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Anna Deavere Smith delivers NEH's Jefferson Lecture

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Anna Deavere Smith, actress and playwright, argues in Jefferson Lecture that humanities are key to a better understanding of what it is to be American.

New book highlights need to expand LGBTQ studies

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New book explores strategies and obstacles for gay, lesbian and transgender students and those who conduct research on L.G.B.T.Q. topics.

Brown U. declares it will double faculty diversity by 2025

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Brown U. says it will double underrepresented minority faculty ranks in 10 years. What's its strategy? Why do some institutions favor -- and some avoid -- specific goals?

Q&A with authors of book about redesigning America's community colleges

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A new book from researchers at the Community College Research Center posits that the "guided pathways" approach of program development will lead to better outcomes at institutions. 

Anonymous faculty letter criticizes Vanderbilt U. chancellor

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An anonymous letter allegedly written by faculty members at Vanderbilt U. is circulating, detailing concerns about the leadership of the chancellor.

At Oral Roberts U., smartwatches provide an entry into the 'internet of things'

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Apart from cases such as Oral Roberts U.'s smartwatch pilot, experiments with the "internet of things" are still years away at most colleges and universities -- but questions about privacy and cheating remain.

Review of Jan Olsson, "Hitchcock à la Carte"

During a late and tense scene in Hitchcock (2012) -- the biopic with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, centering on the troubled making of Psycho -- we see the director’s agent suggest one way to avert the disaster of being stuck with a film that neither the studio nor the censor will approve: edit it to run as a two-part episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," his successful and lucrative television series.

The director brushes off the proposal irritably, and that’s that. I find no reference to the incident in Stephen Rebello’s comprehensive Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of 'Psycho', so it is likely to be a screenwriter’s liberty for dramatic effect. The very idea of butchering one of the director’s most carefully constructed works for TV is as horrifying as any of his own stories involving mutilation or cannibalism.

But the cultural critic Dwight Macdonald, writing for Esquire in 1960, considered the film and the program all too similar: “Psycho is merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours by adding pointless subplots and realistic detail…. All in all, a nasty little film.” That judgment seems to have been typical of Hitchcock’s critical reputation at the time, at least in the United States. His talent, while indisputable, was in decline, and if his silly TV spots were not the cause, they certainly weren’t helping.

No such invidious comparisons occurred to the critics and filmmakers in France around the journal Cahiers du Cinema, which regarded Hitchcock as the consummate film artist, with Psycho as one more masterpiece. Questions of taste can never be settled definitively, but the opinions of cineastes and ordinary viewers alike have tended to skew overwhelmingly Cahiers-ward, with "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" now seeming about as relevant to Psycho’s status in film history as the bear-baiting pit at the Globe Theatre does to interpreting Hamlet.

So there’s something offbeat about Jan Olsson’s Hitchcock à la Carte (Duke University Press), a study that disregards not just the differences between film and video but between the director’s creative work and his public persona. Olsson, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Stockholm, insists on examining Hitchcock’s body of work through -- or at least around -- his body proper.

What swims, whalelike, into view in Olsson’s study is Hitchcock’s massive cultural presence. And yes, those were fat jokes. Stupid ones, too, but par for the course, given that critic-speak abstractions regarding “the body” here give way to considerations of a real body that went from more than 300 pounds to under 200 in a single year, before bouncing back up and plunging back down, repeatedly. However extraneous the director’s girth may seem to his art, Olsson treats them as combining in the public eye to establish the composite phenomenon we know as Hitchcock.

Many viewers become aware of his body and his corpus at almost the same time, by keeping an eye out for the walk-on parts in his films, where the director appears as a figure glimpsed off to the side or in the background. His appearances can be taken as both an inside joke and a personal signature, but they also reinforce a tendency going back at least to 1937, when he arrived in New York for “gastronomic holiday” while en route to the meetings in Hollywood. Embarked on a new phase in his career, Hitchcock turned his heft into a kind of social capital, something to joke about. Eating became a major part of his self-branding, as it’s put nowadays.

