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And the Real Travesty Is...

The petition for Shalom Rubashkin is second in popularity to legalizing weed. Combine all petitions about decriminalizing cannabis in some way or another and it doesn't come close. It ranks higher than abolishing puppy mills or reinstating Glass-Steagall, or putting an end to the Patriot Act, corporate personhood, and the TSA. So what the hell is the point of a movement like Occupy Wall Street if it's so clear nobody in this country knows what they want?

This vid is so rantworthy I couldn't think straight if I got started.

The first time I gave a reading of Sam Shepard's True West I was at a lit gathering with friends, and I managed to captivate the whole room. It's a beautiful thing, hearing when complete silence falls on everyone seated, eyes and ears all focused on the work being read.
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This Has Been a Three Minute TV Review.

Free Agents, the US version. The retro wardrobe (pic doesn't do it justice), the corporate cultural setting, the requisite sexual and political tensions that go with that territory, and all that shtick with the business of spin. Which doesn't at all sound like Mad Men.

On the other hand, it is just a non-threatening comedy, taking place in the present day, nothing demanded of the viewer to make him wonder about our own society and where it came from. It replaces all that heavier and scarier stuff with a sometimes Seinfeldesque sense of comedy, but other times it's all about the gag-characters, like that wacky, creepy boss living in his own world, or the lioness of a secretary who'd get fired in a second in real life, or nerdy guy with glasses! Yay for nerdy guy with glasses and his never-failing ability for comic relief! All of which sounds exactly like Mad Men. Or maybe I mean The Office, with a few cookie-cutter typed characters slipped in.

Not everything needs to be Mad Men. I can accept that as easily as I'll slip into a new guilty pleasure.


One of these days I'll have to write a more comprehensive guide to all the fake, moral gambits posed by authoritative religious types in the ortho world. Some of my favorites of these include telling the skeptical yeshiva kid it'd be intellectually dishonest for him to reject a torah he doesn't know, so he should, of course, finish shas first or the choice he makes can't objectively be respected. Or admonishing an uncertain teen that they can't possibly do such-and-such co-ed activity until they know every subconscious motivation they have is for pure, not even a tiny bit sexual reasons. Otherwise it's assur. These sorts of false challenges—moral bullying really—pop up in chareidi and MO communities alike, although they're more common in the MO community. Chareidim have a more diverse tool chest at their disposal that includes demands for total obedience, to wit: "It's what the gedolim say," or "it's not part of out mesorah to ask such questions." At the hearts of both communities, though, lies the intellectual process that is learning, and it calls for a probing mind, even if you police that probity to extremes. This is why both communities eventually offer their questioning kids moral choices that really aren't choices, questions which reframe the muddly bits of complex human feelings into issues of striking and utterly false clarity.
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A Very Short Thought on Smurfette

Just before the DDOS attack I was typing out a whole new post that's now being rethought and revised. It's coming. For now, something a Facebook friend's post drew my attention to—basically a cultural read on what Smurfette means. The Smurfs started out as a Belgian comic from back in the sixties. This is an original cover.

The phrase might be considerably more awesome in any other context.

I'm fully aware that the cover also says this is a story of the Schtroumps. And call it weird, but I kinda want this as a poster in my apartment.

Why I Love Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance was creative director of The Globe for ten years. A son of two English teachers, he was born in the UK and grew up a good part of his life in the US. But here's how I fist discovered him...

First there was this

Then this

And this (responding to someone asking why authorship of the plays matters to him as an artist)

Now to me authorship doesn't matter much, but he makes the most genuine argument I've heard for why it matters, and I liked listening to it. Wish to god I could get the complete Richard II BBC broadcast, but at least I know how it ends:

The Theme of the Three Caskets

Freud's "The Theme of the Three Caskets" ranks as one of my favorite, little pieces of literary criticism—quick, sweet, and with a very rewarding payload. That it managed to be all those things while so clearly, pithily taking on Shakespeare gives it, to my mind, a quality similar to another favorite, Thomas De Quincey's "On the Knocking of the Gates in Macbeth." The essay came back to me when last week, in the bottomless generosity of one Ben Houben, I was invited out to Pelham Parkway for shabbas. That afternoon we were already talking about the next week's parshah—Balak—and I'm not big on Saturday morning special divrei torah (neither was anyone else in the conversation it should be said). One of the most striking features of Balak is how unexpectedly we return to a story that brings individuals in chumash to the fore again, centering the entire drama around one person and his relationship with God. No legalities, no whole nations being beset with plagues or fed manna from heaven, nothing more than the single person confronting God with all the existential weight that carries. In Bereishit that particular sort of gravity was the rule, and much of what Auerbach discussed in Mimesis on the akeidah, as unique to the Tanach comes out of stories of individuals confronting the divine on their own—Avraham's arguing with God over the fate of S'dom is a particularly poignant example. That in and of itself is no unique feature of the Tanach, but something about this Hebraic drama even seems more salient than other Western stories that also proved to have a lasting grip on the Western literary tradition. Oedipus or Orestes or Agamemnon—all these figures stand as lone individuals, confronting their divinely dictated fates as mere humans, and the weight of that drama proves potent, but still the story of Bil'am has one baffling characteristic none of the other have. Rather than a tragic or heroic protagonist, the story revolves around an antagonist. Even in his antagonism his humanity is underscored as he struggles and stumbles down his chosen path. We are meant to identify with that vulnerability, although the midrash as usual tries to draw the lines a little more morally clear (the talking donkey chooses to confront our main character on some unseemly shite).

And suddenly I remembered that favorite Freud essay. Three times Bil'am makes the choice to curse B'nei Yisrael. Twice he fails, blessing them instead, while at the third time especially the most beautiful poetry comes out of his mouth. Freud's essay adressed the idea of the three-fold choice and drew on Shakespeare from the start. The Merchant of Venice presents the choice of three caskets; fortune lies in the one made of lead rather than gold or silver. King Lear gives the tragic hero a choice among three daughters, the third being silent.

Shakespeare did not himself invent this oracle of the choice of a casket; he took it from a tale in the Gesta Romanorum (a medieval collection of stories of unknown authorship), in which a girl has to make the same choice to win the Emperor's son. Here, too, the third metal, lead, is the bringer of fortune. It is not hard to guess that we have here an ancient theme, which requires to be interpreted, accounted for and traced back to its origin.

The folk accounts go on. An Estonian legend in which three suitors represent the sun, the moon, and the star of youth—although this version provides inverted gender roles. But Freud continues. Paris choosing from among the three goddesses. Cinderella, who is the right choice among her two step-sisters. Again and again, the choice seems to consist of a man choosing from among three women. To Freud, these women could only be the Fates themselves, and the third fate is death herself (Death is translated into the goddess of Love in the judgment of Paris). In The Merchant of Venice it's a choice of the most death-like casket to achieve the fair and wise woman. In King Lear, Cordelia remains silent next to her sisters' effusiveness, and Lear makes the wrong choice.

But Lear is not only an old man: he is a dying man. In this way the extraordinary premise of the division of his inheritance loses all its strangeness. But the doomed man is not willing to renounce the love of women; he insists on hearing how much he is loved. Let us now recall the moving final scene, one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama. Lear carries Cordelia's dead body on to the stage. Cordelia is Death. If we reverse the situation it becomes intelligible and familiar to us. She is the Death-goddess who, like the Valkyrie in German mythology, carries away the dead hero from the battlefield.
The fates correspond to the three women in a man's life: the woman who gives birth to him, the woman who becomes his mate, and the woman who can destroy him. In the mythic world these tales were told as a reminder to man of his ultimate fate, admonishing him to remain humble before greater powers. Over twenty years later Freud would write about the death drive in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and the need for trauma victims to confront what may have meant their death repeatedly as a means to regain control. Looking back at this essay it's just as easy to extend Freud's analysis so that the stories all include the message that for the hero to seize his fate, he must confront death.

In the biblical world, as Ben pointed out to me, blessings mean life while curses mean death--that's a linguistic fact of the tanach, not an interpretation. I'll add, by the by, that Ben and I usually operate with him making linguistic and hermeneutic claims that don't convince me, followed by me getting shamed in the ensuing debate. But it also needs to be said that words are the source of creation in the biblical narrative—of all life. In the story of Bil'am the legendary totems get upended. The choice of Bil'am's to use his power of death over B'nei Yisrael isn't a choice, not this time. This time the only choice is the blessings of life and flowing poetry. The biblical model, like all good Jewish homes, categorically rejects fatalism; B'nei Yisrael never find out for themselves what almost happened. The prospect of a power or equally valid archetype of death doesn't exist, not for them. And though it all sounds well and good and familiar to me, I'm still not sure what I really think about that.