“Fixed Points”

Avenue Rachel, 18th Arrondissement

Avenue Rachel, 18th Arrondissement

There are two parts of Paris that I know fairly well from having stayed there for a few days in May 1997 and again a few years later. I couldn’t say exactly when because, for some reason, our arrival at and departure from Charles De Gaulle were inexplicably missing from my passport of that period.

During the first visit, Martine and I stayed at the Citadines ApartHotel on Avenue Rachel between Montmartre and the place de Clichy. Avenue Rachel is a one-block street that dead ends (how appropriate is that expression!)  at the main entrance to the Montmartre Cemetery. Opened in 1825 at the site of an old gypsum quarry, it was originally called the Cimetière des Grandes Carrières (Cemetery of the Grand Quarries). Buried therein were such notables as Hector Berlioz, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Edgar Degas, Theophile Gautier, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, and many other luminaries.

Something brough the Avenue Rachel to mind this week: It was Patrick Modiano’s somber and brilliant novelette entitled In the Café of Lost Youth: “I had forgotten the silence and calm of avenue Rachel, which leads to the cemetery, slthough you never think of the cemetery, you tell yourself that at its end it must let out into the countryside, or even, with a bit of luck, onto a seaside promenade.”

I, on the other hand, was very aware of the street ending in a cemetery. From my hotel window on an upper floor, I would stare at the funerary statuary. I also got to know the immediate area pretty well, from the massive Lycée Jules Ferry, the Rue Caulaincourt with its bridge arcing over the necropolis, Place Blanche, and the nearby Moulin Rouge—all of which figure in Modiano’s story as locales where the heroine, if she could indeed be called one, was raised.

In a futile search for a patisserie, I tromped up and down the streets of the neighborhood. It was not a particularly picturesque area, known primarily for nude dancers and sleazy bars.

It was interesting to be reminded of the place. Such a short street. And yet so memorable!

The Soundtrack of Your Boring Life

Living in the Moment

Living in the Moment

There appear to be two types of people. A distressingly large number of younger people appear to be hooked up to a sound feed consisting of the dominant sound icons of current popular culture. Whenever I hear snippets of other people’s music, I feel chagrined. When I am attached to an MP3 player, say during a long flight to South America, what I listen to are the symphonies of Sibelius, Mahler, and Bruckner. (I may diversify into some Jazz classics when I get around to copying them.)

But pop music and rap music? Not for me. When driving, I like music that serves as a background to an increased situational awareness, not as a replacement for my consciousness.

Today, I rode the Expo Line into Santa Monica. Virtually everyone under a certain age was hooked up, listening to pop music and operating their smart phones at full intensity. Needless to say, these people were living in their own self-imposed bubbles, not looking out the window or paying attention to the announcements.

The other type of person is someone like me. I live in the world, not in a self-imposed bubble.My dumb phone does not have Internet access, nor is used for texting or sexting, nor even photography (though it has the capability). The only reason I had it with me was in case I needed to call Martine about our lunch plans.

Is there any advantage to living in the pop culture bubble? Perhaps it’s a form of escape from the world, with all its confusing signals that are so insistent for our attention. But is this escape not dangerous? And can a diet of Taylor Swift or hip-hop music dull one’s senses to the world around us? I imagine it’s a way to introducing oneself to peers, indicating that one is cool … one is attached to the good stuff … one is wearing the right clothes … has the right hairstyle … is, in a word, safe.

Maybe I’m a bit dangerous. At least I would like to think so.

Eating Tacos Hunched Over

Tres Tacos

Tres Tacos

I walked to the Promenade in Santa Monica this morning. While there, I bought two Patrick Modiano novels and had lunch at the Lotería Grill. Of late i have become partial to a couple of soft tacos for lunch, wrapped in corn tortillas.

Naturally, I leaned over my plate, having learned that if I didn’t, there would be a pattern of food stains on my shirtfront resembling a blurry Mexican flag. It didn’t help that my pot belly pushed my shirt well into harm’s way.

There is an art to eating tacos. One has to pinch across the top so that the contents are held in while eating. It helps if the corn tortillas are relatively small so as to limit the possible damage.

