Goodbye, Philip Roth and all that manly stuff…

unknown tree blossom.JPG
Unknown tree with blossom – what can it be? Calderstones Park, May 22

In The Times obituary for Philip Roth this morning, hundreds of words about sex, masturbation, bad marriages, the grump he was and thumbnails of various not so great Roth novels I’ve not read. And then a passing mention of , but no words about, American Pastoral, the novel that made me realise Philip Roth was a great writer. Mingled yarn thoughts arise about our lives and our judgements.

Roth was  of a generation which  perhaps in retrospect was rightly anxious about the changing place of women in the  human universe. Contraception in the form of a pill under women’s own control changed everything. Those guys were right to be worried: Mrs wasn’t going to stay home and cooks gefilte fish from now on. Philip Roth said his mother, who worked as a secretary ‘raised housekeeping to an art form’.  There were generations of women behind that art form (an art form I’ve not practised much, though increasingly begin to value. Need to think about this another time). But in the 1950s, 1960s, the patriarchy,  as we called it when I was a radical young feminist in 1976 though now I think we might have called it  human biology or history, was beginning to teeter towards extinction. Whatever it was that left women and children in the cave or picking berries when men went hunting, it really couldn’t, or simply didn’t, begin to change until women had control of their own reproduction. Now, there are Dads changing nappies everywhere, non-gendered pronouns (how I longed for them in my mid-twenties!) women running a few bits of  the army and banks, men in high heels and lipstick and yet – to my mind, unfortunately – more woman-violating pornography  than ever before. We’re in the thick of revolution and it’s not over yet.  But, back to Philip Roth.

It was the maleness that put me off: I could never face Portnoy’s Complaint, though I heard it was funny.  That obsessed-but-begrudging enslavement to women was an unhappy part of those great  New York Jewish writers – Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud – who came just before Roth. They had some good stuff, oh, lovely caring humane books, but you had to hurry past all that not so good weirdness about wanting but fearing  the wanting of women. Roth always seemed even more like that. Until I read American Pastoral.

I don’t make a political judgement about this anymore.  I  see the colours and think I think, that’s what they are/were. That was true about them. And I  look for the good stuff. As you might do with a person. Our bad stuff is there, and you have to take it on sometimes, but a lot of the time you have to work round it or take no notice. You look for the good, notice the good.

The good in American Pastoral?  Big. Sad. Painful. Sprawling, and  perhaps, as The Times obituarist says, ‘seemingly careless of the fundamentals of organisation’, though I didn’t notice that.  This novel kept me up at night when I first read it. I woke my husband saying, ‘listen to this sentence… he’s writing like George Eliot.’

‘No, he’s not’ said partner and went back to sleep.

But there was something magnificent, grand, going on. It was  a sort of modern american rewrite of Paradise Lost. Everything starts off fine and then goes horribly wrong. Then you get the thistles and  bringing forth children in labour and the tower of Babel.

page from AP

Angry, disappointed, moved, Philip Roth writes out the loss of paradise he lived through, the loss of the American Dream he grew up in, the loss, of commerce as a decent thing, the loss of cities as civilised places, the loss of heroes, the loss of family.  It’s a panoramic vision, a sorrowful book full of good stuff. See how he drops the tank but comes on his ‘own ten toes’? That’s a boxer’s stance. He may not be in an armoured vehicle but he’s still fighting.  Because can you forget ‘being right or wrong about people’?  Mingled yarn, mingled yarn. A great book, separating out some strands of colour and getting us to notice them.

 

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The Winter’s Tale Day 8: That Jar o’ the Clock and the Questioning

cow parsley
Cow Parsley in Calderstones Park

 

If you are new to this reading of Shakespeare’s great play, find earlier posts by typing ‘winter’s tale’ into the search box. Find the entire text here. Or, as if you’d just arrived at a Shared Reading group for the first time, just jump in. It’s mainly happening in the moment. Think of reading Shakespeare as some time with the most human of thinkers, this carefully observant psychotherapist, the great listener. He hears so much in a single moment, in the movement of the hand of a clock…

Hermione, Queen of Sicillia has been charged by her husband, Leontes, to persuade their visitor, his childhood friend, King Polixenes of  Bohemia, to stay a bit longer.  She’s doing her best. We pick her up in mid-flow:

HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?

On stage  Hermione’s own son is present – Mamillius, aged about eight or nine.  He’s a much-loved boy. It’s natural perhaps that Hermione  thinks a longing to go home after a nine month state visit might be prompted by missing your boy.  But Polixenes hasn’t said that at all.  That’s Hermione’s own thought, she’s so moved herself – it’s an excuse she’d be glad to hear.

