March 21, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
In Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona the three American men, and especially the seemingly insufferable Doug, are drawn in stark contrast to the two or three Spaniards. Woody Allen often writes his movies too and has apparently written this one, so the lengthy monologues that might be emerging from a character and seem to be spoken by a Johannson or Hall here might just as easily have been spoken by Allen himself in an appearance in one of his previous movies.
But not in case of the WASP-men. What is Doug made to talk about throughout? Domestic nesting behaviour, shopping, how to please parents and society: all conventionally, stereotypically, feminine, not masculine, subjects of conversation. His fellow male WASPs are no better. The most that comes out by way of masculinity is talk of a little sports or a little gadgetry. That’s it. On balance, the WASP-men in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona are made to come across as effete hedonistic characters – though ones holding elite expensive jobs.
Contrast that with Juan Antonio and his father who can talk about or enact nothing but creative deeds whether painting in case of the son or poetry in case of the father or making love to women in case of both.
Of course this is fantasy and there is dramatic license being taken here because creative artists possessing the kind of masculine integrity these two men portray tend in reality to be hungry and impecunious and angry and unkempt, not living in marvelous clean mansions that attract the Marie-Elenas of the world to their beds. If they had inherited wealth they might have tended to squander it rather than find artistic genius and good taste, not merely in one generation but over two.
Furthermore, the integrity is all a bit far-fetched – Antonio is uncouth enough to propose to Vicky she jeopardize her engagement by making love in a threesome as a last fling in a bachelor-party before getting married, yet the same character later proclaims he is not someone to come between husband and wife (having already been with the wife). The threesome he instantly proposes to Vicky and Cristina, who are strangers to him, is entirely vacuous in comparison to the threesome he ends up being in with Cristina and Marie-Elena; in the former, he is almost a cheap tour-guide who wants to get paid in kind for an interesting day of tourism, something Vicky naturally resists. Besides, his paintings do look unexceptional, which allows an alternative interpretation that perhaps father and son are merely two rich lonely wasteful men imagining themselves to be leading the artistic life.
The four American women also come off as pallid in comparison to the central dominating character of Marie-Elena – a point made most bluntly when Cristina fetches the aspirin for Antonio only to find Marie-Elena administering him a neck-massage instead. Cristina has at most a talent at photography, Marie-Elena is a genius at whatever she touches.
Even the silent Spaniard kissing Judy is portrayed doing more by way of masculinity than any of the WASP-men. Doug with his laptop and his well-gymed body in shorts epitomizes Ivy League undergraduate success while remaining clueless about human nature or the outside world. He is a modern American Karenin, and the theme we are left with of Vicky being besotted with her dashing Spaniard even while starting the dullest and most tedious married life with Doug, would, as it were, become Anna Karenina except she has yet to dutifully bear Doug and his family a child.
In fact it is the absence of such a child that makes the movie possible – if Vicky had instead visited Barcelona after she and Doug were married and had a child or two with them, would she have spared a second glance at the dashing Spaniard, no matter how boring and tedious Doug turned out to be? The great lacuna in Woody Allen’s great oeuvre thus far may be his inability to depict anything but adult conversations – has he ever managed to describe families with children seriously?
FR Leavis once suggested that DH Lawrence may have failed to grasp Anna Karenina, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, for supposing Anna and Vronsky could survive on love alone. Woody Allen may have failed similarly in his much smaller-scale characterization of the Antonio-Vicky-Doug triangle. Does he have the patience to read Leavis’s masterly essay, I wonder, besides the novel itself? A Woody Allen production of Anna Karenina – now wouldn’t that be something else?
August 4, 2008 — drsubrotoroy
Tolstoy has been admired by many millions, and I shall plan to upload when I can some rare photos of him with his family and contemporaries from a Russian book in our Library which my father had given my sister in 1962. Here is an interesting excerpt from his On the Significance of Science and Art translated by Isabel F. Hapgood and published in the Project Gutenberg edition.
“The thinker or the artist will never sit calmly on Olympian heights, as we have become accustomed to represent them to ourselves. The thinker or the artist should suffer in company with the people, in order that he may find salvation or consolation. Besides this, he will suffer because he is always and eternally in turmoil and agitation: he might decide and say that which would confer welfare on men, would free them from suffering, would afford them consolation; but he has not said so, and has not presented it as he should have done; he has not decided, and he has not spoken; and tomorrow, possibly, it will be too late, — he will die. And therefore suffering and self-sacrifice will always be the lot of the thinker and the artist. Not of this description will be the thinker and artist who is reared in an establishment where, apparently, they manufacture the learned man or the artist (but in point of fact, they manufacture destroyers of science and of art), who receives a diploma and a certificate, who would be glad not to think and not to express that which is imposed on his soul, but who cannot avoid doing that to which two irresistible forces draw him,—an inward prompting, and the demand of men…. It is possible to study out how many beetles there are in the world, to view the spots on the sun, to write romances and operas, without suffering; but it is impossible, without self-sacrifice, to instruct people in their true happiness, which consists solely in renunciation of self and the service of others, and to give strong expression to this doctrine, without self-sacrifice. Christ did not die on the cross in vain; not in vain does the sacrifice of suffering conquer all things. But our art and science are provided with certificates and diplomas; and the only anxiety of all men is, how to still better guarantee them, i.e., how to render the service of the people impracticable for them.