According to the Popol Vuh, the great repository of myths of the Mayans, man was created from maize.  At first, the gods made four men who:

…were good people, handsome, with looks of the male kind. Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction…As they looked, their knowledge became intense. Their sight passed through trees, through rocks, through lakes, through seas, through mountains, through plains.

The tacos didn’t quite do that for me, but they were good. I always appreciate food that is spicy hot, that bites back when I bite into it. And Mexican food that is authentic does that for me.

 

A Halo for Judas Iscariot?

Twelve Apostles—All With Haloes—Watching Christ Entering Jerusalem

Twelve Apostles—All With Haloes—Watching Christ Entering Jerusalem

Today Martine and I attended the Valley Greek Festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in North Hills. Please excuse the lack of sharpness in the above photo. What is clear is that twelve men wearing haloes are watching Christ enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Now, my question is this: If these men are, in fact, the Apostles, why do all twelve have haloes, which would invariably include Judas Iscariot?

It was not until after Palm Sunday that Judas ratted the Messiah out to the Sanhedrin for thirty pieces of silver. Afterwords, he felt remorse and hanged himself with a halter.

After Christ’s resurrection, Judas was replaced by Matthias:

Matthias was selected to replace Judas as recorded in Acts 1:15-26. The other man who was also in consideration was named Joseph or Barsabas, and surnamed Justus. Lots were cast and eventually Matthias was chosen. Acts 1:24-26 records the following, “And they prayed and said, “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” And he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” The Bible is sparse on additional details relating to Matthias, but it does say that Matthias was with Jesus since His baptism until his resurrection. Besides the book of Acts, Matthias isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. According to historical sources Matthias lived til 80 A.D. and spread the gospel on the shores of the Caspian and Cappadocia.

Judas Is Pointedly Depicted Without a Halo at the Cathedral of Moulins

Judas Is Pointedly Depicted Without a Halo at the Cathedral of Moulins

Note that at this time, Paul was not an apostle. He was known as Saul and actively persecuted the Christians until, on the road to Damascus, God spoke to him from the heavens:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

— Acts 9:3–9, NIV

One final observation. In his short story (in the form of an essay) entitled “Three Versions of Judas” published in Ficciones, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges speculated on a different role for Judas Iscariot in the story of Man’s Redemption:
God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible—all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.
*  *  *  *  *
What, in fact, do I believe? I think twelve holy men depicted as wearing haloes are shown watching Christ enter Jerusalem. It is merely interesting to speculate whether Judas is one of them.

All About Albertine

Marcel and Albertine from a Film Version

Marcel and Albertine from a Film Version

The following is both a long prose poem and a work of literary criticism by Canadian poet Anne Carson. It tells everything you ever wanted to know about Albertine, who appears in 5 of the 7 volumes of In Search of Lost Time. It’s called “The Albertine Workout.” The poem is taken from The London Review of Books.

1. Albertine, the name, is not a common name for a girl in France, although Albert is widespread for a boy.

2. Albertine’s name occurs 2363 times in Proust’s novel, more than any other character.

3. Albertine herself is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.

4. On a good 19 per cent of these pages she is asleep.

5. Albertine is believed by some critics, including André Gide, to be a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred Agostinelli. This is called the transposition theory.

6. Albertine constitutes a romantic, psychosexual and moral obsession for the narrator of the novel mainly throughout Volume Five of Proust’s seven-volume (in the Pléiade edition) work.

7. Volume Five is called La Prisonnière in French and The Captive in English. It was declared by Roger Shattuck, a world expert on Proust, in his award-winning 1974 study, to be the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip.

8. The problems of Albertine are
(from the narrator’s point of view)
a) lying
b) lesbianism,
and (from Albertine’s point of view)
a) being imprisoned in the narrator’s house.

9. Her bad taste in music, although several times remarked on, is not a problem.

10. Albertine does not call the narrator by his name anywhere in the novel. Nor does anyone else. The narrator hints that his first name might be the same first name as that of the author of the novel, i.e. Marcel. Let’s go with that.

11. Albertine denies she is a lesbian when Marcel questions her.

12. Her friends are all lesbians.

13. Her denials fascinate him.

14. Her friends fascinate him too, especially by their contrast with his friends, who are gay but very closeted. Her friends ‘parade themselves’ at the beach and kiss in restaurants.