Hitch (the nickname was part of the brand) gave interviews to reporters while eating a steak or two, followed by ice cream. He blunted the barbs about his weight by joking about it himself: “I’m not really a heavy eater, unless you mean that I’m heavy, and I eat.” Flaunting his gluttony in the face of American puritanism, he also served up quips about the entertainment value of murder. Audiences learned to connect the mordant tone of his films to a personality that was, in all respects, bigger than life.

By the time Hitchcock made the transition to television in the 1950s, his persona was well established and, quite literally, scripted, with the comedy writer James B. Allardice turning out scores of skits and monologues in which Hitch poked fun at the sponsors while introducing the week’s episode. The gags often turned on his girth or his appetite, while the stories themselves often incorporated food or meals as a macabre plot point: a dining club whose delicacies include meat dishes prepared from recently murdered members, for example, or a frozen leg of lamb used as a murder weapon, then cooked and served to the policemen investigating the crime.

That blend of morbidity and sly humor is a large part of what we mean in calling something “Hitchcockian,” although Olsson also regards it as Bakhtinian: the films and escapades being examples the “carnivalized discourse” that Mikhail Bakhtin analyzed in his study of Rabelais.

Olsson has turned up an extraordinary array of photographs, interviews and publicity events that ran parallel to Hitchcock's output as a director, including work in a long-forgotten genre called “photocrime,” in which a crime story was told using a series of staged photographs. (Created in England and popularized in the United States by Life magazine, it seems to have been a prototype of the Latin-American fotonovela.) He takes all of this highly miscellaneous material as instances of paratext -- the layers of material surrounding the author’s (in this case, director’s) work, through which the reader/viewer passes in gaining access.

The echoes and cross-references between paratext and the films are interesting if, in many cases, likely to be broadly familiar to the Hitchcock viewer. The director’s name, Olsson writes, “just like ‘Salvador Dali’ and ‘Andy Warhol,’ represents intangibles beyond the oeuvre; it is a convoluted bricolage of art, commerce, marketing and celebrity indicative of 20th-century media culture at large.”

The author’s approach more or less precludes judgments of quality or a devotee’s attention to the particulars of artistry. And that’s okay -- the book is eye-opening on its own terms. But there’s a reason why some of us will watch Psycho a hundred times before we die, and I suspect it has less to do with Hitchcock’s body, as such, than with one part of it: his eye.

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Review of Richard H. Davis, "The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography"

Lost among my books, probably in a box somewhere, is a paperback copy of Bhagavad Gita As It Is, offered to me at a reasonable price by a smiling Hare Krishna devotee working the crowd in Union Square. The word “smiling” is probably redundant. What the group advertises is bliss, and it would be a pretty shoddy product if it broke down under the pressure of New Yorkers’ indifference.

I bought it -- the book, anyway -- but hadn’t noticed it going AWOL until reading Richard H. Davis’s The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography, a volume in Princeton University Press’s rewarding Lives of Great Religious Books series. Davis, a professor of religion at Bard College, mentions that A. C. Bhaktivedanta, “a vigorous 70-year-old Bengali,” arrived in the United States in 1965 and in short order was teaching and chanting among the protohippies in Greenwich Village. Swami Prabhupada, as he came to be known, published his own heavily annotated edition of the Gita in 1968 -- the one you can still get from his robed and shaved-headed acolytes now, 50 years after he began proselytizing.

The swami went on to his reward in 1977. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness he founded can now claim, semiplausibly, to have put out more than 20 million copies of Bhagavad Gita As It Is in some 56 languages. It is a sign of Davis’s accomplishment with his “biography” that he leaves the reader aware of how small a blip those missionary efforts are in the context of the Gita’s history -- let alone on the scripture’s own cosmic scale.

As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot. The setting is ancient India, shortly before a war that will leave more than a million dead. Arjuna, a warrior by birth, surveys the two armies poised for battle and, turning to his charioteer, Krishna, expresses overwhelming despair at the pointlessness of the fratricidal warfare about to begin.

Krishna first counsels a kind of stoic attitude toward the performance of duty: the lot of the warrior is to fight, but without attachment, to fulfill destiny without desire or fear as to its outcome. It is attachment, the corruption of action by the passions, that keeps someone bound to the cycle of rebirth.

