January 25, 2010

Oh La La

I had a singularly remarkable experience this weekend.

Let me begin by saying that I am slightly embarrassed to admit to the topic of this blog, but I should likely be upfront about my shortcomings. I am an intelligent, beautiful and oh-so-modest woman, but I do have certain faults of character which simply cannot be helped. I am addicted to shopping, I love to eat chocolate, and I love bad pop music.

It is this last flaw which is about to become pertinent to our conversation. Please don’t judge me. Or if you do at least stick with me long enough so that I can explain myself.

This past Saturday at Radio City Music hall I was able to attend a concert. Not just any concert, a concert involving a certain pop super-star native of New York who is infamous for her over-the-top fashion decisions and her crazy house beats.

I won’t stand up for her music (though I firmly believe that, while certainly not “high art” it does hold its own on the music scene), I won’t even give you a lecture about where she went to school (NYU and almost Julliard), but I will say that this woman is horrendously talented. For two hours she put forth a high-energy performance; singing, dancing, doing at least eight costume changes, all the while adoring her fans as much as they adored her.

While I danced in Radio City, I couldn’t help but stand back and marvel at a few pertinent items.

The seating capacity of Radio City is 6,000. The concert was sold-out. So that is 6,000 people (most of them strangers to each other) dancing, singing, and enjoying one event. This event, a show of dramatic theatrics, is quite possibly the modern-day equivalent to the Elizabethan theatre.

In the days of Dear William, going to the theatre was an all-day occasion. The masses would turn out, from commoner to Queen, to gather in one playhouse and witness the theatrical event. Food and drink were sold to the assembly from wandering merchants. The performance lasted as long as there was daylight (remember, this was in an era before such inventions as electricity and indoor playhouses). More than this, the audience was expected to interact with the show. Booing and hissing the villains, cheering the lovers, and making all kinds of disorderly messes of themselves when the clowns came on. The theatre was more than entertainment, it was a makeshift community, an experience which brought people from all walks of life and the social ladder together.

This is not the case of modern theatre. The modern theatre is often viewed as an “uppity”, “classy” or “prissy” joint. It is highbrow, entitled. Expected conduct at the theatre has changed accordingly. It is considered impolite to interact with the play beyond the occasional laugh or bout of applause. We are more mild-mannered theatergoers, unwilling to break free from the current standard of interacting with our enterainment.

And what is that standard? By far, the most common form of mass entertainment today is television. Television creates a private entertainment experience, no longer a community but rather something we do alone. Moreover, television feeds us entertainment. It dishes out entertainment to us in controlled portions, carefully doled in measured segments. We are not expected to give anything back to the television nor are we expected to interact with it, we are merely expected to sit and be entertained.

The movies are the step between television and theatre. A movie theatre creates a passive viewing experience in a community environment. Unless you live in New York City, it is unlikely that you have ever been to a movie where shouting at the screen was expected (or even encouraged). Certainly we have cross-overs from the movies to theatre (such as the timeless tradition of shadow-casting The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but such experiences are exceptions rather than the rule.

The concert-going experience demands feedback. We sing along, we dance, we shout things at the stage. Moreover, we do so in a group of people who have connected with us on a certain level; the attendees of a concert presumably have one thing in common: the music. You will certainly find a different demographic bopping along to Billy Joel than you will to the aforementioned pop star whose concert I attended.

Now don’t get me wrong, likely the closest modern equivalent to Elizabethan theatre is a sporting event, but as yours truly really sees no value in grown men flinging balls at each other I won’t be speaking on them.

Oh, and of course, there is this.

January 23, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

The literary gods have had mercy upon my poor soul and have sent a white knight to rescue me from the evil clutches of William Faulkner. My Spring classes have started and, while I am certain that should I be so inclined to I could find the time for good William, I simply have not managed to eek him back into my schedule.

Which means that I get to blog about something a little more upbeat than dreary and dreadfully long sentences: filicide!

