Good works of art to Tolstoy: the works of Victor Hugo, the novels of Charles Dickens, some of the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, the writings of MaupassGood works of art to Tolstoy: the works of Victor Hugo, the novels of Charles Dickens, some of the tales of Gogol and Pushkin, the writings of Maupassant, the comedies of Molière (whom Tolstoy refers to as "the most excellent artist of modern times," according to this translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), the writings of Dostoevsky, Schiller's Robbers, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Adam Bede by George Eliot, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, a handful of paintings by little known artists, folk music, and a few compositions by musicians such as Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Bach and Chopin, in addition to two of his own lesser known short stories ("God Sees the Truth" and "Prisoner of the Caucasus") and the stories of the Bible and the tales about the Buddha.
Bad works of "art" to Tolstoy (many of which he does not consider art at all -- more on this below): the works of Dante, the writings of Shakespeare, most of his own literary works (including his two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina), most of the work of Beethoven, the writings of Goethe, the art of the French symbolists (especially Verlaine and Baudelaire), many of the later works of Pushkin, the writings of Oscar Wilde, the works of Michelangelo, the paintings of artists like Monet, and perhaps more than any other, the work of Richard Wagner. Oh, but wait, his disdain for Nietzsche may be greatest yet.
So, what does Tolstoy consider "art" and what does he consider "good art"? First, and perhaps most importantly, Tolstoy begins by rejecting the common argument by modern writers on the subject of aesthetics that the main purpose of art is to create works of beauty. He argues that many people think they know what art is, but when pressed we find that their definitions of art are based on taken for granted assumptions and they, in fact, are little able to defend their claims of what constitutes art. Contrary to the mainstream view, Tolstoy argues instead that art is something much broader than many so-called 'experts' in aesthetics would have us believe (including not just great paintings and novels, but short stories, sketches, jokes, lullabies, decor, etc.), and it begins whenever one creates something that expresses some feeling that the artist has based on his or her own experience (including his/her dreams, fears, wishes or aspirations). But this alone does not constitute "art." In addition to this, the artist's expression of his feeling must be "infectious," which is to say that by being exposed to this work of art others (and the working majority in particular) must be affected by the artist's creation, for it speaks to some universal Truth.
This is what, to Tolstoy constitutes art, and good art is that which speaks of a universal brotherhood, drawing on a Christian ethic (the same type of feeling that eases the unrest of some of Tolstoy's autobiographic characters like Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and Levin in Anna Karenina, the same type of feeling that infects Natasha in War and Peace when she hears traditional Russian folk music and decides to give up harp lessons in favor of the guitar), for art throughout history, he explains, is really an expression of religious consciousness. The art of the modern era, Tolstoy argues, has been intercepted by the nonbelievers of the upper-classes and by godless men led by Nietzsche, who create art (what he refers to as "counterfeit art" as opposed to genuine art) that claims to invent new styles, to promote some sort of beauty, etc., but which is really inaccessible to the great masses, who all the while toil in the service of this art.
As evidence (questionable indeed) he points to his own inability to understand the works of the French symbolists or the operatic works of Wagner versus how moved he is (and as others he knows have been) by Russian folk songs and stories by common, unknown Russian working men. For works to be "good art" Tolstoy argues they must "always be understood by everyone," and it matters little if the work is "moral" or "immoral," so long as it is understandable and so long as the content is such that feelings of the artist are communicated to and correspond with the feelings of the audience.
In terms of social class Tolstoy raises several compelling points, and this is where I think the great strength of this controversial work lies (in addition to the advancements he makes to the theory of art and the role of aesthetics in art theory), namely that the upper classes have created somewhat of a stranglehold on "art." The upper-classes use their money to finance works of art (and science too) which they agree with, or that infects them (though often which has the opposite effect on the majority, which has not only a difficult time understanding these works, but feeling them, for the experiences communicated are not universal but are often restricted to society's ruling class, who feel that they have important and diverse feelings, but who really only have three "insignificant and uncomplicated feelings: the feelings of pride, sexual lust, and the tedium of living"). Tolstoy argues that for works to be good art they must be infectious not only for those in a certain class of society, but for the working majority, regardless of social class, religion, etc.
I wondered as I read this what Tolstoy would make of many of the writers, painters and musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. What would he think, for instance, of the democratic art of cinema? Or of popular music like rock and roll? The blues? It led me to hours of fun mental games wondering what Tolstoy would make of certain writers. One can imagine that he would reject most of the major visual artists of this period (including the Dadaists and Surrealists, the Cubists, the Abstract Expressionists, etc.), as well as the vast majority of Modernist writers (no art for art's sake for this fellow), the works of Postmodernists, etc. I wonder if he would consider Steinbeck a great artist. It seems plausible. What about the neorealist filmmakers? The blues and folk artists of today?
