Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Will the AJC cease to be liberal?

From today's AJC:


For the Journal-Constitution

Jack by Dar
New York

Responses to "A less liberal slant, please" and "Move toward center to keep readers," Letters, July 19

Ideology has nothing to do with it

The glee with which some readers seem to regard John Mellott's letter reporting on the shifting fortunes of the newspaper business is amusing at best ("Charting the right course in extremely difficult times," @issue, July 17). They seem to think the AJC's problems would go away if you would repent and follow the editorial slant of their media, i.e., Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, et al., which they laughingly claim to be "balanced."

The shift in advertising dollars is due to the Internet, not ideology. The idea that advertisers are deserting the print media because they disagree with their editorial positions is nonsense. Americans are as married to their newspapers as they are their cars, the only difference being that just about everyone can drive but not everyone can read, at least not discriminatingly.

If you want to placate these "on-and-off" subscribers, never print a story they don't want to see in print and never, ever print anything that challenges their biases.



Don't move any further to the right!

The letters in Saturday's AJC urge the paper to move more toward the right and center to garner more readers. In other words, tell Georgians what they want to hear. I've noticed that letters you choose to publish are ever more leaning to the far right. Jim Wooten's reactionary opposition to all things progressive, whether critically needed rail or alternative energy sources and pollution reduction, seems to be the dominant theme. If the AJC is contemplating becoming a controversy-free mouthpiece for far-right voices that keep Georgia from moving forward, please cancel my subscription now.



Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ledger's Dark Knight.

First of all, Heath Ledger earns and deserves all the acclaim he has been getting for his gruesome embodiment of the Joker in Dark Knight. Everyone else in the film, good as they are, pale by comparison. Their characters succumb to the nihilism the Joker exudes. When the film tries to win us over to some sort of faith in humanity, it simply is not convincing. The Joker is so evil that the mob bosses of the film are mere dilettantes, mere marionettes pulled apart by their new mastermind.

The Joker
from Wikipedia

But is this a great film? Given that it is a marriage of comic book with sophisticated cinema technology and hip psychoanalysis, no. The sheer loudness of the film, the techno film world's equivalent of "Pop!" and "Crash!" of the comic books, is just too over-bearing to let the dark philosophy and character development succeed. The strange love triangle between Batman, the D.A. and Rachel Dawes works only as one more path of destruction for the Joker. The character of the D.A. becomes a sick and tortured Dudley Do-Right. It works only on the comic book level.
Yet, the film is highly entertaining and provocative. If it falls short of greatness, it nonetheless represents a new order of film noir: giving us crime, murder, sexual ambiguity, a femme fatale, and psychological terror.
The Joker and Heath Ledger will haunt our psyches for a long time.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Killer Play

We saw the following Saturday Night,

not all together live...

‘Song of the Living Dead’ @ Dad’s Garage


George wears a fanny-pack and oversize glasses, works at a novelty store called Party City and dreams of living happily ever after with his girlfriend, Judith. As a dancer, he Barney-hops with blissful innocence.

What could possibly stop George’s pursuit of love and kindness?

Zombies, that’s what. That and a hard-core vigilante named Harry, who bullies George as he competes with him for his old flame, Judith, and tries to defeat the invading army of brain-eating cadavers.

Welcome to “Song of the Living Dead,” Dad’s Garage’s perversely inspired musical send- up of the horror/doomsday/pulp film genre. With book and lyrics by Matt Horgan and Travis Sharp (“Lawrenceburg”), music by Atlanta composer Eric Frampton and special effects by “master of gore” Chris Brown, this world premiere is a sick, scabrous, sacrilegious orgy of raunchiness and poor taste that derives naughty comedic pleasure by gleefully and willfully offending the conservative milieu.

Directed by Kate Warner, “Song of the Living Dead” proves that Dad’s remains the city’s most vital incubator of frighteningly good nonsense. Most of the material is not appropriate for discussion in a family newspaper.

Just let it be said that Harry (Z Gillispie) and Reverend Seabrook (George Faughnan) are filthy specimens of humanity. Faughnan is a one-of-a-kind actor, physically unique and scary; his fire-and-brimstone-wielding preacher is especially funny when hiding from the zombies in trash cans, but exactly what does this homophobe have to hide? You’ll see.

Gillispie is also quite good as the overcompensating, sexually voracious (yeah, right) enforcer, hot on the trail of Judith (Erin Lorette). Gillispie can’t sing, but that’s not the point. (Harry will show you the point, baby.)

And Gabriel Dean, bless his pea-picking little heart, gives his best performance ever, as George. Watching his goofus character battle with his light and d-d-d-dark sides is pure comedic gold. Poor George — what a pathetic loser. Gillispie and Dean also get to engage in a funny subplot involving nerdy crime-fighters — gay lovers who sneak long wet kisses between martial-arts moves — and both reinvent themselves fully.

Are you starting to get the idea of how totally gonzo this all is?

