Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare

My ten creative books #6: The Art of Fiction

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I bought The Art of Fiction by John Gardner nearly a quarter of a century ago, at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, California, shortly before starting my freshman year of high school. (On that same afternoon, I picked up a copy of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller, and my family also somehow acquired our first cat, which suggests that my life would be significantly different if that one day were magically erased.) Since then, I’ve read it in pieces a dozen or more times—it’s one of the few books that I’ve brought wherever I’ve moved—and I still know much of it by heart. Writing guides tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, and his illustrations of process are still the most vivid that I’ve ever seen:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Yet Gardner is equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul,” including frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism, and in reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with his high standards in mind.

By now, I’ve internalized all of his advice, even if I don’t always follow it, and as a result, when I read his book again now, it’s less as a guide than as a novel in itself, with an archetypal writer—who shouldn’t be confused with Gardner—who emerges as a character in his own right. For instance:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And his offhand observations about other writers have stuck in my head as well. Writing of a possible plot hole in Hamlet, for instance, Gardner offers a view of Shakespeare that I’ve never forgotten:

The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.

Of the countless books that I’ve read on writing, this is still the best, as well as the finest manual of the life of which Gardner writes elsewhere: “Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world…For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 17, 2016.

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after listening to Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of years, I still can’t put the notion away. What these two writers have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities—hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other medium, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. And what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the whirlwind in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” taking us from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence countless times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all. (Miranda’s knack for delivering information in the form of self-contained set pieces that amount to miniature plays in themselves, like “Blow Us All Away,” has even influenced my approach to my own book.)

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A while back, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under far greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of unhurried readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself. Shakespeare clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

As it happens, I originally got to thinking about all this after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ve long been meaning to read Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. (Berger, incidentally, was replaced as the show’s writer by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who has since gone on to greater fame as the creator of Riverdale.) But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which this musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. An author or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it, although this has clearly led to troubling cultural tradeoffs of its own—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame can open doors and create possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

From Venice to Yale

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt offers an insightful consideration of a Shakespearean comedy toward which he—like most of us—can hardly help having mixed feelings: “There is something very strange about experiencing The Merchant of Venice when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain.” After recalling his uncomfortable experience as a Jewish undergraduate at Yale in the sixties, Greenblatt provides a beautiful summation of the pragmatic solution at which he arrived:

I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright…I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

Greenblatt, of course, went on to become one of our most valuable literary critics, and his evaluation of The Merchant of Venice is among the best I’ve seen: “If Shylock had behaved himself and remained a mere comic foil…there would have been no disturbance. But Shakespeare conferred too much energy on his Jewish usurer for the boundaries of native and alien, us and them, to remain intact…He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.”

I’ve spent more time thinking about The Merchant of Venice than all but a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, precisely because of the “excess of life” that Greenblatt sees in Shylock, which is at its most impressive in a context where it has no business existing at all. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s genius is most visible when you compare him to his sources, which he transforms so completely that it destroys the notion that he was an opportunist who simply borrowed most of his plots. The Merchant of Venice is unique because its models are somehow right there on stage, existing simultaneously with the text, since we can hardly watch it and be unaware of the contrast between the antisemitic caricature of the original and Shylock’s uncanny power. Harold Bloom captures this quality in an extraordinary passage from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed…If I were a director, I would instruct my Shylock to act like a hallucinatory bogeyman, a walking nightmare flamboyant with a big false nose and a bright red wig, that is to say, to look like Marlowe’s Barabas. We can imagine the surrealistic effect of such a figure when he begins to speak with the nervous intensity, the realistic energy of Shylock, who is so much of a personality as to at least rival his handful of lively precursors in Shakespeare: Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John, Mercurio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But these characters all fit their roles, even if we can conceive of them as personalities outside of their plays. Shylock simply does not fit his role; he is the wrong Jew in the right play.

