Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Restless World

Remember that class artefact-oriented BBC series from a few years back, A History of the World in 100 Objects? Sure, we all do. Well Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum and the guy who was responsible for that, did a similar series on Shakespeare, and it’s ace.

Maybe a bit too into finding modern-day parallels, but expert analysis, well-acted excerpts and does a great job of bringing in the whole of society, rather than just royal fracas.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017gm45/episodes/downloads

The Old Marxists and the Problem of Post-Modernity or Why Batman is better than Macbeth

batman-communist_00402992.jpgIn pursuit of a definition of modernity, an integral part of my PhD dissertation, I’ve been consulting a number of sources, particularly in the old Marxist order of Eric Hobsbawm and Frederic Jameson. My intention is, after all, to argue that the generic difference is a phenomenon dictated by the market, the growth of industrialisation, labour alienation and urbanisation. In other words, modernity coincides with a growing consciousness of ‘the mass.’ It is ironic that the dawning of the age of a mass culture, and state and private mechanisms for their governance, came into existence in a century known also for two of the greatest catastrophes of human history, the two world wars, the mass slaughter occasioned in the course of both. In The Age of Extremes, 1914–1991, Hobsbawm writes the following about that theatre of mass death, the Western front, and how

it became a machine for massacre such as had probably never before been seen in the history of warfare…The British lost a generation — half a million men under the age of thirty.

One reason for the extent of the lives lost during the wars, and for their longevity, is a phenomenon that Hobsbawm calls ‘infinite war:’

unlike earlier wars…typically waged for limited and specifiable objects, was waged for unlimited ends. In The Age of Empire, politics and economics had fused. International political rivalry was modelled on economic growth and competition, but the characteristic features of this was precisely that it had no limit…the ‘natural frontiers’ of Standard Oil, the Deutsche Bank, or the de Beers Diamond Corporation were at the end of the universe, or rather the limits of their own capacity to expand.

This policy indirectly engendered the ways in which society was constructed in their aftermath. Total war revolutionised technology, production and the management of the masses, sustaining investment at unprecedented levels which would never have been undertaken under normal circumstances. It also fundamentally changed the way in which the state managed its citizens, as the combatants were forced to learn quickly how best to distribute their resources during the war effort.

Modernism then, is a movement that is generally seen as arising in conjunction with managerial consciousness, as a reaction against it, an insistence of elite superiority at the dawn of our contemporary understanding of democracy. This was certainly the case for its foremost practitioners, or those who have come to be historicised as such in retrospect, ‘the men of 1914,’ who frequently spoke of democracy, the proletariat, and hey, the Jewish too, why not, with contempt. The first problem with this definition, aside from its erasure of modernism’s more radical and less male elements, such as Brecht, Stein and Doolittle (mostly because they perhaps lacked the resource to mythologise on the same scale as Yeats, Pound and Eliot) is how indissociable modernism is from this retrospective gaze, and the impositions of those who want to define it against post-modernism, and use their preference for modernism’s high tradition, against contemporary popular culture. I like to call this phenomenon straw modernism. (Not to be confused with IKEA or flatpack modernism, an ingenious neologism from Illocutions to define contemporary novels that half-heartedly engage with the innovations of modernist antecedents without necessarily doing anything which might run the risk of being alienating).

The first indication that Hobsbawm might be instantiating a straw modernism comes in the seventeenth chapter of his history of the twentieth century, unpromisingly entitled ‘The Avant-garde Dies — the Arts after 1950.’ In Hobsbawm’s words, the cultural sector of the late twentieth century can be defined in the following terms:

the boundary between what is and is not classifiable as ‘art’…became increasingly hazy, or even disappeared altogether…because an influential school of literary critics thought it impossible, irrelevant and undemocratic to decide whether Shakespeare’s Macbeth was better or worse than Batman.

