The Believer Logger: Something Witchy for Leslie Van Houton
The Believer Logger: Something Witchy for Leslie Van Houton
I’ve been thinking about Martha as part of a longer piece about my grandparents. My grandmother, with Munchausen by Proxy, killed four or five people—mostly by accident, but still. (My experience with the police—I’ve talked to them—is not exactly CSI.) One victim was her husband (her second husband, who was terminally ill, and took a very sudden turn for the worse), one was her lover (he was younger than her, in his 70s, not 80s, but he kept breaking limbs, and after Grandma’s series of several frantic calls about the level of care he required, he dropped dead), and two were her children. Martha and Norman. Or, well, I shouldn’t blame Grandma entirely. Martha died of melanoma, which doesn’t usually kill people (though Grandma may have cared for her to death), and Norman died in a scuba diving accident.
To explain: Grandma didn’t want Norman to go diving that day, but he had already put money down for the boat (scuba diving is very expensive), and he insisted on going, so she poisoned him, probably with prescription pills (but it could have been vitamins, she had been a nutritionist), and then when he went anyway he made a fatal miscalculation (he waited, um, on the sea floor, for help).
Should I say that my brother, my mother, my wife and I all believe this, but hope to be mistaken? My parents were very young when they had me, and until I was old enough to care for myself, Grandma would take me in for weeks at a time, and at Grandma’s I’d be amazed by this unusual thing that happened, which I assumed happened to everyone. Sometimes I would sleep for 48 hours straight. Also, a few times in the middle of the night, maybe half a dozen, I had trouble breathing, and Grandma had to rush me to the hospital.
The Believer Logger: YouTube, I'm Sorry
The Believer Logger: YouTube, I'm Sorry
When I was first notified that five of my “Seven Sonnets Read by Webcam Girls” had been banned from YouTube, I was quite upset, frightened even. (YouTube was hosting the videos for a project published by Vice Magazine). The decision seemed arbitrary, or worse—given all the sick, sexy and sexist material on YouTube, there seemed to be a double standard at work. After all, I could watch over 17,000 gunshot blood spray videos, 627,000 girls shaking videos (many of them underage), and, well, on and on… And there were other issues at stake (so I thought), which I felt prepared to talk about, since I had written about them before (for ex: at the Rumpus, the Believer, The Paris Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Slate, and Bomb Magazine). But after my appeal was rejected by an automated decision (I respect your total lack of transparency on this, and your refusal even to address my request to know who flagged the videos), I have come to a deeper understanding.
Let me begin by sincerely offering my heartfelt apology: I’m sorry I offended your elitism. Poetry isn’t for people like this. Webcam models and their viewers (even if said webcam models are fully clothed and not shaking anything), are simply beneath the dignity of poetry. And that ilk of people, who are covered in tattoos and the type you shy away from in supermarkets, are not just unpleasant to look at, they’re very likely to represent some ideas that, well, just won’t do.
Fightland: Kingdom Come
Fightland: Kingdom Come
February 16, 2009.
It’s 58 degrees in Orange County. The parking lot of the Market Place Mall is a little damp, and the man playing with the yo-yo is wearing a jumpsuit. The suit has police patches and badges—some kind of Long Beach Police Department issue—but the man isn’t a police officer. He’s unshaven, and he’s wearing flip-flops.
Tustin, California, is an affluent area, but the man, 6’ 3” and 250 pounds, looks strangely at home for someone so out of place. Orange County has a methamphetamine problem, and the man has that pale, grisly look like maybe he’s brushed off a few incursions of black spiders, but as big as he is, his presence is bigger, like maybe he’s one of the many petty-celebrities lurking the auto parks of Southern California. Also, there's something in his face, some stony regret.
A couple of cops drift by in their patrol car, and they don’t like the jumpsuit. They talk to the man about it, and he doesn’t like that. He can’t explain where he got the jumpsuit, which is a police disaster suit that dates back 10, 15 years. It’s against the law to wear it, the policemen inform him. The man gets annoyed, and they search his car. They find a “small amount” of methamphetamine and a glass pipe to smoke it.
The cops call in their prize; they’ve arrested Kimo Leopoldo, UFC legend, for drug possession and impersonating a police officer. …
The Believer: Orwell’s "The Freedom of the Press"
The Believer: George Orwell’s "the Freedom of the Press," a proposed preface to Animal Farm, expurgated and footnoted (with a bias).
First of all, I have to thank Daniel Levin Becker for the Sisyphean task of seeing this to publication. I know that I'm indebted to him, and to a bunch of other people at the Believer who I haven't been in direct contact with. They assidiously fact-checked everything in here, a very old-world and conscientious thing to do. My gratitude.
And now, I'll defer to the first of 17 footnotes:
- Penguin’s 2000 edition of Animal Farm included the essay “The Freedom of the Press,” which was identified as “Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm” and dated 1945. The essay was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 15 September 1972. You are reading a footnoted and elided version of that essay. By reading further, you risk participating in a crime; what I am doing here may be technically illegal.
Paris Review Daily: Animal Farm Timeline
Paris Review Daily: Animal Farm Timeline
So this is a timeline I put together about Orwell's Animal Farm.
Here's the first entry...
Nikolai Kostomarov (1817–1885) pens his story Animal Riot, a farmyard allegory that takes as its analog a hypothetical Russian revolution. A century later, in 1988, the English-language Economist will compare Kostomarov’s 8,500-word story to George Orwell’s 20,000-word Russian Revolution allegory, Animal Farm (which, unlike Animal Riot, ends badly), finding numerous points of comparison. For example, a bull in Animal Riot:
“Brother bulls, sisters and cow-wives. Esteemed beasts worthy of a better destiny than the one which inexplicably befell you and made you a slave of tyrant Man! … The hour has come to cast off vile slavery and take revenge for all our ancestors tormented by work, starved and fed repulsive feed, who collapsed dead under whips and heavy carts, who were killed at slaughterhouses and torn to pieces by our tormentors. Rally with hooves and horns.”
Old Major in Animal Farm:
“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let’s face it: our lives are miserable, laborious and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength … Why do we then continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our prob-lems. It is summed up in a single word—Man.”
Paris Review Daily: Circus and the City
Paris Review Daily: Circus and the City
oops, slideshow on Bard's New York Circus show. I never put it up here. Seems a little out of context now, but I start by jaking around about the election. 21 slides!
As we—like Lady Justice at her scales—weigh the virtues and policies of our presidential candidates, our very future in the balance, it is perhaps not without merit to reflect upon the classical history of democracy, and a fledging nation, now great, which has taken up a banner of representative government as passed down from the Greeks and Romans of antiquity. Perhaps, as well, as the airwaves are electric with the storied truths apropos to this most momentous of elections—this cotterpin in the history of humanity, perhaps the very universe, this year of destiny, of DECISION 2012!—we might look to the birth of our comedic and dramatic tradition, which we will find in the Dionysian festivals of Ancient Greece. Or, wait, is it more of a circus?
Circus it is. Hollywood may claim Aristotle as a father, and Washington may fancy itself an ancestor of the Roman Republic, but don't we all know that our truer father is P. T. Barnum—tabloid king and political boss—and that our truer tradition is the circus, three rings?
Vice: The Golden Age of the Cockroach
Vice: The Golden Age of the Cockroach
Every era in art has a new favored subject. The Etruscans looked to Hercules; painters of the Renaissance reenvisioned the Bible; the American Ashcan School rendered sensitive tableaus of poor urban life; and the later half of the 20th century, dominated by the PoMo-ism of downtown NYC, crowned a new king, the cockroach, which was not only an available resource, but a stand-in for the artist—a heroic outcast, thriving in the ruins of civilization.
The oeuvre of the cockroach is best understood as a series of distinct ages that, in turn, comprise a whole. During the Reformation, the cockroach was reconsidered; the Enlightenment percieved the cockroach as potentially “divine”; the Golden Age saw the pinnacle of the discipline; the Silver Age was consumed by celebrity; the Bronze Age refigured the subject as metaphor and victim; the Age of Decline represented the subject in absentia and/or in parts. As far as I can tell, no one has completed, or even attempted, to survey the cockroach's place in the art world, so consider this seven-part piece that examines an artistic era that scuttled by so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed it.
Bomb: The Tragic Last Stand of the Skyhorse Clan
Bomb: The Tragic Last Stand of the Skyhorse Clan
A brilliant piece that Brando wrote about "presumed identities." Here's the Bomb tagline and a few selects. Thanks Brando, for the dedication ...
Brando Skyhorse peels away layers of presumed identities and discusses recent books about Native Americans.
… If art, if literature, is a form of love—it is—the exclusion of subjects is the equivalent of banning mixed-race couples. Creative separatism is defended like this: so-and-so doesn’t have the experience to write about the subject. But artists often reach beyond their own lives; part of the drive to be an artist is to understand outside oneself. That non-Western stories are so xenophobic is more a mechanism of our marketplace than our artists. “Coming home” is the advertising platform. You join culture, you buy this, you will be happier. The “I” story, the story of personal want, ambition, desire, is the story of capitalization itself: the capitalization of identity. The question of high market (literature) or low market (Hollywood, genre, etc) is merely one of degree; the assimilation in a low-market context results in winning the Gold, or the Academy Award, or whatever, while the assimilation in a high-market context is one complicated by misgivings (which, however profound, don’t offset the “rightness” of assimilating). ...
… Western arts, Western artists, Western appreciators of art, function as a first wave of assault. Very much like a missionary movement—which is entirely well-intentioned but subversive of the occupied culture—the arts wash over a culture, drenching a people with the cult of “I.” On an international stage, the arts are unaware, or perhaps insensible is the right word, to their goal, the first economic goal–to strip the culture of anything of value, to replace all worth, including personal worth, with a need for Western goods, ideas and affirmation. Western arts place individual identity under continuous assault. The message: success/failure is a process of self-discovery, of true identity. Of course, this “true identity” is ersatz, furnished externally through cultural transactions, through the stuff—CDs, jeans, books, movies—that you buy. …
Slate: This is Not Art
Slate: This is Not Art
Wrote up the curatorial effort of Elka Krajewska and Mark Wasiuta. Work that has been declared no longer art (by art insurancers): on display at a gallery.
Kathleen Madden and Paul Frantz were featured in here, but they hit the editing room floor. I called Paul, who works at google, "an entirely affable stormtrooper." Here, I'll grab a paragraph from the middle:
To give a brief explanation of art that is no longer art: Sometimes the cost of restoring a work of art exceeds the value of the work, in which case the insurer declares a total loss, and the work is declared no longer art—that is, of no market value. The damage can range from obvious to subtle—from a ripped painting or shattered sculpture to a wrinkle in a photographic print, or mold damage which can’t be seen at all. As it wouldn't do to send the not-artwork to the crematorium—the work might be of scholarly value, or might one day be worth repairing, or might one day be more easily repaired—the work is stored, not dead, but in a state of indefinite coma. The Salvage Art Institute, Elka's curatorial brainchild, collects and exhibits not-art.
Paris Review Daily: Times Square Show Revisited
Paris Review Daily: Times Square Show Revisited
A piece I wrote about the revisitation of the Times Square Show:
At what date on the calendar, at what precise location, did counterculture become pop culture? And who do we mark down in the history books as the hero, or the villain, who masterminded the switch? There is an answer: “The Times Square Show.” In June of 1980, more than a hundred artists, under the auspice and directed by the vision of Colab (Collaborative Projects), took over a four-story building on Forty-first Street and Seventh Avenue and mounted a two-month exhibition. There were big names: Tom Otterness, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, Nan Goldin. Oops, wrong turn; the notion of individual heroism, of the creative ego that strives for and achieves recognition—in other words, a modernist view of the artist—is an anachronistic way to view “The Times Square Show.”
Publishing Perspectives: 2002 vs. 2012
Publishing Perspectives: 2002 vs. 2012, one book, two editions
Ok, I wrote this back in July for Publishing Perspectives, which is Ed Nawotka's brainchild, and an insightful window on pubishing—but I'm reposting the piece here because it's posted on Publishing Perspectives as an image, and it's not searchable. The idea: to compare the two publishing journeys, etc, of the two editions of Snowball's Chance. Here's the piece again:
Snowball's Chance by John Reed. When the book came out, I related. I had the spirit to make a few insurrections—went to a Christopher Hitchens right-wing diatribe and corrected him from the audience when he talked about me. At my readings I drank more than usual and encouraged my audience to drink more, and to contribute animal sounds. I gave out rubber animal noses. (Oh, I wrote Snowball’s Chance just after 9/11: Snowball returns to Animal Farm, brings capitalism.) Then nine years went by, and, uh, I looked at the book again; a tenth anniversary reprint was in the works. I called James Sherry, the original publisher. The prose melted when I tried to read it. The thing was nonsensical.
"James," I asked, "I don't understand anything in here, what does that mean?"
"It means," said James, "you wrote it."
Ten years. Just long enough to think, times weren’t so different, and just long enough to remember, yes they were. In 2002, blogs were for tech-savvy dweebs. Amazon was a book & crap bazaar. The Village Voice had a literary supplement, and cost one dollar. To find an article in a magazine, you had to get out of your chair, go outside, and go find it. To research a subject, you went to the library. People didn't throw up boutique lit journals in an afternoon. (I have one going official in September: statorec.com) You had to print on paper. You had to spend money, printing on paper, to have a publication. And then again, everyone made more money. Critics, writers, agents. And yet, why don’t I yearn for 2002?
2002—the end of an age. 2012—the beginning of a new age. But how to compare? What does one compare? And in what context?
2002 vs. 2012, ONE BOOK, TWO EDITIONS, TEN YEARS IN THE BOOK TRADE:
|BIG PRESSES||✓||My first novel had come out with Delacorte, and there was a frenetic race to publish books about 9/11, and I had an enthusiastic and reputed agent, and it looked to me like Snowball would find a place at a big house. Then, the lawyers chimed in—the best guess was that parody was no longer protected speech in the United States. If anything, since 2002, the people of “big publishing” become more politically engaged. But traditional venues for book coverage—newspaper coverage, for example—are scarce in number and those venues that do remain are pinched and heavily reliant upon advertising, which necessitates ad-friendly content (the right demographic, the right message), which further pinches what books the newspapers will cover—what stories can be told.|
|SMALL PRESSES||✓||I had always held out the hope that Snowball would find a place in paperback at a big house. We did get a few offers—but we always thought we could do better. Melville House, which was just establishing itself when Snowball came out, is now a lauded entity (Snowball is lucky to have them), and distributed by Random House. Overall, the small presses have a much better reach than they did in 2002—perhaps the best reach they’ve ever had. The caveats: there are legions of them, and many are publishing material that is, uh, not good. Of course, that’s a problem with presses of every size, and it’s very difficult to argue with any trend that localizes arts.|
|DISTRIBUTION||✓||James Sherry, the publisher at Roof Books, knew that the challenge for Snowball would be distribution. We naively thought we could address it, but our schedule was too ambitious. We ended up distributing with SPD, Small Press Distribution, which is now one of the leading options for small presses. In 2002, the obvious best option was PGW, Publisher’s Group West, which offered a realistic alternative to Ingram. In 2006, PGW went into bankruptcy—caused by mismanagement. Not only did the bankruptcy leave the monolith, Ingram, the sole proprietor of major distribution, it cost publishers like McSweeney’s and Soft Skull whole seasons of earnings. Of course, ebook, direct, online retail distribution, have all become realities—but the lockdown on major distribution has become more pronounced, and is without doubt the single most horrendous thing about contemporary publishing.|
|BOOKSTORES||✓||When Snowball’s Chance came out, despite the media attention, placement in B&N was a continuing battle. People walked into the store carrying newspaper clippings. Then, when Snowball sold out before the pub date, B&N didn’t restock. Perhaps rightly, the store that ordered the most books—I haven’t since seen so many of my books in one store—was St. Marks Books, about a block from my apartment. While the small presses have penetrated the remaining big bookstore (B&N), the small bookstores are vastly reduced in numbers, and less likely to offer alternative perspectives on culture—rather, most small bookstores have become “better” versions of the big bookstores, their list is more selective, their emphasis more literary, but it’s the same span of books you’d find in B&N.|
|ONLINE BOOK SALES||✓||2002, online book sales were still speculation. What mattered to Snowball was bookstore distribution. But if Amazon wasn’t yet significant competition, it was looked on, quite accurately, as the threat to in-person retail it would become. Online books sales, not just through Amazon, have allowed for a major change in what can be published. “Outliers” are possible, and books with specific demographics can distribute directly to their markets. Books can be printed one-at-a-time. Huge steps in the history of human knowledge.|
|EDITORIAL||✓||James Sherry, who edited Snowball, is a brilliant editor. I’m afraid the kind of work he did on Snowball isn’t something that one would be likely to see today—not at a big house, and not at a small house. Book editors edit less. But in terms of magazines, journals and whatever other literary venues, there are excellent editors, and more of them than ever. I’m finding myself writing numerous essays—stuff I couldn’t have dreamed of doing in 2002. (Including this piece for Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives.) The essay is in a period of Renaissance, and online editors have been disencumbered of the costs and responsibilities of print.|
|THE WRITING ITSELF||✓||In 2002, you went to the bookstore and looked around. Now, people make their choices, and their choices are influenced by what they see online. Those who are able to resist the constant temptation of propaganda and idiocy are able to employ the internet to inform themselves on subjects of interest and personal aesthetics. It’s that population of people—among the what? six million writers?—that has raised the overall quality of U.S. creative writing. With distribution as is, however, there’s not much evidence of that in the marketplace.|
|STATE OF NARRATIVE||✓||The traditional venues of book coverage—major newspapers, etc—are flailing to attract advertisers. Their readerships are shrinking, so they tell advertisers they have the “right” demographic. People who buy, who buy to be, who value money, who value the making of money. To attract the right demographic, editors, for example, gear their content to sync with the desirable demographic. In finding that demographic, the venue further shrinks its audience. Vicious circle. Snowball isn’t telling the story it’s supposed to tell; it’s not a “coming home” story. (“Coming home,” the comedy of Greek drama, is the go-to story of the marketplace. You participate in culture, you “buy in” and you find happiness.) I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, but I’m guessing that Snowball, as in 2002, is more likely to see political coverage than books coverage.|
|ECONOMY OF WRITERS||✓||Advances have gone down, payments for journalism/reviews are laughable or not there at all—and yet there are new opportunities, ebooks, interactive, etc, and being a writer, it seems to me, isn’t the act of immolation it once was. Maybe that’s just me, of course—it could be my unfailing optimism. Go buy a copy of Snowball and join me.|
|DEMOCRACY OF LITERATURE||✓||Email me and we’ll talk about it. jr @ johnreed.tv That’s the up side. The internet makes discussion, even radical discussion, a plausibility. Without the internet, I doubt Snowball would have participated the way it has. (I can’t tell you how many people tell me they’ve read the book, people who I quickly realize are just saying they read the book, which is heartbreaking, but I suppose they’ve heard of the project, or they wouldn’t bother to lie about it.) The downside to democratized arts: the normative conversation is dull, facile, and filtered by servile and/or oligarchical thinking.|
|BOOK COVERAGE||✓||For the reasons touched on in “Big Presses” and “State of Narrative,” traditional book coverage is diminished—in word counts, in number of venues, in overall scope. But there is the internet, without print costs, which has revived long form criticism. When Snowball came out in 2002, longform criticism was dying. I wonder if the new edition of Snowball has potential, as a lede or otherwise, for longform essays. Maybe. I’m planning to write four or five long essays about Snowball, Orwell, and Animal Farm. (This is one of them.)|
|READERSHIP||✓||Readers can find what they’re interested in. They’re more informed about what they’re interested in. They can tell other people about the things they’re interested in. They can “network” based on what they’re interested in. All this was just starting in 2002. Now, it’s part of how we live and experience books.|
|LITERATURE IN EDUCATION||✓||Blind, unthinking hero-worship is characteristic of an educational system dominated by a cultural hierarchy. “This is great because we told you it’s great.” It’s not surprising that in our ever more atavistic and conservative creative economy, the bullying in U.S. education has only gotten worse. It’s difficult for me to see much of an upside, have much optimism, about the academy’s mind-numbing approach to “classics.” At least I no longer have the sense that I’m in total isolation. Attacking classics, whether it’s Jonathan Lethem or Zombie Jane Austen, has become a category—and it’s a badly needed conversation.|
|SELF-PUBLISHING||✓||The same day I talked to Dennis Johnson, the publisher of Melville House, about the Snowball paperback, which would make me about .85$ per book, I talked the to “curator” of an ebook series, which would make me 1.70$ a book. And the ebook would only be 15,000 words. Snowball is about 35,000 words. The downside to self-publishing: self published books are self published (the overall quality is often very low) and if you don’t understand the book business, if you don’t have a highly specific and active market—the unicorn vampire market, for example—you’re probably killing your baby.|
|LITERARY CULTURE||✓||In 2002, I had very little awareness of thriving literary communities outside New York City. Now, I know for a fact they’re all over the place. Local arts, local writers, local collectors, local readers. Deeper thinking and the engagement afforded local communities. And these communities aren’t just a geographical occurrence—communities are forming around interests, passions, common causes.|
|COPYRIGHT||✓||While the copyright claims against Snowball, i.e. those of questioning the legitimacy of parody, are no longer viable, in the last ten years, we may well have seen the birth of perpetual copyright. Uh, for large corporations that is.|
|PARODY||✓||2002, it looked like parody in the United States was over. But by a miracle—an American miracle—parody was staunchly defended by a conservative Supreme Court. Furthermore, the U.K. has set about reviewing its stance on parody (they want the income that comes with the full dose of parodic entertainment, The Daily Show, etc). Snowball, threatened by the Orwell estate in 2002, is not currently under any legal danger in the United States—and the debate on parody in the U.K. points to (hmm would it be all right if I ended patriotic?) one of two outcomes: either a U.K edition of Snowball, or the continuation of a total inability of U.K. entertainment to compete with upstart Americans.|
Out Magazine: Where Are All the Angry Young Men?
Out Magazine: Where Are All the Angry Young Men?
A piece I wrote for Out about Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr:
David Wojnarowicz. Two reasons you may not know that name:
—our culture can’t remember, can’t deal with, can’t fathom the angry young man;
—it’s too hard to spell (and pronounce).
Let’s deal with the second reason first. Everyone spells it wrong. Forget it.
And the first reason, of course, is why you should know who David Wojnarowicz is. Where are all the angry young men? Contemporary life is not only culturally constrained, it is a compromise of privacy, of identity, of rage. We have to log on. We have to survive. Network, or perish. What happens to the fuming young artist who sledgehammers his dealer’s wall? Who ditches his friends by the road in Nevada? Who marches in and takes paintings out of the exhibit? It’s a romantic picture, the outsider, the rebel, but in reality, we are all too replaceable, too jaded, too doomed to wield our mallets. Or perhaps, we are too doomed to do it all the time. The anger that David Wojnarowicz channeled, his lashing, spitting invective against a life prescribed from birth, has become familiar, a mundane emotional disorder, easily treated by another prescription. Rage, at the governmental handoffs to hemorrhaging corporate behemoths, at the senseless cues of teleprompters, has become the dial tone of everyday life.
Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz, by Cynthia Carr. Two reasons why it should be anticipated as the cultural biography of the year:
Bomb Magazine and DB Art: Whitney Biennial 2012
Bomb Magazine and DB Art: Whitney Biennial 2012
Ok, proposed experiment: what if one were to write about a cultural event in two venues, one venue being a corporately owned venue, one venue being an independent, arts venue? Let's say they're both excellent venues, with excellent editorial.
The 2012 Whitney Biennial presents a ranging meditation on home. The theme is fitting, in that the museum is in the midst of moving to a new home, the fourth in its history, a 200,000-square-foot newly constructed building in Chelsea. With thirty-three film, video, digital, performance, and installation artists, accounting for 30+ hours of watching time, the emphasis on the show is distinctly media. (Thomas Beard and Ed Halter contributed to the curatorial efforts of Elisabeth Sussman, the museum's photography curator, and Jay Sanders, an independent curator apprised of performance.) There's so little space left over that the remaining artists—ten sculptors, six painters, two photographers, two text artists, and one textile—are contained in a greatly reduced Whitney. The impression is of two distinct Biennials: a media, performance, and installation Biennial, which looks to the future of the Museum, and a "formal" Biennial, which stands the turf of historically held territories.
more here: http://db-artmag.com/en/69/feature/no-place-like-home-the-2012-whitney-biennial/
We are privatized. In the United States a trend toward privatization has commodified domains traditionally thought of as public or free. “Most of what we currently perceive as value and wealth,” noted Alan Greenspan in 1999 speech at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, “is intellectual and impalpable.” The seemingly innocuous statement was a bombshell, one that would eventually explode the Western economy: valuation was no longer an objective assessment of materials, it was a subjective assessment of ideas. The Information by bestselling author James Gleick, chronicles the seismic economic shift, exclusive to our time: information is available, but at a price.
more here: http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/6549
About and Circling W.S.
Outro: All the World's a Grave
Outro: All the World's a Grave
A version of this essay, very much like the below, appeared as an "Outro" to All the World's A Grave. It occurs to me that I can place it here. I think I can, right? I'm also kind of tempted to post the really really long version. The Word doc. is dated January 30, 2008.
It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world …. But take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare's own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements. —Anthony Burgess
Shakespeare's flaws, if unspoken, are self-evident enough. Padded lines. Tangential subplots. Absurd dramatic turns. Interminable speeches. Character and narrative boilerplates. A limited number of dialogue modes: the hero, the fool, the low-birthed, the villain; comedy, drama, exposition.
For all that, the words continually reassert their brilliance. Would Shakespeare's brand of brilliance translate into contemporary letters? A customary if impossible question, given that his method of cut and paste would not. Much has been made of Shakespeare's thievery. Much has been defended. On the merits of the former: true, he stole an enormous amount, from dialogue to characters to themes to plots. On the merits of the latter: so what? Everyone stole back then.
For better and worse, that creative cesspool is no more. Copyright laws make Shakespeare's technique incontrovertibly illegal. An author cannot pluck a bit from here and a bit from there to fashion a work of their own. There are only two exceptions:
1) parody, a shrinking exception, at that;
2) use of work/writing in the public domain;
Which Shakespeare's writing is. (I can hear my high school English teacher, Barclay Palmer, chuckling, "oh, the irony, the irony.")
And it is precisely because Shakespeare's plays were monsters assembled from other monsters that a fresh monstrosity can be assembled from Shakespeare. And, because of Shakespeare's use of stock players and storylines, a new Shakespearian narrative is equally possible.
Who was William Shakespeare, and how did he work? Perhaps the ubiquity of our questions arises not so much from the mystery as from the cultural divide. Shakespeare's role, as writer, actor, director, producer, is more in keeping with a present-day cinema profession than a reclusive author in his garret. Shakespeare often (if not always, our knowledge of Elizabethan drama and literature is limited) sourced his plays from existing works—very commonly, existing plays. All The World's A Grave draws its architecture from five tragedies and one history by William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Henry V.
The lineage of Shakespeare's plays is an ongoing discussion, but, take Hamlet: upwards of ten generally agreed upon predecessors—one of which is Thomas Kyd's 1580-something stage play Ur-Hamlet—and, I count, fourteen additional analogues and possible sources. Many of these works interrelate, are translations of each other, borrow from other texts, etc.; and my count is no doubt faulty and incomplete. More than one lifetime has been lost in oblation to the task of sourcing Shakespeare.
But to accuse Shakespeare of being a re-tooler of old plays, or derivative, is to misjudge Elizabethan authorship. Like a contemporary producer, Shakespeare worked with stories popular to audiences, borrowing from marketplace successes and taking input from actors and other interests. It's a standard practice in Hollywood, among the very worst, and the very best. And, their argument for collective storytelling is very powerful.
Shakespeare's origin as a populist author has long been overmastered by "high" authorship. When did Shakespeare become a litmus test for social class/culture? Perhaps the balance between high and low was always pendular, and the tilt to pretension is a function of an increasingly obscure lexicon. To most Shakespeare lovers, the idea that Shakespeare is a populist, and that his work should be treated accordingly, is closely cherished. Paradoxically, the more one knows and understand Shakespeare, the more one appreciates him, and the more one is drawn to those anathema pretensions.
As Robert Graves expressed it: "He really is very good in spite of all the people who say he is very good."
One frequently hears that Shakespeare knew everything—from the emotions of a nubile thirteen-year old to the pathology of sociopath Kings. But not even Shakespeare could say everything; his time was rife with political sensitivities, and the ruling class shaped, paid for, approved of, and passed final judgment on all. (To what degree Shakespeare was Bowdlerized in his own time—200 years before Thomas Bowlder—is unknown, and probably unknowable, though the suspicion is, a great deal: Timon of Athens springs to mind.) To this day, Henry V is marched out at wartime, and an appealing male lead is cast to bolster the ranks of the marines. The political right will claim Shakespeare as their own, as will the political left, yet the argument that Shakespeare's attitude towards war was flippant or shallow is a toilsome uphill climb.
For this particular outing of the bard, there'll be no recruitment table in the lobby. One associates with Shakespeare's tragedies a mythic, ageless period of love, war and madness. But these are our times. In ATWAG, Shakespeare weighs in—in his own words, with his own characters.
Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride—by unnecessary bloodshed—Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered further, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged Prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the Prince goes mad with jealousy.
It is also just fun. That Hamlet have a reason. That Juliet have an affair, with Romeo. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a … relationship. The satisfaction is simultaneously one of creation and destruction: to build a sand castle and kick it down. To snatch "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" from the lips of a pining Juliet, and toss it into the angry mouth of Hamlet, who is searching for Romeo to exact a jealous revenge; to recast the historical "Et tu, Brute?" as the droll (but in context, just as tragic), "Et tu, Guildenstern."
Here's what I did:
I updated the spelling.
I updated a few words and phrases—not too many—when the word was overly puzzling to current speakers of English, or when the swap was reasonably painless. For example: "hoodman blind" to "blindman's bluff; "corse" to "corpse"; "porpentine" to "porcupine." I believe the changes are in service of the original intention, be it humor, or drama.
I dropped some apostrophes/elisions, but not all. For example, I wrote out the suffix "ed," because we no longer pronounce that syllable (Shakespeare's elision indicated that the actor should contract the beat); contemporizing the notation would have required that I insert an accent syllable above every suffix metrically emphasized (a procedure in direct conflict with my "don't be silly" rule). I left such elisions as "o'er," and "ne'er," because the pronunciations were sufficiently foreign to warrant indication.
I made changes to the punctuation: to update it, and to make contextual adjustments.
When faced with a choice of Elizabethan English or today's English, I went with today, and, readability. No "exeunt." I can't see any justification in Shakespeare for unnecessary obscurity.
In a few places, I swapped out a line for a clearer line. For example:
Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak. (Hamlet: III, iv)
Witness my tears, I cannot stay to speak. (King Henry VI, part 2; II, iv)
I sometimes swapped out words and phrases to avoid repetition. But, I tried to stay true to Shakespeare's use of repetition. For example: in Hamlet, I count the word "world" twenty-seven times. In ATWAG: twenty-eight times. Or, the word "sweet": forty-two times in Romeo & Juliet; forty-one times in ATWAG.
I did not hobble myself with impossibility, and—as did Shakespeare—adjusted the occasional line, to fit narrative, or scansion.
I kept with Shakespeare's decisions as to what was poetry (line breaks/first word capitalized/meter) and what was prose (no line breaks), based on the source texts I was working with. An example: Shakespeare's Lear, mad, is in a continual flux of poetry and prose (IV, vi); I echoed the pattern. (Ruth Maleczech played Lear's madness brilliantly in the Lee Breuer Mabou Mines production; and it's her voice in my head.) Intermittently, I had to make allowances for dialogue in ATWAG that required verse, or prose, or I had two texts that conflicted: one poetry, one prose. But I endeavored to keep the distinction crisp, and there are very few places in ATWAG where this is the case—the bedroom conversation between Hamlet and Juliet is the primary example—and even so, the seduction scene of Henry and Katherine in Henry V served nicely as a model.
The stage directions are my own. The contemporary standard of stage directions is different than the Elizabethan standard; in contemporary publications of Shakespeare's plays, stage directions are inserted. I did stay terse—tried to keep out of the way—as remains the dramaturgical convention.
Obviously, I didn't keep all of the narrative and dialogue; that would mandate a transcription of the complete works of Shakespeare. I imagine there will be exclusions that Shakespeare purists will mourn. For example: the dialogue between Hamlet and Juliet, at their first meeting in ATWAG, does not unite to form a sonnet. But, in keeping with this being a war story first (a love story second), I decided to give Iago the sonnet—however malicious, he is the conscience of the play. Furthermore, when Hamlet and Juliet first share a scene in ATWAG, it is not their first meeting.
And, always, I had fun. Developing themes (for example, around the word "gold" or "satisfaction"). Referencing Shakespeare unspoken in ATWAG (for example, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, III, ii—I "slandered Valentine," or, Juliet is a rose "untimely plucked," poem X, or, Hamlet's "soldier's kiss" is "rebukeable," Antony & Cleopatra, IV, iv). Riffing on well-known words or lines (for example: my use of "fair," "foolish," "foul," and "fancy," or the transposition of Richard III's parallel declarations "The king is dead" and "The dog is dead" to "The king, the dog, is dead"). Foreshadowing narrative elements through my revisions (examples: my Hamlet's "true friends" are "foul words" in IV, i of Loves Labour's Lost). Punning (often Shakespeare's own puns: Cymbeline's, IV, ii, "fear no more the heat o' the sun," is directed to the son, Hamlet). Looking for a grin (for ex: a line from II, iv of Macbeth, "Upon a thought he will be well again" is revised to pertain to drunkenness, "upon a meal he will be well again".
The outward structure?
In keeping with Shakespeare: five acts, five to seven scenes per act. Overall, the number of scenes, at twenty-nine, is on the high side for Shakespeare, who averaged about twenty scenes per play—but Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra clocked in at forty-two scenes. I do pick up the pace—more plot, faster—to keep up with the twenty-first century (thus the high number of scenes). Nonetheless, the scene lengths in ATWAG end up being typical of Shakespeare. There are a few short scenes, but nothing to match IV, vii of Antony & Cleopatra, which is only seventeen lines, or V, ii of Julius Caesar, which is a mere six lines. A consensus on the total line count of any Shakespeare play is impossible—but ATWAG is in the neighborhood of Coriolanus, Cymbeline and Richard III, at 37-3800 lines. That's a few hundred lines shorter than Hamlet, Shakespeare's longest work, which is particularly difficult to tally. At roughly 27,000 words of dialogue, the word count also matches up well with Coriolanus, Cymbeline and Richard III.
(For the sticklers who want to know why an exact word count/line count of Shakespeare is impracticable: 1} most of the stage directions are written by editors, and therefore vary; 2} formatting in a reader's text adds additional lines; 3} dialogue written in prose has no fixed lineation, and varies by format; 4} lines divided by stage directions add additional lines; 5} there are different versions of the plays.)
Why a reader's text? A full-length production of Hamlet, or Richard III or any of the longer works is extremely rare. Usually, the text is cut by a third. (A 20,000-word "Quarto" edition of ATWAG has been prepared for the stage. It exists in two formats: a list of edits to the Penguin edition, which can be found at alltheworldsagrave.com; and a transcript, also available, for theatrical and academic use, through the website.) Convention would see a production of ATWAG well before publication; but an abridgement—by as much as a third—would do grave injury to the work. It might produce a fine play—many will now argue that the first Quarto edition of Hamlet effects a utilitarian functionality. But without the Folio edition of Hamlet, and the other plays included in the Folio—a print edition intended for readers—think what not only readers, but performers would have lost.
The characters …
My Hamlet: "a prince of blood." To me, the added dimension takes easily. Othello, III, iii:
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars …
Hamlet's conscience, guilty, is a driving force in Hamlet's actions—and, in that, he is as much to blame for his undoing as Iago.
My Iago is evil, manipulative and highly sarcastic. Not too different from Shakespeare's Iago, but more justified. He is damaged by war—his deeds might be seen in the light of delayed stress syndrome. His revenge on the Prince—though he is unconscious of it—an act of war on war. His sense of humor is dark and manic (and I adore it): "Via!" he says, "Bestride your foaming steed!" As in Othello, Iago's asides (as I meant them) are directed at the audience with shining malignancy. I once saw a short Iago, with a Napoleon complex, and I loved it. The diminutive actor played the part marvelously. The performance indelibly influenced me (it's the origin of ATWAGS's "little soldier," III, i), though I've had no luck figuring out who the actor was. It may have been over the summer of 88—when, at nineteen, I had holed up to write in the attic of a cabin in Camden, Maine. A theater group gave on-the-green performances there.
Due to the laws of Elizabethan London, boys played the parts of female characters. I would contend that led Shakespeare to focus on the male roles, which would be handled by more experienced actors. I've tried, in ATWAG, to add complexity to Juliet and "The Queen," who (spoiler warning) I based not only on Lady Macbeth and Gertrude, but Lady Anne. That Juliet (as Ophelia and Desdemona) also has a streak of sado-masochism gives body to her relationship with Hamlet, who is similarly possessed. Gertrude, as knowing, and Lady Macbeth, as loving, make for the two sides of a character that is conflicted, appealing, and repugnant. (I am smitten.) Probably, she is right to think that by having an affair, "All the argument is a cuckold and a whore," and she has no choice in proceeding with the bloody business. My Macbeth, in the end, has a spine—and one can see how he ended up king. Lear is Lear. The Weird Sisters are the Weird Sisters. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—I've outed them. If I were an actor, I would jump at the project; the roles are entirely new, but the stuff of Shakespeare after all—real and throbbing and complex.
Footnotes to this edition—fairly complete, but not exhaustive—are posted at alltheworldsagrave.com. They index the provenance of the words, how they came from Shakespeare to ATWAG: poem, play, line.
What versions of the works did I use? Many. All public domain, which was part of the point of this whole thing. For the plays that don't have acts and scenes aside from editorial approximations—no act or scene breaks in the original text—I used the editorial approximations. (If anyone has trouble with these references, at the very worst, a Shakespeare search engine will do the trick.)
I footnoted locations; all are sourced from Shakespeare.
I referenced a little of the unspoken language, but not always; I didn't want the footnotes to get overburdened by references that weren't immediately correlative.
Sometimes, when there were many references, I chose the one that more accurately matched the meter, or most completely duplicated the phrasing. Sometimes I just noted, "frequent," because I thought the language was common enough to Shakespeare that the footnote was getting silly.
I didn't footnote, for example, "my lord" for "good sir" or vice versa, unless there was a compelling reason to do so.
I didn't footnote narrative and plot elements—the task was as daunting as footnoting the text, and would have required commentary, which was where I drew the line. For people familiar with the plays, my narrative use of Shakespeare is pretty straight-forward.
I occasionally footnoted the meter of an irregular line, but not always; the meter is usually right there in the text I'm borrowing from, and if it's not, and I haven't marked it, it probably means I judged the formulation too widespread to cite. There's nothing that couldn't be pulled up from a Shakespeare search-engine, or Shakespeare software, in swift dispatch.
My use of software: I didn't use any software, but I did use search functions and search engines. I put together Act One in 2003, without the use of a computer—aside from transcription—and that was not easy, or successful. In 2006, I blocked out the next four acts (from the six primary plays) using Microsoft word and downloaded source texts from gutenberg.org; the first draft had plenty of holes and an initial word count of 39,000+ words. As I tightened up the draft, and needed specific lines, I used searches more. For footnoting, I used them extensively, which saved a great deal of time. Imperfect as they are, I spent several months on the footnotes.
A personal confession: when I was thirteen years old, I walked through the line twice at Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park), in an attempt to secure two of the coveted free seats. (A pair of pretty women asked me to do it.) I took off my jacket to alter my appearance, and the Caligula at the gate called me on it, refusing to bestow on me a second ticket. Eventually, a pair of middle-aged women (who looked just like the pretty ones, coincidentally, but were older) gave me their extra ticket, and I was permitted to enter with my father and his party.
Despite evidence to the contrary, I maintained, protested, my innocence. Of course, I was lying, knew I was wrong, but some piece of me always thought I was more sinned against than sinning. I couldn't articulate it then, but as of today, I believe it was this: Shakespeare, free to all, had nonetheless been reduced to elitism. Go to Central Park, wait in line for your ticket, sniff sniff your way to the summer stage—the air of it is unmistakable.
Flash forward: twenty years later, I sit in a playhouse balcony, wishing that someone were juggling chainsaws, or cats, or anything dangerous, dastardly or comic, in lieu of the God-awful Elizabethan tragedy [JR1] to which I was subjected.
I complained bitterly, much to the consternation of my host, who had footed a sizable bill for the outing. But this time, I was right. The later Shakespeare drama, or part Shakespeare drama, or hardly any Shakespeare at all drama, was not only poorly executed, but poorly conceived, imagined and written. With all the great literature published and forgotten every season, we had to dirty ourselves in the dustbin of history for this? This ... garbage?
Should there be doubters as to the great literature published today, I propose a challenge. If you can spend a morning in the basement of The Strand (Strand Books on 13th and Broadway), perusing the new books of the previous year, A to Z, and still bemoan the quality of contemporary letters, I'll concede the point. Many times, I've visited this humbling experience upon myself, and I've always been blown away by how many fascinating, accomplished books I never heard of—and I never got past the letter B.