Then Krishna reveals that he is not just a god moonlighting as chariot driver but the Supreme Being ne plus ultra, something beyond all human imagination or understanding: “Arjuna sees Krishna’s arms and eyes, bellies and mouths, stretching out in all directions. He sees all the gods contained within Krishna’s vast body.” The vision can only be called mind melting as Krishna speaks the words that Robert Oppenheimer recalled while witnessing the first atomic explosion:

If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the Splendor

Of the Mighty One…

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds.

Returning to human form, Krishna makes what is in some ways the most powerful revelation of all. Love and devotion are Krishna’s due, and Arjuna is prepared to give them. But the relationship is not one-way. Krishna expresses his love for Arjuna and promises to be the warrior’s ultimate refuge: “I will liberate you from all sins. Do not grieve.”

With that, Arjuna’s doubts and hesitation are put to rest, and the battle is joined.

The dialogue appears as a philosophical interlude in The Mahabharata, an epic poem of prodigious scale. It is unclear which came first -- the dialogue may have been composed as part of the larger work and then extracted, or it could be a freestanding text that some ancient editor spliced in. “Some observers,” Davis notes, “have pointed to the unlikelihood, or the ‘dramatic absurdity,’ as one noted Indologist put it, of great masses of zealous warriors sitting idly by for ninety minutes while a soldier and his charioteer chat in the no-man’s land.”

As an aesthetic objection that seems fair enough. The situation doesn’t work as a realistic segment in a chronicle of war. (I can’t say, having never read The Mahabharata, or even met anyone who has.) But its “dramatic absurdity” nonetheless works in expressing the mood of terrible existential pain, the moment of facing life or death and feeling overwhelmed by the reality right in front of you. That quality makes the Gita a powerful work even for readers incapable of regarding surrender to Krishna as what William James called “a live option.”

For medieval Indian poets, artists and sages, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna resonated with ideas and debates of long standing; they read it as a work concentrating and clarifying doctrines expressed rather more obliquely in the Vedas, a much older set of scriptures. The Bhagavad Gita’s depiction of Krishna also put pressure on the devotees of other gods to produce revelatory works of their own. “These gitas,” Davis writes, “always involve discourses conveyed from deities to listeners that constitute authoritative instruction on the fundamental nature of the world along with guidance for effective human conduct leading to worldly benefits and ultimately liberation.”

Infomercials of the gods! Still, it was Krishna’s gita that became the Gita -- a text widely, if dubiously, regarded as “the Hindu bible.” Its ascension was no sure thing. In two absorbing chapters, Davis traces a series of stages leading from the first English translation in 1785 (a byproduct of British imperial interests) to widespread fascination among the literati (Thoreau took it to Walden pond, Whitman died with it under his pillow) to a kind of rebirth as an element of Indian national identity, in part through Gandhi’s reading of Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial, which put the Gita into English, and iambic pentameter to boot.

Davis notes that only a very small share of early iconography of Krishna shows him in scenes from the Bhagavad Gita. More commonly depicted were legends of his mischievous childhood or his role as combative young prince. Treating the Gita as the Hindu equivalent of the Judeo-Christian scriptures probably revealed more about British Protestant sensibilities than it did about Indian religion.

But it proved to be a productive sort of confusion: with so many questions about the Bible they knew troubling the minds of Westerners, the new scripture from the East proved timely. Davis says just a little about the broad similarity between Krishna and Christ (each understood as a human incarnation of the divine, with a message of love) but clearly it was on the minds of some enthusiasts even before gurus started making trips to Europe and America.

There’s so much else to say about The 'Bhagavad Gita': A Biography -- but my karma depends upon meeting a deadline, so not today. Princeton’s Lives of the Great Religious Books continues to offer interesting titles (up soon: The Book of Revelation) and is the rare instance of a series with a concept that really works.

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Essay on issues of time and timing in a job search for a new Ph.D.

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Natalie Lundsteen discusses calendars and scheduling in the new Ph.D. job search.

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New York U. hires Oxford leader as its new president

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New York University picks head of Oxford University to replace longtime president John Sexton.

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