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It is the literary equivalent of “Da-da-da-Dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “2B or not 2B.” Everyone knows it, whether they have seen Hamlet or not. It would be hard to find another phrase as often quoted or as immediately recognized by a wide public. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” “In the beginning was the word.” Even these lag behind the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy as cultural roughage. 

Because it is so deeply buried in the culture, it is hard to even hear it anymore. It glides by not as information, but as a kind of tune, hummed thoughtlessly while sanding a table top or cutting carrots in the kitchen. 

But that soliloquy, just as the play it sits in the middle of, can be performed many different ways, with very different meanings. There are Hamlets that are Oedipal, Hamlets that are schizophrenic, Hamlets that are hot-blooded, those that are indecisive, those that are crafty — and at least one Hamlet played as a stand-up comedian. Take the words the playwright wrote and you can construe them myriad ways. In Ulysses, James Joyce has his character Stephen Daedalus prove that Hamlet is his own father. Sort of. 

Likewise, the “to be or not to be” speech can be spoken theatrically, like Master Thespian — this is too often the case — or emotionally, or enunciated with clinical precision. It can be spoken to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, or whispered under the breath. It can be done as a voice-over, as if we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. 

Benedict Cumberbatch; Mel Gibson; Thomas Hiddleston

(The one thing that seldom changes is Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull in Act 5. Everyone has to do it, and what is more, be photographed doing it. Even publicity photos for provincial productions have to feature the Dane and his moldy jester.)

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. It certainly has his wittiest hero: Hamlet, the Dane, is in fact too smart for his own good. In part, that’s what the play is about. 

In it, Claudius has killed his brother, the king — Hamlet’s father — and usurped the throne and queen. 

When the dead king’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge him, Hamlet enters a storm of uncertainty: How, when, why and if to kill Claudius. In the process, Hamlet alienates most of the people he knows, even killing several. 

When Claudius contrives to murder Hamlet before the young prince can kill him, the whole Danish court is thrown into violence and death. 

You can just keep turning this play around and the light will keep catching a new facet. The more you look at it, the more you see. An actor has to decide: At any moment, is what is driving the character? 

Hamlet is the single most complex, multilayered and confusing character in any play. Is he insane? Is he pretending to be insane? Is he sane at some moments and mad at others? Is he obsessed with his mother? Is his inability to act caused by fearfulness, thoughtfulness, indecision or a desire to kill Claudius only when murder will do the most harm to Claudius’ eternal soul? 

None of these versions is ruled out by the text, but none is sufficient of itself. 

“As an actor,” one Hamlet said, “I’m going to try to illuminate as many facets as I can. But you can’t do it all, or you’ll lose focus. I feel sometimes I’m trying to cover myself with too little blanket: If I cover my head and shoulders, my feet stick out.” 

Critics have argued for 400 years about Hamlet’s inaction. But the reason the character refuses to go away is that he is at least as complex as we are in the audience: Hamlet is real. 

Hamlet has a line, when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would seem to pluck out the heart of my mystery,” and that is what most scholars and critics try to do.

Not only actors, but whole ages have their takes. In the 19th century, Hamlet was often played as effeminate, or at least as one easily in touch with his feminine side. 

Edwin Booth brother of Lincoln’s assassin, and considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, himself wrote in 1882, ”I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet’s character and therein lies the secret of my success — I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation. I know that frequently I fall into effeminacy, but we can’t always hit the proper keynote.’’

Edwin Booth; Sarah Bernhardt; Asti Nielsen; John Barrymore

In fact, there were many notable actresses who took on the role then, most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who said, ”I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’’

The practice actually goes back further. In 1775, Hamlet was played by the young Sarah Siddons to great acclaim (she continued to play the role until she was 47). Two decades later, the role went to Elizabeth Powell in London’s Drury Lane theater. 

These women achieved great praise. The stuffy Dr. Samuel Johnson saw Kitty Clive in the play and compared her performance with that of the famous actor David Garrick. “Mrs. Clive was the best player I ever saw,” he noted. “What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick.” 

Ruth Mitchell; Frances de la Tour; Lisa Wolpe

In 1822, Julia Glover played Hamlet in London and fellow actor Walter Donaldson said, “Her noble figure, handsome and expressive face, rich and powerful voice, all contributed to rivet the attention of the elite assembled on this occasion; while continued bursts of applause greeted her finished elocution.” The greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean, came backstage to congratulate her: “Excellent. Excellent,” he said. 

In 1820, the first American female Hamlet was Sarah Bartley, in New York. At mid-century, Charlotte Cushman took on the role in New York and Boston, wearing the costume Edwin Booth had lent her. 

The sentiment was not unanimous, however. The New York Mirror disapproved of Nellie Holbrook’s Hamlet in 1880. “This absolutely masculine character is not capable of proper presentation by a woman, however great or talented,” the reviewer wrote. “We are, however, free to say that Miss Holbrook’s Hamlet is eminently respectable.”

That is better than the patronizing review of critic William Winter in 1911. “It is difficult to understand why Hamlet should be considered feminine, seeing that he is supereminently distinguished by a characteristic rarely, if ever, discerned in women: namely that of considering consequences, of thinking too precisely on the event.” 

Christopher Eccleston

In the 20th century, Hamlet took a decidedly macho turn (say it like the British: “Match-oh”). He becomes a swashbuckler or a sadist, by turns. Olivier, Mel Gibson, Christopher Eccleston, who makes him look like a soccer hoodlum. 

Yet, there have been actresses who took the role. Maxine Peakes is available on DVD. Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell and Lisa Wolpe played the Dane. In 1982, Joseph Papp produced a Hamlet with Diane Venora. 

“There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate,” Papp said. “Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher — like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

“For years I have wanted to do a female Hamlet,” Papp said. “I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet — not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.”

In 1937, it was Eva LeGallienne, who said, “I think psychologically one feels Hamlet was a youth … He’s still going to Wittenberg, to college, you know. He can’t be a mature man. The whole thing points to a very young youth, and therefore because a boy of that age might not be technically equipped to play the role, this is why many women in their thirties who can look like a youth, and had the technical skills to play this great role, have played it.”

Top row: Campbell Scott; Alan Mahon; Danforth Comins; Jonathan Douglas; Bottom row: Nathan Darrow; Rory Kenner; Tobias Fonsmark; Holder Bulow; Michael Benz

But, of course, Hamlet can be played all of these ways. The part is supremely plastic — you can stretch it this way and that and it still makes theatrical sense. 

But this divigation has gone on too long. Back to the soliloquy. To be or not. To be? That is the question. Nothing can stale its infinite variety. Let’s take a few different versions. Olivier, in his 1959 film, does it mostly as a voice-over, set on a precipice overlooking roiling surf. It is Hamlet on the edge of a breakdown. (Link here).

Gielgud was an enunciator. The clarity of his delivery overtakes the overt emotionalism that Olivier brought. (Link here).

Kevin Kline gives it the Master Thespian touch, emphasizing every word as if it were the most important. It becomes monotonous. But, soft, he doth drop a tear. (Link here). 

In the entire opposite direction, Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the lines as if they were spoken off the cuff. This is the way real people speak. I especially love the way he makes sense of the line: “to sleep. No more.” He makes it into “death is to sleep, no more than that.” His is my current favorite version. (Link here). 

One last version. John Barrymore was the great Hamlet of the early part of the 20th century. The bulk of his career was before sound film, so it was only in his decline that he filmed the speech — or part of it — in a silly comedy starring Kay Kyser as a hick bandleader attempting to learn to be an actor. He hires Barrymore, playing a parody version of himself, to be his mentor. At one point, the comedy stops and Barrymore gives his bit of the soliloquy and you can see the majesty of his talent peek through the alcoholic puffiness. The take is almost ruined by his uncontrollable eyebrows, looking like two marmots fighting over a cheese. But the words, the words, the words. (Link here). 

Papa Essiedu, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Giamatti, Grantham Coleman

As for the words, they can be difficult for modern listeners. What the hell is a fardel? Would you bear fardels with a bare bodkin? Sometimes you wonder what Shakespeare meant, although the problem isn’t as apparent when the words are spoken on stage, as when you read them in text. An actor can make the meaning clear in context. When Hamlet says, “with a bare bodkin,” he draws his dagger and the audience understands. 

But language has changed in the past 400 years and even words that are still in current usage often had different meanings then. A careful reading of Shakespeare’s work demands an attention to lexicographical detail, if we are to avoid confusion. 