Would it be too contentious to claim that the entire canon of literature might be replaced every year with the books that molder in the basement of The Strand? Perhaps. Perhaps we might spare a few leather bound tomes from the bonfire. But certainly, there is kindling. For me, the first combustible is Kierkegaard's Diary of a Seducer, which I read in college. As immature as I was, I was astonished by the immaturity of the "paper" (Soren was thirty when he authored the work, and far too old for such pap), which had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, except that a well-known philosopher had written it, and that is was public domain, and a free acquisition to the publisher. On the flip side, Kierkekaard had written it before his philosophy was known (or even dreamed up, I suspect), and far better books are public domain (and out-of-print).
Shall we share in a small act of revolution? If you could take your hours back from one book—get back your afternoons of reading—what title springs to mind? Go get a pen, or, just make a mental note in the space provided.
Now, I'd like you to replace that title with a lesser-known contemporary book, one that you hold dear:
Surprising how easy, how satisfying that was, no?
ATWAG is a celebration of Shakespeare, but also a protest, a literary sit-in. Or, if you want to be disagreeable about it, I'm the heckler in the gallery—or, in the Elizabethan theater, in there with the groundlings.
Greatness is a myth—and one that very few people in the arts can take seriously. But it is a cancer of our cultural mechanism. The artist as hero, the artist as individual/persona. It was a strange feeling, when I first drafted ATWAG: to have it on my computer—a new play by William Shakespeare that nobody had seen. I could touch it, I could put my cup of coffee on it—and even if I couldn't fully metabolize its creation, and experienced zero sense of propriety, it was there. I feel a sense of marvel, when I flip through it; but there is also something blunt and pragmatic about it—this is how it was done, and here it is, again.
War, parody, the question of what is authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to "great" works, the creative future we bequeath our children: the litmus test here, in keeping with Shakespeare's original productions, favors immediacy to exclusivity—questions less academic than pandemic.
My first love was literature: even the love of loving literature was achingly seductive. Fahrenheit 451: the end-time of a world without books. Portrait of the Artist (and derivatives): the heroism of the written act itself. In college, I spent three days in bed, reading Moby Dick, and, by the end, had a respectable whale imitation going. But despite all that love, and the life I've given to books, if I could make one enduring contribution, it would be to assist in the end of literature as we know it. The shelf space is hoarded by mediocre classics, and we have hobbled our culture, and our creative culture, with received wisdoms.
Where are today's Dostoevskys? Where are today's Virginia Wolfs? To ask is to confess an absence of engagement with contemporary letters. Those books are out there, many of them, languishing
(I can hear the atavists harping: "William Faulkner lost to Toni Morrison! Chaucer, erased from the syllabus!" Well, first: Faulkner hasn't been forgotten, and neither has Chaucer. Second: every Faulkner title pushed a title off the list, which caused someone like you, back then, to whine. Third: Beloved was first published in 1987, The Bluest Eye in 1970—as such, Morrison is hardly a paradigm of new and unproven. Fourth: the assumption that what you've read is the best there is to read is an untenable arrogance. Fifth: Faulkner, Chaucer, Milton—whoever you want to name—these authors would be the last to lobby for the relegation of contemporary letters to a secondary status.)
To commend one classic to oblivion, or even a whole shelf of classics, would not precipitate the downfall of literature. Far from it. The impact on the total number of titles—especially with the archiving and availability of public domain books on the web—would be zero. But maybe it could help to shift the emphasis. Let's say a few more people wander out of bookstores with four brand-new first editions under their arm; that is a fine feeling. And we've made the world a brighter place. The irony that Penguin is publishing this work is not lost on me, or any of the people who worked on the publication of this book, who I am indebted to (neither is it lost on anyone at MTV that my third novel, which they published, was a parody of MTV). Penguin does have a major reprint business—but with the internet, and print-on-demand, etc., it seems feasible that we're moving away from bookstores filled with public domain books. Much to the delight of editors everywhere, I should add.
This essay, and my copyedits, are due today. I have asked for a few days extension, which I'll take regardless, but it's surely not enough. Publishing is a hurry-up and wait process that is not conducive to the patience, the vainglorious introspection of authorship. It's Monday—on Friday, I got an email asking me for a catalog photo. A personal panic, but I finally came up with something; I'm in the country, in a tan suit, standing in front of a barn painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag. As I hunted through my archives, I also stumbled across a beach photo, of me in my American flag bathing suit. (I have a fashion weakness for the American flag, which endures.) I bought the bathing suit in France, and very much identified myself as having a classic American perspective; about the time that snapshot was taken, I said, in the publicity for my first novel (a Civil War novel) that what I really wanted was for other people to get what they wanted. I now find the answer embarrassing, but I fear it's still true—that I had picked up on a core identity that hasn't changed all that much. I may resist it now, I may be mortified by it, I may have the presence of mind to know that some of it, a large serving of it, was an incidental result of alcoholism—the kids grow up to be overly facilitating adults—but it is still there.
An optimistic young American, on the beach.
The discovery that I have made since then: my identity as an author is not the same as my identity as a person. With my second novel—Snowball's Chance, a 9/11 update of Animal Farm—I prompted a good deal of animosity. As an author, I had never been happier, more content.
Those many years ago, as I walked up from the surf at Coney Island (or was it Southampton?), I had a nice smile, a nice profile. Now, my nose has been broken so many times that I can't be bothered to fix it. (My daughter, three, asked a few days ago, "Is that twisted into a nose?") From martial arts, my ears are cauliflowered, my left front tooth is chipped, and I've burst a blood vessel in my left eye, which has never completely healed.
The best compliment ever paid me:
I was standing in a circle of people—too talkative to be called a party, too dark to be called a cocktail party, too personal to be called an event—and some skeptical dude in a suit said that it looked like I had been punched one too many times. And then a wonderful girl replied, "Yeah, but it looks like he punches back."
I hate (is it love?) to be the bearer of bad news, but my beginnings are too humble, and I am too bruised, to be the good guy. It is almost surely a losing battle, to descry the value of today's literature. But I know that it's true, as much as it pains me to say it: for all the intellectual calcification, for all the marginalization of contemporary authors, and the contemporary experience; for all the disinterested and angry students who make solid arguments as to why books are not for them; for all that, I know we would be better off without the literary canon. Were we to lose every single title exalted in the volumes of the Harvard Classics, we would be better off. We would thrive.
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
—Richard II: III, ii
So, choose the one—make it your favorite title, or make it your most reviled—anoint it with oil, place it on the alter, and set it alight: a sacrifice to the future. The kingdom is come.
Brooklyn Rail: How Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike
Brooklyn Rail: How Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike
published as: Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike in the Brooklyn Rail (where it looks better):
Arthur Phillips (left) and John Reed. Photo by Dustin Luke Nelson.
April 18, 2011.
7:30 a.m. The alarm. Meh meh. Clock radio, but I’m too deaf for music to wake me up; I lost my hearing, or made it go away faster, with 20 years of Judo. I reset the alarm for 7:45 and lie there, in a sand of bliss, knowing that the tide of a long day has just rolled in.
I have to get to 311 Henry Street, Brooklyn Heights. From my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, Google mapped it at 37 minutes, but it will be longer. I don’t want to take the R train, or a taxi, which will run $20 – 25.
The Wednesday before, my computer started melting down. I came home at 8 p.m., knowing I had 20 minutes of work to do, then spent eight hours “fixing” the computer. On Friday, the computer died. As of Monday, I was copacetic, my anarchist tech guy was on the way, and between my office and my wife’s laptop, I was keeping up. E-mails, teaching, and working on Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare (my “directorial debut,” which voice-overs a low-budget horror movie with a new script culled from Shakespeare).
For several months, I’d been going back and forth with Dustin Luke Nelson. Dustin and his wife, Ashleigh Lambert, run the le Poisson Rouge reading series, where I’d read the previous February, as well as maintain the InDigest website. Dustin and I had been struggling to come up with a good idea for his InDialogue series.
Then I got an e-mail, spam, from Arthur Phillips. He had a new book, part of which was similar to my fourth book. In All The World’s A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, I disassembled the works of Shakespeare, and reassembled them, line by line, into a new Shakespeare tragedy. Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, captures her, and returns to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Lear, Juliet’s father, mounts his army. I have a footnoted version on my website: lines, meter, structure, all Shakespeare. Very occasionally, a play may appeal to a bookstore readership. In 2008, taking the prescribed course for such a work, Penguin released Grave through Plume.
Phillips’s 2011 book, The Tragedy of Arthur, includes a new play by William Shakespeare. A 200-page fictionalized memoir prefaces the Elizabethan-styled play. Abridged, the length of a short quarto, Phillips’s play mimics one of Shakespeare’s histories.
I first remember meeting Phillips in 2008, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where a Shakespeare troupe read scenes from Grave on one of the outdoor stages. April 25, 2009, at the Center for Independent Publishing’s annual Writer’s Conference, I moderated a talk on “Writing Process”; Phillips was a panelist. He was promoting his novel, This Song is You. My friend Brando remembered Phillips as “the Jeopardy Champion.” Phillips, indeed, had been a winner on the game show.
I e-mailed Dustin, and Dustin said, “Of course,” and I e-mailed Arthur, who said he was aware of my book, and agreed to a talk. That was generous of him; his book was likely to be well-covered. The overlap was incidental.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
7:45. I get up, and can’t decide what to wear. What does one wear to . . . this? I’d have to be able to teach in it. René Ricard, a flamboyant poet who lived in my mother’s loft when I was a kid, would say: “Wear the most expensive f-ing thing you have!” Advice that makes me look public school. P.S. 41.
7:55. Get stuck on my wife’s computer. Our recording studio for Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare has fallen through. Too late to bike. R train to Brooklyn. Travel time: 47 minutes. I don’t want to take a taxi, and have a creeping feeling that the interview has been called off, though neither Dustin nor Arthur has e-mailed to cancel. Thirty dollars on a taxi to nothing is too awful to contemplate. I can’t decide whether to think of him as Arthur or Phillips.
I grab sunglasses—don’t wear them often—and slip them on in the elevator. I’ve also spritzed myself with cologne. Gray Flannel; I picked the brand 14 years ago, and have gone through 1 1/4 bottles. A woman is pleasant to me in the lobby, and I realize I haven’t made this much of an effort—suit, sunglasses, hair, cologne—in months.
8:15. On the sidewalk. I’m not going to be in Brooklyn Heights by 9:00, not by subway. I don’t want to take a taxi. Since I started getting myself ready for school, second grade, I’ve been telling myself I could be ready in five minutes.
I start down 52nd Street: R train at 49th and Seventh Avenue. On the corner of 10th Avenue: a pair of lost tourists. Mother and daughter. Their map is unfolded.
“You need help?”
“No,” says the mother.
“Where can we rent bicycles?” asks the daughter.
“There are two places nearby,” I say.
I take a closer look at her. Blond, a cross between Siri Hustvedt and Allison. On our one date, Allison made fun of my not knowing what the Twin Cities were. She pressed her fingers, shaped like an L, against my forehead.
“St. Paul?” I ask the daughter.
“Minneapolis,” she answers.
I point. “There’s one on Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd, but the one between 55th and 56th is better.”
“Thank you,” says mom.
Then the daughter asks me how to get to SoHo on a bike, if that’s possible, and I work out the route for them on the map.
I’m not going to get to Brooklyn Heights by 9:00. Forty-seven minutes to Henry Street, and it’s 8:27. If I don’t get lost, I’ll be there at 9:14. Fifteen minutes late. I don’t want to take a taxi; I trudge back to 11th Avenue and hail one.
I tell the cabbie where I’m going, and he brightens up like I’m going to JFK.
Sometimes cabbies get impatient, make a sudden turn when they see a red light. I’m not paying attention, and my guy turns off the highway at 23rd. We hit traffic.
“Mercury is in retrograde,” he explains.
“I know,” I say. People have been telling me for weeks.
9:07. The taxi pulls up. Forty bucks. We’d overshot the address by a block, and I walk back. 9:10. Dustin is there. Phillips isn’t. I order coffee. Self-serve, from a carafe. Phillips shows up at 9:15, wearing sweats, and fuzzy like a yeti.
“Dog hair,” he corrects. “Always.”
He looks like a man who lives in deep isolation. But also like he’s chosen to look that way.
There’s a Baudelaire prose poem that I talk about in my classes:
Baudelaire is on a train, sitting across from a pair of bedraggled beggars. He has a baguette—a poet with day old bread. The beggars watch with hungry eyes. Baudelaire eats down to the stale heel of the bread. He can’t tear the heel, so he tosses it, whole, to the two beggars. One exclaims, “Cake!” and the two beggars claw at the crust, and each other, until there’s nothing left but crumbs.
The three of us, me, Arthur, and Dustin, opt for a table outside—even though I worry it’s too cold. Dustin turns on the tape recorder. I’m freezing. We talk de facto—what gave you the idea blah blah. I have a notepad, and Phillips jokes that I’m better prepared than he is. Grave got okay review attention; I did do a few interviews: Internet, print, radio. As we talk, I get a greasy feeling in my gut, and fight the suspicion that my Q&As are coming out of Phillips.
Mercifully, Phillips asks if I want to go inside. We do, and I refresh my cup at the carafe. We finally stumble onto something we differ on, when Phillips alludes to his hatred of the “anti-Stratfordians.” He cites the common criticism, “those guys just can’t stand the thought that a man of the people could write these plays.” It’s a straw-man argument directed at the Oxfordians, who credit the plays to the Earl of Oxford. There are many candidates in the “authorship question,” which, to my mind, misses the point. Shakespeare worked in a time without the encumbrance of a cult of identity, and without copyright as we know it. People collaborated, and Shakespeare was a head writer/producer who worked with other writers—think today’s Hollywood system. In Shakespeare’s work, there’s bound to be extensive evidence of other writers, because Shakespeare collaborated extensively. Few Shakespeare scholars would disagree, and as for specifics, I pick up the Shakespeare biographies, then put them down and pick up a Shakespeare play. The choice persists: Shakespeare, or mediocre speculation on Shakespeare?
