Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Quote of the Day (Truman Capote, on the Sky)

“It’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes.” —American fiction writer, essayist and screenwriter Truman Capote (1924-1984), Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958)

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

This Day in British History (Charles I Execution: From Monarch to Martyr?)

Jan. 30, 1649—Irreconcilable differences on the prerogatives of the British crown and Parliament, worsened by century-old sectarian divisions, reached a bloody climax as King Charles I was beheaded, in a public ceremony that backfired on the Puritan Parliament contingent that pressed for his execution.

Over the last three decades in Great Britain, with the mystery that long protected the Windsor dynasty dissipating, sentiment has risen for an end to the monarchy. But with the execution of Charles and the subsequent inability to replace it with a truly democratic, republican alternative, that opportunity may well have been squandered for good.

One of Charles’ most significant military opponents, Oliver Cromwell, the third member of Parliament to sign the king’s arrest warrant, emerged from the post-execution turbulence as the leader of the government. Poor health limited the “Lord Protector” to a reign of only nine years.

With Cromwell’s son Richard unable to wield power effectively as his successor, adherents of the monarchy helped bring back the Stuarts. The subsequent “Restoration” with Charles’ son, Charles II, at its center, inaugurated an era far removed from the Puritan piety preached and enforced by Cromwell--until, that is, James II--with little of his brother's political nimbleness, and openly professing Catholicism--ran afoul of Parliament, just as his father had, and likewise lost his throne 40 years later.

The strategy pursued by Cromwell and his followers—end Charles I’s life publicly, for all to see—differed from how Charles’ grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been dispatched by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, for plotting her assassination.

That beheading occurred in Fotheringhay Castle, in Northamptonshire, with a limited number of eyewitnesses—and a good thing, too, because Mary’s death was regarded as unusually brutal even by the standards of her time.

Cromwell and his Puritan "New Model Army" convincingly defeated Charles on the battlefield, but the king's trial and execution were far less adroitly handled. 

Consider the following, all of which undermined the legitimacy of the case for many onlookers:

*The government had to be dissolved by force;

*The House of Lords would not sanction the trial, so that had to be dissolved;

*The House of Commons had been purged of opponents of the New Model Army, leaving only a "Rump Parliament":

*The House of Commons had never before served as a judicial body.

*New procedures had to be devised.

All of this provided Charles with grounds to argue that the proceedings were illegitimate. He even had unexpected support from a member of the packed gallery: Lady Fairfax, the wife of the commander-in-chief of the New Model Army, loudly explained the absence of her husband from the proceedings: "He has more wit than to be here!"

Following this unprecedented royal trial for treason, Charles—the second in the Stuart dynasty uniting the thrones of England and Scotland, deposed as ruler shortly before his death— stunned opponents used to his stammer with unexpected dignity and eloquence on the scaffold.

He had successfully prevailed upon his captors to allow him to wear a second shirt, lest onlookers misinterpret his shivering in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall as cowardice rather than the human body’s natural reaction to a bitterly cold afternoon.

With time running out for him, he made his case once again, this time in more concise form, for the divine right of kings. This was the notion that royalty derived their authority from God, not an earthly power--or, as he expressed more emphatically, “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”

Above all, he claimed that he could not fulfill his duties as a sovereign by yielding to those who had defeated him in the English Civil War.

Were he “to have all laws changed according to the Power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here, and therefore I tell you ... that I am the martyr of the people,” he declared.

A single swing of the axe removed Charles’ head. But it could not so easily detach his hold on many onlookers, some of whom dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood spilled on the scaffold, a portent of the cult of martyrdom that began to build around him. Nor did it neatly eliminate class and religious differences that had roiled the kingdom, even after the so-called Glorious Revolution 40 years later—commonly hailed as the indispensable step toward a constitutional monarchy.

I titled this post “This Day in British History,” not “This Day in English History,” in recognition of the fact that Charles’ fate also affected Scotland and Ireland, two sources of unrest in the British Isles during the war and afterward.

Vacillating, equivocating, quibbling over nuances, telling successive audiences what they wanted to hear: Charles was all of this, and more (traits listed by the Victorian public intellectual Thomas Babington Macaulay, in my quote three years ago from his History of England from 1485 to 1685).

All the same, was he, as the charges against him stated, “a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England”?

That phrase might have applied, with far greater justice, to Henry VIII. To be sure, Charles irritated virtually every faction in the kingdom that could have allowed him to preserve his authority and his life. But Henry had done far more: increasingly as the years went on, he made his subjects, from the humblest to the mightiest, fear for their lives because of his capriciousness.