And even when we know what the words mean, we are still faced with the fact that the Bard often uses the words metaphorically, as when he has Hamlet talk of “taking his quietus,” which doesn’t literally mean to kill himself, but rather means, having finished an enterprise, or having paid off a longstanding debt. Such is life, he implies.

The most famous soliloquy in Hamlet is a profound meditation on death and suicide — the question Albert Camus said is the only philosophical question that really matters. But what do the words mean?

To be, or not to be: That is the question:/ Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep:/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause: There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/ The pangs of despised loved, the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes,/ When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,/ To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action.

Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce

A quick glossary: 

Rub – actually, an obstacle on a lawn bowling green.

Shuffled – cast off, like a snake skin

Coil – Turmoil

Respect – consideration or regard

Of so long life – long lived.

Time – The world as we know it.

Contumely – Contemptuous insults

Despised – Rejected.

Office – Office-holders; bureaucrats.

Spurns – Insults.

Quietus – the paying off of a debt; the resolution of an enterprise.

Bare – used here, “bare” may mean “mere.”

Bodkin – a sharp object, sometimes a hatpin, but here a dagger.

Fardels – Burdens, as a bindle or an army’s dunnage.

Bourn – Region; boundary.

Conscience – Used in an older sense of consciousness; thought.

Native hue – Natural color.

Cast – shade of color.

Pitch – The height of a soaring falcon’s flight; before falling on its prey. 

Moment – Importance.

Regard – Consideration.

It is poetry, in iambic pentameter, with rhythm and melody. But we can translate the whole into modern American tapwater. And so, if we take the poetry out of this soliloquy, what we are left with is the bare-bones meaning:

The only question that counts is suicide: Should one put up with the suffering of life or do something about it and end it all? Death is like sleep: And if as in sleep, the troubles go away, that would be wonderful. But when we sleep, we also dream. And if we dream after death, the way we do in sleep, well, that’d make you stop and think wouldn’t it? That’s why this disaster we call life goes on: For who would put up with life’s crap if he could end them all through suicide? Who would bear the burdens of life but that the threat of something much worse after death makes us hesitate and makes us put up with the troubles we have rather than fly to others we don’t know anything about? And so, thinking makes us cowards; And the will to action is weakened by thinking, And what mighty deeds we would perform come to exactly zip.

And that is why Shakespeare is Shakespeare. 

The Arnold, Buster Keaton, David Bowie, Weird Al Yankovich

Photo at top: Top row, L-R — Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson; bottom row — Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, Ethan Hawke

Click on any picture to enlarge

 

I recently wrote about the Bible as part of our cultural heritage, along with Ovid, and the importance for our younger readers to be familiar with both of them, since they provide such an important resonance for so much of our art and literature. Not simply as footnotes to explain some obscure allusion in some poem you are studying, but as a kind of foundation layer — a diapason for everything that has followed and sounding deeply underneath it.

I received one rather snarky comment complaining that my piece was characteristically over-weighted with Western culture, and that I should have also mentioned non-Western writings.

My reader, I think, had rather missed the point. I was talking about the Western culture we were born into. I was not making a value judgement that ours is necessarily better or more important than others. But I was not born into the Chinese, Indian, African or Native American cultures.

I have always encouraged the widest possible exposure to the rest of the world. I have tried to read widely in other cultures, and to familiarize myself with the art and music of other peoples.

But there are two problems inherent in the criticism my misguided reader has leveled at me. This is not to exculpate myself — I do sometimes overvalue my own culture — but rather to point out some serious problems with trying to be too cosmopolitan. I wish I could embrace all times and all cultures, and god knows, I have tried my best. I read widely, whether the Mahabharata or the Tao Te Ching; I have studied the development of Chinese landscape painting and the impenetrable glyphs of Mesoamerica; I have attended Chinese opera; I watch the new cinema of Iran. I traveled to South Africa to study contemporary art there.

One should be familiar with the Popol Vuh, with the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh.

One should also read more recent things by Chinua Achebe, Athol Fugard, R.K. Narayan, Kobo Abe, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa. Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are hardly less essential than Leo Tolstoy or William Faulkner.

Still, there are insurmountable problems with the whole idea.

The first is that no matter how much I study, how much I learn — even if I were to get my Ph.D. in the Fu poets of China and were able to read them in their original language — Chinese culture would never be native to me. Culture, like language, is acquired, not learned. And just as it is impossible after the teen years to acquire a new language as a native tongue, no matter how well you learn that new language, you can never fully absorb a non-native culture. You will always know it from the outside.  Its idioms are elusive.

So, the sort of resonance I wrote about — the unconscious undertones you pick up when reading in your own lingua that deepen your emotional understanding of your text — you can never fully acquire in a culture you study later in life. Deep as you penetrate, you cannot soak it in the same way a Chinese child, or an Indian child soaks in his own.

Related to this is the second problem.

The pretense of assuming a non-native culture is almost always a form of Orientalizing. That is, there is a kind of romanticized sheen that is cast over the other culture. And that other culture is often used as a flail to scourge one’s native culture.

Lord knows, Europe has a lot to answer for historically. And those who bemoan Western culture use the counter-example from some other culture to make the point. The problem with this kind of cultural self-loathing is that it ignores the simple fact that it is not Western culture that creates the evil, it is human beings that do so. Every culture has its evils to answer for. Europe may, in the past 500 years been dominant, and have a list of sins more immediate in our cultural memory, but we should never forget that all cultures are made up of humans, and humans do and have always done reprehensible things.

I once made a study of genocides, and which religions have been responsible for the largest portion of them. Turns out they all have their murders. The religion least likely to turn on others is Buddhism. Yet, even they have their share; not the least is the current situation with the Rohingya in Burma. So, historically speaking, no one escapes blame. Before Columbus, Native Americans were not living in peace and amity: They were killing each other. China had Mao; Cambodia had Pol Pot; Rwanda had its Tutsis and Hutus. Humans red in tooth and claw.

The romanticization of other cultures leads to some utter silliness. I never cease to be stunned by all the “harmony with nature” blather about American Indians, as if they, as a group (and not a hundred different languages and cultures), had some magic relationship with the natural world that Europeans do not. You look at European painting or read Western poetry and practically all you see or hear is nature, finely seen and deeply felt.

And conversely, you travel through the Navajo reservation in Arizona and see the profound overgrazing that has devastated grasslands. Or visit First Mesa on the Hopi reservation (one of the places I most love in the world), and peek over the edge of the precipice and see the trash and old mattress springs tossed down the cliff as a trash dump. Talk to me then about how Native Americans live in harmony with nature.

No, I don’t mean to imply that Europeans are better than Native Americans, nor do I mean that some Native Americans don’t have a specific cultural relationship with the natural world. What I mean to state is that Native Americans are people too, and are just as capable of being less than their best selves.

These two problems together mean that when we leave our own milieu, we are always tourists — or at best, travelers — strangers in a strange land, fascinated by this bauble or that, able to learn lessons and pick up fresh ways of understanding existence, but these are always souvenirs, the benefits of travel that broaden our horizons.

When we Orientalize — idealize the foreignness of others — we can easily toss away the pith and suck on the bark. There is much value, say, in Buddhism. And if one is to have a religion, it is certainly the least offensive, with the least blood on its hands. But if you want to be one, be a Buddhist in a jacket and tie; don’t shave your head and wear yellow robes. If you were born in Indiana or West Anglia, these Volkgedanken externals miss the elemental meaning and turn profound ideas into cosplay.

So, be aware of the rest of the world. Read widely and deeply. But also, drink deeply from the culture that gave you birth. You may understand other places and other peoples in your head, but you feel your own in your belly. If you are Chinese, dive into Chinese culture; if Mexican, soak in your history, literature and art; if you are born into the culture of Chaucer and King James, imbibe deeply of the Pierian Spring. Learning from other cultures broadens you, but your mother culture nourishes you.

TS Eliot
This year is the centennial of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” And the long view is that Eliot was the greatest, most influential poet of the 20th century, at least, in the English language.poetry june 1915 2

But oddly, he seems to have written only seven poems.

Along with “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland,” there are the “Four Quartets” and “The Hollow Men” — the last surely one of his weakest poems, whose popularity appeals to the shallow cynicism of pimpled adolescence. Beyond that — and not counting the ubiquity of the “Old Pussum” poems, for which the posthumous Eliot must be sorely embarrassed — the rest of his oeuvre is something read by graduate students. How many, after all, have actually read “Ash Wednesday” or the Choruses from “The Rock?”

