Posts Tagged ‘William Shakespeare’
At once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.
—John Keats, in a letter to George and Thomas Keats
I don’t think there’s a more powerful moment in all of rock music than the transition between the two halves of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For three minutes, we’ve been living near the heart of a man’s romantic and sexual agony: the critic Dave Marsh calls it one of those rare songs in which “a singer or writer has reached so deeply into himself that the effect of hearing them is akin to witnessing a murder or a suicide.” Then there’s a trailing off, a pause, and we’re launched into Jim Gordon’s transcendent piano coda, which takes over the rest of the track and leads us triumphantly to the end. It’s unclear how the two halves are meant to relate, or whether the coda is the sound of love fulfilled or abandoned, but the juxtaposition of the two movements creates an effect that is far more profound than either of them taken separately. The result is a song that has obsessed me—and so many others—from the moment I first heard it, to the point where I’ve written much of my current novel with “Layla” playing in the background.
This sort of synergy, in which two seemingly unrelated components are set side by side to create a larger whole, is such a powerful artistic tool that it deserves special consideration. Some of the most memorable pop songs ever written, from “Hey Jude” to “Dry the Rain,” consist of two contrasting halves joined together in a way that only seems more mysterious with time. In many cases, the pieces weren’t originally meant to go together at all: the piano coda to “Layla” was composed as a separate piece, and was joined to the first half—which had already been written and recorded—when Clapton happened to hear Gordon playing it in the studio one day. These sorts of decisions may seem like serendipity, but they’re really an expression of craft on a deeper level: I suspect that Clapton intuitively sensed that the song was incomplete without some form of resolution, and that he seized on the coda as the missing piece he needed, precisely because it seemed like a dispatch from a different world entirely.
We see this effect in other forms of art as well. I mentioned recently that many of Shakespeare’s most resonant plots—from The Merchant of Venice to King Lear—arise from the combination or juxtaposition of two previously unrelated storylines. There’s no better example of this than The Winter’s Tale, the most beautiful and mysterious of the late romances, which moves from a tragedy of sexual jealousy in Sicily to the gentlest of pastoral comedies in Bohemia. (It’s a transition that may work better on the page than in performance: the production I saw several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed by Sam Mendes, did a fine job with the tormented first half, but turned the second half into an aimless hootenanny. As usual, comedy is harder to stage than tragedy, and this is never more clear than when one follows right after the other.) On a more calculated level, we find a similar transition halfway through Psycho: I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get a chill when I first glimpse the sign of the Bates Motel through the rain, which reminds me of which movie I’m really watching.
On one level, the impact of such juxtapositions is easy to explain: creativity, as Arthur Koestler points out in The Act of Creation, is about combinations, and when two contrasting pieces are set side by side, it’s no surprise that elements of the first half can bring out unsuspected qualities of the other. (You often see this in visual art, which has long been familiar with the power of the diptych.) But that doesn’t tell us why the pieces can vibrate so memorably in certain cases, while in others they just tend to lie there—or why two unrelated pieces are so much more effective than three, even as the rule of three works so powerfully in other contexts. A work of three parts, with its tidy tripod of effects, can come across as a piece of artistic calculation, or like the three stages of an argument, while two implies something deeper. There’s no better example than Chungking Express, with its two parallel stories of policemen in love: Wong Kar-Wai originally planned to tell three, but only had time for two, an accident for which we can all be profoundly grateful. Three stories would have come across as a narrative device, while two seem like life itself, and like the coda for “Layla,” it feels as if it could go on and on.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had an experience like this. You’re at a party, making small talk about what you do for a living, when a bystander pipes up: “You know, my friends always tell me I should be a writer. I’m always coming up with great ideas for stories.” At that point, if you’re lucky, you can nod politely and move on to another subject, but some writers aren’t so fortunate. Isaac Asimov complained that he’d frequently be approached by strangers at events or conventions who gave him some version of the following pitch: “I’ve got an idea for a bestselling novel. If you like, I can give it to you to write, and we can split the profits.” His response was usually something like this: “I’ll tell you what: I’ve got a better plan. I’ll come up with an idea, and you write the book.” According to Asimov, no one ever took him up on the offer. And although it’s easy to smile at this, it gets at a common misconception about fiction—and about what writers do—that clouds the way many readers regard even our greatest authors.
Ideas are the easy part. Give me a few hours and a stack of magazines, and I can come up with half a dozen perfectly legitimate ideas for short stories. Not all of them will be turn out to be viable, but they’ll all look equally plausible, and some of them may even get published. There’s a reason, though, that I write maybe two short stories a year at most, and it isn’t just an issue of time. Coming up with an idea is child’s play compared to the laborious work of constructing a plot and peopling it with convincing characters, a process that can feel less like the result of inspiration than an excursion into no-man’s land, in which a gain of ten inches can pass for a victory. I’m as guilty as anyone of stumbling across an interesting idea, thinking that it would make a great movie, and then promptly forgetting all about it, but I know better than to try to tell this to someone who actually writes and sells screenplays. Ideas are cheap; execution is what counts, and it’s what separates a true writer from a spinner of daydreams.
We all know this, of course, but conflating ideas with the resulting stories is a mistake that you see even among professional critics and academics. It’s a critical commonplace, for instance, that Shakespeare wasn’t much of a plotmaker, since he lifted his basic ideas from existing stories and historical texts. It’s tempting to buy into this argument, since it helps restore a god of poetry to more human dimensions, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. A glance at the primary sources of Hamlet or King Lear reveals how inventive Shakespeare really was: he often takes as inspiration only a sentence or two from a much longer work—something like the logline of a screenplay—and transforms even this gossamer premise beyond recognition. Nearly every scene in Hamlet is an original invention, as is the double plot of King Lear, to say nothing of such crowded, ingenious original stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline. (Shakespeare’s Game by the playwright William Gibson, which I just finished reading, does a nice job of reminding us how artful the construction of the plays really is.)
Shakespeare, in short, was as good at plot as he was at everything else, and diminishing his achievement simply because the bare bones of the story were already there is to deeply misunderstand what a writer does. (It’s interesting to note that many of Shakespeare’s cleverest plots, like The Merchant of Venice, arise from a fusion of one or more existing stories. Here, as in almost everything, creativity arises from combination.) It’s one thing to lift a few incidents from Holinshed, and quite another to create Falstaff. And while it may seem that Shakespeare, of all writers, doesn’t require defending, there’s no better place to draw the line between idea and story, if only because he provides other writers with such a sensational model to follow. As T.S. Eliot points out, it can be dangerous to imitate Shakespeare’s style, but in the tactical elaboration of his ideas into character and action—in which we catch him thinking in a way that we can’t in his poetry—he’s practical and instructive. Taking ideas and turning them into something more is exactly what professional writers do, and Shakespeare, along with so much else, was the ultimate professional.
When I affirm that more can be learned about how to write poetry from Dante than from any English poet, I do not at all mean that Dante’s way is the only right way, or that Dante is thereby greater than Shakespeare, or, indeed, any other English poet. I put my meaning into other words by saying that Dante can do less harm to any one trying to learn to write verse than can Shakespeare. Most great English poets are inimitable in a way in which Dante was not. If you try to imitate Shakespeare you will certainly produce a series of stilted, forced, and violent distortions of language. The language of each great English poet is his own language; the language of Dante is the perfection of a common language. In a sense, it is more pedestrian than that of Dryden or Pope. If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.
This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.
This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”
Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”
In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.
I confess myself utterly ignorant what the Grand Style is. It comes sometimes, as it were, “promiscuously” in the vulgar sense of that term. It would, for instance, be exceedingly difficult for the most expert, or the most futile, ingenuity of the commentator to assign an exact reason for the occurrence, where it occurs, of what is perhaps the grandest example of the Grand Style in all literature—the words of Prospero to Ferdinand, when the revels are ended. An excuse is wanted to break off the pretty “vanity of his art”; to get rid of the lovers; and to punish, in defeating it, the intentionally murderous but practically idle plot of Caliban and his mates. Anything would do; and the actual pretext is anything or nothing. But Shakespeare chooses to accompany it with a “criticism of life”—and of more than life—so all-embracing, couched in expression of such magnificence, that one knows not where to look for its like as form and matter combined. An ordinary man, if, per impossible, he could have written it, would have put it at the end; an extraordinary one might have substituted it for, or added it to, the more definite announcement of abdication and change which now comes later with “Ye elves,” etc. Shakespeare puts it here.
—George Saintsbury, Collected Essays
Done, as a certain social media company likes to remind us, is better than perfect. Not everything we do can be flawless in every respect, and in many cases, it’s better to take shortcuts where possible in order to focus on what really matters. Yesterday, I quoted the historian Arnold Hauser on the pragmatism of Shakespeare, who took certain creative approaches “only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.” This Olympian ability to zero in on what counts, rather than becoming distracted by side issues, simply magnifies one of the qualities that we find in nearly all great popular writers: the willingness to use a shortcut, or even blatant sleight of hand, to get from one point in a story to another, and the understanding that such measures not only don’t detract from the quality of the work, but may even add to its richness and unpredictability.
