Monday, May 25, 2020

German Artists Who Blazed a Path Cut Short by War

Will Henrich

It’s hard not to leave “Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914,” an alternately thrilling and dizzying exhibition on the artistic friendship of two important German painters, saddened by the tragic end of both men’s careers.

On a trip to a gallery in 1910, Macke, who was impressed by Marc’s confident lithographs of animals, asked for the artist’s address and immediately went to visit. The two men subsequently traveled and showed together. With the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky, they also helped found the Blue Rider, a loose collective of Munich painters whose impatience with the stuffiness of realistic work helped open the path to German Expressionism, with its bold, tactical exaggeration, and, later, to abstraction.

The Little Blue Horses by Franz Marc

Established in 1911, the group took its name from an almanac of essays and reproductions edited by Marc and Kandinsky and paid for by the wealthy collector Bernhard Koehler, the uncle of Macke’s wife. But World War I brought this all to an end: Macke was killed at 27 in combat in 1914; Marc died on the battlefield just after his 36th birthday, in 1916.

The loss of Macke is all the more poignant because, unlike Marc, he never arrived at anything that could pass for a final style. But both men covered plenty of formal ground in their short lives. Vivian Endicott Barnett, who curated this show at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, does, too: From gauzy flesh and Cézanne-like apples in the first gallery, stunned viewers make their way in only a few yards to jazzy blocks of abstract color and pictures smashed into tornadoes of Cubist shards.

Marc was born in Munich in 1880. His father, Wilhelm, came from a family of Jews who had converted to Roman Catholicism. They distanced themselves when Wilhelm married a Calvinist and converted in turn. The younger Marc, who thought of being either a minister or a philologist before taking up painting, adopted an approach to art that was intellectually driven and, until he met Macke, fairly lonely.

Macke’s family was well off, from the Rhineland, where he was born in 1887; as an aspiring young artist, he traveled extensively. Both men visited Paris several times and were powerfully impressed by Gauguin and Cézanne.

August Macke

Whatever Marc might have done if he had had more time, he did leave a few fully realized pieces, of which “The Yellow Cow” (1911) — on view here alongside “Fighting Cows,” “Ape Frieze” and “Weasels Playing” — is the best known. That painting’s central figure, a muscular cow with a blue spot on its belly, inhabits a landscape that is nearly as alive as it is. Green boulders and orange fields leap and play into blue mountains under a buttery night sky. The moonlit cow isn’t quite real, but it’s not definitively unreal, either; it’s simply tinted to accent the chaos of pure color that underlies perception.

Although the two 1909 paintings of Marc’s that open the exhibition — “Siberian Sheepdogs,” a profile of two dogs almost as white as the snow beneath them, and “Small Study of Stones,” in which icy blue boulders hunch across the canvas like sheep — look more conventional, they already foreshadow the artist’s use of animals that are only half distinct from their backgrounds to portray a seamless, self-contained dream world.

Macke, in contrast, tried everything. In his “White Jug With Flowers and Fruits,” a 1910 still life set in front of an olive green wall, he heightens the colors to burn the image into your eyes from across the room. Surfaces look stickier and more ambiguous, though, in the shadowy 1909 “Portrait With Apples,” and there’s the suggestion of self-consciousness in the pose of its subject, Macke’s wife, Elisabeth. In “Little Walter’s Toys,” his son’s wooden dolls on a table are earnestly theatrical; a row of geraniums in “Geraniums Before Blue Mountain” are a trippy homage to van Gogh.

But the piece of Macke’s that I can’t stop thinking about, the one that is reason enough for a subway ride to the Neue, is his 1910 “Woman Playing the Lute.” A simple, classically shaped white vase, with pale pink shadows and five stylized orange tulips springing from it, sits on a table that is covered in a dark blue cloth. Flowers and vase alike are outlined in a thick ash gray. Behind the vase, a rosy-cheeked woman in peasant dress looks down in concentration as she strums. The saturated color and the flat, stylized drawing of the vase, lute and woman, which sit tightly on top of one another, recall a postage stamp on a love letter. It’s a strange, unforgettable image.

Did Macke mean to suggest that using a vase or a guitar as a symbol for a woman does a disservice to them both? Is the work supposed to allude to the sublimated power of sex in art and music? Or is the picture simply an expression of giddy allegiance to the style of visual amplification that Macke might have expanded even further had he lived?

In the year or two before they were called up, the painters were both tremendously productive. In Marc’s “Deer in the Forest II” (1914), a single shaft of yellow light drops heavily into a blue-green forest pregnant with danger. Macke’s “Four Girls” (1913), in which he treats well-dressed young women as exotic flowers growing out of lush foliage, is unusually static, as if in impotent protest at the scene’s fragility. Both men were drafted when hostilities started and were buried in France: Marc in Gussainville, and Macke in a mass grave at Souain.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2018 in The New York Times.

Friday, May 1, 2020

[All Night I Hear the Noise of Water Sobbing]

Alejandra Pizarnik

   All night I hear the noise of water sobbing. All night I make night in me, I make the day that 
begins on my account, that sobs because day falls like water through night.
  All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me out. All night you abandon me slowly like
the water that sobs slowly falling. All night I write luminous messages, messages of rain, all night someone checks for me and I check for someone.
  The noise of steps in the circle near this choleric light birthed from my insomnia. Steps of someone who no longer writhes, who no longer writes. All night someone holds back, then
crosses the circle of bitter light.
  All night I drown in your eyes become my eyes. All night I prod myself on toward that 
squatter in the circle of my silence. All night I see something lurch toward my looking, 
something humid, contrived of silence launching the sound of someone sobbing.
  Absence blows grayly and night goes dense. Night, the shade of the eyelids of the dead, 
viscous night, exhaling some black oil that blows me forward and prompts me to search out an empty space without warmth, without cold. All night I flee from someone. I lead the chase, Iead the fugue. I sing a song of mourning. Black birds over black shrouds. My brain cries. Demented wind. I leave the tense and strained hand, I don’t want to know anything but this perpetual wailing, this clatter in the night, this delay, this infamy, this pursuit, this inexistence.
  All night I see that abandonment is me, that the sole sobbing voice is me. We can search with lanterns, cross the shadow’s lie. We can feel the heart thud in the thigh and water subside in the archaic site of the heart.
  All night I ask you why. All night you tell me no.


