today) may have provided a degree of mobility and social freedom to women. Of course, as in all things retail, there is a price to be paid.

One price seems to be the dark side of Mouret's capitalistic eclat: the ruin of entire families and ways of life as the Ladies' Paradise ruthlessly destroys dozens of small shop owners around it (very much akin to Walmart today). I do not know whether Zola sat in the Capitalism or Socialist camp. Some of his writing in his previous book Money suggests he found both foolishly idealistic and/or incapable of creating equity due to human nature. In The Ladies' Paradise, Zola seems to accept Mouret's success as inevitable, which justifies the ruin of those who compete with him. I say this based on some of the Zola-isms that pepper the novel, especially towards the end. Some examples:

  • "Death must fertilize the world...the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction."
  • "This manure of distress was necessary to the health of the Paris of the future."
  • "Every revolution demanded its victims, for it was only possible to advance over the bodies of the dead."

Even Zola's morally chaste, gentle heroine - Denise - accepts and supports Mouret's actions, even when they lead to the ruin of people she cares about deeply. She actually loves him more because of it. That said, Zola always strikes me as ambivalent. His tone suggests he views capitalism - and specifically Mouret's actions - as inevitable more than truly desirable. This comes out in his dissection of the operation of the retail giant, which reveals a vast dehumanization at work. Zola's characters are constantly out to "devour" their superiors in order to rise up the ladder. Octave even consciously encourages this 'survival of the fittest' mentality and every year engages in mass firings to cull the gene pool, so to speak. The Ladies' Paradise is presented as a wonderland of silk and satins and gloves that masks a predatory organism beneath. It is a carnivorous beast, a monster.

"In the mechanical workings of the Ladies' Paradise, the staircase in the Rue de la Michodiere constantly disgorged the goods which had been swallowed up by the chute in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, after they had passed through the mechanism of the various departments upstairs." 

However, what creates the surprisingly positive tone of this novel is that Zola turns his usual black views on their head through Denise Baudu, the mild, child-like heroine who is nevertheless quite intelligent, courageous, and capable of deep feeling. In a normal Zola novel, a decent, hard working young woman of conscience is usually doomed. Enough said. I won't go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but it's enough to say that Denise is not dehumanized by the ravenous beast-machine of the Ladies' Paradise and resists "the great seducer" Mouret.

I enjoyed The Ladies' Paradise, both as a novel and as a read. Zola's observations are always thought-provoking, especially around economic issues since he always sidesteps polemic. Even so, I can't say this is not one of Zola's great novels. The plot takes a little too long to move for that. However, Zola's survey of the rise of the department store is a colorful page turner and, for many readers, will likely be one of the few Zola novels that does not repel with the author's often bleak outlook on human nature. (Or maybe I'm just so used to it now that it seems light by comparison!).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Follow-up to 'Phoenixing'

So the reason I blogged about the concept of 'phoenixing' is that I'm in the middle of a life process that is either really mature or just not good at all. In the past, phoenixing was something that just sort of happened. I mean, it took concentrated effort but it's not as if I planned it or anything. I may have become aware that it was happening towards the end, and I can recall a few times dancing to 'New Attitude' by Patti LaBelle when I did realize it (yes, I just admitted that). However, I have never consciously decided to phoenix.

Right now, for the first time, I am making a conscious effort to phoenix. If you've read my blog, you'll notice there are posts titled 'Back To...' Back to Piano. Back to Art. Back to the Gym. Some of these 'back to' entries were premature, because I fell away from the important thing I'd got back to. The reason for all this back to stuff and the mixed results arising from it was my job. It was just sucking up all my time and energy and desire.

I have a new job now, and I work at home. This is a new way of living, and it forces me to reconstruct my life so that my job is an organic part of my existence. My goal is that doing this will allow me to keep going with some of the things I got back to and make a second stab with some of the ones I got back to and then fell away from. Plus, there's plenty I've been wanting to do and just didn't have the time or energy.

