A Father Story: Chapter 3

Your Fervent Desire

I deliberately did not end chapter 2 by saying whether I would continue the story of the Favorite Daughter, aka Butterfingers, or whether I would move on to the other Favorite Daughters, aka Second FD and Third FD. Truth be told, I myself did not know.

Yes, I know that “I myself did not know” is extremely awkward, but it’s more accurate than “I did not know myself.” There has never been a time when I did not know myself. But English being as idiosyncratic as it is, occasionally an Indian American writer must dish out extremely awkward prose.

Still, I appreciate your attention to my prose, especially when it is extremely awkward, and when I make a spelling mistake.

Spelling

I was in three minds about whether to continue the saga of the Favorite Daughter (and given how much I know, I admit I was tempted). But since I was in three minds, I decided to forget about the Favorite Daughter and move on to the other two FDs.

Before I move on, I must draw your attention to a point that, at some point, may turn out to be crucial to this story. If it turns out not to be crucial to the story and you want to sue me for making a promise I did not keep, let me ask you to move your eyes back 43 words, to the word may in the previous sentence. The difference between may and will is akin to the difference between May and June.

To get to the point, the point is that at times people in three minds do decide. It’s only when one is in two minds that one cannot decide. Like Hamlet.
img_0778

No, I am not going to indulge your fervent desire for Hamlet. I have, out of goodness of heart, indulged it many times in the past, but this story is not about Hamlet and his father. Just because I titled it A Father Story and not The Father Story does not mean I can drag Hamlet and his father in to indulge your fervent desire for Hamlet.

And anyway, given your FD for Hamlet, you know already know that Hamlet is not about Hamlet and his father. It’s not even Hamlet and his stepfather – notwithstanding that his first lines relate to that lecherous, treacherous villain. (Which is the second kindest thing Hamlet can say about Claudius, the kindest being “A little more than kin, and less than kind.”)

Hamlet is about Hamlet and his mother. Nothing to do with an Oedipus complex. (He may be complex, but he can tell Gertrude from Ophelia.) Hamlet is about Hamlet and his mother because even though he must avenge his father’s death, when he finally does kill his father’s killer, it is to avenge his mother’s death.

Hamlet Act V scene ii

Chapter 3

 

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Surreal Estate

The incident I am about to blog about took place just before an incident I have already blogged about. But please don’t stop reading just yet. Even with your sleuthing skills you won’t be able to discover which previous post is related to one titled “Surreal Estate” because the two incidents are not related. Well, perhaps sequentially (in that that incident followed this) and consequentially (my blogging about that made me not blog about this that day). Maybe there’s a thematic connection too, but I haven’t made it yet because I haven’t yet had my chai.

Between you and me, reader, even though I am not violent by nature and I really like our feathered friends, I am trying to kill two birds with one stone. I haven’t yet had my chai because I am trying to: (i) cut down my intake; and (ii) finish this post in one sitting. Chai can be interrupted in a heartbeat, as I said in my last post, but duty calls.

Duty Calls
Moments before the incident I have already blogged about I was at the library, ready to check out my book. (Well, it was not technically my book, just the one I’d decided to spend a couple days with.) Even though there wasn’t a line I still had to wait because the three men manning the checkout desk were engaged in a debate. I shuffled my feet for eleven or twelve seconds, and when you’re waiting every second feels like a hour. (In the Balcony Scene Juliet said it would be twenty years till she saw Romeo again next morning, but that may be star-cross’d lovers’ hyperbole.) After what felt like thirteen hours I walked up to the counter with a cold smile (which, I admit, was probably not a smile).

“Which of you . . .?” I asked, hoping my unfinished question would serve as a call to duty.

Unfinished questions generally don’t serve as a call to duty for people engaged in debates when they should be working. You must make the effort of finishing your sentence before they will consider getting back to work. But happily (for me), my unfinished question did the job. The two men on the outside bowed out, leaving the man in the middle to answer duty’s call.

Duty Calls

The Real State of Real Estate
I wasn’t interested in what the debate had been about so didn’t give it another thought. I passed the book and my keys across the desk, and the librarian scanned my library card and returned my keys. I was subconsciously expecting the question I am always asked at this point of the book borrowing experience: “Would you like a due date slip?” Instead he said, “We were talking about how many feet there are in an acre.”

