Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Last Temptation of Christ

Sometimes reviews require disclaimers, due to existing prejudices regarding the subject matter. Reading is not an objective sport, as our own values and beliefs color what we encounter. And so, a disclaimer. Consider this my coming out of the closet moment. I do not believe that Jesus was the son of God. In fact, I don’t believe in a god at all. I am, in truth, an atheist, and have been more or less for the last 11 years. I bring this up only because Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ has a reputation as blasphemy, and I wanted to be up front about where I approached this book from. Someone with a certain rigid belief system would likely be challenged, and perhaps offended by this novel. So, be forewarned.

When we first meet Jesus, he’s making a cross. Mary, his mother (obviously) cannot really remember what happened when the thunderbolt hit her, which also paralyzed Joseph for life. And Jesus has been somewhat of the bane of her existence – always running off somewhere, and just generally being strange. She wanted him to have a nice life – a wife, children – but instead he makes crosses. While Joseph sits and drools in a corner. This is not really the Mary of the Pieta.

Jesus is tormented by God. He wants a normal life, too, but every time he is about to give in to something, is about to do what God doesn't want him to, he is grabbed - I think it is described like a bird of prey's talons - and suffers seizure like symptoms. He wants to marry Mary Magdalene, who was his childhood companion. But he cannot, and he is tormented by that too. Jesus makes crosses for the Romans hoping that God will give up and leave him alone.

Over time - after visits to John the Baptist and a stint in the desert - he comes to accept God's mission for him, though he is constantly in doubt as to what exactly that means. He is slowly joined by his disciples, who are quite a ragtag bunch; the only one who is any use to Jesus is Judas, who becomes his confidant. As Jesus realizes that the only way to fulfill this plan of God's is for him to die, he asks Judas to turn him in. He wants it over with.

In the end (well, not quite the end) Jesus finds himself on the cross. Yeah, I know - who would have expected that? (Just kidding, folks). And suddenly, someone- his "guardian angel" but we all know who it really is - comes to him and tells him to get down, that it was all a dream. He proved himself to God, and now he can go live the life he wanted all along. He takes Mary Magdalene as his wife, but then she dies and he goes to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, and has many, many children and happy days.

But other people start to show up: first Simon of Cyrene, Paul (in a very, very bizarre scene), and finally the disciples. The disciples accuse him of being a traitor and a deserter, recalling to him that he truly must die on the cross...he chooses to do so over the life that he always longed for. Jesus, seeing now fully that this is so, returns to the cross and finally dies.

Ok- so I get why people would be upset over this, in the same way they were upset by The Da Vinci Code, though LToC is so much better written they really aren't comparable. Kazantzakis's Jesus is very, very human. He's weary of his duty, and genuinely freaked out by the miracles he is able to perform. Obviously Judas as the secondary hero, not betraying Jesus but following orders, ruffles feathers. And people always get their undies in a knot over the idea of Jesus being married and having children, dream sequence or not. I get it. Kazantzakis was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church for the novel, and in the mid-1980s Marin Scorsese received death threats over the film...Roger Ebert describes having to go to a specific pay phone and call a specific number to get directions to Scorsese's hiding place to interview him about the film...where he is greated by a security guard. People were severely injured in France from molotov cocktails thrown into a theater showing the film. This part I don't understand...but I don't take any of my own beliefs so seriously that I can't be on the same planet with people who don't share them. I think that's really just silly.

But I didn't come at the novel from a position of faith. It really doesn't matter to me if Jesus loved or kissed or married or did whatever with Mary Magdalene, or the other Mary, or Martha for that matter. I've always been interested in unique retelling of familiar stories. And to be honest, I always wondered about the vilification of Judas, even when I did believe Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected to save humankind from our sins. So, that's what this was for me, no different than other reimagining of the tales we collectively have decided are myths, and therefore not to be taken seriously...though a lot of people once did take them seriously. And I must say, from that perspective, LToC made me think about certain elements of the story in a new light, and I found myself thinking, "I get this...I get this picture of Jesus" in ways I haven't gotten Jesus since I stopped suspending my disbelief 11 years ago.

One reviewer (a Catholic, I believe) said of the dim, "throw out the objectionable parts, and there’s virtually nothing left." That is his perspective. I didn't find anything objectionable...but that's mine. My grandma always says its good we don't all like the same things, but I'm sure she'd be highly offended by Last Temptation. All I can suggest dear reader, is for you to read it yourself. Because it's much more objectionable to be offended by something you haven't read than by something you have.

Best books on booze

Best books on booze. Robby V. have you seen this?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Poetry Friday

I've been thinking about Dido and Aeneas today, so here's some lyrics from Purcell's Dido's Lament.

