Thursday, November 29, 2007

Can Pevear and Volokhonsky bring me Tolstoy?

Dostoevsky is my master and spiritual mentor. Certainly translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are greatly to be thanked; I don't know Russian, and their translations brought me a vital Dostoevsky. While their translations have great verve and are wonderful to read, they aren't entirely responsible for Dostoevsky's role in my life. Pevear and Volokhonsky brought me The Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment, and Demons (and they'll soon be bringing me The Idiot), but Jessie Coulson brought me Notes from the Underground. It is Dostoevsky himself that made himself my master--I must only thank the translators for bringing him to me. And Pevear and Volokhonsky have been particularly joyful.

And now I make the confession that is difficult for a pacifist vegetarian English professor: I've never read Tolstoy's War and Peace. But that's not entirely true: I read the first 200 or 300 pages...and stopped. Whether it was my own life getting in the way, Tolstoy himself who could not move me, or whether translator Rosemary Edmonds could not bring the novel to life for me, I cannot know. I should like Tolstoy--everything suggests it. But Tolstoy did not offer me the intensity, the madness, the ideas of Dostoevsky.

And now Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated War and Peace. And now, perhaps they can be the translators to bring me Tolstoy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Visual Imagery in Dexter

Some television shows turn the opening credits into a work of art itself.

Take Dexter, a show about a serial killer and his regular life. The opening provides us with images that appear violent, terrifying, threatening. These images, however, are merely Dexter getting ready for his day. Shaving. Cutting an orange. Making coffee. Tying shoes. The imagery is violent and frightening, but the actions are decidedly ordinary. The opening credits of Dexter highlight, perhaps, the closeness between mundane civilization and raw brutality.

The opening credits of Dexter reveal a playfulness of imagery that is a part of the show. In one scene, Dexter the serial killer is cleaning out somebody's house with another serial killer (Dexter doesn't know he's a serial killer, but the other serial killer knows Dexter is). We see images of the two pulling out rope, ripping off duct tape, tying up garbage bags--all images that connote to their violent realities.

Michael C. Hall deserves a lot of credit for the visual beauty of Dexter. Though Hall was fine in Six Feet Under, I didn't notice anything special in him. In Dexter, he's occasionally terrific, particularly in the facial expressions. His look at Rita when she tells him she can tell he's a good person. His look of childish anxiety after he commits a not-so-wise violent act. His look at the camera at the end of one episode as he shuts the door.

My favorite moment comes at the end of an episode when Dexter meets Neil Perry, who appears to be the Ice Truck Killer (which has shaken Dexter in disappointment), who knows Dexter. Dexter looks at him in quiet sadness, and says "Hi." Perry looks at Dexter and says "Who the fuck are you?" In this simply line (as the audience knows well) Dexter's entire world changes--and he looks at the camera with a look indescribable mischievous glee as the episode ends.

These visual moments make Dexter a joy to watch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nonviolence and our lives

Jesus was nonviolent, and he taught his disciples to be nonviolent. When Jesus was being arrested, Peter tried to use force to defend Jesus. Jesus told him not to, saying "He who lives by the sword dies by the sword," suggesting that those who act violently are likely to come to a violent demise.

Of course, we know who else came to a violent demise: the nonviolent Jesus and most of his nonviolent disciples.

Turning the other cheek, loving and blessing our enemies, these are not maxims to live a cheerful and successful life. A life of nonviolence often comes with suffering.

Certainly those who live a life of violence may suffer a violent end. But so too can children, victims of wars they don't create or understand. So too can Christian martyrs, who willfully choose their death and do not fight back. So too can the victims of genocide, killed not because they lived by the sword but merely for who they were (and are).

Those who live by the sword may die by the sword--though they may not. Those who live a life of peace and love may also die by the sword.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nature and Nurture

In "Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion," Stephen Jay Gould argues that science is influenced by the whims of fashion, with particular emphasis on the nature/nurture dichotomy. Gould says that at various times, either genetic or environmental explanations for human identity and behavior are in fashion; during certain periods we emphasize genetics, during others we emphasize environment, and the pendulum swings back and forth.

