Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

Road Trip Reads

In Books on June 9, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I was called to the glittering, bustling metropolis of Turlock for a conference, which is a charming seven-hour drive through LA from the cow-town I call home, so Jane volunteered her trusty heat-seated Honda and we peeled out at 4:45 a.m.  After a pit-stop in Castaic, where I was informed that I would not be allowed to order my breakfast burrito sans gravy and cheese, we scooted up the 99 and I took out Curiosities of Literature, by John Sutherland.  (Traffic on the 5 and lack of coffee make Jane really edgy, so no Atlas Shrugged for us.)

I opened up the book and decided to read the first chapter that I came to, which was Sex and the Victorians.  (How refreshing.)  It was here that we learned that sex began in 1964, and that considering Ian McEwan’s TMI descriptions of a Victorian couple’s wedding night, it was probably close to 1984 before the veil of feminine mystique was finally lifted before his pathological eyes.[1]  There were a few other gems of literary interest, such as the fact that George Eliot’s second husband (twenty years her junior) attempted to commit suicide on their wedding night and that Gabriel Rossetti deposited a few poems addressed to a prostitute in his wife’s coffin, only to later have her disinterred so he could get them back.  Jane and I had a spirited debate about the desirability of a wedding night wherein one’s groom to attempt suicide in contrast to the post-mortem insult of having him leave poems he’s written to his trollops in one’s final resting place.

Thrilling as it was to read about the influences of sexual dysfunction in Victorian literary society (since we know nothing of that in this enlightened age), I decided that maybe chronological order was the better way to go, so I flipped back to Chapter 1 after lightening the atmosphere with Florence and the Machine.

Chapter 1: Literary Baked Meats.  Spam, it turns out, has a long and intellectual history, beginning with E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, when Len and Jacky sit down and enjoy ‘soup square and freckled tongue’ (read: a boullion cube and pre-The Jungle tinned, processed-meat with a square of fat), and that Bovril’s name finds its etymology in the Latin word for meat (‘bos’) and the quasi-electrical body-fluid (‘vril’) of the flying, quasi-reptilian alien females portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s practically-unknown novel, The Coming Race.[2] 

From the consumption and marketing of various food products, the author (logically, if not tastefully) takes us to the history of their digestion and defecation among the literary greats, citing Henry James’ chronic constipation and the poignant death-scene of the poet Robert Henryson.  Henryson, who was succumbing to the ravages of dysentery, had, in his extremity, called in a medium.  Her inspired and original prescription for his ailment was to tell him to walk around the whikey tree in his yard, chanting, ‘Whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this fluxe from me.’  Infuriated by this facile suggestion, he used what little strength he had left to sarcastically inquire if it wouldn’t do as well to walk around his kitchen table the same number of times, chanting, ‘Oken burd oken burd Garre me shite me an hard turde.’[3]  Being an author himself (and therefore mindful of just how great is the influence of one’s reputation on one’s royalties), Sutherland assures us that there was nothing improper in the fixation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, et. al. with their bowels, and even cites Martin Luther’s less-well-known one liner: “Warum rülpset und furzet ir nicht, hat es euch den nicht geschmecket?”[4] 

Not wanting even the faintest remnants of my girlish illusions about these heroes of the English language to remain intact, I crossed my fingers and said, “I hope we get to talk about vomit next!”  I didn’t get my wish, but I did get something rather like it, as I happened upon the legend of Thomas Hardy’s heart, which says that the coroner left his heart in a biscuit tin, which was prised open by his cat, Cobweb, who ate the heart.  Apparently, the gravedigger found out about it, wrung the cat’s neck, and buried it in Hardy’s place.  Sutherland here evinced keen deductive skill (not commonly found in novelists) and debunked the legend by pointing out not many cats possess either the willpower or dexterity to be able to prise off the lid of a biscuit tin.

