February 2, 2017
Lots of rich reflections that will help us to understand the whirlwind of the Trump forces buffeting us, while mobilizing all the varied forms of xenophobias and simplistic thinking from which his power derives force and momentum.
February 2, 2017
Lots of rich reflections that will help us to understand the whirlwind of the Trump forces buffeting us, while mobilizing all the varied forms of xenophobias and simplistic thinking from which his power derives force and momentum.
“Bring the pure wine of love and freedom. But sir, a tornado is coming. More wine, we'll teach this storm A thing or two about whirling.” RUMI
January 5, 2017
A Year’s ending always leads to reflections on beginnings, choices made, unmade in everyday confusions and fulfillments. 2016 calls upon the whole world (it seems!!) to look beyond more predictable individual resolutions to collective anxieties of embattled groups along ideological, religious, cultural, racial lines. Holiday festivities were inevitably shaded by references to the Elections. Coming into the new Year too, it seems a sense of doom does not allow for much affective, or pleasurable solidarities. Even some humanist voices see the “age of humanism ending” and a threat to “virtues such as care, compassion, and kindness,” as expressed below:
Instead of falling back into such intimations of despair, I want to evoke the image of the whirling dervishes as the TROPE of the year. I recognize that it can be both an Orientalist evocation or a cliche, and perhaps even a tourist re-enactment in contemporary Turkey and elsewhere. But we can also productively access its meanings in Elif Shafak’s fictional rendering of the dance in its originary moments — its practice, its symbolism, its mystic force in The Forty Rules of Love:
The Forty Rules of Love
The dervishes whirled and whirled for what seemed like an eternity. Then the music rose… That was when Shams of Tabriz entered the stage, like a wild desert wind. Wearing a darker robe the everyone else and looking taller, he was also spinning faster. His hands were wide open toward the sky, as was his face, like a sunflower in search of the sun… Even those who hated Shams of Tabriz seemed to have fallen under the spell of moment… While Shams spun in a frenzy and the disciples more slowly in their orbits, [Rumi] remained still… his lips constantly moving in prayer.. [After the dance slowly was over, Rumi’s] voice pierced the silence. “This, my friends, is called the sema — the dance of the whirling dervishes. From this day on, dervishes of every age will dance the sema. One hand pointed to the sky, the other hand pointing down to earth, every speck of love we receive from God, we pledge to distribute to the people” (269-70).
Stillness and whirling, Rumi and Shams, words, music, movement, engaging the senses, the mind and the heart. In this scene, it is Rumi, the Mawlana, the older man and preacher/ teacher, who articulates the symbolism of the whirling before the internal audience, as a conduit of transmission between the sky and earth. But we as readers have already witnessed Shams’ earlier rehearsal of it in front of Rumi, who is totally mesmerized by the frenzied Shams: “So captivating was his frenzy that I [Rumi] couldn’t but feel it as if the whole universe… spun with him. I watched this most unusual dance, letting the energy it radiated envelop my soul and body”(207). The enigmatic bond and desire between the two men is palpable here. The whirling — cyclical, non-linear, and without fixed boundaries — ends with Shams’ articulation of its meaning: “The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in silent conversation” (207).
The role of the dance – the fluid interconnections it evokes, and the way in which it affectively bonds the two men offers us one central lesson: namely, the celebration of mysterious enigmas — of the provisional places from which all relationships emanate, passing through whirling emotions and desires. Can a word or touch evoke the erotic as distinct from and far removed from from thought and discernment? How does Love in the world of Rumi and Shams give them the ability to “contribute to the music of the universe”? Can we articulate bonds and desires within a vibrant, yet shifting continuum, rather than from a place of fixity? Questions rather than answers are the currency of this story.
The story of the relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz is apocryphal; wide-ranging speculations about the nature of the relationship — spiritual, blasphemous, and perhaps erotic — are found routinely on different sources and site. Typically Rumi’s poetry is often subsumed within responses that elide Islamic contexts into “New Age” renderings of “love.” Other views insist on it as a spiritual bond within the context of Muslim society of the time, while others simply reject all legacies of Rumi as “un-Islamic” and even blasphemous. Critics and detractors of Rumi and Shams in the novel, use the same religious yardstick to condemn the the two men and their bond. What is accepted repeatedly, however, is that their relationship was a transformative one, with Shams according Rumi the new role of poet: “One day you will be known as the Voice of Love” (208).
While Rumi hopes that they will continue to “walk on this path together,” Shams evokes a lonelier journey for him: “As much as I would love to join you, I am afraid you will have to do it alone.” “The thought of Shams leaving hit me [Rumi] like a sharp pain in the chest.” (308). Given varying accounts, we are never sure whether Shams is assassinated, escapes his murderers, or simply disappears. Within his lifetime, Shams, as Shafak depicts him, is also human in his frailties and changeable nature: he marries a young woman, a foster daughter of Rumi, but finds he cannot commit to the marital bond. He traverses the world, but somehow does not belong to it. Shafak views her novel also as a “building with many doors, many rooms and halls, and floors. Every reader spends time in different rooms, enters through a different door and leaves through a different exit.” All readers can exit and enter on their own terms and leaving with questions that may have no clear answers.
Finally, the story of Rumi and Shams, as articulated by Shafak and elsewhere, ends as it begins: in Love and impending Loss, but always marked by the ephemeral presence of Shams — and a constant hope of his return. One of Shams’ precepts urges: be “sure to make every journey, a journey within. If you travel within, you will travel the whole wide world and beyond”(86).
It is such a journey that can perhaps beckon us in 2017.
It is the dance of the dervishes that must unmoor us from our set beliefs and biases, freeing us toward new horizons.
December 21, 2016
Dylan embraces the ghost of Shakespeare (1564–1616)
These have been strange days; in Trumpland (or America Inc.) every impending appointment in the cabinet brings (mostly) men who will head departments in which they do not believe or wish to abolish; energy, environment, education, national parks, social housing, labor fairness, women’s reproductive rights are all vulnerable and under threat. Quite recently the Energy Secretary candidate is a Texan man and former Presidential candidate, who wants to abolish the Energy Department, though he could not remember its name in his list of abolitions. The world of Trump governance seems to be a world turned upside down — an Alice-in-Wonderland conflation with the novel, Brave New World. It is a free for all for all corporate entities to pillage the planet for maximum profit, while ignoring or trampling on human rights.
And as the days pass, we are all alarmed: what kinds or messages are being slowly unleashed across landscapes and peoples, many who do not realize that they are the implicit targets of these changing times?
Wafting through this almost surreal news, uncannily, comes Bob Dylan’s “And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” stirring “memory and desire,” in several generations who have listened to this ballad. Sung by Patti Smith at the Nobel Ceremony on December 10, this SONG is like a Ghost bearing witness to humanity’s dystopian conditions in the recent past, but now returning to stand along side us in comforting solidarity. Structured along the lines of 17th century ballads, it is a lyric of accounting and testimony within poignantly surreal, dystopian landscapes and settings:
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin…”
The second stanza continues in the same vein in surreal images, uncannily evoking the violence and war of today:
… I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Broadcast across the world from the Nobel Ceremony on December 10, in which the absent Dylan received the Prize, his Song sung by Patti Smith haunted us with its renewed timeliness:
Smith sang soulfully, with depth and passion, and despite one slip and do-over, her haunting rendition left many among the bejeweled guests in tears. And the words had an prophetic resonance in our present times, as we await the assaults on lands, on the environment, and on the vulnerable — refugees, people of color, women — casting their shadow on our collective imaginations.
I will not speculate on why Bob Dylan chose not attend to the ceremony in person. Why do we need to appraise and judge? I would like to imagine that, perhaps, he wants to distance himself from his celebrity persona, or simply does not feel he can entirely inhabit a grandiose triumphant public Self.
But I want to reflect on another ghost evoked by Bob Dylan’s “spectral” presence at the Nobel Ceremony: After “And its a hard rain’s gonna fall,” Dylan’s acceptance speech (read by the American Ambassador) wryly invoked William Shakespeare as a kindred spirit. In this speech, he imagines Shakespeare not as a lofty figure producing elite art, but as a practitioner, a dramatist creating plays for a audiences of a popular public theatre –concerned as much with the structures and staging of his plays such as Hamlet, as with worrying about “mundane tasks” such as”where am I going to get a human skull?”
Artistic creation, he reminds us, for both Shakespeare and Dylan, is contingent and provisional, involving a journey of varied and rich discoveries for the creators as well for those who witness and engage with their words, rhythms, ideas.
Dylan partly evokes this process as he recounts the moment when he heard of his Nobel award:
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
...like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.
Artists like Dylan or Shakespeare may not consider their works in terms of fixed labels like “literature” and I think the award to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” is also a celebration of the vital, lived experience of artistic creation, rather than of “bookish” artifacts. For instance, the lyric tradition itself, going back 25,00 years to Homer and Sappho, and later given rich form by Roman poets, produced vivid, emotionally charged poetic works sung to music. And while many may consider Shakespeare’s books scholarly and bookish, the rich poetic language, often iambic blank verse, he brought to life on stage to audiences, as well as the sonnets and long poems like “Venus and Adonis” dedicated to a mysterious young man continue to have a live emotional charge . Embodied words come to life on the stage in the characters of his plays — in endlessly shifting permutations of nuance in meaning and emotion. And in Renaissance England, sonnets were sent and exchanged as messages of love, desire, tribute, often to an addressee whose identity may be hidden, even while they may have had some public circulation.
We have no evidence that Shakespeare received national, public accolades such as Dylan’s Nobel prize. He was able to achieve the moderate success of getting a family coat of arms, and buying a property in his home of Stratford-Upon-Avon. In keeping with the life conditions of his times, he died at the shockingly young age (for our time) of 52. ( Thus, more troubling for him than a missing skull would have been the outbreaks of Plague in the late 16th centuries, which decimated large numbers of populations, reminding him (and us) of the the central fact of his times, namely the threat of death being constantly palpable beyond what we can imagine)!
Bob Dylan’s “ghostly” evocation of Shakespeare’s Ghost at the Nobel Ceremony is timely and poignant in our troubled times;
In Hamlet’s voice, (perhaps his most philosophical protagonist) we hear about the instability that is intrinsic to the human condition:
Representations of unstable, shifting landscapes, of human perplexities, as well as rich affective bonds that make us human in the works of Bob Dylan as of Shakespeare take us on rich, but complex, often dissonant psychic journeys- as go these lines from Dylan’s song about “Hard Rain…
In our post-election world of simplistic demagogic slogans, of the ruthless logic of divisiveness, we can comfort ourselves with such ghostly lyric “fragments” that we have surely “shored against” our ruin. (T.S. Eliot).
Tara Fitzgerald, as Lady Macbeth from Globe Production, 2016, dir. Iqbal Khan
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart – Macbeth
This week we will mark 1 month since the decisive election on November 8th. We are in the aftermath of Thanksgiving gatherings when the fault lines of the elections created fissures among communities, families, kin, and friends, to which the long outpourings both on and off social media testify. Many forces of inclusion and peace are gathering but ultimately, sharp lines are being drawn. I run into groups of students wearing safety pins and they explain that the pins indicate that they are “safe” to be approached by others — are opposed to any forces of bigotry and exclusion. As these fault lines seem intractable, I want to pause and reflect on on how and where to look for consolations in such times.
For this I want to recall the uncannily timely visit we had at Michigan State in November, a few days after the elections, of theatre director Iqbal Khan from Britain, who reminded us, importantly, of the rich consolations that can be found in the works of Shakespeare. (view the live stream of his public address at the Wharton Center on November 14, 2016 below). He put it aptly when he said in a local newspaper, “at a time when the complexity of the world paralyzes us and our need to understand ourselves, our identity and relationships to ‘the other’ has never felt more manipulated, Shakespeare’s plays offer consolation and surprising riches.” And what makes the works the vehicles for such a comfort and understanding? “They dramatize the most awful things all of us are capable of while also creating characters that sound the greatest possibilities of the human imagination and compassion. They speak of families, love and governance. They explore our nightmares while celebrating the sovereignty of our reason” (Khan, Lansing State Journal).
And this journey to consolation, as he described in his lecture, comes via the repeated enactments of redemption of a broad range of characters in the plays. But how are they redeemed and how can we be redeemed –how can the world be redeemed? Such consolations, he reminded us, have to come via an embrace of the dynamic complexity of the world in which we we live. There are no simple answers. For instance, he gave the example of the speech given by Macbeth above (“pluck from the memory…) and his poignant and tragic urging to the doctor to comfort and cure his wife, Lady Macbeth, who is suffering from the dark memories of their shared deed, the murder of the King, which Macbeth did at her urging. But can a memory of such a deed be “plucked out”? And what “sweet oblivous antidote” could blot the human responsibility of murder? “The play does not end well,” the director wryly recalled in his live talk, but by giving Macbeth the most profound poetic reflections on the enormity of his own deeds — on his own humanity, so to speak, we as the audience, can also recognize that despite all the horrors, “people are not intractable.” And “our humanity is a delicate and beautiful thing.”
During the Q & A, one audience member asked him: and “how would Shakespeare have represented the elections?” “He would not have changed anything” he answered. He would not have provided any simple answers. So ultimately consolations have to be wrested from surrendering to a “place of provisional knowing.”
During the week of Iqbal Khan’s visit and reminder of the power of theatre, another theatrical event got big head lines, when a cast member (Brandon Victor Dixon) of the acclaimed musical, “Hamilton” addressed an audience member, Vice-President elect, Mike Pence from the stage where he called out: “We are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … we hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.” (see full clip below)
Donald Trump’s response to this episode in a series of tweets was one of being offended: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
Trump was looking to the theatre to provide ease, comfort, and some “sweet oblivious antidote” that would make Pence forget the cares of governance –especially and in the aftermath of an election victory based on the demagogic divisiveness the Republican ticket unleashed.
BUT, no Mr. Trump, theatre at its best should not be a “safe place,” but rather (echoing Iqbal Khan here) it must unsettle, move, enlighten, and teach you new and surprising lessons about the possibilities of the human condition. Theatre must hold a mirror to the world in all its uncomfortable complexities.. ONLY then can we find consolation and redemption in it.
Mr Trump, post election, is also looking for redemption. At a visit to the New York Times editorial meeting, he was conciliatory: “I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along well.”But in response to this assertion, noted New York Times columnist, Charles Blow responded (November 23, 2016. New York Times Op-Ed)
“I will say proudly and happily that I was not present at this meeting. The very idea of sitting across the table from a demagogue who preyed on racial, ethnic and religious hostilities and treating him with decorum and social grace fills me with disgust, to the point of overflowing. Let me tell you here where I stand on your “I hope we can all get along” plea: Never.”
Why will Blow not accept Trump’s changed position? Everyone has the possibility of change and growth after all? To which Blow’s characterization is as follows: “It’s not that I don’t believe that people can change and grow. They can. But real growth comes from the accepting of responsibility and repenting of culpability. Expedient reversal isn’t growth; it’s gross.”
I think Blow’s characterization is also key to understanding theatrical redemptions and consolations in Shakespeare’s plays. We are engaged with his characters, even the most villainous ones (Richard III, Edmund, Macbeth) because they display honest psychic journeys to understand the consequences of their own actions and even express some remorse. Mr Trump has yet to make such a journey of self-knowledge and redemption.
We are yet to find any consolations on that front as yet!
To paraphrase or even discuss the relevance of this complex poem, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath to my thoughts on this discovery of the hidden women’s vote would be a long convoluted process. Needless to say, the speaker, supposedly evoking Plath herself, evokes a raw female response of fear, fascination, desire, and rejection toward a seemingly fascist, male authority. Struggling to understand the appeal of Trump’s raw and crude masculine affect for these hidden women whose votes turned the country “red,” Plath’s poem is one way of affective consolation…here are some women’s voices who I think want to benefit and partake of his power. Interestingly there is no fear of him, but of “Others” and of forces like the economy..
According to the report, “early data suggest a clear majority of white women voted Republican, and supporters say Trump’s offensive remarks didn’t affect their decision.” Even among college educated white women, 45% of them voted for Trump. The trend indicated they had faith in his ability to improve the economy, to be a “strong” leader in aspects that mattered to them. His remarks that amounted to sexual assault had a minimal effect on these “hidden” supporters of Trump. Three quotes say it all : ““I voted for Trump because America has struggled with simple economics and needs a change;””Groping is a healthy thing to do. When you’re heterosexual, you grope, okay? It’s a good thing;”I also want someone who is angry about terrorism and radical Islam.”
I specifically want to to address the woman’s comment about “groping” as a “healthy thing” not unlike the shrugging off of his “locker room banter.” Trump is not the first not last politician with peccadillos of sexual behavior, (yes, yes, Bill Clinton); and yes, sexual interactions are are of course a grey area — or an area of many shades –but what Trump’s language has unleashed on the nation is a debased and singularly misogynistic erotic imagination — one which is shaped not by any sense of play or joy for women, but rather by the lurking threat of pornographic violence and coercion.
So before we defend or shrug off Trump’s groping let us ask ourselves: “what do women really want”?
November 10, 2016
Miranda: O wonder!!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t! The Tempest, William Shakespeare
I was getting started on this new webpage, and wanted to create a community blog of sorts. Then came the bombshell of this election, to which I can never be reconciled. So I have decided to write a series of blogs (not in any regular duration) with which I hope I can keep a record of”accontability” of this world before us for at least 4 years. And I also hope that this will generate a conversation among anyone who wishes to participate — a conversation that is not political in blame gaming, but affective, imaginative, analytical as we make sense of and try to imagine a community beyond the demagogic language unleashed by the Trump forces. For each entry, I also hope to mine literary/aesthetic imagery to map the fault lines of our time.
The phrase that uncannily and unexpectedly kept running through my head yesterday was “Brave New World.” For many men and women who voted for Donald Trump, the sea of people that changed the map of this country red, it probably seems like a very “brave” world; they showed the world that the raw energy of Trump and rich promises of a mankind consisting of “real Americans” was “beauteous” indeed! In the play itself, however, Miranda’s words carry a poignant irony. She is portrayed as the innocent, even pure exemplar of womanhood, facing the ships coming on shore and meeting a group of new people coming to the island where she is exiled with her father, Prospero. Yet the people emerging from these ships are all flawed. Among them are those who dethroned and exiled him, including his own brother and more recently, tried to murder a rival. The wonder and innocence of her gaze adds an enigmatic appeal to her sense of a world that she considers “brave” in her wonder, but is actually morally compromised. Post election all of us who did not vote for Trump are called upon to be brave — like Clinton herself — not only worrying about the practicalities of the economy or taxes, or even governance. But most importantly, brave in the face of the divisive demagogic language – language of hate, or crude misogyny, of Islamophobia, of race baiting, ad infinitum.
Thus begins this journey of our times.. not in Miranda’s naivete, but in reaching out to what if anything is left “beauteous” in this world.
An ink-dipped pen is archaic, a historical artifact, which for me holds romantic, evocative associations with Shakespeare, the Brontes, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Mirza Ghalib and so many writers coming down to the pre-computer age. These pages are called KALAM, meaning PEN in Hindi and Urdu -- and also, I am enlightened by my friend, Hamit Arvas, "kalem" is the Turkish word for Pen. Mirza Ghalib