The Director’s Chair – March 2017

Clive James is dying and has been for the past six years. In April 2011, he was diagnosed with B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He felt himself to be near the end of his life in 2012. However, as of February 2017 he is still here, writing a column in The Guardian entitled “Reports of My Death” that covers…well, whatever he wishes to write about. This is good news, to me at least, to have such a person around: someone who can write and think and who has something interesting to say. If you need any proof of his abilities in all those areas, pick up a copy of Cultural Amnesia (there is also what I would call a companion volume, Cultural Cohesion, that would do the same). Any book that juxtaposes “Terry Gilliam” and “Joseph Goebbels” in the contents can’t be bad.

James is not the only one in this class. Kurt Vonnegut used to be such a writer. Though gone now, his works are still here and questioning our motivations and circumstances. How we see the world around us and how we act in reaction to that world view can have far reaching consequences. Vonnegut’s Player Piano gives us a dystopian view of a future where technology has had a negative impact. However, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia. In Arrival, we get to see ourselves as the ultimate barbarians. We can say we never know enough about life, the universe and everything (to steal from Douglas Adams). This is the premise of Arrival, one of the more intelligent films I have seen in a long while.

There is not a lot of respect for learning in this country, though I am not sure why. Learning is about just that…learning. It is not about being ‘sure’ or being ‘right.’ Any time I think I am right about something I either try to test the idea or read more. Learning is just a way to get the tools one needs in order to think. I can’t think in a vacuum. And sometimes I am too lazy to go get more information. Shame on me. So I read magazines and the New York Times in order to find out what is going on in the world, and I read books like the ones below in order to stay sane. I write about them because…I might as well. I read to help me think. I write to see what has become of all that reading. Thanks for your indulgence.

 

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia     [947 F471]
Figes, Orlando

Arrival     [DVD AR]

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts     [909.0982 JAM]
James, Clive

The Early Middle Ages     [Great Courses 940.1 DAI]
Daileader, Philip

Short Stories in Novels & stories 1950-1962     [Vonnegut]
Report on the Barnhouse Effect; EPICAC; Unready to wear; Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow; Harrison Bergeron; 2BR02B.
Vonnegut, Kurt

The Hollow Crown     [DVD HO]

 

Since at least the eighteenth century, the Russian view has been that the West represented decadence. In those days, France represented the loose morals and soft adherence to high culture that a part of Russia felt was decadent, even as another part of Russia wanted to be just like the French. And so today, we find Russian criticism aimed at America and American culture as being the source of all that is corrupt in the world, even as a sizeable number of them try to absorb as much of it as they can. The more things change…

What makes reading Natasha’s Dance so fascinating is that the culture it describes has always been so fertile, yet so lacking in confidence. In this, as in so much else, Russian culture has a lot in common with America. The stereotypical Russian is loud, emotional, crafty and devout. The stereotypical American can be described the same way. Russian literature of the nineteenth century was epic (War and Peace), intense (Crime and Punishment), and probing (Fathers and Sons); it could be tied to history and the land (the works of Aksakov and Turgenev) or viciously satirical of life in general (the works of Saltykov-Shchedrine or Goncharov). American literature of the same period was epic (Moby Dick), intense (The Scarlett Letter), tied to the issues of the day (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or satirical (the works of Edgar Allan Poe). What they lacked in similarities they more than made up for in sympathy. So why has there always been such antipathy between Russia and the West?

I trace the conflict back to Peter the Great. He was the one who went on a trip to Western Europe and decided that Russians needed to catch up with ‘civilization.’ In founding St. Petersburg, the young tsar managed to create a schism both in the country and in the psyche of the Russian people. That being said, the dichotomy has been a good one for Russian art and culture. There have been two distinct schools of Russian literature since the nineteenth century: one classical in nature and realist in philosophy and originating in Alexander Pushkin (it includes Tolstoy and Turgenev); the other more baroque and fantastical and originating with Nikolai Gogol (it includes Dostoevsky). Visual arts have struggled between the more classical approach of European art and an adherence to nativist subjects and sympathies.

Orlando Figes has done an interesting job of analyzing the many facets of his subject. There can be no doubt that there are similarities between Russian and American cultures, but like any good family it is the dissimilarities that make it interesting.

The quest for power has always been a bloody one. Shakespeare made a career of charting the uses and abuses of power (Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, etc.), mainly because he was reflecting the anxieties of his time. Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her reign, but she had no clear heir. Consequently, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to the future of England.

Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies on leadership and kingship. It was almost as if he was trying to show through the popular entertainment of the day how England could go one way or the other after Elizabeth. The second tetralogy is made up of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Here he showed how a great ruler (Henry V was seen as uniting England after years of unrest) can arise out of uncertainty. The first tetralogy, made up of Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III, shows how evil can arise from weakness. The portrait of Richard III that emerges in Shakespeare’s play represents that evil and its ability to derail the state.

The Hollow Crown is a distillation of the plays in the first tetralogy and does an effective job of combining storyline (it is quite violent) with Shakespeare’s poetry. Admittedly, the three parts of Henry VI are not of Shakespeare’s best work. They tend to be static and can be long-winded. However, Richard III is a wonderful play. In The Hollow Crown, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Richard III with such intelligent malice that he rightly steals the show. Why is it we love such evil characters? Is it cathartic? Do we long to be bad?

The Hollow Crown is long (6 hours), but worth every minute as a reminder of how corrupting the desire for power can be. But not only that, it is a cautionary tale of how our desire to believe and to accept political theatre can lead to chaos. As humans, I think we have an innate need to believe in something greater than ourselves. We would do well to question such desires.

Player Piano was Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel. I have read some of his others. Slaughterhouse-Five is a masterpiece. Player Piano is, in my opinion, not, though it is a solid story. I think the problem with Player Piano is one of pacing. I found the novel dragged through the first one hundred pages, so I switched to reading his short stories, which are far superior and represent some of Vonnegut’s best work.

Vonnegut used science fiction to address some of the social issues of his day. While that was common enough, it is interesting to see how the themes of his short stories echo concerns that are still with us today: e.g. overpopulation, the proliferation of war, political correctness. One of my favorite Vonnegut short stories is “Harrison Bergeron.” It is set in a world where everyone is supposedly equal. Even though there are people who are more intelligent, talented, or capable, the United States Handicapper General has devised rather sadistic methods for leveling the playing field. A beauty is forced to wear a hideous mask; a person with a high IQ is forced to wear a headphone that disrupts his thoughts every twenty seconds with a mind-numbing blast. Mediocracy reigns until the title character appears.

All of the stories in this volume were written around the same time as Player Piano, but they are tighter, better constructed. The focus makes them that much more enjoyable. They remind me a little of Chekhov’s work, but then I guess all good short stories should. Vonnegut was a master, so even if you are not drawn to his novels, look for his stories.

I like books like Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. They offer a means of poking around history in order to discover unknown players, as well as discovering new information on known players in world history. Since these are not biographical essays, but rather digressions, James can take us anywhere he will. And he does. That is another reason why I enjoy his books so much. Not only can I be introduced to someone like Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century German philosopher, but I get to take the associative ride that James takes the reader on. Sometimes it can be a wild ride (so much so that one can forget who the essay being read is about) which can be a drawback if I want to learn more about the subject. However, I spent most of my time tracking down many of the works mentioned in the text to see if I wanted to follow up on them, and in many cases I did.

The reader can use a book like this simply to get to know more about some of the great personalities in history (e.g., Charles Chaplin, Ernst Junger, Egon Friedell), as well as some scoundrels (e.g., Josef Goebbels, Grigory Ordzhonokidze). I knew something of about half the names in the index, but there were few I had ever read a biography of (in my opinion, well-written biographies are few and far between). James includes entries for four of my favorite filmmakers (Cocteau, Fellini, Chaplin and Gilliam), which makes me all the more curious as to what he would have had to write about Kurosawa or Renoir or Bergman. One could spend a lifetime following up on some of the names, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn about Manes Sperber (his three volume autobiography is two-thirds fascinating), the “cabaret star and polymath” Egon Friedell, and the reluctant general Isoroku Yamamoto.

James puts forth his book as something of an argument against totalitarianism and for liberal democracy. As he sees it: “Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come…What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life, which we will find hard to defend if we share the same aversion.” With the current aversion to knowledge and expertise, a fear of multiculturalism around the world, and a misguided conceit that all knowledge can be found on the internet, ergo we do not need to learn anything, many have fallen into a lazy, self-satisfied trap of ignorance. Wake up! “There is too much to appreciate…The real adventure is in what we do to entertain ourselves.” As we know, education is everything.

In the film Arrival, the ‘Other’ has indeed arrived. They are from outer space and the world would like to speak to them, mainly in order to find out how much danger it is in. We are a suspicious species. Each country’s army is in charge, in America and around the world, of the twelve landing sites of the others. At first the different countries involved share information in order to facilitate an understanding of this puzzle of communication. The Americans bring in a linguist and a physicist in order to lead contact with the visitors. Then something happens. China gets spooked and becomes hostile to the others. Russia joins them. Time is running out. What is to be done?

This is the surface story of the film Arrival. There is not much action, except for a rogue army response to escalating tensions. The real story of the film is one of time and our perception of time. I don’t want to give too much away, except to warn you to stay awake. Despite appearances, there is a lot going on in this film and Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner give outstanding performances. Forest Whittaker is in it, too, but I hardly recognized him. See it.

Finally, I want to highlight the Great Courses collection. The library has many roles it plays and those roles have changed over the years, but continuing education has always been and continues to be a prominent one. You can learn many things thanks to the collections, both actual and virtual, that the library makes available. One of our finest has to be our Great Courses collection.

In this era when anyone can post on internet and claim expertise, these courses actually are conducted by real college and university professors. Some of them are very entertaining (John McWhorter comes to mind), some can be a little annoying (Robert Greenberg has an odd sense of humor, but a great grasp of his subject), most of the presenters inspire confidence in the listener or viewer that they know what they are talking about. Will you agree with everything they say? No. But then you shouldn’t. This is a great place to begin to learn about linguistics, Russian literature, strategic planning, science, or any number of other topics.

I listened to Philip Daileader, a professor from William and Mary College, as he taught the history of the Early Middle Ages, essentially the history of Europe from around 300 to 1000. It is an overview, 24 lectures lasting each around 30 minutes, so he does not get much time to delve deeply into a topic. I wanted to learn more about “athletes of God,” the Carolingian Empire, and the Vikings (a particular interest of mine). Still, this course is an ideal stepping-off point for anyone interested enough to continue pursuing a history of the middle ages. The booklet accompanying the course has a very generous bibliography, so even though the course was recorded in 2004 it can serve to point the way towards more recent scholarship in the field. I learned a lot from the course, and that is always the goal.

That’s enough for this month. I read a little bit more than this, e.g. The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times on a regular basis just to keep up with things. I did watch some interesting films, too: The Hollars, The Brand New Testament to name just two.

No, librarians do not sit around reading all day. We do, however, have the good fortune to work in a place where fascinating things come past our noses. Some are hard to resist.

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