A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What I'm Reading

The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong 

Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capabilities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. (p. xiii)
This makes religion sound like yoga or dieting or vowing to read ten pages of Proust every day: one of those worthwhile pastimes that one resolves to take up on New Year's Day, and not the central and most powerful guide to life. But that's okay. It's a definition that I, being something of a spiritual lazybones, rather like. 

[The] rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism. The two are related. (p. xv) 
And related partly because each is an alarmed reaction to the other.  

If the historians are right about the function of the Lascaux caves, religion and art were inseparable from the very beginning. Like art, religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life. As meaning-seeking creatures, men and women fall very easily into despair. They have created religions and works of art to help them find value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. (p. 8) 
Yes, and art has gained the upper hand. Sometimes religion's attempts to construct meaning only produce more "relentless pain and injustice." A recognition of this, and of the fact that humans -- not god(s) -- "have created religions," has caused many of us to turn for consolation to the arts and not to religion. 

The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic. (p. 9)

Human beings are so constituted that periodically they seek out ekstasis, a "stepping outside" of the norm. Today people who no longer find it in a religious setting resort to other outlets: music, dance, art, sex, drugs, or sport. (p. 10) 
Which explains why religions have traditionally been hostile to most of these other outlets.     

Poem of the Day: Ezra Pound

In a Station of the Metro 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; 
Petals on a wet, black bough. 
--Ezra Pound

"What makes that a poem?" a student of mine once asked. "It's just a sentence broken up into two parts." 

Not a bad question, actually, when you learn that Pound originally had it printed like this: 
The apparition      of these faces       in the crowd
Petals      on a wet, black       bough
He wanted to emphasize the "ideogrammic" quality of the poem, the fact that it was inspired, as so much of his early verse was, by Chinese poetry. And it is sort of like a haiku by someone who can't count. 

So the next time I taught the poem, without telling the class who wrote it, I put it on the board alongside this: 
At a Subway Stop 
The specter of these visages in the throng; 
Blossoms on a damp, dark branch. 
And I asked the class which poem they liked better and why. I hoped they'd like Pound's version better, so we could talk about word choice and images and so on. And in fact most of them did. But there were some surprising votes for my paraphrase, and some interesting reasons. 
  • In a Station of the Metro / At a Subway Stop -- Some of them didn't know that the Metro is the Paris subway, of course. So the chief reason for preferring my title was that it was clearer. 
  • apparition / specter -- More of them knew what specter meant than apparition, which was a plus in its favor. And specter was "creepier." Those who did know what apparition meant argued that it was better because it implied something appearing suddenly, like people coming out of a subway, and there wasn't anything really creepy about flower petals on a limb. 
  • faces / visages -- Those who preferred visages said it was a "fancier" (i.e., more "poetic") word, while faces was "sorta ordinary." 
  • crowd / throng -- Throng was judged more poetic, too. Somebody said it gave a sense of movement, of thrusting forward, which crowd didn't.  
  • Petals / Blossoms -- Someone said that blossoms were clusters of petals, which gave you more of a sense of people all crowded together. 
  • wet, black / damp, dark -- The defenders of damp said that if the limb was really wet the petals would wash off. And there were those who liked the alliteration of damp and dark and the way the vowel sound of damp was echoed in branch.
  • bough / branch -- Somebody said that bough was a nursery-rhyme word ("When the bough breaks") that nobody uses anymore, but they weren't sure whether that made it better than branch
Well, there's no accounting for tastes.