Whatever else about this quotation, it takes a remarkable kind of mental calisthenics on Hobsbawm’s part to regard the work of Sontag, Spivak, Foucault, as primarily based in arguing the worth of Batman while shouting down Shakespeare.

And it is, furthermore, absolutely impossible and irrelevant to argue thatMacbeth is better than Batman. Do the people who make such arguments expect tenure for doing so? jfc.

Further, from Hobsbawm’s perspective, the growth of image capitalism and technological mediation in the sixties undermined modernism’s ‘progressive’ claim to ‘non-utilitarian artistic creation’ and formal innovation. A key feature of straw modernism is this supposedly ambivalent relationship with the marketplace, its superiority to and remove from more popular forms of art, which is emphasised at the expense of its fascistic contingent. This is often justified by modernism’s supposed critique of the commodity, a viewpoint which has been systematically deconstructed by Lawrence Rainey’s essay ‘The cultural economy of modernism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Modernism.

Rainey points out that mass culture has long been a subtext within modernism, whether it forms as the agent against which it defined itself, or just plainly within it, demonstrated by substantial portions of Ulysses being drawn from light-opera or music hall performance. Jameson disingenuously justifies this by saying that Joyce or Lawrence only ‘quoted’ this sort of thing, whereas in the work of any number of (unnamed) postmodern novelists, it becomes fundamental to its very structure. Obviously the only difference is one’s viewpoint. The very term ‘modernism’ itself has its origin in Pound’s canny attempts to draw attention to his work in a crowded marketplace. F.J. Marinetti was lecturing at the same time Pound was in London, but was getting significantly more attention than Pound’s arch-medieval troubadour work by loudly proclaiming the age of the modern, and excoriating a bourgeois class for their complacency, who repaid the favour by paying money and writing gleeful articles about this provocateur. Pound, until he copped onto this game himself, was passed over. Pound became an ingenious self-promoter, and manipulator of the marketplace, encouraging publishers to include on his blurbs how much his books were capable of fetching at auction, and engaged in the tortuous negotiations with Vanity Fair for the right to publish Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’ The editor hadn’t read it, but accepted Pound’s assertion that cultural capital would accrue to the text in time that would make their fee worth it. By the bye, almost 20% of the issue in which it was carried was advertising.

This notion of cultural capital is key to modernism. It is a market contrivance used to bolster the consumer’s sense of their own sophistication, and belonging to a discerning élite with cultivated tastes, existing within “a profoundly ambiguous social space, simultaneously sequestered and semi-withdrawn from the larger institution of publishing, situated instead within a submarket of collecting.” By way of example, the subscription model ofUlysses run by Shakespeare and Company involved a tiered system, which involved deluxe editions of varying value, one tier would get you a signed copy, another would have custom typeface, another would have a kind of paper chosen by the author. The success of the novel, Rainey posits, was more to do with its prominence within a small market of elite book speculators than the crusaders of artistic autonomy who fought for the right of the common man to read the novel, a line too frequently taken up around discussions of the novel’s censorship.

Jameson, having taken no account of this dimension within the modernist arts, believes that post-modernism is an ahistorical cultural mode, one that will forever stymie the Hegelian trajectory of the Marxist world revolution. In the late twentieth century, the proletariat, in the wake of globalisation, are dispersed. They lack a universal consciousness, and, with the demise of the trade union, resistance, let alone the breaking the chains of the worker, seems to have been indefinitely postponed, and Jameson lays the blame at the feet of contemporary cultural thought. He joins Hobsbawm in his uncritical pile-on identity-based political resistance such as feminism, gender agitation, civil rights along racial and indigenous lines. In her Edward W. Said London lecture, Naomi Klein demonstrated how such political imaginaries are not only not a distraction from class-based agitation, but must become fundamental.

The absurdity that this is all contrasted with the modernist strain, which, if it were to be called merely reactionary would be whitewashing the matter, is clear. Let us formulate modes of resistance that work today, now, in our contemporary setting, rather than praise the artists of the past, for qualities which they did not possess.

