Review: The Red and the Black

Review: The Red and the Black
The Red and the Black

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good heavens! Is being happy, is being loved no more than that?

Few books have so totally engrossed me as this French novel written nearly two hundred years ago. Stendhal has aged very well. The novel is just fun to read: with short chapters, simple prose, and a plot that keeps the reader constantly wondering. That the novel was not widely appreciated during Stendhal’s own lifetime shows how much literary taste has changed. Whether this change has been for the better is difficult to say. But at least we can now appreciate Stendhal’s masterpiece.

For me, Stendhal’s signature effect is the interplay of Romantic idealism and deflating realism. Like his contemporary Balzac, Stendhal catches the world in his net. Every character, scene, and situation is carefully realistic. Though hardly a political novel, Stendhal succeeds in painting a subtle and compelling portrait of his age—the dynamic between the provinces and Paris, the political clashes between liberals and royalists, the relationship between the peasants, the clergy, and the old aristocracy. His characters, while individual, are also recognizable types, which he uses to dissect and analyze the social realities of his age.

Yet acting as a great counterweight to the ballast of detail is Stendhal’s famous psychological acuteness. This turns what would potentially be a dated social study into a gripping story of universal import. For his protagonist, Stendhal creates Julien Sorel—passionate, brilliant, stubborn, naïve, calculating, ambitious, and manifestly unfit for his social station.

Stendhal, a liberal himself, could easily have written a kind of morality tale about what happens when a man of great gifts is born in the lower ranks of society, with hardly any legitimate way of advancing. This is indeed Julien Sorel’s position. This morality tale would show us a good-hearted man, doing his best to be recognized for his genius, but overcome by circumstances. Yet Julien is infinitely more interesting for being both flawed and devious. Stendhal does not only show us how society makes his lot difficult, but, far more subtly, shows us how society deforms his psyche.

Deprived of any external encouragement, Julien’s motivation must come from worldly ambition and an egoistic pride. Since his only path to advancement is through people he despises—the clergy and the aristocracy—Julien must be dishonest, hypocritical, and ever-cautious. Forced to suppress his own emotions so constantly, and forced so frequently to act against his inclinations, whenever Julien is given a taste of kindness, love, or happiness, he loses control and threatens to undo all that his calculating subtlety had accomplished.

This psychological portrait is so perfectly realized that we both sympathize with, root for, and yet see through Julien Sorel. He is extraordinary, and yet painfully limited by his surroundings. His tragedy is that circumstances deprived the world of what he could have been had he been born in a different time and place. That Stendhal could create, at the same time, a universal morality tale, a realistic sketch of society, a vivid psychological study, and a thrilling novel—complete with a burning love story—all in the simplest prose, is a testament to the author’s high art.



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Review: Coriolanus

Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my review of Plutarch’s Lives, I noted the stark difference between that ancient author’s conception of personality, and our own. For Plutarch, character was static and definable—an essence that is manifested in every decision and remark of a given person. Compare this with Montaigne’s or Shakespeare’s portrayal of personality: fluctuating, contradictory, infinitely deep, and ever fugitive. To borrow a metaphor from Oswald Spengler, the Plutarchian self is statuesque, while the Shakespearian self is more like a work of music. The first is a self-contained whole, while the second is abstract, fleeting, and morphs through time.

It is fascinating, therefore, to see Shakespeare handle a story right out of Plutarch. Shakespeare adapts his art to the subject-matter, and creates a character in Caius Marcius Coriolanus that is remarkably opaque. I say “remarkably” because Shakespeare had just finished with his five greatest tragedies, each of which has a character notable for its depth. Caius Marcius, by contrast, is a man almost in the Plutarchian mode: with a enumerable list of vices and virtues, who acts and speaks predictably, with little self-reflection. Next to Hamlet, Iago, or Macbeth, the Roman general seems almost childlike in his restriction.

