With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were. Alone.Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28
The great English broadcaster Ray Hudson once said of the great Argentine footballer Juan Román Riquelme, “Look at him, so languid, look at him walking. He’s like a big, beautiful zombie, Riquelme. He just strolls around…like smoke off a cigarette.” Hudson values hyperbole over precision—or at least succumbs to the former—for he suffers from a sort of fanatic epilepsy when he works. Hudson told me, “When that spotlight’s on you, and you’re calling a game, you’re in the moment, instantaneous, and the selection of words, phrases, and anecdotes are improvised. There’s very little time for actual thought. There’s very little time for reflection on what you’re actually going to say.” And Hudson’s quips, spontaneous and unedited, have gained him a reputation as one of the most notorious announcers in all of sports.
Hudson made his career first as a soccer player—for Newcastle United in England, and later for various teams in the defunct North American Soccer League. But he is best known for announcing the modern game for GolTV. Commentary for a soccer match, more so than in any other sport, is like the musical accompaniment to ballet. Therefore as a broadcaster, Hudson is comparable to the conductor of an orchestra playing in the pit beneath a stage of dancers; he adds context and emotion to the drama. No wonder, then, that he often likens footballers to beautiful women. “I’m telling you man,” Hudson once said of FC Barcelona’s seventeen-year-old striker, Bojan Krkic, “this kid could be the best thing on two legs since Sophia Loren.”
Unlike most American sports, soccer is a fluid game, with frequent changes of possession and few clear, numeric statistics to evaluate. Soccer is improvisational, whereas American football is regimented. In football, plays are designed then executed, to greater or lesser success. In soccer, players practice formations and then improvise within a spontaneous framework. Therefore soccer, whose action is as constant as light, requires a reactive, jazz-like call. “Most people,” Hudson said, “have no concept of how challenging and demanding it is to call a game. I mean, we’re seeing those pictures the same second you’re seeing them.” There are few numbers to pore over, so the color man’s broadcast, if done well, strives, not to investigate the efficacy of a play, but to transliterate excitement. “When it gets into the red zone,” Hudson said, “when it gets into that area where something truly special might develop, that’s where I come out of the long grass. That’s when it’s showtime for me. And that preparation takes on its own dynamic. If it’s an intoxicating game that has all the ingredients for a beautiful, hot stew, then what are you going to do?”
Stylistically, Hudson is a compositor of metaphor. Like the critic and memoirist Anatole Broyard, who describing a lover once wrote, “Her waist was so small, it cut her in two, like a split-personality, or two schools of thought,” Hudson is disinterested in, or even incapable of, inventing basic similes. His description of a goal scored during a meeting of the Mexican and Argentine national sides—“Heinze jumps up like Rudolf Nureyev, beautiful, [and] stabs it home. But it’s Riquelme, man… [His movement is] impossible, like pouring a pint of beer into a shot glass”—suggests, if not a frenetic mind, an uncontainable one. His mouth can’t always keep up with his brain. “It’s not within me,” Hudson said. To be pedestrian with any of my descriptions. I’m just incapable of it. I mean, you hear me now. Once you start me, you cannot stop me.”
I asked him to tell me about the most exciting match he ever announced, and he thought immediately of the 38th round of the 2007 La Liga championship (judging by Youtube views, it is also his most famous). Hudson’s announcing is passionate to the point of violence. To give a little context to the game, Hudson was the color analyst, and Phil Schoen the broadcaster, for Real Madrid’s season-ending match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The morning of the 17th, Real Madrid was tied at the top of the table with its perennial political and sporting rival, FC Barcelona. Earlier in the season, in their head-to-head match-ups, Madrid had taken four of six points from Barcelona, beating the Catalans at home and drawing away. This meant that if by day’s end both teams were victorious in their matches, Madrid would win the league.
Both clubs kicked off simultaneously. By halftime, Barcelona was laying waste to Gimnastic 3-0. Madrid, on the other hand, was trailing 0-1 to Mallorca at home. If the result stood, Barcelona would win the title. But then in the 68th minute Madrid scored, leveling their match. In the 78th they scored again, taking the lead. When Jose Reyes scored two minutes later, he confirmed Madrid’s victory, and with it, the title.
“The world was watching,” Hudson remembered, “and you felt something historical was going to happen. Also in that game, there was a good bit of jousting between Phil [Schoen] and me, because the camera kept cutting to these people in the stands, these Hollywood celebrities. I remember in particular for that game Tom Cruise [and Rafael Nadal] were there. And Phil kept going on about Tom Cruise while this gladiatorial fight to the death was happening before us.” As we talked, Hudson’s voice began to rise. “And I got so incensed that I nearly lost it.”
Recapping the match live as time ran out, Hudson said of Madrid’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who by his estimation had saved the game, and who had cried in joy after the definitive third goal got scored, “That’s why you see those beautiful tears from a man whose heart is bursting.” The camera, here, cut away to the crowd, where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were kissing triumphantly in the stands. Perhaps to annoy him, Schoen asked if Hudson’s comment were directed at Cruise. Hudson screamed, “Would you stop talking about tennis players and stupid Hollywood actors, Phil! It’s the gladiators out there, man.” Then, with great disgust, Hudson went on: “Tom Cruise. Give me a break. If he smelled a soccer jockstrap, he’d faint dead away.”
Between his playing and commentating days, Hudson has seen countless goals—and many magnificent ones—but one in particular stands out above them, as Real Madrid’s definitive game in June 2007 rises in his mind above the other matches he’s called. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian striker who played his best football in Barcelona, once scored a goal against Villa Real that during the match, along side other hyberboles (“As electrifying as a hairdryer thrown into a hot tub” ) Hudson claimed was tantamount to religious art.
Hudson described the goal to me this way. “It was an overhead kick, at an angle, just into the corner of the box, and I called it, if I remember correctly, ‘A Bernini sculpture of a goal, that rivals the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’ Now, there are probably two people around the United States tuning in who had even heard of Bernini. But for me, it was that good. And in my opinion, instances like that need to be compared to something monumental, to something of an exquisiteness completely unique. And that sculpture came immediately to mind.” He went on: “[During the replays] there was this one wonderful shot of the defender who had been the closest to Ronny, who had just seen this goal, and he was simply stupefied. I described him like Lot’s wife, turning to salt. And then the next second the camera cut away to this little blonde boy in the stands, this little cherub in a Barcelona shirt, and he started smiling. I remember saying, ‘His big bright eyes have just grown the size of saucer plates. He’s never seen anything like this in his life, and he never will again.’”
I did not grow up a sports fan. I played soccer and baseball, and later golf, but my father, despite coaching a number of teams I played on, didn’t watch games on TV. By the time I got to college, being a sports fan seemed primitive to me. I fancied myself an artist. Entertainment, I thought, should be a strictly intellectual pursuit, so I watched a lot of emotionally vacant French films, and read a bunch of calamitous, dystopian novels. Back then I thought of Bande á parte and Blood Meridian as the pinnacles of culture.
Then in October of 2002, I was staying at my parents’ house. I’d dropped out of college in New York two days before the start of my sophomore year and returned to California. I was drinking too much in Brooklyn, but more significantly, my girlfriend lived in my hometown. Fittingly, though, a month after I got back, she left for school in Irvine. Finding myself alone and acutely depressed one Saturday evening, I turned on the sixth game of the World Series. The Giants, who because of their proximity to my hometown I’d been a nominal fan of as a boy, led the Angels until the seventh. But with one out in that inning, Dusty Baker pulled his starter, Russ Ortiz, who to that point hadn’t allowed a run. The reliever, Félix Rodríguez, promptly gave up a three run homer. In the eighth, the Angel’s third baseman, Troy Glaus, doubled in two more runs. The Giants lost.
The next night I watched the seventh game, which was a sort of underwhelming catastrophe. By the third, all the runs that were to get scored had been. The Giants almost rallied in the ninth, getting two men on with only one out. But Kenny Lofton flied out to right-center to end the Series, in favor of the Angels. I broke down in tears. It’s the only time, before or since, that I’ve cried over a game. But that loss, and my illogical reaction to it, proved to me that sport has the capacity to evoke, or at least unlock, genuine emotion.
Since then I’ve been a dedicated fan—first of baseball, then of soccer, and finally of mixed martial arts and cycling. As a writer, sports provide for me a finite dramatic stage where a protagonist and an antagonist attempt metaphorically (though in fighting sometimes literally) to kill each other. The plots of the stories, if I’m being reductive, are repetitive. But the distillation of competition, thematic and actual, is the stuff of art. One night in Boston, after the Oakland A’s (I am, again, a geographical fan) got swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series—a defeat that ruined my mood for the remainder of the playoffs—I felt inspired to write on my wall when I got home from the bar, “If I’m not allowed to care terribly about a game men play, neither should I be affected by anything else man invents.”
This is why I like listening to Ray Hudson. He takes sports even more seriously than I do. If, for me, soccer (or baseball or cycling or football) is a representation of human struggle, and is in that sense a means to dissecting and then producing art, for Hudson the game itself is the end—and therefore art itself. “What an absolute scientific goal again,” he once said of a Riquelme masterpiece. “[It’s the great Argentine] who is the Einstein of it…Stand up! Get out of your sofas and applaud if you’re a football fan, because the poets just wrote a sonnet to all of us.” Soccer, for Hudson, is the conflation of science and art, equal parts spontaneity and technique. But when I spoke to him, he was rather dismissive of his role as a broadcaster. “I’ve never had much foresight into what I’m doing. Literally, when the lights go on, I just get out there and tap dance my way through it… I use my very minor knowledge of the English language, and my passion for the game, to accentuate a match.” When everything is said and done, though, the novelist only strives to accentuate the world around him. He observes and he comments. And if that commentary is sufficiently careful and emotional, he commemorates the action permanently.
There is nothing positive about the dictionary definition of “obsession” – it haunts, is abnormal and persistent, like a bad rash. Tossing the word into a conversation typically indicates some form of criticism about a person and that person’s particular pursuit. Obsessions can lead to stalkers, delusion and great creations (the last two are not mutually exclusive); they can limit and restrict you to minutia or endow a unique vision that changes how you and others view the world at large. People indulge obsession in different ways – live it like a lifestyle or stir it into a creation like a minor but crucial recipe ingredient where it doesn’t overpower anything and complements everything.
Ideas of obsession had been needling me after reading James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven Tenths and Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. Both books obsess over their loosely shared theme – the natural world’s mystifying grandeur – and after reading them back-to-back it was impossible not to link them. While thinking about these two titles I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a feature-length film directed by stencil-art maverick Banksy. The film’s real lynchpin is Thierry Guetta a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash, the ultimate knock-off artist. But before he became an overnight art world sensation his obsession was filming everything he did. The cousin of French street artist Space Invader, during a vacation to France Guetta got his first exhilarating taste for joining, and filming, street artists on their illicit missions. Over time, Guetta infiltrated the graffiti and street art scene in Los Angeles, befriending Shepard Fairey and other prominent figures. He and his camera became fixtures and his desire to document the scene, in his own words, became more of an obsession than just filming the boring details of everyday life. He met everyone and went everywhere, but like Captain Ahab chasing his White Whale, Guetta would not be satisfied until he achieved his ultimate goal: filming the notoriously anonymous Banksy.
Of course, no greater tale of obsession exists in American letters than Captain Ahab’s in Moby-Dick. Ahab’s epic ego-driven quest to recover the impossible has inspired and influenced countless artists who tap into as many ideas as the ones explored in the novel: myth, America, commerce, astronomy, conquest, sexuality. As part of a series of multimedia responses to American novels, the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco assembled “Moby-Dick,” a show and accompanying catalogue. Designed as homage to the vaunted 1930 Rockwell Kent illustrated Lakeside Press three-volume deluxe edition (later released as a Modern Library edition), this lovely book glosses Melville’s novel and features the thirty-two artists whose works was on view from September 22, 2009, until last December.
Interestingly, it was Kent’s black ink illustrations, reproduced here in a dark, brooding sea-blue, that helped resurrect the novel from obscurity (the edition did not even include Melville’s name on the cover). In this catalogue, pieces like Richard Serra’s lithograph study for his sculpture “Call Me Ishmael” or Brian Jungen’s iPod scrimshaw, connect directly to the narrative; the inclusion of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s large-scale ocean view photographic prints, which a book of this size cannot do justice, is fitting since they express boundless uncertainty. But many of the pieces strike more abstract poses, like Angela Bulloch’s algorithm-simulated celestial views that use “technology to expand our perception of space and the possibilities of perception.”
At first blush, connecting contemporary art to the heyday of seafaring might seem incongruous, but sailors were the eyes of the world for landlubbers, returning home with tales of what mystical, depraved and wondrous sites and cultures existed just beyond the horizon. Of course, for all of the spoils these men brought back with them, their stories were filled by imagination and hearsay, changing like the seas. “Melville’s book,” writes the catalogue’s editor Jens Hoffman, “is like the living ocean: vast, potent, and hugely indifferent to human troubles and ambitions.”
James Hamilton-Paterson has a very similar view about the ocean, and with good reason. He has lived on desolate islands in the Philippines; accompanied deep-sea salvage missions, scientific expeditions, commercial fishers and sea scavenging locals; encountered murderous pirates; gone for many a solitary midnight swims; and read countless historic oceanic travelogues and scientific treatises. When it comes down to channeling philosophy, economics, politics, history, ecology and art through salt water, Hamilton-Paterson gives Melville a run for his money.
The updated Europa Editions release of Seven Tenths, a collection of Hamilton-Paterson’s writings about the sea, is the passionate result of a poet’s eye making sense of rigorous research and humanity’s impossibility. Running through the essays divided into thematic chapters is the tale of a free diver who has lost his boat, the cord he had tied around his ankle loosed from the tiny vessel’s prow. Resurfacing, the boat is nowhere to be found, and the swimmer considers being stranded in a “conspiracy of waves.” The umbilical connection between salt water and our lives is literal and figurative. But when the ocean claims a ship or a person or even disproves earlier scientific findings it does so by shutting off that object from what Paterson-Hamilton calls the “continuity of vision.” For him this is a sublime quality.
The author’s obsessing over oceans and seas is fueled by the fact that we know so little about them, especially beneath the surface. Of course, throughout time the curious have ventured. Alexander the Great had a special glass cage made so he could be lowered into the Mediterranean; salvage missions attempted to resurrect sunken valuables; and Scandinavians tried to correlate fish supplies with tidal currents. But, according to Hamilton-Paterson, “until the late eighteenth century the average European’s mental image of the sea was literally superficial, of a navigable surface above an abyss.”
Today we have a sense of the depth but very little experience of it. Seven Tenths is not so concerned with reasons and answers, but a greater more profound unity that resides in the unknown depths, and not even sonar, electrically belching through cold, lightless water, can give us a real sense of what is down there, and this has been realized for time immemorial: “The Greeks’ idealisation of a static universe full of fixed entities, faithfully reflected in their mathematics, underpinned all that could be thought. The sea was a positive insult to this metaphysics, a naked opposition to it… How did one represent an absence of topography?”
One solution was to name these places with colonial and imperial pageantry, and familiar names like Mount Mozart and Beethoven Ridge in the Musicians Seamounts north of Hawaii. They exist on a map, and in theories of science, surveyed down to the centimeter. What we know is something we have hardly explored, hardly experienced. This wanting for the impossible is why it compels obsession, at least as Hamilton-Paterson sees it: “[B]ut the seething waters of the middle distance have something wordless and unpitying to say to the dullest minds. It is as if the ocean, in certain lights and weathers, were the lair not of monsters or malevolent downward-dragging spirits, but of the fat blank which squats beneath all happiness, flicking out its tongue.”
Nature’s taunting evasiveness is the conundrum at the heart of Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming. The novel consists of three parts, a middle section in which Handke interjects a first-person rhapsody about his process bookended by third-person narratives of wandering and wondering. All three parts obsess over what I think of as the intimate pattern, the visual echoes that reverberate and ping between our whorling fingerprints, the way light playfully daubs a riparian setting and the brittle and broken elements of decay.
Here again, the natural world prompts all of the questions and holds all of the answers but reveals nothing, which propels the obsession. Hamilton-Paterson offers a primer for how to look at the ocean, how to appreciate and cherish it for how it resolutely resists humanity. But Handke’s characters are like a collective Captain Ahab afloat in the world, searching. Their focus is singular, all others – wives, lovers, children – seem to exist only by virtue of these men determining how these others exist in proximity to them.
Benjamin Kunkel, in his introduction to Slow Homecoming, informs us that in German the surname of the first part’s subject, Sorger, means “one who takes care or has cares.” In an Alaskan-like wilderness, Sorger, a foreigner and outsider, studies the landscape and its inhabitants at such detail that everything becomes a likeness of his creation. There is not much naming, but that’s because Sorger’s dedication, certainly the book’s dedication, is to the propensity for naming because all such names are a function of these intimate patterns: “They were unmistakable signs implicit in nature itself . . . and had the power, regardless of who the observer might be, to convert themselves into great and diversified happenings in space – delusions only at first glance, then welcome as metamorphoses in the deeper area of vision.”
