From the Zone of Totality
From Jack, Dar, and Starr!
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” -Buddha*** We mortals are composed of two great schools--Enlightened knaves or else religious fools. --Abul 'Ala al Ma'arri (973-1057)*** "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!" -Auntie Mame ******************* Philosophy, History, Travel, the Arts, Whatever's on my Table...
During the holidays, New Years Eve in particular, Oyster Shooters are a great appetizer, as well as conversation food. Making Oyster Shooters is fairly simple, just be careful when shucking the oyster. After a couple of bandages, you may consider purchasing shucked oysters. Something I learned after trying to be hip, with many bandages-mind you.
How you do it:
Place one oyster in shot glass
Add Worchester sauce and cocktail sauce if preferred
Add a couple of drops of hot sauce if preferred
Add beer to about two-thirds of the glass
Add lemon wedge on rim
Cover with hand and gently slam on the counter
By Michael Sragow
Sun Movie Critic
December 22, 2006
The History Boys treats teaching as an art and makes it thrilling. Watching and listening to its lead character Hector dissect a Thomas Hardy poem is more vivid and emotionally startling than any CSI TV show, because what Hector demonstrates are the forensics of the soul. While Casino Royale continues to rev up action audiences with an agent On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the freshest piece of writing for dramatic audiences, The History Boys, has come from a man who served On Her Majesty's Public Broadcasting Service.
Most Americans got their first taste of Beyond the Fringe comic Alan Bennett's eloquence as a dramatist with the hourlong 1983 BBC film An Englishman Abroad, which turned a real-life encounter in the Soviet Union between stage and screen actress Coral Browne and notorious defector Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) into brilliant social comedy. Bennett's equally splendid BBC film, A Question of Attribution, in some ways anticipated Stephen Frears' and Peter Morgan's The Queen, and he had an enormous stage success with The Madness of George III. (It fared less well on screen as The Madness of King George.)
But The History Boys, opening today at the Charles, is Bennett's royal flush.
Set in a Yorkshire grammar school in the early '80s, it has a heady blend of heart and wit. Nicholas Hytner, who also directed the original stage productions in London (2004) and New York (2006), has taken his extraordinary ensemble and, with Bennett's assistance, opened the play up to provide more air for the action and more hope for the characters. This tale of eight students, three teachers and a stern, idiotic headmaster is the rare academic comedy-drama that gets the schoolroom balance just right. It's equally about learning and instruction.
The school's headmaster (Clive Merrison) believes that these gifted boys from unconnected households give him a shot at landing a record number of scholarships for Oxford and Cambridge. But they're devoted to general studies teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), who transforms their class into a hyper-literate rumpus room and shows them that gray matter can glow like Technicolor.
For Hector, "knowledge is not general. It is specific - and - it has nothing to do with getting on." Interlopers may be startled when Hector's French lesson takes the shape of a comic improv about bordellos, or when the tearjerking climax of Brief Encounter gets interspersed with fragments of great poetry.
But Hector doesn't "want to turn out boys who in later life had a deep love of literature, or who would talk in middle age of the lure of language and their love of words." He wants them to savor writing as a living thing. That's why he integrates "tosh"-like music-hall songs into his freewheeling curriculum: The "sheer calculated silliness" of pop culture deflates reverence.
"The best moments in reading," he says, "are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." Hector knows that the surest way to open minds and tone them is to keep them active, even if that occasionally means literally smacking them with books.
Nonetheless the headmaster decides that Hector lacks the right stuff to prepare the boys for scholarship exams and interviews. So he hires a new man, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), to steel the boys to debate history. Irwin believes in strategies that make the lads stand out: He has them look for an angle that's attention-getting, not original or correct, such as laying out the good side of Stalin.
In The History Boys, as in all of Bennett's work, irony is what the characters live and breathe - and I mean irony in its truest sense, of using language to present opposite and often sly alternatives to accepted wisdom. The piece's crowning tragicomic irony is that Irwin offends Hector's standards of ethics and truth by speaking casually of the Holocaust, while Hector gets in trouble for offending public morality. He believes that "the transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act." Unfortunately, he extends that belief to groping the boys who ride on the back of his motorbike.
