Adventures in (Senior) Learning

my math exercise book

I am happy to report that I have completed my math class, and that I passed it. But it wasn’t always pretty, and it often resulted in frustration, anger, and broken pencils. I may or may not have broken a few other small items as well, in the heat of working on homework problems that I should have been able to solve but couldn’t. But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s over now, and I made it. In my darkest days as a student, I promised myself that pass or fail, when I completed the class I would write about my experience here, and although summer is beginning and I have a host of tasks that I’ve put off during the last few weeks as I studied for my final, I am trying to fulfil that promise now.

And so here is my first discovery: All teachers should be granted time off (course load reductions) every few years to take a course that is completely out of their area of expertise. In other words, every teacher should experience what I did last semester, because learning something completely new provides a critically important window to show teachers how their students feel and what they encounter as learners. My greatest regret about the whole experience of taking math as a retiree is that I cannot put what I’ve learned to use in my own classroom. Would I have changed my teaching methods if I’d had this experience earlier? Perhaps not. But I would have been more sympathetic to students’ complaints and frustrations in learning new material. I would have worked harder to find alternate delivery methods to make sure that material was accessible. I wouldn’t have been so quick to shrug off my students’ inability to master content by assuming they simply weren’t taking the class seriously enough. I’m absolutely sure that the taking a class like this (assuming that it was not simply added onto my other duties, but rather that my teaching load was reduced to allow me adequate time to engage in the class) would have made me a better teacher.

Good teachers, those who are engaged with their subjects, tend to be intuitive learners in their area of expertise. But this is a problem for their teaching, because many students they encounter will not be intuitive learners in that area. Taking a class out of my area of knowledge forced me to pay attention to how I learn. Certainly we teachers have been aware of different learning styles for decades, but there is a real difference in awareness of a thing and direct experience of it. If we are really interested in teaching, in transmitting not only knowledge but critical thinking skills, then we teachers need to immerse ourselves in a fresh learning experience every so often to enable us to check our assumptions, to experience failures, and, when necessary, to adjust our techniques–and our expectations. And the closer that learning experience comes to our students’ experience, the better.

Another important thing I learned is that there is a difference between showing someone something and teaching them something. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what that difference is. I think it has to do with paying close attention to feedback from the student–and not just verbal or written feedback but nonverbal cues as well. This is an area that deserves more study and observation.

On a purely personal level, I believe I had a better chance of success in this class today, as a senior citizen, than I would have had as a young adult, and not just because I have much more free time at my disposal. Given that my most recent math class was in 1979 (it was called “Terminal Math” — not because it killed you, but because it was a curricular dead end), one would think that I might have struggled with memory problems. The truth, however, is that I was a much more experienced learner and was therefore able to contextualize information in a way that wasn’t possible for me in my twenties. I was aggressive in using YouTube videos for additional learning, and I was far more focused and determined than I had been in my younger years. In other words, whatever I have lost in terms of memory function, I have gained in terms of experience and critical thinking ability.

Pure bull-headedness helped me pull through as well. So, in addition to a larger reserve of learning experience and critical thinking skills, a greater store of patience also helped me to progress through the class (snapped pencils and crumpled paper notwithstanding). These assets are all important factors in student success. All of them are something that young adults typically lack, however, which makes you wonder about how successful college learning really can be.

I had one final asset that helped me make it through the class. A superpower, if you will: I was willing to fail the course and take it again if necessary. But most traditional college students do not have this option. The clock is running, and they just want to get through, tick off the class, and proceed to the next one. As long as education is seen as an economic good and learning institutions mere factories to produce workers (and, unfortunately, to produce debt as well–something that is inherent in the capitalist control of the state), education will be mistakenly conflated with job training, and we will limit our learning throughout life.

At points throughout the semester, frustrated by the frenetic pace of the class, which in turn is dictated by powers beyond the control of individual professors–because all math classes have to align to assure transferability, and if they don’t then the colleges that mess with course content stand to lose students, funding, and revenue–I declared that the community college or university is the last place a person should go for an education. Now, having gotten through the class intact, I see that this is a harsh judgment, but there is nonetheless some truth in it. Our institutions of higher learning have become, as I said above, factories, and if we stop the production line or try to slow it down, we risk gumming up the whole process. And we all know what happens when that occurs:

I’ve often told my students that education is wasted on the young. But we can remedy this if we want to. The tragedy is not that so few of us actually go back to complete our education when we finally have the time and resources to do so, but that we limit the amount of learning all students can achieve, even in the place that is supposedly the most conducive to learning: the university. I hope in the years to come we begin to see the limits of higher education as we’ve fashioned it, and remediate these ill effects.

As for me, I’m celebrating my success, such as it is, and picking up the threads of my life. More adventures in math to come next fall, as I proceed to Trignometry.

Random Thoughts about TV Shows

A few random thoughts about television shows this morning, since the end of a long winter is in sight, and I have survived it largely by knitting, reading, and–you guessed it–watching television shows and movies.

On Mindless Murder: Why do detective shows always, without fail, focus on murder? Based on the detective shows I watch (admittedly, most of them are British), it seems that all cases in which both police and private detectives are called are murders. Hence the Cabot Cove paradox: a small town, Cabot Cove, Maine, has the highest murder rate in the world, because Jessica Fletcher lives there and she must solve a new murder every week. (Don’t get me wrong–I love Murder, She Wrote, but I think that if a detective is good at solving murder cases, she ought to be good at solving other kinds of cases as well.) What about the cases in which no murder has occurred? Much of a detective’s job, after all, involves sitting and watching people, trying to get evidence of adultery, or perhaps finding a missing person (who often, I would hope, turns out not to be murdered). Even Sherlock Holmes occasionally worked on cases that did not involve a murder of any kind. I would love to see a detective show that doesn’t focus exclusively on that most brutal of crimes. In fact, I find it deeply troubling that so much of our entertainment comes from postulated murder, as if the only way we can amuse ourselves is by imagining the ultimate violence done to another human being. If detective shows would only sprinkle some non-murderous episodes in with their usual fare, I think it would be more realistic, for one thing, as well as more humane, and it would do those of us who watch them a lot more good.

On Evil Collectives: Why is a collective always represented as something bad? Take Star Trek: Voyager. While I find the Star Trek series creative and thoughtful, the Borg (a hive-mind collective that forcibly assimilates/absorbs all entities it encounters) quickly becomes a predictable and hackneyed antagonist. Of course, someone had the brilliant idea of “rescuing” 7 of 9 and integrating her into Voyager’s crew–kudos to whoever came up with that one–but the problem remains that we seem to be unable to imagine a collective association of human beings as anything but profoundly threatening to creativity, kindness, and mutual aid. Perhaps this stems from our Western distrust of collective societies and our American horror of communism. Yet this cannot be only an American issue, since Daleks–from the Dr Who series–are also portrayed as an evil, voracious collective society. My question is this: is it possible to imagine a non-threatening collective, one that is humane and caring? Why is it that we never see such a collective portrayed on television or in films? If we could imagine one (and of course non-agressive collective societies do indeed exist in nature, among bees, for example, and many other kind of animals so we needn’t go far for inspiration), perhaps we could aspire to replicate this kind of mutual aid society in our world.

On Emo SciFi: While I’m on the subject of science fiction, here’s a question that I’ve often pondered: Why are science fiction shows almost always dark? Of course, there’s a really easy answer to this question: it’s dark in outer space. I get that, but why is it that we can only imagine space travel as something in which disasters, emergencies, and threatening events occur? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to sprinkle some humor into the plot of a scifi show sometimes? I realize that we’re living in difficult times, as we move closer to tyranny and nuclear war threatens to erupt in Europe, but isn’t that itself a reason to provide entertainment that is uplifting and amusing as well as thoughtful? For that matter, why must “thoughtful” always mean “something dire is about to happen and the whole crew, or planet, or species could die?” I would very much like to see a science fiction show that occasionally has an episode focusing on disagreements between crewmates (because God knows that would happen on a long voyage–just ask any sailor who’s ever been on deployment), on equipment malfunctions, on anything but the mission ending in a fiery ball of disaster due to an out-of-control collective that is intent on committing murder.

In other words, it would be nice if someone out in TV Land got hold of a new blueprint for their plots instead of recycling the same old trite themes. But maybe that’s my own problem for expecting real creativity from an overburdened medium….

It’s pretty bad when one has to resort to doing math problems to get exposure to new ideas!

This is Your Mind on Math, or How I Got Hooked on Mathamphetamines

Picture from Wikipedia

Note: I enrolled in a College Algebra class this semester as part of my revisionist education project. One of the assignments is to read a book on mathematics and write about it. Being quite busy with learning all I’m supposed to be learning right now, I haven’t time to write much on this blog, so I thought I’d post my book review here as a short-term solution. I hope to post here at greater length about my mathematical journey in a few weeks.

FLATLAND, A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Flatland, by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926), was the perfect book to start my mathematical journey, for several reasons. Abbott lived pretty much right in the middle of the Victorian age, which is the period of literature I know best. This means that while his book is mathematical in nature and seems strange and alien in its subject (at least to me), its wordiness and heavy, formal style are somehow comforting at the same time. Aside from the oddness of the subject itself (life in a two-dimensional world), some of the themes in the novella were essentially Victorian. Take, as one example, the upward mobility of shapes, going from triangles, to squares, to pentagons and hexagons as generations “improve” themselves, which reflects the Victorians’ belief in the perfectability of human nature over time, as well as the ability to move from one socioeconomic status to the next higher one. While we think of social mobility as a purely American invention, it was surely present in nineteenth-century England. One need only point to Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, who was born in squalor in Ireland but managed to secure a scholarship to Cambridge University and become a clergyman, or to Charles Dickens, whose grandparents were servants in a rich household, to demonstrate that a Victorian might be born a square, or even a triangle, but could hope one day to have hexagonal grandsons.

In other words, while the things Abbott wrote about were unfamiliar to me as far as the two-dimensional world he created goes, many of the accompanying characterizations were not. Moreover, there were some really enjoyable surprises within the book as well. I was particularly amused by the portrayal of women as vicious lines who, through their raging fury or even simple inattention to their relative positions, could maim or destroy their more mild-mannered mates, offspring, as well as innocuous bystanders. (How any offspring was ever produced in this world, however, was never covered in Flatland. Some things, I suppose, are better left unimagined.) In addition, the power struggle between the chromatists and the opposition, the traditionalist, anti-color party, was reminiscent of all political struggles, and so quite familiar as well. In short, Flatland, while a bit difficult to read, was intriguing and creative, and I am glad I read the book to its conclusion.

To be clear, I ended up liking the book, and I give it four out of four stars, not for its plot, or for its characterization, and certainly not for its verbose and weighty style, but because it became a symbol for my own journey into the study of mathematics. As I began the course, I had to quickly relearn concepts and skills that had been buried for well nigh fifty years, beneath Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan sonnets, Victorian novels, and Romantic poetry. As soon as I had dusted off my meager mathematical skills, however, I was deluged with other, new concepts that demanded all the brainpower I had to digest them. Then, while I was busy learning these new concepts, I found I had forgotten the older ones that I should have known all along and had just re-learned. It was all very frustrating and, frankly, an embarrassing exercise in intellectual humility. To be honest, early in the semester, I had to make up my mind to stick with the course even if that meant failing it—something I’d never done in my life up to this point.

Enter Edwin Abbott Abbott with his two last names and his strange little book. Once I began reading it, I quickly came to realize that my journey as a reader and my journey as a student were similar. Look at it this way: In signing up for Math 130 (College Algebra), I had entered an unusual world, one that had rules and laws that I knew very little about. I had to immerse myself in them, barely understanding them, simply trusting that they would become clearer and more understandable as I proceeded through the course. The same was true of reading Flatland. The only way to get through this book, I’ll maintain, is to buckle up and settle back for a very strange ride. I’d say the same is true for studying College Algebra.

When, after a week or so of starting the book and concentrating on my math homework, I began to have dreams about equations, square roots, and graphing polynomials, I realized something very interesting was happening in my brain: I was changing my perception of the world. In fact, one night I dreamt that my husband, to whom I often go for help as he studied Electrical Engineering (albeit some 40 years ago), gave me an edible and a magic mushroom, both of which I ate without question and was immediately rewarded by understanding everything I needed to about math. Yet I’ll argue the dreams were not just amusing; I believe they were my brain at work, struggling to adapt to new information and new perceptions. Indeed, I take them as a sign that I was beginning, with oh-so-tiny baby steps, to see the world from a more mathematical perspective. It’s a lot like those three-dimensional pictures that you have to concentrate on not concentrating on to be able to see. It takes a bit of work to see an interesting scene rather than zig-zagging blocks and shapes, but the effort is well worth it in the end, when you are rewarded with a three-dimensional view somehow transcribed onto a flat piece of paper. I hope that the same will be true of Math 130.  

Learning math, for those of us to whom math is not second nature, demands that we forge new perceptions and that we learn to see and think in totally new ways. This is easy to posit, but very hard to accomplish. I suspect it’s easier the younger one is, but no matter one’s age, it is difficult to craft new perceptive tools with which to look at a changed world. In other words, studying math is a trippy experience—we might as well admit that—and Flatland is a trippy little book, and for this reason, it turned out to be the perfect start to Math 130 for me.

Searching for the Most Beautiful Word

Stephen Hunt/ Getty Images , from Redbook

I find it odd that J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the most beautiful sound in the English language was the words “cellar door.” To be honest, I just can’t agree with him: to me, at least, these words don’t sound lovely or inviting. Mysterious? Yes. Intriguing? Perhaps. But certainly not beautiful.

So I’ve tried my best to identify a word I do consider beautiful, and I think I’ve found one: “senescence.” I love the way the sibilant “s” sound eases through my lips. I had a serious lisp as a child, going to speech therapy throughout my early elementary school years, so maybe the word “senescence” has the attraction of forbidden fruit to me. Whatever the reason, I find “senescence” to be an elegant word, yet at the same time both humble and understated. It truly is a lovely word, with a soft, inviting sound that charms the ear.

The unpleasant reality rests in the meaning of the word: “the condition or process of deterioration with age.”

Oops. Looks like I’ve picked a word as fraught with problems as Tolkien’s “cellar door.”

But since I’m on the subject anyway (see how I did that?), let me discuss the most moving story about senescence I’ve ever encountered. Surprisingly, it’s not about human beings, but rather about octopuses. (And yes, the plural of “octopus” is “octopuses,” not “octopi.” This short article explains why, while cleverly pointing out the irony in the whole debate, since octopuses live as solitary creatures and so presumably one might never really need to use the plural of the word in a natural setting.)

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus must be a good book, because I still remember it clearly, several years after I listened to an audio version of it. The part that I found most memorable is Montgomery’s discussion of the senescence of her octopus friend. It is one of the most beautiful, and one of the saddest, descriptions of the natural world I’ve ever encountered.

While octopuses don’t have a centralized nervous system or a brain, as we do, they seem to experience consciousness. Recent films, for example, have documented the friendships that certain octopuses have formed with human beings. Clearly, they have the capacity to make memories, as well as other complicated mental functions. For example, this video segment shows an octopus dreaming. The takeaway here is that despite its alien appearance, the octopus is much more than a scary-looking sea monster; it is a creature with feelings and opinions, at least as much as the other animals we live with, such as dogs and cats .

But an octopus has a very short lifespan, living only three or so years. And the last thing a female octopus does, as it enters this final stage of life, this period of senescence, is to produce a collection of lacy, bundled eggs and festoon her den with them. Below is an image of an octopus with her eggs from an NPR article:

Stuart Westmorland/Corbis

The octopus will then spend the rest of the time remaining to her caring for these eggs, and then, with her last bit of energy, her final breath, so to speak, she will launch these eggs into life, just as she herself leaves it.

Now here’s the thing about Sy Montgomery’s book: the octopus that Montgomery befriended was a female, so she produced eggs and draped them in her aquarium home, but they were never fertilized, because she was acquired too early in her life to have been able to fertilize them. Yet that made no difference to her. She cared for those empty egg sacs just as assiduously as if they had had baby octopuses within them.

Perhaps she just didn’t know the difference. But I choose to believe that there is a powerful lesson here. That octopus did what she had to do: her drive to create was inborn, and she could no more resist that urge to lay eggs and then to take care of them than she could resist the urge to eat, or to sleep, or, when the time came, to die. And here’s where I find an important parallel between the octopus and us, one that has nothing to do with our role as parents, but rather as creators.

Look at it this way: one of the functions of human beings is to create things, all sorts of things, depending on who we are and what kind of gifts we develop in ourselves. We might create stories, as Shakespeare did, or important bodies of research, as Jane Goodall has, or structures, like the Great Wall of China. We might create an epic poem, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, or we might make a baby blanket out of yarn and a set of knitting needles. We might build a beautiful bench, or craft a powerful speech. We might create relationships that continue into the next generation. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes; one thing that humans do, without fail, is create. The least talented of us cannot go through this life without having created something at some point during the time allotted to us on this earth.

The problem is, many of us don’t honor our creations. We don’t think our creations could possibly matter, so we fail to protect and nurture them. We throw them away, making them disposable, ultimately discounting their importance.

But the octopus teaches us a different lesson. She shows us that whether there are baby octopuses within the eggs or not, it’s important to treat them all with respect. She demonstrates that it’s the act of creation and our response to that act that matters, and not whether the product of our creative urge is a success or a failure.

This realization hit me powerfully when I first listened to Montgomery’s book. In fact, walking down a sunny street in Dallas, tears coursed down my cheeks, and I didn’t care whether the other people on the path around White Rock Lake noticed or not. I cried at first because the futility of the octopus’s gesture struck me like a gale-force wind. It all seemed so useless, so empty. Was life really so cruel and hopeless?

But within a few minutes I realized that the important thing here was the act of creation, not the product of creation, and there’s a big difference. It didn’t stop my tears, but it did change the cause of them. The octopus’s actions seemed so selfless, so beautiful, that her death made me ache as if I’d known her myself. Her senescence, her final actions, these seemed to me worthy of a Verdi opera or tenth symphony from Beethoven.

Because the beauty of the octopus’s dying gesture more than balances the tragedy of it.

And now, some years later, entering my own period of senescence, I realize what we human beings share with that octopus. Some of us create viable things that go on to have a life of their own; some of us create the equivalent of empty egg sacs. But it doesn’t matter. We all have engaged in the act of creation, and that’s what makes us alive.

I might never achieve an existence as beautiful as that of an octopus, but I can keep the memory of her–of her senescence combined with her act of creation–in my mind so as to give me a sense of peace as I go about my own small acts of creation, and as I proceed with my own decline into old age.

In short, I’ve discovered that senescence can be beautiful both in its sound and in its meaning as well. Take that, Mr. Tolkien!

Dream Novels

Communardes, Wikimedia

I’ve now been keeping this blog for about a decade, and I have to admit that I feel a sense of accomplishment for some degree of consistency in writing. True, I haven’t been consistent about my posts–indeed, sometimes long gaps stretch between them–but I have so far always returned to this site to write yet another mini-essay on a subject of my own choosing. It all began, I recall, when I realized that it wasn’t exactly fair of me as a composition instructor to ask my students to write on-demand essays for me when I wasn’t at least prepared to produce my own essays. So I set myself the task of writing, in a sort of public way, to honor the commitment I’d hoped my students would feel for their writing classes. After all, as Daniel Stern (the writer, not the actor) once told me, “A writer is someone who conducts their education in public.”

Over the last few years I have been doing that on steroids, so to speak. I’ve tested out strange and new ideas I’ve had here, and I’ve revealed my determination to put myself back to school in order to complete, or at least to remedy, what I consider a half-hearted education. (Hence my decision to take a math class at the local community college where I once taught English and Speech–a decision which accounts for my inconsistency in posting [as if I need an excuse!]. Algebra, it turns out, is quite time-consuming–but more on that and what I’m learning in a future post.)

Perhaps part of my original motivation in starting this blog was to try to garner readers for my self-published novels. Yet that motivation has fallen by the wayside; I’m no longer interested in trying to expand my reader base, and in fact, I’m not sure I actually want to write any more novels. I say this not from any kind of pique or bitterness, but more from laziness. If I can outline the story, in other words, and tell it to myself, what need have I to write it down and spoil it all? Yet there’s also an element of humility playing into this. The older I get, the less I feel compelled to throw in my two cents. Moreover, the older I get, the less certain I feel of anything, particularly my potential to contribute to the vast array of written works already out there. It seems just as good a use of my time to read more stories, stories that people have forgotten by obscure authors who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. (Perhaps this deserves a future post as well!)

And yet….

And yet there are stories I’ve thought of and have sketched out in my mind, and I hold them dear. They’re like unfinished sweaters I’ve knitted. I think I know what they’d look like if I finished them, but I’m not sure about all the intricate details. I don’t know how exactly they’d fit, either. So when I think of these “dream novels” (I’m adapting a term from the essayist Charles Lamb, from his essay “Dream Children: A Reverie,” a lovely piece of old-fashioned writing), it’s with a certain degree of wistfulness as well as some real curiosity, to see what they would become if I ever did write them. After all, as most writers know, one can never know exactly what one thinks until one sees what one has written.

Anyway, the rest of this post will be spent in listing my Dream Novels and sketching out their plots, just so that someday, when I have too much time on my hands and more confidence in my possession, I can consider coming back to one or two of these ideas. They are listed in no particular order below.

  1. A novel about Princess Charlotte–not the present one, but rather the daughter of George IV (1796-1817), the heir to the throne of England, whose early death in childbirth (along with her infant son) precipitated the hereditary crisis that would result in the the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne a generation later. Her death changed history. But she was also a really interesting character, and she married Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who would later, long after her death, become the first king of the Belgians. He was a huge influence on European politics, despite being a relatively unknown and unimportant German prince. And he was incredibly handsome, and was, to all appearances, heartbroken at the death of Charlotte. My twist on the narrative, however, would be that Charlotte’s life story is narrated by Cornelia Knight, who served as Princess Charlotte’s companion/governess, and who saw a great deal of the world, especially for a spinster in the early nineteenth century.
  2. A novel about one of the survivors of the the Paris Commune, an historical interlude about which most Americans know very little, if anything at all. At the end of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (disastrous for the French, that is), the victorious Germans were set to enter into Paris, but the citizens revolted against their own government and refused to surrender, at which point the French government declared war against the Parisians, who had decided to rule themselves. From March until May, 1871, Paris was under siege and existed as a Commune–an experiment in democracy that bears, at least for Americans, an unfortunate name. Women were essential to this experiment, and when it was defeated by the government, they were blamed for much of it. My story follows one of these women into anonymous exile in London, where she gets involved in another political movement, all while a journalist and his sister attempt to identify the mysterious French teacher who lives down the street from them in Bloomsbury.
  3. On the lighter side, a murder mystery involving a community band in a small town. One of the musicians gets himself murdered–it would be the first chair trumpet player, for obvious reasons. (If you don’t know what obvious reasons I’m referring to, then you have clearly never played in a community band.) The detective would be, naturally, a woodwind player (I’m partial to clarinets), and would weave in and out of the idiosyncrasies of the various musicians in order to solve the mystery.

That’s all I have for now. Any one of these stories could consume my creative life for the next several years, if I allowed it to do so, but I can’t quite convince myself that it’s worth the effort. After all, there’s so much to observe in this world, so much to study, so much to absorb, that I’m simply not sure that I should commit to work of this sort. And yet, while work of this sort is apparently self indulgent and ultimately pointless, I know well enough that the product of that work isn’t always the point, and it’s what one learns while undertaking it that matters.

There are so many ways of learning, and I find it sad that as a retired teacher I’m still learning so much about the whole process. Ultimately, when I’m ready for the learning that these projects offer–assuming I ever am–I’ll take a stab at it and perhaps come up with something worthy of posting here, in installments.

Until then, it’s back to studying Algebra!

Private Clavel: My Private Marathon

One of the things that kept me going through the dark days of following Trump’s election was translating an entire French novel, as I wrote about here. I started my translation at the end of November, 2016, and finished it in December of 2017, so it took slightly more than a year of work. Yet I never knew quite what to do with my translation. I made a few half-hearted attempts to publish it, submitting a chapter to several reviews, but nothing took, and so I put it high up on my shelf and tried to forget about it.

However, last summer I discovered that a translation of the book had been published, back in 2019. I greeted this news with mixed feelings, as can well be imagined. I had long determined that no one else was interested in Leon Werth’s Clavel Soldat, that it was too dated or obscure for publication. I also knew that I was a novice translator, and that my chances of publication were very slim. But seeing that someone else had managed to get their version into print still evoked a spasm of writerly envy–short-lived, true, but envy nonetheless–and made me, for the about a day or so, sullen and bitter.

Then, however, I did what any honest writer/translator would do: I ordered the book from its publisher, Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd. Then, in the brightest days of summer, I crushed my sour, envious attitude, and when the book arrived, I placed it on my desk, determined that when winter came and I wasn’t busy with gardening, hiking, mushrooming, and visitors, I would read Michael Copp’s translation (which he calls Private Clavel’s War on War) and compare it to mine, word for word. I was convinced that there would be much to learn from this exercise, and I felt that Mr. Copp, as well as Leon Werth, deserved this much attention from me.

For the last two months, I’ve been engaged in this activity, and I have indeed learned a great deal. True, there are times when I thought it seemed a pointless exercise, but then I realized that many people engage in pointless activities for fun and for health. As an example, consider running. Lots of people run several times a week, working to increase their endurance. What was I doing, if not working to increase my mental endurance, my ability to use every atom of intelligence and memory and reasoning I had in my poor, beleaguered brain in order to make it stronger? So I compared what I was doing to training for a marathon. After all, most runners never expect to win the marathon races they enter–merely finishing is the point. For me, finishing my translation of Clavel Soldat had to be the point, not publishing it, and reading Copp’s translation in conjunction with mine would prove that I had, indeed, completed my own private marathon.

I have indeed learned a great deal from this exercise. First of all, on a purely practical level, I learned to use the Immersive Reader / Read Aloud tab on MS Word. This function allowed me to listen to my version of the translation at the same time that I read Copp’s book, speeding up the whole process. I can see how the Read Aloud function would be a real benefit to anyone proofreading their own work and I’m sure I’ll use it again.

As far as the actual translation goes, here are a few things that I’ve learned. Most important, translation is an art, not a science. This is a truism, but it bears repeating here. I will just post two versions of the same passage from Chapter VII (page 182 of the original) to illustrate:

The next day, Clavel receives a package of newspaper clippings. He knows. Those who write far from the front lines fight in their logical citadels, everyone for his or her own lie. He knows now that there is nothing but an immense vertigo within a great cataclysm. He is in the midst of this cataclysm that the people look at from a distance, like a tourist watching the eruption of a volcano from several kilometers away.

The next day Clavel received a packet of newspaper cuttings. He knows. Those who write in the rear carry on their fight in their citadel of logic, each one supplying his own lie. He now knows that there is only a great frenzy in a great catastrophe. He is in the middle of the catastrophe that the people in the rear contemplate, as a tourist contemplates the eruption of a volcano from a distance.

And another, longer, passage, this one from the last page of Chapter XV (page 300) of the original:

The division headquarters, with its gleaming officers and its clerical workers. A field near the cemetery is chosen for the execution of Private P., from the colonial infantry.
“What did he do?...”
“He didn’t want to go into the trenches…”
It is dawn. Six hundred men are lined up: his company and parts of other units.
An ambulance wagon has been prepared in case Private P.  faints or resists.
The wagon is not needed. Private P. walks to his spot. Twenty men, bayonets at the ready, escort him. He has just as much the look of a soldier as the other men. The only difference is that he doesn’t have a rifle. He looks straight ahead. He has the face of a sick man being taken out of the trenches. 
Private P. and his escort come to the field where the troops are waiting at attention. 
Private P. is there with the other twenty men. No one has come yet to take him. 
A warrant officer orders: “Left side, line up…”
Then, “Right side, line up…”
And Private P., who is going to die, seems bothered only by not knowing how to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Private P. follows the order “Right side, line up” with the other soldiers.
Twelve soldiers have fired. Private P. is dead.
It's the division with its gleaming officers and its pen-pushers. A field near the cemetery has been chosen for the execution ceremony of soldier P.... of the colonial infantry.
'What did he do?'...
'He didn't want to go to the trenches'...
It is dawn. Six hundred men are drawn up; his company and parts of other troops.
An ambulance has been prepared in case soldier P.... should faint or resist.
The vehicle is not needed. Soldier P....marches to his rank. Twenty men, with fixed bayonets, escort him. He looks a soldier, just like the others. He has no rifle, that's all. He looks straight ahead. A sick man, coming back from the trenches, has this look. 
Soldier P...is there with the other twenty. They haven't yet come to take him. 
An adjutant gives the order: 'Left turn'...
Then: 'Right turn'...
And soldier P...., who is going to die, seems bothered by not knowing where to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Soldier P...., along with the others, carries out the order: "Right turn."
Two soldiers fired. Soldier P... is dead.

The differences are minimal, but they are there. The only major difference is a bona fide mistake in the second selection, where the French “douze” is translated as “two.” This is something I noticed by comparing translations: mistakes do happen. Sometimes words are mistranslated, and not only when there is debate or obscurity about what the word means. Even more unsettling, sometimes whole lines or short paragraphs are left out: both Copp and I are guilty of this error. Translating an entire novel is a laborious task, so it makes sense that such mistakes happen.

But this led me to another discovery, one that unsettled me more, if possible, than finding that someone else had beat me to the punch and had published an English translation of Clavel Soldat. Mistakes such as the ones I noted above are inevitable in a long scholarly work, but editors should be able to find and eliminate them; after all, that’s what they’re payed to do. Why had this not happened in Copp’s translation? The answer is simple: I believe Copp had no editors, because it turns out that Grosvenor House Publishing Limited is what was once called a “vanity press”: it is essentially the same as self publishing on Amazon (which I have done myself and, to a certain extent, now regret), and there appears to be little quality control. This discovery floored me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But regarding the errors in the text, I’d still argue that Copp did an excellent job on his translation. The fact that it differs from mine attests to the finesse and subtlety required in translation itself. Like so much in life, there are no right or wrong answers, and it is important to remember that diversity is a gift, not a curse. What this does mean, however, is that any time we read works that have been translated, the translator has made choices, most of them unconscious, that reflect how he or she sees the world, and this inevitably skews the purity, so to speak, of the original words. Again, that is not necessarily a problem; it’s just important to be aware of it when reading literature in translation. When a translator creates a translation, it’s as if all his or her past reading, thinking, even life experiences, work to color the words he or she chooses, and so it makes sense that each translation would be as individual as the person who produced it.

What more have I learned from this grand, marathon-like exercise of mine? I still think Clavel Soldat is a good book, and an important one. Leon Werth created a character who despised war and dared to write about it during the war. His depiction of life at the Front in 1914 is ruthless in its clarity and in the sense of betrayal Clavel feels as he witnesses both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of those participating in it. I understood the First World War much better after reading the novel, and so I am despondent and, to be honest, disgusted about the fact that its translation appears to be unpublishable today and that self publishing is the only recourse for a novel of this type. Consequently, few English speakers will ever read it. My conclusion — which I hope is not the result of a sour-grapes attitude — is that publishing, like so many things today, is a grand game of popularity and attention-grabbing. In times past, there was room for less popular works, if they were deemed important. Now, however, we live in an attention economy, and important works are bypassed for those works that get a bigger, louder splash.

We lose so much by this. History fades away, covered up by the clamor of contemporary voices, all competing for the biggest slice of an economic pie that really doesn’t matter in the long run. What we lose by this is access to history, is the abililty to understand, so to speak, what the long run is and how it affects us. We become more provincial in our thinking and less capable of forming big ideas because we are only able to access those works deemed most liable to get the biggest bang for publishers’ bucks. It’s a tragic situation, and I’m not sure what we can do to fix it.

In the end, I have to be selfish and say that I’m glad I spent a year plowing through Clavel Soldat, as well as the six additional weeks comparing my translation to Michael Copp’s. True, it may be time that I’ll never get back, but it was time well spent, because it has enriched my knowledge of history, literature, and not least of all, the art of translation. All of these things are valuable, and because of that, I’m satisfied.

Zero and God

Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.

First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.

You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.

For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.

So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.

But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.

Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.

Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.

At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.

Thanks, Meredith, for encouraging me!

Forest Bathing Can Save Your Soul

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.

Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.

The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.

The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.

And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.

Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.

I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.

My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.

All is Not Well

I have been writing much less frequently, for the simple reason that I find I have nothing much to say, perhaps because it’s been a busy summer filled with outdoor activities and a new puppy, or because I’ve been in reading rather than writing mode. I used to push myself to write here in order to present material, as a kind of gift, to my readers. That was before I realized that my readers are ephemeral, ghost-like entities who may or may not exist in the real world. Since that realization, I’ve not only given up on gift-giving of this sort, but also actively discouraged (if you can count de-linking this blog from Facebook as discouragement, which I do) readers from finding The Tabard Inn. I did this originally in a fit of pique, but now I believe that it was a healthy thing to do, and the sum total of this paragraph is this: if you have somehow found this blog and are reading it now, you are one of the few, the special–not to mention the exceedingly strange–people who actually read what I write. So thank you for that. I think.

Anyway, I have something to say this morning, which explains this post. Having seen an advertisement for Mona Awad’s new novel All’s Well (Simon and Schuster), I decided to read it, and even convinced a friend (thanks, Anne!) to read it as well. And now I’m moved to write about it, not because it’s good, but because I hate it.

Fair warning: the book may indeed be very good, so don’t look upon this as a bad review. After fifty-odd years of reading critically, after a career in teaching literature at the college level, after immersing myself in the world of books and reading for my entire life, I find I no longer have any confidence in my own judgments on literary works. I mean, I know that I personally think Tintern Abbey is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever written, just as I know that I personally love pretty much any book by Dickens or any Bronte (but not Anthony Trollope, who can sometimes be a huge arschloch)–but I don’t know if that constitutes great literature, or something that other people will enjoy or find value in. I seem to be entering a period of extreme intellectual solipsism, which is worrisome, yet not too worrisome considering all the crap that’s going down in the world at this point in time.

So, to continue, I hated All’s Well for several reasons. First, and most intensely, because Awad does what I have tried to do in the two novels I’ve written: identified a literary subtext and play a textual game of cat-and-mouse with it as I develop the characters, setting, and plot. For Effie Marten, it was of course Jane Eyre; for Betony Lodge, it was Far From the Madding Crowd, or perhaps The Woodlanders, or any of several Thomas Hardy novels (other than Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure–I know enough to leave those two novels alone). Seeing someone else do what I’ve tried to do with uneven success sets my teeth on edge, which may not be charitable of me. To be honest, I don’t think Awad was any more successful than I was, and maybe that’s the problem.

It bothers me, too, that Awad chose a Shakespeare play (or really two, perhaps even more) as a subtext, not because Shakespeare is inviolable or holy, but because she spins her novel out of the most pedestrian, superficial reading of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. I have long held the opinion that most Shakespeare plays are monumentally misunderstood by modern audiences, a fact that is exacerbated and perhaps even caused by the fact that the plays are by and large mis-titled. The Merchant of Venice, for example, is not about the Merchant Antonio–it’s more about Shylock, or even Portia, than it is about Antonio. Is Othello about Othello or about Iago? Julius Caesar seems to focus much more on Brutus than it does on Caesar, who is killed fairly early in the play. As for the comedies, the titles are simply throwaway phrases designed to get attention.

When I used to teach Shakespeare, I would tell my students that the plays we studied could be boiled down to one word. This may or may not be true, but it is a good way to get students into reading and understanding a Shakespeare play. I’ll give a few examples below, but it’s important to realize that there is no one “right” word to describe a play. You can use this method like a tool–something like a slide rule or a kaleidoscope to lay over each play, dial up a word suggested by the play, and get to work interpreting it.

Much Ado About Nothing: Interpretation

The Merchant of Venice: Gambling

Romeo and Juliet: Obedience

Whether this method works or not isn’t the issue here. What matters to me with respect to Awad’s novel is that she picks the limpest, flimsiest interpretation of All’s Well That Ends Well possible. Granted, it is a problematic play (though I disagree with the tendency to call it a “Problem Play,” as if, like an unruly child, this label can explain everything and short-circuit any attempt to make sense of it). The whole plot, in which the heroine Helena falls in love with the idiotic but presumably handsome Bertram, who rejects her until the last line of the play, is pretty distasteful and downright stupid. But that, I would argue, is not the point of the play. Rather, I believe the play is about how Helena empowers herself in a patriarchal system, ending up in a far more powerful position by using the very tools of patriarchy to do so, while also helping other women “beat” patriarchy at its own game on the way. Granted, this limited victory is nowhere near as satisfying as it would have been had Helena smashed patriarchy to smithereens and performed a wild dance upon its writhing body parts, but that kind of action was simply not possible in the world depicted by Shakespeare. Helena, I’d argue, did the best she could in the world she found herself in.

So, to get back to Awad’s novel, my biggest problem with the novel is that it rests on a sophomoric interpretation of the play. And so, what I thought would be a witty and erudite use of All’s Well that Ends Well became a kind of albatross that made me wince while reading the book. In other words, I thought I might be getting Shakespeare ReTold (a really fine set of retellings of five plays produced by the BBC), but instead I got a mashup of Slings and Arrows plus “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It felt cobbled together, and, frankly, kind of pointless. In the end, Awad uses a kind of trick to grab her readers’ attention, then spins off into a tale that is full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.

That, however, seems to be how I see a great deal of contemporary literature these days, full of sturm und drang but ultimately useless in my trek through life. As I said above, I don’t have the confidence or the desire to argue that my approach is the correct one–rather, I question my own judgment, wondering whether I’m the only one who feels this way. And so, rather than push my own view of this novel, I’m satsified to register my own objections to it here, acting like King Midas’s barber, who whispered that his employer had donkey ears into a hole in the ground just because he had to tell someone his grand secret.

Donkey ears? That would be A Midsummer’s Night Dream, wouldn’t it?

The Best Broadway Musical You’ve Never Heard of

Image from wikipedia

For the past few weeks, I’ve been ambivalent about posting on my blog. I’m tired of serious topics, tired of politics–tired, it seems, of just about everything. I’m not interested in adding to any online conversations, in garnering more hits, in making this blog anything but a personal record of thoughts and ideas that should interest no one so much as myself. That, it seems to me, is a good enough reason to stop writing completely.

And yet here I am, writing a blog on a topic of marginal interest to 99.9% of humanity. In a way, it’s just like the old days, when I routinely held classes on Victorian literature at the rural community college where I taught. Perhaps the best, indeed the only reason, for me to write anything at this point is simply because it interests me, on the off-chance that it might actually interest one or two other readers in the vast cultural repository that is the blogosphere. We can go with that, anyway. So, today I’m posting about a fascinating (but utterly trivial) discovery I made about an almost forgotten Broadway musical that, in my opinion, deserved a lot more attention than it ever received.

Last week, I happened to listen to one of my favorite radio shows: “Footlight Parade” with Bill Rudman. I like Broadway musicals, but I have a decided preference for pre-1970s Broadway, and Rudman often spends time on the oldies. The episode I listened to was “Classical Goes Broadway,” and I found it very enjoyable. Better yet, it led me to explore one Broadway musical in particular, a klunker (98 performances) produced in 1961 that was based on Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata, called The Happiest Girl in the World.

I’m interested in any adaptation of Lysistrata, because I’ve just finished reading it as part of my university re-dux syllabus. Let me pause here to say that the original play is well worth reading: it’s about the women of Athens protesting their city’s endless war with Sparta by withholding sex from their husbands. In an interesting side plot which gets much less attention than Lysistrata’s plan to end the war, all the old women of the city take over the treasury and barricade themselves in, freezing war expenditures. Indeed, their actions have as much to do with Lysistrata (the heroine) achieving peace as the young women’s sex boycott. Power rests not only with young women, but with old women, says Aristophanes–a lesson we would do well to remember.

Before hearing of The Happiest Girl, the only adaptation of Lysistrata I knew of was a strange episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mrs. Howell convinces Marianne and Ginger to join her in a revolt against male obnoxiousness by completely boycotting the company of the men and moving to the other side of the island; obviously, as always on the desert island, no mention of sex occurs. You can’t withhold what isn’t given in the first place, I guess.

Back to the topic at hand, I have to thank Bill Rudman for setting me on a search that has taken up several days of my rather sparsely filled schedule. It turns out that The Happiest Girl is well worth spending a bit of time on–not, perhaps, as much time as I have spent, but still worth some attention.

The wikipedia entry gives some bare details about the musical, and the soundtrack is available on Spotify. If you give it a listen, the first thing you’ll notice is that the music sounds familiar, because it is recycled from the opus of Jacques Offenbach, the composer who is responsible for the “Can-Can” as well as “Barcarolle.” This alone might put listeners off; we still follow the Romantic Era’s prejudice in favor of “original” work, despite the fact that there is, in fact, nothing that is truly original. Perhaps, with the penchant for Broadway “repackagings” such as Mamma Mia and Beautiful, audiences might be more understanding of recycled work these days, but at the same time, I’m not sure lack of originality had anything to do with The Happiest Girl‘s failure at the Box Office. As I’ll discuss below, Leonard Bernstein’s amazing treatment of Candide fared even worse than The Happiest Girl back in 1956, with almost a third fewer performances before it closed, and it contained some amazing music that Bernstein himself composed.

According to Jaime J. Weinman, in his excellent blog on The Happiest Girl, the musical was doomed to failure because it relied on well-known melodies that originated from operetta at a moment in time in which mock operetta was decisively passe. Weinman points to Candide‘s dismal 78 performances just a few years earlier. Sadly, artists can’t always time their work with their audience’s taste in mind, and many a fine work of art has gone unappreciated because popular tastes shifted unpredictably. (I’ve always put Shirley Jones into this category. Her massive talent, evident in Oklahoma and The Music Man, was worth so much more than what she became famous for–Mrs. Partridge of the 1970s television sitcom The Partridge Family–and all because popular taste had shifted from grand musicals to paltry rom-com schmaltz.)

The music alone from The Happiest Girl is worth a listen, but the lyrics are what make the soundtrack really intriguing. Written by Yip Harburg, the same lyricist who gave us songs from The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, as well as the songs “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in addition to one of my personal favorites, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” the songs burst with a clever but subtle humor. For example, in the song “The Glory that is Greece,” there’s a not-so-veiled reference to the classical penchant for bisexuality in Greek mythology. The song insists on the pre-eminence of Greece (more on this in a moment), and urges, as a few reasons why Greece should be celebrated, “Strike up the cymbals for the glory that is Greece/ The land of lute and lyre and the golden fleece/ We give you sex/ that’s ambi-dex/ we give you Oedipus for future wrecks.” Harburg is clearly having fun with his lyrics, the kind of fun that makes you listen twice (or more) to them.

Of course, no video recording of the musical exists, and so, to understand how it works, I took the trouble to look up the script and read it while listening to the soundtrack. Doing so showed me two things: first, Fred Saidy and Henry Myers, who wrote the book for The Happiest Girl in the World, departed freely from Aristophanes’s play, often shifting the perspective from events in Athens to those on Mount Olympus; and second, there are numerous topical references to contemporary events in the script, which are all obscured in the soundtrack. In other words, if you don’t read the script along with the soundtrack, you’re really missing the most important part. For example, one of the first things I noticed was that the musical shifts the names of the gods from their Greek forms to the Roman ones. I initially assumed this was an egregious mistake, or perhaps a dumbing-down of the original material, but now I am convinced that this was done on purpose. Using “Jupiter” instead of “Zeus,” for example, plays into more familiar usage (thanks to the naming of the planets in our solar system), while also forcing the audience to take the play as a less than accurate version of Aristophanes’s play, which in turn makes it more applicable to contemporary times.

As a case in point, take a look at the following statement by Pluto (who takes on the role of a kind of trickster, a Paradise-Lost-Satan antihero determined to mess with humanity and bring it down). Pluto masquerades as various people throughout the play, and early in the first act, he declares, “In my present alias as Chief of State of Athens, I’ve been waging awar against Sparta for the past twenty years. You have your hot wars and your cold wars. I’m conducting a sort of cool war. We’ve been doing very well. We’ve gained 80 yards in the past 12 months.” This is clearly a direct reference to the US-USSR Cold War that had been ongoing since the end of WWII. In addition, minutes later, Pluto must field the criticism of one of his advisors, who blames him for a military defeat by saying, “Your fault! Choosing a young, romantic General!” Pluto’s answer is, in 1961, poignant, referring as it does to the young JFK in his first months as president. Indeed, Pluto responds, “How dare you! Youth in high places is the latest thing. Rather chic, don’t you think?”

Reading the script also allowed me to see the way the play sets Greece up as an obvious analogy to the United States, an analogy that wasn’t clear to me from listening to the music alone, although it was there all along. Consider the following lines from “The Glory that Is Greece,” in which Pluto boasts that Greece is “the only great democracy on Earth,” continuing ,”Each backward nation is our protege and ward/ We bring them culture with our cultivated sword/ We set them free from tyranny/ And woe to the foe who refuses to be free.” Harburg is lampooning the aggressive stance of the United States in its drive to make the world safe for democracy.

Another song, “The Greek Marine” is a direct rip-off of the United States Marine Corps Hymn, using the melody and merely substituting “Macedonia” for “Montezuma.” The song paints the image of a worldwide empire swollen on its hubris: “From the shores of Macedonia/ We will set the whole world free./ We will blot out Babylonia/ And mop up Thermopylae.” In the conversation afterwards, Pluto deflects criticism, defending a Greek surprise attack on the enemy by explaining it was merely “preventive retaliation,” using the very language of gunboat diplomacy before it was invented.

In a departure from the original play, the action then shifts to Mount Olympus, where the Greek gods are in a panic over the war breaking out again, because they are tired of the nuisance of hearing the Greek women praying for peace. In an attempt to come up with a solution, Juno says, “I know! Inspire their wisest men to work on the peace problem — their statesmen and philosophers.” Jupiter’s answer is caustic: “Statesmen! Philosophers! They’ve ravaged the earth! Why even Diana [a junior goddess] here could do better.”

And Diana does do better: it turns out that she’s the origin of the idea of withholding sex from the warriors until they promise to end the war. A perpetual virgin herself, she has been watching human behavior from Mount Olympus and has discovered that even hale and hearty men turn into quivering jello when sex is denied them. She carefully avoids mentioning sex outright, however, and the song in which she introduces this idea, “Whatever That May Be,” is delightful in its innuendo and clever rhyme, containing vintage Yip Harburg lyrics to describe sex: The man “offers her/ The whole big world/ For something that/ The maid has got/ Why, each new tot / That is begat / Cannot be got/ without that that / Whatever that may be…”

And so the gods decide to send Diana down to earth to suggest her idea of a sex boycott to the Greek women, using Lysistrata as her spokeswoman. After which, all of Mount Olympus breaks out into a lively song, “Eureka!,” declaring victory: “We’ve got the girl to put the gods back on god’s earth again / Diana will solve the paradox / and save paradise.” Which, they add, is a darn good thing, since as Diana points out in the song; “We got to last until at least A.D.”

These clever lyrics continue in Pluto’s number “Vive la Virtue” which explains the whole virgin/whore complex: “This is man’s ambivalent taste/ Whatever is chased has got to be chaste/ Paradox is deep in his blood/ He’s after the rose but leaps at the bud.” However, the standout song of the musical has to be “Adrift on a Star,” set to the music of Offenbach’s “Barcarolle,” an understated love song that reminds us that the Harburg who created “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” also created the ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This peculiar but lovely song asks existential questions in the most delightful melody, even containing a bit of self-referentiality: “Is there a bright shining goal/ Ending this brief barcarolle?” These lyrics are certainly a reference to life in general, but also to Offenbach’s song itself, perhaps the most famous barcarolle ever composed. Indeed, according to Bill Rudman, “‘Adrift on a Star’ was Harburg’s personal favorite among all his lyrics,” which, given his prodigious output, is saying quite a lot.

There are continual surprises in The Happiest Girl in the World, one of which is a clear reference to the 1956 Broadway musical My Fair Lady (the film had not yet been made) in a line from the song “That’ll Be The Day,” in which the Greek men attest that they’ll never succumb to their women’s demands: They’ll take back their wives, they say, “as soon as the rain in Spain is pink champagne.” It seems Harburg is not above making pointed jabs to other, competing musicals.

One of the highlights of The Happiest Girl occurs when Pluto appears as Aristophanes, telling the women holding the citadel that he is actually writing a play about them, another touch of self-referentiality. The women, flattered by his attention, ask if they qualify for being in a play. His answer: “Eminently. You are touchy, immature, and unreasonable. Prime requisites for theatrical characters.” One wonders whether Pluto is talking about characters in plays or the actors who depict them. He goes further, however. A few lines later, he declares, “At the first sign of reasonable behavior by people in plays, the dramatic literature of the world would collapse.” The criticism is both sharp and funny, and perhaps true as well.

All in all, The Happiest Girl in the World, which I’d never heard of, occupied my time and attention for longer than I care to admit. Undoubtedly a box-office failure with a mere 98 performances, it proves interesting for its connection to ancient literature (sorry, Aristophanes), as well as for its clever use of language, its piercing wit, and its references to topical events. And, while I will never get back the four days I’ve spent immersing myself in it, I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on it at all.