Friday, June 18, 2010

Man as hyperbole (Books: How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer & The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow)

I find myself with so much reading and writing for work (and such a desire to be out and moving when I'm not working) that I'm getting through fewer books this summer than I am used to. The two I'm devoting the most attention to right now are Jonah Lehrer's latest - How We Decide - which, as its title indicates, discusses the mechanisms of decision making at the neural and psychological levels. It's very readable and he employs lots of accessible examples, staying on the light side of the science. I'll do a post on the whole thing when I have finished it but I became a fan of Jonah's with his first book Proust Was a Neuroscientist and I remain one as I read this.

The second is a two-volume biography of Orson Welles by actor/writer/director Simon Callow which I received from friend Sheila about a year ago (and I'm just getting to it now?!). You may remember Callow as the Reverend Bebe in the fantastic Merchant/Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Room With a View (and if you don't, watch the film again because it is well worth it). I have just begun the first volume of the Welles bio - The Road to Xanadu - and Callow is about as erudite and enthusiastic a biographer as one could hope for. I especially like his opening insights.
If you try to probe, I'll lie to you. Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews is false. I'm like a hen protecting her eggs. I cannot talk. I must protect my work. Introspection is bad for me. I'm a medium, not an orator. Like certain oriental and christian mystics, I think the 'self' is a kind of enemy. My work is what enables me to come out of myself. I like what I do, not what I am...Do you know the best service anyone could render to art? Destroy all biographies. Only art can explain the life of a man - and not the contrary. (Orson Welles to Jean Clay, 1962)
Aint' that the truth. If only more artists felt this way. Now the performing arts seems to have become synonymous with personal confession and careers are sustained via industries of image-building. Although Welles was no exception to this in practice, only in theory.
Hitherto, the only credible representations of him have been those offered by John Houseman in Run-through and Michaeal Mac Liammoir in All About Hecuba and Put Money in they Purse. Both men engaged deeply with Welles and were beguiled and frustrated by him in equal measure. Their distinctly different views of him, though highly personal, are based on close observation and intense engagement, and written with precision and insight; both men were denounced by Welles, their witness called into question. I was lucky enough to know them personally and what they told me about Welles has been the starting point for my book, which is thus simultaneously a synthesis and a deconstruction.

Not bad credentials for one great artist becoming the biographer of another.

And Callow's explanation for why newspapers were such an important source for his book:
He publically constructed himself from the earliest age - my first press clipping is headed ACTOR, POET, CARTOONIST - AND ONLY TEN - in a medium that he courted and denounced in equal measure; and the press returned the compliment. Together they concluded a sort of Faustian pact wherein Welles was meteorically advanced by sensation -hungry newspapers, to whom he pandered shamelessly, until at the height of his fame he fell foul of them; saddled with a preposterous reputation and a personality drawn by him and coloured by them, he found himself unemployable, his work overshadowed by his everexapanding Self. Even his body became legendary, out of control; whatever his soul consisted of protected from the world by wadding. Locked in a personal relationship as complex and curious as that of Lear and his fool, Welles and the newspapers needed and abominated each other in a co-dependency that only his death dissolved. It is no coincidence that his most famous work is the apotheosis of the newspaper film.
Holy moly - Faust and Lear in one paragraph. This promises to be a thorough if hyperbolic journey and I think I'm going to love every crowded page of it.

1 comment:

Sheila O'Malley said...

So excited you've started it! You have to slog through 10 page analyses of Welles' compositions he wrote in grade school - but that's part of why I love the book. Simon Callow is OBSESSED. And his perspective, as a man of the theatre, is awesome - he understands the nuts and bolts of rehearsal process and really gets some great anecdotes about Welles as a director and actor. Looking forward to hearing more.

Callow is apparently working on Volume III and I can't wait.