Here Before

Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. Déjà vu can be quite disorienting. One of the categories for my 2018 reading challenge is a book you can read in a day. Maybe it’s just me, or creeping middle age, but books seem to be getting fatter these days. Despite the amount of time I spend reading, I’m slow at it and it’s a real struggle to find something I can actually finish on a three-hour bus ride. That’s why I thought of a play. Plays are meant to be performed in one sitting, so you should, in theory, be able to read one in a few hours. My first thought was Shakespeare, but the books of Shakespeare you can find these days all have added pages of commentary and interpretative material and the books seem to have put on weight since the Bard’s day.

So I settled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. My wife had a used copy from college days and I’d been wanting to read it for some years. Here was my excuse. Then the bus ride began. Starting Act One I was sure I had read this before. It wasn’t just an inkling, like déjà vu often is, but an overpowering sensation. Of course I could tell what was going to happen—I’ve read Hamlet a time or two—but it was more than that. The sense that I had not long ago read this very sequence of words was nothing shy of overpowering. Uncanny even. As I moved into the latter part of the act, the feeling went away. This was new territory after all.

Consciousness is mysterious. Even with all our instruments and equations and theories, we still don’t know what it is. Materialists insist it must be simply a function of the brain, but that’s certainly not what it feels like. One of the hazards of reading a lot in middle age is that some things do start to blend together in your gray matter. Research, for example, means reading many books on the same subject with repeated ideas common among them. For fiction, however, we often hold a higher standard. Uniqueness and creativity are highly valued, even if the play you’re writing is a riff off the old Bard. In the end, I was able to finish the play in a day’s reading on the bus. Staring out the window after I’d finished, I was thinking how déjà vu can be quite disorienting.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Read Until Ragnarok

Wpa-marionette-theater-presents-rur“The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” quoth Hamlet. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution, my wife and I were shown about Prague by a friend who’d grown up in Communist ruled Czechoslovakia. As we watched the changing of the guard, he told us how Václav Havel, the final president of Czechoslovakia, had been a playwright and appreciated the need for pageantry in such civil ceremonies. I remember being impressed with what this playwright had accomplished while America had just survived being ruled by a lackluster comedic actor whose major contribution had been the myth of trickle-down economics. Havel was at one point selected as ranking high among the world’s top hundred intellectuals. Somehow Bedtime for Bonzo just didn’t seem to be worth bragging over.

Within another year or two, Czechoslovakia would dissolve, but the world would remain impressed by the Czech playwright. Karel Čapek was another Czech author and playwright of considerable import. Čapek, “public enemy number two” of the invading Nazis, died before the National Socialists could reach him. His brother died in Bergen-Belsen. Čapek is the author of the play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Indeed, he coined the term “robot,” around which this play revolves. Over the holidays I finally had a chance to read R.U.R., and I was immediately struck by how prominent the meme of God appeared, and also how prescient Čapek was. Like his contemporary Franz Kafka, Čapek had an unsullied vision of human propensities. Not having seen a production of R.U.R., or knowing how it would play out, I was nearly buried under the layers of meaning that such a brief piece could convey. Harry Domin, the general manager of R.U.R., supplies the world with robots for the easement of human labor. These robots eventually acquire souls, through human tampering, but also rely on humans for their reproduction. All of humanity, save a sole survivor kept alive to make new robots, is destroyed. Alquist, the last man alive, realizes when one robot will lay down its life for its mate, they have become a new Adam and Eve, and humanity’s existence is truly at an end.

Although I’ve read about robots since I was a child, I didn’t know about R.U.R. until my daughter joined her high school robotics club. Robots have, in many ways, dominated my life since. Although Čapek’s play is funny in parts, it is dystopian and profoundly troubling. Our robots have evolved since the period of World War I, just after which the play was written, but our moral sensibilities have not kept pace. Helena, the eventual wife of Domin, feels that robots should be given a soul. At first they feel no pain, mental or physical. Once they acquire these, however, they begin their inexorable march to the elimination of humankind. Reading of how technocrats believe that our true function is now to service the robots who do much of our work today, while unemployment just won’t release its grip on the flesh, my thoughts go back to Karel Čapek, Václav Havel, and William Shakespeare. The playwrights create, but the actors just ape.

