29 July 2006

A Gallimaufry of the Gospel

I don't get out much.

Think about it. I've travelled across an ocean and a couple of islands and several countries to get to Oxford, and now the furthest I travel each day is around the block to the library. Then I sit all day in once place, only travelling in my mind. But, O! the places I go!

So I thought maybe I'd share what I'm writing now, little by little. It's a ridiculously massive paper, but it's a massive topic. My biggest concern is whether or not I'm being spiritually honest in what I'm writing. I believe that Shakespeare probably believes it, and that it is possible for someone (me) to make the point I'm making validly from the text, but theologically I'm a bit dubious. See, the conclusion (spoiler warning) is something like:

"Shakespeare’s text is hard to figure out. It has both Catholic and Protestant features. The Bible must be hard to figure out, since 2000 years of debate has not solved the Catholic/Protestant divide. Shakespeare does not come down on one side of these big theological questions. Critics of The Winter’s Tale, like Christian theologians, take the same text and come up with opposite, fully-convinced, well-argued, logical, solidly supported conclusions. This is not to say that there are no correct answers, nor that all interpretations are equally valid. Rather, it is to say that a good piece of writing generates more pieces of writing. Viewing The Winter’s Tale through the literary edifice of the Bible has the reciprocal effect of offering a possible Shakespearean interpretation of the fertility of Church History and the Biblical text."

But I don't believe that the Bible is in any way indeterminate, nor that the Bible equally supports Catholic and Protestant readings. Do you see my problem? But anyway, OK, here's a rough draft for the opening of my paper. I've taken out all the parenthetical citations just to make it tidy; no fear, there's no plagarism in the real thing.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Two Fools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A Gallimaufry of the Gospel:
Mixed Genre and Scriptural Structure in The Winter’s Tale

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for
and certain of what we do not see.
This is what the ancients were commended for.
—Hebrews 11:1-2

Like any good preacher, Paulina begins the conclusion of her on-stage/back-stage sermon with “It is required / You do awake your faith.” It is a commonplace in Evangelical churches that every sermon must come around in the end to either the person of Jesus Christ or the listeners’ need for faith in Him. But is it as obvious that Paulina—or Shakespeare—is evoking a specifically Christian, let alone Evangelical, or even Reformation, faith? After all, if The Winter’s Tale is a romance, as little to be believed as a fairy tale, its injunctions apply only to the on-stage crowd and have no metatheatrical application or literal religious reference. Furthermore, the play is set in a vaguely Classical time and place, the gods of the Olympic pantheon freely and explicitly invoked. The name of God does not appear anywhere in the play, although “gods” and “goddesses” do. Yet again, Scripture quotations interspersed throughout the text, and allusions to Christian theology, specifically Pauline doctrine and Mariological practices, abound. Scholars’ religious interpretations range from exact, point-by-point Calvinist allegories through comparisons with Catholic practices relating to the worship of Mary and the veneration of images. Certainly Renaissance authors were comfortable functioning in a dual Christian/Classical universe, but it would be poor scholarship to suppose that the specific mixture and organization of these elements in a given work has no significance.

It seems to me that the structure of The Winter’s Tale resembles that of the Christian Bible. The play is not, however, a simple Creation-Fall-Redemption narrative. Rather, its generic development from tragedy to comedy with a pastoral interlude resembles that of Old Testament-Intertestamental Period-New Testament. Internal thematic elements support this reading, which in turn sheds light on the whole question of what faith Paulina requires and which Faith, if any, Shakespeare endorses. Finally, viewing The Winter’s Tale through the literary edifice of the Bible has the reciprocal effect of offering a possible Shakespearean interpretation of the indeterminacy of Church History and the Biblical text.

24 July 2006

A Year of Rereading

To everyone who reads this blog (that's you, if you're reading this): I'd love to have your ideas on this post. Since you're reading this, please comment! We were talking in an earlier post about poetry and other works that bear frequent, even annual, rereading. I'd like to compile a list of works that you read, or wish you read, every year, especially at certain days or seasons. A liturgical calendar, as it were, of literature. Let's not include Scripture in this list, because there are excellent resources available (The Book of Common Prayer, one-year Bibles, etc.) that do just that. So drop us a little note to say what you love to reread, and when.

22 July 2006

Bearing Witness: Christian Poetry in the 20th Century (Part II)

Read: Several poems by W.H. Auden

This post is a continuation of Part I.

W.H. Auden wrestled with the same thing T.S. Eliot did--whether there was any point to writing poetry. I mentioned in Part I Eliot's line in Four Quartets, “The poetry does not matter.” Auden wrote, similarly, in his poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," “Poetry makes nothing happen.” He was at a stage in his life when he was beginning to become disillusioned with poetry's role in celebrating the transitory erotic moment or bringing about revolution, but he had not yet found a replacement for these. It was to be another couple of years before he would become a Christian. The remarkable thing is how he ever did become one, in the midst of unlikely circumstances. He was a homosexual, living in Greenwich Village in a house shared with a bunch of loose-living artist types, including Golo Mann (son of Thomas Mann), composer Benjamin Britten (also gay), and Gypsy Rose Lee (a famous stripper). Auden had escaped to New York in 1939 from early fame in England which had been cramping his style. Everyone expected him to be the leading figure of his generation (the phrase "the Auden generation" first appeared in print when Auden was only 27). But in New York, he could make a fresh start and reinvent himself. After a while he started going to church (his housemates had no idea that's where he was disappearing on Sunday mornings). And he finally returned to communion in the Episcopal Church (he was familiar with the liturgy from the Anglican Church in his childhood).

