The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
8.4 (Fall 2008)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Summer 2008) may be viewed by clicking here.
John R. Harris, Ph.D.
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D.
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.
Michael H. Lythgoe
Lt. Col. USAF (Retd.)
Praesidium 8.4 (Fall 2008)
The play that Shakespeare penned just before King Lear is often slipped into the “problem” file and then forgotten; but, when the mutilations of Puritan censors are discounted, it may be the greatest opus of the West’s greatest playwright.
The Feminine Figure in Painting Peter T. Singleton
Ever since a feminist instructor had Goya’s Naked Maja removed from her classroom, the friction between representations of feminine beauty in visual art and politically correct dogma has come shockingly unveiled.
One of France’s greatest literary figures of the twentieth century’s first half challenged his countrymen from a self-imposed exile to rediscover their cultural ideals—an exhortation that echoes hauntingly today.
David Z. Crookes
Another postmodern story in search of a storyline? Perhaps… but the story’s elements are compelling rather than playful, and their refusal to coalesce belongs to a social and moral crisis rather than an aesthetic parlor game.
I have taught Measure for Measure for years in my World Lit Survey (through the Renaissance) class. Although some of my colleagues doubt my judgment (or my sanity), I think it a very good fit. Teaching Hamlet or King Lear in a survey format is wildly ambitious, and the BBC happens to have produced a very fine rendition of M for M not too long ago (with Kate Nelligan ideal in the role of Isabella). The play compellingly represents the collision of a medieval value system (personified in Isabella) with a self-righteous progressivism (Angelo) overseen by a humane but vacillant puzzlement (Duke Vincentio). The heroine is a strong and complex figure of the sort that female students long for but seldom find before the printing press, and her plight is nothing less contemporary than a five-alarm case of sexual harassment.
Michael Sugrue would probably take exception to some elements of my estimate above—and I may, indeed, revise that estimate after having read his stunning essay (especially my view of Vincentio, who turns out to have stronger knees than first appears). I would hope that his argument would persuade our readers at least to reconsider the play if they have tended to disparage it in the past, and perhaps even to join us two in rating it a masterpiece.
Sometimes Praesidium has strayed a little farther from literary subjects than our board members would have liked. The Center’s objective is not to create a strictly literary journal—for there are plenty of those already, and most are far too literary in that they are only read by graduate students and Ph.D.s with whose narrow interests they coincide. Our mission, rather, is to re-awaken the love of literature, and of creativity generally, among a vast but thoughtful public besieged ever more heavily and seduced ever more artfully by flashy, debased, and debasing electronic amusements. Yet in pursuing this mission, we sometimes veer so far into issues of a political tinge (or at least a very broadly cultural one) that literature per se is elbowed off the table. It must all come back to reading, for our humble terrestrial endeavor. Anything can be done by the grace of God, but we puny mortals at The Center claim an engineer’s share in no higher mystery than the self-deprecating awe inspired by a grandly conceived, intricately executed design. Beauty and wonder do not necessarily make people better, but people who live without beauty and wonder have a much reduced chance of being good.
French novelist and playwright Jules Romains would have agreed—yet my own salute to Romains is, in fact, not literary but veers, once again, toward the political. Like any devoted student of Western culture, I have been chagrined throughout my adult life at the decline of France . The ilk of Michel Tournier has given the twentieth century’s second half a very poor showing against profound novelists of its first half like Romains and his friend, Roger Martin du Gard—and one unedited passage from Pascal has more genuine irony of a more mature caliber than the collected works of Derrida. I fear that my praise of the tradition represented by Romains actually pulls the rug out from under the exhortations he broadcast by radio to his countrymen in Occupied France during the early forties. Romains thought that the old embers need only be stirred to resuscitate culture’s bonfire. It didn’t exactly work that way… but the sentiments expressed in his appeals are so noble that they deserve to be translated and made widely known—again, and perhaps now more than ever; for the embers are cooler than ever, and they smolder not just in France but throughout the Western world.
Peter Singleton’s celebration of female beauty in painting (a very literary kind of celebration, as he points out) bridges the gap between airy idealism and artistic representation, nor does it entirely ridicule misgivings of the puritanical kind which were Shakespeare’s probable target in Measure for Measure. I can well imagine Angelo confiscating Goya’s Naked Maja in a high lather of indignation and then hanging it over his bed, having sent a substitute canvas to be burned. Yet the issue is not quite so simple as freedom of expression versus priggish philistinism, after all, as anyone with children realizes. In a “culture” one of whose defining images must surely be a pornographic representation of the female body, art must acknowledge a duty to seek after idealism. Singleton argues (with complete justice, I believe) that academic feminism has been wrong—and even rather destructive—in begrudging our cultural tradition a tendency to place women on pedestals. He remains very suspicious, however, of the postmodern’s phony idealism, more interested (“playfully”, as it maintains) in the Virgin’s breast than in the baby suckling thereat.
We have always been able to maintain our pledge (sometimes just barely) to include a short story and/or a poem in every issue—our way of trying to resuscitate the creative spirit from both the active and the contemplative end, as you might say. This time we have made good on that pledge exceptionally well. Read, think, enjoy, brood… and read some more. Do not fear to study the clouds: they’re often the most beautiful thing in the visible sky. ~ J. H.