Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Literary River

Stepping away from political chatter for a while - down a shady river. I originally intended to use the rabbit-hole analogy, but scarcely an internet rabbit-hole this, more like following the course of a winding river on a map...it might even be a shady river, and cool. Let's see!

The mouth of the river begins at a 2006 film, now available on Netflix: "The Painted Veil". Earlier versions of Somerset Maugham's 20th century novel exist, I've seen at least one other adaptation. It's a gloomy tale with mainly irritating characters, but it has survived at least three film adaptations.

Following the first bend in this "river": the book and film's title came from a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

The sonnet can be read in various ways, a comment at a website presenting the sonnet offered this:

Life is an illusion, and most are clueless people who play along with the backdrop provided. Shelley is playing the role of a wise man giving us the famous warning: innocence and even ignorance may be the best path to stick with, since to be wise is to suffer.

The famous “painted veil” which reveals life in line 1 can be a metaphor for many things: love (as described in line 8), death, or even truth (as described in the final line).

The sonnet was published by Mrs. Shelley in Posthumous Poems, 1824.

Searching further - this "river's" source still lies ahead. Some of the lines from Shelley's sonnet also appeared in his 1820 play "Prometheus Unbound". These words are part of a speech by Spirit of the Hour, Act 3, Scene4.

The painted veil, by those who were, called life,
Which mimicked, as with colors idly spread,
All men believed and hoped, is torn aside;
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself; just, gentle, wise; but man
Passionless--no, yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made or suffered them;
Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves,
From chance, and death, and mutability,
The clogs of that which else might oversoar
The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane.

Prometheus Unbound is a four-act lyrical drama by Percy Bysshe Shelley, first published in 1820. It is concerned with the torments of the Greek mythological figure Prometheus, who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment and suffering at the hands of Zeus. It is inspired by the classical Prometheia, a trilogy of plays attributed to Aeschylus. Shelley's play concerns Prometheus' release from captivity, but unlike Aeschylus' version, there is no reconciliation between Prometheus and Jupiter (Zeus). Instead, Jupiter is abandoned by his supportive elements and falls from power, which allows Prometheus to be released.

So then, the river's original source is Aeschylus.

Aeschylus, (born 525/524 BC — died 456/455 BC, Gela, Sicily) the first of classical Athens’ great dramatists, who raised the emerging art of tragedy to great heights of poetry and theatrical power.

This river flows all the way from ancient Greece to the 21st century, via Aeschylus, Shelley, Maugham, and several 20th and 21st century film-makers. Yep, cool!


Anonymous said...

I think today we would refer to the painted veil as consensus reality.

Other tributaries to your river might include the film, 'The Matrix' (1999), and Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' (514-520).

Two summers ago I reread Maugham's oeuvre, as well as his scanty autobiographical notes, and some bigraphy. I agree that this is not one of his finer books; the 2006 movie was unremarkable, if not downright tedious, too.

Oddly enough, it strikes me that Eve - she of apple infamy - equates to Prometheus for 'stealing' the secret knowledge of the gods/god.

Richard Tarnas makes a strong argument for renaming 'Uranus' as 'Prometheus' in his seminal work, 'Cosmo and Psyche' (2007).

mike said...

The experiences of life are unique to the individual, yet commonality abounds, with enduring, classical literature retelling the stories time and again. We seem to have no choice but to experience our time on Earth through our own senses, disregarding the familiarity and machinations of those before us.

Long ago, I realized that astrology offered the best understanding of my interpretation and interaction with the environment, always in flux, much as the transits to my natal chart. There are more factors in astrology to consider than there are the 52 cards in a deck, and the permutations of a shuffled deck of cards offers 8 with 67 zeros after it! Metaphorically, we all live our lives with the same deck, but each of us has a different shuffling.

Much praise to those rare talents that can capture the myriad diversity of life and lives in one or more of the liberal arts. For the written word, there's artistry and intellect in translation, too, as you indicate with the movie version of the novel, "The Painted Veil", requiring script writers, director-producer, and cinematographers, not to mention the actors. It's dependent on the reader-viewer to determine the final interpretation.

Twilight said...

Sabina ~ "The Matrix" scrambles my grey matter, but Plato's Cave dwellers, if venturing outside that cave would be lifting 'the painted veil', yep!

The best thing about the 2006 movie, we thought, are the scenic backdrops of rural China - amazingly other-worldish. :-)

Yes - Eve works, maybe Pandora too in a different way.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Yes, we each have a veil of our own, I guess, and for some of us astrology can lift it - just a little bit.

I like the sonnet, and its variety of meanings, better than Somerset Maugham's utterly depressing story. I wonder if he was at a low ebb, personally, when he wrote the novel, and the writing of its gloom helped him cope with his own - in the same way that painters sometimes paint their hurts and issues into their work.

Anonymous said...

Maugham was nothing if not a professional so I find it difficult to imagine his private emotions motivating his writing: it is precisely his cool and steady reflection of our human foibles, not least including his own (eg, the narrator in 'The Razor's Edge') that give his works their power, IMO.

'The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master....' - Spinoza quoted in the author's Foreword to 'Of Human Bondage'.

As well, his life experiences contributed to his emotional privacy: orphaned at 10, raised by a 'cold and emotionally cruel' uncle, bullied at school for his poor English - French was his first language - a gay man living in an era when this was illegal in the UK.

Much of his work is informed by 'true' stories he deliberately sought out and discovered, many in his purposeful travels abroad, especially in the Far East.

'In the Preface to his book [The Painted Veil], Maugham tells how originally the main characters were called Lane not Fane but a couple of that name in Hong Kong successfully sued the magazine publishers of the initial serialised version for libel and won £250. To avoid similar problems after A. G. M. Fletcher, the then Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, also threatened legal action, the name of the colony was changed to Tching-Yen.[2] Later editions reverted to Hong Kong but the name Fane was kept for all editions.' - all quotes wiki

Twilight said...

Sabina ~ Ah well - I can see how "Painted Veil" might be based on true characters and events, perhaps tales or gossip related to the author by some third or fourth party. I remember seeing the notes about Fane/Lane at the end of the movie - yes.

His situation - being gay in that particularly uncomfortable and dangerous era for gays, must have directed his emotions and ideas though, professional as he undoubtedly was. He would not have been inclined to look for happy-ever-after tales, I suppose. Luckily, he was such a talented writer that gloom and darkness in his stories somehow became attractive to his readers.

Anonymous said...

Well, his massive success as a playwright was based on a quite different perspective:

'However in 1907, Maugham achieved the fame and success that he had worked for. Since his early writing was described by critics as gloomy and depressing, he tried his hand at lighter social themes.Lady Frederick (1907), the story of a high society lady who tries to discourage a persistent young suitor, was an instant success with a long run in London's West End. By 1908, he had four plays running simultaneously in London. With the exception of Of Human Bondage, Maugham did not return to writing novels or short stories for more than 10 years. He became a man-about-town, the successful, rich, and witty satirist of British society.' - caxtonclub.org

Something perhaps more in keeping with your original thoughts. Enjoy!


Twilight said...

Sabina ~ Interesting - thanks! :-) And for the tune too.

mike (again) said...

It seems that great 20th century literature prefers the darker side of human relations, whether determined by critics or the prolific reader:

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Maybe reading something dark makes the reader feel more grateful for their own lot in life, which is, perhaps, a little less dark than that of the novel's characters. :-)