So how did he become a Christian? This was a significant period of Christian renaissance. Auden was influenced by Eliot (who by this time had become a Christian), C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, Kierkegaard, and Pascal. An experience in a German movie theatre in Manhattan in November 1939 was a catalyst in his conversion. He saw a newsreel, a Nazi propaganda documentary about the invasion of Poland. The Germans in the audience were shouting "Kill them! Kill them!" At first he thought it was natural for the Germans to want revenge for being downtrodden in WWI, but when he realized the Poles didn't do that, and that such hatred was wrong, it ultimately brought him to Christianity. When Auden converted, he was at the height of his career, and he paid a price for it. The people who had idolized him in the past now reviled him.

Auden's turn to faith helped him to realize a responsibility to others in his poetry, the first glimpse of which had appeared back in June 1933 in England, when as Edward Mendelson writes, "Auden experienced what he later called a 'Vision of Agape.' He was sitting on a lawn with three colleagues from the school where he was teaching, when, he wrote, 'quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly--because, thanks to the power, I was doing it--what it meant to love one's neighbor as oneself.'" (Preface to Selected Poems)

Auden only communicated his beliefs indirectly in his poetry. There is a certain reticence, even in his poems about explicit Christian themes, which makes them more powerfully able to "bear witness" to people who might be turned off by a more outspoken apologetics. I turn to a couple of his significant poems now to give some examples of his post-conversion writing.

Excerpts from "Friday's Child" (In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945)
[from Auden's Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson]

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought--
"Paternal Love will only use
    Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent"--
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
    Exactly what He said.


Now, did He really break the seal
And rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
    Quite sure of Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
    And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
    A death reserved for slaves.

When he writes "We dare not say," he doesn't mean Christians, for he believes and recites the creeds at church. He means poets. He felt that poetry was not meant for apologetics. As a poet, he can only make people stop and look at "the insulted face." He cannot tell them what to believe about the man. We are really and truly "free to choose."

Auden's long poem, Horae Canonicae (also in Selected Poems) is so amazing, I hope you'll indulge me as I give it a longer treatment. It traces the events of the original Good Friday of Christ's crucifixion, and also every Good Friday when we annually remember those events, and also any normal day. The epigraph “Immolatus vicerit” (a quote from the poet Venetius Fortunatus) means “the crucified one triumphs.” The poem is organized in seven sections named for the canonical hours of the monastic day: Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, Lauds.

It begins, in Prime, with the common human experience of waking up, before doing anything sinful in the day. We all share in this instant when "Still the day is intact, and I / The Adam sinless in our beginning, / Adam still previous to any act." But in this section there is already a foreshadowing of what is to come. "This adjacent arm" which the poet "has still to my own" upon waking, becomes "this ready flesh / No honest equal but my accomplice now, / My assassin to be, and my name / Stands for my historical share of... / ...the dying / Which the coming day will ask." The "dying" is Christ's execution.

In Terce, we humans set off into the public world, dividing into our different roles: the hangman, the judge, and the poet. Each takes his own part in the crucifixion, the first two in obvious ways. In the first stanza, there are three abstractions associated with these three roles: Justice, Law, and Truth, respectively. So the poet's role will be to bear witness to the truth. In this transition from bed out into the world, each of us prays to "get through this coming day / Without a dressing down from a superior, / Being worsted in a repartee, / Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls." If we can make it through such hurdles, "We shall have had a good Friday." And yet that last line has a double meaning, for "It is only our victim who is without a wish, / Who knows already...that, in fact our prayers are heard, / That not one of us will slip up, / That the machinery of our world will function / Without a hitch...that by sundown / We shall have had a good Friday." In other words, Christ knows before our day begins that each of us will crucify "our victim" anew by nightfall.

We move on to Sext, which comes in three parts, one for each of the three roles above. In each one, Auden builds up humor and then ends on a serious note. The key word here is "vocation." The vocation of the hangman is to be the "agent" of our victim's death. The vocation of the judge is to be the "authority" to command the death. The poet identifies himself with the "crowd" who are witnesses of the death, as we ourselves are, for "joining the crowd / is the only thing all men can do." And as men [humans], we alone (unlike ants, those "social exoskeletons") can stop our work "to worship / The Prince of this world... / at this noon, on this hill, / in the occasion of this dying."