When I am Laid In Earth

When I am laid, am laid in earth,
may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast.
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Still Life

Maybe two months ago, I saw the film Brief Encounter. I was devastated. But i've been feeling devastated a lot lately. Things are weird. But Brief Encounter...I haven't been able to get away from it. Last week, I think it was, I couldn't take it anymore and bought the Noel Coward play it was based on - Still Life. It arrived today and I couldn't not just sit down and read it. Which I did immediately, ignoring everyone.

This is a play of restraint. Alec and Laura meet when she gets something in her eye at the train station and he (a doctor) helps her get it out. One accidental meeting, and then another. And before long they are in love. But they're both married with children. (In the movie Laura says, "I was happily married until I met you" or something like that.). In the end, he and Laura agree it's best if Alec moves with his family to a new job in Africa. At their last meeting, a silly gossip friend of Laura's shows up, and Alec and Laura can only shake hands.

There were many parts that got me...one in particular that is so personal right now I won't quote it just so I can keep it to myself. But here is one that I'm willing to share:

ALEC: ...Please know that you'll be with me for ages and ages yet - far away into the future. Time will wear down the agony of not seeing you, bit by bit the pain will go-but the loving you and the memory of you won't ever go- please know that...I love you with all my heart and soul.

LAURA: I want to die - if only I could die.

ALEC: If you died you'd forget me - I want to be remembered.

LAURA: Yes, I know.

This play is a comfort to me right now- there's so much going on. I will carry this around with me for awhile...physically and emotionally.

For those of you who want to watch the film:

Poetry Friday

I said this was coming back, and here it is! Listening to Britney Spears "Hold It Against Me" and posting poetry...I can't make this stuff up.

To Mark Anthony in Heaven
by William Carlos Williams

This quiet morning light
reflected how many times
from grass and trees and clouds
enters my north room
touching the walls with
grass and clouds and trees.
trees and grass and clouds.
Why did you follow
that beloved body
with your ships at Actium?
I hope it was because
you knew her inch by inch
from slanting feet upward
To the roots of her hair
and down again and that
you saw her
above the battle's fury-
clouds and trees and grass-

For then you are
listening in heaven.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Poetry Friday

A long time ago, I was doing a series called "Poetry Friday." I've been thinking about starting it up again. While going through my blog files and drafts and things, I came across the following post I never published from 2008. I've been thinking about this poem lately, so I figure what the heck - I'll post it now. Without further ado, the reinstitution of Poetry Friday...on a Monday.

I know I said that I wouldn't often post my own poems (which I don't write anymore), but today I am going to again. I happened to catch "The Universe: Parallel Worlds" or whatever it was called on the History Channel on Tuesday night. I wish I understood physics/astrophysics/ cosmology. But what they were talking about reminded me of a poem I wrote 8 years ago. The basic premise is here described by Max Tegmark in a 2003 article for Scientific American:

"Is there a copy of you reading this article? A person who is not you but who
lives on a planet called Earth, with misty mountains, fertile fields and
sprawling cities, in a solar system with eight other planets? The life of this
person has been identical to yours in every respect. But perhaps he or she now
decides to put down this article without finishing it, while you read on.

"The idea of such an alter ego seems strange and implausible, but it looks as if we will just have to live with it, because it is supported by astronomical observations. The simplest and most popular cosmological model today predicts that you have a twin in a galaxy about 10 to the 1028 meters from here. This distance is so large that it is beyond astronomical, but that does not make your doppelgänger any less real. The estimate is derived from elementary probability and does not even assume speculative modern physics, merely that space is infinite (or at least sufficiently large) in size and almost uniformly filled with matter, as observations indicate. In infinite space, even the most unlikely events must take place somewhere. There are infinitely many other inhabited planets, including not just one but infinitely many that have people with the same appearance, name and memories as you, who play out every possible permutation of your life choices."

Here's the poem:

Infinite Amount of Chances
"If you accept that the universe is infinite, then that means there's an infitite amount of chances for things to happen...if there's an infinite amount of chances for something to happen, then eventually it will happen - no matter how small the likelihood." - Alex Garland

Am I with you now?
Can you feel me kiss you goodnight?
Sleepwalking I stumble into your bedroom

Infinately we are together - you and I
In the darkness of every star's a sun with planets
Makes you feel small

Out there you are holding my hand thru periodic sadnesses
Somewhere at sometime you were or will be allowed to love me -
I will be allowed to love you

Infinity is a button on my calculator
And tonight I am lost and alone
Knowing one day you will find me
No matter how small the likelihood

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Professor Unrat

Lately, I seem to be knee deep in German or German-related books. Bust be something in the German literary psyche that's calling to me lately. Don't know what else it could be. So, for that unknown reason, I recently lighted on Heinrich Mann's 1905 Professor Unrat, made famous by Marlene Dietrich's breakout performance in the film adaptation, The Blue Angel.

