Category Archives: Psychology

Deconstructing Ian McEwan-envy, the UK and US versions

Beard said, ‘It’s all crap, Toby. Don’t listen. This is the queen’s birthday honours list. She doesn’t choose it, she knows fuck-all about it, and they all scramble to be on it, every booby and arriviste from science and the arts and the civil service who wants to strut about the place hoping to be taken for a member of the minor aristocracy.’

Solar, 2010

Reasons for the widespread hatred of Ian McEwan fall into three categories, as far as I can tell. While I can’t relate to the people positively bludgeoning him for the first of these, I’ve been as irritated as they are by the hyper-inflation of his reputation by marketing gnomes dedicated to generating mountains of cash for his publishers. We must blame these worthies for the McEwan novels that read like superb short stories glued together with monstrous padding, with an eye to profit — because collections of short stories do not sell as well as long-form fiction does.

In the second category, an exclusively British phenomenon, he is accused repeatedly – often by those who have never read a page of his words – of being a member of the ‘middle-class’ only interested in writing about that social segment for other people in it. Presumably, these critics believe that a prominent writer committing this sin is conspiring with others like him – and middle-class publishing executives – to perpetuate their economic advantages at the expense of those further down the social scale. They do make it plain that they consider the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged to be the only legitimate subject for a serious writer of fiction. Why, in other words, doesn’t silly old McEwan see that it’s his job to serve as the Dickens, Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Pinter or Jean Genet of the 21st century?

I have a question for these critics: why can’t they understand that there can be no one more devastatingly subversive than a perceptive writer concentrating on the privileged, their beliefs and biases?

Simply by choosing a scientist as his protagonist, and doing science today as his focus — as McEwan has in his latest novel, Solar — a writer in Britain is lobbing a small but deadly grenade at one of the most vicious, deeply rooted prejudices of upper-class England. Reviewing Never Pure, a book about the history of science for the New York Times last month, Katherine Bouton observed:

In the essay titled “The Scientific Person,” the professor shows how science gained from the upper classes’ disdain for learning and the learned. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, made up of gentlemen one and all, attempted to garner respect for science. But it failed: scientists continued to be seen, as Professor [Steven] Shapin puts it, as “swilling around in human urine,” eliciting a “polite retch reflex.” This left the field open to the rising class of those industrializing Britain.

So science has, in fact, been a critical social leveller – as far as possible from a tool for entrenching middle- and upper-class privilege..

Reviewers have on the whole missed McEwan’s impish commentary in Solar on the war between lovers of science and the humanities – the subject of C. P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ debate. He gives Michael Beard, his book’s lovingly mocked anti-hero — an obese, Nobel prize-winning physicist — a transformative experience at Oxford, where he has arrived as a scholarship boy. To impress Maisie Farmer, the beautiful literature student who has until then resisted all his attempts to persuade her to go out with him – he turns himself into an expert on Milton by buying a one-hour tutorial on the subject from a fellow-student, and then speed-reading for a week. The plan works and, McEwan writes,

… was a turning point in his development, for he knew that no third-year arts person, however bright, could have passed himself off after a week’s study among the under-graduate mathematicians and physicists who were Beard’s colleagues. The traffic was one-way. [. . .] The reading was a slog, but he encountered nothing that could remotely be construed as an intellectual challenge, nothing on the scale of difficulty he encountered daily in his course. [ … ] He and his lot were at lectures and lab work nine till five every day, attempting to come to terms with some of the hardest things ever thought. The arts people fell out of bed at midday for their two tutorials a week. He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand. He had read four of the best essays on Milton. He knew. And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors, these lie-a-beds, and he had let them intimidate him.

There’s a sly joke buried there, sinc McEwan himself – though he was never a science student or scientist – is showing off as a rare literary artist proving that the traffic is not necessarily all one-way. He writes so accurately about complex theories in science and medicine that reading some highly technical passages of Solar is about as thrilling as munching on sisal carpeting.

As he never attended Oxford or any other elite university, the charge of smug obliviousness to social discrimination constantly levelled at him is even more baffling.

But bigots will be bigots, as the third category of complaints about him also illustrates. This one is largely an American phenomenon. An online search will show no shortage of his countrymen congratulating Walter Kirn on his crude and atrociously written attack on Solar, extensively quoted on this blog a few weeks ago. Yet any lit-lover who took the time to study last week’s comparison of paragraphs by Kirn and McEwan writing on closely similar subjects would surely agree with Moristotle, a wise, dissenting American who diagnosed ‘a serious case of jealousy’ as the explanation for Kirn’s hatchet-job on a novelist who, I believe, could out-write him sedated and fast asleep.

The gist of Kirn’s complaint was that McEwan writes too well, and is guilty of over-the-top over-writing. Yet in the puff piece he lavished on another novel, the excruciatingly un-funny, cliché-ridden Absurdistan, a review that put it on the NYT’s ten-best-books-of-2006 list, he made elaborate excuses for the same aspiration and flaw, respectively, in a novelist who did not make him feel quite so insecure. About Gary Shteyngart’s collaboration with his own protagonist-narrator, Kirn said:

Shteyngart and Misha, exuberant depressives, don’t stint on the syntax or the verbiage when objects huge and rotten hulk into view. Their thick, overloaded style is what happens, though, when socialist realism decays into black comedy. This is the prose of heroic disappointment, faintly labored at moments but fitted to the task of shoveling up mountains of cultural debris. Hemingway’s clean sentences wouldn’t do here. A man needs commas, semicolons, adjectives. He requires linguistic heavy machinery.

