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Posts Tagged ‘Judy Holliday’

Arnold Bocklin- Isle of the Dead



I was working in the studio yesterday with the television on in the background. Born Yesterday, the 1950 film that featured the Academy Award winning, tour-de-force performance of Judy Holliday as a ditzy mobster girl friend who discovers she has a brain was playing. It’s a great film to work by, easy to follow without watching closely thanks to great writing from Garson Kanin and the very distinct voices of its main  characters– Holliday’s snorts, squeaks, and honks, Broderick Crawford‘s rough barks and William Holden‘s smooth, educated eloquence.

I have seen the film several times over the years but had missed, or at least overlooked, one part that jumped out at me yesterday. It was  scene where Holden, who is a journalist paid to educate Holliday so that she can better mingle with the DC power crowd that mobster Crawford is looking to buy into, recites a portion of a famous essay from orator Robert G. Ingersoll. This caught my ear this time because I have recently become aware of Ingersoll and have wrote about his once celebrated but now fairly forgotten life here, back in September.

Ingersoll interested me because, for one thing, his childhood home and a museum dedicated to his life is not too far from me. Once this pandemic is in the rearview I look forward to visiting it. But I am also interested in people who are widely celebrated and have great influence in their own time but seem to fall into the darkness with each new generation. Ingersoll certainly falls into that category.

This particular essay, After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon, was wildly popular in its time. It was written in 1882 and was recorded via the new technology of voice recording– invented by Thomas Edison, a big Ingersoll fan– by Ingersoll himself and other famed public speakers. It was sold on gramophone recordings so that families could hear the words of Ingersoll in their homes, a wild concept at the time.

It goes a s follows:



After Visiting the Tomb of Napoleon
by Robert G. Ingersoll, 1882

A little while ago I stood by the grave of Napoleon, a magnificent tomb of gilt and gold, fit almost for a dead deity, and gazed upon the sarcophagus of black Egyptian marble where rests at last the ashes of the restless man. I leaned over the balustrade and thought about the career of the greatest soldier of the modern world.

I saw him walking upon the banks of the Seine contemplating suicide; I saw him at Toulon; I saw him putting down the mob in the streets of Paris; I saw him at the head of the army of Italy; I saw him crossing the bridge at Lodi with the tricolor in his hand; I saw him in Egypt in the shadows of the pyramids; I saw him conquer the Alps and mingle the eagles of France with the eagles of the crags. I saw him at Marengo, at Ulm and Austerlitz. I saw him in Russia, where the infantry of the snow and the cavalry of the wild blast scattered his legions like winter’s withered leaves. I saw him at Leipsic in defeat and disaster, driven by a million bayonets back upon Paris, clutched like a wild beast, banished to Elba. I saw him escape and retake an Empire by the force of his genius. I saw him upon the frightful field of Waterloo, when chance and fate combined to wreck the fortunes of their former king. And I saw him at St. Helena, with his hands crossed behind him, gazing out upon the sad and solemn sea.

I thought of the orphans and widows he had made; of the tears that had been shed for his glory and of the only woman who had ever loved him pushed from his heart by the cold hand of ambition.

And I said I would rather have been a French peasant and worn wooden shoes. I would rather have lived in a hut with a vine growing over the door and the grapes growing purple in the kisses of the autumn sun. I would rather have been that poor peasant with my loving wife by my side, knitting as the day died out of the sky, with my children upon my knee and their arms about me. I would rather have been that man and gone down to the tongueless silence of the dreamless dust than to have been that imperial impersonation of force and murder known as Napoleon the Great.

And so I would ten thousand times.



The essay talks of visiting Napoleon’s grave and recalling all the highpoints of his celebrated life. But after taking it in, including all the human suffering that took place due to this man, Ingersoll decides that he would rather live the life of a French peasant that lived a poor life but one that had love and family in it.

Hearing and reading this brought two things to mind. The first was a conversation I had while walking down King Street in Alexandria with another artist, many years ago now. This artist was much more celebrated than me, his work selling for much higher sums than mine which made it appealing to those in power, both in government and in the corporate world. He rubbed elbows with that crowd much more than I. As we walked, he talked about the proximity to power there in Alexandria, how you could almost feel it in the atmosphere.

He asked if being that close to it made me wish that I could access that kind of power. I didn’t even think a bit about it, answering no immediately. I knew that I was an artist for just that reason, that I didn’t want to feel the weight of responsibility that I knew I would take on in such a position. If I were to change people’s lives it would have to come on my terms, as a gentle influence and not with the power of force and will that has the potential for death and destruction in the lives of others.

To the best of my knowledge, my painting has never killed anyone nor caused anyone to lose their homes or livelihood. That sounds like a goofy thing to say but it has great comfort for me. I already worry about so much that to add the wellbeing of a whole constituency would be a burden I couldn’t bear. 

My answer surprised my companion who seemed much more open to the idea of having power. This morning, this memory along with the Ingersoll essay made me think about the 500,000 Americans who have died in the past year due to covid-19. It’s a figure that is most likely at least 10% higher when you consider excess mortality figures and take into the fact that the mitigation efforts put in place for covid-19 have more or less eradicated deaths normally seen from the seasonal flu.

But even if the figure is right, half a million folks dead and half a million families affected is a sobering thing. To be somehow responsible for even a portion of those lives would be a burden I certainly would not want to bear. I think of the former president** and his administration’s laissez-faire response and it rings a bell similar to those lines from Ingersoll. To have such a thing take place under one’s watch and to only selfishly concern yourself about one’s own desires– the cold hand of ambition as Ingersoll called it– would be Napoleonic, to say it one way.

Criminally cruel and negligent is another way.

No, I wouldn’t want the life of Napoleon or our former president. I would rather gladly live the life of a French peasant with wooden shoes. Or a simple artist painting away as the snow fell outside his studio  in the woods. 

And I would ten thousand times.

Have a good day in whatever position you are.

 

 

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