The Dave Brubeck Quartet
Who Steals My Purse Steals Trash
The music comes from a record by The Dave Brubeck Quartet called Time Out. The name of the song is “Take Five.” The title is a multi-layered pun. On one level “take five” means take a break; take five minutes to catch your breath. On another level it is how those in a recording studio refer to the fifth attempt to record a track. It may suggest that there were four less than perfect takes and this is the fifth crack at getting it right. It might also suggest five different ways of playing the song and that the group is experimenting with the music, perhaps to find a way of playing the music that is the most interesting.
The title of the song in fact refers to the time signature, the tune was written in 5/4 time, hence take five. Each of the songs on the album employed a different and unusual time signature, hence the title of the album, Time Out. The time signature is important because it suggests how a piece of music is to be played. There is a sense in which literature has a kind of time signature that may refer to the time in which the work is set or the time it was written, or both if the time signature of the story is different from that of its composition. This time signature suggests to the reader how a work of literature is to be read and understood. The Last of the Mohicans, for example, was written in the Post-Revolutionary America of the 1820’s while the story is set in the Colonial America of the 1750’s. How important is it to know and understand the time signature of a work of literature and what exactly constitutes that signature?
When I read a book, especially a book written many years ago, I wonder what daily life was like for the authors. The image above shows Elizabethan types eating dinner. But what exactly did they eat and what did their food taste like. They did not have refrigeration so there must have been compromises made with freshness. Did Shakespeare buy his own groceries, did he take out his own trash, and if he did where did he take it? What was Shakespeare thinking of, for example, when he has Iago say “Who Steals my purse steals trash”? We all know what we mean when we call something trash, but what did Shakespeare mean? Was he thinking of yesterdays newspaper?
It is not necessary to know what specific articles of trash came to Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote this line, but it seems likely there were some specific articles of useless junk that presented themselves to his mind when he used the word, perhaps something he had thrown in his trash basket that morning. It is not necessary to know this to understand the line, but it might give insight into the character of Iago to know the kinds of things he might think about when he thinks about such things.
One reason students have difficulty getting inside literature, classic or otherwise, is because they have difficulty humanizing the people involved. Part of understanding a play by Shakespeare is understanding Shakespeare’s humanity and the human issues he had to confront in his daily life. Do these issues make their way into the plays, does knowing what he did with his garbage make his plays more accessible? Probably not, but it does make the reader place him in a real world with real problems and the plays are influenced by the world in which Shakespeare lived. The characters in his plays must be humanized if they are to be appreciated and humanizing the author helps to humanize the characters.
It is difficult to be engaged, let alone enjoy, a novel if we do not care about the characters. I think empathy is the door that leads to involvement in any literary work that revolves around characters, whether it is a poem, a play, or a novel. I think this is even true of the personal essay, we will not be taken in by the essayist if we do not care about the struggle she or he documents on the page. Fay Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen writes “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano.” Part of understanding this novel and of empathizing with its heroine is understanding the risks a young woman of Jane Austen’s time took in refusing the proposal of a well to do young man. I read this passage by Faye Weldon often to my students to emphasize the importance of empathy to getting a foothold in the world of the stories we read.
Though it may not influence our understanding of the tale, to a certain extent understanding some of the details of daily life in the story’s historical setting helps the reader to empathize with the characters, to appreciate what they are going through and all that is involved in living day to day. I know what it means for me to get up in the morning, what it means to go through various daily rituals. What were Shakespeare’s daily rituals and by extension the daily rituals of the characters, like Iago? Did Iago brush his teeth that morning? Was the remark about stealing trash perhaps precipitated by his taking out the garbage that morning?
Like any metaphor, that of time signatures can only be taken so far. When a contemporary novel is set in the fourteenth century, as, for example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was, it is to say something about contemporary life, not about the time in which the novel is set. To what extent are Friar Baskerville’s sensibilities 20th century sensibilities and to what extent are they those of the novel’s setting. Even the name of the monk suggests a certain 19th century detective.
Can readers of the modern age, whatever that age may be, divorce themselves entirely from their own time and read as a reader of the story’s present. I remember being told by one of my college professors that such a thing is impossible. I disagreed at the time but after watching a few reality programs where 20th century folks are placed in the American west of the late 1880’s or the East Coast of America of the early 1600’s I am not so sure. These people had to live with only those materials available to the people of the time in which they were placed.
But these people struggled in ways the original pilgrims and pioneers did not. Those of the 17th and 19th centuries did not expect and were not used to anything other than what they had, those transplanted into the past brought with them memories of all the modern conveniences they left behind and also brought with them the knowledge that these conveniences were available and they were enduring a voluntary technological fast. Still, there is, I think, a value to understanding the life and times of a story’s setting and setting off, if only in our own minds, on a journey where we live for an imaginary day or two in the world of William Shakespeare and perhaps help him to take out the trash.