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February 2007

And That, Sir, Is Why You Need a Good Policy of Insurance

Hardycartoon Each serious Reader -- you know, the sort wha' spells i' with the ostentatious capital "R" -- must admit at some stage that there will be gaps in his or her reading, authors or works the Reader knows surely ought to be read, that the Reader wants to read really, but with which and whom he or she will never actually settle in.  One of my own Writers in the Gap is Thomas Hardy.  I confess it.  I have never read any of his novels: not Tess, not Jude, not any of them.  The nearest I have come was the long-ago BBC/Masterpiece Theater dramatization of The Mayor of Casterbridge, with Alan Bates, which was very good but did not send me running to the library.

I did, however, finally make a venture to the library in the last few weeks to look in to the later stage of Hardy's long career -- Hardy the poet, rather than Hardy the novelist. 

The trigger was the first few paragraphs of Jonathan Bate's paired review of two new Hardy biographies in the Times Literary Supplement.  Bate begins with a little "how-to" for biographers before pointing to the poems that I knew I had to read:

* * * The [biographer's] first decision is therefore the choice of vignette for your prologue.  Ralph Pite and Claire Tomalin begin as follows: 'You have to leave your car in the car park and walk up the lane' and 'In November of 1912 an ageing writer lost his wife'.  Admirers of Tomalin’s work will have no difficulty in assigning these openings to their respective authors, not least because she is too elegant and economic a writer ever to use the word 'car' twice in any sentence, let alone the all-important first one. Her best books are about marriages or quasi-marital relationships: Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, above all Dora Jordan and the future King William IV.  Her prologue accordingly turns Emma, the first Mrs Hardy, into a version of the madwoman in the attic, sleeping alone on the top floor of Max Gate, reading and writing all day in a second attic room, having her breakfast and lunch brought up by her maid. The writerly decision to take the trouble to record the latter’s name (Dolly) is the authentic Tomalin touch.

Emma dies and the second paragraph begins with a bold claim: 'This is the moment when Thomas Hardy became a great poet'. The remainder of the prologue is devoted to a highly sensitive account of the 'Poems of 1912–13', those extraordinary elegies of tender, guilty, evanescent remembrance in which Hardy recaptured his Cornish courtship of 1870. Tomalin is right: they are without question among the greatest poems of the twentieth century – and among the most influential, for they laid the ground for the reaction against high modernism . . . .

Beyond that stimulus, there has been a bit of a webstorm of Hardy material in the past few weeks:

  • In the New Yorker, Adam Kirsch disagreed somewhat with Tomalin's "misleading argument"  in her prologue.  ("Not only is this not true on the merits . . . but it is also a simplistic account of the way life is transmuted into art.") 
  • Meghan O'Rourke in Slate, for her part, posts a very nice piece emphasizing the "Poems 1912-1913," while making no particular reference to either of the new biographies.   
  • Meanwhile, the Kirsch and O'Rourke pieces are cited in a pair of cogent Hardy-related posts -- here, and here -- on Ben Kilpela's Yvor Winters blog.

So then: I have been reading Hardy's poems, sifting through a harrowingly vast body of work -- the Complete Poems run to 1040 pages in the current paperbound edition, and that does not include Hardy's vast three-part verse dramatization (!) of the Napoleonic Wars, The Dynasts -- and finding that one could really make a career of it if one were so inclined.  I feel the need to spend much more time on it all, but for now I want to post just one, early poem. 

This comes very near the beginning of Hardy's first published collection, the Wessex Poems of 1898, and pinpoints a theme remarked on or disputed at varying length in all of the posts cited above: the notion that the universe, with or without a personalizable deity behind it, presents itself as a context in which to live that may not be malevolent, but that ultimately does what it will without much caring or acknowledging the consequences to its individual human targets.  In some sense, this is the poetic expression of the line William Goldman gave to the returning hero Westley in The Princess Bride:  "Life is pain, highness: anyone who tells you different is selling something."  Hardy, of course, is a bit less flippant on the subject:


If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: 'Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!'

