David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: dennis potter

Dennis Potter: Blue Remembered Hills

I was thinking about this old tv play (available entirely on youtube, hooray) in connection with two other old French films about childhood that I recently saw, Naked Childhood and My Little Loves. As much as they do their best to deromanticize childhood, this one may have them beat, and not just because adults are playing the children. The French movies all have alienation in one way or another, but there’s not a lot of that here: these are younger kids before the age of introspection. And what a terrible age it is. In the absence of the cuteness of little kids (the actors are mostly rough-looking except for Helen Mirren, who looks somewhat gangly but mostly looks like Helen Mirren), what shows through?

First there is fear. The boys are adventure-mag and war-informed, but they have yet to grasp the size of the world and so they are quite scared that the war is very close to them and very real. When they aren’t playing little war games among themselves, they are quite terrified that they are all going to die at German hands, even in a remote forest in England. Many of their fathers are away and some are missing, and the children switch back between having no sense of the reality of it and being frightened by the Germans as bogeymen, the sort of monsters you’re repeatedly told aren’t real, except these are. That wrenching movement between the serious and the frivolous is what stays, and lord knows it’s a good thing that kids have it, because the bare fear looks horrific.

They do have one other positive mechanism, which is camaraderie. The boys and girls fight with each other, but when there is a threat, even an imagined one, the kids are suddenly all in it together, and they know that they are the protagonists and the evil Germans are the bad guys, so at least they’re all on the same side. This even extends, to a point, to the miserable outcast of the group, the boy called Donald Duck who is mercilessly teased and demeaned. When the war games are over, the rest of the kids indulge in some rampant cruelty–the third main motif–against Donald that ends up going very badly for him, and too late, the others realize that they crossed the line and they feel bad. Though they mostly make excuses for themselves, they do acknowledge a certain undebatable humanity on his part. It’s small consolation for Donald, but it does draw a certain line.

Poor Donald, though, since up until that point he has been an outcast and the only one really excluded from any compassion from the others. He blubbers and he is really, truly frightened, and so he is deprived of the any of the consolation of camaraderie, and he gets stuck in the fear. It’s not just loneliness, though the lack of support he feels from anyone else is palpably agonizing, but it’s also that by lacking that communal outlet to play together and have adventures, he is locked in one of the most miserable places that a person can be, before a child learns that they aren’t always going to be so completely helpless and alone. It’s wretched to watch.

The Confusions of Young Toerless, Robert Musil (pt 1: Autobiography)

Young Toerless begins with a quote from Maeterlinck, who was an avowed influence on Musil, but one that he later appeared to discount. In The Man Without Qualities, there is a half-sneering reference to “Maeterlinck’s batik-wrapped metaphysics.” What Musil quotes is one of Maeterlinck’s typically mystical statements about the ineffability of the noumenal; i.e., that there is an objective, external indisputable world about which our words are unsatisfactory approximations:

As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way…We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure trove, and when we return to the light of day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.

Later, Musil seemed to discount the purely objective nature of the noumenal and weighed words and objects more equivocally. There were problems in mapping, but one did not have such high precedence over the other. Rather, it was the illusion of the noumenal that led people like Oswald Spengler down some dark paths.

Yet Toerless would appear to buy into it. The story is a fairly explicit tale of the torture and torment, sexual and otherwise, of one German boarding school boy by three others. The philosophy is nascent, but more on that later. Maeterlinck’s statement, though, doesn’t map too clearly onto any of the low-grade (by Musil’s standards, anyway) philosophical discourse, nor onto the eventual mental breakdowns of the victim (Basini) and Toerless, one of his torturers. It maps most clearly onto a process of autobiographical remembrance.

Musil explicitly denied the autobiographical content of the story. The boarding school background matched his very closely, and J.M. Coetzee claims that specific models for each character are known. I don’t know, but it’s not crucial that the facts or the characters have real-life equivalents. Dennis Potter said of The Singing Detective, “Just because the disease [psoriasis] is mine, and just because the childhood background is mine, doesn’t make it autobiographical.” His statement is unconvincing not because the work is imaginary, but because a certain level of experiential overlap, the question is no longer meaningful. Characters cannot run so free when imprisoned in an environment that is more remembered than imagined.

You can grant that the characters, even Toerless himself, are loose composites and still leave the content of the book as essentially autobiographical, and that is the key here. There is a scene very early on describing Toerless’s friendship with a young prince, which is broken after Toerless attacks his opinions with “the ridicule of the rationalist.” The parameters of the dispute are left completely undocumented, unlike the explicit Nietzschean meanderings of the main characters later. The tonal emphasis is on remembering and the presentation of a mental state of character in the act of reconstructing a past event by following the remnant emotions. Toerless can’t do it; his memory is approximate and the motives beyond his ability to comprehend. This is where the Maeterlinck quote is most appropriate, and where the book is most effective.


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