Which leads back to the “authorship question.” The New Historicists have allowed themselves a process of a fortiori speculation. They draw broadly on Shakespeare’s period, and extrapolate. It’s a creative process, narrative non-fiction, and makes for improved reading. But free association, however informed, is not exclusively historical. There are maybe 20 Shakespeare facts that biographers revisit—spinning yarns of threads. The “anti-Stratfordians” arise from the same practice. As if to say: “If you’re going to make things up, so are we.” In and of itself, the “authorship question” is inconsequential to literary history; there is unlikely to ever be sufficient evidence to reconcile the fractals. Rather, the debate is preliminary to a healthy advance in how we think about creativity: the enduring impact of the Shakespeare library is perhaps the greatest argument in the arts that the biography of the creator isn’t that important to the understanding, the appreciation, of the work itself.
Phillips talks about immortality, about how he wants it, and I want it too. The mundanity exhausts me. As a teenager, I told my father’s friend, Charles Munch, that people are sperm—to which he observed I was speaking for myself. I look into Arthur’s face, and he seems so suburban to me, and I remember he’s from Minnesota. He asks if immortality is what I want. I talk about local arts. Shakespeare’s London had a population of 250,000. Global population today: 6.75 billion. One out of five people on Earth speaks English. To seek a line of descent, from the “greats” of the Western arts, is a fantasy—even if there is such a thing as “genius,” which recent science calls into question (“genius” may be common, if not inherent, to the human genome). “Genius” is a facile justification, best suited to marketing and oppressive conservatism.
Phillips talks about his perceived overlap with Shakespeare. A character named Arthur turns up in the King John series. While I worked on Grave, I found similar evidence: “John is the author of all,” from Much Ado About Nothing, etc. Phillips touts a birthday shared with Shakespeare; no record of Shakespeare’s birthday exists, but the celebration is traditionally coupled with St. George’s Day. I mention that I share a birthday with Charles Dickens—something I hate hearing myself say.
It ill beseems this presence to cry aim
To these ill-tuned repetitions.
Some trumpet summon hither to the walls
These men of Angiers: let us hear them speak
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s.
Phillips and I hesitate to be critical of each other—though I can see he questions my choice to update Elizabethan words. Most of the updates to Grave were minor, spelling, but on occasion I contemporized a word that had evolved. “Porpentine,” for example, was a nearly irresistible indulgence—but since “porcupine” was metrically identical to “porpentine,” and since Shakespeare would have opted for the contemporary term, I yielded to usage. Excepting superficial edits, I upheld the Shakespeare—the poetic logic, the complexity, and the variation in the meter—which is where Phillips made his concessions to readability. His meter is metronomic with very little poetry. His use of Elizabethan words is light garnish, not broth—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
In defense of Phillips’s streamlined narrative, Shakespeare’s histories are less poetic, all that furniture moving, and contemporary productions of Shakespeare are pragmatic distillates, as is Phillips’s play. While Grave is full-length, 27,000 words, the length of Richard III (Hamlet is 32,000 words), I also cut a short version, a “quarto,” honed by readings, smaller productions, and university productions. Even in Shakespeare’s times, a full-length production outside of London was unusual.
That our projects are simultaneously very similar and very different invites inquiry, but we evade confrontation. The major selling point of each book, a new play by William Shakespeare, is identical. The fault line—the big distinction—could be expressed (with assorted prejudices) as fiction vs. literature, realism vs. experimentalism, readability vs. pretension, “slick” fiction vs. “quality” fiction. The division doesn’t always hold, but the logic goes like this: in “commercial” fiction, content follows structure. In short, the story content takes on the structure that best meets the market. An easy example: Harlequin romance novels have formulas, the bodice must be torn off on page 64, etc. The story is fitted to the structure. In “literary,” or “experimental” fiction, structure follows content. The content defines how the story is told. For example, a paragraph about a bee is shaped like a bee. That self-awareness is modernism, post-modernism. Arthur, which adopts post-modern techniques, is nonetheless essentially commercial; Phillips sought the market, readability, and a category that worked (the novel)—and to those ends sacrificed as required. I sought the content first; I sacrificed structure, categories, to write what I thought was the “real thing.”
That political discussion would also betray our cordiality, Phillips and I are left with little to say. Content follows structure = the individual follows society. Structure follows content = society follows the individual. Phillips has produced a Shakespearean play that equates the life of a contemporary author with Shakespeare; it is a justification of today’s writer life, today’s creative life, today’s upper-middle-class life. My intention—to write the anti-war play that Shakespeare, beholden to royalty, couldn’t write—is subversive. An act of subversion with subversive objectives. Perhaps an author can never trust his/her own intentions, but on a conscious level, Grave was my answer to the question: how does one write revolution?
I ask Phillips if, given his title, The Tragedy of Arthur, he considers his play a tragedy, or a history. He knows that I’m thinking it’s a history; Shakespeare’s histories are, as a category, his least compelling oeuvre. Phillips says it’s a history. A moot point, he knows; his book is a novel.
It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world … But take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.
Novelizations of Shakespeare’s plays have been coming out steadily for 200 years. Phillips, with his fictional memoir, avoids the pitfalls. The subject comes up—Chris Adrien’s The Great Night, an update of Midsummer, was released at the same time as Arthur—and Phillips says it’s been done, and I tease him, “Maybe that wouldn’t stop you.” The joke doesn’t come off, but I don’t regret it. Arthur and Dustin ignore me; I know the jibe won’t make the edit.
Phillips offers a startling comment—he thinks his play could have been written by Shakespeare. In his book, his fictionalized persona flirts with the assertion, which I’d assumed was pretense. Phillips repeats himself several times: Arthur could have been written by Shakespeare. He’s serious, the attitude of a forger. In 1796, William Henry Ireland took the same stand, but after one performance of his play Vortigern and Rowena, the jig was up. (The story of William Henry Ireland and his father, Samuel, is the source material for the father/son story in Arthur.)
Phillips, backing away from the mic, asks if I think his play could have been written by Shakespeare.
For meter, Phillips played with word order. The reversal of word order was a hallmark of standard Elizabethan fare—standard bad Elizabethan fare. Shakespeare sought emphasis in alternate word order. While I didn’t see anything out of place in Phillips’s play, the language lacked range. Ren’ Fairs abound; it’s not particularly difficult to indicate an era—but it is difficult to represent an era in the span of its curious complexity. Arthur is faithful to Elizabethan English, but calling it representative would be like calling Dick and Jane representative of 20th-century English.
During the interview, we talked about some of the bad plays—Titus, Timon, Pericles, even the of-dubious origin Edward III—and I can certainly see Phillips taking part in the writing of one of those. Those projects were undoubtedly collaboration—either Shakespeare contributed a few flourishes or an outline, or was possibly Bowdlerized after his draft was completed (the term “Bowdlerized” dates to the 19th century, and Thomas Bowdler’s sanitized productions of Shakespeare).
“I think Arthur could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare,” I say carefully.
Phillips switches up his question, asks if I think Grave could have been written by Shakespeare. I know that my pace is faster than Shakespeare’s and that Grave, even though it’s all Shakespeare and all sounds like Shakespeare, also sounds like me.
“I think it could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare.”
There’s a 5,000-word essay at the end of Grave. Phillips asks why it’s at the end: a criticism. In fact, I had considered putting it in the front. I originally wrote a 15,000-word essay, which I thought to break up into a 5,000-word intro and 10,000-word outro. Wanting to emphasize the play, I trimmed the essay and relegated it to the back; Phillips put the essay in the front, and wrote more like 40,000 words. A different gear ratio.
The interview ends with the “what are you working on now?” question. Mixed Martial Arts comes up. What a loser I am, but I ask that Dustin turn the mic back on. I have a notion for writing a narrative history of the new fight game—I did that stuff for 20 years. It’s a book that I don’t think has been written, and there’s an obvious social relevance—it’s a borderless, raceless sport, which integrated the world in very much the same way boxing integrated America. I also have a fantasy that Phillips will step into a cage and fight me. Would be fun—we could play it up. Throw down the gauntlet in Elizabethan verse.
A Little Little Grave
When were you a man? Or didst beastly form
infect thy mother’s womb? Part man, in graces,
more dog, in appetite and gross submission.
You are a tame man: go as you would come,
take as you would follow, fat as tame things.
Yet dogs must eat and meat was made for mouths,
and thou, who lovest not this cur, art brother—
a sweet boy ripe in mischief. Play boy, play,
thou art a lesser villain than myself.
‘Tis naught to use thy brothers brotherly,
and I am but a mangy, beggar’s dog,
born to cries aloud, curses, and deep exclaims.
Shouldst thou have thy marble mansion, and I
a little little grave, an obscure grave,
but few odd friends will remember: there lies
two kinsmen digg’d their graves with weeping eyes.
Many a poor man’s son would have lien still
and ne’er have spoke a loving word to you;
ay, you may think my love is crafty love
and call it cunning: do, an’ if you will:
if you must use me ill, why then you must.
I warrant I love you more than you do me,
and curse the birthright that gave you no heart:
to hang your banner on the outward wall;
to stand within the arras and rush forth;
to demonstrate, of lives lifeless, the life
of battle; to laugh a siege to scorn.
Thou art better in thy grave than to answer.
But would you bear your fortune like a man,
yet but young in deed, we would be young again,
both accout’red like young men: the prettier,
braver, your mincing steps turned manly stride,
your reed voice speaking of frays like a fine
braggart—of how you played the flouting jack.
Prince Arthur or Sir John: stranger and stranger.
One better not born, one better-part dead.
Come, go we in procession.
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s,
‘tis nothing but conceit, some nameless woe
of forefather’s grief, of brother’s excuse.
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
and all great fears, which now import their dangers,
would then be nothing: truths would be tales,
where now half tales be truths.
Come, brother beast,
the sun is high, and we outwear the day.
I stay but for my guidon: to the field!
Let’s fight it out and not stand cavilling thus.
Read here, young Arthur: there’s my gauntlet.
Now I’ll stand back, and let the coffin pass.
As we step outside for a photo, Phillips says he’s been boxing for six years—which I’ve heard—but that he doesn’t spar. I’m guessing he’s saying he won’t fight me.
I ask him if he teaches anywhere, and he acts insulted. I’m teaching three classes at two schools: Fordham and New School. I’m also an occasional at Columbia, and in fall, New York University. I don’t often exceed two classes a semester, but I stepped in at Fordham at the last minute. Years before, I spent some time in Cuba, where teaching is thought of as a human responsibility. Three classes is too many, but how could I not cherish something that makes me a better person? For a moment—just as we cross the street—I hate him. The guy just insulted every Nobel Laureate on Earth.
We part with a hug.
Dustin and I take the subway; Dustin is ambitious, capable, intelligent, and, good God, from Minnesota.
11:20. I get to my office, Crosby Street, which I still have from my glam days before the economic whatever-this-is. I want to find a few hours for my fight game proposal. I also want to look at a couple of scenes from Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare.
I call a theater director I knew in college. We pick up a conversation from two years back. A reading of Grave: the cast non-white, or largely non-white, like Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus, to disassociate Grave from its sources.
We wonder what happened to our college friends—we’d had big plans for our lives together, but gone our separate ways. Me, to graduate school.
“Oh, wait,” I say, “I know what it was.”
“Yeah. It went down exactly like it was supposed to go down. First, they rip you from your family, put you in school; then they rip you from your community, ship you off to college; then they rip you out of the college community. At every stage in your life, whenever you might forge meaningful relationships with people, they make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Who is they?”
“You know who ‘they’ are.”
“What did Columbia do for you anyway?”
“I don’t know—kept me from being a danger to society.”
“I mean, it helped a little. People who went to Harvard don’t act like I’m a peasant.”
Then I call Clove Breuer, who’s in the city for a few days. She was my closest friend at Friends Seminary, the private school I went to after P.S. 41. Her parents: downtown theater people. My parents: downtown artists. She went to Brown, where I was admitted on transfer (after a year at Tulane). Probably unwise, I opted for Hampshire.
I tell Clove what happened; I sound like a child.
“Who is he?” she asks. I tell her, but she’s never heard of him.
“The Jeopardy guy—he won Jeopardy,” I clarify. She still doesn’t know who I’m talking about.
“He went to Harvard, then bummed around Prague, where he wrote a novel, Prague,” I say, but that doesn’t help, and I start to apologize for mentioning it all.
“At Harvard, they train people to do that.”
She’s saying that Harvard trains people to commercialize ideas.
Clove has some possible contacts for me on a reading, and she asks, “What do you want?”
“Out of a reading, or life?”
“Life, I guess.”
I don’t know what I want. “I want to run through the street, screaming, ‘The king is dead!’”
Clove invites me to a benefit for the theater company her parents founded, Mabou Mines. It starts at 8:00, Paula Cooper Gallery, Chelsea.
I get my few hours of work done.
2:20. Five minutes to spare.
I see I have a reply from a friend I e-mailed the night before. She has the same last name as the professor I replaced at Fordham. The professor, a writer and Shakespeare scholar, had passed away suddenly, and at her memorial service I noted a resemblance. My friend agreed, there was a resemblance, and yes, both families hailed from the middle of the country. She wasn’t aware of a relation, but she couldn’t be certain—typical of Mercury in retrograde, she wrote.
I race out of the office, now five minutes late. I do some reading on the train. The class is a good group, but shell-shocked by the loss of their professor. Today, they read work aloud, game show style, and elect winners to represent the class at the undergraduate reading later that night. The game-show doesn’t elicit the hysteria it did in the fall semester, but we choose representatives.
5:15. Class ends. I hang around, talking to students.
5:45. I race home, eight blocks and a few avenues. I have to be back at Fordham at 7:00 for the reading.
When I walk in the door, I’m starving. I see a tub of steak on the counter. The kids are running around. My wife is at her computer, and on the phone. I don’t know when they could have made the steak. Maybe lunch? My wife is busy with her call, and I move for the tub. She looks up, nods vigorously, points to the steak, and turns back to her laptop. I can see the steak is heavily spiced, Italian medley kind of thing, even though it isn’t aromatic. I peel off the lid and select a patty of meat. It’s squishy, been refrigerated. Big bite. A sponge. Not steak. I’m gagging in the sink. My wife is looking at me, having forgotten her call—she hurries to the bedroom, not to be distracted. The kids have appeared; they stand in the kitchen, watching me with their lemur eyes. I’m retching and rinsing out my mouth. When I turn around, they’re still there.
