3/14/2003

misc. thoughts on misc. readings

I read a piece from yesterday’s Slime about some flat in Paris that’d been occupied by two women—not together but one after the other—(both of whose main claim to fame was that they’d managed to marry fantastically wealthy men), and a lot of Louis XVI chairs and tables and other bric-a-brac. It’s as big a mistake for me to read the fashion section as the wedding announcements. I mean, do these people actually exist? If so, they have as little to do with the world as we know it as aliens from outer space.

The article is all sort of sniffy upper-crust name-dropping, of course. It’s got that air of sophisticated cynicism you’d expect of high-class trash-talking. If you’re rich enough, just like if you’re poor enough, you cease to behave very much like a human being at all. I mean, on the one hand, you’ve got people who are really poor becoming animals, and on the other, you’ve got you’re royals, and they’re sort of like machines. They’re not human. They’ve lived without want, without hardship and struggle, they have no feelings whatsoever. Nothing can touch them. The Slime columnist adopts this high-brow tone in the article, full of winks and nudges. The humor is brittle, sardonic, and always at someone’s expense.

I mean, I must assume that lines like the following aren’t really expected to elicit sympathy: ‘In her last years, [Oscar de la Renta] said, [the second of these rich bitches, Nelia Barletta de Cates] seemed disillusioned. Perhaps because she realized that for all her skill as a wife and tastemaker, she had little financial control over her life and possessions.’ That’s greed. Should it surprise us that this woman had a ‘a litigious history with her two children over a family trust’? That she had not spoken to her son since 1976 on account of it?

After that I read most of a survey of high school hazing incidents in the States since the start of the 20th century I’d downloaded from the web some time ago. There were your usual acts of sodomy for boys as compared to girls having chocolate sauce poured on them and complaining that it had ruined their clothes. There’s ‘a 16-year-old boy forced to accept a player's genitals on his face,’ ‘a rookie wrestler sodomized with a marker by teammates,’ and several other boys sodomized with any number of things, including coat hangers and other boys. Boys were urinated on, smeared with feces, beaten, branded, and raped. One girl had her ponytail lopped off. Some ‘had shaving cream sprayed on their heads’. One was dropped on her head and had to be hospitalized. Another complained that someone had ‘simulated oral sex’.

There was one involving girls that I quite liked, though. This was the gymnastics team’s idea. ‘Four new girls had to eat bananas placed in the pants of males known to older cheerleaders.’ I am assuming that the boys were wearing the pants at the time. ‘An outraged victim, Lizzie Murtie, became an activist following the incident,’ the report says. ‘She and her parents hope to get a hazing law passed in Vermont.’

Not surprisingly, with many of the ‘milder’ incidents involving boys (the ones where, say, they were only beaten, not sodomized), the victims were ostracized and parents, for the most part, pleaded for the whole thing to be forgotten. One mother, at a Board of Education meeting after hazing reports surfaced, angry that someone had complained about hazing, said, ‘Soccer is not a sport of the timid.’ I don’t think her son was one of the ones who’d been sodomized.

There was a quote from a coach to the effect that hazing was supposed to bring the team together, but hazing is always initiated by older boys, or established members of the team, and it is understood that the initiates are subordinate and required to remain absolutely submissive to the older boys. Hazing is not really an exercise in bonding, it’s a way of establishing and reinforcing relationships in a hierarchy. It’s not about cooperation and team-building, it’s about dominance and submission. It’s no different on a certain level than what gorillas do. I mean, male gorillas from the same clan, who are constantly jockeying for position. Adolescent human society is a lot like this. Adults find subtler ways to do it, but with adolescents it’s pretty basic.

3/13/2003

This morning there was a very ugly nun, probably around my age, maybe a little older, on the No.7 bus. I thought, well, she’s made the right choice, that’s for sure. I only mention it because there came a point when I was forced to stand over her—I mean some passengers were getting off, and I moved over to make way for them, and then I was standing above her. She would look at my crotch and then up at me. Honestly I couldn’t make out what she was thinking, but she kept doing it, back and forth and back and forth, and I thought maybe standing there with my formidable bulge about a foot and a half from her formidable snout was offending her chastity, or something. I don’t know what the hell her deal was, actually, but I moved away as soon as I could.

I have been packing up for the past couple of days. In earnest. I’ve sorted my wardrobe, for the most part. And the books. I went to IKEA to get some boxes to store them in. It’s the only place I know they’ve got them in various shapes and sizes, for a couple bucks each. They’ve totally remodeled the place. It looks like an airport now. I like it because they have little arrows on the floor pointing you in the direction of the exit, but the way it’s set up you have to go through everything pretty much to get there. I found my boxes and found the exit shortly thereafter.

I had forgotten where IKEA was, though, and rode the blue line to the end before realizing it was at the end of the red line. I didn’t punch my ticket in the metro either, and even saw some ticket inspectors, but didn’t have any trouble. When I was on my way back from IKEA I jumped into the last car. There was a class of grade school kids waiting on the platform, but aside from registering them somewhere in my unconscious mind, I didn’t pay much attention to them. It wasn’t clear whether they were coming or going, and, eternal optimist that I am, I think I must have assumed—or hoped—the latter. Then, on a sign from one of their detestable teachers, they came stampeding into the last car—I slipped out before you could say ‘infestation.’ The whole scene reminded me of that scene in 28 Days Later, where they’re in the tunnel and the herd of rats wash over them. Those children behaved like vermin.

I have to take this packing slow. I mean, I pack a little, and then I just look around, and I can’t even imagine going on. It’s strange, I was never highly motivated. But I feel my energy level dropping even more. It’s true what people say about losing your drive. I mean, with age. I just don’t have the energy to start over every five or so years. Plus going through my shit makes me think of death. It’s all in vain. I mean, all this crap I’ve accumulated, all in vain. It makes me think of Edna St Vincent Millay’s "Siege". These are my baubles, my circle of toys I gather about me.

Before I started James and the Giant Peach I flipped through The Portable Dorothy Parker, and read the introduction by a certain Brendan Gill.

"A protracted life-in-death is [particularly]striking in the case of writers who make a reputation in youth and then live on into age. It is most striking of all in the case of young writers whose theme is the pleasingness of death, and for whom it amounts in the world’s eyes to a betrayal of their theme when they are observed to cling far more tenaciously to life than their happier contemporaries have managed to do. Dorothy Parker’s career was of this nature. She enjoyed an early vogue, which passed, leaving her work to be judged on its merits, and because the subject of such a large portion of her verses was the seductiveness of a neat, brisk doing away with herself, many people were astonished to read of her death, in 1967, from natural causes, as an old lady of seventy-three. Under the circumstances, it seemed to them a tardy end, and by an irony that had been one of Mrs. Parker’s chief stocks in trade she would have been the first to agree with them. She had indeed taken an unconscionably long time to leave a world of which she had always claimed to hold a low opinion. Her husbands, her lovers, and most of her friends had preceded her; for a person who boasted of wooing death, she had proved the worst of teases—an elderly flirt of the sort that she herself at thirty would have savaged in a paragraph."

And so on. I thought, damn. That’s cold. But why not? But, no, this Brendan Gill is way too hard on ol’ Mrs. Parker. People still don’t understand that constantly obsessing about death and ruminating over suicide have little to do with actually dying or taking your own life. They need not be the same. In fact, most people who do end up offing themselves don’t write about it. Gill never calls Parker a hypocrite, and she wasn’t, but he comes awfully close. I don’t know.

thoughts on James and the Giant Peach

I started Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach last night. Jay-sus! I should’ve known what to expect from Dahl, but after a brief fairy tale description of James Henry Trotter’s idyllic first four years in the first paragraph, the second goes:

"Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.

"Now this, as you can well imagine, was a rather nasty experience for two such gentle parents. But in the long run it was far nastier for James than it was for them. Their troubles were all over in a jiffy. They were dead and gone in thirty-five seconds flat. Poor James, on the other hand, was still very much alive, and all at once he found himself alone and frightened in a vast unfriendly world."

