Tuesday, August 21, 2007

TLS, August 17, 2007

from Peter Holland's review of William Shakespeare: the Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen:
On King Lear--"The coronet, the commentary assures us, "must be of material that can be broken in half", but this is to read Lear's instruction to "part" it too literally, to assume that the speech and a stage-event are aligned. The exhilarating theatrical point may be precisely that the coronet cannot be divided, that, try as they might, neither Lear nor his sons-in-law can split the metal ring, that the circle, such a potent sign of wholeness, will not break--especially in a play fascinated by the way "The wheel is come full circle", as the dying Edmund puts it.


from Barbara Everett's Commentary piece on biographies of Shakespeare, "Reade him, therefore":
In an important sense Shakespeare did not live in his life, if by life we mean circumstantial existence. Neither a dreamy aesthete nor a dithering incompetenet, the poet--a businessman's even shrewder son--looked after his own (and his own were his plays and poems as well as his family): he saved and invested well and wisely, and fought back when his future in his profession was threatened. But a man can devote his sensible energies to matters beyond sense. This poise governs the whole of his career, at once supremely romantic and thoroughly ground-based ("My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground").


The Tempest is set deep in the same difficulties as everything the poet wrote, and most of what he lived, considered biographically. There is a great truth in the play, but it would be a serious mistake to read it literally: which is surely why Shakespeare here and throughout his work so disposes times and places as to make impossibilities for the literalist. Propero's island, for instance, is neither Old World nor New World. This self-limiting establishment of the "romantic" is only one aspect of the writer's unique credibility. It could be said that Shakespeare is our greatest writer simply because of this intensely personal poise between worlds at once rock-solid and "thin air", "a pageant", "a dream". As with other great artists, his sense of the actual and of the imagined interfused, interbred and created. As a dimension of this, we can perhaps say that if his biography is to be found it has to be here, in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably.


The distinguished art critic John Richardson once reviewed a popular film about Picasso that he thought very bad, and ended:

Films about great artists are a benighted genre in that they usually sacrifice art to La-Bohemeish sentimentality or a soap-opera story line. The trouble is that the workings of the creative process are too slow, too private and too painstaking to be entertaining, let alone cinematic.


from Hugo Williams' Freelance piece:
It seems that tanning, like slimming and body-building, is habit-forming--the soft drug of the self-improvement industry. We have tanaholics suffering from tanorexia. Tanning shops used to be places where people lay in their underwear, clamped in a giant waffle-iron. "Health spas", such as the Electric Beach, aren't like that. You go naked into upright bronzing stalls where high-up pole-dancing handles allow you to gyrate to music of your choice, your arms above your head for an overall finish, even if most of the people there are deeply tanned already.


from Peter Parker's review of India & Pakistan 07 on BBC2 and BBC4:
One of the lasting legacies of the British in India is the railway system, which by happy coincidence was inaugurated in Bombay on August 15, 1854, so that Independence Day has additional significance for the country's railway workers whose lives were followed in Monsoon Railway. The first train should have steamed out of the Imperial capital, Calcutta, but the ship carrying it from England somehow missed India altogether and sailed on to Australia, while its carriages were lost when another ship sank in the Bay of Bengal. After this inauspicious start, the railways went on to become a vital part of Indian life. There are some 7,000 stations, including Kharagpur Junction in West Bengal, which has the longest railway platform in the world, stretching more than a kilometre. Indian Railways are the biggest civil employers in the world, providing housing, healthcare and other benefits for their workers, while keeping 11 million passengers on the move every day. Indeed, for all its ramshackle qualities, the state-owned system is remarkably efficient, putting our own privatized network to shame. During the monsoon season, the track is inspected twenty-four hours a day, and a bridge washed away by the rain is repaired (by hand) within four days; freight profits are used to subsidize ticket prizes for the poor; and the Minister of Railways has banned plastic beakers and reintroduced equally disposable but biodegradable clay cups, which are not only much nicer to drink chair from but provide jobs for 100, 000 potters.


from P. D. Smith's review of Ehrhard Bahr's Weimar on the Pacific: German exile culture in Los Angeles and the crisis of modernism:

Edward Said argued that the twentieth century was "the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration". Hitler's rise to power in 1933 provoked a haemorrhage of talent from German-speaking Europe. As fascism spread in the 1930s and 40s, as many as 15, 000 refugees found a haven from persecution in southern California. Many headed for Los Angeles, a city that has traditionally occupied a space somewhere between an acquired Arcadia and a man-made utopia in the American imagination. Among them were Arnold Schoenberg, Fritz Lang and Max Reinhardt from Vienna, Franz Werfel from Prague, Billy Wilder from Poland, the actor Peter Lorre and the film director Michael Curtiz from Hungary, Heinrich and Thomas Mann from Germany itself. It was, says Bahr, "one of the largest emigration of writers and artists recorded in history."