Set designer Jamie Bullins’ sinister and efficient set is accentuated by Karen Parsons’ luxuriously murky lighting. Costumer Liz Faughnan puts the zombies in mountains of ripped up rags, then works in nifty surprises with leather and fishnet. Chris Bartelski’s sound design alternates between power-surge static and Bride of Frankenstein-style wooze.

Not for the screamish and absolutely forbidden for sissies, grandmas and Bible study groups, the show harks back to the days of “Carrie: The Musical” and “Bat Boy.” Memo to the New York International Fringe Festival: Sign ’em up now.

THE 411: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 8 p.m. Monday. Through July 5. $10-$25. Dad’s Garage, 280 Elizabeth St., Inman Park. 404-523-3141,

Bottom: Super sick. Funny, too.

Friday, July 18, 2008

More on Hadrian

Add to yesterdays post, this review from

There’s more to Hadrian than wall-building

A military mastermind who retreated from Iraq, a politician motivated by peace, and a lover of Greek culture and Greek men - there’s more to Hadrian than wall-building, reveals the director of the British Museum

We think we know the Romans. Countless books, films, plays and pieces of music have been inspired by an empire that, at its height, in AD117, stretched from the site of modern Glasgow in the north to the Sahara desert in the south, and from the Atlantic to Basra. Hollywood sword-and-sandal epics from Quo Vadis to Gladiator, as well as the BBC’s Rome, give us the impression of an empire at once brutal and noble, heroic and corrupt, bloody and decadent - an empire of slavery but also of many freedoms, of multiple identities, all drawn together in the service of Rome and its emperors. But how much do we know? It can be hard to glimpse the real empire through the histories that have survived the centuries, histories that are invariably biased depending on who wrote them, when and, above all, for whom.
Sometimes one has a chance to glimpse the real emotions of ordinary Romans, living their lives under this extraordinary empire. The Vindolanda tablets, housed in the British Museum, slightly predate the emperor Hadrian and his instruction to build his eponymous wall separating England from Scotland (Caledonia) in AD122. Vindolanda fort already existed, first constructed in the late first century. Soldiers from all over the empire were billeted there, of Celtic, Germanic, North African or Syrian origins: a multi-national force guarding the extremes of the realm. Excavations at the fort in 1973 revealed an extraordinary cache of wooden writing tablets, official military documents and personal letters concerning the day-to-day issues of life in the army. They reveal complaints about the cold, illnesses, receipt of care parcels providing socks and underpants, invitations to birthday parties and so on. These truly are the humble building blocks of history and are surely similar to the e-mails and text messages soldiers send home from Iraq today. At their most basic, they show how little has changed in nearly 2,000 years. There is another connection between these two regions: for the north of England and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) were once the northern and eastern borders of the Roman empire, under the enigmatic emperor Hadrian.
In many ways, Hadrian seems familiar to us. There is a perception of him - given to us via the Victorians and then Marguerite Yourcenar’s ever-popular fictional autobiography of the emperor (1951) - that he was somehow different, a maverick, a Greek-loving peacenik more interested in architecture and boys than in securing the legacy of mighty Rome. But how true is this portrait, and what of Hadrian’s legacy? Why is he still important now? These are the questions an exhibition at the British Museum is seeking to address. A huge number of archeological finds connected to Hadrian and excavated over the past 30 or so years have inspired a new scholarship and allowed a reassessment of his character.
Hadrian, it now appears, was a supremely talented political and military strategist. He was the consummate politician, ruthless but charming, brutal but loving. He was to some extent an imperial upstart who nonetheless gained the ultimate prize. Of Spanish-Roman stock, his family had made a fortune from the olive-oil trade, the key commodity of the Roman empire. His father died when Hadrian was 10, and he was thrust into a military life, gaining hands-on experience of Roman politics, warfare and provincial government, serving in a multitude of military positions. Working closely with the emperor Trajan, his fellow Spaniard, he was officially adopted as his heir when Trajan was on his deathbed.
Related Links
Hadrian’s return to his wall after 2,000 years
Hadrian finally sees his wall
Hadrian returns to his empire
In the military sphere, he had experienced first-hand the privations of Trajan’s overambitious campaigning and the dangers of imperial overreach. His first act on becoming emperor was to pull the Roman troops out of Mesopotamia and to reestablish the Euphrates frontier, still to this day the frontier between Syria and Iraq. In Germany, he created a limes, or boundary of forts with a turf and timber rampart (evocatively reconstructed at Saalburg by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the 20th century); in Britain, he built his wall from the Tyne to the Solway; and in North Africa, he built a frontier against the nomads and goats of the desert fringes. For those of us who have experienced crossings of the Berlin Wall and the rigours of travelling from the occupied territories to Israel through today’s “security wall”, it is clear that Hadrian’s frontiers were not merely an exercise in military defence. They were also political statements, in the case of Hadrian’s Wall separating Britons within the Roman empire from those outside it. To the south lies the Roman province of Britannia, personified by a warlike woman who first appeared on the coins of Hadrian; to the north lay the wild, untamed lands of the “excluded” Caledonians, still patrolled by forces from outpost forts, but culturally beyond the pale in Roman terms. As you walk along the wall today, through the often rugged but still idyllic English countryside, it is easy to underestimate the sheer menacing presence that this wall would have had for natives on both sides of the frontier. One of the famous Vindolanda tablets suggests the Romans had a distinct disdain for the natives of Britain, whether north or south of the frontier: they called them Brittunculi - “wretched little Britons”.
