Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Tudors

The strength of the show is in the nuanced portrayals of important characters.  Thomas More shows the razor thin line between the thoughtful, principled man of conscience, and the cold ideological executioner.  Catherine of Aragon is all suffering dignity, until those rare moments she shows a sharp cunning.  It is the subtlety of some of these characters that draws me to the show.

Henry VIII is all ego, rage, and frustrated sexuality, but after antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen, he's rather predictable and just a bit uninteresting.  But like a lot of cable television series, it is the season one finale that really sucks me into the show.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Lisa the Vegetarian"

You don't usually expect to see such a thoughtful episode of a mainstream television show, but this episode of The Simpsons manages to:

--show the moral progression of a vegetarian.
--show the difficulties of being a vegetarian in a meat-eating society.
--savagely mock that meat-eating society.
--end with a message the vegetarians should show tolerance and respect for others, influencing people without badgering them.

It's the sort of episode I can show my kids, an episode not with a trite TV lesson, but an actual lesson.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Richard III

It is a play that largely belongs to the angry, mourning women lamenting their losses at the hands of Richard.  It seems filled with the motif of time periods.  It may be a compromised work; today we don't care for our writers to create their works with concern for the political powers (but then, much of Western civilization's paintings are tainted by power and money too, right?).  A few issues stand out to me.

Obsession with the Shadow Self: Self-Love and Self-Hate
In Richard's first speech, he laments the boredom of the current time period; he'll have nothing to do

"Unless to spy my own shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity" (I.ii.26-27)

An odd line, I thought, but probably just a chance for Shakespeare to dig at his villain's (and the current dynastic family's villain's) physical flaws.  But then another line resonated in a similar vein:

"Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass
That I may see my shadow as I pass" (I.ii.262-263).

Suddenly we have a pattern.  Richard twice invokes a desire to examine his own shadow.  Once he muses on examining his own shadow to pass the time, and shortly after discusses examining his shadow through a mirror (taking himself a step away from the actual shadow).  A contrast: the sun, his shadow.  The sun representing, perhaps, God, King, Goodness, the shadow representing all of Richard's flaws.

But Richard is going to perform many dark deeds throughout the play.  This focus on his own shadow (not himself or his deformity, but the shadow of his deformity) on one hand shows a fixation on his own evil.  But on the other hand, it shows a desire to distance himself from this evil.  He doesn't want to look at himself; he only wants to look at his own shadow.  After that, he doesn't even want to look at his shadow; he wants to examine his shadow through a mirror as he walks away from it.

I think this becomes interesting when Richard wakes on the day of the battle, after ghosts have cursed him to despair and death in the night:

"What do I fear?  Myself?  There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here?  No.  Yes, I am.
Then fly.  What, from myself?  Great reason why!
Lest I revenge.  What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore?  For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain.  Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well.  Fool, do not flatter" (V.iii.183-193)

If there was ever a better written expression for the conflicted self, self-hatred and self-love combined into a self-fear, I haven't read it.  Certainly, shortly after Richard bucks himself up for war by denying his conscience:

"Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe;
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!" (V.iii.309-312)

But is that conflicted self that lingers with me--objectively illustrated by a desire to examine one's shadow, an act requiring both self-love and self-hate.

Justifying War
We see the Tudor hero Richmond and the Tudor villain Richard inspire their troops with different justifications for war.  Both are familiar.

Good Richmond buoys the troops by claiming they fight for God.

"God and our good cause fight upon our side" (V.iii.241)

"One that hath ever been God's enemy
Then if you fight against God's enemy,
God will in justice ward you as his soldiers" (V.iii.253-255)

"Then in the name of God and all these rights,
Advance your standards, draw your willing swords" (V.iii.263-265)

Written at a time when belief in the divine right of kings was a foundational principle for government, there is sincerity here.  Still, Richmond is making a power play: he's waging a war to remove another king and place the crown on his own head.  He claims, of course, that he fights on God's side, but he's certainly not an objective student of God's will ("God insists I wage a war to make myself King" is hardly convincing).  But then, many killers and warmongers justify their murders and wars by claiming God is on their side.  it is often that in a war, the religious on each side calls on God to justify its own cause.

Evil Richard calls for war by demonizing the enemy and by calling on fears of what will happen if they don't fight and win.

"A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways,
A scum of Britains and base lackey peasants,
Whom their o'ercloyed country vomits forth
To desperate ventures and assured destruction.
You sleeping safe, they bring you unrest;
You having lands, and blest with beauteous wives
They would distrain the one, distain the other." (V.iii.317-323)

"Shall these enjoy our lands?  Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?" (V.iii.337-338)

Richard dehumanizes the enemy, and calls upon fears of what this monstrous enemy will do to the good people's peaceful homes.  They, then, become just warriors: they are merely defending peace by waging war.  Earlier, Richmond makes a similar claim:

"To reap the harvest of perpetual peace
by this one bloody trial of sharp war" (V.iii.15-16)

Of course, perpetual war can be justified by these claims.

Syntax and Ambiguity

"Now is the winter of our discontent" (I.i.1)

In isolation, the wonderful first line has clear meaning: the bad time is now.  But that line is part of a clause:

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York" (I.i.1-2)

This clause also has a clear meaning: the bad time is now over.

The beauty of the syntax also finds meaning in the speaker.  For Richard, the "glorious summer" is his own "winter of [...] discontent:" he's not happy.  And as the play is about to detail Richard's rise to power, it is also going to detail England's "winter of our discontent" which is, in Richard's time, occurring now.  The play is the winter of discontent, even if the clause means the winter of discontent (which includes a long civil war) is over.

The syntax is genius.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Joker (2)

The Joker in The Dark Knight reminds me of Dostoevsky's underground man in Notes from the Underground.  The underground man declares that sometimes one wants two and two to equal five, that a person can take pleasure even in a toothache.  He asserts that humans don't behave according to reason, that our behaviors and our motivations are often irrational.  And the Joker wants chaos, anarchy, anything but a plan.  He seems to take pleasure in his own pain, and he takes pleasure in the entirely irrational.

But it's more than that: at an aesthetic level, Heath Ledger's twitchiness seems to me a physical representation of the underground man's writing style.  The sharp bursts, the halting movements, the dark laughter, the sneering, the cynicism in the stare, in the comedy.  It's all unexpected exploding, chasing down tangents, a bitter mockery.

Then there are the political overtones, which were not perhaps so ham-fisted as they seemed to me (waiting months to see the movie and thus hearing others talk about it).  Briefly, the film tells us this: Terrorists are illogical and lack motivations; they only want destruction.  The only way to defeat them is to sink to their level, and thus all the excesses of the war on terror are justified, including torture, illegal spying, and lying to the public.

To fit this theme, nothing is truly known about the Joker's past and background--he has no origin story (he keeps lying about his scars).  His motivations are not practical (he burns a giant wad of cash) but based on a psychotic love of disaster, destruction, anarchy, and chaos.  He makes demands and targets defenseless civilians and institutions (like hospitals).  He also achieves his ends by not valuing his own life; he regularly behaves with suicidal recklessness, daring death.

I'll be rewatching the Michael Keaton Batman soon to re-appreciate Jack Nicholson's Joker.  I realize I probably haven't seen the movie in over a decade; however, I watched it so many times when I was a kid that several lines and images are still ingrained in my memory.

As I've been reflecting on Nicholson's Joker, I've thought how at the end, he becomes something more like Ledger's Joker.  Throughout the film he's a clever, scheming, smooth-talking Joker. But in the big tower scene, he becomes completely unhinged in a very hilarious way.  He starts pulling out silly gags when Batman beats on him (like putting on glasses and asking whether Batman would really hit a man with glasses).  He laughs maniacally as he hangs on the verge of death.  He becomes a silly, giggly, irrational mess: his voice and his facial expressions are all over the place: unpredictable, unexpected, chaotic.

addendum: I just rewatched Batman; sadly for my tainted memory, the late '80s were not exactly a zenith for film-making.

Nicholson's Joker is goofier throughout than I remembered: he's always laughing, giggling, cackling.  He's frequently doing silly gags, and his outbursts are always unpredictable.  But something distinguishes him from Ledger's Joker: rhythm.  Nicholson is often dancing about the screen, clownishly prancing to music (he frequently brings music with him).  There's a rhythmic performance to his movements, whereas Ledger's movements are herky-jerky, unbalanced, twittery.  Though while the music and dancing in Batman give the Joker a greater sense of control, it also somehow foils or grounds the Joker's erratic behavior.  It's controlled mayhem.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Playing the Joker

I've learned that being a parent means you still get to watch all the movies, you just have to wait about six months.