And it goes on from there. I have been turning over the idea of trying to put together a book (this is my latest pipe dream, as Jackie would put it) called The Art of the Bedtime Story, that would look at tales in general and how to tell them. The grotesque and the morbid, how to introduce children to death, and so on, is what especially interests me.

This opening struck me on a ‘parental level’ as particularly rough, but while Dahl is really utterly flippant when it comes to death and brutality, he also puts it in a ridiculous, impossible context. If the parents had been murdered in their bed by a burglar it might cause a child some distress.

The thing is, Dahl wrote some great children’s books, but he also wrote some great war stories. He knew that children were likely to grow up in a world where death and brutality were daily occurrences. They have to be dealt with, why not this way?

3/12/2003

Madam L-- just stopped by for the rent. She actually got out of the car and we talked on the curb. I handed her the money and she just sort of looked at me. I was like, so...? And she told me, sort of continuing our conversation from the night before (she phoned last night to ask me what was going on), that the whole situation was ‘a bit confusing’ for her, since if I wanted to work and make money back in the States, why was I such a lazy git while I was here? I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m lying, or something. Like, maybe I got a better deal on a flat someplace else. I’m absolutely sure that’s it, in fact.

I told her the main thing was that I wanted to change vocations. She said, and you can’t do anything else here? I said, no, not really. I mean, I might be able to get work at some multinational, but probably they’d be more likely to hire me from the other end. I told her, really, what I felt I needed to do at this point was ‘change the whole scenario.’

We went through why it still didn’t make any sense a few more times—it was a little like the scene with the ticket inspectors. I mean, I guess the essence of it is, other people’s decisions don’t always make sense from where you’re standing, and if you’d like at least the small consolation of a reasonable reason, especially when their decisions mean you’ll be losing a considerable sum every month, it’s particularly vexing. I mean, there’s all sorts of other things, aside from having good reasons, that can motivate people to do what they decide to do in the end. It could be love or hate, just to name two great, unreasonable motivators. Desperation is also a good one. Should I stand there on the curb and tell her, ‘look, I’m an impotent little cunt whose only power is in negation’? or that ‘I feel most powerful when I am tearing things down. I get my greatest emotional satisfaction from undoing things’?

Anyway, she’s not so interested. She has too much pride to do more than question my motivations. She won’t beg me to stay. She won’t even admit it’s a financial blow to her. And that’s the main thing. That three hundred odd bucks a month that’s sending her kid to that chi-chi school. And at a time when she’s struggling herself, by all accounts. But while I sympathize with her, it’s still time to move the hell out and on with my life. This is exactly the right thing to do at this point in time, that much I know beyond a shadow of a doubt.

3/10/2003

I had a weird dream this morning just before waking up. I was in a crowded gym with some (fictional) friends, and we were waiting for something. It was like we were going to take one of those all-day standardized exams, maybe. I was in high spirits. There was a pretty little redhead I didn’t know, and I followed her down a little corridor (it turned out she was on her way to the copy machine), and somehow managed to steal a kiss. Then another young woman (a brunette) came in and we were all three bantering back and forth. They mentioned a scantron exam (this is what gave me the idea, retrospectively, that I was there for such an exam) and I asked them what it measured—height? Shoe size? In the dream I seemed to find myself very witty and clever. I don’t know if they did or not. I went back into the gym, where I found a male friend (Sethlike, but not Seth) holding my seat. Then suddenly it was like I was watching a movie. There was a man on a beach, naked. Then there was a man in a big penis costume, his head peeking out of the uncut sheath. Then there were two guys dressed as testicles. They dove out one by one from the scrotal sac into the ocean and turned and waved. That’s when I woke up.

3/09/2003

more on 28 Days Later

I downloaded some reviews of 28 Days Later. I have got to get back to civilization. This movie came out in Britain November 1st!

On one site a lot of anonymous individuals have posted their reviews. I mean, a lot of these sites allow anyone who’s seen the movie and wants to comment to post something. It’s always interesting, that’s for sure.

Because I’m not British or particularly up on pop culture, I may have missed some of the subtext (I mean, certainly I did). The soundtrack apparently had some songs on it with special significance to certain people in the know. I was oblivious.

I’m not familiar enough with London to have identified where some of the scenes took place, either.

As for the accents, I didn’t really pay all that much attention. But one touchy Englishman by the name of Jonathan complained: ‘Irish guy, black woman and young girl unite to save selves from terrible virus, along way they meet sympathetic Scots sergeant and innocent black soldier alongside half a dozen pyschotic English soldiers.... hmmm.... a great first half of a film followed by what can only be described as a ludicrous anti-English second half that makes sure that every English person (other than the girl) turns out to be a psychotic even worse than the zombies and are hastily dispatched. Surely we've had enough of this anti-English rubbish from Hollywood without a British movie having to continue it?’

Charlene (of undetermined nationality) chastised him: ‘Its no good saying 'english crap this and that' if a film is good its good if its crap its crap, why bring countries into it!?!?’

Suzie complained that the filmmakers ignored ‘all aspects of plausible disease epidemiology.’

Georges Philippe didn’t seem to care: ‘jaysis christ on a jumped-up, chariot driven crutch, was that not a hell of a movie!’ He poo-pooed the naysayers, too: ‘oh, and am really tired of reading supposedly-i-know-everything views about eff-u-cee-kay-i-en-gee sublots and hidden meanings and why was the camera at that angle, does that mean something and crap.... if you don't like thrillers or you just look for some meta-paraphysical, metacosmical, metalinguistic crap, just don't go.’

There were several viewers who spotted some bloopers (four or five saw someone walking in the distance when Jim is wandering the supposedly deserted streets of London, and one guy swears he saw a delivery truck being unloaded).

There was some debate about the jetfighter at the end, where it came from. Emyr claimed it was French. But both Antti Autio and Juha Karttunen were sure it was Finnish. ‘The “French airforces” Feeder2 mentioned above were actually Finnish Hawk jet trainers,’ Antti writes, with some authority. Juha corroborates: ‘Antti, I heard it too... i think it was strange... Did anyone else hear this? (The pilot said “Send helicopter” in finnish).’ But Ismo Karvinen’s got news for them all: ‘Well, actually the jets in the end were old British (RN?) Hawker Hunters from the 1950s.’ He is willing to concede, however, that the pilots were speaking Finnish. ‘Was it an inside joke or what?’ he asks. ‘I have to say it didn't sound right to me, far too chatty for a military pilot.’

That’s the beauty of the internet. Everyone’s an expert!

3/08/2003

I’ve just been reading in the Slime Sunday Magazine (it comes out early online) about the arch-conservative Fourth Circuit Court, and wondering where I stand nowadays. The following issues constitute, according to the Slime, "not only ... a conservative philosophy of law but also serve a conservative political agenda." So, let’s see where we agree (whether I would have voted with the court or against it is to the right of the court’s decision). The Fourth Circuit has...

1. upheld the minute of silence in Virginia schools; AGAINST

2. ended court-ordered busing in Charlotte; WITH

3. upheld state laws that stringently regulate abortion clinics or require parental notification or ban so-called partial-birth abortions; AGAINST(with reservations)

4. ruled that the Virginia Military Institute could remain all male as long as there was a separate but comparable education for women; WITH (I mean, come on)

5. upheld a Charleston, S.C., program that tested maternity patients for illegal drug use without their consent and turned the results over to the police; strenuously AGAINST

6. overturned a Virginia prohibition against license plates bearing the Confederate flag; WITH

7. ruled that the F.D.A. didn't have the authority to regulate nicotine as a drug; AGAINST

And, most recently,

8. overruled a West Virginia federal judge's efforts to strictly limit mountaintop mining that buries Appalachian streams beneath piles of fill and waste. AGAINST

So we agreed on three out of eight. Hmm. On busing, on admitting females to all-male schools, and on displaying the Confederate flag on your license plate.

Busing is a big racial issue, but I honestly don’t think that displacing children, shuffling them around to other communities is the right answer. Busing was, by the way, one of Nixon’s things. I think schools should first and foremost be integrated into the community. I think the whole public school system’s fucked up, and busing is definitely a part of the problem. That would be considered a conservative stance, I reckon.

