David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2006

Anne Stevenson: In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

As much as I appreciate the TLS’s loveletter to Anne Stevenson for her Collected Poems, I was not satisfied with it as criticism, so I thought I’d try to illuminate some more of her peculiar essence here. Stevenson was born in America but has lived in England most of her life, and by no coincidence her first book was on Elizabeth Bishop. Stevenson’s own work clearly owes debts to Bishop and Marianne Moore (not for nothing does Stevenson proclaim her Puritan ethic), but she’s less imagistic than either of them, and more prone to abrupt jumps in scene dictated only by a guiding idea.

Her biography consists of an academic upbringing, four marriages, and her life of Sylvia Plath, Bitter Fame. I still fail to see much of an affinity between Plath’s poetry and Stevenson’s; the connection seems to be more personal and psychological than that. Stevenson is less cagey than Plath, and more given to express herself plainly and steadily, removing herself from the center of her voice. Here is one of my favorites:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls
For Angela Leighton

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell–well preserved in the water church of Torcello–
The wicked receive their deserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolises torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To a hell for bad Italians, being damned and being saved as well.

The idea is simultaneously obvious and abstract: the physicality of evil and the intangibility of good. Next to the visceral language of Dante, the baroque art of the saints is gauzy and perfumed. Stevenson lets the language be guided by the imagery of the stanza, adopting florid description for the first half before shifting to a more commonplace portrayal of horrors. The first line of the last stanza is a coup, I think; the pointed banality of the adjectives “interesting” and “dull” clearly render the inadequacy of language for the meat of the topics under discussion. Stevenson in parallel leaps from the the physical to the more ambiguous language of the mind, contrasting body and soul. Even though it is a classical distinction, she paints it as a contradiction, with good and evil locked up in the mind and rendered invisible.

Stevenson’s careful modulations of style are a salve for endless reams of modern poetry that either affect a single voice on high or seek to abandon voice in an artificial suspension of sense. When she marshals them to polemical effect, the effect is brutal, as in “New York Is Crying,” partly an attack on selective post-9/11 mawkishness:

The hole in New York is a hole in a belief
That desperately needs to hide itself in grief

It’s only because of Stevenson’s surgical control of emotion and tone that she can get away with this. Stevenson is a literary classicist in positioning herself as a lone voice amongst many, but she possesses the uncommon perspective that lets her take up that voice with authority.

Hiroshi Teshigahara: The Face of Another

Easily the best Teshigahara film I’ve seen, and a better adaptation of a Kobo Abe novel than I thought possible. It’s a fable of a man whose face is horribly burnt beyond recognition and goes to a (very dodgy) doctor to receive a “mask” that enables him to be a new man. From there, things go strange. The film, as much as the book, takes an attitude that is somewhat reminiscent of Merleau-Ponty: without your face, you are bereft of a core component of yourself. With another face, you are no longer yourself–ontologically, not just psychologically. That is, at any rate, the position of the doctor, who proves to be just as crazy as our hero, even with his own face.

Like John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (made in the same year!), it’s about a damaged man who gets a new and improved identity. Seconds plays like an overextended Twilight Zone episode distinguished mostly by James Wong Howe’s cinematography and an uncanny-in-retrospect dying-on-the-inside performance by Rock Hudson; the plot is merely b-grade horror. The Face of Another is much deeper and more disturbing, evoking memories of Nagasaki and inhumanity from its premise. In place of Jeff Corey’s wacky mastermind, there’s a so-much-more frightening doctor who dispenses extremely unhelpful Sartre-like advice as he gives the main character his new face. (He is one of many frightening doctors in Abe’s books. Abe, a doctor’s son, finished medical school but never practiced, but there’s certainly more to the story than that.)

The film’s success is in large part due to Abe’s very successful dramatization of his novel, which turns the solipsistic interior monologue into a series of creepy scenes with just enough voiceover narration to destabilize things further. Toru Takemitsu’s music is up to the very high standards of his visceral scores for Kwaidan and The Woman in the Dunes, combining primitive, booming electronics and percussion with a psychotic waltz. And the two leads, Tatsuya Nakadai and Michiko Kyo, are astonishing. Nakadai–he of the wide, sympathetic eyes–plays down his charm to be a low-key monster. We don’t see him unbandaged until halfway through the film, but his flat, dissociated narration is constantly pulling us away from seeing him as wholly normal. When he does appear, Nakadai’s ability to seem alienated from the face in which he is usually completely comfortable is a brilliant piece of acting, possibly his best. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled it off. Kyo does not have as much screentime as when she played opposite Nakadai in Kon Ichikawa’s The Key (based on the Tanizaki novel), but if anything, she’s even better here. She plays the moral center of the film, what allows the film to transcend its position as a precursor to countless Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa flicks.

Which leaves Teshigahara. Teshigahara throws surrealist set design, staging, and visual effects into the mix, but he ultimately can’t keep up with Abe’s weirdness and, as in The Woman in the Dunes, his direction flags to the level of the ordinary. Perhaps it’s for the best; like Michiko Kyo, he keeps the film tethered to reality. He is at his best in the first half, which vividly captures the discomfort and disgust people feel around the deformed and disabled. Superimposed onto postwar Japanese society, the theme anticipates the explicit rendering it would get in Imamura’s Black Rain, which deals with how Japan shunned the deformed survivors of nuclear bombing.

Samuel Beckett: How It Is & Ping

These two, because they were picked as personal favorites by William Gass in a little chapbook he wrote for Washington University in St. Louis in 1990. I read it a few years later in a bookstore and picked up on the wild South American writers I’d never heard of (Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante, mainly). I knew he’d picked How It Is, which is also for me the absolute extreme of my favorite aspects of Beckett’s, but I’d forgotten about “Ping.” And I read it and I tried to figure out where, amongst all the exquisite text, all the magic had gone.

I’ve always preferred Beckett’s prose to his plays. Waiting for Godot is a trifle next to the great weight of Molloy. His late writing is so rarefied that confining it to dialogue (or monologue), as in Worstward Ho, leaves it hobbled and weakened. Even the mighty Ham of Endgame, probably my favorite of the plays, seems small in comparison to the titular Unnameable. Now I see this distinction as less important than a turn that happened somewhere in the four years between How It Is and “Ping.”

More precisely, it came between the more conventional “Enough” and “Ping.” One year apart, “Enough” is downright conventional and narrative, while “Ping” is one of the earliest flowerings of Beckett’s final disconnection from anything resembling a recognizeable consciousness. But since How It Is is a greater and more radical work than “Enough,” I’ll stick with it.

The pathos of How It Is and its story of people and sacks and mud is in its first line:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

In all the permutations of the phrase, Beckett is attached to this temporal sequence, and the three parts of the book are literally before, with, and after. The narrator does battle with this sequence as he is imprisoned in it, but the phenomenal reality of it is everpresent.

The slow reveal of “Ping,” in contrast, ends up as nothing but a scene. There have been attempts made to construct a narrative, but I think these are fundamentally flawed. From the first sentence on, the text presents a frozen situation:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just.

Particularly with regard to color, the narrator’s perceptions change, but any hint of a sequence collapses back into the “shining white infinite” by the end of the piece. That infinite is as timeless as it is senseless, and Beckett enacts an erasure of time over the four pages of text. Beckett’s earlier work ran in circles, but from “Ping” on, it runs in place.

The effect is obsessively refined, but with the elimination of time, if only a before/during/after sequence, the text loses some very dear things: memory, anticipation, unknowing, speculation, forgetfulness. What remains is hopelessly precise, but misses the first principles of fiction; this is where I draw the line between fiction and pure, amorphous prose.

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