Archive for October, 2013

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

Aeschylus, Dante, Goethe, Tolstoy … and Morrissey

Pop star Morrissey has cocked what many would describe as a well-deserved snook at literary snobs like me by demanding that his autobiography be published by Penguin Classics. And Penguin Classics, to general astonishment, have agreed.

One can only guess at why Penguin Classics should dilute their well-established brand in such a manner, and risk alienating their core readership. Of course, this Morrissey book is likely to have sales that will dwarf those of their more traditional offerings, such as, say, Tom Holland’s splendid-looking new translation of Herodotus. One can certainly sympathise with that: the relentless sidelining of high culture within our society, the easy availability on the net of classic texts, and cheap and often free electronic downloads, must all have taken their toll on Penguin Classics’ sales figures. And for those who ask “what shall it profit a publisher if it shall gain the whole world and lose its own soul?”, the answer is “quite a lot, actually”.

But I remain sceptical that Penguin Classics were motivated primarily by lucre. It seems to me far more likely that they made this decision purely to spur me into writing another intemperate and vituperative rant on this blog about the decline of our cultural values. Well, just to spite them, I won’t. So there.

I bet they’re all feeling jolly silly about this now.

“The air is thick with ghosts…”

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, translated and directed by Stephen Unwin, at Rose Theatre, Kingston.

Please note that the run at Rose Theatre Kingston has now finished, but this production will be touring with the English Touring Theatre. See here for venues and dates.


“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
–        William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun

“The past is the present, isn’t it? And it’s the future too.”
–       Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill

The “exposition” is traditionally that part of the play in which the audience is provided with the background information that is required to follow the action. Usually, this required information deals with events of the past, and is generally imparted as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to hold up the main action of the drama. But there is a certain type of play in which the past is itself the essence of the drama – where the “main action of the drama” is the process of understanding, and of coming to terms with (or, more frequently, of not being able to come to terms with) the events of the past. In these instances, the entire play becomes, in effect, one long exposition. Such plays aren’t new: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is a prime example. And these plays continued into the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for instance. But perhaps no other dramatist more insistently explored the impact of the past on the present than did Henrik Ibsen: Rosmersholm, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, and, in particular, Ghosts, all see the present as something that has been shaped by the past, as something in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt, and from which they cannot be banished. There is no escaping these ghosts, much though we may long to. “The air is thick with ghosts,” says Mrs Alving early in the play, possibly not realising at the time the terrible implications of this.

This focus on the past from which there is no escape gives these plays a sense of constriction, of being trapped in a machine that cannot be anything other than infernal. The scene here is the middle-class drawing room that certain later critics and playwrights have seen fit to mock as “bourgeois”; but  the contents of this particular “bourgeois drama” did more to  “épater la bourgeoisie” than just about any other play one can think of. It’s not just the mechanisms of the plot – inherited syphillis, proposed incest, possible euthanasia – that were shocking: the very basis of the audience’s moral compass was subjected to an unremitting assault. Nowadays, of course, we aren’t so rigid – at least in the Western world – about moral codes of behaviour: we are far more likely now to laugh at the conventional morality of Pastor Manders, or, indeed, to see him as a caricature, than to nod away in agreement; but nonetheless, as this production amply demonstrated, this play’s ability to shock remains undimmed. And it is still there because, I think, it is only superficially about the inadequacy in our lives of conventional morality: considered at a deeper level, this play is about the ghosts that continue to haunt us – that terrible burden of the past from which none of us can ultimately free ourselves, and only in the context of which can we come to any self-understanding.

The past emerges in fragments as the play progresses. First, Pastor Manders tells us of the time when Mrs Alving, then a young wife, had left her husband and had sought refuge with him. He had wrestled with his own desires (although he does not, can not, tell us this), and had persuaded Mrs Alving back to the path of duty: he had persuaded her to returning to her husband to whom she has been united by God. This is a world in which duty is all-important; there is no room here for joy:

To pursue happiness in this world is to be governed by the spirit of rebellion. What right do we have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, Mrs Alving. And your duty was to cleave to the man you’d chosen and to whom you were tied by a sacred bond.

Her husband, Captain Alving, is now dead. And an orphanage, named after him, and financed by the wealth he had bequeathed, is soon to open. But this version of the past, of Captain Alving as a good and respectable man, is a lie, and Mrs Alving is now capable of telling Pastor Manders the truth: Captain Alving had not stopped being a dissipated man, and their marriage was an empty and a desperately unhappy sham. She had sent away her son, Osvald, at an early age, not as a dereliction of duty, but to prevent him associating with his debauched father; she had not wanted him to inherit anything of his (has ever a dramatic irony been so devastating?) With the money spent on the orphanage, the association with Captain Alving is now, Mrs Alving believes, finished: a line can now be drawn under it, and life can start afresh.

In the play The Father, Strindberg, objecting to what he regarded as feminism on Ibsen’s part, has his principal character say sarcastically that, some day, he would like to hear Captain Alving’s side of the story. Ibsen, however, had been ahead of the game on this score. Of course, since this is a realistic drama (at least on the surface), Ibsen could not bring back, Rashomon-like, the ghost of Captain Alving to give his own perspective; but the ghost is there all the same, and, towards the end of the play, before the final catastrophe, in an extraordinary moment of revelation, Mrs Alving begins to see a picture wider than the one that has so embittered her:

MRS ALVING:  … You were talking earlier about joy in life, and what you said shed light on everything in my life.

OSVALD (shaking his head): I don’t understand.

MRS ALVING: You should have known your father when he was young. He was full of joy in life, I can tell you.

OSVALD: Yes, I know.

MRS ALVING: It made me feel like Sunday weather just looking at him, full of such tremendous life and energy.

OSVALD: So what happened?

MRS ALVING: Well, this boy – so full of joy in life – he was just a boy back then – well, he  had to live in a small town with no joy, just diversions. He had to live a pointless life out here, as a government official. He had no real work, just routine. And not a single friend who could appreciate joy in life; just layabouts and drunks…

OSVALD: Mother…

MRS ALVING: And so the inevitable happened.

OSVALD: What inevitable?

MRS ALVING: You said earlier what you’d turn into if you stayed at home.

OSVALD: You mean that father – ?

MRS ALVING: Your poor father never found an outlet for that great joy in life inside him. And I didn’t bring much either.

OSVALD: You didn’t?

MRS ALVING: I’d been taught duty, and all the things I believed in so long. Everything came down to duty – my duty, his duty and – I’m afraid I made your poor father’s home unbearable, Osvald.

–       Translated by Stephen Unwin

[Incidentally, I’m pleased to see Stephen Unwin retain “Sunday weather”, which, I presume, is in the original. Other translators I have consulted replace it with something more idiomatically English, and I can see why; but “Sunday weather” has a good sound to it. Some other alternative are: “It was like a sunny morning just to see him” (Michael Meyer); “It was like a holiday weather just to look at him” (Rolf Fjelde); while Peter Watts avoids the expression altogether with “He was so full of vitality and boundless energy that it did your heart good just to see him”.]

Mrs Alving comes to recognise here her own part in this immense tragedy: she too now realises the terrible toll taken on the human spirit when the claims of joy are not acknowledged, and the very right to pursue happiness denied (“What right do we have to happiness?”)

The truth is arrived at slowly, and its final, terrible manifestation comes as the sun finally breaks through the gloom. And the truth, as so often in Ibsen, brings no relief. The truth is something that much exercised Ibsen’s imagination: in his very next play, An Enemy of the People, written, possibly, as a response to the virulent criticism Ghosts had received, Ibsen proclaims loudly the importance of acknowledging the truth; but even while proclaiming this, awkward questions remain unanswered, and in his subsequent plays, Ibsen addresses these questions. In The Wild Duck, he ponders on those truths that we cannot live with; and in Rosmersholm, he examines the elusive nature of truth itself, and the uncertainty of our perceptions. Here, in Ghosts, the truth is brutal, and inescapable. All attempts to deny the past, to draw a line under it, are doomed to fail: the ghosts of the past cannot be laid so easily. The name of Captain Alving was intended to grace an orphanage, but this attempt to deny the truth about the past goes up, quite literally, in flames; his name ends up gracing, more appropriately, a “sailors’ home” – videlicet, a brothel. The truth is indeed a terrible thing, and when the sun finally breaks through in the final scene, it reveals a scene of devastation, and of utmost terror.

We may no longer object to this play on moral grounds, as past generations have done; our moral perceptions have certainly changed since 1882, when this play was first performed to predictably outraged critical response. But in a world that, like the town in which Captain Alving lived, appears not to believe in joy, and sees mere diversion as an adequate substitute, this unblinking stare into the truth of our condition retains its terrifying power.


I have seen this play twice on television (once with Dorothy Tutin as Mrs Alving, and another production with Judi Dench), but this is the first time I have seen it on stage. It certainly makes a difference. The atmospheric sets, designed by Simon Higglett, are based on the designs made by Edvard Much for a 1906 production directed by Max Reinhardt, and they enhance superbly the claustrophobic horror of the work. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents the work with his customary clarity, respecting the integrity of Ibsen’s text without sacrificing anything in the way of dramatic immediacy. And the performances I cannot imagine being bettered. It is important, for instance, not to present Pastor Manders as a caricature, as he could so easily become: he is a hypocrite, yes, but by no means a conscious hypocrite; and Mrs Alving, on stage through virtually the entire play and having to sustain its terrifying intensity, must surely be among the most demanding of all stage roles: Patrick Drury and Kelly Hunter, respectively, play these very difficult parts superbly. And the smaller parts – smaller only in terms of the number of lines spoken rather than in terms of their importance to the drama – are expertly taken by Mark Quartley, Florence Hall, and by Pip Donaghy. In short, if this play tours to anywhere near where you live, and you do not object to an evening of nerve-jangling drama that is as far from traditional “feelgood” as may be imagined, then this production is most strongly recommended. It inspires terror, yes, but perhaps we need to experience such terror from time to time. I left the theatre shaken, even though I knew what to expect. But yes, for whatever perverse reason, I would gladly experience this all over again.

Shakespeare just got more beautiful

Another new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, I see. Well, why not. That play is not going to go out of fashion any time soon, and no number of tired, routine productions will spoil it. But this one has a novel selling point: it has been adapted by Julian Fellowes, creator of the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.

Of course, there are the usual criticisms: Fellowes has received some flak from those pantomime villains, the Purists (boo! hiss!), for “rewriting certain passages and altering the language used in the Bard’s work”. And these usual criticisms have been countered by the usual reply: it “was never intended to be a straight adaptation of the original”.

So far, so predictable. But it doesn’t stop here. Fellowes goes on to say:

…to see the original [Shakespeare play] in its absolutely unchanged form, you require a kind of Shakespearian scholarship and you need to understand the language and analyse it and so on. I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge. Not everyone did that and there are plenty of perfectly intelligent people out there who have not been trained in Shakespeare’s language choices.

I haven’t been keeping up with the Downton Abbey phenomenon, but I can only assume that Fellowes has a certain public image that is lucrative for him to maintain. It is hard to imagine otherwise how anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together could say such a thing in public. Even if they thought it. The idea that Shakespeare must be beyond those who haven’t had an expensive education, or who haven’t studied at a prestigious university, would indeed be offensive, were it not so damn funny.

In an idle hour, I put all this up on my Facebook page, with a few choice expletives aimed and this Fellowes chappie (which I then took out for fear of causing offence to any maiden aunt who may be reading). Within minutes, there was a targeted ad on to my Facebook page for this new Romeo and Juliet film:

Romeo & Juliet. We all know the ending to this love story, but it just got more beautiful.

No, seriously – that’s what it says, word for word! Thanks to Fellowes, Shakespeare just got “more beautiful”.

Ah – the wonders of an expensive education!

Literary literature makes you more literary. It’s a fact.

Another day, another study. Apparently, we now know it to be a  scientific fact that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-literary fiction (please don’t ask me what those terms mean: they aren’t mine), improves your “people skills”. It helps you understand other people better, helps you relate to them more effectively, and so on. In short, it makes you a better person, and a good egg all round.

The report in the Telegraph reads:

Some volunteers were asked to read…

Whoa, hold on there! “Some volunteers”? That doesn’t say much for statistical significance. Well, let’s not worry about details: “some volunteers” it is.

Some volunteers were asked to read excerpts of recent award-winning novels or short stories, while others were asked to read either parts of popular fiction bestsellers or non-fiction pieces from Smithsonian Magazine.

The readers were then subjected to a series of five tests meant to gauge how well they could guess what a person was feeling, for instance by looking at a picture of a facial expression or answering questions about how a given character would act under certain circumstances.

The best scores were obtained by those who had just read excerpts of literary fiction, while those who read popular or non-fiction showed little improvement in their ability to judge the actor’s mood.

Well, I never! So literature is good for you after all! What a relief! And here I was thinking I’ve been wasting my time pursuing it for so many years!

Maybe, some day, we may give up trying to justify it on the basis of alleged side-benefits, and value literature for its literary qualities. And then, we could stop seeing it merely as a tool to help us get on better with or neighbours and colleagues, or as a means of asserting one’s racial identity, or whatever.

Now, wouldn’t that be a novelty?

In praise of … The New Oxford Book of English Verse

Looking through my last couple of posts, I can’t help noticing that a curmudgeonly, mocking, and, indeed, belligerent tone has crept in. More than just “crept in”: anyone chancing on my blog for the first time and reading my latest posts would imagine the writer a dyspeptic and ill-tempered old grump, constantly displeased with all around him and spitting venom to one and all. Those who know me, of course, will testify that nothing can be further the truth; they would testify to my geniality, to my desire only to spread sunshine and happiness, and to my positively Pickwickian warmth and benevolence.

Or something like that.

So, before retiring for the night, I thought it would be a nice idea to put up a post about something I love. No shortage of that in that little room I call my library. And walking in, on the impossibly cluttered little coffee table in front of the sofa, I found my old battered copy of The New Oxford Book of English Verse, a much loved companion now for well over thirty years.

132I remember distinctly when I bought this book, and where: it was June 1977; I was 17, and had just completed the last examination of my first year physics undergraduate course. I was feeling rather pleased with myself, as the questions had come up much as I had expected, and I knew I had done well – well enough to be invited back with open arms to the second year of the course. That evening, the other students and I were to meet for a celebration, and, this being in Glasgow, much alcohol was to be consumed – my being distinctly underage being neither here nor there. But that afternoon, long before the first pint was downed, I went into Grants Bookshop (that used to be on Union Street to the east of Glasgow Central Station), and, to celebrate what I was sure would be my success, handed over five pounds and twenty-five pence – an awful lot of money those days, especially for a mere student – and bought myself The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Dame Helen Gardner.

Well – what better way is there of celebrating?

I had studied a few poems at school, of course: Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, Burns’ wonderful satirical hatchet job “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, a very passionate poem by Dylan Thomas called “Especially When the October Wind”, and a few others. But I was not really a poetry reader: apart from a few odd examples gleaned in the English class at school, I did not really know English poetry – I had little idea of the course it had taken, and how it had developed over the centuries. Whatever perception I now have of English poetry has been largely shaped by this book.

The anthology stops at 1950 – or, rather, as Dame Helen says in the introduction, “it includes no poet who had not established himself by 1950”. This seems fairly reasonable, given that this anthology was first published in 1972. And the choice seems to me as good as can be wished for. There are inevitable omissions, of course: at the time, I regretted the omission of “Holy “Willie’s Prayer”, which had so impressed me at school; nowadays, the most notable omission seems to me Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. But no anthology can have everything. Here were some of the greatest landmarks of English verse – Shakespeare’s sonnets, the finest of the Border ballads, the love poetry and the religious poetry of Donne, the great odes of Keats, the Metaphysical Poets, Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems and a superb selection from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a generous selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins (including the entire “The Wreck of the Deutschland”), the early Romantic poems of Yeats shading into his own individual brand of modernism, and so on. There was also a wealth so lesser-known poems by lesser-known poets, but which deserved nonetheless to be set before the discerning reader. The entire poetic genius of the British Isles (for, as the introduction makes clear, Dame Helen had no intention, despite the title, of restricting herself merely to poets of England) seemed distilled into a single volume. Here were riches untold. Even now, I find, that the works I am most familiar with even by such major poets as, say, Marvell or Herbert or Hardy, are the ones included in this anthology.

