Saturday, June 15, 2013

Abbé Prévost — ‘Manon Lescaut’

MOOCs, then. A good idea? It seems so, at first glance. The extension of university teaching into the wider, virtual world, for free, and with peer review taking the place of assessment by a tutor, seems just what the attention-atomising internet needs at this point. It’s unlikely that peer review could ever be as good as the thing it’s replacing, but that’s fine, because you wouldn’t want universities to be replaced. It’s good advertising for them, and great news for those of us with day jobs who nevertheless want to keep our brains ticking over. So I registered with Coursera a while ago, not really thinking I’d get around to taking a course, and then one came up, with an interesting reading list and premise, called ‘The Fiction of Relationship’. So far it is touchingly old school. When I last studied English at university, fifteen years ago, literary theory was in the ascendancy: authors were dead, and texts were absolute. This meant that you couldn’t read anything autobiographical into a text (what a horrible word for ‘book’), and you couldn’t study anything in translation because the translated version wasn’t the text at all (talk about throwing out the baby with the bath water). ‘The Fiction of Relationship’ is opposed to both of these hang-ups, and it’s a delight to find that the first book on the course is a) French and b) so sharply focused on one man’s ruinous passion for a woman that it’s impossible not to engage emotionally, take sides, and relate the story’s events to real life. Up yours, Barthes (I’m paraphrasing slightly from the second lecture).

I won’t say too much about the book here, as there’s a mini-essay on it due tomorrow, and I’d probably end up plagiarising myself. It reminded me a little of another eighteenth century novel, Henry Fielding’s Amelia, for the murky moral world it portrays, in which sex-as-commodity is the norm (and it’s the upper classes who are the predators, as they can afford to buy it), and for the protagonist who goes against the grain in believing in something as idealised as love. Neither Billy Booth, Amelia’s husband, nor the Chevalier des Grieux, Manon’s lover, are exactly on the ball, but from what I can remember of Amelia, Booth is not as crazily cavalier as des Grieux, who is blind to everything but Manon, and accedes to her every misguided whim, landing himself in jail twice, and killing a prison guard during one of the subsequent jailbreaks (which, weirdly, doesn’t matter at all as the novel pans out). It’s a great read, and it’s interesting, too, to find the source of Serge Gainsbourg’s song ‘Manon’, and to find that Henri-Georges Clouzou made a film based on the book in 1949, the year before The Wages of Fear. That would be worth seeing.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Kate Bassett — ‘In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller’

The week before last, as part of the publicity for his production of the play Rutherford and Son, Jonathan Miller appeared on Radio 4’s Midweek, alongside tennis player Jimmy Connors and Masterchef winner Natalie Coleman. Libby Purves kicked off with a jovial question about what everyone was best at cooking, and Miller, totally uninterested but polite, said he could probably boil an egg (he didn’t say that he ever had). It was completely the wrong programme for him, a light chat show on which vivacity and an easily compressed life story are the requirements: ideas are nowhere. The part of his life story he compressed for the purpose was his complaint, featured in several other interviews recently, that no-one wants to employ an opera / theatre director his age (he’s 78), and that Rutherford and Son is therefore probably the last thing he’ll direct. I don’t recall what he said about the play itself, except for another line which runs through those same interviews, that it is ‘as good as Chekhov’. The ageism complaint may well be genuine, but it is also surely Miller touting for business: he’s announced his retirement from directing quite a few times over the decades, and usually it sounds more voluntary. It is striking how ably he has used the media to get across these two points (the play’s great / what next?), and striking, too, how the ‘what next?’ part undermines the promotion of the play. He still can’t see what Kenickie saw in their teens:

