Cocteau is really concerned not just with glory, but with the peculiar glory of the poet, with the manner in which the poet cannibalizes his own past.
Ultimately the kind of meaning that music and painting possesses is one of dynamic relationships of elements.
Robert Shoals – Quite frequently those trained in literature were least able to appreciate film because they anticipated that profundity must perforce be verbal. They could not acknowledge that it was possible for film to be at once banal verbally and profound visually.
Film adumbrates the conceptual. Literature adumbrates the concrete.
Literature starts with a general idea, then you must provide the concrete detail…. On the other hand, if I convey this in film, I begin with a concrete detail. Immediately you know what the man looks like…, but you must deduce, from physical detail, what the meaning of the man’s appearance is. That is, you start with concrete detail and move toward meaning, connotation, poetry. And in literature you start with the conception, the conceptual, and move toward the concrete.
Robert Lowery – The fascinating thing is that film is capable of turning anything into poetic statement.
I had supposed myself somehow disembodied, not real in the way other people were, an observer but not an actor, not a doer. And suddenly I realized that the world was full of people who didn’t know they were real, whose lives didn’t conform to the glamorous expectations generated by culture, by television, by film, by literature, or by magazines. And that it was my duty in life to validate them, to take pictures of them, to show them their reality, to redeem that aspect of their lives that was otherwise lost, to bring them into being.
Every instant the entire universe is going over the spillway.
In film … there is a kind of symbolic triumph over time.
Much avant-garde film is pre-occupied simply with analysis of surface reality.
Film also, by anchoring itself in physical reality, captures a kind of irrelevant detail, almost by chance …. I feel that the random, in terms of concrete detail at least, is more inescapably present and more convincingly realistic [than in other art forms].
Two Types of Modern Avant-Garde Film
[“Meshes of the Afternoon”] is subjective …. The unreliable narrator filters everything through her own sensibility and though we think we are getting the truth … how can we be sure? [“Meshes” is] certainly the expression of a neurotic sensibility …. This sensibility is pre-occupied with … personal liberation, sexual and emotional submission to the man with whom she’s having the affair. Nothing literally happens, the dramatic action of the entire film consists merely of this woman’s coming to the apartment … and sitting down in the chair. That’s all that literally happens in the film, but that’s not all that happens on the screen. Deren creates a new reality … playing very deftly with Freudian suggestion.
In the apparent suicide that occurs at the end of the film the symbolic gesture is altogether ambiguous; we don’t know if it’s an act of suicide, and act of eroticism (by symbolic imagery), or a gesture of liberation. Deren at this point turn her facile Freudianism brilliantly to advantage. It might be a crude language, but she’s found a way to manipulate it to make it wonderfully expressive. The knife … connotes both violence and sexuality in a way that perfectly conveys the heroine’s presumed confusion about her own life and emotional complications (regarding her relationship with Shasha Hammid, the co-director of the film).
We can’t be sure whether the act is … is suicide in neurotic despair at the violation of self she feels imposed by the world of a man with whom she is having the affair, or whether it represents the ending of a relationship that entrammels her (and hence a mode of liberation) or the act of sex, which, since Elizabethan times … has been represented as a metaphysical death (le petite morte), however desired and feared. All three of these possibilities overlap and become a single … complex and subtle statement.
There is no strident feminism in the film…. Ultimately, Maya Deren is more interested in herself as a person than as a woman. If anything, this film seems to question the compatability of the two. And yet the message of the film is clearly that conventional roles constitute a violation of self…. But, and this is the catch, and the profundity of he film’s statement: efforts to affirm the self often destroy it in the process, becomes a mode of self-mutilation. Perhaps the film would be described best as a classic statement of the romantic dilemma, the tension between the self and the mask that can lead to the destruction of both. What we are dealing with is to some extent the myth of Narcissus and hence the use of mirrors throughout the film (psychological mask and romantic reflection) as a kind of leit motif. What [Deren is] analyzing is the complexity of the male / female relationship, compounded out of love and hate, submission and violence, a relationship at once desired and despised, with which one cannot extricate oneself without destroying some part of one’s self – that’s the catch-22 of “Meshes of the Afternoon.”
‘[‘Meshes’] culminates in a double ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, that it became reality.” But note that it’s not. She’s not dead, simply because we still see through her sensibility that which she imagines. And because there’s a second and third part to the trilogy – “At Land” and “Ritual in Transfigured Time.”
There are five verses in The Gospel According to John that are known as the Paraclete or Advocate verses:
John 14:15 – 17 – If you love me you will obey my commands; and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another to be your Advocate, who will be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive him, because the world neither sees nor knows him; but you know him, because he dwells with you and is (or, shall be) in you.
John 14:25 – 26 – I have told you all this while I am still here with you; but your Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send you in my name, will teach you everything, and will call to mind all that I have told you.
John 15:26 – 27 – But when your Advocate has come, whom I will send you from the Father – the Spirit of truth that issues from the father – he will bear witness to me. And you also are my witnesses, because you have been with me from the first.
John 16:5 – 11 – None of you asks me, “Where are you going?” Yet you are plunged into grief because of what I have told you. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is for your good that I am leaving you. If I do not go, your Advocate will not come, whereas if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will confute the world, and show you where wrong and right and judgement lie. He will convict them of wrong, by their refusal to believe in me; he will convince them that right is on my side, by showing that I go to the Father when I pass from your sight; and he will convince them of divine judgement, by showing that the Prince of this world stands condemned.
John 16:12 – 15 – There is still much that I could say to you, but the burden would be too great for you now. However, when he comes who is the Spirit of truth, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but will tell only what he hears; and he will make known to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, for everything that he makes known to you he will draw from what is mine. All that the Father has is mine, and that is why I said, ‘Everything that he makes known to you he will draw from what is mine.’
All five Paraclete or Advocate verses are put on the lips of Jesus by the author of The Gospel According to John.
The exact nature of the Holy Spirit as described in the Gospel of John is amorphous. The Holy Spirit is not forthrightly described in absolute terms, but comes across as a solution to a well-designed puzzle. There is no defining explanation of what the Holy Spirit is. The scholarly criticism focused on the nature of the Holy Spirit is varied, being focused on different aspects of the Holy Spirit. Biblical scholars battle with each other attempting to explain what the author of John was attempting to accomplish. Some of the scholars are searching for a definitive, exacting portrayal of the Holy Spirit, which, of course, is not possible. It is by nature a spiritual and amorphous task. The Holy Spirit is an ingenious theological creation on the part of the author of John and and yields to broad theological interpretation. None of the scholars are wrong, some are just grasping at specific theories that attempt to pin down the author to specifics. Others are quite successful with their general interpretations of purpose. However, all of the critical material can be combined to create a generalized depiction of the Johanine Holy Spirit.
The word “spirit” has its origin in the nature of wind. Often within the Bible, “wind” and “spirit” are used interchangeably. This can be used as a powerful literary device, as in Genesis 1:1 – 2:
In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.
The New English Bible provides a footnote regarding the phrase, “and a mighty wind that swept.” Besides its obvious meaning, it can also mean, “and the spirit of God hovering.” This “mighty wind” and “spirit of God” are analogous. This is a powerful image. One can sense the image of the wind hovering over the “abyss” of the earth and easily relate it to the spirit of God. The spirit of God is both a simple and complex concept that is often mysterious, impalpable concept. Wind is also a simple, yet complex concept while at times mysterious and impalpable. C. H. Dodd expands this concept of wind and spirit to humanity:
The impression of movement and force which the mind derives from contemplating the effects of wind seems early to have suggested that life and movement in the world are due to the presence of some element analogous to the breath-soul in man.1
In the Gospel of John, “Holy Spirit” conveys the concept of a continued relationship between Jesus and his followers. It is, at times, referred to as “intercessor,” “Advocate,” and most often as “Paraclete.” I will use the term, “Paraclete.”
Most of the information we have about the Paraclete, and, in turn, the Holy Spirit comes from the five Paraclete verses. Scholars devote themselves to constructing a picture of the Paraclete through these five verses. As an aid in discussion and an introduction to Paraclete scholarship, I will present leading arguments and conceptions of the Paraclete. Afterwards, I will attempt to combine this scholarship into a summary concept of the Paraclete based on the original writings of the author of the Gospel of John. My attempt is to arrive at some common ground between the views (if only abstractly).
As a starting point:
Hermann Sasse argued that the Paraclete was a human personality, one filled with the Spirit, a prophet who would proclaim Christ and creatively continue his revelation – just what the author of the Fourth Gospel did. In that case, the evangelist himself would be the Paraclete, even though the final version of the book identifies the Paraclete with the Spirit.2
This scholarly concept is simply, a person filled with the Spirit.
Hans Windisch promotes the idea of a double Paraclete, one in heaven and one on earth:
The role of the Paraclete as a “double” becomes evident directly from John, not only from the expression about the ‘other Paraclete’ in 14:16, but also from the comparison with the intercessory function of Jesus in heaven in 16:26 as well ad from 1 John 2:1 (Jesus is the Paraclete of the Church with the Father). According to John (the Gospel and the first epistle), the Church has two intercessors, one in heaven and one on earth – the one, the friend at court who stays at the court and intercedes there for his protege, and the other, the friend from court who is sent by the court and appears in the world as mediator, admonitor, teacher, and ambassador.3
The following quotes consider the Paraclete in more general terms and are, I believe, stronger because of that – much less is read into the original texts. Raymond Brown asserts that Jesus was the first Paraclete and the Holy Spirit was the second Paraclete. Through parallel comparisons of what John says about Jesus and what Brown believes is the second Paraclete, he elaborates:
Jesus is the truth (14:16), as the Paraclete is the Spirit of truth. He is the Holy One of God (6:69), as the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit (accepting the reading in 14:26). Hence the Holy Spirit in John, as in the New Testament generally, is the Spirit of Jesus; it rested on him as he began his ministry (1:32) and he breathed it forth at its close (20:22 and perhaps 19:30)
[Brown’s conclusion is] …as ‘another Paraclete’ the Paraclete is, as it were, another Jesus … and the Paraclete is the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.4
George Johnston responds:
As paraclete, the spirit is the representative of Jesus and it should not therefore be considered ‘another Jesus’ or ‘ the presence of Jesus when Jesus is absent.’ Rather, this concept directs attention to the evidence in the life of the apostolic church of wisdom, vitality, virtue, and graces that Christians could explain only as the sign of divine power and God’s very presence.
Within the churches the influence and the gifts of the spirit-paraclete were mediated to certain persons who fulfilled precisely those functions that are ascribed in the Farewell Discourses to the spirit itself. They are therefore to be identified as the agents of the divine spirit. John the evangelist must be regarded as one such agent, and it would not be improper to honor him with the title of ‘paraclete of the Christians’ 5
Finally, C. K. Barrett provides a summary:
The Spirit’s work is to bear witness to Christ, to make operative what Christ had already effected. The Spirit is thus the eschatological continuum in which the work of Christ, initiated in his ministry and awaiting its termination at his return, is wrought out. … How, we may ask, does the Spirit in fact convince the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement? The answer is, primarily through the witness which the Church bears to Christ, its preaching and sacraments.6
In my mind, Barrett’s helps to bring all the discussion of the Paraclete together into a strong argument about the contemporary thinking when the gospels were written. The Spirit is directly related to the Church’s witness to Christ. Put another way, the Church is the Spirit incarnate. It is a “remembering of Jesus.” The Christ of the Johanine Jesus is the crux of the Church. This “remembrance” is what nourishes the Church. Johnston rebukes strongly Brown’s thinking that “the Paraclete is the presence of Jesus while Jesus is absent.” In his attempt to de-mythologize the Holy Spirit by giving it an early Christian explanation of the divine source of “wisdom, vitality, and graces,” he contradicts himself. The very existence of the Church had its generation in Jesus’s death (John 12:24). It is symbolically represented in Jesus’s exhaltation and giving of the Spirit to the disciples. In John’s view, there would have been no wisdom, vitality and grace if there had been no death. Bluntly, Christ and therefore, Christianity did not exist prior to Jesus’s death. The death exalted the things Jesus shared with the disciples to the point of creating the Church – Jesus and his teachings are “resurrected” as Christ and Christianity when he dies. Jesus is elevated to the role of the Paraclete, the Advocate at his death. The Paraclete or Advocate is the Holy Spirit and John felt this Spirit was the wisdom, vitality and grace of the Church, which is Christ manifest. Since the death and exaltation was the basis for the Church, so long as the Church exists, so does the essence of Jesus, which is Christ. This is what the author of the Gospel of John is attempting to communicate in his conception of the Holy Spirit. Jesus, in the flesh, is not present, but the mysterious, impalpable presence of Jesus is felt through the Church’s remembrance of, or witness to, him.