    Credits:  Alejandra Pizarnik is one of Argentina's great contemporary poets (1936-1972). The above is from The Galloping Hour, a selection of poems originally written in French and published after the author's death.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Poetics of Misencounters: Adolfo Bioy Casares by Alicia Borinsky

Sometimes, when I can't do anything but begin a story the way I would like to begin this one, is precisely when I would like to be Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Julio Cortázar

I believe I am free of every superstition of modernity, of any illusion that yesterday differs intimately from today or will differ from tomorrow; but I maintain that during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots as The Turn of the Screw, Der Prozess, Le Voyageur sur la Terre, and the one you are about to read, which was written in Buenos Aires by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Jorge Luis Borges

The first epigraph belongs to Cortázar, who writes about his wish to be Bioy Casares as he starts writing a story that he would like to tell with the kind of detachment and precision he admires in Bioy Casares's work. The quotation from Borges is part of the preface he wrote to Morel's Invention. These words, written for the 1940 first edition of the novel, are not only a testimony to the admiration he felt for it but an indication of the literary friendship between Borges and Bioy Casares, which over the years produced a number of texts in collaboration and an intertwining of the works they signed separately. This is explicitly the case, for example, in Borges's Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

The story Cortázar wishes he could tell like Bioy Casares is a love entanglement involving the narrator and a woman named Anabel, whose name evokes Edgar Allan Poe and Juan Carlos Onetti. Cortázar locates the problems he encounters in finding out how to go about his writing in a counterpoint between Bioy Casares and Jacques Derrida, whose "La vérité en peinture," he quotes.

Cortázar could not have coupled two more disparate writers than Derrida and Bioy Casares because, although some of the ultimate consequences of their conceptions of literary representation might coincide, the modes of reading they each invite are opposed. Cortázar understands the tension between these two writers and offers the story as a means to understand the particular place in which his own attempts might be located. From Derrida he reproduces some lines about the relationship between subject and object; in Bioy Casares he admires the capacity for detachment, the ease and synthesis of his prose. The story that Cortázar wants to tell concerns a misadventure with Anabel. In that respect, he has been able to reproduce a quality that haunts Bioy Casares's work-endowing the entanglements of love with somber impossibilities, humorous complicities with the reader, and a dangerous imminence of the fantastic.

Of Machines and Writing

In a scene from Erich von Stroheim's memorable film Foolish Wives, a Russian nobleman played by von Stroheim looks at the reflection in a mirror of a retarded girl he has selected as a victim. The viewer needs the barest information about what follows; the light and the expression in von Stroheim's face as he looks at her in the mirror are already a rape. The crime has already taken place symbolically in the mirror before it is actually executed.

Before becoming a criminal, the Russian nobleman is an artifice; before being a protagonist in his own experience, he is a spectator who watches the very elements that make up his own representation. In this context it matters little whether the crime is actually committed; the violence of the plot is already in the mirror. The pact between victim and executioner has been sealed, and the viewer knows that any other twist in the plot would only be a violation of the mirror's precise economy.

In Foolish Wives, as in other silent movies, the absence of sound grants a nightmarish vividness to the images, a faithfulness to their visual nature that is not as immediate in films with sound. The plot is always inferior to the density of non-discursive images; the captions in silent film are trivial in relation to the allusive power of the frames. Silent films may be more faithful to the nature of their medium. The Russian nobleman observing his victim is a reduced model of the mirrorings effected by film; he is seen and sees simultaneously elements that are to be articulated by a spectator projected in a character who is also portrayed as witness.

A vast part of Bioy Casares's work is to be understood in its relationship to the visual as found in film. His relationship to this medium, however, does not involve quotation of films, such as we find in Manuel Puig, for example, but instead grapples with the relationships between the different layers sustaining visual representation and the kind of detachment built into being a spectator.

Morel's Invention suggests one of the ways in which Bioy Casares formulates the issue. The novel is narrated by a man in flight who wants to leave a record of his experiences. He refers to the existence of a museum and to the fact that he is on an island where there are mosquitoes and aquatic plants. The report is written uncomfortably and with great anxiety:

"The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine."

There are other people on the island; the narrator is above all obsessed with meeting a woman named Faustine. We learn later that the meeting is impossible because Faustine is an image projected by a machine.

The narrator considers different strategies in his efforts to get closer to Faustine; the sight of her makes him feel inadequate but also incapable of doing anything but try to approach her:

"Then, while waiting to speak to her, I was reminded of an old psychological law. It was preferable to address her from a high place that would make her look up to me. The elevation would compensate, at least in part, for my defects."

We are initiated into the protagonist's desire by the awareness of an inequality in love; his embarrassment makes him delay the moment of getting closer to her. Although that closeness remains impossible, given the fact that Faustine is a projected image, the reader is so caught by the rhythm of this deferral of action that when the protagonist does decide to utter some words, they are startling:

"'Please, young lady," I said, 'will you please listen to me,' but I hoped she would not listen, because I was so excited I had forgotten what I was going to say.' The words young lady sounded ridiculous on the island. And besides my sentence was too imperative (combined with my sudden appearance there, the time of day, the solitude).