 Here are some other little known facts:

  • Ian Fleming plated his typewriter in gold.
  • John Stuart Mill’s housemaid deliberately burnt up the first 261 pages of Carlyle’s manuscript of his The French Revolution.  When it was due to the publisher’s in a week.  And he hadn’t made any copies.  FHL.
  • Tolstoy’s wife, Sophie, copied out War and Piece 7 times.  560,000 words.  7 times.

[1] Ian McEwan was the author of On Chesil Beach and Atonement, the latter of which was made into a film with Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy.

[2] Bulwer-Lytton was the guy who said, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’

[3] ‘Oaken board oaken board go on and s*** me a hard turd.’

[4] “Why do you not belch and fart; did you not enjoy the meal?”


Brooke and Jane (Eyre) Go To The Movies

In Books, Mental Mai Tais on March 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Jane Eyre and Ray La Montagne opened a few weekends ago to limited release.  I had to see it first before anybody else, so Jane and I got all tarted up, grabbed Sarah and drove to LA.  I had three Diet Cokes that morning, so I wasn’t fit to drive, which is how I got put in the backseat, and since I couldn’t move, I talked.  That’s how Sarah got the video – once I’ve edited out the profanity (Jane talks like a trucker on the third day of a junk-food fast), I’ll post it.

Adapting a classic novel into a film is an epic suckfest for any director – you’re either going to try to do something wholly original and alienate at least fifty percent of your demographic; you’re going to try to remain faithful to the book and want to claw your skin from your face because your highly-paid, highly-sensitive actors are going to feel as though they’re not free to express themselves, or you’re going to try to create a commercially successful film which will elicit endless sniping from the op-ed columnists and absolutely kill your Rotten Tomatoes percentage.   It’s not easy to repeat the triumph of A&E’s Pride & Prejudice, and to be brutally honest, I really hope no one does.  For reasons best known to someone smarter than me, that damn film has somehow been granted canonical status, and nearly every bit of resulting fan-fic has somehow managed to incorporate it into the author’s pathetic attempts to recreate Austen’s characters.  I have no interest in watching that happen with Jane Eyre, and for this reason, I’m disposed to being super-lenient when it comes to critiquing film adaptations.

We thought it was pretty well done.  I, for one, think that Joe Wright ought to get a cut of the profits, because Cary Fukunaga blatantly ripped him off – there was enough soft lighting to satisfy Loretta Lynn on her worst day; every third shot of Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) was backlit (apparently someone told him lifestyle shots are chic, now) – he even used the same composer.  Easily the most unsubtle attempt at cinematic-plagiarism I’ve ever seen.  He did mix it up a bit by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, which was both refreshing and appropriate, considering how Jane’s character develops over the novel, and he stayed pretty true to the book.

It’s too bad that Jane didn’t take my bet, because there was no wet-shirt scene.  Instead (in between snippets of Gretchen Wilson and Fleetwood Mac [someone didn’t put their iPhone on silent]), we got treated to a scene of Mia Wasikowski (voss-eh-KOV-ski) trying to sneak a peek at Michael’s boy-parts, which I thought was terribly rude.  I didn’t see him ogling the twins; if she’d have caught him trying to watch her button her chemise she would’ve slammed the door in his face.  Dame Judi Dench didn’t get nearly enough air time (though Fukunaga did try to do more with her character by making her less austere and more matronly), but she did well, as we knew she would.  I can’t say that I thought the gentleman who played St. John Rivers quite handsome enough to do the part justice, but he did a good job portraying the well-meaning, ascetic hierophant who tries to win Jane to a life of religious passion.  His foil, the Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst, was also well-done, but came across as more awkward than cruel and domineering (directors heretofore have usually cast him as a straight-up sphincter [no pun intended], so perhaps this was Fukunaga’s way of attempting a more charitable interpretation of the character).

Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) did a great job as Rochester – he made very good attempts at rudeness, curbed vulgarity and a rough manner; he has an expressive face and can portray fierceness, levity, and charm in good turn; he was sarcastic and bitter, winsome and genteel, all without missing a beat.

