Revolution and “Revolutions”

Yesterday April 27th was the 377th anniversary of King Charles I’s flight from Oxford to take refuge with the Scottish Army in the North during the English Civil War. The Protestant New Model Army was circling in on him, so he cut his hair and beard so that he wouldn’t look like a Van Dyck portrait, disguised himself as a servant, and slipped out the back, jack.

This date stuck in my mind because one of the mind-expanding pleasures of passing the time commuting by car these past four years has been has been listening to podcasts – and my favorite one of those by far has been Mike Duncan’s Revolutions.

Reading history comes much easier to me than reading fiction, and Duncan is an exemplar of a type of history lecturer: thorough, even-paced, and eminently fair. His flatness makes you lean toward your speaker whenever his inflections becomes the slightest bit…inflected, and he’s scrupulous about the difference between widely-accepted facts and the interpretations he favors.

His narratives also include a steady drip of irony, most of it regarding the bumbling of leadership. One of the great themes of Revolutions, in Mike Duncan’s telling, is common to all revolutions, from the English, to the American and French, Haitian and Russian, and that’s the failure of leadership, both civilian and military. I learned history, like most people my age, under the long shadow of Marx. I was taught to always look for the materialist essence of events: who was economically ascendant or in the decline, and how did that express itself in the culture and politics on the surface. Duncan is plenty aware of this too, but he makes a convincing case, time and again, that unforced errors on the part of leaders are what mark these earthquakes in time we end up calling revolutions.

On rare occasions Duncan makes an actual joke, and when he does he is howlingly funny, like his episode on the French Revolution in which he describes the death of the Comte de Mirabeau and its effect on the National Assembly as it was winding up its business in the spring of 1791. The first Revolutionary hero to be interred in the very weird monument The Pantheon, where, Duncan says, he is resting to this day. “Naww, I’m just kidding,” he adds, and reminds us that Mirabeau was disinterred a few years later, when his secret correspondence with King Louis was discovered, and his remains tossed in an unmarked grave. It’s as if his metronomic telling of months of legislative history (around 15 of the 55 half-hour episodes on the French Revolution alone) were one long setup for this glorious punchline.

Duncan also saves some irony for the overreaches of the Left, like his wry comments about how the anti-Catholic measures of the Parisian revolutionaries are going to play in the countryside. Revolutions make pleasurable stories the same way that drama does, by showing flawed characters becoming ambitious, hatching plans, and failing beautifully.

If I have one complaint about Revolutions the podcast then it’s the amount of time it spends on military details – and I realize already how ridiculous that sounds. It’s like saying jazz has too many horn solos. That could be a lesson for would-be revolutionaries, that the history of revolutions is the history of wars about them. Still, and though I could be projecting here, I can’t help sensing that Duncan really loves political philosophy and he’s going through the military histories as a matter of duty – or to engage with a different kind of history nerd than we are.

In other words, which flank of the Royalist line failed first at the Battle of Naseby I don’t care so much about. Although military history matters, I have always read history with an emotional attachment to the ideas at stake, and an appreciation for the concessions that elites were or weren’t willing to make to win wars, and the sacrifices that common people made at home, but the military fights that went with them were like rolling the dice and hoping the good guys win.

Which brings us back to Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Was he a “good guy”? I love Duncan because he settles for an answer that speaks to me: Charles wasn’t a bad guy. (He has a similar take on Louis 16th.) A subtheme of this theme of incompetent leadership, when looking at the spectacular fall of the various old regimes, was the mixing of civilian and military authority. When one family, or one person, controls both the army and the other institutions at any one time, they’d better have good judgements about which tool to pick up to deal with whatever problem is at hand, and Charles had bad instincts about this.

We only come to see this, however, after we’ve heard the long story of how he ended up where he never wanted to be in the first place. Charles was the younger brother, who only became the heir apparent when his natural-born-leader big brother died. And it’s not like it was easy picking a wife from the courts of Europe while the atrocious religious wars of the 1620s were raging. And it certainly does not help that the Calvinists who took over Parliament and eventually suffocated it were absolute jerks too.

Charles I was everything we love to hate: autocracy, snobbery, chauvinism, and privilege. His mistakes cost thousands of lives. And yet by the time he is sitting in jail waiting for execution you are absolutely disgusted at the people who are going to do it. That’s good drama, and good history.