I ask myself now, what kind of Mum thinks the most powerful thing she can think of  is missing her child? I don’t answer that question, just ask it.

And what’s a distaff, someone might ask.  Hmm, something about women, about the female side of a family? We’ll have to look it up. So we do and we find or remember ,or someone in our group will know, that a distaff is the spindle used in spinning, a deeply  female bit of kit. It’s a bit  like saying I’ll hit him over the head with my handbag, comic but also serious at some level about womanliness, about woman power. Charged by her husband to make this old friend stay longer, Hermione is using charm, wit, her femininity. When she makes the distaff joke others will be (gently) laughing. So, having got a laugh, she homes in with a realistic ask:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week.

The word ‘royal’ is good there, just after her pantomime-style joke  – pulling herself back a respectful distance, acknowledging Polixenes still a king, despite her feminine power. And a week – it’s hardly anything after a nine month stay. It’s a ‘borrow’ she offers to pay back with high-rate  interest:

Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting:

A week for a month? Irresistible bargain. Yet she pulls herself up now, as if she fears she may have gone too far.

yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord.

it’s worth reading this whole speech of  Hermione’s through at a rush to get the gist of it and feel the movements of her mind as she powers through her  ask of Polixenes. In that context, this last section – an aside to her husband – seems worried to me.

We might want to stay here for some time thinking about a ‘jar o’ the clock’, seeing a hand move,  asecond-hand, or the moment when a minute hand actually moves.  That jars. We might need to think about  old-fashioned mechanical clockwork clocks. Did they really have clocks in Shakespeare’s time? I think of a sundial, or the hourglass, but not clocks. Over to wikipedia I go.

The first mechanical clocks, employing the verge escapement mechanism with a foliot or balance wheel timekeeper, were invented in Europe at around the start of the 14th century, and became the standard timekeeping device until the pendulum clock was invented in 1656. The invention of the mainspring in the early 15th century allowed portable clocks to be built, evolving into the first pocketwatches by the 17th century, but these were not very accurate until the balance spring was added to the balance wheel in the mid 17th century.

and later, still in the same article, I find the Queen Elizabeth 1 was given a wrist watch by Robert Dudley.  Lovely. That’s a poem for someone to write. So mechanical clocks, yes.

Do we want to think about the word ‘jar’?  A jar o the clock. A moment when something changes, moves. time has moved on; we are in a new moment. Has something now clicked? Does Hermione turn to her husband at that moment?  Why would you say something like that, in public? Does it jar?

Let’s replay it in my own vernacular:

Leontes – aren’t you going to ask him? Hermione – of course!   persuades persuades to now vail , jokes about good reason to go (your son)  offers the swap – a week for a month,  then ‘but Leontes, I really do love you!’ and then, to Polixenes, brightly, hopefully ‘ You’ll stay?’

What kind of husband has to be reassured of his wife’s love in public when she is flirting (is it flirting? persuading? playing? teasing?) with his best friend?

A lot of questions must be raised about the likely relationships between these three.  Let’s say we agree that she’s only playfully teasing in order to get Polixenes to do what Leontes wants… but now I am bothered about Leontes asking her to do that. Is it just that Leontes knows she’s a good talker?  Is it because he needs her help with this kind of thing? Is he a bad talker? Does he think Polixenes will be more easily persuaded by Hermione?

Under what circumstances would you say to your beloved, go on, you ask… ?

If I try to imagine that, I think it would only happen when I was sure the beloved would  have more sway than me.  And perhaps I might not like that feeling – that my beloved has more sway than me, with my best friend.  I might be quite wrong to have that anxiety. But it was me who asked the beloved to do it. Is this test of some sort?

What is Leontes’ state of mind when he passes the responsibility for securing Polixenes longer stay to  Hermione? It’s always horrible when you fail to persuade someone to something, especially in public. Is he humiliated? We can ask – should ask – all the questions we can think of… we turn the little three-D model one way and then another. We look at it all in one light, and then change the light. How does it look now?  You cn stay here a long time, thinking. But as the play know, only unfolding time will give the answers. And those answers  may only provoke more  questions.  The questions are the thing!

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 7: A Moment in a Marriage   

 

best viburnum
My favourite Viburnum, (maybe  Carlessii Juddii, look at those rounded leaves),Calderstones Park April 2018

New to this Shakespeare lark?  Here’s the story so far: Leontes, King of Sicilia, married to Hermione, is hosting a visit from his boyhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. They were like twins as boys together. Polixenes, been here 9 months, is now saying he’s got to go. Leontes has been trying to persuade him to stay a little longer, and has made no headway and now turns to Hermione, asking ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ We’re in Act 1 Scene 2. Find the entire text here.

Last time, I’d been reading with microscopic slowness (to mix a metaphor) and was remembering how important it is to read to word by word, look by look, tone by tone. Because all that we uncover, when we read at that slow speed, is happening, at that level, and is real and needs notice taking of it, indeed as much notice as we can bear to give. But it’s also important to read for sprawl.

Sprawl reading is rushing along getting the gist. You especially need to do that in a group where anyone is new to reading to Shakespeare.  But you always need to do it, just as in life you do. Concentrate! Concentrate! Read deep! Then rush ! Rush and  run along…I think a really good reader does both of these, mingling them so fast that it is hard to tell whether we’re stopping one or starting the other. You are balanced between subatomic particle and cosmic view.

So get a  run at it, find the level of ‘story’.  You saw me give the gist at the top of the page. It’s story – get those storyhooks into your readers. But wait up! Slow down – did you say ‘been here nine months’? Go back to microscopic, because someone will undoubtedly have noticed, even if they didn’t know they had noticed, that you said ‘nine months’, and you don’t have to be a Freudian psychoanalyst to know that nine months is an unusual portion of time, generally making us think of pregnancy.

Just saying.  Notice it.

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.
HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.
HERMIONE
To tell, he longs to see his son, were strong:
But let him say so then, and let him go;
But let him swear so, and he shall not stay,
We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs.
Yet of your royal presence I’ll adventure
The borrow of a week. When at Bohemia
You take my lord, I’ll give him my commission
To let him there a month behind the gest
Prefix’d for’s parting: yet, good deed, Leontes,
I love thee not a jar o’ the clock behind
What lady-she her lord. You’ll stay?
POLIXENES
No, madam.
HERMIONE
Nay, but you will?

We have to wonder how Leontes speaks that ‘tongue-tied’ line. It feels a little aggressive to me. I think we say ‘tongue-tied’ when we want and expect someone to speak and unexpectedly, they are not speaking.  Tongue tied? It means ‘you are unusually quiet!’. it means ‘I was expecting to hear from you.’

We have to begin, because of that phrase, to wonder what kind of man Leontes is.  Just a little worry.  Little, because the moment passes quickly and Hermione doesn’t seem at all phased by it and responds happily enough, and what she says next draws praise from her husband, so perhaps, in noting my anxieties about tongue-tied, I was reading too much into it. I told my breath on that. We’ll note the anxiety and wait to see.

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.

Did Leontes ‘charge him too coldly?’ There’s an interesting thought. Because imagine this playing out in your kitchen.  You’ve been too cold in the way you asked him, you say to your partner. Would you say that? If it was true, would you say? If it wasn’t true, would you say it? If it was (a bit) true would you say it in a joke? Is she joking?  Could we go back and ask the actor playing Leontes to do his begging and pleading a little coldly…?

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly.

Yes, she’s joking, as he may have been joking when he said ‘Tongue-tied, our Queen?’ Those ‘sirs’ of hers do something too, don’t they? Do they say, I’m playing! I’m teasing!

Is there something amiss in their marriage? Is there a communication problem? Just observing my reactions and they are, when I read these words, to feel worried.

I would want to stop both the rush of story and the microscopic analysis of voice, tone, word, at this point to ask my readers how they saw it playing out. After all, it is a play.

We are the Director. We stage the play, vision it, get the actors to move and be in the way we see.  So what do we see? How are the three of them standing? Who is near? Is everyone on the court overhearing this?

If this is a public demonstration of both the Kings’ friendship and the marriage of Leontes and Hermione then  every word, every look, every gesture counts. Everyone is watching! Does Hermione touch Leontes, lay a hand on his arm, hold hands, put his arm around her waist? Is she looking at Leontes or Polixenes when she speaks, or from one to the other?

HERMIONE
I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You have drawn oaths from him not to stay. You, sir,
Charge him too coldly. Tell him, you are sure
All in Bohemia’s well; this satisfaction
The by-gone day proclaim’d: say this to him,
He’s beat from his best ward.
LEONTES
Well said, Hermione.

I’d have her moving toward Leontes as she speaks so that by the time she says ‘You, sir/charge him too coldly…’ she is standing by him, close to him. Her body language is saying  ‘I love you and am loyal to you’.  She can say ‘you charge him too coldly’ because she has protected herself from his anger at hearing that criticism by standing close to him, perhaps  putting herself into his arms. They look at Polixenes together, from a place of safety. She speaks a bit like a ventriloquist. It’s not Hermione who is tongue-tied, we realise, it’s him, Leontes. She stands slightly in front of him, wrapped in his arms and speaks for him, speaks eloquently. When she says ‘say this to him’, I’d have her glancing up at him. She’s won her husband over and navigated a tricky place in the stream of their marriage. And Leontes? He seems happy.

Leave him there for now.

 

Silas Marner Day 40: Unspeakable Ignorance re Human Character

dark red rhodos
Dark Red Rhododendron in the Azalea walk at Calderstones

Oh, I’ve been having trouble with myself, lost my rhythms and struggling to do anything other than get my daily work at The Reader done – I’ve been busy interviewing new people for roles at The Reader, probably the most important thing I have to do there, preparing for  the AESOP Conference, and then travelling to meet with Flemish colleagues… but also simply lost. rhythms, habits, do not come easily to me and somehow I lost them and now I am struggling to get them back.  Family came to visit. Our old people  have needed time and attention. None  of which stops me writing at 6.00 am but it has stopped me.

Yesterday I said to myself, you’ve got to get it back. You’ve got to. I was angry and used my anger to  dig up and destroy a massive ivy  root I’ve been battling in the garden. I don’t really care why I am like this – my chaotic childhood, oh, I’m sick of hearing about it –  I care about why I can’t consistently be different. I want order!

Yesterday it came to a head and I took myself to task in the garden as a way of fighting it out. I dug and bashed and cursed and sweated and cut my finger and sawed and heaved and jimmied and cursed this tortured thing out of the ground. It’s about as big as a bull’s head. It’s the root of a large-leaved ivy  I planted about twenty years ago.  I planted it! I planted it! I did it myself! Oh, ignorance.

root

I was filthy and exhausted and had a sore finger. I felt better.  I had a long bath and, as so many times before, agreed to  ‘forgive myself the lot’ as Yeats says, and resolved to try to pick up again. ‘The urge to destroy is also the urge to create…’ as Mikhail Bakunin said.

Books I’ve been reading away from this page include Tara Westover’s Educated. (Yes, lost  the rhythm of recording ‘Just Started’ – need to do a batch lot).  This is book about the awakening of a mind: the story of an end-of-the-world Mormon girl from a mountain in Utah learning to think outside of her family. Last night I read a section where she discusses  being touched by a single line from John Stuart Mill in On the Subjugation of Women. Marvellous section. The sentence: ‘It is a subject on which nothing final can be known’ …Mill writes of ‘women’, and Tara  –  bullied, abused and subjugated as a female  in her family – responds from her deepest, most hidden self.

Blood rushed to my brain. I felt an animating surge of adrenalin, of possibility, of a frontier being pushed outward. Of the nature of women, nothing final can be known. Never had I found such comfort in a void, in the black absence of knowledge. It seemed to say: whatever you are, you are a woman.

this morning when I came to my desk I looked up On The Subjugation of Women, a book I’ve not read in  more than thirty years.  Gosh. It’s very good. I would like to read it again. Saturday Dayschool perhaps, along with some of  George Eliot’s women?

Why that connection? This was one of the sentences that struck me as I browsed:

Of all difficulties which impede the progress of thought, and the formation of well-grounded opinions on life and social arrangements, the greatest is now the unspeakable ignorance and inattention of mankind in respect to the influences which form human character.

I was looking over my last post on Silas Marner, (find a full text of the novel here) and  had been thinking about George Eliot as a mind-mapper, a literary psychologist.  She does exactly what John Stuart Mill thinks is needful to be done. She shines the light of intelligent observation on the ‘influences which form human character’.

We’d been reading about Nancy Cass (nee Lammeter), and her instinctive repugnance to the idea of adoption. The narrative switches adroitly to Godfrey, and the reader understands, with a shock, that Godfrey is thinking of adopting not just any child, but his own child, Eppie, happily adopted by Silas.

Godfrey had from the first specified Eppie, then about twelve years old, as a child suitable for them to adopt. It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life–provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved. Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower? It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it. This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience. It was only the want of adequate knowledge that could have made it possible for Godfrey deliberately to entertain an unfeeling project: his natural kindness had outlived that blighting time of cruel wishes, and Nancy’s praise of him as a husband was not founded entirely on a wilful illusion.

This becomes an analysis of how Godfrey could make such a callous mistake when George Eliot  looks beyond any desire he might have stated himself, to a general law she observes in many humans. Godfrey thinks,

Was it not an appropriate thing for people in a higher station to take a charge off the hands of a man in a lower?

This is Godfrey’s inner voice, thinking its own thoughts.

Next comes George Eliot’s thought, as she observes her subject:

It seemed an eminently appropriate thing to Godfrey, for reasons that were known only to himself; and by a common fallacy, he imagined the measure would be easy because he had private motives for desiring it.

The ‘common fallacy’ is the law of behaviour, observable over countless subjects: you want something to happen so you think it will be easy to make it happen. (Thinking of myself and the need to develop habits. Want them! Should be easy! Not easy! Failed again!). Now George Eliot turns her attention to the relations between people of different classes and their ability to understand each other.  The tone here (‘we must remember’) is one that includes us, as the reader, with her as the scientific observer.

This was rather a coarse mode of estimating Silas’s relation to Eppie; but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to gather concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means; and he had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience.

It’s personally damning of Godfrey as well as damning  our social structures: Godfrey ‘had not had the opportunity, even if he had had the power, of entering intimately into all that was exceptional in the weaver’s experience’.

The lack of power to enter into another’s experience is also self-damaging, I think, Godfrey can’t imagine what it is or means to be Silas, but he is also hidden, disguised from himself, like Tara, like me.

George Eliot believed that women were no different to men in that we are all subject to our experience and education. Men had more of it but, as with Cass here, that more was often also limiting.  How are we to get out of our ignorance and lack of self and experience understanding?  Education, my dears, but education of a particular sort. Education that speaks to us in the places we need it – as John Stuart Mill spoke to Tara Westover.

Joseph Gold writes in The Story Species,

Literature is a form of language that humans have evolved to help  themselves cope with the world they inhabit. Creating and sharing complex stories is an adaptation of language to help humans survive well.

Tara’s story of the voice coming out of the darkness to a place of darkness within her, its meaning as yet unknown, is a wonderful example of  the way in which literature may be the means of education (and survival). Godfrey Cass needs to read more.

As for me? Just got to come here and do it every day.

The Winter’s Tale Day 6: Is Something Up?

euphorbia black pearl.JPG
Euphorbia  ‘Black Pearl’ springing into beauty, March 26

Last time, we’d got a little way into Act 1 Scene ii, with Leontes, King of Sicilia,  trying to persuade his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia, who has been on an extended visit to the court of  Sicilia, to stay longer. Polixenes seems pretty set on leaving.

In my opening sessions I’d noticed some words which had given me  cause for concern – ‘if the King had no heir’  in particular – but nothing has yet happened to make  these more than  very slight, almost sub-atomic alarms.  All seems well.

I’d want to pick up the reading and get another goodish rush at it and get some rhythm going, even at the expense of meaning – wait, wait. The meaning  will come eventually. Just get the feel.

 

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.
POLIXENES
Sir, that’s to-morrow.
I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’ besides, I have stay’d
To tire your royalty.
LEONTES
We are tougher, brother,
Than you can put us to’t.
POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.
There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.
LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

I’d ask my group to imagine two old boyhood friends in a slight argument – are we seeing a  bit of arm-wrestling? I get that from Leontes lines, ‘We are tougher, brother,/Than you can put us to’t.’ This feels slightly aggressive,  perhaps mildly so, but I don’t think you’d mention your toughness if you weren’t feeling a little the need for it. but I’m rushing ahead!

When Polixenes explains why he must leave, he first gives a reasonable political reason:

I am question’d by my fears, of what may chance
Or breed upon our absence; that may blow
No sneaping winds at home, to make us say
‘This is put forth too truly:’

A literal translation into contemporary English might read: I’m worried about what could be going on at home. ‘Sneap’ means rebuke so  I think that second part must mean, ‘am worried that something may happen which would make me think that hints I should return to govern my  country may  have been true…’ Slight worry, what if it had a basis in fact?

So far, so sensible.  But then he adds what might be a throwaway politeness: ‘besides I have stay’d/ To tire your royalty.’

Is it throwaway?  Leontes now responds with his ‘I am tough’ thought.

Has Polixenes really tired him? Is something wrong? Are they -while all seems fine of the surface – really beginning to tire? to fall out? Now the arm-wrestling really does begin:

POLIXENES
No longer stay.
LEONTES
One seven-night longer.
POLIXENES
Very sooth, to-morrow.
LEONTES
We’ll part the time between’s then; and in that
I’ll no gainsaying.
POLIXENES
Press me not, beseech you, so.

Let them be  playing – arm-wrestling, playing table tennis, play boxing. Just while we imagine it. Get the feeling of that back-and-forth into the room. But now the rhythm changes as Polixenes seems to think more seriously about  what or who might persuade him to stay:

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’ the world,
So soon as yours could win me: so it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
‘Twere needful I denied it. My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble: to save both,
Farewell, our brother.

There seems the possibility of real love in this belief that there  is no tongue that could win him ‘so soon as yours’. That’s one bit of what Polixenes says. But what follows: a second thought which remembers the business of being King : ‘Were there necessity in your request, although/’Twere needful I denied it. ‘

I think that means that  if Leontes has a good reason to plead with him to stay, he would, even though  he needs to go home.

I notice that there are mixed feelings here: that the feelings move thick and fast – are they really close friends? Could any thing cause them to fall out?  Does Leontes really want  Polixenes to stay? I look more closely at the language:

My affairs
Do even drag me homeward: which to hinder
Were in your love a whip to me; my stay
To you a charge and trouble:

Polixenes does not want to go, his business, affairs of state, are what drag him away. Hindering that movement makes an act of love painful – Leontes may  think he is keeping him   out  of love, but staying is hurting Polixenes.  Is it true that his staying is to Leontes a ‘charge and trouble’ ? Is that  a thing we say – I’m putting you to trouble? Or is it a get-out?

All these microscopically slow reading decisions must be made in a flexible way – we’ve got to be able to change our minds later as things unfold. As in life we do.That’s one of the great things about reading Shakespeare: it requires this practise of flexible attention.

And now, suddenly, Leontes, apparently out of the blue turns to his wife, Hermione, who so far we’ve not noticed:

LEONTES
Tongue-tied, our queen?
speak you.

Again, a slight air of menace or up-for-a-fight? Why not, ‘Hermione? Cn you persuade him?’ Leontes words feel abrupt. Surely if we’d said ‘tongue tied, Jane?’ in ordinary colloquial language we’d mean – I’d expect you to have something to say on this’. It’s a small-scale accusation.

You might think this is too slow as a way of reading. Are we really going to discuss every word, intonation, possibility?  I hope we are! Because this is what makes the reading our own, rather than what someone else says it is. We work out what it means, word by word,  inch by inch.  We do the work.

As in life we do. In real life we have sometimes to pick up deep and extended meanings from small words. Judging someone’s character in a trial or in a job interview or on a first date or by their email… each word may hint something. May, or may not. We do well to read them carefully, always remembering we might be wrong.

I’d ask my group now to reread this scene so far, all of it, in one reading, then to think again: what just happened, and what do you think of these two men? Then we’d  note in pencil what we thought, ready to rub it out, if necessary, as time unfolds. Actually what happens in life – speakig for myself anyway – is that we write in pen. Awfully hard to rub out later, when you change your mind!

 

Paradise Lost 18: Flag-Waving As An Antidote to Fear

daffodils 25 march
Spring Flowers 25 March

You may have heard Ian Mackellen and others in a R4 adaptation  of Paradise Lost  by the poet Michael Symmonds Roberts.  If not, find it here.  I haven’t listened yet but  like MSR’s poetry so am looking forward to hearing what he has done with this great poem.

What I am doing with it is reading it, a few lines at a time, often in a weekly instalments.

A quick explanation for anyone who wouldn’t naturally find themselves reading such a poem:   I’m interested in acts of translation from one way of thinking to another, particularly from Christian  thinking in poetry – Dante, Milton, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and many others – to  my own a-religious thoughts. Many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D, on what I called ‘Visionary Realism’, I realised that I was interested in what happens to religious experience when people no longer believe in religion. Are there, for example, still experiences of ‘grace’? Do we ever  experience ‘miracles’? Are there trials and tribulations of the soul? Is there ‘soul’? …and so on.  I came into this area of thinking through Doris Lessing’s novel-series Canopus in Argos, and particularly the first novel in that series,  Shikasta. There’s a partial account of this in previous blog post, ‘Lifesavers’.

You’ll find a good online text here.

Last time, we’d got to the point where Satan was rousing his rebel army, with ‘semblance of worth, not substance’ and I’d been thinking about  mass psychology and how humans are so roused, by  loud empty noise from assertive types. As the standard is raised, those fallen angels all start jumping up, wanting to be in the band. Of course, I’m thinking of fascism and other flag waving. Could be any of us, getting up there, wanting to join.  Which makes me think about the responsibility to educate ourselves and each other and our children.

To get going today I’m reading this chunk, aloud, slow, and finding the rhythm by going for punctuation, not line endings. (There’s an ellipted -missed-out- pronoun, ‘he’ in the opening line here, after ‘strait’) :

Then strait commands that at the warlike sound
Of Trumpets loud and Clarions be upreard
His mighty Standard; that proud honour claim’d
Azazel as his right, a Cherube tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering Staff unfurld [ 535 ]
Th’ Imperial Ensign, which full high advanc’t
Shon like a Meteor streaming to the Wind
With Gemms and Golden lustre rich imblaz’d,
Seraphic arms and Trophies: all the while
Sonorous mettal blowing Martial sounds: [ 540 ]
At which the universal Host upsent
A shout that tore Hells Concave, and beyond
Frighted the Reign of Chaos and old Night.

Hhm,  a piece of epic spectacle, rich with trumpets and flags to rouse emotion, which it does. The fallen angels assert their waking to action by a mighty shout and then :

All in a moment through the gloom were seen
Ten thousand Banners rise into the Air [ 545 ]
With Orient Colours waving: with them rose
A Forest huge of Spears: and thronging Helms
Appear’d, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: Anon they move
In perfect Phalanx to the Dorian mood [ 550 ]
Of Flutes and soft Recorders; such as rais’d
To hight of noblest temper Hero’s old
Arming to Battel, and in stead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

This is interesting – instead of rage, they are moved by ‘deliberate valour’. Which maybe undercuts my sense that this is emotional? But no, I don’t think so.  Unlike the Barbarian hordes, screaming out  of the northern mist,  raging, these are the ordered and choreographed ranks modern armies. Yet this careful and controlled movement is only allowed because of the emotion – we join in, we sublimate ourselves to the mass. And what kind of emotion is it? It is the fear of pain.

Deliberate valour breath’d, firm and unmov’d
With dread of death to flight or foul retreat, [ 555 ]
Nor wanting power to mitigate and swage
With solemn touches, troubl’d thoughts, and chase
Anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain
From mortal or immortal minds.

It is the emotion of assertion against pain, against ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’. What an astonishing line of poetry, with those ‘ands’ repeating and repeating, as if you’d never be able to banish those feelings.and look where the emotive barbarian horde action has gone – into the word ‘ chase’!  Those massed ranks, moving in complete inhuman mechanistic motion are an emotional reaction, while they move stiffly, deliberate with their arms held high, are chasing ‘anguish and doubt and fear and sorrow and pain’.

I see, among other horrors,  the Nazis and the Red Army, but does Milton see Oliver Cromwell’s army?

Thus they
Breathing united force with fixed thought [ 560 ]
Mov’d on in silence to soft Pipes that charm’d
Thir painful steps o’re the burnt soyle; and now
Advanc’t in view, they stand, a horrid Front
Of dreadful length and dazling Arms, in guise
Of Warriers old with order’d Spear and Shield, [ 565 ]
Awaiting what command thir mighty Chief
Had to impose: He through the armed Files
Darts his experienc’t eye, and soon traverse
The whole Battalion views, thir order due,
Thir visages and stature as of Gods, [ 570 ]
Thir number last he summs.

‘Breathing united force with fixed thought’ –  certainly Milton had the picture of a well-trained, mechanised army in mind. they become one obedient creature. Breathing as one.  Thinking as one. How do we know Milton does not admire this army?  The word ‘charm’d’.  They are actually suffering  foul and permanent burning here as they walk over the ground of hell, but they don’t know that, being ‘charm’d’.

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories: For never since created man,
Met such imbodied force, as nam’d with these
Could merit more then that small infantry [ 575 ]
Warr’d on by Cranes: though all the Giant brood
Of Phlegra with th’ Heroic Race were joyn’d
That fought at Theb’s and Ilium, on each side
Mixt with auxiliar Gods; and what resounds
In Fable or Romance of Uthers Son [ 580 ]
Begirt with British and Armoric Knights;
And all who since, Baptiz’d or Infidel
Jousted in Aspramont or Montalban,
Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,
Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore [ 585 ]
When Charlemain with all his Peerage fell
By Fontarabbia.

Another list of things I don’t know about and could look up and might look up if I had but world enough and time. But I don’t. The Dartmouth edition has all the footnotes. But I’m just reading the main clause:

And now his heart
Distends with pride, and hardning in his strength
Glories

Pride comes both before and after the fall. He can’t get away from it. Look at the clever human analysis: physical thing, heart, distended and  made strong, hardens.  It’s emotional.  Ouch. The rigidity of  pride. The glory of those flag-waving,  weapon parading marches. And while  I note that nothing in human history has matched this army, it’s the next bit I’m interested in. Tho’ am afraid will have to read this next week, as the garden, in sunlight, beckons.

Thus far these beyond
Compare of mortal prowess, yet observ’d
Thir dread commander: he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear’d
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th’ excess
Of Glory obscur’d: As when the Sun new ris’n
Looks through the Horizontal misty Air [ 595 ]
Shorn of his Beams, or from behind the Moon
In dim Eclips disastrous twilight sheds
On half the Nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes Monarchs. Dark’n’d so, yet shon
Above them all th’ Arch Angel: but his face [ 600 ]
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Browes
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion to behold [ 605 ]
The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
(Far other once beheld in bliss) condemn’d
For ever now to have thir lot in pain,
Millions of Spirits for his fault amerc’t
Of Heav’n, and from Eternal Splendors flung [ 610 ]
For his revolt, yet faithfull how they stood,
Thir Glory witherd.

 

The Winter’s Tale Day 5: Shaking Up The Kaleidoscope

kaleidoscope
Shifting possibilities of the Kaleidoscope

I starting reading Shakespeare here  (i) because I miss reading Shakespeare (ii) as a way of reminding people who run Shared Reading groups that Shakespeare can and should be read  and (iii) to celebrate ten years of the Shakespeare Reading group which  currently meets in Birkenhead library.

I started reading The Winter’s Tale because it is  my favourite play. Why? Because it is the story of a life that for no accountable reason  gets broken – breaks itself – and then has wait a  long time to get going again. This is my subject matter, a very real, very normal sort of  story, and I imagine lots of people will recognise its  outline.

Find a full text here. Search  for previous posting using the search box to the right and enter The Winter’s Tale.

We’re at scene ii.

SCENE II. A room of state in the same.

Enter LEONTES, HERMIONE, MAMILLIUS, POLIXENES, CAMILLO, and Attendants

In a group, I’d begin by a longish read through, which we’re going to miss here, which is a shame.  There’s a great rhythm to this scene, and you need to feel some of that, the back and forth between people, the switching from formal to informal, from State Occasion to personal aside.

You might want to have a video/online performance to  watch too. I’d save that for after you’ve done your own reading: I want my readers to know they can make decisions about how to put on the play, how to realise its meaning,  before accepting someone else’s version. Though, having done that, it’s great to see how other minds do animate the words. The Winter’s Tale is on at Shakespeare’s Globe later this year : plan your trip!

So explain to your group that you are not going to stop every minute, that there’ll be things which are incomprehensible, that we’re just trying to get the drift, that we’ll come back.  Your main job is to reassure people that they are going to enjoy it once it gets going, and they don’t need to worry.

I’d read down to the moment Polixenes agrees to stay (sorry this text has no line numbers!):

POLIXENES
Your guest, then, madam:
To be your prisoner should import offending;
Which is for me less easy to commit
Than you to punish.
HERMIONE
Not your gaoler, then,
But your kind hostess.

This gives us a good run and chance to feel the rhythm even if  we don’t get a lot of the meaning. We can go back.

I’d notice the stage directions – it is a room of state. This is perhaps to be set up as a state occasion. I’d ask my group to think about ways to make a set – we’ll keep coming back to this, because I want to imagine we are putting this play on, and that helps at times when we are trying to understand that a character is saying – so we’ll talk about  using a  traditional ‘shakespearian’ style or modern, and perhaps about what any of us might have experienced that is a bit like a state visit. When Aunty Barbara came over from Australia…planned for years, and too long in the happening.

Finally, I’d want to do something about the names – they are particularly off-putting in this play –  so maybe make a list to keep track of who is who and  what they are to anybody else. You won’t need it for a more than a couple of weeks.

Polixenes, then is the visiting King, the King of Bohemia.  When he begins he sets off in the most pompous language of the play:

POLIXENES
Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt: and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

Your books will have notes. It’s a good idea to use them – sparingly. But someone will be able to read the note and tell everyone that ‘the watery star’ means the moon. Take your time here, in Polixenes opening lines, because you want everyone in the group to think : this was incomprehensible but actually I do understand it. Use the punctuation as clues for stopping/units of possible sense.

Nine changes of the watery star hath been
The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen:

literally translate: nine changes of the moon have been noted by  shepherds since I left my country:

time as long again
Would be find up, my brother, with our thanks;
And yet we should, for perpetuity,
Go hence in debt:

I could spend  nine months saying ‘thank you’ but still leave in your debt (I can’t thank you enough! a group member might offer)

and therefore, like a cipher,
Yet standing in rich place, I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.

‘Cipher’ is interesting (look it up here) and this is a joke about zeros on the end of numbers,  weirdly, zero makes  the number more.  But I also find the idea of nothing or zero  a bit worrying too. Is he nothing?  Can anyone be nothing? But that is a fleeting thought, before we are on to the rest of the meaning and the ordinary… Leontes responding rather tersely, as if interrupting,

LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

I might use this moment to try to get some play with the words, to see how  timing matters, how tone of voice. I might ask group members to read with different speeds of cross-over between the two actors, asking Leontes to respond kindly, aggressively, casually, carelessly, formally.

I multiply
With one ‘We thank you’ many thousands moe
That go before it.
LEONTES
Stay your thanks a while;
And pay them when you part.

All these possibilities  must be available to us as we read. And it is that, the tumbling kaleidoscope of possibility that makes reading Shakespeare so rewarding. Thousands of possibilities and the opportunity to use your mind on as many of them as you like.