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Genius

Genius

Genius is the kind of film literary buffs may like a lot more than we should. One reason for this, I’m guessing, is the rarity of the subject matter for a Hollywood production: literary lives. Specifically, the dynamic between editor and novelist. Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe are the central characters, with cameos from Fitgerald and Hemingway, two (more famous) authors Perkins also helped usher into world renown.

Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, with Jude Law as Wolfe, Laura Linney as Louise Perkins and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s patroness and lover. It may seem odd that most of the leads are British or Australian, and that the New York scenes were mostly filmed in Manchester and Liverpool, UK. Especially strange, perhaps, because Wolfe, the Asheville, North Carolina native, was quintessentially American, an important precursor for artistic movements like the Beats. They who lusted so for the “real America.” But it works. It works. And it’s funny at times, too, like when Wolfe’s second manuscript is hauled into Perkins’ office, a dozen or so piles of highly stacked hand-written pages, waiting for his no doubt tired eyes. Luckily for both Wolfe and Perkins, Scribners had a large staff of secretaries who worked tirelessly to change the hand-written pages into typed works, ready for the editor’s pen.

I liked that it showed how possessed with words Wolfe was, how he just couldn’t stop writing, couldn’t stop the flow of words, couldn’t sleep. It reminded me of Picasso and his manic painting, sculpting, myth-making, driven as if by demons to always make art. Wolfe died far too young, at the age of 37, to experience the fall off from that high, from the feeling that you can’t not make art. So he will always be for us at the pinnacle of that fever. All 6’5″ of him. It never broke for Wolfe. He likely never experienced the frozen emptiness of searching for a lost muse. But some of us have lived long enough for that, for the end of fevers and staying up all night, thrashing around inside our heads and hearts to focus the chaos and bring it out, reshaped, into the world.

For decades, it was conventional wisdom that Maxwell Perkins shaped Wolfe’s best (and first) novel, Look Homeward, Angel, into something coherent, accessible, a work of genius. But in recent times, some scholars have countered this by saying that the conservative Perkins cut far too much, and not always for valid reasons of aesthetics. If he thought something was offensive on religious grounds, or wasn’t patriotic enough, or might offend sports lovers, he cut it out. Which led a couple of scholars to bring out Wolfe’s original manuscript, with its original title, back in 2000. I haven’t read O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, yet, but it’s on my list. So I don’t really know if those scholars have a solid case against what Perkins did. The movie doesn’t take that angle, of course, being more concerned with giving Perkins his due. The argument seems strong that it’s time for this. Like a river flowing back to its (parental) source. It doesn’t have to be either/or, when it comes to art.

 

 

They had fun too

They had fun too

At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell
At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell

A fine book, and timely. It provokes much thought, about how we live our lives, how we can better see the world and our own place within it. Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existential Cafe is a group biography, in a sense, about several individuals, a movement, a few key countries, and one city, especially: Paris. She gives us the philosophical background, places her main characters in proper context, shows how they lived and loved, together and apart.

Some of them had fun, despite the talk of anxiety, nothingness and the absurd. Perhaps because of that talk. They drank the night away. Often. Some danced and danced well. They didn’t seem to sleep much at all, especially Sartre who we learn took too many drugs to wake up and fall asleep. And, for a time, they shook things up and all kinds of people wanted to know what the big deal was, especially in America. Many wanted to be existentialists, or dress like them, or think they dressed like them. Because cross-cultural ties were crossing back and forth, and the French and German existentialists often wanted to emulate certain aspects of American life, while Americans wanted to emulate the existentialists. It was all the rage in the late 1940s and 1950s and still haunts our culture, though we no longer really see it or acknowledge it. In our movies, especially, when the subject turns to authenticity, nonconformity, the absurdity of life, existentialism is likely there.

The book builds. It’s fairly short, given the subject matter, at roughly 327 pages before notes and such. At least it seems short. Too short, for me. I wanted to spend more time with my old friends, and I really liked that the author and I first learned about most of these character at roughly the same time, give or take a few years. The 1980s. A time, ironically, that seemed like the anti-existentialist decade par excellence, and still does. The decade of Reagan, New Wave music, John Hughes and Wall Street. It was a rebellion against the rebellion of the 1960s, and the dazed and confused 1970s. It was a running away from all things noir, “authentic,” too deep, into an embrace of masks and the future, aliens and weird science and the beginnings of the mass computer age. It was an embrace of “nerds” who were different from their classmates, but the same as their peers. It was, like all decades, a bit dazed and confused too.

But I digress. Sarah Bakewell’s book isn’t about all of that. It’s not a review of the 1980s. It’s mostly a story of Dasein, Heidegger’s Being, and how his work sprang in part from Husserl’s phenomenology, and how Husserl’s work sprang in part from Brentano’s, and how Heidegger influenced Sartre and so on, and how Heidegger’s Dasein fell out of favor, for a host of reasons, but the chief being his time as a Nazi. And it’s about the opposite part of the political spectrum from that, too, the left. How Sartre and Camus, both leftists, broke over political issues, and how Sartre and Merleau-Ponty also broke over leftist politics. But it’s also about one of the most unfairly neglected philosophers of that time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her most important contributions, her life with Sartre and others, her fierce loyalties. She deserves a renaissance all her own.