I was extremely excited to see The Dark Knight for one reason: Heath Ledger playing the Joker. I love to watch Jack Nicholson, and appreciated his Joker in Batman, and I loved Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (the film left me in uncontrolled, sobbing, hide-in-the-bathroom tears). So after months of know people were raving about Ledger's performance (while taking deliberate care not to read about why they were raving), I spent much of the movie just waiting for the Joker's scenes (in Slings & Arrows, Geoffrey Tennant tells the young actor playing Hamlet that it's all about the soliloquies: it's what people are there to see, and if he can nail those, the dialogue is easy. And indeed, it was just before a soliloquy that the critic in the audience grins and readies his pen). So if I say the Joker's scenes stole the movie, that may be a slanted perspective (or it may be the white, purple, red, and green contrasted so much with the black and orange that dominated the rest of the film).

I think both Ledger and Nicholson played the part with restraint, but a very different type of restraint. Nicholson's Joker is cool, smooth, his movements controlled. Ledger's Joker is twitchy. A twitchy restrained chaos: head hunched and twisted, hands in motion, halting spasms, a voice almost whiny even as it is both comical and frightening. Both played a character that could make any movements at any moment, that could perform any sort of chaotic, irrational, senseless action--but that for the most part didn't. Ledger's Joker is more unhinged. I don't know which I enjoyed more--Ledger's Joker is a little more fun, but Nicholson's Joker is...well...Nicholson. I don't know--I should probably rewatch Batman before commenting more.

There's just a chance that neither was actually as good as Cesar Romero. The problem for Romero is that he was a Joker stuck in a Gotham just as colorful and silly as him, a foil to a campy Batman. Imagine taking Romero's Joker out of the campy Gotham, and sticking him in Tim Burton's Batman or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Romero's Joker would have been the real chaotic contrast to Michael Keaton's or Christian Bale's Batman.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Acting and the Creative Act

A contrapuntal essay

In "The Existential Clown" in The Atlantic, James Parker writes about actor Jim Carrey as an artist, whose films show a consistency of vision:

"Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self."

I might take this in a few different directions. In emails with my friend Rob (a writer and proponent of Auteur Theory) we have discussed whether an actor can really be an auteur, who really controls the vision of a film or films, who should, differences in stage and film, that sort of thing. But there are other directions, including artistic intent. If Carrey did not play roles in these films as part of a larger artistic vision, if indeed his primary goal is to make people laugh and he doesn't bother with anything remotely approaching "a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self," then can his filmography really amount to this? Can we the viewers (or just Parker) examine the ouevre for its results, without bothering with the intentions of the comic actor? Or maybe we could look about and find other actors who, in their acting alone separate from writing or directing, show a consistency of character, theme, explorative subject (John Wayne comes to mind). Or we could be more subjective: are there certain actors you follow in the same way you might follow a writer, a director, a musician? Does having a "favorite actor" mean quite the same thing as having a "favorite writer"? And how is it different?

I like all these lines of inquiry, but I'm interested in reflecting on acting as a creative act. When I speak of a Shakespearean production, I would tend to refer to "Actor A's Character" rather than "Director B's Play" (for example, to me this is "Gibson's Hamlet," not "Zeffirelli's Hamlet"). It is the actor who interprets and creates the character. If I see a film or stage version, it is not the choices of the director I will relish, but the choices of the actor. Of course the actor is not independent: he/she relies on the initial creation of character and words by Shakespeare, as well as the vision and support of a director. But what artist can work in isolation with total freedom from interference or influence? A writer does not invent the language he/she works in, even if he/she invents his/her own version of it.

But let's move to television. David Chase created The Sopranos, but I think it was really Tony Gandolfini who created Tony Soprano. Certainly Chase invented him, but it was Gandolfini who gave him life, who gave him shape, who thrusts Tony Soprano into my consciousness. Gandolfini is a creative agent. Gandolfini is the artist who passed a character from the realm of imagination into...well, my imagination (when I started watching the DVDs I did have dreams about him). Could another actor have done so? Maybe. Maybe not. But I want to credit the actor for making the character what he is, and I do believe it is the actor as creative agent that reached me.

That's not to say that's always the case. Larry David is probably more responsible than Jason Alexander for the genius of George Costanza, but Michael Richards is largely the creator of Kramer.

And maybe we get back to the old problem of Jack Nicholson's Randle Patrick McMurphy against Ken Kesey's Randle Patrick McMurphy. They're not quite the same McMurphy, are they? I don't think Milos Forman made a different McMurphy. And while I can have serious discussion about the differences between the film and novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I cannot really articulate why Nicholson's portrayal of McMurphy is not quite the McMurphy of the book. I can only say that Nicholson is a great actor, an artist, a dominant presence that makes a character his own. Simply by having Nicholas play McMurphy, McMurphy becomes something other than what he was in the text (of course, right? He's an aesthetic creation, and so that aesthetic in words on a page is different than an actor on a screen. That's not what I want to address here; I'm still asserting that Nicholson created a character).

So maybe I'm only thinking of the brilliant actors here (but, in the same way proponents of Auteur Theory mainly think of the brilliant directors). What of the average actors? What of the lousy actors?

But let me raise a problem (and suggest this whole line of inquiry is either pointless or impossible). I love the film The Aviator for its portrayal of character; I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was brilliant (I'm rather interested in OCD). One scene in particular lingers with me: Hughes is in a restroom, and he doesn't want to touch the door to get out, so he quietly waits until somebody else enters the restroom so that he can leave without touching the door.

The scene is wonderful: I recall the quiet and the focus. But whom do I really credit for the scene? Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorcese, or writer John Logan? And this may also get at why I can't quite accept Auteur Theory. I think it likely the scene worked so well because actor, director, writer, and even a host of others contributing to the creation of the scene made it work. A singular, controlling vision? That doesn't matter; what matters is the resulting scene, a scene with many contributors to its brilliance (though perhaps Auteur Theory is a way to understand an ouevre, not a particular film or a particular scene).

I'm interested in the ways that an actor creates. I'm interested in the way an actor can be an artist. I'm interested in why different people watch things and what they're looking for when they watch. And I'm interested in how we talk about these things.

Let me finish by noting that in some ways, the subject of acting and the theater haunts my dreams. I have recurring dreams (nightmares, I suppose) about somehow making a mistake and ruining a stage show. In particular, I sometimes dream that I'm in a play, and perhaps I don't know my lines, perhaps I don't know the blocking, or often it's more serious: I don't know what character I'm playing, or I don't even know what play I'm in. In my dreams, I often find myself on stage in front of people with other performers, not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing and aware that I'm ruining everything. Please, try that on Freud.

(These contrapuntal essays are taking a distinct shape toward a) rambling directionlessly and b) asking a bunch of questions I'm not bothering to answer (I really hate the latter trend in my writing and will work toward toning it down). What I'm finding in these essays, however, is that it is not the result that makes it contrapuntal, but my mindset whiile writing. I'm willing to ramble and raise questions and lose focus. It's a method, a way of thinking, and thus the writing and thinking goes where I don't expect when I begin)

Friday, December 05, 2008

The first stanza of "v."

"Next millennium you'll have to search quite hard
to find my slab behind the family dead,
butcher, publican, and baker, now me, bard
adding poetry to their beef, beer, and bread."

Tony Harrison's "v." contains 112 four line stanzas.  When I come back to the poem, I'm struck by how succinctly the first stanza reveals the major subjects of the rest of the long poem.

One of the elements of the poem is the pit underneath the cemetery, a "rabblement of bone and rot,/ shored slack, crushed shale, smashed prop."  This pit is a part of the discussion of the process of nature making "coal, that began, with no man here at all,/as 300 million-year-old plant debris."  It is in the creation of this coal that the "v." represents victory "For vast, slow, coal-creating forces that hew the body's seams to get the soul."  The useless dead bodies, through hundreds of millions of years, are turned into something useful (in fact, coal is warming the poet's home at the end of the poem).  It is a long process, requiring time.    And the first line of the poem subtly puts us into the the mindset of long periods of times with the reference to "millennium."

