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Recovering A Sense Of Awe

Snowflake

They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we ever recover from the wonder of it? — Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

Beautiful Book Pick: Sarah’s Key

Every once in awhile, some one stumbles upon something that is a revelation to her, something that forces her to rethink a singular event. That event can no longer be viewed as just happening to a large group of anonymous people. Now it is seen as having happened to one person, a person with a name, a heart, feelings and a life who was changed forever by that singular event. Thus, it can be said that some of the best historical fiction focuses on unexplored, uncomfortable, or even secret events that really happened. Examining history through the lens of little explored — or selectively forgotten  — events provides an opportunity to rethink what we already know, and ponder more deeply what still lies hidden from our view.

In her novel Sarah’s Key, Tatiana De Rosnay confronts the difficulties involved in bringing these historical secrets to light. She turns the spotlight on a significant but little explored event that many in France, and the world, would likely prefer to forget: the  cooperation of the French police with Nazi demands for the deportation of French Jews during WWII that resulted in what has come to be called the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup.  It’s a can’t-put-it-down read that forces us to examine the everyday injustices that we participate in, either by direct cooperation or simply by not speaking or acting out against them.

The plot turns on Julia Jarmond, a 40-ish American journalist living in Paris, assigned to cover the commemorative anniversary of the Roundup for an American Paris weekly. In the beginning of the novel, short chapters alternate deftly between the past — specifically, July 1942, following one anonymous family, and more particularly the daughter of that family, through the Vel’ d’Hiv — and the present, in which we become acquainted with Julia and the unusual circumstances that end up making her the perfect, the only, person who could truly write this story. Somewhere near the middle of the novel, the parallel lines of the lives of these two women converge in an intense conflagration.

Deportation of Jews from France/ Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The anonymity of the Jewish family who are victims of the roundup underscores the intensely essential, but often forgotten fact, that history happens to individual human beings. The acts of individuals or collective groups have astonishing and often irreparable and horrific consequences in the lives of everyday people. This is a reality glossed over by the sweeping, impersonal, and biased narratives of history books throughout the world. Every character tellingly has a name in the 1942 portions of the novel, except the “girl” and her family. “The girl” is at once no one to those who wish to exterminate her, but is in every sense SOME ONE to those who love her. This nameless “girl” lived through an atrocity no one wants to think about or remember. She lives, breathes, feels, and believes and she has a story to tell, a promise to keep, and a difference to make. 

From the very beginning, Julia encounters many obstacles to completing her assignment — her husband, Bernard, and his family refuse to condone her research as worthwhile and make every effort to discourage her completely from proceeding. In addition, much historical evidence of the Roundup has been conveniently wiped away: the buildings in the area of the Velodrome and the Velodrome itself have all been razed, articles and pictures are hard to come by except through one Jewish agency who still seeks to find and name all those missing in the Holocaust, and the majority of witnesses are deceased. No one, it seems, thinks the Vel’ d’Hiv worth remembering or worth writing about. On top of everything, Julia struggles with a disintegrating marriage and the feeling that she is fading, disconnected from who and what she thought she’d become. The assignment, despite its difficulties, renews her sense of purpose and her joy in her vocation while presenting her with the challenge of puzzling out and asserting an individual identity from amidst a group that would seek to annihilate it.

There are two holocausts personified in the novel. The Jewish holocaust is juxtaposed against another holocaust, no less morally problematic and reprehensible. Julia is forced to choose either to confront or to participate in this modern-day atrocity.  The juxtaposition of moral choices and the individual’s participation in murder through lack of defiance or failure to speak weighs the holocaust of one generation against that of another with very disturbing parallels, which Julia fails to see (at least early on). While she is confused and repulsed by those who stood by and failed to do anything to save those who were rounded up and deported during the Vel’ d’Hiv, she herself fails to recognize the moral turpitude of her own situation until it is nearly too late. This is a theme that pervades the novel from beginning to end: It is easier to go with the flow, to do nothing that will cause commotion, to simply give in and cooperate. It is easier to ignore, to forget……. The saying that history repeats itself is never more true than in this fact: we often fail to take the lessons from history and apply it to ourselves, to our own society or personal situations; hence, what seems innocuous and gradually asserts itself as the moral norm is really the germ of some past nefarious deed reincarnating itself under another form, with the same devastating effects.

