Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Diana Khoi Nguyen, _Ghost Of_

A DEBUT POETRY volume, and a wrenching one. Nguyen is the oldest of three children;  her brother, the youngest, died by suicide. Some time before that, he "cut out only his face from every photograph in the hall, carefully slipping each frame back into position."

Interspersed throughout the volume are five poems, each titled "Triptych," that juxtapose the scissored family photo with one poem typeset to fit the gap left by the scissored-out brother, and a second poem typeset to match the dimensions of the photo, but with white space for the gap in the surviving image.

Also interspersed are five poems titled "Gyotaku," the name of a traditional Japanese printmaking method, involving the inking of a real fish. In these poems, the gap-shaped poem is turned into--as it were--a rubber stamp, and used to create a graphic design on the facing page.

Arranged around these ten poems are another fifteen more conventional ones, mainly about the family.

Simple enough to describe the organization of the book, but not so easy to describe its effect.

Imagine that Laertes, rather than Ophelia, had become psychologically estranged and taken his own life. Ophelia is left to mourn--which she does not by leaping into graves and threatening violence, but by writing poems--poems that try to trace with a slow finger the infinitely complicated knot of her relationship with her brother, its particular intimacies and silences, a relationship that from beginning to end took place in the deep shadow cast by the traumas their parents lived through.

As I said at the outset, wrenching.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Lucy Ellmann, _Ducks, Newburyport_, interim report

I AM JUST short of halfway through with this--am on p. 480--but feel like registering my surprise at the quotation from the Book Prize Jury citation to be found on the front cover of my edition of the book: "like nothing you've ever read before." Can it actually be the case that no one on a Booker Prize Jury had read Ulysses?

Lucy Ellmann I imagine has, being Richard's daughter, and I daresay anyone who has read Joyce's novel will, shortly after commencing Ducks, Newburyport, have at least a passing thought about Molly Bloom. A long, unspooling sentence in a female consciousness, reflecting on anything and everything but continually reverting to family, the home, the intimately personal...how can that not put you in mind of Molly Bloom?

Yes, there are plenty of differences between Molly and Ellmann's narrator, plenty of differences between early 20th century Dublin and early 21st century Ohio, and yes, it does make a difference that Joyce was male and Ellmann is female . I am only saying that we may as well acknowledge that Ellmann's novel has a crucial predecessor text.

I would never say that takes anything away from Ellmann's accomplsihment, though. This is an excellent book. It will take me a while to finish--I need a few days between deep dives, I am finding--but it is worthy of its lineage, and you can't say that of every text influenced by Joyce.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Samantha Schweblin, _Fever Dream_, trans. Megan McDowell

THIS WAS TAUT and gripping, as reviewers would say, but I'm not sure what happened, exactly.

The story is set somewhere in the countryside. Amanda and her husband and their three-year-old, Nina, are at a vacation rental. Carla lives in the neighborhood of the rental; her husband raises racehorses, and they have a young son, David, who might be six.

The whole novel is a conversation between Amanda and David about the events of the last few days.

And what are those events?

There may be powerful toxins in the local streams. David was not long ago exposed to them. His mother, Carla, took the extraordinary step of taking him to a local wise woman/bruja, who put David's soul in someone else's body, temporarily, while the effects of the poisons worked their way out. Then David's soul was returned to his body. But he hasn't been the same since. Or so it seems too Carla.

Nina and Amanda were perhaps both exposed to those same toxins. Should the wise woman/bruja be brought in to do the soul-transfer again? Or should Amanda try to get her to the city? Is Amanda herself on the point of death?

I'm not sure, to tell you the truth, what happens to Amanda or Nina, or whether what supposedly happened to David really happened, or even whether Amanda is really talking to David or just hallucinating the whole thing.

The novel does play skillfully on some powerful species of fear, though--environmental toxins, people with occult powers, the vulnerability of one's children. It was certainly scary, though stingy with explanations.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Curzio Malaparte, _Kaputt_, trans. Cesare Foligno

MALAPARTE (WHOSE BIRTH name was Kurt Erich Suckert--German father, Italian mother) was in on the ground floor of Fascism, participating in Mussolini's 1922 March on Rome. Apparently he was a maverick Fascist, though, frequently getting on the wrong side of Mussolini, even going to prison a time or two. His friendship with Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, seems to have saved him from worse. (Under the circumstances, you would think Ciano would come off in this book a lot better than he does, where he seems like a big-headed womanizing buffoon.)

Malaparte spent a lot of World War II traveling in Europe as a journalist for the Corriere della Sera, and Kaputt is based on what he saw--or might have seen, or perhaps mainly imagined--in Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Finland, Germany. Reportage and fiction are intertwined in the book, and no one is altogether positive which episodes he witnessed and which he conjured up.

Did he really see dead horses in a frozen lake, "where, during the winter, the heads of the horses gripped by the ice had emerged above the glistening crust of the ice, and where a little of their jaded odor still lingered in the damp air of the night"?

Did he really see Himmler in a sauna? "Around his flabby breasts grow two little circles of hair, two halos of blond hair; perspiration gushed like milk from his nipples."

Did he really spend time in a military brothel in which young Jewish women were forced to work, knowing that their next stop, once the soldiers tired of them, would be the death camps?

Did he really see a cattle car filled with the corpses of Romanian Jews?

No one knows, basically, but Kaputt, mostly written before the war ended, is the grandaddy of the fictions since in which the Eastern front of the war is revealed as a 24/7 Boschian nightmare: Danilo Kîs's Tomb for Boris Davidovich, William Vollmann's Central Europe, Jonathan Littell's Les bienveillantes. And Malaparte is one amazing writer.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Miriam Toews, _Women Talking_

SHORT AND POWERFUL. Toews's novel is based on actual events in a small, isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia. Women were awaking some mornings to find themselves battered and groggy. Their community leader told them Satan was punishing them, but it turned some men in the community were knocking them out at night with animal tranquilizers in order to rape them. Grim.

Toews's novel is set up as the transcript of a series of meetings held by women in a fictional small South American Mennonite community after they learn that they have been molested in just the way described above. Should they accept things as they are? Should they fight? Should they leave?

The women are present at this meeting because they have already decided they cannot accept things as they are. How can they fight, though, since the men have a monopoly on the community's resources? But can they leave? They can neither read nor write, and know almost nothing of the world outside their community. And the Bible commands submission to their husbands--there's that, too.

It takes them a while to sort this out. As they do, Toews arranges their discussion so that we get a vivid sense of each woman and of the community's history and values.

There's an interesting word in koiné Greek--katargein--that Paul uses to describe the Christian community's relationship to Jewish law. (In Luther's translation of Paul, he used the word aufheben, which on to have its own rich history with Hegel.) The word means an overthrowing, an emptying out, a negation. Paul seems to be suggesting something subtler, more elusive, but crucial--not simple rejection and replacement of the law, but an overcoming of the law that somehow includes the law, in a transformed sense.

The women of Women Talking have a stark choice: a livable life for themselves and (even more urgently) their daughters, versus maintaining their faith. They cannot imagine continuing to lead the life the men have imposed on them. But they cannot imagine leaving their faith, either--it is almost literally all they know. Is there a way of re-understanding that faith? Can the faith transcend itself, overcome itself in a way that transforms itself?

Toews's novel is set in a barn and is nothing but earnest conversation, but the stakes are gigantic.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Olga Tokarczuk, _Flights_, trans. Jennifer Croft

FLIGHTS IS A novel, but one could imagine it a collection of short stories, a collection that varies widely in character and setting but tightly coheres thematically. What makes it feel like a novel is that sandwiched between the 20-30 page "short stories" are dozens of vignettes drawn from observations and reflections from the author's travels, observations and reflections that provide a kind of foil for the themes of the fictions. The structure reminded me a lot of major-phase Kundera (Book of Laughter and ForgettingUnbearable Lightness of Being). Like Kundera, Tokarczuk toggles very adeptly from the essayistic to the fictional to create a sturdy double helix out of her two strands.

Again like Kundera, Tokarczuk gives the book a philosophical center--one reminiscent of Unbearable Lightness, actually, since it addresses the question of whether life is best lived by seeking a kind of gravity or permanence--staying put, preserving, repeating, and so on--or rather by flight, getting out, packing light, risking the new and unfamiliar.

Tokarczuk seems to lean towards the "getting out" answer. The recurring image for achieving stability is mummification, suggesting that permanence requires some form of death. (Kundera might have made the contest more evenly matched.)

It's a beautiful book, nonetheless. The pace is quick, since many of the first-person passages are very short, but it takes a while for the big picture to emerge, mosaic-like, from the many little bits and pieces we are presented with. Once it does, though, we are in high-flying territory. Here is one striking passage, from one of the more developed and clearly fictional episodes. A woman has run away from her abusive husband, abandoning her son, to live homeless in a nearby city. A mysterious figure whispers this to her:
"For anything that has a stable place in this world--every country, church, every human government, everything that has preserved a form in this hell--is at his [i.e., the Antichrist's] command. Everything that is defined, that spans from here to there, that fits into a framework, is written down in registers, numbered, testified to, sworn to, everything collected, displayed, labeled. [...] Get out of here, go far away, beyond  the reach of his breath, beyond his cables and wires and antennas and waves, resist the measurements of his sensitive instruments."

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Robert Lowell, _The Dolphin_

READING A HANDFUL of reviews of The Dolphin Letters convinced me that I really do not want to read through The Dolphin Letters, but it did whet my curiosity sufficiently to look again at The Dolphin, which I had last read back in the 1980s, during a period when I was getting a lot of random reading done in an effort to avoid working on my dissertation.

The Dolphin--all sonnets, like Lowell's Notebook--reflects the period when Lowell abruptly left his long-suffering wife Elizabeth Hardwick and his young daughter Harriet for an Englishwoman, the 14-years-younger Lady Caroline Blackwood, formerly married to the painter Lucien Freud.

As all the reviews of The Dolphin Letters note, in many of these sonnets Lowell took the enormous liberty of quoting from Hardwick's letters to him--sometimes entire poems are quotations from the letters--and the even more enormous liberty of changing Hardwick's wording.

All the reviews often mention Elizabeth Bishop's advice to Lowell after she saw the manuscript, which was, essentially, don't publish: "Art just isn't worth that much." Not worth, that is, the pain publication would inevitably bring Hardwick and their daughter. Lowell went ahead. The book did not get great reviews, I gather, nor much subsequent acclaim, so far as I can tell.

I did not much care for it much myself, the first time I read it. This time, I'm not sure why, I found myself liking it. I'm not as bothered by Lowell's frequent obscurity as I used to be, I think. I think too that when I first read it, I was hoping to find some sense that he understood what he was up to, that there was some sort of justification or rationale in his own mind, at least. He does not have one, really. He does not understand his actions any better than anyone else does. But now, forty years on for me, I'm less puzzled over people not knowing what the sweet fuck they think they're doing.

Something that struck me as disturbing at the time, but now fascinates: all experience happens to Lowell as already a sonnet. Falling in love, guilt, joys of fatherhood, woes of fatherhood, remembering something, reading something--whatever it is, it immediately assembles itself, in Lowell, as fourteen blank verse lines. That seemed warped and weird to me in the 1980s, but now it strikes me as the hallmark of a lifelong craftsman.

The issue of cruelty to Hardwick lingers, true. But she could have trained the flamethrowers on him in Sleepless Nights and didn't, so I guess she forgave him in some way.




Monday, May 18, 2020

Lorrie Moore, _Bark: Stories_

WOULD YOU CALL Lorrie Moore the Deborah Eisenberg of the Midwest? Or is Deborah Eisenberg the Lorrie Moore of the East Coast?

They are certainly distinguishable, but given what they have in common--realist tradition, contemporary settings, subtle sense of humor, gravitating to women characters from the educated classes, light dashes of lyricism in the prose--one quick way to tell their stories apart is that Moore's tend to have a midwestern setting, Eisenberg's a New York-and-environs one.  If (unlikely, I know) one was given a Lydia Davis story and a Mary Gaitskill story, and had to say which was which, you would probably be right nine times out of ten. Or a Ben Marcus story and a George Saunders story.  But with Moore and Eisenberg, you might be stroking your chin for a while,  then just pick based on geographical clues.

