Thursday, January 31, 2013

Quote of the Day (Robert Louis Stevenson, on the ‘Only End of Life’)

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.”-- Robert Louis Stevenson, Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882)

(Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Quote of the Day (George Orwell, on Mahatma Gandhi)

“One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind.”—George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi,Partisan Review, January 1949

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” begins a seminal essay by George Orwell on Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated on this date in 1948 by a Hindu nationalist, just as the “Great Soul” entered a prayer meeting. That first line is a typically irreverent, you-don’t-fool-me comment from a writer disinclined toward accepting sweeping cosmic truths, whether given down by religions or governments. All the more remarkable, then, his equally memorable conclusion, quoted above, on “how clean a smell” Gandhi left behind in the political realm through the Indian independence movement.

The only comparable instance of a writer won over, despite his skepticism, by a religious figure or group—at least that I know of—was Francis Parkman. The epic chronicler of France and England in North America was at pains, throughout his multi-volume history, to make clear that it was a great thing that Catholic France had lost out to Protestant England in the quest to colonize North America. Yet even he had to admire the sheer physical courage displayed by French Jesuits who experienced torture and martyrdom as they struggled to convert Native Americans in the New World.

Similarly, though Orwell held no belief in an afterlife and might be best described as an atheist, he came to marvel at the Indian activist’s anti-imperialism and his refusal to make class distinctions.

While in London on a business trip last week, I learned that BBC Radio was running a series on “The Real George Orwell.” I haven’t noticed any reading in this series of this important meditation on Gandhi, perhaps because it is not as dramatic nor as autobiographical as others. But its reading of the man who influenced people the world over in the decades after his death with his philosophy of nonviolence---especially Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—remains scrupulously fair--pretty remarkable, considering how close to the events they were--acute and valuable. That was more than neoconservatives could summon 30 years ago when Richard Attenborough's biopic Gandhi came out, as demonstrated in Jason DeParle's fine essay in The Washington Monthly.

(Associated Press photograph of Gandhi taken in 1946, now part of the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Network,’ on How We Became ‘Mad As Hell’)

Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, pictured): “I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV's while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad - worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!' I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"—Network (1976), screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet

He was born Sidney Aaron Chayefsky in the Bronx on this date in 1923, but the world came to know him as Paddy Chayefsky, award-winning writer of screenplays and teleplays.

His birthplace provided many of the characters and themes in the first significant part of his career, the live dramas he created in television’s first decade of promise, the Fifties. Shows such as Marty and The Catered Affair featured realistic settings and naturalistic dialogue, spoken by second-generation, blue-collar New Yorkers just trying to make it from week to week, barely able to articulate their frustration and loneliness. (From Marty: “Ma, sooner or later, there comes a point in a man's life when he's gotta face some facts. And one fact I gotta face is that, whatever it is that women like, I ain't got it.”) These, Chayefsky once noted in explaining his early success, were “the people I understand—the $75-to-$125-a-week kind.”

Two decades after Chayefsky left television, his scathing dissection of the medium that made him famous, Network, premiered. After watching it for the first time, I asked a relative what he thought of it. “It was a nonstop lecture,” he grumbled.

You don’t hear that kind of opinion too much these days, at least among the chattering classes that have taken the film to heart, but I know what my relative meant, even if I disagreed with him on the movie’s ultimate value. 

Like George Bernard Shaw, Chayefsky was using his characters as thinly disguised mouthpieces for his own opinions—only in this case, the opinions were not couched in paradox, but in furious jeremiads. The “$75-to-$125-a-week kind” of characters in which Chayefsky once specialized—the kind my parents and their generation were—no longer appeared in his work. What we saw on the screen now was another matter entirely—different in tone, character and audience.

Critics as well as film and TV professionals such as West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin have hailed Network as a prophetic denunciation of a corporate-driven medium that exploits the worst nihilistic instincts of viewers. (Former Washington Post critic Tom Shales even has gone so far as to write that the movie might be "the most prophetic ever made.") That is true, so far as it goes.

But this “Movie Quote of the Day,” containing one of the most famous lines in film history—“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”—hints at the wider ambitions of his Oscar-winning screenplay. “I never meant this film to be an attack on television as an institution in itself, but only as a metaphor for the rest of the times,” he wrote in letters to two TV newsmen (probably Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor).

Just as The Catered Affair can be seen as a companion piece to his other early teleplay, Marty (both, of course, converted to films starring Ernest Borgnine), Network can be seen as a counterpart to his first Academy Award-winning script from the Seventies, The Hospital (1971), starring George C. Scott.  The similarities are striking, as both films:

*Feature madmen—a murderer who roams the halls in The Hospital, a fired anchorman who becomes a sensation of the airwaves for his rants in Network.

*Include long, rhetorical outbursts—Sorkinesque, if you will—by hypereducated main characters.

*Spotlight much younger women—played by Diana Rigg in The Hospital and Faye Dunaway in Network—whose affairs with the protagonists are short-lived.

