Friday, March 1, 2024

lecture and a play

I went to a guest lecture at Stanford because the topic sounded interesting. "A Poet's Thoughts on Perception, Cognition, and the Literary Image" was the subtitle, and it was by Richard Kenney, a noted poet who's an English prof at the UW.

He spoke of a lot of things, and ran considerably over his allotted time, but towards the end he focused on a neurological theory that what we think we see is generated by our minds predicting what we're likely to see, and only cross-checks itself against outside reality. I found this theory hard to believe, or if it is true that the cross-checking must be so frequent that it doesn't matter where the images originate, afterwards when driving home, relying on my perception of reality being accurate so I didn't hit another car when going through intersections without stoplights in the dark and pouring rain.

Kenney's purpose in bringing this up was apparently to suggest that if the theory is true, reality is no less a construction of our brains than the things we imagine are. So read more poetry and nourish your imagination, or something.

This and another remark that, if we removed all the words that are somehow metaphorical from the language, there wouldn't be much left, made me wonder if he'd read any Owen Barfield, because they were all things that sounded like what Owen Barfield wrote. But there was no question period, or if there was I didn't stick around for it.

The play came in online video form from the Mint Theater, which specializes in reviving obscure plays. Some are deservedly obscure, like the one I got on their mailing list from, but this is somewhat better. Never previously produced nor published, and sitting among the author's papers in a university archive, it's called Becomes a Woman and is by Betty Smith, author of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've never read the book, but I thought I'd try the play, and it was good enough (and excellently acted, in front of a live audience) to get through.

The heroine starts out as a 19-year-old singing sales clerk in a 1930s sheet music store. Her name is Francie Nolan, which is the name of the heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but even considering the age difference their life circumstances are quite different, aside from being poor and living in Brooklyn, so they're not the same person in the fictive universe. Francie is young and naive, and she's very pretty, so every man who comes in the store asks her out, which earns her scorn and reinforces her cynical co-worker's theory that men are all alike and all want the same thing (i.e. to ask Francie out). But then in comes Leonard, who's handsome and suave and apparently well-off, and when he asks her out she changes her mind about being asked out.

That's Act 1. In Acts 2-3 things turn out quite differently. Leonard isn't what he makes himself out to be (of course), and Francie goes through some dramatic vicissitudes which change her mind and her approach to life. To the biggest crisis the reactions of the other characters are as clichéd as possible, but Smith doesn't write them as clichés. Francie's response is to harden and mature, and she Becomes a Woman, hence the title. Anyway, I found it worthwhile to watch and you could watch it too, free on the web for the next two weeks.

ETA: And what should get published this morning but an article revealing what Betty Smith really thought of Brooklyn.

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