I thought I should go back and say a few words about this book because it is, in fact, the one that brought me back to literature after more than a haI thought I should go back and say a few words about this book because it is, in fact, the one that brought me back to literature after more than a half decade of languishing in an overly-earnest realm of nonfiction, "real life" only. My brother gave me this baseball-riveted, family demi-epic as a birthday present last year, and thankfully it arrived with a verbal "won't disappoint" label pronounced enough to overcome my fictional apathy. One year later and I'm as obsessed with 19th century Russian lit as Duncan's aptly- (and self-) named Natasha. So The Brothers K did more than simply reignite my literary passion- it focused it in a very specific direction that time has revealed, unequivocally, to be nothing short of blissful. Any novel that can turn a science guy into a Tolstoy fanatic must be pretty special. This one comes with the most unreserved recommendation. ...more
Wow. This sprawling epic floats along like a drawn-out, pleasant conversation late into the night: characters, themes, and plotlines flow into each otWow. This sprawling epic floats along like a drawn-out, pleasant conversation late into the night: characters, themes, and plotlines flow into each other tangentially, only very occassionaly circling back to reemerge as a key story aspect. Despite (or because of?) the loose structure, I was utterly fascinated and engrossed throughout. Many of the themes and even some of the transient ideas will surely haunt and delight me for quite some time. Superb. ...more
I was talking to a friend the other day about this book, and we both agreed that it was overrated, especially since it is sometimes/often claimed to bI was talking to a friend the other day about this book, and we both agreed that it was overrated, especially since it is sometimes/often claimed to be the greatest American novel (or at least of the last century). After reading This Side of Paradise out of a yearning for college nostalgia, I decided to give Gatsby another go. And it quickly became evident that my recent supercilious comments on its quality were based only on vague recollections of high school English and my own tendency toward conversational ostentation. This work is not overrated. Not at all. The aspect I found particularly fascinating is the use of deception--all of the characters deceive (both themselves and others) with reckless abandon throughout the novel, which Nick is somewhat over-ready to relay to the reader. And even after he claims that "everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known", his own reliability as a narrator is eventually called into question by his (ex)flame, Jordan (as if his overly-innocent passivity throughout the novel wasn't enough of a tip-off). No doubt about it--this is a masterfully-concocted tale in which Fitzgerald displays an almost preternatural economy of storytelling. ...more
Whew. This is a devastating book. Probably one of the most depressing stories I've read. Incest, castration, suicide, racism, misogyny—this one has itWhew. This is a devastating book. Probably one of the most depressing stories I've read. Incest, castration, suicide, racism, misogyny—this one has it all. Even at the beginning, when it is possible to make out only pieces of the events, a nauseating sense of dread permeates Benji’s narrative per Faulkner’s pungent writing style. And this feeling never really dissipates.
Jumping into The Sound and the Fury with no prior introduction is like driving through an impenetrable fog or into a blinding glare—you can't quite tell who is who; male or female; black or white; first, second, or third generation; relative or friend or stranger. But gradually, before frustration has a chance to set in, the fog begins to burn off and the glare becomes less direct. By the time the omniscient narrator closes things out in part four, the scales have been fully removed and you are left with a crystal limpidness in which you can smell the sweet southern honeysuckle and feel the rotting wood of the old barn.
It’s interesting to confront another modernist’s take on the human experience of time while concurrently reading In Search of Lost Time. While Proust gently but thoroughly leads us through the inner-workings of our past, present, and future, Faulkner attempts to capture the continual and forceful vying of these elements within the mind—at the intentional cost of a coherent linear narrative. The results are disorienting, yet powerfully emotive. Adding subtly to this effect, Faulkner often relays visual experience egocentrically, particularly in the case of Benji, for whom objects and views vanish before his eyes when he has simply shifted or been turned by Luster or Caddy.
Because the first section takes place on the day between the third and fourth sections, I skimmed through some of it again before reading the final part. I was surprised by what I could glean from snippets that had initially seemed inscrutable and incomplete. This is a book made for rereading; an American masterpiece, undoubtedly.
