Monday, October 27, 2008

Remembering Old Books

When I was twelve I tried to read “War and Peace” for the first time. During that part of my life, my parents had instituted a tradition of visiting the recently opened city library on Sunday afternoons to look for books to read during the coming week. Mostly, they chose recent thrillers or mysteries and it was in “borrowing” from my father’s selection that I first encountered the perfect adolescent delight “From Russia with Love.” I never seemed to be able to find sensible entertainment like that on my own. Instead, I was pursuing a larger agenda. In particular, I was looking for a way to distance myself as far as possible from the banal literary pabulum inflicted upon me at school. Even now, the thought of a required ten pages per week of Ricter’s “The Light in the Forest,” is enough to made me shudder physically. I am now as I write this. Back then, I resented everything about it, the adolescent characters, the conservatism, the absence of dramatic risk, the heavy handed themes and, above all, the implicit insult to my intellectual vanity. After all, I was twelve. My job was to distrust and disagree with everything.
Hence, you can appreciate my delight when I discovered one lazy, October, Sunday afternoon, two slightly dusty volumes, each about 1,000 pages long and filled with nearly unpronounceable Russian names and no pictures. My parents, showing phenomenal wisdom didn’t try to discourage me from checking them out. I think I managed a mere 60 pages or so before we returned it the following week. My literary Everest attempt had failed. Oh yes, as required, I had read yet another ten pages of that other thing.
Nevertheless, in college at nineteen, I was ready for another go. This time there was no climbing. The better metaphor is falling. I plummeted into early 19th century Russia during the age of Napoleon and lived it intensively for two weeks. I read surreptitiously in the back of my logic class, I read in the university library after finishing my differential equations homework, I read in the morning before class. The images I made, of Andrei lying wounded at Borodino staring at the clouds, or of Nickolai sitting around a fire nursing an incredibly painful broken wrist after his first battle or of Pierre tromping in the snow during the retreat from Moscow remain as vivid as memory. Literally. Like memories they are not only visual but include sound and smells. Even now, I’m delighted and surprised as I remember and those memories burn back into life yet again.
So, for me, the purpose of fiction, the deepest magic of fiction, is in creation of that alternative experience. The magic is how a limited number of words, a few perfect details induce my brain to create so much more, so much that is sensory and then tumble on like an engine running itself to death in an unending cycle of creation. You’d think it would be exhausting but it isn’t. And all the literary criticism I’ve read, from Coleridge to Eliot to Nye to Derrida has never sufficiently explored how and why it works.
Obviously, there are many other kinds of fiction that can strive for different psychological effects and much of what was written during the last half of the twentieth century explored that. For me, much of it is a digression.
Yesterday morning which was Sunday, I read the usual selection of newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian. But I found myself doing something else as well, following links to Youtube videos, mostly comic and ironic commentary on the US presidential election. And that curious mixture of alternating between text and moving image led me to wonder what effect the proliferation and hybridization of media will have on fiction. I’m well aware of the variety of experiments in that direction, including interactive fiction for example. And I’ve read a couple of provocative commentaries, such as Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck.” Maybe we are at the threshold of a new Romantic age in which a plethora of important new hybrid genres will be created. But I’ve yet read or imagine how the natural discordance between what I imagine for myself and what the artist creates for me to see directly can be resolved so that the imagination continues that elemental, active process which gives fiction its power.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bread and Circus

In a recent email conversation with Mark Watkins, a friend in New England, he suggested that the current presidential race had something of a bread and circus mentality. That, it turn led to some further ruminations. Perhaps it began with the weakening and repeal of political checks and balances over more than a decade. Then there were the wars. But economic issues, including the impoverishment and reduction of the middle class as a result of pressure from low cost immigrant labor and dramatic enrichment of the upper classes also contributed to the instability. Finally, after a virtually dictatorial regime, two contenders rose and competed for pre-eminance. One, a handsome soldier in his youth with a record of extraordinary service during a time of national crisis, had become a maverick politician attempting to bestride the diverse values and interests of the several factions within in his party. The other, relatively younger man, known for many things, among them an inspiring, rhetorical skill and a kind of international popularity, had amassed much greater wealth which he used in innovative ways to gain political support and build a broad coalition. Both campaigned by promising outright gifts to the impoverished and stressed middle class while conducting devastating, surreptitious personal attacks.