As for all-boy’s schools, I’m all for them. I’m with Rousseau. I think boys and girls should be educated separately, full-stop.

And as for the Confederate flag. If you’re a good ol’ boy, I’d like to know it. If it’s on your license plate, I’ll know not to overtake you. The issue here is probably the appearance of the state sanctioning what the flag stands for, which is, essentially, the dissolution of the union the state is supposedly a part of. I’m assuming you have the option of having a sort of vanity plate with the Confederate flag on it, and not that it’s forced on everyone, but in either case, I think the South’s got a point. And I do believe She’ll rise again. (Remember, I’m a North Carolinian by birth.)

As for the dissenting votes, they aren’t all unequivocal, by any means. Some are, though. For example, school prayer. Keep it out of the classroom. In St. Matthew Christ says you should do it in your closet. Christ said hypocrites do it on the street corner, for all to see, and this is just what he was talking about. And anyway, give these cunts an inch, they’ll take a mile. Pretty soon you’ll have the creationists in there, too.

The thing with the crack moms is fucked up, full-stop.

And the last two are clearly issues of greed trumping common sense. Very cynical.

The abortion thing, I have to honestly say, it’s got nothing to do with me. But it's an unpleasant business for everyone involved. Sex education and readily available contraceptives would go a long way to preventing it.

So what does all that put together make me, I wonder? The thing I mostly don’t like about so-called conservatives is they’re a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. But that’s what I don’t like about liberals, too. Conservatives tend to demonize the poor, but liberals romanticize them. The truth is somewhere in the middle, I’d say. Neither camp can be counted on to exercise common sense, but Conservatives, because they embrace a black and white universe, where Libs insist everything is ambiguous, have more appeal with the people, at least the people they aren’t demonizing.

Conservative excess is called "tough justice." Liberal excess, on the other hand, is way too easily ridiculed, like the sexual-harassment case, Lisa Ocheltree v. Scollon Productions, which the author of this piece uses to anchor his story. Ocheltree was the only woman in an otherwise all-male costume-production shop. "Over time," the author explains, "the atmosphere grew more coarse, she said, until it was dominated by sexually explicit conversation and behavior. A co-worker pinched the nipples of a mannequin while another fell to his knees and simulated oral sex on it. A co-worker teased her with a dirty song while others, including her supervisor, laughed at the show. A colleague tried to get her to react to a photograph of a man with his genitalia pierced. During Ocheltree's trial, a male co-worker said that the other men would routinely fondle the mannequins because they knew it bothered Ocheltree." That’s it.

This woman first filed suit SEVEN YEARS AGO. She would be willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court for that. I mean, OK, apparently she complained at an employee meeting, and when she tried to get an audience with company executives was repeatedly rebuffed, and, after 18 months got the boot. She won in the first round. A jury awarded her $7,280 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages. The company appealed, and the verdict was overturned at the appellate level.

According to the author, one of the three presiding judges (a woman, by the way) argued that "the federal law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace ... is not a 'neo-Victorian chivalry code designed to protect' the 'tender sensitivities of contemporary women.'"

The dissenting Judge wrote that "a reasonable jury would conclude that the men at Scollon Productions resented Ocheltree's intrusion into their workplace and had set out to make her unwelcome. He said that the 'overall tenor of the workplace banter conveyed the message that women exist primarily to gratify male desires for oral sex.' In a workplace suffused with representations of women as sexual objects, a female worker 'would doubtless wonder,' he wrote, whether her male co-workers were looking at her and asking themselves 'whether she "swallows”' or whether she could '"suck a golf ball through a garden hose.'"

Ocheltree took it a step further, the court agreed to take her case en banc. The judges argued amongst themselves, mostly about cunnilingus, and whether or not simulating it on the mannequin should have offended the plaintiff or turned her on.

One of the three libs on the court, and the first and only black to ever serve as a justice in this court said "The problem with the mannequin is that it became almost an effigy, if you will, of the plaintiff." And that’s exactly what you’d expect a liberal to say, isn’t it? Something sort of high-minded and abstract like that. But that’s lending the whole incident a lot more weight than it merits.

All Ocheltree had to do is call her coworkers' bluff. One day she comes in dressed in full dominatrix drag with a giant, black, two-headed dildo, and gets medieval on their asses. Then we see who spits or swallows--their own fucking blood. A little vigilante action never hurt nobody. And serves 'em right, anyways. You don't need to go runnin' to the courts over every little thing, is all I'm sayin'.
I’m just reading the Slime: "According to Dr. Peter Butler, a consulting plastic surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital in London, the technology is now in place for surgeons to perform a full-face transplant." Such technology would be useful, according to Dr. Butler, for "someone whose natural face has been severely disfigured either by disease or an accident." Or Michael Jackson.

Actually, the further I read, the less scary it seems. Butler acknowledges "identity is a central issue—'will I look like the donor?'...But what we're proposing is taking the skin envelope with or without some muscle. So," he explains to the journalist interviewing him, "if I were to transplant my face onto you, it would look much more like you than me, because the skin envelope is elastic. It would redrape around your bone and cartilage structure. The things you would have of mine are skin tone, texture, eyebrow color, beard, things of that nature. That's why what I'm doing now is establishing a database for what is essentially a matching process."

The journalist explains: "The typical candidates under consideration by Butler and his team for their initial attempt are people with such severe facial burns that they have lost not merely appearance but also normal facial function. 'Their face is disintegrated,' he said. 'They have no nose. No ears. The eyes won't close properly, leaving them open to infection. They aren't able to open their mouths. So these patients, aside from the aesthetic considerations, would have a considerable improvement in quality of life.'"

Butler is currently limiting his efforts to the most superficial layers, since the deeper you go the greater the risk of "dyskinesia, an internal misfiring of nerve signals that could leave patients twitching uncontrollably or smiling when they mean to frown."

The author of the piece, a certain Charles Siebert, waxes a little too poetic for my taste. He says "our focus... remains fixed upon the matter of being us rather than the matter of our being." But we’re beginning to see things differently, and, he seems to think, more accurately. "We are on the cusp of being able to see even our faces -- the most easily abstracted aspect of our existence -- as one more part of our biology. That would somehow represent the most profound advance in the process of understanding who we are and what we are really seeing when we look in a mirror." But I honestly don’t see what good it does anyone to think of themselves in merely biological terms. Again, the author: "We tend to fancy ourselves apart from the rest of nature. It is an isolating trick of our consciousness and that story we live by, one that naturally makes us want to transcend our mortal confines and seek answers about our origins and true essences in a noncorporeal, unearthly realm. The ultimate paradox is that those answers are all contained within our DNA, life's common biological clay: the dynamically perfect and scintillic symmetries of which we and all other creatures are just brief and increasingly interchangeable assemblages." OK, and? I mean, really. It’s like Robert Wright beating it into your head for four hundred pages that, no offense, but Nature doesn’t give a fat rat’s ass about you, she just wants your sperm. Well, I’ve got plenty. But what do you do for the rest of the day? I mean, once you’ve shot your wad for God?

I was reading a couple other recent pieces from the science section some days ago, one about cosmology and another about string theory, where you’ve got nature comprised of "tiny strings vibrating in 10 dimensions of space-time." And the universe, cosmologists have calculated, "is 13.89 billion years old, plus or minus half a billion years. Only 4.8 percent of it is made of ordinary matter. Matter of all types, known and unknown, luminous and dark, accounts for just 27.5 percent. The rest of creation, 72.5 percent, is the mysterious dark energy." I’m sorry, but it sounds pretty noncorporeal and unearthly to me. It’s true enough that what we see is only an infinitesimal part of the picture. And you have people like this bloke, and even artist like Lucian Freud saying, basically, the head’s just another limb. I don’t know. I still think the eyes are the windows of the soul. And I do think faces matter. I can’t really gaze into your DNA structure. I can’t see your cells smiling. I’m a simple guy. I’m easily confused. I suppose we could all have a barcode and a scanner on a belt to identify one another, but why fix what ain’t broke? I’ll keep my own face, thanks.
Just back from a trip to the mall and a long walk. And I’m fighting mad. I walked myself into a right little lather. I think what set it off was, I’ve been emailing this travel agency for about a week, and the fares they’ve offered have been more than I want to pay, but what can I do?

So I'm walking along, and all the time the airfare thing's just gnawing at me. I said, OK, take the cheapest fare you can get, fuck it. You’re giving up your flat, you don’t have steady work here, you don’t need a return ticket anyway. OK, fine. That’s settled. But then I got to thinking about what I was about to do. You don’t have anything to go back to in the first place, either. A place to stay for a few months. You’ll be in the black, that’s the only thing you’ve got going for you. You’re starting from scratch, with no recipe, though. From zero. And you’ve got a very limited time to set yourself up somehow. And I don’t mean as a snappy waiter in a little café. Time to grow up.

Oh, but I have no idea what that entails! You see how I got myself worked up? The return ticket, at this point at least, is only a sort of symbolic thing, a security blanket for me, something so that I won’t totally freak out and lose it completely. But I think it’s almost better not to have it, if you want to know the truth. If you freak out you freak out. I mean, you can do that anywhere. You shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking it’s any better to do it here. Anyway, what have you been doing here for the last year and a half but losing it? Do you need a return ticket to Bedlam? Would it make you feel better? More secure? Forget it. If you’re gonna start over, close the door behind you when you leave the sanitarium.

3/07/2003

28 Days Later

I met Zsuzsa last night, and we had dinner together, after seeing a movie at her suggestion, 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame. Nowadays I just go where people point me, pretty much. I’m not too picky about what’s on the menu, and I have to say, I think the food’s much better that way. I find myself enjoying certain things better now than I would have allowed myself to do just a few years ago, like 8 Mile. I mean, what’s the use of crying over it? It’s what it is. Life is like that. You should enjoy what you enjoy, but even try to enjoy what you don’t.

Zsuzsa said 28 Days Later was a horror film. I don’t mind horror as long as it’s done well, but I wouldn’t say it was horror, exactly. It may qualify on one level as allegory, but it was not exactly allegory, either. It started out as Being There, morphed into Mad Max, then turned into 120 Days of Sodom mixed with Night of the Living Dead. It was a post-apocalyptic Fandango with a very tidy, happy ending. Hmm.

I really liked it. It complemented my apocalyptic mood, that’s for sure. Though I never really talk about it, I have been sure for a long time that, as a graffito in the stairwell of a church in the film has it, "The end is really fucking nigh." Once in a while I realize that with the pace of things these days, the world is ending all the time. It is in a constant state of flux. It becomes impossible to define it from one moment to the next. This really is a relatively new phenomenon—at least the rate of change. Maybe kids today are different, but I wasn’t made for it, and I’m not ready. Maybe kids today are comfortable in free-fall, but I feel the constant need to grab hold of something solid. Of course there is nothing solid to grab hold of, but I can't help trying.

So the premise of the film is that some sods have broken into an animal laboratory at Cambridge to liberate chimps, unaware that the chimps have been infected with a virus ("what have they been infected with?" one of the animal libbers asks the wanker who’s pulled the alarm on them, to which he answers, "rage"). The animal libbers open the cages anyway, feeling sorry for the chimps, who then attack and infect them. The infection is passed through blood and saliva, and takes full effect in ten to twelve seconds, transforming the infected person into a raging fiend, basically. This was as much explanation as was given about the virus and really as much as was needed to set the scene. It was not entirely clear why the rabid people (and apparently animals of all sorts could catch it too), didn’t venture out in the daytime, but this is a horror-film axiom, and gave us some down-time to get to know the characters a bit.

Jim, played by scintillating Cillian Murphy, has been in a coma for at least a month. It’s 28 days after the animal libbers released the virus. We see him lying in his hospital bed naked. There was quite enough gratuitous male full-frontal nudity to satisfy me in this scene, I must say, and we got to see his bum a bit later. He’s a lanky kid, with stunning blue eyes—same basic type as Ewen McGregor was in Trainspotting, I guess. In the American version he’d be rippling with muscles, played by Marky Mark, or someone.

He wakes up (thankfully in the daytime) to find he’s locked in his hospital room, though someone slipped a key under the door at some point, so that he would be able to let himself out should he regain consciousness. The hospital is deserted and in shambles. In the lobby he finds some cans of Pepsi that have spilled out of a trashed vending machine, and guzzles one down, then sticks some more in a plastic bag and sets off for home. There’s quite a bit of similar product placement of various Pepsi products and candy bars, a Benneton billboard, and even a Mercedes Benz, all but the last of which make sense enough in the context of the film. The cola and candies would be a long-lasting food source in such a setting. The Benneton ad gave a sense of irony. The Benz was too much, though. Here he’s walking around post-apocalyptic London all alone, everything is trashed, and suddenly he walks right into this Mercedes commercial, with this brand spanking new spotless Benz sitting there. He tries opening the door, but the alarm goes off, and he runs away.

He finds money, a lot of it, on the steps of what might be a train station, and stuffs it into his plastic bag, which, of course, drew knowing chuckles from the audience. This whole portion of the film—we’ve seen it before in numerous such films—was moving. You felt a great many things watching poor Jim slowly come to grips with reality and seeing that reality so convincingly rendered. I felt relieved that it was all over (of course it wasn’t—this was only the first ten, fifteen minutes of the movie), excited by all the usual possibilities of starting again from scratch.

All through this first part of the film I kept thinking, yes, it could easily happen, something like this. Probably they have viruses in laboratories that could decimate an island like that in a month’s time. Or less. As for our first encounter with the infected, the digital cinematography was of the same type they used in The Gladiator to make the scenes of violence so violent—the brittle super-real color and definition, the jerky, hyperkinetic movement of the camera. This contrasted with the dull, sometimes blurry lens through which we saw most of the rest of the film.

If this had been your average horror flick this attention to style would have come in a weak second to gore, but there wasn’t actually all that much gore here. Enough, but not so much. Those infected weren’t your typical post-apocalyptic zombies, either. The depiction of rage was very true. It could have turned a bit comical if not for the camerawork. Those infected behaved like rabid dogs. They were the very personification of rage, often quite literally spewing bile on their victims, along with blood and spleen. This is how people behave when in a rage, this is just how rage would look if it transformed us wholly and permanently. This is how people would look if, in a rage, we turned them inside out.

And the gestation period (plus/minus fifteen seconds) was essential, of course, for making the point. That’s how rage spreads. Perversely, perhaps, this was also the source of hope in the plot. Because the virus spread in this way, it was contained to the British isles, and Europe. It couldn’t spread abroad but through the Chunnel. At one point a man in despair says, "you know they’re still living life as usual in the US, watching The Simpsons, going to the shopping mall!" Of course such a virus couldn’t spread over air or sea. Zsuzsa didn’t see the point of giving it any thought (she said it was a boy thing), but this is what makes the hopeful, happy ending of the film possible.

The first hint that the film was attempting a more conscious and complete allegory, with a political tint, is when our heroes hear a recorded broadcast on the shortwave, urging the uninfected to make their way to Manchester, where the army has established a blockade. Thus began the second part of the film, the roadtrip. This basically gave us time to get to know the four characters who had found each other in the first part of the film. Those educated in horror films knew not to get too attached to anybody. Driving only in the daytime and stopping into some old ruins at night, they make it in two days’ time. I must admit that, while I understood the necessity of this situation for the plot, it didn’t make any sense. Why not drive at night (since presumably the infected could not manage to drive, as they were always lashing about and foaming at the mouth), and stop during the daytime to rest? Or better yet, there were four adults in the car, why not take turns driving and just drive straight to Manchester that way? That’s what I kept thinking, myself, though as far as the plot was concerned this provided a nice stretch in which to develop relationships and deepen our sympathy for the characters.

They reach the barricade (all of Manchester is in flames), and sure enough, one of the characters, the lovable father, turns rabid. Several soldiers show up to rescue the others: Part three.

They take them to an old manor house they’ve fortified with barbed wire fences and landmines, with a huge statue of the Laocoon in the foyer, though I can’t see the significance of the statue to the story. At any rate, it soon becomes clear that their situation is not much improved from when they were in London.

