"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Recipes: Roast Lamb Shank, Rosemary Roasted Small Potatoes, And Broccoli Puree

I recently had dinner at a very good restaurant in Irvington, Virginia called Trick Dog.  It serves an interesting variety of meat and local seafood, and I tried the roasted lamb shank.  It is a cut of meat that is not often found on restaurant menus, and I have always preferred a nice, rare, leg of lamb to anything that has to be cooked for hours.  This time, however, I thought I would see what the fuss was all about.  It was delicious, and I knew I had to try to reproduce it at home.

The trick is in the slow cooking.  I cooked the lamb for about 3 hours at 325F and it came out succulent, moist, and falling off the bone – as it is supposed to.  It takes little preparation, lamb shank is not an expensive cut of meat, and you don’t have to watch it.

I decided that roast small potatoes with rosemary would be very good with the lamb as would a broccoli puree.  The meal was easy to prepare and delicious.

Roasted Lamb Shank

* A 2-3 lb. lamb shank (I bought mine at a non-specialty supermarket)

* 1 cup red wine

* 1 Tbsp. dried rosemary

* 5 lg. cloves garlic, skins left on but punctured

* 1 vegetarian or chicken bouillon cube in 1 cup water

- Rub the lamb with a fresh clove of garlic, rosemary, and fresh ground black pepper

- Preheat the oven to 325F

- Place the lamb in a roasting pan and add the bouillon, red wine, and garlic cloves

- Cover with two layers of heavy duty tin foil and make sure that the pan is tightly covered

- Roast for approximately 2 1/2 hours and test the meat for doneness.  The meat should be very loose and should pull away easily from the bone.  It it is not done, recover and add another 30 minutes.

- Serve

Roasted Rosemary Potatoes

* 5-6 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered

* 1 Tbsp. dried rosemary

* 2 Tbsp. olive oil

* Pinch of salt and grindings fresh black pepper

- Put the potatoes, rosemary, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a mixing bowl and mix well

- Place the potatoes on a pie plate or other baking dish

- Preheat the oven to 450F

- Bake for about 45 minutes, checking after 30.  The potatoes should be a golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside when done.

Broccoli Puree

* 2 lbs. broccoli florets (i.e. without most of the stem)

* 1 cup half-and-half

* 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

* 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

* 2 tsp. bourbon

* Salt, ground pepper to taste

- Steam the broccoli until done

- Place the broccoli in a blender or food processor, and add the cream, nutmeg, cheese

- Blend until creamy, taste for salt, nutmeg, pepper, cheese.  Blend again thoroughly

- Serve

The Challenge Of The Next Generation Of Condoms–Bill Gates And The Pleasure Principle

I flogged condoms for over forty years in the developing world and started way before the AIDS epidemic.  In the Seventies condoms were promoted for birth control only, but played second fiddle to the Pill which was far more convenient and effective.  The Pill not only provided nearly complete contraceptive protection, it promised African and Asian women the same sexual liberation enjoyed by women of America.  Husbands never had to know about the Pill, and women could let them hump away knowing that they would not have yet another child. 

Injectable contraceptives offered an even better alternative. Women always forgot to take their pills, and uneducated women often misunderstood the directions.  If they mislaid their pills and missed a few days, they just took a handful of what was left in the pack.  Protection rates for the Pill were never as good as those advertised; and ‘injectables’ were a godsend for women who never understood conception in the first place.   A menstrual cycle was easy enough, but fertility cycles were another thing altogether.  With an injectable a woman never had to remember to take anything, never had to understand her cyclical reproductive system, and could continue to avoid her husband’s prying eyes.

There was plenty of opposition, of course, and not only from conservative lawmakers and the Catholic Church. Doctors approved of the Pill, but refused to liberalize its sale and have maintained a tight hold on contraceptive prescriptions to this day even – and especially – in America.

The entire contraceptive landscape changed with the onset of HIV/AIDS.  How could one responsibly promote the Pill when it only prevented pregnancy, not disease? But suggesting to couples that they use both methods was unrealistic, expensive, and almost impossible. Men hated the condom, refused to use it, insisted on male sexual prerogatives, and were suspicious that their wives might pull a few rubbers out of the top drawer and use them with clandestine lovers.

So despite its universal lack of acceptance and extremely high failure rates (most condoms are very successful if used properly, but they rarely are), marketing and promotional efforts turned almost exclusively to the condom  Social marketers were up against a behavioral double-whammy.  Men refused to wear condoms; and women, with no economic or social power, could not force their husbands into compliance.  Men simply said, “Honey, you are my one and only true love” – i.e. I don’t sleep around and put you and me at risk from HIV – but lied through their teeth.  The disease was spread quickly and easily by straying men who screwed prostitutes with astronomical levels of HIV infection and then came home to sleep with their wives.  It was a lose-lose situation.

Nothing seemed to work.  The whole ‘empowerment of women’ thing was a pleasant fiction.  The international aid workers felt good about promoting feminism and the cause of women’s health and well-being; but this commitment seldom translated into action.  Husbands still came home drunk, told their wives to turn over, and screwed their way to sleep.

Later campaigns tried to address men, appealing to their moral responsibility to their wives, partners, and the community at large.  This might have worked among the educated upper classes, but hardly noticed in the village where marriages were arranged, life was short and difficult, and worldview was limited to a few miles.

Even in the United States where teenagers have been badgered, hectored, lectured, and hammered by parents, educators, and community leaders to practice safe sex, over 40 percent do not use them.  It is worse in the gay community where 50 percent of men do not use condoms.

Any sexually active man knows why – condoms are a terrible product.  No matter how attractive they are made and packaged (colored condoms were thought to be revolutionary in the late 70s), no matter how ‘sensitive’ they might be, they are still thick surgical gloves stuck on a man’s most sensitive organ, a pain in the ass to rip open and put on, and a totally unwelcome interruption of the crescendo of sexual pleasure.

Along comes Bill Gates who is offering rich rewards to any company who can produce a condom which increases male pleasure.

Bill Gates has a foundation that works in Africa to treat AIDS and prevent HIV infection. His research demonstrates that most Africans -- like most Americans -- don't wear condoms because the primitive contraption, which has not appreciably changed in 50 years, steals their pleasure. Gates is a practical businessman and a creative inventor. He has proceeded with plans to make a better product after learning that there is widespread dissatisfaction with an existing product. His foundation will give a $100,000 grant to anyone with credible plans to make a condom that "is felt to enhance pleasure." (David Masciotra, The Atlantic, 4.29.13)

Good luck. On the other hand, never underestimate the power of technology and consumer marketing.  In the not-too-distant future, I am sure there will be an ordinary rubber condom fitted with mini-transmitters which will emit tiny pulses to chips implanted in the pleasure sections of the brain.  Once the condom feels warmth, wetness, and rhythmical motion, it will send out signals, and the user becomes delirious with pleasure.

The AIDS epidemic will be over by the time this toy comes on the market, however; and there don’t seem to be any shorter-term solutions on the horizon.  Perhaps a condom that is gossamer thin but of industrial strength and can be put on after dinner on a flaccid penis.  Have a few more drinks, turn down the lights, and the condom expands uniformly without you even noticing.  Or a mini-condom which is affixed only to the head of the penis, perhaps with some new polymer resin that dissolves after a few hours.

The problem with any of these ideas is that men the world over simply want to do things naturally – any mechanical interference with sex, the most intimate and expressive form of human exchange – simply won’t cut the mustard.

Mark S. King, an award winning author and leading advocate for AIDS awareness in the gay community, who is also gay and HIV positive, recently gave a perfect summary of the motivation behind unprotected sex: "We keep talking about barebacking as if it's some kind of psychosis, when really all it is is men behaving naturally."

This sentiment is echoed in heterosexual circles around the world.  If God had intended us to use condoms, he would have given us sexual skin gloves.

The one aspect of condom use that is often downplayed is the interruption factor.  No matter how sensitive the condom is when on, men still have to fumble around on the night table, rip open the pack in the dark, and snap the rubber on tight all while their lover is moaning for pleasure on the bed next to them. When I was in the business, we told people that condoms should be put on together as part of foreplay.  The couple could pick out the condom that most suited their mood – fiery red, ribbed, or rainbow – and then in a great Tantric ritual, fit the lingam with the sacred sheath.  Needless to say this idea fell flat.  Most men wanted to get on with it as quickly as possible, and women had no interest in playing with toys.

I have no clue what a woman feels when that plasticized phallus enters her, but it can’t be all that good. Madonna who should know a bit about sexual encounters has said that condoms are "essential in the age of AIDS," but conceded, "they feel terrible."

Norman Mailer, never shy about his opinions or sexual exploits said:

"The only thing you can depend on with condoms is that they will take 20 to 50 percent off your f***."  Mailer also condemned condoms for making people part of "the social machinery" and destroying "most of the joy of entrance."

Gates’ incentive of $100,000 to develop a pleasurable condom is chickenfeed to researchers or condom companies who are used to major grants.  To his credit Gates has offered more meaningful incentives to pharmaceutical companies to come up with vaccines for TB, HIV, and malaria.  The Gates Foundation would assure these companies a guaranteed market by buying up significant amounts of new vaccines once they have been developed. This initiative, however, seems rather half-hearted and a bit lame.

Maybe all this condom business is unnecessary and a waste of money.  Withdrawal, the oldest contraceptive method on the books is just about as reliable as condoms.  Withdrawal has a failure rate of 4 percent, while condoms just half that at 2 percent.  The whole ‘pre-cum’ debate has apparently been settled; and contrary to popular myth, there are no sperm in pre-cum.

Most men know that withdrawal is an iffy business and can’t understand where the 4 percent figure comes from. It takes one hell of a lot of discipline and self-control to withdraw, especially when your sexually aroused partner is pulling you farther inside her, and wrapping her legs around you (“Don’t go…Don’t go”).