How I remember in the years that followed thrilling to these poems, or puzzling over them, trying to understand! How well I remember being utterly bewildered by “The Waste Land”! Bewildered – yet fascinated; or, as that line from the excerpt from Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound” puts it, “dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing”:

Lamp of Earth! where’er thou movest
Its dim shapes are clad with brightness,
And the souls of whom thou lovest
Walk upon the winds with lightness,
Till they fail, as I am failing,
Dizzy, lost, yet unbewailing!

I still have that copy from all those years ago, and, battered though it now is, I wouldn’t change it for a newer one. Since my student days, a newer edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse has been published, this time edited by Sir Christopher Ricks; but, fine though that no doubt is, it won’t displace Dame Helen’s edition from my affections: call it nostalgia if you like. And I am delighted to see that Ricks’ newer edition has not displaced Gardners’ older one – any more than Gardners’ edition has displaced the previous edition edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: all three are currently available, and I am sure there are those of an older generation who are as sentimentally attached to Sir Arthur’s edition as I am to Dame Helen’s.

There are other fine anthologies also now available. Oxford also publish the three-volume Treasury of English Verse, edited by John Wain; and Penguin have published the excellent New Penguin Book of English Verse edited by Paul Keegan: it is a larger and more extensive selection than any of the Oxford volumes (apart from Wain’s three volume set), and, intriguingly, groups the poems by year of publication rather than by poet, thus throwing up the most unexpected juxtapositions. These anthologies are all fine for different reasons, but if I had to choose just one, I think I know which one I’d go for: sentiment is a fine thing!

Well, it’s getting late now, and I’d best retire for the night. And I think I know which book I will be taking up to bed with me!

Good night, all!

A dog barks at Sir Oracle

I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark
– From The Merchant of Venice, I,i, 93-4

129It’s not often that a book of literary criticism – and one weighing in at over 700 pages at that – comes with “The New York Times Bestseller” blazoned across its cover. But this – Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom – is no ordinary literary criticism: this is written by Harold Bloom, who, perhaps uniquely, is a celebrity literary critic. And this, presumably, is his magnum opus – the world’s most celebrated literary critic writing about the works of the world’s most celebrated writer. On the cover of my edition is a Sybil from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. Now, what do Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes have to do with the plays of Shakespeare, one may wonder? Easy: they are both universally reckoned to be representative of the highest peaks in their respective fields; there is no work of literature greater than the plays of Shakespeare, nor any work of art greater than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. If books played music, I imagine this one would play Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

We’re left in little doubt, in short, that the tome we are holding in our hands in a worthy tome. The greatest writer, the greatest artist, and, without too spectacular a leap of the imagination, the greatest literary critic. This is a tome worthy to be placed reverentially beside the Complete Works of Shakespeare itself – one volume containing the text, the other explaining to us how we are to understand that text.

There has, of course, been so much written about these works, that new books on this topic, to avoid repetition of what has gone before, generally try to find a new angle; and Bloom’s new angle is mentioned both in the title, “The Invention of the Human”, and ialso in the first paragraph:

Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves. Sometimes, this comes about because they overhear themselves talking, whether to themselves or to others. Self-overhearing is the royal road to individuation, and no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than hundred major characters and many more hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages.

One may argue against this by saying, as I did, “Bullshit!” And it is just as valid an argument as Bloom’s, since neither is supported by evidence.

Does Achilles in The Iliad not change because “[his] relationship to himself … has changed”? Does not Sakuntala similarly change in the play by Kalidasa? What about the protagonists in the Greek tragedies? In what way is the development of Hamlet or of Othello different from that of, say, Achilles or of Sakuntala or of Clytemnestra? Bloom hedges his bets by adding the word “relatively” (“Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging…”); and, later, he says “no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well…” (my italics); in short, he appears to be implying that other writers have achieved this also, but not to the degree that Shakespeare has – that the difference between Shakespeare and other writers is quantitative, not qualitative. But if this is indeed what Bloom means, then it seems to make little sense to ascribe to Shakespeare “the invention of the human”.