The poem is partly about the poet's relationship with his family, which is also about his relationship to class.  And so his "slab behind the family dead" puts us into that context.  The poet will share memories of his father, and wrestle internally with his class and the relationship of poetry to class.

The sounds in the next two lines are harsh but alliterative; they share similar sounds, but they share harsh beginnings and endings that require distinct pronunciations.  The key words in the third line are the job titles (and job titles, we find, are listed on the gravestones in the cemetery): butcher, publican, baker, bard.  the fourth line features nouns that are produced by those workers described in line three: poetry, beef, beer, and bread.  It's also worth noting the simple words beef, beer, and bread also seem to connote the food for working class people: simple, hearty, affordable.   Beer has class associations, and beef and bread are food provided for us by a "butcher" or a "baker."

And it's hard not to see the strong contrast between "poetry" and "beef, beer, and bread."  The sounds themselves are different: three single-syllable words, beginning with "b" and also ending with a consonant, against "poetry."  The different sounds remind us in the major difference: beef, beer, and bread are tangible and useful.  They provide something for people.  We can consume them.  What's poetry to that?  Hollow and empty.  "Poetry" can sound grand, but when you set poetry next to "beef, beer, and bread," it becomes nothingness both of sound and content.

And Harrison seems to recognize that; after all, later the skinhead voice tells him "it's not poetry we need in this class war."  Poetry is ultimately ineffectual.  The poem is partly about class and material conditions, about poverty and social place.  The beef, beer, and bread can provide something concrete and useful; poetry is air.  So in the first stanza, "now me, bard/adding poetry" to those useful consumables, comes off as sort of silly, frivolous.  But "poet" will be the label on Harrison's gravestone.

Perhaps we as readers don't see the deprecation there.  After all, would a poet minimize the use of poetry within a poem?  And would we as readers, obviously seeing some value in poetry since we are reading it, perhaps consider poetry loftier, nobler, more meaningful than the rougher, more common "beef, beer, and bread"?  Maybe.  But the material conditions of poetry are emphasized in the poem's final line, where Harrison's epitaph tells viewer that if they want to seek where poetry comes from, they should "find the beef, the beer, the bread, then look behind."  This last stanza again reminds us of the pit under the graveyard (evoking the process of turning decay into something useful), and then tells us the poetry comes from those tangible products, those useful edibles, food and drink.

It is, then, lines three and four of the poem that really bring us our subject.  Harrison names job titles (mostly working class job titles, put into the context of time and death), and then identifies the tangible material "stuff" produced by those doing the jobs (the nouns are, in my opinion, critical, as they require us to focus on the material "stuff").  But most importantly, he immediately places the role of poetry into this discussion.  The poem explores the relationship of language and class (the skinhead's shouting would not be the same without the cursing), but more specifically the relationship of poetry to class, to social change, to our real lives.  Harrison tells the skinhead voice that he writes poetry to give the lower class "a hearing," to "give some higher meaning to your scrawl."  The skinhead not only points out that such an effort really gives nothing to those people, but is not even in the language of those people ("Can't you speak/the language that yer mam spoke").  They talk about the cursing, Harrison telling the voice his mother didn't talk like him, and the voice responding "She didn't understand yer fucking 'art'!/She thought yer fucking poetry obscene!"  

The poem is about other things: the versus, the united, and all that.  But central is poetry, language, class.  Harrison doesn't suggest there is a simply relationship here, but he is, at any rate, exploring that relationship, and he shows us this from the first stanza.

favorite poetry (without comment)

My three favorite poems are John Milton's Paradise Lost, Tony Harrison's "v.", and Sylvia Plath's "Daddy."  My favorite poetry collections are Ted Hughes' Crow and Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

Imagination and Art

In an interview in the Star Tribune, Gregory Maguire says of his Oz,

"It is so real in my imagination that I could go Google Oz with it just like Google Earth. I can zone in to any little corner and find something fascinating. The place feels so real, with its own history and population, its peculiar strains of beliefs and imagination and social progress. It's the vehicle that has allowed me to open up the most far-seeing apparatus of my imagination."

I too have the ability to conceive in my imagination entirely new worlds.  Since childhood I've imagined vivid, detailed worlds, thriving in my mind, rich with imaginative, created reality.  My obsessive-compulsiveness also leads me to imagine all sorts of scenarios occurring in my life, all sorts of situations, all sorts of fantasies, hopeful or frightening or tedious.  In my mind, all sorts of events and places and people have existed, created but not real.

And I don't assume I'm special in this way: I think many, if not most, if not all, of us are capable of creating worlds in our minds.  Of imagining that which is not with rich detail.

What I lack, and what most people lack, is the aesthetic ability to express my created worlds to others.  I may be able to convey what I imagine, but not with eloquence or beauty or real art.  I cannot express it well in fiction or poetry, nor do I have much ability with visual art.  I don't believe I have aesthetic ability (though maybe someday I will find it, I don't know).  I can create worlds in my mind, but I cannot artfully give my world to you.

And this is what separates a writer's imagination from a non-writer's imagination (I imagine).  It is not the ability to create, but the ability to aesthetically express that creation to others.

(And in my opinion, anyway, Gregory Maguire does have that ability to aesthetically express his created world).

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reading Questions

Is there a difference between why children read and why adults read?

Is there a difference between why adolescents read and why adults read?

If so, what are some differences?

Should there be a difference between why children/adolescents read and why adults read?

Why do you read?  Why did you read as a child?  As an adolescent?  Are those reasons different?  How do you feel about those differences?

If you're interested, I really enjoyed Caitlin Flanigan's exploration "What Girls Want" in The Atlantic, but I'm really curious about these questions in general.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Arrested Development movie?

Oh my goodness.  A film version of the greatest sitcom in television history?  Is it really happening?  America needs the magic of G.O.B. Bluth, now more than ever.

I've also thought that Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards should get together to make one more episode of Seinfeld. Why not?  Just one more half-hour episode, they can air it once, and it will be a ratings bonanza.   I bet they could do something really funny.  But then Curb Your Enthusiasm is the perfect consequence of Seinfeld, and we still keeping getting more Curb, so I shouldn't complain.

You know, there are a lot of TV series that inspire great passionate devotion in a small number of people, but not enough people to keep the show on the air.  I've always thought the producers should continue the stories in book form.  If there are die-hard fans of Miracles, or Jericho, or even Wonderfalls, or Deadwood, or Freaks and Geeks, would some of those die-hard fans buy books telling the continuing story?  The sci-fi/fantasy type series that get cancelled might just make a good chunk of money in book form.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Zeitgeist, Literature, Science

A contrapuntal essay

In "The Relevance of Animal Experimentation to Roman Catholic Ethical Methodology," James Gaffney discusses the medieval church view (most prominantly expressed by Thomas Aquinas) that cruelty to animals was not inherently sinful, but that cruely to animals could lead one to a cruel disposition and cruelty toward humans. Gaffney writes

"Shakespeare reminds us that such ideas were current later in the Renaissance. thus, in Cymbeline, the queen's plan to test slow and painful poisons on 'such creatures as we count not worth the hanging--but none human' elicits from her physician the admonition that 'your highness shall from this practice but make hard your heart.'"

One doesn't have to look hard to find the ideas current at a time working their way into works of literature (and I'm reminded of John Fowles' suggestion that bad novels tell us more about the time period they were written in than good novels). Sometimes this is in mere passing, though sometimes writers particularly focus on exploring the ideas of the time. Mikhail Bakhtin writes that

"As an artist, Dostoevsky did not create his ideas in the same way philosophers or scholars create theirs--he created images of ideas found, heard, sometimes divined by him in reality itself, that is, ideas already living or entering life as idea-forces. Dostoevsky possessed an extraordinary gift for hearing the dialogue of his epoch [...] He heard both the loud, recognized, reigning voices of the epoch, that is, the reigning dominant ideas (official and unofficial), as well as voices still weak, ideas not yet fully emerged, latent ideas heard as yet by no one but himself, ideas that were just beginning to ripen, embryos of future worldviews."

And indeed, in Dostoevsky's great novels, he seems to tweak out the consequences of the religious and political thoughts and movements of his era.

I actually think it is primarily new scientific theories, new discoveries, and technological advancements that lead to a zeitgeist, a worldview common to a culture of a place and time. It is also political and economic events, but it is often new scientific insight that advances people to new ideas, new ways of seeing the world. Think of the giant shifts in thought after Columbus's trip to America. Think of the astronomical discoveries about the earth's place in the universe. Of human forays into outer space. Of life at the cellular level. Of how the printing press, railroads, flight, telephone, television, internet change us.

I also think of Darwin, and more broadly the new geological and biological ideas of the 19th century. Isn't reaction to such new ideas central to Victorian thought (or do I only think this because I've read The French Lieutenant's Woman too many times)? Which naturally brings me to Alfred Lord Tennyson. In In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson expresses his anxiety over the new scientific theories on geology and biology. He does not "invent" these ideas. I also doubt he was the first or only Victorian to react to Lyell in the way that he did. But you can read Tennyson's poetry if you want to explore the Victorian zeitgeist, if you want to see how Victorians responded to the scientific insight at the time. It's not the only reaction, but it is a prominent reaction. In Memoriam A.H.H. is perhaps an expression through poetry of the spirit of the time.

As I said, it is scientific insight, whether it be theory, discovery, or advancement, that moves the zeitgeist. But sometimes in literature these ideas are exposed or explored. Literature may articulate the consequences of an idea.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ideology and Crisis

A contrapuntal essay

In John Howard Yoder's What Would You Do?, several pacifist thinkers provide answers to the "What would you do if a violent person were attacking your family" question.  Most of the responses focus on Christian pacifism, including Dale Aukerman's.  Aukerman suggests that if one accepts Christ as Lord, then one accepts Christ as Lord in crisis situations too: faith in Christ and devotion to Christ's commands should not be abandoned in a crisis moment when one isn't sure they will work:

"Perhaps a Christian says, 'If my wife or child were about to be killed, I'd certainly try to kill the guy to prevent that.'  The person is really saying, 'I couldn't have Jesus as Lord of my life in that situation; I couldn't allow myself to be limited in such a way."  That would-be disciple is deciding beforehand to go opposite from the way of Christ and, in that manner of thinking, has already turned from Christ." (79-80)

I recall this passage while reading Matthew Rothschild's "Bush Sells Free Market as Cure-All, Despite Crash." Rothschild quotes George W. Bush saying 

"I'm a market-oriented guy, but not when I'm faced with the prospect of a global meltdown."

According to Rothschild, Bush noted the market interventions the government had taken to address the financial crisis, then went on to praise the wonders and glories of the free market system.  John McCain did something similar during the election campaign: 

"In an interview with Tom Brokaw last month, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was asked to reconcile his criticism of 'socialism' with his advocacy f a $700 billion bailout package [...] 'I'm a fundamentally strong conservative,' Mccain claimed.  'But when we're in a crisis of this nature, that's when government has to help.'" (Matthew Casner)

Bush praises the wonders of the free market, and McCain demonizes the specter of socialism.  In a moment of crisis, they are willing to abandon in practice the free market and apply government intervention.  But then they still want to praise the free market and demonize socialism.  Though their faith in the free market is challenged by the crisis, and they are unwilling to practice their faith to deal with the crisis, they still wish to uphold their faith.

I suppose we could take this in a couple of directions.  One direction would be an "anti-ideology" direction: in practice we should be pragmatic and do what seems to work best, not cling to an ideology.  Another direction would be "perfect ideology": if we claim an ideology, we should find an ideology that we are willing to stand by in good times and in bad times.

There is relevance in sports here too.  I play football video games. If I get down within five yards of the goal line, my playcalling is dependent on the situation.  If I'm in control of the game, I'll likely call some passes inside the five: it's more fun, it's a little more creative, and it can boost the stats of my quarterback and pass catchers.  But if I'm in a close game, in an important situation, I don't fool around with that: I'm calling a bunch of runs up the middle and making sure I get that touchdown.  

And in real world sports, coaches that stick to their system no matter what, that aren't willing or able to adapt their system for the abilities of the players on the team, for the schemes of the opponent, etc., get criticized.  In football the goal is to win the game.  If you believe that the best way to play football is run more than you throw, and the defense puts eight, nine, ten guys in the box to stop the run, it's stupid to just keep trying to run the ball up the middle again and again and again if you are capable of throwing it.

But that's football, with a clear goal and clear options, and significantly, no ethical consideration.  But there is a moral element to a nation's economy.  Sure the goal (prosperity) allows for multiple means of achievement, and various amoral ideas on how to achieve it.  But how far will that prosperity be spread out?  How will the poor in the nation be provided for?  What standards of equality, of fairness, of protection for people will there be?  As Rothschild points out,

"you can't have social justice and human dignity with mass unemployment, rampant foreclosures, high rates of poverty and food insecurity, and a health care system that leaves almost 50 million people uninsured."

Now back to the "What would you do?" question.  There are many ways to address it, and I don't have to do that here: I'll simply recommend Yoder's book if you're interested in some Christian pacifist approaches to the question (though not all arguments against violence in the book are religious).  But as we're on politics, let me make a very important point about the "What would you do?" question: the situation does not parallel or justify war.  The question that parallels war might be "would you throw a grenade into a crowd of people to stop the one violent person in the crowd?"  War is different: it doesn't resist just the "evildoers," but hurts many innocent people as well.  See Tom Englehardt:

"In Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force strike wiped out about 40 people in a wedding party.  This represented at least the sixth wedding party eradicated by American air power in Afghanistan and Iraq since December 2001."

Or see Howard Zinn:

"Would we approve a police chief, who, knowing there was a vicious criminal somewhere in a neighborhood, ordered that the neighborhood be bombed?  There was soon a civilian death toll in Afghanistan of over 3,000--exceeding the number of deaths on 9/11.  Afghans were driven from their homes, turned into wandering refugees."

However we respond to the "What would you do?" question, we cannot assume that the answer implies a justification for mass warfare.  I think if you are going to argue in favor of a war, you must do so in this language: 

"Will the civilian deaths, violent atrocities, and humanitarian disasters that are bound to result from this war be justified by the ends of this war (which we assume will be achieved, even if we do not know that they will)?"

  And if you still answer yes, you may find yourself sounding a bit like Pyle in The Quiet American:

"They were only war casualties. [...] It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target.  Anyway they died in the right cause. [...] In a way you could say they died for democracy."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'm whole now.

Seeing Wicked on stage was like a Dionysian ecstacy.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Barack Obama

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s "In Our Lifetime"

Michael Eric Dyson's "Race, post race"

Monday, November 03, 2008

What I'm reading

Fall semester always feels like rushed chaos (things I'm devoting my time to: fatherhood, the work that comes with an academic term, football, an election), and in between the madness, I find my pleasurable reading leaning toward drama and non-fiction.  Lately I've been reading religious perspectives on pacifism (What Would You Do? by John Howard Yoder and others) and animal rights (Animal Sacrifices: Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science, edited by Tom Regan).  The way I often respond to the world, including political events, is with thoughts of pacifism and animal rights.  As such, I want to ground these thoughts in the existing thought on the subjects.  And it is pleasure: these are the things I want to spend my time thinking about.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Martin Esslin in "New Form in the Theatre":

"So most forms may be, and should be, smashed. What we must remember, however, is that the new forms that take their place will also, inevitably, present new and different contents. It is a fallacy to think that there is a division between what is said and how it is said; ultimately form is content and content is form--"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Imaginary Characters, and the Imagination

A contrapuntal essay

A character in a work of fiction is not real. That character is words on a page, existing only in the imagination of the author and the imagination of the reader.

Of course! And more importantly: so what? Does being imaginary make the character any less "real," and if so, why does that matter?

I'm not entirely sure in my mind there's a major distinction between real characters and imagined characters. When I was in college, there was a history teacher I (and many of my fellow students) adored. We discussed everything he said, speculated about his life away from college, tried to understand him and make meaning of him. He was a real human being, but for us, he was largely imagined. He did and said things for us to make sense of (but then so does a fictional character). But it's not just a mythic hero professor I imagine. My wife and I know each other deeply, but I also recognize that what we know is the character we've each imagined and invented in each other. The distinction between real and imaginary, within an individual's mind, is pretty hazy: even our politics are partly fueled by imaginary people. I oppose war in part because of the human suffering caused by war. While war does lead to real suffering for real human beings, for me these human beings are largely imagined. I don't know their names or details. But I can imagine them, and I wish to oppose what leads to their suffering. But this would move us away from a discussion of imaginary characters to a discussion of imaginary abstractions...so let's not stray too far.

And then there's drama. An actor's job is to look at those words on a page and "create" a character from those words, to perform a character, to bring a character to life aesthetically. And that means actors interpret characters, make choices about characters, try to understand what a character is feeling, how a character is motivated. The character is still imaginary, of course, but for the actor the character can't just be "words on a page." The actor sees the character as something else. Not quite fixed, for when the actor performs he or she is inventing a character just as the author invents a character. Well, not "just as." But Jack Nicholson created a Randle Patrick McMurphy--it wasn't just Ken Kesey. But developing a character for the stage requires some recognition that the imagined character is...something anyway. If not real, a complex, developed entity.

And why would we want to trash imagination anyway? Perhaps I'm too formed by the Romantic poets I've encountered: imagination as conceived by Wordsworth, by Shelley, by Keats, by Goethe, this is not imagination to be dismissed. Imagination has power; at the level of the imagined, great things happen. There is learning and growth. There is spiritual renewal. There is hard-earned truth.

History again challenges a clear distinction between the real and imagined. I've read three different biographies of Martin Luther, by Bainton, Erikson, and Oberman. Martin Luther was a historical individual, who did actual things, said actual things, believed actual things. But Bainton, Erikson, and Oberman each "invented" a Martin Luther. They interpreted Luther's words, Luther's actions, and other historians' writings on Luther, and they imagined their own Luther, then did their best to convey that imagined Luther (or, if you prefer, did their best to show their imagined Luther was the historical Luther). My conception of Luther, the character of Luther looming about in my mind, may not be fundamentally different in nature than my conception of fictional characters like Prince Myshkin, Ivan Karamozov, Sarah Woodruff, Nicholas Urfe. These are characters I try to understand with the available evidence before me. That evidence may be history, or it may be fictional "text," but there it is and my mind creates the character. Napoleon. Thomas Jefferson. OK... Don Quixote. The Wife of Bath. Hamlet. These characters belong to each of us in our imaginations. Whether real or fictional, these characters are "imaginary," and mean something, stand for something.

The fact that we sometimes compare fictional characters to real life characters shows there is something tenuous in the distinction. Today I thought about how at the end of Hamlet, Fortinbras can only talk in the language of war, can only conceive of honor and merit in war, and I thought, "That's like John McCain." And King Lear is like my grandfather. And on and on.

Why do we read as children? What happens to us as we read when we're children? And do our imagined worlds of childhood really abandon us? When we're little children we read and hear stories. Stories. Our imaginations are set afire, and we fall in love with stories, for the characters, for the events, for the plots. At some point, we become adults, and we start to call our stories fiction, and we might forget that they are stories. But what of the pleasure we got from stories? Can't we keep that pleasure? Do we need to abandon that?

And for that matter, what were earlier humans doing when they listened to The Iliad, The Odyssey? When they heard those stories, were they examining art? Or did they allow their imaginations to envision Odysseus, Achilles, Athena? I don't think those early listeners of perhaps the greatest literature of Western Civilization dismissed those characters as constructs, as aesthetic choices. I think they considered those characters characters. Maybe real, maybe not. But I picture enraptured Greeks sitting around a fire hearing the exploits of Odysseus, loving the poetry, loving the story, but really picturing a character they knew named Odysseus.

Do you envision characters? I do. In my reading experience, they are more than words I decipher. My imagination turns them into beings with form. The physical form isn't always distinct, but they still have form. Perhaps even simply moral form.

I've come a long way here, asking more questions than I've answered. And I can only speak for myself as a reader, what my mind does while reading. I do encounter these made up characters. They don't exist, yet an author and I work together to construct them. They become "real" in my mind. I know they are not, but that doesn't matter to me. For some of those characters stay in my imagination, lingering. Their presence makes me aware of myself. They judge me, they prod me, they inspire me. I go about my life, and they are there, always ready to remind me of something I ought not forget, always willing to teach me something. They are nothing, they have no existence--yet I cannot escape them. That's imagination.

On Contrapuntal Blogging

I came to "content" blogging through sports. My models for writing blogs were sports blogs, and my own sports blog is still where I put in the most work (and get the most readers). When I started Costanza Book Club, it was because I still had ideas I wanted to express about books and ideas. This was meant to be a place to unload some ideas, start some discussions, provide some links to things of a literary nature. I had never read another blog about literature before starting writing here, so I largely used my experience sports-blogging as a model of tone (which is why I don't think I've ever reached the level of formality and focus I see on some of the better lit blogs).

But I also started this blog with the explicit intent of writing contrapuntally. It is a style of writing that was encouraged by one of my grad school professors, Don Ringnalda (sadly, he recently died of cancer). Broadly speaking, this means writing with a willingness to jump around, to make unexpected connections, to explore different subjects around a central theme in a very free way. It is a form of writing that can bring about unique insights.

Blogging is a good medium for contrapuntal writing, in my opinion: the free form and the personal nature encourage it. Mention of a book I'm reading can lead to comparisons with other books, a connection to a theory, a TV show, a film, a relevant current event, or my own peculiar religious, social, political, or ethical ideas. It's not meant to be rambling or broad--it's meant to be an open exploration, following the threads where they may go.

Even as I tried this in earlier blog posts, I don't think I was always terribly successful. I don't find in my archives great models of contrapuntal writing. There's an openness to making connections, a willingness to follow a thought in peculiar ways, but I think I can do better.

So, in general dissatisfaction with this blog, I'm going to recommit to writing contrapuntally here. I hope it provides me with more satistfaction in my writing, and provides a challenge to my writing and thinking. Maybe it will make the blog more interesting, maybe not. But it will provide my blogging here with more purpose.

Dostoevsky's religion

A.N. Wilson reviews Rowan William's book on Dostoevsky in the Times Literary Supplement.

The third paragraph contains some interesting insights on The Idiot, how knowledge of Russian Orthodox icons affects the understanding of Holbein's painting. I say interesting, but not essential: you don't need to know Orthodox iconography to grasp the emptiness of Holbein's painting or its use in the novel. It is, as Dostoevsky and Myshkin have said, enough to make one abandon faith.

Dostoevsky's novels are filled with characters driven by ideas, and many of these ideas are religious in nature. What endures for many readers are those stormy, passionate, conflicted characters, many of them wrestling with nihilism and religion. I know that being a Christian prone to intense doubts is one reason Dostoevsky's novels appeal to me, touching my psyche on a deep level.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


It's really happening now. Because I'm obsessive-compulsive, I haven't really believed it was happening until I knew we could get a mid-week babysitter. But now it's really immanent: my wife and I are going to Wicked at the Orpheum.

As it happens, I'm currently reading Gregory Maguire's third Wicked book, A Lion Among Men (well, as currently as my freshman composition papers allow). I was disappointed in Son of a Witch and wasn't terribly interested in the Cowardly Lion's life, but the book jacket description made it seem interesting enough. Yackle and all.

One reason I read is to enter a world that is not my own. I don't consider this escapism for yet another reason I read is for a deeper confrontation with myself, and that confrontation often comes at the level of imagination.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

King Lear

I'm reading all of Shakespeare's plays in a year; this is the fourth.

A Thrill To Teach

I don't enjoy teaching anything more than I enjoy teaching King Lear.

I often struggle with the scene one blowup between Lear and Cordelia (Lear clearly overreacts to a pretty inoffensive statement, but can't Cordelia see she is publicly embarrassing her very proud king-father?). This semester I turned this moment to my students: what do you make of this scene? The resulting discussion was probably the best of the semester: many different students shared many different ideas on this critical moment in the play.

But I love talking about this play: King Lear gives me energy and passion. Often when talking about the play, I find myself just speaking authentically, naturally, without obvious plan or pose. It is a play I feel deeply, and so I teach it deeply.

Visualization and Reading
When I read I ask myself: am I visualizing this occurring on stage, or am I visualizing it in the "real world"? It is often actually both. But then there's another question of visualization: what do I picture when characters describe events that occur offstage? Then I usually visualize the events occurring in the real world.

But King Lear offers another visualization entirely: what do I visualize when a character lies about what is occurring? When Edgar (disguised as Tom o' Bedlam) tells Gloucester (who is now blind) that he is standing at the edge of a cliff looking far down below (when he is not), Edgar's deception is so evocative that my mind's eye is standing on that cliff, looking down at the abyss.

It's not so strange, I suppose: when I'm reading words, it doesn't terribly matter whether a scene is actually occurring, being described, or being lied about, for whatever the situation I'm reading words and visualizing unconsciously.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Animal Rights: inefficiency of meat, disconnected views

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion for World Food Day, and a colleague (an animal rights activist) gave a presentation on how the inefficiencies of meat production contribute to world hunger. She pointed out that it takes many more acres to produce meat than it takes to produce the equivalent amount of edible plants. She also pointed out that it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef, highlighting the inefficiency.

There were many agriculture students and several agriculture professors there, and the hostility to her arguments was palpable. One professor raised an objection that got wide approval from the audience. He noted that the argument assumes each acre is the same. That's not true: there is some land that cannot be used to grow plants, but can be used to raise animals, so we can use that land to create meat.

But that misses a key point. Those animals that are using land that can't sustain plant crops are still using the land that can sustain plant crops. If animals are fed crops, even if the animals aren't being raised on land that can grow crops, that land is still being used to create meat. And while many animals may graze on the available grass (thus using resources that couldn't otherwise be used for human food), animals on factory farms are fed plants that are grown on available land--so basically, the land that is available to grow plants is being used to produce meat. And since 16 pounds of grain is essentially filtered through the animal to create one pound of beef, that is still an inefficient way to make food.

That's the key argument: not how we use the acres, but the total inefficiency of resources. We grow food to feed to animals to produce less food.

This is the issue that's been gnawing at me, and I sometimes use this blog to address issues that are gnawing at me. But I'd also like to observe what I saw as some fundamental disconnections between the opposing sides (which I'll glibly call "agriculture advocates" and "animal rights advocates," though those terms are problematic) when the discussion moved to animal cruelty. These disconnects can lead people to talk past each other, and should in some way be addressed.

1. Experience. For some of the agriculture advocates, I think the argument came down to this: "That's not happening on MY farm, so therefore it must not be a problem, or the cruelty must just be on a small number of the worst of the worst farms, or those are old problems that have been solved."

2. Connotative definitions of terms like "cruel" and "humane." Animal rights advocates consider many of the basic, accepted aspects of agriculture to be cruel. It seems to me the agriculture advocates perceived "cruelty" as outright neglect or vicious brutality, and therefore considered basic agricultural practices "humane." The differing uses of these terms can make a shorthand discussion difficult.

3. The philosophical, moral underpinnings of the conflict were never really addressed. Given our knowledge of animal intelligence and feeling, how should we treat them? Do animals exist for humans to use? To what extent should humans use animals? If humans do use animals, what constitutes responsible, compassionate treatment? I don't think it was the proper forum for those questions, but at the core of the conflict is the differing philosophical, moral positions on whether and how humans should use animals for our own purposes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Reading and Dreaming

Do you ever have dreams that are clearly influenced by the book you are reading?  I would guess a lot of imaginative readers do so.

My literature-inspired dreams are often pretty twisted.  Last night I had a dream clearly rooted in Peter Shaffer's Equus.  Does anybody ever want to have a dream rooted in Equus?  I didn't.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Disconnect Between the Academic and Personal

My two favorite novelists (by a wide margin) are Fyodor Dostoevsky and John Fowles.  I've still never taught a single work by either author.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Phone Message

George: Ugh, no, I can't drink coffee late at night. It keeps me up.

Carol: That's what you had to tell me? Your father wears sneakers in the pool?
George: Don't you find that strange?
Jerry: Yes?

Comment: I'm about to make a wild claim:

This is George's peak episode. He is at his absolute best.

The obsessive attention to the details of social interactions. The conversation about little things. The neuroticism. The flustered nervousness. The moment of indignant anger. The self-loathing fixation on his own mistakes. The on-the-toes lies. The zany scheme. It's all here, George in his prime. The storyline with Carol reveals the fullness of early-season George Costanza, an absolute gem of a character.

The episode has another of my favorite moments from the series: Jerry fights with a date about an episode for Dockers (he can't believe she likes it), and both George and Kramer meet her and immediately identify her as the one who likes the Dockers commercial. It's a classic scene.

But on the whole this episode belongs to George.

Casualties of War

Robert Koehler's "The War to Promote Terror"

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Teaching Downpour

Grading Papers (1)
Before the first batch of student papers get turned in, I find my job easy and enjoyable. Prepare for class, teach class, interact with students--it's a nice life. And then the first papers come in for me to grade, and I think "Oh yeah, that's right: there's a reason I actually get paid to do this."

Grading Papers (2)
In comp class, the first assignment is a four page paper. I try to emphasize that the goal isn't merely to write a paper of a certain length (though that is something the students will need to learn to do). The focus is quality. And I do explicitly say something to the effect that I'd rather see a well-written, well-developed three-and-a-half page paper than a four page paper that is poorly written containing filler.

But while writing quality is more important than length, I'm afraid I won't be able to qualify the paper requirement with such a statement anymore. In this first batch of papers, I'm finding a paper that actually meets the four page requirement to be exceedingly rare. I'm afraid my "quality over length" comments opened the door to allow students to write shorter papers.

But it's not all on me: after all, my example of a paper missing the length requirement was three-and-a-half pages. I've received far too many papers that are around two-and-a-half pages. And I can't help but wonder: what leads a student to think that in his/her first college writing assignment, a two-and-a-half page paper is sufficient to fulfill the expectations of a four page paper? What sort of a grade does a student expect on such a paper? While some students are legitimately struggling to lengthen their papers, it seems to me many students are showing a lack of effort and a lack of concern.

Grading Papers (3)
The other big problem I've found in this batch of papers is a lack of support. Students are making claims but not backing them up. Even papers that develop a clear, focused thesis are generally failing to provide concrete, detailed support for the thesis, making the paper come off rather vague.

Luckily, this second problem helps fix the first problem: for students looking to expand a paper, providing more examples, anecdotes, and data for support is a good way to go. And the next paper is about television and film, so students will be writing about particular works--this provides ample opportunity to work on supporting a claim with evidence.

Teaching Drama
Lysistrata: I'm considering dropping it. It's a good play, and a fun play, but I'm always a little disappointed in discussion. This semester I threw out my old notes and tried to start fresh--still I found class to be flat.

Equus: I've never taught it before, but I am this semester. I'm looking forward to it, and I don't have a plan yet. I find each semester it's a good idea to inject works into the lit syllabus that I've never taught before. I've also taught some short stories by Lan Samantha Chang for the first time this semester.

King Lear: I'm always passionately looking forward to teaching my favorite play. I should probably seek out some film versions to examine (for class maybe, for my own pleasure certainly).

Weekday Vegan, Weekend Vegetarian
The new pattern for my life emerges: during the week I'm generally a strict vegan, but during the weekend I'm slacking off quite a bit. And it is not actually the academic semester that is altering this pattern. First, it's socializing: I'm visiting with people on weekends, which tends to lead me to make cheesy exceptions. And second, it's football season: I spend every Sunday either going to the Viking games or watching football at home, and I find it hard to avoid lovely, lovely cheese when watching football.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Milton at 400

The Williamsburg Art and Historical Center celebrates (New York Times).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Antony and Cleopatra

I'm reading all of Shakespeare's plays in a year: this is the third.


Reader-response theory recognizes that when encountering a work of literature, the individual brings with him or her all sorts of experiences with life and literature. An honest approach recognizes this, and may find insight in the text.

I'm a junky for watching good TV series on DVD. And after seeing Rome, my visualization for characters like Mark Antony and Cleopatra is still stuck on James Purefoy (not, oddly enough, Charlton Heston) and Lyndsey Marshal. Sometimes an actor's appearance and representation sticks in the mind, forming the character. I expect that for my entire life, James Purefoy's Mark Antony will be my Mark Antony. Purefoy's movements, facial expressions, voice, and speech rhythms will always linger in my memory.

My question is whether this connection of a literary character to a actor's portrayal is based on my own memory, or on the strength or weakness of the text. I encountered Hamlet before I had seen any actor portray him, and so when I read Hamlet, my mental visualization is independent of any actor. So too with memorable characters like Macbeth and Lear. But I expect that Kenneth Branaugh will always be Henry V for me. Is this solely because of the chronological order I encountered the work, or because of the strength of the work itself? After all, at this point I can occasionally read a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest without seeing Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy.

Or it could be in the quality of the play. For whatever reason, Shakespeare's literary Antony couldn't shake Purefoy's Antony from my memory.

Perhaps only Dostoevsky made suicide more a prominent element of his work than Shakespeare. I can see why suicide is such a pressing theme for literature. It is the place where human will confronts nature, chance, or fate. It is the direct confrontation of free will and death. It is the ultimate show of despair at the cosmos or mere circumstance. In Dostoevsky, I think it is the rejection of the belief that human beings are machine-like animals, preprogrammed creatures without will concerned only with survival: in Dostoevsky, suicide shows that there are other motivations (like ideas) that guide human behavior.

Shakespeare's plays are littered with murders and suicides, and eloquent characters capable of insight into just what suicide may mean.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I am reading all of Shakespeare's plays in the course of a year; this is the second.

I still think of the character Macbeth as a proto-existentialist (in the emphasis on action, the rejection of morality, the weariness with life, the mockery of existence's absurdity), but that doesn't mean I think of Macbeth as a proto-existentialist play (in the same way that King Lear may be). Nature itself balks at Macbeth's crime, and aside from the bloodshed, the drama of the play obviously comes from the psychological conflict and development of the Macbeths.

I imagine the character Macbeth as a terribly difficult stage role to play: the success of a staging of Macbeth must rely heavily on the lead actor's ability and understanding. I thought season two of Slings & Arrows gave this a solid treatment.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


I am reading all of Shakespeare's plays in the course of a year; this is the first.

Why Hamlet endures: death

Death is the universal reality, and Hamlet is consumed with it. Hamlet meditates on death as annihilation, on the mysteries of the afterlife, and on the physical aftermath of the body. Laertes shows concern for the ceremonial rites to commemorate death. There is discussion of the religious/moral impact of death, about whether characters are able to be absolved of sins before death. Death is the universal theme, and so Hamlet will always have universal appeal.

Why Hamlet endures: language
The plot is familiar, and the emotional impact may be lost, but the language endures and will endure. This is just spectacular poetry, indescribably great. The wordplay is genius, and the poetry awesome. Even trying to find words to express the beauty and brilliance of Hamlet's language seems cheap.

Why Hamlet endures: pretentiousness
Most people who read or watch Shakespeare these days are intelligent, and probably self-aware of intelligence. And so it would not surprise me if most readers of Shakespeare have at some point thought, consciously or unconsciously, something like the following:

"I'm very, very smart. It's my lot to be surrounded by small-minded fools: some of them have positions of authority over me, and many of them are out to get me. But I have more wit and insight than any of them: I'm smarter than them all."

Such readers find a character to relate to in Hamlet.

Reader-Response: Pacifism
If Shakespeare ever set out to write a play to say "Revenge is folly. Violence is folly. Vengeance is cyclical, and only brings about more bloodshed. All violence, whether evil or 'righteous,' can only bring horror," he would have succeeded in Hamlet. Of course I don't think Shakespeare set out to write Hamlet with such a precise goal, but the play still speaks to me as a pacifist.

I used to see a conventional catharsis in the ending of Hamlet: the country was sick, there was a great purging, and now Fortinbras comes to restore order and health. Then I saw the '06 Hamlet at the Guthrie in Minneapolis: Fortinbras is portrayed as a preening, ambitious warmonger, and ascension to the throne is a continuation of corrupt and brutal power. Now when I return to the text, I don't see how I missed it. Throughout the play, Fortinbras is only referred to for his belligerent nature and behavior. And at the end, when examining the carnage at Elsinore, he can only speak in terms of warfare, and he can only honor the deaths with the trappings of warfare. Whatever sickness was purged in Denmark, Fortinbras can only be expected to bring carnage.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I recommend...

Slings & Arrows, a funny and moving show about Shakespeare performed on stage.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Meat, Global Warming, and Personal Complicity

In the Time article "Meat: Making Global Warming Worse," Bryan Walsh covers the environmental impact of meat production and consumption. Basically,

"In a 2006 report, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that worldwide livestock farming generates 18% of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions — by comparison, all the world's cars, trains, planes and boats account for a combined 13% of greenhouse gas emissions."

Walsh cites some scientists that suggest reduction in meat consumption can have a major impact on global warming--but then he lets readers off the hook. I do agree in principle when Walsh writes that

"It's a tactical mistake, first of all, to focus global warming action on personal restrictions. [...] relying on individuals to voluntarily change their behavior is nowhere near as effective as political change aimed at speeding the transition to an economy far less carbon-intensive than our current one. [...] your choices from the takeout menu will matter less than the choices made by those who inherit the White House next January."

Indeed, changes in governmental policy have more environmental impact than changes in individual behavior. But is that also a copout, an excuse to continue damaging individual behavior, a rationalization for staying complicit in the problem? For people who don't want to change, it is a comfort to justify a lifestyle of eating animals for pleasure. Too often I find writers who discuss the issue, but are willing to avoid the obvious step they could take to avoid complicity in animal consumption.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Rabbits and Makeup

"Lab Rabbit Strongly Recommends Cover Girl Waterproof Mascara for Sensitive Eyes"

Data on Meat Production

Despite earlier issues, I've stuck with Marc Bekoff's Animals Matter, and I'm glad I did: the book has become clearer and more specific, and still covers issues I'm interested in. Bekoff also provides some details to support my earlier argument about environmentalism and vegetarianism:

"it takes eight or nine cattle a year to provide meat for one average meat eater. Each cow needs one acre of green plants, corn, or soybeans a year for its feed. Thus, it takes about nine acres of farmland a year to produce the meat that one person eats.

By comparison, a person who does not eat meat can be supported by only half an acre necessary to grow plant food for a year. Twenty vegetarians could live for a year on the amount of grains needed to provide meat for just one meat eater!"

Bekoff goes on to say that "It takes about 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef," and notes that a reduction in meat consumption could allow for more grain to be used to feed starving people in the world.

Art for Life's Sake

My Reading Declaration in Brief
Chapter Four: Art for Life's Sake

"One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change alas is universal."
Harold Bloom, "Why Read?"

"Art for Art's Sake" has for me the sound of masturbatory pleasure. If art can tell me of nothing but art itself, I will likely say "This is fun, but I have more pressing demands: life demands my engagement, and death is always approaching." But of course I don't abandon literature, for I know that it does offer me something else: it offers me a spiritual journey into myself.

For this reason John Fowles' metafiction moves me. His best novels are thoughtful and innovative reflections on the nature of fiction and literature, but they are not just that: infused in the metafiction are lessons on existential freedom.

For me art provides and demands a deep engagement with the self and the world, but it doesn't matter to me if others don't feel this same demand from art. For I also agree with Harold Bloom that we ought to read to our own purposes. I know mine.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Environmentalists should be Vegetarians

One argument is practical: meat production is an inefficient use of the world's resources and can be more damaging to the environment. From PETA:

"U.N. scientists have determined that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, SUVs, trucks, and planes in the world combined. Researchers at the University of Chicago determined that switching to a vegan diet is more effective in countering global warming than switching from a standard car to a Toyota Prius."

It makes sense from a logical point of view too: instead of producing plants for human consumption, we produce plants to feed to animals for human consumption. But I'm not an expert on the environmental impact of meat production, so I'll move on to the second argument.

The second argument is ideological. If you eat animals, you are operating on the assumption that animals exist to serve the needs or desires of humans. From this point of view, nature exists primarily for human use. I suspect many environmentalists balk at the assumption that nature exists not for itself but for human use. Indeed, common arguments in favor of environmental causes involve the preservation of animal species: we fight global warming in part to save the penguins, to save the polar bears. But if you eat meat, whom are you really trying to save the environment for? Not for the animals, whom you believe may die for your pleasure. Eating meat contains the explicit assumption that the needs and desires of animals don't matter, and the implicit assumption that nature exists for humans to use in any way we see fit.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Stupid Year Project
A couple of days ago I randomly told my brother that I would read or re-read all of Shakespeare's plays in the next year. This is the wild project that could undo me. I'm starting with Hamlet (season one of Slings & Arrows got me hyped for a re-reading), and I'll continue to blog about the experience throughout the year.

The Wire
I don't care if you judge me a philistine: I prefer television to film. A well-done TV series can engross me in ways a film just can't. A film has around two hours to bring me to another world, and it's a rare film that can pull it off. But a TV series, with its hours and hours of episodes, can bring me deep into characters and settings and stories. I feel engulfed in a good show, sucked into a world of possibilities.

And so my wife and I are ready to wrap up The Wire--just three episodes to go. It's a show that took some time to grow on us--it wasn't until the final episode of season one that I found myself engrossed. It's an emotionally wearing show--it often leaves us sapped. But I don't know what can replace it for us.

When do you give up on a book?
I'm half-way through Marc Bekoff's Animals Matter, and I'm thinking of stopping. The book introduces a lot of the key issues, but I don't find it philosophically rigorous, scientifically detailed, or well-written. There is writing on animal rights issues that is a lot better than this. But I may continue--there are some specific issues Bekoff addresses that I wish to explore further.

My particular obsessions sometimes come in the form of distrusting my senses. Later I mull it over. "Did I really snap the seatbelt into place while putting in a child seat?" "Was that really the number I saw on the scale?" "Am I sure I didn't run somebody over with my car back there?" I never quite trust my senses or my memory, and frankly my wife is a saint for tolerating me. This distrust is also why as a teacher I'm heavy on lists--I need to write down any task I need to do.

Mostly Vegan
I barely believe this. I went mostly vegan on March 30th, and as of today I've lost 50 pounds.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Chinese Restaurant

George: For fifty buck? I'd put my face in their soup and blow.

George: You know we're living in a society! We're supposed to act in a civilized way!

Comment: what more can be said about this classic, real time episode that is the closest the show got to being about nothing? It has so much of the show's heart: the attention to minute detail, the anxiety, the social obligations, misunderstandings, awkwardnesses, formalities, the bathroom and sex humor, the focus on the mundane.

George has a wonderful moment of cheapness (He thinks $20 is too much to bribe, and then says they can split it 7-7-6).

This episode really does miss Kramer: he brings a chaotic zaniness to show that really helps balance the attention to the tedious that Elaine, Jerry, and George bring to the early episodes. This may even work as a case lesson for aspiring writers. What does Kramer add to the show, but more importantly, what is missing when he's not there? What does his presence bring attention to? How does his presence change the tone of a scene, the perception of a character? He is a necessary character to make the show work consistent.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Christian Humanism: peace, equality, animal rights

"...with the Christian sense of human dignity and equality permeating us soul and body..."
--Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

Peace and Equality
Pacifism is rooted in a sense of equality. To use violence against a person is to deny his/her inherent dignity, and to assert that one person's well-being is less valuable than your own (or another's). Religious people may understand this in a spiritual sense (we are all equal before God), though it has political meaning as well. Gwyn, Hunsinger, Roop, and Yoder state in "A Declaration on Peace" that

"The Dismantling of racist and patriarchal norms and structures subverts one of the traditional foundations of militarism in history."

And that

"The royal servant people is politically engaged and partisan, working with and for movements that embody more just and equitable economic relations, more peaceful resolutions to conflict, and the broader distribution of authority and decision-making in society."

It is thus that for me pacifism and equality are important elements of Christian Humanism. I despair of the history of racism, misogyny, and bigotry in our world, of the institutional and individual bigotry still existing, of the continuing anger and conflict over these issues, of the violence ensconced in it all. And I can come back to Tolstoy's words, that in this complex world, in which we are all complicit in (even if not individually responsible for) inequalities of society, I can still treat all people I encounter with "human dignity and equality." I must, and it may be all I can do.

Animal Rights
Since making the choice to become a vegetarian almost two years ago, animal rights has been a major part of my life (a personal note: since going mostly vegan less than five months ago, I've lost 46 pounds). Vegetarianism is a daily action for me, a repeated choice, and issues of animal rights often take up my thoughts.

My view on animal rights does not spring from Christian tradition; it comes from a separate area of knowledge. It may be occasionally informed by Christianity, but I do not use Christianity to center my vegetarianism in the same way Christianity can center my pacifism. I did not become a vegetarian because of my understanding of Christianity. And yet, I don't think I would be a vegetarian if I not for my own religious journey.

It is a background in Christianity that instilled in me the importance of integrity in action and in conscience. It is not so much that religion provided me with a sense of what is right (though I'm sure it did), but more that religion taught me I must seek what is right and act according to conscience. If it had not been for the religious formation of my mind, it might not matter to me that animals would die for my pleasure. Religion did not teach me that it is wrong to eat animals, but it did teach me that if I believe it is wrong to eat animals, then I must not eat animals.

And to some extent, compassion for humanity and compassion for animals are grounded together. My behavior toward humans and animals is grounded in the belief that my actions toward others should be peaceful, compassionate, and good. Christianity taught me that I must treat all people with dignity, even sacrificing myself for others, so in some way my view of animal rights is merely an extension of what Christianity taught me. I must treat humans with compassion, even sacrificing myself, and so I can also treat other living creatures with compassion, even sacrificing myself.

The reasons I'm a vegetarian are not religious (in fact they are based on science and reason). And yet it is a religious sense that permeates my actions, a religious sense that guides me to seek truth and act accordingly, a religious sense that teaches me to follow my conscience. And so I too consider animal rights a part of what I call Christian Humanism.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The school year

This is a chance to ramble about various things on my mind as I prepare for the academic semester. It's disordered, narcissistic, but probably boring. But writing it out sort of mellows me out about it, and it's a blog, so it should be therapeutic, eh? There's a theory on dreams that you dream about whatever is on your mind a lot at the time, and it's just sort of the leftover stuff your brain is working through (at least this is my memory of something I learned in high school that really stuck with me). I think a post like this is like that sort of dream (goodness, what an atrociously dull dream though!): it's the extra stuff my mind works through around this time. By now you should know sufficiently well that you can ignore this.

Two fear usually get to me at the beginning of fall semester. First, I worry that after a long layoff, I've entirely forgotten how to teach. Second, after the complete openness of summer, I sometimes envision the academic semester as a time with zero free time as I'm consumed by work. But this year I don't feel terribly bothered by either fear. Perhaps entering my fifth year teaching, I'm confident enough to know I remember how to (at the very least) stand in front of the class, talk, and write on the board. And I know that during an academic semester, there is still plenty of time away to do what one enjoys, even including grading papers (I've found as an adjunct professor I have more free time than I had when I was a graduate student). So basically, I'll devote a lot of time and energy to my work, but I'll still watch heaps and heaps of football.

And frankly, I like my job. It's fun. I find it mentally stimulating and generally fulfilling. I look forward to teaching classes, and I enjoy interactions with students. So the beginning of a semester offers a lot to look forward to.

So then I worry about the technical details (I am Obsessive-Compulsive--it seems I must have something to worry about). Get copies of syllabi. Get new keys for the building. Get some texts scanned. Pull out documents from a folder. Pretty basic stuff that always gets done without a fuss, but I'll vex over it.

I've already started making a weekly list of tasks. It makes me feel good: I've got a fixed list of what I actually need to do, and I get to cross things off to feel accomplishment. Today I did something that I hadn't already put on the list (wrote a Vikings column for a Minnesota sports blog I've started contributing to in addition to my own sports blog), and after completing it, I wrote it on the list just so I could cross it off and look at it crossed off. I did a lot of these lists in grad school, and it's a good habit, I think. It helps me relax: I don't have to worry about what I might have to do, because I can look at the list. This somehow allows me to enjoy my free time more.

This semester I'm experimenting with some of my courses, trying something new (I never want it to get stale). In comp class, I used to have a unit in the middle of the semester that ended in a midterm. I've dropped that (shifting many of the readings for that unit to the fourth paper unit, a Public Policy Proposal paper), and will be just bulking up each existing unit. There will be challenges in stretching the same content out, each unit lasting a few more class periods. I think it will work better, and it will give me more time in class to focus on technical writing issues.

But the bigger change comes in a lit course I'm teaching. It's a general education literature course titled "Types of Literature." I get to teach a wide assortment of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. In the past, I've arranged the syllabus not by literary genre, but by theme (meaning it was organized almost randomly--the thematic complexities of most of the works don't easily fit into one thematic unit, and could almost be interchangeable). This semester I'm teaching it by genre, so we'll start with all the short stories we'll read, then read all the plays, then read some novels, and finish with some weeks of poetry. I really don't know how that will go, how the students will handle it. I'm also worried I didn't leave enough time for poetry (can one ever?), because sometimes the poetry takes 2-3 times longer to cover in class than I expect (such is life when the class is guided by student discussion).

But the time is almost near to stop throwing on shorts and a polo shirt in the morning; soon, I'll have to throw on pants and a polo shirt.