Even if the pre-cum argument has merit, most younger men and older lovers with Viagra hard-ons don’t quit at one sexual intercourse.  If you have had your first bang with a condom, and your second without, the chances that some stubborn little sperm are still in your tubes and canals are pretty good.

The best that can be said for the Gates initiative is that it will open up the discussion to reality. Up until now condoms have been pushed as a matter of duty, responsibility, and obligation; and little of the marketing savvy that characterizes other products is visible when it comes to them.  If we address the reasons why men eschew the use of condoms and try to come up with something more suitable, perhaps we will be more successful than we have been over the last fifty years.

If the Gates initiative, for what his foundation calls the "next generation condom" succeeds, it will spark a new conversation on sexual issues -- one that acknowledges that the truth is always necessary to solve any social problem. No "progress" that uses a lie as an usher is worth welcoming.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (I)–The Real Shakespeare?

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the last three years, and in that time I have read and re-read all the plays at least twice.  I have seen all the BBC archived film productions of the plays, and have seen as many live productions as possible.  I felt I was making some progress in understanding the playwright – his recurrent themes, his familiar characterizations of men and women, his worldview and perspective on history and human nature.

I, like most readers, was astounded at the range and depth of the author.  While there are similarities within the Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies, no play is alike; and each surprises with its particular ingenuity and inventiveness, characterization, and poetry.

I came to my own conclusions about the plays.  I was convinced that Shakespeare had no particular moral convictions and felt that history played itself out in endless, repeating cycles.  There were no surprises in the palace coups, the jockeying for favor, the duplicity, scurrility, and naked aggression all in the pursuit of power and the defiant preservation of it at all costs.  Human nature was at the root of this venality, materialism, and unholy desire to survive, extend, and prevail.

I was convinced that Shakespeare was no fan of love; and that marriage was never more than a contractual agreement made between powerful men and ambitious women.  I was equally persuaded that Shakespeare always favored the women who more often than not ran rings around the men.  Antony was no match for Cleopatra, nor Orlando for Rosalind or Benedick for Beatrice.  I felt, as many critics do, that after the conclusive, celebratory last scene of all the Comedies, divorce would soon follow.  There is no way, even after the happy hijinks, cross-dressing, lighthearted plots, and wicked deceptions, the couples can stay together.  After what Portia has to say about men, can she really settle for Bassanio? 

In some plays there is a glimmer of affection between the couples.  The Macbeths really do like each other, as do Julius Caesar and Calpurnia and Mark Antony and Portia.  Margaret, Hamlet’s mother apparently likes sex with her new husband, the usurping, murdering Claudius; and Pericles is very romantically attached to his wife Thaisa; but in only one is there true, unalloyed, uncomplicated, devoted love – Romeo and Juliet which, when looked at through the perspective of all 37 plays, must be an anomaly. 

In all the plays, despite their virtuosity – or perhaps because of it – the playwright is distant.  Shakespeare is reminding us of the folly and absurdity of love; the silliness of men and the canniness of women in their unequal struggle for equality; the murderous sexual jealousy of men and the parental jealous of both parents.  Duke Frederick in As You Like It cannot bear the thought that his niece, Rosalind, is preferred by all to his own daughter.  Dionyza plots to murder Marina, the daughter of Pericles for the same reason.  In all of these tours de force Shakespeare is the observer.  Life is simply this way, he tells us – an endless revolving circle of the same human foibles, weaknesses, and desires that have characterized us since our beginnings.  He shows no remorse for the death of the boy Arthur in King John or for the young princes in Richard III or Rutland in Henry VI.  They are casualties of war and the pursuit of power.

Men are jealous because of the right of succession, and jealousy was a normal and legitimate reaction to threat to it; and they are murderously so because of their innate insecurity, mistrust and misunderstanding of women.

In short, we see the turbulent course of history, human events, and relationships through the dispassionate eyes of the playwright; and we come away from the plays with greater insight into both history and human nature.  Shakespeare is a brilliant playwright, poet, philosopher, political philosopher, and psychologist; but what does he feel?  Where does he stand?

Critics have wondered why in an age where the Church was threatened by Martin Luther and Protestantism, Shakespeare took no sides.  No one can conclusively say that he was of one religion or the other.  He was certainly a monarchist and aristocrat.  His dismissal of the mob in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus attest to that; but he is also dismissive of the court and courtly life in As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale. He writes eloquently about the pastoral life, but seems to show an affinity for the powerful dramas of the palace.

All the love scenes between the men and women of the plays are mannered and theatrical.  They are either the overblown soliloquies of pining male lovers in love with love rather than the object of their affection; love at first site where men and women are smitten for no good reason; or devious tricks to playfully deceive lovers to determine their love and fidelity.  In no play do we sense a true love in the modern sense where a man loves a woman for what she is, desires her physically, is excited by her temperament, and stimulated by her mind.

A few weeks ago I began reading the Sonnets and was overwhelmed.  Gone was the dispassionate, disinterested observer of love and human engagement.  In its place was a passionate, emotional, desperate lover who longed for his love, despaired at his dereliction, and wanted only a fully consecrated and consummated relationship. All the stops were pulled out.  There was no more intellectual reserve or philosophical indifference. Here was a man in love, desperate for love, and as perplexed as any with the complexities and vicissitudes of emotional involvement.

Was this the real Shakespeare?  A man of passion, emotion, and all-consuming love?  Were all the playwright’s summations of the ordinariness and predictability of human actions meaningless?

I have entitled this blog Shakespeare’s Sonnets I because I have only read thirty-five of the one-hundred-fifty four; but there is enough in this fifth to make me want to reassess all that I have read before. 

Not only is Shakespeare writing about his love (very different from writing about love), but he is presenting new themes. For example, nowhere in his work does he so insistently talk of the importance of leaving offspring.  This reference is so insistent that the first 17 are called ‘The Procreation Sonnets’. Having offspring is not just a natural event; but an obligation and a duty to assure that beauty will always brighten the world.  He does not mention the children of the cretins and lowlifes that populate his plays.  While he might look favorably on the likes of Touchstone, the witty clown of As You Like It, procreating; but not the rabble of Julius Caesar, Coriolanus or the likes of John Cade (Henry VI).  Shakespeare wants beauty to be propagated.

Shakespeare’s love and his feelings about procreation come together in the much-debated Sonnet 20 where the poet expresses his love and longing for his male friend:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

Or, paraphrased: “You were created by Nature as a woman but more beautiful than any woman, for you do not have their faults. But Nature changed her mind as she made you, and turned you into a man, for she herself adored you, and, perhaps desiring congress, gave you male parts. Therefore I cannot love you with the fullness that I would love a woman. But let me have your real love, while women enjoy the physical manifestation of it, which I know to be merely a superficies'.” (www.shakespeares-sonnets.com).

Whether or not Shakespeare was admitting to or desirous of a homosexual relationship with his lover; or whether he was simply expressing his Platonic love for a man has never been decided. Most critics hedge their bets, and suggest that he wishes the young man could have been born a woman so that he could fully consummate his love; but is content in knowing that a more profound, almost spiritual love is possible.  Nowhere in the Sonnet does the poet suggest that he wants the youth as a male lover. 

Whether Shakespeare had a homosexual longing for the youth, a homoerotic one, or simply a profound and asexual love is an a way beside the point.  The poet – Shakespeare – had a deep, transformative love for the young man of the Sonnets, regardless of its character;and this love goes counter to what is the playwright’s conception of love in his 37 plays.

It is hard not to look back at the plays and see them in the context of the sexual complexity of Sonnet 20.  Should we say, after reading it, “Ah….So that was what all the cross-dressing and gender-bending was all about”? Perhaps, because Sonnet 20 is never explicit and always subtle.  What does the line Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion, for example, mean? Some critics have suggested that the youth is figuratively a hermaphrodite – he is both male and female; and many of the lines of the poem state clearly that the poet loves the youth for his maleness (not fickle, changeable, and flighty) and for his sensitive, female side. Others have said that the term only refers to the many-sided aspect of the youth and the poet’s relationship to him:

The phrase “the master mistress” – was probably intended to be enigmatic, implying that the young man evokes the adoration and devotion which would be due to a mistress, but that he is also masterly in controlling his devotees. It could conceivably suggest that the young man was an androgynous type, having the sexual characteristics of male and female. Some therefore interpret it as meaning 'you, the object of my homosexual desire'. However the word passion does not usually in Shakespeare have the meaning of sexual desire or infatuation. Its more frequent use is that derived from Christ's passion on the cross, and it means suffering, or affliction. It can also mean mental derangement, or an attack of frenzy as a result of such. It was also used at the time to describe a heartfelt speech, and could be extended to cover the production of a series of sonnets, such as these. One could therefore paraphrase it as 'You, whose face was created by nature herself, inspire in me these deeply felt verses. You master my soul, but you also make me adore you as I would a mistress'.

Whatever interpretation one might choose, it is legitimate to return to the plays for another look, for there is too much sexual role-reversal to be incidental or simply humorous.  In Twelfth Night the Duke is clearly enamored of the boy Viola plays.  The love scenes between Rosalind disguised as a boy and Orlando in As You Like It are very sexually dubious.  They are playing a game – Rosalind wants to both chide Orlando and hear his expressions of love – but it turns serious. Everyone in the play, it seems, is in love with someone of the same sex. .

ROSALIND
I care not if I have: it is my study
To seem despiteful and ungentle to you:
You are there followed by a faithful shepherd;
Look upon him, love him; he worships you.

PHEBE
Good shepherd, tell this youth what 'tis to love.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of sighs and tears;
And so am I for Phebe.


PHEBE
And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO
And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND
And I for no woman.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of faith and service;
And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE
And I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO
And I for Rosalind.

ROSALIND
And I for no woman.

SILVIUS
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance;
And so am I for Phebe.

PHEBE
And so am I for Ganymede.

ORLANDO

And so am I for Rosalind.


ROSALIND
And so am I for no woman.

