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Friends and readers,

Our second Trollope novel for spring and early summer was another novella, the very late Dr Wortle’s School. Not quite as little read as The Golden Lion of Granpere, it is written more in Trollope’s familiar vein: we have an intrusive self-reflexive ironic narrator, and despite the single-story plot-design, a variety of tones, from earnest seriousness about damaging hypocrisy with respect to failed marriages and hidden partnerships. Trollope would not use the term for living together despite knowing the other person is not your legal spouse — the case of Mrs and Mr Peacocke. And from satire over how castes operate (church and school), to the experience of painful exposure of someone’s life and mistakes (to destroy that someone) in newspapers, through letters and mean insinuating gossip, in this case Dr Wortle and his school. The experience of Dr Wortle vis-a-vis the press is strongly reminiscent of The Warden, the very first of Trollope’s 13 novellas (novels “under 300 pages he called them), only Dr Wortle is an aggressive man determined to have the last word, stubborn, not to be fooled by cant, eager to convince, to vindicate himself. In this he resembles Dr Thorne.

The central issue or “dilemma” of this book is a couple takes up a position as usher and wife (where she will fulfill certain comparable functions, like eating with the students) who are in fact not married. The American Mrs (Ella) Peacock while living “out west” married a Mr Ferdinand Lefroy and in a brief time discovered he was violent, abusive to her, continually drinking, gambling, a cheat, cold and indifferent; much to her relief he deserted and then (she was told by his brother, Robert Lefroy) died. This around the time she meets a decent honorable and deeply compatible (congenial) Englishman, Mr (or the Rev. Henry) Peacocke, who is deeply supportive; they marry thinking Ferdinand Lefroy is dead, and then one day he shows himself to them. Horrified, Mr Peacocke is nonetheless deeply attached (as is she) and they flee to England and the obscure job at an English boys’ preparatory school. They are both uncomfortable (she much to my irritation refuses invitations to social events, thus enacting the idea she’s polluted) and think to tell the headmaster the truth, when they are forestalled by the arrival of Robert Lefroy as a blackmailer who when his demand for large sums is refused, proceeds to elaborate the story as hostilely as he can to Dr Wortle. Wortle (who has the same clear perception – I’m slightly ironic — as Dr Thorne), sees the man is a liar. Wortle is capable of irony: “Of course,” said he [Mr. Wortle], “if the lad turns out a scapegrace, as is like enough, it will be because Mrs. Peacocke had two husbands.” And then, not ironic: “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Peacocke then confides the whole story to Wortle, and touched, admiring the man, Wortle just about agrees to keep them on — no matter what.

It would be a more complex work if the couple were not so virtuous and Dr Wortle so ethical at the same time willing to buck the public, risk his living; in reality people aren’t this good (more or less consistently) and why they divorce and how they go about separating at least is not straight forward. There is also no acknowledgement in the book how miserable these preparatory schools often were. Think of Dickens’s satire in Nicholas Nickleby, Bronte’s exposure of the sufferings of young women and girls sent to boarding schools by genteel (fringe often) people. One cannot but remember Orwell’s Such such were the joys (an usher’s wife also “does” the tea) and Trollope’s own wretchedness at school. The story of the boy who almost drowned does not give us the boy’s testimony, and so readily exculpates the school (a mere accident, and he is saved). We’re told how happy they are in language that casts an irony on “parents who love to think that their boys should be happy at school” (Chapter 2). Trollope is caustic over parents who want to think to be told or given the impression their boys are happy at school. Maybe he also sees how impossible that is for many boys, but in his Autobiography Trollope said it was good for boys to get into debt and trouble as it taught them lessons. The boy who was unhappy is presented as spoilt. The ammunition is aimed at his mother, Mrs (Juliana) Stantiloup who is presented as a horror.

In the introductory essay to the Oxford World’s Classics paperback, Halperin points out what a complex subject this is for a book of this length. This story of an illegal pair of lovers is set in a school, so is also about living in a community. According to Halperin, this is a rare book for Trollope where he sides with the unconventional (which means more than sex, you can be unconventional in all sorts of ways, Josiah Crawley is), for the alienated (in some way) individual against the social group. I don’t agree that this is rare: Bill Overton’s The Unofficial Trollope has made a strong persuasive case that Trollope’s books are about the struggle of the self to find some modus vivendi or space to exist in an often stiflingly conventional and obtuse social group. Nowadays this is talked about in general deconstructionist thematic and political terms, that Trollope (for example) undermines primogeniture in Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite, but this older way of seeing the crux at the heart of Trollope’s fiction in terms of social psychology and individual values is truer to the text. Halperin suggests the pervasive theme across Trollope’s works is the hypocrisies of religious. He is as interested in the risk to Mrs Peacocke she will be accused of bigamy as he is in revealing how ugly gossip can insidiously destroy someone. It’s rare novel for Trollope to be so explicit, but then this is explicitness and the examination of taboos is central to most of his broad-art novellas.


Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912): “School is out!” — a depiction of a school for boys — and girls

The novel is proto-feminist. One of Trollope’s narrator’s lines about Mrs Peacocke recalls the violence Lady Carbury experienced before her husband died (TWWLN): “That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man.” This tone of empathy for women found across Trollope’s writing. For example, Trollope’s mid-career The Belton Estate has a Mrs Askerton who was married to brutal man, left him, and lived with the present Mr Askerston for three years before her first husband died. Mrs Askerton is much more ambiguous figure than Mrs Peacocke, her thoughts are hidden from us and suggestively subversive at moments– like Lady Carbury. But, like Mrs Peacocke, Mrs Askerton treats herself as a pariah, a forever polluted thing (the word “purity” as applied to women’s sexuality ought to be expunged from our vocabulary) and has hardly any social life because of what happened to her in the past. Today so many scholar critics want to claim Trollope for feminism; but I have thought that is not so, or it’s a super-qualified feminism when he’s not for the revision of the child custody act, seems against women going out to work for a living, traveling alone and so on. The double standard is very strong: Mrs Peacocke is blamed, and had Mr deserted and she ended up on the streets or a menially-paid occupation, the problem would have been solved! Dr Wortle’s response:

Dr. Wortle, when he read and re-read the article, and when the jokes which were made upon it reached his ears, as they were sure to do, was nearly maddened by what he called the heartless iniquity of the world

The book passes the Bechtel test: there are chapters on women, between women, where the concern is their lives. For example, three chapters with long dialogues between Mrs Wortle and Mrs Peacock: how moving are Mrs Peacock’s frank words: her distress, her love for this husband, the truth of her marriage, what a misery the first and her life then had been, and how much this well behaved intelligent kindly English man transformed her life. We could say this is an argument for allowing divorce on grounds of incompatibility. But the novel – through Mrs Peacocke moves rather to the idea that when in effect Mr P asked her to marry him, she couldn’t refuse — even if she had her doubts which she preferred not to state. Listening and identifying, Mrs Wortle at this point expresses a similar love for Mr Wortle. She also tells Mrs Peacocke “No body has condemned you here.” In fact Mrs Wortle at first did.


R. F. Delderfield (1912-72) — the atmosphere of Delderfield’s novels are the closest thing in films to Dr Wortle’s School when the feeling about the school is paramount

The chapters proceed through clashing intense dialogues whose effect is to examine all the beliefs and norms surrounding marriage’s sexual aspects, sexual possession, how society impinges on marriage, enforces and how social control through hierarchies of authorities and news operates. (The use of these bare dramatic scenes anticipates Henry James.) There is curiously little about children — it’s convenient Mrs Peacock has never had a child – neither Mrs Hurdle or Mrs Smith (another highly transgressive woman who lives with men outside marriage), two equally compromised women — nor does Mrs Askerton have any children come to that. Trollope avoids this important part of marriage and what makes breakups so destructive. Then we expand out to see Dr Wortle warring with respected high males in the community, the Bishop, a fellow cleric, Mr Puddicombe, people Mrs Stantiloup’s letters have managed to make nervous (and begin to remove their sons from Dr Wortle’s school. Trollope’s usual wisdom supports Dr Wortle’s perplexity — should he close the school? It appears he can do without the money. In fact to close the school is to close his life: he has poured his life into his work and his salary, and Trollope says truly anyone who denies that their career and their salary meant little (people do that and say their family means more or something else idealistic) is hypocritical. Wortle does not to close the school and he cannot get himself to.


