I remember a Woody Allen story I read long ago which had a line about F. Scott Fitzgerald's decline as a writer -- at the end he was reduced to typing series of commas, or some such. Most nights lately, I've felt capable of far less. Given how much I liked the previous photo (I was never much of a Louise Brooks fan, but I am rapidly becoming one now for some reason) I thought I'd post another:
In the meantime, I'm reading more about Mormons that I ever cared to know. Finding it fascinating as well, but not anything I care to write about just yet.
I am happy to note that J. Cassian has a series of highly engaging posts up at February 30 -- start at the top and keep scrolling.
By all means, let's begin well:
The lovely lady, of course, is Louise Brooks, a silent cinema star perhaps best known for the films she made in Germany with director G.W. Pabst, Diary of a Lost Girl and Pandora's Box. Her German excursion more or less ended her U.S. film career for reasons that to me remain obscure; I imagine that the Louise Brooks Society might have a good explanation. I don't think Brooks was much of a star when she was in Hollywood -- certainly nowhere near as popular as Clara Bow, to cite one example -- but I digress.
I got to thinking of Louise Brooks because of a book I bought over the weekend -- The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Borges, whose prologue to the novel is collected in various anthologies of his works, described it this way:
To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.
...largely because Morel is a tightly plotted novel in the tradition of adventure authors -- Dumas, Gaston Leroux, Poe and of course the incomparable Robert Louis Stevenson. Interestingly, in drawing a distinction between the psychological novel and the adventure story, Borges cites Stevenson:
Around 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill.
I say interestingly, because in that exceedlingly well plotted novella which I believe is Stevenson's most famous contribution to literature, the psychological is so predominant. The edition I linked is not entirely random; its wonderful editor, Robert Mighall, provides a trenchant essay on how The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde was perceived by Stevenson's contemporaries (Oscar Wilde, to quote one of Mighall's examples, had a character say that the work read is if it were an article from the Lancet).
I could point out that in the 1920 Paramount screen adaptation of Stevenson's novella, which starred John Barrymore, borrowed the Lord Henry character from Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray to act as the psychological catalyst for Jekyll's ill-fated experiment, but I'd rather consider for a moment the reason that the lovely Louise Brooks appears on the cover of Morel. Adolfo Bioy Casares was fascinated by her. Interestingly, he didn't care for her German films:
I was deeply in love with her. I didn't have any luck, because she disappeared quickly. She went to Europe, she made a film with Pabst, and then I didn't like her so much as when she was in Hollywood. And then, she vanished too early from the movies.
Obsession, on occasion, is sometimes the only plot required.
I think they buried the lede in this short story about a new technique that may allow scholars for the first time to read ancient manuscripts whose fading ink had rendered them illegible. The story ends with this sentence:
The thousands of remaining documents, which will be analysed over the next decade, are expected to include works by Ovid and Aeschylus, plus a series of Christian gospels which have been lost for up to 2,000 years.
Speaking of Mormons -- something I noticed the other day. I can buy two or three different translations of the Bible, plus a translation or two of the Qur'an, at any Waldens or B. Daltons, along with (most likely) a Penguin translation of selections from the Upanishads. Go to Borders, and there's the Pentateuch, the Zohar, a few shelves stuffed with Concordances and study guides, five or six different translations of the Qur'an, Sufi texts, along with dozens of Gnostic texts, the Popol Vuh (the holy scriptures of the Mayans), the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other assorted treasures. Go to Amazon.com, and there is everything from 14th century works by Isma'ilis on heresiarchs to ... well, the list is virtually endless.
None of these places carries the Book of Mormon, which, if I'm not mistaken, is still published exclusively by the Mormon Church. I can understand why a store might not want to stock it -- my understanding is that Mormons give the book away, so it would be difficult to make much of a percentage. Still, one would think that some scholarly publisher, or Dover at the very least, would put out a commercially available copy with a scholarly introduction. I, for one, would buy it.
Update: I was mistaken, at least according to this story, which originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune:
For the first time in its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is allowing a national publisher to print a reader-friendly trade edition of the Book of Mormon.
Doubleday, an imprint of publishing giant Random House, will publish the hardcover book in November. Priced at $24.95, the book excises the lengthy footnotes and cross-references that crowd pages and may be daunting to those not familiar with the faith, said Michelle Rapkin, director of Doubleday's religious publishing division. But the main text will be the same, and the book will include a brief reference section outlining key events, ideas and people.
Still, forget I mentioned it...