Eimear McBride’s ‘The Lesser Bohemians’ and The Ride in Contemporary Letters

the-lesser-bohemians***Content warning: Things get racy***

The Bad Sex Award is a literary prize awarded to the author who writes the most cringeworthy scene in which sex happens in a particular year. A survey of past nominees suggest that the judges have more in mind then the ding an sich, and are more attentive to column inches; bad sex awards tend to follow the trendy novelists de nos jours, and probably marks a tipping point in any writer’s career when they move from middle-aged gravitas-endowed male author to punching bag, see Jonathan Franzen, John Banville. The John Banville parody twitter accounts, incidentally, marked the occasion of Banville’s nomination rather well:

Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 09.23.14.png

In one of my college tutorials, the conversation turned to the ways in which literature is a fairly paltry medium when it comes to the depiction of sex, especially in our age of spectacle or image capitalism; the extent to which sexual materials are available, distributed, makes ink on a page seem somewhat retrograde. Nevertheless, I might contest that with the next couple of examples. The sex scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, reads as follows:

Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about the other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here by as there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.

This paragraph does what DeLillo does best, in moving aqueously through a never stable milieu, with an attention to things moving in and out of shape(s), the reality inflected by the partiality of the lover’s perspectives, particularly in the barest suggestion that Klara Sax can see more of the occasion with her eyes closed. There is also the hint of Hamlet’s beast with two backs, cleverly hybridised with the cubist reference; the beast with four backs, as it were.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering treats if not quite ‘carnal intercourse, with ejaculation of semen within the natural female organ,’ the act of fellatio in terms as follows:

‘Where were you?’ he says, and I’d love to say I was out, like he is out all the time. Doing, making, being — or even shagging. I’d love to say, ‘I was just out shagging,’ in a debonair sort of voice…I put my hand gently against his shirt front and the gesture is so graceful, even as I watch it, that it leads me, quite easily, to the buckle of the belt, which I tug with my other hand, and so, by softly pushing him away while pulling him forward, I contrive to blow my husband, in our own kitchen. On a school day.

This is real, I think. This is real.

Though I am not sure that it is, actually. When we are done, Tom plants a dry, thoughtful kiss in the middle of my forehead. He can not claim that he has been fobbed off — not after his official, all-time favourite thing — but he knows that he has been fobbed off, all the same. And it makes him angry.

‘I just don’t know where you’re coming from,’ he says. A corporate phrase from my corporate boy.

This is a very unsettling, and of course, very funny paragraph. Veronica is coming to terms with, according herself to the fragments of her selfhood in the aftermath of her brother Liam’s suicide, and this is just one example of a behaviour she adopts in its aftermath, as a way of construing herself in the event’s wake, indicated by her jealousy in her husband’s seemingly effortless capacity to Be. Her husband exhibits concern for her behaviour, the prevailing domestic codes of behaviour in their household; the rules implied in the stand-alone clause ‘On a school day,’ means that this is not a regular occurrence, and that Veronica is shaking things up. Her ambivalence towards her husband in this scene, as well as her dominance, are expressed in her pushing him in two directions at once. Ultimately, the event is a failure. Veronica is uncertain as to whether what has just happened is real or not, unreality being an ongoing thematic concern in The Gathering. The bland sum-up from her husband deepens the uncanniness, and gestures towards the impossibility of accessing Veronica as a character in the conventional sense.

Both paragraphs are very different in their approaches, but there is a definite similarity in their approaches, and that is, primarily, their avoidance. Very little detail is given about who puts what where and for how long. This is why I have difficulties with the premise of the bad sex award, as it is one of the rare forays that the non-literary press makes into contemporary literature, to make fun of the conceptual apparatus of prose. And it is, often, very silly, but it is silly for a reason that writing itself is silly. Bald statements of all that is the case don’t read well, literary writing is decidedly ambiguous, elliptical, and at its best when (apologies for using a creative writing workshop phrase) showing, not telling. So it is also for representations of The Ride. Say things too directly, and it becomes monotonous, but go too far with the figurative language, and journalists will mock you publicly.

