May 03, 2008

Pope's Solitude


1 Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.

2 Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

3 Blest, who can unconcern'dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day;

4 Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mix'd; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

5 Thus let me live, unseen, unknown,
Thus unlamented let me die,
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

That Alexander Pope, who was one of the great publicists as poets go, wrote it makes the poem a deeply ironical performance. Pope lived the opposite kind of life- far from being normal he was deformed and a Catholic in a Protestant society, far from being eager to attain rural bliss, Pope lived as close to London as he could be legally permitted to, far from being content with oblivion, the poet endlessly endeavoured to put his name before the public- becoming one of the first poets who could afford to chop and change publishers. Pope did not live a life of rural simplicity- but was rather addicted to complication- to social nuance and to luxury: he is the appropriate beggining to a century which ended with Jane Austen. But whereas Austen can at times seem priggish, looking down through the eyes of Fanny Price on the immoral gaiety of Mary Crawford, Pope looks at society with a mocking glint in his eye, revelling in its absurdity.

So what are we to make of this poem? Firstly lets put something straight- this poem puts a very conventional viewpoint across brilliantly. Most eighteenth century wits would have agreed that the city was evil, the countryside good. The sentiments of Pope's poem sit at ease with the triumph of the pastoral in the previous century, and with the nature poets of the next. Idealising the independence of the rural life, he sits neatly with those republican theorists of his own time who saw true freedom as lying in independence. More so there is a strong Christian influence in the poem- what it describes is a demi Eden, Adam without Eve, growing alone and unconcerned by reputation and by bustle, just to fructify the earth and live in praise of God- live 'blest' by the ignorance that proceeds from solitude. This is a hero who can get everything from his land- his own flocks give him clothes, his trees give him shade. Luxury, the production of capitalism, is eshewed in conventional terms.

Did Pope actually believe this or is the poem ironic? I think it isn't ironic but actually reflects something that Pope himself actually believed in part- and this brings me on to something I think we can see established in the text of the poem. In a sense Pope was the kind of deeply sociable person who should have been most at odds with this Arcadian view- in the Rape of the Lock and in his masterpieces the Dunciad and the Essay on Criticism, he showed a true verve for critiquing others and living in society. But he is drawn back in this poem and others to the vision of the world as one of independence and the beauty of natural loneliness- his disposition draws him in one direction, the conventions of his time in another. Pope was obviously an exceedingly complicated man- and I think this poem reflects that- but if I might make a trite comment, I'd suggest that in this poem what we see is the way that convention can mould even the most resistant of us. Pope ended up praising a lifestyle he wouldn't be able to bear, simply because his age praised it in such reverent terms- whatever his rational mind said, Pope was attracted by the emotional pull of the ideal which is what this poem attests to. Its interesting in that sense because it demonstrates the way that people have a complex interrelationship with their own times- often feeling a yearning to conform even if conformity would strip them of what they were.

Even Pope afterall was willing to write against sophistication!

April 30, 2008

Caroline O'Day, The Gentlewoman from New York

Caroline O'Day was one of the pioneering women of the last century- who invaded former male preserves and had a large impact. She was the first Congresswoman elected from a large state- New York and had influential ties to the White House, particularly to Eleanor Roosevelt. Her career though is interesting not merely as an exempla but also as a clue to what early 20th Century America was like, how its history interacted with the social change that was sweeping the continent and was symbolised by the growing industrial, cultural and political might of the nascent super power. O'Day was in a sense an emblem of an era- her political career allows us to abstract some characteristics of American society and get closer to the social movements that convulsed her country in her times. Based on a recent article in the New York History Journal by Paul DeForest HIcks, I think we can assess O'Day's career.

First amongst those is the degree of social change. We often forget that a single lifespan could easily bridge the America of Lincoln, the civil war, and the America of Nixon, let alone that of Roosevelt. A single lifespan did bridge those Americas- John Nance Garner 'Cactus Jack' was born when Grant was President and died when Johnson was. O'Day again was affected hugely by her upbringing- born in Georgia in the aftermath of civil war she was affected by a pacifist upbringing, stimulated by parents who had seen the horrors of the civil war, and consequently she was one of the isolationist Democrats who opposed the Second World War. She was associated with other leading Democrat women in New York, including Eleanor Roosevelt, in constructing a charitable foundation to stimulate rural manufacturing of furniture. There is something Arcadian about her description of The Cottage,

When politics is through with us we are retiring to this charming retreat that is now rearing its stone walls against the cedars of a Dutchess County hillside.

