Two Views of Understanding, from Nabokov to Salinger

August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Here’s Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, describing the nature of understanding a piece of writing:

In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.

Now here’s an excerpt from a priceless anecdote in Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters:

“That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?”

Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”

When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.

Are these attitudes in conflict? Probably. But they’re both useful. Both of them constitute an appraisal of real understanding of a work of art — as opposed to knowing what it’s supposed to be about, what its message or gimmick is, instead sensing what animates the organism.

I think a reconciliation of these two attitudes is in a central idea that your job as a reader is not to understand what a work intends or aspires to be, especially not what it’s regarded as, or what its place is in a canon — instead, your goal is to understand what it is. This requires the sheer sensory openness Nabokov prescribes, seeing color and gesture, and it requires the natural fascination with the whole work’s life force that we see in Salinger’s anecdote.

In other words, move past what a work is supposed to be, to what it is. A good example of this is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, since ostensibly it’s a pure meditation on life’s futility or nobility. That’s its reputation or its apparent significance as a collection of words. But for one thing, pay attention to the details of the scene. One, Ophelia is positioned aside reading a book and trying to look serious per Polonius’s order; two, Polonius and Claudius are listening in; and three, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“…And lose the name of action. Soft you now, the fair Ophelia…”) grades without apparent surprise into Ophelia’s discovery. Now for another thing, what are the motions of the whole work? As with the details, the play so far is one big jest where Hamlet leads on the entire court. And this must be a continuation of that conceit. The soliloquy isn’t a work of lyricism in itself — it has qualifiers in itself, and it’s a curious organ in a larger work.

Some combination of the sense of detail and the sense of structure or soul is necessary in a great reader. Nabokov is more strictly right than Salinger, in that an eye for detail is the foundation of all true kinds of appreciation, but Nabokov is also, tellingly, a narrower writer than some more intuitive and less rigorous types like a Tolstoy, say. But the fine sense leads to the larger sense, I think, because sensitivity is such a richly generalizable faculty.

“To be or not to be” Is a Jest

December 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I hadn’t read Hamlet since high school so I picked it up again recently to see what it’s really like. In high school, I thought (and/or was taught — I can’t remember) that it was a grand existential meditation on life and human nature and all its cuts and bruises, and on the brutality and madness of the world. This time, I found that Hamlet was a kind of jester or actor keeping a distance between himself and his friends and family by playing at madness. Hamlet is about one big elaborate put-on!

I think even the play’s purported existential centerpiece, the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is a put-on, a kind of cosmic joke or sarcasm. Here’s my case. When Hamlet enters, Claudius and Polonius have just exited, and they’ve left behind Ophelia as a kind of bait to coax out some honesty from Hamlet. So Hamlet, in the thick of his mad angsty act, has stumbled into the middle of a plot whose mechanism is Ophelia’s innocence. In this scene, candor and plainness can’t be trusted.

Hamlet’s speech begins unprompted, apropos of nothing, and isn’t tangibly related to any action in the play at that point. It’s spacious, undirected brooding, the type employed by somebody who wants their loud sighs to be overheard. Everything in it is abstraction and pomp: “a sea of troubles”, “a consummation / Devoutly to be wish’d” (an odd sentiment for Hamlet to be serious about, since he has work to do against Claudius), “The undiscovered country”, etc. Why would Hamlet talk about abstract woe when he’s made his specific grievances with his life clear to himself and to his friend Horatio?

Then there’s the ending of the monologue. Do you remember how it goes? This is the part I love about it — it ends mid-line with Hamlet interrupting himself to address Ophelia. Fittingly, the last bit of the soliloquy is about ambitions waning into dithering:

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. — Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

All we have at the end is a dash, so we don’t know if Hamlet is genuinely surprised by Ophelia’s presence (she’s been deliberately placed in the open with a book) or — as I suspect — that he’s turning to her as the natural culmination of his passionate fit of words. Then there is a mild plea for quiet (“Soft you now”) — but that plea is itself theatrical! It might be directed at himself, or slyly at an imaginary audience, or at the real audience, but it’s stage direction. Finally, see how the two of them transition easily to appropriate manners:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

I humbly thank you; well, well, well.

This is the kind of mood swing between characters that you only see in a play. I think Hamlet is continuing his put-on with Ophelia, and that the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is another jest, another play-within-a-play, in Hamlet.

Like I said, all we have to characterize Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia is a dash and “Soft you now”, so we can’t reach a definite conclusion about his intentions in his soliloquy. But this is the evidence I see in the story that Hamlet’s great philosophizing is a very shrewd ploy.

Blurbing “Hamlet”

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here, in its entirety, is the promotional blurb on the back of the Barnes & Noble edition of Hamlet:

Shakespeare’s compelling treatment of guilt and revenge in Hamlet has fascinated playgoers and readers for 400 years.

I’m no marketing expert, but this has got to be one of the limpest pitches I’ve ever read. Where’s the mystery? Where’s the intrigue? Where’s the richness, the savor? First off, by calling it “compelling” you’re already pathetically underselling it. Second, “guilt” and “revenge” are such trite theme-words that they pave over the real fun of the book — all of its complexity, and the layers of jesting and deceit in Hamlet’s brooding. Third, the whole “fascinated readers for 400 years” thing is so fusty and dusty that they’re clearly writing a space-filling deferral to the book’s age and authority instead of trying to sell it.

Obviously, Barnes & Noble is printing and binding this book merely because they know people need to buy a copy of Hamlet now and then, and this fills the bill. The whole thing is so obligatory. There’s another point about the classics here, which is that over time the reputation of good books gets reduced to the most fusty and dutiful trivialization possible. Hamlet as a revenge story is like pitching Titanic as a survival tale, or as man vs. machine.

Because the reputation of great books in our culture is so bloodless and shallow, their very pervasiveness serves to make them look duller and more pretentious to the world. By the time a student gets to a free intellectual environment (maybe college, probably not high school) where a book gets taught on the strength of its artistic vitality, its creative genius, the student already “knows” the book’s greatness is of a boring and highfalutin nature.

In the decades and centuries after a work of art emerges, its reputation — because complex and subtle ideas don’t travel well through a culture — gets simplified and ossified and worn down little by little until you’re left with something paltry like “Hamlet is a revenge story.” By then it’s been chewed up and spit out by history so there’s nothing left for an avid young(-at-heart) reader to discover and digest. The increase of a work of art’s reputation through time is like a game of telephone where each repetition of what makes it great is a little duller and more staid than the last. So if you want to know what makes Hamlet good — like really, for real good — you have to look past its reputation. In this case, that means opening it and reading it.

P.S. For comparison, I wanted to see the promotional tagline for a modern story, one that was sufficiently Hamlet-like, so I went to the IMDB page for The Lion King and found this one:

Life’s greatest adventure is finding your place in the Circle of Life.

Not bad! This suggests the movie’s grandeur and is true to the broadness of its themes. It’s also good to see that “adventure” in there — every great story is an exploratory enterprise. Without obligatory centuries of reputation accrued behind a book, marketers have the freedom to be true to a story’s vitality.

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