Monday, October 24, 2016

Was Simone Weil Anorexic (and Does It Matter)?

Simone Weil (1909-1943), though she died in obscurity, has become one of the most studied and influential philosophers of the 20th century, this despite the fact that she published only a handful of articles in her lifetime. Political theorists treasure her writings on Marxism, labor, and war, while theologists cherish her spiritual writings, many of them highly mystical, on love, evil and what she terms decreation. Her life has become the stuff of legend. A prodigy, Weil had taught herself ancient Greek by the age of twelve. She was passionately drawn to those who suffered from an early age and began haunting labor meetings and acting in solidarity with those she saw as miserable. She had a horror of being physically touched and a habit of speaking her mind without caring whether anyone was offended by what she said. Though plagued by ill health all her life, she worked tirelessly, organizing and teaching laborers, volunteering on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, and always denying herself anything denied others: when the poor people around her had no heat, she refused to light her fire; when they were hungry, she refused to eat.

Weil was of Jewish origin, but her family was not religious and she became a Christian, though she never formally converted, after a series of intense mystical experiences in Assisi. St. Francis would be a guiding light for her her entire life and she wrote to a priest and friend that she dreamed of being forced into a life like his as a mendicant. "I fell in love with Saint Francis of Assisi as soon as I came to know about him. I always believed and hoped that one day Fate would force upon me the condition of a vagabond and a beggar which he embraced freely." Her Christianity confirmed her intense habits of denying herself any necessity that was denied to others. Thus, when in exile during World War II, working frantically for the Free French government, she refused to eat more than those living under Nazi occupation were eating. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she was moved to a rest home against her will where she continued to refuse any treatment, food, or luxury that might have been unavailable to those suffering in her native France. She wanted to work. She died of heart failure at age 34. The coroner opined that her death was caused by self-induced starvation and that she was not in her right mind.

This is a controversial opinion, however. Weil was tubercular and had suffered from migraines and other physical illness all her life. She did drive herself in the most Spartan fashion, certainly part of her decline can be ascribed to the intensity of her work, and she had throughout her life limited her consumption of food both as an act of political solidarity and as a spiritual practice, designed both to humble herself (humility is critical in her spiritual writings) and to destroy her attachment to life, which she saw as necessary to create the voids which God can fill, that is, to be decreated in her terminology. But, it is not clear why specifically she was having difficulty eating at the end of her life. She may have been refusing food, but tuberculosis can make eating difficult and absolutely causes dangerous weight loss.

This ambiguity is not ever really going to be resolved, but recent writings about Weil have taken to diagnosing her retroactively with anorexia. This is problematic, to say the least. Though some do differentiate, many writers conflate anorexia nervosa and anorexia mirabilis. The former is an illness characterized by a distorted understanding of one's weight and an explicit attempt to become thin through starvation. It is tied to self-image. The latter is not even necessarily a diagnosable condition; rather, anorexia mirabilis is a spiritual practice that exists in a web of other ascetic practices, such as self-flagellation, enforced celibacy, or reclusion. Anorexia mirabilis was common in the Middle Ages and was accepted as a form of Christian behavior that, for women especially, was a means of spiritual advancement not unlike becoming an anchoress (many of whom practiced anorexia mirabilis). Anorexia mirabilis does not involve a distorted vision of the body, for the person who practices it negates the body, denies it significance. Not thinness, but lack of attachment to earthly things, including the body that will be cast off at death, is the goal.

To call Weil an anorexic full stop dismisses the fact that starvation is not an inherently pathological behavior. It's possible the behavior was a symptom of mental illness, but not provable and, at least in my opinion, not terribly likely. The coroner seems to have assumed that self-starvation could only have been the result of mental illness, but that's a big assumption to make. Politically speaking, Weil's behavior throughout her life was consistent: she thought that she could only hope to understand those who suffered if she suffered like them. Thus, unlike most intellectual leftists of the period, Weil refused to content herself with organizing and teaching laborers. Instead, she actually took a job at the Renault factory and learned first-hand what it meant to work under the conditions of modern industry. Had she eaten the good food her family might have provided her, her act of solidarity would have had no meaning, as far as she was concerned. Her limited consumption of food was a choice undertaken in order to, in a sense, report from the front lines. Her essay "Factory Work" burns with righteous determination; there is none of the cold-blooded theorizing of other contemporary writers on the subject. It is also important to remember that hunger strikes are, and have been, an effective political strategy, used by Gandhi and his followers and Irish irredentists, to name just two examples. Weil was co-opting a strategy of civil disobedience, at least in part.

