Monday, July 15, 2002

Dumb Discourse...

I believe I am becoming stupider as time goes by. More lowbrow, perhaps. I can't remember the last time I sat down and read a piece of great literature. Or the last time I said something profound. Or the last time I came to understand something arcane, unusual, or obscure.

I was reading Bill's recollections and ruminations about Shakespeare commentaries, and I felt downright lost! Oxford Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare, annotations and scholarly essays...oh my!

Right now the only thing I can remember about Shakespeare was my English professor for the Eng-Lit required Shakespeare class, Randy Nakayama, who I enjoyed so much that I enrolled in his Revenge Tragedy genre class (Blood & Tears: the Revenge Tragedy in English Renaissance Drama). Aside from the strange bandages he often wore on his fingertips (I think he must have been learning a stringed instrument), each semester he had a "catchphrase," a little squib he used so often that when I got bored I would keep track of how many times he said it. In the Shakespeare Representative Plays class (as opposed to Historical Plays), he used the phrase vis-a-vis at least twice in each lecture; in the Revenge Tragedy class it was ways in which, and his record was 28 times in an hour and a half.

So here's the outcome of my expensive State education: I remember the fingers and rhetorical oddities of the professor, but can't recall a single discussion of the works we read. Not one.

I would even be hard-pressed to remember which plays we read (and which you can read, too, online at of pop-ups). I know we had to have read Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Tempest in the Representative Shakespeare class, because I wrote papers about them. In the Revenge Tragedy class, I don't remember which plays I wrote my midterm on, though I distinctly remember the titles The Spanish Tragedy (Thomas Kyd), The Jew of Malta (Christopher Marlowe), and The Revenger's Tragedy (Cyril Tourneur)...we read The Tempest in that class, too, and I wrote yet another paper on it for my final (of an entirely different theme, of the first Tempest paper, I was writing generally about film adaptations of Shakespeare, concentrating on Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Book; the second was on Shakespeare's use of themes in The Tempest as a reaction against the Revenge Tragedy genre).

Okay, so those of you scratching your heads about all of the above, don't feel bad. I don't understand half of what I say, either. Little tidbits of information will come floating out in reference to something else, but there is no cohesive lore stored in my head anymore, no unbroken threads of analysis, no solid structures of understanding in history, literature, or language. I'm not so brilliant as I used to think I was.

But now that I think about it and concentrate on remembering things about Shakespeare and the works I've read, more comes filtering back...I now remember reading A Midsummer Night's Dream, and of course Romeo & Juliet, not to mention The Merchant of Venice (the first courtroom drama, with the Pound of Flesh Defense) and A Winter's Tale (containing Shakespeare's funniest stage direction: "exit, pursued by a bear") and Hamlet (which I have seen performed so many times in so many ways that I don't remember which is which). I know I read Richard III somewhere, because of all the fun I had trying to keep all the Edwards and Richards separated, but I can't remember why (being an historical play rather than representative, and not a revenge tragedy either...).

I keep much of these fresh in my mind via my obsession with film adapations and representations of Shakespeare plays...I have the Kenneth Branagh Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing (with Keanu Reeves murdering the text), the Ian McKellan Richard III (a rare non-Amazon link), the recent hottie-bestrewn Midsummer Night's Dream (O how I love Christian Bale), and Julie Taymor's amazing Titus (Andronicus); then there are the looser adaptations, such as Ten Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), Get Over It (constructed around a high-school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream), and of course the fabulous Shakespeare in Love (fictionalizing the creation of Romeo & Juliet); and I'm on the hunt for the Greenaway Prospero's Book and the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet and Taming of the Shrew.

But to return to what I was saying earlier, I feel like I'm not nourishing my brain enough, and as a result it's turning stupid. I've been watching Shakespearean movies instead of reading Shakespeare's own works. I think I have been watching too much television instead of reading, in general. And in my reading, I've been dog-paddling in the realms of literature, reading that which seems amusing rather than that which seems edifying. I still haven't made any headway into the two-volume Proust Remembrance of Things Past I bought three years ago, I haven't read the Walter Pater Imaginary Portraits I bought four years ago, my Complete Oxford Shakespeare sits heavily on the shelf collecting dust alongside my complete Edgar Allen Poe and my complete Mark Twain, my Story of Civilization is only referred to when I'm trying to gather some bit of trivia for a crossword puzzle, and representative works from Edith Wharton and Henry James languish unopened in their Barnes & Noble bags.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, they say. A good book is also a terrible thing to waste. But then it's so hard to find a good book that doesn't also put me to sleep. I'm currently reading David Leavitt's Equal Affections and rather enjoying it, though it's a little heavy around the and death and relationships, not exactly a tiptoe through the tulips...still, the language is beautiful, Leavitt has a real lyric sense that I always enjoy in an author. Next in the bag is Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony. I read White's Caracole and Nocturnes for the King of Naples ages and ages ago, and I found them beautiful but quite senseless, a sort of cleaned-up and elegant revision of William Burroughs' style; his more straightforward autobiographic fictions, such as A Boy's Own Story, of which I have read excerpts, are a little more approachable and at the same time a little more dull. So we shall see what happens.

Anyway, I guess I'd better be moseying along. Lots to learn, lots to do, dinner to eat, sponsor to talk to, crowded drive to get there, etc.


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