“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Borrowing the above quote from George Eliot and Terrence Malick, with Eliot the originator of the phrase. A female from Victorian England, a place that has occupied much in the minds of Mary and me these past months. Malick took it from Middlemarch, and it is the motif of his most recent film, A Hidden Life. In addition, the confluence of our trip to England, endless video clips on the Pre-Raphaelites, the love of literature from the era leading our book club to choosing Dicken’s Bleak House for next month’s evening discussion, our good friend George Draper sending a favorite poet’s work our way and the genial fight I have with modernity- with my fight or flight discussions I have with myself and Mary -and the general wisdom that can accompany the lengthening tooth have all led to this recent penning.
As a young student- I can’t recall as to whether it was late middle school or early high school- our class was assigned Silas Marner. No student in the history of English Literature was perhaps less prepared to understand the book than I at the time, though that is a conceited view and one that belies the goals of the curriculum committee at the school (or perhaps the good intentions alone of the English teacher who taught me) to impart some early wisdom about love and the nature of giving of oneself to a child. What are the rewards of paying it forward, neh. Somehow the book’s skeleton has been with me for the following six decades and it resonates now as it should. It’s never too late. Eliot- Mary Ann Evans- was a genius in spite of my not appreciating the fact at the time.
The power of the word and image in art are what assist us with the metaphors and narratives that define and shape our lives. That Malick deals with the most profound existential issues in his work finds for him devoted adherents as well as vocal detractors. After a long hiatus, he returned to film making and moved ever more towards stream of consciousness and non-plot driven films. Some call this Malick Phase 2. Malick is the directors’ director, who regard him as a genius, too.
When we entered the Rockland Strand cinema to see A Hidden Life, Liz, the manager, greeted us and exchanged a bit of repartee with Mary when she asked Liz how she liked the film. Liz’s answer was something like, “Malick’s films are two hours’ long, but take three hours to experience.” Actually, this one was indeed exactly 180 minutes and it needed all of them in my opinion. What a statement. Malick’s films have either placed his main character in an existential predicament that doesn’t offer resolution on this earth, or he turns his characters lose against the backdrop of all existence to see if some message melds with their actions. This film was a love story of two wonderful people who knew, with the most fervent expression of knowledge, what was proper, good, correct and necessary. For our AIS Vienna friends, this will be a joy to take in the beauty of the country we all love as it is captured by Malick’s fabulous cameraman and complemented by the soundtrack.
The link above gives the most wonderful analysis of the film and its purpose, but be aware of the spoiler alert if you don’t want to know how it ends. A Hidden Life is set in the mid-1930s through to 1943. Nearly everywhere on earth in those years there were existential questions posed to earth’s inhabitants everywhere. In this case, there is a married couple living in the upper mountain valleys of Upper Austria, a quiet, mountainous region in the country’s northwest sector. It is an idyllic life of simple pleasures, hard and honest work, being within nature and about the nature of God. Malick often explores man’s commitment to his beliefs and when Martin Scorcese made the film, Silence, Malick wrote Scorcese asking him, “What does Christ want of us?” This film offers a moving tribute to the life of this unknown Austrian farmer, a hidden life. He knew what was required. Though his words convey the hope, “I thought we could build our nest high up in the trees,” the world will invade his life in Upper Austria.
So we address in this blog the power of art in cinema, and in words, to convey meaning to our lives. In receiving a book of poetry by Wislawa Szymborska from George, I was struck by how the following poem is evocative of the power of writing to be self-conscious enough to know, as an author, what can be accomplished with words on paper. In fact, the poem is called The Joy of Writing.
Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence-this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.” Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.
Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.
They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye win take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass wig bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.
Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?
The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.
This has pivoted me to my recent project, preparing for our book club meeting. Bleak House is one of the middle to earlier books in Dicken’s repertoire. There is an omniscient narrator who shares telling the story with Esther. The characters lives are placed in the metaphorical drudgery of London, with its colored and deadly fog, its quagmire of mud or Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The weaving of character sketches and the places and issues they navigate are delicious, damp, cluttered and confining. Yet, the heroes deal with the English language with aplomb and the best of them rarely lose their way. Here’s to the wielders of pen, paper, celluloid, or digital image and audio. These have all enriched our lives these past few weeks and temper the current news and reactions of SNL, the passing of Jim Lehrer and Kobe Bryant, and the general descent into whatever is going to happen with the ever-growing damnation of the Drump from all the constant dripping and sprouting of the next horrible affirmation by the likes of Bolton and whoever else of what this man has done to this country. Were that his life had remained hidden for his lifetime from us all.
Enjoy the following links…