David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: April 2011 (page 2 of 3)

Wilson Knight’s Chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!


G. Wilson Knight was a mid-century critic probably most known for an infamous little essay on Hamlet he wrote in 1930 called “The Embassy of Death” (collected in The Wheel of Fire). The essay is sort of a troll. He argues that but for Hamlet himself, Denmark is a happy, lively place under the wise, gentle rule of Claudius. But for Hamlet’s mad injection of himself into the proceedings, which destroys most of the characters and the state itself, things would have been fine. Hamlet is the sick, deranged soul who drags down a healthy world.

Now, Wilson Knight has some very keen points to make that go against the standard interpretation, but the essay is written in a gallivanting style that makes it clear that Wilson Knight knows he is being provocative. And so he is going over the top to make Hamlet as bad as possible and make every excuse for Claudius (who did murder the old King, but come on, let’s not dwell on it). You can imagine Wilson Knight barely able to keep a straight face as he goes into hyperbolic rhapsodies over Claudius’s pax Denmark and Hamlet’s malevolent presence:

Claudius, as he appears in the play, is not a criminal.  He  is—strange  as  it  may  seem—a  good  and  gentle  king, enmeshed by the chain of causality linking him with his crime. And this chain he might, perhaps, have broken except for Hamlet, and all would have been well. Now, granted the presence of Hamlet—which Claudius  at  first  genuinely  desired,  persuading  him  not  to  return to Wittenberg as he wished—and granted the fact of his original crime which cannot now be altered, Claudius can hardly be blamed for his later actions. They are forced on him. As King, he could scarcely beexpected to do otherwise. Hamlet is a danger to the state, even apart from  his  knowledge  of  Claudius’  guilt.  He  is  an  inhuman—orsuperhuman—presence, whose consciousness—somewhat like Dostoievsky’s Stavrogin—is centred on death. Like Stavrogin, he is feared by those around him. They are always trying in vain to  find out what iswrong with him. They cannot understand him. He is a creature of another world. As King of Denmark he would have been a thousand times more dangerous than Claudius.

I have concentrated on Claudius’ virtues. They are manifest. So are his faults—his original crime, his skill in the less admirable kind of policy, treachery, and intrigue. But I would point clearly that, in the movement  of  the  play,  his  faults  are  forced  on  him,  and  he  is  distinguished  by  creative  and  wise  action,  a  sense  of  purpose,  benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen…In short he is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks.  Hamlet  is  inhuman.  He  has  seen  through  humanity….

He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of  flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strengthof health—but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in grave-yards, at home with death. Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself.

“The Embassy of Death” (1930)

I really like the essay as a performance, since it does (if you’re not completely alienated by it) make you realize how equally unlikely the contrary and common interpretation is, with Hamlet the good guy and Claudius the fount of evil. But Wilson Knight evidently saw that if he was going to make a critical impact, there was no point in being restrained. He might as well push his own account to the limit, even if it completely broke with plausibility. Outrage trumps reasonableness and moderation.

Yet it wasn’t especially a cynical gesture, seemingly more a temperamental one. Years later he published his chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe. Here it is again:

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!

And the first thing I think on seeing this is, “You would have to be insane to come up with something like this.” Maybe not to come up with it, but to publish it, along with a long explanation of which this quote is representative:

On the right we have personal qualities; on the left, social and political. In the centre is a creative ‘conflict’ (not exactly ‘disorder’) related to the clash of individual and society. This conflict is nevertheless mainly inward and spiritual, and most fully experienced within the protagonist. It next tends, like a cyclone or hurricane, to move down the chart, developing into ‘armed opposition’, with the area columns showing a strong divergence of personal and communal symbolism as the rift widens; and so on to a tragic resolution.

