Hamlet at the Public (2017)

Melancholy Rebel Pilot

A man’s body lies prone, face up with eyes closed. The image repeats itself, with different bodies, some living, some ghostly, some just playing dead. In the opening scene, a young man in black stares at the body of his father. By the last scene, we’re staring at the young man’s body.

The Public Theater’s current Hamlet features Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading man Oscar Isaac as the body everyone loves to watch, but it’s also notable for Sam Gold’s aggressive direction and some other great performances, especially Peter Friedman as Polonius and Ritchie Coster, double-cast as Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet — which meant the brother and his murderer were the same man. What Queen could leave “this fair mountain” to “batten on this moor” (3.4) expostulated Hamlet in the closet scene, holding up two pictures of the same face. No wonder Gertrude thought he’s mad!

Isaac’s was the face that brought me and my fourteen year-old daughter eagerly to a nearly four-hour show, and we both agree that he was worth every minute. I’ve not seen too many of the movie star Hamlets in recent circulation — no Cumberbatch, Fiennes, or Tennant for me — but it’s hard to imagine that any of them were as engaging, moving, or constantly entertaining as Isaac. From the intense gaze with which he stared at his father’s corpse in the opening through a wonderfully playful series of scenes in antic underwear — as many reviews have noted, this is a four-hour Hamlet that takes the comic undersong seriously — he simply dazzled. In a performance dedicated to his recently deceased mother, as movingly detailed in this Times article,  Isaac surfaced an emotional availability and communicative force that captures the true “purpose of playing” (3.2). I know that as a card-carrying Shakespearean academic I’m not supposed to swoon for a Rebel Pilot, but he really was great. Olivia thought so too.

Keegan-Michael Key as Horatio

One of my favorite moments in Isaac’s performance was his intense delivery of the advice to the Players, in particular the admonition that the clowns not overplay their parts. He delivered those lines directly to the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who was the Player King in the dumbshow and also an authoritative Horatio. As Player King, Key rejected Hamlet’s advice in a wonderfully excessive scenery chewing death. The dumbshow placed Key’s body in the “rest position” of the production, lying on his back, receiving poison in his ear, like a patient etherized on a table, as another poet says. In some ways the dumbshow, in which Key’s comic gyrations insisted that even the dead aren’t quite dead yet, seems to me the “heart’s core” (3.2) of this production: his body lay prone like the Ghost’s, Polonius’s, and eventually Hamlet’s, but his writhing antics showed motion under death’s silence.

There was lots more to like about Isaac’s Hamlet. He started the old chestnut of “To be or not to be” from rest position on the table, staring up at the ceiling, and in slow cadences engaging the overfamiliar lines. At this point we the audience wanted, and for a time could not have, his actorly attention: looking up and away from all three sides of the crowd, he played his death-seeking soliloquy as refusal to perform, to look at us, to play. For most of the performance he was a prince who loved playing and loved people, most of all Horatio but even — in some of my favorite exchanges of the performance — Polonius, whose old-man pseudo-wit projected the regal dignity that Coster’s violent Claudius eschewed. Was this the only Polonius I’ve seen that really showed, beneath his foolish pomposity and staleness of wit, the stature on which Claudius relies? “The head is not more native to the heart,” says the king about his advisor, perhaps aping Polonius’s own cadences, nor “The hand more instrumental to the mouth” (1.2).

Olivia outside the Public

Sometimes I think my increasing taste for Polonius might have to do with my having just entered my own 5th decade, at which point it seems pretty clear that I am not prince Hamlet nor was meant to be, though I still sometimes play insufferable Dad to a brilliant daughter. Polonius may be a poor father and indifferent wit, but he’s a lively genre-theorist and, at least in this production, a charismatic presence. Like many other reviewers, I was a bit perplexed by the scene in which he’s barking orders from the almost onstage toilet (2.1), but in general he was a highlight. He was much missed after his death in 3.4, which also marked the second interval. (Incidental & perhaps trivial aside: the between-intervals section of this production ran from “To be or not to be” [3.1] through the disposal of Polonius’s body [4.3] — is there a more relentless hour of theater in the language?) Even after being killed Polonius had one last comic turn, when antic Hamlet, seeking a place to stow the dead body, asked the audience member across the stairwell from me to move, propped Polonius up in her seat, put sunglasses on him and a Playbill in his hand. He sat there quietly, “most still, most secret, and most grave / Who in life was a foolish peating knave” (3.4).

A few scenes later, after his body was mock-buried by Ophelia with dirt she lugged in from planters in the lobby, Friedman started up from his prone rest to play the gravedigger. In this last role he brought comic life back to a stage that, after its second intermission, was missing its strongest actors, both the prince (for a few scenes) and Polonius. The skullplay that followed was as broad as by this point we expected — since the second gravedigger was cross-cast with Ophelia, we even get a skull-as-baby-being-born gag — but Isaac’s Hamlet had by this point cleaned himself up, put black pants over antic undies, washed his face, and chastened his gaze. He even, when the poor Yorick speech briefly shifted into iambic verse, broke into song:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay

Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

O, that that earth which longer kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t’expel the water’s flaw. (5.1.202-05)

I tend to think that Hamlet’s sparrow-philosophy in act 5 is pretty thin beer and unable to account for the play’s violence. Isaac’s soulful delivery almost convinced me otherwise.

The Players playing

Not every part was as brilliantly played as the trio of Hamlet-Claudius-Polonius. Some reviewers liked Gayle Rankin’s Ophelia; I enjoyed the manic energy she put into the role, from binge-eating a massive tray of lasagne in act 2 to singing her mad songs in a “Skip to m’Lou” beat. But her lament for Hamlet’s loss of his powers — “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” (3.1) — felt tepid. Her performance was emotionally opaque, which meant that when Isaac gushed, “I loved Ophelia” (5.1) in the graveyard scene, even in retrospect the relationship did not move. I loved Charlayne Woddard in Red Bull’s Witch of Edmonton in 2011, but her Gertrude never quite figured itself out. Roberta Colindrez and Matthew Saldivar were uncharacteristically sympathetic and memorable as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Anatol Yusef’s Laertes seemed a bit by-the-numbers.

In the play’s final clinch, Hamlet squirted poison into his uncle’s ear from a syringe (lots of syringes in this production), and the two dying men held each other up in a staggering embrace. Ritchie Coster had just taken his shirt off, which costume change usually signaled the shift from Claudius to Old Hamlet. Playing both good father and bad uncle at the moment that he’s killed by our prince, Coster’s final moment wasn’t especially subtle — yes, all the men in the Danish royal line really are murderous Machiavels — but this last turn was, after nearly four hours, quite moving. The two men loved each other and killed each other.

The Fortinbras foreign-policy plot having been excised, Key’s charismatic Horatio closed the curtain by claiming that he could  “truly deliver” all the story of Denmark’s tragedy. I often spend classroom time on that speech, treating its summary of “accidental judgments, casual slaughters” (5.2) as a misreading of the play’s ambivalence about action. But in that moment, staring at the finally-still body of Oscar Isaac prone in rest position on the table, I felt convinced by this Horatio. He could, and the show had, truly delivered.