It would be wrong to discount the religious significance of her attitude towards food, which must be understood in tandem with political motives. For one thing, her political conclusions are part and parcel of her Christianity, though it is a radical Christianity that firmly rejects proselytizing; in writing about institutions, whether the Church or the Communist Party, neither of which she belonged to formally, she claimed that "collectivity is not only alien to the sacred, but it deludes us with a false imitation of it." For another, Weil was a mystic and mysticism in this age of secular culture tends to make intellectuals uncomfortable. Weil's spiritual beliefs are highly complex and can hardly be explained in a brief essay, but crucial was her belief that "the only way into truth is through one's own annihilation; through dwelling a long time in a state of extreme and total humiliation." That is, to be one with God is to under go decreation. One needn't agree with the extremity and insistence of her beliefs about the humility of human life to recognize that she lucidly expressed a theology that advocated for a lack of care for the body, which had little to no importance to her. Such a belief doesn't make her mentally incompetent - on the contrary, it's a sign of the robust courage and consistency of her mode of philosophical and spiritual inquiry.

Finally, Weil doesn't seem to have spent any time worrying about her appearance. If anything, she made efforts to appear as unattractive as possible. Her hair was left unkempt, she rarely washed, and she wore unflattering smocks. She placed no value on the physical beauty of the human body and, indeed, the body is rarely mentioned concretely in her work. She never had any romantic or sexual relationships, either with men or with women; in fact, she was nicknamed the Red Virgin. The motivations of pathological anorexia - a desire to thin because thinness is codified as beauty or attractiveness, or in order to hide from trauma (to literally become invisible), or for the sake of a ravenous ambition to control one's fate - none of these are reflected in Weil's life or works. Weil didn't care about thinness; she cared about the suffering of humanity and she cared about creating the voids which God could occupy.

Therefore, it seems untruthful to label Weil an anorexic, even if it happens that she did die directly as a result of self-starvation, which is not a proven fact. Secular mainstream culture has made something of a cult of health. We tend eagerly diagnose every oddity, misfortune, or poor choice made by our forbears with some illness or other. Even when anorexia mirabilis is treated as a legitimate form of behavior, it's historicized; medieval women can have practiced anorexia mirabilis, but today, there's a refusal to admit that a non-pathological form of self-starvation can even exist except under extreme duress, such as political imprisonment. Finally, though men as well as women can suffer from anorexia, the disease is strongly gendered and even in some ways a child of the Victorian female diagnosis par excellence, hysteria. To disregard Weil's possible, and intellectually well-grounded, reasons for refusing to eat, or eat enough, dismisses her gifts as a philosopher, activist, and theologist. It is an arrogant act of paternalism that insists that one, singular point of view is correct and all deviations from that point of view can be rejected as forms of insanity. Hence, the coroner's assumption that Weil was mentally ill. The fact that Weil was a woman ought to make us all the more cautious about pathologizing her behavior, behavior that one finds reflected in her religious belief and practice and as part of her political activism.

In some ways, the rush to label Weil an anorexic might have as much to do with the pitilessness of her theology as it does with the fact that she was a woman. Weil isn't prepared to let anyone off the hook, least of all herself, and it is difficult to study her work without feeling that one is a selfish, closed-off person, oblivious to all the suffering and misery in the world. She proves that the comfortable excuse of caring for one's own well-being before anything else is only one way of considering one's duty as a human being, only one, while hers would require sacrifices that very few people are prepared to make. And it is worth asking, if everyone felt it an absolute duty to eat no more than the hungriest person in his country, or even in the world, how long would humanity continue to suffer hunger? We might consider whether Weil was right, even if few, if any, among us are really capable of following her example.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

