Posts Tagged 'the moon and sixpence'

Assimilating strangeness.

Perhaps you saw or heard of a movie that came out earlier this year called Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle from a script by the noted schmaltzeur Richard Curtis.

Don’t worry if you missed it. The movie never lives up to its intriguing setup, wherein an obscure singer-songwriter gets bonked into an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. He passes their songs off as his own, playing them at local pubs where at first they’re ignored and yelled over by indifferent yobs; but before long their greatness is recognized, and our hero shoots to Beatles-scale superstardom.

I realize it’s a romantic fantasy. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the hero just went on getting yelled over by yobs until in frustration he gave up on the Beatles and resumed strumming his own mediocre stuff.

And yet I suspect that’s how the scenario would actually play out. In a world where the Beatles never happened, where popular music carried on evolving for another half-century unaffected by their influence, who knows what strange noises people would be listening to by now.

If by good luck the hero were as charismatic as the Beatles – and, um, he isn’t – he’d still have to overcome the disadvantage of sounding hopelessly out-of-fashion.

***

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence a middle-aged London stockbroker abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and take up painting. The established Bohemians sneer at Charles Strickland’s clumsy experiments, but he is as indifferent to their opinions as he is to the feelings of his discarded family and friends.

In his early years of self-exile, Strickland’s sole supporter is a fellow artist named Dirk Stroeve, who convinces a local gallery to display a few of the Englishman’s paintings. Stroeve reminds the skeptical proprietor that Monet, too, struggled at first to find buyers. The proprietor finds the parallel unsatisfactory:

“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No-one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”

“And how, then, will you recognize merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.

“There is only one way – by success.”

Stroeve is convinced that Strickland’s genius will someday be recognized – and he turns out to be right. Merit shines through! However, Paris must be full of art lovers proclaiming this or that obscure painter a genius. Since no-one bothers to write books about the unfulfilled geniuses, only a few insiders, like the gallery owner, ever realize how many wrong predictions there are for every lucky strike.

Is it only by chance that Strickland’s paintings, and not those of one of his garret-dwelling rivals, caught the eye of some influential critic or tastemaker? Or was Stroeve right – was Strickland’s merit bound to be acknowledged eventually? We can’t see the paintings and judge for ourselves, but the narrator, when he is finally permitted by the moody artist to see them, tells us:

They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter.

But he’s recording these impressions years afterward, by which time Strickland’s influence has diffused throughout the art world, making his aberrations commonplace, his crudities the new model of refinement. How many other ugly paintings has the narrator been strangely tantalized by, over the years, whose creators’ fame never glowed hotly enough to blast his formless impressions into solidity?

The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the scandalous life of Paul Gauguin. For the 1942 film version, which follows the novel fairly faithfully, the artist Dolya Goutman was hired to create Gauguinesque murals for the walls of Strickland’s cabin in Tahiti.

Here’s one patterned after Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

dolya goutman the moon and sixpence painting

Artwork by Dolya Goutman for The Moon and Sixpence.

We glimpse these murals for only a few moments, from the perspective of a doctor summoned to the bedside of the reclusive artist. Originally this scene was shown in Technicolor, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, to reflect the doctor’s awe and bemusement.

After Strickland’s death, his Tahitian mistress (in the movie, his legitimate wife; a detail altered to evade censorship) abides by his instructions and torches the cabin, destroying his final masterpieces. Maugham’s narrator isn’t surprised:

“He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

***

Maugham’s unsettled reaction to Strickland’s paintings – “strangely tantalising” – reminded me of Harold Bloom, in his 1994 bestseller The Western Canon, attempting to single out the quality that elevates a work of literature to canonical status:

The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

Indulge me as I make a fool of myself attempting to argue with Harold Bloom. As I understand it, his primary contribution to the lexicon of literary criticism was “the anxiety of influence”, the theory that great writers produce great art by an “agonistic” process (“agon” being Bloom’s favourite word) of “creatively misreading” their great predecessors:

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

So, in Bloom’s view, it’s not enough for us to pluck up some obscure minority writer of the 19th century and declare her to be canonical. The canon was built up by generations of writers grinding the works of earlier writers through their own imaginations, depositing the results in new layers of sediment which subsequent writers then sifted and rearranged.

The canon isn’t set by professors of literature, let alone by education bureaucrats; all they can do is poke around in the mound with the rest of us and argue about whether this bit of Bellow is two-thirds Dickens and one-third Whitman or the reverse.

In the above metaphor, inclusion in the mound may be decided in large part by chance. That minority writer of the 19th century might have been read more widely, might have influenced slightly younger writers, who might have passed her influence down through the years to us – but she was overlooked; maybe because people of her era were terrible racist snobs, or maybe because they just didn’t think she was very good. If a single critic had descried genius in her work, and swayed others to the same view, the mound might have taken a slightly different shape, and our notions of genius would today be subtly different.

But Bloom doesn’t care for contingency. He prefers to believe that when 17th century audiences elevated Shakespeare over his peers as the preeminent English dramatist, and that when over subsequent centuries the non-English-speaking world was gradually convinced of Shakespeare’s primacy, they were responding to some innate greatness in his writing. He dismisses as “resentment” the argument that another figure could have occupied the central place in the canon:

Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever.

Well, maybe. As I’ve previously admitted, I have a hard time following Shakespeare at his knottiest, and am probably therefore missing a lot. But the parts that I can follow, while written in what even a dope like me can recognize as wondrously inventive English, seem nevertheless to dissipate an awful lot of their wonder in absurd plots, wearisome digressions, and prolonged anticlimaxes.

To repeat, I’m a dope. But even Harold Bloom, no dope, acknowledges the weaknesses in what he considers Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear:

[Edgar] maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself.

If you haven’t read Lear in a while, Gloucester is the credulous old duffer who gets his eyes plucked out through the connivance of his wicked bastard son Edmund. His legitimate son, Edgar, a fugitive hiding in plain view as a crazy homeless guy, takes up with his father when he finds him wandering eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the pathos.

gloucester and edgar by h.c. selous

Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.
Illustrator H.C. Selous, engraver Frederick Wentworth.
From The Plays of William Shakespeare, Cassell & Company, 1864-68.

At the climax of the play Edgar turns up, still incognito, and fatally wounds Edmund. His speech afterward, explaining where he’s been and what became of their father, takes up nineteen lines, concluding:

…some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

So the old man died offstage, and that’s the last we hear of him.

Bloom attempts to justify this unsatisfying development as an instance of Shakespeare’s dramatic subtlety:

Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency.

Look, there may be a slight gap in talent separating me from Shakespeare – but I, too, am an author. I wrote a whole novel. It took me the better part of three years, and it was unpublishable. A year later it occurred to me that I’d failed to flesh out several vital scenes, and I devoted additional weeks to revisions. It ended up just as unpublishable as before.

As Bloom mentions, Shakespeare never bothered to proofread most of his works before publication. There are two distinct texts of King Lear, which later editors mashed together into the play we’re acquainted with. If after writing Lear Shakespeare had had nothing better to do than brood over its shortcomings, he might have been inspired to do as I did: go back in and smooth over the lumpy bits. But he was busy writing Macbeth.

Probably, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, any revisions he made would have been for the better. But suppose we were bonked into the alternate universe where, rather than dashing off thirty-seven plays, [1] heedlessly flicking the finished pages over his shoulder, Shakespeare had crafted a mere dozen, pouring every ounce of his energy and concentration into perfecting each one.

In that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to Lear, or for that matter Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’d have been too busy polishing Romeo and Juliet to an unfathomably high gleam. Audiences hungry for fresh content would have turned to some other, less fastidious author – Ben Jonson, maybe – to supply their wants, with who knows what effects on the shape and composition of the canonical mound.

High-gleam Shakespeare might turn out to be a bit of a bummer, anyway. The absurdities and anticlimaxes that strike me as byproducts of haste may after all have been deliberate choices. Even on a second look, Shakespeare might have left them untouched, and spent his time polishing away all the hijinks and rude humour that modern audiences love.

M.

1. My Collected Works of William Shakespeare, inherited from my father, contains thirty-seven plays. Since my dad’s youth five additional titles have crept into the oeuvre: two lost plays and three previously unrecognized collaborations. This is very annoying. I have elected to ignore the latecomers.

H.C. Selous, illustrator of the Edgar and Gloucester scene above, was previously featured in my post on scary pictures in Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t seem to have mentioned Harold Bloom before, but I have written about that other curmudgeonly defender of the Western cultural heritage, Allan “no relation” Bloom.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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