On some level, Shylock is a darker miracle of characterization than even Hamlet or Lear, because so much of his impact seems involuntary, even counterproductive. Shakespeare had no particular reason to make him into anything more than a stock villain, and in fact, his vividness actively detracts from the logic of the story itself, as Greenblatt notes: “Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.” Bloom, in turn, speaks of “the gap between the human that Shakespeare invents and the role that as playmaker he condemns Shylock to act,” a cognitive divide that tells us more about his art than the plays in which every part has been revised to fit like magic. I often learn more about craft from works of art that I resist than ones with which I agree completely, which only makes sense. When we want to believe in a story’s message, we’re less likely to scrutinize its methods, and we may even forgive lapses of taste or skill because we want to give it the benefit of the doubt. (This is the real reason why aspiring authors should avoid making overt political statements in a story, which encourages friendly critics to read the result more generously than it deserves. It’s gratifying in the moment, but it also can lead to faults going unaddressed until it’s too late to fix them.) Its opposite number is a work of art that we’d love to dismiss on moral or intellectual grounds, but which refuses to let us go. Since we have no imaginable reason to grant it a free pass, its craft stands out all the more clearly. The Merchant of Venice is the ultimate example. It’s the first play that I’d use to illustrate Shakespeare’s gift at creating characters who can seem more real to us than ourselves—which doesn’t make it any easier to read, teach, or perform.

This brings us back to the figure of Greenblatt at Yale, who saw the works that pained him as an essential part of his education. He writes:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueler strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents. They could not look out at a broad meadow from the windows of our car without sighing and talking about the number of European Jews who could have been saved from annihilation and settled in that very space. (For my parents, meadows should have come with what we now call “trigger warnings.”) I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch.

The question of how students should confront the problematic works of the past is one that I don’t expect to resolve here, except by noting that The Merchant of Venice represents a crucial data point. Without it, our picture of Shakespeare—and even of his greatness as a writer—is necessarily incomplete. When it comes to matters of education, it helps to keep a few simple tests in mind, and the humanities have an obligation to enable the possibility of this kind of confrontation, while also providing the framework within which it can be processed. Instead of working forward from a set of abstract principles, perhaps we should work backward from the desired result, which is to have the tools that we need when we reach the end of the labyrinth and find Shylock waiting for us. Even if we aren’t ready for him, we may not have a choice. As Bloom observes: “It would have been better for the Jews, if not for most of The Merchant of Venice’s audiences, had Shylock been a character less conspicuously alive.”

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

The beautiful and the serious

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A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas. A painter makes patterns with shapes and colors, a poet with words. A painting may embody an “idea,” but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. In poetry, ideas count for a good deal more; but, as Housman insisted, the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated: “I cannot satisfy myself that there are any such things as poetical ideas.…Poetry is no the thing said but a way of saying it.”

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed King.

Could lines be better, and could ideas be at once more trite and more false? The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty of the verbal pattern. A mathematician, on the other hand, has no material to work with but ideas, and so his patterns are likely to last longer, since ideas wear less with time than words…

The “seriousness” of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects. We may say, roughly, that a mathematical idea is “significant” if it can be connected, in a natural and illuminating way, with a large complex of other mathematical ideas…The beauty of a mathematical theorem depends a great deal on its seriousness, as even in poetry the beauty of a line may depend to some extent on the significance of the ideas which it contains. I quoted two lines of Shakespeare as an example of the sheer beauty of a verbal pattern, but

After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well

seems still more beautiful. The pattern is just as fine, and in this case the ideas have significance and the thesis is sound, so that our emotions are stirred much more deeply. The ideas do matter to the pattern, even in poetry, and much more, naturally, in mathematics; but I must not try to argue the question seriously.

G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2017 at 6:57 am

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

The best advice I’ve found for approaching this enormous, daunting book is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that Marcel Proust’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels that we usually read than with the volumes of myths and fairy tales that we devour in childhood, and it might seem more accessible to the readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been titled The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible. An exchange that lasts for a few lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer deploys his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest continuous slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction can afford.

And the first thing that you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the gargantuan twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, as well as a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with vivid characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a major novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same level of artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings that we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply enough, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything else in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after playing Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of months, I can’t put the notion away. What the two of them have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think first of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities. Hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other idiom, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. But what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the one in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” or from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence multiple times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all.