From Andrew Davies’s Peculiar Practice (it’s about a medical unit within a school):Jock McCannon as the retiring handmaster (Andrew Davies has also produced meaningful film adaptations about school life)

Wonderful portraits of types in the hierarchies and coteries who we have met in the world abound: this seems to me Chaucerian:

The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family,—and also to do his duty,—was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. He had become a scholar in his youth, not from love of scholarship, but as a means to success. The Church had become his profession, and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane, because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places. As a bishop he never spared himself the work which a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of the clergymen under him, he was just with his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious with his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as in warm, he occasionally preached sermons, and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait of manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When first coming to the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our Doctor; but the Bishop had abstained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the Bishop’s part, something of a feeling that the Doctor was the bigger man; and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance which might lower the Doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the Doctor his manliness.

Of Mr Puddicombe, Nancy (one of the members of our listserv) wrote:

Mr. Puddicombe is of a different order. When Dr. Wortle consults him on the subject of the newspaper article, Puddicombe carefully sorts out what is true and what is implied, to Dr. Wortle’s considerable discomfort. In Chapter V of Volume II, Correspondence with the Palace, we enjoy the letters exchanged by Dr. Wortle and the Bishop regarding the Bishop’s actions. Two days after he sends the letter to the Bishop. Dr. Wortle invites Puddicombe’s judgment. He waits because, “Mr. Puddicombe would no doubt have advised him not to send it, and then he would have been almost compelled to submit to such advice.” Although Puddicombe recognizes both the truth of the letter and the case for not sending it, he understands why it was sent: “Had I been in your case I should have thought it unnecessary. But you are self-demonstrative, and cannot control your feelings.”

Puddicombe’s analysis is pertinent: “Of course he [the Bishop] made a mistake. But don’t you think that the world goes easier when mistakes are forgiven.” And, very realistically, “I value peace and quiet too greatly to quarrel with my bishop, — unless, indeed, he should attempt to impose upon my conscience.”

Many of the objections to Wortle’s actions do not impress me because they depend on silly conventions or personal animus. This is different. Puddicombe sees clearly that Wortle’s sensitivity has caused him to lose all sense of proportion. That is, of course, the point of Wortle’s character. He is generous and honest and also somewhat self-righteous, and this gives him the strength to defend the Peacockes of this world.

As is so common in Trollope, letters play a key role in a number of the chapters and one chapter is given over almost entirely to “correspondence.” It’s partly told, not all epistolary narrative so the narrator can inject comments, show us the characters reading the letter are looking over the shoulders of the writer. I wrote a long paper once on Trollope’s uses of epistolarity. In this novel epistolarity is funny and anguished. The section where Dr Wortle becomes so exasperated and indignant and vexed over the newspaper stories and the Bishop’s collusion with them (as a source) did remind me of Mr Harding — only the last thing Mr Harding would do would be to write to the newspapers and be so pro-active. He’s have closed the school, quit his job — indeed he wouldn’t be running a school in the first place. At the end of the section when Wortle has not had a decent reply from anyone — meaning no one has taken his bait, for the bishop is too suave and controlled to respond personally but at first has an underling send a reply that is a refusal to reply on the grounds of Wortle’s discourteous tone — is when Dr Wortle discusses shutting down his school altogether. They are now down to 20 students and a lord who lives far away has written to say his two sons will not be returning. Then the bishop does reply one final time and Wortle calls it ‘beastly.” The bishop simply refuses to acknowledge any part in the newspaper and, from on high, a condemnation of Wortle as behaving in a way unsuitable to his office. Letters permit this kind of thing as face-to-face communications do not. What drives Wortle to exasperation is the assertion he is doing this (and visiting Mrs Peacocke while Mr is off to the US to find proof that Ferdinand Lefroy died since they saw him) because he finds Mrs Peacocke so attractive. She is, and he is drawn to her. The chapters delineating Wortle’s visits to Mrs Peacocke is title; “‘Amo in the cool of the evening.”

The book is drawing to a close when Mr Peacocke pays Robert Lefroy to travel with him to the US and find the needed documentation. The dramatic scenes between Lefroy and Peacocke caught me: Mr Lefroy is remarkably sordid and hard. Lefroy wants more money, and relentlessly goes after it: he invents a transparent lie: there were two Ferdy Lefroys. The reality of people is (we see this in the way the Trump followers react to the news do see) would dismiss anything they don’t want to hear and agree with what they do, however improbable. We have been given enough to see that the context for Wortle and Peacock is such that such a lie (two Ferdys) won’t go over. Wortle sees Lefroy as a liar upon seeing him (not only Dr Thorne comes to mind but the Vicar of Bullhampton, Frank Fenton, the father in Is He Popenjoy?, Henry Lovelace, Dean of Brotherton). Dr Wortle is just so much thinner as his book is so slender. Robert Lefroy after uttering this lie to Peacocke threatens to come back to England; they are alone in a hotel room and he takes out a loaded gun. Again given our modern cultural moment, and how rare it is in any British novel for anyone to pull out a loaded gun, I’m wondering how deep this custom of murdering people goes in this violent culture. Peacock has one too (we learn later it wasn’t loaded — which is cheating) but then two more men come in. At first one might be afraid they are Lefroy people and will murder Peacock but turns out they are law enforcement — come with guns.

Then we turn to Wortle who receiving the news that Ferdinand Lefroy has been dead for a while, sits down and writes an indignant self-justifying letter to the Bishop. He can’t resist it and it’s a good letter. Meanwhile Mrs Peacock is all abjection, how much she loves her lord and she will hurry to London — with Mrs Wortle turning into a happy doormat to Dr Wortle too (except in the case of her daughter’s marriage). We are given the letter but then comes Mr Puddicombe who advises Dr Wortle to write nothing. Silence is best and will contribute to bringing an end to what has happened. No closure but no more remarks. And Wortle does think the better of it, he and Puddicombe too go to London to countenance the Peacocks’ quiet re-wedding.


Frank Middlemass as Algy Herries, headmaster, hiring David Powlett as the shell-shocked John Dutting (another Delderfield book, movingly and comically adapted by Andrew Davies as a 16 episode mini-series, To Serve Them All My Days)

There is then a bad falling off. Trollope produces a weak fairy tale romance] as filler. Lord Carstairs who so admired Mr Peacocke, has fallen in love with the Wortle’s daughter, Mary. Lord Bracey, Carstair’s father is all humanity, impossbily idealistically reasonably easy about what Mary’s dowry could be as he has just tons of money himself. Perhaps Trollope in his old age felt a need for some counter thrust to the sordid. He couldn’t do without “normalcy” (a revealing comment about how Trollope’s viewed his everyday experience is that he uses this word of Mary and Carstairs years later — they had two “normal” children). It is weak stuff with no conflict, only happy anxieties as Mary worries she will not see Carstairs for 3 years, but then, accepted by Wortle, he turns up and before you know they are walking in a wood. Carstairs claims to have come to honor Peacock and we see in a dialogue he is just exemplary in every way. The Peacockes did nothing wrong, says Carstairs, but but we are not to forget Puddicombe once again who said it was wrong to continue to live together and give the impression they were married, wrong of Mr Peacocke to take the position. Fundamentally, Trollope doesn’t care about the story; he is going through a routine; for example, as narrator he says of Mary’s visit on Christmas to her coming in-laws: “of course she stayed at Christmas, or went back to Bowicke for a week.” Which is it? does it matter?

Trollope has not ruined his book — there is much to think about in its central chapters. I’ve heard Stuart Curran (editor of romantic texts, essayist) argue for many novels to see the real meaning ignore that last chapter. Look to see where characters are, which ones presented, in the penultimate chapter. It won’t really do here since the newspaper satire is central to the story too and at the close is brought back as well as the Peacockes settling in again. The truth to be conceded is Trollope did infinitely better in The Warden, Nina, Sir Harry Hotspur, An Eye for an Eye (a poetic masterpiece) and is fascinating in his Orwell-Swift fantasy, Fixed Period. There is too much broad humor now and again. Some readers were reminded of Wodehouse’s tone; others were reminded of Barbara Pym (who can do quiet anguish too, a Booker Prize winner let’s not forget for her Autumn Quartet). I thought of the Delderfield books and films (see above).