He does, does he? …And yet Kirn would, if he could, forbid McEwan — a sentence-by-sentence master of English prose — the use of any such machinery. Reviewing Shteyngart’s new novel, the NYT’s redoubtable Michiko Kakutani said earlier this week that it ‘avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” … ‘. Well said, Ms. Kakutani.

Jealousy aside, why is Kirn so much more indulgent of Shteyngart’s literary showmanship than McEwan’s? There might have been a clue in this paragraph of an article by Judith Warner in the NYT earlier this month:

A tendency toward anti-intellectualism isn’t new in our country … [I]n his 1962 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of our culture’s longtime devaluation of the head in favor of the heart and a historic tendency to prefer people and phenomena — educational approaches, types of religious experience — motivated by passion or gut rather than intellect or reason. “Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion,” he wrote. “It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the ‘purely’ theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism.”

The emotional excessiveness of Shteyngart’s ‘exuberant depressives’ makes him a more sympathetic chronicler of the human condition for a Walter Kirn than someone like McEwan, who cares just as much, but chooses a cooler and more detached stance towards his characters.

The British alternative is neatly encapsulated in a protest against overflowing sentimentality getting in the way of good sense by a prison doctor, Theodore Dalrymple, in the Telegraph earlier this week: ‘Sentimentalists try to make up for a lack of feeling by emotional exhibitionism.’

Wit – black humour – is much preferred in Blighty to Shteyngart’s style of histrionic Russian-American lamentation, extended tantrums and breast-beating.

I wouldn’t ordinarily be wasting time on such odious comparisons. It’s just that putting Kirn’s obtuse butchering of Solar on the front page of the NYT‘s Sunday books section did look a bit too much like an aggressive attempt to bring McEwan to heel, and to impose the American approach to fiction-writing on the world as the model against which all other styles must be judged.

It’s not unlike the persistent attempts by Americans to rewrite the rules for football – not simply re-name a game they don’t know how to win any version of without padding themselves to look like blank, faceless, Egyptian mummies in motion. P.J. Rourke was only half-joking when he whinged in the Wall Street Journal near the end of the World Cup:

“Nil-nil” is not a sports score, “nil-nil” is a foreign policy. Judging by the many successes of the United Nations, it’s a foreign policy favored by the majority of the world’s foreign countries. Of course nil-nil is not an American foreign policy, or wasn’t until we got a president with a suspiciously foreign name. Americans like to win. And, come on global sports fans, you like to win too. In this one respect you’re all Americans at heart. So knock it off with the whole “everybody’s a loser” soccer thing.

No thanks, P.J., go away – we don’t want any… Solar is, by the way, one of the funniest contemporary novels I’ve read for a very long time. One sequence in it could make a short story brilliant enough to make Woody Allen turn chartreuse and weep. It has just two male characters travelling on a train together, and a bag of salt-and-vinegar crisps.



Filed under Class and literature, Criticism, Psychology, Social trends

Neurons making love and art

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

It’s rutting season where I am.

Perfect, as it happens, for the question preoccupying me lately — about what conclusions neuroscience will reach on the neurological basis for the romantic temperament, its joys and vexations. In place of the asthmatic buses and jackhammers punctuating thought on my last working visit to London, I have galumphing deer clattering on the wooden planks hugging the perimeter of this house. This is something like listening to badly trained, drunken clog-dancers who lack any sense of rhythm.

Shhhh,’ I said, raising a cautioning hand at the kitchen table the night before last. I left my seat silently, snapping on outdoor lights as I went, and soon was looking down two sets of long doe ears lined in off-white fur — eighteen inches away and behind a glass door — as their owners tucked lustily into bird seed. That’s right, bird seed — where there’s no shortage of lush gardens for randy ruminants to plunder … — fallen from the bird feeder into a re-potting project.

Next morning, proof that the marauders returned …

In the morning, proof that the marauders returned …

A few days ago, I was about to post Fang Zhaoling’s painting with a line saying ‘Happy Bank Holiday’ – since the scene it depicts looked like fun unbound — until I read its caption. I remembered discussing on someone else’s blog last year the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which commemorates the death of one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. Qu Yuan (332-296 BC) was an aristocrat and great patriot with an ‘air of suffering nobility’ whose despairing love for his country led him to criticise its rulers, endure the ostracisation that followed, and eventually die by suicide. During the festival, the outstandingly practical Chinese try symbolically to ‘fish his corpse out of the water in which he drowned himself’, according to the sinologist Hellmut Wilhelm. A Chinese government site says about his most celebrated work:

Lament on Encountering Sorrow is a romantic lyric poem with a measured realism. The poet utilizes a great deal of exaggeration in portraying characters and describing objects. The assemblage of fairy tales further enhances the poem’s romantic flavour.

It was intended as a political protest. Though the poet who is its hero harnesses jade dragons to his phoenix carriage and is borne away on the wind to battle obstacles to winning the hand of a fairy, goddess or princess, Wilhelm says that the amorous quest is an ‘allegory of sensual union’ whose actual significance is political. In the ancient Chinese tradition, that union ‘was often used … to allude to the relationship between ruler and advisor.’

What interests me about Qu Yuan’s story and his epic poem is that they illustrate the consistency, across cultures, of the link between art and a bonjour tristesse view of life. The mystical psychologist Helen Palmer includes as typical of this perspective an attraction to ‘what’s missing: the distant, unavailable, and hard to get ,’ as well as a ‘sense of abandonment … impatien[ce] with mediocrity and mundane life’ ; a tendency to intensify feeling through ‘loss, fantasy, artistic connection, and dramatic acts’ – and in work, a craving for distinctiveness, for ‘creativity, even genius, an eccentric edge in presentation.’