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A few days ago, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time naturally informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself, if only because Shakespeare was better at it than anybody else. He clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

"Deeply Furious" from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

As it happens, I got to thinking about all this shortly after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ll probably end up reading Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its other problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which the musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. A writer or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame opens doors and creates possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

Note: I’m heading out this afternoon for Kansas City, Missouri, where I’ll be taking part in programming over the next four days at the World Science Fiction Convention. Hope to see some of you there!

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

The slow fade

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Pet Shop Boys

Note: I’m on vacation this week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 16, 2014.

A while back, William Weir wrote an excellent piece in Slate about the decline of the fade-out in pop music, once ubiquitous, now nearly impossible to find. Of the top ten songs of 1985, every single one ended with a fade; in the three years before the article was written, there was only one, “Blurred Lines,” which in itself is a conscious homage to—or an outright plagiarism of—a much earlier model. Weir points to various possible causes for the fade’s disappearance, from the impatience of radio and iTunes listeners to advances in technology that allow producers to easily splice in a cold ending, and he laments the loss of the technique, which at its best produces an impression that a song never ends, but imperceptibly embeds itself into the fabric of the world beyond. (He also notes that a fade-out, more prosaically, can be used to conceal a joke or hidden message. One of my favorites, which he doesn’t mention, occurs in “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys, which undermines itself with a nearly inaudible aside at the very end: “Maybe I didn’t love you…”)

The slow fade is a special case of what I’ve elsewhere called the Layla effect, in which a song creates an impression of transcendence or an extension into the infinite by the juxtaposition of two unrelated parts—although one of the few songs on that list that doesn’t end with a fade, interestingly, is “Layla” itself. As Weir points out, a proper fade involves more than just turning down the volume knob: it’s a miniature movement in its own right, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end, and it produces a corresponding shift in the listener’s mental state. He cites a fascinating study by the Hanover University of Music in Germany, which measured how long students tapped along to the rhythm of the same song in two different versions. When the song was given a cold ending, subjects stopped tapping an average of 1.4 seconds before the song was over, but with a fade-out, they continued to tap 1.04 seconds after the song ended, as if the song had somehow managed to extend itself beyond its own physical limits. As the Pet Shop Boys say elsewhere on Introspective, the music plays forever.

Joe Mantell and Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

In some ways, then, a fade-out is the musical equivalent of the denouement in fiction, and it’s easy to draw parallels to different narrative strategies. A cold ending is the equivalent of the kind of abrupt close we see in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which rarely go on for long after the demise of the central character. (This may be due in part to the logistics of theatrical production: a scene change so close to the end would only sow confusion, and in the meantime, the leading actor is doing his best to lie motionless on the stage.) The false fade, in which a song like “Helter Skelter” pretends to wind down before abruptly ramping up again, has its counterpart in the false denouement, which we see in so many thrillers, perhaps most memorably in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon. And the endless slow fade, which needs a long song like “Hey Jude” or “Dry the Rain” to sustain it, is reminiscent of the extended denouements in epic novels from War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings. The events of the epic wrench both the protagonist and reader out of everyday life, and after a thousand crowded pages, it takes time to settle us back into Bag End.

The fade, in short, is a narrative tool like any other, complete with its own rules and tricks of the trade. Weir quotes the sound engineer Jeff Rothschild, who says that in order for the fade to sound natural to a listener’s ear, the volume must “go down a little quicker at first, and then it’s a longer fade”—which is a strategy often employed in fiction, in which an abrupt conclusion to the central conflict is followed by a more gradual withdrawal. There are times, of course, when a sudden ending is what you want: Robert Towne himself admits that the original dying close of Chinatown isn’t as effective as the “simple severing of the knot” that Roman Polanski imposed. But it’s a mistake to neglect a tool both so simple and so insinuating. (A fade-in, which allows the song to edge gradually into our circle of consciousness, can create an equally haunting impression, as in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and one of my favorite deep cuts by the Beatles, George Harrison’s “I Want to Tell You.”) These days, we have a way of seeing songs as discrete items on a playlist, but they often work best if they’re allowed to spill over a bit to either side. An ending draws a line in the world, but sometimes it’s nice if it’s a little blurred.

Written by nevalalee

April 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t often see him as a writer who meticulously revised his own work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out poetry unaltered onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how he seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers have to admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the ending of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through passing references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is revealing in itself. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, in revision, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story in its entirety that you know what it’s really about. And the little we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm this.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but I’m not sure if it even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings in the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we say?”

