Sunday, December 6, 2015
Sunday Sundries, 78
1. AOTW--Again, no one in particular. The usual encounters with people who don't realize there are other humans on the planet.
2. Odd Moment of the Week: I was in a mini-mall parking lot in Kent, staring across the way at a business whose name I couldn't quite make out. I moved closer, then saw: Sears Optical.
3. I finished Stacy Schiff's Witches: Salem, 1692, a narrative account of the witch trials that saw hundreds imprisoned, nineteen hangings, and one man pressed to death (stones piled on him). The two reviews in the New York Times (daily + the Book Review) were not all that kind, but I felt the reviewers were wishing she'd written the book they would have written instead of the one she did write. I liked it--learned something on virtually every page.
Most interesting to me--the mania and madness that can pervade an entire community. The "evidence" was ludicrous to our contemporary eyes, but at the time? No one really dared say nay: Everyone was in danger of accusation--ministers, children, the elderly, spouses, siblings, even animals (some of which were put to death).
It's certainly a cautionary tale that shows how hysteria can sweep through communities, destroying families, friendships, humanity itself.
4. I also finished The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong (2015) by David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review and a teacher at Cornell Univ. This is a poem I've loved since high school when our chorus sang the Randall Thompson setting. (Link to a performance--not ours!--of the Thompson piece.)
For years, I had my students--middle school and high school--memorize the poem, as well. And I've long agreed with Orr's main point--that we tend to ignore what the poem actually says and impose upon it something we wish it said. It's very clear that the speaker in the poem says that the roads are really equal ("The took the other, as just as fair, / And having perhaps the better claim"; "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black") There's no way he could know, where he stood, that one was "less travelled by" than the other. Instead, he says it's what he will say about his choice, "ages and ages hence."
As Orr asks: "What is the difference between the stories we tell ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives?" (91).
He also gets into all kinds of psychological research about decision-making, into popular self-help literature about the topic, into Frost's biography, into what others have said about the poem. I was surprised that he didn't talk at all about the "yellow wood." (Is it fall? Is that significant?)
He also mentions other writers who have used the crossroads idea--all the way back to the tale of poor Oedipus. Among those he cited was psychologist William James, but I stumbled across (in June 2008) an even better example, not from William James but from his brother Henry, whose complete novels I was reading that year.
In his early novel, Roderick Hudson (1875--Frost was 11 years old), James has a scene in the woods:
They had reached a point where the wood-path forked and put forth two divergent tracks which lost themselves in a verdurous tangle. Miss Garland seemed to think that the difficulty of choice between them was a reason for giving them up and turning back. Rowland thought otherwise, and detected agreeable grounds for preference in the left-hand path. As a compromise, they sat down on a fallen log (Novels: 1871-1880, Library of America, 217).
Orr ends with some discussion about the importance of choice and self-determination in American culture.
5. On Monday night, Joyce and I drove over to the Cinemark theater complex in Macedonia and saw the Kenneth Branagh production of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale--a play that featured Judi Dench as Paulina (the conscience of it all) and Miranda Raison as Hermione (the shamed--but innocent--wife of King Leontes (Branagh himself) (link to trailer).
Quick plot: Leontes (King of Sicilia) thinks his wife has been having sex with his best friend, Polixenes (King of Bohemia)--and that she is pregnant with her lover's child. All false. Leontes will not believe the truth, sends his wife to prison, orders the newborn girl (at first) to be burned alive--then relents and has an aide take her somewhere and abandon her. (After which, he exits, pursued by a bear--that great stage direction; by the way, the bear eats him, offstage.)
Then, uh oh, Leontes learns he was all wrong. But by this time, his young son has died, his (innocent) wife has died (he thinks), and, he presumes, so has his daughter, Perdita. Let's just say that he changes his ways.
Ah! But Perdita is alive (though she doesn't know who she is) and has been brought up by a shepherd family in Bohemia. Sixteen years have passed. She's in love with the king's son (uh oh).
Well, they all end up back in Sicilia, where all kinds of truths emerge, including the dazzling scene at the end when Leontes views the statue of his late wife ... but then, while he's admiring it, ...
The cast was very strong--top to bottom (much stronger than in Cumberbatch's recent Hamlet; he was great; the others weren't)--and although there were some stumbles and pauses (this was a live performance), it gained momentum and power as it continued.
It was set in fairly recent times, but the staging was simple and supple. Not a lot of scenery and fooling around with props.
(We had to laugh a little: Miranda Raison (Perdita) also appears in the British detective series Vexed, which Joyce and I have been streaming and enjoying the last couple of weeks).
An odd thing: While we were on our pursuit to see all of the Bard's 3 dozen (+) plays on stage, The Winter's Tale was the penultimate of all (Richard II was the last). For years, no one around here was producing the play. Then ... everyone was. We've probably seen it a half-dozen times in the past few few years--Cleveland, Stratford (Ont.), elsewhere. Last week I wrote about the new novel based on it (The Gap of Time), and now this ... (We've still seen Richard II only once, though--and it's a wonderful play.)
They also had technical problems at the Cinemark. Scheduled to begin at 7:30, it was not really underway until about 8. Not a lot of people there--one high school teacher with some students. Took me back to all those times during my teaching career when I took kids to the theater ...
6. Whew ... I'm trying like mad to finished David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest--a "deal" with a former WRA student, Sam Clark, who dared read it before I did! (We're supposed to meet over the holidays to discuss it; I saw his parents in the coffee shop this morning and laughed about how I feel as if I'm the dilatory student and he's the teacher chiding me to get my homework done! I've read 500 pages; not good enough--not nearly good enough!)