Sunday, July 27, 2014

Titus Andronicus vs. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

At some point recently, I wrote that the bustle of packing, selling a house, buying a house, moving, retiring, and starting a new job wasn’t cutting in to my reading time. Yet. Alas, I’ve fallen a bit behind schedule by now. So naturally I’m behind in blogging as well. Two weeks ago I made a note to myself that I’d write this post, but now I don’t remember the details of what I wanted to say.

I’ll start the few comments I do have by saying that, as with the pair of dramas I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, one of the two plays mentioned in today’s title I will take into my third decade of planned reading for more entertaining revisits, and the other I will probably never look at again. Aside from some excessive chopping-off of hands in the middle, Titus isn’t all that bad, but twice is enough for me. On the other hand, I don’t know that I could ever get enough of Puck and his bumbled meddling with the foolish mortals, or the love rectangle between Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena. And nothing can beat Bottom and his ass’s head or the completely tacked-on play that he and his fellow tradesmen put on at the end of the show.

OK, I don’t know that anything I’ve written today so far is really worth the time it’s taken to read it. So to offer some point to today’s installment of exlibrismagnis, I’ll offer this advice to homeschoolers. If you’re trying to figure out what Shakespeare play to have your kids read this year, and you think Titus Andronicus might be good because they’ll learn some Roman history while reading classic literature, have them read Midsummer instead. They won’t learn one bit of history – except the significant historical fact that William Shakespeare penned words that still release joyous streams of laughter when they’re read, even four hundred years later.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Judging Middlemarch

After a couple of weeks reading other things, I’ve picked up Middlemarch again. I’ve almost finished it now, but I still find it tedious for some reason. It could be that it just isn’t the right book for me at this time and in present circumstances. Maybe chilly autumn days would suit it better. Or maybe I need a retreat by a lake where I have nothing to do but to smell pine needles and to read. I don’t totally understand the problem. The characters, the themes, and the situations all pique my interest. But somehow it doesn’t add up to a pleasurable whole.

One theme that has especially caught my attention in the second half is the theme of judgment. Although no great trial takes place in the novel (or in the first 89% of it, anyway – some new criminal action has just taken place!), legal judgments play their part. Characters mention trials, for instance, and two characters experience the degradation of watching their belongings get loaded onto a truck as a result of unpaid debts. But civil judges aren’t the only judges important in the town of Middlemarch. Many minor characters appear only in conversations at the sewing circle or at the pub, conducting the business of the great court of gossip and public opinion. Every citizen of Middlemarch is a judge.

With the insufferably self-righteous Mr. Bulstrode, the topic of God as judge arises. Bulstrode talks enough about sin and Judgment with a capital J, but he thinks he has God figured out and isn’t as worried about Divine Judgment as he is about his own present comfort. He flirts with self-judgment and confession in his prayers, but as Eliot astutely observes, prayer is language, language is expressed opinion, and opinion of self is never based on unbiased contemplation of honest fact.

Speaking of the author reminds me that she judges her characters, too. And maybe I’ve just hit upon an explanation for my less-than-positive reaction to Middlemarch. I’m not convinced that George Eliot likes any of her own characters.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


Having just finished A Series of Unfortunate Events, I have to take the opportunity to blog about it just once. I’ve never read anything quite like these books. They include murder, kidnapping, and drug use, and yet they clearly remain children’s books. By the end of the last number, the Baudelaire children doubt whether they can be called good people and in fact can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys with any confidence, and yet the series clearly promotes moral living. And the series really does present a string of misfortunes with only a bit relief at the end but no resolution, and yet I smiled and laughed a lot at every one of the thirteen volumes.

There’s no way to describe the unique prose of this series. To get the flavor across I’d have to quote it extensively, but then you might as well just go read the original. Suffice it to say that the narration slowly reveals a marvelous, quirky, mysterious, intelligent, troubled, caring, reckless narrator who never appears in the main thread of the story but continues to assert himself, against all current rules of novel writing, in the most marvelously entertaining and instructive ways. I suspect most people who enjoy the series like the wonderfully dreadful villain, Count Olaf, the most, but my favorite character by far is the Lemony Snicket of the narration (who is and isn’t the Lemony Snicket who authored the books in real life). We know he knows his readers are children, because he constantly defines words, phrases, and idioms that young readers would need help with; but this means he also constantly supplies his young readers with those new words and phrases and expects them to remember them. He gives twelve-year-olds a lot of credit with his grammatical structures as well, his sentences often running several lines through the use of relative clauses and participial phrases. Every definition is exactly correct, and yet almost all of them are also extremely funny.

I do have to complain, though, about one joke that I didn’t find funny at all. Baby Sunny speaks for most of the series in apparently nonsensical words that, like the new vocabulary in the narration, get translated or defined for the reader. A lot of chuckles arise from rethinking Sunny’s words to find the hidden association or pun. For instance, Sunny once says, “Neiklot,” by which she means “Why are you telling us about this ring?” I laughed at this one. (Should I let you discover the joke on your own?) But I frowned when the narrator explained Sunny’s “Boswell” as meaning “I don’t care about your life.” Did Snicket really have to slam one of my favorite books? As much intelligence as the SoUE expects from its readers, surely some of the humor, like that in cartoons, is intended only for the older folks. I hope that this reference is one of them and that it flies over the kids’ heads and doesn’t prevent any young person from eventually enjoying and benefitting from the greatest biography of history.

