Monday, January 31, 2011

Shakespeare: intensifying physical & emotional proximity

Metaphors frequently function in poetry a way of distancing the reader from a character or situation, but not here [in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, in this example, Venus and Adonis]. Here they are ways of intensifying physical and emotional proximity, so that we view everything in a sustained close-up. The dimples in Adonis’s cheeks are “round enchanting pits” that “Opened their mouths to swallow Venus’ liking” (lines 247-48). The goddess’s face “doth reek and smoke” (line 555) with erotic arousal. And when the two recline—or rather when Venus pulls Adonis down to the ground—they lie not simply on a bed of flowers, but on “blue-veined violets” (line 125).

Without once making an appearance in his own person—for, after all, this is a mythological fantasy—Shakespeare is constantly, inescapably present in Venus and Adonis, as if he wanted Southampton (and perhaps “the world,” at which he glances in his dedication) fully to understand his extraordinary powers of playful identification. He is manifestly in Venus, in her physical urgency and her rhetorical inventiveness, and he is in Adonis too, in his impatience... But he is in everything else as well. If a mare could write a love poem to a stallion (and, more precisely, the ecstatic inventory of the beloved’s features, known as a blazon), she might write this:

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.
(lines 295-98)

If a hare could write a poem about the misery of being hunted, he might write this:

Then shalt thou see the dew-bedabbled wretch
Turn, and return, indenting with the way.
Each envious brier his weary legs do scratch;
Each shadow makes him stop, each murmur stay.
(lines 703-6)

The point is not that horses or hares are central to the poem—they are not. The point is that Shakespeare effortlessly enters into their existence. – Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, January 28, 2011

Simone and Mrs. Weil


Chère Maman I was special there I
bought less Hegel Please Today have
Nazis send blouses between sports
I asked what Communists kissed
me for (two fight sleeves)
No not last post!

Mme Weil:

Do not give your lunch away.
Do not stumble on the stairs.
Do not insist on telling everyone about the void.


Hunger enters the body through work.
Thirst enters the body through work.
Only life does not enter the body through work.
Life is free!


A saint by night.
A saint beset.
Not really!
Saints are never left altogether
in place
are they.


No special Maman sport to the last
fight two less
kiss sleeves Today!
cher Hegel!

Mme Weil:

Do not leave your money lying by the bed.
Do not run on the mountains when they are icy.
Do not forget a card to us as soon as you arrive
at the war.


I create myself by work.
Or else I panic –
that is to say,
chère Maman out of my way!

- Anne Carson

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The quiet clarity of aiming high

“The question of whether excellent old art is preferable to inferior contemporary art or the latter to the first is pretty complicated and painful. I am sure, at least, that excellent old art is not enough.” Donald Judd wrote those words in 1964, and I read them a few weeks ago in Marfa. I have never been to a place that more completely vindicated the sense of possibility about the present—for this reason, a more American place—than Judd’s town in an austere corner of West Texas. His industrial cubes had never spoken to me before; they seemed cold and hard and obvious, and too pared down. In his great renunciation, I thought, he renounced too much. But when I walked into the artillery sheds at the Chinati Foundation, with their long rows of glistening boxes in mill aluminum, I melted. The serenity was startling. In size each box was the same, but each was internally different, and the sensation of unity in diversity was overwhelming. The light cascading through the wall of windows upon the silver containers seemed almost to liquefy them, as their surfaces became mottled with the reflected color of the golden winter grasses whipped by the high winds outside. The high concrete pillars formed the vast interior into naves, and along with the barrel vaults that Judd appended to the roof they intensified the impression that one was standing in a new kind of cathedral. It occurred to me that Judd had come out the other end. He had made geometry rapturous, or rapture geometrical. This was not “minimalism,” it was classicism—the transformation of matter, space, and environment according to rules of proportion and variation that are not subjective but are nonetheless deeply expressive. Like all of Judd’s works, which do nothing to promote themselves, this one had no name, and offered no external assistance or distraction. The reference game was impossible—but not because Judd was uninfluenced. The day before, touring his extraordinary working spaces, I visited his huge library, and was struck by all the art history on his shelves that was missing from his works. That was my mistake. Only a man who had traversed “excellent old art” could have distilled it into excellent new art. In Marfa I saw the now and the always, the concrete and the ideal, the overcoming of urbanity, the quiet clarity of aiming high. - Leon Wieseltier

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Revision as re-seeing vs re-decorating

Poets starting out often feel at a loss as to how they can improve on what it is they feel "inspired" their poem in the first place. Often they merely polish a poem rather than revising it: they try to make it sound good, break the lines in more interesting places, perhaps take out offending clichés. That kind of revision is microcosmic work, more akin to the decorating of a room than the framing of a house, the house of the poem...what good is a poem that sounds good but merely reports or pleases the eye or ear but leaves the reader with such a diffuse sense that it's impossible not to lose faith in how and why that dramatized experience matters? Revision means exactly what it suggests: it involves re-seeing the world of the poem. It turns a vague and unbounded experience into one that matters at every turn. - Ira Sadoff

Monday, January 24, 2011

Celebrating Inscrutability

Why, after all, do we read the lives of artists? Partly, the pleasure is vicarious: We want to see them both with the famous people they knew and also in the detritus of their daily lives. But even more, we want to get inside their process — not to expose it so much as to celebrate its inscrutability.

This is what Cage did whenever he wrote or spoke about his work. "I'm interested in going to extremes," he said in 1969. He wanted to communicate not by reassuring, but by challenging and even provoking his audience. "I want people to be mystified by what's happening," he explained late in life. "The reality of our life is mystery." - David Ulin

Friday, January 21, 2011

Being free to be as weird as you want to be

Oh, yes. Yes, true, there was some kind of a sequence there. Well, let’s see, how does that seem to me now? I think that for a long time, I was just a solipsist. It’s not really that I was not a feminist, or didn’t understand feminism—I didn’t understand masculinism either—but that I just didn’t understand being human. And it’s a problem of extended adolescence: You don’t know how to be yourself as a part of a category, so you just have to be yourself as a completely strange individual and fight off any attempt others make to define you. I think most people go through that by the time they’re seventeen, but for me it extended to about forty. Until recently, I didn’t have friends I could relax around and be just as weird as I wanted to be. Now I do—people who didn’t leave the relationship as a result of me being weird. - Anne Carson

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The constant search for method

We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments. We don’t interpret The Art of Fugue with an acoustical analysis, or Michelangelo’s David with the chemistry of marble. Art, literature, music and history belong to the ‘human world’, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean. Explanation has a method, and it is the method of science. Interpretation goes in search of a method, but is never sure of finding one. - Roger Scruton

Monday, January 17, 2011

The culture creates us, but we also transform it

None of the classical Greek plays were original: they were all based on earlier plays or poems or myths. And none of Shakespeare's plays are original: they are all taken from earlier work. As You Like It is taken from a novel by Thomas Lodge published just 10 years before Shakespeare put on his play without attribution or acknowledgment. Chunks of Antony and Cleopatra are taken verbatim, and, to be sure, without apology, from a contemporary translation of Plutarch's Lives. Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle is taken from a play by Klabund, on which Brecht served as dramaturg in 1926; and Klabund had taken his play from an early Chinese play.

Sometimes playwrights steal stories and conversations and dreams and intimate revelations from their friends and lovers and call this original.

And sometimes some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that, then, we have written something truly original and unique. But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories. When we look at a painting of the virgin and child by Botticelli, we recognize at once that it is a Renaissance painting—that is it a product of its time and place. We may not know or recognize at once that it was painted by Botticelli, but we do see that it is a Renaissance painting. We see that it has been derived from, and authored by, the culture that produced it.

And yet we recognize, too, that this painting of the virgin and child is not identical to one by Raphael or Ghirlandaio or Leonardo. So, clearly, while the culture creates much of Botticelli, it is also true that Botticelli creates the culture—that he took the culture into himself and transformed it in his own unique way.

And so, whether we mean to or not, the work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original, at the same time. We re-make things as we go. - Chuck Mee

Friday, January 14, 2011

Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’

“But the new ones are stupid and horrible. Those plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about and you ‘feel’ the people kissing.” He made a grimace...

“Nice tame animals, anyhow”, the Controller murmured parenthetically.

“Why don’t you let them see ‘Othello’ instead?”

“I’ve told you; it’s old. Besides, they couldn’t understand it”.

Yes, that was true. He remembered how Helmholtz had laughed at ‘Romeo and Juliet’. “Well, then”, he said, after a pause, “something new that’s like ‘Othello’, and that they could understand.”

“That’s what we’ve all been wanting to write,” said Helmholtz, breaking a long silence.

“And it’s what you never will write,” said the Controller. “Because, if it were really like ‘Othello’ nobody could understand it, however new it might be. And if it were new, it couldn’t possibly be like ‘Othello’.”

“Why not?”

“Yes, why not?” Helmholtz repeated. He too was forgetting the unpleasant realities of the situation. Green with anxiety and apprehension, only Bernard remembered them; the others ignored him. “Why not?”

“Because our world is not the same as Othello’s world. You can’t make flivvers without steel – and you can’t make tragedies without social instability. The world’s stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. And if anything should go wrong, there’s ‘soma’. Which you go and chuck out of the window in the name of liberty, Mr Savage. ‘Libery!’ He laughed. “Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand ‘Othello’! My good boy!”

The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, “‘Othello’s’ good, ‘Othello’s’ better than those feelies.”

“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”

“But they don’t mean anything.”

“They mean themselves, they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.”

“But they’re…….they’re told by an idiot.”

- Aldous Huxley

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing as transgressive pleasure

It may seem strange at first that the lovable Falstaff should find himself in the company of cold-hearted murderers like Claudius and Iago. But Shakespeare learned something else essential to his art form the morality plays; he learned that the boundary between comedy and tragedy is surprisingly porous. In figures such as Aaron the Moor (the black villain in Titus Andronicus), Richard III, and the bastard Edmund in King Lear, Shakespeare conjures up a particular kind of thrill he must have first had a child watching Vice in plays like The Cradle of Security and The Interlude of Youth: the thrill of fear braided together with transgressive pleasure. The Vice, wickedness personified, is appropriately punished at the end of the play, but for much of the performance he manages to captivate the audience, and the imagination takes a perverse holiday.
- Stephen Greenblatt

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why, then, do we read?

The iPocalypse?...Why, then, do we read? There’s something Buddhist about literary reading, as I understand it — you drop yourself into a little pocket of silence and peace and allow magical things to happen to your consciousness. I read, on the most basic level, because it makes me happy. It calms my brain down. My wife and I sometimes refer to this as “textual healing”: if I’m in a wretched mood, feeling oppressed by the world, I can go off with a book for an hour and suddenly be myself again. This practice, if you’re receptive to it, can come to define your life — can come in fact to seem like the very definition of a rich life.

My favorite work is always that which allows itself to imaginatively intermingle with its source text — to somehow match or channel or negate the energy of the text that inspired it. It can be imitative, competitive or collaborative; it can mimic or mock or scramble or counterbalance the tone of the source. It can be subtle or overt. But it will always have this doubled-over, creative quality: one memorable writer responding, in memorable writing, to another.

Thomas Carlyle, in 1831, warned of what he saw as the increasing self-consciousness of the world of letters: “By and by it will be found that all Literature has become one boundless self-devouring Review.” He meant this as a nightmare scenario, but I’ve always found it exciting. Because isn’t that what the greatest works of literature always are? Isn’t “Ulysses” a boundless, self-devouring review of the “Odyssey,” “Hamlet,” “Madame Bovary” and even Carlyle himself? And isn’t “Molloy” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses”? Isn’t “Infinite Jest” a boundless, self-devouring review of “Ulysses” and “Molloy” and “JR” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “White Noise”? The membrane between criticism and art has always been permeable. That’s one of the exciting things that books do: they talk to other books.

- Sam Anderson