One two three

Michael Billington makes a point.

Michael Billington makes a point.

Looking for something to do before the theater season begins in earnest later this month? Well, go for it — this morning the Guardian published Michael Billington’s list of the “101 greatest plays” ever written. The comments section is open and already filling up; I imagine you’ll want to get your two cents in there.

This is, of course, a mere list — for Billington’s rationale behind these decisions you’ll have to buy his book after it’s published tomorrow, wherein he explains why Samuel Beckett is represented by All that Fall and not by Waiting for Godot or Endgame, among other idiosyncratic selections. But even before the publication of the list, Billington raised a few hackles over it in “Choosing my 101 greatest plays — and why I left out King Lear last week. Alarms sounded online over two of Billington’s considerations. “I cherish an obstinate belief in the subversive voice of the individual dramatist,” he writes, defending his preference for the play rather than the devised work (a preference I share, by the way), and kudos to him for so bluntly stating his perspective.

But it’s the second that rankled most. “Already I can see a storm brewing in that only one of the living I’ve chosen — Caryl Churchill — is a woman,” the Guardian‘s chief critic noted, continuing:

I can only say in my defence that I felt it would be patronising to start allowing questions of gender and ethnicity to dictate my choice, that I’m already beginning to regret there was no room for Our Country’s Good or Chimerica and that I’ve tried to offset any built-in male bias by including a series of dialogues in which my opinions are challenged by a female critic. To avoid any Dark Lady of the Sonnets-style speculation, I should add that she is invented though not, I hope, unreal.

For the dialogues themselves, too, readers will have to turn to the book. It was this invented (however “not unreal,” whatever he means by that) female critic that drew opprobrium upon Billington’s head. Andrew Haydon, especially, crafted his opprobrium into the form of a letter from Billington’s imaginary female critic. “She” writes:

Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice list as much as the next woman, and I’m crazy interested to see another one written by a privileged white male. There have been so few, after all. But I do resent being conjured into existence just to be ignored. That does seem a bit much. I could cope, I think, with the experience of my gender being largely immaterial to your experience of the world — although, as you might have noticed, I am gently trying to achieve some level of parity for my own experiences.

Haydon has a few other good points to make in his own way, and for a few days a “Millicent Billington,” presumably Billington’s imaginary female friend, delighted followers on Twitter with a parody of the critic’s prejudices.

But, in the age of The Kilroys, mixing lists with women in drama seems to be a very volatile project. Surely Billington has an Internet connection and saw some of the press coverage of the group (including that of the New York Times), so the Kilroys’ attempt to redress the gender imbalance in the number of plays by women produced at mainstage theaters must not be entirely unfamiliar to him. Which makes his misstep all the more egregious. Billington is welcome to his aesthetic and critical preferences, certainly, and as I said above, I share a few of them. But this clumsy rationalization for his own blind spots just doesn’t fly very well; better, perhaps, if he’d used his deep, broad knowledge and sensitivity to theater and drama to explore this gender imbalance through history and, if he’s going to be idiosyncratic about things anyway, redress that imbalance in his own list. Good to examine those blind spots, of course; bad, though, to start assuming the responses of your antagonist from a position of influence and power. The problem with arguing with yourself is that you always best your opponent, no matter where you end up.

Location, location, location

On line 24, the Hunkas arrive in the United States.

On line 24, the Hunkas arrive in the United States.

All history is local. When, about eight years ago, Marilyn and I purchased a co-op apartment on the Lower East Side, I found that I’d ended up finally, and through sheer luck, only a few steps from where my grandfather Max had first resided when he came to the United States from Berezanka, Ukraine, in 1914. (And again through sheer luck, my brother doesn’t live far away either.) At the time this was located in the northeastern-most extreme of the Austrian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; family legend has it that he fled Berezanka in an effort to escape the draft for World War One. Traveling on the SS Olympia that left Trieste on April 4, 1914, he arrived at Ellis Island on April 23 and gave Clinton Street in New York as his final destination — literally three blocks from where I live now. The manifest gives his age as 22, his height 5’6″,