If there is any fault with the book it might be that the ending is a little too tidy or predictable, and there are places in the last quarter of the book where the writing slips into sentimentality or a reliance on easy plot devices. But these minor technicalities are forgiveable and do not take anything away from the main action of the novel — Julia’s growth and catharsis through this intimate and personal encounter with individuals who were previously “dead” in their anonymity — an anonymity forced upon them because their experience was too horrible to look upon or contemplate, because there was no one who could or would help them live with what had happened to them —  and whom she fearlessly and purposely brings back to life through uncovering and giving voice to their secrets, secrets that belong not only to them, but to all of humanity. In doing so, Julia uncovers and admits her own secrets, and looks deeply in to the places where her own life is most at risk, bringing everything in to the light and changing herself and those who know her profoundly.

Beauty Take-Away: This novel really brings the inherent dignity of the human being into sharp focus against others who have total disregard for this dignity. One view is beautiful and divine; the other is dark and devolves into the utter blackness of despair. It is not an easy novel to read — there are times when it is excruciatingly painful to go on to the next sentence. But the imminitable dignity, beauty, and gift of human life is present on every page. Ultimately it is a novel of hope and faith and a belief in God. De Rosnay weaves a story of life out of the ruins of the culture of death. This is a rare occurrence in mainstream fiction today and it is what makes Sarah’s Key so worth reading.

About the film: Read the book first. As in all cases, the book is better. The film is not unsuccessful, but it fails to reach the depth of insight the book accomplishes and glosses over some of the major conflicts that weigh so heavily in the development of Julia’s character in the novel.

Beauty Break: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

I am fascinated by the process of art: how a fragment of a dream in the mind of an artist is conceived and brought to eventual fruition. So often, I think, we encounter great masterworks, whether they be paintings, musical pieces, or novels, and perhaps fail to take into account everything that had to happen for this work to come into being. It is a rare privilege to peek into the inner workings of the mind or eye of the artist, to see his hand at work in the process of creating beauty.

The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino is offering just such a rare peek into the work of creating waking dreams of beauty. The exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings From the Huntington’s Collection” is on view through September 26 and is worth a beauty break if you are in the area. Incidentally, if you are unfamiliar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their distinctive contribution to 19th century arts and letters, Stephanie Pina provides a brief but excellent overview, along with some helpful links, on her lovely website dedicated to all things Pre-Raphaelite.

One of the primary goals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), which included the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, was to renew British art and literature, in particular through the faithful observance of nature. Many people think their influence was limited to the United Kingdom; this exhbit dispels that idea, showing clearly how the theories, techniques, and philosophy of the PRB moved across the pond and found great sympathy among a group of American artists, architects, and geologists who formed their own group — The Society for the Advancement of Truth (SAT) — modeled after the PRB. 

Though tiny — only 37 drawings — the exhibit was a revelation. There were careful studies of larger, more well-known works by the British artists which revealed the detailed and painstaking processes involved in making the dreams in their minds come to life. Most of the American artists represented focused on landscape painting, everything from the domes of Yosemite in the Sierras, to the Hudson River Valley, and beyond to Florence. There were  also two small detailed landscape studies by Walter Crane. Several American Pre-Raphaelites in fact had a very close relationship with the British critic John Ruskin, an artist in his own right, who was credited with spreading the philosophy of Pre-Raphaelitism through his many writings and patronage. Two of these American Pre-Raphaelites, Henry Roderick Newman and Esther Frances (Francesca) Alexander, were represented in the exhbit. Ruskin’s own drawing of the crumbling castle walls of Kenilworth was on view as well.

Highlights included “Andromeda,” by Edward Burne-Jones as part of a study for his larger The Rock of Doom in his Perseus Cycle.  A head study of a woman by Rossetti and another series of studies by Frederick Sandys were significant. There were four gorgeous miniature studies for The Lady of Shallot, by William Holman Hunt. These in particular give a sense of how the artist tries to conceive of the image from different viewpoints. And many times, as in this case, the end result looks nothing like the original conceptualization. Finally, in juxtaposition, one of the few original existing copes of the first volume of the PRB’s journal The Germ: Thoughts Toward Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art displayed next to its American sister SAT publication The New Path: A Monthly Art Journal.