This ring of steel around the empire allowed Hadrian to embark upon some grands projets. As emperor, he was free to indulge in his love of architecture and to work on the significant buildings that became a lasting legacy. In Rome, he had constructed some memorable buildings, including the monumental temple of Venus and Rome and the celebrated Pantheon, which not only embodied Hadrian’s desire to unite the empire but also heralded a whole new architectural style that has influenced buildings across the globe, not least the British Museum’s Reading Room - where we shall be presenting Hadrian’s feats over the coming months. The present Castel Sant’Angelo was originally constructed as Hadrian’s mausoleum. At the same time, the emperor commissioned for himself an enormous and sumptuous residence at Tivoli. Walking around the ruins of the Villa Adriana today, one can still catch a glimpse of the man who created it and how he understood his place in the world. Hadrian’s famous love of Greek culture is highlighted by his extensive building programme in Athens, completing a huge temple of Zeus, erecting an arch to the cities of Theseus and Hadrian, and patronising a library (which has recently opened to the public once again).
Hadrian’s emotional needs and his love of all things Greek were fused in his relationship with a young man, Antinous, from Bithynia in northwest Turkey. This relationship, although barely recorded in the sources, is one of the most famous of the ancient world. Antinous’s mysterious death in the Nile led to a Graeco-Egyptian hero-cult to surpass all others in the Greek-speaking world, and busts of the young man are now among the most common from antiquity. Wonderful examples, such as the statue of Antinous-Osiris from the Vatican Museums, will appear in the exhibition.
That Hadrian admired Greek culture is not in doubt. But there were strong strategic reasons behind this admiration. At the time of his reign, the Greek-speaking population of the empire was formidable and its loyalty was essential if the eastern frontiers were to be defended. It did Hadrian no political harm to be seen immersing himself in the language and traditions of the Greek world. In the 1860s, a statue was discovered in Cyrene, North Africa, which seemed to epitomise this view of Hadrian. He stands proudly, clad in Greek mantle, seemingly willing us to see him as a cultured philhellene. The statue has been reproduced in countless books and displayed in the British Museum since the discovery as primary evidence of this Greek-loving aspect of Hadrian. However, this is yet another example of our misunderstanding of this complex character. In the course of conservation of this sculpture for the exhibition, it was discovered that the head (which is undoubtedly of Hadrian) does not fit the body. The two pieces were put together incorrectly after excavation to conform to received wisdom, a consequence of this view of Hadrian, not evidence for it.
A truer glimpse of Hadrian’s character can be seen in the material borrowed from Israel for the exhibition. These loans include a magnificent bronze head and torso of Hadrian in military uniform; though his pose seems casual, he is every inch the tough military leader, a trait he exhibited to shocking effect during the second Jewish revolt (AD1325). Hadrian’s apparent banning of circumcision and his probable encroachments in Jerusalem unleashed a storm, led by Simeon Bar Kokhba, that cost Rome up to three legions. Hadrian decided to remind Judea that Rome was an imperial power that could brook no dissent: the proud rebels were mercilessly crushed, costing the lives of almost 600,000 Jews. It is no wonder that in the Talmud, Hadrian’s name was followed by the simple injunction “May his bones rot”.
So, what are we to make of Hadrian? His complex character was summed up unhelpfully in the Epitome de Caesaribus as “diverse, manifold and multiform”. I believe we have a ruler who desired, and at a price achieved, peace, prosperity and cultural integration across the Roman world, a man whose legacy may be flawed but remains significant in politics and in architecture. Perhaps our judgment of Hadrian tells us as much about politics in the 21st century as it does in Rome. How many of our leaders genuinely want to create a better society but are ultimately judged on the more sensational aspects of their private life, or on making one enormous and controversial decision that costs the lives of thousands?
Hadrian: Empire and Conflict opens at the British Museum, WC1, on July 24, sponsored by BP; to book tickets, call 020 7323 8181 or visit

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Emperor in Love

Hadrian returns
to England:

from Athens,
National Archeological Museum
And the Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian Strutting on the stage

July 17th 2008

From The Economist print edition
British Museum

That sinister crease“Hadrian: Empire and Conflict” will be at the British Museum from July 24th until October 26th

