Nerd Humour

September 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have finally decided to read the foundational text of my discipline/profession, Herodotus’ The Histories. So far, halfway through Book 3, it is a lively and informative read.  I’m reading the Penguin Classics version, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt half a century ago in 1954.  This edition, published in 2003, was updated and revised by John Marincola of New York University.  Anyway.  At the start of Book 3, there is an account of the weather in Egypt:

In the reign of his [King Amasis of Egypt] successor Psammenitus, an unparalleled event occurred — rain fell at Thebes, a thing which the men of that city say had never happened before, or has ever happened since till my day.  Normally, in upper Egypt no rain falls at all; but on this occasion it did — a light shower.

This causes Marincola to drily observe in the notes: “It does in fact rain in Upper Egypt, but not much.”


New Adventures in the Arts, or, Art, History, and “Authenticity”

September 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow.  Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later.  The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.

The Black Rock, erected in the memory of the mass grave. Today it's located on Bridge St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles, on the approach to the Victoria Bridge

The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.

This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public.  Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art.  It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish.  But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown.  A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over.  And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.

This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.  Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago.  The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians.  As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove.  Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial.  At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction.  If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now).  In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.

So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me.  Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone.  Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention.  I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid.  But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.

But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.

As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense.  Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set.  That, for whatever reason, matters to me.  The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives.  Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s.  The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.

But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible.  I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience.  For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever.  The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes.  And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal.  There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.

And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine.  Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.

Ruminations on the Wisdom of Don DeLillo & the Ruins of Griffintown

May 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s no secret that Don DeLillo is one of my favourite novelists.  His novels have a tendency to strike me on several levels, perhaps because the narrative is usually fragmentary and on several levels.  And whilst his dialogue is predictable in many ways, based on particular idioms of New York City English, it’s the way DeLillo constructs sentences and thoughts that always leave me digesting his work long after I’ve read, or re-read, it.  I oftentimes lose patience with people who say things like “I don’t have time to read fiction” or “I can’t remember the last time I read a novel.”  To me, this shows a fundamentally closed mind; novels percolate with ideas, philosophy, and ways of being in the world.  Novels allow us to personalise events and history, to re-consider moments in time, to re-consider our own ways of thinking, our own narratives.

Certainly this is true with DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man, about the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City.  This is not just a rumination on 9/11, indeed, the terrorist attack is a motif to explore post-modern family life in New York.  But it doesn’t have to be New York, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be post-9/11, either.  But the novel would lack the punch if it was set in Winnipeg in 1986.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this is to give thought to the on-going argument between Nina, the mother of the novel’s main female character, Lianne, and Nina’s lover, Martin.  Martin, however, isn’t really Martin, he’s a former terrorist himself, named Ernst Hechinger.  Nina and Martin/Ernst argue throughout the book, in the presence of Lianne, over the nature of terrorism and the attack on New York.  Nina’s argument is hued by the fact that she is a Manhattanite.  Martin/Ernst is German.  She lacks the critical distance to see the attacks, he lacks the intimacy with Manhattan.  Throughout the argument, which is fierce and scares Lianne, they consider God and the motives of the attackers.  Nina sees fear on the part of the terrorists, Martin/Ernst sees history and politics.

Nina has just had knee surgery (and is developing a reliance upon painkillers) in the time after the attacks.  Indeed, Lianne is stricken at how her mother, in the wake of the surgery, has embraced her old age.  This worries Martin somewhat.  He wants her to travel again, to go out and see the world, to revitalise herself in the wake of the surgery and the attacks. She is somewhat more reluctant.

Martin: Travel, yes, it’s a thing you ought to consider.  Get your knee back to normal and we’ll go.  Quite seriously.

Nina: Far away.

Martin: Far away.

Nina: Ruins.

Martin: Ruins.

Nina: We have our own ruins.  But I don’t think I want to see them.”

Martin: But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it?  Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction?  You build a thing like that so you can see it come down.  The provocation is obvious.  What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice?  It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice?  You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.

I love this passage, not so much for what it says about NYC and 9/11, but for what it says for cities in general.  Ruins are all around us on the urban landscape (or the rural one, for that matter, abandoned homesteads, for example).  Ruins tell us the story of what was once here, how we got here, how we might have otherwise been.  Ruins tell us powerful stories about destruction, that is true, as Martin is noting.  But they also tell us powerful stories about ways of being that have been lost.  The ruins of Griffintown are a prime example.

The ruins of the neighbourhood are there for all to see.  In Parc St. Anns/Griffintown, on the former site of St. Ann’s Church, the remaining ruins of the church itself, its foundation, as well as foundation stones of the presbytery, the girls’ school, and the dormitory for the crusading priests who came through the Griff on their way to other parts of the world, are all there.  There are ruins of factories and warehouses throughout the neighbourhood.  Ruins of tenement flats.  Palimpsests of advertising for consumer products that are long gone.

Parc St. Ann's/Griffintown

Wellington Tunnel

Griffintown Palimpsest

We see this life as it used to be.  We consider what once was.  How people moved out of Griffintown because of its proximity to all these factories, train yards, and the like.  How the flats were cramped and cold, lacking in modern amenities like hot water.  Or yards.  The neighbourhood, when I began studying it a decade ago, always reminded me of the Talking Heads’ song, “Nothing but Flowers.”  Here was the site of the beginnings of the Canadian Industrial Revolution in the 1830s, reclaimed in large part by nature.  An inner city neighbourhood sprouting leaves and trees.  And grass growing through fractured concrete.  Trees growing out of windows of derelict, decrepit buildings.  Their floors reclaimed by nature.

The ruins of Griffintown also speak to this power that Martin refers to in the novel.  This was a locus of power for Canada, for the British Empire and Commonwealth.  Not just the products manufactured there, but the working classes trudging along to work, filling out the army in World Wars I and II.  The hulking CN viaduct, not technically a ruin yet, but something close to it, speaks to a time when the railway was king.  Indeed, it was built to separate the railway from the roads.

Anyway.  DeLillo’s got me thinking about the meanings of the ruins of Griffintown.  And what they mean, to the old Irish community that once lived there, to the urban landscape of Montréal today, and to plans to re-develop the neighbourhood in the future.

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