The exact address on Clinton Street is unfortunately smudged in the manifest, and I don’t know how long he spent there, but this awareness creates a sense of continuity in history. Last Sunday my daughters and I were walking home on Clinton Street from a swim at Hamilton Fish Park and I was able to turn to them and say, “Your grandpop used to live on this street and walked on this very sidewalk. Do you think his ghost is watching us from that corner over there?” Goldie and Billie don’t have a fear of ghosts, but they’re practical girls and frankly doubted it. It was my admittedly minor effort at trying to place them, just a little bit, in family history and the history of the time.

It was sheer luck that landed me in such close proximity to where the first Hunka ended up in the United States. But it was also a reminder to me that I am born into history — not only family history but cultural history as well. One of my favorite Lower East Side haunts is the bookstore at the Tenement Museum, not least because it’s one of the better bookstores devoted to New York history, and there I recently picked up a copy of Joyce Mendelsohn’s The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited, a book of walking tours that deepens my appreciation of my neighborhood, seeing some of the same buildings with my own eyes that my grandfather had seen. In some small way then I establish continuity between generations and try to pass that continuity along to the next.

Yesterday I wrote about Tradition and the spirit, the existence of Past in Present and Future. If I’m born into history, I’m also born into time — community time, family time, historical time, and perhaps, too, spiritual Time. We absorb this history and this culture from the first day we arrive here, and, if we’re careful enough, we learn to interpret it, to continue to be aware of this location in time as we grow older. Our reaction to it tells us something about ourselves. If we ignore its darker moments and implications, if we validate one part of that history at the expense of another (as people who romanticize the Lower East Side of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s without bearing witness to its more distant past as Jacob Riis did), we do violence to it, fearing what that means about ourselves — and leads also to a maudlin sterility.

Spiritual Time is invested in community, family, and history; it is only there that we can see its workings, and though we can’t know the thing itself, we can read its traces. As we grow older, I suppose, we accept it or reject it, push it away or bring it nearer to our consciousness, aware of its virtues and vices and the way in which our own experience contributes to that history. This touches on organized religion, because the church is, as I mentioned yesterday, very much apart of the Western culture into which we are born. Accept or reject that too, though its rejection in favor of something constructed more from our own contemporary consciousness, it seems to me, rejects something essential in our traditions — and our Time — at our peril.


A few of the wiser comments appended to my last post counseled a calming distance and relaxation, and they were quite right — I had a beer or three and today, nearly a week later, I suppose the outlook is not so bleak. I fear I’ve become something of a viewer-with-alarm, especially when it comes to Present and Future, and I can only claim parenthood as the cause of this intensified sensibility. I know that people without children can fear for the Present and Future just as intently, with as much concern, as parents, but as a parent, when it comes to Present and Future, you have more skin in the game, so to speak. The bloodlines will run along into that Future, so the fearsomeness of what might come next becomes, in darker moments, more acute. But enough, enough, not as bad as all that, perhaps: Cheer up, you said, and I cheered up.

So I link Time (that Present and Future) with Culture as I considered it last Wednesday, and because a sterile intellectualism doesn’t comfort or lead to resignation, and certainly it provides no answer, I go outside of the box a little bit and must appeal to Spirit. Unless I am the most vulgar of positivist atheists, I have to. Though we’re not a religious country, I imagine most of the readers of this essay will consider themselves spiritual in a way, assenting to experiences that may be outside of the realm of the empirical sciences, whether one may call them aesthetic or metaphysical or what have you. “I’m not religious, but I am a spiritual person,” is commonly enough heard, or commonly enough said to one’s self, but is this kind of spirituality just as sterile as the intellectualism I castigated above?

My visit to Milwaukee not long ago suggested that the sensibility of a Past is inextricably linked to the sensibility of kindness. Spirit operates in both, and it operates ambivalently at times. But a consideration of this drives home yet another suggestion, which is that Spirit as it courses through the Past of human history and the Spirit as it courses through the individual soul is homoousian rather than heteroousian — that this Spirit is of the same substance, though necessarily expressed differently. When we start to consider these two courses as distinctly different rather than as one substance (or if we consider these as intertwined, parallel, distinct and separate), we consider ourselves and our spirit separate from that Past. It cuts us off from an identification with those Permanent Things defined by T.S. Eliot: Tradition, a due consideration for the Other, modesty and humility in the contemplation of the world.

Is it this conscious dissociation, then, that leads to cultural crisis? Is there something of the events of last week — or the events that continue to course beneath our experience, just out of sight — that urges us to critically re-examine this dissociation, the product of modernity? (This is also a neat ground for contemporary drama to furrow, I think.) It is a perspective on the spiritual and the historical life of the individual as a continuum, that we are actors not only in our own lives but in history, in the Past, Present, and Future of the self and the Culture. When we dismiss the human institution that represents spirituality on Earth — the Church — as corrupt (which it certainly can be) and inessential (which may not itself be true) and instead define our own spirituality according to our own pleasures and comforts, may we not be contributing to that crisis ourselves? Is it possible that, like the Church, we can be corrupt and inessential in our self-defined humanism, as self-serving and destructive as any corrupt Pope? It was a question that haunted Gerontion, and haunts us still.

It is impossible to consider the history of Western art — to come around to another of last Wednesday’s concerns — without considering the influence of the Christian church, from Machaut to Messiaen in music, from the passion plays to Eliot in drama; in our personal dissociation from this kind of traditional spiritualism, has not our art in some cases, and ourselves as individuals, become just as sterile? Certainly the empirical spirit of the Enlightenment and after has provided great boons to humanity and Culture itself, in science and art, but is this enough to provide adequate compensation for the dissociation of the Spirit and Culture? Is that dissociation a cause of crisis? Is it indeed a way forward and, bereft of the Permanent Things, not a way back?

In these great times

With apologies to Karl Kraus

It may be that art is too small to contain this culture. This morning an on-the-air killing is captured on video by the killer himself, then posted to his Facebook account; while his Facebook account has been suspended, there was time enough for people to copy the video and post it on several other sites. (On their live feed covering the story, the BBC helpfully posted a short item on how to turn off “Autoplay” in Facebook.) I subscribe to the Facebook feed of a friend of mine, and there someone commented, “Why don’t people like this ever turn their insanity/guns on someone like [Donald] Trump?” When two Trump supporters mercilessly beat a Mexican man in Boston, Trump himself commented, “I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again.” In the meantime, in the Washington Post a Duke University freshman explains his decision not to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as part of a suggested reading list distributed by the university and is greeted in the comments section by more than 2,000 responses, most of them quite violently disparaging the young man’s beliefs, accusing him (and many people who consider themselves religious) of bigotry and ignorance, among other things. (I don’t share the freshman’s beliefs myself, but he seems an intelligent, principled young man, and he is young and doesn’t seem to want to stop other people from reading what he doesn’t care to.)

The Internet is lauded as a tool for social and political organization; the politically active social media which travel along its lines, like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, has had no greater recent success than the rise of the Islamic State. It’s very difficult not to conclude that, for the first time in history, the volatile cocktail of anger, hostility, violence, and self-righteousness has never had a greater means of infesting what we may broadly call “culture” than now. (“The gunman’s own 56-second video showed him deliberately waiting until the journalists were on air before raising a handgun and firing at point-blank range, ensuring that it would be seen, live or recorded, by thousands,” the New York Times reported today.) It is everywhere, from gory advertisements for horror films on subway trains and buses to individuals screaming “Fuck you!” into their cellphones on a busy Manhattan streetcorner. Obviously, this is not the fault of the Internet or cellphones. It is the fault, though, of those who are using them to so assiduously broadcast fear, hatred, and anger to the world around them.

Is there a tipping point at which we can say that civilization has fallen again into barbarism? Certainly it has happened before, from the death of the Greek and Roman cultures thousands of years ago to the concentration camps of less than a century ago. Is this too narrow a lens through which to view the culture? Many good things have happened due to the Internet, but the rose-colored glasses of techno-utopians (mirroring the naïve optimism of humanists themselves) compose just as narrow a lens. Just what does the world have to look like to consider it barbaric again? One certain thing is that barbarism has many faces: No barbaric age has resembled any other.

And is art too small to contain it? All art can really do is look at it, reflect it, explore its depths to find a possible transcendent light; but if you don’t believe in transcendence, you won’t find much help. It seems clear that most of our art turns resolutely away from the world — especially avant-garde art, which remains as solipsistic as ever, moreso now, perhaps, when it has become so convinced of its own importance. It is an art that speaks only to itself. “In these great times, which I knew when they were small …”

Friday roundup

Photo: AP Photo/Sigmund Freud Museum

This week’s posts ran a bit of a gamut; I noted my recent acquisition of a new streaming media player, visited Vienna’s Burgtheater, and listened to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

But I started the week off with discussing the interiors of the home and the soul in fin-de-siècle Vienna, and this led me to reconsidering Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams — a standard text in Modernism, let alone psychoanalysis, along with Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Anyone wishing to read Freud’s Interpretation as the Viennese of 1900 read Freud’s Interpretation, however, enters a bit of a minefield, especially for those whose German, like mine, is a little rusty. (“Rusty” may be a bit of an understatement; “corroded” might be closer — there are large jagged holes in my reading knowledge of German, of which I’m somewhat embarrassed.) The first English translation, now somewhat discredited, was that of A.A. Brill in 1913, and 1953’s Standard Edition (as eminent an edition in English as, perhaps, the Authorized Version of the Bible), translated by James Strachey, is based on the late, eighth edition of the work.

This eighth edition is itself a palimpsestic version, incorporating Freud’s changes and updates through seven rounds of revision, and it’s not the version that first made a splash (a small one, but a splash) in 1900. Strachey’s English translation has acquired the status of a foundational text, and as such it’s been subjected to some criticism (most notoriously Bruno Bettelheim’s Freud and Man’s Soul) and much resulting defense. The 1899/1900 version can be uncovered in Strachey’s version, since all of the revisions, additions, and deletions are usefully dated in footnotes, but aside from this picking-through of a lengthy text, there are also those difficulties that Bettelheim identified. The final edition of Interpretation is a textbook for professional medical and psychological specialists; the first was aimed more at a general audience.

But fear not. In 1999 (the hundredth anniversary of its first publication), The Interpretation of Dreams was retranslated by Joyce Crick and published in the Oxford World’s Classics series, with a very useful introduction by Ritchie Robertson. This translation was itself based on the first 1899/1900 edition published in Vienna, and Crick provides a thoughtful overview of the challenges she faced in re-Englishing this text, seminal to 20th century thought. I’ve done an informal survey of reactions to this translation published at the time, and though a few have argued the primacy of the final, eighth edition as translated by Strachey, there were few cavils about Crick’s version. So if you want to read of Freud what the Viennese read of Freud in 1900, it seems that Crick’s is the logical choice.

I conclude the week with the below offering of a brief animated interpretation of a Freudian dream that appears in the seventh chapter of Interpretation. The dream goes thusly:

A father had been watching day and night beside the sick-bed of his child. After the child died, he retired to rest in an adjoining room, but left the door ajar so that he could look from his room into the next, where the child’s body lay surrounded by tall candles. An old man, who had been installed as a watcher, sat beside the body, murmuring prayers. After sleeping for a few hours the father dreamed that the child was standing by his bed, clasping his arm and crying reproachfully: “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” The father woke up and noticed a bright light coming from the adjoining room. Rushing in, he found that the old man had fallen asleep, and the sheets and one arm of the beloved body were burnt by a fallen candle.

As part of the Vienna Project at Harvard, art historian Joseph Leo Koerner, animator Tim Reckart, and producer Bo-Mi Choi created the below four-minute film, The Burning Child, released to YouTube last year. Haunting, and highly recommended.