Archives: The Duchess of Malfi

Railyard Skyline

The sun will come up on the last day of 2009 soon, and I’ll probably do a rambling post on the decade gone, the first decade of THE FUTURE, kind of at an angle to what we all thought the third millennium AD would bring us. Some time this weekend. I need to gather up a first draft of thoughts on the last 10 years, in order to better know how to set upon goals for the next.

One thing I’d like to do again some time in 2010 though is some deep reading.

In sorting through some papers in preparation for a possible move, I found some old university lit class essays. Many of them are painful to read now. Not because they are poorly written (some are, some aren’t), but because a lot of them are obviously, blatantly parroting back whatever political or philosophical opinion the instructor of that course held. It’s really embarrassingly obvious that I had no ability to form a real opinion of my own. I know I wasn’t trying to ingratiate myself for the sake of good grades, though (surprise) all the papers I have that reflect back the instructor’s beliefs got very good grades. I liked these teachers, and I was fascinated by their opinions, and I think at that time I was unconsciously trying their worldviews on to see how they fit.

I’m quite a bit older now, and though I’ve continued to read voraciously, I haven’t read anywhere near as analytically, or as deeply, as I did in those classes.

For example, here’s a bit of an essay on The Duchess of Malfi:

Men like to ride horses to exhaustion in this play. “Castruccio is come to Rome, Most pitifully tired with riding post.” Ferdinand “hath took horse, and’s rid post to Rome.” Later in the same scene Bosola says, “Pluto, the god of riches, when he’s sent by Jupiter to any man, he goes limping, to signify that wealth that comes on God’s name comes slowly; but when he’s sent on the devil’s errand, he rides post and comes in by scuttles.” Keeping within the play’s metaphoric structure, we can believe that both Castruccio and Ferdinand have ridden to Rome on the devil’s errand…

I used to love to tease out textual clues like that, and find clever ways that the structure of something, or the images it referenced, supported character or theme. It was a useful pleasure when I was an actor, since finding out these little connections was the key to building a nuanced performance. But I’d guess in the last ten years I haven’t tried reading anything this deeply at all.

I recently finished a first read through Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, but even though that book really demands a close reading I found I wasn’t able to muster up the attention for it. I glossed a lot. Then, in doing some digging around online for other people’s impressions of the book, I found this essay that suggests that an odd, throw away reference that Pynchon put into The Crying of Lot 49:

In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo…

In his essay Pynchon’s Inferno, Charles Hollander argues that this reference is meant to make you curious about Remedios Varo, lead you to try researching him, discover little information but be exposed to the name Marcus Terentius Varro (whose name is a cognate of the painter’s), an ancient Roman satirist who wrote in a style called Menippean Satire, a form which:

He developed the form into a medley, or mixture of humor, philosophy, song, and rhyme on any topic that struck his fancy at the moment, managing to scoff at all the fad and fashion of the time while avoiding, or submerging, any political bitterness he might have felt.
– Hollander:Pynchon’s Inferno

This is also the form that Gravity’s Rainbow takes, and Hollander is convinced this odd clue in The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon tipping his hand to anyone who happens to be looking, revealing the workings behind his chosen style.

Now, that’s all quite a stretch, and these days information on Remedios Varo is not hard to come by. Maybe Pynchon just knew his paintings, and one he remembered fit his purpose for the image he was looking for. This could be true even if he was intentionally working in the style of Menippean satire. This could all be essentially an elaborate conspiracy-theory-style chain of concoctions unintentionally invented by a source happy scholar digging for influences. But so far all the Pynchon I’ve read is very keen on conspiracy theories, and it does not seem so unlikely to me that he may be playing games with scholarly readers like this. His novels do echo the form of satire described.

Coming up with potential clues like this is the kind of depth I would like to go into again in reading something this year. I don’t know what yet. Maybe more Pynchon. Maybe something else.

A possibility is this great program I read about here, the St. John’s College Summer Classics in Santa Fe, New Mexico:

A Summer Classics seminar is not a lecture, nor is it a book club. At St. John’s, seminars are lively, in-depth, highly participatory conversations on the reading at hand. Discussions begin with an opening question presented by a tutor, but can take on myriad dimensions. Everyone contributes in some way to the conversation, bringing ideas to the table whether they have familiarity with the topic or not. Listening is just as important as speaking, as connections among ideas make for stimulating conversation. No previous knowledge of the author, text, or subject is required; participants should refer only to works the group studies together. Our conversations are not debates. Challenging others’ ideas or offering alternative thinking is encouraged as long as the goal is insight, not didacticism.

These week-long seminars take place in July, and are limited to 16 participants each. Groups are led by two members of the St. John’s College faculty, or occasionally, guests from other institutions.

Frankly it sounds like heaven. These last ten years have just burned by too fast. Time to limp a bit in Jupiter’s service.

(See how I brought it back around there!)