A miscellany

For reasons too tedious to go into, I won’t be around much the next week or two, and I certainly won’t have the time to write posts for this blog. However, to prevent withdrawal symptoms on my part – going without blogging for extended periods leaves me feeling curiously restive – I thought it might be a good idea to put something up before I go, even if it’s no more than a set of random passing thoughts.

Do please feel free to skip this one if you have better things to do.

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Those of you who think it’s been some time since I actually talked about books, you’re perfectly right. In my defence, I have never claimed this was solely a books blog, but books are, nonetheless, the main topic here. However, if I can do trailers like they do in the cinema, forthcoming attractions will include:

– Posts on Austen’s Persuasion and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as I complete my Austen read-a-thon and continue my Turgenev project. Re-reading is generally so much more rewarding than first readings, don’t you think? With first readings, you only really skim the surface. To really get to know a book, you need to let it settle in your mind, to let it resonate there some time, and then return to it.

– A post on the first part of Don Quixote. Since it’s actually two novels rather than one, I thought I’d take a break between the two. However, I do want to write up some thoughts on the first part before moving on to the second.

– Something on the short stories of D. H. Lawrence. I have a vast 1400-page volume of the collected short fiction of Lawrence – both short stories and novellas – and, having been much impressed by my re-readings last year of The Rainbow and of Women in Love, am very keen to read through these stories. Reading all 1400 pages without a break for other books is a bit of a tall order, but it seemed reasonable to break the whole thing up into roughly four equal parts. I am now towards the end of the first 350-page chunk, which starts with Lawrence’s earliest attempts at fiction – and he really did find his feet quickly! – and includes towards the end such major works as “The Prussian Officer” and “Daughters of the Vicar”.

Now, admit it – that’s got you all excited, hasn’t it?

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My previous post on cultural appropriation has got me thinking: my own personal culture, which I happen to value highly, encompasses the music of, amongst others, Mozart and Schubert. I can assure you that this music has as at least as much value for me as any aspect of ethnic culture does to any ethnic people. (And no, I’m not being flippant: I am, after all, something of an ethnic type myself.) This is serious music, and is, to me, sacred: it is to be listened to seriously, and spoken about only in tones of hushed and awed reverence, as anything other than that would be a desecration. And furthermore, as a lover of classical music, I feel very much marginalised and disempowered in society: as such, I am obviously well placed to resent my culture being appropriated.

So I think the next time anyone who does not share my culture plays the music of Mozart or of Schubert as background music at dinner parties, I should organize a protest to draw attention to my genuinely hurt feelings on the matter. And I should further write some gibberish on my blog here to indicate how deeply my feelings have been hurt.

I might even send the said gibberish to The Guardian and see if they print it. I don’t see why they shouldn’t – especially if I were to drop in a few references to current pop celebrities to make the piece more attractive to their editors.

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I have long been a fan of the Marx Brothers, but one of the most dispiriting evenings I have spent in a cinema was a showing of a double bill of two of the Marx Brothers’ finest films – A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. I had been looking forward to it: I’d never seen any of their films on a big screen before, and, what’s more, I had never experienced these films as a shared experience. That, after all, is one of the major advantages the cinema has over the television, or, for that matter, the advantage theatre-going has over private reading: what we see in the cinema or in the theatre is not a private matter, but something shared with many other people; and when we hear others laughing, we feel more inclined to laugh ourselves.

However, the corollary of this is that when others are not laughing, it inhibits one’s own laughter. And on this occasion, the audience was not appreciative. The gags which usually have me splitting my sides all passed with barely a titter; many, under the curious impression that whispers are inaudible, were talking amongst themselves; some even walked out. There was no sign of anyone enjoying these films As a consequence, I came out of the showing feeling very irritated: the experience I shared was one merely of boredom and of annoyance.

It is for this reason that I am not keen to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet – even if I could get hold of a ticket (which I can’t). I have no doubt that Cumberbatch is a fine actor, and well capable of doing justice to this notoriously demanding part, but I frankly doubt that those who have booked a full year in advance, or who have flown half way round the world to queue up overnight for tickets that are made available on the day, are too interested in the play as such. After all, there are many productions of Hamlet on the stage – many of them actually very good, there being no shortage of talent – which all pass more or less unnoticed, even in arts pages of quality newspapers: that this particular production has been making front pages is purely a consequence of a culture that worships celebrity, rather than of one that values Shakespeare.

Which is fair enough, I suppose: people are entitled to like whatever they like and it’s really none of my business. Furthermore, it may legitimately be said that the presence of a star encouraging people to go to see Hamlet who would not otherwise have done so can only be Good Thing. But, bearing in mind my experience of that evening in the cinema where two films I love were ruined by an unappreciative audience, I do wonder whether I’d enjoy being at this production. There was a similar event a few years ago, when David Tenant, Dr Who himself, played Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. (In addition, Claudius was Patrick Stewart – Captain Picard, no less!) I didn’t get tickets for that, but a friend who did, while very appreciative of both the production and the performances, told me that there were many young ladies sitting near him who were talking amongst themselves throughout virtually the entire performance. How representative my friend’s experience was, I don’t know, but it does make me wary of going to see something I love where the audience is likely to be less than ideally appreciative. Call it snobbery if you will, but watching Marx Brothers films on DVD at home is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it in a cinema with people who don’t care for them.

And in any case, going to see Hamlet without appreciating or caring much for its cultural import is a form of cultural appropriation, isn’t it? A few demonstrations around Barbican Theatre seem called for here, I think. Oi, you lot! Stop appropriating my culture!

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Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, I see it as made the front page again, this time of The Times (I cannot link to this, as The Times is behind a paywall). Apparently, this production had started with the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but, having decided during the preview run that this wasn’t working, they have now put it back in the third act where it belongs. Such is the power of celebrity in our times (pun, however pisspoor, fully intended), even this makes the front page.

But what strikes me in the article is a reference in the first paragraph to “traditionalists” finding the transposition of the soliloquy “shocking”. Surely not! Traditionalists – of whom I guess I’d better count myself one – have long been accustomed to far greater outrages to the text than this. It may hurt the egos of certain directors to be told that they no longer shock audiences, but that is the truth – they don’t. Traditionalists – or purists, or whatever you may want to call these imagined mustachio-twirling pantomime villains – may think some of the directorial decisions of various productions silly, or tedious; and sometimes, contrary to popular mythology, they may go the other way, and find some of these decisions interesting, or even perhaps, on occasion, revelatory; but they are long past the stage where they are shocked.

There seems to be a vested interest amongst many in presenting the bulk of theatre-goers and opera-goers as unthinking and unreflective bourgeois philistines who need to be shocked out of their complacency; and, to this end, it is assumed that any departure from the text is bound to shock the audience, and leave them foaming at the mouth. Truth is, not even the most conservative of theatre-goers is likely to be “shocked” by the placing of the famous soliloquy at the start. Some, like myself, may take issue with the directorial decision, and think it ill-considered; but that’s really about as far as it goes. Sorry to disappoint.

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That’s all for now, I think. See you all in September, when I will be back to writing proper posts on proper books.

Appropriating culture

Recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in front of one of the exhibits – a charming painting by Claude Monet of his wife dressed in a red kimono – visitors were invited to try on a similar kimono. I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of this was: it seemed, to say the least, a somewhat unorthodox approach to art appreciation. But since it seemed harmless enough, I didn’t think too much of it – although I couldn’t help reflecting that if the gallery were to adopt a similar approach to appreciating Rubens’ nudes, say, they may possibly be overstepping the mark. Beyond that, I didn’t really have any great thoughts on the matter.

However, I was surprised to find that this seemingly trivial matter had led to angry protests. It seemed to me a bit of an over-reaction, frankly: sure, trivialisation of arts seems constantly to be happening around us, and is something to be deplored, but, while one may approve of passion being displayed on behalf of the arts, it did seem to me too minor a matter to protest about. But I was very badly mistaken: the passions aroused had nothing to do with trivialisation of the arts, because, as we all know or should know by now, the arts are a trivial matter anyway, as they are really nothing more than signifiers of lifestyle choices. No – the passion was all about something called “cultural appropriation”. As one of the placards held by the protestors said: “It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” This may or may not be making a case against “cultural appropriation” – I wouldn’t presume to judge – but at least it does make the case – very eloquently, I think – for the importance of teaching grammar in schools.

Now, if I were indeed the cultural elitist I have frequently been accused of being, I would have dismissed all this with a derisive snort. However, my curiosity was aroused, and I made some effort to find out just what “cultural appropriation” is, and why it should be deemed so reprehensible. Seemingly, “cultural appropriation” is the adoption of elements from other cultures: that bit I am sure of. What I am not so sure of is why it should be considered reprehensible: in some of the sites I found in the course of my internet searches, this adoption is in and of itself a Bad Thing; in some other sites, it is considered bad because those elements of other cultures that are being adopted are being trivialised. But these objections to trivialisation were all, as far as I could see, in the context of popular celebrity culture, in which most things are pretty trivial anyway: I can’t say I understood this objection very well. If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible: quite apart from anything else, were it not for this culture, what would the Guardian newspaper fill its Arts pages with? As it is, they can’t even run a feature on Titian, and make the unexceptionable though obvious point that our modern concepts of feminine beauty are very different from what they used to be, without talking at length about Kim Kardashian’s arse.

The other element that recurred in the course of my admittedly not very exhaustive researches on this matter is what I suppose I should call – simply because everyone else is – “cultural hegemony”. It is seemingly wrong to adopt any aspect of a culture of people who are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed. I couldn’t find any coherent justification of why this, in particular, should be wrong: it seems to be regarded as something so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Maybe if I had persevered a bit more I would have found a coherent argument on this matter, but, to be honest, I didn’t feel up to persevering, as much I had read in the course of my researches into this matter I could not really understand. Now, I like to flatter myself that I have, in my time, read, and what’s more, taken in some often very difficult prose – the late Henry James, for instance, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce; but something like this frankly defeats me. I grant it’s all my fault, and that if I were to persevere, I would be able to absorb and no doubt enrich my mind with all sorts of new ideas; but, having read this piece over a few times, and finding myself none the wiser and not even better informed, it seemed best simply to acknowledge my own limitations: some things are obviously just not for me.

Not having absorbed all that has been said and argued about “cultural appropriation”, what I am about to say may well be very naïve, but I’ll say it anyway as it is something I fervently believe. And it is this: cultures thrive by interacting with each other. Look back on any period in history, and we’ll find the same story: we can see how cross-currents between different cultures have enriched us all; we can see how medieval trade routes spanning China, India, Persia, the Arab world, and Europe, had resulted in intellectual and cultural exchanges to the immense benefit of all concerned; we can see how Indian cultures were sparked back into life after long stagnation by contact with the West; how van Gogh incorporated what he had learnt from Japanese prints into his own artistic vision, and how Picasso’s was shaped by what he saw of African masks; how Debussy and Britten had made use of Balinese gamelan music; how Gustav Holst had set to music hymns from the Rig Veda translated into English, and how Indian actors perform on Indian stages Shakespeare’s plays translated into Indian languages; and so on, and so forth. The entire cultural history of mankind is the story of cultures interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, or, if you like, appropriating from each other, and enriching each other in the process. Far from decrying this, it is all to be welcomed, and celebrated.

But all this does seem to me to be swimming against the tide: the contention that “cultural appropriation” is a Bad Thing – an entirely unexamined and unargued contention, as far as I can see – appears to be regarded as self-evident, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before courses are offered at our universities on Cultural Appropriation Studies. Well, why not? We already have faculties of Gender and Media Studies, where it is seemingly possible to obtain a master’s degree by “perform[ing] Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn”.

In the meantime, I think it’s best for me to return to my library, and pull up the drawbridge. It’s not that I don’t want to interrogate and discourse with the outside world, but neither seems possible when there doesn’t exist at least some common ground.

“The Soul of the World” by Roger Scruton

Never write about politics or religion, they say. You’re bound to get into a heated argument and you won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. And whatever you say, you’ll alienate a good number of your readers. However, if you’re writing on cultural matters, you can’t really keep the subjects out. Religion especially. The entire culture of the western world – and of other worlds too, I think – rests on its religious heritage. And in any case, it’s a subject that interests me, and what’s the point of writing a blog if I am to steer clear of matters I find interesting? So, having recently read philosopher Roger Scruton’s book The Soul of the World, and generally blogging as I do about what I read, this seemed to me an ideal opportunity to alienate good numbers of my readers.

This post is not, however, intended as a review. For to review anything is to set oneself in judgement, and for someone like myself, who is not trained in philosophy, and who is, furthermore, not even well read in the subject, to pass judgement on the writing of an eminent philosopher, a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University no less, would be a trifle presumptuous. But since the book The Soul of the World is not aimed solely at the specialist reader, there seemed no reason why a mere layman such as myself should not at least set down, for what they’re worth, some of his more or less random thoughts and impressions. And if I should go badly wrong, I’m not so conceited that I cannot accept correction from those who know better.

The book was a present from my brother last Christmas, who told me (tongue very much in cheek, I hope) that he thought I’d find it interesting as I was into “mumbo-jumbo”. This was because, in some of our previous conversations, I had refused to accept the contention that there can be no more to us than the sum of our constituent physical parts; or that our consciousness is contingent upon our existence as physical entities; and so on. Not that these contentions were necessarily wrong; but, since they cannot conclusively be proved to be right either, I saw no reason to reject at least the possibility that they may be wrong. And, given my temperament, it’s a possibility that I very much wanted to hold on to, for it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that our lives are much diminished if we lose sight of this possibility.

At this point, I realised that I ran into problems: I did not have the words to articulate what precisely I meant. I could, of course, use words such as “transcendence”, or “spirituality”, or whatever, but such words are not merely vaguely defined, they have been used so glibly and so often by various snake-oil salesmen that it’s difficult to attach to them any significant meaning. Poets, of course, can express these things better, so I quoted Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused”; but this is the language of poetry, not of debate. The truth is I do not know how to debate these matters without sounding, after a while, like those various quacks and charlatans, and those professional purveyors of meaningless platitudes that are so regularly plastered across social media as if they were expressions of great wisdom.

We live, sadly, in times where the middle ground is not recognised as valid, or, at least, considered but as the consequence of a timid unwillingness to align oneself with one extreme pole or another. Expression even of doubts concerning the ability of science to answer, or potentially to answer, all questions we may have concerning ourselves and the universe we inhabit, marks one out as merely as a crank. But I most certainly do not wish to disparage science: I myself have a professional background in science (or mathematics, at least), and have no desire to join the ranks of creationists, proponents of intelligent design, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine campaigners, astrologers, homeopaths, crystal ball gazers, tea-leaf readers, and the like. (Oh dear – I have lost myself a great many readers with that, haven’t I? But since I have started, I guess I might as well continue.) Nonetheless, the questions I found myself asking seemed to me worth asking: can we really be so absolutely sure that we are nothing more than the sum of our constituent physical parts? Is our existence as conscious entities necessarily contingent upon our existence as physical entities? Of course, I do not know the answers to these questions. I do not even know if these questions are adequately formulated. But, given the kind of person I am, I cannot help asking them.

I cannot help asking also whether it is indeed the case, as Dawkins and his followers seem to insist, that the entire purpose of my living is none other than to propagate my genes; that, whatever I feel, no matter how precious or valuable – whether it be love for family or the warmth of friendship, or awed wonder at rivers and mountains and seas, or the ecstatic and elevated states of mind induced by the poetry of Shakespeare or by the string quartets of Beethoven – that these are all nothing but the consequences of complex electro-chemical reactions going on in my brain. I may ask why these things should set off these particular electro-chemical reactions in the first place, and my atheist friends tell me that these are but “adaptations”, by-products of the evolutionary process, and nothing more. That even my Wordsworthian sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused is but a reaction to some stimulus determined by the evolutionary process that has made me what I am. Only this and nothing more.

Now, all this may be so, but my point is that, given my temperament, I’m not happy for it to be so. It may well be that I am a mere machine, responding merely to stimuli in a manner determined by the evolutionary process, but I am not happy to be a mere machine. “What’s wrong with being a machine?” I am asked. Are not machines as complex and as intricate as human beings wonderful things? Why attach to such wondrous machines the adjective “mere”? No doubt, no doubt, I reply, but how can I set aside what I can’t help feeling?

All this scientific determinism seems very plausible – and may even be true for all I know – but I can’t help reflecting that if it were that easy to understand the nature of reality, it’s hard to account for philosophers still arguing and tying themselves in knots over these very questions. At the very least, all this may be worth further consideration. And in any case, we tend, perhaps, to make more of our rational faculties than is warranted. I increasingly believe that our thoughts and actions have more irrationality about them than we perhaps care to admit – that not even the most rational of us could ever whole-heartedly embrace any idea or ideology that we are emotionally uncomfortable with; that our thoughts and values are determined to a great extent – to a far greater extent than we are perhaps prepared to admit – by our emotions, and that we use reason to do no more than to justify and perhaps to fine-tune these thoughts and values. But, as I have perhaps already meandered into areas I did not mean to when I set out writing this post, let us leave that particular chestnut for later. For the purposes of this particular post, I found it, and find it still, hard to accept that I am but a machine whose purpose is to propagate my genes; and that any sense sublime I may harbour of transcendence is but an illusion – some mere by-product of the evolutionary process. It is not, after all, to deny the importance of reason, or to refuse to acknowledge the immense danger of jettisoning rationality, to insist that our emotions have their claims also.

It is at this point that my attention was drawn to the book The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton. The blurb on the dust-jacket seemed to articulate clearly the various vaguely formed and even more vaguely articulated thoughts and ideas that had been whirling around my mind:

[Scruton] argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgements hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defence of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean.

This is not really a book on philosophy: it is, rather, a statement of the author’s personal values and beliefs, stated both with elegance and with passion. It is, however, informed by philosophy, and it is not possible to discuss this book without addressing the philosophical ideas the author discusses. And, since I very much want to discuss this book, I must, I fear, put aside my diffidence on this matter: I’m sure I’ll go wrong in some things, but I’ll try my best not to; and, as I have already said, I am not averse to being corrected. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

Right from the start, Scruton rejects Cartesian dualism – this idea of “the ghost in the machine”, the incorporeal soul inhabiting the corporeal body, but not subject, as the body is, to the laws of nature. So in answer to my question “Is there no more to me than the sum of my constituent physical parts?” Scruton’s answer is a flat “no”: he holds to Spinoza’s idea of monism, claiming – although without going into it here in greater detail – that dualism raises more issues than it solves. But while he rejects ontological duality, he proposes instead a duality of a different order – a cognitive duality.

The exposition of this is complex, and I don’t know that I am capable of providing anything more here than a summary that must necessarily be crude. He speaks first of all of persons as subjects as well as objects:

A person is, for us, a someone and not just a something. Persons are able to reply to the question “why?” asked of their state, their beliefs, their intentions, their plans, and their desires. This means that, while we often endeavour to explain people in the way we explain other objects in our environment – in terms of cause and effect, laws of motion, and physical makeup – we also have another kind of access to their past and future conduct. In addition to explaining their behaviour, we seek to understand it; and the contrast between explaining and understanding is pertinent to our whole way of describing persons and their world.

Scruton moves on from this to introduce the theory of Verstehen, proposed by Wilhelm Dilthey, and he describes it thus:

According to Dilthey rational agents look on the world in two contrasting (though not necessarily conflicting) ways as something to be explained, predicted, and brought under universal laws; and an occasion for thought, action, and emotion. When looking on the world in the latter way, as an object of our attitudes, emotions, and choices, we understand it through the conceptions that we use of each other, when engaged in justifying and influencing our conduct. We look for reasons for actions, meanings, and appropriate occasions of feeling. We are not explaining the world in terms of physical causes, but interpreting it as an object of our personal responses. Our explanations seek the reason rather than the cause; and our descriptions are also invocations and modes of address.

Scruton concedes that Dilthey’s thesis is both “difficult to state and controversial”, but it is a central plank in his own argument. He now introduces a second German term, used by Husserl – Lebenswelt, the world of life, the world that is “open to action, and organized by the concepts that shape our needs”. This, Scruton says, is what Dilthey’s concept of Verstehen leads towards. He equates this with the concept of the “manifest image”, introduced by Wilfred Sellars in “a now-famous article of analytic philosophy” (well – “now-famous” to philosophers, no doubt …). This “manifest image” is the “image represented in our perceptions and in the reasons and motives that govern our response to it”. This is distinguished from the “scientific image”, which is “the account that emerges through the systematic attempt to explain what we observe”. The two are not commensurate:

Thus, colors and other secondary qualities, which belong to the way we perceive the world, do not feature as such in the theories of physics, which refer instead to the wavelengths of refracted light.

[Note: although Scruton is a British writer, the book is published by Princeton University Press, and uses American spellings throughout; I have retained these spellings in my quotations.]

Scruton uses for the rest of the book Husserl’s term Lebenswelt rather than Sellar’s “manifest image”, as Sellars’ distinction, according to Scruton, “does not get to the heart of our predicaments as subjects – that there is, underlying his account of the ‘manifest image’, an insufficient theory of the first-person case and its role in interpersonal dialogue”. Furthermore, he continues, he wishes “to emphasize that the distinction between the world of science and the world in which we live is as much a matter of practical reason as perception”.

I have, so far, used direct quotations from the book wherever I can: unused as I am to writing about these matters, I am afraid I will distort the author’s argument by paraphrasing. And, as this part of the book, laying out as it does the framework for the subsequent arguments, is particularly important, I did not wish to run the danger of misrepresenting it. All this is very new to me, and despite having read these passages over a few times, I am not sure I understand them fully. However, if I continue doing this for the rest of the book, I’ll end up with a post about as long as the book itself. So I will do my best to summarise as best I can what strikes me as being the central ideas and arguments , without too much recourse to direct quotation.

After laying out this initial framework, Scruton goes on to develop this idea of a “Cognitive Duality”, citing Spinoza’s view that “thought and extension were … two attributes of a single unified reality” – distinguishing between the facts describing the real world, and ideas concerning the real world. Kant’s approach too, is similar: we may consider something to be the outcome of immutable laws of biology, but also, at the same time, “from the point of view of practical reason”, a free agent.

Scruton provides many examples of this Cognitive Duality. A portrait may be described completely in scientific terms, by listing for each pixel the shade that is determined by a precise balancing of the primary colours. To reproduce the Mona Lisa, say, the computer will not require any information other than this. But this is not how we see the painting: the shades of the pixels do not enter into what we perceive, even though that’s all there is. Conversely, an account of what we perceive when we see the Mona Lisa is of no use to the computer in attempting to reproduce the picture. We here have two quite different modes of perception of the same thing, each complete in itself, but neither touching the other: partial information in one mode of perception cannot be completed by information from the other mode.

And similarly with music, a subject on which Scruton is particularly knowledgeable, and on which he writes with an evident passion. He describes the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto – a movement up from C to E flat to G, and a stepwise descent back to C again, followed by two emphatic two note phrases from G to C; then a pause; then an answering phrase, this time harmonised … and so on. This is how we hear it. But scientifically, what we are hearing is a sequence of frequencies, and nothing more. Where exactly is this movement occurring that we perceive so clearly? It cannot surely be a delusion, since we can all perceive this musical line, and we perceive it on repeated hearings. But where does it exist?

But could this be a delusion? Could it be the case that this Lebenswelt is merely a mode of perception that we cling to because it is useful to us, and that it has no correlate in the real world outside our minds? Scruton spends most of this book arguing against this contention. Twice he cites Leibniz’s concept of a “well-founded phenomenon” – i.e. “a way of seeing that is indispensable to us, and which we could not have conclusive evidence to reject”.

Scruton ranges across a wide gamut of topics, from architecture to inter-personal relations, from eroticism to our consciousness of our selves, and so on. Intriguingly, he interprets the myth of the Fall in terms of how we view and interact with each other. We do not normally regard our own selves as objects: we are aware of our own existence as thinking and perceiving subjects; and, when we interact with other humans, we grant them the same self-awareness that we claim for ourselves. The Fall, in Scruton’s version, is an allegory of our learning to see the other as objects. It does not necessarily follow that the two modes of perception followed each other in time, as the story of the Fall, set in time, may suggest; but the two co-exist.

In the discussion of inter-personal relationships, Scruton considers the contracts, the responsibilities and obligations, that bind us together. And, as part of this, he considers marriage: is marriage nothing but contractual obligations? Is love for our family, our children, no more than the fulfilment of contractual obligations, no matter how willingly undertaken? Here again, Scruton sees an instance of “Cognitive Duality”: yes, we have contracts that we are obliged to honour; but we also make vows, that present to us an entirely different mode of perceiving the nature of our relationships. Everywhere we look, we find this same Cognitive Duality – an explanation of what things are, and the meaning we attach to them. And this latter, Scruton insists, is not illusory.

This leaves room for – indeed, it perhaps necessitates – the concept of the “sacred”.  Here, I wish Scruton had essayed a comprehensive definition of the term. When he first uses that term, he cites Durkheim’s definition – the “sacred” is that which is “set aside and forbidden”; but that is not how he uses the term in the rest of the book. Neither does he use the term “sacred” exclusively as meaning “relating to the divine”: it is only in the last chapter of the book that he addresses the topic of God, whereas the word “sacred” is used throughout. Rather, he sees the “sacred”, it seems to me, as that the impairment or destruction of which strikes us as something that goes beyond mere impairment or destruction, just as our marriage vows go beyond our contractual obligations; he seems to see the sacred as that which, when damaged, is desecrated. Yet again, we return to the central concept of the book – Cognitive Dualism: the sacred is determined by the way we perceive it.

In the last chapter, Scruton addresses the subject of God. We are not at this stage in the world of philosophical argument: as atheists never tire of pointing out, the existence of divinity is not something that can be proved. Rather, Scruton declares the nature of his own faith, and argues that this faith is not something that conflicts with the philosophical framework he had presented up to this point. Indeed, it is entirely consonant with it.

This book is an account of personal values, a confession of personal faith, written with great passion and with great eloquence, and informed by a vast erudition. I personally found Scruton most companionable, and his arguments, insofar as I understood them (I do not claim to understand it all fully), fascinating.  But then again, given my own starting point, this is perhaps not too surprising.

I started off very much in sympathy with his outlook: I needed no convincing that if we lose the sense of the sacred, that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, we diminish the our very lives: I do believe that very strongly. And, while I have the greatest respect for science, and have no patience with the fashionable “mystics” whose vapid aphorisms litter social media, I am really rather fed up with what philosopher Mary Midgeley calls “nothing buttery” – this tiresome insistence that, as Scruton puts it, “emergent realities are ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them”. Scruton expands on the position of “nothing buttery”:

The human person is “nothing but” the human animal; law is “nothing but” relations of social power; sexual love is “nothing but” the urge to procreation; altruism is “nothing but” the dominant genetic strategy described by Maynard Smith; the Mona Lisa is “nothing but” a spread of pigments on a canvas, the Ninth Symphony is “nothing but” a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.

Of course, my impatience with this “nothing buttery” is a reflection of my personal temperament; but I think it may be argued that those who hold to “nothing buttery” do so similarly on account of their personal temperaments. Scruton’s idea of Cognitive Duality is one that I find very attractive, but, given my temperament, it is only to be expected that I should do so; those of differing temperaments will, I suspect, remain unconvinced.

It is only in the last chapter, where he speaks of God, that I couldn’t quite go along with Scruton, although, of course, I respect his religious beliefs. I, personally, remain agnostic: there comes a point beyond which I find myself unwilling to speculate. This earns me the disapproval of believers, for refusing to take further steps beyond that point, and also of atheists, who deny that there can be any point beyond which speculation could possibly be required. But my agnosticism is not, I think, a token of pusillanimity on my part: I acknowledge a great mystery, I acknowledge the validity of great questions, but I am content to leave the mystery unsolved, and the questions unanswered.

Let me finish on what is, perhaps, an incidental point in this book. In the chapter on music, Scruton refers to Schubert’s G Major String Quartet. I was delighted to find that Scruton values this work highly – for I do too. Here is Scruton writing with characteristic eloquence on how he views this piece:

… Schubert can show us stark terror in the G Major Quartet gradually interrogating itself, coming to acceptance, finding beauty and serenity in the very recognition that everything must end.

I can’t help seeing this piece differently. It does indeed start, as Scruton says, with an “intense stare into the void”, but in the subsequent descent into the void, heroic though it is, and in the life-and-death struggle to find something in that void that may possibly redeem it, I can find no “acceptance”, no “serenity”: the only passage in the entire work I recognise as “serene” is the central section of the third movement, and, even there, because we know that the movement is in ternary form, we know that the serenity will not last, and that the nightmare will return. Throughout this entire piece, I find unease, anxiety, even terror, and, while it is certainly resolved as a musical structure, this unease and the anxiety and the terror, for me, remain till the end. None of this is to deny that Scruton sees the piece precisely in the terms he describes; but what we perceive in the mode of cognition Scruton refers to as Lebenswelt varies, it seems to me, from person to person, and is as unpredictable as individual human temperament itself.

[10th August: slight edit to the above to clarify that the quote expanding on Mary Midgeley’s objection to “nothing buttery” is Roger Scruton’s, and is taken from his book.]

Look back in embarrassment

A good friend and fellow blogger tells me that she is going through her past posts and deleting those that, in retrospect, make her squirm in embarrassment. I know the feeling. I’d guess most bloggers do. All those posts in my back catalogue that are inelegantly written, shoddily structured, badly argued; all those posts expressing views that I no longer hold, or critical of views that I nowadays do; all those many posts that do little but bespeak the sheer muddle-headedness and stupidity of the author … should I go back and delete them? The temptation certainly is great.

But no – whatever the temptation, I think it best to let them all stay. Although this blog is primarily about literature, I tend to write about whatever comes to mind, and thus, over more than five years now of blogging, these posts, the good, the bad, and also the ugly, cohere together to form a sort of composite self-portrait. And the best self-portraits tend to be the warts-and-all portraits, honest and unsanitised.

In short, if I am a prat at times, why should the world not know about it? Let he who has never been a prat cast the first stone, say I.

On Heaven and Hell, and a few other matters

It is a commonplace observation that it is much easier to imagine Hell than it is to imagine Heaven, but since this blog has no pretension of being anything other than commonplace, it is an observation I am happy to make.

There are a great many works that move from Hell to Heaven, from Inferno to Paradiso, from Dark to Light. And in each of these, how much more vivid in our imaginations is the Dark! Is there anyone, apart, perhaps, from the most devoted of Danteans, in whose mind images of Purgatorio or of Paradiso are as deeply imprinted as those of Inferno? Who in their right minds read of the Regaining of Paradise with the same relish with which they read of its Loss? And even after we have witnessed the triumphant torchlit parade through the civic streets of Athens, is it not the prophetic terror of Cassandra before the House of Atreus that weighs more powerfully on our consciousness? Even when we have made the journey from Hell into Heaven; even when Paradise is Regained; even when we have journeyed from the Dark into the Light; it is still the Dark that continues to oppress the imagination.

Quite frequently, the glimpses we are given of Paradise are just that – glimpses. Mozart allows us to glimpse Paradise towards the end of Le Nozze di Figaro, but it lasts only a few minutes: we know that after the final curtain falls, the Count will return to his usual ways, the Countess will continue to be unhappy, and Susanna and Figaro must continue to fight to protect the sanctity of their marriage. The Heaven we had glimpsed – brought about, incidentally, by human forgiveness, not divine – is but an image of what might be, but isn’t. Shakespeare’s images of Heaven are also compromised: present mirth only hath present laughter, and what’s to come is still very much unsure. Even when, at the end of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare presents us with an image of the Resurrection itself, what joy there is is subdued. Not much is said, and this very reticence is telling: Perdita is restored, as is Hermione, but Mamilius isn’t; and there can be no compensation for the lost years, for all the grief of separation and the anguish of guilt. No triumphant torchlit parade here: even the Resurrection cannot restore all that has been lost.

The only convincing image of an eternal and triumphant Heaven that I can think of, off the top of my head, is van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and, apart from the Christian image of the bleeding Lamb at the centre, it is a Heaven conceived in very

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

earthly terms. The angels’ music-making is not ethereal and effortless: rather, they strain to sing and to play their instruments, much as their earthly counterparts do; the love with which the blades of grass and the leaves are painted bespeak an attachment to the here-and-now rather than a yearning for anything beyond; and it is an earthly light rather than a heavenly in which the gemstones gleam. It is still a matter of scholarly debate how much of this altarpiece was the work of Jan van Eyck, and how much should be credited to his brother Hubert, but whomever we credit, this is Heaven as imagined by artists who were so much in love with this life, that they could not imagine the next one in any other terms.

My own picture of Heaven, not surprisingly, lacks the visionary gleam of the van Eycks, but it too is in earthly terms. I see myself seated comfortably in an armchair before a roaring log fire, a glass of malt whisky in my hand, a volume of the Sherlock Holmes stories open on my knee; once in a while I doze off, as Heaven surely does not impose the tyranny of constant wakefulness; and at other times, good friends appear to share my fireside

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, in the Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

and my whisky, filling the air with the warmth of convivial conversation. Outside, I imagine, would be a forest; snow would be falling, and the white ground would be sparkling in the moonlight. Why does that strike me as the very image of Heaven, I wonder? I don’t really need to search too far for the answer: shallow and trivial that I am, my idea of Eternal Bliss is nothing other than Badger’s fireside in The Wind in the Willows. I remember reading that as a child, and thinking how fine it would be to be Ratty and Mole, lost in the blizzard in the Wild Woods, and finding shelter and warmth in Badger’s house And even as a fully grown adult, it strikes me as a convincing image of Heaven – as convincing, at least, as any other I can think of. But could I stand that for all Eternity? Could I stand anything for all Eternity?

We are promised in the Epistle to the Corinthians that we shall be changed, and surely the first change required for us to enjoy Heaven for Eternity must be the removal, by surgical operation or otherwise, of that part of us that makes us bored. Indeed, that single operation may be the sole difference between Heaven and Hell, for the Hell in which we are forced to endure for all Eternity even that which we love, where we cannot even harbour an image in our minds of anything that might conceivably be better, is, it seems to me, more horrific than anything even in Dante’s infernal circles.

And this possibly is why we find Heaven so difficult to imagine; this is why we find the idea so impossible to respond to. For the changes required to enjoy Eternal Bliss are such that we cannot possibly be the same persons afterwards. The Romantics urged us to strive – to discover our humanity, no less, in the very act of striving; but this act of striving implies that which is desired, but which is not present. Heaven, however, cannot be characterised in such terms: in Heaven, all that is desired is, by definition, eternally present. How then can our selves, which find meaning, and, indeed, self-definition, in the act of striving itself, feel at home in Heaven? Even with our capacity for boredom surgically removed, we must surely find ourselves alienated from such a place. Perhaps this is what T. S. Eliot had meant when he said “Teach us to be still.” But then again, who knows what the old boy had meant? His poetry, like the peace of God, passeth all understanding.

However much we may long for Eternal Bliss, the very idea is, it seems, alien to our sensibilities: even Badger’s cosy fireside can but be enjoyed for a while only. But Hell – now, there our imaginations run wild. I’ll refrain from listing all the examples that come all to readily to mind: readers can, I am sure, come up quite easily with their own – from the various Hells depicted by Dante or Bosch or Goya, to the hells that Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists damn themselves to even while alive, right down to the images of unspeakable horrors, real horrors, that, from around the world, are emerging on our very laptops, even in these civilized times of ours. Perhaps because we find it so much easier to imagine Hell than to imagine Heaven, we seem to find it easier also to create Hell. Even as we set out to create Heaven, we create Hell. For we don’t have the first idea, after all, what Heaven is: Hell, however, we don’t even need to stretch our imaginations to picture. It may well be that I am now more aware, or more sensitive, to certain things than I had been before, but I do get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the times I am living in now are darker than any other time I think I have lived in. I can no longer read of Universal Darkness burying all and study Pope’s imagery with a scholarly detachment. I cannot, even in my imagination, find shelter from the blizzard by Badger’s fireside, as I used to do consciously as a child, and less consciously as an adult. Heaven has never seemed quite so far away, or less capable of being imagined. Possibly Shakespeare’s vision of a sorrowful and subdued quiet is the best we can hope for. If we’re lucky.

***

Reading through what I have written so far, I see that this post has taken a more serious turn than I had intended. I am, after all, on holiday now, and thought I would while away a few idle hours by writing a whimsical and fanciful post, but the tone has become so serious that I cannot very easily turn it back again. But, while we wait for Universal Darkness to bury all, let me at least invite all of you – metaphorically at least, since my stock of whisky will not stretch so far – to join me at my fireside for a convivial tipple.

Your very good health!

whisky-dram

“We have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Please note: It is not possible to discuss a novel such as this without referring to some of the plot details. I personally do not think that twists and turns of the plot are of primary interest except in mystery stories – i.e. stories where solution to a mystery is the whole point of the work – or adventure stories, where the question of “What happens next?” is paramount. In other types of fiction, spoilers don’t really bother me. But since they clearly bother others, it is only fair to preface this post with what is known as a “spoiler warning”.

Had Shirley Jackson been from the southern states, her works could safely have been labelled “Southern Gothic”, but since she wasn’t, no-one is quite sure how to classify her. And, as we all know, inability to classify a writer causes us literary bloggers and critics no end of headaches: we find ourselves having no option but to try to evaluate the writer on her own terms rather than refer to some handy pre-formulated labels, and that really doesn’t make for easy blogging.

This is the second novel of Shirley Jackson’s that I have read – the other being The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems fair to say she had a weird and macabre imagination. One hesitates to use the term “horror”, especially as the horror genre seems all too often to denote the explicitly gruesome; but her fiction does most certainly communicate a deep sense of unease. But in neither of the two novels of hers that I have read is this sense of unease an end in itself: they may make the flesh creep, but making the flesh creep is not – primarily, at least – what these novels are about. The Haunting of Hill House may be read as a traditional ghost story, but it is also a psychological study of the disintegration of a human mind, and it is this disintegrating mind, rather than the supernatural element, that seems to be at the centre of the work. Indeed, the supernatural manifestations, terrifying though they are, may quite legitimately seen as emanations from Eleanor’s disturbed and fragile mind rather than as ghostly hauntings. We Have Always Lived in the Castle does not contain any supernatural elements, but right from the opening sentences, we find ourselves in a very weird fictional world:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Quite clearly, the narrator, Mary Katherine – Merricat – Blackwood is mentally unbalanced, but hers is the only voice we hear, and her perspective the only one to which we are privy. The opening chapter depicts Merricat going into the village to buy groceries, and gives us a rather disturbing picture not only of the deep hostility of the villagers, but of Merricat’s own grotesquely violent fantasies:

… I wished they were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over the bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, perhaps with a kick for Mrs Donell as she lay there.

Generally, a first person narrator, by the virtue of the fact that she is telling us the story and is taking us inter he confidence, invites some measure of sympathy from the reader; this sympathy is even more strongly due to someone who, like Merricat, is reviled and taunted. But Jackson seems determined to alienate our sympathies from the start: we are interested, intrigued, fascinated – but we are not necessarily on her side: we are not rooting for her. Those readers who insist in their fiction on characters they can “relate to” may have a problem here.

Soon, the reason for the villagers’ hostility becomes apparent: some six years previously, the entire Blackwood family – Merricat’s mother, father, brother, and an aunt – had been poisoned: the sugar with which the sprinkled their blackberries had been heavily laced with poison. Merricat had escaped because she, a twelve-year-old at the time, had been sent to bed with no supper that evening; her uncle Julian had escaped because he hadn’t eaten enough blackberries; and Merricat’s older sister, Constance, did not take sugar. Constance had been charged with murder, but had been released due to lack of evidence. Now, the two surviving sisters, and their surviving Uncle Julian, his aged and battered mind in shreds, live together in their ancestral home, their castle, shunning and shunned by the hostile villagers.