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

What’s the point of the novel?

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Virginia Woolf

Why do we write novels? I’m not talking here about a defense of the form itself—when a novel is good, that’s all the justification it needs. Rather, I’ve always been interested in the question of why so many young writers, whose strongest gifts might lie in other kinds of expression, are instinctively drawn to the novel as a sort of testing ground. Susan Sontag, for instance, was manifestly born to be a cultural critic, but she made her debut with the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit, neither of which exactly set the world on fire. Norman Mailer made a bigger splash with The Naked and the Dead, but its success turned out to be an outlier: he struggled to recapture that initial magic throughout his career, and he achieved his most lasting fame as a journalist and rogue public intellectual. The novel, it seems, is a ceremony of initiation for aspiring talents, a medium of tremendous complexity and difficulty that establishes a writer’s credentials, even if he or she seems likely to move on to other battlefields. And this is despite the fact that the novel itself is an increasingly hard sell for publishers and readers, at least compared to more marketable genres like memoirs and creative nonfiction.

That said, even if it no longer stands at the center of our culture, there’s no question that a novel still carries a certain cachet. And you could even argue that as the novel becomes marginalized, it grows more useful as a test of talent: to break through in fiction these days requires a writer of exceptional skill and determination. Yet I sometimes wonder if there might not be better alternatives. From the outside, it seems that writing a novel would train you to do just about anything else. Certainly other forms feel easier, or marginally less backbreaking, once you’ve willed three hundred pages of story into existence. Sooner or later, though, you find that the novel has peculiar requirements of its own, and doing it well demands that the author develop skills that may not have any application elsewhere. When I was younger, I wanted to work in every form and genre—I saw myself moving with ease from novels to short stories to essays to criticism, like the man of letters I dreamed of being. Over time, however, I’ve learned to be content with being mediocre in everything except being a good father and novelist. The novel, if you’re doing it right, sucks up everything you have, leaving little else for hobbies or side projects. And if I really wanted to be a critic or journalist, it would have made more sense to focus on that, rather than diverting my energies on a form that asked for everything I could possibly give it.

sontag

Yet I can’t shake the sense that the novel can also teach transferable skills that can’t be acquired in any other way. That isn’t a good reason to write a novel if it isn’t what you already want, but if you end up there anyway and survive the experience, you’ve learned a few things that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. To take an example from the very highest levels, here’s what Virginia Woolf once wrote to a young poet:

Can you doubt that the reason Shakespeare knew every sound and syllable in the language and could do exactly what he liked with grammar and syntax, was that Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra rushed him into this knowledge; that the lords, officers, dependents, and murders and common soldiers of the plays insisted that he should say exactly what they felt in words expressing their feelings? It was they who taught him to write, not the begetter of the sonnets.

Woolf is talking about drama, not the novel, but her underlying point—that a genre that deliberately creates a multiplicity of imaginary voices will push the writer into making new discoveries more reliably than any other—rings particularly true for novelists. (You could argue that a series of short stories could produce the same effect, but even if the writer tackled a wide range of character types, there’s something to be said for a single narrative in which everyone is forced to jostle together in surprising combinations.) The novel, which compels the writer to keep a diverse body of material under control to the breaking point, still feels like the form most likely to generate unique talents, even, or especially, if they move on. So it’s possible that writers who tackle the novel first, even if they end up elsewhere, are exactly where they need to be. But Woolf deserves the last word:

So that if you want to satisfy all those senses that rise in a swarm whenever we drop a poem among them—the reason, the imagination, the eyes, the ears, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, not to mention a million more that the psychologists have yet to name, you will do well to embark upon a long poem in which people as unlike yourself as possible talk at the tops of their voices. And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.

