Archive for March, 2016

Ibsen’s coming to get you!

This, seriously, is the Ibsen Memorial in Bergen.

ibsen

He’d have made a terrific monster in Hammer horror films, don’t you think? Just imagine … The Curse of Ibsen, Ibsen Has Risen From the Grave, Ibsen Must be Destroyed

The Hammer studios missed a few tricks there, if you ask me.

 

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Affirmation and denial

I was moved by a story I read recently of a terminally ill lady who had wished, before she died, to see for one last time her favourite painting by Rembrandt. A photograph showed this lady, still in the bed that she presumably could no longer leave, in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; and the sense of reverence – for I know no other word more suitable in this context – that I felt on seeing this picture seemed to go even beyond the respect that is due to those of us facing the fact of our transience.

dyingwish

Now, to admit to such feelings is to risk being labelled “sentimental”, but I have long found that a troublesome word. The “sentimental” is usually defined as that which exhibits “false emotion”, but I don’t know if that will do: for how can one be sure that any emotion displayed is necessarily false? Most of us do not have the ability to express adequately what we feel most deeply, and when we try, what comes out, all too often, is merely vapid, but this vapidity does not in itself necessarily betoken falseness at the source, where the emotion is felt. And in any case, we don’t really deem anything as “sentimental” on the basis of what we think was intended, but, rather, on the impression it makes on us, and this, inevitably, is to a great extent subjective. However, try as I might, I cannot come up with an alternative definition that is independent of the subjective reactions of the viewer. None of this to say that sentimentality does not exist – not everything that exists can be adequately defined, after all: but it does mean, I think, that we should be careful about bandying that term around too freely. And if my being moved by the picture of the ill lady in front of the Rembrandt painting does indeed appear “sentimental”, I can only appeal to the reader’s generosity in this matter: whatever falseness of emotion the reader may detect is in the inadequacy of my expression, rather than in the sincerity of my feeling.

And somehow, the picture this lady asked to see just had to be a Rembrandt. Now, I do not claim to be any great expert on the visual arts, and my lack of knowledge possibly reflects my relative lack of perception: I have long felt that I am less keenly receptive to the visual arts than I am to literature or to music. Nonetheless, if there is any artist whose work looks unblinkingly at life, that refuses to shirk anything that may be deemed unpleasant or unattractive, and yet affirms what it sees, that artist would be Rembrandt.

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“The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in a state of inarticulate wonder. It depicts two figures, a man and a woman, surrounded by darkness. He is looking at her, his left hand placed upon her shoulder, and his right hand upon her breast – not lewdly, nor roughly, but with the utmost gentleness: how Rembrandt could depict the tender softness of a touch merely with paint I do not know, but there it is: the miracle is there for all to see. She acknowledges his touch by laying her hand, equally softly and gently, upon his. And she gazes, not at him, but into the distance: whatever vision it is she sees there, we do not know. The strength of the emotions felt by these two people is reflected in the richness of the paints: not even the finest reproduction can convey the thick, opulent impasto (I believe that’s the correct term, but would be happy to be corrected if it isn’t) which Rembrandt’s applies to the man’s sleeve; or that deepest hue of red that Rembrandt uses for the woman’s dress – a red that is neither shocking nor garish, but is, somehow, utterly consonant with the still serenity of the composition. What we see in this painting is an earthly love, a human love, not transformed into something other than what it is, nor even perhaps transcending what it is, but as it is, where it is, justifying itself merely by being, and defying with its presence the surrounding darkness.

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Detail from “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. “The miracle is there for all to see…”

More than this I fear to say, for fear, once again, of appearing sentimental. So afraid are we of this terrible charge, we prefer to present ourselves as hard-bitten cynics, as sceptics and detractors, and misanthropes and sneerers, rather than try to express, however inadequately, what we sometimes most long to say. But this lady whose last wish it was to see her favourite Rembrandt painting was, presumably, beyond all this. She did not have to say anything, of course, but she knew that what Rembrandt conveyed was more than just a momentary diversion, more than just a fashionable currency of lifestyle. For this is what a great artistic vision can come to mean: it justifies itself merely by being. And if that sounds sentimental, I have to ask, as ever, what precisely we mean by the term.

