Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that peo...more Single Quote Review:
Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?
The vulnerability of ancient writings to accident, or to malpractice, is both understood and rarely acknowledged. Not only is history...more #singlePOVreview:
The vulnerability of ancient writings to accident, or to malpractice, is both understood and rarely acknowledged. Not only is history contingent, but what comes down to us as history too is pure chance.
(view spoiler)[Here, Umberto Eco imagines a sinister version, where a monk’s arson destroys his monastery library along with the only copy of the treatise by Aristotle, On Comedy, thus showing the fragility of knowledge, and of the world itself, by employing an emotion which would show its full force only to a scholar. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Warning: This review might contain spoilers even outside the hidden 'spoiler alert' regions. I honestly am not capable of discriminating.
The book is not about the murder or about who did it, those things were very apparent before half the book was completed - the narrator taking special pains to spoil all suspense for his readers at the very beginning (harkening back to the days of greek drama and Euripides - according to whom, the effect of a story, even a whodunnit, was not in epic suspense about what was going to happen next, but in those great scenes of lyrical rhetorics in which the passion and dialectic of the protagonists reached heights of eloquence. Everything was to portend pathos, not action, which was always there only as a container for the pathos, to give it form).
This was probably done so that the typical clue-seeking aspects of a mystery does not detract his reader from addressing the real, the painful questions littered all across his treatise, almost with indecent abandon. (view spoiler)[After all, we were shown by Dostoevsky varying degrees of foreshadowings of every event that eventually became turning points in the plot - starting with the numerous leading comments of the narrator including the one in the opening paragraph, Zosima's prediction of suffering for and apology to Dimitri and Smerdyakov's not so subtle clues to Ivan among many others. And do not forget that Dostoyevsky even gave us the alternate route that Mitya could have taken in the Zosima narrative - the parallels in that story are too numerous to list out here. (hide spoiler)]
No, this story is not about the murder, or about the murderer, or about his motivations, or around the suspense surrounding his final fate. The story is about the reaction - it was all about the jury.
Many theories abound about how the Karamazov family represents Russia/humanity/all characters but the reality is that they represent individualities; while it is that terrible faceless jury, always addressed to and never addressed by, that represents humanity. The job of the country, the society, of the whole human race is to judge, to determine the fate of individuals based on the stories that they construct, literally out of thin air, out of the small pieces of a life that they can only ever observe. The best character sketches, fictional or otherwise can only ever be the minutest portion of a real character - but from that tiniest of slivers we build this ambiguous thing called ‘character’, as if such a thing can possibly exist for a creature as fickle-minded and forgetful of himself as man.
Character of a man is the greatest myth, propagated best by novelists, as no story can proceed without a ‘constant’ man who behave with some level of predictability or with predictable unpredictability, but real life is the result of adding a minimum of three more ‘unpredictable’ as adjectives to that earlier description, to come close to describing even the simplest and most boring idiot alive. But yet we construct stories, to understand, to predict, to know how to behave, we even make up stories about ourselves so that we may have an illusion of control over who we are - so that we do not melt into the amorphous protean mass that is the rest of humanity - my story separates me from all of them.
I construct, therefore I am.
These are the romances that Dostoevsky wields his best work against and the trial is a trial of reason, of reality pitted against the overwhelming circumstantial evidence in favor of romance, of the myth of character, of individuality, of cause and effect, of there being anything predictable when such a wild variable as a human mind is part of the equation, how can such an equation be anything but ‘indeterminate’ (to borrow Dostoevsky’s own expression)?
That was the grand trial, the inquisition of reason.
But how can the defense stand up in favor of reality without explaining to the jury (to humanity) why they see things not as they are, that they have made up a story that is perfect but is never real as no story can ever be - as no cause can really cause a definite effect when human beings are involved? You have to tell a story to convince the jury. You have to tell a story to defend the fact that stories do not exist. A story now, about stories. Or multiple stories to show how all stories are false if only one can be allowed to be true. The only other option is that all are true, simultaneously. By proving which you include your own story in that ‘self-consuming’ super-set and doom your own argument. There is the irresolvable conflict of the trial, of the story, of the novel, of life.
You cannot discredit the myth of the story without the help of a story as the jury that judges cannot understand, cannot comprehend any reality outside of a story, human beings cannot think outside their romances. They will continue to exist as prisoners to their own stories. That is why it is a comedy and not a tragedy, as no one died and no one killed and it remains akin to a sphinx setting us a riddle which he cannot solve himself. But, judgment had to be passed as the story was told.
One story among many.
An expanded review might follow and will try to address some of the big themes of the book, enumerated below:
1) On Fatherhood - The second big theme of the book. Possibly the real theme, the above only being my own story...
2) On Crime & the Efficacy of Punishment - On how men will always rise to be worthy of their punishment/mercy; On suffering and salvation and on how no judgement can be stronger, more effective or more damning/redemptive than moral self-judgement; On how Ivan’s ecclesiastical courts eventually would have behaved - would they have behaved as predicted by him in his prose poem and let christ go, unlike the real court? So, in the end his alternate vision of Satan’s court is what was really shown by the current judicial apparitions? But in the fable who was it that really forgave the inquisitor or the inquisitee? And in the overall story too, who forgives whom in the end? Christ or Humanity, Satan or Church, Dimitri or Russia?
3) On Collateral Damage - inflicted by the main story on side stories, on how the small side stories are over shadowed, no murdered by the main one and without any risk of conviction.
4) On the Institution of Religion- On morality and the question of the necessity of religion; On the basis for faith; On the implications of faith/lack of faith to the story one tells about oneself; On how Philip Pullman took the easy way out by expanding Dostoevsky’s story for his widely acclaimed novel; On the enormous burden of free will; On the dependence of men on the security of miracles that is the source of all hell and of all action.
5) On the Characters - On how Dostoevsky took the cream of his best-conceived characters from the universe of his creation, from across all his best works to populate his magnum opus, his story about stories, to trace out their path with the ultimate illusion of realism, with the ultimate ambition and to show/realize how it should always, always fall apart; On how he reflected the whole universe in a small lake and created a novel about all novels, disproving and affirming them simultaneously, murdering its own parents in its own fulfillment; On how they might have their Hamlets, but we have our Karamazov's.
6) On Hope & Redemption - On how ultimately Zosima's world view trumps the cynical aspects that dominated the book; On how Zosima predicted it all at the very beginning and apologized to Dimitri on behalf of all mankind - ‘taking everyone’s sin upon himself”, thus creating an inverted reflection of the christ figure, its image playing on both Dimitri and on Zosima for that split second and then passing on to Alyosha until finally projected back to Dimitri, in the ultimate paradox, where he becomes at last a christ figure and a buddha figure, exemplifying self-knowledge and enlightenment through true suffering; On how even the Karamazov name can be inspiring and be cause for cheers even though it represents the worst (best?) of humanity; On The Sermon at the Stone.
7) On Nihilism - On the absurdity of life and trying to explain it. But oh wait, this is what I talked of in paragraph length already.
