Podcast • April 21, 2011

Arnold Weinstein: The Dimensionality of Reading

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3) [Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine] Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Arnold Weinstein (53 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

[Scott Kingsley for the Brown Alumni Magazine]

Brown University literature professor Arnold Weinstein is recalling a half-century of reading and teaching books. He’s tracing the “Morning, Noon, and Night” — in the title of his new book — of his literary life. He begins, in this conversation, with two books that he read as a senior at Princeton: Melville’s Benito Cereno and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Benito Cereno is the story of a Spanish captain and his cargo of enslaved Africans who rebel and depose him.  In  Weinstein’s telling, it is a narrative of misunderstood power that resonates with America’s modern misadventures abroad. It is also, he says, the most cinematic writing of the 19th century. His long-held dream is to make it into a film.

It was in reading The Sound and the Fury that Weinstein began to understand the tussle between the “there and then” that dominates our inner lives and the “here and now” that constitutes our movement through public life.

I think each one of us lives exactly that ballet. We are always juggling what’s roiling inside of us versus the moves or steps in our public lives. Faulkner taught me that. … Once you see past the picturesqueness of Faulkner’s world, or the evils of both racism and sexism, … then you are confronting an extraordinarily rich picture of human maneuvering room: how you live with your inner ghosts, how you try to reach to the other. Books in that sense are profoundly ethical.

I think books are mirrors for readers. But they’re not mirrors in the lazy narcissist sense, that it’s kind of facile self-reflection. There’s labor in it. Call it a distorting mirror. It’s a picture of who you are, but it’s perhaps an elemental version of you that either you’ve never noticed, or never wanted to notice.

Arnold Weinstein with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 2011.

Professor Weinstein is sharing a profound faith in the essential nutrients of books, paired with a healthy dislike for the literary theory that has dominated the academy over the last four decades. We should read for emotion and experience, he reminds us, and remember that literature is not, as the theorists exhort, more “complex” than we realize, but rather richer and more resonant.

He’s learned, in years of leading celebrated courses on the tough masterpieces — his favorite is “Proust, Joyce and Faulkner” — that teaching literature is carrying out an injunction “that says we’re part of an ongoing life. They’re young, I’m three-score-and-ten, and these book are in many cases centuries old. There’s a kind of parallel between the blood-line in students, the blood-line in faculty and the blood-line in books. We’re there to keep these alive.”

Podcast • March 8, 2011

Anthony Burgess: Language as Music, and Vice Versa

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) ...

Paul Phillips is leading us here in a long digression — a step into yet another alternate universe of the odd genius who wrote A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess thought his famous tale (and movie!) of mindless mayhem was perhaps the least of his efforts, but what he really wanted apart from his endless book production — essays, plays, criticism, and novels of all sizes and styles — was to be understood for the music he wrote. The bet here is that the Burgess symphonies, songs and chamber music that Paul Phillips is sharing will not make the world forget Burgess’ Enderby series of novels, or his fantasy on Shakespeare’s sex life, Nothing like the Sun, or his all-encompassing “life” of a 20th Century expatriate English writer, Earthly Powers. But let’s hope anyway that surprise and delight are reason enough to digress on multiple senses and gifts — reason enough to grant Anthony Burgess’s heart’s desire. “I wish,” he said, “people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”

Anthony Burgess never forgot being stricken by music as a tot — by “a quite incredible flute solo” he heard on the radio, “sinuous, exotic, erotic.” It turned out to be Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.” It was a “psychedelic moment… a recognition of verbally inexpressible spiritual realities,” and it triggered Burgess’s self-education at the piano, then in composition and orchestration. His family persuaded him that there was no money in music, but his artistic life became a synesthetic web of words and music — much as Thomas Mann rendered the experience of Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus: “… music and language, he insisted, belonged together, were fundamentally one. Language was music, music a language, and when separated, each always recalled the other, imitated the other, made use of the other means, always to be understood as the substitute for the other.”

Anthony Burgess by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books

I agree that the musico-literary analogies can be pretty tenuous, but in the widest possible formal sense — sonata form, opera, and so on — we’ve hardly begun to explore the possibilities. The Napoleon novel I’m writing apes the Eroica formally: irritable, quick, swiftly transitional in the first movement (up to Napoleon’s coronation); slow, very leisurely, with a binding beat suggesting a funeral march for the second… As for the reader having to know about music, it doesn’t really matter much. In one novel I wrote, “The orchestra lunged into a loud chord of twelve notes, all of them different.” Musicians hear the discord, non-musicians don’t, but there’s nothing there to baffle them and prevent them reading on. I don’t understand baseball terms, but I can still enjoy Malamud’s The Natural. I don’t play bridge, but I find the bridge game in Fleming’s Moonraker absorbing. It’s the emotions conveyed that matter, not what the players are doing with their hands.

… I still play jazz, chiefly on a four-octave electric organ, and I prefer this to listening to it. I don’t think jazz is for listening but for playing. I’d like to write a novel about a jazz pianist or, better, about a pub pianist, which I once was, like my father before me. I don’t think rock leads on to a liking for jazz. The kids are depressingly static in their tastes. They do so want words, and jazz gets along very nicely without words.

… I enjoy writing music precisely because one is divorced from “human” considerations like belief, conduct. Pure form, nothing more. But then I tend to despise music just because it is so mindless. I’ve been writing a string quartet based on a musical theme that Shakespeare throws at us, in sol-fa notation, in Love’s Labour’s Lost (the theme is CDGAEF), and it’s been pure, bliss. I’ve been thoroughly absorbed by it, on planes, in hotel bedrooms, anywhere where I had nothing else to do and there was no bloody Muzak playing. (Don’t the Muzak purveyors ever think of the people who actually have to write music?) Now I’m a little ashamed that the music engages nothing but purely formal problems. So I oscillate between a hankering after pure form and a realization that literature is probably valuable because it says things.

Anthony Burgess with John Cullinan, from the Paris Review Interview, Spring 1973

Composer-Conductor Paul Phillips, Senior Lecturer in Music at Brown University, is leading the Brown Symphony Orchestra in Anthony Burgess’ “Mr. W. S.” this winter. With the Manchester University Press and Macmillan, he has just published A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess.

Podcast • January 19, 2008

Backstage with Henry V

King Henry V: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more… … when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the ...

King Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

… when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage…

… The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Laurence Olivier (1944)

Boy, in Henry’s army:

Would I were in an alehouse in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.

Pistol:

The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant: I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring I love the lovely bully.

In order: Sovereign, “grunt” and rowdy commoner on the eve of battle, Acts 3 and 4 of Henry the Fifth

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Coppelia Kahn, Normi Noel and Seth Powers here (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Henry the Fifth remains, for many, the familiar favorite among Shakespeare plays. For Lydon kids, it began with my father’s doctrine that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V was the best movie ever made — though we all came to see the sinew-stiffening World War 2 propaganda dimension of the piece, which Winston Churchill had cleansed, for example, of the mass slaugher of French prisoners in Shakespeare’s account. Those magic lines of Henry’s — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” to his warriors, and his love banter with the French princess Katherine — “take a soldier; take a King” — summon the blood and melt the heart long after we realize that this warlike Harry was bluffing his way through an aggressive and unpopular war of choice, egged on by a corrupt church establishment.

Kenneth Branagh challenged the Everest of Shakespearean movie-making, and got credit for taking the peak, in 1989. Branagh’s battle scenes were hellish, and his Henry was a thug in scenes that Olivier had cut:

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

King Henry:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Henry’s ultimatum to the town fathers of Harfleur, in Act 3, Scene 1 in Henry the Fifth

Come now the merry and inventive players of the treasured Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston. Their Henry V is five actors in a garage basement, directed by Normi Noel of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, raising profound old riddles anew, in a production worthy of the ASP standard we’ve celebrated before in King Lear and Titus Andronicus.

Just war? Are you kidding? Be reminded that this dramatic site of arguably the greatest, most quotable war speeches in the language is also a mine of anti-war eloquence, not least by Michael Williams, a soldier:

Williams:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Soldier-talk, overheard by the king on the eve of Agincourt in Act 4, Scene 1, Henry the Fifth

We will have a conversation any day now with Coppelia Kahn, the Shakespeare scholar at Brown, and with principals in this ASP production: the actor playing Henry, Seth Powers, and the director Normi Noel, who remarked to me today: “Hamlet is a cake-walk after this guy.” In the program notes she raises a fascinating question about one of the most famous lines in the play, spoken in connection with the approaching death of Henry’s cast-off roistering mate, Falstaff: “The king has killed his heart.”

Is it Falstaff’s heart that Henry has killed in becoming a king? Or his own? Might the core of the play be, as Normi Noel suspects, about “what we do to armor the heart against feeling?”

But first I put it to the Open Source crowd: What is Shakespeare saying through Henry the Fifth about honor and heroism, about the earning of kingship and manhood, about nationhood and war, about chivalry and tragic irony? Help me out, please. Are not the questions wide open?

Podcast • December 25, 2007

At Home with Harold Bloom: (1) on Walt Whitman

Professor Bloom asked me to ask him about what is coming to feel like an "obsession" with Walt Whitman. I asked him also to cross over into music, politics and sports. And then we agreed to keep digressing as the spirit moved us. I asked him at the outset: could Whitman actually be displacing Shakespeare in the center-ring of the Bloomian circus?

What was new at Yale this Fall was that for the first time in 53 years, the great pole star of our literary-critical firmament, Harold Bloom, did not give any of his famous courses — on Shakespeare, or on “how to read a poem.” He did, however, indulge Open Source in a long conversation that confirms a major recovery of health and the steady fire of heart and mind as Bloom writes a grand revision of his masterwork on The Anxiety of Influence.

Professor Bloom asked me to ask him about what is coming to feel like an “obsession” with Walt Whitman. I asked him also to cross over into music, politics and sports. And then we agreed to keep digressing as the spirit moved us. I asked him at the outset: could Whitman actually be displacing Shakespeare in the center-ring of the Bloomian circus?

Not quite… I say specifically at the opening of this work in progress — my equivalent of Joyce’s Wake, Blooms Wake as it were — that the two figures who are threads in this labyrinth are William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. And though I don’t quite grant them equal status, I would be prepared to say that what Shakespeare was for the Renaissance, Whitman was for the 19th Century and after: sombody who “breaks the new road,” which is what D. H. Lawrence wonderfully said of him. He breaks the new road for the New World, and for better and for worse…

The reason why English is now the lingua franca, replacing French, is because it’s American English, and it’s American commercial dominance everywhere. Even though in the age of Benito Bush, as I like to call him and insist upon calling him, that dominance may soon be called into question. He has done everything he can to ruin our economy, to ruin our international standing, to ruin our armed forces. In fact, he is the Decline and Fall of the American Empire all of himself, our Caligula, Our Nero, you name it. But he’s not as colorful as those splendid rascals…

Harold Bloom with Chris Lydon, at home in New Haven, Connecticut. Autumn 2007.

And so Bloom digresses… to the marks of Shakespeare, Shelley and the King James Bible on Whitman, and Whitman’s mark on “the American religion,” neither Judaic nor Christian, but something indigenous and very new in the world. Would that Whitman’s Democratic Vistas had left as deep a mark on American politics, which Professor Bloom segments today as follows: “one-third plutocracy, one-third oligarchy, one-third theocracy… There’s not much Whitmania left in the public sphere.”

Thanks to Chelsea Merz for recording this interview, and to Paul McCarthy for editing it.

March 29, 2007

Shakespeare and Power

On our pitch-a-show thread this week Dora remembered our Thucydides show and what it made her think of: Shakespeare. For months, I’ve been thinking about an exchange that occurred on your Thucydides show. Susan Cheever ...

Greenblatt, StephenOn our pitch-a-show thread this week Dora remembered our Thucydides show and what it made her think of: Shakespeare.

For months, I’ve been thinking about an exchange that occurred on your Thucydides show. Susan Cheever kind of bowed out of the conversation saying something to the effect of “literature is more important than politics.” She’s a wonderful writer, but I’ve just been completely baffled by this comment. I remember thinking at the time that Shakespeare seemed to believe that politics –- i.e. the struggles and dilemmas of those who wield power — were the very essence of literature.

Dora, in an show pitch to Open Source, March 23, 2007

She pointed us to an article in The New York Review of Books by Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Uses of Power.

It begins with Bill Clinton as literary critic, and then goes on to discuss Shakepeare’s depictions of people who for reasons of fate and family are destined to hold power (G.W. Bush? Hillary?); his attraction to characters who attempt to walk away from power (Al Gore?); as well as his distrust of democracy (‘when he tried to imagine electioneering, voting, and representation,’ Greenblatt says, ‘he conjured up situations in which the people, manipulated by wealthy and fathomlessly cynical politicians, were repeatedly induced to act against their own interests.’)

Dora, in an show pitch to Open Source, March 23, 2007

So we’ve got Stephen Greenblatt in the studio tonight. David and I waded into his fourteen-page argument yesterday; it can be best boiled down to a single quote:

…in Shakespeare no character with a clear moral vision has a will to power and, conversely, no character with a strong desire to rule over others has an ethically adequate object.

Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Uses of Power, The New York Review of Books, April 12, 2007

Greenblatt reaches deep into the catalog: King Lear, The Tempest, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Henry V and Julius Ceasar. We’ll try to do the same tonight, stopping to get filled in on what we’ve forgotten since college. What does Shakespeare tell us about power? Can he shed any light on democracy, or just kings deposing each other? What does power do to his characters? What can we read in Shakespeare about this century’s Presidents? Can you have both a will to power and an “ethically adequate object”?

Stephen Greenblatt

Professor of the Humanities, Harvard UniversityAuthor, Will in the World and Learning to Curse

General editor, Norton Shakespeare

Oliver Arnold

Associate Professor of English, Princeton UniversityAuthor, The Third Citizen

Jim Fitzmorris

Author and playwrightProfessor of Theatre History, Tulane University

Extra Credit Reading
David A. Bell, THe Character Issue, Open University, March 26, 2007: “So in the upcoming campaign, please, let’s not equate ‘character’ with being a boy or girl scout, still less with being ‘meek.’ As Greenblatt reminds us, the character Shakespeare most memorable defined as “meek” was Duncan, in Macbeth. And we all know what happened to him.”Guy Zimmerman, Against the New Model Army, Placebo ART, March 25, 2007: “I think in Shakespeare there’s a recogition that the vertical hierarchy of monarchy was about to be toppled by fanatics of the Self, but what would have surprised Shakespeare is how this process managed to conceal itself within the language of religion and Christianity.”

Alicia Colon, Shakespeare and Politics, The New York Sun, August 25, 2006: “I was under the impression that the Shakespeare plays were a good thing. Then I realized that my tax dollars were paying not only for something I’d never enjoy, but for productions that were less about Shakespeare than about politics.”

Rick Sincere, Report from New York, Rick Sincere Notes and Thoughts, March 28, 2007: “Asquith’s book (subtitled “The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare”) posits that Shakespeare’s plays are “coded” documents designed to support Catholic dissidents in an age of political and religious turmoil.”

Ezra Klein, McCain’s Fall, Tomorrow’s Media Conspiracy Today, March 8, 2007: “It’s possible that, when all is said and done, not only will he have humiliated himself only to lose, but he’ll have lost because he humiliated himself. It’s downright Shakespearean.”

Gerard Barker, The vaulting ambition of America’s Lady Macbeth, The Times, January 26, 2007: “Now, you might say, hold on. Aren’t all politicians veined with an opportunistic streak? Why is she any different? The difference is that Mrs Clinton has raised that opportunism to an animating philosophy, a P. T. Barnum approach to the political marketplace.”