Learning Armenian

Ouch!

Ouch!

By way of divertissement, I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this—as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusement—I have chosen, to torture me into attention. It is a rich language, however, and would amply repay any one the trouble of learning it. I try, and shall go on;—but I answer for nothing, least of all for my intentions or my success. There are some very curious MSS. in the monastery, as well as books; translations also from Greek originals, now lost, and from Persian and Syriac, etc.; besides works of their own people. Four years ago the French instituted an Armenian professorship. Twenty pupils presented themselves on Monday morning, full of noble ardour, ingenuous youth, and impregnable industry. They persevered, with a courage worthy of the nation and of universal conquest, till Thursday; when fifteen of the twenty succumbed to the six-and-twentieth letter of the alphabet. It is, to be sure, a Waterloo of an Alphabet—that must be said for them.—Lord Byron, Letter to Thomas Moore

Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Automobile

Me and My Nissan

Me and My Nissan

 

I was very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the next few months, you will see a number of postings under the rubric “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. This is a reprint from a Blog.Com posting from 2009, but I had to give it up at that time. This time, I will try to complete my alphabet.

For starters, here is Milosz’s take on a thing that has also assumed some importance in my life: the automobile:

Surely the automobile was invented in order to make a mockery of those pessimists who predicted that the number of horses would grow exponentially and that cities would choke to death from the stench of horse excrement. From Kiejdany county, in which there was a single automobile (Count Zabiello’s), I was catapulted into California [Milosz taught at Berkeley], where the automobile is just the same as electricity and bathrooms. I am not nostalgic for the good old days. I lived amidst filth and stench without being aware of it. And I belonged to the so-called upper social strata. The Wilno [today’s Vilnius] of my school years had cobblestone streets and only a couple of neighborhoods had sewers. One can imagine the mountains of garbage and excrement in Wilno during the Romantic era. It would be worthwhile to describe the female readers of La Nouvelle Héloïse [an influential work by Rousseau] not from above, but from below: f\rom the perspective of their chamber pots (where were they emptied?), their underpants (they didn’t wear any), and their gymnastic contortions while washing.

Now I rather doubt that most environmentalists would consider some of these factors when they rue the effect of the automobile on our civilization. No doubt, the internal combustion engine is both a boon and a bane to us, as the mercury in our thermometers creeps up from year to year. Here we are, thinking we have broken the Earth—at least until another Krakatoa-style volcanic explosion or major meteor or asteroid strike shows us the real face of catastrophe.

I, on the other hand, would like to talk about the automobile from another point of view. I came to it rather late in my life. As I have written earlier, I had a pituitary tumor in my youth that has had repercussions on my health extending to the present. Starting in the 1970s, I had to take a blood pressure medication called Catapres that resulted in a narcoleptic response every time I traveled in a car or bus. I had to postpone driving for many years, at least until a more efficacious medication was found.

Then, in 1985, at the age of forty, I finally got my drivers license and purchased a four-cylinder Mitsubishi Montero, which lasted for ten years. Then I bought the 1994 Nissan Pathfinder (see photo above) which I am still driving today. I am like Yeats’s Irish airman for whom “a lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the clouds.”

No one loves heavy traffic. Southern California is, unfortunately, a cacopolis with regards to driving. Ah, but then there is nothing like setting off at 4:00 am, before the first hint of sunrise, and dashing through the empty freeways of Los Angeles to the deserts of the Southwest or along the coast to the beauties of the Central Coast and points north. When I can choose my time, driving is sheer pleasure.

That’s why I think that the next step for mankind is not the bus and the bicycle, but another type of vehicle powered by a different source of energy. When it does not become a nightmarish experience, as it so often does, driving could be one of the great pleasures of life.

The Wizard, the Beast, and the Beauty

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about one of the strangest actor/director partnerships in the history of the cinema. There have been many famous ones, such as Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, and Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher; but the strangest of all was between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.

I say “strangest” because Kinski was that most unusual combination: A brilliant actor and a raving maniac. According to his friend and mentor Werner Herzog, Kinski was a complete egomaniac. When he felt that attention was being diverted away from him, Kinski went off the rails. He would start screaming with his eyes at the maximum bug-eyed setting, with his face at times two inches away from whomever he was directing his rant, During the filming of Fitzcarraldo (1982), the chief of the Amazonian Indians in the cast asked Herzog’s permission to kill him. This story is recounted in Herzog’s book about the making of the film, The Conquest of the Useless.

And yet, there have been few actors quite as outstanding and natural as Kinski. He knew how to make an impression onscreen. At times he could be loving and tender, as he was with Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo and Eva Mattes in Woyzeck (1979).At worst, he was a disruptive force that could destroy a film production and leave it a gutted ruin.

Why, considering this reputation, did Herzog decided to make five films with Kinski? These films were Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu the Vampire (1979); Woyzeck (1979); Fitzcarraldo (1982); and Cobra Verde (1987). Three or four of these would be considered in any list of Herzog’s best films—and Kinski’s, as well!

After Kinski died of a heart attack in 1991, Herzog directed a documentary about his contentious, and yet rewarding relationship, with the actor which he called My Best Fiend (1999). To see an excerpt from this documentary, click here.

Klaus Kinski’s Daughter, Nastassja Kinski

Klaus Kinski’s Daughter, Nastassja Kinski

And now we come to the strangest part of the story. The bug-eyed demon, Klaus Kinski, was the father of one of the most beautiful actresses who ever lived, Nastassja Kinski. The daughter did not have an easy relationship with her father:

“He was no father. 99 percent of the time I was terrified of him. He was so unpredictable that the family lived in constant terror.” When asked what she would say to him now, if she had the chance, she replied: “I would do anything to put him behind bars for life. I am glad he is no longer alive.”

