Feb 5, 2009


As a novelist I've always wondered how a novel by Shakespeare would read. But he never wrote one. Cervantes, on the other hand, wrote the greatest novel in history. The two were contemporaries. Cervantes was born in 1547, Shakespeare seven years later. Both died in 1616, a few days apart. Why did they choose such different literary paths?

Our contemporary culture is divided into artists and whores. Artists create works of art for art’s sake, whores for money. The pretentious artists shun the whores. The market-driven whores aren’t even aware of the artists’ existence. In publishing this divide takes the form of literary or commercial fiction. Occasionally a writer stands in both worlds, but not often.

As a teenager I assumed I should write what I wanted to write, what I needed to write, without regard for the market. This, after all, was what “real” writers did, or said they did. When asked in interviews what audiences they wrote for, these writers always answered, “Myself,” or “None.”

And it’s true many great writers, like Tolstoy and Flaubert, wrote mainly for self-fulfillment. But what of those who needed to work for a living, like Dickens and Dostoevsky? Dickens started his own magazine to serialize his work and toured America giving readings to paying audiences. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in four weeks to pay his own gambling debts. But to twentieth-century writers and critics the former example seemed purer. Artists disappeared into themselves.

And what of Cervantes and Shakespeare? Did Shakespeare write Hamlet to wrestle his own existential demons? Did Cervantes write Don Quixote to humor his personal muse?

Neither man came from nobility or received a university education. They both needed to work for their bread, and their literary gifts gave them the means to rise above their class. Shakespeare succeeded and became a prominent landowner. Cervantes wrote the most popular book in the world, but he sold away the rights and remained impoverished.

Still, his intent was clearly to profit from his writing. He did write many plays, but he wasn’t a good poet, and the great Spanish playwright of the age, Lope de Vega, was a more formidable and hostile opponent than Don Quixote’s windmills. Cervantes was more strongly influenced by the chivalrous novel, which enjoyed immense popularity in Spain, and twenty years before his masterpiece appeared he published a novel in that genre, La Galatea, which brought him early renown, if not riches.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, was an actor as well as playwright, which gave him entrance into the theatrical world. And his main rival, Christopher Marlowe, born the same year, was stabbed to death in a tavern at the age of twenty-nine.

We find strong evidence that Shakespeare’s work was motivated by the marketplace in his activity from 1592 to 1594 when plague closed the London theaters. An art-for-art’s sake acolyte would have holed up in a garrett and penned plays for the theater of his mind. But Shakespeare turned to poetry and found a wealthy patron.

The late Norman Mailer revered the novel form for its heroic dimensions, but history’s most heroic writer, who found time to write thirty-six plays, 154 sonnets, and several long poems, never made time to write a single novel. He was more interested in property, and when he had enough he gave up writing even plays and poems and enjoyed a well-deserved retirement in Stratford.


Cervantes and Shakespeare were contemporaries, but to my knowledge there's no evidence they knew of each other's existence.

But imagine if globalization existed back then. What would have been the consequence for their careers? I think it would have been disastrous for one of them, maybe for both.

Shakespeare didn't invent the Elizabethan drama, not even the genres such as history and comedy, not even the basic plots for most of his plays, not even the iambic pentameter scansion. A lively dramatic environment already existed when he came on the scene, and if he had never written a word we would still call that time the golden age of English theater because of figures such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and Thomas Kyd.

But while the English theater was prosperous and artistically sophisticated, it was also a very small world. London. A handful of companies. But what if one season Don Quioxte appeared on the London stage, adapted from the book with all the attendant publicity that precedes an international bestseller? Maybe it would have been the blockbuster of the day, eclipsing whatever Shakespeare was working on. Well, what was he working on? Don Quixote was published in 1605. This was around the time of the premieres of Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.

