Yesterday was the 201st anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice. But, it was in fact written seventeen years before that, when Austen was still as young and spirited as Lizzy. She carried the book with her for almost half her life before it was finally published, only to depart from it and this world four years later. In those seventeen years, she had experienced a tumultuous life that was to change who she was and the course of women all over the world for all time.
When she first wrote the book, her father made an earnest attempt to get it published, but it was to wait almost two decades before Thomas Egerton agreed to publish it, albeit at Austen’s expense. Curiously, Egerton specialized in military and political works until then, and Austen was his first woman novelist. He was also her publisher for Sense and Sensibility the year before. Pride and Prejudice was so popular that it caught on with readers more quickly through word-of-mouth than printed advertisements, so that a second edition had to be printed within nine months of the first edition coming out.
At that time, Austen was only the second generation of novelists. Novels were a fairly new form of literature. They became popular in the mid-18th century when the middle class expanded and there was a demand for secular stories driven not by plot, but by individuals. But, most of them were written by men, and were adventures centered around larger-than-life male heroes, usually in imaginary worlds, with women playing insignificant roles in the stories. Even the novels centered around women were mostly written by men and portrayed them as being modest and meek, or as they were meant to be.
Austen is the first novelist in history to capture ordinary life in the Regency era. Her men and women are rooted in reality and come in every imaginable shade of character. Compared to her contemporaries, her characters are bold and the flirtations are akin to today's Fifty Shades of Grey, only more eloquent and reflective. I particularly savor the way she captures the constant negotiation of expectations and impressions between the commodities in the story, that is the “eligible” suitors in the marriage market. The conversations between them are crisp, witty and full of revealing gestures, but more importantly, intentional, and often driven through indirect discourses. Every conversation, every situation and every letter arrives with perfect timing, so that the plot always moves along in unexpected ways. We are forever reappraising characters and becoming aware of their lack of self-knowledge. Everyone’s foibles and the ironies of their life are so relatable, that you delight in them because it is your reality.
Her stories are primarily human and about the pursuit of truths through sharp satire. She once criticized her niece’s draft novel for portraying people in Dawlish gossiping about news from Lyme, which is forty miles away and would not be talked of there. That is the level of adherence to fact and societal accuracy that she aimed for, which makes her works important historic documents. Her truths are loaded and “universally acknowledged”, and lay all the societal pretensions bare and impossible to dispute!
What also sets her apart from novelists during her times is her lack of indulgence in prose about material things and the description of settings. Her characters are almost entirely preoccupied with calibrating delicate feelings and abstract nouns to take notice of their surroundings. They display a desire to understand what shapes people’s consciousness and their character and morality, and what dictates their choices.
And because abstract nouns have a universal appeal, she inspires every kind of intellectual dialogue imaginable. Her work speaks different things to different generations and cultures and academicians (and also to Orangutans). It has been superimposed by so many adaptations that the mind attempts to summon Darcy only to be distracted by Olivier or Firth or whoever else made a bold attempt at being devastatingly handsome (or devastatingly conceited)!
Along with the adaptations, there are a whole sleuth of biographies attempting to construct a woman who seems almost mythical in her attainments. When Austen first wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a teenager with little formal education, gaining knowledge solely from the books in her father’s library. And it is that tiny world that inspired novels of such depth and beauty, and insight into society and politics. One wonders how!
When I read Pride and Prejudice today, I imagine my grandmom as a young teenager, holding the very same book, and swooning over Darcy, or admiring a clever Elizabeth Bennet and marveling at the society in England back in the days! Along with the book, my grandmom also passed on hope and that love comes from pursuing the truth of one’s own character. I find Austen's persistence as a writer, through all the hardships particularly inspiring! I also take comfort in reading the bits of her unfinished novels in Juvenilia because nothing about what I do is every complete. I can’t tell if I love her more or her works, because they, and their journey are also a reflection of who she is. Jane Austen and her Pride and Prejudice came close to being in extremis, only to become immortal.
Last year, BBC recreated the Netherfield Ball for the 200th anniversary celebration of Pride and Prejudice, and shared a 90-minute Making-of documentary called Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball! Also, there is an online exhibition called What Jane Saw, which attempted to reconstruct the art exhibit of Sir Joshua Reynolds paintings at the British Institution in Pall Mall that Austen talks about in Pride and Prejudice. Back then, the exhibition was the first commemorative museum show dedicated to a single artist, and something of a pop-culture phenomenon! Austen was something of a Rob Fleming of High Fidelity of her times, and kept up with all the who’s-whos and so-and-sos of her time and wove them into her stories. Many of the character descriptions in Pride and Prejudice were said to have been inspired by Sir Joshua Reynolds portraits. Finally, here is Pride and Prejudice cartoon by Jen Sorenson.
It takes twenty-odd pages of vivid graphics for a delightful acquaintance with MS Subbulakshmi. Within those 20-odd pages, you can also get a glimpse of other musical vidwans, freedom-fighters, artists, writers and spiritual leaders who shaped her life's work for nearly ninety years;
For me, this graphic biography kindled some derivative nostalgia. MS Subbulakshmi sang a few times in my ancestral house in Madras, including at my maternal grandparents' wedding. To me, this fact alone makes her next to kin. My grandmother's admiration for MS however was more heartfelt. To her, MS's sweet countenance and cultured disposition, her humility when she interacted with people, her devotion as she lost herself to music, and her complete and unreserved generosity inspired reverence.
During the time of my grandmother's wedding, MS was already married to Thiagaraja Sadasivam, a film producer, writer and freedom fighter. She also gained national recognition after her performance as Narada (a male role) in the film Savitri, and Meera in the film Meera. Her acting career was driven by her desire to raise money for Kalki, a Nationalist tamil magazine founded by her husband and Kalki Krishnamurthy.
To me, Kalki was the wellspring of some of the greatest historical novels ever written: Sivakamiyin Sapatham, Partiban Kanavu and Ponniyin Selvan. The first two epics were set in 7th century AD when the Pallava dynasty (Later Pallavas) was ruling southern India; and the last one was set in the 10th century AD when the Chola Dynasty (Later Cholas) was ruling southern India. All three epics are about romance and statecraft and beautifully bind real historical events with fiction.
Kalki was an offshoot of some pro-Tamil movements that MS too was a part of. For instance, the Tamil Isai Movement started by Annamalai Chettiar in the 1940s popularized tamil songs in concerts; most of the songs being sung in concerts up until then were in telugu and sanskrit. No other movement did better to delineate the link between language and class than the Tamil Isai movement; especially because classical music (Karnataka sangita), which was championed by the Music Academy, was brahmin-dominated; whereas Tamil Isai Sangam was advanced mostly by non-Brahmins (even though Kalki himself was a brahmin). Kalki fuelled the movement with its persuasive rhetoric, and MS lent her support to this cause by singing at the Tamil Isai Sangam, and later encouraging The Music Academy to acquiesce to tamil songs.
For all that, MS wasn't a tamil purist. She sang in many Indian languages (Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, and Sanskrit) and was particular about pronunciation and spent time understanding the meaning (bhava) behind the songs. She was also the first to introduce Carnatic music to the West and performed in many Indian languages and Indian classical music genres all over the world!
She was a devoted wife, who unquestioningly accepted her husband's reformist convictions and his desire to challenge social taboos; this also meant donating all her life's earnings to charitable causes. In the end, they were badly off; even though they were lauded for their altruism.
The illustrated biography recounts all this and more. The anecdotes in the book, of MS's childhood are particularly appealing because they call to mind a way of life that saw its end in our time. No nadaswaram player will walk up to our doorstep and play us a tune, and no unknown hermit will volunteer to teach us the Grantha script everyday; even though we may have experienced remnants of this culture up until a few years ago.
But, what the book doesn't touch upon is how MS challenged the social fabric of Carnatic music. She was part of the female trinity of Carnatic music; the other two being DK Pattamal and ML Vasantakumari, who were the first vocal singers to perform in concerts. Until then, women (mostly devadasis) were allowed to perform only in private gatherings. Women were also restricted to singing Padams and Javallis; whereas, Pallavi singing that allows for improvisation was restricted to men. The trinity were the first to have male accompanists perform with them; In fact, women were rarely even allowed to attend concerts. The carnatic music world was brahminical and male-dominated, and MS, whose mother was a devadasi, fought a war against many ideals. In the end, she even led the unjavarti processions during Thyagaraja Aradana celebrations, which were restricted to men; and eventually only allowed in a separate women-only aradhana conducted at the rear-end of the samadhi. So, when you read the book, also think of her and an incidental feminist who ushered in a new era in India, where music is free for all and knows no boundaries! :)
This biography is part of the Pictures of Melody series by Lakshmi Devnath, and features many other great Carnatic musicians! I recommend all of them.
