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Film Saawariya (2007) and Art: Carl Krenek, Maurice Prendergast, Edmund Dulac

19 Mar

“I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.”

Carl Krenek (1880-1948), A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willos, blossoms, tempera on paper, 14,3 x 17,3 cm, c 1900s-1910s

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve first seen the Hindi film “Saawariya” (2007), directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I still find myself captivated by the songs and the setting of the film. What is especially interesting about the film’s plot is that it is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights”, which was published in 1848, rather early in the writer’s career. In the story, the nameless narrator is a lonely and dreamy young man who lives in Saint Petersburg. One night, whilst wandering the cold, winter streets, he meets a pretty young girl called Nastenka who is also lonely. Of course, he is a dreamer and suddenly Nastenka is hope personified for his lovelorn, lonely existence. The two start talking but Nastenka makes it clear that she doesn’t want romance, and eventually she returns to her lover. In the film “Saawariya” the young man Ranbir Raj (played by Ranbir Kapoor) is the nameless narrator and the Dreamer from Dostoyevsky’s story. Raj’s Nastenka in the film is a young Muslim girl called Sakina (played by Sonam Kapoor) whom she meets one night. But Sakina is in love with her grandma’s tennant, a man called Imaan. Raj is also a musician and he spends a lot of time with the local prostitutes, trying to cheer them up and brings some hope to their sad lives, so he is a warm and kind-hearted man. That aspect is diffent from Dostoyevsky’s story, but the ending is, sadly, similar. Sad for the Dreamer that is.

Scenes from the film “Saawariya”

Now, another thing I love about the film was the aesthetic. The nocturnal, fantasy setting is gorgeous, with no real indication of time, place or the passing of time; a truly dream-like setting for the story because it is told from Ranbir’s memory. One of the most beautiful scenes, for me, is from the song Masha Allah when Ranbir and Sakina encounter each other at night; she is frightened and alone, her veil falls off and the moonlight reveals a beautiful face and Ranbir is instantly smitten and proclaims: Masha Allah! The scene, like the film itself, is bathed in indigo-blue light, and the two are gliding on a boat adorned with flowers over a lake and pass under a bridge where, for a mere second, Rabir can get close to Sakina. The light of the lanterns and neon signs on the buildings is showing them the way. The boat, the water, the bridge, all made me think of Venice and the nocturnal scene really has a magic about it. Here is an interesting commentary on the film’s aesthetic, from an article “The socio-political mutation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights in Hindi Cinema through the ages” written by Eshan Parikh here: “Bhansali created a real dreamscape, one that seemed to exist in a timeless space and was inspired by Indian and European architecture. There is no sense of day/night and seasons. There are shots where you see the dome of a Rajasthani fort like building inside the arch of the replica of Champs-Élysées. There are walls with graffiti in Urdu and shops with English names which were reminiscent of Colonial India. No real year is mentioned where this story may have been set and even the way people dress up is a mix of modern urban styles and more vintage styles of the Colonial era.

This scene from the film captivated me so much that I started looking for similar examples in art; paintings whose mood and motif fits the mood of the scene in the film, and I found three. The first one is a tempera on paper called “A fairy tale scene: a dark lake, boat, weeping willows, blossoms” by an Austrian painter Carl Krenek. The intense blue and green shades are absolutely stunning! In the foreground of the painting there is a row of semi-abstract flowers which look really groovy and behind them is the vibrant blue lake. I especially love the strokes of lighter blue on the dark blue background; they are so flowing and free. In the middle of the lake is a couple on a boat, gliding towards infinity. We can even see a little bit of the sky – the starry night.

Scene from the film Saawariya (2007)

Now, here is a lovely passage from Dostoyevsky’s story where the nameless narrator talks about himself and his relationship with Nastenka:

I am a dreamer. I know so little of real life that I just can’t help reliving such moments as these in my dreams, for such moments are something I have very rarely experiened.

I am going to dream about you the whole night, the whole week, the whole year.

I feel I know you so well that I couldn’t have known you better if we’d been friends for twenty years. You won’t fail me, will you? Only two minutes, and you’ve made me happy forever. Yes, happy. Who knows, perhaps you’ve reconciled with me, resolved all my doubts.

(…) If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don’t need to wish her anything, for she’ll be happy with you. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness that you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of one’s life?

