Archive for April, 2010

18th April 2010

April 23, 2010

The bitterest of winters has been transformed into the most beautiful spring. I drive down to Washington through the Laurel Mountains and Maryland in bloom and bud, interrupted by the half mile interchange between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the interstate 70 – a purgatory of strip development and indigestible food. When first in the States I would see Christopher Hitchens three or four times a term – in New York, in Pittsburgh, in Washington. Now I travel less and his speaking fees are more than Pittsburgh can afford. But each spring I drive down to Washington or fly to Stanford. I arrive to find Christopher, and Carol his wife, sitting in what used to be Christopher’s office but which now looks like a lumber room or rather the set for a particularly despairing Beckett play. It only becomes clear slowly that they are sitting in this scene of bleak desolation rather than their delightful apartment next door because they have taken up smoking again. Ravaged by self-punishment they have banished themselves to what will soon be a remodeled dwelling but is currently a dump.
I go out shopping with Laura Antonia, my goddaughter, who has a sharp eye on the world. We talk mainly of university, to which she must apply soon, and I am struck by how much she knows about the various American schools. It also strikes me , as I sing the praises of Pittsburgh, that the most crucial thing about any university, your cohort, is inevitably unknown when you apply. We also talk about Cannes, to which I have , since she was a little girl, promised her a visit. It seems clear that next May , as she approaches high school graduation will offer a window of opportunity.
Christopher is one of the great talkers and I have often sat up all night listening to him but it is not only age that ensures an early bed. For Christopher has advance copies of his memoir. Despite the unpromising title, Hitch 22, I am keen to read it even when I have established that my own appearance in it is distressingly brief. I am pondering my own memoir and wonder how Christopher manages this very dangerous genre. The opening chapters are both extraordinarily well written and very moving as he remembers his parents. However, if I thought it might be a bit difficult to make the politics of the sixties and seventies interesting, then my suspicions are confirmed. Indeed it is in this rather drear section, in Portugal in 1975, that I make my walk on appearance in the saga . The Socialist Party rally where Christopher remembers me voicing grim foreboding about the Stalinism of the Portuguese Communist Party is memorable to me for another reason as well. When I graduated from Cambridge in 1971 I went and worked for BBC Radio Birmingham as a journalist. Although I had returned to Cambridge for a dissertation on Joyce, I had continued to do some free-lancing and still then thought of journalism as an alternative career. Indeed I was in Portugal as a correspondent for the Morning Star, the paper of the British Communist party. There was violence in the air that spring in Lisbon as there had been an attempted counter coup the month before. The rally in a bull ring was an extraordinary event not least because it was a deliberate show of muscle by the Socialists against the Communists. To say I was overwhelmed does not capture the state of fearful paralysis that gripped me. As Mario Soares’s speech ended, Christopher leapt from the box we were in to the box from which Soares was speaking ignoring both the terrifying drop and the heavies gathered around Soares in order to get the leader of the Portuguse Socialist Party to answer a couple of pertinent questions. It was at that moment that I realized that ,I lacked the requisite courage to be a journalist. Ten years later the opening sequence of The Killing Fields provided me with the simplest image of what Christopher had and I lacked. A group of Europeans are sitting around the table when a bomb goes half – half the table flees from the explosion, the other half, the journalists, run towards it.
Indeed that is what I learn from the memoir, something I already know – that Christopher is completely fearless.
However if British politics in the seventies seems as dull as I remember it, Christopher’s account of his literary London in the same period is even duller. In one extraordinary section he compares his world with Bloomsbury but leaving aside Woolf, Forster, Keynes and suchlike comparisons, the whole point of Bloomsbury was that for the first time men and women mingled in intellectual discussion. The Friday lunch where everybody sat around laughing themselves silly over what happened when you added “in bed” to your Chinese motto sounds like the last gasp of the gentleman’s club.

9th April 2010

April 22, 2010

Jennifer Keating, a former student of mine asked me some nine months ago to make up a panel at the NEMLA in Montreal. I’m very fond of Jen, I’ve never been to Montreal and Denis’s daughter Laura is starting as undergraduate at McGill. What could be more pleasant than a weekend in Montreal. Nine months later I stand freezing waiting for the airport flyer cursing the fact that a) the temperature has dropped 40 in the last four hours and I am dressed for summer b) that it will take six hours and a layover to fly the short distance to Montreal thanks to the fact we are no longer a hub airport and c) that I have been fooled by the young temptress Keating into participating in a panel on pedagogy ( perish the word as well as the thought).
One of the reasons I agreed to the request was that I had written a short paper for an internal department seminar. On re-reading I wonder how suitable it is for public consumption as it deliberately challenges a whole number of idees recus in a way that is easy enough when you know all the people you’re talking to but may well go down very badly with a crowd of strangers. To my surprise it is very well received and I wonder if perhaps the appalling weight of political correctness is finally lifting.
In the evening Laura and I go to the Montreal- Toronto hockey game ( a sort of re-run of the Seven Year’s War). Suddenly the visit to Montreal seems to have been a very good idea.

The short paper was entitled On Certitude:

The original request to talk about certitude and secularity in the classroom came with reference to difficulties experienced by some teachers with students who are fundamentalist Christians, I confess that these are not problems that I have encountered very often and I deal with them by asking of the student at what church they pray. My next question is for them to describe to me the history which links that church to the one established by Paul in the first century of the common era. This discussion raises enough questions about texts, and their transmission through institutions, for most pedagogic purposes that I can imagine. I confess that my slightly mischievous argument comes from that least mischievous of divines Richard Hooker who when confronted with those tiresome Puritan preachers who went on about the direct relation to the deity guaranteed by the sacred Scriptures, asked the Puritans what agency divided the canonical books of Scripture from those apochryphal texts which offered no access to the divine. The answer is of course a human institution – a Church.
But the question of certitude in the classroom has bothered me considerably since I first arrived in America and heard people state unselfconsciously and unironically that “my politics is my teaching”. This concern has been exacerbated by overhearing students talk of authoritarian feminists and bullying Marxists. Of course, there is one sense in which teaching is obviously political. Some of the most beautiful passages that I know on the role of the teacher come from Andre Bazin where he talks of the teacher in relation to his community as the most conservative and the most radical of figures. Conservative because it is the teacher’s duty to preserve and continue the most ancient of traditions, radical because those traditions must be brought into continuous dialogue and opposition with the most modern developments within society, developments against which many of those traditions must break.. But Bazin is there talking about the political form of teaching, he is certainly not talking about a political content.
John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, a book which he wrote with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill and which he tells us in his dedication to the book “belongs as much to her as to me’ says that “ Truth gains more even by the errors of one who , with due study and preparation , thinks for himself than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly to form great thinkers that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much and even more indispensable to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of.. There have been , and may again be, great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere an intellectually active people “ (pp.33-34)
I fear that this general atmosphere of mental slavery is currently very widespread in the universities and I want to take two examples where it seems to me to hold back not simply thought but the possibility of thought that might help to improve the world. The first is the question of the difference between the sexes. I want to advance the argument that the physiological difference between the sexes and, perhaps more importantly, the genetic differences which are the grounds of those physiological differences make it initially plausible that there are essential differences between men and women at the sociological and psychological level. I want to advance that argument, not because I know it to be true, but because it is an argument which I have never heard advanced by any serious scholar in the humanities or social sciences in the last 40 years. Mill argues that it is impossible unless you have thrown yourself into a position of those who think differently from you to know the doctrine which you yourself profess. It seems to be that much of the discussion of sexual difference suffers from an almost total ignorance of the features of physiological and genetic thinking which should be an essential component of any argument about sexual difference.
In l965 Daniel Moynihan published a report entitled the case for national action in which he argued that many of the problems confronting African Americans stemmed from systemic failure in the black family and particularly of the failure of black fathers. I first became aware of this report when I arrived in the United States in the early eighties to realize that the problem of race was of a different order to any that I had experienced in Europe. I was also made aware that in university circles to refer to the Moynihan report was already to label oneself racist and that to assume that Moynihan’s report had anything to contribute to the subject of race was to rule oneself out of any discussion. Much as in the previous case, independently of its final correctness, it is absolutely essential to consider Moynihan’s arguments in relation to a problem which has in many ways got no better in the intervening 40 years and to which Moynihan’s analyses are arguably more pertinent now than they were then.
I have taken these two examples of where the problem of certitude comes not from the students but from the university but I think they have some relation to the problem of fundamentalism. By abandoning the search for truth in favour of the most mealy mouthed intellectual consensus, the university has offered no model of reflection on the relation between individual death and species life which underpins all religion. Born-again, as an adjective, is a term which only dates back to l961 and while as a Marxist one can only congratulate George Bush and his co-believers on their immanent critique of capitalism ( the first time round obviously wasn’t good enough), the modern phenomenon of fundamentalist Christianity relates, amongst other things, to the current inability of traditional liberalism and humanism to confront and analyse its own incertitude.

Wednesday 31st March 2010

April 22, 2010

Frederique has brought me a present of Antoine de Baecque’s monumental biography of Godard. Monumental because its 900 pages contains no bibliography, the scantest of filmographies and is printed in particularly small type. I calculate that it must be at least 400,000 words long; more than three times my own not inconsiderable tome. De Baecque was a good friend to me when I was writing my own biography in Paris and I went more than once to the Liberation offices, where he was then editing the cultural pages, for his advice. Even more invaluable were his books – both the Truffaut biography that he wrote with Serge Toubiana but best of all the first volume of his two volume history of Cahiers du cinema. I say “I think’ because to call de Baecque prolific is to understate the matter. A historian by trade he has penned substantial academic works of history as well as many volumes on the cinema. When I saw him at Liberation he was not only editing Liberation’s cultural pages but also writing a history of French cinephilia. When I asked him how on earth he did it, he said that any day he didn’t write a few thousand words “je ne me sens pas propre” Well he must have been feeling pretty clean the last three years as he powered through this biography. The book is full of detail but slightly disappointing. Whether the two previous biographies (mine and Richard Brody’s) had done too good a job, or whether de Baecque is just discreet, there is little really new information – no new topics, no further insights into the most important relationships. But there is plenty of detail; detail piled upon detail. Most interesting to me are the pages on the offices of Godard’s production company in the early to mid sixties and one gets a real flavour of Godard at the height of his worldly success which is not available elsewhere.
My first real shock comes when I make a small appearance myself as Godard is preparing to relaunch himself into cinema after a ten year’s absence in 1979.
It was then that I was asked by the BFI to edit a small pamphlet that would bring together articles on Godard’s then practically unknown post 68 work. Godard has shunned any media spotlight for more than ten years but I hoped that I might get an interview to go with the essays. I talked to Simon Hartog who knew Godard from Mozambique and he told me that if I wanted Godard’s attention I should go armed with a cheque. By great good fortune another part of the BFI wanted to acquire the British rights to Godard’s television work and so I traveled with a contract and a $2,000 cheque in my pocket. My meeting with Godard was at the train station in Nyon and the business was concluded in an incredibly brief three minutes. I then stammered out something incoherent about a book. To my surprise his response was a question “is it a proper book?” “Yes” I lied “If it is a proper book then you can come to my offices, I will give you your interview and you can come to the set of the film I am about to shoot”. To say I was dumbfounded is to understate. Here was the reclusive Godard welcoming inquiry and attention. Within 24 hours, and almost as many phone calls, I had a proper book contract and I spent most of the next year writing a book Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics which was published to coincide with the UK premiere of Sauve qui peut in the autumn of 1980. What became clear to me as I wrote the book and saw the film take shape was that Godard’s surprising response had been part and parcel of his decision to return to the cinema that meant also a return to the world of publicity and promotion. It wasn’t however, until more than two decades later when I was finishing my own biography that I understood how much energy Godard had put into the launch of the film and how unsurprising was his reaction to the possibility of a proper book to tie in with the release of the film.
De Baecque’s version of this has Simon Hartog as the director of the BFI (he never worked for it) sending me as an employee (something I only became much later) to write a book that I never finished in time (he obviously doesn’t realize that I wrote two books on Godard). These factual errors surprised but did not upset me although I should say that my scholarly amour propre is shocked that de Baecque did not know about my first book on Godard. But I was deeply upset when he quotes me as saying that Godard had “manipulated” me. This was not what I felt at the time nor subsequently. My dealings with Godard were always straightforward and he was both generous and helpful to me on numerous occasions. I am surprised at how strongly I feel about these minor errors but fortunately de Baecque e-mails the same night that I finish his book so rather than letting resentment smolder, I tell him how upset I am. He says he merely wanted to show how I was caught up in a wider strategy, something I have no quarrel with and indeed had set out in my own biography. There seems little point in continuing the argument but I am surprised how much I mind.