Theodor Adorno once said that "for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live". He and Max Horkheimer both relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1941. Their classic study Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) provides Bahr with both a hermeneutic tool and a paradigm for the dialectical approach of "exile modernism". Horkheimer and Adorno's conclusion that the enlightenment project contained within it the seeds of the "new kind of barbarism" that had dripped Europe was one that the exiled modernists of Los Angeles were reaching independently in their own fields as they tried to resolve the crisis of modernism provoked by the rise of fascism.


from Brenda Maddox's review of Janine Burke's The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud's art collection:
Freud began collecting at the same time that he was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, in the period following his father's death in 1896, an event that left him feeling uprooted. As a child he had been an ardent hero-worshipper of figures ranging from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. As an adult, as Burke sees it, he needed to surround himself with images of masculine greatness to inspire and encourage him. Overall, Burke says, the collection appears to embody the theories he was developing: an investigation and celebration of the past, a memento of real and imagined journeys, and a catalogue of desires.


His favorite above all in the collection was a small bronze statue of Athena, a Roman copy of a Greek bronze from the fifth century. "She is perfect" he told H.D., "only she has lost her spear." The Athena now occupies the central place on the desk in his museum.


There (temporary home on Elsworthy Road) Freud had given very short shrift to Salvador Dali, who visited him, considering him a father figure. Freud coldly told him that Surrealist painting showed only the conscious, while in the classical art he loved, he could find the subconscious. Dali took Freud's words--perhaps correctly--as the death-knell for Surrealism.


from Anthony Kenny's review of The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine by Alister McGrath with Joanna Collicutt McGrath:
But if Dawkins fails to make a distinction between religion and belief in God, both McGrath and Dawkins fail to distinguish between belief in God and faith. Faith is something more than the mere belief that there is a God: it is an assent to a purpored revelation of God, communicated through a sacred text or a religious community. It is faith in a creed, not mere belief in God, that is Dawkins's real target in The God Delusion....

"What is really pernicious", Dawkins says, "is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument."...

...It is, indeed, too much to say that faith requires no justification: many religious people offer arguments, not just for belief in God but for their particular creed. It is also excessive to say that faith brooks no argument, if that means that the faithful are unwilling to offer responses to criticism. Nevertheless, I think that dawkins is correct to deny that faith is a virtue, for the following reason.

The common characteristic of faith in almost all religious traditions is its irrevocability. A faith that is held tentatively is no true faith. It must be held with the same degree of certainty as knowledge. In some traditions the irrevocability of faith is reinforced by the imposition of the death penalty for apostasy, which the abandonment of faith. Now the kinds of argument that believers offer in support of their religion cannot be claimed to have anything like the degree of cogency that would rationally justify the irrevocable commitment of faith. Again, no argument will make a true believer give up his faith, and this is eomthing that he or she must be resolved on in advance of hearing any argument.

McGrath will no doubt disown such a view of faith. But once again, Dawkins's account is closer to traditional Christianity than McGrath's. The idea that faith is an irrevocable commitment, which goes far beyond any evidence that could be offered in its support, is explicitly stated by Christian thinkers as different from each other as Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Newman. It is the degree of commitment involved in faith, rather than its religious object, that is really objectionable.


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Larry said...

I enjoyed The God Delusion for the way Dawkins states the secular case boldly and with no apology.

Personally I would like to be able to enjoy religion's pathways to mystery entirely stripped of the condition of belief - in a manner similar to the way we can deeply enjoy fiction without needing to believe in its literal truth. But I'm always met with misunderstanding on both sides of the schism when I try to communicate this; religion seems to demand either a binary attachment to one side of its claims, or an embarrassing middle ground where you must apologize for your lack of a stand, which is in fact a stratified stand which attempts to distinguish between literal truth and the games our psyches enjoys playing.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Interesting, Larry. Could one deliberately encounter and experience religious mystery without believing any of it? Of course there are records of non-believers who felt that sense of mystery coming over them, and sometimes transforming their disbelief into belief. But to deliberately set out to enjoy religion's pathways to mystery, in the same way as opening a novel, seems to require at least some sort of suspension of disbelief. If not, I wonder whether that sense of mystery is more aesthetic than religious. I remember being tremendously moved by hearing a Bach cantata in a church, so moved that I felt the tearing of the veil.