Sunday, 28 April 2013

Small Town Minds

Odd.  Weird.  Not quite normal.  We don’t understand it!  A key scene, the pivot on which the plot revolves, contains too much ambiguity; which is a mistake because it confuses the film’s meaning without enriching it.  Too much happens too quickly.  There should have been a few extra scenes to properly fill in the explanatory background so to clarify the character of Hélène.  Chabrol cuts a corner, and it shows: we interpret some crucial moments very differently from what we believe is the director’s intention.  The unity of the work is broken, and we become aware of a narrative flaw: the motivation of Lucienne’s daughter is not so obvious to us as it should be.  Puzzled by an inconsistency we try work it out for ourselves.  Oh dear!  Instead of letting the movie do its osmotic work we spend our time trying to solve a pseudo-problem that should never have existed.  Enamoured with our own thoughts we lose track of the film, engrossed in a question we struggle to answer: why did Hélène shop her mother to the police?

Friday, 19 April 2013

Wit is Everything

Thérèse philosophe is addressed to a Champagne-and-oyster readership – as were most of the works of the early Enlightenment.  Montesquieu cut up De l’Esprit des lois into tiny chapters laced with epigrams so they would suit salon society.  Voltaire made petits pâtés (anti-clerical tracts) comestible in the same way.  A great deal of what passed for philosophy before 1748 took the form of short pamphlets rather than formal treatises.  They remained confined, for the most part, to salons and princely courts, and they often circulated in manuscript.  The most important of them, Le Philosophe (1743), insisted that philosophy belonged in le monde, the world of high society as opposed to that of scholars and literary drudges.  It should be witty, well written, free of prejudice, and in good taste. Thérèse philosophe fits the formula perfectly.  Like Lettres persanes, Candide, and La Religieuse, it presented its philosophy as a story, sliced into bite-sized chapters and served with a sauce that would sit easily on the delicate stomachs of le monde.  (Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France)

We would expect the content to reflect the style.  The sophisticates of the Paris salons unlikely to accept as serious a message that hard work and no talk is the solution to life’s problems.  No talk?   The salons would cease to exist!   Of course they would see the joke, and share it, but it is unlikely they would take it as anything more than a light metaphor; Candide believed to be too naïve to be credible.  Not like the sophisticated author who guides his hero's actions with a permanent wink.  Irony indispensable in such circles…

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Talk About the Translator!

Aldous Huxley, clever as always, situates the meaning of Candide not so much in the book itself as in the era of its readers.  It is the Zeitgeist that decides its semantic fate!  A few years either way enough to change our views…

In the good old days, before the Flood, the history of Candide’s adventures seemed to us quiet, sheltered, middle-class people only a delightful phantasy, or at best a high-spirited exaggeration of conditions which we knew, vaguely and theoretically, to exist, to have existed, a long way off in space and time.  But to read the book today; you feel yourself entirely at home in its pages.  It is like reading a record of the facts and opinions of 1922; nothing was ever more applicable, more completely to the point.  The world in which we live is recognizably the world of Candide and Cunégonde, of Martin and the Old Woman who was a Pope’s daughter and the betrothed of the sovereign Prince of Massa-Carrara…

Men, we thought, had grown up from the brutal and rampageous hobbledehoyism of earlier ages and were now as polite and genteel as Gibbon himself.  We now know better.  Create a hobbledehoy environment and you will have hobbledehoy behaviour; create a Gibbonish environment and everyone will be, more less, genteel.  It seems obvious, now.  And now that we are living in a hobbledehoy world, we have learnt Martin’s lesson so well that we can look on almost unmoved at the most appalling natural catastrophes and at exhibitions of human stupidity and wickedness which would have aroused us in the past to surprise and indignation.  Indeed, we have left Martin behind and are become, with regard to many things, Pococurante. (On Re-Reading Candide in On the Margin)

Huxley has inadvertently uncovered a paradox in the novel.  If we accept that the environment shapes our behaviour (British empiricism the foundational philosophy for the Neo-Darwinian belief in natural selection) then Candide’s message that we adapt to circumstances, that we make the best of what little is available, is simply an acknowledgement that in a beastly environment we will become beasts.  Indeed, in Candide’s descent from the top of Pangloss’ metaphysical pedestal to the tilled soil of his practical philosophy we do see the decline and eventual fall of the abstract intellect.  By the book’s end there is no value left in it.  And yet, it is precisely his kind of practical almost mindless work that leads to the Garden of Eden that is the modern age.  Calvino tells us so.  His view today’s conventional wisdom.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Modern Man

The best assessment I’ve read of Candide is by Italo Calvino.  It acknowledges the intellectual asceticism of the book’s conclusion; and so confirms by own views about it, which I had begun to doubt after reviewing some of the critical literature, discussed in previous posts.i  Always we judge others by our own judgements that we believe are categorical and just.  To find someone to agree with is like finding a comfortable sofa to sleep on undisturbed.  Zzzzzzzzzzzz….

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Monday, 1 April 2013

He Splatters the Girl in the Yellow Frock with My Sentences

I am always punching people up!  Not today.  Today I need time to recover.  Hit by heavy blows I sit on the ropes, to consider my ideas, as my opponent jabs and jabs away, and jabs again, at my arguments.  It is a powerful piecei with a nasty uppercut that sends me to the canvas… Michael Wood is good, light on his feet with a quick right hand he bloodies my theories and knocks a few of my paragraphs out cold.  Naturally, I disagree with him.