Under this multicolored umbrella of arguments, the boys act out their own errant impulses, analyze the adults and come closer to growing up. Their combination of adolescent smarts and gusto also generates group magic.
By the time we learn of their adult fates in a stroke as devastating as the climax of Our Town, we realize we've witnessed an imaginative tragicomedy of doublespeak and second sight, of public faces and private lives, every bit as full of tart payoffs and compact, bittersweet catharses as Bennett's more regal farces.
Yet here they're vibrantly streaked with melancholy and excitement and, most important, generosity. A lot of that emanates from Griffiths, who is both a heartbreak and a joy as Hector. He's the sort of inspired endomorph, such as Jackie Gleason or John Goodman, who can put every rolling particle of his body to expressive use.
He connects to each member of a class simultaneously and directly because he contains several levels of feeling. When he focuses all that energy into one emotion, the impact can be leveling or elating.
Director Hytner gives him the perfect faculty-room partner in Frances de la Tour as the more traditional history teacher, Mrs. Lintott, who has an implacable everyday wisdom born of ill-used feminine experience and brings Hector down to earth when she says, "A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation." And each young actor is remarkable, from Dominic Cooper as a precocious lover-boy to Samuel Barnett as the classmate with a crush on him.
"Shall I tell you what is wrong with Hector as a teacher?" the headmaster asks. "There is inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?" One way is to point to a piece of filmed theater like The History Boys and say, with pride, that unfettered education produced that.
>>>The History Boys (Fox Searchlight) Starring Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Stephen Campbell Moore, Dominic Cooper, Samuel Barnett. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Rated R. Time 109 minutes.
M20.1 IASON & THE DRAKON
Museum Collection: Museo Gregoriano Etrusco Vaticano, Vatican City
Catalogue No.: Vatican 16545
Beazley Archive No.: 205162
Ware: Attic Red Figure
Painter: Attributed to Douris
Date: ca 500 - 450 BC
Period: Late Archaic
The Drakon of Kholkis disgorges the hero Jason. Behind it the Golden Fleece hangs from a tree. Athene oversees the scene, holding a small owl and wearing her gorgon-headed aigis. This version of the story is from the lost work of an unknown ancient Greek poet.
The painting depicts an early locomotive of the Great Western Railway crossing the River Thames on Brunel's recently completed Maidenhead Railway Bridge.The painting is also credited for allowing a glimpse of the Romantic strife within Turner and his contemporaries over the issue of the technological advancement during the Industrial Revolution .
Among painters, Benjamin West - the painter of epic representation and then-president of the Royal Academy - was perhaps the only artist who measured up to Turner's talent, even in those years of his youth. John Constable, who would become the other looming figure in landscape painting, was an outsider. As Turner achieved prominence, Constable has some success in France but couldn't sell his work at home.
Even the earliest of Turner's 146 oil works on display exhibits the remarkable fundamentals that he would build on and transform - substantially - over time. Fisherman at Sea, the first oil painting Turner showed at the Royal Academy (in 1796, following several years' worth of watercolour works), features elements that would dominate his later studies on the sublime. The full, featureless moon would be repeated again and again across all the modes of his paintings. The wan orb - this time, the sun - hanging low among the rising range of mountains and swoosh of furious weather in Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) represents stability in the face of nature and permanence through tumultuous history. On the other hand, the sulfurous sun in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait (1830) seems to vaporise the ocean where it touches down in a blistering sunset. The sun's fierce fire is juxtaposed against the frail, ghost crab-coloured fishwives searching for grub in the low tide.
A one-stop example of Turner's scope in subject matter comes in the Liber Studiorum, a series he published from 1807 to 1819. Following the example of mezzotints published after Claude Lorrain's 1777 Liber Veritatis, Turner's published engravings offered his early treatise on the subject of landscape painting. He organised his prints by category: architectural, historical, marine, mountainous, pastoral and one final umbrella, "E.P.", which was a category of his own invention (meaning, perhaps, epic pastoral or elegiac pastoral).