Sunday 28th March

April 12, 2010

Every year that I have been in Pittsburgh (25 and counting) I have rented a large house or apartment. The first 15 years my children’s visits kept it full, indeed Finn lived with me for two whole terms and went to school here. But for the last decade the children rarely come and, if they do, they are keener on staying in New York. This year, for the first time, no children at all come to Pittsburgh and although Flavia is now a regular visitor, there is no longer any reason to rent such a large place. This means, however, that I will no longer be able to put up visitors. Of course they can stay in the Holiday Inn but there is a pleasure in welcoming someone into your home that will be gone.
I didn’t know it when I invited her, but Frederique Berthet will be my last guest. Frederique helped me with research on the Godard book in Paris in 2002. She had done her doctorate on the economic basis of the producer Anatole Dauman’s company (Argos Films) and she was an indispensable guide to the economics of French film making. I remember in particular one day spent at the CNC archives in a Bunuel landscape outside Paris. Two years ago she gave me the book that she had written on Pascale Dauman which was a very different kind of work from her thesis. She was still interested in the economics of film, though now focused on a distribution company (Pari Films), but this interest was now inflected by much wider concerns of personal, social and cultural history. When my colleague and friend Volodia Padunov asked me if I had any suggestions for visitors I immediately thought of Frederique. If we had been making a film then we would have seen Frederique the next day but academic time is very slow and it is nine months after the invitation that I go to Pittsburgh airport to pick her up. I love showing visitors Pittsburgh, the view from Mount Washington, the drive out to Fallingwater in the Laurel Mountains, the Warhol Museum, Tessaro’s, Pamela’s. Each visit rewards and there is the added pleasure of your guest’s surprise: Pittburgh remains one of the best kept secrets in the world. Nobody knows how beautiful it is.
Even better Frederique gives a great talk on film and history. Chronique d’un ete was the first film that Pascale Dauman worked on although there is no acknowledgment of that work in the film’s credits. Equally invisible is a long sequence from the opening interview when Marceline Loridan talks about her experiences as a deportee which was cut by Rouch. Frederique discovered this transcript in the archives and she uses it to show how Marceline’s memories in the film are entirely at the service of the directors’ wishes. It is nearly fifty years later that Loridan makes a film in which she bears witness to what she wants to say about the death camps to which she was deported as a fifteen year old. Frederique’s talk is elegant because the various strands – Pascale Dauman, the status of oral history and Rouch and Morin’s film – are only gathered together at the end to emphasise the multiplicity of experience. Frederique’s talk reduplicates at the concrete historical level, my efforts to understand modernism’s stress on the multiplicity of experience. It sets my brain racing.
When I come down to breakfast the next day I hear children in the kitchen, a sound that I have never heard in this house. For a moment I am completely thrown and then all is explained when I realize that Frederique is on Skype and I say “Bonjour” to her family. The revolution in communication of the last 25 years is unbelievable. No Skype, no e-mail, not even any faxes or Fedex. There were telephones but they weren’t mobile. In the five years that producing films was my major occupation I would rise at 6 and do two hours on the telephone before lunchtine in England (1pm) . Thus by 8 am I was free to start my American day – always able to call in for some emergency but basically cut off sufficiently from my production office that I could concentrate on academic work. I doubt that what I did then would now be possible – 24/7 contact with the UK would never have left me the mental space to revolve questions of the Elizabethan stage or re-think questions of the linguistics of writing.
When I drop Frederique at the airport, I am brutally reminded of another material change that would have rendered my early life in Pittsburgh impossible. Frederique has to change in New York to get to Paris. For my first 20 years there was a direct flight to London. I can and did fly at a moment’s notice for a real emergency. But all that came to an end when US Airways pulled out of Pittsburgh as a hub airport four or five years ago. Now you can no longer fly seven days to a week to London or other European cities; you can’t even fly to Los Angeles or San Francisco without changing planes. I bid a fond farewell to Frederique, who has been a perfect guest but as I drive back to the city my thoughts are gloomy – the last visitor to a city that has become a backwater and a past that is now impossible to recapture even materially. As I enter the Fort Pitt tunnel, blackness descends.
And then, out onto the confluence of the Three Rivers, sunlight reflecting off the water and the skyscrapers.
Pittsburgh endures.