Recently in The Great Themes Category
The Tate Modern's Gauguin show
enthralled me. I saw it three times, and if I were in London now I'd see it again.
After my first time through the exhibit, I bought Somerset Maugham's, The Moon and Sixpence
. Like one of the characters in this novel, I was in "the cruel grip of appetite" (p. 108): I wanted to know everything possible about Gauguin, and The Moon and Sixpence
was loosely based on his life.
I'd also wanted to read something by Somerset Maugham. After reading Ruth Franklin's New Yorker review
of Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham
, I was curious about Maugham. According to Hastings, Maugham was plagued by artistic doubts. Of middling critical success (although he earned spectacular popular acclaim), Maugham judged himself of "small power of imagination" and made "earning a living . . . his first priority."The Moon and Sixpence
doesn't rescue Maugham from his own harsh assessment. As a portrait of a sociopath, the novel conceivably possesses some descriptive accuracy; as an inquiry into the nature of artistic greatness, the novel is utterly a failure.
Charles Strickland, the novel's stand-in for Gauguin, is a monster:
He was a man without any conception of gratitude. He had no compassion. The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.
(p. 109.) Even worse than inhuman, Charles Strickland is flat. His dialogue is bad and, unforgivably, unrevealing. Here is Strickland responding to the book's narrator, sent by Strickland's wife to retrieve him after he's quit his job as a stockbroker and abandoned his family:
"What makes you think you have any talent?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do you think it wil have been worth while to give up everything?" . . .
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint. I can't help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn't matter how he swims, well or badly: he's got to get out or else he'll drown."
(p. 44-45.) The pedantic - to say nothing of redundant - quality of Strickland's self-explanation is sadly consistent with the narrator's dull assertions about "life in general":
- "I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate" (p. 36);
- "I did not realize how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find a place side by side in the same human heart" (p. 57);
- "It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest" (p. 47).
Well call Maugham a bitch.
But the Maugham doesn't restrict the book's flaws to blithe sexism and insouciant lack of self-awareness. In addition to denying both Charles Strickland and the book's narrator psychological and emotional depth, Maugham is cowardly in his handling of the facts of Gauguin's life. Strickland has two children, not five, and they don't die (unlike Gaugin's, of whom only three lived to maturity); Strickland's Tahitian wife is seventeen, not fourteen; Strickland dies of leprosy, not syphilis.
Taken alone, these details might be unimportant, but I can't help relating Strickland's avoidance of these dirty facts of sex and death to his overall lack of insight into life and the artistic process. "It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed," Maugham reportedly said; in his insecurity-masquerading-as-arrogance, he must have hoped that everyone else, like Strickland (and Gauguin) at his death, is blind.
(Image of Paul Gauguin's "Vision After the Sermon" from Shafe
Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left). In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.
Klee's desire sounded familiar. Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern
, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence
, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise
. Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."
Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated. Here's why:
Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art. Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.
The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy. As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word,
the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77).
In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space." (p. 117). While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues." (p. 76.) Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events." Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision." (p. 91.)
What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word. The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication.
The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task. As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid
(discussed in this New Yorker article
) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention
(reviewed in the New York Times piece
) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain. I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry. (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)
On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband
, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies. To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc. Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right. Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry). Visual artists might have a better chance. In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband
I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).
Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists. Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art.
The effect is necessarily less visually arresting. After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).
Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself." (p. 12.) In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism. And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance. We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.
(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website
One of the (many) aspects I admire and appreciate about Mario Vargas Llosa is his interest in visual art. The connection between visual art and literacy being one of the great passions of my life, I feel a kinship with the author of In Praise of the Stepmother
, a novel that includes fantastical elaborations on six great paintings, each of which is reproduced in the text.
I was thinking of Vargas Llosa earlier this week when I was in the Tate Modern. First, I thought of him when I saw a Francis Bacon akin to the "Head I" that is among the paintings featured in In Praise of the Stepmother
. Then I thought of him as I walked through the Gaugin exhibit
. Gaugin's paintings seemed to court literary exploration.
In the gift shop at the conclusion of the exhibit, I found a copy of Vargas Llosa's novel, This Way to Paradise
, which is inspired by Gaugin's life. Imagine my delight at reading, in the second chapter, Vargas Llosa's take on the creation of Gaugin's masterpiece, "Manao Tupapau." Vargas Llosa had beat me to the very literary exploration I'd sensed the paintings invited.
Congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. The stunning accomplishment of your oeuvre
has merited this honor, but more importantly has earned your place among books well-loved for ages.
(Image of Mario Vargas Llosa from The Guardian
Samuel Beckett makes Arthur Miller look like an amateur.
Within 18 hours last week, I saw Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (at the Apollo Theater in London, pictured left) and Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" (at the Duchess Theater, pictured below). The plays are quite different. "All My Sons" has a relatively big cast and is about family and ideals. "Krapp's Last Tape" is a one-man show about alienation and mortality.
Nonetheless, the comparison is illuminating. The aim of both plays is to affirm for each audience member his or her connectedness with the rest of humanity. "They were all my sons," the father, Joe Keller, says of the twenty-one pilots who died because of faulty parts that he shipped to the military in "All My Sons." "Let me in," Krapp says
to a lover, whose half-moon slit eyes open all the way. Miller roots moral responsibility in our common humanity; Beckett finds solace from the inevitability of death.
Despite this similarity, the plays' methodologies could not diverge more radically. Miller works very, very hard to manipulate the audience in "All My Sons." The plot is painfully contrived and teeters on the brink of melodrama. The extreme compression of time and events forces the characters into hairpin emotional flip-flops that are tiresome and eventually strain credibility. Moreover, Miller is hectoringly didactic. Chris, the son in "All My Sons," resists his father's autocratic worldview, but Miller is just as autocratic with the audience: you will learn this, you will feel this, he intones in the play's subtext.
Beckett, on the other hand, endows "Krapp's Last Tape" with no plot, simply a scenario: Krapp, on this 69th birthday, listens to a tape he made on his 39th birthday, and then tries to make a tape to mark his 69th year. Krapp makes no decisions in the play, unless you count his decision to abandon any attempt to finish his 69th birthday tape and return, instead, to listening to the tape he'd made 30 years earlier. The play happens in real time: the audience peeks in on Krapp for 50 minutes of his life. Rather than didactic, Beckett is poetic: the play conjures a mood of terrible sorrow about being shut out from life, and holding oneself clenched and aloof from life.
All theater, of course, is contrived. The brilliance of the medium is the way the contrivance falls away, and the illusion takes over, allowing the audience a very intense experience of vicarious living - both for its pleasure and edification.
Miller doesn't trust the audience to be edified, and so he freights his play until the contrivance is too heavy, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. While I wouldn't hazard that Beckett trusts the audience more than Miller, he's more confident: the contrivance of "Krapp's Last Tape" utterly dissolves in the illusion of spying on Krapp's life. The result is testament to Beckett's genius: the light touch elicits a shattering effect.
(Image from "All My Sons" cast from The Telegraph
; image of Michael Gambon in "Krapp's Last Tape" from The Guardian
The New York Review of Books
is a superb publication. I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking.
Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures. Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.
Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world. And yet The New York Review of Books
contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.
The 1968 review
, of Ong's The Presence of the Word
, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best. (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)
The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history. In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.
Neither objection seems terribly cogent. Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.
Moreover, The Presence of the Word
(which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic
] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge." That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.
Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
, cannot be tarred with this brush. The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth. The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy
without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.) Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word
, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review
hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy
(or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.
In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority. The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true. Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel
- offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur. (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.) No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity. To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.
(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website
Thinking Shakespeare above mistakes is a mistake. He's none less great just because someone should have asked for rewrites in certain plays at the time they were originally staged.
I don't count as "mistakes" aspects of the plays that appealed to Elizabethan audiences, but that are less suited to our modern tastes. Rather, I'm referring to issues that arise in theatrical productions cross-culturally and across centuries.Henry IV, parts 1 and 2
is prone to one such mistake: dead space onstage. People onstage waiting, or staring into space, sap energy from the scenes. Vast swaths of emptiness where the play calls for hub-bub can have the same effect.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare spring-loaded the Henry
plays with this trap. The plays include many pub and market scenes, where many people must be onstage, but only one or two (typically Falstaff and Prince Hal) are talking.
The plays also include battle scenes where, implausibly, only two people are onstage. Worse, the plays grind to a halt for inopportune monologues by Falstaff - e.g.
, his monologue on honor, just before a major battle; his monologue on sack, redundant and slowing of the already slow pace of Henry IV part 2
These scenes simply don't work as commonly staged. A pub containing people standing around, watching two people talk, doesn't come across as a real pub. Where are the ribald conversations? The games of chance? The flirting? Nor does a battle scene with merely two people in it work. Where's the noise and smoke of the battle? The movement of fighters and animals across the battlefield? The chaos of war?
As for Falstaff's soliloquies, the most promising way to minimize their plot-dragging tendencies is to set them in context - in the swirl of battle preparations, for example - rather than the clear the stage and ask poor Falstaff alone to bear the weight of the entire audience's expectation.
I appreciate the exigencies of cost and the pragmatics of staging a scene so that everyone in the audience can see it. Nonetheless, there's no point in having an enormous cast (as one must for the Henry IV
plays) and keeping them backstage when they could be put to work onstage. Nor is there any point in staging a scene that is visible to all, but compelling to none.
The pub and market scenes need real activity - waiters buzzing back and forth, patrons up to their own tricks, pub owners disciplining staff, pickpockets. The battle scenes need real action, whether offstage in sound or onstage with other fighting or troop movement. And Falstaff, sociable creature, needs people around him.
Otherwise, one ends up uttering of the bulky Henry IV
plays what Prince Hal cries
upon mistaking Falstaff for dead: "could not all this flesh/Keep in a little life?"
(Image of Roger Allam playing Falstaff in the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
's 2010 production of Henry IV, part 1
from The Telegraph