Monday, May 11, 2015

"Eros the Bittersweet" by Anne Carson: The Greeks Had a Word for It

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my local curry joint rereading Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll, and had just come to the passage where two characters discuss Sappho's invention of the word "bittersweet," when "Bittersweet Symphony" came on the restaurant stereo. Then I went home and saw that one of my Goodreads friends had put a book by Anne Carson called Eros the Bittersweet on her to-read list. What a collision of serendipity! I took it as a sign that I should read that book too.

Eros the BittersweetEros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet begins as an examination of what classical Greek poets had to say about eros (romantic desire), but expands into a meditation on time, metaphor, imagination, the distance between self and other, and what makes life worth living. In modern times, we think of romantic love as the emotion that makes you want to settle down and create a family with somebody, but the Greeks felt very differently. To them, eros was overwhelming, disruptive, and more to be feared than welcomed. And yet, they kept desiring, and reflecting on their desire, and writing about it in poetry and prose.

Carson provides English translations of all of the Greek passages she quotes, but she also prints the original Ancient Greek text. I therefore decided to take the opportunity to teach myself how to sound out Ancient Greek. I found a chart of the Greek alphabet online, printed it out, and taped it into the back cover of the book for reference; eventually, I got to the point where I could sound out the Greek without referring to my alphabet cheat-sheet. As for the words I was sounding out, many of them remained incomprehensible, yet it was worth it for the times when I recognized Greek roots that are also used in English, and had a holy-shit-I’m-reading-and-understanding-something-that-was-written-two-millennia-ago moment. Reading a line of Aeschylus (the first playwright!) that goes “eumorphon de kolossoi,” and understanding how it means “well-shaped statues” – well, that’s an amazing feeling.

Indeed, there’s a lot of stuff in Eros the Bittersweet about the connections between eros, learning, reading, and writing. Our imaginations, and our reach that exceeds our grasp, spur us to fall in love and also to pursue academic interests. This idea really resonates with me – after all, two of my favorite authors are Tom Stoppard and A.S. Byatt, whose plays and novels often focus on the connections between eros and education. But if you don’t get a quasi-sexual pleasure out of learning and knowledge, Eros the Bittersweet is probably not the book for you.

My biggest complaint about Eros the Bittersweet is that it doesn’t devote enough attention to Greek drama. Carson extensively considers the formal qualities of ancient Greek lyric poetry, novels, and philosophical dialogues, but she does not analyze Greek theater in the same way. For a work so concerned with paradoxes and the relationship of eros to time, this seems like a major oversight. After all, theater has an inherently paradoxical relation to time: a script can endure for millennia, but a performance is ephemeral. At one point, Carson analyzes a passage of Sophocles (calling it “Sophocles’ poem,” ignoring the fact that it comes from a stage play) that compares desire to “ice-crystal in the hands / […] you can’t put the melting mass down / you can’t keep holding it.” Isn’t the ephemeral pleasure of theater similar to the ephemeral pleasure of melting ice?

It is to Carson’s credit, however, that her book inspired me to want to learn more, to forge new connections, to exercise my imagination and have new thoughts of my own. Which means that – by Carson’s own definition – it’s a book that inspires love.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

April on the Theater Pub Blog

The way the calendar for April 2015 shook out, I ended up writing 3 posts on the SF Theater Pub blog instead of my usual 2. Here's the links:
  • I interviewed Thrillpeddlers' Artistic Director, Russell Blackwood, about his company and their Paris-themed burlesque musical revue Jewels of Paris. I loved that when my editor received the Jewels of Paris press release, he took one look at it and said "this is definitely an assignment for Marissa!"
  • Continuing the "Parisian avant-garde" theme, and tying in with Theater Pub's experimental April show, I wrote about the French playwrights' collective Outrapo -- the Workshop of Potential Tragicomedy -- and my attempts to get in touch with the Outrapistes when I was an exchange student in Paris in 2007.
  • On the last day of April, I wrote about how my political beliefs and my tastes in theater aren't always 100% congruent; sometimes I feel like a bad feminist when I don't like a play that has a message I agree with... or when I enjoy a play that I know is politically iffy. This practice of reducing a work of art to its sociopolitical message seems pretty common in the two locales where I spend most of my time: in the SF Bay Area, and online. I yearn for criticism and conversation that explores other dimensions of works of art.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Wilder Shores of Love": Romance and exoticism, what did you expect?

The Wilder Shores of LoveThe Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Believe it or not, I decided to read The Wilder Shores of Love because it got quoted in the J. Peterman catalogue next to an illustration of a fancy nightgown. And after reading the book, that doesn’t seem like a bad place for it. Like the J. Peterman catalogue, it is fanciful, romantic, ardent, and full of exoticism. It is seductive yet also a guilty pleasure, due to the way it traffics in outdated stereotypes about ethnicity and gender.