However, even while I was moved by the lady’s dying wish, I could not help wondering whether the affirmative nature of Rembrandt’s vision is among the principal factors – or, indeed, whether it is a factor at all – in determining the immensity of his artistic vision. For not all works affirm. Many, indeed, deny. I do not necessarily mean tragic works, for it is a commonly acknowledged truth that even the most despairing of tragedies can affirm. And conversely, there are comedies that can deny: what better than the comic mode, after all, to deflate, to reveal our aspirations as mere affectations, our beliefs as delusions, and to tell us that there is nothing serious in mortality? The dichotomy that increasingly seems to me more important than that of the tragic and the comic is that of affirmation and of denial. The self-portrait that the lady so wanted to see in her dying days is, in many ways, a tragic work: Rembrandt paints his failing flesh as it is, with no attempt to hide the nearness of his own extinction; and yet, despite the tragic foreboding, it affirms: even when that extinction comes, even if there is no afterlife that is promised us by religion, the very existence of that flesh, failing though it is, is, in Rembrandt’s vision, its own justification. This painting, however tragic we may take it to be, is a defiant affirmation of the significance of life. But there is another kind of art that does quite the opposite – that denies; and I am not sure that this art is any lesser. At least, not for this particular reason.

We may find in literature also this dichotomy between affirmation and denial. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote, effectively, a hymn to life; Flaubert, on the other hand, saw all human activity as futile. (Except for his recording of that futility: that, if nothing else, was important.) But does that difference alone make Tolstoy a greater artist than Flaubert? I don’t think so. And this leaves us with a conundrum: it is easy to understand, or even feel, reverence for works that affirm; one may understand why it may be one’s dying wish to experience again, for one last time, such works of art. But can any reverence be felt at all for the naysayers? And if so, why?

I have puzzled over this for many years now, and, not having come across any answer yet that satisfies me, have convinced myself that there is no answer. However, I was fascinated by a characteristically thoughtful essay I came across recently by Theodore Dalrymple that seemed to me to touch on these very themes. In the course of this essay, he compares a charming painting by Joshua Reynolds of a child, her arms around her beloved pet dog, smiling at the viewer, with the extremely disturbing images of contemporary artist Marlene Dumas. Dalrymple is, I think it fair to say, a cultural conservative, but the essay is far from an easy and predictable praise of the past and condemnation of the present: or, at least, if that was what Dalrymple had intended, he doesn’t make things easy for himself. The painting he has chosen from the past is one that many nowadays may describe as “twee” or – that word again – “sentimental”; and the contemporary artist whose work he has chosen is, in Dalrymple’s own words, “unquestionably … an artist of great talent”. He refuses, however, to see tweeness or sentimentality in Reynolds’ painting – and rightly so, I think: the charms and the delights of childhood, the uncomplicated happiness and innocence of one who has yet to experience much that disturbs either, are aspects of human life that are every bit as important as are the darker elements, and every bit as worthy of the artist’s attention. But it is when we come to the works of Marlene Dumas that the whole issue becomes considerably more complex, because her images of childhood seem drenched in a pervasive sense of evil. Dalrymple describes these images eloquently, and, following the link he provides, I was reminded as nothing so much as Dickens’ horrific and horrified description in A Christmas Carol of a similar evil lurking in the forms of children:

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Dalrymple pays generous tribute to the power of Dumas’ art, but questions the value of presenting in one’s art such unremitting horror and ugliness. While I am broadly in sympathy with him on this matter, it does seem to me that Dumas’ art, for all its ugliness, has an important place. After all, presentation of such horror and ugliness is nothing new in art: as we have seen, Dickens himself – that epitome of all that is warm and jovial – was no stranger to it; and neither, of course, was Goya, whose “Black Paintings”, and series of prints The Disasters of War, take us into a physical and spiritual hell in which, to judge from the stories still dominating our news headlines, we remain still mired. To insist that artists must turn away from such ugliness and horror is no better than the insistence that Reynolds’ painting, focussing solely as it does on beauty and charm, is somehow “sentimental”.