Naturally, the reader cannot help but speculate whether Merricat’s precarious mental state was the cause or the consequence of the family tragedy. The answer is given some two thirds of the way through the novel, but since the possibility is already in the reader’s mind, it cannot really count as a “plot twist”. The key to the drama presented in the novel is not so much the question of “who done it?” but, rather, the curious network of relationships between the three characters still living in the castle, and, especially, between the two sisters, who, despite the quite bizarre circumstances in which they live, deeply love and are devoted to each other. Merricat, we know from the first, is unbalanced and disturbed – too off-centre, perhaps, to be understood by reasoned analysis, or, indeed, understood at all. More intriguing is her devoted sister Constance. Whatever may or may not have happened in the past, it is her unquestioning loyalty to and indulgence of her utterly mad sister that remains, perhaps, the greatest enigma in this deeply enigmatic novel. Certainly this is not a point Merricat herself ever pauses to consider, so we get no help from her on this.

Neither do we get much help on what the family relationships were like before the poisoning. From some of the fragments of memory that surfaces in Merricat’s mid, and from the equally fragmentary scraps spoken by Uncle Julius, we may guess at a family not at peace with itself, but the exact nature of their disturbed state remains tantalisingly elusive.

Into this weird set-up comes their cousin Charles. His branch of the family had been estranged from Constance and Merricat, and in his appearance, Merricat senses a danger: he is trying, as far as Merricat’ can see, to prise Constance away from her. And what develops is one of those struggles for individual power that we are so familiar with from the novels of Henry James – two characters struggling with each other, for motives not always clear, even to themselves, for the possession of a third. Charles appears a brash and bumptious young man, barely bothering to conceal his mercenary motives, and making no attempt at all to hide his impatience and contempt for Merricat. But the repressed and agoraphobic Constance, who does not leave the house even to go to the village, is clearly attracted: the danger Merricat senses is real, but, as with any insight filtered through Merricat’s consciousness, one should add the rider “perhaps”: we can never really be sure of anything Merricat tells us.

By the end of the drama, Constance remains constant: Cousin Charles, once his mercenary motives become apparent, is rejected – much as Morris Townsend is towards the end of Washington Square – and Constance, for reasons we can never quite be sure of, becomes drawn completely into Merricat’s mad world. The great battle Merricat had fought to win Constance for herself is unequivocally won: Merricat’s victory, by the end, is complete. It is the triumph of utter unreason – but it is a happy ending, of sorts.

***

This short novel leaves a very strange taste in the mouth, a taste which lingers long after one has finished reading. It is not entirely an unpleasant taste: in its way, it is actually rather seductive. We may not have been rooting for Merricat – Jackson is careful not to encourage the reader’s empathy, or even the reader’s sympathy, on her behalf – but her triumph, because it is so very hard won, and so much against the odds, seems somehow deserved. It is almost as if we, too, have been won over into Merricat’s macabre and lunatic world. The sense of unease that permeates this novel stays with us right to the end – and beyond.

“No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding”: The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 2015

Since the issue is going to come up sooner or later, let us cut straight to the chase: I do not think The Merchant of Venice is an anti-Semitic play, although, admittedly, the basic outline of the story is: a story about righteous Christians outwitting an evil murderous Jew could hardly be otherwise. But, just as Mozart and da Ponte took for Cosi Fan Tutte a story that was in its outlines misogynistic and transformed it into something that transcends the crudeness of its source material, so Shakespeare, I think, did something similar here. In the first place, the Christians in his play are far from righteous: they are, Antonio excepted, mercenary – every bit as covetous as they accuse the Jew Shylock of being; they are thieves, or, knowing about and condoning as they do Lorenzo’s and Jessica’s theft, accessories to theft; they are filled with hatred for a fellow human being for no better reason that that he is Jewish, and there is no doubting that Shakespeare knew the human cost of this. Indeed, it is this human cost, most obviously for the tormented, but also, I think, for the tormentors, that seems to me to be at the centre of this drama that presents us with a picture of humans all very badly in need of the Quality of Mercy.

As for Shylock, he is much more in this play than merely an “evil Jew”: we would hardly get major Shakespearean actors queuing up to play this role had he been no more than a conventional villain. What he attempts to do in the latter part of the play certainly is evil – there can be no doubt about that – but Shakespeare goes much, much further here than is warranted by Shylock’s nominal role as the comic villain: Shakespeare depicts here a man who is, step by step, layer by layer, stripped of everything he possesses – his wealth, his profession, even his faith; he loses his own daughter, who prefers to side with her father’s tormentors rather than with her tormented father; and, by the end, he loses completely his own humanity. As Howard Jacobson says in a typically trenchant piece of writing in the programme notes, no character in Shakespeare is so stripped of everything as Shylock is: even Malvolio departs with a threat of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors; even Lear is granted a possibly redeeming vision; even Macbeth is allowed a final show of defiance; but Shylock is left with absolutely nothing. His tormentors push him close to the edge of the abyss, but – and here is the terrible irony, too terrible almost to be contemplated – that last step into the abyss, Shylock takes himself. In reacting to the stripping of his humanity, he strips away himself the last vestige of it. By the end of Act Four, Shylock has become an irrelevance: even his exit seems inconsequential:

PORTIA: Art thou contented, Jew? what dost thou say?
SHYLOCK: I am content.
PORTIA: Clerk, draw a deed of gift.
SHYLOCK: I pray you, give me leave to go from hence;
I am not well: send the deed after me,
And I will sign it. (IV, i)

Shakespeare could quite easily have given Shylock a few lines that lay bare the anguish of his soul: this is Shakespeare, after all: he could write anything he wanted. But he didn’t. What he gave us instead is utterly prosaic. Olivier famously howled off-stage like a stricken animal after his departure, but, magnificent though that was, and chilling even when I see it at home on DVD, there is no indication of it in the text: it’s almost as if Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make Shylock’s departure from the action of the play as low-key as possible. Shylock leaves the action, and the play can carry on without him: he no longer matters.

Makram Khoury as Shylock

Makram Khoury as Shylock

The problem I have found both when reading it, and also in the various productions I have seen, is that the strand of the story involving Shylock is so overwhelming in its power that is overshadows the other strand involving the three caskets, and Bassanio’s wooing and marrying of Portia. This latest Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Polly Findlay, neatly sidesteps this problem. The cost, some may say, is too heavy, as Shylock inevitably loses some of his immense tragic grandeur (one really has to go to the Olivier performance to get the full measure of that); but the gains are, I think, considerable: for the first time in my experience, the other strand of the story commands full interest, rather than appearing, as it so often does, as a tiresome adjunct to a magnificent and terrible tragedy. Care is taken also to bring Antonio – superbly played here by Jamie Ballard – to the forefront: he is, after all, the Merchant of Venice (although both Bassanio and Shylock can also be seen as the merchant of the title), and it is he who holds together the two strands of the play, borrowing of Shylock to provide Bassanio with the means of wooing Portia. But all too often in productions, Antonio fades into the background, overshadowed by Shylock in terms of dramatic stature. Not here. The production opens and closes with Antonio alone on stage, and his famous opening line – “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” – is delivered as if in anguish. And soon, the cause of the anguish becomes apparent: Antonio is losing his young lover, Bassanio, and, while acknowledging that this is only to be expected, he finds this loss hard to bear. Some, I know, will object to this interpretation, but I think the text can support it, insofar as no modification is required to accommodate it; and it does, I think, give Antonio a dramatic presence that, in other interpretations, he all too often lacks.

Indeed, Antonio’s love for Bassanio seems to be one of only two in the whole play that is untouched by considerations of money (the other being Shylock’s love for his dead wife). Bassanio tells Antonio quite openly that he seeks to woo Portia because he has squandered his own estate, and is in need of funds: has ever a romantic adventure started with so unromantic a cause? It is not merely Bassanio’s motive that shocks, but his insouciance: it does not even occur to him that this is an ignoble motive, so accustomed is he to living in a society in which everything has a price and nothing any real value. When Shylock refers to Antonio being a “good man”, he means it only in the sense that he is financially sound. Even the seeming nobility of the Venetian courts in refusing under any circumstances to by-pass its laws has, at bottom, a sound financial reason:

The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. (III, iii)

Money taints everything here. Lorenzo, for instance, speaks his line “Beshrew me but I love her heartily” only when transported by delight on seeing what Jessica has stolen for him from her father. In the famous trial scene, Bassanio throws across the floor of the court the money he has brought with him to pay Shylock off, so the entire climactic scene takes place with the characters literally wading through filthy lucre. The set itself – abstract, with a vast polished metallic floor and wall –suggests a world in which money rules absolutely, and covetousness is universal: in this world, Shylock becomes a convenient hate-figure on whose head the others can transfer their own guilt.

The one exception to this general covetousness is Antonio, and this makes him a far more sympathetic figure than is usual. He is still hateful in his racism, though: that is not underplayed. In this production, he spits on Shylock’s face – a moment that draws shocked gasps from the audience –and once again, this is consistent with the text: Shylock, in his first confrontation with Antonio, reminds him that he had spat on him, and had kicked him, and Antonio, far from denying any of this, replies that he is likely to do so again. And Shylock bears it all, as he puts it, with a patient shrug, “for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe”. Makram Khoury, the Israeli-Palestinian actor playing Shylock in this production, has an immensely dignified stage presence, and this, somehow, makes the spitting and the abuse that he bears with “a patient shrug” seem all the more horrible.

Marvellous though Makram Khoury is, his performance, in keeping with the tenor of the production, is underplayed. Very expertly underplayed, it must be said, but underplayed. His final exit from the court scene is as low-key as Shakespeare had written it: having lost utterly everything, there is nothing further left in him – no grandeur of a tragic downfall, no defiance, not even an expression of hurt. Normally, at the final bow, the actor playing Shylock, despite having appeared in only five scenes, comes on after all the rest of the cast to take his applause, but here Makram Khoury appears with everyone else – a member of an ensemble rather than a star performer – and this seems appropriate for a production that presents this play very much as an ensemble piece rather than as a star vehicle.

The court scene is, of course, a huge climactic set-piece, and one could not underplay this even if one wanted to. The strewing of the cash across the floor is a marvellous moment, and particularly striking is Antonio’s sheer terror on facing what he thought was certain and immediate death: his repeated whimpering, which did not stop even after his reprieve, is not something I’m likely to forget in a hurry. And Portia’s “quality of mercy” speech, which can all too easily become a set-piece almost divorced from the rest of the action, is delivered with a particular immediacy and passion by Patsy Ferran: when she reminds us that mercy is an attribute of God himself, it is hard not to wonder whether even these unregenerate characters crowding the stage, Jew or Christian, could perhaps someday be redeemed by divine mercy. But this possibility, visible for but a moment like some distant vision, soon dissipates: the Jew refuses to show mercy, thus taking himself the final step in the stripping of his humanity; and the Christians, having won the day, exult in their most unrighteous triumph.

Despite the high drama of this fourth act, there is little danger here of anti-climax that all too often hampers the fifth. The fifth act here is also full of drama, the seeds of this drama having been cunningly laid in the great court scene, where Portia could see for herself the true nature of the relationship between Antonio and her newly-married husband. And when, in the course of that court scene, Bassanio says to Antonio:

But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life.

it is well noted. After this, Portia asking Bassanio for the ring is no joke: it is a test – a test that Bassanio (significantly at Antonio’s urging) very conspicuously fails. Shylock would not have exchanged “for a wilderness of monkeys” the ring he had received from his wife when he had been a bachelor: Bassanio, however, at the urging of his former lover, does, and this lays the foundation for the drama in the final act: the business with the rings is no joke here – it is deadly serious. Portia eventually relents, and forgives Bassanio: perhaps she has not forgotten her earlier speech on “mercy”. But the ending is more open-ended here than usual: the marriage promises to be rocky.

***

In the last Shakespeare production I saw, I lamented the cuts that seemed to me the take the very heart out of the play. There were some cuts here too, but only two that I’d take issue with. Shylock’s “I hate him for he is a Christian” is cut simply to “I hate him”. Presumably this was done to prevent the audience siding against Shylock from the start, but it really was unnecessary: we see soon enough why Shylock has good reason to hate the Christians in this play. Hatred but breeds hatred, after all. O tell me where is hatred bred, in the heart or in the head?

Also cut is Portia’s line expressing relief that the prince of Morocco had chosen the wrong casket – “Let all of his complexion choose me so”. Presumably, this is cut to prevent the audience from disliking Portia, but this line too, I think, is important: Portia is no Desdemona, after all, and maybe she too is in need of the divine mercy that she later invokes. As for the other cuts, I can but approve: the various clownings of Lancelot Gobbo are among the weakest scenes Shakespeare ever wrote – it’s almost as if he had lost interest in the comedy – and I doubt that even the finest of comic actors could make too much out of them. The distasteful scene where Gobbo “jokes” with Jessica that her conversion from Judaism will raise the price of pork has, however, been rightly retained.

***

Every time I come out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre after a performance, I feel I have been brought a little closer to an understanding of what we, as humans, are. This production presents characters living their lives of anger, of hatred, of betrayal, of greed and cupidity, but also, just occasionally, of real love: Antonio continues to love Bassanio, and Shylock continues to love his wife, who is dead. And through all this meanness and pettiness, of unmotivated hatred and murderous rage, what emerges is a group of people all desperately in need of divine mercy, of redemption. This production achieves a unity that I don’t think I have seen before in this play, and it does so by underplaying Shylock’s tragic stature: possibly that is a price worth paying. But underplayed though Shylock is, as we drove back home afterwards down the motorway, it was that infinitely sad line of Shylock’s that kept going around my head:

No sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.

What an extraordinary play this is!

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