Tolstoy's argument that genuine art is art that must be done for the purpose of the communication of authentic feelings, and not be done for monetary gain, makes consideration of what might be considered genuine art under his theory a bit more complicated. Genuine art should strive to be art that is unadorned, in no need of bells and whistles to communicate its essential Truth:
Terrible as it may be to say it, what has happened to the art of our circle and time is the same as happens with a woman who sells her feminine attractions, destined for motherhood, for the pleasure of those who are tempted by such pleasures.
The art of our time and circle has become a harlot. And this comparison holds true in the smallest details. It is, in the same way, not limited in time, is always fancy in dress, is always for sale; it is just as alluring and pernicious.
The genuine work of art can manifest itself in an artist's soul only rarely, as a fruit of all his previous life, just as a child is conceived by its mother. Counterfeit art is produced by artisans and craftsmen continually, as long as there are consumers.
Genuine art has no need for dressing up, like the wife of a loving husband. Counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out.
The cause of the appearance of genuine art is an inner need to express a stored-up feeling, as love is the cause of sexual conception for a mother. The cause of counterfeit art is mercenary, just as with prostitution.
The consequence of true art is the introduction of a new feeling into everyday life, as the consequence of a wife's love is the birth of a new person into life. The consequence of counterfeit art is the corruption of man, the insatiability of pleasures, the weakness of man's spiritual force.
This is what people of our time and circle must understand in order to get rid of the filthy stream of this depraved, lascivious art that is drowning us.
This hilarious, lengthy excerpt is admittedly very cringe-inducing from a feminist perspective, but it sums up (with a few gaps) Tolstoy's view of modern art and also gives readers a general sense of the idea that art must take to be considered genuine and good art in accordance with his theory.
Prophetic in many ways (such as in the final chapter where Tolstoy argues that sociology, really, should be the main focus of science, as science's main concern should, like art, be with improving the lots of humankind -- and animalkind for that matter --, but in which he argues that modern science instead will soon lead us to a state in which most of our food is produced in laboratories and in which the fleeting interests of the upper classes will be given scientific priority), Tolstoy's work is not without faults.
Aside from being very antifeminist at times (forgivable in the sense that he was a product of his age), the work while broadening the understanding of what constitutes art on the one hand, narrows it on the other. The essay also downplays the audience's role in interpreting works of art, audience subjectivity being a major concern among media and literary theorists in more recent years (and I'm thinking particularly here of the newer works by theorists like Stuart Hall and Terry Eagleton). While Tolstoy criticizes those like Nietzsche for his disdain of the masses, Tolstoy less conspicuously (and I think unintentionally) shows a disdain for any (outside of the upper class circle) who are affected by the works of the artists he criticizes so harshly. And then, of course, the merits of the theory itself are debatable. I don't necessarily know that beauty, so very subjective, should be the sole determinant of whether or not something is considered art. But I also don't know that the infectiousness of a feeling is what makes a work art either. And contrary to Virginia Woolf's claim that women writers, in order to have the same chance at artistic success as men, need a certain amount of money and a room of their own (though I find her arguments faulty in the sense that she makes this argument considering gender while ignoring the effects of social class), Tolstoy argues that money is a corrupting force and that the artist of the future will create works of art whenever the feeling takes him/her, but will not earn a living through art, but rather through "some kind of labour." I side here more with Woolf, for without a little money, and thereby a little free time, it can be very difficult for one to find the means to create -- unless of course, as Marx argues in Volume 3 of Capital, pay should increase at the same time as working hours decrease. But Tolstoy opposes this insomuch as he feels more luxuries could corrupt the working people, just as luxuries have corrupted the upper classes of society.
In addition to reading this work I recently watched the Orson Welles film essay F for Fake which deals with art forgery, and so I have been giving considerable thought to the topic recently (and this has also called to mind other art documentaries, such as Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? and Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop. It took Tolstoy 15 years and much thought to organize his ideas which are presented in this work. It was a lofty undertaking and maybe he would have revised his ideas had he lived in this century. I don't know. It's a very interesting read, very representative of the turn in Tolstoy's writings after he had rejected his ambitions as a writer of fiction, and it asks a great many more questions than it answers. I don't know that I would call it "essential" Tolstoy, but I would suggest it as a must-read for any interested in the topic of art and aesthetics.
So what is art? For me, it's subjective, and it includes much more than the guardians of the gates to the art world would have us believe. But is art only that which is beautiful? Only that which expresses the religious consciousness of the age? Only that which communicates feelings or some Truth of truths to others? Who's to say? Tolstoy's work, even if it has its flaws, filled in some gaps in existing theories on art. And it spurs readers to think critically about something we often take-for-granted: Art. ...more
I'm not a huge fan of textbooks for theory courses, but for methods courses I find their use justifiable. I'm using this text for a course that I'm cuI'm not a huge fan of textbooks for theory courses, but for methods courses I find their use justifiable. I'm using this text for a course that I'm currently teaching and while it has its limitations, it provides students a solid introduction to different methodological approaches in social science research, with a good, basic overview of the role of theory in research, the purpose of literature reviews, a discussion of how to write a research question and develop a research proposal, etc. I wish that the sections on quantitative and qualitative methods were a bit more elaborate, but for an introductory book I think this is satisfactory.