The autumnal range of the sepia tints for the Liber Studiorum prints seems narrow and out of turn compared with his painted landscapes. But in historical context, these were a brilliant and successful business innovation. The prints were works that the market of the day would eagerly bear - Turner's bread and butter. In the context of the show, these distinguish this retrospective from both recent Turner exhibits and recent Turner scholarship. A 1966 exhibit of 100 watercolours and oils that visited the Museum of Modern Art - not the Met - enrolled Turner in the ever-expanding chronicle of 19th-century painters whose work would prefigure the advent of Modernism.
That MoMA exhibit focused in particular on Turner's late and unfinished works for obvious reasons: his control of the brush was looser, his interest in atmospherics, keener. The late stuff just looks modern. The comprehensive retrospective at the National Gallery does not necessarily contradict the conclusions one can draw from Turner's late period but rather casts them in historical and painterly context.
The Turner retrospective compares with another recent show at the National Gallery of Art: that of his less fortunate contemporary, John Constable. Constable plays the straight man to Turner's comic. The former painted the everyday near his home in Dedham Vale, while Turner would nurse an image using his imagination to suit his needs - not merely in his epic or historical painting but in his land- and seascapes as well. Even the signature spackle of paint that Constable would apply to his canvas surface to evoke light seems to find a parallel better in Turner's work: the mottle of reds and oranges he uses to evoke fire, sky and blood. Or subjects even more metaphysical, as in Death on a Pale Horse (1825-35).
The show does not hide Turner's warts. The single Turner commission to enter into the Royal Collection, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, assigned by King George IV, is a miasma of academic attitudes toward naval painting, heroism and realism. For the piece, Turner incorporated a host of happenings from the 1805 battle, the most important naval conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. Trafalgar was a pyrrhic victory for Lord Howe, who won the day but lost the life of the admiral and beloved hero, Horatio Nelson; this was a fact not lost on Turner as naval figures hovered over him, pointing out errors and suggesting tweaks as he finished the piece. His better work on the subject came years earlier: The Battle of Trafalgar, as Seen from the Mizen Starboard Shrouds of the Victory (1808), in which Turner did not hold to the prevailing style that dominates the royal commission, that is, a single, illuminated plane of action. The chaos of the earlier work comes closer to evoking battle itself - only the plumes of smoke are missing among the towering masts and feathered sails.
Another battle would have an enormous impact on Turner's career: Waterloo. With the end of hostilities in Europe, the continent was opened up to Turner, and from 1815, he traveled widely on sketching tours. The most productive of these trips took Turner to the Roman Campagna, lands painted by his predecessor Claude Lorrain, the master whose name loomed over landscape painting. Regulus, Calais Sands and Fort Vimieux, all masterpieces, were painted following trips through Italy. Intriguingly, Turner's romantic works, painted during numerous trips to Italy from 1819 through the early 1830s, couldn't find an audience; he supported this work by producing illustrations for travel books. Truly, some of these romantic works are saccharine. For Rome: The Forum with a Rainbow, Turner added lush vegetation as well as a rainbow to convey his feelings for the capital.
Turner often would nurse an image to fit his needs, altering elements of a landscape's configuration or a battle's happening to flatter the composition and subject. But in the face of catastrophe, he adhered to a more journalistic standard about painting the scene he saw. In 1834, Turner witnessed the massive fire that consumed the Palace of Westminster. It was a disaster of unprecedented proportion, and it's evident that Turner, as well as other Royal Academy artists and students, recognised the conflagration as the study of a lifetime.
It's doubtful that Turner painted a series of vivid watercolours en plein air; scholarly consensus suggests that these works were finished later after quick sketches. But Turner did, in fact, witness the fire from both sides of the Thames and, according to scholar Sarah Taft, "he may also have boarded a boat for part of that evening". The watercolours are a testament to the way that Turner perceived the landscape: Each painting depicts an evocative and fleeting glance at the inferno. Turner's summary statement would come shortly after the fire, in the form of two oil paintings, each titled The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons October 16, 1834. For these, Turner turned to the perspectives of contemporary press accounts, rather than his own watercolours-suggesting that Turner hoped to dovetail his own painting with a political/social account of the disaster.
