The Cinema of Karel Zeman

Brno-born Karel Zeman (1910 – 1989) began work as a window display designer and won a prize for one of his layouts.  He found himself working in the 1930s and 40s as a set-director in the Czechoslovak film industry, an endeavor that continued, perhaps surprisingly, during the German mandate of 1938 – 45.  Zeman would eventually head his own division of the state film industry, the Gottwald Studio in Prague, where he wrote, produced, and directed ten feature-length movies between 1952 and 1980.  Zeman had specialized in stop-motion animated shorts during the 1940s, mostly based on fairy tales.  Except that he never went to Hollywood, Zeman’s career parallels that of the Hungarian-born film-maker George Pal, who invented the “Puppetoon” while working in the Netherlands, and continued exploiting this stop-motion genre in the USA in the 1940s before graduating to special-effects features in the 1950s and 60s.  Whereas Pal’s movies – When Worlds Collide (1950), for example, War of the Worlds (1953), or The Time Machine (1960) – tend toward the grimly serious, Zeman’s tend toward the fantastic, the satirical, and even the light-hearted in their mood.  Pal drew on H. G. Wells, Zeman on Jules Verne, but on a nostalgic reinterpretation of Verne that subtly, and by impressive indirection, contrasts the Frenchman’s technological optimism of the Age of Steam with the bombed-out landscapes of mid-Twentieth Century Europe.  The largely non-political quality of Zeman’s cinema might surprise a Westerner who encounters it for the first time.  One would never guess that Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) or The Stolen Airship (1967) originated under a Communist regime.

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The Baroque in Science Fiction – Part I

Finlay 01 Illustrating Leinster's Mad Planet Fantastic Novels Nov. 48

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): illustrating M. Leinster’s Mad Planet (Fantastic Novels, Nov. 1948)

In the 1954 Preface to his Universal History of Iniquity, Jorge Luis Borges defined the baroque as “the style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”[i] The baroque is therefore a self-conscious style par excellence.  According to Borges’ definition: “The baroque is intellectual, and Bernard Shaw has said that all intellectual labor is inherently humorous”; and “this humor is unintentional in the works of Baltasar Graciàn but intentional, even indulged, in the works of John Donne.”[ii]  In the manner, then, of seventeenth-century church architecture – it might be in Spain or Bavaria – the spirit of the baroque piles ornament relentlessly on ornament, while cultivating trompe-l’œil for its illusion of depth, and while obsessively re-cuing every curlicue in anticipation of the fractal geometry of a Mandelbrot algorithm.  The baroque in music refers to the fugal style, in which again the artist, preeminently J. S. Bach, raises self-imitation to a structural principle.  Yet fugue also refers to a state of social disintegration and to an accompanying panicked mentality that drives forth the individual refugee from the incendiarism and bloodletting of civic breakdown.  Europe’s baroque centuries saw the religious wars, Puritanism, agitation of the protesting masses, and the inevitable massacres, for which music offers a counterpart in the stretto of the fugue.  Here the competing voices figuratively tear the subject to shreds in an aesthetic refinement of the Dionysiac sparagmos.

The novel arises with the baroque, in the Simplicius and Eulenspiegel narratives, in picaresque, and in the moralizing abyss of Don Quixote, where Part One is a topic of discussion, mostly inane, among the characters in Part Two.  The baroque therefore peculiarly trumps the modern in its exploitation of formal complexity; the modernist writers might match, but they never excel, their two- or three-century precursors in self-allusion and abyssal autoscopy.  Indeed, the Parisian Symbolists, those first modernists, remained keenly aware of their debt to the seventeenth century “Parnassians,” Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé assiduously practicing the sonnet, as though writing in the time of Louis XIII.  Later Max Reger (1873-1916) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) mimicked baroque-era models in music, as did M. C. Escher in graphic media.  Borges, in his Preface, “would venture to say that the baroque is the final stage of art,” a stage which some would call decadent.[iii]  Borges notes that the eighteenth century, which coined the term baroque, considered the seventeenth century, which invented the style, to have been in bad taste.  Borges omits to disagree, whereby one might consider that he adds an element of awkwardness or even of kitsch to the repertory of the baroque, as perhaps a studious awkwardness or an occasional deliberate pedantry in the articulation.  In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler asserts that the Western baroque strove towards the dissolution of genre in a movement of synesthesia: “Painting becomes polyphonic, ‘picturesque,’ infinity-seeking,” while “the colours become tones” and  “the art of the brush claims kinship with the style of cantata and madrigal.”[iv]  Again, “the background, hitherto casually put in, regarded as fill-up and, as space, almost shuffled out of sight, gains a preponderant importance.”[v]

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Raising the Fallen World: Richard Wagner and the Scenic Imagination

Giuseppi Tvoli (1854 1925) - Richard Wagner (ca. 1865)

Giuseppe Tivoli (1854 – 1925): Portrait of R. Wagner (ca. 1865)

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) intended his mid-Nineteenth Century innovation of Music Drama to instigate a thorough renewal, not simply of art, but rather of the human situation, as writ large, in society and culture; he foresaw in the late 1840s that his work would require a theoretical basis in metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics.  As it happens, all three parts of this theory entail, although Wagner does not employ the terms, both an anthropology, and a theory of representation.  Finally, Wagner’s theory of representation derives a type of primordial signification from an event in which the unavoidable beauty of a token or talisman disarms a threatening violence.  Wagner worked out this anthropology, and the accompanying theory of representation, borrowing his vocabulary and some few notions from G. W. F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach, in a series of essays and pamphlets in the 1840s and 50s.  In these documents, Wagner prescribed the “mimetic,” “poetic,” and “tonal” (that is to say, the combined dramatic) characteristics that would body themselves forth in Tannhäuser, The Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, The Mastersingers, and Parsifal.  These operas – or rather these Gesamtkunstwerke, as their author called them, using his own coinage – would recreate on the modern stage an “earliest utterance of consciousness.”[i] Their performance would inaugurate a new “breaking loose from unconscious life,”[ii] to quote from their author’s post-Idealist terminology; enacting the Gesamtkunstwerk would thus revitalize society by rescuing it from the degradations of fashion and the rabble, two of Wagner’s reliable pejoratives, in which an anthropologically acute reader will discern the theme of cultural breakdown in thoughtless spreading imitation and the unconsciousness of the crowd.

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Freedom & Determinism & Time

Both determinacy and freedom are necessary aspects of temporal reality. And, so, because we are naturally and ineluctably temporal creatures, both determinism and indeterminism are true for us: but this, in different ways, for they pertain to different temporal epochs.

Determinacy pertains to the past of every occasion, and indeterminacy to its present.

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Everything You Do Is Worship

We think of worship as something we do mostly in church. It is time we dedicate especially to God. But every moment of our lives is dedicated to something or other; and we would not be doing anything we do if those things to which they are dedicated were not important to us; if we did not think them worthy of our attention, and of our effort.

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Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony: Art Transcending Politics

This essay originated a few years ago in a request by the Sydney Traditionalist Forum for articles on the topic of Politics and Transcendence.  The topic is not only compound but complex, associating itself with numerous difficulties.  The term transcendence, for example, usually associates itself with religion and art rather than with politics although writer-thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon and Nicolas Berdyaev have characterized mass political movements as relying on a type of pseudo-transcendence.  Yet insofar as such movements invariably establish themselves in dogmatic materialism an observer might better characterize them as anti-transcendent or immanentist.  In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, indeed, the Western nations find themselves subjugated without exception under such anti-transcendent regimes.  The liberal elites of Europe and North America, like their Jacobin precursors, promulgate a totalitarian doctrine that opposes itself to all inherited hence also to all dissenting ideas or forms.  Among these ideas or forms are those of the aesthetic realm.  Modernity strongly prefers functionality to beauty and agitation of the emotions to genuine tragic pathos.  It prefers mediocrity to merit and therefore downplays the implications of art, and wherever it can it replaces art with politicized kitsch.  Art participates in the sacred, where it originates, and, as sacred, art poses a threat to the pervasive denial of transcendence.  Artistic achievement demonstrates, moreover, the inequality of talent; it establishes standards that undermine the regime’s goal of equality.  Modern life is nevertheless replete with shallow substitutes for transcendence in which the de-natured subject experiences physiological and psychological effects that he feels as type of ecstasy, but it is merely the pseudo-transcendence previously mentioned.  Fear and pity pose a danger; entertainment and diversion serve to mollify the masses.

Gustave Le Bon remarks in his study of The Crowd (1895) that when the suggestible individual loses himself in the irrational multitude, he enters into a mental phase “hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness” which is characterized by “violence of feeling.”  It is no wonder that the crowd’s appetite should run to the insipid and at the same time to the nasty.  Regimes want this result, as it increases the malleability of the masses, immobilizing them temporarily in simple satiety, while convincing them of a specious independence.  Le Bon writes that, “the improbable does not exist for the crowd,” which falsely regards itself as a superhuman entity.  Nicolas Berdyaev, the Russian religious thinker, agrees with Le Bon.  In Freedom and the Spirit (1927), Berdyaev writes of the pseudo-mysticism typical of political movements in an age of crassness and a purely materialist worldview: “There are orgiastic types of mysticism in which the spirit is swallowed up by the ‘psychical’ or corporeal elements, and remains wedded to them.”  According to Berdyaev, “true mysticism frees us from the sense of oppression which arises from everything which is alien to us, and imposed, as it were, from without.”  In modernity, real transcendence is vanishingly rare while false transcendence is a common – one might say the commonest – occurrence, existing in many only slightly varied and equally jejune forms.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Causation is Stochastic

It would seem that freedom and causation are incompatible. If acts are wholly caused – as they must be, if they are to be intelligible, and so more or less intelligent, and so integrated fully in a coherent world – then how can they be free? If acts are even a little bit free, are they not to that extent chaotic, ergo unintelligible, and so an insuperable impediment to the integration of a coherent world?

There is in fact no such incompatibility.

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Delius: On the Heights


Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934)

Sir Thomas Beecham described the English-born, German-descended composer Frederick “Fritz” Delius (1862 – 1934) as the last great advocate of beauty in music.  About a decade ago, I contributed an article to the website of the International Delius Society entitled “On the Heights: Frederick Delius and the Secular Sublime.”  What I denominated “the secular sublime” holds this interest to Traditionalists” The “secular sublime” is a concession by materialists to the apologists for another world, the Platonic world of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.  Delius, who thought of himself as a Nietzschean, and who set excerpts from Thus Spake Zarathustra in his musically magnificent Mass of Life (1906), nevertheless devoted his art to beauty, setting himself in contradiction with the implication of materialism, that beauty is an illusion. Delius lived in Florida in the 1880s, nominally managing an orange grove. He is the first serious composer to incorporate Negro tunes and harmonies into symphonic music — beating Gershwin to it by fifty years.

I link my article here.  My articles from more than fifteen years ago tend to embarrass me, but this one eschews the first person, is reliant on evidence throughout, and manages to be fairly well-written.  I reproduce below the first two paragraphs of the article followed by a number of Delius’s works in performances uploaded to (the loathsome but unavoidable) YouTube platform.

Others might have known the Bradford-born, Dutch- or German-descended composer Frederick Delius (1862 – 1934) longer than did Eric Fenby, the old man’s amanuensis for the late flowering of his music in the last six years of his life, but none save his wife Jelka (née Rosen) knew him so plainly, or, as an artist, so intimately, not even old friends like Balfour Gardiner or Sir Thomas Beecham.  Fenby lived through most of the period 1928 – 34 in the Delius household at Grez, a village on the river Loing, some forty miles southeast of Paris.  While working out the daunting problem of how to take full-score musical dictation from a creative artist blind and paraplegic, he saw daily his idol in the idol’s unscreened candor.  Transparent to Fenby, who in his saintliness of dedication overlooked the rudeness habitual to the self-proclaimed disciple of Friedrich Nietzsche, Delius remained largely opaque to himself, a supreme egotist, and now and again an insufferable bigot in the prejudice and tenacity of his views.  To read Fenby’s beautiful, tactful first-person account of his residency chez Delius, written and published soon after the master’s death, is to confront in particularly high relief the paradox that a great artist need not be a great man.  When one speaks of greatness in a man, one usually means magnanimity or largeness of soul.  Fenby has magnanimity – a capaciousness of spirit that opens itself to other spirits – but Delius rarely if ever reveals this quality, as a person.  He occasionally reveals it, as an artist, but his receptivity to others remains confined, even in his art, to a narrow range of types close to his own.  Indeed, Delius appears detached from other human beings generally, rather like an Ibsen protagonist or the central figure of a Knut Hamsun novel.  Consider the man’s relation to his wife.

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Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Only the Actual Is Apprehensible

This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.

The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.

Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.

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