In- flight entertainment at thirty seven thousand feet and across several time zones, the Oscar winning film Lincoln is being shown, but I prefer reading an abandoned copy of the New Statesman magazine (“Free thinking since 1913″: 15-21 February 2013) which I had picked up from off a table in the departure lounge before we left London . It is easier reading than the London Review of Books, but the writers are a familiar cast of characters; Will Self and others. And the same topics for discussion; “Iraq, Ten years on… Was it worth it?” .
I dwell over a book review under the title “Existential Jazz” by Richard Holloway (own last book: Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of Faith and Doubt). The review is of John Gray, The Silence of Animals: on Progress and other Modern Myths. Richard Holloway calls it a companion work to Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals (2002) by the same difficult to classify but forever interesting John Gray. The works explore the origins of myth in the written word, and especially the modern myths of human progress and purpose in the latest book. Gray traces these back to the origin of writing and via Plato and antiquity, through Christianity of the last two thousand years in western thought, and to modernity and today. From our first marks.
Back in the unimaginably smooth winging Boeing 777 in flight to The Great Abstraction, the breathtaking Richard Rogers terminals at Dubai airport, I begin to become drawn into the film Lincoln. The Spielberg film appears to offer a closely observed documentary of President Lincoln’s last month in office during 1864 and 1865. These are the dark and violent closing months of mass slaughter and destruction of the American Civil War, and the terrible violence is offered on screen by the deep shadows and glowing fires of the White House in which Lincoln’s progress and purpose, and determination to pass the 13th Ammendment to the Constitution before the end of the war, an ending which will also terminate the loss of his extraordinary executive powers as president during the state of emergency over the last four years of the Civil War. The undoubted good; the progressive and purposeful, final and absolute abolition of slavery.
On screen Daniel Day-Lewis plays the great man with wry humour, homespun wisdom, physical stoop and sunken eyes, and has earned his Oscar well. But as I recall my memory of the in the matching photographic portraits in 1860 and 1864, the actor does not appear made up to express the suffering of the man the pain, weariness and confusion in his deeply lined face in the latter, all the worry of losing and terrors the triumph of Evil, and the modern echoes reminiscent of the kind of progressive and purposeful war effort in Iraq ten years ago.
The “great abstraction”; somewhere between the face of Lincoln in the photographs in the 1860′s and on screen now, progress and purpose has been mytholigized. In the backdrops the film does not show the hospital tent city of Washington filled with the wounded men – the crowds (capacity was 70,000 beds) of amputees in the first modern “war of arms and legs”. It does not show the agony of Whitman, a hospital orderly beginning to reflect in his poetry the discovery of inner damage, the first records of which would go on to be called post-traumatic stress injury. The film’s dark atmosphere and orange coal fires reminds me more of the ghastly nineteenth/twentieth century Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriel d’ Annunzio, all guts and glory in the nation making of young men’s blood. At least that it is how the first half of the film appears.
The second half of the film will have to wait if I get to see it, because suddenly my own guttering candle spews forth and I am violently sick in mid flight! Call it jet lag if you like. Or escaping the great abstraction call me pilgrim. As it happens I am on my way to India again, and in this formation of Wordstall writing equally lacking progress and purpose, I am again and again reminded of the response by the sage Theta to the question why do pilgrims go wandering: “In order to fail”.
(I am however encouraged to see Life of Pi outscored Lincoln at the Oscars !)