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Thoughts on “Beauty” by Charles Baudelaire

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it displaces lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:
My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

(Translation by William Aggeler)

In this poem, Baudelaire explores the ideal of physical beauty manifest in the female form. The opening stanza conjures an image of sculpted beauty, which I suspect may be an allusion to the Venus di Milo. The beauty of the ideal physical form is an inspiration to other artists, and in Baudelaire’s case, poets in particular. But as the poem progresses through the next three stanzas, a darker image emerges.

As a society, we tend to place physical beauty upon a pedestal, on “a throne in the sky.” The problem is that this ideal is really not attainable, and those who appear to attain that level of physical perfection do so at a great cost. They essentially become statues, hardened on the inside and unable to express human emotion, never weeping and never laughing because that might affect the outward appearance.

While most of the poem seems to be a warning to individuals seeking to attain physical perfection, the last stanza also issues a warning to those who worship physical beauty. The woman whose eyes are as mirrors is letting the enchanted lover of beauty know that his soul is a reflection of her stark, cold inner self. By seeking inspiration from the external, the poet and artist end up compromising their deeper artistic wellspring, hence drying up their true emotions and becoming like stone.

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Metatheatricality in “The Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare: A Play within a Play

I read this play many times when I was in college, because it was part of my senior thesis, which I called “Order and Authority in Shakespeare’s Comedies.” I basically argued that Petruchio was a play on words and symbolized Patriarchy, and that the play sought to reestablish patriarchal rule that was being challenged by the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Needless to say, I didn’t feel the need to read it again for a long time. But reading it again, I realized that I had totally forgotten that this is the classic example of metatheatricality, or a play within a play.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, metatheatre is “theatre which draws attention to its unreality, especially by the use of a play within a play.”

Shakespeare places an Induction before Act I. Basically, it has a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly who passes out, and as a trick, is dressed up as a lord and treated as such when he awakens. His “servants” then have him seated to watch a play performed, which is “The Taming of the Shrew.” So unlike “The Mousetrap” within “Hamlet,” here we have the entire play set within a play.

The Induction also functions as a foreshadowing of the events that will transpire in the play itself. For example, the main theme of the duty and obedience which a wife is expected to show to her husband.

Sirrah, go you to Barthol’mew my page,
And see him dress’d in all suits like a lady:
That done, conduct him to the drunkard’s chamber;
And call him ‘madam,’ do him obeisance.
Tell him from me, as he will win my love,
He bear himself with honourable action,
Such as he hath observed in noble ladies
Unto their lords, by them accomplished:
Such duty to the drunkard let him do
With soft low tongue and lowly courtesy,
And say ‘What is’t your honour will command,
Wherein your lady and your humble wife
May show her duty and make known her love?’

(Induction, scene i)

And when the page meets Sly disguised as a woman, he reiterates the idea that a woman must be subservient to her husband.

My husband and my lord, my lord and husband;
I am your wife in all obedience.

(Induction, scene ii)

In addition to the obedient wife theme, there is also the theme of clothing, and changing of clothes to change or disguise a person. This is a key component of the Induction, and then plays out in the actual play. For example, Lucentio disguises himself and takes on the name Cambio, which is Spanish for “change.” It is in this changed manner that he woos Bianca.

His name is Cambio. Pray accept his service.

(Act II, scene i)

I suspect that Shakespeare used metatheatre to create an additional layer of protection for himself. If the play was intended to be a subversive jab at the Queen’s authority, he could argue that it was not intended to be taken seriously, hence twice removed from reality. Artists challenging authority do so at grave risk, so one cannot be too cautious, especially in a time and place where sedition is dealt with in the harshest of ways.

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“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 4: Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman

My friend Miriam told me this was her favorite book in the series, and I can see why. The story is excellent. Essentially, Lucifer decides to vacate Hell and gives Morpheus, the Dream Lord, the key to Hell. What ensues is a pantheon of various deities all trying to convince the Dream Lord that they should be given dominion over Hell, and making their various cases to support their claims. The result is a highly creative view into the personalities of various gods and goddesses across diverse religions.

The book opens in the Garden of Destiny. The opening passage explores the labyrinthine paths which symbolize a human life, the choices we make, and how upon later reflection, the realization that many of the choices that we make in life are not really choices at all.

Walk any path in Destiny’s garden, and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide. With each step you take through Destiny’s garden, you make a choice, and every choice determines future paths. However, at the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you; or look ahead, and see only darkness. Sometimes you dream about the paths of Destiny, and speculate, to no purpose. Dream about the paths you took and the paths you didn’t take… The paths diverge and branch and reconnect; some say not even Destiny himself truly knows where any way will take you, where each twist and turn will lead. But even if Destiny could tell you, he will not. Destiny holds his secrets. The Garden of Destiny. You would know it if you saw it. After all, you will wander it until you die. Or beyond. For the paths are long, and even in death there is no ending to them.

When all the deities converge on the castle of Dream, Odin tasks Loki with observing and noting the activities of the other deities. Loki’s thoughts on the angels I found particularly interesting.

And above all, I watch the angels. They do not eat, or flirt, or converse. They observe. I watch them in awe, All-Father. They are so beautiful and distant. The feet of the angels never touch the base earth, not even in dreams. I can read nothing in their faces, much as I try. And what they are thinking, I cannot even imagine.

As I read this, it reminded me of the Wim Wenders film, “Wings of Desire.” If you’ve not seen it, it’s a classic and worth watching.

As many of you know, we are often burdened with things that we do not want, but letting go and getting rid of those burdens is not always easy. Art and literature abound with metaphors about people clinging to their unwanted baggage, dragging it painfully through life. Think of Sisyphus with his stone, or Jacob Marley dragging his chains. In this book, Dream echoes this sentiment.

They all want it, and I don’t. I never thought that disposing of the unwanted could be so hard.

Possibly my favorite passage in this book is where the angels tell the Dream Lord of God’s decree regarding the existence of Hell.

We… I will relay the message. It is from my Creator… There must be a Hell. There must be a place for the demons; a place for the damned. Hell is Heaven’s reflection. It is Heaven’s shadow. They define each other. Reward and punishment; hope and despair. There must be a Hell, for without Hell, Heaven has no meaning. And thus, Hell must be —

This is very Taoist, in my view. There must always be darkness to balance light, a yin to balance yang. It also makes me think of Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow:

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognized as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object—if it has one—or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The concept of Heaven and Hell, as Gaiman expresses it, then becomes a metaphor for the our human consciousness. Our divine consciousness cannot exist without the shadow. There must always be a balance between the light and dark within the psyche.

Anyway, this series is amazing. The writing is brilliant and the artwork if outstanding. I highly recommend this to all you readers out there. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman

This volume is shorter than the previous two, but the quality makes up for the quantity. It contains four tales:

  • Calliope—A fable about a muse enslaved by a writer needing inspiration.
  • Dream of a Thousand Cats—A story about the power of collective dreaming told from a feline perspective.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream—An exploration of Shakespeare’s classic work that blends the boundaries of imagination and reality, and how that affects the creative process.
  • Facade—A sad tale about the masks that we wear to hide our true selves from others.

The last section of this book includes something that, as a writer, I found very interesting. Gaiman pulls back the curtain to give us a glimpse at the magic of his creative process. The last section is a script of “Calliope,” complete with marginalia that provides wonderful insight into the process of creative a graphic story, essentially the nuts and bolts and schema of how the piece is constructed. It is a treat for all you writers and artists out there.

One of the themes explored in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is the power of dreams to create and shape our reality. In the beginning was the word, or more appropriately put, the thought, the idea, the dream. We cannot manifest anything unless we can first see it within our mind’s eye.

Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night.
. . .
I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world.

In “Facade,” there is a very moving section where Urania has a conversation with Death about the masks that we wear, and how we stubbornly cling to these old images of ourselves, even when we know they are no longer true or healthy.

Urania: But it’s also my face. You see. Sometimes I have to look normal, and then I grow faces. But they dry up, and fall off, but I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me. So I hang on to them. I . . . I’m probably not making much sense.

Death: No. You’re making sense. You people always hold onto your old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose. But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.

I know so many people like this, who desperately hold on to some image of who they once were. But I suspect it may even run deeper than just nostalgia for the glory days. I suspect that some people don a mask or a face, and after a while, that face that they put on, becomes who they are. Our faces and masks can change us, for better or for worse. If we keep putting on the cheerful face in spite of adversity, we eventually become a positive person. Conversely, if we wear the mask of gloom in spite of the positive things around us, eventually we become that dark, sad person which was initially just our mask.

Over the year, I’ve shed many faces and grown new ones. As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what my mask will be in my later years: the wise old man, the nurturing grandparent, or the curmudgeon throwing shoes at neighborhood dogs. I suppose we cannot predict the masks we will grow. The faces we develop stem from the situations we have to “face.” Anyway, time to bring myself back out of this rabbit hole.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.

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“A Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe: The Contrast of Light and Dark

Rembrandt

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed—
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream—that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar—
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

This is a poem of contrasts and opposites, most prominently the contrast of light and dark. But there are also contrasts between sleep and awakening, past and future, and happiness and sorrow. And while there is contrast, there is also balance. Even the fact that the poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each generates a sense of balance, harmony, and stability. So this balance of opposites is the key to this poem, in my opinion.

In the final line of the poem, Poe mentions Truth—the big Truth with a capital T. This is the proverbial Holy Grail that philosophers, poets, and artists have sought after for millennia. Poe is asserting that the Truth lies somewhere in that nebulous space between the two opposites, between the darkness and the light. And the only way that one can glimpse that space where Truth hides is to embrace both the light and the dark and bring them into balance. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol. It is a balance of light and dark, of positive and negative. Both are needed in equal parts to achieve wholeness.

As we move into the dark period of the yearly cycle, we must be sure we maintain a balance of light.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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Salman Rushdie – Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World

Rushdie_UNCA

I have a confession to make: I have not read any of Salman Rushdie’s books… yet. But this will be changing soon. Last night I went to see the author give a public lecture at the University or North Carolina – Asheville, and I have to say, he was one of the more inspiring writers I have had the privilege of hearing speak.

He touched on a lot of current issues regarding politics, social trends, and the role of literature in these changing times. He openly criticized Donald Trump, censorship, and the proliferation of misinformation, or “truthiness,” associated with the internet and the digital age. But there were two themes in his lecture that resonated with me on a deep level: the trend among students to attempt silencing ideas that challenge their established beliefs, and the role of the novel in bringing “news” to readers.

Regarding students silencing ideas, this is something about which I often think, particularly regarding the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) directed against Israel. I have heard horrific stories about professors, speakers, artists, etc., being shouted down, threatened, and silenced on campuses for expressing their support for Israel, all under the guise of support for the oppressed Palestinians. What Rushdie asserted in his lecture is that this is essentially censorship, and it is censorship perpetrated by the group of people who should be most vehemently opposed to the censorship of ideas. Rushdie claims that it is the responsibility of artists and professors to challenge the established beliefs and to open for discussion ideas that are uncomfortable and sometimes contradictory to one’s personal beliefs. I’m paraphrasing here, but he basically said that students who claim they do not feel safe when forced to consider challenging ideas have no place in a university and should instead be in a pizza parlor, where they will be safely sheltered from having to listen to ideas that contradict their way of thinking.

The other part of his lecture I found fascinating concerned the role of the novel in presenting news to the modern reader. This puzzled me at first until Rushdie elaborated. He claimed that with the demise of print newspapers, the reading public no longer has access to legitimate news sources, that digital news sources have yet to be able to fill that gap. Instead, we get opinions as opposed to reporting. I would counter that print newspapers have historically been biased also, but I could accept that news media has become more opinion-centric as of late. Then Rushdie went on to explain how literature and the novel provide a side of the news that is lacking in usual coverage, which is the human side, the internal aspect of living in an increasingly smaller world. The way we can understand what it is like to be in situations is through literature. He used the example of The Kite Runner which provides a deeper insight into life in Afghanistan than any news story showing explosions and statistics of how many were killed. His words resonated with truth. My belief in the power of art and literature was validated and boosted.

I left the lecture excited to read, to write, and to discuss ideas. I also left with a newly bought copy of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tucked under my arm. And while the book has been temporarily placed on my sagging shelf, I suspect that I will be reading this one before the others that have been patiently waiting for me to open their covers.

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