". . . 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

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Gerwig’s Little Women Part 2 -- Looking for Alcott

Warning! Spoilers Here Abound!

Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March Isn’t a Good Enough Jo March,  So Gerwig Turns Little Women Into Herself and Additional Thoughts

     . . . . The first Little Women novel concludes with Father March coming home from the hospital in D.C., Beth recovering from Scarlet Fever, Jo and Laurie, best friends, nodding at each other's reflections in the hall way mirror. And again, as at the beginning, it is Christmas. 

This is the novel that sold so well, another volume was demanded, in which everybody got married. But in the film both novels become Jo's first book, her first published novel. Though Gerwig Jo doesn't, Alcott's second half of Little Women, has Jo publishing a messy, unsuccessful novel. 

Nor is this Gerwig Jo March's Little Women publishing experience Louisa May Alcott's. Alcott was invited to do a book of interest to the young women's market after she'd become lauded as a writer to watch. This happened while an account of her Civil War nursing in Washington D.C. was published serially as Hospital Sketches, in the abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth. Edited by family friend, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, advised Alcott  to edit and to slightly fictionalize her experiences, nursing wounded soldiers, union and confederate, in a D.C. hospital. She was advised to change  people's names,  create vividly detailed "sketches" rather than a tightly structured thematic whole. she clearly was a master composer within this reader-pleasing formula.

This is the formula for all her many best sellers, from the first volume of Little Women, to Little Men and Jo's Boys,  to An Old-Fashioned Girl -- which was two parts / volumes too, like Little Women -- Eight CousinsRose In BloomUnder the Lilacs, and many others that aren't so well known. 

These are real novels written by a real writer, not imagined meta novels within Little Women. Changing this is as pernicious as another screen adaptation in which Beth doesn’t die. 
~ ~ ~
     . . . . Next to consider is that the readers couldn’t have had Little Men without Professor Bhaer.  He is a very particular character who can make this very particular marriage -- and he isn't a character in the first volume of Little Women.  Film Bhaer is entirely a creation of Gerwig, not Alcott's. Film Bhaer has no place in the second Little Women volume or in the subsequent March Family Chronicles, or in Alcott's life -- or perhaps there is a version?* 

Gerwig ends the film with a sexy, young, handsome Professor Bhaer viewed through a gauzed lens. Gerwig professes this marriage of Jo and Bhaer is fictional, inserted into the fiction of a fictional novel that Little Women’s fictional author, Gerwig's Jo March, writes, that we are to take as the actual Little Women novel written by real world novelist of the post War of the Rebellion era author, Louisa May Alcott.

In order to do this, not only does Gerwig change Bhaer's appearance and age, she omits to include the two young nephews whom he is supporting, caring for, and educating. Emil and Franz play with the daughters of the boarding house proprietor, Mrs. Kirke; the girls are the reason Jo is at Mrs. Kirke's and in New York City.  She's been hired to teach and care for the little girls. It's a job, one that pays a little, isn't onerous -- unlike the variety of jobs real Louisa May Alcott and her mother had to do. Mrs. Kirke's friendship with Jo's mother means Jo is further well-treated, including time off and time to write.

However, Gerwig has Her Jo do what a woman like Gerwig can do, go on a young, privileged woman's after college walk-about to NYC, to find herself, and become a pro. And thus there the film begins, in NYC, with Jo leading a bohemian life-style of the later 20th century privileged white girl who has a prosperous family to go back to when / if things sour. This is not Jo's entitlement, or even Alcott's. It leaves out what Alcott's Daily Volcano's editor says Alcott's Little Women, Vol. 2, about Alcott's writer Jo -- "Poor but proud.  She'll do." Meaning, she can depended to deliver the required column inches on time and for little cost.

The chapter titled, "Jo's Journal" describes Jo's and Professor's growing friendship and respect within the context of the boarding house and through the children. The first time Jo notices Bhaer, he takes a coal scuttle from a little scullery girl to carry up the stairs himself. "It goes better so. The little back is too young to haf such heaviness." She is so impressed by this she describes him and the scene to her family via the letter-journal.

