Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Watching George C. Scott in Petulia

The worst thing of all is embarrassment. Barring pain, obviously. The worst thing is embarrassment. I can't even read about it, or watch it on a movie. I flee the theater, I pause the DVD. I can't bear that scene in Notorious where Claude Rains catches Ingrid Bergman in Cary Grant's arms. I writhe. I want to reassure Claude: no, they're not cheating on you - they're just spying on you to betray your Nazi ring to the U.S. government. But he misinterprets, and Hitchcock twists the knife or turns the screw. I can't bear scenes of false pretenses.

I can't play them either. I stutter, I garble, I can't put the words in the correct order, it is as if English had suddenly ceased to be my native language, as if I had to work through the meaning in Latin or Turkish or Chinese and then translate, and the people I am talking to are patient and that makes me more hysterical in its turn. So I cannot get myself to make a simple important phone call because I'm not sure I know everything I ought to know and I can't find all the papers that should be in my hand and I'm tearing my hair out (but I have no hair any more) and it's all very simple and calming myself down ought to be simple and life is impossible if I do not make this call and it's the one (besides shoes) really extraordinary gift I can give to myself on my birthday, but I cannot get myself to do it, to wrap it, to address it, to bring it to FedEx around the corner because I cannot face the embarrassment of a phone call and where the hell did I put that phone number anyway? because I know I didn't toss it out.

I know.

I do like to console myself that now that I hardly have any hair left, I can't tear all my hair out. I mean, how nervous can I actually become? This doesn't console me, but that is how I like to console myself. Disconsolately. Inconsolably. On my birthday. Watching a movie I haven't seen since I was in college (when my roommate had a crush on Julie Christie - as indeed many people did). George C. Scott, whom my father used to call "Old Constipation" for his usual facial expression, plays the doctor she vamps in a hippie San Francisco that was already moribund by the time I showed up there (bewildered and askew). I always see myself a man out of my own time and in no other in particular, but perhaps I am really a late-blooming hippie, uncomfortable that my era is (other than musically) so utterly forgotten.

George C. Scott plays a doctor (sort of like my father), and Julie Christie has a fixation on him, having observed him operate on a boy she ran over. He does not know that is the reason for her fixation, and she may not realize it herself. She's very self-involved. How deplorable. Thank heavens no one is like that anymore.

What my father did (as a doctor) was real, so real - people loved him, were grateful to him, for a reason: he found things inside that needed fixing, he patched them up, he spared them pain. Nothing I ever did was real - I never thought it so, I never thought it a possibility, that anything I did could possibly be as real as that. So why bother to try? I never tried, I never thought of anything sufficiently real that would be in the compass of what I could achieve, there was very little point to it, to effort.

Another thing this movie (Petulia, remember?) did was scare me off handball for life. There is this scene of two friends playing handball, fast and furious and utterly terrifying. Like the world. Atomic reactions about to blow. Handball was a favorite with my grandfather - but then, what sport wasn't? (Cricket, maybe.) Behind his little house in Crestwood, a house I have never even seen, he built the first private handball courts in Westchester (per my father). When my uncle last stopped by to look at the place, he told me, the handball courts had been turned into support walls for flowering vines. My kind of people, obviously.

When my grandfather was dying, when we all sat by his side and he was suffering spasms (how I remember his impatience, the invasion of his privacy, that he couldn't have a spasm with people hanging about, with people before he had to keep up a certain front, his front to which (if not he, who?) had every right and yet it was difficult to make casual small talk about other things (as my grandmother and her sister and my mother were all doing, waiting for my father to arrive with the ambulance to take him to Doctor's Hospital) and it was impossible to turn away because I was out of my head on LSD (though no one else knew about this) and multicolored snowflakes were emerging from the wall and that was what I really wanted to talk about but it occurred to me that my point in discussing it would probably be misconstrued by those assembled, my grandfather said, "I ask God, why me? I've been a good man; why am I suffering so much?" and I was rather impatient about that, because he'd been such a good, pious atheist all his life, it seemed a bit of a let-down to bring up God (as I had never heard him do before), and at the same time, some other self (I have many; they've never liked each other much) said, "How dare you condescend to this good old man who has never done anything unkind in ninety years probably, and you think him less (as a stationer) than you would if he were some intellectual so-and-so, and how fucking dare you? because what he has done, raised children and grandchildren and built a house and built a business and been loved by thousands upon thousands (he was a very lovable man; everyone who met him became his friend in minutes if not seconds) and was never cruel or unkind in his life ... his life was real." The corollary being my life was not real, would never be real. And so it has proved.

And I am awed even by my great-grandfather, whom my father and grandfather despised, because he crossed the ocean (with illegal paperr yet), knowing no one, and certainly no English (but German served well enough in New York in those days), and brought over his wife and children and worked for them, yes, though they all thought him lazy and apt to weasel things (a trait I inherit), and he rose at five for all those years, and took in the papers and ran the store, and fell asleep in the afternoon because who wouldn't? and married at 16 and never looked at another woman, though he outlives her by 17 years. I think I'd like the old scoundrel though none of the others did. His life, too was real.

And my life is not, has never been, can never be real. What difference will it make if it goes on twenty more years or ends now? It isn't real.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Everyone has forgotten Semiramis

Last night to a splendid performance of Rossini's rackety grand opera Semiramide in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor: four hours of warble. Very satisfying. But everyone had to study the program because no one seems to remember who Semiramis is - or, to be sure, was - sometime between the 22nd and eighth centuries b.c.e.

Semiramis used to be as famous as, well, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba and Herodias and Empress Wu, and the myths have much in common. (Also Zenobia, who is also nearly forgotten.) (On the other hand, Ishtar and Hatshepsut have entered the popular consciousness.)

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness, perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never made a major Technicolor picture of it. Last March, in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac, I saw seven huge tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her (as far as I recall), a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s sudden death and her succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her armies to conquer Egypt and India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real Shamu-ramat was simply queen regent of hyper-masculine Assyria for three years), and it’s a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Alexander, Agamemnon and Roland.

On the web, where one encounters the usual nonsense, a Biblical mystic identifies Semiramis as the wife of Nimrud (builder of the Tower of Babel) and the “inventor of polytheism” – that needed to be invented? Dante and Herodotus are cited among sources on Wikipedia. Her era is variously identified as 22nd and 8th centuries B.C.E. (Top that!)

She is also said to have:
1) been born to a goddess and a mortal – the goddess, ashamed, slew the mortal and abandoned the baby, hence raised by doves and shepherds – typical heroic birth trope, cf. Hercules, Jesus
2) she was a major tomboy, winning men’s hearts by her skill at hunt and war as well as beauty,
cf. Hippolyta, Brunhilda, Zenobia, the Ranee of Jhansi
3) first husband, a satrap of Nineveh, allowed her to lead a campaign against Bactra, which won King Ninus’ notice; the husband committed suicide – cf. The King’s Henchman, David and Bathsheba
4) Ninus was so impressed by her counsel (she founded Babylon in this version, as well as building the walls and the hanging gardens – both among the Seven Wonders) that he made her Queen Regent for a day; she promptly had him executed and took power, deceiving the troops by appearing in man’s attire as her son – cf. Hatshepsut, Catherine the Great, Irene of Byzantium, Empress Wu of China – all real rulers by the way
5) She then conquered Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia, but not India
6) She is said to have had a different lover every night – fearing they would take her power, she had them murdered in the morning. Ergo Dante put her in the lechers’ circle. This trope appears in tales (and operas) about Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Queen Marguerite of France, several Roman empresses, Queen Tamar of Georgia, Herodias, etc. etc. I think it is all about men’s terrof of insatiable female lust which they may not be man enough to satisfy. The woman wiser or braver than a man is always either asexually prudish or lustful beyond all reason (the myth of Catherine the Great and the horse, e.g.) – she can’t be normal, because men can’t stand the idea of brave, brainy women being normal.
7) The incest motif comes from all sorts of places, notably the subconscious – but cf. Jocasta, Lucrezia Borgia, Cybele and Atys, Ishtar and Tammuz.
8) At last, after three years (historical), or 15 (operatic) or 42, her son showed up and had her put to death. (Cf. Athaliah) Or she was rescued at the last moment, cornered on top of the Tower of Babel, by a flock of doves, her old friends, who carried her off. Imagine trying to stage that with a Sutherland or Caballé – or Meade. Well – I once saw Sutherland fly off in a winged chariot in Esclarmonde, come to think of it.

Wouldn't that story have made a great trash flick for Gina Lollobrigida? Or Angela Lansbury in her blonde bombshell bitch days? I see George Sanders as Assur, Tyrone Power as Ninus, Sal Mineo as Arsaces/Ninias. Can we get Cukor to direct?

P.S. After a visit to Boston for the Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese show at the MFA, I wandered the regular galleries of that place (it's been thirty years since I was there last - I think), and found a Guercino of Semiramis Cutting Her Hair while Receiving the News of the Revolt of Babylon. According to the wall caption (bless Boston for its wall captions!), she put down her scissors and refused to complete her toilette until she had ridden her army to the offending city and suppressed the revolt.

That was a new tale to me (and, I presume, you).

Reminds me of the tale of Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia (elder daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elisabeth de Valois, Verdi lovers take note), who reigned in Brussels for 35 years and once swore not to change her underlinen until the Protestant northern Netherlands were reconquered by the Catholic south (her bailiwick). Of course they never were conquered. One wonders what Isabella, and her maids, had to endure in consequence. Across the gallery from the Guercino were several works created for Isabella by Rubens, her court painter, including one of a series of warlike women on whom she might model herself, in this case, notably, Queen Tamyris vengefully tossing the head of King Cyrus into a basin of blood.

Another story I know nothing at all about.