15. Despite intense and assiduous questioning, Marcel cannot discover what exactly it is that women do together (‘this palpitating specificity of female pleasure’).

16. Albertine says she does not know.

17. Once Albertine has been imprisoned by Marcel in his house, his feelings change. It was her freedom that first attracted him, the way the wind billowed in her garments. This attraction is now replaced by a feeling of ennui (boredom). She becomes, as he says, a ‘heavy slave’.

18. This is predictable, given Marcel’s theory of desire, which equates possession of another person with erasure of the otherness of her mind, while at the same time positing otherness as what makes another person desirable.

19. And in point of fact, how can he possess her mind if she is a lesbian?

20. His fascination continues.

21. Albertine is a girl in a flat sports cap pushing her bicycle across the beach when Marcel first sees her. He keeps going back to this image.

22. Albertine has no family, profession or prospects. She is soon installed in Marcel’s house. There she has a separate bedroom. He emphasises that she is nonetheless an ‘obedient’ person. (See above on Albertine as a ‘heavy slave’.)

23. Albertine’s face is sweet and beautiful from the front but from the side has a hook-nosed aspect that fills Marcel with horror. He would take her face in his hands and reposition it.

24. The state of Albertine that most pleases Marcel is Albertine asleep.

25. By falling asleep she becomes a plant, he says.

26. Plants do not actually sleep. Nor do they lie or even bluff. They do, however, expose their genitalia.

27. a) Sometimes in her sleep Albertine throws off her kimono and lies naked.
27. b) Sometimes then Marcel possesses her.
27. c) Albertine appears not to wake up.

28. Marcel appears to think he is the master of such moments.

29. Perhaps he is. At this point, parenthetically, if we had time, which we don’t, several observations could be made about the similarity between Albertine and Ophelia – Hamlet’s Ophelia – starting from the sexual life of plants, which Proust and Shakespeare equally enjoy using as a language of female desire. Albertine, like Ophelia, embodies for her lover blooming girlhood, castration, casualty, threat and pure obstacle. Albertine, like Ophelia, is condemned for a voracious sexual appetite whose expression is denied her. Ophelia takes sexual appetite into the river and drowns it amid water plants. Albertine distorts hers into the false consciousness of a sleep plant. In both scenarios the man appears to be in control of the script yet he gets himself tangled up in the wiles of the woman. On the other hand, who is bluffing whom is hard to say.

30. Albertine’s laugh has the colour and smell of a geranium.

31. Marcel gives Albertine the idea that he intends to marry her but he does not. She bores him.

32. Albertine’s eyes are blue and saucy. Her hair is like crinkly black violets.

33. Albertine’s behaviour in Marcel’s household is that of a domestic animal which enters any door it finds open or comes to lie beside its master on his bed, making a place for itself. Marcel has to train Albertine not to come into his room until he rings for her.

34. Marcel gradually manages to separate Albertine from all her friends, whom he regards as evil influences.

35. Marcel never says the word ‘lesbian’ to Albertine. He says ‘the kind of woman I object to’.

36. Albertine denies she knows any such women. Marcel assumes she is lying.

37. At first Albertine has no individuality, indeed Marcel cannot distinguish her from her girlfriends or remember their names or decide which to pursue. They form a frieze in his mind, pushing their bicycles across the beach with the blue waves breaking behind them.

38. This pictorial multiplicity of Albertine evolves gradually into a plastic and moral multiplicity. Albertine is not a solid object. She is unknowable. When he brings his face close to hers to kiss she is ten different Albertines in succession.

39. One night Albertine goes dancing with a girlfriend at the casino.

40. When questioned about this she lies.

41. Albertine is a quick and creative liar; she may even be a natural liar. But she is a bad liar.

42. Albertine lies so much and so badly that Marcel is drawn into the game. He lies too.

43. Marcel’s jealousy, fury, envy, impotence, curiosity, pride, boredom, suffering and desire are all exasperated to their highest pitch by the game.

44. Who is bluffing whom is hard to say. (See above on Hamlet).

45. Near the end of Volume Five, Albertine finally runs away, vanishing into the night and leaving the window open. Marcel fusses and fumes and writes her a letter in which he claims he had just decided to buy her a yacht and a Rolls Royce when she disappeared, now he will have to cancel these orders. The yacht had a price tag of 27,000 francs, about $75,000, and was to be engraved at the prow with her favourite stanza of a poem by Mallarmé.

46. Albertine’s death in a riding accident on p.642 of Volume Five does not emancipate Marcel from jealousy, it removes only one of the innumerable Albertines he would have to forget. The jealous lover cannot rest until he is able to touch all the points in space and time ever occupied by the beloved.

47. There is no right or wrong in Proust, says Samuel Beckett, and I believe it. The bluffing, however, remains a grey area.

48. Let’s return to the transposition theory.

49. On 30 May 1914, French newspapers reported that Alfred Agostinelli, a student aviator, fell from his machine into the Mediterranean sea near Antibes and was drowned. Agostinelli, you recall, was the chauffeur whom Proust in letters to friends admitted that he not only loved but adored. Proust had bought Alfred the aeroplane, which cost 27,000 francs, about $75,000, and had had it engraved on the fuselage with a stanza of Mallarmé. Proust also paid for Alfred’s flying lessons and registered him at the flying school under the name Marcel Swann. The flying school was in Monaco. In order to spy on Alfred while he was there, Proust sent another favourite manservant, whose name was Albert.

50. Compare and contrast Albertine’s sudden fictional death by runaway horse with Alfred Agostinelli’s sudden real-life death by runaway plane. Poignantly, both unfortunate beloveds managed to speak to his/her lover from the wild blue yonder. Agostinelli, before setting out for his final flight, had written a long letter, which Proust was heartbroken to receive the day after the plane crash. Transposed to the novel, this exit scene becomes one of the weirdest in fiction.

51. Several weeks after accepting the news that Albertine has been thrown from her horse and killed, Marcel gets a telegram:

You think me dead but I’m alive and long to see you! affectionately Albertine.

Marcel agonises for days about this news and debates with himself whether to resume relations with her, only to realise that the signature on the telegram has been misread by the telegraph operator. It is not from Albertine at all but from another long-lost girlfriend whose name (Gilberte) shares its central letters with Albertine’s name.

52. ‘One only loves that which one does not entirely possess,’ says Marcel.

53. There are four ways Albertine is able to avoid becoming possessable in Volume Five: by sleeping, by lying, by being a lesbian or by being dead.

54. Only the first three of these can she bluff.

55. Proust was still correcting a typescript of La Prisonnière on his deathbed, November 1922. He was fine-tuning the character of Albertine and working into her speech certain phrases from Alfred Agostinelli’s final letter.

56. It is always tricky, the question whether to read an author’s work in light of his life or not.

57. Granted the transposition theory is a graceless, intrusive and saddening hermeneutic mechanism; in the case of Proust it is also irresistible. Here is one final spark to be struck from rubbing Alfred against Albertine, as it were. Let’s consider the stanza of poetry that Proust had inscribed on the fuselage of Alfred’s plane – the same verse that Marcel promises to engrave on the prow of Albertine’s yacht, from her favourite poem, he says. It is four verses of Mallarmé about a swan that finds itself frozen into the ice of a lake in winter. Swans are of course migratory birds. This one for some reason failed to fly off with its fellow swans when the time came. What a weird and lonely shadow to cast on these two love affairs, the fictional and the real; what a desperate analogy to offer of the lover’s final wintry paranoia of possession. As Hamlet says to Ophelia, accurately but ruthlessly, ‘you should not have believed me.’

58.

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui

(Mallarmé, ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui’)

a swan of olden times remembers
that it is he:
the one
magnificent but
without hope setting himself free
for he failed to sing
of a region for living
when barren winter
burned all around him with ennui

59. ‘Everything, indeed, is at least double.’

La Prisonnière p.362

 

99¢ Triple Features—All Night

The Palace Theater on Broadway

The Palace Theater on Broadway

During the late 1960s, when I was a film student at UCLA, I felt I had to catch up fast in my knowledge of American films. After all, it was foreign films like Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1948) and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1957) that introduced me to what the film medium could do.

So I went with my late friend Norm Witty to see the 99¢ triple features at the remaining movie theaters on Broadway downtown. Most of these theaters are no longer showing films, though at one time it represented the highest concentration of movie theaters in the U.S.; it was called the Broadway Theater District. It included the Cameo, the Tower, the Palace, the Los Angeles, the Arcade, the Roxie, and the Olympic theaters (though the last one was located on West 8th Street). Most of them ran movies all day and all night, usually as triple features.

