Tartuffe at Delgado’s Theater

I hadn’t been to a play at Delgado Community College in Mid City, New Orleans, since they opened the expansive Timothy K. Baker Theatre. Great venue! The show, Moliere’s Tartuffe, from the age of Louis XIV, was lavishly performed in period sets and costumes (set dir. James Means, costume design by Cecile Casey Covert and Shelby Lynn Marie Butera).

The set was gorgeous, with the possible down side of very limited set changes through the course of the play. Director Kris LaMorte did a great job blocking and managing at least 11 characters with speaking roles, and pulled the best from each actor, as each contributed with full personality to the scenes at hand. A few with smaller parts could have done a better job with vocal clarity, but this was hardly noticeable as the principal actors kept the rollicking comedy of hypocrisy and misdirection going. Orgon (Ryan J. Vidrine), Dorine (Gabriella DiMaria) and Tartuffe (Brian C. Rosenthal) were all excellent, but the showstopper in this production was the grand dame of the family, Madame Pernelle (Magnus McConnell). McConnell’s part was not large, but from costume and makeup to the magnificent vocal delivery of aristocratic affectation to her command of the stage, she left the strongest imprint.

Bravo to the whole crew at Delgago, who have proven once again that a solid community college theater department, with passion and joie de vivre, can stage productions every bit as good as those at big league (and better funded) universities.

(Images from Delgado Community College website and Facebook page)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Phil’s next surprise

Goodbye, Maggie (160 pages), which was short-listed in the William Faulkner — Wisdom Competition, is scheduled for January 2020 release. If anyone would consider giving an honest advance review, query drggautier@gmail.com and I’ll send typeset pdf (and notify you when a Kindle copy is listed for free after release).

Summary: In a culture of health food stores, gurus, quacks and seekers, a young man’s stagnant life goes topsy-turvy when his charismatic brother shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary.

For the opening page, click here.

For an excerpt from late in the novel (“Phil’s next surprise”), see below …

Phil is shaky, fresh from the bed and weak. Gus supports him. The priest walks away, past the cracked headstones toward the moss-laden oaks and cypress trees at the perimeter of the cemetery. Perhaps his concern for all souls has brought him here but his better judgment has him scurrying away before anything pagan breaks out.

The voodoo priestess stands and speaks.

“Close your eyes and feel, feel this city of the dead come to life to help our sister cross over. The city of the dead is come to life and we are but its shadows.”

Gus whispers to Phil: “This is definitely not like my aunt’s funeral in New York. The cities of the dead here feel like they might really come to life.”

A raspy, middle-aged woman’s voice hammers down from behind.

“What you mean, ‘might come to life’? You must be blind as a bat. Look around you and what do you see? Flesh and blood and spirit mixing and churning.”

They turn and see Madame Peychaud.

“Damn fools,” she adds.

“Madame Peychaud?!” Phil exclaims.

“Where the hell did you come from?” asks Gus.

“Got a letter from poor little Maggie. She told me when and where to come. Always directing things, even from the city of the dead. She said y’all had the essential oils business all ready.”

Gus and Phil look at each other confused. The conversation continues as they walk out of the cemetery.

“Yeah,” Phil says. “Yeah, sure, we’re ready. I just, we don’t actually have the, have the oils.”

Phil hears his own voice echo off the cemetery’s iron gate. He is speaking to Madame Peychaud, looking at her. Perhaps he’d never seen her in a dress, never seen her exposed to the shoulder. And the echo – and what he sees – captivates him. For a second, he ponders in sheer curiosity, trying to remember where he had seen it before. He is still speaking to Madame Peychaud but he doesn’t know what he is saying. Where had he seen it before? And suddenly he knows. His mouth dries out. He knows where he saw it. The tiny image against the caramel skin of Madame Peychaud’s shoulder. But he is too frail from his ordeal. He drops.

Someone is being carried. Someone is carrying. A white man being carried. A black man carrying. Other characters populate the scene. They are going down a street. Phil feels that he is somewhere in the scene but he doesn’t know where. Is he the white man being carried? The black man doing the carrying? One or all of the others? Or is he the trees, the sun, the stucco facades, the atmosphere itself. He floats into the atmosphere. Up, up he floats, surveying the scene below – a black man carrying a white man with a huddle of people moving along with them down the street. He is on top of a cathedral. The mime is there, on top of the cathedral. The bells ring.

“Wake up, baby.” The voice is Madame Peychaud’s.

Phil is back in the fairy queen’s bedroom.

“Where are we?” Phil ventures. “Why are we …”

“Hush, baby. We don’t have to be out of this room just yet.”

Phil is still groggy. Everything seems symbolic.

We don’t have to be out of this room just yet.

He starts to dream again. He is back in the hollow, at the pond with Maggie. She is young and beautiful.

“Do you know about my parents?” she is saying.

Phil doesn’t answer. He is lying in the grass, feeling the sun, watching the leaves waver overhead, hearing the occasional “plip … plip” of a fish jumping in the pond.

“Once upon a time, I thought that he too betrayed a loved one.”

Strange, Phil thinks. This conversation. Viewing our lives with such calm. Feeling the truth of things, but from a distance. Detachment. Compassion. They only work together. That’s where he got it wrong. That’s where people get it wrong. They think detachment and compassion are opposites. No, they are brothers, sisters, twins, always together. They only work together. Unconditional love means never missing anyone. If you miss them, your love is tainted by attachment, interest, possessiveness. As long as you’re capable of missing someone your love is conditional. It’s like a veil was lifted for Phil. He is getting excited. And his excitement breaks the spell. He looks at Maggie but the scene is fading, dissolving. Someone is standing across the room. Someone with her back to Phil. She is rinsing out a small towel in the sink. He hears Madame Peychaud’s voice.

“This wild goose chase you been on the last few weeks, hunting around like that. It isn’t really about Hermia, is it?”

“No ma’am. It’s about Magnus.”

Did he really say that? No ma’am? Is he a child again? No, he is just disoriented. He gathers his thoughts.

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Singularity good or bad

I recently read Zizek’s entries on singularity in The Philosophical Salon and have a few thoughts.

Singularity, as far as I can tell, refers to the networking of all our psyches so that we are all sharing one database of ideas, all our brains plugged (virtually) into the external brain, continually uploading and downloading our thoughts. It really just takes today’s thought and emotion recognition technologies a bit further and adds in the networking aspect. I think of it as a digital objectification of subjectivity, the cogntive correlative of the bio-mechanical hybrids proposed by transhumanism. (Disclaimer: I ponder these things strictly as an amateur, but even the experts on such a topic might want to track what we amateurs are thinking 🙂 ).

Sounds scary, but in one sense it’s just the natural evolution of consciousness. Think about it. Every new communication technology is a kind of brain extension, enabling us to take some of the knowledge stored in our head and store it outside in the community or in external spaces, where it can be retrieved later as needed by us or others.

Spoken language
Writing
Books
Printing press
Personal computers
Cloud-based networks
Singularity

If we wanted to follow the Marxist-leaning Zizek, we could coordinate this line with economic developments, as rapid changes in how information is stored and shared are no doubt interwoven with rapid economic changes. Language allows us to coordinate into agricultural activities, writing allows us to organize into city bureaucracies, etc.

More to the effect on subjectivity, we could see each of these stages as a kind of alienation of the subject, as the knowledge relevant to the subject’s existence becomes increasingly relocated outside of the subject’s own body. But all that “alienation” doesn’t seem so bad to us now. Language and libraries and personal computers — they seem to move us toward greater freedom, greater control over our personal lives, physically and intellectually.

So will the next horizon line – Singularity – play out the same? Will it appear in the form of alienation and dread but liberate us as did those previous technologies? Or will this one be different? Will the moment of singularity be the moment of collapse in the individual’s trajectory of liberation? One could certainly argue for the dystopic turn. What if singularity results in the elimination of privacy, so that our thoughts are exposed to the general consciousness? What if our thinking process elapses in the collective space, our thoughts visible to those around us, all of us wearing Google smart glasses on steroids. Would we allow such a thing? Indeed, we would probably beg for it, the same way insurance companies get customers to beg for more and more onboard monitoring devices to track their every habit, on the grounds that it “helps” the customer.

At the very least, it seems that the mind-sharing aspect of singularity would result in a degree of self-censorship that is alarming by today’s standards, perhaps alarming enough to break the trajectory of liberation associated with prior communication advances. Would each self be censored into a Stepford Wife knock-off? Or would there not even be a self to censor, if our thoughts form and grow in shared space, our physical bodies and brains merely energy sources for that shared space? Maybe The Matrix is a more apt metaphor than The Stepford Wives. 

Thus spake the amateur, in reference to technological/AI singularity, not so much to singularity in the Eastern/akashic record sense, although that might be an interesting tangent. But per that technological singularity, I suspect there are many in the world with similar amateurish thoughts. Maybe one of you techie readers can chime in and bring the hammer down on our collectively imagined dystopia before it’s too late.

P.S. Remember these?

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Trump Science Advisor

This old meme circles back to relevance over and over, as Trump’s steady rollback of Obama-era environmental protections continues this week behind the scenes.

As an addendum, below is a clip from a Fedex commercial, torn from context and re-presented as a cause-and-effect metaphor for Sapiens’s treatment of nature during their brief run on the planet. (And by “brief run” I mean that unless our species lasts another few hundred thousand years, which seems unlikely, even Neanderthals will have proven more successful and robust than their short-lived, destructive, and relatively unsuccessful cousins, Homo sapiens.)

The footprint that marks our time on Earth may be … well, not our own.

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The Plumed Serpent: Race, Gender, and Primal Consciousness

Review and analysis of The Plumed Serpent, D. H. Lawrence (1926)
by Gary Gautier

First, the gorilla in the room. As The Plumed Serpent tells of a white woman (Kate) who finds herself in early 20th-century Mexico, a strange, frightening, and exhilarating place for her, many reviewers bog down in race/ethnicity/colonialism. Kate in fact gets mixed up with two Mexican men, Ramon (of mixed blood) and Cipriano (pure Indian), who seek renewal for Mexico through its ancient pagan cultures. The shallowest of reviewers see D. H. Lawrence promoting the “white man’s burden” of civilizing the savages, while the better ones remain ambivalent, sensing something different going on in the novel but fearing being tainted as enablers of the racist Western master narrative.

In fact, anyone not cowed by the politics of academic criticism can see, on the contrary, that The Plumed Serpent is Lawrence’s specific refutation of “the white man’s burden” narrative. Especially at this late point in his life (he died a few years later at age 44), Lawrence despised the place to which white man’s Western culture had brought us, with its deadening Christianity and its machines and its dehumanizing political ideologies. The cultural spread of The Plumed Serpent can be roughly divided into the white Western world, the modern Mexican world, and the pre-Hispanic world of ancient Mesoamerica, and Lawrence fleshes out a rich, writerly ambivalence toward all three, but his ultimate allegiance is clearly with the pre-Hispanic pagan world view. The whites have a world of “mechanical dominance” (2145*) and “mechanical connections” (2406), but even Kate is “weary to death of American automatism” (2145) and its deadening effects on the human soul. Lawrence doesn’t mince words about his view: “White men brought no salvation to Mexico. On the contrary, they find themselves at last shut in the tomb along with their dead god and the conquered race” (3110). The modern Mexican fares not much better, “divided against himself” (1461), torn between envy and resentment in both directions – toward the encroaching white culture and toward their repressed pagan roots. For all practical purposes, they – the modern Mexicans – “are swamped under the stagnant water of the white man’s Dead Sea consciousness” (1486). The only hope – and Lawrence had become increasingly misanthropic after the Great War, though his journeys in Mexico and southwest US after 1922 had lifted him somewhat – lies in “that timeless, primeval passion of the prehistoric races” (2686), of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, back when humans lived breast-to-breast with the cosmos, before Christianity tore the soul from the body, back when one’s allegiance to the greater community was visceral and human, not ideological and abstract. “We must go back and pick up the old threads. We must take up the old broken impulse that will connect us with the mystery of the cosmos again” (3154).

Thus, those moderns who chafe at the “white supremacist” aspect of Lawrence’s work are sort of like those who see racial slurs in probably the most impactful anti-racist novel in history, Huck Finn, and absurdly conclude that the novel promotes racism. Such reading requires a degree of resistance to critical thinking that can only be found at the graduate level of US universities today. These are exactly the people Lawrence is fighting against. Wearing their ideological blinders, they miss the whole point of both books. Are some of the racial expressions unacceptable by today’s standards? Of course, but if we are to appreciate cultural history at all, we must resist rejecting past works that fail to meet present standards, and, as Bill Maher says, “just grandfather in all the shit that you would have done yourself if you were alive then.” We don’t need to approve of a past era but we do need to read with a little context if we are to get at the nuance. In terms of the racial spread of characters, do I wish Lawrence had given more rounded Mexican characters in the novel? Sure, but then again, we have no range of white people either – only the struggling (Irish) Kate and the two unlikeable American men in the opening chapters. The novel is less about individual characters than about primeval forces working through the characters. Lawrence connects with the pagan roots and hidden blood of Mexico at a depth that “woke” critics can never know, since their analytic approach sees Mexicans and Mexico as flattened out caricatures of oppressor and oppressed in their political metric, which precludes their engaging at such a depth.

This doesn’t mean I am all-in with Lawrence. As he re-envisions what it would be like for the old pagan world view to break through the crust of deadened modernity, he never quite sorts out, e.g., what to do with the brutality of blood sacrifice and the violence in general that cannot be easily separated from the old world view. But at least he does not sweep it under the rug. Much like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent finds a cultural pathway, exotic and primeval to the European mind, that brings him to a depth in the collective unconscious that is a place of both fascination and horror. Lawrence seems certain that the old pagan ways offer the only hope for renewal, but seems not quite certain of how to account for the blood violence in those ways. Kate feels the full weight of the ambivalence, as she “felt she had met the mystery of the natives, the strange and mysterious gentleness between a Scylla and Charybdis of violence” (2162). Indeed, the Homeric reference is no random allusion. Cipriano’s treatment of the prisoners near the end echoes The Odyssey’s slaughter in the great hall, where the generally admirable Odysseus dispatches the traitors with a brutality that gives the modern reader pause. Through Kate, Lawrence deals with the pagan world view of the ancients as honestly as he can, not with the philosopher’s eye on closing the syllogism, but with the poet’s eye on opening the vista with all of its beauties, its horrors, and its ambiguities.

Critics of Lawrence on gender are partly subject to the same rebuke as those in the postcolonial category above, but not quite as completely. Throughout his corpus, and The Plumed Serpent is no exception, the archetypal struggle of male and female forces, cosmic in scope, play out through individual characters. Such a binary may not be de rigueur today, and indeed may not be an accurate representation of gender in any universal sense. But the transcendental struggle of opposites, often cast as male and female, played out through the subjectivities of individuals, holds a large place in the history of ideas and has given rich food for thought, populating the landscapes of some of our most creative minds, from the visionary poems of William Blake, to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to Camille Paglia and Virginia Woolf. If someone wants to complain that this archetypal struggle is too binary, I have no rebuttal. If someone wants to complain that the female principle in Lawrence’s particular iteration comes up short, I have mixed feelings. He frequently says and dramatizes that male and female are cosmic forces equal in potency, “the mystery of the Two Ways” (8284), Kate’s “woman’s greater self, and the greater self of man” (3011), a “slow wheel of dance” between “two great streams” (3019). Each needs the other to complete itself but each must remain in some way opaque, its strangeness forever intact. At times, the female ideal as pondered by Kate indeed seems a bit too aligned with passivity or submission. But she always makes her own final decisions, she is never eclipsed by the male potency (“though her woman’s nature was reciprocal to his male, surely it was more than that,” 9427), and it is she who saves Ramon, the hero, with the physical force of her own will. So there are legitimate bits to pick with gender, but it would be a mistake to let those bits negate the fantastic archetypal dynamics worked out in the novel.

Besides the risk of some infelicities in gender representations (a risk taken by any creative work of this magnitude), there are perhaps larger risks to Lawrence’s social vision. I do not mean the “white man’s burden” risk formulaically raised by woke critics, as this risk only applies if one skims the barest surface of the novel. But in his eagerness to strip away the ideological clutter of modernity and get back to human-to-human based structures of power, Lawrence leaves the dangers of hero-worship and fascism intact even at the depths of the novel. Ramon, with all of his good intentions regarding the spiritual renewal of a world become deadened, emerges as the cult leader par excellence. If Lawrence’s social vision differs from Ramon’s, this is difficult to decipher from the actual text on the page.

An interesting cinematic equivalent to this phenomenon might be Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (with Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, and Bob Dylan). In that fine film, Pat and Billy wander villages separately, but each is clearly a man of power. The people in this frontier setting intuitively recognize what Lawrence calls “the voice of a master and authority” (6196). Whether they are breaking the law, helping a stranger, or killing someone who stands in the way, it matters not. There is an automatic allegiance to Billy when he is in town, and an automatic (though perhaps more grudging) allegiance to Pat when he is in town. To people in this outlier region, the laws of the state or ideological alignments are impossibly abstract. They recognize a man of power when they see one, and their allegiance naturally alights upon that man. One recognizes the phenomenon in the film, and it seems quite natural in context, but, as both Pat and Billy show by their moral ambiguity and unpredictability, there is a dark side to this natural expression of human bonding into power relations in a pre-state, pre-ideological manner. What if the man of power is Charles Manson or one of the fascist leaders who darkened the 20th century?

The Plumed Serpent runs the same risk as the Peckinpah film. There is something tantalizing about breaking through the crust of deadened modernity with a renewed spiritual energy based on the forgotten pagan ways, based not on ideological abstraction but on breast-to-breast contact with fellow humans and with the physicality of the cosmos. But there is a risk there that I’m not sure Lawrence addresses adequately. Ramon and Cipriano lead the renewal in this novel, but who will the leaders of power be tomorrow? To cast this back into psychoanalytic terms, note that Lawrence is contemporary with Freud as well as Jung. Besides the book’s rich exploration of the collective unconscious and its call to find redemptive energy in the primitive roots of consciousness, one can cast it in Freudian terms as well. Lawrence is a creature of the id, always trying to tease the dark power of the id into breaking through the soft tissue of the ego and the hard crust of the superego. Therein lies redemption for Lawrence, but I think it is safe to say that there is also a danger in giving the reins to the unregulated drives of the id.

One final note worth mentioning, just on the formal elements of fiction. As with the other novels of D. H. Lawrence (and those of his modernist peers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce), The Plumed Serpent advances not along a linear plot with a strong throughline but rather by circling deeper and deeper into the subjective and intersubjective spaces within and between the characters. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is perhaps the most successful example of this kind of narrative structure, but D. H. Lawrence does it and does it well. And Lawrence is perhaps better than Woolf at filling in the physical landscape, creating a scene, in this case rich with the specific flora and fauna of Mexico, night sky and night rivers, villages and villagers, a sense of wonder and a sense of foreboding. It is wonderful indeed in that regard, but readers beware if you are looking for a suspense-driven novel with a strong plot. Also, be ready for a bit of long-windedness as Lawrence has Ramon create his own cycle of hymns and myths for the return of Quetzalcoatl. Lawrence was a formidable poet in his own right (see, e.g., Birds, Beasts, and Flowers), but it was a bit much in this context.

By the way, if you doubt my assessment of the novel’s themes, you might look to Lawrence’s non-fiction Apocalypse, written just a few years later (on his death bed) and published posthumously. Stripped of the powerful ambivalence and intersubjective force fields that make for great fiction, Lawrence goes straight to the point in that extended essay and makes his case. In his own voice, he speaks of the dead end of modernity and of the need to rejuvenate the old pagan world view, which we indeed still carry within us just as we still carry the primeval archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious.

Thus, rightly or wrongly, smugly or humbly, I claim the man himself as my number one backup 😊

*Citations are to Kindle version locations. Most paperback editions are around 450 pages.

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