14 Great Films About Dictatorship

A dictator is an absolute ruler, in his modern incarnation, usually of a one-party state that operates under repressive laws that are nevertheless more loosely enforced than the expressed will of the dictator himself. Modern dictatorships are characterized by the repression of political opponents, who are designated subversives, censorship of the press, the state education system, and the arts, limitations on civil liberties, and the perpetual deployment of the military, whether the formal army, the police, or paramilitary groups, to control the citizenry. The term "dictator" has acquired negative connotations, not least of all because high death tolls are the cost of dictatorial power. Here I've compiled a list of films that examine dictators, dictatorship, and the life of those living under, and sometimes resisting, dictatorial power. Though the word "dictator" is often used indiscriminately as a synonym for despot, tyrant, emperor, or even just absolutist monarch, this is incorrect usage and so none of the most famous tyrannies or despotisms, such as Rome under Nero, Russia under Ivan the Terrible, or France under Napoleon, are represented. Perhaps the most obvious exclusion from this list is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator; though its sincerity is indubitably moving, the film is uneven, suffering from a herky-jerk pace that veers between the tragic and the comic without ever managing to reconcile the two tones, and, while Jack Oakie was nominated for an Oscar, his performance as Mussolini stand-in Benzino Napaloni has aged very badly indeed.

The Conformist (Il conformista) - 1970
Based on Alberto Moravia's novel, The Conformist is one of Bernardo Bertolucci's best films, in the same league with 1900. This film delves deeply into one of the central problems of fascist dictatorship: if the dictatorship is so oppressive, why do most people living under its power, even educated intellectuals, support it, at least tacitly? Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an ordinary intellectual who refuses to see the inconsistencies, fallacies, and dangers of fascist governance, even when he is ordered to assassinate his mentor and father figure, an anti-fascist professor (Enzo Tarascio). The desperate desire to be normal at any cost fuels his capitulation, but this desire is complicated by Clerici's tortured sexuality. Beautiful women (Stefania Sandrelli, Dominique Sanda) haunt the screen like pagan spirits, sexual, alluring, and incomprehensible, subjugated by the regime and yet constantly evading perfect control, while Clerici drives himself deeper and deeper into a political entanglement he cannot even begin to contemplate.

The Damned (La caduta degli dei) - 1969
The Damned (the title would be better translated as The Fall of the Gods) is an unremittingly disturbing film and one of Visconti's masterpieces. The film revolves around the Essenbecks, a wealthy industrial family. Set in the turbulent years of the Nazi rise to power, and unlike the vast majority of such films, The Damned probes the rifts and fissures among the various factions of Hitler's supporters; the family is less split along lines of simplistic support for or opposition to Hitler than it is riven by inter-party conflicts, with one member a virulently racist member of the SA, another an opportunist happy to collaborate with the SS, and another, deeply troubled but sensitive and brilliant, proves that pain and suffering hardly guarantee any degree of sympathy for others who suffer. The viciousness and cruelty with which they treat each other, the sadism and devastating confusion of a decadent world corrupted by the too easy fulfillment of even the most revolting desires, the arrogance that masks a pitiful sense of one's own inadequacy, these are the traits of the Essenbecks, prominent German industrialists, whether they collaborate or oppose the Nazi regime, whether they stay silent or declare their allegiances. The queasy quality of this film lies precisely in its stark refusal to continue past the point of total Nazi victory; hope is stripped away to reveal a gaping horror beneath; brutality doesn't suffice to keep any of these characters alive: only a totalizing despair that destroys whatever shreds of morality remained.

Downfall (Der Untergang) - 2004
Bruno Ganz gives a monumental performance as Hitler in this film that narrates his final days in his Berlin Bunker. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film is scrupulously accurate in terms of its history for a narrative film. If it can be said to have a heroine, she is Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), one of Hitler's private secretaries, a somewhat milquetoast and oblivious girl whose shock at realizing that the Third Reich is coming to end less than two decades after it began stuns her, somewhat, out of her complacency. The film's strength, and the reason it awoke significant controversy, lies in its insistence on creating a three-dimensional portrait of the most powerful Nazi figures, including Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) and his wife Magda (Corinna Harfouch) who murdered their own children in the bunker and Himmler (Ulrich Noethen). Truthfully, Downfall, no matter how complex its portrayals, doesn't come close to inspiring sympathy for these people, responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history, but it does frighten, precisely because it becomes clear that one needn't be a monster to do monstrous things, a salutary lesson in this age of threatened democracies.

Hitler's Children - 1943
Hitler's Children is the pulpiest among a handful of Hollywood films that confronted Nazism head-on, which included The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage's masterpiece) and Tomorrow, the World! Though not a critical success, the film made boatloads of money, perhaps in large part due to its overwrought and almost hysterical vision of Nazi Germany. Tim Holt plays a young Gestapo thug, whose love for an American girl of German descent, played by Bonita Granville, forces him into ideological crisis. The film makes only passing reference to concentration camps and anti-Semitism and prioritizes melodrama over realistic depiction, but the aim of the film is to stress the brutality and horror of daily life under a totalitarian regime: Germans are the perpetrators, but they are also the sheep being led to the slaughter, in desperate need of re-education, of an intrusive reality that contradicts the ideologies they believe, or pretend to believe, messianically. The film's portrayal of mass sterilization of "undesirables" still shocks today.

Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie - 1988
Marcel Ophuls is one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of cinema history; his abilities as an interviewer and editor render the four hours of this film endlessly fascinating and deeply disturbing. Ophuls refuses to satisfy the viewer's increasingly desperate desire for clarity, even as there is no question of his values and his own fiery and righteous point of view. Hotel Terminus, like the equally merciless The Sorrow and the Pity, examines the moral quandaries of World War II unflinchingly, but totally without sensationalism, an effect created by the use of pure testimony rarely illustrated with stock footage. Ophuls simply refuses to centralize his ostensible subject, but he also recognizes that simply defining Barbie as a monster fails to grant any depth to an understanding of the horror of the torture that was Barbie's specialty. The film welcomes dissenting voices, but allows a Jewish concentration camp survivor the final word. While dozens of documentaries have taken Nazi war crimes and criminals as their subject, none other has succeeded so perfectly at balancing condemnation with complexity.

The Interview - 2014
The Interview would almost certainly have been a moderately successful and swiftly forgotten political comedy if the North Korean government hadn't reacted to it with such wrath; ironically, the film's significance is almost entirely due to the interference of North Korea. Easily half an hour too long and at times descending to comedy more in tune with a toddler's sense of humor than an adult's, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's film takes a simple premise - barely competent talk show host (James Franco) and nebbishy producer (Rogen) are invited to interview Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) and ordered by the CIA to assassinate him while they're at it - and builds a series of comic scenarios that eventually culminate in a bloody finale that implies revolution without granting politics any substance. Even so, the movie has its cake and eats it too: the movie's politics are simplistic in the extreme, and yet the friendships between the characters feel fresh, real, and genuinely anchor the film's values; the adolescent desire to blow up the bad guy is freely indulged, but the starry-eyed innocents are more concerned with the safety of a puppy than the success of their mission; female characters are sexualized and lack personality, while the male characters have unexpected depth. What charmed me most, however, were Franco's frequent, nerdy Lord of the Rings jokes.

Judgment at Nuremberg - 1961
Seeing this film was a major event in my childhood - I'm surprised my mother let me rent this particular video - because it was my first exposure to footage filmed by the Allies as they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Rewatching it as an adult, I'm struck as much by the tacit assumptions, political lacunae, and careful moral delineation of the film as I am by its profound emotional impact, largely due to brilliant performances from Judy Garland, who could wring tears from a stone, Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Marlene Dietrich. Though director Stanley Kramer strives to inject moral complexity into the drama of the courtroom, what complexity there is can be ascribed almost purely to the actors. The nastiest Americans are still earnestly striving to live by a moral code, the nicest Germans teeter on the edge of villainy, and their victims are wounded lambs at the altar. Even so, the film's defects in some ways make it a more precious document, one that, in attempting to wrestle with the issue of the victorious Americans, who had just dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, setting themselves firmly on the moral high ground in choosing to try Nazi criminals in military tribunals (as opposed to setting up international tribunals that would be placed above all countries, rather than only the one whose officials were being tried). This is an issue far from clearly resolved; I applaud Kramer for trying with such sincerity.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) - 2006
Released seventeen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut film is about a Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe) assigned to monitor a pro-communist playwright (Sebastian Koch), whose actress lover (Martina Gedeck) has lamentably attracted the interest of the greedy Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme). Mühe gives a revelatory performance as a lonely man whose senses and conscience are awakened as he presides over the apartment, like a silent and lesser god moved by the plight of the mere mortals under his control. The Lives of Others is devastating, but it works well both as a thriller and as an examination of the workings of human morality stretched to its limit under surveillance. Though the film attracted controversy for portraying a Stasi agent sympathetically, I would argue that this is largely the point. Had Mühe's character been portrayed as a monster, the film could not treat its central subject, that is, that humanity lurks in every person and can be revived even after the most exacting indoctrination if that person comes to care for another, to see himself in that other. This is a much more compassionate point of view, and it is also a more hopeful one, for otherwise the monsters among us could only be eliminated by their own methods, by murder, and those who eliminate them would risk constantly becoming such cartoon creatures themselves.