The Shakespearean Tempest

It reminds me a bit of the schemas that Joyce made for Ulysses, except that those were (a) explicitly partial and ex post facto, and (b) by the author for a single work. To come up with something like this for the entirety of Shakespeare’s works is a whole different level, and my next impulse is to start tweaking it and adding to it, shortly before I realize that it would be silly, because this chart is an attempt to turn Shakespeare into his near-antithesis, Dante. And clearly another bizarrely perverse impulse of Wilson Knight’s, as he pretty much says:

But our chart should at least serve to indicate the danger of saddling Shakespeare’s world with any static scheme whatsoever. Only when these various powers are recognized shall we understand the true process of harmonization at work.

And then I think that James Joyce really did achieve as close of a merging of the two as was possible, by taking a million schemas and attempting to superimpose them over one another simultaneously in his last two novels. And Wilson Knight’s choice of anchoring motifs–music and tempests–are pretty good ones.

The Deflation of Romanticism in Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel

Kuprin wrote this novel based on his own experiences in the army in the 1890s, about a sensitive man not cut out for the mechanistic and emotionally brutal army life. It is not a masterpiece and Kuprin himself said he wasn’t happy with the ending, but it has some wonderful moments. The main character, Romashov, is a captain granted command by dint of his higher upbringing, but he is a complete misfit. He is given to very Walter Mitty-ish fantasies about love, glory, and even death, and he alternates between seeing himself as the sole benevolent force in the other soldiers’ lives and looking down on them as robots who can’t feel anywhere nearly as deeply as he does.

So while Romashov is likable at points and recognizably more human than most of the characters, Kuprin insistently deflates him. His fantasies are unrealistic failures, and they remove him from being able to do actual good for himself or for others. Kuprin is harder on him than Thurber was on Walter Mitty. And Romashov is not an especially good man: he already has had one mistress, the wife of another officer. She now disgusts him, and she threatens him in order to keep him coming round. Meanwhile, he is infatuated with another officer’s wife, Alexandra, who of course proves herself to be even more craven than his old mistress. Romashov is oblivious to this, of course. (The women are not portrayed with any great insight or sympathy, but for the circumstances of the story, they suffice as dei ex machina.)

The novel alternates Romashov’s endless mental circles with extremely dreary portraits of army life, which render the book a bit more plainspoken than the incisive social satire of Kuprin’s more talented contemporary Sologub. But Kuprin writes with great charm, and Romashov is painfully believable. Kuprin’s most brilliant move is to hold off on mentioning any duel whatsoever for most of the novel, knowing that the situation he paints leaves no grounds for any possible duel to be reasonable, noble, or satisfying. Having only the title as a foreshadowing gives a creaky, wincing suspense that makes passages like this even more nerve-wracking:

He was struck by the blindingly clear realization of his individuality.

“I–it’s here inside,” he thought. “All the rest is a mere construction, it’s not I. This room, the street, the trees, the colonel, Lieutenant Andrusevich, the army, the flag, the soldiers–all that is not I.” Romashov looked down at his hands with surprise, raising them close to his eyes as though he were seeing them for the first time. “Is this I? And is the one who is thinking I? And the one who wants to go out? And now I am walking up and down, and now I have stopped. … Strange, does everybody have this kind of I? Maybe not. If I stand in front of one hundred soldiers and shout ‘Eyes right!’, none undred men, all of whom have their own I and who see in me something outside of it, will all, nevertheless, turn their heads to the right at the same time. But I, I cannot tell them apart….

Yes, but if I die there’ll be no more country, invaders, honor. They only live as long as I do. But think of it the other way around–if country, discipline, the honor of the uniform disappear my I could still remain. Therefore I is more important than all these notions about duty, honor, love? And so, if my I, no, not only my I, but the millions of I’s which make up the army, the whole population of the world, suddenly decided ‘no more,’ wars would become unthinkable.

