11 January 2012

"Preface to Shakespeare," "William Morris by Himself," "Quicksilver," "The Confusion, "The System of the World," "The Ten Pleasures of Marriage," and "The Big Short."

Preface to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson
William Morris by Himself, Gillian Naylor
Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World, Neal Stephenson
The Ten Pleasures of Marriage, A. Marsh
The Big Short, Michael Lewis

Preface to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson has always seemed to me to strike an interesting balance between the common wisdom and uncommon insight, both rendered in language with the clean and smooth lines of a yacht.  His essays and the word-for-word recounting by biographer James Boswell are all a pleasure to read, if only to see his craft.  The same skill is evident in his Preface to Shakespeare.

In this lengthy essay on the Bard, Johnson spends much time in criticism and general commentary.  And he has a great deal of criticism!  Here's a brief selection:

[Shakespeare] sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. ... The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. ... It may be observed, that in many of his plays the latter part is evidently neglected. ... He had no regard to distinction of time or place, but gives to one age or nation, without scruple, the customs, institutions, and opinions of another, at the expence not only of likelihood, but of possibility.
There's a deal more, and it's surprisingly harsh.

Johnson reflects on what he considers to be the nature of a play and the goals of a playwright, and measures Shakespeare against his own definition.  This leads to his consideration and dismissal of the classical unities - the ancient notion that a play should take place in one place, within one day, and describe one plotline.  Johnson explains that the unities exist for the sake of the audience's suspension of disbelief, so that they wouldn't have to try to believe that they had just witnessed one scene in Athens and the next in Corinth, all on one stage.  But this is silly, we are told, for no audience ever really believed they were watching Athens in the first place.

Such [criticism] is the triumphant language with which a critick exults over the misery of an irregular poet, and exults commonly without resistance or reply. It is time therefore to tell him, by the authority of Shakespeare, that he assumes, as an unquestionable principle, a position, which, while his breath is forming it into words, his understanding pronounces to be false. It is false, that any representation is mistaken for reality; that any dramatick fable in its materiality was ever credible, or, for a single moment, was ever credited.
The essay soon shifts into praise, constituting another well-conceived list of virtues.  Interestingly, Johnson includes a frank admission that the tradition of veneration has yielded a fair share of our adulation for Shakespeare.

Yet it must be at last confessed, that as we owe every thing to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise is paid by perception and judgement, much is likewise given by custom and veneration. We fix our eyes upon his graces, and turn them from his deformities, and endure in him what we should in another loath or despise. If we endured without praising, respect for the father of our drama might excuse us; but I have seen, in the book of some modern critick, a collection of anomalies which shew that he has corrupted language by every mode of depravation, but which his admirer has accumulated as a monument of honour.
The essay is followed by some very brief notes on a handful of plays.  They are interesting but not spectacular, and surpassed by any modern critical edition's most casual comment.  No, the focus should be on the general preface.  It's a magnificent essay, and I was tempted to include even more excerpts to illustrate Johnson's turn of phrase and clarity of thought.  If you are interesting in Shakespeare, then you absolutely must read this fair and shrewd general assessment that holds its own even today.

William Morris by Himself, Gillian Naylor

In my ongoing quest to better my understanding of art, I returned to a favorite: William Morris, renaissance man of the 19th century.  Morris was the first translator for volumes of Norse poetry, the rediscoverer of ancient English weaving techniques, one of the first authors of what we now know as fantasy, the preeminent socialist thinker of his day, and an influential printer and designer of wallpaper (many of his patterns remain popular).  And somewhere in amongst all that, he found time to help be a leading member of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement.

The Pre-Raphaelites sought for truth in art and a return to the subtle depictions of reality that they thought had dominated before the reign of Raphael's sculptured ideals (thus their name).  While not actually a prolific painter or artist, Morris was pivotal in conceiving and arguing for their goals.  Author Gillian Naylor uses a combination of descriptive biography, excerpts from Morris' writing and correspondence, and images from his oeuvre to construct a rich picture of a man whose productivity, idealism, and influence make him an underappreciated legend.  There are adorable little sketches of himself in Iceland, with the rotund artist soberly riding a donkey, looking for all the world like an unhappy beach ball.  There are descriptions and illustrations of the houses he designed.  And Naylor's well-referenced and intelligent commentary fills in any gaps in Morris' own account - like his wife's flagrant infidelity with fellow Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  And the oversized book's reproductions of Morris' iconic wallpaper patterns and his elaborate needlework do them every service.  Check it out.

Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson

A couple of years ago, I read Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.  I had been hearing a lot about Stephenson, and so I wanted to check out his work.  The Diamond Age, a tale in a future dominated by nanotechnology and a splintered world of political-cultural pseudostates.  It was a remarkable story in many ways, not least in Stephenson's laserlike focus on the consequences of his futuristic world and a plot that was both intricate and yet easy to follow.  Unfortunately, it seemed heartless and left me untouched.  It was a great book, but rather like a vision of finely-meshed gears and levers, ticking and spinning fluidly: impressive, but it didn't mean anything to me.

Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, a trilogy published in 2003 and 2004, is one of the best examples I have ever seen of the evolution of an author.  It retains all of the precision and intricacy, but with the addition of a wonderful cast of characters that seized me and pulled me in.  I was chuckling and cheering as I read.  It was as if Stephenson had set his spinning gears and fine machinery into a watch: it was just as impressive and perfect, but now it was also meaningful.

Rather than the future, Stephenson has set this trilogy in the Age of Enlightenment, during the reigns of the Stuarts and the Sun King.  Soldiers bearing swords and muskets wage war all over Europe, and the new world of science has erupted in glory with men such as Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibnitz.  These historical figures join a handful of fictional characters to tell a story that is a scientific history, picaresque adventure, and mystery.  They are truly amazing books.

I should here insert a warning: The Baroque Trilogy is not going to appeal to everyone.  There are long discussions of philosophy and antiquated scientific theories, and the swashbuckling pirate scenes are mingled with economic intrigues, where the triumphant battle is fought in a stock exchange with scraps of paper.  I happen to be fascinated with all of these things, but many people will find the pages of alchemical speculation or political conflict to be tedious.

However, even someone who doesn't care for the drier content will still admire the extraordinary way in which the books are constructed.  Throughout each book are little mysteries, clever conundrums and riddles that an attentive reader can discover.  They aid the natural arcs, which climax in each volume but build towards a seamless overall story.  It was a pleasure just to appreciate Stephenson's craft.

I am probably going overboard here, but I was just fascinated by these books.  They fit my tastes like a glove, even if another might find them a bit uncomfortable with their esoteric topics.  If you enjoy antique science, economic and courtly intrigue, or - above all- rollicking picaresque stories, you couldn't do better than to pick The Baroque Trilogy up.

The Ten Pleasures of Marriage, A. Marsh

This 1682 satire is a prolonged mockery of perceived feminine foibles and the unhappiness of the married man.  Clever for its time and interesting for historical reasons, now its humor rings hollow and its jests seem embittered and unpleasant.

The Nuptial estate trailing along with it so many cares, troubles & calamities, it is one of the greatest admirations, that people should be so earnest and desirous to enter themselves into it. In the younger sort who by their sulphurous instinct, are subject to the tickling desires of nature, and look upon that thing called Love through a multiplying glass, it is somewhat pardonable: But that those who are once come to the years of knowledge and true understanding should be drawn into it, methinks is most vilely foolish, and morrice fooles caps were much fitter for them, then wreaths of Lawrel. Yet stranger it is, that those who have been for the first time in that horrible estate, do, by a decease, cast themselves in again to a second and third time.  ...
And tho not only the real truth of this, but ten times more, is as well known to every one, as the Sun shine at noon day; nevertheless we see them run into it with such an earnestness, that they are not to be counselled, or kept back from it, with the strength of Hercules; despising their golden liberty, for chains of horrid slavery.
The book is constructed with a set of ten pleasures of the married state, such as "The Woman goes to buy houshold-stuf" or "Care is taken for the Child and Child-bed linnen."  Each chapter is followed with a satirical description and screed about how these purported delights are actually terrible toil.

To go forward then. See how serious your dearest is, with Jane the Semstress, contriving how much linnen she must buy to make all her Child-bed linnen as it ought to be! how diligently she measures the Beds, Bellibands, Navel clouts, shirts, and all other trincom, trancoms! and she keeps as exact an account of the ells, half ells, quarters, and lesser measures, as if she had gone seven years to school to learn casting of an account.
Four centuries have not been kind to the material.  The jokes follow a few standard formulas.  They are long lists of extravagances that cost a lot, as above (oh ho women spend so much money!); jokes about how women are actually really unpleasant (always hitting you, amiright fellas?); or dated name-jokes about women named Goody Dirty-buttocks or Lord Drinkfirst.

O thrice happy new Father that have gotten such a prudent diligent and carefull Nurse for your Child-bed wife! what great Pleasure is this! And behold, by this delicate eating and drinking, your Dearest begins from day to day to grow stronger and stronger; insomuch that she begins to throw the Pillow at you, to spur you up to be desirous of coming to bed to her: Yea, she promiseth you, that before she is out of Child-bed, she will make you possessor of another principal and main Pleasure.
Skip it, unless you are curious about how much times have changed and humor has improved.

The Big Short, Michael Lewis

The Big Short is Michael Lewis' exploration of the story of the subprime mortgage crisis, the financial disaster that helped explode the world economy during the 2000s.  When it was published in 2010, it caused a lot of discussion because Lewis goes to great pains to root out the deceit and naked greed that led to the problem, revealing the crimes hidden behind the dense financial legerdemain.  The subprime crisis was very complicated by design: the more opaque the criminals and idiots involved made it, the more money they were able to create (in the short term).  It is a testament to Lewis' considerable skill that he renders the whole mess into an intelligible story without losing detail.

The text follows a few investors and salespeople, laying out their backgrounds with an interesting effort to humanize them.  They're characters just as much as they're real people, and Lewis takes pains to describe their personal evolution alongside the evolution of the housing bubble.  As they slowly realize that housing is drastically overvalued all over the nation, some of them decide to try to short the housing market as a whole - i.e. they decide to play a bet with insurance companies that the the price of housing will decline nationwide.  Since no mechanism existed to place this bet, they looked into shorting the debt of mortgage holders specifically, and stumbled upon a new market that had just sprung up in credit default swaps.

Credit default swaps were curious inventions, a product of arcane rules from the rating agencies and the deliberate deceit of the financial agencies.  They took a few mortgages of people with good credit, which are worth a lot and get an excellent rating, because such people are likely to pay their mortgage.  They added in a huge stack of mortgages of people with very poor credit ("subprime"), which ordinarily a worth much less to buyers of debt because the mortgage-holders are unlikely to actually make their payments.  Ordinarily, such a combination would be rightly judged as an overall poor investment and so it wouldn't be worth much: why pay full price for a big stack of debt when you know only a small percentage of the debtors will make good their portion?  But thanks to the complicated shenanigans of the financial agencies - Goldman Sachs being the major villain at work here, though everyone else followed along like vampire-lemmings - the ratings agencies like Standard & Poors, stocked full of people too stupid to work at Goldman, were tricked into giving that big bundle of mixed debt a good rating.

The hero-investors of Lewis' book were among a very small number of people who learned some of what was happening.  Shocking and disgusted, they immediately sold short (bet against) these stacks of confused debt, even as the deceived buyers blithely kept on buying them from Goldman and the associated villains.  Eventually, of course, it all came tumbling down.  The good guys made money, the bad guys got bailed out under cover of the obfuscations that had made their deception possible, and everyone else was screwed as the markets came crashing down under the weight of bad debt that had been sold as good debt.

The weakness of Lewis' book is in the third act, when the reader is waiting for that crash.  By the middle of The Big Short, the stage is set for the crisis.  But it doesn't arrive.  Things keep getting worse: more sour debt is sold, more people are fooled, more money is stuffed into the pockets of vile men.  The tension just gets too high, and a hundred pages pass before the climax.  The dominoes are lined up for far too long before they get toppled.

This weakness might have been dictated by actual events - things really did just keep getting worse for an astonishingly long time.  But I suspect that Lewis could have compressed the middle of his story and improved the structure of his book, without losing much or any of the true history.  The art of nonfiction is the art of selection.

Still, this is a minor flaw in what is otherwise a masterful exposition of the very muddled subprime swindle.  It's not only an important thing to understand - it essentially started the recession - but Lewis' recounting of the staggering greed at work is interesting to read.  You'll walk away informed and infuriated.  Take a look.

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