Thursday, 3 December 2015

Learning and Culture

The terms “culture vulture” and “book worm” are terms of abuse directed at bohemian debonairs. They will spit at you, hurl abuse at you, manipulate and deceive you. These people ought to be ashamed of themselves. They are no better than an oppressor. This is the sort of culture Britain likes to put up with. The man laughs at the youngster reading Goethe walking down the street but the delectable youth is too Epicurean to elicit a response. He carries on reading until he encounters his next barrage of abuse. Nevertheless, whatever the young man is reading he will never give up because he will always immerse himself in rich and high culture, and there is nothing anybody can do about it. Thugs can steal and destroy his book but you can be assured the progressive will always buy another copy of the book; there is nothing to sink both women and men of thinking and learning.

It is true England does not possess the culture of Italy, neither does it possess the culture of France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and indeed all the other countries of Europe. It would be scandalous if such countries joined Britain in its cultural depravity. One cannot doubt that, in times past, Britain has possessed a great array of writers. It is an island where many novelists have appeared like no other nation, more marvellous playwrights have appeared like any other, more quality poets have also emerged. To speak of British novelists one must not compare the novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev with any English novelist, and no serious person would dream of comparing the novels of Balzac, Stendhal and Proust with English novels; it would be very foolish to do such a thing, but it must be conceded the colossal array of bedazzling English novelists the country has produced over several hundred years is enough to impress any man, woman or child. In every era there has been what we may call “a great novel”, or indeed, great novels. The eighteenth century alone offers the reader many hours developing their thoughts by reading such works of art.

Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe are just some of these authors. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in four parts was published in 1726 but first began writing it in 1720 or perhaps 1721. A young British audience in the twenty-first century will not refer to Gulliver’s Travels as a novel or a book but only as a movie and will discuss it as if this movie was a piece of art; something to admire from one generation to the next, when, as everyone knows, or at least should know, that such movies are only thought of and made for financial gain, and no individual, company or otherwise can be deemed artists if their chief desire is to maximise profits. Ironically, Gulliver’s Travels was the only work where Swift received any payment. He received a mere two-hundred pounds. It is clear then that writers like Swift wrote not for profit but for other reasons. I must comment of the genre of Gulliver’s Travels because I did refer to the book as a novel, which is debatable. It may be described as a philosophical romance, there is little identity with its protagonist which is part of the reason why it is not often referred to a as novel but that is a minor quibble. Novel, romance or whatever we wish to call it, these Hollywood directors who make these horror show movies become the writers of the books. Jonathan Swift gave nobody the permission to massacre his works and turn a classic piece of literature into a Hollywood movie and the fact this is not even discussed shows what kind of society we live in. Jonathan Swift was not just the greatest satirist of his day but was arguably the greatest satirist of all time.

Some years before Gulliver’s Travels was published, Robinson Crusoe or the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself, was published. This is considered by many to be the first English novel but again it has been hijacked by Hollywood. That is what happens in a society that is based on greed feeding into the free market apparatus. It is enough for one to vomit voraciously. Like Swift, Defoe gave no vulture capitalists the permission to tarnish and destroy this novel. How many British men, women and children will have read the book before seeing the Hollywood deformity? It is sad to say the country to which Daniel Defoe was native to; the author of this novel is seen as nothing more than a nonentity. The island could produce the greatest works a of art year-in and year-out but the people of the island would still prefer to wipe their bottoms on these books rather than read them.

Well, what of Samuel Richardson? The two previous authors discussed are at least known by a number of people but what books of Samuel Richardson have been made into Hollywood movies? None that I know of, therefore few British people will know anything of the books he has written.

What kind of people disregards their own nation’s greatest literature and read garbage? These students in England study the most stunning literature: Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Byron, the writers already discussed and countless others, and when these students have finished their studies, they never bother to read these books again, instead they prefer to read comic books and watch their facile Hollywood heroes and the like. Emma Goldman, in 1910, writes:

In the literary and dramatic world, the Humphrey Wards and Clyde Fitches are the idols of the mass, while but few know or appreciate the beauty and genius of an Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman; an Ibsen, a Hauptmann, a Butler Yeats, or a Stephen Phillips. They are like solitary stars, far beyond the horizon of the multitude.
Publishers, theatrical managers, and critics ask not for the quality inherent in creative art, but will it meet with a good sale, will it suit the palate of the people? Alas, this palate is like a dumping ground; it relishes anything that needs no mental mastication.
That was the case in 1910 and it is still the case today, and it will be the case tomorrow, of course, Emma Goldman was a Russian living in America at the time, but her words resonate as if they were written this afternoon. In Goldman’s lifetime, from 1869 to 1940, the list of writers we can name is as impressive as any list in history. In those years people were particularly fortunate for having such writers as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Turgenev, Bernard Shaw, Yeats, Steinbeck, Bulgakov, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Wilde, Strindberg, Dickens, Proust, Siegfried Sassoon, Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald, Auden, Borges, Joyce, Brecht, Robert Browning, Carlyle, Conrad, Victor Hugo, Camus, Sartre, William Faulkner, Zola, Flaubert, Chekhov, need we go on? Look at this array of writers in Emma Goldman’s lifetime. It is enough to send one into a depression forever and a day. If it were possible to abolish this world and adopt another, it would be no worse than our present state of literary affairs.

Daniel Defoe wrote some 560 books in his lifetime, whom could we say about that today? Nobody is the answer to the question, and indeed, the authors’ that do may as well sweat and grind in a warehouse or factory. At least they would produce something worthwhile. People who visit England, though, will find something missing. They will go around looking for plinths and statues and such things of great writers in the cities and towns. They will find very few of these, instead they will come across grotesque figures of military men, of belligerent killers; they will see political figures and the most deprived Monarchs. Manchester, that city infamous for the industrial revolution and the Peterloo massacre, Oh, citizens, tell me, where are these statues of Percy Shelley? Well, they will find the “Shelley Memorial” at University College, Oxford. The same university where he was expelled for writing the pamphlet the Necessity of Atheism but there is no statue of him anywhere in England, and why? Well, the same reason why there are none of many other literary figures, and if they are, they are just hidden away somewhere so nobody can see them without a magnifying glass. Shelley’s great poem, the Masque of Anarchy, a powerful piece of writing composed in Italy about the Peterloo Massacre, is also nowhere to be seen. His father-in-Law, William Godwin, who is considered by many to be the greatest intellectual of his generation, also, has no statues, plinths or whatever, created to remember him. You will find, though, such grand designs of Queen Victoria, or perhaps American Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, but of literary figures, there is nothing.

At least everyone should know William Shakespeare, the greatest artist that ever lived at any given time, was born on 23rd April 1564. In his country of birth, is there an annual anniversary celebrating his birth? The answer is no. It is true, in the country there is celebration on April 23rd, not celebrating Shakespeare but the mythological character of Saint George. What can be said about a nation that is ashamed to have Shakespeare as one of their very own writers? No words can describe what sort of society that could be.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the greatest eras for the English theatre and its playwrights. No other nation has compared to this period in history, not even the ancient Greeks compete with such unparalleled genius. Cyril Tourneur, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, William, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Marston, John Ford and Thomas Kyd are just some of the playwrights that were writing during this period, most notably under the reigns of Elizabeth and James. I will give a brief analysis of these artists and attempt to fathom why, with the odd exception of Shakespeare, why they have been largely ignored by the majority, and indeed a great many people do claim Shakespeare is not the author of his own plays! Whoever heard of such a thing? It is of course a conspiracy theory, this means you can say the most outlandish and imbecilic things about anything you desire, and it makes no difference how outrageous and ridiculous the claims, because not one shred of evidence in required for presenting such idiocies, which is why they are referred to as “conspiracy theories”. It should be known to the enlightened reader of literature that Christopher Marlowe died very young, at only 29, in 1593, having had the misfortune of sharing the birth year with William Shakespeare. It makes perfect sense then that these conspiracy theorists would claim Marlowe wrote the most (and best) plays attributed to Shakespeare when he was dead!

One playwright’s activities who are a mystery is Cyril Tourneur. He was born in 1575 but nothing is known of his life until 1613. Three plays are attributed to him, of which one is lost. We are told that the Nobleman, his last play, was penned in 1607, the Revenger’s Tragedy was written in the same year and the Atheist’s Tragedy in 1611. There is no question whatsoever the Revenger’s Tragedy is by far his greatest play out of the three, or rather, two. Some may argue this play, attributed to Tourneur, is best left in the past because it does not deal with issues this present century, alas it was good for its time but is not relevant anymore. That is not quite true, however. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Professor R.A Fookes writes:

The Revenger’s Tragedy is fascinating and disturbing because it reveals something unsettling about the true nature of the world, that of the present day as much as Jacobean London. It shows us a society for which Christianity provides a convenient frame or referenced themselves of good and evil, sin and divine punishment, heaven and hell, but it is, in truth, a society that only pays lip-service to such concepts and is in love with the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and power to such an extent that in practice Christian teachings and morality is ignored. The ruthless competitiveness of such a world breeds corruption and violence that revenge becomes the only way to secure justice. 
Only a fool would argue such issues are not relevant in contemporary society. Plays like this are ignored because they are enriched with culture and learning but what a scandal it is that people sitting at home today that have never heard of it, let alone read or see it. In my view, it is very likely Tourneur did not write this play in any place, it is more likely Thomas Middleton wrote it, he has his fingers all over it, one may add.

Thomas Middleton was born five years after Tourneur and wrote some great plays, he even had a hand in writing Timon of Athens with Shakespeare. The works of Middleton include Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1611), Women Beware Women (1625), and the Changeling (1622). The Changeling was co-written with William Rowley who is a lesser-known playwright than Middleton. The plot and the subplot, which critics, not because of the themes in the subplot, have often ignored but because they are so subtle that it is terribly easy to miss, such are the talents of critics, Joost Daalder writes: “In the main, the Changeling offers us a picture of folly and madness within the mind. In doing so, it explains “abnormal” mental states. While the focus is on what happens within the individual, the impact on others is not ignored. Madness is of greater concern than folly, and is presented particularly in association with sex.

Again, few would disagree the issues Daalder briefly discusses are relevant in contemporary society, but incredibly, the subplot which deals with issues such as madness and mental states, is often omitted in performance. Saboteurs! What right does a theatre director have to omit parts of a classic play or indeed any play, such as this one? Samuel Beckett, the Irish Playwright, made sure this could not happen which is why he gave written directions saying he plays must be performed as written. For those philistines who like to modernise great plays, which is most commonly found in Shakespeare, should find other plays to perform or write their own. All these amateurs are doing is dealing with the issues in the play, so why direct the play at all? It is an entirely different matter when the director decides to omit entire plots or scenes. These are people that like to call themselves creative. They chop and change scenes; therefore, they must be “creative”. Imagine if Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey or the Iliad missed bits out because he felt them to be inappropriate? Alternatively, maybe he decided to take advice from the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato:

Since the minds of the young are very impressionable we must, if we are to educate them properly, make sure that the poetry on which they are brought up is suitable for the purpose. Most existing poetry is unsuitable:
(a). theologically, because it misrepresents God. God is perfectly good, and therefore changeless and incapable of deceit, and must never be otherwise represented.
(b).Morally, most existing poetry is unsuitable because in its representations of gods and heroes it describes, and so encourages, various forms of moral weaknesses.
He goes even further, pages later:

While the story of what Cronus did, and what he suffered at the hands of his sons, is not as fit as it is likely to be repeated by the young and foolish, even if it were true; it would be best to say nothing about it, or if it must be told, tell it to a select few under secrecy. Nor shall any young audience be told that anyone who commits horrible crimes. Nor can we permit stories of wars and plots and battles among the gods: they are quite untrue, and if we want our perspective guardians to believe that quarrelsomeness is one of the worst we cannot allow Homer or any other poet to make such a stupid mistake about the gods.

 It would be unthinkable if Fagles or Pope took advice from such insanity. One must remember that in Rowley’s and Middleton’s lifetime there was no such thing as an interval. Cutting plays to bits is not artistic.

John Webster, most famous for writing the White Devil (1612), and the Duchess of Malfi (1623), is another Jacobean playwright who is largely ignored. Although he was born during Elizabeth’s reign, his first known play dates from the reign of King James. We must not labour on this because there is much speculation about the year in which he was born, he may have been born in 1578, 1575 or 1580:  

You are welcome to your country, dear Antonio;
You have been long in France, and you return
A very formal Frenchman in your habit.
How do you like the French court?

These are the open lines to the Duchess of Malfi, spoken by Delio. Of course, the Elizabethan revenge tragedies were traditionally set in Italy. I draw attention to these opening lines because it is fitting it ought to be about France. The German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche believed Paris was the capital of culture. For Nietzsche, Bizet’s opera, Carmen was at the height of culture. Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, as good as they were, have little high culture in them. In Ibsen’s stunning play An Enemy of the People or A Public Enemy, depending on which translation you are reading, what does Doctor Stockman, the hero of the play, say about the mass majority?

The majority never on its side...never, I tell you! That’s one of the social lies that an independent, intelligent man has to fight against. Who makes up the majority of the population in a country-the wise men or the fools? I think you will agree with me that the fools are in quite an overwhelmingly majority. Moreover, how the devil can it be right for the fools to rule over the wise me? ...what sort of truths do the majority always rally round? Why, truths so stricken with age that they are practically decrepit! All these majority-truths are like last year’s pork-mouldy, rancid, half-curved ham! In addition, that’s at the root of that moral scurvy that’s been rampaging through society.
 For me, that is Britain’s attitude to high culture, to classical literature, to music, poetry, philosophy, to anything that provokes thought, and it is this damned majority that show this complete lack of taste, decency, and above all, culture. They saunter around as if they were intellectuals discussing their latest pop groups and comparing them to Keats and Mozart. These people believe everything they say, and for that reason I have to add they are not living in the real world, their minds are clouded with pure fantasy. They have no idea who wrote Paradise Lost but know every football result in their lifetime, they can name every Academy Award winner since proceedings began, and these same people memorise the lyrics of the most awful songs. With such people living in the world, we have to say it is a decaying society. Nevertheless, we must move on.

The next playwright I would like to discuss is Thomas Kyd; Kyd wrote the wonderful play, the Spanish Tragedy. If you talk to people on the streets about the play they will assume you are discussing a terrible event that had just occurred in the country, but if you mention the play, well they may have heard of it but you can be sure they have never read it. It is the character of the English. If you are reading this literature you must be a snob of some sort and have nothing else to do with your time but to read books, they say this while they remain glued to the television system, their minds being so crinkled it is unknown to them. 

Thomas Kyd wrote the Spanish Tragedy or Hieronimo is Mad Again, in 1592, and the first English revenge tragedy to be written. It is, without doubt, one of the best plays of the period. When one first reads the play, they must be taken aback by the stunning imagery and language in the text. It is entirely possible people decide not to read at all, or perhaps the unfortunate people who are not able to read, or maybe they are living in wretched conditions; living on the streets, and begging just to stay alive. Of course, my scorn is not aimed at these people. It is wonderful when the prisoner, for the first time, discovers literature. A person may have led what we may call a criminal life, but have seen real humanity through literature, and that alone is able to change one’s life. Who can forget Hieronymo's cries for his son?

As noted, Christopher Marlowe shared his birth year with the greatest writer of all-time, William Shakespeare, but the most unfortunate thing to happen to Marlowe was being stabbed in the eye by Ingram Frazer. At 29, the author of the wonderful play, Doctor Faustus, was dead. Nobody could ever make valid claim that Faustus was the modern Englishman. Faustus is everything the modern English man is not: learned, cultural, intellectual. Marlowe is, along with Ben Jonson, the most prominent playwrights of the period, behind Shakespeare. Speak to the English on the streets. Will they have heard the name Christopher Marlowe? Certainly, a tiny percentage of them will have but what will they say about him? That he wrote some wonderful plays, and that he was the first to write in blank verse, that he wrote the Jew of Malta? Maybe they would refer to some of the poetry he wrote. The average person will say none of this. They will only refer to the falsity that he was the man who wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays; despite the fact, he was dead when all of Shakespeare’s masterpieces were written. His four greatest plays, Shakespeare’s that is: King Lear, Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet were written after Marlowe was murdered. Marlowe was dead but that makes no difference to the ignorant majority. They would, and do, claim he faked his own death and set sail for Italy or some other ridiculous absurdity.

They will read or see no Marlowe play. The genius of Marlowe must have magically changed writing styles to fool us all. This is all foolish talk. Just one example will show people’s idiocies. Robert Greene, the Elizabethan playwright, is more famous not for what he wrote but what he said about Shakespeare on his deathbed. He called Shakespeare an “upstart Crow” and accused him of plagiarism; in truth, he was immensely jealous of Shakespeare. Because, by this period, he had become the most popular and successful playwright of the time. For Greene to utter such a thing is evidence that Shakespeare was popular at the time, and therefore is clear he did write the plays attributed to him.

 June 2011

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