Written by nevalalee

June 8, 2015 at 10:12 am

Introduction to finality

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Community

Yesterday, while I was out of the house, my wife asked our daughter: “Do you want your veggie snacks in a bowl?” My daughter, who is two years old, replied: “Sure!” I wasn’t there to see it, but when I got back, I was assured by all involved that it was hilarious. Then, this morning, in response to another question, my daughter said: “Sure!” Without thinking twice, I said: “That’s a good callback, honey. Is that your new catchphrase?” Which made me realize how often I talk about myself and those around me as if we were on a television show. We’ve always used terms from art and literature to describe the structure of our own lives: when we talk about “starting a new chapter” or “turning the page,” we’re implicitly comparing ourselves to the characters in novels. Even a phrase like “midlife crisis” is indebted, almost without knowing it, to the language of literary criticism. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that we’d also appropriate the grammar of television, which is the art form that has the most in common with the way our lives tend to unfold. When I moved to New York after college, I thought of myself as the star of a spinoff featuring a breakout character from the original series, a supporting player who ended up being my roommate. And a friend once told me that he felt that the show jumped the shark after I got a job in finance. (He wasn’t wrong.)

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Community has exercised such a hold over the imaginations of its viewers. For the past six years, it hasn’t always been the funniest sitcom around, or the most consistent, or even the most creative. But it’s the show that thought most urgently about the ways in which we use television to understand ourselves. For most of the show’s run, these themes centered on the character of Abed, but as last night’s season finale—which feels an awful lot like it ought to be the last episode of the entire series—clearly demonstrated, their real impact was on Jeff. Community could sometimes be understood as a dialogue between Abed and Jeff, with one insisting on seeing events in terms of narrative conventions while the other brought him down to earth, but in the end, Jeff comes to see these tropes as a way of making sense of his own feelings of loss. We’re aware, of course, that these people are characters on a television series, which is why Abed’s commentary on the action was often dismissed as a winking nod to the audience. But it wouldn’t be so powerful, so compelling, and ultimately so moving if we didn’t also sense that seeing ourselves through that lens, at least occasionally, is as sane a way as any of giving a shape to the shapelessness of our lives.

Danny Pudi on Community

Community may not endure as a lasting work of our culture—it’s more than enough that it was a great sitcom about half the time—but it’s part of a long tradition of stories that offer us metaphors drawn from their own artistic devices. Most beautifully, we have Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, which are framed as acts in a play. (Shakespeare returned to such images with a regularity that implies that he saw such comparisons as more than figures of speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage…” “These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all sprits and / Are melted into air, into thin air…”) Joyce used The Odyssey to provide a framework for his characters’ lives, as Proust did, more subtly, with The Thousand and One Nights. These are all strategies for structuring a literary work, but we wouldn’t respond to them so profoundly if they didn’t also reflect how we felt about ourselves. You could even say that fiction takes the form of a shapely sequence of causal events, at least in the western tradition, because we see our lives in much the same way. When you stand back, everyone’s life looks more or less the same, even as they differ in the details, and as we grow older, we see how much we’re only repeating patterns that others before us have laid down.

This might seem like a lot of pressure to place on a show that included a self-conscious fart joke—with repeated callbacks—in its final episode. But it’s the only way I can explain why Community ended up meaning more to me than any other sitcom since the golden age of The Simpsons. The latter show also ended up defining our lives as completely as any work of art can, mostly because its sheer density and longevity allowed it to provide a reference point to every conceivable situation. Community took a clever, almost Borgesian shortcut by explicitly making itself its own subject, and on some weird level, it benefited from the cast changes, creator firings, cancellations, and unexpected revivals that put its viewers through the wringer almost from the start. It was a show that was unable to take anything for granted, no more than any of us can, and even if it sometimes strained to keep itself going through its many incarnations, it felt like a message to those of us who struggle to impose a similar order on our own lives. Life, like a television show on the brink, has to deal with complications that weren’t part of the plan. If those ups and downs pushed Community into darker and stranger places, it’s a reminder that life gains much of its meaning, not from our conscious intentions, but as an emergent property of the compromises we’re forced to make. And like any television show, it’s defined largely by the fact that it ends.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

A local habitation and a name

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A page from the author's notebook

If there’s one piece of advice that every writer receives, it’s that he or she should keep a notebook. Yet like all useful admonitions, from “Write what you know” to “Less is more,” this one has a way of being fetishized to a point where we lose sight of its true rationale. Notebooks, of course, can be attractive objects in themselves: I love browsing through collections of people’s journals, whether they belong to scientists (Field Notes in Science in Nature) or visual artists (An Illustrated Life). But they’re primarily a tool. And their value goes far beyond the basic premise that we’re likely to forget our ideas if we don’t write them down. If we’re worried about not remembering something, there are all kinds of ways to jot down a moment of inspiration: we can send an email to ourselves, or make a voice recording, or use one of the many convenient apps for taking notes on our phones. These are all excellent solutions to the problem of retaining a single flash of insight. But they can’t replace a journal on paper, which is less about preserving a specific idea than about affording it a physical location over time where it can sit, grow, and evolve.

I got to thinking about journals as locations—or as places where ideas can take up residence for the long term—while reading the poet Stephen Spender’s reflections on the subject. In his essay “The Making of a Poem,” he writes:

My mind is not clear, my will is weak, I suffer from an excess of ideas and a weak sense of form. For every poem that I begin to write, I think of at least ten which I do not write down at all. For every poem which I do write down, there are seven or eight which I never complete.

The method which I adopt therefore is to write down as many ideas as possible, in however rough a form, in notebooks (I have at least twenty of these, on a shelf beside my desk, going back over fifteen years). I then make use of some of the sketches and discard others…Each idea, when it first occurs, is given a number. Sometimes the ideas do not get beyond one line.

Two things strike me about Spender’s approach: 1) He numbers each idea—that is, he’s deliberate about keeping them organized. 2) The journal gives each line the space and time it needs to develop. As he puts it: “The work on a line of poetry may take the form of putting a version aside for a few days, weeks, or years, and then taking it up again, when it may be found that the line has, in the interval of time, almost rewritten itself.”

Notebook page for "The Voices"

And if we acknowledge that this kind of growth over time is important, we see how essential it is to give it a specific place in the world to occupy, on the written page, as well as to develop some method for keeping those pages straight. (Even if you don’t number them, as Spender does, you should at least put the date at the top of each page before you start to write, as Francis Coppola advises.) That’s the real function of a journal: not just to lock down that initial brainstorm, which could be done in any number of ways, but to provide it with a permanent residence, a kind of forwarding address to which later insights can be sent. In addition to the countless index cards and scraps of paper that collect around any writing project, I’ve learned to devote one full page to each story idea in a hardbound notebook. That way, whenever I get a new idea that builds on the first, I have somewhere to put it. In theory, I could do this in some digital format, but pen and paper remain unsurpassed. If nothing else, they provide a lasting record of the steps along the way, which can be a source of information in itself: you can figure out where you’re going by going back to see where you’ve been. And a journal keeps everything in one place.

In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander notes that placing even a single dot on a piece of paper charges the surface with meaning:

The space changes throughout the sheet of paper (and not only where the dot is), vectors are created, differentiations reaching far beyond the dot itself occur within the space. As a whole, an entirely new configuration has come into being, and this configuration extends across the sheet of paper as a whole.

That’s true of words as much as dots, and as soon as you’ve written down a sentence, a journal page becomes a concrete process in time. We see a hint of this in the most famous evocation of the poetic act in literature, the speech of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Reading these lines over again, I’m struck in particular by how Shakespeare emphasizes the poet’s pen as an indispensable next step in giving shape to that “airy nothing.” Shakespeare was a seer and an artist, but he worked on paper. And whenever possible, so should we.

How to be ambiguous

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Kim Novak in Vertigo

Note: I’m traveling for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared on May 22, 2013.

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

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May 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

Two ways of looking at the goddess

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Ted Hughes

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being by the poet Ted Hughes, which is one of the strangest books ever published by a major author. Hughes believed that he had uncovered the formula—which he calls the Tragic Equation—that underlies all of Shakespeare’s mature plays, and he introduces his argument in terms that would make any writer sit up and pay attention:

The immediate practical function of this equation is simply to produce, with unfailing success, an inexhaustibly interesting dramatic action…[Shakespeare] was, after all, part theater owner, part manager, part worker, part supplier of raw materials, and full-time entrepreneur in a precarious yet fiercely demanding industry. Whether it was an old play rejigged or a new piece, it had to work. Maybe, under those pressures, it was inevitable that he should do as other hack professionals have always done, and develop one or two basic reliable kits of the dynamics that make a story move on the stage.