That isn’t just true of artistic creativity, as conventional thinking has it, but of original thinking in science, too. That point is made in a mention I found only this week of The Age of Wonder by the biographer Richard Holmes:

“Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity,” Holmes writes. “But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive.[…]”

A biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes’s particular genius is to parse the similar philosophical concerns of both science and poetry, showing us how the scientists of the era defined the textbook Romantic temperament as much as the poets did.

I want neuroscientists to explain what drearily reductive evolutionary biologists have so far been unable to do, which is tell me why Albert Einstein, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer and Ted Hughes all had enough sturm-und-drang in their relationships to justify thrillingly romantic bio-pics — even though, because they were men, no one would a priori have assumed any interest in being ‘in love with being in love’ in ways assumed to be typical of women. Why is romantic love – the most intense, pleasurable, but also difficult kind of loving – so often part of the picture of high accomplishment in creating what didn’t exist before, when that involves imagination and originality?

What other human tendencies belong in that cluster of neurological functions or tendencies? For instance, science has found that brain circuitry fully supports the old cliché about the close kinship between the emotions of love and hate. Recently, neuroscientists have been working on a fascinating puzzle – trying to work out why cursing seems to act as a natural analgesic:

According to a study published in the current issue of NeuroReport, swearing helps to alleviate pain:

“Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” said Richard Stephens of Keele University in England and one of the authors of the new study. “It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.”

I was thinking about all that when fragments of David McDade’s lyrics on a CD bought for a different song caught my ear (not in the overcooked rendering of the hyper-pneumatic Dolly Parton) :

Everytime the bluebird sings
My heart takes wings to the sky
With bluebird’s grace I fly
To my place in your eyes
Cause after all, I did all I could
And you did your best, just the same
Nobody won, we both lost, no one’s to blame
But I’ll find my way to you, if I’m only pretending
And we’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie
We’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie

… and when those last words seemed strangely familiar, a search engine reminded me that it was Stendhal who said that all art is a beautiful lie, or what you could see as elaboration on the romantic impulse.

What would the opposite of that be? Perhaps excessive realism – like Schopenhauer’s. He meticulously worked out how attaining our desires only leads to new desires and discontentment, and for himself, mostly rejected close human connection — preferring the companionship of a succession of poodles he owned from his student days until his death. I suspect that most of humanity would find his impeccable rationality less compelling than the grand — grandiose — delusions of romanticism. Our reach was surely always intended to exceed our grasp.

How many wouldn’t reject the chance to write impenetrably, as Schopenhauer did, …

The physical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of becoming. The mathematical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of being. The logical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of knowing. The moral form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of acting.

… if offered the choice between that and being able to say, as Byron did, that

… dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures and the touch of joy:
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight off from our waking toils,
[…] they become
A portion of ourselves and of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity; …

A world-view like Schopenhauer’s leaves so much less room for believing six impossible things before breakfast – in, for instance, the existence of bird-brained, seed-chomping deer.


Filed under Insight from neuroscience, Poetry, Psychology, Visual art & artists

Is blogging ultimately the friend of war or peace?

My most disappointing conclusion from running this eight month-old experiment in blogging? It’s that we human beings appear to find fighting more enjoyable than sparkling debate and friendly disagreement.

Never mind that in answering a question about what he or she would do as a live, fully clothed substitute for a statue in the One & Other project now playing in Trafalgar Square – and proving hour after hour that Everywo/man has no imagination — one onlooker supposed doing ‘something to represent the need for world peace’. That this aspiration is usually honoured in the breach and not the observance is more drearily unsurprising than the wish itself.

The click count for acciaccature always soars when visitors notice a quarrel getting underway in the comments section. That is true even when the disagreements are only short and sharp like last week’s flare-up between an always-interesting contributor, @anytimefrances, and a tremendously welcome new drop-in commenter, @Anil Eklavya.

The least cheering job for anyone running a blog is defusing banal disputes with incomprehensible ‘bad chemistry’ behind them. These gain force and momentum from a tendency I find even more dismaying: bloggers forming themselves into packs and tribes in a medium that easily supports individuals expressing individual opinions — and proceeding, like pathetic George W. Bush clones, to act on the depressing, simple-minded principle of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

The extraordinary persistence of such enmity struck me last week as a miniature version of the ultimate mystery of why countries still go to war. I was reading a gigantic obituary of Robert McNamara — the mastermind and manager-in-chief of the Vietnam war, which ends with his reflection that

War is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend […] Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.

He concluded that the US could not possibly win the Vietnam war near its end – and long before many of his fellow war-mongers did. The obituary contained a remarkable record of his abject mea culpa — which shows that he believed that cross-cultural incomprehension and intolerance, of which we’ve witnessed more than one instance in microcosm on this very blog, were ultimately responsible for the deaths of millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of Americans:

At a going-away luncheon given by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Mr. McNamara wept as he spoke of the futility of the air war in Vietnam. Many of his colleagues were appalled as he condemned the bombing, aghast at the weight of his guilt.

He had thought for a long time that the United States could not win the war. In retirement, he listed reasons: a failure to understand the enemy, a failure to see the limits of high-tech weapons, a failure to tell the truth to the American people and a failure to grasp the nature of the threat of communism.

“What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said in his Berkeley oral history. “It led President Eisenhower in 1954 to say that if Vietnam were lost, or if Laos and Vietnam were lost, the dominoes would fall.”

He continued, “I am certain we exaggerated the threat.”