PS. By the way, when you read this, keep your ears tuned towards the end - for somewhere in the distance you might hear the laugh of the Grand Inquisitor echoing faintly.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
1984 & The Road to Wigan Pier: A Parallel Analysis
When The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned, fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on t...more 1984 & The Road to Wigan Pier: A Parallel Analysis
When The Road to Wigan Pier was commissioned, fortuitously in the period when Socialism was on the retreat and Fascism on the rise, Orwell must already have begun to glimpse the world which he was to envision with vigorous clarity in ‘1984’. This review is a dual review then, of ‘1984’ and of ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, written ostensibly as a documentary report on the life of the working classes in the industrial towns of england, Orwell uses his reportage to investigate two crucial questions:
1. Why class differences persist even when the means exist to destroy them 2. Why socialism is failing practically and intellectually even as the moral facet (of it rectitude) is irrefutable (to his mind, at least)
The reader has to be warned that The Road to Wigan Pier can seem a bit rambling (or circuitous!) at times but is in fact a tight composition and has been echoed by many writers since Orwell.
The structure of the piece is quite elegant:
In the first section, Orwell provides a direct detailing of the life in the ‘industrial towns’, of the proletariat, of the toiling classes. It is evocative and reminded me strongly of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity in depth of detail and emotional involvement. It is a quick tour but captures the essential cruelties and degradation of life - rotten housing, lack of toilets, unemployment - and the complete hopelessness of it all. But just as Boo does later, Orwell also manages to convey that it is not due to the people, it is purely due to the conditions imposed on them. Orwell is very careful to drill this point home. It is the situations that make the classes.
This is exactly what I expected from the title of the book though I had also been resigned to some amount of political commentary, Orwell being Orwell. But soon the real purpose of the book starts to take shape and for a while I felt disappointed. But Orwell soon reveals the purpose behind is autobiographical excursions in the second part of the book and now I have come to regard this second section as the most vital. It is a narrative technique which I am now starting to notice in a number of other authors trying to grapple with class differences, including Suketu Mehta in Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, trying to come to terms with a riven Bombay.
So, in this second, and to me most important, section, Orwell exposes his own biases and prejudices through a frank autobiographical study. He opens up his own upbringing to show how prejudices creep in and establish themselves in our psyche and never let go no matter ho hard we hammer at them. Situating himself as a symbol of the middle class, Orwell uses this sketch to convey how we are all prey to such class prejudices and that we need to work within our own limitations and especially of the one’s we are trying to convert to the specialist cause (by we, I mean the Left Book Club - the intended audience of the book). He uses the pungent example of ‘lower classes smell’ as an irrevocable class barrier. This has come under much criticism but it is important to keep in mind that it is only and example, he could have gone with the ‘non-pronouncement of the ‘H’s’ or any other minor but hard to avoid detail. To criticize the choice of detail is besides the point.
Then comes the last section: the fulmination and the grand rhetoric. This section is the hardest to agree with and feels the most dated to the modern reader. Orwell tries to examine his second major point - Why is Socialism Declining? His answer is that it is because it is associated with mindless mechanized progress - due to the wrong instruments of propaganda which are turning away all the right sort of people and bringing only the ‘quacks’ into the socialist circles. Instead, to win the all-out and most important war against Fascism (which is, Orwell asserts, at the Gates), the Socialists need to forget class propaganda, accept that class prejudices will take longer to disappear (as elucidated in the previous section) and focus on the principles of ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, which Orwell is sure will bring all the moral and intelligent people into Socialism. Only by asserting this moral core of Socialism, stripped of class propaganda, can the scales be tipped in favor of Socialism and away from Fascism. Now the humanistic picture of the depravations of the first section are resurrected in another light and Orwell presents both the class-proletariats as well as the ‘economic-proletariats’ (i.e, people like himself, born to a higher class but earning only the equal of a industrial worker), as mow likely to tend towards fascism, if for no other reason but self-preservation. Socialism needs to bring these classes into its fold. That is the crying need of the day.
"And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class … may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches ('H's)."
The Literary Lens / The 1984 Reappraisal
The conclusions advocated by Orwell must seem too simplistic to modern ex-post readers, but there is another angle to be explored here that is not political in nature. This arises from the fact that this exposition was published before either 1984 or Animal Farm and after Brave New World. Orwell is quite clear that the Utopia (or Dystopia, or better, Utopia Caricatured) envisioned as the end goal of socialist progress in Brave New World is the very core of intelligent man’s revulsion towards Socialism - arising organically due to associations with ‘softness’ and degradation. Orwell needed to show the other extreme to turn this revulsion on its head.
We often compare Brave New World and 1984 as if they were alternate predictions and give marks to Huxley for having predicted better. But this misses Orwell’s point.
Orwell wanted to show the other extreme - the purely Fascist Dystopia - to bring around the people who were revolted by Brave New World and similar Utopian visions that were doing the rounds then (such as The Dream and Men Like Gods). Orwell calls these visions of the future that is based on mechanical progress as “the paradise of little fat men” which he admits was “aptly caricatured by Huxley in Brave New World”.
You can also think of the caricature in the Wall-E movie for a better visualized reference. Orwell gives a grand argument, based on how the purpose of machines is to make human life easier and thus softer, to show how the Wall-E future is pretty much inevitable according to this conception of progress. He needed to present the antithesis to this vision - 1984. No matter how bad the caricature of the socialist progress, the Fascist one is surely the one to avoid. 1984 was the rubbing in of this idea, already set forth in 1937 with The Road to Wigan Pier, more than a decade before the fictional attack became unavoidable for Orwell.
Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. 'Boom', said the Three Sisters.
And, if we can claim that Orwell’s prophesy is today less imminent than Huxley’s, then Orwell wins the battle of ‘who can scare them most’.
Well done, Orwell, you turned the course. Huxley, you needed to scare us more - we are headed there fast, still.(less)
Synopsis: A good 'epic' drama on the basic principles of Karma. A lecture, illustrated through the rebirth of a certain cast of characters, each birth...more Synopsis: A good 'epic' drama on the basic principles of Karma. A lecture, illustrated through the rebirth of a certain cast of characters, each birth altered by past birth, inextricably linked - a repeating microcosm; a beautiful composition playing out within the cosmic grand symphony. David Mitchell does manage to convey the beauty of the concept... a bit grandiloquently, but then the concept demands it.
Cool? Again, yes.
Postscript: This reviewer could have attempted a greater examination into the operation of Karma and Dharma. Postponed for the time being. Other aspects, such as the rhetorical/narrative devices and historical conception, has been well analyzed by other reviewers.
The only disagreement that this reviewer has with some of these analyses is that they have been insufficiently thorough in exploring the techniques of narration/rhetoric. In particular, they seem to have neglected stylistic matters, concentrating too much on parataxis, or the balance of elements in an argument, rather than on true syntaxis, or the composition of extended arguments whose elaborate and constantly varied structure should echo the turns taken by the core idea being expressed.
In Cloud Atlas, what we see is a unique blend of the theoretical and the practical, for the stories are virtuoso pieces designed not for a particular plot alone but to serve as models to be variously employed towards illustrating the single grand idea of Karma (as well, no doubt, as to stand in their own right as autonomous works of fiction). Hence this reviewer's preoccupation with the concept of Karma in the short synopsis above. Since this postscript is now much longer than the review, I leave the rest of this too for later. For clarification, the book is no longer a 5-star read for this reviewer, but will let the original rating stand.(less)
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “that...more TROY VI: THE INVENTION OF ACHILLES
“The Classics, it is the Classics!” William Blake is said to have exclaimed, with pointed reference to Homer, “that Desolate Europe with Wars!”
Blake's exclamation might not be as atrocious as it sounds at first. There might be some truth to this, a universal truth.
Significantly however, this is not how the ancients understood it. They understood war as the catastrophe that it is.
