Saturday, June 19, 2010

Charles Dickens: The Pickwick Papers (1837)

Some details. It was actually serialized between 1836 and 1837, so that, properly, should be the publication date. That it was serialized is important: you can feel it in the rhythms of the chapters, and the way the story changes as you go through it. It was, largely, improvised, month to month, and it shows. In a good way. Also, the actual title (which you won't often see on the covers of modern editions) is The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which is an infinitely better title than the one it's commonly known by. Not only does it have that glorious alliteration (not just the four p's but also the ck's in the penultimate word, leading into the hard c of Club), it has a grandiosity that tells you what to expect. The popular title, Pickwick Papers, is a bit of a cipher.

I noted that the story changes. I read the Signet Classic edition (three bucks at Smith Family Bookstore - can't beat that), and Steven Marcus points this out in his afterword, so this is no great discovery of mine, obviously. But it's one I was glad I picked up on. How does it change?

It starts out in mock heroic mode, presenting the thoroughly trivial doings of some harmless middle-aged men as if they were the daring adventures of some accomplished personages. What Dickens is sending up here - it may not be apparent to every modern reader, since he's really writing for contemporary Londoners, more than in most of his books - is the kind of amateur philosopher (in the old sense of naturalist and/or scholar) that Jenny Uglow profiled so brilliantly a few years ago in The Lunar Men. The ones Uglow writes about really were quite sharp; Dickens' joke is to make these inquiring minds cheerfully clueless. They think they're discovering the world and all its principles anew, but really they're the last to understand what's really going on.

This is amusing, as far as it goes, but luckily it doesn't go far: very soon Dickens decides he'd rather do something else. Maybe it's that he develops a soft spot for Pickwick himself, because he very quickly is transformed from buffoon to someone whose eccentricity proceeds from his virtue, an unworldliness that is almost unbelievable. Almost - what makes Pickwick endearing is that his virtue is never expressed in preaching, or lordliness, or even much in the way of indignance, and it never raises its possessor above having a good time. So Pickwick emerges not only as one of the truly Good Men of literature (Marcus says Dostoevsky liked him), but also as the somewhat unlikely life of the party. Everybody wants to have a beer with this guy - and quite a few of the characters do. Or at least a rum punch.

All that's well and good, and a fine reason to read the novel. So too is its plot: a bit of a shaggy-dog story, to be sure, with digressions so frequent as to be almost maddening, but once you get onto its wobbly wavelength, the story moves right along, and is fairly satisfying.

But what really gave me pleasure was the prose. I've made it clear elsewhere that my turn, in the last few years, to 19th century literature is largely a matter of discovering the beauties of the way English used to be written. Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and in very different ways Thomas Hardy and Herman Melville all had at their command resources of expression that seem lost to us today. Dickens has it too, but again, in a very different way. I seldom found myself admiring his sentences or paragraphs for their beauty, their musicality or elegance; not in the way I can luxuriate in Austen or almost sing along with Scott. But I did find myself wondering at the incredible complexity of nuance that Dickens could pack into a sentence.

Here's one chosen more or less at random, from Chapter 41:
There is no disguising the fact that Mr. Pickwick felt very low-spirited and uncomfortable; not for lack of society, for the prison was very full, and a bottle of wine would at once have purchased the utmost good-fellowship of a few choice spirits without any more formal introduction; but he was alone in the coarse vulgar crowd and felt the depression of spirit and sinking of heart naturally consequent upon the reflection that he was cooped and caged up without a prospect of liberation.
The action this sentence narrates is the simplest. Mr. Pickwick, being in prison, is depressed. It's a simple circumstance, and a sober one: no laughing matter. But along the way Dickens manages to find time to joke about the crowded conditions of the prison, the class of people incarcerated there, the susceptibility of all men to drink, the shallowness of good manners, and indeed Mr. Pickwick's own propriety and the incongruity of him being where he is. Mr. Pickwick is a gentleman through-and-through, and so when Dickens talks about him, or when as here he describes the world as Mr. Pickwick experiences it, it's always with the assumption of gentlemanly ways - that, for example, intimacy will only proceed from a formal introduction, or that low spirits might be best hidden beneath a veneer of gentlemanly sociability. Mr. Pickwick is not only depressed about where he is and who he's with, he's depressed that he's allowing it to depress him. And Dickens is concerned not only with telling us that he's depressed, but with delivering to us the particular flavor of depression as it exists for a gentleman as good natured as Pickwick, and also with making sure that all this information is presented in a tone that both captures the solemnity of the moment and preserves the comic aspect of the narration.

