Sunday, March 29, 2020

St. George and the Witches (1938).

Nobody knows him and he's a total weirdo.  That sums up the whole plight and nature of J.W. Dunne's entire reputation.  He exists on the fringes of pop-culture as the guy who once theorized about something to do with dreams and time travel.  Other than that he's not what's trending, so who cares?  Then again, it is always possible to point out that its the basic nature of trends to be fleeting and momentary.  You could almost say its their basic nature to cancel themselves out.  On the other hand, the weirdo has managed to hang around since the 1920s.  What does that say about staying power?  If nothing else, it means there's an aura of fascination surrounding Dunne that he's never quite been able to shake off.

The main reason for this has to do with his 1927 book, An Experiment with Time.  He used it to expound a theory about the nature of chronological progression and its relation to dreams.  His basic idea was that sometimes dreams can help us to realize that time is not something like a solid, immovable force.  Instead, its more like a spiral enfolding on itself.  If that last sentence made little to zero sense, then take a number and get in line.  Guys like Dunne always have that effect on ordinary people.  It's like a natural necessity given the way modern life is lived.  The minute an anomaly like Dunne's book shows up, the inescapable result is that its like there's really nowhere for it to go.  In works of fiction, there is usually a reason given for why this should be.  The usual trope explanation is that the irruption of the unnatural into the natural tends to upset things too much for the health of society, or something like that.

Either way, in real life terms, An Experiment with Time remains Dunne's main claim to fame.  It's very nature consigns it to sort of the fringe level of publication.  Its easy to imagine an artist like Alan Moore having a copy of it lying around somewhere in his bookshelf.  If this were a work of fiction or more like a folktale, then the typical plot trajectory for this sort of narrative would have Dunne simply leave his text, and then vanish off the map as mysteriously as he came.  It's telling of the difference between myth and real life that Dunne's exploits were a bit more multi-faceted than the neatness of any fictional narrative.  After he finished his Time book, he penned several related volumes in which he tried to expand on his meaning for popular audiences. 

There even seems to have been a brief span of time when his ideas gained a certain kind of popularity in literary circles.  Guys like W.B. Yeats showed an occasional interest in Dunne's ideas.  And I'm convinced his concepts lie behind a lot of the work of J.B. Priestly.  I suppose that's not too shabby for an unassuming aircraft engineer with strange dreams.  However the record shows that Dunne was capable of finding ways to make things odd, and therefore just a bit more interesting.  He didn't just pen off-kilter non-fiction works on theoretical physics.  He also took the time to publish books meant to entertain children.  Dunne has at least two titles to his name in this particular genre field.  The first was a tome with the curious name of The Jumping Lions of Borneo.  The second is the book under discussion today, An Experiment with St. George, or as it is known under its American publication, St. George and the Witches.

I ran across the whole thing almost by accident.  I think it was the result of just googling the guy out of sheer curiosity, and there it was, listed among his bibliography.  A bit more searching revealed that somehow the St. George text has managed to find a digital re-release as of this writing.  I don't how that's possible, considering its a book that has been lost to obscurity for all intents and purposes.  In a way, it forms the perfect sense of contradictory logic of Dunne's career.  It's a book that has vanished through the cracks, and has been lost to memory.  So here it is, for a new generation to discover. If its a contradiction, then somehow that never got in the way of the book's fortunes.  Se la Vie, I suppose.  Either that or its just further proof I was born and raised in one great, big, surrealist painting.  What I do know for certain is that I felt I had to go the extra mile and track down an actual physical copy of Dunne's book.  Somehow there was one single edition left intact in all of Britain, and now its stored away in my library (current location, Ancient Babylonia (or was it Alexandria?  I keep getting those places mixed up).  The upshot is that I had to fork over a great wad of cash to get my hands on it.  So it was delivered.  I read it.  The result is as follows.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Insomiac Dreams: Experimenting with Time by Vladimir Nabokov (2018).

In his 1989 graphic novel From Hell, Alan Moore posed a serious, yet out of the ordinary question to the reader.  “What is the fourth dimension”?  It was and remains an out-of-left-field topic to bring up for discussion in the midst of a narrative that was already in danger of careening away from all the comforts of the norm.  From there, Moore takes the reader on a kind of guided, mini-history tour into a topic brought up by Charles Howard Hinton in a book whose title is the very question that we’re being asked.  What is the Fourth Dimension?  The topic itself is unfamiliar to the great majority of people.  Therefore it has no choice in the matter, except to come off as strange at best, or else just sound like a bunch of nonsense.  You can't expect familiarity where new acquaintances are concerned.  Just as you can't expect old minds in young heads.

This lack of a familiarity was never enough to deter a writer like Moore from taking a deep dive into the subject with all the passion of a true enthusiast.  Nor is the topic limited solely to his work on Jack the Ripper.  Hinton’s Fourth Dimension, the area of Time, has made numerous appearances in others works by the author.  According to John Semley, from an article published in Maclean’s:

“It is, perhaps, a heady idea: that time itself constitutes its own dimension, its passage perceptible to humans while its grander design remains hidden out of view. And yet Alan Moore is the perhaps the most conspicuously heady of comics authors, equal parts deconstructionist, postmodernist, and bug-eyed mystic oddball. The view that history possesses a discrete but invisible “architecture” (as it’s described in Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper comic From Hell) crops up repeatedly throughout his work, as it does in his new non-graphic novel Jerusalem”.

Semley is also quick to point out a detail that is “curiouser and curiouser”.  The exploration of the nature, dimensions, and possible functions of time has not been limited in history to just guys like Moore, or even to authors of fiction.  According to Semley, an entire series of diverse names ranging from physicists like Einstein to authors like Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon have made up just a small handful on the list of notables who've tried to grapple with the subject.  The purpose of this essay is to take a closer look at two other men who tried to grapple with time’s other kingdom.  One was a physicist like Einstein, the other was often mistaken for a pervert.  

I don't blame those who turn away in disgust.  I also can't pin a fault on anyone with no other choice than to ask who the hell am I even talking about?  Vladimir Nabokov might exist today as a name on the tip of the tongue.  He's supposed to be famous, or something, but for what?  A few of the more bookish types might ask if he wasn't that old perv who wrote a book about the same?  The text they're thinking of is called Lolita.  It was known as a "successful scandal" in its day, and even a synopsis of its subject matter is enough to turn away the most dedicated of bookworms.  I know that's true, I still don't care to go near it.  The strangest part is that the author of a book like that seemed to have nothing in common with its contents.

Vladimir Nabokov first saw the light of day in April, 1899, on the turn of a new century in St. Petersburg.  He was born into an affluent household, complete with servants, a nanny, a quaint little country estate, and a lawyer/statesman for a father.  Nabokov's own words describe his early years as a time out of a fairy tale.  At least that is the constant, over-arching impression given off by his prose.  He was also something of a precocious lad, often given to pause and examine various persons, places, and things that caught his interest.  This kind of behavior makes sense from at least one angle.  If you're going to be a writer for a living, it helps to know how to gather material for your work based on observation, and Nabokov was a life-long stickler for reading the details.

The early interest in literature was combined with a fascination for the natural world.  He became a devoted butterfly collector, and his hobby soon became a part-time professional occupation as the writer could add recognition as a lepidopterist to his list of achievements.  The most interesting aspect that his scientific explorations held for his literary endeavors, however, is what it led Nabokov to conclude about the nature of reality.  It's not too much of a stretch to claim that the author's definitions of the real world were peculiar, to say the least.  A good example is provided from the following passage of his autobiography, Speak Memory, where he tries to grant the reader a suggestion of the very nature of time itself: "In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free.  I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel's triadic series (so popular in old Russia) expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time.  Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series (265)".   

The closest author most of us could even begin to compare any of that to would, of course, be the tripped out panels of the graphic novels of Alan Moore.  I don't believe it is correct to say Nabokov is the literary equivalent of Moore.  There are too many stylistic and narrative differences for that.  A better way of thinking about it is to say that Moore and Nabokov may possibly be working in the same business, if not on the same office floor.  Either way, it is this mixture of the mundane interlaced with just a hint of the phantasmagorical that marks out Nabokov's approach to all his material, even if the events described are as prosaic as a couple moving to a new residence.

This fairy tale quality to VN's writing has not been lost on other critics.  Roger Ebert was one fan who picked up on this element.  "An odd thought occurred to me a few hours after I saw writer/director Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel for the first time. It was that Anderson would be the ideal director for a film of Lolita, or a mini-series of Ada. Now I know that Lolita has been filmed, twice, but the fundamental problem with each version has nothing to do with ability to depict or handle risky content but with a fundamental misapprehension that Nabokov's famous novel took place in the "real world." For all the authentic horror and tragedy of its story, it does not. "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art," Humbert Humbert, the book's monstrous protagonist/narrator, writes at the end of "Lolita." Nabokov created Humbert so Humbert might create his own world (with a combination of detail both geographically verifiable and stealthily fanciful), a refuge from his own wrongdoing (web)".

Likewise, Lila Azam Zanganeh notes the presence of this same folkloric element in her apt-titled study, The Enchanter.  "But I had expected to find enchanters and demons in Nabokov.  Shuddering magic.  The stuff of fairy-tales, "noble, iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings (xviii)".  Such is the apparent response Nabokov is able to leave with those readers who are able enough to find the garden path that leads them into being one of his fans.  My own way in was a lot more modest.  Though perhaps there is a sense in which it can be described as "somewhat out there".  I know it was off the beaten track.  I'm not sure if I took a dive right into the deep end, though for certain I've wound up in the kind of place where all the normal rules of life take an odd turn.

