Wednesday, November 30, 2011

being edited

So I read two books the other day. One of them was Ian Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (Basic Books, 2000), a solid, straightforward, occasionally graceful account of Arnold's life up thru his abandonment of poetry. It reads in part, inescapably, like the first half of a biography (Hamilton himself speaks in the preface of abandoning his plans for a full-scale Arnold book), but it is, so far as it goes, quite a satisfying read. A book for generalists, indeed, but one from which even Victorian scholars are likely to glean more than a few useful insights.

I read the Hamilton in blocks as relief from another book – a recent study of modernism and the FBI, what I'll call simply "The Academic Book." The Academic Book was published by a fairly solid scholarly press; its author is a Full Professor somewhere, who's published several other scholarly works; and TAB, as I recall when it was released, was promoted pretty intensely both to scholarly and general markets as a ground-breaking study that would appeal both to members of the Modernism Industry and to readers who were interested in J. Edgar Hoover & his multifarious, nefarious interventions in American culture.

And it's so depressingly awful. Page after page of flat-footed, lumpish prose; factoids and anecdotes repeated verbatim from page to page; a general conceptual squishiness, a kind of blob-think that overwhelms any insights that might attempt to rise up from the page. And I couldn't help thinking, who the hell was responsible for editing this thing?

And my answer was, of course: it's an academic book; nobody edited it. It got two reader's reports, each of which suggested some changes. The author made those changes (or didn't make them); then it got sent out to a freelance copy-editor, who checked the punctuation and usage against hir copy of the Chicago Manual; and then they printed it and sent it out – like a brand new Ferrari that happens to be missing its clutch, its left front wheel, and the whole of its suspension – to hit the road.

Ian Hamilton, I suspect, is a pretty solid writer from the get-go; but I also suspect he's got good editors, & the grace and smarts to let them have their way with his prose. This recent blog post on the Chronicle made me think over the whole business, in which an Editor-at-Large at a major magazine recounts hir experience with young wannabe editors: "The students were stunned into silence as their copy was returned, with questions, comments, and lots of red marks (instructors were still permitted to use red pens then, however much they highlighted students’ errors). ‘But it’s no longer mine,’ said one of them, whose copy in fact bore fewer rather than more marks."

My heart bleeds for that poor snowflake, beginning the long process of realizing that putting one's prose before the world in a readable form is almost always a collaborative undertaking. I make no great claims for my prose. But I do know that much of the best prose I've written looked pretty damned weak in comparison to what some fine and ruthless (magazine) editors made of it; and that the pieces I'm proudest of are ones that got Rolfed, Alexander-Techniqued, and sliced-n-diced all over the operating theater at the hands of those editors.* It's a shame that the economics of academic publishing – and this is true all the way from bottom-feeder Toadspittle Bend-in-the-Road University Press up to intellectual powerhouses like Cambridge and Harvard – have made real live editors so scarce in the world of academic publishing.

*E.g., Herb Leibowitz, Ben Downing...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which means that the whole dreary spectacle of the end-of-year holidays is upon us. The holidays depress me; they make me sad, misanthropic, despairing. No, I don't want to talk about it. Go away.
Blurbs are a unique genre, part advertising copy and part prose poem. In the case of slim volumes of contemporary verse, mostly prose poem, and often with only a tenuous apparent relation to what's inside the book. Back when I took the TLS, I used to enjoy the feature where the anonymous editor "JC" would skewer nonsensical back cover copy, usually for interesting volumes of contemporary American poetry. With forthright English commonsensicality, he would emit hoots of derision at some tangled and impossibly abstract mare's-nest of praise, which typically gave a reader no idea whatsoever of what they might expect from the book itself. Alas, I saw any number of my friends and colleagues fall under JC's derisive gaze.

But then again, one doesn't read a blurb to learn about what's inside the book. The blurb is rather a stamp of certification: "The book by aspirant poet X has been read by established poet Z, who by taking the time to produce this blurb – 30 minutes reading the book, 5 minutes on the blurb itself – signals that you ought to read it too." After all, it's not what the blurb says that we pay attention to: it's the very fact that Poet Z has written it.

(Note, gentle reader, how misanthropic and cynical this very post grows... it must be the holiday season.)