She and Professor see each other frequently, informally, within a domestic context, his and hers. The house's little scullery girl, at the bottom of the social - financial scale, far below either poor Professor Bhaer or poor governess-minder Jo. Over the winter Jo learns as well as kind, the Professor is intelligent, much liked and respected for his learning with academic and intellectual circles. This is the sort of man that a woman like Jo, with her upbringing, would see worth living with, not a rather glamorous, but slightly weak, slightly  flibbertigibbet, Laurie, right?

So -- within the novel Jo very much wants to marry the kind, learned, cuddly, older, stout, perpetually rumpled German professor. A writer from and of the multi-chambered heart, Alcott’s much too wise a writer to create a fake relationship for her characters, whether or not she may have preferred to write a novel about boys or women who poison their rivals.

Examine this within the context of the following two March novels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. In Alcott’s March family universe, Jo does write a novel that is described as a few sketches of Jo and her sisters growing up, and made her, as Alcott describes it, "accidentally" rich and famous. Notice, this book is written years after Jo and Bhaer marry, not written by a far too attractive, bursting with energy, young Jo March. It is a book written by a woman who has experienced all that Jo March has experienced of pain, loss, insecurity and illness, as well as fun, joy and great affections and love. 

The information about this fictional book of Mrs. Jo, as she is called, comes in "Jo's Last Scrape " Chapter Three of Jo's Boys." Here the narrator describes for "insatiable" readers, what a day of a famous, lionized writer is like.

This best seller was written during a period of financial desperation for the Bhaers and Plumfield. While the causes of this financial crisis aren't sketched, one is given the sense it had to do with a loss of pupils to keep Plumfield (which now is a thriving, co-educational college) -- just as Bronson Alcott's school had to close due to loss of pupils for including a free child of color in his classes. Alcott significantly writes that Laurie and Amy would have helped them, but were in Europe, didn't know about the plight of the school, and were not informed. It is also implied that the start of funding to turn Plumfield into a college, with buildings and a student body far grander than the small boy's school of Little Men comes from that best seller, and Jo's subsequent best selling writing and famous name -- plus, of course, backing, presumably by the Lawrence and March names and others -- Jo's father too has become a rather renowned figure, lecturing on philosophy.

Best of all, this upholds that great American foundation of all faith: If we keep persevering and working hard and are good we will succeed! We don't believe Alcott believed that either, but saying so made her rich indeed. It leaves out what Alcott's Daily Volcano's editor says about Alcott's writer Jo in Alcott’s Little Women vol 2 -- "Poor but proud.  She'll do." Meaning, she can depended to deliver the required column inches on time and for little cost.

It's in this chapter we can see Gerwig's Jo March / Bhaer / Mrs. Jo, just as we see Gerwig's Jo in Alcott learning her formula from Hospital Sketches.

Additionally consider, with Jo's own children much older than they are in the halcyon Plumfield days described in Little Men, and no 'little men pupils' to care for, further, due to illness, Jo must spend her recuperation -- doctor's orders -- resting, in a room by herself. Jo has the time and space to write again!

This is the story of so many women who wish to write or pursue an interest that isn't just a paycheck and / or with families whom they very much want and love, who even have written and been published. But the need to support oneself and one's family, and care for that family leaves no time and no space to write. If Virginia Woolf, who wrote A Room Of Her Own, had read the March Chronicles, she'd immediately recognize how significant it is to this book.  In fact, the point of this chapter in Jo's Boys is how everyone thinks a writer can always be interrupted, everyone, from family members to perfect strangers, who, often, because they're fans, believe they have the right to do so.  Deadline approaches and fans are interfering with making money! Writing has become a paycheck too!