Nones is the night hour of the day, between the crucifixion and the resurrection. The deed is done, and no sooner done than forgotten. There's a darkness over our minds as well as over the earth. "[W]e are surprised / At the ease and speed of our deed / And uneasy: It is barely three, / Mid-afternoon, yet the blood / Of our sacrifice is already / Dry on the grass." Everyone disappears to wash or eat or return to work, and "We are left alone with our feat." We go back to our hobbies, our "chalk-pit game; stamps, / Birds' eggs..." but they "are not the same." "We shall always now be aware / Of the deed into which they lead." But as long as we are still awake, "we have time / To misrepresent, excuse, deny, / Mythify, use this event." So "It would be best to go rest." But instead of "our dreaming wills" being able to "escape / This dead calm," they "wander instead / On knife edges..." Our dreams torment us because of the deed we have done. In the final stanza, Auden gives us a picture of sleep as a locus for the beginning of healing, redemption. It is when

    ...our own wronged flesh
May work undisturbed, restoring
The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
We spoil out of spite: valves close
And open exactly, glands secrete,
Vessels contract and expand
At the right moment, essential fluids
Flow to renew exhausted cells.

The grace of God to redeem us begins in our bodies, the very flesh we have wronged.

In Vespers, humanity is once again divided, this time along different lines. The poet (an Arcadian by temperament, drawn to romanticize about an innocent past) meets his anti-type, the Utopian (who looks forward to a perfected future). These are two possible ways to respond to the reality of the sinful present. But to focus on either one is to neglect part of the story. We need both. The Utopian can teach the Arcadian that there is no going back to Eden. We must go forward to the New Jerusalem, by way of sacrifice. But the Utopian teaches the Arcadian that the victim must be innocent. Ultimately, "without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand." ("Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin." (Heb 9:22)

Compline is the end of the day, just before sleep. It is the hour when "should come / The instant of recollection / When the whole thing makes sense." But the poet "cannot remember / A thing between noon and three." The possibility of redemption is there, but he still hasn't quite gotten it. Like pagans who try by their "magic cult to propitiate / What happens from noon till three," he still thinks that to atone for his own sin he "Must go back into non-being / For the sake of the equity..." But ultimately, he knows this is not enough. "Can poets (can men in television) / Be saved? It is not easy / To believe in unknowable justice / Or pray in the name of a love / Whose name one's forgotten: libera / Me..." With this prayer, "free me," the poet finally accepts this love which triumphs only through the crucifixion. Now he knows "That [he], too, may come to the picnic / With nothing to hide, join the dance / As it moves in perichoresis, / Turns about the abiding tree." The picnic is Auden's image of the wedding supper of the Lamb. Perichoresis, in theology, means the dance-like interrelationships of the Trinity. And the "abiding tree" is in some sense both the Tree of Life and the Cross.

Finally we come full circle to Lauds, the praise that is offered at the beginning of a new day. The whole section is written in the form of a three-way dance, repeating occasional lines in a sort of half-villanelle. Though we are reconciled to God, the morning cock crow reminds us that we do still crucify Christ again every day. The mass-bell calls us to come to the communion table. The crowd from earlier in the poem are now a "Realm" -- a people joined together under the sovereignty of one Lord. The repeating refrain "In solitude, for company" reminds us that we all have to make our own decision about how to respond to the death of our victim. But in doing so, we are united in company with our neighbors.

19 July 2006

The Lady of Shalott

Read: Antony & Cleopatra
Watched: Antony & Cleopatra live by the RSC at the Swan, with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter. Breathtaking!
Listened to: Schubert's String Quintet in C Major, D. 956

Here’s an ekphrastic poem to follow the post on Turner & the Tate.
Comments & Critique are welcome. Enjoy!

On John William Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” paintings

She stands in staring fantasy and wrings her hands,
knotting and weaving colored noises in silence.
Twisted threads paint scenes in her mind
where she warps their lost nights in tight tapestry.
A binding chill dims her half-sick sight
in spite of summer windows, noonday walls.
Lovely devourer, locked in the solitude
of her hollow desire. Bruises darken somewhere
inside her luminous skin, where she clings
to sweet self-forged chains and refuses
the searching thought of outdoor light. Lonely,
fingers caught in her loom, she gazes inward.
Three streaks of candlelight draw her down
into dreaming, seeing him imprisoned there,
while she sits spinning albas and elegies in red
through black-warped daydreams on her loom.
No farewell for these memories, these three
conjured nights deep in her lurid fantasy.
The tapered flames double again and again
in her stare, a bronze mirror, the lake…
a breastplate, shield, and sword.
Dull as standing water, drifting into night,
the tall flames swim in her shrouded sight
like flashing lances raised by brave knights
as they die, like her strands of hair bound
by golden bands, like her pale arms hung
with heavy cloth. She sees and does not see,
wishing scenes in waking sleep.
At last in her self-wrought dream,
tapestries complete, she piled weavings into the prow,
stood straight among reeds, followed along the river,
still longing. When the candles reflected
off turrets, battlements, silver towers,
and armor, she closed her eyes.

~ Admonit

17 July 2006

Turner & the Sublime

Read: Just bits and pieces of books on early modern theatre, actors, etc. Started Antony & Cleopatra.
Watched: An excellent Bollywood movie; I'll have to get back to you on the title.