Strabo, the Roman geographer, talking about the Trojan wars, puts it thus: “For it came about that, on account of the length of the campaign, the Greeks of that time, and the barbarians as well, lost both what they had at home and what they had acquired by the campaign; and so, after the destruction of Troy, not only did the victors turn to piracy because of their poverty, the still more the vanquished who survived the war.”
It is in this spirit that I chose The Iliad as my first read for The World War I centenary read.
However, over the war-hungry centuries throughout the middle ages and right till the World Wars, this sense of the Epic was twisted by manipulating the images of Achilles & Hector - Hector became the great defender of his country and Achilles became the insubordinate soldier/officer - the worst ‘type’, more a cause for the war than even Helen herself. Of course, Achilles’ romance was never fully stripped but Hector gained in prominence throughout as the quintessential Patriot.
Precisely because of this the Blake exclamation might have been more valid than it had a right to be.
This is why there is a need to revisit the original tragic purpose of the Epic - most commentators would say that (as above) this original purpose was against ALL wars. But there is much significance to the fact that the epic celebrates the doomed fight of two extinct peoples.
The Iliad starts on the eve of war and ends on the eve of war. Of a ten year epic war, the poem focuses its attention only on a couple or so of crucial, and in the end inconclusive, weeks (for it does not end with any side victorious but with Hector’s death).
In fact, it opens with both both Hector & Achilles reluctant and extremely ambivalent towards war. And closes with both Hector & Achilles dead - by mutually assured destruction!
In that clash of the Titans, the epic defines itself and creates a lasting prophecy.
However, before we explore that we need to understand Hector & Achilles better and also the Iliad itself.
In Medias Res
The Iliad opens in medias res, as it were, as if the epic-recitation was already on its way and we, the audience, have just joined. It is part of Homer’s genius that he creates a world already in process. The art of Iliad is then the art of the entrance, the players enter from an ongoing world which is fully alive in the myths that surround the epic and the audience.
The poem describes neither the origins nor the end of the war. The epic cuts out only a small sliver of insignificant time of the great battle - and thus focuses the spotlight almost exclusively on Hector & Achilles, narrowing the scope of the poem from a larger conflict between warring peoples to a smaller one between these two individuals, and yet maintaining its cosmic aspirations. So the important question is who are Hector & Achilles and why do these two heroes demand nothing less than the greatest western epic to define and contrast them?
The Long Wait For Achilles
In Iliad, how single-mindedly we are made to focus on Hector, but all the while, the Epic bursts with an absence - that of Achilles!
After the initial skirmish with Agamemnon and the withdrawal that forms the curtain-raiser, Achilles plays no part in the events described in Books 2 through 8; he sits by his ships on the shore, playing his harp, having his fun, waiting for the promised end.
“The man,” says Aristotle in the Politics, “who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self-sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast, or a god.”
Hector is the most human among the heroes of The Iliad, he is the one we can relate with the most east. The scene where Hector meets Andromache and his infant son is one of the most poignant scenes of the epic and heightened by Homer for maximum dramatic tension.
On the other hand, Achilles is almost non-human, close to a god. But still human, though only through an aspiration that the audience might feel - in identifying with the quest for kleos, translated broadly as “honor”.
‘Zeus-like Achilles’ is the usage sometimes employed by Homer - and this is apt in more ways than the straight-forward fact that he is indeed first among the mortals just as Zeus is first among the gods.
Zeus and the Gods know the future, they know how things are going to unfold.
Among the mortals fighting it out in the plains of Ilium, only Achilles shares this knowledge, and this fore-knowledge is what allows him (in the guise of rage) to stay away from battle, even at the cost of eternal honor. Fore-knowledge is what makes Achilles (who is the most impetuous man alive) wiser than everyone else.
Hector on the other hand takes heed of no omens, or signs, nor consults any astrologer. For him, famously, the only sign required is that his city needed saving - “and that is omen enough for me”, as he declares. He is the rational man. He is the ordinary man. Roused to defense.
But everything Hector believes is false just as everything Achilles knows is true - for all his prowess, Hector is as ordinary a soldier as anyone else (except Achilles), privy to no prophecies, blind to his own fate. Elated, drunk with triumph, Hector allows himself to entertain one impossible dream/notion after other, even to the extent that perhaps Achilles too will fall to him. That he can save Troy all by himself.
Hector & Achilles: The Metamorphosis
Like other ancient epic poems, the Iliad presents its subject clearly from the outset. Indeed, Homer names his focus in its opening word: menin, or “rage.” Specifically, the Iliad concerns itself with the rage of Achilles—how it begins, how it cripples the Achaean army, and how it finally becomes redirected toward the Trojans. But, it also charts the metamorphosis of Achilles from a man who abhors a war that holds no meaning for him to a man who fights for its own sake.
On the other side, it also charts how the civilized Hector, the loving family man and dutiful patriot Hector becomes a savage, driven by the madness of war.
Before that, an interlude.
The Other Life Of Achilles
One of the defining scenes of the Epic is the ‘Embassy Scene’ where a defeated Agamemnon sends Odysseus & co to entreat Achilles to return to the battle. That is when Achilles delivers his famous anti-war speech. This speech of Achilles can be seen as a repudiation of the heroic ideal itself, of kleos - a realization that the life and death dedicated to glory is a game not worth the candle.
The reply is a long, passionate outburst; he pours out all the resentment stored up so long in his heart. He rejects out of hand this embassy and any other that may be sent; he wants to hear no more speeches. Not for Agamemnon nor for the Achaeans either will he fight again. He is going home, with all his men and ships. As for Agamemnon's gifts, “I loathe his gifts!“
This is a crucial point in the epic. Achilles is a killer, the personification of martial violence, but he eulogizes not war but life - “If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies . . . true, but the life that's left me will be long . . . “ (9.502-4)
Hector & Achilles: The Battle Royale
Notwithstanding Achilles’ reluctance and bold affirmations of life, slowly, inevitably, Homer builds the tension and guides us towards the epic clash everybody is waiting for. But though it might seem as preordained, it is useful to question it closely. The confrontation is crucial and deserves very close scrutiny. We must ask ourselves - What brings on this confrontation?
On first glance, it was fate, but if looked at again, we can see that Homer leaves plenty of room for free-will and human agency - Hector had a choice. But not Achilles - instead, Achilles' choice was exercised by Patroclus.
This calls for a significant re-look at the central conflict of the epic: it might not be Hector Vs Achilles!
Patroclus and Hector instead are the real centerpiece of the epic - Achilles being the irresistible force, that is once unleashed unstoppable. It is a no-contest. Hence, the real contest happens before.
This is because, that unleashing depended entirely on Hector and Patroclus - the two heroes who only went into battle when their side was in dire straits - to defend. Both then got caught up in the rage of battle, and despite the best of advice from their closest advisors, got swept up by it and tried to convert defense into annihilation of enemy - pursuing kleos!
It is worth noting the significant parallels between Hector and Patroclus, while between Hector and Achilles it is the contrasts that stand forth.
Hector, instead of just defending his city, surges forth and decides to burn the Achaean ships. Now, the Achaean ships symbolize the future of the Greek race. They constitute the army’s only means of conveying itself home, whether in triumph or defeat. Even if the Achaean army were to lose the war, the ships could bring back survivors; the ships’ destruction, however, would mean the annihilation—or automatic exile—of every last soldier. Homer implies that the mass death of these leaders and role models would have meant the decimation of a civilization.
Which means that the Achaeans cant escape - in effect, Hector, by trying to burn the ships is in effect calling for a fight to the death!
This decision was taken in the face of very strong omens and very good advice:
In the battle at the trench and rampart in Book Twelve, The Trojans Storm the Rampart, Polydamas sees an eagle flying with a snake, which it drops because the snake keeps attacking it; Polydamas decides this is an omen that the Trojans will lose. He tells Hector they must stop, but Hector lashes out that Zeus told him to charge; he accuses Polydamas of being a coward and warns him against trying to convince others to turn back or holding back himself.
Hector is driven on by his success to overstep the bounds clearly marked out for him by Zeus. He hears Polydamas’ threefold warning (yes, there were two other instances too, not addressed here), yet plots the path to his own death and the ruin of those whom he loves.
Thus, sadly, Hector pays no heed and surges forth. Which is the cue for the other patriot to enter the fray - for Patroclus.
And thus Hector’s own madness (going beyond success in defense) in the face of sound advice brought on a crises for Achaeans to which their prime defender and patriot, Patroclus responded - and then paralleling Hector’s own folly, he too succeeded and then went beyond that to his own death. Thus Patroclus too shows that knows no restraint in victory; his friends too warned him in vain, and he paid for it with his life. By this time Hector had no choice, his fate was already sealed. Achilles was about to be unleashed.
The most important moment in Iliad to me was this ‘prior-moment’ - when Hector lost it - when he lost himself to war fury: Hector’s first act of true savagery - towards Patroclus and his dead-body. “lost in folly, Athena had swept away their senses, “ is how Homer describes Hector and his troops at this point of their triumph.
Yet, Homer gives Hector one more chance to spurn honor and save himself and diffuse/stall the mighty spirit of Achilles that had been unleashed on the battlegrounds. In his soliloquy before the Scacan gate, when he expects to die by Achilles' hand, he also has his first moment of insight: he sees that he has been wrong, and significantly enough Polydamas and his warnings come back to his mind. But he decides to hold his ground for fear of ridicule, of all things!
So even as all the other Trojans ran inside the impregnable city walls to shelter, Hector waited outside torn between life and honor (contrast this with Achilles who had chosen life over honor, the lyre over the spear, so effortlessly earlier). Hector instead waits until unnerved, until too late. And then the inevitable death comes.
Thus the Rage was unleashed by two men who tried to do more than defend themselves - they tried to win eternal honor or kleos - the result is the unleashing of the fire called Achilles (his rage) which burns itself and everything around it to the ground. What better invocation of what war means?
I ask again, what better book to read for the centenary year for The World War I?
The Last Book
The last words of The Iliad are : “And so the Trojans buried Hector, breaker of horses.”
Thus, fittingly, Homer starts with the Rage of Achilles and ends with the Death of Hector. This is very poetic and poignant, but it is time for more questions:
Again, why start and end on the eve of battle? Because that is the only space for reflection that war allows. Before the madness of the fury of war or of disaster descends like a miasmic cloud. To use Homer’s own phrase, “war gives little breathing-room”.
Thus, we end the Epic just as we began it - in stalemate, with one crucial difference - both sides’ best men are dead. The two men who could have effected a reconciliation , who had a vision beyond war, are dead.
It is made very clear in The Iliad that Achilles will die under Trojan roofs and that Hector will find his doom under the shadow of the Achaean ships - or, both are to die in enemy territory.
Though Iliad leaves us with full focus on Hector’s death and funeral, there is another death that was always presaged but left off from the story - That of Achilles’ own. Why?
Achilles' death is left to the audience to imagine, over and over again, in every context as required. The saga of Hector & Achilles, of the doomed-to-die heroes, leaves one death to the imagination and thus effects a very neat prophetic function.
Once Hector committed his folly, once Patroclus rushed to his death, and once Achilles is unleashed, the rest is fixed fate, there is no stopping it. So Homer begins and ends in truce, but with destruction round the corner - as if the cycle was meant to be repeated again and again, stretching backwards and forwards in time - Troy I, Troy II, … to Troy VI, Troy VII, … where does it end?
Homer knows that the threshold is crossed, the end is nigh - even Troy’s destruction is not required to be part of the epic - with Hector’s death, the death of Ilium is nigh too and so is Achilles’ own death and past the myths, the death of the Greek civilization, and maybe of all civilization?
The epic leaves us with the real doomsday just over the horizon, horribly presaged by it, in true prophetic fashion.
The Pity of War
The pity of war is The Iliad’s dominant theme, but it uses themes such as love, ego, honor, fear and friendship to illuminate the motive forces behind war. In another ancient epic, Gilgamesh, the death of a friend prompts a quest which ends in wisdom and an affirmation of life; in The Iliad, the death of the fabled friend leads to a renunciation of wisdom and a quest for death itself! In Gilgamesh, the hero learns the follies of life and rebuilds civilization; in The Iliad, Achilles comes into the epic already armed with this knowledge and moves towards seeking death, choosing to be the destroyer instead of the creator.
The Iliad is an epic of unlearning. It mocks optimistic pretensions. In The Iliad, the participants learn nothing from their ordeal, all the learning is left to the audience.(less)
One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite novels. Which is why, when I started reading Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the things I noticed immediately was the lack of the subtle brand of magic that I had so enjoyed. I missed it and was on the lookout for it. I wanted it badly and went around every corner with the expectation of a cheerful reunion. But it was not to be.
As Pynchon says: the “reality” of love and the possibility of its ultimate extinction become Love’s “indispensable driving forces,” whereas magic in all its guises and forms becomes peripheralized or “at least more thoughtfully deployed in the service of an expanded vision, matured, darker than before but no less clement”.
Why this marginalization of the extraordinary? Why this deliberate move towards realism? Why no Magic?
I kept asking myself this as I read, and beyond. Was I to understand that it is because Love in itself is Magic? That was too cheesy, even for Márquez who never shies from telling me a cheesy sub-story if it needs to be told.
Or is it because Love in the Time of Cholera is to seen as the product of a more experienced author, who no longer needs the resources of magic realism and hyperbole to surprise the reader?
One thing was sure, Love in the Time of Cholera is not only about Love, even when it pervades every page. Indeed, it covers, through its characters’ wide amorous and business interests, an entire era and all the social classes, spanning over fifty years of Latin American life, from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the first two or three of the twentieth.
Love in the Time of Cholera, while on a much smaller scale than One Hundred Years of Solitude, deals with the Colombian civil wars of this period and the violence left in its wake. Márquez however wants these historical and political concerns to be passed largely unnoticed by the reader. While One Hundred Years of Solitude disguises the political themes through the uses of myth, fantasy, hyperbole, and magic realism, Love in the Time of Cholera disguises them through its depiction of an eternal, sometimes exasperating, almost unrealistic love affair, one which flouts the conventions of every love story the reader might have come across.
Love in the Time of Cholera is often quite bleak due to this veering towards stark Realism, to this occasional historical invasion of the narrative. Much of this realism arises from Death and Decay - the central themes of the novel. However, Márquez does not completely give up on Idealism either. In fact he is neither an Idealistic or a Realistic author - he is just a supremely eloquent voice speaking from the vantage-point of his own old age and wisdom.
To me, Love in the Time of Cholera is a magnificently gloomy novel though Márquez’s masterful sorcery masks it well, with his verbal cascades of descriptions and his narrative’s seductiveness.
Márquez’s novels are almost invariably gloomy. They are apocalyptic. They are decadence distilled.
Then why the popularity? Why do we love them? Why are we uplifted? Is it because of Márquez’s enthusiastic exuberance?
I think it is because of the Quixotic Heroism of the people who populate these doomed worlds.
It is this heroism that veils the Apocalyptic forebodings that pack so densely like storm clouds throughout the firmament his novels.
After all, Consider how during the entire time he waits to talk to Fermina again (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) Florentine Ariza is dauntless and never ever gives up even the slightest sliver of hope. Nothing could shake this man:
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.
The Heart of Darkness: Death & Decay
There is so much I would like to say about this amazing novel. There are so many themes that could be explored. But in this review I will try to focus on the Beginning and the Ending of this intricately structured novel, and try to tease out the the thread that explains the absence of Magic.
The whole novel is too broad a canvas to be explored in a review. For this, I limit myself to the broad themes of Death, Decay & Redemption, and allow the political, ecological, societal and personal aspects of these themes to play themselves out below the current, so to speak.
The Institutions of Love: Inventing Love
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.
The theme of Juvenal’s love story is about the incompatibility of love and social convention, the conflict between desire and social life. It is quite easily the crucial conundrum the novel wants to solve - the 'other' to the novel's essence. Security, order, happiness - can these when added together in the right proportions provide an equation for Love?
For the sort of Love that can stop the decay that seems to have beset the entire world? Apparently not. It is not enough.
Through Juvenal’s invented Love, Márquez is not simply criticizing the institution of marriage, instead he is criticizing the very illusion that allows this - the illusion that the world and the worldly goods and pleasures can produce Love.
Instead Márquez wants to show that it is Love that can create (or recreate) the world.
Ultimately Love is love of Love itself, not merely the desire for its actual attainment or even the act of its fulfillment. Passion is its own object.
Pitted against such an impossible ideal, all convention or institutionalization obstructs love’s ultimate goal, which is to forestall death and decay.
The ultimate goal of Love is to save the world, to create it anew.
Gerontophobia & Ecocide: Destroying Love
So why is this world so much in need of saving?
The cosmic decline in Love seems to be the cause for alarm, the cause for the pervasive decay that invades the world of the novel:
Everything in this novel, from the environment, to the city, to the rebels, to the civil wars, to the people, to the pets are ancient - as if they were part of this earth from the very beginning, but everybody is in the throes of love. And everything ancient is also decaying, sliding slowly towards the final end of death - so is the sadness and the conventional love represented by Juvenal.
But it is not just about the human lives. Márquez writes as much about places as about people. This one is also about the death of a river, of a town, of a society… or murder, rather. Of Nature’s Old Age inflicted prematurely by youthful humanity.
This is the ecological sub-theme of the novel - It is the river, finally, the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) that highlights this for us. The abundant nature that surrounds the town is caught in a process of irreversible decay. Alligators, manatees, monkeys, and birds disappear from the jungle; toward the end, the riverboats have difficulty finding enough wood for their boilers. While the political urgency of this topic is clear, cosmic decline in Love in the Time of Cholera has a different meaning and is linked to the theme of the interruption of love discussed before.
Paralleling the old age of his characters with the decay envisioned by this ecological wasteland (of their own making), Márquez is pointing out to us the true nature of Decay - of Humans and their self inflicted sufferings bringing the decay of old age upon themselves and upon the whole of nature.
This is the central tenet of the novel - Love in the Time of Decay.
However, there is more. And Márquezis not afraid to set this counter theme out in the very opening scene itself:
The Sweet Smell of Bitter Almonds
Counter to the dark theme of decay that is to be developed for most of the rest of the plot, early in the novel, an act of brave revolt against this inevitability establishes the counter-current against the steady march of decay.
Jérémiah de Saint-Amour (soon forgotten and never again mentioned) takes this revolutionary step (again drawing our attention the continuous revolution in which the political life of the novel is set) by choosing to die before decay sets in. This act initiates the long debate that runs throughout the novel about Love and its objective - are we to preserve Love at the expense of Life or to preserve Life through Love? By raising this question so early, by calculating his suicide long beforehand, by choosing to end the world than to let it go to rot, to see it rot, Saint-Amour stays alive through the rest of the novel, haunting it.
Being a witness to the decay of love was the most unbearable to Saint-Amour, the Saint of Love?
What we see dramatized at the end of the book, however, is the possibility of genuine passion and romance in old age. There is a clear contrast between Saint-Amour’s suicide and the protracted love life of Florentino Ariza, but it is a contrast that conceals a profound affinity. Saint-Amour kills himself to preserve his body from decay, to fix its image, as it were, through death.
Love and decay, then, constitute the double focus of this novel, the former being present in countless ways throughout.
Love in The Time of Cholera: The Post-Apocalyptic Paradise
… his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera.
Every page of this novel is rammed full of love, beyond the capacity of any reader to fully comprehend. Love is in the air like Malaria; and in the water, like Cholera - its infections are inescapable!
All aspects of love are covered in exquisite detail - from teenage love to old age; from sexual to rapine to platonic; from formal courtship to marital to unconsummated; to unrequited love to the excesses of suicide and adultery; from the mundane normalcy of love to the incestuous abnormalities.
The reader has to consider carefully in the midst of this overwhelming abundance and variety the treatment that Márquez gives to love in this novel. Love in the novel is not the purely romantic love -carefree, easy flowing, spontaneous, and idealized.
Instead, the novel’s great affirmation of romance, is in the face not just of a hostile or prosaic world, but of the darker side of romance itself.
It is Operatic, Quixotic & Dionysian Love that is celebrated. It is Love as the Second Coming!
Sailing The River of Love: The Voyage of Re-Birth
Youth, Love, Old Age & Death - The Four Unknowns. This should have been the order of Life.
However, in this world of Márquez, the only ages that can hope to be able love/live seem to the Young and the Old. In between lies the desert - the only time we are allowed to live - when not capable of love. It is a paradox on which the very survival of this fictional universe seems to depend on.
Love and Life cannot coexist then - The solution is to give up the life they know for Love. To take the ultimate leap of faith.
So hoist a yellow flag on the Ship of your Life (Second Fidelity) and sail on the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) in a State of Emergency! Let Love in the Time of Cholera be the entirety of the River of Life. Love should now destroy that earlier Life instead, just as Cholera can squeeze it out. And then be reborn, afresh.
The novel ends with the central characters challenging their entire social world and the very conditions of their existence by their grand romantic gesture, by their final, and what seems like eternal, trip on the Magdalena river. This is the necessary reaction to the decay that is fast on the route to complete extinction, to death.
Love and Cholera will both go extinct otherwise, rooted out by Life.
Love is shown as the redeeming force that saves both humanity, nature, culture and history. It appears as a divine force that defies everything. As if in biblical terms, the novel seems to assert that it is not yet too late to stop the end of humanity and to reach out for grace and happiness.
Most importantly, never allow the Yellow Flag to be questioned. Sustain the ardor. Maintain the symptoms of Cholera/Love. The pestilence is to be maintained at all costs! Only then will the world let you sail on.
Of course, the novel ends with the reader wondering if Fermina and Florentino will ever be able to come ashore and exercise their second chance.
We are left to question this act for ourselves: How do we save the world? By Escape into an Unrealistic Fantasy? Or is love more real? The answer, at least inside Márquez’s world is quite clear.
This final triumph is exquisitely multi-layered. Fermina and Florentino will remain isolated from the real contagion of their earlier Life by allowing their Love to be disguised as Cholera.
They are not rejecting the world, they are allowing the world to reject them instead.
The quarantine is really against love, the sickness that society will not, can not tolerate, the sickness that society fear as much as a deadly epidemic, the sickness that the society fears will wipe it out.
Instead it is that very sickness, which is recognized by conventional society as its biggest scourge, that saves the characters from extinction, along with the manatees, the alligators, and the monkeys.
It is Love that saves all in the end - at least we are left to imagine that possibility. Now, in this Post-Apocalyptic Paradise, age is of no consequence; Life has been transmuted and preserved by Love, like Saint-Amour’s Love by death.
Life has been reborn in the Second Coming of Love!
Love, in short, will always be in the time of cholera, under the Yellow Flag’s protection.
THE INFINITE CAPACITY FOR ILLUSION: The Will to Lyricism
So, now we can come back to the question we started with - of the Absence of Magic.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the apocalypse came in spite of Magic, in Love in the Time of Cholera, redemption comes despite its absence!
Unlike the death that starts off One Hundred Years of Solitude, here that death, the suicide, is ultimately sublimated into love - and decay is arrested in its unreality!
In fact reality has instead been reinvented in their own terms, where previous reality was rejected outright.
The capacity for illusion is magic enough to save the world, and our souls. This Infinite Capacity for Illusion can bring on the required apocalypse and we can live as if the Kingdom of Heaven/Cholera was already here on earth, under that banner of protection!
“One had best state this matter very plainly: To recover the comic splendor of The Merchant of Venice now, you need to be either a scholar or an anti-Semite, or best of all an anti-Semitic scholar.” ~ Harold Bloom
See how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places, and handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? ~ King Lear (IV.vi.151–4)
“Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?” ~ The Merchant of Venice
The traditional interpretations are usually on the lines of ‘accept the play as what it is - a comedy that utilizes stereotypes’ or on ‘Shakespeare managed to use a stereotype and yet humanized him and created one of the great characters in theatre’. Truly, the scope and diversity of theatrical interpretations of the Merchant are extraordinary, and there have been many new and exciting attempts at understanding the play over the centuries. In addition, its racism has often been reversed in performance, converted into an eloquent plea for human equality. Indeed, in some ways the play has been instrumental in changing people’s perceptions of the Jewish community, and it therefore occupies a valuable place in world culture.
It is said that Merchant of Venice is one of the most performed plays of all time and has continuously been in production for over 300 years now. Is there a reason why it is so popular? It is partly due precisely to this breadth of interpretation that is possible, and partly due to the immense challenge thrown up by the character of Shylock.
Shylock can be interpreted in many ways on the stage. He can be seen as a simple comic villain who occasionally reveals sympathetic qualities. Or he can be a tragic hero, a spurned and battered victim of oppression, who tries unsuccessfully to challenge the society that oppresses him. Similarly, the Christians can be saintly personifications of charity and mercy, or hypocritical money-grubbers. It may seem strange that a play can produce such divergent readings, but they are, in fact, a result of the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing.
It is a play that is curiously capable of moulding itself to our present, we only have to project the current OTHER into the role of Shylock - as many directors over the centuries have done.
It allows reinterpretation as per this current Other - and can then be a vehicle for showcasing a sense of how a historic wrong is ripe for correction!
What this sort of interpretation of Merchant of Venice misses is that both Venice and Shylock were ‘The Other’ to each other. They were both incomprehensible to the other.
The Directorial Debut: A World Without Belmont
Keeping this in mind, now, if I were to direct the play today, I would focus on these things:
1. The risky speculative nature of Antonio's ventures.
2. The twisting of the laws by Portia to ‘bail out’ Antonio and to make Shylock bear the brunt of Antonio's speculations.
In a bit more detail, this would be my approach towards the production:
Shylock: Shakespeare uses ‘Jew’ and “Shylock’ in the play depending on whether he wants to humanize him or not. ‘Shylock’ is used where involvement in his feelings is indicated; and ‘Jew’ is used when Shakespeare sees him purely as a moneylender, as a stereotype. It is significant that at the very end, in the Trial Scene, ‘Shylock’ is used by Shakespeare and not ‘Jew’!
I would extend this to its extreme - humanize Shylock completely, strip him of his 'monstrosity' status and of his usurer brand and make him the common family man, downtrodden occasionally, trying to get by.
Antonio: is given no real reason for nobility in the play except his Christian credentials - I would strip him of those and make him just what he is, a speculator with many failings with no cushion of Christianity to fallback on. A quintessential Wall-Street figure.
I might or might not keep the personal enmity between Shylock and Antonio. That would add dramatic value, but serves no purpose as far as my core message is concerned.
Belmont: An outlandish element of this most realistic of Shakespeare’s plays is Belmont - the land of magic where casket-tests and ring-tests determine 'true love' and fidelity, where pure love always wins - a fairy tale land. It is a world where money has no role, where no class differences occur (or are not allowed since only the privileged enter!) because the oppressed don’t have a role (notice, no Jews in Belmont!), which might have been an impossible but still acceptable dream for much of human history (Voltaire-like), but which crumpled maybe around the middle of this century, with our disillusionment with European dreams of any poised land. We don't have a place for such a trope in our production.
The Merchant of Venice is a very serious play - Shakespeare made it a romantic comedy by nesting the parallel story of Belmont and its idealism, its fairy tale caskets, the Jason-like Quest etc.
But we don’t have to take it with the same levity. We can take it more seriously. We can consider a world without Belmont!
My play would then be set in this “World Without Belmont”.
Shylock, even back then, is a controversial figure for villain and has not been accepted as such for a long time now. Shall we have another villain for ourselves? - Let me present to you, Antonio!
Here, Antonio becomes a Speculator who uses borrowed money to finance risky expeditions on a false sense of self-assurance, in spite of being warned right at the beginning of the play by all his friends - ignorantly over-confident, and rather stupid because he is so lacking in common sense.
When they do choose,
They have the wisdom by their wit to lose.
Shylock becomes the common man who was assured that his money would never be risked (a ‘merry bond’ sold to him??) and Bassanio becomes the Aristocracy who meanwhile uses the public money for self-indulgence and exotic adventures.
If you sympathize with Shylock, then you must turn against Portia.
~ E. E. Stoll
Portia: Portia, in my production, becomes the conservative defender (who is also not above some blatant racism!) of these values who would try to get the state to sponsor these extravagances and is even wiling to twist the law - a complete Deux Ex Machina - are we really to think Shylock, and anybody else, did not know of these laws that Portia presents? To me Portia has used their assumption of her competence to full advantage. The only way to explain it would be ‘Poetic Justice’ or more crassly - Cheating!
Portia does this 'twisting' to try and make the poor Shylock shell out even more of his personal fortune, who is almost struck dumb when the State and Law that he had placed his belief on turn on him - “Is that the law?" is all he can ask. He was absolutely certain that his trust in the law was inviolate. The Law and the State that he believed to be so solid crumbles before him. He sees what power privilege has in this world.
And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.
Thus making Shylock representative of the common man, who is a mirror to the society’s worst atrocities - by trying to take exacting revenge on the Wall-street speculator Antonio; and by trying to point out the many wrongs of his society, such as slavery back then or enforced poverty today. The common man, whose tax dollars and life-savings are used to finance the risky ventures of the Antonios and the Bassanios.
Of course, they don’t have to worry, the conservative state represented by the Duke (talk of an impartial judge - he starts the trial by calling Shylock names! And proceeds to threaten to annul the whole thing when Shylock seemed on the verge of winning) and by Portia, who will, with her ingenious manipulations of the law, ensure that Shylock not only loses but also accepts their value systems! “I am content” he says and disappears from the play, into the black-hole that is the State - an Orwellian vision.
Portia: Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
Shylock: I am content.
In this ‘World Without Belmont’, we have to notice that the upholding of Justice is done not for nobility or any love of justice for its own sake but to ensure that the ‘too big to fail’ establishments are not allowed to sink - just as “The trade and profit of the city” of Portia’s Venice depends on the confidence foreigners have in Venetian law. Thus it is not love of justice for her own sake, but mere self-interest, that keeps our play’s world within the law.
Thus, going from the ‘New Comedy’ aspect of Merchant of Venice to a full blown Tragedy, I would end my modern production with this Shylock slighted and stolen of his possessions, the Antonios and Bassanios happy in the thought that they can continue their indulgences at the expense of the public, while strictly following the letter of the law, no less… and a dark foreboding of when this whole structure will collapse, no matter how well hedged by class distinctions and 'just' laws.
Encore: “Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?”
The hopes of all men and of...more Man, being reasonable, must get drunk;
The best of life is but intoxication:
Glory, the grape, love, gold, in these are sunk
The hopes of all men and of every nation;
Without their sap, how branchless were the trunk
Of life's strange tree, so fruitful on occasion:
But to return,—Get very drunk; and when
You wake with headache, you shall see what then.
~ Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto II, Stanza 179.
If we offend, it is with our good will.
That you should think, we come not to offend,
But with good will. To show our simple skill,
That is the true beginning of our end.
Consider then we come but in despite.
We do not come, as minding to content you,
Our true intent is. All for your delight
We are not here. That you should here repent you,
The actors are on hand; and, by their show,
You shall know all, that you are like to know.
The Lightweight Satire
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often viewed as a lightweight play, but it is much more than that. It is one of Shakespeare’s most polished achievements, a poetic drama of exquisite grace, wit, and humanity. It has perhaps become one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, with a special appeal for the young. But belying its great universal appeal it might be a stinging social satire too, glossed over by most in their dreamy enjoyment of the magnificent world Shakespeare presents and also by the deliberate gross-comedy in the end that hides the play from itself.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an Archetypal play where charm, innocence, violence and sexuality mix in giddy combinations. In this fantastic masterpiece, Shakespeare moves with wonderful dramatic dexterity through several realms, weaving together disparate storylines and styles of speech.
It offers a glorious celebration of the powers of the human imagination and poetry while also making comic capital out of its reason’s limitations and societies’ mores. It is also perhaps the play which affords maximum inventiveness on stage, both in terms of message and of atmosphere.
The Course of True Love
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
1. In some ways Lysander’s well-known declaration becomes one of the central themes, as the comedy interlocks the misadventures of five pairs of lovers (six if one counts Pyramus and Thisby) - and uses their tribulations to explore its theme of love’s difficulties.
2. Also central to the play is the tension between desire and social mores. Characters are repeatedly required to quell their passion for the sake of law and propriety.
3. Another important conflict is between love and reason, with the heart almost always overruling the mind. The comedy of the play results from the powerful, and often blinding, effects that love has on the characters’ thoughts and actions.
4. Third antipathy is between love and social class divisions, with some combinations ruled out arbitrarily, with no appeal to reason except for birth. This when combined with upward aspirations and downward suppressed fantasies form a wonderful sub-plot to the whole drama. Represented best by Bottom’s famous dream.
Each of these themes have a character representing them that forms the supporting cast to the lovers’ misadventures, defining through their acts the relationship between desire, lust and love and social customs:
1. The unreasonable social mores is represented by Egeus, who is one character who never changes. (Also perhaps by Demetrius who appeals to the same customs to get what he wants)
2. Unloving desire by Theseus who too never changes, and also perhaps by the principal lovers (H&L) in their original state. (Helena could be said to represent ‘true’ love but Shakespeare offers us nothing to substantiate this comforting assumption. It is also important that the women's loves not altered by the potion, which is very significantly dropped into the eyes, affecting vision - i.e. it can affect only superficial love.)
3. Lack of reason, though embodied in all the lovers, are brought to life by Puck as the agent of madness and of confusion of sight, which is the entry-point for love in Shakespeare.
4. Finally, class aspirations and their asinine nature by Bottom himself
Out of all these, every character is given a positive light (or an extra-human light, in the case of the fairies) except Egeus, who is the reason for the night-time excursion and all the comedy. In fact, Shakespeare even seems deliberately to have kept the crusty and complaining Egeus out of the 'joy and mirth’ of the last celebrations - he disappears along with the over-restrictive society he is supposed to represent - of marriages, reasoned alliances and ‘bloodless’ cold courtships.
Hence, it is social mores that compel the wildness on love which is not allowed to express itself freely. When freed of this and allowed to resolve itself in a Bacchanalian night all was well again and order was restored to the world.
This reviewer has taken the liberty of assuming that this is the central theme of the play - which is also deliciously ironic since it is supposed to have been written for a wedding. What better time to mock the institution of marriage than at a wedding gala?
So in a way the four themes - difficulties of true love, restrictions by propriety and customs, and the comical unreason that beset lovers, and class differences that put some desires fully into the category of fantasies - are all products of social mores that impose artificial restrictions on love and bring on all the things mocked in this play by Shakespeare.
In fact this is one reason why Bottom could be the real hero of the play (as is the fashion among critical receptions of the play these days) - he was the only one comfortable in transcending all these barriers, at home everywhere and in the end also content with his dreams and in the realization that he would be an ass to try to comprehend what is wrong with the world.
The Subtle Satire
The lovers’ inversions of love could be taken to be a satire on the fickle nature of love but I prefer to see it as another joke at the expense of social mores - of the institution of marriage and courtship, in which each suitor professes undying love in such magnificent lines until he has to turn to the next and do the same. This is reinforced by allusion to how women are not free to ‘pursue’ their loves as men are since social mores allow only the man to pursue and the woman has to chose from among her suitors. It is quite telling that it wasBottom who accepted love and reason seldom go together and expresses the hope that love and reason should become friends. His speech echoes Lysander’s in the previous scene. Lysander, the aristocrat instead is just another attempting to find a way to understand the workings of love in a rational way, the failures emphasize the difficulty of this endeavor. Lysander thus ends his speech by believing/claiming his newfound love for Helena was based on reason, quite absurdly, but yet quite convinced - representing most of mankind.
By taking the lovers to the enchanted forest of dreams, far from the Athenian social customs and into land where shadows and dreams rule, and then resolving everything there, even allowing Bottom a glimpse of aristocratic love, Shakespeare seems to say that it is the society that restricts love and makes it artificial - all that is needed is bit of madness, a bit of stripping away of artificiality - throughout he cupid’s potion. Again the need for a bit of madness (lunacy, mark the repeated moon ref). It is almost an appeal to the Dionysian aspects of life - see alternate review on Nietzsche for detail. (Also see these two Plato-based reviews for important and balancing takes on 'rational' love - Phaedrus & The Symposium
Puck Vs Quince (or) Diana Vs Cupid (or) Art Vs Entertainment
Significantly the final words of the play belong to the master of misrule, the consummate actor and comedian, Puck. In some sense, Puck, with his ability to translate himself into any character, with his skill in creating performances that seem all too real to their human audiences, could be seen as a mascot of the theater. Therefore, his final words are an apology for the play itself. Also mark how Puck courteously addresses the audience as gentlefolk, paralleling Quince's address to his stage audience in his Prologue.
Thus, the final extrapolation on the theme could be that Shakespeare ultimately points out that though a bit of madness and wildness is needed to bring love back into the realms of the truth, it can also be achieved through great art, through sublime theater - not by bad theater though! This could be a statement that Art and thus Theatre is a substitute for the madness of love that is needed to escape the clutches of society (and live the fantasies away from the constricting artificial 'realities') and find yourself, to rediscover yourself away from ‘cold reason’.
When the actor playing Puck stands alone on the stage talking to the audience about dreams and illusions, he is necessarily reminding them that there is another kind of magic - the magic of the theatre. And the magic it conjures is the magic of self-discovery. Continuing the play’s discourse on poetry, Puck defines the poetry of theater as an illusion that transports spectators into the same enchanted region that dreams inhabit. Thus the spectators have not only watched the dream of others but have, by that focus of attention, entered the dream state themselves.
This ‘finding yourself’ seems to be the most essential part of love and as long as you are constrained by imposed restrictions, this is impossible. That is why Shakespeare has made it easy for us and created an art-form of a play that allows us to dream-in-unreason and wake up refreshed. But there is a caveat too, highlighted by the parallel prologues of Puck and Quince - A ‘Crude’ entertainment like ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ might only allow one to while away an evening happily. It might not give the transport and release and inward-looking that is necessary to achieve the madness that true art is supposed to confer. So Shakespeare uses the play to educate us on what is needed to find ourselves and then the play-within-the-play to also show us what to avoid.
Lord, What Fools Mortals Be
“Art, like love, is a limited and special vision; but like love it has by its very limits a transforming power, creating a small area of order in the vast chaos of the world . . . . At the moment when the play most clearly declares itself to be trivial, we have the strongest appeal to our sympathy for it. . . .” ~ Alexander Leggatt
“I will get Peter Quince to write a ballet of this dream. It shall be call’d “Bottom’s Dream,” because it hath no bottom.”
In one of the most philosophically transcendent moments in the play, Bottom wakes up from his grand aristocratic/magical dream and is disoriented. Bottom decides to title his piece “Bottom’s Dream” because it has no bottom - all literature and art are bottomless, in that their meaning cannot be quantified, cannot be understood solely through the mechanisms of reason or logic. Here it parallels life and love, both beyond reason, limited only by the imagination.
Of course, this is a very simplistic representation of a wonderfully complicated play. It can be read in many different ways based on the viewpoint you chose to adopt. I have tried out a few and felt the need to comment slightly at length on this viewpoint. This is not to diminish the play, which I fully concur with Shakespeare is indeed a ‘Bottom’s Dream’ since it has no bottom in the wealth of meaning to be mined from it.
Lord, what fools these mortals be, Puck philosophizes, mockingly. And perhaps we are indeed fools - for entering into the dangerous, unpredictable world of love or of literature; yet what fun would life be without it?
I had started reading this in 2008 and had gotten along quite a bit before I stopped reading the book for some...more The Unbelievable Lightness of The Novel
I had started reading this in 2008 and had gotten along quite a bit before I stopped reading the book for some reason and then it was forgotten. Recently, I saw the book in a bookstore and realized that I hadn't finished it. I picked it up and started it all over again since I was not entirely sure where I had left off last time. I was sure however that I had not read more than, say, 30 pages or so.
I definitely could not remember reading it for a long period of time. I only remembered starting it and bits and pieces about infidelities and the russian occupation of the Czech. And so, I started reading it, sure that soon a page will come from where the story will be fresh and unread.
I was soon into the fiftieth page and was amazed that as I read each page, I could distinctly remember every scene, every philosophical argument, even the exact quotes and the sequence of events that was to come immediately after the scene I was reading- But I could never remember, try as I might, what was coming two pages further into the novel.
"This is what comes from reading serious books lightly and not giving them the attention they deserve," I chastised myself, angry at the thought that my habit of reading multiple books in parallel must have been the cause of this. I must, at the risk of appearing boastful, say that the reason this bothered so much was that I always used to take pride in being able to remember the books that I read almost verbatim and this experience of reading a book that I had read before with this sense of knowing and forgetting at the same time, the two sensations running circles around each other and teasing me was completely disorienting. I felt like I was on some surreal world where all that is to come was already known to me but was still being revealed one step out of tune with my time.
In any case, this continued, to my bewilderment well into the two hundredth page. Even now, I could not shake the constant expectation that the story was going to go into unread new territories just 2 or 3 pages ahead of where I was. Every line I read I could remember having read before and in spite of making this mistake through so many pages, I still could not but tell myself that this time, surely, I have reached the part where I must have last closed the book three years ago.
Thus I have now reached the last few pages of the book and am still trying to come to terms with what it was about this novel that made me forget it, even though I identified with the views of the author and was never bored with the plot. Was this an intentional effect or just an aberration? Will I have the same feeling if I picked up the book again a few years from today?
I also feel a slight anger towards the author for playing this trick on me, for leading me on into reading the entire book again, without giving me anything new which I had not received from the book on my first reading. Usually when I decide to read a book again, I do it with the knowledge that I will gain something new with this reading, but Kundera gave me none of that.
What I do appreciate about this reading experience is this: as is stated in the novel, anything that happens only once might as well have not happened at all - does it then apply that any novel that can be read only once, might as well have not been read at all?
Beethoven & The Art of The Sublime
To conclude, I will recount an argument from the book that in retrospect helps me explain the experience:
Kundera talks (yes, the book is full of Kundera ripping apart the 'Fourth Wall' and talking to the reader, to the characters and even to himself) about an anecdote on how Beethoven came to compose one of his best quartets due to inspiration from a silly joke he had shared with a friend.
So Beethoven turned a frivolous inspiration into a serious quartet, a joke into metaphysical truth. Yet oddly enough, the transformation fails to surprise us. We would have been shocked, on the other hand, if Beethoven had transformed the seriousness of his quartet into the trifling joke. First (as an unfinished sketch) would have come the great metaphysical truth and last (as a finished masterpiece)—the most frivolous of jokes!
I would like to think that Kundera achieved this reverse proposition with this novel and that explains how I felt about it. And, yes I finished reading the second last line of the book with the full awareness of what the last line of the novel was going to be.(less)
It is a double-edged sword isn't it, reading great books too early in life?
If we read a book too early in life, we may not gras...more The Double-Edged Sword
It is a double-edged sword isn't it, reading great books too early in life?
If we read a book too early in life, we may not grasp it fully but the book becomes part of us and forms a part of our thinking itself, maybe even of our writing. But on the other hand, the reading is never complete and we may never come back to it, in a world too full of books.
And if we wait to read till we are mature, we will never become good readers and writers who can do justice to good books... so we have to read some good books early and do injustice to them. Only then can we do justice to ourselves and to great books later on.
Now the question is which books to do the injustice to and which the justice. Do we select the best for the earliest so that they become a part of us or do we leave the very best for later so that we can enjoy them to the fullest?
Tough choice. I have never been able to resolve. Have you?(less)