Monday, February 28, 2011

Two views of ambition

In Marlowe’s vision of the exotic East, vaunting ambition, stopping at nothing, leads to the establishment of a grand world order, cruel but magnificent. That order, as part two of Tamburlaine shows, crumbles, but only because everything eventually crumbles: there is no moral other than the brute fact of mortality. In Shakespeare’s vision of English history, vaunting ambition leads to chaos, an ungovernable, murderous factionalism and the consequent loss of power at home and abroad. Despite or even because of his ruthlessness, Marlowe’s hero bestrides the world like a god, doing whatever it pleases him to do—“This is my mind, and I will have it so” (4.2.91). By contrast, Shakespeare’s petty Tamburlaines, even though they are queens and dukes, are like mentally unbalanced small-town criminals: they are capable of incredible nastiness but cannot achieve a hint of grandeur. – Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, February 25, 2011

How Shakespeare steals

Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Nobel Greeks and Romans (description of Cleopatra):

“She was laid under a pavilion of cloth-of-gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.”

Shakespeare’s version of the same scene:

“…She did lie
In her Pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’er picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids,
With diverse coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.”
(Antony and Cleopatra, II, 2)

At first glance Shakespeare’s version seems very similar, all be it in verse form, but there are important differences, differences which affect the way Shakespeare invites us to see Cleopatra. For instance in North’s version Cleopatra is dressed like a portrait of Venus, however Shakespeare’s Cleopatra ‘o’er pictures’ (or outshines) the portraits of Venus which are themselves more beautiful than nature.

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is more beautiful even than a painting which is famed for being more beautiful than nature. Her boys too move from being dressed like Cupid in artwork to being simply ‘like’ cupid. Once again there is less sense of a painted picture in Shakespeare’s version, we are being offered something which transcends the achievements of art. Though one might argue that rather than being more naturally beautiful than art, Cleopatra’s appearance it is in fact a level of artistry that goes far beyond mere imitation or painting.

So Shakespeare builds on his source material, shaping it to offer new views of Cleopatra, and weaving into it a whole debate about nature, art and artistry. - Liz Woledge

And see how Shakespeare physicalizes his source, transforming abstractions into concrete images much more easy to visualize. The generic "pretty fair boys apparelled" becomes the more scenic and specific, "Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling cupids," likewise "with little fans" becomes "diverse coloured fans" and the bland, "fanned wind upon her" becomes the dynamic, spectacular "whose wind did seem / To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool, / And what they undid did.” Also, of course, Shakespeare changes and arguably improves the music of the original, often through alliteration, in this case enhancing and playing with the "s" "i" "w" and "d" sounds.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A natural philosopher

Corin And how like you this shepherd's life, Master Touchstone?

Touchstone Truly, shepherd, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is a shepherd's life, it is nought. In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well; but in respect that it is private, it is a very vile life. Now in respect it is in the fields, it pleaseth me well; but in respect it is not in the court, it is tedious. As it is a spare life, look you, it fits my humour well; but as there is no more plenty in it, it goes much against my stomach. Hast any philosophy in thee, shepherd?

Corin No more but that I know the more one sickens the worse at ease he is; and that he that wants money, means, and content, is without three good friends; that the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn; that good pasture makes fat sheep; and that a great cause of the night is lack of the sun; that he that hath learned no wit by nature nor art may complain of good breeding, or comes of a very dull kindred.

Touchstone Such a one is a natural philosopher.

- Shakespeare, As You Like It

Monday, February 21, 2011

Shakespeare’s method of opacity

The opacity in Macbeth is not produced by the same radical excision of motivation Shakespeare so strikingly employed in Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. If the audience does not know exactly why Hamlet assumes his madness or Iago hates Othello or Lear puts the love test to his daughters, it most assuredly knows why Macbeth plots to assassinate King Duncan: spurred on by his wife, he wishes to seize the crown for himself. But in a tortured soliloquy, Macbeth reveals that he is deeply baffled by his own murderous fantasies:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not. (1.3.138-41)

At the center of the familiar and conventional motive there is a dark hole—“nothing is / But what is not.” And this hole that is inside Macbeth is linked to the dark presence, within his consciousness and within the play’s world, of the witches. Do they actually arouse the thought of murdering Duncan in Macbeth’s mind, or is that thought already present before he encounters them? Do they have some affinity with Lady Macbeth—who calls upon the spirits that attend on mortal thoughts to “unsex” her (1.5.38-39)—or is their evil completely independent of hers? Does the witches warning—“beware Macduff” (4.1.87)—actually induce Macbeth to kill Macduff’s family, or has he already waded too deep in bloodshed to turn back? Do their ambiguous prophecies lead him to a final, fatal over-confidence, or is his end the result of his loss of popular support and the superior power of Malcolm’s army? None of the questions are answered. At the end of the play the weird sisters are left unmentioned, their role unresolved. Shakespeare refuses to allow the play to localize and contain the threat in the bodies of witches.

Macbeth leaves the weird sister unpunished but manages to implicate them in a monstrous threat to the fabric of civilized life. The genius of the play is bound up with this power of implication, by means of which the audience can never quite be done with them, for they are most suggestively present when they cannot be seen, when they are absorbed in the ordinary relations of everyday life. If you are worried about losing your manhood and are afraid of the power of women, it is not enough to look to the bearded hags on the heath, look to your wife. If you are worried about temptation, fear your own dreams. If you are anxious about your future, scrutinize your best friends. And if you fear spiritual desolation, turn your eyes on the contents not of the hideous cauldron but of your skull: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” (3.2.37).

The witches—eerie, indefinable, impossible to locate securely or to understand—are the embodiment of the principle of opacity that Shakespeare embraced in his great tragedies. Shakespeare’s theater is the equivocal space where conventional explanations fall away, where one person can enter another person’s mind, and where the fantastic and the bodily touch.
- Stephen Greenblatt

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The "artistry" of Bobby Fisher

Fischer’s passion for puzzles was combined with endless hours of studying and playing chess. The ability to put in those hours of work is in itself an innate gift. Hard work is a talent.

My argument has always been that what you learn from using the skills you have—analyzing your strengths and weaknesses—is far more important. If you can program yourself to learn from your experiences by assiduously reviewing what worked and what did not, and why, success [in this case, chess] can be very valuable indeed.

It was his relentless, even pathological dedication that transformed the sport. Fischer investigated constantly, studying every top-level game for new ideas and improvements. He was obsessed with tracking down books and periodicals, even learning enough Russian to expand his range of sources. He studied each opponent, at least those he considered worthy of preparation. Brady recounts dining with Fischer and hearing a monologue of the teen’s astonishingly deep analysis of David Bronstein’s openings before the two were to meet in the Mar del Plata tournament in 1960. No one had ever prepared this deeply outside of world championship matches. Today, every game of chess ever played, going back centuries, is available at the click of a mouse to any beginner. But in the pre-computer era, Fischer’s obsessive research was a major competitive advantage.

In his play, Fischer was amazingly objective, long before computers stripped away so many of the dogmas and assumptions humans have used to navigate the game for centuries. Positions that had been long considered inferior were revitalized by Fischer’s ability to look at everything afresh. His concrete methods challenged basic precepts, such as the one that the stronger side should keep attacking the forces on the board. Fischer showed that simplification—the reduction of forces through exchanges—was often the strongest path as long as activity was maintained. The great Cuban José Capablanca had played this way half a century earlier, but Fischer’s modern interpretation of “victory through clarity” was a revelation.

Fischer’s uncompromising approach had an even greater impact on the chess world than his results. I am not referring to any “special moves,” as often suspected by those unfamiliar with the game. It was simply that Fischer played every game to the death, as if it were his last. It was this fighting spirit that his contemporaries recall most about him as a chess player.

