I appear 4 times in this video.
All posts for the day January 2nd, 2010
Posted by unknowing on January 2, 2010
Shakspeare has no innocent adulteries, no interesting incests, no virtuous vice;–he never renders that amiable which religion and reason alike teach us to detest, or clothes impurity in the garb of virtue, like Beaumont and Fletcher, the Kotzebues of the day. Shakspeare’s fathers are roused by ingratitude, his husbands stung by unfaithfulness; in him, in short, the affections are wounded in those points in which all may, nay, must, feel. Let the morality of Shakspeare be contrasted with that of the writers of his own, or the succeeding, age, or of those of the present day, who boast their superiority in this respect. No one can dispute that the result of such a comparison is altogether in favour of Shakspeare;–even the letters of women of high rank in his age were often coarser than his writings. If he occasionally disgusts a keen sense of delicacy, he never injures the mind; he neither excites, nor flatters, passion, in order to degrade the subject of it; he does not use the faulty thing for a faulty purpose, nor carries on warfare against virtue, by causing wickedness to appear as no wickedness, through the medium of a morbid sympathy with the unfortunate. In Shakspeare vice never walks as in twilight; nothing is purposely out of its place;–he inverts not the order of nature and propriety,–does not make every magistrate a drunkard or glutton, nor every poor man meek, humane, and temperate; he has no benevolent butchers, nor any sentimental rat-catchers.
Posted by unknowing on January 2, 2010
When Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men he wrote a notable novel, something which sets down a vision of private understanding that is of public scope. It is full of the American South of the early 20th Century, but its characters might be medieval (or, as has been suggested to me in various ways about the South, if not about this book, Latin American). Like any good piece of art, among other things it calls us to remember that the human condition remains the same because the human condition cannot be altered: our condition has not altered though some of the physical circumstances have. We humans face different situations, but we remain the same humans with the same faculties. At the same time it calls us to remember that every human is different in personality, and as plot is character discovered through action, we are given a new sympathy, a new understanding, a new wisdom and a new weariness with which to look upon the world.
Something moves through the novel like a ghostly, stately theme: the ancient and vanished notion of chastity reproachful of illicit sex. Nobility, guilt (acknowledged and accepted), the possibility of tragedy, all these are mostly specters in the 20th Century; all these haunt this novel. And they come alive in the retrospective episode of Cass Mastern: so artlessly introduced, so incongruously filled with an ancient, vanished and seldom mourned way of life, that tale of adultery told by a strange, ancestral character with the archaic power to acknowledge his guilt and to repent. This history is at the heart of the novel. Cass Mastern is the key to the story because he is how we must understand Jack Burden. Jack Burden is at the heart of this story about the trail blazed by the Boss—authority and insouciance both—through a moment in America (of which he was the product and one of the defining forces) for the excellent reason that Burden is the narrator who draws everything together, reflects on it, understands.
Warren draws out and explores the importance of personal contact—physical and spiritual—by means of Jack Burden’s relationships. Lois, Burdens’ first wife, is an object of lust, but cannot be and object of love, for when she becomes so, she fades. Ann is an object of both, and lust is denied, and she grows more vivid through time as she is loved. And in it all is written the failure of an age, an age after the age of slavery and with nothing to feel smug about; another age of the failure of man. Warren’s mockery of modernity is not cheap, but sad with the melancholy which we must mourn—not sentimentally—a wasted way of life.
A way of life will always be of interest: it is instructive, and it is a poor sort of person who cannot appreciate humanity in any of its varieties. We are poor people if we cannot mourn a wasted way of life, and we would be better people if we could repent our wasted way of life. One does not betray ideas and one does not love ideas, but one can betray the people one loves, and that is the real torture of life. Jack Burden does not understand Willie Stark until he realizes that Willie Stark has committed adultery with Anne Stanton, and that she has succumbed to this large-promising, silver-tongued, unscrupulous man of public life: of life writ large.
Burden had himself hesitated to commit fornication with Anne, and had been delivered from it; and unlike Cass Mastern the adulterer, and also unlike Willie Stark, he is saved—though, as it were, by whitewash. He stands between the unfelt guilt of one who must perish brutally and the guilt—which is actually a sort of innocence, compared to the modern absence of guilt altogether—of Cass Mastern. Without guilt, yes, but without any useful innocence. Innocence without an innocent life: for the Boss (Stark, his boss) has spread guilt over all of his life. And that is what is at the heart of the novel: the moral pollution of a society without ways to acknowledge immorality or guilt, and our helplessness before it.
The narrator is perfect, the perfect voice and sense of things, perfect habits of observation and description to frame, for instance, the incident of the lobotomy with absolute irony (by that incident we understand he carries Warren’s tired, withered, but absolutely inerrant scorn). And he is perfect because he is not positively virtuous, just accidentally innocent. In the end Jack Burden realizes his pollution, the ruin of something more than collusion. And more, he shows us the ruin of our collusion: how we as creatures of our age deserve the age in which we live, how the guilt under which we live is not the guilt of the past alone. It is the guilt of those who will not repent or even mourn, and it is a novel of a man’s realizations that ought to be for every reader the novel of his own realizations.
Part of what Warren wants to make us see is the complexity of the world. The novel is tangled, there are ironies, rooms for discussion, depths that will require inquiry, wisdom. A novel, in a way, attempts to put you in the eyes of the aged looking out upon the world with some of the consciousness the aged have achieved by living. The novel attempts to give you the realizations of living through a situation out of which understanding can be achieved by means of the imagination. Jack Burden gets a new picture of the world by receiving a new picture of the self at the center of the world: a picture which brought about a reconciliation with the past—that Southern preoccupation. Only out of the past, he understands, can you make the future.
It is a statement worth bringing home. And it is strange how weary the triumph of wisdom can be and still not be pyrrhic. But so it is in this novel.
*I am still not satisfied as to the coherence of this review. The problem is perhaps that as I was listening to the book for the second time last spring I jotted down whatever came to mind and then left it unworked. It has proved harder to mold the whole thing together after the time. Or perhaps this just shows that I am not usually coherent and that the benefit of this distance is showing it to me better. Any suggestions would be welcome.
Posted by unknowing on January 2, 2010