I persisted: 'I realize you may not wish-' But I find it impossible now to recall exactly what I said. I was almost unconscious. I spoke in a slow, subdued voice with a composure that suggested impropriety. I repeated the words young lady."

The man embarrassed by his words sliding toward the sleazy pick-up, obscenity, impropriety. The coarseness with which the "young lady" is perceived is a product of the interruption of the protracted silence that, while there, opened up countless possibilities of contact between the characters. Once the silence is broken, the anonymous "young lady" sets limits to the eloquence of the situation. The universality of the island becomes erased; we enter the realm of the concrete, of daily existence. The slippage toward vulgarity, the commonplace, and the familiar are rejected in Morel's Invention. Instead, being attracted by another is seen as enjoying the pleasures of detachment, whereas closeness signals the end of the freedom granted by separation.

Faustine's power resides in her capacity for revealing, as an image, the weaknesses of the man who desires her, through his fear that in uttering words that define him he will also show the pettiness of his aspirations. Thus Morel's Invention focuses on the parenthetical aspects of love by prolonging the tensions of the mis-encounter and, in a resolution that echoes E. T. A. Hoffmann's Olympia, it suggests that the loved woman is nothing but a projected image. If the impossibility of contact resides in the radical difference between the characters, the intention of overcoming the distance is portrayed as a somberly heroic gesture.

The fleeing character in Morel's Invention attempts to save himself through love and become part of the same system of representation that reproduces the image of Faustine. The novel suggests that such an encounter is not to take place; a kind of nostalgia colors the awareness that it may be mechanically impossible to integrate the protagonist into the film that shows his loved one to him time and again. The music, «Tea for Two» and «Valencia», provides a sentimental background for the film sequences, in contrast to the harsh island existence with its mosquitoes and humidity.

Loving Faustine is equivalent to thinking of oneself as dead, invisible, a puppet:

"And I still wonder: what does all this mean? Certainly, she is a detestable person. But what is she after? She may be playing with the bearded man and me; but then again he may be a tool that enables her to tease me. She does not care if she makes him suffer. Perhaps Morel only serves to emphasize her complete repudiation of me, to portend the inevitable climax and the disastrous outcome of this repudiation!

But if not -Oh, it has been such a long time now since she has seen me. I think I shall kill her or go mad, if this continues any longer. I find myself wondering whether the disease-ridden marshes I have been living in have made me invisible. And, if that were the case, it would be an advantage: then I could kidnap Faustine without any danger-"

The published English translation renders the last phrase as "then I could seduce Faustine without any danger;" the original reads" "podría raptar a Faustine sin ningún peligro." Raptar means to kidnap, an important distinction for Morel's Invention because the protagonist carefully avoids any intimation of untoward plans in his desire to join Faustine. The novel stresses a counterpoint in his feelings between total incapacity to rise to the challenge of the woman he desires and the brazen actions he thinks are needed to take her away; seduction has no place here. The narrator considers his condition as invisible outsider through the desire to join Faustine and concludes it is an advantage. Persecuted by his enemies in the «reality» of his adventure and also in the projected images that turn Faustine's companions into his rivals, he builds a problematic bridge toward the reader. The report he writes tries to clarify doubts and give information by forging a bond with the reader that parallels the approach in his earlier novel, Plan for Escape. The reader is granted the invisibility that the protagonist wants for himself; unseen by the characters in the novel, the reader looks at the protagonist looking at Faustine, while also trying to explain what he or she sees as he listens to "Tea for Two" and "Valencia."

"Here is some evidence that can help my readers establish the date of the intruders' second appearance here: the following day two moons and two suns were visible. [...] I am not mentioning them because of any poetic attachment, or because of their rarity, but rather to give my readers, who receive newspapers and celebrate birthdays, a way to date these pages."

Unlike Faustine, the narrator wants to be the reader's friend. But is he really helping the reader to frame what the report says? Is Morel's Invention positing behind the disjointed couple of Faustine and the narrator an ideal couple consisting of reader and narrator? The reader cannot date the pages, despite being subjected to such chronological data as birthdays; the excess of information provided disconcerts the reader as much as it does the protagonist. Thus the appeals to direct dialogue with a hypothetical reader delineate the image of another character, the narrator's double, who relates to the text with the same kind of difficulty that the narrator has as he goes through his adventure.

The main role of the protagonist of Morel's Invention is to be a witness. His experience consists of observing and trying to interpret what he sees as he strives to discover the mechanism of the machine producing the images he observes. His report is the very purpose of his adventure; his text is an attempt to reproduce the images he sees already reproduced:

"If one day the images should fail, it would be wrong to suppose that I have destroyed them by writing this diary. [...] A recluse can make machines or invest his visions with reality only imperfectly, by writing about them or depicting them to others who are more fortunate than he."

Morel's Invention registers the inexorable loss of the immediacy of its images. Only copies survive, with markings of the fissures that separate them from their originals; the narrator is the discoverer of those fissures and, at the same time, the producer of additional ones through the writing of his report, that other machine of representations.

Carlos Nine 

Morel's Invention is a violent novel. Its machine of representation cancels the references that support it; its articulation of the visual consists of undermining the reliability of the projected images, and the clues given throughout the text are only there to be obliterated by interpretation.

