Friday, July 10, 2009

Diego Rivera, Shôwa Sophistication at the MFA

We went to the MFA last night, probably our last visit before we move. We regret not having gone more over the past year. We were busy.

The exhibit in the photography gallery has been changed: now it's work by Edward Weston and his associates from his time in Mexico. Nice, but even nicer is the companion exhibit of prints by Diego Rivera and his contemporaries. It included two works that stopped me in my tracks.

One is a copy of Rivera's famous (it turns out) lithograph of Zapata. You can find color versions if you google it, but this was the black and white lithograph. Pretty striking. Look at the expressions on the faces of the peasants behind him. Look at the horse, like the white steed in paintings of St. George. A very striking picture.

The other was a two-sided print Rivera made of Frida Kahlo, called La Mujer. On the front is a realistic, and beautiful enough, sketch of Frida nude. But on the back (I couldn't find an image online), Rivera had printed the image again, but twice, once facing left and once facing right. At least, that's how the caption described it, but I think he did more. It looked like Frida had six arms and six legs, or a hundred, all fanned out. She looked like a thousand-armed Kannon. This was the Frida Kahlo of myth.

An even better exhibit was this one: Shôwa Sophistication: Japan in the 1930s. About half of this was landscape or animal screens that, the exhibit noted, had decorated a wedding chapel in Tokyo until a few years ago, and they looked it: gaudy.

But the other half was a bunch of really striking nihon-ga of men and women in cutting-edge modern situations - the proverbial moga and mobo.

This image of two tearoom waitresses, by Saeki Shunkô, was a highlight. The setting is tres modern, as are the girls' uniforms, and that, rendered in the mostly 2D style of the nihon-ga, is already fun. The placement of the figures, drastically off center, is another striking feature. But look closely at their poses. The girl on the right is stiff from the waist up, looking expressionlessly at the viewer; but from the waist down she's relaxed, in an almost sensuous position. Sensuous, but also maybe recalling the graceful stances of ancient Buddhist statuary. The girl on the left is a little more demure in the placement of her legs, but her upper body is utterly relaxed, and she's gazing off beyond the border of the picture, bored or wistful. Really nice. There's another Shunkô there that's just as impressive, Umbrella - I couldn't find an image on-line. Two girls sharing an umbrella. These girls, one in a red flower-patterned kimono, the other in a solid red overcoat, form just as pleasing a contrast. I guess this was Shunkô's thing.

Then of course the MFA seized the opportunity to bring out their masterpiece by Tateishi Harumi, Clover. They had it out in another exhibit a few years ago. I just love this painting. The colors and composition, the texture (when you get to see it up close: the bamboo grass in the top left just leaps out at you), and all other technical aspects, sure, but more than that the way it captures this wonderful sense of freedom. The girls' school uniforms accentuate that: they're stealing time, stealing leisure. Quite a bold thing for 1934, but not just a political statement (if it is one); a universal human emotion, I think. At least, this painting speaks to me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Frodo in Lothlorien

Frodo's first view of Lothlorien (p. 341):
...Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.
"A vanished world" is the first thing to note here. The beauty of Lothlorien is something Frodo is experiencing in the here and now - it's not part of the past, but the present - but later we learn that it's something of an island in time, sealed in upon itself. It isn't really of the present, but the past. Its fate is sealed, and it's already gone, even as Frodo first sees it. Thus, for all its intense and glorious presence, Lothlorien is really part of the discourse on absence, the doomy nostalgia for a better vanished age, that permeates all of Tolkien.

You could call this conservative, in a temperamental sense: the feeling that the world's best days must be behind it. The world as it presently stands isn't heaven: on that we can all agree. There must be something better. The question is, is heaven yet to come, or has it already gone? Tolkien would say it's gone, and that all that remains is a valiant fight in a losing cause, because things are just going to keep getting worse. As a literary quality, it's tragedy, with all the beauty of tragedy; and beauty is why we love Lord of the Rings. But as a philosophy of life it's no more self-evidently true than it's opposite, the belief that things are just going to keep getting better. You could argue either way, and never prove your case: belief in a golden age in the past and belief in a coming millennial paradise are both equally acts of faith. Tolkien's faith is firmly in the past, and his faith is strong enough to vouchsafe him, through Frodo, glimpses of the perfect beauty that exists in the past. Lothlorien. Heaven.