Of course, Dalrymple does not insist on this at all: he is too sophisticated a writer for that. But his questioning of what value there can there be in an art that only denies is, I think, entirely legitimate. Is it possible, after all, to imagine anyone close to death wishing to see for one last time Marlene Dumas’ art – or, for that matter, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? No, I don’t think so. But that does not make it inferior art. Goya’s denial has, it seems to me, as much a claim to artistic greatness as does Rembrandt’s affirmation. But why this should be, I do not know. It is possible, I think, to understand why even the darkest of tragedies may inspire in us the reverence that is due to the greatest works of art; but why any reverence should be due at all to that which denies, remains, for me at least, a mystery.

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“Saturn Devouring his Son” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

It is the conclusion to Dalrymple’s essay that I fiund particularly striking:

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

Is it true that we nowadays fear “beauty”, that we have “rejected” it? We still, after all, swoon to colourful sunsets; many are prepared to travel half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. But in art that we produce? After all, no serious artist would paint like Reynolds nowadays. I do not mean this merely in terms of style: styles, of course, can and must change. What I mean is that no serious artist would nowadays depict the uncomplicated innocence and charm that Reynolds depicted, without even the slightest hint of the shadows that lie in wait. I am, of course, far from being an expert in modern art, and would be happy to be corrected on this point, but, when I consider all the various branches of the arts, it strikes me that there has been very little produced within, say, my own lifetime, the last half-century and more, that could rightly be called “affirmative”. It is not denial per se that perturbs me: for whatever reason, denial has its rightful place, in even the very greatest of the arts, and is nothing new. What perturbs me more (and I think it perturbs Dalrymple also) is our shutting out of affirmation.

It seems to me very much the case that when it comes to our artistic endeavours, we are, in critic Wendy Simon’s words (quoted by Dalrymple in his essay), “embarrassed by our yearning for beauty”. Indeed, it seems to me to me that, in many cases, we take a delight in ugliness, as if mocking this yearning for beauty that so embarrasses us. And should any of us dissent from this unremitting denial, there is that term that always shuts us up, that accusation to which there is no answer: sentimental. Even when trying to express what we feel about something as ineffable as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, we find ourselves compelled to use the word “unsentimental”, as if pre-empting the criticism we know is bound to crop up.

Some readers may be wondering at this point why I am so glibly conflating beauty with affirmation, and ugliness with denial. It is a fair point. Beauty does not, of course, always equate to affirmation: after all, Flaubert’s great novels of denial are undoubtedly “beautiful”, however we may define that term. But ugliness, it seems to me, can be nothing other than a denial. Of course, much depends upon our definitions, but since even the finest of philosophical minds have struggled in defining these terms, I don’t know that I would like foolishly to rush in here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it does affirm. The couple in Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride are not particularly beautiful as people: neither has what we may call “film star looks”. Of course, there’s beauty in the composition, the colours, the handling of the paint, and so on: without Rembrandt’s genius in such matters, the painting would merely be an attempt at affirmation rather than the real thing. But Goya, too, displayed the very finest of genius in all of these areas, and yet I don’t think anyone could ever describe his “Black Paintings” as beautiful without stretching the definition of the word to something beyond everyday recognition. If we can think of The Jewish Bride as “beautiful” and withhold that term when describing Saturn Devouring his Son, the reason is purely in terms of the respective visions these two paintings convey: the affirmation in one case is “beautiful”, but the denial in the other isn’t, cannot be. The relations between affirmation and beauty, on the one hand, and between ugliness and denial on the other, are complex, and while the correlation may not be perfect, it does, I think, exist. The embarrassment that Wendy Simon had noted about our yearning for beauty seems to me to be an embarrassment for the very concept of affirmation itself.

Dalrymple further says:

Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.

Indeed. And the “celebration of beauty” that seems to us a “sign of insensibility to suffering” seems to me identical to the affirmation that, when it comes to the arts at least, we seem no longer able to believe in.

In the introduction to the old Penguin Classics edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, translator Robert Baldick tells a revealing anecdote. Once, when approached by an admirer of that novel, Flaubert, though pleasantly surprised by the admiration, expressed his feeling that his novel would never be widely liked. What people expect from art, he said, is this – and he brought together the fingertips of both his hands to form a peak; “but I,” he continued, “gave them this” – and he turned his fingers downwards to indicate a bottomless chasm. Flaubert, I think, was wrong on this point: we are all children of Flaubert nowadays, and that bottomless chasm, the denial, is what strikes us now as the only truth: everything else is merely sentimental.

But this is not, I think, the whole story. Even the greatest of naysayers can, if they are sufficiently great artists, affirm. Even Dickens, having presented to us children in whom angels may have sat enthroned but in whom devils lurk, could end that same novel with untrammelled joy. I, for one, cannot deny him that joy (though many do) because it has been hard won: Dickens had looked unblinkingly into the abyss before he could reach this point. Goya too, perhaps the greatest naysayer in all art, painted towards the very end of his life The Milkmaid, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. I have only seen this painting in reproduction, but, sentimental old fool that I no doubt am, even reproductions can move me beyond words. In his “Black Paintings”, in The Disasters of War, Goya had travelled through Hell itself: we cannot now deny him this hard won joy. And if we can respond still to such joy, if some of us can still as our last wish ask to see again a painting of Rembrandt’s, then, it seems to me, there is still room even in our modern world for art that affirms. We need that affirmation now as much as we ever did – not the easy affirmation of the feelgood movie, which is as insubstantial as the easy denial that is so often mistaken for the truth – but an affirmation that is deeply felt, and hard won.

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“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Sweet dreams

I was woken in the early hours of this morning by a particularly intense dream, but, as is so often the case, the moment I regained my wakeful consciousness, all memory of the dream disappeared. And yet the intensity of the dream remained. And, quite unaccountably, some lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, lines I don’t often think about consciously, were going around my head:

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

burning

I  wish I could remember what the hell it was I was dreaming about. It must have been fun.

Why I’m prevented from holding a pen

In Chapter 15 of Nicholas Nickleby, Fanny Squeers writes on behalf of her father to Ralph Nickleby:

She starts her letter:

My pa requests me to write to you, the doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.

I used to find that funny, but now that an attack of sciatica is preventing me from focussing on writing anything – blog posts or otherwise – I can now understand all too well why injury to one’s legs can prevent one from holding a pen.

On a brighter note, I am in Tokyo now (on a work trip), and have in prospect a weekend to myself to go as far as I can hobble. A trip to the Tokyo National Museum will be a day well spent, I think. I may even be inspired to hold a pen again – or, at least, type into my laptop.

In the meantime, here’s the rest of Fanny Squeers’ letter:

‘We are in a state of mind beyond everything, and my pa is one mask of brooses both blue and green likewise two forms are steepled in his Goar. We were kimpelled to have him carried down into the kitchen where he now lays. You will judge from this that he has been brought very low.

‘When your nevew that you recommended for a teacher had done this to my pa and jumped upon his body with his feet and also langwedge which I will not pollewt my pen with describing, he assaulted my ma with dreadful violence, dashed her to the earth, and drove her back comb several inches into her head. A very little more and it must have entered her skull. We have a medical certifiket that if it had, the tortershell would have affected the brain.

‘Me and my brother were then the victims of his feury since which we have suffered very much which leads us to the arrowing belief that we have received some injury in our insides, especially as no marks of violence are visible externally. I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother which takes off my attention rather and I hope will excuse mistakes.

‘The monster having sasiated his thirst for blood ran away, taking with him a boy of desperate character that he had excited to rebellyon, and a garnet ring belonging to my ma, and not having been apprehended by the constables is supposed to have been took up by some stage-coach. My pa begs that if he comes to you the ring may be returned, and that you will let the thief and assassin go, as if we prosecuted him he would only be transported, and if he is let go he is sure to be hung before long which will save us trouble and be much more satisfactory. Hoping to hear from you when convenient

‘I remain ‘Yours and cetrer ‘FANNY SQUEERS.