Love and Anarchy (Film d'amore e d'anarchia) - 1973
One of Italian director Lina Wertmüller's four masterpieces released in the 1970s, Love and Anarchy stars two of her favorite actors, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato. The film is set in a Roman brothel in 1932 where Salomè (Melato), a prostitute popular with Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), the head of the fascist police, collaborates with the anarchist resistance by manipulating her powerful clients. Tunin (Giannini), a naive country bumpkin, hides out in the brothel, biding his time: his mission is to kill Mussolini. Love and Anarchy is both a blistering comedy - Spatoletti in particular is a fascist caricature par excellence - and a heart-rending tragedy, for Wertmüller uses both laughter as a means of exposing the moronic nature of fascist ideology and a realistic depiction of fascist abuses to mourn the sacrifices made by partisans, sacrifices that all too often proved futile, for Tunin is a buffoon, but one capable of passionate and pure love, selflessness, and a very reasonable fear of death. Special mention should be made of the costumes by Enrico Job, who manages to endow each of the prostitutes with a sense of personality with their garish finery.

Pan's Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) - 2006
Guillermo del Toro's heart-breaking film is about Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in an astonishing and insistent performance), a ten-year-old girl whose widowed mother is pregnant and deathly ill and whose stepfather, a falangist officer tasked with annihilating the local rebel forces, orders the doctor to save his son and let his wife die without a flicker of an eyelid. Ofelia is an innocent in a world of monsters and so when she meets a faun who gives her three tasks as the price for admittance into a magical kingdom where she will rule as an immortal princess, her bravery, a desperate necessity as her stepfather tortures dissidents in the cellar, is imbued with a positive purpose. Del Toro's fairy tale admits no childish ideas of absolute good and the magical world in which Ofelia attempts to complete her tasks is as violent and dangerous as the real world in which her mother lies dying. By the end, it becomes impossible to draw a distinction between real and imaginary, and blood sacrifice is demanded. Pan's Labyrinth is proof that "realism" can hardly claim superiority when it comes to portraying such surreal and horrifying eras of history as the Spanish Civil War.

Passenger (Pasażerka) - 1963
This Polish film is extremely hard to track down, but it is also one of the most potent cinematic confrontations with the Holocaust. Left incomplete after director Andrzej Munk's death, Passenger uses the techniques of documentary filmmaking to deconstruct and probe the veracity of the testimony of Liza, a female SS guard at Auschwitz, played by Aleksandra Śląska. Years after the war, Liza finally admits her past to her husband, claiming that thanks to her a Jewish girl named Marta (Anna Ciepielewska) survived the liquidation of the camp. The film contrasts this telling with Liza's private remembrance. The bias of both accounts is obvious, but what makes the film so daring is its way of forcing the viewer to sift through the differences between them, to search for some trace of the unadulterated truth, if it can even be said to exist. Passenger is rife with haunting moments: in one scene, a tiny Jewish girl pets an SS guard's German shepherd; the guard smiles down at her before waving her down the steps into the gas chambers. 

Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze) - 1975
Another of Lina Wertmüller's masterpieces starring Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties revels in the grotesque, the abject, and the wretched; it is one of the most challenging and one of the most brilliant of films addressing the horror of concentration camps. It is also howlingly funny. Pasqualino (Giannini) is a Neapolitan ne'er-do-well, a petty crook, whose machismo lands him in jail after he kills his sister's pimp. In a tour-de-force scene, Pasqualino pretends to believe he's Mussolini, which lands him in an insane asylum, and when he gets tired of acting crazy, he volunteers for the army. Once in the army, Pasqualino, ever the scallywag, deserts and lands in a German concentration camp, where he schemes to seduce the grotesquely hideous commandant (a chilling Shirley Stoler). The humor in this film is literally brutal; Pasqualino shrieks for his mother in jail as he's swarmed by an army of weeping sisters, while in Germany he breaks into a private house and gorges on food in front of a shocked granny, and in the concentration camp, the seduction scene is so macabre that its absurdity borders on monstrosity. In other words, Seven Beauties is not for everyone. It does, ultimately, make more than one profound statement about the price of dictatorship, whether that of a man in his family, of il Duce over Italy, or of the commandants over concentration camp inmates.