Of course that was not the America she lived in. She married the heir of a Standard Oil fortune- Daniel O'Day. His father Daniel O'Day senior was unscrupulous, even by the standards of the robber-barons- but the son was more interested in politics than oil and was a leading supporter of woman's suffrage, a cause which his wife inherited.

That brings me on to the second idea that I think Caroline O'Day's life embodies. America by the time she died was a vast place, stretching from ocean to ocean and holding within it every kind of life. But it was also a place of intimacy. In part that was cultivated intimacy- O'Day as a young woman had exhibited art in Paris and sought to add European sophistication to New World naivete. In part though that intimacy was the reality of any political world- what we constantly see through O'Day's life is that neccessarily politics is the business of intimacy. O'Day was part of a partnership with her husband, both interested in woman's suffrage- according to the New York Times it was he who stimulated her interest in the subject. But he died in 1916 and from then on the central relationship politically of O'Day's life was with the Roosevelts. Eleanor and her were colleagues in the charitable foundation I quoted above, they were also close and Eleanor campaigned for her in New York when she was first elected in 1934. O'Day's personality was a winning one- she increased her plurality in every election, save that of 1940 when she was running despite a debilitating illness. She had an important leglislative record on labour and immigration during the 1930s, through her ability to charm and persuade. In the world of intimate politics, O'Day was a supreme politician.

She is not a famous figure, though she left her mark on America. But she was notable both for her own acheivements and for the way she exemplified some of the important trends and facts about America of her time. Hicks has done a good job in describing her career- and she does not deserve the obscurity that she has found.

April 27, 2008

In Bruges

In Bruges is a very very good film. It isn't hard to see that it is a very good effort- and numerous people have seen that but it is more difficult to describe why. Basically the story goes that two Irish hitmen have been sent to the Belgian city, Bruges, after a killing that they've performed for Harry, their London boss. Skulking in Bruges, they encounter a wide variety of characters- from sexy Belgian drug dealers, to midget American actors, fat American tourists, a gun salesman who likes talking about alchoves and practising his English and a set of Dutch prostitutes. Also Harry at one point reenters the story giving one of the assassins, Ken, a mission to perform. All of this takes place against the background of church towers, canal trips and art galleries- thinking about death and man's place in the world and copious ammounts of beer.

Putting that out there might make the film seem merely a surrealist piece of work, but it isn't. The reality is provided by the humour- its outrageous and outrageously funny. The younger assassin, Ray, spends most of his time taking the mickey out of people- turning to American tourists and telling them they won't make it round the bends in a spiral staircase because they are so fat, he is offensive, irritating and obnoxious but unbeleivably accurate and funny. There are some truly wonderful moments here where phrase and situation are linked- where say Ray captures something wonderfully and puts it in a line which presents the outrageous thought in all its originality and its accuracy. Take for example his comment on Bruges,

Look, Ken. I grew up in Dublin, and I love Dublin. If I had grown up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me. But I didn't, so it doesn't.
Could you encapsulate that attitude any better than with that line of dialogue- just think of it, the economy of the way that the words present the sentiment. It is not a nice sentiment- but as language it is almost perfect and perfect lines slip out of the mouths of all of the characters here. This is a movie about words- I listened to an interview with Colin Farrell who is one of the movie's stars and said that he didn't ever feel like changing a line of the film because it was so perfect and I think he was right. To add to it, Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the main leads, give fantastic performances as do a range of actors, from Ralph Fiennes to Clemence Poesy, in supporting roles.

The film sits obviously in several traditions. Fiennes's character owes a lot to Michael Caine in Get Carter. Indeed the whole persona of the gangster in the film owes a lot to Caine and earlier gangster characters. These men operate violently but seem to disregard the violence that they commit in favour of adherance to a code of honour, of morality. At one point Ken turns to Harry and tells him to do what he likes to him, he (Ken) has done his job and no ammount of torture or violence could make his choice different. In that sense noone is tortured in this film- people are maimed, killed and beaten up but torture is absent. That kind of violence has no meaning. Moral choice is independent of and over and above violence- it stands in another category. I lied slightly, the only torture in this film is the torture of guilt and in a way violence represents an escape for the characters from that torture.

