Saturday, March 31, 2012

Poetic Reverie

Einstein's Dreams
Einstein's Dreams 

“Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but is noble to live life and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”  ― Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams 

Imagine a book with a diaphanous plot -- a book of dreams if you will.  The multiplicity of events, scenes, vignettes in the dreams are pasted together by the fourth dimension, time.  These multiple visions of time provide an evocative and poetic imagining of Einstein, his world and his dreams. By recreating those dreams attempts to mimic the physics of Einstein in prose. The result is an unusual novel that is ultimately a humane picture of some of the most forbidding science for many readers. The action is focused on a few days in the calendar of 1905 -- a critical year for Einstein when his thoughts exploded and much of what he is noted for was published. This is an elegiac attempt to communicate what that year was like.

In my first encounter with Einstein's Dreams I read it for discussion with a study group to which I belong. Neither I nor most of the study group was convinced that the author had succeeded in his project. My second reading in 2012 was also for a book group. The more I read this book the more divided I am between thinking it is a literary parlor trick and thinking it is a poetic reverie of substance on themes of Einstein's thought. For now I'll continue to go with the latter interpretation.  

“In this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people, but different fates for those people. In time, there are an infinity of worlds.”  ― Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Vintage Books, 2011 (1992)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Everyday Enlightenment

Blue Collar Intellectuals: 
When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America 

Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America

"A specific time and place gave rise to blue-collar intellectuals.  Twentieth-century America witnessed a democratization of education unparalleled in human history." and "Blue-collar intellectuals proved as unsettling to the intellectual elite as the nouveau riche had been to old money." (p 10)

I have neither the patience nor the political wonkism to view C-SPAN on a regular basis, but I am a frequent viewer of their cultural programming called BOOKTV on C-SPAN2 weekends. It was there that I saw Daniel J. Flynn lecture on the topic of his enlightening book, Blue Collar Intellectuals. Inspired, I acquired the book and was not disappointed with his stories of five intellectuals, outsiders with uncommon backgrounds, who reached out to "blue collar" people everywhere.
I first encountered one of the five intellectuals included in Flynn's book during my teen years reading science fiction. One of my favorite authors was Ray Bradbury and his tales, especially those of Humans and Martians collected in The Martian Chronicles. Flynn tells of Bradbury's impoverished family background as he grew up in the 1920s and his early reading of Edgar Allan Poe (also a favorite of mine since my pre-teen years) and others like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even after he became famous for his own fantastic stories Bradbury was considered an outsider in traditional publishing circles, but maintained popularity with everyday folk. Time magazine labelled Bradbury "poet of the pulps" that seemed to sum up the cognoscenti's opinion of him.
My next encounter with the intellectuals that Daniel Flynn depicts did not begin until I was on my way to college at the University of Wisconsin in the summer of 1967. Required reading for all incoming freshmen was a short book by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. This was my introduction to one of Flynn's "Blue Collar Intellectuals" and to a book that is as relevant today as it was forty-five years ago. While distant from Hoffer in his political philosophy, Milton Friedman shared similar blue collar background and an ability to explain complex ideas of economics to the readership of Newsweek magazine and also to the viewers of PBS through his multi-part series "Free to Choose". In that same year of 1967 as a freshman student in "Honors Economics" I read Friedman's most famous book, Capitalism and Freedom, and in it found some of the principles that I hold dear to this day.  These two experiences with blue-collar intellectuals belie somewhat Flynn's claim that these writers were all completely excluded from the realms of the cognoscenti, but they do not deflate his claim that they all had a special ability to communicate with the common man.
Also included in the book are sections on Will Durant, who went from anarchist speaker to become a popularizer of history both of philosophy and civilization, and while I have not read the eleven volumes of Will & Ariel Durants' History of Civilization from cover to cover, I have dipped in to sections of the books from time to time. Finally, he tells the story of Mortimer Adler who founded the "Great Books" movement and wrote many books explaining the ideas in those books. I, too, was inspired by the lure of great books and have spent more than twenty years of my adult life reading them in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. These form the foundation for my reading and my participation in the search (see The Moviegoer by Walker Percy).
In his book Daniel Flynn is able to clearly and succinctly elucidate the inspirational achievements of these blue collar intellectuals and how they shaped an era in which popular culture included a significant place for serious ideas. One of the most important lessons imparted by the lives of these intellectuals is how they inspired readers like myself to continue to read and learn and love the search for ideas in books.

