Sunday, November 8, 2009

Love Thy Enemy

I finally started using the new editor! Yay, me. Of course it took almost three months, but hey. Now I can post pictures all over the place, not just at the top. Although I have to confess I sort of like the "medieval manuscript" look of the old version. 

Random but (somewhat) relevant news item: the other day I read that the eminent French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, had died at 100. When an acquaintance mentioned that she hadn't known he was still alive, I was struck by what an odd moment that is--to realize someone had been (still/recently) alive only after discovering they're dead. I thought Levi-Strauss would have found that amusing, probably, since his work was all about the universality of dualistic (in the academy they call this "binarist") thinking. Every culture, he asserted, creates its reality out of oppositions--raw and cooked, light and dark, inside and outside. For a less reductive explanation, see his obituary. (So cool I can do that with the new editor!). Mythic antitheses are the foundation of all law, no matter where you live: the law is, first and foremost, a dividing line between what's permissible and what isn't. Read Leviticus in the Old Testament--that's the Book that deals with rules about sexuality, diet, death, and so on--and you'll see that, reductively speaking (been doing a lot of that today) everything is either clean or unclean. The most irreducible of all oppositions, of course, is the one between the living and the dead--it's final and absolute. Except, of course, on Halloween. So reading Levi-Strauss's obituary was sort of a liminal/Halloween moment--his death notice reminded us that he hadn't been dead until now! It's almost as if the obituary brought him back to life for an instant--a fleeting, magical violation of a universal law.

That's my wacky philosophical thought for today. (Much) more to the point, I thought of Romeo and Juliet, and its formal enchantment with oppositions. As Levi-Strauss suggested, oppositions are the basis of myth; Will is definitely mythmaking here. That's why the play has endured as a cultural icon over so many centuries--because we think in oppositions, and the play fits neatly into our metaphysical framework. Okay, it's also a compelling narrative--but look how many ways you can change the setting, and still get essentially the same story. You can plop it down in New York City, the West Bank, Iraq--anyplace where there's a war that involves civilians, which is much of the world--and it works.

The founding opposition of this, as any romance, is between the public world, with its laws and prohibitions, and the interior, emotional/psychic realm that the lovers inhabit--and which they fight to preserve as a sacred space. Scene 5, in which Romeo and Juliet meet and fall (instantly) in love, is structured as a progressive move inward from public to private. The scene begins with the servants, bustling about and chattering as they work. It then moves to Old Capulet, addressing the revelers and urging everyone to dance, then to an exchange between Capulet and his cousin, until finally zooming in on Romeo. 

So, here we are. Romeo is at the Capulet ball, wearing a mask, of course, and looking around for Rosaline. He doesn't find her, though. Instead, his eye lights on Juliet, dancing with some other guy.

Rosaline who?

He asks a servant who the mystery girl is, but he doesn't know. That seems odd, but one assumes the Capulets have hired some extra hands for the ball. Anyway, he stares at her, and then, off the top of his head--I mean, from the depths of his heart--he comes up with this:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear--
Beauty to rich for use, for earth too dear.
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows
As yonder lady o'er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I'll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight,
For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night.

It's sublime writing, some of Will's best. It's also, sadly, almost a cliche now. Example: when I was wandering the Internet in search of images, I saw that a blogger had used these lines to describe Sarah Palin. Apparently her looks, combined with her religio-conservative politics, inspired him to wax Shakespearean.  I thought that was kind of sweet (and, okay, a bit freaky)--although Sarah and I don't see eye-to-eye on much, except that we're both Hockey Moms. Still, I respect the sentiment. There are, however, a couple of reasons Sarah-as-Juliet seems ironic to me. One of Will's plays, The Merchant of Venice, was on Mayor Palin's banned book list. The other irony is more literary/philososophical--she's a fundamentalist Christian, and thus a member of what I call the Post-Metaphoric Movement. In some ways, this cultural moment was inevitable, given the triumph of visual media over the written word. People no longer trust imagery, visual language, or any rhetorical turn that doesn't purport to mean just what is says. Religious fundamentalism, which takes everything in the Bible literally (except, presumably, St. Paul's reminder that "the letter killeth, and the spirit giveth life") is only the most obvious exemplar of this post-metaphorical trend. There are plenty of fundamentalisms on the left, too. One could argue, I suppose, that fundamentalism really found its stride in early twentieth-century Soviet Realism. For both the left and the right, Modernism was suspect (yeah, "suspect" isn't an adjective--but it works for me, so I'm using it). Fascists loved surfaces--check out a Riefenstahl film to see what I mean--and Communists were all about thought-control. Poetry is just too slippery for the iron grip of extremism.

So in some ways, this blog aspires to be Post-Post-Metaphorical. To make figurative language fashionable again, invited into the finest parlors and chat rooms. Of course, I can't do it alone. We must all Stand Up for Metaphor! Throw off the chains of literary fundamentalism! Raise a disapproving eyebrow at the retreat into similes!

Being silly again--I'm slightly flu-feverish still.

Anyway, let's look at the famous speech. Juliet teaches the "torches to burn bright," reminding us that it's nighttime. (After all the philosophical blather above, I feel I owe it to my readers to occasionally state the obvious). Night is the time for dreams, eroticism, privacy, while the daylight (public) world is synonymous with civil war and draconian law. Love is the light that shines through the darkness--another paradox, which Will can't seem to get enough of in this play. Here, it's the torch, the jeweled earring against African skin, the dove among the crows. In the balcony scene, Romeo will proclaim that Juliet's "eye in heaven/Would through the airy region stream so bright/That birds would sing and think it were not night."  Light-in-darkness is the founding opposition of the play, really, in that it encompasses many of the others: private/public; death/life; words/actions. Although we're a couple centuries away from the Enlightenment, the association of "light" with "reason" goes back at least as far as Plato's Allegory of the Cave. So there's something irrational, exotic, supernatural about love--Dionysus dances in the dark, while Apollo does math problems under the noonday sun.  In light of this speech (you can't run from metaphor!) old Montague's earlier complaint that Romeo "locks fair daylight out/and makes himself an artificial night" retroactively takes on new meaning: Romeo's love for Rosaline was fake--this is real.

Romeo here chooses Juliet out of the crowd, repudiating Benvolio's earlier assertion that one woman is as good as another, and old Capulet's insistence to Paris that Juliet isn't that special--she wouldn't stand out in a crowd of pretty girls. For Romeo, she's The One. In the daylight world, women are interchangeable. At night, there is only Juliet.

Next:  Romeo and Juliet compose a sonnet, and I finally finish Act 1.


  1. nice post i love reading this one

  2. Thanks, Den--I am finding that more pictures make it more fun...