So why Fukunaga decided to sack him and have Ray LaMontagne do the reunion scene, I’m not quite sure.

So, Jane Eyre has just paid the modern-day equivalent of the taxi-driver the modern-day equivalent of his month’s rent to take her from the modern-day equivalent of a Howard Johnson to the modern-day equivalent of a house in the Hamptons.  She stumbles along, eyes blinded to the beauty of an English countryside spring, looking for her lost love, and what does she find?

A hipster.

A bona-fide, dyed-in-the-wool, I-used-Arcade-Fire-for-my-documentary-soundtrack-in-2007 hipster, complete with the comb-over and the jeggings and the most magnificent beard you ever saw.  Sitting bolt upright (no angsty slouch for Rochie), oxfords at an appropriate angle, hand resting on a cane so vintage you never even missed the pipe.

I was really grateful that the entire theater started sniggering, because no amount of Jane’s pinching and Sarah’s exasperated eye-rolling was going to get me to stop.  I mean, I know we’re aiming for a certain look and attitude with the rain and the mist and gloom and the Seasonal-Affectiveness Disorder, but damn – I half-expected him to whip out a Fender and start crooning ‘Rock and Roll Radio’.  It was at this point that I heard Stevie Nicks and the rest of the gang start shouting, ‘You can go your own waaaaayyyyyyy, go your own waaay-eeeaaaaaaayyyyy…’  and I really lost it, and as Jane was getting seriously pissed, I excused myself and went out to covet the theater’s display of the Criterion Collection.

Girl Talk (The Non-Greg Gillis Sort)

In Books on March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

(Dorothy Sayers was pretty cool – she wrote mystery stories, hung out with C.S. Lewis, enjoyed a good pipe and sherry, and was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford.  Two of her lectures, compiled in a small book (and by ‘small’, I mean a good freaking gust of wind will blow it down to 5th Avenue, so be sure to sit inside the coffee shop when you read it) entitled Are Women Human? are the subject of the following essay.)

I was playing with my friend’s pipe in the bookstore where he’s a manager, alternately staring into the tobacco bowl and pointing the shank at him emphatically.  I had just popped it between my teeth when one of our professors walked in.  He started for a moment, as this was the first time in our four-year acquaintance he’d seen me with a pipe in my mouth.  “Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “do you smoke?”  “’Course,” I said, in a bald-faced lie.  “I’m a good Presbyterian girl.”  He laughed.  “Just like Dorothy Sayers, huh?”

I knew that Sayers was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I hadn’t known that she smoked – or that she was a Presbyterian (she wasn’t).  That she smoked is understandable, certainly – a woman who spent a great deal of time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to like the smell of tobacco, whether it was considered ladylike or not.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essay, ‘Are Women Human?’  In this address, given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society, she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much has been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks. The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings. Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do.  They need food, shelter, and exercise; they desire ‘interesting occupation, a reasonable freedom for their pleasures, and a sufficient emotional outlet.’  Women may seek to fulfill these needs and desires in different ways, but the ultimate object remains the same.

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end – while society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are. That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to have held male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity was judged against.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ aim in this essay is to establish the point that women, by virtue of their humanity, ought to be accorded every appropriate courtesy and opportunity to express their intrinsic natural needs and desires.  They are not superior to men; neither are they inferior, and while the majority of them may choose to satisfy the essential urges of their humanity in a manner different from that of men, it doesn’t follow that all of them must do so.  If a woman evinces herself capable of doing a job traditionally performed by a man, she ought to be allowed the opportunity to do it, and not denied on the grounds that she’s a woman.  While I have some reservations about the latter part of this thesis, I have no argument with it generally.

My concern lies with the premises supporting the conclusion – the premise that the dignity of women is founded in their shared humanity with men.  Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.