Blue Collar Intellectuals by Daniel J. Flynn. ISI Books, 2011

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Satanic Music

Music in The Master and Margarita

Master and Margarita is a complex book with many levels and themes. One of the aspects of the book that endears it to me is both the use of music as a leitmotif and as a link to the literary references that inform the books and provides yet another referential layer. The following are some of the more important musical references.
The most important musical reference links with the title and one of the major literary influences on the novel. That is in Chapter 7 when Woland appears to Stepa Likhodeev and says "Here I am!". This line, which was also considered by Bulgakov as a title for the whole novel, is a quotation from Gounod's Opera, Faust. In Act 1, Faust, in despair in his study, calls on Satan to appear. Perhaps even more important is the name, Margarita, which is a clear reference to Faust's love interest in the first part of Goethe's drama and who is also the important love interest in Gounod's opera which focuses exclusively on the first part of the drama.
Yet, there are other important musical references including Verdi. In Aida, the refrain "O gods, gods..." runs through Master and Margarita like a leitmotif. It is probably taken from Verdi's opera Aida, which Bulgakov knew and loved and quoted in other works.
Another instance can be found in Chapter 4, where Ivan is accompanied through Moscow by music from Act 3, Scene 1 of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin, based on the novel by Pushkin. This is a ballroom scene, in which Onegin meets Prince Gremin, who has married Tatyana, with whom Onegin previously flirted.
The musical references extend to the names of some of the many (this is a Russian novel) characters.  There are significant characters with the names Berlioz, Rimsky, and Stravinsky.  This aspect overlaps with the many instances of humor in the novel of which I will discuss in another entry.
Finally, even American popular music is enlisted by Bulgakov when Hallelujah!, the song by the American Vincent Youmans is played both by the jazz band at Griboyedov and by the band at Woland's Grand Ball. Youmans claimed the melody was one of his first ever. 
He wrote it in his days at a Naval Training Station, and it was performed by John Philip Sousa as a march. The English lyric, written by Leo Robin and Clifford Grey, includes the lines "Satan lies a waitin' and creatin' skies of grey, but Hallelujah! Hallelujah helps to shoo the clouds away!" Youmans introduced "Hallelujah!" in Hit the Deck (1927) by vaudeville star Stella Mayhew.
That music informs and deepens the enjoyment of The Master and Margarita is yet another aspect of its standing as a twentieth century masterpiece of Russian literature.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Lessons in Life

A Good School
A Good School 

"'Dorset?' the man would say. 'Don't think I've ever heard of that one.'
And I can see my father starting to turn away then, concluding the pleasantries, lookin tired. He wasn't old that summer -- he was fifty-five -- but within eighteen months he would be dead.  'Well,' he would say, "as a matter of fact I'd never heard of it either, but it's -- you know -- it's supposed to be a good school.'" (p 8)

When I reviewed Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road I wrote that it was "a perfectly-written book" and "a modern classic in the true sense of the word." In his novel A Good School, published seventeen years later, I found a classic of a different sort in that I believe in this later work he captured a certain spirit of place and time perfectly. Even though the book did not seem to me as being perfect in writing style, the economy of Yates' prose still impressed me. Even more striking was his ability to convey the feeling of a certain time in the lives of a few representative boys while, at the same time, creating a pervasive feeling of an historic setting and place. The description of the school made clear it was unique among the prep schools of New England and that the small select group of boys that called it their home were just as unique in their own way. The awkward and nervous boy who becomes editor of the school newspaper is just one example of the different students that shared their school years at this good, if not unflawed, school. The awakening of character and the changes in the boys lives seemed to lead inexorably to an ending that made this novel and the titular school memorable.
Yates presented vignettes about the boys' social interactions, some of which seem mundane, but which cumulatively demonstrate the growth and change in their young lives. The drama of the real world with World War II always in the shadows is always impinging on the action and sometimes bursts in to interrupt. Thus the small world of the Dorset School seems to be sheltered from the world without until events of the world around it overwhelm the adolescent angst within it.
The result of reading this novel is to remind me that I must read more of Yates oeuvre as the experience is exhilarating.

