[T]he prince must consider…how to avoid those things which make him hated or contemptible….It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock.
—Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince
According to one internet source, the word “academe” was invented (or first written down, depending on your perspective on what “word invention” may mean) by Shakespeare. Here’s a story from my own adventures in academe that demonstrates how investing such a vast quantity of cultural import in one author shuts out voices and depletes the quality of our art.
In this anecdote, the voice that got shut out was me. (That’s probably why I remember this moment so vividly. You can add “spiteful” to the list of all the awful things I am.) The year was 2001. I’d just started my PhD program, and the year before, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in theaters.
Anyone remember Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet? No? Well, maybe you know it better as the Ethan Hawke Hamlet.
Yes, this version of Hamlet was all the rage, both in critical and academic circles. Rolling Stone called it “a visual knockout that sets the Bard’s words against striking images.” (One of the visual knockouts they mention: “to be or not to be” happens in a video store. Wow, that’ll never not be profound!) The New York Times calls the movie “voluptuous and rewarding,” claims it “makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you’ll ever see in a film” and that “Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare.” Okay then.
You get the idea, right, Fickle Readers? Almereyda’s Hamlet is the hottest Shakespearean shit ever to land on Hollywood. Curious, since Rotten Tomatoes now gives the film a 55% rating (which translates to “rotten”). Their Critical Consensus blurb sums up the movie as “stiff performances fail to produce any tension onscreen.” Pretty low marks for a new standard, huh?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re still in 2001. Large populations of professional analysts of culture are peeing themselves in praise of this film. I can attest to the scholarly reception at the time because I remember discussing the film in one of the first courses I took in my PhD program. In fact, we had a special speaker that day to tell us about the many ingenious ways that Almereyda used the spectacle of consumerism to illuminate the emptiness of the corporate world. This speaker was especially fascinated by a moment when the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks through a corridor in a building and then seems to dissolve into a Pepsi machine (a shot that other critics have noted). She dissected the image enthusiastically, holding it up as innovative commentary on modern society. I thought it looked like product placement. And I said so, albeit in the form of what I thought was a diplomatic question: Product placement is everywhere in movies. How are we supposed to tell what’s a thoughtful aesthetic statement and what’s a somewhat sophisticated way of squeezing yet another ad into a film?
The woman must have thought I was an idiot. I’m not sure she really answered my question, either, as she brushed me off. She definitely didn’t look me in the eye. The expression on her face was reminiscent of someone trying not to notice a distant relation who came to a wedding in a see-through cocktail dress.
If you’re curious as to what the intelligentsia has had to say about Almereyda’s film, here is a PDF file on Brooklyn College’s web site that makes a similar case about all the brilliant bells and whistles Almereyda includes in the movie. I have no idea when this document was posted. I have no idea if any literature, film, or media scholars out there are still avidly watching this movie for its “visual energy,” its “use of mirrors, screens, windows, and natural reflective surfaces,” or the grave digger humming “All Along the Watchtower.” (I don’t have to comment on how no one in the TV industry or Hollywood ever uses that song, do I?) I’m guessing everyone has moved on. Especially when even watching bits of the film now is enough to give a person a full-on poseur headache.
But hey, it’s Shakespeare, right? All those ham-fistedly artsy video clips made with a Fisher Price Pixelvision camera must have been worthy of countless hours of study time. It’s an adaptation of Hamlet, by gum! That means no matter how wooden or god-awful the acting, we’re not going to acknowledge it because any unique little twist on Shakespeare’s vision should be slaveringly admired! Viva the Bard!!!
Granted, I’m not being entirely fair here to the fawning critics of 2000. Any film can fail to outlive its historical moment. No one at the time expected that video stores would be gone in ten years. Or that CGI and digital film technology would become so powerful and widely used that you couldn’t rely on the lasting influence of your knockout visuals. Still, it’s puzzling that droves of academic professionals and media critics would lavish such eloquent praise on what is a fairly mediocre, style-over-substance offering. Have these people no understanding of the basic elements of good filmmaking, you might ask? Have they no standards?
Of course they do. It’s just that when Shakespeare enters the picture, he always comes trailing a cloud of prestige. Many critics and academics have been trained to respond to the kind of cachet that a Shakespearean text adds to a work of art, be it film, novel, or theatrical performance. So engrained in our cultural perception is our belief in the prima face merit of Shakespeare that we can overlook countless original narratives by new or unknown artists so we can study the latest vaguely competent go-round with the melancholy Dane.
Don’t we, as writers and readers, deserve a teensy bit better after 400 years?
