Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Shakespearean stage directions in my hallway tonight

Emergeth the cat:

2013_12_23_mh (138)_emergeth

Links: 6 July 2013

1. A cool idea — DIY art, artists writing instructions on how to make art. Original here.

2. How reality TV gets written.

3. A Whitman poem segment about animals. I especially like:

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God:
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning

This reminds me of one of the best relaxation ideas I’ve ever had: to follow my dog in its daily schedule, to nap when she napped, to exercise when she exercised. It reminded me to let go of concerns like the ones Whitman named.

4. A book about literary revision. This article points out that writing process is as susceptible to fashion as anything else:

It’s easy to assume that history’s greatest authors have been history’s greatest revisers. But that wasn’t always how it worked. Until about a century ago, according to various biographers and critics, literature proceeded through handwritten manuscripts that underwent mostly small-scale revisions.

Then something changed. In a new book, “The Work of Revision,” Hannah Sullivan, an English professor at Oxford University, argues that revision as we now understand it—where authors, before they publish anything, will spend weeks tearing it down and putting it back together again—is a creation of the 20th century.

The article contrasts the 20th Cent. urge to rewrite vs. earlier-centuries’ milder changes:

In the age of Shakespeare and Milton, paper was an expensive luxury; blotting out a few lines was one thing, but producing draft after draft would have been quite another. Writers didn’t get to revise during the publishing process, either. … All of these factors suggest that revision was not something that happened on the page. Indeed, during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed, flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. “I am like the tyger (in poesy),” Lord Byron wrote in a letter. “If I miss my first spring—I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.” …  But something would soon change, with writers like Hemingway and Eliot insisting on not just a second chance, but a third, fourth, and fifth. [“The Work of Revision” author Hannah] Sullivan argues that this change was driven in part by a new philosophy of what made good writing. The Modernists wanted to produce avant-garde literature—literature that was less spontaneous and enthusiastic than it was startling and enigmatic.

But, as the article notes, certain other writers This article also contains an anecdote about Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

One day in 1912, he got off a train in Paris and, as he wrote in a later essay, “saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another.” Pound went right to work, like a Romantic poet might have, crafting a poem to capture this “sudden emotion.” When Pound finished his 30-line poem, however, he found he hated it. Six months later, he tried again, producing a poem half the length and hating it, too. Finally, after another six months, he completed the final, two-line poem: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals, on a wet, black bough.” It was spare, dense, and lyrical.

And here for me is the real question: What makes this poem good? I mean, how do we really know that this poem is actually any better in two lines than it was in 15 or 30 lines? It’s interesting as it is, but I don’t know that I find it compelling — I don’t know that it’s a poem that has any feeling for me. I have my students memorize it as an example of what can be done in a few words, but I don’t know that I actually like this poem.

But I do like that this article reminds me that the writing process that is so widely accepted and taught is not, of course, the only means by which to write. Learning to trust my spontaneous words, which often seem my truest voice, and learning not to over-edit my work into narrow limits (as I did when a journalist) helped me become more confident as a writer, and helped me to see value in my less-typical writing.

Humanities ‘keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty’

A clear statement of the value of humanities from someone who teaches a course in “Greatest Hits of Western Civilization” — Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot  — to engineering and science students:

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.

The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class. Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren’t? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?

Also, what is the meaning of life? What is the point of life? Should happiness be our goal? Well, what the hell is happiness? And should happiness be an end in itself or just a side effect of some other more important goal? Like gaining knowledge, or reducing suffering?

Each of you has to find your own answer to these questions. Socrates, one of the philosophers we’re going to read, said wisdom means knowing how little you know. Socrates was a pompous ass, but there is wisdom in what he says about wisdom.

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.