Thursday, August 02, 2012

Vidal, Marker

Tuesday afternoon I went to a used bookstore with a friend, and as we were leaving my friend informed me that we had been made fun of while inside. "Didn't you hear those people whispering?" Yes, I said, but I was too far away to hear what they were saying. (I remember a couple, probably in their mid-30s, peering down the aisle we were in, whispering and laughing. I assumed their enthusiasm had nothing to do with me, so I kept browsing.) What were they saying? I asked. "Things like, 'Oh, look at us, in the literature section, reading! We're so smart.' " 

Neither of us could make sense of it. I mean, they were there too! Do they go around to various bookstores to mock people for reading... in a bookstore? Was this a regular thing for them? What else, I wondered, did they make fun of people for? Handling fruit in the supermarket? Watching movies in a movie theater? It was all very funny and bizarre. I suppose their assumption was that people only read literature as a pose, that no one really enjoys it. Or maybe that people read it because they feel like they have to, like they've somehow been bullied into it. I don't know.

I felt like we had just exited a Bill Hicks joke.

Strangely, three of the books I happened to purchase that day were by Gore Vidal. Dreaming War (2002) and Imperial America (2004)―parts two and three of the trilogy that begins with Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace (2002)―as well as his memoir Palimpsest (1995), which I began reading that night. The next morning I awoke to the news that he had died.

Vidal was many things: a raconteur, an insightful literary critic, a brilliant satirist, and a great essayist (I've not yet read any of his fiction). As I wrote previously, few were as good at wryly cutting someone down as Vidal. On Nabokov: "Finally, he gives us several meticulous portraits of those butterflies he murdered ("with an expert nip of its thorax") during his celebrated tours of America's motels." He was often patronizing or condescending―usually for the sake of humor―but even when only vitriol remained it was (usually) for all the right reasons (his cattiness, chief among his faults, sometimes took over). At his best he was humorous, corrosive, and iconoclastic all at the same time. On Teddy Roosevelt: "Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight. TR's slaughter of the animals in the Badlands outdoes in spades the butcheries of that sissy of a later era, Ernest Hemingway. [...] There is something strangely infantile in this obsession with dice-loaded physical courage when the only courage that matters in political or even 'real' life is moral." (The title of the essay this comes from is called Theodore Roosevelt: An American Sissy.) Years later he would unleash more venom on one of America's most notorious sissies, george w. bush, and it was here in his role as a relentless slayer of America's most destructive mythologies―as well as stupidity in general―that Gore Vidal will be missed most by those of us who never knew him. As things got worse, he got angrier. He never mellowed.

As I write, U.S. "Concentration Camp X-Ray" is filling up at marine base Quantanamo Bay, Cuba. No one knows whether or not these unhappy residents are prisoners of war of just plain evildoers. In any case, they were kidnapped in Afghanistan by U.S. forces and now appear to be subject to kangaroo courts when let out of their cages.

This is a pre-Osama text: "Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and associations; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed." The tone is familiar. Clinton? Bush? Ashcroft? No. It is from Hitler’s 1933 speech calling for an "Enabling Act" for "the protection of the People and the State" after the catastrophic Reichstag fire that the Nazis had secretly lit.

Only one congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the additional powers granted the president. Meanwhile, a New York Times-CBS poll noted that only 6% now opposed military action while a substantial majority favored war "even if many thousands of innocent civilians are killed." Simultaneously, Bush's approval rating has soared, but then, traditionally, in war, the president is totemic like the flag. When Kennedy got his highest rating after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, he observed, characteristically, "It would seem that the worse you fuck up in this job the more popular you get." Bush, father and son, may yet make it to Mount Rushmore though it might be cheaper to redo Barbara Bush's look-alike, George Washington, by adding two strings of Teclas to his limestone neck―in memoriam, as it were." ―Gore Vidal, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace

As for Vidal's death, I thought it fitting to end with an excerpt from his 1953 essay, Novelists and Critics of the 1940s:

One is reminded of Flaubert's comment nearly a century ago: 'The melancholy of the ancients seems to me deeper than that of the moderns, who all more or less assume an immortality on the far side of the black pit. For the ancients the black pit was infinity itself; their dreams take shape and pass against a background of unchanging ebony. No cries, no struggles, only the fixity of the pensive gaze. The gods being dead and Christ not yet born, there was between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius one unique moment in which there was man.' Our own age is one of man alone, but there are still cries, still struggles against our condition, against the knowledge that our works and days have value only on the human scale; and those who most clearly remember the secure authority of other times, the ordered universe, the immutable moral hierarchies, are the ones who most protest the black pit. While it is perfectly true that any instant in human history is one of transition, ours more than most seems to be marked by a startling variety of conflicting absolutes, none sufficiently great at this moment to impose itself upon the majority whose lives are acted out with an inhuman universe which some still prefer to fill with a vast manlike shadow containing stars, while others behold only luminous dust which is stars, and us as well."
* * *

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983). One of my picks for ten greatest films of all-time.