It isn’t that these poems aren’t good, or aren’t worth studying or reading, but they haven’t stuck with us, while everyone can quote or misquote, “not with a bang but a whimper” and “April is the cruelest month.”

This isn’t to denigrate Eliot or his importance. I love reading through “Burnt Norton” over and over, or “The Dry Salvages.” But rather to illustrate a common point of art and culture.

After all, we hold William Wordsworth up to be one of English literature’s most exulted poets, maybe the greatest since Milton, yet, beyond the “Intimations Ode” and “Tintern Abbey,” and a few sonnets and Lucy poems, and maybe some notable passages from the interminable “Prelude,” how much of the vast output of that poet ever gets read outside of class?

I have a special place in my heart for Coleridge. I read and reread with intense pleasure a handful of his poems. “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” “Kubla Khan,” “Frost at Midnight,” “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” — but beyond that, how much of his work comes off as fustian.

Even Shakespeare, who wrote some 40 plays, is known to most of us through the “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” we studied in high school, and the “Hamlet,” “Lear,” or “Henry IV, Part I” we read in college. And perhaps there was that “Twelfth Night” put on by the college drama department. The bulk of his output languisheth in obscurity.

It’s not just in poetry. How many of us have read Melville’s “White Jacket” or “Israel Potter?” Or Thoreau’s “Week on the Concord and Merrimac?” Vitruvian Man

And not just in literature. Leonardo drew and painted many things, but the “Mona Lisa” and the Vitruvian Man outweigh all the ladies in Ermine or Madonnas of the rock.

Beethoven has his Fifth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy.” Warhol has his soup cans and his Marilyns. Even Springsteen has his “Born to Run” and “Born in the USA.”

The life and work of almost everyone gets boiled down to a few most characteristic and often the few best works. The rest, like the Latin poems of John Milton, are left to specialists.

In the preface to his “Collected Poems,” Wystan Auden makes this point with some clarity and poignancy.

The work of every author falls into four classes, he wrote. In the first is “pure rubbish,” which he regrets ever having conceived. (Although, I would say from experience, he doesn’t always recognize this at the time). auden

Second, Auden says, are the good ideas that come to naught through incompetence or impatience.

Third, are “those pieces he has nothing against except their lack of importance: these must inevitably form the bulk of any collection.”

This is the journeyman work, competent, even pleasing, and certainly better than lesser talents could accomplish, but still, it is the “filler” portion of a life’s work.

Finally, there are “those poems for which he is honestly grateful,” which, if he were to limit his publication to these alone, “his volume would be too depressingly slim.”

And, I would add, an impoverishment to doctoral students everywhere.

There are higher and lower batting averages among artists and writers, but, even the best hitters fail seven out of 10 tries. It is humbling.

More to the point, it isn’t just the author who feels gratitude for the home runs of his or her production, but we readers, listeners, seers and participants. We are those who feel our inner lives buoyed by the “Intimations Ode” or Chaucer’s prologue, or Van Gogh’s wheatfields.van gogh wheatfield

