Auden’s Political Poems, Shakespeare’s Songs, and Defining Dystopia

How China caught the science fiction bug: “One afternoon in June 1999, more than three million Chinese schoolkids took their seats for the Gaokao, the country’s national college entrance exam. Essay subjects in previous years had been patriotic – ‘the most touching scene from the Great Leap Forward’ (1958) – or prosaic – ‘trying new things’ (1994) – but the final essay question of the millennium was a vision of the future: ‘what if memories could be transplanted?’ Chen Quifan, who is published in the West as Stanley Chen, says this was the moment that modern Chinese science fiction was born. ‘Earlier that year,’ he explains to me in the offices of his London publisher, ‘there was a feature on the same topic in the biggest science fiction magazine in China, Science Fiction World. It was a coincidence, but a lot of parents then thought, OK – reading science fiction can help my kids go to a good college.’ The magazine’s circulation exploded, as hundreds of thousands of new readers began to explore a genre that had previously been classified as kids’s literature.”

Friendly reminder: A dystopia is not just “any awful situation.” It is “what results from the attempt to create utopia”: “Some so-called ‘dystopias’ are merely scenarios of decline, such as predictions of what things will be like when the planet is overpopulated (as in Soylent Green or John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar) or the economy collapses (as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles) or the atmosphere and water are poisoned (as in The Road or Blade Runner 2049). Others present apocalyptic or post-apocalytic environments, whether the nuclear nightmares of 1950s science fiction (such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach) or when robots take over (the Matrix trilogy), or the zombie apocalypse. Still other so-called ‘dystopias’ are nothing more than stories of wildly power-hungry dictators or oligarchies (as in V for Vendetta). None of these scenarios represents someone’s idea of a perfect society… For all that the various dystopias of fiction and reality reflect wildly different visions, they share several common features: social regimentation, dehumanization, abuse of technology, state terror, a new class of rulers, propaganda instead of truth, inevitable totalitarianism, and the tragedy of the individual. When combined, these features sketch the map of dystopia.”

Ancient site linked to Julius Caesar’s murder to open to public: “The ruins include a stone pedestal from the Curia of Pompey, the meeting place of senators, where Caesar was slain in 44 B.C.”

ESPN revisits the year Bo Jackson took over America.

Listen to a recording of Shakespeare’s songs: “In the first two dec ades of the twentieth century, The Victor Talking Machine Company produced a series of recordings of songs from the plays of William Shakespeare, sung by a variety of operatic vocalists of the day including American tenor Lambert Murphy (listed here under his pseudonym of Raymond Dixon), baritone Reinald Werrenrath, and soprano Laura Littlefield. If The Bard ever did specify melodies for the songs featured in his plays, nothing has survived today, and the arrangements used here by Victor are mostly more modern inventions. There are, however, a couple by the eighteenth century composers Thomas Arne and Joseph Haydn, and ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass’ by the Elizabethan musician Thomas Morley.”

What is epilepsy and how does it feel to suffer from it? “Epilepsy—the disorderly electrical discharge of neurons in the brain—is a protean disease whose manifestations are so various, and sometimes so subtle, that they are easily mistaken for something else: plain bad behavior, for example. Suzanne O’Sullivan, author of Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology, is a London neurologist who specializes in epilepsy, and who in this captivating book recounts the stories of some of the patients (I nearly wrote cases, but that would be dehumanizing) whom she has treated. Although epileptic attacks are usually intermittent and sometimes infrequent, they often exert a profound influence on the lives of sufferers out of all proportion to their duration. Dr. O’Sullivan brings this home to the reader very well; no one who reads this book will ever fail again to sympathize with sufferers from this mysterious condition.”

Essay of the Day:

In Daily Beast, Michael Weiss writes about Auden’s political poems and why the poet renounced them:

“As early as 1941, the poet had come to renounce some of his most celebrated work from the Thirties, those he considered riddled with ‘devil of unauthenticity … false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities.’ Auden had two examples in mind of such emotional fraudulence. Both, uncoincidentally, were urgent responses to the rise of Fascism, not glimpsed out of the corner of his eye but confronted head-on in a warzone and then as an exile woozily watching the clock tick toward the midnight of the century. Both poems were unmistakable exhortations to collective action, which is another way of saying they were propaganda. ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’ would be variously revised and amended before Auden finally excised them altogether from his corpus, the first because he saw it as the endorsement of a wicked philosophy, the second because it saw it as sententious nonsense.

“One can certainly argue for the virtues of ‘Later Auden’—and Mendelson has ably done so in his eponymous critical biography— while also appreciating the merit of Larkin’s tribute and judging Auden’s self-criticism as harsh and unfair. The man who proclaimed ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ in fact made it do quite a lot. If Orwell’s ambition was to turn political writing into an art, then Auden’s singular achievement was to use one of the oldest art forms to lay bare the grotesquerie of modern politics. For this reason, and though he’d never have thought of himself in this way, he stands among great anatomists and critics of totalitarianism.

“There is a reason, I think, so many Eastern bloc poets admired him, with the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky proclaiming Auden’s ‘the greatest mind of the twentieth century.’ His sensitivity and acuity as a poet made him aware that the pathologies of ideology are first manifest in the pathologies of individuals, including and especially himself, a character he never shied from satirizing or indeed using as a template for the doomed romantic or cruel authoritarian he took as the protagonist of so many of his poems. ‘Do you know what the Devil looks like?’ Auden asked a Sunday School class in 1942, not long after his return to the Anglican faith in which he’d been raised. ‘The Devil looks like me.’”

Read the rest.

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Author: Micah Mattix


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