With such a funny, popular and exotic story playing down the road maybe the English public would have lost its patience for tragedy. Perhaps British printers would have seen no reason to publish his earlier plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet. Or perhaps a well-translated and marketed edition of Don Quioxte would have popularizing the novel in England a century before Richardson and Fielding. Perhaps novelists would have marginalized playwrights as they would do in the twentieth century.

And what of Cervantes? What if the Elizabethan stage had come to Madrid and Seville? What if Hamlet and King Lear had wowed the Spanish critics, who then declared that serious writers wrote tragedy for the stage, not thousand page pop culture satires? Would Cervantes have forsaken his man of La Mancha for uninspired attempts at Nordic angst? Maybe he could still sell some books, but who among the literati were going to take his rambling prose seriously compared with Shakespeare's poetry?

Competition isn't always a good thing, especially in the arts. It wasn't good for Leonardo and Michaelangelo, who wasted creative energy battling each other. It wasn't good for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, or Dickens and Thackery, who were wise enough to stay out of each other's way. It wasn't good for Shelly and Byron, who lost their ghost story competition to a young woman who would never write a second book. Ignorance allowed Cervantes and Shakespeare, and their genres, and their markets to flower without outside pressures. We see what an outside pressure like the plague did to the English theater. The blockbuster novel might have done similar damage. And in Spain the spectacle of Shakespeare's plays might have left Castillians little patience to read, just as movies have done for modern readers.

In the end of course globalization allowed Cervantes to be translated around the globe and Shakespeare to be performed on all the world’s stages. But that was after their death. In life they were like tortoises in the Galapagos, able to wander patiently in their own worlds rather than succumb prematurely to foreign predators.

Jan 20, 2009


January 20, 2008

Today was our moral moon landing. Those of us alive when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon understood we were witnessing a transcendent moment, not just for Americans, but for all mankind. We were finally viewing the earth from a silent, solemn distance, seeing it whole, without artificial divisions and borders. Of course there were borders, and armies, and less commendable rockets than the Saturn V threatening the earth’s destruction, and ordinary people carelessly polluting the very atmosphere to which they owed their existence, of which the moon had none.

For this was a technical achievement. It was a moment of which people had always dreamed, or not dared to dream, since our oldest ancestors first peered at the night sky. And those of us watching still could not believe, even as Mr. Armstrong was speaking his famous words. There had never been in the history of the world such an indisputable example of mankind’s greatness.

But not his goodness. For morally we remained a disappointing species. The history of humanity is a story of progress. But technical progress. From stone to iron to bronze to agriculture to industry to information, nearly all our achievements have been achievements in technology. If we look at our ancestors and ask what separates us from them, we could say that we are clothed in the raiments of civilization. We live longer more complicated lived. We talk with people continents away, we interact with machines. We walk on the moon and disentangle DNA. We are greater, by far.

But are we better?

Today we can say: Yes, we are.

Jan 12, 2009


My name is Mark, and I have a disease. I’ve never talked about it before, let alone spoken in public to strangers. I’m grateful for this opportunity to come forward, and for your unconditional support.

It started a long time ago, as far back as I can recall. My insatiable craving to breathe. I was a shy, insecure kid. I had discipline problems in school. I didn’t fit in with the normal crowd. My parents divorced when I was five. My mother married an alcoholic who beat me and once, in the bathroom of a state park.... Do I have to go into all of this?

Anyway, I’m sure most of you have similar stories. Of course I knew oxygen was dangerous. That is easily catches fire. That it prematurely ages you. But I was young and thought I would live forever. I’d seen old people in rest homes shriveled like prunes due to their lifelong addiction. But like all addicts, I thought I could handle it.

Peer pressure of course played a big role. In high school all the popular kids were doing it. And there was this one girl I liked who was a heavy breather. So I got hooked. At first I just gasped. But then I started panting. One night the electricity went out and when I lit a candle my hair caught fire. I could have died.

My grades suffered. I dropped out of school. I fought with my mom and cut off everyone who didn’t share my habit. But nothing matter in my life but oxygen. My whole day revolved around breathing. I had become useless to the world.

But man, it was such a rush! I’d never felt anything like it before! All that fresh air just overpowers you with a sense of euphoria. You think you can do anything. Of course you don’t consider the consequences. I’ve even read oxygen changes your brain, short circuits the parts responsible for decision making.

Oxygen made me do things I’m ashamed to admit. Things I would never do if it weren’t for my addiction. When my mom took me to visit my grandmother in intensive care I waited until no one was looking and put her respirator mask over my nose. My mom was touched that I was going to visit her every day, but it was only for the oxygen.

Soon I began stealing to support my habit. I forged prescriptions to get bottles from medical supply companies. One day my mom discovered my stash in the back of my closet and kicked me out.

I started living on the streets. I know I probably look fifty years old. I’m only twenty-three. That’s what oxygen does to you. But people like us, we just keep falling until we hit bottom. For me the moment of truth came when I got some ozone by mistake. I woke up in the hospital.

Now that I know I’m genetically disposed to my addiction I understand I’m not a weak or a bad person. It was the oxygen talking. Your support today has given me the courage to conquer this dreadful chemical. I’m proud to say I have now been oxygen free for, let’s see, three minutes and fifteen sec

Jan 4, 2009


When I was five I was terrified after hearing about some elderly relative who died in his sleep. Peaceful it might have been, but ontologically distressing. I didn’t want to die in my sleep at any age. How would I know I was dead?

Now, however, death has become a curriculum, like getting a Bachelor’s degree. Four years of exams and all your family’s savings. I learned this the hard way after I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a deadly bone marrow disease. But could I gasp and complain on my own comfortable bed like Ivan Ilych? No. There were IV’s and X-rays and interminable doctors’ appointments, white walls and cold corridors, long needles and chalky pills. After only a couple weeks I was exhausted. Not so much from the illness as from the effort to treat it.

Characters in literature died quickly, as did most real people before the advent of modern medicine. Even the tiresome deathbed scenes in Victorian novels only last a few pages. But I was facing long chapters before the end of my tale. No chance of dying in my sleep, because I couldn’t sleep. I recalled Clavdia Chauchat in The Magic Mountain. There was a character who took years to die. But she hardly had to work at it. Get her temperature taken a few times a day, an X-ray here and there. And she was hanging out in the Swiss Alps. I was in Cleveland with a view of the helipad.

What happened to the rest cure? To mineral springs and grand hotels with casinos where invalids in tuxedos could smoke cigars and play roulette while waiting for the reaper to grab them like some spectral croupier?

Had this then become the morbid conclusion to the American work ethic, that we had to work hard even to die? After a while I concluded the responsible response to this laborious and inefficient process was to survive it. Death was simply taking too much of my time.

Dec 27, 2008


The future of mankind, if we have a future, rests most securely in the arms of a particular kind of woman, a phenomenon of the postcolonial world, never seen before in history. Let’s call her Femina complexa. But you’d be wrong to think complexity is her most salient feature. “Complexo” in Latin means “encompass,” or “embrace,” and the woman whom I entrust with our future prosperity embraces the world.

I first met such women in my travels abroad: an opera-loving waif with a nose ring in Zurich, a bartender in Chiang Mai who asked me out for a drink, a Mongolian slogging through Europe with a suitcase twice her size. But then I noticed them at home as well, as drug reps in my uncle’s medical practice, from Chandigarh and Manila, as postdocs from Poland and South Korea, as homegrown prodigies with Facebook pages filled with snapshots from Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu.

These women are very much individuals, and that’s what makes them interesting. But they fall into a class nevertheless, and it was only after many years that I began to realize their numbers were greater than it seemed, and growing. It’s because they don’t fall into the usual categories that they’ve been ignored as a demographic. Though they are usually in their twenties and thirties and from middle or upper-class families, they come from all nations, all ethnicities, all religions. What unites them are subtler yet perhaps more consequential markers not found on pollsters’ questionnaires. Most notably, while they are all daughters and many are wives and mothers, they don’t define themselves by their social relationships but by what they do. It wasn’t so long ago that even in America women formally called themselves by their husband’s names, such as Mrs. Harry Smith. But Femina complexa cultivates her own identity, even when raised in such traditional societies as India and China. She embraces learning, she is enthusiastic, peripatetic, optimistic, energetic, opportunistic. Above all she is tolerant, often marrying outside her group. But she is a smiling revolutionary, not a rebel at the barricades.

And this is why she is the best chance for our future. The last three centuries were revolutionary ones, but our planet has become too small and our weapons too large for fanatics who want to set the calendar back to zero. What we need are legions like the Indian woman who can find a way to wear jeans, marry a German, get her MBA and still go home for Diwali.

Dec 4, 2008


In January 1815 General Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in what is known as the War of 1812. Unfortunately peace had been declared at a conference in Belgium more than two weeks earlier, but news of the treaty would not reach Louisiana until February. The speed of life then was four miles an hour, the speed of a man on foot. Occasionally it might rise to ten miles an hour, the speed of a man on horseback, or the speed of the newly invented steamboat traveling downstream. Localized innovations, such as Native American smoke signals to communicate between hilltops, or narrow spyglasses used by ship captains to peer a minute or two into the future, or the Mongolian pony express for military communications contributed only modest gains to the speed of their age and were of limited utility. This was before Morse’s telegraph. If you wanted news from the wider world you had to send someone there and wait for them to come back.

Now the world comes to us. Electromagnetic waves rush to our TV’s at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. Radio waves for our radios and microwaves for our mobile phones also travel at light speed. When we surf the web we are slowing down, but not much. When navigating by internet or simply using our computers, or plugging in appliances we are living at the speed of electricity, about one-third that of light.

And when we simply must go out we drive at sixty-five miles per hour, or take trains that can travel at speeds twice that, or fly at five hundred miles per hour.

When an elderly Victor Hugo took his first train ride he was shocked by the speed, though he wasn’t even traveling twenty miles per hour. He speculated on the adverse effects these dangerous new machines would have on the human body. But we can’t get enough of speed. In our leisure time we plummet on roller coasters, jump out of planes, race down mountains on skis or snowboards in winter and on bicycles after the snow melts. Beach resorts tell us we need time to regenerate and we hurry to clear our desks, hurry our kids through breakfast, and try to hurry through airport security, all for a few hours on a plastic lounge chair.

All this speed should get us where we want to go faster. But where do we want to go? So many of us don’t go anywhere. We literally spin our wheels on exercise bikes, we rush into marriages and rush out, we march across states like Sherman’s army for new lovers, new jobs, we shock ourselves and others for the mere stimulation, as if the electricity that permeates our civilization weren’t jolting enough. And we document for what we assume will be all eternity our trivialized lives with ever faster media. At one time our lives looked back at us at the speed it took an artist’s paint to dry. Then came the camera with its silver plate and dark room, then celluloid film and twenty-four hour processing, then one-hour prints, then digital cameras with their instantaneous images on LED screens, then exponential memory upgrades, so that we now need software to view the images for us because even living at the speed of light and electricity, of planes and automobiles and speedboats and skateboards, we still don’t have time to watch it all.

So where has it gotten us, all this speed? We can’t slow down for fear of falling off the world. But we’ll never catch up, no matter how fast we go. Because the more we come to expect from life, the more life expects from us.

If the War of 1812 were fought today General Jackson would learn of the Treaty of Ghent by telephone, and his troops could watch the live press conference via television or internet. A meaningless battle could have been averted. But the speed of life runs both ways, and the American negotiators, flush with intelligence from Jackson’s camp, might not have signed the treaty at all. Floods of information and disinformation might have caused an escalation of the war rather than it’s brisk termination.

Our heads are whirling with noise.

We should be dizzy from so much speed. And we are.