Friday, March 30, 2007

A Pornographic Christmas Carol

One Christmas Eve, Ebeneezer Splooge is visited by three spirits--The Ghost of People He's Fucked, The Ghost of People He's Fucking Now, and the Ghost of People He's Going to Get Around to Fucking Someday. He learns that he's always been kind of a lousy lay and really needs to work on his technique.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Thoreau's Journal, edited by Lawrence Stapleton in the Dover edition, begins with one of the best comments I ever read on journal-keeping:

We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them.
-March 7 1838

Other Thoreau quotes I'm compiling for use in class (from "Walking," "Life Without Principle," "Civil Disobedience"):

A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it.

I would not have every man nor every part of a man cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated.

I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever.

All good things are wild and free.

We do not live for idle amusement. I would not run round a corner to see the world blow up.

In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office.

The opportunities of living are diminished in proportion as what are called the 'means' are increased.

The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downwards.

There is something servile in the habit of seeking after a law which we may obey.

Is democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government?

Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?

Let your life be a counter friction to the machine.

And from Walden:

A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.

I wish I'd thought to include that as an epigraph to Mythomania.

And finally:

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior.

This last is much on my mind lately, and the major theme in what it occurs to me to write in fiction and plays.


This morning I learned (ego-surfing) that a high-school student in North Dakota made it to the state forensics finals performing "I stopped writing poetry . . ."; a student in Florida did the same a couple of years ago and either won or came very close. And that you can order Mythomania at web pages headed "Travel Guides - Florida" and "Acne Treatment Options."

It's hard to say what makes The Host such a great movie--for me, much more of a classic than many cult favorites, especially in horror. Mostly, it's utterly brilliant graphic composition and a great eye for details of character, and character interaction; whoever said it was "a cross between Jaws and Little Miss Sunshine" had it exactly right, except that it's better than either at what each tries so hard to do. It works extremely well as parable without saying something specific about anything like US imperialism, environmental disaster, or the lunacy of bureaucracy.
Actually, add some Italian neo-realism to that: a cross between Jaws, Little Miss Sunshine, and Bicycle Thieves. And some E.T. and Jurassic Park, which now makes me think it's a lot more rooted in Spielberg's parental-responsibility themes than I saw while watching it. Best crowds fleeing monster scenes ever, I think.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

I'll probably find I have a lot of random notes on Prague to transcribe soon. A lot are on a kooky idea for a novel, and I may have said enough already about novels I haven't actually gotten to writing. Meanwhile:
I'm enjoying The Coasts of Bohemia by Derek Sayer, not only because he gives a lot of detail on Czech history, but also because I like his ideas about identity, language, and nationhood (they're not congruent, basically). And he says this in the introduction:

From the vantage point of London, or Paris, or New York--or, not so very long ago, Moscow--it is possible to identify history with progress, to ascribe to it providence, directionality, and meaning. It is possible to write modernity in the singular, and to prattle about "the end of history." Such fables are believable precisely so long as the Bohemias of this world are forgotten. Their dislocation is the condition of our coherence. Viewed from Bohemia itself, the modern condition looks somewhat different. It is a chiaroscuro of beauties and terrors, whose colors are invariable more vibrant, and whose depths are much darker, than our anemic narratives of progress are apt to acknowledge. Modernity was never either singular or simple. It was always a "postmodern" polyphony, in which fragile stabilities of location and identity rested on the uncertain vicissitudes of power.

That's very well said, though there's more. And much more significant when you consider it isn't just true of "modernity," but of all cultures and histories: not only do periodic accounts always exclude indigenous peoples, who continue on in the same actual present as the academics and ideologues who consign them to "the past," but for every age, the view of cultural historians remains narrowly focused on the most prestigious voices and views. Who knows what else might have been going on during "the age of Athenian greatness"?
Aside from (kind of) clearing up what all those defenestrations were about, Sayer provides lots of seductive details--as with the Renaissance mural discovered during a renovation project of 1919, depicting
a Talmudic legend in which the youngest of three sons, by refusing to join his brothers in an archery competition in which his father's exhumed corpse is the target, gains the inheritance.
It seems to me that has Lear beat all to hell.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Shakespeare in Prague II