As well the narrator of Jo's Boys could be presumed as speaking as herself, Louisa May Alcott, the writer of The March Chronicles, at the conclusion of "Positively the Last Appearance," the final chapter of the final March novels. The narrator heartily wishes that a catastrophe would be allowed. Here follows the final paragraph of "Positively The Last Appearance" --
It is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it. But as that somewhat melodramatic conclusion might shock my gentle readers, I will refrain**, and forestall the usual question, 'How did they end?' by briefly stating that all the marriages turned out well. The boys prospered in their various callings; so did the girls, for Bess and Josie won honours in their artistic careers, and in the course of time found worthy mates. Nan remained a busy, cheerful, independent spinster, and dedicated her life to her suffering sisters and their children, in which true woman's work she found abiding happiness. Dan never married, but lived, bravely and usefully, among his chosen people till he was shot defending them, and at last lay quietly asleep in the green wilderness he loved so well, with a lock of golden hair upon his breast, and a smile on his face which seemed to say that Aslauga's Knight had fought his last fight and was at peace. Stuffy became an alderman, and died suddenly of apoplexy after a public dinner. Dolly was a society man of mark till he lost his money, when he found congenial employment in a fashionable tailoring establishment. Demi became a partner, and lived to see his name above the door, and Rob was a professor at Laurence College; but Teddy eclipsed them all by becoming an eloquent and famous clergyman, to the great delight of his astonished mother. And now, having endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the March family.
 “I hated Alcott’s choice of Jo’s marriage. Fixed that marriage for ya. Ain’t I the clever one.”

Dusts hands.

The End.

Yet there was so much more in Alcott's Jo and Joe's  Professor.***

*      More about why Jo March loves Professor Bhaer and can marry him in Part III.

**    Can't do that because it would kill her golden goose.

***  See the current Jane Austen travesty running on PBS – Sanditon.  Wasn’t Death Comes To Pemberly bad enough for them?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Monty Python / Terry Jones, Chaucer & the 100 Years War

     . . . . The announcement of Terry Jones's death seems to have revived the controversy he caused with his book, Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980). 

The book went into 4th edition, which is high achievement for a work of literary, historical  criticism, written by a non-academic.

Jones argued that Chaucer's knight had been battle-hardened in the mercenary companies, fighting for plunder and pay, not for a sovereign's honor and glory. The knight's story of battle-hardened legendary Greek figures was to show real politic and war choices, in the manner of Machiavelli.  This made sense to me, considering Chaucer's era was that of the 14th century Edward Plantagenets.

Chaucer's King, Richard II, was the grandson of King Edward III. Richard's father was Edward, the Black Prince, who died of illness before his time. King Edward III was elderly, and died not long after, leaving England's future in the hands of a boy king and regents, none of whom had the brilliance and sheer capacity for ruling, hard work or warring possessed by Edward I and Edward III. 

These are the times of the Hundred Years War. The English military strategy of chauvachée ruled. For those unfamiliar with the term, chauvachée meant no rules, no decorum: the army lived off the land, plundered everything it could eat and carry, burned the rest, and killed civilians, including women and children, as a matter of purpose. *

The Hundred Years War was a golden age for mercenary war lords and their 'Free Companies." One of the most famous and richest was that of English John Hawkwood.* Joining up with Hawkwood's mercenaries was the foundation of many an English family's rise in fortune and rank, as was the chauvachée plundering of France by members of the English armies. Used to plundering at will with little or no repercussion, some of the nobility and unemployed mercenaries and soldiers during truces took doing the same in parts of the realm of England.  It wasn't a very good time for many in England in the dotage years of King Edward III, and the boy king Richard's, and, then, King Richard II's own reign.**

So, count on someone with a high sense of humor, satire and irony -- as we see in every frame of Monty Python works -- to recognize humor, satire and irony, and mockery of genteel Romance-fiction traditions in the work of another great artist like Chaucer.  But as with the placement of slavery as central to the history of the American War of Independence, the Constitution, the War of the Rebellion, traditionalists of literary scholarship tended to clutch pearls when first confronted with such irreverent revisionist literary history.


*      There are concrete descriptions of what a campaign of chauvachée meant for entire departments of France in Maurice Druon's historical fiction series, The Accursed Kings.
Also in the excellent biography, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III Father of the English Nation (2006), by Ian Mortimer.

* *   Arthur Conan Doyle's favorite of his own works is an historical novel titled by the name Hawkwood's mercenaries were given, The White Company. There are numerous historical figures in The White Company, including the Black Prince, but Hawkwood is not among them. 

