Saturday, April 30, 2011

REFLECTIONS ON THE ROYAL WEDDING

The wedding invitation was a surprise. Unfortunately, it arrived too late for my wife and me to make the necessary arrangements to attend. We were among the very few to send regrets. Thus I dreamed. Then I rose early and watched from afar, like one to two billion other people. Half of them seemed to line the streets of London, then to swarm them after the cortege of carriages and cars went by. I saw nary a stiff upper lip; instead, many a Union Jack, many a smile, and a few tears of joy.

With a modest background in military intelligence, I looked for security forces. Aside from the police standing at intervals along the routes and one fellow in a yellow security vest near a TV camera, sharpshooters and support personnel were nowhere visible. My understanding is that sundry security agencies contacted the usual and some unusual suspects to remind them of the date: Friday, 29 April, absolutely nothing happens— right, old chap?

I need not tell those who watched the entire ceremony that it was everything which our British cousins do better than any other people in the world: the entire ceremony. No delay, no hitch, no false step; all grace and good bearing; all pomp and circumstance. Even the intermission for the signing of the marriage license had a genteel rightness to it—not too long, not too short, just right.

And for young and old in England, who need no reminder, and for Anglophiles everywhere else, there was the eye-blearing fly-over of a Lancaster bomber and two fighters, a Hurricane and a Spitfire. Heroic past and historic present honored one another by this witness to RAF pilots who fought with game and grit in a dark hour against otherwise overwhelming forces to ensure just such moments for the monarchy and more—I tell you, it was almost, but not quite, too much.

William Arthur Philip Louis is a fine fellow. But Catherine Elizabeth is peerless. Transcending great beauty, she is all royal in her self-possession, dignified deportment, and gracious demeanor, with a smile as radiant, warm, and welcoming as—I know not what. They say that she is discreet. Of course, she is. How else could she have overcome the difference of class and the caution of the highest blood? They do not say—why not, I wonder—that she is intelligent. Her attendance at St. Andrews testifies to good brains to go with good looks. We may expect much of them and their good works.

The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge bring new life and high luster to the English monarchy. More, the traditions evoked by, and the ceremonies of state revived for, the occasion should, I hope, remind us of the value of values seldom appreciated, less often acquired, in these pedestrian days. Perhaps this young and winsome couple will help us restore them to ourselves and to our posterity.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

SHAKESPEARE PROFESSORS AND TEA PARTIERS

My attendance at this year’s annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America served as a useful reminder that academics are people as given to looniness as the maddest member of the Tea Party. Disregarding fact or argument, and disrespecting those who disagree with them are as widespread among the highly educated—my father would have said, “over-educated”—as the educated and under-educated.

I have missed only one of the past seven annual conferences of this association. In the past decade or so, the numbers of members and attendees have grown dramatically. Unfortunately, the quality of seminar papers and discussion has not done the same. I have been threatening not to attend for several years, but I have yielded to the appeals of friends in academe to re-join them in following years and to participate, as I always do, by writing a paper for a seminar.

My seminar this year was “Macbeth: The State of the Play.” The play interests me; I have written a book chapter and two other conference papers on it, and have taught it as a guest teacher to two high school classes. Much there is to say, so the inclusive charter of the seminar gave me room to explore the play from a new angle: “This seminar invites papers on any aspect of Macbeth in its time, our time, any time: the text and its authorship; Jacobean contexts; witches, magic, the supernatural; the play’s history on stage and screen; adaptations and appropriations.” The topic was broad enough to admit the kitchen sink; indeed, one paper discussed food and feasting in the play.

Professors were less professional than personal in their papers or participation. Respect for Shakespeare and other scholars was in short supply. One editor attacked the editing of Macbeth by another editor, whose editions of Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s plays are standards in the field, without proposing solutions to the problems. A literary historian exonerated the Catholic equivocator of whom the Porter speaks—a little like trying to resurrect Richard III’s reputation—without showing that or how exposing or correcting contemporary mistakes or Shakespeare’s distortions about a centuries-dead priest has any bearing on the meaning of the play. Nevertheless, these two papers were among the better ones, worth the time to read and discuss. Two papers which invited reconsideration of the play’s genre as satire or romance other professors simply ignored or superciliously dismissed, respectively. Professors shouted down with Shakespearean proof texts the suggestion that Macbeth was a sociopath (more likely, a psychopath). A few other papers ineptly addressed worthwhile subjects. Out of about thirty papers, perhaps six or so had merit.

The discussions in the split sessions were an embarrassment in their inanity. Both soon descended into trivial but earnest exchanges about modern stagings and stage props. For example, was Macbeth’s severed head better carried by its hair or in a bag?—really! None of the professors thus ardently engaged attempted to make clear what these tidbits had to do with the “State of the Play.” Worse was their myopic, if not narcissistic, attempt to rationalize their subjective responses bearing little resemblance to the play on the page or on the stage, at least to any contemporary reader or on any contemporary stage. Thus, they censured most of the last two acts which they regarded as boring, confusing, or inept. They reserved special scorn for the long scene, usually cut by modern directors, between Malcolm and Macduff. They were about complaining, not explaining. In short, so they decided, the play is a failure.

The presumption of this view, which most professors shared and elaborated, is astonishing in its disregard of biographical or historical perspective. It implies that, at the height of his powers, Shakespeare failed to write a competent play. It implies that he failed despite his effort to write one with a special appeal to King James, his court, and his people. It implies that the play discredits one of James’s ancestors and discounts the promise of the ascension of that ancestor at the end. If such were the case, James—not foolish, not ignorant of his family’s or his birth-country’s history, not incompetent as a writer himself—would likely have pitched a royal fit; dressed down Shakespeare and his theater company, The King’s Men, who were his servants; and forbidden future public performances. Nothing of the sort happened.

Beyond these implications are the facts. The play was popular in its day, before James at court and before the public in the Globe Theater. Even removed from its cultural and historical context of Stuart England, it became and has remained popular for centuries in countries throughout the world. This is failure?

To these professors, mostly in their early 30s to mid 40s, self-centered and self-convinced, apparently so. Isolated from the historical realities of their subject, they chose not to interrogate their responses to, or views of, the play. Intolerant of dissent and disrespectful of dissenters, they deterred discussion with those not committed to their positions or approaches. They preferred to defy the facts, defy the inferences, and defy the judgment of millions, including Shakespeare scholars, over hundreds of years.

What distinguishes some Shakespeare professors from most Tea Partiers? The answer appears to be: little or nothing. What some Shakespeare professors do with Shakespeare and to scholarship is what most Tea Partiers do with the Constitution and to democracy. Both share in the barbarism of disrespect to, or destruction, of texts, literary or political, and of the institutions which depend on them.

This conclusion should come as no surprise to those who realize that the shift in education from communication to expression has, over the past 40 years, undermined accountability to facts and logic, and underlined feelings and freedom divorced from any standards except self-serving ones. So whether the decline of cogency and civility occurs in cultural or political contexts, it manifests societal decay probably irreversible.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

SATIRE IN A SILLY SEASON

A Note to Readers:

I offer the following satire in the spirit of serious silliness which has again struck stark raving mad the people whom many have long suspected of being stark raving mad.

First, I refer, of course, to the announced commitment of the House leadership to insist that every piece of legislation cite the provision or provisions in the Constitution which justifies the legislation. Yippee! But the pledge seems more honored in the breach than the observance.

Then, I refer to the fact that yesterday, April 1 (aka April Fool’s Day), the U. S. House of Representatives passed a “Government Shutdown Prevention Act” (GSPA), which declares that, if the Senate does not pass the House-approved budget (H.R. 1), with its $61 billion in spending cuts, by 6 April, the GSPA will become the law of the land.

How’s that for Constitutional compliance? If the Senate does not pass and the President does not sign H.R. 1, GSPA will become the law of the land regardless, so Eric Cantor and the Creeps insist.

In that context of craziness, perhaps my satire on further steps to restrict abortions may be worth a chuckle. However, I must advise you that I have chosen not to read the Constitution.

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“A Modest Proposal” (a la Jonathan Swift) to Discourage Abortions

The unending controversy about abortion features arguments about the definition of life; specifications of the moment of conception or of birth; the name of the unborn—zygote, embryo, fetus, baby, child, person—; the moment of viability; the circumstances of rape, incest, and the mother’s health; and so forth. After half a century of what some charitably call a “debate,” we have no answers, only anger, aggression, and guns deployed to protect “life” at the expense of the lives, or the quality of lives, of others.

Today, after almost five decades of women’s liberation, feminism, and the sexual revolution, federal and state legislatures are still predominantly male governing bodies still passing abortion-related laws. Most of them are intended to restrict the exercise of a woman’s right under Roe vs. Wade (1973) to an abortion. But even the most ardent of the anti-abortion life-lovers would not imagine restricting in the slightest way, even for public safety, the exercise of a right to own or use guns. That disparity counts for almost nothing by comparison with the perverse positions and worse practices of the Catholic Church, with its all-male ecclesiastics. Curiously, in the last half century, its opposition to abortion parallels its tolerance of increased sexual molestation of young adherents. From the lowest to the highest echelons, some ecclesiastics end respect for life at birth.

I resent this largely male enthusiasm for restricting the exercise of rights which women have under the law to make choices for themselves. I resent even more the power of male elected officials to impose such restrictions when they themselves take no responsibility and suffer no consequences for their decisions. It seems to me we have a new way, albeit vicariously and legislatively, for boys to sow wild oats once again.

So I offer “a modest proposal” to correct this inequity yet discourage abortions: penalize the fertilizers. If we have restrictions on a woman’s reproductive choices, fairness demands that we have corresponding restrictions on a man’s reproductive choices. Jurisdictions which discourage or deter women from having elective abortions should comparably restrict heterosexual men from having elective sexual relations.

If the state impedes a woman’s exercise of a right to an abortion, it must make the penalties fit the pregnancy. If the pregnancy results from rape—date rape included, college boys, so eschew alcohol and ecstasy, and make yourself agreeable enough to get consent—or incest, the state should castrate the miscreants, maybe only one testicle for first offenders of non-incestuous acquaintance rape. If it results from accidents between consenting adults, it should deny sexual relations by the parents except with themselves throughout the minority of the child. The prospect of eighteen years of individual, hands-on experience by both parents will, I think, make all straights very, very careful about unwanted pregnancies, in or out of marriage. If it results from under-age female promiscuity, I suggest adoption for the child and eighteen-year incarceration for the father. (This paragraph does not consider what to do about the mother, who would be free to carry on carrying on.) The importance of reducing the number of abortions, if not eliminating them altogether, makes these penalties neither extreme nor expensive.

Only the originality of this “modest proposal” is likely to count against it and impede acceptance and enactment. But, I assure you, the number of unwanted pregnancies will decline, the number of abortions will decline, and the number of adoptions will soar—an anti-abortionist’s dream come true, one without the moralistic nightmare of abstention. The only thing counting against this proposal is its likely encouragement of gay and lesbian relationships—a subject for another occasion.