In an article first published in the Winter 1997 issue of Modern Age and republished 17 years later in The Imaginative Conservative, Jeffrey Hart regarded traditional conservative hero Edmund Burke with some asperity for his once-over-lightly treatment of the execution of Charles in Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Unlike the myth that Burke constructed that Britain had proceeded carefully from precedent to precedent, Hart noted, the nation was embroiled in revolutionary turmoil not unlike what occurred across the English Channel late in the eighteenth century. Indeed, until the advent of Robert Walpole, “England had the politics of a banana republic.”

Quote of the Day (Chris Evans, on Jerks Being 'Marinated' in Entitlement)

“There’s a certain physicality of a person who is soaked in confidence, truly marinated in that kind of entitlement. And it involves minimal eye contact, a constant state of recline, whether they’re sitting or standing…an unapologetic physicality [where] they make the space their own. They’re gonna put their f—ing feet up, they’re gonna own their oxygen in a way that is not just confidence, it’s an active indifference to the people around them. Which is a real weaponized trait.”—Actor Chris Evans, on embodying a jerk in Knives Out, quoted by Clarissa Cruz, “How to Be a Jerk,” Entertainment Weekly, November 2019

Monday, January 29, 2024

Quote of the Day (Geoffrey O’Brien, on How a Good Quotation Can Serve a Writer)

“Anyone, of course, might develop a passion for quotes, but for a writer it’s a particularly intimate connection. A good quotation can serve as a model for one’s own work, a perpetual challenge with the neatness and self-sufficiency of its structure laid bare in the mind. How does it work? How might a quotation be done differently, with the materials and urgencies of a different moment? Perhaps writers should begin, in fact, by inwardly uttering again what has already been uttered, to get the feel of it and to savor its full power.”— American poet, editor, book and film critic, translator, and cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien, “We Are What We Quote,” The New York Times, March 3, 2013

Folks, just remember to source that quotation—and accurately!

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Office,’ on the Appropriate Attitude Towards Challenges)

Dwight [played by Rainn Wilson]: “I am ready to face any challenges that might be foolish enough to face me.” —The Office, Season 3, Episode 14, “The Return,” original air date Jan. 18, 2007, teleplay by Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky, and Michael Schur, directed by Greg Daniels

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Photo of the Day: Dead of Winter

I took the accompanying photo nearly a week ago, while walking on the road past Brookside Cemetery, in my hometown of Englewood, NJ. The snow on the hillside would melt away shortly, the result of rising temperatures and several days of rain.

Quote of the Day (Franklin Roosevelt, on the Three Things a Nation Must Believe In)

“A nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32nd President of the United States, “Remarks at the Dedication of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, New York,” June 30, 1941

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Evelyn Waugh, Imagining a Saint’s Prayer for the Learned)

“‘You are my especial patrons,’ said Helena, ‘and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents….

" ‘For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.’"—English novelist and Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), Helena (1950)

Saturday, January 27, 2024

This Day in Russian History (Lenin Final Rites Strengthen Stalin’s Hold on Power)

Jan. 27, 1924—The Moscow funeral of V.I. Lenin, who seven years before had led a small cadre of revolutionaries to seize power over a Russian population of 158,000,000, took on all the characteristics of a secular sanctification, with the city of Petrograd renamed in his honor and even a special mausoleum containing his carefully preserved body erected in a mere three days.

Braving temperatures 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, lines of mourners more than a mile long waited patiently to segue past his coffin.

Already signaling the credulous reporting he would display in downplaying the Soviet terror famine of the early 1930s, The New York Times’ Walter Duranty reported that the Lenin-related pageantry would lay “the foundation of a revival campaign to infuse new energy, enthusiasm, unity, and discipline in the Communist party.”

While acknowledging an attack by Lenin’s emerging successor, Joseph Stalin, on his rival, Leon Trotsky, the day of Lenin’s death, Duranty brushed it off, seeing potential for harmony in the offing:

“The best-informed people here are confident that Trotsky, Radek, and other insurgents will join hands with the ‘machine’ leaders, Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin, over Lenin’s grave. If Trotsky gives no sign to the latter, they may make the first step toward reconciliation.”

No such “reconciliation” took place. Unity would be achieved by fear and capitulation.

This was more than the kind of mass grief that followed, for instance, the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy in the United States. 

This was a form of mass indoctrination, a means of smothering internal dissent about the meaning of Lenin’s life and the Soviet regime he had agitated, plotted, and fought to bring into being, and the beginning of what became a familiar sight for decades: 

The entombment of the Communist leader, performed against the express wishes of his family and several key Party leaders, reflected the wishes of Stalin, who—mindful of the traditional Russian Orthodox Church belief that a divine body would not deteriorate—used the last rites to position himself as Lenin’s successor and to help fashion his own “cult of personality.”

Somehow, architect Aleksei Shchusev managed to build this temporary mausoleum within the three days that Stalin allotted. Then he was asked to revise his plans twice more, with each revision producing a more grandiose structure.

What ordinary Russians couldn’t perceive over several decades was the sleight of hand needed to manufacture all this reverence. A phrase from The Wizard of Oz comes to mind: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, published after the collapse of the USSR, noted that control room staffers supervised the optimal temperature and degradation of Lenin's corpse, and that beneath the mausoleum there was also a workout room for the guards, in which the reporter imagined "some pimply kid from Chelyabinsk doing squat thrusts."

In addition to successfully wrapping Stalin in Lenin’s mantle, the creation of Lenin as a revolutionary icon later served the purpose of Stalin’s opponents. The ceremony at Red Square substituted a revolutionary form of devotion for a religious one, with Lenin joining Karl Mark as the crucial icon.

With Stalin’s unmasking as a paranoid director of a police state a few years after his death in 1953, Lenin became the great “what-if” alternative for Communists who couldn’t abide any questioning of the legitimacy of the U.S.S.R.—or, according to Lenin biographer Christopher Read, “a ‘good’ Lenin, a democrat blown off course by Russian backwardness and the exigencies of the [Soviet] Civil War, as opposed to a ‘bad’ Stalin.”

Starting in spring 1922, three strokes had progressively undermined the Soviet leader’s health and, more important for the state he hoped to direct, limited his day-to-day control of Party affairs.

With his physical strength waning but his anxiety mounting, he sought to stave off a split between two of his closest associates, Stalin and Leon Trotsky, that might divide the Soviet leadership while he was alive and spark a succession struggle after his death.

Yet, though he chastised both men for behavioral traits that gave rise to tension in the ranks, he viewed Stalin—to whom he had often turned to implement his directives—as s figure who should be blocked from assuming ultimate authority in the state.

As Lenin grew feebler, he had attempted to curb Stalin’s increased accumulation of power by issuing in late December 1922 a “testament” to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. As General Secretary of the committee, he noted, Stalin now possessed “unlimited authority concentrated in his hands, and I am not sure whether he will always be capable of using that authority with sufficient caution.”

A couple of weeks later, after Stalin had insulted Lenin’s wife, the ailing leader went further in an addendum to his report, observing that the younger man’s rudeness was intolerable in a party leader, and that the committee should “think about a way of removing Stalin from that post” and appoint somebody “more tolerant, more loyal, more polite, and more considerate to the comrades, less capricious, etc.”

When Stalin’s death came in 1953, he joined his old chief in the mausoleum. But his period as an object of devotion was much shorter. 

After Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing his crimes, it was only a matter of time—five years, to be exact—before he was removed from Lenin’s tomb and re-buried in a far humbler resting place.

But the cult of Lenin remained intact for decades more. “Lenin Lived, Lenin Lives, Lenin Will Live” became a longtime mantra of Soviet society, and even beyond, as the ubiquitous image of the international Communist movement at parades. Amid regimes that placed a premium on censorship, his works continued to be produced in mass quantity, year after dreary year.

There was far less distance than one might suspect between the current dictator of the sprawling Russian land mass named Vladimir and the one a century ago. (Lenin’s initials, V.I., stood for “Vladimir Ilich.” His surname was adopted as a pseudonym to evade the Czar’s secret police.)

Russia’s first kleptocratic ruler and the world’s first Marxist dictator embraced the same means to power: ruthless force that crushed opponents. 

Indeed, Vladimir Putin learned about the dark arts of poisoning, targeted assassinations, even striking at critics in foreign lands as a former lieutenant colonel of the KGB, a descendant agency of the Cheka, or Soviet state security police, set up by Lenin and under the direction of Felix Dzerzhinsky.

For a deeper, contemporary consideration of Lenin’s legacy—not just in the Soviet Union well into the glasnost era, but even among American right-wingers like Steve Bannon who emulate the Communist’s style of disruption if not his ideology—Cathy Young’s recent article from The Bulwark is well worth reading.

Quote of the Day (Elijah Wood, on the Courage of Frodo in ‘Lord of the Rings’)

“One of the great messages of the [“The Lord of the Ring”] books as it pertains to Frodo and the hobbits in general is a sense that even the smallest person, not just in stature but in terms of what one feels they’re capable of doing, is capable of greatness, of affecting real change, of having real impact. What Frodo was up against seemed insurmountable, and yet he was able to accomplish it largely because of goodness, kindness, a purity of heart and perhaps innocence. Those are the things that hobbits embody, and inherently why they’re able to withstand the corruption of the Ring for longer than humans. But what makes Frodo unique is a way of seeing the world without any kind of cynicism. There’s also courage, maybe even a blind courage, of not necessarily knowing what’s ahead and therefore not allowing himself to be afraid. If I’m to learn one thing from all of that, it’s that there’s fortitude in his outlook that makes it all possible.”—Actor Elijah Wood, on what he learned playing Frodo in the film adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, quoted by Carlos Aguilar, “Frodo Still Lives In One Actor’s Heart,” The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2021

Friday, January 26, 2024

Quote of the Day (George Santayana, on Character)

“Character is the basis of happiness and happiness the sanction of character.”—Spanish-born American philosopher, essayist and poet George Santayana (1863-1952), Reason in Common Sense (Vol. 1 of “The Life of Reason”) (1905)

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Babylon,’ As a Columnist Reports on the Chaotic Filming of a Silent Epic)

Elinor St. John [played by Jean Smart]: “Marbled meadows metamorphose into the medieval plains of Iberia. Soldiers swarm the fields like flecks of paint from a madman's brush as your humble servant bears witness to the latest of the moving picture's magic tricks.—Oh, why do I bother? Look at these idiots! I knew Proust, you know.”—Babylon (2022), written and directed by Damien Chazelle

Here, Ms. Smart’s character—a composite of entertainment journalist Adela Rogers St. John, novelist-scriptwriter Elinor Glyn, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons—dictates a pretentious column on the artistry of a silent movie, then gives up as she witnesses one error after another on location.

This scene acts as a bookend to a later one that takes place with the onset of sound, when Hollywood technicians still hadn’t solved many problems that came with the new technology.

A century has nearly elapsed since the events depicted in Babylon, but—this week’s Oscar nominations notwithstanding—I strongly suspect that multiple issues still crop up on a movie set, though perhaps different in kind from what plagued Brad Pitt’s actor-producer Jack Conrad.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Somerset Maugham, Cosmopolitan and Popular Man of Letters, Born)

January 25, 1874—W. Somerset Maugham, who went from the world’s most popular author in his lifetime to critical neglect afterward, only to experience a more recent partial reputational rebound, was born in the British Embassy in Paris—a foreshadowing of the globe trotting that would take him outside the British Isles for much of his life.

Maugham’s birth occurred in France because his lawyer father worked in the embassy at the time. Later in life, he traveled far from his homeland to see the world, to distance himself from obligations and ties he preferred not to deal with, and to accommodate the legal situation of his longtime lover.

The cosmopolitanism that the author came to first virtually by inheritance, then by preference, turned out to be a boon to his career as well as a personal joy.

The exotic places and unusual people he encountered along the way often showed up, in comparatively disguised form, in the 32 plays, 19 novels, nine volumes of short stories, and assorted essays, travel pieces, and memoirs he turned out in his prolific, 65-year writing career.

In a post from five years ago, I discussed one such novel that reflected his wanderlust and misogyny: The Moon and Sixpence (1919), about an artist who sought in the South Seas creative and sexual freedom away from conventional middle-class mores.

Though Maugham modeled his main character on French painter Paul Gaugain, his protagonist’s dramatic change in life represented a form of wish fulfillment for the novelist, who, after only two years of marriage, wanted no more of his wife Syrie, whom he blamed for trapping him in a loveless marriage.

Brisk sales, a steady stream of residual income from Hollywood adaptations of his works, and personal industry and thrift enabled Maugham to travel frequently to the Far East. They also provided the means for him to live on the French Riviera with personal secretary and lover Gerald Haxton, who had been deported from England on a morals charge.

In addition to cosmopolitanism, two other aspects of Maugham’s background aided him in his writing career: speech and secrets.

Growing up, Maugham would have regarded speaking as a handicap to career advancement or happiness. A severe stutter left him unable to follow his father into the practice of law and increased his social anxiety.

But the resulting preference for listening rather than talking heightened an ear for dialogue that he capitalized on in writing the plays that made his reputation, and his knowledge of three languages—English, French, and German—widened the circle of people to whom he conversed.

Those people held secrets and, by early professional training as a doctor, none of this escaped Maugham’s close observations.

Indeed, because of his same-sex attraction, the writer understood how people sought to conceal these personal blemishes at all costs, through all manner of disguises and identities.

It was great training for his intelligence activities on behalf of Britain in WWI, as well as the spy story collection he wrote inspired by his service, Ashenden (1928), which pioneered the realistic treatment of espionage work that would later be perfected by Graham Greene and John le Carre.

Unable to eye others without illusions, Maugham was similarly unsparing towards himself. Though fascinated by different forms of spirituality (an interest that came to fruition in his 1944 novel The Razor's Edge), he found no ultimate purpose or meaning in life.

Moreover, in his 1938 quasi-memoir, The Summing Up, he seems to have absorbed the increased critical complaint that he was at heart a middlebrow writer who required little intellectual effort from readers, perhaps because of his own limited skills:

“I have had small power of imagination. I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic or comic, that their characters suggested. I might well say that they invented their own stories. I have been incapable of those great, sustained flights that carry the author on broad pinions into a celestial sphere. My fancy, never very strong, has been hampered by my sense of probability. I have painted easel pictures, not frescoes.”

Nevertheless, if Maugham rarely indulged in the metaphors and literary allusions so often prized by academics, he influenced writers as diverse as George Orwell, Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul in what Orwell called “his power of telling a story straightforwardly and without frills.”

Moreover, especially in short stories such as “The Outstation,” “In a Strange Land,” “The Letter,” and “Mackintosh,” he depicted an environment that has increasingly intrigued readers since the success of TV’s “The Jewel in the Crown”: Britons at the far edges of their country’s empire, yielding, despite the exotic environment around them, to boredom, drink, lust, and the temptations of power.

Quote of the Day (Nancy Bilyeau, on Screenplays at Their Best)

“Screenplays are widely perceived as minimalist pieces of writing, bereft of the flair and texture of prose. But that's not true. A fine script includes complex characterization, flavorful dialogue and evocative action—all greatly distilled. It's boxed French cognac to a novelist's bottle of Merlot.”—Novelist Nancy Bilyeau, “Word Craft: Hollywood's Gift to the Novel," The Wall Street Journal, March 16-17, 2013

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Quote of the Day (Calvin Coolidge, on Why A President Should ‘Know That He is Not a Great Man’)

“It is a great advantage to a President, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man. When a man begins to feel that he is the only one who can lead in this republic, he is guilty of treason to the spirit of our institutions.” —Massachusetts governor, U.S. Vice-President, and President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (1929)

Calvin Coolidge is not my favorite President. For all his intelligence and integrity, he failed to see that in aggregate, massive inequality could produce a power imbalance, and that sometimes the President, acting with Congress, should try to redress the situation lest it damage the fabric of our society and government.

Moreover, on an individual level, in claiming that “Wealth is the product of industry, ambition, character and untiring effort,” he could not see that some plutocrats have risen by dint of their ancestors or by their own chicanery.

All the same, Coolidge had a becoming sense of modesty. It’s a quality lacking in another Republican past (and possibly future) President, who told his party’s convention eight years ago, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it”—or, more recently, that he would be a dictator on “Day One.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Quote of the Day (Henry David Thoreau, on Walden Pond in Winter)

“Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow–covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads.” — American essayist, naturalist and poet Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Walden (1854)

Monday, January 22, 2024

Quote of the Day (Armen Sarkissian, on Learning and Living)

“Those people who know how to listen are also people who learn. The moment you stop learning, you die. Age is not the number of years that you have been living. Age is the condition of your soul.”—Former physicist and President of Armenia Armen Sarkissian, quoted in “Lunch(es) With the FT Armen Sarkissian: ‘The Moment You Stop Learning, You Die,’” The Financial Times, June 15-16, 2019

The image accompanying this post—the official portrait of Armen Sarkissian when he was President of Armenia—was taken June 5, 2018, and made available by the Press Service of the President of the Republic of Armenia.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ In Which The Master of Suspense Compares Examples of Perfection)

[Introduction. Alfred Hitchcock is in an armchair with a side table next to him, wearing a Sherlock Holmes cap, and smoking bubbles—yes, bubbles— out of a pipe.]

Alfred Hitchcock: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and Dr. Watson, wherever you are. Tonight's case is, er...”

[blows more bubbles]

Hitchcock: “Tonight's case is called ‘The Perfect Crime.’ I'm not sure who it was who said, ‘A perfect crime is like a perfect marriage—their being perfect depends on your not being caught.’"— Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 3, Episode 3, “The Perfect Crime,” originally aired Oct. 20, 1957, teleplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on a story by Ben Ray Redman, directed by Alfred Hitchcock 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Karen Armstrong, on When Religion ‘Put a Brake on Violence’)

“It is simply not true that ‘religion’ is always aggressive. Sometimes it has actually put a brake on violence. In the ninth century BCE, Indian ritualists extracted all violence from the liturgy and created the ideal of ahimsa, ‘nonviolence.’ The medieval Peace and Truce of God forced knights to stop terrorizing the poor and outlawed violence from Wednesday to Sunday each week. Most dramatically, after the Bar Kokhba war, the rabbis reinterpreted the scriptures so effectively that Jews refrained from political aggression for a millennium. Such successes have been rare. Because of the inherent violence of the states in which we live, the best that prophets and sages have been able to do is provide an alternative.”—Religious scholar Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014) 

Quote of the Day (Pamela Paul, on the Environmental Price of Online Returns)

“Online returns create 16 million tons of carbon emissions or the equivalent of 3.5 million cars on the road for an entire year.

“It’s often cheaper for the seller to simply throw the item away than to inspect for damage, repackage and resell. Dumping returns (sometimes called ‘destroyed in field’ or ‘damaging out’) is often less costly than reusing them….

“In the United States, 2.6 million tons of returned clothes wound up in landfills in 2020. And that’s just clothing.”—“Opinion” columnist Pamela Paul, “When You Return Those Pants, The Planet Pays,” The New York Times, Jan. 12, 2024

(The image accompanying this post, showing Pamela Paul at the 2019 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas, was taken Oct. 26, 2019, by Larry D. Moore.)

Saturday, January 20, 2024

This Day in Literary History (Edmund Blunden, Acclaimed WWI Memoirist and Poet, Dies)

Jan. 20, 1974— The poet, biographer, critic, and travel writer Edmund Blunden, died at age 77 at his longtime home in Long Melford, England, mourned by intimates in academe and beyond for his sensitivity, wry sense of humor and fanatical love of cricket.

But the experience that colored his entire adult life was indicated by what lay atop his coffin: poppies from Flanders, Belgium, the WWI battleground where he fought nearly 60 years before and wrote about, in a searing memoir and poetry that sought to evoke the pastoral landscapes marred by the carnage.

Six nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature testify to high esteem from the literary community during Blunden’s lifetime.

Nowadays, he belongs to the type of understudied figures whose reputations he tried to elevate as a critic, such as William Collins, William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Hood, and Michael Drayton.

A stone inscription in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner, installed in 1985, points to the greatest claim for his importance: his listing among 16 “Great War Poets.”

I have blogged before about this group, either focusing on individuals (Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves) or the larger group of creative artists struggling with the violence, carnage and shock to civilization created by the conflict.

But Blunden—who enlisted and became an intelligence officer at only age 19, and won the Military Cross for “his conspicuous gallantry” during the Battle of the Somme—deserves his own extensive discussion.

While in the service the longest of these poets, he was also, according to one of his friends from this group, Siegfried Sassoon, his friend, the one most enduringly obsessed by it.

Not only did he witness the deaths of countless comrades and the dissolution of his unit, the 11th Battalion of the Royal Sussex regiment, because of all these casualties, but in the 1917 Passchendaele offensive, he was gassed.

This new form of chemical warfare left victims like Blunden with temporarily impaired eyesight and irritated skin. Worst, it blistered his throat and lungs, considerably aggravating his asthma.

For the rest of his life, Blunden would be plagued by nightmares from his wartime service. His daughter Margi, trained in counseling, said in a March 2014 Oxford Mail interview that she believed her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder:

“The dreams never stopped and he continued to feel guilt about having survived. But he had no treatment for it at all.”

At first, Blinden set aside his attempt at chronicling these wartime horrors, De Bello Germanico. It was only several years later, in the mid-1920s, in Japan (where he was teaching English at the Tokyo Imperial Museum), that he had sufficient physical distance and psychic space to write Undertones of War in 1928.

Privately, Blunden had been dismayed to find that Graves had exaggerated elements of his own wartime experience in Goodbye to All That. It was all the more imperative, then, that after Undertones of War was published, Blunden felt compelled to correct any mistakes for its second edition.

It was miraculous that he was able to record and remember as much as he did. Blunden’s creative work had been hampered from the start by the extreme difficulties of writing while the war raged. Blunden lost a number of his poems, for instance, amid the chaos of troop movements and trench warfare. In addition, his PTSD disrupted recollections of painful deaths.

Emily Dickinson defined the mission of the poet to “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” Blunden managed to “tell it slant” by evoking elements of pastoral poetry.

The style of Undertones of War evokes the kind of landscapes that Blunden had cherished since childhood, with archaic phrases (often switching word order) reminiscent some of his favorite poets like Thomas Hardy and John Clare:

“Acres of self-sown wheat glistened and sighed as we wound our way between, where rough scattered pits recorded a hurried firing-line of long ago. Life, life abundant sang here and smiled; the lizard ran warless in the warm dust; and the ditches were trembling with odd tiny fìsh, in worlds as remote as Saturn.