Lesley Blanch takes for her subjects four well-bred European women who discovered that their “destiny” lay in the Middle East. First is Isabel Burton, a devout Catholic girl who fell madly in love with Richard Burton, the dashing explorer and Orientalist. Posterity has reviled Isabel because she burned Richard’s notes and manuscripts after he died, but Blanch shows that she was more than just a prudish Victorian wife.

Next we learn about Jane Digby, a beautiful aristocrat who had a string of scandalous romances that took her from England to France to Germany to Greece, and who finally found stability and contentment as the wife of a Bedouin tribesman.

Then comes Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a French girl who was shipwrecked, kidnapped by pirates, sold into the Ottoman Emperor’s harem, and eventually saw her son become Sultan. It was fun to read about the intrigues and treacheries of the Ottoman court, like a real-life version of Game of Thrones. But alas, this section of the book seems to be pure speculation. There is no conclusive proof that Aimée Dubucq became an Ottoman concubine, yet Blanch keeps discussing what Aimée “must have felt” or “might have done.”

The book finishes with the brief, febrile life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss woman who roamed around Algeria dressed as a man, taking many lovers and trying to become a Sufi mystic. Even though all of the women in this book led unconventional, adventurous lives, Eberhardt is the strangest and most complex, and I’m not sure that Lesley Blanch fully understands her. Burton, Digby, and Dubucq get slotted as the Passionate Wife, Sexual Amazon, and Sly Sultana, respectively; Eberhardt doesn’t fit into a box like that.

Blanch tries to explain Eberhardt by frequent references to her “melancholy Russian soul,” but to a 21st-century reader, that just sounds silly and stereotypical. So, too, do Blanch’s invocations of “Oriental cunning” or “Arab fatalism.” This book tells of four women whose love for the Middle East included large doses of romantic exoticism; but in reporting their stories, Blanch often falls into the traps of exoticism herself.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Artists Are Members of a Privileged Class @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I'm rereading Tom Stoppard's Travesties tonight (for a very cool reason which I am not yet at liberty to disclose) and I have to say that it makes for very interesting reading in light of what I wrote for the Theater Pub blog earlier this week.

My Theater Pub piece is about living in an age when "count your blessings" has turned into "check your privilege," acknowledging that being an artist is itself a privilege, and wondering if anything short of total social revolution will change that.

And then I start rereading a play in which Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara debate art and revolution with Henry Carr, a privileged British guy who'd rather talk about his Savile Row suits than about the carnage of World War I. Despite that, he gets in some rather trenchant commentary on art and privilege.

Some choice quotes from Travesties:

"To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war." (Carr)

"Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the paymaster." (Tzara)

"Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it's absurdly overrated by everyone else. [...] What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist." (Carr)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The House of Mitford and the House of Black

As I mentioned, when I was up in Oregon last month, I holed up for several days at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. For my first four nights, I stayed in the Virginia Woolf room, which had a kind of French Provincial décor modeled after Woolf's country house, and on my last night I moved to the J. K. Rowling room. I worried that this room might feel too cartoonish and juvenile, but I actually LOVED it -- it had a cozy canopy bed with red satin curtains, a beautiful antique drop-front desk, and plenty of memorabilia to make you feel like you're in Gryffindor Tower. I quickly got in the spirit of things, saying "Hello, Hedwig" to the plush snowy owl in its cage, and waving Hermione Granger's wand around while saying "Expecto Patronum!"

I also started re-reading Book 7 of Harry Potter, which I hadn't read since it came out. (Here's my post from August 2007 about my history with the Harry Potter series and my first impressions of Book 7.) At the same time, I was re-reading Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford's autobiography. (I first read it in May 2008.) I'd brought it to the coast with me because I sensed that on my Reading/Writing/Thinking retreat, it might be inspiring to read about a courageous, funny, rebellious woman. I also liked the connection that Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling's personal heroine (she named her first daughter "Jessica" in her honor).

In fact, as I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hons and Rebels, I spotted a detail in Rowling's book that I'm convinced was drawn from Mitford's. In the prologue to Hons and Rebels, Mitford writes, memorably, "In the windows [of my mother's house], still to be seen, are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children." Later, she describes the room that she and Unity shared -- divided exactly down the middle, one half of it filled with Unity's Fascist memorabilia and literature, and the other half with Jessica's Communist stuff.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I got to Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows, which describes the teenage bedrooms of Sirius Black and his brother Regulus at Grimmauld Place: "Sirius seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents. There were several large Gryffindor banners, faded scarlet and gold, just to underline his difference from all the rest of the Slytherin family. There were many pictures of Muggle motorcycles, and also (Harry had to admire Sirius's nerve) several posters of bikini-clad Muggle girls." Meanwhile, "[though] Sirius had sought to advertise his difference from the rest of the family, Regulus had striven to emphasize the opposite. The Slytherin colors of emerald and silver were everywhere, draping the bed, the walls,and the windows. The Black family crest was painstakingly painted over the bed, along with its motto, Toujours Pur."

I need hardly point out that there's a connection between the Toujours Pur motto, Voldemort's ideas of magical blood purity, and Nazi racial ideology; nor that Gryffindor's colors, like Soviet Russia's, are scarlet and gold. In the scheme of the novel, Sirius Black basically is Jessica Mitford, and his cousins Bellatrix and Narcissa are basically Unity and Diana Mitford. (Bellatrix and Unity = mentally unstable, with a twisted, unrequited love for the Big Villain; Narcissa and Diana = beautiful cool blondes, married to the Big Villain's loyal lieutenant.)

It seems so obvious now, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been re-reading Mitford and Rowling's books simultaneously -- in a canopy bed in a simulacrum of Gryffindor Tower.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Three Brief Reviews of Three Brief Books

Hello! Apologies for my long absence. In mid-February, I was off the grid on a week-long vacation; and for the past two weeks, I've been trying to recover from a lingering head cold.

On my vacation, I stayed at the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, in the Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling rooms -- so naturally, I found myself reading the books that were on hand there.

I'm also participating in a year-long book-reading contest with some friends, and every little bit counts...

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this short bio, Mary Ann Caws depicts Virginia Woolf as an enthusiastic, thoughtful woman who cherished her friends -- counter-balancing the stereotypical image of Woolf as depressed and suicidal. But in so doing, Caws neglects Woolf's work as a novelist and essayist, which, after all, is what made her famous and why we still care about her. If I recall correctly, this book mentions Mrs. Dalloway only in passing and doesn't discuss A Room of One's Own at all, and those are two of Woolf's most notable works. Instead, it feels like most of the book describes the bohemian habits and complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury Group. One perk of this book is that it's lavishly illustrated with vintage photos of all of the people it mentions. But ultimately, it gives you a much better sense of Woolf's milieu than of her own life or her writing.

The Tales of Beedle the BardThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As literary fairy tales, the five Tales of Beedle the Bard are far from the most interesting ones I've ever read -- some of them wear their influences too obviously, e.g. "Babbitty Rabbitty" is clearly modeled on "The Emperor's New Clothes." But it's always charming to spend time in the Wizarding World, especially in the company of the beloved Albus Dumbledore, who provides criticism and commentary on each of the five tales. The most interesting element of this book is the "Postmodernism for Kids" aspect of it: it is presented as being written hundreds of years ago by Beedle the Bard, translated recently by Hermione Granger, with Dumbledore's commentary, an introduction by J.K. Rowling, and footnotes by both Dumbledore and Rowling. If I ever have children, I might want to give them this book as an introduction to concepts like intertextuality, literary criticism, subtext, metafiction, etc.

Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That WayNow All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by André Bernard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Did you know that John Steinbeck originally wanted to give Of Mice and Men the laughably bad title Something That Happened? Or that both Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett's publisher thought that The Maltese Falcon was a terrible title? Those pieces of title-related trivia, and many more, can be found in this little compendium. One can see how this kind of book would be more useful before the Internet existed (nowadays this would be a Buzzfeed list, not a book), and it feels like the publisher had to pad it out to even get it to be over 100 pages, but it's nice to be reminded that while certain famous book titles may sound inevitable to us now, some of them were anything but.

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moved to Tears @ San Francisco Theater Pub Blog

My latest Theater Pub column is about the works of art that make me cry -- something I don't think we talk about enough, in an era that is skeptical of raw emotion. Click over there and read my piece to learn why I made sure to bring a hankie to the performance of Candide I saw last week and how seeing The King and I at the age of 5 utterly ruined me.

(My friend/editor Stuart noted "I think you're the only non-Asian person I know who was traumatized by The King and I... and most of them were traumatized for very different reasons.")


I've also convinced myself that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken must've modeled elements of Beauty and the Beast, especially the ballroom dancing scene, after The King and I -- they were no dummies and, as we all know, "good artists borrow, great artists steal."


In my column, I also mention seeing Rabbit Hole at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college -- which happened to be the subject of one of my very first blog posts. Crazy to realize that that was almost 8 years ago (also crazy that I haven't been back to Ashland since then, but that's a topic for another day).