The second painting which made me think of the scene from the film was Maurice Prendergast’s watercolour “Feast of the Redemeer”, painted in 1899. I have already written a longer post about it here, but esentially what reminded me of the film was the nocturnal setting, the dark waters, the magical ambience created by the plethora of lanterns and the the boats of course. I can imagine Ranbir and Sakina on one of those boats; he is mesmerised by her beauty, she is daydreaming of her lover, both are enjoying the fleeting dream-like moments while above them is a dark cloud of unrequitedness and an inevitable separation and ending.

Maurice Prendergast, Feast of the Redeemer, c 1899, watercolour

The third and the final painting I found is Edmund Dulac’s watercolour “The Fisherman – The Nightingale”, date unknown but probably early twentieth century. The watercolour shows a nocturnal scene with a fisherman in his little boat gliding on the waters of a river or a lake. The blueness of the water is kissing the blueness of the sky and it is hard to tell the line between the water and the sky. Instead of a fisherman I imagine Raj and Sakina on that boat. The crescent moon, half hidden by the tree branches, is a romantic touch, and I also really love how the trees are almost imposing their way into the painting, forcing their branches into our sight. There is ever so soft light of the moon falling on the water but it is subtle detailing such as that one that bring magic to the scene.

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously, that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing in his nets.”

(Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale)

Edmund Dulac, The Fisherman – The Nightingale, no date

Camellia: the most deceitful of all flowers (Natsume Soseki’s The Three-Cornered World)

15 Mar

My go-to book for the late winter and early spring days is Natsume Soseki’s novel “The Three-Cornered World”; it is soothing, meditative, lyrical and inspiring. The story is told in the first person by the main character, a nameless thirty-year old artist, a poet and a painter, who one day sets out on a journey to the mountains, in search of Beauty and the true meaning of art. He stays at a hot spring resort where he is the only guest. One moonlit night he hears a woman singing in the garden. This mysterious beauty, called Nami, captures his imagination, not in a romantic but in an artistic way. The novel is filled with the narrator’s observations on nature, art and life. Every time I read the novel, something new catches my attention and this time it was this passage on the topic of the camellia flower so I decided to share it today. The narrator talks about the shape, the red colour of the camellia flower, the way it withers, how seductive it is… I never spend much time thinking about camellias, but now I cannot get them out of my mind! Still, there is another reference to camellias in the novel “The Lady of the Camellias” by Alexandre Dumas fils so we can conclude that camellia is a naughty flower. Enjoy the passage bellow from the novel!

Cao Jianlou, Camellia, 1981, ink and colour on paper scroll, 95.2 x 44 cm

“I was now standing beneath the spreading branches of a large tree, and suddenly felt cold. Over on the far bank camellia bushes bloomed among the shadows. Camellia leaves are too deep a green, and have no air of lightheartedness even when seen in bright sunlight. These particular bushes were in a silent huddle, set back five or six yards in an angle between the rocks, and had it not been for the blossoms I should not have known that there was anything there at all. Those blossoms! I could not of course have counted them all if I had spent the whole day at it; yet somehow their brilliance made me want to try.

The trouble with camellia blossoms is that although they are brilliant they are in no way cheerful. You find that in spite of yourself your attention is attracted by the violent blaze of colour, but once you look at them they give you an uncanny feeling. They are the most deceitful of all flowers. Whenever I see a wild camellia growing in the heart of the mountains, I am reminded of a beautiful enchantress who lures men on with her dark eyes, and then in a flash injects her smiling venom into their veins. By the time they realise that they have been tricked it is too late.

Utagawa Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858), Camellia and Bullfinch, c 1833

No sooner had I caught sight of the camellias opposite than I wished I had not done so. Theirs was no ordinary red. It was a colour of eye-searing intensity, which contained some indefinable quality. Pear blossoms drooping despondently in the rain only arouse in me a feeling of pity, and the cool aronia bathed in pale moonlight strikes the chords of love. The quality of camellia blossoms, however, is altogether different. It speaks of darkness and evil, and is something to be feared. It is, moreover apparent in every gaudy petal. These blossoms do not give the impression that they are flattering you, nor do they show that they are deliberately trying to entice you. They will live in perfect serenity for hundreds of years far from the eyes of man in the shadow of the mountains, flaring into bloom and falling to earth with equal suddenness. But let a man glance at them even for an instant, and for him it is the end. He will never be able to break free from the spell of the enchantress. No, theirs is no ordinary red. It is the red of an executed criminal’s blood which automatically attracts men’s gaze and fills their hearts with sorrow.