A MASSIVE stone head of the Emperor Hadrian is the first exhibit a visitor sees in the British Museum’s exploration of “the life, love and legacy of Rome’s most enigmatic Emperor”. He is bearded with carefully coiffed curly hair, and that unmistakable deep diagonal crease in the earlobes which helps identify authentic ancient portraits of Hadrian. The head was discovered only last August in Sagalassos in south-west Turkey, and it has never been seen in public before. The decision to allow it to leave the storehouse in the local museum was taken at cabinet level in Ankara after detailed negotiations between Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, and Turkey’s ambassador to London. It is a brilliant coup de théâtre.
This exhibition is not linked to an anniversary. The closest it gets to a relevant contemporary reference is to emphasise that one of Hadrian’s first acts on becoming Emperor in 117AD was to withdraw Rome’s army from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Mr MacGregor says the exhibition is one of a series exploring great rulers who shaped our world.
Hadrian was a complex, contradictory figure, ruling for 21 years. He was a dictator, sometimes regarded as a “prince of peace” by Europeans. Israelis point to him as the perpetrator of the first Holocaust. “He was not necessarily a likeable man, but his achievements were awesome,” says Thorsten Opper, the museum’s specialist in classical sculpture and the show’s curator.
The emperor was acutely conscious of his image. He had more statues of himself scattered throughout his empire than any fellow-emperor, save Augustus. A selection of the best is on show in the British Museum, lent by 31 institutions in 11 countries. Some of the fine bronze busts show him for what he was—a grizzled old soldier—but in full-sized marble statues he becomes a role-player. Dressed in a toga, he is a Greek orator; in full Roman army uniform, with his foot on the neck of a humbled barbarian, he is the protector of his people; standing naked and slim-hipped, he is a god, like Mars.
Hadrian belonged to an upwardly mobile Spanish landowning elite that had grown rich selling olive oil. In Rome he was a provincial, and fun was made of his rustic accent. He shrewdly understood the limits of power, was ruthless in the exercise of it and cynical enough to disarm critics early in his regime by giving citizens a tax holiday. But when the second Jewish revolt began in 132AD he suppressed it with a fury that Mr Opper describes as “a slow extermination campaign”. Judea was expunged from the maps, and renamed Syria-Palestina. Quite why he ordered his great wall to be built on England’s border with Scotland is uncertain, but Mr Opper’s gut feeling is that it was to divide and rule the revolting northern tribes.
He had a fine eye for monumental architecture. He commissioned the Parthenon, and a model of it is displayed directly under Sydney Smirke’s glorious dome above the British Museum’s Reading Room (which is two feet or 0.6 metres smaller in diameter than the Roman masterpiece). His own mausoleum was by the banks of the Tiber, the Castel Sant’ Angelo.
His lover was Antinous, a handsome young Greek who appealed to the emperor’s Hellenophilia. Mr Opper’s catalogue tells us that what caused comment among his contemporaries was not that Hadrian was gay, but that he insisted that Antinous be given the status of a god after his death in the Nile in 130AD. One of many statues of Antinous—here as the Egyptian god Osiris—stands proudly outside the entrance to the exhibition. Hadrian himself died at 62, perhaps of coronary heart disease (a condition sometimes indicated by a crease in the earlobe). He had not created the role of emperor, but no one played it better.

And from 2005:

Hadrian's Eye

A remarkable tribute to the Pantheon in Sunday's New York Times transported me to Rome and reminded me, as I watched the stabbing of Julius Caesar on HBO's finale of Rome, how much I admire the true creator of the Pantheon, the Emperor Hadrian. Once again, as I did with Darryl last summer, I stood in the center of that sacred space, gazing at the shaft of sunlight entering the eye of the dome and piercing the interior to light the stone walls of the temple. An interior touched by the sun's shaft, interior and exterior, man-made space atune to nature, sacred to all the gods, a temple to Pantheism, this holy proportion is the sole remaining complete temple of ancient Rome. Yet it was fashioned by a man who was as Greek in mind as he was Roman, a man of the Hellenistic spirit, bearded Hadrian, lover of Antinous.

Dome of the Pantheon
photo by Jack

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Glacial Meltdown

The Perito Moreno Glacier
Patagonia, Argentina

photos by Jack

Arch collapses from Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina 2008-07-10 09:07:29

Combination of two photos shows Argentina's Perito Moreno glacier before (L, taken July 4, 2008) and after (R, taken July 9, 2008) the collapse of the roof of an ice tunnel, near the city of El Calafate in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, southern Argentina. (Xinhua/Reuters File Photo)
Photo Gallery>>>

BUENOS AIRES, July 9 (Xinhua) -- Dozens of people witnessed Wednesday the collapsing of the arch or bridge of ice from the Perito Moreno glacier, located in El Calafate, in Santa Cruz province in the Argentine Patagonia.

Only around 40 people had the chance to see the phenomenon, despite the fact that experts had forecast the fracture of the arch.

The cracking of the natural bridge or arch began at 11:20 local time (1420 GMT) when only a few people were inside the national park of Los Glaciares.

However, millions more have been able to see on the Internet ( the moment when the huge ice wall more than 50 meters long collapsed, making a tremendous noise amid shouts and applause from the people present.

This is the first time the breaking of the Perito Moreno glacier has happened in wintertime, which has generated concern for what specialists call "the consequences of the global warming."

The Perito Moreno glacier, with an extension of 250 square kilometers, is considered one of the most important drinking water reserves in the world.

It is five kilometers wide at its face and 30 km in length, with an average height of 60 meters above the surface of the water of Lake Argentine, into which huge chunks of ice fall. The last rupture was in the summer of 2006.