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so.  How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Even More Hardy:

  • Also in the TLS, "retired medical practitioner" Robert Alan Frizzell engages in a bit of lurid forensic speculation on the source of Emma Hardy's ailments and death.  I link, you decide.
  • For the initial link to Bate's TLS piece, thanks to Morgan Meis at 3quarksdaily.
  • One can never be sure whether Hardy himself subscribes to any point of view expressed in his poems.  His prefaces tend to include disclaimers, such as the one that accompanies the Wessex Poems, that "[t]he pieces are in a large degree dramatic or personative in conception; and this even where they are not obviously so."
  • "Crass Casualty" should not be your first choice when purchasing a homeowners policy.

'Tis True, 'Tis Pity, and Pity 'Tis 'Tis True

In a workshop production in my Berkeley acting days, I once played the role of Arkel, the old old king of the realm of Allemonde in Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas & Mélisande.  A great and mysterious Symbolist text, Pelléas is not often mounted as a play any more.  It remains well-known via Claude Debussy's opera version -- though it is to Debussy's credit that Pelléas should probably, as with later Wagner, more properly be classed as "music drama" rather than mere "opera."  In any case, Maeterlinck produced a wondrous text and Debussy tampered with it hardly at all in converting it to a libretto.

3quarksdaily last week linked to Rutgers professor Jerry Fodor's Times Literary Supplement review of Bernard Williams' essay collection On Opera.  The review ranges wide and far, but I particularly recommend this passage that captures much of what is so fine in Debussy's Pelléas:Erte_pelleas1_1932

Williams says of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande that it is a 'representation of its characters’ inner life which is uniquely subtle in opera'.  In fact, I think, Pelléas is the reverse of a psychological drama: it’s an opera in which everything is mysterious because nothing is hidden. The central characters are Golaud, who is patently mad with jealousy; Pelléas, who, like a child, is without premeditation; and Mélisande, who is an enigma to Golaud because she is entirely transparent.  He can’t believe that she is just as she seems to be; that is the irony that drives the action.  In Pelléas, as in Impressionism, it’s not the depths but the surfaces that seem to be beyond grasping. There are two kinds of problem that anyone who makes an opera has to face.  One of these is common to all the dramatic arts, namely to achieve the right distance between the audience and the performance.  The other is characteristic of opera as such: namely to achieve the right relation between the singers and the orchestra.  (In both cases 'right' means, of course, right for the work in hand.)  Distance and balance are among the parameters at the composer’s disposal in constructing a work, and differences in their handling are fundamental to distinguishing between operatic styles.  One of the things that makes it right to describe Italian opera as a 'popular' genre is that it invites (or almost invites) the audience to sing along.  Notoriously, one can’t get the tunes out of one’s head.  Wagner is not like that.

The interaction between distance and balance in Pelléas makes it unlike anything else in the canon.  Pelléas is an opera about what can’t be mended; the fate of the characters is fixed and the opera consists merely of its unfolding.  Pace some of what Williams says, Pelléas isn’t about what can’t be known; it’s about what can’t be done; above all it is about spaces between people that can’t be bridged.  ('Don’t touch me' is Mélisande’s first line.)  The action seems very far away and very long ago.  The key line (which Williams, in a most uncharacteristic lapse, dismisses as 'idiotic') is Arkel’s: 'If I were God, I should have pity on the hearts of men'.  That is, if I were God 'I would pity the hearts of men', not 'if I were God I would make things better'.  Action doesn’t happen at a distance, but pity can.

The action in Pelléas seems much further from the audience than does anything in Verdi or Wagner (or, certainly, in Puccini).  One feels pity, but there is no Aristotelian terror, and one doesn’t feel empathy.  (What would it feel like to feel like Mélisande?)  What seems to me miraculous is how the opera effects this sense of apartness – by rethinking the relation between the music and the drama.  Usually, the one supports the other (not least by helping the singer to stay on pitch); or the music comments on the action in ways that are familiar from Wagner.  In Pelléas, remarkably, the drama seems to be suspended in the music, rather in the way that something might be fixed in amber.  The music itself seems to contain the action and thereby maintains the distance between the action and the audience.  I know of nothing comparable except, perhaps, in old Chinese poetry, where the verse seems less to express emotion than to be the medium in which it transpires.

Lovely.  Not to put too much weight on my own former character, but I would suggest that the other key lines in both the play and the music drama are the very last, also Arkel's.  Mélisande has just given birth to a daughter, whereupon she dies.  Arkel refers briefly to Mélisande -- "a poor little mysterious being, like everybody" -- then instructs that the child be taken from the room, saying, "She must live now in her place.  It is the poor little one's turn."

In addition to Debussy's opera, which premiered in 1902, Maeterlinck's play inspired several other musical adaptations.  Gabriel Fauré, best known as composer of the world's prettiest Requiem, got to it first with an orchestral suite in 1898.  Sibelius wrote incidental music to accompany the play, premiering it in 1905.  Arnold Schoenberg, not yet having abandoned tonal composition, produced a symphonic poem version more or less simultaneously with Debussy's, of which Schoenberg in Vienna was unaware.

Lbo_pelleas__melisande_1 The Los Angeles Opera has attempted Pelléas only once, in the 1994-1995 season in a production (which I did not see) by Peter Sellars who, typically for him, set it in a contemporary beach house in Malibu.  (Coincidentally, in the passage following the discussion of Pelléas above, Prof. Fodor looks askance at Sellars' recent, overtly politicized production of Handel's Theodora: "It apparently has never occurred to Sellars that the ideal director is transparent; you see through him to the performance.")  Long Beach Opera mounted a production (which I did see) back in 1991, under the direction of Brian Kulick, in a more timeless/Jungian vein, pictured above left.  Note the abandoned gramophone downstage.


In other local opera developments, Los Angeles Opera has just announced its 2007-2008 season: I have uploaded the press release here [Word document].   

The good news is the return of David Hockney's production of Tristan und Isolde, which I have been wanting to see since its premiere here twenty years ago.  More disappointing is the absence of the  previously promised new production of Meistersinger, which was to have been part of the run-up to LA Opera's launch of a Ring cycle in 2008, and the presence of Far Too Much Puccini (3 out of 8 productions, f'revvinsake).   

Also missing without explanation -- though I can't say whether this is a good or a bad thing -- is a planned operatic adaptation of The Fly being composed by Howard Shore based on his score to David Cronenberg's film.  Now there's an odd bit of source material.  If and when the production is actually announced, it is sure to generate -- all together now -- plenty of buzz.

In a Situation Like This, How Do You Call 9-1-1?

I have a deep seated dislike for cellphones.  In fact, there are days when I am prepared to curse Alexander Graham Bell for inventing telephony in the first place, before moving on to execrate those who have made it so portable and ubiquitous/inescapable.  So, while I feel for the unfortunate victim, this Insurance Journal story serves up comfort food for my anti-cellular prejudices:

Man's Cell Phone Ignites in Pocket, Causing Serious Burns

A cell phone apparently ignited in a Vallejo, Calif., man's pocket and started a fire that burned his hotel room and caused severe burns over half his body, fire department officials said.

    * * *

Firefighters arrived at the residential hotel Saturday night to find [Luis] Picaso lying on the bathroom floor after a malfunctioning cell phone in his pants pocket set fire to his nylon and polyester clothes, Henke said.

The flames spread to a plastic chair, setting off a sprinkler that held the fire in check, he said.

Authorities declined to name the phone's manufacturer and model.

Another dubious institution?  Google advertising, which can be counted on to find the most inappropriate accompaniment for almost any story, as illustrated in this screen capture:


(Image edited for emphasis.  Click image to enlarge.)

Large Bottles of Wine Gone Missing?
You Need a Magnum P.I.

Winethief This is Bill Anderson, the longtime winemaker at Chateau Julien Wine Estate in the lovely Carmel Valley of Monterey County.  The device he is using to extract a sample from the barrel is commonly known as a "wine thief."

