Locked Down With Lear

About six weeks has gone by since my last posting, and that’s not the result of my being involved in some big project–quite the contrary. My silence, as I reflect on it, is one of the effects of prolonged withdrawal from face-to-face encounters. I referee journal submissions, I read galley proofs of my own articles, I exchange messages with friends and colleagues. I still engage, but except with my wife and the occasional grocery clerk, it’s all mediated engagement. And I’m realizing how, after some period of almost entirely mediated engagement with other people, some part of me withers, goes into hibernation, whatever metaphor you like.

I’m at one end of a continuum. At the other end are friends whose work has intensified due to Covid; they’re hyper-engaged and suffering that overload. To them, my problems are definitely first-world, or what we might now call virtual-world. So here I am, reestablishing connections but virtually, in this mediated medium.

Who I’m locked down with is Lear, of King Lear. It’s a story about the effects of having really, seriously bad retirement planning; a cautionary tale. Lear consigns his care to two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan. They don’t love him. The daughter who does love him, Cordelia, he exiles for failing to profess how much she loves him. One of Hamlet’s first lines, spoken to his mother and referring to his outward displays of grief for his father, is: “‘Seems’, madam–nay it is, I know not ‘seems'”. It’s one of the most prevalent themes in Shakespeare: the gap between speech and being, language and reality, show and sincerity revealed in action. Characters we recognize as good know not ‘seems’. Cordelia knows not “seems”, but Lear is captivated by flowery language.

When I think about Goneril and Regan with respect to my father, who will be 101 in the next few days, I compare them less to people and more to the institutions that promised in various ways to support him, but when that support is needed, the strictest contractual conditions apply to what’s provided. Parts of that dilemma are distinctly American: how in the US healthcare system, insurance eligibility directs clinical judgment of need. That reversal of priorities has a corrosive, demoralizing effect on healthcare workers who spend their days increasingly taking for granted that way of seeing, as a professional, the patient before you. But we can’t make the issue distinct to the US. I think, with horror, of what the Canadian Forces found in nursing homes after Covid had decimated staffing and the army had to be called in to care for residents. The soldiers had the decency to be appalled. There were detailed stories in the papers about the degradation of those nursing home residents, but since then, nobody is coming forward with plans to change how those homes are run, and how they’re financed. Albeit, they have many fewer residents now.

But with Shakespeare, the story always has another side to it. When Goneril first tells Lear that his knights are wrecking her house–“By day and night he wrongs me: every hour // He flashes into one gross crime or other // That sets us all at odds.”–she’s singing a tune I recognize. In Peter Brook’s landmark 1962 production, the knights literally bust up the furniture; that’s a fair interpretation of the play. One of the foremost tasks in coordinating the many people who make my father’s life possible is not letting him set us at odds with each other–because our being at odds is a bigger risk to my father than Covid. The blunt honesty of King Lear is that Lear does set people at odds with each other. We don’t want to acknowledge that about dependent people, but a vulnerable reading of King Lear allows us to say what can be unspeakable.

Up to a certain point in King Lear, many adult children can feel sympathy for Goneril. The point when that sympathy flips is probably when Lear goes out into the storm, which is the beginning of his madness. But I note, Lear’s daughters do not force him out into the storm. He initiates leaving; it’s a continuation of his rage, which is not unjustified but is disturbing in its violence. His daughters bar the door after he’s left, but it’s Lear who has called for his horses and ridden away. I can’t go along with critics who maintain that in Lear, more than maybe any other of Shakespeare’s plays, the characters are all either very good or very bad.

Shakespeare always leaves you to fill in the backstory, or most of it anyway. In Jane Smiley’s fine novel A Thousand Acres, which sets Lear in Iowa, she makes the Goneril character not just the protagonist but a sort of hero. Smiley’s Lear, Larry, is definitely more sinning than sinned against. Smiley may fill in too much–that’s what a long novel does. But she sends me back to Lear recognizing how little the play actually tells me, and how much I fill in based on what happens later. By the play’s end, the characters are either very good or very bad, but we have to fill in how they got there.

So we go on, with Covid, with our loved ones, and with those we do business with, as we try to distinguish their “seems” from what we can count of them to do. One way to end this rambling reflection is by quoting an article I have in press about the philosopher Simon Critchley. I quote Critchley quoting Samuel Beckett: “I resume, so long as, so long as, let me see, so long as one, so long as he, ah fuck all that, so long as this, then that, agreed, that’s good enough, I nearly got stuck.” It’s so easy to get stuck these days. Thank you, Shakespeare; thank you, Samuel Beckett; thank you, virtually present readers.

Note: I have a chapter, “Socio-narratology and the clinical encounter between human beings”, in Frances Rapport and Jeffrey Braithwaite, editors, Transforming Healthcare with Qualitative Research, just published by Routledge (the copyright date is listed as 2021, so this defines hyper-new). If anyone wants a copy, please send me an email.

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