The narrator-reader couple is constituted here in oblique celebration of its disjunction subject to the virtuality of their link in a paralyzing and repetitive logic. Faustine remains floating, shifting names and gender, silent, and remote in a multiplicity of representations. It is no doubt this aspect of Morel's Invention that prompted Borges to claim for it the lineage of Louis Auguste Blanqui and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Bioy Casares continued to pose the puzzling questions introduced here in other works; his short fantastic stories frequently engage the figure of repetition. "The Celestial Plot" has the most affinities with Morel's Invention. The name of Blanqui appears there explicitly to render more credible the experience of a protagonist who, sick and disconcerted, is lost in parallel and barely connected worlds. Blanqui, who spent time in prison himself, was forbidden to look at the outside world from the window of a cell near the sea. He formulated eloquently the despair caused by the kind of infinity produced by endless repetition in his book L'éternité par les astres:

"What we call progress is bolted into each planet earth, and fades with it. Always and everywhere in the terrestrial sphere, the same drama, the same backdrop and the same narrow stage, a noisy humanity, infatuated with its greatness believing itself the universe and living in its prison as in an immensity, to succumb in short order along with the globe which has borne in the greatest disdain the burden of its pride. The same monotony, the same immobility, in the alien stars. The universe repeats itself endlessly and prances about in place. Imperturbably, eternity plays out the same performance through infinity."

Morel's Invention tells us that love, writing, and watching projected images circulate in parallel worlds that turn those who try to grasp them into proliferating versions of themselves.

Credits:  The complete version of this article can be found online at Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.  It has been edited slightly for coherence.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Rereading: Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Nicholas Lezard

When Stefan Zweig, forced into a peripatetic life by the rise of Nazism, arrived in New York in 1935, he was persistently asked to make a statement about the treatment of the Jews in Germany. He refused to be drawn out, and said in correspondence that his reason was that anything he said would probably only make their situation worse. Similarly, when staying in London, he found that while he loved English people's way of not getting too het up about things, their civility and general decency, he found the regular denunciations of the Third Reich a little too much: he felt that they lost force by repetition.

To which one might have countered: one couldn't say often enough that the Third Reich was evil. And one would have thought that Zweig, himself Jewish and fully aware that his books were being burned in universities all over Germany might have had more to say publicly on the subject.

His novel Beware of Pity, composed over a period of years and completed in 1938 (there are 11 extant – volumes of notes and drafts that attest to Zweig's painstaking work on his only full-length novel) itself very pointedly has almost nothing to say about contemporary times, on the surface at least. It is the story of a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, who befriends a local millionaire, Kekesfalva, and his family, but in particular the old man's crippled daughter, Edith, with terrible consequences.

Well, it almost has nothing to say about the times in which it was written. Which means that it has something to say about them; obliquely, and passed across your eyes quickly, like a Hitchcock cameo. But the novel's flight from pressing concerns is in itself significant. Following Hitler's rise to power, the first project Zweig embarked on was a biography of Erasmus, which he described as "a quiet hymn of praise to the anti-fanatical man". In other words, it was in direct but non-violent opposition to the loathsome qualities that were deemed desirable, indeed compulsory, in society at large. But sometimes evasiveness isn't a straightforward matter of wanting to keep out of trouble, or stick up for virtues that are in danger of being trampled.

One of the earliest writers to note what Freud was doing, Zweig took on board early the lesson that directly dealing with terrible things is not necessarily the way the mind works. His stories are full of characters poisoned by things left unsaid, or situations misread. We tell ourselves stories about what is going on; but sometimes these are the wrong stories. In one of his earlier short fictions, "Downfall of the Heart" (whose original title, Untergang eines Herzens, is a proleptic echo of the German title of Beware of Pity – Ungeduld des Herzens, or the heart's impatience), a self-made businessman succumbs to a terrible decline after seeing, or imagining he has seen, his daughter sneaking out of a man's hotel room in the middle of the night. In Beware of Pity we have a hero who makes a habit of getting things wrong. "Since this seems to be the day for making wrong diagnoses . . .", says the admirable Dr Condor at one point in the novel, but it is the "hero" (and I had better start using inverted commas around that word, for reasons our "hero" would most certainly approve of) who keeps making wrong diagnoses. There is the terrible gaffe he makes which sets the whole terrible train of events in motion (it's a small train, admittedly, but big enough to cause havoc); there is his initial impression that Kekesfalva is a genuine venerable Hungarian nobleman, that Condor is a bumpkin and a fool; and, in one splendidly subtle piece of writing, in which an interior state of mind is beautifully translated into memorable yet familiar imagery, he imagines himself to be better put together than Condor, when they walk out in bright moonlight on the night of their first meeting:

And as we walked down the apparently snow-covered gravel drive, suddenly we were not two but four, for our shadows went ahead of us, clear-cut in the bright moonlight. Against my will I had to keep watching those two black companions who persistently marked out our movements ahead of us, like walking silhouettes, and it gave me – our feelings are sometimes so childish – a certain reassurance to see that my shadow was longer, slimmer, I almost said "better-looking", than the short, stout shadow of my companion.

This has a ring of interior psychological veracity and shows just how sharply Zweig could pay attention to his characters' inner workings. And if, as Henry James said, a novelist is someone on whom nothing is lost, then we have in Zweig's "hero" here a man on whom everything is lost, in more than one sense of the phrase.

When we first meet Hofmiller, it is not the eve of the first world war, when the events described in the novel take place, but on the eve of the second: explicitly, in 1938, when the framing narrator – a famous novelist whom we may as well assume to be Zweig himself – is briefly introduced in a café to Hofmiller by a well-meaning "hanger-on" (who could also, possibly, be said to be a mischievously unflattering self-portrait of another aspect of Zweig's personality: he was known for that kind of thing). Hofmiller is a famously decorated soldier, but he treats his decoration – the highest military order Austria can bestow – with disdain bordering on contempt, and only speaks to the framing narrator when they meet accidentally at a dinner party later on.

And it is at this moment that we should realise that the message of the book is not only the ostensible one – that pity is an emotion that can cause great ruin – but also that we must not judge things by appearances. Hofmiller may be entitled to wear the Order of Maria Theresa but he can tell you that, in his case at least, what others might regard as courage is actually the result of a monumental act of cowardice.

