Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Brooks on Beatles, wronger than you could imagine, and other matters

Asta Nielsen as a female Hamlet, 1921. Via (Parenthetical Citations).
Shorter Bill Shakespeare, Hamlet (ca. 1600):
Shakespeare combined the Greek honor code (thou shalt avenge the murder of thy father) with the Christian mercy code (thou shalt not kill) to create the torn figure of Hamlet.
No, that's Brooks. It's the second time we've caught him doing a Shakespeare Shorter (the first was Henry V). As an analysis, it looks about as wrong as you can imagine: the only time in Hamlet where "mercy" is used in any kind of strictly theological sense it is applied to God, not Hamlet, in Claudius's prayer soliloquy (III/iii):

 43    .............................What if this cursed hand 
 44   Were thicker than itself with brother's blood, 
 45   Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens 
 46   To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy 
 47   But to confront the visage of offence? 
When Hamlet sees his uncle kneeling in prayer, a conveniently vulnerable position, he puts off killing him for fear of sending him straight to heaven, as in what kind of crappy revenge would that be?—better wait until he's doing something nasty, like getting drunk or banging your mother. Ironically, the moment he's just missed would have been the perfect time, because the prayer is a failure:
97   My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: 
 98   Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Moments later, Hamlet is unhesitatingly killing the person spying on him from behind a curtain in his mother's bedroom, assuming it's the king, but it turns out to be only his girlfriend's father instead. Oh well, never mind:
212   I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room. 
213   Mother, good night. Indeed this counsellor 
214   Is now most still, most secret and most grave, 
215   Who was in life a foolish prating knave. 
What I'm trying to say is, there's a lot of spooky Christianity in this play, and specifically Catholicism, but there's really no "thou shalt not kill." At all. Other plays no doubt (you should think immediately of the meditations on revenge killing in Winter's Tale and Tempest), but not this one.

Brooks is on about creativity today for some reason, mainly I guess because of an article on the Beatles by Joshua Wolf Shenk for the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, and most particularly its subtitular teaser, rousing one of his weird little business self-help book passions, for "co-opetition":
Despite the mythology around the idea of the lone genius, the famous partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney demonstrates the brilliance of creative pairs.
Thus when John first made a "demo" of the song "Help" it expressed his "throes of depression" with a "slow, moaning sound"

but Paul suggested providing it with a "lighthearted countermelody" and that fixed it up.

This is a really outstandingly terrible example because, as commenter Andrew Baker points out at the YouTube site, it is not a demo for the song, but a kind of revisionist experiment, conducted 14 years after the song was written.

So that Shenk's analysis is of an entirely imaginary, or perhaps retroactionary, sequence of events. And it's moreover clear that "Help", far from having been written in depression, was always meant to to be zippy and fun, which is why the lyric is so especially banal ("and I do appreciate your being round"), and indeed why John thought years later it might be fun to try slowing it down, like Barbra Streisand dragging "Happy Days are Here Again".

The original "Help" is a gag to go with the movie, and not even an especially great song (the album side it was on included "The Night Before", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "You're Going to Lose That Girl", and "Ticket to Ride", and "Yesterday" was on the other side!!!). What that bit of audio does clearly demonstrate is that Paul, not John, wrote the tune, or is at any rate responsible for the chord progression, since John at the piano in 1979 still can't quite work out how it goes.

No wonder Brooks likes Joshua Wolf Shenk; they're kindred spirits. Maybe they should co-write a column.

The mutual dependence of Paul and John as one of history's greatest songwriting pairs is one of those truisms that happens to be true, though, so let it pass. Brooks does; it suddenly starts occurring to him that Joshua Wolf Shenk's thesis is false, since many creative people, like Shakespeare, have done good stuff without a partner. So he doesn't go back and rewrite his first four or five paragraphs or anything drastic like that, but he does bend in a new direction.
John Barrymore's melancholy Dane, I believe on Broadway, 1922. Via To the Manner Born.

That's where Hamlet comes in, obviously, alongside Picasso and Saul Bellow, whose son Adam, as I learn from Edroso, has recently been out with the wingnut begging bowl looking for funds for a new network of wingnut fiction writers' workshops and conferences and so on so that future Ayn Rands and Robert Heinleins won't have to depend for their success on the vagaries of the market, there's a nice conservative thought for you.

But I digress. Brooks's hypothesis is that the case of the solitary genius as represented by Shakespeare, Picasso, and Bellow, is actually a case of divided personality disorder (Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust). Cue a little more amateur criticism and a tiny hint of race-baiting:
Picasso combined the traditions of European art with the traditions of African masks. Saul Bellow combined the strictness of the Jewish conscience with the free-floating go-getter-ness of the American drive for success.
With these folks, it's all about "dialectics and dualism" and the "ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time" (usually attributed to Scott Fitzgerald's definition of the first-rate intelligence, here credited to biz self-help writer Roger Martin's quotation of Fitzgerald). Such people may
push themselves into the rotting institutions they want to reinvent. If you are looking for people who are going to be creative in the current climate, I’d look for people who are disillusioned with politics even as they go into it; who are disenchanted with contemporary worship, even as they join the church; who are disgusted by finance even as they work in finance. 
Which leads us not, as you might expect at this point, to Brooks fighting his lonely battles at the Krugman-corrupted Times, but rather straight to B corporations like Patagonia, the Lennons-and-Macartneys of our desolate era, and don't tell me you saw that coming. These companies give themselves permission to compromise between the quarterly ROI and making the world a better place, and protect it from corporate raiders (who are entitled to sue the boards of normal corporations when the boards are deemed not greedy enough) by building defenses into the structure, which is kind of the 21st-century equivalent of writing "Norwegian Wood" or The Adventures of Augie March:
They are seeking to reinvent both capitalism and do-gooder-ism, and living in the contradiction between these traditions.
You might want to wonder why anybody would mess like that with the processes of the marvelous marketplace and its ability to decide everything for the best, but as usual just when Brooks starts to get someplace interesting he runs out of space. Bye!
Tom Hiddleston as Henry V in The Hollow Crown (BBC Two, 2012).

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