The novel’s final section reunites an unnamed father with his young daughter, raising her for periods of time in different countries, separated from her at times when the daughter stays with her mother. He sees her as a component, a piece of the puzzle that when completed will symbolize truth, something he chases: “Still the wayfarer makes his way across the high plateau toward the blue-veiled mountain chain, still busy with the thought that can never be carried to a conclusion: I am working on the secret of the world.”
All of these obsession-driven projects blur fiction and nonfiction. Melville’s pedantic descriptions of whaling can remove readers from the plot, making the novel feel like a manual. Hamilton-Paterson concedes that certain of his details might only be true to him and Handke’s narrative conceit intentionally calls into question where to draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. In a statement, Banksy declared that everything in Exit Through the Gift Shop is true, except that parts that aren’t.
Like Ahab, Thierry Guetta indeed found his White Whale, and while not fatal it was significant. Guetta and Banksy became friends. But the obsessive filming, it turns out, was not part of any great vision. Banksy ends up making the movie everyone had assumed Guetta was working on; Guetta begins to focus on art, churning out painfully derivative work, its boring qualities enhanced by his delusional ego and the fact that he sold a million dollars worth in a few days. In this transition, Guetta’s obsession comes into question – he simply does what people expect him to do, as if by rote. The actual extent of his obsessions is what makes for a biting portrait of the consumer environment that turns Guetta into a hot-shot artist, as opposed to a documentary about street artists and their critical and commercial success. It’s this sly self-awareness – Banksy, Shepard Fairey, et al are in on the joke – that makes Exit Through the Gift Shop brilliant, calling into question what validates certain obsessions. Whether a forever linking double helix of associations and patterns, a tidal ebb and flow or the marketplace, obsessive activities strive to unlock an answer or bring closure to the issue that has caused the obsession, or in the case of Guetta provide an illusion that the activity serves a purpose. This might be the greatest message of them all: obsessions are illusions.
Hamilton-Paterson appreciates the ocean’s indifference as its greatest virtue, the reality check that human ego needs and should pay heed. Handke’s characters want to find a place within the indifference, but only because they think it their duty to do so. The daughter in Slow Homecoming, simply by being in the right place at the right time, at last drives home to her father that the ultimate secret is perhaps one kept forever, that these obsessions make us human and we should be happy to leave it at that. Or as Ishmael says: “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature.
Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail. He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it. He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare. It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest.
In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy. Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away.
The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow. The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear.
Bradley’s learning is formidable. He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing.
At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal. He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life. Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule. His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature. In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself. Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing. He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions. And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own.
The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here. Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius.
Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating. His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility. Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings. He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore.
Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries: Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him? Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity. In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it. Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character. He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting.
For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying. At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father. With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action. “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says. In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends.
It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options. Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies. Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general. Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis. Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows. Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare: it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life. This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once.
At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play:
So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself.
Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius. Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake? Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene.
Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries. “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes. Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials:
We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity.
A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet. Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here. We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws.
Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts. Every page hums with energy: Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next.
He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting. Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry:
Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe.
In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago. He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness:
…her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover.
Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness:
One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends.
In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits. Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated. Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship. Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald. If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements. Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details.
I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare. Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus. He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like. This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.
I have to wonder how it happened. In early 2009, I wrote on my newly-minted blog:
It’s a pretty weird time on the planet — the economics of everything, the tools of mass communication, the rise (rise? emergence? triumph? hard to say…) of self-publishing and DIY arts production and distribution. Everything’s spinning and turning — exhilaratingly for some, nauseatingly for others.
I was leaning toward nausea at the time. In all things, I was analog. I worked slowly, and I liked material, concrete things. Like books, pens, paper. My first novel was a year from release, and I’d been told, by everyone I knew in the literary world, that I should start a blog. Reluctantly, awkwardly, I did.
In 2010, in an essay for the anthology The Late American Novel, I wrote:
Realistically: the printed book, in hard cover at the least, may well go by the wayside. By all accounts, digital technologies and the market are pushing print, as we know it, to the margins […] All this may well be the reality of the moment […] My hope, on the other hand is that the above trajectory is not a foregone conclusion; or if it is, not a permanent one.
I also wrote that I hoped the pendulum swing toward digital would swing back, to a future time where “Those of us who write will write better books. We’ll pare back on blog-blabbing, will be freer from self-consciousness, quieter in our heads, slower and less distracted, more imaginatively limber and inventive.”
It is now the dusk of 2012, and I am going on my fourth year writing regularly for a major online literary site — the one you are reading right now. And in a few weeks, I will be involved in launching yet another digital literary venture… but more on that in a moment.
How did it happen? Mine is an unlikely Web byline, and yet, more often than I ever would have imagined, I have been “recognized,” at a party, or in an email exchange, even at an artists’ colony, for my essays and reviews at The Millions. You’re the one who wrote that piece about…
Seriously? I think. You read that? Part of me is still in 2009, dizzy and disoriented from all the spinning and turning.
Back then, along with being told to start a blog, I was told to read blogs. At the time, I still had a paper subscription to the NY Times, and an iBook that had maxed out on hard-drive space (and thus loaded Web pages very slowly). I can’t remember exactly how I started: there was maybe one literary blog I knew about, so I poked around there. That blog led to another blog, and that to another. About a week into my explorations, I landed at The Millions. This was back when the format was still a single post daily, in vertical scroll. I found myself revisiting the site: something about it clicked (so to speak), it seemed to me both erudite and unpretentious, a place where I could hang out for a while. The content was interesting but not overwhelming, the pace of it rigorous but unhurried. It was the first blog on which I ever commented.
I kept coming back. I didn’t bother reading other blogs; I thought, okay, I’ll just stick with this one, it’s what I can do. About a month into my new and exciting blog life, I posted something on my own blog about former New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s Twitter-essay, wherein he had described (in Tweets) being fired by David Remnick. I didn’t really know what Twitter was (I still don’t have an account), but I’d read the essay (via The Millions?) and was intrigued. It took me about a month, however, to get some thoughts together; which was, and still is, typical of me, i.e., I may have joined the digital commentariat, but no form of technology was going to make me a faster thinker. I was no breaking-news journalist.
Nonetheless, within an hour of posting, a comment appeared — from Dan Baum. I stared at it. Really? This was my first experience with actual social networking. He wrote: Sonya, a lot of words have been spilled about my New Yorker twitterpost, but this one was the best. Thank you. I remember the rush, that thrill of being winked at from across a crowded (cyber) room. In that moment, I got it — what all this fuss about social networking was about. Give the tools a try, just be yourself; write what you care about. Weird things will start to happen, some of them might be good.
Even weirder: Baum tweeted my post, and instantly, my little blog of 50 daily visitors was flooded with close to 1,000 visitors. I felt like a crowd had just burst into my home, where I hadn’t vacuumed or done the dishes, and I was wearing an ugly bathrobe.
But the light bulbs started to go on. I wrote first to Dan Baum, to thank him for his comment (and confirm it was in fact him); he was gracious and friendly. Then, I wrote to the editor of The Millions:
I’m a novelist/blogger/fiction teacher and frequent reader of The Millions.
I recently posted on my blog a response to Dan Baum’s much-read Twitterpost about the New Yorker, and then received this comment from Dan Baum himself.
I copied and pasted the comment, then suggested that the readers of The Millions might be interested in the post as “a curiosity.” To which Max replied:
Very cool! I’ll throw a link into our next roundup
Emboldened, I wrote back, asked Max if by chance I might write for The Millions sometime. He replied that I should submit a draft of something, which I did. He worked with me on editing it, then published it, then a few others. After a couple of months of guest posting, I became a staff writer.
Two years ago, at a panel on publishing that I coordinated for the creative writing students at Columbia University, someone asked how important did the panelists think blogging and social networking were for one’s literary career. A couple of the panelists said that they thought it was very important, that these days authors were more responsible than ever for their own publicity, not to mention connecting with editors and agents, and that social networking was the way to do that. One of the panelists, a well-published fiction writer, offered an opposing view: “That stuff can be very distracting,” she said. “If you’d rather focus your energy and time on your novel or stories, you should do that.” Afterwards, I thanked the panelist for her words. “The students need to hear that,” I said to her. “That no matter what, their creative work is most important.”
At the same panel the following year, which I also moderated, a published writer in attendance asked if the panelists had any thoughts for someone who didn’t write short-form. “It seems like a lot of publishing connections get made through blog-writing, but what if you’re really a long-form writer, and you’re working on a book, and that’s really all you’re doing?” I found myself interjecting thus: “I’m that kind of writer, as well. In an ideal world, I would be living in the woods, writing novels and long stories and nothing else. But at some point, I realized that I didn’t have that luxury; that it was a good idea to take advantage of all these outlets for short-form publishing.”
My reactions to these two authors are not in direct opposition, but the nuances have shifted. I still believe that long-form creative writers must determine and do what works best for them; to learn what is distracting versus what is nourishing; to make choices that get them to finish and publish their books. Over the past few years, there have been moments when I’ve considered ceasing to write for The Millions, so that, in addition to teaching (where I earn my living) I can focus exclusively on fiction. But I’ve come to realize that, for me, engaging in both long-form and short-form, analog and digital, work well together.
Strictly speaking, yes, the time I spend writing for online publication is time not spent writing my second novel; and yet it is still, for me, time spent nourishing my writing life. There is, it would seem — needs to be for most of us in this publishing environment — more to the writing life than manuscript word counts and book deals. One must be mindful of the stamina, and the supportive community, required for the long haul of long-form literary writing; which is, even in the case of relative “success,” increasingly divorced from a viable livelihood and voluminous readership. Being able to write and publish short-form work, on a somewhat regular basis, has energized me to keep showing up at my fiction desk (mornings, no internet), which is, more accurately — and perhaps appropriately in light of this notion of complementary activities — not really a desk at all, but a spiral-bound notebook in which I write long-hand.
I should say, too, that I spend relatively little time on either Facebook or Twitter. If a Tweet is 140 characters, and this essay is 11,000 characters, then you could say that this is what I do every month, alongside novel writing, in lieu of 80 Tweets.
Writing short essays and reviews are also a way for me to think. This past summer, I worked for two solid months on a long piece about psychic homelessness, i.e., geographic mobility, an unstable sense of place. The piece ranged and roamed, encompassing the essays of Emerson, the novels of Wendell Berry, the memoirs of Kathleen Norris, Jimmy Carter, and Donald Hall, the “anxiety of influence,” reflections on my marriage and divorce, meditations on the legacy of immigration, questions of social class… it was a mess, and I trashed it, heavy with a sense of failure. This fall, I’ve had a chance to resurrect the piece — fragments of it, that is — in short form, in an online column at The Common, called “Annals of Mobility.” I can think out the issues one at a time and, perhaps a year from now, look at them in the aggregate and understand what it is I feel and have wanted to say. In this way, ironically, Web writing has slowed me down and allowed me to take my time with a complex idea.
Which brings me to Bloom.
In September 2011, The Millions graciously allowed me a platform for highlighting a group of authors, and, perhaps more significantly, a varied way of looking at and engaging in the writing life — that of zig-zag paths, a slower pace, living multiple lives; and ultimately “succeeding,” one way or another, in one’s own good time. I am referring to the “Post-40 Bloomers” series, which I’ve been honored to write and edit over the past year.
In a few weeks, you’ll be hearing about Bloom — a new site, originating from “Post-40 Bloomers,” carrying on and expanding the series, with support from The Millions. Instead of monthly, you’ll read about a “Bloomer” weekly, along with other great features related to later-life blooming. So far, Bloom is scheduled to feature Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Ferry, Deborah Eisenberg, Bram Stoker, W.M. Spackman, Kate Chopin, Shannon Cain, Karl Marlantes, George Eliot, Samuel Richardson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Joseph Kanon, Pauline Chen… this exciting list goes on and on.
The irony of it all delights and humbles me. Bloom is about taking one’s time, sometimes off the beaten path. We’re claiming the technology of fast-and-instant and using it to talk about the many different ways of living, working, creating — fast, slow, direct, indirect, prolific, sparse. I won’t be moderating that publishing panel again this year, but if I were, I would say to the anxious student who asks about blogging and digital publishing — who is worried about money and family, his messy creative process, and his prospects for literary “success” — I would say to him: Just be yourself. You will bloom in good time.
Image via aussiegall/Flickr