1904

The Year Everything Important Happened

Style is forever

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EDWARD BURNE-JONES.  “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1904.  On view in the Grand Palais during the Christie’s sale exhibition of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, February 2009.  Withdrawn prior to the sale by Bergé and donated to the Musée d’Orsay, see Here for the work when in situ in the library of the apartment on rue de Babylone.

“Fashions fade; Style is forever” is the tag line for the new film by Jalil Lespert about Yves Saint Laurent and his life with Pierre Bergé which I got to see yesterday with Peitor and Graham.  Beautiful to look at, superb performances and a lovely score,  yet I couldn’t help wondering  afterward what we’d learned that we hadn’t known before about fashion, or style, or the creative process or creative people.  And I think the answer has to do more with the talent of managing talent, at least as far as this film is concerned.

As Calvin Coolidge, of all people, said, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.” Talent gets squandered, lost, is dissipated in a thousand bad habits and poor choices and lack of discipline and goes unrecognized or dismissed all the time.  It’s the managing of talent that matters.  What’s interesting is how people like Pierre Bergé protect, encourage, nurture, love, scold, coerce and manipulate an artist.  Especially once that artist gains any kind of fame or attention and has become a celebrity.  Handling a celebrity is the worst job in the world, in my opinion, and anyone who’s ever had to tell a famous person bad news knows what I mean.  Which is why so many clever and talented people, with no one around them willing to tell them the truth, go out and make messes of their lives.

There’s a great moment in the film when Bergé says to Saint Laurent, “You have to decide if you want to live or die.  If you want to die, I can’t help you.”  I think it takes courage to say that to someone.  Fashion fades, yes; but so does pretty much everything else.  The trick is figuring out how to make the most out of what you’ve got while you’ve got it, and not throw in the towel and give up, and for that you may need help.  You may need someone around like Pierre Bergé, who’s willing to ask the hard questions, and to tell you the truth.

July 21, 1904

Playreading

Ready for the read-through, July 20, 2014

July 21, 1904, the Trans-Siberian Railway was officially completed – ‘officially’ in the sense that some parts of the 5,772 mile (9,289 km) stretch of rail from Moscow to Vladisvostok were already in use while others would take years to complete.  Begun in 1891 and built by thousands of laborers across the steppes, over rivers, through forests and swamps and permafrost, the Trans-Siberian was one of the most ambitious engineering projects of all time.  The trip today takes about a week.

July 21, 1985 Alvah Bessie (born Jun 4, 1904) died.  Bessie was one of the Hollywood Ten writers who appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and refused to testify.  Like the other Ten (Dalton Trumbo, John Howard Lawson, Adrian Scott, Ring Lardner, Jr., Samuel Ornitz, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Lester Cole and Edward Dmytryk) Bessie was fined, spent a year in prison and when released was black-listed in Hollywood.  He went to San Francisco where he found work as a stage manager and wrote novels, including “Inquisition in Eden,” about his experiences with the HUAC.

Everything takes time and you will face obstacles.  Permafrost and politics, for example, or worse.  The point is, you don’t stop.  Even when they say you are officially complete, you keep working.  Even if you are black-listed, either officially or by your own personal demons, you keep working.

Yesterday a very nice group of people came by for a reading of something I’ve been working on.  Hearing your work read aloud can be such an unsettling experience.  Characters you’ve only imagined are suddenly speaking words you wrote; they have bodies and voices and gestures and are in your living room and not in your head or in your dreams.  People conjured out of thin air, from nothing more substantial than memory and thought, are seemingly without warning living and breathing right in front of you, bigger than life.  How can you not believe in magic after that?

And very kind too. Someone makes a frittata, brings a coffee urn; someone else tidies up the kitchen after.  People have nice things to say, they are supportive and thoughtful and encouraging.  It is an extraordinary experience.

There is adversity in the world, no question; building a railroad is not all fun and games.  Neither is writing. Neither is anything that requires an audience and the participation of other people.   But I must tell you, there is also great kindness in the world.  There are people out there who want to be helpful.  Don’t ever doubt that.