It's a good book for students (or even professional researchers) to shelf and come back to for basic reminders -- it was actually a good refresher for me, as it has been almost a decade since I last took a methods course, and although I have conducted plenty of my own research using different methodologies, there were certainly other basics that I had forgotten over the years. ...more
The History of Magic, by Éliphas Lévi -- the nom de plume of French occultist writer Alphonse Louis Constant -- proved a challenging book to read andThe History of Magic, by Éliphas Lévi -- the nom de plume of French occultist writer Alphonse Louis Constant -- proved a challenging book to read and, interestingly, the link between all of the other books that I have read this year. I first read Freud's The Future of an Illusion, in which Freud argues -- among other things -- that science and religion are incompatible. Lévi makes the completely opposite argument in this book. I then read Gravity's Rainbow and The Gravity's Rainbow Companion and although Weisenburger (the author of the latter) makes no reference to Lévi as one of Thomas Pynchon's sources (though he does mention A.E. Waite, the translator of this edition of The History of Magic, who was very influenced by Lévi's work), much of Pynchon's writing on occultism and Kabbalism seems to come directly from this book (or else by others directly influenced by Lévi, including but not necessarily limited to A.E. Waite). The fourth book that I read this year, in conjunction with this one, was the fourth installment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Reading Lévi (and Weisenberger) gave me a new appreciation for Rowling, as it helped me realize that she did know a bit about magic and its history, which she incorporated into her works.
Now although this book fit so well with all of the other books that I've read so far in 2015 I did not select it for this reason, though reading Pynchon did make me interested to refresh my limited understanding of Kabbalism (which I had been wanting to revisit really since re-reading Tolstoy's War & Peace last summer, as that book also is filled with many references to Masonry and Kabbalism). I was not seeking this book out, but when I found it at one of my favorite used book stores a few weeks ago I decided to pick it up mainly because I was interested in it as I had read that Lévi was an important influence on one of my favorite poets, Arthur Rimbaud, and that he was a friend of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Honoré de Balzac.
The book itself captivated my attention when I first started it, but it dragged on a bit longer than I found necessary -- with Lévi mentioning many names and stories along the way, with A.E. Waite continually adding footnotes pointing out Lévi's inaccuracy about various points, with a hardened conservative ideology popping up again and again.
From a historical standpoint it is an interesting work, certainly characteristic of the time period, when interest in occultism -- in the 1830s and 1840s -- was on the rise in Paris. Along the course of his writing Lévi touches on everything from Black Magic, somnambulism, sorcery, Kabbalism, Catholicism, vampires, and notably the Astral Light and equilibrium (essential to Lévi). The book will be useful to shelf and come back to as a reference perhaps here and there when I need a little refresher on the subject (thankfully it has an index), but I don't have an appetite to read any more on Kabbalism, numerology or occultism any time soon, and though I found Lévi's book very informative (even if there was a good deal of rubbish to sort through), I certainly have no desire to read him again. What could have been very interesting came across all too often as dull and belabored. How much of this is attributable to the translator, Mr. Waite, I don't know, but I don't really have a particular desire to find out either. ...more
"Tennessee Lawmaker Wants Bible To Be The State Book." This was one of the news headlines that I read this morning as I started my day, and it was no"Tennessee Lawmaker Wants Bible To Be The State Book." This was one of the news headlines that I read this morning as I started my day, and it was no more surprising than the trend in the American South in recent years to revise textbooks to conform with religious and political ideas. The American Deep South/Bible Belt has long been known as a conservative, very devout, and perhaps backwards area of the country, and in this little book Freud often uses the United States as an example of a place where the "illusion" of religion has a particularly strong hold (though I doubt that Freud would have expected this grip to be so firm into the 21st century, nearly 90 years after this essay was published). Freud points to America's experiment with Prohibition -- trying to replace an intoxicating substance with religious illusions (reminding me of D.W. Griffith's silent masterpiece, Intolerance, which I really must watch again) -- and the Scopes Monkey Trial (which also took place in the state of Tennessee) as examples to support this point.
Freud, a self-proclaimed "godless Jew" whose purpose in life was to "agitate the sleep of mankind," had dealt with the topic of religion in earlier works, such as Totem and Taboo, but The Future of an Illusion dealt more specifically with religion and how it should be interpreted from a psychoanalytic perspective. No stranger to controversy, Freud argued here that religion should be viewed in psychoanalysis as an "illusion" (which, by his definition, is -- like the dream -- rooted in the idea of 'wish-fulfillment') or as the "universal obsessional neurosis of humanity."
The great thinker admits in this work that much of what he has written here is no different from what other men before him have written (though he doesn't name any names, we can probably all think of many examples), his only contribution is in giving these ideas about religion "some psychological foundation." Freud posits that, as with any other neurosis, humankind should strive to overcome the illusions of religion, and (as was quite common among the "great minds" of his era) he proposes that we turn to scientific explanations for the phenomena of this world as an alternative to "infantile" religious explanations.
This book was published just before Civilization and Its Discontents, really the heart of Freud's cultural works, and many of the ideas in this work are explored with more clarity and depth in that latter work, and the seeds of this work can be found in Totem and Taboo. The Future of an Illusion is an interesting read, but if one has already read Totem and Taboo or Civilization and Its Discontents I don't think readers will find much that is new. There may be some ideas that are explored a bit more here than in those other works, but I wouldn't say that they are essential to understanding Freud's theory on religion.
But, as always, Sigmund Freud has proven a worthy companion and this work -- more than any of his other works that I've read -- has made me laugh, mainly when he plays the role of an imaginary opponent who challenges his ideas and then takes up again his own voice in reply with remarks such as "I hardly know how to begin my reply," "I was only waiting for this invitation," or (my favorite) "What a lot of accusations all at once! Nevertheless I am ready with rebuttals for them all" (of course you are, Dr. Freud!). And his disparaging remarks about the masses, which drew my mind to Nietzsche, were quite humorous, if harsh and anti-humanistic, viewing most of humankind as being "feeble-minded" and driven by nothing more than instinctual drives. While the latter I don't think Freud meant to be humorous, unlike the former, I am nonetheless looking forward to reading his work, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious sometime in the not-so-distant future. ...more
Many critics have contended that J.K. Rowling's style of writing improved over the years that she churned out the seven books in her Harry Potter seriMany critics have contended that J.K. Rowling's style of writing improved over the years that she churned out the seven books in her Harry Potter series. And after reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I believe that there is some merit to this argument. While the first book in the series establishes much of the world of magic (drawn -- at least in part -- from ancient myths and occultism), the fourth is both significantly longer than any of the previous books in the HP series and the quality of the writing is markedly improved, if at times a bit cliched and strained. In terms of the book's length I couldn't escape the feeling that the story could have been tightened and polished and the number of pages easily could have been reduced by nearly half.
This book was filled -- near the end -- with all sorts of plot twists and turns and the level of suspense for the rest of the series has been elevated. For the first time since I began reading this series with my son (over a year ago) I have an interest to proceed onto the next book, interested less in writing style than plot -- a fun diversionary read and an entertaining, if somewhat dark book to read with my son.
One major complaint that I would add is that the whole sub-story about Hermione campaigning for the rights of House Elves is not only left unresolved, but it seems forgotten by the author. Perhaps this will be revisited in a later book? It seems, however, that this and everything involving the snooping reporter in this book (Rita Skeeter) could very well have been omitted without changing anything really vital to the story....more
While I do often review the longer young adult books that I read with my older son (e.g., Roald Dahl stories, Harry Potter books, Oz stories, etc.), IWhile I do often review the longer young adult books that I read with my older son (e.g., Roald Dahl stories, Harry Potter books, Oz stories, etc.), I very rarely write reviews of the children's books that I read with my younger (now 4-year old) son. But I make an exception for this one, really four stories by that marvelous writer of children's stories, Dr. Seuss, for a few reasons, namely that this is not just one story but a collection of stories in rhyme ("The Sneetches," "Too Many Daves," "The Zax" and "What was I Scared of?") and that they all have similar themes, dealing with issues of difference and acceptance, appreciation of individuality and willingness to soften our ways.
"The Sneetches," the longest and the featured story in this collection, is really the best in terms of structure and the cohesiveness of its narrative. It tells the story of two types of Sneetches -- those with stars on their bellies and those with "no stars upon thars." The Sneetches with no stars are often excluded by the star-bellied Sneetches who think themselves better than the others (which could easily be subjected by scholars to analysis in terms of race, class, gender, etc.). Then in comes the capitalist -- Sylvester McMonkey McBean -- who offers to help the starless-bellied Sneetches put stars on their bellies with a new machine for a reasonable price. But once all Sneetches are indistinguishable, the original star-bellied Sneetches (upset that they have no way now to distinguish themselves as better from the other Sneetches) pay Sylvester McMonkey McBean to send them through his star-off machine. And so it goes, round and round, until all of the Sneetches' money is spent and there is no longer any way to tell which one was a star-belly and which one was a plain-belly from the get-go. And Sylvester McMonkey McBean packs up his wares and leaves the Sneetches, assured that "You can't teach a Sneetch," though being proven wrong by the fact that the Sneetches learn to rise above their differences and accept one another, as they should have done from the get-go.
It is a marvelous little story about acceptance of difference that, as mentioned above, could be subjected to an interesting analysis in terms of race, gender or social class (as I'm sure it already has), and which fosters multiculturalism. It is also a critique of unfettered capitalism (something Seuss also took aim at in "The Lorax," criticizing exploitation of the environment by those who claim that they are providing a valuable service to society with the products they manufacture). In this case, Seuss criticizes those who exploit differences to turn a profit. This may be very familiar to those acquainted with the theories of someone like Paulo Freire or Noam Chomsky, or before them Karl Marx and Jean-Jacques Rousseau -- of course Seuss tells with fun drawings and simple rhymes what each of them explains with long words over the course of many pages. While the Sneetches don't ever revolt against Sylvester McMonkey McBean and though they never get their money back, at least they learn to cooperate and they prove McBean wrong in his assumptions about the nature of the Sneetches.
The next story, "The Zax," tells the tale of a Northbound and a Southbound Zax who, like two pawns in a game of chess, meet up face to face and cannot or will not budge. It is against their rules for either of the two Zax to take a step to the left or right and continue on their paths, so they instead stubbornly stand in their places, while society around them moves on (a freeway overpass is constructed over their heads!). The lesson about stubbornness and the willingness to embrace change is obvious, and a better lesson for many adults than for children; I'm sure we can all think of a few Zax that we have met over the years.
The third story, "Too Many Daves," is the lightest and shortest one, about a woman who named all of her 23 sons "Dave," though she in retrospect regrets the decision and thinks up 23 more original (and hilariously ridiculous!) names that would have been better, all of course in rhyme.
The final story tells about a creature (Is it a bear? A rabbit? Is it male or female? Who knows) that meets in its explorations of the world a pair of pale green pants that move on their own. Afraid of the pants, the little creature desperately runs away from them and tries to avoid them and when the pants and the creature finally meet "face to face" the creature screams and hurts the pants' feelings. And the creature realizes then that the pants are just as scared of it as it is afraid of the pants. And so the two learn to be friends and not to judge one another based on superficial factors.
My son enjoys these stories and we've read them over and again, and I think they are good stories for grown-ups to revisit, or perhaps visit for the first time, particularly as we find that age makes us a bit more set in our ways than we were once upon a time. Life goes on and change happens whether we like it or not, so best make the most of it and cooperate with those fellow creatures whom we may find very different from ourselves in this journey called life....more
Whatever, reader, your reaction, and whether you be foe or friend, I hope we part in satisfaction . . . As comrades now. Whatever end You may have soughWhatever, reader, your reaction, and whether you be foe or friend, I hope we part in satisfaction . . . As comrades now. Whatever end You may have sought in these reflections-- Tumultuous, fond recollections, Relief from labours for a time, Live images, or wit in rhyme, Or maybe merely faulty grammar-- God grant that in my careless art, For fun, for dreaming, for the heart . . . For raising journalistic clamour, You've found at least a crumb or two. And so let's part; farewell . . . adieu!
Whereas many authors are very careful not to destroy the facade of their fourth wall, others crack it open on occasion, and Pushkin just demolishes it in Eugene Onegin, this smooth-flowing "novel in verse" that blurs -- perhaps more than any other work I've ever read -- the lines between art and life. Sure Tolstoy mixes historical figures with the creations of his imagination in War & Peace and other historical novelists have done the same, but Pushkin throws in historical names, himself, his friends and mixes them altogether with his fictional characters (very memorable ones at that -- Tatyana is described by some as one of the most -- if not the most -- essential female character in Russian literature). Then he ties in a plethora of literary references and allusions and even draws the reader into his tale many times. Pushkin's world, in this sense, is unlike anything I've ever before encountered.
And as for his influence, having read Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time earlier this year, I could not point to a more conspicuous disciple of Pushkin, for isn't Lermontov's Byronic hero Pechorin stylized in the same way as Pushkin's Onegin? They are two men who make so many of their life decisions in response to their ennui, and both -- like so many in the Romantic (and especially Byronic tradition) -- really underscore the role of Fate in their work.
Now, as for the translation, I'm sure that nothing compares to reading Pushkin in Russian, just as nothing compares to reading Rimbaud in French or Shakespeare in English. But we live in a world of many tongues and I, like so many others, unfortunately cannot read a lick of Russian, so I rely on the translators. I may, at some point, pick up a different translation of Eugene Onegin than this one by James Falen (Nabokov's translation, perhaps?), but I think that Falen (based on my limited knowledge) did a fantastic job, especially in retaining the rhyming structure, which other translators have abandoned for more literal interpretations. Falen, in his "Note on the Translation," justifies his retention of the rhyme, while simultaneously drawing the reader's attention to the strengths and limitations of this approach in a very admirable manner. Whatever its shortcomings may be, it is obvious when reading Falen's translation that this was a very mind-draining labor of love.
Having taken more than 8 years for Pushkin to complete, the essential bridge between Pushkin's poetry and his prose, and Pushkin's own favorite, Eugene Onegin is a book that everyone should read at least once (many Russians have probably read it fully or partially many more times than that, as it is apparently essential in Russian literature classes). I would like to take up another translation at some point, but until then I part with Pushkin indeed with satisfaction. ...more
When I first read the tattered, yellow 1956 paperback copy of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll that I own many years ago I had thought that it was writteWhen I first read the tattered, yellow 1956 paperback copy of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll that I own many years ago I had thought that it was written as a stage play, as were many of Williams' works, and later adapted to film. I didn't realize until this re-read that this was written as a screenplay. As I did with A Streetcar Named Desire and as I will be doing next with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I first re-read the play and then watched the classic film adaptation. When I read Baby Doll I was disappointed by the ending, which seemed to have been influenced by the mistaken identity ending of Jean Renoir's classic film, The Rules of the Game. The ending that Williams wrote was changed for the big screen, however -- I think for the better. Less dramatic (a bit more subdued), it seems to fit in more neatly in with the other plays in the Tennessee Williams portfolio.
When the film Baby Doll was released in 1956, it was immediately met with fierce criticism by religious groups and conservatives, who disapproved of the overt treatment of sexuality in the play (What does one expect from Tennessee Williams, though, whose works have been described as "sex-haunted"?) and probably more so with a woman's infidelity and unwillingness to conform to the dominant gender role expectations of 1956.
Archie Lee, Baby Doll's husband, is a pathetic character who peeps at his much younger 19-year old wife as she sleeps in a crib and whose marriage has been a long period of waiting for the moment of consummation, as Baby Doll has refused him until her (now very imminent) 20th birthday. Archie Lee is a relic of a world that is deteriorating. He's a racist who finds that integration is pushing its way forward. The ceiling of his old house is crumbling. And his wife is seduced by the Sicilian cotton gin operator who has stepped in and threatened Archie Lee's business enterprise. Something about Archie Lee reminds me of Jason Compson from The Sound and the Fury. He's probably a lousy *fill in the blank* to begin with but he hastens his downfall when he finds that the rotten old world that he has always known is collapsing around him.
This play is not the best by Williams. And the Elia Kazan film is watchable, but nothing spectacular. It is interesting to read/watch today as a testament to how far we have come in the fight against censorship in art, if for no other reason. But even in terms of themes and controversy I think Ibsen stirred the pot much more forcefully than Williams ever did, and a century earlier nonetheless. ...more
This work is comprised of four short interrelated essays (in a style similar to Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of"In the beginning was the Deed."
This work is comprised of four short interrelated essays (in a style similar to Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality) and is Freud's first major attempt to apply psychoanalysis to the field of anthropology (he does this much more successfully, from my recollection, in Civilization and Its Discontents more than 15 years later). In this work he looks at the concepts of totemism and taboo in primitive societies and compares them to the modern cases of compulsive neurotics (noting important differences between thought and action along the way), while also comparing the primitive restrictions and rituals to modern religion (this was, to me, the most interesting part of his analysis -- contained in the fourth essay).
Having read a little bit of Freud now -- this is my fourth Freud book -- if I were to summarize his writings in one word that word would be Oedipus. But whereas Sophocles' Oedipus Rex could be read as an isolated story on determinism vs. free will, Freud makes the case that the crime of Oedipus (or here the "band of brothers") is really the original sin, which provides the basis for civilization as we know it today. To atone for the sin, restrictions were put in place against killing and eating the flesh of the totem animal and strong proscriptions were established against incest with other members of one's tribe, and to remember the sin and to atone for their guilt, rituals (such as sacrifice and communion) were established to prevent its recurrence. And this, as one can probably guess by now, provides the foundation for modern religion.
Freud was no stranger to controversy and this work was praised and condemned from its initial publication into the present. Today it is questionable how well Freud's theory fits into anthropology, as a substantial body of research threatens the validity of his arguments (do we perhaps just not want to believe them?). But even if there are limitations to Freud's theory and even if it is not as universal as he suggests, it is still a fascinating and disturbing read. But I think the arguments are better constructed in Civilization and Its Discontents, and I will soon be rereading that work to confirm my belief in its advantages. ...more
So, I have mixed thoughts about using guides. I've read books filled with end notes and/or footnotes, which tend to both enhance the reader's understaSo, I have mixed thoughts about using guides. I've read books filled with end notes and/or footnotes, which tend to both enhance the reader's understanding and appreciation of a given work, but at the same time slow down the pace of the reading and distract the reader from the flow of the narrative. This was the first time that I've purchased a separate reader's guide for a work. I read the first 200 pages or so of Pynchon's novel without Weisenburger's 300+ page guide, but when one participant in my book group described the guide as "essential" to developing an understanding of Pynchon's multi-layered magnum opus -- packed full of puns, allusions, jokes, abstruse knowledge, and what not -- I decided to pick it up.
Prior to buying the guide I did not feel like I was picking up every reference, nor did I feel that everything in this book was making sense, but I felt like I had a sufficient enough understanding so that I didn't feel "lost." Yet, after beginning the guide I realized that there was a great deal that I was missing -- the significance of certain dates, the astrological references and their significance to the narrative, the ridiculously detailed and superfluous plot detours made simply in order to make one little pun.
But as with many guides, much of what the author focuses on -- and especially so with a book such as this -- is mere conjecture and is presented in a way to support his specific reading of the text. I didn't spend much time comparing and contrasting different guides, but apparently Weisenburger's reading does differ in some significant ways from other GR guides out there.
There were also certain references that I would have expected to have found notes on, but to my surprise I found no elucidation from Weisenburger. And then there were other points that I felt needed no clarification that Weisenburger felt a need to explain further -- for example explanations of who Bugs Bunny is or who Laurel and Hardy were (though perhaps this "rascally rabbit" and famous comedy duo are more familiar in American culture than is the case abroad).
The guide definitely slowed me down and certainly distracted my reading of Pynchon, but it also was very helpful, especially insomuch as mythology, scientific matters and Kabbalism/occultism were concerned and regarding the significance of certain dates and the overall structure of the novel. If I ever read Gravity's Rainbow again -- not anytime soon -- I think that I would read it without a guide, just to appreciate the novel for the great big messy patchwork that it is.
Although Weisenberger gives readers at the onset instructions on how the guide can be used, and though I only read the guide notes after reading a given episode, it still is a bit of a disruption. And as much as I felt the guide helped me better understand Pynchon's work, it felt sometimes like a chore to read it. Like medicine, I realize that reading the guide was "good for me" and very helpful overall (it was extremely informative and gave me a greater appreciation of Pynchon's style), but there was more pleasure in reading the actual novel than in reading about all of the different sources and contexts contained therein. ...more
I am going to try to make this review brief, particularly as I've already reviewed about 4 other translations of Rimbaud's poetry (by Varèse, Fowlie,I am going to try to make this review brief, particularly as I've already reviewed about 4 other translations of Rimbaud's poetry (by Varèse, Fowlie, Mason and Schmidt) and in my last review of one of these (of Schmidt's treatment of Rimbaud) I made a concise comparison of each of the different translations, really putting my support behind Mason's translation, finding Fowlie too literal and feeling that Schmidt took too many liberties in his translation.
Bertrand Mathieu's translation of A Season in Hell & Illuminations, to me, comes closest to Schmidt's. In many poems the reader gets the essence of Rimbaud, but I feel it is Mathieu's voice that is most commonly communicated on the page. Of course, I am basing this largely off of other translations that I have read. Mathieu's translation came out in 1991 (pre-Mason ) and in his postscript he draws some comparisons between his interpretations and those of Varèse and Fowlie, arguing that their approach erred too often on the side of conservatism. I don't disagree with him here, but I think that he and Schmidt tend too often to err on the other side of the line, missing that very delicate balance that Mason best achieves.
I think that what I found most objectionable about Mathieu's translation was his attempt to push the language of Rimbaud forward into the late 20th century, using modern street slang that he felt would today be most in tune with the punk slang often used by the little poète maudit, translating l'ami as "the buddy" rather than as "the friend" and les seins as "titties" rather than "breasts" (just looking at one poem -- "Vigils" -- which Mathieu translates as 'Night-Watches,' for one example that I found particularly sophomoric in its style). Another thing that bothered me was that he translated "ennui" as "boredom" throughout, as have many translators of Rimbaud, but I take the position of James McGowan in his translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal that ennui is something more "forceful" than boredom and that it should just be left as is, especially as the word is well enough known in American English. In other places I felt that Mathieu stripped the beauty out of certain phrases, such as the opening lines of Une Saison en Enfer, which has been translated by others as follows:
Varèse: "Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts opened and all wines flowed."
Schmidt: "Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed."
Fowlie: "Long ago, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where everyone's heart was generous, and where all wines flowed."
Mason: "Long ago, if my memory serves, life was a feast where every heart was open, where every wine flowed."
And now Mathieu's: "A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing."
As stated early on, one gets a faint essence of Rimbaud, but what one is really reading here, I feel, is Mathieu. It's not bad, but it's not the Rimbaud that I've come to know and love. So why do I give it such a high rating -- 4.5 stars, let's say?
Well, first, it still does have the essence of Rimbaud and that counts for something, even if the language has become somewhat mangled. Second, I quite enjoy having the English and French texts side-by-side (a favored feature that can also be found in the translations of Fowlie and Varèse). And, finally, I really enjoyed the translator's preface and postscript. I learned some new things about Rimbaud's life from these, but the veracity of some things is questionable as certain key biographical details that Mathieu includes completely conflict with points made in the other translations that I have read. I think I will probably read Enid Starkie's biography of Rimbaud at some point and try to see what light she can offer. Of course, Rimbaud is not a poet who can easily be pinned down and the stories included by Mathieu, while different from those of other translators, are very interesting nonetheless -- missing pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that will never be complete. And Mathieu's postscript is also valuable in the sense that it, unlike other translations, points the reader toward works that influenced the young Rimbaud, including the works of Swedenborg, Eliphas Levi and the novels of Balzac. Quite interesting and worthy of further investigation.
If only for the preface and postscript, this is a work worth reading, but I would not recommend it to one discovering Rimbaud (by way of some translator) for the first time. These poems need to be read (particularly as the prose poem was still so novel at the time -- employed very well by Rimbaud, but first and equally well by Baudelaire), but start with Mason or even Fowlie, and move on from there. So much for the brief review that I had set out to write at the beginning. ...more
Gah! I don't know that I'm adequately prepared to write any kind of a worthwhile review of this novel just yet, but I'm going to attempt to do so. I fGah! I don't know that I'm adequately prepared to write any kind of a worthwhile review of this novel just yet, but I'm going to attempt to do so. I feel that if I were to wait too long to formulate my thoughts on this book that I would perhaps tend to romanticize my reading experience and overlook the many frustrations that I experienced along the way.
