“A Vigorous Young Man”

Good writing is a rare commodity in law school, as in the legal world generally.  Mercifully, there are a handful of judges who are a joy to read. One is Benjamin Cardozo, who was on the New York Court of Appeals–the state’s high court–from 1914 till 1932, when he was appointed to the US Supreme Court. His opinions are really something–full of wit and open disdain for the party he thinks is full of it. Anyway, I came across a passage I savored particularly the other day.

The background of this 1929 case is as follows. The plaintiff was at Coney Island when he and his companions decided to take a turn on a ride called The Flopper. The Flopper was essentially a treadmill on an incline surrounded by padded walls and pillows. The ride followed a predictable course, in the insipid way of amusement park rides at the time. The rider got on the treadmill, which was moving at a trot’s pace, and then tried to stay on as long as possible. People in the 1920s being, apparently, of only slight athletic ability, riders would get on, take a step or two, then “flop” onto the surrounding bed of pillows, surely squealing with delight. They had faced peril head on–they’d paid for it even–and they’d come away from the encounter unscathed.  The plaintiff–to whom Cardozo assigns the sneering epithet “a vigorous young man”–may, too, have squealed. If he did, it wasn’t in delight. He got on The Flopper, having watched friend after friend flop, promptly flopped, and in the process broke his kneecap. Predictably, he sued the ride’s operator. Here’s Cardozo; the crescendo is something, and the kicker really sings:

“Volenti non fit injuria. One who takes part in such a sport accepts the dangers that inhere in it so far as they are obvious and necessary, just as a fencer accepts the risk of a thrust by his antagonist or a spectator at a ball game the chance of contact with the ball. . . . The antics of the clown are not the paces of the cloistered cleric. The rough and boisterous joke, the horseplay of the crowd, evokes its own guffaws, but they are not the pleasures of tranquillity. The plaintiff was not seeking a retreat for meditation. Visitors were tumbling about the belt to the merriment of onlookers when he made his choice to join them. He took the chance of a like fate, with whatever damage to his body might ensue from such a fall. The timorous may stay at home.”

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On a recent Friday evening, I went down to the IFC to see Werner Herzog’s new film, Into the Abyss. It’s a genre film—the death penalty documentary—and its cloying subtitled, A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, suggests it might fall into the easy cliches of that genre. It does in some ways, but those—one victim’s brother, a criminal himself, crying at a picnic table his dead sibling smiles from the living-room portraits he brought to show the camera; the subplot of the pregnant prison-fetishist wife—might be inescapable. The facts of death row, of life sentences, produce consistent outcomes—a lifetime in prison aside, longer or shorter depending on what number the prosecutorial roulette wheel settles on.

In short, the cliches can be forgiven, and all the more so because Herzog makes what might be the most persuasive case against the death penalty the genre’s yet produced.  Into the Abyss details a triple homicide committed to facilitate the theft, by two teenagers, of a car from a gated community in rural Texas. The thieves-turned-murderers are Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Each alleges the other was the trigger man. The facts of the murders are important. I’ll leave them to be told by the movie, which is worth seeing, because ultimately—and unlike most examples of the genre—they aren’t what carry the argument in Into the Abyss.

If we lived in a world where moral arguments carried much weight, it would be simple enough to say that the government of a civilized country ought not to take lives intentionally outside the context of war. In that world, the prudential arguments death-penalty proponents push would fall on deaf ears. Like torture, murder is simply something the American government shouldn’t be involved in. It’s beside the point how effective murder is. It degrades who we are as a people, and it shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be a tool available to the government. We do not live in such a world. So, if we want the right outcome, we have to turn to other arguments.

One argument is that we live in a world of error. Everybody makes mistakes. Prosecutors make mistakes. Defense attorneys make mistakes. Police and forensic scientists make mistakes. Judges and juries make mistakes. Another is that we live in a world of imperfect information. DNA evidence didn’t exist until fairly recently. A lot of outdated pseudo-science and voodoo still goes into the official evaluation of certain kinds of evidence. (The execution of Cameron Todd Willingham—the subject of an excellent piece by David Grann in the New Yorker and of a documentary I’m told is excellent, Incendiary: The Willingham Caseis one particularly stark example.)

Both are good arguments. But the answer, from the perspective of the death-penalty proponent, is simple. Be more careful. Let more time pass between conviction and execution to let new evidence come to light, to let new technologies develop.

The argument Herzog’s film makes is less open to riposte. Herzog’s subjects are not innocent. Herzog doesn’t believe they’re innocent—he tells Perry, through jailhouse plexiglass, something to the effect of, “I don’t have to like you. But I think it’s wrong of the government to put you to death”—and the viewer doesn’t come to believe they’re innocent. Herzog addresses the problem head on. These are men who, a decade ago, committed brutal murders. It’s not clear who pulled the trigger. That doesn’t matter. They’re both guilty of the same crime regardless. Their culpability is the same and not in question.  These are not men the viewer feels have been wrongly convicted or wrongly imprisoned. They are not men the viewer feels sympathy for, except in some abstract sociological way or some raw emotional way. They are terrible men, men who are where they belong.

They are not men set to meet the same fate. One—Michael Perry—is, as we meet him at the start of the film, scheduled to be strapped to a crucifix-like gurney and poisoned intravenously. The other—Jason Burkett—will die, too, but only in the sense that we all will die. In the sentencing phase of his trial, Burkett’s deadbeat, lifelong prisoner of a father pleaded with the jury, through tears and sobs, not to recommend the killing of his son. Perry was not so lucky. Here are two men convicted of exactly the same crime. One will be put to death, and the other will not.

There lies the key argument against the death penalty. Two people, convicted of the same crime, face diametrically opposed outcomes. It’s a fact of the jury system. Irrelevant factors like the presence or absence a crying father can push fate one way or the other. In other cases, prosecutors do. A prosecutor decides to let one defendant cut a deal—testify and the prosecutor will only seek a life sentence. The other doesn’t cut his deal quickly enough. He dies. Two people guilty of the same crime in two adjoining counties. The District Attorney in one is up for re-election, not so in the other. That might be the determining factor. It’s contrary to the fundamental purpose of a criminal justice system to leave life or death up to the fickleness we have to accept if we want a jury system—and we do or we would have amended the Constitution—and if we want to let states elect their prosecutors, which we do or we would have prohibited it. It’s probably also contrary to the Eighth Amendment. But that’s a different argument. That irrevocable punishment can be grounded in caprice cannot be consistent with the aims of any legal system—consistency (primarily an economic concern) and fairness (primarily a human concern). We have a legal system for prosecuting crimes so we don’t have to rely on vigilantism. What we’ve created is institutionalized vigilantism.

Herzog found the perfect subjects to make this argument. Two people, clearly guilty of the same crime, come out the other end looking at opposite fates. By making his death penalty documentary about two clearly guilty, reprehensible men—avoiding the ostensibly remediable wrongful conviction and bad evidence issues—Herzog has cut to the heart of the matter. That’s not to say that Herzog’s film portrays Perry and Burkett as means to a rhetorical end. He’s too Kantian to look at his subjects that way. He lets them speak. He lets their acquaintances, friends, and relatives speak. He lets the victims’ families speak. He lets a death row guard and a death house chaplain speak. It’s a sensitive portrayal of these two men, of what they did and, to a certain extent, of the place they did it. Again, the facts matter. What’s remarkable about it is precisely that. In Into the Abyss, Herzog has made a rare thing—a forceful conceptual argument that replaces rhetoric with human fact.

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Jean Renoir parle de son art

I copied down these words of Jean Renoir, originally spoken in French of course, from the subtitles accompanying an interview that Jacques Rivette did with Renoir in the 1960s. The program was called, “Jean Renoir parle de son art.”