Last week I had the very great blessing of spending a couple of hours in the Tate Britain museum. More hours would have been an even greater blessing, but what was given me was enough to sink me almost in wonder. I went to see the John William Waterhouse works, knowing that that museum owns six of his works—more than any other gallery. However, only two were available on display, the others being in storage or lent out. Yet I will not complain about even two Waterhouses. That’s two more than I’d seen live before. One was The Martyrdom of St. Eulalia, which seems to me different from, and of deeper feeling and meaning than, most of his works. Or at least the popular ones. And I saw The Lady of Shalott! The one in the boat. That was a rare privilege, but more on that below. There were Millais works—Ophelia!—Holman Hunt, Leighton (both of the Leightons, I think), Rosetti—Proserpina, ah me—and TEN ROOMS of works by Joseph William Mallord Turner. Not just broom-closet-sized rooms either, but your state-dining-room-sized chambers, with many paintings measuring well over ten feet in at least one direction. I guess I’m young enough to be still impressed by sheer size and numbers. But think of the work that man did! Room after room after room of enormous paintings, all (as far as my untrained eye can tell) of excellent quality, many masterpieces. And nearly every museum in the “western” world, be it ever so humble, has at least one. That man was dazzlingly prolific. The Tate rooms were very well organized, and quite moving. If you ever get a chance to go there, do! If you have been there, please tell us about it.

What struck me at once was the organization of the rooms by theme. That seemed a brilliant addition. The first room, the largest, was in a typical chronological format, with a time life of Turner’s life and world events presented on the wall above the paintings. That was super helpful. Then there was a landscape room, a seascape room, a “rural England” room, a room with works including either foreign settings or classical ruins or both—I don’t remember—collections of drawings and unfinished works and studies. But the second room along the main corridor was the one that brought me the flash of sehnsücht. This was entitled “Sublime Landscape”. The mere words made me gasp. There are a few words that do that, a few phrases of delight and longing. Anybody and “the Sublime” is just about enough to do it to me, but Turner and the Sublime? That pushes me over the edge.

Fishermen at Sea
Why? Well, it goes back to C. S. Lewis’s definitions and experiences of joy, of course. It’s partly delight by association; I love the poetry of the Sublime, I loved the course I took on that discourse last summer, I love the art of the period that toys with the idea, and I love Turner. But it’s more than that. There are many things I love and would go far to see/hear/read/eat/watch/enjoy, and yet they spark no deep seated thrill of delight and longing. Shakespeare is that way. I would go across oceans (hum, I guess I have, haven’t I?) to watch live Shakespeare well done. And it thrills me, the language gets into my brains and my blood and there runs its hot and heady course, but there are few lines that are “Sublime.” Shakespeare’s is a cognitive pleasure, a pleasure of craft and skill, like Bach, like Escher, like Schönberg. And yet… and yet…. “The dark backward and abysm of time” gives me the Sublime shiver, as does Hamlet himself in his “trappings and his suits of woe,” even before he begins to speak his melancholy and supernaturally-charged verse. So all this is just to say that I am no Edmund Burke, that I have not the mind for making fine distinctions, for limning razor-edged categories with this in—this out, or for closing in on sharp definitions of exclusion and decision. No, with me it is all a mad rush and swirl of delights, joy upon joy, pleasure and approval and admiration all mixed up together in poetry and painting and theatre and trees.

Hannibal crossing the alps in a snowstorm

But tells you little about the Turner display. Burke was not, however, apropos of nothing, for he was quoted in the Sublime room in the Tate. He said something like this:
Whatever in any sort excites the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terror, or is in any way analogous to the terrible, is sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.

And there were also quotes from Addison’s The Spectator on the walls, to the effect that nature is not only lovely, she can also be terrible. The pictures on the walls were of nature in her terrible aspect: storms at sea, great tempest-tossed waves, lightning splitting the sky and the earth, whole sides of mountains shorn off and crashing into chasms below. I’ve put into this message little clip-arty versions, so you know what I’m talking about, but one needs to see the real thing. The size is part of it, the sheer overwhelming enormity of seven feet of canvas stretched across your vision, with the ocean roaring in all its imagined rage along the width of your sight. The texture of the brush-strokes is part of it, too, and there I think Burke would concur. It is not all smoothness and grace, as two-dimensional prints make us think. The very paint itself is rough and deep.

The Deluge
All this, which is much, and yet has not come near my point. What I find most fascinating about the “discourses of the Sublime” is their affinity with and aversion to the spiritual. As I wrote in a paper last summer, “Burke was striving to construct ‘a secular language for profound human experience…’ (from Adam Phillips intro. to Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry…). The discourses of the sublime and beautiful were carefully and intentionally not converging with religion. They attempted to construct a secular semiotics and semantics (from Isobel Armstrong’s lectures).” A mouthful of words. But the point is this.

I believe encounters with the Sublime are really and truly divine experiences, that is to say, little brushes with God’s power and beauty and might and terror. Though the Romantics were at great pains to dismiss God, I think that argues all the more for His work in what they saw. Burke, Wordsworth, et al, were trying to find new terminology, non-religious terminology, for what the mystics and martyrs and fathers of the church would have called visions, God’s presence, general revelation, heavenly ecstasy, glimpses of heaven, holy transport, and the like. Words notwithstanding, it is what it is. [Another time we should talk about words, what they do, what they cannot do, what power they have to change or call forth or represent—or not. Perhaps I will recant what here I have writ, about “words notwithstanding.”] But in those paintings, made by a man via with the talent of a sub-creator, depicting divinely-created nature in her mood most unfriendly to little man, I see the hand of God. Couch it in what words you will: the Sublime is still and always an encounter with the Deity.

