Paulus Torchus

Month: June, 2013

The Vision of Mirza and Westminster Abbey, by Joseph Addison


While I’ve enjoyed the other essays in this volume, this was the first that made me want to seek out more writings by the author (if I live long enough to finish this series).

The Vision of Mirza claims to be a found manuscript (unlikely) and tells the story of a vision of an allegory of human existence. Perhaps most striking and best remembered is a bridge, veiled in mist on each end, over which people are traveling. Periodically, trap doors open and people fall into the waters below. Some, as they fall, seek to grasp at anything and everything around them. Some look piously upward as the fall. There are some on the bridge who shove other, weaker travelers onto the platforms of these trap doors.

There is not exposition on the meaning of the vision, nor, I think, does there need to be.

Westminster Abbey is a piece in which Addison talks about his penchant for taking physical and spiritual constitutionals in the eponymous place. He reflects on mortality as he walks past stones bearing the names of some of Britain’s famed:

“Though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can therefore take a view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes, with the same pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this means I can improve myself with those objects, which others consider with terror. When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”

I know, right? You can just picture me sitting on a park bench with the book scribbling furiously in my notebook, right?

Addison lived in that bridge time between the Puritans and the Age of Reason. Not quite as long lived, but essentially in the same period as J.S. Bach. As you know, I’ve been writing an epic poem about Glenn Gould and last night I was focusing heavily on happy old J.S. At one point I came across Glenn talking about that period:

“But at its most poetic, it was still an age in which the wonderful utilities of science and the proud genius of man could coexist with the magical, mystical, fearful rites of belief.”

I am finding myself increasingly drawn to that period, identifying heavily with it.

Did I enjoy it? Heavens, yes. Likely more than any other essay in this volume so far. Did I get something out of it? A hearty yes! It lead me to some sober reflection, an occasion which I am always grateful for, as well as provided another moment of fellowship with the long-dead, finding the universe slightly less cold on account of knowing that one more simpatico soul once existed. Would I recommend it? If I had the money and a volume of nothing more than these two essays existed, I might stand on a busy street corner passing them out.


Of Agriculture, by Abraham Cowley

ImageHe’s in favor of it.

It is one of those joyfully gushing pieces that I find so charming, partly because I am capable of it myself, partly because unabashed enthusiasm seems to be nearly a modern sin. This is one of my least favorite aspects of the modern world.

“We may talk as we please of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles, in fields d’or or d’argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms.”

A sort of Food Not Bombs sentiment which I find no disagreement in my heart or mind. Indeed, one of my favorite activities is gardening. As Cowley points out, it is a way to contribute. It is a way to get an easy sense of the satisfaction of work. And it’s relatively easy. There are, of course, tricks to be learned, but really it boils down to sticking a seed in the dirt and pouring water on it, maybe pruning a bit.

He also includes a fly over celebration of the antiquity of the art. He points out that the first three men in Genesis were, after a fashion, farmers or gardeners. He talks about gardening in Greek and Roman culture.

Did I enjoy reading it? Yes. Did I get something out of it? …well, I enjoyed it anyway. Would I recommend it? Unhesitatingly. More people should garden.

Ben Jonson on Shakespeare and Francis Bacon: Essays Micro-blog #2

ImageThere is a story about the original opening night of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Alexander Woollcott was among the theater critics who were there to write about the opening. He was spotted after the performance in the alley behind the theater weeping. A member of the production approached him in that state and said, “Mr. Woollcott, will you give this show an endorsement?”

To which he replied, “Certainly not. It doesn’t need it. I’d as soon think of endorsing the Twenty-Third Psalm.”

These two essays reminded me of that story. Reading Ben Jonson write about these two author reminded me of if Norman Mailer had written an essay about Kurt Vonnegut or Booth Tarkington about Joseph Conrad. The essayist may have been highly read in his own day, but today people are far more inclined to read the object of their essay. I know I am.

In short, Ben Jonson had a lot of respect for the work of Francis Bacon. Jonson’s piece about Shakespeare was a bit like Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart that there were “too many notes.” He likes Shakespeare, but does think he goes on a bit. I’m sorry, Mr. Jonson, but shall we compare the call for productions of Bartholomew Fayre to the call for productions of Hamlet?

Am I glad I read it? Yes, it was interesting from a historical perspective. Would I recommend it? Well, as I’ve pointed out before, considering that this blog post is nearly as long as the pieces I’m writing about, sure. Go spend 11 minutes of your life reading what Ben Jonson thinks of Shakespeare and Bacon.

