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.