16 July 2006

Material Metatheatrics

Here's a bit of what I've been studying this summer, in case anyone's interested. I've posted below the beginning and end of a slightly simplified version of a paper. Now, nobody steal my ideas!

A Play in Parts:
Material Metatheatrics in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It has long been a commonplace that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a metatheatrical play, a commentary on its staged nature and the making of plays. It contains startling and hilarious examples of permeating the “membrane… between our consciousness of the events portrayed and our consciousness of the actual theatrical events that convey the story” (Booth 103). The first scene, two hundred fifty-one lines long, gives no hint that the audience will be reminded of where they sit and how the actors play; then scene two surprises the spectator with:
QUINCE Is all our company here?
BOTTOM You were best to call them generally, man by
man, according to the scrip.
The mere mention of a script onstage serves to awaken the audience’s awareness of theatre as such. Critics have spent much time discussing the self-consciousness of Pyramus and Thisbe as an interpretive device within Dream that mirrors, distorts, commends, and condemns the actions of the play proper (i.e., Holland, Griffiths, Williams). What is not as frequently discussed is the influence, even the reflection, of the precise material conditions of play-wrighting on and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much remains to be said about Dream as an acted piece about acting and a written script about writing plays. The mechanics of company, casting, doubling choices, rehearsal, cues, and actors’ parts are instructive interpretive devices for scholars, students, actors, and directors alike. The purpose of this paper is to examine these technical aspects of Elizabethan play-making and to draw interpretive conclusions from the facts such a discussion brings to light.

[Here I talk about who migh have played whom in the original production--maybe Shakespeare played Quince?--how each player learned his own part without having the whole script available, how cues worked as a result, and how each actor thought the play was all about himself, since all he saw on the page were his lines. Shakespeare uses all of these in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as commentaries on how plays are made.]

The partitioned nature of plays is so far from modern readers’ and play-goers’ experience that they may wonder if Shakespeare had all these details in mind. I believe he did: Griffiths (speaking not about parts but about how to represent tiny fairies) writes, “In view of the play’s stress on relativity of perception… and the metatheatrical elements… it seems entirely possible that Shakespeare, who was after all a practical man of the theatre, was deliberately exploiting the clear physical impossibility of any theatrical representation offering truly diminutive fairies” (Griffiths 5; emphasis mine). Or, in view of his long experience as author, actor, and (possibly) prompter’s boy, it seems perfectly plausible that he was pointing up the relativity of perception that results from study in parts.

Finally, the over-arching structure of the play reflects both that relativity of perception and the importance of metatheatrics—embodied by the mechanicals—to the play as a whole. They, though they have “never laboured in their minds till now,” fortuitously appear to rehearse and prepare for their performance in the second scene, the central scene (III.1), and the second-to-last scene (IV.2). Bottom’s transformation, making him the only mortal to cross fully into fairyland, occurs very near the middle of the play (III.1.107). If his colleagues doubled the four fairies, they would be the only actors to see him in both realms. If the duke and duchess doubled the fairy king and queen, they would bring three realms together. Then the last scene, the performance of Pyramus & Thisbe, would bring all four realms together: Kemp, playing the only character to see both fairies and mortals; a royal couple, reconciled in both worlds; four hired men who do not know the play, but have acted and re-acted inside and outside the woods; four lovers, whose close shaves with tragedy are parodied in serious but farcical sorrow on a stage-upon-a-stage. And perhaps Shakespeare, as Quince, laughing at all of them and at himself. For each actor is a main character in his fantasy; each is a minor character in the play. Maybe A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a cast’s dream-come-true; maybe it is their nightmare. But for the modern director, it is a dreamy opportunity for creative casting/doubling choices, and a delightful play about the technical aspects of Elizabethan play-making.

So, there's a little bit of it. I find it facsinating stuff. Hope you do, too.

~ Admonit

11 July 2006

Through the Wardrobe

Read: Henry V
Watched: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V

This is a fun message today! I’m about a week and a half behind relating what’s going on here in Oxford, but since this is a conceptual, and not a narrative, blog, I’m sure you won’t mind a bit. So, I’m going to tell you all about the adventure G & I had here last weekend with C. S. Lewis.

On Saturday first we found the Eagle & Child Pub (familiarly known as the Bird & the Baby; where the Inklings met, as you know) and took the requisite pictures outside. We didn’t go in; I’ll probably go back and have a meal there, since they’re probably sick of rabid Narnia/LOTR fans coming in and asking to see the napkin with Lewis & Tolkien’s signatures!

Next, we took a little non-Lewis detour to the Ashmolean museum to look at beautiful pictures of Oxford and some Turner paintings. But lo and behold, I heard they had a Millais, so I went, and ! they have a whole room of pre-Raphaelites. Wow. Holman Hunt, Leighton, Millais, but no Waterhouses (I’ve since seen two of his at the Tate Britain, but more on that another time).

