Friday, August 31, 2007

Yeridat Hadorot

Others may praise ancient times, I am glad that I was born in these
Do not say 'Why were the old times better than these?' for you did not ask this out of wisdom.
....the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ all centuries but this and all countries but his own...
-Gilbert and Sullivan (I've Got a Little List)

This discussion happened ages and ages ago, in blogging terms, but I didn't bother posting my opinion, largely because of the above sentiment. But then I decided that it's better to have a poor post than no post at all. Although I'm starting to doubt that.

It is neither useful nor intellectually sound to wander around moaning about how lovely things used to be. First of all, you weren't there, so how would you know and second of all, well, suppose they were, what does that have to do with anything that we can do anything about? (I do not think that the belief in yeridat hadorot has absolutely anything to do with the legal principle of certain precedents being binding, which is the only nafka mina that I've heard anyone come up with.)

That said, I do have a sort of nostalgic longing of days of auld lang syne. Sure, they lived to be forty and had most of their children die before turning ten. Sure, they beat their wives and owned slaves. Sure, their food was bland, moldy, and scarce and their lives were uncomfortable and precarious. But the characters that you read about in Tanach and the Talmud and old history books do have one thing on us: they were so much realer.

When they were evil, they were no milk and water villains, watered down and diluted by troubled childhoods and post-modern relativism. When they believed, they did so without constant self-awareness, self-doubt, meta-questioning, and philosophical indeterminacy. When they acted, they really actually did so, without second-guessing or whining. They hadn't invented angst.

I'm not saying they were better. Quite often- and quite possibly as a whole- they were worse. But they were moreso. And in an age when you can't stop analyzing your own feelings long enough to have them and you can't identify your own opinions without pondering on the fundamental multiplicity of truth and you can't go ten feet without bumping into existential questions on the nature of life, death, being, and pain, it's hard not to be a little nostalgic for a premodern age.

If, of course, that's anything like the way and not simply an effect of the style of history, the sparsity of sources, the motives of the narrator and so forth.

See? We can't even nostalge without analyzing how valid that it is.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Play

I have been above-averagely remiss in posting in the recent past, but at least on this occasion I have a long and semi-entertaining narrative to offer as an excuse for why my writing energy has been diverted into other efforts. (Besides finals. Which are important, but kind of boring, excuse-wise.)

You see, around a month ago, I received an e-mail from a close high school friend. It seems that the principal of our alma mater- obeying the dictum that if you want something done, give it to somebody who has too much to do- contacted her and asked her to write the school play. Her mother- adhering apparently to the dictum that it's good for people to sleep occasionally- forbade her from taking on this additional assignment, so she decided to work on it in an illicit sort of way- late at night and so forth- but transferring much of it to other people. She contacted a best friend in Stern and the two of them realized that they had absolutely no idea how to write a play and contacted me, under the erroneous impression that I did. (Actually, it seems I do. You just stick things down on paper and keep ignoring how badly it's written and voila! A play. But I digress.)

Anyhoo, it sounded like fun, so I agreed to come on board, malevolently sweeping Miri along with me. It was then that the complications began to ensue. Chief among them was that this play, apparently, was not actually going to be written as a group effort among the four-ish of us. Apparently, the principal had commissioned a whole posse of other alumnae/mothers to chip in. First we thought that it was going to be a wide-spread effort. Then there was a meeting where it seemed like only our team (or rather, the state-side representatives thereof) had brought anything to the table and so we dibsed it. Then there was an e-mail that indicated that it would be a general effort, with everybody sending in scenes as their spirits moved them, with the various parts calibrated with one another by some directive power at the end. Then there was a suggestion that different authors take different characters, which would keep the voices nice and different, but also mean that people would go around writing one character's lines in a scene and leaving little breaks to be filled in for other characters. And then in the end it became clear that actually, our team (mostly, if I might say, I. And Miri, to some degree) was the only one doing any work and thus we got to write the play just as we liked. Which is nice, because it's problematic enough without being composed by committee.

The play, you see, is the story of Purim and we must walk the thin line of making it actually good without making it preachy or sappy, while at the same time conveying a definite midrashically-supported message. This is particularly difficult for Miri and myself, in our newly acquired/discovered Modern Orthodoxy, since I don't know that our messages are quite the same as the school's. But we soldier on, keeping it general and about faith in G-d and so forth. And I must note that both the principal and our friends from high school are being totally tolerant and sweet, not caring about the gaps in philosophies and life decisions and treating us just like people and not ideologies, which is just what the world needs more of, so yay them.

Still, there are occasional conflicts. We have been edited for making Mordechai too wishy-washy (gedolai hador have strong opinions! and no doubts! ever!) and Zeresh too 'it's really good, but I'm not sure if it's exactly what we want for this play' (i.e. sardonic). Achashveirosh is comic, speaking entirely in rhyming couplets (I objected only until I discovered how darn fun they are to write), although at times he has lapsed closer to Shakespearean. There are occasional debates about how much midrash to include and subtle shifting of the focus from "trust only in Hashem" to the nearly-but-not-really-indistinguishable "a nation in exile must not despair." Nobody else has seemed to notice, but every scene written by the team on this side of the Atlantic uses "G-d" and everything written on that side uses "Hashem", so that it would be quite easy for a Bible-critic style reader to see exactly what was added/edited and where. I suppose that's one of the things that the as-yet-nonexistent final compiler will handle.

I'm actually, quite enjoying the whole thing. Sure, much of it is dull or cheaply comic. But there are definite comforts: the bits of good writing that you can sneak in through the cracks; the witty banter that you can write between Mordechai and Haman (we're praying that it doesn't get gadol-hadored out); the subtle sardonicness that flies completely below the radar (there's a character called Reb Yid, acting as a foil for Mordechai. We really hope they put him in a bekeshe) ; sardonicness slightly more inside the radar (Miri's first act stage directions read 'Enter Esther, stage right. Probably carrying a bowl with food in it, or a broom. No, if she’s carrying food she can be wearing an apron. Ooh, puts the food down on the table and picks up a broom in the course of the conversation! And the apron stays! Sorry, stopping now') ; and, of course, the cultural references that nobody will ever get but nonetheless make me warm and happy all over. So far, I have managed to insert two Pinky and the Brain quotes, a reference to Princess Bride, a Firefly near-quote (by Mordechai, no less), a line from Shakespeare, and a nod to Mr. Ed (that one was faint, even for me). The Pinky and the Brain ones are the most obvious ('What are we doing tonight, Bigsan?' 'Same thing we do every night, Seresh- wait on the king.' and 'Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Seresh?' 'I think so, Bigsan, but won't uniforms made entirely out of cotton candy get kind of sticky in the summertime?') but so far, nobody has spotted them, so I think that they'll probably make it to the play. It's really the one thing that's keeping me going when I have to contemplate the idea of writing yet another scene without any particular inspiration or desire. Also, I got to use the word exeunt. Repeatedly.

The play is almost over by now. A couple of the ending scenes, really, is all that's left, and it would be lovely if one could rely on somebody else to write them, but of course I can't. But then it will be over and, assuming they don't discard the whole thing and choose an entirely differently play, as has actually happened in the past to other hard-working students, the play produced by my former high-school, to which most of the student body will devote three months of their lives, will have been almost entirely written by a pair of subversives, not to mention Zionists. Sort of makes the whole thing worth it, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Random Question of the Day

If somebody took a pill knowing that it was a placebo (or at least knowing of the high possibility), but believing strongly in the placebo effect, would there be one? Does it depend on whether they think the answer to this question is yes? And if so, why don't people sell more placebos?