Gnaeus Pompey, the elder statesman and one time military hero, eventually abandoned Rome and fled before his younger, more innovative rival, Gaius Julius Caesar. Years later, Juvenal satirized the political strategy of appealing to the masses as Pompey and Caesar had done as “Bread and Circus,” referring to the promise of food and gladiatorial entertainment. After a devastating defeat at Dyrrhachium, Pompey fled to Egypt where he was summarily executed.

Historical analogies are both dangerous and important. For every similarity between that time and ours there is an equally compelling difference. Nevertheless, one obvious and terrible principle clearly emerges. A mathematical term, which may be somewhat obscure, is pertinent.

Republics are points of unstable equilibrium. They survive as long as many forces, political, economic and social are balanced and checked. But that balance can be weakened to collapse in many ways: by partisan manipulation of the public confidence in electoral enfranchisement, for example, or cultivation of an electorate unable or uninterested in evaluating candidates and issues with rational, critical intelligence.

During the Renaissance, during the flowering of another republic in Florence, the virtue of “synoekismus” was valued as one of the most important of celebrated ancient heroes such as Moses and Theseus. In simple terms it means the ability to bring many communities together so that they form one. This morning I read that Colin Powell has announced his support for Senator Barack Obama for president.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hamlet, Generations, Death

Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Stratford, Ontario, Canada

We’re in Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We flew all day Monday while the stock markets continued their free fall due to the credit crisis. It’s an economic event that will affect more lives than any in a generation and most people, including a significant percentage of our representatives in Congress, simply don’t understand it at even the most basic level, from the integration of modern economies to the importance of credit markets, or even what they are. We landed in Toronto at rush hour and joined the vast river of cars on Highway 410 passing Toronto with the setting sun in our eyes for most of the drive. The barely rolling plain made it seem as if we were driving from nowhere into nowhere.

Mostly, this part of Canada is thickly settled, like much of New England. But thirty miles outside of Stratford, the country became bucolic at last with neat, family farms and occasional stands of maple and oak predominating the fall landscape. Stratford itself is affluent and much larger than its namesake. A large park surrounds the river in the center of town and we recognized several sights from “Slings and Arrows,” the Canadian television series that was filmed here a few years ago.

In the afternoon, we saw “Hamlet,” directed by Adrian Noble, guest director and former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’d seen another version of “Hamlet” that he’d directed in London in 1992. Then, Kenneth Branagh played the title role. Both of us were very interested to see a Stratford Festival Company production of the play because of their reputation. We were also interested to see how Noble’s vision of the play had evolved.

A good half of the audience were high school students from several schools judging by the variety of uniforms. They were appropriately rambunctious and noisy in the lobby but settled quickly and were mostly a polite and attentive audience. After intermission, they greeted the return of the actors with wild applause, shrieks and whistles as if it were a rock concert. Interestingly, they laughed twice: once when Hamlet stabbed Polonius who collapsed pulling down a large drape - perhaps they thought it was unintentional although it wasn’t – and again when Gertrude succumbed to the poison.

Ben Carlson, who played Hamlet, is a husky, slightly paunchy young actor who uses broad gestures. No one would doubt him in a role as a high school football player. Hamlet is more of a stretch. I thought he was dreadful in the early scenes. Then something surprising happened. The scene with Polonious and Ophelia saying farewell to Laertes, which is so often static and tired, was played with delicate depth and emotion which revealed several powerful emotional turns. For example, Ophelia was honestly excited to tell her father of her relationship with Hamlet which made his rebuke surprising and stinging. Much credit has to go to the relatively young actor, Geraint Wyn Davies, who, for the first time in my experience of many productions, made Polonious, empathetic, interesting and complex. We’d seen something like this before, in an Ashland, Oregon production, when the actor playing Claudius had made so much more of the role than I’d ever thought possible. This time, it seemed to elevate everyone’s performance. And while the production was not great it was good which is no small achievement with such a complex work. As in 1992 I found Noble’s vision of the play-within-a-play scene and the dueling scene to be both static and destructive of willing suspension of disbelief. I’d hoped for more from his imagination, particularly given his Henry IV production with the late Robert Stephens and Michael Maloney. Nonetheless, the kids loved it and gave it a rousing standing ovation. No doubt for some it will be one of the most memorable theater experiences of their lives.

This production was performed, as it often is now, in 19th century clothes, which to my mind brings very little to the play. I’ve read and studied the play on and off for thirty years now and I find my view of it continues to evolve, yet another indication of its greatness. Perhaps, I’m under the influence of the apparent generational conflict in the current presidential election, but I think that’s an aspect in the play that is unduly neglected. It’s a Renaissance play and should be performed as such. I see Claudius and his court as a late medieval culture with the stasis, stratification and ceremony that connotes, whereas Hamlet and Horatio are educated renaissance men, comfortable with innovations of the new age, among them, theater. Thus, Hamlet’s almost scientific strategy to use the play within the play to test Claudius’ guilt is truly innovative, which it most certainly was when Shakespeare wrote the play.