A Good School by Richard Yates.  Picador, New York. 1978

Friday, March 23, 2012


Sonnet for Today

While it is cooler than it was earlier this week when Spring appeared the season is still with us and was referenced by Shakespeare in his very first numbered sonnet. The words, "gaudy spring" caught my attention and the power of Shakespeare's herald seems to still be at work.

Sonnet #1

FROM fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light'st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

William Shakespeare

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Poem for Spring


SPRING, the sweet Spring, is the year's pleasant king;
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing--
   Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

The palm and may make country houses gay,
Lambs frisk and play, the shepherds pipe all day,
And we hear aye birds tune this merry lay--
   Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet,
Young lovers meet, old wives a-sunning sit,
In every street these tunes our ears do greet--
   Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!
   Spring, the sweet Spring! 

Thomas Nashe lived from 1567 to 1601, and was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ominous Consequences

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)
Oryx and Crake 

"Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He's had a terrible night. He doesn't know which is worse, a past he can't regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there's the future. Sheer vertigo." (p 147) 

Imagine science gone amok. Then add to it the story of a young man, Jimmy (also known as Snowman) and his two friends Oryx and Crake. With this you have the heart of Oryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood, but there is so much more to it than the sometimes complicated relationships among these characters.
I was impressed with many things about this wild dystopian tale beginning with the use of imagination:
"'Imagination,' said Crake. 'Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere thought of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or a rabbit doesn't behave like that."(p 120)
Here we have a difference in imagination that makes man unique while the author's imagination takes us to a future world that suffers at the hands and imagination of men like Crake (whose real name is Glenn) who will demonstrate powers of imagination that affect more than just dogs and rabbits. He is a major player in Jimmy's life, one of the few people Jimmy was ever friends with, if not the only one. Crake is a gifted student, who is clearly a scientific genius and becomes a well respected member of various bio-engineering companies. Crake, like Jimmy, never had much of a connection with his parents, and spent his time, with Jimmy, leading a dissolute life. Morals in any traditional sense seem to be diminishing on both an individual and societal level as demonstrated by their lives. Crake also has a very negative view of humanity:
“Monkey brains, had been Crake's opinion. Monkey paws, monkey curiosity, the desire to take apart, turn inside out, smell, fondle, measure, improve, trash, discard – all hooked up to monkey brains, an advanced model of monkey brains, but monkey brains all the same. Crake had no very high opinion of human ingenuity, despite the large amount of it he possessed.”(p 99)
In spite of this attitude or perhaps because of it he becomes the leader of a sort of cult whose followers are known as “Crakers”.
Oryx, along with Crake, also plays an important role in Jimmy's life both in person and in representations of herself which appear as hallucinatory episodes for Jimmy. The narrative shifts back and forth in time gradually sharing Snowman's early life as Jimmy and the experiences that led him to become known as Snowman. These experiences all take place in the not too distant future where drugs, alcohol, and prostitution are widely accepted while advanced genetic engineering (particularly developing hybrid animals) has taken a leading role. This leads to the not so subtle suggestion that much of the progress we are making today has ethical and moral dilemmas that may lead to disturbing consequences. Unintended consequences, no doubt, but consequences nonetheless that are devastating in their impact on life as we know it and as Jimmy lived it as a youth.
As I mentioned above in reference to imagination, the disintegration of the civilization in Oryx and Crake is obvious. This can be seen in the first page of the first chapter of the book where “On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow.”(p 3) “Deadly” and ominous and the beginning of what may be taken as a warning to the readers as to the possibilities of what may or may not happen in the future. The future in this novel is suggested no better than the reference to a famous moment in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe in the ultimate chapter, yet it is ironically ominous in ways that Defoe's intrepid adventurer never would have imagined.

Oryx and Crake: A Novel by Margaret Atwood.  Anchor Books, 2004 (2003)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Founding Father and Reader

James Madison

James Madison (1751-1836), our fourth President, may have been the most qualified man to ever assume the U.S. presidency. He is said to have read over four hundred books in a single year in preparation for helping design the miracle of self-government contained in the U.S. Constitution:
"James Madison had come to the presidency uniquely prepared to manage the mechanics of government. Born on his father's plantation in Orange County, Madison, unlike many of his Vir­ginia peers, attended the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton). He followed in the footsteps of a favorite tutor, then returned after graduation to help man­age the family plantation. He left again to help draft the Virginia constitution in 1776, then became the youngest delegate in Philadelphia, aged twenty-nine, at the Continental Congress in 1779.

"Although he served four sessions in the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond following the Revolution (1784 and after), Madison's chief labor of the mid-1780s had been a self-assigned research project. Closeted in the second-floor library in his father's house, he spent countless hours reading widely on the topic of government (one year he read four hundred books). His syllabus, which included many volumes sent to him by his friend Jefferson from Paris, approached the subject from a mix of histori­cal and theoretical perspectives, studying modern and ancient models. But Madison's investigations were more than an intellectual exercise. As a son of the Enlightenment, Madison believed such a disciplined survey might produce a plan whereby man could control his destiny. He was looking, in short, for political solutions to self-government.

"A new approach was required, he believed, because of what he termed the 'imbecility' of the Articles of Confederation [the document that governed the relationship of the thirteen states during and after the American Revolution], which, hav­ing granted the central government few powers, left the nation unable to levy taxes, negotiate with foreign powers, or manage its economy. Madison was readying himself for an opportunity he soon facilitated, namely, the gathering of twelve states for a 'Grand Convention.' He and fifty-four other delegates spent seventeen weeks in Philadelphia in 1787, hammering out a new governing document for the nation, the U.S. Constitution.

"After its 1788 ratification - which Madison helped accomplish as a co-writer (with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) of the essays collec­tively known as The Federalist Papers - Madison was elected to the House of Representatives. There, as President George Washington's most trusted ally in Congress, Congressman Madison guided the passage of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, colloquially known as the Bill of Rights. During his four terms in Congress, the never-married Madison, at forty-three, also met a young widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who, in 1794, became his wife [and became one of the most beloved First Ladies in American history]."

Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War by Hugh Howard. Bloomsbury, 2012 (Pages: 22-24)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Piercing the Aura

