1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”
Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”
Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.
It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”
Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism. For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.
2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.
Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.
As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”
Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.
A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.
God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.
3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.
What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.
In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”
There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”
David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.
4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.
Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”
Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”
Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.
Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.
Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.
5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.
For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.
In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”
Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.
Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.
Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”
China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?” These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”
6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.
In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.
His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.
This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”
Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.
Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.
8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.
In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.
When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.
In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.
9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.
In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.
10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.
In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.
With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.
Lost somewhere in the storage room of my childhood home is a videotape of me, at 8, surrounded by the colorful scraps of a Christmas morning. Off camera, you hear holiday music and conversation. On camera, center frame, dressed in sweater and jeans, I sit in a fugue state, picking aimlessly at the plastic of a packaged action figure. I stare at my hands. I stare at the carpet. Separated from the present moment, intently searching for something that isn’t there in front of me. My mother asks what’s wrong. I shake my head, as if in a dream. A minute later, she asks again, as if speaking to a shy puppy: What’s the matter? The one-sided dialogue between earnest mother and mute son continues for another minute. Then, as if exhausted, the home video cuts to another, cheerier scene from that December morning in 1990.
For most of my adult life, this brief snippet of film has been the defining image of melancholy: that intense—and, truth be told, intensely pleasurable—disposition caught halfway between nostalgia and depression. It’s a disposition I’ve carried with me throughout my life, and in those brief moments on that home video it’s captured, like low-definition footage of some mysterious woodland beast. What, exactly, is that little Zak thinking? What is he feeling? Says Webster: “a depression of spirits.” Says Oxford: “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.”
Then there’s Robert Burton’s seminal (and exhausting) tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, with a definition so lengthy, so convoluted, so comprehensive and contradictory that it requires 1,382 pages. It’s a book I discovered only a few years ago, during a (yes, melancholic) walk among the shelves of a local bookstore. Recently, like one of Burton’s melancholic scholars, I took it upon myself to finally sit down with his Anatomy as a way to better understand, to reconnect with, the boy in that home video—and the man he’d become. Ignorant of the book’s contents aside from its umbrella theme and its bricklike heft, I assumed somewhere in these pages would be a passage that could illuminate my own experiences.
Look to the past, history’s great teachers tell us. And yet I learned, perhaps too quickly, that one doesn’t approach this encyclopedic book with such utilitarian intentions. You’d be just as well-served planning a trip to Asia using The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as your guidebook. Burton cautions his reader as much in his lengthy introduction, written under the name of Democritus Junior (the fictional descendent of a melancholy philosopher and coeval of Socrates):
Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in this following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good.
If you, like me, are looking to read The Anatomy to self-diagnose, to cross-check Burton’s list of symptoms with your own, don’t bother. You’re melancholy. In fact, as Burton suggests, we’re all melancholy in one way or another. And I imagine he’d find our 21st century just as rife with melancholy as his own 17th-century world.
“The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues,” Burton writes, “as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” Nevertheless, Burton takes it upon himself to bring some order to these symptoms and causes in the first partition of The Anatomy, and it was with a great amount of curiosity and glee, along with a muted feeling of dread, that I combed through these hundreds of pages in search of myself.
To begin with is my lifelong love of perhaps that most emblematic form of melancholy recreation: reading. All too often in my childhood, I’d escape from the company of my peers with books: comic anthologies, movie novelizations, children’s magazines. I’d tuck myself into corners and live in other worlds while the real one continued just out of earshot. As a college student, I passed on parties for the private corners of library stacks and department buildings. As an adult, I’m never so deliciously alone as I am with an open book in a crowded coffee shop or subway car.
Burton was onto this. Over the span of several dozen pages, he bemoans the “misery of scholarship” and the dangers of “overmuch story” as a fertile ground for melancholy. No wonder, then, that in imagining myself reading in public spaces, I often recall a line of concern expressed by another mother of a melancholy youth: Queen Gertrude, who, spying on her son in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, remarks: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes / reading.”
To complicate matters, Burton lists reading as one of the possible ways to alleviate melancholy spirts:
Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles, and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned…For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader!
Scattered throughout Burton’s tome are other pieces of myself, as a child and as an adult. I come across these passages like a patient who’s uncovered a psychiatrist’s notes, written in an archaic tongue and encompassing years of 50-minute private confessions.
The paranoia the socially shy feel in the company of their peers: “If two talk together, discourse, whisper, jest, or tell a tale in general, he thinks presently they mean him, applies all to himself.”
The overcompensation of one’s melancholy disposition with laughter and good cheer: “Humorous they are beyond all measure, sometimes profusely laughing, extraordinarily merry, and then again weeping without a cause…groaning, sighing, pensive, sad, almost distracted…”
The walks of my everyday life (around the neighborhood of my youth, in empty spaces after the departures of family and friends, through parks and city streets with just my thoughts and my earbuds): “But the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretaeus, deambulatio per amoena loca [strolling through pleasant scenery], to make a petty progress…”
The envy of others’ well-earned success: “He tortures himself if his equal, friend, neighbor, be preferred, commended, do well; …and no greater pain can come to him than to hear of another man’s well-doing; ‘tis a dagger at his heart…”
And above all, the ever-present sorrow and rumination: an “inseparable companion…as all writers witness, a common symptom, a continual, and still without any evident cause…grieving still, but why they cannot tell.”
Burton devotes half of the third part of his Anatomy to melancholy’s relationship with love. And who among us would disagree that love—whether a one-night stand or a multi-decade marriage—isn’t tinged with its own special sort of sweet sadness?
Both in the closet and now long out of it, I’ve been convinced of the connection between homosexuality and melancholy. The sadness that comes from being strange, different, set off at an unwanted remove from the rest of society. The inward-facing anger at being forced into a specific sort of solitude one doesn’t necessarily want. The secret life lived wholly in the mind because it can’t be borne into reality without consequences.
There’s little homosexuality in Burton’s book (a scant mention of sodomy among sexually frustrated monks; the heroic love between Achilles and Patroclus), but still much I can relate to when it comes to the subject of longing, of unrequited (and requited) love, of lust and jealousy as a part of the melancholic lover’s disposition. And while a proud, open life can do much to alleviate the dangers of sexual and emotional repression, I’m not entirely sure the melancholy disappears so quickly. We carry our queer melancholy with us, everywhere, and all our future loves and relationships are tainted (or, perhaps, blessed) by this baggage.
Of cures for melancholy, Burton has much to say in the second partition of The Anatomy. Over several hundred pages, we’re drawn through ancient and early-modern methods for purging, curing, and alleviating one’s black moods. Confessing to a friend. Massaging one’s body with oils of chamomile and roses. Inducing vomit with laurel and sea onion. Eating early. Undergoing surgical procedures with knives and hot irons.
There’s nothing in these pages, however, of the cures I’ve experimented with over the years in an effort to purge myself of my perpetual gloom: the after-work therapy sessions, the late-night Google searches, the chat forums and inspirational blogs. And the pills: medications that Burton’s cadre of physicians and scholars, with all their talk of hellebore and leeches, could never have imagined. Ours is a modern world where there is, it seems, “a pill for that.” In such a world, of what uses are Burton’s medieval cures? (How quaint, how curious, how funny, I think as I put down The Anatomy to swallow my daily 40 milligrams of Prozac.)
But to cure myself entirely of my melancholy disposition? To cut it out of my body and keep it in a jar where I could observe it at a safe remove? I’ve long since given up on that project—not out of defeat but rather out of a strange sense of respect. Temper it? Yes. Keep it in check so it doesn’t interfere with everyday life? Of course. But to rip it out of my brain entirely? Alas, those roots run too deep. Take away my melancholy and you take away my very identity.
The New York Review of Books edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy I carried around with me like a millstone this spring is notable for two reasons. The first is the introduction by the always-insightful William H. Gass, who shares Burton’s love of language, of the uncanny effects of words piled on words piled on words, of sentences which achieve “the tone of a tirade that, in the midst of its fury, smiles at itself.”
The second is the front cover, a detail of a 17th-century vanitas painting by Philippe de Champaigne featuring a skull the color of leather and an hourglass caught in the middle of its span—appropriate reminders of life’s ephemerality, of the ever-present realities of death and the passing of time. And yet it’s an inaccurate representation. Look at the entirety of the tableau online and you’ll see what’s missing from this detail is a tulip, positioned to the left of the skull, its petals almost on fire with color. As any practicing melancholic will tell you, there’s sadness and anxiety in our outlook on life. But there’s also beauty. Always, on some level, beauty. And the well-lived life of a melancholic recognizes all three of these aspects—beauty, death, time—as working in concert.
This is melancholy’s truth: It is both blessing and curse, boon and bane. Inside that little boy’s head all those years ago, inside mine right now and forever, is an ever-persistent struggle between sweet and sour, joy and sorrow. A temperament that, according to Burton, has room for both “a thousand miseries” and “sweet music,” for “a thousand ugly shapes” and “rare beauties.”
Had I only had Burton’s words to share with my mother back then on that Christmas morning. Had I only been old enough, wise enough, to tell her we all, in one way or another, live with private melancholies. That the most enlightened among us have a respect for our long-anatomized disposition. That some of us, much to Burton’s consternation, wouldn’t live life any other way.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Two months have passed since the 2016 Nobel Prizes were doled out in Stockholm to a worthy group of physicists, chemists, economists, and such, with Swedish royalty and other well-heeled folks dressed and jeweled up in the audience. Bob Dylan, the celebrated no-show, missed out on the banquet’s sumptuous menu, which featured quail in black garlic and cloudberry sorbet, but Patti Smith gamely made her way through “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and the American ambassador to Sweden read Dylan’s short acceptance letter. This wasn’t exactly the glorious party some might have imagined or hoped for. But the chastened Nobel committee had certainly come a long way from their initial dismay and then frustration at Dylan’s extended silence following the announcement of his award.
One wonders how closely they had studied his work. All they had to do, really, was listen to how that harried farmhand drew his line in the sand on 1965’s “Maggie’s Farm” and they could have predicted Dylan’s seemingly cryptic non-response:
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
Dylan doesn’t like to be crowded. Try to pin him down and he’ll suddenly remember a previous engagement that’s more important than dropping by to collect a Nobel Prize. What could this award confer upon him anyway? His artistic achievement stands, with or without it. As Leonard Cohen noted, giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize “is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.” That cloudberry sorbet never had a chance.
But Bob Dylan’s Excellent Nobel Adventure isn’t over quite yet. His award doesn’t become officially official until he, as all Nobel laureates are required to do, delivers a lecture within six months of the award ceremonies. If he doesn’t provide that lecture, would the Nobel committee actually consider stripping him of his award? Certainly there are more than a few observers out there who would be happy to see that happen, because Dylan is one of the more controversial of recent Nobel recipients.
Historically, the Nobel literature committee has always taken a lot of guff for their decisions. In any given year, critics trot out their favorite choices for who should have won instead, and there is indeed a long, sad list of greats who have been passed over, including Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, and Eudora Welty. I’ve always been mystified why the Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, author of the haunting Tales of the Mountains, was nominated several times and still never got the call. I once joined a nomination letter-writing campaign for Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe that, sadly, failed. I’ve been waiting far too many years for the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare to get his chance. Literary life, like the rest of life, is unfair.
I’ve also indulged in my own share of head scratching at some recent Nobel choices.
I’d never heard of the two French writers, J.M.G. Le Clézio and Patrick Modiano, who received their Nobel Prizes in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Yet neither author was obscure, not even remotely so: both had been multi-awarded and bestsellered, though their achievements occurred outside the bubble of American literature. I now list them both among my favorite writers.
The controversy over Bob Dylan has nothing to do with any supposed lack of visibility — he’s famous the world over. But he’s a songwriter. Some observers have suggested that the Nobel literature committee has become a little too frisky, a little too aesthetically restless, because in recent years, there have been a number of choices made outside of the cozy fiction/poetry pendulum: the playwright and performance artist Dario Fo won in 1997, the playwright Harold Pinter in 2005, and in 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won for her nonfiction.
A little historical perspective on this supposed friskiness is in order here. Alexievich wasn’t the first nonfiction writer to win. In 1949, Winston Churchill won for his multi-volume history of Great Britain. Interestingly enough, that was only half of the reason for his award — he also won for his speeches. The Nobel committee specifically lauded his “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” And despite the ruckus over the prize going to Dario Fo in 1997, he wasn’t even close to being the first playwright to win. He was the 12th. The first awarded dramatist was the Spanish playwright José Echegaray, in 1904 — only three years after the Nobel prizes were launched. In all, 14 writers have won primarily or in part for their dramatic work, most notably George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Wole Soyinka.
Playwriting is a literary form that has a lot in common with songwriting. Both are written texts that live most fully through extra-literary collaboration. While many plays are read for pleasure (William Shakespeare, anyone?), they are written specifically not to deliver everything on the page. “Exit, stage left,” for instance, offers nothing on the subject of how an actor might accomplish that exit. The words of a script are surrounded by an artful deployment of negative space that waits to be filled by actors, a director, the lighting crew, costume designer, and many others to add nuance and perhaps unexpected interpretations in performance. Even where a play is staged — whether a proscenium stage, a theater in the round, or an open-air Greek theater — adds further dimension. It’s harder to imagine a greater contrast with a dimly-lit off-off-Broadway venue than ancient Athen’s theater of Dionysus: plays there were performed outside and during the day, on the southern slope of the Acropolis. In playwriting, words are, you might say, the opening gambit.
In songwriting the lyrics create the possible tone of the accompanying music, and that music can then transform the words by adding emotional depth, suspense, and drama. Just as the lines of a play are designed for the actors who will speak them, an invitation for collaboration is built into the possibilities of lyrics. The words of a song are designed to be sung, to be performed by any number of instruments and interpreters — and Dylan’s songs have been performed by a ridiculously long list of artists, from The Byrds to Etta James, P.J. Harvey to Diana Krall, Jimi Hendrix to The Ramones, Caetano Veloso to Adele and beyond.
In his brief Nobel acceptance letter, Dylan acknowledged this connection between playwriting and songwriting. Shakespeare’s “words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken, not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: ‘Who’re the right actors for these roles?’ ‘How should this be staged?’ ‘Do I really want to set this in Denmark?’”
Pivoting from this point, Dylan’s letter continued, “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’”
If, after celebrating the collaborative art of playwriting since 1904, the Nobel committee has finally turned its gaze on the related literary genre of songwriting, then the inevitable choice for the prize is Bob Dylan. He’s arguably the greatest, most transformative songwriter of the past century (though it’s worth noting that Rabindranath Tagore, who won in 1913 for his poetry, was also a songwriter; he wrote over 2,000 songs, many of which are still popular throughout South Asia) (read more on Tagore).
Forging an amalgam of biblical verse, François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Woody Guthrie, Chuck Berry, and others, Dylan pushed Tin Pan Alley off the cliff while creating one unlikely masterpiece after another. “Masters of War,” “Gates of Eden,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Idiot Wind” are just a few examples of an evolving body of work that has challenged every other songwriter to think more deeply about a wider range of subjects that you could write about, what sort of language you could use to embody those subjects, and just how long your songs could take their time doing so. And none of this happened by accident. Sean Wilentz, in “Mystic Nights,” his masterly essay on the making of Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde, observes that during the recording, “Dylan constantly and carefully revised, as he always had and still does, even to the point of abandoning entire songs. Changing the line “I gave you those pearls” to “with her fog, her amphetamine, and her pearls” was one example out of dozens of how Dylan, in the studio and in his Nashville hotel room, improved the timbre of the songs’ lyrics as well as their imagery. And Dylan’s voice, as ever an evolving invention, was one of the album’s touchstones, a smooth, even sweet surprise to listeners who had gotten used to him sounding harsh and raspy. By turns sibilant, sibylline, injured, cocky, sardonic, and wry, Dylan’s voice on Blonde on Blonde more than made up in tone and phrasing what it gave away in range.”
Dylan always developed his lyrics and music to reflect his shifting identity as a human. One might say the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature could be considered a group award for every Bob Dylan there has ever been.
While it’s true that Nobel recipient Anatole France was born François-Anatole Thibault, the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral was born Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, and the Guadeloupean-French poet Alexis Leger went by the pen name of Saint-John Perse, I think few would venture the opinion that “Bob Dylan” is merely a pen name. That original, mysterious nub of the middle class and Midwestern Robert Allen Zimmerman didn’t so much rename himself as conjure a fluid mask for the expression of all his future public selves: a Woody Guthrie-like folk singer, the protest singer, a sensitive singer-songwriter, a gritty and poetic rock ‘n’ roller, the elusive figure releasing oracular songs from a basement, then the country gentleman, followed by the very public ringmaster of a traveling musical carnival, leading to the brimstone Christian and then the lapsed one. These days he’s an increasingly grizzled troubadour of the decades-long Never Ending Tour, bringing his own vast version of the great American songbook to any state fair or refurbished theater that will have him.
Dylan wears each mask until its features begin to harden, and then he sets about fashioning a new one. Each mask is a part of him but no mask is him. What Dylan’s oeuvre most celebrates is that busyness of being born, not dying, the life-long squawk of his successive secret selves through the public medium of popular song. His greatness can’t be confined to a single song, or a single album, or even a collection of “best” albums. I think a deeper reason we listen to his changing voices, musics, and personas is because his lifelong transformations reflect our own, those we struggle to suppress and those we hope to release.
There’s a crucial moment in the arc of Dylan’s shape-shifting career that occurred during a concert that was, happily, recorded, bootlegged, and eventually released officially as The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert. It’s the summer of 1966, and Dylan is on tour in England, introducing to audiences his latest electric self, backed by a group called The Jayhawks (which would a couple years later morph into The Band).
Throughout the tour the acoustic sets have gone well, but whenever Dylan plugs in with The Jayhawks the audience mood sours. A month’s conflict of expectations comes to a head at a concert in Manchester. Between songs, the audience claps loudly in unison, an ironic, anti-clapping: not applause but criticism. What were they thinking? Hadn’t they noticed that the figure on stage had already in his young career shed three previous musical masks? But “everybody wants you to be just like them” and the heckling continues. Dylan taunts them in return and performs a searing version of “Ballad of a Thin Man” not for them but at them. Finally, some poor soul in the audience shouts “Judas!” to appreciative laughter.
Dylan responds with a growling, “I don’t believe you.” Then, after a tense pause, he shouts, “You’re a liar!” Turning to the band, he tells them, “Play fucking loud,” and what follows is a roaring kick-ass blast of “Like a Rolling Stone” that finally silences the malcontents. Yet Dylan wasn’t asking The Jayhawks to just play the song fucking loud, he was also asking them to blare out the necessity of his latest persona to that angry and uncomprehending audience. He was fighting for his right to wear whatever mask fits. He was fighting for his right to breathe.
It has recently been announced that in early April, Dylan will perform two back-to-back concerts in Stockholm, which is well within that six-month Nobel lecture deadline. There are suggestions that these concerts might serve as a substitute. Or maybe not, and a podium is waiting. Whatever is decided, tread lightly, Nobel literature committee. Every Bob Dylan we have ever known and listened to bristles at requirements. That’s the very path that led him to the Nobel.
Interested readers can find the author’s close look at Dylan’s song “Cold Irons Bound” at his website.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A few months ago, like the dull thuds of a heart beginning to beat, I heard the first stirrings of Ian McEwan’s new novel as publicists and publishers began preparing its delivery into the world. Interviews appeared, an atmospheric trailer that revealed absolutely nothing was released on McEwan’s Facebook page, a blurb was posted on his publisher’s website. By then we had a short description, and we knew that there was something a little special about this one: the novel would be narrated by a fetus.
The novel’s first line sets the tone: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” Now that’s what I call first-person limited. As for plot, it’s straightforward enough, “the classic tale of murder and deceit” we were promised in the blurb: pregnant Trudy has taken on a lover, Claude. Together, they plan to murder Trudy’s husband, John, who is also Claude’s brother. The motive? Money, of course, in the form of the marital home, a “Georgian pile on boastful Hamilton Terrace” whose “six thousand aching square feet will buy you seven million pounds,” even in its dilapidated state.
Our unborn narrator, privy to these murderous musings, begins by discussing the abstractions he has to dwell on since he has yet to see anything, although it’s soon clear that he’s awfully well informed about things like the U.S. constitution, climate change, and contemporary world politics for someone who hasn’t taken his first breath yet. He (and we know from the “shrimp-like protuberance” between his legs that he is a he) soon explains that he’s learned most of these things by listening to the podcasts his mother plays at night when she can’t sleep. Our narrator has pretentious tastes: an audiobook of James Joyce’s Ulysses “thrills” him, but sends his mother to sleep.
He also knows a lot about wine, which he is apparently able to taste even though it is “decanted through a healthy placenta.” McEwan enjoys peppering his novels with mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink (I often dream of the seafood stew in Saturday), and he hasn’t found a reason not to do so, quite elaborately, even from this undeveloped perspective. A Pouilly-Fumé taken in a moment of high emotional intensity is “too thin, too piercing,” while an earlier Pinot Noir is “a mother’s soothing hand” whose “hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.”
This unborn baby knows his grapes, and a lot more besides.
Much of McEwan’s work can be understood as a knotted tension between realism and — what, exactly? Let’s call it falsehood. Atonement and Sweet Tooth both pulled the narrative rug from beneath the reader’s feet, tipping the story into meta-fiction. Personally, I was delighted by McEwan’s bravura — by the clean, clever way the narrative coiled back upon itself — but I know readers who are unimpressed by such tricks. Solar and Amsterdam, while not entirely unpleasant, offered little depth in their leap towards satire. The Children Act bored me with its clunky symbolism and Dickensian social commentary. As Tessa Hadley put it in her review of that novel, “[r]ealism seems beside the point after a while: it’s more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable.”
But at a sentence-level, McEwan’s work remains that of an old-fashioned realist. In a lecture he gave at Harvard University in 2012, he stated that one of the novel’s supreme virtues was “the air of reality, the solidicity [sic].” In the same lecture, McEwan stated: “I have refused to give my character wings.”