We know that in the history of all the arts the arrival of perfect realism coincided with perfect decadence. Earlier I used the example of Greek art. There are many examples. That one came to mind. Forgive me if I repeat myself. Fr example, the art of tapestry. The first known tapestry was the Bayeux Tapestry. Queen Matilda and her ladies passed their time weaving a tapestry while her husband William conquered England. Obviously the wool she used was very primitive, probably greasy. The dyes were very primitive, probably vegetable based, some maybe mineral based. Only a limited palette of colors was used in this tapestry, yet this tapestry is probably one of the most beautiful in the world. Moving ahead several centuries, tapestries are still very primitive. For example, the Apocalypse tapestries of Angers. We see before us a marvelous world, not a dream world but a real world. The characters in the tapestry are modern. Every day on the street you meet people like the saints, kings, queens, sinners and angels in the tapestry. And god knows the technique was primitive! One fine day, good King Henry IV makes a huge blunder and kills the art of tapestry, kicks it in the head, with Sully. Which makes me wonder if the legends aren’t complete fibs. Henry IV’s stupidity about tapestries makes me doubt all the legends about his goodness. This is what he did. High-warp tapestry was invented, replacing low warp, and it became possible to interweave the threads in a more subtle manner. At the same time, enormous progress had been made in dyes. The king decided to fund and elevate those making high-warp tapestries. The art of tapestry advanced, increasingly capable of imitating nature. Soon it was no longer necessary to simplify patterns for tapestries. They copied paintings, almost perfect likenesses of paintings by Boucher or Watteau. Today, tapestry is capable of total realism. Every shade is possible. Ten shades of green. All the shades of blue in the sky, from that of a pale cloud to deep blue. All types of nuance. The outcome? Tapestry is finished. Now, artists like Lurçat try to artificially revive tapestry by shunning realism. Alas, something tragic occurs. It’s an artificial attempt. It doesn’t give us the Bayeux Tapestry. It sometimes makes me wonder whether man’s gift for beauty isn’t in spite of himself. His intelligence — what a devastating force! Intelligence is terrible. It makes us do stupid things. What if intelligence pushes us towards ugliness? What if intelligence makes us slaves, admirers of all that is ugly? What if our tendency to imitate nature is simply a tendency towards ugliness? The things we choose to imitate in nature aren’t the most beautiful. I wonder whether in primitive times all objects, not just art, were beautiful. It’s a disturbing question. When we look at ancient Etruscan pottery, it’s all beautiful. And don’t tell me that every Etruscan potter was a genius! Why is it that when technique is primitive, everything is beautiful, and when technique is perfected, almost everything is ugly — except things created by an artist talented enough to overcome technique? It’s a disturbing question. This makes me wonder, in relation to our discussion on the performing arts, I wonder if our technical advances don’t simply herald complete decadence. Technical perfection can only create boredom, because it only reproduces nature. Imagine we are able to perfectly recreate a forest with cinema. We can recreate the thickness of the bark on the trees. The screen is even larger. It surrounds the audience. We are really in the middle of the forest. We can touch the trees and smell the scent of the forest. There will be machines to emit the subtle odor of moss. What will happen? People will ride a scooter to a real forest and not to the movies. Why the hell would anyone go to a movie when they could have the real thing? So imitating nature can only lead to the death of an art form.


I can only regret that film grain becomes finer. We are filmmakers, so let’s admit one thing. Study the photography of primitive films. Study The Great Train Robbery, the first American western. Study the phtoography in Max Linder’s films. In general, it’s superb! The contrast is a great success. I regret the advances in film stock. When I was young, I fought to film in panchromatic on the set. I was the first to use it, I made my own equipment. At the Vieux Colombier theater, I had made a studio in the attic to shoot The Little Match Girl on panchromatic film stock. At the time, panchromatic was used outside, and orthochromatic inside. Studio lighting was designed for orthochromatic film: arc lamps and mercury vapor tubes. I wondered, why not use panchromatic, which is more subtle? It produces a range of grays that translate intermediary colors and reds. It avoids the ugly contrasts of orthochromatic, which could veer from white to black. Why not try panchromatic inside? It wasn’t used because the lamps didn’t emit the right wavelengths. They didnt emit the spectrum to which panchromatic film is sensitive. So I studied the problem — rather vaguely, because I’m not very scientific. Finally I came across someone from Philips, who produce lamps and electrical systems, and they advised me to slightly boost ordinary light bulbs. So I tried it. I made the equipment with friends. We had reflectors cut out of sheets of zinc. We made rheostats out of bits of twisted metal. We regulated the current by moving the contacts. Finally, we shot The Little Match Girl, and the photography wasn’t bad. It was good. We developed the film ourselves. We were amateurs, but it was very interesting. Today I realize that I was acting against my deepest beliefs. Back then, I believed in progress. Now i don’t at all. At present, the photography of many films is very beautiful, very clean, very real, but absolutely boring and banal. you can be bored phtographically when watching a technically perfect film. Today the most perfect films are also the most boring photographically. How can this be explained unless, as i said before, progress works against art and artistic expression? It’s the only explanation. How else can you explain the thrilling photography in primitive films?

It’s extremely troubling that when we examine the history of art, we discover that the average object in a technically advanced era is ugly. The only exceptions are the great artists. This means we live in an era when one must be a great artist or nothing. That’s terrible, in my opinion. It removes from everyday experience the possibility of artistic creation that can be present in every action. In ancient times, it existed in daily actiities, in the way a fire was lit. Now we don’t have the time. We have to rush to the office to earn a living. Obviously we had other problems before: no hospitals or anesthesia, and childbirth was painful. Now it’s not. Thats a big difference. Fine. But we’re not discussing the pros and cons of progress in general. I’m talking about the way progress affects art. It’s possible that in a nontechnical era, each action was an artistic act. To light a fire, one had to arrange the wood to draw air correctly, and if it wasn’t done well, using a process that resembles tha of artistic creation, the fire simply wouldn’t light.
…we’ve finally arrived at the big question, intelligence and the senses….

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Kurosawa’s RAN

I do count myself as a fan of King Lear , and I do count myself as a fan of Akira Kurosawa, but I don’t count myself as a fan of Ran. I’m not sure if I dislike Ran in spite of my Shakespeare/Kurosawa fandom or because of it.

