"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Recovery of Civilization

English-Speaking Peoples Being Rallied against the Dark Lords!

I have recently experienced four powerful signs that the tide may be beginning to turn against the dark lords of nihilist existentialism, Nietzschean power-mongering, positivist skepticism, Romantic sentimentalism, arrogant fundamentalism, and worldly materialism that singly and together have spread their curses over the Western world for nearly two centuries and that in the last several decades—with the more recently brewed dark witch’s cauldron of reductive feminism, surreptitious Marxism, dehumanized post-modern theorism, disguised racism, and anti-religious bigotry that goes by the name of political correctness—have seemed to be consolidating their tyranny. (The Eastern world has suffered from its own somewhat different curses, equally in need of dispelling.)

The signs are these, on order of increasing numbers of people reached by them:

1. I saw a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure from which the illusory concept “problem play” had been utterly banished, as if by the wand of Dumbledore himself. The duke was heroic again, just, kind, masterful, inventive, daring, and merciful, his power once again revealed to be God-like and correcting (not cruel, weak, selfish, power-hungry, or corrupt, as the Lucios of the English departments of the world had been describing him for over a century). Isabel was just, merciful, loving, and courageous, a perfect match for the duke, (not prudish, cold, cruel, abstract, and hard, as several generations of readers and playgoers have been told). Marriage at the end was not conquest or compromise or accommodation but the triumph of love over vice, the sacramental kiss of justice and mercy. It was the Measure for Measure I have sometimes despairingly awaited for over 30 years of studying Shakespeare.

2. I read a book by a professor of English in an American university entitled The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. In it, the author, Elizabeth Kantor, not only dismissed the depredations of the p.c. humanities departments of our institutions of so-called higher learning with well-formed sentences of Olympian simplicity and truth, but then turned to the works of literature themselves to show us why they merit to be studied in their own bright light, unscreened by the perverse shadowy overlays of the faddish –isms of the day. Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and many more are released with McGonagall-like dispatch from the jinxes of race, class, and gender that have insinuated themselves into and usurped the high seats of authority belonging to reason, justice, truth, and love.

3. I find that the long dark road of unflinching investigation into human depravity has turned a corner in Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road and revealed light. In this heir to All Quiet on the Western Front, Night, and other post-apocalyptic novels of the last century, we discover that the body and its survival instinct are not after all the deepest things in us, but that our core is free will and the possibility of a love that redeems us from death and the fear of death. It is a very dark book. I do not recommend it to children or to those who seek merely emotional titillation from stories of violence and death. But the book will reinforce the courage of those who can admit their craving for meaning even in the midst of the fear of the total destruction of culture and civilization and will reward that craving with unlooked-for avenues of redemption.

4. I have just finished the seventh book in the Harry Potter series and can finally say what I have been hoping to be able to say all along—that J.K. Rowling is the best children’s book writer since C.S. Lewis and in a sense (because less explicitly Christian) an even more universal one. Eschewing both smarmy sentimentality and ideal-dissolving skepticism, she has restored free will, moral choice, and the eternal battle between good and evil to the center of human concern in the imagination of the present generation of adolescent book-readers.

In every one of the novels Harry is faced with an agonizing moral choice, one in which doing the right thing requires a terrible sacrifice. Always the context includes the real possibility of getting it either wrong or right and the real potential for unexpected disasters and unimagined forms of help. In the last of the novels, in keeping with Rowling’s remarkable gift for aging her characters one year at a time, the challenges, the virtues needed to face them, and the sources of help are at their peak. I will not give away plot, but I will say that, among many other wonders, the final sentence of Chapter 35 gives the reader one of the greatest and most satisfying gifts to have been delivered by literature (children or adult) in many a decade. (Don’t skip ahead, or you won’t get it.)

In short, Rowling is Potter. She dares to challenge us to be good, even in this age of fear, cynicism, illusory entitlement, and media appeals to the lowest common denominator in us. And look at the sales figures! The adolescent readers of the world, buying and reading her books, declare that Dumbledore’s Army lives, despite the legions of negating Voldemorts who infest our media and English departments because they infest our own imaginations. We too, like Harry, have every moment a choice to make between our own temptations to fear, doubt, and despair and our own faith in the eternal meaning of justice, truth, and love. And like Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tolkien, and Lewis, Rowling has given our youth (and the youthfulness in us adults) a precious gift to turn the scale toward the good: the gift of a morally true and therefore healing story.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Measure for Measure at the Old Globe

If you are anywhere near San Diego, do whatever you can to get a ticket to see the Old Globe Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. As many of you know, I have been talking and writing about this play for much of my life, trying to restore it to people's appreciation because of the deep and corrupting misreading it has suffered from for over a century. Well, finally there is a production that gets it right. No problem play about it, no "duke of dark corners," no prudish hard-hearted Isabel, no postmodern unhappy ending, no reducing Shakespeare's vision to the level of Lucio's. All that's gone with the wind, thank goodness and the wisdom of director Paul Mullins. Instead we have the Measure for Measure Shakespeare wrote and meant, and the one which I have been longing to see for lo these many years. See it if you can.