Blurbs come in two general types: solicited blurbs and "mined" blurbs. The former are descriptive or promotional statements that the publisher has asked a blurbist to write especially for this book; the latter are bits of language yanked out of other contexts and refunctioned to serve as jacket copy, much as the movie ads quote bits of reviews (generally, the good bits; tho the editing is sometimes unintentionally funny: I recall a poster for Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, a highly unsexy but visually dazzling fantasia on The Tempest, which quoted Playboy magazine: "More nudity than any film this season," or something of the sort.) Academic publishers generally mine at least some of their blurbs from the readers' reports that persuaded them to publish the book in the first place. That's how I've ended up "writing" blurbs for a few scholarly books. Occasionally, poetry publishers will extract a few sentences out of a previously published review for jacket copy. (The cheeky New Directions quoted me on the back of one of Will Alexander's book, without even telling me; fine, but it would have been nice to send me a copy.)

Anyway, this week's mail brought me two new books that I'm mighty awful proud to have contributed blurbs to, and you can tell me whether they meet the JC test for incomprehensible meaninglessness. I shan't blog these books, but needless to say, I think they're both great; you should buy them right away:
John Peck, Contradance (U of Chicago)

John Peck is unique among contemporary American poets for the burnished, intricate density of his thought and the rugged, even gnarled lyricism of his lines. The ghosts of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Avedon, Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Melville, and a host of others stalk gravely through the steps of Peck’s Contradance, their spectral presences a ghostly counterpoint to the poet’s preternatural awareness of the buzzy, blooming confusion of the present moment: "Life is not a thing / that we have, it is being seeking employment."

Alan Halsey, Even if only out of

One of the 5 or 6 poets whose work I'll buy immediately on sight, no questions asked, without bothering to open the book or read the blurbs. Halsey's poems – and they come in such variety, from very straightforward, personal-voice addresses to the most recondite word salads – are like a dense portable anthology from a rich & complex literary canon that simultaneously overlaps with but is fundamentally shifted or twisted from the recognizable "canon."

Friday, November 11, 2011

my military

In the Commonwealth, it's Remembrance Day; in France and Belgium, Armistice Day. For some of us, it's Nigel Tufnel Day, remembering the Spinal Tap guitarist whose amp famously "goes to 11." Here in the United States, it's Veterans Day.

I have a conflicted relationship with the military. My father's family had no military connections I'm aware of; my mother's elder brother Hollis (known the nieces & nephews as Bubba) had been in the Navy in the Second World War, serving on the heavy cruiser Minneapolis, the "Minnie." I never heard him tell stories about it, but when he died, my aunt gave me his pea jacket ("Hollis Walker" stitched into its lining) and his copy of the official history of the ship's wartime operations. Hair-raising reading. The Minnie took a Japanese torpedo right in the bow at one point; there's one memorable photograph of the temporary repairs – a bulkhead of palm trunks lashed across the ship's front.

My father was drafted into the Army in the last year of that war, snatched out of high school before he could graduate. By the time he'd finished basic training, the War in Europe was over, & he had the relatively cushy service of serving as part of the occupying army in Austria. It must have been grand, I like to think, for an 18-year-old from Paducah, Kentucky – an all-expense-paid trip to the Land of Mozart & Klimt, where he could gawk at buildings, sketch, & take photographs to his heart's content.

The military was my father's ticket out of his poverty-stricken western Kentucky roots. When he got back from Europe, he went to college on the GI Bill: first as an art major, then a history major. When the money ran out, he enlisted again, finishing his degree in Manila; the University of the Philippines, I'm surprised to say, issues the most sumptuous diplomas I've ever seen. But he could never quite find a niche in society with his bent for the liberal arts. He took a few more years off, marrying my mother and pursuing graduate work first at Vanderbilt then at Duke, along the way serving a term in the Air Force. (The chronology of all this, by the way, is very hazy to me; one day I'll sit down with the papers and work it all out.) By the time I came along, he had once again enlisted, for the duration, in the Army, and was stationed in West Germany. That's how I managed to be born in Frankfurt; I like to imagine Adorno giving a lecture across town during my mother's labor.

So I grew up as a military brat, living (in two-year intervals) in Syracuse, NY (where he was attending a language institute), West Germany, Carmel, CA (another language institute), West Germany again, and finally a dreary stretch in San Angelo, TX, a hellish posting my father assumed was punishment for his decision not to re-enlist at the end of his next term. When he finally retired – still in his late 40s – we moved first to Murray, Kentucky (near his family, and right where my mother's family lived), where he worked on yet another liberal arts degree.

Growing up on military bases, I never reflected that I was living a strange fishbowl existence. Our world was the post, the commissary, the PX, the post movie theater; it extended to the other military bases within driving distance (my mother knew where all the best PXs in the BRD were located). Germany itself, the larger polity within which we were a foreign enclave, was a kind of vast blank, visited only on exotic occasion. I was always aware, however, that I lived in one of the most class-stratified societies possible. The Army was something like 17th-century England, with its rigid social distinctions between enlisted men (commoners), non-commissioned officers (the rising bourgeoisie), and officers (the gentry and nobility): the ranks simply did not mix, especially not socially. Even in school, the second- and third-graders were all fully aware of their fathers' rank, and where that placed them in relation to the other kids.

Dad was a liberal early and late, despite his professional involvement in the ultimate instrument of American imperial power. He found the war in Vietnam a monumental, tragic folly, though I'm sure he didn't tell his superiors so. He spent years on a mountaintop near the East German border, transcribing and translating Soviet military transmissions, but I don't think he took the threat of invasion nearly as seriously as the average American on the street did. He was grateful for what the Army had given him – an education, health care for himself and his family, the chance to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original, the opportunity to visit the seats of the Western Culture in which he was so assiduously trying to school himself – but he had no patience with the reams of paperwork that characterized the smallest military decision, or with the labyrinths of entrenched bureaucracy that constituted the institution's heart's-blood.

There were pluses and minuses to a military upbringing: on the plus side came a certain cosmopolitanism, an absence of regionalism. I never really picked up a southern accent (tho my parents' accents were quite strong), because I always lived among people from all parts of the US; I never found it strange when someone's parents came from different countries, because half my friends had mothers from Korea, or Japan, or Germany. On the minus side was a painful lack of a sense of place, of belonging, side effect in part of moving every two years, tearing loose from whatever friends I'd made & starting all over. (Somehow, we managed to make that move, every time, over the Christmas holidays, so every other year I got to start at a new school mid-year. It was like the first scene of Madame Bovary, over and over again.)

When Dad finished that last degree, we moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, in large part to be near a military base. As a retiree, Dad would have lifelong access to military health care, to the PX, and to the commissary. Mom saw these things, in the days before ubiquitous dirt-cheap Wal-Marts, as prime selling points for an otherwise nondescript southern city. I did much of my growing up in Clarksville, then – on the north side, dominated by soldiers and military retirees.

Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne ("Screaming Eagles"), was in the late 1970s not a place to give one a positive impression of the military. In the wake of Vietnam, the Army had become a volunteer force – at some times, it seemed to be a repository for the sweepings of society. As I waited at the hospital for brutal (but free) dental care – I had my wisdom teeth cut out & extracted under local anaesthetic, the dentist removing every bloody fragment right before my horrified eyes – I would be surrounded by GIs who seemed unable to form a single grammatical sentence, who talked about nothing but partying, whose every third word was "fucking." The highway leading to the base was for miles and miles a non-stop carpet of pawnshops, bars, and strip clubs.

It never occurred to me for a moment to join the military after high school. Even if my father had had anything good to say about his own service, I'd seen enough of who was in there, & how things worked. Whatever I did, I knew, I wanted to be in some social niche in which there was room for eccentricity, for the intellectual & the aesthetic; and God knows I didn't see that space anywhere in the military. Let's be frank, as well: I was pretty damned sure I wouldn't be able to handle the discipline, or put up with the bullshit.

A bunch of my friends went into the military. For many of them, it was their only choice; they'd screwed up so badly in high school they couldn't get into college, or they needed to start earning money right away. Some of the brightest guys I knew in high school wound up enlisting, for one reason or another. I don't blame their choice; but I don't envy them either, or particularly admire them for it.