But there is just not enough depth of the type Mr Harding conveys; the strongest emotions are found in love and gratitude utterances of the Peacockes to one another, only these are scenes told of later in time. There is falling off here. A late novella. 1881. It anticipates later fiction but not seriously enough quite — I’m thinking of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge 1885, Margaret Oliphant’s Ladies Lindores (an interrogration of marriage in effect) 1884.

Ellen

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Closing moments of the play

Friends,

It’s more than possible if you live near a theater or movie-house taking in the HD films sent to the US from several different theaters in London (the Old Vic, the National Theater, the Barbican) and elsewhere (Stratford-upon-Avon), you’ll see this Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as directed by Ivo Van Hove, setting sand lighting Jan Versweyveld, advertised. Suddenly this old play, a semi-museum piece becomes astonishingly good and fresh. As I left I felt that even the best TV mini-series (the on-going Handmaid’s Tale makes a good contrast because both are feminist) can’t be as pander free as this. This is subtler and more riveting for that, for me especially over the precious manuscript and hope for recreation.

Not that the players were not made to strain to some extent for shock value — Dr Brack (Rafe Spall, the powerful actor-son of Timothy) has a soda can which spits blood and after Hedda (Ruth Wilson. remarkably feelingful face and body) has driven Luvborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) from the room with a pistol to kill himself, Brack keeps pouring it on Hedda, here, there, everywhere eon her body, slip, across her face. It seems we are inured and to hit us strongly all public art must compete against spectacles. With this proviso, I felt I understood the play for the first time; it really reached me as it had not done before. Of central importance is the colloquial translation by Patrick Marber — with precise enough words too. It was as if I’d taken in the speeches for the first time viscerally. I wish I could read the script and then re-see the play (also compare it with older translations).


Hedda and Tesman

It was acted in a wide space that looked like a loft; what was so striking was the acting out of the lines physically and with gestures. The simple stark images; so a fire in a grate in the middle of the room before Hedda burns Lovburg’s manuscript.

A piano. One couch which Tesman (Kyle Soller, extraordinary presence in Poldark and made a minor role in Hollow Crown, major, unforgettable) and Hedda sit on, is also a bed. Hedda (Ruth Wilson, a brilliant actress, strong and feelingful) had a slip on and at first a robe — like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Hedda listening to Mrs Elvsted

Mrs Elvsted played by Sinead Matthews (also remarkable), in a tight knitted garment and very high heels. A story of how she took the husband of the woman she was working for as governess (a reverse of Waterford paradigm), the wife died, and then when she found herself saddled with him and his children she fled with a passing tutor, Luvborg and has found an occupation in life by living by his side and catering to him, especially his writing project. Lovborg, an actor with less British credentials but spotted by the national theater. (Iwuji “trained in Wisconsin said the moderator more than once in a kind of inverse snobbery — one has to endure a hype but brief preface). All in stark simple outfits: ordinary trousers (black, jeans) and shirts. Only Brack had something which made him feel more like an authority figure, Tesman an intellectual.


Hedda and Brack

They conveyed how Hedda became an evil force through never giving her any outlet; how twisted and manic she was, how Brack bullies and terrifies her and she kills herself partly because at the end she is in his power, while Tesman finds a new lease on life by taking fragments and notes Lovburg’s mistress has in her deep bag, enough to recreate the book with, Hedda will be left to the intense presence of Brack. It is deeply feminist even though the two key female roles are women with less than admirable traits, and are not beaten or attacked directly. There is a silent maid in black, sitting gazing, watching, sometimes smoking, ready to hand with things needed (Eva Magyar) referred to as an aunt, and a very tall housekeeper (Kate Duchene) with choral-like utterances who in another production would be taking care of the children.

On Trollope19thCStudies, we read these classic 19th century novels and most of them show couples who are basically living very conventionally — occasionally illegitimacy is seen, off stage a mistress. What’s striking about all Ibsen’s 19th century plays is he shows this is a false veneer of how individuals actually lived. In the version of the Richardson Pamela story by him the servant was driven away and her baby taken from her long before the play began. A Doll’s House is the opposite of what Dickens wants us to accept as a good contented ending of Our Mutual Friend. It is a very 19th century work too — that’s what might be forgotten as people watch and then they go back to their older novels and not connect.

A couple of good reviews: Lyttelton from The Guardian; Dominic Cavendish says it’s one of the great productions of the year; Alan Franks of LondonTheater1.com: a crew of people seeking personal fulfillment with no compromises turn self-destructive and destroy what they can of one another because they do not reign in their anarchic sexuality and emotional cravings.

There are many quieter scenes; here is one:

Ellen

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

***********************


Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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Friends,

Shortly after my husband, Jim, died, I began a process of finishing the books he was in the middle of reading when his brain gave out and he could no longer concentrate. One was Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England. At the time I couldn’t face the one he had by his bedside, Speaking about Torture, edd. Julie A Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Four years have now gone by, political situations facilitating torture have increased, so I thought I would finally tackle this one. Reading this material is upsetting but I have gathered far more than one blog ought to hold as it cries out to be shared. The underlying premise is humanities studies explain torture to us. It is thus a book in defense of the humanities, showing the importance and usefulness of the perspective too.

Part One consists of the Introductory essay by Carlson and Weber, “For the Humanities,” Lisa Hajjar’s “An Assault on Truth: A Chronology of Torture, Deception and Denial,” and Alfred W. McCoy, “In the Minotaur’s Labyrinth: Pyschological Torture, Public forgetting and contested history.” Read together, the argument across these essays is one Orwell made concisely: the purpose of torture is not to gain information; it’s to destroy someone’s personality, them as a self, and by extension as others learn of this to cow whole populations. What happens to people is they lose their belief in themselves as human beings: stripped, shaven, forced to defecate and urinate in public with nothing to clean them, tortured beyond endurance (the introduction says the Bush techniques were as bad as the Nazis), they live beyond death. They are like people who have died. A key element: from the time we are young we look to others for help. We expect help. This is from our relationship with our mother. The tortured person sees no one will help him or her. That abandonment is central to the new view of others and life that cannot be gotten over. This is why such a person will commit suicide, sometimes decades later. The term for this is “hauntology.”

This is seen in Elizabethan times — especially in the area of religion and atheism. In Elizabeth I’s prisons she tortured atheists — Christopher Marlowe was tortured and confessed to his atheism; Thomas Kyd’s death was attributed to torture. We forget that it was dangerous to be a playwright and if Shakespeare’s plays often punt too or are subtextual that’s why. I read on and have discovered something that is demoralizing in a new way: these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities. The origin of modern torture is sophisticated modern psychology/psychiatry applied. This enabled practice with impunity. Of course thousands (one citation in either South or Latin America was 80,000 dead from torture) were simply brutalized; the difference is in say 16th through 18th century racks and torture instruments of steel and iron were used; now electric currents are run through someone’s nerve system based on these “principles.” There are manuals of how to. Neither the Clinton or Obama administration had the courage or stomach to prosecute — and just as bad, not to expose this origin.


Jamie (Sam Heughan) in Outlander

One recent troubling development is this kind of experience is increasingly dramatized in films. In the final sequence of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the mini-series justice it was also deeply anti-torture.