Gould also argues that at the time he's writing (1997), biological explanations are in favor. I always consider this when reading articles about current science. Are we still in a period emphasizing genetics over environment? Generally, I think so: a lot of science articles I read in Time magazine focus on neurology, seeming to imply that all secrets to human identity and behavior are in the biochemistry of the brain. I expected the same when I saw this week's Time cover, featuring a graphic of a human brain, images of Gandhi and Hitler with lines leading to points within the brain image, and the headline "What Makes Us Good/Evil."

But Jeffrey Klugar's cover story "What Makes Us Moral" offers more complexity than that. Certainly there is discussion of parts of the brain. But there is also a section on how the community socially conditions morality onto individuals, and some of the explanations for aspects of human morality seem to stem from deep-rooted environmental influences.

Are we moving away from a period of genetic emphasis, where pharmaceuticals are used to solve our problems and we're all prisoners of our biology? Is the pendulum swinging toward environmental emphasis (where we can perhaps still be recognized as prisoners, but as Rene Gallimard says in M. Butterfly, prisoners of our place and time)?

Hey, one article in Time magazine isn't going to answer that question.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blind to our own evil

In The Sopranos, Bobby Baccala talks about why his grandfather could not get into America through Ellis Island, and instead snuck in through Montreal. His grandfather had a police record in the old country. He was involved in anti-government activities.

After telling this story, Bobby and Carmela Soprano each agree (though somewhat flippantly) that they should build a wall to protect the border now. Presumably to keep out immigrants and terrorists.

Bobby Baccala is a captain in a crime syndicate. His father was a hit man. His anti-government agitator grandfather snuck into America. But now they should build a wall? Now immigration is a threat? Immigration was good in the past when an anti-government agitator could sneak in and father a murder who would father another criminal, but new immigrants must be kept out?

This is the sort of theme that we see repeatedly in The Sopranos: characters blind to their own evil. There are many, many examples of characters who not only justify their own evil deeds, but occasionally appear entirely blind to the very evil of their deeds.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Post-modern play: La Reine Margot

In history, we learn that a chronicle is an account of what happened, while history is the interpretation of what happened. But a lot of history is also piecing together what happened based not on a single reliable chronicle, but based on all sorts of evidence and accounts. We have to remember, then, that history is somewhat removed from what actually happened; it is not simply what happened, but an interpretation of the meaning of accounts of what happened.

An historical novel is fiction based in history. It is not merely a period novel, but a fictionalized account of real history. It is a dramatized alteration of history.

And of course a film adaptation of a novel is a dramatized alteration a book.

Which brings us to a film I enjoy greatly, La Reine Margot. This is a period film about French history, centering on the royal family (and future king Henri de Navarre) around the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

But La Reine Margot the film is not based on historical accounts of this period, but is an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' historical novel La Reine Margot, which is the Romantic writer Dumas' romantic re-interpretation and fictionalization of history. And that history that Dumas (most certainly rather liberally) interprets into his novel based on his era's interpretation (or application of meaning) to the time period explored is based on centuries of historical interpretation (and myth making) based on varied accounts of actual events.

And yet, in adapting Dumas' novel, it seems probable that the filmmakers of La Reine Margot also looked to history to create and alter the film, not merely relying on Dumas' fiction. And for the costumes and sets, they very likely turned to contemporary art, getting some of the characters to look as the 16th century painters made them look. Of course, the painters of the 16th century were not creating photographic likenesses either--artistic renderings of these royal figures were themselves interpretations imbued with meaning (the artists' meanings, and the desired meanings of the patrons).

So this brings us to a movie based on a book (but also likely based on history and art) based on historical interpretation of various accounts of actual reality.

The movie is an interpretation of an interpretation (also based on interpretations and interpretations) of various interpretations of various accounts of reality.