The obvious tradition that this film sits with is the films of Quentin Tarrantino- but In Bruges demonstrates how poor Tarrantino's films actually are. I've expounded before on how much I dislike the philosophical outlook of Reservoir Dogs- and I have similar views about Pulp Fiction and his other movies. But I think this is what Tarrantino's fans often claims he does- this combines the gangster severity of Scorsese and a whole line of films going back to Jimmy Cagney along with the theatrical imagination of wit of a Beckett. This film obviously owes something to Waiting for Godot. But its violence is much more serious and it has a wider purpose than just making a reference- violence in this film is very serious, it ends lives and goes through lives. Humour here is not adolescent but is bitter- based on the deep sorrows. Ray almost seems to be psychologically falling apart as the film goes on- his life is slowly eroded by an act of violence, accidental violence perpetrated before the start of the movie.

Away from such paltry traditions leading onwards from Tarrantino: the film's consideration of violence is deeply embedded in Christianity. The graphic fantasy of what violence might look like- what torture is- is abandoned. What we have here is the development of two ethoses- a pagan ethos- noble warriors whose roots lie in an honour cult which comes up against the idea of forgiveness, the idea of a second chance. On the one side, we have a symbolic act of suicide- once you have failed for whatever reason you take the hemlock- as Thrasea did under Nero- and in suicide become a hero, on the other side, there is the Christian view of suicide: that there is no sin that kills you, that suicide is an abandonment of life and the opportunity of doing something to repair your sin, that redemption is possible and proceeds through forgiveness. In that sense- with those two oppositions, the film seeks to understand some of the fundamental conflicts within western civilisation (conflicts that interestingly for instance often demonstrate how little Christianity works as a label): at the end of the film some of the characters conform to their pagan stereotypes and that is where the last and perhaps most theological vista is opened up.

In the midst of the film, the two main characters go to an art gallery and look at some of those wonderful portraits of hell done by medieval artists- it strikes me that this is the twentieth century equivalent of a 14th Century depiction of the day of judgement. Two of Ray's comments expose this, working around historical Bruges is an analogy for him for dwelling in his own hellish past, towards the end of the movie he realises that Bruges itself is hell- this film is the navigation, the description of that hell- and its vital to understand how the pagan ethic of the protagonists, shorn of forgiveness, leaves them all stuck in Bruges for all eternity!

Phoning through the past

This video is incredible- because it illustrates how quickly the world has changed in the 20th Century. Dial tone phones are of course now a thing of the past. In the 1930s when this video was made, in the UK there were still single numbers- London 1 etc- telephones had just exploded to becoming a consumer product, like the internet of today. Phones have of course become a standard consumer product- about possibly to be replaced by Skype and other things like it.

But they have done so incredibly quickly- the pace of technological development means that the lives that we live today in so many aspects- including the one I'm typing on to you now and the fact you are reading this online- would have been unrecognisable to our parents, let alone our grandparents when they were growing up. Someone who was born in 1920 will have lived through the rise of the car, the rise of the washing machine, the rise of the computer and the rise of the internet. Just think about that for a moment- and one of the central differences between our century and the past becomes clear. A medieval peasant could say between 1200 and 1400 be pretty confident that though there were changes in the way he farmed, his grandparents would understand them. For us though, how would you explain to your great grandparents (who as mine did died at some point before the second world war) how the internet works. Just imagine for a second how much change, if the girl in the video is still alive (and probably in her late seventies, early eighties now) she has seen.

Its an interesting thing to think about: because coping with technological change has suddenly become so much more important. Kids do because they are born to an era with the current systems: but for the rest of us, the fact that we learn so much when we are children is no longer adequate. We have to keep learning as adults just in order to keep up with the ways that communication and life are changing- that produces the stress of adults who have to learn how to program Sky Plus (Tivo for Americans) and work out HTML.

The world is changing and that means that we have to change the way that we learn- its no longer ok just to learn as a kid, welcome to the world which changes so fast that even adults are ignorant.