Stephen Spender   The English poet Stephen Spender wrote a poem whose first line I can’t get out of my head: “I think continually of those who were truly great.”
Of course, Spender was writing about political issues, but I can’t help thinking how this line might apply to art.
Because, we use such words rather loosely in the art world. This is “great,” that is “great.” But this devalues the word. I think continually, not of the great writer, painters and musicians who have populated our world, our college curricula and our anthologies — there are many: so many, no one — not even Harold Bloom — can read, see and hear them all — but rather I am thinking of what Spender might call the “truly great.” There are so few of them.
These are those men (and I’ll qualify that soon if you give me a minute) whose works either changed the world significantly or at least changed the culture, or whose works are recognized by a preponderance of humankind to have the deepest insight into the human condition.
It is best understood if we start with science. Who was “truly great?” You could name hundreds of great thinkers, from Watson and Crick to Louis Pasteur to Edwin Hubble. Their contributions have been invaluable. But none of them so completely changed our thinking or ruled it for so long as my three nominees: Aristotle, Newton and Einstein. Each remade the world.three scientists
Who in the arts can have had such effect? These are the people whose works are the core of our culture, the central axis of our understanding of how the world looks, feels, acts, and responds.
The Big Boys.
You may have your own thoughts on the matter: That is not the issue.  We can haggle over the contents of the list. The issue is whether there are some creators whose works are so essential to culture that to be ignorant of their work, is to be ignorant. Period.
In literature, I would say the list begins with Homer and Shakespeare. They are the consensus leaders. If I would add Chaucer, Milton and Dante to the list, so be it. You can add your own. But Homer and Shakespeare are “truly great” in this sense.
What I am suggesting is that in each field, there are probably such consensus choices. In music, you have Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Surely others belong on the list. I would include Haydn, Wagner and Stravinsky. You can add your own, but again, if you are not familiar with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, your education is incomplete.
Among painters, you have Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso. No one will argue against them. There are many painters that could be included: Titian, Michelangelo, Monet, Turner — the list is expandable depending on your taste, but who has had more influence than Raphael? More depth than Rembrandt? More expanse than Picasso?
(I am purposely narrowing my list to European culture, not because I think that is is the only one that counts, but because I swim in it rather than another, and because I have not enough exposure to everything in other cultures to claim even the slim authority I have discussing Western culture. If I had my way, I’d add Hokusai to this list, but he is ruled out by the operating principles of my system.)
Who are the sculptors? Michelangelo, surely; Bernini and Rodin. Others are great, but these are the standard-bearers.
Try it for yourself. Among novelists, who are our Newton and Einstein? Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and James Joyce.
Again, you may put forth your Fielding, your Trollope or Dickens and I won’t argue. This is only my list and it is surely provisional. It is merely my meager assay. It is my claim that there are the “truly great.” And that they offer something bigger, larger and more powerful than even the best of the rest. They have altered the course of the planet. Or at least the people upon it.
One final caveat: Where are the women? I am not so churlish that I don’t recognize the many great artists who are built with X chromosomes. My argument is with history, not with women: Historically, women have been blocked from the world of art. This is not so anymore, or at least not to the extent it has been true in the past. I was an art critic for a quarter of a century, and I saw the art world shift from a boy’s club to a much more open thing. Most of the best artists I came across were women. Many of our best and most honored writers are now women. In the future, I have no doubt there will be women who shake the world the way Michelangelo did. But I have to look backwards for my list, not guess at the future.
So, does Gertrude Stein belong here? Or Virginia Woolf? This is not to gainsay their genius or the quality of their work. Everyone should read them. But I am not writing about the great: I am comparing them to Shakespeare. The lack of women on this list is a historical artifact, not a prescriptive injunction.
The world is sorely lacking for heroes these days. We don’t even trust the idea of the hero. He surely must be in it for himself; there must be some ulterior motive. It’s all about power, say the deconstructionists. It is all reduced to a steaming pile of rubble and we shout with glee over taking down the idols and smashing them.
But I am suggesting that we actually read Homer, study Rembrandt, listen to Beethoven’s late quartets with the intensity and importance we otherwise give to defusing a bomb.
We should read or listen or look as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Victrola

From the “Preamble” to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery or home presumes to wear a Cezanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, or of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music. 

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.

A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

guilford 2

College is where the majority of attendees do the most reading of their lives. Indeed, surveys consistently record that at least a third of college grads never read another book after graduation. One must assume that these are the people who become politicians.

For the rest of us, college is where we encounter the first books that we recognize as opening the doors of our minds and either forming the adults we become, or providing reinforcing arguments for the personalities we have already developed: Really, both.

Coursework reading is where we first discover that other people have had the same thoughts we have had, and what is more, have been entirely more articulate about those thoughts. And those writers have considered issues that had never, as yet, occurred to us.

It is a four-year span in which we are, for the second time in our lives, slapped awake.

As for me, I couldn’t wait. College was an escape from the oppressive banality of suburbia. I was told by my parents that upon entering second grade I asked if that meant I could “go to college next year.”

I really wanted to get away and enter what I imagined to be the real “adult” world of intellectual pursuit.