“What was that?” I ask.
“The mold experiment,” says my daughter, six-and-a-half.
“The mold experiment?”
“Yeah,” says my son, four.
“When did you start that?”
“A long time ago,” says my daughter.
“What did it taste like?” asks my son.
“Uh,” words elude me, “not good.”
The children wait for a better answer.
“It tasted not good, with soap,” I say.
“There was soap in there,” says my son.
My daughter explains, “We wanted to see what it would do to the mold.”
The pair reports that I didn’t bite into a sponge, but a dinner roll, which I’m instructed to return to the glass tub.
That morning, my taxi driver had told me about his seven children. I marveled that he’d managed seven; he assured me that it wasn’t the same where he was from. Back in his village in Pakistan, his kids would roam “like pets.” Everyone in the village knew everyone else, and the kids would drift from uncle to aunt to cousin, often for days at a time. In Western culture we tend to assume that people without money are poor. The process of drawing people into capitalism, stripping them of their land and family so that they’re dependent on work and government, is the fundamental impoverishment. My wife and I are homeschooling our two children; American society is not set up for that. Far too often, I leave her alone for “the bedtime ritual.”
6:50. After dinner, all from scratch, I grab my bike and head back to Fordham. The best thing about the bike, which I picked up off Craigslist, is the gigantic basket. The fruit lady gave it to me and the kids.
The reading is a challenge for me acoustically, but I get through, laughing with the students. I finally get a chance to chat with Willie Perdomo, a poet I admire. He went to my high school, Friends Seminary, where he briefly dated Clove.
8:40. The reading lets out, I hurry down for my bike; I can ride to Chelsea, drop into Clove’s thing, and be home not-too-late. My bike isn’t where I locked it.
The equation of Arthur—Shakespeare = a contemporary writer living in Brooklyn—perpetuates the fallacy of Shakespeare as a lone author, and the arrogance of a Bed, Bath & Beyond demographic. The argument, hostile to the arts, is that creativity falls outside community and economics (in reality, Shakespeare and his accomplishments came of a collaborative community, and the coffers of the Queen). But I can’t imagine an artist consciously driven to make him/herself bigger by making the rest of us smaller; I can’t imagine such a need, such a void. That Phillips’s book is assimilative propaganda is dispiriting, not evidential. Something’s in the air, a few people come up with an idea. Happens all the time. And yet, I think, here it is: Arthur Phillips stole my bike.
8:55. I run into my house and grab my skateboard. Skate down to Chelsea. Wrong kind of board for a long ride, so it’s slow going. The Minnesota tourists pass me on their way back from SoHo. We wave.
9:30. I arrive at the event, asking if Lee Breuer (Clove’s father) is around, I have a book for him to sign, but he’s in Europe: getting video-conferenced in.
I talk to people I’ve known my whole life: theater people. Gay men still fabulous, hard-edged artists, earth-mother producers. I can’t shut up about the Phillips thing; they’re patient. A few “famous” downtown people are there, people I’ve been seeing at events like this since I was four. There can be something terribly sad about talking with them, about the monstrosity that puts distance between us, and/or the monstrosity that makes me remember them too well.
In Grave, I count four major influences. First: Lee Breuer’s production of The Gospel at Colonus (performed in 1985). Second and third: Ruth Maleczech (Clove’s mother) as Lear in another Mabou Mines production, 1990; the performance of an actor, whose name I don’t know, who played Iago in a 1992 summer production in Maine. Fourth, one of those famous downtown people: he encouraged me after I had written the first act of Grave, when I was a junior in college, and then he turned up again, years later, when I had written the second and third acts. He pointed out that the work was, as much as art can be any one thing, an expression of radicalism. That Grave was without category, my primary market concern, was an unavoidable structural conclusion.
Lute, Clove’s baby brother, is mid-30s now. He walks in through the gallery doors, with his daughter in his arms. She’s slightly younger than my children, and in her face I see so much of Lute, of Clove, of their parents, and of my own life that tears fill my eyes. Weirdly pathetic, but I’m so overcome with emotion I can barely speak. The child, exhausted, flumps over Lute’s shoulder as he carries her to the car service. Her child eyes watch me.
After the benefit, there’s dancing. My preferred cocktail appears—one of my fab uncles. I dance with Clove and Caitlin, the first girl I seriously made out with. Seventh grade. The DJ mixes in ’80s songs for us: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and “Born To Be Alive.” Caitlin and I bust couple moves we came up with for the school dance contest.
I have to get home. I grab my skateboard. Clove walks me out. She’s about to tell me that Mercury is in retrograde, so I tell her I know. She says she was going to tell me it hasn’t been in retrograde for a week.
I step onto the sidewalk, not looking forward to skateboarding uptown. A car pulls up. A taxi. Another 10 bucks if I take it. Fifty dollars on taxis in one day. I can’t bear it. I glance at my watch, 11:22, and climb in. The driver pulls away. I look out the back window: a couple of tourists are running after the taxi, trying to wave it down. I feel like a bougie pig, and sink low in the seat. The cab hurdles up the avenue, a straight shot through Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen to my apartment. I pull out my hearing aids. Silence. It’s a city of kindred spirits and ghosts, and in the pale orange of the streetlamps, I sense the laughter, all the laughter, of humor, hubris, and honor.
* Ed.’s note: The Brooklyn Rail is not accusing Arthur Phillips of stealing property.
Brooklyn Rail: Praise the Bard
Brooklyn Rail: Praise the Bard
You may remember William Niederkorn’s scrape with the Shakespeare “traditionalists” on the “authorship question.” This month in the Brooklyn Rail, he weighs in on James Shapiro’s new book on the subject:
And I weigh in on him weighing in, here:
But, umm, hmm, ok, until someone chews me out, I'm just posting it here ...
No artist is solely responsible for a work of art. Every creative work relies on cultural history, collaboration, and the creative contribution of its audience. Harold Bloom, in declining health, is the subject of discussion these days. Not always a fond subject. I went back to the daunting Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, Bloom on Shakespeare. Daunting, but as I’ve repeatedly discovered, a short essay followed by encyclopedic and subjective discussions of the individual plays: an act of amassment. Bloom’s interests in religion, the divine spark of Gnosticism, cross over here; Shakespeare, says Bloom, did more than just represent consciousness, he created it, in the literary sense and perhaps beyond.
Johann Heinrich Füssli, “The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth” (1781-1784). Oil on Canvas, 221 × 160 cm.
Bloom’s thesis is founded partly in out-of-fashion adherence to universality, and partly in the Shakespeare authorship discussion, which to Bloom is too silly to address directly. But Bloom goes to great lengths to attribute every last work to one man, even in contradiction of accepted scholarship. On first exposure, I—like just about everyone else—shrank from Bloom’s contention of a monotheistic Shakespeare; on closer examination, I’ve revised my appraisal. I didn’t grant adequate credit: the attribution of literary consciousness to Shakespeare is far lamer than estimated.
Obvious things out of the way: plenty of literary consciousness in evidence before Shakespeare (Bloom accounts for the Bible by crediting it to the single genius, “J”); Shakespeare was not widely distributed outside the English-speaking world until the 20th century, and to this day is an exotic author in many corners of the world; physiologically, human beings and their brains have been basically the same for the last 50,000 years.
Bloom places himself in a tradition of universality, objecting to the disuse of universality as a critical architecture. For Shakespeare to father consciousness, literary or more, he has to have had access to the entirety of human experience. Universality allows for that: it allows Shakespeare to speak to and for all of us. But Shakespeare, with his sprawling interest in human consciousness, is an unlikely champion of universality, as Bloom acknowledges. The specificity of Shakespeare’s characters—psychological distinctions, despite linguistic similarity—places Shakespeare far more comfortably in a criticism that controverts universality. And neither does Shakespeare’s attitude towards publication—indifference—speak for a playwright who believed the world was his audience, or an artist eager to announce, evidence, or preserve a singular vision. Universality is a marvelously appealing oversimplification, but not fundamental of Shakespeare’s vision: not everyone has the same experience of life, and anyone engaging the realities of human life on this vast globe itches at the assertion of Allness.
Shakespeare wrote in an era when collaboration was the norm. Along with his contemporaries, Shakespeare borrowed, stole, revised, shared, took credit for. There was no copyright to dissuade anyone from authorial showmanship; and the collaborative cesspool was highly nutritive. Bloom, committed as he is to individual greatness, does what he can to curtail Shakespeare’s partners and sources: sometimes, as in the case of Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet (which pre-dated Shakespeare’s Hamlet) going to great lengths to finagle it. But Shakespeare did collaborate: not only was there no copyright to dissuade him, there was little notion of individual authorship. Shakespeare’s role was more akin to that of a contemporary writer / producer or head writer; he worked with a number of sub-writers, assigning and revising as he saw fit. He also had a cast of actors, hired for the hundreds of previous roles they had played and memorized; they too were a part of the development process. Shakespeare’s market was the premiere form of entertainment, the biggest money-making art form in his culture. He wasn’t writing alone in the dark.
For theater performed in English, Shakespeare had the best audiences in recorded history. Not all of the Globe’s audience was educated—but all, or almost all, were educated in the theater of the day. They didn’t watch TV, listen to the radio, or even read books as we know them today. They went to the theater. Just a few men—let’s say two dozen—make for the core of Shakespeare’s generation of playmakers. Gushing awe is easier than the statistical argument, which is that writers like Shakespeare will develop if they have the outlet for the work. Dickens and Dostoevsky, to cite authors that Bloom cites, mastered the forms that the marketplace made available to them. Crime and Punishment, published as is, today? Not with a major publisher. No way.
Jonathan Bate, in his recent biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age (a title almost as feeble as that of his previous Shakespeare biography, The Genius of Shakespeare) vaults into an acrobatic routine similar to Bloom’s: Shakespeare’s collaborations were incidental; the “missing years” pointed to by Shakespeare revisionists are accounted for; the revisionists are uneducated kooks, etc. There is no address of the underlying argument: our understanding of Shakespeare, now founded on a 20th-century assumption of the artist as genius, is essentially incorrect. Shakespeare wrote in a time of routine collaboration, no authorial copyright, no publication, and little investment in intellectual property, or even intellectual originality. Shakespeare isn’t a yearly recurrence—and I believe he could be—not because he was the messiah, but because we’ve legislated and philosophized Shakespeares out of existence.
Bloom and Bate, along with the other traditionalists, as they are termed, are appealingly scented by pipes of cherry tobacco and a casual disdain for popular culture. But universality is popular culture: it is the linchpin of the lowest common denominator, and the activator of the massively idiotic, from schmaltzy rock to kitsch. To tell artists, to tell everyone, that their individual experience must translate to the experiences of everyone else, is to hobble creativity beyond recovery. To tell readers, watchers, buyers that what entertains them and delights them must conform to style or taste or universality (argumentum ad populum) is to create a nation, a world, of zombies. Which is why zombies are so popular, and so frightening: we are zombies.
The divide of the Western family—no longer do we live in extended groups of grandparents, uncles, aunts—is also predicated upon a notion of universality, an illusion of commonality. We break ourselves into individual or nuclear units, and perpetuate the ever-unsatisfying lie that our real family is yet to be discovered, that somewhere out there a group of friends or co-workers or peers will form, and that they, unlike our blood relations, will really care about us. Alas, not true, and meanwhile, we’ve dismantled any truer family sanctum that might have offered us contentment, peace, completion.
Public education, as dreamed up in the United States after the Civil War, was a Reconstruction tactic aimed at the U.S. underclasses, black and white. The idea was to separate children from their families—to integrate children into the broader culture, and to diminish the influence of thinking independent or critical of normative U.S. societal stratification. Universality is the assumption that binds higher education—that puts us all in the same classrooms, learning the same things about the same books. And, by now, universality is not only a symptom of total assimilation, but of laziness; it happens to be much easier to teach the same books, year after year, generation after generation; it happens to be much easier to write the same books, century to century.
In 1600, two hundred million people walked the Earth; today, seven billion. In 1600, London’s population reached the high water mark of two hundred thousand; today, eight million. Off-putting, to dig around for today’s authors. But people who care about books and reading, and the preservation of a creative future, will do it.
Arguing that Shakespeare is a singular phenomenon in the history of humanity is akin to arguing that there is no other life in the universe. For a long time, that easy conclusion seemed like the more logical position—we live in an endless, cold void—but the once scientific assessment has since been overturned by statistics. There are just too many other galaxies and planets (and perhaps even other universes parallel to our universe) for us to be entirely alone. Enormously disquieting, to acknowledge how many people are walking around the earth, all of them breathing, and many of them writing: but here we all are—and the more courageous reader, the more courageous thinker, will pick up a new book over, let’s say, Pericles, which is a terrible play no matter who wrote it.
To write well is to take a stand against death. Flirting with death is seductive, as is courting death, celebrating death, imagining death. But dying, dying on the page, is no fun at all. A lesson that writers learn early in their experimentations: creating a boring narrative to depict a boring narrative makes for a doubly boring read. That is the divide in the current Shakespeare fracas. Death vs life. Creativity vs bureaucracy. Who Shakespeare was, what his process—all less important than the debate itself. The one side seeks to maintain the Shakespeare biography as is; but, to do so is to concede that there’s nothing new to write about Shakespeare. All that’s left is subjective opining. Their solution: to broadly extrapolate and build on the accepted biography. To look at a year in the life of Shakespeare, for example, and look at it in the context of everything else happening in London. Or, another example, to look at Shakespeare’s testimony in a trial (he said a few words), and extrapolate his involvement. The problem with all that: Shakespeare’s life, as known in verifiable facts, is a slim affair—I’ve seen it all printed on a single deck of playing cards—and the narratives derived are products more of inductive posturing than deductive reasoning. The argument of the Shakespeare revisionists is, “well, if you’re going to make all this up, I’d like to make up something else.” Based on the argumentum ad ignorantiam of contemporary Shakespeare scholars, the revisionists have granted themselves the same right to sweeping, gestural elaborations.
