Thursday, September 30, 2021

Sex Strike & The Thinkery

Lysistrata and Other Plays
Lysistrata and The Clouds 

“What doesn’t polite society, in all seriousness, want to discuss? Sex, money, political corruption, bodily functions, religion, loss and despair?

These have been the very subjects attracting writers of comedy since Aristophanes penned “Lysistrata” as a vehicle for the young Joan Rivers.”  ― Gina Barreca

Lysistrata is a bawdy and demented fest of diatribes between women and men. When the women, led by the titular character, withhold their sex in their demand for peace the men seem to be at a significant disadvantage.

The name Lysistrata can be loosely translated as "she who disbands armies". That is behind both her mission and her leadership of the women of Athens who she encourages to withhold their sex from the men until peace can be brokered with Sparta. The play was produced during the Peloponnesian War and Athens had suffered a major blow when defeated in Syracuse with the loss of her navy. While they were recovering from that disaster the war continued with no end in sight (did I mention that these plays address very contemporary issues for those of us living in twenty-first century America?).

The play is famous for the roles given to women, particularly noteworthy since there is no evidence for women attending Athenian theater, and since it entailed the somewhat comic difficulty of having men, already in their phallic-oriented costumes, play the roles of the women. It is much more bawdy and extreme in its humor than The Clouds with the focus on the "battle of the sexes" centered at the Acropolis as a means used by the women, led by Lysistrata, to bring the men to their senses. The humor is magnified in the opening sections as the men who oppose them are old and perhaps a bit senile since the young men are all at war.

The pride of the old men is deeply wounded when Lysistrata declares that the women have assumed all civil authority and will henceforth provide for the safety and welfare of Athens. The magistrate cannot believe his ears when he hears Lysistrata say that the women have grown impatient with the incompetence of their husbands in matters that concern the commonweal. For rebuking the women, the magistrate receives pots of water poured on his head. When the ineffectual old men declare that they will never submit, the women answer that the old men are worthless and that all they have been able to do is legislate the city into trouble.

The women do have difficulties maintaining order within their ranks, but that just adds to the comedy. The result of this and further comic moments, including a riot surrounding the birth of a baby to one of the women, is a delight that transcends the centuries and overcomes many of the difficulties of translation. This has become my favorite play by Aristophanes.

While also a comedy critical of aspects of culture, in The Clouds Aristophanes takes as his theme the contrast between an older educational mode and the new interrogative style, associated with the name of Socrates. He begins with a prologue (lines 1-262), which introduces the two principal characters, Strepsiades (“Twister”), worried by the debts accumulating because of the propensity for chariot racing of his long-haired son, Pheidippides (“Sparer of Horses,” or “Horsey”). The idea occurs, with the assistance of “a student,” to have the son enter the school, the "Thinkery" next door, operated by Socrates, wherein by the logic of the sophists one should be able to learn how to talk so as to evade one’s debts. Not unlike sons in our culture, Pheidippides son refuses to attend, lest his suntan be ruined, and his father goes instead. He finds Socrates suspended in a basket from the roof, wherein rarefied thinking can be more appropriately done in the atmosphere of the clouds.

What follows is the entrance of the chorus of “clouds” singing and dancing (lines 263-509), following the incantations and chanted prayers of Socrates, to the alarm of Strepsiades. In brilliant repartee, the chorus is introduced as the goddesses, who, with wind, lightning, and thunder, patronize intellectual development. Yet the buffoonery that follows indicates that it is some weird intellect, for Socrates, in answer to questions about rain and thunder, assures Strepsiades that there is no Zeus but only clouds displaying analogies to the human bodily functions of passing water or gas. Strepsiades is convinced and agrees to become a student.  He proves to be incompetent as a student, for he cannot memorize what is required but only wants to learn how to outwit his creditors. Subsequent to his own dismissal, he forces Pheidippides to enroll under threat of expulsion from home. It here that he is exposed to the debate between “Right” (“Just Logic”) and “Wrong” (“Unjust Logic”), from which it is obvious that the argument of the latter will prevail.

Aristophanes is successful in parading buffooneries and a satiric presentation of his son's great success, he discovers that success means that his son now knows how to whip him. Along with a commentary on the ancient tragedians there are amusing anecdotes concerning child development in Strepsiades’ argument to Pheidippides, but Strepsiades has been defeated by his own intentions. 
I found Aristophanes somewhat more cerebral and obscure in this play when compared to Lysistrata, but the caricature of Socrates is enough to make the play worth while for anyone who is interested in the golden age of Athens.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Being Present for Your Life

The Second Coming
The Second Coming 

“How did it happen that now he could see everything so clearly. Something had given him leave to live in the present. Not once in his entire life had he come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself from some dark past he could not remember to a future that did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream. Is it possible for people to miss their lives the way one can miss a plane?”   ― Walker Percy, The Second Coming

What is wrong with Will Barrett? He is depressed and his golf game is off kilter. He has a sort of falling down sickness and that theme pervades this tale of revelation and change in the life of this widower who has become a somewhat different person than the young seeker whose story was told in The Last Gentleman.

In this, his fifth novel, Walker Percy once again surveys the themes of alienation, from self and from God, and dissatisfaction with the commercialism of modern American life. This book, while filled with realistic details about life in North Carolina in the 1980s, is able to speak to twenty-first century readers with its existential approach to life's problems. Many of the people Will encounters, and there are some memorable side characters like a chaplain whose belief is somewhat doubtful, remind me of the mediocre Christians who provided fodder for the commentaries of thinkers like Kierkegaard. We find Percy asking the important question whether people may be missing their own lives while going through the motions like shopping or wasting away on the local golf course.

At the center of the novel Will has an epiphany of sort that leads him to a fall that becomes a catalyst for a new life - a new relationship both for him and for a young woman named Allison who has her own psychological baggage. It was somewhat ironic, however, that Will's fall was due in part to his hubristic demand that 
he would commit suicide if God did not reveal himself. And even more ironic was that this demand led Will closer to being present for his own life than ever before.

Best of all is the way that Percy packages the story - in two parts that fit together so well that this may be his best novelistic effort. It certainly rivals the brilliance of his premiere effort of The Moviegoer. As a reader I was thankful that he returned to Will Barrett and found a way to tell a story of second chances and new love wrapped in an elegant package. The existence of god in the life of Will Barrett is brought home in a more thorough way here than in The Last Gentleman. I found it a transformation made possible by a reasonable belief.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Chief Horror

The Forest

 “The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds--the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveler, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.”

― Nathaniel Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown

Sunday, September 12, 2021

A "Different" Boy

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain 

“He had long perfected the art of staring through people, leaving conversations to follow his daydreams through the back of their heads and out any open window.”   ― Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

In a book whose story has moments of wry humor interspersed between many more moments of almost unrelenting sadness, Shuggie Bain, the titular character, is tossed back and forth between disappointments too numerous to count. We meet him as he is growing up in the projects in 1980s Glasgow with his mother and family. Both his mother, Agnes, and the environment of lower class Glasgow are characters that rival and sometimes surpass Shuggie in interest for the reader. The combination in this first novel from the pen of Douglas Stuart make for an engrossing read in spite of a heavy dose of heartbreak.

After a brief introductory section and two chapters where we meet Agnes, her girl friends, and her second husband, Shug, we finally meet a five-year-old Shuggie who is dancing while being cheered by his mother in her Glasgow tenement. Shuggie is the last born among Agnes’ children. The other two children were sired by a different father. Agnes abandoned her first husband for a taxi driver who is rarely at home. Shuggie’s father, Big Shug, is a womanizer and has pushed Agnes into a depression due to his philandering behavior. Agnes has turned to alcohol, thus, becoming a shadow of her former self. In spite of flaws, Shuggie loves his mother and sometimes misses school to look after her.

Agnes’ behavior forces her first two children to plot their escape. Therefore, Shuggie is left with his mother. Shuggie hides from the outside world for being mocked about his sexuality. This leaves him alone and he spends much time with his mother. To make his mother happy, Shuggie sings and dances for her. When Agnes’ conditions worsen, men take advantage and molest her sexually. Readers get insight into a bitter and humiliating woman, whose downfall is catalyzed by love and marriage. Simply, it is a case of a dysfunctional love affair.

Shuggie is displayed as a character who longs to make his mother happy no matter what happens. Although he has been failed by his parents, Shuggie is never judgmental. Gradually he begins to realize he is "different" than the other boys.
"He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong."

In spite of this devastating realization, or perhaps because of it, Shuggie is a strong character dealing with rejection by friends and abandonment by his father, just as his mother is also dealing with rejection. The rejection experienced by a mother and her son leads to a huge love that binds them together. The decade of the eighties is not kind to either Shuggie or Agnes. While Shuggie gradually enters manhood in his teen years he begins both to accept his gay persona and to learn how to dance for himself.

Stuart's book won the 2020 Booker Prize whose judges praised this "amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love."

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Confession of a Personal Catastrophe


“Can good come from evil? Have you ever considered the possibility that one might undertake a search not for God but for evil? You people may have been on the wrong track all these years with all that talk about God and signs of his existence, the order and beauty of the universe--that's all washed up and you know it. The more we know about the beauty and order of the universe, the less God has to do with it. I mean, who cares about such things as the Great Watchmaker? - Walker Percy

Following the example of Camus' novel, The Fall, Walker Percy styled his fourth novel as a confessional with Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a disenchanted liberal lawyer, as the titular confessor. 
Lancelot is packed with philosophical and theological questions, questions debated in his essay collection Message in the Bottle (1975). Lancelot, like Percy's previous protagonists, has lost himself to everydayness, sex, consumerism, newspapers, and television. He is jolted out of his alienation only by catastrophe: his wife has been unfaithful—his daughter is not his. Percy, a Christian novelist, uses violence, shock, and the bizarre as a catalyst to promote a self-directed search. Lancelot, like the characters in Percy’s earlier novels, undertakes the search only after catastrophe occurs.

