". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pheasants Under Glass: *Brideshead Revisited* & *Dance to the Music of Time*

Stray thoughts while re-watching Brideshead Revisited and Dance to the Music of Time -- both of which I've re-read a few times.

The English of the class(es) portrayed in this novels are Pheasants Under Glass:

Pheasant under glass was an earlier era's idea of the ultimate of expensive food consumed at tables of homes or restaurants vastly beyond the status and means of the average person. The pheasants were presented under glass, supposedly, to hold in the aroma and flavor of the fine cognac and other special ingredients such as mushrooms used in the preparation of the dish. 

The domes of Oxford domes, the dome of an ancestral architectural monstrosity of a house, the domes of Venice. The narrators of both Brideshead and Dance know all three.

In Temporary Kings (1973)  Jenkins, the narrator of Dance to the Music of Time's  volumes, attends a Venetian literary conference in 1958. During their enchanted summer of Et in Arcadia Ego, Sebastian and Charles depart from Brideshead to Sebastian’s father in Venice.  All enchanted men of their class go to Oxford, get to Venice and Italy in their youth – and if they don't live themselves in domed ancestral piles as children, as young fellows they visit those who do: Ryder to Brideshead and all the other piles he paints later, and Jenkins to the Flitton estate, and all those he visits during his life.

What else the works have in common: the alcoholic failures of Sebastian Flyte and Charles Stringham ; the insufferable Samgrass and Widermerpool; the ultra-successful but crass deal-makers Rex Mottram and Sir Magnus Donners. But there's no Brideshead parallel to Dance's mad, bad, self-destructive fatal Pamela Flitton, unless you can see her faintly in Head's malicious character of Anthony Blanche.

Stringham is tragic: a character whose alcoholism transforms into authentic spiritual humility.  This a stark contrast with Sebastian’s self-exile in Morocco, in service to an illiterate German brute, while remaining a drinker. Cordelia, Sebastian's devoutly Catholic sister, insists that Sebastian is not only best loved of God, but is a saint.  Important question to resolve -- is it because Sebastian is homosexual, so not even Waugh's sympathy can transmute him into sainthood, despite stating so? Committing homosexual acts, knowingly, willingly, and unrepentently, is a mortal sin.  Powell's Stringham is straight,  or at least asexual by the time he reaches his sainthood of accepting his failures and working to commit no harm?

The shared loathing of  WWII's military life of the narrators, a military that brings them under the command of loathsome twits such as Widmerpool -- who cannot resist torturing those of lesser rank when the opportunity arrives  -- and being surrounded by people who are not their class in education or understanding.  However, Jenkins, a deeper personality, with a wide curiosity about people and the world, finds respect and friendship with many of his fellow soldiers, whereas by now snobbish Ryder can or will. I didn't get the impression that Ryder started a snob, but turned into one because of his friendship with the Flytes-Marchmains and their like.  He marries a friend of Julia's and despises poor Celia, as he despises all the people of the set, other than the Flytes-Marchmains, just as they dismiss as fundamentally unimportant anyone who isn't themselves.

Brideshead (1945) seems to manage in one novel, in the years the two works share, what Powell takes decades and 12 volumes (1951-1975) to do. Waugh’s novel begins during WWII, but flashes back to 1922, when Charles Ryder and Sebastian go up to Oxford. Powell’s first novel begins at the public school Charles and Nicholas Jenkins attend, in 1921-22, and concludes at Oxford.

Both narrators are involved in car accidents while at Oxford – sometimes I get confused between these works, as they have so much in common, in incident, location and characters. So I had to look this one up, and it is the case.  Both Ryder and Jenkins are in a car accident because the driver-friend is inebriated.

I keep wondering who is this uncle of Charles Ryder’s –is this the father of his cousin, Jasper, who advises and scolds Charles at the start and conclusion of his first Oxford year? Jenkins has an important uncle too.

Brideshead Revisited (television miniseries 1980); the classic onscreen Head.  was adapted by John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey); it is widely regarded as among the best miniseries ever made.

Dance to the Music of Time (television miniseries 1997); adapted by Hugh Whitmore does not share the same reputation as Head -- but it is worth watching if you are the sort of person, who, like me, likes to watch this sort of thing.

It's more difficult to successfully adapt a 12 volume novel series into 416 minutes of television than a single short novel into 659 minutes.  As well. Brideshead had a much larger budget -- and fewer characters.

Re-watching confirms the feeling I've had since my first reads of these two different work of literature:

Jenkins and his circles were ultimately interesting. Many of them were decent and compassionate people. Moreover, they all did things, accomplished things, even the horrible Widmerpool, even the washed up Stringham.

Whereas Charles Ryder is right about himself and the Marchmains -- they lived wasted, useless lives. The problems of Brideshead's people -- 
none of them are interesting, at least by the later years. Charles's father was initially amusing, looked at from the outside, but he wreaked destruction on his family. Lady Marchmain was a bore but she too supposedly destroyed her family. I could see the terrible effect of Ryder senior, but I was told of Lady Marchmain's, which was so awful, that her husband left her, and her children, at least Sebastian, hated her. It has never been clear to me just why this was the case. It still is not, but I don't care either.

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