1 Within the first 20 pages of To the Lighthouse, I fell head over heels in love. Gorgeous, fluid writing…the kind that gives me that buzz. You know t 1 Within the first 20 pages of To the Lighthouse, I fell head over heels in love. Gorgeous, fluid writing…the kind that gives me that buzz. You know that buzz. It was pure joy. There are passages here that unlock memories and past smells; sounds; feels; the summation of which reaches a crucial liminal stage that, when crossed, offers that pinnacle of reading: the buzz, the click, whatever you want to call it. At least, that was my experience from reading ecstatic sentences like this:
She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!
It’s not coincidental that with this joy I felt echoes of Proust reverberating in the prose of someone who, a couple years earlier, had gushed “Oh if I could write like that!” after reading Swann’s Way. Well, Ms. Woolf, you can. You most definitely can. In the first chapter, the dozens of semi-colons notwithstanding, the resemblance to Proust is most obvious, and it fades into something very much her own, razor sharp but equally beautiful, after the initial chapters. The beginning felt, in fact, like a condensed homage to Proust—there’s the reference to Turner’s painting, Vesuvius Erupting, the young male fawning over the middle-aged queen (the narrator with Odette vs. Charles Tansley with Mrs. Ramsay), and of course the over-flowing sentences which demand—and reward—two or three reads before moving on. Furthermore, Woolf, intentionally or not, takes up Proust’s “game” of reinventing his characters between volumes (see: Swann the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain all-star of Swann’s Way vs. Swann the bourgeois husband of Odette “quite-the-reputation” de Crecy of Within a Budding Grove and The Guermantes Way). Woolf, however, will present a character as worthy of hatred and ridicule in one paragraph, and as deserving of sympathy and respect in the next. While this extreme quantum characterization sounds difficult to pull off, she manages it flawlessly by utilizing a stream-of-consciousness emotion-processing style that, unlike many attempts by less-worthy authors, actually rings legitimate and true.
2 At the heart of To the Lighthouse lie the dueling extremes of masculinity and femininity, and the question of whether they can be successfully joined in romantic pairings or, in Lily’s case, within the individual soul. Early on in the novel, Lily contemplates Mrs. Ramsay’s nature and whether she can incorporate these aspects into herself:
What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart?
But a moment later, Lily dismisses Mrs. Ramsay’s idolatry of motherhood and marriage, her manipulative designs to bring about proposals. Similarly, while remaining critical of Mr. Ramsay’s often demanding and callous behavior, she also reveres his intellect and adventurous spirit. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay represent then-current masculine and feminine ideals—ideals that include many subtle but deleterious flaws. Only the asexual Lily can see this and her epiphany, grasped initially during the first section’s climactic dinner but ultimately delayed a decade, is represented in her painting, through her desire to reach a middle ground where she can be herself, unmarred by the expectations of the Ramsays and, implicitly, society as a whole. The last lines of the book achieve a simple but satisfying resolution for Lily and the reader:
With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
3 As the small group nears the lighthouse at the end of the book, I was a little disappointed with James for requiring affirmation in (seemingly) the same way as Mr. Ramsay, whose neediness in this regard ripples unpleasantly through book. But where Mr. Ramsay’s need is grasping, grabbing, taking—summed up perfectly in a sentence that functions tellingly as a full chapter:
[Macalister’s boy took one of the fish and cut a square out of its side to bait his hook with. The mutilated body (it was alive still) was thrown back into the sea.:]
—James’ need is harmless and healthy; he requires only his father’s (Mr. Ramsay’s) recognition of his performance in steering the boat. It’s a “Well done!” that costs Mr. Ramsay nothing but makes James’ entire day, utterly dispensing his gloom and bitterness. And it’s Woolf’s brilliance in exploring these human emotions and motivations that makes this novel a magnificent gem to be continually explored and admired. ...more
Given the subject matter—um, descriptions of cities—I wasn’t expecting this book to affect me on such a personal, visceral level. But during the finalGiven the subject matter—um, descriptions of cities—I wasn’t expecting this book to affect me on such a personal, visceral level. But during the final city description and again in Marco Polo’s closing dialogue with Kublai Khan, I got serious chills. And to put that in perspective, I was finishing it outside (90+ degrees) George Bush Intercontinental Houston, or whatever the hell that airport’s called. Now this effect may have been compounded by the fact that I was also listening to the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack. Despite the inarguable greatness of Basil Poledouris’ score, however, I have no doubt that it was this book that ultimately moved me to an epidermal state that has no business budding on a summer day in Texas. It’s that good—a philosophical gem and a gratifying guide for the adventurous mind and wonder-full spirit.
