The Realists by C.P. Snow
More fun, by a good stretch, than it at first promised to be. The initial entry, a bio of Stendhal, is condescending. Snow comes on awfully English, talking about the right age at which Stendhal should be read and making clear in the first five pages that of course Tolstoy is the mountaintop by which all other writers should be judged. Commonsense is a good life skill, but it is also a kind of bigotry against possibility; as much as it prides itself on suffering no fools, commonsense often ignores the real for “what we know to be true.” It should have a limited place in literary criticism.
Happily, once he gets past Stendhal, whom he finds picturesque and admires to an extent but of whom he also vaguely disapproves, Snow shows a wider and livelier sense of the world. Particularly illuminating are his insights into authors’ sexual relations. He avoids overinterpretation on this axis, a welcome restraint, and perhaps a result of working with multiple biographical subjects in a single volume. (Extrapolating from an individual’s sexual history a fairy tale about his supersecret heart-wound is trickier when there are seven other dudes waiting in line for the same treatment.) Snow uses sex not as a lens for understanding texts but for understanding the ability of each man to successfully negotiate the world. The range of outcomes is robust. Balzac bedded everything of quality that came before his eye. Dostoevsky was a disaster, but lucked into a good woman. (As a general rule, do not propose to your secretary of one month.) Galdos spent every morning writing from dawn until 1, then a silent lunch from 1 to 2 with his spinster sisters. 2 until evening was reserved for whores. He visited the slums and took whores every single day. For this reason, even as the most famous and financially successful Spanish novelist of his time, Galdos had to made the beneficiary of a national donation campaign to avoid homelessness. But the campaign was not enough either, and the government had to invent a sinecure for him chairing a nonexistent festival to the end of his life. Because, again, he spent too much on whores. Dickens, like Dostoevsky, was clueless about women, but unlike Dostoevsky was not saved by blind fortune. Stendhal, as Stendhal has often told us, was not especially successful, though he claimed he liked it that way, the sweet pain of love-transport being greater than the pleasure of physical gratification. On the other hand, he believed he hadn’t much of a choice: he thought that while his ugly face was not really a problem, his bad body was insurmountable. Tolstoy was, basically, a serial rapist. He hated women, thought they were the root of all evil, but could not keep from wanting them. This meant that he was constantly whoring when not at home and, when at home, was constantly dragging his female serfs into the bushes for some corporate-optional sex. He never had an affair with a woman of the same socioeconomic class as himself, but given the forgoing, you already knew that. Once he married, he raped his wife a lot. On Proust and Henry James, Snow is weakest, or at least outmoded, since the way he talks about homosexuality bears little resemblance to critical discourse today.
Some of the critical opinions rankle. Snow thinks Late James is too much frosting concealing an absence of cake, but considers The Ambassadors the best of the bunch. There is no arguing with taste, and Ambassadors obviously doesn’t lack for fans, but (I would submit) that that popularity is because it is the most approachable of the late big novels. And it is the most approachable because it has a simplistic message, which James felt powerfully and which he was willing to distort his artwork to emphasize. Whereas The Golden Bowl is like the fortress in Welles’s Othello or the Imaginary Prisons of Piranesi: massive, too massive to be built by human hands; magnificent from every angle, yet never seen in full relief; in its epic dimensions simultaneously the ideal theater for and an alarming expression of its denizens’ mental disturbance. Now, is The Golden Bowl a realist novel? Almost certainly not. But it wasn’t me who made James a chapter of a book called The Realists.
Nor is Snow much alone in putting Tolstoy at the summit of realism. Which, fine, if we also admit that he is a profoundly flawed writer in whom the artist and the zealot were locked in combat, even in his best work. The first 400 pages of Anna Karennina are the artist ahead; the back 400 are the zealot overwhelming and suffocating the artist. It’s often quoted that Tolstoy said he went into the writing of that novel intending to punish Anna, and over time came to love her. That may or may not be true, but what certainly is true is that the energy of the novel gradually subsides, bringing into every sharper relief the schematic plan beneath in the way that the slackening flesh of an old person brings the skull beneath to greater prominence. This subsiding is not the inexorability of tragedy; it is a fading of vitality. Moreover, the limits to Tolstoy’s art are on display in that opening line. There’s a reason Tolstoy thinks all happy families are the same and all unhappy families different: he thinks there is only one way to live rightly. Any deviation from the Tolstoyan ideal brings misery and perdition, sayeth the prophet.
But again: a fine book, and an education.