When Veterans Day comes around, when the flags get trotted out and the tear-jerking videos get played, I get all uncomfortable. I hate what the last administration did thru its lies to the 4000+ soldiers who died in Iraq, and to the uncounted thousands of others who've come home maimed & damaged, physically, mentally, & spiritually. I hate that this was done in my name, to "protect" me. And I hate the rhetoric of "service" and the high-flown cant of "sacrifice," which all too often is a tool to drag patriotic young people into a job in which they will never be adequately compensated for the risks they run on behalf of cowardly & calculating politicians. But on Veterans Day, I can't help recalling Ruskin's words, in Unto This Last, on the moral distinction between soldiers and merchants:
Philosophically, it does not, at first, sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honour than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo's trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be – fond of pleasure or of adventure – all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact – of which we are well assured – that put him behind a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may be put to him at any moment – and has beforehand taken his part – virtually takes such part continually – does, in reality, die daily.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


So I'm slated to teach Our Fair Department's undergraduate "Intro to Literary Studies" course next year. It's got a bunch of formal requirements – introduce the students to the analysis of 3 different genres, expose them to 3 different schools of literary interpretation, etc. – but I keep thinking, what they really need is some basic study skills: Read the book. Read all of it. Read it as slowly as you need to. Write in your book. Make notes, outline chapters. Look up unfamiliar words. You know, all that shit you're supposed to pick up at least by grad school. Me, I've been turning over bales of Ruskin books & essays I read last summer, gisting articles into little abstracts, copying down useful quotations; stuff, ideally, I should have been doing as or immediately after I read 'em, when they were still fresh in my mind.

It's all tangled up with a bit of professional identity crisis, I must admit. Am I a critic?, I ask myself, looking over the pieces I've written for Parnassus & all the other belletristic reviews I've churned out over the years, or am I a scholar? For I do see those as rather different roles (not that they don't often overlap). Jerome McGann is a scholar who also does a fair bit of smart criticism, as was William Empson; Susan Sontag was mostly critic, but approached scholarhood in the way she worked up some of her essays; James Wood is nothing but critic.

And I've got this rather medieval, uncomfortably rigorous notion of what the scholar does (which someday I'll write up in a kind of list format): Read the book. Read all of it. Know what's in it, and what isn't. Read everything by the author at hand. Read who the author's read, and what his immediate contemporaries said about him, etc. (Followed of course by Know the important secondary texts on your author. Know all the secondary texts dealing with your immediate subject...)

I'm still deep in the process of trying to make myself a quasi-Victorian scholar-type, and it's not easy. The four courses on Victorian lit I took back in the day are gradually coming back to me, admittedly, but there's a tremendous amount of catch-up ball to be played here. Of course, anyone sensible would have tackled a more manageable figure than Ruskin. I'm maybe 3/5 thru the corpus, all 9 million words of it. And I've read a healthy stack of books on Ruskin. And around Ruskin. And about the Victorians.

But one thing's always leading to another. Arnold, at the moment. He's the key counter-Ruskin for much of JR's career. I've read bunches of the poems, most of the important essays, and Culture and Anarchy. But now I'm feeling the need to read more – to achieve a comfortable global knowledge of Arnold. And then there's Pater and Wilde, each of whom I'm deep into. Sigh – Morris and Rossetti still await, and after them no doubt there will be others.

The happy side of all this is that I've actually started writing, however tentatively. Maybe I'll have something ready for the centenary of the big man's birth – after all, it's 8 years away.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

shameless self-promotion: torture garden

About fourteen months ago, I rejoiced on this blog at reaching the halfway point of a long-term project, a series of short poems that shortly before I had decided would be called Torture Garden: Naked City Pastorelles. And then, six months later, I rejoiced again at finishing them. Now I'm rejoicing at finally pulling back the curtain and unveiling the redoubtable Zach Barocas's cover design for the finished book. The book is in the final stages of production and will be in print in a bit under two weeks. It's now available for pre-order from The Cultural Society's website.

I've already given out a couple of teasers for Torture Garden in the above links, and there's some descriptive prose on The Cultural Society website. Here's a bit more detail:
The hardcore “miniatures” of John Zorn’s “Naked City” ensemble – Zorn on alto, Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Joey Baron on drums, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Yamatsuka Eye (sometimes) on vocals – as assembled in the Torture Garden collection (Shimmy Disc, 1989) provided a model for these pastorelles: short, tightly controlled, aggressive, free of all padding and discursive structure.

The form of the pastorelles is an “emaciated” sonnet: seven lines to the sonnet’s fourteen, five words to the sonnet’s ten iambs. The poems make great and entirely unsystematic use of found language, usually from whatever I was reading at the moment, though often from what I was (half) listening to: at least one derives from the simultaneously earnest, enraging, and inane discourse of a department meeting. There are a run of pastorelles “dedicated” to various people whose talks and readings I've attended, or with whose books I’ve been engaged: these dedications are not necessarily gestures of admiration or affection but acknowledgment of language appropriated.