Strawberry Meatloaf

Strawberry ice cream. It tastes like summer in a waxed cardboard carton. While having a small dish of it recently it occurred to me that strawberry is my favorite flavor of ice cream. This was the first time I’d had any in perhaps twenty years. I am not diabetic, but I am extremely phobic. I avoid the things I like out of fear. There always seems to be plenty of bad to go around, but I’m always afraid the good will run out. Waiting two decades for something I like is a small price to pay. This same phenomenon accompanies my musical tastes. When I listen to music, generally, I listen to music. I’m not a background music personality. Life has been so busy lately, however, that I don’t have the time for music that I would like. I bought a CD (yes, they still make them) of Meat Loaf’s Hell in a Handbasket shortly after it was released. I just listened to it over the weekend. (It has been that busy.)

Since I had a lot to accomplish last weekend I listened to the CD as background music, violating my own standards. That meant that I had only impressions of what was going on rather than the full impact. Immediately, however, I was struck at how socially conscientious this album is. I realize that Meat Loaf is primarily a singer, performing songs written by others. Nevertheless, it seems that a singer must have some investment in the songs they perform to put the kind of empathy into them that Meat Loaf does. The theme that seems to be running through these selections is that violence and greed have become our paradigms, and we are heading to, well, Hell in a handbasket.

I’m old enough to miss album art. I don’t miss the hiss, skips, and pops of vinyl, but the square foot of album art was often a gift. The album art is part of the message of the music. Inside the back cover of the Hell in a Handbasket CD, behind where the disc is mounted, is a gothic photo of Meat Loaf holding a skull, Hamlet-like, before a large cross. Around his neck is a chain that holds another skull, and, with a bit of imagination, perhaps a small crucifix. (Like most people who still remember album art, my eyes aren’t what they used to be.) Something is happening here that I can’t quite define. Jim Steinman is not on this album, and my fear seems to rise. Then I listen and I hear my social consciousness being in some small way affirmed. It may not be Wagnerian rock, which I fear is rapidly running out, but it is worth another listen when I’m able to set aside the world for maybe an hour or two.

Kings and Codes

I readily acquiesce to the suggestion that others are smarter than myself. In a world of overly competitive commerce that has wormed its way into higher education, I have found myself ill-equipped to compete against those who are more clever at working the system. At times I can be decidedly pre-medieval in my perception of fairness. Thus it was a combination of self-denigration and legitimate surprise to find a brief piece in the May edition of Wired magazine on the Code of Hammurabi. In this arena I would have supposed myself to be on firmer ground. The piece by Joel Meares appeared in the Blast from the Past section of the “Humor Issue” of the erudite magazine. The writers at Wired are by default well beyond my ability in the tech scene, but this piece was a consideration of how Hammurabi’s justice still plays its way out in popular culture. Beginning with the 1970’s movie series Death Wish, Hammurabi is given credit for inspiring Hamlet, The Count of Monte-Cristo, Red Dead Redemption, Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Batman. Holy pedigree, Hammurabi!

Each semester I try to explain to my students why study of the ancient world is still relevant. It may be overly simplified to suggest that Hammurabi directly inspired all these works (the Akkadian language wasn’t really deciphered until the middle of the nineteenth century, CE, long after Shakespeare), but clearly the trajectory had been set long ago. Even before Hammurabi. The earliest known law-codes predate Hammurabi by many centuries and demonstrate that our sense of justice and fair play were being bandied about by the gods long before Hammurabi was a twinkle in Shamash’s eye. If we want others to play nice, the best way to convince them to do so is to lay the dicta in the realm of the gods.

Maybe I can’t figure out where Death Wish and Moby Dick share anything beyond a cursory resemblance to Hammurabi, but it is clear that the Mesopotamians were the first to articulate the idea that the gods set the rules and it is our duty not to upset them. Of course, in our society fair play is frequently sublimated to corruption at various levels. Someone is always willing to bend the rules if the covert payment is enticing enough. After all, doesn’t it look like Hammurabi is placing his fingers to his lips while receiving a kickback from Shamash on the pinnacle of the famous stele bearing the code that now bears his name?

Hammurabi winks at Shamash