Different Perspectives

 I recently read Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter, Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter. Reading it was an experience filled with literary anecdotes and references on almost every page while their relationship was presented through an aura (or haze if you prefer) resulting from the perspective of Lady Antonia. In a review in The New York Times Dwight Garner wrote: “a book of glowing fragments, moments culled from Ms. Fraser’s diaries. The prose is not overly winsome. “My Diary: it’s not about great writing,” she admits. “It’s my friend, my record, and sometimes my consolation.” The result presents a light literary romance with some of the heavy-weight literati. 
  That there might be other perspectives on the relationship between Lady Antonia and Harold was brought home delightfully yesterday as I was reading Stephen Fry's latest installment of his autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. Picking up where he left off with Moab is my Washpot Fry continues his story in this often comedic and sometimes skewed take on his life and loves. One of the many aspects of his eclectic life is acting and some of his early experience was with another of the great twentieth-century playwrights, Simon Gray. Apparently the friendship between Gray and Harold Pinter was volatile and Fry shares his experience of this volatility with the following episode from the late 80s: 
 “I remember once John (Sessions) and I were sitting in the back of the brassarie of the Groucho Club. Harold, his wife, Lady Antonia, Beryl and Simon had a corner table. Suddenly Harold's booming voice burst out. 'If you are capable of saying such a thing as that, Simon Gray, it is perfectly clear that there is no further basis for our friendship. We are leaving.' . . . He turned and barked across the room, 'Antonia!' 
   Lady Magnesia Fridge-Freezer, as Richard Ingrams liked to call her, jerked herself awake (her defence against the madness of Harold's tantrums was always to fall asleep. She would do this in the middle of a meal or sentence, a kind of traumatic symplegia, a condition known only to cats in P. G. Wodehouse, but which I think refers to what we would now call narcolepsy) and softly gathered up her coat. By this time the whole back brasserie was watching the scene unfold and greatly enjoying the embarrassed lacunae, charged glances and menacing exchanges that one associates with the authentically Pinteresque. Antonia smiled seraphically at the Grays and went to join her husband. As she passed our table she stopped and gathered the loose wool at the should of my pullover. 
   'Oh, what a lovely jumper,' she sighed, fingering it for a second. 
   And she drifted away. I can almost bring myself to believe that the room burst into applause, but I think that would be an instance of the wish being father of the thought.” (pp 46-47) 
   Merely an reminder that different perspectives bring can pierce the aura of perfect, and sometimes imagined, romance. 

 The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry. The Overlook Press, New York 2012
Moab Is My Washpot by Stephen Fry. Soho Press, 2011 (1997)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing


Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors' eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

Source: Poetry (May 1914).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Stereotypical Business as Usual

by Lucy Prebble

A week ago I visited the TimeLine Theatre to see the current production of the 2011-2012 season, another Chicago Premiere. History, as presented in Lucy Prebble's play Enron, was close to current events, much as it was last year when TimeLine Theatre Company brought us In Darfur. I enjoyed Enron as it came alive in the intimate, in-the-round production at TimeLine Theatre. Rachel Rockwell directed with controlled staging while the primary actors all impressed me with stirring performances. This was a play without real heroes, although Bret Tuomi's portrayal of Jeff Skilling came across as the anti-hero of the piece, giving leadership a bad name as he directed the executives including the weasel-like accountant Andy Fastow (Sean Fortunato). The CEO Ken Lay was portrayed in a convincingly 'hear no evil-see no evil' manner by Terry Hamilton (one of my favorite of TimeLine's Associate Artists). The business-like pacing of the production production, plus a set that gave you the feeling that you were there back in the nineties, and delicious touches like board members as blind mice and CFO Andrew Fastow’s “raptor” debt shelters as actual velociraptors made the afternoon quite entertaining.
I wish I could praise the dramatic material as much as the company, but I did not see much depth or nuance in the play. Rather, even under the controlled hand of Rockwell's direction, it was a expository tale without the necessary underpinnings to provide insight into the criminal behavior, beyond the stereotypical greed of businessmen. I hope that somewhere there are playwrights willing to go beyond this type of simplistic drama. That the  TimeLine Theatre Company was able to fashion an entertaining production from this material is further evidence of their artistic excellence.

Reading late and there

 The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom the book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

In this poem we see Wallace Stevens meditating on reading late one summer night. The magic of Stevens here allows him to bring together the book, the house, the night, and the world with the reader. Inner and outer blend as the quiet calmness of the poem produces a reverie, and for the reader who is experiencing this -- perfection in the poetic imagery. One feels the solitude and escape from the everyday quotidian details of life. Perhaps this captures the feeling you have when you are able to escape through reading a book.

