In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the novelist Nicholson Baker offers a charming encomium to Wikipedia. Baker knows whereof he speaks – he reveals that he’s been a prolific Wikipedia contributor. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we at The Millions were able to chase down an archive of all of Baker’s Wikipedia activity, and we humbly submit that it’s a fascinating window into one writer’s mind: Duck Man, hydraulic fluid, the “Sankebetsu brown bear incident”…. Perhaps equally impressive is that Baker has resisted the temptation to tinker with the Wikipedia entry about himself.
The modern world swooned last month when the bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England were confirmed to be indeed those of Richard III. Part of the fuss was due to the wonderfully incongruous image of a 15th century king entombed under this age’s most banal and omnipresent architectural fixture — “What’s under my parking lot?” we mused breathlessly. And, to be sure, Anglophilia is ascendant in these tremulous days of “Downton” and Hilary Mantel’s fittingly titled historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. But the real business with the skeleton of course had to do with Richard’s status as a hated historical king, the deformed, dissembling, and nephew-smothering arch-bad guy whose downfall mercifully concluded the grisly War of the Roses.
It’s more or less agreed among people who take the time to review these things that Richard was the target of a posthumous smear campaign orchestrated by the triumphant Tudor dynasty (whose founder Henry VII defeated Richard in 1485). Official Tudor chroniclers during the mid-16th century purposefully blackened Richard’s character, and Shakespeare followed suit by putting a hunchbacked tyrant on stage in the electrically charged history, The Tragedy of King Richard The Third. Rightly or wrongly, Richard went down in history as a regal punching bag, a ruler who embodied the worst of late-medieval chicanery.
But now, with even the American media reporting at fever pitch on the miraculous discovery, the contested reburial plans, and digital facial renderings (evidently, Richard III resembled Shrek’s Lord Farquaad), it appears that England’s most reviled king may just get a reappraisal. Richard’s apologists hope that his newfound celebrity will encourage us all to submit our old Shakespearean prejudices to a round of honest fact-checking. It’s a simple procedure, in which historical evidence is marshaled to root out the mythology inherent in literary representation, to the point where the literary work in question can be dismissed as little more than myth itself.
The technique has its fair uses — we might be grateful for it when dealing with, say, Kipling’s odes to imperialism. But its corollary is nearly always the driving of a wedge between art and history, two disciplines, we are admonished, that best not consort with one another. Already we can see the process at work with Richard III. Even Harold Bloom, high priest of American Bardolatry, recently averred in Newsweek that “Shakespeare’s ironic, self-delighting, witty hero-villain has a troubling relation to actual history.” This is defensible enough, yet we should remember that there is no corrective for propaganda like a reader’s awareness thereof. If we arm ourselves with this knowledge, Shakespeare’s art can yield deeper, more illuminating insights into Richard’s life and times than we might imagine. However, if we divorce Richard III from the “actual history” we are insensitive to literature and, worse, we weaken our own understanding of monarchy, power, and history itself.
In Shakespeare we encounter Richard III as an evil genius, one theatric-evolutionary step beyond the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Richard deceives and beguiles his way to the crown, killing off his rivals and then his friends until he has only ghosts to attend him. There is a clear logical schema for all this hell raising: the man is a monster, a hideous swamp-world creature, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up.” His monstrosity served him in wartime, yet now civil conflict has given way to stable Yorkist supremacy under his brother Edward IV, and the bellicose Richard finds himself without suitable vocation. The weapons have been hung up on the walls, and the lutes come down for seduction and other trifles of peace. “Since I cannot prove a lover / I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard intones, and that’s that.
And yet Shakespeare just doesn’t come sans complication. Richard is too clever a thespian, too candid a soliloquist, and, belatedly, too tormented by conscience to lose all title to sympathy from the audience. He is too conflicted and desperate in his final scenes to bunk amicably with Iago in the prison of Shakespearean opprobrium — Iago who, like a mischievous alien beamed down to Venice exclusively to fuck with Othello, just sort of shuts down after Desdemona is murdered. In fact, Richard’s near-remorse on the eve of the fatal Battle of Bosworth Field provides material for some of the most contorted, dialogic, and self-conscious lines in the Complete Works. After a night of visitations from the ghosts of his victims, a frightened Richard “Starteth up out of a dream”:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
…Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
What happened to the cool calculation and protean slipperiness of the old sly Richard? Whence this fabulously split subject, marooned by his own malfeasance? This Richard improbably presages the dazzling self-doubt of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the late-19th-century disconsolate and poet of brooding, rhyme-packed, sprung-rhythm verse. Turns out this most detestable of English kings, killer of little boys, and bane of decent folk everywhere also clutches that thing Hamlet purports to have, “that within which passes show,” a deeper interiority, a nagging conscience, an ego turned on itself. And yet Richard, like a good schoolboy intent on completing an assignment, has proved a villain. So why does he quake?
The pith of the tale, for modern viewers at least, is that even as Richard proves a villain, he disproves the concept of pure villainy — at the end of the day, a much more consequential disproof than proof. The question at hand is not whether Richard kills people, rides roughshod over morality, or perversely revels in doing so. The problem for us — we distant modern viewers who have seen so many kings come and go in these history plays — is that as soon as Richard affixes the label of villainy to himself the label starts to lose its distinction, to melt into the milieu of political violence.
The other part of the “story” in the exhumation of Richard III — the interest over and beyond monarchic infatuation and historical import — also had to do with our abiding lust for proof. This time it came not from Tudor ideology but from the de-politicized precincts of scientific empiricism. And what proof: the identity of the bones of Richard the Third has been settled in a bravura display of genetic testing, radiocarbon dating, and advanced anthropological sleuthing. Mitochondrial DNA found in a tooth pulled from Richard’s jaw matches mitochondrial DNA of two descendants of his sister, one Michael Ibsen, furniture maker of London, and a second anonymous relation.
As the story broke I joined the multitudes of media viewers in satiating my curiosity and awe. I read the articles, gaped at the curved spine, scrutinized the nasty blow to the head. I went on YouTube and found the videos produced by the University of Leicester detailing all of the digging, extracting, and testing done to get to the elusive bones, and then to their precious DNA cargo. Suddenly Richard III became a marvel of scientific certitude, a job-well-done of today’s sophisticated epistemological techniques. Now we know.
“What do we know? Know Richard? There’s none else by…” So the bones are Richard’s. As he might have said, “I am I.” But the tautology does us as much good as it did the roles’ first interpreter, Richard Burbage, when he declared it before an Elizabethan audience. It was as if the moment Richard’s mortal remains hit the Internet, he ceased to be a villain or a politician and became merely a curiosity, stripped of intrigue or depth, a subject of pop historian enthusiasm.
To be sure, it was a banner day for the Richard III Society, the organization which, since 1924, has dedicated itself to promoting a rehabilitated Richard. Members of the group, which as it happens is patronized by the current Duke of Gloucester, raised $250,000 to support the search for Richard’s grave and his genetic testing. It was money well spent. As one organizer told the New York Times, “Now we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king.” This defanged, refurbished king was a civic-minded administrator who improved the commons’ channels for airing grievances and lifted bans on printing. His violence was understandable given the times. As for the young princes in the Tower — who really knows what happened.
We all want to be remembered well, and that’s a hard proposition when you die on the losing side of bitter dynastic struggle. The Richard III Society may be correct in asserting that Richard was vilified without substantial proof. There is proof Richard did enact some nice, forward-thinking policies — as solid proof that the parking lot bones once fit together to form Richard’s scoliotic frame. But there’s something meretricious, or perhaps just distracting, about the whole question of proof in this case. If Richard wasn’t as bad as we think he is, there also seems to be no need to truly pal around with his ghost. To invoke a touchstone of modern political affability, Richard probably wasn’t a guy you’d want to have a beer with, a power-hungry warlord at best. And it remains likely that much of the evidence that would prove or disprove Richard’s rotten reputation has been lost.
That’s no reason to gag Richard’s supporters — let them toast to their gallant White Boar if they want — but the lessons worth drawing from the whole business are too important to be lost in the penumbras of medieval recordkeeping or the weirdness of historical fanclubs. This is true especially when the crux of the lesson can be found in Shakespeare’s plays. By this I mean that, besides celebrating the Tudor ascension, Richard III and the other history plays demonstrate time and again the precarity, anxieties, and senselessness of the whole monarchical enterprise. No one belongs on the throne, not Richard and not Henry Tudor, but each must believe he does. Thus, it’s not that Richard III is so off the mark in representing the spirit of its subject. Rather, the great falsehood, deeply rooted and insidious to this day, is the belief that all the other players in the sordid history were so dissimilar from the scheming Duke of Gloucester. The theatrical Richard’s manic fear of self-harm (“Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?”) bespeaks the big idea here: his violence is selfsame with a larger violence, a culture of conflict that will undo him.
Thus, a fascinating paradox is at work in Richard III, one with far-reaching implications for our notions about the proper relationship between art and history. It so happens that a piece of literature drenched in historical revisionism nonetheless captures Richard’s zeitgeist with impressive moral and political clarity. Our own pop-historical gaze seems downright blurry by contrast. How can this be? It seems the paradox is an effect of repression: due to our liberalist preference for transparency, information, and empiricism, we refuse to peddle in political myths. But our romance with regalia suggests their attractiveness; we maintain an unacknowledged appetite for a power system whose very structure rests upon the myth and spectacle of an unverifiable claim to kingship.
Shakespeare’s art, on the other hand, luxuriates in this kind of myth. Writing centuries later about Dostoevsky, the critic Mikhail Bakhtin described how the great Russian novelist transformed the monologic “idea” into the living “image of an idea,” the irreducible dialogue that composes a single idea. This is precisely the mechanism of Richard III, a dramatic work that is not interested in dispelling myths, but rather in giving them life, and then subjecting them to the logical pressures of experience. Long before Richard’s bones were exhumed and his identity finally proven, Shakespeare had already unearthed from the pit of Richard’s soul the essence of his character, the self-contradiction of his idea: “Is there a murderer here?” No/Yes. It’s not villainy, it’s politics: monarchic despotism that sanctions horrific violence. It’s the stuff of kingship, and it’s still going on. The embattled Bashar Al-Assad is, after all, a king in trouble too. He might pause to think on Richard.
Image via Wikipedia
We all work very hard at The Millions. But writing about books, despite being, uh, serious business, is not necessarily life threatening. Blogging for the 24/7 news cycle is, apparently.Sticking with journalism’s good-old “three is a trend” praxis and using three bloggers who suffered heart attacks, two of them fatal, the New York Times published a front-page story Sunday, highlighting the strains and risks of strenuous blogging for Web sites like TechCrunch, Gizmodo, and Gawker, among others.I am beginning to suspect that the Gray Lady is attracted to this hot young thing. A month ago on Sunday the paper published a story about politicos blogging from DC. In what read like a oh-look-at-my-fabulous-blogging-life article, the Times described life in assorted “flophouses” where 20-somethings all cohabitated and blogged together, having parties on Super Tuesday to celebrate – and, of course, write about – the primaries. OK, there’s only one flophouse, but the assorted houses do exist.And while DC bloggers help shape the political landscape, their Wall Street cousins are said to be moving markets, according to this academic study. Tip of the day: following financial blogs and short selling stocks accordingly may make you a quick buck – not a bad deal in this economy.Alternatively, you can tune in to The Millions, where we shun heart attacks and continue to post at our leisurely – and hopefully satisfactory – pace.
In the LRB this month, professor and novelist Clancy Martin offers a brutally candid account of his own attempts to get sober. The piece is affecting, horrifying, and enlightening:As a child I visited my older sister in a psychiatric hospital, but I hadn’t been inside one for 30 years. Then, on 1 January this year, at about 11 o’clock in the evening, my wife found me, feet kicking, dangling from an improvised rope – a twisted yellow sheet – about a metre off the ground in our bedroom closet. Our two-year-old daughter was in the bed, sleeping, just a few feet away. Somehow the proximity of a child to the parent’s suicide, as with Sylvia Plath’s little children in that lonely London flat, increases the suicide’s shame. I was at the end of a binge. I was also at the end of three years of secret drinking, of hiding bottles and sneaking away to bars while my wife thought I was living as I had promised her, as a sober man.Martin’s narrative of his own battle also considers the dominant theories of alcoholism (the possession theory; the tragic theory) and treatments for it, including a new treatment – some hail it as a magic bullet – the drug baclofen. Martin’s description of his conflicted feelings about Alcoholics Anonymous are particularly interesting, but it is the unsparing account of his own drinking that haunts me.See also: Garth’s recent review of Martin’s novel, How To Sell.
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Ed Champion has a nemesis, Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman, as we discover in Grossman’s latest column. Though somewhat tongue in cheek, Grossman is basically asking bloggers to use their power for good. All in all, it’s far more civilized than Steve Almond’s pathetic attempted takedown of Mark Sarvas in Salon from a year ago, which read like a laundry list of Almond’s insecurities. Grossman’s essay and Ed’s response make it clear that Grossman is an altogether more pleasant person than Almond and that the relationship between book bloggers and the literati has matured. As Ed notes in his brief response to Grossman, he (and other book bloggers) are regularly paid to pen book reviews in major newspapers. The lines are blurring. Oh, and I’ve met Ed. He’s not that scary.
I got the most recent National Geographic in the mail yesterday. The issue is devoted entirely to one subject, Africa, and, according to the AP, is notable for being the first one-topic issue in the magazine’s history and only the second (since they started using cover photographs) to not have a photo on the cover. National Geographic always provides broad, colorful stories, but never before have they delved so deeply on a single subject, and having read through this issue, I think they ought to do it more often. Some notable names make appearances in the Africa issue. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse) pens the issue’s introduction with a discussion of why Africa has fallen behind the rest of the world but is not doomed to this fate in the future. Joel Achenbach, Washington Post reporter – and blogger – looks at some of the current shortcomings of paleoanthropology. And Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) returns to Zambia, the country of her youth, in a piece that is more personal and less straightforward than a typical National Geographic article.
Here’s news. In a new survey conducted by polling firm Harris, “over one-third of Americans read more than ten books in typical year.” As regulars on the literature-is-a-dying-art beat, we know that this flies in the face of countless other surveys which have found that the typical American home contains just six books, all of which are used as doorstops.To pull a couple such surveys at random from Google, a National Endowment for the Arts study “Reading at Risk” (PDF) found that in 2002 only 56.6% of Americans had read any book at all that year, while the percentage having read a work of “literature” was just 46.7%. An AP-Ipsos poll last year found that one in four hadn’t read any books over the prior year (though presumably three out of four had).To compare apples and apples, Harris finds that 91% of Americans read a book over the last year, though of those, only 27% read “literature.”Can anything be made of these surveys other than that they are a little silly?
This is why I love the New Yorker. Right when I’m about to go on vacation, they put out the debut fiction issue, perfect for the beach. In fact, I still vividly recall reading an excerpt from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated in a debut fiction issue while at the beach a few summers ago. This year’s stories look interesting. There’s “An Ex-Mas Feast” (read it here) by Uwem Alpan, “a Jesuit Priest from Nigeria.” There’s “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, whose first novel, The Best People in the World, comes out nest year. And there’s “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell (read it here.)I don’t know why, but I always feel faint stirrings of jealousy when the debut fiction issue comes out. I’m not exactly an aspiring novelist, but I think it riles people up to see unknowns on such a big stage, the biggest in short fiction. I just have to remind myself that there are much more deserving things to decry in the literary world than the debut fiction issue. That way I can enjoy the stories with my emotions unclouded.Update: I read the stories and here’s what I thought.
Its laudatory impulses notwithstanding, Louis Menand’s worthwhile essay in the current New Yorker on Mark McGurl’s The Program Era – an account of the rise of the creative writing program – doesn’t quite save the book from sounding depressing. For those with ambitions to write fiction, Menand offers a whirlwind tour of a sausage factory. Except that in this case you’re not the guy who likes to eat sausage, but the guy (or gal) who raises the hogs. Or maybe you are the hog itself. Reading Menand reading McGurl, you get the very same sense of a vast, tentacular, and mildly deterministic academic-industrial complex you might get in… well, a creative writing program. Which speaks to the characteristic thoroughness of Menand’s writing. And, presumably, of McGurl’s book.Largely absent from Menand’s account (and Mark Grief’s review in Bookforum), however, is the question of money. Even for those who agree emphatically with Menand that “there is no ‘craft of fiction’ as such,” the value of two or three years of subsidized writing time is hard to understate. Rilke had the Princess of Thurn and Taxis; we have AWP. And though the rise of the M.F.A. program may well exert a systemic pressure on the writer, it need not, as Menand is at pains to point out, vitiate the visionary. By far my favorite nugget in the Menand piece is his mention of two workshops filled with idiosyncratic talent:Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Wendell Berry taught by Wallace Stegner at StanfordJohn Irving, Andre Dubus, Gail Godwin, and John Casey taught by Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa.I’ve also heard tell of a workshop that includedJhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Peter Ho Davies, and Marshall Klimasewiski taught by our guest contributor (and National Book Award finalist) Joan Silber at Boston University.If any of you out there have taken, or know of, similarly stacked workshops, we’d be curious to hear about them, if only as a way of letting M.F.A. applicants cling to a little of the glamor McGurl and Menand have done the rest of us the great favor of dispelling. Somehow the prospect of participating in an aesthetic of “class-based self-consciousness” pales next to the thought of getting drunk with Richard Ford and ripping on Jay McInerney… and hasn’t that always been (along with the financial assistance, of course) the most compelling reason to apply to a writing program?