In Books on March 4, 2011 at 10:24 am

(So I know I said I’d do Othello, and I promise that I will, but I’m really bored of the classics right now and wanted to do something contemporary, just to show that I’m, like, ‘with it’, or whatever.   That I don’t spend my life in my room unless I’m running or driving to Mum’s to watch United.  Also, I just got this in the mail, so I’m gonna be out of commission for a while.  Enjoy.)

Freedom’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, mostly by politicians and ideologues.  They shroud it in historical nostalgia and glittering, indeterminate progressive garb, tapping into the subjective warmth and tempered patriotism it elicits in their hearers.  What exactly we need to be freed from and what we’ll do with that freedom once we have it, they never bother to clearly elucidate.  Why should they?  Freedom is good.  We want to be free.  The problem with their side-stepping is that it doesn’t address the question that’s becoming ever more prevalent in a society addicted to instant gratification – what does one do with one’s freedom?  There’s no lack of it, especially in the United States, where we have the ability and license to do pretty much anything – buy whatever we want, see whatever and whomever we will, go wherever and whenever we choose.   But what should we do with our freedom?  Once we know what we can do with it (and, more ominously) what we ought to do with it, is freedom still something that we want?

This is the question that Jonathan Franzen explores in his book, Freedom. The story has been touted as a commentary on contemporary American marriage and family life, but it’s also an insightful examination of how our political and economic environments influence those relationships – how the systems that facilitate our freedom (in the political sense of the word) help determine our freedom in our interactions with our spouses and children.   Politics are the driving force behind Patty Emerson’s aristocratic New York family – her father is described as the quintessential WASP attorney; her mother is a state assemblywoman.  So much does the political machine dominate the Emerson’s relationship with their daughter and with one another, that when Patty is raped at seventeen by a classmate, both her mother and her father counsel her against prosecuting the offender and his wealthy, influential family.  This confirms what Patty has suspected all along – that in her family of sophisticated, philanthropic parents and cultured, artistic siblings, she is nothing more than the aberrant gene, manifesting itself as a dumb jock.  As a result, she throws herself into sports, her intensely competitive nature acting as both a refuge and coping mechanism.  It was economic considerations that prompted Walter Berglund’s ancestors to leave their native ‘socialist’ Sweden for the free-market opportunities of the United States.  The problem was that once they had their freedom – the freedom to make more money, live where they chose and socialize with whom they would – they didn’t know how to use it.  As a result, they essentially gave themselves over to the impulse of the moment, and before very long, were again shackled by the poverty they sought to escape. Not only does it enfetter the Berglund forebears to a life of indigence and ignominy, it extends down the family-line to Walter.  His father’s attempts to mortify his (Walter’s) artistic tastes by forcing him to clean the blood and urine out of the carpets of the family’s decaying motel and his mother’s inability to effectively defend him to her husband confirms Walter’s sense of inadequacy, and he retreats (literally) into nature, finding the peace and comfort he seeks in the Minnesota woods.

The story centers around Walter and Patty trying to free themselves from the cycle of self-destruction that has characterized their family history – instead of allowing economic circumstances to dictate his decisions, Walter attempts to establish a new economic foundation in society; a static one focused on the preservation of nature, rather than it’s consumerist exploitation.  Instead of yielding to the feminist agenda and familial pressure that compels her to pursue a vocation outside of her home and family, Patty becomes a stay-at-home wife and mother, determined to be the nurturing and encouraging parent she lacked.  The tragedy is that despite their recognition of their sins, and their earnest, genuine desire to mortify them, they simply can’t – like dogs returning to their vomit, they are condemned to repeating the same mistake, even while they acknowledge their damning effects on themselves and their relationship with each other and their children.  In her autobiography, Patty repeatedly acknowledges Walter’s manifest superiority to Richard Katz, his aloof, hipster-than-thou best friend – his selflessness, his courage, his kindness, his unconditional and absolute love of herself.   But so great is her need for a competitive environment that she cannot refrain from pursuing Richard – his shrewd manner and aloofness present a challenge to tempting to ignore.  While Walter recognizes that there’s a significant problem in his marriage, he cannot help but view confrontation as synonymous with abuse, aggression, and domination – the very traits he abhorred in his father.  Since he cannot address the difficulty on his terms, and won’t attempt to on his wife’s, he retreats into his conservation work (again, into nature) and concentrates his energies on preserving his refuge, rather than repairing his relationship.

