Thursday, January 22, 2015

How reading Frost leads to writing about Lear.

Robert Frost — we’ve all read him, and because he’s known to every fifth grader, we feel we have some connection to him: "The Road Not Taken", "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening", "Fire and Ice". This sense of familiarity is not entirely inappropriate though. Frost expressed complex thoughts and emotions in very approachable language and images and to read him later in life adds a whole new aspect to him, beyond just the pitter patter of his pentameter.

The other day, I wrote down some thoughts on Frost for a class I’m taking.  Of course, I ended up writing about King Lear instead. Here's how it happened ...

In "Home Burial", Frost’s male character plaintively asks:

Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?

As the two characters in the poem struggle over control of each other, of their past, of their marriage and its meaning, and of so much else, this question is weighted with huge responsibilities.  It also derives its power from the directness of its metrical form – each word a syllable, I count ten of them, and each syllable stressed. A quick search says these are spondees, not the more easily manageable iambs that Frost is often associated with, but each powerful beat ensures that a core emotional reality of the dramatic counterpoint cannot be missed.

For all its power, my first association with this line isn’t with Frost at all however. Instead, my mind wanders to one of the most insightful commentaries about meter I’ve ever read, about a different poet who also wrote in English.  It comes from Roma Gill, editor of an Oxford School Shakespeare edition of King Lear in which she offers the following:

Underlying King Lear, as the groundrock of which the play is made, is the iambic pentameter line which forms the blank verse used by most English dramatists writing in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It is a very flexible medium, capable – like the human speaking voice – of an infinite variety of tones. The syllables have alternating stresses, just like normal English speech; and they divide into five ‘feet’ to make up the iambic pentameter.

King Lear initiates the rhythm when, following the prose conversation of Kent and Gloucester, he enters in full majesty, summoning all his court to hear his declared intentions:
Lear
Meantime, we shall express our darker purpose.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall,
And you, our no less loving son of Albany,
We have this hour a constant will to publish
Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife
May be prevented now …
…Tell me, my daughters …
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
The rhythm is easily shared by other speakers.  Lear’s elder daughters join with their father in a a smooth, dignified interchange – and even the youngest, Cordelia, does not disturb the harmony with her whispered ‘aside’:

Goneril
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare …

Lear
Of all these bounds, even from this line to this,
With shadowy forests and with champains rich’d,
With plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads
We make thee lady …
… What says our second daughter?
Our dearest Regan, wife of Cornwall?

Regan
I am made of that self metal as my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess …
… I am alone felicitiate
in your highest love.

Cordelia [aside]
The poor Cordelia!
And yet not so; since I am sure my love’s
More ponderous than my tongue.

Lear [who is answering Regan]
To thee and thine, hereditary ever,
Remain this ample share of our fair kingdom …

He turns to Cordelia – and now the verse begins to tremble and falter, as his favorite daughter holds firm against him:

…Now, our joy,
Although our last, and least, to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interes’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia
Nothing, my lord.

Lear
Nothing?

Cordelia
Nothing.

Lear
Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.

Cordelia
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave (I, 1, 90)
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more or less …

Cordelia re-asserts the pentameter: no line could be more regular than line 90. But the play’s harmony has been disrupted, and it will not easily be restored.

The regularity and casual formality of the pentameter is a mask for the treachery of the daughters, its neat rhythms serve as a cover for the schemes of the two.  When Cordelia speaks, however, the reassuring patterning falls apart.  The balance of the play has been disturbed, not by deceit but by true adoration and honesty, something the audience will only vaguely sense – a light turbulence has suddenly been introduced into the rhythm of the speech. In an incredibly complex interweaving of form and meaning, Shakespeare gives us our first clue that something is about to go wrong. As it turns out, Lear tragically misinterprets Cordelia’s honesty for a lack of love, setting off the dramatic, brutal events of the play.

And if only the metrical story ended there.  Gill then notes that later in the play, at the very crux of the tragedy when Lear is confronted with the sight of Cordelia’s lifeless corpse – astonishingly he returns to perfect iambic pentameter.  Stripped of all flower and ornament, Lear exclaims a reality that is both physically true and emotionally untenable:

Never, never, never, never, never (V, 3, 307)

 [NOTE: Here the professor, Theo Theoharis, added this important correction and interpretation. In his shorthand —  line V, 3, 307 is “not iambic (unstressed/stressed), but trochaic (stressed/unstressed) — reverse of iamb — death as reverse of life or grief as opposite of joy?” Theoharis’s evaluation is a very interesting one: has Shakespeare reversed the metrical foot to say that we are now talking about death rather than life, that we are talking about grief rather than joy, that we are talking a dark thing that has happened rather than a pleasant thing that is about to happen?]

Never will he see his daughter Cordelia alive again.

Shakespeare, in the course of this play, has used identical metrical form to convey two wildly different states of mind.  On the one hand, iambs are the meter of courtly duplicity and dishonesty cloaked in formality.  On the other hand, at the very moment when all the shades have been removed from his eyes, and the ultimate honesty and unavoidable coming-to-terms with the truth and his role in creating it has arrived, Lear clops off five perfect feet to his tragic emotional and literal end. At that revelation that tragedy so depends on, when Lear like Oedipus finally understands what he has been seeing all along but not comprehending, he falls back into perfect form. It is so unexpected … and so powerful – a single line using only a single word that gets the heartbeat rhythm exactly right but which rolls like a tank tread over the listener’s heart.

When I first read this commentary five years ago, I jotted this down: “A mastery of language Shakespeare rolls out, seemingly effortlessly, but so geniusly perfect.  A feast for scholars hundreds of years later.  This mastery is almost more than the mind can comprehend.”

Indeed, it is a mastery almost more than the mind can comprehend.  Frost reaches for a similar effect in his “Can’t a man …” question.  Of course, he doesn’t quite arrive at the depth of interplay between form and meaning and dramatic resonance that Shakespeare so elegantly and seemingly effortlessly achieves, but then again, who else ever has?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cars, cars, cars. The 2015 New England International Autoshow, A Quick Review.

The New England International Autoshow finished its run yesterday at the Boston Convention Center, with a host of cars on display, all of them to look at, to sit in, to kick the tires, but not to drive. The convention center space is massive, and the automakers arrived with comprehensive line-ups of what buyers can expect in the upcoming season.


The Autoshow came to town

Here’s a quick wrap up of some of the cars …

The most interesting line of cars comes not from a Japanese manufacturer or a German behemoth. Instead, it comes from The Ford Motor Company, with some of the most comfortable and well-built cars on the market. The first car I sat in was the Ford Fusion Energi, Ford’s version of a plug-in hybrid sedan, a car with an astounding 88 mpg using both electric and gas power.  The only compromise on this car, and in the end, it’s not a small compromise, is that the trunk space is very limited because of the requirement of a big battery pack to store the electric juice.  Still, the comfort and the quality of the build were unmistakeable and impressive. And the styling is strong too — very sleek with its growling grill. 
Ford Fusion Energi, one of the most comfortable cars I've ever sat in, and 88 mpg


But Ford doesn’t stop there.  They have a whole line of cars that follow a similar mantra, including the shorter Focus, and the much smaller Fiesta. I’ve driven a Focus and wasn’t that impressed, it seemed to lack power, but the reviews of the Fiesta are outstanding, fun, sporty, economical.  Since this one was bright green, it also was a hit with the many kids who clambered over the seats like it was a playground. 
A bright green Ford Fiesta, sporty and short.


So impressed with the Fords was I that I venture this — the only cars to surpass them in the interior quality of build were … did you guess it? ... the various Mercedes out on the floor.  Honest.  The only car I sat in that was in the same league — actually its a higher league — came from Daimler Benz. 
The view of a dash of a Mercedes. Just as good as a Ford

There is one significant exception in the praise of the Ford lineup.  Its signature muscle car, as synonymous with America and American power as any symbol anywhere — the Ford Mustang — comes across as nothing but all muscle and very little car. The cabin will give you back pain before you get to the corner of your block. Disappointing, given the attention to detail Ford is showing elsewhere.

Ford Mustang, the Pony car

While we’re talking about muscle cars, let’s talk about the car that got prime billing in the show, and some of the biggest audiences too — the new Chevy Corvette. It is a very impressive car.  Here again, an American manufacturer is producing a top of the line car with real engineering and delivering a complete package — a power car at a staggeringly low sticker price.  The 2015 Stingray on display at the show was listed at $68,000.
The new Chevy Corvette Stingray, a quality Detroit thoroughbred


  Compare this to the Lamborghini Aventador next door coming in at well over $500,000, and you get to see what they’re able to accomplish in Detroit these days.

For $500K, you can have one of these, a Lamborghini Aventador. I'd get the 'vette.
The Corvette power numbers are staggering (well over 600 horsepower) and the styling is very good, complete with metallic grey paint and a tan interior. Most amazing of all, it gets 20 mpg which is just about as good as my 15 year old Subaru wagon. 

While eyeing the car, a man my age walked up, beer in hand, and said out of the blue “Do it, get yourself one, you’ll never regret it. For this kind of money, you just can’t beat it.” He had a Corvette himself, and he said it’s just the greatest experience.  I believe him, and the car we were looking at was a lot better than his 20 year old car.

The rest of the Chevy line is unimpressive. The Impala was depressingly cheap-feeling inside, with faux everything, and the Volt, the revolutionary gas-assist electric car that is otherwise very interesting, came nowhere near any of the Fords in its interior quality. Too bad, because the Volt is rewriting the rule book in many ways. 
The Chevy Volt, in many ways a winner, but cheap feeling in the cabin.


Of course, you couldn’t talk about American car manufacturers without talking about trucks, everywhere trucks, coming in two sizes, big and bigger. There was nothing there of interest to me, so I didn’t bother.
Trucks, trucks, trucks, there were loads of them


Outside of the American muscle cars, I was drawn to the eco-friendly models — the electrics and the plug-ins.

No company is more associated with this than Toyota, who probably had the biggest line-up of cars on the floor.  The only car I checked out was the Prius, and most specifically the plug-in model.  There’s actually not much to say about it.  It’s a Prius.  Functional, practical, economical.  Is it the price of success or the measure of success that all their accomplishments become background noise? As the Japanese have done many times, Toyota changed the global car market significantly with this car.  But for someone who lives in Cambridge, Mass. where every third car is a Prius, it’s not news.  And to be honest, it’s nothing very exciting about it when you sit in it.
Plug-in Toyota Prius.  Ho Hum


There was another Japanese car that made me almost wistful when I saw it. The Honda Civic is the car that fundamentally changed America.  In the 1980s, no car was more emblematic of the preeminence of Japanese industrial policy, engineering, market savvy and practicality than this car. While Detroit was still producing poorly built Cadillacs and Buicks that were out of touch with the new regime of fuel efficiency, affordability, and quality, Honda was redefining what a college grad’s first car should be.  Here at the show, the Civic was almost lonely and forgotten among all the technology and glitz, but this old grandmother of a car has earned its rightful place in automotive history, even if the next generation of beauties and smarties outshine her, her impact is bigger than they can ever imagine. 
Honda Civic. The car that changed the American car market in the 1980s


There were loads of other cars to look at — the precision of the Audis, the Porsche Boxster GTS, the display cars of Bentleys and Rolls Royces (look but no touch!), the attractive new VW Golfs which come in both diesel and plug-in versions, and the ever practical Subarus.
Subaru Impreza. The ever practical car

But if you want to know the car that really won my heart, it wasn’t any of these.  It was over near the Chryslers.  No, it wasn’t the Chrysler 200C, the car that is based on the Alfa platform but is uncomfortable to sit in. 

The little Fiat 500 soft top immediately won my heart.  Something about its small size combined with an ergonomic cabin layout and the notion that you’re in something small and FUN is unmistakable and I couldn’t resist. As soon as I stepped out of it, a guy standing nearby said, “You should buy it. You were having too much fun in that car!” I guess it showed.  Lovely little beast.  Fun little bit of Italian spirit and playfulness. 
Fiat 500 soft top. Straight to the heart, sweet short and sporty
 That in brief is the motorshow.

And, some additional mentions, both plus and minus:

Ford — (+) Overall best, for styling, comfort and quality.  Impressive.


Volvo — (+) for making quality cars that are safe, feel comfortable, go fast, look good and are well made.

BMW — (+) for the i3 which they had on display — futuristic, technofesty, efficient and well made.  Nice job.


BMW i3. A moving technofest

Toyota — (+) for pushing the boundaries again. They showed off their new hydrogen fuel cell Mirai, which will soon be on the market.


Toyota Mirai. Is the hydrogen fuel cell the next wave in locomotion?


British automakers — (+) for beautiful cars. It almost seems oxymoronic to praise British automakers, but they do make simply beautiful high-end cars. Nice show, chaps!


Lotus Evora. Truly a winner, sleek and sexy
Aston Martin Vantage. A beast of car with very elegant lines

Nissan — (-) for being boring. The Leaf is a good car, all-electric, but deeply uninspiring as any automobile.  If ever you wanted to solve a problem with science alone and with no reference to art, this would be the result. 

Cadillac — (-) for poor quality, still. Really poor quality for a car that’s supposed to be top of its line. 







Friday, January 16, 2015

A Drive from Boston to Cambridge on Christmas night, 2014.


The streets of Boston were quiet. The shops were shut. It was after all Christmas night and people were gathered indoors to celebrate the holiday. 

Every so often, the odd straggler floated into view, a wayward soul unmoored from its tethers drifting through the darkened night. 

I enjoyed being upon the empty city.  Out of the radio, a music, jaunty and fresh. It was then I thought I would film my drive back to Cambridge. I pulled over near the Hynes Convention Center and took out my phone.

The music in some ways makes the video.  Its 20th century feel of activity, the hustle and bustle of urban life, lives in its name too. “Skyscrapers”, a ballet score from John Alden Carpenter, was written in 1926, the perfect soundtrack for a night on the town.

The visual references of my little exercise are two — first, Kevin Lynch’s dashboard camera films of Boston and Cambridge, shot in 1958, showing those cities now almost 60 years ago.  They are historical record and brilliant urbanist improvisational art. Next is the noir thriller The Naked City, a Jules Dassin masterwork in which New York plays a starring role. Parts of the film are shot on the streets and sidewalks of the city in the year 1948.

Perhaps my iPhone didn't capture that same luster on Christmas night in Boston, 2014. If you were to say that, I would understand.  However, everything is always about a time and a place ...

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rushdie on Charlie: 'Wit reigns supreme!' Meanwhile, I'm yawning.

It's nice to know that  Salman Rushdie and I are rowing in the same boat (see my January 8 post, "Charlie, qui est?"), though to be fair, I've never had a fatwa issued against me (and I'm not looking for one either, btw). 

Our proximity can mean only one of two things -- we travel on the same ethereal plane, or he and I have said nothing that educated, Westernized heathens wouldn't be expected to say. Either way, I end up in the same sentence as him, so I'm fine with that (please note the fatwa exception). 

Here's what he wrote about the Charlie Hebdo attacks (courtesy of the Huffington Post) ...
Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.
Next week in our weekly roundup of events, I'll tell you where you can get the best cappuccino in Cambridge. No lie!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Charlie, qui est?

I can barely manage the strength to observe what others have observed so much better than I — that the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris are like looking into a petri dish to see that historical moment when Western civilization emerged out of the Dark Ages and began to have a modern consciousness. 

As has been noted so poignantly elsewhere, there is no more complete expression of liberty than satire.  The biting wit, the scathing ridicule, the taunting intent to provoke, the simple pleasure of laughing at someone else’s expense, these are the joys of the cartoonist.  They ply their trade like grownup boys in a school yard, hoping to injure with word or image. Of course, we hold them sacred because along the way, the best of them illuminate a fundamental paradox or poke fun at a ridiculous human absurdity. The only thing that makes a joke funny, after all, is the kernel of truth that resides under its husky skin.

The modern Western mind, that which came into being in the 18th century through events like the French and American revolutions, differentiates between what sticks and stones do, and what words do, and it spends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to figure out what is the appropriate response to each.  This might be some definition of “justice” and the political expression of it is in minimizing government’s controlling role in picking winners and losers in the battle of ideas, even offensive ones. Incidentally, it also pushes religion to the sidelines when it comes to public sanctioning (or rewarding) in the civic sphere.

What the shooters in the Charlie Hebdo attacks did was to attempt to assert a controlling role in the battle of ideas … through the barrel of a gun.  To my mind, this makes them medieval.  Or do I mean fascist?  Either way, in a world marked by increasing hyperconnectivity and the free flow of both knowledge and opinion, prognosis of how we’re all going to get along in the 21s century is not good. I am reminded that the surviving Tsarnaev brother is about to go on trial in Massachusetts for the Boston Marathon bombings, an equally nihilistic act determined to maim, and similarly perfumed with a whiff of religiosity. And then of course, there is the store manager in the Lindt shop in Sydney, who died a hero to many, but too young and also at the wrong end of a gun.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

Something at hand?

It is hard not to feel that something is at hand, that some moment of consequence is upon us.  The rage of the people is palpable.  The disgust of our populous is unmistakeable.  We are perhaps at a turning point. 

It used to be popular to lament the culture of violence that had overtaken our land.  From armed street thugs to video game mayhem to the endless blood-soaked action of our films, it seemed that there was no bulwark against our insatiable appetite for death. As a people, so the story went, we were craven. We even were capable of producing the frightening prospect of the disillusioned teenager who, to solve the misery of his existence, ported an assault rifle to the one place that probably treated him the best — his school — so that he could kill fellow students, children just like him.  Our frontier mindset meant every conflict was resolved with a gun fight. Our beleaguered police chiefs were simply overmatched in a world gone mad.

But the non-indictments in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York show in stark relief that another culture of violence has overtaken this land. It is prevalent and equally as deadly, and very real. It is perpetrated not by the citizenry on each other but by the police on its people.

It is in a word disgusting, and in another word terrifying. The idea that a man with a badge and a uniform, entrusted with the authority to use a gun and the deadly force it implies, is simply unaccountable to any level of society except for his own superiors is what I think George Orwell might call “a police state”.  In a land that has been trying to get its diminished mind around such huge trends as income inequality, wealth disparity, gentrification, immigration, the explosion of information and the huge political gulf that separates red states from blue states, it seems as though this latest episode might be a tipping point, when a system supposedly serving the people seems only to be subjugating them. At this moment, we may all look up and wonder, how did we get here? And then we may ask the much more important question — what the hell do we need to do to get out?