Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Illusion, For or Against


One of our greatest quandaries concerns illusion. Is it treacherous, undesirable, even harmful; or optimistic, consolatory, even life-sustaining? Is it near-synonymous with hope, and thus a good thing, or mendacious, self-deceptive, and thus a bad one? To take one example: is it better to know one has only six months more to live and so take the necessary provisions, or better to remain blissfully ignorant up to the end?

There is thus no one easy answer to the fundamental question about our mortality; or, rather, there are two: for the rationalist intellectual, disbelief in an afterlife is empowering; for the common man, but also some intellectuals, belief in it is the panacea. It is, of course, a dilemma that runs through many lives, and is addressed in the arts of film, theater, and fiction, and philosophy.

In fiction, the prime example is Cervantes’s masterpiece, Don Quixote. of which, to my shame, I have only second-hand knowledge. That is because I am a slow reader and have seldom attacked a long book, unless in a financially propitious reviewing assignment. One must, I gather, choose between the romantic fantasies of the Don, and the lower-class hedonism of his squire, Sancho Panza.

Of course, there is folly in combating windmills, but is there no value in perceiving a hefty peasant girl as the noble Dulcinea? Does not the idealizing illusion of a lover or spouse as a Michelangelo David or a Botticelli Venus make life pleasanter?

I suppose the assumption is that whatever suits the individual most is the best attitude toward illusion. Yet one may choose to pursue this troubling question by seeking answers from admired artists. But where to begin?

Let us consider the great author of Les Illusions perdues, who both was and was not a defender of illusion. Balzac was both a Realist and a Romantic, which is to say both a pursuer of hopes that qualify as illusions and a hard-nosed accepter of things as they are.

Take two of his most quoted utterances. On the one hand: “The woman one buys—and that is the less expensive—wants a lot of money; the one that gives herself takes up all of our time.” That is not very pro-illusion. But how about this: “In matters of love there is nothing more persuasive than a courageous stupidity”? There speaks a womanizer who must have entertained some whopping illusions.

Proust--in love at any rate—was an anti-illusionist: “The bonds that unite another person to oneself exist only in our mind. . . . Notwithstanding the illusion by which we like to be cheated, we exist alone.” It is indeed in love that illusion thrives. Thus Nietzsche observed: “Love is the state in which a man sees things most widely different from what they are. The force of illusion reaches its zenith here, as likewise its sweetening and transfiguring power.” That sounds equivocal, as does so much about illusion.

Now let’s skip back to Patrick Henry: “It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope.” That sounds pro-illusion. But here comes the anti: “For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth. To know the worst, and to provide for it.”

There are two great plays for which the matter of illusion is central: Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.” About the former, I wrote elsewhere (and reprinted it in my book, “Singularities”): “Hjalmar [Ekdal] is wounded by his weakness, his megalomania; Hedwig [his daughter] by her dimming eyesight, the drabness of her present and future, the very fragility of puberty. Yet the illusion of forest, sky, sea—of greatness, freedom, beauty—keeps them going.” And further: “[M]an cannot slay the illusion, the life-lie he lives by: if he tries to, he kills himself.”

In “The Iceman Cometh,” now in a fine revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the drunkards in Harry Hope’s saloon delude themselves with a pipe dream of being able to stop drinking and resume active life. When the charismatic salesman Theodore “Hickey” Hickman persuades them to give up their pipe dreams and go forth to face reality, it ends up in failure and reversion to those drunken pipe dreams.

So, whether called life-lie or pipe dream, illusion is what keeps these failures from crumbling—pathetic if you will, but not reprehensible. Wising up, and assuming responsibility, means suicide for one of them and murder for another; waiting for death for yet another and alcoholic purblindness for the rest. Even the prostitutes manage to insist that they are not whores, merely tarts.

But careful, friends, with your condescension, let alone contempt; on some level we are all illusionists. In the most secret chamber of our mind, the one closest to unconsciousness, we are, I repeat, all illusionists. There, however well we know that all men are mortal--and, a trifle surprisingly perhaps, all women too—we don’t think that we as well will die. Reading the obituaries in the paper merely confirms us in a sense of fake superiority to those stiffs: What? We too? Impossible!

We can imagine ourselves rich, famous, champions of this or that, lovers of some stunning woman or gorgeous man, but cadavers, worm food, never! The only thing that fully relieves us from fearing and denying death is death itself. Why, even the popularity of movies about ghosts and vampires merely confirms us in our delusion (i.e., an advanced form of illusion) that there is some kind of life after death, be it only as a disembodied scarecrow or a starved bloodsucker. We may not choose the bottle or pills to make us forget; a talent for oblivion sustains all of us in our illusions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Pet Heaven


The question of whether pets go to heaven seems these days to be getting ever greater attention, almost as much as in long ago days the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. Just now (January 17, 2115) the New York Times has dedicated a column by Mark Oppenheimer to it, under the headline “From Seminary to Cemetery, Fascination Persists Over Pets and the Afterlife.”

It is at least as troubling to pet owners as the matter of who designed the Emperor’s new clothes is to the rest of us. My guess is Ralph Lauren, specialist in lost causes, who once informed New York magazine that he could produce several hundred signatures to a demand for my dismissal as drama critic.

To be sure, since there is no heaven even for humans (who admittedly are less deserving of one than, say, Lassie or Mehitabel, if there were such a place), the question is a fairly academical one. There is not even a word for going to it in English—as in the German Himmelfahrt—other than “ascension,” which, to me, rather suggests elevators, and seems un worthy of a pious quadruped. So why not grant afterlife to a deserving pooch or tabby in, say, a comfy black hole, the kind that, according to Professor Stanley Brandes of Berkeley is memorialized on actual tombstones with such epitaphs as “Until We Meet in Heaven” or, for a boxer aptly named Champ, “We Pray That We Will Meet Again.”

Since pet owners are given to conversing with their dogs and cats, how easy it would be for them to say, “I’m reserving a spot for you in Heaven,” to the great relief of either the speaker or hearer, the two- or four-foot animal. This would guarantee  for Spot an endlessly chewable bone, and for Kitty, an inexhaustible saucer of milk.

Quite rightly Oppenheimer observes that “our sense of spiritual kinship is already latent in the bootees and little sweaters we buy our pets”—the cats, bless them, will have none of such paraphernalia—so why should tiny passports to Paradise give pause to booteed paws? I recall Alexander Pope’s couplet for the collar of the Prince of Wales’s pet, ‘I am His Highness’s dog at Kew,/ Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?” If so literate, why couldn’t loyal Fido share the Marine Corps’s motto, Semper Fidelis?

And now good news: the present inclusionist pope has said, “Paradise is open to all God’s creatures.” If so, does that include mosquitoes, cockroaches, tarantulas? Also bedbugs, with which our apartment has been recently infected and took the devil of a time to be gotten rid of. The way those pests performed their molestations; I am sure the male ones earned their 72 virgin females in bedbug heaven.

The Times article further informed us, “’Today there are nearly 600 functioning pet cemeteries in the United States,’” as Amy Defibaugh, a Temple University graduate student, read out from her paper at the recent American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego. Entitled as the paper was—“Toward the Weeping Willow: An Examination of the Dying and Death of Companion Animals”-- it sounds to me like a Ph.D. thesis in the University’s putative Animal Studies Department, although I cannot quite understand the bit about the Weeping Willow: does it mourn the decrease of dogs to bestow their fertilizing urine on its trunk?

So too it was comforting to gather that religion, so useful for the spiritual peace of humans, extends its beneficence to pets. We read in the Times that a cat named Corky lies beneath a gravestone with a Star of David, while  “a dog named Sushi has two Stars of David symmetrically placed at the top of his gravestone, on which there is also Hebrew lettering that reads Shalom.” On the headstone of a cat named Sheebah one reads that she “went to Heaven on Yom Kippur Day.” I am not sure whether these Jewish epitaphs are cited as a mark of philo- or anti-Semitism, but I certainly hope that other religions will duly follow suit.

It strikes me as unfair for a dog no to get his 72 virgin bitches in Paradise, or that the chaster tomcats are not granted 72 virgin pussies.  Most laudable is Nancy Tillman’s book, “The Heaven of Animals,” in which she assured grieving pet owners that “when dogs go to heaven, they’re welcomed by name (surely Rover and Bowser are as good as Gabriel and Raphael), and angels know every dog’s favorite games.” I can just hear an encouraging “How about some fetch, Fido?” in a melodious, angelic voice, which should make any dog feel right at home. Wings, by the way, if issued to dogs, should make fetching ever so much easier.

Ms. Tillman, a nondenominational Christian in Portland, Oregon, comments about her dog’s and cat’s rapt, faraway gazes, “What a lovely thought if they see heaven,” rather than, I suppose, the next helping of Purina. Even more encouraging is Cynthia Rylant, author of the egalitarian “Dog Heaven” and “Cat Heaven” lest she be accused of partiality. In the former, she avers that “God has a sense of humor, so He makes His biscuits in funny shapes for his dogs. There are kitty-cat biscuits and squirrel biscuits.” Gratifyingly, they must feel that they are symbolically consuming their traditional victims, cats and squirrels.

The best news that the quizzically named grad student, Ms. Defibaugh, conveys to us in her paper, that “many funeral homes have extended their services to companion animals for memorials and religious services” and that “Some human cemeteries are now allowing companion animal burial.”  I like her term “companion animal” for pets; it somehow makes it sound as if those canines and felines had freely adopted their bipeds as partners. And perhaps in a way they have. But what about those Weeping Willows?


 


Thursday, January 1, 2015

WHAT IS POETRY?


To the question “What is poetry?” there is, let’s face it, no definitive answer. A bad novel is still a novel, a poor story still a story. But an unworthy poem is doggerel or, at best, verse, but not to be dignified as a poem. I suppose that makes poetry a higher form of art, although a great novel or story can equally qualify as art with unflinching pride.

Certainly the Romantics proclaimed poetry the supreme literary genre, which was not always so. One major 18th-century Frenchman (was it Buffon?) declared of a poem that it was almost as well written as prose. According to Rilke’s poet protagonist Malte Laurids Brigge, it takes a whole lifetime of living and polishing to create a few lines of poetry. In any case, poetry has often been termed as a prime example of something defying definition.

Dennis O’Driscoll’s excellent “Quote Poet Unquote,” to which I’ll make frequent reference, begins with an ominous motto: “BOSWELL: Sir, what is poetry? JOHNSON: Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.” And in his introduction, O’Driscoll goes on to quote the Doctor: “To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only shew the narrowness of the definer.“ He also refers to the most famous would-be definitions in English, Coleridge’s “the best words in the best order” and Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” as inadequate.

Surely emotion can be recollected in tranquility in prose as well as in verse, as the great fiction writers have amply demonstrated. Coleridge’s definition sounds a bit more useful, but what are the best words and on whose say-so? The words “Swiss cheese” are as good as anything in writing about food, but how good are they really, and how does one determine the best order? From left to right, presumably, but not so in Hebrew.

O’Driscoll begins his introduction with what I began above, “A defining mark of poetry is that it defies definition. On this, if nothing else, poets and critics of all stripes, camps, and persuasions tend to agree.” But he also points out that this never could, and never should, stop us from trying, which, at a minimum, should result in such epigrams as Michael Longley’s, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.”

Of course, it has long been argued that the finest poetry, at least in the allegedly very poetic pastoral style, came from Arcadia. But that region in the center of the Peloponnesus has not produced a single major poet, unless you press Theocritus into that role.

Well, O’Driscoll’s book comprises 303 pages, and not one that doesn’t yield at least something interesting on the subject. On the first page, we get this from David Gascoyne  (in “Strand,” Spring 1992): “Poetry is like a substance, the words stick together as though they were magnetized to each other.” Save that here “one another” would be preferable to “each other” (surely it takes more than two words to make a poem), this is thought provoking. But there is also the clumsy quote from Rita Dove: “Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It is the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really, really wonderful.” (“Poetry Flash”, January 1993.) According to Dove, poetry is both the cage and that which may be made to sing inside it. I guess she means strict form (cage) and melodious sound (really, really wonderful), but exactly what is that? And does meaning count for nothing?