It took two or three city descriptions for me to realize that Marco Polo wasn't describing cities so much as the human mind and experience. Rather than take away from the beautiful physicality of the descriptions, however, this gives the book a limitless pleasure and depth. How to describe it? It's like a children's book for adults. There's this magical other-world, other-time feel that's complex and meaningful and gorgeous. Think about a fairy tale with its shiny storyline, ex facie, that's also serving up something edifying and subtextual. Invisible Cities is the grown-up version. And the descriptions are often just curious and strange enough that you can come away with multiple meanings, in part determined by your current mental/emotional state. Sometimes I was too puzzled or infatuated with the physical description to divine much of anything coherent, but this serves to make the inevitable reread that much more appealing. As Calvino via Polo tells us, it is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear. Amen. ...more
Sometimes I just need to change gears with no notice and no serious analysis. I’ve always had this behavioral tic. I’ll just come home on a Friday aftSometimes I just need to change gears with no notice and no serious analysis. I’ve always had this behavioral tic. I’ll just come home on a Friday after a long week and shave my head, or buy and wear women’s t-shirts or interlocking male symbol earrings (you can borrow, just ask). Or pick up something short and compelling to read while toiling through never-ending (yet very worthwhile) behemoths. I did this a few months ago by racing through The Stranger and The Lover during my earliest foray into Proust; with To the Lighthouse while reading Infinite Jest. And now I’ve done it again with The Road, which my brother suggested would act as a good ‘palate cleanser’. True.
There’s something about taking a long time to finish books that, independent from my actual enjoyment of the currently-readings, frustrates me. I can’t figure out why this is, but I imagine that it’s not unusual and may account for the long-book phobia common among people who still read a hell of a lot of pages/books per year. It isn’t readily apparent why one long book is harder to tackle than three or four short ones over the same time period, but I think most would agree that this is indeed the case. (Thoughts?) At first I suspected that this need-to-finish anxiety may have been exacerbated by Goodreads, but I now believe that this website actually keeps me accountable and encouraged to finish long books by threatening me with admission of failure in front of 60-odd (not ‘60 odd’--that number’s probably closer to 50) stranger-friends.
So anyway, with no end in sight for the other books I’m reading, I wanted a quick fix. No matter how pathetic the need from which it stemmed, I had to feel the satisfaction of finishing a book, and soon. So I picked up The Road, which promised to be completeable in a few solid sittings, and it certainly fulfilled that requirement. I can’t recall ever being sucked into a story so quickly and thoroughly; McCarthy immediately invokes a desolate setting and desperate mood with only the barest of sentences. It’s like he’s tapped into something so primordial that we humans can’t help but sit transfixed. I think it’s pretty damn close to “The Entertainment” that DFW dreams up in Infinite Jest--something so entertaining and engrossing that we’d give up eating/going to the bathroom/sleeping to continue with it. This is getting a little excessive, but bear with me: it’s been a long time since I read a real page-turner. In a sense, The Road is kind of like a kid’s book for adults, in that it reminds me of the experience of reading when I was child. I’d pick up a Roald Dahl, and it was creepy and moving and delightful and I just couldn’t put it down; McCarthy pushed the same buttons that Dahl was manipulating all those years ago. I’d forgotten what this sort of reading experience was like, and its reemergence was a welcome revelation.