In terms of structure, detail, the encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, the occult, history, science, etc. that Pynchon brings to the table this novel cannot justly even be evaluated with a 5-star chart. Stylistically it reminded me at times of Joyce and I've heard that Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, which I've yet to read, was also a big source of inspiration for Pynchon when writing this work. Pynchon masterfully constructs his novel around a mandala shape, with each of the four quarters built around specific dates on the Christian calendar. Certain episodes -- Pokler's story, for instance, the story of Byron the Bulb, and (more than anything else) the very last episode -- just blew me away. I imagined this big messy board in front of Pynchon's desk filled with dates and references and wondered many times as I read the novel what his method was in constructing a novel with so much rich detail packed into it (like one of those little one-seat circus cars from which a whole troupe of clowns emerge).
But at the same time that I can't praise the overall structure, the brilliant ending and Pynchon's immense knowledge enough, I also felt like I waded through a lot of shit to get to the passages that so blew me away. I couldn't help but think of a favorite line in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer: "I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it. We must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and the soul." While I believe that there was much more than "one great page" in this book, I feel that I also spent a lot of time wading in the mire, cutting through fog, and while the payoff was worth it, I think the book could have used a good editor. Allegedly Pynchon wrote much of this book while heavily doped up on acid and other drugs and has stated that he doesn't even remember why he included certain details/passages anymore.
At times he spent pages building up a superfluous narrative just for a single pun (often a very bad one at that, such as the lead up to the pun, "For De Mille, young fur-henchmen can't be rowing!" ["Forty million Frenchmen can't be wrong"] or the less painful pun about "I Ching feet") or for purposes of slapstick. One gets the sense that a great deal of the novel is merely self-indulgent.
Some critics have contended that Pynchon cares more for ideas than plot or characters, and I suppose a very valid case could be made in support of this argument. Here Pynchon introduces more than 400 characters, many only briefly and many of the characters that a first time reader thinks will be important to the narrative vanish about 1/6th of the way in, and there are few characters that elicit much sympathy. He deals very successfully with ideas such as power and control, paranoia, the death instinct (reminding me of the Freud-heavy Frankfurt school sociologists) and the mythology behind the rocket. And when one examines the novel based just on themes, again the brilliance cannot be overstated. And the novel -- considered a very important postmodern work -- also, as one would expect of a work of postmodern fiction, adds layers of depth and complexity to matters that have been traditionally oversimplified.
For me, aside from the many bumps and detours to get from different points in the novel, the biggest difficulty for me was with Pynchon's writing style, often very dense and tangled. I can count on one hand the number of novels that I've read that have been published in the second half of the 20th century and while I find Pynchon's to be more intelligent than many of them, his writing style doesn't make me particularly eager to read other works of newer fiction (I'm actually planning on going back to Twain or Tolstoy next) and while I may be inclined to read another Pynchon novel at some point, I don't think I will anytime soon.
Henry James once called 19th century novels -- with a focus on the works of Tolstoy [particularly War & Peace] and Dostoevsky -- "large, loose, baggy monsters." And if War & Peace is a "large, loose, baggy monster," then Gravity's Rainbow is a "large, loose baggy monster" flying around a circle on LSD -- a monster that takes us on one of the most incredible journeys of our lives, with detours along the way that include scenes of coprophagia, sudden outbursts of songs, anthropomorphized light bulbs, a curious assortments of chocolate-covered wine jellies, and a variety of sexual practices that would almost make Sigmund Freud blush.
For me, it was tempting at times to exit the ride that Pynchon was taking me on, but then a passage would really speak to me and draw me back again and in the end I'm glad that I went on the exhilarating ride, with so many surprises along the way, but I don't think I'll be prepared to go on it or even a similar ride again for a while. ...more
**spoiler alert** So this is my second time reading Vonnegut's 1963 satirical novel Cat's Cradle and while I was less impressed with it on a second re**spoiler alert** So this is my second time reading Vonnegut's 1963 satirical novel Cat's Cradle and while I was less impressed with it on a second reading, I still find it very well-crafted (though perhaps a bit simplistic) and incredibly humorous. What writer but Kurt Vonnegut could make something like the nuclear arms race seem so funny in its ridiculousness? Not only does Vonnegut take aim here against the arms race, but he also pokes fun at American exceptionalism (through the super-patriotic Crosbys -- Hazel Crosby sows an American flag like Betsy Ross as the end of the world is imminent!), religion and science. And the book can also be read as an open-ended commentary on the value of art in the world. What I enjoy most about this work is that Vonnegut's humanism shines through so brightly, past the threatening gallows. He shows us our faults, questions the madness of it all, and makes us laugh along the way, at the same time that he evokes in his readers a sense of fear. It's a hilarious, yet cautionary tale, no less relevant now than it was 50 years ago.