Probably too much has been made of sound at the expense of meaning.  So John Crowe Ransom pointed out that Tennyson’s “The murmur of innumerable bees,” thought to be wonderfully onomatopoetic, could be just as well “the murder of innumerable beeves,” which no one would find euphonious. Yet when sound or melodiousness is intense throughout a poem, credit should be given. But for this purpose, meter and rhyme are best suited, though both have been largely jettisoned by modern poetry.

When you look at the work of most modern poets, indeed those most respected and even venerated, what you tend to get is largely a thing that differs from prose only in line breaks, which, together with enjambment, make for something shorter but similar to the paragraphs in prose. 

The first section of “Quote Poet Unquote,” subtitled “Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry,” is--under the heading “What Is It Anyway?” –- five and a half pages of fascinating quotations, more or less aphoristic, but hardly definitive.

From my book, “Dreamers of Dreams,” there is this: “Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines—in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable.” What I was trying to say, using the mysterious mathematical formula about parallel lines (which I have never quite understood) in the sense of the arcane (ineffable and incommensurable) somehow fusing with personal conviction or faith in individual truth (patent and incontrovertible). A state where the private becomes universal, the mortal immortal, the “mine” somehow “everybody’s.” Or experience becomes history.

There is the famous comment of Mallarme to, I believe Degas, who had submitted to him some verse for evaluation. Noticing the poet’s disapproval, the painter defended the contained ideas. Mallarme answered, “It is not with ideas that a poem is made; it is with words,” meaning that form is content, that expression supersedes intention.

Take, for instance, Thomas Nashe’s famous lines: “Brightness falls from the air;/ Queens have died young and fair;/ Dust hath closed Helen’s eye./ I am sick, I must die.”  Some have argued for a typo, and that the line should read “Brightness falls from the hair.” That may be the idea, but “air” is unforgettable, “hair” is not.

Get hold of “Quote Poet Unquote” and read at least those first five-and-a-half pages, and you’ll find most quotations memorable. Thus Peter Porter’s “Poetry is either language lit up by life or life lit up by language,’ very good, but prose.. Alexander Pope, however, gets poetry out of meter and rhyme, as in “Drink deep or not at all from the Pierian spring,/ A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Now I know that French poetry—to say nothing of the Japanese haiku—is syllabic, as in the twelve-syllable Alexandrine, but it is the caesura and rhyme that make the verse poetry. Free verse  can be beautiful, even perdurable, but I do not consider it poetry (forget about Whitman). “Give me liberty or give me death” is effective rhetoric, but not poetry. But make it read, “I’ll say with both my first and final breath/ Give me liberty or give me death,” and it becomes, even with that catalectic second line, poetry.

On what is poetry (the word comes from the Greek “poiema,” meaning something made or created), I find that invaluable work, J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” both concise and always helpful. We read: “In the final analysis what makes a poem different from any other kind of composition is a species of magic, the secret to which lies in the way the words lean upon each other, are linked and interlocked in sense and rhythm, and thus elicit from each other’s syllables  a kind of tune whose beat and melody varies subtly and which is different from that of prose—‘the other harmony.’” (Shades of Gascoyne’s “the words stick together”).

It is interesting to contemplate the German words “Dichter” and “Dichtung,” which are applied equally to authors and works of poetry and prose, to lyric, epic, novelistic or short-story works. German does not have a word such as the English novelist or the French “romancier.” “Schriftsteller,” which is the closest to it, means merely writer, and is never applied to a poet. There is, however, the German word “Poet,” albeit somewhat antiquated or “literary.”

Cuddon’s word, “magic,” though much abused, is not inappropriate , not here a hyperbole. There is something magical about a successful poem, even if written in simple and everyday diction, as for example by that great French poet, Jacques Prevert. This is why the quotations in O”Driscoll’s book, though illuminating and often witty, original and imaginative, do not constitute an ungainsayable definition.

Thus most of those quotations are metaphors and similes, not definitions. Take Billy Collins’s “Poetry is like standing on the edge of a lake on a moonlit night and the light of the moon is always pointing straight at you,” or R. S. Thomas’s “Poetry is that/ which arrives at the intellect/ by way of the heart.”
Very nice, but no definitions.. Such cleverness, however acute or even poignant, remains eminently debatable, whereas such things as “hatred” or “armchair” or “shadow” are indisputably defining.

Now, after all this,  are we any closer  to a definition of poetry? Not really. But what upon a sufficient number of years and by a sufficient number of people, preferably educated, is read, preferably aloud, and declared a poem, very likely is a poem. And what it is made of is poetry.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

ON READING


A slow reader myself, I have always envied speedreaders. Come to think of it, are speedreaders and speedreading single words, or should they be two each? Note that a single word confers status; the dignity of enshrinement in the dictionary, institutionalizing what is a mere procedure. I am reasonably sure that speedreaders espouse the single word, readable a split second faster, and thus more of their speed.

But envy is a perverted form of admiration; I had to find a way of minimizing, perhaps even demonizing, speedreading. Especially so after I subscribed to a home course offered by a company, which, besides having paid for it, I found of no use whatever.

The chief method, I gathered, was to read down the center of a page, and absorbing, if at all, what’s near the margins by some sort of auxiliary vision. That, I decided, was like a tennis player going only after balls coming down the middle, and leaving shots into the corners to fend for themselves—the surest way of losing.

Yet wasn’t speedreading somehow useful? As I grew older, and my memory did not age gracefully, I had problems with reviewing longer books. By the time I reached their ends, I had difficulties remembering their beginnings. My opportunistic spouse suggested skimming such them. To me, that was like periodically nodding off while watching a play or movie—too great a loss.

Nevertheless, some envy persisted, although I defended my slow reading with an analogy from walking. How could fast walkers trough a landscape or cityscape fully enjoy the natural or architectural beauties? A goodly portion had to be wasted on them. Yes, but even so, speedreaders had the benefit of being able to tackle the great classics, however imperfectly. What, after all, is perfect in this vale of tears of ours? And the famous masterpieces tend to be long. Take Moby-Dick, Take War and Peace, take Proust. Each of those is a different case and needs to be examined separately.

