In a review of Andrew Cayton’s Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818 (“Emotions in the Balance,” TLS, 1/17/14), Rachel Hewitt quotes from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments thusly, “if you have either no fellow feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me; or if you have no indignation at the injuries I have suffered, or none that bears any proportion to the resentment which transports me, we can no longer converse upon these subjects.” Hewitt points out that this concern with empathy might be surprising for the author of the bible of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. But actually it’s actual the understanding of emotion that seems to allow for free trade, in Smith’s world view. “The emotional subject’s passionate heat becomes tolerably warm; the spectator’s cool impartiality gives way to concerned compassion,” Hewitt explains. “This perfect but delicate balance of reason and compassion is ‘rational affection.’” In this regard it’s easy to see how the tolerance and equanimity of Dutch society became a breeding ground for the mercantilism of such giants as the East India Company. Smith’s thinking is also significant in the way it combines the micro with the macrocosm, ontogeny with phylogeny. Spencer coined the term Social Darwinism and free market capitalism exemplifies the survival of the fittest. But Smith obviously regarded empathy and altruism as market forces too. Hewitt isn’t the first critic to point out The Wealth of Nations had been preceded by a treatise (The Theory of Moral Sentiments) of such uncommon humanity. In this age of narrow Tea Party party politics that’s a far cry from true Burkean conservatism, it’s nice to be reminded that the father of modern capitalism regarded prosperity as deriving from something more than just the struggle to survive.
Friday, March 7, 2014
Thursday, March 6, 2014
|Eugene Delacroix, The “gravedigger scene” (1839)|
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
The New York City Ballet who eventually became the wife of George Balanchine, its mythic maestro. And Nancy Buirsky’s documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq (named after the Jerome Robbins Afternoon of a Faun choreographed Le Clercq) which includes cameos by Robbins, Jacques d’Amboise and Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet performer who eventually founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, could be its own tragic ballet. In fact, Balanchine created a work about a ballerina felled by polio which eerily foreshadowed Tanaquil’s own story. “Balanchine had to be inspired by the unattainable,” d’Amboise is quoted as saying about Le Clercq's effect on all those who met her. She had a rare beauty characterized by preternaturally elongated legs and extraordinary talent. Watching Afternoon of the Faun one is reminded of stories of famous athletes like Mohammed Ali who are super heroes in their youth and then have to contend with existence in aging sometimes diseased bodies. The dichotomy is the stuff also of melodrama and in spite of the inventive use of grainy stock footage to convey the very idea of lost beauty, one can’t help asking if this isn’t a balletic version of Love Story. When the 27 year old ballerina contracted polio in the middle of a New York City ballet tour of Europe n l956, her fall was swift and severe. “I feel like a filet of sole trying to balance on its tail, “ she remarks. At first Balanchine fashions himself the Pygmalion who will transform her back into what she once was. Then when it becomes apparent her chronic condition cannot be ameliorated by the assault of will, their already troubled relationship falls apart. One of the most endearing elements of the movie are the clips from 50’s and 60’s television which was having its own love affair with high culture that is scarcely visible in commercial TV today. Tanaquil and Jacques d’Amboise are interviewed for one of the network shows after a performance of Nutcracker with two awestruck children gazing upon characters in a fairytale come to life—a fairytale that was about to become a nightmare, that is.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Coleridge famously scribbled “the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity” about Othello in his copy of Shakespeare’s works. Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) offers three propositions at the beginning of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which recently was exhibited as part of the Hitchcock retrospective at Film Forum: ”I’ve got a theory you should do everything before you die...My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer...Each fellow does the other person’s murder so there is nothing to connect them.” QED, the world is an evil place, courtesy of Raymond Chandler who wrote the brilliant script, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel. Bruno when you think about it is a character right out of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theater. Like Iago he attempts to plant insidious notions in his innocent foil, a tennis star named, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Strangers on a Train is a series of oppositions that verge on paradox. Miriam, Guy’s slutty unfaithful wife wears thick glasses and looks more like a librarian than a temptress. Her murder is foreshadowed by the screams coming from a so called Tunnel of Love. Bruno’s dotty mother is painting a horrific portrait of a saint (Francis in this case). She shares a countervailingly pathological misperception of her son, i.e. that he's sweetness and light, when he's in fact horrifying. The one person who can provide an alibi for Guy, a tipsy professor of mathematics offers a definition of integration (“a function is given and the differential is obtained”) while defying moral calculus. By so skewering reality, the movie turns Bruno’s cynical hypothesis on its head. It's impossible to hide motive by the simple act of switching perpetrators, as Bruno suggests, since everyone and everything is, in fact, connected. And the reversals are almost symphonic. The director makes his obligatory cameo appearance carrying a cello which is the counterpart to the music store that Miriam works in and in which she and Guy quarrel. Miriam's glasses reflect her own murder and again appear on the face of the innocent Barbara Morton, played incidentally by Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia who cheerfully mimics the murder plot when she says, “I still think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he would kill for you." Bruno creates the sound of a bullet shot as he bursts the balloon or bubble of the young boy who is shooting at him with a fake pistol. Guy’s tennis match is paralleled with Bruno’s attempt to retrieve the incriminating lighter (Desdemona’s handkerchief). And lastly let’s not discountenance the homoerotic connection between Bruno and Guy, which continues to provide a pay day for psychoanalytic interpreters of the movie. A runaway carousel is the finale of Hitchcock’s apocalyptic battle between good and evil, and it’s a dazzling scene in which the dark forces of misunderstanding and enlightenment—a child’s screams of delight are countermanded by horrifying spectacle of a wooden horse leg turned into a weapon. The movie begins with a brilliant series of crosscuts, in which we see the shoes and luggage of the two antagonists before we actually meet them. Just as montage creates meaning in cinema, the fate of the film’s two strangers is sealed before they ever meet.