The first indication that something sinister is afoot is when the leader of this small platoon, who looks disarmingly like a Nazi, takes Jim into a little courtyard where he has chained up one of his soldiers who was recently infected. Aside from one of the women who’s accompanied Jim, this rabid soldier is the only black character we’ve encountered. Later we will meet another black soldier, but this scene established the extent of the danger Jim and his girls are in not only from the infected, but also from those who’ve rescued them from them. The Nazi tells Jim at some point that the reason for broadcasting the recorded message on the shortwave was to lure women to the compound. He explains that he’s promised his men women, since without them they’d be doomed as well.

Thus begins the final part (to which the happy ending is a coda). Jim, along with a rebel soldier, who objects to the planned rape of the women, is taken out into the forest to be shot. He is taken to the place where they dispose of the bodies of the infected, who nightly wage war on the compound. As luck would have it, this place in the wood has a wall, over which Jim escapes in a moment of scuffling between the two soldiers charged with the duty of killing the two prisoners. He lands on his back, looks up and sees a jet high above, leaving a trail behind it. Thus, we know there’s hope, there’s a way out.

Meanwhile the soldiers figure he’s as good as dead, shirtless and unarmed. He runs off to the blockade, and sounds the siren, which stalls the rape of the women, and brings the soldiers to him. Jim, the skinny, sensitive kid, has suddenly transformed himself into a kind of Rambo (without all the muscles), and the cinematography that cues us to the presence of one of the infected is now being used when we see the action from his perspective. But, of course, we know he has not been infected. And he is obviously using his capacity for rage in an attempt at something valiant (saving the girls).

He manages to lure one of the soldiers round a corner, kills him quite handily, takes his machine gun, disables the vehicle the soldiers came in, and heads off to the manor house. Night’s fallen by the time he gets there. He scales the wall, frees the rabid soldier in the courtyard, who goes off to wreak havoc in the house. He knows the girls can defend themselves against rabid, hysterical monsters better than against rational, determined fascists, especially when the fascists have to fight the monsters, too. So while the whole house is suddenly plunged into chaos, he sets about rescuing the damsels in distress, becoming ultra-savage in the process, so that when finally he does rescue his lady love, she doesn’t know whether he’s a man or a monster himself, and comes at him with her machete. This is the first of several false endings, as the film winds down.

So she doesn’t chop him into little bits. In fact Jim cracks a joke when she comes just short of doing it. Suddenly our blue-eyed gamin has become Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon III. It really was one of those moments like in a Hollywood action flick, where the hero has come this close to death, and makes some little ironic crack about it.

Then they kiss, and it’s a very Hollywood kiss. Then the teenage girl who’s the third survivor of the bunch, breaks a bottle over his head. False ending No.2.

"Ouch!" Jim cries. "I was kissing her!" The girl apologizes. "I thought you were biting her!" Everybody laughs.

For the next five minutes we’re in classic Hollywood action flick mode. Our hero has dispatched all the minor villains, he’s got the girl, but they still have to get out of the burning building, and the arch-villain remains at large somewhere. The girl fetches the taxi they came in, and her mates open the back door to climb in and make their escape. When who should they find but the Nazi! "You killed my men," he says to Jim, and pumps a slug in his gut. False ending No.3.

The girl throws the taxi in reverse, and backs into the foyer, where the black soldier the Nazi had chained up in the courtyard is waiting, smashes through the back window, and gobbles him up. The girl throws it into gear, picks up her two comrades, and they race for the nearest exit. But the gate is locked! They urge her to crash through it. The moment she does, the frame is frozen as her two passengers are thrown forward. Fade to black. Fake ending No.4.

Then there’s this little coda. I mean, first we see Jim looking a lot like in the first scene, when he’s in his hospital bed. The lighting is the same, and he is just waking up. The first feeling you get is, oh, no, it was all a dream! The director doesn’t milk it, though. Soon enough we see that he is actually recovering from different wounds. Lucky for him, his lady love happens to be a qualified chemist with obvious medical experience. They have found a cottage on a lake deep in the English countryside. It’s 28 days later.

We see the view from a fighter jet. We see the jet racing overhead from the POV of a couple of goons crawling along the country road—they’ve expended their rage, obviously near death. Then we see one of the girls shouting to the others that she can hear the jet coming. They rush out and place the huge quilt the other girl’s been sewing on the ground in front of the cottage.

The jet flies overhead and we see that our heroes have been working on a huge sewing project, spelling out the word ‘HELLO’ (interesting for many reasons—at first you see the H and the E and think it will spell out ‘HELP,’ and then, because they are still working on laying the enormous O down, you see the word ‘HELL’ and then you realize it’s actually HELLO and you think OK, but you wonder why they chose such a long word and didn’t just settle for a symbol, or a simple ‘Hi’ instead).

They are leaping up and down, even Jim, with his bandaged belly, faces glowing with hope, waving their arms wildly in the air. The jet does some tricky maneuver, to sort of acknowledge they’ve been found, and that’s it.

Really, a little bit of everything. The thread running through the whole thing was nihilism versus hope. When Jim first encounters Hannah with her machete she is sure that the best they can hope for is survival. Then they hook up with this father-daughter team, and seeing the love between them Hannah starts to change her tune.

But when Dad catches the virus and they’re rescued from him by the Nazis, the future they’re confronted with seems still to be one of mere survival, but even graver in a way than their own survival, it is the burden of the survival of the species they’re meant to bear, the women especially.

Hope comes in two forms: the survival of an outside world the proof of which Jim sees when his escape from the Nazis is accomplished, and the love that blooms between Jim and Hannah, the strength of which is demonstrated by her hesitance to chop him into little bits even though she suspects him momentarily of being infected.

As an allegorical tale set in the present, the implications are obvious, but some of the parallels are a little obscure. The rage is easy enough. I mean, it’s everywhere. People hate each other, that’s clear. Sitting in the cinema with a bunch of spoiled teenagers, I felt it. There was a guy next to Zsuzsa crunching his popcorn through the first half hour of the film. She finally said, listen, you’re making a lot of noise over there. The first part, no one speaks in the film. There’s silence most of the time. And here’s this sod beside me who’s brought his own soft drink in a bottle with him, and has this nervous habit of screwing the cap on and off. The fat middle-aged bloke sitting in what happened to be our seats (he took up two—we ended up in the row in front of him), seemed to either be having trouble breathing or to be fast asleep and snoring. The teenage pair behind us talked through the first ten minutes (curiously they were not talking through the twenty minutes of ads and the previews), but then were relatively well behaved until the most suspenseful moments late in the film, when suddenly one of them started crunching on his popcorn again, with real gusto. I looked back and his eyes were wide and glued to the screen while his hand was mechanically digging in the bag of popcorn and stuffing fistfuls in his open mouth. Nothing new, really. People aren’t aware of how annoying they are, and it’s been a long time since anyone had any manners, or cared much who they annoyed so long as they were enjoying themselves doing it. But people should be more careful when the topic of the film is rage.

So the rage anyone could understand. How it is blind. How quickly it can spread. How it can destroy society. How, maybe in the view of the filmmaker, it is destroying society. How it becomes necessary to destroy those who would destroy society in order to save society. How this process then perverts you. But that’s as much of it as I get, to be honest.

Jim’s love for Hannah and his assurance that there is a way out (represented by a military fighter jet that must be American, though we never see any identifying emblems on it) are meant to justify his rage. He unleashes the virus on the soldiers, basically, and lets it do the work for him, to a point. But, of course, he has to be the one to free the girls in the end, and in doing so he gives vent to the rage within.

In what might have happened next there was potential for something profound, but this is precisely when the film falls back on irony in order not to make a point. But it had gone all the way up to it, and then proposed, basically, that the implications could be sidestepped, which is not satisfying really in any way, not morally, not aesthetically, not even in horror film terms. In a way, the film asks us to take it quite seriously (and from the getgo it is a serious film), and then suddenly when it comes to the point, it offers a punchline in its place.

Would it have been more satisfying if Hannah had in fact chopped him up into little pieces instead of offering him kisses? It would have made the point we were led to believe we were about to see made, for sure. Was there a certain genius in confounding our expectations like this? Personally, I think it was taken to an extreme—I mean not just once were we faked out, but four or five times in quick succession—and it was a little bit childish.

And it’s not happy endings that I object to. I mean, take a film like, I don’t know, Four Weddings and A Funeral. It had a happy ending, and I was perfectly happy with it. It was a good movie, too. What would have been the point of ending on a low note? Likewise, even 8 Mile was fine for what it was. It knew what it was. So no problem with happy endings. I enjoyed 28 Days After immensely, but I think whatsisname, the director, finked out in the end. And to cover it up he made this last bit of the film sort of cheeky and ironic. But it didn’t start out that way.

Had this bloke found a way out of it that could lead to a believably happy ending (and to be fair he almost got there without fudging it) I would have been perfectly happy. I like the idea of hope winning out over nihilism, but unfortunately you have to conquer cynicism to get there. And irony is the tool of cynicism, of nihilism, not hope, which is why the ending rang hollow. As it was this coda was a sneering little gotcha to all those who would insist on the ending they had been led to believe they were about to be dished up.

There is a more sinister question of just how far we can go with this certain kind of irony. It really is the same kind you’d find in the Lethal Weapon franchise, but you generally don’t find it married to gory, graphic images of bodies stacked in mass graves in the woods, or the rotting corpses of our young hero’s parents, whom he finds lying in bed together, having decided to commit suicide rather than risk infection, his mother still clutching a photo of her son in a hand lain on her husband’s chest. How far can we take it? The filmmaker seems to argue in the first half of the film that our violence has consequences, but then he doesn’t follow through with this in the second half. Is it a triumph of the will that we can hope in the face of this, or is it that we really have been utterly desensitized? These questions are raised, but the answers are all muddled.

Still I enjoyed it immensely.
In my down time yesterday I was reading some of my diary from last summer. Reading about my adventures in internet "dating". Pathetic. This is the type of thing you put out of your mind, so I’m glad I wrote it all down. I mean, it won’t have gotten any better. I don’t think I met anyone last summer who really sparked my imagination. I know I didn’t. I was telling Zsuzsa about how lacking in just basic manners people are. How L-- was the only hook-up all summer to offer me a drink when we got to his place, and it was tap water. How S--, who I saw on and off throughout the summer, was eating once when I got to his place, and didn’t stop eating, and offer me anything, and didn’t apologize, any one of which would have only been polite.

It’s strange is all. Sad, in a way. Manners are nice. Here pretty much everyone’s got them, from peasants to potentates. Back in the States you can use the excuse that manners are just a way of putting on airs, but the truth is it’s rubbish. It’s not nice to be treated like people treat each other back there, and everybody knows it, but rather than fix it, people just bitch and moan about it, which is also unpleasant behavior. They act as if they are the innocent, the offended ones, when actually they’re playing by the same rules, and turn around and treat other people the very same way.

What people need to realize is, it’s all or nothing. You can’t have it both ways. As I’ve said before, in Boston people are so insecure, they rush to diss the other guy before he can diss them. Or they sit on the sidelines complaining bitterly that people aren’t better behaved, secretly (not-so secretly) resenting those in the game. J-- is another one. Standing in the shadows making fun of the beautiful people, never daring to approach them on their own terms. I don’t say it doesn’t work somehow, that there aren’t rules, the problem is that the method lacks subtlety, and every game is an end game. And that’s partly because people don’t know their place and everybody feels they have to put everyone else in it.

Whatever the case, as always I have been so focused on my departure that I haven’t given much thought to the misery that awaits me at the next station of the cross.

3/06/2003

The Economist likes to poke fun at Americans, being a British magazine, and a recent article entitled "the logic of irrational fear" sought to analyze "Americans’ perception of risk," as revealed by their reaction to the sniper. This was the part that I liked: "Experts seem to agree that Americans find it harder than most people to evaluate risks accurately. Lawsuits, labels on coffee cups ('Warning: the beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot'), even political pronouncements all often suggest it is possible to avoid danger altogether." Of course a taste for lawsuits and utopian political rhetoric don’t prove anything about a people’s ability to "evaluate risk accurately." Liability litigation is about greed, first and foremost. Your average American knows his coffee’s good and hot. Probably every one of us (clever risk-assessing Brits included) at one time or another has failed to accurately evaluate just how hot, and has burnt his tongue. In most places this would not turn into a lawsuit, just a lesson that you should be careful to let your coffee cool a bit before drinking it. These little labels on everything are not because people are stupid, they’re there because people are shrewd. And greedy. The rules say you have to warn us first and if you don’t we can sue the pants off you. That’s what American’s are thinking when they get burnt.

When I was a toddler there were no special safety measures to "childproof" your home. You would not have thought to sue the furniture manufacturer if your child was running through the house, fell, and split his little head open on the corner of the coffee table, as I once did. Nowadays Americans are much more educated as to the possibilities for plunder from life’s every little blunder. They are just as savvy at assessing risk as anyone. If you wanted to prove otherwise you might look at whether more of them actually do burn their tongues than anywhere else, instead of whether they sued for it afterwards.

It is true, however, that outside of New England Americans have no idea how to maneuver roundabouts. Brits find that pretty funny, too.
I read quite a bit of Le Rouge et le Noir. But I was a bit distracted by my own finances. Of course all these nineteenth century novels have a lot to do with sex and money, and this one’s definitely no exception. These are two things I’ve got desperately little of at the moment, and the future doesn’t look much brighter. I have to concede that I am at the age where if there was going to be a fortune made it would be well on its way to being made by now. And as for sex, it’s not over—in fact, I really do believe it’s possible the best years lie ahead, but I will always look back on the years I lost with regret. I can fill up the years ahead with lovers, if I want (and if I move on from this wasteland), but I can never fill up the years behind.

Memory is a funny thing, always playing tricks on us. You start thinking of youth in very general terms, when yours was actually a very specific youth. I had abundant possibilities for sex at an early age (from fifteen or sixteen), but it could not have been lovely. By now I have experienced it in all of its various applications, strange to say, and I know what should have been possible at that age, and what is in fact possible at that age, generally speaking, but which was not possible for me at that age...

3/05/2003

After my morning lessons, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself for the rest of the day. Of course I didn’t want to teach, so I was happy about not having to, but somehow I wanted to be out of the flat and around people. I thought about going to the Rudas (the so-called "sportsmen’s bathhouse") but, I don’t know, I haven’t really earned a sauna. And then somehow I realized that being close to people but unable to talk to them, much less to touch them would only exacerbate my feelings of alienation from humanity. Yes, there was a voice in my head saying, "come off it, it’s your own fault, you know!" I didn’t bother to argue with the voice. What’s the point?

I had a panic attack last night I just recalled. I was in bed, asleep. I heard something, a noise—impossible to say whether it was real or in my head. It seemed to me someone was in the room with me. My blood went cold. I managed to leap up and groped along the wall for the light switch. Of course I was alone. My heart was racing. And it took me a while to calm down and get back to sleep. I kept hearing little noises, but they were just the little noises buildings and rooms make. And here I am scratching at the walls for the light switch, afraid of the dark. Who would have come to my room? Who would have been in my room? When I turned off the light again I saw him crouching in the corner, a blacker shade of black, and more silent than silence. Naked and crouching. A really horrible thing. Whispering (to himself, of course): "patience, patience, patience." But then you can be patient, can’t you, when you are assured of your prize? This is the closest he has come for a long time. But we have met before. And we’ll meet again.

I wish I were not so afraid. I wish I didn’t feel so defeated. I wish I were a man. It’s like Pilinszky wrote:

...az erõsek
hajnalban kelnek, fát aprítanak,
isznak egy korty pálinkát, s így tovább.
Mivel csak õk, az erõs gyilkosok
Ismerik a füvek, fák, madarak,
A nõk és a csecsemõk nyelvét

"Self-reproach is an evil worm." I wish I could live without it. Live life with humor and zest, not a thought for tomorrow, no regret of yesterday. I wish I wish I wish. I wish I were someone else entirely, but still me. In fairy tales that’s how it is. There’s a beauty inside the beast. But I wonder, when the beast is transformed once more into the beauty mustn’t the beast be inside somewhere still, too?

If I got my wish, all this that’s happening now, all this that’s me right now, would be a kind of peculiar dream I would wake up from.

I would laugh and tell my wife lying next to me, "what a funny dream I’ve had."

(We would be speaking some other language, one I don’t know and have never heard.)

She would say, in this strange familiar tongue, "tell it to me."

I would squint, trying to remember.

"It seemed very long. I can’t remember how it began."

"How did it end?"

"I went to sleep."

Wife would laugh.

"It doesn’t sound like a dream."

"It didn’t feel like a dream," I would tell her. "But I’m glad it was."

We would lie in silence, as scenes from my strange dream faded into obscurity.

"Was I in it?" she would finally venture (because women in this other place are much the same as anywhere).

"No," I would say. "That’s why I’m glad it was just a dream, and I could wake up from it."

And then I would make love to her, because it would have felt like a long time—a lifetime—since I had. This time would feel like the first time.

And the dream would stay with me all morning, until about lunchtime. Upon first seeing my face, in the mirror perhaps, I would be slightly taken aback, but only very slightly. Of course, I am me, I would think, chuckling to myself. I would feel my comely face, and look at my powerful torso in the glass. I’m much better looking than I was in my dream, I would think.

And everything—the cottage, the barn set into the mountainside, the landscape and the view, would all seem new to me, or as if I had just returned from a long journey. And it would continue to vex me a little for a short time on account of the peculiarities of the strange language, and the queer sensation of actually being someone so unlike me in a world so unlike my own.

3/04/2003

I have been giving a lot of thought to the question, what’s the name of the game? and that ABBA song has been going through my head all the time. You have to know what game you’re playing before you get to the rules, and what’s the goal, you know? Most people, it’s not that difficult, they just sort of know and do it, with more or less success, but then there are people everything’s got to be explained to. I’m in the latter category. But—and this is not to brag—I have a somewhat complicated nature. I am a very simple guy with an unfortunately complicated nature. I’m very easily confused by things that most people take for granted. And I will never catch up. I understand that one of the rules of the game is you’re playing against the clock. It’s like going to the horse races and there’s the gunshot and the gates fly open and all the horses bolt out except one, who takes a few ginger steps out onto the track, stops and sort of looks around (which in itself is difficult with those blinders on), sniffs and snorts and wanders over to eat some grass. I’m no thoroughbred. Sometimes it occurs to me I’m a jackass.

And the thing is it’s a big cliché, life. You read about it in novels: the youth who sets off to find himself. I didn’t do anything that anyone else hasn’t done, as for exploring the sensual side of things. And really, I look at those couple of years, where it really was my goal, and I really made a concerted effort to go as far as I could down that road, and in the end I wasn’t suited for it. And that’s not the narrow road, it’s the wide one. It’s not the uphill road, either. It’s not craggy and winding and full of pitfalls. It’s like Main Street, well-paved, well-lit, bright and broad and full of life. But I was not educated to pleasure, it was a foreign thing to me, and I had to force it down as one does a strange dish from a far-off land—something made of pickled fish. And those familiar with the way can always tell a foreigner. Sometimes they play cruel tricks on him, but mostly they leave him to stumble along on his own, or watch him from a distance, amused at his crawling along at the edge of things, clinging to walls, looking frightened and lost-and how can you be frightened and lost in such a place? And their happiness pains you, and their looks pierce you and their laughter sounds to you like screams. So you slip down the first dark alley (and there are plenty along this road), and disappear. No one will miss you.

Hedonists are born that way. Why try to force it? If you don’t enjoy enjoying yourself it sort of defeats the whole point of the exercise, doesn’t it? But I’m not exactly a flagellant, either. I do derive pleasure from sex, and I feel absolutely no remorse about the nature of the pleasure I derive from it. It’s not a question of conscience, again, but of nature.

I have been going through Csaba’s Colloquial Italian book, and I really can’t understand what I found so difficult about this language in college. I think I ended up with a C in it. It was sheer laziness, is all. The photo on the cover of this book (left) is a bit strange. It is of the Fontana del Moro in the Piazza Navona in Rome, but taken from a spot where the Moor is seen from behind in all his naked glory. Rather cheeky, so to say. Glutes front and center. I mean of all the sites of Rome you could put on your cover, and all the angles you could photograph them from, why the Fontana del Moro from ‘behind’? Nice as it is.

The cover of my faded Penguin Classics Le Rouge et le Noir is sort of strange, too. It’s an untitled portrait by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. From the Snark archives. But why should it be on the cover of this book, I wonder? Is it supposed to be Stendhal? Or Julien Sorel? It doesn’t fit the latter’s description at all. It’s a bit distracting, but I haven’t had to cover it up as I did the cover of Jude the Obscure, since I couldn’t possibly mistake the bloke on the cover for Julien. A much more recent Penguin edition of Stendhal’s De L’Amour shows a painting by Ingres: Comtesse d’Haussonville. It makes sense, given the topic and the era in discussion.

I was reading some more József Attila—"Reménytelenül"—Hopelessness—or Without Hope as George Szirtes has translated it. I don’t like Szirtes’ translations any more than I like John Bátki’s, though. They’re both so bent on rhyming that they are willing to totally destroy the poem to fit their metrics. The thing about József is he’s very simple and direct. His voice is authentic, his suffering is real. It is the voice of someone who knows sorrow, not one who is simply describing it. How you know is that the way he approaches suffering and despair is not at all formulaic. It’s not how you would think to.

I remember once, when I was a freshman in college, a group of us was playing a game out on the veranda of the main building in the quad. Doug Eck would call out some word, and whoever’s turn it was had to mime it. "Pathos" was one—and I remember Doug saying the way they were acting it out it looked more like "bathos" to him, and everyone laughing. I laughed, too, but I didn’t know the difference. (I still don’t.) Doug liked this kind of game. I liked Doug, somehow. It wasn’t a major crush, but he was a big, clumsily built boy with thick, very curly hair and very blue eyes, and he was very clever. Anyway, he had to mime something that had to do with having gone a week in the desert, and what it would be like coming upon a glass of water. We must have carried on the game at dinner, with more liberal rules. He mimed first seeing the glass, with a look of wonder, as if he had been wishing and praying and here was the answer, and then he set about caressing the thing, touching it to his face, and then lustily drinking it down, the whole glass in one gulp. I didn’t mind the last bit, but all the foreplay leading up to it I didn’t think was right. Someone really dying for a glass of water wouldn’t bother with all that. And that’s a little how I feel about these translations. Both of these translators are Hungarian, of course, and I’m sure they’re renowned for their skills, but I imagine they have this attitude about translating Hungarian that says it can’t be done, really, an attitude which frees them from trying to do it faithfully.

"Reménytelenül" is a very straightforward poem. The first stanza reads:

Az ember végül homokos
szomorú, vizes síkra ér,
szétnéz merengve és okos
fejével biccent, nem remél.

(My very literal translation: "Man finally comes to the sandy, sad, watery plain, looks around musing and nods his clever head, [and] does not hope.") Szirtes renders it thus:

Man comes at last to a vast stretch
of sandy, dull, waterlogged plain,
looks around in wonder, the poor wretch,
nods sagely and knows hope is vain.

I only offer my translation, which is absolutely rudimentary, to show what elements are actually present in the original, and where Szirtes has added touches which we might consider editorializing. The content of the first two lines is unobjectionable, but the characterization of (the) man as "a poor wretch" is Szirtes’s invention. József may intend a gentle irony when he says his man "nods his clever head." "Okos" is not a word I would translate as "sage(ly)"—it’s a word used to encourage children and dogs. When he says man ‘nods his clever head,’ we should take it, as in English, as teasing, but without malice, and certainly not with the abject connotations Szirtes lends it. There is a bitterness in the translation that I don’t feel in the original. The feel of the first stanza, in the original, is peculiarly light and loving, whereas Szirtes’s translation is quite heavy and dark. What makes the original so moving, though, is precisely this very human tone that József has. Here he is speaking very plainly but almost whimsically of despair.