Rudolf II was also deposed by his brother in 1611 after a reign notable not only for his shift in attitude toward the Jews and his personal interest in Rabbi Loew, but his absorption in religion, mysticism, and alchemy. He is the person who brought the British magicians John Dee and Edward Kelly to Prague. Shakespeare probably wrote The Tempest in 1611; the scenario involves a similar situation and is the only plot of Shakespeare's not traceable to an obvious source. This parallel is probably well-known to scholars of the play but I'm not sure I've ever come across it; at least it hasn't registered till now. What interests me especially is combining this with the theory that Shakespeare received his background on Jews from Jewish Italian Musicians (as in Shakespeare and the Jews). The stuff I've been reading says that the connection of Rabbi Loew with the Golem is a 19th-century invention, a piece of spurious folklore like so much else--although that's an interesting topic in itself, as with Irish, Scottish, and other folklore of the uncanny that turns out to be inventions of modern nationalist revivals.
If I were to do The Dybbuk in a course on the Uncanny, that could be a focusing topic--the functional equivalent of trick photography, say, in artfully manipulating the audience's response so that they feel a connection to the speciously authentic, numinous, or archetypal. It's relevant to The DaVinci Code and contemporary Christian movements like Pentecostalism, too, that use contemporary media to pretend to present something both ancient and "spiritual." This is worthn considering more as a serious topic for the course.
By the way, here's a quote from Stewart Klawans I filed away years ago:
An archetype is merely a cliche as seen by someone who lacks a sense of humor.
That's from his review of The Doors, appropriately enough.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Shakespeare in Prague

The last part of Rudolf II's reign and Rabbi Loew's tenure in Prague coincide with the period in which Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and Hamlet which makes it interesting to think about how the Golem legend would come across in a play like Marlowe's Dr. Faustus--or for that matter, The Merchant of Venice. I always want to see what the flip side looks like in some moral situation that there's been universal agreement about--which is why I've always been interested in retelling the story of Salem with the witches real and malevolent.

This week there's been some passing back and forth of the first chapter of the dream education book for the final (maybe) version of the proposal, and it makes me feel like once I get my notes together, my section should not frighten me too much. After that is drafted, I can track down informants and work in the stuff that comes from interviews. During April, I should spend some time in the Library of Congress researching Winsor McCay for the talk I give at Sonoma in July, which is intended to be an early chapter of the book on dreams and movies.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?

How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? is the title of an article that famously argues that speculation about characters outside of what the fiction tells us is futile in criticism. In Shakespeare it can lead to the bizarre insistence that there is an underlying reality, a true interpretation, to be uncovered. But in theater, that kind of speculation is just the backstory; it's just what actors and directors do need to know to give the characters life.
I usually think how I'd depict something when I read the plays; in fact, it's hard for me not to push students toward my own favored images and stick to soliciting theirs. If I produced Macbeth, I'd make use of the fact that we know Lady Macbeth has had at least one child, though we see and hear nothing of their children in the course of the play (despite the fact that the sons of every other major male character figure in the plot). I'd covey the death of Macbeth's son or children, maybe by setting I,7 by the graveside--the moment Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to kill Duncan. Then when she says,
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this

That would covey--in very melodramatic fashion, but the play is full of over-the-top touches, so it's in keeping--the real horror Macbeth feels when he hears this from her.

O Horror!

"O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!"

