January 2010


How else could it end?  Fred or Cheri as he was known by those who knew him intimately, was the pampered though neglected son of Charlotte Peloux, one of the last survivors of La Belle Epoque, a dwindling circle of fin de siecle good-time girls, most of whom had  lost their allure but retained their memories and a vicious knowing sarcasm.    

At the age of 19, Cheri was a stunningly beautiful if somewhat effeminate young man but was already bored with life.  His mother neglected him emotionally but had seen to it that he’d had completed his education  with ample opportunity to experiment and debauch with a surfeit of pretty and eager young women.  H’e had all he could possibly want except love and nothing meant anything anymore.  He was bored.  Life had become meaningless.  He had no purpose.  Before the age of 20, he  was ready to retire.  Then he met Lea.

Lea de Lonval, unlike her dwindling band of colleagues, had retained her allure.  With care and hard work, she had kept her swan neck, her bright blue eyes and her youthful figure.  She was successful, famous and rich.  She had invested wisely and lived in the grant style.  Above all, she had avoided the misfortune of falling in love.  Bored with gossip and backbiting of her group and no longer needing to attract customers to maintain her opulent life style, she wanted one last fling with a beautiful young man while she could still achieve that. 

Cheri and Lea’s affair went on for six years.  He moved in with her.  They got used to each other.  They bickered like an old married couple. 

But Charlotte had other plans for Cheri.  She had made a match with Edmee, the deprived orphan daughter of another grande horizontale, Marie Laure.  The betrothal was more a business contract between the mothers than any love match.

Cheri had not reckoned on giving up his comfrtable existence with Lea.  How could he?  She had become his mother, lover, soul mate.  For the first time in his life he had known love.  And although what started as an exploitative relationship, the same applied to Lea.  At the time when most women had given the expectation of love. Lea had fallen and she could not tolerate a relationship where Cheri drifted between her and Edmee.

Cheri married.  Lea went to Biarritz for the season, amused herself with a younger man. but upon hearing Cheri had left his young wife, she returned.

Cheri was desperate.  The loss of Lea and love added an intolerable anguish to his meaningless.  He called on her at midnight.  He had come back.  Like a mother with an errant child, Lea arranged everything.  They would go south together, she would buy the tickets, even draft the letter he would write to Edmee.  But Cheri felt trapped.  He felt controlled.  He saw the lines around her mouth and eyes. Lea was becoming an old woman.  Not only that, he felt  disillusioned by her ruthlessness towards Edmee. 

‘I always thought of you as a good person.  Don’t take that away from me’

‘If I’d been really good, I’d not have kept you to myself.  I’d have made a man of you.’

Cheri left.  And within a year, La Belle Epoque was swept away by the tidal wave of war.  Cheri went to fight and returned a hero.  His wife Edmee,  bought a house which she converted to a  hospital and fell in love with her surgeon. 

Cheri tried to re-establish the life he had known before the war.  He looked up Lea, was appalled at how much she had let herself go, how little she cared.  

In a way, they had both lost the only honorable thing they had even had in their lives, the love that comes along only once. Capsized in some irreversible tragedy,  Cheri despaired.  He could not love anybody else and he could not bear the pain alone. So he lay on the couch, took out his service revolver, pressed it to his head and squeezed the trigger. 

There was no other way.   

 

Colette, the author of ‘Cheri’ and ‘Le fin de Cheri’ captures the poignancy of romantic love like no other.  She’s been there, of course.  And Michelle Pfeiffer is a wonderfully nuanced Lea in last year’s film version with Rupert Friend as a throughly louche Cheri. 

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Tom Stoppard is of my generation.  Although, of course, I never knew him personally,  he has been part of my growing up.  I took Marion to see ‘Jumpers’ in the nineteen seventies.  It was the play that I remember best.  I still have the script somewhere.  It inspired a love of the theatre that I retain to this day.  

‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ was written at around the same time.  It was Andre Previn’s suggestion that Stoppard write a play for orchestra while he write the score.  Stoppard originally thought of building it around a triangle player who imagined he owned an orchestra.  But Russian dissidents were being imprisoned in mental institutions, so conceived the idea of having two men imprisoned in a mental institution, one, the triangle player, who was really mad and the other, just politically insane.  Madness is always a cultural diagnosis.  If it weren’t, all devout Christians would be considered mad. 

The orchestra becomes a theatrical device, not to say, gimick.  It not only expresses the emotion, but when the musicians are abused and their instruments smashed, it shockingly depicts the state sanctioned assault on feeling and truth; the madness in the system.    Alexander Ivanov is an embarrassment.  He refuses to retract his criticism or to admit that his treatment has worked.  He refuses to save himself, even when his son pleads with him to do so.

Human behaviour is predominantly driven by emotion.  Civilisation and its institutions; medicine, the law, government, protect us against uncontained emotional reactions by setting rules and customs for behaviour.  But what happens when those rules break down into anarchy and when those responsible for maintaining the rules ignore them or commit atrocities themselves?.  Then people become conditioned to corruption and brutality; they cease to notice any more. Terrorism and war can do dreadful things to men.  Remember the SS, Smersh and the guards at Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay as well as terrorists anywhere.  They become brutalized.  The veneer of civilization is scraped off leaving the rust of repression, the erosion of fear.    

My companion at breakfast was from Johannesburg.  I asked her how she survived the constant threat of attack.  ‘You get used to it,’ she said. ‘Very few muggers or thieves get prosecuted.  Many of the police were freedom fighters and they just turn a blind eye when it comes to arresting ‘their own.’   

But strangely, Stoppard’s play failed to shock me – perhaps because the theme seemed too familiar or perhaps because I’ve become too cynical.  I am less easy to shock these days.  .   

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is currently playing at The Olivier Theatre with the South Bank Symphony Orchestra. 

 

 

‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, so they say.  They are our companions. They are, like us,  social carnivores that hunt in the daylight. We were made to collaborate. How much more effective we would have been as hunters with dogs to detect and chase our prey.  And dogs would have played a crucial role in the development of civilization by protecting our crops and home and herding our animals. 

But there’s more to it than that.  Dogs offer us their devotion.  To them we  are the pack leaders – to be appeased and served. Dogs are attuned to us, they obey our commands, respond appropriately when we point; they can be trained. Chimpanzees, although they have 99% of  our genetic code, tend to do their own thing, albeit intelligently. There is even a dog who has learnt 300 words and can fetch an object from another room, having only just seen a picture of it.  And think of how working dogs can be trained to herd sheep, to retrieve an animal that been shot, to sniff out drugs or explosives.   

Dogs make a deep emotional bond with us.  Studies have shown that when dogs look at images of humans, they are drawn to the left side of the face which expresses emotion more eloquently and has a direct connection with the emotional right side of the brain.  They tune into our emotions and can respond to our feelings.  They know when we are upset or angry. They feel it. And dogs are good for us.  We are more likely to survive a myocardial infarction if we have a dog and less likely to have another heart attack.  

Dogs have evolved an elaborate vocal repertoire to communicate with us.  Most dog owners can recognize at least six types of bark.  These are emotional signals; excitement, anger, aggression, hurt, fear, playfulness.  Brains scans have shown that the same area of orbito-frontal cortex lights up and we release the bonding hormone, oxytocin, when we look at pictures of dogs as when we look at images of children.  Our need to nurture runs deep. Dogs induce the nurturing behaviour in us they need for survival, and they also release oxytocin when they look at their owners and are fondled.  Dogs not only give but they induce unconditional love. 