Contemporaries describe a collapse in Turner's health in 1845, characterised by sudden cognitive failure, after years of gradual physical decline. Turner was at this time the oldest Royal Academician (in fact, the acting president), and he had exhibited work at the Royal Academy every year for more than 20 years; he continued to do so until 1848. The novelist Wilkie Collins described Turner's degeneration: "There he sat, a shabby Bacchus, nodding like a Mandarin at his picture, which he, with a pendulum motion, now touched with his brush and now receded from. Yet, in spite of sherry, precarious seat and old age, he went on shaping some wonderful dream of colour".
That would be a relatively generous take. Turner biographer Philip Hamerton describes the popular reaction to the 1842 seascape, Snowstorm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and Going by the Lead. The Author Was in this Storm on the Night the Ariel Left Harwich. The painting, Hamerton remarks, "afforded the critics a precarious opportunity for the exercise of their art," noting that it was decried as "soapsuds and whitewash". It is lost to history who in fact coined that notorious phrase - it might well have been John Ruskin, a critic who supported Turner, remarking on or imitating the viewers who denounced Snowstorm.
The painting dares the viewer to evaluate Turner's late body in Modernist terms. On its face Snowstorm is roughly abstract: a painting that does not depict a specific calamity but rather viscerally relays the experience of weathering the maelstrom. On this point - the specific event in question - Turner offers only misdirection. The elaborate title does not in fact say that "the author" was aboard the Ariel during the tempest in question - nor is it clear that the ship is necessarily the Ariel, a subject of debate among maritime and Turner scholars. Turner is through and through the unreliable narrator. According to Ruskin, the painter told one gallery-goer that he asked sailors to bind him to a ship's mast so that he could observe firsthand the brunt of the storm. The painter certainly knew the mythological root of his own tale, considering his 1829 meditation, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey.
It was not just Turner's work that was changing. Ruskin was taking on canonical titans like Gaspar Poussin and Claude Lorrain with the publication of Modern Painters, which challenged that the new British landscapes had one-upped the inveterate old masters. That Turner posits a "steam-boat" in Snowstorm is the subject of some discussion, as Harwich wasn't frequented by the new steam lines; his specific identification of the new technology might have been his comment on a rapidly changing world.
The period that earned Turner so much derision - the sunset of his career, as it were - is one that has commanded tremendous interest from contemporary audiences. This retrospective reveals that Turner is more than a missing link. At a transitional moment in British culture and painting, Turner was a force of evolution.
There's always something too good to be true about famous last words. Did Oscar Wilde really say, "Either that wallpaper goes or I do"? I certainly hope so, but still. So we should be careful with the claim that in his last recorded utterance, a few weeks before he died, the English painter J.M.W. Turner, the man who whipped up force fields of light, who could make light obliterate almost everything it fell on and then make it spell out everything else, turned to somebody and said, "The sun is God."
An exhibit of the English master's paintings has opened at the National Gallery in Washington. Here is a selection curated by TIME art critic Richard Lacayo
The last time there was a major Turner show in the U.S., 41 years ago, he was treated as a forerunner not only of the Impressionists but also of the Abstract Expressionists and color-field painters, of Mark Rothko and his pulsing fogs or Morris Louis and his washes of diluted pigment. But in recent years, scholars have been at pains to draw Turner back into the context of his times, to emphasize that he was eager to paint history and contemporary events and to look to the past as much as the future.
The phenomenal new Turner exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, which travels next to Dallas and New York City, is a show in that vein. With almost 150 works, it's a full picture of the entire man. All the same, while people will come away impressed by Turner the painter of historic events and modern horrors, one as forceful and sometimes as original as Goya, the man they'll be in awe of is still that other Turner, the incandescent bulb, the great conductor of solar power.