As I stood watching, a red flower hit the water, providing the only movement in the stillness of spring. After a while it was followed by another. Camellia flowers never drift down petal by petal, but drop from the branch intact. Although this in itself is not particularity unpleasant since it merely suggests an indifference to parting, the way in which they remain whole even when they have landed is both gross and offensive to the eye. If they continue like this, I thought, they will stain the whole pond red.

Already the water in the immediate vicinity of the peacefully floating blossoms seemed to have a reddish tint. Yet another flower dropped and remained as motionless as if it had come to rest on the bank. There goes another. I wondered whether this one would sink. Perhaps over the years millions of camellia blossoms would steep in the water and, having surrendered their colour, would rot and eventually turn to mud on the bottom. If that should happen, then they might imperceptibly build up the bed of this old stagnating pond until in thousands of years time the whole area would return to the plain it had been originally. Now a large bloom plunged downwards like a blood-smeared phantom. Another fell, and another, striking the water like a shower of pattering raindrops.”

Tagore: Only lips know the language of lips, know how to sip each other’s hearts

26 Feb

Constantin Brancusi, The Kiss, 1907

The Kiss

Only lips know the language of lips,
Know how to sip each other’s hearts
The two lovers leave home for goals unknown,
Setting out eagerly on Holy Communion.
Like two waves that crest at love’s pull
Lips at last melt and meld in lovers’ lips,
Viewing each other with deep desire,
Both meet at the body’s frontier.
Love weaves music from such refrains
Love’s tale is told in quivering lips!
From fowers plucked from lips that roam
Garlands surely will be woven at home!
The sweet union of two desiring lips
Climaxes in a red bridal bed of smiles!


(“Chumban,” from Kori O Komal)
Translated by Fakrul Alam)

Tagore: When I called you in your garden mango blooms were rich in fragrance

21 Feb

A poem I recently discovered, called “Unyielding” by the Bengali poet Tagore. The mood of the poem reminded me of many lovely illustrations by the French artist Edmund Dulac such as the one bellow from his series “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” from 1909.

Edmund Dulac, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, “Hour of Grace”, 1909

Unyielding

When I called you in your garden

Mango blooms were rich in fragrance –

Why did you remain so distant,

Keep your door so tightly fastened?

Blossoms grew to ripe fruit-clusters –

You rejected my cupped handfuls,

Closed your eyes to perfectness.

In the fierce harsh storms of Baiśākh

Golden ripened fruit fell tumbling –

‘Dust,’ I said, ‘defiles such offerings:

Let your hands be heaven to them.’

Still you showed no friendliness.

Lampless were your doors at evening,

Pitch-black as I played my vīnā.

How the starlight twanged my heartstrings!

How I set my vīnā dancing!

You showed no responsiveness.

Sad birds twittered sleeplessly,

Calling, calling lost companions.

Gone the right time for our union –

Low the moon while still you brooded,

Sunk in lonely pensiveness.

Who can understand another!

Heart cannot restrain its passion.

I had hoped that some remaining

Tear-soaked memories would sway you,

Stir your feet to lightsomeness.

Moon fell at the feet of morning,

Loosened from night’s fading necklace.

While you slept, O did my vīnā

Lull you with its heartache?

Did you Dream at least of happiness?

The Family Moskat: Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence

22 Dec

I am more than half way through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Moskat Family”, originally published in 1950, and I am enjoying it tremendously, although it is very sad at parts. The novel follows the lives of the members of the Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. The character who appears very early in the beginning and quickly takes central place is Asa Heshel; a disillusioned Jew who read Spinoza’s writings a bit too much. At first he comes off as a misunderstood, moody loner but very soon reveals a lack of character and horrible moral standards. A lot of things happen as the novel progresses; Asa falls in love with Hadassah, the granddaughter of the family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, tries to elope with her unsuccesfully but later marries Meshulam’s step-daughter Adele in Switzerland, their love (or lack of it on his behalf) quickly becomes bitter and they return to Warshaw where he reunites with the now also married Haddasah and starts an affair with her, then joins the military at the outbreak of the World War One.

In the novel’s beginning Asa’s life was a blank page, a clean white piece of paper, and oh how quickly the ink stains of bad decisions, flaws, inconsistencies, and betrayals tainted the paper’s snow whiteness! The lyrics from the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades” comes to mind: “different colours, different shades, over each mistakes were made.” In a way, the character of Asa is symbolic of the desintegration of the Jewish culture due to the process of modernisation which planted a seed of doubt in many; some characters become Christians, some move abroad and leave their traditions behind. Characters who, like Asa, were seeking freedom from old norms and traditions, instead found themselves lost, directionless, disillusioned… I can’t help but wonder then, what differentiates an experience from – a mistake?

The passage that struck me particularly and that I will share in this post is when Asa first arrives to Warshaw one warm October eve from the countryside and he is quickly enamoured by the hustle and bustle of the big city, and everything seems to him as if he had seen it before; everything is familiar yet strange both at once. This particular feeling of arriving to a new place, being young and full of dreams, is something I have experiences myself and I love reading about it in a novel. I love how vividly Singer describes the scene, I can really imagine I am there; the carriages, the red trams, the scents in the air, the large red setting sun, it is so atmospheric.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue vue d’en Haut, 1899, colour litograph

A few weeks after Meshulam Moskat returned to Warsaw another traveler arrived at the station in the northern part of the capital. He climbed down from a third-class car carrying an ob­long metal-bound basket locked with a double lock. He was a young man, about nineteen. His name was Asa Heshel Bannet. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of Reb Dan Katzenellen­bogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. He had with him a letter of recommendation to the learned Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi, secretary of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. In his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinoza in a Hebrew translation.

The youth was tall and thin, with a long, pale face, a high, prematurely creased forehead, keen blue eyes, thin lips, and a sharp chin covered with a sprouting beard. His blond, almost col­orless earlocks were combed back from his ears. He was wearing a gaberdine and a velvet cap. A scarf was wrapped around his throat. “Warsaw: he said aloud, his voice strange to himself, “War­saw at last. People milled about the station. A porter in a red hat tried to take the basket from him, but he refused to surrender it. Though the year was well into October, the day was still warm. Low clouds floated about in the sky, seeming to merge with the puffs of steam from the locomotives. The sun hung in the west, red and large. In the east the pale crescent of the moon was visible. The young man crossed to the other side of the railing that separated the railroad station from the street. On the wide thor­oughfare, paved with rectangular cobblestones, carriages bowled along, the horses seeming to charge straight at the knots of pe­destrians. Red-painted tramcars went clanging by. There was a smell of coal, smoke, and earth in the moist air. Birds flew about in the dim light, Happing their wings. In the distance could be seen row upon row of buildings, their window panes reflecting the daylight with a silver and leaden glow or glinting gold in the path of the setting sun. Bluish plumes of smoke rose from chimneys. Something long forgotten yet familiar seemed to hover about the uneven roofs, the pigeon cotes, the attic windows, the balconies, the telegraph poles with their connecting wires. It was as if Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence.

He took a few steps and then stood still, leaning against a street lamp as though to protect himself against the hurrying throngs. His limbs were cramped from the long hours of sitting. The ground seemed still to be shaking beneath him, the doors and windows of the houses receding as though he were still watching them from the speeding train. It had been long since he had slept.

His brain was only half awake. “Is it here I will learn the divine truths?” he thought vaguely. “Among this multitude?”

Reinaldo Arenas: There was freedom to say that there was freedom

6 Dec

“Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to critize it.”

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

“Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) and his wonderful autobiography “Before Night Falls”. I discovered him through the film of the same name starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo and I was instantly captivated by Reinaldo’s life story, and not just him as a person, but the political and social environment that he lived in. What I love most of all about Reinaldo is his strength, courage and a wild, drunken determination to live his life to the fullest. No one had more trials and tribulations in life, and yet no one endured all the life’s misery and defeats with more bravery, defience, and cheekiness than Reinaldo. Despite living under Castro’s oppressive regime, Reinaldo never lost his inner freedom, never bowed down to authority, never comformed or compromised himself only to gain little bread crumbs of safety, profit or convenience. Even when in prison, or on the run from the law, Reinaldo always remained free at heart. He fled to the United States in 1980 and died on the 7th December 1990. In 1989, in New York, he wrote an auto-epitaph that starts with a very beautiful line, here is an excerpt from it:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity (…)