Melville, except in one famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,”strikes me as a poor writer, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. The two or three times I tried reading his alleged masterpiece, I always gave up alienated after a few pages. It struck me as the sort of thing that might prove helpful to people having to carve up beached whales for commercial purposes. (Too bad that English lacks a single, terse word for this as French has: depecer is more precise, more specific for this activity, and has indeed served the great Jacques Prevert as basis for one of his wonderful poems.)

But what about Tolstoy? Even in translation, he knew how to write. Still, after a couple of attempts at War and Peace, I gave up well before the end of Peace, to say nothing of War. Too many characters, too many names, too many details. By way of contrast, Ivan Ilich managed to die in a fraction of narrative time.

Now how about In Search of Lost Time—or, since I read it in French, A la Recherche du temps perdu? Well, in the first place, I was assistant to Harry Levin in his celebrated Harvard Proust, Mann and Joyce course, and so had to read it. And in the second place, Proust spoke to me the way Tolstoy didn’t. Even his long sentences, let alone his paragraphs, generated an intense curiosity about their outcome—sort of like reading a detective novel (I imagine, because I don’t read any), where you are ineluctably propelled to attain the revelatory ending.

Still, when assigned it by the New York Times Book Review, I managed to read even one of Norman Mailer’s hugely hypertrophic novels—Harlot’s Ghost, 1310 pages—even if I had to read it on trains while traveling through Europe. It occurs to me that the trains must have been helpful: you couldn’t get up and do something else.

Probably, though, the best defense of slow reading (please note: always two words) is that one remembers much more that way. This may indeed hold true for younger people; in my case, and doubtless in that of other older folks, it no longer applies. (By the way, why are younger persons usually people, whereas older ones most often folks?) Rereading a text might be helpful; but who, having slowly and painstakingly read a lengthy text once, would have the disposition, energy, and patience to read it twice?

Here I take the opportunity to express my gratitude to the New York Times, which I have often slighted or censured. Truth is I spend considerable, perhaps even inordinate, time in the morning reading the daily Times, and even more on the Sunday edition. Granted, much of that stuff is of only passing interest, if that. But there is also enough there that is genuinely entertaining, and some indeed that is relevant and useful to know. It certainly enhances your cocktail-party conversation.

On the debit side, however, we also get content that is annoying, notably the drama and, to a somewhat lesser extent, film criticism. Especially irritating is the almost fanatically extensive and enthusiastic coverage of pop music; while dance and classical music, which require technical knowledge, are handled more cogently.  Well, there is no rose without thorns (actually there are some roses that don’t have them, but are too expensive for the ordinary man, if not so for his woman). And there is one corollary benefit from the Sunday Times: hefting it easily replaces dumbbells as exercise.

Finally, I feel more and more indebted to G. K. Chesterton, who observed what a fine  spectacle Times Square at night would be for anyone who could not read. And that, mind you, was then. Now, with the exponentially increased types and quantity of signage, even a speedreader could waste a couple of hours presuming to read them.

I wonder, though, whether the gaping, milling, and circulation-choking nocturnal throngs can qualifiy as readers of any kind. Judging by their behavior and overheard snippets of—dare one call it conversation?—they are merely mistaking littering for literacy and loitering for serious reconnoitering.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Benighted, etc.


First, some errata from the last time round. The film director who bought flowers for my date was Francesco, not Franco, Rosi. (There was another film director, Franco Rossi, causing confusion.) Liv Ullmann ends in two Ns. Bo Widerberg’s film is “Elvira Madigan,” not Madison.

A correspondent wanted me to extend my “Famous People” to three actresses: Isabelle Huppert, Anouk Aimee and another I forget. (Please remind me if you can.) I had Isabelle over for a very pleasant dinner. But on another occasion, interviewing Huppert, I asked her why she would act in a movie by the overpraised phony Michael Cimino, not realizing that she was having an affair with him.

With Anouk Aimee, I had no real nexus, except for once meeting her and her then partner one afternoon in Times Square. They had just seen “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, brandishing the program, Anouk asked me what the word “fiddler” meant. “Violoniste,” I replied, whereupon she triumphantly exclaimed, “I thought so!”

If the third actress was Genevieve Bujold, I have already written about her before. Let me here recollect a would-be actress, Beth Short, a pretty waitress at St. Clair’s in Cambridge, with whom I had friendly conversations. Fellow Harvardman Peter Berger and I phoned her to meet us on an appointed day at the Harvard Square subway station. I left this in a message, which she never answered. Nevertheless, we waited, but the lovely waitress, expectably, never showed up.

During my brief stint in the Air Force, I was sent by friends newspaper clippings:  the Black Dahlia, as she was then dubbed, had been murdered in the grisliest fashion in Hollywood, where she had become a member of the lesbian actress Ann Todd’s circle. Her body was discovered so brutally tortured that no account offered a description. The crime was never solved, though diverse theories about it kept appearing.

Some words now about two wonderful British actresses. Eileen Atkins is one of the most distinguished stage and screen stars, whom I admired ever since I saw her on Broadway in “The Killing of Sister George.” I got to know her at an award ceremony where she felt inexplicably ignored. I turned there into what she later referred to as her protector. We spent some nice time together, but subsequent meetings have been all too few. I have always found her, on and offstage, as intelligent as she is talented, a relatively rare phenomenon among actors.

On to Lindsay Duncan. On page 810 of “John Simon on Theater,” about a revival of “Private Lives” with Alan Rickman costarred, I have reprinted my glowing review of her. Yet the one time I met her, she reminded me of an earlier, unfavorable notice I had forgotten. I must have been signally mistaken. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that in that production there was a moment when, on the edge of the bed, she was putting on her stockings. That was one of the sexiest things I have ever seen on any stage. It made me catch the show a second time and did not disappoint.

Now onto my real topic: benightedness. I have always found “benighted” a very useful word. An adjective meaning “in a state of moral or intellectual ignorance,” it is a euphemism for “stupid.” Coming from a critic, “stupid” may in some cases sound arrogant or, at any rate, excessive. My frequent recourse to “benighted,” often about a group phenomenon,  makes me wonder what has become of our designation as homo sapiens? The sapiens tends to be missing, and the homo has taken on a different, offensive significance.

Consider something that so ubiquitously gets up my dander: the asinine mispronunciation of “groceries” as “grosheries.” This must have originated with some prominent ignoramus—or a number of them—derived by faulty analogy from words like “glacier” or “hosiery” and their likes, where the contiguous vowel I softens the sibilant. In “groceries,” there is no I after the C, hence it is pronounced as “grosseries.”

It takes a goodly bit of ignorance—or benightedness—to perpetrate this fatuity. It has now pretty much swept the country, especially on television, and often has the miscreant pronounce it with the patronizing smugness of someone displaying his (supposed) superiority to the unwashed.

What I find particularly galling is that when I mention this lapse to people with a good education, the unexpected response is “Really? I haven’t noticed.” Which goes to show that people tend not hear what they are actually hearing, but something  they assume they are hearing.

In his extremely valuable  “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” which I warmly recommend to anyone who opens his mouth in English, Bryan A. Garner offers a list of common mispronunciations. The most salient ones I keep hearing are “aflooent” and “inflooence” and “greevious’ and “mischievious,” followed closely by “prefurrable” and “asterix.” And, of course, the widespread “couldent” and “wooldent.” Where I go beyond Garner and most dictionaries, I don’t approve of “exquizzite,” with the accent on the middle syllable.

What I find perhaps even more distressingly surprising is how a wrong-word usage becomes just about omnipresent. I refer to the answer to “How are you” that nowadays is almost universally, “I am good.” Clearly the adverb “well” is called for, and used to be regularly proffered. To say you are “good,” strikes me as inappropriate and inept even if you are moral, decent, righteous—a distastefully self-promoting pronouncement to any and all comers. Goodness, in any case, is much more often paid lip service to than achieved.

Now about my own benightedness. When my wife and I moved to the suburbs, I had the movers box and transport hundreds of neckties I had collected. Incidentally, until a Hungarian maid exclaimed, “What a great collection,” I had never thought of them as anything but part of an ample wardrobe. I was simply fond of ties, especially if of fine materials and by couturiers I liked.

In fact, ties have to a large extent become outmoded. Blame it, like most fashions, on France, where even prominent men started appearing in public with open collars on their shirts. There were—are—some professions and situations that still call for ties, but they are rare enough for me to wonder how come that so many ties are still being manufactured and presumably sold. Aren’t they generally causing the wearer to be considered a benighted fuddy-duddy?

Let me proceed to other forms of benightedness, viz. the manifold adaptations, putative updatings, of Shakespeare plays. Such transmogrification into the “modern” or “contemporary” is usually performed by second-rate writers, if not by actual hacks. If deemed necessary, any other means are preferable. If possible, supertitles, or program notes. Or, for that matter, not bothering, but assuming that concerned persons will subsequently seek out annotated texts. It is not as if Shakespeare were in Middle or even Old English.

Transgressions often predicate the loftiest aspirations. Take poems in the subways, where, surrounded by advertisements of often greater interest, they nowadays proudly pop up. I don’t know who picks them, but they are usually at best mediocre, and frequently written by practitioners with not much more than membership in a P.C. -endorsed minority to their credit. I doubt whether any subway riders are thereby turned into poetry lovers; more likely into avoiders.

I also have my quarrel with e-books. Though any indulgence may be better than abstention, I think that electronics and literature are unhappy bedmates. In a real book, which remains rather than evanesces, you can annotate and underline, readily return to passages meant to be resavored and thus correctly remembered. To be sure, a recent issue of the French magazine Lire quotes Juan Gabriel Vasquez, “Memory is truly bizarre: it allows us to remember what one has not lived.” This may mitigate many a person’s hurts.

Any given week the booby prize for benightedness goes to different offenders. Here are the current ones. Anyone at all with it should know that Shaw himself rejected the George. All responsible editions and studies refer to him, according to his wishes, simply as Bernard Shaw, which in countries such as Germany he always was.

What about the benighted women who call themselves Rachael rather than Rachel? The latter comes from the Hebrew, meaning a ewe; the latter is a benighted false analogy to the Hebrew Michael (close to God), which does take the A. Granted that the stupidity was the parents’, the daughter can legally or just in practice make the correction.

Finally, head wagglers. By a cruel irony of fate, I am often seated in the theater behind a head waggler. For no good reason, i.e., no such obstacle in front of him or her, these persons keep throwing the head (granted lighter for being empty), or even the whole body, this way and that. If you reprimand them, some desist, others defiantly continue. The problem is that in issuing the reprimand during a performance, it is hard not to disturb several nearby others, making you the culprit. It certainly is a mark of substantial stupidity not to realize that you are not at home, watching television.

So much for now. Future installments regrettably not unlikely.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Part Two: Famous People


I note now, with mild surprise, that in Part One all my famous people were part-time or full-time poets. Here now are others of a different sort. Take. for example, that fine actor and genuine character, Werner Klemperer. We shared many interests, but none more divertingly than miniature golf, which he played with maniacal assiduity, leaving Philip Bosco, me, and our respective wives far behind in dedication. He was full of anecdotes, some of them about his famous father, the conductor Otto Klemperer, whose toughness he inherited. He had many good sides to him, among others calling my attention to that lovely and wonderful singer, Angelika Kirchschlager, whom I met all too briefly backstage, but whose recitals and records have been a special joy. Colonel Klink, as most people (inadequately) knew him, was very fond of pretty women, which cannot be said of all actors. I spoke at his memorial service, and it was the only time I teared up in public.

I have known several stage and screen actors and directors, and one of my great thrills was when, as I was entering a theater and he was coming out of it, Max von Sydow warmly greeted me by my name, even though we had never met before. But, of course, my most important Swede was Ingmar Bergman, whom I continue to consider the greatest filmmaker ever. He agreed, for my book about him, to a long interview, which is in the book, “Ingmar Bergman Directs,” and is fairly often quoted. We interrupted our talk for lunch at the Swedish Film Industry commissary, where the food was mediocre, but conversation terrific. During our afternoon session, Bergman ate some of his beloved jam of lingonberries (aka mountain cranberries), which I too came to relish and can heartily recommend to all. It was wonderful that when I told him that there was no room for me at the Strand Hotel, he made a brief phone call and, presto, there was room.

The only other time I met Bergman was when he was filming “Fanny and Alexander,” and scads of journalists wanted to interview him, yet he refused all but me. In a studio room, he, Erland Josephson and I had a marvelous time together, and he even took me to see a spectacular set for the movie. Would to heaven that I had kept some notes. On other occasions I had the pleasure of meeting some of his fabled leading ladies. I took Bibi Andersson to see a Bergman stage production of Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” and had a fine time with her afterwards at the Opera Bar. I sat with Ingrid Thulin on a long bus ride. Gunnel Lindblom tried to get me in her clutches, but by that time she was over the hill, and I resisted.

I had a nice lunch in New York with Liv Ullman, but with her press agent as chaperone it was less than intimate. I did have the impertinence, however, to ask her how she could have gotten involved with such a repulsive and reprehensible fellow as Henry Kissinger, which she smilingly sloughed off. Leaving that hotel dining room, I came up at another table against the splendid actor Peter Finch, and said foolishly that I probably should rather have interviewed him, which he heartily corroborated.

Many years later, after a film she directed, I again joined Liv, and I had the pleasure of a very warm session with her and her leading actress, the magnificent Lena Andre, for a tribute to whom I was much later briefly filmed, even though I refused to pretend kneeling before her, she not being there  anyway. I also had the fun of squiring around Harriet Andersson at the Telluride Festival, and introducing her to the audience. What a gracious and smart lady she proved.

I had a good time with other famous Swedes. There were jolly hours with Vilgot Sjoman, for whose “I Am Curious” films I testified at two Ohio trials. Very charming too was Bo Widerberg, the “Elvira Madison” director, on whose Moviola I had my then girlfriend write, in perfect Swedish, “Edited by Patricia Marx.” But I became particularly fond of stage and film director Johan Bergenstrahle, a superb film of whose I tried vainly to get shown in America. I met Johan at a Wisconsin University lakeside Swedish Film Fortnight, at which I spoke about Bergman. Johan was delightful, as was his eccentric wife (I think that’s what she was.) I met him again in Stockholm, much later, on a pleasant bar night, when he sadly confided in me that his beautiful mistress had aged enough for her posterior to become flabby. What was he to do about it? Damned if I can recall how I advised him, but later, in New York, I got a letter from him saying (in his wonderful, large handwriting) that I had been right and most helpful “after all.”

Also by that Wisconsin lake, I met the novelist Per Olov Enquist, who was the life of the party there. How different he was, years later, when his play, “The Night of the Tribades,” about Strindberg’s unhappy love life, was briefly on Broadway, and I took him to lunch. His moroseness was probably caused by the play doing poorly. But why in hell did he have to use the puzzling synonym “tribades,” when the obvious term, “lesbians,” could have brought in crowds? I have been most friendly with that very great director, Jan Troell, whose two fabulous films about Swedish émigrés in America were unfortunately severely cut by Warner Brothers--and his perhaps greatest film, “Here Is Your Life,” not shown at all. We had a good time at the Cannes Film Festival, where he snapped pictures of me and my then girlfriend, which he promised to send me and never did. I met him again in New York, when I took him to a Thai dinner, a cuisine unknown to him but that he hugely enjoyed. Again he promised to send me those pictures, as well as new ones he took, but never so much as a letter from him, which, I am told, is typical.

My best Swedish friend, however, was Per Wastberg, distinguished novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, with whom and the first of his four wives, we had wonderful times at Harvard and all around Cambridge. Also a leading journalist and for a while head of the Nobel Literature Prize committee (now merely a member), he was a young man exuding erudition, intelligence and accomplishment, and I saw him again in Sweden, where at the time he owned an ancient but wonderful farmhouse. It was there that I received a phone call from America, telling me that Claus von Bulow, who had won away from me the affection of Alexandra Isles, was found guilty of attempted uxoricide. That was in sophisticated Newport; the clever lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, and the blue-collar jury in unsophisticated Providence (where, as Alexandra told me, the jurors didn’t know the meaning of the word “mistress”) got the judgment reversed. More recently, Per and I have corresponded again, and I can affirm that the Stationery of the Swedish Academy is impressive.

At a Pen Club conference, I accosted the celebrated Pablo Neruda, and got him to sign a volume of his poetry. He wrote something absolutely charming in it, but that book, alas, has strayed from my possession. This was the conference at which Toni Morrison complimented me on my dashing overcoat, for which, if nothing else, she deserved the Nobel Prize. At Seattle, where I was teaching, I got the visiting South African, Roy Campbell, to write something nice in a book of his. What a grand fellow he was, a riot with tales about the army, which to find him some employment, had him go clocking, in pursuit by army vehicle, the speed of various animals, the ostrich being most struthiously troublesome and hilarious. A poet and prose writer this who should be better known.

I did better with German-language writers about whom I wrote , in Part One, and with sundry cineasts and actors. I have written elsewhere about my adventures at the Tehran Film Festival, where I was a delegate along with Otto Preminger and Paul Mazursky, the actresses Sally Kellerman and Brenda Vaccaro, and a couple of others. Because the likable Farhad Diba was my student at M.I.T., his cousin the Empress (or Shah’s wife) provided me with a limousine in which I could give rides to my less favored colleagues.

Back in New York, some of us visited the Iranian Embassy to the U.N. where the ambassador, a former film critic in France, gave parties well attended because the caviar came in an enormous bowl and one could gorge oneself on it. I got to talk to a personable young man who told me he had one good teacher at M.I.T., and I said I had one good student. It turned out he had been that student, and I that teacher. I am sorry we lost touch when he and his wife moved to London. The Ambassador and I had violent disagreements about movies, but at least he, unlike his brother the Iranian prime minister, did not get shot when the Shah was ousted.