Regrettably, just to the north and east of bucolic Monterey, it seems that a different sort of wine thief is at work.  Insurance Journal reports:

Silicon Valley oenophiles are on alert after a brazen robbery Jan. 4, when thieves broke into a posh home here and stole more than 150 bottles of wine.  Estimated value: $500,000.

The heist -- thought to be one of the largest of its kind -- was the handiwork of seasoned connoisseurs: Investigators say the criminals removed few lesser-valued bottles and focused on 'cult wines' made in limited numbers, often signed by vintners.

Their booty included a magnum of 1959 Petrus worth as much as $6,000 and a difficult-to-assemble set of Bordeaux wines representing an unbroken line of more than 20 years of French harvests.

High-end wine has a lot in common with high-end art, and is a tempting target for theft for much the same reason: the stolen goods can command a high price on resale or at auction, and a tiny but wealthy subclass of collectors is willing to overlook mere legality in the quest to possess a rare item.  Wine has the added advantage that, unlike unique art works, the provenance of a particular bottle is difficult to trace: while the origins of a stolen Picasso or Munch may be obvious, every bottle of Petrus looks alike.  The IJ article notes one research effort that might be adapted to address that problem: 

[A]n Italian company is experimenting embedded microchips into bottles . . . . [b]ut even that technology is aimed at deterring counterfeiters -- not stopping thieves who plunder private caves and cellars.

If you really want to know where your wine is at any given moment, you can always just drink it.


  • A handy chart concerning "magnums" and the other elaborate, oft-biblical names attached to Very Large Bottles of wine is accessible at Wikipedia, here.
  • Insurance Journal is surprisingly wine-oriented today.   At Declarations & Exclusions, I follow up on their report that new wine warning labels are under consideration.

Get On Down to the Nitty Magritty
(Don't Walk Away from René)


There is still time -- the show runs through March 4 -- to catch the terrific "Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and I strongly encourage you to do so if you can.

The exhibition has become somewhat notorious based on legitimate complaints -- first voiced at the turn of the year by Tyler Green on his consistently worthwhile Modern Art Notes weblog -- that admission is Too Darned Expensive (especially for a publicly-owned institution). 

But oh!  If you can afford it -- or if you slip in after 5:00 pm or on the second Tuesday of each month (February 13 is the last of those remaining) when admission rates take a plunge -- Magritte and Friends are very much worth a visit. 

The premise here is to combine 65 works by René Magritte with an additional 65 works by 31 contemporary artists who pay homage to, or are influenced by, or comment upon, or explore further the strategies and preoccupations of the aforesaid René Magritte, and to install the entire exhibition in un espace Magrittien designed by John Baldessari (see LACMA photo above).  The end result is a twin pleasure: The Magrittes on their own would make a strong retrospective of the artist's career, and placing them in conjunction with the contemporary works serves as an intelligent survey of just What Has Been Up with what we might call the representational (i.e., non-abstract) wing of contemporary art over the past forty years or so. 

It does not hurt that the overall quality of the contemporary works is high, both from well-known names (Lichtenstein, Ruscha [who just grows and grows in my estimation every time I see more of his work], Koons) and from artists who were previously not on my radar.  It also does no harm that, with the Magritte wit as one of its guiding spirits, the show is chock-full of pure entertainment value.

If you can: Go!

Incidental Intelligence:

  • The Magritte exhibition catalog is, not unlike the exhibition itself, Not Cheap at $40.00 in paperback ($60.00 hardbound), but very good if you have the disposable cash or if you lack the discipline to overlook the fact that you do not.
  • Tyler Green's Modern Art Notes is, as suggested above, very much worth following on a daily basis.  Especial kudos to him for managing to cover the California museum scene so thoroughly from his secret headquarters clear across the country in the District of Columbia.  Still, I cannot keep myself from gloating a little at his expense:  He links today to the "Rijkswidget," a delightful little applet that delivers a fresh bit of the collection of the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam to your desktop each day . . . and which you rare and discerning folk who drop by this weblog regularly knew about the R'widget last June.