Existentialism itself does too. It’s about Time.

 

 

The Decision

The Decision

building

And he thought about building
Crafting
Making things

Merging the useful with the useless
To some

For there are beings in this world
Who care nothing for beauty

There are beings in this world
Who care nothing for art

So he would build the functional
And make it sing for the tone deaf

For the colorless he’d make
Things bloom in usefulness

But then he thought
Why work so hard
For them?

For the beings who pass it all by
As if it’s just an obstacle in their way?

Why destroy himself for their sake?
He wondered

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But he remembered her and that walk
Along the strand and the found things
The found-art things that sang to them both

Like some lost child or lost friend
They thought they’d never see again
In this world

In this battered old world of obstacles to shatter
And eclipse

Thrown into Being

Thrown into Being

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The clearing
She thought she heard

The last clearing
It was Heidegger’s not hers
And after his keyre
His turn

So many turned on him
But not for that
For other things like his falling out of Being
With the world

With the world as it ought to be

So she passed through that last clearing
On her way to something nonfictional
Non-mythical
. . . beyond epic legend and folk-tale

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Existence comes before essence she thought
Or we have essentialized all mythologies

Deifying the final clearing
Waiting for gods and goddesses who toy with us
Reverses that
Reverses existence and essence

So that there are no white-capped mountains
Or heathered valleys or suns or half moons
In real time
Only in stories and black words on the page

And we seek both she thought
We seek lost words and brave actions
And projects for our lives
In real cities and real towns

Through the clearing beyond the black clouds

 

Being With Time

Being With Time

Angles of Being I push awayangles5
Like winter visions in summer
Or summer sweat in the fall

I fall for it all the time
The angles of Being as if
They existed like that

Just like that in realities
We can’t fathom and never
Will see

Because our senses are puerile
In the grand scheme of things
In the swelter of summer

In the mists of winterish
Storms and  howls
And legendery wooshing

Like some pack of grey wolves
Glowing across the bad lands
Towering above us all like black clouds

    The winterish heart of Being survives
            In the midst of this or that spring

thetrees3

Being with time
Being with time for the crash
For just a third or fourth shattered sound
For just an inch of crescendo

I wander between the angles
And the wisp of a chance
That it will ever

                    Ever see me again

 

 

Room

Room

We adapt. We create new fictions in order to adapt. The more things are beyond our control, the more fictions we create. This is the basic setup for one of the best films of 2015, “Room,” starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for her role as Joy, mother of five-year-old Jack.

The room in question is a shed. It’s their entire world, mother and son’s. They are not allowed to leave. Joy invents games and stories and explanations for Jack, in order to make this extraordinary situation ordinary. She invents games and stories and explanations in order to shield her boy from the harsh realities of life as a captive, a woman kidnapped seven years ago by a man they both call “Old Nick.”

We learn bits and pieces of their story as time goes on, but, at first, the freakish abnormality appears almost normal — Joy’s plan for her son. Just the two of them, making the best of it, with the occasional bouts of anger and rebellion from Jack, which Joy tries to defuse with anxious, worried love, never giving up hope of escape entirely, though she hides this from her son.

Emotions fly. This is a very emotional movie,  but never cheaply so. No Hallmark card, this. No saccharine uplift. No oversimplified mother and son dynamics. It’s very real, despite the surreal conditions and locale. They fight. When things change dramatically for mother and son, new experiences force new dynamics and they fight in different ways. But there is always love there. There are always deep, human connections and bravery and a sense of wonder at the world, no matter how large or small.

This is a truly wonderful movie, one that sends your thoughts out in a thousand different directions. It makes you see things in a different way, in many different ways, which is something Art does better than anything else.

 

 

What is the Holy?

What is the Holy?

Van Gogh. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset, 1890
Van Gogh. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset, 1890

The holy is not the gods. Humans have been told about thousands of different gods, for thousands of years, primarily to steer us into obedience of earthly powers, and to make us give up our searching.

The holy is not religion. Religions were designed to organize this obedience, to add layers and layers of fictional supports, to add so many layers our heads spin, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not empire, or nation, or nation-state. These things are formed to protect earthly power, with layers and layers of fictional supports, to make our heads spin, while they and their religions use the old gods and the new to make us obedient, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not money, or capitalism, or corporation. These things are used to power empire, or usurp it, to defend, expand or subsume it, so we remain in obedience to the old gods and the new, and stop our searching.

 

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The holy is art, music, literature and philosophy, and whatever pushes us beyond all boundaries, so we stop obeying and go on searching.

The holy is song and the space between, the moment above the sunrise, the first step after, that we may cast out our sad, defeatist, settling natures and soar above them, and go on searching.

The holy is what makes children run from here to there, breathless with excitement, too excited to walk, much less stand still, because they seek freedom from obedience, and must go on searching.

The holy is the ground of love, because it gives us strength of heart, to go on and on, and moments of rest to prepare for journey, and new ways to look at horizons. It is both elixir and nourishment, sustenance and accelerant, and what searchers sometimes need to prevent walking blindly. For blindly searching is just a different kind of obedience, to another false god, and another. It is not freedom from. It is not the holy.