It was hard to choose any one piece as a favorite, but I suppose there were three that absolutely stood out for me. Charles Allston Collins “Beati Mundo Corde” was almost photographic in its precision of the young nun’s facial features.

“Isabella Boccaccio,” by John Riley Wilmer alludes to the 14th century Italian poet Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. The piece might also be a reference to John Keats’ poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” which is itself derived from The Decameron.  Incidentally, Holman Hunt painted his own Isabella. I tend to like the layered quality of the narrative paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites — every picture tells a thousand stories and there are so many details to linger over.

Finally, this “Head of a Girl,” a study in gold tip on prepared paper by John Southall is simply breathtaking. She is truly a glimpse of the ideal of Pre-Raphaelite beauty in every way.

On reflection, this small but important exhibit does what it set out to do and reflects the fulfillment of the Pre-Raphaelite vision in creative communities on both sides of the Atlantic in their effort to “see everything, small and large, with almost the same clearness.”

 

“Know once and for all, that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species as a poet in song….”  John Ruskin, Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851

Beauty Break Bonus: One gallery in the Huntington’s British Art Museum holds original furnishings, textiles, and ceramic tile pieces by William Morris and Co. Be sure to sneak a peek down the staircase at the end of the gallery for a floor to ceiling Morris stained glass, with art work by Edward Burne-Jones. I was unable to photograph this, but here is a link to a lovely photo taken by someone else. Gorgeous……..

 

Beauty and Grace on the Big Screen

Last night, our good friends invited us to accompany them to Los Angeles to attend a rare screening of Warner Brothers 1935 classic Captain Blood at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater. The event was hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group which seeks to preserve LA’s cultural and architectural heritage, as part of their Last Remaining Seats series which is dedicated to screening the classic films of Hollywood in Los Angeles’ remaining classic movie houses. John and I both love classic films and this has long been one of my favorites, though it was a first-time viewing for John. There’s really nothing like seeing a classic film on the big screen. What a treat! It was a great beauty break, both on-screen and off.

 About the theater…….Sid Grauman (yes, that Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese fame)apparently opened the theater in 1918, seeking to diversify after the San Franciso earthquake damaged some of his property in the Bay area. It is reported he spent $1,000,000 to build the theater, hence the name. (This is an interesting contrast in that the production costs for Captain Blood were in the  $700,000 range, which was a huge amount of money to spend on a film for that time, especially during the Depression era. We’re talking blockbuster expenditure here.) And the money shows. Elaborately carved circular wood ceilings easily soaring beyond 50 feet above the orchestra seats, a deep, steep balcony high above the proscenium stage with a magnificent view of the screen, gilded wood trim on simply everything, red back lighting behind dark wood, sumptuous velvet draperies, and Gothic wood alcoves which held the organ pipes for the old Wurlitzer.  This photo to the left is the view from our seats. Just going to see a show in such a theater was an occasion. It was easy to imagine what it had been like in its glory days. I think the quality of the theaters in the golden age of Hollywood really reflected the idea that film is an “art” worthy of being experienced in elegant, beautiful surroundings. The theater then necessarily reflected  respect and esteem for the art of filmmaking and for those who participated in it.  I would argue things are quite a bit different now — I cannot remember the last time I entered a modern movie theater and gasped in awe at its beauty. If the film is artfully done, the movie house should serve as the setting which shows it off at its most brilliant. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater serves as just such a setting for Hollywood’s gems.