***   Richard II was deposed in 1399.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Part 1

No Spoilers

     . . . . The best part for me was seeing what supposedly are the authentic interiors of Orchard House in Concord, where the Alcotts lived for some years.

It’s impossible for me to watch this without comparing every detail with the details of Alcott’s life and her works.

This mad love for Little Women as a feminist text has been manufactured to a great degree by a very slick PR machine. Previously, even now, in most social circles who have members who read books. the book was dismissed as sentimental, religious, preachy, moralizing and dull -- by women as well as men. But mostly, even men who read hadn’t heard of it. In my experience / hearing / reading, these include many of the women who dismissed The Handmaid’s Tale when it came out (and Margaret Atwood the writer) as Paranoid in Tin Foil — it can’t happen here! not now! not in this day and age! — and not sf! Anyway! But then it’s a hit on tv and suddenly they all forgot that they had even actively dissed it – and had dismissed Atwood as no real science fiction writer, who moreover didn’t know what sf is, so was guilty as charged of Wrong Thought.. But, by the time it hit tv it was happening here, and the war on women, like the war on everything sane, has only has gotten more critical for women and all of us since then too.

Nevertheless, that the Little Women film would be dismissed during this annual pre-Oscar manufactured frenzy is par for the course for women in the film industry, especially when in a cycle in which women again see themselves as mattering, with the right to speak about themselves, for themselves. I’ve watched this go down before, in the age of Thelma and Louise, Boyz ‘n the Hood, and Daughters of the Dust, hearing male film people muttering on NPR about how relieved they were that “all women and blacks” getting all the attention was over and they could return to being the masters of the film universe — and sans faux-apologizing for it any more.

The push back to the industry’s #MeToo cycle cannot be underestimated among rank and file and those who make up the juries and judges. Part of this current stream is caused though by Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story. This film played at the prestige art theater here, The IFC!but Little Women did not. Marriage Story was the delight of male critics for reasons I cannot fathom beyond Baumbach being a (White Male) critics’ darling, going way back to The Squid and the Whale – which is also a domestic, middle-class, white family treatment, and which I haven’t watched either because I have developed a violent antipathy to such works as entertainment, particularly when made by white men. It’s as though nobody ever did a film about a marriage and divorce before, as if Kramer vs. Kramer and War of the Roses never happened, not to mention a list of others. This is billed as the domestic film, in possession of the best writing, acting, directing, casting.

Men can love Marriage Story without feeling girly because a man made it, directed it, and a Real (White) Man, Adam Driver, acted in it. We know Adam Driver’s a Real (White) Man because he’s in sf comix franchise flix (Star Wars) — and so is Scarlet Johanson (as Marvel universe’s Black Widow). Marriage Story has all the power of the Netflix money to promote the shyte out of it, as does The Irishman** — and we can see it on Netflix streaming too.

But the really odd thing about all this is — Baumbach and Gerwig are real life partners!

Both have done relentless, constant promo of their films this year. But it’s Marriage Story that got the award noms this fall.

So the two domestic dramas a/k/a known as soap operas are pitted against each other, making in some  circles for some serious meta film commentary indeed.


* This is now moot as both films have been knocked out by the Real (White Man’s) Movie, a war movie of WWI, 1917.  Everything else will go that other Real  (White Man’s) Movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, whose title moreover, steals blatantly the title of another Real (White Man’s) Movie, Once Upon A Time In the West (1969) by that most real man’s movie maker evah, Sergio Leone, starring Real Reel Men such as Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson! Not to mention another Sergio Leone Real (White Man’s) Movie, Once Upon A Time In America (1984,) starring such real white men as Robert De Niro and James Woods. This latter, btw, has one of the most horrific, on screen sexual assaults of the sort called date rape. By the protagonist, whom we all care about so much . . . .