We see similar methods of elision in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which probably devotes more pages to sex than any other novel I can remember, let alone a self-consciously experimental one:

Alright. He wets his lips then goes to the words at a similar lick

Nowisthewinterofourdisconte

ntmadeglorioussummerbythissonofyork

and allthecloudsthatloured upon our hours…hs right I’m right there I’m. I pull back quick. He presses it onto me as his body gives up. Wet on my chest, ends of my hair and my breast and the heat. Goes everywhere and him smearing it all down me as I, touching the threat of bruise on my lip, lay my head on his knee.

The most significant absence here, is the word semen, or come, or whatever word you want to substitute over ‘it.’ Sex in The Lesser Bohemians generally observes this rule, interior monologue emphasising immediate sensory perception over systematic apprehension, interspersed with erratic formatting, punctuation, etc. Though the above is unique in that it is one of the few occasions in which Shakespeare is channeled directly. It’s never totally cringeworthy, it’s relatively interesting and not at all sexy. McBride’s methodology is however, drained of some of its vitality by its overuse; there is an awful lot of riding in the book.

It’s peculiar then, that McBride, having demonstrated her commitment to showing, not telling, then spends quite of the novel doing the latter. About halfway through the text, the novel’s love interest, Stephen, outlines his personal history, over the course of fifty or so pages. This soliloquy is interrupted about seven times, as Claire Lowdon points out, solely in order to remind us that the main character, Eily, is there. The endless references to Stephen’s tic, repetitions of howlers such as ‘the irony wasn’t lost on me when,’ just emphasise the strings and incongruous presence of what seems to be a first-draft of a screenplay based on an Edna O’Brien novel within an Edna O’Brien novel. Stephen’s Miserable Irish Childhood™ (complete with alcoholic father, suffocating mother, sexual abuse, etc. etc.) manages to disperse any mystique that might have imbued the character, and it escalates to such an absurd level by what is not even his early adolescence that I lack the ability to do justice to the exorbitant heights of its ridiculous hamminess.

Further, the self-hatred fuelled drug vortex into which both characters fall into at various points are singularly unconvincing. Choosing just one example is difficult, but I might have to go for the one wherein Eily, after having injected herself with one marijuana too many, begins to argue with Stephen, (who has just taken her back for having sex with someone else) and then dares him and her flatmate, named Flatmate, to have a threesome with her. The rage that she manages to sustain after having smoked weed is one level of ridiculousness, the blows to which Stephen and Flatmate nearly come is another, but all this is trumped by the next morning, when Stephen, all strife forgotten, begins assisting Flatmate in converting the flat into a squat to fend of some meddling bailiffs. Knowing what McBride is capable of from the undeniable virtuosity and power of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and even some of The Lesser Bohemians’ more successful moments make these lapses from form all the more baffling.

Who is mediating Ernest Hemmingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls?’

ErnestHemingway.jpgErnest Hemmingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a peculiar text for a number of reasons. First among which is the tension residing in the novel’s style. Hemmingway’s prose is among the most identifiable of the twentieth century, not just because he’s a canonical mainstay, but because of his commitment to shearing his works of all ‘unnecessary’ verbiage. His work is easily parodied as a result, just avoid adverbs, sub-clauses and never use a poly-syllabic word when a mono- will do.

Hemmingway’s sparse approach is the reason why websites such as http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ exist, which allow you to ‘write like’ Hemmingway, by highlighting complicating phrases that you should trim. We all await the first Booker-prize winning novel written with the help of this tool, I am sure.

It might sound strange to posit that For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel about an American, Robert Jordan, volunteering to fight a leftist guerilla war against the Spanish fascists, is a novel about its own stylistic restraint, but this is my blog and I’ll say what I damn well please.

But I see your point, Hemmingway does permit himself occasional exuberances, or at least exuberances by his standard. These occasionalities cluster around moments of physical contact between Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happy-making, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it

The Hemmingway app, incidentally, doesn’t like this sentence. It’s easy to see why. The pronouns repeat and clump together, (‘closely,’ ‘closely,’ ‘lonely,’) though perhaps repetition is inaccurate or insufficiently nuanced, they sort of rhyme, rather than repeat, ‘smooth/smoothness’ ‘coolness/cool,’ ‘warm/warmly,’ almost as if the words are working through their various grammatical permutations rather than changing into something more apposite. This results in some hyphenated neologisms that could summon up a Montessori Finnegans Wake, i.e., “happy-making.” So within this veritable explosion of linguistic energy, Hemmingway is still restraining himself by limiting his vocabulary.

The fact that it is at these points, the points at which Jordan is particularly botheredly hot-making is significant, as almost all of Jordan’s time, when in solitude, represents him as tussling with his doubts, subduing his panic about his outward presentation of stoic restraint. His self-recriminations power the narrative’s quieter moments, and make a poignant contrast with the admirably suspenseful shoot-outs that come towards the novel’s end. Therefore, restraint, both in emotion and in prose style serve a coterminous goal, and are mutually raised to the level of a moral imperative.

The elevation of a plain style to a moral realm comes into play also in the novel’s use of language. The dialogue is rendered as clunky and old-fashioned style, making use of ‘thou’ and ‘thee,’ which I think serves at least two purposes. First, it imbues the novel with a old-world grandeur. One’s mind immediately goes to the early modern English of William Shakespeare’s plays, an association that no novelist, however bare they wish their works to be, would resist. Second, Hemmingway wishes to preserve the spirit of demotic Spanish in which the dialogue is putatively being spoken, and therefore has them speak as if their words are being translated literally, which is strange, since the Spanish words which crop up, Inglés, qué va, are italicised, and are written as they are spoken. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the novel reads more naturally.

But it is the treatment of ‘bad’ language that sticks out the most. Rather than having his characters say ‘fuck,’ ‘damn,’ or their continental equivalents, they will say things like ‘I obscenity in the milk of thy shame’ or the narrator will intrude: ‘He said unprintable.’

I confess to ignorance on how difficult or easy it was to print cuss words in novels in the early twentieth century, but this does seem like a particularly convoluted solution, if they did indeed present a problem. I’d rather think of it as another instance of Hemmingway keeping his character’s on a leash, letting the moments in which physical desire and emotion intertwine be the only ones allowed to run rampant on the page, and open up an aspect to Hemmingway’s writng we wouldn’t normally see.

And that’s why a bleedin’ app isn’t the only thing you need to be a good writer.

William Shakespeare’s Jubilee

An account of the Shakespeare Jubilee held in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, organised by David Garrick and attended by the culture vultures of the time. It was a washout, by the bye, with a massive downpour pretty well overshadowing the event. Interesting to hear of a time when Shakespeare was only on his way to being canonised as the Great Bard.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03r2q3d

Professor James Shapiro on Equivocation

Professor James Shapiro, author of 1599: A Year in the life of William Shakespeare, speaks in Trinity College Dublin on anti-Catholic laws, Jacobean attitudes to torture and the role of equivocation in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth.

Anne Enright in conversation with Fintan O’Toole

Anne Enright in an extended, great conversation with Fintan O’Toole, giving interesting info on the structural aspects of her 2015 novel The Green Road, how it moved from a King Lear re-write to what it is and how she grappled with its geographical wide-rangingness. She does a couple of readings also, and they’re class.

http://www.podcastchart.com/podcasts/irish-arts-center-podcast/episodes/anne-enright-in-conversation-with-fintan-o-toole