Browsed by
Category: All Book Reviews

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

In twelve words: Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters rock America with drugs and madness.

This counter-cultural, irreverent weirdness, brimming with neon hippies adventuring across the astonished United States armed with LSD and exuberance, turned fifty years old recently. As something that only 1960s America could have produced, it is nevertheless not mired in its very peculiar sociohistorical moment, reaching its bright green tentacles right into the twenty-first century, poking and rearranging and pointing out.

Essentially, this book is a trip, literally and figuratively, and the trip is Ken Kesey’s. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is undeniably a (minor) triumph, Kesey is no visionary. He has no solutions, no explanations, no strategies, no great plan for a juster and more beautiful world. He just wants to, like, hang out.

Oh, but that’s the point, a bedraggled hipster would insist indignantly, with a righteous and sensitive mouth.

Yes yes yes, of course, but the point as pointlessness, this eternal tautology, is neither mysterious nor profound.

It is, however, an opportunity.

We clamber aboard the spray-painted bus with the rollicking, singing, perpetually high Merry Pranksters to criss-cross the deep South and mock the stars and the stripes and the cities and the ordinary people in traffic who just can’t jive to this great refusal of ours.

We drink orange juice laced with acid and perform experimental music with the just-formed Grateful Dead at Acid Tests, which are psychedelic parties replete with LSD, black lights, and projections of spinning melting colors. This exhilaration, flung wide open to new experience, burns at the enviable outside of commercialization.

The Merry Pranksters were doing something new.

Not innovative <— this word, so frequently invoked in tech articles to laud the launch of some mobile app or other, is really an unconscious euphemism for the entrepreneurial spirit which seeks not revolution but a quicker, more efficient, more streamlined way to reproduce the status quo in a way that makes more people more money more quickly.

Kesey and his farcical followers may not have exploded the status quo, but they certainly learned how to thrive on its margins.

Now, when we stand around enormous music venues, gazing up at the blinking Coca-Cola sign, and mosh pits are shoved up against gruff men with flashlights who are paid to ensure nobody has too much irresponsible or unsupervised fun, and marijuana edibles are arranged along glass cases rising impressively in air-conditioned, state-tax-paying dispensaries, and fifty-dollar, handwashed, organic T-Shirts proclaim Rule-Breaker and Che and Rebel, and we can order our own Banksy prints from Amazon for just $7.99, and micro-dosing is an Instagrammable method of getting more work done – when, in short, our dissent has been thoroughly co-opted and commodified and counter-culture is something to consume – the colorful bus called Furthur (sic) careening across a great vastness begins to look a lot like freedom.

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

In twelve words: goddess loves her, goddess loves her not, goddess loves her, goddess loves… 

Are you surprised that the first known author in human history was a woman?

 Daughter of the legendary rockstar conqueror and dynastic founder Sargon of Akkad, Enheduanna served as high priestess of the moon god’s cult in Ur, a super important religious center in Sumer.

Religion and government were essentially the same thing in those days, and as high priestess, Enheduanna would’ve called the shots in Ur’s temple complex. This was somewhere around 2300 BCE. 

Just think: this princess, priestess, and poet was writing two thousand years before the Greek classical period.  Her poetry influenced centuries of petitionary writing, from Homeric hymns to Biblical psalms.  Looming imperiously at the very beginning of human literacy, Enheduanna’s most astonishing work is The Exaltation of Inanna, an autobiographical hymn to the Mesopotamian goddess of battle. 

It describes how some jerk named Lugal-Ane staged a coup and exiled Enheduanna; after the furious goddess intervened on her behalf, Enheduanna was restored to her authoritative position. 


She also wrote about religion, war, and perhaps most tantalizingly, about herself.  Her poems are intimate, personal, and straightforward in their evocation of inner experience. 

We’re totally used to hearing modern poets complain about their lives, but more than 4,000 years separate us from Enheduanna. 

I’ve encountered a few different translations of her writing – there aren’t many – and it’s always tempting to read her poems and say, “Oh my god, she’s just like me!” But she’s not.  We don’t know her real name.  We don’t even know the origin of the language she spoke and wrote.  Moreover, we don’t know where the Sumerians themselves came from, what they looked like, or who their descendants are.  Ancient Sumer is, in a profound sense, a lost world.  We guess and infer, but the world’s first civilization is mostly an enigmatic, well-guarded secret.

For me, Enheduanna is associated with Nietzsche’s provocative question:

“Supposing that Truth is a woman – what then?” 

Nietzsche thinks we’ve been approaching truth all wrong.  Instead of doggedly pursuing her, philosophers should be charming and wooing her.  Academic articles invariably begin with “This study aims to establish X, Y, and Z.”  Timid, conscientious creatures, scholars are forever “aiming” to “establish” or “prove.” But maybe truth isn’t something to be established, discovered, or proven.  Maybe truth is something to be seduced.  Nothing destroys romance like the methodical argument, and no woman was ever driven mad with desire by a carefully drawn academic conclusion.  Maybe we should swap our syllogisms and deductions for masks, perfumes, poems

It’s not a coincidence that Enheduanna didn’t display her vast theological knowledge in tracts, lists, and summaries, like her contemporaries.  She communicated with poetry.  

Poets are always, always illusionists.  Enheduanna was the very first, uniting the political and the religious, the sacred and the worldly, in art.

Ultimately, our image of Enheduanna and her lost kingdom is not only a matter of history, but also of aesthetics – we create the past just as much as we recover it.  So let’s take our responsibility as artists more seriously by approaching scholarship more playfully.  I’m convinced that Keats couldn’t have meant anything else when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” 

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

In twelve words: Henry wants a divorce, the Pope refuses, Cromwell makes it happen anyway.

While I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, everything else was uninteresting.  After all, here was heresy, plague, intrigue, murder, lust, betrayal – in short, England in the 1530s – all between two crumbling covers (by the time I’m finished with books, they’ve fallen to pieces, since I bring them everywhere, fold pages, and shamelessly write all over the margins).

However, it wasn’t only the dramadramadrama which gripped me.  It was also Mantel’s masterful portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

In his forties, rings on his fingers, wary, articulate, erudite, having been a mercenary, a lawyer, and a merchant, having seen too much to be trusting yet too wise to be cynical, able to recite the New Testament in Latin, Cromwell as chief advisor to Henry VIII contains multitudes and is one of the most nuanced characters in contemporary fiction:

“His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”

In short, if you’re a man, you want to be him.  If you’re a woman, you’ve fallen desperately in love.  Even though the novel is set in the turbulent and brutal time of England’s break with Rome, replete with public executions and sweating sickness, it remains deeply human and, what’s more significant and difficult to pull off, humane.

Cromwell, whom history came to criticize as a despotic boor, isn’t all coolness and toughness.  Despite his morally ambivalent, if not downright amoral, context, he’s tender and his self-respect extends to others.  Whether the historical Cromwell matched this description or not is really beside the point.  This isn’t history, and if it is, Mantel is re-writing it.  For the purposes of reading and appreciating good books, things like facts, dates, and the looming shadow of What Really Happened, are simply the raw material from which the writer makes meaning.  The point isn’t to re-create the perspective of a king’s minister in the 16th century so we can live through him.  What’s important is how the writer appropriates history and establishes it into contemporary culture.  What’s crucial is what it can, and does, mean to us now.

Anyway, Mantel doesn’t simply write about a time period, or even about Thomas Cromwell; both worthy, but narrowly defined, subjects.  For me, the novel is about a large and roaming consciousness which self-reflexively filters and re-interprets some of Western history’s defining moments with great moral sensitivity and depth, and which begins in Mantel, moves through Cromwell, and ends in us.











In twelve words: Phedre wants her stepson, who wants his father’s enemy.  Then everyone dies.

Let’s smoke cigarettes and talk about Racine, agency, and fate.  Let’s.  Say yes.

giphy (3)

Que sera, sera.  While science contests the feasibility of free will more vehemently (do you read these things?), it seems that the Enlightenment ideal of unconstrained individual thought is troubled by the public’s favoring more archaic models of consciousness.  Ancient Indian philosophers insisted on an unavoidable karma, early Hebrews discussed “God’s will,” and the ancient Greeks deliberated upon moira.  That’s fate, gentlemen.

So, let’s talk about Racine’s tragedy Phedre as a dark meditation upon the possibility of choice in the midst of fatalistic forces roaming far beyond the scope of individual control or even awareness.  Fun!

The play, written and produced in 1677, sort of plagiarizes the tragedy of Euripides.  Theseus, king of Athens, husband to the doomed Phedre and father to the unlucky Hippolytus, is away from his city.  And good for him, because back home, there’s, like, drama drama drama.


While anxiously awaiting news of her husband, Phedre explains to her nurse, Oenone, why she’s been so mopey and whiny lately.   Turns out she’s in love!  Years ago, when she arrived at the court of Theseus a young, beautiful bride, she happened to turn around… and there he was.


Who was he?  Well, here’s where it gets good.  It was Hippolytus, her husband’s son.  She fell in love with her stepson!  Weird.  Hippolytus, meanwhile, has problems of his own.  He has an enormous crush on Aricia, the only survivor of a royal house which once warred against his father.  He’s pretty upset about it because having romantic feelings for people who tried to kill your family is totally inappropriate.

Phedre and Hippolytus are both frightened that their respective emotions will make Theseus really, really mad.  Because, you know, obviously. When the mistaken news of Theseus’ death unsettles the kingdom, Oenone urges Phedre to reveal her feelings to her stepson.  After all, you aren’t related, and with Theseus gone, who knows what can happen?  Go for it, girl.  YOLO.  Stupidly, Phedre tells Hippolytus the truth: “Your dad’s dead, so let’s get married.”  Predictably, Hippolytus declines: “Um, no, let’s not.”


Soon after, Theseus arrives.  He’s not dead after all!  Great!  It’s great, right?  Wrong.  Realizing that her husband is likely to find out about her incestuous betrayal, Phedre contemplates suicide.  Oenone, who adores her mistress and is willing to sacrifice anyone to avert her punishment, suggests that Phedre accuse Hippolytus of attempting to rape her.  Delirious with panic and becoming more and more incoherent, Phedre decides that this is a good idea.  (Note: accusing people who have not assaulted you of assaulting you is never, ever, ever a good idea.  Because of karma and stuff).

When Theseus confronts his son, Hippolytus is all, “Why would I want to sleep with that old hag?  I’m in love with Aricia.  You know, your nemesis, the one who tried to kill you.”


Then Phedre begins to feel bad for being such a jerk to Hippolytus.  She decides to tell her husband that they should just, like, get past the whole rape thing and be friends.  Before she has the chance, Theseus tells her, “Hey, Hippolytus in love with Aricia.  You know, my nemesis, the one who tried to kill me.”


Blind with jealousy, Phedre decides against absolving the innocent Hippolytus.  He’s in love with someone else?  He can go straight to hell.


So Theseus banishes his son from the kingdom, and soon after, Hippolytus is killed by a sea monster.  Seriously.

Phedre, in mounting panic, accuses Oenone of manipulation and disloyalty because the sea monster incident is totally her fault.  Oenone thinks, gosh, I’m horrible.  So she drowns herself.  Then Phedre appears before Theseus to defend his son’s innocence and repent of her illicit passion.  Sooo sorry, things just go a little out of control, you know how it is.  Then she drinks poison and dies.  That’s all.

giphy (5)

The ways human beings use stories to structure experience and create meaning is the focus of narrative criticism, whose practitioners seek to understand how the deployment of symbols in narratives reveals or conceals aspects of the world.  Utilizing the method of narrative criticism, let’s talk about how narrative can convey tension between agency and fate.  Phedre’s setting and characters reveal how Racine succeeds in achieving this objective.


While the physical features of the play’s setting are negligible, the kingdom of Athens as situated within the overall sociohistorical context of ancient Greece is of supreme significance.  Particularly since almost the entirety of the plot is borrowed from Euripides, tumblr_mxm8y7BJif1rrajnno1_1280

Phedre features the motifs and commitments of ancient Greek tragedy.  Racine’s Phedre is set within the confines of a superstitious, paganist, fatalistic culture.

From Hercules, who murdered his own children at the will of ruthless Hera, to Oedipus, who was destined to kill his father and seduce his mother, the notion that fate determines human behavior is a guiding principle of ancient Greek thought.  Phedre and Hippolytus, ensnared within such a culture, cannot help but reflect its beliefs and values, particularly in their relations to ancient Greek deities.  The events which befall Racine’s heroes can only occur in a context wherein gods capriciously and even arbitrarily toy with human lives.  Phedre consistenly summons the gods to witness her suffering at their hands.


Addressing her grandfather Helios at the opening of the play, she cries, “Noble and blazing Author of a race/ Of sad, unhappy mortals!” (Phedre 1.3).  Soon after, she wonders: “Where, where have I let stray/ My longings and my self-control?  Oenone!/  The Gods deprive me of the use of it” (Phedre 1.3).  Prior to explaining her forbidden love for Hippolytus to her nurse, Phedre laments: “Your fatal hatred Venus!  Oh, your wrath! … Since Venus wills it so, I perish now” (Phedre 1.3).

Similarly, when Hippolytus admits himself in love with Aricia, he asks, “Am I, in turn, to find myself enslaved?/  Can the Gods wish to humble me so far?” (Phedre 1.1).  When grieving the death of his father, Hippolytus says, “The Gods at last have doomed him, even him/ Alcides’ friend, companion, and successor,/ To the homicidal shears of Fate”  (Phedre 2.2).

Hippolytus and his father, the great Theseus, are both admitted to be the pawns of overwhelming forces.  It is important to note that Theseus is a hero who is famed for slaying the Minotaur.  He is not a cowering and frightened creature, imploring the decisions of the gods.  He acts within the world with considerable freedom and power.  Nevertheless, the gods can overpower “even him.”  The “homicidal shears of Fate” do not distinguish between coward and hero.  Theseus and Hippolytus are indeed strong decision makers, but only inasmuch as they are divinely ordained to be so.  Such heroic greatness pursued within, rather than beyond, divinity’s constraints, is possible only to a citizen of an early civilization.  The historical setting of Phedre, which juxtaposes individual will with fatalistic power, is chronologically ancient and hierarchically supernatural.  The characters literally walk within a world of gods, demigods, and monsters.  The active presence of gods which can condemn a Phedre and monsters which can murder a Hippolytus is a vivid demonstration of human choices conflicting with external forces.


Phedre is also ideologically situated within a seventeenth century, religious, Western culture.  Much has been made of the Jansenism of Racine.  Educated in the Jansenist community of Port-Royal, Racine was invariably exposed to Jansenist thought, which insisted upon humanity’s depraved nature caused by original sin.  This inescapably fallen state reappears in Phedre’s dramatic inability to overcome the perversity of her own desires.  Much like the Jansenist followers who could not overcome the stain of original sin and would be redeemed only by communion with God, Phedre seeks the resolution of her suffering beyond the horizons of ordinary possibility.


