," Louis MacNeice wrote of "the drunkenness of things being various," but I also enjoy a drunkenness of things being synonymous. Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard's experience of a painting of clouds by John Constable, recounted in his memoir, My Struggle
[S]uddenly he is in tears, arrested by "an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822," and unable to explain his reaction. What is he feeling? "The feeling of inexhaustibility. The feeling of beauty. The feeling of presence." He has always been unsettled by paintings, but he has never found it easy to describe his experience of them -- "because of what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire. I can't explain it any better than that. A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility."
This passage from James Woods' The New Yorker review
of My Struggle
stayed with me because I did not understand Knausgaard's use of "inexhaustibility." An avid devotee of visual art myself, I did not identify with the quality that Knausgaard found so salient.
And then, as chance provided, I read Louis MacNeice's poem, "Poussin
," and I understood. In "Poussin," MacNeice describes the experience of gazing upon "that Poussin" in which "the clouds are like golden tea" and "cupids' blue feathers beat musically." The motion in the painting he characterizes as "still as when one walks and the moon / Walks parallel but relations remain the same":
And thus we never reach the dregs of the cup,
Though we drink it up and drink it up and drink it up
Yes, exactly: the experience is inexhaustible. Return always and be nourished again. Our only counterbalance to mortality: drink it up while we can.Image of John Constable's "Cloud Study: evening," from the National Gallery of Australia; image of Nicolas Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida" from WikiPaintings.
Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes. Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence
was the breadth of references it summoned. More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady
, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens."
Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait
that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry. Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity. And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.
In Portrait of a Lady
, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene
when she sits thinking long into the night. She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man. She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality. She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them. The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle. Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.
The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence
when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska. Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:
Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings. As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy. And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion. Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,
he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions. Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room. Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years. "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."
In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens
." Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."
Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head. Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist. He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it. But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.
A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth. Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.
And The Age of Innocence
? By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. Image of Edith Wharton from
The New York Times website
; image of Henry James from New York University website.
Moralizing around Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence
is difficult to resist. The book's unsatisfying resolution defies attempts to file it away under "well-constructed story about the age-old conflict between individual self-realization and familial constraint." Wharton makes so concrete Newland Archer's sacrifice of the love of his life, Ellen Olenska, that the mind demands some purpose to redeem the carnage that has deprived Newland Archer of "the flower of life." The affront of the novel's conclusion begs the question: what is the meaning of this?
Closing the book and musing on what I had learned, I was most immediately struck by how The Age of Innocence
illustrates that courage is not so much a quality as a discipline. Without practice, a person cannot exercise it.
In giving up Olenska, Archer capitulates to "the old New York way" of placing "decency above courage." Decency arises from the discharge of duties, and duties in turn convey dignity: as Wharton explains, Archer's two-and-a-half decade marriage "had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty."
Dignity, of course, is necessary for human happiness and the realization of individual potential. But the dignity deriving from duty, though critical for social stability and integral to moral engagement with one's family and community, is not without its drawbacks: "The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else."
Specifically, it "unfits" one for acts of courage: by the novel's last page, Archer cannot face meeting Olenska again; cannot face his emotions so long under wraps ("He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime"); cannot face modernity ("Say I'm old-fashioned: that's enough"); cannot face reality ("It's more real to me here than if I went up [to meet her]").
The dignity of duty is necessary, but not sufficient, for a fully lived life.
Of course, in the choice between courage and decency, dignity is a common element: it flows as much from acts of bravery as from the discharge of duty. The difference arises elsewhere. Courage is a more destabilizing value to cultivate: courageous people are much more difficult to control than decent ones. But courage is also more nourishing than decency: courageous people have a much better chance both of attaining "the flower of life" and of simultaneously being good people.
Ellen Olenska herself demonstrates this possibility. She is courageous: defying social convention, and at personal and financial loss, she leaves her husband. She tries to establish a satisfying life in New York, and (again, flouting conventions) she negotiates various degrees of independence (physically and geographically, though not financially) from her family, who find her difficult to control. She is, at the same time, a woman bound by duties: she undertakes the care of her aunt, Medora (who had raised her), and she refuses any betrayal of her cousin, May Welland, despite her love of May's husband, Newland Archer. When May manipulatively reveals that she is pregnant, Ellen abandons her efforts at living in the United States and retreats to Europe so as to snuff any possibility that she and Newland can consummate their love.
Although Ellen Olenska's flight snaps the bud of Newland Archer's life before it can bloom, she herself is not so disabled. He has lost the love of his life and spends the next twenty-six years in a tomb ("a deathly sense of the superiority of implication and analogy over direct action, and of silence over rash words, closed in on [Newland Archer] like the doors of the family vault").
The indicators suggest that her fate is otherwise. She has suffered a grievous loss, certainly; but her balance of courage, dignity and duty have enabled her to enjoy a full life before Newland Archer (one enriched perhaps more by pain than joy, but she has known ecstasy as well), and she will continue to do so after Newland Archer.
Courage has fitted her for life.Image of Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer in Martin Scorsese's film version of
The Age of Innocence from Gonemovie.com
Gambling is a turn-off for me on a variety of grounds. First, boredom. If I make an effort, I am capable of enjoying a game of chance, but fundamentally outcomes determined by chance, rather than effort, frustrate me. And frustration is boring. Second, aesthetics. Las Vegas is vulgar. Race tracks are ugly. OTB is seedy. Lotteries are cheap.
Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule
overcame my prejudices -- captivated me before prejudice came into it -- by pointedly undermining both these objections. I loved spending time in this novel -- "in" being warranted by its transporting prose that invoked a fresh imaginative space, as well as a seemingly altered physical state. I didn't take my pulse while reading, but I bet it slowed, so relaxed was the pleasure I took in the plot's unhurried unfurling. So: not boring. And: not aesthetically offensive. To the contrary, though the novel canvasses an impressively broad array of ugliness, the writing imbues life with that rare and treasured quality: beauty.
What most impressed me, though, was the novel's gentle inversion of my hierarchies. Roughly speaking, I don't respect the way addicts deal with the world. I recognize that not all gamblers are addicts, but I respect non-addict gamblers even less than the addicts: the non-addicts, at least, have some control over their behaviour.
And yet what I felt for the gamblers in Lord of Misrule
was not contempt, but empathy. Luck is the nasty wild card in the pack from which we all draw. However meritorious our hand, the unworthy get lucky, and the deserving go unrewarded. This situation is reality. It's also very difficult to accept. Nor do we like to discuss it or remember it. The role of luck in the lives of every successful person is not unlike the diagnosis of a venereal disease: unspeakable, forgotten or ignored if possible. For this condition, Chekhov prescribed his hammer
("At the door of every happy person there should be a man with a hammer
whose knock would serve as a constant reminder of the existence of
Gordon discusses it unforgettably. Her gamblers are the unrewarded. Worthy and unworthy alike, they are undone by chance. Gambling is part of their ritual for trying to keep it together, part of their fight to thrive. Their stakes are no different from those of the Greek and Roman protagonists wrestling fate: life and (sometimes) death; but, even if not death, unbidden metamorphosis, radical change, upheaval.
Yet despite the epic stakes, these gamblers have none of the distancing glamour of mythic forerunners. Losers, all of them, they are above everything accessible. They invite embrace and seem to reciprocate, even without being lovable, or even particularly likable. In their company, the enormous role of luck comes to seem, if not acceptable, at least bearable. Even, at times, beautiful.
young Jaimy Gordon from a 1983 interview in Gargoyle Magazine
The Haunting of Hill House
casts a pleasant pall, inducing in the reader a physical state of mild anxiety that seasons, as much as it quickens, the page-turning. And the book contains one truly dreadful scene that left me revolted: in the middle of the night, Nell and Theodora sit up in their beds, holding hands in the dark and cold -- holding so tightly they can feel the bones in each others' hands -- listening to ghostly babbling from the next room. Then the sound of a child being hurt and crying interrupts the babbling, and Nell summons the courage to shout, "Stop it!" At which point, the dark dissipates, the light is on, and Theodora wakes, asking Nell why she is shouting. Nell (and I!) are overcome by the question: "whose hand was I holding?" (p. 120.)
But for all the marvelous frightfulness of The Haunting of Hill House
, the scary aspect of the story is not the supernatural manifestations of evil. To the contrary, the terror arises from the profound -- ordinary, realistic -- isolation that Nell suffers. Although Nell tells herself that she is a "human, . . . a walking reasoning humorous human being," (p. 120), humans are social animals, and Nell consistently endures deprivation of normal social contact. Instead of being mothered, Nell must nurse her mother through illness. Friendless and jobless, Nell lives on the despised periphery of her sister's family. Nell is so without succor that when she needs support, she thinks back to an encounter with a stranger, an old lady who promised in passing to pray for Nell.
