Brokeback Mountain & Suddenly Last Summer

Love and Death, American Style

Someone has to point out the parallels between Brokeback Mountain and Tennesee William's Suddenly Last Summer.

Around the time of Wuorinen's *Brokeback Mountain* premiere the Anderson/Fader Guitar Duo, aka, the Cygnus Guitarists -- released Wuorinen's sterling little guitar duo, *Dodecadactyl* on Furious Artisans Records.

I have talked about Wuorinen's interest in fractals, arriving at the conclusion that the fractal glow given off by his music is tantamount to a kind of "fractal naturalism".

Brokeback Mountain shows another side -- the gnostic side -- of this fractal naturalism.

To what kind of "knowing" does the Greek work, "gnostic" refer? I see like this: all attitudes toward nature, positive or negative are cultural, brought to nature by us as individuals and collectively.

It is not easy for some people to arrive at what Harold Bloom calls "negative nature". Gnosticism amounts to nature stripped of its lovely positive glow. We are besotted by an oversimplification of Rousseau/Goethe/Wordsworth/Emerson's relatively recent revival of the pantheistic perspective, where all that is godly (the loving variety), familial, comforting-- is infused generously throughout all nature.

[ Goethe, echoed by Stifter and Nietzsche, embraced both positive & negative nature when he spoke of "beyond good & evil". ]

Gnosticism is the sad irrevocable knowing (experiencing) of nature stripped of culture, acquiring a frightening value-neutrality. It's a knowing that's more an un-knowing.

Despite our habitual pantheism, we see instances of negative nature in Whitman and Wallace Stevens. Harold Bloom is the go-to guy for examples and discussions of negative nature.

And there is Baudelaire & antinaturalism-- Louie Fuller's, Varese's antinaturalism... Baudelaire spurns "anything positive", suggesting "antipositivism", even before Positivism got off the ground as a movement, the one that Milton Babbitt took to so strongly.

And we see negative nature in much Southern (US) material.

Perhaps the best example is Tennesee William's *Suddenly Last Summer*. Remember the movie with Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor?? I will paraphrase (roughly) some of the key lines: "I have seen God"--the character portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor is quoting her cousin, talking about his exerience in the Galapagos Islands--"I saw the birds savagely attacking the baby turtles as they raced to the safety of the sea." This is a yearly occurrence on the Galapagos Islands. Negative nature, but really this image is a stand-in for the heart of the matter that is left almost unstated:

The character played by Elizabeth Taylor witnessed her gay cousin being cannibalized somewhere in South America or Central America. She travelled with this cousin, she brought a lot of attention to the pair. The movie starts with Elizabeth Taylor in an asylum, trying to live through this experience.

I know from some casual conversations that Wuorinen's opera, Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx will get right what the movie got wrong. The scene in the mountains was not intended to be a lovely Rousseau/Wordsworth/Emersonian paradise. And one of the two men meets a fate similar to that of Elizabeth Taylor's cousin in Suddenly Last Summer. The brutality of nature is met by an equally brutal culture.

We might surmise now, through his interest in Brokeback Mountain, that his naturalism is not merely a rosy pantheistic naturism, but acknowledges this gnostic negative side as well. Even the hellish Wyoming landscape-- those gaping rain-ravaged gulches-- are fractal. Fractals are beyond good and evil.

[ As a kid, travelling back east from Colorado, through Wyoming, we stopped and camped in our converted Ford Econoline camper in Glendo, Wyoming. Even my ever so good-natured, nature-besotted father said at the time that Glendo Wyoming was a little piece of *hell*. We were picking burrs off our dog for weeks thereafter. ]

One more little detail about Southern authors and negative nature---see how Faulker tweaks the hothouse scene in Raymond Chandler's, *The Big Sleep* (Recall the scenes with the old man--the father in the wheelchair in his hothouse). Remember that Faulker did the screenplay. Faulker had a nice sense of Maeterlick's SERRES CHAUDES (Hot House Flowers), Maeterlinck's early poetry collection that comes hard on the heels of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. I think Chandler wanted to make the same connections, but didn't do it quite as elegantly as Faulkner did in the screenplay. (Remember also that in Suddenly Last Summer Katherine Hepburn is sitting in a hothouse filled with evil-looking tropical plants.)

What makes Central European decadence and Southern US decadence so similar? Don't they have this in common: both come from cultures where a political/economic system persisted after others rendered them obsolete? Further along these lines, check out Jeremy Rifkin's, The Third Industrial Revolution. We are in another moment of not-creative-enough destruction, and the aging baby boomers will be sure to treat their impending demise as if all the world will go with them.

Pop Gnostics

Also relevant here: also on the Anderson/Fader Furious Artisans disc can be found my cover of Gillian Welch's My Morphine, performed by Anderson & Fader, with Haleh Abghari singing. My Morphine, like everything Gillian Welch does, hits the nail right on the head; she hits on "Love and Death American Style", which includes much material both high and low from Tennessee Williams and Faulkner to Wuorinen/Proulx's Brokeback. Gillian Welch employs retrogressions almost exclusively. This is the same device that makes Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here so very sad.

One could take a gnostic direction in a discussion of Welch's song. I promise I am not a morphine addict. To take the song metaphorically--what might that mean? I see it this way: after our "solipsistic crossing" , we realize that the beauty of the outer world comes from our projecting our own hard-wired innate good will upon the world we inhabait. As solipsists we do not care about the psychology of being well adjusted--it happens effortlessly. When we (willfully, sometime after the brain develops to a certain point) learn what Yeats called the "antithetical" mode of being, one unhappy thing that dawns on us is that our happiness in the world is largely biochemical, we learn that the world is not innately good (or evil). That is a gnossis. The traditional gnostic (there are many and diverse traditions) takes this merely as a starting point, and creatively finds the way back to happiness-- a reconstructed wholeness.

In pop music, a breathtakingly beautiful epression of this gnossis is Paul Simon's *America*. Simon oddly begins with something biochemical. The lovers, on the road, are searching for something, and what's with the cigarettes??

"So we bought a pack of cigarettes---and Mrs. Wagner's pies."

"Toss me a cigarettte, I think there's one in my raincoat." "We smoked the last one an hour ago".

Paul Simon's deft sketch of the couple grasping for we know not quite what includes these physical needs-- calories and nicotene. These elements, along with the road travel to no specified destination, contribute to the stance-creation process that sets up and culminates in that most powerful moment in American song:

"And a moon rose over an open field".

In a few deft brush strokes, with Picasso-like economy, Simon first establishes key elements of a sad crossing from solipsism, and then with perfect timing hits us with a perception of beauty that is more poignant for being a creative, willfull (goodwillful) re-making of the world.

Question: Does the next statement weaken the song by stating too overtly what's already been sketched with such sneaky accuracy?

"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why." Well, it does build nicely to the bridge from there.

Returning to Brokeback and Tennesee Williams. The violence is horizontally integrated. It would be trivial if it stood alone. The violence doubles as a stand-in for the gut-wrenching poigniancy of the bursting of the solipsistic bubble. No hyperbole is too strong to describe the process.

--William Anderson

Share Post
Subscribe Now!