The Paraclete’s purpose is to
call to mind all that I have told you. (John 14:26)
The Spirit will “bear witness” to Jesus (John 15:26). This “presence through remembering” is the dynamo and Holy Spirit of the Church. In fact, it is it’s defining attribute. It is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of truth
I am the truth. (John 14:6)
and therefore, to the Church, the Holy Spirit.
Johnston does do some service, however, in the he concedes to Hermann Sasse that John could very well be labeled a “paraclete of the Christians.” As suggested earlier, the Church and the Holy Spirit are almost inseparable because the Church is made up of Christians possessing the Holy Spirit (John 7:39 and John 20:22). The supporters of the Church (such as the author of The Gospel of John) perform the tasks associated with the Paraclete. It is reasonable to assume the the author of The Gospel of John considered himself to be filled with the Spirit. His conception of the Christian was a person filled with the Spirit. The Church as a whole embodies the Paraclete idea (Barrett), but the author of The Gospel of John, being a leading force in the Church at this time, and by speaking “… on his own authority … only what he hears” (John 16:13), also personifies the Paraclete idea.
Raymond Brown and Han Windisch both emphasize the “double” existence of Paracletes. Windisch supports the idea of “two intercessors, one in heaven and one on earth.” Brown believes that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. There’s some commonality here. The intercessor in heaven can be seen as Jesus united with God and the intercessor on earth can be seen as the Spirit of Jesus or the Spirit of truth within the Church. The interpretation by Brown, taken along with Barrett’s continuum, represents what I believe to be the idea closest to the conception of the Johanine author. Brown’s argument is substantiated by two verses in the Gospel of John. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the truth ….” In the Paraclete verse John 15:26. the Paraclete is referred to as the “Spirit of truth which issues from the Father.” The unity of Christ and the Father (My Father and I are one. (John 10:30)) clearly supports Windisch’s view – Jesus united with God as the heavenly Paraclete, the Holy Spirit as the earthly Paraclete (the Spirit of Jesus) left behind.
There is also evidence in John which presents the Holy Spirit as being the Spirit of Jesus within the Church. The author of The Gospel According to John gradually builds on this theme until Jesus’s exhaltation, when Jesus is made to pass the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. The author begins with eucharistic imagery, the “bread of life” and “living waters.”
John 12:23 – The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.
Jesus must die in order to give up his Spirit.
John 16:7 – If I do not go, your Advocate will not come….
In order to have eternal life this Holy Spirit must be received. The author uses the eating of bread that represents Jesus’s flesh to depict the Christian reception of the Holy Spirit. The image of eating Jesus’s flesh represents both the death during the Passion and the reception of the Spirit through eating. As bread is eaten for nourishment, so is the Holy Spirit received for eternal life; Jesus’s flesh is consumed. The symbol of “living water” is used in similar fashion.
John 7:38 – ‘Streams of water shall flow out from within him.’ He was speaking of the Spirit which believers in him would receive later; for the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.
Jesus must die before the Spirit can be given, before the “living water” can be consumed.
What is the nature of the Paraclete? It is best understood as the unification of the followers of Jesus (the Church). As Jesus is unified with God and the believers unified with the Spirit, all believers are unified through Jesus’s commandment:
John 13:34 – 35 – I give you a new commandment: love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another, then I know that you are my disciples.
The Paraclete is to “confute the world, and show where wrong and right and Judgement lie” (John 16:8). In John the “world” represents the world of Satan. A division separates the disciples and the world.
John 14:17 – The world cannot receive him, because the world neither sees not knows him; but you know him, because he dwells with you and is (or shall be) in you.
When Jesus is exalted the Church is formed. He tells the disciples,
John 20:22 – 23 – Receive the Holy Spirit! If you forgive any man’s sins, they stand forgiven; if you pronounce them unforgiven, unforgiven they remain.
John is blending his image of the Paraclete with the Church as set apart from the world. The Church, as the Paraclete, will judge the world.
In the Synoptics, Jesus’s message is “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31, Matthews 22:39, Luke 10:27). Within John, this is an abstraction. The “love one another” is depicted only within the context of the disciples, the Church. This commandment is the strongest unifying aspect of the Church. The Church is set against Satan’s world. The world is always set against the disciples. This is a manifestation of the contrast between the light and the dark.
Thus the Paraclete and Holy Spirit are closely related. The Paraclete is the Church and its continuing witness to Christ. The Paraclete derives its power to “confute the world” through the Christian receipt of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’s sending of the Paraclete is seen as the gift of the Spirit to the disciples at Jesus’s exaltation. Barrett’s “eschatological continuum” paints a very clear picture. George Johnston sums up the author of John:
[Jesus] … as the God-man is spirit and the source of spiritual life. No one in John’s era could see Jesus the Son of God with the eye of the flesh; but they would see the embodiment in the Church of his disciples.7
The author of John theologically immortalized Jesus as Christ. Indeed, Jesus became the exalted Christ in the Fourth Gospel.
1Dodd, C.H., The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (London: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p.213. 2Reuman, John, Introduction to The Spirit-Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel by Hans Windisch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. xi. 3Windisch, Hans, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 20. 4Johnston, George, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel (London: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 94. 5Johnston, p. 126. 6Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John (London: S.P.C.K., 1965), pp. 76-77. 7Johnston, p. 127.
C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John. London: S.P.C.K., 1965.
C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. London: Cambridge University Press, 1953.
George Johnston, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel. London: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Hans Windisch, The Spirit-Paraclete in the Fourth Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968.
W.H. Auden gives us a personal insight into his own religious beliefs the impact of Christianity in his poem, “In Praise of Limestone.” The poem is a successful blending of geological imagery depicting the varying nature of man. There are two extreme natures represented by two distinct landscapes. There is the socialized protection of the limestone landscape where the “best and worst” inhabitants escape to. This is juxtaposed with the granite waste lands. Auden’s point of view in the poem is clear – he concedes in the end that the limestone landscape best represents
Or the life to come.1
Auden begins his poem by coalescing humanity under the description of “the inconstant ones.”2 This first line stresses human fallibility, suggesting the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. The terrain of the limestone landscape is a place that all people have known. It is the place that we, as humans,
Are constantly homesick for.3
Being cast from a utopian existence, such as Eden or childhood, one constantly longs for that which is lost.
There are three parallel themes in this poem. These three themes embody a loss of innocence or a constant maturing. The themes are the expulsion paradise or an Eden-like existence, the loss of innocence through maturity, and the naivete of Christian religious concepts. All three of these themes are experienced by all people in some manner. The limestone landscape is that which was lost and is now longed for – paradise, childhood, or faith in Christianity. The poem focuses mainly on the later theme, but the other two themes are inherent in this main theme.
The limestone landscape is described in utopian terms:
…Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard;4
The limestone landscape is longed for by humans and represent paradise lost. This limestone Eden is described in another work by Auden:
Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.5
These images correspond closely with the images of “In Praise of Limestone:” “granite wastes,” “oceanic whisper,” and “blazing crater.”
The Eden-like limestone landscape is a
Of short distances and definite places6
These images are completely palpable and offer a calming security. It is a totally enclosed world – no one can see past its limits.
After the descriptions of paradise, Auden begins the second theme. The loss of innocence parallels the expulsion from Eden and echoes the relationship between mother and son. The poem begins to expand in its metaphorical themes. The landscape is like a mother – it is a protective landscape. Geoffrey Millard believes the limestone landscape represents the womb and that the granite wastes represent a created, lost womb.7 Although this is true, its seems a simple way of describing the Mother / son relationship. The formal term, “Mother” does not stand for a mother, but the essence of motherhood. It has a deeper meaning, especially in the latter part of the poem. The limestone landscape, the Mother, and son begin to form the structure of the third theme – complete faith in Christianity:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm?8
The meaning is clear. The limestone landscape represents Christian thought and faith. The Mother / son relationship is also a God / man relationship. The verses here are brimming with Christian doctrine. The rock upon which the son lounges echoes Peter, the rock upon which the Christian Church was built. The verse reveals the boy’s dependence on Christianity.
That for all his faults his is loved.9
directly represents the Christian concept of “forgiveness of sins.” No matter what a person does they are forgiven by God and still loved. As Mother loves and loves her son, the limestone landscape (through Christian doctrine) loves and protects its inhabitants. The rest of this section is filled with Biblical images: “hill-top temple,” “appearing waters,” and “vineyards.”
After laying the foundation for a Christian interpretation in the beginning of the poem, Auden proceeds to describe the community that lives in the limestone landscape. The limestone community represents the Christian community. This is an allegorical poem with concrete meaning in the real world. In lines 21 through 43, Auden describes the nature of Christianity in its purest, most naive sense. The Christianity of which he writes is the kind that a person experiences when they are totally immersed in Christian dogma. Auden’s tone is condescension.
The boys who climb upon the rocks know
…each other too well to think
There are any important secrets.10
Here Auden begins to draw a picture of the experienced world of the steadfast Christian; it is exactly like the geography of the limestone landscape. The interior world of the Church is seen as a group of people bound together socially and religiously, thus forming a way to ignore the reality of the world. The Church is an isolation from the disruption caused by worldly proceedings. The Church is the utopian landscape of the poem. Within the social structure of the Church people come to know each other closely and, seemingly, completely. Thus there is a security formed through this belonging and total knowledge of each other.
The limestone inhabitant’s (the thorough Christian’s) relationship with God is a one-sided, humanistic one. Moral and ethical thought evade these people, and God is perceived in their own image. God is dealt with as if he were another person to be reasoned with on one’s own terms. God is seen as a person responding to “clever lines”11 and offers of a “good lay.”12 The inhabitants are
…accustomed to a stone that responds.12
This represents the idolatrous or mythological representations of God.
At this point Auden interjects a strange image – that of the volcano. In his “dream of eden”13 description, a dormant volcano was mentioned. People
…have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.14
A dormant volcano represents the potential for an awakening and wrathful God.
The devout Christians that inhabit the limestone landscape are ignorant of the world outside their Christian conceptions. Every day they see only their own Christian selves. They can conceive of nothing that is like the real world – the poverty, disease and blight of other human existence. The devout and dogmatic Christians are, in short, a naive, isolated and highly protected people.
The poem is divided into two equal halves at line 43. The emphasis shifts to people who have left the limestone landscape, the confines of Christian dogma. Auden himself is a member of this group. To the “best and worst”15 who “sought / Immoderate soils,”16 life in the limestone landscape is like a “mad camp.”17 Auden is explaining why he left the dogmatic Christianity of the limestone landscape behind. The granite wastes (knowledge) called to him.
How permanent is death.18
echoes twentieth-century existentialist thought (Kierkegaard). In view of modern thought such as existentialism, “Saints-to-be” 19 have their dreams crushed. They slip “away sighing.”20 Christian thought can be dissolved within the bounds of existentialist thinking. (However, the same water that dissolves the limestone also provides protective sinkholes for the fish of the landscape. “Dissolving” thus has both positive and negative connotations.)
If naivete, isolation and protective existence exemplify the limestone landscape, what comprises the granite wastes of knowledge? The plains provide “room for armies to drill,”21 nature is altered, slaves exist and death without hope awaits. Wars are fought.
Intendant Caesars rose and
Left, slamming the door.22
This is the modern, rational world of man. Here in the granite wastes man causes his own destruction through his desire for belonging through power and his search for purpose through meaning. In contrast, both the needs of belonging and purpose are met. To Auden, it is apparent that problems also exist in the granites wastes of knowledge.
The “oceanic whisper”23 also calls to some. The people who answer this call are the ones assimilated most into the granite wastes of knowledge. Answering the call are the people who deny completely the limestone landscape of faith. There can be no such thing as God or “faultless love” or a “life to come” for these people. They exist within their own “solitude.”24
Auden admits that “all those voices were right.”25 He has a positive attitude toward the voices of knowledge. (After all, Auden did himself leave the limestone landscape.) He does not accept the granite wastes completely, however. This place of knowledge is not all that people make it out to be. The peace that the granite wastes offers is simply through a vision of the world. It offers no concrete point of reference, no God. It “asks and promises nothing.”26 Man simply tries to rebuild through knowledge that which he lost when he left the limestone landscape – faith. (Childhood is seen as a Eden-like existence. Man desires to return to the protected life of the child.) The peace that is offered is simply an explanation of the real world – the world that evades the religious.) Knowledge, then, is reduced to a mythology. It is a “tunnel” that connects the “dilapidated province” to the “big busy world.”27
Auden cannot totally disclaim knowledge either. He defines his place in the world as Poet and his purpose as Art. This lies between the two extremes of complete knowledge and complete faith. The Poet tries to reproduce reality in Art – to call “The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle.”28 The marble statues of the limestone landscape make Auden uneasy in that they
His antimythological myth.29
Auden’s poetry is an “antimythological myth” because it rejects the mythology of complete knowledge and complete faith, but in doing so, creates another mythology or representation of reality. The marble statues make Auden uneasy because they represent a possible truth – a non-myth: God. This would cause his own myths to crumble.