Raw, visceral power in a book allows you to forgive a great deal, and thankfully, McCarthy doesn’t push his luck too hard with the reader here. Yeah, his punctuation omissions are unnecessary and annoying, and he frequently switches words around into awkwardness for novelty’s sake, and occasionally he pops out with two-sentence paragraphs that are borderline nonsensical in the context of the book. But given his masterful instinct for pacing (notable for its utter unnoticeability while reading), and the gripping sense of purpose and dread he infuses in each paragraph, these truly become minor quibbles. Perhaps most impressive is how simple McCarthy makes it all seem. I bet more than a few writers and would-be writers read this and thought, “Damn, if only I had written this first,” rather than the actually true statement of “Damn, I wish I could write something like this.”
In no aspect is this beautiful simplicity more apparent than in the preternaturally moving and sparse dialogue. After the first few father-son exchanges, only a couple pages into the book, I knew that this story had the raw materials to really get to me, in the same way that Kevin Costner asking his dad for a catch makes me swallow in an embarrassingly audible fashion at the end of Field of Dreams. And the book followed through on that early promise. Boy, did it ever. Cried like a baby. Never before have I seen two or three-word sentences carry that kind of weight, convey so much with such unwriterly restraint.
Along with the dialogue, it’s the book’s handling of morality that elevates this to the 5-star level. The setting allows for a distilled treatment of basic goodness that's astonishingly potent. How often did I find myself siding with the father when the protagonists encountered others on the road? How often did my own cynicism and skepticism match his, while I became impatient with (what I perceived as) the boy’s innocence and naivety? My tears weren’t only for the characters in the book. I am ashamed and in awe. ...more
I wanted to start out discussing the baggage that comes with reading this book and the challenge of attempting to reach a verdict on its quality in ouI wanted to start out discussing the baggage that comes with reading this book and the challenge of attempting to reach a verdict on its quality in out-of-5-star form, let alone that of trying to write a coherent response. But unfortunately, I’ve already covered that intro ground with another review. But where I succeeded in not becoming a slobbering fanboy or prickish contrarian on that occasion, I have here, much to my own surprise, failed. During the early episodes of the book I felt like I was in 3- or 4-star territory. But then came the Shakespearean Scylla and Charybdis sequence and I started getting excited; a few chapters later I read the Cyclops episode, which caused me to become, in my wife’s astute summation, ‘giddy’. I swallowed the rest of this book in a couple of days, foregoing the finishing of The Odyssey itself, which was purportedly my preparation for Joyce’s celebrated novel. My final, overwhelmingly positive response to Ulysses was an unexpected delight after holding the impression that Joyce's works, while enjoyable, might not be for me in the same way as those of some of his contemporaries. I wasn't completely bowled over by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school or by Dubliners a few weeks back. I’d even read the first 100 pages of Ulysses back in 2008 before getting sidetracked by War and Peace, the conception of a nearly year-long Russian fever that began to abate about the time I became enamored with this website. But that initial setting down of the book was likely a blessing, as fresh Shakespeare and Homer reads go a long way toward increasing a layered understanding of and gratification from this novel.
I think the primary reason that I enjoy plodding Realist epics and plotless Modernist fare is that I find human drama and psychology, realistically portrayed, to be endlessly interesting. There's no topic too boring when laid out truthfully in a prose that elevates the mundane to a realm demanding rapt attention via aesthetic alchemy. To successfully embrace and conquer the ordinary takes a special writer, but I remain easily enthralled when Proust or Woolf wax prolix on table setting rituals or when Tolstoy dallies on a hirsute upper lip. Joyce moves a step further with the whole 'make the quotidian interesting' approach and, for me, it works because it seems—to every part of my mind and experience--true. Bloom and Stephen are real people with thoughts and actions, ranging from the tedious to the generous to the despicable, that are often wincingly human. They’re presented to us in a way that’s wildly imaginative and über-detailed yet considerate of our desire to follow a well-arced human story. And this, Goodreaders, is why I read.