Filicide is the act of a parent intentionally killing his/her child. Our good friend William (Shakespeare, not Faulkner) has several plays which feature filicide, probably the most obvious example being Titus Andronicus. Filicide is also featured in The Winter’s Tale (though Leontes does not actually manage to kill Perdita, he does try…) and perhaps our favorite Shakespearean foray into the macabre, Mr. and Mrs. Macers go to Scotland… otherwise known as Macbeth.

Bear with me for a moment, I promise this circles back to Scottish witches.

In a 1765 political pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (available here), John Adams speaks on (and debatably introduces) one of the most famous metaphors of the American Revolution: that of England as the mother country. He says, “Is there not something extremely fallacious in the common-place images of mother country and children colonies? Are we the children of Great Britain any more than the cities of London, Exeter, and Bath? Are we not brethren and fellow subjects with those in Britain, only under a somewhat different method of legislation, and a totally different method of taxation? But admitting we are children, have not children a right to complain when their parents are attempting to break their limbs, to administer poison, or to sell them to enemies for slaves? Let me entreat you to consider, will the mother be pleased when you represent her as deaf to the cries of her children, -- when you compare her to the infamous miscreant who lately stood on the gallows for starving her child, -- when you resemble her to Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare, (I cannot think of it without horror,) who…

‘Had given such, and knew How tender ‘t was to love the babe that milked her,’

“but yet, who could,

‘Even while ‘t was smiling in her face, have plucked her nipple from the boneless gums, and dashed the brains out.’ “

Oh ho Mister Adams. Well done, well done indeed.

I have not done extensive research on this subject (though trust me, I intend to- it’s on my “to-do” list along with Johnny Depp and getting a hobby that doesn’t involve libraries), but based upon the perfunctory looking-into I have done I will state that Shakespeare’s words have been used to back every side of every major political argument since just after the poor man died. Frequently in these instances, he is even misquoted- used by the rhetoricians in their time-honored tradition of bending the thoughts of others to their own means.

Now I don’t intend to go too deeply into this concept today, I will save that for when I have more to back my currently biased and unsubstantiated opinions. What I do want to point out is how seemingly random Mister Adams’ reference is.

The quote which Dear John pulls is perhaps the most debated line of Macbeth. It is the only reference to the pitter patter of small bloodthirsty Scottish feet in the play, neither MacB nor his Lady wife ever again mention their own progeny. Clearly there are no Macbeth children in the play, so if Lady M is telling the truth (and why should she not?) then she did have a child and something happened to it. Was it Macbeth’s? Was it a bastard child? How and when did it die? Is its death something which urged her to demand of the spirits to “Take my milke for Gall..” (I iv)? If she had had a child to tend to, would she still have been a murderous witch? These are questions we will never know the answers to, but directors and scholars will continue to debate them, making Adams’ quote one of the “hottest topics” of the Shakespearean cannon.

So John Adams uses the most famous line of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays in his pamphlet. Why?

Politicians invoke Shakespeare like they invoke a God. Shakespeare is a higher intellectual authority, a literary deity. You can no more trump Shakespeare than you can deny Barthes’ Eiffel Tower. Politicians bank on that. Invoking Shakespeare lends an intellectual superiority. “Not only do I understand him, but he is on my side”. It brings to the proverbial room a discomfort, what do you say to Shakespeare? You can’t rebut him, you can’t discredit him, the best you can hope for is to come back at him with another of his own set of words and hope it holds up in an epic battle with himself (much like this).

Perhaps what startled me the most about Mister Adams’ reference is that he is one of the greatest rhetoricians of history. Here he is, leaning upon the words of Shakespeare (not even unpacking them mind you, just sticking them in his pamphlet) to help him make a tangential point. This either means that Mister Adams recognized a tactic which works and made use of it, or he was just out of creative things to say that day. I’m going to put my money on the first one, but either way, John Adams could certainly have used some time to brush up on his Shakespeare. MacB is no more a play about filicide than Othello is a play about a handkerchief. In addition, I’m not entirely certain how comfortable I am with the metaphor of England as Lady M and the States as the otherwise-unmentioned MacBaby. Certainly we deserve more regard than a single line in passing. We are (and were even in 1765) a large political force. Perhaps Adams is invoking it to suggest that England neglects America just as Shakespeare neglects Baby MacB. They will give us no answers, they recognize us only as an allegory of their success in failure, and they sure as hell won’t admit to having us in polite company.