Then we came back for lunch, and made an appointment to go tour The Kilns, Lewis’s home. So we rushed to a bus, and sped through 90 degree heat to his home. We had no idea what to expect. We kind of thought we’d be getting the little tour, here’s where he ate, here’s where he wrote, here’s where he died. Well, that was part of it, but wait. When we first arrived, a gentleman came out, introduced himself as Kim Gilnett, took us into the lovely garden, and asked why we were there. Yikes! He asked what I know about CSL, what work I’m doing, what my interests are, what bios I’ve read (I don’t think I’ve read any all the way through! Eek!)—in other words, why should he let me into the house. I told him about the Independent Reading Project I want to do on CSL for Bread Loaf, so that got us in. Whew.

First we sat in the “Common Room,” so familiar from photos and (yes, I admit it) the movie. This is where Lewis generally held conversations and often worked. Kim told us lots of stories about CSL, Warnie, and Joy, and a lot about the renovation of the house. He kept asking if I had any questions, and of course I couldn’t think of a single thing on the spot. If I’d known it was going to be so formal, I’d have come prepared! But I did find out the two most important things. First, I asked him what has not been done yet in Lewis studies, what needs to be published or worked on. He pulled out a huge volume of Lewis’s letters, the first (and smallest!) of three and said that somebody needs to do some work on the letters, because there is the heart of Lewis’s thought. So, I got my assignment! Now, don’t anybody take it on me. And the other necessary and strangely illusive fact: Jack did call his wife Joy, not Helen. But Kim didn’t know if Lewis saw that as a great divine joke on him. He must have, yes? How could he not? All his life he had been Surprised by Joy!
So, then we got the tour around the house, including where each person ate and studied and died. Then we left and wandered down to the pond behind the house. Lewis owned 9 acres and it was very wild in his time. Now it’s a nature sanctuary, including a lovely Narnian pond.

Next, we started walking back into town to look for the church where he attended & is buried. Kim came driving by and gave us a lift, so that was funny and nice. Saw the pew, saw the grave stone, got the little stories about Lewis being a grumpy old you-know-what, always leaving after communion and letting the door bang behind him.

Finally, we hopped the bus back into town, saw another of his pubs on the way, and went to Magdalen College (pronounced Mahd-lyn), where CSL taught. The paths through the deer park are nearly imaginary, they’re so perfect: along these paths, in chat with Tolkien & Owen Barfield, Lewis made one of the most important leaps towards his conversion. There, they persuaded him that Christianity is the one true myth that happens to be historically true—and suddenly gave him that longing glimpse into the beauty of the Gospel as a story, as a legend, as a long-ago-and-far-away wistful tale that is also here-and-now and solid and applicable. For the first time, he tasted its beauty, and it resonated with the Joy he’d been searching for. Very soon this idea would lead him, as he rode on a bus up Headington Hill home to the Kilns, straight to Christ.
And on these paths I walk and run and pray and rejoice!

08 July 2006

Bearing Witness: Christian Poetry in the 20th Century (Part I)

Read: T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I am taking a class at Regent College for two weeks called "Bearing Witness: Christian Poetry in the 20th Century." We are studying three great poets who were Christians (at least they were by the end of their careers): T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Czeslaw Milosz. We have completed our study of Eliot and his Four Quartets now, so I'll only write about him. I hope to do posts about the others later.

Eliot is incredibly hard to understand, but professor Alan Jacobs (from Wheaton College) is doing a fantastic job explaining the background of Eliot's thinking (he was steeped in Buddhism and Hinduism before he became a Christian) so that we can see what he's on about in Four Quartets. Eliot is basically getting to the point of rejecting his past philosophy, but he lets it have its last stand before he sets it aside for good in the final of the four quartets ("Little Gidding"). Throughout 4Qts, he's basically wrestling with three questions:

Question 1. What does it mean to live in time? (Eastern religions consider the temporal realm illusory and aim for the eternal present, whereas Christianity esteems and indeed depends on linear/sequential time of history; we cannot say "I once was lost but now am found" without time. The Incarnation is the intersection of the timeless with time.)

Eliot begins "Burnt Norton" with:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

In this first poem, he's still expressing the Buddhist thought of "The inner freedom from the practical desire, / The release from action and suffering." (BN-II) But through a series of experiences and grapplings with this question, he finally comes to hold firm to the faith that there is value in redeeming the time. In "Little Gidding" section V:

A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

Question 2. What is my relationship to God?

In "The Dry Salvages" Eliot is still flirting with the animism and pantheism of eastern religions:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god...
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.

But in the ruined chapel of "Little Gidding" Eliot comes to the point where he can finally say,

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Question 3. What is the value of writing poetry? (It is common for Christian poets to doubt the possibility of representing Christian truth through poetry, and even the wisdom of attempting to do that; Eliot wrestles with this problem of the limitation of words vs. his calling to be a poet.)

In "Burnt Norton" section V, he introduces this theme:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

In "East Coker" section II-B, he writes, criticizing his own words of II-A:

That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter...