There are other problems too. In Shakespeare, we are told, characters “develop” rather than “unfold”: this has the potential of being a useful critical insight if Bloom could be bothered to spell out what he sees as the distinction between the two. But he isn’t. Neither does he bother to explain what he means when he says that Shakespeare’s characters “reconceive” themselves. These are terms that all require discussion, and explanation: instead, they are thrown out in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. Well, given the choice, I left it: if the author can’t be arsed to explain what he means, I can’t be arsed to try to figure it out.

This opening paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the book – terms used that are neither defined nor explained nor even for that matter discussed, and contentions, consistently unargued, delivered in an oracular manner. Indeed, the picture on the cover seemed after a while quite appropriate: it is Michelangelo’s depiction of the Sybil at Delphi, the most celebrated of oracles.

However, it is questionable whether the Oracle at Delphi, enigmatic though it frequently was, spoke such gobbledegook as Bloom indulges in. Normally, I would try to argue against points I disagree with rather than baldly dismiss them as “gobbledegook”, but when no argument is presented in the first place, what is there to argue against? If it’s just a matter of unargued opinions, “gobbledegook” carries as much weight as anything Bloom says.

Bloom dutifully goes through the canon, play by play, making oracular pronouncements with little if any analysis. There’s much that I find myself taking issue with, but I don’t know that I have the time or energy to go through it all; and since no argument is ever presented, nothing seems worth arguing against. For instance, he insists The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. This, as I am sure he knows, is a contentious point: critics, commentators, actors, directors, and even ordinary readers, at all levels of erudition (sometimes no less than Bloom’s, and occasionally, perhaps, even greater), remain divided on this point. And so, if one is to take sides on the matter, one might have thought some sort of argument might be in order. But no – argument, it seems, is only for little people: you don’t need argument when you’re a celebrity literary critic. Bloom refuses, as ever, to provide an argument, imagining forceful statement of opinion to be an adequate substitute:

One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.

(Something wrong with that sentence surely! “Nevertheless” means, as I understand it, “in spite of…”, and so, when one uses the word “nevertheless”, what follows that word is “in spite of” something that appears to contradict it; but , in this sentence, Bloom follows “nevertheless” with “[it is] a profoundly anti-Semitic work”, and it is far from clear what this is “in spite of”. One might have expected a celebrity literary critic to write a bit better than this!)

Bloom then proceeds to shake his head, more in sorrow than in anger, at the very thought that anyone could have the temerity to disagree with him:

Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation.

Except this is not an observation: it is a critical judgement, and a contentious one at that; and, like all critical judgements, it is something to be arrived at after argument, not something to begin with. No wonder his sensitive and intelligent students were unhappy.

Undaunted, Bloom continues:

Nor do they accept my statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos.

Bloom does not feel the need to explain why a “comic villain” cannot also be “a figure of overwhelming pathos”; neither is he willing to admit the possibility that Portia may not indeed be particularly sympathetic, and that there is no reason to present her as such. Instead, he offers utterly unargued, and hence, utterly worthless assertions:

I have never seen The Merchant of Venice staged with Shylock as comic villain, but that is certainly how the play should be performed.

He continues:

I am afraid we tend to make The Merchant of Venice incoherent by portraying Shylock as being largely sympathetic. Yet I find myself puzzled as to what it would cost (and not only ethically) to recover the play’s coherence. Probably it would cost us Shakespeare’s Shylock, who cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended, if indeed we can recover such an intention.

I have read this passage over many times – far more frequently than it deserves – and I still wonder that so highly rated a literary critic could be capable of writing in so incoherent a manner. What, exactly, is “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? And, what is more, a “Shakespeare’s Shylock” who “cannot have been quite as Shakespeare intended”? If Shakespeare’s Shylock is indeed something other than what Shakespeare intended, in what way is the achieved figure different from the intended figure? And how can anyone – even the oracular Bloom – know or even guess at what Shakespeare intended if the end result, which is all we have to go on, is something other than the intended result? Furthermore, if “Shakespeare’s Shylock” is indeed other than what Shakespeare had intended, why should we refer to the achieved character rather than to the intended character as “Shakespeare’s Shylock”? I have no idea frankly what Bloom is on about. And, after giving this matter far more thought than is warranted by the wretched quality of the writing, I can’t say I am much interested either: once again, if Bloom can’t be arsed to make himself clear, I can’t be arsed to search out his meaning.

Let us move on to another play featuring an outsider in Venetian society – Othello. This, Bloom proclaims (and, needless to say, doesn’t argue) is not “Othello’s tragedy”, but “Iago’s play”. And Othello must be, Bloom insists, a splendid character: Bloom deplores what he describes as “a bad modern tradition of criticism that goes from T. S. Eliot to F. R. Leavis through current New Historicism” that “has divested the hero of his splendour”. Fair enough: criticism is frequently dialogue with past interpreters, and a dialogue with Eliot and Leavis on Othello would certainly be interesting. Except Bloom isn’t interested in dialogue: the sound of his own voice is enough for him. Although both Eliot and Leavis – especially Leavis – have argued their points closely with reference to the text, Bloom, who doesn’t, is happy simply to label their criticism as “bad”, and not go further. Now, one may or may not agree with Eliot and Leavis on Othello, but one might have thought their closely argued critical insights deserve somewhat better than this.

And what is Bloom’s own take on the play? Well – where does one start?

For Bloom, this is “Iago’s play”, and he compares Iago to Milton’s Satan:

Milton’s God, like Othello, pragmatically demotes his most ardent devotee, and the wounded Satan rebels. Unable to bring down the Supreme Being, Satan ruins Adam and Eve instead, but the subtler Iago can do far better, because his only God is Othello himself…

I will refrain from commenting on Paradise Lost, as it is a long time since I read it, and I do not remember it too well: I do not recall, for instance, Satan having been “God’s most ardent devotee”, and neither do I remember Satan being demoted; but I may well be wrong on both these points. But Othello I have read frequently enough, and, while I do not claim to be anything other than an amateur enthusiast of Shakespeare, I do know that there is nothing in the text to lead us to conclude that Iago had been Othello’s “most ardent admirer”; and neither is there anything in the text to indicate Iago has been demoted: he has not been appointed Othello’s lieutenant, but being passed over for promotion is not the same as demotion. But why look for textual evidence that could spoil a nice theory? For Bloom, Iago had been Othello’s most ardent devotee, but had turned against Othello on being demoted, and this accounts for his motive. So the issue that commentators have debated and disagreed upon for centuries is here resolved at a stroke – and if the text does not support it, so much the worse for the text. After all, whom are we to believe? – Bloom, or the crooked text?

If we do take that radical step of consulting the text, we find that Iago states two motives: in the opening scene, he tells Roderigo – a character whom he deceives, and with whom he is consistently dishonest – that he hates Othello because Cassio had been preferred to himself for the position of lieutenant: no mention or even hint of an “ardent admiration” for Othello, nor even of demotion. This motive, once stated, is never referred to again. Later in the play, Iago puts forward, twice, a very different motive: in his soliloquies at the end of I,ii, and again at the end of II,i, Iago mentions that he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Othello:

And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true
But I or mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as it were for surety.

…partly to diet my revenge
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…
(II, 1, 293-5)

And later, his wife Emilia also refers to Iago’s suspicions:

…Some such squire it was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.
(IV, ii, 146-8)

[The line numbers both here and elsewhere refer to the numbering in the 3rd Arden edition of Othello]

Of course, both these motives can and have been questioned. But if we are to look for Iago’s motives, then it would seem that sexual jealousy, twice mentioned in soliloquies and once referred to independently by his wife, carries greater weight than lack of promotion, which is mentioned only once, and that to a character whom Iago deceives throughout the play. But it is the lack of promotion (or “demotion”, as he calls it) that Bloom seizes upon, while the possible motive of sexual jealousy is airily dismissed: referring to Iago’s expression of sexual jealousy, Bloom informs us: “…Iago tells us what neither he nor we believe.” Well, we may not believe it, but what evidence does Bloom have that Iago doesn’t? Bloom then refers to Iago telling us that he suspects Cassio with his wife as well, and comments:

We can surmise that Iago, perhaps made impotent by his fury at being passed over for promotion, is ready to suspect Emilia with every male in the play.

I do hope he intended that “we” as a Royal “we”, as, try as I might, I cannot surmise anything at all of this nature. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing in either text of the play – the Folio or the Quarto – to indicate an Iago “made impotent by his fury”.

Idiocy soon piles on idiocy, and after a while, the whole becomes what Dr Johnson referred to in another context as “unresisting imbecility”. Iago, we are told, is a “genius” who has planned everything out meticulously: it is Iago, indeed, who is “the author of the play”. But surely, Iago fails at the end, and is arrested? Bloom has his explanation for this: this was the only point where Iago has miscalculated, he says: Iago didn’t take into account Emilia’s loyalty to the dead Desdemona; and, further:

Iago is outraged that he could not anticipate, by dramatic imagination, his wife’s outrage …

I actually read the last scene of Othello again to see if there is the slightest hint here of Iago’s outrage on this score. He is certainly outraged by his wife turning against him, but is there any indication that he is outraged by his own inability to anticipate this? I certainly can’t find any. And, as ever, there is no point looking at Bloom’s book for any supporting evidence: he doesn’t do “evidence”.

It seems to me that Iago, far from being a “genius”, is a rather shallow man of very limited vision, who most certainly does not plan the whole thing out. More than once, we see him making it up as he is going along:

How? How? Let’s see (I, iii, 393)

Later, almost half way into the second act, he admits that his plan is still “confused”:

…’Tis here, but yet confused:
Knavery’s plain face is never seen, till used.
(II, 1, 309-10)

It is interesting that in neither of these soliloquies, nor, indeed, at any other point till as late as Act IV does Iago mention or so much as hint at bringing about the death of Desdemona. And even there, it is Othello who suggests it, not Iago:

Get me some poison, Iago; this night: I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again: this night, Iago.
Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
– (IV,I, 201-4)

What evidence is there that Iago had planned this from the start? We have been privy to his soliloquies, and have heard him making his plans: if this was what he had been planning all along, why didn’t he tell us?

As far as I can see from what I find in the text, Iago, far from being the supreme genius who effectively writes the play, miscalculates throughout, and finds himself having to improvise as he goes along. He had not, for instance, anticipated Othello’s violent rage:

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore…” etc. (III, iii, 360ff)

It is only at this point, when he realises that his own life is in danger if he does not provide Othello with proof, does he find he has to go further. Of course, he is quite happy to go further; but we had witnessed him make his initial plans in his soliloquies at the end of I,iii and at the end of II,I, and in neither of them did he anticipate anything like this. Neither had he anticipated Roderigo’s decision to retire from the fray, and stand up for himself:

I tell you ’tis not very well. I will make myself known to Desdemona: if she will return me my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you
(IV, ii, 198-202)

It is only at this point that the murder of Roderigo – once again, a feature that had not appeared in Iago’s plans as revealed in his earlier soliloquies – becomes a necessity. Is all this really the result of meticulous planning by a “genius” who could “anticipate”, “by dramatic genius”, everything except Emilia’s outrage?

Let us not labour the point. The entire book is full of “surmises” – opinions which, when not banal, are merely silly, and always unsupported by evidence or by anything resembling argument. Possibly there may be an interesting insight here and there, but if there is, it is all but buried under a mountain of pompous and comically self-important idiocy. At no point in this book could I discern a new shaft of light into these works.

There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it
– Julius Caesar, I,ii,284

The sad thing is that given Bloom’s celebrity status, this book, for many, I imagine, will be the first and possibly the only experience with literary criticism. That really is a shame, as there is no shortage of very good critical writing that provide the finest of insights on these endlessly fascinating plays . Bloom’s book, in this respect, is even worse than useless.