In the evening, we forewent our tickets to Caberet and watched the presidential debates to see if either would say anything of depth about the current financial crisis. Neither Barak Obama nor John McCain said anything new. I was disappointed in them both, particularly in Obama whom I expected to rise to the occasion and offer something both innovative and inspiring to demonstrate the value of his leadership. He could have.

This morning I had email from Carolyn Foreman in Oxford informing me that James Wakelin, a South African bird watcher, ecologist and photographer we’d met in the Arctic, had died in a plane crash in Mozambique. I only knew James for a few days in the informal context of our wilderness experience. But I found him to be consistently gracious, affable and gentile in the very best sense of the word. He leaves behind a young wife and a ten month old son. Today it is raining in Stratford. It’s supposed to rain all day.

Thursday, October 9, 2008
Stratford, Ontario, Canada

And it did rain, sometimes heavily, all day. We drove west on Route 7 from Stratford to see what we could see, in spite of the weather. The two-lane highway led us through more small towns and long stretches of family farms. Each was unique and details like clothes hanging outside on a line, or a new dormer under construction on a 19th century farm house or a small bakery in the center of a town suggested unique and individual stories everywhere. It reminded me of what I’d imagined the Midwest of the United States to be like when I was younger and hadn’t traveled much, before the uniformity of strip malls and suburbanization had changed the landscape. We stopped to take photographs of a grand field of ripe pumpkins. There were more fields of the same just beyond and in places it looked like pumpkins stretched to the horizon. Their spooky brightness in the dreary day was startling.

We drove on until we came to Lake Huron then turned south, following the farms at its edge. Lynn wondered what it was like to have a farm at the edge of the great lake and what it would be like to face the famous storms. Several of the homes seemed low and vulnerable. We stopped when we came to Bay View where we had coffee lattes and shared an excellent, chewy ginger cookie in a small bakery in the narrow main street overhung with willows. Then we drove back

In the evening we saw Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” with Christopher Plummer in the title role. We arrived early and found our seats so we were able to watch the audience arrive. They were mostly older, many in their 70’s and 80’s and I had that rare experience now of feeling like one of the younger members of the audience. As we were waiting, an actor, costumed as the ancient Egyptian god Anubis rose through a trap in the stage and stood perfectly still staring back at us. The irony made me chuckle but it set a mood a great of great age and timelessness which was exactly right. I thought of Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias” which I’d read again when we were in the Arctic. As the lights went down, he disappeared once more.

The lights came up on a hooded figure coming almost out of the audience to face the foot of the Sphinx with whom he then began a one-sided chat, “For I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman and part god - nothing of man in me at all." It was Plummer as Caesar, of course, and I was amazed that though he is in his seventies now, his voice had lost none of its vigor or range. It’s Shaw, so it’s a talky play of course with Caesar having a disproportionate share of the dialogue. But Plummer was precise and strong through out. Moreover, there’s a lot of action in it as well. I couldn’t help but wonder how he manages to do it four times a week. It was a tour-de-force.

Clearly, the Stratford Festival had spent its production nickel for the season on this play, both sets and costumes, which this particular play and cast could wear very well indeed. There was lots of well-made Roman armor, great stone pedestals, and many extras playing the role of Roman soldiers or silent, still Egyptian Gods. One scene drew a collective inhaled gasp from the older members of the audience, which as I said, was the majority. Cleopatra addressed her court, demonstrating a new maturity, authority and will to power gained from her association with Caesar. He, of course, in turn was beginning to give up the latter and moving towards an acceptance of his death. The gasp, however, came because two young female members of her court were bathing nude in a steamy bath.

Finally, I consider “Caesar and Cleopatra” one of Shaw’s “problem” plays, (in the sense that “Hamlet,” “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida” are Shakespeare’s problem plays.) It’s topics: the movement from childhood to maturity foiled against the movement of age to acceptance and death, are difficult ones for a form partly defined by essential and continuous drawing room wit. Like Hamlet in another context, the play and its concept are almost too big for its genre. But like that greatest play in the language it remains better for all that and is probably my favorite after “Man and Superman.” Thank you Christopher Plummer and thank you Stratford Shakespeare Festival. There are rumors it might move to New York. I hope so.