Archive for the ‘William Shakespeare’ Category

Pretending Away

May 29, 2022

Telling more lies
To prove you aren't a liar
Committing arson
To cover up a fire

Pretending away
Facts that burn your soul
Pretending away
Truth that takes a toll

Festering lilies
Troubles grow like weeds
Caress and fondle
The monsters that you feed

Pretending away 
The pain and the smell
Pretending away
The things you never tell

Cardboard illusions
Menageries of glass 
Forsaken future
Imaginary past

Pretending away
What everybody sees
Pretending away
Your own reality

by Richard W. Bray

This Mortal Coil

August 28, 2020

Adam and Eve by Edvard Munch

In Love Medicine, a novel by Louise Erdrich, young Albertine Johnson is tasked with protecting the pies by her grandmother, who leaves a family gathering before it descends into drunken mayhem:

“They can eat!” Grandma yelled once more. “But save them pies!”

During the melee that ensues, Albertine heroically manages to prevent her cousin King from drowning his wife Lynette in the sink. But she can’t save the pies:

All the pies were smashed. Torn open. Black juice bleeding through the crusts. Bits of jagged shells were stuck to the wall and some were turned completely upside down. Chunks of rhubarb were scraped across the floor. Merengue dripped from the towels.

Later when she wakes up, Albertine does what she can for the pies:

I spooned the fillings back into the crusts, married the slabs of dough, smoothed over the edges of crusts with a wetted finger, fit crimps to crimps and even fluff to fluff on top of berries or pudding. I worked carefully for over an hour. But once they smash there is no way to put them right.

With the possible exception of Ella Fitzgerald singing Blue Skies, there’s no perfection in this world. We’re all broken in some way, just like those pies.

Christians tell us we’re living in a fallen world as punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve. I don’t believe this, but it’s a useful metaphor for the human condition.

It’s important to accept Existence on its own terms. Everything in this world is flawed. There’s a lot you can do to make life better for yourself and others, but you can’t fix the world; you can’t fix your friends; you can’t even fix yourself.

Like Albertine Johnson, you can try to make things better. If you try really hard, you might be as heroic as Albertine — you might even make the world a little bit more beautiful. Making the world a little bit more beautiful is a monumental achievement.

The Past Is Not the Future

How do we make the world a little bit better when human beings are so full of greed, stupidity, pettiness and cruelty? Well, it ain’t easy. But trying is all we have.

For example, we can learn from the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Sheryl Crow was right: Every day is a winding road, a new opportunity to try to do better.

The past is not the future; don’t make it a prison.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us:

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

East Coker

You’ll never fix the world, but there are some helpful strategies for facing this mortal coil with dignity. You can start by taking a deep breath and letting it out really slow.

by Richard W. Bray

this tender box of bone and skin

January 5, 2019

The thousand natural shocks that flesh
is heir to
are there to
remind you
you’re alive

every cut
and every kiss
says you’re real
and you exist

This dappled world we’re living in
this tender box
of bone
and skin

every cut
and every kiss
says you’re real
and you exist

by Richard W. Bray

happiness is sad song

July 1, 2017

Happiness is a sad song
Charles Schultz, from the book Happiness is a Warm Puppy

Everything was beautiful
Until it went wrong
Happiness
Is sad song

Weeping for Hecuba
And all those hurts beyond
Happiness
Is sad song

Poking ancient agony
Clutching what is gone
Happiness
Is sad song

Accepting my reality:
I loved you all along
Happiness
Is sad song

by Richard W. Bray

Abelard and Héloise are Dead

December 7, 2016

zzabelard

Abelard and Héloise are dead
It doesn’t really matter what they said
Get your pretty face out of that book
Nature got a need for us to cook

Juliet and Romeo ain’t real
We can vanquish love like it’s a meal
Ravish and devour me till dawn
Live the life we got until it’s gone

Helena and Paris stole away
That’s what you and me should do today
Spirit me away in dark of night
Enchant me in delirious delight

Mark Antony and Cleo had their time
So we should make the most of yours and mine
Living blood is scorching through our veins
Let’s drink each other up just like Champagne

by Richard W. Bray

Sweetest Nut

December 2, 2016

zzheartlock

Sweetest nut hath sourest rind;
Such a nut is Rosalind.

Touchstone, from As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Do you have a secret
That you’re too afraid to tell?
Are you delicate and tender
Underneath your heavy shell?

Have you suffered shocks and stings?
Did you build a barricade?
Did you turn those slings and arrows
To a daunting palisade?

Can you let me in your fortress?
Is it big enough for two?
Can we fortify each other?
Or is your castle just for you?

by Richard W. Bray

not a sometimes thing

June 27, 2016

www116

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

I love you when you’re mean
I love you when you’re mad
I love you when you’re angry
I love you when you’re bad

Love is not a smorgasbord
For me to pick and choose
Always have to clean my plate
When I’m digesting you

I love you when you pout
I love you when you cry
I love you when you’re dirty
I’ll love you till I die

Love is not a sometimes thing
Love is not a switch
I love you as an angel
I love you as a bitch

by Richard W. Bray

Let’s Face the Music and Dance

May 22, 2016

wwhauden

The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
Not to be born is the best for man;

W.H. Auden, The Dead Echo

Wow. That’s pretty depressing. In fact, I wrote that listening to Auden read “The Dead Echo”* from The Voice of the Poet series makes me want to lie down in the fetal position and turn out all the lights.

Is our human existence, as Auden suggests, so meaningless that we would be better off without it? No. Because Love.

In his famous soliloquy Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow Shakespeare’s Macbeth complains that

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

As an ardent nonbeliever, I don’t see how human existence signifies anything beyond itself. But our existence is nonetheless pretty awesome when considered on its own terms.

I’m pretty sure that there isn’t any anthropomorphized God up in outer space listening to all our prayers, a god who cares about every little thing that happens in the universe, including the death of every sparrow.   Yet I see reason for hope in this terrifying realization because it informs me that human beings must rely upon one another instead of inventing a god in order to assuage our cosmic loneliness.

However, Auden makes another claim in “The Dead Echo” which haunts me to the core of my being:

A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus

In other words, our hunger for Love is merely a manifestation of ego since we are only capable of viewing the world through the prism of our own interests and our own self-perception. As Auden explains in his collection of essays called “The Dyer’s Hand” :

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both partners run out of good.

This is true, of course. But it hardly renders Love meaningless.  The act of caring about others is selfish and selfless at the same time.  It’s one of life’s many paradoxes.  Our lives are full of paradox not because that’s how the universe is designed; we see life as being full of paradox because that’s how our brains are designed.

When Samuel Goldwyn complained that a script she had submitted “ended on a sad note,” Dorothy Parker noted

“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn, but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.”

So what should we do about this whole being alive thing?  Well, in addition to depressing the hell out of us in “The Dead Echo,” Auden provides us with some practical advice:

Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

And as another poet notes, between birth and death, It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

So the loveliest and most courageous thing we can do is acknowledge the hurt and ugly in our lives and still manage, somehow, to face the music and dance.

* Auden elsewhere refers to this poem as “Death’s Echo”

by Richard W. Bray

Cruel to Be Cruel

May 9, 2016

Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara

 

J.K. Simmons garnered an Academy Award for his portrayal of the cruel, exacting, excellence-obsessed music teacher Terrence Fletcher in the movie Whiplash.  Fletcher tells his struggling student that “there are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job.’” In other words, Fletcher argues, he is merely hard on people for their own good, pushing them to achieve new levels of excellence.

Fletcher is echoing Hamlet’s assertion that “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Today in our success-worshipping culture the clichéd notion that we are doing people a favor when we are hard on them is repeated often by parents, teachers, and others who suggest that they only want the best for us while they are abusing us.

But we should ask to whom, exactly, is Hamlet being kind. Notice that Hamlet makes his famous cruel-to-be-kind assertion right after he stabs Polonius in fit of rage. Yet Polonius was merely guilty of eavesdropping, hardly a capital offense. However, Hamlet demurs when presented with an opportunity to kill Claudius, the man who murdered Hamlet’s father.  (Claudius is certainly a much more appropriate target for Hamlet’s sword than Polonius.)

Hamlet is a cruel, insufferable, whimpering coward who, like Terrence Fletcher, is usually cruel just to be cruel. For sport, Hamlet badgers poor, innocent Ophelia, a woman who simply wants to love him. Later Hamlet whines when he discovers that Ophelia has committed suicide.

So Hamlet abuses people for fun and Terrence Fletcher abuses people because he wants to win jazz competitions. They’re both losers in my book.

However, the obviously hypocritical and self-serving sadism of Fletcher and Hamlet notwithstanding, there certainly are times when it is necessary to be hard on people.

But when is outright cruelty justifiable?  I’m not a big fan of fussing and fighting, yet Alfred Kazin notes in his memoir A Walker in the City that sometimes a healthy screaming row is necessary in order to clear the air, so to speak: “In Yiddish we broke all the windows to let a little air into the house” (119).

And the poet Frank O’Hara makes a similar point:

Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don’t be shy of unkindness, either
it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe

Some people enjoy hurting other people; I don’t.  It sounds pretty wacky to me, but according to physicists, all matter is connected. So maybe when we attack others we are actually attacking ourselves. Or maybe Allan Seager’s description of poet Theodore Roethke also applies to me: “his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin.”

by Richard W. Bray

 

A Few Thoughts on Virtue and Vice

May 17, 2014

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Many vices have corresponding virtues. Consider the following pairs of adjectives.

Confident/Cocky
Trusting/Gullible
Audacious/Impudent
Candid/Indiscreet
Gallant/Foolhardy
Deliberate/Dithering

In each of the above examples, there is a point where excess converts virtue into vice.

Consider the Wooden Paradox from basketball coach John Wooden: Be quick but don’t hurry. In other words, give maximum effort without losing control. Expedience is good; reckless haste is not. Thus we excel by straining a virtue to the edge of the border where it becomes its corresponding vice.

Controlling our appetites is a key to maximizing virtues without rendering them vices. As philosopher Phillipa Foot* notes, “Virtues belong to the will” (13).

For example, there is virtue in Hamlet’s impulse to redress his father’s murder; however, the mindless barbarism of Hamlet’s hunger for retribution obliterates a guiltless family—Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Enraged recklessness is the vice which transforms Hamlet’s valor into senseless carnage.

To his credit, Hamlet is aware of such folly. That’s why he salutes Horatio’s staid and sober equanimity:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee

It is not good enough simply to act upon justifiable impulses because, as Foot notes, “almost any desire can lead a man to act unjustly” (9). Like Hamlet’s ill-fated quest for justice, much death, loss, and destruction is perpetrated in the name of love, charity, temperance, and security. Alexander Pope warns us to be wary because

The same ambition can destroy or save,
And makes a patriot as it makes a knave.

It is difficult to discern the corresponding virtues for “moral failings such as pride, vanity, worldliness and avarice” which “harm both their possessor and others” (Foot 3). Pride is a fundamental flaw bred in the bone of humanity. Excessive self-satisfaction puffs us up; it distends the ego and smothers benevolence. But you don’t have to take my word for it:

Before destruction the heart of man is haughty (Proverbs 18:12)

Whether we credit our existence to God or evolution, there is no such thing as a self-made man.

Let’s imagine a man who comes into the world with a massive endowment of skill and will who also happens to be born at that right time and place to garner great fortune and esteem during his lifetime. Shouldn’t this man be immensely grateful for his fortuitous circumstances? Why does pride so often trump modesty in the solipsistic hearts of the fortunate?

Compassion and humility are the best antidotes to our capacious appetites and our rampant self-love.

*All Philippa Foot quotations from Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy

by Richard W. Bray