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Yeats and the Rehabilitation of Time and the Ideal in “Among School Children”

In much of his poetry, W. B. Yeats seeks to reconcile himself with the forces of time at work upon him and particularly with the effect of time on the relation between reality and the ideal. He rails against himself, “the aged man,” “the tattered coat upon a stick” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) and situates the ideal within the past, looking bleakly out upon a future which can only hold greater age and a larger gap between his ideal and his reality. This fear of time and the dichotomy of age and youth, ideal and real are central to his “Among School Children,” in which a visit to a Montessori school sends his mind spinning outward to ponder questions of time, age, self, unity, and reality. Though he begins the poem convinced that he is a “scarecrow”  (though at least a comfortable one), Yeats ultimately achieves a revelation of self through perfect symbol which allows him to embrace time and the ideals he initially shuns, rather than fear them, ending the poem in hope.

The poem introduces the contrast between age and youth with a simple and real encounter between the young students of the school and Yeats the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” (8), who realizes that he inspires wonder in them simply by the fact of his age. This tangible contrast sets the stage for an exploration of youth via memory and imagination as Yeats is flung backward into a memory of Maude Gonne telling him a tale of her school days and then into a vision of Maude as a young girl like the children around him “stand[ing] before me as a living child” (24). However in pondering youth, age can never be far behind for Yeats: the vision of the young Maude calls up “her present image … / Hollow of cheek” (25, 27)—a Maude worlds apart from the “Ledaean body” of stanza II, but one defined by an unappealing “mess of shadows” (28). The two cannot be reconciled—no more than Yeats can reconcile his current self with the “pretty plumage”  (30) of his youth. These two contrasts go beyond the age versus youth  problem of the school children and his senatorial self, though, introducing the further dimension of Yeats’ ideal versus his (and the) reality. Maude’s Ledaean body may never have existed, but as she ages, the reality gets further and further away from his ideal image—just as his reality inevitably grows further from his ideal with time. Read More

Which means a few things. Number one is that I’m 21. And have been for a couple weeks. Two is that I’m about a month into second semester. Three is that racing season is approaching. Four is that Ryan is leaving for Greece soon. Five is that miiiiidterms are coming. Fast. Six is that spring break is also coming!

Ok. Done for now.

In light of the fact that February is nearly over, I’m surfacing momentarily on here so that February won’t be a ginormous blank spot. But mainly because I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work I need to get done today and don’t want to think about it, much less do it. The usual, then.

So here’s a bit of a pictorial update on my life. With very little commentary. Because I’m rolling like that today. More to follow. But for now, have this:

bergman-women

Bergman with Andersson and Ullmann on location

What follows is a collection of the many darlings I killed while writing about Persona. A Thought-Graveyard, if you will.

  • Alma’s horror following the momentary synthesis and her insistence that she is not like Elisabet (1:14.07) is simultaneously emblematic of the horror of being possessed by the other and of the simultaneous, paradoxical need of the other’s recognition for self-definition. When Alma does not receive the recognition from Elisabet she desires and she is suddenly joined with her, she begins to lose herself, necessitating her repetition of who she is and is not following the union.
  • The fact that Elisabeth writes a letter to her doctor describing the emergence of her soul’s “rightness” demonstrates that she seeks approval and recognition from others—also further invalidates the “authentic representation” of her silence.  What’s the point if she can express herself in performance for the other in a letter instead of speaking it?
  • Alma’s name, incidentally, connotes mother—nurturing. Her role as nurse is also a maternal one.
  • We cannot recognize ourselves without the recognition of the other. However the recognition of the other turns the self into an object, so then the self, in order to remain subjective, must recognize itself in the other, identifying with the other’s recognition of itself, and supersede the other.
  • Connection between Elisabet’s wanting the death of her own son and the Nazis wanting the death of that one boy. She is inhumane in her lack of loving motherhood. Connection also between her son, the boy in the photograph from the war, the boys Alma has sex with, the bookending boy. Sexualization of the maternal. The young boy suckling at Katerina’s breast a maternal image.
  • “and he looks at you” (1:09.40) The gaze, attempting to own, dominate the other. The power and violence of the gaze. In saying her son looked at Elisabet, Alma is getting at the violence Elisabet feels is inherent in his domineering gaze.
  • She finds him repulsive despite the fact that he is literally of her. She must distance herself from the other in order to establish herself.
  • “You had a guilty conscience” echoes the earlier scene after Alma’s own confession when she admitted to having a guilty conscience. Projection of her confession onto Elisabet.
  • Each time, one side of each woman’s face is in the dark. The opposite side for each. As we look at them, they quite literally appear to each be half a woman.
  • In the second version, we get Elisabet’s face in profile in front of Alma’s (1:11.40) Elisabet attempts to escape Alma’s gaze, but Alma traps her with it; holds her, exerting the power of the gaze, rendering her object of Alma’s gaze. Tone change into the bit about hoping baby will die—bc Alma cannot understand? Because she did have the abortion and some part of her wishes she hadn’t? progressively closer close ups on Alma, straight on on her face. the left side of her face increasingly being lost in shadow.
  • The doctor says that Elisabet wants someone to point out her inauthenticity to her. This is what Alma does. Is it what Elisabet wanted?
  • Alma’s accusations uncover a fear of inadequacy, more basic than the existential “bad faith” that the doctor gets at
  • Elisabet as a mother to Alma, comforting her after he confession
  • Getting us to think about why we crave the recognition of the other: why are we programmed to have a child and yet have such a fraught relationship with this symbol of our self-identification? Piece of ourself?
  • Patient becomes therapist, therapist/nurse patient (does all the talking)
  • The film’s insistence on us watching these people. Insisting on making us feel awkward about our voyeurism and yet our need to watch these others. We are complicit in this watching. We are Elisabet, silent and watching. Our fascination with the others on the screen. Alma’s need to perform and be recognized as the actress. Looking straight at us, breaking fourth wall, not normal cinema—all through the scenes of accusation.
  • Everything is performance. you can’t have a self without performance. We perform for the other and the other soaks it in. Alma as performing for Elisabet and Elisabet receiving the performance and being stimulated by it.
  • Film’s obsession with hands: crucifixion, young boy’s hand reaching to the woman’s face, comparison of hands on the beach, close up of the women’s hands together, hands behind Alma’s back, hands covering photograph, the Jewish boys hands up
  • Same with young boys: in the bookends, Elisabet’s son and his photograph, the young boys on the beach in Alma’s story, the Jewish boy in the photograph