Like Julius Caesar, this play is interesting for a certain amount of moral ambiguity. It is difficult to side with any of the major players. The plebeians of Rome are certainly not a mindless rabble, but they are somewhat vain and narrow-minded, not to mention easily influenced by empty words. Coriolanus himself is a superb soldier but ill-suited to anything else, whose capital vice is not exactly pride, but a certain smallness of mind. His mother, Volumnia, is scarcely less warlike than her son. Even if her counsels are good, it is difficult to see the mother-son relationship as perfectly healthy. She comes across, rather, as a kind of Roman helicopter mom, bringing up her son to be a killing machine for the glory of the state.

For me, the tragedy was not quite successful, simply because Coriolanus was such an unsympathetic protagonist—belligerent, scornful, reactionary, and often a great fool. It is a testament to Shakespeare’s art that he is not altogether hateful. As Harold Bloom says, this play is technically brilliant: in its pacing, language, and plotting. Shakespeare was certainly a professional. But if you come to Shakespeare seeking grand personalities, the work is a barren field.



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Review: Fortunata y Jacinta

Review: Fortunata y Jacinta
Fortunata y Jacinta

Fortunata y Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Evil breeds, and the good are annihilated in sterility.

Here is a real masterpiece of Spanish literature, one of the seemingly endless landmark novels of the nineteenth century. Benito Pérez Galdós, an intensely prolific author by any standard, cranked out this enormous work in two year’s time. This was a long time for Galdós. The vast bulk of Galdós’s dozens of other novels are not even half as long as this work, and many are not even a quarter in length. He went to such lengths because his creative ambition had been spurred on by the publication of Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta, another enormous novel, in 1885. By 1887, Galdós was ready with his reply: this book.

As the title indicates, the story is basically a love triangle, consisting of the respectable Jacinta, the poor Fortunata, and the privileged cad, Juanito Santa Cruz (called “el Delfín”). The main outline of the story is familiar: Santa Cruz marries the wealthy Jacinta, but has a dalliance with the lowly but beautiful Fortunata. Scandal ensues. This could easily be a trite and uninteresting story. Yet Galdós turns this basic plot into a lens, focused on the middle-class life in Madrid. Galdós documents this life with extraordinary finesse. We meet so many different sorts of people—pharmacists, priests, saintly nuns, military men, café intellectuals, chatty maids, arrogant housewives—each of them with their own quirks of speech and their own peculiar forms of mild insanity. It is a thorough and relentless dissection.

Galdós’s portrait of this world is not flattering. Like so many novels of this time, the plot focuses on the impossible plight of women. But Galdós is quite different from any of his English, French, or even Russian counterparts in his remarkable frankness. He is merciless in portraying the moral hypocrisy of this world, which basically leaves no option open for happiness to the lowly Fortunata. Here there are no dramatic heroes who fight duels, no heroines who throw themselves in front of trains or swallow poison. Instead Galdós gives us the crushing weight of custom, slowly grinding down the characters trying to navigate the morally bankrupt social conventions. In this way, the novel is rather more frightening than the operatic stories of Dickens, Tolstoy, or Flaubert—since it requires no suspension of belief to be believed.

Casting about for a comparison, the writer closest in style may be the great realist, Balzac. Galdós is also a realist of a high order. His endlessly animated prose is heavy with quotidian detail, making every scene photographically vivid. This also makes his novel feel rather modern and easy to read. There are no philosophical asides or extended descriptions of scenery: just action. In fact, if there is one main shortcoming of this book, it is that there is simply too much of it. Galdós is brilliant in the small scale; but at times one feels that he has been carried away with his loving portrayals of various Spanish types, his fascination with certain mannerisms, or his obsession with extreme realism. There are times that one wishes the book to swell into a crescendo, but Galdós stays at a steady volume.

The real star of this book is, undoubtedly, Fortunata. The title notwithstanding, Jacinta disappears for much of the story, only really the protagonist during the first quarter. The shameless lover, Santa Cruz, is also surprisingly absent from these pages. Jacinta and her unfaithful husband serve as the background for the tragedy of Fortunata, an unfortunate woman of high spirit and deep passion—a woman who, in other circumstances, could have become a saint, but whose actual circumstances forced her to become a scandal. Sharing in her tragedy is Maximiliano Rubín, a well-meaning, idealistic, and extremely naïve young medical student who falls in love with Fortunata. He, too, may have become a saint, if not for the ridiculous ideas of female honor holding sway at that time.

As the openning quote shows, a major theme of this work is fertility and sterility. Jacinta, the faultlessly faithful wife, is unable to have children; Rubín, the idealist obsessed with honor, is also sterile. Only Fortunata, the disgraced woman, and Santa Cruz, the philanderer, are capable of bringing life into the world. I cannot help but be reminded of The Departed, wherein only the good men can father children. The situation in Galdós’s novel is ostensibly the reverse. His point, however, is not that evil is somehow more fecund, but that the societal conventions of marriage virtually guarantee that people end up in disfunctional marriages (with divorce illegal, of course). It is society itself, then, that is sterile, and this respectable society would implode if not for the constant breaking of its social code—moral lapses that are ignored or excused in the men and ruthlessly punished in the women.

It is a brilliant metaphor, in a brilliant book briming over with vitality. Certainly the novel is too long and, at times, messy and rambling. But as a portrait of life at this time, it can hardly be surpassed; and as a portrayal of societal hypocrisy, it is definitive.



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Review: The Oresteia

Review: The Oresteia

The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides by Aeschylus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Greeks had an intoxicating culture, or at least it seems to us. All of the iniquities and superstitions of the ancient people have been buried or lost, leaving only the perfect skeletons of buildings and the greatest of their literary productions. As a result, they strike us as a race of superpeople. This trilogy certainly furthers this impression, for it is a perfect poetic representation of the birth of justice and ethics out of the primordial law of retaliation.

The most basic ethical principal is loyalty. We are born into a family, establish reciprocal relationships with friends, become a contributing member of a mutually supporting group, and so naturally feel bound to treat this network of people with the proper respect and kindness. But loyalty has several problems. First, one’s family, friends, and group are largely determined by chance—and who is to say that our family and friends are the most worthy? Second, loyalty does not extend outside a very limited group, and so does not preclude the horrid treatment of others. And, as the Greek plays show us, the bounds of loyalty can sometimes cross, putting us in a situation where we must be disloyal to at least one person.

This is the essential problem of Antigone, where the titular character must choose between loyalty to her city or to her dead brother, who betrayed the state. This is also the problem faced by Orestes, who must choose between avenging his father and treating his mother properly. In Sophocles’ play, the problem proves intractable, leading to yet another string of deaths. But Aeschylus shows that by submitting the bonds of loyalty to a higher, impartial court that we can resolve the contradictions and put an end to the endless series of mutual retaliations that loyalty can give rise to.

The rise of judicial procedures, and of concepts of ethics that extend beyond loyalty to fairness, was a crucial step in the rise of complex societies. Aeschylus has given us an immortal dramatization of this epochal step. But, of course, this play is more than a philosophical or historical exercise. It is a work of high drama and poetry, worthy to stand at the first ranks of literature for its aesthetic merit alone. The Greeks continue to enchant.



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Review: The Three Theban Plays

Review: The Three Theban Plays

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alas, alas, what misery to be wise when wisdom profits nothing!

Great books do not reveal themselves all at once. Old classics must be revisited from time to time, at different stages of life, in order to experience the many resonant frequencies of the work. This time around I chose to listen to these Theban plays as an audiobook, with a full cast; and it was far preferable to the mute page.

Reading, listening to, or watching the Greek plays may be the nearest we get to time travel. The works immerse us in a foreign world. What struck me most was the Greek attitude towards freedom and fate. Shakespearean tragedy is reliant on human choice. As A.C. Bradley notes, the tragedy is always specific to the individual, to the extent that the tragedy of one play would be impossible for the protagonist of another. Put Hamlet in Othello’s place, or vice versa, and he would make short work of the play’s problem. The tragedy in a Greek play is, by contrast, inevitable and universal. By the time that the curtain is raised in Oedipus Rex, he has long ago sealed his doom.

There is nothing special about Oedipus that marks him for a tragic fate. His tragedy could have befallen a Hamlet or an Othello just as readily as an Oedipus. This changes the entire emotional atmosphere. Whereas in a Shakespearean tragedy we feel a certain amount of dramatic tension as the protagonists attempt to avert crisis, in Greek tragedy there is instead a feeling of being swept along by an invisible, inexorable force—divine and mysterious. It is animated by a far more pessimistic philosophy: that honest, noble, and wise people who do nothing wrong can be dragged into the pit of misery by an inscrutable destiny.

As a result, the plays can sometimes engender a feeling of mystery or even of vague mysticism, as we consider ourselves to be the mere playthings of forces beyond all control and understanding. Characters rise to power in such a way that we credit their virtues for their success; and yet their precipitate fall shows that there are other forces at play. Life can certainly feel this way at times, as we are buffeted about, lifted up, and cast down in a way that seems little connected to our own actions. For this reason, I think that the fatalistic pessimism of these plays is both moving and, at times, even consoling.

Of the three, the most artistically perfect is Oedipus Rex, which Sophocles wrote at the height of his career. Antigone, the last play, was actually written first; and Oedipus at Colonus was written over thirty years, at the very end of Sophocles’ life.

Though arguably the worst of the three, Antigone is the most thematically interesting. It pits two ethical concepts against one another with intense force, specifically different sorts of loyalty. Is it better to be loyal to one’s family, to the gods, to the state, or to the ruler? Creon’s interdiction, though vengeful and petty, is understandable when one remembers that Polynices is a traitor responsible for an attack on his homeland that doubtless cost many citizens’ lives. Creon could have justified his decree as a discouragement of future disloyalty. Antigone believes that duty to family transcends the duty of a citizen, and the events justify this belief.

It must be admitted, however, that this ethical question is muddled by the religious nature of central issue. Few people nowadays can believe that burial rites are important enough to merit self-sacrifice and civil disobedience. When the superstitious element is removed, Antigone’s ethical superiority seems questionable at best. Certainly there are many cases when loyalty to the family can be distinctly unethical. If a sister sheltered a brother who just escaped imprisonment for murder, I think this would be an unequivocally immoral act. But since burial does not involve help or harm to anyone, the ethical question becomes largely symbolic—if no less interesting.

Even if the emotional import of these plays has been somewhat dulled by the passing years, they remain amazingly alive and direct. The power of these plays is such that, even now, when the Greek gods have passed into harmless myth, here we can still feel the sense of awe and terror in the face of a divine order that passes beyond understanding. It would take a long time for theater to again reach such heights.



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Review: Lord of the Flies

Review: Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those long overdue books that I should have read as a teenager. Reading it now was a curiously detached experience. I could not find what made the book such a universal classic, and put it down in much the same mood as I picked it up. This is not what a novel is supposed to do.

Golding’s book is a parable for the savagery lurking in the breast of humankind. It shows how a group of English children, when stripped of their usual environment, revert to barbarism and cruelty; and this is supposed to show how our civilization rests on a precarious foundation that may crumble at any moment.

Unfortunately, I found that Golding’s parable did not quite illustrate his intended moral. If a group of young children were stranded on an island for months on end, and finally found still alive with only three or four casualties, it would be considered a miracle and not a failure of civilization. Indeed, I found myself more often amazed at the children’s resilience and organization than at their failure to work together and resist their more primitive impulses.

Perhaps I was relatively unaffected by the violence because, like Golding, I have worked as a teacher. Quite apart from the angelic image of innocent childhood common in media, any teacher knows that children can be remarkably mean-spirited and even cruel—not to mention the other vices. I bet that Golding had a similar experience, and this must have been a major influence on the book. The only people I can imagine being shocked by this book are those who cling to an unrealistically rosy picture of our nature—in other words, people who have never worked as teachers.

All jokes aside, any contemporary reader will note the socially questionable assumptions underlying Golding’s portrayal of the boys’ descent into barbarism. For Golding, painting one’s face and chanting is savage; building shelters and fires is civilized. Yet to my mind, the “hunters” of this book displayed capabilities that are just as crucial to civilization as the supposedly civilized children. Rather than coming across as a sane man in a madhouse, Ralph seemed to be a rather ineffectual leader with no grasp of the importance of ritual, recreational, and aesthetic activities within a society.

So much for the philosophy. As a novel, I also thought that the book was lacking. None of the characters is finely drawn; they emerge from and then lapse into a kind of generalized boyhood. The dialogue was choppy and unconvincing. Golding’s writing is on sturdier ground in his narration and description, though for my part his prose could be a bit stiff.

To sum up, I cannot see why this book has become such a permanent fixture in our popular reading lists.



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Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book was an illustration of the dangers of watching the movie first. I could not get Jack Nicholson out of my head, and heard all of the dialogue in his voice. This is, in part, a testament to the quality of the movie, which I think in many ways improved upon the book—both in plot and characterization. And though of course Kesey deserves credit for dreaming this whole thing up, I found his own version to be less compelling.

This is not an insult, however, since the movie is masterful and the book is almost as good. Both McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are iconic characters, and their clash is wonderfully realized. The list of strong secondary characters is too long to go through. As for plot, Kesey has managed to create a perfect parable for the countercultural narrative: that society cruelly forces people into conformity, and rebellious laughter and rule-breaking is the only way to stay sane and human.

All this being said, this is not simply a story about society in general. Now, I must preface these remarks by saying that I generally do not focus on issues of representation in novels. Not that representation is unimportant, but I think that literary merit is independent of social enlightenment. However, I think that the racism and misogyny in this book is so forward and so consistent that it cannot be passed over in silence. Indeed, I think that the issue of gender specifically was so strongly emphasized that it must have been an intentional choice on Kesey’s part, not an incidental attitude of an author from another time.

In short, all of the heroes of this book (aside from the narrator) are white men, and they are oppressed—in a bizarre mirror of real life—by black people and women. The narrator, Chief Bromden, fixates on the orderlies’ blackness, mentioning it at every point. They are the “black boys” with hands “big and black as a swamp” and faces of “slate.” They are rarely referred to by their names and never seen as fully human: just stupid soldiers for the hospital.

But I think that the misogyny runs deeper than the racism and is, indeed, one of the novel’s main themes. Kesey emphasizes it again and again. One of the most famous quotes from the book is: “Man, you lose your laugh you lose your footing.” But what is usually left out is what follows: “A man go around lettin’ a woman whup him down till he can’t laugh any more, and he loses one of the biggest edges he’s got on his side.”

Not to be too Freudian, but Nurse Ratched is the empodiment of the castration complex: a joyless, sexless woman intent on castrating the men. The idea of growing balls and having your balls taken away is repeatedly mentioned. In fact, one of the patients in the “disturbed” ward kills himself by cutting off his own testicles. When Nurse Ratched threatens to have McMurphy lobotomized, he jokes that she wants to cut off his nuts. And so on.

Nurse Ratched’s carefully concealed breasts are also one of the novel’s main metaphors: her attempt to be completely sexless is equivalent with her attempt to control the men and make them weak. McMurphy’s definitive revenge comes when he strips off the nurse’s uniform, exposing her breasts. She thus loses her power because “she could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman.”

