pseudopodium
Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon consider their betters
. . .

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
by Charles Baudelaire

One of our painter’s greatest concerns during his last years was the judgment of posterity and the uncertain durability of his works. One moment his ever-sensitive imagination would take fire at the idea of an immortal glory, and then he would speak with bitterness of the fragility of canvases and colours. At other times he would enviously cite the old masters who almost all of them had the good fortune to be translated by skilful engravers whose needle or burin had learnt to adapt itself to the nature of their talent, and he keenly regretted that he had not found his own translator. This friability of the painted work, as compared with the stability of the printed work, was one of his habitual themes of conversation.

Or, to paraphrase:

Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the [“original,” when anything recognizable as an “original” exists] image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and transitoriness are as closely linked in the latter as are reproducibility and permanence in the former.

. . .

Holidays never turn out right

Way back when I first saw the Hepburn/Grant version of Philip Barry's Holiday, I thought it made no sense. I don't mean anything as eccentric as "real life sense"; I mean, no movie sense. The godheads of Hepburn and Grant are blindingly, staggeringly apparent at a glance, and it's impossible to believe such divinities would let a squirming handful of gray mortals divert them from divine affairs of fate. Watching them wait the movie out was pleasant in itself but I'd hoped for more.

That may be because I already knew the movie's source material via obsessive childhood reading of Burns Mantle's Best Plays series, a sort of Reader's Digest Condensed Books for Broadway. Its condensed Holiday left an impression on my infant soul: it was maudlin, posturing, and (I was assured) sophisticated, with the character of Ned, a sardonic yet utterly feckless alcoholic, providing an attractive role model.

About twenty years after being unsatisfied by the 1938 Holiday, I learned the play had been filmed before, in 1930. It took about twenty more years to snatch an almost-or-then-some unwatchably poor digitization of a bootleg videotape. Since then, Criterion's distributed a much clearer copy as a DVD supplement, and with few exceptions (Stacia Kissick Jones, "FlickChick"), reviewer reactions have confirmed what I already suspected: my fondness for the relic must be more analytical than synthetic. I like to contemplate the structural issues, rotating them under the light like a particularly fucked-up volcanic rock. I can't help it, and why should I, huh? It's very soothing.

I doubt you'd enjoy watching the movie but here, let me show you this rock.

* * *

A lot's been happening before the curtain rises. Girl Julia meets boy Johnny at ski resort. Girl neglects to mention that she's fabulously rich and (as is the way of the fabulously rich) insatiably greedy. Boy neglects to mention his plan to take early almost immediate retirement, or at least a ten-year sabbatical, and just knock around. Nevertheless they become engaged. (You can understand why Barry wanted to keep this offstage.)

Once the action's underway, a few more bad decisions establish the play as a triangle: Johnny and two sisters, Julia and Linda. Brother Ned serves as chorus.

Julia is beautiful, healthy, intelligent, wealthy, and perfectly comfortable with life as it is. Linda is beautiful, healthy, intelligent, wealthy, and feels suffocated by her surroundings. Johnny is beautiful, healthy, intelligent, now comfortably well-off, and wants to try something other than money-making for a while. Everyone's got the power to do what they claim they want to do at any time. No one wants to assert it. We get the extended dither of an Astaire-Rogers picture without the songs, dances, or Alberto Beddini.

A storyline this scrawny can only be pulled off with a massive dose of audience identification, leveraging our inner obtuseness our own restively complacent adaptations to our own jerryrigged mousetraps-for-superior-mice to fog awareness of the play's unlikelihoods. Mopish prepubescent readers can provide that on their own, but on the stage or screen you need star power, and, more expensive yet, three-way star power, since the motivation offered for delay is each party's purported concern for the other two parties, particularly Linda's and Johnny's concern for Julia. Without a Julia, Barry's plot should rightly collapse into a brief meet-cute-and-get-the-hell-out prelude, after which we'd go on to the real movie. (God bless you, Preston Sturges.)

The 1938 film minimizes Julia almost to vanishing point with poor Doris Nolan, three undistinguished credits to her name, barely struggling onto the emulsion. (I suspect the filmmakers wanted to stifle any competition with the controversial charms of Katherine Hepburn.)

But the 1930 film does it have a sister act! (The poster rightly placed them top of the cast.) Young Mary Astor is a dream Julia: sexy, smarter than her dialogue, and fearlessly direct. You'd have to be crazy to pass her up before devoting a long stretch of dither to the question.

In contrast, as more recent reviewers have complained, Ann Harding's Linda is affected, neurotic, frumpish, and frequently infantile which is what drives the story. We can understand why this Linda clings to home like a malcontent limpet and we can believe the couple would accept this prospective sister-in-law as a supportive but pitiable ally, and certainly no threat. It would take time to become attached to her and even more to become dependent on her.

What 1930 lacks is a male lead. Robert Ames looks like he'd rather be playing Ned; he displays all the flop-sweat joie de vivre of a Willy Loman. I can believe him and Harding stumbling off to a miserable cohabitation but it would take more than a pair of skis to make him worth Astor's notice.

Admittedly, the role of Johnny, like the role of Julia, doesn't give an actor much to start from. The generic name suits him: he's a Promising Young Man and that's about it. He has no family; well, such things happen. More ominously, this purportedly charming and energetic figure appears to have (almost) no friends of his own, and there's no hint that he's recently immigrated from Poland or Oklahoma. We're told he's good at business, but since the action's confined to domestic sets, we never see him work. He's fully formed before the first-act curtain and aside from one brief vacillation to provide a bit of third-act suspense he never changes a whit.

Cary Grant inspires the necessary confidence and then some, maybe too much; ideally our Johnny should seem capable of making and ruing mistakes maybe Joel McCrea or James Stewart or Henry Fonda...? What resolved the Johnny problem in 1938 wasn't casting but Donald Ogden Stewart's rewrite of a smaller part he'd himself played on Broadway ten years before.

* * *

As already noted, Johnny skimps on personal references. In all three Holidays, all he offers is one couple, named Nick and Susan Potter, and in both movie adaptations Edward Everett Horton plays Nick. Accordingly, reviews and reference works claim he plays the same character. Yeah, and George Miller directed Cybermutt.

Like the play's Potters, 1930's Potters (with gruesome Hedda Hopper as the missus) are natives of the same inconceivably wealthy class as the siblings, distinguished within that class solely by their immaculate frivolity. They don't think about money and they don't strive for more money, but they don't bother to think about or strive for anything else, either. We can appreciate the absence of hypocrisy without enjoying their inane company and without feeling reassured by their sponsorship of Johnny.

Stewart doctored these gaps with ingenious economy: Nick Potter's name is prefixed by "Professor"; Susan is assigned to Jean Dixon, who dedicated her brief cinematic career to taking-no-bullshit; their costumes are downgraded from proper evening wear to academics'-night-out; they boast thoroughly conceivable incomes; they smirk less. That's enough for us to accept them as witnesses to Johnny's laborious ascent, as pledge that his sabbatical won't be devoted to casinos and racetracks, and as evidence that Linda has occasionally ventured outside her mansion and noticed someone outside her family.

And best of all it's still Edward Everett Horton.

. . .

candour and verisimilitude

- for David Collard, with gratitude

"W. N. P. Barbellion" claimed instant fellowship with (what he lived long enough to read of) James Joyce. They shared pride and poverty, compulsive truth-telling, retreats into silence, and a sense of exile.

More particularly they were both intellectually ambitious provincials stuck on the periphery of longue durée cultural shifts.

Bruce Cummings was born to be a naturalist in the grand old tradition, devoting his passions and skills to the present-to-hand reality of plants, beasts, and earth on the ground. He should've sailed on the Beagle or explicated the ecology of the English countryside, but such escapades had already become a gentleman-scholar's game and would soon become the niche of pop-science writers like Barbellion's champion H. G. Wells. "Real" working-class science instead took place in urban offices and urban labs for the greater profit of industry or government.

Although I sense a leap in energy and happiness whenever Cummings returned to the countryside, he never himself described that dichotomy in so many words. Instead, like other brilliant articulate failures, he redirected himself from his first vocation to literature. He would still observe, analyze, and describe, but specimens would be human and he would be first on the dissection table.

James Joyce faced similar blockages but his vocations were spiritual and literary from the start, and due to whatever combination of history, capability, and opportunity Joyce became more explicitly aware of his dilemma, formed vaster ambitions, and lived to fulfill them.

We have no way to know where Cummings would've gone next, or if he would have been able to publish even one book without the sales hook of his early death. On the other hand, would Joyce be remembered if he'd died at Cummings's age, with only Chamber Music to his name? At the very least, Cummings's publications provide a unique testament of Dedalus-in-progress, drowned before flight, as I reckon most members of the extended Dedalus clan have been.

* * *

More particularly still, they share a certain attitude.

Embodied/embedded/naturalist philosophers and scientists, much as I love 'em, often speak of human experience in ways which would (thoughtlessly for the most part, sincerely for the horrifying part) dismiss the blind, the deaf, the pained, the frail, the immobilized, the illiterate, or the starving as not-really-human. (Other philosophers seem willing to dismiss any non-philosopher, no matter what shape they're in, as subhuman, so it may just come with the territory.) Those philosophers, theologians, and mystics who do admit the existence of suffering also tend to deny the existence of anything else, with sweet nothing our only transcendence.

In literature there's a minor muscular-secular-hedonist tradition, viz. that hearty medico buck Oliver Gogarty, but from Rochester through Zola what's labeled Naturalism leans grim and nihilist. Early critics received Joyce's first books (and Barbellion's Journal) accordingly, sometimes awarding them extra-naturalistic points for having come straight from the whoreson's mouth of a native informant. (Richard Wright's helpfully titled Native Son would be a later example of such critical reception.) And it's true that Joyce and Cummings, like Flaubert and Ibsen, were to varying extents out for revenge.

They were not, however, out for nothingness, and desperate though their circumstances might be, their works were above all else lively: liveliness was their chief defense. Flaubert and Ibsen had violently and despairingly alternated between Romantic/Naturalist inflationary/deflationary antitheses; learning from their examples, Joyce achieved a bizarrely cheering synthesis, and reconstructed the incarnate spirituality of the Church as inspirited carnality.

As for Barbellion, naming his posthumous-to-be collection Enjoying Life exhibited a sense of humor but not sarcasm. He did "enjoy life," and dutifully recording his own disgust, pain, and hopelessness was another method of enjoyment.

* * *

Most particularly they were drawn to a certain technique whereby enforced isolation, quotidian (if not downright nauseating) realism, and defiant vibrancy might merge.

Barbellion on Joyce's Portrait: "He gives the flow of the boy's consciousness rather the trickle of one thing after another.... It is difficult to do. I've tried it in this Journal and failed."

Deliberate production of personality-tinted-or-tainted discourse is at least as old as classical rhetoric. "Stream of consciousness" is only its most recent technique, and in a way the most limited.

As Barbellion noticed, it's also misnamed. What it transcribes isn't a stream, or consciousness, and definitely not silently meditative abstraction staring into an abyss of unframed dust-free mirror, but an inner monologue. Whereas William James wanted to emphasize continuity, linear speech is forced to present one damned blessed word after another. Memories can't be conveyed without hints of obsession; nonverbal perceptions can't be conveyed without a hint of focus.

Most crucially, an inner monologue takes place in solitude, when the only thing hopping is our antsy brain. Like poetry, it makes nothing happen. Engaging in dialogue with company or trying to learn a novel practice or becoming absorbed in almost anything other than our unlovely self forces (and allows) us to drop the burden of our inner chatter. Which doesn't mean our book has to stop: although the only time you talk to yourself is when you're not talking to anyone else, the only time you reveal yourself is always. If the "stream" is interrupted, we can simply flip to free indirect discourse (personality-tinctured third-person-limited) or drama (a report of direct speech) or narrative with a heavy tincture of narrator (that tried-and-true device common to Swift's satires, nineteenth-century dialect comedy, and the "Nausicaa" and "Eumaeus" episodes of Ulysses).

Given those limitations, a journal or diary is a natural home for inner monologue. Similarly, Joyce's "stream of consciousness" is tailored to the occasion of Ulysses, a day of excruciatingly extended emotional isolation for both male leads, and suits Molly only once she's trapped by insomnia in the dead of night.