*Contain, as their moral centers, burnt-out middle-aged men, who find they are not only barely able to survive themselves, but also called upon to stand against the forces afflicting their institutions from within and without. Herbert Bock (played by George C. Scott) is an alcoholic chief of medicine in a major teaching hospital in The Hospital, and Max Schumacher (played by William Holden) is a news-division president aghast at what is occurring in his operation in Network.

*Anatomize national unrest that threatens to overwhelm the protagonists’ institutions—a strike at The Hospital, terrorism (plus all the events mentioned by Howard Beale in today’s “’Movie Quote”) in Network.

Monday, January 28, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Published)

January 28, 1813—Advertisements first began to appear for Pride and Prejudice, noting only that they were written by the author of Sense and Sensibility. The only indication of the identity of the latter was that it was written “By a Lady.” Like the earlier title, this one earned positive reviews.

Although it would go on to become the most popular novel by Jane Austen (pictured)—as well as her own personal favorite-- Pride and Prejudice still only earned her £110. That would only have confirmed the author in her belief that the economic situation of women without support by a husband or brothers was precarious indeed.

It was Austen’s genius to turn that predicament into a rich comedy of manners and morals that sprang from, but triumphantly outlived, its Napoleonic Wars setting, starting with an ironic opening line that has become among the most quoted in literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." 

Its saucy heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and the haughty Mr. Darcy have taken their place alongside Benedick and Beatrice of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as verbal sparring partners who discover, to their mutual astonishment, that they are in love with each other.

I cannot think of a great work that does not spring, at some level, from the events and atmosphere of the time in which it was created, and Pride and Prejudice is no exception. Many might be reluctant to discuss anything that takes the reader outside the glittering text itself. 

But in a couple of respects, appreciation of the novel can be deepened through understanding the historical context:

1)      Marriage and money. This is the more obvious of the points, both because of feminist scholarship and the even more intensive exploration of this theme nearly a century later by Henry James and Edith Wharton. As Melanie McDonagh explained in a commentary last week in the London Evening Standard on a major difference between Austen’s time and ours: “Marriage is no longer the rationale of female life because we have other ways to earn our living, our place in the world. Because that’s so, the business of getting married loses its critical economic character and quite a lot of its dramatic and literary significance.” More than spinsterhood looms for the five Bennet girls if they don’t land husbands—they become, in effect, millstones dragging down their entire families. Well, they did have one other choice: becoming a governess. But, from Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Anne (Agnes Grey) Bronte, we have a pretty good idea about the dangers in that, don't we?

      2) The presence of soldiers in provincial life. From the French Revolution to Waterloo, Britain’s constant state of war (or edgy peace) guaranteed that soldiers would constantly be passing through the English countryside. More than today, even, a man in uniform was magnetic, and someone fighting to defend the nation against Napoleon seemed impossibly charismatic to females barely beyond girlhood. Unfortunately, many of those soldiers were not all they seemed. They might be scapegraces no longer welcome in their aristocratic families, or those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum with little prospect of moving up the class-dominated upper ranks of the military. Above all, the transitory nature of military life meant that soldiers' pasts could not easily be checked and that they could move on easily after having their way with local girls. With two brothers in the Royal Navy, Austen would have been under few illusions about such men, and she satirized their hold on the young and impressionable Lydia and Kitty Bennet, who were “well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the headquarters.”

In this environment, wise parents were called for—not too moralistic, lest they be too easily dismissed by their iconoclastic children, but thoughtful and level-headed.  Neither Bennet parent measures up. Given her feverish attempts at matchmaking, it’s no surprise that Mrs. Bennett fails.

But it is that Mr. Bennet does. His constant stream of witticisms, more often than not directed at his flighty wife, rank among the best lines in the book (e.g., “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them in our turn?” he tells Elizabeth.) 

But for all his levity, he provides his daughters with no practical advice. The only male in the household, he is so overwhelmed by his wife and daughters that he, in effect, abdicates any interest in their outcomes. 

In his way, he is as thoughtless as his wife, since he saved no money when he was making a relatively comfortable living, believing that he would sire sons who could take up the economic burden of his daughters.

The result: Lydia, the youngest and most vulnerable, faces social ruin when she takes up with the rakish soldier George Wickham.

The Lydia-Wickham subplot goes a long way to establishing why Austen titled her initial version of the novel First Impressions. The latter title, though not as alliterative nor as binary as the eventual one used, neatly accounts for three instances of appearance vs. reality in the book:

*Mr. Bennet might be superficially amusing company, but he takes no effective interest in the welfare of his daughters;

*Wickham, good-looking, charming and mannerly on the surface, is, in fact, a seducer and snake who has left a trail of emotional destruction behind—and nearly does so again with Lydia; and

*Darcy might be stiff-necked, proud, and, as Sebastian Faulks argues, “a man suffering from chronic depression, dwelling on the past, but unable to take responsibility for his own actions.” But he proves himself upright and, before Wickham can run off, persuades him to marry Lydia.

As she wrote, nothing was lost on her, noted Alistair Cooke in a chapter on a TV version of Pride and Prejudice in a coffee-table volume Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre

"Jane was an expert needlewoman; she played the piano, went to dances, flirted some of the time; but all the time she quite simply and systematically watched the fussies and follies of the people around her and intimate form of satirical novel."