THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?
SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef.
THOMASINA: Is that all?
SEPTIMUS: No . . . a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well hugged, an embrace of grouse . . . caro, carnis; feminine, flesh.
THOMASINA: Is it a sin?
SEPTIMUS: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED.
"Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard
One hallmark of depression is how profoundly uninterested and uninteresting one feels, which contributes to the whole self-isolating thing I mentioned in yesterday's post. Maybe making the post helped with that a little, or maybe I was given this dream to cheer me up; either way, I just had the nicest, sweetest, most startling dream I've had in a long while, and I take it as a positive sign. I'm not going to tell you the whole thing, and truth be told, it was nothing more than PG-13, but I can say this: I'm likely to blush and grin while watching episodes of "No Reservations" for the foreseeable future.
Dude, I don't even know if I am his flavor. But we both got tipsy at the end of a convention -- and hey, whatever that convention was, I want to go there, because it was full of various delightfully obsessed artisans doing whatever their thing was, and we were all hanging out at the end of it in that glow of exhaustion and accomplishment people get, and things got a little tipsy at our end of the table, and then there was the kissage. And then there was the waking up thinking OMG I HAZ BEEN MACKIN ON WHO? DAYUMN! And then there was the thinking of the Stoppard quote, and then the giggling. Which is not a bad way to start the day. I have done research on bad ways, especially lately, and this is not one of them.
The Stoppard quote, though, has been on my mind for another reason. I recently got my irkitude on at a review in the New Yorker. This is not uncommon either, for reviews that are not by Anthony Lane. (Mike used to read me the Lane reviews out loud. I highly recommend imagining his voice as you read them.) This one was by someone else, whose name I replaced with "that absolute turnip!" as I read the review, as in "What is wrong with this absolute turnip??" The review starts thusly:
"Here's a quick list of things I don't understand about the current revival of Tom Stoppard's 1993 play "Arcadia" (at the Ethel Barrymore). I don't understand why Bel Powley, who plays the aristocratic nineteenth-century adolescent Thomasina Coverly, thinks that peevishly shrieking her lines is the best way to convey the passion and urgency of a teenage girl. I don't understand the vastness of Hildegard Bechtler's set, which does nothing to generate the kind of intimacy that's needed to counterbalance the aloofness of Stoppard's script."
Yes, that's where I started blinking in disbelief. Onward.
"I don't understand Billy Crudup's amped-up characterization of the British historian Bernard Nightingale, nor do I understand why Raul Esparza's character, Valentine Coverly, exists at all."
Much more blinking, and here is where the reviewer acquired the turnip tag in my mind. At the end of the following paragraph, he let fly this revelation:
"While "Arcadia" draws its veracity from historical facts, which the author manipulates in a variety of ways, they're as intellectually digestible as pork stuffing. And about as moving."
Turnip. My goodness, what a turnip. There are further lines, things about Arcadia being a "string of dry little conceits" and how it was all Stoppard showing off:
"In "Arcadia," where there is no emotional truth at stake because there are no true characters, it is the playwright himself who tries to transmit directly to the bemused spectator. As I listened to Thomasina and her tutor talking and talking -- but about what? -- I kept waiting for something to carry me into the world of feeling. But, while desire runs rampant through Arcadia, there is no passion [....]"
The heck you say. The very real passion in the play might be invisible to Mr. Turnip, though, if he is one of those who blocks his ears and eyes when the talk turns to mathematics, as the treasure-box of "Arcadia" is keyed to certain mathematical and scientific discoveries along with the hearts and heads of the protagonists. And seriously, how could I not love a Stoppard play with references to the follies of clumsy computer analysis of texts, and with a geek girl snarking about algebraic equations, and with dueling researchers? And when it gets to reviewers, well: "... All the academics who reviewed my book patronized it." "Surely not." "Surely yes. To a man, they unzipped their flies and patronized all over it." And did I mention that the history of landscape gardening figures heavily in it, and mirrors what happened to the life of the mind? But anyhow, I stomped around grumbling for only a bit, but it stayed in my mind. I couldn't articulate exactly why I was stompy, until a couple of days ago, when I was reading Stephenson's ANATHEM, and found a sentence.
Stephenson's character, at a celebration, is given a thimbleful of wine made from what it called the library grape, which is a storehouse of genetic information and expresses particular characteristics if and only if the one tending the vineyard does the work required to elicit those desirable things from the grape. The character, who is a cloistered academic, tells us, "The stuff was tremendous, like drinking your favorite book."
Now, if you don't get the delight of that line, I despair of making you see it. And "Arcadia" is in many ways like drinking one's favorite book, and getting tipsy in the world of ideas and quite possibly winding up macking with somebody one admires in the corner. I could go on about parallels between the academics in ANATHEM and "Arcadia," snort over "the attraction Newton left out," and tell you how a major point of the play hangs on chaos theory and iterated equations and whether personalities matter more than the progress of knowledge, and whether (and when!) we are rugged individualists or joint heirs, and what that says about our hearts. I could castigate the turnip for being an unqualified reviewer -- which would not be fair, really; if one knows the reviewer's usual tastes, then one knows the way that particular instrument is calibrated, as it were, and I have long been appreciative of the way certain reviewers lead me to the plays I love by their clumsy dismissals of them. I could point out that where the heart and the mind are both fully engaged they potentiate the pleasures of connection, of realization, and of understanding, into something that partakes of both love and awe. But I doubt I could get Mr. Turnip to see it, and I doubt even more that I could get him to recognize his brotherhood with Bernard Nightingale, who in his most naked geek-loathing moment cries, "How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves?"
The complaint Mr. Turnip makes about how the overlapping scenes of the play make him nearly lose the thread of the plot altogether -- ah, well. Valentine Coverly, in "Arcadia," can get closer to it than I: "Structure building itself in the rubble and the mush. Islands of order emerging in oceans of disorder." Good God, man, the whole play is about how it's not merely what evidence the researcher can find, but what evidence the researcher can see -- and how character and heart, as well as mind, drive and shape what they will and will not allow themselves to see, and what conclusions they will jump to. It's tragic, really, because if Mr. Turnip could understand the play, could let himself be spoken to by the evidence contained therein and by the beauty of the connections and the lacunae and the music they make, he'd see why his wail that there is no romanticism in "Arcadia" belongs in the same jazz session as Septimus Hodge's line about finding all the meanings and losing all the mysteries. But I can't share that thing of beauty and irony and companionship, because I cannot make an instrument able to measure the thing it complains about not being able to measure. In the end, it's a case of what Hannah Jarvis says in "Arcadia" about the heritage of ideas in literature and landscape gardening in England. Hannah, who says cuttingly to Bernard earlier, "English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the grand tour," gives us this:
"The whole Romanticism sham, Bernard! It's what happened to the Enlightenment, isn't it? A century of intellectual rigor turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius. In a setting of cheap thrills and false emotion. The history of the garden says it all, beautifully. There's an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. All destroyed by the vandals and Goths -- that's my name for the landscapists, God rot them. By 1760, everything had gone -- the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes -- the whole sublime geometry was ploughed under by Capability Brown. The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so the fools could pretend they were living in God's countryside. And then Richard Noakes came in to bring God up to date. By the time he'd finished it looked like this. The decline from thinking to feeling, you see."
The last sentence of Mr. Turnip's review:
"Williams's performance -- she and Turner walk away with the show -- gives us what Stoppard's historical romance is lacking: romanticism."
Quod erat demonstrandum. Pity about that.