I'm not even sure I've got it all right, but you get the idea. There's a lot going on here. It's a rich sentence. And the book is full of 'em.

It's been over twenty years since I read any Dickens, and twenty years ago I wasn't digging writing like this. That's why I'm going on at such length about it now. It's a recent enthusiasm of mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Rajio taiso no. 4

You have to be familiar with NHK's supremely dippy radio calisthenics to get this one. Turns out there have been 3 incarnations of them (I had no idea). There's a youtube parody going around Japan this week called Radio taiso no. 4. Very, very funny, if you know the original (which, despite the name, is now done on TV as well).

Here's the video. It's good enough that I don't even mind that it's actually guerrilla marketing by a sportswear company.

And here's one of somebody actually trying it at home. The cat who doesn't want to get involved is the best part.

Here's one of a badminton team being taken by surprise by it. And a cheerleading squad. And a soccer team trying it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Honesty from Jim Emerson

I haven't been blogging too much lately; really, it hasn't been that I lost interest, just that I've been busy, and some of the things I've been reading/seeing/listening to have been rather long in getting through, so I didn't necessarily have anything to blog about. Just finished The Pickwick Papers, for example, which took me over a month to get through; I'll try to blog it sometime this week, but that sort of explains why I haven't written about books lately...

Anyway, it may seem that I've lost interest once I link to the wonderful essay Jim Emerson has up on his Scanners film blog right now. I don't read a lot of film blogs (and there are a lot of film blogs); I found Emerson's through Ebert's website, and it pretty much fixes me for film commentary beyond simple movie reviews. So I say this without a lot of knowledge to back it up, but I don't think you'll find too many people on the internets writing about culture on a professional level (far above mine) who have the courage to admit what he's almost admitting
here, which is that there can come a point when, no matter how much you love a thing, there can come a point when you lose interest in it; more precisely, when you realize that your love for the thing doesn't necessarily mean you have to be enthusiastic about every new development in the thing.

He's talking about movies (mostly: he has a nice paragraph about music). Here's how he puts it:

So, I guess I can imagine reaching a point when I just say, "Forget it. I'd rather concentrate my energies studying and (re-)discovering great movies that already exist than keep expecting to find something satisfying in next week's mainstream theatrical releases just because they're 'new' products" -- whatever "mainstream" means, if anything, in our increasingly balkanized, niche-ified pop culture landscape. I recognize that, in the late 20th and early 21st century, the chances of me discovering what I'd consider to be a genuinely "new," compelling movie at the multiplex have grown mighty slim.

If you can make generalizations (and I know: you can't) about something as hydraheaded as the internets, it seems to me that the culture commentary thereon is overwhelmingly oriented toward the new. As he seems to be recognizing in his essay, to be interested in film on the internet seems to automatically entail being interested in new films.

But what if you're not? I don't have the heart to read all the comments on Emerson's post, but I can well imagine readers of a certain bent seeing his as the complaint of a cranky old fart (most of Emerson's commenters are fanatically loyal, so I doubt they'll say this), or of an aesthetically complacent, intellectually borderline-incurious traditionalist. None of which he is, of course...

I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that strikes such a chord in me about this essay. Part of it, I think, is the recognition that as you get old you sometimes lose interest in the new. I almost think it's inevitable. It hasn't happened to me with films - most of my favorite directors are still in their primes, and a lot of my favorite films are from the last twenty years, and if I don't get out to the theater much, I do try to put new things in the Netflix queue when they look interesting, and a fair amount of recent films look interesting to me.

But a cursory reading of this blog should make it clear that it has happened to me with music. I, quite obviously, love music. I mean, I loooooovvvvvvvvveeeeeeee music. Willie Dixon once said, "I never said I was a millionaire, I said I've spent more money than a millionaire" - and I've spent it all on music. But I can't even remember the last new artist I liked well enough to buy a whole CD of (and I still consume most of my music in CD format). The odd Idol post aside, music is essentially over for me.

Why? Reasons both personal and, I begin to suspect, universal. The personal was an unintended separation from contemporary pop at a key time in my youth. I spent two years on a religious mission from age 20 to 22, in a foreign country and under a regime of rules that precluded listening to any non-religious music. I was never solely focused on the present - I developed my fetish for '60s hippie bands as a high school student in the Reagan era - but I was as intensely engaged with new music as most teenagers are right up until this point. Then for two years I dropped out of touch, and missed everything. This was from 1990 to 1992, the beginning of grunge.

