Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot

Source of book: I own this.

Two preliminaries. No, I have never seen Cats, although I have played various selections. Second, I am a confirmed cat person. Additionally, although I have liked certain dogs throughout my lifetime, I am not a dog person, and would be unlikely to ever own one voluntarily. And please, don’t get me started on the widespread lack of training and supervision given to dogs these days.

With this out of the way, here are my impressions of T. S. Eliot’s humorous work. I chose this one to provide a contrast to the relative heaviness of Christina Rossetti and Dante, which were my previous poetry reads this year.

I had forgotten how effective anapests can be. It is easy to think of them in the context of limericks, and then dismiss them as out of place in “real” poetry. This book reminded me that light verse can still speak truth, and that the anapest rhythm can work with the meaning to convey the author’s point of view.

Eliot was clearly a cat person, judging from these poems. I have had a cat around the house pretty much continuously since I was age five. Give me a typical house cat, and I can have it completely relaxed and happy in a minute or two. Only the truly feral have been able to resist my taming – I have taken in a few wild-born strays over the years. So I know a bit about cats and cat people. So did Eliot. He was able to highlight and exaggerate feline traits, while using just enough personification to meld the human and the feline.

A great example is the opening poem, “The Naming of Cats.”

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey--
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter--
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

I haven’t yet had time to read any of these to my kids. However, since my second daughter loves mice and all things mouse, I suspect she will like this one:

The Old Gumbie Cat

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat;
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
And when all the family's in bed and asleep,
She tucks up her skirts to the basement to creep.
She is deeply concerned with the ways of the mice
Their behaviour's not good and their manners not nice;
So when she has got them lined up on the matting,
She teaches them music, crocheting and tatting.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or on the bed or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
As she finds that the mice will not ever keep quiet,
She is sure it is due to irregular diet;
And believing that nothing is done without trying,
She sets right to work with her baking and frying.
She makes them a mouse--cake of bread and dried peas,
And a beautiful fry of lean bacon and cheese.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that's smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits--and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

But when the day's hustle and bustle is done,
Then the Gumbie Cat's work is but hardly begun.
She thinks that the cockroaches just need employment
To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment.
So she's formed, from that lot of disorderly louts,
A troop of well-disciplined helpful boy-scouts,
With a purpose in life and a good deed to do
And she's even created a Beetles' Tattoo.

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears.

I love the idea of the cat teaching the mice to do needlework. There’s something almost Lewis Carrollian about the picture.

For use of the anapest rhythm, these lines from “Old Deuteronomy” serve well.

Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession.

I found this collection to be a fun diversion, and a chance to enjoy the thoughts of another cat lover in verse form.

Note on T. S. Eliot: I do want to read more of Eliot’s serious poetry. I read a few in high school, but have never really revisited his work as an adult. Fortunately I have his complete works in hardback. I do find it interesting that Eliot was one of a number of literary and artistic figures at that time that changed from American to British citizenship – and vice versa. Both Henry James and Eliot became British citizens, while others, such as P. G. Wodehouse became Americans. In addition, the so-called “lost generation” did the fashionable thing and lived as expatriates in France. The first half of the twentieth century seems to have been the golden age of expatriation, at least for those of the artistic bent.

Note on the edition: Those who follow my blog or know me personally are undoubtedly aware that a significant majority of the books in my library were “used” at the time I purchased them. I use the term “used”, but in fact, many of these books have never been actually read. I wince and rejoice simultaneously whenever I find a beautiful hardcover book that has crackles when I first open it, showing that it was kept on the shelf by the previous owner. My edition contains the complete T. S. Eliot poems and plays, and was published in 1952. In this case, I believe the book was read, as it contains a few notes in the margin. 

One of the other fun things about buying older books is the occasional surprise hidden in the leaves. In this particular book, there is an old newspaper article (source unknown) stuck at the beginning of Practical Cats. While I can’t say I agree with the article, it is an interesting snapshot of one perspective from years ago. 

 Click on picture to magnify 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P. G. Wodehouse

Source of book: I own this

I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. This month, we are reading books by P. G. Wodehouse, rather than a particular book. 

Reading to Know - Book Club

Uncle Fred in the Springtime is one of the Lord Emsworth series. Emsworth is a middle-aged member of the formerly glorious gentry, who is dominated by his sisters, in this case, his formidable sister Constance. Emsworth would like nothing better than to be left alone to nurture his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. Lady Constance convinces the Duke of Dunstable to take possession of the pig. This being Wodehouse, there is no chance that anyone would stand up to a woman of this sort, so Emsworth consults Lord Ickenham, also known as Pongo Twistleton’s Uncle Fred. A scheme is hatched, whereby the Empress will be preemptively stolen.

