Sunday, March 21, 2010

the devil, mr. woland, and floating heads

A blog entry from a couple days ago that I never got around to posting. . .

(translation part two: After two hours of fighting with the stupidity that is the Windows Language Bar, it will once again allow me to switch back and forth between Japanese and English, allowing me to do my Japanese homework. If you should experience similar problems -- i.e. the Language Bar won't pop up on your desktop or display that you have different languages installed -- try setting your default language to Japanese rather than English. This doesn't actually make any part of your system switch to Japanese. Makes no sense, but there you go.)

And now, to begin.

I. The Devil and Mr. Woland.

Two ongoing occurrences have been occupying my mind in a pleasant sort of way of late. One, since Friday, March 5 I have been progressing through Mikhail Bulgakov's
The Master and Margarita in sudden bursts and starts. I am now on page 180 of 400. Two, I attended the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble's production of Richard III last Saturday, despite the torrential rain and general bad-temperedness on my part.

Regarding the latter, I refer you to this
lovely blog entry by my housemate, Grace, for pictures of the set, makeup, and rehearsals. Watching this production made me miss the Ensemble, an emotion which has frankly not troubled me in over a year. More importantly, it made me remember that I do, in fact, love Shakespeare.* The Shakespeare of Pericles, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Comedy of Errors is mess of tepidity, the dramatic equivalent of the interjection, "Meh." The Shakespeare of Macbeth, King Lear, Henry V, Richard II (hey, I like it, leave me alone), Twelfth Night, and, as recently discovered, Richard III leaves me giddy with the exuberance and insane joy of poetry, of the turning-out of the workings of human beings, of the power of actors to animate a four-hundred-year-old story, to bear the audience in their hands and eyes back to offer us before the storyteller, and to offer him before us.

* I am always moderately shocked to discover that I profoundly enjoy something that is generally believed to be artistically meaningful, as I generally regard myself as a rather uncouth and crass person.

Shakespeare plays out the machinations of a devil, Richard of Gloucester. Richard's motives are frankly mysterious (well, other than wanting to be king and enjoying others' misery), but oh! How he illuminates the creatures around him! Those who are loyal to him -- Buckingham and Catesby -- those who hate him -- Ann, Mad Margaret, Queen Elizabeth -- those who love him for someone he is not -- his brother Edward, his nephews. They are all held up in turn under the spotlight that is Richard's malice.

Fascinating for me was the comparison between this show and the last history the Ensemble did, Henry V in the spring of my freshman year. I love Henry V. I enjoyed the version we put on. But I think this was a better production by far. As a friend pointed out, the directors in both shows said a lot of similar things about the two kings -- i.e. drawing comparisons between Henry and Richard and George Bush; between their advisors and his advisors; between their motives for going to war and his motives for going to war. But Henry was set in a "timeless" place, a fairy-tale land, and it focused almost exclusively upon its main character and his eloquence. Richard is set in modern times, with guns, fatigues, business suits, and backpack-wearing children. The effect was altogether surprising to me. The play simply is not a modern one, though all sorts of parallels can be drawn with childish ease (Obama birthers and the implied bastardy of the princes, anyone?) To set it in the present made someone watching feel not as though it had been brought forward and made current, but rather that they had been pulled backward into a state of understanding what it was like to really fear a man such as a Richard. To watch someone be led to a block to be beheaded is play and spectacle for a modern audience; it touches no familiar chords of fear. To see someone with a black hood over their head, about to be shot, cues up images of Vietnam and World War II -- it brings us into the emotional landscape of the original audience the way their original symbols no longer do.

Curiously enough, some of the best-handled moments in the play were the killings. The Duke of Clarence died in the hands of an insouciant teenager, frightening for what she could do by not understanding what she was doing. The princes in the tower were killed in an utterly heartless manner, one smothered in a pillow, the other stabbed while sobbing, frightening for what that killer could do without caring. The moments directly before and after Richard's demise are the most sharp; before, I had about a minute to recognize and understand the famous line, "A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"; after, another minute to realize that there was no good guy come to save the day in this play, only another king.

Bulgakov's work, The Master and Margarita, is quite like Richard III in at least one way -- what keeps you reading is not a host of sympathetic characters, but rather awe-tinged fascination with what sort of plot will be unraveling next. It is more explicitly about a devil -- that is to say, Satan is not only the most important character so far, he is far and away the most interesting. Satan in this incarnation traipses about Soviet Russia (well, I should say the Soviet Union, since one of the characters is sent precipitously to what is now southern Ukraine) under the moniker of Mr. Woland, a specialist in black magic. He denounces the Gospels as entirely lies, but regards with amused contempt the enlightened comrades who would deny that Christ existed.

While I am a touch horrified by the goings-on of the book -- there have been two beheadings so far, one reversible, one not, as well as a number of abductions and beatings -- it is written so gleefully and spiritedly that it is really very fun to read. Fagot or Kororiev is a nasty little fellow following Satan, but I rather enjoy Behemoth, a man-sized black cat who is applauded every time he takes civilized drink of vodka.

Amongst the general frolicking and fascination of the book is the lyric murmur of a parade of Russian names -- Nikolayevich, Annushka, Griboyedov, Nikanor, Varenukha, Likhodeyev, Pokobatko, Praskovya -- which I intermittently whisper to myself as I read, rubbing my ears like Kitty against the sounds. Some people (who shall remain unnamed) claim that the sounds of a language don't matter, it's only the voice that says them that determines how pleasant it is to listen. I think this is something like saying that whether you paint in oils or watercolors has no effect upon the effect you are able to achieve in your final picture; certainly they can both be lovely, but to say the medium has no effect upon the beauty of the effort seems rather stupid.

Perhaps I will study Russian next.

Part II. Floating Heads.

Yesterday I sat further forward in the lecture hall for 7.29 than I normally do. This lecture is my first in building 46, realm of course 9 (brain & cognitive science, also known as the rat destroyers) designed by the incomparable Charles Correa. I have now had two architectural tours of this building (one with the architect, whose daughter taught my third studio, and one with some of the structural engineers who designed the 40-foot glass wall pictured below and the cable truss system holding up the roof over the atrium) and spent several hours there doing psychological test-thingies on the weekends for extra money, so I pretty familiar with the building.

I discovered a somewhat disturbing phenomenon. The 7.29 lecture hall, the west wall of which is made of glass and looks out onto an atrium (pictured at right) affords a peripheral view of the balcony (on the left side of the picture), which is the same color and texture as the wall behind it. From one to two-thirty, when the lecture is going on, the atrium from almost directly overhead, so there are almost no shadows present to distinguish the two surfaces.

Individuals walking on the balcony can only be seen from the waist (or chest, depending on how short they are) up. The combination of a) same texture, same color b) no shadows c) partial visibility and d) peripheral vision creates the "floating head" phenomenon, which makes me even twitchier in an already twitchy lecture. I think I jerked sideways five times during that 90 minutes to make absolutely sure that there were no disembodied craniums gliding across the far wall.

Charles Correa is brilliant, but I somehow doubt he intended that effect. . .

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