Fischer was ill, some said, perhaps schizophrenic, and needed help, not censure. Others blamed his years of isolation, the personal setbacks, the persecutions both real and imagined at the hands of the US government, the chess community, and, of course, the Soviets, for inspiring his vengefulness…Clearly this full-flown paranoia was far beyond the more calculated, even principled, “madness” of his playing years, well described by Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary: “Have in your madness reason enough to guide your extravagancies; and, forget not to be excessively opinionated and obstinate.” That is, purposeful and successful madness can hardly be called mad. After Fischer left chess the dark forces inside him no longer had purpose.

- Garry Kasparov

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Santayana on poetry at its best

Poetry is not at its best when it depicts a further possible experience, but when it initiates us, by feigning something that as an experience is impossible, into the meaning of the experience we have actually had.

- George Santayana

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa

Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back. Don't tell me he was painting his mother, lust, et cetera. There is a moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other—what a thirst it was, and he supposed that when the canvas became completely empty he would stop. But women are strong. She knew vessels, she knew water, she knew mortal thirst.

- Anne Carson

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Proving psychotherapy works

Surprisingly, talking cures are having a good recession, though the cash seems mostly destined for cures of the cognitive kind. No doubt, they do much good, though personally, I'm drawn to the more knotty therapies - the psychodynamic - which raises the question of whether they are even talking cures? It's a big issue: can psychotherapy be proven scientifically; put crudely, does it work? Research is and clearly should be done, but it's worth remembering the ways in which statistical evidence can't prove everything.

Partly, it depends what you mean by 'works'. Getting so many thousand off sick pay is a measurable result. Allowing someone to see how patterns repeat in their life is harder to demonstrate en masse. As is sometimes noted, statistics don't see individuals - which is why psychotherapists prefer to discuss case histories not population studies.

This is not to say there aren't general principles in psychotherapy, manifest in different therapeutic schools, that can be assessed. Put a bunch of psychotherapists in a room and try stopping them! But when discussing efficacy, statistics may prove limited, because the change psychotherapy seeks is found in the particular contours of individual lives. The aim is not to get you back to work, though that may happen. It is, say, to deepen self-understanding.

There's a related issue. Psychodynamic therapies aim to help the client engage with the unknown in their lives - what's unconscious. Further, it can be important that the unconscious dynamics impacting them remain not well resolved during periods of therapy, so they can be fully worked through. The therapist that raises something to the level of tidy awareness too quickly may well limit the full impact of the work by, in effect, curtailing it. Research questionnaires, then, that ask about tangible benefits, and that work well for cognitive treatments, are questionable in psychodynamic work, at both a methodological and an ethical level.

- Mark Vernon

Monday, February 14, 2011

Poems and interpreting voices

Our poems are conversations in every meaningful sense. They are an exchange between ourselves and those parts of ourselves that belong to other people [the dead as much as the living], that we owe to them. Intimate whisperings, productive tensions. They challenge and tease us, lead us to say things we have not thought to say. They give us the courage to have a self and to lose it too, which is surely the most we can ask of any conversation.

...that imaginative cosmology of interpenetrating voices that we all inhabit, in literature and in life. We are made up of voice, and we are the relations between voices, inside and out. They are our judgement and our redemption, our ownness and our generosity, our origin and our promise. Perhaps something like their revelation is possible in real conversation. It may be, after all, what we live for. As Yeats says, “what do we know but that we face / one another in this place?” I suppose there will always be something ethereal and unreal about conversations as long as I feel as anxious about them as I do. But in every ghostly encounter—the ones we have with friends at Tim Hortons, and the ones we listen for when we write—we recognize the voices we love, and we think: it is good of them to come back the way they do, share a part of themselves with us, good to hear them again. And our hearts warm to a quiet tryst of living voices, ones that, if we’re lucky, will choir among themselves long afterward. - Jeffery Donaldson

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is snow really like a terrorist attack?

