Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Quote of the Day (Klaus Mann, on a Real Figure of Horror)

“The minister of propaganda, overlord of the spiritual life of millions, limped nimbly through the glittering throng which bowed down before him. An icy wind seemed to blow as he passed. It was as though an evil, solitary and cruel god had clambered down among the everyday bustle of pleasure seeking, cowardly, pitiful mortals. For several seconds the whole company remained as if paralyzed with horror….Hate and humility shone in the timid gazes turned on the fearsome dwarf. The object of attention tried an affable smile, which stretched his thin-lipped mouth from ear to ear, to soften the dreadful spell he cast about him. With a friendly expression in his sly, deep-set eyes, he was at pains to charm and placate. Dragging his clubfoot gracefully behind him, he moved agilely through the room, showing these two thousand slaves, fellow-travelers, swindlers, dupes and fools the profile of a bird of prey. All the while his eyes bore a malicious, abstracted smile as they flitted over the group of millionaires, ambassadors, regimental commanders and film stars. It was when he came to the director of the state theater, Hendrik Hofgen, privy councillor and senator, that his glance at last came to rest.”—German novelist Klaus Mann (1906-1949), Mephisto, translated by Robin Smyth (original publication, 1936; English translation, 1977)

When I was considering a literary work that conveyed an essential quality associated with Halloween, I thought of how the horror genre in fiction and film often acted as a metaphor for the terror of everyday life. Then I imagined instances of how actual historic terror needed little artifice. Nothing to my mind surpasses the rise of Nazism and the monstrous evil it unleashed on the world.

The Faust legend of bartering one’s soul to the Devil, which originated with an actual historical German alchemist of the Renaissance, has long fascinated intellectuals and entertainers in the land in which he was born, but few figures as much as Nobel Literature laureate Thomas Mann and his son Klaus. Both made their Faust stand-in a member of the German culturati: the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas' four-decade saga Doktor Faustus, the actor-turned-theater director Hendrik Hofgen in Klaus’ Mephisto.

Despite choosing the same legend as the source of their work, Thomas and Klaus treated their subjects quite differently. Doktor Faustus is oblique, even elliptical in tying the fate of its protagonist to that of the Third Reich as a whole. In contrast, as seen here, Mephisto is a searing satire of intellectuals exchanging what are ostensibly supposed to be their greatest ideals for personal advancement.

In the opening chapter from which the above quote comes, Klaus Mann gives no names to the members of the Nazi hierarchy, but he identifies them by title and physical appearance so exactly that nomenclature is unnecessary. 

That’s particularly the case with minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels—rendered here in all his physical and moral deformity, in a fashion perhaps only surpassed by King Richard III as dramatized by William Shakespeare.

The figure approached by Goebbels at the end of this quote—making his stage entrance, as it were—is Hendrik Hofgen. The actor-director, about to be complimented by both Goebbels and the propaganda chief’s rival in Adolf Hitler’s circle, Herman Goering, has achieved a career zenith with his production of Goethe’s Faust, in which he has played Mephistopheles, the wily devil who lures Faust into surrendering his soul.

That production will become a defining one, as Hofgen bargains away what he cares for the most—his art—in an attempt to ally with the evil regime stalking his nation.

If the portrait of Hofgen becomes so lacerating, it is partly because Mann knew his subject at close range. The real-life inspiration for Hofgen, Gustaf Gründgens, was in fact Mann’s onetime brother-in-law and fellow sympathizer with the left, but had long since yielded both the family connection and his politics. 

Klaus shared the opinion of his sister Erika that Grundgens’ Weimar-era leftism was “insincere, snobby, and quasi-opportunistic.”

“Opportunistic”—maybe one of the best adjectives one can come up with to describe how the monsters marauding geopolitics came to establish their shadowy dominion. A monster does not rise unaided, but instead with what Klaus Mann aptly summarized as “slaves, fellow-travelers, swindlers, dupes and fools.”

Hitler may have used Goebbels to spread hatred and untruths through radio, movies and theater, just as Donald Trump has employed Steve Bannon to broadcast “alternative facts” through social media. But propaganda mavens need their own henchmen. Bannon has found his among GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill too terrified of their once and future Presidential standard-bearer.

In the 1930s, Germany—the land that had given the world Martin Luther, the author of The Freedom of a Christian—found itself under the sway of Goebbels, “overlord of the spiritual life of millions.” Those intellectuals and entertainers who, unlike the Mann family, did not go into exile soon learned to look the other way, then bend, smile and fawn over the thugs now running their country. 

The “dreadful spell” cast by Goebbels and his minions continues to be felt by the all too susceptible members of our world, three-quarters of a century after the fall of the prematurely named “Thousand-Year Reich.”