“We didn’t know our opposition,” he said. “We didn’t understand the Chinese; we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is know your opponents. I want to suggest to you that we don’t know our potential opponents today.”

Getting to know actual or potential opponents is surely much easier now that we routinely have access to some of the most intimate thoughts, dreams and fears of foreigners – whether we read their blogs in English or rendered clumsily, but more-or-less comprehensibly, through automatic translators.

I’d have thought that our whizzy new digital tools would at least be discouraging disagreements about facts like the squabble between @anytimefrances and @Anil Eklavya – whom I’m guessing is a graduate student with a first degree from one of the famously dazzling Indian Institutes of Technology.

When we didn’t hear from @Anil after his last post here, I found the answer to the question I’d asked him about how he had word-processed documents in a mixture of English characters and Devanagari, the script used to write Hindustani. It’s a software product called ‘KickKeys’ that certainly made my eyes pop, even though I’ve worked with foreign keyboards in France and Spain:

KickKeys offers a complete language solution through Transliteration (type-as-you-pronounce). With it you can write a foreign language using the regular computer keyboard without memorizing difficult key sequences.

The optimist in me suggests that we have no way of knowing or measuring how much potential conflict our flexible futuristic tools have headed off — which, conceivably, could far exceed their promotion of hatred. Like good news, mutual understanding and harmony don’t have anything like the capacity of bad news and crises to attract attention.

I came across unexpected confirmation for this rosier view when I wandered over to another site after I’d pasted in the paragraph before last. There I found @anytimefrances – whose interest in Indian literature had seemed unserious and patronising to @Anil – saying,

i finally got something written after reading Nissam Ezekiel – i’m becoming very fond of the modern Indian poets writing in English. hope this doesn’t impugn his reputation too much but i just love his almost matter-of-fact deliveries.

She’d just announced the sudden death of her brother to other bloggers on the thread, and was explaining how a particular Indian poet had helped her find her way to writing a poem about her loss. So as hostile as her reaction to @Anil’s criticism had been, and much as I’d despaired over her failure to answer his generous concession with one of her own — if not an apology — she proved him mistaken, and in the most moving way imaginable.

@Atf, if you’re reading here, I was deeply sorry to read your announcement – since I can’t think of many shocks greater than the unexpected death of a sibling. And I’m surprised by meaning every word of that last sentence, even though I haven’t the faintest idea of who you really are or what you look like; not even after two years of blogging with you on various sites.

The succession of texting, telephoning, Twittering and key-tapping ‘plinthers’ might not, in the end, be meaninglessly engaged in their seemingly endless streams of yakyakyak after the JCB crane plants them on their Trafalgar Square perch to horrify pigeons fascinated by their dogged attempts to eat unappetising bits of buzzing plastic embedded with mysterious winking lights.


Filed under Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere

J. P. Donleavy and Stephen Frears, two princes of poignance

A small boy tastes salt at the corners of his mouth. His legs feel shaky and his lungs heave. He’d counted on Tillie to see him through his first night in this dormitory but instead had to watch as all the stuffing was wrenched out of her by a pack of fellow-inmates — by way of saying hello. None of them will look at him now, as he climbs into his bed, and he has been careful to meet no one’s gaze.

Not to look up ere some crushing horror descend at the back of one’s ears. Nor move too soon ere a large monster snort new fire. But now to turn gently and up from brave but shy eyes to see. On the next bed sitting a plump little boy. His carrot haired head bent over as he sewed carefully with needle and thread. He looked up and smiled. His eyes were brown and his cheeks big and red. And in his hands, all nearly joined back together again, was Tillie.

To any
Little Men.

How these two are connected I’ll explain in a minute, but seeing Chéri, Stephen Frears’ mesmerising new film of Colette’s La Fin de Chéri last Saturday reminded me that I’ve been puzzling for decades over the uncanny hold J. P. Donleavy’s The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968) has on my imagination. No story of any character in it overlaps more than fractionally with my own biographical facts, and yet this is one book with about four others that I’ve always packed with special care in a life of chronic uprooting. The mere sight of its cover can sometimes be oddly comforting.

That the novel is poignant — a word whose etymology includes both ‘pierce’ and ‘point’ — rather than baldly melancholic is, I suspect, the key to its appeal, and that’s also true of Frears’ Chéri.

Then there’s an interesting difference between the original texts. Wild mules couldn’t drag me within a mile of an adaptation in any medium of my beloved Balthazar B. I couldn’t trust anyone to get it right. By contrast, Frears’ film has done the unthinkable – mined and exposed the gravitas in what struck me, in every attempt I ever made to read Colette’s story, as an irritatingly frothy and boring yarn about a reverse May-September romance between a silly, too-old courtesan and a handsome but conversation-less gigolo an absurd quarter-century younger.

From what do transporting works of art derive their charge? I mean, does anyone know what inspiration stretched their creators to the limits of their powers? We’re usually left in the dark – often because artists themselves do not know the answer. For Balthazar B, though, Donleavy has given lovers of literature the rare gift of a satisfying explanation.

In his interview in the Paris Review series of chats with authors, he tells about attending a rehearsal for the London production of an adaptation of the wicked picaresque that made his name, The Ginger Man. On that day, the play’s producers found that the show could not go on without an infusion of an extra thousand pounds, but had no idea where the money would come from until a ‘young, elegant’ man from Cambridge ‘who had inherited a shipping fortune and was in the process of spending it all’ unexpectedly entered the hall. One of the producers, Tony Walton, immediately ‘pounced. This chap stood there and just looked at Walton and a tiny little smile came on his face. He said nothing at all, just nodded.’