The female characters in Shakespeare are often the most memorable and clearly drawn – Margaret, Constance, Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, Dionyza, Tamora, Volumnia, Beatrice, Rosalind, Cleopatra, are just a few. Did Shakespeare understand women because he identified with them?  Perhaps, but Tennessee Williams a a proud and affirming gay man said he was insulted when critics suggested this.  I am a perceptive artist, he contended.  My job is to understand both men and women and how they interact and relate.  To assume that I have an inside track on women does a disservice to my art and my intelligence.

Edward Albee is also gay, and there is no reason to try  to understand Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) in any other way than as a brilliant, ambitious, hungry, desperate, combative, and needy person.

In any case, I am excited by the Sonnets.  They are complex – even more so than the plays because all is compressed within 14 lines – and filled with historical, classical, and Biblical references.  The metaphors are never contrived but often nearly indecipherable; but when solved, even more rewarding.  Shakespeare wrote them from 1593-1609 the period during which he did the bulk of his playwriting.  He neither wrote them before his mature period when he was exploring gender roles, nor after his playwriting was over.  That is, what is written was neither early speculation or a final reconsideration of his convictions.  The Sonnets are Shakespeare as much as his plays; and because they are so intimate, personal, and passionate, perhaps they reflect the real playwright.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Adulterous Sins Of Our Fathers

Benjamin Nugent has written about adultery in the New York Times (4.28.13), and has blamed middle-aged men over 50 for their corrupting influence on younger generations.  These paunchy white men have embraced infidelity just as they have greedy, materialistic capitalism. Golf trophies, successful takeovers, trophy wives, and notches on the sexual six-gun are all part of the same ethos.

I felt that the problem with these men was the problem with America. Like our carbon-greedy nation, ruining the global climate for everybody, they suffered from a belief that they deserved what they wanted, no matter the collateral damage.

Then, after a decade of loathing men of a certain generation (provoked by the infidelity of his mother’s partner), Nugent himself falls into the tender trap.  He meets an ex-girlfriend and fucks her in the back seat of his Ford. Obviously still remorseful over his moral slide, he can only manage the weak phrase “We ended up making out in my car”.  What have I done, he wonders?  How could I have become one of them?

It turns out that this little indiscretion shakes Nugent’s worldview to its roots.  He has always tried to be the model of honesty, moral rectitude, and the champion of  liberal values.  Since Nugent’s abhorrence of the dereliction of his mother’s partner had as much to do with the partner’s age, class, and politics as with his canoodling, it is no wonder that he has experienced a more generalized angst. 

I have some consolation for Mr. Nugent. An estimated 30-60 percent of Americans have admitted infidelity whether to husbands and wives or to girlfriends, boyfriends, or partners.  Men, as everyone knows, are tomcatters – something to do with the biological imperative of spreading one’s seed as widely as possible to assure the continuity of lineage; and this impulse has no social boundaries.  Everyone does it. For young men like Mr. Nugent, cheating on a current girlfriend in favor of a new, more attractive, alluring, beneficial one (in procreative terms) is par for the course.  Not cheating, really, but playing the field in 21st Century terms. We no longer have Victorian arranged marriages to assure social position and economic well-being, so we have to fend for ourselves; and knowing the vicissitudes of the human heart, who wants to be stuck with a bad choice? Hell, we all make them, and the task is to rectify them – fuck someone more compatible, accessible, and productive.

Mr. Nugent cites John Updike to bolster his argument about the sexual profligacy of the privileged, white male brotherhood conflated with generalized greed – something about not willing to clean up after your dog – but he misses the point.  Rabbit is Updike’s hero, a tragic character who was born with natural talent and male exuberance, and because of the limitations of his social class and education, gets stuck in a bourgeois routine which he hates.  He is in the thrall of his wife, Janice, because her father runs Springer Motors where he works.  He has to pay the price of financial support with fidelity, and he simply cannot do it.  His male exuberance knows no bounds.  He even guiltlessly sleeps with his son’s wife.  She is willing, and his son is a jerk.

Rabbit is not a child of entitlement, just the opposite.  He is a child of disenfranchisement who makes his way as best he can.  He is a hero because he never gives in, never willingly straps on the braces that will hold him in place.

If you’re born Caucasian, male and middle class in the United States, your job is to check the manifestations of the entitlement bred into you by your native culture. These manifestations pop up continuously. Whenever I was tempted to flirt with somebody I wasn’t supposed to flirt with, or indulge in some other depravity, like driving when I could take a train, I would think, “Don’t be a disgusting white guy like Stepfather Figure X.”

On the contrary, says Updike, we should most definitely indulge in what Nugent calls depravity.  We should give in to the urges which define us as expressions of our individuality, maleness, and humanness.  We do not have to be Nietzschean Supermen whose expression of will is the only thing that separates us from the herd.  We only have to follow our instincts. Is this a call to revive male supremacy or to adopt a Beyond Good and Evil approach to women?  Not in the least.  Sexual partnership has always been a form of contract with rules, regulations, and boundaries.  Screw around too much, and you might lose a good thing.  Be as faithful as a choirboy, and you might face the Grim Reaper with a gob full of regrets.

The author Nugent might have quoted is Phillip Roth, another Lothario and advocate for sexual healing.  In The Human Stain the main character, deeply involved in a sexual affair with an attractive young woman at least 30 years his junior says to a much younger friend who is critical of and worried about this romance, “She is not the first love of my life, nor the best; but she certainly is my last”.  Roth understands the rejuvenating power of young love and how older men cannot resist, as Nugent suggests, because of notches and trophies, but because making love to a younger woman is pure, unadulterated bliss.  There is the silky smooth, unblemished skin – not the wrinkled parchment of age.  There is the lively, energetic responsiveness – not a reluctant rolling over once a month.  There are the fluids, the wetness, the pure desire, the multiple orgasms, the joy of sex.  What older man could possibly turn that down in favor of fidelity, feminism, or ‘progressivism’?  Death is staring them in the face and such considerations are nothing compared to the magical gift of a younger woman.

Mercy: that might be the singular benefit of repeating the sins of the previous generation. You might learn how quickly desire can rout ideology. You might acknowledge that you are not wholly unlike the dream-home-building, car-loving Rabbits you define yourself against, in that your major life decisions are guided by wants and not beliefs. Once you stop hating yourself, you might hate other people less.

I know that Mr. Nugent is writing for the Times in the category Opinionator/Anxiety, but he really shouldn’t beat up on himself so much.  He has been sold a bill of goods by women and their ‘progressive’ male shills.  He should also reread Updike and rather than pull out confirmatory quotes, should pay attention to the full characterization of Rabbit, truly an American tragic hero.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Death Penalty For The Boston Bomber?

The arguments for and against the death penalty have been debated for decades.  In their recent book entitled Deterrence and the Death Penalty :Daniel S. Nagin, PhD, Professor of Public Policy and Statistics at Carnegie Mellon University, and John V. Pepper, PhD, Professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, concluded that there was no evidence either way, and that policy decisions should not be made on the basis of current evidence:

"...[R]esearch to date of the effect of capital punishment on crime is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on crime rates. Therefore, the committee recommends that these studies not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on crime rates. Consequently, claims that research demonstrates that capital punishment decreases or increases the crime rate by a specified amount or has no effect on the crime rate should not influence policy judgments about capital punishment." (ProCon.org)

The support for the death penalty in America is still high at over 60 percent (Gallup Poll 2011) but significantly lower than the high of 80 percent in 1978.  This support for and the vehement opposition to public executions, then, has had to do more with moral judgments and Biblical injunctions than more practical and secular concerns for social justice or civil rights.

Another Gallup Poll (2003) listed the reasons Americans supported the death penalty, and 37 percent said “An eye for an eye”, “They took a life”, or “It fits the crime”.  Additional respondents replied “Biblical injunction”, “They deserved it” and  “Fair punishment”.  If all these responses are taken together approximately 60 percent of those who favor execution justify their choice on moral grounds.

Alan Dershowitz, writing in The Guardian (4.26.13) has always been strongly opposed to the death penalty and feels no differently regarding the case of the Boston bomber. 

Seeking the death penalty against Tsarnaev, and imposing it if he were to be convicted, would turn him into a martyr.  His face would appear on recruiting posters for suicide bombers.  The countdown toward his execution might well include other acts of terrorism.  Those seeking paradise through martyrdom would see him as a role model.

While this is a rational argument, it will hold no water at all with the many Americans who believe in the death penalty on moral grounds.  In their eyes what Tsarnaev and his brother did was a heinous crime against God, America, and the people who were killed or injured in Boston.  To capitulate their principled beliefs at this time, more than any other, would be to give in to the forces of materialism, secularism, and pragmatism.  Executing Tsarnaev would add a higher order of retribution for the crime. Executing him would raise the consequences of his act from punishment to retribution.  Invoking as it would the Biblical injunction to take one life for another, execution would add religious conviction and authority to simple, practical justice. Capital punishment is more a statement of our belief in God and the Bible and an expression of a muscular Old Testament tradition than simply a punishment which fits the crime.

Why shouldn’t this be a justifiable reason for the death penalty, given that there is no conclusive proof that it deters crime.  Why shouldn’t Americans legitimately express their deep moral rectitude and religious principle? 

At the same time it is surprising that in such a Christian country, we choose Old Testament guidance rather than New Testament charity and forgiveness? Jesus Christ, for that matter, was himself given the death penalty for his supposedly seditious, terrorist activities.  He was wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, and certainly wrongly punished by the State.  Are there no parallels here to the modern age? Why have we who have adopted Jesus Christ as our personal savior, friend, and companion, turned away from His exhortations to love our enemies, to be generous and forgiving, to hope and pray for redemption rather than resort to vindictiveness and indignation?

This doctrinal distinction, however, doesn’t matter. Whether we choose the Old Testament over the New makes no difference since we are heirs to both. 

Executing a murderer who has taken innocent lives deliberately and at random has in a way murdered us all.  We are all victims because we could have been there.  Not only that, the murderer showed no moral compunctions whatsoever.  By committing the act as a political statement, and by celebrating the killing of children as perhaps the most powerful statement of will and determination, further removed Tsarnaev from any Christian consideration of forgiveness or charity.  It is one thing for one drug dealer to assassinate a rival; but another thing altogether to slaughter innocent people.

There is a barbarism inherent in terrorism, most of us feel; and arguments that the United States must accept at least some responsibility for it enrage us even more.  Even if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were military adventurism at its worst; and even if they inflamed the Middle East, there is nothing to excuse the inhuman taking of life. The death penalty for Tsarnaev is our very American way of saying to our enemies that you are not simply dealing with a determined nation – “We will hunt you down; and we will find you” – but a Biblical one – “And we will kill you”.

Other than the discredited or at least questionable issue of deterrence, the only argument that might turn a few proponents of the death penalty is innocence.  More and more, death row inmates are found innocent based on new DNA testing.  Shouldn’t Christians be concerned about taking innocent life wherever it might be found? While this argument might cause some to reflect on universal death penalties; it has little relevance to terrorists who willingly admit their defiant acts. 

Many Americans are for the death penalty because it feels right. There is simply something wrong with a system that allows a mass murderer to live, repentant or not.  The movie Dead Man Walking is based on a true story of a Catholic nun who encourages a murderer to confess his sin, to repent having done it, and thus be forgiven by Jesus Christ.  He does confess and repent, but he is still put to death, and the parents of the murdered children are glad to see him pay the price.

I am not sure why America should be vilified for retaining the death penalty.  Europeans in particular chastise us for our primitiveness, the excesses of an individualistic society, and our dog-eat-dog, eye-for-an-eye world of the Wild West.  We have not yet cohered as a modern, progressive society, they say, and the death penalty is the perfect example of our crudeness and ignorant defiance. 

There is some truth in this criticism.  Public executions today are not that far removed from stringing up cattle rustlers from the nearest tree; and the same direct, retributive justice applies in both cases.  Before there was civil law, citizens had to take it into their own hands, and there was no careful parsing of secular justice.  Offenses against civility – rustling cattle or killing – had to be punished quickly, severely, and absolutely.  Our 19th Century forbearers decided on what crimes justified hanging just as we do now.  The sense of frontier justice still remains in most of us.

At the same time, the European demands for abolition of the death penalty are the worst kind of patronizing hectoring, for they deny our legitimate frontier roots, our religious fundamentalism, and our particular brand of crime and punishment.  There is no such thing as a universal moral and social order and to try to impose a foreign social philosophy is arrogant and presumptuous.

In conclusion, I feel that moral retribution based on moral outrage is as good a reason as any to put to death criminals who have killed others. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why We Love Conferences And How Thomas Friedman Will Make A Lot Of Money

Apparently Thomas Friedman has gotten into the act with his own, New York Times-sponsored conference on – you guessed it – everything.  As Lydia Depillis reports in The New Republic (4.25.13):

The New York Times Global Forum: Thomas L. Friedman’s The Next New World, scheduled for June 20, promises to “explore the complex dynamics of new-world infrastructure, especially the transformative electronic, digital and mobile environment,” impart “invaluable insights into strategies for success in today’s new world order,” and answer the question: “What World Are You Living In?” Invitees can attend the one-day forum for the early-bird price of $995.

Friedman is but one of a long line of hucksters selling their wares.  Evangelists have been cramming the faithful into revival tents for years, Southern pastors preach to thousands in mega-churches every Sunday, and self-help gurus earn millions in inspirational talks about self-confidence or making money in real estate. Why should Friedman come under such attack, especially by a fellow journalist?

Friedman proposes to answer [questions about the state of the world] by chatting with a set of white men on subjects including “Threats or Possibilities,” “What Happened to Power?” “What You Don’t Know Is Coming,” and “What Energy Is Going to Be.” If that weren’t enough, the website promises the presence of droves of C-Suite executives, venture capitalists, “content providers,” “hardware manufacturers,” and “service providers.” But it’s still exclusive: You have to “request an invitation” before they’ll let you pay your money.

It all sounds pretty awful, tacky in fact, and not something a reputable New York Times columnist should be up to.  After all, conferences are not for those who really want to learn anything, but who want to shmooze with like-minded people and to have their prejudices confirmed.  If you are a Friedman addict and New York Times reader, you are concerned about an ever increasingly complex world fraught with danger – environmental degradation, invasion of privacy, jihad, junk food, and epidemics; and you know that Friedman, with his avuncular manner and easy, conversational way will never scare you, but reassure you.  Yes, there are perils in the world, he says, but if we act reasonably and in time, we can eliminate them.

The list of Friedman’s topics suggest that he will be preaching to the converted.  Who, for example, especially New York Times readers, has not reflected on the impact of the Internet?  Is there anyone out there who has not caught a glimpse of its power and universality? Anyone who has not surfed the net, worked at home, engaged in social networking, or bought something on Amazon?

Not only have Times readers contemplated our connected world, they have subdivided themselves by issue.  There are the privacy freaks who worry about Big Brother and his satanic acolyte Big Business.  There are the nannies who worry about cyber-bullying and sexting; neo-Thoreauvians who worry about virtual reality and the irretrievable loss of the prelapsarian world of Walden Pond; liberals who see ‘progressive’ values lost in the commercialization of the world. They all convene their own conferences, chat groups, and seminars to talk to themselves.

In other words, the conference is about promoting Friedman and the Times, making people feel good, and strengthening the solidarity of the community of world citizens for whom a peaceful, harmonious, and sharing world is still a luminous ideal.

I hate conferences, and have gone to them only under duress. I have had to sit through treacly polite introductions and thank-you tributes; achingly boring plenary sessions; mind-numbing, useless break-out sessions followed by perfunctory, aimless, report-out sessions; and ducked out of one self-serving paper presentation after another.

Seminars are less painful only because they are smaller and because both presenters and participants are selective.  A seminar on quantitative easing would be attended by economists; one on drug-resistant TB by doctors, etc.

Workshops are the very worst, designed to gin up support for the boss’ new program or to improve sagging office morale; and especially to increase respect for diversity – and usually all three. In some companies these torture sessions are routine and frequent and do more to fragment a naturally cohering group than consolidating it.

Conferences are a huge waste of money.  The United Nations, never known for its efficiency and financial acumen, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conferences on every possible socially ‘progressive’ subject.  One of the most well-known and revered is the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (1994).  Untold amounts were spent to fly delegates to and from Egypt for long debates on everything from family planning to spatial redistribution of the population. Results? Platitudes, consensus on what everyone already knew, and goals that were idealistic, unreachable, and politically tone-deaf.  The conclusions were no more than a ‘progressive’ manifesto for universal education, abortion, and women’s rights.

Similar conferences have been held on Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and these, too, ended with similarly unreachable, idealistic objectives which satisfied the incestuous international community more than it did provide any real guidance to individual countries.  What it did do was to provide easy political cover for donors to contribute without serious reflection to the eradication of all the ills of the Third World.

What participants in all these conferences came away with was an invigorated commitment to their mission.  International Development is not a job but an ordained duty to help others; and proclamations of universal education or health care are banners to be carried back to the rabbit warrens and rat mazes of the bureaucracy.  Conferences are legitimizing events.  They are symbols of higher purpose and meaning; they are rallying points for the faithful; and they are mating grounds for the professionally ambitious.

It is no surprise, then, that Thomas Friedman has decided to cash in on this phenomenon.  He knows that mass-market conferences like his are not serious teaching enterprises; that each topic will be raised, discussed, and debated not to educate but to motivate – motivate to buy his books, read the NYT, and gain adherents to his worldview.  If he were interested in seriously raising the level of intellectual discourse on any one of the subjects he talks about, he would get off television, discard the pseudo-intellectual mantle placed on his shoulders by the media, and continue writing – or better yet teach higher-level courses at the War College, West Point, or Harvard Law School.  Of course he is not ready for that, but few are; so we should be a bit more gentle in our criticisms of him.

There is a great scene in the movie Quiz Show where the young, ambitious lawyer pursuing Charles Van Doren for cheating on ‘Twenty-One’ asks, “Why did you do it, Charlie?”.  Why would a respected college professor at a prestigious university, son of a scion of the literary world and an old-line aristocratic family go on a tacky quiz show to show off his knowledge, and then cheat by getting the answers?

“Wouldn’t you?”, replied Van Doren. Wouldn’t you take the fame, glory, and fortune of Quiz Show?  Wouldn’t you be tempted by adulating groupies, seduced by the new, special attention of young, female students? Wouldn’t you jump at the chance to be catapulted into the national spotlight after years spent in dusty library carrels? 

“No”, says the lawyer. “I would not”.

So is it then with Thomas Friedman.  Everybody does it these days.  Everyone knows that Jesus Christ is Our Savior, but we need to hear it again and again from the pulpit.  We need to hug our neighbor in the pew next to us and rejoice together in our salvation. Everyone knows that climate change is upon us and the world will soon turn into an infernal hell; but we want to hear the harangues of the doomsayers, the more fire-breathing, the better.  We want to see dark, gloomy films of corn crisping in the burning sun; smokestacks billowing black, noxious smoke; nuclear cooling towers, and rivers lined with belly-up fish and pools of cobalt blue and copper green.

Friedman is particularly smart because he confections his offering to a subset of this impassioned crowed of doomsday groupies.  His audiences feel themselves above exaggerated rhetoric, bombast, and fulmination; and respond warmly to his reasonability.  He is asking them to think, they say, even though they already know the message before it comes out of his mouth.

So, good luck, Mr. Friedman.  I think The New Republic picked on you a bit unfairly.  Yes, your enterprise does smack of Elmer Gantry hucksterism, and intellectual rabble-rousing; but so what?  Billy Graham never hurt anybody in his well-meaning and well-financed appearances, and there were probably more committed Christians coming out of the tent than entered it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Moving On From Boston–Very American Or Very Shallow?