** The Irishman is now the only other Real White Man Movie left to challenge 1917 – gangsters vs. war! The true Real (White Man) Movie subjects.  Guns and Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.  It’s hard to be more Reel White Man that that!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Cuba! Second Line Meets Conga Line! Havana Jazz Festival 2020

     . . . . Yay, Our Vaquero -- who had so much to do with making this Cuban Jazz - New Orleans Jazz celebration happen!*
New Orleans and Cuban musicians join in Havana’s annual jazz festival, defying Trump’s efforts to weaken US-Cuba relations

Additional coverage here

But dayem, even a nonby-lined Reuters report has to stick in the by now irrelevant designation "communist run Cuba." Shame on them.

... The visiting New Orleans musicians said they were frustrated it was so hard to come to Communist-run Cuba due to President Donald Trump's tightening of restrictions on U.S. travel to the Caribbean's largest island.
That tightening has hurt Cuba's tourism industry - one of the ailing economy's top earners of hard currency - that had benefited from a brief U.S.-Cuban detente between 2014 and 2016 under Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.
"Americans love Cuba, they will always want to come, so different restrictions frustrate us just as much as it frustrates you guys," said Hubbard....**

*  Vaquero is in Havana right now, after leading Tierras Segrada (Sacred Ground), a religious culture and music experience, much of it far out in the country, with 3 - 4 events every day. For the rest of the month he's teaching an annual NYU music course there, which deliberately is scheduled to occur concurrently with the annual Havana Jazz Festival.  He did an enormous amount of work, along with some others, to make this Cuban - New Orleans musicians and groups come together as part of the Festival.  Yesterday he did a presentation in Spanish discussing the long connection musically and historically -- and economically then too -- between New Orleans and Cuba.

New Orleans is just sizzling these days with brilliant Caribbean musical adventure and cultural innovation.  New Orleans, Cuba and Haiti have truly become a cultural and artistic triangle.  New Orleans is where there is the greatest scope for Americans to experience this.

We / Postmambo are leading a music, culture, vodun and food New Orleans and Cajun Louisiana trip in March.  So many Frequent Rumberos / Postmambo Travelers are signed up, including people who actually live in New Orleans or have second homes there, or go there all the time anyway.  That's what has to be called endorsement of the Postmambo experience, right?

**   The regime basically has killed Postmambo in Cuba, thereby destroying much of our livelihood, but we're planning for 2020-20021, because, you know, we / all of us absolutely have to!  So many people's way of making a living, so many small businesses like ours, have been destroyed by Them.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

An Amiga and I Talk About Sanditon

       . . . . . Sanditon (2019) ITV-PBS.  8 frackin’ episodes!  How can there be that many 48 minute tv episodes from a unfinished novel that only had 12 chapters?

It premiered in the US this past Sunday night on PBS, showing the first two episodes, not just the first one. So much has been lifted whole out of other Austen novels for this series, mostly, of course, from Pride and Prejudice, particularly in the dialogue, and scenes repeating or at least referencing the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice.

And people talking about a second season, though ITV said it cancelled the series as not enough viewers / unenthusiastic - hostile - derisive reponse.  The UK reviewers at least, really didn’t like it – dull and tedious. Out of what could they fashion a second season anyway? 

The UK viewers also strongly objected to the depictions of sexual behavior that departed so sharply from the 
Austen universe as Austen depicted. The writers for Sanditon felt they MUST give us as villains, a sexually transgressive half sister-brother duo.  The bro’s a serial, violent seducer-rapist. There’s a strong suggestion of the two of them doing what even half sibs should not do, while living mostly within a room in their crumbling mansion frescoed with naked men doing ... what exactly? Really, Austen was able to show schemers determined to get All the Stuff without going that far. 

My favorite Mansfield Park, BBC 1983

Henry Crawford

Mary Crawford

The splendid Crawford brother and sister pair of Mansfield Park -- they created havoc and crossed boundaries -- certainly the brother did! -- but we see how their charm, likeability and worldly joie de vivre -- even their sophisticated sense of the comic and absurd -- allowed for their seductions, without rape and violence of that sort. These two are as interesting to the reader as they are to the the characters of Mansfield Park.