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

I really love the line that he was always escorted by a certain stoicism that helped him walk the tightrope, a really great description of Reinaldo’s life. These past days the big, yellow letters on the spine of the book “Before Night Falls” have been inviting me from my bookshelf, and I finally gave in, for I am weak when it comes to good books, especially if they are as inspiring as this one is. I have read it a few times and every time something else caught my attention because there are so many ways to approach its content. Well, what struck me the most this time, given the miserable, dystopian times we are living in, was Reinaldo’s description of Fidel Castro’s regime, its beginnings, and the slow but shocking realisation that the future isn’t as bright and victorious as Castro had promised, and that bad things are looming on the horizon:

My grandfather’s grocery store, which had been his livelihood, had already been taken over by the government, and he now spent his time on a stool next to the closed store, talking to himself. He did not read the newspaper or “Bohemia” which no longer was the liberal, irreverent, critical magazine that he used to read to us in the country. By this time it was but another instrument in the hands of Castro and his new regime. The press was now almost completely controlled. Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to criticize it. (…)

Fidel Castro was (and is) not only the maximum leader but also the chief district attorney. In one instant, in which an honest court did not want to condemn a number of air force pilots accused of bombing the city of Santiago de Cuba, which they actually never did, Fidel set himself up as district attorney and judge, and sentenced them to twenty and thirty years in prison. The judge, who had a long rebel beard and had declared them innocent, shot himself. All this had already given us an inkling of what the new regime was about. There was still some hope, however. There is always some hope, especially for cowards. I was one of them, one of those cowardly or hopeful young men who still thought the government had something to offer.

Antigone in Art: Being charged as foolish by a fool

27 Nov

“…does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying?

(Sophocles, Antigone)

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), Antigone, no date

When, back in high school, I first read a few passages from the Greek tragedy “Antigone”, written by Sophocles in 441 BC, I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but now I decided to read the play again because the play’s central theme – the civil disobedience – is something that resonates strongly with today’s events. The strong and brave Antigone is a true heroine and reading the play filled me with a sense of direction and gave me encouragment.

Antigone, the play’s heroine and the main character, is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, and the sister of Ismene, Polynices and Eteocles. An event that happens before the start of the play is the civil war of Thebes in which Antigone’s brothers Polynices and Eteocles fight on different sides. Antigone’s uncle Creon gives an order that Eteocles must have an honorable burial but Polynices must be left unburried in the battlefield and his dead body will be food for vultures, as a punishment for his rebellion. The play begins with a conversations between Antigone and Ismene; the brave Antigone who is led by justice wishes to give her brother a proper burial because she feels that is the right thing to do, but Ismene, who is a lawful and obedient daughter, dares not to do this, even though she knows in her heart it is the right thing. Ismene begs Antigone not to proceed with her plan because she knows how harsh the punishment will be when the King Creon finds out, but Antigone doesn’t listen to her sister and instead says:

ANTIGONE:
For me it’s noble to do
This thing, then die. With loving ties to him,
I’ll lie with him who is tied by love to me,
I will commit a holy crime, for I
Must please those down below for a longer time
Than those up here, since there I’ll lie forever.

Antigone and Ismene by Emil Teschendorff, Antigone and Ismene, n.d.

ISMENE: You have a heart that’s hot for what is chilling.
ANTIGONE: But I know I’m pleasing those I must please most.

In the painting by Emil Teschendorff above you can see the beautiful, blue-eyed and blonde Ismene trying to convince Antigone not to go out and bury her brother. What a visual contrast they make; Ismene is dressed in light clothes, she is bright and fair, and Antigone is dressed in a dark blue, with dark hair. Ismene is the good and proper daughter, and Antigone is the stubborn rebel and troublemaker. Their personalities are indeed as different as day is to night, but this ‘light’ and positive representation of Ismene is very misleading because ‘obedience’ doesn’t equal ‘goodness’ or ‘justice’. Being obedient doesn’t mean doing the right thing, it means doing what you were told to do without questioning it.

Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, 1865

As you can see, there are many interesting representations of Antigone in art, especially the scene where Antigone finds the body of her dead brother and gives him a proper burial. Greek painter, appropriately, Nikiforos Lytra places the scene at a rocky beach. Behind Antigone the dark sea and the moody sky meet. She gazes in disbelief at her brother’s corpse. In Benjamin-Constant’s version of the scene the Antigone is dressed in a white gown and while she is performing the ritual two guards behind here have just caught her in the act.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Antigone au chevet de Polynice, 1868

In the watercolour by Lenepveu the naked body of Polynices is stretches under Antigone’s feet while she is sprinkling dust all over him and perfroming the ritual. Their poses and the way the red cloth is carefully placed to cover Polynices’s private part makes the scene seem staged and not as mysterious or as spontaneous as the previous paintings. My favourite is the version by the Pre-Raphaelite painter of Greek origin Marie Spartali Stillman; the landscape behind Antigone is a moody one and the crows add to the ominous appeal, both sisters are next to their brother’s body and Ismene is holding Antigone’s hand imploringly, desperately trying to prevent her from doing what she is about to do.

Jules Eugene Lenepveu (1819-1898), Antigone Gives Token Burial to the Body of Her Brother Polynices, c. 1835-1898, watercolor, pen and black ink over black chalk, on gray-green paper

Ismene with her moral lenience, her cowardice and lack of passion and integrity reminds me of a quote by Robert Anton Wilson which is very appropriate for our times: “The obedient always think about themselves as virtuous, rather than cowardly.” And this leads us to another moral dilemma which is at the centre of the play: obedience to what or whom? Obedience to civil laws made by men, or obedience to something higher; obedience to God or your own conscience? Which is more important? Ismene doesn’t want to create an inconvenience or disobey the civil law but Antigone doesn’t care about laws on earth because she knows that she must please the Gods first; her life on earth is brief but the life of her soul is eternal.

Isn’t it fascinating how when we are presented with something in retrospective, or in art, everything is perfectly clear to us; it is obvious that Antigone is a brave and principled heroine, that Ismene is weak and obedient, that Creon is a tyrannt. Everyone would agree that Antigone did the right thing, and yet, in real life, everything is twisted and upside-down; blind obedience, conformity and cowardice are celebrated as bravery, real bravery is portrayed as dangerous ignorance and even lunacy, not to mention that Truth and Logic have been the first victims of our tragedy; they died in Act One. If our situation was a Greek play it would be obvious who was on the right side, as history will inevitably show too. To end, here is a brilliant dialogue between the King Creon and Antigone where he questions her about what she has done and Antigone gives him a brilliant, intelligent, even a bit cheeky reply. Go, Antigone!:

KREON: You — answer briefly, not at length — did you know
It was proclaimed that no one should do this?

ANTIGONE I did. How could I not? It was very clear.
KREON And yet you dared to overstep the law?
ANTIGONE:
It was not Zeus who made that proclamation
To me; nor was it Justice, who resides
In the same house with the gods below the earth,
Who put in place for men such laws as yours.
Nor did I think your proclamation so strong
That you, a mortal, could overrule the laws
Of the gods, that are unwritten and unfailing.
For these laws live not now or yesterday
But always, and no one knows how long ago
They appeared. And therefore I did not intend
To pay the penalty among the gods
For being frightened of the will of a man.
I knew that I will die —how can I not? —
Even without your proclamation. But if
I die before my time, I count that as
My profit. For does not someone who, like me,
Lives on among so many evils, profit
By dying? So for me to happen on
This fate is in no way painful. But if
I let the son of my own mother lie
Dead and unburied, that would give me pain.
This gives me none. And now if you think my actions
Happen to be foolish, that’s close enough
To being charged as foolish by a fool.

Oh and the guards in the play who told the King that they saw Antigone are the perfect examples of people who are “just doing their job”, which is something I am sick to my stomach of hearing. The picture above is something I found on The Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown’s Twitter, but I have seen it in other places and I don’t know who the original creator is.

Tin Ujević – Love unrequited gave no rest, so now you yearn for earth’s breast

22 Nov

Today I wanted to share a beautiful and sad poem by the Croatian poet Tin Ujević (1891-1955) called “Frailty” from his poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” (1920), translated by Richard Berengarten. Ujević is considered by some to have been one of the last masters of European Symbolism and even the translator calls him “one of the finest South-Slavic poets”. In addition to being a poet, he was also an accomplished translator and translated the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust, Rimbaud, Arthur Gidé and many others. He spent his childhood living in different towns on the Croatian seaside and this love of the sea left a life-long trace on him, and it can be seen in this poem as well. In 1912 Ujević was a part of the Nationalist youth movement and was often imprisoned. From 1913 to 1919 he was in Montparnasse in Paris, where he was a notorius “anarchic bohemian” and he was a known frequenter of bars and cafes where he was often hanging out with fellow poets and artists from the Balkans, but he also moved in the art circles with artists such as Modigliani, Picasso, Cocteau and d’Annuzio. The poetry collection “The Cry of a Slave” represents the first phase in Ujević’s poetry and these poems are of intimate preocupations, woven with pessimism, a tragic sense of loneliness is intermingled with motives of metaphysical, spiritual love towards an imaginary woman.

Wilhelm Kotarbiński, Suicide’s grave, c 1900

Frailty

In this mist, in this rain –
oh drunken heart, don’t drown in pain.

Love unrequited gave no rest,
so now you yearn for earth’s breast,

And all your longing, cry of a slave,
is to find some quiet grave:

here my soul will soon expire
and here will wither my desire

on the waves of our blue, blue sea
and white, white pebbles cover me,

and my needs will all come home
under Blessed Heaven’s dome,

with sun, calm blue, and clarity,
beneath the ground that once bore me.

Alexander Pushkin: All that is left is apathy and grief…

17 Nov

Julia Margaret Cameron, Sadness, 1864

Don’t Ask Me Why

Don’t ask me why, alone in dismal thought,
In times of mirth, I’m often filled with strife,
And why my weary stare is so distraught,
And why I don’t enjoy the dream of life;

Don’t ask me why my happiness has perished,
Why I don’t love the love that pleased me then,
No longer can I call someone my cherished–
Who once felt love will never love again;

Who once felt bliss, no more will feel its essence,
A moment’s happiness is all that we receive:
From youth, prosperity and joyful pleasantry,
All that is left is apathy and grief…

Rubén Darío: The Princess is sad… (Sonatina)

10 Nov

Today I wanted to share this wonderful poem by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío called “Sonatina” published in 1896 in his poetry collection “Prosas Profanas”. I love all the vibrant visual imagery, all the details that the poet so vividly describes instantly transport me to a summer garden where the pale and sad princess resides, surrounded by fragrant dahlias and lilies, and peacocks and swans. How can anyone be sad in such a heavenly place!? I love the way her features are described; she has “mouth of roses”, and “strawberry lips”. And I especially love the stanza where the princess imagines how beautiful it would be to fly like a butterfly or a swallow.

James Abbott Mcneill Whistler, Le Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine, 1863-65

Sonatina

The princess is sad . . . from the princess slips
such sighs in her words from the strawberry lips.
Gone from them laughter and the warm light of day.
Pallid she is sat in her golden chair;
unsounded the keys of the harpsichord there,
and a flower, from a vase, has swooned away.

The peacocks in the garden parade their tails.
The duenna’s chatter is incessant and stales.
The pirouetting jester is tricked out in red,
yet nothing she cares for and she does not smile
but follows a dragonfly that flits the while
as vague in the east as is her dream-lost head.

Does a prince from China or Golconda approach,
does she think of one stepping from his silver coach,
bedazzled by her beauty in the sky’s soft blues,
to court her with islands of fragrant roses,
shower bright diamonds as a sovereign disposes,
or proud owners of pearls do, out of Ormuz?

Ah, the poor princess, with that mouth of roses,
thinks of butterfly and swallow, but supposes
how easily with wings she would soar up under
the bright ladders brought down from the sunlit day.
With lillies she would meet the fresh songs of May,
and be one with the wind in the ocean’s thunder.

Listless in the palace spins the spinning wheel;
in the magical falcon and jester no appeal.
The swans are as one in the lake’s azure swoon.
From west come the dahlias for the first in court,
from east the sad jasmines, south roses of thought,
from north the waterlillies, weeping from noon.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, They toil not, neither do they spin, 1903

Her blue eyes see nothing but sad misrule:
into gold she is set and beset by tulle.
Days are poured out as from a heavy flagon,
haughtily they watch now over palace floors;
silent with the halberds are a hundred Moors,
sleepless the greyhound, and a colossal dragon.

Oh, to find freshness of the butterfly’s veil:
(The princess is sad. The princess is pale.)
Be silent as ivory, rose-coloured and gold!
Where will he fly to, the prince she had!
The princess is pale. The princess is sad,
more brilliant than the dawn is, a hundred fold.

Be patient, my princess: the horse has wings,
for you he is coming, the fairy godmother sings.
With a sword in the belt he has a hawk above,
and a kiss to ignite you, to vanquish death:
never has he seen you, but joyous the breath
from the prince who awakes you: you will be his love.