A couple of months ago, we watched a documentary called When Jews Were Funny, which suggested that the last fifty years’ simultaneous decrease in both American anti-Semitism and American Jewish humor is not coincidental. Author Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler, grew up in a Jewish home, and I couldn’t help thinking as I read these last two installments that perhaps the Jewish genius for finding laughter in pain still has plenty of life in it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

1 Henry IV vs. A Winter’s Tale

I’ve experienced the high and the low in my Shakespeare reading so far this year. As much as I love 1 Henry IV (see my post from a week ago), I have to work just to get through A Winter’s Tale. First, there’s Leontes, unpleasant and absurd. Where Iago has to work hard to stir up Othello’s jealousy, Leontes becomes suspicious of his wife and insanely jealous of his boyhood friend because of just one innocent conversation. For two more acts, he spurns appeals to both his reason and his sentiment, and then he condemns his newborn daughter (whom he doesn’t believe to be his) to be left to die on a desert beach. His wife swoons, and he thinks she’s dead and doesn’t show any remorse. After all this, his jealousy disappears just as quickly during a scolding by the wife of one of his council members. To top it all off, Shakespeare calls the desert beach country Bohemia. As I said, unpleasant and absurd. Pleasant and absurd, I can take: A Comedy of Errors comes to mind. Unpleasant and plausible also work: consider Macbeth. But Leontes’ shabby treatment of his family is tedious and makes no sense. Fortunately for all concerned, they live in Shakespeare World, so the daughter is rescued and raised by a shepherd and marries the local prince, and the wife returns to her penitent husband after sixteen years. But are we really supposed to buy into the scene where she poses as a statue?

But the rewards of The First Part of Henry IV are worth the price of the existence of A Winter’s Tale. For that matter, Falstaff alone makes the existence of A Winter’s Tale tolerable. Falstaff, who lies clownishly to cover up his cowardice in one scene and then coldly argues against the futility of honor in another. Falstaff, who play-acts the part of Henry IV with a cushion on his head. Then there’s Prince Hal. Where the contradictions within Leontes just make him seem inconsistent, Hal’s contradictions make him deeply human. He hangs out with thieves, but apparently steals only from them – and then only when they’ve stolen from his father. He loves Falstaff but eerily foreshadows his future rejection of the portly knave. He plans to appear dissolute until he ascends to the throne but then fights valiantly for his father in the Percys’ insurrection. Growing up in a shadow makes things complicated enough. Growing up in the shadow of a father who usurped the throne of England makes living a sensible life almost impossible. But then the Hal of Shakespeare also has to grow up in the shadow of his future self, since his audience knows that he will become one of the great heroes of British history. Of course in the hands of the master, he comes out rich and complex and wonderful.

Some people like A Winter’s Tale, and they’re not wrong to like it. Some of the dialog is interesting, especially in scenes involving princess Perdita in Bohemia. And even if I find it hard to believe, the image of the presumed-dead queen posing as a statue is unforgettable. But I have a plan drawn up for my third decade of scheduled reading in the classics, and while 1 Henry IV appears on it twice, A Winter’s Tale doesn’t show up at all.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kant Cant

I just had to write a little bit on some peculiar vocabulary in Kant, if only because I thought of the punny title. (And I’m so sure I’m the first ever to concoct that phrase!) Well, I actually wanted to write more on Kant this year because I think I actually understood what I read this time. His Critique of Aesthetic Judgment says that beauty – just like the space, time, and causality of his Critique of Pure Reason – lies not in the object but in the mind of the observer. I of course wanted to say “in the eye of the beholder,” but that phrase conjures connotations that Kant would not have agreed with. Our common phrase means that no one should expect anyone else to agree with his own assessments of beauty: that, for instance, that anyone is fully justifiable in being the only person on earth to find a certain object beautiful. But Kant says that, even though the judgment of beauty is subjective in the sense that beauty arises only in an observer’s interaction with an object, we have a right to think that everyone should come to the same conclusion. Thus we have a contradiction, just like the contradictions that Kant leads to in all his other critiques, to which Kant offers a solution like all the other solutions.

To be precise, Kant pinpoints the contradiction in the question whether the judgment of beauty is grounded in a concept. But I don’t want to talk about grounding in concepts or contradictions or solutions. What I really want talk about is Kant’s vocabulary. I’m saying “contradiction,” but what I actually read in the book was antinomy. That word may only represent a strange choice on the part of the translator, but I assume its use indicates a strange choice on the part of Kant, since his writing is full of thick prose and long unusual words. I don’t read the word apodeictic anywhere but in Kant. Why couldn’t he just say “certain” or “necessarily true”? And why couldn’t he have used contradiction rather than antinomy? (Not that this means that the words should be banned, but blogspot’s editor doesn’t know either apodeictic or antinomy. Hmm, then again it doesn't know blogspot, either.) As my friend Mike Lee puts it, Kant hurts his own cause more than any other philosopher in history by making the presentation of his innovative ideas so opaque.

Kant makes things even harder by using many familiar words in unusual ways, as well. I think of intuition as meaning a hunch, or the ability to reach a conclusion immediately, without thinking the problem through; Merriam-Webster seems to agree with me. But when Kant uses the term, he means the faculty of thinking an image, whether by sense, memory, or imagination. By sublime, he means, not perfectly beautiful or inspirationally wonderful as I think most people take it to mean, but so frighteningly powerful that the response of puny humans goes beyond fear. For Kant, God or a storm at sea can be sublime, not music or sculpture. I think Kant’s prose is sublime.