Hamlet and his not-father in law

It’s sold out of course, but if you can finagle tickets before Sept 3, it’s worth the whole afternoon or evening!


Against Tyranny (Shakespeare, Snyder, Milton, and “Brutus”)

Books against Tyranny

This week brings to an end a short and intense online summer grad course on the suddenly topical subject of “Tyranny.” An intrepid band of students joined me to engage with Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606), the pseudonymously published Huguenot resistance tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579), and Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667/1674). We had a lot to say, and our scant five weeks left us little room to shoe-horn in the public debate on Julius Caesar occasioned by the Breitbart-ing of the Public’s production in Central Park.

I’ve distilled my swirling thoughts into five takeaway lessons, or just 25% of Snyder’s longer list. No time for more just now!

My organizing thought, in part responding to a wonderfully restrained production of Macbeth we saw in Rowaytan CT last week, is that literary culture teaches patience, vigilance, and (alas that it is so) guarded pessimism in the long struggle against tyranny. Literature teaches that we cannot always avoid tyranny, but we can resist it and limit it, some of the time.

The fiery slogan sic semper tyrannis, “thus always to tyrants,” which Brutus may or may not have said when stabbing Caesar but which John Wilkes Booth (whose father was named Brutus) wrote in his diary after he shot Abraham Lincoln, has a grim notoriety among American Shakespeareans. Booth and his brothers had played Shakespeare’s Caesar-killing conspirators in a benefit performance in 1864. The funds from that production erected a statue of Shakespeare that still stands in Central Park. The most famous actor among the Booth boys, Edwin, played Brutus; John Wilkes, the year before he killed the President, played Antony, who revenges the play’s assassination. The American legacy of the tyrant-killer’s motto should disturb more than just Shakespeareans: the phrase appears in both innocuous places, such as Maryland’s state song, and horrific ones, such as Timothy McVeigh’s t-shirt when he was arrested following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Plus one more that snuck in this summer

What I was looking for in the works we read this summer, and what we found, is something less sudden than regime-change and less history-breaking than impeachment. I found things that resist, affirm, and sustain.

Here are my five lessons:

First Lesson: Read until the end.

I’ve been thinking about endings since Breitbart News suggested that Julius Caesar ends after the title character’s death and should be understood as a pro-regicide play. Everyone who sticks around for the civil war and collapse of the Republic during the next two-and-a-half acts knows better. But I wonder if the point might be generalizable: to understand a historical event requires knowing both its origins and consequences. Did Zhou Enlai really say it was “too early to tell” about the French Revolution in 1972?

One advantage of literary texts is that they can imagine possible endings that aren’t readily available in historical contexts. Endings can be hard to find in history, especially contemporary history, but literary texts all have endings, generic forms, and ideas that emerge from these forms.

To a literary scholar, Timothy Snyder’s twenty maxims against tyranny collectively explore choices of generic form: must Americans today accept conscription into a blood-and-soil history play, or can we #resist in the name of humanistic globalism? Can we write comic unifications rather than violent attempts to divide? Into what genre do we fit our historical present?

The tragic narrative of tyranny, as Snyder observes, dominated European history in the middle of the last century. After 1989, the West in his view entered an extended flirtation with what he calls a “politics of inevitability” (118), in which history ceased to be a struggle and instead became an accretion of technical and incremental progress. Against this thin inevitability, nationalist and authoritarian recrudescences in Europe, the UK, and last fall in the USA advocate a “politics of eternity” (121) that conjures a largely fantasized past. Snyder asks for a renewed sense of history to combat both false views.

But from a literary perspective, the open-ness of “history,” which Snyder defines as “the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have” (125), minimizes the need to imagine an end toward which we are progressing. Literary endings, from the tragedies of Julius Caesar and Macbeth to the more ambivalent “wandering steps and slow” (12.648) which guide Adam and Eve out of Eden, provide models against which to measure the ends of human actions. Snyder’s heroes, both the American Founding Fathers and 20c anti-fascists in Central Europe, followed literary as well as historical lessons. Some, such as Czeslaw Milosz and Vaclav Havel, were themselves major literary figures. Entwining historical observation with literary speculation requires that we imagine literary endings as models for historically-unfolding events — and that we revise those models as facts change. We think with and through real and imagined endings.

Second Lesson: Time and tyrants.

Watching Macbeth in a CT park the other night, I kept re-hearing the characters’ aversions to time. “I feel now,” says freshly unsexed Lady Macbeth to her husband, “The future in the instant” (1.5.57-58). Macbeth wants to “jump the life to come” (1.7.7) and after the murder he returns to his wife’s word for timelessness: “from this instant / There’s nothing serious in mortality” (2.3.93-94). Maybe the couple’s bloody ambition aims to escape time as much as ascend the throne?

Milton’s Satan, too, rebels against temporality when he vaunts to his fellow devils that he bears “A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time” (1.253). Something there is about tyranny that can’t abide temporal progression?

It’s not enough to say that all tyrants will and must be defeated by and in time, since such a formula elides the need for human solidarity in present struggle. It also falsifies the historical record; lots of tyrants don’t lose. But learning to live contingently in time, with patience and labor, seems to be what tyrants eschew. Living in time as time moves on: it’s tedious, excruciating, necessary.

Third Lesson: “Kings receive laws from the people.”

This maxim comes from the Vindiciae contra tryannos (3.53-54), a #resistance tract published under the pseudonym “Brutus Celta” by French Protestant authors in 1579, possibly in response to the bloody St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572. In a striking inversion of how we think kings (and Presidents) operate, this lesson stresses the monarch’s dependence on the people and their duty to “receive” national laws. Before the Enlightenment theories of democratic politics on which Snyder draws, these sixteenth-century authors find #peoplepower in examples from an eclectic mix of classical, Biblical, and Renaissance sources: from Cyrus the Great to Lycurgus of Sparta; Kings Saul and David of Israel; Romulus and Augustus Caesar; even the sixteenth-century monarchs of France, England, Spain, Poland, Hungary, and other nations.

It’s possible to read the historical and classical record differently, as Machiavelli does in The Prince, drawing on some of the same texts. But it’s striking to see the seeds of #resistance to monarchal power in this pre-democratic text. The people, according to this fictional “Brutus,” are not an unruly mob but the source of national law.

This point seems especially compelling in June 2017 in the context of the US Senate’s secretive and dishonest attempt to legislate an end to publicly supported health insurance for 22 million people whose voices the Republican party is trying very hard not to hear.

Fourth Lesson: “If thou beest he; But O how fall’n!” (1.84)

Paradise Lost provides a fun-house mirror of tyrants, from ambitious Satan to placid God, mansplaining angels, controlling Adam, and curious Eve. Tyranny — if by that term we mean a desire to control more of creation than can be controlled — appears to be a generalized consequence of the Fall. As with other postlapserian qualities, we can glimpse it even in angels and the seat of Heaven. Presumably we see God as a tyrant only because we see with Fallen eyes. But it’s hard to see Him any other way!

Satan’s first words in the epic describe his fellow devil Beelzebub as irremediably changed by their Fall, but his echo of Isaiah 14:11 reflects that fall back onto himself. To Fall and be fall’n (the elision in the word “fallen” fits the pentameter, but surely the poet also intends an audible diminution) means to experience irredeemable loss. Satan faces fall’n-ness without submitting, but the properly human (and, in Snyder’s sense, historical) response must be to accept limitations imposed by the Fall. To borrow a political phrase, we can never be “great again.” All we can do is persist, “hand in hand,” beyond Paradise. #strongertogether

Fifth Lesson Don’t believe in the sameness of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.” 

Listening once again last week in Rowaytan to Macbeth’s glorious speech that ends up “Signifying nothing” (5.5.22), it struck me that this lyric gorgeousness precisely inverts what Snyder calls a sense of history, which “permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something” (125). Macbeth loses all sense of history, responsibility, and human connection after the death of his wife; he’s left only with “th’equivocation of the fiend / That lies like truth” (5.5.42-43).

The anti-tyrannical lesson of Macbeth and perhaps of all these texts requires historical and imaginative discipline to eschew the “walking shadow” (5.5.23) and believe better things are possible, even today.

Anti-tyrannist authors including Shakespeare imagine that non-tyrannical destinies are possible, even when the historical record suggests, as Snyder reminds us, that the “history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall” (10).

Thanks to my students for a stimulating summer of anti-tyrannical texts!

Further dilations on this tyrannous theme will follow at panels I’m chairing at MLA (New York City, January 2018) and RSA (New Orleans, April 2018).


Macbeth (Shakespeare on the Sound 2017)

Before last night’s terrific production of Macbeth by Shakespeare on the Sound in Rowaytan, CT, my students and I had a great chat with Claire Kelly, who directed this show, and with Emily Bryan, who prepared the script for performance (and who I’ve known for some time in academic Shakespeare circles).

Claire observed something about the Weird Sisters that I’ve noticed also — the first Witch speaks about the past, the second about the present, the third about the future — and she used that insight to structure her casting, with the first sister played by the adult Jessica van Neil, the second by twenty-something Meghan Grover, and the third, with dazzling energy, by twelve-year old Beatrice Shannon. With that prompt, I re-heard all the language about time and simultaneity in the play, from Macbeth’s urge to “jump the life to come” (1.7.7) to the urgent futurity of Lady Macbeth’s “all-hail hereafter” (1.5.55) to the resonant glories of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” (5.5.16-27). It’s not a new thought to say that the polytemporal Sisters and the Macbeth’s ambition drive the play’s headlong reckless pace. But it felt urgent and all around me last night.

Lines of Kings

Another great pleasure of this outdoor production was the fractured set. Pinkney Park, a small green space by a salt-water estuary a few hundred yards from Long Island Sound, is a natural depression. The stage spread around the space in many parts: a central circle like a well, a banquet table, witches’s heath, and battlefield, not to mention several scenes that were played among audience members on beach blankets and folding chairs. With help from Emily Bryan, our group reserved a blanket down at the center, which meant a lot of turning and neck-craning to locate scene changes, but also a wonderful feeling of being at the center of things.

The distributed set did in space what Shakespeare’s language does in time and Kelly’s casting did with the Sisters: it made everything present simultaneously, rejecting lineal progression in favor of multiple points of access. Even the vision of Banquo’s line of kings, “stretch[ing] out to th’ crack of doom” (4.3.116) stretched both ways, radiating out in two directions from the centrally-placed Banquo, played with wonderful charisma by Calvin Smith.

Sound too encircled us: in place of a musical score, the disembodied voices of the Sisters echoed chorus-like over the audio system during scenes and transitions. Solitary words swirled out of fog-machine fog: “Macbeth…Treason…Murder…Macbeth.”

Graham Stevens as Macbeth. Winsome Brown as Lady Macbeth.

Of the performances, my favorite was Winsome Brown as a daring and pleasure-loving Lady Macbeth. Prompted by my thinking about time and simultaneity in the play, I heard in her reading of her husband’s letter ( an abrupt embrace of the play’s headlong rush toward dark futures: “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be / What thou art promised” (1.5.15-16). When she fears his “milk of human kindness” (1.5.17) she’s anticipating her husband’s dilatory nature, the slow thickness of his reasoning and his poetic languors. Her world is faster and more eager. To set up the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Brown walked slowly down to the well at the center of the stage area. She paced around the well’s circular edge, slowly pouring the dregs of her glass of red wine into the grass a few feet from my Birkenstock’d toes. Then she stood at the center of the circle and addressed the sky. “Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts…” (1.5..40-41) It’s hard to perform these familiar lines distinctly, but Brown soared them last night.

I’ve seen a few recent productions that emphasize the passion in the marriage, but I’ve seldom seen a Lady Macbeth show herself more bereft at her husband’s withdrawal in the second half of the play. The final lines of her mad hand-washing speech, which were also her final lines in the play — ”To bed, to bed, to bed” (5.1.67) — voiced marital solitude and alienation.

Graham Stevens

Graham Stevens was as likeable and persuasive as one might ask a Macbeth to be — perhaps even too sympathetic for a tyrant and killer. His measured delivery emphasized how much of his spoken part poses doubts, anxieties, a troubled conscience. “He’s here in double trust” (1.7.12) Stevens explained. We don’t see him perform kill his king, though we watch him wash clean his “hangman’s hands” (2.2.28), “I have done the deed” (2.2.15), he reports to his wife. But we never see him at it.

The rest of the cast was strong and compelling, especially Lucy van Atta as Lady Macduff and the compellingly quadruple-cast John Hardin (also of the awesome Adirondack Shakespeare Company), who developed a bitter and funny through-line as Porter, Old Man, First Murderer, and Doctor. Nicholas Urda brought enough taught violence to the part of Macduff that I wondered what he would’ve done in the title role.

My students and I came to the production prepped by our online summer class in “Tyranny,” having read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the 16c Huguenot resistance tract Vindiciae contra tyrannos alongside Macbeth. We’ve been having intense and often Trump-y conversations about how literary culture represents tyranny, resistance, and political catastrophe. This production avoided flash points and has not been harassed by Breitbart-reading trolls. But it left me thinking about how seductive the rush to violent change can be. Even with supernatural accomplices, tyranny looked very human on this outdoor stage. As Macbeth says to the phantom dagger, “Thou marshell’st me the way that I was going, / And such an instrument I was to use” (2.1.42-43).

Go see it before it closes July 2!

Winsome Brown, reading the letter


Passions of Bloom: #artsideas17

It’s not often a literature professor gets to listen to his own profession sung in gorgeous oratorio, in seven voices, backed by twenty-three musicians from the Yale Philharmonic. In a dozen songs written and composed by Martin Bresnick, Passions of Bloom brought together poetry by Whitman and Dickinson, Melville’s prose, and organizing snippets and bits of melancholy autobiography from Harold Bloom, mostly extracted from his 2015 book The Daemon Knows: Greatness and the American Sublime

Like many of the literary critics at whom Bloom’s been sniping since before I finished grad school — I did my PhD at Yale but didn’t take his course on Shakespeare — I’m ambivalent about his popularizing celebrations of a traditional, mostly white and mostly male canon. But in this new format, Bloom’s memoir-tinged engagements with great works of literature, voiced by members of Yale Choral Artists, produced brilliant, humanizing, engaging art. 

It turns out that the old familiar masters, set to new music and sung with aching beauty, can do quite a lot.

At the post-performance champagne toast, Bresnick quipped that he hadn’t expected the references to Bloom still teaching after 54 years and also to a “dreary” November morning in New Haven to be laugh lines, as they were last night. I imagine there were quite a few other professors in the crowd, though I only recognized one member of the Yale English department from my students days in the ’90s. Probably I missed a few others.

The vocal parts included two tenors, singing the parts of Bloom and Walt Whitman, a Bass-Baritone as Melville, a basso prufundo dredging the roar of Ahab up from deep in his stomach, a Baritone as Ishmael, and two different women singing the parts of Emily Dickinson, in Mezzo-Soprano and Soprano. I’m not expert enough to judge the singing, but I thought all brilliant: James Taylor as Bloom hinted melancholy beneath the ego, and both the women who sang Dickinson — one for the poems, another for an excerpt from a letter — were breathtaking performers. 

The opening set of songs featured Bloom and Whitman, tracing Bloom’s reading of Walt as “American Adam” and prophet of an American Gnosticism and national religion of the self. (I’ve not read The Daemon Knows, but Bloom’s been making this argument for decades.) The opening line and title of the second song, “I have aged into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir,” reveals the human pathos of the Bloom-figure, both his massive egotism and the openness to literary experience that self-regard enables. Is it possible to read so voraciously without deeply contemplating the self?

After Whitman comes Melville in three voices: the author, Ahab, and Ishmael. The show-stopper here was Glenn Miller’s deeper-than-deep bass voice, thundering Ahab’s wish to “strike the sun if it insulted me.” This section of the oratorio ended with Bloom’s query, “Are all Americans Ahab?” — which, to me at least, emphasized that the reading of Moby-Dick presented in these songs was Ahabic rather than Ishmael-ish. The bow oarsman and lone survivor does get some music, including a rehearsal of his “playbill” about the Grand Contested Election and war in Afghanistan, which Bloom and Bresnick note were current news in 1850 (when Moby-Dick was published), 2015 (when The Daemon Knows appeared) and again today. 

But I can hardly blame Bloom for not responding to a fully Ishmael-ist reading of the novel when I’ve only just started my own version of such a thing, when I published the first three poems of Sailing without Ahab in April.

Third and last came Emily Dickinson in poems and a letter. The two poems, “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” and “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” called less upon the power of interpretation than of celebration, as he admitted that Emily was beyond his critical grasp. An excerpt from one of her letters to Thomas Higginson, in which she names “myself the only kangaroo among the beauty,” made gorgeous contrast with the canonical verses, though Martin Bresnick admitted afterward that the ‘roo was a hidden nod to his Australian wife.

All the voices appeared on stage together for “Bloom’s Daemon” and “The Lesson Done,” the last of which brought the full house to its feet in joy.

I learned after the show that Harold Bloom is not well enough to have been there last night, but he hopes to watch a video feed of the performance today. He should feel gratified, hearing the musical rewards of a life’s reading and grappling with poetry’s oblique promises. 

One of Bloom’s lines described sitting down to write his chapter on Melville on “November 13th,” on a day in which New Haven’s air smelled of the ocean. When Ishmael feels that “damp drizzly November in my soul” he takes to sea. When Bloom feels it — or when I do — he opens a book. All of us looking for the same thing?

Such a pleasure to follow this musical version of the literary journey in New Haven last night! 




Dylan in 2017

Driving home from Father’s Day Dylan at the Oakdale Center last night, I got the feeling we’d seen three different shows. I was buzzing over juxtapositions from the long career, thinking that maybe Bob, like me, thinks Tempest is his best album of the 21st century, and scratching my head about the Sinatra phase. Alinor said she couldn’t understand the words to any song except “Stormy Weather,” and when Bob started gravel-crooning “Melancholy Mood,” she leaned over to me to say, appropriately, “What the fuck?”

Olivia, who came along with her eighth-grade buddy who likes what she calls “hippie music,” asked if she could go see Beyonce next time. I said OK.

Maybe Bob’s only for the already-converted in 2017?

Here’s the set list from last night:

  1. Things Have Changed (Modern Love, 2005)
  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side, 1964)
  3. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
  4. Stormy Weather (Harold Arlen cover)
  5. Summer Days (Love and Theft, 2001)
  6. Scarlet Town (Tempest, 2012)
  7. Duquesne Whistle (Tempest 2012)
  8. Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatra cover)
  9. Once Upon a Time (Tony Bennett cover) (live debut by Bob Dylan)
  10. Pay in Blood (Tempest 2012)
  11. Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
  12. Early Roman Kings (Tempest 2012)
  13. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)
  14. All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
  15. Soon After Midnight (Tempest 2012)
  16. That Old Black Magic (Johnny Mercer cover)
  17. Long and Wasted Years (Tempest 2012)
  18. Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)
  19. Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind (Freewheelin‘ 1963)
  20. Encore: Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited 1965)

By chronology: 5 from the ’60s, none from ’70s-90s, 8 from ’00s, 7 covers

By disc: 1 from Freewheelin‘ (1963), 1 from Another Side (1964), 3 from Highway 61 Revisited (1965), 1 from Love and Theft (2001), 1 from Modern Love (2005), 6 from Tempest (2012), 7 covers (probably on last 3 studio albums 2015-17)

A quick google of recent setlists from this tour shows that the songs from Tempest and the covers are almost always in the mix, but we missed some nice oldies: Baby Blue, Simple Twist of Fate (from the 70s!), To Ramona, Don’t Think Twice, Blind Willie McTell (which I would’ve loved to hear), Hard Rain.

All the songs from Tempest were great, though I missed my favorite of all, the title track, an 11-minute waltz (!) about the sinking of the Titanic, about which I dilated in scholarly prose in my last book, Shipwreck Modernity (162-66). Not sure that song lends itself to live performance, but who knows.

The Sinatra / Johnny Mercer / Tony Bennett stuff is powerfully weird. Dylan doesn’t play piano or guitar for those numbers, just dances or shuffles awkwardly with a stand-up microphone and croons through gravel. In a few places, especially “Stormy Weather” and “Once Upon a Time,” I thought I glimpsed a conceit: the idea might be to transform the Great American Songbook into Dylan songs, and to increase the challenge he’ll do it without changing any words. Can Bob rob Frank just with phrasing and nasal twang? I’m a pretty devoted fan, and I appreciate the extremity of this latest phrase, but I’m not sure what to make of it.

Back in the early 90s, after a pretty fallow period — I like some songs on Empire Burlesque (1985), but it’s an acquired taste — Bob released two great albums covering traditional folk songs, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993). Does the Sinatra turn — four albums long, since 2015 — herald another turn and promise something to come as good as Tempest?

I must say I doubt it. He’s growling strong, but at times he looks as if he feels his 76 years. It’s great to hear him rework old material — my favorite of the night was Desolation Row, though interestingly he cut the penultimate verse with T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the mermaids.

I wondered going into the show if he’d address the current kerfluffle about plagiarism, SparkNotes, and his Nobel Prize Lecture. (Here’s my reading of the lecture.) I didn’t expect him to, but the opening two numbers probably give a pretty direct answer, one he’s been repeated for decades:

  1. [I used to care, but] Things Have Changed

  2. It Ain’t Me, Babe

Good times at the Oakdale Center!



Bodysurfing considered as a historical practice

What a piece of work is a wave!

Last Wednesday in golden afternoon light, I spent a perfect hour bodysurfing the Jersey shore with my daughter. We’d swim into the curl and plunge down the face into white water that would carry us over the elongated beach of low tide. Sometimes — if we stayed with the wave til its end — we’d be brought up short by a final thump into broken shells and a more steeply slanting beach. We’d laugh, flip ourselves over, and head back out for the next wave.

My father taught me to bodysurf the beaches of Bay Head, NJ, when I was younger than Olivia is now. I’ve been splashing over the same sand since the 1970s, though this past week was my first trip back there since my prophetic parents sold the beach house two years before Hurricane Sandy tore up the shore.

End of the ride

Bodysurfing memories are mostly physical: the vast shudder with which the wave lifts you into itself, a sudden plunge down the face, the pressure on my hands when I hold them together in front of me, knifing through the white water. To keep from scraping my belly, I end each ride by jamming the heels of my hands down into the sand, arching myself up as the last inch of water surges past.

I’m a head-down bodysurfer, in a New Jersey style that almost broke my neck when I tried it at my college room-mate’s home in La Jolla, CA, in 1989.

Heading back out

“You hold your hands together in front of you,” I told Olivia last week, as my Dad told me four decades ago. “Your hands work like the prow of a boat. They hold you in the wave, while the wave pushes you forward. Between the two, you can ride all the way up to the beach.”

I’ve bodysurfed lots of other places. Coogee Beach in Sydney, in the last few months of 1989. Venice and Point Mugu on either side of LA, in the early ’90s. Carpenteria, CA. Jacksonville, FL, where my parents live now. Rhode Island. Portugal. I unlocked peak academic ocean-nerdiness one early morning at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara, when I lured a bunch of professors and grad students into wetsuits for a pre-plenary bodysurfing session at BABEL 2014. One especially memorable afternoon in  July 1996 I bodysurfed the usually too-cold waters of Muir Beach, CA, the day before I got married.

But for me, and to my great good fortune also for Alinor and our two now-teenage kids, there’s no place that combines surf and history quite like the Jersey Shore.

What kind of human histories can waves tell? Stories that overflow with patterns and changes, without solidity, reforming themselves at each tide yet recognizable, familiar, even early in the season when the water is still cold.

On Saturday morning we needed to be out of our rental by 11 am, and two days of ocean breeze had churned up a surf a little bit, so I was the only one of the family to join the many surfers in the morning swell. I didn’t go all the way out for the bigger waves with the board-riders, but I caught a few nice ones.

I must be underwater somewhere

My favorite image — the first one in this post — shows me in the lower left walking slowing back out into the surf, through waist-high chop toward one small swell, a bigger one beyond it, and into currents of grey-green blending with fog and sky. I love the scale and density of this image. As somebody almost said, What a piece of work is a wave!

Photo credits Alinor Sterling 6/17/17

I can’t see my face, but I must be trying to read something.




Slices from Dylan’s Nobel Lecture

Just a few days ahead of the June 10 deadline for collecting the Nobel Prize (and its prize money), Dylan fulfilled the only requirement by recording a 4000 word / 27 minute variation on the theme of a laureate lecture. He Dylans the whole thing pretty hard, especially on the gravel-voiced recording, backed by solo jazz piano. Is the music a nod to his most recent albums of Sinatra-era standards? It’s hard to know with Bob.

The core of the talk features plot summaries of Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey. They have have a book-report-ish air about them, and he implausibly claims that he read all three  in “grammar school,” along with Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. They kept those kids busy in the Iron Range!

I think the point of the plots is co-opting by summary: the singer’s job, Bob almost says, is to restyle old stories, to circulate them and celebrate them. It’s a compelling argument against originality, made with typically unmistakable obliquity.

I like to read Dylan by flashes of lightning, so I’m going to dish out some slices and see what adds up to —

Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story. 

He ends where Homer begins, with an explicit donning of the poet’s mantle. The more I think about it, the more the whole lecture sounds like Dylan handling the literary canon the way Renaissance humanists say that a mother bear licks her infant cubs into their bear-shapes, forming their bodies into new shapes with love and saliva. The last section of The Odyssey that Bob picks up to play with describes the meeting of Odysseus and Achilles in the underworld, and Achilles’s wish to be  “a lowly slave or a peasant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is — a king in the land of the dead.” Sounds as if he’s not interested in epic directness and loss, but romance’s circuity and weave.

When I first received the Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.

It’s usually a mistake to take him at his word, but I can’t help feeling that he’s seriously interested in the question that launched a thousand web takes back when the Prize was first announced. What is the relationship of songs to literature? What message did the Swedish Academy want to make picking Dylan in October 2016?

Everything is mixed in.

He’s partway through his half-step summary of Melville when he gets to this one, but all of a sudden the floodgates of wonder-world swing open. Isn’t all art about only and obsessively mixing? Might Bob know this better than most? A serial plagiarist, the most widely generative writer of his generation, and a still-obsessed practitioner of the communal art of live performance in his late 70s — who better than Bob to name art’s heterogeneity while retelling for us that old story about the white whale?

There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad.

Here he’s on the road with Odysseus, taking us along for the long ride. And just when we reach for the interpreter’s hatchet, he jumps out ahead. “In a lot of ways,” he rambles, “some of these same things have happened to you.” He’s not the wanderer, he insists. You are.

I don’t know what it means either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.

This one’s in response to an aside in which he out-of-contexts a couplet from “poet-priest” John Donne. What I like is the attention to sound, including Donne’s rhymed couplets and the slow-jazz piano in the background of the audio recording. Perhaps meaning isn’t the main thing?

You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ in back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.

These aren’t only Bob’s stories, and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for this kind of American mythology, this Wild West-ing of story and tall tales that provide a kind of demotic and democratic undersong to the literary canon of Melville and Homer. This stuff, Bob’s insinuating, belongs next to the other stuff, up on the same prized shelf.

Our songs are alive in the land of the living.

Or maybe he doesn’t want to put any of these songs or stories up on any shelf. Maybe he’d rather take them out of the underworld-library and sing them, night after night, in a tattered old man’s voice. “They’re meant to be sung, not read,” he says. I thought about that bifurcation a lot this past spring semester, when my Intro to Literary Theory class started off day one listening to a younger Bob croon, “Won’t You Please Crawl Out Your Window,” which I explained as an image of the theory’s gambit. Each week we’d start classes by reading or listening to a “Weekly Bob” song, paired with “Weekly Emily” poems. Sometimes we wrestled with the language. Other times we listened to recordings. We discussed the early-form video of Subterreanean Homesick Blues. I’m not sure if we ever figured out whether it was better to read or listen, or how many of my students thought Bob was just old white-guy professor music anyway.

Read it if you can.

He says this last one about Moby-Dick. But it’s not only about Moby-Dick.



Earth, by Jeffrey Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton (Object Lessons)

How did this review get so long and so late? Bloomsbury sent me an advance copy of this gorgeous planetary addition to their Object Lessons series some time ago. I read it instantly, but haven’t found time to organize my many thoughts about it until now. Maybe I’ve enjoyed writing about it too much?

The Earth on my table takes an impossible problem —  our planet’s inhuman scale — and responds to it with multidisciplinary conversation. The book’s words and images can’t quite banish scale’s disorienting shifts, but interweaving planet-sized ideas with human words and emotions opens doors.

Planet on my table

Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far of Earth discuss the novelty of the co-authorship between Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist who directs the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor who founded the Medieval and Early Modern Institute at George Washington University. In reading and thinking about their collaboration – I was lucky to be in the audience for their joint BABEL plenary lecture in 2012, the initial spark for this shared project – I’m struck not so much by the disparity of their fields as their shared curiosity and commitment to generative and generous thinking.

One of the things that fascinates me about this book is its flexible structure, which both highlights and performs its interest in dialogue and mutual questioning. The book combines multiple forms of exchange – email, instant messaging, recording a conversation while hiking in the Arizona desert – and demonstrates its commitment to being “faithful to the mode in which it was composed” (2). That fidelity is both a matter of practical convenience – it’s hard to imagine any other way for two busy academics to co-write a book when they live and work nearly 2,000 miles apart – and also an opportunity to think extemporaneously about how mediums change messages, and how the generosity of our interlocutors can complete thoughts we didn’t quite recognize that we were thinking.

I’ll splash through some moments in the book to explore how it embodies its communicative ambition and imagines possible futures.

1: Prologue: Genesis

We hope that this book invites you into the conversation, as partner and as future (3).

The opening pages envision the book-as-conversation. That mode not only describes the form of the chapters, which reconstitute eighteenth-century epistolary structure via email and IMs, but also its invitation. Readers read as though overhearing a conversation into which we are invited to join.

2: Orbit

Earth is a home, a limit, and a recurring challenge (5).

Probably my favorite of the many resonant lines in the book, this triple list miniaturizes the three directions in which the book’s conversations develop. Earth is home, in the sense that it comprises our physical environment and is the substance (“ground”) of so many of our metaphors. The planet is also limit, in that it places boundaries and shapes – spherical shapes – on our imagination. Let man’s soul be a sphere, intones John Donne. Let the sphere be the most profound form of the Western imagination, theorizes Peter Sloterdijk.

But Earth – the planet and the book — remains a recurring challenge because none of our representations do it justice. The planetary nature of this rock in space spurs a core human imaginative desire that this book finds in the works of classical geographers, poets, scientists, and even NATO’s upcoming voyage to Pysche, Venus’s metal moon, the primary investigator of which is Lindy Elkins-Tanton. Humans want to see the earth whole. We crave escape upwards into space and want to look back upon our global home. Earth‘s gorgeous cover, and the flip-book series of illustrations in chapter 4 (pp 37-57) tease with repeated versions of this global fantasy. So many earths: blue marble, T-O map, mappa mundi, Ptolmaic and Copernican models, from the sixth century BCE to 1972.

3: Ground (why Earth?)

To my surprise and pleasure, much of the first substantial chapter takes up a pet issue of mine, the physical and symbolic nature of water, the substance that makes our blue marble blue. Lindy Elkins-Tanton starts off this conversation by talking about a controversy in planetary science between an old theory that the our planet’s water arrived from comets sometime after the formation of the earth, and a newer model, to which she subscribes, in which water was contained in the rock that formed into a planet, and over time it was forced out onto the planet’s surface. In her understanding of the process, water is not alien and might in fact be somewhat common among planets of similar chemical composition to ours:

I’m now an evangelist for planets getting their water through their common formation process, and not by later chance, and so rocky planet throughout the whole universe have a chance at water oceans, and therefore life (19).

Jeffrey Cohen, with typical wit, suggests that rather than calling our planet Ocean (as people from Arthur C. Clarke to, well, me, have suggested) we might choose “the more humble Puddle” (24).

When I think about Earth-as-Ocean, I conjure the vastness of the planet’s surface (70% salt water) and the biosphere (something like 90% water, and the rest of it, like human bodies, pretty wet). What I love about the Puddle reformulation is how its shift in scale away from the biotic environment (the planet’s surfaces, wet and dry) and down into its rocky volume allows for a reinterpretation of what water means. Water is an alien and threatening environment for the premodern sailors and poets about whom I write. Water, to a physical geologist, is life:

Two planets on my table

We’re surviving and swimming in a puddle-thin layer of wetness painted over the surface of a dry, hot rock, and shielded from the tearing solar wind by very little indeed. (23)

The shift from one perspective to the next, from one scholarly voice to the next, founders or soars on the challenge of scale, which to me always seems the greatest challenge of cross-disciplinary thinking between the humanities and the sciences. What to do with a problem like scale? That, of course, is the question of Earth‘s next chapter.

4: Scale (barriers to understanding)

Where to start. What is a billion, really? (36).

I’m a humanist by training and practice, though I dabbled in math and chemistry in my undergraduate years. It’s hard for humanists to think with numbers rather than stories, and on some level I always want stories to contain and contextualize the numbers. But the truth about scale is that it’s bigger than human story-capacities. The shocking vastness and precision of geological time – so many years, and each of them as endless and indefinite as each now, now, very now! – unsettles us. From the “discovery” of deep time in eighteenth-century geology to the computations of paleoclimatologists today, humans founder on large temporal scales.

So: what to do with scale? Earth‘s answer: have a conversation about it!

Scale seems to me the hardest problem this book tackles, and the one that seems least obviously susceptible to the imagine-and-converse method that the two authors brilliantly employ. Like earth, perhaps, scale is a limit and a challenge, though it feels the opposite of a home. (Or maybe that’s wrong too; maybe shifting scales are a home, the only home we have, no matter how occasionally inhospitable?) The sudden expansion or contraction of scale dislocates and disorients, as we see – which we can only just bear seeing – the puny size of the human in the cosmos.

But along with scale’s terror comes a literary pleasure that writers both classical and Romantic term sublime – and that Jeffrey Cohen discusses in a lovely phrase: “the cognitive gravity of beautiful things” (59).

5: Radiance (Earth’s beauty)

Beauty makes her appearance via Instant Messages across an office at the School of Earth and Space Exploration  room in Arizona. The shift in media re-marks the conversational intimacy, and interestingly the dialogue soon turns to risk, including the risks of cross-disciplinary conversation, and to the sublime.

And maybe the sublime is a risk in another way: that if it opens us to human insignificance in the cosmos (that question of scale again!) then we forget that feeling overwhelmed is a recurrent and maybe even transhistorical emotion (69).

The play between human and planetary, self and Earth, creates something like beauty, but this earthly beauty is always under construction and destruction, sometimes morphing into the sublime’s terror at human tiny-ness, other times solidifying into claims about beauty in scientific research. Beauty for scientists is, Lindy Elkins-Tanton explains, “the reason we all do what we do…because lava is beautiful and the notion of interrogating the untouchable heart of the planet through incandescent molten eruptions appeals to our unconscious understandings of human relations and our place in them” (72).

From Lyell’s Principles of Geology to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, humans want to soar above earth and look down and back into its past. Beauty comes from wanting to escape what we can’t escape, unless we are, like Scott Parazynski who blurbed this book, astronauts.

I kept thinking about this dream and its backward glance throughout the remaining chapters of Earth.

6: Gravity (Earth’s pull)

After the instant messages comes a conversation in Tempe.

I’m wondering today about Earth’s gravity. Is gravity merely a physical force or is it also a pull that we can think about as an

emotional draw as well? (82)

What if scientific phenomena such as gravity all have emotional affective forces that latch onto us as we encounter them? Surely this must be true — all physical forces also make stories and churn emotions. Gravity, scale, and the earth itself foster imaginations as well as physical forces.

7: Interlude: A hike around Piestewa Peak

Next comes a conversation recorded on an iphone that starts with descriptions of a flash flood in the desert and ends with James Tanton’s voice:

Welcome to mathematics! (102)

I think a lot about mathematics when I’m reading poetry, not because I’m especially skilled at prosodic numerology but because my introduction to the serious study of literature came as a by-product of my falling out of the world of intensive math, which was my first choice of college major. Somewhere in the abstraction of a course named “Real Analysis” I discovered that I cared more about Paradise Lost than number theory. By coincidence, the same year in the late ’80s when I defected from math to English was also the year James Tanton arrived from Australia to do his PhD in math at my alma mater. Near misses everywhere —

8: Imagination

Returning to DC, Jeffrey’s next to last missive to Lindy cherishes having been “a member of your household for a while” (105). That’s the way I think about this book — an invitation to house-holding, to shared conversations about unaswerable questions, and to imagining homes capacious enough to contain scientific data, mathematical elegance, poetic vision, and the messiness of historical contingency.

The final collective imperative of the book arrived via email on Christmas Day, and then morphed into a Facebook update, a blog post, and two versions of the closing chapter. The repeated closing mantra perfectly captures the achievement and promise of the book: “Let’s start” (117, 121).

* * *

Thinking about it all together, Earth responds to dreams of communication by casting word-ladders across the abyss. They may not reach all the way. Remembering that scales are always ascending or descending, it’s hard to imagine any ladder that could reach across the gaps, though a word-ladder is perhaps more flexible than any other kind.

I’m also reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story told by (or about?) Richard Feynman, in which a student asked the great physicist if he could explain turbulence in plain language, without complex mathematical models. Feynman asked for a night to think about it. The next day he regretfully told the student that he could not explain turbulence in plain language – and he added that he believed that meant he did not fully understand the process. He’d need to keep working on it. “Let’s start,” he almost said.

Will Lindy and Jeffrey’s Earth help us solve the problem that is global thinking in the Anthropocene? It’s not clear what “solve” would mean in this context, though I suspect the answer must be, “yes, a little bit.”

It’s clear enough what each of these brilliant thinkers will continue to do in their own separate disiciplines. Lindy Elkins-Tanton will be the Principal Investigator in a NASA mission to Psyche, a Venetian moon made almost entirely of metal. (The project’s long application process punctuates the book, and its success in the hyper-competitive world of interstellar research funding was announced just as Earth appeared in print.) Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s writing will continue to argue for a deeply historicized Anthropocene which writes on our bodies, histories, and cultures in languages of flood, stone, earth, air, water, and fire.

Thr Earth these two have made together touches tangentially on each of these larger projects. Two copies — the one Bloomsbury sent me, and the one I had pre-ordered some months earlier — sit on my desk now. They invite me to imagine scale as possibility rather than obstacle. Their pages testify to a hope that sees the violent disruptions of our history and our present, but in the face of that devastation chooses to toss word-ladders across chasms.


Theater at the End of the World: Happy Days (Tfana) and Venus (Signature Theater)

Julieta Cervantes for the New York Times

Now that Cheeto Voldemort has used his office to thumb America’s nose at the earth, I’m thinking about how art responds to catastrophe. In particular, I’m thinking about the combination of rage and impotence that defines my current experience of environmental politics.

(I know the answer to helplessness is activism. I know that environmentalism does not only work on the national level, especially in the US. I even know that the Paris Agreement is a tepid brew of weak tea, with its purely voluntary targets and non-existent enforcement mechanisms. It’s always been true, as Elizabeth Kolbert reminded us yesterday in the New Yorker, that “the sad fact is that the U.S. has never been a leader in addressing climate change; this is one of the main reasons that the Paris accord is so weak.” But it’s infuriating to watch the President of my country choose to foul our environment in the service of macho illusions and corporate profits. Narcissists don’t really believe in the future.)

But as it happens I’ve been seeing plays about betrayal and the end of the world recently, so I’ve got some performances to think alongside.

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, notorious as the play in which an almost-solo female star is immobilized by being buried in the earth for the full duration of the show — up to her waist in the first act, up to her neck in the second — constructs an almost-too-obvious visual symbol for the limits of human power to change our world. Winnie, played with comic genius by Dianne Wiest at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, crooned against her imprisonment. Like Jesse Green in the Times I thought Wiest was pretty fantastic, “heartbreaking” (in Green’s word) and also poignantly direct in her willingness to approach the script’s paradoxes head on. “Another happy day!” she said, and meant it. What does her optimism mean? Can we follow it?

Even in the shorter second act, when earth up to her neck confined Winnie and prevented her from seeing even herself, her voice searched for “those unforgettable lines” — which, of course, she can’t quite remember. The play’s hashing of English poetry, especially Shakespeare and Milton, almost does what Winnie says she wants it to do: “That is what I find so wonderful, a part remains, of one’s classics, to help one through the day.” But does it really help? It’s hard to tell, on this dark day for environmentalists, if Beckett’s vision of words against the void cherishes scraps of poetry or recognizes that they can’t rescue Winnie and in fact may only serve to whistle against despair. Winnie reported that one of the few other people mentioned in the play, Mrs Shower (or Cooker), said to her, “What’s the idea of you?” The question lingered. Can Winnie’s performance mean something other than leveraging words to make time pass?

The play ended with Winnie singing a fragment of the duet “I love you so,” from The Merry Widow, possibly to her mostly-silent husband Willie, or maybe just to herself. She’s a hard act to follow. Can Beckett be the muse of climate change?

After Beckett’s abstraction, I saw a reprise of Suzan Lori-Parks’s 1996 play Venus, about the tragic life of Saartje “Sarah” Baartman, an African woman exhibited in England and France under the name “Hottentot Venus” in the early 19th century. The production began with the actor Zainab Jah putting on a full-body padded suit to simulate Baartman’s famous figure. In a painful sense, that body suit defined the play: the audience stared at her exaggerated curves, the other cast members stared, her successive captors, from the (Dutch?) man who brought her from Africa to her madam “mother” to the French anatomist who seduced and later dissected her, all stared. The historical Baartman became in the late 20th century a symbol for anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and feminist activism; her remains, which had been on display in Paris until 1974, were returned to South Africa and buried in 2002. In the performance, however, all anyone did was stare, and sometimes touch.

Photo by Joan Marcus

More even than our interpolated gaze, the full force of this show announced itself through the way the small cast (including the always-excellent Tony Torn) assembled and re-assembled their bodies to build human cages around the star. The play itself, in assuming the name Venus and repeating the phrase “Hottentot Venus” throughout, performed the racist history under which Baartman suffered. There was no escaping it. Even during intermission the show went on, as the French doctor performed excerpts from his dissection notes to the half-empty theater. The ten other members of the cast repeatedly surrounded Jah’s Baartman, as fellow member of a carnival show, as an English jury, and as French scientists who wanted to be sure that they could compare the physical measurements they took of her body against those of her skeleton after her death.

The unrelentingness of the play’s representation of injustice was probably starkest in John Ellison Conlee’s second act portrayal of a French anatomist the Baron Docteur, partly based on Frederic Cuvier, who claimed to love Baartman and plied her with chocolates while all the while planning to dissect her corpse. Perhaps the most powerful speech in the play was Baartman’s almost-closing hymn to chocolate and its pleasures. In one of the few moments in which she was nearly alone on stage, and her only extended monologue, she detailed the imperialist history of the arrival of chocolate to Europe from the Americas and its role in the Baron Docteur’s manipulation of her.

The play constructed a painful balance between condemning and representing Baartman’s exploitation. The repeated announcement by the chorus that these events took place after England’s 1807 outlawing of the slave trade drive home their hypocrisy, and ours.

What do these stark plays have to offer an environmentalist reeling after June 1, 2017? Nothing simple. But to the extent that I believe in narrative as a counter to cruelty, and in the partial ability of humans to recognize and redress injustice, perhaps these were good plays for in dark times. What else are plays for?



The Global Ocean: Racial Geographies and the Oceanic Humanities: URI, 4/12/17

It may have been foolhardy of me to join an intense full-day symposium and workshop just three days after the madness of #shakeass17, but the gates of the wonder-world only open so often. Such a flood yesterday at URI!

Hosted by Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz Program on Literature and the Sea, the event brought together four scholars actively working in the oceanic humanities to discuss works in progress and the state of scholarly inquiry. The short takeway for me is that “oceanic humanities” covers a lot of water and lots of ground too. The precirculated papers and short talks were varied, brilliant, and inspiring. The day’s juxtaposition of a series of vexed terms, including “global,” “racial,” and “humanities,” emphasized that the tasks oceanic scholarship has set for itself, including thinking past or at an angle to national, religious, linguistic, or geographic collectivities, remain difficult and valuable. I was especially struck, as sometimes I am not in in-group conversations among theory-minded ecofolk, about the unsettling valences of the term “posthuman,” and why it’s necessary to interrogate that category as we employ it.

Taking our speakers briefly in the reverse of the alphabetical order in which we spoke at the end of the day —

Ketaki Pant, a post-doc at Brown who’s heading off for a job in sunny SoCal next year, presented brilliant work on merchant families from Gujarat whose travels and business connections spanned the Indian Ocean from the east coast of Africa through the Arabian peninsula and the subcontinent. Exploring multilingual poetic compositions that she translated herself, she unfurled a terraqueous network of distance and connection, finances and emotional poignancy.

I spoke about “wet globalization,” a term that also appears in Shipwreck Modernity. I’m planning to use the phrase in my introduction to The Cultural History of the Sea in the Renaissance, a volume of essays I’m editing for Bloomsbury (due out in 2021!). The publishers will support illustrations, so I’ve been thinking about resonant objects and images through which to explore the inexhaustible waters. I came away from yesterday’s event convinced that I need to keep exploring the tension between “wet” experience and early modern “globalization” as both historical event and intellectual challenge.

(Side-note: when teaching a small slice of the work of the Africana studies scholar Kevin Quashie last week I came across a great new motto for what scholarship aims to do: “There is nothing promised by work other than more work.” We want generative, creative, world-opening scholarship; we hope for the changes that education creates and perhaps also for political progress, but scholarly labor is seldom about neat “solutions” or about finishing coversations.)

Jason Chang from UConn spoke about “sea coolies,” Chinese sailors who ran afoul of the U.S. Exclusion act of 1882, but their essentially maritime nature — they were not immigrants, just sailors on leave who got entangled with the authorities — seems to have convinced American courts that these were men whose “home is the sea,” which made them exempt from, or differently subject to, legal prohibitions. It’s a great project about oceanic identity and mobility in the Pacific during the emerging American imperium. I look forward to seeing more of it!

Monique Allewaert from Wisconsin-Madison opened up our talks with a preview of a new project, “American Atlantis,” which takes the sea’s third dimension — depth — as a key to its meanings. The new project about 18c rearticulations of Atlantis looks quite amazing, as does the essay she circulated on the Haitian maroon Francois Makandal. The Makandal material derived an alternative interpretive practice that used Charles Pierce’s notion of “indexical signs” to reconsider Makandal’s fetish objects, as well as his life, death, and afterlife. She also connected these indexical reading strategies — stunningly — to the poetics of Emily Dickinson.

These are all great, original projects. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to them and their authors and have had a chance to think intensely about them through the invitation of the Rumowicz program. At the risk of generalizing too quickly, I’ll offer two meta-ish points around which my thoughts are swirling today:

  1. Racial justice and posthuman circulations: These projects each in distinctive ways reemphasize the scalar, ethical, and conceptual tension between the human and the ocean. I sometimes think about this issue through the visual image of a swimmer’s body in a vast sea, but the ethical urgency of racial and social justice on human and political scales also strains against the rush to ocean-ize. I recognize that tidal pull as a risk in the practice of oceanic literary studies, very much including my own work. Monique’s effort to bring together materialisms both old (Marxist) and new (Latour-ish) seems a compelling response to this challenge. She reminds us, in terms that recall Quashie’s motto, that newer theoretical methods never quite displace, only supplement, old and intransigent questions of politics and power.
  2. Plurality of expertise: Whenever I present with historians, I’m always amazed by archival breadth and erudition. Ketaki’s linguistic acumen and Jason’s legal historiography showed me ways to engage archives that are quite alien to someone like me who spends a lot of classroom and writing time with Shakespeare’s plays. Our desire to create and support intellectual plurality — in materials, methods, conclusions, and projects — will require consciously expanding our networks of scholarship and collaboration. That’s why I’m glad to have worked intensely for ten hours yesterday at an oceanic humanities conference while still feeling sleep-deprived after a weekend with the Shakespeareans!

Finally, some quick OED-noodling that may be useful eventually (with the reminder not to trust the OED’s dates too much!):

Human – as distinct from either animals or God, from around 1450

Humane – variation on “human” that emphasizes kindness, from around 1500

humane letters – from around 1610

humanist – description of an academic working in classical languages, from around 1589 (Harington, Bacon, etc)

“the human” – from 1840

posthuman – from mid-20c sci fi, including H.G. Wells’s “posthuman monsters” in 1940

Thanks again to Martha Elena Rojas, James Haile, and the Rumowicz program for hosting this great event!