Given that the movie is a Lear adaptation, it’s a problem that it waters down the Lear plot by eliminating the Gloucester/Edmund/Edgar subplot, and it’s a problem that we don’t get to enjoy anything like Shakespearean language.

The movie has its strong points, of course. One of the early samurai battle sequences is a triumph of sound editing. The quick switch from music to the sounds of battle startles like a blow. Other scenes have their virtues, too: the sequences of the ailing old lord picking flowers, and of the fool making him a headdress of the flowers, are inspired dramatizations. Some of the samurai warfare at the end of the movie is beautifully photographed. The scene of the unveiling of what is supposed to be a queen’s severed head is perfectly done, and is the moment that sticks out as probably the best of Kurosawa’s many departures from Shakespeare.

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Thought for the day from Paul Valéry

“One should be light like a bird, not like a feather.”

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Cocteau on myth

“I’ve always preferred mythology to history. Because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies. Mythology is made up of lies that eventually become truths.”

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A Gloss of Royal Illusions in RICHARD II

I thought maybe it would be helpful to post an essay I wrote five years ago about Shakespeare’s Richard 2.   Stylistically, I wouldn’t write the same essay today, but the essay gets at a few important points, and it is adequate enough that I thought I should respect the integrity of the piece as it existed when I composed it.  Key points here seem to be that: 1) characters throughout Shakespeare, not only in the comedies, often apprehend more than they comprehend; 2) politicians not being poets, their language sometimes undercuts them.   The essay is below.



It’s perhaps only through an understanding of the way Shakespeare operates at the level of poetic form that one can reach a fair appraisal of Shakespeare’s successes and failures (even if the failures indeed are typically only relative to his own standards). Most of the formal decisions work on a small scale, but they’re occasioned by the large-scale authorial choices. In a history play like Richard II, the first authorial questions had to be less about what the plot should be and more about how to tell the plot to get the proper effect. This effect of course involves audience emotion, and a critic might be forgiven for adducing Mr. Eliot’s so-called objective correlative, but given that the play is a history the proper effect also is especially interwoven with the piquing and maintenance of audience intellectual interest in the machinations of politics. Shakespeare had to compose with the presumably aggravating rub of knowing he had to sidestep an invisible line of potential audience offense due to prior historical knowledge; but he had to decide upon the characters whom he needed to add or cut from the play, and to deal with the problem of history-lived rather than history-staged involving so much duration and so many settings, paying attention first to his job as showman. It should not be a controversial claim for me to state that one of Shakespeare’s chief solutions to these problems (i.e. that the play involves many characters and none of the classical unities) is by way of internal summary narration of events he doesn’t have time to put onstage. A slightly more controversial argument may be that one of his chief tools of plot is the evolution of character through slight changes in a character’s manner of speech. The voices change, but the author becomes more disguised, standing offstage constantly devoted to the metamorphic capacity of poetic particulars.

Within the broad organizational structure of acts and time-compressed events, audience attention turns to the language of the story — initially in the innocent effort to watch the show — and the author helpfully turns the language of the story into an issue of the story. Themes of the play take on a double-sidedness; the play is not just about royalty, character, family, England, and property, but about how all of these subjects are shaped and re-shaped by the language in which characters discuss them. Words at once shape  their referents and their speakers.

Consider first the language of John of Gaunt. He is one of the play’s more agile characters, verbally speaking. Even though Gaunt barely survives beyond Act One, Shakespeare gives the audience a good glimpse of his manner of speech, and that speech’s alteration depending on emotional condition. Typically, Gaunt is especially calm and rational. Even immediately after his son Bolingbroke is banished from England, infuriating Gaunt personally, he gives his son measured advice — he speaks fifteen lines straight in which every single line is either end-stopped or (when not end-stopped) has one and only one caesura (I.iii.276-290).  Earlier in Act One, he has a similar sangfroid during stressful conversation, and Shakespeare imbues Gaunt’s blank-verse speech with a similar voice (figuratively, but also literally in terms of the breath of the poetic line), this while he tells a widow he can’t help her. In that scene, he explains to the Duchess of Gloucester that he cannot help avenge her husband’s death, and suggests the quarrel is God’s to take up (I.ii.37-41). Gaunt’s typically poised and measured blank verse makes the  shock therefore audibly stark when Gaunt on his deathbed (II.i) begins speaking to York in rhyming couplets and/or quatrains of Italian/Sicilian rhyme scheme. The rhymes highlight the speech to the ear of the audience, and give it a chant-like momentum. Rhyme indeed seems to be a shorthand Shakespeare uses to signal importunacy on the part of the character; when Gaunt-on-his-deathbed makes unrhymed remarks, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to maintain the intensity of the lines — witness the density of anaphora, which is so high that in a scene of different emotional content it would be embarrassing.

