Friday, April 28, 2006

Homework Assignment: "Rappaccini's Daughter"

Read Hawthorne's story and try tell me why Baglioni is any better than Rappaccini.

Protestantism and Existentialism

What are the basic tenets of Protestantism?
That you need to read and interpret the Bible for yourself.
That what matters is your individual relationship to God.
That you will face death alone, and have only your faith with you.

What are the basic tenets of Existentialism?
That you must create your own meaning for the world.
That as an individual, you make your own meaning and morality.
That you are alone in the universe, and must face death alone.

I see these "isms" linked somehow. Perhaps Kierkegaard as the first Existentialist makes perfect sense.

Then again, existentialism as we know it beginning in the 19th century and fully developed in the 20th, has deep roots. Might one consider Shakespeare an existentialist? There are passages of Hamlet and MacBeth that seem to resonate with existentialist thought. Doesn't the writer of "Ecclesiastes" sound like an existentialist? Isn't existentialism rooted in part in Romanticism's primacy of the individual imagination?

The history of intellectual thought is linked in many ways we don't commonly consider.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Literary Jokes

"Scholars Discover 23 Blank Pages That May As Well Be Lost Samuel Beckett Play"

Scholars of literature should rejoice at "The Onion": these types of articles are fairly frequent.

Holocaust Literature

I'm one who doesn't believe political art is inferior, or somehow separate from, other forms of art. Politics and "the human condition" are fused, and it is not very useful to try separate them as distinct entities.

The evidence of the political and human nature of art being fused, in my opinion, is Holocaust literature. No human event demands exploration through art more than the Holocaust. We must attempt to understand it; we must attempt to witness to it.

And Holocaust literature is inherently political. Whatever truths about "the human condition" we can grasp through Holocaust literature only exist within the context of the politics that created the Holocaust. On the other hand, to approach an understanding of the politics that allowed and created the Holocaust, we must attempt to understand "the human condition" that allowed and created such politics. The subjects are not separated, but fused.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Hamlet and Jesus Christ Superstar (CBC's Theater Excursions)

Hamlet at the Guthrie Theater
There's a lot of buzz about this production in town. It's the last play to be performed at the current Guthrie location (it was also the first in 1963). Attending the play felt like an event (attending were Sadie and myself).

We scored beautiful seats in the rush line. $15 each for tickets listed at $45 in the third row on the side of the stage. The action was right before our eyes.

The set was awesome. I never expect a set to be much, and then I'm always awed by what they are capable of doing. The costumes, too, were spectacular. The play was set in a World War I era motif. It worked.

The first act (taking us partway through Shakespeare's 3rd act) dragged. This was not a result of the production, but the play. There's a lot of necessary plot advancement early on (and given my familiarity with this play, that's a little tedious for me), and a lot of soliloquies that are more enjoyable to read than to listen to.

The second act picked up at a high point of intensity and action, however. There were some fine acting performances throughout the performance, particularly Matthew Greer as Claudius (he was every bit the ambitious and aggravated king) and Peter Michael Goetz as Polonius (he was comic without being ridiculous, a difficult task to pull off on the stage).

The play was performed as close to uncut as I can imagine, and took over 3 hours.

The ending was spectacular, and taught me a valuable lesson about drama and interpretation. In the end, all the main characters are dead and Fortinbras, a Norwegian royal, marches in to become king of Denmark. When I teach the play, I teach this as a good thing: all the corruption, sickness, and rottenness must be purged from Denmark in a great bloodletting, and a clean, new prince comes in to restore Denmark to goodness and give it health.

This was not the interpretation presented in the Guthrie production. Fortinbras, decked out in military fatigues and acting like a general, marches into Elsinore with his soldiers among bombs falling. He goes to the top of the balcony, preening in his ambitious glory, and raises his arms as the background turns glowing red and the people shout "Long live the king!" Instead of cleaning things up, the impression is that the sickness and ambition and power of the monarchy will continue, on and on and on...

Jesus Christ Superstar at Hamline
There were general admission tickets, and we were on the waiting list, so we figured to get bad and separate seats (attending were Sadie, Jon, Vanessa, and myself). However, for some reason, the first row was virtually empty. We ended up sitting center stage in the very first row. For the second night in a row, all the action happened right before us.

The production was excellent. The set quality and creativity were better than I expected.

Judas and Jesus were excellent singers. This is particularly important with Judas, who really has to belt out some incredible songs. The actor played Judas with the necessary intensity to pull that part off, and a great singing voice to make the songs just leap out.

My one disappointment was "Herod's Song." Conceptually, it worked, but musically, it didn't.

The rock opera buzzed by in about an hour and a half, and there is no downtime as you move from song to song to song.

All in all, a great college production. The music is wonderful, the actors were well-cast and seemed to be inspired by their roles. I loved the experience of seeing this show performed.

Afterward, Sadie, Jon, Vanessa, and myself workshopped our own musical about the Chupacabre.

Friday, April 21, 2006

A weekend of drama, a celebration of pacifism

I am 26 years old today. I am celebrating by attending "Hamlet" at the Guthrie tonight (my wife and I will be rushing tickets) and hopefully "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Hamline on Saturday. Since this blog exists to share thoughts of a literary or philosophical subject, on Monday you should expect some commentary on the plays I get to view this weekend.

However, now that I am 26, it seems I have another reason to celebrate: I am no longer eligible for the Selective Service!

If I were ever drafted, I would never go to war anyway. Plan A would be to attain Conscientious Objector status. Plan B would be to fail the physical. Plan C would be to leave the country. Plan D would be to shoot my foot off.

Now, I don't have to do anything. I am 26. I won't be drafted.

My wife did not do a lot to make me feel good about being 26. She called it a "sad age," informed me that it means I'm over halfway through my 20s, and said, "After that, what's left? 30s, 40s, 50s..." At which point I said, "Yes, I'm getting closer to death." I then spent a few moments considering the very real fact that one day I will die. I think about death more often than most people, I think, but I'm also struck when I have these minor epiphanies about the very real hard truth about dying.

But now I have reason to be happy. I am no longer eligible for the draft.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Thoughts on many subjects

The Book as Sacred Container of Knowledge
In preparing to move, I have already filled 10 boxes of books. I estimate 3-5 more boxes.

Many of these books I've already read and have no intention to read again (though as an English professor, I can't know whether I might use something for class, attempt to write an article, or go back to Grad School). Many others I have never read and have no desire or intention to read.

And yet, I cannot bring myself to give away, or sell, or throw away these books. They seem to represent some ideal, some idealization of knowledge, or a spiritual intellectual quest.

The Book Itself and Criticism
Reader-Response Criticism asks us to examine the reading experience itself. To do so does not strictly involve a relationship with the text (or rather, it involves a wider examination of the experience with the text than is typically given).

Is the paper clean and fresh, or is it yellowed and wrinkled? What is the style of the font? What is the size of the font? How many words are on a single page (or how much time passes between page turns)?

These non-text text issues have a bigger impact on our reading experience than we realize. The solemnity, the seriousness, the formality, the humor, the dignity of a text is often based on the font style and size, on the spacing of letters on the page.

I'm O.K., You're Biased, by Daniel Gilbert

I hate when people objectify their artistic biases. Some people essentially transform their subjective tastes on film or literature into objective systems for evaluating film or literature.

One reason I embrace Reader-Response Criticism is because it recognizes that the reader plays a role in understanding a work of literature. By accepting the reader's role, a Reader-Response Critic admits to biases in interpretation. Awareness of these biases leads to useful interpretations. Naively pretending that biases do not exist is not a helpful way to interpret art.

Adaptation: staying true to the spirit, not the letter
One of the most memorable scenes in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest occurs when McMurphy gets Chief Bromden to play basketball.

This scene doesn't really occur in the book. McMurphy briefly gets the men on the ward to form a basketball team, but it is short-lived and doesn't feature McMurphy doing much with Chief Bromden.

However, this scene stays true to the spirit of the book, and simply makes the development in the novel visual. In the book, Chief Bromden gradually develops sanity, pride, independence, courage, and strength thanks to McMurphy. It is difficult to film the first person narration of Chief Bromden, thus difficult to show this slow development. The film simply includes this scene to make visual and brief the long development of the novel. In two scenes, we see Bromden (and all the men of the ward) grow and change.

Film adaptations must simply find ways to show us things that only the depth of a novel can truly provide. The novel offers an experience no other artform is capable of. Good adaptations (such as Cuckoo's) show this depth effectively; bad adaptations fail.

Gender construction
I spend an inordinate amount of time considering the meaning of gender identity and behavior. I believe that gender is largely socially constructed, but I also believe it would be foolish to ignore scientific knowledge of biology and chemistry. It is extremely difficult to separate social construction of gender from biological differences between men and women. Perhaps it is impossible. I've found Deborah Blum's "The Gender Blur: Where does Biology End and Society Take Over?" an interesting starting point to reflect on these issues.

Old themes are not new
I don't mind that movies like "Down in the Valley" get made, but do we really have to pretend that a film deconstructing the mythology of the Western is something new and edgy? You want to deconstruct the Western, you can start with The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter and Blazing Saddles and pretty much every Western made since. Let's not contend that such an effort is something dark and newly necessary.

Furthermore, let's not pretend that what Ed Norton has to say about the film is something new and edgy and dark, either. He says the movie

"is about the lack of a spiritual center, the lack of authenticity, and about a person needing a fantasy to escape the banality of modern existence. It's about a person saying, 'The way we live is so inauthentic, the spirit of things is gone.' It's the desire to escape the constraints of modern pavement."

Are we talking about T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" here? Or any number of movies made in the last 40 years? Seriously, start picking out movies you've seen that this passage could be describing.

Nothing irks me more than those who act like something derivative and done is something new and creative.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Innovation and Appreciation

After hearing so much about Flaubert, I admit to being unimpressed with Madame Bovary. I just didn't see what was supposed to be special about it. As I learned, however, and as James Wood says, Flaubert can seem so typical because he essentially invented the modern narrative form:

He is the originator of the modern novel; indeed, you could say that he is the originator of modern narrative — that the war reporter and the thriller writer owe as much to him as the avant-garde fictionist. The great bear of Croisset, the monkish aesthete who spent much of his life in one house, and a great deal of that time in one room, has sired thousands of successors.

Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert. And after Flaubert, it sometimes seems, this is all you can find.

I was unimpressed with Flaubert because the subject matter didn't do much for me, and the style didn't seem special. But it is clear that the reason the style didn't seem special is because Flaubert influenced all future writers of prose. It's not that he's not special--it's that he was the first to write like this, the first to be special, and was so influential that his style is now difficult to distinguish from the style of many novels written since Bovary.

We don't always appreciate the real innovations, because if they are innovations with impact, they begin to seem a lot like everything else. But we need to know enough literary history to recognize who was the first.

I feel the same way about the multiple endings of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Today the endings can seem gimmicky. Belonging to a generation in which everyone has seen Wayne's World, the idea of giving multiple endings to a narrative might not seem that special. But I cannot think of anybody who had done this before Fowles (if you can thing of somebody, let me know). Fowles seems to have created something entirely new with this concept.

When evaluating and interpreting a work of literature, the bulk of your interpretation should come strictly from the text. But historical context is worth something. It is only with some knowledge of historical context that we can begin to appreciate the innovators of art.

Friday, April 14, 2006

"Art about Art" as Masturbatory Pleasure

(updated: I had to revise this post. I conflated the concept of "Art for Art's Sake" with art that has art as its subject or theme. This isn't entirely accurate. In the future, I should perhaps write a scathing condemnation of the concept of "art for art's sake" while defending art about art. But this is Costanza's Book Club. Anytime something seems a little academically sloppy, read this blog's description. Intellectual sloppiness, which is something different, should be called out and critiqued. Perhaps, though, my entire thesis should be thrown out. "Art for Art's Sake" is, in my estimation, just masturbation. Art that has art as its subject or theme is often fully mand meaningfully engaged in the world. But I will leave this for now--this is a fluid blog, and our artistic sensibilities will evolve).

Works of art that are themselves about art can be beautiful, moving, inspirational works of art. Indeed, as somebody who got a Masters in examining the meaning of art, and as somebody who started this blog to continue examining the meaning of art, as as somebody who is at this very moment of typing examining the meaning of art, it would really be ignorant of me to criticize art for examining itself. Literature that takes up literature as its subject or theme is important.

Art about Art, at its best, can be great, but it is great in the way masturbation is great. It is pleasurable, useful, and definitely has a role to play in human existence, but in most cases, real engagement with the world is better.

A lot of art about art (either the process of creation, or the role of it in society, or something else) does engage in the world. John Fowles' two great novels, The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus, are about the process of art, but they are also about society, philosophy, history, and individual freedom. They engage in the meaning of art while simultaneously engaging in the meaning of human existence (even engaging in the meaning of art on human existence). So the best art about art (such as Fowles' novels, or Shelley's "Ozymandias") really isn't art that exists solely for the sake of art and nothing else. It does engage in the world.

Engaging in the world can mean many things. It can include art about individuals or art about groups; it can even include art about how art affects and is used by individuals and groups.

I have no intention of demeaning the concept of art about art--it has a place and can be great. What bothers me is if people create a virtual hierarchy of literature, with pulp, popular literature at the bottom, political literature slightly about that, art about social interaction and meaning, then works that examine individual spiritual or intellectual or emotional struggle, and finally art that is about art at the pinnacle. (Am I imagining that there are people who would create such a hierarchy? Am I setting up a Straw Man? Perhaps). I simply don't see it that way. All subjects (of plot or theme) are acceptable to me as material for art. I don't see a hierarchy but a flow chart, where different subjects and themes of literature have an important spaces in the lifelong spiritual, cultural, intellectual development of individuals and groups.

It's a heavy question, examining the purpose of art. I think great art should inspire one to be something more than what one is. I believe art has an active, utilitarian (though abstract) role in our lives. I feel that art that is about itself, that focuses too greatly on form over meaning, fails. If the work does not inspire one to be something more than what one is...then to me, it may be very good, but it is not great art. At the very least, great art requires us to look at the world in a different way than we had previously done.

Rilke's "For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life" is a poetic phrase that continues to haunt me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Pacifist Viking’s Existential Reader

Here is a reading list that illustrates my existential worldview. Since there have been no comments at this blog as yet, I don’t feel very guilty about this narcissistic exercise, since this entire blog has so far been a narcissistic exercise.

Paradise Lost, John Milton
A 17th century Puritan radical wrote an epic poem in which can be understood my existential worldview. Paradise Lost is in part about forced freedom: God makes it clear that Adam and Eve have free will to make their decisions, that they cannot evade this free will. Sartre wrote that we are condemned to be free, that we can’t choose to not be free. This seems to be the freedom that Milton presents in Paradise Lost. Satan, too, is a character wrought with existential implications.

The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the greatest novels ever written, in Karamozov Dostoevsky as created what Bakhtin calls the polyphonic novel. You get many voices, many ideas, many worldviews. For me the most compelling was Ivan Karamozov, whose “All is permitted” worldview betrays his deep desire for spiritual meaning. Ivan’s conversation with the devil should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand what the English teacher on “Freaks and Geeks” calls “an existential dilemma,” how one can be “both a nihilist and a moralist.”

The Magus, John Fowles
A fascinating novel about God and man, about art, and about freedom. It is a postmodern existential novel exploring individual freedom and responsibility.

The Age of Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre
In this novel, we see dramatized many of the important issues of Sartre’s existential philosophy.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pacifism: distinguishing between violence and force

As a pacifist, I oppose violent solutions to problems. This means I oppose war: war is always destruction, death, humanitarian disaster, and horror. I also avoid using violence in my own life (not that I am ever in a situation that requires it).

However, as a pacifist, I do accept force and the threat of force to maintain social order, safety, and freedom. I accept this force in the existence of the police.

Though I oppose the violence of war, I accept the force and threat of force the police use; I accept this for a few reasons that distinguish "force" from "violence" in my mind.

1. The police are trained to use force only when necessary, to use only the minimum amount of force necessary, and to use lethal force only when their or others' lives are threatened.

2. The police are generally able to use force in a controlled way that nearly eliminates danger to innocent people; this distinguishes police force from the violence of war. In war, there are always innocent people killed or wounded. Some call this "collateral damage," which is a euphamism for "innocent people murdered and property destroyed." Some degree of force is acceptable to me, but is always bad if innocent people must be harmed in the process. Small-scale police activity can manage to protect the innocent; large-scale warfare simply cannot.

3. If there were not some degree of force or the threat of force managed in a controlled way, then there would be a great deal of violence inflicted upon innocent people by those willing to use violence for their own ends. One could use the same argument to justify war, I suppose; however, as a practical matter, war usually fails to create order and safety for a nation. War usually leads innocent people to be harmed, in the short-run of war, and the long-run of the country after being devestated by war. There are many cases of war and occupation being at least partly responsible for political, tyrannical terrors inflicted upon people of a nation in the future. As a practical matter, war is bad policy; nonviolent solutions are better suited for conflicts between nations. But in the small-scale situations in society, this force doesn't necessarily lead to future terrors.

In this way, I believe a pacifist can own property and can support reasonable police activity. The controlled force of police activity is something entirely different than the chaotic, destructive, and massive violence of warfare.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Pacifism and Property

I've seen in a few sources that Tolstoy said that a pacifist cannot own property, since ownership requires violence or the threat of violence to protect the property.

As a committed pacifist who is about to purchase a home, I have to consider this seriously. But I disagree with it.

This line of reasoning would support one of the most prevalent arguments against pacifism. I'll call this the "Passing the Buck" argument. Here it is in a basic form.

Pacifists, by refusing to participate in violent acts, simply pass off responsibility to those willing to use violence. They still require violence to live safely, but force others to practice the violence for them.

In order to provide order and safety, somebody must be willing to be violent, either in action or in threat. The state provides violent protection in the form of military and police. Pacifists may refuse to participate in this violence, but they are merely passing the responsibility to others to act violently for them. If nobody in society was willing to use violence for safety and order, then the bad people willing to use violence for their own ends would essentially be able to run the world. Pacifists require violent people, but refuse to take responsibility for the violence that protects them.

This is a common argument. There are also ways to refute this argument. But a pacifist living in a society in which private ownership does exist who refuses to own property lest he require the threat of violence really is passing off responsibility of violence to the owner. We need a place to sleep: either we must rent, live with owners, own, or sleep in the streets. To rent simply means you let the owners (and the state) use threat of violence for you.

Furthermore, in a society that allows private ownership, moral requirements for pacifists to rent create all sorts of serious class problems. To consider yourself an ethical pacifist, you would be required to be a tenant to somebody willing to accept force, you'd never have the opportunity to not pay rent, you'd always be dependent and never "free," etc. A pacifist should also be able to be free, to be independent, and not required to be a lower class person who is beholden to the whims of the owner renting a place to sleep.

Now, I don't want to bastardize Tolstoy. In the Russian society he lived in, perhaps the force and threat of force associated with property meant something different than it does in today's America. And Tolstoy, as I understand it, wanted to go the large-scale route of abolishing private property ownership altogether. Indeed, private property may lead to violence and the threat of force, and if Tolstoy's solution of abolishing property rights were inacted, this discussion would be different.

It may be possible that promotion of pacifism could entail an anarchist abolition of property rights. However, while living in a society which does allow property rights, pacifists should be allowed to own property.

Friday, April 07, 2006

A little queer theory

Andy Medhurst, in his essay “Batman, Deviance, and Camp,” writes:

"And if I want Batman to be gay, then, for me, he is. After all, outside of the minds of his writers and readers, he doesn’t exist."

When I read Moby Dick, I thought that Ishmael and Queequeg had a homosexual relationship. After all, in Chapter 10, "A Bosom Friend," Ishmael gets in bed with Queequeg and says,

"How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair."

They grow even more comfortable and cosy and devoted together in bed in Chapter 11, "Nightgown." And then in Chapter 12, "Biographical,

"His story being ended with his pipe's last dying puff, Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine, and blowing out the light, we rolled over from each other, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping."

And then, via The Consumerist, there's this:

"Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules."

I defy anybody to stop me from interpreting Ishmael's relationship to Queequeg as homoerotic (I haven't even mentioned that they are a bunch of sailors chasing "Dick"). To deny the possibilities seems nothing short of heterocentrism.

There's really no limit to exploring the homosexual undercurrents of much of our low and high culture. To do so is not "reading into it," but exploring the full possibility.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Truth and Fiction

"Steal this Book" by Joseph Finder

Just a few comments to add to Finder's solid op-ed piece in The NY Times. The history of the novel is even more deeply tied to "fake truth" than Finder suggests. Cervantes, arguably the inventor of the novel, wrote Don Quixote as if it were a transcription of a chronicle the author discovered (Finder cites Dumas's The Three Musketeers, and given that Dumas begins the novel by comparing d'Artagnan to Quixote, I wouldn't be surprised if Dumas's "history" was modeled on Cervantes'). Early English novels were written with a narrative structure that allowed for some degree of "realism": a lot of these novels were written as a series of letters, or pages from a diary. They were written as if they were made of real documents from life. And if you'd like to see the grand culmination of this narrative form, read Bram Stoker's Dracula, which is all about constructing truth out of written narrative.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Complacency, Adversity, and Art

I had a prof in grad school who said he realized he’d never be able to write fiction because his life was too normal—it was people with screwed up lives who find great material for fiction.

Another prof once suggested that the reason there are so many great writers from Ireland and the American South is tied directly to poverty. The idea is that poor individuals are closer to the hard realities of human existence, and are able to make great human insights that those in a more prosperous, sheltered life cannot.

My greatest intellectual flourishing was in grad school, when I pretty much lived on a stipend and often spent less than $30 a week on groceries. My most complacent intellectual period has been the last two years, when I’ve had a comfortable job, lots of free time, and disposable income. In a few months, I expect things to get tight again—and then, perhaps, the complacency will be gone and the intellectual flourishing can return.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but if they hadn’t been exiled from their hometowns, Dante would have never written The Divine Comedy, and Machiavelli would have never written The Prince. Milton didn’t write Paradise Lost until he was an old blind man who had seen the Puritan rule of England fall to the hated Restoration. Didn’t Cervantes spend time as a prisoner of war before writing Don Quixote? John Keats tragic early death probably cost the world volumes of beautiful poetry—but did his illness contribute to the beautiful poetry he did leave us? Dostoevsky, if I’m not mistaken, spent time in work prisons and was nearly executed (my knowledge of author biographies is shaky at best—I’ve been much more concerned with understanding the texts they left us than knowing the details of their lives).

Education matters; there aren’t that many brilliant working class writers in western history, and no peasants became literary geniuses (that I’m aware of). But do the tribulations of life contribute to artistic creation? Can prosperity, complacency, and comfort lead to brilliant art?

Or, as Tony Harrison suggests in his brilliant poem "v.", does poetry grow from shit? Harrison writes in "v." that dead, rotting corpses turn to coal, that victory is to the "vast, slow, coal-creating forces/ that hew the body's seams to get the soul." Does brilliant art grow from human suffering?