Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

For some years I have been on a campaign to see every Shakespeare play performed. I am about three-quarters of the way through the canon. I have seen some of the really obscure ones, like King John and Richard II, but have a few of the histories and less-interesting comedies still to see.

I spent two full days this summer trying to attend Henry V in Central Park. The first day, I stood on line for hours outside the Public Theater, only to be the second person on line not to receive a ticket. Determined to see the play by force of will, I spent another few hours on the stand-by line in Central Park. The man who got the last tickets at the Public came by to give away one of his, didn't recognize me and gave it to someone else. I commiserated with an elderly lady standing next to me; we struck up a bit of a friendship until she leaped six feet to grab another extra ticket from a good samaritan, astonishing and pre-empting three men on the line who would have accepted it. Never mind; I was glad she got it.

I went back a few days later at eight thirty in the morning, and was second on line at the Public. Over the next few hours, I made friends with number 1, a theater addict who spent all her disposable income seeing everything in town, and with a professor of medieval literature. Six hours later, I received my ticket. As I walked to the subway, the heavens opened up with a Shakespearean thunderstorm (quoted from Lear) and never shut again the rest of the night. So I still haven't seen Henry V.

Yesterday we saw a wonderful Taming of the Shrew in the Hamptons. The young, energetic, very professional cast took turns playing the role of Bianca (represented by a blow-up doll) and the father (a volleyball with sunglasses). At one point, while one of her suitors sang a song, they swung the Bianca doll on the end of a rope in wide circles from the top of a small tower on the outdoor stage. One unusually versatile actress with a malleable face played a servant, an elderly suitor and a wide variety of other roles. Shakespeare's language fused seamlessly with the invented physical farce, leaving me marvelling again at how open the frameworks of the plays are, leaving so much room for invention, while modern classics like Godot and Death of a Salesman are hermetically sealed and must be performed very close to the author's stage directions.

Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Spectacle Letters Column Guidelines. If you write to me about something you read in the Spectacle, I will assume the letter is for publication. If it is not, please tell me, and I will respect that. If you want the letter published, but without your name attached, I will also respect that. I will not include your email address unless you ask me to. This is in response to many of you who have expressed concern that spammers are finding your email address here. Flames are an exception. They will be published in full, with your name and email address. I have actually had people follow up on a published flame by complaining that they thought they were insulting my ancestry privately. Nope, sorry.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I spend a fair amount of my leisure time arguing with the animal rights nitwits. I found your essay (Natural Rights Don't Exist) one of the most concise and cogent arguments I have seen against the AR claim of "natural" rights.

Thank you.

Esther Schrager

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I began your most interesting essay on Proust initially because I've become curious as to whether Proust had any influence upon Joyce's Ulysses. In his biography of Joyce Ellman describes a casual but rather stiff and unproductive meeting between them and leaves it there. However, I'm fascinated by some of the endings in Ulysses and their epiphanal similarity to endings in Remembrances...not the same subject matter but in power and effect very similar. Eg, the ending of the Cyclops chapter in Ulysses and the wonderful conclusion of the first portion of Within A Budding Grove. Another great similarity between Ulysses ( and Finnegan ) and Remembrance is their common fascination with and incorporation of science...almost unique in my reading of the great western books of that period.

I just finished rereading O My America Johanna Kaplan's first - and unfortunately so far only - novel. It's a masterly first novel but somehow leaves me feeling she hasn't yet plumbed the depths. The narrator, in some ways her alter ego, is much like the person I knew briefly years ago. In actual life an only child, Merry appears in the context of a story that is not directly related either to her own immediate family or, for that matter, to much in her own experiences...which conversely are referred to so poignantly in her short stories. For reasons I don't wish to discuss, I really don't think M's Kaplan is capable of dealing with any of this more fully, especially in a public way...it's far too painful, and the wish-fulfillment in the kind of substitute universe she creates in her novel of ideas intrigues me. This gets me to thinking about what you say about Marcel and the real Proust. For lots of reasons I don't think he wished to portray the character, whom he intended to be seen as an alter ego, as homosexual. Unlike Gide the book is not intended as confession, and I think Proust deliberately moulded the experience of his narrator to fit the universe he wished to create. So I don't really feel he's being dishonest. True, the Joyce we encounter throughout is much more the real Joyce, but, afterall, Joyce didn't have so much to hide..a double whammy if you will, both Jewishness and gayness. How would the public have reacted? But even more important, if you take literally what Proust says about inversion in Sodom and Gomorra, might not one postulate that he also took pleasure in portraying as female that part of him he might so much have wanted to be so even if in actuality his fictional women were really based upon gay men. And with Charlus he succeeds in creating a truly monumental character who's gay. By the same token the violinist, who may in some ways bear a resemblance to Hahn - and this I don't know - is really one of the novel's chief villains...not because of his sexuality but rather because of the way he preys upon those who love him. And needless to say Proust had far more trouble portraying his Jewishness openly. Look, even in MASH, a tv series of the '60's Hawkeye Pierce as created by Allan Alda is so very Jewish but still cannot be openly the Jew he so obviously is.

One thing that always strikes me about Proust are the names of his women, usually female derivatives of male names. A frequent convention in France, this may be just coincidental, yet it does make me wonder. But when you speak of "dishonesty" what troubles me far more is how he depicts the intensity of his love for Albertine as directly proportional to his fear of her betrayal. But when she's satisfied, loving, and comfortable he finds her most boring and often fantasizes about giving her up. This is not quite the case with Gilberte, whom Marcel appears to have liked much more and who remains his friend throughout the book. But I find his spending so much time on someone he really doesn't really like very much, let alone love in any real sense, is one of the truly disjunctive aspects of the novel.

Conversely, I think you're too severe when you claim he's dishonest by making himself the "mascot of the regiment." Afterall in real life Proust served in the army and did fight duels. Moreover, given the nature of military service in peace time I don't find the soldiers strong regard for him to be any less surprising than that of the so many different kinds of characters throughout who were seduced by his charm. In this sense, I regard Marcel - if not Proust himself - as almost a journalist who knew how to make great connections.

As for Bloom, I always regarded him as positive character. But have you ever read, however jaded they may be, Henry Roth's comments about Bloom and about Joyce in general? Without Ulysses it is difficult even to imagine Call It Sleep, and so I have never been reconciled to the middle-aged Roth's condemnation of his greatest mentor. On the other hand, Bloom represesents the sensitive but physically helpless and defenseless Jew. In this regard part of what Roth says is correct, viz, that Joyce attributed his own physical cowardice to someone else and to a Jew, thus reinforcing the stereotype. And in a truly fictional wish-fulfillment, the character of the father in Call It Sleep is much different than Roth's real father, who, bully that he may have been at home, was as cowardly and cringing as the Jewish butcher who doesn't have what it takes to stand up the Italian garbage man. ( Hanna Wirth-Nesher, who wrote an Afterward to the '90's edition of CIS, with which in some respects I've firmly disagreed...and been vindicated by Roth's writing as an old man...has written an essay about Proust, Kafka, and Roth and the Jews' relation to the city, an essay that's unfortunately still on my waiting list.)

Finally, I regard Proust's relationship to Swann as Jew to be far more ironic than demeaning. There's really something quite grand about him, and I think that of all the characters in the book Swann is closest to how Proust imaginatively regarded himself. For that matter with regard to Marcel's own development Swann is the book's generative father. On the other hand, Bloch's such a buffoon that with all his Homeric babble as a Jew he's really quite embarrassing. On the other hand, I recall the young fellow, a brother or cousin of one of the girls, that Marcel meets at Balbec. On the surface - and much like some people in my own family - almost a stereotype of the empty and upward bound Jewish bourgeoise, and as such we rapidly dismiss him. But just look at how he's mentioned at the end. I wonder after whom he was patterned, if anyone. Somehow I always regarded both Verdurins as Jewish but perhaps here I'm being unfair...and to myself as well. Afterall he does distinguish them from Sir and Madame Rufus Israels. But the funniest name of all is M Nissim Bernard. For some reason that cracks me up.

Just a quick note about Axel's Castle. When I first read it years ago I recall how condemnatory Wilson was to Proust and, even worse, how little joy he finds in Swann's Way. I'm so glad that this ultimately said far more about Wilson - a closet antisemite in so many ways that Johanna's Ez Slavin would have punched him out too - because, with all the pain and suffering that's depicted there are few novels - Ulysses of course is the significant 20th Century equivalent in English - that are so rich, so funny, and most deeply, especially when it comes to the creative process - and its aperception by the reader - so deeply and joyfully worth reading.

All best,

Jack Eisenberg

Dear Jonathan Wallace,

I'm writing a piece of, well, academic writing, on movie adaptations of James's The Portrait of a Lady and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and that is basically I am bothering you. I've just come across your remarks on House of Mirth and its movie version and found them sobering : )) and inspiring - thank you very much. BTW, contrary to your intro, I still believe The House of Mirth is an example of Great American Novel.

With regards,

Anna Krawczyk-Laskarzewska

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Actually I'm glad that the cybersitter software I'm buying for my kids will not show these sites. As a parent If this kind of content is going to be expressed to my children then I want to be the one to share it with them so that it can be explained in it's proper context. Free speech does not mean that children should be exposed to any and every viewpoint, many are not mature enough to understand. Free speech is an adult issue. We need to stop treating children as adults. Let be children and enjoy their childhood, there will be plenty of time for the daily rituals of stress, disgust, and indignities of life.

David W. Mester

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I searched your site:www.spectacle.org for "Jackson State" and found ...nothing.

Kent State was significant, but it is also significant that it so overshadowed Jackson State.

Regarding forgetting history in The Ethical Spectacle: How about Jackson State, 10 days after Kent State? They went in with "Buck Shot" (Think about it) with the intention to kill. One of their targets was a nun, and one of the cops was FROM NESHOBA COUNTY! (He stabbed a priest in the face with a fork!) Why not an essay on Jackson State? Or at least links... http://labs.google.com/cgi-bin/keys?hl=en&q=%22Jackson+State%22+May+1970&btnG=Google+Search

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Re Karla Fay Tucker:

so you believe that anyone who commits a heinous murder and then becomes a good person, that they should be spared. Did you ever think that people might feign such a transformation because that just might grant them over-ruling for a death penalty. They would try their hardest to avoid death, especially if they fear daeth, like most people. She might have overcome her fear for death, but that is probably because she, like most people, is afraid of death and they desperately seek out some kind of religion or belief in something to find some kind of strength to leave this world without fear. I guess killing someone and then developing a new affirmation for religion would be the neccesary therapy to overcome the fear of death. Pathetic.

Paul Mellor

An Auschwitz Alphabet

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Hi, my name is Beatriz, i'm a mexican girl, i'm pretty interested about all this holocaust stuff, and I'm totally agree about the thigs you wrote down. I think Holocaust is the worst thing than could ever happen to this planet. It's so unffair to judge people because they doesn't share our same oppinion, or because they don't look like the rest of us. The only thing that i don't understand it's why did you jewish people never made anything, like a governmet or something to protect you all, maybe if you all, (instead of be affraid), had fight for your freedom, you could get it, even today, because I see that you still be judgegin for people. I'm catholic, if you can make a movement or a team, or something, to promove your ideas to share to the others what you people thinks, maybe you won't be that missunderstood, don't you think so?, unfortunally, this world is for the people who fights harder, and you must learn to fight. Holocaust is something that everybody wants to forget, but we can't erase it, and it's so much harder for you, but one thing that we can do it's to don't let it happen again. Thanks for your attention, I hope you're ok. Have a nice life.

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I have linked my 7th grade Language Arts classroom webpage to your webpage for our Anne Frank Unit at http://mlplatt.homestead.com/index.html I would like to have an "ok" (permission) from you, to place your website address and link on my resources,credits, and links page.

Thank you (hopefully) ahead of time,

Maryann Platt/teacher


I write about the word "muselmann" - I M not sure at all it means "muslim" in this case but I guess it's a German neologism of that time 2 say "smashed man" (Mus = mush in English & Mann = man). The English translation could B "mushyman".



to jon

i am a 14 yr old living in England, my dad and his family are jewish they left russia before the second world war. My mother and her family are not religious refusing to participate in 'such things' (in any relgion) i count myself as a jew. recently at school our year have been studing the holocaust. I dont want to sound stupid but i was disgusted at how little my classmates seemed to know, we were asked to finish our studies by compiling a project, on any accpect of the holocaust. i serached the net for incperation and allthough not actually choosing to Auschwitz i found your site increadibly helpfull. your end essay in particular brought up many important and relevant questions which i found a great help. i have been reading about the holocaust since i was about 11, i feel very strongly that the holocaust should not be fogoten and should be taught at a young age. after experiences of my own i hope you have not had to suffer any anti semitism bullying or ever will, but if by an unfortunate chance you do i hope this does not discourage you from remembering and helping others remembering.

thanks for your help


Dear Mr. Wallace:

I just finished reading your Auschwitz Alphabet and I found it extremely interesting. I am 29 years old and Jewish. Throughout my life I have had a great interest in studying various aspects of the Holocaust. I have a collection of books, documentaries, etc. My grandfather comes from Poland, and although he arrived in the United States before WW II and eventually fought for our country in the war, he lost many relatives who perished in the concentration camps. Fortunately, my grandfather is still alive to tell his stories of hid life, his family, and his experiences in the army liberating these concentration camps. Once again, congratulations to a job well done.

---Robyn Berger