Gone To Kingston

Walking down the street in Kingston, New York this week I was stopped in my tracks by the smell of lilac. It occurred to me that it’s been almost a year since I posted here. I’ve been gone.

Gone? It got me thinking about the word “gone” and the many senses we use it in. It means absent. It means drunk. It means completely in love. And it means out of love. It means to have left, and to be poised to leave. The day my father died, someone texted me, “I heard your father’s getting close.” “He’s already gone,” I replied.

The online dictionary etymonline says the word has been used since at least the 1590s to connote hopelessness and the condition of being “beyond recovery.” (It also notes that we have been using the word “go” as a euphemism for “urinate” since at least the 1920s.)

I’ve never once enjoyed a day of fishing, though I’ve made a few attempts. While watching old black and white comedies as a kid, however, I already knew what “gone fishing” meant – and what it connoted. You could say “on fishing break” or simply “closed till next week,” but that’s not the same thing, is it?

Ponckhockie, Kingston, with the Hudson River behind it. The mouth of the Rondout Creek is to the right and the Kingston Lighthouse, at center left, is visible from the Rhinecliff train station across the river.

I’ve been gone to Kingston. I left New York five years ago with the intention of buying a little place in a small village in the greater Catskills. Then a year ago I ended up buying my first home, not in the picturesque mountains – though you have an excellent view of them from the Lowe’s parking lot – but in this mini-Brooklyn on the Hudson. And I live in the lowest part of it, where the accents and the climate are positively Mid-Atlantic.

A year ago I had a house picked out in a town with the wonderful name Bovina Center. With a yard and a historic barn and a friend who lived own the street. And friends reminded me what a social creature I am, and how much I’d miss being surrounded by people. So without trying to, I ended up in a strangely secluded part of Kingston. With skunks and raccoons and industrial ruins with chutes growing through them all around me.

And Whitman! And friends. And The Criterion Channel. Dreams and aspirations come and go – and as of this year the house in the country is gone. Things change, even change radically, and also stay the same.

The film that uses the spring blossoms to show the cyclical nature of time to the sweetest effect would be Amarcord, to my knowledge. It starts and ends with the puffballs that marked the end of winter in Fellini’s hometown. Wouldn’t you know it, I stepped out the door of a restaurant yesterday and saw puffballs. I’m gone, but I’m also back.

Lilacs and ‘Ever-Returning Spring’

One morning this week, there was plenty of light in the sky at 6am, and powdery floral odors wafting in the window. On my walk the night before I stopped three times to smell the lilacs in particular. It meant it was time for the annual ritual of reading Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Poems that stick in your brain always beg the question, why? Why this poem? What about it resonates with you? (The best audio reading of it I found online was produced by the Nashville Public Library for its podcast, Just Listen.)

“With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,/ With every leaf a miracle…”

In the case of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” it’s an easy favorite for sensory reasons. I mean, who doesn’t like lilacs, fleeting and early of the season and redolent of crushed Smarties as they are? But still, the poem is over 200 meandering lines, an unfocussed elegy that can’t keep its attention on the subject of its own grief. “Lilacs” especially shocked me when I first read it for all its sections that turn grief on its head by singing the praises of death.

It starts, sprawlingly enough, with a line in its first (of sixteen!) sections, “Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,” then jumps from one to the next in that “trinity” in whom its addressing, from a “powerful western fallen star” (Venus presumably, as metaphor for the deceased Illinoisan, Lincoln), to the sweet-smelling sprig the speaker impulsively breaks upon hearing the news of his death, and then to a bird: a thrush, whose song unexpectedly absorbs more attention than either of the other two.

It’s an ambitious and unwieldy premise, but Whitman can’t even stay that focussed.

It’s a poem I have turned to in times of grief over death but never really dared share, since its praise of death, as much as I love it, may be the wrong message to those in the deepest throes of loss:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Then later, Whitman being carnal as always:

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil’d death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Carnal, as always.

As a Union Army volunteer nurse he was something of an authority on the subject, and he is the high priest of our secular culture, in a sense, but this is not the sort of thing you break out between “Amazing Grace” and “Morning Has Broken,” unless you really know your audience!

I was surprised to read, in prepping for this post, that Whitman wrote it in the summer of 1865, just a few months after Lincoln was shot. It worked for me as a poem about the “ever-returning” season, and the capacity for the smell of lilacs to evoke the day Lincoln died, so I’d figured he had to have written it the following year. I guess I took the word “last” in the title too literally: “The last time lilacs bloomed in this dooryard.” Not knowing that was better perhaps (You’re welcome, or maybe Sorry, about that.) since the poem works so well as a meditation on the the cyclical nature of time and memory.

I have tried reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s book about the way the American Civil War changed how we think of death itself, Republic of Suffering, a few times, and honestly keep wondering what I’m missing. This poem, however, I read every spring, and many times in between, and it says something profound about the privateness of grief.

For all the bombast about the “orb sailing the heaven,” the “Sea-winds blown from east and west,” and the “battle-corpses, myriads of them,” Whitman takes his grief to a quiet swamp: “The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements.” Increasingly the line between the warbling of the thrush and his own poetic voice, becomes blurry, reinforced by a sweet, archaic use of the word tally.

No surprise, I guess, that the man who did so much to create the vast interior life we are all carrying around in our heads, took all the grandeur of the most public death of his century and distilled his grief about it into the quietest of moments: “Lilac and star and bird entwined with the chant of my soul/ There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

Goosebumps every time.

Sweetness and Power

Yesterday morning, like most days this year, I made tea and toast and read the headlines before attempting to write something. “Made the mistake of reading the headlines,” I often say, since tuning in to the minutiae of the news gets in the way of creativity – or does it?

You should be able to write a love story knowing that respectable Americans are whitewashing an attempted Right Wing coup. You should be able to write a poem about springtime knowing what city in Ukraine is getting bombed hardest today. If reality is too much of a distraction, then what the hell were you writing about in the first place? Write deeper, answer harder questions.

The headlines yesterday were mostly about Elon Musk buying Twitter for $44 Billion. He is a hero to some of my friends – immigrant entrepreneurs I know have a big soft spot for him – and a villain to most others. He’s a controversial personality I had no strong opinions about, but was starting to. For context I put the computer aside and looked at … my tea and toast.

See, I was sitting in my friend’s apartment and found myself scouring the fridge for some kind of jam to spread on my toasted quarters of leftover bagels. (I’d been told to make myself at home.) Not finding any at first, I put extra sugar in my tea, but then looked harder: she had to have some, it’s a staple. It occurred to me that this craving of mine was not something endemic to my humanity, but was socially created by a monopoly just a few centuries ago.

This winter my nightstand reading book was Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz. I found it sitting lonely in my local bookstore. Published in 1985, it predates the works of, say, Mark Kurlansky or Michael Pollan by decades, written for a time when a historian wrote a book expecting only other historians would read it – or perhaps their students, begrudgingly. If you can wade through Mintz’ passages about his grand historical synthesis, then you find all the (sorry) delicious anecdotes you’d expect in a more popular history and find yourself motivated to understand his more abstract points.

In just 200 pages Mintz walks you through the introduction of sugar to the European pantry. What we think of as a staple cooking ingredient was first a spice, a preservative, and a medicine even. In the era of competition with the Muslim Caliphates of North Africa, sugar made its way around the continent, and was cultivated in Spain, Sicily, and most successfully in the Canary Islands. Its first use beyond spice cabinets and apothecaries was often in the form of “subtleties,” or sugar as a medium of sculpture.

I admit I was not familiar with the word in this sense, having missed Kara Walker’s sculpture at the Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn back in 2014, that of the fabulously antique title “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Another blog by Harvard students, called Chocolate Class, tells the history of subtleties very succinctly – according to their notes, leaning heavily on Mintz’ Sugar and Power.

History bores people because they think they know how the story ends, but this book reminds us that in 1600 it wasn’t at all clear which colonial power would emerge on top in the New World. The Spanish had the biggest head start but the Portuguese were still players. The French controlled huge parts of the North and the Caribbean, the Dutch and lastly the English were late to the game, the English still pre-occupied throughout the 1600s by their domestic crises and Civil War.

While telling the story of expanding consumption, Mintz also tells of monstrously expanding slavery in the Caribbean – the great democratization of luxury going hand in hand with colonialism at its worst. For years I had been perplexed by the order in which the colonizing powers stripped one resource after another from the rest of the world. I got that New Amsterdam was sending tens of thousands of beaver pelts a year from the Hudson valley alone back to the Netherlands, because there just weren’t that many beavers left in Europe, but why were so many of the first colonial products luxury stimulants: tobacco, chocolate, tea, coffee, and sugar. This book more than speaks to that, it tells it as one coherent story:

Ironically that series of crises in England in the 1600s resulted in a domestic economy that gave slightly higher wages to its post-feudal working class, and those coins in English workers’ pockets represented some earning power to be spent on cheap calories. Treacle was the first popular form of sugar for common people because it could be used in place of honey. That was followed by loaves of hard brown sugar, then the refined stuff, and it dovetailed with the marketing of tea in particular.

Lots has been said and written about the preconditions for the economic world as we know it. Calvinism created the spiritual and psychological mindset for capitalism. Colonialism the callously ever-expanding worldview. But tea and sugar, and coffee, and to a lesser extent chocolate, were necessary to creating a working class able to drag its sorry asses to work on time, and a professional class jacked up enough to always want more of everything.

I’m always taken aback, when I read colonial histories, by how private enterprise was steering the ship. How much kings were willing to give away to well-connected young, industrious men with dreams of fortunes. How genteel upper-middle class ladies and gentlemen were willing to invest in slavery, literally.

The title page to Sugar and Power quotes a 1773 work by Bernardin de Saint Pierre titled Voyage to Isle de France, Isle de Bourbon, The Cape of Good Hope… With New Observations on Nature and Mankind by an Officer of the King, which says it all: “I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”

Will Elon Musk and the investors he represents turn out to be responsible keepers of what’s become an important public square? I don’t know. Ask a Barbadian.

Monica Vitti

Monica Vitti, who died at age 90 today, had the delivery of a Redgrave, the poise of Audrey Hepburn, and a nose as gorgeous as Streisand’s.

I was not surprised to read, in her obituaries, that she was classically trained as a stage actress before teaming up with Michelangelo Antonioni, in life and his great films of the 60s. Ingmar Bergman famously said, “Fellini, Kurosawa, and Buñuel move in the same field as Tarkovsky [whom he considered the greatest]. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness.”

Suffocated by his own tediousness! Hilarious, as always. We’ll never know if she would have brought such life to Antonioni and screenwriter Tonino Guerra’s work (or made them tolerably less tedious, depending on your feelings about them) if she weren’t so easy on the eyes, as the saying goes. But if simple is hard, then she performed the impossible task of carrying those slow and deep stories the way Atlas holds up the sky.

How Clowns Go

I confess that I thoroughly enjoy end-of-year stories with titles like “Those We Lost,” roundups of the best-known celebrity deaths before we move on in the new year, and get on with the business of more or less forgetting the dead and buried. They’re the top specimens of The Grim Reaper’s harvest from the previous season laid out in one cornucopian basket. This year I pictured him making last-minute rearrangements for the eleventh hour death of Joan Didion before plopping Betty White on top like a bunch of grapes, because the guests were already arriving.

On the one hand I hate-read them, the way we all read media to second-guess the priorities of our sources and the company we keep. You think, “Why such fawning over [I will not speak ill of recently deceased mediocrities] when you haven’t even mentioned Robert Bly?” You shudder at the breadth of love bestowed on downright dumb personalities. Then you whipsaw between finding out that someone you had a soft for had died without your noticing, in my case for 2021 Stephen Dunn, and the realization that another such as Ferlinghetti had actually still been alive so recently!

A grumpy part of me bristles at celebrity deaths for the habit my friends have taken up, of paying them overly effusive respects. It almost feels dis-respectful. “I liked Sound of Music too, but let Christopher Plummer’s family have the last word here.”

I was genuinely touched this year at the passing of Charlie Watts, one of a handful of drummers who created the rhythm of my early life, and did it with understated flair. Death, however, demands utter honesty, and I also felt a pang when the drummer Graeme Edge died. Though I spent years embarrassed by my early teen obsession with the Moody Blues, and especially their poems that Edge wrote, give credit where it’s due. He turned lots of people on to popular poetry, and that was poetry as I knew and loved it then.

Around the same time that Days of Future Past came out in 1967, a 22-year-old poetic force was emerging in Poland.

I think I first encountered Adam Zagajewski the way most of my friends did, with his poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” published in The New Yorker shortly after September 11th. Years later a friend loaned me one of his collections, and I’ve had his poem “How Clowns Go” memorized more or less ever since.

“How Clowns Go” could be a good title of an article about dead celebrities, come to think of it. Death, I am supposing, looks very similar to the widely famous and to the rest of us the closer and closer it gets. I only found out months after the fact, when talking with some Polish guests at the restaurant I manage, that Zagajewski had died back in March.

Zagajewski in 2017

I was not surprised to read that, like Charlie Watts, he had a soft-spoken air about him. With verses like those, who needs bombast? His obituary in The Guardian summarized his poetry like this:

He preferred to use traditional free verse (“Rhymes actually irritate me, a bit like the bell calling you to kneel in church”) and avoided poetic experimentations as his focus was on communication and understanding, yet still engaging in “a dialogue with the imagination”. He demanded that poetry tell the truth (“we write to understand the world,” he claimed), and once wryly concluded that “some French poets say Polish poetry is just journalism, because you can understand it”.

That is poetry as I know and love it now.

How Clowns Go by Adam Zagajewski

An old clown hands out flyers at the station
for a traveling circus. No doubt
this is how clowns go—replacing vending machines (or children).
I watch him carefully: I want to know how clowns go.

The captivating balance between sadness
and mad, infectious laughter slowly slips;
each year the furrow in the cheeks grows deeper.
What’s left is the desperately oversized nose

and an old man’s clumsiness—not a parody
of healthy, silly humans, but a broadside
on the body’s flaws, the builder’s
errors. What’s left is the large gleaming forehead, a lamp

made of white cheese (not painted now), thin lips
and eyes from which a stranger coldly
gazes, perhaps the face’s next tenant—
if the lease on this grief can be renewed.

This is how clowns go—when the world’s great indifference
invades us, enters us bitterly, like lead between our teeth.

(Translated by Clare Cavanagh)

What Birds Do

What Birds Do

You talk about birds as if they are calling

to you through the window at the bottom

of your long list of things to do, the oblong

-shaped aspirations, the unfinished

sculptures and empty shipping boxes you

can’t bring yourself to throw away just yet.

“Listen,” you say, “That finch just announced an

extension of the grace period.”

Fine. Take some more grace. Light your room with it,

but let that finch, if that’s what it is,

do what birds do, sing to no one in

particular, and fly, God knows where.

For the Love of Trees in April

They’re changing costumes like mad!

It’s that particular week of spring when daily tree-watching pays off again and again, in either surprising or perfectly predictable ways: the week the trees bud out.

“It wore that yard like a dress.”

I often note, on winter walks, how much more you can see with the leaves gone for the season. What trails have vistas invisible in summer. What neighbors have swimming pools tastefully tucked far from the road. How much shade and privacy trees provide.

This week in mid-April, with few exceptions, they’re either covered with buds, or the buds are bursting open, or mini-leaves are already visible. The willows are bright with pale green hair. The forsythia, forget about it.

What looks to the sun-washed eye in summer like a grove of more or less identical trees can be quite different these weeks the buds and flowers are out: “Where did that stray fruit tree come from?” “This one’s buds are a different shade of red.”

Seeing trees in starring roles always reminds me of Marie Howe’s poem “The Copper Beech,” from her book What the Living Do. It has an opening line as memorable as “I sing the body electric” or others for the ages:

“Immense, entirely itself,

it wore that yard like a dress…”

Iambic tetrameter with a surprising punch at the end: Im-MENSE, en-TI-re-LY it-SELF / it WORE that YARD LIKE a DRESS. The meter trips on itself as it delivers the surprising metaphor. Sure, some trees, like some people, are entirely themselves, but to compare its relationship to the house and yard to a lady wearing a dress, that’s poetry.

The tree is in control. The tree is on the red carpet. The tree is dressed for an occasion, and we are its accessories.

I have a dear friend from Britain who’s gone native here in the Hudson valley, but still pronounces forsythia as if it has a scythe in it: for-SIGH-thee-uh. (North Americans generally say it as if the second syllable rhymes with “pith.”)

Thinking of him during one morning walk, I kept muttering “That’s a Greek word!” every time I saw a forsythia, a joke repeated throughout My Big Fat Greek Wedding. You can be a naturalist-poet, after all, and still have a brain that’s a boiling mess of pop cultural references – or at least I will die trying. But why did this “Greek word” not keep the tell-tale ph- at the beginning?