Nell's exile from the terrain of familial, communal and social human interaction -- from the web of human connections against which our identities emerge -- from the context humans need to be human -- evokes another heroine of another iconic ghost story: the governess in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw
. The governess also appears without recourse to necessary human support: her boss has instructed her never to contact him, and she seems to lack intimates (parents, siblings, friends) who can provide her with guidance. That neither woman has a paramour or husband goes without saying; indeed, the implicit assumption is that both women are virgins -- unloved, unwanted, adult innocents.
The significance of these protagonists' ambiguous social standing is not, as Edmund Wilson would have it
, that socially neglected women are likely to be sexual hysterics prone to hallucinations, but that the liminal space both women inhabit is the horror in these stories. Nell and the governess belong nowhere -- no lover, people or home claims them (with the caveat that evil Hill House does exert claim over Nell, which explains part of her attraction to it) -- but they
have done nothing to warrant such exile: they lack even the definition
of the banished. The mechanics of their bodies function, and their
physical existence confirms "life," but human life has only theoretical
existence outside the context of human society. As social animals denied the "social," Nell and the governess live in earthly purgatory; like the category-transgressing "dead restored" (p. 64) -- Quint and Miss Jessel -- in The Turn of the Screw
, Nell and the governess are, in a sense, themselves ghosts.
In both stories, our horror derives from the plausibility of such a fate. The supernatural manifestations and the deaths they precipitate in both books are a relief -- a venting of the tension arising from the unavoidable risk we all bear of occupying in our life times a purgatory, of finding ourselves in the borderlands between the living and the dead. By this measure, death, with its unambiguous finality, is a kind of happy ending.
That thought brought me lingering sadness as I closed The Haunting of Hill House
: what a miserable person Nell was, and what a pathetic life she led. The total absence of redemption -- neither cruel nor sentimental, but simply fact -- is the scariest aspect of this book, and the way Jackson guides the reader to this culminating truth and supports our absorption of it is a triumph. Image of Shirley Jackson from www.shirleyjackson.org.
David Orr: a likeable critic in my book. I've read him in The New York Times Book Review
for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile. He supports his critiques clearly and logically. His writing is impartial, light and entertaining. When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.
These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless
. It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment. The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect. Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.
All the same, I do have a complaint. In Beautiful and Pointless
, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry. And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert. I really wish he would have accommodated me.
What do I think is important about poetry? I'm glad someone asked. I read poetry for two reasons. First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain. Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum. Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses. And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu
, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves. Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical.
Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment. I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem. Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing
Nor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent. In The White Hotel
, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry. In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt. In Winter's Journey
, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air. I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.
While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention.
But Orr's focus is elsewhere. A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless
is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject. Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations." Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned). Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging.
All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history. A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless. David Orr is a great person to make that argument. I wish he had.Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation. Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.
A New York Times article
drew a comparison between Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the connection prompted reflection on media treatment of women and girls who allege rape.
As Jeffrey Toobin reported in his 2009 New Yorker piece
about Polanski, in 1977, Samantha Gailey - the 13 year-old girl who Polanski raped - was subjected to invasive grand jury questioning about her prior sexual activity and drug use. Her lawyer was sufficiently concerned about the trauma she would suffer on the witness stand that he advocated for a resolution to the case that would absolve her of testifying.
Thirty-four years later, the woman alleging rape has been - and will continue to be, if the law prevails - afforded a much wider scope of privacy protection. Her name has not been released in the American press (although it has been in France). Her face was not exposed to the press when she identified DSK in a line-up at the police station. And if she gives grand jury testimony, she will not be subject to irrelevant questions about her prior sexual activity
Nonetheless, although our law has made some strides, our discourse seems to have a way to go still. Speaking to the press
, the woman's lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, referred to her as "simple," as in "She is a simple housekeeper who was going into a room to clean a room." Considering that Mr. Shapiro also offered this gem - "Her story is her story, which she has told to everyone who asked her" - legitimate questions arise as to who is simple.
Mr. Shapiro also admitted ignorance about the facts underlying her asylum claim (which was granted despite the stringent interpretations given by U.S. judges to already high standards), and - even more unprofessionally - answered a question about her immigration status by saying he was "unsure," thereby potentially opening his client to a visit from the INS.
I know only the barest outline of this woman: she is 32. A widow. She is refugee from Guinea. She was granted asylum in the U.S. She has a 15 year-old daughter and a brother who owns a restaurant in Harlem. She has been employed at the Sofitel in Times Square for 3 years. She is a Muslim. She speaks French and English.
Although not mentioned in any media I saw, one reason U.S. courts grant asylum to Guinean women is that they have been subjected to - or fear they or their daughters will be subjected to - female genital mutilation. Apart from this concern, Guinea is a politically unstable country, overrun with cocaine and violence. An example
: in 2009 security forces controlled by junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara
opened fire on protesters, killing many and brutally raping women.
Even this scant information suggests that the woman in the center of the DSK storm is not a "simple housekeeper," but a human being who has weathered intense experiences, a survivor with capacities for adaptation and resiliency, a person who has known pain and grief, a mother, a believer - in short, a woman entitled to dignity, respect and the assumption of individual complexity that we enjoy about ourselves and that we extend to others for whom we care.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry into her accusation, whether the law vindicates or castigates her, she is not Aunt Jemima. If our discourse cannot capture her more accurately, the stereotype will not be her, but us: racists.
(Image of Jeffrey J. Shapiro from his website
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is an economist, not a lawyer, but I nonetheless feel that he would have done well to have held himself to the lawyer's standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety
Without weighing in on his guilt or innocence, I feel compelled to condemn the apparent impropriety in which he engaged. I do not refer merely to the sexual assault charge, but more broadly to the situation of the head of the IMF being accused of coercing sex from a Guinean refugee granted asylum in the U.S. and working as a hotel housekeeper. The symbolism is unmistakable: the IMF rapes Africa.
Regardless of the outcome of the legal inquiry now underway, DSK has sunk the credibility of his organization and its mission. The IMF is now an organization that overpays horny white men so they can fly first class and wear $7,000 suits and, when they get out of those suits, rape hard-working, devout, socially-disadvantaged people of color.
And by extension, the same applies to the World Bank, the UN or, for that matter, USAID. They are no different.
One's opinion of the IMF (or any of the other foregoing named institutions) - whether for good or for ill - is no matter. The IMF is a public institution, and one that exerts control over much of the global economy and its wealth. As such, the ethics of its institutional behavior, and the actions of its representatives, must be impeccable. Public institutions owe the public guarantees that their operations are ethical; otherwise they are illegitimate and have no claim to public funds.
To have betrayed this obligation to the public so flamboyantly and vulgarly is unforgivable. No verdict of innocence can expunge this breach. Whatever else DSK may have done, he has set back the cause of international development.
(Image of DSK from The Telegraph
It's not every day that one's psychological analysis extracted from Hamlet
finds confirmation in The New York Times
. But today appears to be that day.
about how the paralysis Hamlet suffers because of his existential and epistemological crisis parallels my experience in the face of unyielding rejection and failure, I then read
in the Times
when animals or people were given a series of arbitrary punishments
or rewards, they stopped trying to do anything constructive. "We found that even when good things occurred that weren't earned, like
nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people's
well-being," [Dr. Martin Seligman] said. "It produced helplessness. People gave up and
became passive." I can relate
. My experience of the world is that, regardless of my merit, effort or desert, luck - that is to say, arbitrariness - is the deciding factor in my accomplishments, both personal and professional.
Because, as Dr. Seligman says, "accomplishment [separate from happiness] is a human desiderata in itself," my situation is not conducive to satisfaction:
"'Well-being cannot exist just in your own head,' [Dr. Seligman] writes. 'Well-being
is a combination of [happiness] as well as actually having meaning,
good relationships and accomplishment.'"
Accomplishment must not, therefore, always be based on luck; but achieving this happy state requires a certain redefining of "accomplishment." For example, as a well-intentioned friend said to me of my novels, I finished them - never mind that they're unpublished and no one reads them. My friend isn't the only one to employ this technique: in Hamlet
, the Danish prince makes "readiness" his accomplishment: "the readiness is all." The rest? "The rest is silence
This coping mechanism may provide some solace, but the larger relief comes in the recognition that the paralysis is not madness: it's normal. Well being requires certain objective external conditions that, when absent, sabotage one's enjoyment of life.
That's what the doctor says. And, I suppose, anticipating that advice through recourse to Hamlet
might be considered some sort of accomplishment.
Seven months ago, I saw the (British) National Theatre's production of Hamlet
in London, and it was brilliant. The director, Nicholas Hynter, dropped the royal house of Denmark into the security apparatus of modern governments. In addition to imbuing the play with the excitement and suspense of a political thriller, this present-day setting made the power dynamics of the play come violently alive.
In keeping with the modernity of the production, Peter Holland
- writing in the program's playbill - offered an interpretation of Hamlet's dilemma that seems tailored to today's psycho-analyzed, cosmopolitan, post-deconstructionist, alienated audience:
[Hamlet] approaches a paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached by his thinking: the more he is able to grasp his awareness of how he knows anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all. The process of knowing makes all truth only relative . . . . Confronted with the enormity of that crisis of truth, the only response is to "Let be," to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing and to wait patiently for whatever comes.
The quote to which Holland refers comes at the end of the play, when Horatio is exhorting Hamlet to listen to himself and decline to fight Laertes: "If your mind dislike any thing, obey it." Hamlet responds by dismissing his feeling of foreboding, saying - in essence - we're all going to die and we don't know when, so what does it matter if it's soon? "The readiness is all . . . Let be.
I don't know if Shakespeare ever ran a marathon. I doubt it.
Nor do I have any insight as to whether Peter Holland ever ran a marathon, but he has a goatee, so I think it's unlikely.
Nonetheless, both men seem intimately familiar with the modern marathoner's mindset. After months of single-minded physical labor, abstinence from late nights, booze and any semblance of vice, the marathoner surrenders to reality: the preparation is all you can do; after that, as my brother says, "anything can happen in a marathon."
In fact, the "anything" that happened to my brother during last Sunday's marathon in Prague, was a pretty damned impressive "anything." He ran 3:15:57, which is not the kind of fate one can complain about. Had my brother gone off to fight Laertes, the play would have had a different ending.
Not so with me. My legs all but shattered, and I staggered across the finish line 5 hours, 9 minutes, and 54 seconds after I started. I never ran slower in my life. Indeed, during training, I ran 22 and 23 miles in roughly four hours; but the race was nothing like training: blisters on my toes, leg muscle cramps, and an extended stretch of walking were all present during the race and noticeably absent during training. Had I been tapped to duel with Laertes, death would have arrived on the playwright's schedule.
While I've had enough exposure to truly rotten fates to refrain from describing mine as one about which I can complain, my situation is nonetheless dispiriting - all the more so because, from the outset, I saw running the marathon as a metaphor for how I live my life, a microcosm that reveals the whole. I became attracted to this idea last year, when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and discovered that the key to reaching the peak was going slow and surrendering to the limitations imposed by the environment. I blogged
about the inspiration I drew from my mountain experience to persevere in my writing.
Unfortunately, the take-away here is less upbeat. Months of planning and work, tireless effort, deprivation of socializing and fun, dieting, forswearing alcohol, money spent on clothes, shoes and supplements - not to mention all the acupuncturists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and masseuses who toiled to get my legs race-ready - resulted in a completely disastrous performance. Enthusiasm, willpower, investment of resources: all easily come to nothing.
I thought I'd already learned this truism the hard way. Six years of work, discipline and sacrifice to write novels have yielded (a) four novels on the shelf, as of yet unpublished and unread, and (b) a state of near bankruptcy. Rejection is the only constant, and my life is so unstable that I've come to feel for rejection a wry and perverted gratitude: it's the only thing I can rely on.
It also make me want to vomit. Not just vomit, but curl up in a ball on the curb and stay there. When your rock is rejection, maybe you're better off under the stone.
Of course, I'm not the first to feel this way. I refer to the aforementioned "paralysis of will that is the consequence of an impasse reached" when "the more [I am] able to grasp [an] awareness of how [I] know
anything the less it seems possible to know anything at all. The
process of knowing makes all truth only relative" - although I add, no less painful for being relative. "[T]he only response is to 'Let be,'
to accept the impossibilities of being human and the limits of knowing
and to wait patiently for whatever comes."
While I'm constitutionally constrained from waiting patiently - the best I can muster is waiting in a state of thinly-veiled neurosis and sincerely-felt misery - I take the larger point. "The readiness is all" because it's all we can control. The loss of control reduces us to paralysis - metaphorically, literally or, if we're really unlucky, both. Though being without control is an aspect of reality, living in that reality without being sabotaged by it requires a mental discipline of preferring, and prioritizing, what you can control.
That's our choice: lopsided or frozen.
And here, at last, is the metaphor I'll draw: even a lopsided runner (like myself, suffering from a biomechanical breakdown in her right leg) can finish a marathon.
(Images of Maya Alexandri and Talmon Alexandri running the Prague marathon on 8 May 2011 compiled by Maya Alexandri