This led me to imagine the possibility of a Beatles-Stones or Roth-Updike sort of debate among the fans. The Beatles and the Stones were about the same age, had a lot of the same influences, were playing the same-sort of music, and were contending for the same glittering prizes, so from a sufficiently distant perspective--say, a middle-aged father in Turkey--they might have seemed impossible to tell apart. To their fans, however, the differences are salient and crucial.

 So with Updike and Roth. About the same age, a lot of the same formative influences, working in the same tradition, a lot of the same aspirations. To me, the differences are salient and crucial, era-defining...to most of my students, two guys with fancy prose styles and toxic masculinity issues.

Moore and Eisenberg are not very close in age (Eisenberg is twelve years older), but their first books came out close together (Moore 1985, Eisenberg 1986), they are comparable in output (five collections for Eisenberg, four and three novels for Moore), and they tend to get the same kind of accolades from the same folks. I wouldn't say they are rivals; for all I know, they are good friends and esteem each otrher's work highly. And maybe women writers do not have that who's-number-one anxiety that I imagine Roth and Updike did. But I do wonder what a diehard Moorean would say to a diehard Eisenberger. Something like, "Yeah, I know, but if you really read 'Wings'..."


Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Ish Klein, _Consolation and Mirth_

(ISH KLEIN HAS a brand new book out this month, by the way, which I am not going to write about here, having written a review of it for a more prestigious website. That review should be available before too long, I hope. Her new book is called The New Sun Time and is very good.)

Consolation and Mirth (2015) has a middle section of twenty-one old-fashioned riddle poems. What is a riddle poem? A reasonably well-known example is Emily Dickinson's "A Route of Evanescence," to which the answer is "hummingbird." "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" I have seen described as a riddle poem no one has ever solved. Klein's riddles have solutions, but I have to admit they have all defeated me. so far. I plan to keep trying, though.

As in Moving Day, Klein uses couplets and terza rima fairly regularly in this collection, and the movement of the poems sometimes takes some swift, hard turns:
You move to the right so that I must follow with my mind.
I turn and the drunk dog is asleep, the hand is nowhere visible.
I say the hand! The hand! My bucket becomes a red vinyl collar 
You say you will wear it!
Here as elsewhere, my favorite Klein poems are the longer ones that go on unpredictable odysseys, with lots of whoa-nelly hard turns, then end by zeroing in on the heart of the question. "Circular Runes" belongs in that category, as does "Eggheads and Rejects In and Around Science and Fiction Society," and especially "Like on the Subject of the Icebreaker," which ends thus--

There were others who are better at meeting the beings 
the snow has not yet touched and touching them. 
They are not so likely to get mixed up personally. 
They were us once.



Sunday, May 10, 2020

James Baldwin, _The Devil Finds Work_

IN QUEER STREET, James McCourt passes along (in three places, I think) that Gore Vidal once observed to James Baldwin, "You don't get to be Martin Luther King and Bette Davis." Boy, does that sound like Vidal, or what? But--is he right? After all, Vidal himself made a go at being both Abraham Lincoln and Oscar Wilde. So why can't Baldwin be both MLK and she of the eyes?

The Devil Finds Work is particularly valuable because it's more in the key of Davis than that of King, and gives us a Baldwin we only occasionally glimpse in the more famous essays. "Whites may or may not deserve to be hated, depending on how one manipulates one's reserves of energy, and what one makes of history: in any case, the reassurance is false, the need ignoble, and the question, in this context, absolutely irrelevant." The accents of Margo Channing resound in "depending on how one's manipulates one's reserves of energy," and that's a nicely stuck Margo landing as well. Or try this: "Neither does it suggest that the distinction between Big Business and Organized Crime is like the old ad, which asks, Which Twin has the Toni?"

The first chapter of The Devil Finds Work is highly autobiographical, but dealing mainly with Baldwin's first acquaintance with the theater, both in its stage and its screen versions. The other two chapters are largely discussions of particular films and particular performances.

