Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.
The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.”
His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective – part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan.
He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.”
We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York.
Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to?
Teju Cole: Well, if you’re looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It’s just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there’s a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I’ve got three university degrees and they’re all in art history.
Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you’re looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people’s photographs.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don’t see.
TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you’re looking at, you’re missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn’t in pain. I just couldn’t see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn’t doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone.
SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic.
TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It’s something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography
SP: How so?
TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way.
SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs – of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack – these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see.
TC: That’s right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It’s just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It’s almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I’m not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we’ve had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting.
SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it?
TC: It’s getting closer. This aspect of my work — writing for the public and making images — has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I’ve understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that’s why Blind Spot is a book of text and images.
SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you’ve written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you’ve taken, sometimes you don’t. What’s the connection between text and image?
TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life — personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don’t have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre — a genre I was developing myself — the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there’s a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they’ve been through something strange and marvelous. It’s a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it’s none of those things because it’s actually just texts and images.
SP: What can text do and what can an image do?
TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you’re saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I’m doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens.
SP: And there’s a third thing you do. Often you’re not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you.
TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I’m very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in — not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot.
SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots?
TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There’s something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We’re not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that.
SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel.
TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I’ve only brought my small digital camera.
SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do?
TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what’s missing from this book is I don’t have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn’t take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia.
SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture?
TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture?
SP: You have to be more selective.
TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I’m not so happy-go-lucky anymore.
SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they’re always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you?
TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn’t take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly — maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I’m able to do both.
SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera?
TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I’m writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don’t want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy.
SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography?
TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait.
SP: Even though you rarely take portraits.
TC: I love strong portraits. I think it’s a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
SP: There’s one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here’s the entire text that accompanies that image:
She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don’t understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don’t want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.
There’s so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider.
TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there.
SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that’s where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America.
TC: Precisely. There’s a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you’re an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way.
SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you’re in the U.S.?
TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I’m an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it’s a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.”
SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision.
TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books.
SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form.
TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it’s supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It’s a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don’t know too much about me [laughs].
SP: There’s one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following.
TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much.
SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers.
TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what’s my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we’re doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we’re helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people’s hackles up a little bit.
SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing.
TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don’t push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don’t speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don’t really move. As we say, it’s the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there’s a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there.
SP: Are you still on Twitter?
TC: I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not tweeted in about three years.
SP: Why did you let it go?
TC: That’s exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration.
SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you?
TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir?
SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria?
TC: For 17 years.
SP: Why did you come back to America?
TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn’t mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice.
SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans?
TC: I did not. But I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I’m strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you’re not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I’m an American African but I’m also an African American.
SP: Wasn’t it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos?
TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn’t go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I’ve been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there.
SP: But you live in Brooklyn now.
TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S.
SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home?
TC: Yes. That’s where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that’s home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It’s where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos — Yoruba and English — are languages I’m fluent in. So there’s an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there’s good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.
SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American?
TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria’s future. There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I’m American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I’m a citizen who is not a patriot. I’m a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other’s rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money’s being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that’s my business. So I’m very American and I’m also very Nigerian.
SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities?
TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York — restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space.
SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York?
TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there’s that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa.
Don’t let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It’s possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It’s a city that’s a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now.
This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
1. Funny Walls
When I was at school, we had a teacher called Mr Wall. When he wasn’t listening, we’d tell this joke:
(Kid mimes holding a phone.)
‘Is Mr Wall there, please?’
‘Is Mrs Wall there, please?’
‘Are there any walls there?’
‘You’d better get out because the ceiling’s about to fall down.’
This is the only joke in existence about a wall. Because walls aren’t funny.
In literature, there’s also one single funny wall and it’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals, a set of poor players, put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tom Snout plays the wall that keeps the lovers apart.
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall.
The comic possibilities of someone pretending to be a wall were lost neither on William Shakespeare nor the many thousands of English teachers obliged to stage a version of the play.
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole, or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
As a schoolboy, I saw a production about which I remember nothing other than the Wall, as played by Snout, farting in the face of Pyramus, as played by Bottom (also funny). It was a light-bulb moment: maybe Shakespeare could be something other than a dead man teachers use to bore kids.
2. Scary Walls
Gothic writing, according to Angela Carter, “retains a singular moral function–that of provoking unease.” As the genre moved from the haunted ruins of Italian castles to more domestic settings, writers like Edgar Allan Poe employed bricks and mortar to do just this. A number of his stories rely on walls. Consider “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance. Montresor, a nasty sort, takes revenge on Fortunato for an unreported slight. The unfortunate Fortunato falls for the trick of being invited to a private wine-tasting ceremony (wouldn’t we all?), only to be first chained up and then walled away in the catacombs underneath Montresor’s palazzo. In “The Black Cat,” the protagonist’s wife, accidentally axed in the head, is walled up behind a house’s interior wall. In “The Tell Tale Heart,” it is beneath a floorboard, rather than behind a wall, that a corpse is hidden.
H.P. Lovecraft, the spiritual descendant of Poe, came up with “The Rats in the Walls,” a short story featuring rats in the walls of an ancestral home. The scurrying sound, enough to drive anyone to distraction, leads the protagonist to discover the entrance to a subterranean city in which his family have raised generations of human cattle. To eat. Unlike the character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is driven mad by what lies behind the walls, rather than what covers them.
In these examples, walls screen past indiscretions. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. They obscure dark history, but only for so long, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Walls in literature, as well as history, have a tendency to collapse.
3. Prison Walls
We may suppose that walls are erected to keep a threat, be that a metaphorical secret or a literal danger, apart and out of sight. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” it initially appears that the reverse is true. We’re introduced to a character of royal blood, Asterion. He tells us how he spends his days roaming the corridors of his infinite house. There are no locked doors, only endless passageways. His world is walls.
The story ends:
Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.
The house is the Labyrinth, Asterion is the Minotaur. His walls are those of a jail. The reader understands that it sucks to be the Minotaur, especially as he gets killed and, who knows, maybe he’s not so much of a monster after all but, as my father used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The Minotaur looks bad, after all.
Harvard University is transformed into a prison in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Prisons need walls, for, as in the story of the Minotaur, wardens tend to prefer prisoners on their side of the perimeter.
The Wall in Atwood’s story has “ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.” Not a structure you’d fancy climbing and mildly reminiscent of English lower league football stadia.
You don’t need to have studied high-school English to mark the significance of a university converted to a prison. Citizens of Gilead are forced to attend ritual viewings of the dissidents that are hanged on the Wall.
4. Office Walls
There’s a chance that you’ve spent at least a portion of your working life gazing blankly at an office wall. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby, the Wall Street worker who prefers not to, spends hours staring at a “dead” brick wall through his office window. The narrator describes these periods as “dead wall reveries.” When Bartleby is finally admitted to jail, he is found with “his face towards a high wall.”
Clearly, there’s something significant going on here. Bartleby begins the story walled off from his colleagues, his job the only thing with which he is able to form a connection. When even this fades, he stares at walls, symbols of urban separation in Melville’s story of capitalism’s forced individualism.
5. Biblical Walls
Let down by works of fiction, I look to The Bible because I remember that it’s full of good stories and also walls. The Walls of Jericho, felled by marching and horn blowing, is one of the most famous moments, found in Joshua 6:1–27.
Therefore he said unto Judah, Let us build these cities, and make about them walls, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us; because we have sought the Lord our God, we have sought him, and he hath given us rest on every side. So they built and prospered. (2 Chronicles 14:7)
God loves walls. At least, according to the Old Testament, he does. I’ve been to cathedrals with fantastic walls and it’s a sin to doubt His judgment. Yet, like the notion of eternal grace in a place called Heaven, I still feel this nagging doubt. The Old Testament, like the modern world, may contain walls, but it also contains smiting.
Franz Kafka wrote about walls, most famously castle walls and bedroom walls, but in “The Great Wall of China,” written in 1917 but not published until 1931, he describes an elderly mason looking back at the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall.
Each team of builders is allocated 500 meters of wall to build over five years. When finished, they are transferred to a different region to do the same again. As they journey to their new project, they see other sections of the wall, built by other teams. This proves, therefore, the success of the project, despite there being “gaps which have never been built in at all.”
The “invaders from the North,” against whom the wall is protecting China, never invade.
When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms.
It doesn’t matter, the construction occupies the people. And the building of the wall illustrates the power and wisdom of the Emperor, for such a huge undertaking cannot be anything but impressive.
Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
Fear of invasion, suggests Kafka, is a more powerful form of control than bricks and mortar.
7. Your Neighbor’s Wall
Robert Frost is no fan of walls. Or, at least, the poet-persona in “Mending Wall” isn’t. The verse describes a springtime meeting between neighbors, during which they repair the wall that divides their property. The speaker is happy for the structure to fall down.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence.
The neighbor isn’t persuaded. Described as “like an old-stone savage armed,” he “will not go behind his father’s saying:”
Good fences make good neighbors.
He builds a wall because we always build walls. There may be nothing to wall in or wall out, but that doesn’t matter: the wall is all.
Image courtesy of the author.
When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized — spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo.
I fear the silences.
The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud. Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around.
When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.”
He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different.
I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword.
Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect.
I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others — there are no “others” — but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way. Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is — the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless.
Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I’ll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017.
For spiritual fuel…I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women. And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference.
I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______.
And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I’ll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I’d put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists.
For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called “Acts of Faith.” Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them…and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy.
I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest.
To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now.
I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” — some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.”
Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy — but whatever! — I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs.
And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss — he’s lost a child, he’s lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her — something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
The Brontë Parsonage Museum lies in the remote Yorkshire village of Haworth, perched above vast, unpopulated moors. Arriving on a drizzly evening in late November, having changed trains several times and debarked in Keighley (pronounced KEITH-ley), I jounced over the narrow country streets in a bus, bleary with jet lag, until a grandmotherly woman nudged me to get off. The bus left me at the bottom of a high street so steep that its original pavers had installed the bricks short-end-up to give horses more traction. I lugged my suitcase up between the iron-grey stone and lath cottages lining the street. The Black Bull tavern appeared on my left, and an old-fashioned pharmacy with chickens scratching around its front door on my right. Once installed in my room at Weaver’s, a bed and breakfast over a low-ceilinged, hearth-warmed pub, I looked out the window. There before me was the parsonage, facing the famous graveyard and Rev. Brontë’s church. My breath caught in my chest. I was about 100 feet from the place where Charlotte Brontë — born 200 years ago today — lived, worked, and died.
Isolated in bucolic Haworth, the Brontës did not have society connections. Patrick Brontë moved the family to the remote Yorkshire village in 1820 when he became resident parish priest. Within five years, his wife, Maria, and his two oldest children, Maria and Elizabeth, were dead. In the parsonage, his four youngest children grew up with books and created their own magazines and illustrated sagas. By adulthood, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne had written seven novels and several volumes of poetry. Their brother Branwell painted and earned money by tutoring the children of local gentry.
The young artists had to forge their own connections. When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to poet laureate Robert Southey for feedback on her writing; Southey admitted she had ability but chided her: “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be.” Years later, after a half dozen rejections of her first manuscript The Professor, Charlotte penned Jane Eyre: An Autobiography “edited by Currer Bell” over the summer of 1847. When it came out that October, it was an overnight sensation, immediately drawing the admiration of William Makepeace Thackeray and the bombast of anti-feminists. Even before the pseudonym was unveiled, London literati were beside themselves over the question of authorship. In the Quarterly Review, Elizabeth Rigby rankled that the book could not have been written by a woman because Jane defies the essence of femininity and Christian piety; “and if by no woman, [the book] is certainly by no artist,” she added.
Between the novel’s publication and her death eight years later, Charlotte, surviving the loss of all three siblings in the space of eight months during 1848 to 1849, became a one-woman publicity agency. She visited London, met the already famous political economist Harriet Martineau, and entertained rising novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, a prime figure in a new subgenre of fiction, the Condition of England novel (to which Shirley also belongs). Gaskell would soon become Brontë’s posthumous biographer. When Life of Charlotte Brontë hit bookstores in 1857, devotees arrived in Haworth, peeping into the windows as Rev. Patrick Brontë ate his meals alone. So began a fiercely devoted fan culture that has only gained momentum over the past century and a half — with pilgrimages like mine and with a steady stream of literary tributes such as this year’s The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell, an example of biofiction distinctive to Brontëana.
I spent my first evening in Haworth walking around the parsonage’s lovely garden-bordered front yard, gazing at the strange churchyard with its gravestones laid flat, and admiring the cornflower blue clock-face. Behind it, the Yorkshire hills, green even in late November, sloped away and rose again in the distance, giving the impression that I was alone on a pinnacle in the middle of nowhere, England. The chilly air was still except for a rooster crowing. There was no sign or sound of life from this century. I scanned the upper windows of the parsonage, wondering which was Charlotte’s room.
The next day, Ann Dinsdale, collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, gave me a private tour. The four main rooms downstairs are preserved and have been recreated to appear as they were when Charlotte and her father occupied the house after Emily and Anne’s deaths. The parlor on the left sported red curtains and the round table at which the sisters wrote. Across the hall was Rev. Brontë’s study, and the kitchen where Emily and Anne would write diary papers every few years and where Emily would teach herself German while she waited for bread to rise. Behind the parlor was a converted pantry that Charlotte had renovated for her husband, her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. On the landing upstairs, the iconic portrait of the Brontë sisters by Branwell was displayed — a copy, Ms. Dinsdale told me. Behind the pigment that Branwell used to paint himself out of the group portrait, his face just faintly appeared. Upstairs were rooms occupied by Aunt Elizabeth Branwell, their mother’s sister, who came to raise the girls when Mrs. Brontë died.
In a narrow room between Aunt Branwell’s chamber and Rev. Brontë’s bedroom, young Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell fashioned themselves into authors and cultural critics. There they invented tales about imaginary kingdoms, Gondal and Angria, and produced minute, hand-sewn and -lettered booklets that parodied London magazines, complete with advertisements. Their juvenilia is full of military sagas, political drama, and romance — the result of their father’s unusual library containing volumes of racy poetry by Lord Byron, history books full of battles, and earnest political treatises. Rev. Brontë’s library was unusually cosmopolitan for a clergyman or indeed most literate households in the early-19th century. (Books were expensive and often limited to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible). This library, along with Patrick’s encouragement of his children’s art, music, and writing, may be the single greatest reason that the Brontë sisters became poets and novelists — along with the storytelling of their beloved servant Tabitha Aykroyd. According to Dinsdale, Tabitha would relate the village gossip and tell sordid tales that were not necessarily edited for children’s ears. Other than a brief stint at a school for clergymen’s daughters, they were educated at home in a provincial village of miners and wool workers.
But in order to become juvenile authors and the young women who crafted tales of insubordinate heroines and reckless heroes, they had to survive. On a shelf in a downstairs back room, Ms. Dindale pointed out a pair of cloth mules with platform soles; these were for protecting dainty shoes and low hemlines from the muck of the village streets. She didn’t elaborate, but offered a copy of a public health study conducted a few years before Charlotte died.
In 1850, the average life expectancy in Haworth was 25.8 years. Because it was a town “periodically visited by typhus fever,” in that year, Haworth commissioned a report by Benjamin H. Babbage. Babbage was an inspector in the new field of public health, which had gotten underway in London as a consequence of new scientific attention to urban slums and what middle-class Victorians perceived as the moral and physical degradation of the poor. Rev. Brontë assisted with Babbage’s investigation. The inspector found open sewage and water supply contamination plaguing Haworth. Between 1840 and 1847, the year Jane Eyre was published, 42 percent of children died before the age of six.
The mortality rate and life expectancy can be explained by Babbage’s findings, which he declared rivaled the poorest and sickliest neighborhoods of London. One detail from his report speaks volumes about the need for platform shoes. He describes a public privy perched over the highest part of the main street:
The cesspit of this privy lies below it, and opens by a small door into the main street; occasionally this door is burst open by the superincumbent weight of night soil and ashes, and they overflow into the public street, and at all times a disgusting effluvium escapes through this door into the street. Within two yards of this cesspit door there is a tap for a supply of water to the neighboring houses.
More privies like these were ranged along the main street. Additionally, behind many houses were midden steads — 73 in all — containing household garbage, human waste, and pig manure in piles that seeped through walls and even covered the low roofs of houses built into the slopes. Looking at the platform shoes, my mind formed an image of Charlotte, whose small frame had materialized for me in the petite summer dress on display upstairs, walking over streams of sewage. I also realized that my impression of having been teleported to Charlotte’s time on the still night before, with misty fresh air and a cock crowing somewhere, was delusional. To live in Haworth during her time would have made anyone from the 21st century chronically nauseated.
Rev. Brontë visited the multitudes of sick parishioners during outbreaks of typhus and officiated at countless funerals. He had been interested in medicine before entering divinity school and remained an amateur scholar of medicine and a keen observer of his family’s health for the rest of their lives. After his wife and older daughters died, he kept his remaining children at home, but his vigilance could not save them; all four died of tuberculosis, another scourge of the era.
Branwell died first, at age 31, after a long battle with morphine and alcohol, becoming so inebriated that Rev. Brontë kept him in his own bed at night for fear that Branwell would set the house on fire. Anne would write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as a cautionary tale about a husband’s alcoholism; there are also traces of Branwell in Heathcliff and Rochester. Emily died next, age 29, at home, without medical attention in accordance with her preference. Anne died next; she was sent to recuperate, on her father’s scanty salary, to oceanside Scarborough, but died there; she is the only sibling buried away from the chapel in Haworth. All four of the younger Brontë children lived past the average age of 25.8 years, though not by much.
Looking into the parlor as Ms. Dinsdale pointed out the round table where the sisters wrote, we then turned to a black horsehair sofa upon which Emily had expired. Tuberculosis is a lung disease that causes wasting; before antibiotics, “consumptives” essentially drowned in sputum and blood. I stared in awe and grief at Emily’s severe-looking sofa, just feet away from the vital table around which the sisters had paced as they read their days’ work to one other.
When Charlotte was his last remaining child, Rev. Brontë renovated the parsonage roof, thinking that the dampness in its lathes could be the source of his children’s fatal illnesses. He also monitored Charlotte very closely. Already showing symptoms of decline, she was attended by a local surgeon who diagnosed inflammation of the liver. Charlotte complained in a letter to her best friend, “part of this sickness is owing to his medicine.” She was correct; Dr. William Ruddock gave her mercury pills, still the mainstay of allopathic medication. “Salivating” and “purging” a patient were believed to carry illness out of the body by increasing the release of fluids produced naturally during sickness.
This late continuation of humoral theory was competing with newer ideas, such as those of her father’s home medical manual Graham’s Domestic Medicine. Thomas J. Graham put more stock in regulating the bowels, and Rev. Brontë, keeping up with developments in medicine, did too. In the margins, he carefully documented his own observations and evidence from other authors about the healthy frequency of solid and liquid elimination. In her last novel, Villette, Charlotte made her heroine’s first, failed love interest a cardboard character named John Graham Bretton. Struggling to write the book between 1851 and 1852, Charlotte was reeling from her siblings’ deaths and an episode of what seems to be a lifelong propensity to major depression, plus the debilitating mercury treatments. The whole tale of Lucy Snowe is an illness and grief narrative, wrought in stunning intertextual allusions and even richer wordplay than Jane Eyre. Not surprisingly, Dr. John cannot cure Lucy’s hypochondria (used in its literal sense, “poor health,” in this era) because he believes her nightmares and anxiety are caused by constipation. In frustration, Lucy declares, “Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” and finds a new love interest.
Despite her father’s solicitousness, Charlotte succumbed to her illness in 1855. Rev. Brontë died in 1861, aged 84, somehow eluding the tuberculosis that had claimed his entire family and the typhus that killed his parishioners. His belongings, including his children’s manuscripts, scattered (they brought especially high prices in the U.S.) but thanks to the Brontë Society some decades later, they began to make their way back to Haworth.
Cousins of family servant Martha Brown opened the first museum. In rooms above a Haworth bank, they displayed items that had been donated, loaned, or purchased by the new Society. In 1928, the parsonage went up for sale and Sir James Roberts, a local textile tycoon who had known the family, purchased and donated it to the Society. That August, thousands of people in cloche hats and fedoras crammed the narrow village streets to witness the opening.
Since then, the Society, the mission of which is to “promote the Brontës’ literary legacy within contemporary society” and to purchase and collect Brontëana, has brought hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world, making the remote parsonage second only to William Shakespeare’s museum in Stratford-upon-Avon. This cultivation of the legacy is rooted in arts and programming, but it is also anchored in 150 years of recalling back to the parsonage every artifact of the Brontës’ short lives so that fans and scholars can imagine the sisters’ lives in Haworth.
On my own pilgrimage, I was unexpectedly and utterly enthralled by the physical traces of Charlotte and her siblings — a curl of Charlotte’s hair, blond and auburn, tucked into a tiny, black-edged mourning envelope looked as if it had been cut that morning; her diminutive dress and shoes; the large metal collar of Emily’s beloved dog Keeper, who attended her funeral in the church; paint boxes and sewing kits; and even their father’s carefully annotated home medical manual all struck me with their intimacy.
Quietly reveling among these homely objects, the wild gothic expressions of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seemed to me extraordinary to have emanated from the unconnected daughters of a clergyman in a remote village above the sheep-dotted Yorkshire hills. Yet these moors, repurposed into the home of Cathy and Heathcliff and the refuge of Jane Eyre escaping Rochester’s tyranny, were the healthiest alternative to Haworth itself in the insalubrious days before indoor plumbing and germ theory. The fresh, sweet scent of heather would have smelled heavenly in that malodorous age.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
“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.