If you want to talk about it, I’ll be the one by the cash bar in the skimpy, red dress that barely covers my nipples.
So here’s a confession, Fickle Readers: I’m not a good trend-setter. I like weird, random stuff. I go after knowledge and feel as though I’m digging up keys to the universe. Other people? Kinda just go about their business like I’m not around.
In terms of social media, I tend to be more of a re-tweeter than a self-promoter. I share things and spread things and then I find I’m being courted by all sorts of people who want their own publicity.
I’m not sure how that happened. Really, I’m one of those types (and there are many of us) who felt from a young age we were going to become best-selling superstar writers. I’ve worked hard on my writing for at least 35 years–maybe more–and no one knows who I am. This is the ugly truth of living your life as a hard-core, dream-filled writer. You write and you write. You submit your work on bended virtual knee and you get a two-line Rejecto-message back (or maybe not even that). You try your best to be community oriented and interested in other people’s writing passions, but when you start in with, “Hey, you know what I’m into right now?” you can feel energy levels sinking and enthusiasm dimming to politeness.
Or this could be projection. Or me being socially anxious. Or me sucking on my copious supply of sour grapes. Or any number of situations where I turn out to have read the room wrong. I’m infamous in my ability to get circumstances totally bass-ackwards. So if I’ve misunderstood the Internet, or stayed under my Chronically Ill/Parental/Old Person’s Rock [tm] for too long, I apologize in advance for the rant that is about to unfold. Which is…
Everyone knows that April 23rd of this year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, right? Or, at least, the date we like to say he died, since it conveniently corresponds both to the day of his supposed birth and the feast day of St. George, who happens to be the patron saint of England. (I’m baffled that more people don’t mention this little coinkidink when they talk about the history of Shakespeare. I mean, Shakespeare, whose birth and death dates can only be estimated, just happens to emerge from the mists of history as coming into being AND ceasing to exist on St. George’s day? Almost like some serious Bardolaters were trying to suggest that said Shakespeare were, hmm, I don’t know…the patron saint of English literature? Retcon, anyone???)
(Sigh. It’s hard being a Shakespeare nerd…)
Anyway, everyone now knows that April 23rd is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Why, exactly, has hardly anyone in the writing community seemed to notice? I mean, the theater people are all over this, of course. In Los Angeles, they’re even having a “star-studded” affair that includes star stud Sir Patrick Stewart. (Ah, Sir Patrick Stewart. Long may he remain ageless.)
However, I have yet to see any great activities or statements from the writing community. This may be because I haven’t been doing my due diligence, but so far I have found that a grand total of one literary magazine, that being New Orleans Review, planned an issue commemorating the event. And now they don’t seem to be talking about that anymore, instead putting out a new call for submissions for a special issue dubbed “The African Literary Hustle.” This seems wonderfully apt–kind of a reverse Academy Award pattern, where they get the old white privilege out of the way so they can explore voices that ought to have been explored ages ago.
But back to old white privilege. Many of you Fickle Readers and Writers out there probably don’t realize how much Shakespeare permeates our culture. His words are virtually invisible to us, and we trip over them everywhere. (Like The Fault in Our Stars? Totally didn’t realize til today that that was more than a teen tearjerker. And I spent 12 years more or less immersed in bardology and bardography.) More to the point, dear Fickle Ones, he is the master template for the single, conquering genius that takes the literary world by storm and puts all other writers to shame. He is the icon for winner-take-all authorhood. Most of his personal history and virtually all of his private life and personality are lost to us now–he’s been dead 400 years, after all–but in the intervening centuries he’s been built up, appropriated, painted over, and worshiped to the point where the entire Western literary canon and mountains of elitism and intellectual snobbery have been foisted on to the shoulders of this guy:
So what have we writers done to combat the fact that this single individual writer has been dominating literary culture since long before we were all born? Like his work or not (and many readers and writers come up with their own Best Friend Shakespeare to combat the fact that he’s such a symbol of literary privilege), writers everywhere are beholden to this idea that only a select few writers get to reign supreme, that it’s totally fine for one Englishman to anchor our cultural response to literature and influence what gets labeled “literature” and what doesn’t.
So far in 2016, we’ve had one literary journal look at Shakespeare. The rest is silence.
See, to me, this year, when Shakespeare will be 400 years dead, is the perfect year to start tearing down some of these authoritarian structures and start questioning what it means to have this guy
as the patron saint of Literature. Many people have already been doing this work, of course, but it seems to me that this year is the perfect opportunity for even more writers to tackle Shakespeare head-on. We should be feasting on his remains, or what remains of his remains. We should be talking back to him, taking his image and his texts and ripping them apart, exploring what exists in the gaps between his words, and reworking those words to reflect what the writing world of 2016 is like. So many more people can read today than when Shakespeare was alive. So many more people are writing things down. Our literary culture can and should reflect that.
So today I’m calling on writers to start looking at this thing called Shakespeare and to see what you can do with it. Play. Experiment. Trash. Consume. And most importantly, produce what comes of your discoveries. Shakespeare is one author who is very, very dead. Time to see what we can make of him and leave off figuring out what he makes of us.
I haven’t been posting a lot on this year’s election, mostly because I’m willfully ignoring it, mostly because the whole spectacle makes me queasy. I feel like ever since 2000, I’ve plunged myself in these roller-coaster elections and tried to influence the course of events with my willpower alone. Now the whole thing seems kind of a waste of time. I know who I’m voting for. No one and nothing will change my mind. And so, watching people I detest say detestable things in debate after debate seems masochistic in the extreme. I know a lot of people like the reality-show absurdity of the whole process, but I for one don’t enjoy watching horribly unqualified people bloviate and then having nightmarish imaginings of said people in the Oval Office. I don’t need the extra stress.
And yet sometimes, even when trying to avoid politics, I find a lovely moment in my fickle reading that manages to put everything in perspective. This passage comes from May Sarton’s journal At Seventy, written in 1982, and therefore does indeed bring with it that security that comes from knowing that everything that’s happening and is going to happen will do so from the safety of the past. You can be the judge as to how much things have changed since then:
There is never any depth in Reagan’s perceptions of the world. He behaves like an animated cartoon, wound up to perform futile gestures and careless witticisms. It made me feel sick when his reaction to the despair of blacks about this administration was to engineer the other day a visit to a middle-class black family who had been threatened five years ago by a burning cross. So the TV cameras were marshaled, and Reagan and Nancy were shown kissing the family one by one. He made a few remarks about “this sort of thing” not tolerable in a democracy. But what is not tolerable is such a cheap ploy. Meanwhile, forty-eight percent of young blacks are jobless, and the administration offers no help. The black family behaved with perfect dignity, but the whole false “scene” was shown up clearly for what it was, a public-relations media event, an insult to the black community, neglected and shoved under the rug.
Hey, Fickle Readers! I know I’ve been away for a long time, and I have much to discuss. However, when I read this piece by Arthur Chu on Salon.com, I just had to take a moment to re-broadcast it. Chu does a fabulous job of arguing that mass shootings in the U.S. are fueled by a toxic sense of entitlement and a need for attention similar to the way Internet trolls bully people online. Not only does he back up this position with lots and lots of excellent articles and research, he weaves in a historical perspective on what you might call extreme trolling–acts of public violence that are meant to garner publicity for the criminal.
I feel like this article is tremendously important. It looks at the issues surrounding gun violence in a different way and doesn’t beg out of the discussion with the usual cop-out “the guy snapped” explanation.
I’m sending you a whole bottle of virtual tequila, Mr. Chu! This essay is excellent, excellent stuff. Well done!
[H]usbands and wives have a right to use such rightful means for the limiting of the number of offspring as are conducive to the interests of all parties concerned–themselves, their circumstances, the born or unborn children, the state, the nation.
–H.W. Long, MD, Sane Sex Life & Sane Sex Living, Eugenics Publishing Co.
By the way, in the midst of the sadness and tragedy in the Eaton article on L’Wren Scott I posted the other day, did anyone notice something a little…creepy? Not as in morbid-creepy or tasteless-creepy, but creepy as in something we astute pop culturists on the Interwebs might have heard of before? Describing Scott’s relationship with Mick Jagger, Eaton writes:
Nobody has a cooler life and friends than Mick Jagger, who had plenty of time to trot the globe as the Stones really weren’t touring much. In the Loire Valley, [Scott] and Jagger, a history buff, would roll up strangers’ driveways, browsing stately homes.
Anybody catch that? Mick Jagger as a “history buff”? Spending his time looking at “stately homes”? Any fans of The Simpsons out there do a double-take when they read this?
Have a look at this run of dialogue from “Lisa’s Wedding,” which first appeared in 1996:
Hugh Parkfield (Mandy Patinkin): I can’t believe how much we have in common. We’re both studying the environment, we’re both utterly humorless about our vegetarianism, and we both love the Rolling Stones.
Lisa: Yes. Not for their music, but for their tireless efforts to preserve historic buildings.
Holy God, Simpsons writers! What sort of magic Portal of Futuristic Accuracy did you have in your clubhouse back in the 1990s???