Read the venerable New York Times’ screaming description of this snowfall, lines describing the snow as if it was a terrorist attack (I added the bold for emphasis):

“The storm created a fresh sense of snow fatigue in a region that has been unusually battered. Yet in New York City, where the slow municipal response to the Dec. 26 blizzard became a black eye for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and transit officials..."

As I scoop up another shovel of snow, I pause. I stare at the snowflakes, so vulnerable, so gentle, so tender. And I think: Why are we so convinced that we are where it’s at and the snow is an intruder, disturbing our lives, thus compelling us to shovel and cart it away. Perhaps it’s the other way around: Snow is where it’s at and we are the intruders…

Here we are – armed to the hilt, with shovels of all shapes and forms, ice picks, snow blowers and whatever else we can concoct – sweeping away and discarding these white messages from heaven.

Yes, I understand, I understand that we need to get to work, we need to be able to walk the streets without the danger of slipping, we have many important matters to deal with, etc. etc. etc. Yet, perhaps just perhaps the snow is not falling as a result of some meteorological disturbance, but is a message from above to place life in perspective.

How trapped are we in our perceived reality? Why can’t we step back from our routines and just take in the white flakes silently blanketing our toxic universe like a pure and clean blanket warmly embracing a child.

White snow. To appreciate the gift just imagine if the falling flakes were black.

And I wonder how many other blessings in our lives we are ignoring or even discarding as if they are rubbish?!

As I lift yet another bundle of the powdery snow, I see from a distance the weaving paths that have been cleared amidst the heaping snow hills all around. We really don’t have room for this divine snow in our lives. And I remember what a young girl once asked her pregnant mother: “Mommy. How do you make room inside yourself for another person?” Gulp. Men have problems making room outside of themselves for anyone else but themselves. A woman has room for another life inside herself. And not just room; she carries a child inside her belly, inside her very being. The growing fetus becomes part of and impacts her entire life, 24/7!

And here we have a problem with the heavenly snow crowding us out. We must remove it from our presence. We need our room.

[Obviously, we are all concerned about the hazards that the snow can pose for some, especially travelers caught in the storm. These words here are not meant to deny the fact that we need to protect ourselves from any severe weather.]

Time will come when we will shovel away the snow. And it will ultimately melt. But perhaps we can just leave these glistening crystals alone for a while, allow them to fulfill their mission from above, and allow us the time needed to absorb that message.

But no. We are too busy. We must go on with our lives. Not to mention the fact that as the day and night wear on the snow will harden and freeze and be much harder to shovel later. Yes, that is a problem. So we head out at dawn to carve out our trails amidst the snow coverings.

And here we are flippantly shoveling away, clearing the snow from our paths and boulevards, ensuring that not one speck of these white sparks clutter our journeys.

Here we are suffering from “snow fatigue.”

Ironically, we actually call it “digging out of the snow.” Hmm. Digging ourselves out of…

Instead of taking pride in the clear paths I have just sculpted between the surrounding snow mountains, I look at the last few snowflakes that I had just so rudely shoved to the side. I pick up a flake on my finger. But it melts before I know it, as if saying: “No, you cannot own me…”

I look closer and stare at the vulnerable and gentle snowflake – and wonder what message it has brought to me this fine morning.

- Simon Jacobson

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Charles Simic illustrates Robert Frost's "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting."

Am I claiming that most things that happen in poems are not true at all? Far from it. Of course they are true. It’s just that poets have to do a lot of time-wasting to get to the truth. Take my case. One day, out of the blue, the memory of my long dead grandfather comes to me. My eyes grow moist seeing him in the last year of his life limping around the yard on his wooden leg throwing some corn to the chickens. I recall the mutt he had then, and I put him in a poem. There’s even a rusty old truck in the yard. The sun is setting while my grandmother is fussing over the stove and my grandfather is sitting at the kitchen table thinking about the vagaries of his life, the stupidity of the coach of the local soccer team and the smell of bean soup on the stove. I like what I got down on paper so far and fall asleep that night convinced I have a poem in the making.

