Inside His Own Head

December 12, 2009

Another post in remembrance of my father:

From the preface to Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw (Little, Brown & Company, 2009)

When I was a small child, I used to sneak into my father’s study and leaf through the papers on his desk. He is a mathematician. He wrote on graph paper, in pencil – long rows of neatly written numbers and figures. I would sit on the edge of his chair and look at each page with puzzlement and wonder. It seemed miraculous, first of all, that he got paid for what seemed, at the time, like gibberish. But more important, I couldn’t get over the fact that someone whom I loved so dearly did something every day, inside his own head, that I could not begin to understand.


Fatherly Books

September 23, 2009

From Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (Penguin, London, 2004)

None of the books in my father’s dusty old bookcase were forbidden. Yet while I was growing up, I never saw anyone take one down. Most were massive tomes – a comprehensive history of civilization, matching volumes of the great works of western literature, numerous others I can no longer recall – that seemed almost fused to shelves that bowed slightly from decades of steadfast support. But way up on the highest shelf was a thin little text that, every now and then, would catch my eye because it seemed so out of place, like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians. In hindsight, I’m not quite sure why I waited so long before taking a look. Perhaps, as the years went by, the books seemed less like material you read and more like family heirlooms you admire from afar. Ultimately, such reverence gave way to teenage brashness. I reached up for the little text, dusted it off, and opened to page one. The first few lines were, to say the least, startling.

From David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory (Serpent’s Tail, London, 2004)

My father was not a great reader, or writer, come to that. After he died I found a diary he had kept. Most pages were blank, though occasional entries noted family visits and other small fluctuations in atmospheric conditions. ‘A slight breeze’ I remember, if only for its lack of experiment. For most of his life, he seemed to own just one book. As he grew older he acquired a few books on photography, boxing and World War II, his main interests, but from the time when I was a boy I recall only a travel book called Tschiffely’s Ride, Aimé F. Tschiffely’s account of his three-year journey from Buenos Aires to Washington DC in 1925, using only two horses.

Archetypal Heroes and Villains

October 1, 2008

From Patrick Luciano, Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films (Indiana University Press, 1987), pg. 7.

The most important characteristic of the horror film is its emphasis on an alternate state of the actual world. In the horror films produced over the past fifty years one finds a exotic, often European setting and equally exotic characters, which coalesce to form as alternate world. Moreover, the monster/villain of the horror film represents what the film presumes to be absolute evil: am incarnation, as it were, of the devil. Set against this evil is the hero/protagonist, who represents what the film’s value system insists upon as absolute good; the hero, if not a representation of Christ, is at least an angel sent to combat evil through an apocalyptic confrontation.

…and from pp. 8-9…

Generally, the horror film offers two extremes of characterization, the embodiment of pure good and the embodiment of pure evil, the virtuous and the villainous. And traditionally, these extremes have been manifested, quite naturally, in the protagonist, or hero, and the monster/villain. Any examination of the horror film reveals such characters; notable are Dr. Van Helsing and Count Dracula in Fishers Horror of Dracula. It is important to note, moreover, that the heroes are not the youthful heroes of myth. They are often men of knowledge and experience; as David Pirie observed in the films of Terence Fisher, they are “Renaissance scholars, scientists and doctors”. Consequently the heroes and their nemeses approach the conflict as equals. The confrontation is often one of “wills” – the will of good against the will of evil – and not one that leads to the growth and understanding in the hero. Hence, the hero of the horror film emerges as the opposite (good/Christ) of the villain (evil/Satan).

Horror & Science Fiction / Chaos & Disruption

October 1, 2008

From Vivian Carol Sobchack, The Limits of Infinity (A. S. Barnes & Co., 1980), pp. 29-30.

One major difference between the genres lies in their sphere of exploration, their emphasis. The horror film is primarily concerned with the individual in conflict with society or with some extension of himself, the SF film with society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other. Therefore, the arena for conflict in the horror film is usually as small as a minute town tucked in the Carpathians, an old castle, or an English village, while the arena for the SF film is most often the large city, the planet Earth itself. If one genre is as large as the human soul, the other is as large as the cosmos. Both genres deal with chaos, with the disruption of order, but the horror film deals with moral chaos, the disruption of natural order (assumed the be God’s order), and the threat to the harmony of hearth and home; the SF film, on the other hand, is concerned with social chaos, the disruption of the social order (manmade), and the threat to the harmony of civilized society going about its business

Outside the hangar half a dozen dogs sat waiting

August 9, 2008

From John Toland, The Great Dirigibles: Their Triumphs and Disasters (Dover, 1973), pp. 274-275.

By the end of the day few believed anyone else had survived the deadliest crash in the history of aviation. But at Lakehurst the women still kept vigil. They scanned the dark skies as if expecting the big ship to return at any moment. Although all the workmen had left Hangar Number 1 long before, half a dozen automobiles still stood inside the vast, tomblike building. They belonged to members of the Akron‘s crew. Outside the hangar half a dozen dogs sat waiting.

Stalin the Turntablist

July 21, 2008

From Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, 2001)

The humiliation and threats that Stalin used to cow his foreign allies and Russian subordinates emerges from a description by Jakub Berman (a Pole) of a meeting in Moscow:

Berman: “Once, I think it was in 1948, I danced with Molotov.”

Interviewer: “You mean with Mrs. Molotov?”

Berman: No, she wasn’t there; she’d been sent to a labor camp. I danced with Molotov – it must have been a waltz, or at any rate something simple, because I haven’t a clue about how to dance – and I just moved my feet to the rhythm.”

Interviewer: “As the woman?”

Berman: “Molotov led; I wouldn’t know how. He wasn’t a bad dancer, actually, and I tried to keep in step with him, but for my part it was more like clowning than dancing.”

Interviewer: “What about Stalin, whom did he dance with?”

Berman: “Oh no, Stalin didn’t dance. Stalin turned the gramophone: he treated that as his duty. He never left it. He would put on a record and watch.”

Interviewer: “He watched you?”

Berman: “He watched us dance.”

Interviewer: “So you had a good time?”

Berman: “Yes, it was pleasant, but with an inner tension.”

Interviewer: “You didn’t really have fun?”

Berman: “Stalin really had fun.”

Shackleton the Poet

December 12, 2007

From Diana Preston, A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole (New York, 1998), pg. 41.

Bernacchi was on duty one morning and described how a cheerful Shackleton came to relieve him at 4 a.m. ‘full of verses and warmth-giving navy cocoa… Shackleton was a poet and that morning poetically very wide awake, and… kept me from my waiting bunk reciting endless verses in the voice and manner of an old-time tragedian – “One moment, old son,” he wheedled, as I edged towards the gangway, “have you ever heard this?”‘ The cold, yawning young Australian physicist did not care whether he had or not and, throwing ‘politeness to he ice-floes’, decamped, leaving Shackleton to his poetry and the pale Antarctic light.