Hajjar demonstrates from what happens in different situations and centuries too in these torture outbreaks that the purpose (as the thing achieved is) to de-humanize people, rob them of all security and stability; that is what the torturers are doing. The torturers go well beyond trying to get information. So the excuse of getting information is false, and that’s when you and prove it’s false (no good information, all lies), it does not stop. You say we cannot use this in court and cannot prosecute this person. Well, that wasn’t the point. You want to define them as outside all law and human community (unlawful combatants for example). You want to put them were they are abandoned and no hope from any other human being around them. Then you do want people to know in the countries and among the groups you are seeking to destroy, exploit, subdue. Assad’s slaughterhouses do more than murder; the hanging is a perfunctory last step. To me Hajjar tells an extraordinary story: after 9/11 the Bush administration snatched huge numbers of people and tortured them; not long after they began, they realizes these people knew nothing, were innocent of 9/11, but they carried on torturing them. It will be said but surely they believed them guilty and knowledgeable: the evidence they had nothing to do with 9/11 was so clear. I read a story recently about our court system in which judges say they have to kill someone convicted even if it’s proved he was innocent after he was convicted to “vindicate the system” (it was either in the LRB or NYRB). Were these people vindicating their system by doing these truly dreadful things to people — the people who did them had to be dreadful; the sole control was the people doing them feared they’d be punished

The second essay by McCoy puts paid to the notion in a way that Trump is beyond all we’ve seen: in a number of ways we see Bush did what Trump now threatens to do, and Obama refused to prosecute and condemn and left in place laws and apparatus in the US system that now could be used again. I discovered these “enhanced torture techniques” are more or often as mental as physical; that’s why they passed muster when they were first invented. These mental/physical humiliation tortures were — wait for it — an invention of psychologists trains in US universities in the 1950s at the beginning of the cold war and that is when they first spread. Among the shameful shameless behavior in public which has led to the majority of Americans who are asked (small but shocking) approving of torture as necessary for information: 481 prominent professors from universities which include the top 110 declared in a Harvard document that we should seriously consider torture as an effective coercive policy …. Everyone knows the history of Yoo, the spread of torture, the public disclosure — and suddenly for a while the public is horrified, the saying it’s just a few bad apples&c Those who fought included a group of soldier lawyers, JAGS they were called; they persisted. I have seen General James C Walker arguing cases on TV YouTubes. Colin Powell one of the few to break rank. Careless language again and again show this is not at all about information. Terrify and punish. Cheney has said we should decorate those who did this. Meanwhile their names are kept from us. Some international organizations continue to push back hard.

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Goya, Disasters of War

Part Two places torture in the contexts of specific societies. Reinhold Gorling’s important “Torture and Society,” begins the part with an attempt to get at the psychology of how torture destroys a personality. we are never self-contained, no matter what we may think we are continually closely involved with others from drinking water, to breathing, our thoughts and emotions reach out to other human beings and we feel others’ presences. He does not deny there is a self apart, but that the self acts within relationships — even if for some at a distance. Torture attacks the vulnerability of people in this area directly, it makes us aware of how dependent we are by depriving people of protection and provision. This explains why solitary confinement (which I’ve read is also subject to sadistic punishments by depriving food and light) is torture. It not only de-cultures people.

This is an evil that occurs periodically and when encouraged hard to check. There is this impulse to control, for power. What you do is block the person and bring their exchanges to a standstill. (A book called Psychopathologie des violences collectives is about states that use torture systematically — as the US does in prisons). The more a person is conscious of his or her vulnerability, dependence, more sensitive, the easier to torture and dominate. An important weapon is recognition, the withholding of it. When others recognize us and we them, the openness this depends keeps the torturer at bay (tweets function in a vacuum where the slanderer or tormentor does not have to recognize responses). It is a kind of theatrical or performative act and thus deprivation and recognition can be manipulated in schools to make children very miserable. These structures emerge when virulent conflicts in the society are ratcheted up. A repetition and spread of behaviors are then aimed at people deemed “unacceptable.” These then frighten others who are similarly “unacceptable” because they are vulnerable.

(Remember the Victorian novels about children whose pain goes unacknowledged (Jane Eyre, David Copperfield). Very mild seeming but Ausen’s appalled Mr Knightley tells Emma she has done wrong because she now encourages others to openly despise and mock Miss Bates. This also fits in with Winnicott’s theory of how children grow up in families with object relationships needing love and empathy. When parents refuse empathy, it’s beyond neglect and functions as abuse which the child won’t forget.)

Gorling then argues how those not literally there, those fed rumors of the torture are witnesses and so drawn into the relationship. These witnesses are subdivided into those who shrug, are complicit, seem to turn away and ignore it. Turn a blind eye. The point here is they are pretending; they know it’s going on; the perception has taken place before the person manages to exclude it. The witness from afar can also fight against what’s happening in a variety of (often) feeble ways. There is another set of people involved: those in a relationship with the victim; they are indirectly but powerfully hurt too; their sense of security shaken. Nowadays with the Internet we have many more silent witnesses.

Isolation and disconnection seems to be part of the point of letting people know from afar that this is happening. Phiip Gorevitch who researched genocide in Rawanda said “genocide … is an exercise in community building.” Horrible I know but when in Trollope he acquiesces (openly in his travel book) in “elimination” of the native peoples you do see how he is doing this as community building, enlisting the settler colonialists. (Think of “the removal”of Palestinians from the west bank in Israel.) That violence and trauma leave their mark. By radically splitting it off (say into black sites) it is easily kept out of overt culture but it is there, and at the end he describes those pictures from Abu Ghrabi which most of us have seen and do remember. But the point seems to be is at the same time it can be denied (a few bad apples, not happening any more &c&c). You don’t account for what happened. You can deny the urge to do it. The process is Lacanian projection — where people really (it’s said and they do in part) try to conform themselves to what they think others see of them and how others see them. (My feeling about Lacan is usually that those who really allow this mirroring to be a prison forget how unimportant we are to most people, how they couldn’t care less about us as individuals and whatever they say or do is mostly transient gossip.)


Primo Levi, If this be Man and The Truce

The volume’s fourth essay suggests why we are today hearing explicit analogies with Hitler and Nazi and fascist regimes: Susan Derwin’s “What Nazi Crimes Against Humanity Can Tell Us about Torture Today.” She begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a direct consequence of Nazi crimes against humanity, from a commission chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. She then moves into Primo Levi’s If This Be Man (correctly Englished). I agree with her the title published as Survival in Auschwitz is worse than misleading: the book is not about survival in Auschwitz, we know now that of the 650 people taken with Levi to Auschwitz, 15 men and 9 women survived. The book is about Levi’s experience of living in the universe where most of the people were deprived of every right, and driven down to the level of animals (including no bathroom facilities, stripping, shaving, no utensils to eat with with). She says he wanted to make us see what happens to a social order predicated upon “the principle of enmity.” She then reports that the interrogation techniques of the Nazis included precisely those used by the Bush people. (They didn’t need the psychology/psychiatry profs of the 1950s to tell them what to do or why.) The idea was violate the integrity of the physical body, make you body your enemy since it is so full of pain, to make person be as dead.

I’ve read If this be man in Italian and I thought the title was referring to what the Nazis were doing to others, and how how the people were treating one another in this hell: they became utterly estranged, but Derwin feels Levi is describing the deterioration of each person within and without. How they lost the ability to observe, to remember, to express themselves, what it is to be “de-humanized”,’ the deep wound to human dignity, how depriving people of the smallest objects around which their memories clustered was to deprive them of memory and their worlds. (This reminds me of how a prisoner is forced to dress differently and everything taken from him or her when they enter a prison; only later is some returned as if it were a favor for good behavior.) Memory is integral to self-hood.

Derwin tells us Levi’s history, how he came to be captured, how he survived because he was put into a I.G. Farben laboratory (so was Lustig whom I mentioned put in a factory/lab and so escaped immediate death, and then managed to escape). He was left to die of scarlet fever when the Germans fled, but survived and resumed life in Milan as a manager of a chemical factory until 1977 when he retired to write full time. She goes over his works, and he fell from a stairwell in 1987. She will not say he killed himself — we cannot be sure says she.

Derwin then moves on to the work of Jean Amery who renamed himself from Franz Stangl, a former commandan of Treblinka – he killed himself afterwards too. He gave an interview and wrote that beyond the violence the pushing people into becoming quite naked and alone was torture. It is again what Carlson and Weber say at the beginning: this abandonment, sense of being alone with no help is central to the horror psychologically. Now Derwin suggests Amery tells us (in effect) the reason people kill themselves later is they can never forget that abandonment, they can never forget no one anywhere would help them. This intense loneliness (italicized) and lack of security and safety ever after triggers primordial anxieties, not to be overcome. You cannot face your dependency and broken attachments. The anguish of survival is the world is afterward forever foreign a place you are tormented in.

Then she brings back Levi where he describes sleeping with strangers who will sleep on top of you. I do remember this passage. It was so desolating how the people behaved to one another. They are out of contact with one another as people, all alone in effect. “Polluted sleep” is the translation, an atavistic anguish. Without possibility of communication there can be no relief.