Life, the Universe, and Everything: the Venn Diagram

Chris Lott's Cosmopoetica points to Le Grand Content, an animated film by Clemens Kogler that, in its creator's words, "manages to produce some magical nuance and shades between the great topics death, cable tv, emotions and hamsters."   As Pauline Kael said of Woody Allen's Interiors, "It's deep, on the surface."  Screenshot:


Kogler's site includes other samples of his work, of which my favorite is his animation of the text of Rainer Maria Rilke's famous poem, "The Panther."  Screenshot:


Study Aids:

  • Here, under the panther's baleful gaze, you can follow the German text.

The Prophetic Power of Punk, with Selected Short Subjects

The Ice Age is coming, the sun is zooming in,
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin,
A nuclear era, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning and I -- I live by the river!

      -- The Clash, "London Calling" (1979)

Scary stuff, eh kids?

Now it must be granted that the likelihood of all of these conditions occurring at the same time is slim -- a colorful artifact of Reagan-Thatcher era paranoia, I suppose, not unlike The Handmaid's Tale -- but any one of the above calamities would be sufficient to ruin your afternoon and Messrs. Strummer and Jones might justly make claims of prescience for the last line of their chorus, at least if you believe what you read in the papers:

Via the London-based reinsurance weblog Re Risk, "a cheery article from the Telegraph about the effects on London of a 1m rise" in sea levels, accompanied by a map showing

. . . how Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Canary Wharf will be among the areas at risk of flooding according to a new estimate of rising sea levels.   

Hip boots will be all the rage that year.

On a significantly lighter and more distracting note, and also found today at Re Risk, please welcome D.W. Griffith's [?] Silent Star Wars:

That in turn reminds me of another old film favorite -- The Lord of the Rings, directed by Howard Hawks from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler, and starring Humphrey Bogart as Frodo:

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones

David Robert Jones of Brixton, better known to the world at large as David Bowie, celebrates his 60th birthday today.

For the occasion, here is an aural and visual oddity built around a 1997 Aphex Twin remix combining an excerpt from Philip Glass's 1996 "'Heroes' Symphony" with Bowie's own original 1977 "'Heroes'" vocal:

As a bonus, an advert from 2001 prior to the launch of XM Satellite Radio in which Bowie goes all meta-like on his [very good] turn in Nicolas Roeg's film of The Man Who Fell to Earth:

The Guardian music weblog identifies Five Bowie albums you shouldn't live without, plus two honorable mentions that only go to show that Five Are Not Enough (and there's not even any mention of Hunky Dory...).


UPDATE [1229 PST] -- Well, looky here now: Chris at escapegrace shares a birthday with Mr. Bowie and for the occasion has posted a clip of his classic 1979 Klaus Nomi-backed SNL performance of "The Man Who Sold the World."  Chris also implies that she and DB share this natal day with some long forgotten old-timey guitar picker from Tupelo.

Dr. Johnson Makes a House Call


From Jack Lynch's review of Johnson on the English Language (Vol. 18 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson) in the January 1 edition of the Weekly Standard:

Johnson, famously blunt in both his writing and his conversation, loved controversy.  Sugarcoating was not for him.  When Boswell tried to defend a woman who cheated on her husband, Johnson would have none of it: 'The woman's a whore,' he insisted, 'and there's an end on't.'  In political disputes he could be brutal.  He dismissed the rebellious American colonists as 'Rascals--Robbers--Pirates,' who 'ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.'  He went so far as to declare that he was 'willing to love all mankind, except an American.'

  (Italics Johnson's. Link via Arts & Letters Daily.)

His objections to our upstart forebears notwithstanding, Dr. Johnson has a solid foothold on this side of the Atlantic, and is now well- represented in Southern California.  The famous Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Johnson shown above -- often referred to, quoting its subject's vigorous objection, as "Blinking Sam" -- was donated last month to Pasadena's own Huntington Library by it prior owners, the Hon. Frances Rothschild (California Court of Appeals, Second District, Division 1) and Loren Rothschild.  It is now on view in the Huntington's very appealing Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery.  Further information in this press release [PDF].