DNA data has established that our domestic dog is descended from the grey wolf and came into existence about 100,000 years.  But wolves or wild dogs do not acclimatize to humans naturally. They cannot read our emotions and they don’t have the same vocal repertoire.  When wolf puppies are brought up with humans, they revert to wolves at about 8 weeks and become dangerous.  It takes many generations of selective breeding to get an animal that behaves like a dog.  Long term experiments conducted on Silver Foxes in Eastern Siberia has shown that domesticity can only be induced after 50 generations.  Only then do they behave like dogs. The strange thing is that in breeding out aggression, other characteristics change too, like the colour of their coats and the shape of their heads, their ears and their tails.  In fact, they become like puppies.  Selective breeding for domesticity favours juvenile characteristics.

This makes me wonder whether sexual selection in human societies over the many generations since civilization began has also succeeded in breeding out aggressive characteristics?   Are we just all big babies?   Have we bred domesticity in ourselves and with this passivity, laziness, neediness and a predisposition to obesity, heart attacks and diseases related to anxiety, such as Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?    

Contrast our open faced, needy population with the hard bitten images of tribal chieftains, warlords who seize and impregnate their women by force.  Such brutal sexual acquisition might perpetuate a much more ruthless typology until such time as civilization suppresses the behaviour that has induced it?  The aggressive no longer rule the earth,  at least outside the strongholds of Afghanistan, but have we become too tame, like the dogs?

This article was inspired by this month’s BBC Horizon programme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s so clear in the freezer,

the sky deeper.

Steam rises from the falls,

turns grass stems to prayer flags

and trees into wedding gowns.

The windows of the big house

shine gold while

Thomas Payne’s excellent bridge

burns like a biscuit

against moors of palest pink. 

 

Crystal deep,

the sparkling deer

join with cosy sheep

in a warm circuit of silage,

fermenting an uneasy friendship,

a cloven harmony of hunger.

Flashing red, a woodpecker picks

at frozen bark

while titmice forage

out of habit more than hope.    

 

Spying a discarded raft, I climb aboard

and launch myself down the slope until,

disgorged in a tumble of laughter,

I get the drift, use my hands

like rockets on a space module,

gain stability but no direction. 

A stranger watches by the cattle grid,

‘I’ve only come for my grandson.’

I smile like a sheep in silage

and resolve to buy a sledge.

‘Why are so many psychotherapists on the depressive side?’  Alan asked just before the end of the year. ‘Answers on a postcard please.  My answer is something along lines of; only depressives have a higher sense of the absurd & ergo do not, well now & again, take it all too seriously.’  But, as ever, he made me think – a bit.    

What can you do when life gets too serious, when you feel so devastated by what has happened, you don’t know how you can carry on?   Get involved in a project?  Join a group? Go travelling?  Talk to a therapist? Or just pretend you don’t care. What’s the point in worrying?  It never was worthwhile.  Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag.  And smile boys, smile.  The ‘what the hell defense’ worked well enough for some in The Great War, but that was hell!    

Insouciance can be a more disarming strategy than aggression, as Jimmy Carter found to his cost during his presidential debate with Ronald Reagan.  He tried so hard to contruct a statistical assault that would make his opponent appear ill informed and stupid.  Reagan wouldn’t engage with it.  He just smiled good naturedly and replied, ‘there you go again’.  And so he captured the initiative and the popular vote.  But Ronald Reagan never seemed to take anything seriously and perhaps for that reason was always considered somewhat lightweight. He concealed his anger, fear and despair behind a bland façade, like a mask.  That reminds me of the scene in Cries and Whispers when the doctor takes Maria to the mirror and points out how lines of indifference, formed over many years, have marked the innocent beauty of her face.   

Comics take insouciance a stage further.  Comedy is the theatre of the absurd.  It defuses, makes safe, affords a means of saying difficult things without shocking or giving offense. As a subterfuge, this can be such fun, but it is also a powerful defense. It defends against meaning, or at least the seriousness of meaning.  So when people consistently adopt comedy and facetiousness as a way of coping, are they hiding the serious stuff of how vulnerable they feel?  So we should be careful not to respond in the same way, for fear we belittle something they really take very seriously. It may be ok for them to criticize their own sister,  but if you do it, watch out.