The other day, the Washington Post reviewed something I found intriguing on several levels: a local drama company has produced, rather than a play, a new Trapped by the Mormons, made in Britain of all places. Apparently, there was something of a subgenre of British anti-Mormon silent films -- something that I'd managed to remain ignorant of.
The modern remake looks interesting, and may well make time to see it during its three week engagement here, although I have to confess that reading what I presume was supposed to be the tongue in cheek history of the Mormons and the film, I found myself finding the joke not funny anymore. Maybe it was this bit that set me off:
Showing the cowardice that typifies their ilk, the Mormons sent out spies to infiltrate the troops' encampments as they travelled along the trail to Salt Lake City. They destroyed the soldiers' food supply, set afire their wagons, and drove off their stock. Yes, the Mormons were America's first terrorists. But when the soldiers reached Salt Lake City, Brigham Young and his rebel army, surrendered promptly. The Mormon, like the Muslim, will always run from a fair fight.
I'm not quite sure I get the point -- I presume the idea is that anti-Mormon bigotry differs little from anti-Muslim bigotry, but I'm not sure it quite comes across.
There's no point in going through the detritus, flotsam and jetsam I've acquired over the years -- the notebook is long gone, the one in which I took notes of a fascinating lecture I wandered into by mistake about the efforts of a Florentine public health official to head off at the pass an outbreak of the plague in the 14th century. The lecturer (whose name I forget) made the point that contrary to popular belief, physicians did know some means of arresting the spread of the plague, but that the political will to implement them was lacking. It was a fascinating talk, one I wish I recalled better.
Of course, I'm remembering this in part because of the recent stories about deadly flu samples, and of course, the depressing chronology which suggests that we're about due for a deadly pandemic. Such thinking, of course, can be dangerous to one's health as well.
A while back, I picked up A Field Guide To Germs by Wayne Biddle, which is, as far as it goes, a delightful read. Biddle recounts something, in his section on influenza, that I remember well from my childhood:
Only once has a massive attempt been launched to head off an epidemic through general vaccination, namely the 1976 fiasco under President Gerald Ford against swine flu. Ford told the American people that the 1918-19 virus was on its way back and signed a law providing $135 million for an immunization campaign that would ultimately reach only about a quarter of the population. Along the way, the program attracted many prominent critics, including Ralph Nader and Albert Sabin, finally collapsing when cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralysis, appeared at ten times the normal rate among vaccinees. Happily, the flu epidemic never blossomed. Washington eventually paid out $93 million in damages, sending liability ripples through the courts that put a permanent crimp in the American pharmaceutical industry's enthusiasm for making any vaccines.
For some reason, I'm reminded of a Woody Allen joke, which goes something like: Before us are two paths. One leads to unimaginable suffering, anguish and despair. The other to total extinction. Let us hope we have the wisdom to choose the right path...
I've been reading (I'm 160 pages or so into) Himmler's Crusade by Chris Hale, which tells the tale of Ernst Schaefer's 1930s expeditions to Tibet in search of -- call them what you will, the unknown superiors, the masters of the universe, the master race, the Ur-Aryans. Hale makes an argument others have made -- that the crackpottery of various ideas held by the Nazi elite (inspired by the likes of Helena Blavatsky, to cite one example) somehow intellectually or culturally prepared the German intellectual elite (such as it was after the Nazi purges, although it was not nearly as threadbare as one might expect) and the German people in general for the horrors that were to come. That one can draw a fairly straight or even a dashed line from the race memory ravings of a lunatic like Karl Maria Wiligut to, say, members of the Einsatzgruppen or the guards of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
I'm probably reading too much into Hale's book (although he does write sentences like this one fairly frequently:
These [crackpot] scientists fostered, knowingly, the vision of the future where scientific methods of selection would ensure that higher races prospered and lesser ones were weeded out. ...Hitler sometimes described himself as a 'physician' whose task was to remove the sickness of modern Germany. In return for scientifically endorsing his metaphor, doctors and anthropologists were offered dazzling opportunities by men who in 1933 seized so much power that they could contemplate what might have been an impossible dream: a purely Nordic future cleansed of impurity. It was a dream of power so radical that it could envision transforming the biological nature of the German people themselves.
Hale writes this way fairly often, and I'm never quite certain what he's up to (aside from oddities like dreams of power envisioning things -- fantasies imagining?).
More disturbing to me is Hale's inability or entire lack of interest in the question of what constituted good anthropological research and what was merely racist tripe dressed up as science. There were several of both kinds of work done in the period in question (the 1930s), but Hale seems to paint with a broad brush -- apparently all anthropologists are suspect. So too are all American scientists...