Years later, Donleavy asked this serendipitous theatre-angel why he’d ‘drop a thousand quid he more than likely would never see again, suddenly like that.’ The angel’s answer was that Walton asking for the money had taken him back to being driven to his prep school with his nanny, ‘never having been away from home before.’ Donleavy, quoting him, says he described being led into

’this great awful school […] where all these little bastards descended upon me and took my elephant and pulled it apart. It was ripped to shreds and I was beaten up.’ Later that evening […] he was there crying in bed, without this little elephant he’d always had to hug to sleep […] And suddenly there appeared at his bedside this little boy who was just at that moment sewing up the last of his elephant to give back to him. Tony Walton, my producer, was that little boy. And that’s how I heard that story and it came to be in Balthazar B.

Rightly or not, I felt as if I’d struck pay dirt when I found that anecdote. More than inspiration for a winning twist in the plot, it seemed the equivalent of the Proustian madeleine for Balthazar B‘s genesis. A fragmentary real-life event or scene as a spark is somehow more impressive and intriguing than the conventional background about an actual person and life inspiring a novel. There was, for instance, Auguste Hériot, who seems to have been the principal model for Chéri even though he was only slightly younger than the novelist and, though ardently in love with her, had only a brief liaison with her. By some accounts, Hériot – a spendthrift scion of a plutocratic family that owned a department store in Paris and had ‘the lissom masculine elegance of a cavalry officer’ — was virtually the air-head I thought Colette had portrayed. But one of her biographers, Joanna Richardson, also quotes a close observer of them both describing him as ‘not an idiot, but a very rich man, a regular warrior, brave to the point of temerity, who fought like a lion in the First World War and led an adventurer’s life. . . ’

This is certainly not the Chéri in the Frears film. But an English director in 2009 has still made this couple’s May-September reversal completely believable in a way the proudly libertine Colette could not in 1920 – the year after she seduced a seventeen year-old stepson at forty-six, and before she married a man seventeen years younger, at fifty-three.

This is another impossible accomplishment Frears’ film has in common with Donleavy’s book, in which the tender seduction of a barely pubescent Balthazar by his governess Bella is heart-breakingly real. How did Frears do it? By his sensitive direction of two actors with good looks of unearthly perfection giving devastatingly subtle and complex performances that do full justice to a clever script.

Michele Pfeiffer, playing the forty nine year-old Léa, ‘doesn’t look like a great actress,’ one critic has noted sagely, arguing that her performance in Chéri proves that that’s exactly what she is — all the more impressive, I’d add, for her not playing ‘against type’. The changing play of expressions on her face and on her co-star Rupert Friend’s contribute a depth of characterisation I could never find in the book. They demonstrate the unrivalled impact of gestalt – the way our minds instantly grasp the whole of an integrated image in a way they never do by adding its constituent parts together, … which is virtually all that the most vivid and affecting collection of descriptive words can usually do.

Both Donleavy and Frears also understand the cunning leverage in counterpoint. Daftness and modernist larking-about – both verbal and stylistic – are used to recount Balthazar’s wistful story. It’s impossible to dismiss Friend’s Chéri as just a pretty boy when, deceptively casual, he delivers line after line that isn’t only crisp and bracing but positively fanged.

On a seven-hour car journey on Sunday I didn’t touch the audio tapes I’d packed in a canvas bag to keep drowsiness at bay. Scenes from the film kept spooling through my head, along with regret about the inevitability — in the sense of that which cannot be avoided — of Léa releasing Chéri for the marriage arranged for him with a young woman he can never cherish because he has known ‘what one meets only once in a lifetime and is floored by completely,’ as Colette (by way of Farrar, Straus and Young’s uncredited 1951 translator) puts it.

Frears’ virtual reality was so viscerally compelling that I kept running his version of Léa and Chéri’s story through my nonsense-detection circuitry with a saying bordering on soppy and moronic that I heard long ago, I don’t know where, and whose source I have never found:

You must let love go, when you have to. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it was never yours in the first place.

Chéri’s end – which I won’t give away – is a tragically hopeful paradox, since it suggests that the concluding sentence there can be false as well as true. Or so I’m supposing – and I’m looking forward to dissenting opinions, attached to arguments.


Filed under Film, Literature and the cinema, Psychology

Blogger-hatred – Indie journalists über alles – A beauty in love with blood-and-gore

This collection of clips supports positions taken and points made in these recent entries on this blog: The rafts of the unwelcoming print journos; Stick to your Polish Joseph Conrad! –Whoa Cleopatra! ; and Ruth Padel and the presentation of intelligent pulchritude in everyday life .


Referring to January’s baffling announcement by a respected Old Media columnist, Simon Jenkins, that the digital revolution in publishing is being halted by ‘printed blogs’ , I mentioned print journalists’ seething hostility to the Blogosphere.

On Sunday I found this review of Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin — an American journalist and novelist so angry about copyright violation on the net (a good cause) and the shift to e-media (a King Canute cause) that, by many accounts, not just Ross Douthat‘s, the book reads like the most intemperate raving by the maddest bloggers …:

The Internet multiplies arguments as swiftly as it multiplies pornographic images,[…] [I]t multiplies cautionary tales as well — feuds better left unfeuded, and rabbit holes that have swallowed writers whole.

