Eastern Promise

Eastern Promise continues Cronenberg’s move away from science fiction towards realism, with the incidents of the film set against the Thames Flood Barrier, St Luke’s Old Street and Brompton Cemetery. Nonetheless, the effect of this is essentially to contrast with the events depicted, using London’s scenery in effectively the same way the likes of 28 Weeks Later did. Characters in Shivers and eXistenZ undergo horrific transformations and those in Crash the characters embrace their own deformation. Similarly, the tattoos of the Russian mafia serve the same purpose, with the characters driven to enter that world against their better judgement. The Russian characters see London as a form of decadent infection, in spite of the sumptuous surroundings of the Russian restaurant that is the film’s principal setting and their contrast to the more prosaic world of the English characters.

Having seen one of the film’s characters having his throat slit in Brompton cemetery, I found myself there a few days later. The weather was impossibly mild for November, with the yellowed leaves slowly falling to the ground and forming a carpet on the central avenue. I found myself looking at some details I’d missed before; Minton tiling forming a headstone above a floor of unraveling white and black diamond tiles, the lily and ivy decorating one of the tombs designed by Burne-Jones. A large chunk had fallen off the imposing bulk of the Hannah Peters Mausoleum. Squirrels frantically scamper about, trying to bury nuts and seeds, usually in the flower pots left by the graves. I walk to the Embankment, where I watch a pair a ducks trying to sleep on the Thames; periodically one would realised that they were about to be beached on Cleopatra’s Needle, swim upstream and settle down again, so beginning the process anew.

I then walk to the National gallery, for its Renaissance Siena exhibition. Sienese art has been described as overshadowed by that of Florence, with the former written out of art history by the Florentine Vasari and by Florence’s conquest of Siena. In this revisionary account, Sienese art is visionary and mystical, with Mariolatry (the Virgin was the city’s patron) as its principal subject, in contrast to the naturalistic art of Florence, with its depiction of the male form and of fighting in particular. I can’t help but wonder if a better word to describe Siena’s art might not be ‘medieval’ if we think of the Renaissance as the displacement of religion and the discovery of the individual. Certainly, Siena retained many gothic influences, such as painting onto gold (and then using sgraffito to expose it as part of clothing or the beams of heaven’s rays) and was often slavish in its imitation of figures like Donatello, while the city itself was a rather enfeebled city state, wracked by internal strife, debt and threat of invasion. Some of the most powerful works here are by Raphael (The Dream of a Knight) and the Cortonese Lucca Signorelli rather than by any Sienese painter.

The exhibition opens with some classic examples of Siena’s Marian art; in San di Pietro’s The Virgin Recommends Siena to Pope Calixtus, which shows the Virgin towering over a dwarfed and distorted city. Others showing her leading the ship of state or protecting the city from earthquakes. Paintings by Pietro and Francesco di Giorgio firmly continue the gothic tradition of iconography. Renaissance influences only figure with the idealised landscape shown in Benvenuto di Giovanni’s Virgin and Child or Giorgio’s sculpture of Male Nude with a Snake. However, later works show a different and more interesting side; cassone chest paintings show scenes of seduction and classical scenes (like the Roman capture of Zenobia or the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra from the workshop of Neroccio de Landi). For a female art, much of it proves surprisingly homoerotic, as with Signorelli’s Two Nude Youths or portraits by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (nicknamed Sodoma due to being openly homosexual, keeping a bizarre menagerie of animals and claiming tax relief because it was so expensive to keep all his boys and pets.) Particularly striking are the interior scenes, where the tone is profane rather than sacred; carved wooden pilasters, frescos of classical scenes and maiolica flooring. Most impressive are the paintings by Domenico Beccafumi, with soft brushwork and an ethereal rendering of colour. Paintings of virtuous historical figures often seem quite odd; did the Tanaquil Livy denounced really seem a virtuous figure? Nor do the ruined backdrops seem to serve any particular allegorical purpose. His two most striking works are a malevolent Cupid with Venus and a bizarre depiction of the feast of Lupercalia.

