Dramatis Personae

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Some reading?

Parts seem to be very much of the zeitgeist right now, along with knotted scarves worn indoors, chorizo, and, bafflingly, Leona Lewis. So I thought I'd propose reading Stern and Palfrey's Shakespeare in Parts. I'm not a drama person; certainly no Shakespeare nut. Heaven forbid. But it seems like it has lots of implications for all kinds of work. So: anyone like to join me on the dance floor of scholarship? If so, I'll set a date by which I'll have read said tome, and encourage some unbuttoned critique.

Right: to lunch.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Republicans for Voldemort

Bumper sticker seen on a car in Neighborhood, in the city of City, today at approximately 5.53 pm.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I am a fan of Texas because I am a fan of Houston. I spent a little time there, in the pastoral period of my poetic career, my oaten reeds years, and found, to my surprise, that the gun ranges were outnumbered by Cy Twombly pieces. Brilliant food, too, served in plates so big you could curl up and sleep in them after the meal, if that’s the kind of madness that grips you. And the music. And the architecture (in parts). Even the whole Enron corporate sphere had bred a cool, pierced, tattooed counter-culture that zoomed around the appalling roads on skateboards. But Dallas. Dallas, Dallas, Dallas. How do I love thee? Well, not very much. Not the melted cheese that was everywhere. Not the unpeopled streets. Not the drive to the airport.

But these four SAA things were good:

1. The size of my room. Bigger than Lancashire, easily. The bathroom was a different zip code.
2. Room service. God, what have I been doing all my life? Why cook? Why leave the room? Why leave the bed?
3. The opening night drinks reception in that stunning Renzo Piano sculpture park. Amazing, despite the bar snack of choice seeming to be fried bread.
4. The attempts to explain, respond to, and generally justify the return of authorship as an undeniably pressing (but somewhat worrying) variable in scholarship – principally in the session on ‘Complete Authors?’. Martin Butler talked about the tensions between the priorities of current Jonson editors, and Jonson himself: the current editorial desire to foreground a theatrical context, for example, which Jonson tried to bleed away in 1616; the decision to erase some of Jonson’s less smart revisions (and, therefore, implicitly, to return to a strikingly evaluative model of editing/criticism) – which means restoring, for example, the sleeker, leaner, generally hotter quarto versions of texts like Cynthia’s Revels, bloated into irrelevance in the Folio; the desire to order the Workes chronologically, instead of the pleasing career arc that Jonson made the Workes describe (theatrical texts -> poetry -> court-commissioned work). All of which suggests that while Jonson's reputation as a writer is surely higher than it has been since the c17, as an editor his stock is Bear Stearns low. I liked Gary Taylor’s attempt to replace the author with the ‘worker function’ and, more broadly, his call for an artisanal theory of literary creativity, stressing things made, and working for others. (Or is this one more problematic middle-class appropriation of ‘artisanal’ – like artisanal cheeses, breads, olive oils, the kind of things Berkeley-born people can’t stop talking about.) Eric Rasmussen was a bit shaky on the RSC works, I thought: very funny on the yellow cover, and interesting on the early modern exclusion of collaboratively-authored plays from Works (no Pericles (etc) in Shakespeare (1623); no Eastward Ho! in Marston (1633)). But when asked to pin down the editorial justification for a Folio-based edition (and, in particular, to explain certain anomalies like Two Noble Kinsmen being in the RSC ‘folio’ edition but not the 1623 Works), he didn’t seem to come up with much – unless I missed it, which is quite possible, amid the vast aircraft hangers in which papers took place. One other thing: turns out Ben Jonson’s corpse was buried vertically, head down. Excellent!

P.S. Guns

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the hotels all had signs saying that concealed weapons were prohibited in the hotel. Cultural difference!

Monday, March 17, 2008

SAA Dubai? Or, Dallas Struck By Zombies, Citizens Flee

I'm inspired by Hieronimo to propose another picture of another city that isn't Dallas, but pretty much could be -- and another place that, without oil, would probably barely be inhabited. Already before my plane landed, when it was skimming along above endless miles of the worst, most densely-packed and depressing tract housing I've ever seen, I thought we might be in trouble in this place. This sense was only increased during a $500 cab ride from the airport to the hotel, past endless dismal corporate parks and "President George Bush Turnpike" -- a drive solely enlivened by the pleasure of noticing "Hasty Beverages" en route. Then there was the view from my room, a landscape of about a million brutalist skyscrapers, seventy-five parking lots, fifty-three lanes of freeways, a few construction cranes, and something called "Donut Chinese Take Away." Like Hieronimo, I went there with an open mind, hoping for good BBQ and Tex-Mex; he can confirm that one of the first things I did when I got there was to call him to say that I suspected Dallas to be the worst place in the world. It has that postapocalyptic, the-people-are-dead-but-there-might-be-zombies kind of feel. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. Who doesn't like zombies? I just wish there had been a few decent restaurants as well. Can't eat brains every day.