Photo of the Day: Weehawken Home Halloween Décor

This past Saturday, while taking a local bus into New York, I took the image accompanying this post. Though this house is located in Weehawken, NJ, I suspect that similar sights could have been seen throughout the state these last several weeks—and, indeed, throughout the nation.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Bedazzled,’ With Satan Confessing to a Long Losing Streak)

George Spiggott [aka Satan] [played by Peter Cook]: “There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas... I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I've come up with recently is advertising.” —Bedazzled (1967), screenplay by Peter Cook, from a story by Dudley Moore, directed by Stanley Donen 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Photo of the Day: Halloween Décor, Downtown Englewood, NJ

I took the photo accompanying this post last week. This bit of seasonal decoration was erected outside an eatery on Palisades Avenue, the shopping district of my hometown, Englewood, NJ. 

Tomorrow, I am betting, parents will be escorting youngsters up and down the avenue, maybe even past this point. Hopefully, the little ones won’t be too scared by what they see.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘No Hard Feelings,’ With a Pet Adoption Q&A at an Animal Shelter)

Percy Becker [played by Andrew Barth Feldman] “Why do you want to adopt a dog?” “

Maddie Barker [played by Jennifer Lawrence]: “Because I can't have dogs on my own.”— No Hard Feelings (2003), screenplay by Gene Stupnitsky and John Phillips, directed by Gene Stupnitsky

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Quote of the Day (C.V. Wedgwood, on Changing Reasons for ‘The Judgment of the Sword’)

“After the expenditure of so much human life to so little purpose, men might have grasped the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgement of the sword. Instead, they rejected religion as an object to fight for and found others.”― English historian C.V. Wedgwood (1910-1997), The Thirty Years War (1938)

With the signing of the second of two treaties, the Peace of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, 375 years ago this month.

I suspect that the two proper nouns in the last sentence will bring a barely visible light to the eyes of many of my readers. They’ll be lucky to hear the dimmest echo of a high school or college world history class, or, if they’re real theater aficionados, they might remember it as the period in which Bertolt Brecht’s fierce antiwar play, Mother Courage and Her Children, is set.

Yet all of this deserves to be better recalled. The lengthy war that came to an end with the strokes of several pens and millions of sighs released resulted in the greatest loss of civilian lives in Europe until the Irish Potato Famine two centuries later.

I bring this up now because of the latest crisis engulfing the Middle East: Hamas’ coordinated terror attacks earlier this month from the Gaza Strip onto adjoining areas of Israel, followed by retaliation by Israel. In the three weeks since the fighting began, 1,400 Israelis and 7,000 Palestinians have already perished—and those totals are sure to climb as Israel prepares a full-scale war.

A couple of weeks ago, after intense exposure on the evening news to the anguish all too present in the region now, a relative of mine, though a regular churchgoer, said he couldn’t believe how much violence has been committed in the name of religion. His stunned disbelief was understandable, but also, in a larger sense, misplaced.

The Peace of Westphalia dealt with the religious elements in the war by instituting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state). But as C.V. Wedgwood noted above, rulers soon would alight on other motives for whipping up hatred.

The Hamas-Israel War has pitted Moslems against Jews in the Mideast, but the conflict goes beyond mere sectarian issues, with lack of a Palestinian homeland, class resentment, and superpower politics also involved. 

In much the same way, the Thirty Years War ostensibly arose from conflicts between Catholics and Protestants hub in Europe, but issues of national sovereignty and balance-of-power issues eventually complicated matters considerably. (Well along in the conflict, Catholic France supported the Protestant principals in an attempt to damage the Holy Roman Empire.)

At this vast remove, we’ll never know for certain exactly how many lives were lost in this protracted conflict, but historians estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of eight million perished.

Human beings have accumulated a wealth of knowledge in the four hundred years since the Thirty Years War broke out, but have yet to ameliorate on a broad scale the tensions of suffering people and the exploitative instincts of their leaders. So it’s all too possible that the body count of the Thirty Years War can be exceeded in our time.

(The image accompanying this post, The Ratification of the Treaty of Munster, was painted in 1648 by Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch.)

Spiritual Quote of the Day (William Shakespeare, on ‘The Instruments of Darkness’)

“Oftentimes to win us to our harm
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s
In deepest consequence.”—Banquo to Macbeth, upon hearing the prophesies of the three witches, in English playwright-poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3 (1606-07).
The image accompanying this post, Macbeth, Banquo and the witches on the heath, was created by England-based Swiss painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).

Saturday, October 28, 2023

This Day in Film History (Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ Acclaimed as Masterpiece Upon Re-Release)

Oct. 28, 1983—A quarter century after it underperformed at the box office and three years after the death of Alfred Hitchcock, the director’s moody psychological thriller Vertigo went back out in limited release in the U.S., giving film fans and critics a chance to reevaluate and better appreciate a work that Time Magazine had infamously termed "another Hitchcock-and-bull story."

