Friday, June 05, 2009

Caesar & Cleopatra--Part 2

I am doing a second book report post in a row because I didn't feel like writing about anything else when I started this post last Thursday. I realize that I haven't undertaken any kind of longer essay-type piece in a while as I have become more accustomed to *blogging*. This is not improving my overall ability to either write or think however.

We are in Act III now.

APOLLODOROUS: "...when a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty."

One of the highest praises that can be bestowed on a work of art or thought is to declare that it tears one's previous assumptions to pieces. This "one" I assume is never quite everybody, except in works of the absolute highest genius, like the Principia or something; in most instances I assume (one of my assumptions here) that the author or artist's truth is not wholly but just generally unknown, and that the fellow whose mental superstructure is being torn apart is a common fellow who fancied himself to be more clever and knowledgeable about the world than reality justified and needed to be knocked down a peg or two. For otherwise the critics and the intellectuals would be having their assumptions devastated so frequently that I would think they would have to lose all faith in them and cease to be effective in their professions. This is sort of what has happened with me. Whatever my assumptions are, I know far better than to imagine they will stand up to any rigorous scrutiny when challenged, and I cannot seem to formulate for myself very many that will. If anything, my intellect is at this point so shredded that I find I cannot even deal with actual ideas at all most of the time but am just looking at things like basic sentence structures, word usages, running themes across particular strains of history, and the like, simply to try to recover some base of language and cultural possession to enable me to live out the remainder of my days in some semblance of a human condition formed under some influence of noble and civilizing forces.

I had forgotten about the stage direction where a hook-nosed man looks longingly at a purse. It is certainly crude, as well as petty, neither of which however is uncharacteristic of this author in his descriptions of characters he holds in low regard. Shaw seems to have been pretty blatantly anti-Semitic, certainly by any standard that would be acceptable today. The main argument usually presented in his semi-defense is that he was more or less a general misanthrope, but this latter affliction, which literature at least often finds to be secretly lovable, is distinct from racial bigotry, which is certainly held to be a much worse wrong, either as based on faultier premises, supposing guilt, or suspicion, but peculiar to and by association with the particular group being demonized, and of which, of course, the bigot can with greater assurance claim and feel no association. I knew of nothing of this some years ago when I was visiting the home of a (Jewish) friend of mine, and blithely responded when the father, an old New Yorker, asked me what I was reading lately, Arms and the Man. "Really," the man had said, not in an angry but more an incredulous tone, "I didn't think anybody read Shaw anymore." Nothing at the time so much as set off the slightest suspicion in my mind that Shaw might be offensive to this guy. I just thought he was laughing at it (which maybe he was that, too). The tone however was just weird enough that it always kind of stuck with me. I was not really sure at this point where Act III was going, and felt compelled to record this in my notes. Caesar makes more idiosyncratic political statements (to the suggestion that he examine some letters which will reveal who is plotting against him, he replies "Would you have me waste the next three years of my life in proscribing and condemning men who will be my friends when I have proved that my friendship is worth more than Pompey's was--than Cato's is") and the act ends with a demonstration of the excitement alpha males like himself arouse in everyone around them when he makes a minor military attack that appears dangerous to the others in his party (and in which he easily triumphs) an occasion for spontaneous gaiety and even hijinks.

Act IV begins with a satire of a pompous musician which is moderately funny if you are in the right mood.

(Later) CAESAR: "...Oh, this military life! this tedious, brutal life of action! That is the worst of us Romans: we are mere doers and drudgers: a swarm of bees turned into men. Give me a good talker--one with wit and imagination enough to live without continually doing something." This will have to speak for itself.

I know nothing about food, so most of the jokes in the section about Caesar's dinner I don't quite get. He raves at some length about the greatness of British oysters, which I assumed was facetious, but my researches indicate that the general opinion of them is that they are good. He then requests barley water instead of wine and threatens to outlaw extravagances of diet when he gets back to Rome. Austerity of diet is one of Shaw's pet themes. Among other things, I know he was a vegetarian, and his funeral featured, at his own direction, a parade of various animals he had pointedly not eaten in life.

Why have Caesar denounce vengeance and violence? Because unlike lesser men he knows what he is talking about? Because he is great and different standards are applied to his character? Because human excellence presupposes, due to the overall baseness of the race, a certain necessity of unsavory action to move humanity forward? Because in Shaw's moral system, understanding and being able to explain your reasons for what you are doing is the most important quality, and is the only possible source of human good attainable?

RUFIO: "Tell your executioner that if Pothinus had been properly killed--i n t h e t h r o a t--he would not have called out. Your man bungled his work." I thought it might be useful to remember this someday.

On to Act V. Caesar has just crushed some enemies in battle.

BELZANOR: A marvelous man, this Caesar! Will he come soon, think you?
APPOLLODORUS: He was settling the Jewish question when I left.

Another pretty rough joke, if you look at it either from the point of view that the "Jewish question" the implication of which I take here to be "how to either render the Jews more or less docile and impotent in society (A) under question or find somewhere else (B) where they can go which will make everyone happy", could be considered never to have been settled to the satisfaction, or at least resignation, of all interests, or also that Caesar's way of "settling" questions, while breezily alluded to in the dialogue here, could suggest rather brutal connotations.

APPOLLODORUS: ...Rome will produce no art itself; but it will buy up and take away whatever the other nations produce.
CAESAR: What! Rome produce no art! Is peace not an art? is war not an art? is government not an art? is civilization not an art? All these we give you in exchange for a few ornaments. You will have the best of the bargain...

The interesting quality of these plays is that they are never earnest with regard to their ideas in themselves apart from the character who is speaking them. It is in the person and mind of the particular character only that ideas have value and merit consideration. Ideas are only important really in the sense of how they take hold in and act upon stupid people, which is where they become dangerous. A world where everyone was of fairly equal (high) intelligence and more or less had a good grasp of what was going on would, it is suggested, mitigate the effects any particular distortion of a human phenomenon could have.
I'll have to do one more on this.

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