These discussions are definitely about race in the United States as well--Baldwin is writing about Birth of a Nation, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Lady Sings the Blues, and other films in which Hollywood does its limited best to deal with race--but even so, a reader gets the feeling that Baldwin is happy just to dish about movies.

One sentence begins, "My buddy, Ava Gardner, once asked me...". His discussions of The Exorcist and Lawrence of Arabia do circle back around, and tellingly, to the subject of race, but he seems obviously to be enjoying himself in ways he rarely allowed himself to do:
Lawrence of Arabia, stemming, both dimly and helplessly, from T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is a kind of muted and updated, excruciatingly astute version of Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din. The word "muted" does not refer to the musical score, which must be the loudest in the history of cinema, and which is absolutely indispensable to the intention of the film.
Bette on, James.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ish Klein, _Moving Day_

IF YOU ARE one of those folks who think that all contemporary American poetry sounds alike, (1) I believe you are mistaken and (2) you should read Ish Klein.

This collection from 2011 would be a place to start. Sometimes Klein is surreal, sometimes plainspoken, and the surprising thing is she often is both at once. She comes out with quite atartling  statements that, even as they startle, seem to be matter-of-fact documentary reports. "Standard penises are made of a certain kind of plant," she notes in "No Promissory Notes," a poem that seems like an encyclopedia article from a world similar to but not identical to our own.

The poems often recount first-person tales, and these too seem to take place in a world with a physics a little different from those of the familiar world, in which one mighty be, for instance, an ice cube:
The walls are thick! It's cold!
I am a trayed square among others like ice!
We are getting smaller; it's a good sign. 
And it makes more space. My acquaintances and I
Work on melting each other. It can be done in the shower!
I am not ashamed, how possible with such poor lighting?

The marvelous thing, though, is that Klein's voice inspires perefct confidence. That is, even though I do not know how getting smaller could be a good sign, nor how one could melt an acquaintance in the shower, I am happy to accept both assertions simply on Klein's say-so. (That better lighting might increase the risk of shame I do understand, I have to say.)

Klein also has increased the total of good poems about Hamlet (a category in which I include Boris Pasternak's "Hamlet" and Erik Campbell's "Hamlet: The Action Figure Series." It ends with Ophelia, here called  Orphée (the French name for Orpheus), which makes a certain amount of sense, as she may well be trying to restore someone from the land of the dead, much as Hamlet himself is. I tend to think catastrophe might have been averted had Hamlet been able to maintain his bond with Ophelia--Horatio is a good ally, but (obviously) not enough all by himself. Perhaps Hamlet and Ophelia could have rescued each other from obsession with the deaths of their fathers?

You remember poor Orphée?
A truly good audience. 
Asleep in the reeds and mixed-up theatrically,
she thinks she is the river
and will likely enter its vaguely compelling commotion.
That is, unless 
you, Mr. Hamlet, want to catch her
before she jumps in (she can't swim),
leaving you to th emachinations
and actually alone. 

It's the Hamlet poem Stevie Smith never got around to writing.


Monday, May 4, 2020

Chris Ware, _Rusty Brown_

ONLY NOW NOTICED that my previous post was post #777. Not bad, hmm? I mean, that is a lot of posts.

Rusty Brown was published as a complete volume just last year, but it collects pieces that Ware has been publishing separately for quite a few years. That is, some of it (most of it?) predates Ware's last book, Buildimg Stories. I am hoping that puts in a different light Rusty Brown's being a good deal bleaker and comfortless than Building Stories. Not that Building Stories is a stroll in the park, God knows. But each of the featured characters in Rusty Brown is terribly, achingly alone--sometimes their own narcissism or immaturity is to blame, but not always--so I like having room to hope that Ware's outlook brightened somewhat after conceiving of this book.

The principal characters, in the order in which they are featured:

Rusty Brown, a third grader in a Catholic school in about, I think, 1974 or 1975. In a word, Rusty is bullied. On the day we spend with him, he has accidentally brought to school his favorite action figure--Supergirl--and he spends the day in a cold-sweat extended panic about what will happen to her, or him, if the toy's presence is discovered. A new kid in his class, Chalky White, makes friendly overtures, but Rusty barely notices. Yes, someone finds Supergirl. Yes, something bad happens.

Woody Brown, Rusty's father, teaches English at the high school level in the school Rusty attends. He seems to have burned out on teaching long ago, and burned out on his marriage even longer ago, and never to have cottoned to fatherhood at all. Most of his episode is retrospective, recalling a strange off-and-on affair he had with a co-worker as a new hire at a newspaper (he married on the rebound) and a science fiction story he wrote shortly after--his one burst of creativity.

Jordan, aka Jason, Lint is an older boy at the school, enrolled in one of Woody's classes and Rusty's chief tormentor. This episode covers a much longer span of time--about a page for each year of Lint's life--and he never seems to quite get over having a distant, cruel father, becoming something of a distant, cruel father himself and leaving behind a trail of emotional wreckage when he dies in his 70s.

Joanna Cole is Rusty's teacher--a dedicated and effective teacher, eventually she gets promoted to administration, somewhat to her chagrin. She plays banjo, looks after her aging mother, keeps her school going, but no one, not even her mother or sister, seems to notice what a loyal, conscientious, and good person she is. There is a little glimmer of redemption in the very last panel. I hope.

Ware's uncanny grasp of the structure of comic art--both its traditions and its possibilities for extension and renovation--astonishes. The man is a genius. But the sadness of Rusty Brown is deep. This was hard to read.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Samuel Delany, _Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_

DELANY IS BEST known as a science fiction and fantasy writer, but he is also consistently brilliant and original as an essayist/critic. This book (now 20 years old) looks at the overhaul Times Square was undergoing in the 1990s, the sweeping away of an assortment of porn theaters, peep shows, and other marginal small businesses, the arrival of something more family- and tourist-friendly, blander, more corporate, more homogeneous--its Disney-fication, as it was sometimes called.

"Times Square Red," the first of the book's two essays, is in large part a memoir, as Delany was a frequent customer at the porn theaters over two or three decades. Not to watch the films (which he nonetheless has some brief and astute commentary on--see pp. 74-80), but for the sexual activity in the seats. Apparently, among the mainly-male audience, it was okay to open your pants and start masturbating, at which point some other gentleman might volunteer to complete the job for you, or fellate you. Money might change hands, or not, depending. Names might be exchanged, or not, depending. An audience member might only stop in briefly on his way home from work, or might spend the whole afternoon or evening there.

This sounds a little seedy, but Delany succeeds in making it seem almost utopian, in that ethnicity is not much of a consideration, nor class, nor education--anyone who can afford the modest price of admission may come in and take his or her chances. Scary things occasionally happen, there is a certain amount of odd behavior, but the milieu mainly operates smoothly on simple, shared rules. Delany has a wealth of anecdotes of this unusual but thriving community.

"Time Square Blue," the companion essay, is more academic, a kind of socioeconomic or sociopolitical analysis of the same scene described in the first essay. This essay is a bit heavier than its companion, but never dry.

Mainly, it aims to distinguish "contact"--the accidental, unplanned interactions that occur constantly in an urban environment, in grocery lines, restaurants, busses, and (yep) porn palaces--from "networking," an event (like a conference) designed to accelerate the growth of relationships among people with similar interests. Contact is a more random, less efficient way to form helpful relationships than networking is, but Delany makes a fascinating case that contact is actually just as productive of fruitful relationships--maybe even more productive, because it's a stew with more diverse ingredients, more happy surprises. It's also a good deal less frustrating that networking, possibly because networking means a lot of people competing for a small number of prizes, and plenty of people are just going to be disappointed.

The beauty of the old Times Square was that its heterogeneity made it a place rich in potential for contact. The new Times Square, by contrast, seems designed to prevent surprises, irregularities, accidents, unforeseen encounters. It's more like networking, and like networking, it disappoints; as an urban space, it fails.

"Times Square Blue" also includes a discussion of two perennial questions--"What makes us gay?" and "Why is there so much fear and hatred of homosexuality?" Delany's answers are, as one would expect, fresh and illuminating. I haven't room to recapitulate his arguments here, but to cut to the chase, one is made gay when one is interpellated (in the Althusserian sense) as gay, Delany argues, and fear of homophobia grows out of suspicion of pleasure, out of a fear that pleasure, rooted in desire, seeks and will achieve chaos if left to its own devices. The old Times Square may have looked like chaos, but it was actually a world with loose but functioning organization, serving a simple human need.

Friday, May 1, 2020

René Girard, _A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare_

IN WYNDHAM LEWIS'S The Lion and the Fox: The Role of the Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare, he observes, "Troilus and Cressida is the one play that no shakespearian [sic] critic ever approaches without a baffled 'hem!' and a sense of treading on dangerous ground. It is an eccentric integrant of the series that will not fit in with the smooth picture he [i.e., the critic] has been able to compose elsewhere...".

Lewis has a point here--but he did not foresee Girard. In Girard's analysis of Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida is the central exhibit, the subject of six of A Theater of Envy's thirty-eight chapters. (Midsummer Night's Dream gets eight, Julius Caesar and The Winter's Tale five each, Hamlet one, LearMacbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra zero; Richard III gets half a chapter, the other histories zip.)

Girard (1923-2015) might turn out, years hence, to be a figure on the scale of Freud or Marx--a thinker with a big idea that explains nearly everything. For Marx, the big idea is class conflict, the driver of history. For Freud, the big idea is the unconscious, unacknowledged determiner of what we do and how we feel. For Girard, the big idea is mimesis--that we are basically imitative creatures. We decide what we want mainly by seeing what other people want, and then adopting their desires as our own. (At the very least, Girard completely explains middle school social life.) Since we all end up wanting the same things, rivalry ensues, competition, conflict, eventually violence. If we are lucky, the violence evolves into a myth of "a founding murder," the sacrifice of an innocent that we can ritually re-enact to remind ourselves not to let things get so far out of hand.

Girard finds pieces of this scenario in a variety of Shakespearean plays. The sexual version forms the core of the plot in Midsummer Night' s Dream, Lysander and Demetrius seemingly most interested in whatever the woman the other is interested in. Julius Caesar is the political version, Rome's most powerful men all converging on the same prize, Brutus trying to engineer a "sacrifice" that will create peace, but the murder stubbornly remaining a murder, with civil war ensuing.

Troilus and Cressida is the whole enchilada. Pandarus goads Troilus into obsession with Cressida by describing how avidly others are obsessed with her, then goads Cressida into obsession Troilus by describing how avidly others are obsessed with him. The background for this erotic mimesis is another political mimesis, as Greeks and Trojans kill each other out of desire to secure what the other side desires--Helen. But as in Julius Caesar, the sacrifice--the brutal, cowardly slaying of Hector-- fails.

In The Winter's Tale, though, Leontes' jealousy (his fear and rage that his friend Polixenes wants what he, Leontes, wants) leads to two deaths, but ritual remembrance has the astonishing effect of restoration and healing.

A really worthwhile book--new angles on Shakespeare are relatively rare, and I learned a lot.

Rather like Freud (via Ernest Jones) on Shakespeare, though, Girard sometimes seems to congratulate Shakespeare on having intuited what he, Girard, actually described and named:
"With his awareness of the victimage mechanism and its religious consequences, [Shakespeare] reached an anthropological vision that has remained undeciphered to this day but is finally becoming intelligible, thanks to the same mimetic theory that enabled us to unravel the significance of the comedies" (209).
His original audiences, who knew not Girard, could not really have been able to understand how far ahead of his time Shakespeare was:
"For which spectators were such marvels conceived as we have in this play, still totally misunderstood and disdained after four centuries?" (236)
But Girard, unlike Freud, seems sometimes to be onto himself, as in this remark about an earlier Shakespeare explicator, Stephen Dedalus in the "Scylla and Charybdis"episode of Ulysses:

"...Egomen's reasoning: 'Since Shakespeare knows everything about mimetic desire, and so do I, and since no one else does, except for a few towering asters, I must be a towering master myself'." (264-65)