It’s often difficult to love a book when the main characters are unlikeable, and I know this is a problem that some have had with Ulysses. Thankfully, I found myself caring more and more for Bloom, in spite of and because of his numerous flaws, as June 16, 1904 wore on. Our hero constantly dwells on his cuckolded state and occasionally even on suicide. It's clear that he's an outsider and has to make an extra effort just to remain at the periphery of his social circle. Something about the way his mind works, how it bounces around curiously from topic to topic without dwelling too much on his misfortunes, is genuinely affecting. There's little woe-is-me with Bloom; he’s just a real-life accepter, trying to get by while nursing modest bourgeois dreams. It’s this upbeat-in-spite-of-everything attitude, tinged with a degree of compassion not found elsewhere in the book, that makes him so endearing. Given that we have access to every bit of his mental processing, the transgressions of his mind (mostly sexual and adulterous in nature) seem minimal and intrinsically human. Some serious critics claim that Joyce needed an editor, but we require all of Bloom's thoughts: the irrelevant, the irreverent, the erroneous, the silly, the serious. And with these thoughts we get excellent treatments of all the themes (and more) for which I come to fiction: death, lust, love, existence, virtue, debauchery, justice, purpose.
A day after finishing the book, I’m still struck by Joyce’s ability to render such a rounded character within a generic 24-hour period. By the end of the book we know Bloom intimately, but as with the people we know best in our own lives, there are aspects of him that remain mysterious and conflicted. Bloom’s strong points are often so well-connected to his weak ones that it can be difficult to conclude which is which. For instance, Bloom seems always to think the best of people even after they’ve behaved horribly. Following a man’s drunken and public cries of anti-Semitism, Bloom thinks that he probably meant no harm and was just riled up from the drink; he silently forgives him. But then he considers that he (Bloom) might have gone too far by declaring, in defense, that Christ was a Jew. He’s finally stood up for himself (in one of my favorite passages ever), but he ends up feeling guilty about it, a guilt that betrays a weakness in his character or, from a shifted perspective, a strength gone too far. He also treats Stephen’s ill-considered remarks and behavior charitably, blaming these on the detrimental influence of mean friends. Bloom sees himself as Stephen's personal 'catcher in the rye', and while he’s impotent to prevent the violence visited up young Dedalus late in the story, he does manage to salvage his money and personal effects. He goes beyond this service, however, by paying off Stephen’s brothel debt and even returning his money with interest, becoming his Good Samaritan or, to stick with The Odyssey, his Eumaeus—the loyal swineherd who helps a travel-battered Odysseus upon his long awaited return to Ithaca.
Regarding this story’s relationship with The Odyssey, one of the most obvious points of dissonance between the two is with the notion of heroism. In Homer’s epic, we have the quintessential manly-man whose fighting skills and wit are second to none, and who ultimately defeats his enemies via large-scale slaughter. In Ulysses, we have the effeminate, cuckolded social outsider who uses his curious and well-meaning perspective to defeat his enemies with magnanimity. And Joyce doesn’t just invert Homer's idea of a hero, but also Shakespeare's representation of a cuckolded husband. In Shakespeare’s world, the cuckold is someone to be laughed at, the butt of all jokes, and the embarrassment and even the responsibility of the man who couldn't control his wife. Joyce makes cuckolding appear tragic while not overstating its importance, at one point listing dozens of deeds that are worse, including everything from mayhem and contempt of court to criminal assault and manslaughter. The imminent cuckolding pops up in nearly every episode (maybe all of them), hounding and haunting Bloom. There’s no wool over his eyes. He knows and, in a way, allows the act to happen due to his own perceived powerlessness over the situation. In a later episode, I thought that side character Gerty (a stand in for The Odyssey’s Nausicaa) had spied out a sad-looking Stephen Dedalus on the beach, but a few pages later we find out this man with the despondent countenance is actually Bloom. When I realized that Gerty’s pity wasn’t in response to the ennui of an intellectually-tortured dilettante but to a man who was currently experiencing an intimate betrayal, the episode reached a peak of poignancy. And then in true Joycean fashion, he moves right past this moment to one of lust and masturbation, complete with a climax joined by beach fireworks that’s reminiscent of the love scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
Where Bloom may get into trouble with readers (and Joyce with censors) is with his lustful, objectifying, and lecherous thoughts. And it’s this frank sexual honesty that’s still surprising and blush-inducing 80 years later. Bloom's specific lustings and yearnings aren’t universal to the male experience, but they are recognizably human in their sui generis imagining. The very specificity of his desire, at times quite blunt and offensive, is certainly what led to the charges of vulgarity and indecency. For it has been common throughout history to treat sexual proclivities not shared by oneself as strange, creepy, and even dangerous. So Bloom is, as he’s referred to in the hallucinatory Circe episode, ‘No Man and Everyman’, at once ordinary and extraordinary. Exhibiting Bloom’s fetishes so completely is what pushes this novel into a realm of reality that was at the time unexplored, and perhaps not yet bested in the fiction that’s followed.
