Interlude: between two all-is-wells

This post is an interlude or intermission between my last blog post “All Is Well” and my next one “All Is Well: part 2”.

So Edgar comes on stage in Act 4, scene 1 of King Lear, disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom. He is all but naked and covered in mud, a disguise to prevent his capture and execution. His illegitimate brother Edmund has framed him, convincing their father, the Duke of Gloucester, that Edgar is plotting to commit patricide.

Let us note that Edgar actually loves his misguided father very much.

Edgar is out on the heath, the treeless moor, as a vicious storm gathers. He says a few words reconciling himself to his abject state, when suddenly an old man leads Gloucester into view. Gloucester is blind. His eyes have just been gouged out by Cornwall, Edmund’s ally.

Edgar says, “Oh gods! Who is it can say ‘I am at the worst’.? I am worse than e’er I was.”….
“And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.

The Old Man wisely hands blind Gloucester over to Poor Tom, for in aiding the Duke, the Old Man is risking his own life.

Gloucester observes “Tis the times plague when madmen lead the blind.”

(Let’s ignore the relevance of that remark to our own time.)

In other words, in my earlier blog post “All Is Well: another contradiction to despair”, I got myself all wound up about what seemed to be the worst possible circumstances. It took only a few days for life to teach me otherwise.

It will take a few more for me to process this new insight enough to write “All Is Well: part 2”.

As usual, I will draw on my sister Georgia’s support. She is gobsmacked by events as well, but no less convinced than she ever was that, to qoute Hildegard of BIngem, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

The #%*$ universe is unfolding as it should.

Blue Jasmine: too deep for tears

Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear as satire or more aptly Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. If that works for you, you will love Woody Allan’s Blue Jasmine. You can readily embrace its tragic comedy.

Who am I to complain, prone to black humour as I am? I confessed in an earlier post (
that Samuel Beckett’s advice – Despair young and never look back- was an article of faith for me.

And yet I do complain.

The movie opens with Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), in the first class cabin of a flight from NYC to San Francisco (a seat she can ill-afford, we later learn) regaling her seatmate with the story of how she met her husband. The band was playing Blue Moon. As it turns out the seatmate can’t wait to be quit of her: “She never stops talking.”

She arrives laden with Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister (Sally Hawkins), Ginger’s, modest flat where she proposes to stay while she finds herself. She blissfully ignores the fact that by doing so, she is preventing GInger’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), Chili, from moving in as planned. Gradually flashbacks reveal how Jasmine fell from her Park Avenue/Hamptons height of wealth and privilege to this nadir.

The script is a riff on the tragic Streetcar with Jasmine, Ginger and Chili modeled on Blanche, Stella and Stanley, but it is also a satire. It takes aim at the self-indulgent, spoiled and narcissistic Jasmine, at the shallowness of the wealthy, philanthropic set, and in an equal opportunity way, at the beer-drinking, sports-loving lower class. It is worth noting that both have deplorable taste in art.

Now for the spoilers.

I stumbled out of the theatre traumatized by the last shot of Jasmine’s face. I was half way through a cup of tea before I began denouncing the logical holes in the script.

How believable is it that a woman who signed whatever her husband put in front of her without a glance was able to call up the FBI and cause him to be arrested. (Have you tried turning in anybody? It’s a long and complicated process during which you are questioned like a criminal yourself.) Let’s assume that her impulsive decision was the result of a psychotic break brought on by the sudden discovery of her husband’s (Hal French, played by Alec Baldwin) serial infidelity, not to mention his announcement that he is in love with a teenaged au pair and wants a divorce. Otherwise, nobody could possibly make a decision to turn in the family breadwinner without securing a portion of the ill-gotten gains first.

And is it possible for Jasmine to be quite so reprehensible as to let her sister invest her once-in-a-lifetime lottery windfall of $200,000 in Hal’s Ponzi scheme if she truly understands that’s what it is? Unconscious, willfully blind perhaps but genuinely evil?

Then there is the question of the stepson. He is so humiliated by the revelation of his father’s fraud that he quits Harvard in his final year and disappears. Of course he too turns out to be in San Francisco, selling second-hand musical instruments while his stepmother tries her hand at computer night school and a day job as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist. When Jasmine hunts him down, he tells her he never wants to see her again. How believable is it that such an apparently ethical person would turn so totally against the woman who blew the whistle?

But all of this is mere nitpicking.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine had got in under my defenses. I identified with her profound loss – and very possibly her narcissism. She had lost her role, the elegant settings, the Manhattan apartment, the beach house, that propped her up. She retained some of her couture costumes that might have made the proffered second chance possible if she were not, at heart, so self-destructive.

At the end of Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is led away by people in “white coats” as she declares that she has always relied on the “kindness of strangers”. Jasmine has no such comfort. That last shot of her sitting on a street bench, homeless, without a purse, her hair wet,her elegant beauty gone and totally absorbed in a conversation with no one, is heartbreaking.

Some things are “too deep for tears”. Maybe this loss, which is being repeated around the world as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed on and people plummet into the abyss, (sometimes literally) is such a tragedy. Woody Allan realized such downfalls can be borne only by comedy.

The Right Mistake

Thelonius Monk, the jazz pianist, had a “unique improvisational style” Wikapedia tells us. He once said, after what he thought was disappointing performance, that good jazz consisted of making the right mistakes.

Robbie Robertson (late of the Band) borrowed that idea for his song, “The Right Mistake”.

We can call to mind scientific discoveries that resulted from mistakes or were at least accidental: small pox vaccine, penicillin, insulin, the Pap smear, as well as inventions including X-rays, the microwave oven and, apparently corn flakes. But, in addition to music and science, can making the right mistake be a good thing personally? Should we be trying, like Robbie Robertson, to make the right mistake?

Shakespeare’s King Lear did that. In his eighties, he decided to divide his kingdom, the ancient kingdom of Briton among his 3 daughters. Then he got annoyed at Cordelia, the only one who really loved him, and gave her share to the other two. They immediately set about curtailing his privileges.  He had a retinue of “an hundred” men that followed him as he sojourned first with one nasty daughter and then with the other. One of them ordered him, “a little to disquantity your train”. He bargained for 50, they cut him down to one and then to none. In despair and rage, he left the castle and went out onto the shelterless moor just as the storm of the century bore down upon it. By the time, he stumbled across supporters and rudimentary shelter, he was soaked to the skin and raving mad.

What he said made little sense, but already he had changed. He was no longer the autocratic egotist who demanded that his daughters compete in a contest to see who loved him best. He was humbled to such an extent that he sat at the feet of a homeless derelict, calling him a philosopher. By the time he was rescued by Cordelia, he was ready to live out his life in prison, if need be, so long as he is with her:

As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.

His great mistake has allowed him to learn to be a loving human being. He does not get his wish to live such a life. He is one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes and he must pay a price. That is really irrelevant because he has accomplished a much greater goal by becoming more completely human.

We perfectionists can relax it seems, for even our most egregious mistakes can lead us where we need to go.