To Be or Not to Be - 1942
Ernst Lubitsch's wildly subversive comedy is unquestionably Jack Benny's best film and among Carole Lombard's best. The movie's sense of humor is gleefully dark and yet it still has that light, frothy Lubitsch touch. A Polish theater troupe in Warsaw watches with dismay as the Nazis march in, but finds their talents uniquely suited to resistance when they discover that a traitor has a list of the Polish pilots enlisted in the RAF, the families of whom the Nazis want to send to concentration camps as reprisal. Solemnity hasn't got a chance in this film that has a running joke about Concentration Camp Ehrhardt and a false beard, there are Hitler impressions (some of them excellent) scattered throughout, and yet, To Be or Not to Be never hits a false note. Every line has a double, or triple meaning. For instance, Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is recited several times and its meaning alters and amplifies with each recitation. To Be or Not to Be, for all its slapstick and pratfalls, is a genuinely subtle film, its politics crystal clear and not even a little heavy-handed. It is also an impassioned argument in favor of the subversive power of art, even when the artist is a ham.

Vincere - 2009
Marco Bellocchio's gorgeous film (the cinematography is by Daniele Ciprì, who uses complex blacks and deep reds to great effect) tells a curious and until recently secret story of Mussolini's biography. Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) was the passionate, headstrong lover of the young Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi, who also plays Benito, fils) and newly unearthed research has all but confirmed that Dalser was, in fact, his first wife before Rachele Guidi and that therefore Mussolini was a bigamist. Dalser's life is a tragic one; she spent it on a quixotic mission to be acknowledged as Mussolini's rightful wife and the mother of his legitimate son. For this, both she and her son were imprisoned in separate insane asylums, where both would die under suspicious circumstances. Dalser's erasure from the public record testifies to how dangerous her claims were considered to be. In Vincere, Mezzogiorno gives a luminous performance, one that embraces all of Dalser's more difficult qualities without by one iota diminishing the depth of her misery and the extraordinary force of her stubborn indomitability. This operatic film gives full scope to the dramatic possibilities of this piece of history, finally granting Dalser some justice and exposing the unthinkable repression of Mussolini's dictatorship.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Notes on Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite

 Though it may be hard to conceive almost a hundred years later, when sound film technology premiered it was avant-garde in a way that subsequent technological breakthroughs (3-D, digital animation, digital compositing, steadicam) have not been since. While the avant-garde had been experimenting with film since the nascence of the medium, sound brought a new group of artists into the cinematographic world: musicians and composers.

The Soviets, always at the cutting edge of cinema, made their first sound film in 1931, but composers had begun composing film soundtracks even before that (which would be performed with the film or recorded and played to accompany the film), including Shostakovich, who composed his first film score in 1929. In 1932, Prokofiev was commissioned to write the soundtrack for Lieutenant Kijé, based on Russian formalist and Pushkin authority Yuri Tynyanov's novella. It would be the first of several film scores by the composer, which would include Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky. Prokofiev had the reputation of a radical, as far as his music was concerned, but he was an inspired choice. Lieutenant Kijé tells a story that is equal parts comedic and tragic, tracing a lineage from the elegance of Pushkin and the irony of Gogol: a clerical mistake results in the nonexistent Lieutenant Kijé to catch the eye of Tsar Paul I and the officials of the court, too frightened to admit their error, soon find in their accidental creation the perfect scapegoat and the perfect hero. If the Tsar is angry, Kijé did it; if a princess needs a husband, Kijé marries her; if the army needs a commander, Kijé rides at their head. When in the end, Kijé cannot be produced, the Tsar is told that the Russian hero has died and Kijé receives a lavish funeral. Rather than end on a note of triumph for the ephemeral lieutenant, when a scapegoat is required again, the deceased Kijé is posthumously accused.