Both German and American scientists shared a passion for eugenics and race science. Both nations believed they struggled with a race problem.
Of course, G.K. Chesterton devoted a whole book to the enthusiasm of reformers, newspaper men, intellectuals and even a sizeable portion of the British Parliament for eugenics, which wasn't regarded as a retrograde fantasy about the glories of Teutonic Knights and the direct line of descent from Atlantis to Tibet to Adolf Hitler, but rather the cutting edge of modernity and enlightenment that demanded an extensive legislative program to make its peculiarly voguish crackpottery the law of the land. Hale doesn't find that worth mentioning. Of course, there was a great deal of crackpottery in Britain and America both before and after the Second World War, both of the mytho and moderno types, just as there is today. Somehow, we manage to keep ours in check, and even on the rare occasion overcome its worst tendencies. I'm not sure that the presence of moderno and mytho crackpottery within the same ruling elite explains what Hale thinks it explains...
Note: sorry about the lack of links in this post -- I'll add them in later. Comcast crapped out on me, and while I seem to have no trouble getting into my site, I'm unable to get onto anything else on the Internet.
Okay, the informal hiatus is over. Back to the regular nonsense.
From a 1982 Anthony Burgess book review I happened to come across today while looking for something else:
To the disappointment of a great number of the faithful, the new pontificate has made no concessions at all to the forces of alleged progress: immactulate contraceptives for the populace, infanticide in ventro, women priests, the abolition of hell are not merely not on the papal agenda but have been decisively rejected. John Paul, who once had Auschwitz in his diocese, sees no difference between abortion and the Final Solution. For those who wish for copulation without population, he affirms that the two go together, but there is always the Malthusian way out -- self-control. The unrepentant sinner is shut away from God for ever but he has to face public judgment in his rearisen flesh first. There has been absolutely no change in fundamental doctrine, and I for one do not see how there ever could have been. If you can accept papal premises you will find no fault in his logic. Masses in Scowse with pop singers may look like progress (and one feels that if John Paul had his way we'd be back to Latin tomorrow), but the truth is the truth and progreass is a heretical word.
I'm struck, first of all, by the vivacity of Burgess's style, and secondly, that there's not a phrase there, or in the whole piece, that misses the mark.
I'm eventually going to get back to blogging on a more regular schedule -- sorry, I just haven't felt like I've had the energy to do this, although there's a few things I've been meaning to get around to, and that will probably get me back in the habit of daily or semi-daily updates. But today, I came across something that sort of astonished me, so I decided to stir long enough to point it out.
The Washington Post ran this editorial cartoon today, apparently trying to make some sort of statement -- well, let's look at the cartoon:
In case you have trouble making it out, it shows a couple watching coverage of the Pope's death -- I think he's supposed to be lying in state -- on their wide screen television. The announcer says, "We will return to our regularly scheduled festival of materialism in a moment." The couple, who have an oversized SUV in their garage, say "It looks larger than life on our new big screen."
Where does one begin? Does Tom Toles, the cartoonist, think wide screen televisions are somehow more sinful than, say, small black and white televisions with 12 inch screens? Isn't the content of some cable stations far more pernicious than merely a big picture? How about newspapers, like the Post, that wasted tens of millions of dollars converting their perfectly good printing presses from black and white to ones that print color photographs on section fronts? Isn't that a horrid waste, a great sin of materialism, a crime against the spirit?
Then there's the whole notion of laughter itself -- the Gospels, after all, do not say that Christ laughed, yet Toles spends his time making (well, trying to make) people laugh. And he's paid enough money to afford a widescreen television, no doubt, for his troubles.
It's a shame Toles is merely a cartoonist -- if only he were a poet of epic grandeur, he could compose clever verses describing the various circles to Hell to which one is condemned for the ownership of the wide screen television, the SUV, the large house, perhaps the 40 gig iPod.
What is interesting, of course, is that the charge of materialism--or more properly that the Church has been corrupted by worldly things--has long been levelled at Catholic pontiffs. While it was a staple of Protestant complaints, its history is more antique than that. The Manichaean notion that all matter is evil was one of the first heretical challenges faced by the Church, after all.
What fascinates me is that some of the things that the Pope wouldn't want celebrated -- the festival he would prefer we not get back to -- have far less to do with widescreen televisions and far more to do with elements of the culture to which he objected, and which Toles...well, I don't know -- perhaps he is ardently pro-life, ardently against women in the clergy or married priests, ardently opposed to gay marriage, a fervent believer in Christ and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Somehow, though, I doubt it...