Leon Wieseltier has written an interesting article in The New Republic (4.24.13) about our sense of ‘moving on’ – getting over it; letting bygones be bygones; what’s past is past.  The sentiment is quintessentially American, he says, because it embodies the optimism, belief in progress and perfectibility, and our eternal faith that the future will always be better than the past.

Moving on, however, is also an expression of our shallowness, Wieseltier says, for in our desire to erase the unpleasant or forget the lessons of the past; and in our hurry and impatience to hurdle obstacles and get on with things, we have lost any sense of the meaning of events.  We are loathe to reflect, consider, and remember. 

Almost as soon as the bombs exploded on Boylston Street the calls were heard to move on. “Repair the sidewalk immediately,” exhorted one commentator, “fix the windows, fill the holes, and leave no trace—no shrines, no flowers, no statues, no plaques—and return life to normal there as fast as possible.” Anything less would be a victory for the terrorists, who should not be allowed, as if it is within our power to disallow it, to leave “even the smallest scar” on our cities and our psyches.

Between shallowness and optimism is a third way, perhaps the most American of all, and one overlooked by Wieseltier – our adaptability.  It is not so much that we wish to sweep all unpleasantness under the rug or even to ignore the consequences and implications of bad things; but that we have the ability to quickly adjust to new realities.

I was in Washington on 9/11, and my wife saw the Pentagon burning from her office window.  We headed home in the confusion of the big exodus, watched the fall of the Twin Towers played over and over again on television, and were incredulous, shocked, and in tears. Within a week, most downtown offices had developed contingency plans in the event something like this ever happened again.  My office stocked canned food, established safe rooms, and and set up automatic lock-down procedures.  Of course most of the plans were totally cockamamie.  If there was a chemical or biological attack, would we be protected in the 5th floor conference room? Would the hundred cans of tuna and Chef Boyardee suffice for the nuclear cooling down period?  As might be expected, all this nonsense ended within a few months, and everything returned to normal.

The Government didn’t sit still.  Afghanistan, Iraq, The War on Terror, the Patriot Act, surveillance cameras, and beefed up security everywhere showed America’s official resolve; but for most of us, we just moved on.  We rationalized the invasiveness of video surveillance, snooping around our cookies, and metal detectors as part of this national response.  We got used to more helicopters thudding up and down the Potomac from the Pentagon to the CIA and over to the White House; more police sirens, and SWAT teams. 

Few people I know are freaked out by all this; and most, while never anxious, knew that something like Boston would happen at some point.  Moreover the feeling was that it was not The Big One.  Two kids with pressure cookers full of nails simply did not measure up.  We had simply incorporated terrorism within our routines, assessed risk and probability, and had gone on with our lives.

This is not shallowness.  It is resilience, human nature, and reflects a certain indomitability.  If one were to look philosophically, as Wieseltier does, Americans’ reaction to 9/11, terrorism, and Boston has been stoic and pragmatic.  Life is full of surprises, happy and unhappy.  Wars have happened since one caveman clan decided to invade another’s hunting ground, tyrants have come and gone; plagues, famines, droughts, and brutal storms have and still do devastate large swaths of the planet each year.  Yet we all take this with equanimity.  This by no means is a nihilistic retreat into ignorance; but an awareness of the ways of the world, the need to adapt quickly to survive; and definitely not to wallow in the miseries of the past. Wieseltier does not agree:

Moving on is of course one of the quintessential expressions of the American spirit, and of the American shallowness. Our religion is the religion of movement; stillness offends our sense of possibility. We dodge the darker emotions by making ourselves into a moving target for them. We feel, but swiftly. This emotional efficiency, this cost-benefit calculus of the heart, is at once a strength and a weakness: you cannot be damaged by what cannot sink in. And so we acquire resilience through transience, and stoicism through speed. We cling desperately to the illusion of our immunity, even after it has just been disproved by experience, and to the fiction of the pastness of the past: we call it “closure,” which is just a decision not to care anymore, and not to let experience intrude any further.

Wieseltier suggests that traumatic experiences don’t ‘sink in’ because we move too fast to let them.  We are too ‘efficient’ in our trajectory forward. On the contrary, we all in Washington did indeed let 9/11 sink in.  We incorporated it and the changes that occurred around us easily and well.  We don’t need to recall or remember that day and revive suspect nationalistic and patriotic feelings.  The most that will be said of us by future social historians is that we belonged to the first Post-9/11 Society and that we are characterized differently than the pre-9/11 crowd, or the Fifties, or the Roaring Twenties.

I say ‘suspect’ nationalistic and patriotic feelings because prominent memorials are more often than not designed not to provide philosophical aide-memoirs or to be shrines for us to reflect on our humanity or our destiny.  They are political statements:

The Hiroshima Memorial is many things.  It is statement of Japan’s durability, history, and cultural longevity (if not superiority).  It is a defiant statement to America that it still has a lot to atone for, and that it is as powerful a symbol as the gates of Auschwitz.

Entrance Auschwitz I.jpg

Vietnam has wanted to preserve the symbol of its victory over America and, like Hiroshima and Auschwitz wanted to create a ‘Never Forget’ cultural and political symbol

There is something very powerful about the Hiroshima and Hanoi memorials because of the long history of each country.  The Vietnamese endured hundred of years of conflict with China.  Japan evolved over more than two millennia into a powerful, if expansionist country.  The history of the Jews is even longer, and the symbol of Auschwitz, recalling the Holocaust, is one of an ancient history of oppression, hatred, and discrimination as well as current events.

America is different.  We are young and still ambitious, forward-looking, and optimistic. The 9/11 Memorial is unlikely to have the same iconic impact; and, like most things American, may simply be progressively incorporated into our lives – a beautiful park by the river, a nice place to take the family.

I don’t mean this cynically at all, just that we Americans are always, as Wieseltier says, on the move.  While there is no doubt that while 9/11 will be remembered by those who were alive when it happened, future generations, having moved on, will unlikely be moved by the same emotional patriotism of their recent ancestors.

Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken. Only a stupid society would refuse to acknowledge that its safety, and its peace of mind, may be affected by resentments and metaphysics that come from far away—from what Fouad Ajami recently described, in connection with the Tsarnaev brothers, as “the seam between countries and cultures.”

Of course we are affected by the events in Boston, but why should we be ‘shaken’? We have come to live with the threat and the possibility of terrorism for the last twelve years.  We have incorporated it into our lives, our psyche, and our mentality.  Only the most naïve of us will be shaken.

Vigilance, increased and intense, is not a victory for the terrorists. Mourning, and the time it takes, is not a victory for the terrorists. Reflection on all the meanings and the implications—on the fragility of our lives—on terrorism and theodicy—is not a victory for the terrorists. A less than wholly sunny and pragmatic view of the world is not a victory for the terrorists. What happened on Boylston Street was not a common event, but it was not a singular event. There is a scar. Taking terrorism seriously is not a victory for terrorism.

These sentiments are off-kilter. There are plenty of things in very ordinary lives which make us think of the ‘fragility of our lives’.  All of us have experienced disease, death, and struggle within our own families and sooner or later we begin to reflect on our own mortality.  It doesn’t take Boston or 9/11 to do that.

In our moving on we are not sending a message to terrorists; but just adapting and perhaps re-writing – as we always do – our optimistic screenplay.  There is no need to scrap it – just rework a few scenes – for our vision of life’s drama is intact regardless of Boston.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The End Of Magical Realism–Finally!

Isabel Allende has recently published a new novel in which she abandons her decades-long stay in the world of ‘Magical Realism’, and comes down to earth.  The result is disastrous as noted by The New Republic’s Maggie Shipstead:

Readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual; the mingled facts and mysteries of the past make good fertilizer for fantasy. Add a dash of the supernatural and an avalanche of detail, and suddenly the whole enterprise is so heightened that soap opera plots and overwrought prose seem like purposeful stylistic choices. But when those plots and that prose are grafted onto the here and now, as in Maya’s Notebook, and subjected to the accountability of realism, they fail to provide either truth or pleasure.

I have never been a fan of Magical Realism, struggled through 100 Years of Solitude, and have put down every Isabel Allende book I tried after 50 pages.  I always feel cheated reading this genre.  I neither get insights into human nature and behavior – to me, the essential value of literature – nor do I get any meaningful or historical context.  When fantasy and reality are mixed in a romantic, folkloric hymn to otherworldliness, I am left unsatisfied and impatient.  What are Magical Realists saying to us about human ambition, desire, or disappointment when the characters are influenced by djinns, spirits, and phantasms.  How can place, setting, and historical context provide clues to motive and reaction when they are dreamland fantasies? How can I appreciate, follow, and understand a writer’s literary purpose or personal convictions if each novel is set in a half-real, have fantastical world?

I wonder if, in Allende’s work in general, exaggerated elements that might be read as magical realism aren’t sometimes just examples of unsubtle characterization and the kind of fuzzy wish-fulfillment that runs rampant in romantic fiction, powered by a yearning for a world full of spunky, crime-solving grandmothers and lovers who are endlessly patient, generous, and tender—and possess perfect bodies. Allende includes “emotion” on a list of forces accommodated by magical realism, but if an excess of emotion isn’t accompanied by elements of unreality, what distinguishes the work from standard-issue melodrama?

It has always been a surprise to me that Magical Realism, but especially the Latin American version of it has been so highly-regarded.  Many critics have suggested that this literary love affair had more to do with multi-culturalism and ‘progressives’ search for non-white, non-European authors.  Magical Realism satisfied that search for cultural diversity in many ways:

South America was and is continually fractured by regional wars, border conflicts, internal disputes, regimes of various political persuasions; a vast tropical continent in constant turmoil, and on top of that, the South American Indian heritage seemingly co-existing at the same time. It is a land where dualities and dichotomies are the rule, not the exception; the urbane and the Indian, the spiritual and the superstitious, the civilized and the rustic, the city and the jungle, the mundane and the exotic. (Bruce Taylor, margin.com)

Perhaps more relevant is the adoption of Magical Realism by Postmodernists and Deconstructionists as their own step-child:

A list has been compiled of characteristics one might typically attribute to postmodernism, but which also could describe literary magic realism: "self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader." To further connect the two, magical realism and postmodernism share the themes of post-colonial discourse, in which jumps in time and focus cannot really be explained with scientific but rather with magical reasoning; textualization (of the reader); and metafiction (Wikipedia)

Magical Realism was coined in Germany in the 1920s in response to Weimar Republic painting which tried to explore the reality behind surface appearances:

This philosophical spirit animated artists like Braque, Picasso, Dali, and many others who dissembled ‘reality’ into component parts for better understanding of the whole; and who distorted it to show that the perception of reality was always subjective, if not feverish.

Authors like Joyce and Faulkner are inheritors of this artistic/intellectual movement.  In their long interior monologues characters like Rosa Coldfield and Molly Bloom are purely subjective, recounting history and personal events in their own way.

Magical Realism as it evolved into the popular, melodramatic, romantic Latin American version lost all of its intellectual vigor; and authors were less interested – like Faulkner and Joyce – in defining character, illustrating human sensibilities, and integrating the subjective and objective worlds of reality – than in simply creating a fantastical universe.  Reading Marquez or Allende is like going to a circus.  You don’t care about the meaning of clowns, or the weird and twisted side shows.  You just want to suspend your disbelief for an hour, be titillated, and go home.

Louis Proyect quotes Theo Tait from his LRB review in 2005:

With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable.

The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cozy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale.

To be fair, Shakespeare was no stranger to mystical reality.  The ghosts of Banquo and Hamlet’s father, and The Weird Sisters are just a few:

Shakespeare, however, never confused reality and the supernatural. There was no doubt that Hamlet and Macbeth saw ghosts; but these were simply real characters with an extended life.  They had unfinished business with the real characters of the play, business which involved only them. We, the audience, are not asked to abandon our sense of reality.  In fact, the ‘ghosts’ of wronged people are staples of modern psychoanalysis.  The images of a mother we hurt, a friend whom we betrayed, a child we ignored are permanently in our minds.  They pop up at unexpected times.  They have a life of their own; but they are part of our very real past.  Whether the ghost of Banquo was a real supernatural appearance or merely the projection of a guilt-ridden brain is insignificant.  Whatever its form, it illustrates a very dramatic and essential feature of Macbeth.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is pure fantasy.  Once again, Shakespeare does not ask us to figure out what is reality and what is fantasy because the difference is obvious. The work is a pure, unadulterated, magical world into which real people enter.  They do not themselves become spirits, like characters in 100 Years of Solitude, but interact with them. The Tempest is similar.

I am an adherent of The Canon, and believe that not all works of literature are the same.  There are some which stand out far above the rest because of their enduring insights. King Lear is not just a text to be deconstructed like a User’s Manual or slave journals, but a masterpiece of insight, humanity, philosophy, and history.  Absalom, Absalom is perhaps the most important American novel ever written because of Faulkner’s uncanny understanding of culture, ambition, family, and human nature.  Tennessee Williams is a significant playwright because he understands how the world of personal fantasy, illusion, and longing is as important and as real as the gritty, threatening, and imposing one around us.  Hundreds of writers from Aeschylus to Richard Ford have demanded much from us, and asked us to experience mortality, moral failing, cowardice, love, responsibility, and indifference. 

Isabel Allende, Marquez, and other Latin Magical Realists demand nothing more than a lazy and uncritical acceptance of the authors’ creation.  Who cares if what we are seeing is real or unreal, they ask? Life is just a mishmash of shamans, witch doctors, spiritualists, and seers along with the rest of us. 

Allende’s disastrous turn to realism gives the like to her Magical Realism.  When required to create a dramatic world with real people and events; real crises, accidents, and confrontations, she cannot.  Any slavishly loyal critic who continues to insist that Allende had any more to say than children’s fantasies is dead wrong. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Is America A Violent Country?

Todd May, writing in the New York Times (4.22.13) has concluded that America very definitely is one of the most violent countries in the world; and suggests that our violence is a result of three factors.  First our individualism and our rejection of the concept of social solidarity predominant in countries like Sweden and Denmark.  Second our insecurity.  America is no longer a world power, says May, and our military adventurism (violence) is a frustrated reaction to that erosion of international authority.  Third the decline of the welfare state and the rise of neo-liberalism or individualistic free-enterprise.

While our particular brand of muscular individualism has certainly contributed to our confrontational settling of disputes, it is more a result of our history of Westward expansion, settling lands in hostile country with no law, and a fierce and natural desire to protect our own than an inherent defect in individualism. We have definitely retained the independent,entrepreneurial, risk-taking and confrontational behavior of our ancestors, but our vigorous, innovative society is the result.

Europe, on the other hand, developed much differently.  In medieval times society was feudal with power and wealth concentrated within kingdoms and principalities.  Kings collected taxes and conscripted peasants to wage almost continual wars of expansion, revenge, or self-defense. As history progressed, the wars became fewer, and the political system less monarchical and after the revolutions of the 18th century less exploitive, but the traditional social systems remained. Aristocrats owned the land on which farmers worked, and an increasingly dense population was concentrated around hundreds of small towns.   It wasn’t the peasants who were responsible for the defense of their land and property.  It was the aristocrats who were, and they were as confrontational as any American cowboy. After the revolutions and social upheavals of the 18th century, the idea of participatory government took hold, but the propertied classes ruled in these new, secular kingdoms.  Government and paternalism grew and eventually evolved into the welfare state where individualism, never a European characteristic, was subsumed within the larger entity of the State.

Therefore it is misleading to hold up European Socialist political economies as the result of progressive insight and a moral commitment to social integrity and harmony.  They evolved logically and understandably to their current political context; and will continue to evolve away from it as economic liberalism and the introduction of American-style individualism continues.

Therefore, while American historical individualism most definitely has shaped American confrontational behavior; and we are a society less concerned with negotiation and compromise than those of Europe, individualism is not a virus to be extirpated. Violence is a by-product of a unique system of positivism and energy; but the establishment of a communal, statist political system like those cited by May is not the answer.

In other words, the answer to controlling violence is not to impose an oppressive government on individual-based system and engineer a more symbiotic and sympathetic populace.  This is what American ‘Progressives’ have tried to do for the last 50 years.  They have tried to tame that very spirit which has led the country to its greatest domestic achievements – individual enterprise – and replace it with a homogenized, neutralized system of idealistic equality.  They have failed and will continue to do so; for it is impossible to reconfigure and restructure a society which has been on an individualistic trajectory for 400 years.

Another reason why it is disingenuous to hold up Scandinavian Socialism as the ideal is because Norway, Sweden, and Denmark – up until very recently – have been small countries, densely populated with homogeneous populations.  The constant racial, ethnic, and religious divisions in the United States – the source of both problems and vitality – are alien to these Northern European societies. There was never the need to debate ‘inclusion’, civil rights, or participatory democracy in the American sense.  Scandinavian societies grew together, and it was logical – and not contradictory – for individuals to be subsumed within the State. Denmark is rapidly becoming multi-cultural and the rest of the region will follow.  There is simply no way that in the 21st Century countries can maintain impermeable borders and remain ethnically and culturally pure.

What May is really proposing is the dismantling of American capitalism; for while he does not explicitly call for this radical solution, he indirectly refers to it.  Income inequality – always a necessary and sometimes unpleasant by-product of a laissez-faire economic system – will always produce resentment, crime, and violence; and when this is added to the powerful and seemingly ineradicable strain of individual confrontation in our national character, violence will always ensue.  The assumption is that if we were to have a Socialist state where income inequalities have been erased, social distinctions minimized, and equality assured for all, violence would decline and eventually disappear.  Socialism, despite its having been debunked, discredited, and marginalized, still has its hangers-on.  It will never happen.

Even more fundamentally, what May, and other similar critics continue to contend is that violence itself can be removed from human interactions – that it is not part of human nature to be acquisitive, expansionist, self-protective, and confrontational; and with a little assiduous application of ‘modern’ norms, peace can reign.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  If Western history is anything to go on, wars, violence, marauding and depredation in the name of God, King, and Country will certainly continue.  Even a cursory reading of Shakespeare', a firm believer in the absolute, immutable demands of a well-defined human nature, will show that history – both political and personal – is always played out again and again according to the same rules.

There is no doubt that the ethnic conflicts heating up in Denmark will produce violence. The clash of cultures is only beginning, and formerly homogeneous societies like those of Northern Europe have no clue about how to resolve the problem.  How much do we accede to minority wishes, and how much to we hold our ground to defend traditional white, Christian values?  France, another country admiringly referred to by May has already shown what happens when traditionalism meets the 21st Century.  The riots in the northern suburbs of Paris are only the beginning.  France will become as violent as the United States because of ethnic and religious conflict and great disparities of wealth, income, and power.

I do not understand why May includes international wars in his discussion of American violence.  While our Wild West pistol-packing, gunfight at OK Corral mentality certainly plays a role in our foreign adventurism, it is by far not the most important.  Once again, one only needs to look at both Western and Eastern history to see how war is an endemic expression of human nature and society.  The Crusades, Genghis Khan, the War of the Roses, The Hundred Years War, the perpetual armed conflicts of the 20th Century are part of world civilization ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The most presumptuous and historically ignorant book of recent years was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History.  There, of course, is no such thing.  Once some major international configurations change – e.g. the end of the Soviet bloc – new ones take their place.  Our wars are now asymmetrical, but they are still wars.  Russia and the United States may not enter into a nuclear exchange, but we and the North Koreans or Iranians might.

As in the past, most American wars have not been related so much to American cowboy individualism, but political ambitions.  The War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War were all fought to defend American economic and political interests, to expand American regional hegemony, and to display intimidating American might.  The second Iraq War was no different.  It was certainly part posse manhunt to find and string up Saddam Hussein, but it was also about oil and especially the vain desire of the Neo-Cons to spread American light and wisdom to the rest of the world.

May does himself no favors when he uses pop psychology to explain American international violence.  We are like frustrated, insecure bullies who push people around:

The second reason is the decline of our ability to control events in the world.  We might date this decline from our military failure in Vietnam, or, if we prefer, more recently to the debacle in Iraq.  In any event, it is clear that the United State cannot impose its will as it did during much of the 20th century.  We live in a different world now, and this makes many of us insecure.  We long for a world more cooperative with our wishes than the one we now live in.  Our insecurity, in turn, reinforces our desire to control, which reinforces violence.  If we cannot control events in the world, this must be a result not of our impotence or the complexity of the world’s problems but of our unwillingness to “man up.”  And so we tell ourselves fairy tales about what would have happened if we had committed to victory in Vietnam or bombed one or another country back to the Stone Age.

Nothing could be more misguided.  Countries always undertake military adventures and usually (see Shakespeare) for the same, predictable reasons. If a country already has dominant power, it has a tendency to use it because reprisals will be few and ineffective.  If a country is feeling the pressure of internal conflicts, it often goes to war to deflect political pressure and to coalesce arguing factions around a singular cause. The English kings often used wars with France, Ireland, Spain, and Scotland for this reason. Countries go to war to show ‘em. After Vietnam, the Pentagon was certainly waiting for an opportunity to show that America could decisively win a war, and itching for a casus belli.

The point is, there is nothing new in this.  It is not American insecurity that is a unique and special cause of our international violence.  It is reaction to a complex of social, economic, and political factors that is little different from any other armed conflict in history.

May concludes with some very shopworn idealism:

To recognize someone’s humanity is, in perhaps the most important way, to recognize him or her as an equal. Each of us, nonviolence teaches, carries our humanity within us.  That humanity cannot always be appealed to.  In some cases, as with the tragedy at Sandy Hook, it can even become nearly irrelevant.  However, in all but the most extreme cases nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution.  It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other.  It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others:  that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.

“It demands that we do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other”  What a lovely sentiment, how heartfelt, warm, and cuddly.  There is nothing in our past from the caveman clubbing his hairy rival to the likes of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz to suggest that any such beatific and peaceful utopia will ever come our way. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus–Yet Again

Bobbi Caruthers and Harry Reis have written in the New York Times about what they consider to be conclusive findings about sex differences between men and women – they do not exist.  There is too much overlap in behavior, they say, to make any kind of generalization.  There are caring men and aggressive women.  Men who are open and sympathetic, and women who are interior and closed.  Just as many soft-hearted men, awash in tears, ask hard-boiled women what they’re thinking and what’s bothering them as the other way around.

I have met many women who are quite capable of the same aggressive, competitive, take-no-prisoners attitude as men. Most of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters are strong, determined women who will do anything to get what they want and who are just as determined, single-minded, and brutal as their male counterparts.  My favorite is Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother who is so hungry for power that first she manipulates and uses her heroic son to attain Rome’s highest position; and when she sees that in so doing she has castrated him, she sends him to his death. 

I am also a fan of Tamora, the Amazon Queen of Titus Andronicus who in a fit of vengeful rage, incites her son to rape Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, then has them cut out her tongue and cut off her hands so that she can never tell who did it. There is also Dionyza, the wife of the Governor of Tarsus (Pericles) who is so jealous of Pericles’ daughter, so much more beautiful, talented, and charming than her own daughter, that she arranges for her to be murdered.

I would never want to run afoul of Goneril and Regan who let nothing stop them in their path to wealth and glory. Who clan forget the marvelous scene where Regan has her husband, Cornwall, pluck out the eyes of Gloucester?  Margaret, the wife of the weak and pusillanimous King Henry VI dons her armor and does battle with the French to protect her husband’s kingdom.  Lady Macbeth, until her conscience gets the better of her, is the evil power behind her husband, urging him to kill all who can get in his way to the throne.  Cleopatra, is never cruel like these ladies, but far more intelligent and cunning. For decades she has ruled Egypt, fought palace battles with her relatives, gotten Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in bed with her and had children by them to consolidate her power; never had a weak moment, and goes to her death in a last theatrical moment, worried only about what she will wear so that she can look good when the meets her lover in on the other side.

On a more practical and realistic plane, my last boss was so feared by the Executive Committee for her indomitable will, brutal competitive drive, and incessant acquisition of power that she had to be eliminated, and fell in a palace coup.

All this having been said, I am not so sure that women and men are the same.  Perhaps in the long run, sex differences will diminish and disappear, and the sexual landscape will be like that in the scary last scene of The Time Machine when the Time Traveller stands on the shore of a far distant future when the sun is going out and the world has achieved stasis – no energy left, no ripple in the water, no stirring of breeze across the flat, featureless land.  Perhaps, but not for a while. In my long life I have had to deal with more female tears than I can begin to relate.  Tears of hurt, frustration, loss, anger, happiness and much, much more. Unless I am missing something, and men in the privacy of their bedrooms are blubbering about how badly they were treated at the office or how their wives have ignored them, I think that men and women – on the whole - deal with their emotions very differently.  I am very glad about that.  I can’t even imagine – let alone bear the thought – of waking up next to someone just like me. 

Shakespeare celebrated the differences between men and women (do Caruthers and Reis know something he did not?), and while the women usually come out on top, the war between the sexes is a thing to behold. Men, as portrayed in Shakespeare, are often pompous dummies whom women always disparage.  Portia (The Merchant of Venice) is hilarious in her disassembling of potential husbands:

NERISSA
First, there is the Neapolitan prince.
PORTIA
Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but
talk of his horse; and he makes it a great
appropriation to his own good parts, that he can
shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his
mother played false with a smith.
NERISSA
Then there is the County Palatine.
PORTIA
He doth nothing but frown, as who should say 'If you
will not have me, choose:' he hears merry tales and
smiles not: I fear he will prove the weeping
philosopher when he grows old, being so full of
unmannerly sadness in his youth. I had rather be
married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth
than to either of these. God defend me from these
two!

Beatrice and Benedick (Much Ado About Nothing) go at each other in a spirited sexual sparring, but Beatrice always gets the upper hand.  Here is but one of her jabs at her future lover:

BEATRICE
Why, he is the prince's jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in
the fleet: I would he had boarded me.

Maria (Twelfth Night) is merciless in her ridicule and trickery of Malvolio; and Orlando is definitely no match for Rosalind (As You Like It).  The point is, all these women understand and pillory what they know are male characteristics – a tendency to self-importance and self-deception, unfounded arrogance, silly romantic notions of love and a total misunderstanding of women.  The butts of their jokes, tricks, and deceptions are all men who deserve it.  Forget the Deconstructionist arguments of historicism – all must be seen through the lens of class struggle, gender, race, and ethnicity.  The reason why the men and women of Shakespeare’s plays are so memorable and relevant is because he observed, understood, and celebrated their differences. 

Tennessee Williams was another playwright who understood both men and women and set them against each other in often unflattering but true-to-life ways.  The Princess Alexandra del Lago (Sweet Bird of Youth) is very much a woman like Cleopatra in her theatricality, her passion, and her expressiveness.  While she and Chance Wayne are both narcissists, they differ dramatically in the ways they deal with age.  Chance will inevitably be limited by his male, singular vision of success while the Princess’ ambitions are tied up with who she is.  Williams understood that women are more complex than men, more interesting and more emotionally demanding.

In Streetcar Named Desire Stanley is the proto-male ape; and Blanche is by no means the fading violet so often caricatured in campy productions.  She is a strong woman, as are all of his female characters, and Williams himself always talked about the strength of Amanda, Laura, Alma, Lady, Blanche and others. These are complex women dealing with life as women, facing fading beauty, isolation, loneliness, frustration, and the loss of place very differently than men.

Edward Albee could never have written Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with two male characters because there would never be any of the complex and brutal games played out between George and Martha.  Men would have had a down and dirty physical brawl to settle the matter once and for all very early in the first act.  Shakespeare parodies this male posturing in Twelfth Night when he has the most ridiculous character, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a timid, feminine character draw swords against his rival.  Men are always pulling out their swords in Elizabethan and modern drama and settling scores through direct confrontation and battle. 

The men are no match for Lavinia and Christine in the grand guignol melodrama. Mourning Becomes Electra.  O’Neill  had the same appreciation of the dramatic differences between men and women as Shakespeare or Albee.  Postmodern critics have said that these differences are merely historical hangovers – women who must be calculating, cunning, and duplicitous because of the male dominated world in which they live – but it is hard to imagine that the very female nature portrayed for at least the last 500 years of European drama is a historical fiction.

Of course, for every bucket of tears and Vogue cover story about how to get and hold a man, there is a Helen Mirren – a great actress who one would never characterize as girly.  Every one of her characters, from her earliest Shakespearean roles (As You Like It) to both Queen Elizabeths, to Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) and the ex-Mossad operative in The Debt depict women as strong individuals, but also as women. Elizabeth I had her dalliance and love affair with Robert Dudley, Chief Inspector Tennison has romantic problems, and Elizabeth II was definitely a little girl who grew up to be Queen.

The research results of Caruthers and Reis are predictable because of their conclusion:

Instead of dividing into two groups, men and women overlapped considerably on attributes like the frequency of science-related activities, interest in casual sex, or the allure of a potential mate’s virginity.

Even stereotypical traits, like assertiveness or valuing close friendships, fell along a continuum. In other words, we found little or no evidence of categorical distinctions based on sex.

Of course male and female behavior is distributed over a continuum.  Everyone can imagine a tough, biker broad and an effeminate, swishy guy; but what is the point? Where is the middle? Don’t women themselves now acknowledge their more collaborative, communicative style; their particular ability to care and nurture; their acuity and perception and understanding subtlety and behavioral cues; their emotional sensitivity to violence and aggression? Is there no doubt, given the reams of publications on fashion, traditional female sexuality, that women have a girly, alluring, sexy side that men don’t have; and that no matter how much mothers try, they simply cannot get their daughters to play with Army tanks and big trucks?