Prokofiev wrote about fifteen minutes of incidental music, scored for a chamber orchestra, for the actual film, but it is the later suite, of about twenty minutes, scored for full orchestra, that became a beloved concert piece. The suite exemplifies two tendencies in Prokofiev's music: an entranced love for the 18th century (also evident in his Classical Symphony, his first, and the score for Cinderella) and a thoroughly modern experimentalism, most obvious in his use of the saxophone, which had acquired some popularity among the Parisian composers with whom Prokofiev associated, but was almost unknown in the USSR. These two approaches are entwined in the story, for, while is set in the decidedly 18th century world of the despotic tsardom, with all its labyrinthine bureaucratic ceremony, its pomp, its sudden, fateful changes in favor, its modernity is marked: its tragic irony, its Beckettian hero who is there and yet not there, its moral vapidity, its refusal to define absolute realities. The creation of Kijé is not the literal handiwork of folk tradition, like the Jewish Golem, nor the scientific monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Kijé exists because he is said to exist; he is a post-factual being.

The suite has five movements, which narrate the tragicomic "life" of the chimerical Kijé. The "Birth of Kijé" introduces Kijé's theme with a fanfare. This is followed by "Romance," in which various instruments, including notably the saxophone, develop an increasingly complex rendition of a folk tune about a dove, "Kijé's Wedding," which intertwines a solemn theme of brass and winds with the playful, rakish melody of the lieutenant's theme, and then the "Troika," an exquisite aural vision of a sleigh-ride in deep winter, in which tinkling sleigh-bells accompany our ephemeral hero on his merry way. The "Troika" is based on a traditional Hussar song and is often extracted and recycled in pop music, particularly Christmas-themed songs. The final movement, "The Burial of Kijé," mingles the various themes, in an elegiac reflection on Kijé's fantastic, if decidedly fictional, life.

Prokofiev demonstrated a fascination throughout his career with Russian folk tradition (Peter and the Woolf, The Tale of the Stone Flower), a celebration of heroic (if perplexingly so) figures of Russian history (the score for Alexander Nevsky, the Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution, the Stalingrad piano sonata), fairy tales (Cinderella), and literature, especially but not limited to Russian literature (War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet, the Pushkin Waltzes). Many of these interests are apparent in the pageant-like Lieutenant Kijé Suite. The piece is unique, however, for it, more than any other of Prokofiev's compositions, is a work about itself. Since Kijé is a purely imaginary man, his story is metafictional, fictional not only to us, the listeners, but to the flesh-and-blood characters, who have created him in their own (fictional) world. In this sense, the suite reflects upon itself, upon the flights and visions that, within the mind of the artist, are the fertile material of his compositions. It tells us the story of creation, of its own composition, as it tells the story of the creation of a man who was and yet was not. Kijé's existence is bounded by belief in him, just as the suite that brings him to life is bounded by our hearing it. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: Julia Stephen's "Notes from Sick Rooms"

One could be forgiven if the name Julia Stephen fails to ring a bell. She occupies the footnotes of biographies of better known Victorians, such as Edward Burne-Jones, for whom she modeled as a young woman, and her daughter, Virginia Woolf. In her lifetime, she was more than well-liked: Woolf wrote that, in later years, acquaintances were moved to tears when remembering her mother, but Woolf herself did not see Stephen, the quintessential angel in the house, as a figure to emulate. While Stephen signed a notorious petition in 1889 against women's suffrage, Woolf would go on to become one of the foundational figures of modern feminism, as the author of A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Interestingly, Woolf wrote that Stephen left behind her no concrete legacy and indeed Stephen never worked professionally. She was a loving wife, an adoring mother, a devoted daughter, and much in demand as a (strictly amateur) nurse, in an age when the professionalization of nursing was much discussed, but still controversial. But Stephen was also a published author; her Notes from Sick Rooms was published in 1883, the year after Woolf's birth.

