Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Gene Wilder and Martin Luther



 

 

 



 

 

1.

Martin Luther nailed a document comprised of 95 theological proposition on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. Most likely, the 95 theses were posted on October 31, 1517. By this act, Luther triggered a series of events that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. War between Protestant and Roman Catholic factions of the Church convulsed Europe. The most destructive of the so-called Wars of Religion was the Thirty Years War waged between 1618 to 1648.

Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen was a German writer during the latter half of the 17th century. In one of his short novels chronicling the Thirty Years War, Grimmelshausen invented a character that he called "Mother Courage" – his book Die Erzbetruegerin und Landstoertzerin Courashe, its Baroque title somtimes translated as "Runagate Courage" or "Courage, the Vindictive Tramp," was published in 1669. The book concerns a woman who profits from the war by selling food and liquor, pimping, and prostituting herself and her children to the troops engaged in the conflict. In the end, there are consequences to her way of life: one by one, her children are killed by the marauding soldiers.



Bertolt Brecht adapted the book into a play that he called "Mother Courage and her Children." Brecht was a German communist and the play was initially produced in East Berlin. In 1963, however, the play was mounted on Broadway by Jerome Kern where it was perfomed 53 times and widely acclaimed. Ann Bancroft appeared in the show as the title character. A young actor named Gene Wilder was also featured in the show – I don’t know whether he played the part of Swiss Cheese or Eilif, both of whom are Mother Courage’s sons. There is a black-and-white photograph from the show, probably taken as a lobby card. The picture shows Ann Bancroft gesturing from the back of her canteen wagon. Gene Wilder, who looks the disheveled part of a Shakespearean fool, is peeping out from underneath the heavy wagon.

Gene Wilder was trained at Lee Strasberg’s "Actor’s Studio." He was a very handsome young man with brilliantly blue eyes and a mischievous appearance. Ann Bancroft’s boyfriend was a comedy writer named Mel Brooks. Through Ms. Bancroft, Gene Wilder met Brooks and, ultimately, they collaborated on the film Young Frankenstein. Wilder made three films with Brooks that established him as a leading comic screen actor during the decade of the seventies.

Gene Wilder died at 83 on August 29, 2016. He had been suffering from complications of Alzheimer’s disease for about three years. Reportedly, Wilder died while holding hands with his wife and listening to his favorite song, "Somewhere over the Rainbow."

 

2.

In 2005, Terry Gross interviewed Wilder. Wilder had just published a memoir called Kiss Me Like A Stranger, My Search for Art and Love. Gross’ show, Fresh Air, rebroadcast the interview on August 30 on the occasion of the movie star’s death. I heard the complete show while driving to St. Paul to argue a motion at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Wilder seemed highly intelligent and many aspects of the interview were remarkable. He presented himself somewhat like a sort of Holy Fool, a character from a novel by Dostoevsky, but did this without unnecessary solemnity or pretense. Most of the facts related in this essay come from things that Wilder said in his interview with Ms. Gross.

 

3.

Once when Gene Wilder was in Paris, a French cinema critic asked him about exemplifying "New York Jewish humor." Wilder told the man that he was born in Milwaukee and educated largely in the Midwest. Wilder suggested that the critic address his question to Mel Brooks.

 

4.

When he was six years old, Gene Wilder’s mother was very sick with rheumatic fever. She survived the illness but her heart was badly damaged. Wilder recalled meeting his mother’s cardiologist. The man was a heavy-set Milwaukee German, oozing sweat from every pore. It was warm and the man took hold of little boy with his wet hands. He said: "You must never upset your mother." Wilder recalled that drops of sweat fell from the fat cardiologist onto his cheek and arm. "If you upset your mother," the doctor said, "she will have a heart attack and die."

As a result of this conversation, Wilder decided that he would try to amuse his mother by being funny. He traced his gift for comedy to his efforts as a child to make his mother laugh.

 

5.

In the interview with Terry Gross, Wilder said: "I would make my mother laugh so hard that she would pee herself. Then, she would say – ‘That’s enough, Jerry, that’s enough’ and run off to the bathroom."

"Jerry"? Who is "Jerry"?

 

6.

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman. His family was Jewish. When Wilder attended Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio, one of the places where he was trained as a performer, he changed his name. Gene was a character in a novel by Thomas Wolfe that he admired, Look Homeward Angel. He also admired the author, Thornton Wilder – hence, the name "Gene Wilder." This name-change is not that different from another Jewish Midwestern kid, Robert Zimmerman in Hinckley, changing his name to "Bob Dylan," the last name acquired by way of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

Martin Luther was the son of Hans and Margarethe Luder. Hans Luder began his work-life as a copper miner but acquired wealth and became a leaseholder of a copper-smelting enterprise. (Hans Luder was also on one of four representatives comprising the City Council of the town where he lived.) Luder’s success was despite the unsavory connotations of his name. In German, "Luder" is a vulgar word for a prostitute – a dictionary tells us that the word means "bitch," "slut," "minx" or "hussy." Curiously, the word is cognate with "lure" in English – that is, a woman who is disreputable but alluring to men. Not surprisingly, Martin Luther changed his name away from "Luder."

Some of the polemics that Catholic partisans lodged against Martin Luther were that his mother had been a whore or a bathhouse attendant – these false aspersions may be related to the word "Luder."

In the film that made him famous, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, an ongoing gag is that the film’s hero pronounces his name "Frederick Frahnken-steen." He becomes enraged to the point of hysteria when anyone pronounces his last name as "Frankenstein." One meaning to this joke is that the character wants his name to sound Dutch as opposed to Jewish – that is "Frahnkensteen" versus the more Semitic "Frankenstein." (Or "Wilder" as opposed to Silberman.) We can attribute this joke directly to Wilder. Wilder wrote the script to Young Frankenstein and the first sequence, involving this joke, was something that he read to Mel Brooks several years before there was financing for the movie itself.

It is interesting to note that Hans Luder mined copper. "Silberman" means "silver-man" – possibly a silver miner or a silversmith.



7.

Gene Wilder had piercing blue eyes. When he was young man, he was extraordinarily handsome, almost to the point of being debutante-pretty. With his boyish good looks and curly, tousled hair, Wilder looked a bit like an unruly young faun, a sort of child-satyr. In this regard, one can see that the actor might have been regarded as a variant on Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, both also alumni of Strasberg’s acting school. Wilder’s voice, however, is a little too high-pitched, an instrument that inevitable suggests that it was made somewhere in the upper Midwest. I think most likely that Wilder’s voice, more suited for comedy than serious drama, led him to the types of films in which he excelled. That said, we should observe that Wilder also played an important part in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a role that he undertook during the years that he labored on the script for Young Frankenstein while Mel Brooks’ searched for financing for the picture. (Brooks’ made The Producers in 1968 – because of its subject matter, the movie was not broadly released: rather, it was shown only in specialty art house cinemas as, as a result, lost money. The Producers became a cult film much later. Brooks’ followed The Producers with a comedy called The Twelve Chairs – it also lost money. Not until the release of Blazing Saddles did Brooks’ direct a movie that was a success at the box-office. The enormous success of Blazing Saddles made in 1972 and released two years later made Brooks "bankable" and, therefore, opened the way for funding Young Frankenstein, also premiered in 1974).

 

8.

Young Frankenstein, needless to say, is a film about paternity. At the climax of the movie, Frederick Frankenstein acknowledges his family’s name and lineage. Discarding what might be called "accidental" elements of the story, the narrative is essentially about becoming a good son – from alienation, Frederick Frankenstein progresses through acceptance to, finally, embracing his family name and the work of his father and father’s father. Myths of creation through exclusively male agency – for instance, the story of Frankenstein’s creature and the birth of Athena from the brow of Apollo – are ways of canceling out the maternal. These stories posit that a man can birth to himself – that he doesn’t require a mother. In some ways, Young Frankenstein represents Wilder’s attempt to free himself from his mother’s malign influence.

Wilder told Terry Gross that he was taken to see the Frankenstein monster films when he was a boy. Since Wilder was born in 1933, he may not have seen the original film version of Frankenstein until later in his life – James Whale’s first version of the story was released in 1931. Most probably, Wilder’s first exposure to Universal’s cycle of Frankenstein films would have been 1939's The Son of Frankenstein – and, in fact, it is this film that Wilder and Brooks channel in their Young Frankenstein. The Son of Frankenstein is an elaborate, expensively mounted, and beautifully shot film – the figure of the mutilated police inspector central to Young Frankenstein appears in this film (played by Lionel Atwell) and the role of Igor (Bela Lugosi) is also prominent. (The last of the Universal Frankenstein films is The Ghost of Frankenstein, released in 1942, and, also, a picture that Wilder likely saw as a boy.) Wilder told Gross that the films horrified and haunted him – he was terrified by them.

Wilder said that he wanted to make a Frankenstein movie that had a conventionally happy ending – that is, he wanted to dramatize the problems of inherited guilt and the dilemma of paternal influence in a way that allowed for everything to end well: this was the project of Young Frankenstein.

 

9.

Freud wrote: "A man who has been the undisputed darling of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success." These words are extracted from a 1917 article published in Imago, "A childhood recollection in Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit."



10.

It must be said that all was not well at the Luder household. Luther recalled that his mother "for the sake of stealing a nut once beat me until the blood flowed." Luther also said: "My father whipped me so hard that I ran away – I hated him until he finally managed to win me back."

Luther’s father, Hans, wanted his son to become a lawyer, someone who might be useful in negotiating and drafting the copper smelter leases on which the family wealth was based. Luther dutifully took the late 15th century equivalent of pre-law courses and, even, began studies at the law school at Stotterheim. But a psychic crisis intervened and the young Luther abandoned his legal curriculum. He gave a drinking party for himself and his friends announcing that he was about to vanish from the world entirely. Then, he joined a closed order of Augustinian monks, intending to spend the rest of his life in pious isolation. Predictably, Luther’s father was enraged.

Someone once remarked about Luther that in his remarkable works and deeds we see the "accidental coincidence of a a private obsession with a public need" – that coincidence inducing the Protestant Reformation. The word "Pope" means "father" or "papa". Luther railed against the authority of the Pope as tyrannical, misguided, and perverse. This does not seem altogether unexpected in light of the great Reformer’s problematic relationship with his own father.

 

11.

Gene Wilder told Terry Gross that he wanted to be a comedian and, therefore, keep his mother laughing. But this changed when he was 16. At that time, he saw a production of Death of a Salesman. That play affected him so powerfully that he decided that he would become an actor.

William Silberman, Wilder’s father, was a Russian-Jew and first-generation immigrant. He founded a company that manufactured miniature whiskey bottles. We don’t know whether Mr. Silberman wanted his son, Jerry, to become his successor in the business. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman, the doomed title-character, has two sons, Biff and Happy. Biff was a promising student but has renounced aspirations to becoming a businessman like his father because "of something that happened in Boston." Happy is an apologist for both of his parents, minimizes their defects, and, ultimately, follows his father into the world of commerce. In the course of the play, ending in Loman’s suicide and funeral, it is revealed that Biff has been repelled from his father by the knowledge that Loman had an affair with his secretary in Boston and, therefore, betrayed his much-beloved mother.

In The Republic, Plato tells us that the efficacy of a powerful image is that it is like the sun – it both illumines things in the world and is the source of those things. A great work of art both shows us what is in the world, but, also, may represent to us a path or a method of affecting those things. It seems Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman had this quality for young Jerry Silberman – it showed him something important about his relationship with his family and his father’s careet and, also, offered to him a way to be free. (The last words in the play are "we’re free...")

After seeing Death of a Salesman, Jerry Silberman went to college at the University of Iowa and, then, worked to become an actor.

 

 

12.

On July 2, 1505, young Martin Luder was walking outdoors. A thunderstorm approached and he was caught in the tempest. A bolt of lightning struck the earth close to him. Desperate with fear, Martin Luder made a contract with God – if he were spared death on this occasion, he would become a monk. Crying out to St. Anne, Luder said: "I will become a monk!"

Why did Luther address his supplication to St. Anne? St. Anne, the "forebearer" is the mother of the Virgin Mary, a shadowy figure who does not appear in scripture. (She is featured, however, in the Qu’ran.) According to tradition, St. Anne, whose name is related to the Old Testament, Hannah, was infertile. She prayed for a son, but, instead, gave birth to a girl – immediately, however, she recognized the cosmic significance of her daughter. One can analyze this background and surmise why Luther shouted her name in a moment of unthinking panic – clearly, St. Anne was foremost in his mind, even before Christ Jesus at that instant, because Luther’s response to the lightning bolt was spontaneous and instant. Luther does not invoke the Father or the Son, nor does he invoke the Virgin Mary – rather, his supplication is directed to the mother of the mother.

A prosaic explanation is probably correct – in 1505, St. Anne, or, at least, her relics were much in the news. A German church in a place called Dueren, the name probably means "doors" or "gates", held St. Anne’s relics. The relics, however, had been stolen by a stone-mason, a man named Leonhardt from St. Stephen’s church in Mainz – this theft occurred in 1501. The parish at Mainz petitioned to the Pope for an order restoring to them the stolen relics. But in 1506, after much litigation, the Pope determined that the relics could remain in Dueren. The relics were kept in a church named after St. Martin. However, around the time of the papal decree, the church was renamed after St. Anne.

Martin Luder felt that his oath, even though probably involuntary, created an obligation. It was on this basis that he left law school to enter the closed hermitage of the Augustinian monks.

 

13.

At the University of Iowa, Jerry Silberman suffered something like a mental break-down. Silberman found that he was unable to cease from praying. He prayed day and night and could not attempt any undertaking without several hours of prayer. This was an odd affliction because neither Jerry, nor his family had been particularly religious.

Gene Wilder told Terry Gross that he prayed to ask forgiveness for having offended people, for having not lived up to their expectations, for having acting against God’s wishes. He remarked that before entering a classroom, he was sometimes paralyzed on the steps to the building for as long as an hour, helplessly praying that he be forgiven his offenses and allowed another opportunity to please God.

The prayer mania lasted throughout the years of Silberman’s college education. Ultimately, Silberman concluded that the force that urged him to pray continuously was not divine but rather demonic. Prayer did not make him holy but merely drove him farther away from God.

 

14.

In the monastery, Martin Luther suffered a similar affliction. With perfect logic, he concluded that he was unable to please God and that his nature was irretrievably sinful. Although he tormented his flesh with fasting, prayer, and vigils, he was unable to convince himself that there was any virtue in him. The more that he tried to be holy, the more he was convinced of his unworthiness. Each effort that made to prove his sanctity had the opposite effect – his mortifications and prayer made him feel remote from God. In this state of abject misery, Luther later wrote that "(he) lost touch with Christ the Savior and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul."

Luther later distinguished between "servile fear" and "filial fear." Servile fear is the fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber experiences with regard to the torturer. "Filial fear" is the fear that a faithful son experiences, concern that his earthly father, whom he loves, will be disappointed with him. We know that Luther had, in fact, disappointed his father and his breakdown in the Augustinian monastery was probably the result of a sense that what he had done was irreparable, that he could never satisfy his father, or allay his rage. At some level of his emotional consciousness, Luther seems to have conflated his earthly father, who was outraged at what he considered to be his son’s betrayal, with his father in heaven.

The Protestant reformation arose from Luther’s solution to his personal problem: how can I escape the rage of the father? Of course, Luther’s theological solution to his personal dilemma was that grace comes with faith and not through works. No human work, no matter how majestic, can satisfy an eternal and infinite God – rather, God’s grace saves us, lifting from our weak shoulders the hideous burden of the law. Luther evolved from servile fear to filial fear – that is, from a fear that his father would torture him because he was unworthy (or in Freudian terms castrate him) to an understanding that his father was good and merciful and that he should strive to abide by the law to please his father and not from servile fear of paternal retribution.

15.

After college, Jerry Silberman joined the army. He was assigned to serve as an orderly in a military neuro-psychiatric hospital.

Wilder told Terry Gross that he worked with many men who were very sick. The man were afflicted by obsessional thought. Wilder spoke of one man who was afraid to step on any kind of crack. He asked the man: "Why are you afraid of this?" The man said: "I don’t know, but, please...please don’t make me step on a crack."

We all know the childhood rhyme: "Step on a crack / Break you mother’s back."

 

16.

While working in the locked ward of the psychiatric hospital, Wilder concluded that he was seriously ill. He saw that his neurosis was similar, if less advanced, than those of some of the patients with whom he worked. This observation caused him to consider seeking treatment.

Finally, after ending his military service, Wilder sought help. He went to a therapist named Margie, that is, Margaret, and told her that he wanted to give away all of his money. "How much money do you have?" Margie sensibly asked him. "I owe $300," Wilder said.

Wilder’s treatment with Margie lasted 7 and ½ years.

 

17.

Martin Luder was named after St. Martin of Tours. This Saint was very popular during the late medieval period.

Martin of Tours was a great soldier. One day while he was riding in the countryside, he came upon a naked man shivering by the side of the road. Martin drew his great broadsword from his sheath. The naked man expected to be killed and so he trembled with fear. But Martin used his sword to hack his resplendent cloak into two parts. He kept one part, conveniently so that a relic-church could be built around that fragment of cloth. The other part, Martin gave to the naked man.

That night, Martin of Tours dreamt. He saw Jesus naked except for the halved garment wrapped around him.

This is an easy, sober, practical parable – St. Martin is not required to give his whole cloak to the naked man only half of it. Jesus doesn’t reproach Martin for thinking of his own well-being in keeping half of the cloak – rather, he says that Martin, who is "merely a catechumen" in the faith, has done the right thing.



18.

When Jerry Silberman, now a well-known actor named Gene Wilder, ceased his therapy, he felt radically free and liberated. During his last session with Margie, Wilder said that she had liberated him. Margie asked what he meant. Wilder said: "I could not enjoy life while my mother was suffering so terribly. I learned this through you and have overcome this feeling."

But no good son should be happy if his mother is suffering. So did Wilder become a healthy man at the cost of being a bad son?

 

19.

One of the ideas that seems to have controlled Gene Wilder’s life was the notion that he was immediately loveable to those who would matter the most to him. For instance, Wilder told Gross that no sooner had he met Mel Brooks’ than that comedian said that he would make a film with him, a picture based on Wilder’s only partly written Young Frankenstein. (Although it took ten years, Brooks made good on this promise.) Brooks wanted Wilder to play the part of Leo Bloom, the timid accountant, in The Producers. But the famous Zero Mostel had a veto right over any actor that Brooks selected as his co-star. Brooks brought Wilder to meet Mostel. Wilder told Terry Gross that Mostel, who was bigger than life, approached him, locked Wilder in a bear-hug, and kissed him on the lips. It was, apparently, love at first site.

Wilder was cast in a film called Hanky Panky – the other male lead was supposed to be Richard Pryor but he was unavailable. The script was re-written substituting a female part for Pryor’s role. Gilda Radner was cast in that part. In this case, Wilder’s loveableness preceded him. Gilda Radner, who was married, burst into tears in the cab taking her to the audition. She was weeping because she knew her marriage was over and that she had no choice but to fall in love with Gene Wilder. This was her premonition before she met him. Of course, Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner became lovers and were later married.

I suppose that a man whose mother has forgiven him and approved his lust for life will be a conqueror and the charm that so inspired his mother will make him successful in all of his encounters with the world.

 

20.

At first, Gilda Radner smothered Wilder. She was inseparable from him and he felt that the closeness and intimacy that she required made their relationship impossible. He was afraid to marry her because of her obsessive need to be with him at all times.

A half-year before they were married, Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner went to the airport for a flight to Paris. On the way to the airport, or in its corridors, Radner’s dog ate something that might have been rat-poison. The dog became very ill. Surprisingly, Radner told her boyfriend to fly to Paris anyhow. She said she would take the dog to the veterinarian and, then, follow him to Europe. Wilder was in Paris for several weeks, but Gilda did not come.

Back in New York, Gilda met Wilder at the airport. She said that she had been okay during his absence. This inspired Wilder to marry her.

 

21.

Shortly after they were married, Gilda Radner became sick with ovarian cancer. The disease went into remission but, then, re-emerged and, ultimately, she died from the illness. Wilder told Terry Gross that in the six months before her death, Gilda Radner took voice lessons. "She had a beautiful voice," Wilder said, "but she wanted to be a singer."

In the last couple weeks of her life, Gilda Radner practiced over and over again the song "When you wish upon a star."

 

22.

Wilder interpreted Gilda’s efforts to master that song as a kind of prayer, as "magical thinking," a term that he used in his 2005 interview, an exercise based on her hope that singing that tune would make her cancer go away.

I disagree with that interpretation.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said: If the world were to end tomorrow, today I would plant an apple tree.

In other words, the fact that bad things are inevitable doesn’t mean that we should allow them to seize and rule us before their time. This would be an instance of servile fear.

 

23.

The internet in its wisdom attributes the quote about the apple tree to Martin Luther King. However, someone notes in a comment that Martin Luther King probably didn’t say those words but that they are attributed to the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther.

In fact, the first instance of the apple tree quote is a book written about Luther in 1944 and, so, it is probably a fabrication.

There is a Jewish analog to Luther’s alleged statement: someone asked the Rabbi Yokanan ben Zakkai what he should do if the Messiah were to appear. "If there were a plant in your hand, and they should say: ‘Look, the Messiah is here!’, go and plant your plant and after that go forth to receive him."

 

24.

Curiously, the last thing that Luther committed to writing was praise of the great Latin poet Virgil. Luther wrote that no one can appreciate Virgil’s Bucolics, verse about sheep herding, unless he has been a shepherd for five years. Similarly, he wrote that no one could properly appreciate Virgil’s Georgics, poems about farming, unless he has farmed for five years. He goes on to make similarly shaped comments about Cicero and church governance – no one can understand Cicero’s letters unless he has busied himself in the most important affairs of the State for twenty years; it would require 100 years for a pastor to master proper church governance even if he were to be counseled by Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist as well as Jesus and the Apostles. But, then, surprisingly Luther reverts to Virgil and, in verse, as well, writing: "Do not assail this divine Aeneid, nay rather prostrate, revere the ground it treads upon."

The Aeneid is about the founding of Rome, a myth of origins. At the end of his life, Luther returns to the Latin story about how Rome came to be, the blood and violence of its foundation. Perhaps, he is referring to his own role as a new Aeneas founding a new Rome.

But the enigmatic text ends: Wir sein pettler – Hoc est verum.

In German: "We are beggars." And, then, in Latin: "This is true."

 

25.

Imagine, if you please, all those tiny whiskey bottles, each exquisitely wrought, and waiting to be filled with fluid, uisce beathe in Gaelic – that is, the water of life.

Plato’s Republic ends with a famous story called the myth of Er. Er was a man killed in a battle whose body did not decompose. As the incorruptible corpse was laid on the funeral pyre, Er opened his eyes and explained what he had seen of the afterlife. His story is complex and involves much wandering and many judgments inflicted upon the souls of men. But what concerns me is the transmigration of souls. After enduring punishment or reward, the souls are gathered in a place beside the spindle of necessity. After being placed in ranks, each soul is provided a lottery token. The lottery token establishes the order in which the souls are called to select their next life.

Imagine a great and terrible anti-Semite, a man devoted to religion and the highest of all things, the founder of a new religion and, with it, a new regime of being. The soul of such a man, in accord with his lottery, steps forth and decides that he will be reborn as a Jewish comedian.

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