But within those limitations, the inner monologue has a peculiar strength: it makes nothing happen. In the midst of sweet-fuck-all it spills a past, a present, alertness, misunderstandings, hopes, vexations, half-quotes, dumb jokes, old clothes, an embedded life dragging world and culture along in its rat's-nest-tangle. In either fiction or journal, no matter how dismal the life might objectively appear (as if there were anything objective about it), it exhibits a liveliness worth living.

. . .

Our Motto

But I never forgot the look of astonishment and bewilderment on the young woman's face when I had finished reading and glanced at her. Her inability to grasp what I had done or was trying to do somehow gratified me. Afterwards whenever I thought of her reaction I smiled happily for some unaccountable reason.
- Black Boy by Richard Wright

. . .

Kakania '70

In the 1970s everybody hated the 1970s. Even people whose careers peaked in the Seventies hated the Seventies. The music, ugh, why didn't someone pull the plug in '67?, and it was the musicians asking that. Movies were grimy and ended badly, even the comedies ended badly; the stars had pores and scars, their abs looked like bellies, they lumbered around like animals. We knew our clothes were unflattering, we were bony or pudgy with or without them, and sex included pubic hair. No matter our age we were all cynical: we all knew this corrupt and cowardly world couldn't last and didn't deserve to, and we wouldn't get anything better because everyone sucked. Governments didn't know what they were doing, unions didn't know what they were doing, revolutionaries didn't know what they were doing, and I sure as shit didn't know what I was doing.

"And such small portions!"

The agents of change weren't hidden Thatcher, Reagan, AIDS, nothing subtle there but it took a few years to collect whatever wits and bearings were left underfoot, and fully understand that yes, things would never be that not-as-bad again, and that precisely what I'd loved most in those despicable years, and loved even in their ever-curdling promises, was their precarity. In '74 Swamp Dogg prophesied that God Ain't Blessing America Until It Gets Its Shit Up Tight, and indeed a loose conglomeration of disputatious groups proved no match for a tight-fisted bundle of platinum logs. God's blessings were reserved for that platinum class and the fasces weren't capable of building anything better, but building something better wasn't the point. The point was winning.

It was during that long epilogue that I first began reading Robert Musil in translation and with delight, and later Joseph Roth, and other accounts of the ever-fraying, ever-compromised Austro-Hungarian sprawl, and I guess I wasn't the only one:

Google ngrams for English mentions of Musil and Roth

The Viennese must have a way to express "Nostalgia for a decade we loathed." O Jonathan Franzen, reveal to us now that word known by Karl Kraus or go home!

. . .

So much lost from 1980s New York but I still have to think about this asshole?

Peli Grietzer put a question to the Twitter floor:

There is no fact of the matter about whether Trump really believes the election was stolen, right? It's some kind of category error to describe him in those terms at all?

Since that seems to me an underdiscussed aspect of our dear Queen's ascent, I succumbed:

Yes, "belief" in the sense of "truth-valued proposition" doesn't fit. He only recognizes performative speech acts. Every impulse, no matter how contradictory, is "right" and anything that thwarts it must be motivated by "wrong."

"Willfully blind faith" comes closer: an evangelical fundamentalist of self. Burdened by a purportedly static gospel-or-whatever-the-market-will-bear, the religious fundamentalist can face accusations of hypocrisy. (Generally charges are dropped once the accused claims a fresh rinse-and-wax by Jesus; still, what a nuisance.) The Trumpian can instead tailor his impulse to context, can at most be accused of lying, and can always deny the accusation sincerely.

That sincerity is key to the sociopath's success. We're predisposed to take certainty as admissible evidence, and social and cultural development depends on an occasional performative delusion: "I am a hunter," "I am a poet," "I can make Americans' lives better," or, as blushing badge of sanity, "I feel like a fraud." A good sociopath will ignore questions of scale or consequence, and exploit any ambiguity.

The extremes are plain enough, though, to anyone willing to forsake the contact high.

* * *

Speaking of the Great White Weight, whoever or whatever still shambles toward Broadway has a treat in store....

In Production: Pal Ubu!

Introducing Miss Betty Hutton as "Ma":

He says Merdre, he says,
    Kicking off the farce.
He says Merdre, he says,
    Talking out his arse.
He says Merdre, he says.
Is that the language of state?

(Tip o'the toilet-lid to that host with the mostest coastes, the pride of Essex and joy to the world, David Collard.)

. . . before . . .. . . after . . .