Sunday, March 05, 2006

sheer brilliance

Yesterday was a good day for contemplation, but not so great a day for sight-seeing; the wind was blustery, making the 40 degree temperatures seem far lower. Since it seemed like a good day to be indoors, my gf and I (after taking care of some business-related stuff) went to the mall at Friendship Circle, before boarding the metro for Capitol Hill.

Since it was Saturday--the biggest day for the Eastern Market--we went there directly and got some tasty lunch. From there we went to the library of Congress and had a terrific time; I was most impressed of all by the life-mask of Abraham Lincoln, which had a look gentle, calm and wise repose that caused me some emotion to behold, displayed as it was beside the trinkets he was carrying as he was brutally murdered.

From there we headed to Folger, which takes me to the heart of the story. There was a playbill for various Shakespeare plays the Folger was producing, set next to quotes. One quote--quite famous but forgotten by me--struck me in particular:


My father gave me an excellent education in rhetroic and the crafting of language which has served me well, though I have forgotten many of the of actual terms for effects used; and so it was that I attempted to explain some of the sheer brilliance of this line to my gf--and the problem with the misguided multicultural attempt to reduce the emphasis in schools on classic literature and what Columbia calls the "Great Books Program."

1. First of all, this quote is pithy and insightful in and of itself, and bears remembering. After all, how else to explain the contrasting fortunes of one George W. Bush and one Abraham Lincoln?

2. It is, of course, perfect Iambic Pentameter. The words fall in a smooth, water-like cadence: da-DA-da-DA; da-DA-da-DA-da-DA. Not too hard to do, but harder than you think--just try it sometime!

3. The juxtaposition and emphasis on the word "Virtue." It might be argued that this was necessitated by the meter itself, but one cannot argue that the effect created was startle the listener slightly and doubly emphasize the word "virtue", rather than blandly say "some fall by virtue." This rhetorical device has a name, but I have forgotten it.

4. The alliteration in the first half of the line. There are three "S"'s in Some, riSe, and Sin. "Alliteration" is a poetic use of the same consonant sound.

5. The assonance in the first half of the line. There are three back-vowel "I" sounds in rIse, bY, and sIn. The poetic repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance.

6. The DOUBLE-alliteration in the second line. The labial "v" and "f" sounds in Virtue and Fall create what is called a "soft" alliteration, while what linguists call the "liquids" in "r"'s and "l"'s of viRtue and faLL create yet ANOTHER soft alliteration.

7. Most brilliant of all--and I have forgotten the term for this--the very NATURE of the assonances and alliterations used describes the meaning of the words. The high-back-vowels of Rise, By, and Sin seem to depict the act of rising and climbing by the very act of saying them. The forward protrusion of the lips, and the low front vowels in the act of saying Virtue and Fall, meanwhile, seem their very selves to describe the descent, and the sounds literally seem to tumble from the mouth.

This is sheer fucking brilliance. And there are thousands and thousands of lines thsi complex in corpus of Shakespeare's work--and there is probably further brilliance in this very line that I was not sophisticated enough to tease out.

And this, in a nutshell, is the problem with the misguided liberal university campaign to knock authors like Shakespeare off of their pedestals: the works with which they are attempting to replace works like his do not even begin to approach his work in depth, richness, complexity and brilliance. Maya Angelou is a good author, no doubt, but her works don't belong in the same room with Shakespeare's any more than my rantings and ravings belong in the same room with Noam Chomsky.

Most of the defenders of the "Great Books" program are hard-headed, bigoted conservatives who attempt to defend them by talking about "tradition," or "shared heritage", or "greatness." These are simply racist code-words for "I want to read works by white males, thank you." And that's not where I'm coming from at all. Those are stupid arguments to me.

To me, if you can find another author with work as deep, complex, enriching, and brilliant as Shakespeare's, please DO SO. I don't care who they are; I have heard that some ancient Chinese poets approached this complexity in their work; as I don't know Chinese, I would not know (and it's not exactly accessible because translation would not do them justice)--but go for it. I'm more than willing to learn.

I am a liberal--and by that, I mean a seeker of truth and beauty. If that truth and beauty is to be found by championing women's rights and minority rights, I'm all for it and I'm there. But in art, I seek truth and beauty wherever it is to be found--and if it is found primarily in the works of old, white males, then that's where I will seek it.

But there aren't very many--if any--who can compete with Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, Milton, Rimbaud, Schiller, and other such. They're just not out there; these works have survived the test of time for a reason.

When this argument is brought to bear against the multiculturalists, they invariably say (if they can get beyond calling me a racist, patriarchal bigot) that I am using a very WASP definition of what makes literature great by demanding this richness and complexity from it. That my very definitions carry a value judgment, in other words.

And of that, the accused stands guilty. THAT'S WHAT ART IS: transcendent truth found through richness, complexity, emotion and symbolism. And to knock Shakespeare from his deserved pedestal is a treason to art, in the favor of multicultural politics and postmodern philosophy.

And I'm unapologetic about rejecting that notion. And if the pursuit of truth and beauty means that I am liberal in my politics, but conservative in my art, then so be it!

Later tonight or tomorrow, I will share some thoughts I had about how the urban planning of Washington, D.C. itself provides a strong argument against Bush's "Unitary Exectutive." More later.


Blogger hekebolos said...

You forgot one element in your analysis--or at least, I didn't see it:

The ABBA chiastic structure of the line.

Some RISE (A) by SIN (B) and some by VIRTUE (B) FALL (A).

It's the phraseology more so than the alliteration that completes the thought of the sentence by its very structure.

1:34 PM  
Blogger thereisnospoon said...

you're right. chiastic it is--I didn't even see that.

Well done.

6:13 PM  

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