Sunday, February 28, 2010

Human Varieties and Universals

TLS February 12 2010

from Ben Hutchinson's review of Frederic Hölderlin's ESSAYS AND LETTERS, edited and translated by Jeremy Adler and Charlie Louth:

Yet by 1797, Hölderlin is moving away from philosophy, writing to Schiller that "I now consider the metaphysical mood as a certain virginity of the mind". In 1798, he writes that philosophy is a "hospital where poets afflicted as I am find honourable refuge", and by 1799 he foes so far as claim hat he has made himself unhappy by cultivating "activities that seem to be less well-suited to my nature, such as philosophy". . . . Like the early Nietzsche, whose distinction between the Dionysian and Apolline he seems here to anticipate, Hölderlin looks to the Greeks to unite poetry and philosophy, speaking admiringly of the "strictness with which the ancient writers distinguished between the different kinds of poetry".
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Achilles represents for Höolderlin the "ideal being", since Homer profanes him as little as possible in the tumult" by holding him back from the battle. This is indicative of Hölderlin's influential view of tragedy: "the tragic poem conceals the intimacy in the representation . . . because it expresses a deeper intimacy, a more infinite divinity". 

Nietzsche loved Hölderlin's poetry. The description of it here suggests the attraction: the attempt to unite philosophy and poetry, less in a system of thought than in a way of life. If the tragic poem expresses "a more infinite divinity" through its representational power, where does that leave the lyric poem? If the dramatic poem, as in Shakespeare's plays, exhibits a more infinite variety (in situations, characters and actions), the lyric poem must seem a smaller stage. The problem is also Keats's. How does a lyric poet create a world of infinities? Of passing moods, maybe.

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TLS February 19 2010

from John Habgood's review of Jonathan Benthall's RETURNING TO RELIGION: Why a secular age is haunted by faith:

"Religion," [Benthall] writes, "is a human universal, and those who think they can eliminate it by scientific argument or ridicule are no more likely to succeed than those who would eliminate sexuality or playfulness or violence. These are the conclusions of an anthropologist whose academic discipline has convinced him that "a religious inclination is essential for the functioning of any society". Religious undercurrents and residues in supposedly secular organizations may take various forms, he claims, all of which bear a family resemblance, and which display many different degrees of religiosity. Rotary, for instance, with its motto "Service above Self", its ubiquitous logo, and its role in creating community, has the characteristics of a weak form of religion. At the opposite extreme, Chairman Mao's notorious Little Red Book, on the face of it an unlikely candidate for religious status, was for a time the basis for a full-blown quasi-religious cult. We humans, Benthall concludes, are driven by a fundamental need for religion to help us cope with the ambiguities and threats inherent in our human existence.

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from Richard Marggraf Turley, Howard Thomas and Jayne Elisabeth Archer's Commentary piece "A tragedy of idle weeds: why Grigori Kozintsev's Lear is more faithful to Shakespeare's 'arable play' than most modern stagings":

One of the "idle weedes" that tells us much about the world, the environment, that Shakespeare has in mind in King Lear, is the poisonous wheat-mimicker darnel, which ripens--as one of Shakespeare's sources, Gerarde's Herball (1597) points out--in August. The play's climax, then, takes place during early harvest time--and not, as stage orthodoxy has it, in winter or spring. When darnel infiltrates the food chain, most often in the form of bead or beer, the results are symptoms resembling madness: blurred vision, hallucinations, incoherence, and disorientation. . . . 
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Lear was begun in 1604, the year of King James's coronation and the beginning of the negotiations that would result in the Union of the Crowns. In this same year, Shakespeare was forty, and like Lear requesting "rayment, bed and food" from his daughters--he seems to have started making provision for his eventual retirement. . . . Anticipating his retirement, Shakespeare found that his personal "harvest time" was neither peaceful nor pastoral. Instead, when he sat down to devise King Lear, Shakespeare contemplated a turbulent Britain, in which food was scarce, harvests uncertain, and its subjects divided.
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Dramatic orthodoxy follows the ground-zero conceptualizations of Lear so starkly exemplified by Brook, Nunn and Noble. However, it is in fact Kozintsev's Korol Lir that is closest, not just to the radical energies of Shakespeare's play, which interrogates the political uses of land, but also to our own twenty-first-century fears and preoccupations about what we do to the land--and what it does to us. The thought of an empty stomach . . . is every bit as creatively energizing as post-nuclear Angst. Shakespeare's Lear, like Kozintsev's Lir, is the Autumn King, the King of Wheat, and this arable play Shakespeare's unrecognized Georgic.

This interpretation makes a lot of sense. It makes sense of Lear's rich description of the land parceled out to his daughters after they declare their love for him. The description emphasizes the land as land, and not as political territory. It also makes sense of the play's concern with economic distribution between the rich and poor. In a moment of great lucidity Lear realizes he has taken too little care of the poor. He wishes to show the heavens more just by shaking "the superflux" to those in need.

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