I looked it up, and how wrong I was. Forsythia is named for the 17th Century Scottish botanist William Forsyth, who was a chief gardener during the aristocracy’s manic investment in giant gardens that showcased plants from all over the empire and beyond (Forsythia from Asia.). This incidentally would have been a full generation before the English started walking the mountains around me in search of Douglas firs – which are named for another Scottish-born botanist. Now here we all are, getting worn by these gorgeous plants.

Going Home to “Return of the Native”

Sitting around an open fire one sunset this fall I proposed reading Return of the Native to my wife, and we took turns reading chapters of it out loud between Thanksgiving and Christmas, till we read the whole thing. Natural enough, I guess, since the book starts, memorably, with exactly that kind of scene:

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.”

The first time I read the book, I was a teenager, and it was one of the first serious works of literature forced on me that actually stuck. You don’t meet the ostensible hero till you’re a good quarter of the way into the story, which reinforces the reading of it that says it’s the heath, the geography that’s the protagonist.

The second time I read the book, in my 20s, I was living in Minnesota, my adopted home state from the time I was about 22 until my 30s. One phrase from the book I never forgot was also a description of the heath. Possibly because so many of my friends on the East Coast could not fathom why I’d moved to a place so bland as The Midwest, I liked to repeat that Egdon Heath, said Hardy, “appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct.”

Furze, or something like it.

In the same passage that I felt flattered my taste by calling my instincts “scarcer,” Hardy writes, “Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity.” Though I don’t remember what my 24-year-old self made of a landscape being “emphatic in its admonitions,” this was to my mind a defense of my fondness for the prairies of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

I guess there’s something of Egdon Heath in the valley I live in now. I live minutes from the mountains but am just as happy watching old pastures in the flatlands “embrown” themselves.

Otherwise, my young self’s reading of the story tried extra hard to see sexual politics in it, and I did moral somersaults to rally to Eustacia Vye’s defense. To me it was a village full of hypocrites who had to punish its one extraordinary woman who dared to think bigger than cutting furze, and only had the bad luck to cross paths with the guy on an opposite trajectory, who was coming home to furze-cutting from the grand life she wanted.

I guess age and experience made me appreciate that there really are some manipulative people out there, whose combination of sex appeal and bravado dares you to get involved with them, and rewards you with conflict. Jealous of your attachment to anyone else, even your own family, and certainly your exes or admirers, they’ll sooner or later try to wedge you apart. And that’s Eustacia.

The other lasting impression Return of the Native left on me this time was its lack of sex. I know, it was 1878, and it’s clear enough that Eustacia and her guys probably weren’t just standing around on the heath when they met late at night. But with no hint or suggestion of their going to bed together, even after she’s married Clym, it left me unsure whether to root for or against their marriage lasting.

I know, because I can read a book jacket, that Hardy broke taboos and made it possible for writers a generation later to be sexier, but I suspect I’d get a lot more feeling out of my rereads if it were clear whether Clym and Eustacia were happy, and not just defensive of their marriage.

Then again, it’s clear that I have a lifelong relationship with this book, and it’s too late to choose that. It may be the only book I’ve read more than twice. You can’t choose your family, and these people, presided over by this landscape, are my book family.


A Deep State Film Festival

Two films I watch about once every year are titles that, I admit, I sometimes hear or say as I’m picturing a scene from the other:  The Manchurian Candidate and Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

They’re both made during the Kennedy years, both broadsides in their own spectacular way against the American Cold War mindset. In them you can see an educated and liberal people married to the Cold War who foresaw the marriage falling apart, and are trying to imagine where they’d go next. The war in Vietnam would soon take care of that, but they didn’t know that at the time.

A mind-bending film about anti-Communism and gender, made by people hyper-attentive to the anti-anti-Communist narrative, but self-taught about gender. Starring Ol’ Blue Eyes!

I can’t be the first person who lumps them together in their own mini-genre, but when I watched them both back in January, during the impeachment of President Trump, it occurred to me that they both have a principled and sane army officer as a lead character. I kept seeing Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, the whistle-blower who made such a credible witness leading to impeachment, in Peter Sellers as Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Doctor Strangelove, and also in Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennet Marco in The Manchurian Candidate.

Mandrake is the British officer assigned to the nuclear base that goes rogue under General Ripper. (Strangelove was written by Terry Southern, Peter George, and Stanley Kubrick based on George’s novel Red Alert.) Marco is the Korean War vet whom the Army reassigns to public relations, who starts sensing that something’s wrong with his old commander Col. Raymond Shaw – and Shaw’s stepdad, Senator John Iselin. (The Manchurian Candidate was written by George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer, based on Richard Condon’s novel.)

Sellers as Mandrake, one of three roles he plays in the film – another being the Stevenson-esque U.S. president.

Both characters are the “normal ones” that you follow into the underworld of Cold War madness. I find myself quoting them both in everyday conversation, both Mandrake trying to sweet talk the security codes out of Ripper, and Marco berating himself for his mishandling of Shaw: “If the Pentagon ever wants to open a Stupidity Department, they know who to call!”

I watch The Manchurian Candidate for the perfectly executed thrills, and when it’s time to tune in to how deeply misogynist American manhood can be. You would think the climactic scene in which Raymond Shaw, shall we say, channels Orestes via Oswald is the prime piece of evidence, but there is another scene that’s not so much loaded as downright embarrassing:

As Marco is struggling at his job (Communist brainwashing and PTSD will do that.) he takes a break from D.C. to visit Shaw in New York. On the train, somewhere around Wilmington, he meets Rosie, played by Janet Leigh. He’s too frazzled to light his own cigarette and confesses that he’s on leave from the Army for psychiatric reasons, and she’s still so smitten she gives him her address. Once they’re in New York, and Marco gets into a bloody fistfight with the first guy he sees (albeit with good reason), Rosie comes to get him at the police station; she’s already broken off her engagement to another guy.

The only woman in the cast of Doctor Strangelove is Miss Scott, played by Tracy Reed, the secretary and mistress to General Buck Turdgison. Campy and comic as their dialogue is, it has more gravity and believability than all of Janet Leigh’s scenes in Frankenheimer.

Tracy Reed and George C. Scott.

Thinking what else might fall under that genre, I revisited Seven Days in May, the film Frankenheimer made after Manchurian Candidate – and which never grabbed me in the past. If The Manchurian Candidate is about Communist infiltration of the American radical Right, then Seven Days in May puts the blame squarely on homegrown fascism inside the military. And the hero this time is – guess who? – Army Colonel Jiggs Casey.

Will the coup coalescing around General Burt Lancaster topple President Frederic March? Not if Kirk Douglas as Casey has anything to say about it! It’s also noteworthy that Seven Days in May (written by Rod Serling, based on another novel) has a delicious part for Ava Gardner. She’s like Miss Scott ten years later, after she’s been around the block a few times and slept with a few more colonels.

Ava Gardner and Kirk Douglas.

With the pandemic and the uprising, who remembers impeachment, right? Well, this week I returned to all this. The Criterion Channel adds new titles at the beginning of each month, and for June it’s including the early verité documentaries Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, from the Kennedy years. Crisis, directed by Robert Drew and produced by ABC News (with some footage by D.A. Pennebaker) shows the two or so days leading up to JFK’s June 11, 1963 forced integration of the University of Alabama and TV address to the nation about race.

The arc of the 45 minute film begins and ends with Bobby Kennedy – and you get the impression he could talk circles around his brother. In between, however, it makes a hero of someone I’d never heard of, Nick Katzenbach. A native of Trenton, New Jersey, he was the assistant attorney general RFK sent to Tuscaloosa to orchestrate things.

James Hood and Vivian Malone, the first black students to enroll in the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963.

I highly recommend tracking this film down! For one, it’s a portrait of political animals who are also desperately trying to do what’s morally right, just because it’s right. I also couldn’t help noting how different life was without social media, etc. At one point Bobby Kennedy signs off from a phone call with Katzenbach with an air of finality, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Of these four films, Crisis, the documentary, is the only one about the triumph of an ideal over a practical impediment. The rest are about the struggle of centrism and wholesome common sense against ideological extremism. And even Crisis centers on a bureaucrat. In the mid 20th Century there was, it seems, a great deal of respect afforded to career officers and government bureaucrats, whose combat service and centrist politics made them eminently credible. Or at least there was a movie-going public that liked that kind of character.

The fact that Katzenbach went on to throw his whole career into a defense of LBJ’s Vietnam escalation goes to show that they can be wrong too, but the public could take what they said at face value most of the time. If Trump’s impeachment was a revolt of the public servants against the ideologues or plain old self-dealers, then we’ve come a long way since the early 60s.