However, when I got there, I proceeded to waste most of my time and my parents’ money. I was a terrible student. Oh, I worked hard and made excellent grades in those courses that interested me, but in courses that didn’t interest me, or in which I felt contempt for the professor (being the know-it-all that we all are as adolescents), I hardly attended class and instead slept late, drank beer, or spent time in the company of the serial list of women who let me into the mysteries for which I was such an eager sleuth.

There were, nevertheless, a few things from early-morning classrooms that have stuck with me. I want to mention four of them.shelley

The first, and probably most indelible, is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.

There are many for whom art, whether poetry or TV sitcom is essentially a branch of entertainment. These people includes highbrows as well as low. But there are some — and I am unfortunately one — who see a more serious purpose for art. It is probably just a genetic relic of the Norwegian Lutheranism I was born into, but boy, did I ever suffer from it.

This is a position that it is difficult to maintain in part because of the solemn piety of its adherents: easy to make fun of. And the grand claims made by Victorian do-gooders and Modernist manifestos are often preposterous, even laughable, and further undermine any effort to find a moral purpose to scribbling on paper, whether with pen or brush.

Too often, moral purpose in the arts has led to boring, didactic works, espousing this partisan view or that, whether Christian or Marxist — or in the case of that great fashioner of doorstops, Ayn Rand, unreadable tracts.

But Shelley makes clear in his argument that it is not the modeling of behavior that makes art moral, but the very act of imagination: The ability to conceive of thoughts, emotions, pains and motives not our own. Imagination fuels empathy.

“The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.”

At the heart of great art is compassion. Not as a subject matter — that is left to the preacher’s sermons — but through opening each of us up to the multifariousness of experience and the variety of responses to experience. A great work of art must make us understand even that which we abhor. Humbert Humbert, for instance.

As Yeats wrote, “From our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; poetry from our arguments with ourselves.”

The class where I read the Defence was one in English Romantic Poetry, and it left me with a trove of things I return to over and over, from Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode (which I re-read at least once a month), to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, to the psychedelic fourth act of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which is my substitute for bong and hash: “With a mighty whirl the multitudinous orb/ Grinds the bright brook into an azure mist /Of elemental subtlety, like light.” Flashing, man.greek myths 2

The second lingering from class is Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. I took several courses in classical literature, including a blunted attempt to learn the language of the ancient Greeks. En arche hen ho logos. I foundered on the aorist voice, among other things, including my growing dislike of the word-games and fascistic tendencies of Plato, whose Euthyphro I was tasked to translate.

But, I came to love the classics. They have enriched my life from then to now (more about them in a later blog entry). But Graves gave me a deeper and richer appreciation of mythology, and upset any naive notion I had that it was all a coherent, organized system of gods and goddesses (as it was made to appear in Edith Hamilton or Hawthorne’s Wonder Book), but rather a welter of conflicting local stories, changing over time and mixed into a stew that no one ever held onto in a single grip. Again: multifarious and complex. robt graves

One of the underlying messages of any important reading: Everything you know is wrong. Or at least, no single idea or ideology can adequately describe the world. It is always more complex than that, and we should beware of anyone who tells us they have the answer.

It is true that Graves had his hobby horse and you can’t take everything he avers as solid truth. But the underlying mash of malt and hops captures the brew pretty well.

Third, there was E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, which I read for a Shakespeare course. Tillyard covers several aspects of that world view, but most essentially, the idea of hierarchy, the sense that God created a world in which everything exists on a rung of a ladder of which there is always something above and something below. Thus, lions are the “king of beasts,” the way gold is the most noble of metals and the oak is the top tree. Further, that trees as a whole top minerals, and animals top trees, and man is atop all this, yet under angels, which in turn, are under God, who is the end of the line, very like Canarsie. descent of man

It can get quite silly and convoluted: arguing whether a siamang or white-handed gibbon is higher on the chain, or whether a peach is more noble than an apricot, since clearly, one must rank higher. Medieval literature is chock full of such debates: Who ranks higher, king or pope? But we still have these arguments, all over the place.

Becoming aware of this persistent trope in our culture turned the lights on: We are still suffering from this idea, and it is all around us, unexamined. Tillyard made me see and examine it: Every time someone talks about something being “higher on the evolutionary ladder,” one must counter that such an idea is a misunderstanding of Darwin. But that misunderstanding drives so much policy and inflames so much political rhetoric.

Tillyard made me re-examine many of the axioms and assumptions of our culture in a way more direct and concrete — and easier to understand — than all the horse-hair stuffing of the French Post-structuralist philosophers and deconstructionists. prolog canterbury tales

Finally, from class, and by no means least, I came to love Geoffrey Chaucer. I have become a fair reciter of Middle English, with a credible accent. And I found that reading Chaucer out loud enhances his comprehensibility. It become very like getting used to a thick Scottish burr or the sing-song of English spoken in the Indian subcontinent. When you get used to it, it disappears. Outside of some arcane vocabulary, Chaucer’s language isn’t all that difficult.

What is more, the poetry itself is overwhelming, whether it is the Wife of Bath’s prologue or the short poem, Trouthe, the language is as delicious as can be found in our mother tongue.

“The wrastling for the world axeth a fall.”

“Here is noon hoom, here nis but wildernesse.”

“Much wele stant in littel businesse.”

My wife periodically asks me to recite the general prologue to the Canterbury Tales, which I have fairly well committed to memory, and I can’t think of a greater or more pleasurable chunk of poetry in the English language.

NEXT: The years in the wilderness

O and E movie

I had doubts.

You don’t disturb a smooth-running bureaucracy with impunity. There are reasons for all those regulations.O and E Rodin

What is more, I was not unhappy down here. I was not happy, either — such words don’t mean anything here, except as memory.  To be roused by his request from the grayness was too much like being awakened on a chilly morning when you just want to stay in bed under the covers.O and E pina bausch

But there it was. He had come down here, asking to take me back.

It wasn’t that I really wanted to go. But he wanted it so much, how could I refuse him. I never could refuse him.

I remember that. Memory here is so precise, so exact, so complete.

I remember him, too, with that same clarity that no one topside can even imagine. We have the talent for memory here, but we never use it. There is no need. It is a steady state. O and E Egyptian textileNeither happy nor unhappy, neither awake nor aware. You can pass eons without ever knowing it, not that it would matter if you did.

But I remember his wide shoulders, the twin sinews behind each knee. I could never refuse him.

So, I was awakened. We did not speak. He was not allowed to look at me. Never mind: It suited the way he loved me. He never really looked at me, even when we were both able to breathe. He is thought a demigod, but he was really just a man. And like all men, he stared, but he never really looked. I know now what I didn’t know then: I know what he saw when he stared at me with such soft eyes. If you think age brings wisdom, wait till you discover death.O and E bas relief

I looked at him, though, when we were above ground, the first time —  alive. I looked at him often. He didn’t know when I watched him sleep, or watched him stringing his lyre, or feeding the horse. I could see him like he was an X-ray, all the bones and joints, but also the fevers and melodies.

You think it was the music that devoured me? No. The music was beautiful, but I could have heard the music without loving him. Anyone could have. The music was played for everyone.

No, it was that he wanted me. How many women have fallen in love because they were simply asked? And now, he wanted me again.

There is a difference between Orpheus and the rest of us. We love the living people, the fickle, feckless people we share life with. One to one. That is what our love is.

He did not love that way. No. O and E corot

Orpheus had the double vision of a four-eyed fish, half above, half below the surface, and everything he saw came in two images: O and E 35mmthe one he saw above the water, and the second he saw in his imagination. Always, the things he knew came as real and image, and the two were, for him, the same thing.

You overlook a lot in a man. You have to. It’s not forgiveness so much; it is more like learning to ignore that your clock is always running fast. You make allowances.

So, he came back for me. We walked up the rocky path. I saw his back, the nape of his neck under his curls. The circles of fleshfold around his elbow points. His head was haloed by the bright light at the cave entrance. When we got near the light, he reached one arm back for me to hold as we picked our way up past the boulders.O and E Bartolozzi

These memories are in focus sharper than any lens can provide, but I don’t remember them anymore.

He turned to look at me.

I could see in his eyes that double vision for the second before he disappeared, or I disappeared. It’s all the same thing.

When he had me, flesh and blood, he saw only an image of me. Now that I no longer breathed, and exist only as image, he wanted the flesh and blood. Perhaps you never really want it until you know you are losing it.O and E etching

In those eyes I could see genuine pain for losing me a second time. But I also saw a glint that told me he knew he now had a good story to tell, a new song to sing.