Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harold Bloom

Reading the rocks

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“[Our] ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity,” the geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. In an excerpt that appeared last week on Nautilus, Bjornerud makes a case for geology as a way of seeing that I find poetic and compelling:

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry—the geologic timescale. This “map” of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made.

This is a lovely passage in itself, but I was equally struck by how it resembles the arguments that are often advanced in defense of the great books. One of that movement’s favorite talking points is the notion of “The Great Conversation,” or the idea that canonical books and authors aren’t dead or antiquated, but engaged in a vital dialogue between themselves and the present. And its defenders frequently make their case in terms much like those that Bjornerud employs. In the book The Great Conversation, which serves as the opening volume of Great Books of the Western World, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins writes: “This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples.” And the justifications presented for the two fields are similar as well. As Bjornerud’s subtitle indicates, she suggests that a greater awareness of geologic timescales can serve as a way for us to address the problems of our own era, while Hutchins uses language that has a contemporary ring:

We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could.

“We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now,” Hutchins concludes. Bjornerud sounds much the same when she speaks on behalf of geology, sounding a dire warning against “temporal illiteracy,” which leads us to ignore our own impact on environmental processes in the present. In both cases, a seemingly static body of knowledge is reimagined as timely and urgent. I’ve spent much of my life in service to this notion, in one way or another, and I badly want to believe it. Yet I sometimes have my doubts. The great books have been central to my thinking for decades, and their proponents tend to praise their role in building cultural and civic awareness, but the truth isn’t quite that simple. As Harold Bloom memorably points out in The Western Canon: “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” And a few pages later, he makes a case that strikes me as more convincing than anything that Hutchins says:

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue…The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own…If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Bjornerud’s argument, I suspect that the same might hold true if we turn to geology for lessons about time. Good science, like great literature, is morally neutral, and we run into trouble when we ask it to stand for anything but itself. (Bjornerud notes in passing that many geologists are employed by petroleum companies, which doesn’t help her case that access to knowledge about the “deep, rich, grand geologic story” of our planet will lead to a better sense of environmental stewardship.) And this line of argument has a way of highlighting a field’s supposed relevance at the moments when it seems most endangered. The humanities have long fought against the possibility, as Bloom dryly puts it, that “our English and other literature departments [will] shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments,” and Bjornerud is equally concerned for geology:

Lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society…The perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives.

When a field seems threatened, it’s tempting to make it seem urgently necessary. I’ve done plenty of this sort of thing myself, and I hope that it works. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Bjornerud’s “timefulness” has exactly the same practical value as the virtue that Bloom attributes to books, which is priceless enough: “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

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September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

From Venice to Yale

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In a recent issue of The New Yorker, the scholar Stephen Greenblatt offers an insightful consideration of a Shakespearean comedy toward which he—like most of us—can hardly help having mixed feelings: “There is something very strange about experiencing The Merchant of Venice when you are somehow imaginatively implicated in the character and actions of its villain.” After recalling his uncomfortable experience as a Jewish undergraduate at Yale in the sixties, Greenblatt provides a beautiful summation of the pragmatic solution at which he arrived:

I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright…I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch. Prowling the stacks of Yale’s vast library, I sometimes felt giddy with excitement. I had a right to all of it, or, at least, to as much of it as I could seize and chew upon. And the same was true of everyone else.

Greenblatt, of course, went on to become one of our most valuable literary critics, and his evaluation of The Merchant of Venice is among the best I’ve seen: “If Shylock had behaved himself and remained a mere comic foil…there would have been no disturbance. But Shakespeare conferred too much energy on his Jewish usurer for the boundaries of native and alien, us and them, to remain intact…He did so not by creating a lovable alien—his Jew is a villain who connives at legal murder—but by giving Shylock more theatrical vitality, quite simply more urgent, compelling life, than anyone else in his world has.”

I’ve spent more time thinking about The Merchant of Venice than all but a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, precisely because of the “excess of life” that Greenblatt sees in Shylock, which is at its most impressive in a context where it has no business existing at all. Elsewhere, I’ve argued that Shakespeare’s genius is most visible when you compare him to his sources, which he transforms so completely that it destroys the notion that he was an opportunist who simply borrowed most of his plots. The Merchant of Venice is unique because its models are somehow right there on stage, existing simultaneously with the text, since we can hardly watch it and be unaware of the contrast between the antisemitic caricature of the original and Shylock’s uncanny power. Harold Bloom captures this quality in an extraordinary passage from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed…If I were a director, I would instruct my Shylock to act like a hallucinatory bogeyman, a walking nightmare flamboyant with a big false nose and a bright red wig, that is to say, to look like Marlowe’s Barabas. We can imagine the surrealistic effect of such a figure when he begins to speak with the nervous intensity, the realistic energy of Shylock, who is so much of a personality as to at least rival his handful of lively precursors in Shakespeare: Faulconbridge the Bastard in King John, Mercurio and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and Bottom the Weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But these characters all fit their roles, even if we can conceive of them as personalities outside of their plays. Shylock simply does not fit his role; he is the wrong Jew in the right play.

On some level, Shylock is a darker miracle of characterization than even Hamlet or Lear, because so much of his impact seems involuntary, even counterproductive. Shakespeare had no particular reason to make him into anything more than a stock villain, and in fact, his vividness actively detracts from the logic of the story itself, as Greenblatt notes: “Shylock came perilously close to wrecking the comic structure of the play, a structure that Shakespeare only barely rescued by making the moneylender disappear for good at the end of the fourth act.” Bloom, in turn, speaks of “the gap between the human that Shakespeare invents and the role that as playmaker he condemns Shylock to act,” a cognitive divide that tells us more about his art than the plays in which every part has been revised to fit like magic. I often learn more about craft from works of art that I resist than ones with which I agree completely, which only makes sense. When we want to believe in a story’s message, we’re less likely to scrutinize its methods, and we may even forgive lapses of taste or skill because we want to give it the benefit of the doubt. (This is the real reason why aspiring authors should avoid making overt political statements in a story, which encourages friendly critics to read the result more generously than it deserves. It’s gratifying in the moment, but it also can lead to faults going unaddressed until it’s too late to fix them.) Its opposite number is a work of art that we’d love to dismiss on moral or intellectual grounds, but which refuses to let us go. Since we have no imaginable reason to grant it a free pass, its craft stands out all the more clearly. The Merchant of Venice is the ultimate example. It’s the first play that I’d use to illustrate Shakespeare’s gift at creating characters who can seem more real to us than ourselves—which doesn’t make it any easier to read, teach, or perform.

This brings us back to the figure of Greenblatt at Yale, who saw the works that pained him as an essential part of his education. He writes:

I’m now an English professor at Harvard, and in recent years some of my students have seemed acutely anxious when they are asked to confront the crueler strains of our cultural legacy. In my own life, that reflex would have meant closing many of the books I found most fascinating, or succumbing to the general melancholy of my parents. They could not look out at a broad meadow from the windows of our car without sighing and talking about the number of European Jews who could have been saved from annihilation and settled in that very space. (For my parents, meadows should have come with what we now call “trigger warnings.”) I was eager to expand my horizons, not to retreat into a defensive crouch.

The question of how students should confront the problematic works of the past is one that I don’t expect to resolve here, except by noting that The Merchant of Venice represents a crucial data point. Without it, our picture of Shakespeare—and even of his greatness as a writer—is necessarily incomplete. When it comes to matters of education, it helps to keep a few simple tests in mind, and the humanities have an obligation to enable the possibility of this kind of confrontation, while also providing the framework within which it can be processed. Instead of working forward from a set of abstract principles, perhaps we should work backward from the desired result, which is to have the tools that we need when we reach the end of the labyrinth and find Shylock waiting for us. Even if we aren’t ready for him, we may not have a choice. As Bloom observes: “It would have been better for the Jews, if not for most of The Merchant of Venice’s audiences, had Shylock been a character less conspicuously alive.”

Written by nevalalee

July 18, 2017 at 8:49 am

The space between us all

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In an interview published in the July 12, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, the rock star David Crosby said: “My time has gotta be devoted to my highest priority projects, which starts with tryin’ to save the human race and then works its way down from there.” The journalist Ben Fong-Torres prompted him gently: “But through your music, if you affect the people you come in contact with in public, that’s your way of saving the human race.” And I’ve never forgotten Crosby’s response:

But somehow operating on that premise for the last couple of years hasn’t done it, see? Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

He was right about one thing—the Beatles didn’t stop the war. And while it might seem as if there’s nothing new left to say about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary today, it’s worth asking what it tells us about the inability of even our greatest works of art to inspire lasting change. It’s probably ridiculous to ask this of any album. But if a test case exists, it’s here.

It seems fair to say that if any piece of music could have changed the world, it would have been Sgt. Pepper. As the academic Langdon Winner famously wrote:

The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.

The crucial qualifier, of course, is “at least in the minds of the young,” which we’ll revisit later. To the critic Michael Bérubé, it was nothing less than the one week in which there was “a common culture of widely shared values and knowledge in the United States at any point between 1956 and 1976,” which seems to undervalue the moon landing, but never mind. Yet even this transient unity is more apparent than real. By the end of the sixties, the album had sold about three million copies in America alone. It’s a huge number, but even if you multiply it by ten to include those who were profoundly affected by it on the radio or on a friend’s record player, you end up with a tiny fraction of the population. To put it another way, three times as many people voted for George Wallace for president as bought a copy of Sgt. Pepper in those years.

But that’s just how it is. Even our most inescapable works of art seem to fade into insignificance when you consider the sheer number of human lives involved, in which even an apparently ubiquitous phenomenon is statistically unable to reach a majority of adults. (Fewer than one in three Americans paid to see The Force Awakens in theaters, which is as close as we’ve come in recent memory to total cultural saturation.) The art that feels axiomatic to us barely touches the lives of others, and it may leave only the faintest of marks on those who listen to it closely. The Beatles undoubtedly changed lives, but they were more likely to catalyze impulses that were already there, providing a shape and direction for what might otherwise have remained unexpressed. As Roger Ebert wrote in his retrospective review of A Hard Day’s Night:

The film was so influential in its androgynous imagery that untold thousands of young men walked into the theater with short haircuts, and their hair started growing during the movie and didn’t get cut again until the 1970s.

We shouldn’t underestimate this. But if you were eighteen when A Hard Day’s Night came out, it also means that you were born the same year as Donald Trump, who decisively won voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its initial release. Even if you took its message to heart, there’s a difference between the kind of change that marshals you the way that you were going and the sort that realigns society as a whole. It just isn’t what art is built to do. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud, alluding to Trump’s favorite movie: “The world is very large and the greatest films so small.”

If Sgt. Pepper failed to get us out of Vietnam, it was partially because those who were most deeply moved by it were more likely to be drafted and shipped overseas than to affect the policies of their own country. As Winner says, it united our consciousness, “at least in the young,” but all the while, the old men, as George McGovern put it, were dreaming up wars for young men to die in. But it may not have mattered. Wars are the result of forces that care nothing for what art has to say, and their operations are often indistinguishable from random chance. Sgt. Pepper may well have been “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” as Kenneth Tynan hyperbolically claimed, but as Harold Bloom reminds us in The Western Canon:

Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything.

Great works of art exist despite, not because of, the impersonal machine of history. It’s only fitting that the anniversary of Sgt. Pepper happens to coincide with a day on which our civilization’s response to climate change will be decided in a public ceremony with overtones of reality television—a more authentic reflection of our culture, as well as a more profound moment of global unity, willing or otherwise. If the opinions of rock stars or novelists counted for anything, we’d be in a very different situation right now. In “Within You Without You,” George Harrison laments “the people who gain the world and lose their soul,” which neatly elides the accurate observation that they, not the artists, are the ones who do in fact tend to gain the world. (They’re also “the people who hide themselves behind a wall.”) All that art can provide is private consolation, and joy, and the reminder that there are times when we just have to laugh, even when the news is rather sad.

My ten great books #3: The Magic Mountain

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The Magic Mountain

Whenever I think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I always begin with the blankets. They’re a pair of lovely camel-hair blankets, “extra long and wide, in a natural beige fabric that was delightfully soft to the touch,” used by the residents of a sanitarium in the Alps while lounging on their balconies for the daily rest cure, which can last for hours. They certainly sound cozy:

Whether it was the texture of the cushions, the perfect slant of the back support, the proper height and width of the armrests, or simply the practical consistency of the neck roll—whatever it was, nothing could possibly have offered more humane benefits for a body at rest than this splendid lounge chair.

If you can relate to the appeal of those blankets—and of their promise of a life spent in blissful inactivity—you can begin to grasp what makes this novel so fascinating, despite its imposing appearance. As I’ve mentioned before, The Magic Mountain may be the least inviting of all major twentieth-century novels: it lacks the snob appeal of Ulysses or Proust, its structure is classical and crystalline, and a plot summary doesn’t exactly make it sound like a page-turner. The first necessary step is a leap of the imagination, a willingness to acknowledge the part of yourself that, like the young Hans Castorp, is drawn to the idea of giving up all advancement, all ambition, all action, for the sake of a life spent in the confines of a comfortable chair. Hans’s reasoning may not be airtight, but it’s hard to deny its power, especially in the decade before the First World War:

On the whole, however, it seemed to him that although honor had its advantages, so, too, did disgrace, and that indeed the advantages of the latter were almost boundless.

In the end, Hans, a perfectly healthy young man, ends up staying at the sanitarium for seven years. Of course, both he and the reader soon find that this apparent retreat into inactivity is secretly a plunge into something else. Despite its unlikely subject matter, The Magic Mountain vibrates on every page with life, intelligence, and insight. Mann likes to remind us, a bit too insistently, that Hans is “ordinary,” but really, as Harold Bloom points out, he’s immensely likable and curious, and you come to identify with him enormously. The story in which he finds himself has often been called a novel of ideas, and it is, but it’s much more: Mann stuffs it with compelling set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans’s nearly fatal misadventure in the snowstorm, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that would be high points in any novel, and it isn’t hard to see why the book was a massive bestseller in its time. Like Proust, Mann has useful insights into a dazzling variety of subjects, ranging from medicine to music to the nature of time, even as he depicts a world in which these ideas are on the verge of being destroyed. (As Clive James wrote: “The worst you can say about Thomas Mann is that his ego was so big he took even history personally; but at least he knew it was history.”) The characters are rendered with uncanny vividness: when you’re done, you feel as if you’ve passed half a lifetime in their company, and the memory is charged with nostalgia, longing, and regret. It took me a long time to come around to this book, and it sat unread on my shelf for years. When I finally started it for real, it was with a distinct sense of obligation. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that it was the novel for which I’d been searching my entire life.

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2017 at 9:00 am

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t often see him as a writer who meticulously revised his own work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out poetry unaltered onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how he seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers have to admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the ending of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through passing references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is revealing in itself. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, in revision, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story in its entirety that you know what it’s really about. And the little we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm this.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but I’m not sure if it even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings in the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we say?”

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

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