Monday, August 31, 2009

Ambrose Philips--First Pastoral (1709)

Samuel Johnson, when given the task of writing the life of Ambrose Philips, dispatched of the subject--and dispatched is definitely the operative word--in eight pages. Of the Pastorals, he says they "might have long passed as a pleasing amusement, had they not been unhappily too much commended"; of Philips's career as a whole, that "he has added nothing to English poetry, yet at least half his book deserves to be read." Philips was friends with and of the same (Whig) political faction, passions being especially feverish at the time on both sides, as Addison and Steele, who praised and promoted his literary efforts in the Spectator and other of their papers. From around 1709-13 he was "high in the ranks of literature. His play (The Distressed Mother, "almost a translation of Racine's Andromaque") was applauded; his translations from Sappho had been published in The Spectator; he was an important and distinguished associate of clubs witty and political...", and for a time the mortal archenemy of the then very young and brash Pope. His fame faded quickly. He brought out a couple of tragedies in 1722, The Briton and Humphry Duke of Gloucester, the first of which, Johnson wrote in 1778-9, was "now neglected" and the second "only remembered by its title." In 1726 Philips took a position as Secretary to Lord Chancellor in Ireland, and went on to be a Prerogative Judge and an MP for Ireland--all patronage jobs, of course, before returning to his native country a year before he died of a palsy at age 74 in 1749. He does not seem to have added much substantial writing to his corpus during the last 27 years of his life.

Picture 1. There are no pictures of Ambrose Philips in circulation on the internet that I can find. A search for his name turns up these girls, among other unrelated things. I have a tendency to linger sometimes over the biographical details of such writers as I come across who once had a name and for a time a not insignificant place among the leading lights of their day, but had already faded into near total obscurity in the consciousness of the world long before they died. That I have read Philips's short book--the whole poem is about 20 pages long--myself is a matter of mere dumb luck. There is a passage from the poem in the GRE book which I take my reading list from which is not identified--the purpose of the question is to identify what type of poem the various selections are, lyric, elegiac, pastoral, etc. If it weren't for the internet, which the book I use predates, I would never have found out where it was from, and indeed, could not have read it, for I have never seen a copy of it in print anywhere, and the copy which is reproduced online looks to be the edition which Johnson wrote the prefaces for (I would link to it, but the URL is the length of a city block). While it is a much abused work, and probably not really worth reading unless you are undergoing a kind of lifelong graduate program in English literature, I liked it. To read it is not to get an especially vivid picture of a singular personality, or even of an historical period, but it does help to fill in one's sense of what the background was like, and against and out of which the striking literature and historical movements of the time arose.

A small selection of my favorite lines:

45-6: "The jolly grooms I fly, and all alone/To rocks and woods pour forth my fruitless moan"

73-76: "Nor will I cease betimes to cull the fields
Of every dewy sweet the morning yields:
From early spring to autumn late shalt thou
Receive gay girlonds, blooming o'er thy brow."
In Facebook parlance, I noted that I liked this.

53-4, we get the usual stuff of the genre, though the forgiving reader welcomes it as an old acquaintance so long as it is one he only has to come across once in a while:

"Thy virgin-bloom will not forever stay,
And flowers, though left ungather'd, will decay..."

A couple I found humorous:

23-6: "And now the moon begins in clouds to rise;
The brightening stars increase within the skies;
The winds are hush; the dews distil; and sleep
Hath clos'd the eyelids of my weary sheep..."

105-8: "O, killing beauty! and O, sore desire!
Must then my sufferings, but with life, expire?
Though blossoms every year the trees adorn,
Spring after spring I wither, nipt with scorn..."

A little of this is rather pleasant in small doses, with one's ice cream or snifter of brandy before bed.

Picture 2. This is the Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street in Mayfair, London, where Philips was, and I presume still is, buried, though you never know (Laurence Sterne's grave, for example, was relocated in the late 1960s when they paved over the cemetery where he had orignally been laid). I haven't been there, but either the angle is good or that is one nice-looking street for modern-day London.
In the competitive and manly world of 18th century English poetry, Philips was given the appellation of "Namby-Pamby" for the apparent low levels of testosterone that fueled most of his work, especially his lighter verses. The bestower of this appellation most scholars believe now to be Henry Carey, a work of whose we will be getting to ourselves very shortly. Johnson seemed to think it originated from Pope, or his circle. Pope, you will recall, was around 4 foot 8 and a very fragile 90 pounds or so at his most robust, but the vitriol he was capable of extending towards his rivals certainly belied this apparent disadvantage. Philips, while an inferior poet, at least did not suffer these insults like a wuss. Johnson notes that "Of his personal character all I have heard is, that he was eminent for bravery and skill in the sword, and that in conversation he was solemn and pompous". Oh, and he "hung up a rod at Button's (presumably a coffeehouse), with which he threatened to chastise Pope." Pope then called him a rascal in print. Time, however, has rendered these once raging animosities rather quaint. It is true though, in most fields, that it is a good sign of health when the most prominent people in it are dissing their rivals incautiously and giving them derogatory nicknames. The most prominent ornery person in this regard on the comptemporary scene is probably the critic William Logan, but one doesn't even see him threatening to club Billy Collins outside of Fitzgerald's pub or wherever the poets go nowadays. There are a lot of angry contemporary poets, it is true ("I long to murder the anonymous white male sitting beside me"), but their open anger at least seems to be directed out towards society and the anonymous inchoate masses rather than towards each other--one can't alienate one's network for grants, awards, teaching posts, fellowships, and the like, I suppose.

"Men sometimes suffer by injudicious kindness; Philips became ridiculous, without his own fault, by the absurd admiration of his friends, who decorated him with honorary garlands, with the first breath of contradiction blasted." (Johnson again).

I do owe this to my friends, that if I make myself ridiculous it is entirely my own doing. They have no part in it whatsoever.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

100 Greatest Britons

This is one of those posts that I began to wish I had never started once I got halfway into it. A poll was given to the British public on this topic. You may have seen the results. If you didn't, Princess Diana was voted the 3rd greatest British of all time, David Beckham the 33rd, and Boy George the 46th (meanwhile Morrissey didn't make the list at all). A lot of the rest of the list isn't terribly bad, however. I thought making my own list, though it probably wouldn't be any better, would be a good blog post. That was a bad idea. It's hard enough to pick 100 people for anything, and then you have to rank them, which is pretty much impossible. As far as the picking went, the first 50 names came pretty easily, the next 25 were pretty much people I think are OK but I'm sure aren't really among the top 100, and the last 25 I'm mostly grasping for interesting people I have heard of. Two of the larger omissions from my list are pretty much all businessmen/industrialists, and pure political activists/theorists (as opposed to philosophers), mainly because I find them boring. I have way too many authors, although authors were much more influential and historically important the farther back you go because 1) there were a lot fewer of them, 2) they are the most valuable source of information where any subject they have written about is concerned, and 3) their personalities live on more or less vividly on the page in a way that that of other men do not. Likewise the further back in history one goes, the more important dynamic personal leadership in political and military figures seems to be; it seems to have been easier for a single dominant personality to have a wide influence on events and institutions and therefore of subsequent history. On the other hand, recent figures are too near us in time to be able to accurately take the measure of their influence. We have to judge them by their relation to more established great figures, next to whom they will invariably appear small to their contemporaries even if they are really not. The nearer people are to us in history, of course, the better we know them, and the better we know them, the more evidence will present itself to our sensibilities that they could not possibly have been 'great' in the sense that Hume or even Sir Walter Scott was great. We aren't comfortable making that kind of assertion about living men, and I think perhaps we shouldn't be.

But on to the list:

1. Shakespeare
2. Newton
3. William the Conquerer. I guess he is technically French, but he also dramatically altered the course of human history by causing England to develop in a completely different direction than it otherwise would have.
4. Thomas More. On reputation.
5. Elizabeth I
6. Dickens
7. Darwin
8. William Pitt the Elder. The 18th century was when England was really at the top of its game as far as producing brilliant personalities and original minds. It was in those years that it built up the capacities of the culture that would later defeat Napoleon and Germany, establish a global empire, and be a constant leader in multifarious fields of learning and the arts. Therefore I give the great men of this era the advantage over their 19th & 20th century counterparts in my rankings.
9. Henry V. Probably he wasn't, but there are a lot of arguments in his favor.
10. Byron. At the peak of his career, around 1816, when he was still in his 20s, Goethe named him and Napoleon as the two greatest men in Europe, and the statement does not seem to have been controversial. He remains an iconic figure, at least to people who are interested in such things, the heroic, high-spirited young man of real culture, learning and talent. I overrate him probably, but he made vivid possibilities of life that excited the imaginations of many talented people who would hold a great influence over the culture, and in that sense has a very real effect on history.
11. John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.
12. Faraday. I don't have a great feel for precisely how great the scientists were or where they ought to rank. People who understand science seem to regard Faraday's discoveries as singular advances in human understanding and possibility, so here he is.
13. Winston Churchill
14. William Pitt the Younger--PM during French Revolution, early part of Napoleonic era. Regarded as having navigated his country competently and wisely during that tumultous period. Was 24 years old when he first became Prime Minister, and ended up as one of the best England ever had, which makes one wonder if younger leadership would occasionally not be the worst thing for a country. There is apparently a 1942 movie about Pitt's life starring Robert Donat, which I would be curious to see.
15. Henry VIII. Not a nice guy, but he absolutely dominated his time and altered the course of history in important ways, so what are you going to do, ignore him?
16. Milton. You write the only wholly successful epic poem in the national language, obviously you make the list.
17. Robert Walpole. PM 1721-1742. Essentially invented the position. Not everyone regards him as a great man, but given that this was a period in which England was making tremendous strides in a variety of areas while countries like France were enduring terrible leadership, I think he must be due for some credit.
18. Henry II. Big time alpha male medieval king (1154-1189) whose reign of nonstop action made England a major factor on the European scene.
19. Francis Bacon. Where did the extremely advanced strain of intellectual development that burst out in certain minds of the Elizabethan era come from? And then where has it gone?
20. Chaucer.
21. Samuel Johnson. He was obviously a great man, and one of the few people of whom it can be said that the whole character of England would be something much less than it is if he and his story had had a less prominent part in it.
22. Nelson. Probably should be higher. This guy is a total legend. Even in Rome one-eyed cats are invariably christened with the sobriquet "Nelson".
23. Richard Burbage. The original star actor of most of the great Shakespearean roles. Given the centrality of the theater in the national tradition, some of these people have to get recognized.
24. Robert Bruce.
25. Jane Austen. At the rate she's going, she should crack the top 10 in another 20 years.
26. Christopher Wren
27. Oliver Cromwell. See comment on Henry VIII. Cromwell of course is personally much more impressive, his own mind and character being the sole source of his power.
28. The Duke of Wellington.
29. Robert Clive. Main figure responsible for securing British rule in India, which was not one of the inevitable events of history. Whatever one's opinion of this is, it was not the work of a mediocre spirit.
30. Sir Francis Drake. We've hit the part of the list where I've stashed all of the swashbuckling adventure types.
31. Sir Richard Burton. This is the Victorian traveller who spoke 29 languages, sneaked into Mecca disguised as a Muslim, and had copious amounts of sex with with all varieties of partners across Asia and Africa, not the actor.
32. J. M. W. Turner. I think art is important.
33. Jenner. Smallpox vaccine guy.
34. Sir Walter Ralegh. A threat on so many different levels. This is what men really want to be.
35. William Blake. A unique and stirring mind. No one else can fill his role.
36. Gladstone.
37. Sir Philip Sidney. Probably overrated, but he was favored by history to live in a smaller world where his qualities shone with a brilliance that hardly anyone in our modern condition can expect to attain.
38. Thomas Hobbes. The crow. I am biased by the fact that I find his biographical details more than ordinarily interesting.
39. James Clark Maxwell. Probably should be higher. I had forgotten about him in my initial draft of this list, though I vaguely knew I was missing somebody on the science side of things. It's disgraceful actually.
40. Disraeli
41. Captain Cook
42. David Garrick. If you read anything written in or about the mid 18th century, you run into this guy over and over. He was the great acting star of his century, as well as an acquaintance of Samuel Johnson's all the way back to Lichfield, where he was a pupil in Johnson's floundering school and, in the crucial decision of his life, accompanied his 28 year old teacher to London when the latter determined to make a go of it there (Garrick was actually successful long before Johnson was).
43. Henry Purcell. He was about the only widely-respected English composer for almost 200 years.
44. John Locke. I read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding recently which maybe one day I will get around to writing about here. I am convinced that writing a completely logically cohesive and ontologically airtight book of philosophy might be the most impossible task for a human being to accomplish.
45. Joe Lister. Antiseptic surgery and all that.
46. Henry Fielding.
47. Edward Gibbon. I haven't read The Decline and Fall, etc, yet (though I do think I will someday, if I live a normal lifespan), so I am kind of taking a flyer here. I must say, this is one book where I have never met anybody who has read the whole thing. Gibbon didn't get much respect in the Life of Johnson. He apparently wasn't a brilliant conversationalist and Johnson and his friends made sport of him at dinner parties as if he were a dullard. He did write the most celebrated work of history by a Briton however, and that has to count for something.
48. Laurence Sterne. Hard to choose between a trio of great 18th century authors.
49. Charlie Chaplin. This is the one name I stole from the other list that I hadn't put on mine.
50. Edmund Spenser
51. Henry VII
52. Wordsworth. He is definitely the most ordinary of the Great figures of English history, especially after he turned 35. Still, almost every general history I have ever read, and many books about books-type things insist on his being a pivotal figure. The Romantic poets are to literature, certainly to poetry anyway, what the Impressionists are to art. To most people they are the main psychological touchstone to the meaning of the thing, the archetype. You can't avoid them.
53. Inigo Jones. With the architects I'm just throwing out the names I have heard the most, and of whose buildings I know a few instances. Now I'm remembering that I've forgotten entirely the main guy who worked in Bath. he could be on here (ed--probably John Wood is who I'm thinking of, but also Thomas Palmer). Also the guy who designed Greenwich Naval College (ed--this was Wren, and Vanbrugh, after Wren died, both of whom I do have on here).
54. The Beatles. It's hard to know where to rank them, but I have a feeling they are going to be around in the collective consciousness for a while, especially if no one new comes along with both the kind of catchy tunes people like, and the proper outlets for delivering them to a mass audience, which looks as if it might be the case.
55. David Livingstone. Intrepid explorer of Africa at a time when much of the continent had to be left blank in atlases.
56. David Hume.
57. Alexander Fleming
58. Alexander Pope. The back to back Davids followed by back to back Alexanders is a coincidence. I had everybody listed by last names before writing them up.
59. William Cecil. Elizabeth I's brilliant advisor. Effectually like a prime minister in his day.
60. Tennyson. For about eighty years every house in the English-speaking world that had a relation to the wider world through books had a volume of Tennyson as one of the bulwarks of its library, and one that seems to have actually been frequently opened and referred to on any number of points. He was one of the great authorities of the language and its use, which he conveys without relying on a hectoring insistence on rules, etc, to which a proper grammar book would have to resort.
61. George Eliot.
62. Adam Smith. Not many people are believed to have read him either.
63. Vanbrugh. Before taking on such modest projects as Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, and the completion of the aforementioned Greenwich Naval College, Vanbrugh was a playwright with no formal training in architecture. He had a good sensibility though.
64. George Orwell.
65. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I had never heard of this guy either, but Kenneth Clark thought he was a genius, and his physical body of work is as impressive as anybody's on this list. He was an engineer in the early days of industrialization and was a visionary in the development of railroads, tunnels, iron bridges, steamships and the like at a time when most people did not have a great conception of the forms these things would take or their possibilities.
66. Constable.
67. James Gibbs. Another 18th century architect. St Martin's-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. Radcliffe Camera. Style influenced much colonial American architecture, particularly churches.
68. Alexander Graham Bell
69. Coleridge. See comment on Wordsworth.
70. James Watt.
71. Edward Elgar.
72. T.E. Lawrence "Lawrence of Arabia". Obviously his image is distorted by the popular film that was made about him, but he was a person of remarkable intelligence, learning, and leadership qualities. His superiority to the general run of humanity seems to have been palpable at the first encounter.
73. Harold. Ended up lying on the turf of Hastings with an arrow in his eye courtesy of William the Conqueror, but prior to that he was by all accounts an outstanding and vigorous leader in his own right who in the end was besieged on too many sides with not enough capable followers to hold his position.
74. George Stephenson. Inventor of the first locomotive.
75. Henry Bessemer. Inventor of the first process for mass-producing steel.
76. Keats/Shelley. See comment on Wordsworth.
77. James Wolfe. Conquered Quebec from the French. As a North American I have raided the ranks of born and raised Englishmen who were important figures in the development of this continent to fill out this list.
78. The Venerable Bede. Why not? The guy lived in the 600s and alone among every person who lived in Britain in that century I have a positive working knowledge of who he is.
79. Kipling. He is fading but I am still impressed when I look at older reference books at how important he was considered to be. He is also of interest to me because he--the author of Gunga Din--married a Brattleboro, Vt girl and lived there for about five years, when he came to the realization that he would stagnate, and his latent powers die within him, if he did not get back to some more literarily stimulating locale. Philip Roth had a similar situation back in the 60s, married to a midwestern woman and living in Iowa, sensing he had to get back to New York and that way of life or he too would atrophy--he divorced the woman. Even Mr Rural New England himself, Robert Frost, had to decamp to London for a few years in his 30s to get his career going. And then there's me...
80. Hogarth.
81. Sir Humphrey Davy. Scientist, all-around Renaissance man type. Discovered numerous elements. Inventor.
82. Anthony Powell
83. John Wesley. I was looking desperately for some religious figures apart from Thomas More, and I thought I could do better than C.S. Lewis.
84. Ellen Terry. Diva actress of late 19th century. I'm pretty much winging it at this point.
85. Queen Victoria.
86. Sir Charles Barry. Architect of the Houses of Parliament.
87. Morrissey. As I was straining to think of more names to get my 100 a little inner voice kept insisting "Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey" to the exclusion of anyone else.
88. William Penn
89. Ruskin. He diesn't really belong here, but the rankings get complimented when you are comparing people at a similar level of accomplish in very different fields.
90. Florence Nightingale. I have no idea how great she was, but somebody decided she was a historically significant figure, and those of us who have read her story measure our own experiences with the nursing profession up against her.
91. Charles II. Considered by most no-nonsense intellectuals to be the last genuinely intelligent monarch England has had (though I think Victoria was probably quite smart, even if she didn't go in much for difficult scientific tomes and the like).
92. Gertrude Lawrence. Actress, heyday 1920s-30s. My old reference books refer to her as an iconic star, in the John Barrymore/Rudolph Valentino category. Here is a clip of her doing a radio play with Noel Coward. There is some good old British enunciation for you if you have a fetish for that sort of thing.
93. Richard I Couer-de-lion. For his name alone if nothing else.
94. William Bradford. Mayflower guy.
95. Sir Walter Scott. I can't get the colossal monument erected to him in Edinburgh out of my mind, nor the almost slavish devotion to him of many of his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, especially in Scotland. There must have been something more to him than is apparent to us now.
96. D. H. Lawrence. Very sexy, pugnacious guy, apparently had absolute confidence in his opinions even when their veracity was at best dodgy, condemnatory of pretty much everyone and everything perpetrated by conscious, historical man, and at his best (in the Rainbow and Sons and Lovers) an outstanding novelist. Seems to have lived life on his own terms and according to the dictates of his own will in all facets of life as much as was possible in the 20th century for a man tainted by modern education, technology, media, and so on.
97. Bertrand Russell. I don't actually know much about him, other than that it seems that a quite sizable number out of that remaining portion of the public that still reads in a generally omniverous way cites him as one of its favorite writers.
98. Beau Nash. The king of the social scene in Georgian Bath, which is one of the better recorded and most significant such scenes in history.
99. John Smith. That would be Jamestown/Pochantas/"No work, No food" John Smith.
100. C S Lewis. He was smart, he was a nice guy, he had faith in the values of civilization, he enjoyed hanging out at the pub, he wrote books that are enjoyable and erudite at the same time, and people love him.

I forgot to put any economists on here. I don't personally miss their presence, but I should at least make note of the fact.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

William Barnes--"The Clote" (1844 I think)

O zummer clote! when the brook’s a-glidèn
So slow an’ smooth down his zedgy bed,
Upon thy broad leaves so seäfe a-ridèn
The water’s top wi’ thy yollow head,
By alder sheädes, O,
An’ bulrush beds, O,
Thou then dost float, goolden zummer clote!

The grey-bough’d withy’s a leänèn lowly
Above the water thy leaves do hide;
The bènden bulrush, a-swaÿèn slowly,
Do skirt in zummer thy river’s zide;
An’ perch in shoals, O,
Do vill the holes, O,
Where thou dost float, goolden zummer clote!

Oh! when thy brook-drinkèn flow’r’s a-blowèn,
The burnèn zummer’s a-zettèn in;
The time o’ greenness, the time o’ mowèn,
When in the häy-vield, wi’ zunburnt skin,
The vo’k do drink, O,
Upon the brink, O,
Where thou dost float, goolden zummer clote!

Wi’ eärms a-spreadèn, an’ cheäks a-blowèn,
How proud wer I when I vu’st could swim
Athirt the deep pleäce where thou bist growèn,
Wi’ thy long more vrom the bottom dim;
While cows, knee-high, O,
In brook, wer nigh, O,
Where thou dost float, goolden zummer clote!

Ov all the brooks drough the meäds a-windèn,
Ov all the meäds by a river’s brim,
There’s nwone so feäir o’ my own heart’s vindèn
As where the maïdens do zee thee zwim,
An’ stan’ to teäke, O,
Wi’ long-stemm’d reäke, O,
Thy flow’r afloat, goolden zummer clote!

Source: Poets of the English Language (Viking Press, 1950)

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More Poems by William Barnes
Tokens
The Fall
The Wind at the Door
Zun-zet
Related
More Nature Poems
Other Victorian Poets

William Barnes (1801-1866) was a Dorset dialect poet. I had never heard of him, and none of my anthologies have any selections from him in them, though apparently there is a modest section given over to him in the Portable Romantic Poets. He was a minister and a serious philologist, a close friend of Hardy's, and he apparently knew Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins as well. All of which surprised me, because on reading his poem and reflecting on his general obscurity and the language he chose to write in I had imagined him to be one of those untutored and wild bards living a healthy natural life, remote from the enervating influences of modern civilization. This was not the case however.

I find this to be an oddly beautiful and moving poem. I thought when I first read it what I very rarely think, that I should like to talk to someone about it. This is because above all it evoked memories in me, though not literal ones: perhaps ancestral in some instances, though more likely the memory of ideals. It brought back to me the feeling of being in a second floor classroom in school on a clear and temperate day, the leaves outside the windows waving and shimmering, and having the sensation of confidence that one can become a master of one's own thoughts, and thence of life as it appeared to me at that time.

I feel strongly the contrast between the vision of life put forth in this poem and that of my own. It came to me in the form of "Yes, I can swim, but I have to drive there". Along with, I think, many modern people, I am consumed with the disappointments of life. I write selfishly, my great aim is to explain in some adequate manner the causes of my perceived failures, as if doing so would absolve me from them. I don't experience my own writings as anything communal with other people, with nature or with the language either as it lives or as it has come down to us. It is why, I suspect, I have never seriously attempted to write poems or songs or plays, for the essence of these is that they only succeed by being shared, and I instinctively sense that I could never do that. A novel or story at least deceives you into thinkin it can be a less immediately sensual kind of interaction. Ultimately of course it cannot be either, which incredibly I have only come to realize in the last couple of years, though its machinations for insinuating itself thus sensually are both the clumsiest and subtlest of all the arts.

What dates this poem, what gives it its power and what at the same time makes it sad for me, is that is conceives of the world and really the whole order of the universe as static and, essentially ever unchanging. Individual men grow old and die, but the life our grandchildren know, this says, and with conviction, will not differ materially or metaphysically from the life we know. That view of things is all shot to pieces now, though in terms of how men actually sensually experience the universe, and time, and so on, it really shouldn't be. The conception of both the extent of the vastness of time and place, as well as the impermanence and chaos which is inherent in these, as opposed to the idea of them as eternally more or less the same, has expanded far beyond man's capacity to incorporate what they signify into his actual experience, but the alteration in the psyche has already taken place. This, too, is the break between traditional and modern poetry, as can be most clearly seen in the career of Tennyson, who was a great poet of the traditional school where everything beautiful is so in the full dress of permanence, but was not so dumb as to miss the significance of geology where the understanding that could produce such poetry was concerned.

This isn't quite what I wanted to say, but I have imposed a time limit for these kinds of posts, with the hope of getting my mind back to some semblance of its erstwhile sharpness...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pictures From Trip to Philadelphia

This trip was back in July. I am sure I will do a few more picture posts covering the summer within the next few weeks. (I am talking to myself here).

Philadelphia is where my relatives live, and, having so many small children, including an infant, no one was really up for undertaking a more ambitious vacation. I suppose one of these years we should get a beach house rental, if we can find a suitable place. I've always liked the houses along Long Sands in York, Maine. They're old, neither ostentatious nor trashy, very respectable-looking, packed in close, right on the road across which the beach is in clear sight, somewhat reminiscent of the English seaside style, but only slightly. Yes, something like that.1. My oldest boy. While the aggression affected here is not really his personality, I am relieved to see that all capacity to make a display of physical spirit and lustiness has not been drained out of him yet, as had already happened to me by the same age. He is considerably stronger and more physically capable than I was at the same age too. There is a hill near my mother's house that he can already ride his bike up at age seven that I could not manage until I was twelve or thirteen at least. The case is similar with monkey bars, tree climbing and the like, with which I am very pleased. There is no benefit in going through life as a 98-pound weakling if one can help it.
2. I am only putting this picture up because I am confident no one will see it. As the children are still quite young, they did find seeing the Liberty Bell actually exciting. We have a replica of it at our statehouse downtown, which I assume is part of the same set that the one on the St John's campus belongs to--I believe every state got one, though these two are the only ones I have so far found. I had not been down to the historic area in Philadelphia for some years, and I was sad to see all the rules and gates and security around Independence Hall. You used to be able to walk right up to it at any hour of the day, and when it was open you could enter as you pleased, without any guide, and look all around at the rooms and displays. Now you need a timed ticket, which is still free at least, to get past the gates, however the day we went they had already all been distributed by noon. I liked the old system better. I am wearing glasses here by the way not as a fashion statement or to affect irony, but because I had some kind of infection in my eye which prevented me from wearing contact lenses for a while.
3. This is my father's backyard in beautiful--and his neighborhood, which dates to the 1930s, actually is beautiful after a fashion--suburban Elkins Park. As you can see he has a golf hole there.
4. This is a glazed piece of giant anthracite coal that the children are sitting on. This is in Jim Thorpe, Pa, which, being in a very economically depressed area in the Poconos, and having a fairly well-preserved old center with a train station and a long association with railroads, is trying to transition to the 21st century by going in for tourism. It is an attractive enough place, so it isn't a terrible idea given the limited options available. However, the local population, those who desperately need and are supposed to benefit from the new tourist-related jobs, need, I hate to say, a lot of work. They are a rough, coal mining and railroad yard sort of people--the lumpenproletariat, we might as well say it--and their ideas of the duties entailed in say, working in a store, seem to be that they involve supervising the customers and making sure they are following all the rules. Making people feel comfortable, or welcome, or expressing enthusiasm for the attractions of the shop or the town in general are as yet apparently foreign concepts. As a kid I used to go up to this area, Allentown/Bethlehem and so on, quite often (one of my uncles lived in Bethlehem for a few years), and while the majority of the people were always working class, VFW/bowling alley types, the educational/political/socioeconomic divide did not seem so vast, and certainly not so hostile, as it did to me on this trip. It does make me sad, Pennsylvania being my native state I have always felt enthusiastic about all of the different parts and identifying features of it, and been eager to explore them. Perhaps I am finally seeing and understanding things as they really are. On the other hand, the surliness and hostility and isolation from any contact with education or even middling culture of the struggling white working classes seems to me to be getting worse and worse with every passing year. I am starting to be very concerned about both the growing numbers of people who have this attitude and the direction in which they seem to be going, which looks to me some kind of collective nervous breakdown. Believe me, I don't find the smug, spiritually diffident, semi-educated and sometimes actually educated white urban liberals much more palatable, although they don't worry me as much, because they have more options in life, and they tend to have a fluid enough, if often confused, thought process that if they become possessed of really bad ideas there is some hope that they can in time modify or change them. The people of the hinterlands who are increasingly suspicious and feel themselves dispossessed I find myself feeling less and less confidence in.
5. This is in a small military museum near Independence Hall, in the two storey building that housed the original war department of the United States, i.e., the ancestor of the Pentagon. When it began operations in 1793, it had seven employees. The museum had a small collection of uniforms, weapons and other gear from the Revolution and the early days of the Republic, as well as a couple of dioramas. I have come to like these kinds of small museums, that you can go through slowly and read and absorb everything in the place in around an hour. These kinds of places rarely have big crowds, and this, combined with the leisurely pace, makes the mind receptive to the impressions to be made on it. There was another place we went to which produced a similar effect which I may do a picture series on in a future post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Bolt--A Man For All Seasons (1960)This is, as everybody knows, an all-around decent job of a play. It reveals a rather conventional personality in its author the likes of which one doesn't often see in such celebrated works. And it is much celebrated, apparently even by tough intellectuals. I like it too, though its widespread approval by serious people is a little inexplicable to me based on their usual standards. The outstanding characteristic of the play to me is its solidity: solid writing, solid characters, solid principles and ideas. People don't get much of that in such a pure manifestation. They can't run it down.

Bolt takes a (Kenneth) Clarkian anti-deterministic view of the historical events under consideration here. That is to say, he thinks they err who attribute historical developments to impersonal and inevitable forces. Cultures, societies, economies, religions, are created and driven by the minds and activities of individual men, of which fact he argues many modern people have lost the proper sense.

The famous straitjacket in which the British class system confines the psychological development of everyone born into it seems to have attained its firmest deathgrip--on the middle class certainly--on the generation born right around the time Bolt was (1924). In the preface, Bolt gives away where he is coming from, and how good he feels about that origin, around fifty different times. After going on at some length about the dissatisfaction of contemporary people with their own selves and the emptiness one finds when looking to 'society' for any guidance in how to live--middle class laments if there ever were any--he lets on that he is attracted to Thomas More because the latter had "an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off..." He (Bolt) explains his metaphors and imagery almost too much to be credible. He apologized for his previous theatrical efforts thus: "Inevitably these plays looked like what they most resembled, orthodox fourth-wall dramas with puzzling, uncomfortable, and, if you are uncharitable, pretentious overtones." It actually starts to get slightly painful to read if you recognize the symptoms, such that I almost wanted to scour my bookshelves to see if I had anything by Noel Coward or someone who would never apologize to anyone--at least bourgeois critics and theater audiences anyway--stuck in an anthology to purge myself.

Then there is the page where this most earnest of significant modern playwrights states that he has used a "bastardized version" of the style recently associated with the edgy, irreverent, misanthropic and much-idolized, especially at the time, Bertolt Brecht. He approaches Brecht, who by the time he wrote this preface was dead anyway I believe, with more trepidation and reverence for his status than enthusiasm. He calls him a "very fine artist" (everybody thinks this, even me I'm sure) when flummoxed by an apparent inconsistency in one of his works. His strongest statement (at least until he has to confront the great master directly at the end), and therefore the one probably closest to his own position, is that, "Simply to slap your audience in the face satisfies an austere and puritanical streak which runs in many of his disciples and sometimes, detrimentally I think, in Brecht himself."

Contemporary scholarship and the internet of course do not lack for people committed to tearing down the image of Thomas More as "the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced" (Samuel Johnson). Some dirt has certainly been found, mostly related to his being invloved in heavy-handed enforcement of religious and political conformity. The "Star Chamber", which appears to have been an English version of the Inquisition, and Thomas More are frequently identified as having an unsavory association. Some have taken a go at depicting him as a generally humorless and cruel religious fanatic, which as a public persona is probably accurate, though in his time religious fanaticism was not universally regarded by men of learning as a negative quality. I think it counts for something that quite a few people who knew him when he was alive appear, by the accounts they have left, to have loved and esteem him and in a manner more than usually fervent by the standards of the day. He must have been one of the most extraordinarily brilliant people England ever produced, for even his detractors concede to him this quality, which is usually the first point of attack people go for when trying to cut somebody down if there is any opening to so do, which apparently with More is not the case.

Apart from this play, Bolt is probably best known for writing the screenplays for the famous so-extravagant-they-couldn't-be-made-today David Lean epics Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The picture above is said to be Bolt, acting in a minor role as a general in Lawrence. In looking these things up I came across another Lean/Bolt collaboration that I had never heard of, but which I am kind of interested to see now as one of those colossal disasters of the cinema that torpedoe the careers of everyone involved with them so that they never recover afterwards. I am referring to the 1970 film Ryan's Daughter, the operating idea of which is the plot of Madame Bovary transplanted to World War I Ireland, which, being a very 60s kind of idea, is fraught with potential distaster right off the bat. This film actually has on the surface a lot in common with Barry Lyndon, now generally regarded as a classic, which was made in roughly the same era. Both were expensive and several years in the making. Both were period pieces filmed in Ireland, which was cheap and relatively unspoiled at the time, made by famous egomaniacal directors, and featured young American actors, who were regarded as lightweights by all reputable critics, playing Brits/Irishmen of an age long gone by (not as bad of an idea as it sounds, though--if the character is supposed to be a bit of an uncultured ruffian, a callow American might be more believable on film than someone with an impeccable training and background in the English theater), Ryan O'Neal of course in Lyndon, and a guy named Christopher Jones in the other film, whose performance was evidently so bad that he went from playing a leading role in a big-budget epic at age 29 to never working in Hollywood ever again. This is like being the Rich Kotite of cinema. Not to mention, could there have been a worse time for a good-looking, not extraordinarily talented young man to be sent packing from Hollywood than in 1970? I'm thinking specifically about the incredible sex and drugs parties of the era immediately ensuing here. David Lean, who had been cranking out popular and acclaimed movies for almost 30 years, was pretty much finished after this bomb, making one more movie 14 years later and then calling it a career. Bolt, who would only have been in his mid-40s at the time, kept working, but none of his later work seem to have either made any resonance in the popular culture or scaled the walls of the fortress Literature compared to his 1960-66 work.

This is not exactly related, but another really terrible movie that I nonetheless find myself attracted to is a 1960 film called From the Terrace which for some reason they used to show on AMC all the time. It stars Paul Newman as a young lawyer in a super-waspy firm closed to anybody without the absolutely proper bloodlines, lots of drinking and smoking, unhappy marriages, affairs (and I do like the girl Newman has his affair with, I really do), sexism, bigotry, etc, kind of like Mad Men in other words, only we aren't supposed to think it's all horrible and count our blessings that it's all going to end soon. In this film (which I saw described once as something "only a dinosaur Republican could love"), I'm not sure we're supposed to think anything that we would recognize as horrible now actually is horrible. Even with regard to the affairs the mistresses are far more sympathetic than the wives. It's the incredibly privileged male character we are intended to sympathize with, I presume for the compromises and boredom one has to endure to make it in one of the top law firms in New York city. In addition to being a complete moral train wreck, it is quite poorly written. It is based on a novel by the alcoholic, socially resentful, always 30 years behind current literary trends, forever getting picked on by cool writers like Hemingway (who even considered his alcoholism to be of the conventional and uninteresting variety), Pottsville, Pa native John O'Hara, who was so deluded that he frequently let slip that he considered himself a contender for the Nobel Prize (by the way, this doesn't mean I personally think he was a bad writer; I am just observing that many of the writers of his time who are canonized now were absolutely brutal to him). Obviously I find its attitudes and assumptions to be rather fascinating. And Barbara Eden, who I have always secretly thought was pretty hot stuff, had a small role in it too.


I admit I had avoided seeing the famous movie of AMFAS for years because it seemed rather staid and self-serious, and while it is those things, it is pretty good. I hadn't realized what an all-star cast it had. Yes, that is an already corpulent Orson Welles playing Cardinal Wolsey. Wendy Hiller, whom I have praised for her work in films of George Bernard Shaw's work, is here, much older, as Thomas More's wife. Susannah York, another of my favorite blonde babes from the 60s, who very beautifully portrayed Sophie Western in Tom Jones, plays More's super-brilliant, classically educated, and, oh yes, impeccably and impossibly gorgeous daughter (the Mores are really a kind of the ideal liberal arts family, which probably helps account for their popularity in the mass college as self-actualization-mad 60s). Paul Scofield, the actor who played Thomas More both on the stage and screen, died last year, and several of the obituaries I read lamented that as one of the great stage actors of his generation who didn't do much film work, most people would only know of him from this movie. He was also in the WWII action film The Train, starring opposite Burt Lancaster as an insane art-loving Nazi general who tries to plunder the cultural treasures of France for his private collection in the waning days of the war, a fundamentally absurd role which he did well with.

Also this movie talk reminds of all the old arguments in the 20s and 30s of the perfidious effects mass market, mechanical, canned entertainment--movies, recorded music, radio programming, etc--would have on the human spirit. The argument, essentially, which goes back to Ruskin and probably back to Blake and the Romantic authors at least, was that there could no longer be one, and that therefore the current social and economic order would have to be otherthrown so that people would become human again, would gambol in nature, women would be earthy and fertile, men vigorous and keen of perception, the influence of flaccid intellectuals would wither. We would be like the Greeks and Etruscans again. Lots of beauty, lots of good, worthy sex, lots of original art, lots of individual wholeness. And the peak oil apocalysts and their ilk are still saying more or less the same thing now (usually without the good sex and the plentiful supply of meat, unfortunately; we grow ever less and less human all the time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Subjects I Meant to Write About Two Weeks Ago But am Only Getting Around to Now

They're really important too.

I am craving grapefruit at the moment. This is not one of the things I had mean to write about, but I have neither had nor craved grapefruit in many years, and suddenly a sensation of the taste of it just rose up in my memory.

There was a passage in this New Yorker article about Laura Ingalls Wilder that perturbed me. Wilder, who politically seems to have been something of a libertarian, stated during the 1930s, comparing the policies of the New Deal to her own upbringing, that "what we accomplished was without help of any kind, from anyone", on which the author of the article (whose name is Judith Thurman) commented with the following:

"The Wilders had, in fact, received unacknowledged help from their families, and the Ingallses, like all pioneers, were dependent, to some degree, on the railroads; on taxpayer-financed schools (Mary's tuition at a college for the blind, Hill points out, was paid for by the Dakota Territory); on credit--which is to say, the savings of their fellow citizens; on 'boughten' supplies they couldn't make or grow, and, most of all, on the federal government, which had cleared their land of its previous owners."

I thought this was a most unfair, misleading, politically motivated, and all around foolish critique. The evident purpose of writing it is to delegitimize the mythology of the self-reliance of the old pioneers as well as, with the clearing the lands reference, the very origins of the nation, or at least that part of it which regards this period of settlement and expansion as one of the heroic and formative episodes in our history. Whether this end is as desirable as many people appear to think it is, and most importantly, is grounded in a truth any more accurate overall than that which it would overthrow, is a question to which I am not at all confident that the answer is really aye, but in any event this is getting into psychic territory that would have been completely foreign to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and which would have availed her little in her life on the frontier if it had not been. Whatever one thinks of the quality or veracity of the Little House books, I think it is reasonable to surmise that anyone living in South Dakota in the 1870s and 80s was by contemporary standards pretty darn self-reliant where the basic material necessities of life were concerned. Whatever assistance the organization of the society of the time afforded to ordinary people, reaping the benefits of it were still almost wholly dependent on the recipient's own effort and work. It is insulting for a writer at a prestigious magazine in 2009, who I think we can be pretty sure leads an existence defined by comfort, plenty, leisure and educational opportunities of such as which Laura Ingalls Wilder, who even if she did not write the stories attributed to her was by all appearances more worthy of such rewards, if they be awards, than most of the people currently enjoying them, would have known nothing, to infer that the Ingallses were freeloading off the state and the machinery of private enterprise in any practical way comparable to what nearly everyone could be said to do now.

That is probably enough on that subject, but I want to do a few quick bullet points as well:

1. The building of the railroads across the country, which used anyway to be celebrated as one of the great achievements of this nation's history, presented many opportunities for enterprising people, but they were not built, nor conceived, as an entitlement for the common people as a great but unavoidable drain on the public purse, but as a spur to the wealth of private interests.

2. The local schools which are presented in the books are about as do-it-yourself affairs as it is possible to conceive. If the people of the village hadn't cared earnestly about having them, they would not have existed. When there was a discipline problem they didn't call in the district's behavioral psychologists and conflict resolution specialists to handle the problem. A couple of respected local men came in from the fields, gave everyone in the room a stern look and reminded everyone what was expected of them, with very clear implications as to what would happen if those standards were not met. The teachers were not infrequently teenagers who could pass a qualifying exam--Laura was one herself when she was about fifteen. These schools would not be considered as much academically, but they had an incredible sense of themselves as footholds of civilization in these remote and isolated frontier communities, and as such performing a function of the highest seriousness. Would that some of our modern schools had such a intense conviction of their mission.

3. The scholarship for the blind that Mary got from the state is another opportunity that the family took advantage of because it existed and they qualified for it; I doubt that they would have viewed it as an entitlement regardless of merit or the interests and needs of the state, which I take to be the point under discussion here. Being self-reliant doesn't require one to turn down opportunities or assistance that is freely offered, especially when it is clearly being offered for the perceived mutual good of both parties. The problem, as Laura Ingalls Wilder would see it, is in having the expectation that one is owed such favors, especially without having to undertake any kind of arduous effort to demonstrate one's worthiness to receive them.

4. Invoking the availability of credit as an argument against self-reliance is simply odd. I'm quite sure anybody who took out a loan was expected to pay it back in full. Indeed, the burden of paying back these debts is a constant theme throughout the series.

5. With regard to the government clearing out the Indians, experience in New England and other of the early settlements indicates the pioneers, or mercenaries of the railroad companies, probably could have accomplished that job themselves too without the aid of the U.S. Army if they had really wanted to...cheekiness aside however, this goes back to the question many people seem to puzzle over of whether the origins of the American nation are really legitimate because of what happened to the Indians. Here is the secret: peoples and states only gain legitimacy of the sort under discussion here by so constantly and insistently asserting that they are so, so as to make themselves--their language, customs, racial line--appear as inseparable from the place they occupy as those people who inconveniently preceded them. Americans, or their intellectual class, used to embrace this mission with somewhat more gusto than they do now, where many of them give off an air of diffidence about identifying too strongly with any totem of greater nationhood, let alone arguing for the historical legitimacy of the United States as traditionally conceived. This is not to suggest that what happened to the Indians was not appalling, especially at the time; however as it cannot practically be undone, and we all return to our pre-1492, or even pre-1700 conditions, I do not see any good which can come from wholly delegitimizing what followed, namely the development and rise of the United States as probably the most dynamic society on the planet for much of the last 150 years at least. Be conscious of the history and the atrocities, attempt to atone for them in a manly fashion, but do not wallow in them and suck all manner of positive vitality out of yourself and the society around you.

I don't want to give the impression that I am a great lover of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books by the way, although there is an optimistic spirit about them, born no doubt of that general civilizational naivete and which accounts for the charm of so much popular American art, that I admire when I see it. I read a couple of them as a boy. My father, perhaps surprisingly, encouraged me to read them. He thought they had historical value, and, laziness being identified early on as the flaw most likely to hold me back in life, he seemed to think that reading about children, especially girls, whose lives consisted of almost nothing but endless hard work and discipline, which they performed cheerfully and competently and without any complaining, would help alert me to the necessity and value of a healthy work ethic. Unfortunately, this intended effect did not take hold; I found the prospect of a life of such dreary and onerous compulsion horrifying rather than inspiring (My father also thought feminism would have the effect of lighting a fire under the asses of the boys of my generation, whose animal instinct he supposed would not allow able to sit back and just let the girls beat them out for honors, fellowships, prestigious jobs, etc, without putting up some kind of fight. Obviously he was wrong about this too.)

Laura Ingalls Wilder's racial sensitivity was unfortunately not very well developed. The article refers to a passage in one of the books that originally appeared as "There were no people on the prairie. Only Indians lived there" which caused outrage even in the 1930s and resulted in "people" being changed to "settlers" in subsequent editions. I remember another story where Pa, who is for the most part all business all the time and not much given to frivolities, cut loose on one of the holidays by putting on blackface and performing a minstrel show with a group of his friends which I have to say I was not prepared for even as a kid, as indeed I still recall the shock of it now.

Arm Injuries in 12-Year Old Pitchers

There was a story on this in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago. Some of these injuries are so serious as to require the talent of Dr James Andrews himself (he is the big arm surgery specialist for the pros) to try to set them right. As a consequence of this burgeoning epidemic, Little League and all the other amateur baseball organizations now have mandated pitch counts too, as has de facto happened in the professional game for at least the last 10 years, maybe fifteen now. I hate this trend, of course. Organization and parental overinvolvement at young ages are already killing the game in this country, of course. This just makes it that much worse. Why are 12-year old pitchers suddenly ruining their arms in degrees never seen before? Because the adults managing their development are morons, most likely. The injured tend to exclusively come from the ranks of "serious" players, those who are pretty much at the top of their age group, who play on increasingly elite teams which draw talent from and travel to vastly disparate areas of the country. I think this is obviously idiotic, especially as I don't see any evidence that this specialized training is contributing to a noticeable improvement in the quality of play at the professional level. It certainly isn't doing much for developing the arm strength of pitchers, who at age 12 would probably be better served throwing the ball against the barn wall a few hundred thousand times--Bob Feller and Nolan Ryan both followed this training method--it has been proven to work--than flying around the country with an entourage of know it all and aggressive parent and coaches. After all, kids have only been playing baseball, and frequently lots more of it than they do now, since about 1850 without destroying their arms before puberty. But what does that signify? The world is different now.

I used to pitch occasionally in Little League--I wasn't a serious player, it is true, though the pitch count rule seems to apply to serious and non-serious alike. I would almost always pitch a complete game, though the score was usually 18-11 or something (and that was when I won). I don't know how my pitch counts were--I certainly walked or hit a few guys every now and then, and outs were, as anyone who has ever played ordinary Little League knows, not always easy to procure. I don't remember that my arm was ever in any pain however, probably because I was conscious, even as a twelve year old, of not putting any greater strain on it than I felt it could bear. I would have liked to have been able to throw harder, of course, but mainly I was just trying to throw strikes and hope the fielders could catch the ball once in a while. Such a mediocre career as mine is not acceptable to these superparents, I know, but putting your kid in a position to damage his arm before he even gets to high school for the sake of these evil and stupid travel teams and tournaments is delusional and just wrong. In every way.

I got to finish this post. I wanted to go on about how stupid the pitch count system is at the big league level, and how teams really need to find a way for their top pitchers at least to comfortably go 135 pitches or so. I would like to see the return of four man rotations too, or at least four and a half men, where you skip the fifth guy if there is an off day. The difference in quality between the starters and the top relievers and the rest of the staff on most teams is dramatic, yet more and more games hinge on these inferior spot starters and middle relievers. Pitch count information isn't always readily available for games pre-1995 or so, but you can sometimes find it. There were two Steve Carlton games I thought were interesting. The first was the 1969 game where he struck out 19 batters (and lost 4-3). The story on the game in this old book that I have noted that he threw 152 pitches, which I am guessing they noted because it was considered a lot, though it was presented more in the attitude of "he battled tough all afternoon" than in any suggestion that he should have been taken out of the game. He was 24 years old at the time too, which nowadays pitchers under 25 almost uniformly are not allowed to exceed 110 pitches under any circumstances; mainly, as far as I can tell because Mark Prior threw 131 one day when he was 24 and was never the same again (Carlton of course went to throw 200+ innings in each of the next 14 years after the 1969 game and win 4 Cy Young Awards, but that signifies nothing). The other Carlton game was one of the games of the 1980 World Series, which was being replayed on ESPN Classic one night. I tuned in for a few minutes during the eighth inning. A couple of guys got on base for Kansas City, and the announcer observed that Carlton had thrown 159 pitches to that point and "might be tiring" (they did take him out after that inning, which he got out of, so I guess there was some limit even back in the day if a guy appeared to be laboring). There are many more such examples, of guys throwing enormous numbers of pitches and innings and getting hurt no more frequently that people do today, but I have got to put the kibosh on this post.

Monday, August 10, 2009

George Lillo--The London Merchant (1731)

I'm guessing this is not one that most people will have read. Therefore it is unfortunate that I read it so long ago that I don't remember anything about it. The more telling of the comments I wrote at the time are 'amusing, but one of the more ridiculous things I have had to read' and 'unusual to read something so unabashedly bourgeois'. Lillo was a jeweler by trade who took up playwriting, and one of the things his play is famous for is bringing characters from that class of society to the contemporary stage, from which they had been long absent. The everyday setting is also considered of importance in the gradual development of what is called realism in the theater, though apart from the social setting I don't seem to have been much struck by any sense of realistic life being depicted in the play's action.

Photo 1: I have read 6 of the 8 plays in this anthology, missing only Addison's Cato (which is coming, though it I have read it described somewhere as a "frigid museum piece") and Nicholas Rowe's Tragedy of Jane Shore. The others, in the order in which I liked them, are The Rivals, by Sheridan, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Fielding's Tom Thumb, Steele's Conscious Lovers, with this probably last, though I omit Gay's Beggar's Opera, which I suspect is a better play than it reads. I have always had a hard time getting into it (or Brecht's modern version either). There is an introduction, in which Lillo defines the end of tragedy as "the exciting of the passions in order to the correcting such of them as are criminal, either in their nature, or through their excess." I have never found that I learned much from negative examples. Life, I think, has been softened, or the passions so much tempered by some measure of reason so that the only actions which carry any unbearable consequences are those with which it is difficult to have sympathy, deadening the capacity for classically tragic suffering, or even the comprehension of it, in the modern soul.

We also get some good Restoration-style sucking up to his patron, Sir John Eyles, whom it is explained holds flattery in such contempt that the author will not descend to employ it, but will humbly submit indisputable facts regarding this man's greatness to the reader.

The last two lines of the Prologue:
"Tho' art be wanting, and our numbers fail,
Indulge the attempt, in justice to the tale!"
What weak stuff is this to get the show rolling?

The idea of the business class of society being naive which is so frequently put forth in these aristocratic-era plays is odd for us, who consider business interests to be controlling everything and the only entity to be aware of what is really going on of importance in the world.

I am trying to cut down on the quotations I make from these books so as to be able to keep my diaries more current. The pro-capitalism dialogue which opens Act III however I thought was not to be neglected, such sentiments, though I do not really share them, being rare in literature. Surely the erudite and market-loving writers down at the New Criterion must be familiar with it:

THOROWGOOD: Methinks I would not have you only learn the method of merchandise and practice it hereafter, merely as a means of getting wealth; 'twill be well worth your pains to study it as a science, to see how it is founded in reason and the nature of things; how it promotes humanity, as it has opened and yet keeps up an intercourse between nations far remote from one another in situation, customs and religion; promoting arts, industry, peace and plenty; by mutual benefits diffusing love from pole to pole.
TRUEMAN: Something of this I have considered, and hope, by your assistance, to extend my thoughts much farther. I have observed those countries where trade is promoted and encouraged do not make discoveries to destroy, but to improve, mankind; by love and friendship to tame the fierce and polish the most savage; to teach them the advantages of honest traffic by taking from them, with their own consent, their useless superfluities, and giving them in return what, from their ignorance in manual arts, their situation or some other accident, they stand in need of.

This is not wholly without a kind of reason, though it presumes a great deal on the one hand, and ignores many large aspects of the question on the other.

Thorowgood's daughter Maria--virtuous, pure, etc--agrees with her father's associate to cover the funds that have been embezzled from him by the rake George Barnwell, which is a further illustration, if any were necessary, that women will do anything for a legitimate alpha male.

Being an alpha male of course, Barnwell continues to maintain a reputation for virtue even after a number of crimes that would seem to call these qualities into question have been revealed. "O conscience!" he himself exclaims just before murdering his rich uncle--I presume he is the legal heir, though I forget exactly, "feeble guide to virtue, thou only show'st us when we go astray, but wantest power to stop us in our course."

I think it was at the point where the uncle, bleeding to death with a stab wound, forgives his handsome nephew who has just effectively murdered him that I felt matters were beginning to get out of hand (this was in Act III Scene iv).

The beautiful daughter as the only child of a rich man is a common character in plays of this type. The idea of a man seeking to marry a fortune, openly anyway, is something of a taboo with us, certainly among the middle class at least. Numerous politicians and other people like Thomas Friedman, whose wife is worth a billion dollars, have clearly pulled something of the sort off, though I think even in these relationships we are supposed to believe that the man was marrying for love, intellectual companionship, and so on, and that the bride's nine figure yet worth was a kind of lucky coincidence.

Act IV, ii--THOROWGOOD: What pity it is, a mind so comprehensive, daring, and inquistive, should be a stranger to religion's sweet and powerful charms!

And then at V, ii, visiting Barnwell in a dungeon: "There see the fruits of passion's detested reign and sensual appetite indulged--severe reflection, penitence, and tears."

The quality of the thinking, as you can see, is not very first rate in this play.

Everything else is more of the same along those lines. I'm calling it a night on this book.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

EXCURSION--New York, New York (1998--Eugene O'Neill Edition)

This is an unusual circumstance of back-to-back retro-excursions. I do not anticipate this becoming more than an occasional feature. Most of my trips to New York unfortunately have not yielded very much in the way of stories or even coherent, felt experiences. As I noted once in the very early days of this site, and once planned an essay on, I have not managed my times in that city well, not connected with its powerful currents of life in any meaningful way (as I have not in Paris either), and therefore I have a strong sense of lingering dissatisfaction where it is concerned. 1. Before I became successful, breakfast was often a humble affair for me, especially when visiting places like New York.

2. Eugene O'Neill, a true child of the theater--his parents were both actors, and his father at least was a very famous one--was born in a hotel on the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street where they were living at the time. Above is the site as it looked in 1998. According to the Internet, a Starbucks occupies the spot now, though the plaque commerating Eugene O'Neill is apparently still up. This is right in Times Square of course. I put this picture in because I like the effect of the crowd juxtaposed against my less natural self. You can get a little feel for something like the activity of the city.

3. This is for anyone who wants to read the plaque. I think you should be able to.


4. Another view of Times Square, circa 1998. Look at that 2 Big Macs for $2 deal. Wow! I tell you, those were the days, my friend, those were the days.

5. Getting ready for a night on the town back at a hipster apartment in Brooklyn. Friend of my wife's, of course. She has hipster friends in Brooklyn without even wanting them. Among whom I mainly expose myself to ridiculous photo opportunities.

I did meet a guy on this particular evening who claimed to have been hanging out with Thomas Pynchon within the previous two weeks. This was during the period, you may recall, when Pynchon was a declared fan of the band Lotion. This person I spoke to had attended one of this band's shows in a club in the city; I imagine it as being someplace unlike the Knitting Factory, which I have actually been to myself, for what occasion I forget, though it probably was (I have always pictured the scene taking place, rather improbably, in a 1950s automat sort of setting). Anyway this person was seated at a table in the club with some other people who had some 'in' with the group. One of these other people was, my interlocutor said, a non-descript white guy around sixty dressed in a t-shirt who was introduced to him as "Tom". While waiting for the entertainment to begin, either in order to kill time, look busy, send a misguided social signal, or whatever other reason people whip out books in situations where reading them with any degree of comprehension would be impossible, the narrator broke his current reading out of the satchel he carried around with him and laid it on the table--whether it was The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow I don't remember, but it was one of those two--upon which the man identified as "Tom", who had been sitting quietly and observing people up to that time, snatched up the volume from the table and said, "Hey, who's reading my book?" eliciting some knowing laughter from the people he had come with. Apparently this was the extent of the supposed Thomas Pynchon's conversation on the occasion. I think the story is pretty dubious, of course, but, I don't have much else that I remember from that visit to tell.

6. My Wife Making a Rare Appearance in Gotham. Note the double bolts on the door. Like people smoking indoors, it strikes me as strange now, but still seemed completely normal at the time, though by 1998 the famous NY crime wave of the 1965-95 period was already receding precipitously.
EXCURSION--St Louis, Missouri (2003)

This posting is in honor of Tennessee Williams, whom I was writing about recently, and who, though he was born in Mississippi, lived in St Louis for many years.

About 100-120 years ago, St Louis was a very happening place. It was to the 1890s at least what Seattle was to the 1990s. In 1900 it was the 4th largest city in the United States. There was a lot of civic energy: commercial, artistic, sporting. It hit a peak in 1904 with a legendary World's Fair, as well as the Olympics, events that 100 years later are still called up when St Louis wants to feel proud and confident about itself. For its heyday is not merely long gone, but most physical reminders of it have vanished as well. Block after block of what used to be dense housing near the center of the city have been knocked down, and replaced with...nothing. Squares of dirt and weeds. The old train station was sort of preserved, but completely removated and turned into a shopping mall. No trains stop at it anymore (there is a stop in St Louis these days at a modern concrete transportation center, though it looks like it isn't very busy--9 trains a day or something. This is St Louis!) but at the far end near the main entrance one authentic set of restrooms and a marble staircase have been preserved, which are ridiculously strikingly beautiful compared to anything else in the facility, such as the very crowded Hooters restaurant. The downtown area is always empty. No one lives there except for a few pockets of pretty poor-looking black people whose houses have managed to avoid the wrecking ball to this point, so it is strongly hinted to white tourists that they ought not to wander around on their own, not that there is anywhere for them to go. My father was in St Louis once and reported that someone had actually called him a honkey, which I believe was the only time this has befallen him. This did not happen to me. It's still over for St Louis though. 1. View Over Park to Mississippi River and East St Louis, Illinois. This is the view from my hotel room, which was on the tenth floor of a very large and by my standards quite spiffy hotel right along the riverfront park, by the Arch, etc. But no one goes to St Louis. If the Cardinals had not been in town I might have had the whole hotel to myself.

This was my first view of the mighty Mississippi River up close. Like many people from the East, I was struck by how wide it is, the incredible volume of water carried in it, and also by how brown/muddy it is. I assume the river has an incredible personality, since so many classic songs and stories have been written about it, but I suspect this takes some time to get to know.

2. I only had one child at this time, though my wife was pregnant with the second one, given which circumstances it was very sporting of her to go on a two week driving tour to lands very far away from home. This is the last semi-ambitious trip I have undertaken. The Florida trips involve long driving, but we don't move about much once we get there. I remember on this St Louis trip having lunch at a place called the Pepper Lounge that was going for a cool effect, dim lighting, the waitresses dressed in black, groovy mismatched tables and chairs, that sort of thing. I haven't been in a place like that in years, that maybe was even the last time.

3. Kate Chopin, something of whose I have read at one point, is buried in the same cemetery. As is Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, Dred Scott, and lots of baseball players from 1880-1950 whose names I vaguely recognized (no Hall of Famers though). It is probably gauche to pose by people's graves--visiting them was a hobby I had for a while, and one I rather liked, for I like to be outside and to walk around, but I oddly prefer doing so in a well-manicured human space to rawer and wilder nature. I have however always been fond of this picture.

4. Yes, we are inside the arch. Unlike in other cities where it is cool to avoid the most famous sites and the unbearable crowds they attract, after you've been in St Louis for a few days you are eager to go somewhere where there are other any other people, any sign of life, even of bland touristic life, at all; hence the trip up in the arch.

We did go up also to the park where they held the World's Fair in 1904, but no one was hanging out there either. All of the buildings from the fair except one, which now houses the art museum, were, like everything else in this city, unfortunately torn down. (The art museum was closed by the time we got out there, so no report on that.) We went by the University of St Louis, an old Catholic college which I have always had positive feelings towards due to the high quality of a couple of textbooks published by their press in the 60s that I have referred to for years. I should have planned better so as to stop in and at least looked at the statue of Pope Pius XII by Ivan Mestrovic that they have, the illustration of which adorns their survey of modern art in my textbook along with those of works by Picasso, Mondrian, Jacob Epstein, Matisse, and so on. As with everything else, I think of all these semi-interesting things I could do after I've been to the place and not really done much of anything.


5. Scott Joplin's House. I guess this is what the city block houses in downtown St Louis used to look like. You can't see it from this picture, but every other house on this block all the way around the four sides was torn down. This was left up for its historical association. I kind of liked this site. It gave a pretty good idea about the historical setting, background, what have you. I do emotionally respond to ragtime music as much as it is possible for the likes of me; whatever the effect is however, it is not easily expressed through my being to other people. The staff was a little less relentlessly enthusiastic and polite than in usual in such places. They weren't mean or anything, and I suppose most people would consider my earnest presence in such a setting to be inherently comical, but still, one would like to have such bearing at least as to coax some people's better selves out of them once in a while.

Monday, August 03, 2009

I Give Myself a Questionnaire Which Will Result in the Readership Getting to Know Me Better

I found this at a blog called The Neurotic Housewife that had been tagged from another blog called Ministry So Fabulous. I like these little exercises once in a while.

1. What time did you get up this morning? 6:00am on the nose. That is, I came downstairs with the baby at that time. I did dose off again for 15-20 minutes at some point.

2. How do you like your steak? Cooked through, but still a little pink. Am I correct in thinking that this is what is called a point?

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? To be honest, I believe it was Rachel Getting Married. There wasn't much of a choice that night. The big attraction was that it was our first time going to the new local art cinema, at which you can buy beer, wine and gourmet sandwiches, among other things. I liked it, though it is so clean and sleek as to be a little oppressive. It makes for an interesting contrast with the indie art cinema in Brattleboro, which is housed in a well-worn 1920s auditorium-style room with a lobby scene that resembles a gathering of a 50s or 60s college film society. The scene in Brattleboro is a little more fun, and something of the artistic spirit even spills out onto the street a little, whereas in Concord it drops stone dead at the first exposure to outdoor air, but I appreciate the effort.

4. What is your favorite TV show? I haven't watched TV, in terms of shows, in about twenty years. I missed Seinfeld. I missed Friends. I missed Twin Peaks. I missed The Wire. I started watching season 2 of the Sopranos which somebody gave me but I had to give up on it (unlike everyone else apparently, I identify too strongly with the victims and hapless weak bystanders to enjoy mob entertainments). I could also feel the show not helping me to become at bottom any better, smarter or stronger of a person than I was. On the other hand, the last time I did watch TV regularly, two of my favorite programs, for therapeutic reasons which remain obscure to me, were reruns of Car 54 Where Are You? and Charles in Charge, so the possibility exists than I am not an especially skilled watcher of television.

5. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? I still have this dream of living in Paris, at least for a decade or so, at some point in my life, so I guess I'll say that, though I suspect Paris isn't really what I imagine it to be, what it was even in the early 90s, anymore. But everywhere obvious in Europe and North America seems to be in some kind of decline compared to what it was 50 years ago. Beirut is supposed to be cool. Maybe Alexandria will make a comeback. Moscow. A village on the Aegean coast of Turkey? Houston's star is apparently on the rise, and when I was in Prague I actually met a lot of very intelligent people who came from there, but I can't generate any desire to live there.

6. What did you have for breakfast? 2 Hannaford everything bagels toasted with butter, and a can of Coca-Cola. Nice, huh?

7. What's your favorite cuisine? American. German/central European.

8. What foods do you dislike? Carrots. Lima beans. Lots of vegetables. I haven't found that I enjoy Indian or Middle Eastern food all that much on the few occasions I've had it, but perhaps I simply need either to try harder or have better luck in where I go to eat.

9. Where is your favorite place to eat? Bars with tables where if you want you can have three or four drinks first and then call for the menu. The numbers of these kinds of places seem to be dwindling however.

10. What is your favorite salad dressing? I'm really into Greek lately. As I, I look forward to it for several hours before I know I'm going to have it.

11. What kind of vehicle do you drive? I have two cars (the word 'vehicle' has been ruined by the undying love law enforcement types evidently have for it), which actually sounds incredible emanating from my consciousness (a lot of cute girls only require that you have one, after all). These cars however are but a 2002 Ford Focus and a 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan.

12. What are your favorite clothes? Oh, they have found my weak point. I hate all of my clothes, I always have, and I probably always will. I fantasize about having cool clothes the way other people fantasize about expensive cars, or being tall, and I have no idea of how to go about getting them.

13. Where would you visit if you had the chance? My list is quite long. Russia, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Iran. I have never been to Spain either, and I have been feeling a great pull to go there which I had not observed previously. The same with California, though I don't know what I expect to find there. I would like to go to India even though the climate terrifies me. I would be curious to see Japan and China as well.

14. Is the cup half-empty or half-full? This is a stupid question.

15. Where would you want to retire? I really don't know. I've not done, or not done nearly enough, the cosmopolitan city thing, so I have this part of me that really would still like to do that at some point. The Mediterrenean villa retirement is great once you've already led a full and vigorous life of sex and art and drinking and intellectual combat. But I haven't. To this day when I am in a big city and I see an old apartment building in a semi-happening neighborhood with some units to rent I still get a throb in my heart at being reminded of my great unrealized dream.

16. What is your favorite time of the day? My favorite time to write is from about 10am to 3 or 4pm. Unfortunately the current circumstances of my life almost never allow me to do this. When I used to have a good day of writing done by seven or so p.m. and would go out, those first few hours out up to 10 or so would be very enjoyable.

17. Where were you born? I was born in the hospital in Abington, Pennsylvania. My parents at the time lived in a second or third story apartment in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, the fourth house from the Philadelphia city line (being able to call myself an authentic city person has been tantalizingly just out of my grasp from the very beginning).

18. What is your favorite sport to watch? Baseball at this point. I used to like the N.F.L., but I find it less enjoyable in a lot of ways as both it and I have changed over the years. I do like the atmosphere and enthusiasm of college football, but most of the games are not competitive, and the system actually discourages enjoying games that are if you're a fan of a major team. I mean, I like Penn State, right, but if Penn State plays an exciting game in Happy Valley against Minnesota and wins 21-17, everybody is wringing their hands because against Minnesota at home you have to win 49-7 and physically humiliate them or you don't get any respect. It's ridiculous.

19. Are you a bird watcher? Not really, though I am much more attentive to them since I've been living in the quasi-country.

20. Are you a morning person or a night person? I used to be a night person. Now I am more of a mid-day and evening person. I'm pretty much useless before 9:30am and then again between 3 and 5 or so in the afternoon.

21. What did you want to be when you were little? I had some idea when I was six or seven that I would like to be president someday. Seriously though, I don't think the concept of being something when I grew up--or maybe it was the concept that I ever would grow up--had a very strong presence in my developing psyche. Until I was about 35 actually.

22. What's your best childhood memory? I don't know. I won the county spelling bee in fourth grade (this was in the days before immigration from India had really taken off) and I got a two out base hit and later scored the winning run in extra innings in a little league game when I was 12 against my team's archrival and their star pitcher who threw 75 miles per hour and had a moustache, but I think I knew in both these instances that I had gotten lucky and that the glory would be fleeting. A cheerleader named Betsy slow-danced with me to two songs at the Christmas dance in seventh grade, which was done on her part as a joke, but it was still exciting at the time. In eighth grade I somehow ended up wondering around a supermarket one Friday night with a bunch of kids I thought were cool, including a girl named Courtney of whom I thought a great deal and who was fairly cordial to me on this occasion (I have since secretly looked her up on the internet, and she still has the look of someone who is both cool and very decent towards people like me, which I have found to be rather rare). I have fond memories of a lot of my reading.

23. Do you always wear your seat belt? I hate to say it but yes. The car beeps if I don't, and I am too lazy/dull-minded to figure out how to deprogram it.

24. Do you have any pet peeves? I get very upset when people cut me off before I finish talking.

25. Favorite type of pizza? Cheese/Margherita. I actually sort of liked the version of pizza in Eastern Europe where they give you a slab of dough with melted cheese on it and a bottle of ketchup. Not bad, with the local beer or some Moravian wine anyway.

26. Favorite Flower? Blue morning glories. I guess. Nothing else comes to mind.

27. Favorite Ice Cream? I like all the classic flavors. Ice cream is like beer, in that whatever innovation you try to bring to it, it all spins off from the basic varieties that were discovered a long time ago and have been diligently practised forever. So Ben & Jerry's ("the only ice cream company in the world with its own foreign policy" Yeah, right. As if there is a corporation anywhere that doesn't have a thoroughly developed policy nowadays) holds no interest for me.

28. Have you done anything spontaneous lately? I doubt it. being spontaneous has never really worked for me.

29. Do you like your job? My job does not exist to be liked. Seriously. It just doesn't.

30. Do you like broccoli? My passion for it has been on the wane. It was my favorite vegetable for several years in the 1996-2002 period or so but it just doesn't excite me anymore. At this point my top 5 favorite vegetables are 1) Cabbage. 2) Green Leaf Lettuce (with Greek salad dressing). 3) Asparagus. 4). Peas. 5). Broccoli, I guess. Corn is not a vegetable I don't think.

Now you know all about me.