I was for a while very friendly with Maximilian Schell, a good actor and not bad film director. I had given a movie of his an enthusiastic review, and we became pals. But as soon as I reviewed his next movie unfavorably, the friendship was off. Not so with the marvelous Australian director, Bruce Beresford, a film of his I was one of two perhaps only people impressed by at the Berlin Film Festival, which started a wonderful friendship, wherein I am allowed to be perfectly sour about some of his lesser movies. ”Black Robe,” “Tender Mercies” and “Breaker Morant,” however, are masterpieces, and his Introduction to the book l“John Simon on Film” is formidable, too.

I got to know some French filmmakers well, especially the extremely charming Jean-Jacques Annaud, who told me one of the funniest true stories I ever heard about a  decrepit, wheezing lion who all night stalked a tent in which he (Annaud, not the lion) and his girlfriend were trying to sleep.  I was even better friends with Bertrand Tavernier, one of our finest directors, whose first film, “The Clockmaker,” I had given a rave review to in New York magazine. This started a long and beautiful friendship, which covered some of his splendid films, and involved jolly visits in Paris, New York and Telluride, but has somehow lapsed latterly--possibly, I am sorry to say, because I no longer write about movies.

Another enthusiastic review, this for the irresistible Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties,” had New York magazine send me to Rome and a long, loving reportage about Lina, which got her the sobriquet Saint Lina of New York from Italian journalists who were not overfond of her. She, her delightful husband, the set and costume designer Enrico Job, and her amazing chief actor, Giancarlo Giannini, became fast friends of mine and I enjoyed nothing more than the frequent visits to her in Rome for which she lavishly provided. This after many years, during which she always wanted my opinions about her work, has come to an end, and not because, strong woman she is, she resented some of my candid criticisms that could have her get up early next morning and reedit one of her films. Very amusing was the time when Giancarlo, during one of his visits to New York, insisted on our walking about the city arm in arm, natural in Italy but, at least at that time, not so in America.

Through Lina, I met other Italian celebrities. At a dinner chez Marcello Mastroianni, lovely man, we were shown the discolored places on his wall where had hung pictures he had to sell to pay taxes (one by the splendid Renzo Vespignani), and I met another guest, the great Vittorio Gassman, who later in New York left a message on my answering machine to the effect that “We All Loved Each Other So Much,” which other movie reviewers adored, was indeed, as I wrote, piddling. The only other time my answering machine was so honored was when Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and I had been the only attendees at a Paramount screening of which we all made deservedly vitriolic fun. Jack’s message was that he indeed thought the movie (in which neither he nor Anjelica acted) rubbish, but that I, please, please, was not to let his opinion become known.

Of the Italian cinema, I also met the gifted director Franco Rosi, who, in a café on the Via Veneto, rebuked me for not buying my then girlfriend flowers from an itinerant vendor, which he, however, did buy for her. There were in those days some of the most gorgeous Italian actresses after whom I duly lusted, but the only ones I got to meet were Mariangela Melato and Monica Vitti, after whom I didn’t. Many years later, at the Spoleto Festival, I caught glimpses of Sophia Loren, but never met her either. I did get to meet there the somewhat less alluring Gian Carlo Menotti, who smilingly remarked that I was a tough critic (but, luckily, in print, not of him).

I have, however, had a lifelong friendship with the fine composer and writer Ned Rorem, which started under funny circumstances. We were both waiting for a plane to Columbia, South Carolina, and a birthday celebration for James Dickey, when I asked him, God knows why in French, where the men’s room was (no reflection on his sexual predilections, only that he had been waiting longer). He directed me, but always later on claimed that I had used the wrong French word for toilet, whereas I claimed to have used the right one. This became quite a flash point for further debates. We have shared a strong taste for modern French music, and have written admiringly about each other, with him contributing an elegant Introduction to “John Simon on Music.” I think what especially endeared me to him was, when we were collaborating on his piece for the leading homosexual publication in defense of me against wrongful accusations of homophobia, my jacket was hanging on a chair and his bichon frise peed on it, which I took without the slightest offense.

I see now that this piece has gotten very long, and that a third installment is in order. Kindly bear with me.





Saturday, October 11, 2014

FAMOUS PEOPLE, PART ONE


Having been during my long life a teacher of Humanities and critic of most of the arts, it would be a reasonable assumption that as their reviewer, as well as an occasionally published poet, I might have known a number of famous people.

And so I did, meeting some in passing, and even befriending a few. Unfortunately, I never kept a diary, and so never wrote up any conversations or other recollections. By now I don’t even have my former good memory, and what remnant of it I have is quirky and tends to summon up a trivial detail or two, but few if any essentials.Nevertheless, here goes.

Surely the most celebrated person I ever met was Jose Luis Borges, with whom and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, I had lunch at the Terrace Restaurant near Columbia University. The translator was present not because Borges had the least trouble with English, but because by that time he was very nearly blind. The great Argentine—I remember his pointing out that the proper adjective was Argentine and not Argentinian--was an amazing lunch companion.

I also remember his speaking the most beautiful English, without a trace of a Spanish accent, in a gentle, melodious voice. This writer of some rather wild things was civilized in the utmost degree and said some memorable things I have managed to forget. One of our subjects was the Pre-Raphaelites, for whom he had a great affection.

I don’t recall how it came about, but I arranged--on a subsequent visit of his to New York, accompanied by the lady who was his sighted guide--to have them stay with a woman fried of mine at her large Park Avenue apartment and so be spared hotel costs. They stayed for a couple of nights, but I, stupidly, failed to make renewed contact with Borges, easy as it would have been.

There was also Yves Bonnefoy, on the way of becoming France’s leading poet, though at that time not yet quite there. He had something to do with Harvard, where I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature. His friend Alain Bosquet—poet, novelist and critic, but chiefly remembered as translator--was teaching at Brandeis.The three of us had some good times together. I was working on my doctorate, and Bonnefoy asked to see the some of my Ph. D. thesis on the prose poem as art form, on which I was currently working, the chapter being the one on Rimbaud.

I remember only his disapproving of my contention that Rimbaud went in for deliberate ambiguity. Bonnefoy insisted that ambiguity did not come into French poetry until Valery. He may have been right. I did not see him again till many years later, by which time he was at the height of his fame and guest lecturing at Hunter College. After one of his public lectures, I accosted him, but he barely recalled me, was extremely cold, and showed no interest in any sort of rapport.

In my graduate student days, I had a girlfriend named Joan, a Bennington graduate living with her parents in Newton, and not doing much of anything. At Bennington, she was somehow involved with the visiting poet Pierre Emmanuel, whom I met through her. All I remember of him, alas, is his preference for women with powerful rather than slender legs, like the ones in Maillol’s statues, a taste I did not, and still do not, share.

Joan definitely did have an affair with the distinguished German poet and essayist Hans Egon Holthusen, who was lots of fun, and later ran the Goethe House in New York, where I attended numerous events. Before that, however, Joan came to live in New York, where she had a couple of jobs, including one at Esquire, all of which she promptly lost. Although I moved in with her, her heart was really with Holthusen, the heroine of whose only novel, “Das Schiff,” she was. The poet was teaching in Chicago or somewhere else, but expecting him to come stay with her, she kicked me out. By the time he did come to New York, she had committed suicide.

What do I really remember of Holthusen? Only two trivial things. He liked pointy shoes, which he rebuked me for not going in for. Also his warning me not to call certain people in print idiots, which is allegedly actionable, but assholes, which definitely is not.

In later life, Louis MacNeice has become one of my favorite poets. I met him much too early after a reading he gave at Harvard, and I was deputized to escort him from the Yard, where he read, to Eliot House, where he was to stay. I remember our walk: he was taciturn and I was shy; very little was spoken. What a chance missed!

Another time, walking on Massachusetts Avenue with one of my advisers, the charming Renato Poggioli, we ran into one of my idols, Edmund Wilson. The two men started a conversation, but Poggioli never introduced me, and I stood by mute and frustrated. Some years later, friends of mine at a late night joint got to talk to Wilson, who was trying to learn Hungarian. They mentioned me as a friend who knew the language. It seems that Wilson envied me without my being able to benefit from it.

I was one of three section men in a lecture course on Yeats, Rimbaud and Rilke taught by Archibald MacLeish. In my section was Adrienne Rich, who had just been chosen a Yale Younger Poet. She complained that the course was too elementary; could I get MacLeish to make it more advanced? Needless to say, that wasn’t up to me, and Rich haughtily dropped the course.

In my section, however, remained future novelists Rona Jaffe and Harold Brodky. Jaffe, a B minus student, would later insist that she had not been my student but my fellow instructor. Brodky was a real nuisance, who never heeded assignments and wrote instead vaporous surreal fantasies. I spent a couple of hours with him on the steps to Widener Library, trying to make him understand and comply. In vain, as he, having become a famous but impossibly abstruse writer, would smilingly relate to one and all.

A high point of my not entirely unclouded relationship with MacLeish was the occasion when he had me before the entire class reading some of Rilke’s poems, so that they would hear how they sounded in German. I had invited to that class Christine Bosshard, a very beautiful Radcliffe girl, who was duly impressed, but not enough so, alas, for any intimacies. The next day, Archie summoned me to his office. I wondered what I had done wrong this time, but all he wanted was to know more about the gorgeous Cliffie who had been my guest.

As an undergraduate, I also had a meeting with W.H. Auden, to whom I showed one of my amateurish poems. It was in a cafeteria, and he was very friendly and nice about it, but averred, as it was a winter poem, that it should avoid metaphors involving ants, because there were no ants in the snow. A good many years later, I and a girlfriend were invited to a dinner chez Auden and Chester Kallman.

A fellow guest was Edward Albee, about whom I recall only his presence. But I do remember Auden, then a Christian proselyte, arguing that Divine Providence wisely harvested people only when they had fulfilled their earthly mission. Thus, if Mozart or Schubert died young, it was because he had accomplished all he had to do. I remember protesting that surely Georg Buechner’s death at 23 was premature for such a genius. The other thing I remember is the bathtub that held the evening’s liquor. It had a black ring around it a quarter way down. I am not sure whether or not that made me a teetotaler for the evening. The reason I had been invited was my being an associate editor of the Mid-Century Book Society, whose editors were Auden, Barzun and Trilling. About this I have written elsewhere.

The one poet with whom I had a close friendship was James Dickey. It began when he, as a subscriber of that book club, had some complaint, and I was in charge of answering complaints. I sent him our apologies, and commented on how much I prized his then still uncelebrated poetry. This pleased him, and he looked me up on his next visit to New York.

It was a lasting friendship, and it survived such things as my being unimpressed by his otherwise much admired novel, “Deliverance,” and my not being able to provide liquor on one of his later visits—just as well, considering his behavior when drunk. After his death, when I briefly but unsuccessfully dated his smart and beautiful but messed-up daughter, Bronwyn, she told me that I had been his best friend in New York.

My happiest memory of Jim is written up in his journal and essay volume, “Sorties.” The page begins, “I have seldom spent such a good afternoon of human time as I had a few years ago with John Simon in New York. . . . We sat around and talked about writing, and about poets. . . . He said, ‘Do you know whom I really like?’ I said I hadn’t any idea, thinking it would be some new French poet I hadn’t heard of. Not att all. He pulled out . . . ‘The Collected Poems of Andrew Young,’ a rather mild English ecclesiastical poet, and read to me for two or three hours. I sat there with my mouth open.” And it goes on in that vein. The time, of course, is an exaggeration of what must have been more like twenty or thirty minutes—but call it poetic license. His death was a terrible shock; he seemed gifted and robust enough to live forever.

My relations with another, similarly robust, poet were less felicitous. That was Theodore Roethke. It was during my relatively brief stint teaching at the University of Washington, where Roethke, a professor, was considered the crown jewel—not to say God. In a casual conversation with someone, I referred to Roethke as a good minor poet. This got back to him, and apparently enraged him, as it certainly did the multitude of his local worshipers.

But there were times when craziness overpowered him and he had to be hospitalized, having become abjectly self-doubting. At such a time he wrote to me upon reading a poem of mine: “. . .  I came across your villanelle in ‘The Paris Review.’ If you will permit me to say so,--I thought it a poem of genuine distinction: some fresh (for me, anyway) effect, in that difficult form. I read the piece with envy. I trust you will not take this note amiss.” Hardly.

END OF PART ONE