Monday, April 16, 2007

Blinded by the Light

Pardon me, I am eating my morning oatmeal.


The days go by and I am not sure how everything that must be done gets accomplished. Somehow, it does.

Anyway, I thought you might enjoy a few minutes with the late William Matthews.

He writes:

We like to talk about poetry as a form of knowledge, a way of knowing, as if it were good to be knowing. In the science fiction movies of the 1950's and 1960's, made in the stunned calm aftermath of the split atom, once the radiation-swollen monsters have been vanquished and the hero and heroine can pause for a deep breath and thought, one of them is bound to say to the other that here are some things humans are not meant to know. But Pandora's box is open.

And Pandora's box is to suffer opening. It is not accidental that such atomic- and later, hydrogen-nightmare movies were made exclusively in America and Japan.

In Roger Corman's 1963 film, The Man with X-ray Eyes, Ray Milland could see through the surfaces of things to their structures. He had conducted experiments on himself, against the advice of more cautious but drably conventional colleagues, to get this ability. Once won, it destroyed him. He was, to cite a Hitchcock title, The Man Who New Too Much, which is a morally melodramatic Hollywood way to say "the man who knew dangerous things." It's not the quantity of what he knew that was a problem but that he exceeded limits and broke taboos.

In one scene in the movie Milland is riding in a car. Modern buildings whir by. He wears sunglasses, the bright light of geometrical structures hurt his eyes so, and his heart and soul. It's like taking Blake for a spin around Houston; Newton has crushingly won the day. The world seems to be made of blueprints, and the structural principles for all the buildings are plagiarisms––not of some historic source, but of each other.

Milland's living hell has no surfaces: it turns out that beauty is only skin deep. Isn't it the light on the lawn that we love, and not the moles, the industrious worms, the fine hairlets of roots? Does a poem really have, as the textbooks say, "levels" of meaning (seven, like Troy!)? Or isn't what is miraculous about poems that they are only ink on paper, the way we live only on the surface of the earth, and the way lovers have, finally, only the surfaces of each other's bodies?

It's true, the viewer feels by the end of Corman's stylishly tawdry movie, that the Milland character gave up everything valuable. At the end of the movie he takes off his sunglasses, and the screen, doused with light, goes bright white, as if blindness were, after all, too much light, the saturating flash of the split atom.

-From William Matthews, "Ignorance" in Curiosities, (Poets on Poetry Series, University of Michigan Press, 1989), pp. 132-133.


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