One of the first VN related books I picked up was a piece entitled Insomniac Dreams by Gennady Barabtarlo.  It wasn't a novel, and I'm not sure why they chose to stack it in the fiction section.  Either way, what I discovered on opening the pages was a curious form of journal.  The publication of the private diaries of famous writers is a common literary practice that I think goes as far back as the 1800s.  The earliest such publication I can recall belonged to an old timer name Samuel Pepys, and his journal dated from the 18th century.  However, what was between the covers of the book I picked up was less a standard record of a writer’s insights into life and the work of his own hands.  It was more like a very weird science experiment.

It’s when I try to describe the nature of Nabokov’s experiment that things get difficult.  Part of the reason is because of how strange it sounds, whether you try and say it out loud, or even just write it down.  In order to talk about the experiment, I have to discuss not one, but two authors.  In addition to Nabokov, this experiment concerns a man he never met, and who was long gone by the time it was attempted by the author of Lolita.  The other man’s name was John William Dunne.  He wrote a book quite a while back that acted as something of an inspiration for Nabokov.  He took Dunne’s book to heart and decided to try it out for himself.  
The diary that made up that experiment is the subject of Barabtarlo’s new book about the whole affair.  It's the secrets hidden in this private diary that makes up the main content for the book of Dreams under discussion here today.  I had no clue what to expect, and the results are hard to quantify.  The good news is I'm just here to give a fail or passing grade.  With any luck, however, there may still be a few morsels for thought along the way.     

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

There's a certain kind of perk that comes from being a pop-culture junkie.  For one thing, you're blessed with the kind of curiosity that won't shut up unless you go exploring down forgotten nooks, crannies, and side alleys that have been overlooked by time in search of rare and exotic curios and artifacts.  The way it starts is you here a rumor about some old film that starred a major Hollywood talent.  The catch is no one seems to now what it's about because its so far off the map that it's seldom seen or talked about.  That's just the kind of setup that certain types of geek are willing to go out of their way to discover.  Sometimes the search is a long and arduous, with little to show for it except a trail of breadcrumbs leading nowhere.  Other times it's as simple as one click order and you've got the item in your collection.  In my case, I was lucky enough to land the second option.  And I owe it all to what I read in a book.

One of the goods things to be said about Nick De Semlyan's Wild and Crazy Guys is that on occasion the author is willing to throw his readers a bone.  This study of the Comedy Movement of the late 70s and 80s is often a dry and matter-of-fact affair, for the most part.  Yet here and there Semlyen would mention hints and clues about a number films and flicks that have been shoved into the background by the growing popularity of their more famous contemporaries.  Everyone knows about Ghostbusters.  Who ever heard of a film called Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid?  The answer seems to be: not much.  It looks like Semlyen is one of the lucky few who've seen the film and are able to shed at least some light on it.

In his book Semlyen notes that the film is all of a piece with the kind of humor Steve Martin was known for.  "More so than any of his contemporaries, Martin was a one-man variety show.  He juggled, made balloon animals, did card tricks, performed magic.  But he did all of it with a thick dollop of irony.  Adopting a the persona of a slick, preening show-biz guy, he honed a high-voltage club act that mesmerized crowds...What he meticulously crafted throughout the '70s was a postmodern style that his friend Rick Moranis later labeled "anti-comedy."  He shunned punch lines, opting instead to address audiences with with surreal lines such as "Does anyone know where I can get a pair of cat hand-cuffs?" of "Hello, I'm Steve Martin and I'll be out here in a minute."  As he explained to a reporter, "Another comedian will do anything to get a laugh.  But in my act I think it's abstracted back to the point where the idea of someone doing anything for a laugh is funny, not the action.  That's the way I like it (17-18)".

It's a very odd sounding concept, and I think it might be a bit difficult to grasp in an age when audiences prefer their humor more or less straight-up, no matter how surreal the circumstances.  A good way to explain it is that it might be something of an inheritance from guys like Monty Python.  Their style of humor was always aiming for the farthest left field effect they could manage.  They often used surrealism to carry this technique across.  It was a gamble that turned out to be a good one, as audiences then and now are able to quote whole routines and sequences from the troupe's work.  I think that Martin is sort of a more quiet and low-key form of that same style of humor.  It's just been slightly Americanized while style maintaining that same kind of style that is anarchic, detached, and self-questioning by turns.  It's a style of humor that's meant to reward audiences for being intelligent about fart jokes.
It's also the main driving engine for some of Martin's early film experiments.  I call them experiments because there's just no other word for what he was able to accomplish during the early 80s.  Those seem to have been his peak years.  It was during that time span that audiences were treated to a Martin that was willing to break as many rules in the service of getting a laugh, and not caring about the consequences.  He's settled down since then, and is willing to play it all straight.  This is the Steve most audiences have come to embrace and enjoy.  However this has led to the neglect of the other side of the comedian's work.  I'd like to see if it can be brought back into the spotlight.  This examination of the comic's 1982 Noir parody, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, might be at least a step in that direction.