Gnosticism, Brokeback Mt. & Suddenly Last Summer

Love and Death, American Style

Someone has to point out the parallels between Brokeback Mountain and Tennesee William's Suddenly Last Summer.

Speaking of Wuorinen's upcoming opera, *Brokeback Mountain*-- The Anderson/Fader Guitar Duo, aka, the Cygnus Guitarists -- will soon release Wuorinen's sterling little guitar duo, *Dodecadactyl* on Furious Artisans Records.  It would make us very happy to see our little Wuorinen effort set off the generation of a powerful head of steam in advance of the premiere of the opera, Brokeback Mountain.

I have talked about Wuorinen's interest in fractals, arriving at the conclusion that the fractal glow given off by his music is tantamount to a kind of  "fractal naturalism".   I'm grateful to Alejandro Barcelo Rodriguez for his FB posts, bringing attention to my notes on Wuorinen's fractal naturalism:  

Art of the States:  Notes on Sonata for Guitar and Piano

Brokeback Mountain shows another side -- the gnostic side -- of this fractal naturalism.  

To what kind of "knowing" does the Greek work, "gnostic" refer?   Very simply (read Harold Bloom for the right explanation)--all attitudes toward nature, positive or negative are cultural, brought to nature by us as individuals and collectively.  

It is not easy for some people to arrive at what Harold Bloom calls "negative nature".    Gnosticism amounts to nature stripped of its lovely positive glow.  We are besotted by an oversimplification of Rousseau/Goethe/Wordsworth/Emerson's relatively recent revival of the pantheistic perspective, where all that is godly (the loving variety), familial, comforting-- is infused generously throughout all nature.

[Goethe, echoed by Stifter and Nietzsche, was conflating both positive & negative nature when he spoke of "beyond good & evil".]

Gnosticism is the sad irrevocable knowing (experiencing) of nature stripped of culture, acquiring a frightening value-neutrality.  It's a knowing that's more an un-knowing. 

Despite our habitual pantheism, we see instances of negative nature in Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Again, Harold Bloom is the go-to guy for examples and discussions of negative nature.  

Of course, there is Baudelaire.  Antinaturalism-- Louie Fuller's, Varese's antinaturalism...  Baudelaire (in Paris Spleen) even complains about "anything positive", suggesting "antipositivism", even before Positivism got off the ground as a movement, the one that Milton Babbitt took to so strongly.  (I will look up the exact quote from Paris Spleen.)

And we see negative nature in much Southern (US) material.  

Perhaps the best example is Tennesee William's *Suddenly Last Summer*.   Remember the movie with Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor??   I will paraphrase (roughly) some of the key lines:  "I have seen God"--the character portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor is quoting her cousin, talking about his exerience in the Galapagos Islands--"I saw the birds savagely attacking the baby turtles as they raced to the safety of the sea."   This is a yearly occurrence on the Galapagos Islands.  Negative nature, but really this image is a stand-in for the heart of the matter that is left almost unstated:

Thanks, Wendy Anderson for correcting some details here:

The character played by Elizabeth Taylor witnessed her gay brother [no, it was her cousin] getting beaten to death somewhere in South America or Central America [no, apparently it was worse than that--the cousin was cannibalized!].   She travelled with this cousin, she brought a lot of attention to the pair.  The movie starts with Elizabeth Taylor in an asylum, trying to live through this experience.

I know from some casual conversations that Wuorinen's opera, Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx will get right  what the movie got wrong.   The scene in the mountains was not Rousseau/Wordsworth/Ruskin/Emersonian paradise.  One of the two men who take comfort with each other's company in the hell where they were tending their herds of cattle meets a fate similar to that of Elizabeth Taylor's cousin in Suddenly Last Summer.

I leave it there for now.  These are only the sketchy obvious points.

I will return, for a moment to Wuorinen's fractal naturalism.   We might surmise now, through his interest in Brokeback Mountain, that his naturalism is not  merely pantheistic nature worship, but acknowledges this gnostic negative nature as well.    Even the hellish Wyoming landscape-- those gaping rain-ravaged gulches-- are fractal.  Fractals are beyond good and evil.

(As a kid, travelling back east from Colorado, through Wyoming, we stopped and camped in our converted Ford Econoline camper in Glendo, Wyoming.  Even my ever so good-natured, nature-besotted father said at the time that Glendo Wyoming was a little piece of *hell*.  We were picking burrs off our dog for weeks thereafter.)

One more little detail about Southern authors and negative nature--- please, please see how Faulker tweaks the hothouse scene in Raymond Chandler's, *The Big Sleep* (Recall the scenes with the old man--the father in the wheelchair in his hothouse).  Remember that Faulker did the screenplay. Faulker had a nice sense of Maeterlick's  SERRES CHAUDES (Hot House Flowers), Maeterlinck's early poetry collection that comes hard on the heels of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal.  I think Chandler wanted to make the same connections, but didn't do it quite as elegantly as Faulkner did in the screenplay.   (Remember also that in Suddenly Last Summer Katherine Hepburn is sitting in a hothouse filled with evil-looking tropical plants.)

What makes  Central European decadence and Southern US decadence so similar?   Don't they have this in common:  both come from cultures where a political/economic system persisted after others rendered them obsolete?   Further along these lines, check out Jeremy Rifkin's, The Third Industrial Revolution.   We are in another moment of not-creative-enough destruction, and the aging baby boomers will be sure to treat their impending demise as if all the world will go with them.

Pop Gnostics

I am selling music, so--another plug, and quite relevant here:  also on the upcoming Anderson/Fader disc is my cover of Gillian Welch's My Morphine, for we 2 guitarists, Anderson & Fader, with Haleh Abghari singing.  *My Morphine*, like everything Gillian Welch does, hits the nail right on the head.  What nail?  I consider my setting of My Morphine part of a gouping of works that I like to call, "Love and Death American Style".  

One could take a gnostic direction in a discussion of Welch's song.  I promise I am not a morphine addict.  To take the song metaphorically--what might that mean?  I see it this way:  after our "solipsistic crossing" (see Bloom, once again),  we realize that the beauty of the outer world comes from our projecting our own hard-wired innate good will upon the world we inhabait.  As solipsists we do not care about the psychology of being well adjusted--it happens effortlessly.   When we (willfully, sometime after the brain develops to a certain point) learn what Yeats called the "antithetical" mode of being,  one unhappy thing that dawns on us is that our happiness in the world is largely biochemical.  That is a gnossis.   The traditional gnostic (there are many and diverse traditions) takes this merely as a starting point, and creatively finds the way back to happiness-- a reconstructed wholeness.   This is what much Kafka is getting at, with ties to Jewish traditions that most people are not aware of.  (Walter Benjamin gets into this in his discussions of Kafka, also bringing in the under and over-rated Robert Walser.)

In pop music, for me the most beautiful expression of the problem of what Bloom calls the "solipsistic crossing"   (I probably mis-take Bloom's use of this expression.  Such misuse he calls, "creative misprison".  In my case, I might just be *wrong*.)  The most breathtakingly beautiful epression of this gnossis that unites all the discussions on this page is Paul Simon's *America*.   There is much that I need to bring to a discussion of *America*.  I will start with this biochemical subject.   The lovers, on the road, are searching for something, and what's with the cigarettes??

"So we bought a pack of cigarettes---and Mrs. Wagner's pies."

"Toss me a cigarettte, I think there's one in my raincoat."  "We smoked the last one an hour ago".  

Paul Simon's deft sketch of the couple grasping for we know not quite what includes these physical needs-- calories and nicotene.  These elements, along with the road travel to no specified destination, contribute to the stance-creation process that sets up and culminates in that most powerful moment in American song:

"And a moon rose over an open field".    In a few deft brush strokes, with Picasso-like economy, Simon first establishes key elements of a sad crossing from solipsism, and then with perfect timing hits us with a perception of beauty that is more poignant for being a creative, willfull (goodwillful) re-making of the world.   

Question:  Does then next statement weaken the song by stating too overtly what's already been sketched with such sneaky accuracy?

"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."  Well, it does build nicely to the bridge from there.

There is an Emersonian theme that can be brought to a discussion of Paul Simon's *America*.  I'll mis-quote the opening of one key Emerson poem, (Plug!  It was set for Cygnus by Matthew Greenbaum, and the recording will soon be released!)---   "When the fungus, bright and red, lifts its head...."  It is one of the best examples of a poem that performs the stance formation processes that make possible and give strength to the poem's conclusion--quiet, tranquil and ever-so-loving nature descriptions.   (I've heard it attributed to Gertrude Stein--"climb the mountain, then enjoy the view".)    Nature descriptions without *strong* stance formation (put more straightforwardly--a strong context) easily fall flat.

Back to Brokeback and Tennesee Williams.  What's with the violence?  One obvious theory (and there will be other better answers to the question, I am sure) the violence is a stand-in for the gut-wrenching poigniancy of the bursting of the solipsistic bubble.  No hyperbole is too strong to describe the process. (In Jewish tradition, I think "the breaking of the vessels" is the metaphor employed?) 

What's with the sex?  For a 12 year old, the sexual act is disgusting and a threat to the happy solipsistic bubble.  The beast with two backs is a new collaborative bubble.  This figures into to Brokeback Mt. and into the discussion of Paul Simon's *America*, as well.

For those who don't get it, the reactions to the crisis I'm talking about can sound like whining, and in bad poetry that's often what it is.   But the works discussed here, I insist, are high points in American culture. Wuorinen's opera will be a towering monument.   Buy your plane tickets to Bilbao now!  I think that's where the premiere will take place in 18 months or so.

Had a discussion with Marc Wolf (Furious Artisans Records executive producer).  We're both Pink Floyd fans.
Dark Side of the Moon-- can you come up with a darker image for your album title?   I gave my son, (soon to be 14 years old ) 2 Pink Floyd albums recently.  Marc was then nice enough to augment that collection.  How would it effect this 14-year old?  Marc convinced me that the sinister quality of "Welcome, my son. Welcome to....t h e   m a c h i n e"  was meant to be taken with a dash of humor.   Henry & I are not sure we agree.  Can the true antithetical stance really contain any element of humor?  Someone tell me.   Perhaps a humorous tone cleans up before the mess is made? 

--William Anderson