If the sociological statistics are a correct, then this is a very faithful portrayal of most contemporary American marriages – husbands and wives find themselves not just visited by their own sins, but hounded by those of their fathers, condemned to repeating their mistakes and suffering for wounds of others’ infliction.  Their frustration and disappointment are aggravated by the promises of saccharine self-help books and motivational speakers who readily offer Band-Aids for their cuts, but cannot provide a cure for the compulsive desire to cut.  The spouses that are fortunate enough to be able to recognize and own their problems are still powerless to find a solution – they cannot fix their problems because their being and way of being has been formed and developed by them.

Even though the story ends happily, with Walter and Patty reuniting after a six-year separation, it’s an uneasy happiness.  Although they’ve both been reconciled with their remaining family members, we don’t see any scene of reconciliation between Walter and Patty themselves.  Patty simply shows up at their summer home, and Walter simply lets her back in – there’re no apologies, no explanations, not even an attempt at an explicit resolve to do something differently.  One is tempted to close the book with the cynical expectation that it won’t be long before the whole cycle repeats itself again.

While it’s not a particularly uplifting read, Freedom is a faithful, well-written illustration of the sort of lives we as Christians have been called out of – the tragedy and agony of a life characterized by an endless repetition of sin and suffering for sin.  Although Walter and Patty pursue freedom, they’re hindered in their pursuit by their limited understanding of what true freedom is and what it’s for – they appear to view it as the absence of restraint; a casting off of the shackles that have bound them (i.e., the abuse and rejection of their parents, their pathological need for affirmation).  What they fail to realize (what they cannot realize) is that true freedom brings with it the power to act – to act wisely and well; to use one’s gifts, talents and resources for what is good and true.  Such is their (and our) sinful estate that we cannot attain this freedom in our own power – it can only be found in Christ.  Because he gave all of himself – his life, his being, his will – freely, we may take comfort in the fact that (unlike Walter and Patty) we are not condemned to these actions.  We may find ourselves looking for ultimate affirmation in our spouse, a sense of worth in our vocation, and liberation from the pain and trauma of our past, but we may rest in the knowledge that Christ has risen victorious for us, thereby freeing us from the devastating cycle of our sin.  It is in him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that we are granted the freedom that not only breaks our bonds, but gives us the will and desire to use that freedom to bind ourselves both to himself and one another in love.



Othello – Part I

In Books on February 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm

“I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am.  Nothing extenuate,

Nor set aught down in malice.  Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,

Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum.”

In his memoirs, Sir Laurence Olivier wrote this about his preparation for the role of Othello:  “I roared, I ranted, I embarrassed my fellow players and fought with William Shakespeare […] I was becoming the text.  I was forgetting Iago.”    To forget Iago in the preparation for Othello is no easy thing – a great deal of what we learn about Othello (and about every other character in the play) is revealed through Iago’s perspective.  This is probably why Olivier spent hours bellowing at cows (to develop his reedy baritone into a more commanding bass), lifting weights (a skinny drama geek can’t convincingly emulate a military general without packing it on à la Lautner), and even developing a special walk – Olivier’s metrosexual mincing was a far cry from the I’m-storming-Iwo-Jima stride one would normally associate with an African general, and he took care to develop a presence that would communicate the power and strength that the character is known for.

But people don’t watch Othello because they like ripped black guys, and they sure as sugar don’t watch it because they like ripped white guys in blackface.  They watch it because of all of the plays Shakespeare wrote, this one is arguably his keenest illustration of human psychology – what creates, drives, and influences us – and the best thing about it is that the more we probe into the motivations and actions of the characters, the more questions we have about who they really are and why they do what they do.