I never complain
It doesn’t get you anywhere
It’s always the same
Push too hard you break the frame
In Two Minds is the story of Miller pushing too hard: sometimes making insightful leaps across boundaries, sometimes breaking the institutional frames he needs in order to function. It leaves you with the impression that he is, as he complains, unfairly neglected in Britain; but also that he is never satisfied with himself, or his country in general, and that his verboseness on these topics has contributed to the neglect. It is interesting (though a cliché) to compare him to Alan Bennett, a national treasure on account of his grumbling: but Bennett’s attacks tend to be levelled at the state, and are done thoughtfully, often creatively, or woven into the narrative he has made of his own past (there are many examples, but I’m thinking particularly of the section on his mum’s Alzheimer’s in Untold Stories, in which he accuses care homes of starving people). On Miller’s rift with Peter Hall, Bassett turns up an anecdote which captures his always-on, motormouth propensity:
One actor even recalls him launching into a riffing, blistering diatribe while on public transport, such that an American tourist, sitting opposite, bid them adieu as he got out, saying: ‘Jeez, I don’t know who this Peter Hall is, but I’m sure glad I ain’t him.’
He had sensible points to make, in the seventies, about why Peter Hall’s National Theatre was wrong-headed, but he made them so tactlessly that they just came across as points scored in a feud. ‘I thought the National Theatre should no more be located on the South Bank than the National Health Service should be located in St Thomas’ Hospital’, he is quoted as saying here. I found almost exactly the same phrase in an interview from this year: it’s another of those points he wants to get across, regardless of the questions he has been asked. Bassett calls his objection ‘the Congregationalist argument’: he didn’t (and doesn’t) believe the Arts Council should be spending so much on such big, London-based organisations, believing it has a duty to the country as a whole, not just its capital city. There should be many National Theatres, not just one.

I’ll limit myself to one more motormouth quotation, though they are such fun. This is from Miller’s son William:
He was a terrible driver! Then someone would cut him up and he would wind down his window, shouting abuse and shaking his fist. His favourite was ‘I’ll rip your fucking thyroid out!’ sometimes followed by ‘And I bet you don’t fucking know where that is!’
Miller’s documentary TV series, The Body in Question (not available on DVD, but you can find the whole thing on YouTube) has a hilarious selection of vox pops in the first episode, in which he asks people on a busy London street what they know about internal organs: where they are, how big, and what would happen if they stopped working. One poor chap gets it almost right about kidneys, saying that they filter the blood, but goes on to speculate that if they were to go wrong you would explode. The next scene has Miller at a table of internal organs, which he proceeds to dissect as he explains briefly what their functions are, assuring the viewer that kidney failure won’t blow you up. It’s a fascinating, awkward moment: he doesn’t seem to realise quite how condescending the remark is or how creepy the context. This obliviousness is a weakness in that it betrays a disconnect between presenter and audience, and leaves him open to the kind of mockery Private Eye indulged in with its ‘Doctor Jonathan’ parody, or Spitting Image’s ‘Jonathan Miller talks bollocks’ sketches. But it’s a strength, too, in that Miller as a presenter cares more about education than anything else: entertainment is certainly in the mix, but the bogus chumminess of so many TV documentaries nowadays is not, and neither is the accompanying reduction of the subject matter to the most basic, linear version of its story. The Body in Question is a great series, covering anatomy, diagnosis, treatment and the history of medicine, often mixing two or more of these in essay-like juxtapositions. It is noticeably crammed with metaphor: there is a string quartet, for example, who play sheet music with mistakes and omissions to illustrate how DNA can mutate. This tactic allows Miller not only to explain how the body works, but also to explain how its systems came to be understood:
Moreover, all this tied in with Miller’s thesis that advances in scientific understanding emerged from thinking associatively, from drawing parallels, spotting similes, grasping that one thing might serve as metaphor for another. When fire pumps, for example, began to be widely used, William Harvey realized the heart might work in that way. When gun turrets were developed in the mid-twentieth century, using predictive generalizations to aim automatically, it dawned on cognitive psychologists that the brain might, similarly, have in-built conjectural models to facilitate anticipatory action. ‘That was’, Miller stresses, ‘the series’ absolutely key idea: the heuristic value of metaphorical thought in the course of medical history.’
Thinking associatively? Learning in a way which encourages you to discover things for yourself? Michael Gove would hate it.

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