Michael McClure has argued that tradition, bureaucracy, is a needed coagulation in the body of humanity—that without conservatives to stem the flow, we’d all just bleed to death. Contemporary authors are forced to pay homage; a repackaged “master,” and they manufacture the preface, or an introductory essay (ostensibly a review) for some magazine. Publishers, in their tidal panics, continuously return to their great masters, and last year Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind anthologized her half-hearted tribute to E.M. Forster, ‘’Middle Manager.’’ Even Frank Kermode, to whom the reassessment of Forster was entrusted with Concerning E.M. Forster, did little more than spruce up his lecture notes, and assert that the cinematic adaptations of Forster are schmaltzier than the novels, which are, admittedly, schmaltzy. Seventy-five years from now, publishers will be looking for reappraisals of James Patterson.
And Patterson, in the minds of those future scholars still clinging to universality, will have been a lone genius who saw to the core of the human condition. The Patterson machine—the many people who work for Patterson, on and for the books—will be pushed from their memories. Which is a real shame, because if there is genius in Patterson, it is in his collectivization of individual talents. Much like Shakespeare. Our age, more a recurrence of 16th and 17th century feudalism than we would like to admit, will increasingly look to art that is collaborative, big enough to compete with corporations. “The School of Caravaggio,” yes, partly like that, but certainly like Hollywood movies, television, and the large-scale narrative serializations we now see in publishing.
I can appreciate McClure’s argument. I don’t think we need to stand vigil over E.M. Forster, and I don’t think anyone is going to damage Shakespeare’s reputation, but I concede: “they stumble that run fast.” Yet the analogy doesn’t hold for Shakespeare scholars who have constructed a biography upon creative thinking, and now disallow their adversaries that same process. There is something terribly anemic about the unwillingness to even acknowledge that there is biographical dissent. Especially when there’s so little to fear. When the dust settles, we’ll all know that Shakespeare collaborated, which is something we really should, and most probably do, know already.
The revolution undertaken in the Shakespeare world is not the creative revolution that I as a writer crave, but it is a battle within it, and the revisionists, as balmy as they can be, are on the right side. It’s unfortunate that class plays a role here, that some of these maniacs want to dethrone Shakespeare for a Queen or a Lord, and possibly for the wrong reasons. The issue confuses the sides of the skirmish; it’s easy to see the traditionalists as defenders of the middle/lower class. But this isn’t a class war, it’s a creative war, a war against 21st-century assumptions of lone genius (which, applied to Shakespeare, are just wrong), and against a kind of conservatism, a kind of atavism, that will choose the backlist over the frontlist, that will choose the past over the present—that will choose the dead over the living, and over the truth.
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/12
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/12
Ok, I resisted writing about September 11th yesterday. But now, it's September 12th. The not so dreaded 9/12. The first thing I want to say about 9/11: Happy Birthday Uncle Norman. My pathetic, crazy uncle died a few years before 9/11. He was only 28—beset by misfortune and abuse his whole life—but at least the poor bastard died before his Holiday was the new D-Day.
So, I've been mulling this idea over with friends of mine—by email and live. And, after their consultations, I'd like to present a new plan for 9/11 in NYC.
Next 9/11, 364 days from now, precisely one year from yesterday …
Toga Party. Citywide.
I extend the invitation to New York, and the world.
Please, forward this invite to anyone you think might make a good guest, and have them show up, where shall we say? Downtown.
It is fitting that so many people have contributed to the dreaming up of the 9/11 Toga Party—and of course especially fitting that they are all New Yorkers. I imagine the festivities will meet, in some circles, an appalled reception—but we are New York. More charming than Romans, and lean enough (unlike those in the middle of the country), and pale enough (unlike them Californians), to wrap ourselves in Togas and look just fine (or, no worse) and make a night of it.
Perhaps not as larky as a Midsummer Night's Dream, but more along the lines of the tragi-comical Winter's Tale, or Cymbeline—it will be an evening of toothy smiles in the darkness, and ice-cubes melted in viscous Gimlets. We will howl at the moon, and kiss in dark elevators, and throw strawberries from rooftops. Togas will drag in gutters, and everyone will be wet with sweat and the sticky juice that oozes from the night.
All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, is a September release out with Penguin/Plume (my book), and since I am here to speak about it, I will say that, in it, my intention is to capture something dark and hysterical. That laughter of the Tragedy. Shakespeare is at his funniest in the Tragedies, not the Comedies—few would argue otherwise.
Where there is a hole in contemporary literature—we are far too lauding of the Cannon, of "greatness" that is more a convenience of glossy magazines and academic fossils than it is a reality—I have taken aim, and pitched in me pebble. Go celebrate Shakespeare, but at the same time, sit in—protest the atavism of dusty tomes and suffering school children. Go to a bookstore, and pick up a brand new book, and laugh and cry with the living—with an author who is somewhere out there, as fleshy and blinking as you.
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet LXXI
Where do we start? An event page? A bullhorn? Who will lead the charge? There is no void in the spirit of New York; we are overflowing in our souls with vibrant discursions, unlikely necessities, and 9/11 could no more leave a footprint in our natures than a man could leave a footprint in the sand of the ocean shore.
We will strip down and reclad ourselves in a healing sheet—reduce ourselves to our naked bodies and preference of raw cotton, and celebrate a tomorrow surely to come, when we will clothe ourselves again, anew, reborn, as a New Yorker is reborn everyday. We are here, in NYC, to begin fresh. We cannot mourn lost neighborhoods or restaurants; we cannot lament Golden Ages now gone. We know—we who live here know—the city will take away everything you love, but it will always love you.
It will love everyone who steps off an airplane or a boat, wrapped in rags, looking to stay up late, to struggle through the darkness, to see light glimmering on the harbor—to see a new dawn.
So let us all don our togas, and extend our arms, and play the humble host.
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/11
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/11
Recap: I've just published this book, All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. The project takes the works of Shakespeare, and remixes them into a new tragedy (all the lines are from Shakespeare). As the title suggests, it ends in the death of everyone. Wednesday, September 10, 2008 (yesterday, that would be): subatomic particles traveling at the speed of the light, set to collide. The 7.7 billion dollar experiment—employing a 17-mile long donut shaped Hadron Collider—is designed to duplicate conditions believed to have been present at the big bang. Scientists who object to the plan—Professor Otto Rössler, Dr. Walter Wagner—have mounted international lawsuits seeking to halt the experiment. The two predominant theories of our destruction: instant, via little black holes; or, after a four-year wait, a slow-simmering implosion caused by quasars inside the Earth.
Well, as it turned out, when they switched on the thing, they were only warming up the engine, which will take three months, so the world didn't end yesterday. It will end around the time we swear in the next president. Or, in four years and three months from now, when we swear in the president after the next president.
Obama: "You can put a pig in lipstick … it's still a pig."
Obama: "You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still gonna stink."
Democrats, prepare to face your doom.
On the order of full disclosure, I was a Clinton (Hillary) person. And I'm pretty sure we, as Democrats, blew it. The fact: Clinton and Obama weren't that different policy-wise. But Clinton was more experienced, was a far superior debater, and had a far more developed platform. So why didn't we pick her?
Obama's recent remarks, which the Republicans are right to highlight, characterize an unsettling centerpiece at the Democrat's table. This race, as the Democrats have framed it—the Democrats have defined the parameters of this election—is about physical beauty. Clinton, despite the long, long hours at the salon, the gazillions at the hairstylist, and the many anesthetized mornings under the knife of the friendly neighborhood Barbi-maker—was still no Barbi Benton. (And Palin? Striking resemblance, no? You may not be able to find "nude," "naked," "topless" shots of Palin, but Benton, no problem.)
This resentment towards Palin for being a beauty queen (who cares?) hits the raw nerve, already quivering with guilt—the Democrats rejected Clinton because she wasn't hot enough. They were willing to put up with a woman, but she had to be hot. And in their attempt to prove they weren't sexist or bigotted, they chose a black man—of course, they chose an incredibly handsome black man, which proves the point. Physical beauty. The Democrats made this campaign about physical beauty, and now they're running against Barbi Benton, and they're going to lose for it.
Even if it is the end of the world, it's hard to not appreciate the poetic justice.
To go back to the earliest known antecedent of Obama's pig remark:
As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout,
so is a fair woman which is without discretion.
—Proverbs, 11: 22
The caution touches on a deep thread of misogyny in the bible, and pits the Democrats and Republicans in a battle of who can be punier. In that contest, the Republicans are sure to triumph.
And up to this very minute, the Obama supporters refuse to acknowledge the mistake, to admit complicity in this fundamental political stumble.
You sign your place and calling, in full seeming,
With meekness and humility; but your heart
Is crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride.
You have, by fortune and his highness' favours,
Gone slightly o'er low steps and now are mounted
Where powers are your retainers, and your words,
Domestics to you, serve your will as't please
Yourself pronounce their office. I must tell you,
You tender more your person's honor than
Your high profession spiritual: that
I do refuse you for my judge.
—King Henry VIII, II: iv
To speak of Obama as a uniter, a healer in the cast of Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King, while at the same time engaging in such petty-minded sniping, is to open Obama to justifiable accusations of arrogance and unfounded snobbiness.
Mr. Shankbone—a somewhat unstable once friend of mine—exemplifies the Obama supporter/Palin denigrator, and perfectly demonstrates the trifling insentience of a losing campaign. (I say this with some trepidation; Shankbone, a prominent Wikipedian, is as well known for his selfless dedication as his bullying tantrums. Wikipedians, please protect me from this brute.) From the very beginning, he was seduced by the "smooth dispose" and "manly voice" of Obama, where the "reed voice" and "mincing steps" of awkward Clinton left him bloodless. Shankbone and his ilk have set us on a long road of media-friendly presidential candidates. And as much as they may deny it, as much as they may hate it, as much as their panging guilt will have them cast aspersions at the beauty queen, Palin, they are the sponsors of this Pageant.
Who did they pick to run for President? Forget qualifications—all that aside. They picked the Armani model (Banana Republic on a bad day). And the Republicans? They picked the K-Mart model (Pottery Barn on a good day) and one has to appreciate the shrewdness, the broadness of their choice. It's no coincidence that Sabine Ehrenfeld and Sarah Palin look so much alike. Sabine Ehrenfeld, a spokesperson for Overstock.com, is the ideal American everywoman/superwoman. She sold us all Special K cereal—and Palin will sell us crap like that too.
A goodly medicine for my aching bones! O world! World! World! Thus is the poor agent despised! O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so loved and the performance so loathed? —Troilus and Cressida, V: x
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/10
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/10
My third post as the Penguin Books guest guthor. "The End of the World, Maybe." It looks even better on the Penguin website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/today-end-world-maybe-john-reed
Today is the end of the world, maybe.
I had planned to write a nice little piece about that. Something reflective—a remembrance of all the beautiful women I've seen sitting alone at bus stops. That sort of thing.
It seems worth remembering: the world, the women at bus stops.
For those of you who aren’t paying attention: today, Wednesday, September 10, 2008, scientists are set to collide subatomic particles traveling at the speed of the light. The 7.7 billion dollar experiment—employing a 17-mile long donut shaped Hadron Collider—will duplicate conditions believed to have been present at the big bang. Scientists who object to the plan—Professor Otto Rössler, Dr. Walter Wagner—have mounted international lawsuits seeking to halt the experiment. The two predominant theories of our destruction: instant, via little black holes; or, after a four-year wait, a slow-simmering implosion caused by quasars inside the Earth.
The thing I especially don't like about the quasars: that would put the end of the world at 2012, which is exactly the year my old friend, Daniel Pinchbeck, touts as the world-ending year. It would be incredibly annoying if he were right, and for that reason alone, pray with me for our salvation.
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate!
—Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida: Act I, scene iii
The stuff of bad science fiction? Dire apocalyptic portents?
Could be. Could be. (Work a half-day!) My new book—All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare—imagines a grim end. The last line in the play—"Take up the bodies"—is the only line I put in there for myself. I'm no actor, but I could deliver those words, I believe. (All the text in the book is taken from Shakespeare; the Shakespeare canon is shattered, and reconstructed into a new tragedy. More at alltheworldsagrave.com.) And yet, I still have trouble getting heated up about this end of the world forecast. I'm not predisposed to the Pentecostal premonitions that are reportedly at the seat of Palin's beliefs, or the Psychedelic Shamanism that poofs the Earth for Daniel Pinchbeck.
And neither do I think Sarah Palin is the anti-Christ. I know, I know, that is not really a singing endorsement, but I insist—she would be fun to play ping-pong with. My defense of Palin—that she's not the anti-Christ, that the story about her pregnancy and her daughter is absurd—has met such resistance from the Left that I mourn the rationalism of mankind. Everything has to be so absurdly extreme and divisive. The whole point of being a writer, an independent thinking, creative person not beholden to any religion or creed, is that we can be reasonable—that we can dip into our martini and toss off a few lucid remarks and not be foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists. This war, I really worry about it. This debt, I worry about that too. And, for Palin's pro-life, bible-thumping "work of God" attitude: that also worries me.
But what worries me most is the intolerance. That the conservatives would be intolerant—as a force of constancy—that makes sense to me. But that the progressives would react to Palin with such ribald antagonism—that strikes me as the end of the argument, the total ceding of the Democrat's campaign. In a war of idiocy, the Republicans will always win.
We should be truthful and airy—and take to our secular fight with a broadness of purpose that harkens to the Kennedys (and to Obama at his best), and to Shakespeare.
Shakespeare loved his villains, and we love his villains—perhaps more than his heroes. If there is any paradigm for the progressive argument (after Jon Stewart), it is William Shakespeare. Big and complicated and honest as the ocean. Why must we be reduced to dirty, putrid puddles by the inanity of politics?
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
—Cassius in Julius Caesar: Act I, scene ii
The Democrats, as the party of change, have to do more than beat the other guy. They have to win the election; they have to convince the country that progress is required, that we have to do something different. The Republicans, as the party of conservatism, have only to convince us that we should be more afraid of change than stagnation. The Republicans don't have to win, they just have to beat the Democrats. They don't have to offer change, modest reform is fine—and in this case, that may be enough. The Democrats have once again made the mistake of thinking the Republicans can't win; well, in a way, they can't, but they can, as usual, beat the Democrats.
Democrats have to do more; a thin campaign and negative accusations won't suffice. Clinton (Bill) talked about change until he convinced us he was serious. He picked up a saxophone and sang stupid songs. No matter how modest his tastes, his talents, he had creative spirit; he had more than the other guy. The great moments of the Democrat party are those when the American ideal of giving, of caring for beyond oneself—our puling, whining wanting selves—is ignited in the American people. "Ask not what your country can give to you, ask what you can give to your country."
Love her, love her, say that you love her.
Democrats are going to have to do something special; they're going to have to reach into the slimy green recesses of the American intestine and extract a shining surprise of humanity. "An epic battle of good verses evil!" Not good enough.
You are dull, Casca, and those sparks of life
That should be in a Roman you do want,
Or else you use not. You look pale and gaze
And put on fear and cast yourself in wonder,
To see the strange impatience of the heavens:
But if you would consider the true cause
Why all these fires, why all these gliding ghosts,
Why birds and beasts from quality and kind,
Why old men fool and children calculate,
Why all these things change from their ordinance
Their natures and preformed faculties
To monstrous quality—why, you shall find
That heaven hath infused them with these spirits,
To make them instruments of fear and warning
Unto some monstrous state.
—Cassius in Julius Caesar: Act I, scene iii
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/9
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/9
My second post as the Penguin Books guest guthor. "Would Palin Censor All the World's A Grave?" It looks even better on the Penguin website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/would-palin-censor-all-worlds-grave-john-reed
"All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare." It is, as advertised, a new play by W.S. All of the text is plucked from the known works.
The question leveled at me: in Heaven's name, why?
After much wearing thought, the short answer ...
That's sort of like asking me why I exist, and as to that: I'm not sure.
Many months ago, when I could still entertain the question—before the answer become so multi-faceted and lugubrious and overwhelming—I penned an essay, an answer. Penguin/Plume mercifully whittled down the 30 pages to 13 (which can be found at the end of the book).
The reasons ...
Culture: an American atavism. Education: the uninspired U.S. classroom. Personal: me, the street-urchin "mutt." Literary: buy new books. Technological: the ways we have changed, the ways literature is growing. Political: our wanton war.
The answer after that: I'm a writer. You know what the mountain climber will say.
Sarah Palin. Would she sneer? Would she be curious about ATWAG? Well, Shakespeare is the purvue of priviledge—perhaps she'd see the project in a favorable light. The best of the Republican party extols independence and discovery—and is generous in attributing those virtues. But, I have recieved many, many emails forwarding me the articles about Sarah Palin's inclination to censorship—and I have no doubt my second book (given the unlikely circumstance that a Vice-President or someone of that stature ever noticed it) would have made the black list. A satire of George Orwell's Animal Farm, Snowball's Chance brought capitalism to the farm, and got me accused of "blaming the victims of terrorism," by people who hadn't read the book. (Always annoying to be reviewed by people who haven't read the book: so I'm naming Cathy Young, who did exactly that, and wrote about it in the Boston Globe, and Christopher Hitchens, who did the same on the BBC.)
Censorship and Creationism, despite Governor Palin's charms, strike me as an unfortunate pairing.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. —Matthew, 23: 27
That said, I am also dismayed by Mr. David Shankbone's attempt to pit Michele Obama against Sarah Palin in our war of "Love Letters to ... " Facebook groups. Shankbone, right now, has a quickly gaining headcount of twenty-five, while I have stalled at twenty-eight. I question the very premise: that we can compare somebody's wife with the Vice-Presidential candidate. Sarah Palin is Governor Alaska—an ice queen, maybe, but we should appreciate her achievements.
And so what if she censored my books? As if it would matter. I recently blurted out, in front of maybe thirty people, that "bestseller" was two words. (Is it?) What we're looking at here is beyond any petty economic or moral concern (all debatable anyway); we could have an uncontested national first. The first woman Vice-President of the United States of America. And then: the first woman President of the United States of America. And then, maybe: the first Queen of the United States of America. And then, most momentous of all: the first known down-syndrome King in the history of the world.
So, not so much Lady Macbeth; you have to go with Cleopatra. John McCain as a too-old Antony (but there's a precedent for that, think Patrick Stewart as Macbeth).
Another precedent: Laura Roslin on the new Battlestar Galactica. When her character, the Secretary of Education, was sworn in as President—as the next in line of a U.S. Government almost entirely dessimated—I was nearly in tears. It brings tears to my eyes even now. And Roslin looks quite a bit like Palin. Coincidence? Well, maybe it did help us along towards Palin, butter the corn a bit. But it's more the other way around: the whole campaign is straight out of central casting. The war hero, the svelte black man, the steady old mountain-man (or, bore), and Palin, the gun-toting beauty queen.
No, no "naked," "nude," "topless," pictures of Laura Roslin on the internet, either, that I can find. (Sabine Ehrenfeld, the other look-alike—you may have some luck there.)
MILF, GILF, V-PILF, all amusing, and a little dismaying, but lust and larks aside, Palin and the Laura Roslin character evoke something similar. Palin is the good daughter—the one that went hunting with Daddy—and in that, we can trust her to pick up the torch, to wave the sword if need be, and yet to always be part girl, part pigtails, part Laura Engells. (Melissa Gilbert is still young, everyone; Ronald Reagan also started as President of the Screen Actors Guild.) Imagine, in the last moments of Lear, Cordelia waking up in her father's arms, and saying, "Yes, Papa, I forgive you." It is as if we have been forgiven: Palin, who identifies herself as a feminist, is the good feminist, and she represents a painless reconciliation. A quick and umbumpy transition into equalish rights.
They say there are no second acts in politics: but for John McCain, Palin is a second act; and for a woman in the 2008 election, Palin is a second act. And if the McCain/Palin ticket takes the Whitehouse, that's about where one senses we'll be: somewhere at the outset of Act II. And while I know myself to be far too silly and peripheral to stump for a candidate, to punish anyone with my endorsement, I will allow myself a dramaturgical notation:
These five act sort of things tend to end in tragedy.
Or, is it a comedy?
Penguin Books Guest Author: All the World's a Grave, 9/8
Penguin Books guest author: All the World's a Grave, 9/8
My first post as the Penguin Books guest guthor. "Shakespeare and Sarah Palin." It looks even better on the Penguin website: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/shakespeare-and-sarah-palin-john-reed
Barack Obama: the Moor? Or, more Hamlet. John McCain: Henry V, or Richard III? Joe Biden: Horatio, or Polonius? And Sarah Palin: Lady Macbeth, or Cleopatra?
Penguin/Plume Books has very graciously offered me this opportunity to blog for a week on their site. I believe I will be unvetted (we'll see). To their mistake, I intended to add my own. My new book, All The World's A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, contains a brief essay at the end. Before my wise editor got a hold of it, it was not brief, and I though to unload the whole story of my childhood, and rational for writing a new work by Shakespeare (I took apart all the known works and put them back together as a new tragedy), right here, for half a dozen people to see.
Instead, I'm planning to talk about my current obsession, Governor and Vice-Presidential Candidate, Sarah Palin. I'm probably blowing any slim chance I had of making headway with her, but for the very few of you who have not investigated, there are not yet naked pictures of her on the internet: not "naked," not "nude," not "topless."
The book, which stars Hamlet, Juliet, Romeo, Iago, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Weird Sisters, King Lear and the Ghost of old Hamlet, is meant to bring the spirit of Shakespeare to our times. If Shakespeare were to weigh in on contemporary war and culture, this is my vision of what he would say. And I feel somewhat backed up in my conjecture: every line, every word in the new play is sourced from Shakespeare. (Footnotes and stage versions and word counts and monologues and scenes for actors and all that can be found at johnreed.tv or alltheworldsagrave.com.) My intention being an extroverted one-to bring the tragedy to the concerns of our own day-it's perhaps not too terrific a stretch to consider Governor Palin.
She is too fair, too wise, wisely too fair,
To merit bliss by making me despair.
—Romeo and Juliet
Governor Palin's personal biography is very appealing-at least I find it so. The creationism, I find appalling. And all this "mission of God" stuff bespeaks our doom. More blood, more duckets-spilled needlessly. But even so, I think she's beautiful, and I want to hang out with her at her place in the country. You know, she'd be great fun-get all the kids together, pile them into a pickup truck, and go tubing on a whitewater river. Insane, I know, but I can imagine it. A friend instant messaged me "of course you want to hang out with her, she's a beauty queen." During the course of our IM conversation, My friend and I hatched a plan to start a "Love Letters to Sarah Palin" Group on facebook. Please join. As of this writing, we have 27 members and five letters.
The picture of Sarah Palin on the group profile is the best one I could find of her on the internet. As it turns out, it is not actually Sarah Palin, but Sabine Ehrenfeld. Separated at birth? A Shakespearean storyline of twins reunited? Possible, I think-and, they were born only two and a half months apart. Easy enough to call a five month old a four month old, and the other five month old a six month old. Think about it. (Regardless, many of you will be relieved to know that there are many "naked," "nude," "topless," pictures of Sabine Ehrenfeld on the internet.)
Upon starting the LLTSP group, I was surprised to receive a number of raging reactions. David Shankbone, one of those over-confident Obama people-responded by starting his own group: "Love Letter to Michelle Obama." (Twenty-three members, three letters.) He's challenged me to a competition (don't join that group!). You see what happens: we get sidelined in New York, and then we start throwing Gatorade at each other on the sideline. To characterize David: part Malvolio, part Puck, and part Hamlet. A very entertaining fellow, and I respect his opinion, but ...
Michelle, to me, just doesn't have that spark-nothing to put her on the cover of Penthouse. Maybe Clinton ... uh, Hillary Clinton. Yet Hillary, for all her flaws, she was no villainess. She could be abrasive, unpleasant, arrogant, yes-and I could see casting her as Lady Macbeth. But her Lady Macbeth is thirsty for power-anything to be Queen. Whereas Palin's Lady Macbeth is smiling evil. All of those pictures of Palin (beaming with bloody animals in the snow and her daughter at her side, or with a large dead fish in her hand), evidence the surmise. With effortless assurance, her expression says:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile.
—King Henry VI, part III
And there is her allure-that total surety of her own infallibility. She can stand, with that piping voice of hers, and tell everyone it was God's will. Democrats have told me they find her chirruping off-putting, but I like it; first, it reminds me of language, and second, it has a quality of naked, craving want, the id of a caveman, all wrapped up nicely in a perfectly tailored Chanel pant-suit. And, of course, that she married an Eskimo, that she played pointguard, it points to the possibility that despite her pedigree, she could somehow tolerate a guy like me at the BBQ-a writer, or a mechanic (or whatever the guy like me might do for a living), standing at the grill cooking with a dirty hammer. She'd just smile, and ask for the deer burger.
Bomb Magazine: The Eye-Popping Spectacles of Stuart Sherman
Bomb Magazine: The Eye-Popping Spectacles of Stuart Sherman
Wrote up a long piece for Bomb on Stuart Sherman. Got 1000 words, wrote 2000, and they gave me another 1000 on the revision. Thanks Clint!
... The new catalog Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman documents and reflects upon the performance and mixed media art of this mercurial artist, gathering archival materials from a 2009 exhibition curated by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins and John Matturri. Sherman (1945-2001) was an early member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre; he matured into a wide-ranging creative force: performances, film and video, writing, drawing, collage and sculpture. The catalog compiles essays written by Sherman’s colleagues, stills from performances, and reproductions of Sherman’s drawings and collages. Entries and poems from Sherman’s journals are inset in the pages, allowing Sherman to posthumously contribute to the dialogue. ...
more here: http://bombsite.com/articles/6375
the Rumpus: The Politics of Narrative
the Rumpus: The Politics of Narrative
ong piece on the politics of narrative and narrative structure, via a roundup of recently published books:
... With the beginning of the twenty-first century, the sprawling literary novel has regained pre-eminence. The realist recoil is cyclical—Bellows springs to mind as indicative of a generation that tended toward socially engaged novels of nebulous structure. In the larger political context, the “realist” novel indicates conservative values. The novel that puts content second to structure parallels a nation (a globe) that espouses an ideology of the systemic over the sovereign. To maintain that content comes before structure is a precept for revolution: a particular idea, person or solution comes before the nation, the corporation, the praxis.
Max Brand (Frederick Schiller Faust), a prolific pulp western writer of the 1920s and 30s, maintained that there were two types of stories: coming home, or leaving home. The assertion neatly correlates to the classical definition of comedy and tragedy, as well as a content-first v. structure-first division of the arts. The coming home story (usually comedic or “feel good”): the cowboy accepts and/or is accepted by society. The leaving home story (usually tragic or “dark”): the cowboy rejects and/or is rejected by society. Structure-first stories, i.e. coming home, tend to be about assimilation, while content-first stories, i.e. leaving home, tend toward dissent.
The difficulty of reading a text that puts forth a dissenting structure is that it is self-aware. The sentence-to-sentence qualifications, the adjustments to expected language and idiom, place readers in unfamiliar territories. In counterpoint, the assimilative text is necessarily unconscious of its own intentions. The conformist can’t “try.” (The grade school realization: you can’t try to be normal, in the trying, you’re abnormal.) The conformist story, i.e., the “coming home,” must assume that the state of conformity is the norm. The hero gains acceptance, which is “better.” To acknowledge that a conformist state must be gained, or acquired, is to acknowledge that the conformist state is as difficult to attain as some other alternative state. In the context of literature, the acknowledgement would be tantamount to acknowledging that the structures commonly perceived as “easy” or “naturalistic” are only so because readers have been guided, or indoctrinated, to them. …
Here's the full essay @ the Rumpus: