233 (?)

The First Folio found in a French library in September. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images.

The First Folio found in a French library in September. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images.

Christmas came a little early for Shakespeare scholars this year. In September, a good-quality copy of the Shakespeare First Folio was unearthed at a small library in France, making it the 233rd copy known to be in existence of about 800 originally printed. (That’s according to the New York Times; the Guardian puts the number of surviving copies at 230.)

Because its provenance includes a Jesuit college, the discovery has given rise to new speculation on the Catholic background of Shakespeare’s life and work, but it’s most interesting for other reasons as well. First Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, who authenticated the volume recently, came across this intriguing piece of marginalia:

In one scene in Henry IV, the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow” — possibly reflecting an early performance where a female character was turned into a male. “I’ve never seen this kind of gender switch in a Shakespeare folio,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Rémy Cordonnier, an expert in Renaissance literature who discovered the copy, told the Guardian that the volume “will not go on general display, but will be scanned so it can be consulted on the library website and will be available for other libraries and museums to borrow.”

This gives me the opportunity to update somewhat my earlier post on single-play Shakespeare editions for the general reader, “Reading the Arden Shakespeare.” Eric Rasmussen is also, with Jonathan Bate, the general editor of the RSC Shakespeare series from the Modern Library, the most recent entry in such editions. I’ve had the opportunity to look over a few samples from the series, and I can recommend it as a good middle-ground choice between the apparatus-heavy Arden and the more accessible Folger Library and Penguin editions. The RSC Shakespeare editions offer good, brief introductions; very useful summations of key facts about the text and the plots themselves; and well-illustrated sections on each play’s tradition in the theatre. The only peculiarity of the edition is that it relies exclusively on the First Folio as a control text — a not unwise decision for the 18 plays that appear in the Folio alone, but somewhat problematic for the other 18, which were also published in quarto editions of greater and lesser authority. (Bate puts the argument for using the Folio text for this edition in “The Case for the Folio.”) Prominent Shakespeareans Gregory Doran, Ron Rosenbaum, and James Shapiro serve on the editorial advisory board for this edition, and at a price of about $8.00 for each of the plays, they’re a very good bargain.

Unless we discover a trove of Shakespeare’s holograph manuscripts, we’ll never really know the form in which Shakespeare first wrote these plays; unless a stash of anachronistic videotapes turns up, we’ll also never really know how these plays first appeared on the stage. The First Folio discovery should remind us of that, but also remind us of just how rich the experience of Shakespeare can be. We are constrained — like so many of Shakespeare’s own characters — to live in permanent doubt about these questions and, bearing that doubt, make our way through his world as best we can.

What’s the idea?

Photo illustration by Andrea Levy for The Chronicle Review.

Photo illustration by Andrea Levy for The Chronicle Review.

In the November 21, 2014, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Arthur Krystal, the author of the recent Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic, writes that our recent obsession with where in the human brain humanistic ideas come from, rather than considering these humanistic ideas themselves, has led to a dangerous thinning of cultural and intellectual discourse. Krystal predictably blames post-modernism and deconstruction for this:

To read Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva was to realize that everything that was formerly beneath our notice now required a phenomenologically informed second glance. And for theorists of a certain stripe on both sides of the Atlantic, this created a de-familiarized zone of symbols and referents whose meaning lay not below the surface of things, but out in the open. Say what you want about the French, they made us look at what was in front of our noses. Warhol’s soup can didn’t just fall out of the sky; it had begun to take shape in Paris in the 30s; Warhol simply brought the obvious to the attention of museumgoers.

Art and literature survived the onslaught of critical theory, but not without a major derailment. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became both the focus and the conduit of aesthetic expression. This may be something of an exaggeration, but it’s hard not to view the work of John Cage, Andy Warhol, and Alain Robbe-Grillet as compositions less interested in art than in the conceit that anything could be art. And while this attempt to validate the ordinary may have been in step with the intellectual tempo, it also summoned from the academy an exegesis so abstruse, so pumped up with ersatz hermeneutics that, in reality, it showcased the aesthetic void it so desperately attempted to disguise. And this absence was nothing less than the expulsion of those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic charter to create meaning in verbal, plastic, and aural mediums.

A broad unfair swipe to be sure; surely, as Krystal admits, it was that great Modernist Marcel Duchamp who got there long before Cage, Warhol, and Robbe-Grillet, who were up to something rather different. (And Eliot’s use of the vernacular in that great Modernist landmark The Waste Land rendered the lower- and middle-class vernacular itself — that “anything” of language — a part of art; never mind the literature of Joyce, Pound, and Céline; you can’t blame Cage et al. for that.) On the other hand, I have sympathy for Krystal’s additional argument that these days, following the advances of neurosciences, “every discipline becomes implicitly a neurodiscipline, including ethics, aesthetics, musicology, theology, literature, whatever” — theatre and drama too, I suspect:

For instance, psychologists and legal scholars, spurred by brain research and sophisticated brain-scanning techniques, have begun to reconsider ideas about volition. If all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral—is a person responsible for his actions? Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen in a famous 2004 paper contend that neuroscience has put a new spin on free will and culpability: It “can help us see that all behavior is mechanical, that all behavior is produced by chains of physical events that ultimately reach back to forces beyond the agent’s control.” Their hope is that the courts will ultimately discard blame-based punishment in favor of more “consequentialist approaches.”

The dangers of using neuroscience as a road map to a new kind of justice or form of social organization is about as dangerous as attempts to use evolutionary Darwinism to do the same things — such ideas are smitten with determinism, a way of throwing up one’s hands in the face of chemistry or the mechanisms of organic life. God help us if it’s used to create art, too. (If you can still get it, Richard Hofstadter’s 1944 Social Darwinism in American Thought — out of print, alas — is a fascinating cautionary tale.) Krystal continues:

The British philosopher Roger Scruton, for one, takes exception to the notion that neuroscience can explain us to ourselves. He rejects the thought that the structure of the brain also structures the person, since an important distinction exists between an event in the brain and the behavior that follows. And, by the same token, the firing of neurons does not in a strictly causal sense account for identity, since a “person” is not identical to his or her physiological components. Even more damning are the accusations in Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld’s Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience, which argues that the insights gathered from neurotechnologies have less to them than meets the eye. The authors seem particularly put out by the real-world applications of neuroscience as doctors, psychologists, and lawyers increasingly rely on its tenuous and unprovable conclusions. Brain scans evidently are “often ambiguous representations of a highly complex system … so seeing one area light up on an MRI in response to a stimulus doesn’t automatically indicate a particular sensation or capture the higher cognitive functions that come from those interactions.” …

If questions of art, beauty, morality, and value continue to engage us, the answers, so it’s said, must lie in our genes. Or in our frontal cortices. Or in our innate capacity for wonder, which makes us adapt better to the wonder of existence. It’s anyone’s guess. It seems only that by ceding such questions to biological and cognitive science we have made peace, at least for the moment, with the ideas that used to make intellectuals reach for their pens and sometimes their guns. It’s hard to know exactly what this concession means, yet one can’t help but reflect that by placing too much faith in the human brain, we may be relinquishing the idea that the mind might one day fathom the human condition.

If you have a half-hour or so, Krystal’s “The Shrinking World of Ideas” is a worthwhile essay.

Opening this Sunday: Monsanto is the Devil

Rev-Billy-bees-heroReverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir return to Joe’s Pub this Sunday at 2.00pm with Monsanto is the Devil. The Web page for the show preaches, too:

What time is this? Time to party before the plague? Or is it more like the 20’s between world wars? In 2014, stepping on stage in fire and drought, freak storms and extinction … we feel a strange joy in these first days of apocalypse. We need to rededicate ourselves to the politicizing of survival, pitting our freedom against the financiers of climate change.

The singing-activists return to Joe’s after last year’s performances in Chase Bank lobbies, and New York jails and courts. In 2013 we were inspired by the extinction and resurrection of the Golden Toad. This year, the Honey Bee is the hero. The presence of the pesticides of “Big Ag” and the struggle by bees to survive, is inspiration for new songs, songs with lots of Bee-atitude, hard-working and sticky sweet. Honeybeelujah!

Only a few days after the Joe’s Pub opening, the Reverend and the choir will travel to St. Louis, MO, the home of the agri-giant Monsanto, to enjoy an organic Thanksgiving feast “in an inappropriate place,” according to this story at the Village Voice. They’ll also be stopping in Ferguson to follow up on an earlier visit over Columbus Day weekend — possibly just as an indictment is (or isn’t) issued by the grand jury investigating the Michael Brown shooting.

I encourage you to visit Joe’s Pub this Sunday to wish them well on their journey (though you can also see them there every Sunday through December 21). For a taste, enjoy this clip from their last Joe’s Pub visit, the rousing “End of the World”:

Je suis, ergo sum

branchJohn Branch will be a familiar name to those who visit the comments section of this blog, and I always welcome his brief contributions (as well as the occasional review copy that he slips my way). He’s just launched his own blog, Je Suis, Ergo Sum (in a manner of speaking), where he will be writing about a variety of cultural disciplines, including books and theatre; his preview of TFANA’s Tamburlaine was of particular interest. Welcome, Mr. Branch, and smooth sailing to you.

Interview: Jonathan Harvey

In the below interview with Barrie Gavin, composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) discusses the roles of ego and self-effacement in the creation and dissemination of art, how these relate to his conception of Zen Buddhism, and the ways in which music (and I think drama and theatre too, in the plays of Shakespeare and others) can reflect the “reality” that lies beyond everyday experience. His remarks are touching and very congenial to my own perspective. Thank you to my wife, who recommended it to me.