Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Brows of Grace

“Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot wonder at it.”
– G. K. Chesterton,
“A Defense of Nonsense” (1902)

It’s all there. Everything I need is laid right out in front of me. I had a revelation last week, while I was reading Coleridge, about the tendency of men to become so enamored with the supernatural that it leads them on from evil to evil, and how they don’t care about the nature of the direction in which they’re headed, because their eyes are focused on the light in front of them; and then, while I was fasting from talking, a revelation of a similar nature on the diabolical evil of charts and maps to a person of monomaniacal leanings, which became tangibly connected, in my mind, with not only crazy old Ahab (this seems to have been the driving idea behind the chapter entitled “The Chart” in Moby-Dick), but also with the authors of the Left Behind books, and with Willy Wonka.

All of that awaits a separate entry of its own, but my point in noting this is to announce that my next set of chapters is developing the kind of solidity which anchored the fourth chapter and gave it its ballast. Curiously, at the same time this is happening, my conception of the next set of chapters is becoming much less portentous and overly-grand than it was. Now that I’ve realized I can combine the chapter about my calling and career, with the chapter on Career Day, I’ve eliminated an entire chapter of exposition, meaning the next two chapters will continue carrying the plot, and presumably the reader’s attention. Additionally, my understanding of the once-and-current seventh chapter has been growing from a mere religious/philosophical rant/meditation on the nature of Jesus’ return into something more psychologically-centered and more “universal” in the worldly sense. I’m still planning to describe some of the wild ideas which fired my thinking in that hour, from the Book of Enoch and the like, but I’m weaving it into an admonition on the perils of becoming obsessed with maps or charts, or any kind of web of connections, in an un-relational manner. As such, it feels a lot less like I’m jamming something into the text, and it’s much more in keeping with the tenor of the story at that point in the novel, so that I can easily work in the scene at the end of the year where I talked to Mortimer and Petunia about the year to come, and the end-times they were causing.

This brings me to something I’ve been meaning to rap about for a while, which is the originality of Shakespeare’s thinking. People all seem to have an idea that Shakespeare was great because of his cathedral-like magnificence of language (which at least in the minds of many translates into a sense that he was great because he was the best at producing a kind of ridiculous stuff-shirted pomposity), and while it’s true that he was the greatest of all stylists ever to have written in English, and, well, think of all the characters the man came up with! What a genius—all these things considered, I’m afraid we still overlook the cleverness of his thinking.

One can see better what I mean through an examination of a much-beloved passage in Richard the Second, to which I’ve always had a certain incurable attachment. The protagonist is King Richard, an elegant, poetic, brooding, vain, self-centered king, who shares the affliction of Theoden in being more enamored with the possibilities of speechifying than the responsibilities of service. His nemesis is Bolingbroke (later to become King Henry IV, father of the rascally ne’er-do-well Prince Hal), who in the scene under examination has just ridden in and stolen all of Richard’s fighting men.

Says Richard to Scroop, the man who bears the news:

“Mine ear is open, and my heart prepar’d.
The worst is worldly loss thou canst unfold.
Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, ‘twas my care,
And what loss is it to be rid of care?
Strives Bolingbroke to as great as we?
Greater he shall not be; if he serve God,
We’ll serve Him, too, and be his fellow so.
Revolt our subjects? That we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God as well as us.
Cry woe, destruction, ruin, and decay:
The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

As with so much of Shakespeare, I feel that this scene can only be fully appreciated through hearing it or watching it performed. At least for my own part, when I read this on the page, as opposed to hearing the words pronounced by an accomplished actor, my inclination is to imagine Richard (in the manner of dear old Alex Rutledge) placing one hand mock-heroically in the air and declaiming the lines in a stultified, sonorous fashion. (“The cookie is but one part of the beautiful world… and to understand the world, you must first understand the cookie.”) I imagine all the other characters speaking in like manner.

Happily, two springs ago, before I left Southwestern, I ordered the entire Arkangel audio-dramatized Shakespeare collection for the library (a six-hundred dollar investment!); one of the highlights is Rupert Graves’ petulant, over-earnest, determined, vindictive, angsty portrayal of Richard the Second. (Rupert Graves also plays Inspector Finch’s partner, the police officer knocked out by Natalie Portman in the “BTN tower” scene from V for Vendetta). He plays the beleaguered monarch in the manner of a self-enamored, bitingly sarcastic adolescent: “God save King Henry, unking’d Richard says, AND SEND HIM MANY YEARS OF SUNSHINE DAYS!!”

But, none of that is to the point. Look at the simplicity of language, the complexity of thought! “Why, ‘twas my care, and what loss is it to be rid of care?” Shakespeare says what no one else had ever thought, and says it in exactly the manner demanded by the character and scene. What a cheery defense for a king who’s watching his kingdom crumble all to ruins around him, like… like Louie, the ape-king from The Jungle Book, and to console himself with such sophisticated sophistry! He reasons well.

The passage that follows, however, does him one better:

Scroop: “Like an unseasonable stormy day,
Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores,
As if the world were all dissolv’d to tears,
So high above his limits swells the rage
Of Bolingbroke, covering your fearful land
With hard bright steel, and hearts harder than steel.
White beards have arm’d their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women’s voices,
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double fatal-yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat: both young and old rebel,
And all goes worse than I have power to tell.”

K. Richard: “Too well! Too well thou tell’st a tale so ill!”

(“Is Shakespeare complimenting himself?” asked Jonathan, when we listened to this scene together).

Well, it’s bad news all around for Richard—but great news for the world, because look at the delightful cleverness of Shakespeare’s vision here. We have the boys with their peculiarly un-masculine physique in early adolescence; hearts more hard against their ruler than the silver mail they wear; old, peaceful clergymen serenely carving into shape their instruments for war—part of the elegance of the description of the “double-fatal yew” is how pithily, how concisely it combines two deadly functions of the yew tree into a single devastating phrase, because not only can the yew be hewn down and made into bows, but its foliage is poisonous.

See, that’s part of the magic of Shakespeare, and it’s one of the points that I’m getting at in writing this entry: He saw the world as no one else could see it, and a lot of what we call modern civilization is the world’s attempt to see what he was seeing. You think of a line like the one in Hamlet where the prince is lamenting his father’s death and mother’s “o’er-hasty marriage”: “Thrift! Thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.” Or Malcolm’s words to Macdonald: “Though all things fair would wear the brows of grace, yet grace must still look so”—meaning, that grace will continue to look what it is, though evil counterfeit it to the day of doom; or the convoluted images of light and mirroring in the elegant discourse of the creeper Jachimo, as he steals into Imogen’s room late at night:

The flame o’ the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see th’ enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure lac’d
With blue of heaven’s own tinct!

It’s an often-overlooked testimony to the genius of Shakespeare, that the most famous speech in literature begins with a line made up almost entirely of monosyllables—Hamlet expressed his existential query in the simplest of all possible terms:

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—aye, there’s the rub…

So the question becomes, given the absolute purity and simplicity of this language, how can it be that in the intervening four hundred years no one has written anything to top it? Is it because there have been no greater stylists? That’s partly true. But the more accurate truth of it is, that there have been no greater thinkers. And all that we call “great thinking” is just a matter of seeing keenly—sometimes what lies just in front of you, and often, just beneath that.

He pared the world down to its essentials. Like Chesterton, Shakespeare was never content to allow other people to tell him who he was and where he came from. What is this thing called the world? As Tyler noted yesterday in another context, why do we not consider it supernatural that our planet is given its light, life and energy by an enormous ball of fire in the sky? “Well, in Florida, we call it the sun…” I know it’s called the sun. But “the sun” doesn’t say what it is; that’s merely a name it’s been given. Dig deeper! See beyond the surfaces of things, as Thoreau did, and Booth.

So when we’re sitting in the driveway at Chik-fil-A, and Booth tells me, “Boze, I’ve thought of a way to trick the people in the window! I give them these little green pieces of paper, and they give me food!” I say that in that moment, Booth is seeing things as they are. When Chesterton calls a house a gigantesque hat to shelter a man from the sun, and a chair “an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two,” I take my own hat off and hail him as a prophet. When Melville, bless him, has Ahab and anguish lying “stretched together in one hammock,” or when crazy Ahab cries, “The prophecy was that I would be dismembered, and aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer! Now be the prophet and the fulfiller one…” or when he raves to Starbuck, “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks!” or when Ishmael methodically sets apart seven pages for the purpose of asserting the verity of his unearthly fear of whiteness, in the process bringing in not only heaven and hell, but the whole cosmos besides, and when, in the reflection of the golden doubloon, nailed to the masthead, each man sees inscribed the signature stamped on the mettle of his own doomed soul—then, all that being so, you can be sure that his soul was uncommonly grooved; it was not made to run on tracks with other men.

Yet so much of the cleverness of seeing in the examples above is situational: that is to say, it stems from seeing a situation of an unprecedented nature, say, a madman vengefully hunting a sperm whale at sea, in a manner that would still have been unprecedented, even if sea-beast vengeance stories had a genre of their own in our literature.

Which brings me back, once again, to my novel, and to my ultimate purpose in writing this entry. No one disputes that some uncommon things have happened in the last six years; if that weren’t so, there wouldn’t be a lot of point in writing it. Yet the scope of my imagination, in looking back over the sweep, the surrealism, and the chaos of those early days, has been, from first to last, confined, flat, earthy, dull, and common. I was given the ingredients to make a royal seafood banquet, and I served blancmange instead. It’s time for that to change.

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