Wednesday, July 06, 2011
That Shakespeare Thing
It is a truth fervently believed, at least among those who have beliefs about such things, that Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has ever seen. Without question. Period. End of story. So help me god. Cross my heart and hope to die.
It’s not that I doubt Shakespeare’s excellence. Of course he’s good. But not that good. For THAT good is not about history, it’s about mythology.
And that mythology has got to stop. We can’t treat our literary culture as though it were but an appendage to Shakespeare’s large, various, and excellent output. Debts are owed, certainly. But appendages to, certainly not.
It’s simple: We can’t enter into the 21st century as long as we keep swearing fealty to The Bard, even if we cross our fingers behind our backs while so swearing. The world’s changing, it’s been changing since Shakespeare’s time. The old guy can no longer keep up. It’s time to put him on a raft, and cut the raft free. Let him float out to sea.
Who’s this WE you’re talking about?
Good question. Tricky question. I suppose I could say Harold Bloom and the Bloomistas and be done with it. In fact, that’s what I will say: Bloom and the Bloomistas!
Call it a figure.
Though Harold Bloom is real enough. His admiration for Shakespeare is well known – didn’t he write a fat book explaining how we’re all Shakespeare’s children? And he’s set himself up as the Defender of the Western Literary Canon, the Finger in the Dike that Protects Western Civ from the Sea.
Give the finger a rest. Let the water flow. Life goes on.
What brought this on, you ask?
It’s been a long time coming. At least since late 1989 when The New Republic published a special 75th anniversary issue in which their long-term film critic, Stanley Kauffmann, reflected on film’s history and accomplishments. Toward the middle he had a Big Paragraph:
After we have at the beginnings [of film], what can we say today about the results? What has film accomplished since then? Once, after a meeting in which films were glowingly discussed, a well-known poet challenged me to name one film that was the equal of the greatest work in other arts, the work of Sophocles or Dante or Michelangelo or Bach or Tolstoy. The answer was, is, double. First, there is no such film. There may never be such a film. Second, who is the Sophocles or Bach of the 20th century? Great artists there have certainly been in our time, and I would not blithely equate even the best films I know with the work of Joyce or Picasso. But few would rank Joyce or Picasso or the other masters of our time with the greatest artists in history; and the overwhelming fact is that, arriving in this century that has been stormy even for the oldest arts, film has created hundreds of works that are now part of the cultural legacy of every civilized human being.
He’s got that last clause right: Film HAS created hundreds of works that are now part of the cultural legacy of every civilized human being. The rest of it is pious nonsense, spun from the same thread as Bloomistavision.
That’s what set me on this line of thought. What set me off is Apocalypse Now. I didn’t see it when it first came out. Don’t know exactly why. Perhaps because it was a Hollywood film, so how could it be Really Good? Saw the Redux version; don’t remember what I thought. But then the DVD set came out, Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier.
I was stunned. Watching it on my small computer monitor with the add-on speakers – decent sound, but not as good as my stereo system, and certainly not theatrical – I was stunned. Thought I to myself: Shakespeare couldn’t do this.
Shakespeare couldn’t do this.
It’s not simply that he didn’t have the technology, though he didn’t, and that’s not irrelevant. Whatever Coppola was saying, Shakespeare couldn’t say it, because he didn’t know it. He didn’t know it.
Shakespeare didn’t know it. It’s not his fault. Our world isn’t his world. Our world makes its own demands, and Shakespeare’s knowledge cannot be equal to them, no more.
Let him rest.
I am inclined to agree that the old war horses should not be petted and pampered, that every age has its exemplars. Shakespeare long since got promoted out of literature and made into England’s saint and capitalism’s pride. In truth, the legend is a sham. Shakspere of Stratford knocked up a woman eight years older, left town, disappeared, made a tradesman’s career as a money-lender in London and grain dealer in Stratford, and on account of his name got involved with purveying the writings of a genius with a martial nom de plume. It was all in a life’s work, ended back home in Stratford, where his will told the awful truth. He couldn’t sign his name. As for the Shakespeare canon and its author, that’s another story and a good one. He was an artist before it was cool and paid with his reputation and a buried name. We’re only just now digging that out of the mythology and political cant.
William: you are stupid man.
Smarter than you on the best day of your life.
No, Dan’s right. Shakespeare conspiracy theorists are all very, very stupid.
Time will tell
Who has fell
And who’s been left behind
When you go your way
And I go MINE
Dear Bill: I could agree less with what you say, but not much less. I must admit I’m a bit more on the Bloomian side here. The gist of the issue is that you’re ignoring historical distance. Coppola is great, sure, but he towers (if indeed tower he does) over other practitioners of his art much less (much- much- less) than Shakespeare did on anything early modern. He made lots of things up, as Bloom says, including in part our sensibility. And there is no way we can cut him out and let him drift away because he’s right here on our raft. There is a sense in which he wasn’t as great as people seem to think, ok, and that’s again an issue of historical distance. He’s a classic now, he wasn’t a classic then, but he can’t make himself into a classic without lots of people helping; that’s beyond his means. But now it’s happened and he’s there, and he’s there to stay. No way you’re going to discover his near equivalent, if only because it’s already a fact that people haven’t been pouring such a flood of commentary and attention and performance on anyone else, and that’s lots kilowatts of social energy. Attention now doesn’t hold, it’s Lady Gaga this year and Adele last year, or was it the other way round, but there’s nothing in sight with even a hundredth of Shakespeare’s staying power.
I don’t follow that jargon or what Francis Ford Coppola has to do with Shakespeare. That is a case of missing identity, with all the circumstantial evidence aligning with Edward de Vere--his life, his writing style, his station, his interests, his learning, his travel, his inner turmoil, his wife, his father-in-law, his autobiography paralleling Hamlet, all that and more, quite specific and verifiable. And the “lost” plays that are so mysteriously lost weren’t lost at all, simply re-written from his court plays, to which were added the more mature plays, adaptations of early works. The Sonnets read like a confession and testament of his son’s crisis during the Essex Rebellion aftermath. What kind of testament? To a never-crowned King, shunted out of power in favor of a more pliable person, James VI of Scotland.
Why does it matter now? The politically expedient lie at the very beginning of the English nation-state sacrificed the language’s most impressive writer because of his having written the works, told the story, on his class, time,
and peers. That wouldn’t do. Far too honest and tracable. Hence the fabrication that a similarly named figure, William Shakspere, who had been
in and out of the author’s life, was made into a sui generis genius. And I assume you still believe that. And the Big Lie tactic continues as an adjunct of state policy, such as three steel skyscrapers falling from being bumped by two passenger airplanes.
Jose: It’s complicated, of course. And, while I stuck Shakespeare in the title, it’s not just about Shakespeare. The Stanley Kaufman quote states the issue well enough, in a way, and it doesn’t even mention Shakespeare. History and culture are such that we have been made by the great artists of the past and that is, of course, impossible for any present artist to do. After all, they’ve been made by those same artists.
But it’s one thing to recognize that, and another thing to allow that recognition to shade over into a belief that present artists can never ever be as good as the Old Guys. Why not? Have the Old Guys, in principle, given us everything we need from art?
To extol a single artist or group of artists as “the greatest” is of course a form of idolatry and separates the artist from the human context, his own and our own insofar as the universal touches the present. I kind of like the Bob Dylan line, “Each of us has his own special gift, and I believe that this is true, if you don’t underestimate me, I won’t underestimate you.”
It is also true that at the beginning of an era or an art form, we see the instinctive epitome of that type, which others are tempted to copy. Leo Tolstoy was thrilled by seeing a movie. He thought a new kind of novel could be possible by using the medium. He didn’t live long enough to try it. But in some ways, all movies have copied the story pattern established right at the beginning. Originality and Tradition are always dancing.