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 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.