But what struck me this time through Lothlorien was that maybe there's something more going on here than just a yearning for a past beyond all but species memory. Note the way Frodo's perceptions are described here: "the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes...He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful."

I've felt this way. At 16, 17, 18 I could look at a tree (damn near any tree) and see so much beauty in it, so much divinity, that I felt that nobody in the history of seeing could ever have seen a tree before me. The gold of leaves in autumn was so gold that I thought I could say the word "gold" and have it mean more than anybody else could. You probably felt this way, too. I dare say anybody who was a teenaged Romantic did. There's something about youth, madly in love with nature, newly aware of beauty, that makes it think it invented these things, or invented the perception of them. And it's the very naivete of the perceptions that lends them intensity - or at least the intensity goes hand in hand with the naivete.

If you're lucky, you die young like Keats and these perceptions never dim. If you're not, you get old. As you get older, things happen - disillusionment, or just fatigue - and you lose the intensity. You may still find trees pretty, even breathtaking at times, but you're no longer able to lose yourself in them the way you once did. If you're lucky you find new ways to love them; if you're not, maybe you look back wistfully on the ecstasy that was once accessible to you, and no longer is. What happened? Is it the tree's fault? Is it yours? Or is that just the way life is? Whatever, now there's a "stain" on the land, at least for you.

In short, maybe Tolkien is writing not only about a golden age in the distant, prehistorical past, but also one in the near past, within living memory of everyone who was once young, and is no longer. About not only the youth of the world, but the youth of the reader.

I certainly didn't get that the first time I read LOTR.

Monday, July 6, 2009


In the twelfth chapter (entitled "Suma") of the Tale of Genji, the Shining Prince's philandering begins to catch up with him, and he's obliged to leave the Capital for a while. He goes into exile in the region of Suma, on the Inland Sea coast.

Any reader who follows Genji down to Suma has already struggled through, as noted, eleven chapters of the Tale - eleven chapters of very demanding, if beautiful, archaic Japanese. And it may hit the reader, at this point, that he or she is less than a quarter of the way through the whole. Furthermore, the reader has already encountered a good many of the book's most famous scenes. It's perhaps no surprise, then, that a lot of readers find their concentration flagging right around this point. Having escorted Genji as far as Suma, these readers turn around and go home. This is a common enough phenomenon that there's a word for it in Japanese: Suma-gaeri 須磨帰り, "returning from Suma," i.e., making it as far as Suma (or "Suma") before turning around and heading back.

A similar thing happens, I find, with Lord of the Rings. The first couple of times I tried to read it (back in seventh or eighth grade), I gave up when I got to the Council of Elrond. It's one of my favorite parts now - all those different actors supplying different parts of the puzzle, different perspectives on the problem, each new bit of light shed revealing the problem to be even worse than previously suspected - but at the time I thought it dreadfully difficult going. And I don't think I'm alone. Mrs. Sgt. T tried to read LOTR a few years ago, got as far as the Council, and hasn't picked it up since.

We laughed when we realized we'd both gotten discouraged at the same point, and as I say, I'm sure we're not alone. And since we're both familiar with Genji, we immediately recognized the phenomenon. So we gave it a name: hereby we propose that "Rivendell-gaeri" be added to the lexicon of LOTR studies. Particularly appropriate, I think. By the time of the Council we've faithfully followed Frodo through many perils on the long road to Rivendell, but Elrond lays no charge on any of the Fellowship to go farther than they will, and makes a particular point of allowing a couple of the hobbits to go back to the comforts of the Shire if they wish. Surely any novice readers may be forgiven if we take him up on his offer.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tom Bombadil

So I'm about halfway through The Fellowship of the Ring now.

Tom Bombadil is one of my favorite characters. This LOTR blog (unfortunately it looks like the author has abandoned it) gets at a lot of the reasons why (there's no search function, but he's got a nice series of three posts on Tom in February 2008). But what he doesn't really nail is the sheer musicality of Tom's speech.

Tom Bombadil speaks in old-fashioned (i.e. Old English-fashioned) stressed verse. He doesn't have quite the alliteration that Beowulf has, but his speech does break down consistently into seven-beat lines, with a caesura between the fourth and fifth beats. Sometimes his speech is presented as poetry - i.e., Tolkien italicizes and indents it, as in the following well-known couplet (p. 122 in the Houghton Mifflin trade paperback):
Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;
Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.
Note the rhythm: four strong beats (óld Tóm Bómbadíl), a pause, then three more beats (ís a mérry féllow). This couplet rhymes, reinforcing the notion that it should be recognized as poetry, or song. But all of Bombadil's speech does this, even when it doesn't rhyme, even when it's presented as nothing more than conversation. Let's take a random passage (p. 126):
"Sun won't show her face much today, I'm thinking. I have been walking wide, leaping on the hilltops, since the grey dawn began, nosing wind and weather, wet grass underfoot, wet sky above me. I wakened Goldberry singing under window; but nought wakes hobbit-folk in the early morning."
Let's reformat it as poetry, with the beats italicized and a double vertical line to indicate the caesura:
Sún wón't shów her fáce || múch todáy, I'm thínking.
Í háve been wálking wíde, || léaping ón the hílltops,
sínce the gréy dáwn begán, || nósing wínd and wéather,
wét gráss únderfóot, || wét sk´y abóve me.
Í wákened Góldbérry || sínging únder wíndow;
but nóught wákes hóbbit-fólk || ín the éarly mórning.
Beautiful, no? Almost hypnotic. And significant: given Bombadil's very ancient nature (well detailed in the blog posts I link to above), it's appropriate that his speech is given this old-fashioned poetic form.

I must note that I'm not the only one to comment on the rhythms of Tom Bombadil's speech. But I'm proud to say I discovered it independently.

Since Tom's one of my favorite characters, it may surprise you, O Reader, to learn that I'm not particularly bummed that Peter Jackson left him out of the movies - which I love every minute of, by the way. But I'm not. As excellent and admirable a job as Jackson did, I'm not sad to have one character left wholly to my imagination, and Tom's the best one for it. It fits with what Tolkien himself said about Bombadil's mysterious and unexplained nature.

The Hobbit, clotted cream, and evocative details

So I'm reading Tolkien again, as I do every few years. This is the edition I'm reading, by the way, with the Alan Lee covers. I think they're about the most attractive I've seen. Check this site, for an impressive account of the different covers through the years. For what it's worth, the first time I read Lord of the Rings, it was the hippie covers. Thanks, Dad!

But that's not what I wanted to note here. I think Tolkien is a brilliant writer. Not necessarily the best plot-architect (although when I start reading him I can seldom stop), but a brilliant writer. Part of this is his choice of words, and his sentence-smithing, but part of it - and this is probably more important to his success as a novelist - is his eye for the telling detail. He's not the most descriptive writer, for the most part: you can go through the whole of The Hobbit and only have the vaguest idea of what an orc or a dwarf really looks like. But when he does include details, they're extraordinarily evocative.

Proof? Every time I read Tolkien I get hungry. Take this passage, from The Hobbit (p. 118 of the Houghton Mifflin trade paper edition pictured above):
At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead - and he took out his pipe.
This is at Beorn's house. It's a casual moment, and what Gandalf actually ate is for the most part relegated to parentheses. But it immediately gives you a feel for life at Beorn's. The honey reminds you of the wondrous bees the company saw in Beorn's gardens - and if it also makes you think of Winny the Pooh and his hunny jar, so much the better. We're in bear territory. The butter and clotted cream suggest the master of the house's mastery over his animals, while the absence of meat suggests the restraint with which he uses them. The whole spread, notably the loaves (and what kind of bread must that have been?) suggests a wholesome richness, humble and close to the land but as luxurious as you could ask for.

And if that doesn't make you want to sit down to a hunk of good solid bread, some honey and real butter and clotted cream - well, in that case, you're probably thinner than me, at least.

(Bonus link: if you're an American like me you may have to consult Wikipedia to know what clotted cream is. Once you know, you may find yourself, as we did, running to the nearest imported-foods store [for us it was Cardullo's in Harvard Square] to see if they carry it. They did, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki whipped up some scones, and we had a hobbit breakfast yesterday.)