If you haven’t started following @oldpicsarchive on Twitter, you should. It’s like a little time machine taking you on surprise visits back when the cultural zeitgeist didn’t include Kardashians.
There! Didn’t that do your spirit good?
(In case you didn’t know: the dog featured here with Paul McCartney is his old English sheepdog, Martha, for whom he wrote “Martha My Dear.” If you don’t know who Paul McCartney is, I’m afraid I must weep for your soul.)
You know, there’s a lot of good writing out there. So much, in fact, that often as a reader I feel inundated. Long ago I’ve given up catching up in the writing world (okay, I have a twinge of jealousy every now and again, but then my body craps out on me and I sleep for three days). But reading, hey–I can do that with hardly any effort, right?
Hah! says the Internet. Hahahahahahaha–I think I just peed my Virtual Pants a little bit. And we’re not even talking about the laff riot that printed books, ebooks, and Amazon are having, individually and as a loosely affiliated media conglomerate.
Okay, so reading all the good stuff out there is Nigh Unto Impossible, probably even more Nigh than keeping up with the accomplishments of writers that clamber like ants all over the face of the world. Every once in a while, though, you do get to read a piece that is mind-blowing (in a humbling sense, not in the typical Internet content-mill sense of “40 Ways Toasting Bread Will Blow Your Mind). These are works that not only open eyes but crack open the universe. And, I’m pleased to report, that today’s stunning piece of writing takes as its subject that most dreadfully neglected of superheroes, Wonder Woman.
Now, I gotta admit, I myself have been a tad irked by Wonder Woman in the past. I grew up in the 1970s watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on TV, and I loved her, loved Diana, loved dressing up in my Wonder Woman Underoos with a piece of sparkly rope and a Burger King cardstock crown that my mom cut up to resemble Wonder Woman’s tiara. (Yes, I have pictures of me in my Wonder Woman “costume.” No, you can’t see them.) I loved Wonder Woman with the innocent narcissism of a little middle-class white girl who looked at Carter and thought, “Yes! The only girl superhero on TV isn’t a blonde! Brown hair rules!!!” And yet later, when I started understanding a little more about the way women are portrayed in the media, and I took a closer look at Wonder Woman’s magic jewelry, skimpy outfit, truth lasso (the hell??), and crummy villains made for a “girl” to fight (yeah, that Egg Fu, what man apart from all of them could crack him open), I became, shall we say, disenchanted with the crime fighter from Paradise Island. She became an embarrassment, yet another vision of the perfect woman created by men, a cause of that queasy feeling you only get in the presence of something once adored by a younger, half-rejected version of yourself.
I will also admit that recently I’ve been coming to terms with my feelings for Wonder Woman. A terrific geek-girl band (yes, world, geek girls DO exist!!!) called the Doubleclicks came out with a tribute song called “Wonder” that always brings a tear to my eye, so perfectly does the song capture the superhero sentimentality that Five for Fighting and Crash Test Dummies, among others, gave to Superman.
And now, we have Jill Lepore’s article “The Last Amazon”.
Man, does this piece of reporting deliver.
Not only does Lepore examine Wonder Woman’s unusual beginnings in the mind of a polyamorous, women’s-rights-espousing male psychologist in the 1940s, not only does Lepore follow the line of inspiration back to famous first-wave feminists like Margaret Sanger, Lepore manages to work in little nuggets of pure-gold irony like this:
Last December, Warner Bros. announced that Wonder Woman would have a role in an upcoming Superman-and-Batman film, and that, in a three-movie deal, Gal Gadot, a lithe Israeli model, had signed on to play the part. There followed a flurry of comments about her anatomical insufficiency for the role.
“It’s been said that you’re too skinny,” an interviewer told Gadot on Israeli television. “Wonder Woman is large-breasted.”
“Wonder Woman is Amazonian,” Gadot said, smiling coyly. “And historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast.” (They cut off the other one, the better to wield a bow.)
The modern woman, Crystal Eastman explained in The Nation, “wants some means of self-expression, perhaps, some way of satisfying her personal ambitions. But she wants a husband, home and children, too. How to reconcile these two desires in real life, that is the question.” You can find more or less the very same article in almost any magazine today—think of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”—which is a measure of just how poorly this question has been addressed. A century ago, though, it was new. Between 1910 and 1920, Virginia MacMakin Collier reported in 1926, in “Marriage and Careers,” the percentage of married women working had nearly doubled, and the number of married women in the professions had risen by forty per cent. “The question, therefore, is no longer, should women combine marriage with careers, but how?”