True art and true science possess two unmistakable marks: the first, an inward mark, which is this, that the servitor of art and science will fulfill his vocation, not for profit but with self-sacrifice; and the second, an external sign,—his productions will be intelligible to all the people whose welfare he has in view. No matter what people have fixed upon as their vocation and their welfare, science will be the doctrine of this vocation and welfare, and art will be the expression of that doctrine. That which is called science and art, among us, is the product of idle minds and feelings, which have for their object to tickle similar idle minds and feelings. Our arts and sciences are incomprehensible, and say nothing to the people, for they have not the welfare of the common people in view. Ever since the life of men has been known to us, we find, always and everywhere, the reigning doctrine falsely designating itself as science, not manifesting itself to the common people, but obscuring for them the meaning of life. Thus it was among the Greeks the sophists, then among the Christians the mystics, gnostics, scholastics, among the Hebrews the Talmudists and Cabalists, and so on everywhere, down to our own times….”
October 3, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
Phoenix was a volume published in 1936 edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald containing the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence, including the bulk (possibly all) of his known non-fictional writings. Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 in Victoria Street, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, and died on 2 March 1930 in Villa Robermund, Vence, Alpes Maritimes. He was perhaps the greatest novelist, writer and literary critic of the 20th Century, and his genius is manifest in Phoenix.
I bought my copy of the book, a first American edition, in Washington DC, in the summer of 1992. It has been a source of depthless pleasure and wisdom ever since. It does not appear to be available in print nor is it even known by those who pretend to be authors, novelists, writers and literary critics today.
How I came to Lawrence’s work is briefly as follows. When I was about 23 or 24, in 1978 or 1979, I was in a conversation at a restaurant opposite Kings College, Cambridge (the Copper Kettle?) with a friend at the time, John Lyon, later of the University of Bristol. I was a Research Student in Economics under Frank Hahn, John was a Research Student in English under Q D Leavis. Both of us were members of Corpus Christi College, and lived at Lekhampton. There would have been others present at the conversation, probably Robert D. Fluharty, lawyer of West Virginia, but I cannot recall who they may have been. John was arguing or perhaps mentioned that he had come from the Leavis home where it was mentioned that Anna Karenina was the greatest novel that had been written. I recall thinking this to be an inane point of conversation, and it would be years before I realised that I had thought this because I had been still at the time someone who thought excessively highly of modern economics.
John may have been referring to FR Leavis’s masterly essay on Anna Karenina, which too I came to read decades later. The name of FR Leavis was faintly familiar, and I think I once saw him at Heffer’s bookstore shortly before his death. Leavis’s name and work then appeared again in the work of the philosopher Renford Bambrough, whose influence on my own work has been described elsewhere here.
A decade later, in 1988-89 in Honolulu, I read War and Peace for the first time, and some years later read Anna Karenina too. In Washington and New York City in 1992-1996, and also in Pasadena and Honolulu in 1989-1991, I collected the work of the Leavises and also Lawrence, all of which has been a source of much pleasure since. In all that, Phoenix has been paramount.
July 15 2007
September 4, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
by Subroto Roy
In London’s Guardian (September 1 2007) and Kolkata’s Telegraph (September 2 2007), Amit Chaudhuri has recently published something about his views on DH Lawrence. Chaudhuri did a DPhil at Oxford on Lawrence and has published a book on Lawrence’s poetry, which prima facie is enough reason for his views to be studied. His recent writing is part of an attempted comparison of Lawrence with VS Naipaul, though there is enough in what he says to distil out only his views on Lawrence from the mixture.
Lawrence, Chaudhuri says, is to be credited with having “almost single-handed” invented the notion of the “novelist-traveller’. In the Guardian article he adds: “Travel, I heard Geoff Dyer say not long ago, had profound formal implications for Lawrence’s handling of the novel.”
Now to say Lawrence was a “novelist-traveller” is a very odd remark indeed, and may reflect unfamiliarity with Lawrence’s life. Quite to the contrary: Lawrence’s novels had profound formal implications for his travel!