Even the way the writers did it, the pretext to get a lively but moral ingenue to this sea-side resort in the making, was hard to believe.  Really, even in those days? Responsible parents like the Heywoods would allow their adolescent daughter to go off to stay with the Parkers, people they’ve known for, o all of 5 minutes?

Even if Tom Parker is played by Kris Marshall!?* whom last I knew as the detective on Death in Paradise, who left the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie after two seasons, to marry his love back in London. I saw Marshall first in Love Actually (2003) as the horny Brit kid trying to get laid who travels to the US to do it. Remarkably, one of the three midwestern babes who helps him out of his virginity was January Jones, who played Betty Draper, the unpleasant first wife of Don Draper on Mad Men.  Gotta say this for Marshall the actor -- he does get around some beautiful women, over and over and over again!*

A friend writes to me about Austen's Sanditon vs. ITV-PB's Sanditon after she too watched these first two episodes on offer:
 ... Reread Sanditon. [What Austen wrote] almost fills up the first ep. The ball sequence and everything follows is invention ... also kind of Northanger Abbey ... it's [NA's] Catherine Moorland, Not Charlotte Heywood. [Austen's Sanditon's]CH was a sensible young woman of two and twenty, ie, a bit too long on the shelf but not at all a husband-hunter. It's only a fragment. but that ball sequence is PURE Catherine Moorland.
Here's the thing about Charlotte Heywood - she is an observer figure. She stands apart and judges the other characters but doesn't enter into their lives. She exhibits no romantic interest in them. (This might have changed if the book had been finished - or maybe not. It would have been an unusual and rather progressive narrative strategy.)
But this Charlotte Heywood has been buried in the TV series.
My response:
     This is all true -- and playing Charlotte as Austen wrote her would also be a most interesting acting challenge, and worth watching.
But the actor playing Charlotte isn't up to that any more than the writing is up to Austen. Writers: NO WE MUST HAVE ROMANCE! WE MUST DO ELIZABETH AND DARCY ALL OVER AGAIN ALL THE TIME BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THE LADIES ADORE AND THAT’S ALL THE LADIES KNOW.

Especially the tv Darcy and Elizabeth of 1995, which itself took some serious liberties with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice text, like Gerwig does with Alcott's Little Women. Which mostly means, at least for this Sanditon, we must squeeze in as much nekkid men as the screen can hold.
The ghastly Pineapple luncheon though, in terms of how things surely were and, tragically, the way things still are right this minute, was remarkably on the money: consider what's going on right this minute with Meghan Markle:
Plus there are so many more racist comments and actions that can rather more subtle than these and the way the hideous person Ann Reid is playing shows so well (like, that member of the royal family / court? who to meet the Duchess to be, wore a blackamoor pin). Reid's performance is far and away the best thing in the piece. The actor playing Charlotte, I saw last as the vapid Princess Clode in the last season or so of the ridiculous, non-historical period series, Reign, in which we see Mary Queen of Scots host a run-way fashion show in her Scotland castle.
Woo! does that resort on the coast of England broadcast cold!  And the actors had to get in the water!  But it looked almost equally cold out of the water and inside walls.  All the actors who have played the detective on Death in Paradise have talked extensively of how difficult it is to do this series in the climate of Guadeloupe. So it was probably more pleasant for Marshall to shoot in cold England. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Screen Time

     . . . . Did anyone watch the first episode of Sanditon last night on PBS?

The Brit reviews when it played there last year were fairly unanimous that this was dull and tedious, lacking any sizzle or wit.

I can stream it, but am reluctant without some recs from people who have seen it.

     . . . . It's shame that Hustlers and JLo got shut out of #oscarssowhitemen. Additionally, Hustlers is the Little Women for our time. Four principals, diverse in background and skin tone including J Lo as Marmee as well as Jo, they are the March sisters we all need, reflecting our Reel Amurica!

Four Sisters Who Aren't the Marches, Praise the Lord!

