Monday, April 24, 2017

On the Science Fiction of the Past

Some years ago, a professor gave me a piece of advice for dissertation-writing. Keep a piece of non-fiction that has nothing to do with your work on hand. When you get stuck, read a few pages and then go back to work. That academic wrote about Chinese film and he kept Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of Hitler within arm's reach. I picked a slightly different strategy. I picked short books and dip into them in the morning over tea. I don't read more than 15 pages. I chew over the prose. Then I put the book aside and don't look at it again until the evening. I am currently working my way through my old professor James Shapiro's The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, which studies the Jacobean Shakespeare, as opposed to the Elizabethan Shakespeare, the playwright of Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998).

I can't attempt anything like the following scene in my dissertation, but I may be able to try something like it in my book. 

The Guy Fawkes Rebellion has failed. A Catholic traitor, carrying relics which have been outlawed, has been caught in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's hometown. The relics have been placed before a jury of 24 citizens who are tasked with affixing a "cash value" to the 20-something objects before them. 
Forty-seven years had passed since the death of the Catholic Queen Mary, the last time these objects would have been used in public. As the men gazed upon these goods, they saw England's vanished past before them in objects hidden away and carefully preserved for nearly a half century. Only the older jurors would have remembered from their childhood what it was like to see priests in these garments, finger these rosary beads, page through these prayer books, or gaze upon the painted image of Christ on a crucifix. Some of the older men must also have remembered that their town had held on to its costly velvet and damask vestments for well over a decade after Elizabeth had come to the throne and Catholic worship was banned, just in case the old faith would be restored.
Shapiro makes the visual splendor of Catholicism look foreign. The jurors are WALL-E throwing away a wedding ring, Charlton Heston looking with horror upon the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, or the characters in Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play trying to remember episodes from The Simpsons (1989-), all of them suffering in a post-apocalyptic American hellscape. We read in terms of the other books we've read, or in my case, the many movies I've seen. To me, these jurors live in the science fiction of the past.

I know historians who hate the idea of treating the past as a foreign country, but I like any form of scholarship that makes the past look weird, something familiar and something distant.

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