Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Queen of Tarts

I went for a walk after the rain this afternoon, looking for signs of spring. From a winter landscape of brown and gray, green grass and yellow daffodils are starting to emerge. I even saw a few tulips and was imagining how things will look in a week or so, when the redbuds and weeping cherries are in bloom. After the walk, I went to see Alice in Wonderland, and maybe I'm color-starved, but I was more struck by the use of color in the movie than anything else.

The predominant colors in the film are red and white, the colors of the two opposing queens. Despite patches of color in Underland (aptly named), much of the landscape is blasted and black, a picture of nuclear winter. Although the Red Queen is the wicked one, it's almost a relief when Alice makes it to her palace, which is colorful indoors and out, an effect heightened by the lavish use of red in the costumes and decor. Red is a color of appetite, and I could almost taste the Queen's missing squimberry tarts, which I imagine as a particularly luscious kind of raspberry pastry.

Alice spends most of the film wearing blue, which goes with her dreamy youthfulness. In the Red Queen's palace, though, she gets clothes done up from red curtains that are much more fashion-forward and fun than the pale blue ones. When she escapes the palace and ends up in the castle of the White Queen, her clothes become pale and silvery again. Like the White Queen herself and her surroundings, Alice looks ghostly and ethereal.

All of this makes me think of alchemy, which Jung explored as a symbol for individuation. In this system, the substance to be refined begins in blackness. You might say this is the wasteland, the period of darkness and unconsciousness, the wintertime of the soul. It's hard to move from the blackness to the state of albedo, the whiteness. This only occurs through repeated trial and error as the individual moves ahead and falls back again and again. In albedo, the person gradually attains objectivity and inner peace as he or she integrates more and more of the material of the unconscious.

All of this is on the way to the rubedo, the redness. The rubedo is the heart awakening, the point at which individuation really begins. The heat for the reddening is supplied by emotion, so that the person feels the change in a concrete way as a newly kindled passion for life.

Alice starts out in the desolation of the blackening, but the rest of the process is out of whack. She proceeds first to the Red Queen and then to the White. As beautiful as the White Queen is, there is something chilly about her and her surroundings. It's hard to imagine living for long in her palace; the most appealing scene is the one in which the Queen and her household walk outside between two rows of what appear to be blooming cherry trees; the pink blossoms are a welcome touch of color.

The White Queen, who could use some reddening, is too ineffectual to defeat the Jabberwocky herself, and it falls to Alice to be her champion. She slays the monster, which results in the banishing of the Red Queen and the restoration of the White. While this goes against an alchemical reading, it is true that Alice has to drink the blood of the Red Queen's champion in order to return to her ordinary life (the blood itself is purple and looks more like grape juice, but close enough). Alice returns to the upper world stronger and ready to chart her own path.

This was a Disney film, so I guess a dampening down of the fire was inevitable. This is a sanitized family movie, so you're only going to see so much libido, though Tim Burton did include subversive touches: the White Queen is a little scary in her own way, even passive-aggressive, and the Red Queen has a commendable appetite for tarts. She is, after all, the Queen of Hearts (though maybe too passionate about the wrong things), and she does give Alice a styling set of new clothes.

Alice begins and ends the movie wearing blue, a color signifying spirit rather than passion. I would have liked to see her sailing into her new life wearing that red party dress snipped out of curtains, but I realize that's asking a bit much of Disney.

On a final note, I'd like to say that although I'm not the one who ate the squimberry tarts, I would have been if I had found them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rainy Day Mnemosyne

I’m reading a book called Ariadne's Thread, in which author J. Hillis Miller uses the associated metaphors of thread and line to examine narrative. I've been thinking so much about the labyrinth itself that I had forgotten the aftermath of the story until Miller reminded me. After escaping the labyrinth, Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos.

Without Ariadne's help, Theseus could not have defeated the Minotuar and found his way out of the labyrinth. Despite this, he doesn't feel obligated to stick with her and ends up marrying her sister instead. That's Theseus's little white sail in the painting above, as he hightails it out of Naxos. Ariadne has just realized she's been betrayed when Dionysus shows up with his retinue, telling her to forget about Theseus, that he himself is her rightful husband.

This painting reminds me of my first conscious encounter with mythology. I must have been about four, and I was fascinated by an ad in a magazine for what, as I remember it, was chewing gum. The ad was full of fantastical figures – gods, goddesses, nymphs, cupids with arrows – crowded together in a busy tableau. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I didn’t quite know who they were, but I think what enchanted me was the energy and variety; they had human characteristics but were obviously not people. I was in awe of this not-quite-human cast and the dynamic interplay.

The chapter I’ve been reading in Miller discusses character in literature and the problem of “self.” Miller examines the assumptions we make about the unity of self and casts doubt on them. He is only taking up the thread, so to speak, of other critics before him who deny that we can speak of the self as a distinct, consistent entity, believing instead that identity is a "necessary fiction."

In spite of the attempts of so many philosophers to dispense with the self, for me the idea sticks. I do experience myself as a consistent identity, with attitudes and ways of thinking that persist from day to day. I think most people do the same. Ten years from now, I will be able to remember tonight, just like I can now remember myself as a four-year-old.

Mnemosyne, one of the oldest of the immortals, is Memory in Greek mythology. She is the mother of the nine Muses (and may even have been somewhere in that fascinating ad all those years ago). Memory makes identity possible, so maybe Memory is Ariadne’s thread, the constant matter out of which a life is woven. This is Memory not just in the sense of what I consciously remember but also in the sense of instinctual and biological memories buried in my cells.

When I first encountered Ariadne and Dionysus in this myth, they seemed like a strange couple. But if myth is really a reflection of lived experience, their belonging together makes sense. Ariadne holds the thread that makes inspiration possible. This thread allows Theseus to penetrate deep into a mystery he couldn’t have managed otherwise, but back in the light of day, he discards the thread. Theseus is, after all, a warrior, and lives by the sword, not by inspiration. Dionysus, a vegetation god, embodies creative life force, ecstasy, song, and dance. Cross him with inspiration, and that makes art. Maybe if you follow the thread back far enough, you always meet Dionysus.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Earthbound Angels

Two reasons to feel happy: I got an email from a potential reader for my dissertation committee, and I just finished The Divine Comedy, all 100 cantos. Either of these is cause for celebration, so with both, I should be in seventh heaven. Or, as Dante would probably put me, somewhere between the Sphere of Saturn and the Sphere of the Fixed Stars.

The geography in Paradiso is hard to get a grip on, and I've been puzzling over it. Rather than following a path, Dante and Beatrice just seem to float upwards and meet people in the neighborhood, like St. Bonaventure, John the Evangelist, and the angel Gabriel. Some of the passages are beautiful, as when Dante describes the dazzling river of light and the view of the Earth from a great height, but mostly it's hard to visualize, unlike the torrid scenes in Inferno and the less chilling but still vivid episodes in Purgatorio.

Dante recognizes this difficulty, because at the beginning of Paradiso he calls on Apollo, the god of poetry, to help him describe what he acknowledges is beyond the power of words to convey.

If I were to pick the place in Dante's entire landscape where I'd rather be, it would not be Heaven but the Earthly Paradise, at the peak of Mount Purgatory. This is the actual Garden of Eden, and it has flowering trees, scented grass, and clear streams; you can walk around, pick fruit, and feel the breeze on your skin. It seems a more comfortable place, more fleshed out and human, than Paradiso. This is not where Dante wants you to stay, but even he admits that few will be able to follow him when he crosses the border into Heaven.

This whole thing for me goes back to Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the heady intellectual god of astronomy, epic poetry, and mathematics; Dionysus is the god of earthbound pleasures, of wine, song, and the loosening of boundaries. Apollo is more severe; I imagine he has a crew-cut and looks like an airline pilot; Dionysus has long flowing locks and looks like Roger Daltrey. You are more likely to encounter Apollo in a space lab and Dionysus in a blues club. In some circles, Dionysus has a bad reputation, but he has his place in the scheme of things.

Since Apollo is a sky god, it's natural that Dante calls on him. Nowhere do I hear him calling on Dionysus. I think that's part of the problem with Dante's vision, that everything is directed toward the spirit and not enough toward the human world, which includes shadows as well as light. For Heaven to seem real, it should have street buskers in addition to popes. In Paradiso, it's a little top-heavy on fathers of the Church and medieval princes.

I'm thinking about a movie I once saw called Wings of Desire, in which an angel falls in love with a mortal woman, a trapeze artist. In this film, the angels are beautiful, compassionate beings, but their bodiless existence is very lonely. This angel, Damiel, longs to experience the world of the senses the way humans do. He slums at rock concerts and watches Marion, the trapeze girl, tenderly. He is moving in the opposite direction from Dante, trying not to reach the Empyrean, but the Earth. He finally gets his wish and falls from the sky with a clunk, his wings suddenly metallic and heavy. As I remember it, he is overwhelmed by the experience of holding a cup of coffee.

Come to think of it, this movie was directed by Wim Wenders, whose film, "The Soul of a Man," made such an impression on me when it was on PBS as part of The Blues series several years ago. It was eerie and mystical and featured a haunting performance of Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator" that I still have stuck in my head. Apparently Willie Johnson got to a part of Heaven that Dante missed but met some of the same people, just singing different songs.

If it wasn't so late, I'd eat another piece of chocolate.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dante vs. Bad Blake

I'm watching movie stars walk down the red carpet in the rain outside the Kodak Theatre. That's OK, it was raining the day I was there, too. I took a $20 tour when I was in L.A. and got to practice my own red carpet walk, though what I'll need it for is unclear -- unless they start giving out Oscars to librarians. Well, you never know.

In between bouts of reading The Divine Comedy this weekend, I made it out to see Crazy Heart in an attempt to catch up on Oscar-nominated films. That movie is a sneaky one, in my opinion. It's a quiet character study and doesn't seem to have a lot of fireworks, BUT . . . I walked out of the theater thinking, wow, I didn't see that coming. The song, "The Weary Kind," was in my head all day yesterday. Meanwhile, I finished "Inferno" last night and read the first nine cantos of "Purgatorio" this morning. I've don't usually associate Jeff Bridges with Dante, but that's what happens when you mix genres.

When Dante goes off the path at the start of the poem, he's hopelessly lost until Beatrice sends him a guide. He winds through nine circles of hell and climbs the steep mountain of Purgatory on his way to Paradise with her image always before him.

If not for Beatrice, Dante's downhill slide would have ended badly. Virgil tells Cato, in the first canto of "Purgatorio," "This man had yet to see his final evening; but, through his folly, little time was left before he did--he was so close to it." The nature of Dante's difficulty isn't stated, but it's clear he has lost his compass. He is middle-aged and worn down by personal turmoil -- a lot like country music outlaw Bad Blake in Crazy Heart (this is where Jeff Bridges comes in).

Bad Blake is something like the character in Chris Smither's song, "Don't Call Me Stranger," who says, "I'm not evil, I'm just bad." He's a sympathetic character in many ways, with a wry sense of humor and an affable nature. His main problem is whiskey. Nevertheless, despite being too drunk to stand in one scene, he remembers to dedicate a song to the stranger who befriended him earlier that day; he remembers the man's name, and his wife's name. I knew that whether he remembered or forgot to do this would say a lot about him, and it did.

Bad is wandering in his own dark wood. This really becomes an issue when he meets Jean, a smart and pretty music writer. Suddenly, he's caught. "I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look. I never knew what a dump it was until you came in here" is Bad's version of Dante's "Her eyes surpassed the splendor of the star's," etc. Bad and Jean begin a love affair, and Bad shows a softer side. His songs start to sound different, too.

Unfortunately, Bad's addiction to alcohol is at least as strong as his growing love for Jean. When he loses sight of her little boy one day while drinking, she puts an end to things. Despite the sympathy Bad engenders, it's obvious she can't do anything else. This event shocks Bad into confronting his alcoholism and inaugurates a new phase in his life. Eventually, even his musical fortunes improve as one of his new songs becomes a hit and a moneymaker.

Jean is behind all this, even though she has refused to see Bad again. Months pass before they meet, at the end of the movie (spoiler alert!). To Bad's surprise (and mine) she is now married to someone else. However, Bad has grown up; he accepts the news gracefully and grants Jean the interview she asks for. They walk off together as the camera pans to take in the wider landscape. It's all very noble -- and heartbreaking!

In a way, Crazy Heart is not a tragedy; Bad has a lot more going for him at the end than he did at the beginning. Like Dante, he's back on the path. But it's a bittersweet victory because it comes too late to save his romance with Jean, the thing that started it all. I sometimes complain about movies being too "Hollywood," but I wanted the Hollywood ending on this one.

Actually, Dante has nothing on Bad in the romance department. He didn't get a Hollywood ending either, because Beatrice was already dead by the time he got lost in the wood. It's her spirit that guides him. Although, like Bad, he has a reunion with his lost love, it's only temporary, and he must eventually continue without her. Like Bad, Dante derives artistic inspiration from his beloved, who acts as a kind of Muse. But I wonder if Dante would have traded The Divine Comedy for another crack at Beatrice. Maybe, and maybe not, since his poetic stature obviously meant a lot to him (he modestly mentions his own greatness in the poem). And, after all, he did get a Masterpiece of World Literature out of it.

This is where I think Bad Blake, an earthier kind of guy, differs from Dante. His only tour of hell, heaven, and points in between is the one he has in the here and now, and it's enough for him. I'm pretty sure he would have traded the song and the success to have Jean back. I'm with him.

Sorry, Dante, I love you, and you're in my dissertation, but Bad trumps you on that one.