Stefan Zweig was extremely famous throughout the world as a writer of novellas and short stories, as well as popular histories and biographies, so it is remarkable that he wrote only one full-length novel. It has led some commentators to suggest that in this instance he overstretched himself, that he became prolix or, more charitably, that Beware of Pity is actually two novellas of unequal length stitched together. The latter suggestion is certainly worth consideration (how Kekesfalva got his loot is certainly a story in itself), but Beware of Pity is the length it is because it has to be (and, as with all Zweig's writing, it zips along almost effortlessly; it doesn't read as though it could do with much trimming). The loop back in time that Zweig is taking us on has to be accounted for; it has to take time. He said himself that the impulse behind the novel was not only nostalgia – itself one of the most powerful of narrative impulses, as anyone who has heard of Proust knows – but pity: pity specifically directed at Lotte, his secretary, with whom he was having an affair and who was to become his second wife (and with whom he would successfully undertake a suicide pact in a hotel room in Petrópolis, Brazil, in 1942).

He wanted this to be the Great Austrian Novel, and so a certain scope was demanded of him. And he had to go back to before 1914 as that was when everything began to go wrong. In his story "The Invisible Collection", first published in 1927, a collector of rare prints who has gone blind is deceived by his family: they have sold his valuable collection bit by bit in order to feed themselves, and him, during the disastrous inflation that followed the first world war, and have replaced the prints with blank paper of the same dimensions and thickness. When he strokes the blank sheets the narrator notes his happiness: "Not for years, not since 1914, had I witnessed an expression of such unmitigated happiness on the face of a German . . ." (Italics mine.)

It is a scene of such potent and telling symbolism that it verges, tremulously, on the corny. But that is not to gainsay its validity and power. The Great War ruined and erased everything, and reduced the past almost to a state as if it had never been. Zweig's autobiography, The World of Yesterday, is a long lament for a vanished world, tantamount to a suicide note. Interestingly, he does not, in Beware of Pity, allude to, or make any real use of, the atmosphere of stifling sexual repression that animates "Eros Matutinus", one of the best chapters of The World of Yesterday, in which Zweig acknowledges there were some very significant aspects of genteel society the world was right to discard. If anything, the return to the values of 1913 is tacitly endorsed, albeit in a complex and ambiguous fashion, when Hofmiller discovers, to his horror, that Edith has sexual desires.

But Beware of Pity ends with a note of almost bitter disillusionment. (Not to mention the reader's relief at having finally climbed out of an emotional tumble-dryer, which is just the effect Zweig wanted his best work to have.) In fact, if it didn't sound so off-putting, "Disillusionment" could be a perfectly plausible title for the novel (to go with Zweig's other one-word titles for some of his novellas: "Amok", "Confusion" or "Angst"). But disillusionment is, though often painful – and Beware of Pity has moments of high melodrama that have the power to make one put one's free hand over one's mouth as one reads – a very necessary process, and the stripping away of illusions was, after all, one of the abiding aims of the Freudian project. And it is a very useful kind of bildungsroman, in which it is not only the chief character who learns something by the end of it, but the reader, too.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2011 in The Guardian.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The All-Important Present Moment

Carina Chocano

1. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film “Stalker” may be the slowest movie ever made. At 163 perversely action-sapped minutes, it makes shifting tectonic plates look positively sprightly by comparison.

To the extent that it’s about anything, “Stalker” is about two men, known only as the Writer and the Professor, who hire a guide (the Stalker) to lead them through a post-apocalyptic wasteland called the Zone to a mystical place called the Room, where their deepest desires will be fulfilled.

The payoff is paltry. When the three men arrive at the entrance to the Room, the Professor reveals his plan to blow it up. His plan is thwarted, nobody goes inside and no desires are granted. “In any case, the whole idea of the Room is a joke,” writes Geoff Dyer in “Zona,” his book on the film. “Perhaps our deepest wish in life is that there could be a place like this, a Room where our deepest wish comes true. Extrapolating from that, we don’t want to get to the point where we discover that we actually don’t want this room to exist. . . . One’s deepest desire changes from day to day, moment to moment.”

Dyer has likened the Zone to the cinema — a place “where ultimate truths are revealed.” And perhaps the truth can thrive there, Dyer writes jokingly, because the Zone “is one of the few territories left — possibly the only one — where the rights to ‘Top Gear’ have not been sold.” And it’s true. There really aren’t many places left on Earth — real, fictional, imaginary or otherwise — where we’re not being told exactly what to long for, and where to get it, all the time.

2. Tarkovsky wrote a book about cinema called “Sculpting in Time.” At least this was the English title. It can be translated more literally as “Depicted Time” or “Written Time,” which sound less poetic but feel more accurate. A devotee of eternal takes and glacial tracking shots, Tarkovsky was a sworn nemesis of rapid-cut editing and other filmic conventions that alter our perception of time, which we, the audience, often expect and demand. For Tarkovsky, the cinematic image was “essentially the observation of a phenomenon passing through time,” and an image became “authentically cinematic when (amongst other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it.”

3. If you’re looking for a brief definition of exactly what Hollywood movies are not at this moment, you could do a lot worse than this characterization.

4. The other day I passed a billboard for “Man of Steel,” the new Superman movie, and for a second I imagined what would happen if it were instead marketed as something like “This Again.” Of course that would never happen, because the culture is now locked in an infinite, recursive feedback loop that can never be officially acknowledged lest it short-circuit and cease to self-perpetuate.

Our experience of time and space has radically shifted as technology has collapsed, compressed, chopped, flipped and scrambled it, teppanyaki-style. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in “Present Shock,” his new book about technology and time: “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment.” As a result, our experience has become, he notes, “an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment. . . . What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important — which is behavioristically doomed.”