Kuprin maintains a deadpan stance chronicling Romashov’s excursions into this sort of thought, whether he’s abstractly philosophizing like this or imagining a hero’s funeral for himself after he commits suicide and everyone blames themselves for not treating him better. Romashov embraces lesser and greater forms of romanticism as the novel goes on, turning to Love, God, Brotherhood, and other ideals in quick succession, in search of any meaning for himself. It is very convincing. I imagine Kuprin himself had many of these thoughts in his youth, perhaps to a lesser extent, but at the time of writing, he had the right distance from them to portray them artistically, honestly, and ironically. It’s touching, but it’s also pathetic.

Romashov is a young man; it’s hard to hate him, hard even to pity him. But his delusions, in tandem with the awful realities of army life, prove to be utterly toxic.

James Joyce: The Difference Between Portrait and Ulysses and Finnegans Wake

Well, one difference, as explained by A. Walton Litz in the pretty good book The Art of James Joyce:
A process of selectivity harmonizes with his early notion of the ‘epiphany’, which assumes that it is possible to reveal a whole area of experience through a single gesture or phrase. In shaping the Portrait Joyce sought continually to create ‘epiphanies’, and to define Stephen’s attitudes by a stringent process of exclusion; later in his career he attempted to define by a process of inclusion. The earlier method implies that there is a significance, a ‘quidditas’, residing in each thing, and that the task of the artist is to discover this significance by a process of distillation. In the later method it is the artist who creates the significance through language. Thus in the Portrait a single gesture may reveal a character’s essential nature; but in Finnegans Wake Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker’s nature is established by multiple relationships with all the fallen heroes of history and legend.

Litz doesn’t force this dichotomy too much, which is good, but there is something to it. The single-moment emphasis in the early work gets contextualized and put into perspective in Ulysses before evaporating completely in Finnegans Wake, so that every moment becomes co-extant with every other moment. (And this very process, this consubstantiality, is a major theme in Ulysses.)

Finnegans Wake: A Short Guide to Readable Books about James Joyce’s Unreadable Book

A certain article which I won’t mention reminded me that I should update my reader’s guide to reader’s guides to Finnegans Wake, since there are a lot of people out there who’d like to read the thing but don’t have the opportunity to take a class in it and don’t know quite where to begin. So I am updating my list of guides to the Wake and sorting it into a few categories.

Most of these books, especially those in the first two sections, are extremely approachable and written in friendly, affable language, certainly moreso than the average monograph. Since Finnegans Wake doesn’t exactly pull in huge amounts of fans, there’s not much exclusionary rhetoric to keep out dilettantes.


Getting Familiar (Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy)

The Books at the Wake, James S. Atherton.

Ultimately, I think this may be the best place to start, and Atherton’s excellent book was recently reissued in reasonably inexpensive paperback. Finnegans Wake is about the history of the world and the history of every bit of writing in it, and those two things are made to be one. But the Wake does favor certain writers by referencing them very frequently: not just Vico, who provided the historical structure that supposedly partly guides the book’s organization, but Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, Blake, etc. These give very key pointers to some of the things Joyce is driving at. Atherton goes author by author, which conveniently gives an overview of the continuities of the book (one of the more difficult things to grasp on encountering it) while not being beholden to one particular interpretation of it.

Joyce-again’s Wake, Bernard Benstock.

A more thorough and comprehensive overview than Atherton, but also more partial. It is invaluable for the structural outline Benstock gives, which is useful in carving up the monolithic chapters of the Wake into more manageable chunks. It also contains a fantastic analysis of the very important but elusive Prankquean fable located on pages 21-23 of the Wake. The rest of the book both summarizes previous scholarship and elaborates on it in a rather freewheeling fashion. There’s plenty of good stuff, but Benstock sometimes is too exclusive about his readings, and I read them with more salt than I did Hart or Atherton. On Issy, the topic I researched, I disagree with him. A very good introduction, but also one that requires more skepticism.

The Art of James Joyce, A. Walton Litz.

