Why Isn’t Chekhov Taught in High School?

April 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

(It shouldn’t be, by the way.) I was talking with a friend about stuff I’d read recently or wanted to read, and Chekhov’s name came up and he said in passing, “Oh, he wasn’t in the high school curriculum.”

And it’s true, of course, but it’s a very obvious yet unspoken thing that seemingly doesn’t even need remarking. There are lots of authors we don’t teach in high school — Umberto Eco, or Proust, or Marquez, or Borges. And I don’t think you can really argue it’s because those authors are too advanced for high schoolers, because there are also lots of authors we force kids to read — like Shakespeare or Austen — that are over their heads. But so why not Chekhov in particular? Why does one author make it into the curriculum but not another?

Chekhov’s case is interesting because of all the strange particulars of his writing that are thrown into relief when you think about teaching him to 17-year-olds. First off, he doesn’t teach you about a particular time and place, so there’s no social studies mission to be fulfilled by reading him. (Have you ever had a teacher tell you A Tale of Two Cities takes us back to revolutionary Paris? I’m skeptical. There aren’t enough long days milking cows and paying taxes in that book for me to be convinced.) You could argue Chekhov gives us a portrait of landed Russia from bottom to middle classes, but there aren’t any grand historical cues in his writing to make the thing look like a history lesson.

And there’s no moral, didactic, or philosophical value in his work either. Macbeth “teaches” us about free will, and Catch 22 “teaches” us about the madness of war, but Chekhov, even when you’re stretching, doesn’t teach us anything except the dreaminess even in drab lives and the variety of stubborn minds to be found among them. Some lesson! His books can’t teach you any hard questions or answers.

Lastly, and here I’m speculating more, there is something more fundamentally and wonderfully useless about his writing, in that the mere facts of his stories don’t align toward some lesson or purpose, except to illuminate their own characters and the texture of their own worlds. This is true of all real writing, but I’m still amazed at how serenely and profoundly Chekhov resists practical use. There is nothing to extrapolate from his writing, which is a quality of any whole and serene world. Imagine trying to teach high schoolers how deep the feeling of having to go out and buy a new light bulb at 10:00 in the evening because you screwed in your new one wrong and it burnt out, and maybe that conveys some idea of what I’m talking about.

This is my way of trying yet again to illustrate the difference between “literature” the academic exercise and literature the entirely frivolous pursuit.

Polyphony in the “King Lear” Mock Trial

March 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

For fun, I asked myself, what are the ineluctable advantages music has over literature, as far as technical elements? I came up with two:

  • Silence
  • Counterpoint, i.e. multiple simultaneous voices

Other elements of music, like timbre or tempo, can be approximated via the musical elements of language itself, but silence and counterpoint are structurally incompatible with a string of words.

Shakespeare tried, though, and there’s a great famous mock trial in King Lear, Act 3, Scene 6, where Lear and his posse of followers put his daughters Regan and Goneril on trial for forsaking him. It’s a sort of literary counterpoint: there are four voices of madness or oddness in the scene — Lear, his court Fool, Edgar posing as a mad beggar, and Kent posing as a servant — all speaking in rapid succession, almost at once over each other and to each other and alongside each other. I always figured writing plays would be too restrictive, being purely dialogue, but Shakespeare takes that limitation as a premise and uses the dialogue as voices.

When the four of them first enter, each of their voices is introduced in turn: Kent considerate, Edgar raving, Fool jesting, and Lear frothing:

All the power of his wits have given way to his impatience: the gods reward your kindness!

Frateretto calls me; and tells me Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness. Pray, innocent, and beware the foul fiend.

Pr’ythee, nuncle, tell me whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman?

A king, a king!

Sometimes they talk to themselves, each in their voices:

To have a thousand with red burning spits
Come hissing in upon ’em, —

The foul fiend bites my back.

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a
horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.

And sometimes two different voices are focused on a single subject. Here’s Fool’s playful directness set against Lear’s bluster:

Come hither, mistress. Is your name Goneril?

She cannot deny it.

Cry you mercy, I took you for a joint-stool.

This is a great bit because between Lear and the Fool, each character, in his own voice, is being similarly direct yet wildly different.

There are also various meters used among the voices. Iambic pentameter is less common here. There’s just as much of prose and of Fool’s and Edgar’s various singsong rhythms. Sometimes Lear manages iambic pentameter and it’s a send-up of the psuedo-lucidity of his bluster:

It shall be done; I will arraign them straight.
Come, sit thou here, most learned justicer;
Thou, sapient sir, sit here. Now, you she foxes!

Compare this to one of the more truthful bits in the scene, where Fool sings a song directly mocking Lear.