ALIEN INVASION FILMS (bear in mind that, as with the Richter Scale, an order of magnitude in goodness separates a film from that which follows): (1) John Carpenter’s The Thing (2) Battle: Los Angeles (3) Predator (4) Predator II (5) Men in Black (6) Battleship (7) Independence Day (8) Signs (9) War of the Worlds - Spielberg (10) The Avengers (11) Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (12) actual footage of aliens coming to Earth and enslaving/impregnating all of us (13) Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
This was the trajectory of late: Kill Bill Vol. 1 > Kill Bill Vol. 2 > Death Proof > Inglorious Basterds. So a great deal of hope for future enterprises was probably unwarranted. Still, even with that reminder that almost nobody gets to stay great forever, Django Unchained is massive, embarrassing disappointment.
Of the film’s multitude of sins, its relentless inessentiality is probably worst. Scenes run on too long. The film itself runs too long. Visuals repeat, to no increasing meaning or effect.
Every Christoph Waltz monologue runs too long. The fact that there are Christoph Waltz monologues enough to justify the adjective “every” says a lot in itself, but the worst is that they seem written to no other purpose than how darling it is to hear a rococo old-timey vocabulary subjected to Waltz’s punctilious enunciation. One feels bad for the actor: in the space of just two movies Tarantino has managed to take him from revelation to self-parody. He deserves almost as much blame, though. His obsession with his own cuteness is unwatchable. DiCaprio, tasked with a similar number of speeches, emerges with honor and is the best thing by far in the film.
No doubt Tarantino feels with Waltz he’s executed this amazingly clever two-step between Basterds and Django. In Basterds, Germans were evil, but in Django a German is the champion of human rights! Irony! Profundity! No. Instead, Tarantino is betraying a fundamental laziness, one that weighed down the earlier film but breaks the back of this one. Basterds at least has that stunning early scene in which Brad Pitt interrogates an upright German officer, who refuses to talk and is consequently murdered by Eli Roth with a baseball bat. The German officer is a Nazi, but both his integrity and the way that integrity is jeered at by the Americans is supremely unsettling. The Basterds show themselves as less human than the Nazi, continue about their business without suffering any cost for their savagery, and remain the protagonists of the film. That, to borrow a phrase C.P. Snow liked to use, is how life really is, and the logic of that scene can stand alongside anything else Tarantino has accomplished. In many ways that scene surpasses even his visionary early work because I can think of nowhere he so wholly eschews both sentiment and cuteness in his heroes. To be sure, Tarantino increasingly of late gives us heroes that live beyond decency, but every other time he has done so, it has been accompanied by some egregious deck-stacking in which the audience is made to feel it’s okay to wantonly slay and torture the enemy: the enemy is so debased that it deserves annihilation and torture, even its civilians, especially its civilians. Thus, the depressing rest of Basterds, in which we are invited to guffaw/be-inspired as a French Jewess (don’t forget Plucky Small Business Owner) and her Black Boyfriend suicide-bomb the screening of a German propaganda film. Because it’s, like, badass for an interracial couple to take the fight to Hitler and all. Things are so much worse in Django. The film is set in the South, so every single white person onscreen aside from Waltz is portrayed as deserving to die. For Tarantino, if you are not as enlightened as a post-millenial Southern California liberal (but not so enlightened that you have a problem with hearing “nigger” twice a sentence for 165 minutes straight), then it is ok to shoot you, first in the kneecap, then in the face.
More damaging to the narrative health of the film is the flipside of this chauvinism—the moral angel portrayed by Waltz. Waltz is the film’s avatar of modern liberal opinion, existing only to reassure us how much wiser and hipper we are today than those troglodytes of yesteryear Mississippi. Because it’s not as though secular talk-to-a-black-dude-like-he’s-a-real-person abolitionists were thick on the ground in actual 1860 Bismarck’s Germany. You know when Germany outlawed slavery in its colonies, Quentin? 1905. Brazil got rid of slavery sooner. (Speaking of Germany, by the way, if your heroine is a slave raised by Germans, her German masters would spell her German name correctly. If you spell it instead as “Broomhilda,” you are being neither evocative nor cute nor camp. You are being racist. You are engaging in racist pastiche.)
The film is almost never running along the lines of necessity, so the major narrative lifting is done by Waltz’s angeldom. After killing the Brittle Brothers, Waltz announces he will help Jamie Foxx recover his wife because he’s never freed a person before and “I feel responsible.” Later, he brings disaster on himself and Foxx by murdering DiCaprio in cold blood, because slavery’s got him just so down in the dumps. Even the initial setup for pairing Waltz and Foxx makes no sense. He doesn’t know what the Brittle Brothers look like so he needs a witness to eyeball them? Does anyone think this makes sense? Let’s leave aside that in the real antebellum South, communities were incredibly circumscribed and any stranger passing through town would be noted and probably made to explain his origins. Instead: 1) Waltz knows what county they’re in, and 2) he later identifies another quarry by a “wanted” poster. By the very logic the film provides us, Foxx’s presence is utterly unnecessary. Any one of these slack turns would be a heavy blow for a film to sustain, as they are probably the three most important decisions made by any character in the film. To get them all in one film is an art crime. For that film to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Screenplay is proof that Faulkner was making a mistake declining to accept the end of man.
Django himself is similarly “unchained” from both history and narrative logic. Tarantino makes everything easy for Django—easy when difficulty would have given the film useful grit. Foxx’s character has never ridden a horse before, but the first time he does so, he straddles it comfortably. Same with shooting a rifle. Same with speaking confidently and in a “white” idiom. Same with reading(!). Django’s plantation may be a violent dystopia, but education sure hasn’t been lacking. At the same time, the various blacks we see who are still slaves stare at him with slack-jawed amazement. They are not unburdened by their slave past. The film constantly at pains to show black people studying the affect and behavior of Django, and thereby learning race-respect. The fact that Django resembles no actual pre-Civil War ex-slave but is rather a fetish doll of everything Quentin Tarantino thinks a black man ought to be takes these recognition moments beyond the moralizing tediousness that they would have in, say, a Spielberg film (though they are tedious, also) and into a reprehensible territory where Tarantino gives black folk lessons in proper Blackness.
Too easy, too easy. Everything in the fucking film is too easy, and rather than tighten his product, Tarantino lets the narrative go ever more flaccid. In one of the first scenes of the film, for example, we see an entire town become inflamed when Waltz tries to bring Django into a bar. Waltz brings Django inside knowing the town will go ballistic; he’s does it as deliberate provocation. Fine. But for the next two hours, we see Foxx in interior after interior, with no mention of why that suddenly isn’t a problem. The depressing reason, of course, is that it no longer suits Tarantino for it to be a problem. Why doesn’t the angry plantation owner Don Johnson kill the bounty hunters on the spot when he has them surrounded and defenseless, preferring instead to rally an anachronistic pre-Civil War KKK posse to attack them at night? Because Tarantino wants to make a Blazing Saddles reference and isn’t willing to put in the work to make it fit organically into the film. Nor, for that matter, is he willing to consider that the racial anxiety and resentment that produced the KKK in Reconstruction South would need no such outlet in 1859, when all power was concentrated in plantation owners who had no need, would in fact have been offended, to defend their prerogatives by secrecy at night. And why, after gunning down most of a plantation’s white population is Django neither tortured nor killed but instead sold to a mining company on the claim that that fate is “worse”? Because Tarantino painted himself into a corner getting the plantation manor holocaust he fetishizes, and, again, isn’t interested in trying hard with the script to make it work. Why are we repeatedly told how valuable the Mandingo fighters are only to have probably $20,000 worth of them sold to a cheapo mining outfit at a pittance alongside Foxx? So that the old sad version of the Strong Black Man can be present and learn a lesson when the new vibrant Strong Black Man takes his vengeance; so that Jamie Foxx can show these brute, mute wrestlers what you can do with smarts and a refusal to kowtow. (After all, if anyone deserves to be insulted in the last reel of a film, it’s an exploited to-the-death prizefighter who’s never been offered a choice his entire life.) Why is it such a revelation to DiCaprio and the Candieland authority that Foxx and Keri Hilson know each other WHEN THEY ARE THE ONLY TWO CHARACTERS IN THE FILM WITH GIANT R’S BRANDED ONTO THEIR FACES? It’s as though somewhere around 2005, Logic did Tarantino a nasty turn, and he’s decided they’ll never work together again.
There’s so much more. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance hasn’t even been mentioned, and it’s such a blow to decency that even people who don’t see the film will be made a little more racist going forward as a result. Just a terrible, obnoxious, unentertaining film. People stood and clapped as the credits rolled in my theater, of course.
"The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day." -Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
The emperors of Rome and Byzantium:
Augustus died of natural causes.
Tiberius either died of natural causes or was smothered with a pillow
Caligula was stabbed.
Claudius was poisoned.
Confronted with loss of empire, Nero committed suicide.
Galba was stabbed.