Now, with Nutshell, McEwan has nudged his hallowed realism onto unsteady ground. Although the story itself is realistic enough, and steeped in McEwan’s usual attention to detail, the voice that tells it to us is, in a way, complete fantasy. The novel might as well be told from within the consciousness of a dog, a ghost, or a piece of furniture.
The wine tasting, which I described above, is part of the problem, but so are the metaphors. Our narrator feels the sound of a cork drawn from a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre “like the caress of a summer breeze,” “innocent toes” are imagined lined up “like children in a family photo,” his first headache is “a gaudy bandana,” a moment of silence is “creamily thick” while at another moment something “hangs in the air, like a Beijing smog.” Some of these comparisons are quite good, although most are barren of the thematic resonance that would make them great. Sometimes the writing strains and groans with the pressure of its own self-conscious preciosity, as when the narrator pictures his mother “youngly slumped” on a table and then tells us he “insist[s] on the adverb,” which means that McEwan does. You can almost see him penciling that in for his editor.
More importantly, the metaphors don’t make sense because our narrator has never experienced or seen any of the vehicles he uses, just as he’s never seen a table or knows what it is to slump. And I refuse to believe he picked all that up from podcasts. Any realism in this novel is undermined by the simple fact that a fetus can’t know what this fetus knows. An unborn baby can’t differentiate between an Échézeaux Grand Cru and a Romanée-Conti from the snugness of the womb, an unborn baby can’t “picture a hayloft, off which a hundred-kilo sacks of grain is tossed to the granary floor” and compare that image to the sound of his mother’s beating heart. It is not improbable, like some plot points of other McEwan novels; it is impossible.
I’m doing what I shouldn’t do, which is to dissect the basic realism of the novel’s conceit. In Sweet Tooth McEwan gave us a constructed narrator, a fiction, who is a voracious reader of realist fiction — Serena Frome likes novels that mention real events, real people, and real places. Like McEwan himself, who was thrilled in his youth to find a reference in a novel he was reading to a real illustration from Punch that he was able to look up, Frome reads to see fact collapse within fiction.
The in-utero narrator of Nutshell is, by comparison, a dreamer. At one point in the story, drunk on the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc his mother has imbibed on her own (or, as it were, in his company), he spreads his imaginative wings and visualizes for us the conversation occurring at that moment between his father and his uncle. Upon returning to the womb, he writes, “One could make a living devising such excursions,” which is of course exactly what McEwan has done as a novelist.
So perhaps we have here an indication that the author has given up on his obsession with the real, that he has come to terms with the fact that he writes about characters and events that are not factual. He has dealt with the question: if none of this is real, then why go to such lengths to make sure that it appears to be?
The moment of fiction doesn’t last, though. In the next line, the narrator thinks, “But the actual, the circumscribed real, is absorbing too and I’m impatient for Claude to return and us what really happened.” Old habits are hard to kill.
Still, it looks like McEwan, this once at least, has decided to shuffle off the mortal coil of realism in favor of an impossible point of view. I applaud his new purpose because the payoffs are worth it. For all its un-believability, Nutshell’s narrator offers us interesting moments, and gives McEwan the chance to show off some fresh writing. Particularly good are scenes of high emotion described from within Trudy’s anatomy. McEwan replaces the smiles, blushes, glances, and head movements that are the fiction writer’s traditional arsenal of “telling” descriptors with even more telling organ movements. A moment of hesitation in a conversation is rich with unspoken feeling: “my mother’s heart begins a steady acceleration. Not just faster, but louder, like the hollow knocking sound of faulty plumbing. Something is also happening in her gut. Her bowels are loosening, with a squeaky stretching sound, and higher up, somewhere above my feet, juices race down winding tubes to unknown destinations.” The body doesn’t lie.
Likewise, sex between the murderous lovers becomes a particularly disturbing turbulence when described from within. The pressure of a penis penetrating near our narrator’s skull, swallowed sperm being converted into nutrients, these are small horrors that seem at times more criminal than the murder at hand.
Another interesting aspect of the book is the narrator’s unequivocal love for his mother, a love that remains troubled but true over the course of the novel, despite her desire to kill the father who has all the fetus’s sympathy. Here McEwan is using William Shakespeare as his touchstone. The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet, and the novel recycles some of the Danish play’s basic story elements, with our narrator as an unborn Hamlet.
As in Hamlet, there is poison, although not administered in the ear, and while the cuckolded father is plain John, his brother and rival lover has the unusual name of Claude, too close to Claudius not to be a wink. Another allusion: once their dark deed is done, McEwan has Claude and Trudy order Danish take-away (“open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats,” maybe from Snaps & Rye in nearby Notting Hill?).
And in the role of Gertrude, we have Trudy. The Queen of Denmark fascinates because it’s hard to know how duplicitous she is. Hamlet’s attitude towards her shifts between pity, hatred, resentment, and affection. While Nutshell’s narrator disapproves of his mother’s actions, his blame and anger are always directed at his uncle, and in his fantasies he saves her from him. Like Gertrude, Trudy never comes off as the villain, and our young hero seeks revenge on his uncle alone.
For all her motherly defects Trudy remains something of an enigma in the book, a half-realized character. John is the poet — hopeful, naïve, generous — and Claude the over-eager younger brother, slimy almost to the point of caricature. But what about Trudy? An early story about a dead cat and a late reference to her mother do little to give us a better of understanding of who she is. She’s beautiful, we know that. And smarter than Claude. And unlike him she feels uncertainty, remorse, and regret. But what does she like? What does she want? She has no friends, no family. No job and no interests, other than drinking — and even there she seems less knowing than Claude and her unborn child. She doesn’t leave the house for the duration of the novel.
Maybe that’s the point. To our narrator she is the mother, and he doesn’t want her to be anything more or less. The house she doesn’t leave is akin to the womb her unborn son can’t leave, until he can. Near the end of Nutshell, when the narrator has grown almost too big for the womb, he says, “I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap.” It’s no longer she who bears him, but he who wears her.
My questions about McEwan’s devotion to realism seek to prod the aesthetic motivations behind his new novel. Realist or not, though, McEwan’s abilities as a fiction writer are undeniable. In Nutshell especially he demonstrates his skill with pacing. He ends each chapter with a satisfying morsel that moves things along. The murder plot remains taut throughout and, thanks to a certain owl poet who probably isn’t what she seems, not altogether as straightforward as the reader might first assume. The climax delivers the right amount of action and the dénouement settles things in a satisfying way thanks to the agency of our narrator.
There remains only to see if McEwan will follow this new path and continue to explore the chaos of invention, or if he will return to the comforting order of fact.
Raul Brandão debuted in English a month ago without a murmur. We should welcome him with the joyful thrill of discovering a late, great Portuguese novelist heretofore unknown to the Anglo-American world. However the recent publication of The Poor also exemplifies one accidental way of hampering a foreign writer. Although the usual method involves a bad translation, Karen Sotelino gets an A from me for navigating syntactically and lexically close to the original. But what can you do with inaccurate translation of context? According to Dalkey Archive Press, this is “a powerful tribute to the underclasses” and an exposé of the “economic situation in Portugal.”
How unexciting: Portugal’s first Modernist novelist downgraded to a turn-of-the-century social realist fiction pamphleteer. DAP could have found more suitable candidates among his contemporaries. Now, bad translations can’t be salvaged, only scraped and rewritten, but let’s see if we can correct Brandão’s haphazard labeling.
In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator introduces several people living in a derelict tenement building: a group of prostitutes and thieves; Senhor José, a pallbearer; the unemployed Gebo, his wife and daughter, Sofia; and Gabiru, “a solitary philosopher, slender, as sad as a funeral, and armed with the most formidable and strangest of wisdom in God’s creation.” After this general introduction the plotless narrative dissolve into a series of vignettes about pain, abjection, futility, and hope. Beyond this it’s risky to make strong claims about the novel’s point since Brandão was a very undisciplined, contradictory thinker who wrote from intuition.
When he published The Poor in 1906, Portugal had surrendered to Naturalism since José Maria de Eça de Queirós had introduced it in 1874 with The Crime of Father Amaro. In the 1890s, the nation experienced constant political turmoil due to a faltering economy and the rise of the Republican Party, which was hellbent on overthrowing the monarchy, through revolutionary means if necessary (as it happened in 1910). Novelists moved away from excoriating the bourgeois like Eça to depicting the squalid conditions the poor and working classes lived in. Animated by a pamphleteering militancy Eça had always wisely avoided, these propaganda-minded novelists, the majority safely forgotten nowadays, turned literature into a weapon against the crown. In Brandão’s novel we catch glimpses of this shift away from the bourgeoisie to the lumpens in the way he chronicles Gebo’s job-searching daily routine, his wife’s death, his debilitating disease, and Sofia prostituting herself as the household’s breadwinner. Even Brandão’s prominent and compassionate use of prostitutes, a topic Portuguese literature had barely addressed before him, sprang from these circumstances.
This, however, is as far as Brandão goes in paying his dues to his time’s littérature engagée. As a journalist, Brandão certainly followed with interest “the economic situation in Portugal,” but this means little to his characters. Too busy taking beatings to read their Karl Marx, the prostitutes, with typical Portuguese passiveness, blame their condition on that blameless entity known as fate; as the morose prostitute Mouca declares, “It’s all over! We’ve all got to suffer!” Gebo is ideal material to join a union and start distributing leaflets, perhaps speak at rallies, but parties are as remote from him as he is from securing a decent pension, and he doesn’t have the leisure to form a political consciousness because he devotes every second to looking for work. Afraid that Sofia will starve, he is goaded by his wife who shouts at him, “Just go out and steal! Steal!”, while regretting to himself, “I’ve been so honest.” As for Gabiru, this “tragic figure, laughing daily along with thieves and soldiers,” is the only one with studies and time to reflect about his own condition, but he’s a useless, inconsistent Dostoyevskian intellectual devising a slipshod philosophical system not even he probably understands in full:
He was born to dream. He sighs with relief as he locks himself away in the garret, crying out, “I’m going to think…!” He knows words and theories and has read huge old tomes, yet he’s never seen the rivers and mountains before his very eyes, nor the trees. He delves into profound ideas and has never known reality.
Although Brandão, the son of poor fishermen, showed enormous tenderness in his fiction and non-fiction for the downtrodden, he goes beyond poverty as a socio-political cause and uses it to sketch a diffuse theory of suffering as a redemptive virtue and the engine of beauty, creativity, and meaning. “Why were these outcasts born? They wake up defeated, to scrounge, to cry out for scraps of bread, to rest again only in their graves. A dreamless road, that’s their bitter lot: fatigue, humiliation, and hunger,” says the narrator. Lines later he asks, “Why does God create them?” This question obsessed Brandão from 1906 until his death in 1930. Dialogues, allegories, and ruminations lead to a constant refinement of why pain exists and what justifies existence. His prostitutes may resign themselves to fatality, but Brandão saw certainty as an adversary. The novel whirls around the same questions repeatedly like a paleographer trying to decipher hieroglyphs in the hopes of finding valuable knowledge from beyond. Thus, instead of acting like a novelist who builds a plot organically, he carefully constructed his vignettes like a lab scientist devises experiments to validate a hypothesis. This runs the risk of making the narrative monotonous, but it’s also this monomaniac forcefulness that opens up new regions in humanness like an earthquake revealing priceless ruins.
Instead of self-analyzing themselves, the characters live beholden to what in Brandão’s oeuvre is ambiguously called the “Dream,” an unsystematised idea that can be likened to the hope that keeps one going, a belief in improvement. “For dregs,” we’re told, “Dreams are the sole form of reality.”
Only Gabiru, long considered the author’s alter ego, puts forth an explanation for the existence of pain. He lacks the restful mind conducive to the routine of acceptance the prostitutes and Gebo dull their doubts with. Gabiru thinks like a poet for whom the “splendor of nature” remains a daily novelty: “I cannot get used to it. Every morning it’s as if I were to find myself before monstrous nature for the first time — gold, green, and blue like her rivers, forests, and roaring ocean.” In this pantheistic worldview, humans are one with the universe and their atoms spin in a cosmic dance of rearrangements. By retaining this gift to allow the world to surprise him, he seems to put up with the burden of existence better. But even if the works of nature resonate with “the words of Him who preaches into the infinite,” at times God also seems like a mere excuse, like the whores’ fatalism. As the narrator says of the poor: “Throughout infinity, it is on their pain that God thrives.”
Furthermore, Gabiru’s sense of wonder at the universe comes with the price of constant anxiety; if everything amazes him, he can never convert reality into the ordinary sustenance that allows one to function in society. Even though he thinks he’s found answers, his inquisitiveness smacks of despair. Some chapters contain nothing but his writings’ loose scraps exalting pain: “In order for something radiant to burst forth from matter, what is needed? An ocean of tears.” For him only “suffering creatures are worthy of life, and in reality they are the only ones that live.” Brandão did not accept Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that suffering was useless but turned it into the catalyst that propels development, especially in the arts:
To create, one must suffer. It has always been true and remains so, only pain gives life to inanimate things. With a chisel and an inert tree trunk, wondrous works are created, if the sculptor has suffered. Furthermore, with words and lost sounds, with immaterial objects another miracle is possible: to make laughter and dreams, to cause the shedding of tears among other creatures. With the simple, dry letters of the alphabet, some miserable person of genius, immersed in hidden water, builds something eternal, more beautiful and solid than if materials were wrenched from the heart of mountains.
Unsurprisingly, love here is equated with self-abnegation and meek endurance: Gebo only ceases to seek a job, to feed his daughter, when his body breaks down; Sofia in turn prostitutes herself to support him through his ailment; Mouca, after slapping Sofia for envying her, asks her to slap her back “so I’ll know you’re my friend;” and Gabiru, in love with Mouca, who does not reciprocate, puts up with the other tenants’ just to be with her. Still, the narrator’s cynical asides always sully this picture of virtue. Of the tenants he says, with a subtle dark humor that runs through the book, “Stray dogs are happier, and trees, incomparably so.”
If the metaphysical aspects of the novel should captivate anyone looking for a serious meditation about the human condition, how about knowing that Brandão is also renowned in Portugal for opening up new novelistic possibilities? In the 20th century, he’s to the Portuguese novel what Fernando Pessoa is to its poetry. José Saramago counted him amongst his favorite writers. He’s been lauded as precursor of everything, from Existentialism to the nouveau roman. Although it sounds improbable that in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover, Brandão has the same importance Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have in their respective languages.
Beginning with his first novel, he started imploding the Naturalist novel, inventing a personal form that, though largely ignored in his lifetime, would posthumously influence future generations. For instance, he had little regard for rounded characterization. Practically no character has a backstory or a full personality; they’re almost mere voices, or puppets moaning on stages in front of crowds. “Nary a one talks about her past,” says the narrator about the prostitutes, “in fear of scorn, but they hold it inside, never forgetting.” But then again it’s “always the same story, eternal humus kneaded with tears. They know they were born to suffer and are resigned to it: dregs are necessary.” Childhood, in the novel’s logic, shows up only as a conduit of pain.
The Poor also shattered the uniform perspective of the novels of its time. Using short chapters, Brandão shifts from third to first person, sometimes even within paragraphs. Some chapters don’t have clear narrators, demanding that the reader identify the speaker. Not to mention there’s a narrator who seems to simultaneously live inside and outside the narrative, sometimes a tenant, at other times omniscient.
He also got rid of plot, and by extension of time. It’s not really a matter of time being fragmentary, like in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, but of time barely existing since the characters, like insects in amber, are immobile. The action does not progress in a straight arrow but grows, like a wall of bricks, by the accretion of identical layers of humiliation and anguish one upon the other, until it’s big and wide enough to block all sunshine.
And even if Dalkey has linked the author’s time and place to the themes he dealt with, nothing in the novel really screams Portugal. Thirty years before him, Eça busied himself putting in his pages a Lisbon nowadays still intact for tourists to selfie it. But Brandão’s novel takes place in an opaque limbo of torment, in wherever people withstand futile martyrdom. References to a shared external reality are so rare as to be grating when come across: Baron Rothschild; François de La Rochefoucauld; Hamlet; Sir John Falstaff; the Portuguese currency at the time, the real; the poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage; the Republican Party; Don Quixote; and Brazil. By my count that’s all that identifies the book’s world as possibly ours. It’s a far cry from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin and John dos Passos’s New York. The only contemporary with a higher disregard for a sense of place was Kafka.
Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist. He had no axes to grind with the past. Pessoa burst in 1915 with a loud magazine called Orpheu thundering his alignment with several avant-garde movements burning through Europe, basking in his own cosmopolitism, and judging his predecessors inferior. Brandão, 20 years older, stayed in his corner, minding himself, provincially averse to manifestos and doctrines. In 1921, his friend and poet Augusto Casimiro noted down his indifference to his contemporaries. Only “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the unpublished chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, discovered in November of that year, galvanized him. He shared with him the psychological intensity, the philosophical skirmishes, the reduction of characters into living ideas, the absurd, and the pity for the downtrodden. (Crime and Punishment had been serialized in Portugal in 1897.) But Brandão couldn’t abhor another writer’s language and structure, and so he gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions. In effect his novels became less dramatic and more monological, in order perhaps, as Gabiru writes, “To allow my whole universe to speak, allow all that is inside me preach in its hoarse voice.” Elsewhere our unhinged philosopher writes that there is no inanimate thing “that does not have a voice and that does not make its confession.”
The sermon and the confession: one-way modes of speech, centered upon the self and, one presumes, more authentic. Brandão wanted his own system to externalize what existed only inside him. Since literariness, for him, obfuscated the self, his search for individualistic expression implied paring his language down to a slapdash style. This is most obvious in his use of repetition, in particular the repetition of a vocabulary consistent from novel to novel: tree, river, pain, cry, ludicrous, humus, root, water, scream, dream. The word “moonlight” shows up seven times on page 119. Before reading Sotelino’s translation, I worried about this; too often translators confuse repetition with sloppiness, and their urge is to prettify the prose. Milan Kundera once complained about the translators who had made Kafka’s prose more literary because they couldn’t accept simplicity in such a great writer. But repetition is one of Brandão’s trademarks, the consequence of his obsessively inhabiting one theme during a lifetime; and so Sotelino is to be commended for having kept the oftentimes tedious lexicon instead of succumbing to synonyms. You can tell she paid attention when you can find whole sentences repeated: “The sister would kiss and caress me…”, “He stirs the embers of his ideas and he’s never looked life in the face.” The Pallbearer’s “hoarse, raspy chest” shows up twice, as does Gebo’s daily search for some “measly spare change.” Not even chapter titles are spared (“Gebo’s Story” and “Gabiru’s Philosophy” appear each in four chapters).
But the book’s most notorious repetition is in its use of natural imagery. For instance there’s a gigantic river metaphor that engulfs the novel from the opening paragraph on:
Like a mysterious wave rolling in from some unknown ocean, it begins to rain. A sweet sound, that of the rain. Recalling so many things, lost and sad! At first the soaked earth swells, and when it bursts there’s a rush so torrential, the rocks are left glistening. It plows through the earth, exposing roots, dragging humus through the deluge along with dried leaves, dead animals, rocky dregs all swirling together, then dissolving, stirring into the foamy water, headed to the unknown.
Such is life. A river of moaning, tears, and mystery. A murky wave exposes the deepest roots, as a torrential rush engulfs all disgrace and laughter, relentlessly dragging this human humus up to some shore, where the filthy hands of the suffering finally find another helping hand; where their exhausted, tearful eyes are amazed before an eternal dawn, and where dreams are made real…
This metaphor then breaks up into tributaries that flow into the narrative. We see water as life, “Life for you was like clear running water through the hands of one of those statues you see in the fountains.” But its flux is also a symbol of death, mixing decayed matter, “Leaves from trees, things rotting in the shadows wanted to join the eternal flood.” Likewise, we read that this “question of death, although present since time immemorial, terrifies us like a huge river bringing ideas, explanations, and theories to the surface.” Water sates but it’s also the aforementioned “ocean of tears.” People drown in envy, “The others, sensing he was still happy, dragged him down, like the drowning do to those trying to save them.” Finally, the river is the duality of life itself that can’t be resolved: “All rivers, like all lives, eventually flow into the great ocean of beauty. The existence of humble, simple creatures is like a current — of water or tears, but always clear. Anger, ambition, self-interest make life murky, like swirling dirt makes water dirty.” That this extended metaphor cascades so crystalline down the novel is a testament to Sotelino’s craftsmanship.
Although he lacks the pyrotechnics of António Lobo Antunes, Brandão’s simple sentences, especially Gabiru’s aphorisms — “If nature creates monsters, it is because they are necessary, like a cleansing abscess.” — first startle me with their unexpected strangeness, then enthrall me with their conviction of truthfulness.
Brandão’s demand for precision reflects itself in the characters’ struggle with language itself. Several remark upon how words hinder them. “Up in a garret, the Pallbearer wants to say, ‘I love you!’ but he has always been so crude he does not know how to say what he feels.” One character says of another, “She barely knows how to express herself. Their talk is like stones communicating, two beings rolling together along in the same huge wave of life, by chance.” And an unnamed voice blurts at one point: “I don’t know how to tell the story, what words can narrate an existence that is like a discarded rag, soaked in tears.”
“All words seem worn and withered” to Gabiru, as incapable of connecting with others as of “coming up with a new language, a language like that of the springs, that of the trees at the onset of March, to tell you how I feel,” which in theory will let him attain a clearer order of closeness above ordinary speech. For him this language is nature itself and man was just “born so that everything may have a mouth.” The problem, of course, is that when men speak, the expression comes out muddled.
Gabiru is no wiser than anyone else. A refrain in the novel denounces everybody’s ignorance. “Gebo did not understand life,” the narrator says; later he adds, “As it was, Sofia knew nothing about life.” According to Gabiru, Mouca, “who knows nothing, tumbling along like a rock in a deluge, will discover the extraordinary dream.” But then, “Gabiru does not understand existence” either. Even the unnamed narrator confesses in the first pages, “I’m poor and wary, and know nothing of life, but I’m a prince.” Not understanding life, real life, is akin to not living, which is why Gabiru wants to awake “the emotion inside, so that you can say, ‘I have lived!’” The greatest danger, to the characters, more than physical violence and penury, is the realization of a misused life.
Meaninglessness is Gabiru’s and the author’s terror. Brandão’s repetition stemmed from his loyalty to disharmony. He never found an answer to his existentialist crisis that could satisfy him, so he kept asking the same question, hoping that in one of the many variations of his lifelong enquiry he’d find one explanation that soothed him. His reasoning never walked straight lines; instead it made detours through doubt and returned to the starting point. Having read nearly all his fiction, I can’t hide the suspicion that he wrote himself into a philosophical cul-de-sac. But watching him try to decipher the invisible is still a grand spectacle for the many moments when he pulls the words’ nerves with pliers to hear them scream notes the human soul seldom likes to make audible.
There is something uncanny about staying in another person’s house — the stark differences and the small convergences of sameness. We all like to snoop a bit. Now, public historian Ruth Goodman gives us the chance to snoop on the lives of people who died 500 years ago. When you’re watching The Tudors or Wolf Hall, Goodman is the woman behind the scenes ensuring that the clothes look right, the home interiors are accurate, and the sumptuous feasts are as true to life as possible. In How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life, she makes her almost preternatural knowledge about life during the 16th century available to the reading public.
You wouldn’t expect the intricacies of Tudor baking, brewing, ploughing, cooking, needlework, painting, dancing, and card-playing to hold an audience rapt, and yet Goodman makes the minutia of everyday life a half-millennia ago tremendously interesting. Indeed, her voluminous knowledge makes Goodman seem not so much a specialist on period authenticity as an actual time traveler. Ingeniously structuring the book around the hourly rhythms of daily life (with chapters going from “At Cock’s Crow” to “And so to bed”), Goodman transmits information about food, work, medicine, education, leisure, lodging, sleep, and even sexuality. How to Be a Tudor, with its grounding in physical detail and avoidance of theoretical analysis, is true to the guide book genre, but one featuring recipes for veal meatballs (exceedingly expensive at the time) and Galenic medical advice.
This is a guide to the everyday, not the extraordinary, and that is what makes it so exceptional. This is not necessarily a book for royal fanatics; Goodman writes that her “interest has always been bound with the more humble sections of society.” Goodman’s approach mirrors that of the last generation of social historians who have focused on the lives of common people. But as she explains that for the modern general reading public, “information is still thin on the ground.” Scarcity notwithstanding, as someone who researches and writes about the literature of the period, I found Goodman’s knowledge humbling. While I have positions on whether John Milton was an orthodox Calvinist or an Arminian, or George Herbert’s theology on salvation, I know much less about what they ate for dinner or how they kept their pants up. And sometimes, everything hinges on what you had for dinner and how you keep your pants up.
In the tradition of fellow popularizer Ian Mortimer, Goodman attempts to address this gap while appealing to our natural curiosity about the lives of other people. She in part confirms what we expect about the past, that it was a very different place indeed. Intuiting that men and women of past centuries inhabited a different mental space is one thing, but Goodman conveys just how different this world could be from a physical and sensory perspective. There was the omnipresent smoke that would have filled homes until chimneys became common in the middle of the period. There was crowding: “few people had a room to themselves.” Fashion was legally bound to social status; “thoughtless dressing could land a man in legal trouble,” since your clothes literally demonstrated your credit worthiness. Although this was a culture where though print was becoming cheap and the Reformation encouraged reading (if not necessarily writing), only 20 percent of men and 5 percent of women were literate by the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The average Tudor had a much less sedentary day, fueled by an incredibly high-carbohydrate diet, in which 80 percent of a family’s budget could be devoted to food and where famine was an annual concern for poorer families. Physical activity marked not just the lives of the plowman and the domestic; even writers had to cut their own quills and mix their own ink (which would have made this review a lot more onerous). Goodman is also “constantly delighted with the ‘otherness’ of Tudor thinking and beguiled by the echoes that have slipped through into modern life,” and her enthusiasm is infectious.
Yet not all was alien; Goodman often bucks our assumptions about what life in early modern England might have been like. Popular culture tends to portray the period as one of superstitious, filth-covered peasants living in a pre-technological world. Instead, we’re confronted with a culture in which the average age of marriage for men and women was a rather modern 26 and 24, respectively — one where the normal hygiene regiment would allow one to “pass unnoticed in modern society” and the preferred breakfast was bacon and eggs. Reading Goodman’s account can feel a little like the historical equivalent of analyzing a childhood photograph of yourself: we find in her Tudors a blurred reflection of ourselves.
So much of my own literary study is grounded in abstract ideas, literary critical jargon, and cleaned-up copies of texts. But literature and culture are not born in a vacuum. Goodman writes: “I found myself increasingly drawn into the web of life, the way everything connected, the interplay between the physical world, ideas, beliefs and practice.” This poetry of small things — the ache of muscles after a day of labor, the feeling of isolation when one is a stranger in a strange land, the fumbling of partners under a blanket — are cumulatively that on which all other meaning depends.
This book reminded me how much of the lives and creations of the time period I study were born out of messy, mundane, prosaic physicality (same as it is in any time period). The material is indeed the base of all other experience and contemplation; to read texts through this particular materialist lens is to re-enchant the world of our very lives with the sacred urgency of the poetic. What are the facts of material existence other than the very subject of great literature?
Though she only utilizes literature sparingly, Goodman makes this lesson abundantly clear. How to Be a Tudor continually makes the mundane and the prosaic shine. What was a night’s sleep like for William Shakespeare? What was breakfast like for Milton? What clothing did John Donne wear? These are the conditions that shaped the creation of Hamlet, Paradise Lost, and The Holy Sonnets. The food these people ate, the layout of their homes, their experience of walking down a London street were not incidental to their lives. We would not dismiss the material conditions of our own existence as unimportant; how can they be so for the greatest poets of the English language? How to Be a Tudor has helped me to partially remedy this lacunae concerning that poetry of small things.
Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s.
Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters — no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.”
If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world — not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed.
Or is it?
On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.”
The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference — each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler.
Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman.
They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead — “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates.
First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie — though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” — but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie.
Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins.
Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable — and gratifying — challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes — words, phrases, and translations.
And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it.
The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book — the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf — but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book.
In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate — but it was a risky proposition.
Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.”
That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis.
Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.”
It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book — found on eBay, no less — contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.”
Still others — a cynical crowd — might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript — Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.”
In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation.
As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.”
It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia — this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233.
Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
“The hallway is my sleep,” writes poet Rafael Campo. Hallways are simultaneously prosaic and oneiric. Hallways are all about perspective.
Jean-Paul Sartre thought modern existence contained a “labyrinth of hallways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere.” We believe — structurally, metaphorically — that all hallways end. Hallways were not meant for standing, but we adorn them with images. Li-Young Lee’s lines “The photographs whispered to each other / from their frames in the hallway” capture the sense of this place.
I grew up in a ranch house defined by its long central hallway. My bedroom and the living room were on opposite ends of the hall. The New Jersey of my youth was a land of bottleneck traffic, creatively corrupt politicians, and suburbs lined with video rental stores. Whippany, my hometown, was graced with a Movie Van that delivered VHS tapes to doorsteps. The van was a suburban cinephile’s dream, but it didn’t have every horror movie I wanted.
After I exhausted the late-night timer recordings on my VCR, I began borrowing obscure titles from older friends. I covered my eyes during The Beyond, a particularly gruesome Italian film set in Louisiana. When the movie ended and I turned off the television, I froze. I realized what scared me the most: that long walk down the silent hallway back to my bedroom. My brothers had moved out. My sister was home from college, but was on the phone in her room. My parents had gone to sleep after trying to convince me that I should do the same. I did what any kid with an overactive imagination would: I sprinted down the hallway, shut my door, and dove into bed.
When I built up enough nerve to actually finish all of the horror movies I rented or borrowed, it became obvious that hallway scenes are an essential element of American and international horror films. Hallways are tight, narrow, walled, made for transit — and yet sometimes our most sensitive moments are out in the hall, doors closed behind us. Hallways are places for tense encounters, confusion, and fear.
Here are eight essential hallways from horror films.
1. The Shining (1980)
Young Danny Torrence spends much of the film riding his Big Wheel through the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. His hypnotic travels reinforce the idea of the hotel as maze and labyrinth.
A ball rolls along the carpet to Danny, and he looks up, allowing Stanley Kubrick to use the hallway structure as readymade perspective. During the first quarter of the film, viewers are introduced to the layout and grounds of the Overlook as if they were to be also hired as caretakers. Kubrick’s methodical method establishes expectations and curiosities. In our homes, hallways are spaces shared with those we know well; in hotels, hallways are tight byways, places where we share space with strangers.
Jack is a stranger to his wife and son, and possibly to himself — his Vermont teaching backstory is blurry in Kubrick’s treatment. He appears to have been birthed at this hotel, naughty from the start (he is casually reading an issue of Playgirl while waiting to meet with the hotel’s manager). Early in the film, he spends much time in the hotel lobby — typing gibberish for hours, throwing a tennis ball at the wall, starring into a model of the hedge maze — but as the film progresses, Jack is more confined to tight spaces: the Gold Room bathroom, the storeroom, and the hotel’s many hallways.
Dick Hallorann’s long, slow walk seems to get longer and slower with each viewing of the film. The Shining continues past its final reel: a hallway without end.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
The film’s anonymous killer hides in the attic of a sorority house, so he must descend through the upstairs hallway. Near the end of the film, Jess Bradford is alone in the big house, worried as much about the prank-calling killer as she is about her overbearing boyfriend — who is enraged about her decision to get an abortion.
Director Bob Clark, who would revisit this holiday in a lighter fashion within A Christmas Story, plays with hallways and tunnels throughout the film. The police attempt to trace the obscene calls made to the sorority, and the narrative cuts to a technician at the phone company trying to find the origin as he moves through hallways of sound.
3. The House of the Devil (2009)
Viewers of horror films from the ’80s remember the convoluted music interludes that preface the real horror. Think Silent Night, Deadly Night for the right amount of camp. Ti West’s film is a litany of horror homages, but his two-minute dance interlude is quite effective. College student Samantha Hughes spends the night house-sitting for strange owners. An ill, elderly family member rests upstairs, behind a closed door. Bored, Samantha pops a cassette of The Fixx into her Walkman, puts on her headphones, and rocks her way around the house. The song stops when she knocks over a vase in the upstairs hallway.
In a later scene that nods to Rosemary’s Baby, Samantha walks down the hallway, knife in hand. She is not prepared for what happens next.
4. The Exorcist (1974)
Regan MacNeil is sick, and her mother is desperate. She soon enlists the Catholic Church via nearby Georgetown University, where some Jesuits still dabble in that old-time ritual of exorcism. Father Damien Karras, perhaps the most haunted priest to ever appear on film, battles the demon that inhabits Regan. Beaten by the guilt of not caring for his ill mother, Karras limps his way through early attempts to banish the demon.
William Friedkin holds Karras’s pause for a heavy moment. He stands between the domestic world and the supernatural world; are not bedrooms our most mystical spaces — where we love and sleep?
5. Halloween (1978)
I have always found John Carpenter’s film to be so perfectly suburban — violence and mayhem in one house, silence and peace next door.
Exhausted Laurie Strode has stabbed somnambulant killer Michael Myers in the neck. She tells the children she’s been babysitting to get help, and then do — they run out the front door, their screams piercing the suburban silence. Moments later, as Laurie rests in the hallway’s doorframe, Myers rises. A blank-faced Lazarus, Myers is the perfect villain for horror in the home.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
In the climactic scene, the film’s title character finds that a hidden door in her closet leads to a hallway. Rosemary enters, and immediately faces a painting of a burning church.
Rosemary’s subsequent walk is funereal: her body has been drugged, her heart has been wounded, and her child has been taken. As in Halloween, the threshold between hallway and room becomes a place of union, but the effect is somehow opposite. The satanists in the room first appear banal, urban, engaged in a cocktail chatter, while the hallway Rosemary exited was the infernal place.
Parley Ann Boswell sees Roman Polanski’s work in this film as influential for Kubrick in The Shining: the long hallway “provides a sort of birth canal.” Rosemary is, at the least, reborn to a clearer sense of sight when she exits the hallway.
7. Suspiria (1977)
Dario Argento’s film mixes pulsating images, almost impossible colors, and an overwhelming score by Goblin to create a psychotropic Black Mass.
American dancer Suzy Bannion attends a ballet academy in Freiburg. After leaving practice, Suzy walks down a hallway. She encounters a strange woman and a child who put a spell on her.
Hallways are transformative throughout the film. A red glow paints Suzy as she hopes to discover the evil secret within the school’s labyrinthine corridors.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The only place that might contain more charged memories than our childhood home is our high school.
Nancy Thompson wakes in class to see the animated corpse of her friend Tina sitting next to her. A student in the front of the room drones lines from Hamlet, the class rapt. Nancy follows Tina’s blood trail to the hallway.
It is best to end with a film about nightmares, because that is how we sometimes encounter hallways. We wake from a bad dream and rub our eyes. Unable to sleep, we walk down the hall, and though we know there is nothing to be afraid of, our fingers trail along the wall, hope for comfort in the dark.
As part of their Literary Ladies Cage Fight series, The Butter pitted two of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters against each other, staging contests between Hamlet’s Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet. Who won, you ask? Only one way to find out. You could also read Stefanie Peters on women and Shakespeare’s plays.
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Sometimes choosing one or two books from a whole year is like trying to pick the best meal you ate — great bites keep coming to you (wait, what about that fig and pancetta pizza?) In 2014, I ate well: Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation might have hit me the hardest; it’s airy, funny and haunting. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was so good it made me want to be a writer. I tried to be the last person in America to read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and I think the 2010 National Book Awards got that one right. I loved the sweep of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and the weightless beauty of Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents (coming soon) and got into John O’Hara (thank you Penguin for reissuing), especially the big, weird, funny, I-can’t-really-tell-if-this-is-great-or-terrible omniscience of BUtterfield 8. Just this week I read a terrific debut: Mitchell Jackson’s pulsing and powerful The Residue Years (which also serves as a great counterpoint to hipper-than-thou Portland). And finally, the Spokane Shakespeare Reading Club is nearing the end of its two-year project — drunkenly discussing each play — and hey, get this: it turns out Hamlet is pretty good.
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For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It’s hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they’ve already read. So, for this year’s list, we’ve tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that’s a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated.
1. An Excellent Reading Chair.
Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure.
2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw.
You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift.
When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You’re Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: “There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don’t want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie — for others it’s a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting.” Of course, it’s hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you’re mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity.
For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there’s always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books.
4. Curated Book Subscription.
I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112.
5. Small Press Book Subscription.
Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world.
6. Books About Reading.
For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago.
7. A Wearable Book.
It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read.
8. Special Editions of Treasured Books.
At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions.
9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore.
Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them.
10. Time to Read.
How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours — with dinner.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Foster Wallace lives! How else could one explain the long-distance friendship that grew up between me and a person I have not yet met in person, and would probably never have known existed if it were not for our shared obsession with Wallace’s fiction? I am an anthropologist and filmmaker based at the Goeldi Museum of Belém do Pará in the Amazon region of northern Brazil, and got hooked on Wallace while reading Infinite Jest on the tiny screen of an iPod during an expedition to a Kayapó indigenous village. Caetano Waldrigues Galindo is a James Joyce specialist who teaches linguistics at the Federal University of Paraná in Curitiba, in southern Brazil, and who has just finished translating Infinite Jest into Brazilian Portuguese.
Galindo kept a blog about the year-long translation process, a piece of Brazilian Wallaciana that was picked up by the Howling Fantods website and fan list-serve, Wallace-1 — my haunt and halfway house ever since finishing IJ (though it is apparently not finished with me) — and…Voilà.
Companhia das Letras, Brazil’s premiere publisher of literary fiction and nonfiction, now part of the Penguin/Random House group, is bringing out a luxurious hard copy edition of Graça Infinita, Galindo’s Portuguese translation of Infinite Jest, on November 28. Companhia das Letras first introduced Wallace to Brazilian readers in 2005 with their publication of José Rubens Siqueira’s translation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Galindo has translated more than 30 books in all, including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Stoppard, and Ali Smith, and is now busy on Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King.
To celebrate the release of Wallace’s landmark novel in Brazil, I conducted the following interview with Galindo — still virtually, via email. But I hope to meet him in person, finally, at the official book launch, where I also plan to show a short samizdat-inspired film.
David Foster Wallace is still among us, and his singular voice will soon be heard by millions of new readers in Brazil.
Glenn H. Shepard: You seem to prefer translating works and authors that are not only essentially “untranslatable,” but also notoriously verbose: Joyce, Pynchon, now Wallace. Are you a masochist, or do you just enjoy intense mental activity?
Caetano W. Galindo: Well, apart from Ulysses, all I’ve done is translate what my editors give me to do. Ergo, I cannot be considered a masochist: they’re the sadists! But yes, this is the kind of literature I like, and thus what I read — and “write” — best. I think my publishers have found this to their liking. And yes, I really do enjoy the acrobatics. It’s kind of like chess: it’s much more fun to play against someone who’s better than you are, even though you may end up losing. I like being forced to reach, to face problems I would not have conceived myself. I enjoy trying to recreate puns, acronyms, styles-within-styles, multiple voices: you know, all the hard stuff. What can I say? Back to the masochism hypothesis…
GS: How did you first learn about David Foster Wallace’s work? What else of his have you read? Why did you decide to start with Infinite Jest?
CWG: I got to know about IJ when I was deep in my Ph.D. thesis on Ulysses. It was a time in my life when I thought nothing post-Ulysses was worth the effort: I was a real bore back then! “Badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways,” as good ol’ Jim J. would have it. Then I heard about this huge book, and many people I respect said I should check out. And so I did. That was 2005. I got hooked. After that I read pretty much everything Wallace wrote, and everything people were writing about him. When I sat down to translate IJ, I had read the whole book twice, and was deeply familiar with Wallace’s voice and “tricks.” As a matter of fact, my fascination with the book was probably what landed me the job as a translator for Companhia das Letras. André Conti, the editor at Companhia das Letras who kinda headhunted me for them, is a big Wallace fan. From the moment I was hired in 2008 we had this dream of publishing IJ in Brazil.
GS: How long did the translation take? What was your daily routine? Did you keep your deadline? Did you ever reach a point where you thought you might give up?
CWG: It took me one year, which is actually pretty fast, considering [Ulrich Blumenbach spent six years on the German translation]. I was only able to do it so quickly because of my previous familiarity with the book and with Wallace’s writing in general. I did not have a daily routine: I’m a college professor, and that takes pretty much all my time. Whenever I could manage to get a few free hours I would go at it for some high intensity translation. During that year my mother also died, after a very long struggle with cancer. Looking back — what with those final weeks in the hospital with her, and the time it took me to get back to real life afterwards — I almost don’t know when it was that I translated all those hundreds of pages. But then again, one way or another, this is true of every book I have translated. I begin not knowing how I will be able to do it, and end up not knowing how I was able to do it. But I did keep my deadline, with one week to spare. I never thought about giving up. Even in those days after my mother’s death, the perspective of having this huge work to go back to was a real incentive. Kind of a reality booster, you know? And something else, as well: a kind of solace, I guess. The book helped me keep going…
GS: Very sorry to hear about your mother: that must have been tough. What was the most difficult passage in the book to translate?
CWG: Off the top of my head? Kate Gompert. It almost kills you, being inside her head for so long.
GS: How did you deal with Wallace’s erudite vocabulary? What about all that sketchy French?
CWG: Well, I like words. Funny, strange, exotic words. I teach the history of the Portuguese language at the Federal University of Paraná. So I have deep…ish pockets myself in that department. The problem with the French, though…As a French major, I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to all the mistakes. At first I thought I might exert the prerogative Francis Aubert claims for the translator as “final copyeditor.” However, in the end, and after talking to Herr Blumenbach, I decided to leave the mistakes, not knowing what else to do. Was it intentional? Am I to decide? Let the reader sort it out.
GS: What did it feel like to spend so much time, so deep inside such a complicated plot, and such a complicated mind?
CWG: It was a fascinating process. And in this book in particular, the sensation of being “inside” someone’s head (pun intended) is really overwhelming. I love the book even more today, after having unraveled and re-raveled its inner workings. I could feel the plot: I could almost touch it. But you have to remember I was not working on a regular daily schedule. When I could, I clocked 10 hours. But then, the next day, I wouldn’t have time to translate at all, since I would have papers to grade, or other things to write, or students needing help, classes to teach. I think that helped keep me safe. Wallace’s (or Incandenza’s) mind seems to be exactly what the book is: a beautiful labyrinth. Enchanting. But dangerous…
GS: What do you make of IJ’s notoriously indeterminate plot? Did your interpretations or understandings affect your translation?
CWG: As for the plot: well, I’m a translator. The guy designs a labyrinth. I reproduce the design with my own bricks and mortar. It’s not my job to point any ways out, if there are any! As a reader, I do have my interpretation, but that’s not what matters. As I tell students all the time, the translator’s job is not to find an interpretation, but to try and find all interpretations, and keep these possibilities open for this new reader who’s going to have only the translation as a guide. But, back to plot, you basically follow the original steps. No biggie. There’s one thing I regret, though. A student of mine, Ana Carolina Werner, pointed it out to me. The final two words of the book, referring to the tide being “way out,” also suggest the possibility of exit, escape. But there was no way to keep this double entendre in the Portuguese.
GS: How did Wallace’s death affect you, and your understanding of his work? What was it like to spend a whole year channeling a wraith?
CWG: Well, it was a huge shock, for me and for everybody. It was like Primo Levi, or that moment in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors when the subject of the documentary (inspired by Levi) commits suicide. “How can this be?” The only man who seemed to be showing us, through all that was modern and new in his literature, a possibility for an old-fashioned answer to the great existential questions that have guided philosophers and writers for ages. And he kills himself. Probably everyone who reads this interview felt something similar. When I heard the news, I turned off my computer and played the piano for an hour or so, trying to empty my mind, or fill it with something else: I didn’t know what to think. But back to the point: it does affect our reading. It would be a lie to say it doesn’t.
His literature is profoundly human, and profoundly personal, meaning that there is direct one-on-one involvement. You constantly feel like you are dealing with Dave himself, the person. All the scenes with Kate Gompert, the descriptions of pain, depression, pain…The fact of his suicide doesn’t clarify, it only makes it tougher. But it doesn’t change the book’s potential. Because, in spite of personal “answerability” (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s word), he is not writing a memoir. He is creating worlds, characters, lives, and all that lives on, independently. It may change how we think of him, and of his relation to his subjects. But the book stands.
About “channeling a wraith” — Yes: a nice way to put it. In fact, it’s not an easy expression to translate into Portuguese. But that’s really what it was like. It felt very close, as if I were in his head. Or in Hal’s, or maybe Jim’s, but which were definitely inside his. I kept mourning, lamenting the fact that he was not there for me to write to him during the process. Even though I know he was not that keen on thinking about his translations. But I would have written. I wrote him a long letter once. Before. But I never sent it.
GS: An independent Portuguese translation was published in Portugal prior to your own. Have you read it? How different is it from your own? Do you think Brazil warrants its own translation?
CWG: I haven’t read it, though I have talked to the translators. Very nice folks! A very competent job as far as I can tell — they most kindly sent me their book. About the two translations: First, there is the problem with rights. You do not buy the rights for the Portuguese language as a whole, only for the country. So, officially I can’t buy their translation in Brazil, and vice versa. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Anglophones should be reminded that the gap between European and Brazilian Portuguese is much wider than what you have between British and American English. As a matter of fact, I would be incapable of writing anything (translation or original) that would ever “pass” in Portugal as anything other than Brazilian vernacular Portuguese. Alison Entrekin, for instance, who is the greatest Portuguese-to-English translator alive today, is Australian and works for British and American publishers. I don’t know anyone who could do that in both European and Brazilian Portuguese.
GS: In the European Portuguese translation, the title is rendered as Piada Infinita, while you translate it as Graça Infinita. Explain. Doesn’t graça have mystical overtones, in the sense of religious grace?
CWG: Well, that’s the one I was afraid of…So here goes. First, there is the question of Brazilian versus European usage. Both piada and graça refer to jokes, or anything that is funny. But graça also has an extended meaning cognate with English “grace,” both in the sense of religious grace and physical gracefulness. In Brazil we have an expression, ‘não tem graça’, which means both “that’s not funny” but also, “that’s not nice”; there’s also ‘sem graça’ which means “awkward,” or literally “without grace.” Europeans use piada in almost exactly the same expression, não tem piada, “that’s no joke, that’s not nice.” So in Portugal, piada has a more extended range of meanings, somewhat like graça in Brazil, whereas piada in Brazil means only “joke.” So we couldn’t go there. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the expression “graça infinita” was used by Millôr Fernandes in his Brazilian translation of Hamlet. We were toying with the title Infinda Graça, which uses an older, more archaic word for “infinite,” and which sounded good to my ears. But the Hamlet factor was a good argument, and we ended up with Graça Infinita. Finally, you are right, graça does sound religious-y. We didn’t have that many choices to begin with, and I don’t think this “mystical” undertone is wrong. Is it? There may be no “God” figure central to the novel’s narrative. But, sorry! I really do like this idea that the ineffable, the mystical (as good old Ludwig W. would have it) is always there, always lurking, always tempting. So I stand by our choice!
GS: What about Infinite Jest do you think will appeal to Brazilian readers? Is there any Brazilian author who could be considered a “soul-mate” to Wallace, in some sense? Has Wallace exerted a notable influence on Brazilian literature? What Brazilian authors, contemporary or otherwise, would you recommend to Wallace fans?
CWG: I think Graça Infinita (let me use my title, now that I’ve justified myself!) is of immense interest to anyone who is thinking about or wants to think about what it means to be a human inhabitant of this particular nook of world history. I hope readers in Brazil can see that, and can find in the book all it wants to communicate to us at this deep, human, level. As for a Brazilian “soul-mate”…well, here in Brazil, we have yet to arrive at such gargantuan hubris! Our best writers, right now, seem to be more concerned with short-ish studies. But we do have a new generation of very promising prose writers. Among them we find lots of readers of Wallace. People like Daniel Galera, Daniel Pellizzari.
Wallace’s influence is felt in a number of ways. Wallace is probably the best prose stylist since Pynchon or Don DeLillo. But like both of them, he is also a deep thinker. And what he said, through his fiction and in his essays, is already a big influence on a whole generation of writers, even here. Brazilian authors I’d recommend? Hmm…There’s always the great Machado de Assis (I suggest Epitaph of a Small Winner)…João Guimarães Rosa, most definitely. The João Ubaldo Ribeiro of Viva o povo brasileiro. Someone more contemporary? The André Sant’Anna of O paraíso é bem bacana”. Me… :)
GS: Have you read translations of IJ into other languages?
CWG: No. I’m only human!
GS: What’s next? Any plans to tackle Roberto Bolaño?
CWG: I’m already at work on the musings of our nice friend “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle right now. My translation of The Pale King should be ready next year. But I’ll put that job on hold for the time being, because we want to publish a new translation of Dubliners, together with my own “Guide” to Ulysses for Bloomsday 2015. I may or may not translate Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge. If my mentor and hero, the great Paulo Henriques Britto, is too busy, maybe I’ll get it. I’m hoping to do my fourth Ali Smith translation sometime next year. As for Bolaño: No: I don’t translate from Spanish!
Raúl Zurita, born in Santiago in 1950, has published more than 20 books of poetry and received countless honors and prizes including Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2000. When he was two years old, his father died, leaving him and his infant sister in the care of their mother and maternal grandparents, who immigrated to Chile from Italy. The morning of Zurita’s father’s funeral, his grandfather died of a heart attack. His mother worked long days as a secretary while his grandmother looked after him and his sister. She spoke to her grandchildren about Genova and the Rapallo Sea, the Italian painters and musicians she admired, and, most of all, The Divine Comedy. In a recent interview in Uruguay’s El País with Ilan Stavans, Zurita says, “Instead of stories, [our grandmother] told us passages from the Inferno, which both terrorized and fascinated us.”
Zurita’s first book of poems Purgatorio was published in 1979 during the early years of the Pinochet dictatorship. An engineering student at the University of Federico Santa María in Valparaíso when the coup took place in 1973, Zurita was arrested, detained, and tortured. He spent six weeks incarcerated aboard a military ship holding 800 prisoners cramped into a space with the capacity for 100. As told to Daniel Borzutzky in a 2009 Poetry Foundation interview, Zurita was carrying a file, the poems that would become the book Purgatorio, when he was arrested the morning of September 11, 1973, and the arresting officers suspected his papers might include coded messages. The senior military officer who made the final decision about Zurita’s potentially subversive writings threw the poems into the sea. The book begins with these lines:
my friends think
I’m a sick woman
because I burned my cheek
And a few pages later:
My name is Rachel
I’ve been in the same
business for many
years. I’m in the
middle of my life.
I lost my way.–
(translated by Anna Deeny)
Jeremy Jacobson’s 1985 translation of Purgatorio, published by the Latin American Literary Review Press, introduced Zurita to English language readers as “the most important young poet writing in Chile today,” and included an essay by Scott Jackson on “the union of mathematics and poetry” in Zurita’s work. The University of California Press issued a fantastic new translation of Purgatorio in 2009, at the hands of the poet and Latin American literature scholar Anna Deeny. C.D. Wright gives the following assessment in the new translation’s foreword: “with a mysterious admixture of logic and logos, Christian symbols, brain scans, graphics, and a medical report, Zurita expanded the formal repertoire of his language, of poetic materials, pushing back against the ugly vapidity of rule by force.”
Purgatorio is the first in a three-book sequence, including Anteparaíso (1982), and La Vida Nueva (1994), where post-1973 Chile appears in a Dante-esque frame. Zurita’s oeuvre extends beyond the page through his interventions in physical landscapes: the poet documents the burning of his own face in Purgatorio, Anteparaíso includes photographs of 15 lines of poetry written across the New York City skyline in 1982, and La Vida Nueva features sky drawings enhanced with handwriting, as well as a photograph of the 3-kilometer-long phrase composed in the Atacama desert in 1993, which is only legible from the sky: “ni pena ni miedo” (neither pain nor fear).
Once the millennium turned, Zurita published Poemas Militantes (2000), INRI (2003), Los Países Muertos (2006), and In Memoriam (2007), among others. Zurita (2011), an almost 750-page volume, unfolds from the evening of September 10 to the morning of September 11, 1973, and includes excerpts from the poet’s other books, for example: three pages of the electroencephalogram (EEG) embedded with text that closes Purgatorio, a few photographs of the New York City skywriting that appeared in Anteparaíso, and a middle section (starting on page 358 of Zurita) from his 1985 book Canto a Su Amor Desaparecido, translated in 2010 by Daniel Borzutzky as Song for His Disappeared Love. Zurita holds space, represented by the blocks of text arranged like the niches in a columbarium wall, for the disappeared during Chile’s Pinochet regime, as well as those lost during political upheaval in other countries and regions including Argentina, the Amazon, Haiti, Nicaragua, the United States, Cuba, and El Salvador. The first of the United States-related blocks of text reads as follows:
USA Niche. Found in Barracks 12. Northern countries and
dispatched to eat themselves up thanks to their dreams
of special shields, of murderers of blacks, of domina-
tion. They descended the sky and they called Hiroshi-
ma the country that blazed; Central countries, valleys
and Chilean gluttons. The graves are nights and every-
thing is night in the American grave. They rest in peace like
the bison. It was a Navajo phrase. As it was written, Amen.
(translated by Daniel Borzutzky)
Zurita is a rewriting, an epic translation, of the poet’s complete oeuvre. The book includes a handful of excerpts from previously published work alongside the new poems, all echoing each other. The disappeared and missing people of Chile and the Americas are at the core of Zurita, and the surrounding sequences reveal the searching and dreams of those reflecting on humanity’s failures all over the world, including Thomas Mann, Kurosawa, and Pink Floyd. Zurita’s mandate is that we must keep saying it (writing it, publishing it, reading it), over and over, so that we do not forget the horror of the past. Our past is with us in the present, and we will carry it forward, either as memory or repetition.
The closing pages of Zurita include a sequence of photographs from his latest project involving an intervention in the physical landscape, titled “Your Life Breaking.” The photographs of the sea cliffs in northern Chile have phrases typed out across them to show the kind of poetry installation Zurita would like to achieve there. The phrases, which correspond to the subsections in the table of contents of Zurita, include: “You Will See Soldiers at Dawn,” “You Will See the Snows of the End,” “You Will See Cities of Water,” “You Will See What Goes,” “You Will See Not Seeing,” and “And You Will Weep.” The final lines of the book are a short poem titled “Sky Below:”
The sun is rising and I am leaving, papá. Deep
is the well of time. The mountains remain
covered and perhaps it will rain at last. Can you imagine
the breakers crashing again on
these stones, papá? You never tell me anything, papá.
(translated by Magdalena Edwards)
At the moment, Zurita says he has nothing left to say or write by way of poetry. He is steadily at work on a translation of Dante’s Inferno, and he has decided to preserve the terza rima form in Spanish, which makes the project slow going. The first stanza goes (gorgeously) like this: “A mitad del camino de esta vida, / me encontraba en una selva oscura / pues la recta vía estaba perdida.” Zurita also recently translated Hamlet into Spanish for a stage production under the direction of Gustavo Meza that was such a hit in Santiago when it debuted in late 2012, a second production went up in mid-2013. He explained to me by email that while he is not writing original poems, “translation frees me from anguish.”
Zurita has two fascinating new books out this year, both collaborations with fellow poets, one a bilingual selection of poems from Latin America, and the other a conversation about death and life.
Pinholes in the Night: Essential Poems from Latin America (Copper Canyon Press 2014), with Forrest Gander at the helm as editor, is a bilingual selection of 18 20th-century Spanish-language poems. The volume takes its title from Alejandra Pizarnik’s “Diana’s Tree:” “a pinhole in the night / invaded suddenly by an angel.” The 15-century Nahuatl poem “Nezahualcóyotl” opens the collection, a choice that highlights the problematic nature of Spanish as one of the imposed languages of Latin America, as Zurita explains in his introduction. What moves me most about Pinholes — more than the wonderful translation choices by Gander, including California poet Jen Hofer for Nicanor Parra’s “Soliloquy of the Individual” and Ernesto Cardenal’s “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” and Anna Deeny for Idea Vilariño’s “Not Anymore,” and more than Zurita’s exhilarating introduction, “written in a fever-dream between serious surgeries,” where he debates the impossible choice of one poem each by Mistral, Vallejo, and Neruda, notes which poems he would have chosen from the Portuguese (no doubt Ferreira Gullar’s “Poema Sujo”), and discusses why he includes Juan Rulfo’s short story “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” — is that the book is precisely not a poetry anthology. Pinholes in the Night is not exhaustively encyclopedic, but rather deeply personal and thus imperfectly brilliant, a light that helps us understand Zurita and his worldview, the lyrical landscape he treads, a little better.
Saber Morir: Conversaciones (Universidad Diego Portales 2014) is a book-length conversation about knowing how to die and how to live undertaken by Raúl Zurita and Ilan Stavans, the Mexican poet and translator who edited The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry (FSG 2011) (it bears noting that the FSG Book, a representative anthology of Latin America poetry, attempts to do everything Pinholes in the Night does not attempt, and vice versa, such that Pinholes and The FSG Book are fruitful companions). Saber Morir, which has not been translated into English yet, is intimate and rambling and covers life experience, books, music, film, history, and philosophy. We learn that both Zurita and Stavans have trepidations about closing their eyes when they go to sleep at night, as well as feel terrorized by the possibility of dying in a hospital. Both men embrace getting older. Stavans says, “I like feeling older, being less afraid of life, not doubting the way I used to.” Zurita says, “there are only two states: or you are young or you are old.” He goes on to explain: “I feel potent in my pains, in my curved spine, in the increasing difficulty of holding the pages when I read in public.” Of his day-to-day life with Parkinson’s, he intimates: “I might have a bizarre sense of beauty, but my disease feels beautiful to me. It feels powerful.”
The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day.
1. Trouble the Word
Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word. Its roots are found in Latin in the verb turbidare, to make turbid; and in the adjective turbidus, meaning disordered, turbid.
Turbid, of course, means unclear, muddied, obscure, and roiled up. We see its root in perturb, disturb, turbulent. Trouble branched off to mean that quality or state of being in distress or annoyance, of having malfunctioned; it’s a condition of debility, or ill health, a civil disorder, an inconvenience, a pregnancy out of wedlock.
The trouble with writing is that it’s awfully like having baby after baby all by yourself.
To get out of trouble, means to clear up, calm down, come out of confusion and distress, and function once again.
When I first sat down to write this piece, I made a list, like a Joe Brainard poem, where every sentence began, “The trouble with writing is——-.” After about 5 pages, single spaced, I thought, well, there is my speech.
Writing trails trouble in its wake like a long train of quarrelsome camp followers.
I decided to talk about some of the troubles that I personally have encountered over the years, namely some the mental and spiritual troubles associated with writing as an activity and writing as a way of life–the ways we writers can malfunction and find ourselves confused and roiled up.
Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication.
Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic.
When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.”
There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented.
It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were.
Thus does the difficulty of writing morph into confusion and perturbation.
The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death.
2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing
A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?”
I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off.
I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities.
I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out.
You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could.
3. It Never Gets Easier
The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing.
The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself.
4. Getting Down to the River
Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river, and bringing a bucket-full back.
The difficulty is getting down to it. Down to the desk, to the work zone, down to enough quiet and calm that we can even leave for the river. And once we’re there, the difficulty is locating access to that gush or trickle of material we contain. We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in.
The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else—cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet—took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.”
I have to turn my soul around.
And after a number of weeks, slowly, it turned.
To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage.
5. The Writing Life is One of Interruptions
Writing is a solitary occupation requiring intense concentration, large blocks of time, and all of one’s mental capacities. The trouble is, there are frequent interruptions and constant distractions.
The writing life is a life of interruptions. I used to listen to my friend the novelist Lily Tuck complain about her husband who often traveled for work. Edward wants me to go with him to Madrid…to Athens…to Hong Kong. I was a poor struggling wannabe writer and I would have gone to any of those places at the drop of a hat. Now, it’s me telling my husband, I don’t want to spend three weeks in Italy and the south of France!
Interruptions are inevitable, part of the fabric of the writing life. We must learn how to navigate them. There are meals, and sleep, and family; there are holidays and special occasions—weddings, graduations, funerals.
We have to accept the fact that there will be interruptions, and develop our abilities to get back into writing a little more swiftly each time.
It’s like meditating. In meditation, you return your attention to the breath. Your mind wanders and when you catch it wandering, you return your attention to the breath. You return your attention to your writing. You go off to your nephew’s graduation, you go back to your desk, you get back to work. At the same time, you have to know your rhythms, and allow them. I teach every Monday. The day after, I am never fully back to my writing. Tuesdays are the day for sinking back in. I know this and don’t beat myself up that I’m squirmy and unfocused. Everyone is different but it takes me a day or two to sink back into full writing mode.
There are even more pernicious attacks on the solitary and quiet thing we do.
6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride
I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days.
One psychologist asked why I had quit writing.
I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write.
The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that–that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.”
This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it. Of course, low self-esteem and self-doubt are not requirements—Picasso never had many doubts, and nor does Alexander MacCall Smith who can knock out a No. 1 Ladies Detective novel in three weeks. But a great many of us do battle with self-confidence and doubts.
Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist.
Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.)
The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair.
As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews.
7. The Trouble with Writing is that Little Happens the Way You Think it Should
Writing requires an investment of time and thought and the self. In making this investment, we can’t help but kick up a few hopes concerning the returns this investment might give us. When I was writing my first novel for all those years before I quit writing altogether, I had these vague, unarticulated ideas—assumptions, really, that once I published my novel, I would move into a new financial zone, I would be able to find a good job, but mostly, that I would be inducted—indeed welcomed-into the larger literary community and conversation of my generation.
The trouble with writing is that, although rewards do come, and your life does change, these things often don’t happen when and how you imagined them happening.
The year that my first novel was published—and sold overseas and to the movies and got fantastic reviews in slick magazines and newspapers all over the country and was nominated for a few awards–I was completely unprepared for the psychic transition from solitary, intense writing life to the more outward routine of selling myself to readers, and having my work misunderstood–oh, I mean reviewed–in public. I had no idea what to do with the good news I got—you don’t want to call up your struggling writer friends and say, I just sold my book to the movies for a big pile of money! As it happened, my best friend, who could not sell her novel, dropped me anyway, and I ended up the year filling a prescription for antidepressants.
It’s a tricky business we’re in. We work with various parts of the self: our memory, our experience, and emotions, the conscious self, and the unconscious which includes the patterning parts of the brain, and the imagination. These are all skittish entities, not always cooperative. Over time, we get better at accessing our imagination, our knowledge, our storehouse of anecdotes and perceptions, vocabulary and beliefs. We learn to trust that, if we set to work, the structure, direction and shape of a work will reveal itself, and that a character eventually will accumulate enough traits and coherency to come to life. We learn how to get down to that river, and to bring back buckets. But even experience can’t guarantee that we can do all these things every time.
8. Writing is Not Always Trouble and Disturbance
When it’s going well, there is little to match it. Creation is a mighty power–you might even call it divine.
The psychologists tell us that creativity is an adult state of play. When you’re deep deep in it, in the state of flow, when there is clarity and absorption, and the clock hands twirl, that is writing at its best. Flow: to get there takes time and effort—you could say, you have to take some trouble to reach flow. It’s like getting an endorphin high when you’re running—according to a friend who lately has become a runner, it took her running almost daily for three weeks before she experienced her first endorphin high, and even then she only began to feel it when she was three miles into a run. Three months and three miles…The same timetable, roughly, could apply to writing in a flow state. You don’t just sit down to it. You can’t induce it by swallowing a pill. No drug, prescribed or illicit, can get you there. Only steady, regular work can get you there.
To create the ideal circumstances for writing, and to protect those circumstances, to keep our soul and body properly positioned to write, you would think, would be the great aim of our life.
9. Writing is an Act of Faith, and Delaying Gratification
The trouble with writing is that it’s a weird, lonely occupation with only intermittent and unpredictable satisfactions and rewards—except for the satisfactions and rewards that come from the struggle itself, and they, too, can be elusive.
Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential.
If the ability to delay gratification is the great sign of being a mature human being, with the internet we have all regressed, because the internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community; for posting mere snippets, we get liked, retweeted, favorited, shared, tagged, and notified; we get emails and instant messages and invitations to chat online. We read daily what our friends and also some of our most esteemed writers have to say about writing and life. That great conversation I thought my first book would induct me into? Here on Facebook are some of the great writers of my generation tweeting away, offering links to articles, vaunting their politics, singing the praises of their colleagues’ work.
The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost 27 years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up. Just talking about the internet this way, makes me want to check my email or log onto Facebook. Excuse me for a minute…
I am not an isolationist when it comes to writing. I believe in writing groups and in exchanging work with friends and there is nothing more compelling than in-depth literary conversation. I also believe in leaving my desk and going out in the world to observe and research in service of book and soul. I have to replenish, refuel. Yesterday, I finally went to see the new permanent display at the Huntington: a illuminated, hand-copied edition of The Canterbury Tales; a Guttenberg bible, an original quarto of Hamlet that’s four hundred years old. And then we walked through the cactus gardens there which, as I like to say, is one of the few psychedelic experiences you can have without ingesting a drug. Somehow, this felt more generative, more like a part of writing to me than the same amount of time spent on Twitter and Facebook.
The trouble with writing is that it’s a dynamic balancing act, we are always seesawing between concentration and interruption, grandiosity and despair. The trouble with writing is that there are long dry stretches in the ugly stage, and the rewards, when they come, may not come when we need them the most. The trouble with writing is that even when some of our dreams and hopes and expectations do come true, they don’t relieve the difficulty of writing, or the solitude of writing, or the weird rollercoaster emotions of writing.
The trouble with writing is writing.
So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it.
Image via aukirk/Flickr
In Samuel Beckett’s previously unpublished “Echo’s Bones,” we find a deceased character, Belacqua Shuah, dragged back to something resembling life: a fitting subject for a story that itself has been dragged back from the dead 80 years after its rejection by a British publisher. Before attending to the unearthing of this macabre tale, a brief anecdote about another story of Beckett’s that was only half-rejected by a French publisher.
In 1946, “The End,” Beckett’s first extended composition in French, was accepted by Les Temps modernes, the review started by Jean-Paul Sartre. Or rather, the first half of the story was accepted. Beckett was under the assumption that the second half would be published in a subsequent issue, but Simone de Beauvoir, one of the editors, balked, never having been informed that the submission was part of a larger work. And so “The End,” would appear without its ending, prompting him to write a pleading letter to de Beauvoir:
…it is quite impossible for me to escape from the duty I have towards one of my creatures. Forgive these grand words. If I feared ridicule, I would stay silent…You allow me to speak only to cut me off before my voice has time to mean something. You halt an existence before it can have the least achievement. This is the stuff of nightmares…
These “grand words” are instructive about Beckett’s oeuvre for two reasons. First, they emphasize the structured nature of Beckett’s seemingly improvised, contingent beings. Though doomed to persist in a seemingly meaningless void over “vast tracts of time” (How It Is), his creatures undergo a meticulous, stage-managed devolution.
Second, Beckett’s earnest avowal of his authorial duty towards his characters counterbalances the ironic stance towards them usually adopted in his works. In Endgame, Hamm, aghast, asks Clov: “We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?” In The Unnameable, the typically dyspeptic narrator refers to all those characters with whom he has “wasted” his time as “bran-drips.” And the old man in Krapp’s Last Tape listens to tape recordings made in his middle age: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”
No one is tougher on a Beckett character than Beckett, and perhaps no character receives as much abuse as the first major one, Belacqua Shuah. (Alas, the firstborn always gets the worst of it.) Belacqua is the namesake of the slothful Florentine lute maker whom Dante finds sitting in “embryonic repose,” head resting on his knees and too lazy to ascend Mount Purgatory. He first appears as the protagonist of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the novel unpublished during Beckett’s lifetime. Midway through, the narrator announces that “We picked Belacqua for the job and now we find that he is not able for it.”
After failing to find Dream a publisher, Beckett repurposed some of the novel’s material into a collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, featuring the “impossible” and impossibly learned Belacqua, an “indolent bourgeois poltroon” with a “strong weakness for oxymoron.”
In 1933, Charles Prentice, editor of Chatto & Windus (or as Beckett would call them, Shat-on and Wind-up) agreed to publish these 10 Belacqua stories, but he suggested to Beckett that it would benefit from adding another 5,000- or 10,000-word tale. There was one problem: the protagonist had died in the collection’s penultimate story, “Yellow,” during an operation to have a tumor on the back of his neck removed. Rather than work an earlier story into the chronology, Beckett chose to reanimate Belacqua, granting him a “new lease on apathy” (to borrow a phrase from “Yellow”).
Prentice was initially optimistic, writing Beckett that he was “delighted that Belacqua Lazarus will we walking again shortly.” After receiving the manuscript, however, and reading Belacqua’s surreal and densely allusive account of his afterlife, Prentice sent Beckett a mortified rejection letter saying the story gave him the “jim-jams” and asking if they could publish the story collection in its original form: “This is a dreadful debacle — on my part, not on yours…Yet the only plea for mercy I can make is that the icy touch of those revenant fingers was too much for me.”
(“Icy touch of those revenant fingers” — they don’t write rejection letters like they used to.)
Was Prentice correct in thinking More Pricks Than Kicks would be better off without the final story? Yes. And yet I concur with the assessment of one character in “Echo’s Bones” who tells Belacqua that “saving a slight tendency to overwork the figure…you phrase your ideas with distinction I should say.” Early Beckett couldn’t be summed up better.
“Echo’s Bones,” opens thusly:
The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, till such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.
The first, punchy clause sounds like a hard-boiled detective novel, before the sentence lays out the elements that will haunt Beckett’s fiction for the rest of his career: a purgatorial state of waiting in the muck for something to arrive — some person, sign, the magic words or a merciful death — to arrive and end what the Unnameable describes as the “long sin against the silence.” Like many declining characters that would follow him, Belacqua finds himself in a “tedious process of extinction.”
“Echo’s Bones” is the story of three disturbances in Belacqua’s “beatitude of sloth.” Awaking after his demise only to be shuttled to and fro, he is right to complain that being a ghost “has claimed so much of my time that I sometimes wonder whether death is not the greatest swindle of modern times.” Belacqua is repeatedly snatched or otherwise beset upon as a kind of payment for the “debt of nature” he owes from not having led a particularly virtuous life. However, Belacqua seems less interested in atoning for his sins than in protesting against these violent interruptions, which prevent him from his ideal of “sedendo et quiescendo” (sitting down and being quiet): “But this, this rape, this contempt of his person, this violation of his postliminy, really it was not to be endured.”
We first see him resting atop a fence before being approached by a prostitute, Miss Zaborovna Privet, who lures a reluctant Belacqua to her home, where he is “ravished” out of her clutches at the precise moment he is about to ravished by her.
Now comes the fun part. Belacqua is transported to the edge of Wormwood, the large estate of the giant Lord Gall, where he is hit by an errant “long putt” in the coccyx, “that little known funny bone of amativeness.” Lord Gall is an impotent, “aspermatic colossus” in danger of losing his estate unless Belacqua can be convinced to impregnate his wife and thereby give him an heir. Lord Gall straps Belacqua on his back and climbs a massive tree to the his majestic aerie, after which they engage in all sorts of philosophical and innuendo-laden discussions, enjoy a rough slide back down through a trap-door in the trunk (“Vaseline omnia vincit”) and are met by a “rogue ostrich,” Strauss, who “simply waltzes along, never hesitates” and delivers Belacqua to Lady Gall’s bedchamber.
(Was the colossal Lord Gall in Beckett’s thoughts when, years later, he would give the young Andre the Giant rides to school in his truck?)
In the last section, Belacqua finds perched top his own grave, where he chats with and eventually aids a bodysnatching groundskeeper trying to dig up his coffin. References to Hamlet and the New Testament are strewn about as freely as Belacqua blithely ignores a submarine of departing souls lingering offshore.
This description perhaps makes the 50-page tale sound more engaging than it is. The best of the stories from More Pricks Than Kicks are not coincidentally the shortest. Belacqua is after all a comic grotesque (as are most of his companions), a character best served in brief, inspired flights of fancy — a clumsily executed suicide pact in “Love and Lethe” or the rapturous toasting of sandwich bread and the negotiation over the rottenest piece of Gorgonzola to be had in Dublin in “Dante and the Lobster.”
“Echo’s Bones” is an extended flight of fancy into which Beckett admitted to putting all he knew: Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine, Darwin, Goethe, Burton, Rimbaud, the Brothers Grimm, and more. The Beckett scholar Mark Nixon is an able guide, tracking down every reference in an “Annotations” section nearly as long as the story itself. Some of these provide a lively payoff. When Belacqua asks Lord Gall if his wife would “sink or swim in Diana’s well,” Nixon takes us to an explanation found in Robert Burton: “Diana’s well, in which maids did swim, whores were drowned.” (Lady Gall swims). Other recondite references don’t reward the page-flipping as handsomely.
The following decades would see Beckett gradually moving away from Joycean allusiveness and towards what he described as a more impoverished style radically different than the one on display here. However, amidst the cacophony, the faint stirrings of that move can be heard in “Echo’s Bones”: “Economy is the great thing now, from now on till the end.”
Recently, Lynn Stuart Parramore tried to explain “Why a Death-Obsessed Pop Siren Is Perfect for Late-Stage Capitalist America.” She was referring, of course, to Lana Del Rey. Parramore explains that the Ultraviolence chanteuse is only the latest heir to a long lineage of decadent femmes fatales that rise to cultural prominence at moments of perilous social transition or imminent collapse:
This potent combination of women, sex and death is going to be one of the calling cards of late-stage capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our life-affirming instincts. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, these Eves of the Apocalypse — suicidal brides, young women fixated on pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong.
Parramore’s thesis may not seem to have much to do with Ira Glass’s controversial assertion, tweeted after seeing a performance of King Lear, that, “Shakespeare sucks.” But when you consider that one of the late 19th century’s favorite sources of death-and-the-maiden imagery was the drowning Ophelia, weltering picturesquely among the strewn flowers of her fatal madness, the Shakespeare/Del Rey connection becomes more plausible. Just as Parramore (and others) criticize Lana Del Rey for social irresponsibility, for promoting an anti-feminist celebration of sadomasochistic sexuality and for embracing capitalist spectacle unto death, so the most persuasive and compelling attacks on Shakespeare have charged him with amoral aestheticism and a sensationalized skepticism about human potential.
Ira Glass’s infamous tweet complained of King Lear that it had “no stakes” and was “not relatable.” Rebecca Mead and Adam Kirsch have explained at eloquent length why Glass’s expectation that Shakespeare be “relatable” is a naïve and even pernicious application of the narcissistic standards of advertising to serious art. But is Glass’s assertion that King Lear lacks “stakes” really so off the mark? This is a play in which traditional authority and the religious foundation on which it rests have collapsed into nothingness. Its villain, Edmund, worships no god but amoral nature, and its forlorn metaphysical conclusion is, in the words of the brutally blinded Gloucester, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” It’s not wrong to say that there are no stakes in the tragedy’s meaningless cosmos. At the play’s conclusion, a set of numb and chastened survivors mutter small consolations in a blasted landscape.
Turning the final page of ultraviolent King Lear in a literary anthology, you would expect it to be succeeded not by Milton’s Puritan justification of God’s ways to men or Pope’s Enlightenment assertion that, “Whatever is, is right,” but rather by the God-haunted and God-abandoned worlds of Kafka and Beckett. Shakespeare’s despairing modernity— — if by “modernity” we mean the collapse of all tradition and a resulting ontological insecurity — is uncanny, so uncanny that we can see elements of Lana Del Rey’s persona prefigured in Lear’s daughters: in the desperate and fatal sexual longings of Goneril and Regan, in the mysterious born-to-die intransigence of Cordelia.
This sense of an after-the-deluge world gone wrong, a world where faith, hope, and love are powerless to improve the human condition, has long disturbed Shakespeare’s critics, most notoriously the poet Nahum Tate, whose happy-ending re-write of Lear held the English stage throughout the 18th century.
But there are less moralistic ways to critique Shakespeare than Tate’s bowdlerization. In 1986, the brilliant polymath critic George Steiner gave a remarkable lecture called “A Reading against Shakespeare,” later collected in his No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995. In this densely learned paper, Steiner attempts to synthesize into a coherent and persuasive argument the complaints against Shakespeare made throughout modern history; he focuses particularly on the criticism of Leo Tolstoy and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein, Steiner explains, implicitly relied on a concept of the poet as spiritual authority and moral prophet. For European thinkers of the 19th and early-20th centuries, it was not enough to be a prodigious coiner of words and creator of spectacle, as Shakespeare undoubtedly was:
Shakespeare is the incomparable Sprachchöpfer, the prodigal wordsmith, the limits of whose language are, in the idiom of the Tractatus, the limits of our world. There is scarcely a domain, constituent of men’s works and days, which Shakespeare has not harvested in language, over which he has not cast the encompassing net of his matchless lexical and grammatical wealth. Disposer of a vocabulary of almost thirty thousand words (Racine’s world is built of one tenth that number), Shakespeare, more than any other human being of whom we have certain record, has made the world at home in the word. This does not, however, make of him a Dichter, a truth-sayer, an explicitly moral agent, a visible teacher to and guardian of imperilled, bewildered mankind. An authentic Dichter, urges Wittgenstein, ‘cannot really say of himself, “I sing as the birds sing”—but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself’ (Milton’s ‘warbling notes of wood-notes wild’ is fairly obviously present to Wittgenstein when he makes this suggestion). ‘I do not think that Shakespeare would have been able to reflect on the Dichterlos’ — a term again resistant to translation into English and into the entire register of Anglo-Saxon sensibility, but signifying something like the ‘calling’, ‘the destined ordnance’ of the poet.
Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
Accusing Shakespeare of reactionary politics is a longer tradition that one might expect; it certainly predates those deconstructionists, Marxists, postcolonialists, and feminists that the Bardolotarous Harold Bloom notoriously castigated as the “School of Resentment” in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.
In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Shakespeare’s plays lure Septimus Warren Smith into the Great War to fight for an England he associates with the Bard’s poetic achievement. But after the war, the shell-shocked Smith discovers a different moral in Shakespeare:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language — Antony and Cleopatra — had shrivelled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity — the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same.
While other classic authors are implicated in Septimus’s very 20th-century sense that, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (to quote Walter Benjamin), Shakespeare bears the brunt because he is the British icon whose poetic splendor tricked Septimus and his generation into fighting a nationalist and imperialist war that has destroyed their lives.
In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus makes a similar case in his lecture on Hamlet in the National Library of Dublin. The young colonial intellectual sees Shakespeare as the poet of empire, anticipating the postcolonialist critics of P.C. academe by more than half a century. “Khaki Hamlets don’t hesitate to shoot,” Stephen bitterly observes of the British empire. Joyce’s autobiographical hero imagines the Elizabethan playwright as a litigious capitalist (Shakespeare was part-owner of his own theatrical company and of the Globe theater) who projected his avarice onto Shylock in a classic instance of anti-Semitism. Stephen even pictures Shakespeare as a money-minded hoarder of necessities during famine, an image of horrifying relevance to Ireland:
— And the sense of property, Stephen said. He drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender with ten tods of corn hoarded in the famine riots.
Stephen further speculates that Shakespeare’s nihilism was caused by wounded male pride, stemming from a betrayal by his wife, construed by the playwright/investor as yet another piece of his property:
But a man who holds so tightly to what he calls his rights over what he calls his debts will hold tightly also to what he calls his rights over her whom he calls his wife.
To sum up the political case against Shakespeare: his nihilism and skepticism translate directly into a political agnosticism all too willing to collaborate with oppression and injustice, especially when it is in the interests of shareholders. On this reading, what is at stake in Shakespeare is profit. Therefore, comparing him to Lana Del Rey, the putative commodity-image studio creation of the erstwhile Lizzy Grant and her industry collaborators, doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
“And yet,” as George Steiner likes to say.
G. Wilson Knight wrote an essay in the 1930s reviewing Tolstoy’s polemic against Shakespeare. Knight concludes that, while Tolstoy’s utopianism is admirable, the kind of a purely ethical art he desires will never satisfy us, because audiences require a metaphysical drama that speaks to all of experience, one in which “[p]ersons both satanic and divine will inter-thread its story.” This conclusion, disturbing to moralists of all stripes, recalls another great analysis of Shakespeare by Knight, his classic “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet.” (Both essays can be found in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy.)
Knight spends much of “The Embassy of Death” building what looks like another Bardoclastic case, by patiently demonstrating the virtues of every character in the drama besides Hamlet. Claudius is a thoughtful king, committed to resolving international conflict through diplomacy rather than war; Polonius and Laertes are sensible to warn Ophelia away from the unstable Prince; Ophelia and Gertrude are innocent victims of Hamlet’s cruelty. These secondary characters are “creatures of earth,” Knight says, who love life and seek to make it as pleasant as possible, whereas Hamlet is a soul-sick death-bringer among them, a diseased intellect who trails destruction in his wake. Knight seems to make an irreproachable judgment against Hamlet — and, by extension, against the writer who expects us to take this monster for a hero:
He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.
What can Knight say to mitigate this conclusion? Nothing — so Knight surprises us instead: unlike Tolstoy or Wittgenstein, Knight devastatingly concludes, “It is Hamlet who is right.” In other words, the dark Prince’s evil vision has truth, if not morality or good politics, to recommend it.
Without mentioning G. Wilson Knight, Simon Critchley, and Jamieson Webster have come to a near-identical conclusion in their recent book, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, a doctrine they define as “the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insights into the truth induces a disgust with existence.” They go on to ask, “What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust? Do we even like him?” But that, as Critchley and Jamieson well know, is like asking if Hamlet is relatable. Of course we shouldn’t like him — but on the evidence of the play’s tenacious prestige, we do anyway. The authors of Stay, Illusion earlier relate, “We kept noticing occurrences of the word ‘nothing’ in Hamlet…and discovered that nothing, as it were, structures the action of the play and the interplay between its central characters.”
Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
Image Credit: LPW
In the world of selling books, it’s not all about the sentences. At Ploughshares, agent Eric Nelson argues: A fresh plot matters and unusual characters do, too. “The most interesting books have characters who do the opposite of what we’d do… Imagine Hamlet, if Hamlet took decisive action. Horror movies wouldn’t exist at all without the idiot who always suggests they split up.”
William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In 1592 in London, a pamphlet called Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, bought with a Million of Repentance was published, supposedly containing the bitter last words of Robert Greene, a member of the group now known as the “university wits,” writers and playwrights who had been educated at Oxford and Cambridge and who had written, individually and collaboratively, many of the best plays of the previous decade. Greene had died in poverty a few months before, and the Groatsworth contains a letter addressed to his fellow wits, Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele, warning against “those puppets” and “apes” (the actors) who not only didn’t pay their writers enough but who even had the audacity to “newly set forth” the wits’ old plays, adding a few new scenes or retouching some passages and then claiming sole authorship, and sole revenue. Greene holds a grudge against one writer in particular:
Trust them not, for there is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his ‘Tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Shakespeare. In 1592, he was 28 and had probably been in London for three or four years, starting out as an actor of bit parts and perhaps then trying his hand at mending a few speeches here and there during rehearsals. Starting around 1590, he began writing his own plays.
Establishing a composition date for Shakespeare’s early plays is tricky, but by 1592 he had at least written the three plays in the Henry VI cycle (Greene quotes from Part Three above), and possibly also Titus Andronicus. Parts two and three of the cycle, written first, were wholly by Shakespeare, though Part One, first performed in March 1592, could be Shakespeare’s revision of an earlier play by Nashe, and Titus is now thought to be partly by Peele. The notoriety these plays gave Shakespeare is perhaps what earned Greene’s ire.
The popular image of Shakespeare’s career is that he collaborated on a few plays as a young man, as a kind of apprenticeship. Proving his ability, he went on to eschew collaboration for most of his career, until just before his retirement he again collaborated on a series of plays with his own apprentice and successor, John Fletcher. Broadly speaking, this is true. But it doesn’t explain why Shakespeare, after the runaway successes of Henry VI parts two and three would collaborate on the prequel, writing only about 20 percent of it, or why in the middle of his career, he would collaborate with Middleton on Macbeth and Timon of Athens, and George Wilkins on Pericles. And then there’s the issue of the four plays from the 1580s and early 1590s — a tragedy about Hamlet, prince of Denmark, Victories of Henry the Fifth, King Leir, and The Taming of a Shrew — none by Shakespeare, but all curiously related to his own later plays.
Greene called Shakespeare “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers,” an allusion to a passage from Horace warning against poetic plagiarism. Part of Greene’s problem was that Shakespeare was not a university man, and therefore not a gentleman. He was an “ape” who was stealing not only the vocation and the paychecks of gentleman playwrights, but also, according to Greene, plagiarizing them. Shakespeare was stung by Greene’s accusations, somehow getting Henry Chettle, who had prepared the Groatsworth for the press, to print an apology. Greene was bitter and likely unstable, but his accusations and Shakespeare’s reaction do lead to the question: how often did Shakespeare “mend” plays? It was common practice for theater companies to bring back old plays in repertory with a few new ones each year, sometimes updating and revising older plays to fit a current vogue. In his position for most of his career as company dramatist, first for the Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, wouldn’t Shakespeare have done some of this updating?
A new anthology collecting those plays that may contain evidence of this kind of work, William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen and designed to be a companion to the RSC anthology of Shakespeare’s works, provides just this kind of portrait of Shakespeare the working playwright. It is the first collection of plays on the fringes of the Shakespeare canon — those plays, in other words, that may or may not have been collaborations in which Shakespeare took part — in 100 years, since C.F. Tucker Brooke’s The Shakespeare Apocrypha in 1908.
It includes some usual suspects. The riot scene in Sir Thomas More is now included in the acknowledged Shakespeare canon and is frequently included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. More is one of the few plays from that period to survive in manuscript form, and it is doubly unique for containing the handwriting of playwrights Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, court censorer Edmund Tilney, and William Shakespeare. The pages containing “Hand D” (Shakespeare’s) are among the most precious pieces of literary history, and are housed in the British Library in London. Other than six signatures, they contain the only samples of Shakespeare’s handwriting to have survived.
The evidence for Shakespeare being Hand D rests on the comparison of the handwriting to the surviving signatures, which share with it unique letter forms (a spurred a, a strange flourish on the k) unlike the handwriting of any other Elizabethan or Jacobean writer, and also on stylistic evidence. Will Sharpe’s exhaustive “Authorship and Attribution” essay at the end of the anthology explains the authorship studies done on each of the plays included in the collection, as well as giving an overview of the history of authorship studies on each. Computer analysis has made authorship studies easier and more accurate, allowing quick searches through the entire corpus of drama from the period. Stylistic evidence relies on matching an anonymous passage to the stylistic fingerprints of one author. Fingerprints could be the use of contractions (i’th or in the), oaths (‘sblood, zounds), prepositions (amongst or among), pronouns (you over ye), verb forms (hath over has), and metrics (adding extra syllables to poetic lines). Added to the evidence of vocabulary, spelling, dating, and which theater company performed the play (if any), it is sometimes possible to identify the author.
