A blog on reading, writing and life

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reads: Homage to Catalonia



            While reading Homage to Catalonia, I've been imagining how I'd make it into a film. The protagonist would be of course Eric Blair, as Orwell was known in his daily life, and throughout this review I'll be using “Blair” to refer to the character in our fictional movie and “Orwell” to refer to the author of Homage to Catalonia. The opening credits would shift back in forth in time. One period would be Blair, before arriving in Spain, dining in Paris with Henry Miller sitting at an elegantly dressed cafe table where both men would sip red wine from crystal glasses. Miller would be better dressed than Blair, who we'd portray as a young journalist and the guest of a more established writer. (Let's ignore the fact that Orwell had already published four books and had another manuscript in the publication process. This is Hollywood and we need an underdog.) A patch on Blair's suit might clarify the distinction we want, as well as casting Miller as broad shouldered and domineering to contrast with the lanky Blair. The dialogue would include some information dumps on the political situation, unfortunately this movie would require a lot of information dumps for the complex inter-leftist conflicts to make sense to the casual viewer (likely the reason it hasn't been made), but the main heart of this scene would be Miller telling Blair that going to fight in the Civil War there out of some sense of obligation or guilt was “sheer stupidity,” and that his ideas “about combating Fascism, defending democracy, etc., etc., were all baloney.”

            This scene would be broken up with images of Blair's arrival in Barcelona, as described in the book's first chapter, establishing how it seemed to him a socialist paradise. We'd get a few close-up shots of posters for various political parties “flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues,” joyful revolutionary hymns echoing from loudspeakers while the streets filled with Spaniards in blue coveralls clasping each other’s hands and referring to each other with tĂș. Blair is seen befriending various revolutionaries in the city, as is recorded early in the book, and signs up to participate in the militia for POUM, an anti-authoritarian socialist organization.

Reads: Chronicals

Though I'm a big fan of Dylan's music, I always appreciated that he wasn't interested in being a celebrity or being a public character. I never really had any interest in learning the details of his personal life from biographies or movies, but I read a preview of this book some time back, and the fanciful descriptions of New York's folk scene in the 1960s really struck me. I could see the snow falling past the icy gray skyscrapers, and the ill-lit basement taverns retrofitted with a small stage before an audience of day-drinkers.

I have an interest in what I'll call, for lack of a better term, myth-making around popular music. I don't really believe in "art for art's sake;" I think that the stories we tell around musicians and musical scenes play a big role in how we appreciate the songs themselves. Someone could sing all the same notes as Leadbelly, but if they didn't shoot a man over a woman in 1918, it wouldn't sound as good.

So, what I wanted to learn was Bob Dylan had to say about the early folk revival scene, and I wanted it to be as romanticized and far from reality as possible. But it turned out the book jumped around in time, and while chapters on Dylan's early career bookend the memoir, the middle talks about his personal artistic struggles in the '70s and '80s.

Even though I'm not as old or successful as Dylan, I could relate to his disillusionment with the artistic process. It is hard to portray yourself as an artist who is one consistent person when in reality who we are and what we think changes every moment. Luckily for me, no one would ever ask me to perform a shitty poem I wrote when I was 21. In the old days, the press and the fans would turn the artist into a cartoon character, a mythical hero. These days, the artist is expected to cartoonize themselves over social media, even if their art is just mediocre short stories in obscure literary journals.

This is the downside to myth-making around art: while it deepens the connections that people have to the work, it creates unrealistic expectations for the artist to live up to, because at the end of the day, they're not Odysseus, a fantasy figure that remains the same for thousands of years, but a growing and moving human being.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Reads: "De Profundis"

When I first read of Wilde’s philosophy of aestheticism in the introduction to Picture of Dorian Gray and in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, I couldn’t have disagreed with it more. From a young age, I was taught that important literature is about important ideas, and reading the argument that beauty could be valuable its own cause hostility within me. This book totally changed my view on that. More than any other work I’ve read, “De Profundis” affected what I believe art can and should do.

“De Profundis” is an epistle written by Wilde during his two years in hard labor prison to the man who put him there, his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (hereafter known as Bosie) who encouraged Wilde to sue his (Bosie’s) father for libel, which lead to evidence of his homosexual behavior. Wilde both reflects on the ill-fated love affair that landed him behind bars and his personal philosophy on art and life.

There are two versions of this work: one was published shortly after Wilde’s death by his friend Robbie Ross with all the details of Wilde and Bosie’s relationship expunged and a full version which remained unpublished until 1960. Even though there nothing hotter than 19th century forbidden love, I honestly prefer the abridged version.

If you know anything about the relationship between Wilde and Bosie, you already know how Wilde would chastise him, but no matter how true it is that Bosie was selfish and immature, enumerating it in detail still makes Wilde sound like an asshole. Therefore, removing Wilde’s unsparing criticism of Bosie does more than just shorten the piece; it changes the whole tone and focus.

In the abridged version we are able to focus on the question, “what is beauty?” The reason why I disagreed with aesthetic philosophy was because usually “beautiful writing” is used to mean purple prose and navel gazing. But Wilde doesn’t mean that beauty is a flurry of adjectives and incomprehensible metaphors. “Beautiful writing” might better here be called “beautiful stories.” His description of the life of Jesus Christ as a work of art helped me make this distinction. There is beauty inherent in the acts of sacrifice and redemption. Wilde says that Jesus’s command, “‘Forgive your enemies,’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate.”

Since reading this letter, I’ve tried to identify the acts of beauty in all the works that I read. Sometimes there are other problems in the work, like Henry IV Part 2, which has one of Shakespeare’s messiest plots, but the crown scene between Prince Hal and his father is so heart-wrenching that I read it over and over again. It has the ephemeral element of the prodigal son and uses the everyday occurrence of misunderstanding to build dramatic tension. But characters love each other, despite their inability to connect, and we are sympathetic the motives of both of the disappointed father and the repentant son. Their reconciliation at the end of the scene is immensely satisfying (probably more satisfying that the end of the play itself) because of the beauty of the conflict between parent and child.

A lot of the contemporary literature I read is too smug and ironic to be beautiful, no matter how many words are in the writer's vocabulary. Unfortunately, we live in a very cynical age. I remember distinctly a book review in the Boston Globe that I read about a year ago for one of those “literary” novels. I was very amused because though the reviewer was raving about this book, every detail he revealed about sounded terrible. (One of the main characters was an adjunct writing professor, for example.) And then we got the the quotes. I really wish I had saved the review, but you’ll have to bear with my remembrance. The main character, speaking the woman he was sleeping with, says, “I really like you, but it’s not like I like have to date you, or whatever.” Her response? A “grunt.” This interaction was praised by the reviewer for its bold realism. I kid you not.

What “realism” is, of course, depends on how you see the world. And very few people these days see the world as a beautiful place. That’s not trendy. Romantic love has been banished to supermarket paperbacks, and inarticulate commitment-phobes are praised as the archetypes of my generation. Finally grasping the idea that beauty can exists for beauty’s sake has changed the way I read and write.

So, to return to Wilde, the abridged version may not be a “true” reflection of his epistle, but the ideas about aestheticism crystallized through Ross’s editing are worth discovering. And an upside to this is, Ross’s truncated version is available for free through Project Gutenberg, while the unabridged is still under copyright.