May 11, 2014
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And so I must set forth without viaticum; must climb each step of the staircase ‘against my heart,’ as the saying is, climbing in opposition to my heart’s desire , which was to return to my mother, since she had not, by her kiss, given my heart leave to accompany me forth. That hateful staircase, up which I always passed with such dismay, gave out a smell of varnish which had to some extent absorbed, made definite and fixed the special quality of sorrow that I felt each evening, and made it perhaps even more cruel to my sensibility because, when it assumed this olfactory guise, my intellect was powerless to resist it. When we have gone to sleep with a maddening toothache and are conscious of it only as a little girl whom we attempt, time after time, to pull out of the water, or as a line of Molière which we repeat incessantly to ourselves, it is a great relief to wake up , so that our intelligence can disentangle the idea of toothache from any artificial semblance of heroism or rhythmic cadence.
Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 22). . Kindle Edition.
Joseph Heller well describes what we can call the academic’s paradox: all intelligence and no brains.
“Everyone agreed that Clevinger was certain to go far in the academic world. In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out.
In short, he was a dope. He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger’s predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all…[Clevinger] was constantly defending his Communist friends to his right-wing enemies and his right-wing friends to his Communist enemies, and he was thoroughly detested by both groups…because they thought he was a dope.”
“He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope…[H]e was a militant idealist who crusaded against racial bigotry by growing faint in its presence. He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it.”
“Yossarian tried to help him. ‘Don’t be a dope,’ he had counseled….”
Here is a roundup of what five scholars say about The Bard’s greatest play. Lear and Hamlet, of course, are noted by two. One says about Hamlet, “It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.” Just a few years ago I would have agreed. To my mind, Lear has gained ground and surpassed it. Gospels aside, Lear, I think, might be the greatest love story I have ever read. None of it, though, is about romantic love. The French King’s love for Cordelia is brushed aside early and we don’t see him again. There is Edgar’s lascivious love with the sisters. “Let copulation thrive…”, says Lear sardonically. Other loves abound and are explored, that of fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, and masters and servants. Lear provokes haunting horror, love, and tenderness.
Other tidbits in the piece are a case made for Othello, which I don’t buy. I loved the case made for The Winter’s Tale that has convinced me to seek out a production ASAP. Still, I’m not buying this argument either.
A more intriguing argument made by one scholar is for Henry V. As the author notes, however, it is one piece of the Henriad and does not stand alone. To my mind, there is one great epic play within the Henriad. After trimming the fat — and there is a fair amount of it across the four plays — we could be left with an play to rival Lear and Hamlet. Interestingly, after many years of studying these plays, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that Hamlet and Lear are ultimately a rejection of Machiavellian politics. Lear is blatantly so whereas Hamlet is more cunning on this point. The Henriad, in contrast, is a celebration of politics and a deft rejection of monarchy that would make Machiavelli smile.
There is more than a little magical realism in Catch-22. Exhibit A: Milo Minderbinder.
Sometimes, too , just as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, so a woman would come into existence while I was sleeping, conceived from some strain in the position of my limbs. Formed by the appetite that I was on the point of gratifying, she it was, I imagined, who offered me that gratification. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake.
Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 5). . Kindle Edition.
But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process . We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognise and to which we listen.
Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 15). . Kindle Edition.
The answer to the question, “What does it all mean?”, does not have an answer. What is important is that we ask it every single day and wrestle with the competing and contradictory faiths that exist in our imagination. We construct faiths for everything to keep ourselves sane. Together these constitute a particular system and it is important that we understand our faiths within it; how they work together (or not); and the de facto priority that we give each rather than the hierarchy that we desire. These faiths can include, among others, work, leisure, love life (or lives), families, intellectual pursuits, health concerns, or faith in God. It’s important, I think, that we take control of these and order them lest they order us. We must be consciously aware of why we privilege one and not another. A great poet once referred to custom — habit — as a monster. It is indeed so and this is precisely why we have to wrestle with the question of what it all means every single day. Only by so doing so explicitly can we order faiths correctly, according to our priorities, and establish the habits and practices to support the particular system and outcomes we desire.