Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brain food

"Nutritious brains"!


Went with my Clarissa students to see Quartett at BAM this evening. Some lovely moments: Isabel Huppert is a sight to behold, and I am fascinated by this notion of transforming Laclos's portrait of eighteenth-century libertinism for the modern stage (but can it really be that Heiner Müller never finished reading the whole of Dangerous Liaisons, as the program suggests? It is not a long novel!). But I found the music utterly awful. Embarrassingly awful! That spells ruination for the production as a whole, since it so much depends on the successful evocation of a sensibility.

(The only other Robert Wilson production I have seen, also at BAM, was much more effective - it was the 2002 Woyzeck - what was happening on stage was quite similar, and Isabel H. is the superior actor, quite mesmerizing at moments - but the Tom Waits music, performed live by a real orchestra, was so lovely in that case that it really brought the whole thing to life for me in a way that worked. The techno moments in this current production really made me squirm, but more generally even the snippets of classical stuff seem banal and thinly imagined - live music, for me, would have made a huge difference, as what was happening on stage was highly watchable, and the language and concept are engaging.)

I have hardly read any books recently! Or, rephrased, I am reading a lot for work stuff and between that and the Worm Triathlon's brain-tunneling effects plus marathon training obsessions, there has not been a lot of Light Reading going on round here. Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December was slight, a disappointment to me as I really loved his last one; William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms was better (and tapped into standard academic's fantasy of walking away from current life for something completely different and under the radar), but not his best. My Columbia colleage Mark Taylor's Field Notes from Elsewhere: Reflections on Living and Dying is an unusual and interesting book that really caught my attention, despite the fact that I am not its ideal audience (too pragmatic, more on the ethical and less on the metaphysical/existential end of intellectual pondering).

There is a passage on idleness that particularly resonated, and that I will share here (I was going to say "that I will share when I am less fatigued," but in fact it is precisely the things that make the passage speak to me that mean I am now unable not to transcribe it given that I have mentioned it!):
Nothing is harder for me to do than nothing. The issue is not merely psychological -- it is metaphysical, ethical, even religious. I guess my problem with doing nothing shows how deeply Protestant I remain. I have never been able to forget my grandmother's severe warning to me when I was a child: "Idleness is the devil's workshop." For her the idle person was not merely lazy but shiftless, useless, worthless. As the work of the devil, idleness, I was taught, is sin and sin, of course, breeds guilt. Even today I never feel more guilty than when I am doing nothing. I doubt I will ever completely overcome this sense of guilt and, indeed, sometimes I'm not even sure I want to do so.

What makes idleness so dangerous and thus so tempting is its purposelessness. Idleness, like play, has no end other than itself. If you can explain why you are idle, you are not idling. Redemption from this sin, my grandmother drilled into me, comes from work. That is why she always kept me busy--sometimes working, sometimes playing, or what she thought was playing. The problem was that my grandmother never really understood how to play. Forever suspicious of idleness, she had the remarkable ability to transform play into work, and she somehow managed to pass on this talent to her daughter, who in turn passed it on to me.


  1. Yes! Yes yes. I saw it opening night and since then I've been fantasizing about how to stop that very techno bit. There ought to be a law forbidding Robert Wilson from incorporating pop music dancing into his work. Surely in Brooklyn we could pass some kind of municipal ordinance which would at least require that such things be cut from anything he does at BAM, which is everything, so we'd be safe!

  2. Yes, we saw it over the weekend. I really enjoyed the stage, the costumes, lighting, and even though we were all the way up and had a column blocking the way sometimes, I also got a sense of being down there with them. But the music, I agree, was distracting as was Valmont's dancing which sometimes bordered on silliness.
    The Tom Waits staging sounds fantastic!

  3. The issue is not merely psychological, it is metaphysical, ethical, even religious.

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