Monday, October 24, 2005

Wonderful belated birthday presents from Aaron and Wendy yesterday: a whole pile of books and chapbooks from Pressed Wafer. I'm looking forward to diving in and reading... someday. I seem to have very little time or mental space for any sort of reading nowadays that isn't vaguely connected to the dissertation—though in the evenings I'm reading the first contemporary novel I've indulged in for a while, Colum McCann's Dancer, a kind of fictionalized biography of Rudolph Nureyev. The books opens with a tour-de-force account of the unspeakable hardships undergone by Russian soldiers in the defense against Hitler's invasion, and the first half is generally excellent at depicting young Nureyev's uncanny appetite for life against enormous odds. After his defection to the West the book seems to have shed some energy, chronicling his life among the rich and famous and his love affairs with other male dancers and the occasional rough trade. Its heart is in Soviet Russia and those he left behind. A valuable portrait of the ruthless egotism sometimes required of an artist if he or she is to realize their full potential. Such people fascinate, even as they treat others like garbage, in much the same way a character like Tony Soprano does: we are as hypnotically drawn to someone who doesn't arrest their own desires the way most of us are taught to in order to become productive members of society. But we are also taught not to become assholes, and as Martha says, that's a good thing. That's the main personal challenge for a creative person in this culture: you have to become a kind of monster of self-assertion, sending your work uninvited hither and yon, and yet you still have no right to treat others badly, even if you yourself have been so treated in the past. Perhaps Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 is in part about the balance and calculation required of anyone who seeks power, including simple sovereignty over one's self:
THEY that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.
Of course there's a cold stream of irony that circulates through the lines of this poem: there's something a little inhuman about such an attitude toward self and others. Most of us will choose the company of a Falstaff, for all his narcissism and unreliability, over the frigid nobility and ruthlessness of a Prince Hal.

Can you tell we're in the middle of the Shakespeare section of the course I'm TAing? Well, re-reading is usually good reading.

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