An excellent and short (100 pages) book on Joyce’s working methods on Ulysses and the Wake and how they could possibly feed into the structure and meaning of the works themselves. Litz is admirably humble and cautious about drawing any conclusions, but the emphasis on the construction work makes the whole book seem more approachable and at least begins to give some explanation as to why the Wake is written the way that it is. As Litz says, this doesn’t necessarily say anything about the work itself, but one path into the book is through the process of construction, and at least as Litz presents it, it’s a very engaging one.


Further Immersion

The Sigla of Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

McHugh is one of the most intense Wake scholars, and in The Finnegans Wake Experience he describes moving to Ireland to better understand the book. This slim volume describes, with much reference to Joyce’s notebooks, how the many personages of the book combine into sigla, a dozen or so symbols around which Joyce constructed the book. (For example, HCE in all his various forms is a wicket-shaped “M”, and ALP in hers is a triangle.) Joyce’s sigla changed as he wrote the book, and there’s room for interpretation, but McHugh, like no other analyst, gives the impression of truly grasping the whole damn thing, even as it streams between his fingers. Only my inexpert opinion, but McHugh seemed to be most in tune with Finnegans Wake.

Structure and Motif in Finnegans Wake, Clive Hart.

As the title suggests, Hart’s book contrasts with McHugh’s in tracing linguistic, spatial, temporal, and referential structure through the book rather than focusing on character archetypes or narrative. As such, Hart attempts to describe the macro-structure of the Wake with a minimum of interpretation–which invariably turns out to be quite a lot. Hart is in a lot of contentious territory, but his knowledge is solid and his pace careful. I think of Hart’s book as consciously open-ended: even where I find his interpretations uncertain, they are always provocative and spur even more future questions. This quality, however, makes the book more daunting to a newcomer, who will have less context for the majestic castles in the air that Hart depicts.

A Guide Through Finnegans Wake, Edmund Epstein.

Epstein was my teacher and guide through the Wake, so I am biased. Epstein provides a very structured and very detailed walk through the Wake page through page. He takes an different approach to the book from McHugh and Hart, preferring to focus on the fundamentally human drama at the heart of it, and so he ignores the sigla and treats the man-woman dyad HCE and ALP and their brethren as corporeal, albeit manifold, human beings. In this he is closer to Joseph Campbell (yes, that one) and Henry Morton Robinson, who wrote possibly the first book-length treatment of the Wake with A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake in the 1940s, but Epstein has the benefit of 60 years more research and perspective, and so Campbell and Robinson’s many mistaken guesses are not a problem here. Epstein points out tons of obscure allusions as well, and he is especially good on music and some of the pure wordplay. (I believe he conducted Gilbert and Sullivan at one point or other.) The book is contentious: Epstein has a very definite view of the book’s layout and mechanism, and I believe there is far more ambiguity in it than he does. Grain of salt, etc.

A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, William York Tindall.

Tindall was an extremely bright and knowledgeable Wake scholar, but I have to rate this as one of the weaker guides. Like Blamires’ Bloomsday Book, it explicates the Wake page by page. Unfortunately, what’s left out is far greater than what remains, and Tindall often makes controversial interpretations without appearing to do so. It’s less of a problem in Blamires because the narrative of Ulysses is reasonably uncontroversial, but since narrative in Finnegans Wake emerges from linguistic confusion and contradiction, Tindall’s approach makes the Wake appear smaller than it is. Provocative and worthwhile, but also worth avoiding until you know enough to spot some of his assumptions.


Specialization and Esoterica (Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult)

Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Roland McHugh.

Absolutely indispensible for serious reading, but insanely frustrating to a newcomer. For those who haven’t seen it, this is an extensive gloss that maps page-by-page on to the original text with extremely concise, sometimes cryptic notes. (You really have to see it to get the effect.) On first glance the Annotations are just as obscure as the Wake itself, but once I started catching recurrences of certain allusions, it becomes impressive how they match up with particular subjects and characters in the Wake. (For example, Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll references occur absurdly often in any section associated with the daughter Issy.) You will want this after having a  working grasp of the general shape of the book, but before that it will merely cause nightmares.

Third Census of Finnegans Wake, Adaline Glasheen.

Glasheen started reading the Wake while tending to a newborn and needing something to occupy moments during and in between feedings. Evidently possessed of awesome powers of concentration, she also seems to have inexhaustible enthusiasm. Her book is nothing more and nothing less than a catalogue of all the proper names in the Wake that Glasheen could identify. (It also includes another structural summary with, as is to be expected, some contentious interpretations. I give the edge to Benstock’s summary, though both are very useful.) Glasheen’s list of references is exhausting, if not exhaustive, and effectively serves as an alternate organizational tool for digesting the Wake. It poses thousands of questions along the lines of, “Why did Joyce connect person X with person Y?” Glasheen is also completely unaffected, as indicated by entries like “I don’t know who this is.”

Joyce’s Book of the Dark, John Bishop.

An extremely daunting book. While schooled in the above traditions of Wake scholarship, Bishop goes in another direction entirely, focusing on Joyce’s linguistic methods as theme, particularly as they relate to sleep, the body, and the five senses. Bishop is fond of making extremely short citations and combining them from all over the Wake in close succession, which emphasizes Joyce’s sea of language while downplaying any potential linear continuity. Bishop also analyzes two key mythologies that influenced the Wake, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Vico’s New Science, but his interpretations are highly heterodox. Consequently, Bishop has the effect of making Finnegans Wake seem even weirder than the other books make it out to be. The book is one of the most learned studies around and takes the Wake in unique interpretive directions, but it may leave you, as it implies, in the dark.

Finding a Replacement for the Soul, Brett Bourbon.

While this book is not exclusively concerned with the Wake, it invokes Finnegans Wake as a central example for Bourbon’s non-propositional view of fiction. Bourbon, I believe, was a student of Bishop and locates Bishop’s nighttime uncertainty in the processes of language itself, taking Bishop’s argument even farther. Not an exegesis of Finnegans Wake, but a reflection on what the Wake says (or shows) about readers and reading.


Demolition Derby: Jonathan Barnes

It stinks.

"This movie gets my highest rating, 7 out of 10."

This is the funniest vicious review I’ve read in a while, from this week’s TLS. I’m excerpting the best bits, but it’s all of a piece. The nastiest parts are…the quotes.

Glen Duncan THE LAST WEREWOLF 346pp. Canongate. £14.99.

by Jonathan Barnes

Bitten by a werewolf when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Jacob Marlowe (just “Jake” to his friends) has grappled with his lycanthropic inheritance for more than a century-and-a-half… “I really can’t stand it any more”, he tells us, “the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love.” Only when he finally accepts the inevitability of his own extinction does he discover a reason to survive – and to take the fight to his pursuers.

So stark a synopsis does little to suggest the considerable pleasures and occasional disappointments of Glen Duncan’s eighth novel, The Last Werewolf. While much of the cheerfully pulpy subject matter is familiar from numerous comic books, roleplaying games, television series and movies, the voice that the novelist assumes is arrestingly original. Told (at least until a late and slightly unconvincing switch) in the firstperson by Jacob Marlowe himself, Duncan’s monstrous narrator makes for memorably rambunctious company.

Nonchalant about his place in the food chain (on people: “when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food”) and full of macho swagger (“I’d fucked her six times with preposterous staying power”), he is also philosophical (“snow makes cities innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void”), aphoristic (“total self-disgust is a kind of peace”) and topically droll (“two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist”).

…Curiously, he also indulges in some literary criticism (“Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited”)….

…Invention flags in the book’s second half as a series of very similar situations are described in almost identical ways: “it happened very fast”; “then several things happened very fast”; “what happened next happened … very fast”; “what happened happened very fast”. While the conclusion appears to gesture towards the possibility of a sequel, one cannot but hope that Duncan can triumph over the temptation to make The Last Werewolf the first instalment in a series.

I can’t imagine how the sops to the book’s virtues made it into the second paragraph.

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