This isn’t to suggest that every theater achieved such a level of refinement, or that every film old Hollywood put out could even be considered art. Quite simply, there was an effort and an emphasis in those days that has been lost, and both the Million Dollar Theater, as a showcase setting,and Captain Blood, as a timely tale of virtue and chivalry in the face of trials,  illustrate this effectively.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland cast as the main characters, Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop, respectively. The plot, briefly: British physician and gentleman Peter Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal after being wrongfully accused of treason in a plot to overthrow the evil King James. He and his companions endure much cruelty and torture before Peter is able to use his skills as a doctor to help them all escape. They cleverly steal a pirate ship, thereafter vowing to become pirates all, as they have no home or country to which they can return. And so begins Blood’s notorious, albeit chivalrous, career of piracy. Still, we see that what meant the most to him as a physician — the vow he had taken to “do no harm”  — seems to have been buried in his greater desire for revenge. He breaks this vow by his life of piracy. Thus, when Peter again encounters Arabella on board his own ship, after he has “bought” her back from the lecherous Lavasseur (brilliantly played by Basil Rathbone) she spurns him. In Peter’s mind, he has reclaimed his manhood and his freedom, symbolized by all of the pillaged treasure he encyclopedically parades before her; however, to Arabella, he has sold out, merely escaping from one form of slavery into another, and she’ll have none of it. She reminds him of who and what he used to be, of the dignity he possessed as a man and a physician, and suddenly Peter sees that his willing enslavement to revenge has not only led him to break his professional and chivalric vows, but has lost him the thing he wanted most– Arabella’s love.  Of course, the story doesn’t end there — but you’ll just have to see the movie to find out what does happen! Truly, Arabella stands as a reminder for all that is noble and good and she reminds Peter of the unspoken code of chivalry which he had always held himself to. She raises his heart and mind to something higher than his baser instincts. These are timeless, beautiful, and necessary themes that are sadly missing in the majority of today’s films.

Amazingly, Olivia de Havilland was only 19 years old when she made this film. She and Errol would go on to make eight more films together, all of which are wonderful as they had quite a chemistry.  Right from the first, she captivates the viewer and demonstrates her grace and beauty on-screen. She brought this grace and beauty to whatever character she portrayed in such a natural way that she fully commanded the attention of the audience with her presence. It seems to me a case of the person infusing the character, and not vice-versa. For my part, I can’t think of any tween or twenty-something actress today that has such presence, such command of an audience, who captures the definition of what it means to be a lady in the classical sense of the word. Of course, older actresses come to mind, but who now, at 19, possesses this trait? Its more than being just a pretty face. Any beautiful woman can draw attention simply by her beauty alone; but it’s not every beautiful woman who is  also able to inspire a man to strive for what is noble and good and virtuous. Because Olivia de Havilland was a lady, it was easy to believe her character’s challenge to Peter —  to reclaim his life and live it for the higher purpose he was called to rather than the degradation and false freedom he had chosen to sink to. If more actresses today had that spark of beauty and grace within themselves, they’d be better role models for our girls, and inspire more men to lives of noble virtue.

If you’re in LA or environs, make plans to stop at the Million Dollar Theater for a nostalgic beauty break — you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve got young boys or girls — or are young at heart yourself — make some time to watch Captain Blood — you’ll experience beautiful filmmaking, a compelling story, and classical themes of beauty and grace that are priceless.

Thanks so much, Bob and Kris, for a spectacularly beautiful evening!

A Total Loss?

When I was a little girl, I suppose I enjoyed school. I have a lot of memories and none of them are particularly horrible, though there are some I’d rather forget. I don’t remember getting in trouble too often — mostly I was disciplined for being, as one teacher I dearly loved put it, “too loquacious,” which you can read as “talkative.”

Nothing was ever too terribly difficult — except for math, which was maddening and frightened me generally because I am very slow about some things and often need time to think and so could not keep up with the pace of learning new concepts. I liked reading ever so much more, because I had time to think and process. And if I didn’t quite get something right off, well, then I could go back and read it again,. And I could ponder things while I read and have the leisure to make connections and think about them and see things along a sort of continuum, I suppose. This was the same whether I was reading for history, or science, or just a book of literature. And then, unlike math where there was ever only one right answer, words could mean different things just by the way they were used or punctuated in a sentence, and a single word could evoke an entire picture or even a story in one’s mind that, for me, numbers and their sentence-like equations simply failed to do. I think after all I probably enjoyed school because it was so very word-based. I love words and language and was an accomplished speller and writer all through my elementary and high school years. It’s probably no surprise then that I became an English and writing teacher.

