A father is a necessary evil (Ulysses)

—A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil. He wrote the play in the months that followed his father’s death. If you hold that he, a greying man with two marriageable daughters, with thirtyfive years of life, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, with fifty of experience, is the beardless undergraduate from Wittenberg then you must hold that his seventyyear old mother is the lustful queen. No. The corpse of John Shakespeare does not walk the night. From hour to hour it rots and rots. He rests, disarmed of fatherhood, having devised that mystical estate upon his son. Boccaccio’s Calandrino was the first and last man who felt himself with child. Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void. Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life. Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

What the hell are you driving at?

I know. Shut up. Blast you. I have reasons.

Amplius. Adhuc. Iterum. Postea.

Are you condemned to do this?

—They are sundered by a bodily shame so steadfast that the criminal annals of the world, stained with all other incests and bestialities, hardly record its breach. Sons with mothers, sires with daughters, lesbic sisters, loves that dare not speak their name, nephews with grandmothers, jailbirds with keyholes, queens with prize bulls. The son unborn mars beauty: born, he brings pain, divides affection, increases care. He is a new male: his growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

In rue Monsieur-le-Prince I thought it.

—What links them in nature? An instant of blind rut.

Am I a father? If I were?

Shrunken uncertain hand.

—Sabellius, the African, subtlest heresiarch of all the beasts of the field, held that the Father was Himself His Own Son. The bulldog of Aquin, with whom no word shall be impossible, refutes him. Well: if the father who has not a son be not a father can the son who has not a father be a son? When Rutlandbaconsouthamptonshakespeare or another poet of the same name in the comedy of errors wrote Hamlet he was not the father of his own son merely but, being no more a son, he was and felt himself the father of all his race, the father of his own grandfather, the father of his unborn grandson who, by the same token, never was born, for nature, as Mr Magee understands her, abhors perfection.

Stephen Dedalus, holding forth in Ulysses. (Context, if necessary: The referent of He in the second paragraph is William Shakespeare; the play is of course Hamlet).

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Seven Entries from Anton Chekhov’s Note-Books

Mankind has conceived history as a series of battles; hitherto it has considered fighting as the main thing in life.

Solomon made a great mistake when he asked for wisdom.

Ordinary hypocrites pretend to be doves; political and literary hypocrites pretend to be eagles. But don’t be disconcerted by their aquiline appearance. They are not eagles, but rats or dogs.

Those who are more stupid and more dirty than we are called the people. The administration classifies the population into taxpayers and non-taxpayers. But neither classification will do; we are all the people and all the best we are doing is the people’s work.

If the Prince of Monaco has a roulette table, surely convicts may play at cards.

Aliosha: “My mind, mother, is weakened by illness and I am now like a child: now I pray to God, now I cry, now I am happy.”

Why did Hamlet trouble about ghosts after death, when life itself is haunted by ghosts so much more terrible?

Notations from Anton Chekhov’s Note-books.

 

Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole on Hamlet

“Casablanca, or, the Clichés Are Having a Ball” — Umberto Eco

“Casablanca, or, the Clichés Are Having a Ball” by Umberto Eco

 

When people in their fifties sit down before their television sets for a rerun of Casablanca, it is an ordinary matter of nostalgia. However, when the film is shown in American universities, the boys and girls greet each scene and canonical line of dialogue (“Round up the usual suspects,” “Was that cannon fire, or is it my heart pounding?”–or even every time that Bogey says “kid”) with ovations usually reserved for football games. And I have seen the youthful audience in an Italian art cinema react in the same way. What then is the fascination of Casablanca?

The question is a legitimate one, for aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects. And we know the reason for this: The film was made up as the shooting went along, and it was not until the last moment that the director and script writer knew whether Ilse would leave with Victor or with Rick. So all those moments of inspired direction that wring bursts of applause for their unexpected boldness actually represent decisions taken out of desperation. What then accounts for the success of this chain of accidents, a film that even today, seen for a second, third, or fourth time, draws forth the applause reserved for the operatic aria we love to hear repeated, or the enthusiasm we accord to an exciting discovery? There is a cast of formidable hams. But that is not enough.

Here are the romantic lovers–he bitter, she tender–but both have been seen to better advantage. And Casablanca is not Stagecoach, another film periodically revived. Stagecoach is a masterpiece in every respect. Every element is in its proper place, the characters are consistent from one moment to the next, and the plot (this too is important) comes from Maupassant–at least the first part of it. And so? So one is tempted to read Casablanca the way T. S. Eliot reread Hamlet. He attributed its fascination not to its being a successful work (actually he considered it one of Shakespeare’s less fortunate plays) but to something quite the opposite: Hamlet was the result of an unsuccessful fusion of several earlier Hamlets, one in which the theme was revenge (with madness as only a stratagem), and another whose theme was the crisis brought on by the mother’s sin, with the consequent discrepancy between Hamlet’s nervous excitation and the vagueness and implausibility of Gertrude’s crime. So critics and public alike find Hamlet beautiful because it is interesting, and believe it to be interesting because it is beautiful.

On a smaller scale, the same thing happened to Casablanca. Forced to improvise a plot, the authors mixed in a little of everything, and everything they chose came from a repertoire of the tried and true. When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance. Read More

“To Be or Not To Be” (Calvin and Hobbes)

CalvinHamlet

Study for Ophelia — John Everett Millais

“Quite an Original” — Herman Melville on Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Satan

This is Chapter XLIV of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man:

“Quite an original:” A phrase, we fancy, rather oftener used by the young, or the unlearned, or the untraveled, than by the old, or the well-read, or the man who has made the grand tour. Certainly, the sense of originality exists at its highest in an infant, and probably at its lowest in him who has completed the circle of the sciences.

As for original characters in fiction, a grateful reader will, on meeting with one, keep the anniversary of that day. True, we sometimes hear of an author who, at one creation, produces some two or three score such characters; it may be possible. But they can hardly be original in the sense that Hamlet is, or Don Quixote, or Milton’s Satan. That is to say, they are not, in a thorough sense, original at all. They are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once.
More likely, they are what are called odd characters; but for that, are no more original, than what is called an odd genius, in his way, is. But, if original, whence came they? Or where did the novelist pick them up?

Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his. But in the one fair, new species of quadrupeds are hardly more rare, than in the other are new species of characters—that is, original ones. Their rarity may still the more appear from this, that, while characters, merely singular, imply but singular forms so to speak, original ones, truly so, imply original instincts.

In short, a due conception of what is to be held for this sort of personage in fiction would make him almost as much of a prodigy there, as in real history is a new law-giver, a revolutionizing philosopher, or the founder of a new religion.

In nearly all the original characters, loosely accounted such in works of invention, there is discernible something prevailingly local, or of the age; which circumstance, of itself, would seem to invalidate the claim, judged by the principles here suggested.

Furthermore, if we consider, what is popularly held to entitle characters in fiction to being deemed original, is but something personal—confined to itself. The character sheds not its characteristic on its surroundings, whereas, the original character, essentially such, is like a revolving Drummond light, raying away from itself all round it—everything is lit by it, everything starts up to it (mark how it is with Hamlet), so that, in certain minds, there follows upon the adequate conception of such a character, an effect, in its way, akin to that which in Genesis attends upon the beginning of things.

For much the same reason that there is but one planet to one orbit, so can there be but one such original character to one work of invention. Two would conflict to chaos. In this view, to say that there are more than one to a book, is good presumption there is none at all. But for new, singular, striking, odd, eccentric, and all sorts of entertaining and instructive characters, a good fiction may be full of them. To produce such characters, an author, beside other things, must have seen much, and seen through much: to produce but one original character, he must have had much luck.

There would seem but one point in common between this sort of phenomenon in fiction and all other sorts: it cannot be born in the author’s imagination—it being as true in literature as in zoology, that all life is from the egg.

In the endeavor to show, if possible, the impropriety of the phrase, Quite an Original, as applied by the barber’s friends, we have, at unawares, been led into a dissertation bordering upon the prosy, perhaps upon the smoky. If so, the best use the smoke can be turned to, will be, by retiring under cover of it, in good trim as may be, to the story.

“I Felt an Irresistible Repulsion and Tedium” — Tolstoy Disses Shakespeare

From the beginning of Leo Tolsoy’s attack on William  ShakespeareA Critical Essay on Shakespeare:

I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?

For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.

Tolstoy spends most of the rest of the (long) essay showing why he believes King Lear a terrible piece of literature. His rubric is of course terribly subjective, aesthetic, and perhaps ultimately rooted in his own literary mission of realism and social reform—but what I find most remarkable is that, despite all his claims to have read and reread Shakespeare (in English, Russian and German!) he never mentions actually watching a performance of the play.

I read Tolstoy’s gripes last night and felt the need (why?!) to reply, but found this morning that George Orwell already did so. From  Orwell’s rebuttal to Tolstoy, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“:

Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of them are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice. . . .

There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA.

Hamlet and His Father’s Ghost — Henry Fuseli

“Hamlet Is a Human Being, but He Is a Son Only” — James Joyce Explains Why Ulysses Is the Most “Complete Man” in Literature

From Frank Budgen’s Conversations with Joyce (1934)

Hamlet is a human being, but he is a son only. Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness. He might never have taken up arms and gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him and, while he was ploughing the sands, placed young Telemachus in front of his plough. But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall.

A jusqu’auboutist is one who sticks it out to the end.

“Therefore Good and Ill Are One”

“Therefore good and ill are one.” Heraclitus, Fragment 57

“There’s nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii

“Well, um, you know, something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said.” Donald Rumsfeld

Odds and Ends

Hamlet: The Facebook feed edition.

Every book mentioned on Mad Men so far.

Betting odds for the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (our boy Cormac McCarthy is at 8 to 1; Bob Dylan is at 150 to 1).

Folks are gettin’ hot and bothered about MFA programs.

Linking to this post that is tangentially about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s awesome new book Aurorarama gives us an excuse to publish this weird pic of Edgar Allan Poe at a séance–

An inventory of opening sentences.

Raymond Carver Mad Libs.

Vintage Portuguese book covers at A Journey Round My Skull.

Five Favorite Fictional Sons

A son is born to The Biblioklept! To celebrate–and, perhaps to respond to last year’s Father’s Day post, Five Favorite Fictional Fathers–I offer five favorite fictional sons. In the earlier post, I suggested that Western literature holds a certain ambivalence toward fatherhood, one that evinces in one of its most ubiquitous tropes–the hero-as-orphan. These orphan-heroes tend to have father-figures, but their biological dads are usually displaced in some way. So, to set some ground rules for the post, I chose heroes whose narratives are still deeply intertwined with their biological parents–particularly their fathers. Yet in the cases below, parental displacement remains.

1. Telemachus, The Odyssey (Homer)

The original angry young man. And who can blame him, what with dad away (having all the fun, tricking gods and monsters and bagging nymphs) and rude would-be step-dads gobbling up all the goods (and, uh, trying to bang your mom to boot). Although the swineherd Eumaeus was probably more of a dad to Telly-Mack than Odysseus was, there’s something touching about the end of The Odyssey, when the pair slaughter the suitors wholesale.

2. Hamlet, Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Poor, grieving Hamlet–dad departed–a ghost!–revenge me!–uncle usurping dad’s role (and his promised throne (and banging mom to boot))–wait–I think we’ve hit a theme here. This has to be a theme, right? Kids need guidance, and Hamlet has none. No wonder he goes bonkers.

3. Stephen Dedalus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses (James Joyce)

OK, we’ve definitely hit a theme. Through the sympathetic yet often repulsive figure of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce reworked Telemachus and Hamlet (and Icarus and everything else (hang on, shouldn’t Jesus be on this list?)). Bloom gets too much credit as a father figure. Reread Portrait–Simon looms large enough.

4. Quentin Compson, The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner)

The theme is readily conceded. Compson funnels Hamlet’s neuroses and Dedalus’s intellectual acumen through a channel of Southern alienation. Plus, like Stephen, his dad’s a drunk. Like Hamlet, Quentin is ultimately a tragic figure, but he’s nonetheless a hero, a son who attempts to reconcile the traditions of his father’s world against the shifting dimensions of his own time (or something like that).

5. Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)

A tennis champ with a secret marijuana addiction (or, more accurately, an addiction to secret behaviors) cursed with an eidetic memory, Prince Hal is easily one of DFW’s finest inventions. And yes, yes, yes, his relationship with dad James (again, a drunk) repeats the drama of Hamlet–right down to the ghost-demands-revenge scene and its usurping uncle (although Charles Tavis ain’t so bad). So, unwittingly, the theme finds its summation in Hal, a kid anyone would be proud to call son.