Almost as if he sensed that the reader may be building up too much sympathy for Bloom in spite of his occasional creepiness, Joyce decided to bring him down a few notches after his side of the story is finished. We’re reminded that we’ve only been getting half of the picture with his marriage and that two genuine experiences do not always add up to the same interpretation of reality. Once we get to hear Molly’s voice, we find that in certain instances the two of them are simply misinformed about the actions and thoughts of the other. Communication has been damaged, perhaps irreparably. In other cases we get the fullest realization of one of the primary themes in the book: parallax, an astronomic concept that Joyce uses metaphorically throughout the novel. One of the great misfortunes or, depending on the circumstances, boons of humanity is that because we see certain events and ideas from disparate locations with respect to context, intellect, gender, nationality, etc., we perceive these things differently, despite the fact that in reality, outside the world of perception, they are the same. Thus, Bloom and Molly feel that the other is to blame for many of the problems—recognized independently from distinct perspectives—in their marriage. Joyce also employs the concept of parallax stylistically, utilizing different prose formats for each episode and forcing us to confront the ways in which a writer’s stylistic and aesthetic sensibilities influence the way we perceive a narrative and react to it emotionally.
So anyway, here we are. Living our lives; reading our books. Experiencing reality through the ineluctable modality of the visible. Does this book have anything to say about the big questions of life and how to derive some meaning from this giant mess? Yes, yes it does. The world of Ulysses revolves around a single Word, a concept that's refracted into many meanings and contexts. Each of the three main characters—Bloom/Odysseus, Stephen/Telemachus, and Molly/Penelope—ultimately recognizes its power, its necessity as the grounding of their lives. But only one of them has the bravery to weather charges of sentimentality and soft-heartedness, to utter the Word in the face of cruel mocking; that's our hero, that ‘conscious reactor against the void incertitude,’ Leopold Bloom. Here on Goodreads I haven’t his courage, and I will name it along with Stephen as ‘the word known to all men.’...more
Reflecting on the oeuvre of Shakespeare, I can’t shake a perverse idea: the Bard is underrated. And I think this feeling is tied to the contradictoryReflecting on the oeuvre of Shakespeare, I can’t shake a perverse idea: the Bard is underrated. And I think this feeling is tied to the contradictory knowledge that he is enormous, creating the master shadow in which all others dissolve. He’s the Platonic Form that has made possible, via subsequent authorial study and unconscious absorption, so many of the variations of what we consider the best in literature. The introspection and characterization of Woolf. The zaniness in Melville, Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. That ‘disease’, love, in Proust. The soul-searching and linguistic proficiency of Joyce. The paradoxical mix of nihilism and hope in McCarthy. The exuberant wordplay of Nabokov. The tragicomedy of Faulkner. Dostoevksy’s meditations on evil, ambition, and the horrifying acts of which we are capable. It’s all there, centuries prior, in the great prolepsis that is Shakespeare.
Hang there like fruit, my soul, Till the tree die. -Cymbeline
What you do, Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet, I’d have you do it ever: when you sing, I’d have you buy and sell so, so give alms, Pray so, and, for the ord’ring your affairs, To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do Nothing but that, move still, still so, And own no other function. Each your doing, So singular in each particular, Crowns what you are doing, in the present deeds, That all your acts are queens. -The Winter’s Tale
Troilus: This is the monstruosity in love, lady: that the will is infinite, and the execution confined: that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit. Cressida: They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform: vowing more than the perfection of ten, and discharging less than the tenth part of one. -Troilus and Cressida
But to be frank and give it thee again; And yet I wish but for the thing I have. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, My love as deep: The more I give to thee The more I have, for both are infinite. -Romeo and Juliet
So in considering what Shakespeare anticipated and achieved, the underrating is almost inevitable. But I also think it’s related to the perception that reading Shakespeare is the literary equivalent of forcing yourself to eat healthier, to drag yourself to the gym, to decline a night out in order to guarantee adequate sleep. It’s good for us, so let’s get on with it (or, more often, not). Likely this sense of unpleasant edification is instilled in grade school, at which time most of us are confronted with a confusing combination of experiences upon being assigned a Shakespeare play: that of hearing the Bard’s work extolled to impossible heights by our teacher, and the disappointment of the actual, difficult, strangely-worded reading experience.
But are most of Shakespeare’s plays even edifying? And if so, edifying in what sense? Aesthetically, the answer is unequivocal, but as with the imbibing of Dostoevksy’s Underground Man, the absorption of many of these plays* with their nihilistic and misanthropic aspects can lead to feelings of deep disquiet and a heightened awareness that seems at once empowering and exquisitely desolate. For me, there’s something almost unhealthily addicting about Shakespeare; it’s as if he’s holding up a fun-house mirror in which I can see life as it almost is, or could be, or would be if it weren’t for certain social pressures or any number of complicating aspects that Shakespeare can and does control in his plotting. Or maybe it even shows life as it actually is, and me as I really am. And so I can’t turn away, seeking ever for a clearer, deeper, more complete vision of what I can’t help but feel is true and painful and intoxicating and sick and erotic and poignant and disappointing.
* e.g. Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, et al.
This world’s a city full of straying streets, And death’s the market-place, where each one meets. -The Two Noble Kinsmen
If I must die, I will encounter darkness as a bride And hug it in mine arms. -Measure for Measure
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me. -Richard II
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day To the last syllable of recorded time, And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. -Macbeth
In spite of the depravity he often shares with us in his plays and in spite of what has historically crept into criticism, Shakespeare is anything but moralistic. Redeemed characters generally remain problematic, and most of the wedded endings leave the audience with more discomfort than joy, aware that these relationships are doomed based on five acts of intimation. Shakespeare’s not out to steer us toward or away from something; rather, he shows us the abyss into which, being born, we all must sink—an abyss lined with delights, sparse and temporary as they may be, that encourage us to say with Falstaff: “Give me life.”
I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath. Give me life; which if I can save, so: if not, honour comes unlooked for, and there’s an end. -Henry IV, Part I
The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues. -All’s Well That Ends Well
Shallow: Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen! Ha, Sir John, said I well? Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow. -Henry IV, Part II
‘Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen Tongue and brain not: either both, or nothing, Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such As sense cannot untie. Be what it is, The action of my life is like it, which I’ll keep, if but for sympathy. -Cymbeline
“You can’t really sum that geezer up, really, in a nifty sentence. Because everything about him is contrary.” This is Noel Gallagher on Morrissey, but it could very well be describing the genius of the Bard, whose ostensible breadth of human knowledge and internal experience is nonpareil. Socrates’ unexamined life may not be worth living, but internalizing Shakespeare would certainly seem to satisfy the requirement. His plays and sonnets give the impression of containing the full range of human emotions and motivations, of existing as the Hegelian Absolute that comprises all dialectical opposites (or “contraries”, to stick with the Morrissey comparison). Reading Shakespeare, as with Proust’s novel, has been one of those impossibly rewarding experiences, provoking endless reflection on the world, on existence, on others, on myself. And yet, having finished the complete writings, I already know that Nabokov was correct in insisting that "curiously enough, one cannot read a book; one can only reread it."...more