Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading Drama

Dirty Hands is probably my favorite Jean-Paul Sartre play. However, I can't imagine a staged production of the play being any good at all. Scenes go on much longer than they need to. The negotiations between Hoederer, Karsky, and the Prince about the makeup of a joint governing body make for rivoting reading, but I can't imagine it as anything but completely dull when performed on stage. It's a good read with tension and drama, but I think it would make a lousy show.

So how do we evaluate this or any drama? Is a play only as good as its actual performance, or is it to be measured by the words on the page? Or is there a platonic, idealized conception of the production, an imagined production which can never be realized, for which plays are truly evaluated?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Sartre's "The Flies"

From the moment Zeus is referred to as the god of flies and death, The Flies is full of mood. A mood of guilt, repentance, remorse, and fear, yes, but moreso a mood of sickness, rottenness, tragedy, and doom. The people live their lives in fear and guilt--but that does not make their lives empty. It makes them doomed. The set contributes to the sweltering sense of doom: Act I features a statue of Zeus, Act II, scene i features a giant boulder that holds the dead back, Act II, scene ii features a different statue of Zeus, and Act III features a statue of Apollo. Perhaps with some more time I'll analyze the meaning of the shift in dominant set.

And within this mood of doom, in which the oppressive flies take on an identity of meaning to themselves, Sartre explores his big themes: God, man, freedom, fear, and the Cosmos.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Thick Skin of a Vegetarian

I've long since stopped being surprised at the hostility with which people respond to vegetarians. Meat-eaters usually treat vegetarians and vegetarianism with anger or with mocking. I can't help but see this as defensiveness. People don't come to the question of whether it is right or wrong to eat animals objectively; most people are heavy meat-eaters before they consider that it may be ethically wrong. Therefore arguments tend toward justification of desired behavior, not toward legitimate debate.

That said, here are two of the more stupid arguments I've heard in favor of animal consumption. I assure you these are not Straw Man arguments; I have seen people use these types of arguments.

It is instinct for humans to eat meat.
This is simply not the case--unless you are out in the woods, catching and killing animals with your bare hands, and eating their flesh.

What we eat is almost entirely social; we eat the foods that society provides for us as acceptable options. Most people don't kill what they eat; they simply purchase it. Society tells us that meat is an acceptable option, so we eat it. Indeed, many people only eat meat that has been processed to the point that it no longer resembles the animal it came from; for many, there is no connection whatsoever between a piece of meat and an animal.

You don't believe that animal consumption for humans is social and not instinctual? Consider these two related points. In American society, people primarily eat birds, cows, and pigs. There are other animals that could be consumed (and to a much lesser extent than those animals are consumed), but primarily that is what we eat. That is partly socialization--these are the animals (that admittedly through convenience) are found acceptable to eat. Furthermore, if animal consumption is "instinct," you better be careful around your pets. Your instinct just might force you to kill and eat your cat or dog! Of course, that's silly. We don't eat our pets; some people are horrified to learn that dogs might be eaten in other cultures. We have made a CHOICE about particular animals. We are ABLE to make a choice about particular animals.

My cat is a prisoner of her biology; she must eat meat to live a healthy, thriving life. Humans are, of course, prisoners of their biology in many ways. One way we are not prisoners is regarding animal consumption; our bodies don't need it, we don't have a natural "instinct" to eat it, and our bodies may be healthier without it.

But people kill plants to eat them! What's so different? You don't care about killing plants, why do you care about killing animals?
It is undeniable that organic beings need to consume the products of other organic beings for survival.

However, if you can't see a moral difference between and animal and a plant, you are really not worth my time.

A chimpanzee has 99.9% of human DNA. Other animals have personalities and desires. Cows, chickens, and pigs have personalities and relationships. It is beyond preposterous to suggest a moral equivalence between a creature with a brain and a tomato.

Addendum: after seeing the "But we eat plants!" argument again, I've realized it's a version of the Slippery Slope Logical Fallacy. Slippery Slope implies we don't have the ability to set clear, logical lines. But we already set lines between humans and animals. We (irrationally) set lines between some animals and others. Is it so illogical to set the line between animals and plants? To me, that seems like the most logical place to put the line.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Amateur Theologian: Did people eat meat before the Fall?

As you read this, keep in mind that I don't know Hebrew; my specialty is making meaning(s) of the English language.

At the creation of the world in the book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over the earth and all the animals. He says in 1:26 "let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth" and in 1:28 "have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Interestingly, in 1:29, God says "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food." I find it interesting that even after giving man "dominion" over the animals, God specifies that man can have the plants for food.

Now, I'm not going to pretend this is clear enough to give a message that it is either acceptable or not acceptable to eat meat before the Fall. However, many people do justify eating meat by pointing to God giving dominion over the animals to man. I see this as justification of desired behavior; there is no specific mention that man can or should eat the beasts he has dominion over. In fact, God explicitly tells people they have the plants to eat. Again in 2:9, "And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food..." And then before prohibiting man from eating from one particular tree, God says in 2:16, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden." Again, God explicitly tells people they can eat the plants He created, but there is no explicit mention of whether the animals are available for food.

So before the Fall, there is no mention that people eat animals. I find this absense striking. God commanded man to have dominion over the animals, AND God explicitly commanded man to eat plants. With such explicit mention of dominion over animals AND explicit mention of what people are supposed to eat, it seems like a loud silence on animal consumption. It would seem perfectly within context to mention eating animals at this spot, but it doesn't happen. Based on the translation of Genesis I am reading, it is a reasonable interpretation to suggest that people did not eat animals before the Fall. Even after the Fall, God talks about man eating from the ground (3:17), plants of the field (3:18), and bread (3:19) without mentioning eating animals. Only in 3:20, where God makes Adam and Eve "garments of skins" is ther even a clear suggestion that animals are being killed for the benefit of humans.

At least worth pondering. I for one don't think it's ridiculous to suggest that maybe people didn't eat animals and that animal consumption is part of man's fallen nature.

Possible Flurries adds another point: in Christian theology, there was no death before the Fall. So could people "kill" animals to eat them? That's different from eating the "fruit" of plants.

(Addendum: I said I'd comment on the plays I read, but I didn't want to write a new post for this one. Let's keep my Amateur Theologian question at the top for a few days. So here's the comment: notice how in Sartre's No Exit, the door opens and they could leave...but they don't.)

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Peter Shaffer's "Equus"

I first encountered the play through this article from The Onion. For some reason, I thought it was going to be a play in the grand tradition of Absurdist Theater (probably "avant-garde" led me to that assumption). It's not. It has a linear narrative (with flashbacks) and makes perfect sense. The only thing that makes it "avant-garde" is the production itself (Shaffer includes many production directions and notes).

Themes? Oh, it has themes. Big, knock you over the head and onto your ass themes. Yet even though the themes are very overt, there's an authenticity to their explicit presentation. The ideas are clear and straight-forward, but Shaffer doesn't treat you like you're dumb (unlike the people responsible for this, who inexplicably made a bad movie worse and repeatedly tried to bonk our eyes out with the supposed theme).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Monday, December 04, 2006

Why I am a pacifist

Today I heard a story on NPR about soldiers and post-traumatic stress disorder. Two soldiers were interviewed to talk about the utter contempt they had for soldiers who claimed to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They had the same experiences and they weren't suffering, so they couldn't understand how somebody else could be. One soldier talked about how he couldn't wait to get back to Iraq, noting that he had "fun" the last time he was there. Most people, he said, get up in the morning, go to work, come home, and think about how there has to be something more. These people, the soldier said, put in a movie and that gets their hearts pumping. But we, said the soldier, are actually doing it, we're not the ones watching. The soldiers thought most of those claiming post-traumatic stress disorder were faking it because they were scared to go back.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Values Difference: the South and Me

I have biases against the South. I do not have bigotry against southerners, but I do have different values than what are traditionally considered Southern values.

I associate the South with a few things that I don't particularly care for.

Christian fundamentalism
A Christian myself, I do not like fundamentalist Christianity. I disagree with most of the principles of fundamentalist Christianity.

1. Theologically. I do not accept "Sola Scriptura," I do not accept a literal interpretation of Genesis, and I do not believe "This is my body" and "This is my blood" to be symbolic.
2. Socially. I like gay people. I also like non-christians, Catholics, and feminists.
3. Intellectually. I accept evolution.
4. Politically. In general, Christian fundamentalists hold political views that are not my own. Among other things, I'm a strong advocate of separation of church and state.

I associate the South with racial oppression, injustice, and inequality. The South should not be the scapegoat for the entire nation's history on race, but the South does have a pretty ugly history that includes slavery, the KKK, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and a great deal of racism and violence.

Should I consider this to be the past, history, no longer relevent? I don't think so. Robert Byrd was a member of the KKK and he filibustered Civil Rights legislation, but he continually gets re-elected in West Virginia (I realize West Virginia has a complicated history that may or may not make it part of "the South"). Strom Thurmond was a segregationist presidential candidate, but he was elected to congress in South Carolina into the 1990s. Trent Lott said that the U.S. would have been better off had it elected the segregationist Thurmond, and he still easily gets re-elected in Mississippi. This is just a guess, but if a U.S. Senate candidate in a non-Southern state had a history as a member of the KKK, a history as a supporter of segregation, or suggested the U.S. would be better off had a segregationist been elected president, his/her political career would probably be over. And many southerners continue to take pride in the Confederate flag: it is displayed at the South Carolina statehouse grounds, it is part of Mississippi's state flag, and in several southern states you can get a license plate featuring the confederate flag. I am not convinced by arguments that this is a celebration of "heritage" or "history" separate from a history that includes terrible (and official) racial oppression.

These are two central areas in which my values are at odds with southern values, or at least what I associate with southern values.

A Doll's House

I've made a vow to read 25 plays and 200 poems before reading any fiction (the exception is during snippets of waiting time), and I'll try to comment on every play I read.

Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House makes me feel bad for being a husband. It's also a masterfully written drama.

If I ever write an academic book, it might be on suicide in literature. It seems to come up fairly frequently in literature with various meanings. Some of my academic work has involved suicide in literature (in a grad school class on the Holocaust I focused two papers on suicide in the Holocaust, there's a failed suicide attempt in The Magus that I talk about in my thesis on John Fowles, I teach Hamlet, yada yada yada. Then again, suicide is such a prevalent theme in a lot of canonical literature that every English prof could probably say taht his/her academic work involves suicide in literature.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Bard and the Optimist

Last night, Possible Flurries and I discussed at least three subjects:
1. Is Shakespeare the greatest person to everl live? (An actual quote from me: "Shakespeare is, without a doubt, the greatest man to ever live, post-Jesus. I speak without hyperbole.")
2. Whether, as Shakespeare suggests, Nature does not give but only lends.
3. Whether Annie saved America from the depression. (An actual quote from Possible Flurries: "I thought it was government spending and the war.")

Consider this post the footnotes to those discussions.

Shakespeare and the Rise of Capitalism
Shakespeare used financial metaphors in some of his sonnets. Look particularly at Sonnet 4:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb'd with thee,
Which, used, lives th' executor to be.

The metaphor and motif of the poem is driven by capitalist concepts and terms.

One line in Sonnet 9 can actually be used as justification of a consumer economy:

Look, what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;

Shakespeare, like any great poet, could use whatever was around him as metaphor for idea. And commerce was around him.

Indeed, nature only lends

A common theme in Shakespeare's sonnets is decay and age; all things, all life, all beauty, passes. I take "Nature" to mean the physical world, and can only agree that Nature lends but doesn't give; everything we have we know will be taken away.

Daddy Warbucks is quite obviously a war profiteer.
Annie saved the country from The Great Depression with her eternal optimism and never-dying hope.

She saved the nation by singing "Tomorrow" with FDR. It was just the inspiration the nation needed.

Friday, November 24, 2006

"Nature, red in tooth and claw"

One issue always challenges my vegetarianims: animals are killing and eating the hell out of each other. Tonight watching "Animal Planet" on my parents' extensive cable package, I saw hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, and lions eating the raw flesh of recently killed animals. If, in nature, animals are killing and eating each other, is there really legitimacy to a stance that it is always wrong for humans to eat the flesh of animals?

Now, "Nature, red in tooth and claw" will not lead me to again abandon vegetarianism. I don't think nature has much at all to do with genetically altering a chicken, imprisoning it in a tiny cage for its entire life, mutilating it, torturing it, and finally killing it so that I can eat cheap wings. The way humans consume animals most certainly does not have much to do with nature.

Expanding on the line from Tennyson's poem, how can evolution help us know about humans eating meat? In fact, it doesn't. We do know that biologically there is not a necessity for humans to eat meat (while there is for some animals, such as cats). But evolution creates two contradictory moral arguments about animal consumption:

1. Since evolution tells us how close we are to the animals, we should really show more respect and concern for them.
2. Since evolution tells us that humans have proven to be the strongest species, we have every right to use animals that are inferior to us however we choose (and furthermore, evolution suggests there isn't any morality to worry about, anyway).

So I don't think we can look to evolution for answers to the question of vegetarianism. But of course, the question of "how should we treat animals ethically?" doesn't end with "should we or should we not kill and eat animals?" but extends further to how those animals that are raised, killed, and eaten are treated.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thoughts while listening to "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" and thinking of Anakin Skywalker

When we read Beowulf in high school, one girl in class tried to argue that Grendel was a sympathetic character. Here is a contemporary paraphrase of my 17 year old thoughts:

"You P.C. thug. Grendel is evil because by all conventions he is evil. This poem was written long ago and you can't apply your modern day sense of morality and injustice to what is quite obviously the villain."

A few funny things happened on the way to adulthood, of course. Funny things like college and grad school.

And Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars Episodes II and III, and Elphaba of Wicked, the novel and musical, and Judas Iscariot of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Narcissistic Trip Down the Great White Way

The title is already a lie; one of the works I'm going to talk about, I'm fairly sure was never on Broadway, and the other only exists in film form.

I don't follow contemporary music; I don't understand it, don't enjoy it, and have a general indifference toward it. Maybe it's art, maybe it's not, but either way, it doesn't do anything for me.

But I love showtunes. Nothing seems to make me happier (or, on occasion, more likely to cry) than great showtumes.

So here are my five favorite musicals

1. Jesus Christ Superstar
2. Wicked
3. The Rocky Horror Show (and The Rocky Horror Picture Show)
4. Rent
5. Moulin Rouge

What shall we say about these works, other than that they all contain fairly modern music adapted to the stage?

"Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Wicked" each feature traditional villains re-imagined. Judas Iscariot becomes, if not sympathetic, understandable. He also gets all the best songs. Elphaba, the "Wicked Witch of the West," becomes a sympathetic hero.

The songs in "Wicked" are wonderful, for, as Gregory Maguire says, the upbeat songs contain a certain darkness to them, and the sad and dark songs contain a certain optimism. My two favorite songs are "Dancing Through Life" and "Defying Gravity."

Both "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Wicked" are also modern re-imagining of archetypes, and stories about rises to greatness.

"The Rocky Horror Show" is a celebration of the abandonment of conventional sexual morality. It does so in a delightfully campy way.

"Rent" is about the formation of and need for community. Interesting, it is also a modern re-telling of an old story, the opera "La Boheme."

"Moulin Rouge" is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. I think just about anybody can set a camera in a room and film people acting; there's something in this film that is almost unduplicable. I don't have the film school vocabulary to fully explain it, but there's definitely a technical bravado to this film which gives it its strength. And the post-modern flourish of the anachronistically recognizable songs and the story within the story suits my tastes perfectly.

This is where I'll stop for now.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Office and The Office

I've been meaning to write something about the American The Office and the British The Office for some time.

The British version is, simply put, comedy genius. David Brent and Gareth Keenan are so funnily annoying in part because they are so "real." There's something authentic in their absurd annoyingness, whereas their American counterparts, Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute, are cartoonish caricatures of annoyingness. They are funny, but in an over-the-top, unrealistic way, while David and Gareth are annoying in an authentically real way that makes it much, much funnier.

However, we have to be fair to the American version. The British version was a success bit of comedy that entailed 12 episodes and 1 special. American sitcoms are expected to make 22 episodes in a single season; the American The Office has already made 36 episodes. They're going to have to get more over-the-top, and they're going to have to spread their comic gold out further. I laugh out loud at the American version quite a bit--but I laugh out loud nonstop at the British version.

And yet, the American version comes from (or into) a very different TV comedy tradition, and is addressing the experience of a different society, that makes the differences understandable.

There's a certain understatedness to British humor that I like, and see in such things as The Office, Da Ali G Show, and Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story. There's a tone of wryness and subtlety in a British comedy that a lot of American comedy lacks.

For pure comedy, the British The Office gets an A+, while the American The Office gets a B.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

In which I explain why MI III is senseless

Mission Impossible is a good movie. It's plot oriented--there are intricate schemes, twists, deceptions, and tension.

Mission Impossible 2 is a pretty good movie. It's directed by John Woo, and it is good in an aesthetic rather than cerebral sense.

Mission Impossible 3 is something altogether different. SPOILER ALERT! If you wish to see the film, don't read further.

The focus of the movie is "the rabbit's foot," a weapon so powerful and destructive it is called "the anti-god."

In a big, twisty, convoluted plot, Agent Ethan Hunt is eventually forced to steal the rabbit's foot for a seller. This seller, however, is working for one of the IMF bosses. Here's his basic plan, in which all the overly-intricate and risky stuff that happens in the film leads to.
1. Get Ethan Hunt to steal the rabbit's foot.
2. Have the seller complete the transaction to a middle-east buyer.
3. Gather convincing intelligence on the transaction.
4. Use said evidence to justify a war with the middle-east buyer.
5. After the devestating war, do "what America does best," which is evidently create a nation's infrastructure. "Democracy wins."

Let's deal with the problems here.

1. In order to justify a war with an enemy, the IMF agent is PLACING THE MOST DANGEROUS WEAPON IN THE WORLD IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY. Think about that a second. He wants the U.S. to have convincing reason to GO TO WAR with an enemy, so he is conspiring to GIVE THAT ENEMY THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON IN THE WORLD. Does this seem as silly to you as it does to me? Does that sound even reasonably safe.

2. Aren't there much less complicated ways to rig intelligence? Weren't less complicated methods of rigging intelligence used, just, you know, a few years ago? Do you actually have to have a needlessly complex scheme to set up the enemies and fix the intelligence? Muchless actually GIVING THE ENEMY THE POWERFUL WEAPON?

3. Uh, building infrastructure is what America does best? Nation-building is our best feature? Do I need to link to any news stories about Iraq to suggest the absurdity of this reason?

That was fun.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Notes on "King Lear"

I've made a rather arbitrary vow to read 25 plays and 200 poems before reading another novel. I will attempt to comment on those 25 plays and whatever poems I wish to.

There are three factors which may control our existence: fate, chance, and choice. You can rename these any way you like (fate may be Divine Providence, predestination, economic determinism, chance may be hazard or luck, choice may be action or will), but those are the options.

All, three, in some way, influence biology. We can easily call our genetic makeup fate or chance, and yet we have choice in what to do with it. But biology can complicate things.

In "King Lear," the bastard Edmund is focused on biology when he says "Why bastard? Wherefore base?/ When my dimensions are as well compact,/ My mind as generous, and my shape as true/ As honest madam's issue?" (I.ii.6-8). Later, he has a wonderful soliloquy about people who blame fate for the results of their own actions:

"This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star" (I.ii.135-146).

This is an excellent indictment of those who pass blame; Edmund seems to suggest that we make our own destinies, that our fortunes are "often the surfeits of our own behavior," that it is our actions which determine our lives, and we shouldn't blame the stars. However, he continues:

"My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's Tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows I am rough and lecherous. Fut! I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing" (I.ii.146-152).

Interesting, here the emphasis seems to be on biology; Edmund says he would be what he is regardless of the stars. Is this not also fate? Is the suggestion that the individual is what he is regardless of any other factors, that Edmund was born a villain? Certainly Edmund doesn't blame the stars for his villainy.

However, this isn't necessarily fate; it is social convention/environment that helped to shape Edmund into a villain. He hates being an illegitimate child; he wants the benefits of being a legitimate child. He's also about a year younger than his brother. If Edmund hadn't been born into society where, by convention alone, Edgar gets all the benefits of family by a) being born legitimate and b) being born first, would Edmund have become a villain? Probably not. Edmund had no control over his own birth or social convention, however, so in a sense he is fated to his villainy; if born in different circumstances, he would not have been a villain. Still, he has some choice here; he can choose how to deal with his status as a bastard, and after all, his father does still treat him alright.

So biology and social convention is involved: all three factors of fate, chance, and choice go into Edmund's villainy. However, no divine control has anything to do with it.

This leads to my next question/point on King Lear. In this play, written in the early 17th century, some form of the word "nature" appears every other line. To what extent can we use 21st century understanding of genetics and biology in interpreting it. I think to a great extent. First, after four centuries of criticism, any new ways of approaching Shakespeare help keep the text meaningful. Secondly, as science becomes more and more important to our lives and philosophy, we can use literature to help us making meaning out of the science.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Moments of Awe

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

I haven't read Shakespeare's sonnets in years. Today, with a few brief moments paging through an anthology, I caught this one.

John Madden says of Tom Brady that he does what every other great quarterback does, he just makes it look a lot easier. That also describes Shakespeare the poet: he writes as other poets, but with a casual, effortless simplicity that is unparalleled. Not only does he write clear, straight sentences in sonnet form as if he just whipped it out of nowhere, but he creates unique turns of speech in every line. I don't know that the content of the poem is terribly original, and I could certainly do without the last couplet; however, reading this poem one becomes aware of linguistic genius.

More on Intent

There is another important reason to ignore intent when examining a work of art.

Sometimes, an artist fails.

The artist may have an intention with a work of art, but could fail to achieve that intention. That doesn't make the work unworthy of analysis; indeed, the artist's intent could fail and BECAUSE OF THAT FAILURE, the result could be a great work of art. Regardless of the success or failure of the intent, we still have the results to examine.

And as psychoanalytic thinkers and critics have clearly suggested, human action and intent does not always operate on a conscious level.

Mary Shelley may have intended Dr. Frankenstein to be a sympathetic character. If this is the case, she failed: he is a self-pitying coward who constantly evades responsibility (despite protestations of guilt and blame, he avoids actually being held to blame for anything; furthermore, he takes blame for making the monster, not for abandoning the monster the moment of creation). Does this mean I have to think of Frankenstein as sympathetic because Shelley wanted him to be? Of course not. Does this mean I have to talk of Frankenstein as a failure? No, I don't, and even if I did, it might not change the merit of the work itself: regardless of what Shelley was trying to do, I must deal with the results on the page.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Greetings, non-readers

When interpreting a text, you must deal with what you do know.

What do you know? You know the text itself; indeed, this is the only thing you know in its entirety.

You can know how the work was published and know something about how it was received and how it has been used since publication.

You should know something about it's time, place, and context. You can't make major assumptions about how these aspects contribute to the work--you must focus on the text--but this can help to make sense of the text.

You have the author's other works, and possibly the things the author has written/said about the text you are examining. The other works can be helpful in making sense of a particular work; however, you have to be somewhat skeptical about what the author says/writes about the work. Factors such as time, reactions to the work, and evolving self-perception taint those comments.

You may know something about the author's worldview that can help you make sense of the text.

You know next to nothing about the author's intent; even if the author speaks of his/her intent, you cannot depend on that for certain.

You know next to nothing about how the author's biography influences the text.

You know next to nothing about psychological issues of the author, or how they influenced the text.

Monday, November 06, 2006


It is now painfully clear that nobody reads this blog, even my friends and family. The one regular reader is now a contributor, so this has become a pretty insular discussion. But we'll carry on, even if this blog devolves into something utterly horrifying.

A vegetarian will often be asked, "why are you a vegetarian?" I would counter with the question, "why are you a meat-eater?"

So which group maintains the burden of defense, vegetarians or meat-eaters?

Since vegetarians are a small minority in our society, the burden is usually on vegetarians to say why they are vegetarians. If the majority is doing one thing, it is usually up to the minority to defend why it is doing something else or why it thinks what the majority is doing is wrong.

However, I would argue that the burden of defense is on meat-eaters. Vegetarians are choosing NOT to act; meat-eaters are, whether they think about it or not, choosing to act. Meat-eaters are implicitly accepting that it is OK to eat the flesh of animals. I think the onus should be on meat-eaters to justify that decision. As a vegetarian, I'm going about my life not eating animals (and I'm moving steadily toward veganism, in which I attempt not to hurt or use animals at all). Shouldn't a person choosing to eat an animal that was caged, tortured, miserable, and killed be the one to justify that behavior? Though the fact that animals are eating each other gives me pause, I don't feel the need to justify vegetarianism; I want to hear meat-eaters defend meat-eating.

And go see Borat, which is all that you could hope it would be and more.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Post-modern films, and another stupid thing I think.

PV's Post-modern Films
Skip the philosophical treatises; if you want to understand post-modernism, just watch these movies.

Wayne's World: characters speak to the camera, make many references to the fact that they are in a film, and then guide us through three endings.

The Matrix: the major theme of post-modernism is that the image actually hides the fact that there is no substance underneath it. What film highlights this theme more prominantly? By the way, I'm one of the six people on earth who liked the sequels better.

Moulin Rouge: A story within a story, but the outer story actually makes the content of the inner story, and the inner story actually shapes the content of the outer story. Got that?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: the participatory nature this film has developed blurs boundries between the work itself and the viewer.

Mulholland Dr.: Perhaps the furthest reaches of the themes of po-mo?

Annie Hall: I've documented pretty plainly here that I'm not a big Woody Allen fan, but there's a certain post-modern element to his work, most noticeably in this movie.

Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story: Or perhaps this reaches further?

By the way, will it be totally forgotten that for a 3-5 year period of time Dana Carvey was the most popular comedian in America? Do people who were around during that time even believe it? Is there real evidence of this period? But it did happen.

The stupid thing I believe.
Frankenstein is, perhaps no more and no less, than a re-working of Paradise Lost.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dr. Frankenstein's tragic flaw

It is not, as you'd suspect, hubris. Frankenstein is not "playing God": he should not be condemned for attempting to understand the source of life, nor for attempting to create life.

His tragic flaw is cowardice: he is unable or unwilling to confront the consequences of his science. His sin is not in creating the monster but in labeling it a monster; his sin is in abandoning and rejecting his creation the moment it frightened him.

And this is the theme that human beings must carry with us through all of our scientific endeavors.

Monday, October 23, 2006


There are "important books. I would define an important book as either having a direct impact on the world (the writings of Marx or Luther, The Jungle), or having a wide impact on the realm of ideas, so that the way we think about things is affected by the book (Frankenstein). So there is no doubt there have been important books.

But have there been important films? If you think so, please provide me examples.

I do not include as "important" those works of art that change only the way other works of art are made or thought of. That's insular. I'm talking about "important" in the blood, bone, and guts world or important in the realm of ideas about living in the world. I'm also not in this case arguing about books that are personally important. All individuals can cite works that impact and change them and their worldviews. I would only include the work as important if many people could cite the impact.

The Stupid Thing I Think About Sartre's No Exit
I believe this is the most misinterpreted play ever written. People glob onto the obvious line "Hell is other people" and believe this is the main theme of the play. Look closer; it's not. In the play, hell is the guilt and remorse an individual feels for knowingly committing "sins," not in the divine sense of right and wrong but in breaking individual integrity. Read the play and tell me why I'm wrong.

Academic Freedom and Meaning
I see three fundamental flaws in the arguments of conservatives like David Horowitz and Tucker Carlson that complain that liberal college professors are forcing their views on students, teaching students that America is bad, etc.

1. Classroom: these people don't have an understanding of pedagogy, the college classroom, or the current attitudes of young Americans. As a professor, I face dull-eyed students, long silences, and lack of energy frequently in the classroom. In order to engage students into thinking and discussing issues, I will sometimes express extreme viewpoints simply to provoke thought and response.

2. Adulthood: college students are not "kids" who are being inflicted with the brainwashing of a professor's political views. They are adults. They should have the ability to think critically about what they are taught.

3. History: would these people prefer that the history of racial discrimination and injustice in America be ignored? This history includes slavery (and the institutional racism that has lingered since), the genocide of Native Americans (and the institutional racism that has lingered since), and the less well-known treatment of Asian-Americans (biased immigration laws, internment camps, exploitation of labor for mines and railroads). And should U.S. foreign policy post-WWII be filtered only through a pro-American viewpoint?

Why the Aliens can Destroy Us
Here is a new feature at Costanza Book Club. I think that when the aliens come to destroy humanity and take earth for themselves, they could make a legitimate argument that humankind deserves to be destroyed. The Holocaust alone is evidence that people are lousy and maybe another sapient species would do better (though of course if they had to wipe us out in order to try do better, then they would be no better than we are, but that's the paradox of this new gimmick). I intend to be far less grave and cite only artistic examples for the aliens to use to justify wiping us out.

In the film The Producers, the song "The King of Broadway" was cut from the film but "That Face" was left in. This is the greatest travesty in the history of art and entertainment.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Generational Tastes and All-time Evaluation

Re-reading Frankenstein, it strikes me that many contemporary readers must see the style, language, and general writing as second-rate. The book was written with the conventions and language of Romanticism; it came before the Realism Revolution of the novel and well before the subsequent Modernist Revolution. The twentieth-century reader's tastes for what is good writing and good fiction were formed by realism and modernism; indeed, from the perspective of realism and modernism, the language of Romanticism is second-rate.

But that's the thing about tastes. The preference for the twentieth century style of writing (invented, some would say, but people like Flaubert, Twain, and James) is a preference, a taste. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is an inherently superior style of writing. A contemporary of Shelley would not have appreciated the novel written in the style of Flaubert (and indeed, if Shelley were born a hundred years later and written the same book, she may have written it entirely in the style of realism. Or not at all. But then, considering Frankenstein's impact, it's hard to really predict the history of literary tastes and moods without it).

In the 19th century, there was a critic who said that the slave narrative was the only authentic American literary genre; the implication was that the slave narrative was superior literature. This is the century that gave us Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickenson, and other titans of American literature. These are now more respected names than the authors of any slave narratives. Tastses change. A literary critic of one generation cannot possibly predict what writers will be thought well of by future generations, or what writers will be forgotten in a century, or what books will be considered masterpieces to the ages. We don't know; tastes change too quickly.

So if you read a Gothic novel, don't assess it by the standards of what makes good writing today.

Indeed, sometimes tastes change to such a degree that writers forgotten for decades or centuries suddenly come back into vogue. T.S. Eliot brought back Donne and the metaphysics; that type of poetry fit the tastes of modernism. Post-modernist thinkers look backward to literature before realism/modernism to works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to find earlier examples of post-modernism. Tastes evolve, styles evolve, and it is difficult to know what will last.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A sci-fi Thursday

I, Robot is a very good movie. It's lacking in character and dialogue, but why watch Sci-Fi for character and dialogue? You should watch Sci-Fi for ideas, and this movie is full of them. Among other things, futuristic robot movies often feature overtones of humanity's history of racial discrimination.

After talking it up to some of my classes, I've started re-reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and since next week a brief respite from grading will ensue, I may actually finish it sometime soon. The frame story adds an important element to the themes of this book. Robert Walton says, "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity...and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man." He asks, "What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" He admits that he would "gladly sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought." And then...he's about to hear Frankenstein's story.

What a cutting literary figure Mary Shelley makes. Daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of Percy Shelley, sometime companion of Lord Byron--and does she surpass them all with this book?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Politics and Art

Two links found at the excellent 3quarksdaily:

"Painting Power," by Richard Cork

"Of Gods and Monarchs," by Jonathan Jones

Both are about the painter Velazquez and the politics around and in his painting.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Comments and Links

The MLA rejects Auteur theory.
Using the Modern Language Association rules for a works cited page, citations for written material identify the author first, then the title. Citations for visual material such as film and television programs identify the title first, then people involved in the creation of the work.

Changing Scope
I’m continuing to add links to sites that are literary, academic, or philosophical in nature. I’m also adding links to some science magazines (it’s important—people devoted to ideas can’t go on ignorant of scientific discoveries and their meaning) and some liberal political sites (not because I want political discussion at this site, but because I increasingly use my blogs as a launching point to see everything I care about on the internet, and so I don’t check very much that I don’t link to).

The King’s Bed

You may know of my complete contempt for all royalty and nobility (but lest we live in a world without contradictions, The Three Musketeers is one of my favorite books).

Freedom and belief
Theo Hobson

THE NUTTY PROFESSORS: The history of academic charisma.

How Gandhi Got His Mojo Back
by Swati Gauri Sharma

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Expectation and Art

Last night, my wife and I were watching episodes of Deadwood. We were watching disc 5, and disc 6 is still in the mail. As episode 12 came to an end, we talked about how much closure there was (with necessary tension and ambiguity still present), how that would have worked as a good final episode for the season. And then we realized: that was the final episode of the season. Disc 6 would just be special features.

We would have watched the episode with completely different expectations if we had known it was the season’s last episode. But those expectations altered how we experienced the episode.

This is what we sometimes ignore: our preconceived expectations of a work of art before the experience of the work of art. If you go to The Passion of the Christ expecting to see the life of Christ, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you go expecting only to see his suffering and nothing else, you might be surprised and pleased by what else you get out of it (putting aside religious affiliations, or at least attempting to, I would defend this film as a work of art any day). We all have the experience of hearing about a particular writer or book, and having ideas about that writer or book, and having those ideas change drastically when we experience the writer or book. Almost everything we experience we first get previewed: we see the commercials for the movies, see the commercials for the TV shows, read the backs of the books.

We’re fools if we think that we can objectively experience any work of art without preconceived perceptions affecting our experience. Even if you know who the writer of a book is, or who the director of a film is, you will go in with certain expectations. You might be willing to make apologies for a writer or director you respect, whereas experiencing the work without knowledge of the writer or director might lead you to disparage the work. You can’t escape it, and that’s why the New Critics are wrong. All works of art exist in a context, if only the context in which you experience it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Some midweek links

I post links for two reasons. One, I find things I think that the few readers who check this blog out will find interesting or may wish to discuss. However, since this is mostly a failure, i mainly post so that I can go back to read these articles. When I get to the computer each day, there's a slew of things I want to look at, and I go through fairly quickly. I link to these articles when I know the subject but haven't read them yet; linking to them means I will go back to read them.

Some brief comments on things I've been reading and watching of late:

--More and more my interests are leaning toward science, particularly cosmology and evolution. So what I'm reading and watching has been reflecting this interest. I'm going back through old issues of "Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine," and last night I caught part of a PBS show about the history of the earth and all that. I learned the most accepted theory on the origin of the moon. Good stuff.

--I watched Manhattan this week. It wasn't bad, but it was enough for me to realize I really don't need to see any more Woody Allen movies.

--Watching more and more Deadwood, it's now pretty obvious that Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen are co-protagonists, but in the sort of non-traditional way HBO shows are capable of treating protagonists.

--I re-read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Forgetting the politics for a second, his comments on usage of English should be required reading for all college students. Oh wait--I'm a college English professor. I have some control over this, so I suppose I'll assign this to my students. But his comments on the English language sort of bolstered me up a bit. I read some blogs in which the language and vocabulary seems to be quite above the language and vocabulary used here. However, the point is the idea, and the idea expressed as clearly and concisely as possible. I realize these other blogs that momentarily intimidated me are using a lot of the linguistic techniques Orwell despises.

Anyway, here are some links.

Was Thomas Paine too much of a freethinker for the country he helped free?


Sound Science or Sound Bite?
By Michael Bugeja

The Royal United States of America
Posted by Adam Roberts

Monday, October 09, 2006

Literary and Ethical Thoughts from a Weekend of Solitude

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This film (and the stage show) is a great work of art. It is about the celebration of the abandonment of social sexual boundaries, and it treats this theme in the only way it can be authentically handled: with camp. It’s for fun, for laughs, for outrageousness.

While reading some poems by Ted Hughes and Robert Frost, I’m struck by the difficulty of really “thinking” about some poetry. Some of the English language’s best poetry defies the very concept of interpretation. Many of Hughes’ and Frost’s best poems are to be experience, to be felt, not to be analyzed.

I no longer feel comfortable eating mammals, and I don’t eat fish because of the mercury. I still eat lots and lots of chickens. However, in our society, for some reason it is acceptable for one to call oneself a vegetarian even while eating fish. It would seem completely inauthentic, however, for me to call myself a vegetarian while still eating chicken. Why is that? While I’m an existentialist who believes individuals may define themselves, if all people define the terms of ethics however they choose, we make a mockery of the very idea of ethical terminology. The current president may as well call himself a pacifist. This doesn’t mean that individuals must be limited by their ethical definitions, of course; a lot of Europe’s intellectual pacifists came to support WWII. But something still seems amiss in this terminology.

Looking at Flipper, Seeing Ourselves


Ravished by Shakespeare

Why should Booker winners stay in print?
By John Crace

Anglicans, reform yourselves
By Theo Hobson

Not So Godless After All
Scott Jaschik

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What is a "writer"?

Or rather, what separates a writer from a non-writer?

Is it a matter of "being," some difference in essence? If so, publishing isn't a factor. If there is an essential, inherent difference that makes one a writer, then publishing is superfluous.

Is it a matter of "doing," a matter of practice and work? Again, if so, publishing is superfluous. A grad student does a lot of writing, with a lot of pressure (and for me, it was with the obsessive revising and attention to detail that I would expect from a published writer).

What separates a writer from a non-writer?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Defending Ideas

There are many reasons one might read, and many benefits one might receive from reading. I don't begrudge or besmirch another his or her reasons for reading. I can say quite clearly, though, that my reason for reading remains ideas. When I think of the prose that has stayed with me in life, it is that which has given me ideas about things. Reading and thinking about Fowles' The Magus altered my worldview, helped me to understand the nature of Hazard as a primary factor in human existence (incidentally, in Moby-Dick my most enduring memory, besides the homosexual potential, is of the weave created by necessity, will, and chance). What sticks with me in Dostoevsky are the ideas of the characters (and what makes Dostoevsky masterful, to bastardize Bakhtin a bit, is that the ideas are infused with the characters and we see the impact of ideas on the characters). More than anything else, the philosophical ideas of what I read have the power not only to linger, not only to alter, but to radically shift my general attitude toward life (I don't think it an exaggeration to say that Fowles' ideas on Hazard have changed the way I look at life, day to day and big picture). If this makes me more a critic than an artist, more a philosopher than a romantic, so be it. It doesn't make me a philistine, however.

But this is exactly why I started this blog and invited somebody who clearly has different ideas about literature than me to write for it. I want to discuss (and argue) ideas. The open discussion of ideas is the best way to get at good ideas. The very reason I love to read, listen, watch, and talk is a devotion to ideas and the belief that a life lived for ideas is a life worth living. And so literature with a philosophical usefulness trumps all other reasons for literature (for me).

Link for Today
"On Poetry: School of Verse," by David Orr

Last Comment on the Pope (?)
We make a mistake if we think the Pope speaks for “The West,” for reason, for Christianity as a whole. We make a mistake if we think the Pope’s goals are about democracy and freedom. He doesn’t, and they are not. He speaks for Catholicism, and his goals are for Catholicism.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reading With Ignorance

This post was written by one-time contributor RK

As a reader of literature increases their sophistication they risk ruining certain enjoyments and Steinbeck is one of those writers easily exposed by the attentive reader. To the ideally naive eye a story like Of Mice and Men is a heartbreaking story of two men and their tragic friendship, the camraderie of working men, and the seductive charms of a particular woman-- rich dialogue and some humor. Adapted for the screen, it is the richness of the story and the warmth of the friendship that is emphasized. What is left off or forgotten is what the sophisticated reader immediately recognizes in Steinbeck's texts-- flat allegorical characters, heavy handed metaphors, socialist propoganda. Even the more intricate metaphors are handled so obviously (the old dog put down and all the dialogue about that is later reflected in Lenny's death) that they fairly jump off the page, the writer's puppet strings clearly visible. This would be fine were this post-modernism where observing the writer's strings are point of the enjoyment. But it isn't post-modernism. It isn't even Joyce where the ideas in the text are part of the hunt. This isn't literature written to provoke social change. It is propoganda.
In Saul Bellow, the author's guiding intelligence and essay-like search for truth of existence is essential to the experience. The difference between Bellow's essay-novels and Steinbeck's propoganda-novels is that Bellow's novels are controlled by the guiding intelligence, but the characters and events remain alive and real and uncorrupted (perhaps Bellow achieved this by basing his characters heavily on real persons) by the ideas being worked out around them while in Steinbeck the characters are the embodiment of certain ideas and types. Once these ideas and types are recognized Steinbeck's stories are no longer an engrossing and emotional read of two men and their struggle for a place in a cold world, but become two WORKING MEN beat down by the elite. They become part of a cast of society's outcast-- the old worker, the Negro, the Female. The story becomes a lecture. A needed lecture, perhaps, but still a lecture on social equality. Bellow lectures, too, but through a superior organization and analysis of real characters and real events. The same as Tolstoy and Flaubert and other immortals.
The only way to read Steinbeck for emotional impact is with ignorance. This is not my prescription for just Steinbeck and it is not my disgust simply with propoganda-literature, but with all literature where characters are the embodiments of ideas-- political or social or philosophical.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Why Read: the abstract and unpredictable impact

In high school, John Steinbeck was one of my favorite writers. I read The Grapes of Wrath when I was sixteen or seventeen, and I understood most of it, though certainly not all of it (like the ending). However, I haven't read any Steinbeck in years.

Today on MPR there was a discussion about The Grapes of Wrath, and for some reason, every time they discussed the ending, my eyes started welling up with tears.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas, Part 4: Horror

(I'll keep this brief: I've written much on this topic in the past, and just want to give a brief overview).

Horror is a widely mocked and disrespected genre, but even mediocre examples of the genre deal with the biggest, most important themes.

Fragility, Frailty, Impotence, Mortality. Death, Evil, Psychology, Morality. Lack of Control over Existence. The Nature of the Cosmos. Sex and Misogyny. Authority. Group Dynamics. Individual Strength. Fear.

The most mediocre schlock in the horror genre is still about these things.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tuesday's Notes and Links

Low-Brow Aesthetic, High-Brow Ideas 3: Musical Theater
What, I need to write more?

Philosophical Question
I caught some of PBS’s documentary on Marie Antoinette last night. So, later evidence has revealed quite clearly that Antoinette committed treason (while France was at war with Austria, she was sending military plans to Vienna). However, during her trial, there was no evidence whatsoever of treason but she was convicted and executed. So, does that mean she suffered an injustice, or did she deserve it?

General Links:

"Is this a pint I see before me?" (John Sutherland)

It's about Shakespeare. It's about hangovers. Just read it.

"A Nightmare on Elm Street" (Nick Schager)

"Who Should Apologize?: Another view of the Pope-Islam controversy." (Kirsten A. Powers)

As Homer Simpson would say, "THAT'S what I've been trying to tell you!"

Links with Minnesota Interest:

"Upstarts in the Lively Arts" (Carla Waldemar)

"Song and Dance Man" (Tim Gihring)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas: Stephen King

This will be just a brief expansion on a continuing topic.

First, I would not suggest that high-brow aesthetic LACKS ideas. I would just suggest that what makes us think of something as high-brow is its FORM, not necessarily its IDEAS.

Second, I would like to propose another great example of the LBAHBI. I'm not going to write a lengthy essay defending the merits of Stephen King or the horror genre as a whole (I've done that many times before). But Stephen King is a great example. As a "literary" writer, he doesn't have much respect, being considered a "popular" writer, a "genre" writer, a "horror" writer (I won't defend his form here, though I think he is a master craftsman of narrative, and he is a completely underrated experimentalist). However, his books are full of IDEAS. There's substance within and around the horrors he writes about. There are significant themes to his horror that you can clearly pick up if you read a lot of his works, and read the best of his works. Sure, he'll give you the cheap thrills (maybe more often than not). But if you read King thinking you're going to get an easy pleasure, you're probably mistaken. There's something important and meaningful in his work.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sisyphus' Journey (today's links)

I am uncertain that I have a single reader at this blog. I am fairly certain that if there are any readers, they don't read the links I post. And yet I still produce the effort it takes to post these links. Ce la vie.

Learning How to Read Slowly Again

A Scholar Is Alive, Actually, and Hungry for Debate

A Monument Crumbling With All Its Dark Secrets

Jailing the Messenger:Locking up reporters is the wrong way to plug grand jury leaks.
LA Times

The Twilight Years of Hipness: A middle-aged mom labors to stay in the know on pop culture.
By Debra J. Dickerson

Aquittal for Turkish Novelist
Richard Lea

How to Teach a Dirty Book
By Emily Toth

Liberty, Equality ... Diversity?
By Scott McLemee

Against Explanation
Posted by Joseph Kugelmass

The First 9/11 Starred Gandhi
by Eric Stoner

Searching for Deadwood's Protagonists

(note: if you haven't watched this show, and intend to, don't read this. Spoilers and all).

Who is Deadwood's protagonist? Let us look at the options.

Seth Bullock: the most likely candidate. He's the first central character to appear on the show, he shows up in Deadwood when we do, he's repeatedly shown courage and morality, and (don't underestimate this) he's good looking, clean, and clean-shaven. However, he's a minor character in much of the plot that has occurred--there are episodes in which he barely shows up.

Sol Star: He's too much the "best friend to the protagonist" role to be a protagonist.

Al Swearengen: This is an evil man. He's selfish and violent. He steals, cheats, and murders. And yet, HE is the one the show focuses on most. It is his schemes and desires that are at the heart of most of the show's plot. Is he the protagonist as anti-hero? I suppose it works.

Mrs. Garrett: Her husband is killed too quickly to be a protagonist, but Mrs. Garrett works as one. BUT...she'll have to develop into a more prominent character for me to consider her the protagonist.

Anybody at the Bella Union: They showed up several episodes in; no protagonists there, though they are now central characters.

Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Charly Utter: Because Bill is killed so early, and Jane and Utter (despite being likeable, moral characters) play too much the role of supporting friends, I don't see them as protagonists (am I too dependent on conventional notions of clean, good looking, well-spoken protagonists?).

Doc: Now HERE's a real possibility. He's twitchy, scraggly, and hunched over. However, he's constantly involved, and he's shown intelligence, cunning, courage, selflessness, and morality. He moves about like he's a shady character, but in all of his actions he is downright heroic.

Those are the possibilities. The other characters (Trixie, E.B., Dan) are suboordinate to more important characters. We'll see how the Bella Union people develop. Right now it appears the possible protagonists are Swearengen (evil, selfish, and murderous), Bullock (protagonist in all but centrality to the plot), Doc (protagonist in all but appearance), and Mrs. Garrett (who is becoming more and more central to the events, character development, and plot).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bits of nuget

Art about Art
One reason I'm skeptical about literature that focuses on how writers write, or movies about directing, or any of that, is I wonder how much we should get out of it. Certainly it can be done well. Certainly it can give us insights. But am I mixing my gin with Barthes' "Death of the Author" kool-aid? Does it really matter to us WHERE or HOW or WHY an author gets his/her ideas then creates a work of art? Isn't the more important thing the work itself?

That's one reason I appreciate John Fowles' metafiction, particularly The French Lieutenant's Woman. Yes, it's about how writers write--but more importantly, it's about how readers read. In the lengthy essay I've written on Fowles below I argue that there are three levels of freedom/responsibility in The French Lietenant's Woman (and The Magus), one being the freedom/responsibility of the reader.

More "Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas" posts coming
I'm still working on this theory and looking for good examples. Essentially, it is an argument for ideas over form, for content over style. But moreso, it is an argument that intelligence and ideas do not necessarily come from high-brow literature and film (that what makes something "high-brow" is usually the form, not the ideas). Further, playing with ideas is just as possible in works of art or entertainment that are definitely not high-brow in form (though, admittedly, most low-brow entertainment does not play with these ideas).

Hopefully soon I will write my thoughts on HBO's Deadwood. I say this because hopefully I will soon have coherent thoughts on this show. In a few key ways, it is unlike any television show I've seen. Through seven episodes it is becoming clear who the good guys and bad guys are, far it is a show without a protagonist. There's character development, but it's a plot driven show...and the clearest protagonist has most often been shown as a side character in the plot(s). There's something about it that is different than anything I've seen, and I hope to become more articulate about what, and soon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Low-brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas, Part 1: Seinfeld

Item: While I have a complete contempt for modes of entertainment that have no ideas behind them and little intelligence about them (most sitcoms, almost all action movies), I also have a disdain for pretentious arthouse films that they they are about ideas and are big on mood but short on plot and entertainment.

In his essay "A Tale of Two Sitcoms," Steven Stark writes about what he sees as the superiority of Home Improvement over Seinfeld. he actually has solid insights into what makes each show work (Home Improvement is about accepting responsibility and commitment, while Seinfeld is stuck in the adolescent mind, fleeing responsibility and commitment while making jokes about masturbation and incontinence). However, I'm still struck by how an intelligent person prefers a show with completely predictable structure and a catch-phrase of "Ooh, Ooh, Ooh," (literally, a catch-phrase of grunting) over a show that revolutionized the way a sitcom can be done. There is a lot of low-brow humor in Seinfeld, though that's not the crux of its humor: the important element of Seinfeld's humor is the observation and analysis of the complexities of contemporary social connections. It's also a show driven by word play and character humor.

Seinfeld often seems to have a purile appeal. The most famous episode is about a contest between friends to refrain from masturbation. All sorts of adolescent ideas about sex and relationships are presented. BUT...there's ideas behind Seinfeld. There's intelligence. If it's not the post-modern, deconstructionist sitcom (a show about "nothing), then at least it is a show filled with irony, about the absurdism of contemporary social life, the ridiculousness of commercialism, the confusion over social conventions, even, dary I say it, THE ANXIETY OF EXISTENCE. There's something many people may overlook: underneath the light-hearted veneer where we laugh at the foibles and problems of the four main characters, Seinfeld can be a very dark show. In one episode, George says: "Well, Jerry, I been thinkin'. I've gotten as far as I can go with George Costanza." Jerry responds, "Is this the suicide talk or the nickname talk?" A lot of bad things happen to people in Seinfeld, often as a result of the insensitivities and flaws of the main characters. Injury, illness, death, unemployment: these are some of the results of sandwiches, Juji Fruits, Junior Mints, lunches, cheap envelopes, cheap wheelchairs, and very frequently, thoughtless words. These mundane parts of life lead to the decidedly non-mundane (you could call them tragic if Seinfeld gave them a bit of dignity).

You see, behind the low-brow comedy of a show whose primary goal is to get laughs, there are ideas. There are truths about the random and absurd ways our lives work, the way the seemingly minor, pointless elements of our lives can lead to our doom.

Seinfeld is a sitcom, the most low-brow of genres. Though its humor aspires above the low-brow of Home Improvement, it is a decidedly watchable, entertaining show that makes us laugh. I'd almost be willing to say it has a low-brow aesthetic (with an asterisk: Seinfeld wasn't a conventional sitcom, but used many short scenes and changed the way content, pace, and setting to into a sitcom episode. In some ways Larry David again changed how a sitcom can work with Curb Your Enthusiasm, but that's a point for another post). Let me then present Seinfeld as the first example of my Low-brow Aesthetic, High-brow Ideas theory.

More explorations to follow.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Some historians, using a particular linguistic interpretation of one word, believe Martin Luther had his revelation on justification by faith while sitting on the toilet.

Today, in the public restroom, while thinking of the ways in which I use language relative to how others use language, something came to me. It's not the revelation of Luther, of course. But it's an answer I've been looking for. It's something I'll expand upon in a future post, hopefully this week.

Coming soon: "High-brow Ideas, Low-brow Aesthetic (or, don't call me middle-brow, chump)."

So spend all your waking hours looking forward to that.

Tuesday's Links (but first, two quotes)

Here is a line from Captain Kirk quoted in the Moore essay that is linked in the post below:

“We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill today.”

It's a quote I'd like more people to live by.

And here is a line from A.O. Scott, also linked in the post below:

"Rock stars have fans; opera singers have worshipers; but movie directors have partisans. Liking a given director’s movies can feel like a matter of principle, not of taste; failing to appreciate them is therefore evidence of cretinism or, at best, a serious moral and intellectual deficiency."

I definitely sense the same thing in film lovers.

A Challenge, Not a Crusade (John L. Allen, Jr.)

Yesterday I said I wouldn't link to comments about the Pope's comments. I'm nothing if not a liar and a hypocrite.

Hannibal Lecter to Drop By for Holiday Helpings (Motoko Rich)

There are a lot of intriguing things about the new Thomas Harris book, including the way it was written.

Finally, Some Prime-Time Racism: Battle of the races on 'Survivor' places discussion of stereotypes where it belongs -- in the mainstream. (Joel Stein)

Does Stein have a point?

Author Too Much Of A Pussy To Kill Off Characters (The Onion)

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood Gerrymandered To Serve King Friday's Make-Believe Agenda (The Onion)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Monday's Links, and One Comment

First, the comment.

I'm not linking to any opinion articles about the Pope offending Muslims. Here's why. The Pope is the head of a religion that believes it is the one true faith and all other faiths are wrong. From both a non-catholic and Catholic perspective, what the Pope says about any other religion SHOULD be offensive (non-catholics will likely disagree and should disregard the comments of a man who doesn't speak for their faith, and Catholics should be happy that their leader speaks firmly about what they believe to be the truth). It's preposterous to think that the head of a world religion should worry about offending people of other religions; his very stature and belief SHOULD offend members of other religions. It's not that I oppose ecumenical attempts to help adherents of different religions live in peace together (I am, after all, a pacifist; the idea of a holy war is anathema to me); but until the Pope starts calling for a new Crusade against any particular non-catholic group, by all means, let him rant.

Now, the links.

"Mr. Universe" (Ronald D. Moore)

An op-ed about Star Trek's influence on one man.

"Turkey, a Touchy Critic, Plans to Put a Novel on Trial" (Susanne Fowler)

There's censorship problems in Turkey.

"Say ‘Brian De Palma.’ Let the Fighting Start." (A.O. Scott)

For film buffs.

"India's literary elite call for anti-gay law to be scrapped" (Randeep Ramesh)

Authors and Politics in India.

"Fables of Identity, European and American" (Bill Benzon)

The Valve should be a daily reading source for theory and culture.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Our lives! What kind of lives are these?"

Poetry matters in our world. Poetry should matter to us as individuals. Because poetry can help us to understand ourselves; poetry can help us to make sense of our lives.

I'm a sucker for the horror genre; even when I see a horror movie that I know is bad, it usually succeeds in, if not outright scaring me, disturbing me. And I've come to realize that horror doesn't need the things that most other movies need to work. There needs to be the thinnest sliver of plausibility to horror (we need to be able to see ourselves in the character or situation), but ONLY the thinnest sliver of plausibility. Characters, institutions, and events can all behave incomprehensibly, but the film may still work because of its goal to scare or disturb. Or, if remotely worthy of the genre, it reminds us of the fact that we will one day die, and it reminds us of the darker side of human nature.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Today's Links (and why we're here)

I started Costanza Book Club in part because I missed the academic discourse on literature and theory from my time attending Grad School at St. Thomas. I wanted a place to share various ideas, but also a place to discuss various ideas (the former has worked better than the latter so far).

But I also want Costanza Book Club to be a place that can contribute something to the intellectual life of anybody who reads it. So I'll try more frequently to link to articles that I find interesting, hopefully on topics of literature and theory, but also on education, film, comedy, and history. These aren't articles that express views I necessarily agree with--just articles that have something to contribute to our world of ideas.

Also, I'll be spending time looking for other good sites around the web that deal with literature and theory. If I find them, I'll link to them. And suggested reading is always welcome.

“Comedian Turned Activist, With His Own Campaign” (A.O. Scott)

“Equal-Opportunity Offender Plays Anti-Semitism for Laughs” (Sharon Waxman)

“Turkish Novelist Faces Trial” (Lawrence Van Gelder)

“Textbook Foolishness” (Jennifer Washburn)

“When Can We Finally Be Funny Again?” (Bill Maher)

“Universities should give students the freedom to think - not threaten them with petty rules and regulations” (Marcel Berlins)

“A lament for idle summers” (Karin Klein)

“Girl Moved To Tears By Of Mice And Men Cliffs Notes”

“State of the Annotation” (Scott McLemee)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Link in the Chain

"Ted Hughes, the Domestic Tyrant" by David Smith
Should the fact that Ted Hughes was a raging asshole who drove TWO lovers to suicide make us appreciate his poetry less? Well, "should" isn't the right word. What does it do for you? I still think Crow is one of the truly brilliant poetry collections of all-time.

"Britain's Democracy Problem" by Tim Luckhurst
Plus you've got a freaking queen.

I figure that if I am relatively unable to contribute much to literary and theoretical discourse during football season, I can at least seek out links that may amuse you.

You might notice that there are some changes in the links at Costanza's Book Club. I'm going to continue seeking out newspapers from anywhere in the world that have particularly good Opinion and/or Books sections (I have a lot of office hours to fill). If there's a site you go for literary or intellectual chatter, let me know.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Stupid Thing I Believe (III and IV)

I believe The Odyssey is still the greatest thing ever written.

I believe a rhyming couplet rhyme scheme (aabb) is the worst form of poetry ever devised by humankind.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Scattered Pointless Thoughts

I'm a secular humanist and a christian. I'm a socialist and a libertarian. I'm a pacifist and I'm an overly devoted fan of a very violent sport. Certainly on one hand these contradictions seem untenable--but these seeming contraditions are something that keeps intriguing me about post-structuralism/deconstruction

Two things make Nip/Tuck continue to work for me.
1. They continue to top themselves. The first episode gets us started with wierd and wild behavior--and each episode since goes so far over the top that the first episode seems conventional.

2. The character dynamic evolves. Which characters are ethical or depraved, safe or reckless, desiring of freedom or desiring of family, is constantly in flux.

Sources of my Ideas
You can look here, here, here, and here for some of my comments against modernism. My ideas aren't terribly original, of course--they are just expressions of whose side I lie on. Here's a quotation from Peter Barry's Beginning Theory on postmodernism and modernism that summarizes the view I have clearly (and, since this is a book I read in grad school, is one of the sources of the ideas I now have about modernism and postmodernism):

"The modernist features [fragmentation] in such a way as to register a deep nostalgia for an earlier age when faith was full and authority intact. (...) For postmodernists, by contrast fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustrophopic embrace of fixed systems of belief. In a word, the modernist laments fragmentation while the postmodernist celebrates it" (83-84)

Here's another quote from Barry about postmodernism that puts me squarely in the postmodernist camp:

"postmodernism rejects the distinction between 'high' and 'popular' art which was important in modernism, and believes in excess, in gaudiness, and in 'bad taste' mixtures of qualities. It disdains the modernist ascetism as elitist and cheerfully mixes, in the same building, bits and pieces from different architectural periods" (84-85)

Like most people, the great ideas floating around in my head are not my own: all I can do is attempt to illustrate or argue for the great ideas of others.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The Personal Canon (or, what do we mean by "I should read that"?)

This is an expansion on my pseudo-utilitarian, anti-aesthetic theoretical views expounded upon elsewhere in this blog.

There is a major problem in devoting one's life to ideas, or more particularly, books. Unless one has a prodigious talent for reading and memory (such as Harold Bloom seems to have), one cannot possibly read everything that is great, or read everything that one wants to, or read everything that one "should." There simply isn't time. So we must prioritize" we must choose what we should read and what we should pass off (perhaps for later, if death waits long enough).

In my case, I recognize the distinct possibility that I will never read another Victorian novel. This is not deliberate by any means. It is simply because when I choose what to read, I must ask myself two questions.

1. Might I enjoy this reading experience?
2. Might this work contribute something to my mind?

If you pick up a book that you won't enjoy reading, or won't contribute something meaningful in the realm of ideas, WHY ARE YOU READING IT? Should you ever read something simply because you think, "that's a well known work, I should read that"? So I don't know that I'll ever read another Victorian novel, because I doubt I would enjoy it, and I am skeptical it would contribute much to my life of ideas (and most likely the several post-modern British works I've read that deconstruct the Victorian period and its literature contribute to my lack of interest in reading Victorian novels). But I don't know--perhaps intellectual curiosity will lead me back to such books in the future.

But the two critical questions I propose are not enough for a system. The problem is that you cannot know the answer to the first question until you've at least started the book, and you might not know the answer to the second question for years after finishing the book. So students should read books that they are assigned: somebody with at least some knowledge of the work has decided that the answer to the second question is probably. And sometimes, we should read books we really don't want to because we think we should. We just might get something out of it that we don't expect or no.

So once again, no answers, just ideas.

Derrida and the Failure of Modernism

In "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Derrida talks about de-centering. Roughly, the center is the main idea of a structure's meaning, and Derrida talks about it no longer existing (avoiding words that suggest a lack or loss of center but admitting language doesn't easily allow it). He also suggests there are two ways to approach this non-existence of the center:

"As a turning toward the presence, lost of impossible, of absent origin, this structuralist thematic of broken immediateness is thus the sad, negative, nostalgic, guilty, Rouseauist face of the thinking of freeplay of which the Nietzschean affirmation--the joyous affirmation of the freeplay of the world and of the innocence of becomjng, the affirmation of a world of signs without fault, without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation--would be the other side. This affirmation then determines the non-center otherwise than as a loss of the center" (888).

Editor David Richter paraphrases this way:

"Derrida contrasts two methods of freeplay, Levi-Strauss's and his own. The former is 'sad' and 'negative' in that it seeks a substitute for the absent center once provided by metaphysics; it is 'nostalgic' for origins, 'guilty' over European imperialism (...) On the contrary, Derrida's system of freeplay, like the philosophy of Nietzsche, is 'joyful' in its affirmation of the power of the will to assign and alter all values. For Derrida, the lack of a center betokens freedom, not loss of security" (889).

I've written here before of my waning interest in modernism (not the modernist aesthetic so much as the modernist weltenschaaung). A modernist is distressed by chaos, nostalgic for old values, generally sad about the loss of traditional authority and traditional center (the most important concept in modernism is probably "loss"). A post-modernist celebrates the loss of the traditional authority and center, for it connotes freedom to the individual. The non-centeredness means that we are free to explore and define meaning in new ways that can be independent of the center.

(These quotes are taken from: Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd edition. Ed. David Richter. New York: Bedford:St. Martin's, 1998. 878-889.)

Monday, August 28, 2006

Old Jack's an Odd Duck

Here's an odd book: Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. I expected to read about overbearing, conservative fathers with traditional social values harshly arguing with their liberal-minded, progressive sons yearning for freedom. There is conflict over old social values, but in fact the fathers are sensitive (even overly sentimental), in awe of their sons, even try hard to impress their sons. To go all reader-response on you, I also discovered in this book I'm at a middle point in life: I don't know whether I side more with Bazarov and Arkady, or with Pavel Petrovich and Nicholai Petrovich. There is also an interesting line that Bazarov uses when arguing with Pavel that, I think, illustrates what I wrote earlier in My Ideological Paradox. Bazarov says,

"You find fault with my point of view, but what makes you think it came into being by chance, that it's not a product of that very national spirit which you are championing?"

What happens when the values of the group teach people to value individualism?

As an addendum, we now have two contributors at Costanza Book Club. You'll have to pay close attention to who writes each post, since we have vastly different views on literature, film, and theory.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Movie Recommendation

At Costanza Book Club, we're not usually in the business of recommending movies. But I must recomment the film "Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story." It's post-modern metafictional fun (it's like a comic version of the film "The French Lieutenant's Woman," which as a film missed much of Fowles' humor). And the scene with the giant womb is the funniest thing I've seen on film in a long while.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My Ideological Paradox (with many parentheticals

(this is narcissistic mostly, but to an end)

Recently I considered whether Peace were now the most important concept in my life, whether more than all else I would seek inner peace, inter-personal peace, and world-wide peace. I very quickly gave up this notion, recognizing the most important concept for me by a long shot, is, always has been, and always will be, Freedom. Freedom is not a monolithic concept, of course (e.g., the freedom to spend money and the freedom from having to work are usually, for most of us, mutually exclusive freedoms). For me the concept of Freedom is bound up with existentialism (freedom of choice, and also free will on a cosmic level, i.e., the freedom of Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost"--btw, italics aren't working for me on this computer, so you'll get the grammatically infuriating quotation marks around titles of long works), in equality (the idea that every man and woman is my equal is an important part of my freedom), and my time (I'm peculiarly protective of how I am able to use my "free" time), and individualism (it is not like I'm out fighting for freedoms of groups, though I do believe in freedom for groups and do take up such causes; however, I live very much in the assumption of freedom of groups and focus largely on individual freedom.

So why is Freedom the most important philosophical ideal in my life? Many reasons.

1. I'm an American.
Growing up in America, I've imbibed the ideals of liberty and equality every day of my life (perhaps if "fraternite" were added to the ideals of "egalite" and "liberte" here, I would view the world differently). Liberty and equality have never exactly been regular practices in America (it's only recently that they were truly expanded as ideals to include those other than white males--and even that is not fully in practice), yet the ideals have been hanging around. I am foolish enough to believe in these ideals. My ideals would obviously be quite different if I were raised in a different country and/or culture.

2. I'm a Protestant.
I grew up in a Protestant tradition. Protestantism has a much greater emphasis on freedom, individualism, and equality than Catholicism (I base this on my experiences and studies with the ideology and practices of both Protestantism and Catholicism; I could go into greater detail giving examples, but I join Bartleby in asserting that "I'd prefer not to"). If I had grown up in a Catholic tradition, perhaps I wouldn't have such an emphasis on Freedom as a concept, or at the very least, my idea of Freedom would be different (after all, as a Protestant I was encouraged to read the Bible on my own, and was left largely to interpret it on my own. So much of my worldview is still based on my adolescent interpretations of Jesus as a guy who doesn't fight, cares about the poor, hangs out with social rejects, and forgives people). It would clearly be even more different if I had been raised in a non-christian religious tradition. Doesn't Islam mean "submission"? Don't many Eastern religions particularly de-emphasize the concept of self?

3. I'm a reader.
I read, and many of the things I've read have had a strong influence on my thinking (I realize it's hard to say whether I'm drawn to certain works based on my ideas, or whether certain works form my ideas--I call this "The Seinfeld Dilemma," since I don't know whether it formed me of drew me in because of what I am). And the readings that stick out to me emphasize freedom. Henry David Thoreau's "Life Without Principle" remains the essay that informs my ideas about work and self. Jean-Paul Sartre's writings on existentialism have pretty much become my frame for viewing existence. And John Fowles' novels exploring the meaning of individual freedom in society, particularly "The French Lieutanant's Woman" and "The Magus," have informed my more recent views on freedom of choice and behavior. My research on censorship has further convinced me of the need to allow the individual freedom against the norms of society.

So now I reach the paradox of my ideology. Quite clearly I believe strongly in individual independence from the limitations and expecations of groups. But here's the contradiction: THE REASON I BELIEVE THIS IS LARGELY INFLUENCED BY MY GROUPS. I emphasize Freedom largely because I am a member of two groups: Americans (loosely) and Protestants (even more loosely). It is the country, the culture, the worldview of the groups that have made me so emphasize separation for the individual from group expectations. Even reading, the most individual of activities, for me has been framed in the context of academia (the values and practices of the academic community have impacted what I read and how I read it, therefore, the values of another group influence my emphais on individual freedom).

I believe strongly in individualism because of the groups I was raised with/in; that is the nature of the paradox of my ideology.

And that is an illustration on the meaning of Ideology.