Tellingly, it’s often older scriveners, unaccustomed to having their sallies met by waves of insta-disputation, who flail their way into embarrassment. […]

The novelist Mark Helprin is the latest distinguished writer to come undone this way. […]

[He has written] a furious treatise against the comment-happy horde. The resulting book, “Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto,” is a vindication of the aphorism about the perils of wrestling with a pig. (You get dirty; the pig likes it.) [ Possibly not all pigs, though: the giant pink ‘un made by one arts group, WRAS, appears to be finicky — and if I read right, was distressed about getting … er, pig-like, on a recent trip to Spain. ]

I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever blogged alongside foaming at the mouth in quite the way Helprin does. Douthat, again:

[I]t’s hard to write a polemic premised on the assumption that your opponents are monkeys without sounding like a particularly high-vocabulary monkey yourself. Helprin variously describes his foes as “wacked-out muppets,” “crapulous professors,” “regular users of hallucinogenic drugs,” “a My Little Pony version of the Khmer Rouge,” “a million geeks in airless basements,” “mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down” and so forth. The overall effect is like listening to an erudite gentleman employing $20 words while he screams at a bunch of punk kids to get off his front lawn.

[ I actually had to google ‘$20 word.’ ]


In the last blog entry, I also pointed out that independent operators like freelance journalists – temperamentally, close kin to bloggers — are increasingly getting the scoops these days.

About Laura Ling and Euna Lee — two young Korean-American reporters for the fledgling Current TV sentenced by the North Korean government to twelve years in a labour camp — The New York Times conceded in a story that it featured prominently,

Start-up news organizations like Current TV are increasingly sending journalists to the world’s hot spots, putting a spotlight on news stories in new ways. It is, experts say, another consequence of the fragmented media landscape and the declines in international news coverage by traditional outlets.

[…] “There’s an impetus with any upstart news organization that you have to be bolder and you have to be more aggressive than other news organizations to get attention for your stories,” said Kevin Sites, a freelance journalist who covered conflicts for Yahoo. “That has to be admired. That also has a real inherent risk in it.”

This brand of journalist stealing the colours of conventional print and TV rivals is all the more brave because,

One of the risks of this kind of improvised, headlong journalism is that reporters lack the backing of large established news organizations that might have the experience and leverage to deal with foreign governments. While Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, full-time employees of Current, have the backing of Al Gore, who is a founder of the network, they lack the support system that their colleagues at CNN and the British Broadcasting Corporation enjoy.

Since, as I showed last week, respected print journalists – and the layers of editors and subeditors vetting their work – are as capable of appalling lapses in fact-checking as anyone else, it’s getting harder to see what we’ll lose in the move to online and indy reporting.

Kathryn Bigelow -- 5 June 2009 -- AP photograph

Kathryn Bigelow -- 5 June 2009 -- AP photograph


A recent thread sparked by what our comrade @Hazlitt called the on yer bike look of the writer who became Oxford Professor of Poetry for roughly a weekend encouraged sparkling exchanges about changing female images and self-images that ranged as far as the portrayal of women in western art – which continued on the next thread.

Of course the bolder and more challenging expressions in female portraiture are reflections of collapsing stereotypes about what interests women, and about the limits of what they can do.

In no way does the stunning illustration for this profile of a director I’d never heard of, Kathryn Bigelow, prepare readers for what follows:

THE take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker.


Although she now plays down the film, it seems like a template for much of her later work, with its emphasis on men, masculinity, violence and power.


yes, she’s working in an sexist field where even female studio chiefs are loath to hire female directors, but also because of the stubborn persistence of her artistic vision and intellectualism. She’s still investigating signs and meaning, but now through genres she deconstructs and sometimes immolates.

It’s telling, then, that after she made “The Loveless” a postmodern motorcycle movie in which she stretched narrative to the limit, she started receiving scripts for high school comedies, which she quickly realized was considered a suitable subject for her gender. “It was an intersection of absolutely inappropriate sensibilities,” she said, though I would love to see what havoc she could wreak on that genre. She was living in New York in a condemned building without heat and electricity. A juvenile comedy might have paid the bills, but instead she accepted an offer from her friend, the artist John Baldessari, to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, just north of Los Angeles. Hollywood was the inevitable next step. Through the director Walter Hill, she landed a deal at a studio, but it led to nowhere.

It was at this point, she said, that she understood “if I had a prayer of shooting something that intrigued me, I was going to have to be the architect of my own fate.”


The number of male mentors and aesthetic influences seems instructive as does her seeming discomfort when I ask why she likes to make movies about men. It’s one of the few times when she searches for her words. She mentions Richard Serra, whom she’s known for years, and “Torqued Ellipses,” his curvilinear steel sculptures that weigh about 40 tons apiece and which she describes as “real statements of power.” Suddenly I’m reminded of the moment in “K-19” when the camera glides between two submarines sitting parallel on the surface of the water, a glorious image of heavy metal that is itself a statement of power. When she was painting, she says, she loved “big, gestural, visceral, raw, immediate pieces.” She starts to move her fingers, as if she were sewing.

“Nothing really struck me,” she says, of the art she first loved, “that was tight and precise and patient and careful and perhaps more introspective. Perhaps,” she laughs, “it’s just a sensibility defect.”

I doubt that one Kathryn Bigelow, no matter how many copy-cats she inspires, will mean goodbye to the Jane Austen sensibility — her ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush …’. Women always have been as different, potentially, as these two. But what a gap – a wow for the ages.


Filed under Editors and editing, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Stick to your Polish, Joseph Conrad! … Whoa, Cleopatra!

A few questions and some leftover thoughts from the last entry in this blog, Ruth Padel and the Presentation of Intelligent Pulchritude in Everyday Life … in ascending order of frivolity:

Why is Derek Walcott the focus of such vicious animosity in sections of the transatlantic literary community – more than the combinination of jealousy about his Nobel prize and gossip about sexual intemperance would explain?