The next day I’m not so sure. The sunset is too poetic, the depiction of my grandparents is too sentimental, and so much of it has to go. Weeks later—since I can’t stop tinkering with the poem—I arrive at the conclusion that the old dog lying in the yard surrounded by the pecking chickens and the rooster is what I like best. The sun is high in the sky, a cherry tree is in flower, and the grandfather is out of the poem entirely. Typically, I have no idea if there will ever be a poem. Only God knows, and I try not to butt into his business. I strain my ears and stare at the blank page until a word or an image comes to me. Nothing genuine in a poem, or so I have learned the hard way, can be willed. That makes writing poetry an uncertain and often exasperating undertaking. In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait. Emily Dickinson looked out her window at the church across the street while waiting; I look out of my window at the early darkness coming over the fields of deep snow.

“Poetry dwells in a perpetual utopia of its own,” William Hazlitt wrote. One hopes that a poem will eventually arise out of all that hemming and hawing, then go out into the world and convince a complete stranger that what it describes truly happened. If one is fortunate, it may even get into bed with them or be taken on a vacation to a tropical island. A poem is like a girl at a party who gets to kiss everybody. No, a poem is a secret shared by people who have never met each other. Compared to the other arts, poets spend most of their time scratching their heads in the dark.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Terry Castle

The great thing about vampires, after all, was that they really cared about you. They were interested in you personally! So much so in fact that they would rise up out of their coffins, wamble over long distances (all the way from Transylvania) and sneak into your very own bedroom just to suck the blood out of you. It was weird but peculiarly gratifying.


I was tiring of the 18th century. For 20 years it had been my academic meal ticket. But I seemed to be twisting, torquing away from it. Starting to like it only when it got marred and eccentric, a kind of broken, perverse, junk rococo. Singerie. Pockmarks. Freemasonry. Chess-playing automatons. Ultracreepy things like Marat's skin diseases.

Shakespeare’s tenderness & humility

The laughter in act 5 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and it is one of the most enduringly funny scenes Shakespeare ever wrote—is built on a sense of superiority in intelligence, training, cultivation, and skill. The audience is invited to join the charmed circle of the upper-class mockers onstage. This mockery proclaimed the young playwright’s definitive passage from naïveté and homespun amateurism to sophisticated taste and professional skill. But the laughter that the scene solicits is curiously tender and even loving. What saves the scene of ridicule from becoming too painful, what keeps it delicious in fact, is the self-possession of the artisans. In the face of open derision, they are unflappable. Shakespeare achieved a double effect. On the one hand, he mocked the amateurs, who fail to grasp the most basic theatrical conventions, by which they are to stay in their roles and pretend they cannot see or hear their audience. On the other hand, he conferred an odd, unexpected dignity upon Bottom and his fellows, a dignity that contrasts favorable with the sardonic rudeness of the aristocratic spectators.

Even as he called attention to the distance between himself and the rustic performers, then, Shakespeare doubled back and signaled a current of sympathy and solidarity. As when borrowing from the old morality plays and folk culture, he understood at once that he was doing something quite different and that he owed a debt. The professions he assigned the Athenian artisans were not chosen at random-Shakespeare’s London theater company depended on joiners and weavers, carpenters and tailors—and the tragedy they perform, of star-crossed lovers, fatal errors, and suicides, is one in which the playwright himself was deeply interested. In the period he was writing the “Pyramus and Thisbe” parody, Shakespeare was also writing the strikingly similar Romeo and Juliet; they may well have been on his writing table at the same time. A more defensive artist would have scrubbed harder in an attempt to remove these marks of affinity, but Shakespeare’s laughter was not a form of renunciation or concealment. “This is the sillies stuff that ever I heard,” Hippolyta comments, to which Theseus replies, “The best in this kind are but shadows.” – Stephen Greenblatt

Friday, February 4, 2011

Shakespeare as modern psychoanalyst forswore me in my mother's womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!
Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to cheque, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown...

King Henry VI, Part 3 (3.2.153-68)