Lookback: on schadenfreude

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

I try not to drop foreign words or phrases into my writing (in fact, I told a member of my criticism class yesterday to remove C’est vrai and Gesamtkunstwerk from the piece of his that I was editing). Once in a while, though, there’s no good alternative, and schadenfreude is one of those rare exceptions to my personal rule. To derive malicious joy from someone else’s troubles is, if I may be so bold as to say it, precisely the sort of concept for which one would expect the Germans to have coined a word, and it seems to me altogether fitting that we should have taken it over without change….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Dostoevsky on sarcasm

INK BOTTLE“Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

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Entry from an unkept diary

Dickens_0• A cyberfriend writes to remind me that when Charles Dickens visited America for the first time in 1842, he was mobbed wherever he went, an experience that he described in a letter to John Forster, his friend and biographer:

I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution, with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed and hemmed about by people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted for want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighbourhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won’t leave me alone. I get out at a station, and can’t drink a glass of water, without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow. Conceive what all this is! Then by every post, letters on letters arrive, all about nothing, and all demanding an immediate answer. This man is offended because I won’t live in his house; and that man is thoroughly disgusted because I won’t go out more than four times in one evening. I have no rest, or peace, and am in a perpetual worry.

tumblr_m5jk5byFeJ1r8b83ro1_1280I suppose a modern-day reader might regard this as a nice problem to have, but what strikes me most forcibly about Dickens’ dilemma (if you want to call it that) is that it was a novelist who was having it. Today it’s unimaginable that any writer would be treated that way, whether in America or elsewhere. Our “rock stars” are…well, rock stars. Or, more likely, movie and TV stars. We simply don’t confer mass celebrity on writers nowadays. If I had to guess, I’d say that Ernest Hemingway was the last novelist of consequence whom a considerable number of Americans would have been at all likely to know by sight—he was, in fact, famous enough to be paid to endorse products—and he died more than a half-century ago.

Is this loss of status a bad thing? Very possibly not. The poet L.E. Sissman, about whom I wrote not long ago, believed that serious writers should keep to themselves:

In a word, the serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim. A vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of solitude, or at least long periods of privacy. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality.

He may have been right, too, though I’ve expressed reservations about it. Nevertheless, I know that I wouldn’t ever want to be enough of a celebrity to draw crowds in the street, though I readily confess to getting a kick out of being (very, very occasionally) recognized there. David Bowie said it: “I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.” So does a reservation, and nobody bothers you while you eat.

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Stephen King appears in an American Express commercial:

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D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

X5vEr8LD_400x400I grieve to report the passing today of my friend D.G. Myers, a critic of great force and penetration who also blogged eloquently about literature and, more recently, his own terminal cancer.

I made brief but admiring mention of David two weeks ago in this essay about L.E. Sissman. Yesterday I learned that his time was short and wrote this tribute:

David Myers is a tough critical customer. He takes no reputations at face value. All he cares about is the quality of the art object itself, and he applies his standards rigorously and unflinchingly. But that makes him sound like something other than what he is, a thoroughly decent man of deeply humane values who looks to literature for that which great art is uniquely well suited to provide: beauty, clarity, consolation, truth. I in turn have long looked to him for critical guidance, confident that whatever he recommends will be worth reading. We don’t always agree, but I know that I can always take him seriously. That knowledge is a blessing.

It will be published next week in an online Festschrift that is being prepared by Patrick Kurp and to which I will link as soon as it goes on line.

Farewell, David. You were a brave and inspiring soul.

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Jimmy Rushing sings “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1958. I sent this video to David when he was having a very bad day a few months ago. It buoyed his spirits then. May it comfort his friends now:

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While he disappears

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on two important shows that I saw during my recent trip to Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Court Theatre’s Native Son. Here’s an excerpt.