Vertigo was one of five “missing Hitchcocks” withdrawn by the director from circulation for more than a decade. 

A London Times article in November 1983 offered several reasons for its disappearing act, including that Hitchcock increased the films’ value through their relative scarcity; that his hard-nosed agent had demanded steep prices for their re-release; and that the director and Paramount had faced lawsuits over the years that, in one case, complicated matters further.

Rear Window, re-released a short time before Vertigo’s, at the 1983 New York Film Festival, had been an unexpected financial success, perhaps benefiting in part from nostalgia over the death the year before of its beloved, glamorous co-star, Grace Kelly. Rope (1948) and The Trouble With Harry (1955) represented offbeat departures from Hitchcock’s higher-budget, studio fare. The fifth movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), was a color, big-budget remake of a project Hitchcock first handled before his move to the U.S.

But Vertigo may have benefited the most from the re-release. 

It had only broken even back in 1958, but over the next decade had become something of a cult classic, courtesy of French critics and American film school students about to make waves in the U.S. motion picture industry (perhaps most notably Brian DePalma, whose 1976 Obsession was—take your pick—an homage or a shameless imitation of “The Master of Suspense.”)

In a blog post from earlier this year commemorating the film’s 65th anniversary, I mentioned that Hitchcock attributed the movie’s disappointing box-office returns to the aging appearance of the 50-year-old James Stewart, who was not an age-appropriate co-star for the 25-year-old Kim Novak.

But it’s doubtful that even a more youthful-looking Cary Grant (whom Hitch would soon cast in the considerably more successful North by Northwest) could have made the story of the acrophobic detective Scottie Ferguson and the “haunted” Madeleine Elster credible. 

So little of this film is realistic at all, including several plot developments. The audience had seen like if anything remotely like this before, including its implied necrophilia and downbeat ending.

Twenty-five years later, American filmgoers had seen far more surreal matter onscreen, as well as far more potentially risqué subject matter. 

Oddy enough, some Hitchcock fans would have been better prepared because of the publication of Donald Spoto’s biography of the director earlier that year, The Dark Side of Genius, to detect a case of art preceding life: in both instances, a lonely middle-aged man (Stewart in Vertigo, Hitchcock offscreen in the making of Marnie)  becoming dangerously obsessed with a cool blonde (on film, Novak; offscreen, Tippi Hedren fending Hitchcock in Marnie).

For a decade, Vertigo even managed to upstage Citizen Kane as #1 on the film magazine Sight and Sound’s list of the greatest films of all time. For ordinary film fans like me, long after its initial mystification has faded, it bears re-watching continually to see and ponder how Hitchcock continued to disturb us all the way to its astonishing conclusion.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘A Man for All Seasons,’ on Men and Angels)

Sir Thomas More [played by Paul Scofield]: “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”—A Man for All Seasons (1966), screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on his play, directed by Fred Zinnemann

Friday, October 27, 2023

Tweet of the Day (Kimmy Monte, on an Unexpected Business Failure)

“My glass coffin company ‘Remains to be Seen’ is not doing as well as I thought it would.”—@ KimmyMonte, tweet of Sept. 29, 2022

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Quote of the Day (Robert Frost, on a ‘Hushed October Morning Mild’)

“O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief,
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963), “October,” in A Boy’s Will (1913)
I took the image accompanying this post, of the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., 15 years ago this week, while vacationing in Boston and its environs.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Quote of the Day (Louise Gluck, With a Promise to ‘Speak Again’)

“I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice.” —American poet and Nobel Literature laureate Louise Gluck (1943-2023), The Wild Iris (1992)
The image accompanying this post, a portrait of Louise Glück used for a poster promoting a reading at the Poetry Center at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, was created ca. 1977-77.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Quote of the Day (V.S. Pritchett, on Happiness in a Late October Day)

“In the late part of that October there was dry weather and not a cloud in the sky for a fortnight. The kind of sky which had sat heavily upon the hills, the fields and the woods in the summer before Dunkley and the girl came to the house, had gone away like some big, yawning countrywoman; and what was left was space, fairer and taller in its blueness. Not only in the early frosted morning when Dunkley looked out after lighting the fire, but at noon and all through the day, they felt that they were stepping out of the house into the clear, prickling water of a spring. If they came out on the sunny side of the house and looked up into the sun’s face, the light striped and drenched them from head to foot, making their toes spread in their shoes; they thought they were standing under a silent and everlasting fountain. This silence of the month was a mark on everything. Even a labourer digging in the garden and bending up from his spade looked down to where the weald of small fields and small lodges met the hangers like a coast of a long vanished sea and said, ‘Isn’t that quiet?’”—English man of letters V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997), “A New World,” Granta, Issue 87 (Fall 2004)

Monday, October 23, 2023

Movie Quote of the Day (‘My Favorite Wife,’ on Complications Following a Wife’s Unexpected Reappearance)

Ellen Wagstaff Arden [played by Irene Dunne] [after being confronted by husband Nick about her seemingly sketchy 7 year disappearance and absence while shipwrecked with another man]: “It just occurs to me that I ought to feel insulted. I go through 7 years of agony. I come home to find my husband in the arms of another woman—married! My children don't know me. And all my husband can think of is, did I carry on with some poor man who wouldn't hurt a fly?”

Nick Arden [played by Cary Grant]: “Oh now, just a moment!”

Ellen: “You 'just a moment'! Did you tell her?”

[referring to Bianca]

Nick: “Hmm?”

Ellen [mercilessly mimicking him again]: “'Hmm'? Did you?”

Nick [flustered]: “Well...”

Ellen: “No, ya got into costume.”

[referring to his garish tiger print robe]

Nick: “I was about to tell her when...”

Ellen: “How long does it take to tell a woman 'My wife's come back'? I can say it in 2 seconds: 'my wife's come back'. You've had 2 days.”—My Favorite Wife (1940), screenplay by Bella and Sam Spewack, directed by Garson Kanin

Sunday, October 22, 2023

This Day in Football History (Columbia Begins Stupefying, Epic Non-Winning Streak)

Oct. 22, 1983—Facing Bucknell in front of a mere 3,800 fans at Hofstra Stadium, Columbia University’s football team managed a 31-31 tie. 

The outcome, though not all they could have wished, left the Lions looking forward to their opponent the next weekend, Holy Cross, with a losing but still not disastrous 1-3-1 record. But that would change quickly.

The not-disastrous part, I mean.

Seven days on, Columbia was annihilated in Massachusetts by Holy Cross, 77-28, and the following weekend tied again, this time with Dartmouth, 17-17. Those two ties in the space of three weeks was the closest the squad would come to winning over 47 games. 

In fact, the penultimate game of the season, a crushing 31-6 loss to Cornell in Ithaca, began a then-record 44-game losing streak that left fans shaking their heads and the rest of the nation simply astonished that this could be happening.

That Lion you see in the logo accompanying this post? During those years, it was a toothless creature that scared few if any opponents in their right minds.

Let me put this another way that might help you better understand the frustration of the Columbia  players: Those who began playing in the 1984 season would graduate without winning a single game.

Like most of the student body in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in the time preceding what alumni still call "The Streak," I had followed the team’s (mis)fortunes at something of an emotional remove. During my four years, I didn’t attend games—a part-time job occupied my time on weekends instead—and had gotten used to hearing about its misfortunes. 

Most of my friends saw the team’s 6-31-1 record during that time as regrettable, but they had their minds on other matters: handling a demanding academic workload, participating in their own extracurricular activities, and/or simply surviving New York City when it was only slowly emerging from its mid-Seventies trough.

That nonchalant attitude couldn’t have been more different from my high school in Northern New Jersey. We had experienced our own season without a win my season year, but it was regarded as an aberration from a tradition of winning and even championships that began when Vince Lombardi started his coaching career there in 1939. Athletes were the gods of the school, with academics hardly so stringent as to hinder football participation.

Columbia had its own tradition of gridiron glory—the third school to play intercollegiate football, back in 1870; a legendary 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford; a 1961 Ivy League championship. But in recent years, the stench of failure had grown stronger and harder to eradicate, with only two winning seasons since the latter title.

The team appeared to have turned a corner when I arrived on campus in 1978, jumping off to a 3-1-1 start under its young, charismatic head coach, Bill Campbell. Then, after it was blown out by Rutgers 69-0 at Giants Stadium, things were never the same. 

It did not win another game that year, and midway through 1979, after the losing continued and Campbell was briefly hospitalized for exhaustion, the coach announced he would be stepping down at the end of the season.

The following years would prove that the failures of the program were hardly Campbell’s fault. “Coaching a Columbia football team may be the most frustrating job in the Ivy League or possibly in all of college football,” noted New York Times reporter Gordon S. White Jr. in his discussion of Campbell’s resignation, citing a home field considerably distant from its Morningside Heights campus and difficulties recruiting athletes.

White might also have mentioned another turnoff to prospective athletes: Baker Field, a 32,000 wooden-seat stadium that had been around for a half century. 

At that structure’s final game in the 1982 season, fans tore out the seats (with some even having smuggled saws into the stands for that purpose) and carried off their booty onto the nearby subway station after—need I say it?—another loss for the home team.

It was a sign of the team’s continuing struggle to escape from oblivion, though, that even the opening of new, gleaming Lawrence A. Wien Stadium didn’t mark a turnaround in the program’s fortunes. In other words, "The Streak" continued unabated.

