Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Silent Snow, Secret Snow - A short story by Conrad Aiken & A short film by Gene Kearney

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, most beautiful and secret story—shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller—it comes inward instead of opening like a flower—it is a flower becoming a seed—a little cold seed—do you hear? we are leaning closer to you—”.

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934) is not only Conrad Aiken’s most anthologized work, but also one of the most widely read twentieth-century American short stories. The story concerns the degeneration of its protagonist, a young boy named Paul Hasleman, into madness. Critics often view this story in light of Aiken’s childhood, and search for autobiographical aspects to the work. Some interpret the story using a psychoanalytic framework; but it has been noted that the problem of the psychoanalytic interpretation is that it treats the events of the tale too clinically, diminishing the story’s emotional power. It seems that a valid interpretation of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” can neither avoid purely psychological issues—the theme of child-parent conflict, for example—nor justifiably ignore the realistic tragedy of a twelve-year-old boy’s world demolished by madness.

In 1889 Conrad Aiken was born to parents of Scottish descent in Savannah, Georgia. In 1901, when he was eleven years old, Aiken’s father, killed his wife and then committed suicide. Aiken lived with an aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts, until he entered Harvard University in 1907. There, he studied with George Santayana, a renowned philosopher and poet. Santayana’s philosophy emphasized the utility of human sensory perception and reason. This aesthetic reaction to the world also emerges in Aiken’s own poetry and fiction.

Aiken wrote steadily in many genres, but preferred writing poetry and short stories. He also wrote several novels, including The Blue Voyage (1927), Great Circle (1933), King Coffin (1935), and A Heart of the Gods for Mexico (1939).

Aiken’s poetry ranges from short lyrics to extended “symphonies,” as he called them, to more straightforward verse narratives. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953). As a poet, Aiken belonged to the modernist school, yet his verse was different from the work of Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens. As a prose writer, Aiken tended to be more conventional, though such modernistic devices as stream-of-consciousness can be found in his work.

Aiken divides “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” into four distinct sections. In section I, the story introduces Paul Hasleman, age twelve, a student in Mrs. Buell’s sixth-grade classroom. Paul is distracted, however, by his intense memory of an event that occurred several days before. He thinks about the globe that figures in the day’s geography lesson and hears Deirdre, the girl who sits in front of him, awkwardly answer a question about the definition of the term “equator”. A few days earlier, Paul had the impression that snow had fallen; the sound of the postman’s feet on the cobblestones outside his house suddenly sounded muffled. When he got up and looked out, however, the cobblestones were bare and there was no snow. Yet in his own mind, Paul is mysteriously aware of a “secret snow” that signals his growing sense of detachment from the real world. Paul recalls that the sound of the postman’s footsteps grow less and less distinct each day, and are audible only as the postman draws closer and closer to the Hasleman’s house. Paul speculates about the necessity of keeping this strange knowledge from others and rehearses a family conversation over dinner as if he were practicing a play. Meanwhile, in the classroom, Mrs. Buell talks about the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century search to discover the Northwest Passage. When Paul rouses himself sufficiently to successfully answer a question about Henry Hudson, Deirdre turns in her chair to smile at him with “approval and admiration.” At last the bell rings for dismissal.

In Part II, Paul is on his way home from school. He thinks about the secret snow and how difficult it is to drag himself out of bed each morning when all he wants to do is stay in bed. For Paul, the world grows increasingly more alien, incomprehensible, and repulsive. For example, he takes inventory of the items in a dirty gutter, and stares at tracks left by a dog in the sidewalk when the cement was freshly poured. He then arrives at his own house and is troubled by the thought that it is the sixth house from the corner, when he had all along supposed it to be the seventh. The house seems strange as he comes inside from the street.

In Part III, after supper, Paul’s parents grow concerned about their son and call in a doctor to examine him. Paul regards the examination as an inquisition, and becomes emphatically defensive. During the exam, Paul hears the secret snow. The pressure of the doctor’s questions forces Paul to admit that his recent state of distraction stems from constantly thinking about the snow. His parents react negatively, and Paul fails to understand the full impact of his revelation.

In Part IV, Paul rushes to his bedroom. The whiteness of the snow has become overwhelming. He now views his mother as a “cruel disturbance,” a hostile intruder as she tries to help him. He rejects her defiantly as he finally slips away: “Mother! Mother! Go away! I hate you!”. And with that effort, everything was solved, everything became all right: the seamless hiss advanced once more, the long white wavering lines rose and fell like enormous whispering sea-waves, the whisper becoming louder, the laughter more numerous... “Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, most beautiful and secret story—shut your eyes—it is a very small story—a story that gets smaller and smaller—it comes inward instead of opening like a flower—it is a flower becoming a seed—a little cold seed—do you hear? we are leaning closer to you—”. The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.

Further information here, here and here.

Ancient Woodland

"Ancient woodlands are a precious and finite resource that cannot be recreated" - Michelle van Velzen, Forestry Commission.

What is ancient woodland?

Ancient woodland is defined as land that has been continually wooded since at least 1600AD. From 1600AD, planting of woodland became more common, so woodland that pre-dates this is more likely to have grown up naturally. Some ancient woods may even link back to the original wildwood that covered the UK around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. Ancient woods are the jewel in our woodland crown. They are our richest sites for wildlife and are full of cultural heritage. Ancient woods are also some of our prettiest woodland - some have carpets of bluebells, wood anemones and celandines in spring. But, not all ancient woods are the same. They vary from the native pinewoods in the Cairngorms of Scotland to the moist and lichen-rich oakwoods of the Atlantic seaboard and the flower rich coppice woodland in south-east England. However, this is not the whole picture because there are actually two broad types of ancient woodland - Ancient Semi-Natural Ancient Woodland (ASNW) and Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS).

What is ancient semi-natural woodland?

Ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) has developed naturally on undisturbed soils. The long continuity of semi-natural ancient woods and their undisturbed soils makes it the most valuable natural habitat. It supports a huge range of wildlife (including more threatened species than any other UK habitat) many of which require stable conditions (i.e. relatively unchanging compared to land outside the woods). Often, these species are unable to move easily so do not colonise new areas easily. According to the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan, in the last 100 years, 46 species of broadleaved woodland have become extinct in the UK. Woods planted or growing up today will not become ancient woods in 400 years’ time because the soils on which they have developed have been modified by modern agriculture or industry, and the fragmentation of natural habitats in today’s landscape hampers species' natural movements and interactions. Our remaining semi-natural ancient woodland is therefore irreplaceable. If we lose what little we have left then it is gone forever.

What are planted ancient woodland sites?

A planted ancient woodland site (PAWS) would have started off its life as ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) but the native broadleaved trees have been felled and non-native trees - usually conifers - planted in their place. (Or sometimes, conifers have been planted alongside the existing trees). Many ancient woods were planted with non-native conifers in the period after the second World War, when timber stocks were low. These non-native conifers were planted because they grew more quickly than our native species and so were ideal for timber. However, because the conifers have dense needles and keep them all year and they have been planted so close together they cast dense shade on everything below their canopy, creating conditions quite unlike those usually found in an ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW). This dense shade has a dramatic impact on the woodland's wildlife. Although some wildlife may survive in dense shade, much of our characteristic ancient woodland wildlife does not cope well. So, planted ancient woodland sites are generally poorer in wildlife terms. Although today, conifers are not often planted in ancient woods, there are many existing planted ancient woodland sites which need restoration. This restoration is possible because the ancient woodland ecosystem is far more than just the trees and remnants of ancient woodland plant and animal communities have usually survived. These may be shrubs, grasses, flowers, mosses, lichens, liverworts, fungi and animal life such as badgers and woodpeckers to the tiniest micro-organisms in the soil - all part of the unique web of life that makes up an ancient wood. Gradual removal of the conifers enables these species to recover slowly. This process of PAWS restoration is something that the Woodland Trust has been championing for some time, restoring our own sites and encouraging others to do the same with theirs.

Further information here, here and here.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Who is Mr. Punch?

Punch, after dispatching his foes each in turn, still squeaks his famous catchphrase: "That's the way to do it, That's the way to do it!!"

The ancestor to whom Punch's lineage can be traced with absolute certainty is Pulcinella of the Renaissance Commedia dell'arte. A continuous link over the centuries with the Atellan farce has been propounded and refuted by scholars of the theatre and it is nice to think that Punch may have been with us two thousand five hundred years. One thing is certain, the Punch-like type of person has been a stock figure of the Theatre since the earliest days of the Greek mime as ancient bronzes and terracottas have proved.

Although tenuous and speculative the history of the character may be, however, the history of Punch as a puppet is even more so. Nobody knows when Punch first appeared on the puppet stage. Puppet shows were known in Ancient India and China since the stock comic figure of a man with hook-nose and hump-back has persisted through the ages, who is to say a character very close to Punch was not known? It is quite likely, in fact, that any character with a nose suggestive of amorous propensities and a deformity suggestive of the aggressiveness which often arises out of an inferiority complex, should have Punch's characteristic stage-manner.

In Ancient Greece puppets were not only well known but very well performed according to the writers of the day. String puppets seemed to be singled out for mention since, obviously a more articulate and life-like figure than a glove puppet would be the more to be marvelled at, but Punch who is supposed to have arrived in England in the mid 17th century, came first as a puppet worked by strings, so why should not a similar character - a hunchback clown - have entertained Xenophon in the fifth century B.C.?

And if Punch did not arrive in England till the 17th century what predecessor of his appears in the miniature by Jehan de Grise, in a manuscript C1340 and now in the Bodleian Library? Here we see a puppet booth very akin to a modern booth and on stage two figures, one male, one female, the man being in Punch's traditional place, i.e. to the left of the stage as seen by the audience, wearing what looks like a pointed cap and wielding a club or stick, Mr. Punch's traditional weapon? How very like a Punch and Judy show this looks but we cannot be sure.
We are sure though, that Mr. Punch we know today is a puppet version of Pulcinella of the Commedia dell'arte. A water-colour drawing by Lichery of 1688 shows a Pulcinella almost identical with modern Punch and leaves us in no doubt what ever.

Who was Pulcinella - or as he is sometimes called Pollicinella or Pulicinella? His role was primarily that of a servant, as indeed was that of Harlequin, and he was obviously a comedian.

He wore an artificial nose, pot-belly and hump -all calculated to make the audience laugh, and he was the mixture of jollity and cruelty, wit and stupidity just as Punch is today.

J. Callot in the early 17th century executed a series of etchings of the characters in the commedia dell'arte and it is curious to note that his Pulcinella - or "Pulliciniello" as he calls him - is nothing like Punch, looking more like an elderly Pierrot, but he does illustrate a character called "Cucurucu" who is very like Punch but has cock's feathers on his head. This Cucurucu seems very akin to Cirirrus of the Atellan comedy, so like, in fact, that the connection must be acknowledged -another link between Punch and the theatre of Ancient Greece. Let us not forget either, the comic squeaking of the Atellan comedians and the probability that the raucous voice of Punch may be the tradition of many centuries.

The name Pulcinella is derived from pulcino, a chicken, perhaps on account of the character's beak like nose and his bird like voice. The obvious close link with Cucucus - the very sound of whose name is like a clucking bird -and the cock-feathers characteristic of this character, all add credibility to this theory of derivation.

In England the name "Punch" is obviously an abbreviation of Punchinello, a name synonymous with Pulcinella, Polichinello, Pollicinella and Polichinelle. Pepys mentions several different variations of the name in his diary, between 1666 and 1668, including the name Punch, which apparently became a nickname for anything thick and short...

J. R. Cleland.

First image: Traditional Punch & Judy show. Second image: Fad Gadget 'Incontinent' LP, Photo by Anton Corbijn.

More information here, here and here.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Future of Nostalgia - A book by Svetlana Boym

“As for time, it is forever shrinking. Oppressed by multitasking and managerial efficiency, we live under a perpetual time pressure. The disease of this millennium will be called chronophobia or speedomania, and its treatment will be embarrassingly old-fashioned. Contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past as about vanishing the present.”

Combining personal memoir, philosophical essay, and historical analysis, Svetlana Boym explores the spaces of collective nostalgia that connect national biography and personal self-fashioning in the twenty-first century. She guides us through the ruins and construction sites of post-communist cities-St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, and Prague-and the imagined homelands of It was a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 coined the term ‘nostalgia’, from the Greek nostos—return home, and algia—longing.

Not so much an ancient passion as a pseudo-classical creation of the early modern world, nostalgia was, Svetlana Boym informs us, first diagnosed among the various displaced persons of the seventeenth century: Swiss mercenaries soldiering abroad; domestic servants working in France and Germany; freedom-loving students from Berne, studying in Basel. As cure, Hofer prescribed opium, leeches and a return to the Alps.

It was not until the eighteenth century that poets and philosophers seized nostalgia from the medical men. For the Romantics, the symptoms became a sign of sensibility, or of newly minted patriotic feeling. Herderians discovered that each had their own, apparently untranslatable pang: German Heimweh, French maladie du pays, Spanish mal de corazón, Czech litost, Russian toska, Polish tesknota, Portuguese and Brazilian saudade (‘a tender sorrow, breezy and erotic’), Romanian dor (‘sonorous and sharp’).

Modernists responded differently to what Lukács called ‘transcendental homelessness’—Baudelaire, for example, seeking to be chez lui in the perpetual flow of the Parisian crowd. ‘Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths’, Lukács wrote in The Theory of the Novel (1916), when ‘everything is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own.’ This is the nostalgia that interests Boym: not an individual sickness but ‘a historical emotion’, a symptom of our age; a yearning for a different time as much as a faraway place.

Timothy Bewes.

“As Vladimir Nabokov explained: in the fourth dimension of art, alternative geometrical and physical parameters are made probable and thus parallel lines might not meet, not because they cannot, but because they might have other things to do. The off modern has a quality of improvisation, of a conjecture that doesn’t distort the facts but explores their echoes, residues, implications, shadows. The off modern is not ashamed of unconventional aesthetic judgment that puts the world off kilter.”

More information here, here and here.