This resonates with me – just a small example I think as I read if I try to tell people some of what I feel and they just can’t understand and if trying one terrifies or upset them — there can be no liberation from this once you have known it. I get it. A psychiatrist named Knell talks of how silence protects people, if you tell and get nowhere you feel rage or unprotected and it makes it all worse. People like Knell therefore are astonished at Levi and his lucidity. The policy of containment keeps you from that area of darkness. Cynthia Oznick writing of Levi’s writing said how he is writing out of retaliatory passion. Not at all, but I have read writers who I find are retaliating at the reader by terrifying them: to me Flanner O’Connor and Wm Faulkner are such writers, and some of the writes of spy thrillers (Susan Hill for example). So the gothic can be faulted centrally as a tool to hurt people? I have thought so …

The issue of who survives concludes Derwin’s essay. Ethical people who cannot compromise. Another group is caught up in the Italian erased by the English translation of another book by Levi: The Drowned and the Saved: I sommersi and il salvati: the submerged, the sunk, the overwhelmed. Those who fell into utter silence were those among whom it was far less possible that a sliver would survive. A shocking 80,000 died in southeast asia and the middle from torture – done by Americans too. What Levi says is the people who are so shocked they can’t talk are those who die quickest. Those who won’t communicate their suffering are the most vulnerable. Being able to talk, to reach out, to tell shows strength and also a sense of a self violated, the self is still there and it’s complaining and loud and long. It takes strength to be angry, it’s exhausting. Indignation means you have to think well of yourself on some level.

Derwin’s essay ends on the horrifying criminal behavior – whole scale – this man was a monster – of Hitler upon being asked if an infant be granted a mercy death – a severely disabled baby. Of course yes, but then he sent a doctor to look and before you know it a secret decree was issued between 1939 and 45 to slaughter and approximately 5000 babies died. “this would not have been possible without the cooperation of physicians, nurses, bureaucrats and parents. It was mandatory to notify the hospital if your child was born with a defect. Those with disabilities were labeled ‘eligible’ in the Orwellian language used.”

The fifth essay, Elisabeth Weber’s “‘Torture was the essence of National Socialism:’ reading Jean Amery today,” begins with the new acceptability of torture in US media: it’s not a good thing that 24 (a TV show) shows horrifying torture. It does not evoke horror but inures and the stories are about how X got this great information. The people at Guantanamo and elsewhere are defined out of existence. They are given a category which makes them not part of any category: unlawful combatants. They have no legal existence. Unnameable, unclassifiable. She repeats Levi’s point that the submerged are those who rarely survive. He called them Muselmanner, “walking dead,” “non-men, “Ghost like beings.” Ghost detainee was almost an official term. Ghosting. She then turns to the effect of immediate brutalization and her examples are not from torture but arrests. It’s common practice to brutalize people upon arresting them. This delivers a shock like torture: they have no recourse, they are not accused of anything, they never forget the experience.

On Jean Amery’s writing: Weber discusses the problem of the softened and misleading translations of Amery who wrote in German. Even the most famous phrases from this man have been toned down. One really reads: The ignominy (infamy) of annihilation cannot be erased (not Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased.) She goes into the German language and how viscerally Amery uses it: torture is the fleshification of someone; they become their body. When the police killed Eric Garner they would not his body breathe and we see on that video his hysteria and astonishment they were killing him.

Amery in his work shows us first how astonished people feel when they find themselves treated as nothing, as subhuman, as without a life that matters. Most tortured people even the submerged never cease to feel astonished at some level of their being. There is no path back from having experience this other side of death, of annihilation. (Derwin out of Levi said sadists want to nullify other people.) He or she occupies an inbetween place from then on where torture and the memories never end. They are more tormented at the time at ways of dying; they want death but not this humiliating animal one they are getting filled with intense pain — intense pain said Scarry is world-destroying. Then they take on the view of them of their torturers: they betrayed a secret; they are cowards.

I’m impressed by Amery and Weber’s use of Heidegger. What is violated is the pre-ontological understanding of being-in-the-world acquired by most children (not abused ones). Irreparable assault on “the House of being.” The third Reich was the apotheosis of torture. Their methods centered on this experience or threat of it. A system based on sadism. It makes me remember the powerful novel by Michel Faber, Under my skin: when someone suddenly pleads “mercy” it seems to harrowing as to break down the soul of a reader. (All should read Faber’s masterpiece). Amery disagreed with Foucault, Lacan and other French philosophical systems. There is a deep innate self in touch with itself that people can live on.

Weber ends with the idea where ever torture is used it’s impossible to control its ever widening reach. The horror is people who torture others enjoy it – how far can they go; what can they do to this person? Floodgates of transgression are opened, break down psychic boundaries systematically, as principle.


The Night Bagdad Fell (a farcical tragic political movie)

The sixth essay in the book, “What did the corpse want” by Sinan Antoon is about poetry. He says – and this is true, unlike most poets in the West, Arab poets are politically engaged and write political poetry, poetry which directly addresses political situations. The breaking into the news of the Abu Ghraib pictures and then the spread of knowledge that the US tortures systematically caused an eruption of hundreds of poems. The incident was seen as “ a ritual of collective domination and assault: — its effects were felt as “extended to the audience of the visual event and were traumatic for those who identified with the naked and assaulted bodies of the victims. Toonan then reprints a long powerful poem and analyses it. Tortured and wretched are synonyms; those speaking are the voices of the dead. The emphasis of the poem is to show how stripped the people have been, how stripped the corpse of all identity. They have only their own blood to be buried in. The use of dogs (and dogs were used in North Dakota as filmed by Amy Goodman – -she is the only one to have exposed the dogs with their jaws covered in blood) – the dogs there in the pictures used against the victims compounds the abandonment by other human beings. Given the Arab religion it also makes the corpses impure, unclean, caries the torture and wretchedness to the grave.

Antoon’s second chosen poem is by Youssef who is said to be one of Iraq’s most famous poets, he is a communist intellectual. A recent collection of poems by him is Englished as The Last Communist Enters Heaven. The voice of the person is someone who rejects compromise with the invader (the US) with its capitalism. The point of this poem is there are no saviors; no individual can save the country or any group from anything. It is also to show that one of the purposes of torture is to prevent the victim from being an agent of anything. Then he tries to show the released who live trying to re-appropriate agency by becoming part of a group.

Sargon Bulus’s poem, “The Corpse,” seems to be about the torturing of a corpse, but then it turns out the corpse is alive and mutters, wants something. It reaches the harrowing effects of torture. Scarry says physical pain actively destroys our ability to speak, we revert to a state anterior to language, to sheer sounds and cries. This happens in in Michael Faber’s Under the Skin. Most of Bulus’s poems are about the carnage in Iraq. Antoon congratulates him upon being in a unique space “vis-à-vis the various ideological narratives competing for Iraq’s history and future” (!). Bulus avoids falsifying as good or triumphant what Iraq was before British colonialism, with no false promises for the future. An elegiac tone and no closure. Simple and eloquent in language an attempt not to have a specific personality. Worn, tired, exhausted people. These poems are conveying what is so hard to convey. I find Antoon absurd when he worries lest we think Bulus’s poems are defeatist. Why not be defeatist?

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Hans Hacke, US Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983

The third part of the book moves to artful representation of torture. “John Nava: Painting against Torture” begins with something more cheering: people seem to come together and feel for one another right after 9/11 (at least inside the US and NYC), but when Bush and Cheney started their hellish war, all this feeling was thrown away. Then real protests began and were savagely attacked. After an exhibition of paintings and tapestries at Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara, Cal, 2006, the art gallery had to endure weeks of editorial attack, police involvement from its pictures based on Abu Ghraib. Sure art should and can also console, provide escape, spiritual renewal, but it should tell hard truths too. One problem though was such pictures also had the effect of inuring people and getting them used to torture, even to accept it as “old hat.” Bush said “damn right” that they tortured (years later I remember Obama’s statement: “folks were tortured.”) Nava says in the end the torture and reaction in public eroded justice, devastated our national standing, licensed illegitimate war and corrupted a free society.

The eighth essay by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Torture and Representation” is about how these images of torture have been assimilated into our culture. She says the truth is earlier depictions were done in a way that justified the torture. A rare instance of pity can be seen in the famous Laokoon which can be seen as a God’s revenge through torture. From the 16th through 17th century pictures of torture were not supposed to make us reflect on the pain or create pathos or tragedy. It just confirmed this is the order of the world you must obey. A change came in the 18th century, the Enlightenment, the first real attempts to create compassion, identification, blame the establishment, the state as unjust merciless. The disquieting thing is how easily people become voyeurs and art even explicitly said, directed to critique the “bad guys” is being enjoyed by the watchers. After saying that the first true anti-torture, anti-war anti-establishment pictures we have are Goya’s, and that his Disasters of War were published only in 1863, 40 years after Goya produced them, Solomon-Godeau goes over 4 artists, 4 exhibitions which are troubling. She says first pain is mostly what can’t be communicated, the world shattering experience exceeds representation.

