Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Expose Thyself To What Wretches Feel

Last month, we at Classics Corner found ourselves at the Fifth Annual Conference of the North American Street Newspaper Association, way up in Edmonton, Canada, where all the working people say “eh?,” and curling, a cross between ice bowling and shuffleboard, is an Olympic sport.

Much as we adore vegetarian food cooked by hippies and served from tofu containers, we managed to miss the evening meal by Food Not Bombs. We also missed the little protest march, wherein Dr. Wes Browning allegedly induced dozens of youngsters to dance like Deadheads while chanting, “This is what dem-o-cracy looks like.” We even missed the International Streetpaper Vend-Off, which was won by Larry, a genial little man from Calgary. Larry, who had been a vendor just three days, made $70 on 40 papers in two hours, thus attaining cult status within the North American streetpaper movement.

We were irresistibly torn from all this by the final night of River City Shakespeare Festival 2000, which featured a production of King Lear set in late-Weimar Germany. Goneril and Regan hatch their bitchy little plot in slinky ballroom gowns while smoking from long, elegant cigarette holders. Their imperious stormtrooper husbands gloat all through the play, right up to their well-deserved deaths at the end. Cordelia takes up with the French Resistance, and finally shows up in fatigues to fight for la revolutíon.

Next day, during an exciting by-laws discussion, delegates from across the continent debated membership approval and nominating processes while we at Classics Corner transcended the pathetic human condition by reflecting upon the lessons of Lear.

Lear, we decided, speaks to us because the play cuts through the pomp of privilege to show people as the absurd and vulnerable creatures we are. The King moves from ego-ridden arrogance to self-pity to identification with the wretched. “Expose thyself to what wretches feel,” he says, entering the mud and straw hovel of Poor Tom, “and show the heavens more just.” Lear finds that stripped of our property, we are all pretty much the same. Man is shown to be “No more than this … a poor, bare, forked animal.”

An MLA, which is something like a State Representative, welcomed us the first day to Alberta and encouraged us in our vocation. We offer a window, he said, into a harsh reality that some might otherwise never see. We fight the good fight against economic injustice. We keep what is undeniably bad from getting unbelievably worse.

Things in Lear continually go from bad to worse. Edgar says “Who is it can say, ‘I am at the worst?’ … The worst is not so long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’”

Eventually, in his madness and poverty, King Lear sees the hypocrisy of “justice,” and utters what is our favorite line in all of Shakespeare: “Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.”

If we’d had our way, the entire NASNA conference would have taken the night off to attend Lear. We could have grinned across that great class divide and sold papers at intermissions, daring Festival promoters to the irony of arresting us.

That night in Edmonton, it might have been what democracy looked like.

Tuesday, July 11, 2000

The Dangers of Excess

When Classics Corner last month watched fatass rich guy Paul Allen smash a Chihuli guitar to celebrate his latest acquisition, we were reminded of nothing so much as Solon’s legendary advice to Croesus, that no one should consider themselves lucky until after they’re dead.

As Herodotus tells the story, which, like many of his instructive tales, probably never happened, Croesus, King of Sardis, was honored with a visit from Solon, the originator of Athenian democracy. Croesus, then the richest man in Asia, instructed his minions to show Solon about his various storerooms and treasuries. He then asked the wise man who was “most blessed of all.”

The unimpressed Solon answered, “Sir, Tellus the Athenian.”

This Tellus apparently died bravely in battle after having sired devoted sons in a well-run city. Croesus, a bit taken aback by this strange value system, asked who, then, was second most blessed.

“Cleobis and Biton,” said Solon. These men, when oxen were unavailable for their mother’s ride to the temple, yoked themselves to a wagon and pulled her the 6 miles themselves, and then, in an apparent paroxysm of filial piety, died. Their fellow countrymen were so impressed that statues in their likeness were erected at a holy shrine.

Croesus was unamused. Solon, who numbered a mans days at 26,250, reminded him that each of these was different from the last, that that while Croesus was rich and a King, he may or may not be blessed, depending on how his days went to the end.

That was pretty much the end of the King’s hospitality, and Croesus sent Solon away, “thinking him most assuredly a stupid man.”

Later, with his mighty empire in ruins and his mind concentrated by the prospect of being burned alive by King Cyrus of Persia, Croesus saw the wisdom in Solon’s little homily. As the flames kindled, he cried out “Solon! Solon! Solon!,” each utterance bringing the flames a little closer to his feet.

The Persian King, always up for a good conversation, asked who this Solon was, and Croesus told the whole story in perilous detail.

Cyrus, who like most ancient rulers was subject to wild mood swings, reflected on “how nothing of all that is in the world of men can be secure,” and gave orders to let Croesus go.
By then, however, the flames would not be doused, and the fire was out of control. Fortunately for Croesus, Apollo heard his prayers and sent a rainstorm. The Sardinian ruler became the slave of Cyrus, but at least he wasn’t roasted alive. In those days, this passed for a happy ending.

And so it goes. Today, WSU dropout Paul Allen owns a couple of sports teams, some cable companies, an entertainment empire, Janis Joplin’s feather boa, the Hendrix legacy, Mick Jagger’s ex-wife, and various other effluvia and ephemera too numerous to mention.

He thinks he’s so smart. We’d gleefully like to remind Paul that he has 10,058 days left, and as any ancient greek knows, excessive happiness is a very dangerous thing.