For the Jansenists, salvation was achieved through God’s grace.  For the pagan Greeks, human transcendence led to death.  In either case, Phedre reminds us that redemption cannot be found within the everyday round of human life.  Furthermore, the setting involves a moralistic stance ushered in by the play’s reliance upon the incest taboo.  Such love is presented as so monstrous that Phedre must die rather than endure it, and when the innocent Hippolytus stands accused of it, his horrified father banishes him from the kingdom.

The incest taboo emerges from the guarded parameters of sexual activity within society, undertaken as protection of familial and social organization.  Sociologist Talcott Parsons writes: “It is essential to the family that more than in any other grouping in societies, overt erotic attraction and gratification should be given an institutionalized place in its structure … eroticism is not only permitted but carefully regulated; and the incest taboo is merely a very prominent negative aspect of this more general regulation.”  The defining feature of the incest taboo is that it’s a prohibition.  Its prohibitive nature means that incestuous behavior is always necessarily a violation of societal values and trust.  Thus, what Phedre feels and what Hippolytus is accused of feeling are tantamount to rebellion, lawlessness, and destruction of the sociocultural fabric.


It is significant that Racine does not explain any of this.  Phedre does not elucidate to the audience exactly why her passion for Hippolytus is an ethical failure, and Theseus does not elaborate upon why he is justified in banishing his son from Athens.  For Racine, such values are implicit within the work and automatically assumed.  Racine does not tell us how to judge his characters, and he expected his audience to arrive at the theater with a tacit moral understanding which they then applied to the events they witnessed.  The modern reader still approaches the play with the unspoken awareness that a woman’s desiring her stepson is perverse, immoral, and unjustifiable.  Thus, the play relies upon a wider sociohistorical context in order to communicate its message.  Without this implicit moral awareness, the events of the play would be incomprehensible.

In a profound sense, then, the reader participates in structuring the setting of the play.  Phedre’s setting is not simply prepared by Racine for the reader to step into – the reader also brings a set of ideological commitments which enable the play to function as a tragedy.  It is precisely because of this ideological setting, which is simultaneously presumed by the audience and represented by Racine, that the characters and interactions become substantial and meaningful as manifestations of the struggle between human agency and inhuman forces.  Phedre’s setting does not merely structure the play for the reader, but also delimits the possibilities for its characters in a way that illuminates the struggle for individual freedom. tumblr_nlivklm38o1qhs5k0o2_r1_400

The fatalism of Greek myth, the irredeemable human nature of Jansenism, and the ideology of the incest taboo, all implicitly conspire to make explicit an unassailable wall of abstract obstacles against which Phedre’s characters find themselves crashing.




The personalities and interactions of Phedre’s characters help facilitate Racine’s objective of presenting agency conflicting with fate.  Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone are the principal actors whose critical choices determine and delimit events.

Phedre is remarkably single-minded and uncompromising.  Her illicit love has consumed her utterly.  As a consequence of her alleged impurity, she seeks death.  Not, however, as a desired end, but as the unavoidable outcome of her true desire’s incompatibility with what is possible.  Vera Orgel writes about Racine’s tragedy: “The greatest catastrophe is not the failure but the breaking of the mainspring of life, renunciation of the unattainable goal and the end of endeavor.”  For Phedre, fulfillment is impossible: the very nature of her passion forbids its realization. antigone_hidalgo_lopez_museum Phedre’s very being is at odds with life, and her tragedy is that she cannot change.  She cannot simply “get over” her feelings, despite her recognition that they are a “crime,” a “malady,” and her “love is horrible,” and she would rather die than confess to “a love so black” (Phedre 1. 3).

Her reason is intact, but her will is disobedient.  What binds her so hopelessly, she is convinced, is the tyranny of a petulant Venus.  Of course, whether there is actually a scheming Venus or not is beside the point.  Venus or no Venus, the cruel conflict is clear: something beyond the limits of human possibility urges Phedre to seek that which is beyond the limits of feasibility.  In this struggle, Racine casts the opposition of human agency and fate.  What Phedre longs for is forbidden, and rather than overcome her weakness, she dies.  To challenge the edicts of fate, Racine tells us, is suicidal.  The Racinian hero is tragic inasmuch as his life remains eternally uncompleted.

When, deceived by the supposed death of Theseus, Oenone persuades Phedre to hope to marry Hippolytus, a veritable social disintegration threatens.  For Phedre to achieve what she longs for, not only in the sense of possessing Hippolytus but in the wider sense of living publicly as his wife in a world wherein her violation of the incest taboo is acceptable, her entire social order must be undermined.  After all, the incest taboo is the foundational law of the original social unit – the family – from which the wider sociocultural context emerges: the prohibition of incest is the original law which begets all other rules of civilization.  Phedre’s nature, quite literally, exists against the world.


To dispel any possibility of self-realization even further, Racine reminds us that Phedre is the daughter of Pasiphae, who was cursed to procreate with a bull in the madness of her inhuman ardor.  Even this horror, however, is presented as ordained by the gods.  Phedre cries, “Venus! …/ Into what aberrations did love cast my mother!” (Phedre 1.3).  Phedre’s monstrous fall is determined not only by the gods and the social edicts governing proper sexuality, but also by her parentage.  Her mother’s “aberrations,” it seems, predict and perhaps even prefigure her own.  In these myriad ways, then, Phedre is bound.  She seems hopelessly doomed, which is precisely what Racine wants his audience to recognize.

Such fatalism, however, is not Racine’s only objective.  He also wants to present the defiant blazing of human will in spite of fate’s closed doors.  Irrational, hopeless, and pathetic as it may be, the tension between pre-determination and will emerges most poignantly in the very fact that Phedre dares to love Hippolytus in spite of every possible reason why she should not.  In the simplest terms, she loves him “anyway.”  After all, if human beings were mindless automatons able only to parrot their own boundaries, Phedre wouldn’t be capable of even conceiving of such a love.  Her passion is proof of her freedom, however limited it may be.


Hippolytus, too, is fated to desire what is forbidden.  In loving Aricia, he finds himself loving that which represents the violent destruction of his family: “That young sole survivor of a tribe/ Which fatally has long conspired against/ My family: Aricia” (Phedre 1.1).  Furthermore, he knows his father will resent the match: “Did I forget/ The eternal barriers between us two?/ … Against the wrath/ Of an infuriated father, launch/ My youth upon a course of love so mad?” (Phedre 1.1).

Much like Phedre, however, Hippolytus protests that he is not to blame.  Known as prideful and solitary, Hippolytus has scorned the snares of romance and women, preferring instead the less intimate arts of racing horses and hunting.  However, something beyond his own reason beckons him to Aricia.  He asks, “And even if my pride could ever melt/ Should I have been insane enough to choose/ Aricia for my conqueror?” (Phedre 1.1).  The guilty love, Hippolytus explains, is not his choice.  Now that he is captured, however, he regards Aricia as his “conqueror,” once more underscoring his helplessness in the romantic matter.

In great contrast to Phedre, however, Hippolytus is virtuous.  The play’s characters know him for his chaste, monastic nature.  He remains virginal and aloof, casting cool and superior glances at the warm entanglements of eroticism. 56398_104882452_l His tutor, Theramenes, describes Hippolytus thus: “So proud and wild,/ Making a chariot fly along the shore;/ Or, practiced in the art that Neptune taught,/ Taming unbroken horses to the rein” (Phedre 1.1).  Hippolytus spends his days playing with horses and chariots — his interests, like those of a young boy, are childlike, innocent, and free from intrigue.

Furthermore, Hippolytus knows he is virtuous: “When I grew to riper years and knew myself,/ I praised, myself, the self I came to know” (Phedre 1.1).  What is Hippolytus praising himself for?  His “Amazonian pride,” (Phedre 1.1) which keeps him sexually pure.

When discoursing on the myriad accomplishments of Theseus, Hippolytus critiques his father’s wayward eroticism.  He and Theramenes discuss how Theseus slew the Minotaur, displayed the strength of Hercules, and punished pirates.  However, Theseus is not romantically consistent or honest, and Hippolytus laments his father’s “less glorious deeds/ His promise made and broken everywhere… Too credulous creatures by his love deceived… How happily I would have then wiped out/ The base half of so fine a history” (Phedre 1.1).  His father’s past, Hippolytus complains, is “base.”  He regards himself as enough removed from such impurity to be able to judge it accurately.  Fifty years ago, Hippolytus may have been described as a prig.  Precisely because of such self-conscious goodness, Hippolytus does not garner the audience’s compassion as the self-deprecating Phedre does.  We admire his scruples, of course, but we can’t quite grasp why Phedre loves him.  We certainly can’t.

giphy (6)

Given Hippolytus’ aggressive goodness, it’s all the more remarkable that someone as rigid as he is could possibly fall into the snares of erotic love.  Theremanes, guessing at his charge’s passion for Aricia, asks, “What heart has ever been too brave to be/ Vanquished by Venus?” (Phedre 1.1) and later cries, “What is your pretended pride of speech?/ Confess it, all has changed!” (Phedre 1.1).  Hippolytus cannot maintain his own scornful nature, because the gods do not will it so.  If it were up to him, he would continue to race and play along the shore, contemptuously frowning at the impious desires of others.  Instead, “all has changed,” and he finds himself bound to love his enemy.

Just as with Phedre’s powerful emotion, the guilty love of Hippolytus for Aricia displays not only his helplessness, but also his paradoxical freedom.  Love changes him.  Only emotionally flexible beings are capable of change, of response to the bursting and raving of circumstance.  He does not remain static and stubborn, like a fixed sculpture or a puppet, but exists in subjective relation to other subjects.  Even he, the audience is led to think, the proud and solitary monk, can suddenly begin to burn with a very human feeling.  Significantly, his humbling transformation softens him in the audience’s eyes, as well.  Suddenly, Hippolytus ceases to be a self-aggrandizing demigod who pushes us away with his self-righteous bragging, and becomes a sympathetic character, whose dreams we support.  From one perspective, the alteration Hippolytus undergoes is proof of how buffeted and controlled by fate he must be.  However, it is also evidence of his great capacity for daring, for defying, for transgressing authority’s boundaries and his own stubborn nature.  After all, he didn’t simply fall in love with a nice, acceptable girl his father might have liked.  He fell in love with his family’s nemesis, a love he must denounce and yet cannot.  In these paradoxical, seemingly contradictory ways, Hippolytus, too, is a study in the tense hues of agency’s struggle against fate.


Perhaps the freest character in the tragedy is Phedre’s nurse, Oenone.  It’s important to mention Racine’s own preface to the 1677 publication of Phedre.  He explains that although the original Euripides play featured Phedre coming to the decision to accuse Hippolytus of rape on her own, he decided against casting his heroine in such a merciless light.  Racine explains his decision: “I have taken the trouble to make her a little less hateful than she is in the ancient versions of this tragedy, in which she herself resolves to accuse Hippolytus.  I judged that calumny had about it something too base and too black to be put into the mouth of a Princess who for most of the time is only noble and virtuous.”  But is this convincing?

Also, whereas the Euripidean Theseus learns of his son’s innocence after conversing with a goddess long after Phedre’s suicide, Racine generously insists that his noble heroine herself inform her husband of the truth.  If Phedre is absolved of too much cruelty, then who will be to blame?  Well, Racine clarifies, “This depravity seemed to me more appropriate to the character of a nurse, whose inclinations might be supposed to be more servile.”


Thus, the ultimate dichotomy between Phedre and Oenone is established, as between master and servant, elite and common, noble and depraved.  In some sense, Oenone is trapped by her lowly circumstance.  She is destined to remain socially inferior by virtue of her rank and occupation.  In a different sense, however, Oenone’s lack of courtliness prefigures her greater freedom.  While Phedre accepts insurmountable obstacles, bemoaning the wickedness and unfairness of divine inevitability, Oenone fights against the tide of circumstance.  Less bound to royal duty, Oenone’s life instincts can burn more surely. Contrasting the two characters, Thomas Braga writes: “Oenone’s ‘oeil vivant,’ basically pagan, existential, energetic, pragmatic, a life-oriented point of view, contrasts vividly with Phedre’s ‘oeil mourant,’ essentially Jansenist, pessimistic, guilt-ridden, lethargic, and moribund.”  There is dignity in suffering, Racine seems to tell us, and even more dignity in accepting it.  Oenone’s alleged servility is correlated directly with her unwillingness to suffer.  Or, to put it more boldly, it is correlated directly with her unwillingness to submit to fate.

Despite Phedre’s adulterous and incestuous desires, it is Oenone who is accused of ushering in the kingdom’s doom, which kills Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone herself.  Why?  Precisely because Oenone is the prime mover of the action – indeed, she is the one who chooses, and urges Phedre, to act.  After hearing of Theseus’ rumored death, Oenone argues, “By Theseus’ death all knots have been untied/ Which made your love a horror and a crime./ You need no longer fear Hippolytus” (Phedre 1.5).  From whence comes this radical meddling?  Is it truly from Oenone’s “servile” rank?

The play’s events belie Racine’s own judgment in his preface.

At the opening of the play, Phedre is overcome with grief and guilt, longing only for death.  Oenone will not hear of it: “Although only a feeble ray of life/ Remains with you, yet sure I will forestall/ Your voyage to the dead, and get there first” (Phedre 1.3).  After the failure of her various attempts to boost Phedre’s spirits and alter her decision to die, the desperate nurse scrambles to think of some other plan to keep the queen alive.  Seizing upon the news of the king’s death, Oenone explains: “Madame, I ceased to urge that you should live;/ I thought to follow you into the grave/ From which I had no more the heart to turn you;/ But this new blow prescribes for you new laws” (Phedre 1.5).  In begging her to approach Hippolytus and consider marrying him, Oenone is acting to prevent the death of Phedre.  If marrying Hippolytus will make her queen content, Oenone will enthusiastically urge the possibility.  When the kingdom learns that Theseus is alive and Phedre once more returns to her melancholy refrain of suicide, Oenone begs her to live for her son: “Think of a son whose only hope you are” (Phedre 2.5).  When that calculation fails, Oenone grasps at what seems like an avenue to Phedre’s liberty: “Be bold, accuse him first!/ Charge him with the same crime of which today/ He can accuse you!” (Phedre 3.3).  With this temptation, Oenone buries herself in dishonor and is rightly regarded as bringing about Phedre’s suicide and Hippolytus’ murder.


The question, nevertheless, remains: is Oenone’s motivation base and unworthy of a “noble Princess?”  The activities of the nurse reveal that her motive is far from depraved and, in fact, functions at the highest level of compassion and loyalty.  She cries, “Alas! Whether I be to blame or not/ For your misfortunes, what is there on earth/ Of which I am not capable to save you?” (Phedre 3.1).  It is not from inferiority of rank that Oenone acts so magnanimously, but from her greater sense of agency.  Despite the edicts of the gods which doomed Phedre, Oenone struggles to transcend them and bring about a state of satisfaction and happiness.  Indeed, Oenone’s is the most active, striving, willing role in the play.  Phedre only languishes and laments, while Oenone fights to grasp the reins of fate and alter its direction.  Of course, the nature of Racinian drama must frustrate her work.  The profound compassion motivating her struggle must become a tacit accomplice in a predetermined mercilessness. It is not Oenone’s inherent inability to be ethical, but rather the inhumane brutality of the gods, which is the source of Phedre’s downfall.

This is how Racine reminds us that human will counts for very little in the powerful surge of uncontrollable circumstance.  Nevertheless, while Phedre and Hippolytus dare to live against fortune only in their inward, guilty, erotic worlds, Oenone defies laws and events in the sphere of the everyday.  In seeking to marry Phedre and accuse Hippolytus, thereby privileging sensual happiness above social duty, Oenone subverts the incest taboo, the fatalistic Greek value system, and the guilty Jansenist conscience.  She contests the rules of what is acceptable, good, and just.  Oenone is the only character who truly acts and whose decisions provide most of the impetus for the play’s events.


Phedre’s ancient, pagan, ideologically rife setting, influenced as it is by Racine’s strict Jansenism, becomes a powerful symbol for the intractable trappings of fate.  The three most significant characters – Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone – are enmeshed in a world largely not of their choosing.  With their futile struggles and profound melancholy, Racine paints a world wherein human will has little influence.  Oenone, the most daring and free character in the play, may be justly regarded as subverting this bleak picture.  Of course, in a more profound sense, it is Oenone’s seeming agency that brings about Phedre’s death, thus linking her into a fateful chain which she cannot tear asunder, either.  Even the character with the greatest freedom can only contribute to a fated end.  Nevertheless, the struggle for love and happiness, simultaneously foolish and great, permeates Phedre’s theater.  Even as the wills of the characters are frustrated again and again, a perhaps irrational defiance underwrites their tragedies.  Human freedom, it seems, is sometimes simply a matter of stubborn faith.  By aesthetically intermingling the play’s setting and characters, Racine’s narrative is able to convey the fragility of freedom.


Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1


In twelve words: Prince Hal wants to party, but political rebellion ruins all his fun.

I think: When Alexander III visited Troy, someone offered to show him the lyre that once belonged to Paris.  He refused.  He pointed out that Paris played it for the sake of women, love, and seduction.  Alex the Great said he’d much rather see the lyre of Achilles, upon which that great hero once sang of the “heroic deeds of men,” presumably when he was sulking and avoiding combat.  Ironic?  Oh, sure.


Setting aside the sexism (because where can it go, if not to the side?), I share Alexander’s tastes.  I’ve read, and loved, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Scottish Play (I can’t call it by its real name – you know, the one that begins with an ‘M’ and sounds a little bit like McBurger – because I’m superstitious and afraid of its curse). Although I’m convinced that Hamlet is one of the most perfect creations in history, and Othello’s credulity is marvelously wrought, yet… yet… I cannot help noting their mood of pettiness.  The plays are about vain and vainglorious desires.  They’re about people doing the things that people do.


There’s Othello, who with the self-absorption of any proper lover, is like the guy at the bar who just wants to complain about his girlfriend.  There’s Hamlet, who sees only himself.  He’s eternally ferreting around his psyche, fascinated with his inclinations and fears, luxuriating in his great, tragic darkness.  It’s all about him, like, all the time.  In short, these tragedies are the lyre of Paris: personal, seductive, and vain.


But Shakespeare’s historical plays are about the ascension of civilizations, the struggles of nations, and the power dynamics concealed behind what we cheerfully call “progress.” Julius Caesar, Richard III, and Henry IV burst forth, like the songs of Achilles, with the “heroic deeds of men.”  It is Shakespeare’s expansive range to play upon both lyres.  He summons the microcosmic dramas of individuals.  Then he waves the wand of his imagination to stage the vastness, glory, and decline of centuries.  We, too, can shift from moment to universe, from the mundane to the eternal, because we’re inescapably both.  Today, I’m not myself.  Today, I’m universal.  So, let’s talk about royalty.

King Henry IV is really stressed out.  First of all, it’s time to show those Muslims and go on a Crusade.  Second, the nobility of England don’t like the king’s policies.  Third, Wales and Scotland are rebelling.  And finally, his son is utterly useless.  The young Prince Henry (who, for reasons surpassing understanding, calls himself Hal) doesn’t care about Crusades or rebellions.  He hangs out in taverns with his sidekick Ned Poins, fat Sir John Falstaff, prostitutes, and other degenerates.  The prince drinks and swears and gambles and steals and plays tricks and is, in other words, simply no good.

giphy (1)


He tells the audience, however, that he’s the worst prince in history only temporarily.  He plans to reform himself.  Besides, the more he disappoints his father now, the greater will everyone’s shock be when he transforms into a proper son.  Sometimes, your friends pretend to forget your birthday so that when they lunge at you from behind a couch with balloons and cake, you’re extra surprised.  Same logic.

The grumpy nobility unites with the rebels in Scotland and Wales to overthrow the king.

Wales - Castles - Owain GlyndwrWhile King Henry frets and wrings his hands, Prince Hal and Poins prance in disguise, robbing their friend Falstaff.  Why?  Because Hal knows Falstaff will turn the robbery into an absurd story to present himself as a hero.  Hal thinks this is funny.  He has a wicked, wicked sense of humor 😉 After his dad tells him he’s stupid, Hal decides that maybe now is the time to show everyone what a great guy he really is.  So, he helps fight the rebels.  Falstaff is also forced to defend the king.  Instead, he falls down and plays dead because he thinks honor is a dumb thing to get killed over.


Meanwhile, Prince Hal saves the king’s life.  He even gets wounded.  But he continues fighting, because, look, he’s actually been noble all along.  There, you see?  He told you so.  Are you surprised???????

Wait a minute, you think.  Are these the heroic deeds Achilles sings of?  Why, there’s lust and vulgarity and personal preference all over the place!  And Shakespeare smiles wryly and turns to his glass of ale.


With jarring brightness, Shakespeare illuminates the shadows between what we are and what we think we are.  Prince Henry lives idly, wastefully, and corruptly, but assures us that such dissoluteness is not his true character.  He explains:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wond’red at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If the “base contagious clouds” are not part of the prince’s true nature, then they are probably Falstaff, Poins, and the other street criminals he drinks with.  It’s their vulgarity, not his own, which “smothers up his beauty from the world.”  The prince will “please again to be himself” later, to the delighted surprise of his court.  But the analogy flails a little.  The sun, of course, does not “permit” the clouds to conceal its radiance.  The clouds’ movement is a matter of indifference to the sun, which persists in its brightness regardless of them.  It is difficult to make the claim, however, that the prince persists in his goodness in taverns and brothels.  And if he is not himself in such places, then who is he?


I think, perhaps ungenerously, that the prince is deceiving himself.  We condemn the vices of others which we render justifiable or even charming in ourselves.  The prince seems to think that Falstaff and Poins are cheap by nature.  His own nature, however, is sunnily royal, and cheapness is merely a mask.  But this is strange.  Goodness is not an object one can lightly toss off or throw on.  Again: if he is not himself, who is he?  Donning a cloak of artificial corruption is, at best, a naïve and self-indulgent way to inspire higher praise later.  At worst, it’s an insincere motive which justifies frivolity and idle pleasure, summarized with the Machiavellian formula: the ends justify the means.  Well, perhaps.  If the ends are valuable and important, lenience is acceptable.  But let’s examine the prince’s proposed ends.  He wishes to shock, amaze, and be “wond’red at” when he will finally “please again to be himself.”  Is it acceptable to deceive an aging, worried father for the sake of incurring wonder and praise?  I’m not so sure.  If Prince Henry is conscious of the implications of his self-justification, then he is a deliberate charlatan.  He is aware that he must inherit the throne as King Henry V.  He knows he must eventually abandon Falstaff and Poins, and is therefore simply using them for very skewed purposes.