Through a series of fragmented flashbacks, Lancelot, failed lawyer, ex-grid star, Rhodes scholar, and madman, travels through his memory in an attempt to discover what went wrong. He relives the past, while rambling in a monologue to a silent priest who acts as a sounding board.

The search begins, as in Percy’s earlier novels, by confronting the haunted past, because only by understanding the past can Lance contemplate the future. In doing so he must, as Percy has suggested in his philosophical essays, “stand in front of the house of his childhood in order to recover himself.” Once there Lance discovers his father was a crook. He must then not only become aware of sin, of evil, but he must also see it and experience it. What he sees is his wife committing adultery, his daughter participating in an orgy, and his son admitting his homosexuality. The issue is twofold: first Lancelot must see his wife’s unfaithfulness; then in his quest for sin, he must experience evil—he must kill. While searching for evil, he discovers that “sexual sin was the unholy grail I sought.” Because his wife’s unfaithfulness jolts him out of his ordinary existence, he questions whether “good can come from evil,” and he undertakes a search “not for God but for evil.” “Dishonor,” Lancelot learns in this first-person narration, “is sweeter and more mysterious than honor. It holds a secret,” and he is determined to discover the secret.

So, the protagonist experiences evil and discovers despair. But for Percy, as with Kierkegaard, despair is a stage toward hope. Lancelot despairs of the modern world, “The great whoredom and fagdom of America.” But he visualizes a new life, a new order of things; “there will be a tight-lipped courtesy between men. And chivalry toward women. Women must be saved from the whoredom they have chosen.” His new life, as he visualizes it, involves a retreat to “a cabin and a barn and fifty acres in the Blue Ridge not far from Lexington, Virginia.” Joining him, he assumes, will be Anna, a victim of gang rape, who along with Lance is a patient in the institute. Lance links his future to Anna’s.

Percy, termed a stylist by many, has progressed in his style; the monologue device spans the novel. Yet he takes this novel one step further than Love in the Ruins, where the main character awaits the end of the world. Here Lancelot ends the modern world for himself and plans to start a new one. Again, as in his earlier novels, Percy reverses the traditional ways of making do in the modern world. Average happiness is conceived as despair, sin is better than indifference, forgetting better than remembering, wonder better than certainty, tragedy better than an ordinary day, and madness better than sanity.

The new novel, with Lancelot rambling to a priest in confessional fashion, breaks from Percy’s previous style. The monologue, which pretends to be a dialogue is broken at the novel’s conclusion when the priest answers “yes” to Lance’s newfound understanding and ability to change, to heal his broken self, as Percy has all his characters do at the conclusions of his novels. Percy, a Catholic, always incorporates religion into his novels, and Percival, the priest-psychiatrist, echoes Father Rinaldo Smith and Kev Kevin of Love in the Ruins.

The protagonists in Percy’s four novels all seek alternatives to their present alienated existence, alternatives which will enable them to function in a fragmented and empirically oriented society. Consequently, the fragmented self exemplified by Binx of The Moviegoer, Will of The Last Gentleman, Dr. More of Love in the Ruins, and Lance in this novel is reunified in varying degrees by the novels’ ends. Other similarities also exist between Lancelot and Percy’s previous novels. Binx is a moviegoer in that novel; Lancelot is a television watcher, while Margot is an actress with a company filming a movie in Belle Isle. Lancelot realizes, as Binx eventually did, “that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world, but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in illusions.” Percy also repeats his intrigue with catastrophe as a means of “rendering the broken self whole” in Lancelot. Binx in The Moviegoer, Sutter Vaught in The Last Gentleman, and Dr. More in Love in the Ruins realize that “only in times of illness or disaster or death are people real.”

Although Percy continues to pose philosophical questions in Lancelot—can good come out of evil, does tragedy heighten reality, how is one to live in the modern world—he has not progressed in developing new characters and ideas. They all echo and re-echo his last three novels as well as his philosophical essays. Lancelot continues a progression in Percy’s writing, for Lance, like the other protagonists, undertakes a search—in this case, a search for evil. He begins a new world for himself by personally and symbolically trying to destroy the modern world, by understanding evil through his participation in it.

The fragmented digressions of Lance’s mind are the vehicle Percy uses to convey his philosophy. I found myself getting bogged down in the author’s philosophical gymnastics over questions of the significance of the past, the question of good and evil, and the alienation and fragmentation of modern man. This made the novel seem a bit more tedious than its predecessors. This may be because he moved beyond his earlier approach to life as a journey and portrayed this narrative in confessional form. His use of this form seemed insufficient and led to a feeling that the protagonist, Lancelot Lamar was ranting at times.