So these few examples illustrate, I hope, how Shakespeare uses different dimensions of the notion of a “voice” — content, form, mood and tone, rhythm — some musical, some literary, to organize the chaos of a scene with four liars and/or madmen, each with his own aims. I think the attention paid to Shakespeare’s supposed breadth of understanding of humanity — his ability to understand drinkers and bards and lords and serfs — is a pointless kind of scorekeeping when applied across his work. To see him bring very different literary/musical voices — creative manifestations of individual characters — to bear within a single scene is much more interesting.

Another Transient Moment: “Before Midnight”

February 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve written before about works that depend crucially on transient moments, and I was thinking about a movie scene that kind of inverts this — it has a delicate transient moment whose power depends on everything else before it in a very unassuming way. It’s not an emotional high point, but it’s a very deep moment with a funny kind of illusory transience, like the unassuming tip of an iceberg.

The opening scene of Before Midnight (the third in a trilogy, after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, following a chance couple from youth to middle age) is a quiet and very deep culmination of all the ups and downs of the previous two movies. In those, Jesse and Celine met, flirted, fought, evaded each other, spent ten years apart, reconnected, confided in each other, and finally spent an afternoon together.

So how does the third movie open? Jesse drops off his son (from another marriage) at the airport and strolls out into an absurdly bright Greece afternoon. He drifts down the sidewalk from the airport entrance looking lost in thought. So far, very plain ambling, marked only by Jesse’s being and feeling alone.

We hear a woman’s voice, and then ahead of him, parked at the curb, the camera reveals an SUV and Celine leaning against it, having a very mundane-sounding conversation in French on her cellphone.

Opening scene of Before Midnight

Jesse strolls the rest of the way there, and they get in the car and drive off with their daughters.

Why is the moment remarkable? The first movie, and the second ten years later, were predicated on the elusiveness and fragility of their being together. They had only a day and night together in the first movie, failed to meet six months later, and only met again for the second movie because of a wispy ploy of Jesse’s to draw Celine back from the ether, ten years later.

And now at the start of the third movie, after all that elusiveness and doubtful fragility, Celine is just there. On the phone. And she’s not going anywhere.

Seeing Jesse approach her as a matter of course, in fact distracted from her by his own normal course of thought, flies in the face of the tension and implicit passion comprising the previous two movies. Jesse and Celine are just — there.

This moment wouldn’t work in any other movie because this moment requires the entire previous two movies, and the real-life decades between their releases, to work at all. It’s not a formally or visually interesting moment — it’s a plain shot, except for being poised behind Jesse’s head — but it’s a matter of construction and time, a sort of delicate plot device.

(The score plays a part here, because it’s a gentle chiming air that recalls a song Celine played for Jesse at the end of the second movie. It adds a deliberate and misleading touch of nostalgia.)

Since I called it a plot device, I should clarify that this moment isn’t essential to the subsequent happenings in this movie at all. It’s just a sort of exposition. But it reveals the whole state of mind of the movie. So many years, and so much plain passage of time, are conveyed in an unremarkable minute, thanks to all the dramatic movie time that preceded it.

Being and Struggling in Writing

January 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Glenn Gould making a subtle but profound distinction between the “state of ecstasy” in Bach’s music and the sense of struggle and progression and striving in later music such as Classical:

I’m not a musical expert, but I believe you can hear Gould’s characterization of Classical music in, for example, those Beethoven sonata-form movements that are predicated on starting on the tonic and moving away into the dominant or the relative major or some other harmonic center before finding a way home. Explicit modulation and transition are essential in marking out the sections of a movement.

Compare this to Bach, whose harmonies are in such constant motion that they can’t really be described in sections or progressions. The sense of progression or movement, if you’re looking for it, is so constant that a whole piece of his is rather a state of being — a “state of ecstasy”, as Gould describes it around the 6:15 mark in the video.

That notion of “static” music, that distinction between music that struggles to go somewhere and music that merely is, is what I find so profound. And of course, I think it applies to writing.

I think the literary analogue to this idea can be summed up in that famous line from Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica”:

A poem should not mean / But be

A real story — a living, full-blooded one — isn’t caught up in the obligations of taking readers from one exciting event to another or describing some amazing situation. An ordinary story is concerned with introducing us to a more or less normal “home” state, and then subjecting it and us to some conflict, keeping us in tension for long enough that we feel sufficiently relieved and gratified at the restorative ending. The pattern of progressing inevitably from home to a strange place and, comfortably, back home again reminds me of the exertions of a classical piece with its tonic-dominant-tonic harmonic transitions.

There is a total and consistent richness in a great literary world that doesn’t proceed in sections — indeed, doesn’t really proceed at all. The profound serenity of a Chekhov play or story consists precisely in his writing’s lack of machinations. We’re not whisked along a plot. Rather, the characters are allowed to live and breathe, and the constant (not chunky and artificial) modulations of their lives form the substance of the story.

For another example of writing that merely is, see the associative, memory-driven structure of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in which there is no start and end goal for the story, but rather one episode, long or short, wells naturally out of another. Or see the first four acts of Hamlet, which Hamlet spends, in a way, clowning around and making an ambiguous mockery of his own reputation for brooding. That ambiguity is the story, before the fifth act comes and kills everyone off for closure’s sake.

All these stories are round, not linear, worlds, in the spirit of how Gould described Bach’s music as capturing the “immutable totality of existence” in that video.

If you want to appreciate writing that is, you have to let go of all the most common fundamental values: a beginning, middle, and end; excitement and intrigue; moralizing and lesson-teaching; good guys rising up from their darkest hour. These feature are machinations — struggling, rather than being. They serve to distract you from the author’s choice to pass the time rather than create something.

Young, Analytical Joyce in “The Dead”

December 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Counterintuitively, James Joyce was too button-down as a young writer and needed many years to loosen up and indulge himself before he produced his best work. (Or maybe it’s intuitive if you give weight to his Catholic upbringing.)

“The Dead” captures an interesting point in his development. It’s long been touted as one of the great short stories, but I have my cynical suspicions that it’s so respected because it finds Joyce working in a traditional mode whose techniques and values (restraint, precision, neatness, politics) square with contemporary ones. But is it an interesting story?

Joyce is a very analytical writer in “The Dead”. He shows the impressive technical mastery he’d already gained at just 25 years old. He lays out his themes clearly, and balances them (living vs. dead, Irishness vs. cosmopolitanism, inner life vs. outer life, etc. etc.) with great precision.

It’s suspiciously precise, actually. Even allowing for the protagonist Gabriel’s fastidiousness, and how the narration hews to his mindset, the storytelling is just so clean. Examples:

Diction: “My wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” says Gabriel. “Mortal” of course is an allusion to death, and how it undergirds the characters’ inner lives.

Irishness: Describing the outgoing, genuine Miss Ivors: “the large brooch which was fixed in the front of her collar bore on it an Irish device and motto”. There is implicit and explicit tension between Gabriel and other characters regarding his cosmopolitan attitudes and interests. The holiday party is a hearth-and-home affair reminding him in different ways of his Irish roots.

Music, and Intellectualism: “Mary Jane was playing her Academy piece, full of runs and difficult passages.” Mary, a member of the avant-garde younger generation, alienates herself just so from the party’s guests by playing a sophisticated piece.

Physical description: On oft-drunk Freddy Malins: “He had coarse features, a blunt nose, a convex and receding brow, tumid and protruded lips.” Notice how many blunt words this sentence uses — “coarse”, “blunt”, “convex”, “tumid”, “protruded” — to sell you on the frankness of Freddy’s character. I especially take issue with this sentence. It’s such a utilitarian all-at-once description of such a conventional kind, and it’s light on specifics. It’s more rhetoric than literature.

Foreshadowing, foreshadowing, foreshadowing!: “But as for Gretta there,” said Gabriel, “she’d walk home in the snow if she were let.” I mean, come on. The ending centers on Michael Furey’s doing just this (in the rain, anyway). So the gestures of the ending epiphany are explicitly broadcast.

This writing is all just so tidy that I accuse it of contrivance and fastidiousness. Joyce had all the techniques at his command so early in his career, but he applies them like implements, or wields them like arrows in a quiver, one after the other in discrete succession. I get the sense in his later writing that he didn’t care about tidiness. While Ulysses, for example, is every bit as calibrated and analytical as “The Dead”, the various techniques go into a wild kaleidoscope. And his descriptive gifts are most often put to describing, for the sake of richly populating a vibrant world. The real creative act isn’t the assimilation or organization of techniques — it’s pressing forward with the creation of an organic something, rather than an assemblage. Something that lives and breathes, something organic, something with a soul.

P.S. Let me give an example of where the analytical voice of the storytelling in “The Dead” is an animating force. Here is the crowd watching Mary Jane play: “Four young men, who had come from the refreshment-room to stand in the doorway at the sound of the piano, had gone away quietly in couples after a few minutes.”

Simple as that. Counting out the men, and their group behavior, lends an insidious undercurrent to their being there, I think. Their arrival and their departure are fleeting. Perhaps callous, perhaps shallowly intrigued by Mary Jane or her playing. None of the men is characterized; they simply lurk. This is the fluid motion of a party.

“Breaking Bad” and Measuring Exploitation in a Story

November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m about halfway through Breaking Bad on Netflix and it took me that long to notice to myself, “You know, there are not many people dying on this show.”

I wanted cold hard facts, so I went to the record of truth for such matters, the internet. The Breaking Bad wiki has a list of deaths on the show. And sure enough, only 2 people die in the first season, only 10 in the second season (outside of a plane crash), and “only” 27 in the third season.

(For comparison, deaths on 24 measure in the hundreds and thousands per season.)

My “research” led me back to a thought I often have when I’m watching something with thrills and spills — violence, romance, drama, whatever. The thought is: how much does this story make use of its deaths?

I think, maybe counterintuitively, that the more a story wrings from each death, the better it’s doing. Titanic, for example, uses the ship’s sinking to highlight a love story between just 2 crazy kids. The math is: hundreds of deaths for one couple’s story. That’s a very bad ratio. It indicates sentimentality.

On the other hand, Nabokov in Lolita makes hay from one character’s death — Lolita’s mother, Charlotte — by spinning off the rest of the story from her death. (With Charlotte dead, Humbert and Lolita are free to road trip across the country together.) So one death unlocks the entire story. And that death is itself carefully arranged as a culmination of crucial pieces of the story. One death to one entire story is a sensible ratio.

Breaking Bad, though it kills a lot of people, probably has a defensible ratio. When one of the drug dealers employed by the main characters (Jesse and Walter) is killed, Jesse is haunted by it in a plot thread through all of the third season. One death, many ramifications.

There’s another factor in the math, which applies to even a single death: how much work does a story do dealing with the consequences of that death? If somebody dies just to give the main character the right to grieve and be sad and to be consoled by a beautiful costar, well then, the story is being exploitative. But if that death is a central and deep part of the story’s structure, then you know the writer hasn’t killed someone in vain.

There is no formula for telling whether a story is well told, but I like this particular formula as a thought exercise.

The Ruthless Dream of “Lost in Translation”

October 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

I think the Sofia Coppola/Bill Murray movie Lost in Translation is an example of a really singular and total creative vision, and I’ll give one reason why.

A funny thing happens as the movie proceeds to its intimate close. Characters disappear. And they don’t just disappear — they’re forgotten. Think of all the ephemeral characters that serve for one or two scenes:

  • The bubbly blonde movie star played by Anna Faris: she meets Charlotte and her husband in the hotel lobby, and at dinner in the bar, and she materializes for one anonymous karaoke song. Then she’s gone.
  • The hotel bar’s lounge singer: she shows up in a few bar scenes, hits on Bob, sleeps with him, and then she’s gone.
  • The “lip my stocking” call girl: she gets one horribly awkward (poorly done, I think) scene in Bob’s room and then she’s gone.
  • Charlotte’s husband, John (Giovanni Ribisi): he flits about their hotel room a couple times, flirts with the movie star, leaves for a photo shoot, and then he’s gone. (Though we do see a fax from him — a fax — near the end that reads “I miss you!”)
  • More: Charlotte’s friends whom she and Bob party with for one evening, the “Johnny Carson of Japan”, Bob’s wife and kids… All gone!

And when I say these characters are gone, I mean they receive no conclusions to their roles. They just stop appearing in the movie.

Why could Coppola summon supporting characters just to forget them? The answer, I think, is that her goal in the movie is to convey a long dream. Practical matters like the estrangement between Bob and his wife or the implications of his cheating on her would puncture the bubble of the movie’s vision. The presence of these matters — and their attendant hopes and sadnesses — informs the dream, but firmly settling on them, especially for the purpose of solving real-life problems, would derail it.

The disappearing lounge singer is my favorite example of this, because she actually sleeps with the main character before she disappears. That’s cold! Coppola pulls a strange, unspoken switcheroo when Bob and Charlotte meet one last time in that same bar, and the smoky lounge singer, shown here:


…is replaced by her pianist, who’s singing lead for some reason — what reason?:


The reason is that now that the interlude of Bob’s one-night stand is over, she’s no longer needed. Her presence would complicate the dream of the movie. So poof, she’s gone. Her smooth voice is replaced by another one, in a huskier bluesier form, and the dream is unbroken.

When I was in high school reading Shakespeare I remember my irritation that Shakespeare would kill off all the characters at the ends of his tragedies, not because their deaths were necessary to the plot, but more as a matter of tidying up, so far as I could tell. Now I think their deaths happened because the characters were unnecessary by the end of each play. Coppola has her own way of dismissing her characters, one that’s true to the purity of the movie’s dream. This is an admirable totality of vision, I think. There are no practical concessions to real life when the movie, after all, isn’t real itself. In fact, all art is a dream. The purity of a work of art is the purity of its dream.