The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Othello

My recent comments about splitting my attention eight different ways to pursue eight different projects was remarked upon, with a mind to suggesting that the profit motive, which certainly compels me in this instance, would operate similarly in terms of the UHC debate--namely that a Federally managed program would damage the profit of drug companies, and that would therefore decrease innovation and ultimately lead to reduced health.

Some comments on this (and by the way, I kinda liked that line of reasoning.)

1) Yeah, I'm working like crazy on a bunch of projects. The motivation is largely monetary, but also ambition and wish fulfillment: I would love to create a television series, or a theatrical film. Even if all my bills were paid, I'd still do SOME of these projects, but in truth, not all of them.

2) While I'm working a ridiculous amount, I could never suggest that I'm creating my BEST work. My best work was probably LION'S BLOOD, and while money created the room for me to write it, it was sheer labor of love. I suspect that this applies to the realm of scientific discovery as well--money creates the room for creative speculation. There is a name for people who write what they write for money alone. They are called "Hacks". Shakespeare certainly wrote for money, but it is the "alone" or "primarily" that is important to consider.

3) How do I keep my soul while working for money? I create a mental Venn diagram. In one circle are the things I want to write. In the other, the things that I believe there is a market for. Where the two circles overlap, that's where I write.

4) My contention is that, yes, there would be less monetary motivation. People could only get "really rich" as opposed to "really stinking rich." This would definitely send some of those primarily motivated by the idea of getting "really stinking rich" out of the research pool. Just as if actors were paid a maximum of, say, 10 million per movie, a few actors MIGHT drop out. Maybe. Personally, I doubt that any of the great ones would. The trick is that thorny question: why do people want money? A BIG chunk of it is freedom. But another is security. Which means that the more security is provided by the social network, the less this motivation moves people.

Which means...that there is a level of social safety net that will DECREASE motivation. But on the other end, there is a level of uncertainty and danger that will decrease innovation, as well. There are tons of stories I can't write because I am literally afraid of not being able to support my family, provide them with food, shelter, health care, education. My sense? Some of these stories would be the absolute best work of my life, creations of pure love and desire for contribution. And they'll probably never be written. It is no one's responsibility to provide me with everything I want, everything that might remove the fear of going too far outside what society "wants."

But it is legitimate to debate what is and is not a matter of the public commons. There are those who believe the government should be out of the business of education, pointing to the public education system as a total disaster. This, to me, is nonsensical since most of what they use to criticise the public schools (our scores are dropping in comparison to other countries! Or whatever,) is a reference not to the supposed superiority of private schools, but rather comparison with...wait for it...other countries with public education systems. So rather than model what these more efficient systems are doing, there is an appeal to "the free market is best". This annoys me, as I've said, because I don't personally know any liberals who believe government should take everything over, while I do know conservatives who believe private industry should reign supreme. If I met someone who believed government should do everything private industry does, I'd think they were nuts. And frankly, I have a bit of the same reaction when I meet someone as convinced private industry is somehow more moral, as if people who decide to work in post offices are automatically less moral than people at Fedex. This just isn't reasonable.

5) The idea that my sales should reflect what the majority wants to see is kinda similar to a medical institution concentrating on the diseases that the most people are frightened by. For that reason, I have no problem seeing people who are motivated to find a cure for a disease because a relative or friend died of it. If there are diseases that have never hurt anyone's relatives or friends, no one is scared by it, so there will be less motivation to research it...but there will also be little market for it, right?

On the RIGHT side of the room, would everyone who is primarily motivated by profit please line up? And on the LEFT side of the room, would everyone primarily motivated by love, fear, or intellectual curiosity please line up?

Now...no one is saying that there will be NO profit, so...would everyone who needs to get "stinking rich" instead of just "rich" please move further to the Right? So we have love, fear, intellectual curiosity, and wealth--just not "super wealth" perhaps. And you know what? I like that group better. I would trust them more. Whether you are talking about art, commerce, science, or anything else, I have seen most innovation and discovery, as well as service and anything else, created by the group that wants security and freedom, contribution and self-expression...and not merely those who would walk away from their intellectual or artistic discipline if they can't make hundreds of millions instead of tens.

Maslow's Heirarchy suggests that when survival needs are taken care of, and we have the freedom and security to have a roof over our heads and the ability to raise our children in our own way, what we want next is contribution, connection, intellectual understanding, and self-expression. Money is not the end-all. I do not believe that my friends on the Right really believe it is, but the argument sounds better than I believe it really is. That would require a more cynical view of human nature than I hold.

##

Finished reading "Othello" aloud--My third time, I think. Working through all of Shakespeare, one scene a day took me about 3 years the first time. There is so much in the Bard that I love, that even if I don't get any other reading done, it feels like I won't intellectually starve if I just make sure to do this much.

The basic questions about Othello usually have to do with Iago's motivations (why exactly did he wish to destroy Othello? Sexual jealousy (he suspects Othello boffed his wife. Career resentment/ Racial animus?) Othello's race (was he black? Did it make a difference in the story?), the odd question of whether Othello and Desdemona ever actually made the beast with two backs...

It goes on. My sense of these questions:

1) Iago did it because he did it. Shakespeare was interested in a story of human evil and human weakness. Iago gave three different possible reasons...but the truth is that it was simply his nature. The reasons were just excuses. We have to remember: Iago ain't a real human being. He is a plot device.

2) Othello is black. Shakespeare did about everything he could to say it. Even if you believed the Moors had no Negro blood (which is another subject) it is pretty clear to me, and most scholars, that this was the Bard's intent. Black slaves had been introduced to England about 100 years earlier, and in sufficient numbers that the queen had commented upon the sight--and not with pleasure, either. I think the word "slave" is used in Othello more than in any other Shakespearian play. He is called black, "thicklips" and on and on.

3) Did race make any difference? People rather ignorantly suggest that there was no problem with race. Come ON. Desdemona's father, on hearing of their match, freaked out and immediately started using racial slurs. When he found that she had married Othello of her own will, Daddy backed down (the city needs Othello's military skills to survive) but dies of disgust and/or a broken heart. It is clear that prejudice is barely held at bay by their respect for his marital prowess.

It also seems clear to me that Shakespeare, while a wholly phenomenal writer and lay psychologist, utterly incapable of writing a really flat character, was not particularly enlightened on this subject. Othello is extraordinary but childlike emotionally. When you look at what it took to convince him to kill his wife, I don't think anyone ever thought "wow! He was smart!" The Jew Shylock in "Merchant of Venice" has some positive characteristics, but is undone by the gentiles arrayed against him. I think it is reasonable to think that Shylock mirrored English attitudes toward Hebrews, although the average Elizabethan probably had never met one. Believe they'd been expelled at that time.

In the same way, Othello is kind of a "see? He's the best of them, and he's still a childish, epileptic honor-killer." Not exactly what you'd want your daughters to marry, eh? Sort of a comment about effete, ineffectual Venetian society, don't you think? Viewed that way, Iago's actions were almost certainly, in part, motivated by racial hatred. Note the repeated use of "Moor" as a pejorative as soon as Desdemona's murder is discovered. Yeah, I get it. Not even really all that subtle.

##

Did Desdemona and Othello consummate their marriage? Well...he never specifically says they did or didn't. Othello DOES imply that his sex drive isn't what it used to be. But we'd have to ignore a bunch of stuff to go as far as suggest they hadn't boffed.

1) Marrying a woman and then NOT consummating would seem to me a real topic of conversation if someone raises the possibility that she's screwed another man. Hard to believe it wouldn't be a point of interest.

2) If they hadn't, and Desdemona was believed a virgin, he could easily have determined if she'd screwed Cassio--or anyone--just by determining if she still had a maidenhead, right?

3) They had plenty of time together, alone. Just ordinary human sexual interest would be expected to take advantage of said time. Absent some strong reason to think otherwise...yeah, he did her.

4) Goodness sakes: virtually Iago's first words in the play are the claim that Othello and Desdemona are, right NOW, "doing it." Iago talks directly to the audience several times. Hard to believe he wouldn't have gloated that his plans included depriving Othello of ever enjoying Desdemona sexually.

I just don't buy it, really, and have to wonder, just a bit, if the scholars who suggest it aren't projecting just a little bit of their own distaste.

6 comments:

Marty S said...

Before he was really famous, I saw James Earl Jones as Othello in central park. It was awesome.

One the subject of drug innovation. I am retired and have no monetary incentive to do anything in my former field, but I am currently investigating some alternate approaches to the usual methodology of Genetic Algorithms in AI. I do this for the enjoyment, but drug research is too expensive for an individual to do by himself out of personal motivation. Drug research is mainly done by companies that make decisions pretty much purely based on profit motive. Its the same as situation as no major film showing Black main characters having sex. Only there are probably more independent film producers who can do what they want without worrying about making money than drug researchers.
On the subject of education, the whole situation is entirely different. Education is pretty much about teaching the basic information students need to survive and prosper in our society. There are no risky ventures to develop new subject matter or teaching methodologies. Also public education while it has some biases is less likely to be biased in its approach than private education, which is often provided by people with a philosophical axe to grind. So education is clearly better done publicly.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

There are people who suggest Othello and Desdemona never slept together? Weird.

Christian H. said...

Well, hopefully, there'll never be Open Source fiction writing. Or screenwriting.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Have you looked into Kickstarter or other ways of funding projects through contributions? There might be enough people who'd put up money to see the stories you especially want to write.

Marty S said...

Here's an aside on on the financial aspects of government policy and senior citizens with application to the topic of UHC. A retired senior citizen who depends upon income from his savings and plans on living another 25 years at a 4% inflation rate and 15% tax rate assuming a 5% return on investment can draw $4465 in 2009 dollars per $100,000 dollars of savings. if you drop inflation to 3% and double taxes to 30% he/she can draw $4555 per year in 2009 dollars. So if UHC is enacted the senior citizens will not as seriously affected financially if taxes are raised enough to pay for it so inflation is kept down.

Mike Ralls said...

>Believe they'd been expelled at that time

They were expelled from England in 1290, which is about as far away from Shakespeare as we are from the last Witch Trial in America. People just don't need to be in contact with "The Others" to have very negative opinions of them.

Shakespeare probably had pretty standard views for an Englishman of the 16th century, which means that by today's standards he would be a lunitical sexist, racist, and religious bigot. When considering that, it's best to have a little humility and remember that numerous of the views that you think are good and right are going to be regarded as evil in 400 years. Such is the nature of time and human culture.

Suggesting that Othello never had sex with his wife, or that he wasn't black, or that race had no role in the play all seem like rather silly suppositions to me, given the text. But who do you think is going to get more attention, the person who writes an article asserting any of those things, or one who writes an article saying that the standard interpretation of the text is right?