The drama of Billy Bibbit also falls into this pattern, and seems to indicate that, for Kesey, the proper relationship of men and women is for women to sleep with men, and that’s that. Bibbit is momentarily cured by finally getting laid (and the prostitutes are the only women portrayed positively) and is driven to desperation by the idea that his mother—another old, sexless woman—might find out. The entire reason that our hero, McMurphy, is committed in the first place is for statutory rape—a fact seen as heroic, not depraved.

Now, to repeat myself, this misogyny is so constant and so explicit that I do not think it is incidental to the book’s message. As Harding, the most articulate character, says: “We are victims of a matriarchy here, my friend, and the doctor is just as helpless against it as we are.” The whole story, then, becomes a kind of metaphor of the struggle of men to resist the enfeebling force of women: And social conformity itself is seen as primarily the doing of womankind.

I am unsure what to think about this. It is just possible that Kesey intended this as a kind of satire on misogyny, though the text did not read that way to me. In any case, despite this rather glaring theme, I still thought that the book was compelling. Kesey did, indeed, raise awareness for how psychiatric patients are mistreated. And the novel is undoubtedly a classic of the counterculture movement. The movie wisely toned down this prominent misogynistic aspect, which is yet another reason why I think it is superior.



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Review: Père Goriot

Review: Père Goriot
Père Goriot

Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Money is life; money accomplishes everything.

I recently worked as a slush pile reader for a literary magazine, sorting out the best stories from the flurry of submissions. Many of these were quite expertly written—sharp prose, snappy beginnings, intriguing plots, quirky characters, and all of the other boxes ticked. However, the lion’s share lacked something which I came to call “weight.”

The stories never escaped the sense of airy insubstantiality that besets much fiction, that nagging and persistent sense of emptiness—in short, of being entirely fiction. The characters spoke with the voices of puppets and moved in a daydream world. I could not believe, so I did not care. Balzac presents a striking contrast. From the very start, this novel is heavy-laden with realistic details snatched from history and from daily life. Far from being phantasmagoric, the setting is etched into the memory with acid, becoming more real than the characters themselves.

Doubtless this ability to lend the weight of reality to his stories is what made Balzac the father of realism. But Balzac’s realism is most impressive in his depiction of the Paris of the Bourbon restoration; it does not extend so forcefully to his characters. Even the best characters in this book are rather one-dimensional and static; they achieve force through intensity, not complexity. Balzac endows each of his creations with an overwhelming passion, a monomania. In the case of Goriot it is his daughters; with Rastignac, social clout; and with Vautrin, a general diabolical glee.

But if Balzac does not stop at these monomanias, for he is at pains to show that each of these passions is fundamentally rooted in money. Goriot loses the affection of his daughters by giving away his last bit of money; Rastignac realizes that money is the key to social success; and Vautrin wishes to buy a plantation in the American south. For a nineteenth-century novel, this is refreshing. Balzac eschews the usual plot mechanics of romance and marriage in favor of the far more contemporary problem of making one’s way in a morally treacherous world. He is a genius at revealing how mercenary motives worm their way into even the most intimate of relationships.

Given Balzac’s reputation for realism, I was surprised by the amount of melodramatic passion on display in this novel. Often this was a weakness, loading the book down with declamations and hysterics. But, at times, it allowed Balzac to reach a level of emotional intensity that was almost operatic. This was particularly true in the final scene, where the combination of grinding poverty, total desperation, and feverish despair reached Dostoyevskian proportions. Indeed, Pere Goriot was a major influence on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as is clear from the many parallels between the two books.

The final result is a book which, if aesthetically rough and conceptually limited, is both an incisive look at the hypocrisies of society and a gripping work of art.



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Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Review: The Poetry of John Keats

Keats: Poems by John Keats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

As a dedicated book reviewer, it is my job to say why I like certain books and dislike others. When it comes to nonfiction, this is reasonably straightforward: if the exposition is clear, if the arguments are logical, if the ideas are reasonable—then it is a worthy book. Nonfiction aims for truth, and truth can at least be tested. With literature, however, the task is somewhat more fraught. Beauty is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. We can break down a novel’s strengths and weaknesses by category—good prose, bad pacing, fine dialogue, shallow characterization—but ultimately these evaluations, however much we justify them, rest upon gut reactions.