Comics can be so terribly sensitive and, like therapists, are prone to depression. It’s the sad face of the clown.  Think of some of the comics you know; Billy Connolly, Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Tony Hancock, or John Cleese, for example.  They have different styles, absurdly catastrophic, deadpan, ridiculous or withering and dangerous. Their wit is both a sword and shield.  They are as skilled at projecting their own instability and fear onto their hapless audience as they are at defusing aggression and subduing powerful adversaries by presenting themselves as psychologically flawed.   They survive on a psychological knife’s edge.  We sense the risk but we laugh with them in the face of their danger – and by inference, ours!         

 

With thanks to Dr Alan Lidmila for inspiration!  

As I was going up the stairs,

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

I wish that man would go away.

He sets his alarm to get up at seven o’clock, but frequently oversleeps.  So he starts the day fed up and low.  Despite good intentions, he has failed again.  Then he starts on the work.  He checks through all his emails and tries to clear the box.  This takes him three hours.  Next, he scans his utility bills and converts them to electronic files so that they can be stored.  Then he catalogues his photographs, converting the old prints to digital files. ‘My aim’, he tells me, ‘is to clear away the clutter from my life.  I am constantly on e-Bay trying to get rid of stuff I no longer use.’ 

He is now employed just one day a week for the company.  Last year, when he was full time, he worked until 10 or 11 o’clock every night in order to clear the day’s tasks, but it made him ill.  He felt tired all the time and his bowels were upset. He was constantly working against a resistance and faced with his own failure. He just didn’t want to do it. 

A challenge to work more creatively just seems to confirm his sense of inadequacy. ‘‘When I am asked to find a solution for a problem, I avoid it.  It makes me feel uneasy. It  and it is safer to clear my inbox. But I get away with it. Nobody could ever accuse me of not working.  I work very hard.  I will never be made redundant, but I don’t do anything.  I know it’s completely futile, but it makes me feel better.’ 

I told him that it sounded like a defence against depression.  ‘Yes, I was depressed when I was a child.  My mother used to make me help her with the housework to get me out of it.  So nowadays, it’s easier to focus on meaningless tasks like emptying the dustbins than engage with anything. 

‘I think’, he said in a rare moment of inspiration, ‘it’s can be a defence against thinking.’    

Yes, he’s right, I thought (and he is certainly capable of thinking).  To think about something, you have to get your mind round it, you have to engage, you have to commit mental energy.  But he rarely engages.  He is fearful of it.  He recently enrolled in a university course on nutrition but left after six weeks.  He has lived with his girl friend for six years but hasn’t got engaged, hasn’t made a commitment.  He works on his computer most nights instead of sitting with her and they rarely go on holiday.

It’s not that he lacks social skills or intellectual ability.  It’s more that he fears commitment.  He finds it difficult to trust people, to trust himself with people.  It seems that if he allows people close, they will find out how inadequate he feels and the humiliation would be too much to bear.  So he doesn’t think, he doesn’t engage.  He is bored and depressed, but is too frightened to get out of his prison.      

And with me, he has the perfect defence.  He agrees eagerly with my assessment and  endorses it with a sense of triumph, smiling, as if to say.  ‘Yes, but you can’t get to me, I already know. And I will never change.’ 

He’s not daft!

I first experienced Cries and Whispers  in 1973.  I was, even then, drawn to the deeper, darker aspects of human psychology.  It was no wonder, therefore, that I was into Bergman. I rated the Seventh Seal and Persona as the greatest films I had seen.   Then came Cries and Whispers.  And now, after a gap of nearly 40 years, I have experienced it all over again.  And I still agree with the reviewers.  Cries and Whispers is probably the most intense expression of emotion it is possible to experience in a cinema.  Ingmar Bergman was a truly great director and his partnership with the cinematographer, Sven Nykqvist, was one of the most creative in the history of cinema.