‘P.S. I pity his ignorance and despise him.’

“Weir of Hermiston” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Of all unfinished novels, Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston is the one I most wish had been completed. There’s Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course, but that’s really Dickens trying to do a Wilkie Collins: I’m sure it would have been very good – even the unfinished stump we have is very good, if not, perhaps, quite top drawer Dickens – but it would still have been Dickens dressed in the borrowed robes of Wilkie Collins. But Weir of Hermiston is pure Stevenson. While the literatures of England and of Ireland have contributed some of the very finest of novels, Scottish literature, frankly, hasn’t. Even the odd masterpiece it has produced – Confessions of a Justified Sinner, say, or Sunset Song, seems to elude widespread international recognition. Weir of Hermiston, had it been finished, could well have put the Scottish Novel more firmly on the literary map.

I wonder to what extent Scott may have been responsible for all of this. In his own time, and possibly for at least a century afterwards, Scott was, arguably, the most famous, and, perhaps, the most influential novelist in the world. Since the death of Scott, the novel developed in all sorts of ways, but I wonder whether it was the case that Scottish novelists felt themselves too much under Scott’s shadow. I really do not know: those better read in Scottish literature, and, indeed, in Scott’s novels themselves, are in a better position to answer that. But the shadow of Scott is very apparent here. And what seems remarkable to me is that, far from being intimidated by it, Stevenson seems, if anything, inspired.

The time is the early years of the nineteenth century, when the aftershocks of the French Revolution were still being felt; and the place is between Edinburgh and the Scotland-England border. Indeed, it’s the very time and place in which Scott himself had lived, but which, by the 1890s, when Stevenson was writing this, had become “historical”.

The central tale concerns a conflict between father and son. The father is Weir, laird of Hermiston, and a hanging judge. In the brilliantly drawn early chapters, Stevenson narrates, with all the verve and concision of the master storyteller that he so undoubtedly was, the melancholy facts of Weir’s marriage: Weir had married for social position, and once married, had, within that very patriarchal society, treated his wife with the utmost contempt: he had, effectively, bullied the unfortunate woman to her death. The story of the marriage could have made a remarkable novel in its own right, but it is here a prologue to the principal drama – the conflict between Weir, and his son, Archie.

Stevenson’s art was that of a storyteller. He was certainly aware of the various developments that had taken place in the novel, and was no dab hand himself at the various other elements that, already by the 1890s, was displacing the story, the plot, away from the centre of interest: nonetheless, it was the plot that Stevenson was primarily interested in. And the plot that Stevenson sets up is fascinating. Weir’s son, Archie, a law student in Edinburgh, witnesses to his disgust the casual and unfeeling contempt his father displays in court for a man he sentences to hang. Interestingly, Stevenson does not tell us what the crime of this man was: it is the routine disregard his father shows for the life of a fellow human being – reflecting as it does the similar disregard he had shown for the life of his own wife, Archie’s mother – that disgusts him. Unable to hide his feelings, Archie makes clear in public what he thinks of his father; and his father, who, despite everything, actually loves his son, orders Archie back to his family estate in the border country, away from the public eye.

In the border country, we are very much in Walter Scott territory. Like Scott – and also like Burns, to complete the triumvirate of Great Literary Scots – Stevenson loved folklore, and he loved the sounds and rhythms of the local dialects. The story of the brothers Elliott, and the terrible revenge they took on the man who had killed their father, is almost mythical, like some ancient story handed down through generations. One can but imagine the delight Stevenson must have taken in revisiting in his imagination the sights and sounds of his homeland, and refashioning its folklore, while writing under the torrid sun of the South Sea Islands.

The plot is beautifully set up. Archie, now nominally the Laird of Hermiston, falls for the Elliotts’ sister, Kirstie; meanwhile, a friend from Edinburgh, whom Archie doesn’t quite trust, comes to visit. Everything seems set up for a stirring drama. But then, it all stops abruptly: in 1894, with only one third or so of the novel written, Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage. What may well have been the Great Scottish Novel remained unfinished.

Stevenson had not quite decided on how the plot was to continue, but the ideas he was playing with are fascinating. What he knew would happen was that Archie would kill his Edinburgh friend. He had initially planned for Archie to be tried by his own father, who would have no choice but to sentence his own son to the gallows, but since Scottish law wouldn’t have allowed a son to be tried by his father, Stevenson had to give up that idea. Plan B was to have the wrong person charged with the crime, and Archie’s father, in trying this person, to realise who the real killer was, ordering the defendant to be released, and recommending the arrest of his own son. What would happen after that remained unsure. In some of his notes, it seems Stevenson played with the idea of the daring Elliott brothers rescuing Archie from prison, but it’s hard to see how such a gung-ho plot development could fit in with what was becoming, by this stage, an intricate psychological study. But it is all conjecture: there can be no right answer to “what happened next?” since Stevenson himself seemed to have been undecided.

Stevenson is remembered primarily as among the finest of storytellers: it would be a sad day indeed if children no longer grew up with Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He was also the author, of course, of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Nabokov surprised everyone by writing about this, alongside such undoubted masterpieces as Madame Bovary, Bleak House and Metamorphosis, in Lectures on Literature, but I for one have never doubted that Stevenson’s story deserves to rub shoulders with the very best: in terms of brilliance of conception as well as mastery of execution, it is a tremendous achievement. There are also a handful of short stories of the highest quality, as well as essays, travel books, and a quite delightful collection of children’s poetry. What is missing in his oeuvre is, I suppose, a full-length novel. Of course, there’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but, for all their merits, these were books aimed specifically for children; and other novels – The Black Arrow, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae – all display potential rather than its fulfilment: indeed, they are all essentially children’s novels. There is no major full-length novel aimed specifically for an adult readership. Weir of Hermiston could have been that novel. Here, far from being intimidated by the legacy of Scott, Stevenson happily embraces it, and renews the tradition for his own times. It seems terribly sad – and not just for the history of the Scottish novel – that it remains unfinished. But what was completed remains, I think, a quite fascinating read.

 

At what point does a novel become literature?

The title isn’t mine. I came across it while browsing the net.

But it’s an intriguing question: at what point does a novel become literature? I took a wild guess: when it’s any good, perhaps? I don’t know … I’m only guessing.

But I must be wrong: I had a quick glance at the article attached to the headline, and it didn’t seem to touch at any point on the concept of literary quality. But I do learn that:

While some intellectuals continue to canonize individual works and authors, others argue that the very concept of literature is at best subjective and at worst oppressive.

Good heavens! Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to oppress anyone…

So I’ll hand this matter over to all you readers out there. It is, after all, fraught question: “At what point point does a novel become literature?”

Any ideas welcome, but please do keep it non-oppressive.

Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Of the three late plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – it’s The Tempest that I find the most difficult: it has seemed to me – and seems to me still, even after having seen this fine production – almost entirely lacking in dramatic tension. Prospero the magician appears, through his faithful servant Ariel, to be in perfect control: neither Caliban’s threat on his life, or Sebastian’s and Antonio’s threat on Alonso’s, generates any tension at all: the audience is assured that these attempts are doomed to failure. And by the end of Act Three, what little dramatic tension there was dissipates as Alonso acknowledges his guilt. As for the strand with Ferdinand and Miranda, we know that Prospero is but testing Ferdinand, and everything Ferdinand says and does assures us that this is a test that he will pass with ease. So where is the tension?

I had not, till this production, seen this play on stage, and I had thought, or hoped, that a stage production will reveal a drama that my readings had missed: but no – there was little tension in performance either. But I have learnt, over many years’ experience with Shakespeare, not to be too hasty in criticising: that only leads to a presumption that embarrasses me when I read my posts over again a few years afterwards. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, and if he has drained this play of dramatic tension, it is for me not to criticise the play on that score, but to try to understand why he did so. For, despite the lack of dramatic tension, the play held my attention throughout the performance: there must have been something else in the work that held my attention so powerfully – though what that something else is, I am even now not entirely sure.

And yet, this most undramatic of plays starts with the most dramatic of scenes: we are plunged into the heart of things right away, with a fearful tempest at sea, and with the mariners and the passengers fearing imminent death. At the end of this scene, the ship appears to sink, and then, as we move to an island near the shipwreck, an entirely different music comes to the fore. It is a strange and solemn music, mysterious, elusive, and very beautiful, but also curiously static. Even as late as The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare had given us verse of the utmost dramatic power that had moved the play forward in surges of untrammelled passion, but we seem here to be in a rather different world: we seem almost to be at the bottom of the sea itself, with the drowned mariners and their passengers. And maybe that’s where we are: maybe what we experience here is some vague dream world between life and death – a communal fantasy experienced at the very moment of death itself. There’s something similar, I think, in the final act of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: at the start of this act, we see Peer in a shipwreck. A fellow passenger tells him not to worry, as the protagonist of a play is never killed off at the start of the final act, but Peer does, I think, die here, and what we see in the rest of the act is Peer’s life unreeling at the point of death in a grotesquely transfigured form; and it is in this unreeling that Peer has to try to find some semblance of meaning, of significance, in the life that he has led. This final act of Peer Gynt is often seen as Ibsen anticipating much later movements in theatre, but I can’t help wondering whether, in The Tempest, Shakespeare had anticipated Ibsen.

It may be objected, of course, that by the end of The Tempest, no character is actually dead: on the contrary – the ship is magically rigged and ready to sail back to Naples, to the reality of the physical world. If what we had witnessed in the course of the play is indeed the unravelling of minds at the point of death, it is not death but to a renewed life that the characters return to. But the effect of the ending is very much to suggest a return to the real world, of a resurfacing; and if we are returning to reality, and resurfacing back to the light of common day, we have to ask ourselves which regions we are returning from, and from which uncharted depth of our unfathomable minds we are resurfacing. We cannot begin to conceive of a Naples or a Milan being anything like the magic island of Prospero: Naples and Milan are real – and Prospero’s magic island isn’t, quite. Shakespeare had done this kind of thing before – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where, once again, the characters seem to enter an enchanted dream world that isn’t quite the world of reality, and where mortal sensibilities are translated, much as Bottom is, into some region where, accustomed as we are to the everyday world of reality, there is no foothold for us to hold on to. But here, the tone is different: the thoughts are not on the absurdities and the vagaries of human love, but on other things – on the nature of Man, on nature and on nurture, on transgression and on reconciliation, and, indeed, on death itself. In one of the most famous passages in the entire canon, death is likened to a sleep (“our little life is rounded with a sleep”), and if we extend that metaphor, the magic dream-world of this play, suspended between sleep and wake, can be seen as suspended between life and death also. If there is no dramatic tension here, no dramatic movement, it is because this is not what Shakespeare is interested in: what he is interested in, however, though easy to be affected by (especially when performed as wonderfully as it is here), is less easy to articulate. Perhaps Shakespeare’s miraculous poetry is the only way there is to articulate it.

The Tempest has been seized on by post-colonial schools of criticism, which – to summarise – see Prospero as a tyrannical colonialist, and Caliban as the downtrodden and exploited native; but I am unconvinced that this is an adequate way of looking at the play. For one thing, the island is no more Caliban’s than it is Prospero’s: Caliban says “this island is mine” because he had inherited it from his mother, the witch Sycorax; but Sycorax was no more of the island than Prospero is. The island had been uninhabited, except for the spirit Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned in a tree, and whom Prospero had rescued (although he threatens in one of his frequent fits of rage to imprison Ariel again). And Caliban himself is a deeply enigmatic figure. At one level, he is earthy and brutish, and proposes killing Prospero by driving a nail through his head while he is sleeping; and he credulously imagines the drunken Trinculo and Stephano to be gods, and is happy to abase himself before them. But he is also given lines of quite unearthly beauty:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

Such realms of poetic imagination are worlds removed from the drunken baseness of Trinculo and Stephano: only a character of fine sensibility could speak lines such as these. And at the end, Caliban vows to “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace”. It is hard assembling together these fragmentary aspects of Caliban into one coherent whole, but I get the impression of an unrefined creature who nonetheless has the potential to rise to a higher state of being. “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero, allowing the possibility that Caliban is an aspect of Prospero’s own mind, much, perhaps, as Ariel is – that these two are his slaves not merely in literal terms, but also metaphorically, representing as they do different aspects of his psyche. But of course, in a work such as this, they may be seen simultaneously as both literal and as metaphorical.

It is, perhaps, not Caliban, but those denizens of the civilised world, Trinculo and Stephano, who are so base that nurture can have no effect on their natures. Unlike Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano cannot even conceive of “grace”, let alone seek for it. And neither is Caliban the true monster of the play: the true monsters are Sebastian and Antonio, who remain to the end unrepentant and unreconciled. If, in these three late plays, Shakespeare had looked beyond the ruptures of tragedy, and had tried to explore the possibility of reconciliation, he had painted very different pictures. In Cymbeline, the reconciliation seems complete, with repentance and atonement one on side, and unreserved forgiveness and love on the other; in The Winter’s Tale, matters are a bit more complicated: the repentence and atonement are sincere, and the forgiveness loving, but the events of the past continue to cast their shadows upon the present, and what rejoicing there is must inevitably be subdued: the sorrows and evils of our lives cannot be wiped clean even by the Resurrection itself. In The Tempest, Shakespeare seems to go one step further: now, he seems to show the impossibility of reconciliation. Prospero decides not to punish, but that is hardly the same as forgiveness. For what kind of forgiveness is this?

For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother
Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive
Thy rankest fault

Whatever Prospero may say, this is no forgiveness. Antonio and Sebastian remain silent: there is no repentance there either. The evil remains, ready to burst out again. Even Miranda’s famous lines about the beauty of mankind are immediately undercut by her father’s more experienced voice:

MIRANDA
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

PROSPERO
‘Tis new to thee.

And what of Prospero himself? I generally try to resist interpretations that are based on the author’s biography; the suggestion that Prospero is Shakespeare’s self-portrait, and that the passage in which he abjures his art is effectively Shakespeare’s retirement speech, may or may not be true, but either way, they cast no light on the play itself. Interpretations of Prospero may, of course, vary, from the good and kindly main driven to rage by the wrongs done upon him but who finally triumphs over his vindictive side, to a man cruel and bitter and almost psychotic in his hatred, but who nonetheless manages to rein himself in for the greater good. Tim McMullan’s fine performance wisely charts a course somewhere between these two extremes, neither underplaying his frequent fits of rage, nor depicting a man beyond the reach of human pity. The turning point seems to me to come when Ariel, but a spirit, feels compassion for the human condition:

ARIEL
Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

PROSPERO
Dost thou think so, spirit?

ARIEL
Mine would, sir, were I human.

PROSPERO
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?

Prospero seems at this point to be shamed into compassion, though there are bounds even on this: to call Antonio “brother” still infects his tongue. Even in a world as magical as this, complete reconciliation is not possible: the ruptures of tragedy are too great ever to be healed. Such a view does not necessarily negate the visions of reconciliation we had seen in Cymbeline and in The Winter’s Tale: it merely gives as a different perspective.

This magical play works particularly well in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: lit by candle-light only, there was little scope for fancy lighting techniques or for special effects, but with Dominic Dromgoole’s sure-footed direction, it didn’t need either: although there must be an element of the spectacular – as indicated in the stage directions – it is that miraculous verse that conveys so much of the magic of this play. At the end, they all sail back to the now united kingdom of Naples and Milan, with the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand carrying a promise of a better future. But by the same token, the unrepentant presence of Antonio and of Sebastian also threatens further outbreaks of evil. Such is our human condition, that even a spirit such as Ariel may feel compassion for, and to which, ultimately, there can be no reconcilement. If this play is indeed Shakespeare’s last word, then I am afraid I can see in it at best a guarded optimism, and at worst, a profound pessimism. But no mystical vision: for all the magic of Prospero’s island, Shakespeare’s interest remained very much of this world, and of human affairs.

See here for my post on Cymbeline at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

See here for my post on The Winter’s Tale at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse