Wednesday, December 31, 2008

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken

I ordered this from the library and there was a waiting list so it took me forever to get it. And then, between the distractions of other books and the holidays and my bugs, I read it very slowly. So at this point I might as well have bought the damn thing in the first place and not had to wait.

I felt like it was a rewarding read, though perhaps better suited, at least from my perspective, to dipping in and out of rather than reading it all in one go. One of the things I particularly like about his writing is the sense of a consistent aesthetic. In his introduction Mendelsohn writes of the title:
Interestingly, Williams phrase occurs in a stage direction not about the play's set design but about a certain musical leitmotif he has in mind, one that (he writes, in his typically meticulous directions)
expresses the surface vivacity of life with the underlying strain of immutable and inexpressible sorrow. . . . When you look at a piece of delicately spun glass you think of two things: how beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken. Both of these ideas should be woven into the recurring tune.

I suppose that one reason that this haunting line struck me with such force when I first came across it is that it acknowledges, with perfect simplicity, the inevitable entwining of beauty and tragedy that is the hallmark of Greek theater, and is a consistent element in the works that have always moved me the most, from the plays of Euripides to the History of Thucydides, from the light comedies of Noel Coward to the films of Pedro Almodovar. As the Greeks knew well, it is the potential for being broken--which boils down to the knowledge that we all must die--that gives resonance and meaning to the small part of the universe that is our life. The necessity, in the end, of yielding to hard and inexplicable realities that are beyond our control is a tragic truth; without that, all you've got is mush--melodrama, and Hallmark sentimentality. That so much of contemporary culture is characterized by this sentimentality, by a seeming preference for false "closures" over a strong and meaningful confrontation with real and inalterable pain, is a cultural crisis. That crisis is another theme that runs through many of the essays here.

But in my mind Williams's haunting phrase illuminates not only the nature of certain works that have preoccupied me, but also something of the nature of critics who judge those works. For (strange as it may sound to many people, who tend to think of critics as being motivated by the lower emotions: envy, disdain, contempt even) critics are, above all, people who are in love with beautiful things, and who worry that those things will get broken. What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.
I always like to know what a critic is looking for or how they approach what they criticize. As a reader, I think it allows me to get more from their work. I had a history teacher in college who absolutely drilled into us that the first thing we should ask when reading was, "what's their bias?" I figure that pretty much works as a question for all kinds of non-fiction writing. Anyway, Mendelsohn is clear on where he's coming from--although I do wonder how he defines beauty, since I don't think art necessarily has to or should be beautiful--and I appreciate that. Liking his approach wouldn't be worth much though if I didn't also think Mendelsohn was a fantastic critic (who also has the advantage of writing for the New York Review of Books where he has lots of space). He's insightful and thoughtful and informative. I can tell you one thing: I know a good bit more about Greek theater now than I did last month.

I think that any time you read a compilation of criticism--particularly one that encompasses such a broad range: movies, plays, books of fiction, books of non-fiction, opera--there are certain subjects that you'll be more interested in than others. While I eventually read everything, I skipped around reading the essays I was more interested in first. Unsurprisingly, I particularly enjoyed reading about the plays and movies I had also seen and the books I had also read. Mendelsohn's essays on The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire helped me understand why watching the plays seemed so dead compared to reading them (I've seen three Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway and been disappointed every time). I loved Medea when I saw it but Mendelsohn calls the production, "grotesque, giggling, wrongheaded," and I understand the play better for his critique of it although it doesn't lessen my recollection of it. And I felt like I had a richer view of Colm Toibin's The Master, a book I enjoyed after reading what he had to say about it.

That's not to say that I enjoyed everything. I found his dissection of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe a slog. Academic review and critique is certainly necessary, but there's no pleasure in reading the thorough dismantling of a work over a decade after it was first published and after it's author's death. Also, as interesting as I find medieval history, I can't summon up that much interest in medieval Christian liturgy. I imagine the essay was included in this book because it seems relevant to current political debate. But I can't help but feel that its relevance is only surface deep. And I had to spread out the Greek theater because I can only take so much of that in one go.

What I liked best about the book though, is the way in which Mendelsohn examines what the works he's reviewing tell us about our own culture. I found that analysis particularly interesting.

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