On the other side of the spectrum lies the Poet’s feelings toward knowledge. The purveyors of complete knowledge are simply “scientists” who rebuke the Poet’s
…concern for Nature’s
Auden expresses his fear of death and his desire for faith in the face of that fear. He has these fears in common with every other person – these fears are the “Common Prayer.”31 The Common Prayer represents everyman’s fear of death:
Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our Common Prayer, whose great comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell.32
These prayers are music declaring hope. They resonate with everyone.
Auden goes on to write of his attitudes toward the purpose of knowledge and faith. The purpose of knowledge is to make us aware that death is inevitable and faith is an expression of hope.
In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point: …33
Auden now comes to the purpose of his poem. “In Praise of Limestone” is just what the title suggests. The praise comes in the form of a concession. After carefully structuring the metaphorical extremes of the limestone landscape and the granite wastes, between which Auden stands as Poet, Auden concedes that only the limestone landscape lends itself to a possible revelation of Truth. In addition, he praises naive Christians for what they embody.
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.34
“In Praise of Limestone” strikingly parallels the struggles between Gnostic and Christian world views of the first century. This conflict can be seen most clearly in the Gospel of John, where the author tries to unite knowledge in Jesus – the Word become Flesh. W.H. Auden successfully recreates that conflict for modern man in his poem, “In Praise of Limestone.”
I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Those who do not do the same
How should they know what I do?1
In T.S. Eliot’s later poetry and “Murder in the Cathedral” there is a tendency for the poet to focus on the human condition, especially as it relates to Christianity. This discussion will begin with the themes of life, death and Christianity in “Murder in the Cathedral” and then the later poems of “Ash Wednesday,” “Burnt Norton” and the “Ariel Poems. Other, more cynical works, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” “The Waste Land” and the satires will also be addressed, but with less emphasis on these themes.
“Murder in the Cathedral” is a play about the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket returns from France to England after seven years of exile and is confronted by four Tempters. The temptations take the form of alternatives from which Becket is obligated to choose. In confronting Becket, the First Tempter tells Becket to recover his favors with King Henry to restore the situation that existed before Becket’s disloyalty. The Second Tempter tells Becket to regain the Office of Chancellor and use its power for his own glory. Becket is asked by the Third Tempter to join forces with the barons to overthrow the King for the benefit of both the Church and the barons. The Fourth Tempter is the most important because he tells us,
“I am only here, Thomas, to tell you what you know.2
The Fourth Tempter tells the reader what is going on in Becket’s mind. His advice to Becket is to
Fare forward to the end.3
Becket listens to this Tempter because it is his own thoughts that confront him. The Tempter tells him,
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.4
Becket’s reaction is negative,
I well know that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.5
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.6
Becket decides that he must not let the possibility of receiving glory after his martyrdom affect his receiving that martyrdom. He must “no longer act or suffer”7 but lose “his will in the Will of God.”8 Destiny will take its course. This echoes the Chorus of Women at the beginning of the play:
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen…9
Becket, faced with the temptation and his own certain death, does the only thing he can do. He awaits destiny, the Will of God, his certain death, neither acting or suffering. It is a death with no thoughts of glory, for that would mean damnation. In his acceptance of death, Becket is free. It is his submission to the Will of God that sets him free.
A major theme begins when the Fourth Tempter tells Becket:
You hold the skein: wind, Thomas, wind
The thread of eternal life and death…”10
This theme is developed into a kind of paradox through which Becket defines his destiny – his martyrdom. Becket links the Christmas / Birth and Passion / Death together to express the full meaning of martyrdom. Eliot implies a great deal with the term “martyrdom,” most likely his own view of Christianity, when he has Becket say:
A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the Will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.11
Martyrdom becomes a metaphor for Christianity in the play, or how a Christian should respond to God. Mr. Eliot is defining Christianity.
This martyrdom / Christianity, death / birth, Passion / Christmas theme is consistent in Eliot’s poetry after “The Wasteland.” It is stressed in the Ariel poems. In “Journey of the Magi,” the Magi looks upon Jesus’ birth, questioning the significance. Was it Birth, only? The Magi had seen birth and death before but had “thought them different.”12 When he sees the birth of Jesus, he is also aware of Jesus’ Death and that brings forth his awareness of his own death. His own “martyrdom” is made in his awareness of his death. When the Magi goes back to his kingdom, his life has changed – he is
…no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.13
The “old dispensation” echoes “Murder in the Cathedral.” The “old dispensation,” this “alien people” are the people Becket preaches about in the “Interlude” of “Murder in the Cathedral.” This “alien people” is the world which “cannot understand.”14
In “A Song for Simeon” this death / birth imagery is again prevalent:
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.15
Simeon is a very important embodiment of this death / birth imagery since he is the one who
…would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.16
Thus at one and the same time Simeon dies when he sees Jesus and lives through his acceptance of Jesus. He asks Jesus to “Grant me my peace.”17 “Peace” echoes in “Murder in the Cathedral” when Becket comments,
[Jesus] gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.”18
Again the “old dispensation” of the world is echoed. Simeon gains peace through his martyrdom. In the Bible Simeon refers to Jesus as his Master. “A Song for Simeon reads,
Let thy servant depart,
having seen thy salvation.19
This is from “Animula:”
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the “Encyclopaedia Brittanica.”
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,…20
The innocent child is perched perilously close to the corrupt history of the world, the “Encyclopaedia Brittanica (“…the world that is wholly foul.”21)
Eliot ends “Animula,”
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.22
The actual form of this prayer is
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
and can be found in this form in “Ash Wednesday.”23 The prayer of death is turned into the prayer of birth. Birth becomes something to fear. Eliot emphasizes the increasing influence of the world upon the child in “Animula.” The child is slowly, but surely, being thrust into the history and reality of man. The world will adversely affect the child.
Between birth and death is life – it is the unreal realm of time, the
Between un-being and being24
found in “Burnt Norton.” Life in the later poetry of Eliot is much like the stagnated existence of J. Alfred Prufrock. Life is
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
This is the time of tension between dying and birth…25
Life is defined by time. Time is a human invention used to avoid the “still point” – the awareness of the moment. Consciousness is avoided through time. Eliot tries to do away with the concept of time in “Burnt Norton.” Endings precede beginnings. Contradictions exist side-by-side. Life becomes “a world of speculation.”26 Eliot sees man as trapped on earth in time:
In the small circle of pain within the skull
You still shall tramp and tread one endless round
Of thought, to justify your action to yourselves,
Weaving a fiction which unravels as you weave,
Pacing forever in the hell of make-believe
Which never is belief: this is your fate on earth….27
Eliot sees life flowing through man’s mind through time. But time produces unreality.
To be conscious is not to be in time….28
Escape time, the wheel that constantly turns around and around, continuously returning to the same place, and you escape unreality.
To escape time, you must escape the turning wheel to the “still point.” The still point is not-time. It is a moment of consciousness that cannot be defined temporally.
I can only say, there we have been; but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.29
Eliot’s image of the still-point is directly related to Christianity. Eliot’s image for time is the wheel. At the axle of this wheel is the still point – a point which is still and does not move through space. An analogy can be drawn between this still point and Christianity. Time is measured BC and AD – in relationship to Jesus Christ. The still point of time is Jesus’ birth. However, Eliot refers to the cross of Jesus’ Passion as the “axle-tree.30” Eliot combines the Birth / Christmas and Death / Passion together into the still point. Out of this Birth and Death comes Jesus’ martyrdom – and the beginning of Christianity. Eliot’s still point is Christianity.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.31
Time is an avoidance of reality. Only by reaching for the still point can a person become conscious.
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.32
Man cannot avoid the present by looking into the past or future, for the past and future are inventions of man – the concept of time. The wheel is turning and constantly repeating, but the still point is stable.
Man is trapped in time:
Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.33
Near the end of Murder in the Cathedral the knights rationalize their reasons for killing the archbishop. The Second Knight says that they were totally disinterested in the murder, that they had nothing to gain by it. The Third Knight says that the state killed him, that everyone in the audience is partly responsible for his death. And the Fourth Knight maintains that the archbishop committed “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” Eliot is using irony by having the Knights explain away the murder absurdly – they are “alien people” who “cannot understand.” This is their lives, full of dreams, untruths and absurd rationalizations. Becket’s comments to his Priest’s would fit the Knights just as well:
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.34
Eliot also describes Hell in “Murder in the Cathedral:”
The white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant,
And behind the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement, the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void,
Where those who were men can no longer turn the mind
To distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretense,
Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,
No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul
From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing,
Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death,
We fear, we fear.35
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” perhaps depicts Eliot and his cynicism towards life without Christ. It is a depressingly dreary existence – one that would have been of more worth had it been the life of a crab crawling along the ocean floor. Time past is present as history in “Gerontion.” The “cunning passages” of history deceive man. History is nothing more that a record of man’s corruptions, his multitudinous falls and sins. Only the past is corrupt in “Gerontion.” In “Burnt Norton” all time, because it inhibits consciousness of the still point, is corrupt. Eliot’s dismay at the “True Church” from “The Hippopotamus” still exists in his later poetry. The “True Church” is the “old dispensation” of Eliot’s later verse. Even though Eliot is a Christian in his later poetry, he is by no means an ordinary Christian. He still separates himself from the “True Church” – his beliefs are unadulturated.
With “The Waste Land” comes what can be said to be Eliot’s martyrdom – his death, his total disgust for time and life. With “Ash Wednesday” Eliot is born again; he
Jean Cocteau’s dramatic canon is characterized by an obsessive attention towards the myth and the role of the poet. Even in the plays and films where these themes are not explicit, such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Eternal Return,” implicitly they are there. Perhaps the most widely known work by Cocteau is his film, “Blood of a Poet.” This is Cocteau’s first film work, its main focus being the relationship of the poet to his art, to his life and to his death. Indeed, it is Cocteau’s statement of his “poetic self.” In this way it is a kind of introduction, a prologue to his entire canon. It is also a lesson in how Cocteau uses myth. Our examination of the film will highlight some of the recurring themes in Cocteau’s work.
There are five sections to “Blood of a Poet:”
Prologue – “Every poem is a coat of arms. It must be deciphered.”¹ The protagonist enters, a doorknob is tried and a chimney begins its collapse.
First Episode: “The wounded hand, or the scars of the poet.”² The protagonist is revealed to represent Cocteau, symbolized by the five pointed star. Important aspects of this scene include the costumes and the wound, with its narcissistic eroticism.
Second Episode – “Do the walls have ears?”³ The wound is transferred to the sculpture which brings it to life. The poet enters into the world of the mirror, in which he peers into the four rooms. He is then prompted to commit suicide. With the resuscitation of life the poet struggles down the hotel corridor through the mirror and back into the studio. The episode ends with the poet demolishing the statue. Important aspects of this episode include the transference of the wound, the descent into the mirror, the four rooms and the destruction of the statue.
Third Episode – “The snowball fight.”4 A simple and realistic scene. School children are participating in a snowball fight. One of the children is killed by a blow from one of the snowballs. Important aspects of this scene include the snow-statue of the poet (the snow is comparable to marble), the attitude of the children towards the statue of the poet and their destruction of it and the murder of the child.
The Fourth Episode – “The profanation of the host.”5 The murdered child is met by his guardian angel. A card game is played between the poet and the statue with an audience looking on. The scene ends with the suicide of the poet. Important aspects of this episode include the audience reactions, the ace-of-hearts, costuming, the interaction between the poet and the statue and the suicide.
The Metaphorical Climax – With the suicide of the poet, the statue leaves. The resulting deluge of symbols becomes a statement of Cocteau’s “poetic self.” Important aspects of this scene include the bull, the disjointed map of Europe, the globe, the busts of Diderot, the lyre and the statue in its reclining fragmented form.
Completion of the chimney collapse.
In the prologue to ‘The Blood of a Poet,” we see the masked protagonist, his arms draped by a cloth, holding a plaster hand. A door is then shown, someone on the opposite side attempting to open it. A struggle to “open up” or “get inside” is thus suggested by the image. Afterwards, the film formally begins. Even with it’s “sickening slowness,”6 the body of “The Blood of a Poet” is an instantaneous event, taking place between the initial destruction of a chimney and its imminent collapse. Thus the films occurs on two levels – during the actual realistic duration of the film or during the instant the chimney collapses. Cocteau wishes to reveal the impressions of the timeless relationships of the poet’s psyche. The dichotomy which is drawn between the two worlds is described by Cocteau in his notes to “Orpheus:”
…time is a purely human notion and, in fact, does not exist at all.7
We leave the world of reality and plunge into the world of the poet. The timeless aspect of the world we enter means that everything we see is co-existent, showing the interweaving relationships of the poet’s mind.
