Monday, May 16, 2016

ESSAY


This was a brief introductory comment to a prize-giving dinner for student essayists at Hunter College.

I would imagine that all of you have heard of the Pen Club, the premier international organization for writers. It was founded in 1921 by Mrs. Dawson-Scott (whoever she was), with its first president John Galsworthy, author of “The Forsyte Saga” of (gulp) television fame. Its importance may by now be somewhat diminished, but its activities on behalf of writers silenced or jailed remain paramount.

I always used to assume that the name PEN referred to that by now obsolescent tool with which so many works used to be written in bygone days. But not so: PEN is an acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors (actually mostly rewriters) and novelists. You may miss from the roster historians, autobiographers, memorialists and biographers, omitted partly because they could not be acronymized (HAMB just wouldn’t do), but more significantly (I would guess) because they could be considered essayists of an extended sort. And if the essay could subsume so many different disciplines in the eyes of the experts, and deal with them freely, that surely makes it as noteworthy as a genre can be.

Take the word “essay.” It means, of course, attempt, most obviously so in the French “essai.” An attempt at what? It should be noted that to most people “attempt” means ultimate failure, as it did to Dr. Johnson, though the word does not mandate it. It is usually a relatively short piece of prose—although Alexander Pope did it in verse—even if Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” is book-length. It can be on any subject whatsoever.

The literary origins of the essay are rather more elusive than the sources of the Nile, for it existed much before it assumed that name. J. A, Cuddon,  in his invaluable “Literary Terms and Literary Theory.” cites the “Characters” of Theophrastus (3rd Century B.C.), Seneca’s “Epistle to Lucilius” (1st Century A.D.) and the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century A.D.). But without the name, attribution is a trifle inconclusive.

For the more modern, personal essay, so named, we get Francis Bacon’s “Essays, or Counsels, Civill and Morall,” the first of whose three volumes appeared in 1597, preceded by Montaigne’s “Essais” of 1580. Bacon’s essays were not without their stiff, ex cathedra formality; Montaigne’s floated freely over a variety of topics.  These two are the real progenitors of the essay, though Bacon was right to observe, “The word is late, but the thing is auncient [sic].” With only slight exaggeration, we can call Bacon the father, and Montaigne the mother, of the genre.

I cannot begin to cite the numerous writers who have availed themselves of this rare free form in all of literature, with no structural restriction about ramblings over one or several subjects. When the poet Stephane Mallarme famously declared “Everything in the world exists to end up as a book,” that book would most likely qualify as some sort of essay. After all, some famous essays are in dialogue, hence dramatic form—most famously in English Oscar Wilde’s “Intentions”—and many are in the language and imaginativeness of poetry, such is the inclusiveness of the essay. Few, to be sure, have dared to put this somewhat academic or esoteric word into the title of their collections—most notably, again in English, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Matthew Arnold.

Let me give you my idea of the essay, on the assumption that the essayist is talking  both to himself or herself and to the world. It means seeing and analyzing everyday things, bringing what is inside you, thoughts and feelings, into the open, to the clear cognizance of people including you yourself. Quite rightly when asked what she thought of a certain movie, Pauline Kael answered she didn’t know until she had written the review.

So much for insight. But then style. Take Pope’s, “True art is nature to advantage dressed,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.” (Actually, it could also be never thought before.) Which presupposes careful choice of words, angle of vision, imagery, cadence, and, if at all appropriate and possible, wit. Thus the essay is to be viewed as an expanded poem or a condensed book.

The title should not be constricting, but neither should it be like that perpetrated by the German writer Urs Widmer (born 1938), “The Books of Yesteryear, or Proof That the Head Cold Is the Father of All Literature, An Essay,” which, upon perusal, has nothing to do with any of the above. Avoid such deviousness, unless you want to be a surrealist, which at this late date I wouldn’t advise.

I conclude with a couple of excerpts from two of my favorite essayists: the poet Philip Larkin and the critic Dwight Macdonald .

[Larkin in “Books” in the collection “Required Writing”] I have always been a compulsive reader . . . and this has meant that books have crept in somehow. Only the other day I found myself eyeing a patch of wall in my flat and thinking I could get some more shelves in there. I keep novels and detective stories in my bedroom, so that visitors shan’t be tempted  to borrow them; the sitting-room houses the higher forms of literature . . . while the hall I reserve for thoroughly worthy items, calculated to speed the departing guest. None of them can be called remarkable. At best they are items bought on publication which now qualify as “modern first editions.” At worst they are picked from a bad bunch on a station bookstall. . . .

It may be that a writer’s attitude to books is always ambivalent, for one of the reasons one writes is that all existing books are somehow unsatisfactory, but it’s certainly difficult to think of a better symbol of civilization. Of course the symbol changes; the fine book, its materials, its craftsmanship, its design, was eloquent of a civilization founded on means, leisure and taste; today the symbol is the paperback, hurled in hundreds of thousands against the undeveloped areas (Asia, Africa, the young), spreading what we think is best in our thought and imagination. If our values are to maintain a place in the world, these are the troops that will win it for them, but victory is not a foregone conclusion.

[Dwight Macdonald “On Selling Out” in the collection “Discriminations”]  It is not easy to sell out if you have anything to sell. Cf. Henry James’ “The Next Time.”  A story about a distinguished nonselling novelist who tries to escape penury by writing a potboiler—and produces one more unpopular masterpiece. Or cf. the late Delmore  Schwartz’s attempts to raise some cash by writing one of those short short stories (1,000 words, $1,000) a national magazine used to feature; he tried twice; no go either time, he just couldn’t get down to the level convincingly. (It takes a whole heart to sell out.) Or cf. the late Edgar Allan Poe, a calculating, unprincipled money-writer, always hard up, always with an eye to the main chance, always laboring to come up with something that would “go” and make him rich or at least solvent. That he always failed is another matter, having to do with his own neuroses; his will to sell out was intact to the end. He turned his hand to all the popular genres of the day: the Gothic tale of horror, after Hoffmann and Blackwood’s, the sentimental ladies’-book poem (“Helen, thy beauty is to me . . .”), the romantic threnody on the death of a female Loved One (“Once upon a midnight dreary . . .”). And, in desperation, he invented some new genres that became popular: the detective story and science fiction. But he was helpless in the grip of his genius: despite the worst intentions, Poe transmuted these clichés into his on idiom so that they became literature and not commodities. Poor fellow, the classic failure of classic American letters, his life a cautionary tale—Poe couldn’t even sell out.

It would seem that the first condition for selling out is that one has nothing to sell out in the first place. . . . For ambitious youth my advice is: sell out if you can, since if you can you don’t have anything of value and you might as well cash in on it.

These are samples of my preferred tone for the essay: winged, witty, ironic. But you are free to pick another.




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FRANCE




I have always been a Francophile, hugely fond of France. There has been only one thing that I didn’t like about it: the French. To be exact, not all the French, only the petit bourgeois variety, as petty as bourgeois can get: miserly, xenophobic, small-minded.

The more educated classes, including the snooty quasi-aristocrats, are something else again, although during my year as a Fulbright fellow I didn’t get to know many of those. Though I was supposed to be working on my doctorate in Comparative Literature, I did not frequent the libraries, and only met my very congenial adviser late in the game for a very amiable session. I did however avail myself of the cultural and aesthetic bounties the capital could bestow, which proved altogether sufficient. As Rabelais said, the city of Paris was a better teacher than the Sorbonne University.

I have written about the time I did miss big when I did not attend a Sorbonne lecture by Thomas Mann, guest speaker, who committed a hilarious error. I have also written about the time I earned Mann’s gratitude when during his tiring book signing session, I did not, unlike most others, ask for a wordy dedication, merely his signature.

Typical of middle-class stinginess were my landlady and her retired engineer husband, from whom I rented a room. She would drop in on me periodically and compliment me on the French books I had bought, not a few of them the expensive, prestigious Pleiade complete-works editions, but never went so far as to invite me for a cup of coffee or glass of wine in her part of the apartment.

Even more damning was her boasting of having been classmates with Edwige Feuillere, a great stage actress we both admired. But, I was told, not to expect an introduction to the great lady. I assured her I wasn’t thinking of anything like that.

On the other hand, consider the genuine friendship that evolved with Simone Danloux, the charming proprietress of the delightful bookstore Librairie du Pont Neuf on that lovely Seine bridge. True, I was a faithful client, who spoke commendable French and spent much of my Fulbright Fellowship money there, but it went beyond that, as we always chatted like best of friends.

And something else. In France at that time quite a few genteel young women earned  a living by artful bookbinding. French books overwhelmingly come in paper covers, and the purchaser has them bound at his expense in buckram or leather, often in very imaginative bindings—I still have a few of them.

Well now, at Simone’s store I met and ordered some bindings from her favored relieuse, Arlette Duparquier. I met her only a couple of times but was bawled over by her stunning looks, unassuming intelligence, and enchanting personality. To this day I recall her name and person, and wish to hell I had invited her out for a meal or what the French call un verre, a glass. She lived in a distant town but came in often enough to accept an invitation from me. Why in hell didn’t I do it? I can attribute it only to shyness, to having felt too unimportant, too unworthy, to do so.

I did have an affair with an American girl, Marty, an American ballet dancer, June, and later with a French girl, Jacqueline.  Departing France, I left Jacqueline the legacy of my favorite French poet, of whom she had never heard, Stephane Mallarme. In the only letter I ever got from her, she informed me that his stuff left her cold until she came upon his one love poem, the one to Mery Laurent. I think Jacqueline entertained the notion that I’d be back for her, which never happened.

But to get back to the French. What other nation has produced a marvel like the croissant? The crescent-shaped breakkfast pastry, but the one that is feather light and flaky, not what passes elsewhere for a croissant, the firm and heavier thing that is really the Austrian kipfel, merely a breakfast roll in crescent shape. There are also French and other bakers who produce the correct thing, but in a straight, non-crescent shape, with the excuse that it is easier to spread butter and jam on it without staining one’s fingers and tablecloth. Somehow, though, that doesn’t feel right.

Historically , Dan Bilofsky writes in the Times, the shape was suggested by “the Ottoman emblem, to celebrate the defeat of the Turkish forces that ended the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.” But he continues “some food historians say the kipfel appeared in Vienna as early as the 13th century.” What pastry, I wonder, will the defeat of the ISIS forces yield?

Charm, like the croissant’s, is something very French, which is exuded par excellence by French women. Take for instance my one meeting with that greatly gifted and enormously charming French film actress Anouk Aimee, whom you may  remember from “A Man and a Woman,” “La dolce vita,” and “8 ½.” Or else from any other of her 70 plus films under some of cinema’s greatest directors.

I was walking in Times Square one late afternoon when whom should I bump into but Anouk Aimee and her then husband, Pierre Barouh. I can’t recall who first addressed whom, but we stopped briefly and she asked, concerning a matinee they had just come from, “Quest-ce que c’est que ‘fiddler’?” I replied, “Violoniste,” and her face lit up like a klieg light as he laughed and said, in the most musical French, “Ah, didn’t I think so?”  The French, and not only the women, can say the simplest things unforgettably.

This is true not only of pretty actresses. Thus my friend Bill Hedges was
 a fellow Fulbright somewhere in the South, the Midi, as the French call it. I used to call him on the phone to chitchat, often and quite lengthily. His landlady, whom he described as a jolly, corpulent, outspoken, middle-aged woman, would usually first pick up the phone and came to refer to me as “le roi du telephone,” which I rather liked, and which, email notwithstanding, I may still be.

Then again, there was that reception at New York’s French Consulate at which I noticed a very attractive young woman looking somehow lost. I accosted her and she turned out to be a beginning film actress with a rosy future named Audrey Tautou. I sat next to her at the dinner (there were such things in those days), and we enjoyably exchanged views about movies, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. She gave me her address to which I later wrote a jovial letter, identifying myself—even then—as the vieux monsieur she had chatted with, but never got an answer. By then, she had become a star.

A tribute is due, too, to a French diacritical mark: the circumflex. The aigu (acute) and grave are common enough in other languages as well, but the circonflexe (as Keith Houston in the Times of February 20 entertainingly informs me) figures, besides French, only in Romanian, Portuguese, Turkish, Slovak and Vietnamese-- languages rather beyond my purview. In French, though, it is a jauntily pointed cap sitting pretty on top of various vowels, lengthening or darkening their pronunciation. It was near-extinct before the Academie Francaise resuscitated it, and serves mostly as replacement for a discarded S in such words as bête, cout, and huitre, but thriving in English as beast, cost and oyster. It serves other purposes as well, like differentiating between du (due) with, and du (of) without circumflex. In French, it derives from circumflexus, the Latin rendering of the Greek perispomenos (bent around). And sometimes it is just there for no good reason, as in paraitre.

In popular English parlance, French stands for elegance, as in dry cleaning, cuisine, couture, pastry, cuffs, heels, windows, doors; and somewhat more equivocally in dressing, toast, fries, bread, and French kiss. But because of British jealousy of France, there is also the negative French leave (although based on an old French custom) and the now obsolete French letter (condom) and French pox (syphilis).

Most interesting of all is the euphemism “Pardon my French,” an apology for potty mouth, which surely derives from Americans’ equating French with erotic, as also in French kiss. If so, all I can say is “Vive la France!”




Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rhyme


What does the expression “without rhyme or reason” tell us about rhyme? It seems to me to mean that, along with reason, it is one of two valid alternative modes of expression, at least in poetry.

Let us consult the excellent J. A. Cuddon’s “Literary Terms and Literary Theory,” which tells us that it is “the formalized consonance of syllables . . . which probably originated in prehistoric ritual, but only in the last millennium has it come to dominate verse architecture.” Cuddon died in 1996, but the fourth, and to my knowledge last, edition, revised by C. E. Preston, came out in 1998, and the following year as a Penguin paperback. Though admirable, his discussion of rhyme may not be totally up-to-date.

Poetry went its merry unrhymed way until circa AD 200, in North African Church Latin. rhyme appeared and was duly popularized by the wandering scholars, drinkers and womanizers, the so-called “vagantes,” in the Middle Ages, with their rhymed Latin verse. This we now know best from the “Carmina Burana,” a selection set to music by Carl Orff. The word rhyme itself comes from the Provencal “rim,” whence the still extant version “rime,” mostly superseded by the rh spelling, derived by faulty analogy from the Greek “rhythmos.”

Before that, much splendid lyric poetry, say, by Sappho in Greek and Catullus in Latin, and not forgetting the epic of Homer and Virgil, depended solely on meter or rhythm. To my mind, or ear, rhyme is much missed, as in modern times it has been much abandoned for blank verse  (iambic pentameter—five accented syllables to five or more unaccented ones to a verse i.e., line) and free verse, about which more anon.

Full rhyme means identical consonants after a repeated vowel, e.g., book/nook or glide/deride. Which when the rhyming sound is monosyllabic is called masculine, when bisyllabic, e.g. barber/harbor, feminine. Clearly monosyllabic sounds harder than bi- or disyllabic. There is also triple rhyme, as in gratitude/platitude, but that is somewhat ponderous and relatively rare. There is also rhyme where the consonant before the rhyming vowel is  identical, as in bled/fled, known as “rime riche,” the French term, because it is considered okay in French versification but, for some reason, frowned upon in English.

There is also something known as half-, slant-, or near-rhyme, as in gender/hinder or helping/scalping or Cerberus/barbarous, which, however, should be used in moderation, except, say, in Hungarian, where pure rhyme is hard to come by.

There exist also cousins of rhyme, first of all assonance, where a vowel is repeated e.g., sodden condom or thrilling visits. Next, alliteration, where a consonant is repeated, as in rightly remembered rituals or warmly welcomed wanderers.

Rhyme can be especially seductive within a single verse between middle and end, e.g., “I often heard a saucy word/ From cheeky tots who dreamt up plots,” known as leonine rhyme, named after twelfth-century Canon Leo of St. Victor’ Church in  Paris, who practiced it in Latin. But this can become tiresome in overuse.

Finally, there is such a thing as eye rhyme, existing only for the eye and not the ear, as in wind (the noun) and blind or rather/blather. As a joke, there is also the holorhyme, with entire verses rhyming, as in (sorry I can’t think of an English one) “Par les bois du djinn ou s’entasse de l’effroi/ Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de laid froid’ or (one I have previously quoted) “Gall, amant de la reine, alla, tour magnanime,/ Gallament de l’Arene a la Tour Magne a Nimes.” (Please excuse my  lack the requisite accent marks.)

It is time now to ask the basic question: of what use or appeal is rhyme?

There is obviously the harmonious musical effect: the symmetry as of two ears or eyebrows, or of two windows and doors to a room, the fit as of a lid on a box—the sense of brief, momentary
closure, but closure nevertheless. This regardless of whether the rhyme scheme of a quatrain (four-verse stanza) is, in order of frequency, abab, abba, or aabb. Take, for instance, this quatrain by Swinburne:

                        And the best and the worst of this is
                        That neither is most to blame,
                        If you have forgotten my kisses
                        And I have forgotten your name.

Surely this is superior to, say, “Your forgetting my kisses is no worse than my forgetting your name, both equally good and bad.”

Or take the opening quatrains of “A Little Music,” by the now undeservedly forgotten Humbert Wolfe:

                        Since it is evening
                              let us invent
                        love’s undiscovered
                               continent.

                        What shall we steer by
                               having no chart
                        but the deliberate
                               fraud of the heart?

Could that be equaled by any version, similarly in two stanzas, but without the rhyme? You try to do it.

Now let us return to Cuddon: “Particular degrees, types, or positions of rhyme have reasonably particular consequences (though poets are of course always as likely to try to work against the grain). Full rhyme will tend to harmonize with or confirm the sense, while half-rhyme will tend to dissonance or interrogation of the sense . . . . The greater the proximity of rhymes, the greater the acceleration they induce . . . . Such things, of course, bring word effects closer to music.”

But they also have other uses, prominent among them being memorization. It is much easier to remember a rhyming text than an unrhymed one. If you can recall a verse of a rhyming poem, it will most likely conjure up the rhyming next verse. Any public recitalist, or, for that matter, almost any actor, will confirm this mnemonic aid.

Consider, next, the usefulness of rhyme to the traditional poet. He or she, having written one compelling single verse may well wonder where to go next. As words rhyming with the extant verse defile through the memory, you are quite likely to hit on one that elicits some kind of response, some kind of continuation. Thus “heart” may call forth something ending in “part”; “love” may lead to an eye rhyme like “move,” or to a half-rhyme like “of,” if not to a pure rhyme like “above.” The outcome may be in debt to the poet’s unconscious, but then that is where so much poetry originates anyway.

Consider now Robert Frost’s famous dictum that poetry without rhyme is like tennis without a net. There is at least some truth in that, although even Frost has written poems that don’t rhyme, though they do the next-best thing: use blank verse. We need only Shakespeare to remind us how potent blank verse can be, even if rather more so in drama than in poetry. But much modern poetry goes well beyond blank verse, to free verse. Cuddon dates somewhat when he asserts that “prescribed rhyme schemes have often been disavowed, but rhyme has remained a feature of much elite poetry, and continues to dominate popular verse.”

That no longer obtains. I don’t know what he means by “popular verse,” about which he may be right, but not so about most “elite poetry.” The prescribed rhyme schemes of course refer to such forms as ballade, triolet, sestina , villanelle, pantun, and what have you, and those have indeed lost their popularity. With one exception, however, the sonnet, whether in Petrarch’s or Shakespeare’s version. What accounts for its stubborn survival? I would guess that it has historically proved a favorite form of love poetry, love in all its aspects, including failure. If easy sex were to completely oust love, the sonnet would follow it into the grave, like Good Deeds to Everyman. But why the indisputable predominance of free verse?

Free verse is definable as lines of any length whatever, freely varied, and differing from prose mostly through line breaks that occur wherever it pleases the poet. We owe this, to my mind, less than felicitous development largely but not exclusively to Walt Whitman, a rather poor poet in my estimation. But we owe it also to freedom of so many kinds, some of them welcome, and a general rejection of so many kinds of restriction, some regrettable. Even the habiliments of poets have changed: compare a picture of Rupert Brooke with one of  (gulp) John Ashbery.     

And then there is also democracy, freedom of speech, and why not couch poetry in prose. It needs only to rely on more tropes or symbols, more rhythm, and perhaps a little cadence. There is even such a legitimate thing as the prose poem (about which, as it happens, I wrote my doctoral thesis). This fairly popular genre depends on some brevity and concision, requiring a certain shapeliness and point to be intensely made, and achieving justified closure before prolixity sets in.

Finally, though, what characterizes the free verse poet when successful is a strong, individual, perhaps even unbridled imagination. Unfortunately, that is also what makes so much contemporary poetry far-fetched, opaque, uncommunicative. Rhyme has a way of acting as a bridge to comprehension, a parapet rather than a precipice. Don’t let it, like the dodo, die out completely.













Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mistakes, Minor and Major


Let me start with a postscript to a previous blog entry about obesity. There is a plea on ABC television for locating missing children, which provides a picture and description of them, and, perhaps inadvertently, induces some serious observations.

First off, these missing children are preponderantly girls. Why? While differing in other ways, some 95 or more percent have one thing in common: they are overweight, many of them grossly so. Well, what imposes itself as the likely connection between obesity and vagrancy?


My guess is unhappiness at the bosom of their families, assuming that their families even have a bosom. The attempted compensation is overeating, mostly of junk food, and if that doesn’t help, escape. Now, lack of bosom brings me to reconsideration of a mistake that has haunted me through the years. Forgive me if I have inflicted it on you before.

It is something recorded, among other places, in the book, “No Stone Unturned” by Diana Rigg, a collection of hostile criticisms disbursed and endured in the theater. There she cites my review in New York magazine of a play called “Abelard and Heloise,” in which she starred as, you guessed it, the latter. And not only starred, but also appeared in a brief, rather discreetly lit, nude scene. It elicited my comment, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.” Or so she claims; actually what I wrote was “brick basilica.” This sally, I regret to say, quoted thus mistakenly, is the only quotation from me in a number of anthologies.

More importantly, alas, it prompted what she describes as follows: “I remember making my way to the theatre the following day, darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn’t meet anyone I know.” Besides being needlessly injurious, my remark was also inaccurate. Neither a mausoleum nor a basilica, whether it refers to an ancient Roman public building or an early Christian church, had, or was expected to have, a flying buttress, something that came in with cathedrals.

Aside from being in questionable taste (but then witticisms--especially needed in reviews of poor plays—are seldom kind to their targets), there is also a historical question involved: Did Heloise have a flattish chest, and if so, would it have mattered to Abelard, her lover, about whose pectoral preferences. as about so many other things in the Dark Ages, we remain in the dark?

I doubt whether Miss Rigg, a lovely and gifted artist, has read my apology buried somewhere in my writings, but let me assure her herewith that had she ever deemed fit to appear in my bedchamber (to use an appropriately medieval term), the last thing I would have thought of is kicking her out of bed-- basilica, mausoleum, or any other metaphor be damned. Need I add that my joke was based on the popular expression “built like a brick shithouse,” another edifice forgoing flying buttresses.

But on to more impressive mistakes. I repeat here the remark of a female graduate student guide through Olana, the Hudson Valley home of the painter Frederick Church. Before a grand landscape, she declared that “this was the work with which Mr. Church plummeted to fame.” A rather unique mistake from charming lips, forgivable with friendly titters.

But so many other mistakes nowadays are more widespread and far less pardonable. Take what has been issuing with alarming frequency from competing Republican politicians these days on television. Hardly one that hasn’t been wallowing in such idiot idioms as “cannot help but” and “the reason is because.” Call it pleonasm, tautology or redundancy—by any name it smells just as unsweet.

Now it is true that grammar can be curiously idiosyncratic: why should it be “other than” and “different from”? Why is a demeanor masterful and an argument masterly? Why, in popular parlance, is “parameter” wrong for “perimeter”? (If you had some knowledge of Latin, perimeter would be obvious, but who nowadays has even that much Latin?) And in pronunciation, why DESpicable rather than DeSPICable? One could go on and on.

Yet there are cases where minimal thought could avoid illogical lapses. How could “the reason is” be anything other than the same as “because”? How can “cannot help” doing something not suffice without that “but,” and why “cannot but” do something subsist without “help”? Again, doesn’t it take two, and only two, people to love each other, whereas it takes more than two to love one another? There is such a thing as mutual respect, but a friend can only be shared, not mutual, i.e.,reciprocal. Again so on and on. And don’t get me started on the ubiquitous pleonasm “free gift”;, of course the world of advertising can no more be trusted than that of television, whose regulars usually “lay” where they should “lie,” never mind that other “lie,” a synonym for major fibbing.

To be sure, there is incorrect usage that has become so ingrained that there is scant hope for correction. There is no chance of good food being called “healthful” rather than “healthy,” as if good could otherwise be infested with germs. And will a crowd of spectators ever be consistently a “number of people” rather than an “amount,” as if it were a quantity of salt in your diet.

So, mostly out of mistaken political correctness (and when is P.C. not mistaken?) we get “everyone has their reason” or “everyone please sit in their seat” where the “one” part in “everyone:  begs for a singular. But “his” would be, it seems, an affront to feminism, and “his or her,” though correct, would be cumbersome. Thus does gross solecism become enshrined in polite discourse. How much real harm does “his” and, for that matter, “mankind,” do to rational women’s self-respect? Of course, for “mankind” there is “humanity,” but for “his,” despite the weirdest attempts, there is no bisexual version.

And why, out of sheer ignorance, come up with “thanks for inviting Bill and I to your party,” as if there were no such thing as the properly accusative (or objective) case to be made for “me.”” This is an errant gentilism, which assumes that “I” is always more refined than “me.” Not only is “me” mandatory there, it has also pretty much replaced “I” in phrases like “It is me.” With this, we cannot but acquiesce, even without reference to (preferable to “referencing”) Rimbaud’s renowned “Je est un autre.”  This usage is so ingrained that it bypasses the rule that any form of the verb “to be” governs the nominative, thus “It was they [not them] who got there first.” Complicating matters is that the correct phrase “Than whom no one is smarter” somehow may justify “He is smarter than her.”

These days “good” has, with like illogic, replaced “well” in an answer to “How are you?” The questioner is, however uninterestedly (not, please, disinterestedly, which bespeaks selflessness), politely inquiring about your health, not about your behavior, about which he couldn’t (not “could”) care less. “I am good,” besides being a mistake, is boastful; only other people can truly judge how moral you are. The problem is that adjectives, like good, are more popular than adverbs, like well. This, probably, because they are shorter, snappier, than adverbs: “I was doing nice (rather than nicely) before I met you.” Also, confusingly, adjectival forms often do nicely as verbal complements: “Go slow,” for “go slowly.”

Ah, grammar! It has more pitfalls than a minefield, and similar problems arise with spelling and pronunciation, the rather dim Spellcheck notwithstanding. And the same for phrases: how many people use “begs the question” correctly? It is not only a matter of British versus American English, although Bernard (not George Bernard) Shaw was right to characterize us brilliantly as two nations separated by the same language. There are obvious differences involved here (in England, Parliament is plural; in America, singular) and a difference in one does not affect the other. The problem is that English’ unlike French, does not have an Academy prescribing what is correct. And even the good old Academie Francaise is apt to change its mind, presumably to follow usage rather than to stipulate it. I was in Paris on a Fulbright when it was announced that the “s” in “pas” (not) may or may not be elided, which, as I recall, caused quite a fracas. What we do have are the Internet and the computer, bit I won’t go into the devastation they have wreaked.

A good many mistakes could be avoided if we did have some sort of established guardians of correctness, although even then we could ask with Juvenal, “But who will guard the guardians themselves?” And there I am concerned with bigger mistakes than the mere linguistic ones I have mostly dealt with herein.

How to avoid the wars that cover more of our globe than do the oceans? How avoid the folly of many of our elected—or worse yet, unelected—leaders? How to try more earnestly to eschew religion, or at least differences in religions, setting us at one another’s throats? How to get our teachers to really teach, and our students to really study? Surely we could do better than that fine writer George Meredith, who, because of his own marital troubles, arrogantly demanded for women “More brain, O Lord, more brain.” There is no such thing as more brain to be granted, or even a Lord who might do the granting.



Saturday, January 23, 2016

Obesity


Any discussion of obesity comes down to the not particularly friendly contest between thick and thin, with the body as the chief battleground. Mostly the female nude, because that has been the main interest of heterosexual men, the principal arbiters. Women and homosexuals had far fewer votes in the matter of svelte versus corpulent, in art as in life. Thick or thin has been the great divide, as the expression “through thick and thin” encapsulates. Between them, they subsume the world
Let me state right off: I am a partisan of thin in human bodies as well as many other things. But let me make clear: slim, trim, slender, yes; but not spindly, emaciated, frangible, anorexic. It is, I believe, the majority view, excess being, as usual, undesirable. That majority view is exemplified in the history of painting and sculpture, but is the majority always right? Or do you think that intelligence lords it over stupidity, that sagacity outnumbers benightedness?

All right, you say, forget about majority, but what is so attractive about slimness? I suppose it is partly its suggestion of moderation, elasticity, embracableness. Also the practicality, the implication of flexibility, of not hogging too much space. And also gracefulness: how does a somersault by a fat woman compare with that of a slender one? Which one would you rather share a bed with or have plunk down in your lap?

And further: don’t clothes fitting snugly but not constrictingly look better than those stretched to bursting? But where exactly lies the boundary between just right and too much? Is the eighteen-inch waist so striven for by the girls in “Gone with the Wind” the correct ideal or is it exaggeration? Finally, are angels ever depicted as anything but slim, and what man would not cherish an angelic woman?

However, let us look at specific instances of thin versus thick. Even among animals, plants and objects, isn’t slim generally preferable? To be sure, among trees, a sturdy oak is as fetching as a willowy willow, merely in a different way. But that is a case where thickness means dependability in storms, a joy to be climbed up on, a potential for a tree house. In other words, function, even when merely implicit, may unconsciously color our aesthetics.

Consider another example of where thickness may beat out thinness. I am thinking of the beloved ante bellum Negro mammies of the era leading up to the Civil War. Their attraction lay in the capacious bosoms on which a hurt child might find refuge and solace. I am not thinking of the Hottentot Venus.

It may be argued that there were times and societies in which ample females were in favor: think Junoesque, think Rubens. But may it not be merely the consequence of some important personage, say a queen or some powerful aristocrat, having been stout, though she could just as easily have been thin as a rail.

Language, too, may play a role. The notion of “fat cat” seems to have an appeal beyond the mere rhyme—otherwise “bitty kitty” might have been the cat’s meow. But language does have emanations: if “large” did not have some positive connotations, would “largesse” be such a good thing? And does not “portly” carry fortuitous implications of “port,” something we all seek in our tempest-torn lives?

For my part, however, the capital sins are, in that order, wickedness, stupidity, cowardice, and obesity. To me, they are the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. I find relatively few things more painful than sitting on the subway opposite a truly obese person. I would risk an uncomfortably averted head just to avoid having to look at the fatso.

To be sure, there are the charitable souls who speculate that it may be a glandular matter over which the obese person has no control. I tend to think that it is rather a case of laziness: a careful diet and steady exercise are simply too much trouble. Yet even assuming that it is a problem of recalcitrant metabolism, it hardly makes fat acceptable. After all, stupidity is also a guiltless infirmity, yet we do not pardon it.

Now take dogs and cats. Doesn’t obesity in some of them—a belly that hugs the floor—strike us as offensive? Isn’t much of the beauty of leopards and panthers in their lissomness? But then what about elephants, whose bulk we do regard with admiration? There is something proportionate about their structure and a kind of lumbering grace in their movement. And their size itself fills us with awe akin to that with which we view loveliness. As for the whale, we may well want to save it, but not for its obese looks. And dolphins, however intelligent, are downright homely
in their chubbiness.

There are many things in nature that are obese. A melon, for example. But we do not value it for its looks, which it takes a still-life painter to make, conceivably, beautiful.
I personally find a well-made barrel attractive, but it may be only a transference from the good potables it contains. Usefulness may simulate sightlines.

But now take the case of pigs. Full-grown they are obese and unsightly. But piglets, even if you haven’t read “Winnie the Pooh,” may strike you as pretty. And so they are, not merely for their winsome smallness and roseate color. Isn’t a piggybank a pleasing object? There is a shape involved, and the shape is geometrically articulate.

This is the beauty of curves, which we find enticing. It suggests the undulation of a fair-weather sea, the hand-favoring rotundity of a perfectly designed pitcher. But they are beautiful only on a slender person, where they are perceived as such. On an obese person, we see curves only as lard. They function best in conjunction with firmness, say the firm flesh of youth or the perdurability of marble. Which makes a statue such as the ever-young Venus de Milo a paragon of beauty, even without a full complement, or armament, of arms.

And please don’t talk to me about inner beauty being more important than outer.  So it may be, but it is the outer that usually leads the viewer to the inner. It is the pursuit of the outer beauty of youth that lures the aging virago and still cruising homosexual to desperate stratagems that turn them into grotesques. You cannot be young forever, but you can try hard, and more often than not successfully, to eschew obesity.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Memory


Memory is one of our most interesting possessions; its failure, our possibly most grievous loss. What enhances its importance is its mystery, its surprises, its ultimate inscrutability.

Its chief competitor is our intellect, but intellect is measurable, comprehensible, transparent, less fascinating. We can assess what we know and recognize our ignorance. But both what we remember and what we forget are shrouded in a certain mystery; puzzling, illogical, challenging.

Why does this bit from our past suddenly pop up in our brain? Why in the name of God do we recall this and not something else—and recall it at this unrelated moment? We try to explain such things to ourselves, but virtually always fail.

In rereading my doctoral thesis, I came across a word I now no longer understood, but evidently remembered then. As I am making myself a hamburger, the word “phatic” crops up in my mind even though it has nothing to do with hamburgers or cooking or eating.  Another time I think about a woman I once loved while talking to a woman who merely interests me and bears no resemblance to the other, lost woman. Why this sudden uncalled-for remembrance?

Or take this. I am an opera lover and own a goodly number of operatic CDs, but definitely not Donizetti’s “Linda di Chamounix,” which I have never seen or even heard on the radio, yet “O luce di quest’ anima,” the title of one of its arias, suddenly crops up unsolicited in my mind. I may have read about it somewhere, but why recall it now, or at all?

Conversely, I own several versions of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” and have seen it performed quite a few times. But then why when in a conversation I want to remember what comes after “Bocca bacciata,” I can’t for the life of me do so? I have to look it up“non perde ventura.”

Now take another example. Few movies have affected me as strongly as, during my boyhood in Belgrade, the Hungarian film “Deadly Spring,” based on a fine novel by Lajos Zilahy. In one scene, the gorgeous Katalin Karadi (I don’t have the accent for the second A) does a kind of dancing striptease while singing a terrific song “This Will Be Your Undoing” to the man who loves her.

Still, how come that I kept remembering that song, so many years later, as a Harvard student? Both the melody and the words. In fact, I kept singing it out loud in the streets of Cambridge because I knew that the great composer Bela Bartok was there at the invitation of the Harvard music department. I am hoping that, his path crossing mine, he would be tickled pink hearing someone singing in Hungarian, stop and befriend me. It never occurred to me that, considering it kitsch, he might smile at me and pass by.

But now, when I try to sing the song to myself, I remember it only imperfectly. Why perfectly then and only dimly now? Memory mysteriously gives and, as mysteriously, takes away.

The common view, seemingly based on scientific evidence, is that we lose our short- term memory but retain our long-term one. So, theoretically, I may not remember what soup I had yesterday, but warmly recall a pastry I ate as a kid in Belgrade. But does it really work that way for me?

Or can it be that, even long-term, we only remember pleasant things from the distant past and not the unpleasant ones? Then how come that, at a time when I already had a fair knowledge of English, I arrived for my private French lesson a bit early and came upon the preceding pupil, Sinka Nikic, the great beauty of Belgrade, who, unusually for that time, spoke good English, which may have helped her become, as rumor had it, the mistress of Yugoslav Crown Prince Peter. To impress her, I quoted something from, as I put it, an “English poetist,” which had both Sinka and the French teacher burst out laughing. I never was as ashamed as at that moment, which I still recall with a shudder, not even when, years later, people told me that Sinka remembered me as the boy who waved two toy guns about. True, I had an MG, an expensive faithful German toy replica of a shiny a momenthandgun, which I may have fired in public. But I don’t remember a pair.

I also remember ashamedly a moment from my early childhood, when I was learning to swim on Hungary’s lovely Lake Balaton. The swimming instructor was just finishing up with another child, whose frightened howl when tossed into the water (the instructor’s rough method) earned it the scornful nickname “musician.” Seeing me next in line, he turned to someone and jeered, “Another musician.” O the shame of it! 

So those are black marks that stick to the memory. But happy events are not necessarily more precisely remembered. I know that, as an adult, I sought out the distinguished Serbian poet Vasko Popa, but I can’t remember anything about the interview. No less painful is not recalling a single detail about a very enjoyable lunch with Jorge Luis Borges, during which, I know, he said many fascinating things.

There is a well-known memory test: showing someone a drawing with numerous details for a very short time, then asking what he remembers. If I were ever given it, I doubt whether I could acquit myself with distinction. I think it comes from Kipling’s “Kim,” one of several prize books I earned at the end of my one year at the Leys School, Cambridge, England. Correct me if I misremember.

Not for nothing did the ancient Greeks call one of the Muses Mnemosyne. As Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary remarks, “The word Mnemosyne signifies memory, and therefore the poets have rightly called memory the mother of the Muses,  because it is to that mental endowment that mankind are indebted for their progress in science.” But surely not only in science.
                                                                                                                                                                After all, volumes of memoirs are so named because they record their authors’ memories—indeed the French word  for memory is memoire. One of Vladimir Nabokov’s best books, a marvelous account of his young years, is entitled “Speak, Memory,” which is what memory does. If you look in any dictionary ofquotations, by the way, you will find no dearth of entries under “Memory.”

Yes, memory speaks to, for, and about us; without it, we might as well be dayflies, here today and forgotten tomorrow. Without memory there would be no computers and, worse yet, no learning. 

“I remember, I remember” begins Thomas Hood’s justly famous poem, and I cannot refrain from quoting one of my favorite English quatrains, Swinburne’s “And the best and the worst of this is/ That neither is most to blame/ If you have forgotten my kisses/ And I have forgotten your name.” But enough—I could go on like this for pages.

A tricky thing memory. Suddenly there is in your mind the name of a person, a character or title in fiction, a thing, a word, out of nowhere, with no rational cause. And yet somehow it is there. Only the other day the name of a medicine popped up, one that neither I nor anyone I know had ever taken, taking me aback in total surprise. I wondered at my even knowing it. But don’t ask me what it is: I have already forgotten.      

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Naomi Wallace




Naomi Wallace’s “Night Is a Room” was recently playing at the Signature Center, the third part of a trilogy from their playwright in residence. Wallace has received every conceivable award and had her many plays produced to mostly critical raves. She has climbed to the pinnacle of pretentiousness with labored grandiosity, erudite posturing, and variety in vacuity.

To begin with, the script of “Night Is a Room” features not one but three superscriptions, meant to confer instant prestige, even though none of them has anything to do with the play it overhangs.

From Walter Benjamin, a snobbish cult figure critic-philosopher: “The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.” Benjamin enjoys the eminence required to get away with such balderdash. From William Carlos Williams, a vastly overrated poet: “Night is a room/ darkened for lovers.” Together, the two lines make sense; by itself, the first is meaningless and irrelevant. From William Blake: “I shew forth the pang/ Of sorrow red hot: I workd [sic] it on my resolute anvil.” No discernible relevance to Wallace’s play.

“Room” is one of Wallace’s modern pieces; others are historic. Most of them are pretentious even in title. Thus “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.” “Things of Dry Hours,” “The Liquid Plain,” and my favorite, “And I and Silence.” Her fist success, “One Flea Spare,” is about the Black Plague that swept 14th-century Europe, and has been incorporated in the permanent repertoire of the Comedie-Francaise, the French National Theater, proving that the bubonic plague is not the only international kind of pestilence.

Wallace’s honors include: the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Southern Writers Drama Award, Obie and Horton Foote Awards, Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, National Endowment for the Arts development grant, Broadway Play Publishing Inc. Playwright of the Year, Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters chiefly for “her three ’Visions’ of the Middle East that comprise  ‘The Fever Chart’” (note the subliterate use of “comprise”), and, best of all, the Charles MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. Genius Award).  The MacArthur people preconize left-leaning radicals, e.g., Wallace’s involvement with the Palestinians and membership in SURJ (Showing up for Racial Justice).

She has taught in a number of prominent institutions, ranging from the far out Hampshire College (whose graduate she is) and University of Iowa, to the far in Yale and Illinois State University, as well as universities in Amsterdam and Cairo. She has co-edited “Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora,” and published a volume of verse, “To Dance a Stony Field,” another winning title. She is married to Bruce E. J. Macloed, her frequent co-author, has three children, and lives in Kentucky (born there) and Yorkshire, England.

Now to “Night Is a Room.” There is a Note on the Set. “Set is minimal. Scene changes might morph into other places/spaces rather tan be replaced or exchanged so that there is a subtle layering of both theme and material that undermines the reality of the moment.”  As if her moment needed any additional undermining.

There follows a Note on the Dialogue. “Characters may flow from one idea or subject to the next [flowing characters?], even if there seems to be no obvious connection between lines. [Ms. Wallace is an addict of unobvious connections.]. As though the link between thoughts is sometimes missing, but perhaps only for us. [Incomprehensibility just our fault.] Some lines have no break between them and should be treated as complete sentences. [In other words: unpunctuated and incoherent.] Accents are light, not ‘realistic.’ [If so, why bother?]  Liana and Marcus have a mild standard English accent. Dore [I lack even a light accent on my keyboard. Please visualize an acute one on the E in Dore.] has a light Yorkshire accent. A beat is one second long. A period within a line signals a break, a half second.” [How are the actors going to manage that? Even if they carried about stop watches, that wouldn’t give them half seconds.] A forward slash signals an interruption at the end of the word. [Is there such a thing as a backward slash as well?]

And now for the story. Liana is 43, a senior account director. She is married to Marcus, a school teacher [Why two words?] He is the son whom Dore had with a French husband when she was 15. He gave her, besides a child, that gilded name and then took French leave. The child is Marcus. He and Liana have an unseen daughter, Dominique (Dom), now studying in the U.S. [Good for dramatic phone calls, among other things.]

 We begin in the paltry, neglected back garden in Dore’s home. She has put on her “better” clothes for Liana, who is dressed “elegantly but subtly.” For Marcus’s birthday [but he isn’t there!], she has brought along a bagful of multicolored balloons, good for all kinds of tomfoolery. Dore is shy, barely looks at Liana, but gazes “intently elsewhere, though her gaze is neither vacant nor passive.” Shy but not passive? And how can a gaze be passive, anyway? After much fussing with the balloons, one explodes.  Dore watches with fascination, no longer elsewhere, and not vacuously, I presume.

Liana says, “You’re not an easy woman to find. It took me quite a few weeks of intense searching.  Intense searching, to find you. And a pretty penny.” [Leeds, where the scene takes place, is not that big; the search would be either easy or impossible; in between makes no sense.] I certainly wouldn’t do it on my own.” What kind of helpers then, on whom she spent 200 pounds? But anything for a perfect 40th- birthday present for hubby, even after decades of abeyance.

When Dore is made to speak about herself, “her words seem all of a piece without breaks . . .  At other times her speech is more conventional.” Why the inconsistency? Here she is of a piece: “When I go to the market on the weekends I wear my slippers no one notices they almost look like outdoor shoes and much warmer. . . . they have lasted seventeen years.” How self-revelatory can you get? But Wallace relishes such no-account, irrelevant trivia.

She also loves to get pornographic. While they await Mother Dore’s visit, Marcus and Liana have at it sexually. Herewith a slightly abridged version. “ MARCUS: Extraordinary. With one finger I can turn on the taps. [Liana slaps his face quite hard.] LIANA: (breathless): Let me touch you. MARCUS: Not now. . . . Just for you this time. You’re so beautiful, darling. [Marcus’s fingers move deeply inside her.] You’re a celestial sphere inside. . . .  LIANA: Ah, teaching the Renaissance again. Always gets you spunky. [Liana gets closer to cumming.] MARCUS: Louder. I want to hear you.” [The phone rings just as she cumms.]

This usage is faulty. “Cum,” vulgar slang for “come,” is a noun. In no way is it a verb or a participle.  And with a preposterous double M yet!

Liana talks to her daughter on the phone. [Stage direction: As L. talks, M. takes a napkin from the table and, with relish, carefully dries his hand, his fingers, as he watches L. L. arranges herself as she speaks. M. hands her the napkin and she quickly wipes herself. L. throws the used napkin playfully at M. M. looks to throw napkin in bin, but there is no bin in sight, so he pockets it.]

There is, never fear, a complementary bit. Liana fantasizes their going to bed early for a good read. “But before we do that, I’ll lay you down on this floor and open your trouser buttons [What? No zippers in Leeds?] with my teeth, one by one. [That could make quite a circus act.] Then I’m going to suck your cock. I won’t tire, my tongue never does. I’ll tease you until you’re furious and rigid in my mouth. When you finally cum  [Heavens, where did that second “M” disappear to?], I want you to cum so hard--  MARCUS: --that I knock out the back of your throat—LIANA:—and scramble my brains.” [Wonderful how Naomi can wed the intellectual (Renaissance, read in bed) to the sexual. Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on Naomi and Bruce’s bedroom wall?

Evenhanded as she is, Ms. Wallace gives you also a truly romantic moment, this between mother (55) and son (40). They have been secretly in touch for a time and clandestinely meeting for three weeks, but this is the first invitation to the couple for dinner. But what evolves? “SD: Marcus kisses Dore lightly first, then more deeply, and she responds. He envelops her in his arms like a lover. It is a quiet, focused moment of passion, restrained but therefore the desire all the more evident. Liana watches them frozen, mesmerized. Etc.” The upshot is that they leave together, though Marcus refuses to answer whether he “licked his mother’s cunt.” Dore advises Marcus, “If you still care for Liana, don’t leave her with hope.” And so the bestower of fabulous fellations is left abandoned, tireless tongue and all.

As Liana remarks: “Each of us is born with the smear of our mother’s cunt across our faces [Note the faulty agreement between “each” and “our.”] We carry it with us all our lives. A very, very few of us go back for more. That’s all.”

The third act takes place, six years later, in a small room off the side of a church chapel, with Marcus’s closed coffin on a table. Now Dora looks more youthful, even taller, elegant, fashionably though subtly dressed in black. Liana looks to have aged beyond her years, and has a slight limp. Though her clothes are worn, “ they still retain a sense of flair.” Note redundancy: flair is itself a kind of sense.  A sense of sense?  Dore’s shyness is gone, we read, “replaced by a calm steadfastness.” So we get here the female version of the Hotspur-Prince Hal reversal.

This act is a weird mixture of friendliness and hostility between the women (the latter more on Liana’s part). Liana even tries to strangle Dore but fails, yet causes Dore to piss herself. Dore tries to wipe it up with a tissue she has, but needs more and ask for one from Liana, who says she wouldn’t give it to her even if she had it. She does however give Dore her scarf, which her ex mother-in-law finishes the task with, then drapes the soiled scarf on the coffin to dry. Eventually, Liana rummages in the suitcase she carries and produces a pair of clean panties for Dore, who finds them “not very attractive,” but does put them on discreetly behind the coffin.

All kinds of nonsense passes between the women. Thus Dore declares, “Rain falls through me, not on me.” Liana explains why she quit her job without benefits: “Those days, unless you’re eating rabbits off the road, or can demonstrate, right there in the office, that you make a hot cuppa every morning, with small, measured spoons of your cat’s excrement, you don’t get any benefit. Instead, I got a fork stuck in my leg.”

About Marcus: LIANA: Did I care for him completely? No. Because I never cared for his feet.  DORE: Neither did I.  LIANA: He gave his feet too much attention. DORE: Yes, he did, as though they were . . . pets.  LIANA: Always hold something back, a little piece of aversion keeps one inquisitive, cognizant. [Huh?] DORE: I did not have an aversion to his feet. I just couldn’t feel friendly towards them. They were too clean.  LIANA: Clean the way feet shouldn’t be, and pink, and moist. DORE: The nails clipped straight across, no curves! LIANA: And his particularity with socks! [There follows a brief discussion of Marius’s socks, which I skip.] LIANA: To love one’s own feet with such diligence, such zeal.  DORE: It’s suspect. LIANA: Always glancing down to make sure they were still there— DORE: As though they were two holy relics. Sometimes it seemed they actually gleamed in the dark! [It also seems as if those feet were more interesting than the play.]

No less absorbing is the explanation of Liana’s limp. She stabbed herself with a fork.  Why a fork? “Anguish is elegant and for elegance one uses a knife: deep and smooth. However, when your insides have arranged themselves and are now hanging on your outside, I recommend a fork. There’s no pretence with a fork. (Beat) A more practical reason was to apply for sympathy.” Shouldn’t that be “appeal”? In any case, the wound got infected, and no benefit was incurred, only a limp.

Of some interest too are Ms. Wallace’s frequent lapses in grammar and usage, but this is getting too long and I’ll skip them. In the end, after that touching panty business, it may not come as a surprise that the women leave together as the play ends.

However, on the Signature stage, the director Bill Rauch introduced some chic ambiguity: Liana leaves, even as Dore’s gaze follows her amicably. The production was far better than the work deserved. There was good set and costume design, and the direction was effective. Bill Heck was fine as Marcus, but Ann Dowd was, in Acts One and Two, a bit too dowdy. Frumpy, more precisely. Why, in any case, does this intelligent woman, Dore, have to earn a living cleaning other people’s apartments? (That, to be sure, is very much in the script.) The stellar performance was the Liana of Dagmara Dominczyk, who was not only perfectly lovely, but always did everything right, elegant but also subtle, as Wallace says of her attire. I could go on for paragraphs about the admirable touches she brings to her silly part.

Well, dear reader, if you have gallantly kept up with this, let me explain the length of it. It’s not just to castigate Naomi Wallace, worthless as she is, but also to convey what is wrong with our theater, with those who write it, produce it, crown it with award upon award, heaping absurdity upon absurdity. And worst of all, the wretched theater critics, who contribute to rather than execrate this nonsense.