Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man"

I mostly read tragedy or comic tragedy, so it is delightful to read a play that is genuinely funny, in which everybody ends up married off where they should be, but that is able to get across the big themes, too.

I haven't fully designed my fall syllabus for my lit class, but if I teach a play that examines war and gender roles, "Arms and the Man" will likely replace "Lysistrata."

I was struck, when reading it, by that common theme of Western literary history: the folly of a romantic worldview in the face of reality. It's in Don Quixote, it's in Madame Bovary, it's in a host of other canonical classics, and it's in Shaw.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Ambivalence: Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty"

"Ode to Duty" by William Wordsworth

Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
O Duty! if that name thou love
Who art a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring, and reprove;
Thou, who art victory and law
When empty terrors overawe;
From vain temptations dost set free;
And calm'st the weary strife of frail humanity!

There are who ask not if thine eye
Be on them; who, in love and truth,
Where no misgiving is, rely
Upon the genial sense of youth:
Glad Hearts! without reproach or blot;
Who do thy work, and know it not:
Oh! if through confidence misplaced
They fail, thy saving arms, dread Power! around them cast.

Serene will be our days and bright,
And happy will our nature be,
When love is an unerring light,
And joy its own security.
And they a blissful course may hold
Even now, who, not unwisely bold,
Live in the spirit of this creed;
Yet seek thy firm support, according to their need.

I, loving freedom, and untried:
No sport of every random gust,
Yet being to myself a guide,
Too blindly have reposed my trust:
And oft, when in my heart was heard
Thy timely mandate, I deferred
The task, in smoother walks to stray;
But thee I now would serve more strictly, if I may.

Through no disturbance of my soul,
Or strong compunction in me wrought,
I supplicate for thy control;
But in the quietness of thought:
Me this unchartered freedom tires;
I feel the weight of chance desires:
My hopes no more must change their name,
I long for a repose that ever is the same.

Stern Lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godhead's most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds
And fragrance in thy footing treads
Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.

To humbler functions, awful Power!
I call thee: I myself command
Unto thy guidance from this hour;
Oh! let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And, in the light of truth, thy Bondman let me live!

My first thought comes at the title: why is Wordworth oding anything to "Duty"? If you read Wordsworth in a survey course, or for fun, you're reading the passionate and reflective poems of his younger days. It's easy to forget that Wordworth grew into a stately (and socially conservative) Victorian poet laureate. Still, knowing the poet of nature and the imagination, I read the poem skeptically.

And so in the first stanza I think, are you we supposed to appreciate this image of Duty? A "stern daughter," "a rod to check the erring," "victory and law"? Because I don't--and I'm not entirely sure a young Wordworth does either.

And then we come to the next stanza:

There are who ask not if thine eye
Be on them; who, in love and truth,
Where no misgiving is, rely
Upon the genial sense of youth:
Glad Hearts! without reproach or blot;

According to Wordsworth, those who don't think about Duty at all are happier, are acting "in love and truth." Sure he adds that they do Duty's work without thinking about it. But think of the nature of "Duty": the very concept involves a sense of requirement. Wordsworth lauds those who act without the sense of requirement--so is that really Duty at all?

The next stanza may again end with a conventional nod to Duty, but throughout the rest of the stanza Wordsworth talks about how happy we'll be when we know longer need Duty to guide us, a time when "When love is an unerring light." Duty may protect us, but hopefully we'll evolve past the point of needing Duty--at that point, we'll be happier. In a religious sense, it is better to behave morally because you sincerely wish to behave morally than to behave morally because there are rules requiring you to do so.

In the next two stanzas Wordsworth talks of his previous days, when he followed his own heart and ignored Duty. I ask you: doesn't that sound more appealing? And doesn't that match the rest of Wordworth's ouevre? But now, he says, he's asking Duty to guide him.

And then Wordsworth presents a different vision of Duty:

Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong;
And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.

Here Duty is a physical imperative, akin to the Laws of Nature. The entire cosmos acts as it does according to the Laws of Nature. Can we call that "Duty"? The physical laws of the universe require the stars to behave in a certain way. In such a sense, we all have certain natural, biological requirements: we could call this "Duty," but would we attach a moral value to that?

In the last stanza Wordsworth calls for Duty to come and guide him. However, I cannot read this poem as a legitimate "ode to Duty." There is too much ambivalence, too much ambiguity. Wordsworth's consistent suggestion that we'd be happier acting sincerely without a sense of Duty calls into doubt the entire message of the poem.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Norma Marsh's "'Night, Mother"

In twentieth century literature, the concept of waiting becomes a focal point. We see it in Fowles' The Magus, in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, in Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, and to a smaller extent in Sartre's The Age of Reason and Camus' The Plague.

We see a little of it in Marsh's "'Night, Mother":

"Mama: ...You wait.
Jessie: You do something else. You don't just wait.
Mama: Whatever else you find to do, you're just still mainly waiting. The waiting's the worst part of it."

You might recall this conversation later when Mama, frantic to stop Jessie's suicide, says:

"But something might happen. Something that could change everything. Who knows what it might be, but it might be worth waiting for!"

This reminds me explicitly of the last chapter of The Magus, where Fowles talks about the existential waiting for something to happen to you. And Jessie's response later reminds me of The Age of Reason, when Jessie refers to her lost self:

"Somebody I waited for and never came. And never will....I'm what was worth waiting for and I didn't make it."

But that's all I really have to say about this rather mediocre play. I have had an interest in the meaning of suicide in literature, but I'm not sure there was a great deal added to discussion of suicide in this play.

A larger vision

From Tom Regan's "The Case for Animals Rights":

"the animal rights movement is a part of, not antagonistic to, the human rights movement. The theory that rationally grounds the rights of animals also grounds the rights of humans. Thus those involved in the animal rights movement are partners in the struggle to secure respect for human rights - the rights of women, for example, or minorities, or workers. The animal rights movement is cut from the same moral cloth as these."

It is important to note that those of us who strive for better treatment of animals do not place animals above humans. For me, I don't see treatment of animals and treatment of humans as wholly unrelated. I fit my own attitudes toward animals into a larger progressive mission (which includes striving against homelessness, poverty, war, genocide, racism, sexism, and all sorts of other evils and cruelties and injustices). It is not, for me, a matter of priorities--it is, as Dustin Hoffman's blanket in I Heart Huckabees, all connected, all the same.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


As many of you know, I have often (especially in the last year, but stretching further than that) wrestled with the question of the proper moral treatment of animals. Since early October, I've been vegetarian--then I was a vegan from Dec. 27 until May 17--and now I'm a vegetarian again.

But now I have the internet at home, and many of the fundamental writings on animal rights--including some of the works of Peter Singer and Tom Regan--are out there. So I'm--mostly--going to refrain from comment or argument on these issues for now. I will instead devote my time to reading some of these foundational philosophical works. This, I feel, is a better use of my time: it's a chance to read, to grow, to develop, to think, to learn. It's a positive use of my online time--better, anyway, than discussing animal rights issues in forums like sports blogs and sites (where lately I've too often found myself in these discussions, but always for topical subjects, at least).

It's a good decision, I hope.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Athol Fugard's "'MASTER HAROLD'...and the boys"

Most summers I have piles of free time to read; this summer, I'm taking care of my son and so my reading time is limited. Rather than try to read long novels and be disappointed in how few I read, I'm going to primarily read plays and poetry. Poetry I can read in short bursts whenever I get a chance, and drama reads very fast. So my summer will be spent familiarizing myself with some drama I haven't yet encountered. I'll try to give at least a brief comment on each play I read.

The challenge of a one-act play is that the relationships between the characters must reveal themselves, naturally, in the dialogue taking place during one scene. That is also the strength of the one-act play--in such a brief piece of literature or performance, the larger realities and significance of relationships between characters reveals itself. It's like a small grape that tastes so rich because all the flavor is compacted; the energy from a well-written (and well-performed) one-act play reveals everything you need to understand.

"'MASTER HAROLD'...and the boys" succeeds in this regard. The relationships between the characters are clear; the meaning of it all reveals itself in the conversations and conflicts. And perhaps more--rather than just showing us the relationships between Hally, Sam, and Willie, Fugard might be showing us the greater reality of Apartheid society.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

What made the Romantic poets Romantic poets?

From Andrew Marvell's "The Garden":

The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

I love the British Romantic poets of the early 19th century; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley are among my favorite reads. However, as I look back at other poetry, I keep seeing the threads of the Romantics: love of nature, celebration of the imagination, joy of solitude. While I find the Romantics brilliant, I must delve harder to find just what it is that made the Romantics romantic. Was it something new, or was it a stronger point of emphasis? Was it a matter of style?

But so, too, with all intellectual or literary eras--the threads go back far.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Mulholland Dr. as poem

The film Mulholland Dr. is rich thematically: it's about the loss of innocence, the corruption of the film industry, the existential hell of guilt and memory. Of course, the actual content of the film is secondary to David Lynch's trademark chaotic, random, senseless absurdity.

Or is it absurd?

When I first read a complicated poem, I occasionally have no idea what it means at all: it is simply musical sounding words. Then I'll read it again, and the substance becomes clearer. Another reading gives me further understanding of the poem's structure and subject. I can read other commentaries on the poem to brace my own insights, and further readings simply illuminate the poem further. Eventually, what was once a jumble of words becomes a precise, clear expression: not a single line, not a single word, escapes understanding or interpretation.

That is how I feel about Mulholland Dr. Eventually, it is not chaotic or random at all. Eventually, nearly everything in the film makes a certain sense (or at least can be fit into a comprehensive interpretation). What begins as Absurdity becomes a film that seems obtuse but actually fits together a little too precisely.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Summer Reading: Son of a Witch, and what is Romanticism?

Gregory Maguire's Son of a Witch
If you check my profile, you'll see that Maguire's Wicked is listed as one of my favorite books, right there among Hamlet and Crime and Punishment.

As you might imagine, I looked to Son of a Witch, Wicked's sequel, with high hopes. For the most part, these high hopes were disappointed. Why?

The protagonist is rather dull; there's nothing terribly interesting about Liir at all. As I neared the end of the novel, I began to see that Liir's lack of personality throughout may have been intentional, a critical element of the themes of maturation and growth into individuality. However, it remains that he is dull.

The middle portion of the book, "The Service," is very, very boring. It was during this section I considered giving the book up.

But I could live with that. The sad thing is, what worked in Wicked just didn't work in Son of a Witch (or wasn't attempted). The ambiguities are there, but whereas Wicked's mysteries feel like deep, soul-wrenching truths, Son of a Witch's mysteries feel like forced ambiguity. The lack of action through large portions that helps give Wicked its strength was Son of a Witch's weakness.

Still, it has its good points. It is frequently surprising, the last long section of the book is very good, and there seems to be a parallel in the Apostle Emperor to the way Christianity is fused with American imperialism. But if Wicked is an A, Son of a Witch is a C: enjoyable in parts, but often dull, some good writing and interesting theme, but without the stirring depths.

The typical narrative of literary history has British Romanticism beginning with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Of course, as in all intellectual history, there can be an arbitrary nature to how we define epochs of thinking. I've heard critics say that the threads of Romanticism appear in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which is true. I can also see its threads further back, in a poem like Sir Edward Dyer's "My Mind to Me a Kingdom is" (which seems to have deliberate correlation to Shakespeare's "I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space). But of course, given that the Romantics adored Milton and often fused the spirit Milton's poetry into their own poetry, Romanticism can go further back.

Defining literary eras has a certain usefulness; the generalization helps us to make sense of literary history in a broad sense. But of course, we have to remember that we are partly CREATING these eras; it's not that they exist in and of themselves, but we examine the work produced in an era and decide what is significant, what should be read now, what had influence. There were non-Romantic poets writing in early 19th century England, I'm sure--it's just that we haven't deemed them worth the study in a survey of English poetry. As with history, we create it--we pick and choose what is worth defining an era by.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Short Downpour

The New York Times reviews new biographies of John Donne and Ralph Ellison.

Sadly, The Onion might have professors nailed here.

Via 3quarksdaily, The Nation comments on The Simpsons hitting 400 episodes.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

When do you give up on a book?

Just because you start a book doesn't mean you are going to finish it. Sometimes the thorns of life get in the way. However, when do you consciously choose not to finish a book?

It's easy to stop reading a boring book after a few pages, or a few chapters. But several times I've gotten around halfway through a book and wondered whether it was worth finishing (sometimes I did, sometimes I didn't). If you are halfway through a book and not enjoying it, do you owe it to yourself to finish (lest your previous reading be wasted--one of the reasons I'm still vegan)? Or, if you are halfway through a book and not enjoying it, do you owe it to yourself to STOP reading it and go on to read something better?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Colossal Downpour

At Pacifist Viking, links posts are called "Blizzards." At Costanza Book Club, we'll call them Downpours. These link posts are sort of a pain in the ass; I don't know if you'll find the links interesting, but they at least remind me what I want to read later.

Manohla Dargis at the NY Times talks about blockbuster films in "Defending Goliath: Hollywood and the Art of the Blockbuster."

According to Matea Gold of the LA Times, "'Law & Order' may move to cable." It's only on TNT about 46 times a day; why not air new episodes there?

At The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert talks about the new particle collider in "Crash Course."

Zadie Smith's short story "Hanwell Senior" is also in The New Yorker.

Cherie Miner explores "The Reagan Myth."

3quarksdaily has a post on Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," the film that officially created the PV household blacklist: "Monday Musing: The New Mannerists." In the PV household, we decided we've sat through enough boring or awful movies, and now if we see two awful movies amd zero good movies by one filmmaker, we will blacklist that filmmaker. The list currently includes Sofia Coppola, Eric Rohmer, and Jim Jarmusch (though we've never even seen a Jarmusch film in its entirety). I seem to think I'm forgetting one more person, but neither Possible Flurries nor I can think of the other person. Do any of you have any blacklisted directors?

Via 3quarksdaily, the always fun Neil DeGrasse Tyson gives us "The Cosmic Perspective" in Natural History.

Via Arts & Letters Daily, in the Philadelphia Inquirer Carlin Romano does some reviews and talks about what makes Shakespeare great in "The readiness to deconstruct is all."

Monday, May 07, 2007

Television as Great Art

You may or may not know this, but I have utter and complete contempt for about 90% of what is on television. However, even while recognizing the medium provides a lot of awful material, there are gems of beautiful art provided by television. I think we need to recognize this: contempt for the medium itself, or for the majority of the material provided by the medium, is no reason to abandon everything the medium provides as schlock.

So here is a list of television shows that I consider "great art" (as problematic as that phrase may be). I think other TV shows are art (like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone), but I can't think of other shows beside these that I'd call great art (barely missing the cut is The Kids in the Hall).

The first show to really bring an artist's precise analysis to the everday, mundane, commonplace facets of our society.

Arrested Development
If the sitcom can aspire to the title of art, that it is necessary to place the greatest sitcom ever made into our list.

The Sopranos
Every TV critic already agrees.

This would probably be the inclusion that would get the most disagreement, but I believe it is great art.

Six Feet Under
There aren't a lot of shows so focused on the realities of death.

Possibly the greatest work the Western genre has offered us.

The X Files
The pinnacle of its genre.

The Simpsons
So brilliant, so all-encompassing: if Fox ever asks me what America was like in the 90s, I'm going to tell him to watch this show.

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Larry David takes Seinfeld up a notch.

That is my current list: now I want some of your opinions.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

From defunct to re-funked

I'm back, baby!

I'm resurrecting Costanza's Book Club. I started this blog as a chance to share ideas about ideas, and I feel that I failed. In v. 2.0 of the Club, I intend this to be much more accessible. Yes, I'm going to talk about books and literary theory, but more often I'm going to try apply literary theory to cultural productions like television shows. It will be a place to discuss ideas, but it will be a place to discuss ideas within the context of popular culture.

Right now, I'm the only contributor: I'll be setting the agenda of discourse. But if you'd like to join the Club, just prove your chops in the comments. I would like more contributors: I want this to be a place where others can share ideas on whatever cultural productions we wish.

I've got high hopes for this reborn blog. Please read, please comment, and perhaps, please join.

Does Authorship Matter?

When considering my syllabus for this past semester, I wondered if I included enough women and minority writers. I teach three novels, two of which were Ernest Gaines' A Gathering of Old Men and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, so I had the feeling I had given minority writers a voice (sadly, this semester I did not teach David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, an omission I don't plan on making again). I teach many works by women writers (including works with obvious feminist themes like "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Trifles"). But I still felt there might be a lack of women writers.

But then I looked at the works by men that I taught. Lysistrata is a play primarily about women's role in society. King Lear is a play I first read in a Women in Literature course, so it clearly has issues of women involved. When reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we talked about misogyny. When reading Death of a Salesman, we talked about Linda's role. Over and over again when reading books of either male or female authorship, we examined the roles of women in the works and the perspectives of women in the works.

I should add that in my literature course, I barely discuss the author at all. I focus the class primarily on the text, the text, the text (and the reader's experience with the text). I do recognize that the perspective of the writer matters: Aristophanes may give women a voice in Lysistrata, but it is still a man's voice in the woman's mask.

But if we're talking about the roles and perspectives and issues of minorities and women in the works, how important is it that the actual writers be minorities and women? I ask this not in a canonical sense (I do think more minorities and women need to be read and taught), but in a pedagogical sense. For the purpose of my class, for the students' experience with the text and the ideas, for their reading and our discussion, does authorship matter?