So what are the possibilities and limitations. Fernando Botero’s paintings after Abu Ghraib are so stylized, and he justifies a distanced formal approach by saying he wants to give the prisoners dignity. Solomon-Godeau questions this desire to “restore dignity.” Isn’t the point they had none. Botero fears the Sadistic Trump type follower will just despise the tortured – the way Trump openly despises McCann. Solomon-Godeau most successful object in one exhibition is an imitation of an actual box prisoners were put in by Hans Haacke: “US Isolation Box,” 1983. Four dimensional and the same size. Information about what the prisoners experience is immediately “visceral, palpable, immediate” Little ventilation, only slits for windows too high for eyes to look out, no bed, no toilet, old wood – like the person was an object of junk. Brutal pesent: “this is how the US military treats detainees and prisoners” all the boxes said. It was moved from a conspicuous to an inconspicuous space under political pressure. (Donald Trump falls squarely into the type of person that enjoys watching torture and despises the tortured person for being tortured.)

Clinton Fein’s Rank and File could be called Defiled. It seems to be a print of a sculpture of abject bodies all kneeling and bowed on the floor, you see only the backside of the man, or his feet coming out from under, and other bodies clinging over these. Solomon-Godeau sees a voyeuristic element in the silvery color and spectacle. Jenny Holzer’s Protect Protect is another which eschews imitations of people. On a wall the prints of actual hands, military memos, policy statements, autopsy reports: it’s these that permit and guide the torture and the deeply inhumane boiler plate language makes a point.

Last these black silhouettes I’ve seen and one hit me hard: it’s of a man in a kind of witches garb (or Klu Klux Klan outfit), over his head a bag; he’s being made to stand on a stand with his arms outstretched. Somehow it communicate a terrible psychological suffering to be so humiliated. So driven to do this. The silhouettes are done by a group of artists called Forkscrew; they are put on posters which are easily distributed. Perhaps that’s why I’ve seen these. They are called iRaq after the jargon names of our gadgets: ipad, iphone. She says the hooding makes for a shock of recognition. There are writhing women and men holding on to what looks like cell phones or old walky talkys in their hands, a wire to their head or ear – -they are being tortured with electricity. Again there is no possibility of enjoyment, even if each image is a spectacle, it’s a weak one. This group has produced other art mocking Apple ipod ads.

Douglas Crimp is quoted: there is no reason collective art in public is any less powerful and great than the work of art in a private gallery attributed to some artist, famous or not.


Waterboarding, Antwerp 1556 — it looks like the force-feeding of the suffragettes — which was a form of torture

Stephen F. Eisenman is on “Waterboarding: Political and Sacred Torture,” the 9th essay takes up the topic of waterboarding. The question he asks and finally answers is why of all techniques is waterboarding the most acceptable; the answer is it corresponds to primal religious rituals. First, statistics: after the photos from Abu Ghrabi wre published 2003. 54% of the US public were “bothered a great deal:’ a year later only 40%; December 2005 61% said torture was justified. Bush invoking “ticking bomb” succeed in getting congress to agree “CI should be allowed to use ‘alternative interrogation procedures’ and be given immunity from prosecution. A few senators fought that immunity (Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Joe Biden) but immunity granted. In investigations under his attorney general (Mukasay, that’s 2008) the criminality of the procedure of waterboarding wasn’t the subject of the session, only the destruction of evidence for it. Support for torture in the US today is not hidden or kept in professional websites; it’s open, available for all to see; Giuliani had police practice torture and was unabashed. Pictures of torture just don’t undermine the procedure no matter how brutal; these have been “normative practices” in the US as in the history of politics.

Eisenman then describes waterboarding: painful, terrifying, you come near death and many die. Many die. Many die. That this is kept up on someone shows it’s not information that is sought, what’s wanted is a confession you are in error, an apostate, deeply in error, it’s all your fault what is happening. He cites and describes instances from Roman through medieval to our own times. Many paragraphs.

Some artists have contested these: Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, Sartre, Benamin, Pontecovo — challenged the regime of these images and this talk. He goes over a picture by Sue Coe, “We do not torture” which successfully challenges (without voyeurism). Leon Golumb’s series from the later 1970s, Mercenary, Interrogation and White Squad, whos source is many photographs, journalistic reporting, raw accounts of people from South Africa, Guatemala, El Salvador — including things like Walling a person: the person is kept seated, bounded, hooded, raw and extremist theater. All are described neutrally but we get it (it’s like some game).

This is where the essay becomes very worrying: there is a “longstanding pathos formula whereby torture victims are shown accepting and participating in torture, where it’s eroticized, the subjugation made part of a contract the victim agrees to.” (Oh yes that’s Outlander I realize in the depiction of Jamy and Black Jack.) Studies have shown that people write about this as how the interrogator becomes the parent, authority figure and the tortured acquiesces. Eisenman is concerned to refute these beliefs utterly. Not so. He says a hostage situation when not torture is not the same at all. Bodily pain utterly transforms this. He suggests it’s this idea the victim acquiesces, and become “child” is part of what makes people feel the victim deserves his fate because he is a victim. (Let me bring in that young man who deserted and was tortured and Trump wants to see murdered by the state as a coward.) The sexuality belongs to the image traditions of orientalism. Says Eisenman at the end: torture bears no resemblance truth, pleasure, cooperation; it is oppression, violence, frequently death and nothing more.

The tenth and last essay is by Hamid Dabashi, “Damnatio Memoriae.” Dabashi begins with a startling highly unusual letter that Medi Karrubi wrote to Akbar Hashamei Rafsanjani (I remember him from long ago, some American in Reagan’s cabinet, a woman, Fitzgerald?, said he was a moderate, and she was mocked, as a joke, there are no Iranian moderates – ho, ho, ho, what a ridiculous woman; she was an Ayn Rand fan as I recall). Karrubi spoke openly, with horror and remorse about how the Islamic republic “kidnaps, incarcerates, savagely beats up, rapes, tortures, murders, and then secretly buries in mass graves its young citizens, men and men; it’s like the prisons in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom (1975, the source of an Italian film). It was self-flagellating and yet he could not bring himself to give any concrete details. A cleric openly writing about the atrocities of the regime. Dabashi says the letter is Kafkaesque, Karrubi sees what is happening as a catastrophe for the Islamic country.
Dabashi says there is a little known Iranian film called K, which dramatizes 3 Kafka stories,”the married couple,” “In the penal colony,” “a Fratricide. “In the penal colony,” shows how people begin to have such a fascination with torture machines they no longer sympathize with, even think of the victims. In Karrubi’s letter he pleads with Rafsanjani to do something about this. He began to publish hard evidence; soon 3 official investigators came to take him in, ostensibly to find out about the torture, but soon he was the one interrogated, who is he charging? they seem to have forgotten what the charge was. They intimidate and accuse him of being bribed; he is taken to a presiding doctor, The Surgeon General and accused of lying. Need I say he disappeared.

It should be recalled that in 1954 an election produced a secular social democracy. The US CIA and its allies took that down, and replaced it with the capitalist- pro-US Shah. He did nothing for the poor but produced an early neoliberal state, and was overthrown. It seems there lingered public groups in the Iranian gov’t who were anxious about torture, angry to hear or admit to them, but the result was sidelining. New and images were now kept to a minimum; that Karrubi videotaped his testimony horrified them.

In comparison what the AbuGhrabi Americans reveled in is a kind of orgy without shame, and the Iranians regarded the pictures and all that came out of Abu Ghraib and thereafter as shameful to watch; US soldiers took pleasure in having themselves photographed the way lynching southern vigilants did over black people. People were tortured for the camera’s sake; for US people exhibitionism crucial. There was an exhibit of these photos in NYC curated by Brian Wallis, text written by Seymour Hirsh. Some people did see the sanctimoniousness hid the reality of exhibitionism and complacency. Dante argued that this exhibit was a form of entertainment which did not bring viewer close to agonies of victims (think of Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others.)