Here’s how. Marston [Wonder Woman’s creator] would have two wives. Holloway could have her career. Byrne would raise the children. No one else need ever know.
In the spring of 1942, Gaines [publisher of Wonder Woman] included a one-page questionnaire in All-Star Comics. “Should WONDER WOMAN be allowed, even though a woman, to become a member of the Justice Society?” Of the first eighteen hundred and one questionnaires returned, twelve hundred and sixty-five boys and three hundred and thirty-three girls said yes; a hundred and ninety-seven boys, and just six girls, said no. Wonder Woman joined the Justice Society. She was the only woman. Gardner Fox, who wrote the Justice Society stories, made her the society’s secretary. In the summer of 1942, when all the male superheroes head off to war, Wonder Woman stays behind to answer the mail. “Good luck boys,” she calls out to them. “I wish I could be going with you!” Marston was furious.
And, oh, yeah, this:
Marston died in 1947. “Hire me,” Holloway [Marston’s official wife] wrote to DC Comics. Instead, DC hired Robert Kanigher, and Wonder Woman followed the hundreds of thousands of American women workers who, when peace came, were told that their labor threatened the stability of the nation. Kanigher made Wonder Woman a babysitter, a fashion model, and a movie star. She gave advice to the lovelorn, as the author of a lonely-hearts newspaper advice column. Her new writer also abandoned a regular feature, “The Wonder Women of History”—a four-page centerfold in every issue, containing a biography of a woman of achievement. He replaced it with a series about weddings, called “Marriage à la Mode.”
“The Last Amazon” is a long article, but an important one. Read it before the Subscription techies at the New Yorker stuff it behind a firewall. Afterward, feel free to get all nostalgic for the gains in women’s lives that were dreamed of but never happened, or that happened but didn’t stick. Then listen to the Doubleclicks and remember to hang on to a little of that queasy, kid-like hope, that awe for the marvelous being who, every once in a while, resembles you.
Hey, fickle readers! Wow, what a crazy couple of weeks it’s been. My lupus Pity Spoons are just about gone today because of all the rushing about, hanging out with Little Fickle’s grandparents, getting Little Fickle ready for first grade (!!!), and doing off-line writing (some of which is for other people and not just my own insane drive for recognition! More on this later).
Since this is definitely going to be a low-energy day, I thought I’d ease into the blogging with a new segment I like to call “That’s News to ME!” See, since I’m an old coot, and since for the past ten years I’ve either been parenting or walking around with my head in the Renaissance, I tend to have all these Great! New! Discoveries! about news items that are, in fact, not really news. Often, these stories broke several years ago, but since they’re news to me, and since this blog is all about the weird quirks of my brain, I thought I’d take a moment to share anyway. Anyone who wants to exercise his or her fickleness, feel free to skip anything you’ve already heard forty billion times.
Today’s news to me has to do with the poetry world. First, a breathtaking find that happened in 2012 but popped up on my radar only days ago: a daguerreotype that may represent the second known photographic image of Emily Dickinson. This picture would have been taken when Dickinson was in her mid-twenties and already embarking on the literary project that would result in her collection of almost 800 poems (nearly all of which were discovered after her death, by the way). The only authenticated image we have of her was taken when she was a teenager, and according to the article at the link, one scholar has done research on family members who did not think that early picture looked much like her. Another exciting detail about this find is that Dickinson is posing with another woman, one who may have been someone the poet was in love with. When I find the time (hah!), I fully intend to hunt down info on this second woman. And if you have the time, check out the daguerreotype at the link. It’s not every day you get a new window onto a familiar author’s life.
Second, following the recent incident in which a nine-year-old girl accidentally shot an instructor at a shooting range in Arizona, poet Gregory Orr published an article in the New York Times on his own experience shooting and killing his younger brother in a hunting accident. Orr’s piece is an excellent exploration both of his own feelings in the aftermath of his brother’s death and of what that 9-year-old must be thinking and feeling as she comes to terms with her part in the end of another human being. I’m not familiar with Orr’s work, so I had no idea he’d lived through such a traumatic event. My heart goes out to him.
And finally: the LA Times just published an article on a new poetry feature from Rattle called Poets Respond. Beginning in June of this year, Rattle has been posting poems written in the past week about the news of the past week, with an eye to making poetry relevant to current events and timed to the speed at which news barrels our way in the age of the Internet. I haven’t gotten a chance to look over the web site yet, but I would like to say cheers to Timothy Green and the Rattle editorial staff for the great idea and the wonderful opportunity to open up poetry to different audiences. Nice work, Rattle!