One obvious example is the use of stock characters, which remain as useful today as they did in Shakespeare’s time. Stereotypes have no place among one’s leads, of course, but it’s hard to think of a complex work of art, from the Iliad to Downton Abbey, that doesn’t rely, to some extent, on stock types to people its world. For one thing, it saves time. Here’s Roger Ebert on The Godfather:
Although The Godfather is a long, minutely detailed movie of some three hours, there naturally isn’t time to go into the backgrounds and identities of [all the] characters…Coppola and producer Al Ruddy skirt this problem with understated typecasting. As the Irish cop, for example, they simply slide in Sterling Hayden and let the character go about his business.
Every writer sometimes finds it necessary, when pressed for time, to let a stock character go about his business without further introduction. And while most of us don’t have the chance to “simply slide in Sterling Hayden“—if only we could!—there’s no reason to feel guilty about using stock types in small parts. If anything, a fully rounded character in an insignificant part can be a flaw in the narrative: if we mention that the clerk at the hotel where the hero is staying is named Bill, for instance, this sets up an expectation in the reader’s mind that Bill will return in some significant way. If he doesn’t, it’s an unnecessary distraction, when an anonymous clerk would simply have been accepted as part of the fabric of the story.
The same rule holds for many of those clichés or conventions that can annoy attentive readers, as chronicled exhaustively on TV Tropes. We all have our own private list of the amusing ways in which fiction diverges from reality: the fact that the hero can always find a parking space, for instance, or inevitably has the correct change for a taxi. As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, however, all these conventions have something in common: they’re all about speed. They save time. And they allow the story to get on with it, gliding past what isn’t important to focus on what is. And although such shortcuts may irritate nitpickers after the fact, if we’re caught up in the story, we don’t care. Once again, it’s about knowing what matters, as in editor Walter Murch’s famous Rule of Six, in which everything from continuity to visual logic is subordinated to the emotion of the moment. Because emotion is the one place where shortcuts can’t be taken.
And if the emotional aspects of a story are sound, the remaining shortcuts can create pockets of space for the reader’s imagination to explore. This is true of nearly all great works of art, which, on closer examination, resemble Citizen Kane, which evokes the vast spaces of Xanadu with a bare set, lighting, and a few simple props, and in the process creates a place that feels much more real to us than all the lavishly detailed sets of Cleopatra. In a similar way, Conan Doyle manifestly didn’t care about the continuity of small details in the Sherlock Holmes stories, like the location of Watson’s wound, which only allowed his readers to furnish the rest of the world on their own. A work of art in which every detail has been determined by the writer, if it sees the light of day at all, will often seem airless and uninviting. But if the writer takes the right kind of shortcuts, not only will he reach his own destination, but the reader will come along for the ride.
Intuition is getting a bad rap these days. As both the book and movie of Moneyball have made clear, the intuition of baseball scouts is about as useful as random chance, and the same might be said of stock pickers, political pundits, and all other supposed sources of insight whose usefulness is rarely put to a rigorous test. Intuition, it seems, is really just another word for blind guessing, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. The recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, goes even further, providing countless illustrations of how misleading our intuition can be, and how easily it can be distracted by irrelevant factors. (For example, something as simple as rolling a certain number on a rigged roulette wheel can influence our estimates of, say, how many African countries are in the United Nations. Don’t ask me how or why, but Kahneman’s data speaks for itself.)
And yet it’s hard to give up on intuition entirely. For one thing, it’s faster. I believe it was Julian Jaynes who pointed out that intuition is really just another word for the acceleration of experience: after we’ve been forced to make decisions under similar circumstances a certain number of times, the intermediate logic falls away, and we’re left with what feels like an intuitive response. Play it in slow motion, and all the steps are still there, in infinitesimal form. This kind of intuition strikes me as essentially different from the sort debunked above, and it’s especially useful in the arts, when no amount of statistical analysis can take the place of the small, mysterious judgment calls that every artist makes on a daily basis. In writing, as in everything else, the fundamentals of craft are acquired with difficulty, then gradually internalized, freeing the writer’s conscious mind to deal with unique problems while intuition takes care of the rest. And without such intuitive shortcuts, a long, complex project like a novel would take forever to complete.
Every artist develops this sort of intuition sooner or later, making it possible to skip such intermediate steps. As I’ve noted before, Robert Graves has described it as proleptic or “slantwise” thinking, a form of logic that goes from A to C without pausing for B. All great creative artists have this faculty, and the greater the artist, the more pronounced it becomes. One of the most compelling descriptions of poetic intuition I’ve ever seen comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in a brief aside about Shakespeare. Gardner points to the fact that in Hamlet, the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation, a detail that strikes some readers as inconsistent. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” Fair enough. But then Gardner continues:
But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.
That intuition, “sudden as lightning,” is what every writer hopes to develop. And while none of us have it to the extent that Shakespeare did, it’s always satisfying to see it flash forth, even in a modest way. Earlier this week, while reading through the final version of City of Exiles, I noticed a place where the momentum of the story seemed to flag. I made a note of this, then moved on. Later that day, I was working on something else entirely when I suddenly realized how to fix the problem, which was just a matter of eliminating or tightening a couple of paragraphs. After making these changes, I read the chapter over again, but this was almost a formality: I knew the revisions would work. There’s no way of objectively measuring this, of course, and there were probably other approaches that would have worked as well or better. But intuition provided one possible solution when I needed it. And without many such moments, right or wrong, I’d never finish a novel at all.
[Shakespeare] was master of the revels to mankind…As long as the question is of talent and mental power, the world of men has not his equal to show. But when the question is, to life and its materials and its auxiliaries, how does he profit me?…Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but this man, in wide contrast. Had he been less, had he reached only the common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes, we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate: but that this man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs forward into Chaos,—that he should not be wise for himself;—it must even go into the world’s history that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.
Today the AV Club tackles an issue that is very close to my own heart: to what extent can we enjoy art that contradicts our own moral beliefs? The ensuing discussion spans a wide range of works, from Gone With the Wind to the films of Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson, but I’m most intrigued by an unspoken implication: that morally problematic works of art are often more interesting, and powerful, than those that merely confirm our existing points of view. When our moral convictions are challenged, it seems, it can yield the same sort of pleasurable dissonance that we get from works that subvert our aesthetic assumptions. The result can be great art, or at least great entertainment.
For me, the quintessential example is 24, a show that I loved for a long time, until it declined precipitously after the end of the fifth season. Before then, it was the best dramatic series on television, and its reactionary politics were inseparable from its appeal. Granted, the show’s politics were more about process than result—nearly every season ended with the exposure of a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if it was inevitably uncovered through massive violations of due process and civil rights—and it seems that the majority of the show’s writers and producers, aside from its creator, were politically liberal to moderate. Still, the question remains: how did they end up writing eight seasons’ worth of stories that routinely endorsed the use of torture?
The answer, I think, is that the writers were remaining true to the rules that the show had established: in a series where the American public is constantly in danger, and where the real-time structure of the show itself rules out the possibility of extended investigations—or even interrogations that last more than five minutes—it’s easier and more efficient to show your characters using torture to uncover information. The logic of torture on 24 wasn’t political, but dramatic. And while we might well debate the consequences of this portrayal on behavior in the real world, there’s no denying that it resulted in compelling television, at least for the first five seasons.
The lesson here, as problematic as it might seem, is that art needs to follow its own premises to their logical conclusion, even if the result takes us into dangerous places. (As Harold Bloom likes to point out, reading Shakespeare will not turn us into better citizens.) And this is merely the flip side of another crucial point, which is that works of art knowingly designed to endorse a particular philosophy are usually awful, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. At worst, such works are nothing but propaganda; and even at their best, they seem calculated and artificial, rather than honestly derived, however unwillingly, from the author’s own experience. As usual, John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says it better than I can:
The question, to pose it one last way, is this: Can an argument manipulated from the start by the writer have the same emotional and intellectual power as an argument to which the writer is forced by his intuition of how life works? Comparisons are odious but instructive: Can a Gulliver’s Travels, however brilliantly executed, ever touch the hem of the garment of a play like King Lear? Or: Why is the Aeneid so markedly inferior to the Iliad?
In my own work, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to deliberately construct a story that contradicts my own beliefs and see where it leads me from there. My novelette “The Last Resort” (Analog, September 2009) is designed to imply sympathy, or even complicity, with ecoterrorism, which certainly goes against my own inclinations. And I’m in the middle of outlining a novel in which the main character is a doubting Mormon whose experiences, at least as I currently conceive the story, actually lead her to become more devout. This sort of thing is harder than writing stories that justify what I already believe, but that’s part of the point. In writing, if not in life, it’s often more useful to do things the hard way.