“Depends on how many people are in it,” I replied at once. I was repeating a joke I’d read years ago. The original version was about feet in a yard, but I figured it would work for an acre.

The librarian responded with a blank stare. Perhaps he hadn’t got it, so I said “Ha ha” to cue him to the fact that it was meant to be a joke. He didn’t laugh even then. Now that I attribute to the perversity of human nature, which is infinitely worse than not getting a joke. Even more perversely, he added in a serious tone, “Forty-three thousand five hundred sixty. At least, that’s what I told them.”

I had to address the perversity of human nature. In a mildly condescending tone – as an author I can’t afford to be too condescending to librarians – I asked, “Did you check that on the internet while you guys were talking?”

He looked down with a blush of humility (but it may have been a flush of pride). “No, it was actually something I’d studied.”

Why would someone need to study how many feet there are in an acre, I wondered, and I was struck by my own stupidity (a phenomenon that occurs once in a blue moon) when he said it was one of the first things he’d learnt while training to get his real estate license. He’d got licensed in 2005 but had had to take up this job after the housing market crashed.

Housing Market Crash

Funny by Half
I was touched that he had shared his story with me and wanted to hear more. “So how do you like the change?” I asked. “Or do you?”

“I used to work here before I got licensed,” he replied. “I like being back. And I still sell houses on the side, so it’s not like I’ve left real estate.”

We chatted for a few minutes about the housing market. He said something that sounded like it might be inside information but it was Greek to me and I cannot recall it (not having studied Greek). When he handed me my book – which, as I said, was not technically my book – I noticed that he’d included a due date slip, and it was the kind I like best: the one that lists all the items you’ve borrowed, not only what you just checked out. My conscience doesn’t always permit me to ask for that because I like trees (in part because they’re real estate for our feathered friends), but this time my conscience was clear. I hadn’t asked.

As I was leaving the library, I realized that my joke didn’t work half as well as the original because unlike yardacre does not have two meanings. There can be feet (units of length) in a yard (unit of length) as well as feet (parts of the body) in a yard (part of a building), but in “feet in an acre” the wordplay is only on feet. And that’s half a joke. I hate doing things by halves, so I’ll put my joke out to pasture until someone asks me how many feet there are in a yard.

Feet

Two Postscripts
1. The incident took place moments before the one I’ve related in my first blog proper, “The Fire Thieves” (January 23). Notwithstanding what Romeo says about the moon in the Balcony Scene, that evening the moon really was surreal estate.
2. I wrote this post without chai, but not in one sitting. I was two-thirds (or maybe three-fourths) of the way through when I got a call from an area code that rarely calls me. I didn’t recognize the number, but in a split second I made the call to take the call. I’m glad I did, but this post is long enough and I really need my chai now, so maybe I’ll tell you about it another time. Ay me, dear reader! Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Balcony Scene

Insult to Injuria Formae

Anyone who has read (read: read) my last post knows that spretae injuria formae means “the affront offered to her slighted beauty.” (Don’t worry, I had to look it up too. Latin is Greek to me.) I’d have ignored the remark had it been an affront to merely my looks. But the guy slighted my intelligence, and that deserves to be blogged about. (Had he not, I’d have had to think about how to meet my weekly posting goal, so I suppose I should thank him for adding insult to injuria formae.)

It happened on Wednesday evening at Ralphs. (I feel uneasy writing Ralphs without an apostrophe, but I have consulted their website, their flyers, and my receipt, and can’t find the apostrophe. O, for an apostrophe!) I was standing near the deli, eating a strawberry-flavor Greek yogurt and minding my business (which meant minding my cart, since I’d already paid for my groceries). I had just finished my workout and was on my way to a meeting at which they don’t serve dinner, and since I didn’t have the time or the money for a five-course meal, I settled for a cup of Greek yogurt.

I could have eaten my dinner while driving to the meeting, but with all the loonies who drink and drive in this city, it’s risky to eat and drive. And strawberry-flavor yogurt mess is not pretty. It’s pretty ugly, and pretty hard to clean. (Trust me.) For those reasons (and one I don’t wish to tell the world) I chose to eat my yogurt at Ralphs. I chose to eat it near the deli for these reasons:
(i) The deli is near the cash registers.
(ii) The deli is near the exit.
(iii) The deli is near the spoons.

Sharon Edwards at Ralphs

I was in that lethargic post-workout frame of mind in which you feel so proud of yourself for being disciplined enough to go to the gym instead of sitting at your computer, staring at the New Post screen on WordPress in an attempt to meet your weekly posting goal. Well, maybe not you, but you know what I mean. (In case you don’t, I mean I.) Please don’t ask me what I was thinking as I was eating my Greek yogurt because I forget. It was not this blog, I remember that much, so it can’t have been interesting or profound. But I wish I had been thinking about this blog, because then I wouldn’t have noticed the guy who added insult to injuria formae. For whenever I think about this blog, I enter a state that renders me oblivious to elderly men standing near empty shopping carts, clutching coupon booklets in the left hand. But alas, I wasn’t thinking of this blog so I noticed him, his booklet, his cart, and what looked like his toupee.

Although he clutched the coupon booklet in his left hand, he was not referring to it. That was a sign to me that he was probably going to spend the night in the doghouse. I mean, why would his wife go through the trouble of going through the coupons in the Sunday newspaper, matching them with the flyers in her mailbox sent out by the major groceries (and one or two minor ones), picking the items she needed (and some she wanted), and then making a list for him to take to Ralphs, Vons, India Sweets & Spices, etc.? To have him scratch his head (or toupee) in front of the bleach shelf and then turn his cart around without picking up a thing? No! To the doghouse! (Virginia Woolf would agree. After all, every now and then a woman needs a bedroom of her own.)

ToTheLighthouse

I lost interest in the doghouse-bound husband as he was turning his empty cart around. I was scraping the last blob of yogurt from my cup when I heard these concentration-shattering words: “You look like you’d know where the pasta aisle is.”

I was caught off-guard, or I’d have told him he was wrong on two counts:
(i) There’s no such thing as a pasta aisle – at least, not in that Ralphs. Maybe the groceries in New York have pasta aisles but not in my city. They don’t even have salsa aisles, when by rights they should. Everything must share aisle-space and try to coexist with each other as best they can. Even the chips have to coexist with the cookies and crackers. No wonder the chips are down. In other words, the chips feel blue. In other words, they are blue chips.
(ii) I do not look like I’d know where the pasta aisle is. I am Indian, not Italian. Granted, I hadn’t opened my mouth yet (not to speak, anyway), so he had no way of knowing I am Indian. Plus they keep the deli deliberately dim, so he had no way of knowing I am not Italian. Besides, I’ve been pasta-free for three months now. People say it shows, which shows that I do not look like I’d know where the pasta is. And if he’d missed those clues, he must surely have noticed that I wasn’t wearing a Ralphs uniform so I could not look like I’d know where the pasta was. I don’t work at Ralphs. I only work out near Ralphs, but that’s neither here nor there.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

I said it in an apologetic tone even though I had nothing to apologize about (being Indian and pasta-free, and not being Italian or a Ralphs employee). I could have snapped, but I don’t snap at strangers. (Not while eating strawberry-flavor Greek yogurt, anyway.) My civil tone didn’t deserve the uncivil response it got.

“Oh, so you look more intelligent than you are.”

Reader, I do not misquote the speaker, much as I’d prefer to say he said, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more etc., etc.” No, “Oh, so you look more intelligent than you are” is exactly what he said. Had I been into giving measure for measure, and had I not had that last strawberry-flavor blob of yogurt on my mind, I’d have told him that:
(i) Knowing where the pasta is in any given grocery is no measure of intelligence (or lack thereof).
(ii) And if it is, then his not knowing reflects on his own intelligence (or lack thereof).

People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, especially when they’re about to spend the night in the doghouse. Maybe he had pasta dreams in the doghouse, maybe he didn’t. All I can say is that I, who had dined on strawberry yogurt, had nothing but rosy dreams on Wednesday night. Last night is another story so I’ll save it for another day.

My Favorite First Words

At the end of the post on Diderot and The Last Judgment (March 1), I had said that within a worldview such as Diderot’s this life is “the be-all and the end-all.” The phrase comes from the Shakespearean tragedy with my favorite first words uttered by any Shakespearean character, popularly known as The Scottish Play.

Macbeth, Act I, scene 3
Thunder. Enter the three witches
38 lines later . . .
Enter Macbeth and Banquo
MACBETH: So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Macbeth was the first of the four greatest Shakespearean tragedies I read, but I still get chills when Macbeth first walks onstage and says those opening words, which unconsciously echo what the witches had said in scene 1 (“Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air”). Macbeth is setting himself up – rather, the Playwright is setting him up, and he is letting us know that he is doing this through the device of dramatic irony. (Hamlet’s first words also contain dramatic irony, but we don’t yet know why Claudius is “less than kind” so the first of Hamlet’s many words are a shade less thrilling. And not as chilling.)

What the Playwright doesn’t tell us is whether Macbeth has somehow opened himself up to the forces of darkness before the play begins. My own opinion is that he has, although perhaps unknowingly. I get this from the text. Even before we see him we are told how Macbeth killed a rebel: “he unseam’d him from the nave to the chops, And fix’d his head upon our battlements.” This is a savage way to end someone’s life, even when it’s done in battle. Violence opens a person to the forces of darkness, which is why I believe that Macbeth has made himself the witches’ target.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the witches target Macbeth because they know his tragic flaw (ambition) and what it will lead him to do. The prophecy will tempt him to get the throne by foul means, which will throw Scotland into a bloody civil war, and the forces of evil seek only destruction – of human beings and of nations.

David Garrick Macbeth 1768

David Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as the Macbeths, 1768

Immediately after his encounter with the witches, Macbeth learns that their first prophecy has been fulfilled: he is informed that he is now the thane of Cawdor. The news prompts him to philosophize on “the imperial theme.” The soliloquy tells us that murder has already entered Macbeth’s thoughts, but the thought of actually murdering Duncan “yet is but fantastical.” Perhaps to drive it from his mind he will say:

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me
Without my stir.

Macbeth might have become “king hereafter” without resorting to regicide. The king might have died peacefully in his sleep or been killed in battle, but Macbeth wrests the crown by shedding blood because he has:
(i) The tragic flaw of ambition, which won’t let him wait.
(ii) An ambitious wife, who won’t let him wait. (He was rightly called “Bellona’s bridegroom” earlier in the play. Lady M. has all the qualities of the goddess of war.)
(iii) The opportunity. Duncan visits the Macbeths at Inverness and all Macbeth has to do is reach for his dagger and “murder sleep” (a euphemism if ever there was one). Compare this with how hard it is for Hamlet to kill his king.

Incidentally, that’s not because of Hamlet’s inability to act but rather his inability to rush into an act he knows is wrong. When he does kill his king, it will be when he himself has been mortally wounded, and at the king’s behest. It’s one of the many reasons why Hamlet deserves to have flights of angels sing him to his rest, whereas Macbeth’s body is merely dragged away by Macduff (the other big Mac in The Scottish Play).

Charles_Kean_Macbeth_1858

Charles Kean and Mrs. Kean as the Macbeths, 1858

Macbeth’s final words have never thrilled me quite as much as his first, not even when I was nineteen and reading the play for the first time. He has become so deeply entrenched in evil that by the time of his famous exchange with Macduff, I want him to die.

But the last time I saw the play (last summer), the actor playing Macbeth didn’t feel the same. He had been fairly controlled until then but lost all sense of proportion (or is decorum the right word?) when Macduff says he was “from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.” Between “Before my body I throw my warlike shield” and “Lay on, Macduff,” this Macbeth engaged in all manner of vaudeville buffoonery, even dragging himself across the stage to throw one last dagger at his nemesis. Instead of high tragedy this Macbeth ended inches above farce. One almost wished Lady Macbeth back to life, because she had been played to perfection.

Atheists like Diderot would have agreed with what Macbeth says when he is told that his wife is dead, that

All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. . . .
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more

For anyone who does not believe in the afterlife, this life is the be-all and the end-all, as Macbeth says in that key soliloquy in Act I, scene 7, when he expresses doubts about murdering Duncan. If there were no consequences, and no afterlife to consider, says Macbeth, then he might as well do the deed and do it soon.

But that’s such a prosaic paraphrase of the soliloquy that has two of the most poetic lines in all Shakespeare, the lines that conclude this passage:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all — here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.

My Favorite Bare Bodkins

My last post, “Word Pressure” (March 20), brings me to what was to have been my first post. But first, a confession about the confession in my first blog proper, “The Fire Thieves” (January 23). In that blog I had confessed that I’d told three people that my first blog would be about my favorite character, but my muse deserted me just when I needed her (what’s new) and I had to write about Timon of Athens and Pale Fire and Brush Up Your Shakespeare! instead.

My confession about this confession may not seem like much of a confession to anyone who knows me or has read Pioneer Boulevard (or my last post) or attended one of my author talks. But I think it’s a matter of integrity to fess up that in that first blog proper I did write about my favorite character. If you read it you’ll find Hamlet there. This post will be about my favorite character in my own book, but because she is patterned upon my favorite character, you’ll find that great Dane here as well.

Branagh as Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh with a bare bodkin, 1996

This post is inspired by the epiphany-triggering question I was asked at the Hastings Branch author talk on January 7. I had considered referring to the audience member who asked me this question as Tarun to protect his identity, but I realized that the pseudonym would not protect his identity. Tarun is the Hindi word for young, and any Indian reading this post would have figured out that I’m referring to Young, the reader who reads my blog faithfully and posts comments that keep my mind on its toes. For this, and for his epiphany-triggering question at Hastings Branch, this post is dedicated to him.

Young’s question was about my favorite character, whom I’d been waiting to be asked about since my first author talk (at the Pasadena Central Library on July 20, three weeks after Pioneer Boulevard was published). At that reading a friend I had invited asked me about her favorite character (Gertie in “Some Sunny Day”), but my favorite character had her fifteen seconds of fame only when I talked about her to fill an awkward silence during the Q&A session. Well, she got more than fifteen seconds whenever I talked about her, but nothing was enough for her. She insisted that she deserved more.

“I’ve given you countless hours of writing pleasure,” she whined after the South Whittier reading. “And I’ve helped you do something about that obsession of yours.” (She was referring to my Hamlet obsession. I wish I’d never told her about it, because she flings it in my face whenever she wants her way.)

“You certainly have, Delia darling,” I replied gratefully. “Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks.”

“Words, words, words,” she retorted ungratefully. “You owe me much more than thanks.”

“I know, Delia darling,” I re-replied placatingly. “You think I don’t want to talk about you? But no one asks me about you. I can only answer the questions—”

“The questions?” she re-retorted implacably. “Doesn’t that remind you of the question? That is, the question of what you owe me?”

“Yes, Delia darling, it does,” I re-re-replied, my voice softer and humbler. “I owe you much more than I’ve been able to give you.”

“Then isn’t it time you suited the action to the word?” she re-re-retorted, her voice louder and prouder. “Or will you just stand by like not-a-mouse-stirring and say the time is out of joint and let conscience make you lose the name of action?”

Before I finish relating that conversation, there’s something I must tell you about Delia. She thinks that because she was patterned upon my favorite character she can quote him for any little thing. She doesn’t always quote him accurately, but I am unable to correct her. Unable and unwilling. You see, I have pampered her. No, let me call a spade a spade. I have spoilt her rotten. So although I am her creator, I am putty in her hands. 

“You’re right, Delia darling. It’s time I suited the action to the word.” My suiting the action to the word, I am ashamed to admit, involved an underhand move.

Hamlet Olivier

Laurence Olivier with a bare bodkin, 1948

Three days before the Hastings Branch talk I received an email from Young telling me his copy of Pioneer Boulevard had arrived. He said he could attend the Hastings Branch talk, and asked me if I like Christopher Marlowe. My underhand move is in my reply:

I did read Marlowe at college but where Elizabethan drama (or drama) is concerned, I am a one-man woman. So it won’t surprise you to know that my favorite story is “The Tiffany Lamp.” I am not reading from it on Tuesday, but I hope the excerpt I do read will provoke a discussion. Please come prepared to ask a question, to fill an awkward silence. Preferably something that occurred to you while reading one of the stories.

I was hoping that by telling Young that my favorite story was “The Tiffany Lamp” he’d rise to the bait (or fall for it), read the story before the author talk, and ask me about Delia. He read the story alright, but nothing prepared me for the question he asked:

Would you say that Delia, like Hamlet, is the tragic figure in her own story?

I was speechless (for a moment). I had never seen Delia as the tragic figure in her own story. The protagonist, yes, but not the tragic figure. To me she is the child whose diapers I have changed. How could I see her as anything else after that? I haven’t had real children, but I imagine that no mother sees her child as a tragic figure, no matter how great they grow up to be (or not to be). I’m guessing that Mary Arden Shakespeare never saw her firstborn son as anything other than the baby whose nappies she changed from April 23, 1564 (or April 26, when he was christened) until she had him potty trained.

Tennant as Hamlet

David Tennant with a bare bodkin, 2009

That is only conjecture, of course, but please don’t tell me if you find out otherwise. If Mary Arden Shakespeare saw William differently, it will force me to see Delia in a new light and I’d rather let her remain the spoilt brat she is. I didn’t say that in my response to Young’s question, but he reads this blog so he knows now.

Bare Bods

Word Pressure

For the second Thursday morning in a row, I checked my messages to find this cheery email from WordPress:

Howdy! Great job meeting your posting goal last week. This is just a friendly reminder to write this week’s post. Keep up the great work! Looking for inspiration? Here are some great posts by bloggers just like you. 

Had WordPress put such word pressure on Shakespeare, he’d have clicked on his Twitter app and sent out a tweet at once. Being a lesser mortal, I meekly put down my phone and turned on my computer.

Hamlet Twitter

The first of the three great posts by bloggers just like me was an allegedly entertaining one on “the poor redesigns of famous book covers, from 1984 to Hamlet.” In the past I have always resisted the temptation to read what WordPress considers great posts by bloggers just like me, but they got me with Hamlet. I clicked on the link to the post titled “Why Do We Redesign Book Covers, But Not Album Covers?”

I didn’t read the full post, only the bit about Hamlet, in which the blogger just like me compares and contrasts two cover images. “I hate seeing people getting paid for substandard ineffectual work,” he writes. “Secondly, I feel the artist has let the book down.” I agree, but not in that order. Because Hamlet is my favorite work of literature, firstly I believe the artist has let the book down.

Hamlet cover 1Hamlet cover 2

The ghastly Penguin Popular Classics cover (which, to add insult to injury, mentions the price) made me think, What were they thinking? But the New Penguin cover doesn’t do Hamlet justice either. I can guess what Paul Hogarth was thinking – Hamlet is the man in black, and he talks a lot – but still, I hate to see my favorite character being likened to a crow. Or any other member of the corvidae family, for that matter. A crow by any other name . . .   

Although I hadn’t visited the blog for inspiration, I was inspired to search for other Hamlet cover images. Of the many that showed up instantly, this one caught my eye. I like its pencil-sketch feel, but I wish the designer had not included the skull because they were advertising a festival for children. Perhaps the creative brief had said: “No ghosts. Anything else okay.” 

Hamlet cover 3

Hamlet is much more than what Hamlet says about Yorick, but the skull is one of the most potent images in the play. It represents mortality, and Hamlet’s most famous words are about just that, so I suppose artists find it irresistible. I’m not partial to skulls myself, but I must admit that William Bottini, a Berkeley-based artist with a degree in English lit, has done a good job designing this día de los muertos-themed artwork.

Hamlet cover 4

Of the DVD sleeves that showed up in my search, I like the one of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which is my favorite film (and one of the few DVDs I own). Even though I’ve seen it more times than I can count, I am always moved by the visual and musical ironies of this scene: Claudius and Gertrude exit to a shower of confetti and the robust strains of a march, and in a moment we’ll be left alone with the man in black. (Alas, poor Hamlet! His too too solid flesh will eventually melt, thaw, and go the way of all flesh.)

Hamlet DVD cover

But of all the Hamlet cover designs I have seen, my favorite remains the one for the first quarto. It has that Old World charm – apart from the quaint spelling, I find the f-like s‘s very romantic – and it was also seen by William Shakefpeare.

Shakespeare Quartos Project 

Dark Enlightenment

John Morley, whose first term as Secretary of State for India began two months after the partition of Bengal took effect in October 1905, seems to have quickly perceived that the partition sounded a death knell for the British Raj. “Reforms may not save the Raj,” he told the viceroy, “but if they don’t, nothing else will.” The Earl of Minto, whose great-grandpa had served as Governor-General of India a century before, was naturally dismissive of such unpatriotic sentiments. “The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is,” he retorted. 

Minto died in March 1914, with his notions of the superiority of the British race and the permanence of the Raj intact. He never knew that the man who made the Raj disappear would return to India the following January, but Morley lived long enough to see Gandhi successfully establish the non-cooperation movement he had launched in South Africa, and perhaps when he died in 1923 he had an inkling that the Raj would soon be consigned to history. But for all his perspicacity about India, Morley made an error of judgment about Diderot, about whom he knew much more (having written a book called Diderot and the Encyclopædists).  

Encyclopedie

The French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713–1784) is best known for co-founding and serving as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The encyclopedia, published in France between 1751 and 1772, is significant not only as a work of reference but especially because it embodied Enlightenment thought. In an article of the same name, Diderot said that the aim of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think.” Which, for Enlightenment philosophers, primarily meant replacing religion with reason.

I won’t apologize for saying that I think enlightenment is the wrong word for the Age of Reason. Like everyone else, I have a set of beliefs and experiences and personality traits through which I respond to the world, and my cultural heritage is also part of the mix. I am from India, where enlightenment refers to spiritual revelation, not the acquisition of knowledge by reason and logic. And if you think I should then be speaking an Indian language, please take the matter up with whoever came to India for tea and left three hundred and forty-seven years later, leaving behind a language that has such disparate words as reason and enlightenment

Wrong religious practices needed to be reformed in the eighteenth century, as they must be reformed today – in established religion and especially in our individual lives –but doing away with traditional religion and replacing it with reason cannot be called enlightenmentDismissing as irrelevant something that had been held as true by so many for so long, something so many had been willing to become martyrs for, shows a blindness about an important dimension of human existence. In fact, the spiritual is the most important dimension of human existence, because it deals with the apprehension of truth. Knowledge is temporal – what was “the latest technology” a decade ago is now obsolete, and la dernière in the Age of Reason might well have belonged to the Dark Ages where we’re concerned – but truth is eternal. To seek to rid humanity of that which endures forever is both arrogance and folly.  

The Encyclopédie, being an encyclopedia, aimed to cover all branches of knowledge, and therefore the Encyclopedists should have done away with all traditional knowledge and started from scratch in every field, not just religion. But they didn’t. They picked and chose as they pleased. Religion was chosen to be unchosen because they had a reason for wanting to reject it. But what if we did away with all traditional knowledge? If we in the 21st century decided to take Enlightenment philosophy to its logical conclusion by rejecting all that is traditional, we would have to discard their views on everything, including their views on religion! Enlightenment philosophy is ultimately self-defeating. So much for Reason

Diderot PrankMorley’s error about Diderot has spawned so many thoughts on art and life that it deserves a post of its own on Collected Thoughts. And I think it is fitting to conclude this post with photos of Diderot statues in the places where he was born (Langres) and died (Paris). In both he is shown in his dressing gown, made famous by the whimsical essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune.” In the old garment he says he was “picturesque and handsome;” its long lines announced the litterateur, the man who worked. The starchy new robe, by contrast, lent him “the air of a rich good for nothing,” and it made everything in his study look humble, so he replaced each item at considerable expense. The cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken has based his theory of upward mobility, the Diderot effect, on this essay.

Diderot

The traffic cone and wineglass in the hand of the Paris statue are obviously the work of pranksters, but the ribbon on the Langres statue might be a coded message between gangsters or perhaps clandestine lovers. Or it might be an allusion to the dressing gown, which Diderot had described in his essay as “the scarlet intruder.” But the ribbon was not the first thing I noticed in this picture. What first drew my attention was the chimney in the background, which brought to mind a couple couplets from the dirge in Cymbeline:

      Golden lads and girls all must,
      As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
             The scepter, learning, physic, must,
             All follow this, and come to dust.