The Defense of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney


This and the next volume are of essays. This first was on the longer side, but some of them are quite short. I think the proper way for me to blog through these next two volumes is to micro-blog on each essay, rather than trying to write a blog post about a dozen essays on widely different subjects.

The Defense of Poesy is a reaction to a piece written by an acquaintance, Stephen Gosson, in which Gosson spoke out against poetry and then dedicated the piece to Sydney. Not wanting to be associated with the ideas contained therein, Sydney offers his opinions. He is pro-poetry.

Why are we reading this and why, in fact, was this ever an issue? Well, this was written in England in the mid-1500s when people were asking questions like “Should we, as a society, have things like theater and poetry?”

Today we might take these things for granted (although that early Puritan mindset is still alive today in some circles. I have encountered it). But more important to us today is the rhetorical skill of the piece. Sir Philip takes us through the Bible (at a time and milieu in which that would be regarded as an ultimate authority), through Aristotle, unpacking the arguments against poetry posed by the opponent, and finally examining Plato’s seeming problem with poetry (putting for that he did not have a problem with poetry, but, rather, with the specific poets who were misrepresenting the gods).

Was it good to read? Yes. It is good to think through ideas that we hold from every possible angle. It reminded me of a few concepts I’m wrestling with in my current immersion in Glenn Gould for the sake of my epic heroic poem about him. He had a some ideas about art that I’ve found challenging. More on that later.

More micro-blogging on essays soon. The next two put together look to be about the length of this blog post.

William Tell, by Friedrich Schiller

ImageThis very well may have been my favorite play in this volume. It was one of my favorites at least.

Oh, let’s get this out of the way first:

Yes, it was made into an opera by Rossini.

The play takes place in Switzerland while under Austrian occupation. I found it to be gripping with action, but also posed questions to the audience about liberty, morality, and the cost of revolution. While, perhaps, I might not be entirely on-board with Schiller’s conclusions at times, I loved the manner in which they were framed.

The play begins with a storm and a man on the run from the Viceroy for having cleaved the head of one of his men for attempting to rape his wife, or something like that. The boatman is afraid of the storm, but William Tell, our larger-than-life folk hero, is not afraid to row the man to safety.

The Viceroy, in a bid to be the object of the people’s worship, decides to puts his own cap on a pole in the town square and force everyone who passes it to kneel. Instead, everyone avoids it and takes much longer routes on their way through town. William Tell is taking his son Walter to bring grandfather a basket of goodies or something like that. William Tell did not get the cap memo. He walks by and is stopped by the knights guarding the cap.

The governor comes by and questions Tell, who pleads ignorance rather than disrespect. For some reason, the conversation drifts to Tell’s archery prowess and the most famous scene is set. Tell is to shoot an apple off the head of his son. This is to test his ability, but, at the same time, to humiliate him and display the power of the governor over the people. It is, in effect, a terrorist act on the part of the government.

What is so often lost in retellings of the story is the bravery of WALTER Tell. The boy is the only person not protesting, having full faith in the ability of his father. He refuses to be bound and pledges to stand still as the arrow flies towards him.

Tell consents under the duress of the tyrant. Takes an arrow, puts a second arrow in his belt, takes 80 paces, and shoots the apple. You might expect cheers, but the reaction of the crowd is more one of relief and a bit of fear. The governor asks Tell what the second arrow was for. Tell, after being promised not to be killed for the answer, admits that if he had missed and hit his son, that second arrow was for the governor. As you might well agree, the endurance of this story is on account of the brilliance of its dramatic tension.

In the end, the people overthrow the tyrants, Tell becomes a hero in spite of an act of moral turn-around which I sure affected a good deal of after-theater discussion over the years. (As an aside of trivia, I am given to understand that Hitler finally banned the play after an assassination attempt which bore resemblance to Tell’s successful assassination.)

Again, this was one of my favorite plays. Dr. Eliot even managed to locate a decent translation. I would love to produce this play, although, in reading it, I was a little surprised to find that it is very often produced. My surprise is over the production demands of the piece. I would imagine that this would either be an extraordinarily expensive production (a fierce storm occurring onstage, many shifting scenes through great outdoorsy vistas like only the 19th century could do) or a bare-bones production where the changes are suggested in imaginative ways. I almost think the latter would be more fun.

Fresh from reading it, I would unhesitatingly put it on my “You must read it before you die” list. However, as I often say about reading plays, reading plays is a fine thing to do, but one mustn’t forget that they are meant to be seen.

Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing


I have heard it said that this is the most often produced play in the German language. It would not surprise me any more than to learn that, were there no Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest was the most often produced play in the English language. This would not surprise me because of the universal appeal of comedy in the traditional sense (not so much full of yuks, but with the assurance that it’s not going to end with a body count and the characters you like will be content with their circumstances by curtain fall).

Life is tribulation for all beings. You toil and labor for a moment of happiness and then spend a day’s wages to go to the theater; you may not want a grueling experience. I’m not talking about what is best for the audience. I’m talking about what the audience wants. I might speculate that a portion of the audience might like to be coddled in light of the fact that they’ve just come off of the streets where reality is everywhere. Heaven knows I’ve had those moments myself. It is important to remember the balm of “slice of life” works of art which suggest that circumstances will work out in the end, if for no other reason than to feed humankind’s favorite demon: Hope.

Minna von Barnhelm tells the story of a couple separated by war. Major von Tellheim was wounded in the war and seems to be in financial ruin. There is humorous banter between his servant and the landlord. The mysterious lady who the Major is ostensibly ejected from his room to make room for (more likely because the landlord doesn’t believe he’ll be able to pay his bill) turns out to be the Major’s long-lost love, Minna von Barnhelm. There are a series of turn-arounds and the end is a traditional comedic one. I say that in such a way to suggest that, if you’ve not read it, but you have read a comedy before, you will get the idea.

In light of that, why would this play in particular be the most produced play in the German language? Well, a flip answer might be, “Some play has to be. Why not this one?”

A more accurate answer might be, “It encapsulates the idea of the German comedic so perfectly. It is the apotheosis of the German comedic.” Much like Earnest might be for English comedy.

When I was very young, I wanted to see all of the great films ever made. I tended to hang around with people much older than me and I got tired of hearing things like, “What?!!? You’ve never seen Battleship Potemkin?!!?

So, I started hunting down great films. The boom time for this project was in college when I had access to the film department’s library. I watched a film every night for almost four years and I tried to get the greatest of the great. I wanted to watch every great film before I watched any other kind of film so as to not be the martyred slave of time. Essentially I’ve never stopped this project. I remember my reaction to Casablanca when I was 19. I thought, “Huh? That was one of the greatest films ever made? I mean, it was good and all but…”

I remember this, but for the life of me I have no idea why I thought that at the time. Today I think it is a masterpiece and my eyes get all distant when I think about it.

But I remember, specifically, a conversation I had with a fellow film buff after I watched it in which I realized, in the course of elucidating my feelings about the film, that the script was a work of absolute, impenetrable perfection. In retrospect, I probably had not lived enough to plumb the emotional depths. Strangely, I had no problem grasping the greatness of Citizen Kane or The Godfather.

This is not meant to compare any of these works. Barnhelm bears very little resemblance to Casablanca. I simply employed the analogy to illuminate the subtleties of a perfect work versus a great work of great pomp and circumstance which announces itself miles before you can see it.

My inner cynic adds, at this point, that another reason for its frequency of production may be that it requires a half dozen actors and the set of an 18th century German inn as opposed to, say, Faust which essentially requires the entire universe to appear onstage.

All of which to ask, was is a good read? Yes, I enjoyed it. I chuckled at Just a few times and I appreciated the turn of events. Analyzing the structure of a well-written, pleasing comedy can help me in my own future writing. Would I recommend it? Sure. Will I ever read it again? Probably not. Would I ever produce the play myself?

Probably not. It is not my thing. When I imagine the plays I should like to direct, I find my taste tending towards that of Orson Welles. I want the plays that march the entire universe before the audience. I like my Sturm with a heaping helping of Drang. People who know me may be surprised that I am close to calling something too twee for my taste, I whose reality show would likely be called Tweemaster, but there it is. Something about happy endings, even when they are well done, strikes me as less realistic than anything found in the Fantasy section of the bookstore.

But for the sake of the tranquility of the audience and the limitations of theatrical budgets, it is good that these plays exist as well. I suppose.

Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille


Worst translation ever.

It took me about an afternoon, roughly the run time of the plays in production, to read the other plays in this volume. This one took me almost two weeks.

It’s a play about a couple in Armenia back when Christians were being persecuted under the Roman Empire. Polyeucte is married to the inexplicably named Pauline. Pauline still holds a flame for the Roman soldier Severus, but stays true to her vows. It is revealed that Polyeucte is a Christian and he is martyred. He faces his execution with such grace that Pauline and Felix, the senator, are converted by his example.

Sounds like a great play, right? Sounds like something I would be interested in, right? Sounds like the kind of thing that I would wax philosophical over far beyond the reaches of my readership’s interest, right?

All of which I suspect would be true, but the translation was unspeakably bad. It was in rhymed couplets and they were excruciatingly labored and stilted. I’ll bet I can flip to a page at random and give you an example:

“O, if thou lov’st him still, all hope forsake!

In one day can he two conversions make?

Not this the Christians’ mould: they never change;

His heart is fixed-past power of man to estrange.”

And that’s not even the worst example I could find if I wanted to poke around, but really I would feel a lot better just moving on. This served as a reminder of why I have tended not to read the translations provided in the Harvard Classics but rather have chosen to find ones more to my own liking.

The Thomas Constable translation, in case you were wondering. Now I’m moving on and, hopefully, over time, I can learn to forgive. Maybe one day even forget.

Life is a Dream, by Pedro Calderon De La Barca


You went to sleep in your circumstances, whatever they may be. You have your concerns, your anxieties, your disappointments, but you go to sleep just as you would on any other night. You wake in a foreign environment and find that all of your former problems are over. You have, while sleeping, been granted all of your desires.

When I was a child, I had a lot of dreams like this. As I would be drifting off to sleep I would be taken by some figure to one of the worlds of the mythos that I buried myself in during my waking life in order to escape the anxieties of fairly relentless bullying and the constant white noise of finding school soul-crushingly boring due to its educational material being consistently years behind me.

I’m surprised that this play is not performed more often. I was reminded of Quixote in the shared theme of the mutable nature of reality. Maybe I’m projecting patterns from a limited test group, but it speaks to me. It speaks to reality as I’ve experienced it and I assume this explains the enduring quality of works like this (although, again, I’m surprised that this play is not performed more often). It is a philosophical play. By that I mean that it is meant to express ideas rather than exclusively entertain or teach a point of morality or any of the other traditional functions of live theater. I was a little amused by the introduction which made pains to point out that it would be a difficult production to mount. This is because of some rapid scene changes, but since we are not out of the time where an audience expected a full set change for every scene change and productions are no longer lit by gaslight, a little imagination could probably communicate the shifts deftly.

The story, in brief, is about the King of Poland, a superstitious man, who is foretold that his son will bring disaster on the country. His son is kept in chains in a tower, completely unaware of his standing in the world. The King decides to test the prophecy and they bring his sleeping son, one Segismundo, into the throne room while he is sleeping (drugged, if memory serves). When he wakes, he is informed that he is the prince and his former captors now bow to him. Segismundo doesn’t know how to handle this information and reverts to the dictates of his character, a series of brutish acts culminating in him attempting to rape a woman in front of everyone. The King, tucked away Polonius style, has Segismundo put back to sleep and sent back to the tower. Segismundo, upon rising in his familiar surroundings, believes it to have been a dream. But, like Pandora, the experience has let some unforeseen (well, actually foreseen if you want to get technical about it. Unforeseen by the King anyway) destructive forces out into the world which eventually come back to act against the King.

(SPOILER) It ends with Segismundo triumphant and he delivers a monologue, which is the most famous part of the play:

“We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years,
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.”

Much like the ancients, and the Christians actually, the play deals with the problem of the coexistence of providence and free will. But there is a deeper problem at the core of the play, a strikingly modern problem I think: What is reality? We are able to experience dreams within dreams, plays within plays. Who is to say that everything we experience in waking life is not simply a dream within a dream? Or an advanced computer program like The Sims? Or that our dreams are not in fact the waking life and we’ve got it backwards? I remember hearing a lecture by William Burroughs in which he was asked by an audience member in the question and answer session afterward, “Do you believe in life after death?”

To which Burroughs responded, “How do you know we’re not dead already?”

Perhaps helpful questions to keep in mind for the simple fact that our piddly daily anxieties do seem to blanch in the sight of such unnerving suggestions.

Remembrance, by Anurag Kumar


This is Mr. Kumar’s second novel about historical Lucknow, India. As far as I know, it is his second novel period. My long time readers will remember my review of his first book Recalcitrance. That novel dealt with the uprising against the British in Lucknow in 1857. This novel (the full title of which is Remembrance of Fading Dreams: A Sequel to Recalcitrance, a novel based on the Great Uprising of 1857) deals with the sort of aftermath, what life is like for several people after the uprising. It struck me as timely as we seem to be in one of those periods of history in which uprisings of one sort or another are rampant around the globe, with a variety of outcomes. The frustrations and continued efforts of the revolutionaries are not difficult for us  to identify with today.

