Reality

by ttucker23 on January 29, 2012

The next theme for Culture Club is… ‘Reality’.

This was my choice, following on from our theme of ‘madness’ from last time.

Here are the works we’ll be discussing:

Plus the following poems by Dylan Thomas:

  • Ears in the turrets hear
  • Poem on his birthday
  • A winter’s tale
  • Into her lying down head
  • Love in the asylum
  • Ceremony after a fire raid
  • In country sleep
  • Fern Hill
  • From love’s first fever to her plague
  • The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
  • Especially when the October wind
  • Light breaks where no sun shines
  • And death shall have no dominion
  • After the funeral
  • A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London
  • Poem in October
  • Do not go gentle into that good night
  • In my craft or sullen art

Finally the prose work by Dylan Thomas, A Prospect of the Sea.

The theme is a loose one – I guess it’s to look at how each of these works explores the nature of reality, and asks the question ‘How do we experience reality?’

I hope it makes sense. I’m currently reading the Henry Green, which is wonderful – I think I see why he’s been referred to as a ‘writer’s writer’.

If I get time I’ll write some thoughts (although time seems to be in increasingly short supply at the moment).

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Catching up

by ttucker23 on January 29, 2012

Well, due to work commitments mainly, I haven’t been able to keep up with the Culture Club blog for, what, eight months (oh dear), so it’s more than due an update.

Our last assignment was on the theme of ‘madness’ and included the following works:

This was quite a challenge – Don Quixote alone is 1,000 pages, and King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays.

As always it was highly rewarding. I found Don Quixote a total revelation. I hope to go into more detail at some stage, but for now suffice to say that it changed my view of the novel (Milan Kundura’s The Art of the Novel defines Don Quixote as the originator of all novels) and even (risking exagerration) life itself.

New year’s resolution – to try to keep up with the Culture Club blog. More soon.

 

 

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Culture Club: Theme for May – July 2011

by ttucker23 on May 26, 2011

Aquarelle Gastebuch, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

Aquarelle Gastebuch, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1925

This month we’ve chosen works that were all published or released in a specific year: 1925. And what a year. In fact the variety of works is quite a surprise.

Here’s what we’ll be looking at.

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Thoughts on Tristram Shandy

by ttucker23 on March 30, 2011

The Damnation of Obadiah,  from Tristram Shandy Book 3.11, 1773

The Damnation of Obadiah, from Tristram Shandy, hand-coloured etching by James Bretherton, 1773

I have been reading and studying Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the past couple of months. It’s been a laborious task, and I’m afraid not a happy one.

I’ve read around it and I understand the reasons why Tristram Shandy is considered a classic, but my problems with the book are based entirely on the experience of reading it. Even the book’s admirers admit that it is ‘frustrating’ for the reader.

I’d go further and say that it is literally ‘pointless’. It commits the worst crime that literature is capable of, in that it fails to provide adequate motivation for the reader to turn the page.

Admirers will say that Sterne intended it to be frustrating, as if this makes the frustration acceptable. They will then tell you that Sterne’s achievement with Tristram Shandy represents a revolutionary new approach to fiction and narrative, parodying and satirising the realistic prose style that had come to typify the genre up to that point in history.

But as Thomas Keymer points out in his essay ‘Sterne and the “new species of writing”‘, collected in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook (Amazon affiliate link), this adopts a view of the history of the novel that post-dates Sterne’s time of writing. The contemporary situation was not so straight forward, as Keymer explains:

Sterne writes at a time when the conventions of fictional representation, such as they were, remained fluid, ill-defined, and keenly contested. Witness the Richardson-Fielding dispute of the 1740s, which was as much about competing narrative strategies as it was about religion and ethics, or ideologies of gender and class.

The genre of prose fiction was itself still ‘novel’ (hence the name), and to see Tristram Shandy as a satire or comment on the ‘novel’ as genre is a total misunderstanding of its place in literary history. In fact the ‘new species of writing’ referred to is borrowed from an essay written in 1751 about Fielding, not Sterne.

Keymer goes on to question whether Sterne is satirising the modern novel at all in Tristram Shandy:

Why, in this most allusive of works does Sterne never refer explicitly to Richardson or Fielding and why has no modern editor of Tristram Shandy caught Sterne reworking any specific passage from their fiction?

Another critic, J.T. Parnell, points out that ‘he (Sterne) may never have read the ‘novelists’, let alone contemplated a devastating critique of the shortcomings of the emerging genre.’

And Jonathan Lamb chimes in on the debate too:

Such stabilising of Sterne’s text depends on an improbable estimate of the dominance of the novel’s realism, as if it were well enough established by the 1750s for its parody readily to be undertaken and appreciated.

All this undermines the commonly held view today that Sterne is some kind of protomodernist whose work was centuries ahead of its time. It seems clear that this was a time of great experimentation in prose writing, and that Sterne was only one of the experimenters. As it turns out he was the least successful, because the eventual direction that the novel followed was that of Richardson, Fielding and the realists. Sterne himself was harking back, rather than looking forward, his style being a later reinvention of the so-called learned wit of Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne.

It is equally misleading to say that Sterne preempted the modern age of literature, influencing Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. While these writers pointed to Sterne as an influence, this was without regard to his true position in the history of literature, but rather to further their own agenda, as Keymer explains:

Woolf was mainly concerned with an ulterior motive in the present: that of coopting Sterne for her ongoing campaign against the bricks-and-mortar realism typified by Galsworthy and Bennett.

Tristram Shandy was an experiment, no doubt, and a radical one. It is essentially an attempt at creating a new kind of prose genre outside of, or parallel to, the emerging genre of the novel. But it is an experiment that ultimately fails.

At least it does for me. I’m sure that Sterne fans will be keen to contend this point of view, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

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A Sentimental Journey, The Opera

by ttucker23 on March 2, 2011

Thanks to a comment left on this blog by the Laurence Sterne Trust I discovered that the composer Craig Vear has written and produced a digital opera based on A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne.

You can actually hear the 45-minute long piece streamed on the internet in a recording of the public showing at the Studio theatre, York Theatre Royal, 9th Feb 2011. It’s well worth a listen, especially as one of the musicians is the cellist Audrey Riley (who, incidentally, I worked with in a past life as a professional musician).

From the website dedicated to the project:

A Sentimental Journey (45mins) is a digital opera for a mixed ensemble of technologies, remote audiences and live performers: 4 musicians, 4 laptops, and an actor/singer. It is created from a book: A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, first published in 1768.

It is not an opera about the book, nor is it with the book – as in a libretto – but something that is more inbetween. In this sense the music is created from within the book; that is to say, the imaginary dimension that the book generates when read, or was in the mind of the author when written.

Find out more at the website A Sentimental Journey – A Digital Opera.

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Culture Club: Theme for February – March 2011

by ttucker23 on February 12, 2011

For this month’s Culture Club we’re focusing on the writer Laurence Sterne:

I’m late posting this so I’m half way through the book as I write. The truth is I’m hating it, for a variety of reasons. But I always want to make my best effort to appreciate the works we look at, so I’ll wait until I’ve finished it before passing final judgement.

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Dualisms in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

by ttucker23 on October 13, 2010


David Tennant as Hamlet.

David Tennant playing the title role in the 2009 RSC production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

In a central episode in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the hero defines to a group of visiting actors the ‘purpose’ of drama:

‘…whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’

This is the central theme of the play, which abounds in dualities (I count three in that sentence alone). Tony Tanner, in his introduction to the Everyman Library edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedies (Amazon affiliate link), outlines some of these:

‘In a word, there seem to be two of everything. There are two kings (one dead, one alive); Hamlet has now two fathers (Claudius being now ‘uncle-father’); there are two sons who have to avenge murdered fathers (Hamlet and Laertes); Claudius sends two ambassadors to Norway – Cornelius and Voltimand; and there are his two tools, made almost comically indistinguishable – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The ghost appears to Hamlet twice; Laertes makes a double departure; Hamlet’s play to catch a king is performed twice; Hamlet abuses two women; after the play he goes and speaks daggers to his mother and then, when it seems he has finished, he does it again.’