To add to the fun, Wodehouse adds in a private detective and card shark, “Mustard” Potts; his daughter Polly, whose boyfriend needs to borrow money to purchase an onion soup restaurant; Pongo’s sister Valerie, who has just broken up with Horace Davenport, who is Dunstable’s nephew; and, well, you get the idea.

In order to carry out the necessary plot, Uncle Fred and Pongo must assume a false identity. As is typical in Wodehouse, everything keeps getting more complicated, as each step in the scheme requires further conspiracy and conspirators. Catastrophe looms, and everything is on the verge of going horribly wrong, until a few inspired ideas and some good fortune straighten everything out.

For those who are familiar with Wodehouse, none of this is a surprise. The basic template is the very basis of Wodehouse’s art. However, the humorous characters and the outrageous lengths to which they will go keep the reader on his toes.

My thoughts on the book:

Wodehouse’s use of language and dialogue makes use of the humorous potential of Briticisms, which abound. When Pongo attempts to borrow money from Horace, he is refused.

            “Oh? Right ho. Well in that case,” said Pongo stiffly, “tinkerty-tonk.”

Later, after Valerie has broken up with Horace, Pongo takes his friend’s side against his sister. Later, Uncle Fred reveals Valerie’s thoughts.

            “Then you’re all alone?”
            “Except for your sister Valerie.”
            “Oh, my gosh. Is she here?”
            “She arrived last night, breathing flame through her nostrils. You’ve heard about her broken engagement? Perhaps you have come here with the idea of comforting her in her distress?”
            “Well, not absolutely. In fact, between you and me, I’m not any too keen on meeting her at the moment. I rather took Horace’s side in the recent brawl, and our relations are distant.”
            Lord Ickenham nodded.
            “Yes, now that you mention it, I recollect her saying something about you being some offensive breed of insect. An emotional girl.”
            “But I can’t understand her making such heavy weather over the thing. Everybody knows a broken engagement doesn’t amount to anything. Your aunt, I remember, broke ours six times in all before making me the happiest man in the world.”

Uncle Fred is a force of nature. Perhaps one could say that he is what Psmith would be after age 60. He has that unflappable nature combined with Jeeves’ ingenuity. When the annoyingly serious Rupert Baxter (the Duke’s secretary) discovers Uncle Fred’s impersonation, he confronts Pongo and Fred.

            “The risk you run, when you impersonate another man, is that you are apt to come up against somebody to whom his appearance is familiar.”
            “Trite, but true. Do you like my moustache like that? Or like this?”
            Rupert Baxter’s impatient gesture seemed to say that he was Nemesis, not a judge in a male beauty contest.

Later, Rupert reflects on his employer’s nature.

            Rupert Baxter had no illusions about his employer. He did not suppose that the gruff exterior of the Duke of Dunstable hid a heart of gold, feeling – correctly – that if the Duke were handed a heart of gold on a plate with watercress around it, he would not know what it was.

One of the things that have always struck me about Wodehouse is that he portrays women, particularly aunts, but also sisters, spouses, and girlfriends, as rather domineering. The men, as a counterpart, are weak willed, and completely unable to stand up for themselves when confronted by one of these women. Thus, Bertie Wooster keeps finding himself engaged to women he fears and dislikes. Fearsome aunts run amok, and destroy the complacent happiness of the feckless young men that populate the Wodehouse universe.

The henpecked man/domineering woman stereotype is not unique to Wodehouse. Another author whose career significantly overlapped was James Thurber. The parallels in their respective characters are striking, although Thurber’s writing has a darker edge. I always found it interesting that both writers were reasonably happily married. Wodehouse married a widow who seemed to be his complete opposite in personality and interests. They were married for sixty years. Most likely, Wodehouse based his formidable females on his own aunts, who practically raised him. Thurber’s first marriage ended in divorce, but his second was by all accounts happy. If anything, his second wife was indispensible to him as he went blind, and they were devoted to each other. Whatever the inspiration, both wrote convincingly of the man hounded by the woman. 

 P. G. Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel

 Wodehouse even goes so far in this book as to have Uncle Fred, advise Polly Pott on how to reconcile with her beloved – but not too easily. He recommends she avoid his attempts at reconciliation for a while, lest he think she gave in too easily.

            Polly frowned. In a world scented with flowers and filled with soft music, these sentiments jarred upon her.
            “I don’t see why it’s got to be a sort of fight.”
            “Well, it has. Marriage is a battlefield, not a bed of roses. Who said that? It sounds too good to be my own. Not that I don’t think of some extraordinarily good things, generally in my bath.”
            “I love Ricky.”
            “And very nice too. But the only way of ensuring a happy married life is to get it thoroughly clear at the outset who is going to skipper the team. My own dear wife settled the point during the honeymoon, and ours has been an ideal union.”

Whether or not Uncle Fred actually believes this is a point for speculation, but it certainly reflects the views of many of Wodehouse’s female characters.

One of my goals in life is to introduce my friends and acquaintances to unjustly neglected authors. In an age when humor has become dependent on shock value and vulgarity, and often meanness, Wodehouse stands out as a great example of the power of good natured parody and absurdity to bring a smile, a chuckle, and even a laugh.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Source of book: I own this
Date originally published on Facebook: June 1, 2010 
This is one of my earliest reviews, before I expanded the length and scope of my discussion. 

Yet another book that I have, surprisingly, not read before now. I have had limited exposure to French authors as a teen, perhaps because they are not that popular in America. That said, I love Moliere, and enjoy the French wit almost as much as the English.

Since I assume that most of my literary friends have read this at least once, I will be succinct with my comments.

First, I loved the fact that, unlike the modern revenge fantasies, the hero never takes direct action to punish his enemies. Instead, he manipulates circumstances, and lets his enemies’ poor character lead them inexorably toward their own destruction. In all of us, there is a desire for justice, and a certain more or less guilty pleasure in imagining revenge. I have certainly taken pleasure when a nasty criminal meets his or her maker at the hands of the intended victim. This book was obviously written in a time when many still believed that God would ultimately avenge, and that the wicked would eventually reap what they had sown.

Second, I have wondered why Dumas has not been claimed as an author of African descent. His grandfather was an Afro-Caribbean black, with slave roots. His books are some of the great classics of the triumph of the rejected underdog. He himself overcame prejudice, and became one of the best beloved French authors of all time. He may have been a bit racy by the standards of 19th century American moralists, but really wasn’t shocking by our modern 20th and 21st century standards. Maybe an English major can explain this to me. It seems this is a movie waiting to be made.

Third, I find it fascinating the descriptions of 19th Century French morality. Much like today, there was no shame in desiring a woman as a mistress, not a wife (of course, we don’t come out and say it, we just do it). The scene in which Albert de Mocerf rejects the idea of marriage to the Danglars daughter on the grounds that it would be tedious to be married to an aspiring artist is hilarious. On the other hand, all the admirable characters would prefer to be a suicide than a bankrupt. A different time and place in that regard.

In all, a fun read. I think I have come to appreciate French literature more as I have aged. I think some Hugo is in order for next year’s reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Science at the Edge, edited by John Brockman

Source of book: I own this – a gift from my brother-in-law Josiah

This is the second book I have read this year that is a collection of writings by multiple authors. In this case, the book grew out of a series of articles and conversations on a website, It is a bit difficult to explain this book without getting into the discussions within the book. In general, it is a collection of essays on three areas of cutting edge science. More to the point, perhaps, they are discussion and speculation on the future of certain areas of scientific and technological inquiry.

The book is divided into three sections. The first discusses the study of humans, and the understandings of human behaviors and traits. The second discusses, more or less, computers, artificial intelligence, and the idea of “the singularity” – where computers become sentient to some unknown degree. The final section discusses cosmology, and the origin of the universe.

In a number of ways, I think this book exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of modern science; both the instances in which science should be utilized more, and the areas in which science shows its hubris.

Brockman introduces the book, and his introduction and opening chapter are both worth reading. He does an excellent takedown on the current state of the “soft” sciences: history, sociology, psychology, etc. As he states at the beginning, these disciplines have become ossified and disconnected from any spirit of dissent or even new thought. They are uninterested in actual experimentation. The scientific method is uninteresting – they prefer to operate from an ingrown insular frame of reference. Anything that does not fit the “Freud, Marx, and Modernism” default is rejected. Brockman also correctly notes that the Renaissance ideal has been lost: the person who has a broad range of knowledge, and seeks to incorporate everything into a coherent whole. Instead, each area of knowledge has become its own closed club, and never shares ideas with other disciplines. Finally, he notes the spirit of pessimism that has become the zeitgeist. He blames, among other errors, the persistent myth of the “noble savage”, and advocates a return to the belief that we can and should increase knowledge.

So far as this goes, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the authors tended to miss the corollary: the “hard” sciences too have become ossified and cling to the Darwinist and Naturalist default and reject all that does not fit this framework. This is particularly annoying when the authors venture to explain everything from the Darwinist point of view. Just as Marx cannot explain life, the universe, and everything; neither can Darwin.

An early example of this is the essay entitled A Biological Understanding of Human Nature. Many of the author’s points are sensible, and well supported. And then, the author suddenly uses the words that any lawyer knows are placed in the sentence to disguise a lack of proof: “clearly” “most decisively”, etc. These are used to support the bald assertion that our thoughts, feelings, urges, and consciousness are nothing more than biological processes. End of discussion. The door is closed, and everyone else is wrong. Really?

This becomes even more puzzling and inconsistent with the rest of the essay because the author then goes on to argue against utilitarian and postmodern conception of the arts. He makes the (radical in these times) argument that art should have an element of pleasure. That it should have beauty, narrative, melody. If there is nothing more than a biological process, with the aim of reproduction going on, shouldn’t I prefer whatever aids the perpetuation of my genes? If a desirable woman prefers Duchamp to Durer, why should I stubbornly stick with what my (imaginary) soul finds inspiring? My wife is not much of a fan of Brahms or Mahler, but loves Beethoven. So why do I experience the chills up my spine when I play certain pieces? The argument points not to a biological explanation, but to there being something that is beyond and beside that which can be scientifically explained.

This problem is addressed in what I found to be the best essay in the book. One Half of a Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier, which occurs in the second section, is a counterpoint to the main theme of that section. The articles on artificial intelligence focus on an event believed to be an inevitable occurrence within the next fifty years: a point where computers attain a state in which they can evolve, in the Darwinian sense, and therefore become “life”. This is an article of faith with the authors, and is combined with Moore’s Law to suggest that this grand evolutionary process will take place at an ever-accelerating pace, leading to some version of either utopia or Armageddon, depending on one’s perspective. Lanier breaks this vision down into its component parts:
  1. That cybernetic patterns of information provide the ultimate and best way to understand reality.
  2. That people are no more than cybernetic patterns.
  3. That subjective experience either doesn’t exist or is unimportant because it is some sort of ambient or peripheral effect.
  4. That what Darwin described in biology, or something like it, is in fact the singular, superior description of creativity and culture.
  5. That qualitative as well as quantitative effects of information systems will be accelerated by Moore’s Law.
  6. The “singularity” described above will take place, and soon.

Lanier does a thoughtful job of addressing each of these in turn. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the issue of subjective experience. He surmises that “some of [his] opponents simply lacked internal experience.” He further states that “I once suggested that among all humanity, one could definitively prove a lack of experience only in certain professional philosophers.” One suspects, of course, that the end result of a belief that the self does not exist is the decision to treat those who disagree with one’s own position to be, not other selves to be convinced, but obsolete programs to be eliminated. A few dictators of the last century seem to have chosen this route.

The best part of this essay, however, was the section on Darwinist absolutism. I quote at length:

And yet I think cybernetic totalist Darwinians…come up with takes on Darwin that are calculated not only to antagonize but to alienate those who don’t share their views…One example is the recent book by Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer called The Natural History of Rape, which declares that rape is a “natural” way to spread genes around. We have seen all sorts of propositions tied to Darwin with a veneer of rationality. In fact, you can argue almost any position using a Darwinian strategy. For instance, [the authors] suggest that those who disagree with them are victims of evolutionary programming for the needs to believe in a fictitious altruism in human nature. The authors say it is seemingly altruistic to disbelieve in evolutionary psychology, because such skepticism makes a public display of one’s belief in brotherly love. Displays of altruism are said to be attractive and therefore to improve one’s ability to lure mates. By this logic, evolutionary psychologists should soon breed themselves out of the population. Unless they resort to rape.

Again, the whole essay is worth reading. It really punctures the bubble of cybernetic absolutism, as Lanier calls it.

This leads naturally into a discussion of the third and final section. I will confess that my math skills are limited by my lack of education beyond trigonometry. Don’t get me wrong, I did well in my math classes, but my training and interests led me elsewhere. The discussions of the first microseconds of the universe and the unification of classical physics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics were a bit above my level of knowledge. Still, they were interesting both for their content and for a few notable omissions.