By this time, as an alum with weekends now blissfully free, I was attending home games when I could. It was just my luck that this took place as losing became more entrenched.

Fans attempted to cheer themselves with halftime entertainment provided by the team’s irreverent marching band and gallows humor of their own. In one contest, as the opposing team marched up the field on an offensive drive, several alumni around me shouted blitz suggestions to the coaches:

“Send the linebacker!” yelled one.

“Send the end!” screamed another.

“Send in the clowns!” my friend Alan offered.

“Don’t bother, they’re here!” countered another Sondheim aficionado.

The nadir of the losing struggle may have been reached after the opening game of the 1985 season, courtesy of head coach Jim Garrett. The Columbia administration may have hired this former WFL and Boston College coach to adjust the team’s attitude. It never reckoned that what needed to be reset was the coach’s volatility rather than any defeatism on the part of his players.

The team was leading 17-0 toward the end of the third quarter against Harvard when the Crimson scored 49 unanswered points in a mere 20 minutes. In an angry post-mortem delivered to a New York Times reporter, Garrett used the words “drug-addicted losers” and singled the team’s longtime punter out for special criticism, in remarks that spiraled into hysteria:

''Don't tell me it's a college atmosphere. This is an atmosphere that creates people for the future. I want to see him when he graduates and goes to work downtown on Wall Street and does three things that he did today. See how long he is gonna work for that company, how long Merrill Lynch or Smith Barney is gonna have him around.”

To be fair, even after his quick, ignominious exit at the end of that inglorious season, Garrett had his defenders. A 2018 post on “Roar Lions,” “the unofficial fan blog of Columbia University football,” featured comments from former players noting that he had been misquoted (the coach claimed he had said the team was like drug-addicted losers rather than they were), that they didn’t want him to go, that the real problem lay with a university administration that did little to support the program, that he was at heart honest and a better person than his successor, and that the team would have thrived if Garrett’s sons (including future Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett) hadn't left with their father.

All these claims may have been true. But whatever hypothetical success in strategy or motivation that Garrett might have achieved, with or without his talented progeny, doesn’t get around the fact that after a certain point, it doesn’t matter if athletes accept mistreatment as part of the program: abuse, whether physical or otherwise, is still abuse.

And, by telling the squad that the punter would never play for him again, then publicly trashing him in such a ridiculous and unwarranted fashion, Garrett had humiliated one individual and made the university’s sports program a subject of nationwide ridicule.

Too bad that the replacement of Garrett as head coach did not mark a swift upturn in the team’s fortunes. Yet I continued to attend home games loyally.

Until, that is, October 8, 1988. I listened to the weather reports carefully that day: windy, cold, maybe even rain, with gray skies not helping matters. And the Lions would be facing Princeton, which had a 2-1 record and Jim Garrett’s quarterback son Jason itching to avenge his father's termination.

What were the odds that this afternoon contest would turn out well? I decided to spare myself a strong chance of a cold on the slim possibility of a Lions win.

Wouldn’t you know that Columbia beat the Princeton Tigers that day, 16-13, in front of 5,400 flabbergasted but delighted spectators?

During the team’s streak, I had tried to make every home contest I could—but I chose to sit out The Big One. The story of my life, I guess.

As George Harrison had philosophically advised me and other Baby Boomers nearly two decades before, all things must pass. And so it turned out for Columbia University’s dubious NCAA losing-streak record, surpassed by Prairie View A&M, which lost 80 consecutive games from 1989 to 1998. 

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Thomas Aquinas, on Heaven's ‘Happy Society of All the Blessed’)

“In heaven there will be the happy society of all the blessed, and this society will be especially delightful. Since each one will possess all good together with the blessed, and they will love one another as themselves, they will rejoice in the others’ good as their own. It will also happen that, as the pleasure and enjoyment of one increases, so will it be for all: ‘The dwelling in you is as it were of all rejoicing.’” [Ps 86:7 Vulgate].— St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) [Angelic] Doctor of the Church, Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum [The Apostles’ Creed”], translated by Joseph B. Collins (1939)

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Quote of the Day (Tacitus, on an Earlier ‘Period Rich in Disasters’)

“I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors. Four emperors perished by the sword. There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once. There was success in the East, and disaster in the West…. Now too Italy was prostrated by disasters either entirely novel, or that recurred only after a long succession of ages; cities in Campania's richest plains were swallowed up and overwhelmed; Rome was wasted by conflagrations, its oldest temples consumed, and the Capitol itself fired by the hands of citizens. Sacred rites were profaned; there was profligacy in the highest ranks; the sea was crowded with exiles, and its rocks polluted with bloody deeds. In the capital there were yet worse horrors. Nobility, wealth, the refusal or the acceptance of office, were grounds for accusation, and virtue ensured destruction. The rewards of the informers were no less odious than their crimes; for while some seized on consulships and priestly offices, as their share of the spoil, others on procuratorships, and posts of more confidential authority, they robbed and ruined in every direction amid universal hatred and terror. Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freedmen to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends.”—Roman historian and politician Tacitus (AD 56 – c. 120), The Histories (109 AD), translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb

Believe it or not, I felt a strange sense of comfort along with a shock of recognition as I read this passage from the first book of Tacitus’ Histories, amid a week marked by two horrible wars abroad and disorder in the party controlling the House of Representatives.

The recognition, of course, came with events eerily similar to those involving the U.S. in the first quarter of the 21st century, including a Capitol coming under assault from its own citizens, the refugees flooding the borders, the mocking of the sacred, and corruption, crime, and betrayal everywhere.

The comfort derived from the realization that other civilizations have experienced—and even survived—as much, if not more. The era covered in the great writer’s Histories extended from the chaos after the death of the emperor Nero in AD 69 to AD 96, the end of Domitian's reign.

But Domitian was followed by nearly a century in which “The Five Good Emperors” brought Rome to the height of its reach and influence.

Maybe then, as now, much depends on the credibility and stability of the leaders of the land.

(The image accompanying this post is The Course of Empire: Destruction, created by the English-born American painter Thomas Cole in 1836. It is the four in a series of five paintings tracing the rise and fall of Rome. The concluding painting in the series, if you want to know, was Desolation.

For a succinct analysis of what Tacitus can teach contemporary journalists about how “to hold those in power to account without jeopardising their respectability, and, ultimately, their credibility,” I recommend the “Tacitus, Rhetoric, and Reporting Power” post from the “Hestia” blog of Trinity College Dublin Classics.”)

Friday, October 20, 2023

Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on the Need to “Leave Out the Vocal Parts’ in Wagner Operas)

“The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, of course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a [Richard] Wagner opera done in pantomime once. Then one would have the lovely orchestration unvexed to listen to and bathe his spirit in, and the bewildering beautiful scenery to intoxicate his eyes with, and the dumb acting couldn't mar these pleasures, because there isn't often anything in the Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of silent people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies. Of course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in reaching first one hand out into the air and then the other might suggest the sport I speak of if the operator attended strictly to business and uttered no sound.”—American novelist and humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), “Mark Twain at Beyreuth” (often called “At the Shrine of St. Wagner”), originally printed in the Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 6, 1891, included in Mark Twain’s Travel Letters From 1891-92 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Quote of the Day (Ernest K. Gann, on ‘The Emergencies You Train For’)

“The emergencies you train for almost never happen. It’s the one you can’t train for that kills you.”—American aviator, author, sailor, and conservationist Ernest K. Gann (1910-1991), The Black Watch: The Men Who Fly America's Secret Spy Planes (1989)

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Quote of the Day (H. G. Wells, on Peace and a Sense of History)

“The need for a common knowledge of the general facts of human history throughout the world has become very evident during the tragic happenings of the last few years. Swifter means of communication have brought all men closer to one another for good or for evil. War becomes a universal disaster, blind and monstrously destructive; it bombs the baby in its cradle and sinks the food-ships that cater for the non-combatant and the neutral. There can be no peace now, we realize, but a common peace in all the world; no prosperity but a general prosperity. But there can be no common peace and prosperity without common historical ideas. Without such ideas to hold them together in harmonious co-operation, with nothing but narrow, selfish, and conflicting nationalist traditions, races and peoples are bound to drift towards conflict and destruction. This truth, which was apparent to that great philosopher Kant a century or more ago — it is the gist of his tract upon universal peace — is now plain to the man in the street. Our internal policies and our economic and social ideas are profoundly vitiated at present by wrong and fantastic ideas of the origin and historical relationship of social classes. A sense of history as the common adventure of all mankind is as necessary for peace within as it is for peace between the nations.”—English science-fiction author H. G. Wells (1866-1946), The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920)

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Quote of the Day (Roy T. Bennett, on ‘The Simplest Act of Gratitude’)

“Everyone enjoys being acknowledged and appreciated. Sometimes even the simplest act of gratitude can change someone's entire day. Take the time to recognize and value the people around you and appreciate those who make a difference in your lives.”— American author and speaker Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart: Inspirational Thoughts for Living Your Best Life (2021)

The image accompanying this post comes from the 1999 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, with Ray Winstone playing Abel Magwitch—an escaped convict whose gratitude to the young Pip will be demonstrated in a most unusual way.

Monday, October 16, 2023

This Day in Film History (‘The Way We Were’ Scores After Off-Screen Script Struggles)

Oct. 16, 1973— The Way We Were, a bittersweet, through-the-years drama starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, premiered at last in New York City, after undergoing multiple rewrites and backstage bickering that, miracle of miracles, resulted in a box-office hit and placement among the American Film Institute’s list of the top romantic movies.

The film also firmly established Redford—whose career had been inexorably building momentum for a decade—as the male romantic idol of his generation—ironically, for a role that, in its initial incarnation, he saw as such a “Ken doll” that he had rejected it.

More than a few fans of this classic might be surprised to learn that its heterosexual couple were a projection of the relationship between screenwriter Arthur Laurents and his lover of the late Forties and early Fifties, actor Farley Granger.

In both cases, a Jewish screenwriter with outspoken leftist sympathies (Laurents in real life, Streisand as the film’s Katie Morosky) falls in love with a WASP of startling good looks (Granger, and Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner), only to see the relationship founder. 

Streisand, committed to the project from the start, recognized that the film needed a male co-star of unusual magnetism. She thought she saw it in Redford, “an intellectual cowboy…a charismatic star who is also one of the finest actors of his generation.”

“What intrigued me most about Bob was his complexity,” Streisand recalls in her upcoming memoir, My Name Is Barbra (excerpted in the November issue of Vanity Fair). “You never quite know what he’s thinking, and that makes him fascinating to watch onscreen. Like the greatest movie stars, Bob understands the power of restraint. You’re never going to get it all…and that’s the mystery…that’s what makes you want to keep looking at him.”

To Streisand’s disappointment, Redford initially rejected the role as being little more than a love object. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer, beginning a process where as many as 10 screenwriters were enlisted (most crucially, Alvin Sargent, David Rayfiel, and even Paddy Chayefsky and Francis Ford Coppola) to make Katie more appealing and, more important, Hubbell a figure of substance and complexity.

With every rewrite, Laurents saw less of his original, and it infuriated him, particularly on what he saw as the softened subplot involving the Hollywood blacklist. Streisand and, to a lesser extent, Redford also objected to the de-emphasis on politics.

But director Sydney Pollack, already under enormous pressure from balancing the contrasting acting styles of his stars (Streisand loved constant rehearsals and additional takes; Redford felt he grew more stale the longer it lasted), battling with producer Ray Stark, and making sense of all the different scripts, was also getting static from Columbia Pictures, which desperately needed a hit to stave off bankruptcy.  

It all come to a head after a disastrous Friday night preview. Frustrated by his inability to integrate the passion and the politics, Pollack decided to cut five scenes—all with political overtones.

Nearly a decade later, Pollack would engage in another clash about the meaning of a movie with a significant figure: Dustin Hoffman, who saw Tootsie as being about what an actor would go through for his craft while the director conceived it as how a male could become a better man.

Both movies became enormous hits, but The Way We Were left a far more bitter residue. The outspoken Laurents remained bitter to the end of his life about the violence Pollack did to his script. For his part, the director felt that at the end of the day, the movie was a love story.

For all the battle over the movie’s words, a crucial contributor to its eventual success—in a way that audiences may not fully appreciate—is its theme music. I’m not talking simply about the fact that the song, with its nostalgia-tinged lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, won an Oscar for Best Original Song as well as the Grammy for Song of the Year.

No, I’m also referring to how it opened up audience tear ducts during the film’s ending. Composer Marvin Hamlisch, thinking the audience would grow tired of his theme after two hours, had used different music for the goodbye scene between Katie and Hubbell. At first, he couldn’t understand why audiences didn’t react the way he wanted.

When he realized the problem—they needed to hear that theme music again!—Columbia Pictures wouldn’t come up with the $15,000 cost of redoing the scene. So Hamlisch took it out of his own paycheck.

Did the studio suits ever recompense him? You got me. Maybe they thought that Oscar and Grammy were all the rewards he needed. In any case, that soaring ballad got a lot of people’s minds off a script that had given countless people agita.

(See Sarah Jae Leiber's interesting discussion on the Jewish Women's Archive about how The Way We Were concludes that "civility alone cannot sustain loving relationships where core principles are misaligned.")

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Mean Girls,’ on a Member of One High School’s Elite)

Janis Ian” [played by Lizzy Caplan]: “That little one, that's Gretchen Wieners.”

Damian [played by Daniel Franzese]: “She's totally rich because her dad invented Toaster Streudels.”

Janis: “Gretchen Wieners knows everybody's business—she knows everything about everyone.”

Damian: “That's why her hair is so big—it's full of secrets.”—Mean Girls (2004), screenplay by Rosalind Wiseman and Tina Fey, directed by Mark Waters

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Deuteronomy, on How God Led the Ancient Israelites Out of Affliction)

“My father was a wandering Aramean
who went down to Egypt with a small household
and lived there as an alien.
But there he became a nation
great, strong, and numerous.
When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us,
imposing hard labor upon us,
we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers,
and he heard our cry
and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
He brought us out of Egypt
with his strong hand and outstretched arm,
with terrifying power, with signs and wonders;
and bringing us into this country,
he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey.”— Deuteronomy 26: 5-9
The image accompanying this post, “The Crossing of the Red Sea,” was painted from 1481 to 1482 by Italian Renaissance artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439-1507), as a fresco for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. That miracle was one of the “signs and wonders” alluded to in the passage above.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Quote of the Day (Virginia Woolf, on Why ‘The Past Is Beautiful’)

“[T]he past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” —English novelist-essayist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three: 1925-1930, edited by Anne Olivier Bell assisted by Andrew McNeillie (1981)

Friday, October 13, 2023

This Day in Literary History (‘Turn of the Screw’ Scares Up Much-Needed Sales for Henry James)

Oct. 13, 1898—As The Turn of the Screw came out in book form following its serialization in Colliers’ earlier in the year, Henry James didn’t bother to hide his disgust with this “abject, down-on-all-fours pot-boiler, pure & simple, that a proud man brought low ever perpetrated.”

Readers, however, differed sharply, making this “ghost story” the novelist’s most successful work of fiction since Daisy Miller over two decades before. In time, James—needing the money from this tale of terror to boost his finances, and its widespread acclaim to soothe his spirit from his recent disastrous foray into the theater—came to feel differently about it, too.

I’m sure he would feel surprised but delighted that even Ivy League English departments today put it on their reading lists for American Lit classes.

What has made the novella so enduringly popular, 125 years after publication? Successive generations have discovered something creepy in this study in ambiguity that has left readers guessing as much as frightened.

In the late Victorian Era when the tale came out, readers would have picked on the fact that the story is being told “on Christmas eve in an old house.” Ghost stories told by the fireside remained an English tradition during the holidays. Already, the atmosphere in the tale is threatening.

Well into the 20th century, critics offered Freudian interpretations of what transpired. Did the ghosts of past servant Peter Quint and governess Miss Jessel really exist—or did they spring from the imagination of the neurotic new, unnamed governess, the sheltered daughter of a vicar who may have been projecting her own sexual fantasies onto others?

Or was James being prescient but careful in alerting readers to child molestation—a crime that, like many other sexual matters, could not be discussed openly in the repressive late-Victorian age?

Structurally, Turn of the Screw is an “envelope story”—a story within a story, with one narrator hearing the tale from another, who yields it in turn to another. This framing device—influencing, among other cases, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Willa Cather’s My Antonia—seemingly testifies to the credibility of the narrative.

But that very authority is undercut in the prologue by complications of time that are disclosed. Consider:

*It opens in our age (or, for Victorians, their) age;

*The narrator immediately says the events are in the past;

*Douglas’ narration of the tale happens two days after the fireside scene;

*A short time elapses when the narrator transcribes the governess’ manuscript;

*Still further back in time, when Douglas reads the governess’ manuscript, which had been willed to him;

*Earlier still, when the governess writes the manuscript;

*Yet earlier still, when the governess tells Douglas the events;

*Earlier yet, when the events took place.

In short, the events happened 50 years before the tale proper begins. The possibility can’t be ruled out that some of what happens has been misremembered, forgotten, suppressed—or made up.

A few words should also be said about the employer of the governess, “a bachelor in the prime of life…handsome and bold and pleasant, off-hand and gay and kind.” Left as guardian of little Flora and Miles through the death of their parents, he has no experience in dealing with children, and neither the time nor the wish to be bothered with them.

So he offers the governess the job, with the provisos that she will have absolute authority over them and he is not to be disturbed by news of them. She accepts, carried away by his looks and manner—and, Douglas relates, “She never saw him again.”

The governess comes to believe not only that Flora and Miles have seen Quint and Miss Jessel, but that they’re somehow in league with the apparitions. But James never reveals what, if anything, happened between the children and the dead house help, leaving the reader to infer the most horrifying possibilities.

As R.W.B. Lewis perceptively notes in his family biography, The Jameses, The Turn of the Screw was written when both Henry and his brother William, the pioneering psychologist- philosopher, had become increasingly concerned with the supernatural.

Though Henry wrote the first of his 10 ghost stories as far back as 1868, they grew in number, length, and psychological complexity in the 1890s, as more family members and friends passed away.

This genre also enabled the novelist to extend, in a realm he never imagined, the dramatic devices and themes he had learned in his brief attempt to conquer the London theater world (culminating in the disastrous play Guy Domville, a fiasco I discussed in this blog post from 15 years ago).

The dramatic possibilities of The Turn of the Screw have been exploited by others in several genres in the 20th and 21st centuries:

*As the play The Innocents, written by William Archibald;

*As a 1961 movie by the same name, written by Archibald and Truman Capote and starring Deborah Kerr (shown in the image accompanying this post);

*Several TV adaptations;

*Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera The Turn of the Screw.