In the second stanza he speaks of "ezüstös fejszesuhanás játszik a nyárfa levelén" – again very literally "a silvery axehead playing in the poplar leaves," which Szirtes translates "an axehead, a silvery sighing, shudders across the poplar tree." The tone of the poem in Hungarian is confirmed by the verb játszani, which can only mean "to play". There’s no question that here the axehead is playing in the leaves of the tree. There’s no "sighing" and certainly no "shudder" anywhere to be found in the original. Sticking these words in the poem, Szirtes just gets further and further from the heart of it. When József speaks of despair here, he speaks of it in this light, whimsical way: "Clever" man makes up his mind, "right then, no hope! No problem!" The poet, too, having reached this desolate plain, is trying to calm himself in the same way...

Én is így próbálok csalás
nélkül szétnézni könnyedén.
Ezüstös fejszesuhanás
játszik a nyárfa levelén.

("I, too, am genuinely trying to look around unconcernedly...") Despair is there in the shape of an axe playing amongst the leaves of the poplar, which Hungarians call nyárfa—literally "summer tree." There is a carelessness to Fate—there is no one wielding the axe, either—you can see it dancing through the tree-tops, gaily cutting off the summer leaves before it’s their time to fall.

And then, again, at the very end, the translator chooses precisely the wrong words to express what József had in mind. Where the poet says "the stars gather round gently, and watch, watch," our interpreter says: "the gentle stars jostle and bunch/and gaze on in astonishment." "Bunch" here is slant-rhymed with "branch," "astonishment" with "shivering event." The poet’s "s nézik, nézik a csillagok," which is the final line, might in another context give the sense of astonishment. Nézni being "to watch," if you were to say in English, "they watch and watch" (reminds me of Whitman’s 28 bathers) you’d have to assume that whoever it was doing all this watching had a good reason (Whitman certainly did), that they were mesmerized or astonished, or bemused. Or wondering at whatever it was they were watching. "Gazing" is not a bad choice for nézni in this case, but "astonishment" rings hollow. It’s absolutely not the right word. We are in no way prepared for it.

A semmi ágán ül szivem,
kis teste hangtalan vacog,
köréje gyûlnek szeliden
s nézik, nézik a csillagok.

Szirtes describes the heart (szivem—literally my heart), as "a small, dumb, shivering event," but József describes his heart’s shivering "little body." You can see his heart perched, like a songless bird on nothing’s branch. That’s poetry. What is "a small, dumb, shivering event"? That’s not poetry, that’s rhyming. And not even good rhyming—I mean, "shivering event" and "astonishment" is stretching it. So for this lousy rhyme, we lose what’s truly lovely in the poem itself. In this last stanza, in Hungarian, we have this glorious, sweet, whimsical scene: the little heart-bird perched on nothing’s branch, without a song, and the gentle stars gathering round to watch. In pity, in wonder, perhaps as the Magi looked on the infant Christ, in a kind of awe.

But again, though deeply dissatisfied with Szirtes’s poem, I couldn’t come up with anything better myself, really. The original poem, for me at least, is a masterpiece of sweet simplicity that captures the beauty of despair. Especially the last stanza, where the rhythm is almost sing-songy, as each line is complete in itself, so that it’s natural to pause between them (this is not the case in the first and second stanzas—where the phrases are two lines each—it would not be natural to pause, for example, between okos and fejével, since they belong together in the same breath, okos modifying feje—‘his clever head’).

It really is a lovely, big-hearted poem. It reminds me of Hedgehog in the Fog—it’s got that kind of a feeling. Or like this Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major. Any translator would be hard-pressed to compete with it, I have to admit.
I read a bit more of Stendhal before bed. Julien and Madame de Rênal are lovers now. Stendhal has a nice way of talking about their lovemaking, I think. Julien’s a little prick, of course, but what can you expect from a boy that age? He was so set on conquest, Stendhal suggests, that he couldn’t really enjoy his victory. He was very self-conscious, apparently, but it was his first time, and with an older woman. He tried to come off as a Don Juan, but Stendhal says: ‘what made Julien a superior being was the very thing that prevented him from enjoying this happiness right in front of his eyes. He was like a sixteen-year-old girl with charming colouring who is silly enough to put on rouge when going to a ball.’ And that is what’s nice about boys of a certain age. They are trying so hard to pull off being a man when it’s their bumbling youth that’s so pleasing. But then their inevitable failure only adds to their appeal.

3/03/2003

I managed to get hold of a CD of this Albinoni, oboe and violin concertos (actually Zsuzsa bought it for me last night), but the pieces on it are nothing like the adagio in G minor. Albinoni lived from the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, and his compositions are all very well-mannered and polite. They’re good enough company, full of musical maxims, but so urbane as to be almost cynical, with these typical coy little flourishes. They’re definitely by the book.

3/02/2003

They handed out souvenirs at the big media extravaganza last night, like always, but they weren’t as generous this time out. They handed us one CD as we left the ballroom. One CD for the two of us. Zsuzsa handed it over to me immediately. We both thought sure it would be some crappy compilation. It was a compilation, but not too crappy, although I see no reason any of the pieces on it should remind anyone of the evening they’d just spent not greeting each other and just generally being pricks. And none of the pieces were related in any way to any of the others on the compilation, either, as far as I could tell. What do Vivaldi, Mozart, Elgar, Satie, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Wagner, Albinoni, Grieg, Gershwin and Ravel have in common? I can’t figure it out. I will say that all of the selections were verging on the sentimental.

I know from reading some piece in a recent Sunday Slime that Tchaikovsky is thought to be très, très bourgeois, a tad too sentimental for serious music-lovers.

Grieg’s Piano Concierto Op.16 in A Minor, though not one of Grieg’s bouncier pieces has its florid moments—but what a sweet and lovely piano interlude in there. Well, it starts out as sort of an interlude, it gets a little strident, once it reckons it’s won you over.

I like this Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor ,with the pipe organ. It is plodding and sad, like me. It’s got a lot of violins, and I love violins. If I had to choose, I’d say, ‘Give me strings!’ I’m listening to it now and it just goes on and on. Really, towards the end it thrashes and gasps in a kind of ecstasy of despair. And then it just ends. I don’t know anything about this Albinoni, when he lived, composed, anything.

None of the pieces, with the exceptions of the final two (‘Porgy and Bess’ and ‘Bolero’) are all that plucky. Well, Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’ is pretty plucky, too. As for whether it’s really Autumn he’s captured, I don’t know. Maybe on a crisp, sunny day.... I get the little whirlwinds in there, and here comes a real gust, and some clouds rolling in, maybe that’s a drop or two of rain.... Mmm, a note of sadness. That’s nice. I guess it is Autumn, after all.

Mozart is brilliant, of course. There’s a quote from him in Stendhal. At the head of Chapter 6 (‘Boredom’):

‘I no longer know what I am,
Nor what I am doing.’

His music has such an innocence. A clarity, a wisdom that is only in the innocent. His Concerto for Clarinet in A major seems to ask the saddest questions so sweetly, and the universe seems to answer so gently. And it’s all so true you could weep.

Then comes Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85. I know this piece, but I don’t know this Elgar. It’s quite serious. Cello’s are very sober instruments, like grown up violins. They have a slightly more philosophical outlook than violins do, too.
I started Le Rouge et le Noir last night. I had started it before, some years ago, but it’s nothing like I remember. Here’s a book in which holding hands plays an even huger role than in Hardy. I am up to chapter twelve, and half the book so far has been about Julien holding hands in the dark with Madame de Rênal. I like it very much so far, though.

My upstairs neighbors are a real nuisance. They were yucking it up until two this morning. The thing is, they aren’t young people, as I have said. They are on the other side of middle age. Everything about them screams: trash! I hate to say it, but it’s true. I put in my earplugs. Three more months, I say to myself, just three more months.

This morning I hardly wanted to move. It’s funny, in the end I did. I should have more will power. It’s the thought of another day. I’ve had my shower, breakfast and a coffee now. I suppose I could crawl back into bed.