Lawrence did travel a lot with his wife – to the Continent, through the Suez Canal, to Ceylon, to Australia, to New Mexico and Mexico, to New York, San Francisco etc. But he set about travelling not because he wanted to write novels in these places which is what comes to mind from the double-barrelled term “novelist-traveller”. Initially, he was offered a teaching job in Germany which he turned down; then he had pursued a German woman who was already married to an Englishman, and that necessitated travels to the Continent; then there arose his tremendous opposition towards and great melancholy during the First World War. The Rainbow had been suppressed by a vicious police-action in 1915 — throughout his time in Cornwall he was desperate to leave England for Florida, and fantasised in letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell of creating an ideal community there. It did not happen though the Lawrences had apparently bought tickets and even set a sailing date for New York.
None of his major novels has a theme that is of anything but England. Women in Love comes to a climax in the snows of the Tyrole but its main characters are all English. Aaron’s Rod was begun to be written in London, then happened to be continued in Florence, finished in Sicily and published in New York when the Lawrences were in Ceylon on their way to Australia. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written in Italy but is entirely English. His only novel with a foreign/non-European theme was The Plumed Serpent, not his best. Lawrence was quintessentially an English novelist, and FR Leavis placed him in the “Great Tradition” of English Literature with Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, James, Conrad.
So yes, of course Lawrence was a traveller, and he was a novelist and writer of genius – but he was not a “novelist-traveller”. He was hardly even the first novelist who happened to travel either — Tolstoy, Twain, James, Conrad. (Of Hemingway it could be said he was a “novelist-traveller” but then Hemingway, or Naipaul, are not near the league of these others.)
Then Chaudhuri says: “The apogee of Lawrence’s visual sensibility is contained in Sons and Lovers, after which he promised himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic.” However one tries to understand this observation, it seems to be simply false. What did Lawrence actually say about Sons and Lovers after it was published? He said in a letter to Edward Garnett on 30 December 1913: “I shan’t write in the same manner as Sons and Lovers again, I think – in that hard, violent style full of sensations and presentation…” On 10 January 1914 he wrote the same to AD McLeod: “I shall not write quite so violently as Sons and Lovers any more”. There is nothing here promising “himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic”, whatever that might mean! Indeed no such view can be held by anyone who has read e.g. Women in Love. EM Forster noted, in his 1927 Clark Lectures published as Aspects of the Novel, the first official academic recognition of Lawrence’s literary genius and one during his lifetime:
“The prophet is irradiating nature from within, so that every colour has a glow and every form a distinctness which could not otherwise be obtained. Take a scene that always stays in the memory: that scene in Women in Love where one of the characters throws stones into the water at night to shatter the image of the moon. Why he throws, what the scene symbolizes is unimportant. But the writer could not get such a moon and water otherwise; he reaches them by his special path which stamps them as more wonderful than any we can imagine. It is the prophet back where he started from, back where the rest of us are waiting by the edge of the pool, but with a power of re-creation and evocation we shall never possess.”
Finally about Lawrence’s reaction to the Etruscans we are offered this: “history and antiquity occur most powerfully in a ‘now’, in a moment in the present that opens out suddenly on to the past, in a way that brings together all the knowledge the writer possesses as reader and student of history, as well as the dislocation he’s experiencing at that moment as traveller” (Chaudhuri). Poppycock! it has to be said. Lawrence was plainly and simply fascinated by the Etruscans — as many people of his time were, in view of the first definite archaeological studies about those first millennium BC people becoming published then.
On 5 October 1921, he wrote to Catherine Carswell: “Also, will you tell me what then was the secret of the Etruscans, which you saw written so plainly in the place you went to? Please don’t forget to tell me, as they really do rather puzzle me, the Etruscans….” By the end of his life in 1930, in “Making Love to Music” published posthumously in Phoenix, he has resolved his own puzzlement and found their secret at least to his own satisfaction: “The thought occurred to me suddenly when I was looking at the remains of paintings on the walls of Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia. There the painted women dance, in their transparent linen with heavier coloured borders, opposite the naked-limbed men, in a splendour and an abandon which is not all abandoned. There is a great beauty in them, as of life which has not finished. The dance is Greek, if you like, but not finished off like the Greek dancing. The beauty is not so pure, if you will, as the Greek beauty; but also it is more ample, not so narrowed. And there is not the slightest element of abstraction, of inhumanity, which underlies all Greek expression, the tragic will. The Etruscans, at least before the Romans smashed them, do not seem to have been tangled up with tragedy, as the Greeks were from the first. There seems to have been a peculiar large carelessness about them, very human and non-moral. As far as one can judge, they never said: certain acts are immoral because we say so! They seem to have had a strong feeling for taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing. Even death was a gay and lively affair…. They are just dancing a dance with the elixir of life….”
Dancing with the elixir of life, taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing, was what Lawrence himself was all about.