Vidal once said he never missed the chance to appear on television. Chris Marker was the opposite. Extremely private, he didn't even want his picture taken. In light of this I will try to pay tribute to Marker in a way he might like—that is, by not talking about him.

"Henri Michaux's work is without equal in the literature of our time." —Borges

"Like Jorge Luis Borges, Marker is encyclopedic yet self-deprecating, projecting the kind of welcoming intelligence that invariably leaves you feeling smarter from the encounter." —Jaime Wolf [X]

The towering somnambulist Henri Michaux once famously said, "The Sorbonne should be razed and Chris Marker put in its place." That's tribute enough for a thousand people, let alone one.

But who was Henri Michaux
? some of you might have asked had you not been so embarrassed.

Lawrence Durrell once said that Henri Michaux's writing gave him "the impression of having some deep psychotic wound." Coming from someone like Durrell, that's validation enough.

But who was Lawrence Durrell
? some of you might have asked had you not been so embarrassed.

Henry Miller once wrote a letter to Durrell praising his writing, saying it "makes one dance to follow you." He then went on to ask Durrell the following: "How did you come by your great wisdom? Give us a tangible, personal statement of the condition of your soul today. Are you still standing there on the top-most tip of Mt. Everest? Does the snow still dazzle you? Have you passed out of snow and into the blue? ... What is the password?" That's praise enough for a Buddha, let alone a writer.

And everyone knows who Henry Miller was. 

So now finally we have—by way of imaginative logic—the very famous and revered Henry Miller remarking that Michaux, and therefore Marker, was a genius. (Never mind that Miller is overrated; he's very famous.)

* * *

Michaux, like Marker, didn't like being photographed. He was a poet who claimed he didn't write poetry—his hand was in too many pots (poetry and painting being chief among them). Marker, too, was an artist of many disciplines.

Left: Marker's art (from The Case of the Grinning Cat); Right: Michaux's art (a painting)

Alain Resnais once said the following about Chris Marker:

"He is the prototype of the 19th Century man. He managed to achieve a synthesis of all appetites and obligations without ever sacrificing any of them to the others. In fact a theory is making the rounds, and not without some grounds, that Marker could be an extra-terrestrial. He looks like a human, but perhaps he comes from the future or from another planet... There are some very bizarre clues. He is never sick or ill, he is not sensitive to cold, and he doesn’t seem to need any sleep."

I would like to posit my own theory. Namely, that Chris Marker and Henri Michaux were the same person!

Left: Marker/Michaux; Right: Michaux/Marker

As with Resnais' theory, there are some very bizarre clues. For example, they're both dead.

And how fitting it is that, just two days after his death, Marker's favorite film, Hitchcock's Vertigo, dethroned Welles Citizen Kane as the best film of all-time in Sight & Sound's international decennial poll. (Kane had been number one in every poll taken since 1962.)


I'll end with the following video Agnes Varda created from her tour of Marker's studios (both real and virtual). It was made known to me via Andrew Gilbert's nice tribute to Marker at the kinodrome.


Andrew Gilbert said...

Excellent work. It has the flow of a hypnotic video essay. Puts my tribute to shame!

Tyler said...

Well, I don't know that it puts your tribute to shame, though I'm not about to put any effort into trying to debate my way out of a compliment! Instead I'll just say very sincerely: thank you. I'm glad you liked it, and I'm glad you came to it a little later on; I improved it a little -- added this, subtracted that -- a couple of days after I originally posted it.

Tyler said...

Here's a 30 minute cut and paste (edited down from an hour) 2008 interview with Vidal that's worth a listen. He's overflowing with so much scorn that it becomes humor. Plus, he speaks the truth.

Interestingly he makes a few comments early on that fit right in with the bookstore anecdote I shared above. Listen.

Tyler said...

J. Hoberman plagiarizing me:

"As Vertigo is the most uncanny of movies, it feels more than coincidental that on August 1, two days following Marker’s death, at ninety-one, in Paris, the British film journal Sight and Sound announced, with no little fanfare that, after forty years, his favorite movie had finally dethroned Citizen Kane atop the magazine’s once-a-decade critics poll." (8/23)

I'm kidding, of course. No one reads my blog.