Another authorial device, just as significant as the formal characteristics of sound and prosody in the play’s verse, is one that superficially seems very simple. Shakespeare grants some characters greater facility with language than others. Going with this territory is that the less facile characters sometimes make mistakes of diction — they express themselves imperfectly, and sometimes even ineptly. In Richard II, the courtier Sir John Bushy is a fine example. After Richard has left for Ireland, Bushy tries to encourage the Queen and tell her to forget about a premonition she has had. He ostensibly intends to tell her that her grief is not justified, and that she has no reason to believe anything bad has happened or will happen to Richard. But this is what he actually says:

“Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows,

Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;

For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,

Divides one thing entire to many objects,

Like perspectives which, rightly gazed upon

Show nothing but confusion; eyed awry,

Distinguish form. So your sweet majesty,

Looking awry upon your lord’s departure,

Find shapes of grief more than himself to wail,

Which looked on as it is, is nought but shadows

Of what it is not; then, thrice-gracious Queen,

More than your lord’s departure weep not: more’s not seen,

Or if it be, ’tis with false Sorrow’s eye,

Which for things true weeps things imaginary” (II.ii.14-27).

A perspective painting, of course — the most famous art historical example is Holbein’s Ambassadors — is designed so that it shows accuracy (that is, accurate “perspective”) only when viewed from the appropriate spot, which is to say, only when “eyed awry.” Bushy says that the Queen indeed is “looking awry upon [Richard's] departure,” and that when the situation is “looked on as it is” — that is to say, without the insight of the perspective — it is “nought but shadows of what it is not.” This would be good, except that the antecedent of “what it is not” is reality.[1]



Bushy’s episode of unaware truth-telling is relevant to an interesting issue: when language is well-used, the alternatives of accurate speech versus inaccurate speech basically have to do with a character’s qualifications to speak on the given subject of conversation. It’s also the case, when language is well-used, that the choice between truth-telling and lying rests more with the speaker/character; but, at the same time, language can nearly have a mind of its own. Honest language can facilitate lies; dishonest language may reveal the truth. An example of the former: a person might tell the truth deceptively. An example of the latter: another person might lie in a way that serves the truth – by either lying ineptly, or lying “ethically.”

Henry Bolingbroke is a perfect example of a character who uses language very precisely, and who chooses to interpret language even more precisely – if less than beneficently.  When York castigates Bolingbroke for returning to England during the period of his banishment, Bolingbroke points out that Richard banished him by his title, which was to say as Hereford. Now he has, arguably, returned to England entitled to his father’s dukedom, as Lancaster (II.iii.112-135).  Many of history’s more prickly law-abiders would be proud. (Somewhere right now, Antonin Scalia is self-satisfied because of a quick-on-his-feet quip.) Bolingbroke has happily discarded all sorts of relevant context, but he knows how to smile, proclaim his humility, and suggest he’s just calling the balls and strikes like he sees them.

If Bolingbroke consistently uses honest language to facilitate deception, Richard – who as a character is also verbally adept, but whose language sometimes falls short because he politically is so much less shrewd – has a capacity to misapprehend the truth by way of a slight falsehood of verbal values. In other words, Richard is wont to speak by way of euphuism. He speaks more like a fop than like a king; and a king, dandy or not, probably should not speak like a fop. He says more than he needs to say and yet he fails to use language to exert the authority he should be able to command as king. One wonders if he fails to recognize that, for a politician, even the smallest move can have great significance. A fine example occurs on the very first page of the play, moments after the curtain opens. Richard asks Gaunt, at Windsor Castle, if he has appropriately examined Bolingbroke on his accusation against Mowbray, to see if it can be avoided. Although one might well think that Gaunt could pressure Bolingbroke to avoid demanding a duel, Richard has apparently failed to consider what would happen in the event of Bolingbroke being too hot-headed to let go of his charges against Mowbray. So Richard has put Gaunt in the unfortunate situation of having to advocate for his son, and he has created a conflict of interest for Gaunt (who is a court counselor), and he has created a situation that could quite imaginably turn to a situation in which a powerful father and son stand together against Richard. Richard actually becomes more politically sympathetic as the play progresses, not just because he is struck by misfortune after misfortune, but because his language begins to appear emotionally more honest. The more lost Richard’s situation becomes, the more emotionally true his language grows. His language turns personal rather than political; and this is a sympathetic turn not only because his personal expression is honest, but because his earlier political language had been false, even if this was the falsehood of careless embroidery rather than intended deceit.