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Random House, 1982 (1954)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Postmodern Alice

Automated Alice
Automated Alice

"'Do you really think that life is a game, Alice?  Well, let me tell you: life is a lesson to be hard-earned!  I don't suppose you've finished you're latest lesson, about the correct usage of an ellipsis?'
 'An ellipsis, Great Aunt Ermintrude,' began Alice quite confidently, 'is a series of three dots at the end of an unfinished sentence, which implies a certain omittance of words, a certain lingering doubt . . .'" (p 219)

As someone who has loved Lewis Carroll's Alice stories since he was a very young boy I must say that I found Jeff Noon's amusing novel, Automated Alice both clever and funny, very funny. The whimsy begins with computermites and seems to be infinite before the book is over. 
Poor Alice is alone, bored, and sleepy in her Great Aunt Ermintrude's house in rainy Manchester, but she is quickly swept away into another world as she follows Whippoorwill, "a green-and-yellow-plumed parrot with a bright orange beak", up and away into the mechanism of  an old grandfather clock.  The reader, along with Alice, never has a chance to look back.  
If I have any complaint with the novel, it is that like a Viennese chocolate torte it was too sweet and before the end of the book my head began to feel like it does when I have overdosed on sugar. Curiously the capriciousness speeds along at a pace which is fast and faster, to the point where I began to feel my mind spinning. It reminded me of the Red Queen's admonition to Alice : “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” (Through the Looking Glass).
It is all tremendously amusing when you find yourself laughing out loud on almost every page and you are mystified by the circumlocutions and wordplay that is positively preternatural. This is a book for all who love puns, riddles, titillating moments filled with uncommon literary references that lend the text a postmodern sheen. Some call this novel an instance of cyberpunk fiction, but I merely suggest that all who dare explore the world of speculative fiction will find this a delightful novel.

Automated Alice by Jeff Noon. Crown Publishers, New York. 1996

Friday, March 09, 2012

Magic and Dreams in the Night

A Midsummer Night's Dream

by William Shakespeare

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! 
- Act V, Scene 1 

My introduction to this play was through music, as was so much of my introduction to the world of literature, when I purchased an Angel Stereo recording of the incidental music of Felix Mendelssohn. His delightful overture, the fairy music, scherzo, and wonderful wedding march are still among my favorite music as is much of Mendelssohn's oeuvre. But since then I have read the original play and seen productions by  Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company when it visited Chicago in the early 1990s and, more recently,  Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

With this background it was with great anticipation that I returned to Chicago Shakespeare Theater this week for the current production of this play, hoping to be surprised or entertained or perhaps even mesmerized by the magic of Shakespeare's play. I was not disappointed in the production as directed by Gary Griffin. The performance was dazzling with perfection in the staging, pacing, and acting. While every actor performed well, the standouts for me were Ron Orbach as Bottom who almost stole every scene in which he appeared, Timothy Edward Kane who was gorgeous as Oberon (pictured on the right with Tracy Michelle Arnold as his Queen Titania) and stately as the Duke, and his lieutenant Puck played with magical whimsy by Elizabeth Ledo. With the rest of the cast not missing a line or a step the performance flew by and left the audience with much laughter and delight. I truly appreciated the understated elegance of the set and visual aspects of the production that first and foremost featured Shakespeare's wonderful language.   

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Poem for Today

I am Completely Different

I am completely different.
Though I am wearing the same tie as yesterday,
am as poor as yesterday,
as good for nothing as yesterday,
I am completely different.
Though I am wearing the same clothes,
am as drunk as yesterday,
living as clumsily as yesterday, nevertheless
I am completely different.

Ah ---
I patiently close my eyes
on all the grins and smirks
on all the twisted smiles and horse laughs --
and glimpse then, inside me
one beautiful white butterfly
fluttering towards tomorrow.

Kuroda Saburo
(1919-1980) Important post-War Japanese poet, spent WWII in Java, known for his moving portrayal of family life, esp. his series of love poems, A Une Femme, & the collection he wrote for his daughter, With Little Yuri. ((translated by James Kirkup, Burning Girraffes: Modern and Contemporary Japanese Poetry. University of Salzberg Press, 1996)

Monday, March 05, 2012

Philosophy and Meaning in Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays
Shakespeare's Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays 

"In both Montaigne's and Shakespeare's work, there is a kind of appalling, but exhilarating, candor.  And some of that ruthlessness is philosophical:  the determination to expose reality for what it is, to undermine dogma and complacency.  In the end, of course, this is nothing other than a dedication to the truth." (p 16)

Readers who have both a familiarity with Shakespeare's major plays and an interest in philosophy will probably enjoy this short book. 
 Following an introduction in which the author discusses general themes there are essays on six plays: The Tempest, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the last of which I am soon to see performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Perhaps the book should be subtitled "Discovering the meaning behind some of the plays". The essays on specific plays are complemented by four essays on general topics such as gender, ethics, and psychology. McGinn has a lucid style that makes this book easy to comprehend. 
 While the focus is primarily on the philosophical aspects of the plays the book also provides a useful commentary to provide background for anyone reading the plays.  It is enhanced by useful notes and an index that allows referential reading.  I have added it to my small library of Shakespearean commentary that stands beside the complete plays.

Shakespeare's Philosophy by Colin McGinn.  Harper Perennial Edition, 2007 (2006).

der Glasraum

The Glass Room
The Glass Room 

"Liesel's mother examined the house with the disapproving eye of the nineteenth century.  'It's like an office' she said.  'Like a laboratory, like a hospital.  Not like a home at all.'
'Mother, it's the future.'
'The future!' the older woman retorted, as though giving vent to a curse.  But Viktor and Liesel watched their future world growing around them and they thought that it was a kind of perfection, the finest instrument for living."(p 73)

One of the first things I noticed about this book was that the writing style reminded me of other books I had read that were translated from a language other than English, but this book was written in English, not translated. That Simon Mawer's style mimicked a novel in translation, yet was really tremendously well controlled is just one of the aspects that make this book stand out from other historical novels. For The Glass Room is an historical novel and both the sometimes subtle presence and sometimes ironic impact of historical context is integral to the story.
The story starts simply enough, a Czech couple, the Landauers, on their honeymoon journey to Italy, but before they arrive there they visit the grave of the Bride's brother who died in the Great War. In just a few pages we already have some of the themes: history, endings and beginnings, death and life. But this novel is just as much about the new house that is yet to be built on a plot of land that was a present from the bride's parents. It is this house, designed by the great modern architect Rainer von Abt, that will have as its centerpiece the "Glass Room" of the title, and at the center of the room an onyx wall that is magnificent in its simplicity. The story spans the rest of the twentieth century and involves living, loving, parting, tragedy, and more than one metamorphosis for the "Glass Room" at the heart of the story.  While the writing is controlled -- this can be over done and, in our book group discussion, there developed a consensus among the group that there were at least moments in the novel when the style was too controlled, where the irony was too heavy, and where the literary references were too forced.  I would compare it too a film where the director is too heavy-handed resulting in the feeling that he is interfering with rather than directing the film.  However, this did little to diminish my enjoyment of this novel nor did it deter our book group from unanimous praise of Mawer's literary creation.
In addition to the smooth almost glass-like writing style I was impressed by the structure of the book as the story gathers speed, develops the central characters, provides suspense and deftly links the various subplots. Early in the novel the architect, Rainer von Abt, tells the Landauers that:
"'I am a poet of space and form. Of light' -- it seemed to be no difficulty at all to drag another quality into his aesthetic -- 'of light and space and form. Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose the space within.'"(p 16)
The author is also a poet whose aesthetic provides similar form for this story. Yes, this is the exciting era of modern architecture, of the new era represented by artists like Mondrian and others who were establishing "de stijl". The world is constantly changing and the artists, the architects, and musicians like Janacek and Kapralova are leading the way. The political world of the story is in turmoil with changes, including another war and its aftermath, lead the Landauers to new ventures, places, and loves as the plot unfolds. However, the key to the story remains the haunting spirit of the"Glass Room".
"She dreams. She dreams of cold. She dreams of glass and light, the Glass Room washed with reflection, and the cool view across the city of rooftops, the cold view through the trees, the crack of snow beneath your boots. She dreams of a place that is without form or substance, that exists only in the manner of dreams, shifting and insubstantial, diffuse, diverse;"(p 304)

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. Other Press, 2009.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

What does it all mean?

Thoughts on attending a lecture entitled
"Philosophy and Meaning"

Several years ago I read a small book about a very big subject, The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton.  The book surveys various philosophic approaches to the question and in the last chapter Eagleton discusses the view of Ludwig Wittgenstein as expressed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the question, what is the meaning of life, is "a pseudo-question as far as philosophy is concerned"(p 162).  This view of philosophy, that it was not  appropriate for discussions of such a question, was one direction being taken in the early twentieth century.  The opposing view of philosophers who do believe that philosophy does have something to say about this question informed the earlier chapters of Eagleton's book.  He even asked if it was meaningful to even discuss the question.  His book raised this and other questions while he surveyed the views of thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche on that topic. 
 I mention Eagleton's book because it was brought to mind while I listened to a lecture yesterday afternoon by Clare Pearson, Instructor, Basic Program, the University of Chicago.  Her lecture, "Philosophy and Meaning" discussed what philosophy does have to say about the question of the meaning of life by considering the thinking of some philosophers and others who believe it is possible and useful to provide insight on this very big subject.  In the description of her talk, provided by the University of Chicago, it said that her talk would "explore the ways in which philosophy addresses the question of meaning, and the human search for meaning in life'.  An admirable goal and one that provided a catalyst for my interest.
 Some of the highlights from the talk should suffice to demonstrate that my interest was not unwarranted.  Introducing the subject by discussing the purpose of philosophy and raising the question of the meaning of meaning, the talk began on a serious and interesting level of discourse.  Three aspects of meaning were identified as relevant for this presentation, namely: 1) Meaning as "purpose or goal" for one's life; 2) Meaning as "coherence or wholeness" of being; and, 3) Meaning as "value" or "what good is life? (or, alternatively, what is the purpose of the good life?)"  Having identified this as the approach for the talk, she focused on beginnings, that is Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and, of course, Homer and the other poets.  Each has something to say about this question with the key being, from my perspective, the reaction of Plato and Aristotle to the approach of Homer as portrayed in The Iliad (a "glory ethic" that saw power in immortality) and The Odyssey (a "family ethic").  For Socrates and the other Greek philosophers the preeminent problem was the issue of change (as in the continual change in the world around us) while the answer was found in the use of reason and the positing of ideal forms (Plato).  With Aristotle came a more comprehensive view developed by thorough observation of this world and the development of a sort of self-realization along with the goal of living a life consistent with the pursuit of happiness or the Good.

 The lecture concluded with discussions of enlightenment and modern philosophies of meaning represented by Kant and Nietzsche (with a dollop of Heidegger - and more for those who stayed for the question and answer period after the talk).  Kant it seems, and his thought can be difficult for some, embraced the limitations of human reason and transcended them with his Critiques.  Nietzsche, by contrast, criticized Kantian reasoning and attacked much of preceding Western philosophy by questioning the ideas of permanence, universal truth, and necessity.  For Nietzsche one must create his own meaning.  Doing this requires that you exert your 'Will to power' in an attempt to create meaning.  In his book Eagleton suggests that "it is reasonable to see this as an end in itself, just as Aristotle regards human flourishing as an end in itself." (p 154)  If this is the case Nietzsche's view may be seen as a modern approach to 'self-realization'.
 In conclusion, I was edified by Ms. Pearson's talk and I was inspired to continue to think about this issue by exploring other thinkers who have suggested approaches to the issue, all the while thinking about the issue for myself (see "On Thinking for Yourself" by Arthur Schopenhauer).  Philosophy and Meaning will continue to tempt all who desire to lead  a humane existence and flourish while doing so.

. . . a final thought:
"Philosophy . . . consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, not yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man's doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted. as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, II, 17

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics, 2006 (180).