Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Book Game

Gus Van Horn and The Secular Foxhole did the Book Game lately. When I started this blog I sacrificed a bull to Jupiter and vowed never to use the word “meme.” Since I don’t want to be struck by lightning, I’ll call it the Book Game.

Number of books owned: 3-4,000

Last book bought: Don Carlos by Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Mike Poulton. Still have not read it.

Five books that mean a lot to you:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. My favorite novel.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. I linked to the out of print 1936 Cambridge Edition, which has been my companion for 30 years now.

Ibsen: The Complete Major Prose Plays, translated by Rolf Fjelde. Great romantic playwright, misunderstood in the 20th century as a naturalist. He used to complain that actors played his characters too small, that they didn’t understand his characters were titans of passion in realistic settings. Chekhov, a real naturalist, understood Ibsen and complained that people don’t act like that; by his standards, they don’t. Do not read the dry 19th century translation by Archer.

Playwriting by Bernard Grebanier. Best book on the subject, now out of print. His ingenious theory of plot construction helps in the difficult process of structuring a play. But there are no silver bullets that replace hard work.

Complete Plays with Prefaces by Bernard Shaw. I paid $90 to get this out of print set used. Yes, Shaw was a Fabian socialist, but he is such a mocker that he can’t seriously espouse anything. He is just a brilliant comic observer of human nature. His characters are witty and fun.

The speech at the end of “Too True to Be Good” (1932) is, I believe, the greatest speech in 20th century drama. It is a preacher lamenting that modern philosophy has killed everything to believe in and left western civilization with nothing but skepticism. Here is the ending of the speech:

No: I must have affirmations to preach. Without them the young will not listen to me; for even the young grow tired of denials. The negative-monger falls before the soldiers, the men of action, the fighters, strong in the old uncompromising affirmations which give them status, duties, certainty of consequences; so that the pugnacious spirit of man in them can reach out and strike death-blows with steadfastly closed minds. Their way is straight and sure; but it is the way of death; and the preacher must preach the way of life. [A white sea fog swirls up from the beach to his feet, rising and thickening around him]. I am ignorant: I have lost my nerve and am intimidated: all I know is that I must find the way of life, for myself and all of us, or we shall surely perish. And meanwhile my gift has possession of
me: I must preach and preach and preach no matter how late the hour and how short the day, no matter whether I have nothing to say --

The fog has enveloped him; the gap with its grottoes is lost to sight; the ponderous
stones are wisps of shifting white cloud; there is left only fog: impenetrable fog; but the incorrigible preacher will not be denied his peroration, which, could we only hear it distinctly, would probably run --

-- or whether in some pentecostal flame of revelation the Spirit will descend on me
and inspire me with a message the sound whereof shall go out unto all lands and realize for us at last the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory for ever and ever. Amen.

In a world in which modern philosophy has destroyed all absolutes, the mystic is left hoping for a revelation. Neither Shaw nor his character could conceive a better solution to the west’s predicament. (Historically this pendulum swing from skepticism to faith has happened time and again, in the Hellenic age, the Renaissance and now.) It’s philosophically flawed, but one does not read Shaw to learn philosophy. The portrait of a man struggling to find the way of life even though it is impossible is dramatically moving; it’s the best one could hope for in 1932.

UPDATE: I forgot Last Book Read: On the Razzle by Tom Stoppard. Hilarious farce.

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