Monday, July 27, 2009

In Which I Hawk My Book (Half of It, Anyway)

Self-promotion is vulgar, but no one else seems to be announcing or covering the release, so I feel the urge to make a gesture of doing so myself. Anyway I have put out the first half of my novel, available either in hardcover book or downloadable form. Of course I would have liked to publish the whole thing together in one volume but the final draft came to 765 pages and the press had a limit of 700 pages to make me a book. Here it is.
I am very happy with the product as a physical object. It looks like a serious, real book, it is bound nicely, has good-quality paper. In these it is really almost indistinguishable from a new hardcover release by a real author from a major house.

The cover and spine. It reminds me of library binding, but that is not a negative, because I love library binding. It makes for a very solid volume. I own many copies of Great Books that have library binding, such as Thucydides and William James's Psychology, that actually seem more substantial when read this way.

I don't expect anyone to pay the listed price for the hardcover book, which is absurd (and especially as there will be another volume coming as soon as I can format it and get it together), though I suppose I could try to promote it as an opportunity to get a rare first edition of a future classic. As I didn't anticipate huge sales in any event, and having worked on the book for eight years and had it sitting in various places in my house with the possibility either of fire or my premature death weighing on my mind for six more, I decided to indulge in satisyfing my own longstanding dream by getting the hardcover. I am happy I did. If you would like a copy, and your request is reasonable (I'm not sending 100 copies to somebody I don't know with a mailing address in Russia or anything like that), e-mail me and I will send you one (gratis, of course).

My decision to print this was because I was finding that having it exist nowhere in a book form even though I was finished with it was preventing me from being able to devote my full concentration on other literary projects, which I really want to do, because that is what I devoted my youth to the study and practice of, and it is sort of the only, if not skill, serious discipline that I have. Seeing the book exist and on the shelf is exciting, and does make me enthusiastic to write and have printed up other things. I know that I am not an English or French gentleman to be indulging in these personal eccentricities and pleasures by having my writings bound as if I am in any way descended from that tradition of competent and interesting amateurism, but it is a tradition that I like.

Obviously I am printing the book also because I do feel that it is worthy of publication. It probably could have benefited from a certain amount of professional editing, but doing it all myself I was unable to determine what more absolutely had to or ought to go, and so left it as it was. I still need a lot of work with naturalistic dialogue. There is dialogue that I think is good, but it is not naturalistic, and vice versa. As the main frame of the book's action was constructed in 1995-1996, a lot of it will seem dated now; people do not have cell phones or the internet in it on one hand, and on another hand, the level of interaction between social "winners" and "losers", people who are quite wealthy and people who are middle class, the comparatively humble lifestyles even of the better off young people compared to the extreme character of these things we have become accustomed to in the years since may not ring true from a contemporary viewpoint. However the way they are written about in the book is the way I perceived them at that time. I think if the book had come out in 1999, which was the original goal, one could have said it was a promising debut. That promise has probably dissipated--there is a lot of stuff in this book, especially the humor, that I just couldn't do now. I've lost it. I'm also not sure that I am smarter now than I was then. I know more, and understand more, I suppose, but I find that this knowledge tends to paralyze my thought and capacity for experience, because of all the doubt and conflicting ideas that it produces on every occasion, so that I do not really have anything even nominally to offer most of the time.

You can enjoy a preview of the book here. My back cover blurb is a little over the top. It was not quite real to me when I was doing it, and I figured no one was likely to ever read it anyway, which so far has been true. Here is if you want to buy it. I guess you can get the preview by going here too.

Referencing an earlier post in which I confessed my lack of acquaintance with most the oeuvre of Walt Whitman, I was reminded of it again when I was in Philadelphia recently and was confronted with the product listed below at a barbeque I attended (the host, knowing of my literary interests, had very thoughtfully purchased this beer just for me). Walt Whitman ale is, for reasons that I think are explained on the bottle but which are forgotten, a kind of blond hefeweizen type drink. It was good, I'd give it a 7.5-8 rating. I wanted to pour it into a glass and show my audience its beautiful color but my wife drank the last remaining bottle (I brought some home with me) before I could do this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire--Part 2 Scene 8 Stage Directions: "A torch of sunlight blazes on the side of a big water-tank or oil-drum across the empty lot toward the business district which is now pierced by pinpoints of lighted windows..." I thought this was a nice bit of Americana.

STANLEY: ...what I am is a one-hundred-per-cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it...

Stanley is a character who, while uneducated and coarse, seems to have a purpose behind everything he says, and also to have a certain amount of logical consistency, so this statement isn't merely just tossed off as an example of his simplicity, it means something. I think he feels himself to be a free and unconstrained man, with a part, large in its own way, to play in the life in which he finds himself. I suppose he credits something of the idea and particular way of life of America as he knows them, and for which he is more suited in many ways to make a figure in than he would be elsewhere, for this.

BLANCHE: The opposite (of death) is desire.

Obviously this is the big idea of the play. Where it has to succeed, and I think it largely does, is in making the reader/watcher feel this in his visceral responses to what is written and said.

I do think this is a very consciously "American" story, and that Blanche and Stanley represent two extremes of the American character and the directions in which the development of those types have been and are going.

Water is highly symbolic in this play. The stage directions frequently specify that the sound of it is heard running somewhere off stage.

STELLA: I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley.

EUNICE (a neighbor): Don't ever believe it. Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going.

This is a rather strange exchange, though I guess the implication is that if she believes the story she is in danger of shutting down, becoming one of the living dead. I actually have always thought that in the written play there was some ambiguity as to whether Stanley really raped Blanche, or if it was somewhat more complicated, or perhaps even her imagination (she becomes inert and is carried to the bed while a trumpet and drum from outside play loudly in the scene where this incident happens). Blanche comes out and says "I want an explanation of what's happened here"--a sign of evident confusion. She talks of being "buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack", cleanliness, or the image or illusion of it being another continual theme. She also screams when Stanley rips off the paper lantern and holds it out to her "as if it was herself".

Did Shep Hartleigh really once want her? Or is that not important? I guess he is probably not supposed to even exist. This is quite embarrassing, publicly struggling to figure out what is going on in these second and third tier artworks, which a well-ordered mind would be able to seize and disseminate in whole at a glance. Penance, penance.

So what I think is going on here is this, right?: Blanche effectively "died" when she lost her sense of purity that she had in girlhood. Her desire was in one sense to return to that unspoiled state, or at least cling to the illusion of it, which took the form however of rather opposite behaviors, many indeed involving actual schoolboys, which game--both of them--Stanley ruthlessly exposed and refused to humor, which proved to be more than she could endure.

The movie is written about exhaustively elsewhere, and I don't have anything to add, other than that it would have been exciting if more American films in the 50s had followed in this kind of direction, because it's very different from most of what seems to have lasted from that era--the Honeymooners actually is kind of similar to it as far as setting, but somehow the effect isn't quite the same.

Blog 3rd Anniversary

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Literary Life

I don't normally comment on this type of thing, but I have seen this list of nominated books to be thrown out of the canon referred to in several places on the internet, and given that there are not merely one or two, but quite a few books on it that I think are more than usually good getting dissed here, I thought I should try, for my own purposes, to make some arguments in their defence. Taking them in order:

1. White Noise. I haven't read it. I've also seen it convincingly lambasted, and humorously so, a lot more than I have seen it convincingly praised, so this one probably isn't much of a stretch.

2. Absalom, Absalom. I am not a great lover of Faulkner mainly because I just find his characters too grotesque and repulsive for my delicate sensibility, but I still thought this book was a rather awesome piece of work, better and even more impressive than The Sound and the Fury, which is also very impressive but in which the experimental aspects are not as assured and call attention to themselves maybe more than they should. Absalom, Absalom does not, once it gets going, ever betray any sense that it might have been more properly written any other way than it is. To my sight, it appears to have everything people always say they want in a novel; it is unsentimental, violent, ambitious, full of ruthless characters with unbounded egos, its story is tied up in the fate of peoples and nations rather than reliving the author's bad memories of the eighth-grade dance. I didn't think it was particularly difficult to read either. The sentences are long, sure, but they contain images and ideas that can be followed. In terms of impossibility of reading it isn't remotely in the same class as something like Beckett's The Unnameable, at least to me.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am, perhaps surprisingly, a fan of this book. As I noted in an earlier post (like 2 years ago earlier) I did not expect I would like it, because most of the people I knew or read about who claimed to think it was great were the kind of people who tend to annoy me greatly--indeed, that is a too mild expression of my feelings, they were the kind of people on whom I secretly wished misfortunes, albeit minor ones, would befall. However, I thought it was a really ingenious and vital book, and not at all a waste of time. I should say that my wife, the sensible Sabrina, a direct descendant of the famous colonial Indian-slayer Hannah Dustin, did not care for the book too much. I recall that she found the overabundance and fecundity of nature and the stench of existence in its many manifestations to be unappealing--the mold, the frogs, the bathroom overgrown with greenery, the corpses, the heat and dust. There was also if I recall a very young child that becomes pregnant at one point by a grown man, which I assume is meant to be symbolic, but was one bit of magic realism that I think she found rather gross.

4. The Road. I haven't read this, or anything by Cormac McCarthy. He sounds like an exceedingly grim and joyless writer, which would not be disturbing in itself except that quite a few people consider him America's greatest living author. He's also another guy whose enthusiasists and their general ideas about literature do not inspire a lot of fuzzy feelings in me. But obviously I have to reserve judgement on him for now.

5. The Rainbow. If they had picked Women In Love, the sequel to The Rainbow, which I could not get into, I could have been down with them. But The Rainbow is a beautiful book, one of the best books about the sensations which nature and objects and buildings and music and other people produce in human beings that I have ever read. I actually don't read many books where I develop a strong feeling of affection for one of the female characters anymore, but I rather adored and felt an affinity with Ursula in this. Also, like the other 2 books on this list I have championed so far, this book is rather strikingly unique and quite stands out even from other literary works.

6. On the Road. Incredibly, I have never read this. I assume I would like it, since it is supposed to appeal to dopey and gullible people like me, but you never know. People who set out to tear it apart seem to have little problem picking out long sections that are really howl-worthy, which makes me inclined to think that it might also be really bad.

7. The Corrections. I haven't read this either. This guy (Franzen) comes across as more than usually whiny. In fact, he seems to have a lot of the same problems I have, except that he seems to be rich, or at least rich enough that he hasn't had to have another job in the last 20 years, during which time he's managed to crank out 2 novels--one of which, admittedly, is considered by a lot of people to be really good--and the occasional not very penetrating magazine article or essay, in which he is usually either complaining about something or trying to make an authorial statement about some issue of importance for which he clearly has no feeling (I am thinking here of an essay in which he interviewed some prisoners in which you can practically hear him crying for someone to get him out of there). Why I am even going about this? I don't know. I guess because this guy is apparently talented but he seems to lack something that is relatively important for being a writer. Like some kind of manly spirit.

8. The USA Trilogy. I read this a long time ago, in high school actually, so maybe I would think differently now, but I thought it was great, and really accomplished a lot of what it obviously was setting out to do (I also for some reason have always liked stories about 1930s Communists more than most people, without a stomach for which it would not be possible to get through this book). In truth though I find that with books my taste in high school tends to carry over pretty well; if I liked it then, even if I completely missed all the things it was supposed to be about, I generally find that I still like it now, that its tone or whatever will still appeal to me. This is not surprising, since such books would have had a big influence in forming me, and the part of me that is book-influenced is for the most part not that part with which I have major issues now.

9. Jacob's Room. Virginia Woolf. I haven't read it. Everything I have read by Virginia Woolf is superb, but apparently she left a few genuine clunkers behind.

10. A Tale of Two Cities. I haven't read this since high school either. I'm sure I thought it was entertaining since Dickens is probably my favorite author and the only book of his I have read that I remember finding disappointing is The Old Curiosity Shop. Personally there are a lot of other things I would purge from my own library first, but I won't insist strongly on its greatness.

I find it hard to say there is any major book that I would toss off of the canon, though I will say that one book I did not find to meet the incredible hype that it carries before it was Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. This was supposed to be a major turning point in American literary history, perhaps the greatest American novel since 1945, etc, etc, but I found it to be really slow-moving, with long episodic stretches that never seem to pay off with value equal to the investment of writing that went into it. 300 pages, 400 pages in, I'm thinking, this just isn't taking off, something is going to happen, something is going to happen, and then at the end (which I guess the real end is actually at the beginning) the whole thing just kind of peters out. Either there was something really big and monumental that I somehow missed totally, or the book was overrated.

Somebody left a copy of this month's National Geographic Magazine lying around a meeting room at my work so I swiped it and took it home. It had been some years since I read this magazine. I confess that I love it and find it extremely reassuring. Among the features this month were pieces on salmon supplies in Kamchatka and the question whether Venice can be saved from the various calamities, namely global warming and modern economics, that are conspiring against it. Russia having more raw geography than any other nation, the magazine goes there quite frequently, and always succeeds in coming back with pictures that make it look as if it never changes. The photos in this month's article could have been put in one of my grandparents' issues from 1974. Unlike more highbrow publications, which are fond of sending out challenges and assigning blame for various societal calamaties to people who always strike as bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to myself, the Geographic never adopts an angry tone or casts harsh judgement on anyone, even where matters about which one would suppose the contributing writers and scientists are greatly concerned. Even the misguided, hideous and inept projects which resulted in the draining of the Aral Sea by the Soviet government over a period of 40 years is duly noted as an unfortunate occurrence, with nary a hint of anger in the authorial voice, not even a shrug, just one of those inevitable incidences where bad political decisions interfere with healthy and natural processes with admittedly disastrous consequences. What can you do? The salmon article, which noted that outside of Kamchatka most of the world's Pacific salmon hatcheries were in ecologically tenuous circumstances, great care was taken to avoid suggesting that the salmon eating habits of people like your humble author (i.e, me) who formerly had no knowledge of such delicacies were to blame for this impending catastrophe, which point another magazine would have been very clear on. It was suggested in the Venice article that maybe it would be better if the city did not receive quite so many touristic visitors in its fragile state; this was only in passing, however, and certainly no individual type of person was singled out and denigrated for going there. So this depiction of the world as an essentially pleasant and fascinating place the woes of which might perhaps be my fault in some very vague sense but which the writers of the magazine would never hold against me, and which anyway scientists and travellers and foundations are continually working to correct and insure that prior mistakes are learned from and not repeated greatly appeals to me.

Children of Paradise. I saw this recently for I think the 3rd time. It is an extremely moving and emotional movie, I think, because now we know that the France, or idea of France, and idea of art as so intricately tied in with life that this movie painstakingly depicts, has just died, and this is actually kind of its eulogy. It didn't all die at once, of course. You still had people like Camus or Truffaut and musicians and teachers and theater-loving bureaucrats who knew and had absorbed something of the pre-1940 France and carried some of that with them always, but it really seems to have been almost killed off now.

The acting in French movies of the 1930-40 period--and I include this one, though released in '45, with that general era--was the best movie acting I have ever seen. Those people were incredible. They deliver their dialogue and emotion with absolute conviction. Where did it come from?

I guess the celebration of the joie de vivre of the low level artists and other members of the impoverished classes who constituted their social milieu and audience is overly sentimental and exaggerated, but it does make one desire to have that kind of vivid connection between performer and audience which is supposed to be the great advantage of live theater, or sports, or any other kind of spectator event. I imagine it must actually be somewhat electrifying to see a truly great artistic performance in a fairly intimate setting like a small theater, which this movie does an excellent job of conveying.

Scene. Song.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)--Part 1 You knew these pictures would be coming (assuming they make it to post).

I like this. It speaks to me. The mental and emotional world in this play is recognizable to me, which is not always, indeed is actually rather rarely, the case in most of the literature I read. The passions of course are much subdued in me compared to what they are in this writing, but the sentiments which support are, however faintly, still there.

The somewhat heavy-handed nature of the imagery starts right in with the opening stage directions: "quaintly ornamented gables", "faint redolences of bananas and coffee", "a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers". However the effect is felt.

I wondered while reading this if acting with so much short dialogue (The Method!) were not actually more difficult in many ways than reciting the longer speeches, often in verse, of the traditional theater. Not many people seem to think so, or that the modern theater is ultimately comparable in quality or in its demands on actors as the classical is. Still, the thought occurred to me, and in reading, not by watching a labored performance by inferior actors and comparing to that of polished ones, so there might be something in it. It might explain one of the reasons why the modern theater seems in some way inadequate compared to the classical if nothing else.

As you will know if you have seen this play, or the film of it, it doesn't take long to get to the first whiskey time, about three pages. The rest of the sentient part of this country has long moved on, I know, but I do like these old midcentury books where people eat and drink the same stuff I do, or would like to if I were more organized in my dissolution; of course they do it far more instinctively. For my own part I have not discovered/adapted any new drinks into my repertoire in many years. More evidence of the effects of social isolation. I hope people like me hold on in the future to the opportunity to go to real residential colleges rather than the moneysaving trade school/community college/online courses plan of life many people are promoting now as preferable alternatives for the middling classes. I was probably predestined to live a life of stale and minimally developed habits anyway, but these doubtless would have been far worse had I been compelled to spend my twenties living at home.

(Stage Directions) "Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens." And what has been the center of your life again?

(S.D.) "He crosses through drapes with a smoldering look". Things I think are funny I mark with a drawing of a horn.

I thought old Vivien Leigh was quite good as Blanche (apparently there is some debate about this). I guess I kind of like old Vivien Leigh. She reminds me as one of those girls from school who wasn't always in the forefront of your consciousness that when you look in the yearbook decades later you think "Why didn't I like her?"

STANLEY: I never met a woman that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them give themselves credit for more than they've got. I once went out with a doll who said to me, "I am the glamorous type, I am the glamorous type!" I said, "So what?"

That's pretty good.

I guess I had better try to do some kind of analysis here. So what are we supposed to make of Stanley? What does he represent? We know that Blanche's poetic soul is crushed by his brute realism. Indeed, Blanche is already more or less dead, her identifying possessions--the house, her letters, her nerves--either have or are literally about to crumble to bits, relics of a life long lost. Stella on the other hand, the star, she has vitality, some life-force about her ("there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark--that sort of make everything else seem--unimportant"). I suspect we are supposed to be dealing with the circumstance that romanticism has very little to do with actual existence, and indulging in it properly shouldn't even interest us that much.

Blanche does an astrology assessment at one point in she reveals herself as having the same birthday as my son Charles (they are Virgos). Stanley is a Capricorn, also an earth sign. Everyone in my family also, rather oddly, is an earth sign. My wife and I are both Capricorns, sons #1 and 4 are Tauruses, #s 2 & 3 are Virgos. I don't believe in astrology of course, but I like to keep abreast of what it is supposed to say about me and the people who live with me in case some stubborn and otherwise inexplicable shortcoming or barrier to successful advancement or relations should arise.

BLANCHE: I never was hard or self-sufficient enough...When people are soft...they've got to put a--paper lantern over the light...You've got to be soft and attractive...I'm fading now." Blanche and I sort of have a lot in common psychologically, though I am much more tamed in my social behaviors, which makes me appear even less serious of a person than she is.

I should try again to inject some analysis here. Is this play really that great? While we're at it, I may as well ask if the film is really that great too, since the two are unusually intimately connected, not only in proximity of time but in that the stage director and at least one of the actors, and I believe several others, from the original stage production worked on the film as well. While it isn't quite Faulkner, it does have a lot going for it. Blanche and Stanley are two of the more iconic and recognizable characters in American theater, and quite a lot of the dialogue has seeped into the common consciousness to some degree. The story arc featuring the gradual revelation of a "dark secret" seems to me a typical American type. I guess such stories are common in every culture, but somehow the secret is always more horrible in its effects among us because we are so extremely dependent on our cultivated facades to get through life even more than other peoples.

It is a matter of no importance, but I have had almost no time this month to sit and write a blog post or anything else. These posts are nothing in themselves, but every one of them means something to me at the time, that I was able to sit down for a few minutes and make something resembling an object out of some portion of my thoughts. The next two days I won't be near a computer at all. I can't finish a thought now, have to go...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fine Dining

This is one of those areas of life that I am not terribly interested in but always thought there were some aspects of it it might be worth doing at some point before I die: have a genuine top quality seven course French meal perhaps; drink at least a $100 bottle of wine (I probably couldn't stomach going much higher; I have no doubt that the intensity of the additional delights to be found in $1,000 and $10,000 bottles are worth every cent to people for whom the cost is an insignificant matter, but really, to people for whom it isn't, how good could they possibly be?); go to some decidedly superior, though preferably low-key, restaurant in New York. When I was younger I assumed I would eventually do all these things on occasion as part of just being myself as I made my way in the world, most likely by establishing myself as an important literary figure, but whatever position I came to, I did not suspect it would be such as kept me away from great centers and scenes of civilization, and such people as inhabited them, for years on end. When I would be in Paris to collect some medal of honor or other prix I would probably be given something like the 7 course meal as part of my fete, and no one would have any misgivings about my ability to appreciate it; indeed they would be honored to serve it to me. And even if I did not happen to live in New York I assumed I would have to go there frequently to commisserate with my agents and publishers, examine proofs, kick around the offices of my particular House, keep long evenings at one hundred plus year old taverns, and do whatever else I perceived authors to do when they were in town, which I took to include the occasional superlative meal at a restaurant behind an unmarked door such as only "in" people knew about.

It is starting to look like that scenario is probably not going to come to pass. In addition I am starting to get to the age where I can see that if I am ever going to do a lot of the things I had wanted to do "someday" I am going to have to seek them rather outside the normal tenor which my life has taken on. This being the case, I am not sure that it would be worthwhile anymore to do some of those things, at least as a total interloper into their various worlds and all that is represented by them. What would I be bringing to a presentation of world class food and drink now? What could I hope to gain or learn from my encounter with it to contribute to my own real improvement? It is hard to see any purpose in it given the inconvenience to which I would now be putting the regular participants in these rituals to accomodate my presence among them.

Then I really wouldn't have any idea even where to go. When I was a child my impression of what was the fanciest restaurant in Philadelphia, the height of dining as far as anybody I knew was concerned, was Bookbinder's, which has been around since about 1850 (and has hosted every President since that time), so it isn't exactly a must go spot amongst hardcore gourmets, and almost certainly wasn't 30 years ago either. However I have always been interested in going there sometime, and still am, just because it has always existed in my imagination as an exalted place. When I was in high school I worked as a dishwasher at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, which occasionally shows up on lists of the Top 50 restaurants in America, but due to my former lowly status in their kitchen I have no great desire to return there, even 20 years later, as a patron. I saw the chef/owner of the French Laundry in California, which at the time was rated the #1 restaurant in the country by some reputable publication, on TV once talking some pretty good culinary trash regarding who deserved to eat at the restaurant, how he dealt with people who tried to request their meat cooked in a way opposed to the vision of the chef, etc. But besides its being in remote California, I really can't see myself going to a place like this, which I think requires reservations far in advance and probably some kind of personal recommendation to have them accepted anyway.

To be honest the food itself is not much of a consideration or enticement to me at this point. Indeed, some kind of hipster place drawing a clientele of art school graduates would be, in theory anyway, more enjoyable to me, though actually I am happiest eating in a certain kind of old style bar or tavern inhabited by committed and serious drinkers, which type naturally seems to be in precipitous decline. I also like old style hotel dining rooms and bars, an even more rapidly vanishing breed of establishment. Socially I am a severely lost and dislocated person, and I am not even sure what the road back to where I might properly and happily belong--if such a milieu even exists--would be.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tis Pity She's a Whore II

There isn't a big variety of pictures that correlate with this play. There is nothing related to the author at all, no tourist sites, no movie stills. Just modern theater productions, and I didn't see anything among those that really grabbed me.
"Your chaste and single life shall crown your birth;
Who dies a virgin lives a saint on earth."

My enthusiasm started to grow thin around the last scene of Act IV. I think perhaps this was because what I was taking to be comedy was beginning to be muted, and the trappings of tragedy were beginning to be asserted without my understanding of the characters having been properly prepared to wrestle with what that implied.

V, ii 24-5 SORANZO (the nobleman who was to be Annabella's legal intended):
"Revenge is all the ambition I aspire:
To that I'll climb or fall; my blood's on fire."

These lines drew a laugh.

Most of the characters in this tragedy go to their deaths unrepetant and apparently unconscious of any error or imprudence in the various poor choices they have made. Annabella wavers a little in the end and makes some gestures in the direction of becoming a respectable person but, as she has gotten pregnant just as she is about to be handed off to Soranzo, Giovanni resolves the situation by murdering her (out of excessive love), at which he calls out "Go thou, white in thy soul, to fill a throne/of innocence and sanctity in Heaven." The meaning of this, I take it, is that because there was genuine love between them, that makes it all OK; her soul remains unstained.

V, vi. 43-5; 47-50 GIOVANNI:
"...Father, no.
For nine months' space in secret I enjoy'd
Sweet Annabella's sheets...
Soranzo, thou know'st this; thy paler cheek
Bears the confounding print of thy disgrace,
For her too fruitful womb too soon bewray'd
The happy passage of our stol'n delights..."

All the outrageousness aside, this writer, Ford, had an easy and quite advanced poetic style. Such thoughts as he had did not become confused in a tangle of words and half-baked thoughts and images. It's a good read, especially I think to someone who is younger and unencumbered and to whom getting a grasp on these genres and developments in literary history would still be of use in the rounding of his mind.

I am going on vacation for a week, so if there is anyone who is a regular or semi-regular reader, there probably won't be any new posts until I get back.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Ricci Case, Souter, New England Liberals, etc, etc

I've been toiling on this post for a week now (7/6), it isn't coming together, and I don't even really care about the subject. It was in fact my distaste for the whole necessity and existence of the case that made me interested in writing about it at all. I will try to condense what I was trying to get at as succinctly as possible.

There is a certain faction of the internet Right that I confess to reading and being somewhat amused by; they are, briefly, white guys with high IQs but, one suspects, not the social status they feel they deserve, who are obsessed with IQs and social status. The reader might suspect that I identify with them, but as they only tend to respect mathematical/ science/technological intelligence or success in business and are dismissive of the abilities of anybody who studied the humanities in college--not to mention pretty much all women, blacks, non-100% European Hispanics, and anybody who isn't in the top 10-25 percentile of financial success--I feel pretty secure that they would not include me as one of their number either, and to be truthful they are rather too relentlessly Aspergery and judgemental for me to crave much of their society. Still their posts and comment boxes are kind of a guilty amusement. Anyway this crew hates affirmative action, and they were obsessed of late with the Ricci case in the Supreme Court, by which, even though the vote went their way, they were still agitated by the narrowness of the margin and the ridiculously complicated process necessary to resolve what they considered to be an obvious case to any intelligent person. I admit I did not find the case particularly exciting, as I do not find most court cases and decisions, as apparently many people do. With the Supreme Court it is pretty predictable how almost all the judges are going to rule beforehand, so there isn't in most instances much sense of any problem being identified and the truth of it worked out so much as seeing how each side of the argument justifies its pre-existing prejudices. The Right believes that it intellectually eviscerated the Left in the Ricci case, and that in general, they have a team of much more incisive and logically impregnable minds on their side in the Court, while the left's team is, with the evident exception of Breyer, soft of brain and largely confused about what their proper purpose as court justices is. The Right is at the same time resigned, or at least many of them are, to losing all similar cases in the future once Obama, or some inevitable left-leaning successor, is able to replace their guys with his guys. All of which indicates to me that 1) issues coming before the Court are essentially of a political nature rather than about seeking a dispassionate interpretation of the law under dispute, and 2) the justices are--and are seen as--mere tools of particular political ideologies and factions.

On the subject of this idea of the justices as properly beholden to a particular ideology, the obvious current example is David Souter, who when he was nominated was denounced by the left as a mediocrity and a threat to the rights of various people under that side's umbrella, and now is widely detested and denounced as a mediocrity among the right for being the nominee of a Republican president and not turning out to be very agreeable to what the Republicans perceive to be their agenda in the court. I admit I am not sure what constitutes brilliance and mediocrity in the legal world--commentators are very concerned about it, though they don't usually define it adequately enough for the general reader --though I have always thought Souter, as far as I can discern from such writing of his as I have seen, explains the reasons for his decisions as clearly and reasonably as anyone else does, if in a plainer style than is perhaps fashionable among professional intellectuals. Nonetheless many on the Republican side rack their brains trying to figure out how this rather bland pre-1960s New England Rhodes Scholar Harvard Wasp could have gone so horribly astray. Is he gay? Is he just another self-hating guilty white male liberal? Is he simply stupid?

I should interject here that I live in the smallish town (Concord, New Hampshire) where Souter went to high school and lived most of his adult life until he was named to the Supreme Court, so I know a lot of people who are personally familiar with him on one level or another, including my father-in-law. He was a legendarily brilliant student in the local public school system long before he made it to the Supreme Court, and he is by all appearances one of those very rare people who combine very high intelligence with the kind of work ethic that is almost instinctive, that is one that largely sees whatever its current work is as its proper activity, an end in itself, and as such its own reward. I don't say that he never had a calculated master plan in the back of his mind to win a Rhodes Scholarship or be named to the Supreme Court, though if he did he appears to have directed his energy towards into being worthy of attaining the goals whether they were actually attained or not rather than becoming fixated on the actual attainment of a specific goal, to the exclusion of other motivations and satisfactions, which I think is one of the unfortunate character traits that has really been gutting the soul of this country almost my entire lifetime. Souter is in a way a relic of an older attitude and approach to education and life that I find rather admirable. Concord of course is a somewhat out-of-the-way place, geographically, demographically, and culturally, even now, and was certainly so when Souter would have been growing up here in the 1950s. I am pretty sure that among all the people in Washington programmatically far more cutthroat and driven than he has ever had to be, he is one of the least likely to be out to stick it to anybody, and has a more benign view of people, their motivations, capabilities, and so on, than is generally found there...

I was going to try to go on to explain the nature of what is apparently called (disdainfully) in other parts of the country New England liberalism, beyond the fact that Republicans from Red-State America (which is now more than a day's drive from us) are just too cruel and macho and scary for most people in this emotionally sensitive region to be able to cope with anymore, and tie that into David Souter, but it would take too much time that I don't have right now.

Regarding the Ricci case, if you are going to do affirmative action it is simply stupid to have a test open to members of the group you don't want to hire where you cannot control the results. The city did blunder badly there. Affirmative action in general is one of those issues where it seems you adamantly have to take one side or the other or else everybody is calling you a milksop. I am going to take the position that I am angry at people on both sides. To the angry white men on the right using AA as a convenient scapecoat for some disappointment or failure in your life. Unless you have been blatantly and directly victimized in an area where you had an especial talent or passion that you could not pursue elsewhere or work in any other field at an approximate level--which is not most of you--realize that there are probably other forces as work, including personal inadequacy by the current, and admittedly harsh, standards of society, under which, however, minorities are still faring far worse on the whole. To the militant defenders on the left--realize that in society as it is currently constituted, where decent middle class jobs are fought over like principalities in the Holy Roman Empire, and access to the most desirable schools and professions is approaching lottery-like chances even for nominally flawless candidates, a policy that necessitates passing over thousands of candidates with far better qualifications that they are required to demonstrate to even be considered for a place or positions, to attain an AA quota, is going to be an increasingly hard policy to defend to everybody else the more time that goes on, regardless of the comparatively minor amount of harm you may, and not without reason, perhaps consider it to do.

In short, I don't think there is a workable solution to this problem until both sides grow a little more realistic about it.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

John Ford--'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633)--Part 1 I know I said the other day that I didn't like to make rankings, but if the number of items coming to mind to be considered is small enough I don't mind doing a list. So here go the Best Titles in the History of Literature:
1. Tis Pity She's a Whore
2. Just Give Me the Damn Ball--Keyshawn Johnson
3. Tyrannic Love--John Dryden
4. Love in a Tub--Sir George Etheredge
5. (tie) Success is a Choice--Rick Pitino
Surviving at the Top--Donald Trump

When I was reading this, I was thinking to myself, it's sure been a long time since I've read a good comedy about incest. Of course the play is supposed to be a tragedy, and forms an important part of the tradition and all that, but I have to say I found it on the first reading to be too absurd to take seriously as a tragedy, and very often veering on laugh-out-loud funny. Having discovered frequently when seeing a play I have read acted that I understood nothing of what was going on, I should probably see a production of it. Fortunately it appears to be a quite popular revival nowadays, and has the bonus of almost always featuring a pretty young actress in the lead role (this is contrast to the dark years between 1661 and 1894 when the play was apparently not revived a single time).

"Heaven admits no jest" the friar announces in the play's fourth line. Giovanni, the male lead, isn't hiding anything either, as he riotously argues with the holy man:

"Shall then, for that I am her brother born,
My joys be ever banish'd from her bed?"

Far from backing down at this insolence, the friar continues to dish out good advice:

"Beg heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust
That rots thy soul, acknowledge what thou art,
A wretch, a worm, a nothing..."

In Scene ii the girls come in, and happily the bawdiness is no less rife. Giovanni discovers that his sister/lover is being married off, but he does not take the news docilely, and amps up the sexy talk:

"Such lips would tempt a saint; such hands as those
Would make an anchorite lascivious."

My book was used. The previous owner was someone named Laura Phillips who was apparently loving all the sexual innuendo, as she helpfully pointed it out in the margins on every page.

II. i. 47-9 PUTANA (tut'ress to Annabella):

"...what though he be your brother? Your brother's a man, I hope, and I say still, if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody, father or brother, all is one."

This is insane.

II. ii 38-9 HIPPOLITA (wife to Richardetto [a supposed physician]):

"And shall the conquest of my lawful bed,
My husband's death urg'd on by his disgrace", et al.

This is what life is like at it highest levels I think.

I liked the plot of this. Since there is pretty much nothing holding back the characters from doing or saying whatever they want to anyone, and they are all glib and funny, its various scenarios largely create their own interest.

Annabella's ignored fiance comes to the doctor requesting a love potion in II. iii. For some reason I took up the idea that this was an allegory and the dose was going to produce viagra-like effects in him but I don't see what I was thinking now.

II. v. the confession scene is hilarious.

GIOVANNI: "Your age o'errules you; had you youth like mine,
You'd make her love your Heaven, and her divine."
and, after a rundown of the charms of his sister's eyes, breath, cheeks, etc:

"But father, what is else for pleasure fram'd,
Lest I offend your ears, shall go unnam'd."

III, v. GRIMALDI (a Roman gentleman, the betrothed of Annabella, before poisoning the doctor's rival in love, whom the doctor has convinced him is actually his own):

"...I know
'Tis an unnoble act, and not becomes
A soldier's valor, but in terms of love,
Where merit cannot sway, policy must."

Tingly! "Have you not sweetmeats or dainty devices for me?/You shall have enough, sweetheart." (III, v. 41-2). Bawdy! "Be rul'd; when we have done what's fit to do/Then you may kiss your fill, and bed her too."

The evil cardinal in III. ix allows us to indulge our myriad anti-Catholic prejudices. So satisfying! There is a hopeful note at the end of the scene though:

"Come, come, Donado, there's no help in this,
When cardinals think murder's not amiss,
Great men may do their wills, we must obey;
But Heaven will judge them for't another day."

As we begin Act IV the murder count already stands at 2. The action in this act is extraordinary. Poisoned, the truly choice woman that is Hippolita expires, but she hardly goes quietly:

"...heat above hell fire!--
Yet ere I pass away--cruel, cruel flames!--
Take here my curse amongst you; may thy bed
Of marriage be a rack onto thy heart,
Burn blood and boil in vengeance--O my heart,
My flame's intolerable--mayst thou live
To father bastards, may her womb bring forth
Monsters, and die together in your sins,
Hated, scorn'd, and unpitied--O!--O!--" (dies)

On this note, the friar has some words of true wisdom to end the scene:

"I fear the event; that marriage seldom's good,
Where the bride-banquet so begins in blood."

I was hoping to knock this out in one posting, but I think I'll just do a short second one.