The opening sequences set the mood, time passing in the ticks and strikes of the clocks, the unrelenting passion of the crimson carpets, walls and drapes.  We see a woman or is it a man; the angular face and lank hair obviate sexuality.  She is lying in bed.  Another woman, plump and beautiful with ringlets of honey blonde hair lies asleep in a chair.  The invalid gets up stiffly and walks painfully across to her bureau and writes in her diary, ‘It is Monday and I am in pain.’ 

Agnes is dying of cancer.  Her sisters, Karin and Maria, have returned to look after her, but it is the peasant Anna with her plump expressionless face and simple faith who loves and cares for her.  ‘In elliptical flashbacks, intended to give us emotional information, not tell a story, we learn that the three sisters have made little of their lives.’ Karin is icily detached, married to an older husband, a calculating, sneering diplomat, whom she loathes. She cannot bear to be touched and in one awful scene lacerates her cunt with a broken glass and smears the blood over her lips to avoid her husband’s attentions.  Maria is beautiful, but corrupt and heartless.  She is married to a weak man, whom she despises and so she consoles herself with other liaisons.  When her husband stabs himself and pleads for help, she turns away.  Maria and Karin were close as children, but are now too damaged to allow any real intimacy.  Agnes always felt isolated, especially from their tragic though beautiful mother.      

Theirs is not a happy house, it’s a place of guilt and repression, cries and whispers.  Nobody can get close enough to draw comfort from anybody else.  Agnes is in agony, her back arched as she struggles to breathe, desperate for human warmth, but her sisters turn away.  Only Anna can console her, pillowing her head in the living flesh of her breasts to ease her terrible transition.   

Cries and Whispers is a disturbing film, a film about life and death.  It’s not only Agnes who is dying.  Karin and Maria are too, and in a way, we all are.  Their lives have no hope, no meaning.  Karin works while Maria plays, but these are evasions.  Theirs is a simalcrum.   With human warmth, without love, there can be no life.   Paradoxically, it is Agnes,  who finds life  in simple pleasures, the garden, a drink of water and the comfort of  being held.   So Bergman presents us with a contrast, a counterpoint between hopelessness, defensiveness and meaninglessness of  Karin and Maria’s lives with their compromises, pretences and terror of real contact and the dreadful void of death that confronts Agnes.  

Bergman does not spare us the shock and horror.  Harriet Andersson is not beautiful in death; sweat glistens on her angular face, her hair is lank, her skin pale and grey, her eyes terrified;  she arches her back, she drags air into her damaged lungs with long, tortured stridor, she retches, she beats her fists on her barren, wasted chest. 

The cinematography is superb.  As the critic, Roger Ebert, wrote, ‘The camera is as uneasy as we are. It stays at rest mostly, but when it moves it doesn’t always follow smooth, symmetrical progressions. It darts, it falls back, is stunned. It lingers on close-ups of faces with the impassivity of God. It continues to look when we want to turn away; it is not moved.  Agnes lies thrown on her death bed, her body shuddered by horrible, deep, gasping breaths, as she fights for air. The sisters turn away, and we want to, too.’  We know things are this bad, but we don’t want to have to feel it.  The scene of  Anna embracing the decomposing Agnes has all the soul searching depth of a Rembrandt,  the horror of embracing death but at the same time a moving and familiar reminder of the pieta.   So the death of Agnes  represents the corruption of humanity.  And here again we have the dialectic;  life in death and death in life.   This film gets as close as any film can get to the crimson membrane of passion and sexual disquiet that for Bergman is the soul.  

Cries and Whispers has little narrative.  We don’t know how the major characters arrived there; we are left to fill in the gaps from the darkness of own experience.  This is the power of Bergman.  He does not attempt to explain; he just shows us what its like.  He communicates on a level of human feeling so deep that defies description – but how well he communicates.