Martin Amis (RIP) Explains Why American Populism Is a Con

In the lat­er decades of his 50-year-long career as a nov­el­ist, the late Mar­tin Amis had a rep­u­ta­tion as some­thing of a con­tro­ver­sial­ist. This made more sense in his native Eng­land than in the Amer­i­ca to which he lat­er relo­cat­ed, and whose large­ly non-lit­er­ary provo­ca­teurs tend to an aggres­sive plain­spo­ken­ness bor­der­ing on — and more recent­ly, dri­ving well into the ter­ri­to­ry of — vul­gar­i­ty. “Intel­lec­tu­al snob­bery has been much neglect­ed,” says Amis in the Big Think inter­view clip above. His plea is for “more care about how peo­ple express them­selves and more rev­er­ence, not for peo­ple of high social stand­ing, but for peo­ple of decent edu­ca­tion and train­ing.”

This against pop­ulism, which “relies on a sen­ti­men­tal and very old-fash­ioned view that the une­d­u­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion knows bet­ter, in its instincts, than the over-refined elite, that leads to anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism, which is self-destruc­tive for every­one”: the lion­iza­tion, in oth­er words, of the kind of fig­ure giv­en to dec­la­ra­tions like “I go with my gut.”

In every oth­er land, as Amis sees it, “brain has won over gut, but in Amer­i­ca it still splits the nation.” It would be one thing if the vis­cera-trust­ing rab­ble-rousers actu­al­ly worked to fur­ther the inter­ests of the com­mon man, but in every real-world sce­nario it turns out to be quite anoth­er. “It’s an act, pop­ulism. It’s always an act.”

An admir­er of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, Amis acknowl­edged the right to free speech as a vital ele­ment of that sys­tem. “You’ve got it or you haven’t,” he says in the clip just above, “and every diminu­tion of free­dom of speech dimin­ish­es every­one, and lessens the cur­ren­cy of free­dom of speech.” But he also lays down a caveat: “The con­tro­ver­sial state­ment has to be earned. It can’t just be tossed off. You have to be able to back it up.” He even describes him­self as “a fan of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” — of not “the out­er fringe P.C., but rais­ing the stan­dards about what can be said.” This process comes with its own chal­lenges, and “you have to sort of work round it a bit.” But since greater restric­tions demand, and reward, more skill­ful sub­tle­ty, an adept writer will always be of two minds about free speech. It will sure­ly be a while before we see anoth­er writer quite as adept as Mar­tin Amis.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Mar­tin Amis Explains His Method for Writ­ing Great Sen­tences

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Mar­tin Amis Explains How to Use a The­saurus to Actu­al­ly Improve Your Writ­ing

Nor­man Mail­er & Mar­tin Amis, No Strangers to Con­tro­ver­sy, Talk in 1991

P. J. O’Rourke (RIP) Explains Why You Can Nev­er Win Over Your Polit­i­cal Adver­saries by Mock­ing Them

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers

Image by the USO, via Flickr Com­mons

In one of my favorite Stephen King inter­views, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital impor­tance of a good open­ing line. “There are all sorts of the­o­ries,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An open­ing line should invite the read­er to begin the sto­ry. It should say: Lis­ten. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s dis­cus­sion of open­ing lines is com­pelling because of his dual focus as an avid read­er and a prodi­gious writer of fiction—he doesn’t lose sight of either per­spec­tive:

We’ve talked so much about the read­er, but you can’t for­get that the open­ing line is impor­tant to the writer, too. To the per­son who’s actu­al­ly boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a door­way that fits us both.

This is excel­lent advice. As you ori­ent your read­er, so you ori­ent your­self, point­ing your work in the direc­tion it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the open­ing line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That per­fect­ly craft­ed and invit­ing open­ing sen­tence is some­thing that emerges in revi­sion, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work hap­pens.

Revi­sion in the sec­ond draft, “one of them, any­way,” may “neces­si­tate some big changes” says King in his 2000 mem­oir slash writ­ing guide On Writ­ing. And yet, it is an essen­tial process, and one that “hard­ly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twen­ty rules from On Writ­ing. About half of these relate direct­ly to revi­sion. The oth­er half cov­er the intangibles—attitude, dis­ci­pline, work habits. A num­ber of these sug­ges­tions reli­ably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of tri­al and error and—writes the Barnes & Noble book blog—“over 350 mil­lion copies” sold, “like them or loathe them.”

1. First write for your­self, and then wor­ry about the audi­ence. “When you write a sto­ry, you’re telling your­self the sto­ry. When you rewrite, your main job is tak­ing out all the things that are not the sto­ry.”

2. Don’t use pas­sive voice. “Timid writ­ers like pas­sive verbs for the same rea­son that timid lovers like pas­sive part­ners. The pas­sive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

4. Avoid adverbs, espe­cial­ly after “he said” and “she said.”

5. But don’t obsess over per­fect gram­mar. “The object of fic­tion isn’t gram­mat­i­cal cor­rect­ness but to make the read­er wel­come and then tell a sto­ry.”

6. The mag­ic is in you. “I’m con­vinced that fear is at the root of most bad writ­ing.”

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t wor­ry about mak­ing oth­er peo­ple hap­py. “If you intend to write as truth­ful­ly as you can, your days as a mem­ber of polite soci­ety are num­bered, any­way.”

9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while work­ing out or any­where else—really is about the last thing an aspir­ing writer needs.”

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a sea­son.”

11. There are two secrets to suc­cess. “I stayed phys­i­cal­ly healthy, and I stayed mar­ried.”

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a sin­gle page or an epic tril­o­gy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accom­plished one word at a time.”

13. Elim­i­nate dis­trac­tion. “There should be no tele­phone in your writ­ing room, cer­tain­ly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One can­not imi­tate a writer’s approach to a par­tic­u­lar genre, no mat­ter how sim­ple what that writer is doing may seem.”

15. Dig. “Sto­ries are relics, part of an undis­cov­ered pre-exist­ing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her tool­box to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as pos­si­ble.”

16. Take a break. “You’ll find read­ing your book over after a six-week lay­off to be a strange, often exhil­a­rat­ing expe­ri­ence.”

17. Leave out the bor­ing parts and kill your dar­lings. “(kill your dar­lings, kill your dar­lings, even when it breaks your ego­cen­tric lit­tle scribbler’s heart, kill your dar­lings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t over­shad­ow the sto­ry. “Remem­ber that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the back­ground and the back sto­ry as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer sim­ply by read­ing and writ­ing. “You learn best by read­ing a lot and writ­ing a lot, and the most valu­able lessons of all are the ones you teach your­self.”

20. Writ­ing is about get­ting hap­py. “Writ­ing isn’t about mak­ing mon­ey, get­ting famous, get­ting dates, get­ting laid or mak­ing friends. Writ­ing is mag­ic, as much as the water of life as any oth­er cre­ative art. The water is free. So drink.”

See a fuller expo­si­tion of King’s writ­ing wis­dom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 69 Pages of Writ­ing Advice Denis John­son Col­lect­ed from Flan­nery O’Connor, Jack Ker­ouac, Stephen King, Hunter Thomp­son, Wern­er Her­zog & Many Oth­ers

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Stephen King’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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The Museum of Wonky English, a Japanese Exhibition Dedicated to Hilarious Mistranslations

I got hooked on Duolin­go a few years ago. Since then, I’ve used it dai­ly to prac­tice lan­guages like French, Span­ish, Finnish, Chi­nese, and Japan­ese. But none of those cours­es is quite as pop­u­lar with as many users as the one for Eng­lish, which is wide­ly spo­ken around the world — and, inevitably, almost as wide­ly mis­spo­ken around the world. Even non-Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries tend to put up some Eng­lish-lan­guage sig­nage, sparse and strange though it can often be: a hand­writ­ten gro­cer’s sign warn­ing cus­tomers not to “fin­ger the peach­es”; a notice mount­ed just above a uri­nal that urges vis­i­tors to “please uri­nate with pre­ci­sion and ele­gance.”

These exam­ples come, unsur­pris­ing­ly, from Japan, whose awk­ward but vivid­ly mem­o­rable writ­ten Eng­lish has long cir­cu­lat­ed in West­ern media. That made Tokyo the ide­al loca­tion for the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish, a pop-up col­lab­o­ra­tion between Duolin­go Japan and cre­ative agency Ultra­Su­perNew that, as the lat­ter’s site describes it, exhibits “six­teen of the best exam­ples of wonky Eng­lish found all over Japan.”

When “vis­i­tors look at the signs, menus, clothes, and oth­er objects exhib­it­ed in the muse­um — objects that can make them chuck­le, gasp, think, and reflect — they will notice there’s more depth to wonky Eng­lish than they ini­tial­ly thought and become more embold­ened to learn a for­eign lan­guage.”

You can still see some of the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish’s prized lin­guis­tic arti­facts in the pro­mo­tion­al video above (which pro­vides the orig­i­nal Japan­ese phras­es from which these odd trans­la­tions sprang), as well as in the pic­tures accom­pa­ny­ing this Japan­ese-lan­guage arti­cle. “Please do not eat chil­dren and elder­ly.” “When cof­fee is gone. It’s over.” “Crap your hands.”

Though uni­d­iomat­ic at best, these phras­es and oth­ers exert a kind of pow­er over the imag­i­na­tion. When close­ly scru­ti­nized, they also illu­mi­nate the mechan­ics of the under­ly­ing Japan­ese lan­guage and its dif­fer­ences with Eng­lish. And though the Muse­um of Wonky Eng­lish was open for only a week, a run that end­ed last week, I can assure you — liv­ing, as I do, in Korea — that wonky Eng­lish itself remains in rude health.

via Spoon and Tam­a­go

Relat­ed con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

“Weird Al” Yankovic Releas­es “Word Crimes,” a Gram­mar Nerd Par­o­dy of “Blurred Lines”

Steven Pinker Iden­ti­fies 10 Break­able Gram­mat­i­cal Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dan­gling Mod­i­fiers & More

What Are the Most Effec­tive Strate­gies for Learn­ing a For­eign Lan­guage?: Six TED Talks Pro­vide the Answers

The Restau­rant of Mis­tak­en Orders: A Tokyo Restau­rant Where All the Servers Are Peo­ple Liv­ing with Demen­tia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How to Read Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A British Museum Curator Explains

If you want to learn to read hiero­glyph­ics, you must first learn that (with apolo­gies to the artists behind “You Nev­er Knew”) there are no such things as hiero­glyph­ics. There are only hiero­glyphs, as the British Muse­um’s cura­tor of ancient writ­ing Ilona Regul­s­ki explains in the video just above, and hiero­glyph­ic is the adjec­ti­val form. You may remem­ber Regul­s­ki from anoth­er British Muse­um video we’ve fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, about what the Roset­ta Stone actu­al­ly says — which she knows because she can actu­al­ly read it, not just in the ancient Greek lan­guage, but in the ancient Egypt­ian one. Here, she explains how to inter­pret its once utter­ly mys­te­ri­ous sym­bols.

It would take an incu­ri­ous view­er indeed not to be cap­ti­vat­ed by their first glimpse of hiero­glyphs, which pos­sess a kind of detail and beau­ty lit­tle seen in oth­er writ­ing sys­tems. Or at least they do when carved into stone, Regul­s­ki explains; in more every­day con­texts, the impres­sive arrange­ments of owls, ankhs, bas­kets, eyes, and bread loaves took on a more sim­pli­fied, abstract­ed form.

Either way, it makes use of a com­plex and dis­tinc­tive gram­mat­i­cal sys­tem about which we can draw a good deal of insight from exam­in­ing a sin­gle inscrip­tion: in this case, an inscrip­tion on a lin­tel glo­ri­fy­ing Amen­emhat III, “one of the most famous kings of ancient Egypt.”

Those who feel their his­tor­i­cal-lin­guis­tic curios­i­ty piqued would do well to vis­it the British Muse­um’s cur­rent exhi­bi­tion “Hiero­glyphs: Unlock­ing Ancient Egypt,” which runs until Feb­ru­ary 19th of next year. If you can’t make it to Lon­don, you can still go a bit deep­er with the video below. Drawn the Great Cours­es series “Decod­ing the Secrets of Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs,” it fea­tures Egyp­tol­o­gist Bob Brier’s break­down of such rel­e­vant con­cepts as phonet­ics, deter­mi­na­tives, and ideograms, as well as guid­ed exer­cis­es in sen­tence trans­la­tion and name translit­er­a­tion. After demon­strat­ing admirable hiero­glyph­ic pen­man­ship (cer­tain­ly com­pared to most mod­erns), Brier leaves us with a home­work assign­ment — just the sort of thing the ancient Egyp­tians them­selves were doing a few mil­len­nia ago.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Writ­ing: From Ancient Egypt to Mod­ern Writ­ing Sys­tems

You Could Soon Be Able to Text with 2,000 Ancient Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

An Ancient Egypt­ian Home­work Assign­ment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Tru­ly Time­less

3,200-Year-Old Egypt­ian Tablet Records Excus­es for Why Peo­ple Missed Work: “The Scor­pi­on Bit Him,” “Brew­ing Beer” & More

A 4,000-Year-Old Stu­dent ‘Writ­ing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Cor­rec­tions in Red)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Discover Nüshu, a 19th-Century Chinese Writing System That Only Women Knew How to Write

Lit­er­a­cy in Chi­nese may now be wide­ly attained, but it isn’t eas­i­ly attained. Just a cen­tu­ry ago it was­n’t wide­ly attained either, at least not by half of the Chi­nese speak­ers alive. As a rule, women once weren’t taught the thou­sands of logo­graph­ic char­ac­ters nec­es­sary to read and write in the lan­guage. But in one par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the land, Jiangy­ong Coun­ty in Hunan province, some did mas­ter the 600 to 700 char­ac­ters of a pho­net­ic script made to reflect the local dialect and now called Nüshu (女书), or “wom­en’s writ­ing.”

In its hey­day, Nüshu’s users had a vari­ety of names for it, “includ­ing ‘mos­qui­to writ­ing,’ because it is a lit­tle slant­ed and with long ‘legs,’ ” writes Ilar­ia Maria Sala in a Quartz piece on the scrip­t’s his­to­ry. Its great­est con­cen­tra­tion of prac­ti­tion­ers lived in “the vil­lage of Shangjiangxu, where young girls exchanged small tokens of friend­ly affec­tion, such as fans dec­o­rat­ed with cal­lig­ra­phy or hand­ker­chiefs embroi­dered with a few aus­pi­cious words.”

Oth­er, more for­mal occa­sions for the use of Nüshu, includ­ed when girls decid­ed to “make a full-fledged pact of close­ness with one anoth­er that they were ‘best friends’ — jiebai zimei or ‘sworn sis­ters’ — a rela­tion­ship that was rec­og­nized as valu­able and even nec­es­sary for them in the local social sys­tem. Such a once-obscure chap­ter of Chi­nese his­to­ry has proven irre­sistible to read­ers from a vari­ety of cul­tures in recent decades.

“Most inter­pre­ta­tions and head­lines have been about a ‘secret lan­guage’ that women used, prefer­ably to com­mu­ni­cate their pain,” writes Sala, which struck her as evi­dence of peo­ple tak­ing the sto­ry of Nüshu and “read­ing into it what they want­ed, regard­less of what it meant.” Yet such an inter­pre­ta­tion has sure­ly done its part to spread inter­est in the near-extinc­t’s scrip­t’s revival, described by’s Andrew Loft­house as orig­i­nat­ing in “the tiny vil­lage of Puwei, which is sur­round­ed by the Xiao riv­er and only acces­si­ble via a small sus­pen­sion bridge.” After three Nüshu writ­ers were dis­cov­ered there in the eight­ies, “it became the focal point for Nüshu research. In 2006, the script was list­ed as a Nation­al Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage by the State Coun­cil of Chi­na, and a year lat­er, a muse­um was built on Puwei Island.”

There train­ing is pro­vid­ed to the few select “inter­preters or ‘inher­i­tors’ of the lan­guage, learn­ing to read, write, sing and embroi­der Nüshu.” Iron­i­cal­ly, Loft­house adds, “much of what we know about Nüshu is due to the work of male researcher Zhou Shuoyi” who hap­pened to hear of it in the nine­teen-fifties and was lat­er per­se­cut­ed dur­ing Mao Zedong’s Cul­tur­al Rev­o­lu­tion — a treat­ment that includ­ed 21 years in a labor camp — for hav­ing researched such an arti­fact of the feu­dal past. Once a use­ful tool for express­ing emo­tions and per­form­ing social rit­u­als social­iza­tion, Nüshu had become polit­i­cal­ly dan­ger­ous. What it becomes now, half a cen­tu­ry lat­er and with its renew­al only just begin­ning, is up to its new learn­ers.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Free Chi­nese Lessons

The Improb­a­ble Inven­tion of Chi­nese Type­writ­ers & Com­put­er Key­boards: Three Videos Tell the Tech­no-Cul­tur­al Sto­ry

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

How Writ­ing Has Spread Across the World, from 3000 BC to This Year: An Ani­mat­ed Map

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Old­est Writ­ing Sys­tem in the World: A Short, Charm­ing Intro­duc­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Oakland Public Library Puts Online a Collection of Items Forgotten in Library Books: Love Notes, Doodles & More

Librar­i­ans are cham­pi­ons of orga­ni­za­tion, and among its best prac­ti­tion­ers.

Books are shelved accord­ing to the Dewey Dec­i­mal sys­tem.

Cat­e­gories are assigned using Library of Con­gress Rule Inter­pre­ta­tions, Library of Con­gress Sub­ject Head­ings, and Library of Con­gress Clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

And Sharon McKel­lar, the Teen Ser­vices Depart­ment Head at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library, col­lects ephemera she and oth­er staffers find in books returned to the OPL’s 18 loca­tions.

It’s an impulse many share. 

Even­tu­al­ly, she began scan­ning them to share on her employ­er’s web­site, inspired by Found Mag­a­zine, a crowd­sourced col­lec­tion of found let­ters, birth­day cards, kids’ home­work, to-do lists, hand­writ­ten poems, doo­dles, dirty pic­tures, etc.

As Found’s cre­ators, Davy Roth­bart and Jason Bit­ner, write on the magazine’s web­site:

We cer­tain­ly didn’t invent the idea of found stuff being cool. Every time we vis­it our friends in oth­er towns, someone’s always got some kind of unbe­liev­able dis­cov­ered note or pho­to on their fridge. We decid­ed to make a bunch of projects so that every­one can check out all the strange, hilar­i­ous and heart­break­ing things peo­ple have picked up and passed our way.

McKel­lar told NPR that her project “lets us be a lit­tle bit nosy. In a very anony­mous way, it’s like read­ing peo­ple’s secret diaries a lit­tle bit but with­out know­ing who they are.”

The finds, which she stores in a box under her desk pri­or to scan­ning and post­ing, are push­ing 600, with more arriv­ing all the time.

Search­able cat­e­gories include notes, cre­ative writ­ing, art, and pho­tos.

One arti­fact, the scat­o­log­i­cal one-of-a-kind zine Mr Men #48, excerpt­ed above, spans four cat­e­gories, includ­ing kids, a high­ly fer­tile source of both humor and heart­break.

There’s a dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent vibe to the items that chil­dren forge for them­selves or each oth­er, as opposed to work cre­at­ed for school, or as presents for the adults in their lives.

McKel­lar admits to hav­ing a sweet spot for their inad­ver­tent con­tri­bu­tions, which com­prise the bulk of the col­lec­tion.

She also cat­a­logues the throw­away fly­ers, tick­et stubs and lists that adult read­ers use to mark their place in a book, but when it comes to place­hold­ers with more obvi­ous poten­tial for sen­ti­men­tal val­ue, she finds her­self won­der­ing if a library patron has acci­den­tal­ly lost track of a pre­cious object:

Does the per­son miss that item? Do they regret hav­ing lost it or were they care­less with it because they actu­al­ly did­n’t share those deep and pro­found feel­ings with the per­son who wrote [it]?

Actu­al book­marks are not exempt…

Future plans include a pos­si­ble writ­ing con­test for short sto­ries inspired by items in the col­lec­tion.

Browse the Found in a Library Book col­lec­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Pub­lic Library Receipt Shows How Much Mon­ey You’ve Saved by Bor­row­ing Books, Instead of Buy­ing Them

Free Col­or­ing Books from World-Class Libraries & Muse­ums: Down­load & Col­or Hun­dreds of Free Images

The New York Pub­lic Library Cre­ates a List of 125 Books That They Love

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

If only we could have had a teacher as insight­ful as Sir Ian McK­ellen explain some Shake­speare to us at an impres­sion­able age.

Above, a 38-year-old McK­ellen breaks down Macbeth’s famous final solil­o­quy as part of a 1978 mas­ter class in Act­ing Shake­speare.

He makes it clear ear­ly on that rely­ing on Iambic pen­tame­ter to con­vey the mean­ing of the verse will not cut it.

Instead, he calls upon actors to apply the pow­er of their intel­lect to every line, ana­lyz­ing metaphors and imagery, while also not­ing punc­tu­a­tion, word choice, and of course, the events lead­ing up to the speech.

In this way, he says, “the actor is the play­wright and the char­ac­ter simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.”

McK­ellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Mac­beth, play­ing the title role oppo­site Judi Dench in a bare bones Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny pro­duc­tion that opened in the company’s Strat­ford stu­dio before trans­fer­ring to the West End. As McK­ellen recalled in a longer med­i­ta­tion on the trick­i­ness of stag­ing this par­tic­u­lar tragedy:

It was beau­ti­ful­ly done on the cheap in The Oth­er Place, the old tin hut along from the main the­atre. John Napi­er’s entire set cost £200 and the cos­tumes were a rag­bag of sec­ond-hand clothes. My uni­form jack­et had but­tons embossed with ‘Birm­ing­ham Fire Ser­vice’; my long, leather coat did­n’t fit, nor did Ban­quo’s so we had to wear them slung over the shoul­der; Judi Dench, as Lady Mac­beth, wore a dyed tea-tow­el on her head. Some­how it was mag­ic: and black mag­ic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, when­ev­er he could scrounge a tick­et, hold­ing out his cru­ci­fix to pro­tect the cast from the evil we were rais­ing.

The New York Times raved about the pro­duc­tion, declar­ing McK­ellen “the best equipped British actor of his gen­er­a­tions:”

Mr. McK­el­len’s Mac­beth is wit­ty; not mere­ly the hor­ror but the absur­di­ty of his actions strikes him from the out­set, and he can regard his down­fall as an inex­orable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would trav­el any­way and he can allow him­self scru­ples, know­ing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her pro­sa­ic, lim­it­ed ambi­tion is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died here­after” is a moment of exas­per­a­tion that dares our laugh­ter.

What fuels him most is envy, reach­ing incred­u­lous­ly for­ward (“The seed of Ban­quo kings?”) and back­ward to col­or the despair of “Dun­can is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are ran­cid, and it is this mood that takes pos­ses­sion of his last scenes. Every­thing dis­gusts him, and his only rea­son for fight­ing to the death is that the thought of sub­jec­tion is the most dis­gust­ing of all.

McK­ellen begins his exam­i­na­tion of the text by not­ing how “she would have died here­after” sets up the final solil­o­quy’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with time, and its pas­sage.

Tomor­row, and tomor­row, and tomor­row,

Creeps in this pet­ty pace from day to day,

To the last syl­la­ble of record­ed time;

And all our yes­ter­days have light­ed fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief can­dle!

Life’s but a walk­ing shad­ow, a poor play­er,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

McK­ellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief can­dle”,  relat­ing it to Lady Macbeth’s final appear­ance, the fools pro­ceed­ing to their dusty death ear­li­er in the mono­logue, and Eliz­a­bethan stage light­ing.

He spec­u­lates that Shakespeare’s descrip­tion of life as a “poor play­er” was a delib­er­ate attempt by the play­wright to give the actor an inter­pre­tive hook they could relate to. In per­for­mance, the the­atri­cal metaphor should remind the audi­ence that they’re watch­ing a pre­tense even as they’re invest­ed in the character’s fate.

The pro­duc­tion’s suc­cess inspired direc­tor Trevor Nunn to film it. McK­ellen recalled that every­one was already so well acquaint­ed with the mate­r­i­al, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

The claus­tro­pho­bia of the stage pro­duc­tion was exact­ly cap­tured. Trevor had used a sim­i­lar tech­nique with Antony and Cleopa­tra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to tele­vise Shakespeare…There is so much I was proud of: dis­cov­er­ing how to play a solil­o­quy direct into the eyes of every­one in the audi­ence; mak­ing them laugh at Mac­beth’s gal­lows humor; work­ing along­side Judi Dench’s finest per­for­mance.

For more expert advice from McK­ellen, Patrick Stew­art, Ben Kings­ley and oth­er nota­bles, watch the RSC’s 9‑part Play­ing Shake­speare series here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and cre­ator, most recent­ly of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Nietzsche’s 10 Rules for Writing with Style

The life of Russ­ian-born poet, nov­el­ist, crit­ic, and first female psy­chol­o­gist Lou Andreas-Salomé has pro­vid­ed fod­der for both sala­cious spec­u­la­tion and intel­lec­tu­al dra­ma in film and on the page for the amount of roman­tic atten­tion she attract­ed from Euro­pean intel­lec­tu­als like philoso­pher Paul Rée, poet Ranier Maria Rilke, and Friedrich Niet­zsche. Emo­tion­al­ly intense Niet­zsche became infat­u­at­ed with Salomé, pro­posed mar­riage, and, when she declined, broke off their rela­tion­ship in abrupt Niet­zschean fash­ion.

For her part, Salomé so val­ued these friend­ships she made a pro­pos­al of her own: that she, Niet­zsche and Rée, writes D.A. Bar­ry at 3:AM Mag­a­zine, “live togeth­er in a celi­bate house­hold where they might dis­cuss phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­a­ture and art.” The idea scan­dal­ized Nietzsche’s sis­ter and his social cir­cle and may have con­tributed to the “pas­sion­ate crit­i­cism” Salomé’s 1894 bio­graph­i­cal study, Friedrich Niet­zsche: The Man and His Works, received. The “much maligned” work deserves a reap­praisal, Bar­ry argues, as “a psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait.”

In Niet­zsche, Salomé wrote, we see “sor­row­ful ail­ing and tri­umphal recov­ery, incan­des­cent intox­i­ca­tion and cool con­scious­ness. One sens­es here the close entwin­ing of mutu­al con­tra­dic­tions; one sens­es the over­flow­ing and vol­un­tary plunge of over-stim­u­lat­ed and tensed ener­gies into chaos, dark­ness and ter­ror, and then an ascend­ing urge toward the light and most ten­der moments.” We might see this pas­sage as charged by the remem­brance of a friend, with whom she once “climbed Monte Sacro,” she claimed, in 1882, “where he told her of the con­cept of the Eter­nal Recur­rence ‘in a qui­et voice with all the signs of deep­est hor­ror.’”

We should also, per­haps pri­mar­i­ly, see Salomé’s impres­sions as an effect of Nietzsche’s tur­bu­lent prose, reach­ing its apoth­e­o­sis in his exper­i­men­tal­ly philo­soph­i­cal nov­el, Thus Spake Zarathus­tra. As a the­o­rist of the embod­i­ment of ideas, of their inex­tri­ca­ble rela­tion to the phys­i­cal and the social, Niet­zsche had some very spe­cif­ic ideas about lit­er­ary style, which he com­mu­ni­cat­ed to Salomé in an 1882 note titled “Toward the Teach­ing of Style.” Well before writ­ers began issu­ing “sim­i­lar sets of com­mand­ments,” writes Maria Popo­va at Brain Pick­ings, Niet­zsche “set down ten styl­is­tic rules of writ­ing,” which you can find, in their orig­i­nal list form, below.

1. Of prime neces­si­ty is life: a style should live.

2. Style should be suit­ed to the spe­cif­ic per­son with whom you wish to com­mu­ni­cate. (The law of mutu­al rela­tion.)

3. First, one must deter­mine pre­cise­ly “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writ­ing must be mim­ic­ry.

4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in gen­er­al have for his mod­el a very expres­sive kind of pre­sen­ta­tion of neces­si­ty, the writ­ten copy will appear much paler.

5. The rich­ness of life reveals itself through a rich­ness of ges­tures. One must learn to feel every­thing — the length and retard­ing of sen­tences, inter­punc­tu­a­tions, the choice of words, the paus­ing, the sequence of argu­ments — like ges­tures.

6. Be care­ful with peri­ods! Only those peo­ple who also have long dura­tion of breath while speak­ing are enti­tled to peri­ods. With most peo­ple, the peri­od is a mat­ter of affec­ta­tion.

7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.

8. The more abstract a truth which one wish­es to teach, the more one must first entice the sens­es.

9. Strat­e­gy on the part of the good writer of prose con­sists of choos­ing his means for step­ping close to poet­ry but nev­er step­ping into it.

10. It is not good man­ners or clever to deprive one’s read­er of the most obvi­ous objec­tions. It is very good man­ners and very clever to leave it to one’s read­er alone to pro­nounce the ulti­mate quin­tes­sence of our wis­dom.

As with all such pre­scrip­tions, we are free to take or leave these rules as we see fit. But we should not ignore them. While Nietzsche’s per­spec­tivism has been (mis)interpreted as wan­ton sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, his ven­er­a­tion for antiq­ui­ty places a high val­ue on for­mal con­straints. His prose, we might say, resides in that ten­sion between Dionysian aban­don and Apol­lon­ian cool, and his rules address what lib­er­al arts pro­fes­sors once called the Triv­i­um: gram­mar, rhetoric, and log­ic: the three sup­ports of mov­ing, expres­sive, per­sua­sive writ­ing.

Salomé was so impressed with these apho­ris­tic rules that she includ­ed them in her biog­ra­phy, remark­ing, “to exam­ine Nietzsche’s style for caus­es and con­di­tions means far more than exam­in­ing the mere form in which his ideas are expressed; rather, it means that we can lis­ten to his inner sound­ings.” Isn’t this what great writ­ing should feel like?

Salomé wrote in her study that “Niet­zsche not only mas­tered lan­guage but also tran­scend­ed its inad­e­qua­cies.” (As Niet­zsche him­self com­ment­ed in 1886, notes Hugo Dro­chon, he need­ed to invent “a lan­guage of my very own.”) Nietzsche’s bold-yet-dis­ci­plined writ­ing found a com­ple­ment in Salomé’s bold­ly keen analy­sis. From her we can also per­haps glean anoth­er prin­ci­ple: “No mat­ter how calum­nious the pub­lic attacks on her,” writes Bar­ry, “par­tic­u­lar­ly from [his sis­ter] Elis­a­beth Förster-Niet­zsche dur­ing the Nazi peri­od in Ger­many, Salomé did not respond to them.”

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2016.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dai­ly Habits of High­ly Pro­duc­tive Philoso­phers: Niet­zsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Clas­sic Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard and Sartre (1960)

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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