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In Chicago Shakespeare’s modern-dress production of “King Lear,” directed by Barbara Gaines, Larry Yando plays the mad old king as a snarling, capricious Frank Sinatra buff who has one foot caught in the quicksand of dementia. If you think that sounds gimmicky, think twice: Mr. Yando and Ms. Gaines have given us a colossal “Lear” whose sheer visceral impact is unrivaled. Watching it is like staring down a typhoon.

tn-500_lear2Mr. Yando is well known to Chicago playgoers for his fearlessly forthright acting in Writers’ Theatre’s “Dance of Death” and the Court Theatre’s “Angels in America.” Even for him, though, this is a career-clinching performance, noteworthy not just for its unflagging intensity (he is fully as potent in the first half of the play as he is after intermission) but also for its textured complexity. Great violence alternates unpredictably with great tenderness in Mr. Yando’s Lear. At once frightened and frightening, he lashes out with startling physicality at his family and followers to cloak the slow crumbling of his consciousness, making all the more terrible the question that he asks of his Fool: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

Ms. Gaines is equally well known for the imaginative integrity of her high-concept Shakespeare stagings, and this “Lear” is exemplary of the virtues of her populist approach. Working closely with Lindsay Jones, the sound designer, she has woven Sinatra’s recordings into the fabric of the play, using “Angel Eyes,” the Matt Dennis torch song whose haunting last line is “’Scuse me while I disappear,” as a recurring motif that foreshadows to wrenchingly apposite effect Lear’s final disintegration….

“Native Son,” Richard Wright’s 1940 novel about a young black man from Chicago who recaptures his lost masculinity by killing a rich white debutante, is so inherently dramatic that several adaptations have made it to the stage, starting with the now-legendary Mercury Theatre version by Orson Welles and John Houseman that ran on Broadway in 1941. Now the latest version, adapted by Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Seret Scott, is being performed to stirring and timely effect by the Court Theatre.

The challenge of dramatizing “Native Son” is that the book relies on third-person narration. Ms. Kelley has responded by splitting Bigger Thomas, the protagonist, into the “real” Bigger (Jerod Haynes) and an alter ego (Eric Lynch) who gives voice to his suppressed inner thoughts, a convention similar to that employed by Brian Friel in “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” It’s a convincing theatrical illustration of the way in which Bigger emasculates himself by hiding his simmering rage from the white world, and Messrs. Haynes and Lynch fit their dynamic performances together like the two sides of a freshly minted coin….

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To read my review of King Lear, go here.

To read my review of Native Son, go here.

The trailer for Chicago Shakespeare’s King Lear:

Frank Sinatra sings “Angel Eyes” on The Frank Sinatra Timex Show in 1959:

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The case of the satanic philanthropist

facade_completeIn today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I discuss the critical and political contretemps stirred up by the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new David H. Koch Plaza. Here’s an excerpt.

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If you’ve walked past New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lately, you’ll have noticed the brand-new plaza in front of the building with the Beaux-Arts façade that is home to America’s greatest art collection. Whenever alterations are made to a familiar structure, opinions usually vary widely and sharply. But one view is currently drowning out all others: Several art critics are miffed by the fact that golden letters emblazoned on the Met’s new twin fountains identify the site as the David H. Koch Plaza, in honor of the trustee who wrote the $65 million check that paid for it in full….

These critics, and others like them, appear to have at least as much of a problem with Mr. Koch as they do with “his” plaza. Why? If you pay any attention to politics, you won’t need to be told that Mr. Koch, the ninth-richest man in America, is the junior half of the notorious Koch Brothers, who give huge sums of money to right-of-center politicians and causes….

In our bipolar age, political purists are increasingly disposed to raise a stink whenever arts groups accept gifts from sources deemed by said purists to be unworthy. This tendency initially manifested itself in the case of tobacco companies like Philip Morris International that supported the arts. No doubt the company’s commitment to what it calls “corporate social responsibility” was in part an attempt to divert attention from its less-than-socially responsible products. Nevertheless, the fact of its generosity is not to be ignored—or despised….

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Read the whole thing here.

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In case you’re free on Monday…

298ca073292837f9527c4d1273aedf86_posterI thought it might be worth reminding you that I’ll be making a public appearance on Monday night as part of Project Shaw’s staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Village Wooing, a little-known comic two-hander written in 1933. I’ll be sharing the stage of Symphony Space with Jefferson Mays and J. Smith-Cameron, of whose fabulous talents regular theatergoers doubtless already aware. They’ll be doing all the acting, thank heavens. My sole function will be to read the stage directions out loud in my most mellifluous voice.

Symphony Space is at 95th Street and Broadway. The show starts at seven p.m. on Monday. To order tickets or for more information, go here.

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