July 17, 1904

Tansey

[ Exhibition catalogue cover ] MARK TANSEY “Derrida Queries de Man” 1990, oil on canvas, 84 x 55 in. Private Collection

Two men wrestling on the cliffs of deconstructed text.  Inspired by Sydney Paget’s “Sherlock Holmes’s battle with Professor Moriarty above Reichenbach Falls.”

July 17, 1904 a group of gentlemen including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, gathered for dinner at the Great Central Hotel in London.  They were individuals with an interest in crimes and the criminal mind, and that evening marked the birth of the Crimes Club.  Meeting three or four times annually on a Sunday evening for dinner, afterward a member or guest would give a talk on a recent or historical case and how it was solved, or not, who got it wrong, and right, what clues remained, were overlooked, who outwitted whom, and how, and possibly why, and so forth.

The really big events of this life – the coming in and going out of this precious human existence – we have so little control over; it’s what happens in between I find fascinating.  Most of it’s criminal, after all; we are most of us, most of the time, involved in something we shouldn’t really be doing   I know I am, and most of you are too.  Let’s face it, what we ‘should’ be doing is nearly always obvious: be good, be kind, be thoughtful, work hard, tell the truth.  Not necessarily easy, no, but not very interesting either.  As Milton found, who’s the most exciting, compelling, engrossing character to write about?  Satan.  Paradise Lost is a great read; Paradise Regained rather less so.  As for being good in the Garden before the Fall – what’s fun about that?  The good stuff comes when you run into that sexy snake who’s got the forbidden fruit;  the party really starts when that evil fairy you forgot to invite shows up.  There’s nothing worse than a fairy scorned, she’s going to make a mess and leave you like a crime scene afterward.

Birth and death are the big deals, of course.  But oh, what a hyphen in between.

July 14, 1904

Chekhov-as-a-young-man

ANTON CHEKHOV (January 29, 1860 – July 14, 1904)

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Greta Scacchi will be returning to Perth, Western Australia to appear in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull, at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre of Perth, from August 9 – 31, 2014.

Luke McMahon will play the role of the young Konstantin.

There is still time to book passage and tickets to take me to see this important production, but I urge you to let me know as soon as possible.

I once played the role of the school teacher Medvedenko who has the first line of the play, “Why do you always wear black?”

July 6, 1904

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Jack London (1876-1916) writing, circa 1905

July 6, 1904, Jack London writes to Charmian Kitteridge about the trouble he is having with his wife Bessie, who had brought a suit against him for separation on grounds of cruelty:

“Now this is the case, for the first time in my life I have a couple or four thousand dollars above my debts.  She intends fighting for cash.  You know I don’t give a whoop for money.  She has started the expense of law, I’ll help run up said expense of law.  Result, neither she nor I shall see a penny of it.  The several thousand will be dribbled out amongst the lawyers.  My English publishers have failed, all my American publishers have injunctions served upon them, likewise the Examiner, the Central Bank, the Spray, my books, carpets, everything. ”

He would divorce Bessie and marry Charmian later that year.

Love is a battlefield, to quote Stevie Nicks.  So is Life.  In 1903 London had sold “Call of the Wild” to the Saturday Evening Post for $750 and the book rights to Macmillan for $2000.  He was getting somewhere at last, with his writing, with his career…  and all of a sudden Bessie had had enough.

You achieve a little financial success, or literary validation, and your love life gets messy.  Or you find true love and start bouncing checks.   Or you try to do something good and important and the rent still ends up being due at the end of the month.

I once decided it didn’t matter if I’d failed at love and fame and fortune, I’d focus on being extremely spiritual instead.   I remembered that in the middle of a Shiva puja on the 4th of July.  I watched a beautiful boy with golden dreadlocks piled on top of his head and an orange dhoti tied around his slender youthful waist,  Sanskrit texts tattooed on his broad shoulders and chest, smeared with sandalwood paste, in the ecstasy of worship, chanting the names of the divine.

I wanted that, once upon a time.  I was sure it would fix me.   “Oh he never amounted to a hill of beans,” they’d say of me, “but he sure gave Mother Teresa a run for her money when it came to being saintly.”

I know Life doesn’t really work that way but it doesn’t keep you from trying.  Trying this or that.  Not giving a whoop about that, if you only have this, or something else – love, maybe.

July 1, 1904

GFWatts

GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (February 23, 1817 – July 1, 1904)

The greatest painter of the Victorian Age.

It isn’t always obvious, but you can’t have a beginning without an end, an Edwardian age without a Victorian one, the birth of a Beaton without the death of a Watts.  A new era without saying goodbye to the old one.  The start of a war without the end of peace.  How you measure these things, however, how you measure Time, the ends and the starts, is a matter itself of Time and Place.

Inspired by my friend David over tea on Sunday, I picked up Anne Carson‘s “Men in the Off Hours” last night at the BHPL and started in at the beginning with “Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War” and it is so beautiful and so full I would do no service to you or anyone by trying to explain the connection here except to say there is one.  It is easy to be mean about bad writing; about the kind that takes your breath away, however, a lot more difficult.

David and I were talking about cliché - how, like so many other things in this world, you know it when you see it, and in writing how it’s so much a matter of what you know, what you’re trying to do and have done already, and what you’ve read, whether you are young and inexperienced or old, or how as a writer it is a matter of how close you can get to the pain and as a reader how far you can get with certain books before abandoning them.  “You can finish a book and throw it across the room,” my friend said, “but throwing it across the room after the first page is a bad sign.”  

Gertrude Stein, writing in Wars I Have Seen, talks about the time when the language was young, when a poet could say O Sun O Moon O Stars and that was enough, it sufficed; the words themselves were magical.  But then the language gets worn down and old and you say the same words and the magic isn’t there anymore.

Is it all about being young?  “Reason and strength belong to the beginning,” Carson writes, and then quotes Thucydides who says, “For at the beginning men all take hold more sharply.” But they are talking about war, and the beginning of war.  When a war starts is not the same, presumably, as a cliché.   100 years ago World War One began, with an archduke and his wife being assassinated, with a mad anarchist pulling the trigger and triggering the chain of commitments in the Entente Cordiale signed in 1904, and so you could say it all began with the signing of the Entente Cordiale, or with something else even older, the death of another age, or with the birth of a new generation of young men taking hold of ideas about war and glory and turning them into clichés, if they weren’t already; oh Rupert Brooke, oh poppies In Flanders Fields.  Or with something even older still.  Oh Thucydides, oh death where is thy sting?

June 28, 1904

artlessfiction

BIANCA DORSO  “Artless Fiction”

June 28, 1904, Anton Chekhov, dying of tuberculosis at Badenweiler, writes to his sister Masha to say his health is improving.  He dies a little over two weeks later.

You never know what’s going to happen.  Nothing’s going on, and then you come home to find a film crew in the lobby, Carlos has finished another season of his wonderful web series, Eduardo’s becoming a book coach, Mark has lost 28 pounds, Esther cracked my French press.  All of a sudden everyone’s busy and productive; it seems to come in waves.  Last weekend Sophia and I went to see Shakespeare in Topanga Canyon (A Midsummer’s Night Dream on Midsummer’s Day, appropriately enough), I did a photo shoot with Jim,  Lemonade with Richard, pizza in Korea Town with Michael,  and this weekend it’s Roscoe’s chicken with David, tea with another David, tete-a-tete with Bob, Al, Richard, possibly Nicole, squeeze in the 101 Cafe at the end of it all and a short week to follow because of the 4th.  Blink and it’ll be Christmas.

“You wrote a play?” Eduardo exclaimed in disbelief.

“You needn’t sound so surprised,” I replied.  “I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“It’s been two weeks,” he corrected me.

“And you didn’t bother telling me you’d gone to see Wagner’s Ring.  Don’t deny it, I saw the pictures on Facebook.”

“That was Betty in Into the Woods,” he shot back.

“An eighteen-year-old did her hair,” Mark offered.  I had to admit, it was an impressive look.  She looked monumental, a Sondheim Brunhilde if ever there was one.  I said I felt certain she’d given a memorable performance and they confirmed my suspicions.  Unlike another cast member, they added, who’d been fired and replaced and, thus scorned, returned opening night to storm unexpectedly across stage and into the wings, slamming doors and uttering imprecations and thinly veiled threats to the cowering cast waiting for their cues to go on.

“Everything interesting is happening up there,” I observed.  It’s true.  They live in Idyllwild, a remote rural community perched high in the mountains above Palm Springs.  It’s a hot bed of art and culture.  “Moses is descending the mountain with his husband,” Carlos texts me whenever they come to town, and we drop everything to gather and hear the latest news.

You never know.  And you can’t make this stuff up.

Today is Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s birthday (June 28, 1929), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s birthday (June 28, 1712) and Pirandello’s (June 28, 1867):

Whatever is a reality today, whatever you touch and believe in that seems real to you today is going to be – like the reality of yesterday – an illusion tomorrow.”

June 16, 1904

GraftonSt

John J. Clarke, photographer.  Two women walking past jewellers, Grafton Street, Dublin, circa 1904.  Source: Clarke Collection, National Library of Ireland

Happy Bloomsday.  The Clarke Collection of photographs taken when John J. Clarke was a medical student in Dublin from 1897-1904 offers a way for you to see Joyce’s city the way it was on that memorable day.  Enjoy.

June 12, 1904

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4th grade science quiz from a Christian school in South Carolina, circa 2013.  [verified, see Snopes]

Adolf Lindenbaum was born on June 12, 1904 in Warsaw and was murdered by the Nazis near Vilnius in 1941.  Lindenbaum was a mathematician and logician in the field of set theory and was the author of a number of famous works on what is a fascinating and complex subject of study unless you’re being taught in a Christian school in America in which case never mind, set theory is as far removed from anything you will ever be able to comprehend as dinosaurs roaming the earth with Jesus are to educated people in the rest of the civilized world.  Sadly, as any experienced educator will tell you, the worst damage is inflicted in the early years; what is done to young minds is very difficult to undo.

At the core of the liberal education is the concept of dialogue, of debate: the belief in the value of teaching a student how to think, and argue, of how to defend a position or theory or belief with supporting evidence, how to consider the opposing view, define terms, analyze and weigh facts, interpret meaning.  None of which is going to happen in a true and false, black and white approach to learning.

The religious fundamentalist approach to education, of course, is all about true and false, black and white.  God’s Law is not open to interpretation; there is no room for discussion or debate.   Other points of view are not welcome because they are blasphemy.  There’s no place for logic because propositions involve the notion of proving an “if, then” clause, and there is no “if” in God.  Everything is already decided and known.  Obedience is all that matters.

In that kind of world, the Nazis were right; there is no need for logicians and mathematicians, no matter how brilliant.  No room for anyone or anything that might be different.

June 9 & 10, 1904

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Château Borély, Marseilles

Postcard view, June 9, 1904

I meant to post that yesterday.

On June 10, 1904, Nora Barnacle met James Joyce on Nassau Street and made plans to meet again a few days later near Merrion Square but Nora didn’t show up.  Joyce wrote to her asking if she wanted to try another day, and on the 16th June they did.

“If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.”  Mik Everett

Borely

View from the interior of the Château Borély, March 2014, photograph by the author

I’m working on a play, my guru is in town, and Saturday night I went to a dinner in the Valley so as you might imagine I’ve been very busy and have not had a moment to myself.  On top of which I am curious to see if the subscription plug-in is working.  If it is, this will show up in your mail box, a virtual postcard from another time and place, sent with all my love,  always, G

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