Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fashioning Himself a Hero: Death of Another Salesman

Revolutionary Road
By Richard Yates

The Laurel Players is an amateur theater group with high hopes of establishing a loftier cultural standard in their Connecticut suburb, but their short-lived attempt to put on a play is an utter failure. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, and the author's exploration of the themes of social aspirations, the desire the project oneself, and role-playing to meet or consciously balk social expectations.

Like the Laurel Players, everyone in the story knows that they are merely putting on a performance. They resent the trappings of middleclass life. Frank and April Wheeler get together with friends Shep and Milly Campbell to drink and put on a veneer of sophisticated and jaded ennui as they rail at the failure of the American dream and its lack of "authenticity." So long as they can scoff at society and speak of it with derision, they can remain above it and be untouched by it. But no one really remains untouched or unaffected.

The story is told from Frank's perspective and he is the master of play-acting and self-image. Yates adeptly uses imagery to convey this. One of the prevalent images is that of mirrors. Frank is constantly checking his reflection in the mirror and adjusting his expression so that it reflects what he wants to project. The book also contains extensive descriptions of Frank's clothes and how he feels in them. Apparently, in this case, the clothes DO make the man. Frank literally fashions himself into the image he wants to project, always conscious that his projection in insincere. He feels that his scorn is heroic, that he can see things to which others are blind, he can understand things that are beyond their comprehension. His understanding, however, is limited to the extent to which he can control his world.

The façade of toughness hides the fact that he has a basic need. What Frank seeks most of all, from his father, from his wife, from society, is affirmation of his manhood. April is aware of this and when she suggests her plan make it possible to move to Paris so that he can realize his dream of the artistic, intellectual life he has always claimed to want, she appeals to the logic that means the most to Frank: "It's your very essence that's being stifled here. It's what you are that's being denied and denied and denied in this kind of life… You're the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world. You're a man." He accepts this argument and is buoyed by it, feeling that "Never before had elation welled more powerfully inside him; never had beauty grown more purely out of truth; never in taking his wife had he triumphed more completely over time and space… He had taken command of the universe because he was a man."

Frank's elation, however, is short-lived. Although he had always purported to want to move to France to pursue the dream of the intellectual and cultured life, in fact he is horrified because actually trying to succeed would leave him vulnerable to failure. April unwittingly comes to his rescue again, when it turns out that she is pregnant. Frank now has the excuse he needs not to go ahead with the plan. April is devastated, and the events that unfold as she tries to keep their dream alive spiral into tragedy.

Richard Yates's writing style is rich in images and character contrasts. Revolutionary Road explores a lot of the same themes as Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: the sham of the middleclass dream, the ordinary man as hero (at least in his own mind), infidelity, entitlement, social convention and morality, rejection of and by family, a lack of affect. The difference is that whereas Willy Loman embraces the American Dream, Frank Wheeler attempts to disavow it, even as he is being sucked into it. Both eventually end up being destroyed by it. This is the sort of future that one could foresee for Willy Loman's sons. In fact the timing would be about perfect, with Death of a Salesman being written in 1947 and Revolutionary Road coming out in 1959.

Even a lot of the imagery that Yates uses is a tactic nod to Miller's original. Both works contain symbolic references to: seeds (DOAS), plants (RR); diamonds (DOAS), golden (RR), the rubber hose (DOAS), the rubber syringe (RR).

For all that is borrows from Miller's masterpiece, Revolutionary Road stands up on its own as an independent piece that is still relevant today. The book's Revolutionary Road leads to the suburbs, and there is no escape.


"He's a man"

In a conversation with a couple I know, she is black and he is white, she was telling me that some of her friends had asked her what it is like to have a white man as a partner. She answered them with a shrug and a languid, offhand, "He's a man." Her answer, although blatantly obvious, caught me off guard in the way that it succinctly encapsulated so many clear social expectations, while also being a tactful way of saying MYOB. I guess I was mostly surprised because it would never have occurred to me to describe a guy by saying, "he's a man." I had always thought of those members of the opposite sex as people. Maybe I should start thinking about them as men.

"No revolution, maybe someone somewhere else…"

Sunday, September 26, 2010

El amor, otro damnificado de la violencia

Me da pesar el dolor de Juan Lecompte, esposo de Ingrid Betancourt, a quien la revelación de que su esposa ya no querría volver con él después de su liberación le golpeó muy duro.

Perdió su norte, su amor, su razón por vivir. Mientras que creía que sus mensajes estaban dando fuerzas para animar a su esposa hacia la supervivencia, ella tuvo un giro en su corazón y ya no sentía lo mismo por él. Bajo circunstancias normales, la cosa decente es informar a la pareja que los sentimientos ya no son recíprocos. Pero en este caso la comunicación entre los dos estaba cortada por razones de fuerza mayor.

Me da pesar por él. También da lástima y una sensación de desgusto. Lamento que exhibe públicamente su duelo sobre un asunto netamente personal. Lamento que busca compensación por lo que el corazón de la otra no siente.

Puede ser que Ingrid fue la mas inmamable de todos los secuestrados. Nunca ví a su secuestro como un acto de heroísmo. Se metió en este lío por su propia terquedad (claro que el asunto era mucho más gordo de lo que ella esperaba). Desde su pretensión de buscar compensación al gobierno colombiano, me cae bastante gorda. Pero no la culpo por sus sentimientos. Tiene derecho a su propia intimidad y sus propios sentimientos. Es imposible que una experiencia como el cautiverio no deja huellas en el alma.

Mas bien me sorprendo por las relaciones que se mantuvieron firmes a pesar del tiempo y la separación del secuestro como Alan Jara y Claudia Rugeles.

Juan Carlos Lecompte debería tomar una lección de Jorge Gechem y Fernando Araujo quienes recuperaron su libertad pero no sus amores de antes, y manejaron sus situaciones con dignidad. Entendieron que la vida transcurrió en su ausencia.

El corazón siente lo que siente. No hay caso buscar culpas, y menos compensación.

El amor es otro damnificado de la violencia.

En respuesta a


28 de Septiembre

Respeto a los últimos comentarios de Ingrid en Univisión, que su matrimonio se acabó porque Lecompte no le demostró suficiente cariño al momento de su liberación: Acaso ella no se acuerda que este momento fue presenciado por millones de personas, una tras otra vez, en la televisión? El contraste entra la forma como ella abrazó a su mamá y cordialmente saludó a su esposo fue impactante. Repito que no la culpo por lo que siente, o no siente. Pero tiene huevo en echar la culpa a Lecompte por su supuesta falta de afecto.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Peace or justice?

On 16 September 2010 the Bogota High Court issued a 26-page ruling in which it considers that the crimes committed by the M-19 guerrillas during the November 1985 occupation of the Supreme Court building constitute crimes against humanity, on the grounds that the occupation was an attack on defenseless civilians. As a crime against humanity, there is no statute of limitations for prosecution.

The M-19 was pardoned in the late 1980s as part of the group's demobilization. It became a left-leaning political party that was influential in Colombian politics, although a number of its high profile members were subsequently threatened or murdered. The party is now effectively defunct, although some of its former members remain active in Colombia's political scene.

The issue at the surface of this recent court ruling is one of justice versus peace. Amnesties and pardons do not serve the interests of justice and preventing impunity, but they do serve to ensure peace, which is sometimes the overriding concern of a society, particularly if those being pardoned have made full confessions of their crimes. In that case the interest of truth will be served, even if justice is not done.

The underlying issue here, and the one that is most disturbing in the current political context, is that of legal security or juridical security, which refers to whether a law or decree that has passed will remain stable or whether it can be overturned. In this case the government had to pass legislation to grant the M-19 guerrilla group pardon or amnesty.

The same debate has been raised concerning the validity and effectiveness of the justice and peace law through which paramilitary leaders have received reduced sentences for committing their crimes, as part of the demobilization process. A similar legal mechanism has been proposed to enable guerrilla groups like the FARC and the ELN to demobilize. How is the government going to encourage these groups to demobilize if there is no guarantee that the deals that the groups make to avoid prosecution or serve reduced sentences will not be upheld in court?

Effectively fighting the illegal armed groups in Colombia requires a carrot and stick approach. The Uribe government was very effective in unrelentingly combating the guerrillas and restoring public security in much of the country. At the same time it offered incentives to rank and file guerrillas to desert and demobilize, and thereby qualify for relocation, education, and aid. It appeared that the Santos government intended to continue to implement this policy.

The court's ruling throws a monkey wrench into the works. Who would be willing to confess crimes and demobilize, knowing that the deal for pardon could be overturned?

The fact that investigations have revealed that a number of the deaths attributed to the M-19 during the occupation of the Supreme Court were actually the result of the military operation to retake control of the courthouse is another issue that also merits further examination.

The Bogota High Court's decision goes against the interests of peace in Colombia, and peace should be the country's prevailing priority. For legal security and for peace in Colombia, the pardon should stand.

Pictures of individuals who went missing during the operation to retake control of the courthouse.

Monday, September 13, 2010

MSO Concert for Haiti

The Thursday before I left Montreal, I went to the outdoor concert that the MSO was hosting as a fund-raiser for Haiti. I arrived early with a book and a snack and was able to stake out an excellent spot on the grass, near the large screen on the right.

I had serious misgiving about going because the evening was threatening rain. A friend called from Ottawa and told me that it was pouring there, but it was a balmy summer night in Montreal; just right for an outdoor concert, although we did get a couple of brief showers during the performance.

Kent Nagano was conducting, Luck Mervil was the MC, and the concert program was:
STRAUSS, R. Don Juan
STRAVINSKI, Firebird featuring Cirque Éloize
ADAMS, Lollapaloosa
GERSHWIN, Summertime; Marie-Josée Lord, soprano
BARBER, Adagio with a narration by Dany Laferrière
LUCK MERVIL, Mézanmi (My Friends)

Although the sound was less than optimal, I loved the Strauss piece. The appeal was as much about the visuals as the music. Cameras were set up in different places on the stage, and the large screen projected a series of shots from different angles. Most of the time the camera focused on conductor Nagano. This was a perspective that I had never seen before at a live concert. It was fascinating to watch Nagano cueing the musicians. Each movement, each gesture was fantastically subtle and intimate; en eyebrow here, a slight nod or inclination of the head there; sweeping movements to encompass the entire orchestra, or single cues to individuals. He embodied the music in the fullest sense of the word. As he stood there the music seems to be emanating from his very being. I was utterly entranced.

Cirque Éloize (which performed in Bogota during this year's Festival de Teatro Iberoamericano), is an acrobatic circus group in the style of Cirque du Soleil. It performed a choreographic interpretation of Stravinski's Firebird. I saw critiques that did not like the performance on the grounds that it did not stick to the narrative of the original ballet. I liked the loose interpretation. The circus techniques, involving trapeze, fabric, and posts on which the performers balanced and spun around, demanded great strength and technical virtuosity, and at times the performing did get in the way of the dance. At the same time the use of these elements enabled the performers to move in ways that are impossible for dancers, allowing them to transcend the gravity to which we mere mortals are subjected. They moved through space and air as if it were a solid medium where they could float without being pulled to the ground. To carry off that illusion takes a lot of skill. The choreography conveyed the themes of vitality, passion, and vulnerability, again very apropos in a performance for Haiti. I thought this was an interesting complement to the MSO's playing.

Lollapaloosa by John Adams is a catchy, rhythmic contemporary piece with which I was not familiar. I thought it would have been great for choreography too.

Haitian-Canadian soprano Marie-Josée Lord sang Summertime by George Gershwin. Her performance was tight and controlled. Each note seemed to build slowly inside before she would let it escape into the air. The effect was one of tension, which I didn't really like in this piece. It was an over the top delivery of a piece that should be more down to earth and folksy. Plus, Summertime is indelibly linking in my mind with my friend Ariel singing in her steamy kitchen. Toward the end of the concert Lord gave an encore with Amazing Grace, delivered in the same tightly controlled operative style. I guess that opera is really just not my thing.

Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière had just arrived in Port-au-Prince a few days before the earthquake, and he gave a suitably moving account in French of the tragedy, the devastation, and the desperation and vitality of the Haitian people.

Haitian-Canadian actor and singer Luck Mervil performed a couple of upbeat Haitian songs. Again, I saw critiques by people who thought that this was a poor use of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra but I feel that it was fitting for the context, after all this was more than the MSO's season opener, it was an event to raise funds for the rebuilding of Haiti, and what more fitting way than to feature Canadian Haitian personalities in the event and the music of the island?

Overall I really enjoyed the concert and felt that it was well worth having made the trek into town from the suburbs. Afterward I met up with an old friend Paul K. who used to be a classical and tango pianist. It had been years since we had seen each other but he is one of those people that you can pick up where you left off without missing a beat.

I had a wonderful summer in Montreal. Last year I felt estranged from the city. This year I spent more time walking around downtown, reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones, and I felt really good. The city is lovely and I felt welcomed home.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sumptuous London

Courtauld Gallery courtyard

London was sumptuous. The city has invested a lot of budget and effort into restoring its buildings. The patina of soot that still blanketed the city when I last visited (about 25 years ago) and that had been there since the industrial revolution, has been stripped off to reveal the former Victorian splendour.

Newly cleaned façades.

People keep asking us what we liked best about the city. Matt was most impressed by the city itself. He had expected something vaguely similar to Montreal, with an old city and a slightly dated modern center. What we found was an extensive central area where the overall style dates mainly from Victorian times, and a modern city that is on the cutting edge of contemporary aesthetics. Both convey enormous affluence. Paris is bustling and old but a little run down, New York is vibrant and at the same time it seethes with seediness and nouveau riche superficiality, Montreal is pleasant but let's face it, we are a bunch of peasants from the colony. Bogota is frankly Third World. Outside the British Museum we saw a man sitting on the ground with a couple of bags nearby, typing something on a laptop. From that moment our standing joke became that even the homeless in London have laptops.

The Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, seen from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.

William's choice was the Tate Modern. We went twice. His favourite sections were cubism, modernism, and surrealism. He also enjoyed Camden Market and the glimpse of "punk" culture, although to be honest there were more tourists in evidence at the market than punks.

Assyrian temple art at the British Museum.

My highlight in London was the British Museum. I had not gone on my two previous trips to the city, and I was completely blown away by the breadth and depth of the collection. Those empire builders were certainly busy little collectors of historical and cultural artefacts. The temple carvings from Assyria and the Persian city of Nineveh are unequalled. Every room held treasures beyond belief, from the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the key to hieroglyphic writing, to the intricate mechanics and elaborate decoration of early clockwork. The British Museum is huge and even though we went twice, we only saw a few sections.

The Great Hall of the British Museum.

What impressed me most was not the size of the collection, but the quality. The museum displays the best examples of its genre. I can understand why many countries are protesting in an effort to get their national treasures back. While I don't condone keeping world heritage in foreign custody, at the same time I acknowledge that the British Museum has done a service in collecting and conserving artefacts that would otherwise have ended up in the hands of private collectors and lost to the world or, worse yet, melted down and recast in the case of precious metals (the fate of most of the pre-Columbian gold that was shipped to Spain to be transformed into pieces of eight). The underlying debates here refer to ownership, the legality of the acquisition process, care and custody of the items in question, both in the past and the present. Should the treasures be returned to their countries of origin? Who "owns" them? Who has the right to keep them? It is a complex issue. My ideal solution: If the British would be willing to renounce ownership without giving up possession and declare the museum a repository for the cultural heritage of humanity, administered by the United Nations.

Another place that we visited was the British Library. It was my first visit to the library and I was completely overwhelmed by the exhibit of rare books. From the Beowulf manuscript (the oldest known work written in the language considered to be Old English), manuscripts by John Donne and Philip Sidney, the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground (better known by its subsequent title Alice in Wonderland) and Charles Dodgson's diary in which he comments about meeting the charming Liddell girls, manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf (whose house in Tavistock square was not far from our hotel), handwritten lyrics the Beatles' songs Michelle, Yesterday, and Help jotted down on scrap paper and the backs of envelopes, early printings of Shakespeare's plays, and the pièce de resistance: a Gutenberg bible.

We also enjoyed a small exhibit called the Britain at War Experience, which is a look at what life was like in Britain during the Second World War. The museum is interactive and very family friendly. We sat in a bomb shelter and listened to the chatter of "our neighbors" talking about how the war was going and expressing their concerns about the bombings. As an island, ensuring the food supply for the population was an enormous concern for the government and this was reflected in the campaigns urging people to grow as much food as possible in the Victory Gardens and the distribution of recipe books for meatless meals. The boys tried on uniforms from the period. Matt, almost 16, looked pretty credible as a young man in uniform. I could easily picture how boys like him would turn up at the recruiting office and claim to be 18. William was less convincing!

Matt and William dressed for war.

Things we missed because there just wasn't time: Greenwich (I've stood with one foot on each side of the equator; I wanted to visit zero longitude too!) The Hampton Court Palace in Surrey; and Kensington Palace. There just wasn't time for all of these state visits. The rebuilt Globe Theatre: I really wanted to see the theatre but it is not open to the public when there is a performance under way, and we were not able get tickets to a performance either.

Don't go to London without a: One-week Transit Pass. It was really nice to meet up with my friend Sally from book club. She was staying at her family's apartment, around the corner from our hotel. We were able to pop out to the pub a couple of times, which was nice because I would not have gone by myself.

What we saw, in summary:
Picadilly Circus
Westminster Cathedral (Wed, 4 Aug)
Parliament, Big Ben
Imperial Museum of War (Thurs 5 Aug)
The play We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre
Tower of London (Fri 6 Aug)
Tower Bridge
Britain at War Experience
Tate Modern Museum
Windsor Castle (Sat 7 Aug)
Victoria and Albert Museum
Harrods Food Court, a museum off food!
Buckingham Palace (Sun 8 Aug)
10 Downing Street (sort of, it is blocked off to the public)
British Museum
British Library
Courtauld Gallery
Camden Market
St. Paul's Cathedral (Mon 9 Aug)
The Monument
The London Bridge Experience
British Museum (again)
Thames River Cruise

Thames River Cruise