Why does one sequence of musical notes create a pleasing melody, another a forgettable ditty, and a third a nonsensical jangle? Why do certain combinations of words strike the ear as just right, and others as discordant? Formal analysis can clarify and categorize the sorts of sounds and structures that people tend to enjoy. But it can never explain why we enjoy them in the first place, nor why different people enjoy them to different extents. If literary criticism is to be a worthwhile exercise it requires, then, that the gut reactions of the audience members are at least roughly alike—that we are similarly constituted as regards to beauty.

Shared education contributes towards this similarity; as does, presumably, the basic resemblance of our natures. But does this bedrock of shared taste constitute something durable and permanent enough so that we may say a great artist hits upon the “truth” of art—appealed to something permanent in ourselves—in the same way that a scientist may hit upon a “truth” of nature? Many have thought so. And it strikes me that something like this must be the case if we wish to call any form of art “universal”—namely, that it is a true expression of what we share.

I mention this because the relationship of beauty to truth is one of the great themes of Keats’ poetry. At the end of his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” he tells us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—a line that has been endlessly analyzed. Certainly the widespread and steady popularity of his poems may argue that, indeed, Keats hit upon some basic truth of art. But what could that mean?

The issue of translation may bear on the question. It is often said that poetry is untranslatable; and the bilingual edition I read ironically proved the point. The Spanish consistently failed to evoke the sublimity of the original. Here, for example, are two famous lines from Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken

And here is the Spanish translation:

Entonces me sentí como un astrónomo
cuando ve frente a sí un Nuevo planeta

Translated back into English this reads something like: “Then I felt like an astronomer when he sees a new planet in front of him.” Despite preserving the literal meaning, this obviously loses all of the magic of the line. “Watcher of the skies” is infinitely more romantic than “astronomer,” and “sees in front of him” has none of the mystery of “swims into his ken.” In short, the rich beauty of the language does not survive; and the poem becomes a rather bland statement about enjoying a new edition of Homer, rather than an evocation of the grandeur of nature and art.

(I do not think it was the translator’s fault. Spanish is very different to versify than English; and the literal Spanish translation would preserve meaning at the expense of rhythm.)

Yet if Keats’ poetry is truly untranslatable, then how could it contain truth? After all, one could translate Newton’s work into Spanish, French, German, or Japanese, and it would contain just as much truth (or untruth) as in the original. Science is not linguistically bound. Admittedly, the boundary of translation is not equivalent for all forms of poetry. Homer’s works are still riveting in English; and Dante’s vision survives (at least partially) its journey from Medieval Florentine. Lyrical poetry seems to fare the most poorly.

The obvious difference between Homer and Keats is that Homer’s appeal lies in the story, while Keats’ relies on his linguistic brilliance. And, for my part, it is easier to see how a story can contain a semblance of “truth,” rather than a beautiful string of words. Assuming that some experiences in life are universal, that some emotional crises are recurring, that some existential state is inescapable, then a great story may be able to capture something common and durable about the human condition. A beautiful poetic line, on the other hand, has a purely formal appeal—charming not in what it says, but in how it says it—and this perfection of expression, being untranslatable, must fall short of universal art.

Nevertheless, to describe Keats as merely a brilliant wordsmith would be an absurd underestimation. As his letters prove, he was thoroughly educated and keenly intelligent. His poems abound with perplexing classical references. And, in any case, words are never mere sounds; they are laden with meaning; and even the briefest of lyrical poems are pregnant with thought. Contemplation permeates Keats’ work. In his poems we find the focused musings of a highly original man as he meditates on entirely common occurrences: Autumn, Melancholy, Nature, Art—the list goes on.

Here is where Keats’ art may be said to be “universal”—and, in some sense, “true” to the human condition. For many of us have stood, amazed, before a work of art, or felt thrilled upon opening a book, or listened yearningly to a bird singing outside a window—or any number of comparable experiences. Yet only Keats and his ken have taken these fleeting twinges of emotion, reflected deeply upon them, and captured them in words so felicitous that they are impossible to forget once heard. Like the revelers on the Grecian Urn, Keats has frozen time.

It may be that this lyrical form of art, being so bound up in brilliance of expression, is less universal and less durable than works of narrative. But for those who are, by chance, linguistically equipped to enter Keats’ world, then his poems contain just as much artistic “truth” as the oldest tales and the finest melodies.

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Review: Henry V

Review: Henry V
Henry V

Henry V by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men of few words are the best men.

This is a masterful play, likely one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly enjoyable. Aided by the chorus, the story moves quickly; and there is none of the artificial machinery of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies—mistaken identities, secret plots, and the like—but, instead, a story focused on one man’s glorious ascent. This is Henry; and his character is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrayals of a charismatic leader we have. He is the play. Just as he dominates everyone on the stage, so he dominates us, the audience.

The result is a mesmerizing patriotic spectacle. Even if you have grave reservations about the justice of invading France, and even if you can see through Henry’s rhetoric, it is impossible to resist his call to follow him. But how did Shakespeare himself feel about the hero king? One cannot be sure. Nevertheless, there is enough irony in the play to suggest that the playwright entertained his own doubts. Most telling, for me, was the conversation between the disguised Harry and the soldier Williams. After the soldier expands upon the horrors of war—limbs chopped off, men crying for a surgeon, wives and children left alone—he concludes that the king will be responsible for a great evil if the cause be not just. Harry then responds with a fine bit of extremely specious reasoning:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon the father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, by assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.

Anyone, I suspect, can see the clear difference between a misfortune befalling a servant and a wound suffered by a soldier sent into battle. And this is just one example of Henry’s refusal to consider the ethical ramifications of his decisions. Later on, when Henry discovers that the baggage train has been attacked, the noble king orders his soldiers to cut the throats of every prisoner. He is, in short, remorseless in the pursuit of what he considers his birthright.

The central question that the play asks, then, is whether Henry’s brilliant, charismatic leadership in some measure excuses all of the bloodshed that results from his choices. Now that the idea of monarchy has lost its hold on our imaginations, the argument that any land belongs to a king “by right” sounds barbaric. It thus seems difficult to justify the invasion of France on any reasonable ethical grounds. After all, France is not ruled by a cruel tyrant; and the people of France will likely be no happier under Henry than under Charles VI.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to root for the young king. And this is true of many historic conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. They cloak themselves in glory and promise to inaugurate a new world, if only you follow them through the breach. Indeed, Fluellen explicitly compares Henry to Alexander, noting how the latter killed one of his best friends while drunk, just as Henry rejected his friend and mentor Falstaff. (And Mistress Quickly’s narration of Falstaff’s lonely death is one of the more affecting moments of this play.) It seems strange that these military conquerers have commanded so much praise throughout the ages. Plutarch’s Lives is little more than a compendium of so many Henrys. Yet as Voltaire said:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

All this being said, it must be noted in favor of these conquerors that their less charismatic counterparts are not necessarily better in terms of the common good. In Richard II, the beginning of this tetralogy, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of just such an ineffectual king, a man who has the sensibility of a poet but not the strong will of a commander, and whose poor decisions result in a civil war. Historically, peace at home has often been kept at the cost of war abroad, and vice versa. Conquered land is seldom kept, but the state is strengthened in the meantime; and a country united against an enemy may be preferable to one divided by faction.

Clearly, a country at peace at home and abroad is preferable to either alternative. But historically speaking, this option has not often existed. I do not think this excuses the bloodshed of conquests, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why these warlike men have so often been treated as heroes, when nowadays we are apt to see them as villains. That, and a play about Isaac Newton would likely not be as entertaining.

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