February 27, 2005

Kathryn: More on Peter Pan

So, as I was saying in my last entry, Barrie's play Peter Pan isn't all airy sweetness. One of the key parallels in the play is that between the children and the pirate crew. Ultimately the boys are more savage and bloodthirsty than the pirates. Barrie is explicit:

"The boys [who have sneaked aboard the pirate ship] leap from their concealment and the clash of arms resound [sic] through the vessel.  . . . [T]he Pirates are . . . unnerved by the suddenness of the onslaught and they scatter, thus enabling their opponents to hunt in couples and choose their quarry. Some are hurled into the lagoon; others are dragged from dark recesses. There is no Boy whose weapon is not reeking, save Slightly, who runs about with a lantern, counting, ever counting.
 . . .
"Michael (reeling) Wendy, I've killed a pirate!
"Wendy  It's awful, awful.
"Michael  No, it isn't, I like it, I like it."

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February 24, 2005

Kathryn: Finding Neverland and Peter Pan

I saw Finding Neverland a few weeks ago and was disappointed. I like Mr. Depp and the fetching Ms. Winslet. I like period movies and whimsical bits. And I quite like J. M. Barrie's works. But from the moment our heroine coughed her first little cough and my companion and I turned to each other and pronounced her to be, unquestionably, toast, I felt a bit snookered and poked. Not that I didn't obediently drop a tear or two on demand, but it all just felt rather pat.

And I'm usually good at allowing movies great leeway in terms of historical and biographical accuracy. But I couldn't help it this time. I got chapped at the portrait of Barrie as a beautiful, sentimental optimist. And I am always bewildered by the notion that Barrie's play Peter Pan is sweet. Sure, lots of novelizations and children's-book versions have made it seem so, but let's have a look a the actual text.

The play has an unusual amount of stage direction and general authorial commentary, in which Barrie paints the journey to Neverland as, more or less, an atavistic regression for the Darling boys and a frustrated domestic and sexual adventure for Wendy. The play is full of uncomfortable energies and social satire.

For instance, here's a bit of stage direction regarding Peter, from p. 52 of the Samuel French edition (copyright 1928 J. M. Barrie, renewed in 1956 by Cynthia Asquith, Peter Llewellyn Davies [the original Peter], and Barclay's Bank Ltd.):

"It is not exactly a gun that Peter carries. He often wanders away with this weapon, and when he comes back you are never absolutely certain whether he has had an adventure or not. He may have forgotten it so completely that he says nothing about it, and then when you go out, you find the body."

More to come . . .

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February 7, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

“Now, therefore, I began to associate with none but disappointed authors like myself, who praised, deplored, and despised each other. The satisfaction we found in every celebrated writer’s attempts was inversely to their merits. I found that no genius in another could please me. My unfortunate paradoxes had entirely dried up that source of comfort. I could neither read nor write with satisfaction, for excellence in another was my aversion, and writing was my trade.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

February 6, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Thus each very opulent man generally gathers round him a circle of the poorest of the people; and the polity abounding in accumulated wealth, may be compared to a Cartesian system, each orb with a vortex of its own. Those, however, who are willing to move in a great man’s vortex are only such as must be slaves, the rabble of mankind, whose souls and whose education are adapted to servitude, and who know nothing of liberty except the name. But there must still be a large number of the people without the sphere of the opulent man’s influence, namely, that order of men which subsists between the very rich and the very rabble, those men who are possest of too large fortunes to submit to the neighboring man in power and yet are too poor to set up for tyranny themselves. In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society. This order alone is known to be the true preserver of freedom, and may be called the People. Now it may happen that this middle order of mankind may lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble, for if the fortune sufficient for qualifying a person at present to give his voice in state affairs be ten times less than was judged sufficient upon forming the constitution, it is evident that greater numbers of the rabble will thus be introduced into the political system, and they ever moving in the vortex of the great will follow where greatness shall direct. In such a state, therefore, all that the middle order has left is to preserve the prerogative and privileges of the one principal tyrant with the most sacred circumspection. For he divides the power of the rich and calls off the great from falling with tenfold weight on the middle order placed beneath them. The middle order may be compared to a town of which the opulent are forming the siege, and which the tyrant is hastening to relieve. While the besiegers are in dread of the external enemy, it is but natural to offer the townsmen the most specious terms, to flatter them with sounds and amused them with privileges; but if once they defeat the tyrant, the walls of the town will be but a small defence to its inhabitants. What they may then expect may be seen by turning our eyes to Holland, Genoa, or Venice where the laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law. I am then for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred among men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war or in peace is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.: Goldsmith, of course, was a royalist. He, thanks to Dr. Johnson, had The Vicar of Wakefield published in 1762, long before either the American of French Revolutions. So, to his way of thinking, the choice lay between the tyranny of one individual far away or the oppression from many individuals, some of whom would be close at hand (i.e., an aristocracy). Given that choice, it is not surprising where Goldsmith’s sympathies would lie.  Still, it is a fascinating fossil to turn up today of a succinct argument for a constitutional monarchy.]

When Did the Library of America Go Off the Rails?
Remember the Library of America?  The brainchild of one of my literary fetishes, the great, but now (unjustly) forgotten American critic and man of letters, Edmund Wilson.  The Library of America was meant to preserve the best that has been written by Americans in easily accessible and affordable volumes.  This project seems to be a no-brainer.  And yet it has gone seriously awry.  It started off well, publishing the usual suspects: Twain, the James gang, Poe and what not.  But in the last several years it has published volumes such as Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology, Baseball: A Literary Anthology, Broadway Comedies (by George S. Kaufmann & Co.) and two volumes of crime noir fiction.  Also, it has omitted so far such greats as T. S. Eliot who is merely dumped into a compilation of Twentieth Century U.S. poetry (Ezra Pound is here, too, but at least he got his own volume last year).  Wait, you might respond, T. S. Eliot was born American but emigrated to Britain and became a British citizen, so maybe he shouldn’t get his own volume.  Okay, what about W. H. Auden, he’s omitted too, born British, but emigrated to America and became an American citizen.  Or maybe T. S. Eliot just isn’t important to rate an entire volume—as opposed to H. P. Lovecraft, the pulp horror writer from the ‘20s that just got his own book.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading Lovecraft as a kid. But for crying out loud, putting him the Library of America is a bit much.

So, what’s the crime?  Just read the story from the Friday, February 4, 2005 edition of the New York Times where critic Margo Jefferson muses on the mainstreaming of crime noir as an artistic genre.  She notes in passing, “[w]e read novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson—once deemed pulp—in respectable Library of America volumes.”  There’s your problem—the imprimatur of the Library of America goes and makes any second-rate dross appear golden in its aura of respectability.  Of course, dross stays dross.  Just read the excoriating Commentary review which nails Broadway Comedies.  What happens instead is that the aura of disrespectability associated with such dross rubs off on the gold standard itself, thereby tarnishing the reputation of the Library of America.  And that I would hate to see.  One comes to appreciate the value of the Library of America by a quick glance across the Big Pond where the Brits have no comparable publisher and their great authors lay scattered and buried like the dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  The Library of America pulls our great authors out of the trenches and into the sunlight.  Nonetheless, some of the plucked had well earned their obscurity (and, of course, some still have it such as Lillian Hellmann, John Hershey, and Pearl Buck—but I would not be surprised if in the near future all of these second-rate scribblers wind up with their own Library of America volumes).

Now don’t get me wrong, I must own around 50 Library of America titles, including several of the ones I just derided.  Why?  Because the books are miniature masterpieces of the art of book making.  They are octavo size, with acid-free paper, bound in durable and handsome cloth to last generations.  And did I mention the rich, Corinthian leather?  Anyway, these books are a great bargain for their craftsmanship and are a joy to read.  I highly recommend them. So, although I am glad that I can read Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s in a gorgeous edition that can help burnish the luster of my brummagem intellect, why include them in the same series?  Maybe we just need another series called the Library of Middle-Brow America.  Hmmm, I think I just answered my own question.

