Sunday, March 21, 2010

Guinevere and van Gogh's Ear

The March 25th issue of the New York Review of Books has reached my family's mailbox here in Berlin (indeed it already did a while ago) and those of us who have been twiddling our thumbs in the corner room have been glancing into it. If my mother told me which articles she had read I must have exercised the daughterly prerogative of letting it go in one ear and out of the other, but when asked she did say that she had read the rather nice exchange about youthful experiences with paper airplanes between Freeman Dyson and a letter-writer in the back of the periodical. (The letters in the NYRB, particularly the ones in which agèd intellectuals display pique and aggression and trade "I know you are but what am I" recriminations at the behavioural level of two-year-olds, are an institution in themselves — but more about that, perhaps, another time.)

Though at times I plow at once through the first two or three articles, this time I skimmed, looking for subjects that particularly attracted me. The latter part of Alison Lurie's review of Cathleen Schine's novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which is evidently composed along the lines of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, lured me because of my Austenite tendencies and because the plot of the book didn't appear too objectionable according to my personal criteria. But, as such an Austenite, I cannot but register a protest against the reviewer's bolder comparisons of the modern author to her Augustan-era predecessor. (The photograph with Kate Winslet and Greg Wise incidentally tied into a Guardian interview with Emma Thompson which I read later, and which is nice though it won't set the Thames on fire, to quote from Persuasion.)

Then there was an article [available online in its entirety, as of March 22, 2010, here] about rape in American prisons, which I skimmed through. Certainly it has puzzled me in the past, as a Canadian/European, how uncritically this phenomenon (especially sodomizing rape between male cellmates) is mentioned in popular culture in the US. I suppose that, like with World War II, people who have no idea of the actual harrowing experience assume that it is a rite of passage to manhood — temporarily uncomfortable but with no untoward psychological effects, rather even beneficial in building character strength. Or they see it as a deserved punishment, if flippantly gleeful remarks that Bernard Madoff should take care not to bend over in the prison shower are any indication. Either way it reflects, in my view, the American tendency to consider the experiences of others as morally clean-cut, biblical tales; and without any particular malice towards those others, the people who share this tendency peculiarly fail, for this reason, to grasp that they are ignoring, condoning, or even encouraging entirely immoral acts. Besides, the mentality that the ill which befalls someone else is quite all right, in the grand scheme of things, does not sit very easily within the moral framework of the Christian tradition.

On a more cheerful note I have a weakness for reading through the personal ads in the back of the NYRB, even if the idea of finding a life partner (if only temporarily) through such means (which, rationally or not, still seem tinged with desperation to me) unreasonably depresses me. The one ad that really puzzled me three or four years ago was written by a "King Arthur" in search of a "Guinevere." Why someone would look for an adulterous wife whose affair causes the downfall of one's kingdom, the destruction of everything one has won hardly through a lifetime of battle and hostile sorcery, and eventually one's death, seems beyond comprehension. (Even though the King Arthur of legend did have a lemming instinct, since he chose Queen Guinevere even after being warned that she was bad news.) My most ingenious but unlikely hypothesis is that the writer of the personal ad was a cynical person who was willing to take a superficially perfect, lukewarm relationship as far as it goes. Other than that it's a little dispiriting when an ad reappears repeatedly; but I like to think that either the person got such a good date out of last month's ad that she wants to try again, or that she might be a "serial dater" in general, who enjoys working her way through men as Goldilocks worked her way through bowls of porridge. At times I also speculate at length about the gap between the ad ("plus beau que la verité," in the lovely French phrasing which I came across in Maria Edgeworth's Helen) and the reality. What makes me less sympathetic is when ads rub one's face into one's own impecuniousness (and déclassé tastes); I'd like to say that my interests include the Riviera or the wanderpfad in Timbuctoo, but I haven't had the chance to be there!!!

Either way, the proper article which I read in its entirety was "The Passions of Vincent van Gogh," by Richard Dorment, published on the occasion of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It is a reasonably friendly summary of the painter's artistic career, examined primarily through the spectrum of the letters which he wrote his brother Theo. (At which point be it noted that it sounds as if Dorment's research was a heroic undertaking, since wallowing in reams of subjective verbal outpourings is not really anyone's idea of riotous good fun.) Taking these letters as evidence Dorment also argues that the turmoil which critics facilely identify in the swirls of colour, etc., in van Gogh's paintings is not necessarily a naïve visual effusion of an artiste who had (far) more temperament than brains and self-control, but the result of a reasoned aesthetic or (to risk an oxymoron) emotional choice. The quotations where van Gogh describes the alienation, in a way, which he feels from the people around him, and his inability to show himself to them in any other than a repellent light, struck an aching chord with my own depressive experience in and out of school. In light of this personal experience I was also pleased when Dorment pointed out that van Gogh's mental illness did not in fact fuel his art but impede it. Not all tribulation is treasure; some of it is salt on the soil of Carthage. Anyway, before reading much of the article I became curious about the author and consulted the trusty mini-biography under the table of contents; it turns out that he is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph. I had considered that publication a vile reactionary rag which caters to the lowest fake-populist denominator, but every now and then a dung-hill must fertilize a flower. [N.B.: In my entire life I have only read two or three articles in the Telegraph. And I tend to confuse it with the Daily Mail and the worst bloke-ish bunkum in The Times of London.]

What I should like to read is the article on Madame de Maintenon. I don't care to read about the Tea Party, because such uninformed stupidity, stoked by media outlets who have a financial interest in treating politics as sensation (as pilloried with great ability by Jon Stewart in his recent pastiche of Fox's Glenn Beck), deserves to be quietly debunked with the helpful, sober facts and perspectives which the press largely refuses to provide, and otherwise to be treated like the nullity which its basis in reality is.

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