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"Watch my brains a minute, and see them whirl around."
bear by san
I'm reading E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture, which isn't so much teaching me anything I didn't already know, as illuminating some things I did know in new and useful ways. For example, I've just finally come to understand that my intellectual appreciations of Tyge Brahe and of Kit Marlowe are linked. Not y their accomplishments, but by the singular transgressiveness of their worldviews.

To understand this, I suspect I must give a foundation. We're told, in history and in literature, that the medieval worldview is hierarchical. For a modern American, however, this presents an intellectual difficulty. We are raised, after all, in a country which denies the existence of a class system (though we have one); which glorifies the American Dream; which privileges the heresy that all men are created equal.

You can see it in our fantasy, too. Even as we glorify some of the simpler ideas of this philosophy (the divine right of Kings, the chivalric hero, the Chosen One) we undermine it in other ways (the peasant hero, for example) and we refuse to allow our characters to assimilate its nuances. A place for everyone, and everyone in his place. Too often, the sympathetic characters in any medieval fantasy unilaterally reject that view. And it's, frankly... unlikely.

Because it's not just a social theory, for a man of 1500. It's two thousand years of God's Law.

When Shakespeare talks about the Order of the Universe, the great chain of being, the eagle as lord of birds and the lion as lord of beasts and the king as lord of men; when Copernicus talks about the heavenly spheres and the perfect solids; they are talking about concepts as profoundly, obviously, ethically and spiritually correct to them as the concept of innocent-until-proven-guilty is to a modern American. This is the way things are.

It is not something that is questioned. And its challenge has tragic results. The King is a sacred object, as is the father in regard to his family. Chaos may reign in their absence (as the devil may walk free in the world) but when the King (and Christ) returns, all will be well, all will be restored. The Sheriff of Nottingham will be punished when the rightful King comes home, and the White Tree will grow again.

Martin Luther and Henry VIII inserted some cracks in this ideology, but it was still solidly upheld and widespread-unquestioned, well into the 17th century.

Which brings me to Brahe. It's fashionable these days to throw the rose to Copernicus through Kepler, and (I blame Carl Sagan) toss Tycho out with the bathwater. But the fact of the matter is, Copernicus was wrong, and Brahe was right.

No. Stop. I can hear your eyes rolling from here. But it's true. Okay, heliocentric model, sure. Which was not original to Copernicus, I might digress. But here's the thing.

...At the time, the data supported Brahe. While Copernicus was fucking around with perfect solids and crystal spheres, trying to build a model of the heavens, Tycho Brahe was out in the cold of night making painstaking measurements of the path of Mars through the night sky, innovatively using parallax to establish that a stella nova, a new star (his term, by the way. still in use today) was in fact *not* in the sublunary sphere, but out there where the so-called fixed stars dwelled.

And accepting the evidence.

Let me try to explain how radical this was. No, not just radical.


God created the heavens and the earth. The heavens are perfect, immutable, etheric. Among them dwell the Angels. God is order. Satan is disorder. God is hierarchy. Satan is revolution. (incidentally, this is why sodomy--in the sense that commodorified was talking about recently--"sodomy is the radical act of talking about buggery"--is ranked with heresy and treason as a most profound crime. because it is transgressive of God's order and hierarchy.)

Below the heavens lies Earth. And here, all is corrupt. It changes. It is chaotic, which is to say devilish. It is imperfect, mutable, disorderly. It is close to hell.

The stars do not change. The stars are in Heaven. They are fixed, immutable, perfect. Heaven is cleaner than Earth; ether is purer than air; angels are purer than man.

Tycho Brahe (and his sister, Sophie) proved God wrong. It was, as Leonard Cohen would sing more than four hundred years later, a crack in everything.

It was Brahe's measurements of the orbit of Mars, ironically, that Kepler would eventually use to prove Tyge wrong about the geocentric model. But I tend to think Tyge would have been pleased; he was, after all, the man who could ditch fifteen hundred years of church dogma and a good big pile of classical philosophy before that when a new star shone in the night.

Brahe was a scientist.

Which brings me to why Marlowe was so revolutionary. What's transgressive about his work isn't the blood and guts--that's strictly classical.

What's transgressive about it is that nobody shows up at the end to put things back the way they were. He is, in that respect, a science fiction writer. There is no reset button on his work. Things change. And more than that, he steps over those hierarchical boundaries elegantly. In "Hero and Leander," it's left to George Chapman, "completing" the work after Marlowe's death, to stuff the genie of transgressive love back into the bottle. Chapman rounds it all up and sticks a moral on the end and ties it in a great big bow.