Journeying to Westonbirt Arboretum, a bright sunny day is transformed into mist. The arboretum has a complete collection of Japanese Maple cultivars, whose leaves were bright burgundy, ochre, pink and bronze. Evergreen yews, pine and firs forms a backdrop to this. Several of the planted trees are new to me; Sapphire Berry (a bright azure berry), Katsura (gives off the scent of caramel), Spindle Tree (with its bright red berries), Wingnut (named for its sycamore-like seeds), Persian Ironwood (named after the explorer who rediscovered Mount Ararat, turned gold and red in autumn), Alue Atlas Weeping Cedar (with a curtain like fall of branches) and Paper Birch (whose bark turns pink-orange as the lenticels fall off). Other plants were more familiar, from Giant Redwood to Monkey Puzzle and an ancient lime coppice. I was equally impressed by the lichens growing on the tree trunks, from hairlike encrustations to something that looked like bright orange rust. One dead tree had its base covered with bracket fungi.

Reading Arthur Hugh Clough’s poems, I’m struck by the idea of a Victorian poet working in a largely discursive mode, with Dryden and Wordsworth as his principal influences for their use of the language of everyday speech. His work is not only heteroglossic but it is also dialogic, with much of it being taken up by counterpointed discussions on the death of god. Amours de Voyage has two narrators with opposed perspectives of the protagonist, with much of the narrative opposing is attitudes to christianity, Rome’s pagan past and the revolutions of 1848. Similarly, Dipsychus utilises the format of Goethe’s Faust, only to assign the role of the tempter to christianity.

Reading Mishima’s The Golden Pavilion, I’m reminded of the concept of occidentalism. A conference held in Kyoto in 1942 was devoted to the subject of how "how to overcome the modern." Modernity was associated with the West, and particularly with Western imperialism. Westernization, one of the scholars said, was like a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit. The "modern thing," said another, was a "European thing." Others believed that "Americanism" was the enemy, and that Japan should make common cause with the Europeans to defend old civilizations against the New World. There was much talk about unhealthy specialization in knowledge, which had fragmented the wholeness of Oriental spiritual culture. Science was to blame. So were capitalism, the absorption into Japanese society of modern technology, and notions of individual freedom and democracy. These had to be "overcome." All agreed that culture – that is, traditional Japanese culture – was spiritual and profound, whereas modern Western civilization was shallow, rootless, and destructive of creative power. The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical, a machine civilization without spirit or soul, a place where people mixed to produce mongrel races.

Mishima’s novel exhibits many of the symptoms identified here. Mizoguchi looks at the lights of the city, the same lights Tanizaki had denounced as an unwelcome manifestation of modernity in his Praise of Shadows (Tanizaki had also praised the glimmer of gold in the dark, as with the temple here), and dubs it "the mundane world… people are being driven about under that night by evil thoughts… please let the evil that is in my heart increase.. so that it may correspond in every particular with the light before the eyes." As this quotation suggests, Mizoguchi’s response to modernity is bifurcated between embracing it as a form of nihilism (itself a profoundly un-Japanese idea; "burdened with a special individuality or sense of mission" which the novel opposes to the intoxication offered by the temple) and rejecting it outright (though even the form of asceticism offered by religion in the novel represents a form of alienation); " youth like myself came to entertain two opposing forms of power wishes… my dream of being a tyrant or great artist." The conclusion of the novel, the arson of the Golden Temple, unifies these themes in a form of immolation just as Mizoguchi’s observation produces an ecstatic state that is directed inward; "I was drenched up to the neck in the existence that was myself.. my inner being and the outer world slowly changed places" Mishima’s particular brand of masculinist homosexuality further contributes to this nihilism, with women the repeated object of dehumanisation and violence; "the same masculine evil thoughts as the others… the smell of a young man’s sweat-moistened skin that they gave off… there was an intrepid beauty about him like that of a lovely woman."