This meant that I essentially missed out on the biggest rock development of my generation, and my engagement with contemporary music has never been the same. I tried to play catch-up for a while, but I never really recovered - I felt alienated from most alternative rock in the '90s. Meanwhile, hip hop never appealed to me much, and the one new musical development in the '90s that really did it for me, acid jazz, proved to be mostly a dance-music fad rather than a real revolution. By the time the '00s arrived I'd essentially given up trying to keep up with new music.

For a long time I wrestled with myself over this; I still feel a little guilt over not trying to engage with new music. Not only is there the anxiety over appearing to be an old fart (happens to all of us, both the aging and the anxiety over it), but there's the knowledge that lots of people I know and respect seem to find a great deal to love in new music. But then, almost all those people are much younger than me...

That's where the possibly-universal comes into it. I still pay attention just enough to know what some of the trends are, and what some people see in them (but not enough attention to name names accurately, so I won't), but it's still not enough to actually motivate me to invest in new music. Because a lot of it seems to be retreading stuff I've already been through. Rock music, I realized long ago, is essentially about youth and rebellion, which means that every couple of decades it has to eat itself, kill its parents, forget its past, which of course means it's doomed to repeat it, or if you want to put it more optimistically it's always free to make its own mistakes. So a lot of the gestures in rock I've seen before (and when they seemed fresh to me they were already repetitious to my parents' generation). I can appreciate them, but I don't feel compelled to join them.

And I think this is bound to happen as you get older. You realize, from your own experience, that there really isn't all that much new under the sun, and that in some cases youth is best left to the young. In some fields this isn't a problem; in rock music it is, because the revolutionary
impulse at the heart of rock (and this is true of pop, too, although for a different reason: in pop it's because, after all, presentism is the defining characteristic of pop) means that rock critics skew young (even Christgau, who I confess I never liked, lost his gig in the aughts). If you're a rock fan, you get old, and you either decide that new rock isn't as good as what came before and you get dismissed as an old fart, or you keep trying to stay current and look like an idiot and get dismissed as an old fart anyway.

Of course, none of this matters: unless you have to do this for a living, you should just listen to what you like, and as for people's opinions, it's like Jerry Garcia used to say: fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. But no matter how much we may admire him, few of us can actually be as devil-may-care as the Friend of the Devil himself; I for one will admit that I don't want to get stale, stuck in a rut, old, and that's why I had such anxiety for so long about having given up on new music.

But the thing is, I never gave up on discovering music. And this is an important point in Emerson's essay, too. Like the man says, it doesn't matter how old it is, if you haven't heard it it's new to you. I'm constantly discovering new music - it just happens to be anywhere from thirty to ninety years old most of the time.

I strongly believe that's a valid approach. In other words, I don't criticize those who give up on new music (etc.), but I also think that if you give up discovering new music you're giving up on growing, at least in that particular area. That's why I don't just give up and listen to nothing but Dylan and the Dead - I could probably do that and be happy, but I wouldn't respect myself. So I buy a Lee Morgan cd, and I discover "Mr. Kenyatta," and it makes me glad.

What I don't understand, actually, is why this isn't a more common stance. If I could shift the subtopic to movies for a minute, one of the nice things about living in Cambridge/Somerville was that we had the Brattle right there, a fantastic revival house showing classic movies all the time. I mean, if you cared about movies at all it was heaven to be able to see things like Apocalypse Now, Zabriskie Point, Seven Samurai, Casablanca, and all the rest on the big screen, especially if you were too young to have caught them when they were first in release. And yet the Brattle is always hurting for money. I just can't understand how a major American metro area can support up to a half dozen multiplexes but not a single revival screen.

Why aren't more people interested in old art, is the question. Why does Wikipedia contain more pages about The National than about Sidney Bechet?

...No real point to all this that I've written, obviously. I'm in Japan right now, which always makes me introspective because it's been the site and catalyst for so much of my adulthood; and I'm also jet-lagged, which makes it harder than normal to put two thoughts together coherently. But, if anyone was curious, maybe this post explains why this blog is so scatter-shot. Or maybe it just demonstrates it...

I'll try to write something about something soon. Probably Pickwick.