In the case of Hand D in More, the internal evidence of handwriting, spelling, and poetic style is a slam dunk. The trouble is that it doesn’t fit the traditional picture of Shakespeare. More is a play that, given everything we know about Shakespeare, he should never have been involved in.
More was originally written circa 1600 by Anthony Munday, possibly collaborating with Henry Chettle. It was part of a mini-vogue of plays about Henry VIII’s councillors and dramatizes Thomas More’s rise to power after helping to quell the Ill May Day riot of 1517 against foreigners living in London and his fall after refusing to sign the Act of Succession. But the reason for his fall is necessarily fuzzy, since it was the Act of Succession that recognized the legitimacy of the then-reigning monarch, Elizabeth I. In addition, the 1590s had seen a series of riots and hostilities against foreigners in London that seemed to echo the riot the play presented. For these reasons, censor Edmund Tilney refused to let the play be performed, writing on the front leaf of the manuscript, “Leave out the insurrection wholly with the cause thereof…at your own perils.”
Presenting politically sensitive material in a play was grounds under Elizabeth for arrest or imprisonment, and quite a few of Shakespeare’s colleagues at one time or another found themselves in hot water for their writing — Marlowe, Kyd, and even Ben Jonson — but never Shakespeare. So why would Shakespeare involve himself in trying to patch up a play already rejected by Tilney for containing dangerous material, and not only be involved, but agree to write one of the stickiest scenes in the play? It certainly challenges popular conceptions of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare & Others claims Shakespeare’s presence in More and Edward III, another common candidate for Shakespeare’s involvement. It is now generally accepted that Shakespeare contributed the countess scenes in Edward III (I.ii-II.ii and IV.iv) and that the rest of the play is by Kyd, Peele, or Nashe. Both plays are now included in anthologies of Shakespeare’s works. Shakespeare & Others also, however, puts forward Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy, and Double Falsehood (which I have previously written about for The Millions) as “almost certain” to contain passages by Shakespeare.
Arden of Faversham, written around 1590, is the earliest example of a domestic tragedy in English drama, as well as the first example of a detective procedural. Most of the play concerns the attempts by Alice Arden and her lover Mosby to hire someone to kill her husband, including two villains named Black Will and Shakebag (surely there’s a joke there). They finally kill Master Arden themselves, and the end of the play shows Arden’s friend Franklin uncovering the clues to their guilt. Shakespeare & Others suggests Shakespeare’s involvement in scene 8, in which Mosby and Alice quarrel and then reconcile in what is surely the sexiest makeup scene of the 1590s, and which contains stylistic and linguistic similarities to Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, written at about the same time.
The Spanish Tragedy is Thomas Kyd’s masterpiece of a revenge drama, and influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. It is usually anthologized in its late-1580s version, and it is less-known that someone revised it a decade later for the Chamberlain’s Men, adding new scenes that increased the part of Hieronimo, the Marshal of Spain who feigns madness to gain revenge for his son’s murder. Shakespeare & Others attributes the additions to Shakespeare.
Double Falsehood is a different animal entirely, being perhaps the 1728 revision by Lewis Theobald of a Restoration-era revision by Thomas Betterton of a circa 1612 play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, Cardenio, based on an episode from Cervantes’s then newly-published Don Quixote. This anthology agrees with recent scholarship, including that of Brean Hammond, who edited it for the Arden Shakespeare series, that the play does represent, as it were, the grandchild of an authentic Shakespearean play.
Also included are Mucedorus, a play the editors describe as “worth considering” as partly-Shakespearean, as well as four plays they have determined are most likely not Shakespearean collaborations at all: A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine, and Thomas Lord Cromwell. The editors’ criteria for the table of contents of this anthology, therefore, seems to be the best of those plays that have, at some point in the past 400 years, been suggested by some scholar as possibly Shakespeare’s, or in other words, the best of those plays that belong to the group known as the “Shakespeare Apocrypha.”
The title of the anthology is therefore somewhat misleading. It does not present plays by “Shakespeare & Others” but by “Shakespeare, & Others.” However, presented this way, those plays that Shakespeare does appear to have a hand in are freed from the heavy trappings and gravitas the “Works” volumes lend, and can be examined not only for their literary qualities, which in the plays here are sometimes great, but also for the evidence they contain about Shakespeare the working writer. These plays can now more usefully be compared to the other canonical and collaborative plays, like Timon of Athens and Pericles and Macbeth. More attention to Shakespeare’s collaborative career, now known to be larger than was thought, may yield a new portrait: a playwright who was also a shrewd businessman and a company man, who likely spent more time in the day-to-day thinking about the bottom line than the immortality of his verse. And that is a more likely and more useful way to think about the man from Stratford.
1. Step One: Admit You Have a Problem
Last month, New York Times critic Dwight Garner wrote a lukewarm review of two “philosophical” self-help books, the first installments in a series edited by Alain de Botton called The School of Life. Towards the beginning of the review we are cautioned that self-help books can be “fraught with peril,” attended by the risk “of leading millions of your innocent brain cells into the killing fields.” (The books under consideration appear to have been only mildly perilous.)
Garner’s disdain for the genre is nothing new. Disgust with self-help has been around since Dr. Samuel Smiles wrote his lucrative 1859 classic Self-Help, followed by a popular series of sequels: Character, Thrift, Duty, and Life and Labour. A laudatory 1893 review of this oeuvre begins with a telling disclaimer: “It is the fashion these days to speak in anything but complementary terms of Dr. Smiles and his different books…” Apparently hating on self-help was common practice by the turn of the century. The preface to the Oxford Classics edition of Self-Help cites a particularly blunt example, written by Irish author Robert Tressell in 1906: “[Self-Help] is suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties.”
Yet, in one of his many legacies to modern self-help, Smiles was both widely reviled and fantastically successful. He quickly became a household name in the English-speaking world — early printings of Self-Help sold out instantly, one of them reportedly purchased by Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species was published in the same year. Success was equally explosive abroad. Nakamura Masanao’s somewhat liberal 1871 Japanese translation Saigoku risshihen (“Success Stories of the West”) eventually sold a million copies, serving as an exotic Western repackaging of stale Neo-Confucian values. (Scholars also credit Saigoku risshihen with introducing Hamlet to Japan: three lines from Polonius’s “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…” are the epigram for Chapter 10, “Money, It’s Use and Abuse.”)
Self-Help achieved a near-sacred status across the globe. It was translated into over a dozen languages (Dutch: Help u Zelfen) and did well in all of them. In his autobiography, Smiles recounts the following illustrative anecdote, related to him by a friend (and there is no reason to disbelieve it):
An English visitor to the Khedive’s palace in Egypt asked from what source the mottoes written on the walls were derived. “They are principally from Smeelis,” he was told, “you ought to know Smeelis! They are from his Self-Help; they are much better than the texts from the Koran!”
There are some for whom the very act of comparing “Smeelis’s” work with a foundational religious text will feel vaguely sacrilegious. The same kind of sacrilege is committed by Tom Butler-Bowdon in his meta-self-help bestseller, 50 Self-Help Classics, a Cliff’s Notes style alphabetical review in which Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star is followed by the Bhagavad-Gita, and Wayne Dyer’s Real Magic precedes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance.
Self-help detractors would want to accuse the Khedive palace architect of poor taste, and Butler-Bowdon of making a self-serving category mistake, elevating profitable trash by placing it in illustrious company. Others, like Alain de Botton, might call such accusations snobbish and unjustified, reflexive dismissals of recent work in the venerable tradition of wisdom literature, a tradition that traces its lineage back to the Dao-de-jing. Stoic philosophy, and the Bible.
No one expresses this tension better than Scottish historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle. Although Carlyle makes a cameo in Self-Help (as an exemplar of indefatigable industriousness), Smiles seems to have missed the appearance of his favorite concept in Carlyle’s satirical novel, Sartor Resartus. The novel purports to tell the true story of a German philosopher who develops a transcendentalist theory of clothing. In one of the earliest non-juridical uses of the term, this sartorial philosopher “acquires for himself” the virtue of Self-Help, which Carlyle’s narrator describes as “the highest of all possessions.”
But we cannot trust this description. Sartor Resartus is laced with irony (a rhetorical technique notably absent from most self-help, which is nothing if not earnest). Carlyle’s protagonist, for instance, is named Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, which translates to God-born Devil’s Shit. In the ironizing shadow of Teufelsdröckh, everything in Sartor Resartus looks a little like divine truth and a little like incoherent platitude, from the self-helpish notion of the EVERLASTING YEA, “wherein all contradiction is solved,” to the very concept of self-help that Carlyle helps inaugurate. In other words, Teufelsdröckh makes me wonder: The EVERLASTING YEA, Self-Help, Samuel Smiles, The School of Life — are these essentially God-born or Devil’s Shit? That’s my problem. I don’t know how to feel about self-help. And like it says in the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or maybe it was Ben Franklin, 99% of solving a problem is identifying it, so I’m well on my way!
2. Step Two: Look Inside Yourself
It is always tempting to answer questions via a scholarly, objective route: are we more convinced by sociologist Micki McGee, whose analysis reveals self-help literature as a pernicious facilitator of American egoism and oppressive social norms, or by folklorist Sandra K. Dolby, who identifies in self-help the universal rhythms and patterns of parables and folk wisdom? While researching this essay, however, I learned from numerous self-help authors that answers to profound philosophical questions don’t come from other people, especially not scholars. I also learned the sad truth about “objectivity,” a pseudo-concept that Daoist sages, quantum physicists, and Deepak Chopra’s tweets have all shown to be objectively false.
What’s left? Where can we turn?
The only person you can depend on for answers is YOU, which means consulting your own, unmediated, subjective feelings, and then allowing them to speak the Truth.
Okay, here goes. When it comes to self-help, my unmediated, subjective feelings place me squarely in the Devil’s Shit camp. Just reading certain titles (Learning to Dance in the Rain, To a Child Love is Spelled T-I-M-E) prompts a deep and spontaneous revulsion. This revulsion is both aesthetic, a matter of taste, and intellectual, a matter of truth. And it is unique, reserved for a very small number of cultural products — off the top of my head I come up with Thomas Kinkade paintings, smooth jazz, and televangelism. (Olive Garden? Close, but not quite.)
It’s clear to me why televangelism makes the list. There’s obvious crossover between evangelism and self-help, their easy synthesis epitomized by Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. Christian self-help is a sub-genre so ubiquitous that when I entered a Christian bookstore and asked for the self-help section, one employee looked at me quizzically and said, “Well, that’s pretty much everything in here, unless you’re looking for a Bible.” Nominally secular self-help routinely borrows Christian terms and metaphors (calling, mission). Even science-y Tony Robbins is indebted to televangelism — sociologist McGee quotes Robbins’s infomercial co-producer Greg Renker: “The infomercial boomed because the televangelists ran into problems. We are the new televangelists.”
The link between self-help and televangelism helps make sense of my intellectual revulsion. Rick Warren may be a charismatic speaker, but he is a lousy interpreter of the Bible. Take, for example, his reading of Jeremiah 29:11, where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Warren takes the passage out of context and reads it as an uplifting message for everyone. But God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11 are actually meant specifically for the Israelites exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Contextualization is important, because without it one could appropriate Jeremiah 29:18 to show that God suffers from wild mood swings (“I will send the sword, famine and plague”), or Jeremiah 29:26 as justification for locking up people like Rick Warren: “You should put any maniac who acts like a prophet into the stocks and neck-irons.”
Many self-help books take similar liberties with science, history, and Eastern philosophy, my own area of expertise. I can only assume that quantum physicists are as frustrated by Deepak Chopra’s Quantum Healing as I am by the short biography of Laozi on the front flap of Dr. Wayne Dyer’s version of the Dao-de-jing: “Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a God-realized being named Laozi in ancient China dictated 81 verses…” While I share Dyer’s admiration of the Dao-de-jing, it’s unclear to me why extolling its virtues entails willful ignorance (or duplicity) about its origins. Wikipedia helpfully points out that sinologists have serious doubts about Laozi’s historical existence, and a quick read of D.C. Lau’s preface to the Penguin edition explains the composite nature of the text. One thinks Dyer’s extensive research (mentioned repeatedly) would have turned up Lau’s influential analysis, but it is nowhere to be found.
So, unsurprisingly, my intellectual revulsion is a reaction to untruth, the result of either idiocy or mendacity, depending on the self-help author in question. In order to explain my aesthetic revulsion, then, I merely need to figure out what self-help shares with smooth jazz and Thomas Kinkade.
Hmm. What could the Painter of Light™ have in common with self-help authors? Famous for his religiously-themed art, yet fond of public urination, accused of ruthless business practices, dead at 54 from a valium and alcohol overdose, the subject of posthumous scandal when his wife placed a restraining order on his girlfriend. Surely famous self-help authors don’t have similarly sordid and profit-driven biographies…
No! Wait! This is just a distracting, ad hominem argument that can’t prove anything about the aesthetics of Kinkade’s work or self-help books. Block out the negative energy. Focus. Look through your inner eye (eyes?) at the glowing pink cottage. What do you see? Listen with your inner ear to Kenny G. What do you hear? Read Stephen Covey with your heart. What do you feel?
I see… I hear… I feel… nothing. Nothing! That’s it! Kinkade’s over-saturated pastels, Kenny G’s bland solos, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: they have no soul. And this, ultimately, is the source of my aesthetic revulsion. It’s not that self-help writers are unskilled, though many of them are. It’s that they exploit a formula: co-opt an established authority (religion, philosophy, science, historical hero, literary master), add uplifting anecdotes, mix with self-adulation and empty promises, season with acronyms or lucky numbers, and serve! (I’ll leave it to art critics and music critics to detail the formulas behind smooth jazz and Kinkade’s mass-produced schlock.)
But true soullessness goes beyond formula. After all, fairy tales and blues are as formulaic as it gets, and they are God-born through and through. No, Devil’s Shit only results when formulas are calculated to produce maximal ease and safety, and then used to manufacture religious insights, jazz, or the self, products that are by nature challenging, dangerous, and complicated. That’s why 18th century morality tales for children (The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, etc.) are so repugnant. Seven Easy Tricks for a Delicious Sandwich isn’t sacrilege — it’s a cookbook. But Seven Easy Tricks to Save Your Soul…
In short: Only Satan could enjoy reading The Purpose Driven® Life while listening to smooth jazz in a room filled with Kinkade landscapes. Actually, that’s not quite it. Only Satan could enjoy producing such a scene.
3. Step Three: Stand Up for What You Believe
Objection 1: Self-help books work for me/work for people, so why be nasty about them?
Answer: This objection rests on two flawed premises. The first is that self-help books work for people. While twelve-step programs (a noble relative of self-help books) enjoy some empirical validation, self-help books do not. This lack of validation will not deter self-help fans, fond as they are of anecdotal evidence. That’s fine. Victims of medical quackery are notoriously unwilling to admit the inefficacy of their favored panacea, even when it has obviously failed them. Why should it be any different for victims of spiritual quackery? Nevertheless, for the sake of explanation: as in those cases when astonishing cancer recoveries are misattributed to faith-healing or coffee-enemas, it’s likely that the perceived efficacy of self-help books is due to chance, the passage of time, or unsung orthodox treatment (therapy, exercise, friendship) undertaken in conjunction with the miracle cure.
The second flawed premise is that one shouldn’t be nasty about things that work. The geocentric model of the universe worked (Gee, our planet is super-special!). Propaganda works (Gee, our country is super-special!). Falsehoods and empty rhetoric deserve to be unmasked because people are entitled to think for themselves about important truths, even at the cost of happy complacency. And never fear, there’s all sorts of writing that can replace the crap I’m spoiling—just comb the epigrams of any self-help book and read whatever it is they came from.
Objection 2: But there’s lots of good self-help! Haven’t you heard of Aesop’s Fables?
Answer: Fair enough. A wildly broad definition of self-help ends up including everything from Aesop’s Fables to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, books well-worth reading and re-reading. But the problem is not with offering life counsel. The problem is with counsel that promises quick fixes and simple solutions, promises that are definitive of self-help. Otherwise there would be no need for the term at all: we already have philosophy, religion, fiction, psychology, economics, biography. What distinguishes self-help from these other categories is how it markets the allure of certain success in an endeavor where success is never certain, an approach evident in less unholy forms of self-help like diet books. As with propaganda, the evil is built right into the meaning of the genre, poisoning anything so-classified (even decent stuff) simply by association.
In an essay defending self-help, Alain de Botton writes, “The ancient philosophers recognized we all need help navigating our lives – so what explains self-help books’ decline in prestige?” But he is conflating wise masterpieces, which haven’t declined in prestige (does anyone trash Letters to a Young Poet?), with self-help, which, as we have seen, was always immensely popular and never prestigious. Ancient and modern philosophy already have a section in the bookstore. Categorizing them as self-help is a straightforward move made to sell more books by lacquering them with false hope. (Which is why it’s no shock that de Botton’s spirited defense appeared in the Guardian just after his School of Life series debuted.)
Objection 3: You’re a cultural elitist.
Answer: Really? George Carlin, the same guy who hated parents that wear Baby-Bjorns, put “these people that read self-help books” first on his list of “people who ought to be killed.” The problem with this objection is that it confuses good judgment with elitism, a confusion that is itself elitist. In a recent New York Magazine article, Kathryn Schulz describes her vision of someone who looks down on self-help: “I know people who wouldn’t so much as walk through the self-help section of a bookstore without The Paris Review under one arm and a puzzled oh-I-thought-the-bathroom-was-over-here look on their face.” De Botton agrees: “The unstated assumption of the cultural elite is that really only stupid people read them.”
Actually, it is an unstated assumption of the cultural elite that only those with high-falutin’ humanities degrees have a nose for Devil’s Shit. This is manifestly false. All you need to loathe smooth jazz is an ear for music. Anyone equipped with a moral compass who has heard the Sermon on the Mount will be revolted by Osteen’s pearly-toothed prosperity gospel. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the paradox in self-help’s insipid affirmation of its readers’ inner strength. In Carlin’s words, “The part I really don’t understand, if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?! That’s not self-help, that’s help! There’s no such thing as self-help… if you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself! Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on!”
To be fair, Carlin might be trying to put his competition out of business, since he’s hawking his own brand of simple, formulaic wisdom: “Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, you eat three meals, you take one good shit and you go back to bed. What’s the fucking mystery?”
Now there’s some good self-help, straight from the mouth of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh.
My reading of Shakespeare tends to be seasonal: comedies in the spring and summer, histories and tragedies in the fall and winter. There are exceptions. A hot, sweaty tragedy like Othello or Antony and Cleopatra reads better in hot, sweaty weather, and a “problem” comedy like Measure for Measure seems less problematic during an autumn chill. I persist in this folly even when confronted with The Winter’s Tale, three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork, because Shakespeare seems to me more rooted in the earth and its rhythms than any other writer. Samuel Johnson believed that “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature.” Johnson was speaking primarily of human nature, but if we extend the term to mean the other kind too, we get a little nearer the mark. Shakespeare is the poet of everything.
What then is the optimal time to read The Winter’s Tale – in winter if you feel the burden is primarily tragic, in spring if you feel the opposite pull, or maybe (if you feel the issue is eternally undecided) in a blustery week in late March when the crocuses have begun to push through? (The logical solution – to read the first three acts in the winter and save the last two for warmer weather – is, alas, a reductio ad absurdum. Not that I haven’t tried.) Theater people don’t have the luxury to be so choosy, and I’ve seen excellent productions of The Winter’s Tale at all times of the year, the most recent being a (winter) performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall that left me in tears. A local high school production probably would have done the same. In my experience, The Winter’s Tale plays more effectively on stage than more celebrated works like Hamlet or King Lear, which are sometimes doomed by theatrical self-consciousness and present obstacles to staging (the storm on the heath, for instance) difficult to surmount. In particular, Act IV of The Winter’s Tale is so perfectly conceived that it seems as much carnival as theater. Slapstick, satire, music, dance, suspense, disguise, romance, bawdry, philosophy, sleight-of-hand: one mode of performance succeeding another, and all stage managed by the greatest dramaturge of them all. So yes, Shakespeare was a playwright – an actor, a director, a producer, in fact a man wholly of the theater – and The Winter’s Tale is a play. But we can’t always have the benefit of an actor as skilled as Simon Russell Beale interpreting Leontes for us, and even then, it’s his interpretation, not ours. When we read the plays, we’re actor, director, and lighting designer at once. And what we’re reading, it’s worth pointing out, is very largely poetry.
Seventy-five point five percent poetry, to be precise. The Winter’s Tale is just about the golden mean – 71.5% blank verse, 3.1% rhymed verse, and 25.4% prose, plus six songs, the highest number in the canon, and appropriate for the genius of wit and improvisation who sings them, the “rogue” Autolycus. How I love Shakespearean metrics! Iago has 1097 lines to Othello’s 860, 86.6% of The Merry Wives of Windsor is in prose, King John and Richard II have no prose whatsoever, 45.5% of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in rhymed verse, there are 150 named female characters in the canon as opposed to 865 male, and the actor who plays an uncut Hamlet has to memorize 1422 lines. (Cordelia, by contrast, makes her overwhelming presence felt with a mere 116 lines.) If there were a way of computing the Bard’s earned run average, I would want to know that too.
Clinical as they might seem, these statistics do remind us of a salient fact: three quarters of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is poetry. (The other quarter is pretty good too. Shakespeare wrote the best prose as well as the best verse in the English language, and if there were anything other than prose and verse, he would have surpassed everyone at that as well.) Polixines’s first lines in The Winter’s Tale are, “Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been / The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne / Without a burden” (I.ii. 1-3). That’s a long way from, “It’s been nine months since I’ve been away from my kingdom.” Even if Shakespeare had phrased the lines in prose, they would have been suitably orotund, something like the courtly politesse Archidamus and Camillo speak in the opening scene. (“Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) hath been royally attorney’d . . . “) Nevertheless, they are in verse. No prose could match the effect of the bold initial spondee balanced by an unstressed pyrrhic before catching up with the regular iambic rhythm of the pentameter line. (“NINE CHANG/es of/the WAT’/ry STAR/hath BEEN . . .”) It’s like a bell going off. Surely what’s greatest about Shakespeare is not that he knows where to put his iambs and trochees but that he writes so expressively within character. Polixines’s periphrastic way of saying what could have been said much more simply is more than the eloquence one would expect of a king taking leave of another king. In evoking the moon and the waters and the shepherd’s eternal rounds, Polixines conjures the elemental, folkloric realities that the play will traffic in. There will be shepherds, long passages of time, lots of water, and boy will there be “changes.” Plus, this being Shakespeare, Polixines’ lines are almost gratuitously beautiful. He just couldn’t help it.
On the other hand, beauty has a job to do. It compels attention, and if you’re paying attention to the words, chances are you’re also paying attention to what words do: tell stories, define characters, establish themes, orchestrate emotions, explore ideas. Not that it’s as easy as all that. There are times in The Winter’s Tale when it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. You are ill-advised to attend any production cold.
Harold Bloom has grumpily admitted to boycotting most productions of Shakespeare out of frustration with tendentious interpretations. For me the problem is less directorial overkill than the sheer difficulty of doing Shakespeare at all – finding actors who can speak the verse properly, trimming the texts to manageable lengths, not overdoing the dirty jokes, and so on. I usually attend three or four productions a year and happily settle for whatever patches of brilliance (sometimes sustained for nearly a whole evening) I can get. And yet I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasure of unpacking the involutions of Leontes’s soliloquies in The Winter’s Tale at my leisure and with text in hand – partly because in the theater it’s so hard to follow what this lunatic is actually saying. Even his faithful courtier Camillo at one point has to confess that he’s mystified as to precisely what dark “business” his Highness is hinting at:
Leon. Was this taken
By any understanding pate but thine?
For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in
More than the common blocks. Not noted, is’t,
But of the finer natures? By some severals
Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes
Perchance are to this business purblind? Say.
Cam. Business, my lord? I think most understand
Bohemia stays here longer.
It’s true that the density of this language depends at least as much on formal rhetoric – all those tropes and devices that Shakespeare had drilled into his head as a schoolboy – as on versification. But what the poetry gives us that prose could not (or not so well) is a sense of formlessness within form. Leontes is falling apart. His jealous ravings feed on themselves in an ever more frenzied cycle of psychological dislocation. You might call it a nervous breakdown. Yet no matter how feverish his utterances, they all stay within the strict boundaries of ten or sometimes eleven syllables. If you’re losing your mind in iambic pentameter, your mode of expression is necessarily compressed. No wonder Leontes is so hard to understand:
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre.
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat’st with dreams (how can this be?),
With what’s unreal thou co-active art,
And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent
Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost
(And that beyond commission), and I find it
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard’ning of my brows).
To my mind, no one has ever satisfactorily explained the meaning of the first line, but the sense of psychic violence is clear enough, as is the sense of delusion that Leontes unwittingly demonstrates in the following lines – he perfectly illustrates what he thinks he’s criticizing. Hard as it is to follow this soliloquy on the page, it’s that much harder in the theater, which doesn’t allow for second readings or leisurely reflections on dense ambiguities. Unlike the pattern of some other geniuses, the movement of Shakespeare’s late work (at least verbally) is toward an increasing complication rather than a simplicity or clarity of expression. Those Jacobean groundlings must have had remarkable attention spans, and no wonder. The linguistic transformation that they witnessed, according to Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, “happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it.”
Dense, compressed, harsh, impacted: these qualities don’t stop Shakespeare’s later dramatic verse from being magnificent. Has anyone ever rendered the grosser tendencies of the male imagination with more obscenely “reified” imagery? What makes Leontes’s ravings especially sickening is that he pronounces them in the presence of his innocent son Mamillius:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!
Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor – by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.
When Simon Russell Beale spoke these lines at BAM, that “sluic’d” went through the audience – or at least through me – like a wound. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how graphic Shakespeare’s imagery can be. As a woefully inexperienced undergraduate, I thought Pompey’s description in Measure for Measure of Claudio’s offense against sexual morality – “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” – vaguely amusing. Amusing yes, vague no. There are some things no book can teach you.
The simplicity that many people would like to find in late Shakespeare as they do in the closing phases of Beethoven or Michelangelo is in fact there but selectively deployed and as much a matter of technique as of vision. Hermione’s protestations of innocence during the horrendous trial scene have a dignified plainness in contrast to the casuistry with which Leontes arraigns her. (“Sir, / You speak a language that I understand not.”) The language relaxes in the last two acts, as we move from suspicion and sterility to rebirth and reconciliation. Yet touches of lyricism occur earlier in the play (as in Polixines’s “We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / And bleat the one at th’ other”), just as echoes of Leontes’s rhetorical violence occur later in Polixenes’s rage at the prospect of a shepherdess daughter-in-law (“And thou, fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft, whom of force must know / The royal fool thou cop’st with”). Our Bard, who knew rhetorical tricks from hypallage to syllepsis, was not likely to disdain something so basic as plain contrast. Consider this contrast: Leontes, who earlier expressed the most extreme repugnance toward almost any form of physicality, now uses the homeliest of similes to express his wonder at the “miracle” of Hermione’s transformation from statue to living creature in Act V: “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” Eleven lines later the loyal retainer Paulina, who has brought off the whole improbable spectacle, speaks the half line that is, for me, the most wrenching moment in the whole play: “Our Perdita is found.” How like Shakespeare – to expand emotionally by contracting linguistically. (Compare the lonely, cuckolded Bloom’s “Me. And me now” in Joyce’s Ulysses – the emotional heart, in four words, of a novel much given to logorrhea.) To gloss such a line would be almost an impertinence, except to say that being lost (“Perdita,” analogous to “perdition”) and found is in some sense what the play is all about. It’s not just Leontes who, rediscovering his wife and daughter, finds himself. Ideally, at a performance or in a reading, so should we.
Self-discovery can be a pretty scary experience, which is why Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare wrote that the proper response to this play is one in which awe borders on horror: “It does not merely please or entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what extraordinary thing we have just witnessed.” Iambs and trochees will get you only so far. They signify that Shakespeare thought poetically, and thinking poetically means expressing experience in a highly concentrated manner. It’s curious that as Shakespeare’s language grew increasingly dense and demanding, his plots moved in the opposite direction – towards the deliberate improbabilities of folklore and fable. Shipwrecks, foundlings, treasure chests, prophecies, oracles, and hungry bears: if the plot of The Winter’s Tale were to be retold stripped of its poetry, it “should be hooted at / Like an old tale,” as Paulina says of the biggest improbability of them all – the apparent transformation of the martyred queen from cold statue to living flesh. To the disappointment of some, the patterned contrivances of the four late “romances” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) necessarily entail a slackening of authorial interest in the particulars of character development. Othello’s jealousy is motivated point by excruciating point; Leontes’ jealousy just is. Sometimes it’s well to think back to Samuel Johnson’s point of view. Shakespeare is the poet of nature, and all that naturalism shines out amid the archetypal movements and resolutions of the late romances. Certainly these plays have evoked unusually personal responses. Northrup Frye, no critical slouch, wrote of The Tempest, it is a play “not simply to be read or seen or even studied but possessed.” When Eric Rohmer wanted to depict a transfiguring moment in the life of his heroine in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1991), he did so by having her attend a regional production of The Winter’s Tale and training the camera on her face during Hermione’s transformation scene. Nothing like seeing a clunky, old-fashioned version in French to make you understand what Shakespeare can do without language.
Another curiosity about the romances is the degree to which they turn on the concept of forgiveness. “Pardon’s the word to all,” says Cymbeline late in the play of that title, jauntily brushing aside five acts worth of treachery, corruption, murder, and deceit. Was there something in Shakespeare’s experience that turned his thoughts in his last years to the possibility of forgiveness? Had his many years as an absent husband and father begun to gnaw at him as he contemplated retirement and a return to the wife and family he had clearly neglected? Or had his wife Anne – perhaps understandably in the light of their long separation – been “sluiced” in his absence, and had he, with all his attendant guilts and slippages, to pardon her for that? Was he thinking of the Catholicism he might secretly have been raised in and of the doctrine of grace that – it could be argued – subtly informs these plays? Or was it something simpler and even more personal – namely, brooding on the usual fuckups that everyone racks up over time and hopes to be forgiven for? Virtually nothing is known of the man’s inner life, but few people dispute the semi-autobiographical nature of The Tempest, with its sense of a valediction to the theater he had known and loved. So why not extrapolate a little from the work to the life?
Depends on whose life, I guess. While I’m very much interested in Shakespeare’s life, I’m more interested in my own. What I extrapolate from The Winter’s Tale is that if Leontes deserves a break, so do I. There came a time in my life when I needed to be forgiven. I wasn’t. If I must take my consolation from a play rather than from any flesh and blood Hermione, that’s not quite so bleak as it sounds. Yes, I would have preferred real forgiveness to the literary kind, but I find it no small consolation that at the end of his life the world’s supreme imaginative writer returns again and again to a basic home truth: we must forgive each other. For me, reading Shakespeare is like going to church, except that in place of a God I could never and wouldn’t want to believe in, I “commune,” so to speak, with a mind that seems to comprehend all others and enforces no doctrinal obedience. This community of believers embraces anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read a word of Shakespeare’s and been moved to wonder and reflection. That’s what I call a catholic church.
The forgiveness I’ve spoken of is not without cost. Antigonus and Mamillius die, and when Hermione steps off that pedestal, she speaks to her daughter, not to her husband. Part fairly tale, part moral exemplum, The Winter’s Tale is what religion would be if it could free itself of those hectoring, incomprehensible Gods. In the unveiling of the supposed “miracle” in Act V, the sage and long-suffering Paulina speaks the lines that could serve as the epitaph for all of late Shakespeare: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” The fact that the miracle turns out to be completely naturalistic (the “resurrected” Hermione has been hidden away for sixteen years and has the wrinkles to prove it) means only that the faith required transcends any particular religious dispensation. It’s a faith, first of all, in the reader’s or spectator’s willingness to enter without quibbling into the imaginative world that Shakespeare has created, but more than that, it’s a faith in life itself – in the human imagination, and in our capacity for endurance, transformation, and renewal. As Leontes exemplifies, our capacity for hatred, rage, and murderous insanity is pretty impressive too. To see whole and to understand these contradictions – that too is an act of faith.
I don’t presume to know what this or any other play by Shakespeare ultimately “means.” They will not be reduced to “themes.” Obviously, the plays and sonnets teem with ideas, a few of which are near and dear to my heart, but I could no more sum up the “themes” of Shakespeare’s work than I could sum up the “themes” of my own life. If his work has any unity of meaning, it is simply that of life itself – its abundance, its ongoingness. In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon wrote that “The thought constantly in Shakespeare’s mind,” in The Winter’s Tale, is:
the common flow of life through all things, in nature and man alike, seen in the sap rising in the tree, the habits and character of flowers, the result of the marriage of base and noble stock, whether it be of roses or human beings, the emotions of birds, animals and men . . . the oneness of rhythm, of law of movement, in the human body and human emotions with the great fundamental rhythmical movements of nature herself.
Spurgeon was writing in 1935. We tend to be skeptical of such claims now. There are no universals; or, as Terry Eagleton bluntly put it apropos of a couple of poems by Edward Thomas, “If these works are not ‘just’ nature poems, it is because there is no such thing” (How To Read a Poem). If language and culture mediate everything we can know, why should Shakespeare, the playwright-businessman writing for a motley provincial audience of sensation seekers and esthetes, be exempt? Wouldn’t he be just as blinkered by the social prejudices of this time, just as imprisoned by the reigning discourse, as anyone else? So it would seem – until we turn to the plays themselves. There we find that our hearts speak to us in a different register than our minds do. There we find, as in Florizel’s wooing Perdita, precisely that sort of “universality” that is supposed not to exist:
What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,
To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function. Each your doing
(So singular in each particular)
Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,
That all your acts are deeds.
Ever been in love? Florizel speaks courtly Renaissance verse because he’s a prince. The shepherd’s son, who isn’t even granted the dignity of a name (“Clown”), woos the shepherdess Mopsa in rustic comic prose. Although Shakespeare grants Clown the full measure of his country kindness and courtesy, he won’t let him talk like Florizel. Such were the parameters of the Jacobean worldview. I doubt any lover anywhere has ever spoken so beautifully as Florizel, but if you have been in love you’ll recognize the feeling – the idealization that has yet to withstand the test of time but nonetheless ennobles both the lover and the beloved and creates, as it were, its own truth. How did the groundlings and the nabobs respond when they first heard those words at the Globe Theatre in 1611? My guess is that some of them reacted much as I do. They wept.
More and more, I read in pieces. So do you. Digital media, in all its forms, is fragmentary. Even the longest stretches of text online are broken up with hyperlinks or other interactive elements (or even ads). This is neither a good nor bad thing, necessarily — it is simply a part of modern reading. And because of that, works that deal with fragmentation, that eschew not only a traditional narrative structure but the very idea of a work comprising a single, linear whole — take on a special kind of relevance. Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between “digital” and “analog” reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience.
What is fragmentary writing? To answer that, it helps to first look at how writers wrestled with fragmentation in an earlier, pre-digital context. The approach played a major role in twentieth-century modernist literature, for example, and the very best modernists utilized fragments in particularly revealing ways. Few writers of the period, or any other, understood the nature of fragmentary writing better than Samuel Beckett, who experimented with short, nonlinear forms throughout his career. My favorite example of these fragmentary experiments is a series of thirteen nonlinear prose shorts he wrote called Texts for Nothing.
The Texts are not stories or essays, at least not in the traditional sense. They are instead focused on images/symbols and on the often-prevaricating “voice” (or is it “voices”?) behind each Text. Images and phrases appear in a particular context, and nearly every word is essential to understanding the Text. The voice of each Text often doubles back, contradicts itself, or moves from image to image in no discernible pattern, as in Text 2:
Is this stuff air that permits you to suffocate still, almost audibly at times, it’s possible, a kind of air. What exactly is going on, exactly, ah, old xanthic laugh, no farewell mirth, good riddance, it was never droll. No, but one more memory, one last memory, it may help, to abort again.
The images contained in Text 2 (though not necessarily the other Texts) could be interpreted as a series of “memories,” ranging from a woman digging through a trash can to a man “with only one leg and a half” ringing a bell. Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions. In that way, the Texts resemble human memory — and human thinking. Their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.
Writing about Franz Kafka — another writer given to fragments, whose work served as a key influence on Beckett’s — Albert Camus declared, “The whole art in Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.” The Texts certainly live up to this dictum — they are meant to be looked at more than once, from different points of view. The attentive reader spends time with each Text as a distinct object, since there is not linear narrative or argument to follow forward. Meaning suggests itself indirectly, through the accumulation of phrases and images.
However, while Beckett wrote at a time when rereading was widely encouraged, contemporary media often pulls us in a very different direction. In his recent book about digital reading, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr calls the Net our society’s “communication and information medium of choice,” and says that, “The scope of its use is unprecedented, even by the standards of the mass media.” And he claims that this new medium has changed reading as profoundly as did the bound codex.
He points to a series of studies that indicate “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Essentially, hypertext distracts the reader enough to change the reading experience — even a long, linear text becomes fragmented with the addition of links, because the unconscious mind is forced to devote energy determining the value of the link (and whether or not to click on it). In Carr’s telling, the Internet creates not fragmentary but fragmented reading, where the mind is so distracted that it is difficult to become fully immersed in a given text. This is a different process than what happens when we read a fragmentary work — as Carr explains, “When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear.” The structure of a print book — its existence as a discrete, finite object, the lack of distractions built in to the format — creates a contemplative atmosphere that allows the reader to “merge” with a text; or as Carr puts it, “The reader becomes the book.” Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, with their emphasis on contemplation, accumulation, and rereading, are firmly rooted in the quieter, more contemplative world of “analog” media. For a writer interested in engaging the digital world, however, there are different challenges and that calls for a different kind of fragmentary writing.
The most prominent fragmentary work in recent years is probably David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a book made up primarily of quotations from other texts. While most critics focused on its two most controversial assertions — that the linear novel is an obsolete form, and that writers should feel free to “borrow” text from other works, the way a DJ might sample a piece of music — the book’s fragmentary structure is far more compelling. It is intended as a “literary collage,” in keeping with Shields’ belief that, “Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.” Shields wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” in effect, a literature that reflects the workings of the human mind. And his collection of fragments is his effort to produce that kind of work. If Shields fails in this effort — and I think he does, though understandably so — he is able to give the reader an idea of how his mind processes the written word. The breadth of his reading is evident not only from the wide range of writers “appropriated” into Reality Hunger — Walter Pater, James Joyce, and Walter Benjamin, among others — but from the obvious restlessness visible on the page.
Like Beckett’s Text 2, the fragmentary nature of Reality Hunger has its roots in human memory. As Shields points out, his interest in the essay stems from his belief that, “The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory.” And his essay resembles the way many of us remember the books we read — we hold on to particular ideas, images, and quotes, which hold the place of the larger work in our memories. I’ve read Hamlet three times in the last year and a half — and many times before then — but I can’t recite the entire play by heart. Instead, certain lines stand out (“The rest is silence,” etc.), and when I “remember” the play, it is those lines that spring to mind. In that way, Shields’ book gives us a window into how he reads — it shows us not only the works he gravitates too, but what pieces of those works he keeps with him.
Where Shields differs from earlier fragmentary writers, including Beckett, is that Reality Hunger, due to its origin in many different works, not only emphasizes its fragmentary nature, but uses it to connect with the reader. While making my way through the book, I found myself copying out Shields’ most interesting fragments into a separate notebook; when I want to “reread” Reality Hunger, I simply look at my own, private version instead. This seems at least in part to be Shields’ intention — the fragmentary style of his book forces the reader to become an active participant in the work itself. In that way, it draws from online writing styles, including blogging, which encourage readers to comment on, excerpt, or link to an existing text (which, as Carr points out, brings on even more fragmentation). Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the blogging platform Twitter, which both limits users to writing 140-chracters at a time, and encourages them to “retweet” other users’ content.
The most interesting use of the platform that I’ve seen is Masha Tupitsyn’s (print) book Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film, which she composed entirely on the site. The end result, however, is presented not as a mere assembly of Tweets, but as an experiment in form. As she explains in the introduction, “I avoided tweeting arbitrarily or simply churning out a collection of tweets that would result in a book. Instead, I wrote and crafted each entry as though it was for and part of a book, rather than the other way around.” One of Carr’s great worries about the digital realm is the way it appropriates and changes print forms. As he explains, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.” With Laconia, Tupitsyn attempts the reverse, re-creating a digital medium (Twitter) in an “analog” space. In a sense, Tupitsyn is appropriating a digital space into print.
What’s especially interesting about that appropriation is the way she toys with Twitter’s 140-character limit. Often, she will break multi-tweet passages abruptly, calling attention to the platform’s tendency toward fragmentation. For example, tweets 782 and 783 (each tweet in the book is numbered and time-stamped) appear this way:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces. Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions
about our feelings and emotions.
It would be very easy to recast these tweets in a way that keeps both sentences whole:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces.
Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions about our feelings and emotions.
This would be particularly more readable on Twitter itself, where the more recent tweet — “about our feelings and emotion” — would appear on top. But by breaking them so abruptly, by taking Twitter’s “hard” character count so literally and writing right up until it is reached, Tupitsyn underlines the digital origin of the project.
Where, at least in Carr’s telling, the Web cuts a textual whole into fragments by appropriating it, the print book (at least this particular print book) takes fragments and forces them into a kind of whole. We read tweets 782 and 783 in sequence, and the meaning is obvious. Tupitsyn plays a similar trick with the book’s content. Though the book is ostensibly a work of film criticism, it does not contain anything that resembles a conventional movie review. Instead, it appropriates what social media specializes in — quotations, personal reactions, biographical revelations, and commentary about pop culture — and turns them into something more ambitious. The different fragments are not so much about film as they are about how Tupitsyn watches film. As she puts it, the book “dramatizes the act of thinking through film.”
Reality Hunger and Laconia are very different books, but they share this desire to use fragmentary writing to dramatize the act of thinking through culture (in Shields’ case mostly books, in Tupitsyn’s mostly films). Even this desire has its roots in the digital world, where culture is constantly being repackaged and analyzed. If neither work achieves the majesty of Beckett’s Texts — to be fair, an obscenely high standard — both find an approach to fragmentary writing that pushes the form in a new direction, rather than just rehashing modernism’s innovations. They manage this by drawing on digital forms — Shields by creating a “collage” that mimics the mash-up culture that dominates online media, Tupitsyn by writing her book via Twitter. In so doing, they suggest an interesting new path for both writers and readers, one that takes the clutter of the digital world and transforms it into something quieter and more thoughtful.
It’s not that fragmentary writing is the only acceptable form of writing today — I have no intention of breaking this essay into tweets — but it is the form best suited to address the conundrum Carr is so concerned about in The Shallows. We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience. And that makes me incredibly curious to see where people will take it.
Image credit: AMagill/Flickr
It’s a commonplace that beautiful art can, and often does, come from ugly souls: Caravaggio knifing a man in a Roman alley; Wagner writing Jew-hating tracts alongside his operas; Schopenhauer pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs. But what about the reverse? What about the hypocrisy of living well?
That’s the charge leveled earlier this spring, on a conservative National Review blog, against the Nobel-winning British playwright Harold Pinter—and I want to dwell on that criticism because, as ridiculous as it seems on its face, I think it can lead us in a roundabout way to a better understanding of what it means to take art seriously.
In her National Review piece, Carol Iannone cites an article about the late writer’s remarkably loving relationship with his wife—evidently three decades of not going to bed angry—and contrasts it with the much bleaker world Pinter painted in his plays during those years: “While Pinter was enjoying his high-level marriage of refined intellectual equals in the British upper class, he was inflicting on his servile public a dark vision of obscure miseries, casual cruelties, inarticulate vulgarity, strangled miscommunications, and menacing silences in sordid rooming houses.”
I’m no expert on Pinter, so for the moment I just want to take that harsh characterization of his work, fair or not, as a given. What interests me is the way Iannone goes on to justify it: “We shouldn’t imbibe the bleak visions of many modernist works (especially by left-wing writers), visions based not on life but on willed projections of darkness and despair.” There are a lot of assumptions here that go completely unjustified: that we should be “especially” wary of left-wing writers; that writing has to be “based on life” in some unspecified way in order to succeed. But the basic claim is this: we wouldn’t want to spend any time at all in the world of Pinter’s plays, we wouldn’t want to willingly take on that amount of darkness, when we could spend time somewhere brighter. And the fact that somewhere brighter exists is proven by the writer’s own life.
We might call that view conservative PC. And my first reaction was to dismiss it out of hand: “What’s wrong with a play about despair? Even if a play is nothing but cruelty and vulgarity, a play isn’t a world. I can spend an hour or two with something depressing and despairing, because I also know that there’s plenty of uplifting art for when I feel like being uplifted. The fact that the writer lived a good life—the fact that I can live a good life—is actually a point in favor of bleak, dark plays. I can watch them secure with the fact that that’s not all there is.”
What struck me about my reaction, however, was just how much it had in common with the defense against artistic PC from the other side. How often have we seen a movie or a TV show criticized for, say, a negative or stereotypical portrayal of women? And how often have we heard an instant response like this? “This movie (or show or book) isn’t portraying women—it’s portraying individual characters. You may not like them, but it’s unfair to make them carry the weight of an entire worldview about women, or about anything else. A movie isn’t a world.”
The argument here isn’t simply one over politics, over liberal elites or gender roles; the argument is between two different ways of reading. One is a sort of deliberate tunnel-vision: it asks us to fully inhabit a work, to treat if for the time we’re there as a self-contained world. The other view places a much lighter burden on artists: it tells us in the audience that it’s fine to watch with one eye, and to keep the other eye on the “real world”; and when we can remind ourselves that there’s always a world outside of what we’re watching, the artist’s choices carry a good deal less weight. What the second view is really promising us is art without responsibility—or at least with much less responsibility. That’s exactly why it’s so instinctively appealing. But, by stopping us from becoming fully involved with what we’re reading, watching, or hearing, it also carries a high cost—one I’m not convinced is worth paying.
The term world-building, when we use it at all, is usually reserved for thick, Tolkeinesque fantasy books: world-building means inventing imaginary continents with their own geographies and landmarks and kingdoms. I’d argue, though, that all art is engaged in world-building—and that it can be accomplished as successfully in 14 lines as in 500 pages. Here, for instance, is a world without spring:
Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
That’s Shakespeare’s Fifth Sonnet. The claim is that time will destroy the beauty of the poem’s subject, just as winter strips the leaves from trees, and the only defense is to bottle up and save “summer’s distillation”—in this case, as it turns out, by conceiving an heir. The sonnet’s urgency comes from the fact that it ends in winter: it is a world where spring, regeneration, and rebirth are all impossible. In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the great critic Helen Vendler explains the poem’s power, and why it’s dependent on this cold ending:
In both quatrains, no possibility is envisaged other than a destructive slope ending in confounding catastrophe. Since Nature is being used as a figure for human life (which is not reborn), the poem exhibits no upward slope in seasonal change. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that nothing can be said to happen in a poem which is not there suggested. If summer is confounded in hideous winter, one is not permitted to add, irrelevantly, “But can spring be far behind?” If the poet had wanted to provoke such an extrapolation, he would by some means have suggested it.
Even though Vendler talks about what we are and are not “permitted” to see in a poem, this kind of reading is much more than an artificial convention or an English professor’s trick. It’s the kind of reading that is compelled by great world-building—by art that is so convincing or so powerful that we barely stop to think that it’s artificial. Just as one can make it through The Lord of the Rings without seriously reflecting that there are no such things as elves, one can make it through this sonnet without seriously reflecting that there is no such thing as a world that ends in winter.
Just as importantly, the kind of blinkered reading that Vendler argues for is our contribution to making a poem or a book or a film “work,” a contribution that is easier the more compelling the work we’re dealing with. If we read through the Fifth Sonnet constantly reminding ourselves of the artificiality of its world—repeating to ourselves at the end of every line, “of course spring comes after winter”—the experience of reading it starts to fade. Without immersion in its world, we can still admire the rhymes and meter and metaphors from a distance, but we are also shut out from them. The poem loses whatever power it had over our emotions; it stops to “work” in the same way. This immersion, or tunnel-vision, is really just a kind of suspension of disbelief, maybe the most fundamental kind. Just as it’s hard to fully experience Hamlet without temporarily believing in ghosts, it’s hard to fully experience this sonnet without disbelieving in spring. It’s hard to fully experience any work without, at least temporarily, treating it as a world.
From that perspective, we can’t mentally protect ourselves from a uniformly bleak play by recalling that there are other, happier plays or other, happier possibilities for our own lives; the point of the play, if it works as theater, is to ask: “What if the world were like this?” Or take a TV series like The Wire, which paints the failure and breakdown of public institutions from police to schools to unions. To treat the series as a world is to understand that it’s passing a judgment not just on Baltimore, the city in which it’s set, but on cities and institutions in general, along with the men and women who run them. We can’t shield ourselves from those conclusions by remembering that there is, say, a well-run town somewhere in Scandinavia.
Or rather, we can—but only at the price of trivializing what we’re watching, reducing it to a forgettable entertainment. In fact, it’s those of us who put the greatest responsibility on art who are most willing to take seriously its power over us: to shape the way we see the world, and the way we act in it. It’s not surprising that the godfather of this view—Plato, who famously called poetry morally corrupting—was one of the most gifted writers who ever lived, as well as (by some accounts) a former poet himself: in other words, a man who knew the power of literature so directly that he came to fear it, arguably too much.
Taking a strong view of artistic responsibility doesn’t tell us what that responsibility has to look like. It doesn’t compel us, like Plato, to expel poets from the city. It doesn’t mandate that all of our art be uplifting. It doesn’t tell us where to draw the line between the kind of bleakness that’s bracing and the kind that’s just degrading. It doesn’t commit us to a view of the gender roles we want our movies and TV shows to embody. It doesn’t commit us to a particular ideology at all. It is the beginning of those arguments, not the end of them. It simply tells us that we can’t sidestep those arguments by protesting that it’s just a play, just a movie, just a book, just one entertainment among many.
Or rather, we can—but in the process, we also admit that those plays, movies, and books can’t really move us, at least not enough to care about the way in which they’re moving us. And to admit that is to flatten the distinction between those entertainments that really are forgettable, and the art that, with our cooperation, successfully creates worlds. The more compelling the world, the greater the obligation that it be one worth living in.
(Image: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy (now with h-alpha) from astroporn’s photostream)
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
When Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now?
Decoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just “enormous language dorks.”
So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging.
One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.” Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all.
Adam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.” I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff.” As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.
Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through.
This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”.
But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop.
It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.
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.
William Shakespeare hasn’t had a new play since 1612. But last month in the UK and this month in the US, Arden—one of the most respected publishers of scholarly editions of Shakespeare’s plays—published a “new” play by Shakespeare, edited by Brean Hammond: Double Falsehood, a play that has been lost and found and lost again.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays are lost, never printed or else destroyed by either fire or time: Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. Almost nothing is known about Love’s Labor’s Won, though presumably it was a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost. But there are records of payments to Shakespeare and his fellow actors for two performances of Cardenio during the summer of 1613 for the court of James I. 1613 was at the end of Shakespeare’s career; he would soon retire to Stratford-upon-Avon, then a two-day journey by horseback from London, where he would die three years later in April 1616. In 1613 he was writing his last plays, including Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, who was being groomed to replace Shakespeare as the main dramatist for the King’s Men.
Cardenio is the name of a character from an inset novella in Don Quixote by Cervantes, the first part of which was translated into English by Thomas Shelton in 1612. The story was possibly familiar to Londoners as early as 1605, when Spanish culture and literature came into vogue following James’s Treaty of London, which ended Elizabeth I’s Spanish wars. Cardenio is in love with Luscinda, but before he can get her father’s permission to marry her, the nobleman Don Fernando orders him away to court as a ruse so he can marry Luscinda himself. Luscinda writes to Cardenio about the scheme, but Cardenio arrives, he thinks, too late. He goes mad and runs into the Sierra Morena, where he meets Dorotea, a woman who had been raped by Don Fernando after a fraudulent marriage ceremony. The two of them travel to an inn, where they find Luscinda and Don Fernando and each couple is paired up correctly.
This is likely the story Shakespeare used for the 1613 play written in collaboration with Fletcher, but it was never printed. The manuscript still existed in 1653, when the printer Humphrey Moseley recorded his ownership of the copyright. But Moseley did not publish it either, and Cardenio disappeared.
Then in 1727, the lawyer and playwright Lewis Theobald announced that he had found not just one, but three manuscript copies of a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, which he promised to adapt for the stage. His play is remarkably similar to the Cardenio story in Don Quixote. The names are different, but Julio is recognizable as Cardenio, Leonora as Luscinda, Henriquez as Don Fernando, and Violante as Dorotea.
But Theobald’s reputation was not pristine. In 1716 he had been accused of plagiarism by a watchmaker named Henry Meysteyer, who had given Theobald an early draft of a play, looking for advice. After four months of work rewriting the play, Theobald considered it to be entirely his own work. The practice of adapting old plays and claiming sole credit for the result was not unusual at the time, though other playwrights sensibly chose dead dramatists to steal from.
Theobald’s adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play, which he called Double Falsehood, premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on December 13, 1727. To ensure its success, Theobald persuaded the age’s great actor, Barton Booth, then in failing health, to come out of retirement to play the lead. It was Booth’s last role before his health was permanently ruined, and Theobald was blamed for hastening Booth’s death. But it worked: the play was a huge success.
Theobald published his adaptation the next year, with a preface in which he explained the provenance of one of his three manuscripts:
one of the Manuscript Copies, which I have, is of above Sixty Years Standing, in the Handwriting of Mr. Downes, the famous Old Prompter; and, as I am credibly inform’d, was early in the Possession of the celebrated Mr. Betterton, and by Him design’d to have been usher’d into the World… There is a Tradition (which I have from the Noble Person, who supply’d me with One of my Copies) that this Play was given by our Author, as a Present of Value, to a Natural Daughter of his, for whose Sake he wrote it, in the Time of his Retirement from the Stage.
For the past two centuries Theobald’s play, along with the provenance he gave it, has largely been considered a hoax. Was it a coincidence, then, that Theobald picked the same plot as a lost Shakespeare play for a clever attempt at forgery, or could it be possible that a manuscript of Cardenio lies behind Double Falsehood?
Parliamentary edict forbade the performance of plays from 1642, on the eve of the Civil Wars, until the restoration of Charles II in 1660. By then the outdoor playhouses had been pulled down and most actors from before the edict were aging or had died. Two new theatre companies formed, each under the management of a Royalist courtier-playwright: the King’s Men, under Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men under Sir William Davenant. Killigrew’s King’s Men recruited most of the experienced actors and claimed ownership of all the old plays that Shakespeare’s company, the former King’s Men, had owned, leaving Davenant with no plays and no actors.
Davenant trained a group of recruits—including the Thomas Betterton Theobald’s preface mentions, who would be compared with Shakespeare’s own star actor, Richard Burbage—and, for the first time, actresses, but he had to beg Killigrew for a few plays. Killigrew gave him the worthless ones, by a playwright who was already considered old-fashioned: Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s younger contemporaries, Beaumont and Fletcher, the Gilbert and Sullivan of the Jacobean stage, were widely considered to be more modern, more fashionable, and more gentlemanly. Killigrew didn’t expect he could make much money by performing Shakespeare. Among the second-string plays Davenant was given were Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet,and Henry VIII.
William Davenant was the son of a wine tavern owner in Oxford, John Davenant, who was a lover of plays and a friend of Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare stayed with the Davenants as their guest whenever he passed through Oxford on his way between London and Stratford. William was Shakespeare’s godson. In his later years, Davenant was happy to let others think he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate son. Though the rumor was probably nothing more than a marketing ploy, Davenant did successfully make himself and his company into Shakespeare’s theatrical heirs, adapting and updating many of Shakespeare’s plays for the changed tastes of the Restoration audience.
Theobald’s claim that one of his manuscripts, “above sixty years standing” and in the handwriting of Davenant’s prompter, John Downes, puts the creation of this manuscript squarely in a period when Davenant might indeed have been interested in adapting an old play of Shakespeare’s to add to his thin repertoire. Davenant never produced Cardenio, but his adaptation would have stayed in his theatre’s library. Thus Theobald’s odd story that Shakespeare wrote the play for his “Natural Daughter” might have some truth behind it—in Theobald’s time Davenant’s claim to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son was still generally believed, so Davenant’s third wife Henrietta Maria, who succeeded him as theatre manager, might by association—however strange this sounds today—have been called Shakespeare’s “Natural Daughter.” Thomas Betterton, Davenant’s star actor, whom Theobald says later owned the manuscript, succeeded Henrietta Maria as theatre manager. Manuscripts from Betterton’s library were purchased from his estate sale by Charles Gildon, who in 1710 used them to publish a Life of Mr. Thomas Betterton and in 1719, published The Post-Man Robb’d of his Mail, which contained a letter written to The Tatler magazine complaining about ignorant theatre managers who rejected good plays, using as example a play written by Beaumont, Fletcher, and Shakespeare a few years before the latter died and never printed. It sounds suspiciously like Cardenio. Gildon and Theobald both were patronized by Charles Boyle, fourth Earl of Orrery, and both knew that family well, making it possible that Gildon’s Shakespeare manuscript, purchased from Betterton’s estate, made it to Theobald by way of Boyle, the “Noble Person” he mentions in his preface.
Brean Hammond relates this history in the new Arden edition, with more research than has ever been afforded to a play previously considered merely an “agreeable cheat.” But the real worth of his research lies in accounting for the afterlife of Theobald’s adaptation, why it was labeled a forgery and forgotten so soon after publication. To do this, Hammond takes care to situate the play in the literary climate of the time, especially in the battle between Pope and Theobald over the right to edit Shakespeare.
In the early eighteenth century the copyright—and thus monopoly—of Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the printer Jacob Tonson. In 1709 a copyright act was passed by Parliament to end eternal copyrights; all new copyrights would expire after fourteen years. To protect their monopoly, the Tonson family issued a continuous succession of editions prepared by new editors, claiming that the new editorial apparatus of each—the introductions and commentary—conferred a fourteen-year copyright not just on the new material but to the original plays as well. The Tonson family were responsible for all the great eighteenth century editions of Shakespeare’s plays: Rowe’s, Pope’s, Theobald’s, Warburton’s, Johnson’s, and Capell’s. They held onto their Shakespeare monopoly until 1772, when their direct line died out.
In 1727, Theobald was in the midst of a bid to be the Tonsons’ next Shakespeare editor, a lucrative job to have. Alexander Pope, the famous poet, satirist, and translator, had published his Shakespeare edition in 1725, one of a line of poets who claimed the authority and privilege to interpret Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s edition is famous for demoting lines he didn’t like to small print at the bottom of the page. In 1726, Theobald had earned Pope’s eternal enmity by publishing Shakespeare Restor’d, exposing the many errors in Pope’s Hamlet. Theobald, with access to early editions of the plays and knowledge of secretary hand, the style of handwriting used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was the first to bring standards of classical and biblical scholarship to the study of Shakespeare. Shakespeare Restor’d was Theobald’s application for his own chance to edit Shakespeare’s plays. Hammond considers Theobald’s adaptation of Double Falsehood in 1727 to be part of this campaign. It worked: Theobald’s own edition—which did not include Double Falsehood, since the Tonsons controlled the table of contents to preserve their copyright—appeared in 1733.
But in the meantime Pope had censured Theobald as the mock-hero of The Dunciad—Pope’s famous satire celebrating Dullness, published in 1728—and had suggested that Double Falsehood might be a forgery. In the end, though Theobald replaced him as editor, Pope emerged as the real winner: later generations remembered the “piddling Tibbald” of The Dunciad and not the accomplished editor of Shakespeare’s plays. Pope’s claim that Double Falsehood was little more than an interesting forgery has been long unchallenged.
Theobald’s three Cardenio manuscripts disappeared. They were rumored to be held by the Covent Garden Theatre—perhaps purchased for the revival of Double Falsehood by David Garrick in 1770—but that theater burned down in 1808. Or they might have been purchased from Theobald’s estate sale by the critic William Warburton, who left a pile of manuscripts sitting on his kitchen table. His cook assumed they were garbage and used the paper to line pie tins. But Theobald’s adaptation went through three editions in quick order, and many copies of Double Falsehood have survived to the present day.
Finding Cardenio has been something of a cottage industry among Shakespeare scholars recently, with both Stephen Greenblatt and Gary Taylor “writing” Cardenio again, Taylor attempting something like facilitated communication to do so. But unless a manuscript of Cardenio—not baked into a pie after all—is found, Hammond’s edition is the closest we can get to a new Shakespeare play. If Double Falsehood is Cardenio—and Hammond shows almost beyond doubt that it is—it is Cardenio as adapted by Davenant as adapted by Theobald, a play lost and yet, tantalizingly, not.
Bonus Link: Ron Rosenbaum dissents at Slate.
Based on a True Story, Hesh Kestin’s collection of fiction set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII, was recently chosen one of the ten best books of 2008 by the Kansas City Star. Writing in Perigee, Duff Brenna called it “opulent,” “heartbreaking” and “masterful,” and Cheri Parker in The Lit Life termed the novellas “hip in a manly, intellectual way.” According to Linda Rodriguez in the KC Star, “These three superb novellas by a former foreign correspondent are some of the best short fiction this reviewer has seen in years.” Kestin was European bureau chief of Forbes, covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and a war reporter for Newsday, the Middle East Times and the Jerusalem Post. Based on a True Story, Kestin’s first book of fiction, is published by Dzanc.For years I’ve had the extreme displeasure of throwing new fiction across the room and seeing it fall apart. Launched just right, the spine splits and signatures or – if they’re paperbacks – pages shake out like, well, like bad fiction: unconnected, insubstantial, rank. Most new writing suffers from what can only be called peanuts envy, a wish to emulate the classic New Yorker story about uninteresting people with irritating little problems doing little or nothing about them but bumping into similarly boring people doing, if possible, less – and all of it slowly.Awed by such smalliloquence, the MFA mills early on began turning out robotic imitators themselves turning out a pasteurized cross between the New Yorker story and what Hollywood calls “meeting cute” – any boffo first paragraph will do. With few exceptions it’s downhill from there. Not that there’s any there there. It’s unlikely there can be. Why?Most people writing fiction today have never done anything but write fiction. Sure, it worked for Scott Fitzgerald, but he was an empathic genius who was able to create great characters effortlessly carrying upon their backs great themes. Great writers need great themes, the normal genesis of which is in the writer’s own experience. Alas, thanks to universal college education, contemporary novelists have no experience other than being students and then – surprise! – teachers. Swathed in the classroom, they rarely know even what they don’t know.Which is why this year I found myself privileged to read once again (for the fourth time since age sixteen) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence, he of Arabia. Yep, a really good movie, but – as with the Bible – you really should read the book.Ostensibly a history of the British-directed Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, in it Lawrence layers upon a lucid history and disturbing memoir enough fiction to bury the Iowa Writers Program in Sinai sand. It is without question a masterpiece, crossing categories and blurring characterization with a perfect pitch not heard in English since Shakespeare or Twain or Auden. A natural-born liar – many of his facts aren’t – Lawrence claims to have written the book thrice, having lost earlier drafts, once in a railway station. If so, this may be the best proof ever that it pays to rewrite from scratch.Certainly it is proof that to make a great story you must have a great theme. Try this one for size: One man steps out alone into a hostile environment, befriends aliens, becomes one of them – “There seemed a certainty in degradation” is one of the book’s many great lines – before being defeated by the same night he had hoped to light. If this sounds like Heart of Darkness, you’re right. Arguably it is also the theme of The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises and Hamlet.And the writing!Seven Pillars (the title is taken, with no irony, from that of an earlier book, abandoned) makes of English a language of pure romance, full of such subtle sound and glottal fury that reading it aloud is like playing the cello really well. Yet not all the high-flying fluency in the world would have helped Lawrence if his book had been about adultery in the English department, or filial disappointment, or immigrant confusion. Pay attention: The man set out alone to conquer Arabia – note to Washington: including Iraq – and did it. Of course if the people who got us in the Iraqmire had read Seven Pillars they wouldn’t have been so much as tempted, but unfortunately our universities turn out writers, not readers. What Isaac Babel liked to say about being a writer goes as well for a president: “You must know everything.”Writers must first live, must know people who do more than sit next to them in a fiction workshop, and they must come to terms with the sanctity of creation. Yeah, it’s nice to create a phrase – but it’s magnificent to create a world. Lawrence created a universe.Of course I’m partial to Lawrence for another reason. One sentence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom got me through twenty years in the Middle East – most of them dealing [as a journalist principally] with Arabs. As Lawrence put it: “In the East they swore that by three sides is the decent way across a square.”How right he was, and is.History, memoir, fantasy all in one, Seven Pillars is in its sum greater than all three, and reason enough to limit my reading of contemporary fiction to those books that actually endeavor to be great. Lawrence failed to unite the Arabs, but his attempt was at greatness. In the end I’ll pick up more new fiction. Perhaps I’ll read some through to the end. Possibly I’ll find the gem, tomorrow’s classic. Greatness is not limited to the past. One must have hope. And a decent throwing arm.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I’ve attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I’ve been putting up. And I’m prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I’ve touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it’s possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream left me wondering, though… are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I’d managed to forget. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact,” Duke Theseus theorizes. “Be as thou wast wont to be,” Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. “See as thou wast wont to see.” On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess – part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play’s disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief’s Romeo and Juliet (this summer’s other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one’s will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief’s decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan’s rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief’s, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller’s excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music… while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard’s magic with its own, however, I’d just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn’t mean I’d ever pass up tickets to any live performance… provided someone else is buying.