Otho committed suicide, somewhat nobly.
Vitellius was stabbed.
Vespasian died of natural causes after saying, “I seem to be turning into a god.”
Titus died of natural causes after saying, “I have made but one mistake.”
Domitian was stabbed in the groin, then stabbed elsewhere.
Nerva died of natural causes.
Trajan died of natural causes.
Hadrian died of natural causes.
Antoninus Pius died of natural causes.
Lucius Verus either succumbed to food poisoning or smallpox.
Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes.
When poisoning failed, Commodus was strangled.
Pertinax was stabbed.
Didius Julianas suffered state-ordered execution after imploring, “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”
Septimius Severus died of natural causes.
Caracalla was stabbed while urinating by the side of the road.
Geta was stabbed at his mother’s house, in her arms, by agents of his brother.
Macrinus went by state-ordered execution.
Diadumenian went by state-ordered execution.
Elagabulus was stabbed alongside his mother.
Severus Alexander was also stabbed alongside his mother.
Maximinus I was stabbed.
Gordian I committed suicide.
Gordian II was killed in battle.
Pupienus was tortured, then hacked to death.
Balbinus was tortured, then hacked to death.
Gordian III may have been assassinated, or he may not have been.
Philip I was killed in battle.
Trajan Decius was killed in battle.
Hostilian died of plague.
Trebonianus Gallus was stabbed.
Aemilian was stabbed.
Captured by Persians, Valerian was either forced to swallow molten gold or flayed alive while in captivity. He was then stuffed and mounted.
Gallienus was stabbed.
Claudius Gothicus died of natural causes.
Quintillus was stabbed or committed suicide or was assisted in suicide by a physician.
Aurelian was stabbed.
Possibly Tacitus was assassinated.
Florian was stabbed.
Probus was stabbed.
Carus was perhaps struck by lightning
Numerian might have been assassinated.
Carinus was killed in battle.
After abdicating to his retirement palace at Split, Diocletian may have committed suicide out of depression at empire’s deterioration. Or he died of natural causes.
Maximinian was ordered to commit suicide in captivity after abdication.
Constantius I Chlorus died of natural causes.
Galerius succumbed either to gangrene or bowel cancer.
Severus II was forced to commit suicide in captivity.
Constantine I the Great died of natural causes.
Maxentius accidentally drowned while fleeing the battlefield in defeat.
Maximinus II committed suicide.
Licinius I was hanged.
Constantine II was killed in battle.
Constantius II died of natural causes.
Constans I was stabbed.
Vetranio died of natural causes following abdication.
Julian II the Apostate was killed in battle.
Jovian either ate bad mushrooms or expired from carbon monoxide poisoning in a poorly ventilated room.
Valentinian I suffered a disrespect-induced stroke.
Valens was either killed in battle or burned to death in a flaming hut after being wounded in battle.
Gratian was stabbed.
Valentinian II was maybe stabbed, maybe killed himself.
Theodosius I died of natural causes.
Arcadius died of natural causes.
Honorius died of natural causes.
Theodosius II suffered a riding accident.
Constantius III died of natural causes.
Joannes underwent spectacular public torture and disfigurement, then decapitation.
Valentinian III was stabbed.
Marcian suffered gangrene.
Petronius Maximus was stoned.
After deposition, Avitus was either strangled or starved.
Majorian was deposed, then tortured and decapitated.
Libius Severus died of natural causes.
Anthemius was decapitated.
Olybrius died of natural causes.
Glycerius died of natural causes after deposition.
Julius Nepos was stabbed.
Leo I died of natural causes.
Leo II may have been poisoned.
Either dysentery, epilepsy, or live burial was Zeno’s fate.
Basiliscus was deposed. After extracting from his adversary a promise that his blood would not be shed, he and his family were sealed up in a dry cistern to perish from dehydration and exposure.
Anastasius I died of natural causes.
Justin I died of natural causes.
Justinian I the Great died of natural causes.
Justin II went insane and eventually died of natural causes.
Tiberius II Constantine was victim either of food poisoning or regular poisoning.
Maurice was decapitated.
Phocas was decapitated after answering the question, “Is this how you have ruled, wretch?” with, “And will you rule better?”
Heraclius died of natural causes.
Constantine III expired either from tuberculosis or poisoning.
Heraklonas died of natural causes after being deposed and mutilated.
Constans II was stabbed.
Constantine IV the Bearded died of natural causes.
After deposition, Justinian II the Slit-nosed was decapitated.
Leontios was deposed, imprisoned, mutilated, and finally decapitated.
Tiberios III Apsimar was deposed, then decapitated.
It’s unknown exactly what became of Phillipikos Bardanes after his deposition and blinding.
Anastasios II was stabbed.
Theodosios III died of natural causes after abdication.
Leo III the Isaurian died of natural causes.
Constantine V the Dung-named died of natural causes.
Artabasdos was deposed and blinded, then died from natural causes.
Leo IV the Khazar died of natural causes.
Constantine VI died in captivity from wounds resulting from his blinding.
Irene of Athens died of natural causes after her deposition and exile.
Nikephoros I the Logothete was killed in battle, and a drinking cup was made from his skull.
Made paraplegic by a sword blow to the neck in battle, Staurakios abdicated, and died from his condition not long after.
Michael I Rangabe died of natural causes after abdication.
Leo V the Armenian was hacked to pieces and tossed into the snow.
Michael II the Stammerer died of natural causes.
Theophilos died of natural causes.
Michael III the Drunkard was disfigured and stabbed while passed out drunk.
Basil I the Macedonian was dragged for 16 miles by a deer, and died from the experience.
Leo VI the Wise died of natural causes.
Alexander III succumbed to overexertion from playing polo.
It’s possible Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos was poisoned.
Romanos I Lekapenos died of natural causes after deposition.
Romanos II might have been poisoned.
Nikephoros II Phokas was decapitated by assassins dressed as women.
John I Tzimiskes was poisoned.
Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer died of natural causes.
Constantine VIII died of natural causes.
Zoe died of natural causes after abdication.
Romanos III Argyros was maybe poisoned, maybe forcibly drowned.
Michael IV the Paphlagonian died of natural causes.
Michael V the Caulker deposed, blinded, and castrated. He died of natural causes.
Theodora died of natural causes.
Constantine IX Monomachos died of natural causes.
Michael VI Bringas the Old died of natural causes after deposition.
Isaac I Komnenos died of natural causes after abdication.
Constantine X Doukas died of natural causes after forcing his wife to take a vow never to remarry.
Michael VII Doukas died of natural causes after abdication.
Forced to abdicate and then blinded, Romanos IV Diogenes contracted an infection from his blinding, and died from it.
Nikephoros III Botaneiates died of natural causes after deposition.
Alexios I Komnenos died of natural causes.
John II Komnenos was accidentally poked with a poisoned arrow while hunting.
Manuel I Komnenos died of natural causes.
Alexios II Komnenos was strangled with a bow string.
Andronikos I Komnenos suffered three days of torture and disfigurement by a mob. At length, he was hung upside down by his heels and made the site of contest between two soldiers vying over who could stab him the more deeply.
Isaac II Angelos may have been poisoned in captivity after his deposition and blinding.
Alexios III Angelos died in captivity after abdication.
Alexios IV Angleos was strangled in captivity after deposition.
Alexios V Doukas was hurled from the summit of the Column of Theodosius.
Theodore I Laskaris died of natural causes.
John III Doukas Vatatzes died of natural causes.
Theodore II Laskaris was carried away by an epileptic fit.
John IV Laskaris died of natural causes after deposition and blinding.
Michael VIII Palaiologos died of natural causes.
Andronikos II Palaiologos died of natural causes after abdication.
Michael IX Palaiologos dwindled away after one son was accidentally murdered by servants of his other son.
Andronikos III Palaiologos died of natural causes.
John V Palaiologos lovingly restored the Golden Gates of Byzantium. Upon completion, the Turkish Sultan made him raze them. The humiliation was too much.
John VI Kantakouzenos died of natural causes after deposition.
Matthew Kantakouzenos died of natural causes after abdication.
Andronikos IV Palaiologos died of natural causes after deposition.
John VII Palaiologos died of natural causes.
Manuel II Palaiologos died of natural causes.
Andronikos V Palaiologos died of natural causes.
John VIII Palaiologos died of natural causes.
Constantine XI Palaiologos vanished into a crowd of exultant Turkish Janissaries storming the walls of Constantinople. He was presumed killed in battle.
Mid-to-Late-Career Doc Miles: The Final Episode
Dwight Yoakam, “Suspicious Minds” We conclude with a fairly inevitable cover.
1) Most every shot of the video is either an extreme close-up of the Doctor’s face or a distance shot with an empty background, indicating that he feels the best setting to make his argument is one completely devoid of context.
2) Doc Miles maintains excellent eye contact with the camera. He does not once make eye contact with the woman to whom he is ostensibly singing.