Hughes goes on to describe the formula as “the perfect archetypal plot, one that would guarantee basic drive.” And if you regard Shakespeare as our supreme maker of plots—an aspect of his work that has often been neglected—it’s hard not to feel excited by the prospect of a poet like Hughes reducing his method to a tool that can be grasped or reproduced.

Unfortunately, or inevitably, the core argument turns out to be insanely convoluted. According to Hughes, Shakespeare’s archetypal plot arose from the fusion of two of his early poetic works, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The plot, as far as I understand it, is that the hero is courted by the goddess, either in the form of Aphrodite, the ideal bride, or Persephone, the queen of hell; he rejects her advances; she kills him in the guise of a wild boar; he descends to the underworld; and finally he “pupates” into a form that rises again to slay the goddess in turn, motivated by a horror of her sexuality. (Hughes also relates this myth to the struggle between Catholicism and Puritanism in Shakespeare’s time, to the myth of Osiris, to Rosicrucianism, and to the cabala, all of which only muddy the issue further.) The trouble, at least when it comes to applying this reading to all of Shakespeare’s plays, is that Hughes reassigns and shuffles the elements of the equation so freely that they lose all meaning or specificity. Sometimes the boar is the dark side of the hero himself, or an usurping brother, or even an entire city; in Macbeth, the goddess is Scotland, as well as the witches and Lady Macbeth; in Othello, it’s Desdemona’s handkerchief. And in attempting to make everything fit, Hughes ends up explaining almost nothing.

Robert Graves

Yet it’s still a book that I regard with a lot of respect and affection. Isolated insights and metaphors flash forth like lightning on the page, and even if the argument tells us more about Hughes than about Shakespeare, every paragraph pulsates with life. As the title implies, his book is greatly indebted to The White Goddess by Robert Graves, which Hughes elsewhere cited as a major influence on his thinking, and both books offer the fascinating prospect of a learned and intuitive mind—the kind that appears once in a generation—taking on an impossible argument. And if Graves is still read and discussed, while Hughes’s book remains a curiosity, part of it has to do with their subject matter. Graves centers his argument on a medieval Welsh poem, “The Battle of the Trees,” which few nonspecialist readers are likely to have encountered, while Hughes tackles the most famous writer in the English language, of whose works most readers have already formed an opinion. When Graves takes apart his sources and puts them back together like an enormous crossword puzzle, we’re likely to accept it at face value; when Hughes does the same to Hamlet or King Lear, we resist it, or suspect that he’s imposing a reading, albeit with enormous ingenuity, on a play that can sustain any number of interpretations. In the end, neither book can be accepted uncritically, but they still have the power to light up the imagination.

And in their shared aims, they’re agonizingly important, both to poets and to general readers. Reading them both together, I’m reminded of what Janet Malcolm says about a very different subject in Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession:

Soon after the Big Bang of Freud’s major discoveries…the historian of psychoanalysis notes a fork in the road. One path leads outward into the general culture, widening to become the grand boulevard of psychoanalytic influence—the multilane superhighway of psychoanalytic thought’s incursions into psychiatry, social philosophy, anthropology, law, literature, education, and child-rearing. The other is the narrow, inward-turning path of psychoanalytic therapy: a hidden, almost secret byway travelled by few (the analysts and their patients), edged by decrepit mansions with drawn shades (the training institutes and the analytic societies), marked with inscrutable road signs (the scientific papers)…As for Freud himself, he travelled both routes, extending the psychoanalytic view to literature, art, biography, anthropology, and social philosophy…as well as sticking to the theoretical and clinical core of psychoanalysis.

Substitute “poetry” for “psychoanalysis”—or one impossible profession for another—and this is a perfect summary of what both Graves and Hughes are attempting to do: taking the intense, private, inexpressible confrontation of the poet with the muse and extending it into a form that can be applied to how we think about art, history, and our own inner lives. I’m not sure either of them succeeded, any more than Freud did. But the effort still fills me with awe.

Arnold Hauser on Shakespeare’s pragmatism

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[Shakespeare] deliberately and systematically takes over some of the methods which he finds ready to hand, but more often than not quite uncritically and thoughtlessly. The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2014 at 9:00 am

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