For an artist so taken by the sun, Turner was no Apollo. He was short, squat and beak-nosed. The offspring of a London barber, he spoke all his life with a Cockney accent. Even after he started to make good money, which happened soon, his fingernails were caked with pigment, and he kept one of them long, like a blues guitarist does, so that he could use it to scratch directly into the paint. Like Billy Joel or Elton John, he was a commoner who made good.
He came of age in the last years of an era of great English portraiture, of Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney, when the British gentry were eager to be commemorated in the full regalia of the ruling classes. The elderly Reynolds was still president of the Royal Academy when the 14-year-old Turner was admitted to the Academy's school. But Turner would have been a disaster as a portraitist. He could draw as well as the best of them. In watercolor he could produce something like molecular detail, notwithstanding that one of his typical techniques was to soak the entire sheet in water, rub in raw pigment, blot it with rags and sponges and then painstakingly work up finer detail within the misty blooms of color. Yet as he matured, his deepest impulse wasn't to delineate form but to dissolve it. And where was the earl who wanted to be remembered as a blot?
At the turn of the 18th century, history painting was the highest purpose art could serve, and Turner would attempt those heights all his life. But his real achievement would be to make landscape the equal of history painting. More than that, he made it a kind of history painting, in which nature operates as a surrogate for the force of events. In his thunderous Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, it's not even clear just where Turner has placed the Carthaginian general. Could he be that minuscule silhouette in the middle distance on a tiny elephant, the one dwarfed by the coiling surf of gray-brown cloud above his head? As the great storm explodes across the canvas, devouring the sickly yellow coin of the sun, the mighty general is just a comma in the larger scheme. This isn't merely history taking place in a landscape. It's landscape as the judgment of history.
And the Britons who crowded to see it in 1812 would not have missed Turner's mocking reference to Napoleon, who had just begun his advance into Russia. Twelve years earlier, the Little Colonel had been famously painted by Jacques-Louis David on a rearing horse, preparing to cross the Alps at St. Bernard Pass. The maelstrom that engulfs Hannibal, who would eventually be worn down by the Romans, is Turner's way of predicting that Napoleon would be cut down to size too. In the same way, The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October, 1834, Turner's furious account of the fire that destroyed the old seat of government, was understood in his own time--just like the fire itself--as a judgment on the corruption of Parliament.
Turner didn't always deal in turmoil. His great hero was Claude Lorrain, the 17th century French landscape painter who invented formats like the idealized harbor, places flanked by classical piles, where a setting sun bears down gently on the horizon. In Caernarvon Castle, an early watercolor flushed with orange twilight, Turner took Lorrain's tranquil model and invested it with the nostalgia and high-minded melancholy of English Romanticism.
He may not convince you that the sun is God. But he never lets you doubt that it's good.
By STEPHEN T. ASMA
The new film version of Beowulf is upon us, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie, and Crispin Glover, with Ray Winstone as Beowulf.
Zemeckis, whose earlier films include Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, and The Polar Express, has always explored cutting-edge technologies in his work, aiming for emotional storytelling rather than just eye candy. In Beowulf, he has once again fashioned a stunning visual world by using "performance capture" computer animation — real actors are digitally mapped and reconfigured in a virtual environment. Winstone, for example, who employed his real body to play the paunchy Gary Dove in Sexy Beast, here in Beowulf appears as an impossibly cut miracle of human anatomy. And the dragon? Well, let's just say I highly recommend the 3-D version that's being released in select theaters.
Much has been written about how Beowulf looks, but less about what it means, partly because that meaning is difficult to articulate. We live in an age of radically different values than those of the original Beowulf culture, yet it still speaks to us. Many of its explicit statements of power, violence, and gender relations are forbidden to our more gentle, egalitarian, and diplomatic society. But something in the primitive story resonates deeply in the modern audience as well — embarrassingly so (or ironically so) for intellectuals, but more sincerely I suspect for lay audiences.
At first Beowulf seems to join the ranks of other recent films that champion pre-Christian masculine virtues. History-based blockbuster hits like Zach Snyder and Frank Miller's film 300 (about the battle of Thermopylae) or HBO's series Rome, are unapologetic celebrations of macho competence. The popularity of these pseudohistorical films took many media pundits by surprise, but the audiences who felt the testosterone buzz from the hero stories (myself included) were not surprised in the least. And the experience is not just the visceral Freudian holiday of aggression that one finds in inferior action and slasher pictures. Rather, there is a distinct sympathy for honor culture in these films — brute strength, tribal loyalty, and stoic courage actually get things done.
Academe finds all this loathsome and backward, and, of course, our liberal culture is ostensibly opposed to the social hierarchies, patriarchy, and chauvinism of older honor cultures. But narratives and representations about heroic strength (even flawed and misdirected) remain deeply satisfying for many people.
The story of one of the great monster-killers of all time, Beowulf is an epic poem that comes to us in the form of the Old English manuscript called the Nowell Codex by archivists (but titled Beowulf after its main character). Most scholars put the date of the manuscript around 1100 A.D., but the story certainly existed in oral form for centuries before that. The text and the tale are considered British national treasures, despite the fact that the story is about a Scandinavian hero fighting monsters in Denmark.
In the original, Beowulf is the name of a young warrior from the land of the Geats (southern Sweden), and his story unfolds sometime around the turn of the sixth century. He comes to hear of a troubled Danish king, Hrothgar, whose subjects and feasting hall (Heorot) are being menaced by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf offers his services as a monster-killer.
Beowulf and his band of Geat warriors are welcomed with open arms by the Danes. They drink mead together and plan for battle against Grendel. But Unferth, a mischievous Dane among them, calls Beowulf's power into question, by reporting a story of Beowulf's loss in a swimming competition against his friend Breca.
Beowulf sets Unferth straight and establishes his monster-killing credentials when he explains that he and Breca swam side by side for five nights until an "angry sea-flood broke out above us — blackening sky and freezing northwinds forced us apart, towering salt-swells struck between us. Strange sea creatures surfaced around me....To the deep sea-floor, something pulled me — hard gripfingers hauled me to sand with grappling tight claws. It was granted to me to reach this devil, rush him to sleep with sharp sword-point — swift blade-slashing, strong in my hand, haled him deathward."
We can already see that Beowulf, for good or ill, is a man's story — told by men, about men, and celebrating manly virtues. Even before the encounter with Grendel, for example, we have heroes in chain mail, emptying mugs of beer and trading boastful stories of violent victories against formidable enemies. The testosterone level only rises as the story progresses.
Zemeckis's version, as we'll see, departs significantly from the original, but the visual fireworks certainly strum the strings of thumos, or spiritedness, during the action sequences. And the trustworthy friend Wiglaf refers to Beowulf in the film as the "prince of all warriors."
The monster Grendel (descendant of the biblical Cain) regularly breaks into the large feasting hall at night to kill and eat the sleeping Danes. This time the beast snares a victim immediately. Grendel "tore frantically, crunched bonelockings, crammed blood-morsels, gulped him with glee." But when Grendel grabs his second victim, the warrior Beowulf grabs back. A horrible battle ensues and Beowulf, by sheer willpower, rips Grendel's arm off, delivering him a death blow.
But the following night, Grendel's hideous mother comes to the hall to avenge her son. The mother turns out to be an even more dreadful foe, and Beowulf must follow her to her watery lair. In a cave underwater, Beowulf tries in vain to crush the "sea hag," but she is too strong. Finding a huge sword in the monster's cache, he manages finally, "with rage in his heart," to slay the creature.
After much celebration, the Beowulf of the original poem returns home and eventually becomes the king of the Geats, living happily for many years as a noble ruler. Late in his life, however, the peaceful interval is broken, and Beowulf must rise again to meet a monstrous enemy. This time he fights a giant dragon and manages to finally carve up the serpent — but not before he is bitten badly by the venomous creature. Beowulf finally dies, is cremated, and is buried on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
I've just committed the mortal sin, according J.R.R. Tolkien, of summarizing the plot of Beowulf. Tolkien argued, in his influential 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and The Critics," that critics had failed to see the seriousness and the depth of Beowulf, because they frequently abstracted the simple plot from the actual poem. There seems to be some truth in this. If I say, for example, that Beowulf is about a guy who fights three monsters and then dies, I've pretty much covered the actual plot. And thinking about the poem in this way led many scholars to see it as an important linguistic artifact, but otherwise unsophisticated.
