“Of Superstition” by Francis Bacon
IT WERE better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion, as is unworthy of him. For the one is unbelief, the other is contumely; and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: Surely (saith he) I had rather a great deal, men should say, there was no such man at all, as Plutarch, than that they should say, that there was one Plutarch, that would eat his children as soon as they were born; as the poets speak of Saturn. And as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men. Therefore theism did never perturb states; for it makes men wary of themselves, as looking no further: and we see the times inclined to atheism (as the time of Augustus Caesar) were civil times. But superstition hath been the confusion of many states, and bringeth in a new primum mobile, that ravisheth all the spheres of government. The master of superstition, is the people; and in all superstition, wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice, in a reversed order. It was gravely said by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrine of the Schoolmen bare great sway, that the Schoolmen were like astronomers, which did feign eccentrics and epicycles, and such engines of orbs, to save the phenomena; though they knew there were no such things; and in like manner, that the Schoolmen had framed a number of subtle and intricate axioms, and theorems, to save the practice of the church. The causes of superstition are: pleasing and sensual rites and ceremonies; excess of outward and pharisaical holiness; overgreat reverence of traditions, which cannot but load the church; the stratagems of prelates, for their own ambition and lucre; the favoring too much of good intentions, which openeth the gate to conceits and novelties; the taking an aim at divine matters, by human, which cannot but breed mixture of imaginations: and, lastly, barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters. Superstition, without a veil, is a deformed thing; for, as it addeth deformity to an ape, to be so like a man, so the similitude of superstition to religion, makes it the more deformed. And as wholesome meat corrupteth to little worms, so good forms and orders corrupt, into a number of petty observances. There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best, if they go furthest from the superstition, formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done, when the people is the reformer.
From Charles Olson’s study Call Me Ishmael:
Melville wanted a god. Space was the First, before time, earth, man. Melville sought it: “Polar eternities” behind “Saturn’s gray chaos.” Christ, a Holy Ghost, Jehovah never satisfied him. When he knew peaces it was with a god of Prime. His dream was Daniel’s: the Ancient of Days, garment white as snow, hair like the pure wool. Space was the paradise Melville was exile of.
When he made his whale he made his god. Ishmael once comes to the bones a Sperm whale pitched up on land. They are massive, and his struck with horror at the “antemosaic unsourced existence of the unspeakable terrors of the whale.”
When Moby-Dick is first seen he swims a snow-hill on the sea. To Ishmael he is the white bull Jupiter swimming to Crete with ravished Europa on his horns: a prime, lovely, malignant white.
Let’s get this out of the way first:
I love W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.
I reviewed The Rings of Saturn and you can read that review if you feel the urge for me to support those claims in greater detail.
Better yet, read Sebald’s book.
Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.
In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic: “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.
It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.
A few notes on those talking heads:
There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”
Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.
I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.
Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small. There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.
But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):
Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . . it’s too much.
Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.