Later in section V, however, he realizes that he must try, and not worry about whether his words will be successful or not:

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

By the end of Four Quartets, he has finally embraced the fact that although words may be inadequate to express the infinite truths he is coming to believe, words are all we have and we must use them. In "Little Gidding" section V:

And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

Also, there are a lot of references in the poem to concrete experiences in Eliot's life, so if you know a bit about his biography this stuff makes more sense. For example "Burnt Norton" section 3 is all about the London Underground. Eliot commuted to his office via the Tube every day, and here he's using imagery from his experience of descending down the escalator at Gloucester Road station and back up the elevator at Russell Square at the other end of his trip. Hampstead, Clerkenwell, etc., are all stops on the Underground. There are also obscure references to quotes from the philosopher Heraclitus, the philosopher of change, in there. Heraclitus said, "The way down and the way up are the same." Eliot says,

This [the way down] is the one way and the other [the way up]
Is the same, not in movement [like the escalator]
But abstention from movement [in the elevator]; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

There's so much in there, I could go on. But this is enough to give an idea of the richness of Eliot's work and this class.

07 July 2006

Material Shakespeare/Material Scripture (Part II)


Watched: A Midsummer Night’s Dream live at the open air theatre in London. Fantastic!! One of the best productions of live theatre I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Last summer’s R & J at BreadLoaf was probably the best, but one can’t compare such startlingly different (though inter-related) plays.
Read: bits of books about performances of Dream.

All right, I broke my promise and didn’t post on the postivie aspects of material criticism yeterday. But half an hour before the bus left, I decided to go to London & see the play! So that’s my excuse. I also saw some wonderful Art, but more on that another time.

Material Texts

Now, to return. Rather than seeing cultural of texts as an ugly or disturbing truth, let’s look at it as a fascinating study of ways to interpret the plays and deepen our understanding of them. Knowing how a certain prop, costume, gesture, or word was received is itself an interpretive tool. Below are a few examples, most of which are due to Tiffany Stern, either from her excellent book Making Shakespeare or from her great lecture here at Lincoln college on Tuesday evening. We have established that the text we hold & read may or may not be Shakespeare’s. But it’s somebody’s, and it’s fantastic, whoever wrote it or collaborated on it. So let’s talk about some cultural features which would enhance our understanding of a play.

1. Actors’ parts/cues
In Elizabethan times, and indeed for a long time, maybe even up until the 18th century, actors did not get to see a copy of the whole play. Instead, they got just their own lines, with cues. I’m giving you a longish example so you can really see how it would work. Here’s something like what the Romeo actor would have gotten for the beginning of the scene at the ball:
___________________________years ago.
What lady’s that which doth enrich the hand
Of yonder knight?
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.

Looking at a play in parts can be an interpretive device. It makes an actor’s character very plain. His emotions, tricks of speech, style, and vocab are on display. There are places in the plays where a character repeats his cue line—which means the other actor would interrupt him. There are places the cue-lines themselves become jokes, such as in Pyramus & Thisbe. Take a look at this:
Bottom: Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me.
Theseus: The wall methinks, being sensible, should curse again.
Bottom: No, in truth, sir, he should not. ‘Deceiving me’ is Thisbe’s cue…. It will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.
One of many jokes here is that ‘deceiving me’ would be the cue in the imaginary script for P & T, but the real cue for the actor-playing-Flute-playing-Thisbe is ‘Yonder she comes.’ One of many meta-theatre jokes.
Another result of part-scripts is that the actors are able to respond in more “natural” ways, because they really do not know what the other character will be saying! They really do not know who will deliver their cues, so they are listening as you do listen to a conversation, and I assume that they would adjust their responses based on what they hear, just as you do when you are formulating a reply during dialogue.

2. The playhouse. The physical location itself could lend meaning. The ceiling of the stage was painted to look like a sky, with stars/sun/moon/etc., and was called the “Heaven” or “heavens.” The area beneath the stage, from which ghosts and witches can emerge, was the “Hell.” These areas had obvious significance. Thus, when the ghost of Hamlet’s father emerges from the “hell,” the audience would know it was no “spirit of health,” but a “goblin damn’d”! So they were wiser than Hamlet, and than we. Here’s a photo of the restored Globe theatre in London:

3. Passions/gestures. Reading the plays in parts points up the emotional content of each role. Indeed, an actor’s skill in early modern times was largely calculated by how suddenly he swung from one passion to another: such as Leontes’s startling, shocking leap into jealously in the begining of The Winter’s Tale. So an actor preparing his part would look for clues, such as a shift from poetry into prose or vice versa, a change in vocabulary, a breakdown of syntax, lots of inappropriate repetition, etc., that could indicate a swift shift of emotion. Then he would choose actions and gestures to make these as explicit as possible on stage. Certain postrures and movements had clear significance. Lying on the floor, for example, meant deafeat or surrender. A woman’s hair, let down from its customary up-do, meant madness or wild distraction.

Perhaps now you can see a little of how studying the stuff surrounding the plays can be very informative, interesting, and fun. From another prrspective, looking at the material and cultural factors surrounding the [divinely inspired] human authors of the Bible can inform and deepen a reader’s understanding. Here’s a good website on the Bible & culture.

I will only give a few examples of how “Material Scripture” can be a helpful interpretive/applicative device.

