Oct/Nov 2010 Reviews & Interviews

Sex, Nudity, X-Rated, Nascar Racing Crashes, Adorable Kittens

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! About 20 quad-zillion web pages and online videos ago, someone whose name I do not recall said something meaningful about the web. Of course, because I'd been saying much the same thing to anyone who would listen, I found the observation brilliant. In terms of percentages, she observed (actually, it was a "he," as I recall, but I'm taking no chances), the web was destined to become less and less filled with content and more and more filled with reviews of content, products, etc. Where she trumped me, though, was in realizing that it would become even more filled with reviews of reviews: reviewing what Bob said, about what Mary said about the New Yorker review of the movie The Social Network or what Steve Jobs said about early computer blog reviews of iPad.

So, when I told the review-section editor at Eclectica that I might be sending over a third review for the upcoming number, even though I'm working furiously away at a manuscript (that is to say, "primary content"), you might understand that it didn't even dawn on me that my priorities might be horribly screwed up. I was just going with the flow for once, taking a breather from all that paddling against the mainstream. If my insurance had held out, my psychiatrist would be furiously patting herself on the back just now, having her portrait painted for posterity's sake.

My thought was to do a movie review. It would be a nice change from reviewing volumes of poetry. I'd been impressed, a few days earlier, by the movie The Professional, which is now showing on the Hulu online video site. The Professional is about a hit man (a "cleaner") who effectively adopts a twelve-year old girl whose family has been killed by a psychotic, drug-dealing DEA officer.

Leo (the cleaner) is a quiet recent immigrant who likes milk and Gene Kelley movies. He walks past Matilda (the twelve-year old) from time to time as she smokes cigarettes on the landing outside his tenement apartment. (In most ways utterly naïve, he leaves almost all of his money with his handler to "save".) Her family rents another apartment on the same floor. Her father pays the bills by being a drug courier for the DEA officer and comes out of the apartment from time to time to knock Matilda around and tell her to stop smoking and do her homework.

Leo watches out the peep-hole in his door, gun in hand, while the DEA officer and his goons murder the family over some cocaine that has disappeared. Matilda has gone grocery shopping and returns while they are ransacking the apartment, walks past her apartment, as nonchalantly as she can manage, and knocks on Leo's door, pretending that she lives there and is waiting to be let in. Being basically a really nice guy, he can not choose but to let her in—although he takes an excruciatingly long time to decide to do so. Voila! Instant family unit!

Leo and Matilda live an orderly existence—he a normal struggling immigrant cleaner and she a normal twelve-year old getting him kicked out of apartment after apartment—punctuated by brutal violence (graphically portrayed). At one point, they play a touching game of "name this famous person" during which Matilda is precocious and Leo attempts a hilarious imitation of John Wayne. (I mean, think about it: a hit man with a heavy accent trying desperately to get a twelve-year old girl to recognize that he is doing John Wayne. This is truly a special movie.) Matilda patiently teaches Leo to read.

The Professional was released in 1994. It is another massively entertaining and quirkily human Luc Besson film (The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element). Jean Reno's Leo is superb and Natalie Portman is every bit as good as Matilda. Gary Oldman plays Stansfield, the psychotic DEA officer, for all the role is worth. Because the movie is back in circulation on Hulu, a book reviewer looking for a change of pace could help to bring it a new audience sixteen years after its initial release, I told myself. I spent an hour or so looking up the director and actors' names and histories, etc., on the Internet, in one browser window, between streaming ten-or-so minute segments of James Burke's ground breaking 1979 science history series, Connections on YouTube in another, occasionally scanning Facebook in another.

But something just wasn't clicking, and I turned my attention to a book I received a few years ago: The Fin-de-Siècle Poem (Ohio University Press, 2005). I'd begun a full-length review-essay on the book, when, too sadly, my beloved parents passed away within about six months of each other.

Until that point, I had invested my time heavily in web projects: reviewing, political and economic commentary, blogging about computer security. Their passing, bad enough in itself to bring all that to a standstill, had been preceded by the conversion of my main computer-blog provider to a photo album site and a battle with an online mafia, and followed by the transition of my main political-blog provider to a new server that did not work properly for a couple of years, and an order to find another place to live and to work. Full-length book review-essay projects, you might understand, were put on the shelf indefinitely.

As I remembered it, the piece was around ten pages long and only needed a conclusion. Instead I found three pages more or less completed and eight pages of notes. With an in-progress poem up in another window, representing a major rewrite of the book manuscript to which it was to belong, I simply did not have the time. I was reminded, however, just how interesting the eleven essays (twelve counting editor Joseph Bristow's introduction) of The Fin-de-Siècle Poem had been.

Bristow sets the scene in his introductory essay. The traditional antagonism between the staid British personality and the libertine French, almost as much myth as fact, breaks down, he informs us. It is perceived among the British public as something of a French invasion:

In 1916 Elizabeth Robins Pennell recalled that in the 1890s "everything suddenly became fin-de-siècle in the passing catchword of the day borrowed from Paris." Rather like racy novels and titillating comedies associated with stereotypical French permissiveness, the term suggested depraved attitudes, especially in ever-sprawling London: the largest capital city in the world, where toffs and lowlifes appeared to intermingle as never before.

The literary milieu described in The Fin-de-Siècle Poem may have anticipated the trend, already having taken as its models Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, but its influence was strictly limited. Its salons, patterned upon French originals though they were, would not have shocked the public any more than would the average upper class family closet. Moreover, the age had long since passed when such salons influenced the world at large.

Instead, decades of wealth and relative peace had simultaneously given the British middle class and its poets sufficient leisure to indulge themselves. The fact goes with all the myriad implications, personal and social, that such leisure implies. Among those implications was the tendency of more conservative elements of the time, unable to accept the social changes that accompanied rapid urbanization, to encourage a heightened sense of public alarm in order to forward their own agendas:

In his 1893 volume[,Degeneration, Max] Nordau turns to the already degraded catchword "fin-de-siècle" in order to make the staggering assertion that modern artists shared the same degenerate mentality as criminals and neuropaths. Moreover, Nordau maintains that members of the artistic avant-garde, like these other reprehensible types, had the ability to contaminate everyone who came within their reach.

Nordau's certainties were culled from Cesare Lombroso's then popular theory that potential criminals could be identified by their physical characteristics (largely phrenological). Insanity and artistic genius, Lombroso claimed, could also be predicted by physical signs of degeneracy, and were themselves a kind of criminal behavior:

In nature the law of inertia dominates, and even more so in the human world, which is misonéique, i.e., has a horror of the new. In politics, every violent effort against the established order, against the old, is punishable, for it wounds the majority's opinions and sentiments. Even if it constitutes a necessity for an oppressed minority, judicially it is an anti-social fact and consequently a crime, often a useless crime, for it awakens a misonéistique reaction.

The escalation inherent in Lambroso's and Nordau's pseudo-scientific explanations is far more appalling and just as much the result of a newly empowered middle class as the trends it is intended to demonize.

With Bristow's introduction for context, the remaining eleven essays explore the lives and poetry of some of the lesser names presently considered representative of the fin-de-siècle. The emphasis is on gay and lesbian members of the milieu, and the role of the Catholic Church, at the time, as a retreat from the guilt and problematical nature of alternative sexuality.

The fascinating story of Katherine Bradley and her niece, Edith Cooper, who wrote together under the nom de plume Michael Field, is foremost, in line with present predilections. Their ekphrastic poetry and conversion to Catholicism each receive entire essays. The poetry of Michael Field is often charming, it is clear from the numerous selections included in The Fin-de-Siècle Poem, but Bradley and Cooper owe their present vogue to their lesbian relationship and their wide literary and artistic acquaintance and the extensive letters and journals they kept regarding the latter.

The influence of A. Mary F. Robinson (Agnes Mary Frances Robinson), both a poet and classical scholar of distinction, who did most of her writing a decade before the fin-de-siècle, upon the women who sought a muse of their own in a barren time, receives its own essay, as does Amy Levy, a recent addition to the field about whom only the barest personal details would seem to be known. In 1888, Robinson broke the heart of Vernon Lee (née Violet Paget) and married James Darmesteter, once briefly a protégée of the famous philologist and Sanskrit scholar Michel Breal, and, by the time of his marriage, easily the most renowned orientalist of his time. The frail, diminutive Darmesteter is said to have read a copy of Robinson's An Italian Garden while traveling in Peshawar and determined to meet her.

At the time I'd been writing the first few pages of my review of The Fin-de-Siècle Poem, I had not yet begun to assemble my digital library at Google Books. But while I was mulling over using it as the subject of the third review, for the upcoming issue of Eclectica, between streaming ten-or-so minute segments of James Burke's not-as-ground-breaking-but-pretty-exceptional-nonetheless 1985 science history series, The Day the Universe Changed on YouTube in another browser window, and occasionally scanning Facebook in another... um... I had been periodically visiting Google Books in yet another.

Building a digital library only makes sense for someone like me. When I read my digital edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. by John Hawkins (1787), recently, Hawkins' description of Samuel Johnson's library brought a smile to my face: "His own collection a copious but a miserably ragged one." My personal library is also a working library. Consisting of some 4,000 volumes, it might be fair to call it "copious." Many are "miserably ragged," but then they're for reading, not for decoration. And they make moving a pure hell. The last time I moved, I had to rent the second largest model U-Haul truck. It took a week to pack in the shelves and books. Carrying them to a second floor walk-up on the other end took three exhausting days. Setting them properly back up again took months.

In the last three months, I've added a couple hundred more volumes to a new set of shelves that fit snuggly on the Google Books website. They are kempt and weigh only as much as my computer. Yesterday evening, I sought out titles by Michael Fields, Agnes Mary Frances Robinson, and Amy Levy. Numerous titles were gratifyingly available: full-sized digital reproductions of covers, title pages, tables of contents, text, type face, all displaying the touch of functional elegance typical of the fin-de-siècle. If I could have found them at all in the real world, they would have been even more prohibitively expensive than the bottles of fine wine that I did not buy to accompany reading them (free digital equivalents not yet being available).

It being the last hour of my day (or so I thought), I closed all the other browser windows and the word-processing editor. (Okay! Okay! All of them, except the window I had Facebook up in. Sheesh!) I spent a delightful three hours reading my new volumes, several of which are now cherished.

A few pages from An Italian Garden were enough to make it clear that Robinson, however, was as third-rate as the majority of poets in any age. She is Elizabeth Browning warmed over:

STROW poppy buds about my quiet head
And pansies on mine eyes,
And rose leaves on the lips that were so red
Before they blanched with sighs.

Browning, of course, was Percy Shelley clipped for the bower; and Shelley, for all that his life was profoundly fascinating and tragic, is as disastrous a primogenitor as any poet could be.

The ekphrastic poems in Michael Field's Sight and Song, on the other hand, possess considerable charm that has aged reasonably well. The sonnet on Leonardo Da Vinci's Gioconda may be considered representative:

Historic, side long, implicating eyes;
A smile of velvet's lustre on the cheek;
Calm lips the smile leads upward; hand that lies
Glowing and soft, the patience in its rest
Of cruelty that waits and doth not seek
For prey; a dusky forehead and a breast
Where twilight touches ripeness amorously:
Behind her, crystal rocks, a sea and skies
Of evanescent blue on cloud and creek;
Landscape that shines suppressive of its zest
For those vicissitudes by which men die.

There are few or no poeticisms. The adjectives are often striking and always precise. Enjambment and run-on lines are gratifyingly frequent. Bristow's introduction to The Fin-de-Siècle Poem, goes a long way toward explaining the significance of the publisher stamped on the title page: ELKIN MATHEWS AND JOHN LANE AT THE SIGN OF THE BODLEY HEAD IN VIGO STREET, LONDON, 1892. This is a worthy book on many levels.

Linda Hunt Beckman's essay, "Amy Levy: Urban Poetry, Poetic Invention," from The Fin-de-Siècle Poem, quotes Levy's work at its best and the reader should go to those pages if interested. Levy's bold references to her lesbianism, in poems such as "July in London" in her volume of poems A London Plane Tree (T. FISHER UNWN, PATERNOSTER SQ LONDON, E.C. MDCCCLXXXIX—isn't cut-and-paste great!), may be glossed by way of her inclusion among the poets subject of Holly Laird's essay "The Death of the Author by Suicide":

WHAT ails my senses thus to cheat?
What is it ails the place,
That all the people in the street
Should wear one woman's face?

The London trees are dusty brown
Beneath the summer sky;
My love she dwells in London town,
Nor leaves it in July.

O various and intricate maze,
Wide waste of square and street;
Where missing through unnumbered days,
We twain at last may meet!

While surprisingly talented, at times, for her age, the lyricism of her poetry comes mostly from her subject matter: her love of women, her psychological distress and embrace of the gritty reality of London. Unfortunate poeticisms abound. That said, so does a realism that was ahead of its time.

Well, the upshot of all of this is that I've run through all my options and time and have no review to send to Eclectica. I guess I'll just have to cobble all this gobbledy-gook together, give it a lame opening paragraph and a title that should assure some meaningful amount of search-engine traffic (go right ahead, call me a "keyword whore") and send it off. Nobody ever reads my stuff anyway. It'll never be noticed.

Um... Someone's posted a comment on Facebook. Gotta go.


The Professional (Les Films de Loups, 1994)
Hulu. Language: English. 1 hr. 49 min.
Rated: R (strong graphic violence and language)

Connections (BBC, 1979)
YouTube. Language: English
10 - 50 min. episodes

The Day the Universe Changed (BBC, 1985)
YouTube. Language: English.
10 - 50 min. episodes.

The Fin-de-Siecle Poem: English Literary Culture and the 1890s
Ed. by Joseph Bristow
Ohio University Press 2005.
ISBN 0821416278
352 pages

An Italian Garden: a book of songs
By Agnes Mary Frances Robinson
Roberts Brothers, 1886 Google Books, 2007
121 pages

Sight and Song
By Michael Field
E. Mathews and J. Lane, Bodley Head, 1892
Google Books, 2008
125 pages

A London plane-tree: and other verse
By Amy Levy
T. Fisher Unwin (Cameo Series), 1889
Google Books, 2008
94 pages


Previous Piece Next Piece