The high watermark for the nastiness about him is surely a 2007 review of his Collected Poems in the New York Times Book Review. Most startling are its omniscient pronouncements about Walcott’s relationship to himself by the reviewer, a poet called William Logan. Since Logan’s harshness as a critic is well-known and the NYTBR is usually moderate and careful in its criticism, it is impossible not to wonder whether his editors weren’t trying to get across a hidden message in choosing his assessment for a lead review.

‘[W]riting,’ Logan wrote with the presumption of a hanging judge revealing a heinous crime — but not reasoning very well — ‘was Walcott’s escape from the islands. The metaphors whisper their quiet acknowledgment of guilt.’

At times [Another Life, Walcott’s autobiography in verse] reads like “The Prelude” by a writer far more elegant than Wordsworth, though almost every line about the poet himself sounds false:
[F]or the exile, language is a daily form of betrayal. Walcott has remained a figure of divided loyalties and a double tongue — his grandmothers were descended from slaves, his grandfathers white. Though he “prayed / nightly for his flesh to change, / his dun flesh peeled white,” like any young man of parts he was somewhat enamored of himself. Even the late verse can seem shallow and narcissistic, beauty seized in his own beautiful eye — he treats women (“O Beauty, you are the light of the world!”) in a manner closer to lechery than to old-style courtesy. Caught between two races and two worlds, he has sometimes succumbed to pride or self-pity, or to that pride indistinguishable from self-pity.

[How does merely worshipping female beauty add up to lechery?]

Letters from outraged readers took up most of the letters column in a subsequent issue of the publication:

Joseph Cuomo complained, in part:

Logan asserts that “the rhythms and intonations of English verse were a passport to the elsewhere; but they came with a burden — the language of the colonial masters was not the one caught in his ear at home.”
First, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Walcott’s life knows that “the language of the colonial masters” was indeed “the one caught in his ear at home,” most particularly the language of Shakespeare and the Bible, both of which were read to him as a boy by his mother.

Logan only compounded his presumptuousness in his mostly incomprehensible attempt to justify his hatchet job:

The poet manages to sound like an exile wherever he lives; but mastery of English and immersion in the classics have estranged him from the island of his birth, no matter how often he returns or how long he stays.

Walcott’s conflicts are played out within himself — his vanities and even his self-pity erode the imperial manner of his verse.

The gist of Logan’s case against Walcott: he writes beautifully; in fact he writes too well – not least because by failing to do so in the patois of St. Lucia, where he was born, he has betrayed the half of his heritage that’s West-Indian for the sake of his English genes.

What business did Samuel Beckett have writing in French — or Conrad, Dinesen and Nabokov scribbling in anything other than Polish, Danish and Russian, respectively? Those Chinese and Indian engineers in Silicon Valley, how dare they code in western programming languages when it’s obvious that they should be working in the scripts of their Taoist ancestors, or of Sanskrit metaphysics?

There’s a great deal that we haven’t been told about the story of Walcott and the literati, I feel sure.

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

The real Cleopatra -- digitally recreated from the most reliable facts about her

Didn’t Ruth Padel have a glimmer about how much damage she was potentially doing professional women last week with her bald-faced lie about her role in spreading rumours about Walcott’s past? About her failure to explain that, rather than her motives for exposing his reputation on some university campuses? Given that most working women have a hard enough time already with society’s ancient uneasiness about women and power — what was she thinking?

The drama of her resignation just nine days after her election as Oxford’s Professor of Poetry recalled a recent opinion piece on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, an outstandingly acute and meticulous biographer. (Read Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), for a superb sample of the biographer’s art.) Writing on this site about Padel’s confident projection of sexuality, I was reminded of just how remarkable that is, given Schiff’s reminder that

… Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. […] She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.

Padel, denying that she had used her connections to discredit Walcott, unwittingly recalled the female reputation for scheming that goes at least as far back as a first century BC marriage contract in which

a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women.

In fact, as Schiff notes dryly:

Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.
She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.

The ages-old controversy about Cleopatra – the subject of Schiff’s biography-in-progress – has an echo or two in the opposition to Judge Sonia Sotomayor, whom President Obama nominated last week to replace a retiring justice on the US Supreme Court. Once again, a woman had to be defended against criticism of behaviour that would have attracted virtually no comment, had she been a man:

Judge Guido Calabresi, a former dean of Yale Law School who taught Ms. Sotomayor there and now sits with her on the Second Circuit, said complaints that she had been unduly caustic had no basis. For a time, Judge Calabresi said, he kept track of the questions posed by Judge Sotomayor and other members of the 12-member court. “Her behavior was identical,” he said.

“Some lawyers just don’t like to be questioned by a woman,” Judge Calabresi added. “It was sexist, plain and simple.”

Could there really be such a thing as a ‘collective unconscious’?

… and if there isn’t, how else are we to account for the phrase ‘thinking women’ turning up in The Independent (‘Can an ex-civil servant finally persuade women to buy erotica?’) ten days after I linked to Pauline, the sculpture I think of as Thinking Woman, in this space? I’m still waiting for someone to prove I’m all wet to suggest that the sculptor, Harold Francis Bell , has scored a coup for the ages.



What advice does Doris Lessing have for this premature case of Droopy Corners Syndrome that I found floating on the net a few years ago?

It is not given to every circle of bloggers to have a comrade posting not just one but two intimate anecdotes about a household name on every continent. @ISA, also known as Philip Hall – who should be hard at work on a memoir about his freedom-fighter family’s South African history this very moment – told us about the only anti-ageing cosmetic advice I have ever heard of Doris Lessing giving. Why she should have given him any advice at all after his ferocious evisceration, in her presence, of The Grass is Singing — that I, like many others, consider her finest work – surpasses all understanding. But it certainly says a lot for her.


Filed under Poetry, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Ruth Padel and the presentation of intelligent pulchritude in everyday life

Ruth Padel

Something missing in the hullabaloo about a great poet, Derek Walcott, apparently having trouble leashing his libido on university campuses, is that Ruth Padel — the good poet who won* the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford last Saturday — has had one of the most strikingly sexy personae in literature. I only refrain from using the present tense because recent press photographs, like the last one in the Independent, show her looking irreproachably demure and even tweedy.

I came across the portrait on this page accidentally, about six years ago, looking for a writer with whom she once shared a platform at a reading — and was enthralled by it long before I’d ever heard of her or read a line of her work. Call it the picture that launched a thousand questions in me about the new images of themselves that confident, intelligent women feel entitled to project.

They couldn’t be more different from the old style deemed permissible, that a female a bit behind the times blogging on a newspaper site prescribed only last week for young women on university campuses – the sartorial equivalent of waving garlic bulbs under the noses of putative sexual vampires like Walcott. Though she took his side in the fight for the Oxford post with a ‘men will be men’ argument, in that comment, she allowed her own sex no particle of latitude to be sexual beings expressing their sexuality:

females entering onto campuses should dress properly and behave with decorum, only then can they expect to be taken seriously re male behaviour. like mutual respect and not one-sided shenanigans.

Peace be with you, Sister Nouvelle-Puritan. Today, a woman as accomplished as Padel — who, as the photograph shows, respects herself and can convey this in her expression, posture, dress, and above all, work — has no need to get tricked out as an insipid bluestocking squinting out of heavy tortoiseshell frames to earn anyone else’s regard. No more than good-looking men in the same circles need to hide their magnetism under a carrel, so to speak.

An unusually powerful sculpture (see slide no: 3) I found on a recent surfing expedition struck me as a watershed in the portrayal of women. The sculptor is, amazingly, a man. All the other human figures by this Harold Francis Bell are so keenly alive that you could say that their joints are jumping. In this one, Pauline, a piece I think of as Thinking Woman, he’s captured something we’ve hardly ever seen in the history of art – a depiction of a radiantly intelligent nude; a woman adorned only by extraordinary intellectual intensity and the physical grace of someone fit and almost too slender, in perhaps late middle age. No trinkets, no costume, no paint. The first time I studied her, I imagined her as the cross between a scientist and ballerina that a real-life friend of mine – a dancer with the Harkness Ballet and daughter of a research physicist – once longed to be.

I find this sculpture far more impressive than Rodin’s Le Penseur. He looks like a hunk of beefcake acting a part – or taking a day off from weight-lifting ‘to see what this thinking stuff’s all about, y’know?’ whereas Bell’s belle, La Penseuse, gives us a being who might conceivably be living almost exclusively to think, and for art’s sake.

I’ll concede that those are subjective impressions, but what equally compelling equivalents of her are there in painting and sculpture – apart from the works that Gertrude Stein inspired by portraitists in several media, and Frieda Kahlo’s tortured, wrenching self-portraits? Being no art historian – not even an amateur one — I’m actually asking for suggestions in any visual medium except for photography, which is (relatively) too easy.

Thinking Woman instantly struck me as iconic — for an age in which western society has begun to value intelligence in women as much as in men. Of course, what’s considered attractive by the majority grows out of the delicate and imperceptible negotiations between individuals and society that shape social trends. Erving Goffman, in his wonderfully named classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), theorised that

the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors.

On doublex, a companion site for women that the online magazine Slate has just launched, an article on changing gender expectations records that whereas girls of the mid-20th century thought that they had to pretend to be stupid to get married,

Today the cultural consensus is very different. At this April’s conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, [a report on a recent study…] of middle school boys and girls [showed that although ] the girls were deeply preoccupied with their appearance, the kind of feminine mystique that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s was virtually dead.

Not a single girl who was interviewed thought she had to play dumb …

And whereas once, clever women were catnip for only the cleverest men, Luisa Dillner has noted with quiet delight that

Surveys show that men still rate attractiveness highly, but a study in Sex Roles, of 199 people in Amsterdam, showed men and women rated the importance of intelligence equally.

Still, a mystery remains. It’s one thrown up by women bloggers themselves. In Sex in the Literary Blogosphere , I mentioned that far from using the net to escape the social expectations that unequally weigh down women in places where they might be free to discuss ideas without those burdens of gender, many females blatantly or subtly draw attention to their looks and femininity. They don’t seem to mind being handicapped by what John Berger analysed so penetratingly in Ways of Seeing, a book that the ballerina friend I mentioned left behind after one of her visits:

One might say that men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines most relationships between men and women, but also in relation to women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

These bloggers give themselves screen identities like @allheart or @ickyinpink or @AirHedda or @angelica – which I’m modelling closely on actual names. Some – by far the most baffling — go out of their way to alternate references to academic texts with posts oozing girly gush.

‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ was once an advertising slogan that a big bad tobacco company deployed to flatter actual and aspiring feminists. . . Not far enough, on the evidence.

But Berger and others who have shown just how deeply images can re-shape perceptions would surely agree that a vamping professor of poetry at one of our oldest universities and a female rival for Le Penseur will make their mark – are doing so even as I type.

[ * On Monday the 25th, Ruth Padel resigned – a week after her pyrrhic victory. See: good thing that the Battle of the Bards wasn’t the subject of this post. ]


Filed under Poetry, Psychology, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists