My birthday: the twenty-fourth time I've been twenty-nine.
... yes, well, okay... I'm fifty two.
Saturday's World AIDS Day speech went well. Many compliments, many eyes on me.
Tonight's Kagel concert – well, we'll see, but – the rehearsal went well; and Agustín is asking for even more attitude, more theatrics, more... me.
Of course even performing this relatively short piece (only ten minutes) has fairly strongly obsessed my ego: I rarely sing these days, so when I do all my natural narcissism comes to fore. Everyone must come to the concert, and everyone must say how wonderful I am, and buy me a drink, and wish me a happy birthday... and I will fuss over clothes, tea, timing, placement. Everything must somehow put me forward, must feature me in a starring role.
Ha. It's not quite so bad, of course. But the sheer wash of egotism is interesting to experience – such wash of egotism being the main thing that drove me from the ages of about fifteen to, perhaps, quite recently (and it still drives me of course, but in an attenuated and fragmentary way). That wash determined what I chose to do with my life, what I hoped to achieve, what I spent time doing....
Funny: well, in a way.
Happy, happy birthday, to me....
All right: you can applaud now.
The performance, although with many mistakes and an unexpected hoarseness that came into my voice out of nowhere (too long all afternoon without warming up, then pushing too hard I think), was a success. And especially an ego success: I'm sure nobody thought it was a musical masterpiece, but everyone seemed to think it was a theatrical success – people kept using the word 'panache'.
Actually quite good: a sense that I should do more of this kind of thing – that I do it well, in fact better than I did when I was young; that my game of playing the great egotist is, in a way, somewhat less hampered by my own egotism.
And a sense that some of the ideas I used to so enjoy – playing with language, being creative with ideas, performing bizarre works – are still available, and that I should spend more time on them.
Not quite so sure I won't try to become a Jungian analyst; we'll see. Of course, in any major decision it is good to give up on it at one point, at least... but despite my concerns about age, health, time, cost, logistics, appropriateness, and what might be my underlying (possibly suspect, narcissistic, inflated or unrealistic) reasons for wanting this, the only concern that really stands in my way is wondering whether I'm only doing this in order to avoid writing The Book.
In any case: I am much concerned about anima/animus stuff, relations, the way I connect to others. I need to be concerned about those things – as school revs up again I'm finding myself amazingly hostile, angry, resentful about the tedious things that are thrown at us in e-mails, meetings, and tedious presentations by outside consultants. It is as though we start out the school year with the most nonsensical, oppressive and bureaucratically misguided parts of our jobs – and because this is the UK, where the government runs the universities, there are very, very many of those.
I did, after all, live at least partly in the business world during the eighties and early nineties, and left it behind because it was so airless and ridiculous – there is a way in which all bosses become pointy-haired after a time. The fact that British universities are increasingly run by, and in the favorite ways of, bureaucratic busybodies is a seriously unpleasant aspect of life here, even more than the weather.
So I'm cranky, and being difficult to my colleagues – at points, very difficult indeed. I am not nice when I don't want to be.
Somewhere among all this, and a crowd of half-forgotten dreams that seem to be trying to push me in various directions, and a beautifully thoughtful, extended series of long messages on Facebook with an admired gay poet of the 1980s, I'm thinking of many things. One of them is connected to the Jungian, to the psychological, to the relational – the way that some major stage works, operas and plays, don't mean much of anything to me; and my attempt to figure out why, on psychological rather than aesthetic grounds.
For instance, neither Mozart's Don Giovanni nor Shakespeare's Hamlet, though both are supposed to be the greatest works by the greatest artists, has ever really gotten through to me at all. Yes, I get all the ideas; but they both seem strange, flat and dead, and simply unimportant to my world.
With Mozart, it's certainly not the nature of opera itself: I love Nozze di Figaro more than many things in the world, and I enjoy the fluff of Cosí fan tutte, even if the plot degenerates into drivel. I'll admit I'm not as enamored as Zauberflöte as many are, but perhaps that is because the childlike doesn't mean much to me. But no – with Zauberflöte and Don Giovanni, there is a sense of being forced to care about something that is ultimately too heterosexual, too concerned with the endless, tiresome war between the men and the women...
but then isn't that just as true of Nozze and Cosí? What am I missing in these works? Or is it significant that Nozze and Cosí are more from the womens' viewpoint – that both seem to be taking place, much of the time, in women's bedrooms?
As for Shakespeare: given how much I love Lear, Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, and above all and more than anything A Midsummer Night's Dream, why does Hamlet leave me so entirely cold? And Macbeth is nearly as bad, after the witches leave the stage. (This can't entirely be a gay thing – Patrick loves the Scottish play, but maybe that's because he did it in school and knows it so much better.)
The problem with Hamlet, more than any of these, is that it is accurately described as intellectual, obsessed with death, tragical, rhetorical, complicated – doesn't that sound like something I would like? And I've tried repeatedly; but it just falls flat for me. I cannot see why it is greater than the other plays, and I can barely see why it is worth producing at all.
Of course I can't stand Gravity's Rainbow either, despite enjoying V and The Crying of Lot 49. Way too much war stuff, olive drab, yuck. Or Beethoven piano sonatas – though I love practically all the symphonies, even the wallfowers 4 and 8, the piano sonatas seem so heavy with male bombast – when Bennett plays them in the afternoon down the hall from my office, I can admire his passion for them, but I find the harmonies of that exaggeratedly male universe incredibly tiresome.
Is this, then, all something about anima relations – or animus relations – or the Double, or one of the other attempts that have been made to make sense of archetypes in the gay mind? (Which is one of the big places where Jung's often very heterosexual theories run into some trouble – and which is a place where there has been a great deal of discussion, as so many famous Jungians are gay men or lesbians.)
Is this – at the greatest depth and with the greatest resonance – a guy thing? Or a gay thing?....
David Hirson has written two plays – and only two: La Bête (1991), an extraordinarily peculiar tour de force in rhyming verse that actually reached Broadway before flopping and is often done by the braver regional theaters, and Wrong Mountain (2000), a bitter but brilliant piece on devoting your life to the wrong goals (i.e. climbing the wrong mountain).
There must be a story there, though an Internet search doesn't give me clarification, only more mysteries: a young playwright, no longer really young; two brilliant but extremely bizarre plays that got a lot of attention, if not quite what you would call success, and were published together; and nothing else. He apparently shows up at festivals and such, and you can't help thinking – how peculiar does he seem there, how does he justify having just a play a decade? Is there going to be a third play in his career – around 2009, at this rate? Will it be brilliant, will it be a success, or another complicated tangle of success and failure? Does he do any minor plays at all, does he ever sketch anything, or does he burn everything peripheral before anyone sees it?
Of course it's plausible, given the monumental nature of each of the plays, for him to take that long writing each of them – it just seems so bizarre that each is so huge, so ambiguous in its relation to the current American stage; you would think they would be either simply failures by an obscurity, or near-successes by someone who has written other things that didn't do even that well. Because both plays are also sort of about bad art, about people who devote their lives to the artistic and either fail or do something worthless with it, the resonance is especially disturbing.
As I try to work my way through the presentation I must give next week, which is embedded in the subject matter of the book I am promising to write during my 2008 research leave, I find more and more things wrong with it, things that just don't link up, or make the sense I had formerly asserted, or really seem to matter at all. And, in the middle of the night, as I get more and more stressed, I am wakeful because I can't help thinking that the planned book, itself, might be – before it is ever written – a load of nonsense, a pointless exercise. That it is not a book I can make sense of, not a book I can do well – nor a book anyone would really want, even if it could be done well.
Wrong mountain: the idea that you would spend enormous effort and all your ability to make something, and it would be forgotten, not because the world is unfair and people are unkind and you aren't properly appreciated, but simply because the thing itself is junk.
And if you know that a difficult piece of work is not going to be worth doing – and know, not merely in the context of the usual insecurities of the writer, but because you realize how essentially unimportant the shards of your life are, to other people, and even to yourself – how can you possibly make yourself actually do it – actually scale the side of that mountain?...
Of course I have spent most of my life driving myself to make some kind of book, and of course have long realized that such drive, such obsession, is no guarantee that anything larger I might finally, someday, finish would be any kind of success. But thinking it through this way: to do your best, and realize that it isn't really very good: this is something we can easily imagine happening to other people, even to most other people, given human limitations; but to experience it happening to oneself – especially in the face of all that has been given up, all that has not happened in the place of this thing, that is not in itself particularly good – this is so huge, so appalling in its entirely plausible and ironic finality, that it is almost impossible, emotionally, to compass....
A bit startled, and disappointed, by the film Brief Encounter (1945). The original one-act play (Still Life, from Coward's Tonight at 8:30) is so utterly wonderful – melodrama perhaps, but such spare, precisely written melodrama, where every character is completely outlined with just a few deft strokes, and the whole story progresses so delicately and inevitably towards its tragic focus. Besides, the whole point should be that they don't have many words for their situation, shouldn't it? – that their feelings for each other are strong but unmanageable – all much more believable, much more powerful, in the original version. Why add narration, flashbacks, foreshadowing, discussion?... ick. I'm afraid I can't understand why this is supposed to be a classic film.
It reminds me of what my friend Laura said, when her beloved youngest brother drowned in a silly vacation accident, and her family, which always expected her (and only her, not even her feckless parents) to be the Adult In Charge; they indulged themselves in the drama of the situation, weeping and wailing and such, and she said quietly to me: "It's already so awful, why do they need to make it awful?" I've always remembered that line – it says a lot about real feelings, and their resistance to being spoken....
So, having come home after one slightly disorienting/disappointing trip, I have to leave again for a weekend in London... don't much want to travel, don't want to pack, don't want to create time for two possible side trips or consultations... ah well.
I'm going so that I can see a production of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George – a meditation on art and artists, and life, and imagination, and loss and disappointment... perhaps it will be worth it after all.
Later: having arrived, slept for about 3-4 hours, showered... feeling a bit more human. Although the list of Things To Do and Things I Should Do is a bit long, I think I'll try to enjoy the weekend....
And the next day, Saturday: enjoyed the Sondheim hugely; will write about it. And had an amazing part-romantic, part-other experience Friday night; won't write about it, not on a bet. Clearly I'm still a bit unaligned with writing since coming back from Spain – can it be the impending pressures of school starting again, the feeling of duty associated with writing, or just the greyer skies? – sorry about that; in any case will attempt to become coherent again, and communicative again, in the next two days.
Maybe it's just that, at some level, I still feel a bit too much like she, at the head of this post, looks....
Got some work done, working off of a precise list of Things To Do over the next two days. (As they used to say in seminars: it's amazing how much you get done on the day before you go away for vacation – and wouldn't it be even more amazing if you could be that effective all the time?) But my resolve to go to bed at a decent hour failed before the prospect of a late movie – Onegin, the 1999 film with Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes, was too tempting.
I've written elsewhere of the impact on me of Marcia Haydée's Tatiana, with the Stuttgart Ballett; it was an amazing performance, and I'll always associate Pushkin, and any version of Evgenii Onyegin, with that one. Especially appropriate because I was a lovelorn adolescent when I saw it, and Tatiana is the ultimate lovelorn adolescent (at least in the first half of the story).
But the movie didn't quite work. Yes, polished, yes, classy, yes, well acted – but they got it wrong: the first half, culminating in Tatiana's letter to Onyegin, should be more anguished; and the second half, ironically climaxing in his letter to her, should be cooler, more wintry. She says in the poem, "I can't help these tears," but they are sad, not anguished; she is not shattered when they meet years later, she is reserved and articulate, asking him to leave with her dignity and, undoubtedly, her makeup intact. Although Liv Tyler acts beautifully and well, it doesn't fit the story or the situation – she is simply too broken up in the movie for it to be properly satisfying.
I realize of course from my translation, and various explications of it, that non-Russians can never find the poem as exciting as Russians do – there's no way of recreating the impact of a newly made, supple, modern Russian, which this poem literally achieved, in languages that developed so differently (and frankly so much earlier). And all the poem's scenery, all the detailed moments and minor characters, just don't seem as interesting from a non-Russian (or perhaps from a modern) point of view. So, what we experience ends up limited to the plot, which in this case is really just the two great love letters and the supercharged scenes they create – even the duel is actually subsidiary to them, as it is the ironic break in power relations that will change everything, so that we must move from the first to the second.
Which means that, by "properly satisfying", I really mean that I think that Tatiana wins, she has her revenge. I know that she doesn't seek revenge, that she doesn't even want it, but despite his name in the title it ends up being her story – and that is what makes the story so attractive to heartbroken adolescents: the prospect that someday, somewhere, your situations will be reversed, and that arrogant bastard will throw himself at your feet, begging you to come away with him. And you'll have the confidence, the strength, to tell him: no.
It is the wrong season to see this play. I'm thinking of warm countries, a week in Sitges at the end of the month, making pasta with roast vegetables....
But Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is on television again, and the last time I didn't get to see it from the beginning. The intricacy, the overlapping conceptual, dramatic, political, and personal spirals, are much clearer – and thereby more beautiful....
Exquisite. You can feel the cool beauty of København, its polished tiny gardens, its sense of carefully outlined, graceful spaces – I love that city so much, though I haven't seen it in a while. And the reference to the saving of the Danish Jews – something the Danes themselves are so cool about, so offhand: one of the great saving beauties of the war, but when I mentioned it there they just said, Oh, we should have done it earlier.... But it is the wrong season to become enchanted with that city – I must save it for the fall, save it for a cooler time of year.
(I still think this play is only as good as the equivalent Stoppard plays – Arcadia, Invention of Love, maybe Hapgood, and so on. But for some reason the London critics love Frayn more than Stoppard – perhaps because he's One Of Them, and thoroughly English, and... well who knows what else. But Stoppard does this even better, I still insist.)
Spurious mentioning Handke reminds me, not of the brief writings I've read by him (always elegant, exquisitely tooled, even if they do seem to leave the universe a little darker and more hopeless); but of a completely amazing stage work I saw by Handke in 1994, and reviewed for an academic newsletter. I can't find the review on my computer – the electronic text is probably long lost – but I remember how amazing the piece was, and how (unfortunately) practically indescribable. That puts it partly in line with the other radical Handke stage works, especially his famous and wonderfully obnoxious Publikumsbeschimpfung ('Insulting the Public'), the final word in the game of épater le bourgeoisie (there's an English phrase for that – what is it? – 'shocking the bourgeois' or something like that).
But I'll try to describe it a bit anyway... though most of it has vanished: only the impression of being amazed has really stayed with me, after all these years. The beautiful little program book (German programs are always so perfect, like German paperbacks), though I have it here beside me, doesn't help much either – it collects a scenario, some notes, a foldout reproduction of a painting of the stage set. It's an exquisite souvenir, but doesn't really evoke anything about the piece, except, well, the impossibility of accurately evoking the piece....
Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten (something like: The Hour In Which We Knew Nothing About Each Other) is not really drama, because it doesn't have any words, at all; but it's not really dance either, and doesn't fit any of even the more unexpected categories of experimental theater or performance art. It is a mime/movement piece, I suppose, but unlike all those I've ever seen; fluid, silent (no music), graceful and choreographed, but also everyday and not at all dance-like. I suppose it would have to be seen as a quasi-real, quasi-surreal exploration of everyday movement at its edges where it becomes aesthetic movement (i.e. where the body becomes deeply involved); the fact that the piece happens on street corners and in rooms constantly brings it back to earth, because the resonance is always with normal people in the street, not with any kind of spectacle. I suppose among the many reasons that it isn't really a dance piece (no music, etc.) is that it isn't either narrative, or a work of pure form (as in, say, a Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration) – it is in fact constructed just as one would construct a play, except there aren't any words. Or plot. Or coherent characters....
I suppose it serves me right: the piece was hard enough to explain when I wrote a three-page review in 1994, in the afterglow of a beautiful performance in Berlin; and now, as you can see, all I can come up with is negatives, things that it is not like. Experiencing the piece wasn't negative at all, however: it felt entirely graceful and alive, like something very real and important.
Hmm, points up the difficulties I had teaching performance analysis last semester: the really wonderful works seem to be based on experiences, embodiments, that are exactly the parts that evaporate when you try to apply tradition, or semiotics, or in fact the rational mind....