The Irishman was a great film.  But I honestly feel that Hustlers was its superior according to all the criteria by which we judge these matters. The exception is the screen interpretation and record of the history and culture of the USA. As historical and cultural commentary The Irishman and Hustlers are equal.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Today's Thoughts Include Edith Wharton

    . . . . Since my first reading of Age of Innocence, accomplished long after its initial publication in 1920, but chronologically set in the author's past of 1870's Gilded age New York, Edith Wharton has  high on my personal canon of fiction that never goes stale, whatever age we are in or whatever age we are when first reading it and re-reading it thereafter.

Devouring Age of Innocence, in which the destruction is merely bitter-sweet, I turned to The House of Mirth, set in the Gilded Age, which was still in effect in 1905, when it was first published. 

O the bitterness, the waste of a life -- a talented, struggling, isolated woman's life -- the sheer awe-fullness of it, eclipsed anything I'd read up that time, other than in George Eliot.  There was nothing warm about the people of this book other than the protagonist's fire to not be what she was condemned to be.

So, these quoted words of Wharton concerning centering a frivolous, useless society in one's writing resonate magnificently in the past, the present, and if there shall be one, no doubt in the future too.

Wharton had already written books including a novel set in 18th-century Italy and a volume on interior design when she began drafting a novel set in the rarefied world of moneyed New York. The challenge, she recalls in A Backward Glance, was to find the gravitas in such a world. “The answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart.”
Presently we daily witness and experience ourselves, we who aren't members in our neo-Gilded Age class of heartlessly frivolous powerful and obscenely wealthy, the destruction they wreak upon us and the planet.

No wonder Dominick Dunne, one of our own literary chroniclers of the descendants of Wharton's people and those who came and come up to elbow them aside, named his novel, Too Much Money (2009), after them.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Nelson, Janet L. (2019) King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne.

     . . . .  Happily reading through the 483 pages (that's before the subsequent pages of Acknowledgments, Notes, indices, etc. that bring us to 668 pages) of King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne (2019) by Janet L. Nelson.

Last night's reading included the ambush / The Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A,D. The author delves deeply into the campaign out of Aquitaine, across the Pyrenees and into Spain. As we know, already Charlemagne was employing in various capacities, including as warriors, disgruntled Spanish “saracens,”* both Umayyeds and Abbasids, in German areas during his endless Saxon campaigns.

The Roncevaux debacle took place during the period of the Umayyed-Abbasid wars in southern Spain, between the two rival Caliphates and their various kingdoms. Thus Charlemagne was invited into Spain to fight on behalf of the Spanish Muslims of Zaragoza, with the promise of very much booty. It all worked quite well, until, according to Charlemagne’s characteristic organization of his force, he divided his army in  two divisions. This tended to allow him to approach an opponent within a pincher movement, generally unexpected. The two parts, each with their outlier trains and troops, proceeded by close, but separate paths, across the Pyrenees. The force led by Count Roland was ambushed by an effective force of Basques. The Frankish force was utterly defeated, and the baggage train, which presumably included much booty, was high jacked and taken back into deep Basque country.

What excited me about this account is seeing for how long the Basques have been fighting to maintain their independence from invading conquerors. Their first mention that I’m familiar with is from the the late Roman Republic in the Sertorian War 80 – 71 B.C. Back then they and others in Celtiberia maintained an ongoing fierce guerrilla war against Rome's invasion. They strategically allied themselves with rebellious Roman governor, Sertorius, yet still managed to escape Pompey and Metellius's retribution once Sertorius was defeated. This history shows that Hispania was always effective at organizing guerrilla warfare -- they didn't just stumble into it during the Napoleonic or fascist eras – or even just now, as the Basques continue to fight for autonomy.

What was most interesting to me though, specifically in terms of Roncevaux, is Nelson’s deep scholarship to reveal Count Roland a real person. Among the evidence is a single contemporary coin that was struck by what evidently was his own small county. Nelson is painstaking in providing her scholarship within the narrative that supports her choices of interpretation of certain events, and details her reasoning. The battles among these sorts of medieval scholars over interpretation of the most obscure lines of most obscure texts and records, are constant, heated and, as time goes on, have changed our perspectives on the received wisdom regarding many events of Charlemagne's life.