So kids, today’s moral (brought to you by our good friend the second president of the United States and the letter “S”) is: Shakespeare is your rhetorical buddy. Use his powers well and you too may someday aspire to political greatness.

January 21, 2010

Here we Come a'Conferencing....

So while not a strictly literary update, I do feel this belongs on my literary blog.

My paper on Theatricality and Performativity in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales has been accepted by the University of Montreal and I will be giving the paper at their 7th annual EGSS conference on Performance and Performativity. So, if you happen to be in Montreal in March, do stop by.

Quel beau projet!

January 19, 2010

William Faulkner: Southern Grammarian Extraordinaire

William Faulkner writes THE LONGEST sentences the world has ever seen.

Check out this gem:

"There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like chidren's feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the binding and dreamy and victorious dust."

That would be a 157 word sentence, folks. On the first page of the novel. This next sentence was cited (for a time) to be the longest sentence in English literature (though further researching indicates that mister James Joyce surpassed it with a 4,391 word sentence in Ulysses… as though you needed another reason not to read that book):

"They both bore it as though in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirits' travail of the two young mend during that time fifty years ago, or forty-eight rather, then forty-seven and then forty-six, since it was '64 and then '65 and the starved and ragged remnant of an army having retreated across Alabama and Georgia and into Carolina swept onward not by a victorious army behind it but rather by a mounting tide of the names of lost battles from either side -- Chickamauga and Franklin, Vicksburg and Corinth and Atlanta -- battles lost not alone because of superior numbers and failing ammunition and stores, but because of generals who should not have been generals, who were generals no through training in contemporary methods or aptitude for learning them, but by the divine right to say 'Go there' conferred upon them by an absolute caste system; or because the generals of it never lived long enough to learn how to fight masse cautious accretionary battles, since they were already as obsolete as Richard or Roland or du Guesclin, who wore plumes and cloaks lined with scarlet at twenty-eight and thirty and thirty-two and captured warships with cavalry charges but no grain nor meat nor bullets, who would whip three seperate armies in as many days and then tear down their own fences to cook meat robbed from their own smokehouses, who on one night and with a handful of men would gallantly set fire to and destroy a million dollar garrison of enemy supplies and on the next night be discovered by a neighbor in bed with his wife and be shot to death; --two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking -- the one who did not yet know what he was going to do, the other who knew what he would have to do yet could not reconcile himself – Henry citing himself authority for incest, talking about his Duek John of Lorraine as if he hoped possibly to evoke that condemned and excommunicated shade to tell him in person that it was all right, as people both before and since have tried to evoke God or devil to justify them in what their glands insisted upon; --the two the four thw two facing one another in the tomblike room: Shreve, the Canadian, the child of blizzards and of cold in a bathrobe with an overcoat above it, the collar turned up about his ears; Quentin, the Southerner, the morose and delicate offspring of rain and steamy heat in the thin suitable clothing which he had brought from Mississippi, his overcoat (as thing and vain for what it was as the suit) lying on the floor where he had not even bothered to raise it:
(-- the winter of ’64 now, the army retreated across Alabama, into Georgia; now Carolina was just at their backs and Bon, the officer, thinking ‘We will either be caught and annihilated or Old Joe will extricate us and we will make contact with Lee in front of Richmond and then we will at least have the privilege of surrender’: and then one day all of a sudden he thought of it, remembered, how that Jefferson regiment of which his father was not colonel was in Longstreet’s corps, and maybe from that moment the whole purpose of the retreat seemed to him to be that of bringing him within reach of his father, to give his father one more chance…”

593 words before you hit an end stop (though the Guiness Book of World Records has this sentence listed as being 1,287 words, there must have been some revision in an edition before the one I’m consulting- MLA Corrected text hardcover edition). This sentence is on pg. 361 of that book, for any who are inclined to take a gander.

As you can imagine, reading this is… tedious. The length of the sentences make the prose breathless, rambling, not unlike the dialect which Faulkner so laudably imitates. Yes, I can see myself in the old South listening to a lady on a porch as we are surrounded by wisteria. My attention wanders, darts about, and when I return to her she is still speaking exactly as she had been in a measured pace. I scarcely think she has found a spot to breathe.

So for flavor, right on good sir William, bravo. For readability, good god someone come rescue me from this book.

More to come… I’m only about halfway through it….

January 15, 2010

Communism is just a Red Herring....

Oh Ms. Lessing. Oh my good Ms. Lessing.

I may feel differently if I was more in touch with the generation of women whom your novel so (apparently) accurately describes. I may feel differently if I had any care for the importance of political movements throughout history. I may feel differently if this novel didn’t have me thinking so bloody much at moments in my life when I’d really rather not be thinking.

But as it is, I found The Golden Notebook to be torturous to read.

Perhaps this is part of the point. Certainly it details the downward spiral of Anna’s life as she struggles with her writer’s block as well as her relationships.

To me, the greatest question posed by the novel is about a woman’s life and its meaning. Can a woman be happy without a man? The answer, undoubtedly, is “no”. The men of Lessing’s Golden Notebook are perfunctory creatures who could never hope to fully satisfy any woman. It is no wonder Anna struggles so terribly to find true companionship.

The book seems to be written along strings upon strings of affairs, none meaning anything to the invested male party (though some do mean something to Anna). Anna’s life lacks guidance and definition without a man in it, she requires the presence of a man to give her meaning. Without him she becomes lonely, depressed, self-loathing, and entirely un-woman. The perfunctory relationships she does find cannot hope to give her the depth she requires, and she struggles throughout the novel to figure out why. This struggle, to me, is very deeply linked to sex. Anna certainly has a lot of sex, though she nearly never enjoys it. It is a function. A part of life. She craves it but when she receives it is unable to find pleasure or true fulfillment within it.

Certainly this is due to the superficial nature of the sex which Anna does have. She seems to be a magnet for gentlemen callers looking to get away from their wives, for men who are terrified of commitment, for blocked writers looking to find meaning in another blocked writer. In short, it is the entirely wrong people whom Anna attracts into her life.

The friendship between Anna and Molly is further exploration of this lack of male companionship. Both lacking a man, Molly and Anna begin the book in a deep relationship. Best friends. They even live together for a time. Can two women, lacking male partners, supply each other with ersatz companionship? Can a relationship between two women be as deep or as pervasive as that between a man and a woman? The book seems to imply no- this friendship between two single women cannot hope to replace what both women are missing out on without a man in their lives.

The entire story can be summed up, to me, in a passage from pg. 607, “Then I woke into a late afternoon, the room cold and dark. I am depressed; I was entirely the white female bosom shot full of cruel male arrows. I was aching with the need for Saul, and I wanted to abuse him and rail at him and call him names. Then of course he would say: Oh poor Anna, I’m sorry, then we would make love”.

In short, I really REALLY don’t understand why I spent the last few weeks reading this novel. Here’s hoping the next one is better.

Next up: Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner.

Work Cited

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. Perennial Modern Classics. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999.

January 4, 2010

An Apology to Doris Lessing

Ms. Lessing,

I am so sorry that you are being put on the Margate Atwood list. I just had a crisis at work today… granted a crisis at my job involves spending hours in a private library pulling plays in hopes to find just a few more monologues for a class I’m TAing…. But a crisis nonetheless!

So I didn’t spend time with you today. I am sorry. Truly and deeply sorry.

And it’s not just because you’re book is so damned long and time is running out for my winter break.

….impressions so far are pretty mixed. I don’t think 150 pages is enough to really give an accurate assessment of this work of literature. I’m hoping that I have something to say before long though, otherwise I’ll just be scratching my head at the end of all of this wondering what the point is…. Again.

