This is my favorite-favorite of all of Pema Chodron’s lectures. I haven’t listened to this one in a while, but it was really influential in my total lThis is my favorite-favorite of all of Pema Chodron’s lectures. I haven’t listened to this one in a while, but it was really influential in my total life overhaul last year.
My favorite part of this lecture is Pema Chodron’s description of the Buddhist idea of ego, which is so different, I think, from the western idea of ego, which is more like hubris. But, I do think that the two descriptions are different ways to get at the same thing. They both see ego as something that alienates us from other people.
The Buddhist idea of ego, like everything else in Buddhism, is a way to describe aversion and clinging and the chaos they cause in our lives. She describes it like this: ego is like if you’re in a room you love. The temperature is your perfect temperature, the food is your favorite. Your favorite music is playing and the walls are your favorite color.
But, you suddenly realize that you can hear sounds from outside and there is an uncomfortable breeze, and so you close the window. Then, you realize there’s a little air still coming in under your door, so you put a towel down. You can hear the neighbors through the wall, and so you brick up that wall, and pretty soon you are trapped in your perfect room.
Anything from the outside is threatening to your comfortable space, and you can’t tolerate anything coming into your space or being taken from it.
I’ll tell you about how I’ve seen this play out in my own life with the topic I’m so passionate about right now (as always) – sexism. I used to react when someone said something sexist by pulling into myself and seeking out people who I knew wouldn’t be sexist, jobs that would encourage me to show myself. I assumed I wasn’t welcome where sexism existed, and since I wasn’t welcome, I should go home.
For example, a supervisor said, “Women often have trouble promoting themselves in their resumes.” Even though I listened to his advice about my resume, I decided that this was evidence that so many lawyers just assume women are pushovers. Maybe we are pushovers, I thought. I also thought there are so many benefits to being humble and straightforward about skills and not bragging, but maybe the law and especially men in the law, can’t accept that.
Maybe I don’t belong in the law, I thought. Men in the law were the outside world, they claimed it, and my inclination was to withdraw into my comfortable house and let them have the outside.
But, that was a limitation I was putting on myself; it was not reality. In reality, I can go out into any situation and be safe in my own thinking. Who cares if this guy thinks women have trouble promoting themselves? I don’t have to think that, and him being wrong doesn’t hurt me. My thought that maybe I’m a pushover and don’t belong was super uncomfortable, but that was allll my choice.
I can open my door and step outside, and then I can step back into my comfortable spot when I want to. I can open the window, and then close it again when I’m tired of the outside smells. But, I can still be me no matter what feelings are out there. I can hear someone say that women have trouble with promotion, I can sit with the thought and let my supervisor think it, and I can still not choose to believe it.
I think an alternative title for this book could have been something like Women and Love or What Women Mean When They Talk About Love. Something likeI think an alternative title for this book could have been something like Women and Love or What Women Mean When They Talk About Love. Something like that. It was so beautiful in this delicate, fine-art way, and I was so surprised at this book’s beauty, that I feel totally inadequate in trying to describe my reaction to it. It is that type of beauty I feel when I think about the improbability of our bodies being alive or of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or of microscopic images of snowflakes. There is no way the universe could conspire so delicately for those things to work in such a way that their beauty is not so improbable as to be obscenely contrived, but somehow it does work. It is beautiful.
And now that I’ve compared this book to the Sistine Chapel, there is no way anyone could go into it liking it. It’s like that time this douchey guy told me that Bright Eyes is the new Bob Dylan. I mean, Bright Eyes is not great anyway – talk about being in love with your own mysterious allure – but, compared to Bob Dylan, Mr. Eyes is just embarrassing. So, here I am ruining this book for you like that.
At the same time, after reading this, I understood a lot more why someone would write a book like Olive Kitteridge, using multiple, somewhat unrelated, perspectives strung together by a common theme. While that one just seemed ridiculous, this one soared for me, and I can see how, as an author, you could want to aim for this kind of delicacy in weaving together stories.