Marlowe breaks things. Not only does he say that a shepherd can rise to be King of the world... but that he can do it without any particular moral authority, or any resort to divine right. Tamburlaine is not Emperor of Everything because he has some right to be. He is Emperor of Everything because he is the baddest son of a bitch in the valley, amen. In Faustus, the Devil walks abroad in the world--the whole world, in fact, is Hell, is chaotic, is in upheaval--and God seems to have very little to say about it. In Edward II, a bad king is a bad king is a bad goddamned king, and it doesn't matter that he's Longshanks' son (there's a lot of game-playing in that play with the idea of nobility and whether it's really anything organic/intrinsic, or just a defended hypocrisy). Admittedly, there's a nod to propriety at the end, with Edward III punishing the usurpers, but I'm not sure that isn't the sort of legerdemain needed to get the deposition of a monarch past the state censor.

There are places where Shakespeare does take on this Elizabethan ideal of hierarchy. Specifically, it's subtext in his most famous sonnet:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go:
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

It's common knowledge that this poem is subverting the conventions of romantic poetry. But it's also subverting the idea of hierarchy, the chain of being, the idea that everything in the world is ranked. The rose is first among flowers; all other flowers are lesser before her. Gold is the purest metal, the sun is chief among planets. (Just write your own long digression into alchemical theory here; you're a bright bunch, and I'm tired.)

What's tricky here is that the lover says, essentially, that his love is not heavenly. She's not solar, or lunar. She is sublunary, earthy.

You get some of this in Lear, and in Othello--Shakespeare is capable of pointing out that sometimes the hierarchy is fucking unjust--but again, Shakespeare is essentially accepting of this ideal of divine order as the Way Things Are. The child must bow to the father, the wife to the husband, the subject to the king, and all will be made well in the end. In the end, he is a conservative.

Marlowe, in his reported insistence that he valued his liberty of speech above his life, and his refusal to accept that a shepherd wasn't just as good as a king, is a more thoroughly modern mind. A revolutionary, a radical. This is Hell, nor am I out of it. Chaos is injected into Order--and it never gets put back.

Which is why, in the eyes of Richard Baines and others, his mouth was dangerous, and "must be stopped."
3rd-Apr-2006 11:18 am - academic and autodidact
writing: glass cat--sarah
truepenny has a Ph.D. in English literature, specializing in Renaissance drama. matociquala does not. You might be tempted to believe that this means truepenny knows more about Renaissance literature/culture/history/whatever than matociquala does, but you would be wrong.

In some cases, you would be very wrong.

[ETA caveat: What I (truepenny) say in this post is the result and reflection of my own academic Pilgrim's Progress, in my particular department, with the particular professors I studied under. What I describe is only one strand of literary scholarship; as angevin2 points out in the comments, other departments and other programs are different. So don't take me as gospel, please, except on my own experience.]

truepenny: I am the product of very conventional, tradition-minded undergraduate and post-graduate programs. This means that, although New Criticism is no longer fashionable, and although a great deal of energy is expended in explaining earnestly how we don't do that anymore, the fact of the matter is, it is what we do. My prelims list (the required texts for the exams to achieve dissertator status), in common with every other prelims list in my department, was exclusively primary texts. There was a little note at the top (the academic equivalent of the fine print) saying that of course the student would supplement the list with critical and historical reading, yada yada, but you could get by perfectly well--as I in fact did--by doing no more secondary reading than was assigned in your various classes.

So my knowledge of the literature is fairly encyclopedic--although there are gaps where my coursework failed to be supplemented by my prelims reading. (The other thing to understand about the prelims list, which is seven pages long, is that nobody reads all of it. You can't.) Drayton is one such gap, Burton another, and in general my knowledge of Henrician literature is pretty darn spotty. Except for Wyatt, whom I adore in that wouldn't-want-to-meet-him sort of way. And I can talk about the period in literary terms, talk about genre and tradition and who was being influenced by whom and why Hero and Leander is such a clever and subversive thing to do and why Jonson and Webster in particular felt a need for such posturing prologues to their printed plays.

But my knowledge of history and culture is patchy, and what I know about the lives of the poets and playwrights, I've learned, almost entirely, from Bear. Because, academically, I was trained by people who were trained by New Criticism, and there's still a feeling that biographical details are sordid and petty and we should have our minds on higher matters. You study aspects of the culture, as they relate to the literary text you want to discuss, but you don't get down and wallow in it and read everything you can find about it and learn it. Because New Criticism says the literary text is paramount, and when the chips are down, that's still what the American university system is teaching.

matociquala: This was my experience in college too. And I must say, my knowledge of the literature and my general education are incredibly spotty compared to truepenny's. She has a classics background; I have Bullfinch's Mythology. She reads a bit of Latin and Greek. I have less of either than Ben Jonson's famous contumely would have alloted Shakespeare. I regularly mispronounce common English words. She doesn't.

I haven't read half, or a third, or a quarter of the period literature that she has. I have four years of college but no degree, and though I was majoring in English Lit and Anthropology before a joint problem with money and a brush with death, or rather deconstructionism, scared me clean out of academia, my concentration was not renaissance literature.

In fact, I didn't get bitten by the bug until 2002, when a chance conversation with an Oxfordian gave me the idea for the book that would eventually turn into The Stratford Man.

Only having learned the literature in the past, when I started reading history and biographies, I realized I had a totally skewed idea of how Renaissance theatre worked. These were not poets scribbling in ivory towers. These were men who fought and duelled and stole each other's wives, and shared the same stages, the same financial problems, the same work tables--sometimes the same work--and the same rented beds. Their plays were as often veiled assaults on one another as not--when they weren't assaulting each other physically--and the romanticized view of Art for Art's sake didn't hold water. They were social pariahs and outcasts, struggling artists, and they often died young and hard.

Ben Jonson the hard-drinking womanizer who pistol-whipped Marston with his own gun is a very different man than Ben Jonson the jealous classicist and unofficial Poet Laureate, who had an uneasy and envious relationship with Master Shakespeare. And yet they're both the same man.

truepenny: Whereas I know the facts of the Elizabethan/Jacobean theatrical system (Discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's London theatrical gossip in Act II, scene ii, of Hamlet, with special emphasis on the "little eyases." Use the back of the page if necessary.), but in a weird way, with no context. Because in the academic setting you study Shakespeare. And Marlowe. Oh, and Jonson because post-modernism makes him trendy. And maybe Middleton and Rowley's Changeling. And The Duchess of Malfi. If you read other playwrights, odds are good you will be taught them only in comparison to Shakespeare ("X is doing this, which Shakespeare does much better in ..."). But not in context with Shakespeare. You study them in isolation. You aren't encouraged to think about the fact that Shakespeare and Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson, knew each other. Collaboration is acknowledged (and if you're very lucky and get a very good professor, you may get to read a Beaumont and Fletcher play), but the plays you read and talk about are the solo ventures, the ones that fit our post-Romantic view of Art and the Artist. You read for text first--and in fact, academics go out of our way to erase the poet from our discussions.

This is in part actually appropriate and necessary. (It felt like I spent half my time last semester when I was teaching intro Shakespeare saying, "We don't know what Shakespeare wanted us to learn from A Midsummer Night's Dream--if anything at all. Don't try to talk about the author's intentions, because you can't know them.") But in part, I think, it's the effect of canonization, of pigeon-holing, of building little boxes to put literary texts in. And human beings are messy and perverse and don't fit in the boxes we build for ourselves.

Which is what I think the autodidactic approach teaches and the academic approach does not. It's a cliché to say that academics, in their ivory tower, are out of touch with humanity and real life, and in fact, academics as people are every bit as real and human and Machiavellian--Hobbesian, even--as anyone else. But we tidy up our subjects of study. Post-modernism, as a theory, and deconstructionism have a bad rep, but their initial impulse was to try to talk about the messiness of literature. Then they got trendy and codified and we're right back where we started with the text pinned on our dissecting tray like an unfortunate frog.

Academia is not holistic. And that's what I admire about matociquala's scholarship, the way she understands that everything fits together.
30th-Mar-2006 10:24 pm - In case you were wondering ...
writing: glass cat
Half of glass_cats is in London.

The other half of glass_cats is trying not to emulate Herod (who, you may remember, rageth in the streets) with envy.

The true and original Glass Cat yawns, washes her face, and--in the ineffable manner of cats--takes a nap.

We're not on hiatus, exactly, but if we're particularly quiet for the next couple weeks, that'll be why.
27th-Mar-2006 10:27 am - reading against the protocols
writing: glass cat--sarah
Bear's right to say that to be fair to a story, you have to read within its protocols. You got to dance with them what brung ya.

But that is not to claim that a reader must deny herself agency in reading. If a story's protocols offend you, or upset you, or don't work for you, you always have the option of tossing the story aside. Or throwing it with great force.

Or you can choose to read against the protocols, what literary critics call reading against the text.

It's the basic principle of deconstruction--and, no, do not flee from the word, nor fight with the word. It's just a word, and the concept it represents is a useful tool. Because what deconstruction is, at the root of it, is the patient reiteration of the idea that things happen in a story, not because they happen, but because they are made to happen. And that the reasons they are made to happen are neither innocent nor disinterested. If the story is a river, trying to persuade the reader in his little coracle to flow with it to the sea, and reading against the text, against the story's protocols, is trying to go upstream, against the current, then deconstruction is a paddle.

It's a tool. You don't let the tool use you, but you don't throw it away, either.

And it is an especially useful tool when you are faced with a story that makes you angry.

When I was a junior in college, The Woman in White made me angry. Furiously, scathingly angry. (There is no angry feminist like a young angry feminist with her consciousness freshly raised.) And I wrote a paper for a philosophy of feminism class (taught, incidentally, by Ti-Grace Atkinson) about gender and narrative control in The Woman in White in which, with great and vicious satisfaction, I. Took. The. Story. Apart.

The first paragraph went like this:
Narrative control, the ability to tell a story, is an important issue in the analysis of any novel. The voices directly accessible to the reader are an important index of a novel's agenda. In any novel, some characters speak and some remain silent; the important thing to determine is the critical factor that distinguishes the speaker from the spoken of. In Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, gender limits character and is ultimately the ruling factor in the issue of narrative control. The construction of personality is determined by gender, as is narrative control. The ability to tell the story of which one is a part is based solely on being of the appropriate (masculine) gender; although this dictate is transgressed at first, by the end of the novel all such rebellion has been quashed, and male narrative authority reigns supreme.

And by the end of writing that paper, I understood why the story made me so angry, above and beyond the great mass of Victorian novels. And the reason is the way that Walter Hartright, aided and abetted by the author, usurps the stories of both Marian and Laura. And because it still makes me angry, here's part of the analysis:

O the perfidy of Walter Hartright!Collapse )

This is what deconstruction, as a tool, can do to aid the reader in the process of reading against the text. It helps you look at things backwards--against the current--to deny the mesmerizing enchantment of fiction. Don't ignore the man behind the curtain. Announce that the Emperor has no clothes. Even if they brought you, don't dance with people who willfully step on your feet.

Don't read with the protocols if they're going to constitute a betrayal.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1860. Ed. and Introd. Harvey Peter Sucksmith. Oxford: World's Classics-Oxford University Press, 1991.
25th-Mar-2006 03:59 pm - psst.
bear by san
All y'all can talk too. Comments are unscreened; posts are moderated, but any member can post and, yanno, likely it will be approved.
25th-Mar-2006 03:36 pm - reading with the protocols
bear by san
matociquala: You have to read a story within its own protocols for it to make sense.

truepenny: Yes. Otherwise you spend the whole of Alice in Wonderland complaining that rabbits can't talk.

matociquala: Well, no. But any fool knows March Hares can....


(I can see ways where these are problematic statements, because of course one of the joys of feminist (and certain other politically-motivated schools of) criticism is questioning assumptions, genre and otherwise. And critical reading is all about picking stuff apart. However, I am minded of a comment in my blog recently regarding my reading of naominovik's book, wherein the other reader opined that he had a hard time with suspension of disbelief because history hadn't been changed more by the existence of domesticated dragons. And of course, there's a certain kind of book that's all about logical extrapolation of historical changes. But this is not that book, nor is it trying to be.

So I think on one level it's necessary to read a book in accordance with the rules of the game its playing, because on one level, any book is merely a logical construct being used to play a beautiful and self-referential game of chess, which may have application to the wider world or not. And so, and so... at what point do you stop complaining that it's chess, because you would rather have gone to a soccer game? Collect a refund on your ticket and drive over to the soccer game.

(lousy chess is a different issue.) )
25th-Mar-2006 01:36 pm - so why the Glass Cat, anyway?
writing: glass cat--sarah
She is not notable, among Baum's creations, for her positive qualities. She is, after all, arrogant, supercilious, vain, and not nearly as bright as she thinks she is. "My magic made you, and made you live," Doctor Pipt tells her, "and it was a poor job because you are useless and a bother to me; but I can't make you grow. You will always be the same size--and the same saucy, inconsiderate Glass Cat, with pink brains and a hard ruby heart."


I loved her as a child, and I love her now.

Partly, it's the transparency (pun intended) of her self-love. Partly, it's the fact that she is so damn cool. Partly, it's the insecurity underlying her vanity (her name, after all, is Bungle, although the narrative is kind enough not to use it).

And she is honest. Utterly, devastatingly, uncompromisingly honest.

And--well, and she is a she. Even though she is a glass cat and could have been any gender, or none. She is female. (Which is not the reason for her vanity, since Scraps the Patchwork Girl, in the same book, is equally female and is cheerfully unworried about most things, including her looks.) There's been discussion recently about feminism and writing and reading, and why so many women writers, including feminists, write male protagonists. And the Glass Cat, with her arrogance and her honesty and her pink brains that work, is--for me at least--a reminder that (a.) female characters can be just as obstreperous and unlikable and captivating as male characters* and (b.) telling the truth is important.

So that's why the Glass Cat is our patron saint.

*[ETA: let's make that women and men. Women can be just as obstreperous and unlikable and captivating as men. Standing on a pedestal is nobody's idea of a good time.]
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