The glacier takes its name from Francisco Pascacio Moreno, an expert (perito) and exceptional Argentine researcher who dedicated his life to studying Patagonia.

This ice arch or bridge falls every four to five years during the Southern Hemisphere's summer (from September to May), but on this occasion it ruptured in winter.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Watch It

On tonight at 10 on the Sundance Ch.

On at 10:

Sigur Ros: Heima

2007 95 minsColor
Dean DeBlois, Director
Sigur Ros, Iceland's most famous musical export since Bjork, is a melodic chamber-rock band whose ethereal recordings combining elements of classical, experimental and minimalist traditions have won ardent fans around the world. Dean DeBlois (LILO & STITCH) directs Heima (meaning "at home" and "homeland"), a captivating documentary in which Sigur Ros performs 13 songs against some of Iceland's most striking and unusual locations, from its ravishingly beautiful wilderness to eerie sites like the interior of an abandoned herring-oil tank.
TV Rating TVPG
No Advisories Necessary
Current Screenings
Friday July 11 at 10PM

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

God's Orgasm, Revisited

After listening to the latest ethereal music from Sigur Ros,

Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust

I have to agree with the review years ago of their music:

It is

"Like sucking God's cock. Or something"


Geyser Music: Sigur Ros Flows

The new CD is even better. Don't take my word for it; read what RS says:


Sigur Ros

Med sud I eyrum vid spilum endalaust Hear it Now

RS: 4of 5 Stars Average User Rating: 4.5of 5 Stars


Play View Sigur Ros's page on Rhapsody

Sigur Rós' fifth album is the Icelandic band's most worldly, varied and — considering the usual ice-floe speed of their rock — impetuous. Co-produced with Flood (Depeche Mode, U2), the record was made quickly — mostly in New York and London, with a trip to Havana for some vocals — and it opens with the closest this group will ever come to boogie-woogie: "Gobbledigook," a cheerful tumble of acoustic guitar and drum-circle percussion. The album also features singer-guitarist Jónsi Birgisson's first venture into English-language whisper and falsetto, the closing piano-and-brass suspense of "All Alright." But what happens between those two songs is the real leap forward. Having mastered a uniform majesty on 2002's ( ) and 2005's Takk . . . , the band achieves a new unity in variety here, winding from near-glam romp and fireside-folk warmth to slow-climb grandeur with an attention to the repeated payoff in a sturdy hook and hum-along chorus. Sigur Rós titled an early spook-rock epic "Popplagid" — Icelandic for "The Pop Song." Now they are actually writing them.

And watch the ecstatic Video:


or try

gobbledigook video

watch the video

click on the image above to go to to view the video for "gobbledigook"


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Maid Marion: To Die For

Did William Randolph Hearst
mistakenly murder
Thomas Ince
Instead of
Charlie Chaplin
in a jealous rage over

Marion Davies

on his luxurious yacht?

The Cat's Meow

and find out.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Best Match Ever

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer gave us 5 sets and 5 hours of as-good-as-it-gets tennis in the final roofless Wimbledon. Virtually every point was a stroke of tennis genius, each man giving his soul time and again through rain and shine. In the end, Nadal withstood all tests to win the trophy from the 5 time champion.

Rafa Nadal
(from a Myspace page)

Here are the words of tennis commentator
Jon Wertheim
Tennis Rivalries: A recap of the weekend's Wimbledon show-down between long-standing tennis rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal Beats Federer
Nadal stuns Federer to win Wimbledon

John McEnroe, who contested the most memorable match ever at 1980 Wimbledon, his 1-6, 7- 5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6 loss to Bjorn Borg, called Rafael Nadal's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 victory over five-time defending champion Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final the greatest match he's ever seen.

Photo Gallery - Click here for images from the men's singles championship and the mixed doubles championship, won by Bob Bryan and Samantha Stosur.{0A865F9B-A6FE-42FD-AE63-EAEA9EC95222}

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Emerging from the Dark




David Coyle's oil portrait of Edgar Allan Poe portrays the author as the dark soul he was through thick, tortured brushstrokes of browns and blacks. Opening Sat., July 5, 6-11 p.m.

Theories as to what caused Poe's death include suicide, murder, cholera, rabies, syphilis and that Poe was a victim of cooping. He was found lying in the streets on election day wearing someone else's clothing in Baltimore. Evidence of the influence of alcohol is strongly disputed.[3]

And along the same vein:

Ledger's Oscar bid from beyond the grave

Xan Brooks: July 2, 2008

Tough sell ... Heath Ledger as the Joker in the Dark Knight
Spare a thought for the posthumous Oscar winners, the ones who are unable to accept their award in person. This sparsely populated guest-list extends right back to Gone With the Wind writer Sidney Howard, who was all set to attend the ceremony right up until the moment his tractor rolled on top of him.
Next February could see the arrival of a fresh ghost at the party, with the late Heath Ledger installed as the unlikely frontrunner for the best supporting actor award. The Australian actor died earlier this year, shortly after completing his scary, slippery performance as the Joker in the next Batman blockbuster. "The Academy tend to overlook movies like this," admitted his Dark Knight co-star Gary Oldman. "But his acting is so good it's going to be hard for them to avoid it." Elsewhere, the Oscar campaign is already underway. According to US entertainment writer Sam Rubin, Ledger is now the "hands-down favourite" to take the prize.