I listened to this on audio, and it was like hearing someone describe every way a woman’s love can be beautiful and painful, harsh and delicate. Some books will make me cry, but this book brought me to tears, which is the same thing but more elegant because of this story’s elegance. The reader’s voice was lovely, and the only fault with listening to this on audio was that there was so much I wanted to hear and follow that I know I missed a lot. I usually choose audio books based on the idea that it won’t matter if I space out during the book (because I space out a lot while I’m walking to work and listening to them), so I normally choose a book that I’ve read before or something I don’t think I’ll love that much. I was surprised at how much I loved this one and how much I felt I missed by listening to the audio. It is not a difficult book, but it definitely contains subtlety and passages that I would probably have read over again if I were reading it on the page.
This is not a very exciting review, I think, because it doesn’t contain an exciting story. I have the most wonderful job in the world right now, at which the most amazing things happen, but I can’t talk about it on the internet. And, no, my job is not Fight Club. If I could, I would tell you about how this has probably been the best year of my life so far, and about all of its beauty and fullness, and about how pain is as much a part of the beauty as comfort or wonder are. And I would tell you about the women I have seen and the ways they are with the love in their lives. But, instead, I will just be vague, and say that this book resonated with me both in the year I have had and in the life I have had. It talked about the right things and in the right way.
And, of course, it was about a book, which I imagine is the universal symbol of love....more
This made me think of everything. Every single sweet and sad thing that ever happened. Still, it stayed its own, and I loved these kids like crazy. SoThis made me think of everything. Every single sweet and sad thing that ever happened. Still, it stayed its own, and I loved these kids like crazy. So stupid. This stupid book made me cry from the Donkey Waltz all the way till the end. But, it wasn’t a mean book that was setting out just to make me cry – it wasn’t about that at all. It was about how when you are in ninth grade, you see everything sad, and it is probably your fault, or you don’t see any of the sad things, and later, when you realize your blindness, it kills you. It was about how you are wrong, even when you were probably right. I love these sweet kids.
Anything I say sounds so dumb, and I just picture Dinah and Skint reading it, like overhearing your mom tell a neighbor you’re just going through a phase. No dudes, it’s not a phase. Things are just fucked up and it is your fault sometimes, or it is not your fault, but it still is your responsibility, other times. And sometimes none of it is your fault or your responsibility, and that is the worst.
I have this little notebook I started keeping in college, and at the front of it, I wrote, “Things to Remember,” and then I wrote a list of life lessons underneath. I’ll write something there when I think it’s important, though, admittedly, some of them seem dumb now, and some of them are so vague that I actually don’t know what they mean. But, one of the first ones I wrote was “Elizabeth Vogler,” so that I would remember the part in Persona when Elizabeth Vogler watches the monks light themselves on fire. This book made me think of Elizabeth Vogler watching the monks burn. It made me think of Giulietta Masina in La Strada, of Holden Caulfield waking up to loneliness. It made me think of watching my own parents and grandparents die. It made me think of being a kid and never knowing what it was that I did wrong, but always knowing it was something.
I get so hollowed out and cold when I see stories that use rape and death and violence against powerless people to further shallow plotlines about some idiot getting a girlfriend or a simplistic moral lesson about “Doesn’t that suck for me when other people get raped and killed?” This was the opposite of that. This was perfect. It was funny where it should have been funny. I might even say it was hilarious at some parts. It was crushing where life is crushing. It was interstitially crushing in the unspoken and unrecognized. It was ironically crushing in the things that Dinah didn’t see. It was perfect. It made me laugh and then cry, and then laugh and cry at the same time and generally lose control of emotional reaction. Ultimate FoE, but it was both fantastic and excruciating all at once.
I don’t think it is a good idea for everyone to read this book any time, all the time, because there are some trigger issues – the death of a beloved grandma before the book begins, child and elder abuse and neglect. It is all done so delicately, beautifully, respectfully, that I love it all, but those are not issues everyone needs to see at all times in their life, so judge for yourselves about where you are. If it won’t feel too hurtful to you in opening old wounds, it is so beautiful and so worth it.
I am going to do punching at assholes who say this beautiful, beautiful voice should have sounded less unique and more like, I don’t know, the Wall Street Journal, or something. I am going to do Mockingjay-style punching. Dinah and Skint remind me of everybody beautiful, and they also remind me of ninth-grade me. But, they are themselves, too, and so full and vivid as characters that I know I will come back to them like friends tucked into the beautiful, warm coat of this book. I love this stupid beautiful book. Thank you for writing it for me, N. Griffin. Better than a parcel of treats.
___________________________ I received an ARC of this book from a friend at a bookstore, and I did not exchange anything for it....more
It is not possible for me to talk about this book without somehow spoiling it. I’ll hide the main spoilers, but there are some pretty awesome twists aIt is not possible for me to talk about this book without somehow spoiling it. I’ll hide the main spoilers, but there are some pretty awesome twists and turns in this book, so I recommend reading it with eyes that are innocent of review spoilers.
I have had this weird experience lately where books or movies or TV I watch are almost always either uncannily similar to my life – like, exact words I’ve said recently or experiences I’ve had – or totally offensive and appalling to me. I think it is doing damage to my nervous system. I have a weak and brooding constitution, anyway, so recovery calls for those new episodes of Arrested Development to come out ASAP. No, jk, I don’t have a weak and brooding constitution, but seriously, I may take to swooning and weeping soon enough if this crazy pendulum doesn’t stop swinging so wildly.
Villette was the uncannily similar variety of story. It is so eerie to read books from almost two hundred years ago and see my own thoughts and experiences. It is both comforting and totally exhausting – comforting because we have always been like this; exhausting because, well, we have always been like this. Bronte’s description of Lucy waiting by the phone for a dude to call, or, in her case, by the door for a letter to arrive, is chilling. Lucy’s conversation with Dr. John, when she points out the hypocrisy of his ability to see shallowness in men but not women, is absolutely hilarious. Lucy’s delicacy about describing her own loneliness is beautiful. Charlotte Bronte writes a really killer antiheroine, and it is always easier to identify with an antiheroine than a heroine, I think, because it is easy to see our own flaws.
While this book easily stands alone as a lovely study on humanity, it also evoked comparisons to Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice for me. It was the last book Bronte published before she died. As is so common, Villette, the later book, is a less tight story than Jane Eyre – it was more meandering, and where Bronte wants to dwell, she will dwell. In some ways, though, I think Villette is more successful than Jane Eyre in distinguishing antihero from hero because Bronte is kinder to the heroes in Villette and lets me feel a little bitter at them without really despising them here. Dr. John, in contrast to St. John, does not creep me out. Paulina is a traditionally heroic heroine. This works in Villette because it provides a more clear contrast between the traditional hero’s story and Lucy’s antiheroine story. On the other hand, Jane Eyre allows flaws in everyone, whether they are golden or dark, so that has a nice subtlety. At the same time that Jane and Rochester are the more clear antiheroes, St. John is so determined to crush feelings and be unhappy that he is not so much the golden hero as Dr. John. In Villette there is a clear line between hero and antihero; in Jane Eyre the line is more blurred, though the physical descriptions signal a distinction. It might not be useful, though, to compare the two books because they are both wonderful, and I don't know that I prefer the clear distinction or the blurring.
In some ways, I think this story is a Bronte Pride and Prejudice. All of the couples are parallels: (view spoiler)[Paulina and Dr. John are Jane and Bingley; Lucy and M. Paul are Lizzy and Darcy; and, of course, Ginevra and de Hamal are Lydia and Wickham (hide spoiler)]. In many ways that comparison fails because the interaction of the characters in P&P forms a cohesive plot, and Villette is not really about any particular plot, I think, but it was interesting to see similar couples described through more brutal eyes.
Both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, also, always seem more exotic than Austen because the aesthetics of their heroes are described so much more like an emo band. While Austen captures that subtle loneliness of unreliable family, the Brontes go straight for explicit isolation in a cruel world. I doubt I could love either Austen or the Brontes so much without the other. And it was beautiful to read about the couples from Pride and Prejudice with the severity and stifled animal cry of Charlotte Bronte. I see Virginia Woolf’s point that sometimes Bronte’s failures as an editor interfere with the story in a way that you don’t see in Austen, but it is still beautiful.
Probably my favorite thing about this book is Lucy’s shiftiness as a narrator. This girl is going to tell you what she wants you to know and she is going to leave out whatever the fuck she wants. It was totally hilarious that she (view spoiler)[didn’t even tell me that she knew the whole time that Dr. John was Graham Bretton (hide spoiler)]. That little minx! (As they say.) And then the way she ends the story is just (view spoiler)[heartbreaking – you can’t even handle the cruelty of her life, so she won’t force you to listen to it (hide spoiler)].
I was not in love with any of the heroes of this story, and I kind of liked that, too. It was more like a soul-mate friend, of whom I am completely in awe, telling me about the people she loved, and how she understood them and their faults, than a con game of trying to get me to fall in love myself. It is interesting because usually we are meant to fall in love with the romantic lead (and I’mma be honest, I totally swoon for Rochester), but I do not almost ever swoon for my irl friends’ love stories. In this way, I felt that Lucy was completely her own person, and even though I identified with her in this sometimes-creepy way, she was not a stand-in for me in the love story. I thought (view spoiler)[both Dr. John and M. Paul were kind of douchebags (hide spoiler)], but that was fine because Lucy was smart about all of them. Honestly, I didn’t notice (view spoiler)[M. Paul (hide spoiler)] for a long time, and I am usually really good at picking up on romantic leads, so when I re-read I will have to pay better attention to what he does in the early part of the novel.
I really loved this book. As I got to the end, I panicked a little because I remembered that I had always partly been reluctant to read it because I will use up the possibility for a new Bronte story soon, and what a sad, bleak time that will be. I still have a couple left, though, so I will hoard those for later. I wish Bronte would email me new stories from her austere, Protestant heaven....more
You should probably read this book because it is pretty hilarious. If you don’t want to, though – if you’re a wuss about page length and the words WatYou should probably read this book because it is pretty hilarious. If you don’t want to, though – if you’re a wuss about page length and the words Waterloo and Wellington aren’t enough to overcome it – there are some acceptable alternatives about which I will gladly tell you now. While the feature film was TERRIBLE, COMPLETELY SPOILED THE STORY, and didn’t pay attention to ANY of the jokes (shaking my fist at that ruiner, Mira Nair!), the A&E miniseries is really good. Like, really, really good. I could watch it over and over - and have. The other, perhaps even better alternative, however, is the modern retelling of Vanity Fair, The Real Housewives of D.C., starring Michaele Salahi as Becky Sharp.
I mean, really all the Real Housewives are retellings of Vanity Fair – they all tell the same basic story – but D.C. is the only one that implicates all the grandeur of aristocracy and national security, so I think it’s the one that’s so similar it makes me pause for a moment at its awesomeness. I was horrified to hear that there is talk D.C. will be canceled, so I invite you to prevent this tragic wrong and start catching up on all the D.C. Housewives you can get your hands on. Or, you know, write a letter to your local Bravo TV rep, or whatever you do to save a show.
Anyway, for those of you who want substantive information, the story of Vanity Fair, the story of the Housewives of D.C. (and all the Housewives, for that matter), is that somebody throws a party and doesn’t invite one of the girls, and then that girl crashes the party anyway. Then, people fight. The cool thing about the D.C. Housewives is that the crashed party is at the White House, and the people-fighting part involves a congressional hearing. Vanity Fair is the same, but the people fighting are at the Battle of Waterloo at one point. In VF and D.C., the uninvited girl is the truth-challenged social climber, and both have pretty poignant commentaries on wealth and credit, imo.
It's been quite some time since I read this book, to be honest, but I remember vividly that once, while reading this book, I had to put it down and sit for a minute because I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t see the page anymore at this situationally hilarious joke. I still remember the joke, and I still think it is so funny. The Housewives are pretty much like that too. It is tragic that probably the traditional Vanity Fair crowd and the traditional Housewives crowd don’t mix more often. Stories about social climbing are so fun! Even if they are both really long taken in one sitting. They are serials! Don’t try to cram them if you don’t want to. But if you like to hear stories about people who, like, really like to party, these two are the same, but both worth checking out. I guess it depends on whether you feel like picking up a “classic” or saving a show from extinction. Or, if you don’t have a lot of other things going on, or a lot of parties of your own to crash, you could do both! You won’t regret it....more
In a hearing I observed once, the husband testified that he had tried to have his wife served with his petition for divorce in the Costco parking lot.In a hearing I observed once, the husband testified that he had tried to have his wife served with his petition for divorce in the Costco parking lot. The wife went running across the parking lot to avoid service, and her eight- and ten-year-old kids ran after her, dodging traffic and jumping into the wife’s car as it screeched out of the parking spot. The husband filmed them on his iPhone, shouting, “You’ve been served! You’ve been served!”
The judge commented that it was troubling to watch a video of the kids running through a dangerous parking lot and asked the woman why she ran. The woman replied, “I don’t believe in divorce, your honor.”
The judge said, “Well, ma’am, it’s not like the Easter Bunny: it exists.”
There is that point in a woman’s life when she wakes up suspecting that the fairy tales she grew up with were not telling the whole story, that there is life beyond the sunset at the end of the movie and that life is not easier than life before the sunset. And, there are any number of stories in which that anvil falls on a character’s head. Tolstoy writes the cautionary morality-tale version in Anna Karenina, Flaubert writes the pastoral tragedy version in Madame Bovary, and Elizabeth Gilbert writes the self-involved douche version in Eat Pray Love, to name a few. But, then, The Awakening. This one is my favorite. This is the beautiful one.
For example, there is this:
"Do you know Mademoiselle Reisz?" she asked irrelevantly.
"The pianist? I know her by sight. I've heard her play."
"She says queer things sometimes in a bantering way that you don't notice at the time and you find yourself thinking about afterward."
"Well, for instance, when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. `The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.'”
All the women in this book are birds: clucking hens, sheltering their brood; decorative birds in cages; and Edna growing wings and trying to fly away. I love the image of women as birds because I think it is so vivid in showing a woman’s disconnect with society. Just the image of a bird in a cage is something out of place, confined where it should be free. It is unwelcome and unnatural out of the cage, but unable to leave. The movie Moulin Rouge uses the image, too. Where Ewan McGreggor’s character is the traditional Orpheus, whose gift is his song, Nicole Kidman’s is the woman as a bird. “Oh, we will,” she says to her own pet bird, “We will fly, fly away from here!” I don’t know where this metaphor originated (sirens?) or how it became what it is in these stories, but I think it is poignant.
(view spoiler)[And it is poignant that, clearly, the only end for a bird escaped from the cage is death. A woman defying tradition and prejudice, as Mademoiselle Riesz says, is unwelcome and must have particularly strong wings to fly away. But, all of these stories that imagine something beyond tradition have Thelma and Louise endings. Women who wake up and realize that they are unwelcome in society as they are, who realize they can’t pretend to be what society wants anymore, can only conceive of suicide as the alternative. And, in The Awakening, at least, Edna’s death is not cautionary or punishment. It is just the only conceivable alternative in a society that offers nothing for women but marriage. Interestingly, Eat Pray Love is the only story I can think of on this topic that doesn’t end in the woman’s death, so that is perversely hopeful. (hide spoiler)]
I care about people’s relationships a lot. Probably too much at times. Relationships seem like these delicate, mysterious aliens to me, and we should whisper around them so we don’t scare them away. That is one of the main reasons I hate weddings – because so often you have this new, fragile relationship, and what do people decide to do to it? Smash it with the sledgehammer of planning a giant event that symbolizes the most bitter and painful emotional vulnerabilities of everyone in the general vicinity. The relationship might be beautiful and strong going into a wedding, but after getting piled with the emotional baggage of the families and friends involved, it is something else entirely. It is just off the rack, but threadbare already from wear and strain.
And a marriage, a wedding, is not a relationship. A marriage is a contract. A wedding is an event. A divorce is a dissolution of a contract. A relationship is something else. A relationship exists or doesn’t exist outside of any events or licensing. Sometimes a wedding is too heavy for a relationship to bear, and sometimes a marriage is too heavy for it. It often looks to me, when people get engaged, like they are trying to subscribe to a certain type of relationship and the engagement is the subscription form. But, as far as I can tell, relationships are wild and can’t be subscribed. And, nobody knows how strong they are but the people in the relationship, and sometimes not even them.
But, also, if you are Edna, if you are living your life, going along, and then you suddenly realize that you are not living your life, but that you are in some kind of costume and acting in a play: devastation. None of your relationships exist, but the people around you have relationships with the character you played. And there is no going back. You've already betrayed them, and you didn't even know it, and they've already betrayed you by not realizing you weren't you. When you start realizing who you are, there is too much momentum to turn around. You are already out of the cage and flying away, whether your wings are strong or weak, whether the wind is for you or against you.
In Kate Chopin’s world, I think, divorce was like the Easter Bunny, like the sunset that a woman could swim towards but not see beyond. The end of this story, to me, is a rejection of that world, which held nothing for Edna. It is a demand for something else. It is sad, yes, because it is appalling that there was nothing for her, but it is not wrong or unfair, I think. While I do not think the story is cautionary to women, I do think it is cautionary to the world. It says, what you hold for us, with your rigid, gendered propriety and your cages, is not enough. We are more, so the world needs to be more.
And I think it has become more. I think, as a woman, that while I was funneled toward Edna’s sad, empty life, I have been able to reject it, strong wings or not, and decide to be a real girl with real relationships, not just the meaningless façade of engagement and marriage and divorce. There are other options now because of books like this. It is not easy or perfect, but it is something real, something that exists. ...more
Leave it to Willa Cather to write the most peaceful book about war I have ever read. One of Ours is not my favorite story about World War I or my favoLeave it to Willa Cather to write the most peaceful book about war I have ever read. One of Ours is not my favorite story about World War I or my favorite Cather, but it is truly beautiful. Cather's description of the destruction caused by war and America's participation in global economy is fascinating, and I was surprised to find a perspective that I think of as common in post-Vietnam writing in a book published before the Great Depression.
One of the characteristics I love most about Cather as a writer is her ability to give her characters positions or traits that she obviously disagrees with, and still be compassionate towards them. This story was no exception. Although Claude, the hero of the novel, makes the wrong decision every time he comes to a crossroads, it does not make me (or, I felt, Cather) like him less, and I don't feel like she's beating me over the head with the fact that he's wrong. It makes me so uncomfortable to read a story where the author is mean and petty to the characters. That is not to say life is always a cheery place in Cather's books, but I never feel like she has a vendetta against people she includes in her story, or like she manipulates events to pull the rug out from under them. Maybe because that is such a pet peeve of mine, I appreciate authors who seem unconditionally comfortable with their characters....more
In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he wasIn high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was never going to use it.” Not that I had any problems with angst. Big fan. I just thought he failed at angst. He wasn’t the dreamy eyed poet, he was the kid in class who made everyone cringe by shooting his hand up to complain about the abstract unfairness of the school system (or universe. Whatever). I saw the beautiful words, but they only meant words, they didn’t mean anything. When I read the play again in college, the profound beauty and compassion for humanity devastated me, and I realized that it is not about angst of any variety. Hamlet still breaks my heart, probably more than any other story.
I saw a staged production of Hamlet for the first time last month. A live show is almost always a good experience, and this certainly was. I grew up living pretty near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve gone to productions there as much as possible since high school. It’s a magical place (not so much in a ren-fest way, though a little. More in a professional-live-show-for-cheap way). It’s about three hours away from me now, so I took a couple of days, drove down, and stayed in a hostel across the street from the OSF. I’m assuming in this review that everyone has read or seen Hamlet, but if you haven’t (and this might drive some people nuts) I actually really like the Mel Gibson version. I’ve seen it a kagillion times, and I think it’s a solid version. Who better to play Ophelia than Helena Bonham Carter? (Other than Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.) Anyway, like I say, seeing Hamlet in the wonderful Bowmer theater was a really good experience. I do, however, have a lot of problems with the production, all of which I will gladly share with you now.
A couple of things that don’t work in any production of a Shakespeare tragedy: hammy heroes, pyrotechnics, rapping and hip hop dancing, sign language that is not used for communication, extended martial arts scenes, and Kenneth Branagh. If I think of more, I’ll let you know. Mostly, when I see a play, I want to see the play, not the MTV version of the play. I find it insulting that directors seem to think I’ll understand Hamlet better if it’s MC Hammered at me. And I get that stage fighting is fun, but unfortunately TV fights look better. Maybe it makes it confusing that those things tend to work in the comedies, and directors get caught up in the comedy momentum. There’s some kind of self-reflexive irony framed by larger irony, though, when Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and not only is Polonius a pompous old fool, but the entire production is also a pompous old fool.
So, in this version we didn’t have Kenneth Branagh or an extended martial arts scene, which is a mercy. They did, however, have everyone dressed like they were in an emo band. It worked at first, and then got really annoying. Also, there was this gimmick about the ghost speaking sign language, and that kind of kills me. And the play-within-the-play was a free-style hip-hop show. So painful. The thing is, it would be kind of cool to see Hamlet in all sign language with the words voiced over in the theater (or even subtitled). I would probably dig that. But, the way they did this was all wrong. The ghost said something in sign language, and then Hamlet, who apparently was the only character who spoke sign language, would say his lines. Then Hamlet would say his own lines. Fail. I’m not positive Hamlet was the only one who spoke sign language because there was a lot of exaggerated gesturing all around. Like when Hamlet mimed a shotgun to his head when he said, “To be or not to be.”
If Hamlet is not about hip hop and angst, then, what is it about? Hamlet is about being totally unprepared to face reality. Because what is more real than death? Hamlet is about the coolest kid in school (a prince, no less), not about a soulful nerd. Hamlet’s dad could beat up all the other dads; Hamlet has a beautiful girlfriend; Hamlet is spoiled, maybe even a little bit of an asshole, and then, suddenly, his father’s death forces him to recognize that the universe could be a hostile place. Don’t get me wrong – when the play starts he’s not the golden child he was the month before. He goes from being privileged and sheltered to having to face real loss, grief, and betrayal. He wants revenge, but also asks if life is really worth living in a world where those you love the most are the ones plotting against your life. But he didn’t start that way – it’s not just his nature to be melancholy. Fate cut him into shreds the minute before the play starts. Ophelia, too, (but during the play) loses the security of a happy ending, loses her love, loses her father. Both of these bright, advantaged, unprepared children wake up to the brutality of the world around them, and ultimately that awakening destroys them.
That type of tragedy profoundly resonates with me. I realized that both this play and the other favorite I saw in Ashland, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are about rich people who trust the world to bring only good and then are crushed by reality. Maybe it resonates because of my own personal experiences, but I think there is also something about Hamlet that both transcends cultures and is immediate to American culture. As Nahum says, "Hamlet will be Hamlet. An ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates, even today." It used to be that the people sheltered from the realities of death were princes, but now look at us, with our hot running water, packaged meat, and sanitized hospitals. Tragedy and death are not part of our everyday lives, and I think many of us are as unprepared to deal with a hostile universe as Hamlet and Ophelia are. When we see our own mortality, we are not eased into it, but caught unawares by a specter we never knew was following us. We are in many ways perpetual children, like Hamlet and Ophelia.
Even then, maybe Hamlet is not tragic. Is it more horrifying to be surprised by death or to live a childhood that causes you to expect it? Although it is not my experience, the latter was probably more common at the time the play was written and probably continues to be so today. Nevertheless, that experience of betrayal by life must, on some level, be universal, whether people experience it young or old, once or many times. There is something innocent and wise and deeply human about both Hamlet and Ophelia because of it....more