David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2010

One Line from Hamlet

When Stephen spins an elaborate yarn in Ulysses about Hamlet, Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father and son, and all manner of other things, a yarn that has a little to do with Shakespeare and a lot to do with himself and everything going on around him, part of the joke is that Shakespeare is such an opaque author given over to interpretation that Stephen can easily produce a vaguely plausible theory eerily resonant with his own personal obsessions without straining much. My tentativeness toward Shakespeare stems from my own preference for authors with discernible or overpowering (albeit ambiguous and misleading) authorial personae behind their works: as far as canonical authors go, people like Goethe, Milton, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, and Proust. Shakespeare sometimes seems insufferably coy by being such a cipher, and his spawning of an industry of condescending would-be elucidators of his work grates on me, though I can’t quite blame him for that.

But I have been thinking lately about his sheer talent of ambiguity, and I’ve been particularly preoccupied with the one line from Hamlet that, in terms of word-to-chaos ratio, must be one of his best ever. It’s this line in III.2 in the middle of the Mousetrap play:

HAMLET: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.

[Quick crib note: this is the line that causes it to appear that the Mousetrap play is not representing Claudius killing the King, but Hamlet killing his uncle Claudius. I.e., Hamlet now makes it easy for the audience (including Claudius) to infer that his purpose in putting on the play is to threaten Claudius with murder. It also renders it far more difficult to ascertain what Hamlet and Claudius are thinking for the rest of the play, how genuinely convinced Hamlet is of Claudius’ guilt, and what Claudius thinks Hamlet knows.]

Hamlet botches his whole “conscience of the king” scheme so badly with this one line (and he is already in the midst of botching it badly enough) that it really drains a fair bit of my sympathy for him. (I do expect a modicum of basic competence from my heroes.) But besides that, Shakespeare’s ability to cause such havoc to any possible understanding of the play’s themes, characters, and plot with this sentence is impressive. And it comes from such an apparently innocuous line, coming right after the seemingly weightier “Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung” spiel, as if to make certain that for the next four hundred years, the line would make less of an impression than it should. And since most of the characters are already confused and only get more confused, it isn’t quite as obvious as it should be that there’s also great uncertainty as to exactly what they’re confused about.

So what gets me is not only that the line gives strength to the radical skepticism interpretation of the play, but that it does so in a rather non-showy way, as though to make it more difficult to believe that Shakespeare really intended such radical skepticism. So the clues that cause the most doubt over likely interpretations are themselves not particularly notable, so as to make the doubting itself look dubious and help guarantee that standard interpretations could take hold that wouldn’t include the full extent of the doubt. The surface-level ambiguities and filigrees would cover up the deeper problems. So, for example, while the Ghost’s provenance remains unknown, we still find out that multiple people see the Ghost, alleviating one uncertainty while exacerbating another. Claudius confesses to the audience, even though Hamlet still may have doubts. It’s a brilliant balancing act.

Any other picks for high word-to-chaos lines?


[As an example of how the radical-skepticism interpretation still doesn’t get enough purchase, take Richard Levin’s rather unconvincing attempt to wave away concerns about the Ghost’s intent:

Several critics have tried to prove, often by citing evidence from Elizabethan treatises on pneumatology, that he is not the ghost of Hamlet’s father but a devil pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in order to entrap Hamlet. This is a very serious charge because, if it were true, it would mean that he is like the deceptive villains in Shakespeare’s other plays, and so his statement to Hamlet would be completely unreliable. Shakespeare, however, eliminates this possibility by voicing it twice during the early part of the play and rejecting it both times. Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost because it may “assume some other horrible form” to drive him mad (I.iv.69–74), but this does not happen and Hamlet returns from his encounter to assure Horatio and Marcellus that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I.v.138). Then, near the end of the soliloquy that I just discussed, Hamlet himself wonders if the Ghost “May be a devil” who lied about Claudius’s crime in order to “damn me” (II.ii.598–603), but when he sees how Claudius reacts to The Murther of Gonzago, he tells Horatio, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286–287), which was a lot of money in those days; and after that we hear no more doubts about a demonic ghost. In terms of my basic assumption, therefore, we can be confident that the Ghost is not a devil because, if he were, Shakespeare would have been sure to satisfy his audience’s “need to know” this essential fact or “necessary question of the play” because he wanted them to understand this play.

Richard Levin, “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido”

Well, I’ll take Hamlet’s word for a thousand pound, which is still a lot of money in these days!]

Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:


Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:


Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.


One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

Michael Hofmann on Thomas Bernhard: Missing the Point

I was disappointed in Hofmann’s article on Bernhard, Reger Said, in the LRB, not only because it neglects the most important aspects of Bernhard’s work, but also because it seems to confirm so many preconceptions of him: the angry Austrian endlessly railing at everything, hating the country and its people and life and books and culture and everything. Yes, there is a lot of ranting in some of his books, particularly the one Hofmann is discussing, Old Masters, as well as the contemporaneous Woodcutters, but it is only one side of Bernhard’s work, and it is always contextualized.  It is never ranting for its own sake, and the rants are never to be taken completely at face-value, no matter how appealing or justified the target. (And since Hofmann translated Bernhard’s rather rantless early novel Frost, for which I give thanks, he knows there is more.) But if Bernhard were the grumpy caricature Hofmann paints him as, his books would be nowhere near as affecting. So I will interrogate the article to draw out the depths.


They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant.

I would say that the seams show, constantly. For all Hofmann makes of how the voices in a Bernhard book merge together into a unity, the constant lurch into the histrionic and the lack of proportion, the way in which a Bernhard narrator will go from attacking Nazis to, say, attacking cheese, makes his rants somewhat less than focused bursts of fury. He is not Karl Kraus and nor is he trying to be. (He’s better.) Extinction is where this agonized self-undermining is most on display. It’s his deepest rant, as the narrator constantly defers dealing with the real monstrousness at hand, a monstrousness for which he feels intensely responsible, by focusing on smaller topics and frivolous insults:

Without the art of exaggeration, I told him, we’d be condemned to an awfully tedious life, a life not worth living. And I’ve developed this art to an incredible pitch, I said. To explain anything properly we have to exaggerate. Only exaggeration can make things clear.

We’re often led to exaggerate, I said later, to such an extent that we take our exaggeration to be the only logical fact, with the result that we don’t perceive the real facts at all, only the monstrous exaggeration. With some, of course, the art of exaggeration consists in understating everything, in which case we have to say that they exaggerate understatement, that exaggerated understatement is their particular version of the art of exaggeration, Gambetti. The art of exaggeration is in fact the secret of all mental endeavor. I now left the Huntsman’s Lodge without pursuing this undoubtedly absurd idea, which would assuredly have proved correct had I developed it.


This is not a focused rant, nor even a curved one, but a looping spiral collapsing inward on itself. Opinion gives way to the very hatred of one’s self for expressing an opinion. To express an opinion is to lower yourself to the level of what you’re attacking, as the narrator of Woodcutters realizes over and over again, not that he can stop. But what can you do?


Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right.

The indefinite antecedents here–“all this,” “it”–are precisely the crux of the issue. He means what? All the exaggerations, the name-callings, the generalizations, the hate? These are not things that one quite means. They are flourishes. The flourishes (here is where the “musicality” of Bernhard’s prose is apt) are all there are, as Bernhard is hellbent on avoiding such meaningful content as argument, logic, evidence, and proof.

And I think all this is fairly evident from Bernhard’s middle period, which isn’t all that rant-filled at all. Correction, which I consider to be his absolute masterpiece, is nothing but the turning-inward that falls on Bernhard’s ranters when they run out of venom. It’s about a man, or several men, who have nowhere to go, and yet are running at full throttle. I don’t think that the hermetic approach that culminated to Correction could possibly have gone any further, so Bernhard was forced to find a new direction, one dealing with the attempted evasions from the hermetic nightmare that consumes the men of Correction.

But the nightmare remains paramount. Odd that Hofmann should mention Nietzsche, one pole of Bernhard’s rhetorical world-view, without mentioning the other: Beckett. Nietzsche was determined to be anything but a nihilist, to be the very greatest non-nihilist there could be, to say “Yes” to life. Though Bernhard grasped Nietzsche’s subversive tricks in his rhetoric and his staged exaggerations, Bernhard would never give that Yes. Hell, Bernhard wrote a book called Yes in which the titular “Yes” is the dubious answer to the question “Will you kill yourself some day?” Hofmann seems to have missed the other pole. Ranting is an affirmation of an opinion. The narrators are in no condition to make affirmations. Their affirmations are empty. They are evading.

The rant is a dodge. If the narrator shuts up for a second, the real wretchedness, the void and the evil and the pain, will come crashing down. And it always does. Philosophically, Bernhard is Schopenhauer, whom Nietzsche exhaustingly rejected for his endless NO.


The book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

In fact, this is only the denouement, the final punchline. Considered apart from what has gone just before, it is only another insult. But that last put-down comes, crucially, after the veil has briefly fallen and the narrator’s energy has failed him.

A person today is at everyone’s mercy, unprotected, we are dealing today with a totally unprotected person, totally at everyone’s mercy, a mere decade ago people felt more or less protected but today they are exposed to total unprotectedness, Reger said at the Ambassador. They can no longer hide, there is no hiding place left, that is what is so terrible, Reger said, everything has become transparent and thereby unprotected; in other words there is no hope of escape left today, people, no matter where they are, are everywhere hustled and incited and flee and escape and no longer find a refuge to escape to, unless of course they choose death, that is a fact, Reger said, that is the sinister aspect, because the world today is no longer mysterious but only sinister….

The death of my wife has not only been my greatest misfortune, it has also set me free. With the death of my wife I have become free, he said, and when I say free I mean entirely free, wholly free, completely free, if you know, or if at least you surmise, what I mean. I am no longer waiting for death, it will come by itself, it will come without my thinking of it, it does not matter to me when. The death of a beloved person is also an enormous liberation of our whole system, Reger now said.

Old Masters

This is serious stuff. This is not a rant. What follows–the return to the rant, a few more tossed-off insults–is just the evasive engine turning over a few more times, the continuation of the futile effort to will one’s self out of the pain of living. It only further offsets Reger’s prior naked moment. And yet Hofmann ignores that moment. How could he miss it? It’s the wrenched heart of the book. Hofmann only disparages the wife, as though she meant nothing to Reger, when in fact she quite obviously meant everything, a fact Reger tries furiously to ignore, only to finally give up, at least for a moment. It’s as if Bernhard were writing a character named Michael Hofmann but forgot to insert all the self-doubt and self-hatred and sorrow. All the meaning, as it were.

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