The first episode, entitled “The scars of the poet,” reveals Cocteau to be the identity of the protagonist (the actor wears the star of Cocteau). The poet, in Louis XV wig, draws a picture (in Cocteau’s own style) in which the mouth animates itself. The animation of the art work startles the poet and he finds it necessary to “quieten” the drawing. Possibly the art work reveals more than the poet intended or makes him aware of a painful memory. This is strengthened by two other references in Cocteau’s work, one from Cegestius in “The Testament of Orpheus:”
One doesn’t always revive what one likes.8
The other reference comes from Cocteau. On “The Blood of a Poet” Cocteau says,
Exegesis, which is a Muse, is still examining it, and the psychoanalyst is discovering what the shadow part of me unknowingly expressed long ago.9
The pain of revelation through art, through the dredging up of past pain, is the wound that the poet must bear. Note that the wound is a mouth and is located on the hand, two tools of the poet.
After the wound is transferred to the poet’s hand, the man dressed in Louis XV garb visits him. On seeing the wounded hand (which bears the essence of the poet’s sensibility, his attitudes toward conventions) the visitor is shocked and retreats. The meaning is clear. The artist, especially Cocteau, plays a unique role in society. The artist’s role causes him to reject some old and some new conventions, while accepting others. While Cocteau is “…very much a nineteenth century romantic…,”10 the visitor is nonetheless repulsed by what he sees. (Indeed, a Romantic audience would be at a loss viewing “Blood of a Poet.”) While accepting some of the conventions of the Romantic period, Cocteau must nonetheless reject most of their attitudes and conventions. The poet thus casts off his own Louis XV wig (expressing the artistic need for originality). This iconoclastic role of the poet works in reverse, also. By accepting some Romantic traditions, Cocteau is rejecting modern artistic attitudes. Thus the themes of iconoclasm and timelessness are repeated in the timeless persona of the poet, accepting neither old or new.
If I can’t please everybody / I might as well not please nobody at all.*
When the poet washes his hand, the mouth / wound gasps for air. The poet complies with its gasps by putting his hand out the window. The mouth / wound responds by caressing the poet and providing sexual stimulation (purgative relief). The interaction between the mouth / wound and the poet can be compared to the poet and his reflection in a mirror. Indeed, the whole scene is grounded in the myth of Narcissus, the god who fell in love with himself.
[Seeing] his own image in the water…[Narcissus] brought his lips near to take a kiss…. Because the image was not to be had, all he could do was stare, constantly admire the reflected image…. He cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost his colour, his vigor, and the beauty…. He pined away and died; and when his shade passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters.11
For Cocteau, the mirror represents the entrance into the Realms of Death and Mind. The superficial qualities of mirrors are expressed by Heurtebise in “Orpheus,”
“Beside, spend your life looking at yourself in a mirror, and you’ll see Death at work like a swarm of bees storing up honey in a hive of glass.12
Cocteau himself has made the assertion that mirrors
…show us growing older and bring us closer to death.13
Orpheus enters into the Realm of Death through a mirror. On the other hand, the mirror acts as an entrance into the poet’s mind. In “Blood of a Poet” the poet enters into the mirror and proceeds to peer into four rooms. These rooms each represent an important aspect of Cocteau’s psyche. These two Realms of Death and Mind are equivalent.** This is an old concept, Socratic in origin (to live within the Mind being the ultimate good). This combination of Mind and Death is the source of Cocteau’s obsession, both with the poetic role and the desire to possess the inner world of the mind.
The second episode being after the poet transfers the mouth to the statue. Entitled “Do the walls have ears?” it begins with the statue speaking,
Do you think it’s that simple to get rid of a wound, to close the mouth of a wound?14
The poet has created his art in this scene and the manner in which he does it suggests the myth of Pygmalion.
[Pygmalion] was a sculptor, and had made with wonderful skill a statue of ivory, so beautiful that no living woman came anywhere near…. Pygmalion admired his own work, and at last fell in love with the counterfeit creation…. He caressed it, and give it presents such as young girls love…. He laid her on a couch…and called her his wife….15
Venus later instilled life into the sculpture for Pygmalion. Pygmalion’s falling in love with the statue parallels Narcissus’s falling in love with his own reflection. This enhances the art-as-mirror theme. After the statue speaks, the poet gropes along the now windowless walls and comes to a mirror which has replaced the door. He tells the statue, “Open it for me,”16 to which the statue replies,
There is only one way left. You must go into the mirror and walk through.17
Again the theme of “trying to open the door” is repeated. Entering into the mirror is equivalent to the poet entering deeper into the mind. The poet enters into a deeper level of poetic reality. (This distinction between the two levels is apparent in the soundtrack. When the poet enters into the mirror, the music changes. When the poet exits, the mirror, the previous music picks up where it left off, once again indicating the timeless nature of these worlds.)
The four doors through which the artist peers each contain an aspect of Cocteau’s psyche. The first door shows the repeated execution of an Hispanic figure and the repeated destruction of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The execution suggests the political execution of Emperor Maximillian.18 However, the repetitive destruction of these two icons suggests the separation of the poet from political and religious affairs. The constant repetition perhaps suggests the nature of art itself, ritualizing the mundane. Individual art works remain constant through time, repeating the same aesthetic qualities each time the art is experienced. The best examples of repetitive art are drama, music and film. The second door shows the shadows of an opium smoker preparing his opium and smoking it. What occurs behind this door refers to Cocteau’s own experimentation with the drug. The third door with its “Flying Lessons” focuses on the relationship between the teacher and pupil in the learning process. Cocteau looks upon this relationship with distaste. The child does not wish to participate in the lesson but is forced to do so by the beating which the teacher administers. This positive attitude towards childhood was an aspect of the avant-garde movement prior to and during the time of Cocteau:
…these traits grew out of the cult of childhood established by the romantics. Wordsworth and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Blake and Nerval reasserted the virtue and happiness of childhood as something inevitably stifled by education and society….After romanticism, and starting long before Freud, a mood developed which re-examined a child’s candor our most basic values: beauty, morality, reason, learning, religion, law.19
Cocteau’s reverent attitude toward childhood is repeated later in the film in “The Snowball Fight” episode in which the pupils are burdened with the weight of their school books. Cocteau’s attitude towards youth and adolescence are further expounded upon in the “Infernal Machine” and “Bacchus.”
Behind the fourth door is the hermaphrodite and alludes to Cocteau’s sexual ambivalence. (Cocteau was gay.) Along with this sexual ambivalence the scene also expresses the confusions that exist between art and reality, the fragmentation between art and the artist. The parts which make up the hermaphrodite are human, sculpted and drawn. Female breasts are drawn on a slate, while real, masculine legs and sculpted arms adorn the body. A masked face peers through the slate to form the head of the female trunk. The figure suggests the “art as a mirror of the artist” theme as well as the obvious sexual manifestation. The artist is revealing himself to his public, and the artist’s sensibility is exposed. Male and female garments are strewn about the couch. A sign appears which reads, “Danger of Death.”
After peering past the threshold of the final door, the artist is given a gun and prompted to commit suicide. The suicide is fake and the artist quickly revives. The suicide once again alludes to Cocteau’s obsession with death – the actual death of the poet comes later. Cocteau sees death as an entrance into the world of the poet within the Realm of the Mind. After the suicide the poet rushes back down the hotel corridor and is ejected back into the studio through the mirror. Entering the studio the poet goes to the statue and destroys it. We hear as narration,
By breaking statues one risks turning into one oneself.20
The film cuts to an exterior shot of a statue of the poet. The masochistic destruction of the statue once again echoes the theme of iconoclasm.
“Episode Three – The Snowball Fight” begins with the children throwing snowballs at the statue and each other. In “Two Screenplays” Cocteau describes the children in the scene,
Their moleskin satchels full of books weigh them down, deform them, giving them an almost crippled air.21
Again the theme of childhood happiness destroyed by education is stressed. The children take the snow from the statue and use it to destroy the statue of the poet. Cocteau describes the snow as having the qualities of marble. This childhood disregard for the important things of the “grown-up” world (education, iconography, poetry) suggests a parallel to the poet’s own iconoclasm.
The students bombard the statue and destroy it. One of them jumps up onto the pedestal and grabs the head.22
Iconoclasm now develops into a dominant theme. This theme began with the collapse of the chimney, perhaps suggesting a pervasive presence of destruction. However, the temporal halting of this destruction indicates an even more powerful and overarching iconoclasm – the destruction of the human notion of time – a truly filmic destruction of this dimension.*** This iconoclasm, the disrespect of the poet towards existing convention, is constantly repeated throughout the film. It is present in the suppression of the drawing, in the execution of the Hispanic political figure, in the shattering of the statue of the Virgin Mary and in the “Flying Lessons” sequence. It is present in the poet’s suicide, in the destruction of the talking statue and in the destruction of the statue of the poet. It will also be present in the upcoming torn map of Europe. All of this iconoclastic activity leads to a fragmentary assimilation of images in the end, in a fashion very similar to the depiction of the hermaphrodite. The art work becomes a pastiche of poet, art, reality and death as it takes on its own existence. This attitude represents the nature of the poet, his need to destroy and re-create. This ultimate creation, this pastiche, cannot fully manifest itself until the poet himself is destroyed – until the poet dies.
The murder of the child is based on an event from Cocteau’s childhood,
A story from my childhood still haunts me…. A young boy wounded by a snowball. In “Les Enfants Terribles” the child does not die…. The bleeding child, in reality, had a nose-bleed and bled very little…. I didn’t want to film a realistic scene, but the distorted memory of the scene….23
When the child is murdered, a poem is recited which reveals Cocteau’s childhood reaction to the incident. The poem expresses a loss of innocence,
That blow of marble was a snowball,
And it shattered his heart,
And it shattered the conqueror’s tunic,
Shattered the black conqueror whom nothing protects.
He stood there, stunned
In the watch-tower of loneliness,
Naked legs under the mistletoe, the golden berries, the holly,
Shattered like a classroom backboard.
This is often how these blows
Leave school, making blood flow,
These hard snowball blows
That a fleeting beauty gives to the heart.24
The “Fourth Episode: The Profanation of the Host” involves a card game between the statue and the poet, an elucidation of an earlier encounter between the two in the first episode. This interaction once again echoes the mirror scenes. As before, the artwork, like a mirror, reveals the essence of the poet and, in turn, his death. The statue in the scene stares at the poet. During these interactions between the statue, the poet and the dead child, the audience is noticeably bored. During the card game the poet takes the ace-of-hearts from the child and uses it. The child’s guardian angel comes forward, a black and shiny being, and “absorbs” the child. Before the angel leaves she removes the ace-of-hearts from the artist’s hand. The statue speaks,
If you don’t have the ace-of-hearts my dear, you’re a lost man.25
Cocteau elucidates on the scene,
…when he plays the card game with his Glory, with his Destiny, he cheats by drawing from his childhood instead of from within himself.26
The statue then bears down on the poet,
She fixes her eyes on him. He turns away, no longer able to stand her gaze…. The poet, under the gaze of the motionless woman, puts his hand in his pocket. He brings out a revolver, puts it to his right temple and shoots.27
Thus the poet dies. Under the pressure of his own created image, his confrontation with death, he relinquishes his life. This is the real death of the poet. At the sight of his death the audience applauds,
Poets, in order to live must often die, and shed not only the red blood of their hearts, but the white blood of their soul, that flows and leaves traces which can be followed. That is the price of applause. Poets must give their all in order to obtain the slightest approval…. The poet’s work detests and devours him. There isn’t room for both the poet and his work. The work profits from the poet. Only after his death can the poet profit from the work. And anyway, the public prefer dead poets and they are right. A poet who isn’t dead is an anachronism.28
Death frees both the poet and his work. The poet is allowed to live in the poetic realm of the mind and his art is allowed to achieve its own separate existence. Death validates poetic work. The poet martyrs himself for his art.
After the death of the poet, the artwork begins is own existence. The statue gets up from the card table and leaves. She wears the cape that once belonged to the Louis XV friend. She exits through the previously locked golden door. As the statue comes through the doors, she passes two busts of Diderot, a French encyclopedist, representing the acceptance of the artist into the intelligentsia. A bull comes into view with a “torn, dismembered map of Europe”29 pasted to its side with cow dung. Representing the “age of anxiety,” and the decadence and factionalism of the modern world. The bull’s horns are transformed into a lyre, the classical instrument which accompanied songs and recitations – the words of poets. The final scene brings together many of the symbols used previously, the hermaphroditic mingling of the statue and the human aspects of the artist, the lyre and the globe. The death of the artist has released his art to its own existence. The art is therefore a pastiche of all the thoughts and activities of the poet while he was alive.
With the final visual and metaphorical definition of the poet complete, “reality” re-enters with the completion of the chimney collapse. “The Blood of a Poet” has happened in an instant, a statement about the pain of the creative experience and the blood that must be shed in order to become an artist.
* Quote by Bob Dylan, a modern poet much in the style of the Romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud.