Nothing has changed interpretation and understand in our time as much as the revelations that Charles self-consciously employed poets, minstrels, churchmen, scholars and chroniclers to create works that informed the international and local audiences who he was and what he did. These range from the tales on which the chansons de geste were based and other thoroughly, deliberately composed works by the crowds of poets and scholars he employed to do so. This is where we get the idea that he was a warrior against Islam. He wasn't. He really wasn't.

It's also in the great Song of Roland, first surviving work of French literature, composed nearly two centuries after the event, but employing the names and the re-written contemporary history, that posterity has learned and believed ever since  that Roland was treacherously attacked by "Saracens" through the efforts of a personal betrayal to both Roland and Charlemagne. Not true.

What is historically true, is this was the catastrophic event in Charlemagne's life, that probably did end any idea he may have formed to return and expand his own territories in that direction. It also urged him to re-write the history, erase the history, to change history via the the written record, the spoken, sung and recited word.

A driving impulse, Nelson  further argues, beyond preserving his historical dignitas, gloria et honore, was guilt for his over-confidence, i.e. his self-conceit.  The strands out of documents by which Nelson arrives at this conclusion are many, long and – convincing. It was this which led to the deaths of so many of his very good warriors, of whom a very many he must have shared a warrior’s intimacy, as they were his most dependable, crack cohorts, who never asked to turn back from any campaign, no matter how long it went on. The Ronceveaux disaster didn’t need to have happened and wouldn't have if he hadn't divided his army again, on his way home, leaving that smaller force vulnerable.

The trajectory of his life until the debacle of Ronceveaux had been that of victory and strength, to more victory and strength. His decision to invade Spain came after his greatest international achievement so far, his 777 A.D. campaign against the Saxons, which was glorified in contemporary chronicles and poetry. This victory was celebrated deliberately at Paderborne, ancestral Westphalian center of the by-now ancient Merovingian kingdoms of the Franks, which would become the birth place of the Holy Roman Empire. Here gathered an international audience that included Muslims from both Baghdad and Spain, Greeks as well as powerful Roman Churchmen, Franks and Lombards, emissaries, warriors, merchants and administrators, all there to witness the magnificent pageant of thousands of Saxons baptized.** Even more significantly, when the defeated Saxons swore allegiance to Charles in awe-inspiring ceremony and spectacle, they swore their eternal fidelity to Charles, his sons, and the Franks. This was the first time submission was sworn not just to Charles and the Franks, but to the progeny specifically of himself. As it wasn't necessary even in his father's time that the heir of a powerful ruler be fathered directly by that ruler, this sent a very powerful message of how Charles was seeing the future, even after he left the stage himself.

That great year’s winter – spring quarters were at the Aquitaine palace of Chasseneuil.*** The Christmas and Easter courts provided a never-ending dazzle and sizzle of confidence, enjoyment and ambition. The poets and emissaries proclaimed Charles invincibility and God's favor non-stop. It went to his head. He very quickly accepted the offers of Abd-al-Rahman, who had lost his control of Toledo, Zaragoza and the Ebro Valley to the Abbasids, who now also held the Caliphate. Charles’s military and lucrative successes in Spain enforced his conviction the poets were correct about his invincibility and inevitability. So, on the way home, he left off his normal carefulness and planning ahead for the geography and lay of the land – which he read as brilliantly as every brilliant general does, from Julius Caesar to Ulysses S. Grant.

Charles didn’t make that error again.

Maybe not for you all but this is exciting stuff for me!


* Sarcana / sarcanii was the Romans’ designation of the peoples of the Arabian peninsula.

** It appears that these Saxons at least, were mostly Christian already, long even before Charlemagne's day. But it was in his interest that the poets and chroniclers show the Saxons as "other", as such a worthy enemy. And as pagans, he was destroying, plundering and forcing them to 'baptism/submission for the great good and glory of God.

*** Charles current ‘wife’, Hildegard, was pregnant again. As she always traveled with him, this palace was considered most comfortable for her condition.  In Aquitaine, it was convenient to the Pyrenees passes into Celtiberia.