Sweet Dreams,

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Joy Forever

On John Keats:

Photo from:

Cloudy Trophies
John Keats’s obsession with fame and death.
by Adam Kirsch July 7, 2008

“I have an habitual feeling,” Keats wrote, “that I am leading a posthumous existence.”

In July, 1820, John Keats published his third and final book, “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems.” He had no reason to expect that it would be a success, with either the public or the critics: in his short career, the twenty-four-year-old poet had known nothing but rejection on both fronts. After his first book, “Poems,” appeared, in 1817, his publishers, the brothers Charles and James Ollier, refused to have anything more to do with him. In a letter to the poet’s brother George, they wrote, “We regret that your brother ever requested us to publish his book, or that our opinion of its talent should have led us to acquiesce in undertaking it.” They went on, “By far the greater number of persons who have purchased it from us have found fault with it in such plain terms, that we have in many cases offered to take the book back rather than be annoyed with the ridicule which has, time after time, been showered upon it.”
When Keats’s long poem “Endymion” came out, the following year, from a different firm, the ridicule was even worse, and far more public. The leading Tory magazines of the day published savagely satirical reviews, linking the poem’s undisciplined exuberance with its author’s working-class origins. Keats was the son of a stable-keeper, and he had trained as an apothecary: no wonder, the critics smirked, that he had fallen in with the sentimental “Cockney School” of poets, led by the radical journalist Leigh Hunt. Keats’s class and his liberal politics were enough to damn him sight unseen, as the Quarterly Review made clear when its critic admitted that he had not bothered to read “Endymion” to the end: “If any one should be bold enough to purchase this ‘Poetic Romance,’ and so much more patient, than ourselves, as to get beyond the first book, and so much more fortunate as to find a meaning, we entreat him to make us acquainted with his success.” Blackwood’s Magazine said, “It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’ ”
After all this, Keats could hardly have been optimistic about his third volume. He grumbled in a letter to George that he ought to give up writing and become a doctor—it couldn’t be any “worse than writing poems, & hanging them up to be fly-blown on the Review shambles.” But he must have been particularly unsettled by a review in the Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review. The book was not mocked; the anonymous critic simply said, more in sorrow than in anger, that it was not much good. “We confess this volume has disappointed us; from Mr Keats’s former productions, we had augured better things,” the paper opined. “We are confident he can do better.”
To Keats, this would have been the bitterest verdict of all, for by the summer of 1820 he knew that he would not live to publish another book. Tuberculosis was slowly choking him to death, leaving him without the will or the energy to work: he had written almost no poetry since late the preceding year, and would write no more before he died, in Rome, in February, 1821. Keats continued to believe that, with time and study, he would have become a great poet, but he was starting to agree with the critics that nothing he had written could prove it. A year before his death, he wrote that he was reconciled to failure: “ ‘If I should die,’ said I to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me—nothing to make my friends proud of my memory—but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.’ ”
Of all the piteous elements in Keats’s story, none is more distressing than the idea that he went to his grave convinced of his failure. For Keats’s last book, in addition to the three masterpieces named in its title, included a series of odes—“Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn”—that are now universally regarded as among the greatest poems in the English language. If any single book ever earned its author immortality, it was this one. And, as Stanley Plumly points out in “Posthumous Keats” (Norton; $27.95), his moving new study of the poet’s work and legend, “one could form a considerable collection from what was left out of this last book.” Some of Keats’s best poems, including “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” were never collected in his lifetime.
Did Keats really believe that, having written such poems, he was a failure? The question is more urgent in his case than in any other poet’s, for no writer ever yearned for fame more ardently than Keats. His ambition was all the more remarkable considering that he started life with none of the advantages of the noble Byron or the wealthy Shelley. Born in 1795, the eldest child of a prosperous working-class family, he soon learned how precarious his fortunes really were. His father, Thomas, died in a riding accident when Keats was eight years old, a blow made worse by the remarriage of his mother, Frances, just a couple of months later. The hasty marriage was brief, and when it collapsed Frances disappeared in a cloud of scandalous rumors, leaving her children in the care of their grandmother. When she came back home, a few years later, it was to die. John nursed her through the final stages of consumption, as he was to do with his youngest brother, Tom, in 1818.
Keats, orphaned at the age of fourteen, was not entirely without resources. A small legacy paid for his apprenticeship to a surgeon, after which he went on to medical school, leaving in 1816 with a license to practice as an apothecary—the lowest, most menial kind of medical man. But by then he had decided that poetry, not medicine, was his calling. In the time remaining to him—less than five years—he lived off the remains of his inheritance in order to devote himself to greatness.