Most sincerely,


January 2, 2010

Feminism, Totalitarianism, and What-the-hell-were-you-thinking-ism

First and foremost: Happy New Year to you, dear reader. May this next year be filled with joy, love, happiness, peace, generally good tidings, etc. so on and so forth, and (of course) fantastic literature, theatre and movies based upon all of the above.

That being said, onward to your regularly scheduled blog post.

In response to The Handmaid’s Tale

Dear Margaret Atwood;

I don’t know why I was ever intimidated by you. I don’t know why I kept putting off and putting off opening up your lovely (if strange and somewhat scary) book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read and it has gotten me thinking, which was likely of course your precise intention in writing it.

Mostly, I have this one question: Why? Yes, this book was an interesting study in power, but (and granted this is generally my critique of any work which has strong feminist, racialist, or anything-ending-in-ist connotations) what prompted you to write such a thing? Why would you want to imagine Gileadean society? Why would you want to cause your readers to imagine this? What point can be made by creating a fictional totalitarian universe like this?

We’re not in danger of women being subjugated in this fashion and weren’t when the book was published in 1985. Granted, yes, we have some way to go before full equality among the sexes is achieved, but we’re not slipping back to the land of losing the vote. We’re actually becoming more and more enlightened each day (I would say), despite the high-powered execs not being paid as much as their male counterparts. Despite the prevalent sexist attitudes still ingrained in society. Despite the objectification of women in the media and especially in pop culture.

We’re nowhere near Gilead and I think that it’s not a stretch to say we never were.

Moving past this, I began to think about women’s roles in good ‘ol Gilead and how the color of their clothing represented their entire identity. Women, objects in this world, functions of the universe rather than active participants in it, were able to be accurately assessed by a single glance at their appearance. Atwood’s world is dictated by appearance and everything must be as it seems. Women, no longer allowed the luxury of reading, must be communicated with via pictures. In a way their whole beings have been reduced to these pictures. Their world within Gilead is entirely a world of things being as they seem.

I also thought about the brilliance of the division of power amongst the women. To the upper-class men, the women’s function in the home is spread between three to four women. One serves his needs for companionship, one for breeding, and one or two for keeping house. No single woman fulfills all the requirements of feminitity within the life of this man. Thereby, the woman holds no power in his household. Most especially regulated is arguably the aspect which could hold the most power over the man, sex. Come on folks, Aristophanes knew it too, sex is power. And sex is the ultimate power when you’re talking about a household. The Handmaid, the reproductive vessel in Gilead, is so far removed from the man she is vesseling for that if she were a man I’d say she was emasculated.

The poor men receive a single woman to perform all of the necessary chores mentioned above, but who cares if a woman holds power in their household? They’re poor. These men have no sway over anything important in Gilead, a woman can run his life if she wants to. What’s the worst she can do, tell him how to be a janitor?

So Bravo Gileadean government. Not only are women objects, but they have nifty little compartments where they must reside and refrain from contact with anything outside of their world. That’ll show them their place in society.

It seems to work well enough. We are never told why Gilead falls, but eventually it does.

That brings me to my last item of note: the ending. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. Yes, of course, there is more room for discussion of a book which ends in a cliffhanger than that which has a nicely lain out happily-ever-after. The Handmaid herself is a mysterious figure whose life we are given an entirely-too intimate look at, why should the book be any different? We are visitors to Gilead, we can never truly understand it. It would take a man’s perspective, not a woman’s, to explain to us the delicacies and intricacies of the Republic. Since all the narrative voices in The Handmaid’s Tale are women we will never receive that perspective. With so much uncertainty, it is perhaps only sensible to end on an equally uncertain note.

In the end, does it matter what happens to our Handmaid? She is a cog. Granted, a cog we come to know over the course of the novel, but a cog nonetheless. Her fate does not affect the fate of the Republic. It makes no difference really whether she is saved or damned, either way, we are assured of the ultimate demise of Gilead, entirely independent of her story.

I can’t tell if this is hopeful or nihilist of me. Perhaps a little of both.

In short, good Meg, thank you for writing this intriguing little piece, even if I'm not entirely certain what the hell you were thinking.


Next to come: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.