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This is old as all hell, but why not post it? Not like I have two papers due tomorrow that need finishing (read: starting) or anything.

An odd little exercise I set myself while in Paris on my gap year: observing a group of Americans in my program at the Sorbonne at the lunch hour and creating my own little cast of characters out of them. A fun way to pass lunch time, though reading over it now I’m a bit horrified at my own prose. Ah well. Gotta start somewhere.

A Cast of Characters

They stand in a little half circle around the bench. There are seven of them—no, nine; they are joined by two more boys, their topsiders feebly protesting the day as they’re dragged through puddles and over cobblestones. The semi circle breaks to allow them access and tightens once more. Shoulders hunch, insteps rub calves.

The first girl stands with a studied nonchalance, a cigarette, kissed by rouge, hanging from the first two fingers of her left hand, a carefully crafted reminder: I am dangerous. I am not what you think I am. Her eyes flash a challenge which no one bothers to meet. The toes of her boots are artfully scuffed, but her ankles betray her: rolling outward over and over. Tattered tights and too-short skirt, a long, ill-fitting jacket does nothing for the cold, but at least it’s of the moment. Her lips are a bright red smudge, the only color on her, her fashionably disheveled hair disappears under a knit cap, and the color is bitten from her nails. Her favorite book is On the Road, but not because she’s read it. Her voice is not loud, but sharp as it passes her curled lips, assaulting the air, hanging for a moment, before it hits the pavement and shatters at their feet.

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400-coups-1959-04-gJean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel

Another week, another film de la Nouvelle Vague. This week it was Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups (terribly translated into English as The 400 Blows—the title in French is actually from an expression (“faire les quatre cent coups”) which means literally something like “to do the 400 tricks” and idiomatically to live a wild life, to raise hell. I really liked Les Quatre Cent Coup. Loved it, really. But I’ve gotta keep this brief so I can go write about À Bout de Souffle, among other things (The Crying of Lot 49, Ulysses, Einhard—shoot me now).

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My dear—well, let’s call you Aaron, shall we? (Ha work that one out.)

My dear Aaron,

You talk exactly as if you were a moralist. It is very vulgar to talk like a moralist when one isn’t a moralist. It produces a false impression. 

I had an epiphany while rereading The Importance of Being Ernest. You see, Aaron, you’re Jack. You really are. Except that you got your comeuppance in the end. I can’t say I’m sorry for it, either.

I’ve read Wilde’s brilliant little play more than a few times since I first discovered it far too young and attempted to put it on with my best friend and our unwilling brothers, but never before, in any of my readings, did I condemn Jack quite as much as I did this time around. And why? Because of you. I never quite understood how hypocritical Jack was until I had you for comparison, my very own real-life Jack. Anyhow, remember back in Act I when Jack makes a right fool of himself while trying to get his cigarette case back from Algernon and Algernon won’t stop harping on about “Little Cecily” and tells Jack he “had much better have the thing out at once?” I wonder if you remember what Jack says. Maybe you sailed past it. It doesn’t seem too important on a first reading, I suppose. But it’s really quite clever on Wilde’s part. “My dear Algy,” says Jack, “you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.” And, of course, what has Jack been doing, if not creating a false impression himself? Rather hypocritical of him, n’est-ce pas?