One thing I remember loving about school is the Read-a-thon. These were randomly infrequent occurrences during the glory days of the RIF literacy movement where we were given practically the entire day to read a book of our choice! Now, was it the entire day, or just a portion of it? Who knows! To any child under the age of 18, the school day in its entirety seems interminable and time is an illusion. For all I know, we were only given an hour after lunch — but in my mind, I remember being given hours to just sit quietly and read, in school! No tests, no math worksheets, so spelling book pages……just the bliss of getting lost in whatever book I happened to be in love with at the moment. I used to anticipate these days with great eagerness. Our teacher reminded us repeatedly beforehand not to forget to bring our books for the read-a-thon. I seem to remember we had to run the book by her first — it had to be a real book, not a magazine or a comic book, but something with a story that would demand our sustained attention over a period of time. Beyond that, whatever we chose was up to us. I remember being excited and thrilled. We were in school and we were reading all day and it was OK with the teacher. We were free. Amazing…..

Which brings me to today.

Skippy and I were both nursing a serious fatigue hang-over after an incredibly busy and active weekend. On top of that, I had to work this morning. Typically on days when I work, Skippy gets a schedule with all of the school work he can do independently and we both just work quietly on our own. Once I’m finished with my project, then he and I will spend the afternoon doing the things I need to “teach” him. But today didn’t quite work out like that. Both of us were wrangling with brain fog and drowsiness. He made a valiant attempt at his list, but then quickly moved to the two items that demanded the least amount of “effort” — his reading assignments. Before you knew it, we were in full read-a-thon mode. He was throughly engrossed in his books and just didn’t want to stop reading. When his timer went off after the first assignment (he reads each book 10-15 minutes a day), he came to me and said “My St. Thomas book is getting really good. I don’t want to stop reading. I wish I could have more time.” I thought for a minute and wondered, “Well, why not? Yes, he does have more work to do, but he’s really engaged…..what to do?” The teacher in me has two voices: the one who feels like I have a Big Brother Principal-Administrator constantly looking over my shoulder was running through the list and thinking how behind we’d be if I gave him more time; the other was thrilled that he had found such “friends” in his books and wanted nothing other to encourage that interest and give him the time he was asking for.

I gave him the time……

By the time we dropped off my project and came home for lunch, he was more than half-way through the novel he had started for his literature reading and was sharing plot points and character descriptions excitedly with me while we drove in the car. I told him he could have a “reading day” if he finished his spelling, grammar, and piano after lunch. I was prepared to let the rest of his “core subjects” go for the day if he would be reading.

So was the day a total loss? Viewed through the eyes of the current assessment-driven education culture, my son didn’t “produce” a single thing today, didn’t offer up a quantitative test score that could be used to measure him against other kids in the district or the state, didn’t write anything that could be used to assess his understanding of any given time period in history or any particular character in said period. And as a teacher, I well know those things are important — but there is a time and a place for them, and today was neither the time nor the place for that kind of work.

Today while reading my son learned: what it means to be a virtuous man who stands up for what he believes in, even when someone in power tries to make him do otherwise; the importance of faith and family in one’s life; what it means to listen carefully in order to discern God’s will for each person; and what it costs to stand up for what you believe in. In addition, he learned a lot about pre-Reformation England, Parliament, and King Henry VIII — all this from reading a historical novel about St. Thomas More. Today while reading, my son also learned: about the behaviors and traits of various types of owls; that sometimes even the closest members of one’s own family don’t tell the truth; that sometimes one has to leave everything one knows and loves to find out that truth; that history can be “changed” when facts are misrepresented or are missing entirely and that these errors have an impact on succeeding generations; that each individual is given a gift and something that makes them uniquely themselves and that they have a choice not only as to how to use that gift but whether to use it at all — all this from reading book 7 in the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series.  Today while reading my son also learned new vocabulary, the importance of character, pacing and organization within a story, and how to devote sustained, concentrated attention to the task at hand. He challenged his memory and practiced storytelling, paraphrasing, and inference by narrating back to me the events of the books he was reading (an often better tool for assessment than the standard uninspired book report kids are required to churn out). And let’s not forget the connections he has made between both of these books and the medieval period in British history that we are studying — because of events in the St. Thomas book the occur between the king and Parliament, he better understands the way early England was governed; and because of the way the owl communities are formed in Ga’Hoole, he has a better understanding of the early craftsmen’s guilds in Europe. Not bad for a day that didn’t include the regular school “formula.”

In these fast-paced, technologically frenzied days, there is something to be said for “learning” how to slow down, pay attention, and get lost in whatever book you happen to love at the moment.