From his first mature poem, the sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” written just before his twenty-first birthday, to his last—the dreamlike fragment “The Fall of Hyperion,” which he abandoned just before his twenty-fourth—this ambition was Keats’s major theme. In that first poem, written in the early-morning hours after a night spent reading Homer with friends, Keats evokes his dawning sense of the immense realm of poetry—“like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He stared at the Pacific”—and of the heroic effort required to carve out for himself one of the “goodly states and kingdoms” which “bards in fealty to Apollo hold.” In the last, he records a hallucinatory encounter with the goddess Moneta, who tells him that his quest has failed, that he is not a poet but a mere dreamer: The poet and the dreamer are distinct, Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes. The one pours out a balm upon the world, The other vexes it.
Keats offered an apparently unambiguous assessment of his short career when he told his friend Joseph Severn—a young painter who volunteered to accompany him to Rome, and nursed him through his last months—that he did not want his name to appear on his tombstone. Instead, he instructed, it should simply read, “Here lies one whose name was writ on water.” Yet Plumly, an award-winning poet, is deeply attuned to the subtleties of poetic ambition, and he points out that the famous epitaph is not quite as resigned as it seems. “The fact that Keats did not want his name to appear on the tombstone adds only interest to the mystery of who might be buried so anonymously,” Plumly writes. “The unnamed is, after all, written in stone, not water.” It is the epitaph not of a man accepting oblivion but of a poet cultivating his legend from beyond the grave. Plumly quotes Keats’s publisher John Taylor, who approved of the anonymous gravestone because he foresaw “that it will be as clear an indication to posterity as the plainest, everyday inscription that one may find in Westminster Abbey.”
Such moments of canny sympathy justify the unusual approach that Plumly takes in “Posthumous Keats.” Instead of simply recounting the life and analyzing the poems, Plumly pursues his intuitions through a series of linked essays, all of them concerned with aspects of the poet’s death and afterlife. He explores the “drawings, paintings, engravings, and sculptings” of Keats’s face “by some forty separate artists,” showing how he was turned into the Victorians’ archetypal poet, “perfected and abstracted” into unrecognizability. He narrates Keats’s last days in Rome, evoking the eerie contrast between the sensual city and the increasingly incorporeal sufferer. He shows us Keats running into Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, and quotes the older poet’s prophecy: “When I shook him by the hand there was death!”
Through this interweaving of themes and episodes—a “walk around in Keats’s life and art, not simply through them”—Plumly emphasizes, as a more conventional biography never could, the fatal, fated quality of Keats’s career. He shows how Keats, in a way that feels unique even among the doomed Romantics, became posthumous while he was still alive. In one sense, this is because he knew that he was dying long before death arrived. Thanks to his medical training, and to his experiences nursing his mother and his brother, Keats was well acquainted with the symptoms of tuberculosis. On February 3, 1820, when he fell into a coughing fit and brought up blood on the sheets, he had no doubt what was in store. “I know the colour of that blood. It’s arterial blood,” his friend Charles Brown remembered Keats saying. “That blood is my death-warrant. I must die.”
For the next year, Keats went along with his doctors’ various treatments—bloodletting, starvation diets, complete avoidance of excitement. He agreed to leave England, on the slight chance that Italian air would cure him. But he could never trick himself into believing that his first, fatal diagnosis was mistaken. In November, 1820, in the last letter Keats wrote, he told Brown, “I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence.”
Keats is hardly the only nineteenth-century writer to have died a lingering, consumptive death; what sets him apart is that his art, from the beginning, was connected with the imagination of death, especially his own. Like Socrates, he could have said that his life was a long preparation for death, so often had he written about it in poems and letters. Keats’s “posthumous existence,” one might say, began at the moment he became a poet.
That is why, after he died, so many of his lines began to look eerily like premonitions. In “Sleep and Poetry,” an early attempt at a long poem, Keats was already bargaining for time to complete his work: “O for ten years, that I may overwhelm / Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed / That my own soul has to itself decreed.” By the age of twenty-one, he was imagining what it would be like to lie in his grave:If I do fall, at least I will be laid Beneath the silence of a poplar shade; And over me the grass shall be smooth shaven; And there shall be a kind memorial graven.
The union of poetry and death, in Keats’s work, only became more intimate as his powers grew. In March, 1817, shortly after the Parthenon marbles taken from Greece by Lord Elgin had been put on display at the British Museum, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon took Keats to see them. A day or two later, Keats recorded his impressions in a sonnet that invokes death in its very first line:My spirit is too weak—mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep, And each imagined pinnacle and steep Of godlike hardship, tells me I must die.
Why should the sublimity of these images immediately have reminded Keats that he must die? One might as well ask why he exclaimed, in another poem, “Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed, / But Death intenser.” Or why, in one of his last poems, a love sonnet, he yearned “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever—or else swoon to death.”
It would be easy to explain Keats’s preoccupation with death by assigning it a straightforward biographical cause. Many biographers and critics have pointed to the early loss of his father, and to his bedside view of his mother’s and brother’s slow deaths. Then, there was his experience as a student at Guy’s Hospital, in London, where he attended gruesome surgeries and dissections. To an extent unusual even by the grim standards of his time, Keats was constantly surrounded by death and dying. It was only rational for him to wonder if he, too, would die young. This was, in fact, the subject of one of his most moving sonnets—the one that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain.”
Plumly unsparingly relates the bodily reality of Keats’s sickness and death. His description of the poet’s last days is as clinical as anything Keats might have observed while walking the wards:First the coughing of “a fawn coloured mixture” of blood and phlegm, then diarrhea, then laxity and gripping of the bowels, then food—warm milk and pudding—then the cycle starting over again, with the sweats lasting usually until dawn. The waste itself was mucus, nothing solid, though in the struggle not to go under, the expectorations seemed to thicken and boil in the throat.
After all this, it might seem insane to assert, with Wallace Stevens, that “death is the mother of beauty.” Yet Stevens was the most Keatsian of twentieth-century poets, and his famous line is absolutely faithful to Keats’s belief. To understand why Keats meditated so constantly on death, it is not necessary to look to his biography; one need only listen to his writing.
When it first dawned on him that he might be a poet, Keats—well aware of his class disadvantages and his limited education—was almost frightened by his audacity. “I have asked myself so often,” he wrote to Leigh Hunt in May, 1817, “why I should be a Poet more than other Men,—seeing how great a thing it is.” But it did not take long for Keats to sense that his gifts were equal to his ambition. Bad reviews in the quarterlies, he once told George, were “a mere matter of the moment—I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”
But Keats was not content to wallow in visions of glory. Once he took fame as his destiny, he began to question its value and purpose. This is a kind of self-questioning that comes to most poets only in middle age, if it comes at all. To Keats, who compressed the experience of a lifetime into a career of five years, it came in his early twenties. And it led him inevitably to the paradox of posthumousness, the way that immortality is gained only at the price of mortality.
“There is an awful warmth about my heart like a load of Immortality,” Keats once declared. Yet he recognized that no dead poet, however famous, can actually enjoy his fame, as he acknowledged in a bitter sonnet to Robert Burns: “Yet can I gulp a bumper to thy name— / O smile among the shades, for this is fame!” For art to deserve the supreme value that Keats assigned it, it must mean something more than the glorification of the artist. Beauty must be a good in its own right, even a metaphysical principle. In serving beauty, Keats came to believe, he was in some obscure way serving the divine, not just his own ambitions. Finally, he decided, “I should write from the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful even if my night’s labours should be burnt every morning and no eye ever shine upon them.”
This worship of the beautiful has often appeared, to Keats’s detractors, as crass sensuality. A critical trope connecting Keats’s luxuriant language with his low origins has been remarkably durable. In Matthew Arnold’s view, Keats’s love letters displayed “the entire want of tone, the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity, of the merely sensuous man, of the man who ‘is passion’s slave.’ . . . One is tempted to say that Keats’s love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice.” In the same vein, W. B. Yeats wrote, “I see a schoolboy when I think of him, / With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window,” a boy “poor, ailing and ignorant, / Shut out from all the luxury of the world, / The coarse-bred son of a livery-stable keeper.”
Yeats was thinking of passages like the one from “The Eve of St. Agnes,” in which Keats conjures up “a heap / Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd, / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon.” So sternly does the literary superego command the sublimation of these childish pleasures that, even today, Plumly sounds suspicious of the “luxury, drapery, weft, and rich weave” of Keats’s romances. Such lusciousness strikes him as “middle-brow” and “enabling,” the side of Keats that the Victorians loved—tendencies that “reinforce rather than resist convention.”
There is no such enabling to be found, however, in the great odes. Written between April and September of 1819, these five poems represent the apex of Keats’s achievement, because they heighten almost beyond endurance the tension between beauty and death. Keats is not content to give either of these competing drives a simple victory. He does not say that beauty is defeated by the inevitability of death, or that death is an illusion that beauty’s radiance can dispel. Instead, the poems are a series of sustained balances: in the “Grecian Urn,” between “heard melodies” and those “unheard,” the “sensual ear” and the “spirit”; in the “Nightingale,” between “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human life and the “ecstasy” of song. In the last stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy,” these opposites join in a mysterious avowal:Ay, in the very temple of Delight Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine; His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
To be defeated by sorrow, in this poem, is to triumph over it. The poet’s reward is no longer to collect a trophy from posterity but to become a trophy himself—as though his suffering and his pleasure were an offering to the gods.
Yet the consolations of poetry, as “Posthumous Keats” reminds us, last only as long as the poem lasts. The sublimity of the odes did not stop Keats from suffering in body and mind, or from cursing the fate that allowed him to taste the pleasures of life and art so intensely, only to snatch them away. “Keats, of all poets, cannot be divided between the artist and the man,” Plumly writes. But in a sense it is precisely the violent sundering of the artist and the man that is Keats’s tragedy. The poet saw autumn as fulfillment, the season that “set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease.” The man died in winter, in a foreign country, certain that his work had not kept the promises his imagination made. “Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream?” he asked in one of his last letters home. “There must be,” he decided. “We cannot be created for this sort of suffering.” ♦