So far, my efforts have been modest. I set aside time during my workday for brief mental breaks. For instance, I finish a report and then go play piano for twenty minutes. Or I check some data and then read a few articles in one of my magazines so my pile doesn't get too high. I've started thinking about out how to integrate work outs with work, which is tough because I love to start work early in the morning (as in 6AM!). Just trying out various ways to keep fresh and re-energize myself. Kind of a make-over really.

More broadly, and for after hours, I've created a reading list to keep my momentum going there, and I'm considering going back to school for another Masters degree.  A lot of thinking/dreaming/planning right now, with baby steps of action. However, the idea is that I'm taking back control of my life and, in so doing, am consciously trying to phoenix.  I'm not sure that can work. Never tried it before.

We'll see.

But for now..."I'm in control, my worries are few...ooh ooh, ooh ooh ooooooooh!"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thomas Mann - Death in Venice (1912)

Death in Venice is a short read, probably more a novella than a novel, but it is fascinating. I read the translation by Michael Henry Heim (pictured here) and found it beautifully rendered, though obviously I cannot comment on how 'faithfully' it was translated. I was attracted to this book because - again - it was written by a brilliant author (who happens to be gay) at the start of the last century.

The plot concerns a repressed older man named Gustav Aschenbach, a celebrated writer and leading thinker of his time.  Acting on a sudden impulse, Aschenbach travels in order to reinvigorate his interest in his latest writing project. He ends up in Venice, where he is dazzled by an extremely handsome teen-aged Polish boy named Tadzio. Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio but also learns that there is a deadly cholera outbreak in Venice, which is being hushed up so as not to scare tourists away.

That's a spare plot but, as with most novels from this period, the real point is philosophical and interior. As the novel progresses and Aschenbach becomes more obsessed with Tadzio, he comprehends the immorality of his feelings but has little desire to curb them. As he learns more and more clearly how serious the cholera threat is, he never warns Tadzio or his parents to leave. I found this repulsive and certainly picked out the nasty parallel between the callous greed of the Venetians towards the tourists and Aschenbach's failure to warn the object of his feelings.

If you read no deeper than this, Death in Venice ends up being a tawdry story about a pedophile, complete with self-deluded justifications. However, this is the wrong way to interpret the story. First of all, I question whether Tadzio is real or just in Aschenbach's head. Second, even if Tadzio is real, I don't think Aschenbach's interest in him is truly sexual. Rather, Tadzio is a symbol for 'the ideal youth' Aschenbach missed in his own life and now regrets. For me, the Greek mythological imagery that peppers the text encourages this interpretation. At first, the passages use Greek imagery to describe how handsome Tadzio is (impossibly handsome really). Later this imagery transforms into a nightmarish bacchanal rite. Towards the very end of the book, it transforms again. As Aschenbach follows Tadzio and his family around Venice with the boy looking back to "make certain his admirer was still following him", I read it as a variation on the Orpheus myth with Aschenbach cast as Eurydice. Given that the cholera epidemic is in full rage, the fact Aschenbach loses sight of Tadzio here makes the metaphor fit and resonate. Finally, in the very last page Tadzio is portrayed as if he is a siren, and the ending certainly suggests his 'attractive power' has led to a fatal conclusion.

So what to make of all this? It feels as if Aschenbach (and by extension Mann who was a homosexual pretending to be straight and married) is musing over his youth and the lost potential it represents. Aschenbach fights by breaking his erudite but sterile existence but, more obviously and ridiculously, also has himself literally made-over to try to look younger. From what I have read of other readers' comments, earlier translations of Death in Venice either shroud the homosexual overtones or cast them deliberately as pedophilia, completely missing the point because they are blinded by knee-jerk homophobia.