It is highly unlikely that this slim volume of commonsensical advice for those looking after ill family members would be remembered or available if Stephen's daughter hadn't been Virginia Woolf, but she was and thus Notes from Sick Rooms is in print, paired with Woolf''s essay On Being Ill, from the Paris Press. It is not an especially literary work. Unlike Florence Nightingale, Stephen was not given to flights of poetic fireworks, but she has a wry, too practical to be coquettish sense of humor. The book is made up of short pieces, each on a subject of importance to the nurse, such as "Washing," "Visits," and "Remedies." Stephen advocates for a radically patient-centric approach to nursing. Each piece of advice is intended to lighten the patient's misery and thus she spends considerable time on issues that medical professionals, even today, would not consider of especial import. For example, Stephen devotes a section to the subject of "Crumbs," which, as anyone who has ever spent a compulsory period in bed knows, are "the greatest... among a number of small evils which haunt illness." With a typically dry tone, Stephen exhorts the nurse that "she must first believe... I have crumbs in my bed" or else she will fail to eradicate them properly. This particularly wry section recalls, more than any other in Notes, Woolf's pithy and delicately sarcastic sense of humor, for instance in her description of the official clothing of archbishops, generals, judges, and the like in Three Guineas. This one long paragraph is a small, schoolmarmish masterpiece.

Much of Stephen's advice is outdated, for instance, her concern about keeping a fire going at all times, so as to have easy access to hot water and warmed towels, and much of it is, frankly, a bit terrifying. Stephen endorses macaroni as a substitute for vegetables and recommends as a diet for the patient afflicted with nausea "cold quenelles or cold fowls, boiled or roast, with thick cold white sauce or a beef-tea jelly," which will supposedly go down easy while "any hot food would create disgust." Indeed, beef-tea jelly is oft mentioned in Notes and she even includes a recipe, which made me devoutly glad not to be under her care.

Some of her advice, however, is still quite useful. Her comments on making a bed comfortable or changing the sheets for a patient who cannot get up are as applicable today as they were 150 years ago and her admonition to avoid both "an unnatural gravity or cheerfulness," either of which are quite frightening for someone who is already ill and worried over what further tortures may be in store is sound advice. She also offers excellent instructions on massaging someone, relieving bed sores, and washing a patient while leaving her in bed. Stephen's main point is that a good nurse "should look on her patient as a 'case,' nursing with the same undeviating tenderness and watchful care the entire stranger, the unsympathetic friend, or the one who is nearest and dearest."

Such a view of the nurse is quite lovely and recalls in softer terms Nightingale's avenging angel or Clara Barton's angel of the battlefield. It is also an intensely gendered image of nursing. Historically speaking, it makes perfect sense that Stephen assumes in all cases that doctors are male and that nurses are female, and usually untrained. Elizabeth Blackwell and a tiny coterie of similarly ambitious women became doctors in the 19th century, but they were exceptional to say the least. Nevertheless, I rather take issue with the way in which Stephen's perfect nurse mirrors so precisely the angel in the home, that Victorian paragon of selflessness, self-abnegation, and silent suffering, the creature that Woolf determined to kill in "Professions for Women" in order to set herself free from the tyranny of respectable, domestic womanhood. It is worth noting that Woolf claimed she could not recall ever being alone with her mother except during childhood illness. Stephen, clearly an intelligent, witty woman with decades of expertise caring for the sick, would have been scandalized at the idea of becoming a doctor, for instance, or a public intellectual, though she spent her life nursing and writing publicly about it. If Woolf dismisses Notes from Sick Rooms so easily, this could be the reason: Stephen remained bound to a vision of womanhood that superseded her individuality as a person.

The conclusion of the book may (despite the beef-tea jelly) prove the most shocking to the modern reader. Stephen matter-of-factly addresses how the nurse ought to behave when the patient dies. She describes how to properly lay out the body, so as to spare the mourning family as much as possible, and she sternly insists that the nurse must remain quiet, composed, and unhurried, for "in the presence of death all bustle is unseemly." Though death is as ubiquitous today as it was in the Victorian era, it is increasingly rare for people to die at home, cared for by family members, rather than in a hospital, hooked up to monitors and IV poles, surrounded by hordes of professional caretakers. It is our attitude towards death, rather than its reality, that has changed. Death is tastefully kept behind curtains and closed doors. Professionals wash, dress, and lay out or cremate the body, it rarely even being seen by family, except by those whose religious practice dictates a wake. Stephen's easy confrontation with death - which is not to say she was cold; she suffered cruelly the death of her first husband - is, I believe, a rather more salutary attitude than our own hidden, despairingly existential fear of mortality. But wait, one might say, surely it must have been easy for a pious Victorian lady with the hope of heaven before her to face death? Indeed, not at all: Julia Stephen, like her husband and daughter, was thoroughly agnostic and faced death with peace and pragmatism, though she believed in no heaven.