But let’s say it isn’t the prince speaking, but the narrator.  Through Hal’s mouth, the narrator informs the audience of the prince’s destiny.  Then we can assume that Hal is not acting, not pretending to be a corrupt fool, but rather struggling with the promise of kingship by drinking it out of consciousness.  When King Henry needs him, however, he awakens to his royal nature and defends it honorably.  In this case, the prince undergoes a psychological transformation, wherein, again, he is not what he thinks he is.  He experienced himself as a petty drunkard and a thief, but revealed himself to be an able descendent of an able time.  The latter approach is ethically much more satisfying.  But it’s less credible.  Can one reinvent himself to conform to the needs of a moment?  Perhaps.  After all, “some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

Death in Venice

Thomas Mann

In twelve words:

It is not possible to summarize this book in twelve words.  Sorry.


I think:

Whenever someone asks, “What’s this book about?” they expect an answer like “Character X does Y and then Z happens.”  Like, Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, but then Harry’s disarming curse killed Voldemort and all was well.


In other words, they want the plot.

When it comes to good literature (and no, that doesn’t include Stephen King or Harry Potter or even Twilight — hate me, I’m snobby), the plot is never what the novel is “about.”  Death in Venice is really, really, really not about the plot.


Though short, it’s an extremely complicated, lyrical, philosophical exploration of the nature of art, tumblr_inline_mrqlttt5q41qz4rgp beauty, passion, and the role of the artist in society, and it’s brimming with intertextuality. <—this is a fancy term for “references to other literary works” and although it makes you sound really smart, don’t use it often because it only impresses literature grad students, and who wants to impress them?

So, once upon a time (what time?  I don’t know.  Early 1900s), there lived a writer named Gustav von Aschenbach.  He’s proper and virtuous and solitary and dignified and has an excellent work ethic and is, in other words, unforgivably dull.  He’s also extremely successful – his books sell, he’s respected, he’s well known, he’s a big deal.  He writes about characters who are as moral and uptight as he is.  You know, virgins, saints, Superman.  Anyway, on a sudden, mad whim (and it isn’t like Gustav to have any kind of whim, ever), he travels to Venice, Italy where he encounters Tadzio, a beautiful young boy.  At first, he is enamored with Tadzio’s beauty since it inspires his writing. Regina-George-obsessed-with-meBut theeen, our Gustav becomes obsessed rather than just inspired, and begins stalking Tadzio and fantasizing about his boyish sexiness in all sorts of inappropriate ways.

Creepy?  Disturbing?  Disgusting?  Of course.  That’s the point.  In the meantime, a cholera epidemic breaks out in Venice, but the Italian government officials and business owners conceal the danger from tourists because, you know, they’re ruthless capitalists and it’s all about the money, honey.


Ashenbach finds out about the cholera, and briefly considers warning Tadzio’s family.  In a burst of dishonorable cruelty, he decides against it: if Tadzio’s guardians find out about the epidemic, they’ll take him away from Venice and then he’ll have no one to stalk.  Unthinkable.  Aschenbach understands that Tadzio might die, but at this point, he’s so obsessed and twisted and perverted, he doesn’t even care.  He just runs around the diseased city, daydreaming about Plato, getting his hair curled, and eating strawberries.

He also has inappropriate dreams: one night, he dreams of a chaotic orgy, with hordes of screaming, nude women and swarms of men beating drums.

la_jeunesse_de_bacchusThis is not your typical Playboy pool party.  This is perverted and disturbing and violent and dark.

Finally, one morning, while staring at Tadzio and pretending they have some sort of romantic thing going on, good old Gustav dies.  That’s how it ends.  He indulges in one last, dirty fantasy for the road, and then kicks the bucket.  Just like that.   So, that’s the plot.

However, next time you’re at a cocktail party and the guests are being sophisticated and pedantic and brilliant and someone asks, “What’s Death in Venice about?” thou shalt not say “A disgusting old dude who wants to screw a young kid.”  That will not impress anyone who isn’t stupid because that is not what the book is about.


So what is it about?  Well, in figuring that out, the first question one might ask is, why a young boy?  Why couldn’t Aschenbach fall in love with a nice lady his own age and have a healthy relationship with a consenting adult?

Significantly, Mann said: “In Death in Venice I wanted to present a man who at the summit of success, fame, and fortune finds no refuge in art but instead runs around, physically and psychologically, on an insurmountable passion… Only to make the plunge from the summit into the depths appear as fateful as possible did I choose for my hero homosexual love.”

So, the creepiness and inappropriateness and pervertedness of Aschenbach’s obsession is exactly what we’re supposed to be noticing.  Wow, Mann wants you to say, this guy is really, truly, super-duper nutty.  He was all monkish and boring and then, wham, bam, thank you ma’am (who doesn’t love a Bowie reference?), he’s a pedophile!  But why did Mann want that to happen?  Well, hold your horses, I’ll get to that.  Let’s explore some of the general ideas, themes, and allusions in the book.

  1. Dionysian and Apollonian Opposition.

So, a fabulous thinker named Nietzsche (the indisputable rock star of philosophy who cannot be categorized) described the world and the fundamental nature of the human condition as consisting of two opposing elements: the Dionysian and the Apollonian.




Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, intoxication, and ecstasy –he’s associated with music.



download (1)



Apollo is the god of the sun, dreams, and reason (think of light and order) – he’s associated with sculpture.



More importantly, the Dionysian is reflective of the amoral, eternal, chaotThermally_Agitated_Moleculeic, dark heart of nature itself.  Life, Nietzsche thinks, is a primordial, willful striving, but it doesn’t strive for anything.  It’s aimless.  It just strives.  Keep in mind that “life” here needn’t be carbon based.  Nietzsche means anything that exists.  Rocks, meteors, hydrogen molecules… just the stuff of the world.

In this forceful aimlessness, all distinctions and particulars are swept into the eternal movement of life itself.  It’s not confusing, I promise.

Think of it this way: you’re born, you go to school, you stress over which career to choose, decide you want to be a doctor or a criminal or a priest.  Then you’ll have three children or a BMW M3 (these are mutually exclusive categories), and your colleagues will think you’re swell and you’ll think you’re amazing!  And you are amazing!  You received the Nobel Prize for inventing the CCD image sensor!



And then… you’ll die.  And it won’t matter.  Sure, some people will remember you, and some will even cry.  But then, they’ll die, too.

Forget the Nobel Prize.  Let’s say you’re Augustus himself and you stand at the founding of the Roman Empire.  Guess what?

Augustus is dead.

The Roman Empire is gone. 

The continuous force of life has swept one of the greatest civilizations into oblivion and, eventually, all civilizations will fade away and humanity itself will disappear and life will go on blindly striving, pushing, pulsing, aimlessly, eternally.

Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

It’s a sobering thought.

Fundamentally, there’s only a blind totality and it’s an undifferentiated totality, where no individual entity or person or flower actually exists.  At bottom, it’s all the same stuff, it’s all life just moving and moving and moving.  Sound depressing?  It is.  It’s supposed to be.


BUT here’s the good news: we have the Apollonian!  The Apollonian can be thought of as humanity’s response to the aimless indifference of nature.  In spite of it all, humans can create distinctions between things, like good or bad, and they act as if individuated entities exist.  We build monuments and shrines for Augustus and Homer and insist that heroism and achievement is important, that it’s a big deal that you became a doctor and that your daughter took her first step and that your wife left you last Saturday.  We know we’ll die, we know it’ll all come to an end, but we go on and plant roses and study medicine anyway.  Why?  Because of the Apollonian force.  The Apollonian is an illusion, but a beautiful, noble, necessary illusion.


If it weren’t for the Apollonian, we’d be nauseated at the thought of striving for anything in the face of the blind indifference of life.  We’d be paralyzed and deny our will and do nothing, ever.  Nietzsche thinks that’s very bad.  It’s why Camus and Sartre smoked so much.


We have Apollonian illusions to counter the terrible Dionysian truth that nothing we do actually matters.

Now, for Nietzsche, the best art requires the precaribalanceous balance of both forces. Too much of Apollo, and your work and your experience become stilted and formulaic and regimented and too serious – lacking life force.  Too much Dionysius, and your work risks becoming incomprehensible, chaotic, meaningless.  Both are necessary.  Both are wisdom.


So.  Back to Ashenbach.  He’s organized, moral, hardworking, solitary, over-achieving… he’s boring!  He’s waaaay too Apollonian!  He needs to lighten up, man.  So what happens?  He gets the sudden, random urge to travel.  Suddenness, spontaneity, irrational whims?  Dionysius was here.  Then, Aschenbach falls for a child.  Inappropriate and overwhelming sexual forces?  Dionysius was here.  In other words, Dionysius has come to reclaim the unbalanced Aschenbach from his entirely Apollonian existence.


Balance must prevail.  Aschenbach – and indeed any human – cannot get away with masking from himself the true nature of reality for too long.  The art Aschenbach creates must reflect the Dionysian force.

Remember Aschenbach’s dirty dream, with the mass orgy?  It symbolizes the Dionysian Mystery cults of ancient Greece, where participants used intoxicants and music to deliberately induce trances and overcome societal limitations.


It’s kind of like a rave, but more philosophical.  The point was to effect a dissolution of the self, to commune with the god.  However, Nietzsche explains, the Greeks had such festivals precisely because they were carefully regulating the Apollonian-Dionysian balance.  They didn’t want to be overly Apollonian.  They understood the danger of becoming too reasonable and sterile.  So, they indulged Dionysian urges, but they did so wisely and thoughtfully.  Had they completely submitted to Dionysius, their culture would crumble beneath the chaotic violence of an existence without organization or obligations.

Imagine what would happen if you didn’t have concepts such as “good” or “evil”, if there was nothing that you felt was unacceptable, if you recognized no distinctions or individuals or limitations.  What would you do?  Well, like Oedipus, you might sleep with your mother and murder your father.  Quit your job?  Sure.  Crash your car? Why not?  Rob a bank, set fire to your house, throw yourself from the roof a skyscraper.  Whatever.


You see, recognizing that you can’t fly, or that killing is wrong, or that sleeping with your family is gross, is always a recognition of a limitation, or an ethical norm, or rules like cause and effect.

For Dionysius, there are no such distinctions or limitations or norms.  Everything is permitted.  Consequently, everything is destroyed.

But, remember, that’s not a problem for the god!  The pulsing force of life will go on.  Whether you are dead or alive, it’s no concern of the sublimely indifferent Dionysius.

So, essentially, that’s what’s happening to Aschenbach.  His culture – his stature as a successful writer, as an ethical and regimented human being – is unraveling.  And the god does not care.


  1. Greek Idealization of Male-Male love.


It’s not what you think.

Let’s return to the Greeks.  Once upon a time, it was completely normal, particularly for purposes of education, for young teenage boys to engage in erotic relationships with much older men (thus demonstrating the social constructedness of sexual desire, but that’ll be a different post).

Aschenbach’s feelings for Tadzio reflect this tendency.  Tadzio plays the role of the young, objectified erômenos.  He is not a human being.  He is a beautiful object, existing not for his own sake, but for the use and pleasure of others.


Initially, Tadzio serves the purposes of inspiring Aschenbach’s writing – he’s an aesthetic object.  Then, Tadzio becomes the source of Aschenbach’s fantasies – he’s a sexual object.  But as far as Tadzio’s basic humanity is concerned, Aschenbach absolutely doesn’t care.  The boy might die from cholera.  Hey, man, whatever.


  1. Platonic Theories of Beauty.

Sorry, more Greek stuff.

Plato, to whom all of Western philosophy is but a footnote, has a crazy and beautiful conception of truth.  For Plato, true knowledge is gained by progressing from shadows and copies of things to the original things themselves, which are essences.

So, for example, you see a basketball, an orange, and a clock.

Basketball             download (2)bondis-wall-clock__0096033_PE235389_S4

What do they have in common?  Well, obviously they’re all round.  To sound a bit more academic, they all possess the property of roundness.  Plato would say that roundness itself is an actual thing which exists in a separate realm.  This applies to all properties of things. So, tableness and squareness and deliciousness and catness all exist in that separate dimension, and it is by virtue of this dimension that we find objects with table-like properties (tables) and objects with square-like properties (boxes, let’s say) and objects with properties of deliciousness (sushi) and objects with properties of catness (cats, usually).

Does this sound strange?  If it does, it’s okay. It means you’re getting it.  Plato is supposed to seem strange.  It’s part of his charm.


Anyway, if you seek knowledge, Plato tells you, begin with contemplating an orange.  Then compare the orange to the clock, then to the basketball.  Recognize that they all share in the concept of roundness.  Recognize that oranges and basketballs are imperfect manifestations of the essence of roundness.  Now, abstract from the separate objects and think about roundness itself.  In other words, intellectually ascend to the separate dimension and hang out there for a bit, among the essences and properties.  Check out tableness and catness.  Dwell on their abstractness, their completeness, their sublimity.

Can you do that?  If so, congratulations!  You’re a philosopher.

Can’t do it?  Enroll in business school.


The same process of abstraction applies to beauty.  Physical, sensual beauty is a manifestation of the eternal essence of beauty.  Tadzio, then, is the imperfect copy of the essential form of beauty in itself.

Beauty itself is but the sensible image

In the super-cool dialogue Symposium (yes, I do think Plato is “super-cool” and yes, as a matter of fact, I do have friends), Plato describes the Ladder of Love, the ascent of which becomes increasingly more abstract.  It begins with sensual love of a body and ends with beauty itself.

There’s the problem: Aschenbach begins AND ends with Tadzio’s body.  In other words, instead of progressing from Tadzio’s particular beauty toward the essence of beauty (which is hanging out with the essence of roundness, remember), Aschenbach gets stuck in the physical plane.  He doesn’t abstract from the roundness of the oranges and basketballs, like Plato advises.  He just stays grounded, making orange juice and shooting hoops.  Getting stuck among objects, rather than contemplating their eternal essences, is the opposite of knowledge.


And that’s what the novel is trying to tell us.  Rather than being purified and ennobled by his love, Aschenbach is degraded and belittled by it.  What should he have done?  He should have applied Tadzio’s beauty to his art, moving from physical properties to aesthetic elements.  For Plato, sensual love is a stepping stone on the way to something higher.  But Aschenbach doesn’t get higher.  That’s the point.  He’s stuck.

  1. The Role of the Artist.

So, at the beginning of the novel, Aschenbach’s art behaves as the detached arbiter of morality.  The heroes he creates are famous for their perseverance and self-command.   However, as Aschenbach suffers the throes of erotic love and succumbs to Dionysian forces, his aesthetic views change from stoic reserve to passionate, chaotic freedom.  He comes to realize that artists live in a world of the senses.  The artist is a bohemian, an amoral libertine.

Think of a rock star.  His tastes, his activities, his life. Does the rock star live in seclusion and peace, somewhere where the air is fresh and the water is chlorine-free?  Does he wake up early and take a cold shower?  Does he drink warm milk before bedtime and swallow two gummy vitamins with each regular, plant-based meal?



The rock star is unshaved and unwashed, sleeping with everybody, taking drugs and risks and names, contemplating suicide, destroying guitars, refusing no poison, hating the world.  All these behaviors are permitted to him because he is a rock star (oh, Kurt Cobain…).  In fact, these experiences tend to emphasize the intensity and power of his music.

Aschenbach has been living in sterile and unnatural seclusion his entire, Apollonian life.  But it’s time for him to throw on Converse and a ripped pair of jeans, seduce some groupies, climb in a spray-painted van, and hit the road.  He must learn desire and joy and suffering.

Does this mean that Mann suggests that artists are necessarily passionate, immoral sinners?  No.  Remember, Mann punishes Aschenbach for his perversion.

Does this mean that Mann suggests that artists ought, instead, to be reserved and detached moralists?  No.

Perhaps it means that art demands both detachment and passion, both intellect and profound communion with life, to flourish.

So, there you are.  It’s a lot, I know.  And it’s not easy, I know.  But I’m suspicious of simplicity as a regulatory ideal in writing or thinking.  I see no reason to put simplicity on a pedestal, and I distrust simplicity for simplicity’s sake, especially where the subject matter is complicated and subtle.  A straightforward explanation would neglect an enormous remainder, even as the above summary does.  So, in simple terms, what’s the point of the book?  Aesthetic decline, I think.  But what do I know?


Skyrim +_7ba2f3cb89d39d9e509b17040bd6c042

A Room With a View

E. M. Forster

A Room With a View

E. M. Forster

In twelve words:
Lucy doesn’t know what she wants, but then she figures it out.


I think:
There’s a reason why Dorothy Parker once said, “Why, I’d go on my hands and knees to get to Forster.” So would I, Dot, so would I. Forster writes oh, so cleverly! With his light touch and excellent timing, this novel is young and spring-like. Everything blooms. But the blossoms don’t lack insight. They teach you, even while they laugh at you. They teach you because they’re likely more alive than you are, they’re intensely living things, the characters in this novel are some of the livingest creatures in all of literature.

HotelDegliOrafi_RoomWithAViewLucy begins her growing up in a hotel in Florence, Italy. When we meet her, she’s complaining that the rooms she’s been given overlook the courtyard rather than the river Arno.

Mr. Emerson, an old man also staying at the inn with his son, George, offers to exchange rooms, reasoning that “Women like looking at a view; men don’t” (I, too, like my maxims short, true, and sexist). Feel free to skip ahead here, but this point is crucial for those who care about themes in books: the narrator wants us to know that there are different “views” upon the world. Some are narrow and stifling, others more expansive, facing rivers and pieces of sky. But… is there a perfect view? Suspense!


Lucy is pretty and charming and certainly a little stupid. But we’re persuaded to forgive her because she plays the piano really, really, really well.

In fact, she plays it so well that her talent may take over her entirely and free her from the confines of Edwardian England wherein she finds “most big things unladylike”… UNLESS she marries the wrong guy. Then she’s stuck forever. More suspense!

And there’s George, who is brooding, moody, dark, mysterious, disillusioned with life… yes, yes, yes, he’s the Byronic hero.



He’s in love with Lucy, although I’m not sure why, since he’s never heard her play the piano, which is the only “big thing” she’s got going for her.

thoreauIt’s no coincidence that George’s last name is Emerson. Why? Because he’s a Transcendentalist, of course! The Transcendentalists were into nature, spirituality, independence, and building really small cabins in the middle of forests.  George tells Lucy, very prettily, that “there is only one perfect view – the view of the sky straight over our heads, and… all these views on earth are but bungled copies of it.” Lucy’s brilliant response? “What a splendid idea,” she says. Yes, Lucy, it is a splendid idea. Go play the piano.

So, because George is progressive, liberal, unpretentious, and passionately devoted to truth and because Jesus, who wouldn’t, Lucy falls in love with him. But she doesn’t know it, so she tortures him, herself, the reader, and everyone in the book until we, in frustration, almost stop caring altogether.


But George knows better, so he waits. And waits. And then waits some more. While he’s waiting, there’s a really beautiful chapter, in which George, Lucy’s brother, and a rector swim and play in a lake. It sounds unremarkable, but oh, that chapter is flooded with sunlight. If you have even a little imagination, you’ll want to fling off your clothes and prejudices and to dance, innocent and sublime, on the edge of some abyss or other. Or, at the very least, it’ll inspire you to pick up a copy of Walden. Read it. Do.


A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway

In twelve words:
Hemingway’s having a blast in Paris with other cool artists and writers.face

I think:
If you’re an optimist, convinced that life is sunny and people are basically good, then you should know that finishing a Hemingway novel will knock all that nonsense right out of you, because, come on, the world sucks. But if you’ve read, say, Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls and are used to everything exploding and everyone dying, then you’ll find his memoirs a pleasant respite. Here, Hemingway is at his most charming.


Young + poverty-stricken + in love+ in Paris + 1920s + writing = bohemian paradise. 

Basically, if you’re into starving artists, you’ll love this book.ErnestHemingwayHadley1922

Hemingway is 25 or so, living in one dilapidated hole after another with his first wife, Hadley, and their young son, Bumby (I’m pretty sure that’s not his real name). His short stories aren’t really selling, and he hasn’t written a novel yet, so he’s often uncertain, and spends a lot of time meditating on the art of writing itself. If you want to write like Hemingway, take these ruminations very, very seriously.

Hemingway’s Tips for Writers

1. “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

2. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’”

3. “When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. It was necessary to get exercise, to be tired in the body, and it was very good to make love with whom you loved.”

4. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed.”

Of course, if you’d rather write like Milton or Ruskin, ignore this advice because, after all, Hemingway’s grass never glitters with dew, and in his streamlined world, pretty little robins never land on any lady’s elegantly outstretched fingers. He’s a man’s writer and, even at his most tender, he is reserved, gruff, and unsentimental.


The best of the book, I think, are the candid glimpses we’re offered of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and the myriad of other expatriate artists living in Europe in the ‘20s. The most enchanting and convincing portrait Hemingway paints is of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who appears fragile, beautiful, crazy, brilliant, and maddeningly unpredictable. In fact, I secretly (want to) believe that the complex relationship between two artists who lived too much is what Hemingway’s memoirs are really about.







I’ll set the scene:during a trip, the two of them are in a hotel in Lyons, and Fitzgerald is lying on the bed, hands folded, eyes closed, convinced he’s dying and demanding to have his temperature taken. Hemingway, complying grudgingly, rushes all over the place, finally finding an enormous, wooden, bath thermometer to stick under the sick man’s arm, but Fitzgerald is too drunk to know better. This part is not only absurd, but funny. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Hemingway can be funny. I laughed out loud, right in the middle of a coffee shop, and everyone probably thought that if Hemingway makes me laugh, I am a perverse and morbid creature. Anyway, the thing about the two of them is that Hemingway understands Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald knows it. They even compared penis sizes. Yes, really. It sometimes seems that whenever Hemingway didn’t want to kill Fitzgerald in frustration, he was a little bit in love with him. But, you know, that’s how love is.