It probably required a gay man (or critic) at some point to surface the true theme contained in Death in Venice and encourage its translation. This novel is not about a love affair with a teen-age boy (note that the book never goes there). It's about feelings of loss gay men may have when thinking back on our youth before we came out. These are complex feelings because while they involve regret, they do not mean regretting the course of one's life. There is a bittersweet, almost poetic, sensibility bleeding out of Mann's prose. Perhaps this was doomed to be overlooked until attitudes towards homosexuality became less hysterical and newer translations could bring the truth of this novel to light.

Mann understands clearly the danger these emotions represent. At the beginning of chapter three, he has Aschenbach express his disgust for the 'make-over' tactic, when he witnesses the same thing being done by another older man. Mann's only possible point with this passage is to clarify that the attempt to recapture youth is pathetic and doomed to failure. Aschenbach himself, however, is carried away through Tadzio and is "no longer inclined to self-criticism...reluctant to analyze motives". He loses his sense of objectivity and becomes trapped by his regrets, feelings, and musings. He cannot move on, either physically - by leaving Venice - or mentally.

This idea of youth being forever lost is taken to an even deeper level in the text. Mann describes Tadzio - or more specifically youth in general - metaphorically through the myth of Hyacinth who "loved by two gods was doomed to death". Another parallel is drawn to Narcissus, the handsome young man who fell in love with his reflection and died (an obvious cautionary message there). More prosaically, Aschenbach notices that Tadzio bears physical traits that suggest he is not destined to live long. Repeatedly, as the book progresses, there is an inextricable link forged between the beauty or potential of Tadzio/youth and it's fleeting quality.

This all makes it clear that Aschenbach's attraction to Tadzio and his failure to help him by revealing what he knows about the cholera plague is not a story about pedophilia. Mann is writing a goodbye letter to his youthful self. It's about how beautiful our youth is, yet a recognition that it must end and we have to let it go.  We all grow older, and there is an inevitable sense of loss related to this passage.

I'll rest my case by noting Mann wrote Death in Venice after an actual encounter where he saw a handsome young Polish man while on vacation with his family. His wife noted the encounter in interviews but said Mann did not pursue the young man as Aschenbach did. It's also telling that Mann was in his late thirties when he wrote Death in Venice, about the time many men may end up reassessing who they are on some level. I know I did. This passage is often spoofed and dismissed as the 'mid-life crisis', involving fast red cars, comb-overs, divorce, and affairs with bimbos. However, for many men - obviously Mann and definitely for me - it's not like that at all. It's a point to stop and think about the difference between being a 'young man' and a 'man'. Death in Venice is about this rite of passage, although it is a tragedy because it focuses on man who is unable to let go of his youth and move forward.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Phoenixing

image source: thephoenix.webs.com

When I was a kid I loved mythology. Just gobbled it up. Jason and the Argonauts, the twelve labors of Hercules, the Odyssey. You name it, I read it and loved it. I wanted to be these heroes. But there was also a more mystical side to my love of mythology as well, a kind of symbolism I cultivated which came to light in my work as a nascent poet. Chief among these symbols was the phoenix. Naturally it was a symbol of rebirth for me, but it also became a symbol of action in that regard. A verb. Since then, in life, I have several time quite literally 'phoenixed'. I shed an old life for something completely new.

The first time I did it was when I was 15 or 16. But a little background first.

As soon as I hit my teens, I crashed and splattered against a wall of who I was. I had a painfully tough time adjusting to the emotions and attractions that came from being a young gay man who didn't know (and didn't want to know) he was gay. There were no positive role models, plenty of negative ones on TV and in movies, and everyone around me condemning me for being 'different'. It was not unusual for me to be called a 'faggot' by kids at school; some of them clearly hated me for no reason other than that. Besides this, I didn't fit in because I liked music and art and writing, and I didn't care about being popular or going to prom or dressing the right way.

To me, most of the kids around me seemed to have had their lives planned out before they had made any choices for themselves. You go to school, fit in, prepare for college, get a degree in something like business, get a job, work a lot of hours, get married, buy a house, have kids... It felt like a machine sucking living creatures into it and spitting them out as deluded zombies who never had a chance to learn who and what they were before being shellacked with white, protestant, upper middle class values and trajectories. I could tell some kids were okay with it because it's who they were in fact. However, I felt the majority were conforming partially or entirely due to the social pressure to do so. And I rejected this.

Ironically, part of the reason I was able to do so was because I was different. I wasn't well-suited to the gravity of expectations in the town where I grew up. This gave me the breathing space needed to stop, think, resist, and ultimately to fly free of what I saw as a sewer of gleeful self-immolation. Of course, while I was very clear about what I didn't want to be I had no notion of what I did want to be...and in many ways that's the worst situation to be in of them all. And without that guiding understanding or goal, swimming upstream and moving against the grain was even harder. Not licking the boots of the popular kids was a mortal sin, not caring that they thought I dressed funny was criminal, and being different was social poison. Doing all these things with no apparent reason behind it could only come off as 'rebel without a clue'.

Anyway, for several years I was extraordinarily depressed. I felt trapped, spit on, directionless, hopeless. I had a few adults step forward to provide guidance, but the majority - especially teachers at school - were only too eager to ad their voices and hatred to the cacophony of 'the crowd' and its universal condemnation of 'me'. Wheaton is also a very religious town, and the religious institutions I went to or to which my friends tried to introduce me pretty much poured acid on me from the moment they laid eyes on me. It seemed that no matter which way I turned, the door was shut and I was 'other'.

It was art, writing, and music that saved me. My creativity was my sanctuary and my therapy. It was where I could express feelings I could not put into words. I could explore the questions I didn't know how to ask. It was my safety valve, and it kept me going for a good six to eight years. Looking back, when I was writing or drawing, I was in a form of meditation. It was not a very disciplined form of it, but some of the essentials of the practice were there in larval form. So I'm sure this is what helped me to hold onto reality and fight back the delusion around me.

Anyway...back to phoenixing...

When I was 15 or so, long before I'd found my way out of this multi-minotaur labyrinth I had been plopped in the middle of, I had a major insight. I realized that though I had allowed myself not to fit in, I had not embraced my 'otherness'. I didn't realize this in words, but I do remember thinking: "You know what I'm different, and they hate me. So why not be real different? Why not go all the way in that direction?" I openly pursued my creative side; I made over my clothing in the new wave/new romantic style of the early 80s (think Duran Duran, Annie Lennox, and Mad Max) to ensure I stood out; I made a whole new crop of friends. I 'made myself over', not just in appearance but my attitude and my life as well. It was a transformation, and I called it 'phoenixing'.

It was still very hard to stand up for myself, and I still had no idea how to deal with the horrible secret of being gay (which weighed very heavily on me all the time). I still had little sense of where I was going. However, I did feel a certain sense of ease and happiness come to me, the true freedom that comes from embracing yourself and having faith that - wherever the hell I didn't know I was going - I had me. I was happy with that.

Phoenixing was very symbolic for me, almost like my own religious rite. Not to be practiced often and only with the utmost seriousness. Each time, it was as if an old phase of my life and myself were consumed in fire and replaced by something new. It was still the same old me, but the 'next level' so to speak. And I was ready to go in that new phase the moment it happened and propelled myself forward in some important, visible way in a very short period of time. Often with people around me noticing and commenting on the sudden change.

I've phoenixed several times in my life since then. It happened in 1988 as part of my decision to go away to college. Then again in 1990 partly due to my coming out. In 1993, with my move into the city. In 1994, as I changed the direction of my career and life. It happened in 1998 when Jim and I bought the house and I moved back to the burbs for a new life, and it happened in 2007 when I turned 40 and reassessed myself through that lens. In each case, career, home, relationships...my entire direction and self-awareness...changed. I fully expect that it will happen again, perhaps many more times in my life. It's the most important experience in life, because it's about growing.