In conclusion anyone who takes a moment to reflect will agree that men and women are different; and that while many women and men act very much alike; and while there are some exaggerated examples of sexuality on either end of the Bell Curve, they have never been and will never be the same.

And thank God for that!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Was Shakespeare Liberal Or Conservative?

Apparently some people care about Shakespeare’s political persuasion, writes Daniel Hannan in The Guardian (4.20.13), and both sides of the British aisle claim Shakespeare as their own.  Both Catholics and Protestants see him as one of theirs, as well as materialists, individualists, existentialists, and all shades of moral philosophers.  It is not surprising that there are so many conflicting claims to Shakespeare because there is indeed something for everyone in his 37 plays and Sonnets. I, for example, see no politics at all, but an enduring, persistent, and consistent view that it is human nature – self-serving, protective, acquisitive, and aggressive – which drives political, social, and personal events.  Shakespeare is neither optimist nor pessimist in my view, but a very objective observer of the repetitive course of history and the similarly predictable outcomes of marital, family, and social dramas. 

Despite his love poems and the pas de deux of his Comedies, Shakespeare is no romantic, and takes the same dispassionate, removed view of human relationships as he does of history.  Men and women are always in competition and find endlessly amusing ways to do battle.  One always wonders after the comedies end whether or not Rosalind, Olivia, and Beatrice will stay married to their overmatched mates. Love will not prevail, and despite the lovely poetry, it was never Shakespeare’s motive for writing.  Love was a gauntlet, a challenge, and marital relations were no more than microcosms of the larger skirmishes and battles fought between nations.

I find Shakespeare very Machiavellian – a proto-Nietzschean who admired Marlowe and Tamburlaine and who created wonderfully evil villains all disposed of will joyously celebrated. Aaron the Moor, Edmund, and Iago are perhaps the most famous, but most of the most fascinating and entertaining characters in Shakespeare’s plays are villainous or evil.  Macbeth may have had his sights on the throne and whose actions might be compared to any of the kings in Shakespeare’s Histories; but he still had an evil streak and wantonly killed everyone in his way. 

Most of Shakespeare’s heroines are willful, determined women, and some of them most definitely fall in the evil category (Dionyza who wanted her ward, the daughter of Pericles to be murdered simply because she was a superior rival to her own daughter; Tamora, the Amazon queen who egged her sons to rape and mutilation of Titus’s daughter for revenge; and Goneril and Regan who stopped at nothing to destroy their father and take all his wealth).  Many more female characters were simply strong women, like Margaret, the wife of Henry VI who goes to battle against the French because her pious and weak husband will not; or like Constance, the mother of Arthur who fights for his rights to the throne she feels that King John has usurped; or Joan of Arc; or the most famous of all, Cleopatra.

So I, like most readers of Shakespeare, have come to my own conclusions about his work; but I know that what I see as a celebration of personal will has been dismissed by Deconstructionists, according to whom individuals do not exist, for they are mere textual elements which only take on character if seen through the lens of gender, race, and ethnicity.  Hamlet, Lear, and Henry V were not Great Men, they were simply products of history and pre-conditioned by it.  Nietzsche was a 19th Century Romantic, nothing more, and only Twentieth Century historicist analysis can possibly derive any ‘truth’ out of Shakespeare or any other artist.  There is no such thing as human nature, these Postmodernists argue.  Nurture is everything.  The environment, that collection of  random and so-called purposeful events called history, is the only knowable human reality.

Feminists would look at the indomitable will of Richard III or Henry VIII not as something to celebrate but as an expression of male domination, an oppressive sexist society, and one which there are only struggles of class.  Women are heroic not because of unique traits of courage, indomitability, and strength; but because they battled the male enemy.

Historical literalists see the works of Shakespeare as uniquely Elizabethan works, and read his plays as thinly veiled homages to the Queen and the Tudors, Machiavelli, Marlowe, and Copernicus.  They parse Shakespeare’s life for clues to decipher the plays and hope to create the definitive critical template for approaching his work.

There are the traditional historians who like to quibble with Shakespeare’s Histories. The battles of Agincourt and Actium (Henry V, Antony and Cleopatra) never happened that way, they say.  The historical Julius Caesar did not in the least resemble the uxorious and monomaniacal figure in the play. Shakespeare, these traditionalists argue, took intolerable liberties not only with Richard III (written to please Elizabeth) but all Histories.

Not only is there something for everyone in Shakespeare, but there is so much of everything.  If one were to take his language alone, Shakespeare would have to be considered the greatest writer in English of all time.  His use of metaphor is unmatched, line after line of subtle allusions drawn from nature, classical literature, history, and science; each a commentary on human values, desires, or passions; and all written with an elegance of style, humor, and reflectiveness.  Not only are the great Tragedies filled with sublime poetry, but the Histories as well.  All of Shakespeare’s kings – even the most craven and the weakest like John and Henry VI have their moments, some of which rival the insights of Richard II.

While there are certain familiar, recurrent themes in the plays, they are all different.  Even within the categories of Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances there may be familiar, but always distinct characters.  Beatrice, Portia, and Rosalind all share their dismissiveness of men’s weaknesses – Beatrice’s sparring with Benedick shows her quick, jousting wit, humor, and vitality.  Portia is catty and hilariously cruel as she pillories one suitor after another for their looks, presumptuousness, or arrogance. Rosalind levels with Orlando about men’s silliness and romantic illusions and plays with him like a toy.

Shakespeare’s clowns and fools are staples of many of his plays, but they are all different.  There are the intellectual fools like Touchstone, Feste, and Lear’s Fool and low-class clowns like Trinculo, Launcelot Gobbo, and Dogberry.  There are buffoons like Sir Toby, Andrew, and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, the crew at the Boar’s Head Tavern to keep Falstaff company, any number of witty, complicit attendants of Cleopatra like Alexas, Mardian, and Charmian; smart servants like Desdemona’s Emilia or the wicked Maria in Twelfth Night.

There are plays about kingship; and about a theme often overlooked – governance.  There are many ‘Governance’ plays in which Shakespeare presents various ethical and legal dilemmas such as the conflict between justice and mercy (Measure for Measure), the social value of legal contracts (Merchant of Venice), the nature of righteous rule and the demands of the people (Coriolanus), honor and virtue vs. practicality and reason (Troilus and Cressida), pre-crime, or the obligation to neutralize a potential wrongdoer before he commits a crime (Julius Caesar).

Throughout the plays there are disquisitions on nature (The Tempest, As You Like It, Cymbeline. King Lear) as harsh, unforgiving, or benignly pastoral; extended metaphors of the sea (shipwrecks, storms, castaways); reflections on coincidence and luck (Twelfth Night, Pericles); gender-bending cross-dressing and sexual innuendo; insights into the nature of jealousy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida, Othello), and even one and only one about pure, true love, Romeo and Juliet.

Most of us, Goethe-like, are drawn to the plays for different reasons at different stages in our lives. And we find, each time, that they illuminate our experience more than our experience illuminates them. How Shakespeare was possible, I still don't know. But there isn't a day I'm not glad that he speaks to me in my own language.

As T.S. Eliot himself put it, the most anyone can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.

I was an English major in college and read the complete works of Shakespeare.  I was bored, impatient with deciphering metaphors and Elizabethan language, dismissive of the silly Comedies, and bored with the drone of English history.  Only forty years later after decades of travelling, reading exhaustive studies of political philosophy and history, and endless unanswered queries about society and culture did I turn to Shakespeare.  Perhaps he, I thought, might have insights about why people do what they do. 

I started my re-reading of Shakespeare with the Histories – a difficult place to start because in addition to his metaphorical language and verse, there is the context of history to deal with.  One can in theory read the Henriad and Henry VI  simply as plays, but it helps to understand the complex lineages of the Houses of York and Lancaster, the War of the Roses, and the rise of the Tudors. Now, however, I was ready to enter this world of palace intrigues and coups; pretenders and defenders; she-bears and vixens ambitious for their children; international alliances and Papal politics.  The more I read, the more I understood history – not the details of history, but the dynamics of it.  As the critic Jan Kott wrote, if you laid all of Shakespeare’s Histories from end to end, you would find the same themes, actions, dramas, and events replayed with regularity and predictability.  There was a Grand Mechanism at work, an internal engine in human history fueled by human nature which made it all so familiar.

From there I went to the Tragedies, the Comedies, the Romances, and now finally the Sonnets. 

Perhaps because of my literature background, I was content with reading the plays rather than watch them on stage or in movies; or perhaps it was because I needed the time to read and re-read to extract meaning and sentiment.  A few years ago I went to a Shakespeare conference and attended a lecture by a director from the well-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  He directed two of his actors to show how the Stanislavski Method could be applied to Shakespeare.  One of the actresses was asked to read a soliloquy of Constance, mother of Arthur in King John.  Up until that moment, I had appreciated Constance as one of Shakespeare’s strong women, willful mothers who negotiated palace politics and fought determined men for their rights and the rights of their sons.  Only when the actress read the passage, a plaintive cry of love for her son, did I really understand Constance and was moved to tears.  I had entered a whole new world of the theatre.

As a young man, Goethe loved the plays for their rawness and realism. By the end of his life, he had reached the view that the lines were so pure that they shouldn't be acted at all, only read as poetry.

I now go back and forth between enjoying the written Shakespeare and the performed Shakespeare.  I am never disappointed in my reading but often disappointed in theatrical productions.  Modern directors can’t seem to stay within Elizabethan boundaries and feel the need to modernize and to make Shakespeare ‘more accessible’.  I have left at Intermission more times than I can remember.  The worst was a performance of The Merchant of Venice where all characters were New Yorkers. The ‘Italians’ were hoods from Little Italy; the Jews from the Lower East Side; and Portia and her upper-class crowd from the North Shore of Long Island.

I have been immersed in Shakespeare for the past two years, and still can’t get enough. Every time I reread a play it is as though I am reading it for the first time.  I read criticism, I teach Shakespeare to adults in a number of universities in the country, and talk about the conundrums of the plays with the few friends who share the same obsession.

I will never be finished.