“I knew him, Horatio.”
Though I was no Hamlet, not even in my youth, and he was neither a Horatio nor a Shakespeare, Vlad and I kept up a steady correspondence from 1938 to my untimely death in 1958.
We discovered each other in a most coincidental way. Being an avid reader of Russian literature, I happened upon his delightful novel, Priglasheniye na kazn' (Invitation to a Beheading) soon after its publication. After reading the first several pages, I sent him a handwritten copy of the first draft of the first several pages of what he called “your delightful short story, Light of My Life.”
Over the years, up to 1955, we continued this exchange. With his encouragement, I was more than willing to send him further material: words, sentences, paragraphs, ideas for plot, etc. I cannot think of a letter in which he did not express his “profound admiration” for my diligent, time-consuming work.
Nor was our correspondence merely an interchange of ideas concerning literary technique, gossip regarding other writers, allusions to the political situations of the countries in which we found ourselves in our cosmopolitan tours of the Western world. We were intimates. It was thus that I discovered that the “masterpiece” (his prescient word) on which he was working was, in fact, autobiographical; and he discovered something that I had suspected since our initial exchange, that we were doppelgangers.
After the publication of what I suspected was the “masterpiece” to which he had been constantly alluding, the indescribably brilliant novel Lolita, our intimacy dissolved. I cannot give the details; I leave that task in the capable hands of my most talented, faithful, and trusted disciple, who is now seeking a publisher for what he assures me will be “the most controversial tell-all book of the current decade.”
from The Last Decade or So
Putting aside the subjective question of style, no one with a right mind can doubt that the finest vehicle on the road today is the Hummer H2.
The H2 is by all standards an improvement over the original Hummer, which had a few impractical aspects. This latest model sports GM’s 6.0 liter V8, six seats (all of them sizeable enough to satisfy the demands of the more mature builds sported by today’s more highly-evolved species of the American gourmand), 6,700 pounds of pure muscle, an abundance of safety, and what even Consumer Reports concedes is “exceptional off-road ability.” In short, this state-of-the-present-art SUV more than lives up to the lively “Happy Jack” TV ads that boast of its many virtues.
But if Progress Is Our Most Important Product, Americans have a right to expect that even the present incarnation of the Hummer can and should be improved upon.
Thus it should come as no surprise that we at Myles Junior Think Tank have gathered our collective inventive brains and come up with an even grander road vehicle.
We have dubbed this project the T2. The name suggests a modification of the Pentagon’s latest, largest, and most lethal tank.
The interior will have all the amenities the successful citizen has come to expect (a 9 speaker audio system, electronic brake distribution, alloy wheels, tigerhide leather seats, satellite location system, night goggles, etc.), as well as an entertainment center featuring a 52-inch HDTV and three 25-inch computer terminals. It will seat a dozen sumo wrestlers comfortably.
Recognizing the environmental concerns of today’s discriminating buyer, the MJTT has devised a prototype large-scale hybrid engine that, attached to a continually variable transmission (CVT), will consume a mere 9.6 gallons to the mile.
It can be purchased in any of three colors: gray/black, medium black, and midnight black.
The metal tracks of the Pentagon’s model will be covered by a thick coating of rubber, providing a smooth ride both on the road and in the back canyons. Its 120-inch width will make it virtually rollover-proof.
The drivers’ seats will be housed in a turret, which will be located directly behind a 130 mm gun capable of blowing the heads off a pair of mating elephants.
It will be the safest car on the road, bar none—until, that is, the appearance of next year’s T3.
Repeat after me: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Now repeat this standard sentence again, aloud, using a stopwatch.
If you can ask that question in two seconds or less, you, my son or daughter, are eligible for becoming an auctioneer.
This is one of the helpful pieces of information you pick up by watching Werner Herzog’s 1974 documentary, “How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?” One of the competitors at the annual Cattle Auctioning World Championships, when asked how he learned to talk so fast, revealed the trade secret that he got up to the required speed by repeating that question thousands of times.
Of course an auctioneer never has to sell woodchucks. He is often called upon to auction off cattle. This is how he, or an occasional she, makes a living. So if he values the delights of eating well and sleeping in comfort, he must develop a more extensive repertoire of strings of what appear to be words rolling from his hoarse larynx and through his tobacco-stained teeth and off his motorized lips.
This repertoire must include all known numbers. When a number, such as 38, is spoken, it must be spit out fast. It must also be understandable, though an aspiring auctioneer is well advised to cheat a little by cutting out a phoneme or two from each word. For example, instead of saying “thir-tee eight and a quar-ter,” he might say “thrat na quota.”