Most mainstream movies are less interested in observing phenomena passing through time than they are in observing objects flying through space (teppanyaki-style) and less concerned with revealing ultimate truths than selling infinite tickets. This has always been so, only more so lately. It seems as if the more a movie promises to manipulate, negate, ignore or just plain refuse to acknowledge or engage with the passage of time, the more entertaining and therefore commercial it’s perceived to be. Which is behavioristically doomed.

Credits:  This articles was originally published in 2013 in The New York Times.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Big Wind

Theodore Roethke

Charles Burchfield

Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?—
So we drained the manure-machine
For the steam plant,
Pumping the stale mixture
Into the rusty boilers,
Watching the pressure gauge
Waver over to red,
As the seams hissed
And the live steam
Drove to the far
End of the rose-house,
Where the worst wind was,
Creaking the cypress window-frames,
Cracking so much thin glass
We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Rebecca West: This Time, Let's Listen

Larry Wolff

In a hotel in Belgrade in 1937, Rebecca West watched businessmen at the bar lifting their glasses and slapping each other on the back. "That I might have seen in London or Paris or New York. But in none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms." There he stood, waiting, "still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms." Rebecca West recorded the image with reverence.

In that same hotel there was a Slovene chambermaid, "the gentlest and sweetest of women," who believed herself terribly sensitive to the scent of foreigners. She "staggered from room to room on her round of duties, almost in need of a gas-mask when she came to making the beds." The German guests smelled bad in 1937, and the French smelled "wicked and puzzling," but she fully refreshed her suffering olfactory sense in the exquisite fragrance "which hung about the rooms occupied by Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes." This susceptible servant, who might make beds in the magical fictional worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Salman Rushdie or Patrick Suskind, was, in fact, in the historical Yugoslavia of Rebecca West. She cherished the chambermaid, because she wanted to believe that Eastern Europe was different from Western Europe, even perhaps magically different. For she had come to Yugoslavia, in a decade of deepening political nightmare, believing that civilization was at stake in Europe (and it was), seeking to enlarge her understanding of that civilization. When "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" was published in 1941, Hitler had made himself the master of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia had been bombed and abolished, and Rebecca West found that she had been a visitor to a now lost world. At that moment in history, Rebecca West's book challenged Britain and America to cherish an image of Europe in its full moral and political dimensions, to recognize unequivocally that Eastern Europe was a necessary part of Europe.

"I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all," she said to her husband, the banker Henry Andrews, in their sleeper on the train, as related on the first page of the book. "But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey." This injunction was directed at the reader as well, about to embark upon a work of more than a thousand pages, bafflingly resistant to classification by genre: travel memoir, historical meditation, philosophical encyclopedia, political prophecy. Yet it was recognized immediately in 1941 as a weird masterpiece and it has since become the supreme literary monument of one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century.

If Rebecca West's journey was important 50 years ago, it is no less so today, when all of Eastern Europe has undergone a revolution and waits on the threshold of an uncertain future, while its cultural relation to Europe as a whole remains a matter of evasion and uncertainty. The Iron Curtain of the cold war so emphatically defined Eastern Europe on all of our mental maps that it was almost impossible to see that curtains of less solid stuff had been drawn across the continent for two centuries. The idea of Eastern Europe as the continent's backward half was invented in Western Europe, to illuminate by contrast the greater glory of "Western" civilization. Rebecca West was a journalist on the trail of that dishonest, self-serving appropriation of Eastern Europe, seeking to invert a tradition of condescension and to redefine the mapping of civilization in Europe.

After first visiting Mozart's birthplace in Salzburg, she boarded a train to Zagreb, in Croatia, that was coming from Hitler's Berlin. She found the German passengers "hideous." Zagreb, however, was not escape enough, for in Croatia she felt the shadow of past Austrian rule and German influence, somehow ruining even the patterns of regional embroidery. In the intensely bitter rivalry between Serbs and Croats that was tearing apart Yugoslavia in 1937, as it is today, Rebecca West was a partisan of the civilization of Serbia and the unity of Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslavia created after World War I was a union of lands with dramatically different cultural and political histories: of the Ottoman, Hapsburg or Venetian empires, of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Muslim religions. Royal authority in Belgrade met resistance to centralized administration throughout the interwar period, and after World War II Communist Yugoslavia assumed its contemporary form as a union of federated republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rebecca West in 1937 was politically committed to one unified Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but the literary structure of her travel narrative recognized the historically diverse lands as she journeyed from Croatia and Dalmatia to Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia.

In Bosnia, at Sarajevo, she meditated upon the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in 1914, her sympathies with the Serb assassin. She watched peasant women at the Sarajevo market, guessed that they were illiterate, but found that their behavior reminded her of a natural aristocracy: one woman demonstrating an unpolished elegance of manners, another exhibiting a sharp and ready wit. In Macedonia, at Skoplje, Rebecca West celebrated Easter in a moonlight procession and marveled at the magic of the Orthodox ritual, the beauty of Byzantium, "the sweetness spilled from the overturned cup of Constantinople" that consoled Eastern Europe during its terrible historical convulsions.

In the 1930's Rebecca West was already celebrated in Britain and America for her fiction and criticism; she was "the incomparable Rebecca" to Alexander Woollcott, who also commented on her extraordinary beauty. Born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, she assumed the pen name Rebecca West in 1912, writing as a feminist and suffragette; she sometimes employed the complementary pseudonym of Rachel East. As Rebecca West she published her first novel, "The Return of the Soldier," in 1918, and in 1928 a controversial book of literary criticism, "The Strange Necessity," which began by making fun of the poetry of James Joyce. She was an increasingly important British voice in American journalism, writing reviews and articles for The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and The New Yorker. When Clifton Fadiman reviewed "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" in The New Yorker in 1941, praising its brilliance, he invoked precisely the perspective that she sought to efface: "Why should this highly cultivated Englishwoman make pilgrimage after pilgrimage to these dark lands and these violent and often primitive peoples?" Her husband asked too, for she had been there once before without him. "Was it so wonderful there?" She replied: "Well there is everything there. Except what we have. But that seems very little." The appetite for life, the still vital traditions, the unswerving religious faith Rebecca West found in her travels seemed to her to present a profound contrast with the insecurity and exhaustion that characterized Western Europe in the 1930's.

The figure of the cultivated traveler to the dark lands of Eastern Europe was as old as the idea of Eastern Europe itself. The Italian Renaissance confidently preserved the classical perspective on Europe, the civilization of the South disdaining the barbarism of the North; this was Europe viewed from Rome, Florence or Venice. In the 17th century, however, new centers of culture and commerce -- Paris, London, Amsterdam -- began to suggest a different perspective on the map of Europe, and in the 18th century the Enlightenment accomplished a conceptual reorientation: a civilized Western Europe in contrast to a backward Eastern Europe.

In Russia, in 1765, Casanova purchased a 13-year-old girl as a sexual slave for 100 rubles and set about improving his property by teaching her to speak Italian and to wear French clothes. The Italian Abbe de Fortis, in 1770, felt that he was leaving "the polite parts of Europe" in crossing the Adriatic to Dalmatia. Yet the Count de Segur, traveling east in 1784, declared that "when one enters Poland, one believes one has left Europe entirely." By the beginning of the 19th century such observations were becoming fixed and formulaic. Mme. de Stael defined Russia as a "melange of European civilization and Asiatic character." Balzac applied the same formula more broadly: "The inhabitants of the Ukraine, Russia, the plains of the Danube, in short, the Slav peoples, are a link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism."

Rebecca West was conscious of these condescending categories of analysis and wrestled with them as she traveled. She might relish intimations of the Orient, but she refused to cast Yugoslavia as a missing link between civilization and barbarism. Among the Muslim Slavs of Sarajevo, she saw a veiled woman in lilac silk, then caught a glimpse behind the veil of a face "completely un-Oriental, as luminously fair as any Scandinavian." Indeed, the lesson Rebecca West learned from Yugoslavia, and preached to Britain and America in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," was that Eastern Europe, in defiance of the formulas, emphatically belonged to Europe, that Europe was incomplete without it, that Western Europe alone was poor and sick without the complement of Eastern Europe's health and wealth. "We are Europeans," she might have cried on behalf of the Slavs in 1937, but in fact that affirmation was made by Mikhail Gorbachev 50 years later, denouncing the still pervasive equation of Europe with Western Europe. In a peculiarly seamless historical fit, the cliches of the cold war have followed and reinforced the formulas of the Enlightenment, dramatizing the distinction between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Rebecca West saw the error in that equation 50 years ago.

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu visited Belgrade in 1717, that highly cultivated Englishwoman found it an Ottoman fortress, entirely of the Orient. She described in her "Turkish Embassy Letters" how her host in Belgrade, Achmet-Beg, introduced her to Arabic love poetry, and she appeared oblivious to Serbia as a Slavic land: "I really believe I should learn to read Arabic if I was to stay here a few months." For Rebecca West in 1937, Serbia was a land triumphantly reclaimed from Ottoman oppression, if not yet enthusiastically embraced by Western Europe. Her host in Belgrade was a Serbian poet and Yugoslav official of Polish Jewish descent, called Constantine in the book; he was in love with Rebecca West, as the reader may guess. Her hostess was Constantine's German wife, called Gerda, whom Rebecca West hated from the moment they met at the Belgrade station, Gerda's "grey eyes so light and clear that they looked almost blind." She is the mesmerizing villain of "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," a German villain for the 1930's, despising Yugoslavia and the Slavs, enraging Rebecca West. The narrative acquires the quality of a nightmarish novel when the English couple find themselves accompanied not only by Constantine but also by Gerda as they entrain for Macedonia. The train trip through the Balkans was a literary device of the 1930's in England, used in Graham Greene's "Stamboul Train" of 1932 and in Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" of 1934. In 1937 Rebecca West offered her enemy the window seat, perhaps politely, perhaps provocatively. "That would be interesting, no doubt," said Gerda, "if one had the slightest intention of looking out of the window."

In refusing to look at Yugoslavia, Gerda spat upon Rebecca West's pilgrimage of visions and revelations. "When I see these people I feel I am not in Europe," said Gerda in Macedonia. There was, she maintained, "no order here, no culture, but only a mish-mash of different peoples who are all quite primitive and low." In 1937 this was also the language of scholarship about Eastern Europe in Nazi Germany: a geographer at Gottingen was writing in that year about Lithuania and its "primitive settlements without inner order." Gerda was there at the war memorial to the German soldiers who died fighting against Serbia in World War I, and watching her Rebecca West was certain that they "intend to come back and do it all over again as soon as they are given a chance." Gerda was also there at the French war memorial, to comment by the graves, "Think of all these people dying for a lot of Slavs."

Rebecca West cherished the Slavs, and described them as remarkably handsome: "This man was a Slav. The fair hair, the high cheekbones, the sea-blue eyes showed it." Her recurring attention to physiognomy was in strange and defiant counterpoint to contemporary anthropology in Nazi Germany, where the prominence of cheekbones, among other measurements of the skull, was studied as racial science, and construed to establish the inferiority of Jews and Slavs in Eastern Europe. Rebecca West laughed at the ideal of the Aryan German, comparing it to the reality of the "pear-shaped" German tourists in Yugoslavia. She and her husband took Nazism seriously though, and recognized Gerda as its voice. Europe would have to brace itself for "Gerda's assault on those who are not Gerda," and perhaps endure the establishment of "Gerda's empire."

The black lamb in the hotel bar in Belgrade was only an intimation. The black lamb of the title awaited the travelers in Macedonia, where it was sacrificed upon a huge rock, amid cocks' heads and candles, in a bloody fertility rite. Rebecca West was revolted, but she did not see the sacrifice as evidence of barbarism in Eastern Europe. On the contrary: "I knew this rock well. I had lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing." To express her own rejection of that pretense she invoked the spirit of Mozart while standing at the rock in Macedonia, Mozart whose music conceded nothing to the sordid indulgence of pain and sacrifice.

Rebecca West was solemn in her passion for Yugoslavia, never more so than at the battlefield of Kosovo. It was there in 1389 that Serbia fell to the Ottoman empire. Contemplating Kosovo, she imagined imperial rule as "the night of evil," five centuries long, compelling subject peoples to a life of "sheer nonsense, the malignant nonsense of cancerous growth." She hated the idea of empire, the Ottoman empire that shadowed Serbia, the Hapsburg empire that shadowed Croatia; she hated and dreaded Gerda's empire that was yet to come.

At the same time the author herself was implicated: "I was born a citizen of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen." Rebecca West even had a weakness for beautiful empresses, and in the opening pages of the book, meditating upon the assassination of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, she imagined Elizabeth saying to her subject peoples: "Look, I am the Empress, but I am not evil." The plea was perhaps appropriate to Rebecca West herself, traveling from Western Europe to Eastern Europe, sensitive to the inevitability of being reviewed as "this highly cultivated Englishwoman" in "dark lands" among "primitive peoples," reviewed in the fraught language of past travelers, which was now too the language of Gerda.

It was at Kosovo that Rebecca West heard the poem of the gray falcon, recited by Dragutin, the handsome chauffeur. A gray falcon came to the Serbian czar on the eve of the battle and offered him the choice between an earthly kingdom in victory or a heavenly kingdom in defeat. So he chose defeat. Rebecca West hated his choice. "I do not believe that any man can procure his own salvation by refusing to save millions of people from miserable slavery." For it was evident to her in 1937 that "the whole world is a vast Kossovo," that the black lamb and gray falcon worked together to betray the virtuous, offered in sacrifice "to Gerda's knife." Rebecca West did not spare herself: "I had sinned in the same way, I and my kind, the liberals of Western Europe," who could not "cast off this infatuation with sacrifice." In 1938 the black lamb was Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain was high priest in the cult of the black lamb and the gray falcon, and when he went to Munich Rebecca West thought, "I have been here before" and remembered Kosovo.

When she was finally finishing her enormous manuscript, the Battle of Britain had begun. "Now we in England stood alone. Now we, who had been unchallenged masters of the world, were poor and beset like the South Slavs." She took pride and inspiration from Yugoslavia's defiant resistance to Hitler. She thought of the bombing of Belgrade as German bombs still fell on London, and prayed for courage: "Let me behave like a Serb." Or else she would put a record on the gramophone, the chambermaid Susanna's aria from the last act of "The Marriage of Figaro," "Deh, vieni, non tardar" ("O come, do not delay"). An explosion overwhelmed the aria, but then the song continued, testifying to art, to civilization. It was in the mountains of Montenegro in 1937, where both the landscapes and the features of the inhabitants appeared utterly alien and unnaturally beautiful, that Rebecca West said to herself, "My civilization must not die." Her pilgrimage to Yugoslavia taught her to believe in her civilization, and just in time.

One day in Yugoslavia, Rebecca West met "a good-looking young man who was stripped to the waist." There are so many good-looking young men in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" that the reader may at first be no more aware than the author that this one was special. "You may wonder why I approached you when my torso is nude," he said, "but I did so in full confidence for I am sure that you are people who have swept all unwholesome prejudices out of your minds, and are open-minded and receptive to such healthful ideas as sun-bathing." He said he was a Communist. The bemused report of his conversation suggests that Rebecca West did not appreciate the significance of this encounter with the future of Yugoslavia. In fact, she was later outraged when Churchill supported Tito's partisans against the Nazis, instead of the royalist resistance to Hitler led by Draza Mihailovic. She remained loyal to the young King Peter of Yugoslavia, envisioning him in 1941 as another Byzantine king in a fresco, like the kings of medieval Serbia, "rigid in his kingliness, as the earlier dynasty in their jewelled tunics and colossal diadems."

Rebecca West was never reconciled to the postwar Yugoslav Government; Communism appeared less benign when fully clothed. Though she took pride in Yugoslavia's resistance to Hitler in 1941, she was unable to appreciate Tito's achievement when Yugoslavia became the first country in Eastern Europe to achieve independence from the Soviet bloc, in 1948. Rebecca West's passion for Yugoslavia conditioned her postwar anti-Communism, which, sadly, then alienated her from the Yugoslavia she loved; she never went back. She died in 1983, three years after Tito. The two of them, with their very different visions of Yugoslavia, were exact contemporaries, both born in 1892.

Our problem today is that for 50 years the single issue of Communism has completely colored all our conceptions of Eastern Europe, especially in defining its distinction from Western Europe. Our challenge will be to discover Eastern Europe anew, and recognize it without the ideological marks that have served for simple identification; our challenge will be to accept it as part of Europe, and not the lesser part. "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," almost 50 years after its initial publication, astonishes us by the weight and depth of what Rebecca West knew about Yugoslavia, but above all it overwhelms us with the passionate urgency of her need to know, our need to know.

Credits:  This article was first published in The New York Times in 1991.

German Artists Who Blazed a Path Cut Short by War

by Will Henrich It’s hard not to leave “ Franz Marc and August Macke: 1909-1914 ,” an alternately thrilling and dizzying exhibition on t...