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.