Speaking of eating brains (heh heh heh) ... there was the conference itself, which was, as always, a lot of fun. Actually maybe more fun than last year, despite the absence of the schooner bar, the howling wilderness outside the hotel, the zombies clawing at the door, and (after mad dashes past zombies, and after negotiating the preposterously high "extras" charged by clearly zombified Dallas cabdrivers) the pretty mediocre meals. Though I started to get sick on the second day, which robbed me of energy and definitely inhibited my drinking.

I found myself going to a lot more sessions this year, for one reason or another. Sometimes this was a mistake. Is there really ever a point in auditing a seminar? I mean, really? Other than to watch your friends discuss papers you haven't read? That is, unless you're going there with the specific intention of being that person who asks the crazy question, once the seminarians open up their discussion to everybody, and thereby makes all the other people in the room become suddenly fascinated with their shoes or with some tiny square section of the table in front of them. But mostly it was cool. If you're just participating in a seminar, there's an unbelievably small amount of work or worrying about work to do at SAA, which means you can spend more time surfing sessions and seeing what other people are up to. Or, better yet, getting down to the truly important business of eating and drinking.

The theme, I guess, was boredom with facts and things -- "facts" and "things" being oddly conflated, I thought, in the plenary talk that everybody was talking about, which appeared to me to assume that, in general, materialist scholarship and meticulous scholarship are more or less the same, unimaginative thing, and we should stop doing both of them and just be cool. I frankly didn't get the distinction that was being made there, I think between good historicism and bad historicism. Maybe I'm being obtuse, but aren't we always trying to use historical scholarship to imagine other ways of thinking and being? Of course there's a huge amount of terrible, boring, dreary, soul-crushing, eyeball-glazing work out there -- clearly being produced by zombies -- but I'm not sure that the difference between that and the good work can be described in terms of method. Nor do I think it has much to do with whether one claims to follow or to repudiate New Historicism. That whole line of thought seemed to me oddly to accept the olde, circa-1990 critique of NH, which said, roughly, that either it's not new, or, if it is new, it's wrong; the new spin was just that wrong is more exciting. (And yet the point was also that Mulaney wasn't actually wrong, when you look at how people thought about the liberties ...)

So, it was a great performance, but I'm not sure I got it.

I heard some other cool stuff, saw friends, and generally had a good time, despite the zombification.

Where are we going next year? Do I hear SAA Kamchatka? Novosibirsk? Fargo?

Oh, as always, I of course issue my general apology. Dear all: yeah ... uh ... sorry about that.

SAA Pompeii

Here's a picture I snapped on Friday afternoon at the SAA.

Ok, that's Pompeii, but I think Pompeii may have about the same number of street-level shops and restaurants as downtown Dallas. Where is everybody? On Friday afternoon, in the middle of a work day, there was no one on the street except Shakespeareans. It was like a scene out of The Omega Shakespearean. Very bizarre.

Now, I went to Dallas with an open mind. I was all, "well, I'm not going to be one of those snooty people who are griping about why they'd schedule the SAA in Dallas; Dallas, I'm sure, has its own interesting culture and food and night life, and so I'm sure I'll have an interesting and enjoyable three nights there." That turns out to be wrong. Apparently there are no people in Dallas, only giant office buildings, with giant garages on their ground floors.

P.S. The "historic district" is 20 years old. And the most historic establishment seems to be a TGI Friday's.

Oh well. As for the conference, it was fun as always, with lots of drinking. I learned that we are all either doing really interesting, imaginative, creative, big-picture work that is wrong; or boring, pedantic, niggling little narratives about minutiae that are correct. Those seemed to be the only two options. Apparently it is impossible to be interesting, imaginative, meaningful and right. So I hear anyway.

There was much discussion of New Historicism. From what I heard, again, it seemed there were two options: either we were failing sufficiently to position ourselves in relation to New Historicism, failing to display enough anxiety about our relationship to that movement; or we were all busily critiquing New Historicism in rather silly and boring manners. Again, the third term seemed to be missing to me, which is that most of the younger generation of scholars who I know simply don't think all that much about New Historicism these days, and don't feel much need to do so. They (and I) use New Historicist practices at times and certainly see it as an invaluable prehistory or foundation to our work, but are not (or no longer) so bound up in the meta-question of "positioning" that seems to dominate the field every so often. I also felt like there was a constant reductionism at work in these discussions: all historicist practice was reduced to New Historicism, whereas there was plenty of historicist work, of various stripes, being done pre-1980, and plenty still being done now, and--a crucial point to remember, it seems to me--plenty of other kinds of historicist work being done during the heyday of New Historicism: feminist historicism, queer studies, textual/bibliographic/editorial studies, biographical work, social history, more forthrightly Marxist work, etc etc. New Historicism always seems to gobble up all other kinds of historicism, until it simply stands in for "contextualization" or "historicizing" per se, which somewhat begs the question, doesn't it? Either New Historicism refers to a particular constellation of historicizing strategies, in which case there are plenty of distinctions to be drawn among different types of historicizing, then and now, or else we simply extend it to mean something like "placing literary texts in their historical moment," in which case there seems to be New Historicism, no end of New Historicism, for us and for everyone, for ever and ever, amen. (Ok, that odd pastiche of Greenblatt and the Lord's Prayer got away from me a bit there.)

I guess last year's plenary--which was all about how historical formalism was a new way forward--didn't stick. Or else that's just another version of New Historicism.

Finally, not to get too cranky, but there was something a little perturbing about seeing a number of seriously eminent scholars (I'm not talking about the plenary panel here, which I didn't get to but heard much about) complaining about the lack of "big ideas" and imaginative, large narratives in the work of younger scholars today. Let's face it: it's a luxury of a particular position in the academic class hierarchy to be able to propound grand ideas. If a junior scholar tried to do that for a first book, he'd either be 1) told that this is more of a "second" or "third book project"; or 2) slammed in reviews for being sloppy and forgetting all the little details that countervail his narrative; 3) a combination of 1) and 2), with the added attraction of getting slammed in external reviews for tenure, being denied tenure, falling on hard times, and dying penniless and insane. Let alone if a grad student tried to write such a dissertation. So I think there was a hidden class narrative underlying some of the complaints I heard. (Again, I think these discussions were the result of the plenary panel, and particularly Mary Bly's paper, but I'm not talking specifically about that paper--more about conversations I had or heard in the hallways, the bar, seminar rooms, and an enjoyable cab ride to the airport.)

In other news, I stood on the Grassy Knoll. And I had a seriously good breakfast at a tiny little place near the hotel that served me one hell of a good jalapeno omelet. On the other hand, I had two seriously mediocre meals of what were supposed to be Texas staples: bbq and Tex-Mex. I found two places after much internet food-blog browsing, to which I dragged various BtR and non-BtR friends, both of which were not as good as places I go in my hometown. Perhaps I should have known better since more than one of the food blogs, written by Texans, began with some version of: "Everybody knows there's no good [bbq, Mexican food, anything else] in Dallas. If you simply have to eat in Dallas, try the following:" The best meal I had was something they call Tex-Asian. Who knew?

Met some people I'd been wanting to meet, hung out with old friends, and had several of those nice, fortuitous, hodgepodge gatherings of people for drinking, eating, and chatting. All in all, a good SAA but sadly lacking in the unbelievable sushi and korean bbq that I had last year.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

SAA 2008: Deep Thought

SAA seminars are like a blind date with ten to fifteen strangers at one time.

Monday, March 03, 2008

"Be not solitary, be not idle"

This will be my last piece of Burtoniana. Masses of people will no doubt express surprise and relief -- or maybe shock and rage -- when I write that I have now ploughed my way through the whole thing. I think this requires a moment of counting, because in my edition, the page numbers restart three times: first for the preface and the "First Partition," on causes and symptoms; next for the "Second Partition," on cures; and one last time for the "Third Partition," on Love-Melancholy and Religious Melancholy.

Let us count:

Partition One: 439 pp.
Partition Two: 261 pp.
Partition Three: 432 pp.

Which gives us a grand total of 1,132 pages; but that's just the text. If you factor in the notes, you get 523 + 312 + 503 = 1,338. And I did generally tend to look up the notes, though this was by and large not an edifying experience. So, basically, I read a lot. I read in my living room. I read in my bedroom. I read in airports. I read in a cabin in the woods. And, occasionally, I read at a joint around the corner where they have two good bourbons and three good tequilas, all of which were employed in completing this task. Which they also, at a certain point, began to hinder.

I could now go ahead and follow my usual practice of singling out various absurd, ridiculous, mad, or preposterous things that I came across in all this reading. But instead, I'm going to announce my conversion to Burton-style medicine. It's easy to mock, especially in its crazier manifestations -- blood-letting, trepanning (yes, Burton seems willing to consider that trepanning might be a good way to let the crazies out of your brain), curing schizophrenia by eating cucumbers (to cool the hot humors), or whatever. The major points he makes, though, seem to me reasonable, probable, and also pretty well in line with a lot of contemporary "alternative" medicines. For instance:

1. Diseases of the mind are linked to diseases of the body, and vice versa. In a sense, there’s no real difference, in a humoralist context, since our emotional and mental balance is described in terms of the quantity and temperature of the four bodily fluids.

2. The best therapy for most conditions, psychological or physiological, is not medicine or surgery (or blood-letting or trepanning), but the "rectification" of diet and exercise. Only when all else fails should you try something more drastic. A few medical conditions are caused by eating too little, a great many by eating too much and eating badly. Many others are caused by inadequate exercise. (Burton is, however, a little quaint on the subject of exercise – he thinks you should stop the instant you break a sweat).

3. Along with diet and exercise -- healthy and regular "evacuations." He's all about the bowel movements, which is easy to laugh at, but a lot harder to refute, as a basic aspect of health. (One of my weirder etymological discoveries, in reading this book, is that “defecation” began as a mental process; or, rather, it began as an alchemical term for the purging of imperfections, and then expanded metaphorically to more abstract or spiritual meanings: thus Burton can write that Luther “began upon a sudden to defecate” the Church. A little later, Boyle could aim to “Defecate and Exalt our Conceptions,” and Johnson still hoped “To defecate and clear my mind by brisker motions.” Only in the nineteenth century did the idea of defecation as a mental cleaning get re-physicalized to the act of purging the body. At least, that’s what it looks like from the OED).

4. Our habits shape us, physically and mentally. So does our culture -- what foods we're used to eating, for instance. There's even a macrobiotic Burton: he doesn't quite extend this to food (maybe because a lot less food was actually being shipped long distances at the time?), but with herbal medicines he insists that the best ones are those produced locally, because the "composition" of our bodies is already adapted to locally-grown produce. These days he'd be all about the terroir, or whatever it's called.

5. On the more psychological side, a great deal of this book is about solitude – which is presented as both pleasant and dangerous. Being alone too much eventually makes you crazy. Go out, have a drink, take it easy, get a hobby, find something to occupy yourself, and stop worrying so much. Or -- write a really, really long book about melancholy. You know, so you can see how much crazier other people are. In any case -- according to what are virtually the book’s final lines -- “Be not solitary, be not idle,” because those two things open the door to every form of insanity.

None of that seems at all mad or preposterous to me. But don't anybody go actually eating the foods Burton recommends. Or cutting any holes in their heads. Nor should anyone, under any circumstances, try to cure "dotage" by eating the boiled and spiced brains of a ram "that never meddled with an ewe" (Pt. 2, Sec. 5, Mem. 1, Subs. 5, p. 248), or hypochondrical melancholy by putting "a pair of bellows' end into a clyster pipe, and applying it into the fundament, open the bowels, so draw forth the wind" (p. 260). But, mostly, Burton is also telling us not to do crazy shit like that.

One last thing, on "hypochondriacal" or "windy" melancholy. The hypochondries, OED tells me, are the areas of the abdomen just below the rib-cage on either side, so they include things like the spleen, the liver, and so forth -- the organs generally considered to have been the source of melancholy and passion. Hypochondriacal melancholy seems for Burton to encompass more or less all obsessions, paranoias, and anxieties, including what we would call hypochondria, i.e., the obsessive conviction that you're dying of leprosy, botulism, gangrene, snakebite, mesothelioma. Burton is certainly well aware of that kind of hypochonria: he twice warns his readers to skip over the descriptions of symptoms, if they’re that way inclined. But Burton’s hypochondriacal melancholy also includes things like gas and "rumbling in the guts." It seems that the limitation of “hypochondria” to its current meaning is a pretty recent event. OED notes that, in the nineteenth century, hypochondria was basically the male counterpart of hysteria; in Burton, it's a very widely ramifying term, one of the three major subdivisions of melancholy: there's melancholy of the head (running from headaches to seeing visions), hypochondriacal melancholy, and then melancholy "Over all the body." If they haven't already, somebody needs to write a history of hypochondria.

(A quick Google search to see if someone has in fact done so turned up an article titled: "Some penetrating insights: images of enemas in art," which is one for Bardolph's post on titles...)