Othello was written in 1603, ‘round about the time the childless Elizabeth Tudor died and James Stuart ascended the throne.  Artistically, this was a BFD for Shakespeare and his homies, since James Stuart inherited one of the wealthiest states in Europe and was looking to toss a few sheckles.  Having lived in political insecurity since conception, he was probably damn sick of it, and if there’s one thing all politicians respect, it’s cash.  Elizabeth had granted a royal charter to this little startup off Portobello Road called The East India Company, and as James (being half-French) had a decided penchant for all things beautiful, he went ahead and ordered Parliament to back them up.  Europe wasn’t very familiar with the East at this point; most of them had vague notions about Syria, Cyprus, and Turkey that were never more clearly articulated beyond the terms of ‘barbarian’, ‘Turk’, and ‘Saracen’.  However, when the independent (and incredibly ballsy) sea-merchants who had made the trip to Asia came back with stories as fantastic as the silks and spices they hawked at the harbor, public interest was ignited –   James’ and Parliament’s investment in a company that was dedicated to what is (in political parlance) referred to as ‘strengthening economic ties’ (and what is often, in historical parlance, referred to as ‘exploiting’) the East did a lot to spur public interest in the countries beyond Europe, and Shakespeare (knowing that the accountants were the ones running the boards), wrote a play about an African in Anglo society.

Recall that in Shakespeare’s day, anthropology got about as much respect in academic circles as palm-reading does at MIT.  The difference in skin color wasn’t attributed to geographic placement and the adaptation of the human body to its physical environment, but to moral depravity – the lightness or darkness of skin was attributed largely to which side of the moral bed one was bred on; the darker the skin, the greater the moral depravity.

But Shakespeare isn’t one for creating purely mind-numbing entertainment – if that were so, Henry VI (all three bloody parts of it) would never have seen the light of day, and I would still have 20/20 vision.   He opens his play with brilliantly flashing neon signs above the heads of Iago and Roderigo – ‘Major Bastard’ and ‘Tool’ respectively.  ‘I am not what I am’ and ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’ make it extremely clear that the bad guys in this play are the white guys.  The scene turns to Roderigo and Iago standing beneath the senator Brabantio’s home, shouting at the tops of their lungs about thieves stealing his money and his daughter, as well as making insinuations about what the thieves and his daughter are doing that would not look at all nice in print.  When we are at last introduced to Othello, we see him standing in front of the Duke of Venice and senators, begging forgiveness for his common and inarticulate speech, expounding on the wooing of Desdemona away from her father, and subtly reminding them that if he has erred against decorum, it’s because he’s spent the past seven years fighting the state’s battles, not attending John Harbinger seminars.

Othello defies the Elizabethan Englishman’s expectations; not in terms of his appearance, but in how he acts – instead of a bloodthirsty maniac, we have a political savaunt with a glittering military record who commands the loyalty and respect of great men.  The fact that Othello is even permitted to speak in his own defense speaks volumes of what the Venetians thought of him – no one’s going to mistake him for Nelson Mandela, but it’s evidence of his uncommonly astute mind that he’s carefully self-effacing, deferential and courteous without being sycophantic, and able to remind them that they owe their prestige in the international stage to his martial prowess so delicately that rather than allowing Brabantio to read ‘the bloody book of law in the bitter letter’ against him, they sanction his marriage to Desdemona.

UP NEXT:  ‘Bros Before Hos’: A Study In Relational Tension


The Cricket On The Hearth

In Books on February 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm

The Cricket on the Hearth is meant to be a fairy story about the value of domestic harmony.  Just like A Christmas Carol, which is by far the most famous of Dickens’s five Christmas novellas (seriously, if you’ve never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m not sure we can be friends…), a supernatural element plays a significant part in the plot, revealing the truth to the various characters and offering them a chance to change their behavior before irreparable damage is done.  Although included in the canon of Dickens’s Christmas stories, The Cricket on the Hearth has nothing to do with celebrating the event of our Savior’s birth.  However, it does have everything to do with truth, love and forgiveness, which are integral components of Christian ideology.

The eponymous insect of The Cricket on the Hearth is first introduced as a harbinger of good fortune, and is gradually revealed to be a benevolent spirit; one of a tribe of modern-day Lares presiding over the hearth and home.   Mary ‘Dot’ Peerybingle, a beautiful and very young housewife, shyly reveals to her much older husband John that she has often heard the cricket chirping when worried or doubtful of her abilities as a homemaker, and says that its sound has always cheered and comforted her.   When slimy toy merchant Mr. Tackleton first insinuates that Dot does not care as much for John as she pretends (although what business it is of his, I am sure I don’t know), the chirping of the cricket soothes away John’s doubts, presenting him images of a joyful future instead.  And at the crisis of the story, when a distraught John contemplates murdering the man he thinks his wife is having an affair with, he is stopped by the cricket’s chirp with the gun actually in his hand.  The cricket manifests as a fairy spirit who contests John’s anger and hatred by showing him a series of visions: things Dot has done to make his home life cheerful and bright, all the little sacrifices she’s made for his sake, the tremendous influence she has had in making theirs a happy home.  This spirit does not actively prevent John from killing his supposed rival, but it reminds him of who he and his wife are, thus enabling him to step back and reconsider the justice of the conclusions he’s drawn.

In addition to benevolent supernatural forces, deception and blindness are major themes.  Edward Plummer, missing and presumed dead, returns home after a long absence to claim his betrothed bride May Fielding, only to find she is currently engaged to Tackleton…why he decides he has to disguise himself as an old man before he actually arrives in town is beyond me, except that it’s necessary to the rest of the plot.[1] So disguise himself he does, and then turns up to reveal his identity only to Dot (who is an old schoolmate of his as well as a devoted friend of May’s).   Dot decides to conceal this knowledge from her husband, but her secretive behavior makes John suspicious and very nearly destroys her marriage.  John has a streak of insecurity running deep just beneath his complacent surface, as shown by how easily he is disturbed by Tackleton’s insinuating hints about Dot.  And of course, Dot’s impassioned speech to May about why she shouldn’t marry an older man (thinking of Edward, who is patiently waiting in the wings in his scruffy old dude disguise and just generally being useless) doesn’t help matters—John thinks Dot is really talking about her own regrets, lamenting the loss of some ardent young suitor she once preferred but spurned in favor of her solid and steady old John.

Once he has convinced himself to put the gun away, a heartbroken John decides he was cruel to yoke himself to a beautiful and spirited woman so much younger than himself.   Although this particular story is devoid of Dickens’s usual social criticism, this passage has some interesting proto-feminist connotations—John recognizes that Victorian society does not give women much control, and also that this is unfair.  If a woman’s husband abandoned her, she was cast on the mercy of her relatives to protect and provide for her.  Although John forgives Dot for what he thinks is a poor choice in old boyfriends (having decided that she wasn’t actively cheating on him but is merely in love with an old flame), he still plans to ship her and their new baby off to live with her parents.   Divorce was not a feasible option, so she would have been free to remarry only once John had died (which, given the disparity in their ages, John hopes won’t be too late for her).

Over in the subplot we have another liar as well as literal blindness to contend with. Toymaker Caleb Plummer [2] constructs an elaborate web of lies with “innocent deceit” for his blind daughter Bertha.  He alters everything he fears would worry or pain her:  his own slowly declining health, the decrepit state of their home, their poverty, and even the character of their hard-hearted employer Mr. Tackleton.  Bertha trusts so implicitly in her father, that she falls in love with a man who does not actually exist: she believes that Tackleton is a wonderful man and a generous benefactor who cares deeply for their well-being.  She praises him for his supposed goodness even as he sneers at her, having decided within himself that she must be mentally disabled as well as blind to be so fond of him.[3] Caleb eventually has an epiphany and realizes that his lies have done Bertha more harm than good, and that he is obliged to come clean.  Bertha, though naturally reeling from the sudden comprehension that the world she thought she knew is completely imaginary, does not condemn him.  She, too, hears the chirping cricket on her hearth.  She knows that her father has acted out of love, and devoted his life to making hers as comfortable as possible.  Though she is initially hurt and upset that Caleb has altered her surroundings in her mind’s eye, Bertha loves him enough to forgive him.

I believe that Dickens chose to write a fairy tale emphasizing the value of domestic happiness because he was not very happy in his own marriage.  He’s also a big fan of marriages with a great disparity in age, probably because they tend to be founded more on mutual respect than lust, and also because both parties go into it knowing that they will have to work a little bit harder at their marriage rather than rely on that first blush of youthful love to carry them through the ‘honeymoon’ phase.  This idea comes up again in David Copperfield, in several moving scenes between Doctor Strong and his very young wife Annie (who are something like 60 and 25 years old, respectively).  In both cases, Dickens shows how the couple can overcome their difficulties and wind up by being even happier than ever before because they have aired their insecurities and doubts and dealt with them openly.

Brooke tried hard to make a case for the similarities between The Cricket on The Hearth and Othello—(I strongly suspect this is because she hasn’t actually read Cricket in its entirety) but I can’t in good conscience allow for the comparison.  I honestly don’t think they are enough alike to warrant it.  While Othello goes straight for the “my wife is impure therefore I must smite the false jade from the face of the earth” tack, John Peerybingle would rather avenge himself on his rival and then send his beloved wife away to a place where she would still be under his protection but he wouldn’t have to face the pain of his unrequited love for her.  He isn’t so much consumed by a jealous rage as brought low by the weight of his sorrow and regret—and he quickly blames himself for the whole situation, for being so foolish as to assume he was worthy of a superior woman like Dot.  And while Mr. Tackleton is a bitter old man with issues, and does happen to be the person who brings the supposed affair to John’s attention, he is definitely no Iago.  He doesn’t seek to purposefully hurt either Peerybingle—he just feels a sort of kinship to John because he too, is about to marry a much younger woman, and he seems to think this makes them members of the same Old Guys Rule Club.

In true Dickensian fashion, all of the various characters and loose plot points come together in a pretty little bow by the end:  the missing-and-presumed dead son returns to save his beloved from a loveless marriage to a horrible person (just in time to explain his actions to all the other characters and prevent further misunderstandings), the blind woman learns the truth from her well-meaning but deceptive father and wholeheartedly forgives her misguided parent, the heartbroken husband is overjoyed to find that his cherished wife was never unfaithful to him at all but merely a victim of appearances and her naive attempt to help an old friend keep a rather silly secret, the innocent wife proves that her character is without the slightest stain and she is gathered into her relieved husband’s waiting arms, and the cold, callous old man discovers his heart is not in fact made of stone and that he’d better shape up unless he wants to die alone.

And then everyone dances and eats cake—really, what else could you ask for in a heartwarming Christmas tale?

[1] Well, Edward later claims that he does not want to unduly influence May if she really is in love with another man, since he has been presumed dead for a while and their betrothal had been many years before—but why would you not want to influence your beloved and try to win her back if that were the case?  I say he’s a silly putz and should have just been honest and upfront with everyone from the jump…but then again I have a grand total of 0 bestsellers to my name and Dickens can go ahead and do just as he likes as far as I’m concerned.

[2] The father of aforementioned Edward Plummer, coincidentally, so apparently deception runs in the family

[3] So just because a woman seems to like you, she must be absolutely nuts, right?  What does this tell you about your own character, Mr. Tackleton?