Tolkien showed us that the actual poetry of Beowulf was indeed powerful stuff; haunting and eerie on a line-by-line basis, and emotionally edifying when taken as a whole narrative. Tolkien, in a passage that unknowingly augurs his own importance as an inspiring writer of monster fantasies, defended Beowulf and its "low" monsters, saying "the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men's imagination....Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm."
But more than just a champion of the fantasy/horror genre, Tolkien weighed in on the substantive debate as to whether the poem was a work of Christian or pagan imagination. The poem is ambivalent about its hero — making him an inspirational figure, but also tragic. His strength and his reliability make him a champion, but his pride and conceit make him flawed. Traditionally, scholars read this ambivalence as a sign that the poem itself is a mongrel offspring — written originally by a Northern pagan, steeped in Norse legend, but copied and interpolated by a Christian monk who "baptized" the text with minor Christian additions.
The relationship between heroes, monsters, and gods can be said to experience a sea change in Beowulf, if we realize that the important pagan virtue of pride has become the principal vice for Christianity. Monsters, in both the pagan and biblical traditions, were usually used as symbols of arrogant hubris, among other things. But monster-killers, or heroes, were celebrated in pagan culture as the strong men of action who always seem necessary to save the family or tribe or village. Monsters give men an excuse to do the things they were built (by nature and nurture) to do; fight, protect, take, and defend. Hero-pride was a favored impulse in the pre-Christian era, even if it came with flaws of excess and immoderation. But the biblical tradition brought a new ethic — the counterintuitive assertion that "Blessed are the meek." Humility and submission became praiseworthy postures. The "hero" of Christianity, Jesus, even ends in the "ignoble" position of suffering on a cross. This is not exactly fertile cultural soil for growing good monster-killers. Norse he-men of Beowulf's era would not have understood this new kind of victory through humility.
In Christianity, victory no longer comes when the hero is standing over the slain monsters. It comes in the next life, after one has lived humbly and proven oneself by enduring great suffering. Traditional heroes, like Beowulf, Hercules, or Odysseus must be acknowledged for their strength and achievements, but their prideful humanity — their attempts to personally bring justice into the world — is devalued in the new Christian paradigm. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we don't need monster-killers when we trust in the Lord. After all, God, not man, punishes the wicked. Heroic faith replaces heroic action.
Beowulf embodies what Tolkien calls "Northern courage," which puts the "unyielding will" at the center of heroic narrative. The Norse imagination, filled with the philosophy of absolute resistance, was properly tamed in England, according to Tolkien, by contact with Christianity. Tolkien, overplaying his hand, says that the poet (or the scrivener) of Beowulf saw clearly that "the wages of heroism is death." The Christian looks back over the course of pagan history and finds that all the "glory" won by heroes and kings and warriors is for naught, because it is only about this earthly temporal world. The medievalist Andy Orchard, in his book Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript, also echoes Tolkien's view that Beowulf is part of a shift from honor culture to humility culture. He quotes, for example, Aelfric's 10th-century Lives of the Saints, which asks, "What holiness was in that hateful Hercules, the huge giant, who slaughtered all his neighbors, and burned himself alive in the fire, after he had killed men, and the lion, and the great serpent?"
The writers of the new movie seem well aware of this transformation of values when they have Beowulf deliver lines like "The time of heroes is dead. The Christ God has killed them."
While proponents of the Tolkien argument have focused on the tragic hubris of the Beowulf character, I detect a more recent change, equally interesting, in the monsters of Beowulf. The monsters of the original story were portrayed as odious and evil to the core — triumphed over by manly courage and strength. A truly Christian monster, however, will not really be a monster at all, but only a confused soul who needs a hug rather than a sword thrust. Christianity seeks to embrace the outcast, not fight him. Christianity celebrates the downtrodden, the loser, the misshapen.
Zemeckis's more tender-minded film version suggests that the people who cast out Grendel are the real monsters. The monster, according to this charity paradigm, is just misunderstood rather than evil. The blame for Grendel's violence is shifted to the humans, who sinned against him earlier and brought the vengeance upon themselves. The only real monsters, in this tradition, are pride and prejudice.
In the film, Grendel is even visually altered after his injury to look like an innocent, albeit scaly, little child. In the original Beowulf, the monsters are outcasts because they're bad (just as Cain, their progenitor, was outcast because he killed his brother), but in the new liberal Beowulf the monsters are bad because they're outcasts. And while the monsters are being humanized, the hero is being dehumanized. When Beowulf asks Grendel's mother, "What do you know of me?," she replies, "I know that underneath your glamour, you're as much a monster as my son Grendel."
The film cleverly ties Beowulf's final monster fight to the earlier episodes with Grendel and his mother (something the original fails to do). By transforming Grendel's mother into a femme fatale seductress, they've found a way simultaneously to further demonstrate Beowulf's flaws, give the female lead more dimensionality (albeit uncharitably), and connect the denouement to the earlier story.
But more interesting than these plot changes is the character adjustment. In the original, Beowulf is a hero. In the new film, he's basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he's a jerk. It's hard to imagine a more complete reversal of values from the original Beowulf story.
Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." Nonetheless, he argues in Beyond Good and Evil that the pagan cultures of nobility arose out of barbaric, even beastly, sentiments of power, strength, and pride. Unlike Tolkien, who was happy to see such power hunger tamed by Judeo-Christian virtues, Nietzsche famously missed the old days and wished we would bring back a little bit of our heroic and monstrous selves. Nietzsche, who spoke affectionately of the "proud Viking," would have liked the pagan Beowulf, a tribal-minded monster-killer.
This pagan sense of virtue certainly dominates the original poem. But even now it is not just a quaint historical relic, nor is it an embarrassing impulse that must be tempered and cured with Christian humility. It's a sense of honor that is alive and well, thankfully, in many of our soldiers currently fighting in Iraq. It's a soldier's code that still lives inchoate in citizens, but is fully actualized in the warrior class.
Contrary to the original Beowulf, the new film wants us to understand and humanize our "monsters." Moreover, the film seems to follow Tolkien's view that proud "heroes" should see themselves as part of the problem rather than the solution. Zemeckis's Beowulf repeatedly indicts himself, telling his long-suffering wife, "I'm sorry, I was weak."
Many academics will probably appreciate the new emasculated Beowulf (thinking it more psychologically sophisticated and more appropriately critical of machismo), but I'm not convinced this new version transcends and nullifies the heroic original. I suspect we need both Beowulfs — the Tolkien version and the more Nietzschean version. As morality plays, the old and new versions deal with different aspects of conflict resolution. On the one hand, a diplomat, or an intellectual, or politician should try to better understand his enemy, sympathize with his gripe, and defuse his aggression. On the other hand, a soldier in the field, like the original Beowulf, does not find nuance in his enemy — he's too busy fighting him.
Perhaps the Zemeckis film has found a way to have its cake and eat it too. At one level, our reptilian brain gets to thoroughly enjoy the triumphant ass-kicking of a take-charge hero, but up in our neocortex we pay our penance for this thrill by morally condemning the protagonist — scolding Beowulf and ourselves for the momentary power trip.
Beowulf might survive Grendel. But in going up against the 21st-century guilt trip, he may have met his match.
Stephen T. Asma is a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. His books include Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums (Oxford University Press, 2001), and he is working on a book about monsters, also for Oxford University Press.
|The Dance, 1925 (Tate Modern, London)|
By Andrew Butterfield
Volume three of John Richardson's A Life of Picasso has now appeared and, like the first two installments of the biography, it is a work so rich with information and insight that it will forever change our understanding of the artist. The book opens in 1917 when Picasso was thirty-five and closes in 1932 when he was fifty-one; it was during this span that he became the richest and most famous painter on earth. Yet the volume's subtitle, "The Triumphant Years," refers more to his sustained artistic success than to his worldly prosperity.