He tells people he is Ernest, the profligate younger brother of the very worthy and well-to-do Jack Worthing, when in reality he is Jack Worthing, the rather insecure and hypocritical country bachelor looking for a bit of a good time (while maintaining his reputation). Now, it is not Bunburying itself that I criticize, but instead the manner in which Jack goes about it; indeed, I am quite alright with Algy’s Bunburying. But then again, Algy admits to his Bunburying, revels in it, and is anything but a hypocrite. While Algernon has simply created a helpless invalid friend useful for getting him out of various dinners he’d rather not attend, Jack has created an alter-ego and sees no harm in lying about who he is both to himself and everyone around him. And on top of that, he strongly denies even ever doing such a thing.

Sound familiar yet? Because it’s ringing a couple bells for me. Your morals are a mess. Which isn’t to say you’re a bad person. You aren’t. And neither was Jack. You’re confused, though. Confused about morality, about yourself, about who you really want to be. And that’s okay. That’s what high and young adulthood is for (or so I’m told). But you’ve reached the point of hypocrisy. Like Jack, you don’t believe that you’re denying anything about who you are. But you are. All your friends can see it. Like Jack, you’re worrying far too much about your image, about being seen as moral, rather than being moral. You decide which is more important. It is not enough to say you are moral. You must also be so. To do the first without the second, while telling everyone else that they are not the second either. . . Well, that’s hypocrisy.

You dated her and we all thought you loved her. Or that you thought you did, at least. Or perhaps we hoped. And it was hard—no dates, no PDA. You had to somehow be the perfectly religious son your parents—and part of you—wanted, while keeping up a relationship with a girl you really liked. Somehow, you made it eight months. Things seemed to be going well. Until suddenly they weren’t. You broke up with her, said you couldn’t love her completely because she didn’t subscribe to exactly the same set of moral values you did, and that was it. She wasn’t happy. You weren’t happy. And yet you still maintained your moral superiority. You had done the right thing; none of us would get it because we simply hadn’t achieved some higher level of moral understanding that you obviously had. Honestly, your insistence upon this point has been hard to take. The hypocrisy is just blinding.

You see, you’re like Jack. Jack has this obsession with the Victorian idea of morality, which is entirely rule based. He wants to be seen as a fervent subscriber to these moral rules. He wants to be seen as honorable, dutiful, virtuous, earnest. But he also wants to do what he wants to do and it doesn’t matter if he compromises all the values he supposedly cherishes in order to get away with it while still maintaining his image. Your set of arbitrary moral values? That’s Jack’s Victorian code. Your younger brother Ernest? That’s you, dating her, and pretending to be the perfect little church boy upholding your perfect little morals, while really doing something else entirely. Two sides of yourself. Two sides which you just couldn’t reconcile because you refused to admit that one of them existed. You’re insecure, Aaron, and you don’t need to be. You can do what you want to without feeling guilty about it, without sweeping it under the rug. You’re allowed to be multifaceted, you just have to be comfortable with all your parts and reconcile them with one another. And you’re allowed to do what you want. If you like someone—if you love someone—don’t let society and image-consciousness get in your way. You didn’t want to break up with her and you knew you were a jerk for doing it (I even informed you of it in no uncertain terms). But you said you “had” to (you didn’t) and that there was no choice (there was). If there hadn’t been a choice, those eight months wouldn’t have happened. And maybe it would have been better for us all if they hadn’t. But you just didn’t want to take the blame for what you’d done. Because you couldn’t hold to the very morals you were attempting to fall back on.

I wrote you this because I guess I didn’t have the guts to say it to your face. I was afraid you wouldn’t like me afterwards and no matter how much your mixed up morals grate on my nerves, you’re a really good friend of mine and I’d rather not lose you. I just wish you’d grow up and take ownership of your actions, of yourself, and stop excusing yourself with your “morals,” which, even after all this, I still don’t understand. So I half-hope that one day you’ll remember my sad, old blog and be curious enough to pull it up and, if you haven’t lost interest by that point, have a little look round. And I half-hope that you find this letter and realize it’s about you. And, if all of this comes to pass, I devoutly hope that you look back on it and how you behaved and laugh (perhaps embarrassedly) at how you behaved. And then I hope that you call me up (or take a jaunt over to my future dorm room; depends when this is, doesn’t it, bud?) and we have a good laugh over it together.