Within the interstices of these numbers, your facile auctioneer need not bother with the criterion of understandability. Speed, however, cannot be deleted from the equation.
Bidding on cattle is one of the liberal arts, where ranchers are concerned. To be understood by the auctioneer, all a rancher must do in making a bid is twitch a finger or blink an eye, etc. But there is one criterion for being understandable. The bidder must be consistent in the finger or eye, etc., that he uses.
Another hint for a bidder. Never, under any circumstance, must you stand up or raise your hand urgently. What you were taught in grade school on the matter of asking permission to go to the bathroom does not apply.
Some years ago, when Harold Bloom, the rotund, melancholy Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, Berg Professor of English at New York University, formerly Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, MacArthur Prize fellow, etcetera, came out with a book on the Western Canon, aptly titled The Western Canon, you knew that the Western Canon, “The Books and School of the Ages,” was not merely on its last legs. Like the classical Monte Python parrot, it was deceased.
Professor Bloom made the same point, that nobody reads the Classics anymore, in one of his many follow-up books, How to Read and Why, which appeared in 2000 and immediately scrambled aboard the New York Times bestseller list.
One wonders who reads Bloom’s books. One would think of humanities professors and their students. Think again. Throughout his writings and TV appearances, he constantly complains that his fellow professors are too busy deconstructing the Classics to bother with assigning them to their sodden charges, drunk with the god of electronic toys.
One might also think of the many souls who drop out of higher education to pursue more lucrative careers as mechanics, truck drivers, belly dancers, check-out serfs at WalMart, and, of course, bartenders at the Hôtel Adios Watering Hole. Are such persons the ones who read sentences like, “There is a curious dialectic in Molière that resembles Shakespeare’s tendency to enrich personalities by alienating them from communion with others”?
Yes. I speak from the experience of my long existence, first as a living human being and now as a robot. In fact, it was only yesterday that a man walked into a bar with his dog, sat down, and said, to no one in particular, “There is a curious dialectic in Molière that resembles Shakespeare’s tendency to enrich personalities by alienating them from communion with others.”
The ensuing discussion amongst those present was more interesting, more curiously dialectical, and more profound than any I had heard during my brief stay at the Freie Universität Berlin at what my friend and colleague Myles na Gopaleen, Jr. chooses to call the fin de siècle.
It was also more passionate, ending, as most serious barroom discussions do, in a brawl.
The other afternoon I awoke from my customary nap with a thought: has anyone ever used the words “inextricably” and “intertwined” separately? Or are they inextricably intertwined and thus an instance of themselves?
This thought led me to a distinction between (1) inextricably intertwined words and (2) lonely words, words that can, but need not, be paired with others.
This distinction led me, in turn, to another question: is the phrase “inextricably intertwined” inextricably intertwined with any other word or phrase? Why not? Would that be making too much of a bad thing?
Now, according to the popular definition of philosophy, one must ask: are the above ruminations an instance of philosophy? Or are they merely the kinds of wacky questions that intrigued Lewis Carroll, the logician, writer of juvenile literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), and suspected pedophile?
Are philosophical questions wacky?
And what is so bad about wacky questions?
One could look at the entire history of civilization as the history of wacky questions leading to wacky answers. I can think of no examples, possibly because any question one can think of would be wacky.
My very first encounter with Shakespeare did not send thrills up and down my pre-cremation spine.
This was back in Russia, where I grew up and lived until draft age, at which time I decided to emigrate to America.
My literature teacher in the village school was an old bachelor who was widely known as Verrückt Busenitz, a.k.a. Crazy Busenitz. He was a lover of Shakespeare. In fact, word had it that he had translated seven of Shakespeare’s finest plays into German.
One of those plays was Hamlet, which he taught us. His preferred way of teaching was to stand behind his lecturn and read his translation, some of which I wrote down for future use. By “future use” I mean the examination that would determine whether I would graduate and become eligible for the life of full-time farming.
The other day I discovered my notes of some of Herr Busenitz’s translations. Most of these notes were from conversations between Hamlet and his sidekick, Horatio.
Very early in this tragedy the two friends are discussing the weather. Hamlet remarks, “Die Luft beisst schrewdlich; sie is sehr kalt.” Horatio agrees: “Es ist eine klemmende und eifrige Luft.” As I wrote this exchange down I remember thinking, “And this is supposed to be great literature? Give me Anna Karenina any day.”
At that time, I must explain, I was in love with Anna Karenina. While I was milking my father’s cows I was imagining myself as her illicit lover, Count Vronsky. Vronsky was my hero. It was through his influence that I took up smoking.
But I ramble—the Verrückt influence. Later on, Hamlet and Horatio have a profound philosophical discussion. I don’t recall what it was about, but I remember that Verrückt Busenitz put great emphasis on the last word that Hamlet got in: “Es gibt mehr Sachen im Himmel und in der Masse, Horatio, als von in ihren Philosophie geträumt werden.” Herr Busenitz repeated this line many times, and I figured I’d better write it down so I wouldn’t have to take the same course the next year.
During one of Verrückt Busenitz’s long-winded discourses on the greatness of Shakespeare, I recall that he kept repeating the line, “Kurze ist die Seele des Esprits.”
Halfway through the play, Hamlet rams his sword into an eavesdropper who is hidden behind the curtain. The victim turns out to be Polonius, whose daughter Ophelia is engaged to the sword-rammer. Meister Busenitz went through this scene rather quickly, but one of the lines caught my attention. Hamlet, not at all repentant, says in a matter-of-fact tone, “Ich zerre die Eingeweide in den benachbarten Raum.”
The school I attended emphasized religion, and Herr Busenitz was no exception. He spent a lot of time on one of Hamlet’s lines: “Es gibt ein Göttlichkeit, die unsere Enden formt, schraube oben sie, wie wir werden.”
By the time we got through with Hamlet, I had come to the conclusion that the plot was above average, but that Shakespeare was overrated when it came to his choice of words.
It was only later, when I learned English, that I came to see that I’d been wrong. I bought a copy of the complete plays of Shakespeare and began to read him, starting of course with Hamlet.
Only then did I realize that Shakespeare comes across best when you read him in his own language.
When Hamlet and Horatio discuss the weather, their conversation, in English, goes like this:
Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.
Who else would have thought to say it that way? If the Weather Channel would hire poets to explain their charts, I would become a couch potato, with an emphasis on meteorology.
After their philosophical discussion, Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” No wonder this line is included in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. As is “Brevity is the soul of wit,” though not Meister Busenitz’s translation, “Kurze ist die Seele des Esprits.”
And doesn’t “I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room” beat “Ich zerre die Eingeweide in den benachbarten Raum”?
Finally, take the turgid “Es gibt ein Göttlichkeit, die unsere Enden formt, schraube oben sie, wie wir werden” and replace it with “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” and see what happens to church attendance.
In my capacity as critic for this blog, I recently watched a week of the quiz show, Jeopardy!
One of the first things I discovered was the major reason this program used to be famous.
At one time, the categories from which the contestants are allowed to choose their “questions” to the “answers” were straightforward: the choices were often among such lists as “Composers,” “Rivers,” “Presidents’ Wives,” and “Film Directors.” In their search for a younger, less-educated viewership, these have been replaced by categories that are best described as “cutesy.” “Frankly Speaking” would be an example: the contestant must elect an answer from this category with no foreknowledge of what to expect. In this case, he finds that the question the writers are after refers to the first or last name, “Frank.” The old categories were, frankly, superior. Not only were they not cutesy; they also tested the educational backgrounds of the contestants rather than their quick recall of Franks who had achieved as little as 20 minutes of fame. Either no one now knows who Schubert was, or the new contestants are chosen largely for their knowledge of trivia.
Unfortunately, the superficial ploy of requiring contestants to preface their answers to these petty questions with the phrases “Who is?” or “What is?” is still a staple of the show. Forgetting to go along with this silly scheme is certain to evoke either a gentle reprimand or a disqualification by the host, depending on whether he likes you or not. And his likes and dislikes are easy to spot. Deference to him, his charm, his sense of humor, his superior intellect, etc., is the key. The slightest hint of one-upmanship is a ticket to failure. Not that there are many contestants who are willing to hint that their host is anything less than a medium-sized god: every person who might even suspect that said host is a low-brow, wannabe high-brow egomaniac has been axed from the roll in the screening process.
Warning to all contestants, or wannabe contestants: Be prepared to play straight man to this mediocre humorist.
And don’t even think of pronouncing French words correctly. Even if you do, this little man, who begins every sentence with the word “I,” will correct you.
A column from the distant past.
Being glamorous and having the ability to stand before a set of cameras with ease and being well-paid for these scarce traits do not translate into being in possession of a brilliant, or even a philosophical, mind.
It’s always amusing to watch the spectacle of a Hollywood star trying to play Plato before their hordes of teen admirers.
Take Tom Cruise, for example. Evangelist for Scientology, which teaches—well, look it up on Wikipedia. Or better yet, don’t. It’s enough to say that the Church of Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, who purportedly once said, “The best way to make a million is to start your own church.”
To which I must add, as did Mr. Cruise, that Scientology considers the major threat to the world to be the corrupt cabal of psychiatrists, who will be replaced in the New World Order by—do I have to say?—the Church of Scientology, which is dedicated to the development of the human spirit.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t about half the religions and philosophies since King Tut been “dedicated to the development of the human spirit”? The other half have tried to develop the economic and political and material injustices foisted on the general population by their opponents, who are often as not the ones who are dedicated to the development of the human spirit.
Final exam: Choose an example of a Hollywood philosopher; in 25 words or less, state in full his or her beliefs, but without using the phrases “human spirit” or “injustices.” You have 15 minutes. You may begin.
P.S. Some of you may have concluded that the phrase "Hollywood Philosophers" is a contradiction in terms. The remainder has doubtless concluded that it is a null category.
I come to you today to heap encomiums on the finest lines of the finest writer outside the world of well-educated parrots.
In a word, I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him.
Best short play: Macbeth. This piece contains more quotable quotes than the Bible. One thinks of the good lady’s references to her bloody hand: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” and “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!” And of Mac the Knife’s meditation on Time: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time,” followed by “Out, out, brief candle!” and etc. Forget the overuse of exclamatories and “out”s and ask yourself if one could think of better ways to speak of guilt and death.
Best long play: Hamlet. One need not dwell on the young hero’s soliloquy on suicide to discover a plethora of well-placed words, too many to mention. Instance: after a plunge of the dagger into the pompous Polonius: “I’ll lug the guts into the neighboring room.” And later, explaining his rash action to wicked King Claudius, who seeks the wannabe professor’s corpulent corpse: He’s “in heaven. Send hither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But, indeed, if you find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go upstairs into the lobby.” The king orders his attendants, “Go seek him there.” In his mad but humorous way, Hamlet advises these toadies, “’A will stay till you come.”
Best part, besides Hamlet: Falstaff. Not the insipid clown of The Merry Wives of Windsor, but the bibulous comedian of Henry the Fourth who knows himself too well: “There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat, and grows old.” More, and pushing it. “A goodly portly man, i’ faith, and a corpulent; of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a noble carriage; and as I think, his age some fifty, or by’r lady inclining to threescore.” Old, for merry England; older, for adolescent Hollywood.
And this trio of Ab’s awards does not even include the comedies.
An e-note from an occasional reader, concerning a column I might or might not have written many moons ago:
“Dear Mr. Ennis,
“I’m sick and tired of hearing how great Shakespeare was. And I hear we don’t even know if he wrote his own plays! I admit some of them are based on true stories, or so I’ve been told, Julius Caesar for example. But gimme a break, a lot of those stories he just made up. Not that there’s anything wrong with making up stories, which are lies by definition, at least in some people’s opinion, for example my wife’s. Anyway, I was starting to say some of his plots are interesting, such as when the girls dress up like boys, but so what? Not all of them have happy endings, I’m thinking now of Hamlet, where everybody ends up dead and the stage is scattered with corpses, or maybe I should say wannabe corpses because the actors are just pretending. Not that life always has a happy end, I admit. And speaking of Hamlet, the story could be told in half the time if Shakespeare, if that’s who it really and truly was, wasn’t trying to show off his education by all the fancy language that nobody can understand and even so-called ‘scholars’ spend half their lives trying to figure out what all the words mean. I suggest somebody rewrite Shakespeare’s or whoever’s plays so they can be understood. For instance when Lady Mcbeth says ‘Out, damned spot’ why couldn’t she just say ‘Geez, I’ve got some blood on my hands’ and then go wash it off? They didn't even have forensic evidence back then, or so I've heard tell. If they can do it with the Bible I don’t see why they can’t do it with Shakespeare. Think of all the people who'd start enjoying Shakespeare. What I’m saying is, let’s bring the old guy up to date.
“What do you have to say to that, you upgraded robot?
And this is what I have to say about your observations:
Dear Mr., etc., Reeder,
“Upgraded robot.” A nice turn of phrase, that. It tingles in the ear more lithely than does “android.”
Yes, Mr. Reeder, I’ll admit you have a point. Like, Shakespeare’s plays could be greatly improved upon, just by like translating them into like the going lingo.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them, etc.”
Yeah, Hamlet’s soliloquy would go over really really big these days if instead of saying these lines, and more—33 all told—he’d just get to the point:
“Maybe I should just like kill myself.
On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t.
Well, I guess it depends on that afterlife bit.
Nah, I guess right now I just don’t have the guts.
Maybe I should stick around till the fifth act.”
And so Hamlet the Dane, Prince of Denmark, would hold off on the dying bit until his play was over and our butts were just beginning to get sore. In a good modern translation, that'd take no more than like maybe forty-five minutes.