One might say an excess of evidence was turned by academics into tropes for analysis (and papers for conferences and tenure). The US people would take prisoners out, force them to be animal like take pictures and then rape and beat
Gluttonies of violence are seen in Quentin Tarantino films. We are luxuriating in animperial visual regime; spectacle sustains this museumification. Over-estheticizing produces tomes of unreadable prose about unrealities – the images themselves. Victims become invisible – an empire of camps, all under surveillance. Palestinians cannot talk about what was done to them – indirection is how torture speaks. A cycle of naked life has been set up where we come back to Nazi concentration camps. Dabashi is suggesting that trguments that civil rights movementd in Iran are rich people’s resentment against poor people’s president reveals a depth of moral depravity –- this is to ignore millions risking lives, tortured, taped, murdered by “popular” president’s forces. He feels science fiction tech films erase reality — this is important as so many US people go to see these and then go on allegorizing about them. What then can make these regimes fall? Real screams and hidden horrors are all that came make them fall, if the accumulation begins to be too many people over too long a time ….

The interested reader may want to go on to read essays on “hegemonic masculinity” in film as connected to torture (Viola Shafik) and music (two on this, Christian Gruny, Peter Szendy).

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From a recent production of Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (her grotto-prison)

The last section of the book is about people who have written treatises and handed down legal decisions justifying torture and poetry, plays and novels in the 19th and 20th century about torture. I’ll be briefer here. Speaking about Torture is reviewed in an academic arts journal (ironic) the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 28:1 (2013:102-4 where Aaron C. Thomas singles out these last essays in the book: on Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci (the essay another by Julie A. Carlson) he writes in a way that exemplifies Dabashi’s argument; Carlson’s context includes William Godwin and the Italian writer Cesare Beccaria, the man who “has long been credited with galvanizing public opinion against torture and leading to its abolition” in Europe during the Enlightenment” (only it didn’t). Thomas covers Darieck Scott on a pornographic novel by Samuel Delancy, Hogg, which detailed the torture and murder of many women and children (apparently censored).

Speaking of Torture is an important book. Many essays all considering torture from a wide variety of angles. It is troubling that I do not remember any reviews in the mainstream review journals (LRB, NYRB, the New Yorker, or the TLS).

Ellen

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Vanessa Redgrave as Clarissa Dalloway coming down the stairs (opening of film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve carried on reading Virginia Woolf, and feel I am moving more deeply into what is valuable in her, and seeing what does not quite come up to high excellence: though all she writes has integrity, she can seem to nod. She mirrrors her class, her era, is not sufficiently widely read in women’s writing because they were not available to her, or to most of us, until the 1970s — and then many do not avail themselves of earlier women’s art and books. That’s what I have my Austen Reveries blog for — to call attention to great art by women whose work is not sufficiently known (as well as Austen and 18th century art).

So the last 4 weeks I’ve reread her Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse & (after a long hiatus) A Room of One’s Own. I’ve watched the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway, directed by Marleen Gorris, scripted by Eileen Atkins (who used to enact a one woman virtuoso couple of hours of Virginia Woolf for an evening’s theater); the (to me misogynist) very bad 2002 The Hours film (based on Michael Cunningham’s post-text to Mrs Dalloway, directed by Stephen Haldry, screenplay David Hare), and now the 1983 TV film (as it’s called) To the Lighthouse (screenplay Hugh Stoddart, directed by Colin Gregg). Only in Mrs Dalloway had any major roles in the making of the film been taken by women. As I watched To the Lighthouse, I found myself remembering my childhood watching the film To the Lighthouse:when I was young my family had a house on Long Island where we’d spend long weekends on a beach. Alas I don’t know that now nor will probably again — I’d be the grandmother …

I’ve been taking my first course as a student or class member at the OLLI at AU, where we are called “fearless readers” for studying Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and essays from The Common Readers and a few other places. It’s been an enjoyable and stimulating experience (not least because the professor doing it is such a confident relaxed and serious teacher (all at once) and I’m learning how to teach better too. The central themes of her mature fiction are feminist, deeply empathetic towards what is not institutionalized, individual liberty, how we are caught up in time, history, the spaces we find ourselves in. At least in these early works.

Mrs Dalloway was not “covered” on our group reading of Woolf (as just too well-known, as already read by all of us), nor A Room of One’s Own (ditto). Despite or maybe because of the surface conventionality of Clarissa’s day, Mrs Dalloway questions the bases of that conventional life, filled with much despair, injustice loneliness, so many people as puzzled wanderers on the earth going about routines. It’s an artfully controlled counterpart to Joyce’s Ulysses a day in the life and world of Clarissa, which takes in remembered past time, deep time before that (before Clarissa was a possibility), such an array of imagery capturing life’s smallest and biggest things. Mostly upper class people: the snobbery of the characters is seen in everyone’s apologizing to a vicar’s wife, so Woolf does see that. The question of the novel is how to take Clarissa: is it as ironic as Austen’s Emma, or are we to enter truly empathetically into Clarissa’s consciousness. Probably we are to see Clarissa’s limitations and yet bond with her. The central idea uniting the story of the traumatized (permanently shattered) Septimus Smith and the self-sheltered Mrs Dalloway is that (as she thinks) you must not “force the soul.” Septimus killed himself to save his soul from the unscrupulous morally moronic Dr Bradshaw.


In the film Septimus and Rezia (Amelia Bullmore) cornered as the doctor and his “aides” demand entrance — his crime, he said he wanted to kill himself

Life is made “intolerable” for those inner lives demand, need individual liberty in their outer ones. The professor took us through a lesbian reading of Mrs D which brings us a parallel underlying structure. Sally and Clariss’s kiss is a rare depiction of lesbian orgasm (and therefore famous):

It was a sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush, which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come close, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cacks and sores. Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus: an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — in a moment.

She suggested that Georgia O’Keefe’s art is a visual equivalent. The imagery of the crocus, the inner soft vulnerable part of the flower occurs repeatedly in the novel in erotic places. Here is O’Keefe’s Autumn Trees: The Maple:

Atkins and Gorris’s Merchant-Ivory Mrs Dalloway carries itself so lightly and yet reaches down to the depths of distraught terror (Rupert Graves is superb as Septimus); the use of younger actors and switching back and forth brought out how layers of time are woven into the book’s angles of narration.


The young Clarissa and Peter — in the novel Clarissa continually remembers a love courtship many years ago

The film feels fluid, unforcedly symbolic. The iron gates are everywhere and they are what Septimus falls upon. The haunted nature of everyone’s experience through pained and joyful memory creates the tone of piece which is meditative — and comic because of the asinity of Lady Bexborough (Margaret Tysack) and Hugh Whitbread (Oliver Ford Davies). Michael Kitchener managed to convey Peter Walsh as someone who had his heart genuinely broken. Yet at the end resigned with Sally (Sarah Badel as the aging lesbian love, now respectabily Lady Rossiter):

Redgrave plays Woolf as someone who embraces life, not fragile, keeps people from intruding. Dropped is her detestation of Miss Killman in the book. Miss Killman resented far more fiercely than Austen’s Emma resents Miss Bates because Miss Killman shows up Clarissa’s privileged existence and seems to be stealing her daughter, Elizabeth; this parallel between the two books shows how closely Mrs Dalloway also “comes out of” Austen’s art (as did Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out).


Laura Knight, Lamorna Cove, or On the Cliffs

On Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I now wonder how much Woolf had in mind Johnson and Boswell in the Hebrides, Skye as a refuge (from Culloden literally), shifting is the mode — mostly deeply recognizably Cornwall, St Ives, but what are we to do with the Scottish sublimity of the Antiquary (read by Mr Ramsay), the sea in which William Cowper “perishes all alone,” the dark memories of Westmorland (where Wm Bankes and Mr Ramsay once walked), the killing fields of WW1 (written about by the quietly gay poet of the piece, Mr Carmichael). The sounds of the sea, the moon, the lighthouse itself, geology back in time, replace the music, contemporary green parks and flowers and killing fields of Mrs Dalloway’s everyday life. The middle section of Time Passes is stream of consciousness detached from any recognizable character: the time of aeons for the 10 years between Mrs Ramsay’s death and the longed-for reaching of the Lighthouse. It is a work of mourning, griefstruck meditation using stretched out time in the way of Proust, while Woolf is killing Mrs Ramsay as the angel in the house preventing her from living the life of a writer. I recommend Su Reid’s memories of her many summers in Cornwall applied to To The Lighthouse (in Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, ed Ella Westland).