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February 5, 2005

Patrick: Lagniappe

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wond’rous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Isling town there was a man,
Of whom the world might say,
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his cloaths.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mungrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighboring streets,
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seem’d both sore and sad,
To every christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That shew’d the rogues they lied,
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that dy’d.
--The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

[N.B.:  This used to be a very well known comic poem in Britain.  Probably like everything else, it has faded into oblivion.  I cite it here because it points out what I love about Seventeenth Century literature—since there was no guide-book on what a novel should look like, the author was free to throw in everything, including the kitchen sink and this literal piece of doggerel.  It’s sort of like those old movies from the Thirties and Forties, I’m thinking here of Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage-fright starring Marlene Dietrich, where wrapped up in one confection is a musical, a comedy, a drama, a love story and a murder mystery.  Too bad we have marketing studies today that slice us up into tasty, easily digestible  consumer segments: Techno-thriller, lad’s lit, chick lit, etc. Yawn.]

Literature as a Virus
I’m baaaaack!  Finally.  I dropped off my laptop at the Computer Laboratory (no kidding, that’s its name, with a full-blown Technicolor mural of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, electrodes and diabolical creatures) because it was puttering along a bit slower than usual.  Well, slap my jowls and whistle, “Toodles,” it turns out that what I thought had been my prim and proper, maidenly microprocessor was actually a dark, lady of the evening, a slatternly sylph of dubious morality that had gone and got infected with over 500 viruses.  As explained to me, sure, even though I have Norton on my computer, don’t you think, since it is the most popular anti-virus program out there, that folks who write viruses would come up with a whole crop spliced and diced just so as to infect computers that use Norton?  Doh!  Anyway, my computer’s cleaned up for now and has been inoculated with a couple of free anti-virus programs which actually combat these vicious viruses.  How long this state lasts is anyone’s guess.  It’s enough to make one yearn for the permutations of the avian viral flu. Okay, maybe not.

My bout with viruses, though, got me to thinking about the motivations for crafting these devils.  Apparently, it requires a fairly high intelligence and technical expertise to embark on this endeavor.  So we can discard most folks right off the bat.  The time commitment for making these, at least the more sophisticated ones, can be quite large.  But, I would not view it as time wasted—this is not an acte gratuite.  Probably, many a virus is designed for the mere challenge of crafting a successful one—like solving a cross-word puzzle. Of course, scribbling out a cross-word puzzle does no harm to others (unless the paper is not your own).  But that’s not the case here.  So, something more than George Leigh Mallory’s famous answer for why he wished to scale Mount Everest (“Because it’s there”) is going on here.  No, there is an element of maliciousness, too.

Certainly, some may feel that they are exploiting weaknesses in software manufactured by large monopolistic corporations such as Microsoft and thereby subjecting them to potential embarrassment.  Indeed, perhaps the writing of the virus is viewed as a revolutionary act—a cri de coeur against the establishment. Literature has its equivalents.  I am thinking here of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Marx did not write his magnum opus with the view that it would bring misery and death to millions of people across the face of the globe.  He wrote it to spur the creation of a warm, sunny, workers’ paradise—not a cold, dark gulag. Certainly, he envisioned the destruction of certain classes of persons, but this was to make way for the paradise to come.  Omelets and eggs and all of that. Marx, in his defense, did not have the benefit of hindsight.

But, by this late date, our virus writers should.  It is clear by now that such viruses do not harm these powerful, international conglomerates which simply buy the best programmers to protect them—the same is true for the military and other government agencies.  So, the desire to “fight the powers that be,” although understandable, is poorly served by this strategy since it winds up harming precisely those individuals who one would think the virus writers would justify to themselves as trying to protect.  What I mean is that these viruses actually cripple the computers of the poor and weak.  Those who cannot afford to protect themselves are the ones most likely to be struck down by this stratagem.  So, this tactic actually discourages many people from using computers because the purchase and maintenance of a home PC is simply outside of their economic reach (the same is true, too, for small businesses who, unlike Microsoft, can’t afford to pay for protection).  Viruses add to this cost and thereby widen the electronic divide between the haves and have nots.

Given that the virus, by its innate indiscriminate nature, preys on the poor, a more apt motivation is the one alluded to earlier: malice.  One should not underrate the attraction of malice.  I see its allure every day when a three-year-old knocks over the blocks laboriously piled one on top of the other by her five-year-old brother.  Why does she do it?  Because destruction, for its own sake, is fun.  This is very much a taboo subject, but it has been grappled with by many great writers, the most towering of them being Dostoevsky.  His Underground Man may be seen as a prescient precursor to understanding the virus-writer mentality.  There, his unnamed narrator gazes out at an unjust world that he is powerless to put aright.  So, if one cannot build, then perhaps it would be better to make things worse, thereby increasing the pressure for change.  Marx adopted this philosophical view when the workers’ uprisings across Europe in 1848 were put down with such brutal efficiency.  He cheered on the oppression thinking that the pressure would only increase societal discontent until the proletariat would eventually explode.  Of course, as history has shown, this turned out not to be the case.  Again, though, Marx did not have the benefit of hindsight—or knowledge of Bismarck’s health-benefit scheme, the first precursor of social security, which effectively served as a regulator to this built-up pressure.

These thoughts on Marx and Dostoevsky spur me to the conclusion that perhaps this theme could be fruitfully updated with the virus writer as the protagonist.  I cannot recall a good work of fiction written from the virus writer’s point of view.  It should portray him (although I have nothing to base this on, I would assume most virus writers are male) as a sympathetic rogue, sort of like John Banville’s Victor Maskell in The Untouchable.  He should be ferociously intelligent, witty and erudite.  Also, the writer should have an intimate knowledge of how viruses are written and their different types of genus and specie.  That, I think, would make for an entertaining read. Ian McEwan has just written probably his best book yet, Saturday, about a neurosurgeon. Apparently, McEwan followed around several neurosurgeons for a couple of years as background for the book (see, someone has taken Tom Wolfe’s advice to get out in the real world, like an army of Zolas, and to learn about all the exciting stuff going on there—McEwan even picked Tom Wolfe’s pet-project: neuroscience).  Where is our McEwan, our Tom Wolfe, our Zola for the virus writer?

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February 4, 2005

Kathryn: Confederacy of Dunces

Again, Patrick has not abandoned you. His computer is in the shop but should be out any day now.

OK, so I'll be starting Confederacy of Dunces this week. The backstory on this book is fascinating, so I'll start with that. John Kennedy Toole wrote this brilliantly funny book in the 1960s. In 1969, when he was 32, Toole killed himself, and his mother, Thelma Toole, made it her mission to get his book published. In 1976, she took it to Walker Percy, then teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans, and told him it was a great book. He was sure it would be dreck but took a look, was hooked, and became the book's champion. The book has a 1980 copyright under Thelma Toole's name.

Percy describes the protagonist, Ignatius Reilly, as a "slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one--who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age."

The title, BTW, comes from Jonathan Swift's remark in Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting that "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him."

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January 31, 2005

Kathryn for Patrick: Stay Tuned

Patrick has not abandoned you. His computer is in the shop but should be out any day now.

We just had our book group meeting tonight on The Master. Julia and I liked it, despite its flaws (wow--drawing attention to the fact that you're attempting to write Jamesian prose about James; that's pretty ballsy).

Patrick, as you know, isn't crazy about it.

I'm off to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this Friday and I will be going back again later in February for a wedding; happily, the book group has decided to read A Confederacy of Dunces for February, my favorite book about New Orleans. Oh, Fortuna!

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