As Bolingbroke acquires more and more power across the play, his language grows terser and more commanding. He knows what he needs to say to get what he wants, and he contains his language to the subjects that are politically effective for him. When he is in a weak spot – as in the above-mentioned case with York – he hangs a lantern on his problem and goes right for rhetorically undoing the logic that would work against him. When he is a strong spot, he knows he has as much power when he does not speak as when he does, and he exerts the strength associated with allowing others the air of his attention. In Act Four, once Bolingbroke has become king, a good example exists of the equally deft facility with language that Richard and Henry Bolingbroke have, side by side with Richard’s complete inferiority in comprehension of political significance (IV.i.300-315). Richard asks if he may “beg one boon, / And then be gone.” Then we see this exchange:

Bolingbroke: Name it, fair cousin.

Richard: Fair cousin? I am greater than a king:

For when I was a king, my flatterers

Were then but subjects; being now a subject

I have a king here to my flatterer.

Being so great, I have no need to beg.

Bolingbroke: Yet ask.

Richard: And shall I have?

Bolingbroke: You shall.

Richard: Then give me leave to go.

Bolingbroke. Whither?

Richard: Whither you will, so I were from your sights.

Bolingbroke: Go some of you, convey him to the Tower.

Richard gets a chance to display how clever he is with language, and yet Bolingbroke gets to seem both patient and benevolent (“Yet ask”), and then, when Richard makes a sarcastic comment, Bolingbroke gets to display the true power of a king by holding Richard to his word. (Of course, Richard’s sarcasm might not actually have been as much of a blown opportunity as it may seem; Richard presumably recognizes that Bolingbroke at this point has him trapped no matter what, save perhaps if Richard can escape abroad.)

In any case, there are points to be gleaned from the alternative stories of Richard and Bolingbroke. As much as Richard and Bolingbroke both may realize that politics is a show, Bolingbroke has a greater understanding that the show must be acted in, that actions seen or unseen have consequences within the drama of even minor political acts. The whole world indeed is like a stage, but the world of politics is a more meta-theatrical stage, where the actors do all realize that they are, to some extent, acting. It is not for no reason that modern politicians often willingly acknowledge the maxim that politics is “show business for ugly people.” The politics of royalty, of course, always involved an element of show business, of assumed status of noble office. He who played well, like Bolingbroke, reaped rewards. Royalty is the reality of he who best upholds the necessary illusions.




In terms of Shakespeare’s tricks of character, and the characters’ own tricks with language, another father-son pair in Richard II begs a look. York is John of Gaunt’s brother, and ultimately the longest surviving of King Edward’s seven sons; York is the father of his nephew King Richard II’s friend, the Duke of Aumerle.

In the first scene in which York appears, he is with the dying Gaunt. Very early in the scene, York speaks to Gaunt pessimistically about the state of England, and of Richard’s ability to take counsel; he offers the remarks in the form of an odd sonnet, though it’s not a traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet (II.i.17-30). Shakespeare in that same scene gives the audience very quickly an impression of York as exactly what he is – not just a guy who will speak in a somewhat quaint manner, but a loyalist to the crown, and to the royal family, through and through. Shakespeare does fail, it should be said, in disguising that he was trying to quickly provide language and sketch out this relatively “flat” character. In the same scene, York says, “The King is come; deal mildly with his youth, / For young hot colts being raged do rage the more.” This line is just watered-down Marlowe.[2] York, however, does become more eloquent as he becomes more impassioned. Once Richard’s behavior around the dying Gaunt piques his ire, Shakespeare grants York a strong blank verse (II.i.163-208).

Aumerle ultimately ends up politically on a different side from his father, but he too is fiercely loyal, and he too is a quick sketch for Shakespeare. Whether counseling Richard or begging Bolingbroke’s pardon, he speaks in short lines, with precise but unadorned language. The pragmatic split in character between Aumerle and York is fascinating, particularly when viewed in parallel with the even greater fundamental character differences between Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke. A father-son resemblance is clear, but the difference is starkest in terms of values: Gaunt truly does have a loyalty to state and to the royal family at large that is as great as his loyalty to the interests of himself and his immediate family; Bolingbroke is foremost concerned, by far, with his own personal interest. With York and Aumerle, the contrast is most stark in terms of the principle behind their loyalties. York remains faithful to the crown, regardless of whether Henry Bolingbroke’s coup was justified or necessary. (He apparently is willing to forget that Bolingbroke had told him the return to England was only to reclaim his father’s property.) Aumerle remains faithful to his friend Richard and his ongoing claim to the throne.

One obvious conclusion to take from these two father-son relationships is that sons are of their fathers, but not the likeness of their fathers. This has sure pertinence to the question of true nobility, and of royalty. If heredity does not maintain quality of character, then should should royalty be hereditary? And if this is consistent with the notion that royalty, as said before, is the reality of he who best upholds illusions, is Shakespeare actively suggesting that there’s a justice to the Machiavellian processes of the New State? Then again, if royalty is the reality of he who maintains illusions, what better illusion is there than heredity? This question does have reasonable answers – perhaps merit, perhaps effortlessness, or perhaps to the contrary thoroughness of effort – but whether any best answer exists is, well, questionable. One can say that in modernity, and in the Early Modern world of the Renascence, royalty certainly has the highest rewards of any occupation, but, given that royalty is indeed an occupation, requiring a type of quotidian labor towards the aforementioned maintenance, there’s nothing royal about it.


Since the artistic medium Shakespeare is working with in Richard II is drama, the problems and paradoxes of language typically are themselves problems of character. And since these are aristocratic characters, the problems of character also are inherently problems of government and society. Thus, almost any problem of language Shakespeare puts on the stage in the play is also a problem of government and society. The problems of language, as the examples above illustrate, are at least twofold – first, there is the constant issue of character intent with language, and a lack of “authenticity” that can occur in language when people have to reconcile their private thoughts with the desire to appear a certain way in public; second, there is the issue of how the choices a person intentionally or unintentionally makes with language’s form influence expression, and of whether or not any gap exists between meaning and expression.

The problems of language are congenitally related to Shakespeare’s themes, and, it’s worth saying, can also transcend the problems of an individual character. To offer a broad example: the characters in Richard II, rather than sharing the family’s power, are obsessed with who will wear the crown. The crown becomes The Crown, a metonym of royal power. Royal power is a collective illusion based on hereditary rights, and these hereditary rights themselves are a collective illusion based on hyper-idealized notions of both family behavior and divine rights. The world of the play, and the language of the play, is complex enough that the characters, under a microscope, start to take on a sense of inevitability; the world of the play, under that microscope, seems a bit arbitrary and a little silly – but, given that world, and the tautness of the characters’ motivations, the characters begin to seem like their fate might be somehow in the cards. The ardency of each character’s belief in his/her convictions, and the frankly legitimate ideological divides that separate the characters (such as the divide between Aumerle and York), leave a problematic world indeed. Northrop Frye described it this way:[3] “The general principle is that all ideologies sooner or later get to be circumvented by cynicism and defended by hysteria, and that principle will meet you everywhere you turn in a world driven crazy by ideologies, like ours.” The royalty of the play’s aristocracy may be no more real than any costume, but their efforts are true, and their use of language, honest or not, has a determinative role in the quality of the imitations in which they partake politically. Illusion is tied to reality, and, if the play is artificial, it leaves behind the uncannily real sense that its words matter very much.

[1]Anyone who is not thoroughly convinced by this reading of Bushy’s lines would do well to consider the context – discussion of the sense in the Queen’s “inward soul” – and ponder too a professor’s precept on Shakespeare: “The dream is to the drama as the confession is to the church.” I believe this line may have been coined by James Nohrnberg of the University of Virginia.

[2] Christopher Marlowe, “Hero and Leander,” Sestiad II: “And nothing more than counsel lovers hate / For as a hot proud horse highly disdains / To have his head controlled, but breaks the reins, / Spits forth the ringled bit, and with his hooves / Checks the submissive ground; so he that loves, / The more he is restrained, the worse he fares.”

[3] “Richard II and Bolingbroke,” by Northrop Frye. From Modern Critical Interpretations: Richard II, ed. Harold Bloom.




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“Because The Odyssey needs a German director. Everybody knows that a German, Schliemann, discovered Troy.”

Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M is the perfect narrative movie. It’s not worth trying to make that argument here, so I’ll limit myself to the obvious starting point, the beginning. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Berlin rapt in terror, obsessed with a serial child murderer. (And painfully unaware of a still greater terror gathering on the horizon.)

Along with obsession comes mass hysteria, and Berliners see the killer everywhere. Meanwhile, the viewer doesn’t see him at all. His presence is clear enough, but not his visage. The shadow outline of his face falls on a wanted poster. We see only his broad frame and large hand as he befriends young Elsie Beckmann, whom we meet bouncing a small ball—a symbol of childhood innocence that rolls the scene to its upsetting denouement—on her walk home from school. We also see Elsie’s joy when he buys her a balloon clown from a blind balloon monger. Meanwhile, interspersed throughout, we see Elsie’s mother in their small apartment. Washing the laundry, joy flash across her otherwise bitter face when the cuckoo clock heralds the return of her daughter from school. Frau Beckmann sets the table with care. She cuts each slice of potato just so. She’s preparing the dinner she shares with her daughter every afternoon. She goes about it as if she’s hosting the mayor. The interwoven scenes—the frenzied city, the quiet domesticity of the apartment, the killer acquiring his next victim while cheerfully whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”—build on each other, real horror emerging from their juxtaposition. Like the frenzied swell of the Grieg theme, the pace and intensity ratchets. Frau Beckmann waits and waits for her daughter. Elsie’s classmates return, running up the apartment stairs to their own loving mothers. Elsie does not. As we watch her mother grow more and more frantic, we also watch the killer’s plot advance. Our emotions evolve with hers, despite or maybe because of our special knowledge. We watch the Berliners point fingers at each other. Will they finger the right man in time? The narrative tension is incredible.

Were the opening scene to unfold any less gradually or were the rest of the film—Lorre’s performance in particular—even a little less gripping, it might be valid to criticize Lang for exhausting the viewer too early in the film. But, like any good opening, M‘s is just setting the tempo for the rest of the film, which, apart from its formal and narrative success, is a sophisticated study of morality, law, and psychology, group and individual. I’ll leave my panegyric there. Curious to hear other thoughts about M.

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Hollow Wastes

A review of the collected letters of TS Eliot in The Nation recently directed me back to two poems I last read, respectively, a few months ago and a few years ago, “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men.” I found the latter, published three years after the former, as I’d left it—a beguiling poem taken in isolation but also a poem to which I find myself applying its titular adjective. As “The Hollow Men” to “The Waste Land,” so the cast to the authentic article. On the face of it, they look like equals. A rap of the knuckles against their exteriors reveals the forgery. I wonder, though, if this sense of the two poems is an illusion of time. I read “The Waste Land” first, and I know it was published first. I can’t exclude the possibility of confirmation bias. Nevertheless, I think there’s something to my gut reaction, and I’ll try to trace its outline here.

Eliot’s style is far better suited to esoterica than to pop. Both poem shows Eliot at his most Eliotic, to wit, I think it’s safe to say, as a chiefly apocalyptic poet. (Consider the hooded hordes, the king and kingdom in decay, the unknowable eyes of “death’s dream kingdom,” of “death’s twilight kingdom,” or, to really drive the claim home, the lines: “This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” Augustine, Vergil, obscure medieval and religious texts—these sources, with their vatic airs, supply Eliot the right images around which to construct his severe theme in “The Waste Land.” The anachronism—a poem very much about the modern city encoded in ancient symbols—suspends us in some strange in-between time, a time we’ve never occupied before. By contrast, contemporary children’s songs, Conrad, and Guy Fawkes Day traditions leave “The Hollow Men” devoid of the imagery that gives monstrous shape to its predecessor, a bad theme park replica whose jerky, mechanical movements convince no child, much less adult, to be afraid. (All the “The Waste Land” needed was a handful of dust.)

Speaking of time, there’s the time, the timing, the rhythm of the poems, too. “The Waste Land,” with its buried sonnet, is a poem of many forms that materialize and evaporate and swell and contract organically. The clipped lines of “The Hollow Men,” on the other hand, feel like they’re trying to make a point—about the terseness of modern relationships, the reduction of modern interiority, the speed and brevity of life. We start, we lurch along, we end. I may be overstating the case here, and to be fair, there’s much to admire in “The Hollow Men.” Still, I puzzle at the praise and wonderment it elicits, as elsewhere, in the review-essay in The Nation, which is, by the way, generally illuminating and worth a read.

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Response: On Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer

Whether or not Joe McGinniss, as Janet Malcolm presents him, is an archetypal bad journalist depends on him being a bad journalist to begin with. There’s an argument—consistent with Malcolm’s characterization of journalistic practice—that McGinniss is, in fact, a very good journalist. The chief function of the journalist—or maybe the less dignified “reporter” is a better name for it—is to collect and disseminate information. In that regard, McGinniss is impressive. He goes the distance. He lies to get information. He befriends and betrays to get information. He moves in next door to Sarah Palin to get information. The quality of that information is up for debate, surely. But as the collector and reporter of information, McGinniss is good. I think it’s safe to assume that this rawest element of journalism’s not what you, Brian, or I want from the discipline. I fear, however, that, with ever greater frequency, it’s what most readers or—let’s call them what they are—consumers of reportage want from it. Malcolm was trying to portray McGinniss as the archetypal bad journalist and the archetype of a particular kind of bad human being, a mold he’s proved happy to fill over and over again. From the vantage of 2011, he still resembles the latter, but—regardless of my personal opinion—it’s not clear he’s at all the former in any archetypal sense.

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