Much the same applies in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, a sort of Japanese Lord of the Flies, where Ryuji’s fall is largely predicated on his acceptance of marriage and the feminine world. Mishima’s masculinist homosexuality seems not unlike that of William Burroughs, seen as somewhere opposed to effeminancy and the perception of matriarchy and developing a cult of violence in response to it. Women and death are seen as coterminous ("her sweat and perfume fragrance reaching him on the breeze seemed to clamour for his death… are you going to give up the life that impelled you towards the pinnacle of manliness?"). With that in mind, the nihilist children are both in revolt against a Westernised society and a product of its degeneration, of modern society’s alienation.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward can be best described as a variant on the trope used by both Twain and Irving of a sleeper awakening to find himself in another time (the idea being also essentially the analogue of that depicted by Huxley in Brave New World). It depicts a decidedly bourgeois form of utopianism, by which social equality has been achieved through a process of evolution rather than through any need for a communist revolution (anarchism and communism are portrayed as essentially invidious to the cause of social progress). Bellamy seems to regard evolution in Lamarckian terms, as a form of progress ("in accordance with the principles of evolution… the next phase on the social and industrial development of humanity") achieved through sexual selection ("the principle of sexual selection, with its tendency to preserve and transmit the better types of race and let the inferior types drop out, has unhindered operation") rather than through natural selection and the survival of the fittest (Bellamy closes by denouncing how nineteenth century society created "a brutal struggle for existence"). In spite of the determinist tone taken here, Bellamy is nonetheless closer to Edward Taylor than Marx though (and closer still to Comte). Where the likes of Owen saw human nature essentially as a tabula rasa and therefore capable of being adjusted to new social conditions, Bellamy frequently uses the term ‘human nature’ to denote a fixed state, which Doctor Leete denies having altered since West’s time. Bellamy nonetheless decries the idea that "the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be founded, were its worst propensities." Accordingly, Bellamy can often be quite conservative, viewing women as having a distinct and separate nature from men (""the distinct individuality of the sexes"), in spite of discarding the idea of women as either household drudges or gilded ornaments. Equally, the notion of the majority of society being employed by an ‘industrial army’ seems a harshly masculine mode of social organisation, if not unpleasantly reminiscent of the national socialist brand of utopianism (particularly as issues like race are almost entirely elided from the novel, the presence of a black servant in the nineteenth century notwithstanding).

Dostoevsky’s The Double reminds me most of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in so far as uncanny events unfold without an obvious sense of explication. Where the double is most often invoked as an example of man’s divided nature between good and evil or between expression and repression (as in The Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Dostoevsky instead frustrates the morality tale aspects of the narrative by placing the emphasis on Golyadkin’s status as a superfluous man, his desire for self-annihilation, his inability to preserve himself. The relationship between self and double is an almost sado-masochistic one, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether they have witnessed a morality tale or not. Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and Hadji Murat deal with a rather more conventional form of other, with the former novel defining a liminal space between three of set of groups; Russian, Cossack and Chechen. As with The Double one expects some form of fable concerning the moral progress of another superfluous man through his contact with nature and removal from the frivolities of Muscovite life. For Tolstoy, the Caucasus serves almost the same sort of function that Italy did for EM Forster or DH Lawrence. In practice though, Tolstoy’s fatalism often tends to preclude the sort of teleological development associated with characters in European novels. Something similar applies to Hadji Murat whose hero dies a death that is essentially futile and entirely contrary to the status the narrative has accorded him.

On a quite different note, I recently watched the film Thirty Days of Night, one of the more memorable contributions to the vampire genre of recent years. The vampires depicted in it are different from the suave model of Christopher Lee and instead resemble Shreck’s Count Orlok, looking both mundane and alien at the same time. Another film I saw not all that long ago is Sunshine, a film that follows similar generic principles to earlier science fiction films like Event Horizon (science arrogantly assuming the prerogative of the divine and so on) but does have some interesting variations on that theme. The character of Pinbacker sees the sun as a god and views any attempts to reignite it as desecration, although when the character of Capa does precisely that he is for instant staring into the face of god. The film seemed unsure as to whether it should be mystical or materialist.