Wightwick Manor

I visited Wightwick Manor over Christmas. It’s a decidedly odd house. As one approaches the rather ramshackle building one is struck by the contrast between the mock Tudor facade and the Victorian redbrick. Similarly, the medievalism of the house contrast within the plumbing and electricity (rather like the New Palace at Sanssouci).

Inside, the house has some wonderful William Morris rugs and wallpaper, Kempe stained glass, De Morgan pottery and paintings from Ford Madox Brown. The main highlight of the Manor is the hall, which has a marvelous Venetian mirror and a Burne Jones painting. It also has a Bison head mounted on the wall, who was suitably attired with seasonal decorations.

I got through quite a great deal of reading; The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer, My Idea of Fun by Will Self (a rather queasy mixture of magical and social realism; I have to conclude that Self seems mainly best when confined to short stories), Misreadings by Umberto Eco (a rather carnivalesque series of parodies based upon the idea of distorted perspectives; perhaps a little too contrived and simplistic in this form), Chroma by Derek Jarman (a set of meditations upon the differing significances of colours; perhaps at its best when Jarman becomes distracted from his rather rigid theme), Becoming a Man by Paul Monette (not unlike White’s A Boy’s Own Story) albeit rather more politically strident, and Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was rather disappointing; a rare case where the film version, Tarkovsky’s beautifully eerie rendition, was much better. The novel does address some of the themes more fully (particularly suicide), but suffers from being rather excessively discursive; the descriptions of Solaris adding little to the book. Update: I’ve now seen the more recent remake of Solaris (remake of the film as much as the book, I suspect), which was considerably better than I expected. The disconnected quality to the filming (more reminiscent of Kubrick than Tarkovsky it should be said; perhaps a 2001 remake is in order) and the special effects both work quite well, and the film introduces several interesting ideas; e.g. concerning the morality of killing the duplicates, especially with the idea of Snow attacking and being killed in self defence by a duplicate of himself. On the other hand, I do agree somewhat with Lem’s own critique of the film; it does dwell excessively on Kris and Rheya, and excludes some of the ideas concerning the Solarian organism’s attempts at communication.

Noting that I don’t often write about films on this page, I thought I should mention two films I rediscovered; Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky and u>Matador by Pedro Almodavar. The latter perfectly balances the Freudian dilemma; on the one hand the liberation of the lovestruck pair of sociopaths (civilisation and its discontents) and the convergence of Thanatos and Eros. On the other, the consequences of repression through Angel and his mother. It’s interesting that similar themes should re-emerge in Almodavar’s latest, more naturalistic, film Talk to Her, though there the characters are left deprived of dignity and stature. Stalker reminds me of T S Eliot’s description of Hamlet; in the absence of the fabled room, there is no objective correlative. As ever with Tarkovsky, the lingering footage of the landscape is especially haunting conveying so much more than the landscape in Apocalypse Now. But it’s also about our stunted capacity for wonder; a kind of postmodern fairytale.

HG Wells pleasantly surprised me somewhat. In the same way that the socialist morality fable of The Time Machine is subverted by having the stereotyped characteristics of the Eloi/Proletariat and the Morlocks/Bourgeoisie inverted, The First Men in the Moon is equally ambivalent. In some ways the film seems a denunciation of colonialism; " What business have we here smashing them and destroying their world?" as the explorers attack the Selenites who spare cavor in return. The film is less than sympathetic to colonialism; "Governments and powers will struggle to get hither, they will fight against one another." The perspectives of Cavor and Bedford are deliberately counterposed; one is belligerent to the Selenities in the capacity of a practical man, while the scientific interest of the other leaves him cold and removed from concern for others. Accordingly, Cavor’s account of the Selenite socialist utopia is deliberately undermined as he records overcoming his irrational practices to the imposition of roles upon the Selenites ("trained from their earliest years to give a perfect respect and obedience"), or even the drugging of workers between shifts.

I also read some of E F Benson’s horror stories. On the whole, I do not consider his apparent obsession with either slugs or spiritualism to be healthy; much of his work is unpleasantly reminiscent of some of Conan Doyle’s ill advised ventures into this field. Algernon Blackwood is, overall, the better horror writer. Also read John Wyndham’s The Seeds of Time. I like Wyndham, but he is so much better when his pessimism shines through his whimsy.

Wightwick Manor

Juan Goytisolo’s novel, A Cock Eyed Comedy was especially interesting.
Essentially a picaresque rendition of Orlando, the novel perfectly matches Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia and carnival; "in church language.. in order to parody it from within and expose its hypocrisy," a subversive intent that recalls Genet. That said, the carnival form is not ideal for subversion, since carnival is dependent (parasitic, even) on the order it seeks to invert, something Goytisolo partly acknowledges; "why don’t you denounce tout court the backwardness and oppression.. contradiction and ambivalence nourishes your literary work."

However, the best read was The Garden of Secrets by Juan Goystisolo.
Told by differing narrators, this is a truly polyphonic novel with differing
perspectives and styles; "to realise a creative mix of perspectives and possibilities … with digressions and alternatives." Elsewhere one of the narrators comments "I strive to see myself from someone else’s point of view." As such, differing narrators lambast each other, accusing one another of lack of scientific rigour and of introducing anachronisms; "circumscribed by severely blinkered vision." Some of them describe the central character as an ascetic, some as an epicure; "I felt watched from a thousand differing anglesand sides, harassed by a prismatic gaze, a multiple, polyhedral eye." Like Kundera, Goytisolo equates the steely examining eye of the omnipresent narrator with that of the panopticon.

Leaving fiction aside, I read Bagehot’s The English Constitution and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Of the former, I recall Zizek’s comment on how the most persuasive radical argument often from conservatives like Pascal; certainly it is a much more insightful document than The Federalist Papers. Of the latter, Nietzsche is as gloriously complex as ever. This is the text that comes closest to presenting the ubermensch in partly racial terms, but Nietzsche also bitterly attacks anti-semitism as a mark of slave morality; "they are all men of resentiment. " Nietzsche is perfectly alive to the ambiguities of the idea of the ubermensch; "consider what a problem it is, Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman." Georg Brandes described Nietzsche’s philosophy as “aristocratic radicalism,” combining the concept of the elite who define their own values instead of tradition with a commitment to meritocracy rather than to heredity. This text is also the one that comes closest to reconciling these ambiguities in a dialectical, almost Hegelian pattern, in which the re-evaluation of all values will be produced, but it is for these complexities (for example) between regarding science as an aspect of the will to power and a decayed aspect of the christian resentiment of the desire for an impossible truth, that makes Nietzsche so fascinating.

I went to see a performance of Powaqquatsi at the Barbican (it’s not often that you see palm trees covered in snow but that was the case outside the building. I still say that the inside resembles a nuclear bunker decorated by Ikea). The music is rather more varied than Koyannisquatsi, and perhaps rather a little too varied. Similarly, the film lacks the visual language used in Koyaanisquatsi (though it does overlay some frozen and moving imagery to good effect). The film seems less than persuaded as to whether it is concerned with the greater spiritualism of the third world (the film is rife with fire and water imagery) or with the destructive effects of economic inequality between first and third world (the two not being quite congruent, but with the latter explanation being suggested by the meaning of the title). In particular, the film has a rather unpleasant tendency towards cheap sentimentality; children in front of guerilla warfare messages or next to trucks on dusty roads.