They said that

Kafka Goes to the Movies

OK, here are the answers to yesterday’s poser. The six people commenting on the experience of going to the cinema in the silent era were all notable authors, albeit four of them wrote the comments before they found fame.

Quotation no. 1 – “Nothing of my former mind seems to have remained except a heightened emotiveness which satisfies itself in the sixty-miles-an-hour pathos of some cinematograph or before some crude Italian gazette-picture” – This is James Joyce, writing to his brother Stanislaus while living in Rome in 1907. Joyce was twenty-five years old, working in a bank, and a long way from literary fame. He was to become a regular cinema-goer, despite failing eyesight, and of course managed a cinema in Dublin for a brief period 1909-1910 – though that had more to do with money (which did not come his way) than any love of early film.

Quotation no. 2 – “If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly” – This is D.H. Lawrence, writing to Blanche Jennings in 1908, imagining how he might dispose of society’s outcasts. It’s a familiar quotation, from its use in John Carey’s book The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (1992). Lawrence was contemptuous of the cinema – elsewhere he describes it as the “triumph of the deaf and dumb”. His first novel was three years away.

Quotation no. 3 – “Was at the movies. Wept. Lolotte. The good pastor. The little bicycle. The reconciliation of the parents. Boundless entertainment” – This is Franz Kafka, aged thirty, writing short stories, and touring around Prague with his good friend Max Brod, with whom he went to the cinema. There is an extraordinary book by Hanns Zischler, Kafka Goes to the Movies (2003), which identifies the films the pair saw, from Kafka’s and Brod’s diaries, tracks them down in reviews and archives (where they survive), and writes a history of Kafka’s emotional life and cultural life through the films that he saw. There’s an extract from it here. Zischler is now working on a similar project on James Joyce.

Quotation no. 4 – “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema” – This is T.S. Eliot, and it comes from one of his most celebrated essays, ‘Marie Lloyd’, published in 1922. Eliot praises one form of working-class entertainment, but expresses loathing for its successor, the cinema, the phrase ‘rapid-breeding’ unpleasantly melding the growth in cinema-building with his sense of an animalistic, proletarian audience that filled him with horror.

Quotation no. 5 – “In spite of my earnest resolution never again to waste time at a cinema I have spent both yesterday and this afternoon in that unprofitable way” – The man with the addiction for going to the cinema is Evelyn Waugh. It comes from his diary entry for 3 September 1924, the day after he had vowed not to go the cinema “promiscuously”. The entry for 4 September however records, “Last night I slept ill; I think through excess of cinemas. I went to two yesterday”. This clearly was an addicition of some kind, and visits to the cinema are regularly recorded in Waugh diaries. Around this time he made scurrilous amateur films with Terence Greenidge, Elsa Lanchester and others, but had yet to complete his first novel.

Quotation no. 6 – “They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures” – This is from Virginia Woolf’s celebrated 1926 essay, ‘The Cinema’. Woolf was intrigued by film of reality, which she found to be at a curious remove from reality. Woolf was genuinely interested in the possibilities of the cinema, the potential it offered for a new way of seeing. Her ‘savages’ metaphor, however, I find mysterious.

The reactions of the literary intelligensia to the early cinema is a subject that fascinates me, and we’ll have more on the Bioscope in future posts – particularly those writers who found that they could make money out of the movies, or who were inspired to take up the camera themselves.

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