1. Geography. Knowing the lay of the land is very, very useful for understanding the Old Testament especially. This might be analgous to the “playhouse” above. For example, the scholars and scientists searching for the lost city of Ai (see Joshua chap. 8) did both a topological survey of the potential location and a close reading of the text, and have come to realize that there were two ambush forces in the battle for Ai. The director of that dig, Bryant Wood, has also done stunning work on Jericho. For a long time, scholars didn’t think that the battle for Jericho and the walls falling down really happened the way the Bible says it does. Dr. Wood found beautiful proof it did: slanting piles of mud-brick wall, a piece left standing (where Rahab’s house was), etc.

2. Culture. Just a quick example. You know the verse where it says to give your enemy a cup of cold water, thus heaping burning coals on his head? That sounds like an awfully OT thing to do—getting revenge back-handedly. But in NT times, people had to keep their fires burning, and if their fire went out, they’d go to the neighbor and “borrow some fire.” They’d carry the hot coals home in a pan on their heads, feeling the lovely warmth around them in the cold winter morning. So, if your enemy wrongs you, give him comfort, give him the means of life! Knowing cultural tid-bits like this compares to knowing how an Elizabethan audience would understand gestures and popular phrases.

3. Creationist science. Or Young-Earth Creationism, or Intelligent Design, or whatever they’re calling it now-a-days. Studying something seemingly unrelated to exegesis—geology, the fossil record, astronomy, biology, population studies—sheds light on passages of Scripture. This is like knowing about the Ptolemaic universe in order to better understand Hamlet’s “brave / o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted / with golden fire.” I don’t have too much to say, but the principle should be clear. Take a look at this site for lots of facts.

That’s it! I’d love to see any other examples anybody might have, or feel free to argue with these ideas if you list.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The guy with the lawn mower is Bottom.

05 July 2006

Material Shakespeare/Material Scripture (Part I)

Watched: The Baz Luhrmann (i.e., Leo & Claire) Romeo & Juliet. Wow, what a rush!
Read: bits of books on Elizabethan printing methods

The course I am taking this summer at Oxford is entitled “Material Shakespeare.” Here I would like to set out a few of the concerns of the course in order to relate them to criticism of the Bible. The first part of this post will relate to Shakespeare and cultural/material conditions of his time that contributed to the writing of his plays. The second section will illustrate how I see this relating to an understanding (or, in some cases, misunderstanding) of the Bible, and the last will contain a few Scriptural examples.

“Material Shakespeare,” as defined in my course, is all the other stuff—besides the brain and hand of a man named William Shakespeare—that helped to write his plays. At first this seems like an offensive topic: are you suggesting that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays? Well, no and yes. No: he did write them, but cultural and social and practical necessities influenced his choice of words. Yes: there is no way of knowing, in every case, exactly which word Shakespeare actually wrote down on an original and final draft. Other people and factors changed his texts.

Today I’ll post on the negative aspects of this kind of criticism. Then tomorrow I’ll discuss the positive side.

1. From draft to book. Shakespeare, we assume, wrote rough drafts, perhaps revising many times before sending plays to the playhouse. These manuscripts were not treated with the reverence we imagine we’d give to them today. Maybe the prompter made changes, the censor cut things out, the actors altered lines. Furthermore, at a first performance the audience voted at the end whether they liked it or not, and the author might revise it based on their response. By the time the play got to the printer, it was very different from what the playwright originally crafted. Furthermore, he might have made versions of various lengths, some shorter for traveling, some longer for the printer.

2. Printing house. Next, words might get changed accidentally or on purpose in the printing process. Type setters often (but not so often as you might fancy) made mistakes. Just yesterday I found in one copy of Romeo & Juliet (“Q2,” in case you care):
I do protest I never injuried thee,
But love thee better than thon cans’t devise….

Thon? What has happened here is that the printer has put in the letter “u” upside down, creating an “n.” Sometimes, if the compositor couldn’t read the handwriting, he would make a guess and throw in a likely word.

Now, these are both rather negative readings, showing how the text we have may or may not be Shakespeare’s. Perhaps you can see how the principle behind these cultural readings could be applicable to the Bible. At first, this sort of analysis could be threatening to a literal understanding of the Scriptures. Here’s a useful link about criticism of the Bible:
Especially helpful is the section entitled “Reaction of conservative Christians to biblical criticism.”

If we apply the idea that “Shakespeare’s texts are not Shakespeare’s texts” and “there is no way of finding the true original behind all the various copies of his plays” to the Bible, you get some very disturbing conclusions. They would be something like this: “Scripture is not traceable back to any one, determinate text which can be said to have been directly inspired by God.” If we believed that the words originally written were changed, misunderstood, lost, altered on their way to the printed books we have today, that would be very disturbing to our faith.

I have a theory that most modern forms of lit. crit. are, in some deeply hidden subconscious, seeking an intellectually satisfying reason to ignore and discredit the Bible. However, Evangelical Christians, while understanding (of course) that our translations may not be 100% accurate (that’s why our creeds say we believe the Bible is inerrant in its original transmission) do believe we have a very good text of the Hebrew/Greek/Aramaic. From this we make reasonably good translations. We can appropriate the very principles of literary theory that seem threatening and use them to unlock, open, and shed light on our traditional understanding of the Scripture. Tomorrow I’ll give examples of how to do that. Don’t go away mad!