Shakespeare class moves on to Macbeth today. This is where I introduce historical considerations: Does the contemporary audience/reader really need to know anything about who Shakespeare was, what was on his and his contemporaries' minds? I argue that in some cases it immeasurably enriches the play (as when recognizing the religious around ghosts and purgatory, revenge and justice, in Hamlet gives the perspective of a very different worldview and opens the mind to new (because old) ways of conceiving of reality, selfhood, morality. In other cases, it simply offers the play as evidence of an issue of interest to historians and not to theater audiences, or worse, becomes a mere test for licensure in criticism.
Today I do a background talk on the biographical Shakespeare and on what we know of the historical circumstances that affect our understanding of Macbeth: the succession crisis, the Gunpowder Plot, equivocation and the position of Catholics in James I's world (including the role of the papacy and emergence of a concept of a real national church, which, as an editorial in the NY Times today explained, is entirely relevant in the current controversy about the American Episcopal church's ties to worldwide Anglicanism); witchcraft; gender issues "the female body"; original performance conditions; and Nicholas Brooke's great discussion of Macbeth as a baroque play.
Brooke's introduction to the Oxford edition of the play and Marjorie Garber's book Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality are two primary sources for the way I've been thinking about the Uncanny. I've been keeping some notes on what's most important to me. The first thing is to examine and to some extent challenge the fad ion the last 10 or 15 years to base discussions on Freud's one essay on the topic--a really unhealthy effect of the continuing influence of Freud and Lacan in the academy. Even when the ideas are good, it's stultifying to have all discussions go back to some classical, revered source in Freud or Marx or Althuser. There's a lot I don't know about this topic and I will obviously start by going back to Todorov on the Fantastic and getting to know Nicholas Royle and Marina Warner's books; there is probably something in Bakhtin that is relevant. On topics like this the writers are usually more inspiring than the critics, and writers like E. F. Benson and M. R. James--or Lovecraft, I guess, wrote essays on the ghost story and horror that are probably good places to start; so did Henry James, for that matter, but his ideas are always so quirky.
I have been thinking about the stories and books that would matter most to me. I'd probably introduce the topic with scenes from:
R&J, Macbeth, Hamlet
(In R&J, for example, I think of Juliet looking down on Romeo and seeing him as if in his grave--it beings up first of all the idea of the uncanny as an unpredictable surge of perception beyond the presentation of the ordinary senses, and it's important tyo start with such a basic idea in order to demystify it and locate it within theories of how we acquire knowledge of the world. One has to remember that a problem in teaching a course on The uncanny is the number of people likely to believe in the objective existence of supernatural phenomena, as opposed to looking at them as products of our epistemology.)
Romantic poets: Keats, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, or St. Agnes' Eve or one of Byron's eerie poems like Darkness or The Dream. Coleridge, Christabel.
One of the things students won't know--an amazing number of theorists of the postmodern seem to ignore it, too--is how much German Romanticism set the tone for everything that later gets considered self-reflective, disjunctive, uncanny and "postmodern" in art. Schiller on the sublime is more interesting and readable than Kant.
I would think a major emphasis on E. T. A. Hoffman, The Sandman--still a story so weird it's hard to theorize--and on Poe.
Maybe The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, which is ambitious for a class but very enlightening, and maybe recognizably a precursor to some of the fantasy literature they enjoy (as well as to the plot structures of films like Memento or The Matrix that self-consciously play with timelines and levels of reality).
James, The Turn of the Screw along with The Innocents is the best possible opportunity to discuss the conditioning of the sense of the uncanny by the possibilities of the particular medium. Sometimes that movie looks strangely like Days of Heaven in its way of telling the story.
A lot of possibilities: Gogol, Dostoevsky (The Double), Dracula, Borges, Calvino.
The topic makes me want to think about Pirandello, too. The recent film Stranger than Fiction is clearly Pirandellan; I don't know yet if it's any good.
It's an opportunity to think about the whole career of Philip K. Dick as an exemplary author, and especially Ubik or The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, books whose subject really is the experience of the uncanny as an authentic dimension of our experience of the world, which is what I'd like to get at.
But that would have to be severely cut down cause I'd want to give a lot of attention to the uncanny on film, particularly the early influence of the topic, as part of the whole thing of challenging the realist paradigm. Especially:
The Golem
Student of Prague
Dybbuk (It'd be great to finally have a chance to use it in a class)
Cat People
The Uninvited
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Total Recall
Ring vs. Ringu
The Box: Twin Peaks, X-Files

Off to Prague on March 10 and I have no idea yet what we'll do there. I'm sure there's some kiind of Golem tour available, and plenty of Kafka tours.
By the way, I showed the Simpsons Golem in class with excerpts from the 1920 German film.

Speaking of the uncanny:
Go over to: Dennis Cooper's blog and scroll down to yesterday, Feb 28, to look at the pictures from Dennis' collaboration with a dance ensemble, Kindertotenlieder, premiered in Brest last night.