Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Measureless Nights

Winter mornings, waiting for dawn. (But then with the streetlight right outside the window it's never truly dark.)

John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts: "An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep." They had mariners in mind but they could easily have reversed the simile. A dreamless, utilitarian sleep is like a disenchanted sea. Nothing emerges from it that we don't already know.

Or we dream but remember nothing, our dream-selves wandering off through rooms we will never see. Borges, on the philosophers of Tlön, who held that "While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and in this way every man is two men." He might have added, "or none."

Saturday, January 12, 2019


A scene from Paweł Pawlikowski's Cold War, the follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida from five years ago, which was one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years. I'd rate Cold War one notch below the earlier film, mostly for some choppiness in the latter half and an ending I didn't much care for, but it's still a very consequential movie (and with some of the same cast members, notably Joanna Kulig, who had a cameo in Ida but utterly dominates here). And of course it's in black and white, as all films worth watching should be. (I'm exaggerating, of course, a little.)

Cold War is about various things but the action principally concerns music makers making various kinds of music, and there's an almost programmatic sequence, from a bagpiper at the film's opening who's playing sounds that could be a thousand years old to more recent folk and classical music to jazz and kitsch and Bill Haley and the Comets (heard above). All of the music, as far as I could tell, is diagetic (that is, it's either being performed as part of the action or is listened to by the characters) except for the Goldberg Variations accompanying the credits.

Claire Messud has a thoughtful appraisal in the New York Review and Lisa Liebman at Vulture has a good article on the music in the film.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Out with the Old Year

The committee for 2018 has officially concluded its final report. And good-bye to all that.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Season's Greetings

Art by Tom Gauld. Hat tip to Tororo.

Update: A memorial notice published in the New York Times on December 23, 2018, may contain a reference to Beckett's Endgame. Addressing herself to "My darling Alvin," the writer declares, "I celebrate the years of our connection and all that you taught me about life, on and off the stage. No one with whom I'd rather have shared a trash can."

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Vera Brittain:
When I was a girl at St. Monica's and in Buxton, I imagined that life was individual, one's one affair; that the events happening in the world outside were important enough in their own way, but were personally quite irrelevant. Now, like the rest of my generation, I have had to learn again and again the terrible truth of George Eliot's words about the invasion of personal preoccupations by the larger destinies of mankind, and at last to recognize that no life is really private, or isolated, or self-sufficient. People's lives were entirely their own, perhaps — and more justifiably — when the world seemed enormous, and all its comings and goings were slow and deliberate. But this is so no longer, and never will be again, since man's inventions have eliminated so much of distance and time; for better, for worse, we are now each of us part of the surge and swell of great economic and political movements, and whatever we do, as individuals or as nations, deeply affects everyone else. We were bound up together like this before we realized it; if only the comfortable prosperity of the Victorian age hadn't lulled us into a false conviction of individual security and made us believe that what was going on outside our homes didn't matter to us, the Great War might never have happened.
Testament of Youth (1933)

Sunday, December 02, 2018


For a couple of years when I was a kid my father and I used to traipse through the woods on what had once been farmland, looking for old foundations that might indicate a household dump somewhere not far off, where, if we were lucky and dug carefully with a trowel or a shovel, we might find patent medicine bottles in amber or cobalt blue, or maybe even a handblown flask whose glass would be flecked with bubbles of nineteenth-century air. If we were on water supply property we'd bring our fishing rods for cover — angling was permitted, trespassing was not — but as far as I remember no one ever called us on it, and encounters with anyone else in those woods would have been few and far between. Now and then we'd find a ruined building that was still standing, surrounded by vegetation, its insulation mixed with mouse nests and its shingles decaying, but those were too new to bother with, offering nothing but beer cans and waterlogged magazines.

My father was a surveyor by profession, and the company that employed him secured a large contract for laying out lots on a tract of a thousand acres or so that had been purchased for development. Most of it was second growth woodland, hilly and criss-crossed with stone walls, but there was also a low area that still served to grow corn up until the time the developers started work. There was an abandoned house still standing on the property, and under the pretext of reconnoitering for purposes of the survey we went one day to take a look around. I don't remember much about it now except that the building had at least three stories and must have been a comfortable farmhouse a few decades before.

We found a way in and walked the rooms. How many years they'd been unoccupied is hard to say; there was some story about an elderly widow living in a nursing home who had finally died. Certainly there was nothing useful still in the house; whatever furnishings had any value had long been sold or taken away by relatives or just looted, and the only thing I remember with certainty is that there was a cupboard that was still — bizarrely — neatly stocked with glass jars of vichychoisse or borscht. As we were exploring we heard footsteps on the wooden floor and a kind of desperate wail, and after a few seconds a very large and frightened Great Dane appeared. It couldn't have been left behind by the former owner — it had been too long — and no doubt it had found a way in as we had, and maybe couldn't find its way out. My father shooed it away and it disappeared deeper into the house.

We left empty-handed. The house was torn down not long after. There's no trace of it now.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Notes for a CommonPlace Book (23)

Charles Morgan:
In each instant of their lives men die to that instant. It is not time that passes away from them, but they who recede from the constancy, from the immutability of time, so that when afterwards they look back upon themselves it is not themselves they see, not even—as it is customary to say—themselves as they formerly were, but strange ghosts made in their image, with whom they have no communication.
From The Fountain, quoted by Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth