Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’

Want to be an investment banker? Read Shakespeare.

Thursday, June 1st, 2017
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McMillan

Yeah, him.

Brad McMillan is the chief investment officer at Commonwealth Financial Network, which oversees about $114 billion – and he thinks it’s time to hit the books. In an interview in Business Insider, he said this:

“You need to read [Edward] Gibbon‘s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Read Shakespeare. There’s more in Shakespeare about power, decision-making, ambition, and how people are blinded by their own needs that’s so incredibly applicable to the investment process. To see it in that context is something that makes it real. It’s not about the P/E ratio. Sure, you need to know that. But ultimately, it’s about the people that are investing.

“If you read writing done by Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Howard Marks, they obviously have the technical fundamentals in place. But what they’re focused on is how to think, how to analyze a situation, and how to understand where we are in light of where we’ve been. In order to do that, you need a much broader context than the investment universe.”

Harumph.

Yeah, him too.

“While technical knowledge is essential, a broader knowledge base is what takes you to the next level. Read history, read literature, understand how people think, and how they’ve acted in the past. Markets are all about people. Technical knowledge alone is not enough.

The Book Haven could have told him that, and more. As Susan Sontag said: “Well, reading must seem to some people like an escape. But I really do think it’s necessary if you want to have a full life. It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.” Read more about that here.

Shakespeare’s first critic – discovered in Berkshire!

Monday, April 17th, 2017
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shakespeare4

And Shakespeare’s first critic had very, very tiny handwriting.

In the news earlier this month: a tiny little notebook was discovered in Berkshire. The cramped seventeenth-century handwriting contains notes on William Shakespeare‘s plays at the time they were performed, by someone who was watching them. The miniature volume is titled Shakespeare: Comedies and Tragedies, and it was discovered among the collection of 18th century antiquarian John Loveday of Caversham by one his descendants.

Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams, appraised the item for Antiques Roadshow, filmed at Caversham Park, Berkshire. The discovery of the “scientific scholarly notes” left him “completely knocked for six” and trembling. “Sometimes the best things come in small packages. My goodness this is a good thing.”

He said it included detailed notes in Latin and suggested the jottings could have been the work of a student analyzing the playwright’s work.

“There is so much research that can be done on this item,” he said. “It’s amazing, it’s almost completely illegible, but you can pick out the odd word, and you can pick out phrases that appear in Shakespeare.”

In addition to the BBC and The Express, Haley spoke to The Telegraph:

“Nobody started to edit Shakespeare’s works in an academic way or comparing texts until the 18th century. Shakespeare was known as the national playwright and the national poet, he’d acquired some sort of mythological status by that point, but people weren’t looking at him in an academic, analytical way. But maybe this note-taker was.

Mr Haley said the document, which is being transcribed, may provide evidence that not all of Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Bard himself in their entirety, while the lines quoted my differ from those in use today.

“I’m sure that very close study of it would identify quotes from some plays that are not necessarily all Shakespeare.”

Video below.

BREAKING NEWS: Finally, actual evidence that Trump plans to recommend eliminating the NEA and NEH

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017
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ides

Vincenzo Camuccini’s commemoration of the day. He supported the arts, too.

It’s the Ides of March and President Trump has been busy with his knife.

This afternoon, Jane Chu, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, called in her staff to announce that the President has recommended the elimination of both cultural agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His budget will call for defunding both. A Republican White House political appointee was in the room during the meeting.

Harumph.

He supports the arts, too.

The decision now moves to the House of Representatives, where both cultural agencies have a great deal support, as we wrote about here. It’s time to flood the offices of your Congressional representative with letters and phone calls of support. Don’t know who your representative is? You’re not alone. Find it here.

“Now we know for sure where the president stands on the issue,” said Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and a former chairman of the NEA. “It is fortunate that in America we have a division of powers. The decision is now with Congress. I am confident that they will make the right decisions for our civic and cultural welfare.”

chu

Courage, Ms. Chu!

He added: “I urge everyone to write their representative in the House to speak for their cultural agencies.We want to win votes in the House!”

How is “defunding” different from the “elimination” of the agencies? An agency cannot be removed immediately. Its funding will be slashed over a period of several years as it winds down its operations.

Donald_Trump

Grinch.

Seriously, though, if those hostile to the cultural agencies a quarter-of-a-century ago could not close the NEA – at a time when it was supporting photographs of crucifixes in urine – how will they successfully axe an agency that is now renowned for Shakespeare performances, jazz, and veterans writing about their war experiences? It seems little short of delusional. But let’s take no chances.

Speaking of William Shakespeare, let me repeat: it’s the Ides of March – you know, the day a mob of lynchers killed Julius Caesar. Let us echo Mark Anthony‘s words on this occasion: “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war!”

Postscript 3/15: And the race is on: Twitchy reported this story about  here. But they were citing The Hill here, but The Hill was reporting from Sopan Deb‘s 7:45 p.m. article from The New York Times here. But you read it first here, folks. And had you not read it here at about 11.30 a.m., you would not be reading it anywhere else. Stay tuned, folks. Postscript on 3/16: London’s Independent names Humble Moi, if not the Book Haven, in its story here.

William Shakespeare in China: he’s not too “bourgeois” or “patriotic” anymore

Sunday, January 29th, 2017
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greathall-nanjing

Not exactly the Globe Theater, but still…

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the plays of William Shakespeare were considered too “bourgeois” and “patriotic” for attention. Times have changed.

“The development of Shakespeare studies and Shakespearean performance across China since 1984 (when an official Chinese Shakespeare Society was established) has been very remarkable,” said Michael Dobson, the director of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon. So a partnership was formed between Birmingham, Nanjing University and the Phoenix Publishing & Media Group, a leading publisher of Western literature and criticism in translation, to establish the new Shakespeare Centre in Nanjing. The story is in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Harumph.

In Mandarin, presumably.

Dobson continued: “In some ways, it has resembled the rapid development of academic and theatrical interest in Shakespeare in Japan in the immediate post-war years, but it has been faster and on a bigger scale. Chinese university administrations have clearly felt that the country’s emergence on to the world stage demands a corresponding engagement with world literature, and at the same time a two-way traffic has developed between anglophone theatre companies taking Shakespearean productions to China and Chinese companies showing off their Shakespeares in the West.” His institute has also found itself “playing host to more and more visiting scholars from China.”

Dobson noted that Nanjing had the only English department in China to stage a festival in honor of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday in 1964.

“When the Cultural Revolution began two years later, some of the students involved turned on the professors who had organised it,” he added, pointing out that one of his Chinese counterparts on the Shakespeare project had “written about the whole thing, even interviewing some of the surviving (and unrepentant) zealots who decided that an interest in Shakespeare was bourgeois and unpatriotic.”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, if you want to know what Shakespeare might have said about the refugee crisis in the news this weekend – go here.

A “crisis of degree”: an opportunity to binge on Shakespeare this holiday weekend – and it’s free!

Friday, December 30th, 2016
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WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 01/05/2016 - Programme Name: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses - TX: n/a - Episode: The Hollow Crown: The Wars Of The Roses (No. Henry VI Part 1) - Picture Shows: *STRICTLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION UNTIL 00:01HRS, SUNDAY 1ST MAY, 2016* Gloucester (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Talbot (PHILIP GLENISTER), Plantagenet (ADRIAN DUNBAR), Warwick (STANLEY TOWNSEND) - (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Hugh Bonneville as Gloucester, Philip Glenister as Talbot, Adrian Dunbar as Plantagenet, Stanley Townsend as Warwick. (Photo: Robert Viglasky)

The heavens themselves, the planets and this earth 
Observe degree, priority and place …
Office and custom, in all line of order …
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

So begins the newest round in Hollow Crown series, encompassing William Shakespeare‘s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III (last season presented Richard II, Henry V, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2). But don’t go looking for a prologue in any of these plays that will include the words I’ve just cited. The lines are, in fact, a truncated version of Ulysses’s speech in Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene 3, as the Greek leaders discuss the morale of their army.

sophie

One tough cookie.

The late great French theorist René Girard cites Ulysses’s address in his Theater of Envy as “a meditation on the violent breakdown of human society in general, the undoing of the cultural order” – yet he didn’t find much to suit his purposes in the history plays. For me, however, these plays resound with his “mimetic crisis,” as kings fall and usurpers grab power, all in quest the “hollow crown” as a mimetic objet du désir – the “hollow crown” is a recurrent image in these BBC performances; at one point, it is tossed into a swamp, at other points, it’s an object of mesmerized fascination. Shakespeare was keenly aware of the “the canker vice,” “that monster envy” that causes ambition, selfishness, and conflict. The Bard’s “sacred kings,” victims readied for sacrifice, underscore the messages of Violence and the Sacred.

Yet the French theorist who was 100% non-Anglo could be forgiven for his relative (but only relative) disinterest in the “Hollow Crown” plays, which were principally designed to buttress the Tudor regime’s claims to the English throne. When the boy Earl of Richmond is briefly and reverently introduced in Henry VI, all Shakespeare’s audience knew why: he would become the grandfather-usurper of the Great Queen, Elizabeth I, and the future Henry VII needed all the prettifying he could get.

Hurry hurry and hurry and watch the new season – the link is here. The first of the plays will no longer be available after Jan. 3, and the others expire in the weeks following. It’s a great opportunity. Henry VI isn’t often performed, for good reason – it’s three parts, and doesn’t really wrap up until Richard III. Moreover, the weak and vasillating Henry VI is an unsatisfying focal point for so much dramatic emphasis. (I find the same for Richard II, who at least is given some grand and memorable speeches). The performance of Tom Sturridge doesn’t persuade me otherwise – but Sophie Okonedo‘s ambitious and vengeful Margaret of Anjou is great compensation (she was the wife in Hotel Rwanda). So are a range of other top-notch performances –Ben Miles as the wily and ambiguous Somerset (fans of The Crown will remember him as Princess Margaret‘s boyfriend, Peter Townsend), and Hugh Bonneville‘s Gloucester come to mind. (A small note: as far back as we can go in history, we seem to find haircombs. Could none of these characters, especially King Henry, have found one?)

I’ll finish with Richard III sometime this weekend. Meanwhile, here’s a video highlight (Sophie O. takes the term “bitch-slap” to a whole new level):

 

Trading up: Kim Kardashian for Shakespeare’s Cleopatra

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016
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Maggie Smith as Cleopatra in Stratford, Ontario.

Some news a few days ago from The Guardian about a school program in Wimbledon:

Girls are to be taught to see Shakespearean heroines such as Cleopatra as positive role models to supplant social media superstars such as Kim Kardashian, in a programme being launched at a London secondary school.

Jane Lunnon, headteacher of Wimbledon High School, said she devised the programme after discovering that many pupils at the £17,000-a-year independent school named Kardashian and singer Taylor Swift as their role models. …

“It’s well documented that there is a paucity of female role models who are speaking to girls at the moment, certainly in western society. It made me think, where else can we look for them?” Lunnon told the annual meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of leading independent schools, taking place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The article touts the “glamorous” Rosalind of As You Like It. I guess I hadn’t thought of her that way. She’s a girl willing to go and piss in the woods rather than be separated from a beloved friend. Not sure I’d do it. I’m fairly certain Kim Kardashian wouldn’t.

I hope the class makes them memorize scores of lines from the soliloquies, till the iambic pentameter flows over them in times of fear or loneliness, echoing, as it does, the double rhythm of the heartbeat. I hope they explore the cadences of the English language at its most vigorous.

The article called to mind my own trips to Stratford, Ontario, where I spent season after season taking in Shakespeare. I saw Maggie Smith as an magnificent Cleopatra. I saw a less-touted Measure for Measure that changed my understanding of the play (and human nature) ever since.

Magnificent Maggie.

Magnificent Maggie.

I especially remember the last summer I went to Stratford – or perhaps it was the fall. My last chance for the season. I hadn’t planned beforehand or ordered tickets or made arrangements; I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive up in my trusty old black Dodge. I slept in it that night, after taking in the first day’s plays, with a coat over my head, parked way out in the woods. Yes, it was autumn, I remember mountains and mountains of golden and red leaves.

The article continues:

“Look at Rosalind, look at Beatrice, look at Viola. Their capacity, in their challenges and dilemmas, to laugh, to be vivacious, to be resourceful, to be resilient, they embody it so beautifully. And that is a really powerful message.

“It’s not that terrible things didn’t happen to them. It’s the way they respond. I think that is a really important message: to know what matters. Getting kids to laugh at themselves – it’s very important. And Shakespeare does that.”

Of course, I don’t think they go far enough. “What matters” is a lot more than getting kids to laugh at themselves. I think the program ought to be expanded to include Portia with all the moral quandaries of The Merchant of Venice, the ambiguous character (I find her ambiguous, anyway) Isabella of Measure for Measure, or the questionable Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well. 

They’ll have their work cut out for them for the rest of their lives. If they’re lucky.

Antidote to the election blues: two minutes of Shakespeare

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016
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shakespeareHere’s a powerful antidote to the dispiriting election news this year: The Guardian‘s “Shakespeare Solos.”

This year is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s death, and the British Guardian is commemorating with its top actors and actresses performing 2- and 3-minute video clips, distributed on Facebook, Youtube, and the Guardian website. It’s terrific stuff.

Here are my favorites so far … from the sublime to the profane:

Laura Carmichael as Portia in Merchant of Venice: ‘The quality of mercy’

Paterson Joseph as Shylock in Merchant of Venice: ‘You call me misbeliever’

Damian Lewis as Antony in Julius Caesar: ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’

David Threlfall as Prospero in The Tempest: ‘Our revels now are ended’

Sacha Dhawan as Shakespeare’s Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well: ‘Are you meditating on virginity?’

“Mountainish inhumanity”: Thomas More, Shakespeare, and the refugee crisis

Monday, September 7th, 2015
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The flood of desperate refugees pouring out of Syria dominates the news this Labor Day weekend. It’s said to be the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

shakespeare-moreWhat have Thomas More and William Shakespeare got to do with it?

Shakespeare’s unfinished play Sir Thomas More was not accepted as the Bard’s until relatively recently. It’s now generally conceded to be his handiwork – in fact, it’s the only play to exist in his own hand (apparently the scholarly consensus seems to agree that it is indeed his handwriting).

Apparently, England had its own refugee crisis, with over 64,000 arriving on English shores between the 1330 and 1550, not all of them upper crust emigrés fleeing angry monarchs, and many arriving from many far-flung lands. The story is told over here, at England’s Medieval Immigrants.

Shakespeare’s play portrays the May Day riots of 1517, when Londoners protested the refugees from Lombardy who were entering the country. It is the most powerful scenes of this little-known play.

The matchless Ian McKellen had the distinction of being the first to perform the role of England’s beheaded Lord Chancellor way back in 1964, when the play was produced professionally for the first time. See film clip above. The speech begins about two minutes in, but the preamble is good, too. (He makes one curious error, however: Shakespeare never lived under a Catholic monarch; he was born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and died under King James, both Protestants – he was never around for the brief reign of Queen Mary.)

Here’s Shakespeare’s words on the subject – but I very much recommend watching the McKellen clip above. It will make your day. Really. (And many, many thanks to “The Shakespeare Blog” here for bringing this to our attention.)

.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
more
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity. 

James Baldwin: “You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
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Baldwin

March on Washington, 1963. With Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier.

James Baldwin was an eminent essayist, novelist, and playwright – but he was also a master of the Q&A interview. Perhaps his 1984 Paris Review interview was his best, with interviewers Jordan Elgrably and George Plimpton (read the whole thing here). We include some excerpts below.

May this post serve as a reminder that this Thursday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m., the Another Look book club will feature a discussion of Baldwin’s incendiary The Fire Next Time (1963) at the Bechtel Conference Center at Encina Hall at 616 Serra Street on the Stanford campus. Another Look discussions are free and open to the public, with no reserved seating. The discussion will be moderated by Michele Elam, professor of English, with Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education, and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff, professor of English and the founding director of Another Look. Michele Elam is a widely published authority on race and culture; Harry Elam is a leading scholar of African American theater and performance.

Now here are the excerpts from The Paris Review.  In the first passage, the interview asks Baldwin about his flight to France, where he eventually died at his home in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1987:

INTERVIEWER: Why did you choose France?

BALDWIN: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge.

INTERVIEWER: You say the city beat him to death. You mean that metaphorically.

BALDWIN: Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Has writing been a type of salvation?

BALDWIN: I’m not so sure! I’m not sure I’ve escaped anything. One still lives with it, in many ways. It’s happening all around us, every day. It’s not happening to me in the same way, because I’m James Baldwin; I’m not riding the subways and I’m not looking for a place to live. But it’s still happening. So salvation is a difficult word to use in such a context. I’ve been compelled in some ways by describing my circumstances to learn to live with them. It’s not the same thing as accepting them.

INTERVIEWER: Was there an instant you knew you were going to write, to be a writer rather than anything else?

James_Baldwin

“Claim it all – including Shakespeare.” (Photo: Allan Warren)

BALDWIN: Yes. The death of my father. Until my father died I thought I could do something else. I had wanted to be a musician, thought of being a painter, thought of being an actor. This was all before I was nineteen. … My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. … He died when his last child was born and I realized I had to make a jump—a leap. I’d been a preacher for three years, from age fourteen to seventeen. Those were three years which probably turned me to writing.

INTERVIEWER: Were the sermons you delivered from the pulpit very carefully prepared, or were they absolutely off the top of your head?

BALDWIN: I would improvise from the texts, like a jazz musician improvises from a theme. I never wrote a sermon—I studied the texts. I’ve never written a speech. I can’t read a speech. It’s kind of give-and-take. You have to sense the people you’re talking to. You have to respond to what they hear.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have a reader in your mind when you write?

BALDWIN: No, you can’t have that.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s quite unlike preaching?

BALDWIN: Entirely. The two roles are completely unattached. When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. …

INTERVIEWER: Was there anyone to guide you?

Dostoevskij_1872

Baldwin’s teacher – or one of them.

BALDWIN: I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think painters would help a fledgling writer more than another writer might? Did you read a great deal?

BALDWIN: I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoevsky, from Balzac.

***

INTERVIEWER: “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience,” you’ve said.

BALDWIN: Yes, and yet one’s own experience is not necessarily one’s twenty-four-hour reality. Everything happens to you, which is what Whitman means when he says in his poem “Heroes,” “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” It depends on what you mean by experience.

***

INTERVIEWER: You were in utter despair after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Did you find it difficult to write then, or do you work better out of anguish?

BALDWIN: No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit. I didn’t think I could write at all. I didn’t see any point to it. I was hurt . . . I can’t even talk about it. I didn’t know how to continue, didn’t see my way clear.

***

INTERVIEWER: Is there a big shifting of gears between writing fiction and writing nonfiction?

BALDWIN: Shifting gears, you ask. Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy. …

INTERVIEWER: But the essay is a little bit simpler, isn’t it, because you’re angry about something which you can put your finger on . . .

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS

“I was hurt … I can’t even talk about it.”

BALDWIN: An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.

INTERVIEWER: What are your first drafts like?

BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

INTERVIEWER: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

***

INTERVIEWER: Yes, before 1968, you said, “I love America.”

BALDWIN: Long before then. I still do, though that feeling has changed in the face of it. I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go—you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else. At least not in a single lifetime, or, if you do, you’ll be aware of precisely what it means, knowing that your real roots are always elsewhere. If you try to pretend you don’t see the immediate reality that formed you I think you’ll go blind. … I believe what one has to do as a black American is to take white history, or history as written by whites, and claim it all—including Shakespeare.

 

Happy 195th birthday, Herman Melville!

Friday, August 1st, 2014
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melville

What he looked like.

Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in November 1851: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” The book, of course, was Moby Dick. Funny, he doesn’t look like a lamb. See right. He’s kind of a hunk, in a 19th-century sort of way.

Sheila O’Malley of Sheila Variations writes of the two authors: “They were dear friends and there were many dark years in Melville’s life, when his work was either not being published or being published and ignored when Hawthorne was one of Melville’s only champions. Melville opened his heart to Hawthorne, in letters – about what he was going through, what he was working on with Moby Dick – and, like a great artistic friend and mentor should, Hawthorne never said, ‘Don’t you think you need to scale it down a bit?’ or ‘Who will want to read 20 consecutive chapters about the etymology of blubber?’ No. Hawthorne basically just kept saying to his friend, ‘Keep going. It’s brilliant. Keep going.'” He did! So happy 195th birthday, Herman! From all of us!

She continues:

I read Moby Dick in high school and despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring pointless things I had ever read. It was on our summer reading list, and I clearly remember forcing myself to read the damn thing, during the dog days of August … nearly crying from the psychological boredom. Whatever, man … Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, endless discourses on blubber … I was 16. I DIDN’T GET IT.

Cut to many many years later. 2001, to be exact. I read it in the spring of 2001. Around that time I decided to systematically go back and re-read all of the books I had been forced to read in high school (which, obviously, made me despise them at the time). I read The Scarlet Letter (excerpt here) and Tess of the D’Urbervilles (excerpt here) and many others. Moby Dick is such a massive book, and I had hated it so much when I first read it that I hesitated to put myself through it again.

And honestly – it blew the top of my head off. Every page. Every page.

I have rarely had such an exciting reading experience as that one. I didn’t want it to end. I underlined passages feverishly. I put exclamations points in the margins next to particularly amazing sentences. Honestly. It blew me away.

Here’s a couple notable quotes from Melville himself. The first was unburied by colleague Hilton Obenzinger for Facebook celebrations today:.

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

lamb

What he thought he looked like.

This one is from friend Frank Wilson over at Books Inq.:

“To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”

A few lingering thoughts on yesterday’s post about the current production of Orson Welles‘s Moby Dick – Rehearsed at Stanford. I said Ahab’s face (portrayed by the face of Bay Area actor Rod Gnapp), was a “rictus of resentment,” or words to that effect. It got me to thinking … isn’t that always what revenge is about? To say someone is “obsessed with revenge” makes them sound big and grand and epic and Old Testament-y.  Resentment makes us sound so … so little, so peevish, so trivial. But isn’t resentment, really, what Ahab is about? He goes about jabbing creatures that never harmed him any with sharp spears and then takes it amiss that one of them strikes back. He has an inflated sense of himself  and his importance (“I’d strike the sun if it struck me!”) and takes Moby Dick’s behavior personally. Clearly, I’ve been reading too much René Girard lately; he’s always one to puncture big, grand, romantic emotions that turn out to be rather little, commonplace, self-centered delusions. Looks like I prefer lambs, after all. And not for eating.

birthday cake“Parmacetty” is used several times in the Orson Welles script – “the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat!”  It sounded familiar. Where does the word come from? Where had I heard it before? I went to my OED. I squinted and squinted, since I’ve lost my lorgnette, and finally resorted to the internet OED, which calls the word “obscure,” a variant of spermaceti, “with simplification of the initial consonant cluster.” Here we go! First usage was 1545, but third is in William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Pt. 1, when Hotspur jeers at a perfumed soldier wannabe who was telling him that “the soveraignest thing on earth Was Parmacitie, for an inward bruise.”  I knew I’d heard it recently! Read about our Twelfth Night with Henry IV here. But Shakespeare’s parmacetty is another word for the herb “Shepherd’s Purse.”

Meanwhile, and once again, happy birthday, Herman!
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