** Possibly the best literal translation of this concept is in “Murder in the Cathedral” by T. S. Eliot,
The white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant,
And behind the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void,
Where those who were men can no longer turn the mind
To distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretense,
Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,
No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul
From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing,
Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death,
We fear, we fear.
*** This opening sequence is comparable to the opening sequence of “An Andalusian Dog,” in which Luis Bunuel slices open the eyeball. Bunuel wishes to destroy our old manner of seeing and replace it with a new one, the manner of seeing represented in the film.
1Jean Cocteau, “Two Screenplays: ‘The Blood of the Poet’ and ‘The Testament of Orpheus,'” translated by Carol Martin-Sperry (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 8.
2“Two Screenplays,” p. 9.
3“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
4“Two Screenplays,” p. 39.
5“Two Screenplays,” p. 46.
6“Two Screenplays,”, p. 4.
7Jean Cocteau, “Three Screenplays: ‘L’eternal Retour,’ ‘Orphee,’ ‘La Belle et la Bete,'” translated by Carol Martin-Sperry (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1972), p. 191.
8“Two Screenplays,” p. 95.
9“Two Screenplays,” p. 73.
10“Two Screenplays,” frontispiece.
11Thomas Bulfinch, “The Age of Fable” (New York: Heritage Press, 1942), pp. 101-102.
12Jean Cocteau, “‘The Infernal Machine’ and Other Plays, various translators (New York: New Directions, 1967), p. 128.
13“Three Screenplays,” p. 191.
14“Two Screenplays,” p. 18
15“The Age of Fable,” p. 64.
16“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
17“Two Screenplays,” p. 18.
18Lincoln F. Johnson, “Film: Space, Time, Light and Sound” (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), p. 275.
19Roger Shattuck, “The Banquet Years (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), p. 31.
Originally written in 1975
By Claude Mathews
Meshes of the Afternoon is my point of departure. I am not ashamed of it; for I think that, as a film, it stands up very well. …I had been a poet up until then, and the reason that I had not been a very good poet was because actually my mind worked in images which I had been trying to translate or describe in words; therefore, when I undertook cinema, I was relieved of the false step of translating images into words, and could work directly so that it was not like discovering a new medium so much as finally coming home into a world whose vocabulary, syntax, grammar, was my mother-tongue; which I understood, and thought in, but, like a mute, had never spoken…. [Maya Deren]
Director / Cinematographer / Editor – Maya Deren (Alexander Hammid assisted his wife by instructing her in the use of the camera and also filming a few scenes in which she acted. Otherwise, she was assisted by Hella Heyman.
Music – Teiji Ito
Length – 12 minutes
Cast – Maya Deren plays the dreaming woman. Alexander Hammid plays the man.
Born: Russian, 1917.
Died: New York, 1961
Maya Deren’s father was a psychiatrist who immigrated into the United States in 1927. Maya received her B.A. from New York University and her M.A. from Smith College, both degrees in literature. Her other interests included dance and Haitian voodoo.
Maya’s Importance as a Filmmaker
Maya Deren is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of the Undeground Film.” One of her most important accomplishments was to upgrade the state of the avant-garde film in the United States. At the time she began making films, 16mm was considered inferior to the standard 35mm film. It was used only as an educational or documentary medium. Her activism towards legitimizing the use of 16mm as an artistic medium is still felt through its ubiquitous use of the medium for most avant-garde work today. This same anachronistic approach and philosophy is alive today in the efforts of Stan Brakhage, who is legitimizing the use of 8mm as an important artistic medium. Maya Deren considered her “amateur” status as a filmmaker to be an asset:
The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word – from the Latin “amateur” or “lover” means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity.
Maya did much to advance film as an art.
At the time that Deren began there were no channels of distribution, let alone exhibition, for new avant-garde work. In 1945, having completed three films, she sent out leaflets to colleges, universities, art schools and museums around the country, advertising her work. She began renting her films, using her home as a distribution base. Often she would accompany her showings with a lecture. The following year Deren set up what is credited as the first showings in a public theatre in the U.S. of privately made 16mm film. These two Provincetown Playhouse screenings of her work even prompted reviews in major publications, including one by James Agee in The Nation. Thus she paved the way for Frank Stauffacher’s avant-garde “Art in Cinema” series which began in 1947 at the San Francisco Museum of Art and for Amos Vogel’s “Cinema 16” begun the same year, followed up three years later by his distribution center of the same name which finally provided a professional rental outlet for avant-garde work.
But Deren did not stop with showing and promoting her work. She had, in 1946, shared the distinction with the Whitney brothers of receiving the first Guggenheim Fellowships ever awarded for creative filmmaking; she had attempted a renewal of her grant the following year but was unsuccessful. In 1954, based on her years of experience with the difficulties of obtaining grants and raising money in order to pursue independent filmmaking, she established the Creative Film Foundation which continued until two years after her death. Among those awarded grants that first year were Shirley Clarke and Stan Brakhage. As a writer, Deren spoke frequently and at length about her own work, but also about the art of the independent film in general. Very much of a dogmatist and polemicist, Deren rigidly maintained her ideas about the art of the personal film, persuading many to her camp.
She had begun her career at a time when there was negligible interest in film as an art form in this country and she provided through her active dedication an example, a hope to others for the possibilities of independent filmmaking….
[Film Library Quarterly, Winter, 1971 / 1972, p. 31]
Program Notes by Maya Deren
MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON
by Maya Deren and Alexander Hackenschmied
Running Time: 12 minutes (24 fps)
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.
The incident might occur to anyone. A girl, on her way to the house of another person, finds a flower on the road and carries it with her. She arrives at the house, (glimpsing, for a brief second, a figure disappearing around the curve of the nearby road), tries the door and finds it locked. She takes out her own key, which slips from her hand and falls down the outdoor stairs so that she is forced to run after it and climb the stairs again before finally entering the house. She makes a tour of the rooms in search of the person who is supposed to be there, but, although the still-turning phonograph, the receiver off the hook of the telephone, and other objects indicate that someone has just been there, the house is empty and she settles herself by the window to wait. Waiting, she falls asleep and in her dreams the experience she has just had begins to repeat itself, but always in a strange and different manner. Now it is a tall woman in black, with a mirror face, who disappears around the curve of the road. She carries the flower which the girl has found, and although she walks slowly, the girl, running after her, can never catch her. The objects which the girl had noticed in the room are now in changed places. She watches herself come to the house three times so that finally there are three of her, and herself sleeping in the chair as well. And from then on the event which was originally so simple becomes increasingly emotional and complex. It is culminated by a double-ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.
The makers of this film have been primarily concerned with the use of the cinematic technique in such a way as to create a world: to put on film the feeling which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than to accurately record the incident.
This film, although it incorporates the cinematic principles which are developed more fully in AT LAND, is still based on strong literary – dramatic lines as a core, and rests heavily upon the symbolic value of objects and situations. It is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual, and reproduces the way in which the sub-conscious will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience. The very first sequence of the film concerns the incident, but the girl falls asleep and the dream consists of the manipulation of the elements of the incident. Everything which happens in the dream has its basis in a suggestion in the first sequence – the knife, the key, the repetition of stairs, the figure disappearing around the curve of the road. Part of the achievement of this film consists in the manner in which cinematic techniques are employed to give a malevolent vitality to inanimate objects. The film is culminated by a double – ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.
[Film Culture No. 39, Winter, 1965]
A Statement of Principles by Maya Deren
My films are for everyone.
I include myself, for I believe that I am a part of, not apart from humanity; that nothing I may feel, think, perceive, experience, despise, desire, or despair of is really unknowable to any other man.
I speak of man as a principle, not in the singular nor in the plural.
I reject the accountant mentality which could dismember such a complete miracle in order to apply to it the simple arithmetic of statistics – which would reduce this principle to parts, to power pluralities and status singularities, as if man were an animal or a machine whose meaning was either a function of his size and number – or as if he were a collector’s item prized for its singular rarity.
I reject also that inversion of democracy which is detachment, that detachment which is expressed in the formula of equal but separate opinions – the vicious snobbery which tolerates and even welcomes the distinctions and divisions of differences, the superficial equality which stalemates and arrests the discovery and development of unity.
I believe that, in every man, there is an area which speaks and hears in the poetic idiom … something in him which can still sing in the desert when the throat is almost too dry for speaking.
To insist on this capacity in all men, to address my films to this – that, to me, is the true democracy…
I feel that no man has a right to deny this in himself; nor any other man to accept such self debasement in another, under this guise of democratic privilege.
My films might be called metaphysical, referring to their thematic content. It has required millenniums of torturous evolution for nature to produce the intricate miracle which is man’s mind. It is this which distinguishes him from all other living creatures, for he not only reacts to matter but can mediate upon its meaning. This metaphysical action of the mind has as much reality and importance as the material and physical activities of his body. My films are concerned with meanings – ideas and concepts – not with matter.
My films might be called poetic, referring to the attitude towards these meanings. If philosophy is concerned with understanding the meaning of reality, then poetry – and art in general – is a celebration, a singing of values and meanings. I refer also to the structure of the films – a logic of ideas and qualities, rather than causes and events.
My films might be called choreographic, referring to the design and stylization of movement which confers ritual dimension upon functional motion – just as simple speech is made into song when affirmation of intensification on a higher level is intended.
My films might be called experimental, referring to the use of the medium itself. In these films, the camera is not an observant, recording eye in the customary fashion. The full dynamics and expressive potentials of the total medium are ardently dedicated to creating the most accurate metaphor for the meaning.
In setting out to communicate principles, rather than to relay particulars, and in creating a metaphor which is true to the idea rather than to the history of experience of any one of several individuals, I am addressing myself not to any particular group but to a special area and definite faculty in every or any man – to that part of him which creates myths, invents divinities, and ponders, for no practical purpose whatsoever, on the nature of things.
But man has many aspects – he is a many-faceted being – not a monotonous one-dimensional creature. He has many possibilities, many truths. The question is not, or should not be, whether he is tough or tender, and the question is only which truth is important at any given time.
This afternoon, in the supermarket, the important truth was the practical one; in the subway the important truth was, perhaps, toughness; while later, with the children, it was tenderness.
Tonight the important truth is the poetic one.
This is an area in which few men spend much time and in which no man can spend all his time. But it is this, which is the area of art, which makes us human and without which we are, at best, intelligent beasts.
I am not greedy. I do not seek to possess the major portion of your days.
I am content if, on those rare occasions whose truth can be stated only by poetry, you will, perhaps, recall an image, even only the aura of my films.
And what more could I possibly ask, as an artist, than that your most precious visions, however rare, assume, sometimes, the forms of my images.
This “Statement of Principles” was originally included within a pamphlet issued at “personal” exhibitions of Maya Deren’s films.
[Film Culture, No. 22 / 23, 1961]
Meshes of the Afternoon as Visual Poetry
“Meshes of the Afternoon” can be examined on a simplistic narrative level in which a description of the actual details and events of the film are noted. It can also be examined on a complex metaphysical level which explores its symbolism and imagery. These two aspects of “Meshes,” the superficial images and the meaning behind those images, link the film directly to poetry.
All poems have some kind of narrative, some manner of progressing the content of the poem from beginning to end. Woven into this sequential narration are the allusions, symbols and images of the poem which give it meaning and beauty. In reading a poem for the first time a reader may not grasp the meaning of a large part of it. Most of what comes across is the narrative. After re-reading and studying the poem, much of the hidden symbolism is revealed for what it’s worth. Sometimes the meaning of a certain point might be ambiguous. This ambiguity, as far as a good poet is concerned, is used to bring deeper, more personal meaning to the work. Ambiguity permits the reader to project their own meaning into the poem, elevating it to art.
In “Meshes of the Afternoon” the poetic words are the frames. These frames flow into each other to form the narrative, just as the words of poetry do. When a poem is read, the words are taken into the mind and become images. A film directly transmits images to the mind. “Meshes” can be seen, as Deren says in the program notes to the film, as a simple narrative. The woman comes home, the man is not there and she proceeds to fall asleep and dream. We see the dream take place as a manipulation of the things the woman experienced as she came to the house. These are the superficial details, the narrative of the story. It is the initial reading of the poem. There is much more than that, however. There is a meaning which lurks behind the objects as they are manipulated within the dream. The meaning is found within the viewers themselves. Cocteau said about “Blood of a Poet:”
…if each of you find your own personal meaning in this film, then I will have achieved my ambition. [Cocteau, Jean. Two Screenplays (Baltimore: Pelican Books, 1969)]
Maya Deren wishes the same with “Meshes of the Afternoon.” She addresses herself to that part of you
which creates myths, invents divinities, and ponders for no practical purpose whatsoever, on the nature of things. [Deren, Maya. “A Statement of Principles,” Film Culture, 22 / 23 (1961), pp. 161 – 163]
“Meshes of the Afternoon” is a poetic film; it elicits meaning through its images. Many questions are raised. What is the woman dreaming? Does it have any realistic meaning? Do the still-turning phonograph and the receiver of the hook simply mean that someone has just left the house? Sexual connotations are sprinkled through the film. Why is the woman’s action of moving her hand over her breast before falling asleep repeated by the man later? Does the hooded figure represent Death as it would for Bergman? These and a number of other questions are asked by the film. To answer them would be to understand one’s own dreams.
Levels of Consciousness
“Meshes of the Afternoon” is Maya Deren’s first film. Made in conjunction with her husband, Alexander Hammid, it is historically significant due to Deren’s iconoclastic use of 16mm film, a film grade that was considered to be inferior at the time. For this achievement alone Maya became known as the “Mother of the Underground Film.” Maya is also recognized for her near propagandistic ideology of acceptance and appreciation of the avant-garde, which she filmically fired and ardently proselytized.
Maya’s espoused concern was to present the character’s internal universe by recreating the “intimate, immediate forms of … art, where the problems might be experienced and perhaps resolved in miniature.” [Thursby, Floyd. The Velvet Darkness] Her feeling was that the individual needed to discover a certain integrity within himself which was impossible to obtain by merely searching external, obvious reality. She saw “cinema, with its capacity to manipulate time and space…” as a medium eminently appropriate for such expression. [Deren, Maya. “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” Cinema as an Art Form. New York: Arno, 1972]
It is important to note several key elements of “Meshes” and her films in general. From the idea of the individual self-examination depicted in “Meshes,” one can see the roots of Deren’s concept of “personal cinema.” In her program notes to “Meshes” she writes,
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret, and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience. [Deren, Maya. “Program Notes.” Film Culture. 39 (Winter, 1965) p. 1]
Thus one must assume that the film is composed of various levels of the subconscious of the main character. This idea is further supported by distinct divisions that clearly separate the gradual descent through further levels of the subconscious.
The action up to the point where the woman falls asleep in the chair is the first segment of the film. Objects appear for the first time which are elevated to symbolic images later in the film. The black suited individual becomes a hooded figure, much akin to Bergman’s Death figure in “The Seventh Seal” or Fritz Lang’s “Destiny.” The sequence of the woman entering the house is repeated several times with variations. The knife and key are introduced as functional objects that later become symbolic. The flower, possibly intended in the Freudian sense as symbolically female, recurs in later sequences. In general, the action of this first sequence is repeated each time a representative of the protagonist is introduced.
Another important aspect of the film is Maya’s manipulation of time and space using movement, rhythm and choreography. The first sequence takes place at a slow, deliberate pace. The key falls in slow motion, the pan of the room is deliberately reassuring and the phonograph and telephone seem to indicate the recent presence of someone, presumably the object of the woman’s visit. Subsequently the viewer is falsely persuaded to associate the scene with reality although the mannikin hand and falling knife seem to suggestion more that just what the eye is seeing.
Some scenes play against this purposely slow moving beginning. Swish pans spliced together with cuts, choreographed ascension of the stairs, floating, and actual popping in and out of existence convey the total immersion into the unreal world of the subconscious.
The final segment returns to the motion and rhythm of the first segment, the stylized movements conveying changing time and space. The viewer perceives that reality has sublimated the surreal as the male counterpart resteps the movements of the female and her representatives. Of course the final scene of the seaweed covered woman shatters this conviction, Maya firmly plants this film in the realm of the surreal.
Maya also purposely plays with the ambiguity of the film. “The film is culminated by a double – ending in which it would seem that the imagined achieved, for her, such force that it became reality.” [Ibid.]
Indeed, a certain ambiguity pervades the film, and foils the viewer who tries to go from reality to unreality. One must agree to being manipulated by the film to appreciate its intentions. After all, the film is merely a representation of the “feelings which a human being experiences about an incident, rather than an accurate record of the incident.” [Ibid.]
Another important aspect of the film is it’s poetic stylization. The film is as symbolic as any poem. Deren’s intention is to give the viewer plenty of material for personal introspection. The film is not a definitive statement on a physical experience. It is a personal account of an event with unique possibilities for each viewer. Of course the images suggest meaning, but there are limitless possible interpretations of what might be happening in this film.
The soundtrack by Teiji Ito, along with the paced cutting and rhythmic movement further develop the poetic sensibility of the film. Deren felt that movement was central to the meaning of film – many of her later films dealt with the subject extensively. Deren manipulates the poetic and choreographed movements of the film, creating a new geography for the film’s basic unreality. Deren was not portraying reality, but the unreal geography supporting reality.
The soundtrack and movement usually contrast each other, providing the counterpoint needed to support the unreality of the film. Occasional junctions and juxtapositions create impressive poetic elements.
The suicide sequence is a masterful example of Deren’s use of images to create allegories. First, the three representatives draw lots to determine which self will perform the fatal act on the sleeping figure. They draw the key until it comes up knife. The shots that follow climax the film’s rhythmic interchanges. As the girl with the knife rises, there is a close-up of her foot as she begins striding. Her sandalled foot first steps on the seashore, followed by a step on grass, and a third step on a concrete sidewalk. The final step is on the rug of the room.
Maya provided her own understanding of this sequence:
What I meant when I planned that four stride sequence was that you have to come a long way – from the very beginning of time – to kill yourself, like the first life emerging from the primeval waters. Those four strides, in my intention, span all time. [Deren, Maya. Letter of April 19, 1955. Film Culture. 39 (Winter, 1965) p. 30]
The action of the knife entering the mouth completes the poetic stanza and summons the return to the original tempo of the final section.
Another important poetic device of the film is the use of a mirror for the face of Death. Much like Cocteau’s mirror in “Blood of a Poet,” it separates life from death. Paradoxically, when one searches for the face of Death one sees only one’s reflection. Continuing this parallel with Cocteau is the use of water or the ocean behind the mirror. Once shattered it reveals endless shoreline. A rather striking parallel with the experiences Cocteau’s poet encounters behind the looking glass.
Many critics were disturbed by what they saw as an overbearing use of sexual symbols throughout the film. Manny Farber saw the film as “Freudian-toned lesbianism.” [Farber, Manny. “Maya Deren’s Film.” New Republic, 115 (1946), p. 555.] Maya became quite indignant with such shallow criticism. Once cannot deny that there are moments of auto-eroticism and sexual innuendo in the film. The flower and knife are widely accepted by Freudians as symbols for the female and male genitalia. This is exploited in the film, but it is not predominant. It is presumable that the man and woman enter the bedroom to make love. However, the lover is revealed to be Death disguised. If this is to be taken as personally as the rest of the film, one cannot help wondering what issues might have been going on between her and her husband.
The film is striking from it’s personal tone and its rhythmic and poetic pulse. To fully appreciate how this works to create an impressive and critically successful film, one must realize that it was filmed, edited and completed in two weeks. Maya had the help of her husband but he was unable to remain with the project throughout its completion. Consequently the burden wholly fell on her shoulders. The end result became a landmark in the history of American cinema.
“Meshes of the Afternoon” has a quality that allows it to be viewed repeatedly. This is a rare quality, making the film resemble more a note-laden work of jazz music. Ralph J. Gleason, the west coast jazz critic suggested that music is the most successful art form, reaching a level of poetic communication and sensual acceptance while not requiring any serious interpretation. The aural compositions can be appreciated totally on the level of their beauty. Music critics concentrate not on the interpretation of notes but on the overall effect of their combinations. One cannot deny that highly symbolic interpretations are possible, however unnecessary. Perhaps that is why music is the most popular art form. Its images are so accessible that they elicit response and appreciation on the most primary and sensual level. No a priori premise of intellectual status is needed. All that is required is uninhibited sensual absorption.
“Meshes of the Afternoon” satisfies this purely sensual characteristic much the same as avant-garde jazz. The movement, rhythm, editing and choreography of the film supports even deeper levels of understanding of symbol and imagery, on both visual and aural levels.
One probes technique to appreciate the nature and abilities of the artist. Herein lies the possibility for psychoanalytic interpretation. However, pat Freudian analysis of the film does a great disservice to Maya’s achievement. The choice of images reveals certain implications about the artist. The film is, as intended, a personal film. The viewer is afforded an autobiographical view of Maya’s psyche. Maya’s expertise at weaving the narrative, music and movement throughout the film moves the film beyond simple convention.
Dream consciousness is not easy to convey. This film succeeds where others may meekly communicate a dream state. “Meshes of the Afternoon” realistically creates unreality. The dream sequence is most convincing. Events unfold orderly but poetically, which makes this an aesthetically pleasing experience.
It seems that Maya Deren’s first film should have served as a cornerstone of cinematic poetry. However, it is difficult to prove that point by offering example s of the poetic films that followed this landmark production. One mus place this film on a pedestal. It stands unsurpassed. High praise, but deserved.
The most pointed irony concerns the circumstances of her death. At the turn of the decade she was living on a pittance from the Creative Film Foundation in return for her energetic work as its secretary (it was a one-person operation, with nominal officers) and on her husband Teiji Ito;s income as an enlisted private in the army. Just before his discharge, the death of a relative raised hopes of an inheritance for Ito. After a disappointing meeting concerning this inheritance, Maya Deren came down with a terrific headache which led to a paralyzing seizure the next day. Within a week she has suffered her third cerebral hemorrhage and died after three days in a coma. Not long after that the elusive inheritance came through. [P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 40.]
“…considered by many critics the greatest achievement in sound known to film.” – Colliers, January 16, 1943
Directed by Howard Hawks
Scenario by Charles Lederer
From the Ben Hecht / Charles MacArthur play, “Front Page”
Produced by Howard Hawks and Jed Harris
Photographed by Joseph Walker
Music by Morris W. Stoloff
Edited by Gene Havlick
Cary Grant……………………………………………Walter Burns
Rosalind Russell………………………………….Hildy Johnson
Ralph Bellamy………………………………………Bruce Baldwin
Gene Lockhart…………………………………..Sheriff Hartwell
Helen Mack………………………………………….Mollie Malloy
John Qualen……………………………………………Earl Williams
Alma Kruger…………………………………………….Mrs. Baldwin
Billy Gilbert…………………………………………….Joe Pettibone
Pat West………………………………………………Warden Cooley
Edwin Maxwell……………………………………….Dr. Egelhoffer
…When [Hawks is] being serious, as he generally is, simplicity is everything – plot line, camera angles, editing manner – has been the hallmark of his work, which has been called by critic Andrew Sarris, ‘good, clean, direct, functional cinema; perhaps the most distinctively American cinema of all.
Richard Shickel, “The Men who Made the Movies”
The … ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.
Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962”
Where is the tension in Howard Hawk’s films? When he has good material, he’s capable of better than good direction, as he demonstrates in films like “Twentieth Century,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday;” and in “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” he demonstrates that with help from the actors, he can jazz up ridiculous scripts. But what “interior meaning” can be extrapolated from an enjoyable, harmless, piece of kitsch like “Only Angels Have Wings;” what can the auteur critics see in it beyond the sex and glamour and fantasies of the high school boy’s universe – exactly what the mass audience liked it for? And when Hawk’s material and / or cast is dull and when his heart isn’t in the production – when by the auteur theory he should show his “personality,” the result is something soggy like “The Big Sky.
Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares, Joys and Sarris”
The test case for the auteur theory is provided by the work of Howard Hawks…. [Hawks] has only once received critical acclaim, for his wartime film, “Seargeant York” …. Hawks has worked in almost every genre. He has made westerns (“Rio Bravo”), gangsters (“Scarface”), war films (“Air Force”), thrillers (“The Big Sleep”), science fiction (“The Thing from Another World”), musicals (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”), comedies (“Bringing Up Baby”), even a Biblical epic (“Land of the Pharoahs”)…. All of these films (except perhaps “Land of the Pharoahs,” which he himself is not happy about) exhibit the same thematic preoccupations, the same recurring motifs and incidents, the same visual style and tempo….
Hawks achieved this by reducing the genres to two basic types: the adventure drama and the crazy comedy….
For Hawks the highest human emotion is the camaraderie of the exclusive, self-sufficient, all-male group. Hawk’s heroes are cattlemen, marlin-fishermen, racing-drivers, pilots, big-game hunters, habituated to danger and living apart from society, actually cut off from it physically by dense forest, sea, snow or desert. Their aerodromes are fog-bound; the radio has cracked up; the next mail-coach or packet-boat does not leave for a week. The elite group strictly preserves its exclusivity. It is necessary to pass a test of ability and courage to win admittance….
…Man is woman’s ‘prey.’ Women are admitted to the male group only after much disquiet and a long ritual courtship, phased around the offering, lighting and exchanging of cigarettes, during which they prove themselves worthy of entry. Often they perform minor feats of valor. Even though they are never really full members. A typical dialogue sums up their position:
Woman:You love him, don’t you? Man (embarrassed): Yes, I guess so. Woman: How can I love him like you? Man:Just stick around.
The undercurrent of homosexuality in Hawk’s films is never crystallized, though in “The Big Sky,” for example, it runs very close to the surface. And he himself described “A Girl in Every Port” as “really a love story between two men.” For Hawks, men are equals, within the group at least, whereas there is a clear identification between women and the animal world, most explicit in “Bringing Up Baby,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” and “Hartari!” Man must strive to maintain his mastery. It is also worth noting that, in Hawks’s adventure dramas and even in most of his comedies, there is no married life. Often the heroes are married or at least intimately committed, to a woman at some time in the distant past but have suffered an unexplained trauma, with the result that they have been suspicious of women ever since….
Hawks sees the all-male community as an ultimate….
Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema
…For the auteur critics calling a director virile is the highest praise because … it is some kind of assurance that he is not trying to express himself in an art form, but treats movie-making as a professional job. (“Movie:” Hawks ‘makes the very best adventure films because he is at one with his heroes …. Hawks’s heroes are all professionals doing jobs – scientists, sheriffs, cattlemen, big game hunters: real professionals who know their capabilities….They know exactly what they can do with the available resources, expecting only what they know can be given.’) The auteur critics are so enthralled with their narcissistic male fantasies (“Movie:” ‘Because Hawks’s films and their heroes are so genuinely mature, they don’t need to announce the fact for all to hear.’) that they seem unable to relinquish their schoolboy notions of human experience.
Pauline Kael, “Circle and Squares, Joys and Sarris”
The director is right in the middle of things. At the very least he’s on the sound stage while the director of photography is lighting the set that the art director has designed and, later, while the actors are speaking the lines that the screenwriter wrote. Quite often, he steers all these factors – story, actors, camera – in the right direction. So why not say that it’s his film, that he is the author? Simply because the director is almost always an interpretive artist, not a creative one, and because the Hollywood film is a corporate art, not an individual one. This doesn’t diminish the importance of the director, or the validity of the Hollywood film as an art….It just makes it more difficult for the critic to assign sole authorship to the work – and why should he waste time on a Name Game like this?
… The theory used to be that the solitary, creative artist produced Art, and the corporate, interpretive craftsman produced Entertainment – a prejudice that kept people from examining the Hollywood movie. The auteur theory says, in effect, ‘What you thought was just entertainment is really Art, because it is the work of an individual creator – an auteur. Therefore, the Hollywood movie is worthy to be examined.
…The real joy in movies comes from seeing the fortuitous communion of forces (story, script, direction, acting, lighting, editing, design, scoring) that results in a great Hollywood film. “Frankenstein,” “Scarface,” “Love Me Tonight,” “Camille,” “Holiday,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “His Girl Friday,” “Citizen Kane,” “Penny Serenade,” “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” “Body and Soul,” “Rachel and the Stranger,” “Born Yesterday,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “The Searchers,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Psycho,” The Manchurian Candidate,” “Charade,” and “Planet of the Apes” are just a few examples of collaborative movie-making at its best. Intelligent appreciation of films like these, and not scholastic disputes over the validity of individual signatures, should be our first critical concern.
More often than not, when a fine film is signed by a mediocre director, the film’s distinctive qualities can be traced to the screenwriter.
Richard Corliss, “The Hollywood Screenwriter”
There is, of course, a critical school holding that the director of a film is the “author” as surely as a writer is the author of a novel. This theory has the virtue of simplicity, banishing as if they did not exist the ambiguities that arise from the fact that though the director may initiate the script for a project and may well participate in the endless round of conferences that attend its creation, his pen rarely touches paper. It also ignores the fact that though he may offer plenty of suggestions and not a few direct orders to actors, cinematographers, editors, and all the other highly creative people in his employ, he cannot do their jobs for them and that much of a movie quality – or lack of it – arises out of these semi-autonomous centers of creative power.
The beginning of an answer to the question about what a director does arises from the fact that, in the nature of things, none of these artists and craftsmen have a total vision of the thing they are working on. As the great Francois Truffaut puts it with simple elegance, ‘The director is the only one to carry the whole film in his head.’ Quite literally – with a suggestion here, a critical reaction there, an encouraging (or discouraging) word somewhere else – he … well … givesdirectionto his little army as it inches across the virgin territory. ‘By and large, you give the tone to the whole thing, ‘ says [George] Cukor. ‘You give the vitality … if a director sits down, everyone else will sit down.”
Richard Shickel, “The Men Who Made the Movies
The Hilarious Collaboration Entitled “His Girl Friday”
by Claude Mathews
“You can’t trust anybody in this crazy world.”
Earl Williams, “His Girl Friday”
“His Girl Friday’s” “crazy world” begins with the seemingly innocent re-uniting of Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson and uproariously crescendos with the final, absurdist episode in the press room. In between lay an endless stream of gags, making “His Girl Friday” a true masterpiece of comedy. The film centers around Walter Burns conniving to convince his ex-wife Hildy Johnson to re-marry him. The triangle is completed by Bruce Baldwin, Hildy’s new fiancee. Nothing is sacred. As P.J. Dyer pointed out, ‘Hawks regards comedy and melodrama as interdependent and interchangeable …. In “His Girl Friday,” a comedy rechauffe of Milestone’s “The Front Page,” Hawks retains the death cell background and the suicide of the prostitute.” [Peter John Dyer, Focus on Howard Hawks, ed. by Joseph McBride (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972), p. 86.] The effect of this, especially in the case of Earl Williams, is to create parallel moods. On the one hand is the serious plight of Earl Williams, contrasted with the facetious connivings of Burns on the other. Williams is sympathetic, yet humorous character. He is a laughable neurotic.
Corliss and Schickel agree with Truffaut that the director’s role is to give direction to the crew of craftspeople responsible for the end result: “The director is the only one to carry the whole film in his head.” The director is the coordinator of a small army responsible for the success of a film: producer, screenwriter, actors, cinematographer, et. al. The two things that Hawks find most important to cinema are what the actors do and say. As Schickel points out, “simplicity is everything.” Hawks’s camera is usually a simple recording instrument, rarely subjective. Hawks never used a flashback. Hawks has said, “I just use the simplest camera in the world.” [From Peter Bogdonavich’s interview with Hawks in his The Cinema of Howard Hawks, as quoted by Henri Langlois in Focus on Howard Hawks, p. 66.] The emphasis naturally falls on the screenplay and the actors.
“His Girl Friday” represents both the strengths and weaknesses of the auteur theory. By being an excellent, representative example of the Hawksian canon, it corresponds to the precepts of the theory. Hawks is usually considered to be the prime example of auteur, for all of his films definitely bear an unmistakable style and form peculiar to the director. However, all artists interject certain personal traits into their work. “Auteur” suggests, however, that the director is the “author” of a film. It is a mixed metaphor, for an author is an independent sole controller of his world, whereas the director is a dependent coordinator of many other factors making up the effort. “Auteur” becomes an over-simplification of the complexity of creating a film. Except in solitary and independent artistic efforts, the director can never have as much control over his art as does an author. An author controls all aspects of the imagination that ends up on the page. The director is too dependent upon others for the success of his film, especially the actors, which explains why director’s will go to all lengths to keep actors happy on the set. Much more so than in the authoring of a novel, the director is dependent upon a world of variables that must be coordinated before a well-crafted film results. The director’s craft is a complicated one, not only involving economics, but the need for collaboration. Here, “auteur” misleads. Comparing “director” and “author” implies that a filmmaker exists as an individual artist controlling all aspects of his art form. This is the major flaw of the theory – it creates confusion about the true role of the director.
The strength of the auteur theory is simple – it legitimized the critical study of what was once considered non-art – the commercially produced film. It seems strange today, when there is such a critical response to most director’s efforts, but there was a time when few people ever discussed who was responsible film. The studio reigned.
The greatest contributor to “His Girl Friday,” besides the director and the author of the play from which it was derived (the Ben Hecht / Charles MacArthur play “The Front Page”) was the screenwriter, Charles Lederer. Lederer’s chief task was to change the antagonistic male relationship in “The Front Page” to the sexual conflict between Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns in “His Girl Friday.” Lederer’s role here is comparable to Hecht and MacArthur when they worked with Hawks:
Well, when Hecht and MacArthur and I used to work on a script, we’d sit in a room and work for two hours and then play backgammon for an hour. Then we’d start again and one of us would be one character and one would be another character. We’d read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could. And that is the kind of dialogue we used, and the kind that was fun. We could usually remember what we said, and put it right down and go on working. And sometimes you’re so far in a picture, and you get an idea that you’re going to change a character, so you just go back and change the lines that you’ve written for that character and start all over again. [Howard Hawks, “Do I Get to Play the Drunk This Time? An Encounter with Howard Hawks,” an interview by Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington, Sight and Sound, 40, No. 2 (Spring 1971), pp. 99 – 100.]
Certainly much the same thing happened with the scripting of “His Girl Friday.” The gags abound in the movie. In one delightful scene, Burns introduces himself to an old man in front of Baldwin, pretending the old man is Baldwin – just to insult Baldwin. Baldwin finally interrupts Burns and tells him of the mistake. When the old man tries to tell Burns that he was wrong all along, he tells the old man, “Keep your nose out of my business.”
In another scene, Burns wonders aloud about Baldwin, “He looks like that movie actor – Ralph Bellamy. In yet another scene, Hildy bellows, “Hello, this is Hildy Burns, get me Walter Johnson!”
The excellent comic performances of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, John Qualen and Billy Gilbert are the most successful aspect of “His Girl Friday.” Grant’s cutesy-pie personality and trickster attitude to get what he wants, acts as the perfect foil to the Rosalind Russell career girl. John Qualen is a quintessential character actor. You laugh just looking at him. Billy Gilbert should have won an award for his short but unforgettable portrayal of the absent minded neurotic who cannot take a bribe without thinking what his wife’s reaction will be.
As for the cinematography, Hawks explains:
There’s a lot of cooperation with a good camera man, and I’ve been fortunate in having good ones. Some of them get very tired of working in normal stuff, they relax and then you pep them up and get them to take chances. I tell them, ‘If you make two good scenes for me, you can make two mediocre ones and one bad one.’ All I’m interested in is the good one. So they go ahead and take chances, and their work shows it. Because people pass up the bad scenes, but you really appreciate the good one. [Ibid., p. 99.]
Hawks professes to using “the simplest camera in the world.” Sure, there’s a tracking shot at the beginning of the film, but the camera hardly moves after the dialogue starts. When Russell and Grant leave the open office to go back to his office, the camera simply tracks, functioning to keep Russell and Grant within the frame to record their dialogue.
Hawks also expresses a great deal of control over the editing:
Oh, [I’ve had] practically complete control. I’ve had a little trouble on a couple of pictures that [the film companies] thought were too long. I made the mistake of making them too long and they made the mistake of trying to shorten them. [Ibid., p. 99.]
Even though he does express a great deal of control, he is still relying on folks to play their critical roles. The director does not play the role that a strict definition of “auteur” suggests. The director is not totally responsible for the finished product. There are always aspects of the finished product that are outside of the director’s control.
A more recent example of the reality of the role of the director and the image depicted by the definition of auteur is illustrated by the relationship between Ingmar Bergman and the folks he collaborates with. Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist bring his own very gifted skills to Bergman’s projects and adds a complete dimension of art to the final works. Bergman also allows for a great deal of improvisation in his films, which begs the question, “Does improvisation by actors make the actors auteurs?” This certainly would begin to weaken the principles of the auteur theory.
The director is a manager, a person who is responsible for coordinating the technical departments of a film into a unified whole to make a product that can be consumed by the viewer as entertainment. While the director certainly places an imprint of a particular style upon the product, the director does not control the complete outcome of the final piece.
Hawks, by his own admission, controls the actors and the dialogue. He depends upon these two parts of the filmmaking process to make the final product consumable. Even with the visually slow Hawksian camera faithfully recording Grant and Russell, “His Girl Friday” is an extraordinarily fast film. This is due to the rapid-fire dialogue. The conventional speed for the film was increased from the normal rate of 90 to a sometimes 240 words per minute. [“Cinema: The New Pictures,” Time, (January 22, 1940), p. 76.] The result is a film that unfolds much faster than the montage editing of Milestone’s original “Front Page.” In fact, the editing in “His Girl Friday” never picks up until a strongly visual incident occurs, such as Earl Williams escape. [Andrew Sarris, Focus on Howard Hawks, p. 48.]
This emphasis upon the actor’s actions and words is significant in understanding what makes “His Girl Friday” work. The camera does not interfere with what is seen or heard, leaving the comic effects of the dialogue to be experienced directly. “Hawks…work[s] within a frame as much as possible, cutting only when a long take or an elaborate track might distract the audience from the issues in the foreground of the action.” [Ibid., p. 64.]
Charles Lederer not only wrote (with Hawks) “His Girl Friday” but earlier contributed to the original film it was based on, Lewis Milestone’s “The Front Page.” Much of the reason for the success of “His Girl Friday” lies in the fact that Lederer was so familiar with a formula that had worked twice before (as a play and a movie). Lederer and Hawks transformed the best aspects of both productions into their own successful product, “His Girl Friday.”
Cary Grant’s hand in this success story is perhaps as integral as either Hawks’s or Lederer’s contributions. Grant’s talent lies in the mannerisms which he projects into the character of Walter Burns. Pauline Kael’s dissection of Grant’s talent is significant here:
He became Cary Grant when he learned to project his feelings of absurdity through his characters and to make a style out of feeling silly. Once he realized that each movement could be stylized for humor, the eyepopping, the cocked head, the forced lunge, and the slightly ungainly stride became as certain as the pen strokes of a master cartoonist. The new element of romantic slapstick in the mid-thirties comedies – the teasing role reversals and shifts of mood – loosened him up and brought him to life. At last, he could do on the screen what he had been trained to do, and a rambunctious, spring side of his nature came out. Less “Continental” and more physical, he became funny and at the same time sexy. He was no longer effete; the booming voice had vitality. [Pauline Kael, “Profiles: The Man From Dream City.” The New Yorker, (July 14, 1975) p. 42.]
Grant obviously loves the comedy of monomaniac egotism: Walter Burns’s callousness and unscrupulousness are expressed in some of the best farce lines ever written in this country, and Grant hits those lines with a smack …. He snorts and whoops. His Walter Burns is a strong-arm performance, defiantly self-centered and funny. [Ibid., p. 56.]
Kael also points out another gag:
As the editor in “His Girl Friday,” when Grant is threatened with prison by the major and the sheriff, he stammers out, “The last man to say that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.” [Ibid., p. 56.]
Archie Leach is Cary Grant’s real name.
Compared with other verbal comedies such as those made with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, etc., “His Girl Friday” is a much more sophisticated form of comedy. Along with tinges of melodrama and strict attention to plot, “His Girl Friday” offers much more for the viewing. It is as if “His Girl Friday” is a documentary recording of a freakish newspaper event, preserved in the annals of time. With its constant barrage of words, it is a continuous tour-de-force of comic absurdities. It is a true masterpiece of film comedy.
I come from a place that, along with the surrounding area, is known as “Horsecreek Valley” or “Midland Valley” or, more often than not, just “The Valley.” My actual home is located outside the strict geographical definition of the term, but, nonetheless, the reference includes where I was raised as a kid. The “Valley” is the area on both sides of a five-mile stretch of highway about ten miles west of Aiken, South Carolina. It is in fact a valley, split into halves by this highway. The area is supported economically by textile manufacturing; there are five mills on or near this five-mile stretch of road.
The mills have had an adverse effect on the people of the Valley. The people who work in the mills usually do so as a last resort, when they have no other place to go. And although the mills are the main source of wages for most of the folks who live here, it by no means allows for their self-improvement. These people are trapped. They cannot quit their jobs because of the personal financial risk. They have no chance to move out of their near-poverty because there is no other work they can do with their limited education.
One of the favorite bumper sticker slogans of the supervisors and chieftains of the companies is “With textiles a career comes with every job.” Although this may be true to a certain extent, its application is very limited. Most of the old people have been doing exactly what they are are doing now for the past thirty-five or forty years. Their only benefits being seniority ( which has little true value), a very inadequate insurance program, a stock-purchasing program (invest in your owner), and no pension plan. A one-week vacation is included when the mills shut down for cleaning; you get paid that week if you’ve been with the company long enough. They even work Christmas Day, if necessary (depending on orders). The employees are complacent with their situation, lacking the initiative to change.
The local high school is a main source of labor for the mills. Many of the high school students go to school in the morning and go to work in the evenings. Many of these students drop out of school because they think they are making a substantial salary, often not heeding their mill-working parents’ advice to stay in school. This is not an issue for the employer-the drop-out is a lifetime asset for the mill. The culture encourages the proliferation of the mills. As long as the people have low standards and goals they will stay satisfied with what they have.
The local high school is a microcosm of the mill town. My principal was recently quoted as saying, “Nowadays we marry ’em, then teach ’em. We’re the only high school I know of that has to have a midwife at graduation.” The older people have a strong voice in the activities and programs that take place at the school. As a result of the elder’s cultural frustrations with sexual issues, the school has not been able to initiate any sex education classes or birth control counseling. The students are the ones who get punished in the end, with the mills eating up the new labor caused by students dropping out of school due to unwanted pregnancies.
I have worked in these mills and the effect they have is most depressing. I went to school from early morning until 3 and worked part time in the mill. My grades suffered, but I had money. With the money I fixed up my car and worked to fit in with everyone else at school. The summer after high school and before college, I worked full time. It was then that I realized the position people were in. A lot of the people I worked with had been in the mills more than ten years. Most had dropped out of high school and some had even dropped out of grammar school. All were bored with their work, although most would stick it out until retirement. A large proportion of the workers are black. Most of the white workers complain to each other (not to the blacks) that the blacks are taking over the textile industry. All of the people seem to try to forget the position they are in and joke and gossip about insignificant things. The mill officials try to motivate employees by offering weekly coffee and doughnuts for those folks who show up on time and stay the whole shift. In this environment, this appears to mean something to these folks. When I first came into the mills they had just initiated this program. Supervisors brought in the doughnuts and made the coffee for the workers. By the time I left, supervisors were handing out quarters for the employees to get their own coffee and doughnuts from the company vending machines. The workers never raised a brow in reaction to this most insulting gesture. It seemed as if the supervisors and bosses were never to be questioned and everything they thought said and did was sacrosanct.
The company had just started an orientation program when I began working full time. It was managed by Fran Tarkenton Enterprises, and consisted of short propaganda courses telling the new workers how great it was to be working for such a great company. They bribed you to come to meetings by holding a lottery for a small pot of money. I was so irritated by the company’s inaction to really help the people that I never showed up after the first few meetings. I wasn’t so concerned about myself as for the people who accepted the bullshit as fact.
The people in the mills have been programmed by the companies to believe what they want them to believe. Most of the people are afraid to talk about unions, thinking their jobs are in jeopardy if the are caught doing so. This belief stems from a statement in the employee handbook. The mill states it policies toward unions in the handbook. They do not like them and the mill itself believes the people are well off without them. This is enough to satisfy the people that they should not talk, although they make the lowest wages for comparable work in other occupations and although they cannot afford to buy the very cloth they make. The people are apparently satisfied. As a result, the mill culture is very depressing – similar to a Faulkner novel or “The Last Picture Show.”
When the mills came to the valley a few decades ago, they built the “mill towns.” The mill realized that the type of labor they were promoting and seeking would not be conducive to private ownership. In order to overcome this problem, the mills build a mill town, a collection of very cheap, low-rent houses. Many of these houses remain standing today. And each house looks like the other. These houses are comparable to the people. They people work to sustain their existence. They know nothing else. They are all alike. Just like the houses. Their children will later make up the working force. The schools will provide a good source of labor for the mills.
As a result of the mills the townspeople are trapped. As a result of the people, the mills will continue. The mills will always be. Always be unless a nation-wide economic collapse occurs. Then everyone will be in the same boat. But until then the mill workers wives will always be trying to stretch their income while their husbands are spending theirs in the massage parlors and beer joints that also line “The Valley’s” main roads. The people will always be.
As evening falls on the valley, the slowly setting sun brings with it a quietness and solitude that is remarkable when compared with other times of day. Astrologers insist that planets and the moon affect people; the sun does that here, for when the sun begins its journey down the people turn friendly and laugh. This evening is not excepted; the people are exchanging jokes and tales on neighbors’ porches and workers home from eight-hour hells stretch their legs by cleaning their yards. The roads are almost desolate except for a few straggling cars; the rush to get home has ended and everyone is glad it has. Later, the quiet solitude will ease into death as people lock up and go to bed.
This death of night is resurrected at midnight, for that is when the mill shift will change. When the whistle blows, people, those awake or awakened in their beds, are reminded that the quietude of their hometown is false; the unconscious drone of machinery lurks in the background. This drone recedes from consciousness only because of its constant familiarity.
The whistle breaks this unconscious drone of the valley – it, too, ends another kind of hell, different from the five o’clock white-collar hell. The mill-workers are unleashed from their machines to do as they please. The time clock eats the line of time cards as the workers leave the fluorescent light for the dark cool. The walk fast, almost run, to the parking lot and their cars. The dislodge the dirty earplugs from their ears and let them hang from their grimy necks. Old fat ladies waddle along, while tall, lightly bearded men puff cigarettes. Black workers with their linty kinked hair jive along with their bros and sisters. All these people laugh to release the tension built up by the cranky machines – tension released by their own release. The cars begin to start – everyone racing them to make them run better, sooner. The fast cars, the ones with the mags and the elevated rear ends and young drivers, make it to the street first, the older cars with the older drivers being content with last. Everyone’s glad to get out and go home.
Joe’s hand hurt. The pain quickens as he reaches for his time card that proves his existence to the payroll office. He punches out and turns to the exit. The way out is formed by a path bordered on both sides by machines called “spinners.” Joe tries to forget these machines and tries to block out the cascading shower of sound around him. His hand pains him and makes the spinners’ presence even more obtrusive – these spinners smashed up his hand four months ago. They continue to smash his soul. The door leads outside, back in again in sixteen hours.
The short walk home is what Joe considers to be the only good thing about his job. After the heat and noise of the mill, the cool cools his sweat and the quiet settles his nerves. It usually gives him time to think about good things. But not so tonight. The good things won’t come – they are drowned out by the pain of his hand and the pain in his soul. He begins his trek home.
The walk home is a short distance – about five blocks. Autumn has set in and as a result the roads are filled with leaves. A slight rustle is caused by the wind. The moon is full and illuminates the way. Joe notices the moon’s reflection in the windows and chrome of the cars he passes as he walks.
What Joe does think about tonight is why it is that nothing works out for him. His state of existence has fallen to its lowest level and it seems that it won’t be long before he’s dragging the bottom. The mill makes up a major part of his life; when he’s there he ceases to function as a human and becomes a machine. When he’s out, each minute gone is another minute closer to going back in. He is seriously dreading every tomorrow that comes – is it worth it?
Joe feels like he has been cheated; he doesn’t know how, he just feels it. The feeling is that of something having a disheartening hold on his soul; a quiet complex machine hidden by the dark. The paranoia increases as he thinks back to his childhood.
When he was twelve, he remembers his sixth grade class went to see that great spectacle of human ingenuity – the cotton mill. He remembers how important he felt, for the annual event was a privilege only the sixth graders had. The class had had to wear coats and ties and nice dresses. The mill impressed him, he thought, splendidly. The noise and confusion overwhelmed him. Seeing machines doing tasks he had never imagined them able to do aroused his curiosity. He had never forgotten that.
He didn’t hesitate to apply for a job there when he quit school three years later. He had majestically weighed all the advantages and disadvantages like he had been taught – the mill came out ahead in his judgment. Why the hell not? No more school and plenty of money.
It went OK for a good, long time, but it had changed at some point. When – he couldn’t decide. The smashed hand made him realize that he no longer counted. Perhaps, he thought, when that had happened…maybe sooner. The machines were at least better off than he was – they didn’t have to feel the pain.
Another thought rose to his consciousness – the pep talk that he has received as a new worker. The people had told him he was an important part of their company. That had made him feel good. He felt disgusted now, the hatred for himself had replaced the elation of importance.
The light from his house brought back the reality. The reality of the gray clapboard lumber sides of the house, illuminated by the light, frightened him. All of the houses, his and his neighbors, seemed defenseless, like someone could come in and steal the lives away. The light was a symbol of hope for him, if it had not been burning, something might have been wrong at the house. It reminded him of a sermon he’d once heard about the guiding light of God. Maybe that’s what caused him to relate hope with the porch light.
The weathered wood steps creaked a familiar creak under Joe’s weight. Joe opened the door into another dark quiet. The screen door slammed and he hoped he hadn’t awakened his wife – he didn’t want to have to contend with her now. Their impotent life together was another thing that disgusted Joe. It didn’t help the pain.
Joe came inside and shut the door. He walked over to a chair and sat down. A night light burned, casting its weak light about the floor and walls. Huge geometric shadows lay everywhere. The quiet was broken every second by the tick of a clock from a far room. He could distinguish the fireplace across the room, outlined by the light.
Joe sat perfectly still. All of the thoughts had led to confusion in his mind. The confusion was aggravated by his hand. He saw himself as nothing and nothing he or anybody else could do would change that. There just was no other way of looking at it. Joe felt he must make a decision – he knew he would. Slowly he raised himself from the chair. The pain quickened. He made five light steps across the room to the mantle above the fireplace. Finding what he was looking for, he sat down on the hearth and cocked the thirty-eight. After placing the gun to his mouth, he releases the trigger.
Joe’s wife startles in her sleep – she awakens from a pleasant dream. The moon casts shadows of moving trees on the curtains. The clock breaks the silence every second…