Even back then, most of the patrons were just intent on getting a good night’s sleep in a theater seat that wasn’t too sticky or dirty. The rest rooms were something of a horror, and the refreshments were pretty disgusting. The worst of all was the Arcade, which we went to only once.

Poster for Universal’s The War Lord (1965)

Poster for Universal’s The War Lord (1965)

Probably the best film I saw on these all-night excursions was a Universal picture starring Charlton Heston, Richard Boone, and a radiant Rosemary Forsyth called The War Lord (1965). Heston and Boone are two Norman knights who take control of a Saxon village. Heston falls in love with Rosemary Forsyth, a Saxon maiden who is betrothed to another villager. When he exercises the jus primae noctis (“the right of the first night”) and demands the right to bed her before her betrothed, the Saxons begin to mutter. But then Heston decides to keep her, and war breaks out. Franklin Schaeffner directed the film, which is still worth seeing when it comes around.

 

LA Writer: Eve Babitz

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

Eve Babitz Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp

This is the start of a new series of blogs by me to be called “LA Writer.” Los Angeles has its own literary scene, some native born, some expatriate, and some just passing through. I plan to make at least one entry in this series each month.

You are a famous French painter and chess master named Marcel Duchamp. It is October 1963, and you are at the Pasadena Art Museum to attend the opening of a show dedicated to your work, mostly from the earlier part of the century. You are seated at a chessboard. Across from you is a nude 20-year-old who is, in many ways, the numero uno L.A. babe of the 1960s. Her name? Eve Babitz.

All you could say? “Alors!

Eve didn’t win the chess game, but she won the match. It didn’t take long before she was widely known. Her boyfriends included Jim Morrison of the Doors, Ed Rucha, Harrison Ford, Steve Martin, and practically everyone who was anyone in the world of art and entertainment. The chess game was just a start.

She is also the author of a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional memoir entitled Eve’s Hollywood, which shows her to have been wide awake in a decade in which many were half-asleep at best. Not only is she an excellent writer: She designed scores of album covers for rock bands—and you know that album covers of the time are some of the most memorable icons of the 60s.

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve Batitz by Ed Rucha

Eve’s style is all her own. It’s the way a beautiful and confident young woman who was on top of the world—but who had a serious brain—would write. For example, about the city of her birth:

Culturally, L.A. has always been a humid jungle alive with seething L.A. projects that I guess people from other places just can’t see. It takes a certain kind of innocence to like L.A., anyway. It requires a certain plain happiness inside to be happy in L.A., to choose it and be happy here. When people are not happy, they fight against L.A. and say it’s a “wasteland” and other helpful descriptions.

That leaves out Woody Allen.

Take, for example, this description as to why quit being a Brownie:

In grammar there is a noun and there are adjectives. Adjectives modify the noun, they alter it and cramp its style. I didn’t want to be a Brownie girl. So I quit the Brownies.

And how’s this for a mission statement:

What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything.

Eve Babitz was a gorgeous young woman at the top of the world who knew what she liked and was not afraid to talk about it in a way that was both interesting and all her own. She writes with a supreme confidence in a slightly unorthodox, yet highly workable style, that is highly engaging.

In my review of Eve’s Hollywood for Goodreads.Com, I wrote:

When I arrived in Los Angeles between Christmas and New Years in 1966, I was fully prepared to “put up with” the place while my heart remained in … Cleveland, for God’s sake! I am sad to say it took a number of years before I woke up and let the magic of the place begin to work on me. Those first few years I now regard as “the lost years.” I studied film history and criticism at UCLA, saw thousands of movies, but was oblivious to the flower-scented air, redolent with night-blooming jasmine.

Now I have found a writer who has helped reconcile me to my own past: It is Eve Babitz, whose book Eve’s Hollywood covers my black-out years. Eve was born in L.A. of artistic parents and lived in Hollywood, living life to the fullest—sleeping with the likes of Jim Morrison of the Doors, artist Ed Rucha, and numerous other males known for beauty and/or brains.

Eve’s Hollywood is available in a paperback edition published by New York Review Books.