The language and poetry throughout relentlessly reinforce this doubling. Tanner calls it a compulsive coupling of words and concepts, and he lists some examples among many:

  • ‘the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes’
  • ‘the gross and scope of my opinion’
  • ‘this posthaste and romage in the land’
  • ‘the extravagant and erring spirit’
  • ‘the dead waste and middle of the night’
  • ‘the perfume and suppliance of a minute’
  • ‘the shot and danger of desire’
  • ‘the pales and forts of reason’
  • ‘the single and peculiar life’
  • ‘the book and volume of my brain’
  • ‘this encompassment and drift of question’
  • ‘the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind’
  • ‘the motive and cue for passion’
  • ‘the hatch and the disclose’
  • ‘the teeth and forehead of our faults’
  • ‘the proof and bulwark against sense’

These doublings are of two types: similarities (‘book and volume’) and differences (‘perfume and suppliance’). Words and concepts are continually put in either ‘apposition’ or ‘opposition’ with each other.

In this way the play’s central themes are soaked into the fabric of the drama, its words, its characters and its action.

Dualism as dilemma

Hamlet (the character) has a pressing dilemma and his response brings about a contrast between ‘thought’ and ‘action’. He knows he must revenge his father’s death but famously spends the entire play delaying action and instead ruminating on its causes and effects.

This dramatic dilemma is itself set in train by a chain of dualities; a man murders his brother and two apposites become opposites, as ‘Hyperion to a satyr’. But next comes the foulest coupling of all – his father’s ‘brother/murderer’ marries his mother. This is Hamlet’s most unsettling disruption, for as Tanner remarks, ‘murder and incest are the most graphic and violent or lustful ways of annihilating the differences and annulling the separations and distinctions on which any society depends.’

All of this points to Hamlet’s ‘dualistic’ predicament. It reaches its culmination in the dramatic twist which sees Hamlet mistakenly kill Polonius. When Polonius’s son Laertes learns of this he unhesitatingly takes on the role of revenger, a stark contrast (another opposite) to Hamlet’s reaction to his murdered father. And as Harold Jenkins points out in his introduction to the Arden edition of Hamlet(Amazon affiliate link):

‘The campaign of Laertes brings into the play a second revenge action in which the first revenger appears at the other end. The hero charged with a deed of vengeance now also incurs vengeance.’

This provides the final dramatic drive to the play’s conclusion.

The crisis of existence: To be or not to be

But why this constant harping on dualities? What is this dramatic dualism trying to express?

The answer lies in the way Hamlet responds to his predicament. The famous delay, between Hamlet’s learning of his need to revenge his father’s death and his taking action to do so, can be explained by the conflict that arises within him. As Harold Jenkins puts it:

‘As a revenger he must act, on behalf of outraged virtue, to restore a violated order, set right what is “out of joint”. But the act he is impelled to involves him in evil of the kind which he would punish.’

Hamlet is being asked to respond to murder with murder, and this throws his ‘humanist’ sensibility into crisis. Dramatically he becomes a man ‘at odds with his environment and with its reflection in himself’, and we see him swing between conflicting and opposite states, ‘from melancholy brooding to sudden acts of passion, from lofty contemplation to rage or scorn, or enigmatic thrusts of wit’.

This leads to Hamlet contemplating the intermingling of good and evil in everything. He sees the duality of all, from his own mother Gertrude (who gave him life but is now wife to his father’s killer) to his potential wife Ophelia (a symbol of purity but a potential ‘begetter of evil’), to life itself. This final thought leads to the most famous speech in the play (‘To be or not to be’), which confronts the ultimate duality; whether, knowing what he knows, it is better to live or die.

It is this condition that leads to his inability to act. As Harvey Granville Barker states in his Preface to Hamlet (Amazon affiliate link):

‘Hamlet is now at odds, not merely with the ills of this world, but within himself, and cannot but be impotent so.’

Hamlet’s resolution

Jenkins demonstrates that in the final act we see a change in Hamlet. In the skulls thrown up by the grave digger he confronts the common fate of man, and we see the powerful symbol of a living head mirrored by a dead one (see image above). As he meditates on death in the churchyard he finally comes to perceive a mysterious design. He accepts life and death, with all its apparent conflict of good and evil, in ‘a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will’.

This reconciliation of Hamlet’s duality is dramatised in the final scene through his acceptance of a new ‘brotherhood’ with Laertes, one that makes amends for his Father’s and Uncle’s broken brotherhood:

‘In the final contrast between them, two sons avenging their fathers, yet each tainted with the evil he would destroy, punish one another, yet die forgiving one another. With evil itself in the person of the King there is of course no reconciliation. The avenger who kills him when he has himself received his own death-wound at last fulfils his dual role.’

Hamlet, in dying, is finally reconciled with himself and able to transcend the dualities that have threatened to tear him apart. This is his tragedy, and he is sent on his way with those beautiful words of Horatio’s:

‘Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’.

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Culture Club: Theme for August – November 2010

by ttucker23 on September 13, 2010

Painting of Shakespeare's Hamlet and his father's ghost by Henry Fuseli

Hamlet and his father's Ghost, (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard), by Henry Fuseli

It’s not so long since we last did a work by William Shakespeare (we did Shakespeare’s Sonnets back at the beginning of the year), but you can never have enough Shakespeare, right?

We’re back at him, and this time it’s Hamlet, one of his best known works for the theatre and the single most highly discussed work in literary history.

As there’s so much to study and talk about in the play (Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest drama, at 4,024 lines), we’re looking at just one other work, a comedy which describes the action of Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters:

I have to say I can’t wait to study Hamlet in detail. It’s probably my favourite Shakespeare play (along with Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest – alright, one of my favourite Shakespeare plays).

I will contribute my thoughts here on the Culture Club blog, although it’s daunting putting forward ideas on a work that has received so much attention from literary critics.

I would love to read your insights on either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so please leave ideas, thoughts and discussion points in the comments below.

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The Novel and Literary Form

by ttucker23 on June 4, 2010

Painting by Annie Besant of an attempt to visualise the music of Gounod

The music of Gounod – a thought form, by Annie Besant

We’re reading a bunch of novels for this month’s Culture Club (Under the Volcano, The Power and the Glory, The Plumed Serpent). I love reading novels, but when studying them I’m invariably irritated by the lack of form.

By ‘form’ I mean literary or artistic form, such as the 14 lines and strict rhyme scheme of a sonnet, or the four-movement structure of a symphony. There are often attempts to bring formal qualities to the novel, such as the 12-book structure of Under the Volcano (meant to recall Homer’s and Virgil’s epics), but these are unique to each work and bound to fail because they are rendered in unstructured prose. (In my view the most successful novelist in this respect is Jane Austen, whose intricate patterning of plot and narrative comes closest to creating a unique novel ‘form’.)

So why is this a flaw? Mainly because it removes one of the most powerful aspects of art forms that do have formal qualities, such as music, poetry and drama: the interplay between form and content.

For example, the following lines from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra work on more than one level because of their poetic formal qualities:

….on each side her
Stood pretty-dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.

The rhythm of ‘And what they undid did’ makes us hear and therefore experience the fans flapping in the hot breeze in a way that a pure prose description can’t.

Formal elements in art enhance, contradict, surprise and extend meaning. As Stephen Fry says in his book on poetry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet within:

The point I am anxious to make, is that metre is more than just a ti-tum ti-tum: its very regularity and the consequent variations available within it can yield a structure that EXPRESSES MEANING QUITE AS MUCH AS THE WORDS THEMSELVES DO.

To some critics, form  takes on even greater import, perhaps because it alone has the power to ‘express the inexpressible’. This is what Walter Pater was getting at when he said ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’. For a great discussion on this quote see: All art constantly aspires to the condition of music – you don’t say. Nigel Beale’s point in his comment on this post is illuminating:

This post put me in mind of composer Clive in Ian McEwen’s overly contrived Amsterdam:
“Sometimes Clive worked so hard on a piece that he could lose sight of his ultimate purpose – to create this pleasure at once so sensual and abstract, to translate into vibrating air this non-language whose meanings were forever just beyond reach, suspended tantalisingly at a point where emotion and intellect fused.”

Back to the novel then. Why does it lack the formal qualities I’ve described? I think Ian Watt nails this in his book The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding:

When we judge a work in another genre, a recognition of its literary models is often important and sometimes essential; our evaluation depends to a large extent on our analysis of the author’s skill in handling the appropriate formal conventions. On the other hand, it is surely very damaging for a novel to be in any sense an imitation of another literary work: and the reason for this seems to be that since the novelist’s primary task is to convey the impression of fidelity to human experience, attention to any pre-established formal conventions can only endanger his success. What is often felt as the formlessness of the novel, as compared, say, with tragedy or the ode, probably follows from this: the poverty of the novel’s formal conventions would seem to be the price it must pay for its realism.

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Under the Volcano: The Death of Yvonne

by ttucker23 on May 21, 2010

Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne in Under the Volcano

Jacqueline Bisset as Yvonne in the movie version of Under the Volcano (1984) (Image from www.screenrush.co.uk)

Under the Volcano is our main focus in this month’s Culture Club. In an earlier Penguin Modern Edition (I don’t have a link, as it’s no longer published) the introduction features a very length letter that Lowry wrote in 1946 to Jonathan Cape (the publisher) arguing against suggested cuts. He goes through each of the 12 chapters, and one of the most fascinating revelations is that he regards the death of Yvonne (and how it happens) as central to the novel.

The passage comes at the end of chapter 11, in which Yvonne and Hugh follow the Consul into the forest. Amid the confusion we find dark portents, in Hugh’s song ending with the words ‘prefiere morir prefiere morir’, and the ensuing description of the coming storm:

All at once the rain fell more heavily. A wind like an express train swept through the forest; just ahead lightening struck through the trees with a savage tearing and roar of thunder that shook the earth…

Before his own death, the Consul unleashes fate/destiny – the horse with the number 7 brand that crosses their respective paths throughout the novel and then kills Yvonne while she’s searching in the dark for him, trying to reach him:

Again trying to rise she heard herself scream as the animal turned towards her and upon her. The sky was a sheet of white flame against which the trees and the poised rearing horse were an instant pinioned –

The contrast of their respective ends is clear: Yvonne’s death is a rising up to the stars, whereas Geoffrey’s at the end of the next chapter is a falling down into the volcano/ravine, representing the entrance to the underworld towards which he is drawn throughout the book. According to Lowry himself: ‘a not dissimilar idea appears at the end of one of Julian Green’s books, but my notion came obviously from Faust, where Marguerite is hauled up to heaven on pulleys, while the devil hauls Faust down to hell.’ Both are scenes of burning – Yvonne’s is in the heavens, Geoffrey’s is in the earth:

And leaving the burning dream Yvonne felt herself suddenly gathered upwards and borne towards the stars, through eddies of stars scattering aloft with ever widening circlings like rings on water, among which now appeared, like a flock of diamond birds flying softly and steadily towards Orion, the Pleiades…

See the excellent Hypertextual Companion to Under the Volcano for more details on the references in this chapter and throughout the novel.

Buy the novel here: Under the Volcano (Amazon affiliate link).

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