Having said “the aftermath” of the uprising may be a bit misleading. There is plenty of revolution in the narrative of this volume as well, including one strikingly harrowing scene in which several of the characters play out a revolutionary plot after a great deal of conspiring and secrecy. Mr. Kumar does an exceptional job of taking one into the excitement and distress of such a moment. The dramatic stakes are set high.

Remembrance is also, at its core I think, a love story. I appreciated the realism of the complexity of the love story. There is a beautiful line of tension, especially between the two main characters, which I found to be heart-wrenching and culminating in a masterful scene at the end (which I actually just teared up slightly upon remembering). It was excellently told and, I think, refreshingly honest. I do not wish to give away too much of the plot, but love is not a simple, straightforward path. So often fiction writers like to pretend as if it were, which I think is both dishonest and poses the danger of giving some people unrealistic expectations.

This is sort of an aside, but is a detail that has stuck with me in the weeks since I finished the book. There is a character to whom one of the leads finds herself married. He is, to a turn, nouveau riche. I thought, “Well, well, well. ‘Twas ever thus.” I live in a town with a huge economic divide. There are rich people here, decidedly of the nouveau variety, and there are poor and working class here. I grew up in Orange County, CA where it oozes with nouveau riche. I became aware of this in my 20s when I had occasion to interact with a few old East Coast money families and noted the difference.

Along with the universals (and following a diverging track of thought), part of the reason we read historical fiction and world fiction is that not all of us are in a position of time and money where we can travel. Learning about other times and cultures enlarges us, broadens our tool-chest of possibilities, and kindles compassion. One of my favorite portions of the book was a section regarding a pilgrimage in which we follow the protagonist into temples and witness the process.

While a sequel, I would argue that the book stands on its own. It is a well written story in its own right. However, the experience is much richer with the foundation of the previous book. I would not hesitate to recommend that you read both. I am glad and richer for the experience of reading them.

Phèdre by Jean Racine

phaedra2The story was not the primary motivation for the inclusion of this play in the series. I know this because we have already read the exact same story in Hippolytus by Euripides. Again, I think I made the wise move in avoiding the translation provided in the Harvard Classics and sought the translation I thought best.

I found a translation by Margaret Rawlings who, as some of you may know, was an acclaimed, world-famous stage actress right up the center of the previous century. She was in a production of the play in the 1950s and found the translation they were using (which also happens to be the Harvard Classics translation) to be horribly clunky, unactable, and dated. The Rawlings translation is a translation meant to be spoken from the modern stage. I feel that precisely what one ought to look for in a translation of a play is producibility. It was also worthwhile for Rawlings’ introduction. She explains her process and also explains the situation with Racine in English. Shakespeare is meant to be read in English although there are translations and the people of France, Russia, Germany, etc. know the works of Shakespeare in their own tongues. This is not true of Racine and Rawlings felt that this was an injustice.

There are some beautiful lines. Hippolytus speaks of his father’s death:

“The Gods at last have doomed him, even him

Alcides’ friend, companion, and successor,

to the homicidal shears of Fate.”

Note the repetition in the first line. The dry academic translation would “correct” this, but from the stage this repetition becomes electric. It wakes up the ears of the audience and has a poetry mirroring the quality of speech.


I grew to riper years and knew myself,

I praised myself the self I came to know.”

One line that has stuck with me is “No one views twice the mansions of the dead.” Rawlings made the gusty move of printing the original French in the opposite page of her text: “On ne voit point deux fois le rivage des morts.” Which is more “the shores of the dead.” But there is so much language in this piece that I loved. I could go on and on, but will do so privately.

Racine’s Phaedra is a bit more sympathetic of a character than Euripides’. I also appreciated an insight Rawlings had in casting. Phaedra is, of course, the wife of Theseus and step-mother of Hippolytus. She falls in love with Hippolytus and thither comes tragedy. So often it is cast with a stupendous age gap. I think Rawlings hits the nail on the head when she writes:

“I long to see the play done with a Phaedra of not over thirty-five, a Theseus of not over forty-five, and a Hippolytus, indeed the same age as Phaedra or a little younger… What we forget is how young people died of old age in those days.”

It is a wonderful play and I am happy that there is a playable version of it available. As a personal note, every time I read great plays like this, I get a dreadful ache in my soul to be the creative director of a theater company which produces classic plays. Perhaps one day.