I’ve been watching the film To the Lighthouse this evening. Again, it put me in mind of when I was young and my parents and family had a summer house on Long Island and we did have joy on the beach. And now I have no chance for such experiences,as no ties to such a family group. To the Lighthouse is nostalgic (like the Dalloway film). I didn’t cry just thought of what once was — as the screenplay, the words are astonishing. They are an amalgam of passages from other works by Woolf which suggest connections between the sea of To the Lighthouse, and the “waves” of all her other works. Rosemary Harris delivers a contemplative monologue about the nature of Woolf’s verbal creativity in effect.


An iconic moment: Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay, holding James’s hand, catering to him

As to actors, there’s a very young Kenneth Branagh playing Charles Tansley, the serious student, Suzanne Bertish a wise Lily Briscoe. Each of the Ramsay children is given a moment of characterization and individualized actor. In the film Mrs Ramsay’s death come on slowly, not the sudden collapse of the book (suggesting the world drained the life out of the woman)


Rosemary Harris is the angel on the beach, in the house, Michael Gough the rough well-meaning Mr Ramsay (having Oedipal struggles with James)

I’ve gained a couple of new rich source books: A small neglected superb book for its rich assortment of suggestive black-and-white photos of Woolf and Leonard, their houses, streets, the Hogarth Press, countryside around Monk House, Cornwall, and concise intelligent readings of her novels is Monique Nathan’s Virginia Woolf, and there is now a Mrs Dalloway Reader, ed Francine Prose, filled with relevant writings on the Dalloways by Woolf herself (including her sections on the couple in Voyage Out and Between the Acts), wonderful letters, brief appreciations.

A Room of One’s Own is problematic: There is too much exaggeration for lack of knowledge of women’s literature. Woolf will say there is no writing about mothers and children until the 20th century. Not true. We now know there were many women writers around Shakespeare’s time: most of the learned lady kind, but they wrote thoughtful political treatises, poetry, translations. She also diminishes and lambasts earlier women’s achievement far too much: in the last 100 years we have found a tradition of women’s writing in all spheres of life, not all their novels were dreadful (except of course those by the in this treatise paragon Jane Austen), her demand for an “incandescendant approach to writing is unreal. Woolf is writing several decades earlier than the 1970/80s when women’s literature before the 19th century came back in print and the writing of women in the 19th multiplied dramatically. She also makes such a paragon of Austen: it’s absurd the way she attributes to Austen perfection; there is the idea that Bronte (Charlotte) had the greater genius, but Woolf never explains what she means by this. It does feel like nagging at moments too. I have an idea why it is no longer read. Three Guineas is preferable, the much more mature work.

That said, it’s startlingly a propos at the moment: it explains to you why Trump, a cunning corrupt moron was preferred to Hillary Clinton, utterly reputable, highly intelligent and capable. So much she asserts is true of most women until the 19th century, still true of women in traditional cultures today. There for men to have sex with, give babies to, and obey authorities. Stay indoors much of their lives, or kept away from larger public world for long stretches. The brother and heir comes first. Deep shame over sex inculcated. Reading A Room of One’s Own makes me so sorrowful for those women and books, whose art is still thwarted, stymied, stigmatized, and rejoice for those who have stuck it out and achieved a measure of self-fulfillment. Clarissa chose the safe kindly Richard Dalloway; many women today can choose the daring career, but the treatise demonstrates amid much push back and at crucial points lack of empathy. A Room of One’s Own does end very well: Mary Carmichael can at long last try a novel, and she does; she has around her so much pressure not to, and what we can do for her is work for her so she shall have space, money, time, self-esteem and liberty even if it means to do this in the present circumstances for most of us means working in obscurity and poverty.

I will jump to the later Woolf soon, and read Between the Acts next ….

LES INSOUMISES
(photo by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt)


A photo from a French staged play reading of Virginia Woolf’s writings

Ellen

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An Arthur Rackham illustration of Undine

Friends,

How all things come together (with or for me). I’ve embarked on teaching Booker Prize novels: a marketplace niche for good books? I include two historical fictions: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Michael Ondaatje’s English Patient. And today my proposal for teaching a course I’m calling Romancing 18th century historical fiction (scroll down for syllabus) this summer at the same place has now been accepted: the books, Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. The reality for me is both courses and my interest in the Winston Graham Poldark world, Outlander, seem to swirl around the same compelling immersion: historical fiction.

Is this genre just so much pastiche? I hope not because I wrote a good review of Martha Bowden’s fine book on the subject, and it’s been published in a fine periodical I’m proud to appear in, The Intelligencer (NS, Vol 31:1 [March 2017]:42-45). In order to give my essay more circulation, to tell the contents of this book, I’ve placed the essay on academia.edu.

Ellen

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From The English Patient: the burnt-up hero (Ralph Fiennes) reading Herodotus, the Canadian who has been tortured (William Dafoe)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday later morning into afternoons, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
March 29 to May 17
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we will discuss four gems of Booker Prize fiction. Some have said the prize functions as a brilliantly exploited marketplace tool aimed at a specific readership niche, just perfect for high quality film adaptations and literary criticism. The selected books are characteristically historical fiction, self-reflexive, witty and passionate, post-colonialist, — plus all have been made into films. Before the class begins, please read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop;then in class we’ll read J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Graham Swift’s Last Orders

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1970: rpt. 1997: Boston: Hougton Mifflin. ISBN 0395869463. Or latest edition: Introd. David Nicholls, Mariner, 2015 iSBN: 978-0544484092
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. Introd. Michael Holroyd. 1980; rpt. New York Review of Books, 2000. ISBN 0940322471
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. New York: Vintage, 1992.
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. New York: Vintage, 1996.


From Patrick O’Connor and Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country: the protagoniss (Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth), and stationmaster preacher (Jim Carter)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 29th: 1st week: The politics of selling good books: history of the Booker Prize; we begin with Penelope Fitzgerald

April 5th: 2nd week: Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop; we begin J. L. Carr and A Month in the Country: historical fiction

April 12th: 3rd week: A Month in the Country; clips from the film and discussion

April 19th: 4th week: A Month in the Country; Michael Ondaatje and context for The English Patient

April 26th: 5th week: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; clips from the film and discussion

May 3rd: 6th week: The English Partient; begin Graham Swift and post-modernity (Waterlands); Orders

May 10th: 7th week: Last Orders: alternating streams of consciousness; clips from film and discussion

May 17th: 8th week: Finish Last Orders; Return to Booker and other prizes; wide discussion for future courses reading books like these

From Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders (2004): Jack’s four friends (Ray Winston, David Hemminges, Bob Hoskins, Tim Courtney) on the pier, by the sea, and his wife, Amy (Helen Mirren) getting on the bus

Suggested supplementary reading & films:

Cooper, Pamela. Graham Swift’s Last Orders. NY: Continuum, 2002
English, James. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.
The English Patient. Dir. And Screenplay. Anthony Mingella. With Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliet Binoche ….. Miramax,1996
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country: Two Screenplays. London: Faber and Faber, 1990
Huggan, Graham. “Prizing ‘otherness:’ A short history of the Booker,” Studies in the Novel, 29:3 (1997):412-33.
Kelly, Saul. The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura: The True Story Behind the English Patient. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002.
Last Orders. Dir and Screenplay. Fred Schepisi. With Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine … Sony, 2004.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. New York: Vintage, 2014
Minghella, Anthony. The English Patient: The Screenplay. London: Methuen, 1997.
A Month in the Country. Dir. Patrick O’Connor. Screenplay Simon Gray. With Colin Firth, Patrick Malahide, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson …. Pennies from Heaven, 1987.
Moseley, Merritt. “Britain’s Booker Prize,” The Sewanee Review, 101:4 (1993):613-22.
Norris, Sharon. “The Booker Prize: A Bourdieusian Perspective,” Journal for Cultural Research, 10:2 (2006):139-58.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: A Life of J. L. Carr. London: Aurum, 2003.
Showalter, Elaine. “Coming to Blows over the Booker,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 48 (June 2002):42
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Sutherland, J. A. Fiction and the Fiction Industry. London: Athlone Press, 1978.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


The sea and the desert …

Ellen

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