Though modern readers may be startled by this very unusual language, it enabled Blunden to underscore the damage to the natural landscape and ancient traditions that this brutally modern war represented—a contrast equally apparent in his poem “The Zonnebeke Road”:

“Look, how the snow-dust whisks along the road
Piteous and silly; the stones themselves must flinch
In this east wind; the low sky like a load
Hangs over, a dead-weight. But what a pain
Must gnaw where its clay cheek
Crushes the shell-chopped trees that fang the plain –
The ice-bound throat gulps out a gargoyle shriek.”

Throughout Undertones of War and his war poetry, Blunden paid continual tribute to the comrades he likened to a family. His subsequent memories are filled with a survivor’s guilt.

“Why slept I not in Flanders clay/With all the murdered men?” he wrote. He could not be buried with “Flanders clay,” but his coffin contained what may have meant more to him: poppies symbolizing the renewal of life in the face of the horrors.

(For an interesting discussion of how closely Blunden engaged with books—including war correspondent Mary Augusta Ward’s 1919 account, Fields of Victory—see Alexis Voisard’s blog post on the Edmund Blunden Collection in the Ohio Universities Library.)

Quote of the Day (Julian Barnes, on the Art Market’s ‘Grifters, Fakers and Thieves’)

“The art market is international and barely regulated; its products are easily transportable, squirrelled away in freeports or swiftly turned into cash. Grifters, fakers and thieves naturally abound. There is often a cosy nexus between artists, dealers, gallerists and critics; value—or at least, price—is constantly moving, usually upwards; and there is an increasing number of very rich people for whom art is a status symbol. Authenticating a work is difficult, and a lot may depend on it. How might a grateful owner or potential purchaser reward such connoisseurship? The classic example is that of Bernard Berenson…who charged his employer 25 percent on the sale of any work he had authenticated. Today there are art advisers at the shoulder of new money; the deference might be difficult, but parts of the job must be pretty easy.”— English fiction writer, essayist, and translator Julian Barnes, “Painting Is Terribly Difficult," London Review of Books, Dec. 14, 2023

(Photo of Julian Barnes was taken at HeadRead in 2019, Tallinn, Estonia, May 25, 2019, by WanderingTrad.)

Friday, January 19, 2024

Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Self-Improvement and Encyclopedias)

“Self-improvement is at the heart of the encyclopedic enterprise. People certified with degrees from what the world considers the best universities and colleges sometimes forget that we are all autodidacts, on our own in the endless attempt to patch over the extraordinary gaps in our knowledge. Doing so in an efficient way is the promise held out by an encyclopedia, which claims to provide all the world's pertinent knowledge, right there in 24, 29, 32 volumes, usually with a bookcase thrown in at no extra charge.” —American essayist and editor Joseph Epstein, “Wisdom on the Installment Plan,” Wall Street Journal, June 18-19, 2016

As a youngster, my “self-improvement,” such as it was, came courtesy of a more modest encyclopedia set than the one Epstein posits: the 10-volume New Wonder World Encyclopedia.

My family couldn’t afford a 10-volume set, let alone one double or triple in size, so I believe this one came as a gift from a neighbor who worked for the publisher, Parents’ Institute.

What I know is that, while ignoring some volumes in the set (e.g., Agriculture and Industry), I positively tore through several others: Masterpieces of the Arts, Treasures of Literature, Highlights of American History, Great Events of World History, The Nations of the World, and most of all, Famous People of All Time, foreshadowing my lifelong interest in biographies.

The volumes were liberally filled with photos and illustrations, increasing its appeal for a child. They whetted my interest enough so that several years later, I was ready for the three-volume Columbia Encyclopedia, Third Edition, with denser type but no eye-catching graphics.

It’s impossible to imagine for someone growing up in the digital age, but for a reader with endless curiosity decades ago, minutes could fly by with print volumes—and it was not time the least bit wasted.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘The Big Lebowski,’ As The Dude Establishes His Identity in Unforgettable Fashion)

The Dude [played by Jeff Bridges]: “Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not ‘Mr. Lebowski.’ You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm ‘the Dude.’ So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, ‘His Dudeness,’ or uh, ‘Duder,’ or ‘El Duderino,’ if you're not into the whole brevity thing.”— The Big Lebowski (1998), screenplay by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Quote of the Day (Jonathan Zimmerman, Calling for ‘An Entirely Different System of Teacher Education’)

“What American teachers need now is not love, but a capacity for deep and disciplined thinking that will reflect—and respect—the intellectual complexities of their job. It won't do to simply strip away our insipid accountability systems and leave everything in the hands of present-day teachers, who are mostly unprepared for the tasks we have set before them. The US badly needs to design and develop an entirely different system of teacher education, stressing cognitive skills above all else. Anything less will leave our teachers languishing in ‘intellectual stagnation,’ as Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Susan B. Anthony, and our schools mired in mediocrity.”— American historian of education Jonathan Zimmerman, “Why Is American Teaching So Bad?”, The New York Review of Books, Dec. 4, 2014

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

This Day in Rock ‘n’ Roll History (Joni Mitchell Hits Commercial Peak With ‘Court and Spark’)


Jan. 17, 1974— Many fans of Joni Mitchell who knew her best as a folk music artist must have heard her sixth studio album, Court and Spark, with some astonishment. 

Her music had long depicted the conflict between love and emotional autonomy. But this new collection of 11 songs reflected her desire for creative freedom beyond musical boundaries, too, as she added new rock ‘n’ roll and jazz textures to what she called her “chords of inquiry.”

The prior year had passed without the release of a Mitchell LP, the first time this had happened since the start of her recording career. It was not a vacation, nor even an emotional withdrawal and regrouping after crushing end of a love affair, as had happened before For the Roses.

Instead, she took to trying out new sounds, and testing which musicians could help her achieve these looser, breezier rhythms. Even many of the Southern California rock musicians that Mitchell had befriended had trouble with concepts that sounded too abstract to them.

The turning point came when session musician Russ Kunkel suggested she find a jazz drummer. She found not only a jazz drummer, but an entire ensemble: Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, whose musicians played on the entire album.

The extended studio recording sessions turned out to be time well-spent. The first single from Court and Spark, “Raised on Robbery” (maybe my favorite song from the LP), benefited from the horns from LA Express and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar licks complementing Mitchell’s breathless, saucy vocals.

But it was the follow-up, “Help Me,” which became the only record by the Canadian-born singer-songwriter to crack the Billboard “Hot 100,” peaking at #7 and helping the LP achieve platinum status.

Well, you can’t have everything. One thing Mitchell could have used a bit more of was recognition from the recording industry as a whole. 

But Court and Spark won only one Grammy out of four nominations: Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), for “Down to You” (given to Mitchell and Tom Scott), losing out to Olivia Newton-John for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and to Stevie Wonder for Album of the Year.

Much too much ink was spilled in the Seventies on Mitchell’s love life, including in relation to Court and Spark. At a half-century remove, it all feels stale and beside the point.

What matters now—and it should have then—was not her romantic, but her creative, restlessness.

Critics who charged Mitchell with being merely autobiographical and self-absorbed now had to reckon with a lyricist whose powers of observation were never more apparent, fully a match for the watercolor “The Mountain Loves the Sea” that this former art student used for the cover of her latest album.

Readers may point to other examples on the album of her growing tendency to look outward, but these are mine:

·       * “Raised on Robbery,” inspired by Mitchell witnessing a hooker attempting to pick up a man in a Toronto hotel bar who’s more focused on a hockey game;

·       * “Free Man in Paris,” informed by Mitchell’s trip to Paris, watching then-boss David Geffen of Electra-Asylum Records seeking a short respite from his normal round of “dreamers and telephone screamers”; and

·       * “People’s Parties,” in which the singer-songwriter evoked compassion for the kind of people she met at Southern Cal social gatherings who, though seemingly possessing “a lot of style,” are desperately hiding their insecurities, including the “photo beauty” who all of a sudden is “crying on someone’s knee.”

Equally remarkable were arrangements that didn’t make the final cut for Court and Spark. One track I have in mind is this extraordinary, extended “Piano Suite” of “Down to You / Court and Spark /Car on a Hill,” which Mitchell finally released on Archives Vol. 3: The Asylum Years, 1972-1975, this past fall.

In a few years, Bob Dylan would evoke those cursed “to know and feel too much within,” a group that certainly included Mitchell. An eighth grader when Court and Spark was released, I read its printed lyrics without grasping the struggle it took to put them to paper, or to sing them before thousands.

I was even less able to comprehend her album-to-album evolution, the complex chords she wove around her delicate, intricate lyrics, or the dizzying variety in tones displayed in this career pinnacle. All of that could only come from a musician who, though analytical and introspective, also delighted in fun and collaboration. 

But somehow, I still managed to absorb enough of what she was trying to convey to know Mitchell was something special.

Within only a couple of years, Mitchell had become so enamored of jazz arrangements that, with Mingus (named for the jazz innovator with whom she collaborated before his death from cancer), she had more or less left folk and rock—really, the pop mainstream of the time.

As with another contemporary idiosyncratic female singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro, radio stations were not ready to give Mitchell much airtime for such jazz experimentation.

Mitchell didn’t care; she was impervious to the moans of record-company execs for more commercial fare, or record buyers who kept yelling in concert for past hits. As she told Cameron Crowe in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview:

“You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”