She managed to escape being sexually abused by Kinski, but just barely.

I find it surpassingly odd that someone so out of it as Klaus Kinski could work successfully with a director like Herzog and give birth to a woman with such unearthly beauty as Nastassja.

A Dangerous Time

It’s the Least Wonderful Time of the Year

It’s the Least Wonderful Time of the Year

I am a great believer in the Mayan calendar—not, mind you, of the many misconceptions relating to the end of the world and such. The Mayans were, in the long run, optimists. Their calendar begins with the creation of the world of humans on August 11, 3114 B.C. and just keeps chugging along. Whenever we come to the end of a baktun, as we may (or may not) have done in December 2012, when a bunch of nattering fools predicted the end of the world, we just move on to the next baktun. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said, “So it goes.”

In the meantime, the last five days of the Mayan 365-day year were called the uayeb, about which I wrote a year ago:

In the Haab’, or Mayan Solar Calendar, there are eighteen months of twenty days each. Where does that leave the other 5.25 days? To account for the difference, the Mayans created an intercalary five-day month referred to as the uayeb. Unlike other days in the Solar Calendar, the five days of the uayeb are thought to be a dangerous time….

According to Lynn Foster in Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” It was a time of fasting with abstention from sex and all celebrations. People avoided washing their hair or even leaving their huts during this time.

This being a Saturday, I will probably violate the spirit of Uayeb by going out for lunch and getting together with friends. There are other ways of honoring the Mayan gods, probably by not making any major decisions during this time unless I absolutely have to.

The World of Marcel

The Comtesse Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1886)

The Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1886)

Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is one of the most incredible worlds to be found in all of literature. Stretched over seven volumes, it consists of some 3,000 pages published over a period of fourteen years, during the last several of which its author was no more. It tells of the life and loves of one Marcel (last name never supplied), who falls in unrequited love with a young girl named Gilberte Swann. At the same time, he adores—though not in a sexual way—the Duchess Oriane de Guermantes, who, in her person, represents the French aristocracy dating all the way back to the Middle Ages to the days of Gilbert the Bad. Above (and below) are illustrations of the Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe, who is thought to be one of the models for the Duchess. Later he falls for bad girl Albertine Simonet, based on his male Italian chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli, the most successful transgender operation in fiction.

Over the last several days, I have read the last volume of the series—Finding Time Again—for the second time. I found myself so deeply involved in Proust’s world that I resolved to do a third reading of the entire series, beginning with Swann’s Way, during tax season. I can’t have enough of Proust’s world, such that I feel that I inhabit it in some way.

I see the Duchess de Guermantes in her elegant draperies and with her piercing azure eyes in my sleep. And sometimes in my waking hours. Here is another view of her, taken by the photographer Felix Nadar in 1900:

Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1900)

The Countess Elisabeth de Greffulhe (1900)

The fin-de-siècle world of Marcel is a fragile one, with the horrendous Dreyfus affair on one side (fully as divisive as our own cultural divisions between religious conservatives and sane people) and the First World War on the other. Proust takes us through all, from his childhood to his doubts expressed in the last volume whether he can live long enough to do justice to his memories. Fortunately, he did. Although he never finished editing the last three volumes of the series, enough remains intact to warrant equating their quality to the first four.

Many of my friends cannot stand Proust. One, a very literate high school teacher of English, found Swann’s Way to be unreadable. In fact, we have not seen each other much after that because he thought I was reading too many works he regarded as being doubtful. What, Proust, doubtful? Far from doubtful, he is the Twentieth Century’s Gold Standard for other writers to aspire to, but never reach, not by a country mile.

This spring, I will return to the world Marcel made and dream of the piercing gaze of Oriane de Guermantes. It is as if I could see it already….

“Little Jimmy Drew This”

I Was Always Into Drawing Castles in the Air

I Was Always Into Drawing Castles in the Air

When my mother died in August 1998, I spent a whole day going through old photographs and other memorabilia relating to Mom, Dad, my brother, and myself. In the end, I think I barely scratched the surface; but I was not able to spend more time at the task. One of the things I rescued from the trash was this drawing of a castle I made at the age of six.

In the upper left-hand corner, Mom wrote in Hungarian, “Little Jimmy drew this 1951 February 1.” At the time, she was pregnant with my brother Dan, who was born on April 5. We were living at 2814 East 120th Street in the Buckeye Road Hungarian neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side. Already, I had gotten into trouble at school for not speaking English, so by this time my Dad was probably looking into getting a house in the suburbs so that I could become a regular Americano.

What does this drawing say about me? If I were a psychologist, no doubt it would speak volumes. I always had grandiose visions which were fueled by the stories my Mom told me, either of her own invention or from children’s books she took out of the library next to my school (Harvey Rice Elementary) on East 116th Street. According to one website about interpreting children’s drawings:

Children who draw fortresses or castles want to communicate their feelings of power and richness. But they may also be creative kids who love to create imaginary friends with whom they have long conversations or games. These children are full of fantasy and creativity but they generally have problems at school because they get easily immersed in their imaginary worlds.

That sounds about right to me, actually. Thanks to my Mom, mine was a richly imaginative world. Perhaps that’s why I write these blogs. I want to share my imagination with the world, or at least a small corner of it.