The movie disintegrated way before that underwear scene! If you have watched the movie, here's a rib-tickling summary that you might enjoy.
Lately I have been reading books about how humans have been obsessed with genetic engineering since 12,000 BC, when plants and animals were domesticated through selective and deliberate breeding. Back then, we were preoccupied with converting wild rye to more domestic varieties, or grey wolves to dogs; Now, we have come as far as being able to accurately predict the whole genome of an unborn baby by sequencing the DNA from the mother’s blood and the father’s saliva; It won’t be much longer before we are able to manipulate our genetic makeup, and correct mutations which cause diseases.
When Star Trek was created in the mid-1960s, we had just come out of a very dark age that coincided with the two world wars; when scientists and politicians in several countries began targeting humans with ‘unfit’ traits, and forbidding them from marrying or procreating. The American Eugenics Society encouraged the creation of a superior human race through selective breeding. They organized public lectures, brought out publications, conducted “fitter family contests” among other things to educate people on the laws of inheritance. Here’s an example of a chart displayed at the 1929 Kansas Free Fair!
Many eugenics policies and programs, such as genetic screening, racial segregation, segregation of 'degenerate' and 'unfit' humans, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions and euthanasia were implemented in several countries, such as America, Brazil, Canada and several European countries (the reasons for and the methods of implementation were different in each country).
32 States in the US had eugenics programs. In North Carolina alone, more than 7600 men, women and children were sterilized, oftentimes against their will, even for reasons such as being 'feebleminded', 'troubled' or 'poor'; and this went on till the mid-1970s! Part of the reason for the sterilization was that abortion was illegal, birth control was not easily available in some places, and giving birth to an unfit child was just not an option! It was not until 2002 that the Governor of North Carolina formerly apologised to the victims, repealed the involuntary sterilization law, and ruled out sterilization for reasons of 'hygiene' and 'convenience'. Even today, a proposal to compensate the victims ($50,000 per person) is being debated, and only a few hundred victims were willing to reveal themselves because of the continuing stigma of being sterilized. Victims in other countries too were reluctant to come forward for the same reason.
Star Trek exemplifies one train of thought on what might have happened if we had continued on that path of racial cleansing. It is a fictional account, but one that has tremendous significance, especially given what was happening in real life during the time the story was conceived. If you watch the TV series, you will realize that every episode touches on one or more contentious real-life issues of that time that are relevant even today; and gives you a lot to reflect on!
Now to put ourselves and the movie in the context of its timeline:
According to the Star Trek timeline, we are somewhere between the Eugenics War of the early 1990s and World War III of the 2050s; The movie takes place 300 years from the Eugenics war, by which times humans have put their savage past behind them and moved on.
Prior to the 1990s, human scientists had been working on improving their race through selective breeding and genetic engineering. In the process, they created superhumans called Augments, with superior physical and mental abilities. What was unanticipated was that the Augments would want to dominate the world. Khan, the most powerful of his kind, appointed himself "absolute ruler" and ruled a quarter of the Earth, and close to 40 countries. His reign was mostly admired, because he was a man of peace, and there were no wars or violence under him, that is, until the humans rose up against the Augments. A huge war broke out, nearly devastating Earth. Most of the Augments were killed, except Khan and 84 others who managed to escape Earth in a sleeper ship, where they remained cryogenically frozen for three hundred years, until the crew of Enterprise discovered them in 2267. The current movie is set in this time period.
Soon after the Augments were deposed, not all was peaceful on Earth. By the 2050s, World War III broke out between various factions still in conflict on earth about genetic engineering, governments controlling military with narcotics and issues of ecoterrorism. All this led to World War III and the resulting nuclear exchange killed 37 million humans, leaving Earth mostly uninhabitable because of radioactivity, supply shortages, and the collapse of most of the major governments. Hundreds and thousands of humans were also mercilessly killed by evil troops to eliminate the spread of radiation sickness, impurities and mutations to future generations.
It took two generations of peace attempts for the post-atomic horror to give way to unified world alliances and end poverty and disease. During the 2060s, a team of engineers built Earth's first warp ship, which drew the attention of a Vulcan ship passing near Earth, who made their first contact with humans, and ushered us into a more peaceful era.
By the early 2100s, Earth was finally rid of poverty, disease, war and hunger. A United Earth Government was formed in 2150; A non-profit economy was developed, and replicators were used to satisfy material needs; although people were no longer obsessed with the accumulation of wealth or possessions. Humans were mostly focussed on enriching themselves in a secular, non-religious environment free of superstitions. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the importance of continued social and personal development, and the rest as we know is history!
Now… in the Reality meets Sci-fi spirit … here's a Spock talks to Spock Prime type video:
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
I walked through this exhibition open-mouthed, with my jaw hanging halfway down my chest. Every kind of photo manipulation being done in Photoshop today was already done in the 1840s within 20 years of the first photograph being taken! But, what was especially astounding was how these tricks were achieved and why they were done.
The how part consists of many different demanding processes having to do with clunky equipment, lots of chemicals, sunlight, and ingenuity.
The why part has to do with elevating photography to an art form, manipulating truth for political gains, bringing color to black and white, adding and subtracting people, and more happily for humor and gags. Any which way you see it, photography was the art of whipping up fictional hysteria, sometimes with the intention of making us believe they were real. Of course, there were also naturalists trying to document reality as truthfully as possible, but this wasn’t their exhibition, and even they inadvertently succumbed to the fictional aspect of photography, both due to the limitations of the technology at that time, and their own prejudices on how the medium should be used.
I would encourage you to visit the exhibition if it ever comes to your part of the world, and read the book, which is a lot sooner and surer to arrive at your doorstep than the exhibition!
The picture above is called "Two ways of Life", and was rendered in 1857 by Oscar Gustav Rejlander. "Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, yielding more than thirty negatives, which he meticulously combined into a single large print." The Met Museum website showcases all the works in the exhibition, which is over 200 photographs.
NPR has a wonderful article about the exhibition with slideshows. Don't miss the slideshow in the bottom with Joseph Stalin and his mysteriously disappearing inner circle.
Here’s Getty Museum's video of how daguerreotypes were made, just for context on how difficult it was to take photographs at one point. The exhibition showed manipulated daguerreotypes, such as images within images, and other special effects.
And for contrast, here’s Getty Museum's video about a naturalist called PH Emerson, who wanted photography to capture the English countryside as realistically as possible.
It has been nearly 150 years since Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was written, and hundreds of creatives have taken a stab at it and made it their own; the depth and beauty of each interpretation rivalling the other, and exalting the original. I find myself delighting in at least one adaptation of Alice a year.
The story is a very physical one that is both literal and fantastical, and therefore lends itself well to being communicated through any medium! But, no previous adaptation saw audiences line up at the box office at 3:30 AM to get rush tickets like Christopher Wheeldon's contemporary ballet when it first premiered in 2011! Even when we saw it last week at the Kennedy Center, two years since its premiere, and a year after our own Washington Ballet performed its interpretation of Alice in April 2012, it was sold out! The day also coincided with Lewis Carroll's 181st birthday!
I could feel his spirit in the dance and music, even though they were the two elements missing in the book; Likewise, the book had wordplay and logical puzzles locked into every page and the ballet had no words! And still, Wheeldon managed to replace the literary strengths of the book with physical and subversive humor, ballet wit, and an astounding visual and melodic vocabulary. It was enthralling to see all the scenes rising from the pages and translating into movement. The music, characterization, dance and decor, all had a cinematic and colorful feel that played on the physicality of the written word and catered to our non-literal perception of the world.
But, what I liked the most about the ballet is that it drew on the life of Lewis Carroll himself; especially his controversial connection with children. He played a pivotal character in the ballet, wherein he appeared as a family friend and photographer at the garden party hosted by the Liddell family; He entertained the young Liddell daughters (including Alice), and eventually transformed into the White Rabbit and lured Alice into the rabbit hole! This is much like in Carroll's real life, where he spent a lot of time with a real Liddell family, and is said to have originally narrated the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the young Liddells! He was also considered one of the best amateur photographers of his time, back when photography was still in its infancy. He particularly enjoyed photographing close family, friends and children… but eventually gave up the hobby when the art got easier with technological advancements, and it ceased to excite him in the same way.
He played a vital role in bringing up his eleven siblings, entertaining them with funny stories, puzzles, magic and puppetry, and you see all these elements in the ballet. The ballet was narrated in an episodic manner, where each story took place in a new exotic setting: some grotesque, some orchidaceous, and some eye-catchingly foreign-looking; all multi-dimensional and enhanced with hi-tech video projectors that magically flowed in and out of the same space! There were several whimsical characters in flamboyant costumes, displaying talent, drama and humor all at once. It was a visual wonder that exceeded my wildest imagination. It was as if every scene was an elaborate visual panegyric celebrating Carroll's love for magic!
To describe some of the scenes, there was a typical English garden party attended by an Indian maharaja in a palatial Victorian manor; Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself in the curious hall with many locked doors that seemed to get bigger and smaller as she got tinier and taller; At one point, Alice was trapped inside a tiny tilted room that appeared out of no where; She swam in between waves in a pool of her own tears with several exotic animals; This was the same pool that she later sailed on in a paper boat with the White Rabbit (This scene was inspired by Lewis Carroll's love for folding paper and setting them off to sail in the water); She found herself outside the Duchess' pretty cottage that later revealed itself as a grotesque Sweeney Todd-esque pig butchery; She encountered a nutty tap-dancing Mad Hatter in his bizarre tea party, followed by an exotic middle eastern caterpillar in a shimmering mushroom; She joined the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in the Victorian maze garden for a game of croquet (a game Lewis Carroll is known to love) using flamingoes and hedgehogs; and finally found herself in a courtroom made of a deck of cards (another game he is known to love) and implored the Queen to release the Knave!
The music gave the ballet its textural bulk and worked with the other visual elements to both enhance the humor and drive the narrative forward. It was always in the foreground, communicating the emotions and dialogues for the actors, and creating atmospheric underscores. Every character that Alice met, was on his own musical journey with a different musical instrument associated with him, that she then painted over with the aural colour of her own mood! It was wonderful to see how the same musical elements of a character transformed as they got filtered through another character's emotions! Or how the composer used a violin for the Queen of Hearts, a celesta for the White Rabbit, a oboe d’amore for the middle eastern caterpillar and so on, and layered each in a way that they worked together in perfect melodic and rhythmic harmony. And my favourite part was when the music and dance came together more rhythmically in the Mad Hatter's frenzy-filled tap dance, and the caterpillar's undulating moves!
There were some dance elements that were both hilarious and unbelievably athletic. For instance, the Queen of Hearts paid tribute to the Rose Adagio in the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is a difficult sequence in which she had to keep steady on one foot for over a minute, while pirouetting and performing various moves. In Sleeping Beauty, the ballerina is aided by four princes who take turns as she takes off from each of them and proceeds to dance with the next. But, since the cavalry is fearful of dancing with the Queen, should they accidentally make the wrong move and have their heads cut off, the resulting dance was particularly comical, and portrayed the queen as being graceful, fierce, and uncoordinated all at once!
Sometimes, even though the live orchestra was visibly prominent, in between the stage and the audience, I got so involved in the drama that I forget that there were real people playing the music that these dancers were performing to!
As much as Alice in Wonderland has transformed over the years, the creative leaps in Performing Arts too have been getting curiouser and curiouser throughout this time! There was as much choreography off stage as there was on stage, and you could tell that from how swiftly the sets appeared and disappeared, and actors changed costumes in no time and looked dramatically different every time they entered the stage.
The divide between the stage and the audience was sometimes momentarily bridged, when the audience was in Wonderland, and the flower dancers danced among us, and confetti rained from above, while Alice was in the curious hall with the many locked doors, trying to get to where we were! She was first too tiny and then too tall, and tried very hard to squeeze through a peewee door and set foot in our Wonderland, but to no avail!
Then, there were hi-tech video projectors, large and small, that created perspective as Alice spiralled down the rabbit-hole and had many out-of-the-way things happen to her.
When technology was not used, there were invisible men puppeteering a giant-sized Cheshire cat whose limbs disengaged from the body and floated about freely all over the stage and around Alice. He was my most favorite character in the ballet!
When you have $2 million dollars, oodles of talent, and a whimsical Lewis Carroll story at your disposal, there is no limit to what Alice can dream up; Unlike the book, where she played an observer, here she was the architect of her journey, so she could stay in Wonderland for as long as she wanted, but, unfortunately for me, she did ultimately wake up, and there ended my dream.
Here are some articles on Lewis Carroll, a man of many personalities, and the real Alice:
Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
Lewis Carroll's magic
Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back
Review of "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America
(Mary Blair is the artist who did the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland!)
When I was ten, my aunt's friend scotched my illusory perception of fairy tales. From then on, Little Red Riding Hood was a 17th century French peasant's tale about a prepubescent girl who is led astray by a ravishing male [wolf]; he subsequently violates her in her grandmother's house; and just as he is about to kill her, her father comes to her rescue! All fairy tales seemed to be about confronting one's fears and coming out bruised, but happily not broken.
Hidden in these stories are symbols and significations pointing to some dark truth that can have many meanings when placed in different contexts. I used to find The Little Red Riding Hood most relatable to our time, and so I found the older and darker interpretation of her story more gut-wrenching, and wished then that my emotions translated more literally to the huntsman wrenching the wolf's gut. Instead he put two stones in the wolf's belly as punishment for his sexual transgression! It so happens that this ending is more in line with my current stand against the death penalty, so I am fine with it now!
Later, I read The Great Cat Massacre, in which this story was validated, and early versions of other familiar fairy tales were retold. For instance, in the original Sleeping Beauty, Sleeping Beauty is molested by a married Prince Charming and bears him several children, while she is still sleeping! The infants break the spell by biting her breasts during nursing. What a horror that must have been to wake up to! It tells me that the curse was meant to begin after she was awoken! In one version of Cinderella, Cinderella becomes a domestic servant to prevent her widowed-father from forcing her to marry him.
A lot of these stories go back centuries before their supposed authors were even born. Charles Perrault's 17th century version of Sleeping Beauty that we are familiar with, also appeared in an Arthurian romance in the 14th century! Moreover, the same stories were retold all over Europe through centuries, with little to no variations, making it hard to trace their origins.
Fairy tales were mostly written keeping adults in mind, and were never regarded as being suitable for children. Some had to be rewritten several times before they were considered 'debatably' tolerable as "household" tales, and were imparted to children with some horrific details to make moral lessons stick in their minds!
Over time, we have been seeing the same stories taking on new dimensions and becoming representatives of their times! The Disney versions may be indicative of our times being comparatively happier (or censored more heavily, depending on your optimism about our times)! But that too is changing. There are some dark interpretations that are being made for adults!
Once Upon a Time is a fairly adult series that builds on fairy tales and other fantasy stories from pop-culture, by splitting the universe into several extra dimensions, and having characters travel back and forth between them using magic! It's String Theory reinterpreted as: All things being equal, all fictional stories happening across time and space can be strung together, and re-imagined as one single epic!
Suddenly the retellings of 18th century Germany's Grimm Brothers, 17th century France's Charles Perault, 19th century England's Lewis Caroll, 20th century Scotland's JM Barrie, 19th century Italy's Carlo Collodi, and many more authors from different eras and places magically come together in a fictional but contemporary American town, reminiscent of the Lost world, by way of a curse!
I love that fairy tales have been slowly evolving over time and space and taking on new dimensions. I also love that through Once Upon a Time, their characters are travelling many physical dimensions and interacting with each other in one place. The series is my most favorite adaptation of old fairy tales in this era, followed by James Finn Garner's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories.
There is also another TV series called Grimm that I followed for sometime, but didn't enjoy as much. It's a cop drama where the cop (a Grimm, with secret powers), goes after some evil characters from Grimm's fairytales (called Wessen) who inhabit the human world disguised as humans! It's a great concept, but followed the same Dr. Who type formula, with one bad character being finished off by the end of the episode.
I watched a French crime thriller called Nobody Else But You (Poupoupidou), in which a crime novelist solves a murder of a young woman who shared several commonalities in both appearance and relationships with Marilyn Monroe, and believed she was a reincarnation of Monroe and predicted her own death! I watched it around the same time that I watched a few versions of Snow White - Mirror Mirror, and Snow White and the Huntsman, and read an account of a German scholar who believed that the story of Snow White might in fact be based on the life of German noble girl in Lohr am Main in 1725. There is also a "Talking Mirror” that is now housed in Spessart Museum in the Lohr Castle, to validate this account!
The line between reality and fiction has always been a blur, but perhaps it is the blur that we inhabit, and true reality and absolute fiction that we seek from the blur! Or maybe, we are all Grimms meant to keep balance between the real and imaginary creatures we live alongside or create.
One way to experience the beauty of a chemical element is to make it manifest somehow; like when you strike a match and see phosphorus ignite, or add mercury to a neon tube to make it shine blue, or fill a balloon with helium and release it to the sky.
In The Red Balloon, the balloon has a life of its own; bobbing behind a little Parisian boy who is as enchanted by it as the rest of us. It's a simple story that is narrated with a poetic spareness that is as light, and as rare as helium itself.
There is a shortage of helium on our planet. It is the second most abundant element in the observable universe, but not here. Here, in our neck of the woods, it makes up 0.00052% of the atmosphere, not including some in underground gas pockets, a good chunk of which we pack into our party balloons and ship off to the outer space! It is predicted that all helium on Earth may be depleted in about 40 years. To let that happen would be a betrayal of innocence, just like in the story. The price of helium has already increased 300% in the last few years, and is unavailable in some places (although in some other places, like in Calcutta, helium rides are the things to watch out for)! Some stores have begun to impose a helium balloon limit here, meaning you can buy only six balloons at a time.
As kids, we were each allowed to buy one small pear-shaped helium balloon once a year. It was also the only day that I could most pretend to defy gravity. I could ride the roller coasters and ferris wheels, and sit on dad's shoulders as we strolled through the various stalls and sampled treats. Later in the evening we would let our balloons go and watch them get tinier and tinier till they disappeared out of sight, with the exception of one, whose helium would serve to distort our voices!
Helium to me is about the wonders of childhood, now kept alive through cinema - like the unwavering red sphere in The Red Balloon, the twenty thousand colorful blimps that lifted Carl's house off the ground in Up, the hot air balloon that
Francesca and Casanova used to oppose "the gravitational force of witchcraft" in Casanova, the wizard's balloon that "almost" transported Dorothy back home in The Wizard of Oz! Soon, cinema might be the only way to experience the magic of helium balloons.
I came across a humorous project by an independent director who took scenes from classic films and added little balloon props to them. They are something of an homage to The Red Balloon. Enjoy!
Of course, there is more to Helium than balloons.
Here are some recent articles about the crisis (and its effects on scientific research among other things):
• A ballooning problem: the great helium shortage
• Stop the Parade! Should we be wasting our dwindling supply of helium on floating cartoon characters?
• A Helium Shortage Leads to Fewer Balloons in the Sky
… and a link to a related cause: Balloons Blow… Don't Let Them Go!
This was one of the first comic strips to make it to newspapers (1905–1913), by a man who was also the pioneer of early animated cartoons. Windsor McCay set the standard for Walt Disney and the likes in the later decades.
During this time, a single comic strip usually occupied an entire page in a newspaper, which is a huge contrast to our times where 20 artists share the same space and fight for attention. Whether this points to the popularity of comics, the lack of competition or the lack of other media entertainment is debatable. But, that a newspaper was willing to forgo one entire page for a “child fantasy” comic strip says a lot about what they thought eye-popping images can do to entice readers.
Little Nemo in Slumberland is about Nemo, a 5 year old kid, who falls asleep when the lights are turned off and dreams of a fantastical world with surreal characters. Nemo’s main purpose is to make it to Slumberland where he had been summoned by King Morpheous to be the playmate of his daughter, the Princess. At the end of each strip while he’s on his way to Slumberland, a terrible mishap befalls him leading to serious injury or death, like him turning into a monkey or being crushed by a giant mushroom. In the last panel, he wakes up, screaming in his sleep and a grownup in the household comes to scold or cajole him.
For an early 1900 comic strip, the rendering style is extremely sophisticated and colorful (following the popular art nouveau fashion of that era), with interesting perspective drawings that suggest limitless distance, and a linear cinematic structure. For a children’s fantasy, the adventures in the dream world are really dark and threatening, which may be attributed to McCay’s creative genius. However, a lot of comic writers also consider this his major flaw and write that he focused too much on the drawing than the writing!
Over the years, there have been hundreds of adaptations of Little Nemo, in book and movie forms but none have been as successful as the original… today the original print pages go for $50,000 or more… (and to think that there was a day when people wrapped fish in these masterpieces!!!)
There is a book called Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! with the best of his works, reproduced in “actual size”, with the exact look of newsprint selling for $120.