My thought is all of this gold-tinted king's daughter
With garlands tissue and golden buds,
Smoke tangles of her hair, and sleeping or waking
Feet trembling in love, full of pale languor;
My thought is clinging as to a lost learning
Slipped down out of the minds of men,
Labouring to bring her back into my soul.
If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one
Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,
Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with flame,
Wounded by the flaring spear of love,
My first of all by reason of her fresh years,
Then is my heart buried alive in snow.
If my girl with lotus eyes came to me again
Weary with the dear weight of young love,
Again I would give her to these starved twins of arms
And from her mouth drink down the heavy wine,
As a reeling pirate bee in fluttered ease
Steals up the honey from the nenuphar.
- Bilhana Kavi
It's the start of Bilhana's great eleventh century Sanskrit love poem, the 'Caurapâñcâsikâ', 50 stanzas long, which he wrote in prison after an ill-fated love affair with the daughter of the king.
John Steinbeck quotes the poem extensively at the end of 'Cannery Row', and it adds an extra dimension to its charm to envision it being read aloud at a riotous party by the memorable character Doc.
The complete text of 'Black Marigolds' is online, in the free translation / interpretation by Edward Powys Mathers.
Did you ever hear the story of the Fisher King? It begins with the king as a boy having to sleep alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. While he's spending the night alone he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God's divine grace. A voice said to him, "You shall be keeper of the Grail, so that it may heal the hearts of men."
But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment, not like a boy but invincible. Like God. So he reached in the fire to take the Grail and the Grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded.
Now, as this boy grew older his wound grew deeper. Until one day life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any men, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die.
One day, a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple-minded. He didn't see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you, friend?"
And the king replied: "I'm thirsty and I need some water to cool my throat." So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. And as the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life.
He turned to the fool and said: "How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?" The fool replied: "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty."
This is the Fisher King myth as narrated in Terry Gilliam's 'The Fisher King'. (From a transcript of the final film. The original shooting script contains a slightly longer narration.)
In this modern retelling of an ancient story, Parry (Robin Williams) is Percival, the fool / knight who helps Jack (Jeff Bridges), the ailing Fisher King in the guise of a radio DJ. Jack's sin of pride and selfishness is ironically translated to '80's yuppie New York, where Parry has his own demons to face, fantastically visualized by the Red Knight haunting Central Park.
The Medieval stories of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail have appeared in countless different variations, like strands of mythology woven into different stories. For instance, usually the Fisher King doesn't have a wounded hand (as Jack has), but a wounded leg or groin - emphasizing his impotence, which leaves the entire land barren.
This element led Jessie Weston, in her classic study 'From Ritual to Romance', to associate the Christian symbols of the Grail and the Fisher King (whose name is itself a reference to Christ), with the much older character of the vegetation god (Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis). His annual death and resurrection ensured the cycle of the seasons and the growing of crops. One of the earliest hints of this cult appears in the Sumerian myth of 'Inanna's Journey to Hell'.
As Weston shows, similar motifs appear in many different cultures and myths - though reading them it often seems like a game of Chinese whispers, where the same elements remain in place but their causal links keep shifting. For instance, the Celtic 'Mabinogion' contains the story of Bran the Blessed, who posessed a magic cauldron (a kind of large Grail) that could restore life to the dead. Bran is wounded in war (in the foot) and the cauldron is destroyed.
Today, Weston's work retains its reputation mostly for inspiring T.S. Eliot with his title and theme of 'The Waste Land' - the barren land which Eliot associates with modern life, and with London.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
It would be interesting to know if Gilliam was inspired by Eliot, but his modern yet mythological Manhattan certainly evokes the waste land in a visually dramatic way. It's yet another classic strand of this ancient story, which somehow keeps striking a chord in different times and cultures.
While on the subject of Raoul Servais (see previous post), an interesting project he participated in is 'Winter Days', an animated film based on a renku by Bashō and others. Renku are collaborative poems where poets would take turns contributing verses, responding to each other. Following this collaborative format, the film's 36 segments were animated by different directors from around the world, invited by the project's initiator, Kihachirō Kawamoto.
In a wild variety of styles, ranging from cell animation and stop-motion to computer animation, the film offers many different approaches to the question of how to render 17th century Japanese poetry on film. As this in-depth review concludes, the more traditional animation styles are better suited to this purpose: "'Handmade' films tend to have more texture and depth of emotion that are vital in the creation of poetic meaning."
Here's a shortlist of visually interesting episodes. (They're all online, so click around in YouTube's related list to find more gems.)
- #8 by Raoul Servais
- #11 by Yoichi Kotabe & Reiko Okuyama
- #12 by Aleksandr Petrov
- #24 by Reiko Yokosuka
- #32 by Co Hoedeman
- #33 by Jacques Drouin
- #35 by Koji Yamamura
Seeing the curious failure of 'Taxandria' at the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam (who rather amateuristically showed a dubbed German version of the film and then apologized for the lack of subtitles) puts some of the other work of Belgian filmmaker Raoul Servais in sharp relief.
'Taxandria' (1994) is his only feature film, and as in many of his short works it uses a combination of live-action characters and animated sets - in this case designed by François Schuiten, loosely linking the film to his 'Obscure Cities' graphic novels. It results in some beautiful imagery, which unfortunately doesn't manage to make up for the formulaic story and some aggravating acting.
Before that, however, Servais had made a number of surreal short films, notably the apocalyptic satire of 'Operation X-70' (1972) and the nightmarish horror of 'Harpya' (1979), both of which won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
And in 2001 he returned with the delightfully absurd 'Atraksion', where he first adopted digital technology to create another seamless blend of animation and live-action. Reminding a bit of 'Balance', it details the efforts of a group of shackled prisoners to escape from their desert world, only to meet another group of prisoners from a mirror world. Following its own inscrutable logic, it may be best described as a hybrid between the Sisyphus and Icarus myths...
See also these notes on Servais' short films, which have been collected on DVD.
In Samuel Beckett's short play 'Krapp's Last Tape' (1958) an old man reviews his life, listening to tapes he has recorded every year on his birthday, and making a new recording. Thus a considerable part of the play consists of the recorded voice of a younger Krapp, who in turn talks about listening to tapes from even further back.
In the rendition from NT Gent, 'Krapps Laatste Band', with an impressive role by Steven Van Watermeulen, Krapp's pathetic birthday is further accentuated by a particularly bleak stage design. Beckett's text only mentions a table and a tape recorder, which are here surrounded by a big pile of dirt. Like an archeologist of his own life, Krapp has to dig in the dirt for his clothes, bottles and glasses.
As with many Beckett characters, Krapp's lifelong repeated ritual has by now become an empty, prescribed set of actions, like a cage that he shares with a few old and agonizing memories. In this case we don't just witness the end result (the empty ritual, the fossilized memories), but glimpse various stages of the process. Tragically, however, there isn't all that much difference between the young and old Krapp...
This is Krapp's voice recorded at age 39:
Just been listening to an old year, passages at random. I did not check in the book, but it must be at least ten or twelve years ago. At that time I think I was still living on and off with Bianca in Kedar Street. Well out of that, Jesus yes! Hopeless business. [Pause.] Not much about her, apart from a tribute to her eyes. Very warm. I suddenly saw them again. [Pause.] Incomparable! [Pause.] Ah well... [Pause.] These old P.M.s are gruesome, but I often find them - [Krapp switches off, broods, switches on] - a help before embarking on a new... [hesitates] ...retrospect.
And this is Krapp in the present (age 69), recording a new tape:
Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that's all done with anyway. [Pause.] The eyes she had! [Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.] Everything there, everything, all the - [Realizing this is not being recorded, switches on.] Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of... [hesitates] ...the ages!
The dramatic device of the tape recordings, presenting mediated memories in various degrees removed from the present, paradoxically emphasizes their fleeting, ephemeral nature - forcing us (and Krapp himself) to see the futility of the ritual. Krapp has lived his life trying to hold on to the past, until on his last tape he concludes that he wouldn't want it back.
The full text is online. See also this essay (in Dutch, PDF), linking the play to Walter Benjamin's lamented loss of aura in mediated reality.