We have learned an incredible amount about the way the universe is. We also have been able to make some fairly good reconstructions of the process that led the universe to be what it is. In many cases, we can use the laws of the universe as we understand them to get from the first to the second area of knowledge. However, at some point, the inquiry crosses into an area of questioning that science cannot, and realistically will never be able to provide answers. At some point, there is something that leads to everything else. As one author stated, for reasons we don’t quite understand, the universe sprang from nothingness to somethingness full of matter and energy. Similarly, while Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains extinction, there still, after 150 years, is no explanation for the rise of complexity, either in the universe or in biological life. There is some form of matter-energy. There are the physical laws themselves. There is life. We live in a universe of something rather than nothing. We live in a universe with mathematical laws rather than chaos or random rules. Why these laws, and not other laws? At some point, the inquiry switches from the discovery of the rules and building blocks of the universe to the ultimate question. “Why?”

This is my biggest beef with the scientific community in our postmodern age. No matter how far back in time we take things, no matter how much knowledge we attain of the universe, the “why?” will remain. At some point, the scientific method of testing fails. The arrogance of scientists to insist that all questions will be answered, and that they will have only a scientific, naturalist explanation, and only that, is breathtaking. At some point, all known explanations come to a point where the answer is, “it just is that way”. Something must be assumed, and believed in, and can never be subject to proof. I note at this point the currently trendy belief that there are an infinite number of universes. This believe is, to a degree, necessary to avoid the question of why our particular universe has laws that seem too perfect to be coincidental. However, by definition, these infinite alternate universes cannot be detected by us, cannot be tested and proven or disproven. They are the subject of belief. Lee Smolin, in his essay on the theory of “loop quantum gravity” inadvertently makes this point as he describes “postmodern physics”. (Paraphrasing various scientists working on string theory)

“From Galileo to 1984 was the period of modern physics, where we checked our theories experimentally. Since then, we work in the age of postmodern physics, in which the mathematical consistency suffices to demonstrate the correctness of our theories and experiment is neither possible nor necessary.”

At this point, we move from science, as understood for generations as the discovery of the universe through experiment to a search for mathematical consistency that loses its ability to be proven or disproven through observation of the natural world. At this point, science ceases to be science, and moves into the realm of philosophy, or even religion, seeking confirmation of its own ideas, rather than seeking discovery. Ironically, this book is at its best and most convincing when it reveals the limits of science.

A few other mentions of chapters and sections that I found particularly thought provoking:

Source of the term “Cybernet”: The source of the word was kybernotos, which meant the helmsman of a ship. I had no idea that this was the derivation. I, and the author of the essay in which this is found both found it interesting that the idea of control is in many ways counter to the actual experience of cybernets, which are more defined by their very uncontrollability.

Self Deception: Robert Trivers’ essay on self deception, and why lies are more effective when the liar believes them, was excellent, and well written. Quite thought provoking – particularly to a lawyer. The discussion on wars and those who start them was fun, and yielded this quote, “[I]t’s not necessarily true that those who start stupid wars end up with as great a decrease in surviving offspring (and other kin) as one would have wished.”

The universe as a computer: Douglas Adams was apparently not the only person who thought that the universe itself may be a computer. He was, apparently, the only one who thought that the universe was intended to figure out why the answer to the ultimate question was 42.

Simulating living systems: Several chapters discussed the difficulty in simulating life and intelligence. At one point, those attempting to create artificial intelligence decided that vision was easy, and assigned a graduate student to the problem – and gave him a week. It has since been determined that current computing power is insufficient to replicate the vision of a single human. On a related note, another essay touched on the way our brains visualize images, and why we seem to be able to recognize objects regardless of the context, something that computers continue to find difficult.

Cyborgs: With the exception of One Half of a Manifesto, I thought the best article was Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs. We tend to think of a cyborg as a human/machine hybrid existing only in science fiction. In reality, humans have always been cyborgs. One of the most unique things about humans is our ability to outsource our thinking. Many animals are capable of using tools in some way. Objects are used to enhance the physical ability. We call these tools. Humans, however, have used outside objects to augment our brains. The simplest example, perhaps, is the pencil and paper. I cannot multiply ten digit numbers in my head. I can do so on paper. The memory function of my brain has been outsourced to a tool. I am typing this review on my computer, which remembers what I write, and also reminds me of my court appearance later this week, and assists me in looking up the date that Beethoven wrote his 7th Symphony. Beethoven himself is dead, and I cannot possibly remember all the notes in the symphony. I could not even remember my own part without great effort of memorization. However, I can read my part on the sheet music. Our tools have increased what our brains can do, particularly in areas of memory and raw repetitive calculative power. We are all cyborgs, and so were we all from the dawn of time.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This play is on my reading list because the Bakersfield Symphony is performing Samuel Barber’s overture, written over a century later to accompany the play. I usually attempt to familiarize myself with the back story for the works we perform, and this one promised to be a good read as well.

The School for Scandal (the play) was first performed in 1777, the era of Mozart and Haydn, Boswell and Johnson, Goethe and Schiller, Kant and Wollstonecraft. Aristocratic society was an irresistible target for an acerbic wit, and Sheridan was one of the finest.

Sheridan wrote The School for Scandal and his other hit play, The Rivals, before the age of thirty. (The Rivals contains the memorable Mrs. Malaprop, whose name became a word in its own right.) Sheridan used the proceeds from his plays to purchase the Drury Lane Theater, later plowing the profits of this business into his career in parliament.

Gossip and hypocrisy take center stage in The School for Scandal. Lady Sneerwell and her lackey, Snake, spread malicious rumors for fun and profit. As the stage directions for the opening of the play state, she “entertains her intimates to relieve the tedium of being idly rich.” Furthermore, she delights in the fact that her rumors have caused engagements to be broken, and children to be disinherited.

Lady Sneerwell herself justifies this occupation as follows:

Wounded myself in the early part of my life by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.

Lady Sneerwell is hardly the only character who gossips, and is indeed one of many with a razor-sharp wit and tongue. Indeed, one of the criticisms of the play is that the characters are a bit too similar – most of them display Sheridan’s wit rather than an original wit of their own.

One exception in this case is Maria, who is the one honorable female in the play. She simply wants to marry the spendthrift Charles Surface; while her guardian, Sir Peter Teazle, wishes for her to marry the more respectable brother, Joseph Surface.

Lady Sneerwell: Nay, but we should make allowance; Sir Benjamin is a wit and a poet.

Maria: For my part, I confess, madam, wit loses its respect with me, when I see it in company with malice.

Lady Sneerwell: Pshaw! There’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature: the malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick.

Sir Peter himself has a low opinion of gossip, particularly as he is the butt of many of the jokes, having married a wife half his age. Lady Teazle was once relatively poor, but her elevation to high society has failed to inspire gratefulness. She spends his money with impunity, and considers it to be owed to her. Sir Peter feels humiliated by her lack of love for him, but is fascinated by her nonetheless.

Sir Peter: …yet with what a charming air she contradicts everything I say, and how pleasingly she shows her contempt for my authority! Well, though I can’t make her love me, there is great satisfaction in quarreling with her; and I think that she never appears to such advantage as when she is doing everything in her power to plague me.

Lady Sneerwell and her fellow gossips cannot resist twisting the knife a little:

Lady Sneerwell: But you are a cruel creature – too phlegmatic yourself for a jest, and too peevish to allow wit in others.

Sir Peter: (seriously) Ah, madam, true wit is more nearly allied to good nature than your ladyship is aware of.

Lady Sneerwell: (walking up to him and tapping him condescendingly on the shoulder with her fan with heartless innuendo) True, Sir Peter. I believe they are so near akin that they can never be united.

Sir Benjamin: Or rather, madam, suppose them to be man and wife, because one seldom sees them together.

Sir Peter, even in his indignation preserves his dignity and his wit. He eventually expresses his opinion that those who repeat gossip are as guilty as those who start the rumor. In doing so, he makes a delightful legal reference. (Okay, at least my lawyer colleagues will find this one funny.)

Mrs. Candour: But, surely, you would not be quite so severe on those who only report on what they hear?

Sir Peter: Yes, madam, I would have the law merchant [analogous to the UCC in the United States] for them too; and in all cases of slander currency, whenever the drawer of the lie was not to be found, the injured parties should have the right to come on any of the indorsers.

The plot of the play turns on the contrast of Joseph and Charles, neither of whom is exactly who they seem. It is true that Charles is a spendthrift. He is deeply in debt, and has sold most of the family furniture and valuables. However, as Mrs. Candour (another of the gossips) points out, “everybody almost is the same way…; so if Charles is undone, he’ll find half his acquaintance ruined too, and that, you know, is a consolation."

Sir Oliver, the Surface brothers’ rich uncle, returns from India, and decides to test his nephews by appearing to them in disguise.

He pretends to be a moneylender when he visits the bankrupt Charles, who suggests selling the family portraits to him to raise cash. This mortifies Sir Oliver, until Charles oddly refuses to sell the portrait of Sir Oliver. I thought this scene was rather amusing. It contains this gem:

Charles: And there are two brothers of his, William and Walter Blunt, Esquires, both members of Parliament, and noted speakers, and what’s very extraordinary, I believe, this is the first time they were ever bought or sold.

Later, Sir Oliver visits Joseph, impersonating a friend who needs to borrow some money. Joseph, who is already having a bad day (see below), claims that he has none to lend, and that Sir Oliver has never sent him money. This is a lie, as Sir Oliver has sent £12,000 to each of the brothers over the years.

Joseph may have some excuse for being a bit out of sorts, however, as he has just gotten himself in a pickle. Now follow along carefully: Joseph wants to marry Maria for her money, but in order to get into Sir Peter’s good graces, he has been flattering Lady Teazle. He tries to seduce her, using the argument that a good scandal will make her appear more human and sympathetic. He is interrupted by Sir Peter, so he hides Lady Teazle behind a screen. He is then interrupted again by Charles, so he hides Sir Peter in a closet. All is discovered, and Charles gets a good laugh at Joseph’s expense, Sir Peter is outraged, and Lady Teazle is mortified. And Joseph, of course, is exposed as a hypocrite.

After yet another witty scene in which the rumor that Joseph and Sir Peter have dueled (patently false), and that Sir Peter is near death (even more false), takes flight until dashed by the appearance of an irritated Sir Peter; the expected conclusion is reached. Maria and Charles are free to marry, Sir Peter and Lady Teazle are reconciled, and Joseph and Lady Sneerwell get their just deserts.  

This play, and Sheridan’s work in general resembles that of Oscar Wilde a century later. The wit is the thing, and the well turned phrases come one after the other. If anything, Sheridan’s wit is a slight bit meaner than Wilde’s – the term razor sharp is apropos. One almost feels guilty for laughing; but one cannot help it.

The section in which the Ladies Sneerwell, Candour, and Teazle, along with Sir Benjamin and Crabtree eviscerate their acquaintances is shocking in its meanness while it is devastatingly funny.

Lady Sneerwell: Well, well, if Mrs. Evergreen does take some pains to repair the ravages of time, you must allow she effects it with great ingenuity, and surely that’s better than the careless manner in which the widow Ochre chalks her wrinkles.

Sir Benjamin: Nay, now, Lady Sneerwell, you are severe upon the widow. Come, come, ‘tis not that she paints so ill, but when she has finished her face, she joins it so badly to her neck, that she looks like a mended statue, in which the connoisseur sees at once that the head’s modern though the trunk’s antique.

The play shows some signs of its age. For example, there is the casual anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotyping that plagues literature from the Middle Ages right up through the last century. These are a cringe-worthy as blackface to our modern senses. I also noted the use of descriptive names. This antiquated device seems less jarring, and can be a bit of an aid in keeping the characters straight.

As a final thought, it is interesting that Sheridan ended up living out some of his art. Like Charles Surface, he squandered his fortune, and ended up in debt. Unlike Charles, there was no rich uncle to bail him out. After the early death of his first wife, Sheridan took the route of Sir Peter, and married a much younger woman. One tends to think of authors of writing from their experience. In this case, it went in reverse. Sheridan ceased writing before age thirty, and had his misadventures late in life.

On the other hand, given his reputation as a wit and a carouser, perhaps he felt he had to keep up appearances. The scoundrel Snake has one of the last words in The School for Scandal.

Sir Peter: Well, well, you have made atonement by a good deed at last.

Snake: But I must request of the company that it shall never be known.

Sir Peter: Hey! What the plague! Are you ashamed of having done a right thing once in your life?

Snake: (sighing deeply) Ah, sir! Consider; I live by the badness of my character. I have nothing but my infamy to depend on! And if it were once known that I had been betrayed into an honest action, I should lose every friend I have in the world.

Note on Barber’s Overture:

Barber was one of the premier twentieth century American composers. Unfortunately, most know him only for his poignant Adagio for Strings (featured in the movie Platoon, for those who know classical music only through the movies. Barber wrote great music in a variety of forms, from opera to solo concertos.

The School for Scandal was written in 1931, when Barber was a 21 year old college student. While it has a few youthful foibles in the orchestration, it is a remarkably mature and well constructed work, in my opinion. Barber typically shows discipline in his forms, combined with melody and emotion that move the listener.

This overture captures the acerbic nature of Sheridan’s wit. The harmonies and timbres often have the sense of the edge of a razor, and the musical humor tends to bite rather than sparkle. Even the tender sections come with a slightly raised eyebrow and a wry smile. In other words, Barber captured the essence of Sheridan rather well. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Poems for Good Friday

For Good Friday, to contrasting poems by two very different masters of the devotional poem. I find it interesting that both, to an extent, express the same sentiments, and even present parallel elements. I was unable to confirm if Rossetti consciously based her poem on the earlier Donne, but she was known to take inspiration from earlier works, and then put her own personal twist on them. Both poets bemoan their lack of response to the ultimate sacrifice. Each notes the deep response of a woman: Donne acknowledges Mary, the mother of Christ; Rossetti, the women that mourned at the cross, and later first witnessed the resurrection. The two ask for a softening of their hard hearts at the close of the poems.

Donne writes his longer poem in Heroic Couplets; that is, in Iambic Pentameter with two consecutive rhyming lines. Chaucer is believed to have first popularized this form, with Alexander Pope and John Dryden the names most associated with this form. This formal style is typical of Donne and his era, and requires a careful reading and re-reading to tease out the gems of thought.

by John Donne

LET man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is ;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey ;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die ;
What a death were it then to see God die ?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes ?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us ? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn ?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us ?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them ; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity ;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face. 

Rossetti uses her mastery of rhythm to lend the stanzas of her poem a certain focus. The first line in each, to my reading, contains four accented syllables. The unaccented syllables are dropped in some cases. This also occurs in the last line of stanza, where there are three accents. The middle two lines are pentameter, and are linked by rhyme, as are the first and last. Thus, the emphasis is on the beginning and end of the stanza, with the strongest impact left to the end. Rossetti, despite using far fewer words, makes the point with an impact equal to Donne.

Good Friday
By Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
     That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
     Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
     Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon   
     Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon--
     I, only I.
Yet give not o'er,
     But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
     And smite a rock.

Monday, April 2, 2012

P. G. Wodehouse - book club selection for April

For those new to my blog, I am participating in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. I am the token male member, so I will have to work even harder to prove that I was selected on my merits alone. This month is my turn to select the book. I have chosen P. G. Wodehouse. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:

Reading to Know - Book Club

The first half of the 20th Century was not kind to the British aristocracy. The Empire was on the decline, and was eventually lost. Land, once the source of wealth and power, was becoming secondary to capital and manufacturing. What was once the source of an independent income for the young, feckless nobleman had now become a drain on the finances.

Various authors documented and commented on this earthshaking change in society. E. M. Forster and John Galsworthy wrote serious novels. H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw explored the new atheism and pessimism. Yeats and Joyce replaced Tennyson and Dickens.

And then there was Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house), who saw in the decline of the aristocracy a golden opportunity for humor. Remarkable for both his long life and his prodigious output, Wodehouse was one of the greatest and most memorable humorists of all time.

This month, as my contribution to the Reading to Know Book Club, I have selected Wodehouse as the author for the month of April. Because access to particular books varies, and Wodehouse wrote 96 books during his lifetime, I have chosen to leave the choice of books open to the reader.

Wodehouse loved to write about memorable characters, and decided to have various characters populate multiple books, either in a sequential story, or as persons who fit in the stories of others. These personalities are an important part of the charm of P. G.’s writing, and really drive the plots. The major characters are as follows:

Bertie Wooster, the young aristocrat; and his loyal and resourceful butler, Jeeves. These stories are an excellent introduction to Wodehouse. Fans of Hugh Laurie from House should seek out the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, which are deliciously true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the books.

Psmith. (The “P” is silent.) Carrie and I are particular fans of this character, who is lazy and outrageous, but manages to come through in the clutch anyway. He is an advocate of “practical socialism”, wherein he appropriates the goods of the wealthy for his own purposes. I have failed to do justice to Psmith, so I’ll just recommend reading one of these books.

Lord Emsworth, whose stories are often associated with “The Empress of Blandings”, a magnificent pig.

Golf. As in the game of golf. Wodehouse said near the end of his life that if he hadn’t wasted his time with frivolous nonsense like writing stories, he might have gotten his handicap below eighteen. Even for a non-golfer like myself, I find the golf stories to be hilarious and outrageously witty.  As Wodehouse himself put it, “After all, a woman is only a woman, but a hefty drive is a slosh!”

What am I reading this month? I have selected Uncle Fred in the Springtime, one of the Lord Emsworth books.

I also reviewed The Adventures of Sally last year.