The pastorelles’ titles are directly borrowed from those of the forty-two tracks of Naked City’s Torture Garden, but the poems are by no means direct adaptations of the musical pieces; rather, there is a continuously varying relationship between the titles, the musical tracks, and the poems. Not the “condition of music,” but the music of conditions.
What are you waiting for? These are dandy poems, if a bit lacking in etiquette, gentility, & a sense of what's appropriate around the kids. Order here!
I'd be remiss, of course, if I didn't give a shout out to Zach and The Cultural Society.

It was early in January 2002 – golly, almost a decade ago – when Peter O’Leary, whom I knew as a poet but mostly I guess as the executor of Ronald Johnson’s estate, asked me to join him and a few others – his brother Michael, Devin Johnston, Joel Bettridge, John Tipton, and my old friend Eric Selinger – to read Ronald Johnson’s newly released posthumous book The Shrubberies at the Chicago Public Library under the auspices of the Poetry Project. It was a grand event, capped by an absolutely sybaritic dinner at Tipton’s apartment and a more than pleasant informal “house reading” afterwards.

When I got back to the steam, I wove some details of the weekend into a poem, called (duh) “Chicago,” which I sent off to Peter & a few others. Peter, in turn, zipped it to a friend of his who had recently started a poetry website with the ponderous name “The Cultural Society.” And that friend, Zach Barocas, liked “Chicago” so much that he had it up and beautiful in a matter of a couple of weeks.

It’s been almost a decade since, and the Cultural Society has become central to my imagination of contemporary poetry. Zach has published a number of my poems, he’s done a rambly essay on poetics I wrote a long time ago, and which still oddly enough comports pretty well with the way I write & think about writing. More importantly, he published, & continues publishing, a whole community of new & established poets that I find continually enriching – Peter, Norman Finkelstein, Pam Rehm, Mike Heller, Joel Felix, Janet Holmes, Dan Beachy-Quick, Bob Archambeau, Sandra Simonds, Stacy Szymaszek, Bronwen Tate, etc. etc.

Exactly a month ago was the formal celebration of CultSoc’s (pronounced Kult-Sosh) 10th anniversary, & I must say that Zach definitely knows how to throw a party. A reading at Poet’s House in Manhattan – a group reading where, amazingly enough, nobody went way over their allotted time or lost themselves in showboating. Electric new poems from Norman F. and Mike H. A culminatory performance by Peter that practically had me throwing my shorts at the podium. I re-met poets I’d met before – Chris Glomski, Jon Curley; I spent time with poets I’d known for years and years.

It wasn’t just that the poems were great, and the audience receptive; it was a kind of vibratory sense of common purpose, of sheer community, that’s really so hard to come by in this world. The celebration was really a kind of personalized intensification of the community and ethos set up on the tight, spare, precise website. Zach does not do things large – he's more Charlie Watts than Neal Peart, more John Lee Hooker than John McLaughlin – but what he does he does with a clean, beautiful style, and he does right.

He's done right by Torture Garden, as he has with the other snazzy books & recordings available on the website there. Have a look, give a listen (video of some fine readings there, and links to some excellent music), stick around & buy a few things.

Monday, November 07, 2011

ruskin's powerpoint

My odyssey thru the Library Edition of Ruskin continues. Yesterday I finished volume XIX, The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air, with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860-1870. The obvious course (which I'm taking) is to power on into volume XX (Lectures on Art and Aratra Pentelici, with Lectures and Notes on Greek Art and Mythology, 1870). But really one's confronted with a kind of triune fork in the road of Ruskin's career here, for from 1870 his activities become multiple, & it's no longer possible to maintain anything like strict chronological progression in collecting his work.

In 1870, Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor in Art at the University of Oxford, and for several years (until 1878, the date of his first major crack-up) one of his major activities would be be composing the lectures he delivers there. That's usually two series of six or seven lectures each year, which Ruskin took "infinite" pains with, & usually went back and revised for book publication; he published 9 books out of this first stint at the Oxford Professorship.

But at the same time, he was also working on other books and articles, which he published more or less concurrently with his lecture volumes (including no fewer than three travellers' guidebooks to various sites). And he was writing the series of monthly "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which is in some ways the acknowledged telos of my whole reading of Ruskin.

So three major activities at any given time: Oxford duties (which include, besides the lectures, establishing a drawing school and a major collection of specimen works for students); miscellaneous writing (including an incessant series of letters to the press, and a personal correspondence as copious as one would expect from a Victorian writer); and Fors. No wonder the guy broke under the strain.

Ruskin took lecturing very, very seriously. Over the past decade and a half, lectures had become one of his primary means of getting his ideas across to a wide audience, at a variety of venues. And the Victorians were good audiences: they were prepared to attend carefully to what our undergraduates would consider unconscionably long discourses; public lectures were transcribed by reporters and printed in newspapers with remarkable completeness and fidelity.

Ruskin's style of lecturing was memorable. He spoke from a written text – he once told an audience that he had planned to deliver his lecture extemporaneously, but that it was too much trouble to write out what he had to say and memorize it, so they would have to be content with his reading a text – but he would very often depart from his notes, following the thread of whatever idea caught his imagination at the moment. By all accounts he captivated his listeners entirely, tho some confessed themselves entirely unable to remember afterwards what he'd said.

But how, one wonders, does one deliver lectures on art and art history in the pre-PowerPoint, even pre-slide projector era? My own antipathy to PowerPoint runs pretty deep, and having to sit thru two PP presentations earlier this semester has only confirmed it. But I'm pretty willing to believe that it's made the tasks of lecturers in art and architecture far easier; I have just as bad memories of upside-down and reversed slides in my undergraduate art history classes.

Ruskin's own visual aids consisted it seems of lots of sketches and paintings, to which he would point during the lecture, & which would remain on display afterwards for interested students to examine. More useful no doubt were the enlargements of artworks and details of artworks (some of them 250cm X 100cm, which is pretty big), which he had assistants uncover & hold up at crucial moments in his lectures. There were still mishaps: at one point, a sketch from Tintoretto's "Paradise" was displayed upside down; the students laughed. "Ah, well," said the Professor, himself laughing; "what does it matter? for in Tintoret's 'Paradise' you have heaven all round you."

And then there's that moment when Ruskin seems to anticipate all the fancy effects that PP offers: He was bitching about the degradation of modernity, and beside him on an easel was (framed under glass) a Turner watercolor of Leicester.
"The old stone bridge is picturesque," he said, "isn't it? But of course you want something more 'imposing' nowadays. So you shall have it." And taking his paint-box and brush he rapidly sketched in on the glass what is known in modern specifications as "a handsome iron structure." "Then," he continued, "you will want, of course, some tall factory chimneys, and I will give them to you galore." Which he proceeded to do in like fashion. "The blue sky of heaven was pretty, but you cannot have everything, you know." And he painted clouds of black smoke over Turner's sky. "Your 'improvements,'" he went on, are marvellous 'triumphs of modern industry,' I know; but somehow they do not seem to produce nobler men and women, and no modern town is complete, you will admit, without a gaol and a lunatic asylum to crown it. So here they are for you." By which time not an inch of the Turner drawing was left visible under the "improvements" painted upon the glass. "But for my part," said Ruskin, taking his sponge, and with one pass of his hand wiping away those modern improvements against which he has inveighed in so many printed volumes – "for my part, I prefer the old."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

languishing | original practice

[The Staunton Blackfriars Playhouse]

I wonder if the blog hasn't been languishing lately. Certainly there hasn't been much spare time on my hands to write it, but I'm still unwilling to give it up...
Week before last – the week before Halloween, that is – we headed north to the wilds of Virginia, to Staunton (that STAN-ton), where we attended the biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center. Yes, there in a small college town, midway between nowhere and nowhere else (actually, a pleasant half-hour to Charlottesville, & a rather longer drive to Blacksburg), is a full-time professional Shakespeare troupe, performing in a picture-perfect reconstruction of the indoor theater that Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, used from 1609.

We had a welcome surprise in a snowstorm on Friday; those of you who live in Chicago, Ithaca, or other sane climes, will be puzzled by the pleasure Floridians take in these things. It was a bit odd, however, combining family vacation with conference-going. There was pleasure enough – snowmen, snowball fights, a trip to the apple orchard atop Carter Mountain near Monticello, a serious book-shopping venture into Charlottesville (okay, maybe that was pleasure for me). But there was also always the serious undercurrent of conference-going; am I missing something good by spending time with the kids? Who's talking to whom back there at the cash bar? Should we go to the banquet or order pizza at the hotel?

My own paper was part of a colloquy on performance practices, & doesn't really bear deep discussion. But I was struck thruout the discussions by a kind of base-line acceptance – and only occasional questioning – of the Theater's guiding principle: that of "original practices." Plays produced in the Blackfriars Playhouse (as you can see from the photo above) are performed with the lights on; in Shakespeare's day, there was no easy way to extinguish all the candles in the candelabra. Lucky audience members get to sit on stools on either side of the stage, as Jacobean dandies would have. Before the performance, and during the interval, the members of the acting troupe play music (unamplified) from the balcony (cf. the cover of Jethro Tull's Minstrel in the Gallery:)

The troupe is rather small, maybe 10 actors tops, and roles are doubled thruout the productions, just as they would have been in Shakespeare's day. (Odd to see the Ghost doubling as Osric, I must say...) The stage is undecorated; there are only minimal props, whisked out not by stagehands but by the actors themselves.

(The only two radical anachronisms in the productions: 1) female roles played by women – & I can definitely live with that; and 2) what's the use of dandyishly sitting on the side of the stage if you can't ostentatiously smoke?)

I can only say that we saw some first-rate theater. Excellent productions of The Tempest and Marlowe's Tamburlaine Part I, and the first live Hamlet I've ever seen that didn't feel radically tedious. This "original practices" stuff works, at least in a small theater that makes a kind of selling point of it.

On the other hand, I couldn't help feeling that some of the academics & theater types present at the conference – for this is a conference that seems to attract at least as many directors, playwrights, and actors as it does English-department-Shakespeare-types – were busily making a fetish out of original practices, much as some in the musical community – some the Early Music Revival types, with their emphasis on "period instruments" and "period performance" – have done. It made me think of Adorno's essay "Bach Defended Against His Devotees," which attacks (I take it) mid-century notions of "authentic" performance. "Even had Bach been in fact satisfied with the organs and harpsichords of the epoch, with their thin choruses and orchestras," Adorno writes, "this would in no way prove their adequacy for the intrinsic substance of his music."
The only adequate interpretation of the dynamic objectivity embedded in his work is one which realizes it. True interpretation is an x-ray of the work; its task is to illuminate in the sensuous phenomenon the totality of all the characteristics and interrelations which have been recognized through intensive study of the score.... Objectivity is not left over after the subject is subtracted. The musical score is never identical with the work; devotion to the text means the constant effort to grasp that which it hides. Without such a dialectic, devotion becomes betrayal; an interpretation which does not bother about the music's meaning on the assumption that it will reveal itself of its own accord will inevitably be false since it fails to see that the meaning is always constituting itself anew.
"Authentic" performance on "period" instruments, and "original practices" Shakespeare, can give us a kind of shock of defamiliarization, can make a familiar text new by making it old; they can teach us about the aesthetic experience of the period in which the text or score was produced. But they cannot, by themselves, "realize" the Bachean or Shakespearean work: that is part of the labor of interpretation, which involves going beyond the surface of the text, interpreting and realizing it through the deepest labor of analysis and loving synthesis.

Or to put it another way: Bach (Adorno implies) wanted a pianoforte badly; it just hadn't been invented yet. The inner structures of the works he wrote for keyboard transcend the keyboard technology of his own day. Just as, one might argue, Shakespeare's playscripts call out for real women to play the female roles; or maybe they call out for elaborate lighting and sophisticated sound effects; maybe they even want to be realized in video and digital formats.

But I'm a great fan of "period performance" early music; I'd rather hear Bach by the English Concert than in one of Bruckner's arrangements any day. And I'm glad that the American Shakespare Center is doing Shakespeare the old-fashioned way; clearly, their directors and players are at an entirely higher level of interpretation than 95% of the theater I've seen in the last decade (and yes, that includes a fair number of Broadway productions of "serious" plays); and they seem in no way fetishistically devoted to their "original practices," but rather use them as jumping-off points for fresh and exciting interpretation.
The unofficial motto of the Blackfriars Conference is from The Winter's Tale: "exit, pursued by a bear." Panel chairs keep a close eye on their watches. If a panelist goes over her or his allotted time, some dude in a bear suit stalks into the room and chases them out. I'm told it's quite embarrassing. I think something similar – perhaps with real bears – should be instituted at the MLA.