Unrat, which translates into something close to "garbage" - my version translated it as "mud" - is a tyrannical professor, vilified by his students and former students who insist on tormenting him constantly. He hates - HATES!!!! - being called by his nickname, and will seek out everyone that calls him that and mete out whatever punishment he can. They shout at him in the street, mocking him everywhere.

His arch nemesis is a student named Lohmann, who actually makes a point never to call him "mud" - he's above it somehow. One day, Lohmann turns in his notebook after an exam and Unrat notices a poem tin it addressed to an actress, Rosa Frohlich. Boys in the school are not supposed to be dilly dallying at theaters, and so Unrat sets out to catch Lohmann and his two accomplices. Unrat searches the town for where this infamous Rosa may be, and he eventually finds her at the Blue Angel. His goal is simple: bring down Lohmann by catching him in after-hours dalliances with a woman of low-repute. But that's not what happens. Rosa, instead, catches Unrat.

The students know what's up, and because of it Unrat completely loses control. He eventually is forced to leave his post and uses all his money catering to Rosa. Lohmann resurfaces, Unrat tries to kill him and really just ends up stealing his wallet. As he runs down the street, he is like always tormented with insults. Unrat's unwavering righteousness - his need to ruin those who have mocked him - is excellently portrayed. A very powerful story.

Though I love The Blue Angel (which is why I cannot help posting the clip at the bottom - her expressions in the German version are much better than the English), the motivation behind Unrat is completely different between film and novel. Though at first he really is interested and flattered by Rosa (called Lola Lola in the film), in the novel his undoing is his absolute desire to ruin everyone and he is able to do so via his relations with Rosa. In the film, it's his devotion to Rosa/Lola herself that is his undoing without mention of his overriding obession. That just gets him into her dressing room. Both work and both knock your socks off, but for different reasons.
With that, here you go:

Willard and His Bowling Trophies

A few years ago there was a movie called Willard, which was a remake of one sort or another of the 1970's movie Willard. I never saw either of them, but I do know that (1) they involved rats; (2) Michael Jackson sang a very nice theme song to the earlier version's sequel, Ben; and (3) the movies were based on a novel.

On the 1,001 books list there is a Richard Brautigan novel called Willard and His Bowling Trophies. Somehow - probably because they both involve a Willard - the Brautigan book and the rat movies got mixed up in my mind. However, the Brautigan novel, to my disappointment, was not about rats.

Instead, Brautigan's Willard is about two couples living in an apartment house - one is sadly and half heartedly outing out The Story of O; the other seems relatively normal other than the fact that they have a room filled with bowling trophies and a papier mache bird named Willard. This pile of loot was found in abandoned car they came across and decided to keep (the loot, not the car). Because, of course, that's normal, right? Maybe comparatively.

The true owners of Willard & Co - three brother from whom they were stolen - are on a murderous cross country rampage in search of their lost property. They get a tip that Willard and the trophies are in Apartment No. 1 at a house in San Francisco. Problem is, as a joke the normal couple had long ago switched the apartment numbers. When the brothers reach the apartment house, they kill the Story of O couple instead. The End.

For those of you who know me, you should expect that this ending would annoy me. It did. Did the normal couple hear the gun shots and rush upstairs? Did the brothers give up and leave when the trophies weren't in Apartment 1 (which was really Apartment 2)? And why am I unable to tolerate unanswered questions in books, but it's ok in movies!?!?!?! (See, for reference, my New York Trilogy problem.)

When I was in high school, everyone kept trying to get me to watch this show called The X-Files. I would love love love it since it was about aliens and ghosts and other weird things that everyone knew I was into, because, of course, I was the weird kid. But I have always resisted the popular, even if it seemed made just for me. One Sunday night I broke down - ok, ok, I'll watch it. It happened to be the episode Home. I was so disgusted I didn't watch the X-Files again for a few years. (On a side note, this lead me to miss The Field Where I Died episode two or three weeks later, which is now one of my favorite...the reading of Browning's Paracelsus brings tears to my eyes.) Something about Willard and His Bowling Trophies reminded me too much of the Home episode.

The book wasn't badly written; in fact, if it had been about something else, (like rats?) I would have enjoyed it. My one consolation was that the book was so short I read it in about three hours.

And for those who are wondering, the movies are based on Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert.