Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism

Most people in most times and places, have derived their identity from their agreements with others. This is the case with church-goers and patriots. Others create a sort of artificial fraternity with sports loyalties or ethnic identity. It is only in our belated post-Romantic era that differences tend to be more highly prized. In the eighties I knew a critic who championed Night of the Living Dead as the greatest modern movie, proud of his singular favorite. Even a conspicuously individualist twentieth century critic, however, can enjoy assenting in a common judgment. With just such a pleasure in aligning myself with a widespread opinion, I regard Sergei Eisenstein as a very great filmmaker indeed. The work of this intensely original and idiosyncratic artist under a system where the collective received official endorsement when opposed to the individual poses aesthetic problems as well as the personal ones Eisenstein spent his life negotiating.

I recently watched Strike for the first time in decades and found it as rewarding, frame by frame, as I had in the past. Above all else, Eisenstein is a great master of montage, the most purely cinematic of techniques. His dazzling sense of composition satisfies the viewer in nearly every shot. What other director provides his audience with such an array of fascinating faces, each photographed with light and angle cunningly arranged to display every expressive irregularity? If Ivan the Terrible is operatic in its grand spectacle, Strike is a dramatic, intricately worked sonata, in which waves of formal beauty succeed each other one after another.

Curiously, Eisenstein’s formalism, which has brought such delight to cinephiles, would have been proof of its degenerate corruption for the Stalinist enforcers of Zhdanov-style socialist realism who oversaw his projects. Finding himself in the position of a medieval stained glass artist confined to Christian motifs, he, like they, produced work of captivating power. Though forbidden the pursuit of themes other than those prescribed by bureaucrats, he worked out his own dialectic between the generalizations of a vulgar Marxist vision and the myriad and unpredictable details of observed reality. The tension is encoded in the film’s casting, plotting, and montage.

The idea of “socialist realism,” while based in the precise and nuanced realism of Flaubert, Zola, and Balzac, avoided the chaos, ambiguity, and obscurity of experience in favor of simple didacticism. Thus, while insisting that the work was true to life in a way unprecedented in earlier art, Eisenstein substituted a flat morality tale for the complexity of life, all the while claiming to be more “real.” While the result is considerably more palatable than the brilliant Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl, its plot-lines are as unconvincing as the “eight model plays” of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

For instance, Eisenstein’s fondness for selecting non-actors for many roles might seem to narrow the gap between the art work and observed reality. Instead of Hollywood-style stars, one sees “real people.” In practice, though, the director selected people who most strongly suggested stereotypes -- the strong young worker, the capitalist, the priest – as little “real” as glamorous actors. Again, the pretense of heightened realism leads in fact to stylized convention as tight as that of the commedia dell’arte.

The concluding massacre of the workers, unforgettably presented with slaughterhouse images, belies the “optimism” that was prescribed for socialist realism. The intertitle listing places where such repression had in fact occurred reinforces the fidelity to lived experience. Yet the viewer experiences the denouement as a tragic ritual, a sacrifice which expands the worker’s suicide earlier in the story and presents death as redemptive ritual, very much resembling the passion of Christ.
Is Strike realistic? Of course, a film is a series of images on cellulose acetate with virtually no resemblance to life, just as a novel is ink marks on two-dimensional pages. The degree of realistic illusion differs from one work to another, but it is always dialectic, conflicted, and ambiguous. In Eisenstein’s great film, the pretense of reproducing data from lived experience allowed the artist to produce great formalist works. (His colleague Dziga Vertov, with his kino pravda, illustrates one further possibility of the aesthetics, less monumental and dramatic, more lyrical and loose, of claiming to reproduce reality.) At the same time in America, one might note Dos Passos’ USA trilogy for its combination of modernist technique and representation of documentary truth. Art is always art; reality, reality. The implicit claim of realism is simply one of a variety of artistic techniques. The difference between realists and formalists resembles the medieval one between Realists and Nominalists, or one might trace it back to Plato and Aristotle. In the end, surely, both and neither are correct. Struggling with these oppositions is our truth. In Eisenstein’s case, the contradictions between style and content, worked out by an individual artist operating under a murderous philistine tyranny resulted in some of the world’s most memorable movies

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann]

Literature and Life (Howells)

I have a fondness for essays, the wandering of familiar pieces and the rhetoric of formal ones. I know, as Montaigne did, that every essay, whatever the topic, must express the consciousness of the author. Burton, Bacon, and Browne; Cowley, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt and the endearing Lamb, Pater, Pound, Woolf, Orwell, each has its charm. I had never before encountered, however, the essays of arch-Realist William Dean Howells.

His travel writing resembles that of his friend Mark Twain, in its arch wit. Visiting Bermuda, he notes that the presence of those of African descent “burden” the whites with a “conundrum” and proceeds to exemplify this principle with an anecdote of three tourist ladies tormenting a gardener with their curious attentions. There is an essay on a dime museum and the show performed inside which is a marvel of weirdness in which a short drama involving dance is succeeded by a blackface performer who “went from one wild gayety to another,” followed by contortionists. We learn of this exhibition at second-hand – the author himself was too genteel to venture into such a place -- but his informant declares “Aren’t the arts one? How can you say that any art is higher than the others?” His essay on Spanish prisoners of war is a strong bit of anti-imperialist journalism. There is good criticism and a great deal of information about American taste and publishing by one of its most influential figures.

My own copy of the book, one discarded from a university library, is a first edition including photographic and watercolor illustrations. One can see perhaps why it was culled – the pages were uncut until my reading. The writing is far fresher than the Victorian lettering on the cover.

The Fifth Queen (Ford)

For most readers, Ford is known for his influence in Modernism through The English Review and as the author of the Parade’s End tetralogy. The Fifth Queen was followed by two sequels, Privy Seal and The Fifth Queen Crowned, portraying an almost suffocating atmosphere in the court of Henry VIII through the career of Katharine Howard. The intrigue rising from both personal and party maneuvering is constant and grave in its effects. Two parties struggle for influence – an old order aligned with Catholicism and the traditional learning the heroine has mastered opposed to a new and uncertain Renaissance alternative.

Ford, who took style seriously indeed, chose to use a curious diction sprinkled with archaisms. Perhaps I have a high tolerance for affectation, but the language enhanced the novel for me. Though the work was called by Ford’s friend Conrad, “the swan song of historical romance,” its experimentalism may be suggested by the fact that William Gass is one of its fans.

Man of Straw (Der Untertan) Heinrich Mann

It is difficult to avoid reading this book as prescient. Written in 1914, its hero is a perfect pre-Nazi Nazi. Seeking to submerge his wretched character in a great man, Diederich adores the Kaiser fully as much as the next generation was to idolize der Führer. The loutish young manufacturer is nasty in his anti-Semitism, if not yet violent and he tells his wife to follow the Kaiser’s formula and to restrict herself to “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.” His cowardice, selfishness, and hypocrisy are so consistent that the story makes salutary propaganda but thin fiction.

Even the appreciative reader will understand why this commendable anti-fascist lives under the shadow of his brother’s reputation. Apart from this book, his novel Professor Unrat is the basis for von Sternberg’s great film The Blue Angel.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dinner with Mrs. Pea

Having driven out of Chiang Mai, we arrived in an area of cultivated fields and small rural homes, along with some grander establishments that constituted a sort of very dilute suburbia. When we turned into Mrs. Pea’s drive, we were greeted by a two-year-old ambassador on the lookout for guests and then by Mrs. Pea herself. Her welcome was gracious indeed, warm yet aristocratic; her cordiality was sufficiently celebrated that she was familiarly known as “Sweet Pea” among her educated, English-speaking friends.

Her home was designed following the affluent variant of domestic Thai architecture. The rambling place was a series of rooms connected by spacious areas too large and irregular to be called hallways. Each child, though hers were now married or away at university, had a room. These living quarters were on stilts, creating a first floor, in this case walled in but undivided with the kitchen facilities in one corner.

She offered miang kham, an appetizer of small morsels – coconut, peanuts, possibly some bits of fish or shrimp, tiny fragments of ginger, lime and peppers which the diner wraps in a wild betel leaf and tops with a lime/fish sauce. “We used to have such a healthy diet, even for snacks” she lamented, “but dishes like this are less popular these days.” I recalled that she had asked that we not give her grandchild a lollipop. In this account of a dinner, I find myself omitting the dinner. I could hardly detail the fabulous meal she laid out: meat and seafood curries, vegetable dishes galore, a few legumes, rice, noodles, desserts.

With the well-being of a full belly, I headed upstairs to the home’s main floor. Mrs. Pea pointed out the shrine room with incense burning for the Buddha images. The room was empty except for the altar and, in an opposite corner, a cushion and a heap of books and magazines. “I like to go there to read,” she said. “It’s so peaceful.”

She lifted a small container from the altar. It was, she said, her great-grandfather’s ashes. He had been prison administrator at a time when he owed his appointment directly to the king who then gave him the name Unlimited Punishment, which must have impressed both him and the populace. She then displayed several long and sharp swords which doubtless made an impression beyond that of the appellation alone. I felt as though I were in the home of the descendant, at any rate, of a Lord High Executioner nearly as fabulous as Ko-Ko.

It was a dark night, the stars sharp and intense. Mrs. Pea had provided the party with a dozen or so sky lanterns (khom loi), paper structures with a flame attached to the bottom, burning wads of paraffin-soaked toilet paper and providing hot air, causing the boxy rice-paper lantern to float slowly aloft. In northern Thailand, they were originally a sort of offering to acquire Buddhist merit, but their enchanting beauty led to wider use. They are still used to envision one’s anxieties and cares wafting into the distance and disappearing. As they moved skyward, our lanterns looked now like a sort of drifting constellation, now like a school of luminous sea creatures in a lagoon of the mind. There was little wind, only enough to create a fascinating edge of uncertainty as the lights went up and up, just barely visible fifteen minutes after they had been released. After the ritual, it was difficult to believe that any viewer had not shed a worry or two at the least.