Age as Illness, Illness as Tragedy

When my father was about my present age, he used to ask me whether I thought that old age was an illness. We went round on that question, which doesn’t admit an easy answer. Old age is heavily medicalized, and health care is organized around categories of pathology. In the last few weeks of caring for my father, and trying to arrange for others to care for him, one of my most consistent problems was that his ongoing need for professional care is not based on illness; he’s not sick. But on the threshold of turning one hundred, he is increasingly vulnerable and in need. At least in the United States, that puts him outside the categories that qualify a person for insurance and other benefits, or at least on the margin of qualification.

That raises a second question. Old age is not a tragedy, but rather it’s an expected stage of life. Not reaching old age is conventionally described as a tragedy. But I constantly felt the tragic dimension of my father’s situation. Now, the world is good in the sense that help comes to us when we need it, and on returning home, I began reading Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us (2019). Critchley has written about topics that always interest me, but I admit never being able to connect with his earlier books. With Tragedy, it’s as if Critchley had been watching me for the last weeks and writing the commentary that I could not articulate without his help. That, I believe, is what health humanities ought to do: Give people words that articulate what they feel but cannot yet say for themselves. It’s the work that this blog tries to do.

Among the many voices that keep clamouring in my head from the last weeks, the most poignant is that of someone whom I never saw. When my father was in the hospital, we heard, all day and I gather most of the night, some lost soul who as far as I could tell was in a room diametrically opposite to my father, on the other side of the circular corridor of the hospital floor. I can’t imagine being a room closer to his. His main cry was “Help me”. He was too exhausted to scream it, but loud enough for the whole unit to hear him. Sometimes he would say a bit more, including calling out a woman’s name. My father claimed he simply tuned out that voice after a while, and I think he did. So, I think, did the medical staff. What I now want to ask is the cost of that tuning out. Because you don’t select one voice for tuning out; you tune out a category of unhearables. You tune out part of the reality around you, and you pay a price, because what you tune out you still hear, on some level. It’s still there.

Simon Critchley would call that voice lamentation. He tells us that ancient Greek had at least thirteen different nouns for grief, lamentation, mourning. Our language is comparatively impoverished. Critchley as a philosopher is interested in how the project of philosophy defined by Plato has been about silencing lamentation. Philosophy, he writes, “appears to be committed to the idea and ideal of a noncontradictory psychic life”. Where he writes philosophy, I read medicine. Medicine also is “premised on the exclusion of a range of experiences that we can call tragic”. As I watched so many different healthcare professionals interview my father and interact with him, only the lowest paid and least credentialed seemed able to recognize the fundamental sadness of his plight, which is being someone who does not fit.

Critchley articulates my father’s situation most perfectly when he writes that “tragedy is the art form of between times, usually between an old world that is passing away and a new world that is coming into being”. My father’s sense of how things should be–of rightness as I’ve used that term–is grounded in a world that was already passing away fifty years ago. He is being cared for according to the values and customs of a new world that is coming into being, although much of it was predicted by Marx and Weber with prescient accuracy, although they didn’t realize quite how far it would go. For my father as for Hamlet, time is out of joint. His lamentation is quieter than the fellow around the corridor, but he too is saying help me, and the terms in which help is conventionally offered don’t fit.

These weeks with my father took me back to where I started in this work in the late 1980s after my own illnesses. We need to witness what happens to people–how care is sometimes generous and how it is often indifferent or denied. We also need to change the parameters in which people construct and utilize categories such as illness and old age. We need a health care that dares to be tragic, to hear and to join with the voices of lamentation.

Orlando’s Lesson

A short post this week, and maybe none next week, because I have to travel to care for my father, who has suffered a turn in his health. So who do you take with you, I ask myself, on such a trip into terrain where much will be unexpected? I think of the magical places in Shakespeare and ask which fits. Not Prospero’s island, because I’m pretty sure there won’t be some controlling magus to manage the action. And probably not the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is no country for young lovers, where I’m going.

It’s the forest of Arden I think of, where everyone goes when court politics turn too toxic. That forest in As You Like It is a refuge for people displaced, whose lives are going badly. The hero in Shakespeare’s Arden is Rosalind, daughter of the deposed Duke, who disguises herself as a man and ends up being almost the Prospero character, without being a colonizer (or mostly not). Rosalind would be great company, but I’m more in need of her lover, Orlando. Orlando is running away from his evil brother Oliver. He enters the forest carrying on his back the old family retainer, Adam. Adam has generously offered Orlando his life savings to fund their escape, but now he’s too exhausted even to be carried further. They’re both half starved.

Orlando goes to forage and comes upon the company of the deposed Duke, who are just starting dinner. Orlando is not accustomed to generosity, so he springs upon them with his sword drawn, demanding food. Duke Senior, as he’s called, tells him that if he puts away his sword and asks nicely, they will be happy to help him. Orlando sees the error of his ways. It’s a moment of zen-instant enlightenment.

For all its simplicity, or maybe because of it, that fable is good company to take when embarking into the world of airlines and healthcare institutions. Nobody in this world is exactly comfortable, all are on some kind of edge. But people are willing to help, so far as they can, though it’s often difficult to figure how far that actually is. Until Orlando enters the Duke’s camp, he has had to rely on strength to get as much as he has, which isn’t much. Adam begins his moral education, the Duke plays a short but pivotal part, and Rosalind will take it from there. Orlando’s later example of risking himself for another will redeem the evil Oliver.

They all have the good luck to be in a comedy, and that is one big advantage in life. An actor wrote of the need to play your part as if you didn’t know the end of the story. In life, we don’t have to act that ignorance. We don’t even know what genre we’re in: comedy, tragedy, satire, or romance. I doubt this next week will be a farce, though I’m sure it will have those moments. Hope to be back before too long.

Playing Our Part

My work on Shakespeare takes me back to the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life proposed a dramaturgical analysis of how people interact in shared spaces, public places like restaurants or beaches. That was, I think, the first sociology book I ever read. It was assigned reading in a social psychology course and was so badly taught that I sold my copy back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. I met Goffman when I was doing my M.A. at Penn; he gave me very sensible advice on graduate schools. I read him thoroughly while I was doing my doctorate, and when I started to publish he became a mentor and I hope a friend.

Goffman had, I believe, no use for talk about authenticity. He refers to the self, but it’s a slippery thing whatever he means. People seem better understood as playing roles, and their performances fall along a continuum between full embracement of the role–which a person might describe as feeling authentic–to displaying distance from a role. Role distance for Goffman isn’t necessarily alienation; it’s more ironic than existential. In full embracement, the person is the role. Role distance is not necessarily calculated, but a space is opened to watch one’s self perform a version of that self.

Whenever I think I’ve put Goffman on the shelf, he comes back off again, and that happened this week when I was reading a fine essay by the actor Roger Allam, writing about playing the part of the Duke in Measure for Measure (the essay is in the collection Players of Shakespeare 3, edited by Jackson and Smallwood, Cambridge UP, 1993). The Duke, as Allam begins by noting, can be played “in completely opposite ways”. For those who don’t recall the play, it begins with the Duke informing everyone that he’s going on indefinite sabbatical, and all his power–“our terror”, which Allam observes means both his absolute power and his own fear of ruling–is left to Angelo, as ruler in his absence. “The disguised ruler who seeks true knowledge of his world is an old story,” Allam writes. Shakespeare puts that old story together with another.

Angelo’s remit is to enforce laws that have been unenforced for too long, possibly most of the Duke’s reign. To keep this posting within its length, let’s just say that Claudio has violated one of these laws and is sentenced to be executed. He enlists his sister Isabella to go to Angelo and plead for his life. Here we get the second old story, which is the evil judge or ruler who tells the supplicant that he will free her brother/husband/lover if she will be his, at least for a night. We get this story from early English ballads through Tosca. Of course the Duke has never actually left. Disguised as a friar, he insinuates himself in the lives of Claudio and Isabella. He embraces the role of friar more easily than he played the part of Duke.

But who is the Duke/friar? Three of Allam’s observations seem especially useful. First, the Duke has “a rather rarified opinion of himself as being somehow above life, or certainly above ordinary human existence”. Second, “the Duke constantly uses other people … as a means of self-knowledge,” but what makes this less than totally obnoxious is that he is “above all … testing himself”. Third, the Duke becomes most “passionately articulate” when “he equates life with all that is worthless, foolish, base, and ignoble”. Allam’s summary: “I began to form a picture of a man who was a recluse, an intellectual, and a celebate; a man with a rapid mind, but who has, in a sense, thought himself into paralysis and inaction”. Rather than getting personal about how I relate to that description, let me move to the less embarrassing terrain who else it reminds me of.

Shakespeare’s plays take a few characters who have a strong resemblance and put them in different situations, enacting variations on what such a person might do in an alternative disposition of resources and possibilities. Think of who Hamlet might have become if his father had just died when he did, but no uncle slipped between the election and Hamlet’s hopes, and Hamlet had become king at too young an age. I imagine young Hamlet as king would look very much as Allam describes the Duke: someone who puts himself above ordinary existence and always risks devaluing life; a recluse, would-be intellectual, whose rapid mind can lead him into inaction.

If the Duke seems a slightly older alternative version of Hamlet, I also hear Allam describing a younger self of Prospero from The Tempest. Prospero says his reign failed due to his withdrawal into his books, leaving governance to his brother who usurps him. The Duke in Measure usurps himself preemptively. Hamlet may find space to get out of being Hamlet only during his adventure with the pirates; too bad he didn’t stay longer with them. Prospero’s island gives him space to reinvent a self that he knows better, and when he is ready he stages a little drama culminating in his restoration. The Duke stages his own restoration, but unlike Prospero, he has no Ariel and must deal with unexpected developments. Life gets away from the plot so far as he may have planned it, although how far he has planned remains a question.

Allam makes the strong interpretive claim that “the revelation of Angelo’s utter hypocrisy is a complete bombshell” for the Duke. But he acknowledges the problem of this interpretation: the Duke always knows how badly Angelo has treated his former betrothed, Mariana. How complete could the bombshell be? More important, by the end of the play, is the Duke now ready to embrace a role that he had to radically distance himself from? If something comes to the Duke as a bombshell, my choice is the moment when he hears himself proposing marriage to Isabella. I think he’s more surprised than she is. But some part of himself knows–and I in the audience believe–that as ill timed as his proposal may be, she and he need each other. Authenticity, whatever it is, is never solitary. Selves also inhabit intimate spaces. On the question of whether, after the play has just stopped rather than properly ended, Isabella agrees to marry the Duke, I love what Allam writes: “We thought probably they did, but only after a very long conversation.” That seems to evoke both intimacy and authenticity.

Inhabiting, not reading

I still have my Dell paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (95 cents, cover price). I think I read it in 1969 and didn’t understand much. When she gets to her big finale of the title essay–“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”–I had the scarcest idea what hermeneutics was. But as Bob Dylan sang, there was revolution in the air, and replacing something as multi-syllabic and teutonic as hermeneutics with erotics sounded good. Replacing anything with erotics sounded good in 1969.

Forty years later, and ten years ago, I wrote about hermeneutics in Letting Stories Breathe. I was struggling with the necessity of interpretation, our human inability to hear without interpreting, versus the problem of interpreting. Interpretation presupposes a stance outside what becomes the object of interpretation: the text, whether that’s words, pictures, or sounds, becomes an occasion for the knowing subject to exercise her knowledge upon it, and perhaps add to that knowledge, notching up another text on the reading list. The worst of Shakespeare criticism treats his writing as occasions for displaying knowledge, albeit very impressive displays of considerable knowledge. Then to remind myself why Shakespeare matters–why I and others show up at the theatre–I go back to writing by actors and directors. For them, interpretation is merely instrumental to what counts, which is inhabiting the character and the story: being part of it, and letting it become part of you. Which is why Macbeth is regarded with suspicion. Some stories you have to be careful about inhabiting.

What instigated these thoughts was reading two books that make me question how to read. Today I finished another cycle of reading the Tao Te Ching, which I keep reading through, without any beginning or end to the reading, which seems to be the point of what the Tao is, learning to think without beginnings or endings. No primal cause or act of creation, and no telos, transcendence, or Last Judgment. The point seems not to read the book, first page to last with whatever level of attention. Rather, the point is to inhabit the book as an embodiment of the mind of the Sage, although that statement is nothing but metaphors. What we call reading is an active surrender, a forceful giving-up-to. As one example, take the last line: “the way of a sage is to act without contending.” Scholars lapse into contending; establishing one’s difference from others’ work is often contention. The hermeneutics of suspicion–Marx, Freud, Derrida, Foucault–is contentious, except in those rare moments when each gets beyond that. Scholarship is a perpetual struggle to rise above contention. How do I inhabit the Tao, while writing about the issues of bioethics and healthcare? How do I retell testimonies of violences against the ill, without contending? As we live in a moment when the politics of contention threatens us, it requires discipline to hold to a rejection of contention.

The other book is Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls. I waited for the right moment to read this, anticipating that it would preoccupy me, as it has. If you’ve missed it, Barker retells the story of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Briseis (Breye-see’-is, I believe). Briseis is a young queen in one of the towns near Troy, raided by the Greeks. She is taken as a war trophy, awarded to Achilles, then stolen by Agamemnon. Here the pawn speaks. Briseis’s story opens up the women’s world that is the silent background in Homer: all these women, taken as slaves, who served the Greeks doing the cooking, laundry, nursing, and being “bed girls”. Homer has recently reappeared in two translations by women: Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. Barker, when read with Alexander and Wilson, gives us the same turning of Homer that the Globe theatre effects when it plays Shakespeare with gender-blind casting. But no, Barker effects a far more extensive shift of perspective; while sticking to Homer’s plot, she rewrites the story. She gets into my dreams. Putting me into the Greek camp, seeing it as a slave inhabits it, she creates an encounter more than a reading. It’s not a question of interpreting her book. What seems required is allowing the book to have its most extensive effect on how to live, which begins with seeing the world around me. Or better yet, seeing me in the world I participate in recreating.

Is some of that what Susan Sontag meant by an erotics of literature? What is the shift of responsibility as we move from hermeneutics to such an erotics, as a duality of inhabiting and being inhabited?

How to Write, and do other things

I’ve been studying Fran├žois Jullien’s book The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (Zone Books, 1995, original French 1992). It’s not the book I’d recommend for starting to read Jullien, but I want to work with some of his thoughts. The book is an extended study of the multiple sense of what’s meant by shi, a word that Jullien keeps redefining throughout but basically refers to how factors or forces are disposed, in the sense of the disposition of pieces on a chess board. Shi is an arrangement of what can have an effect, the actors in an Actor-network, to use Bruno Latour’s terms that seem remarkably compatible with the Chinese ideas. Efficacy in any action depends on correct assessment of what is disposed how. And because situations are always evolving, efficacy depends on timeliness, in sensing when the time is right for a particular action. When Hamlet, in Act V, utters his enigmatic line, “The readiness is all” (V.2.200), maybe he’s showing a newly gained awareness of disposition. He can act only within that disposition, and he must sense at what moment the disposition is optimal for his action. Lear, at the start of the play, represents the utter failure to recognize shi. He doesn’t know who’s who, and what could happen when resources are redistributed.

On Jullien’s account, efficacy depends on balancing two factors, which we can call the objective and the unprecedented. He describes these factors: “On the one hand, a historical situation–seen as a set of factors operating in a particular way–can be used to determine events objectively, since it allows one to constrain the initiative of individuals” (178). People can act only with resources at hand, whether those resources are cognitive, emotional, or material. How resources are disposed–which are available to whom on what terms of use–is objective; initiative depends on disposition, not vice versa. But: “On the other hand, every situation is new and unprecedented in character, one particular moment in an evolving process. As such, it cannot be reduced to previous models; it leads the course of things constantly to take new turns.” The measure of Shakespeare’s major characters, and some minor ones, is how they adapt to situations constantly taking new turns.

My whole career has been exploring balances between the objective and the unprecedented: how to give each its due. The core issue of doing any kind of narrative analysis is how to recognize that, on the one hand, a storyteller is working with a disposition of resources: character and plot types, available genres, listener expectations, how long a telling can last, what the censors will allow, and so forth. The versions of structuralism that I started off studying extend that: stories are structured in oppositions that are objective. In post-structuralism, discourses structure telling. So any story is predictable in many of its aspects; it mirrors the objective disposition of which it is part. But any story is also unprecedented. People, individually and in groups, are justifiably committed to the uniqueness of a story as theirs, which can require patience from a listener who has heard what sounds pretty much like that same story from others in pretty much that situation. But the patience is justified because each story is unprecedented and distinct.

Institutional medicine seeks to assimilate the individual patient’s story into a generalized disease trajectory. Healthcare research readily takes up thematic analysis, because it discards whatever is distinct in anyone’s story and holds onto what codes as generalized themes. By contrast, narrative medicine seeks to hold onto what is singular and unprecedented in each patient’s story, because to miss that loses a potential for healing that exceeds remediating the disease. Healthcare professionals working in narrative ways don’t give up using diagnostic categories. They just refuse to understand the diagnosis as all that needs to be known.

Now let me flip this and consider the process of writing, telling the story. Jullien paraphrases and quotes the 17C scholar Wang Fuzhi: “If a writer merely positions words here and there without the conscious mind truly expressing itself, the body of the poem ‘will resemble a sickly donkey laden with a heavy burden'” (142). Which pretty much describes how I see many journal articles, and it may say something about burn-out in healthcare professionals. “This is bound to happen if the inner feelings of the person composing the poem have not been truly engaged and [the writer] is simply opting for some subject or another in an artificial manner, and then decorating it with rhetorical figures.” In social science, such rhetorical figures include excess attention to generic matters of method.

Now we finally get to the punchline, quoting Wang Fuzhi: “Make the emotional will-to-tell the principle (factor) and the shi the next factor” (142). It’s more complicated than the apparent binary opposition of this quotation, because there’s also an emotional shi. What Jullien calls the emotional will-to-tell strikes me as what’s left out either in telling researchers how to write their reports or in teaching clinicians how to intervene. Timeliness, sensing the right moment, is not just intuitive but depends on knowing the objective disposition, through study. Write too soon, and your views lack maturity of reflection; delay and writing goes stale.

Shakespeare’s most successful characters act in small ways, assessing and preparing, and then they catch the moment when the disposition is right. The readiness is all, but it’s the readiness of the situation. At the right moment, the person just has to show up–Imogen (Innogen) in Cymbeline keeps herself in the game, and then is there when being there counts, pretty much what Viola does in Twelfth Night. Northrop Frye and others emphasize Prospero’s sense of acting at the right time, only when the disposition is favourable. Hamlet in Act V senses that, but he will still get killed. Of his death, Jullien provides a fitting epitaph: “What counts is not the individual’s moral caliber, but the age in which [that individual] lives” (178-79). Although throughout Hamlet, we’ve seen how much Hamlet’s moral caliber is a product of the age in which he lives.

The priority between the objective and the unprecedented constantly shifts; what else would we expect? In artistic production, the will-to-tell is necessary but depends on preparation; in politics, objective factors determine outcomes but skilled actors know how to use these factors. Life being a constantly shifting layering of personal and political, we have to attend to both the objective and the unprecedented, their relation always unsettled. But we have Shakespeare’s characters as companions.

Late Style II

I think often of something by the actor Patrick Stewart, writing about playing Shylock. “After a long rehearsal period, when the play has been so dismantled and probed that the simple elements, such as the story-line, or the bold outlines of a character or of a relationship, have become blurred or submerged with elaboration and detail, it is valuable to remind oneself of those first uncomplicated responses.” That’s another way of approaching late style, different from the approach of Edward Said that I wrote about last week. Different, but possibly complementary.

What Stewart writes helps me when I get into the thicket of historical analyses of Shakespeare. I am enough of a history geek to enjoy these analyses, and certainly admire them as scholarship, but when I think about the people sitting around me, only about a month ago, at the Globe theatre in London, I don’t think those analyses speak to why they came to the theatre, and why many of them keep coming back.

Said, to go back to his Late Style, writes about “a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity.” To what is maturity vulnerable? Nothing special, I think; rather, maturity may involve a recognition of the vulnerability that has always been part of who we are. I understand Said that as stating the Foucault problem: Is there any way of living as a subjectivity that is formed through being subject to discourses that regiment, in Said’s verb, or discipline, in Foucault’s? And that goes back, for me, to Patrick Stewart’s “first uncomplicated responses.” Not, I note, first thoughts, which being thought are complicated, but responses. Actors have to be in touch, they have to have a tactile contact, with responses: their own, their fellow actors’, and the audience’s. Actors often know a lot about Shakespeare, but that’s the ladder they kick away when they do the physical work of acting. And it’s the ladder we kick away when we, the audience, respond to their performance. And that’s practice for responding to the rest of our lives.

To close, if not finish, my reflections on Edward Said, I want to share something he writes about the poet Constantine Cavafy, whose poems always seem to be looking back on lives lived long ago, including his own present life. I think I first read Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” in university, anyway, a long time ago. The poet address Odysseus in the second person, writing about what Ithaka has given him, which is the journey back to Ithaka. “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience//You’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” Said comments: “Ithaka itself acquires new meaning not as an individual place, but as a class of experiences (Ithakas) that enable human understanding.”

I think my interest in what I call illness has always been a class of experiences that enable human understanding. My core objection to how medicine/healthcare is practiced is that it squashes using illness this way; everyone–physicians, nurses, patients–wastes the opportunity for Ithakos. Getting back to first uncomplicated responses is part of knowing what has happened to us, and is happening and will happen as Ithakos. Theatre, maybe especially the Shakespearean theatre, is an especially useful and available controlled environment in which to practice doing that.

Late Style

I regret the lapse of this blog during the spring, when I was traveling to lecture and had no words left over. That period morphed into summer holidays. Calgary is having an unusually cool and wet August, with an autumnal feel. It’s time to write again.

For several years I’ve had a copy of Edward Said’s posthumously published book On Late Style sitting on my shelf, provoking me. Actually, I’ve been writing my own version of the book in notes that I intend for other pieces but end up editing out. For whatever reason–timeliness is such a big issue in Shakespeare–it was time to read what Said actually said, what late style means for him. But I want to emphasize that the issue is personal for me. The question anyone my age faces is eminently practical: Which issues do I have something to say about, and which are better left to younger colleagues? That’s a real question every time I write. Matters of policy and practice seem, generally, better addressed by those who are directly immersed in the institutional flux of things, with its rapidly changing demands and media. My own practical issue of late style is what matters can be best addressed by those outside that flux. Late style means not knowing an increasing amount about what’s actually going on–the conditions of practical action–but it also means a liberation from the immediacy and constraints such knowledge imposes.

None of that is what Said had in mind. His version of late style begins with timeliness–what is appropriate at different ages of life? Then he upsets me, in the best sense for which I’m grateful: “What if age and ill health [he had lived with leukemia for years as he wrote] don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?” Without trying to address his usage of that difficult-to-gloss phrase from Shakespeare, what stops me here is that the bias of my work has always been toward some form of serenity as a telos, a proper destination, and a possibility, however much stands in its way. Said confronts me with my serenity bias.

He continues, laying out an alternative late style “that involves the nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberate unproductive productiveness going against….” The final ellipses are in the text, although whether they are Said’s own or his editor’s, I don’t know. My guess is that against is to be left open, without specified predicate. It’s the against of Lear in the storm. Said’s “deliberately unproductive productiveness” is also difficult to gloss, but it makes intuitive sense to me. Universities and other institutions not unreasonable expect productivity. I see those demands becoming so incessant that they stifle creativity, but that’s another issue. Late style seeks an unproductive productiveness, perhaps in the sense of giving up concern with what anyone is going to do with what’s produced; certainly not telling people what they’re supposed to do with it.

Mozart is one of those whose late style Said considers in detail. He offers the marvellous description of the characters in Cosi fan tutte as “terrifyingly embroiled in feelings and discoveries that they are unprepared for and largely incapable of dealing with,” which I find an apt description of most of us at any age. My father, living the far reaches of being nearly 100, is unprepared for what that brings, as I am unprepared at my age still to be someone’s child. The fundamental condition of serious illness is being unprepared, as are most of those who care for the ill.

Said continues, describing the characters “as figures driven by forces outside themselves that they don’t comprehend and make no serious effort to understand.” That’s one of those moments when I discover the most useful Shakespeare criticism in writing that’s about something else. Said makes me think immediately of Shakespeare’s jealous husbands: Othello, Leontes in Winter’s Tale, and Posthumus in Cymberline. I find them too painful to watch; when I first tried to read Winter’s Tale I had to stop. Only later, in a stage production, could I tolerate Leontes unravelling with such destructive effects. He repents and finds a measure of forgiveness, but does he make what Said calls a serious effort to understand? Can he understand, in what sense of understanding? Can any of us? Jealousy that makes no sense if we imagine it as an internal state makes good sense as an external force. It’s just more terrifying to think of life that way.

This line of thinking is late style, in one sense anyway, because it’s the sort of talk that used to drive my students up the wall when I presented it in a sociological idiom. Young people want, need, to think in terms of agency; my students liked talk about agency. They don’t like to think about forces outside themselves, which made sociology a curious choice of study, but that also is another topic.

I’ll write more about Said and late style, but now I’ll push this argument one step further. Embedded in the discussion of Cosi, Said writes about Beethoven’s Fidelio: “All is not really well [at the end], and not everything has been fixed: the brief righting of wrongs is but a temporary respite from the darkness.” That again describes Shakespeare so well, especially the endings of the comedies. How temporary the respite is becomes most explicit in the last so-called comedy, Measure for Measure, in which the Duke’s proposal of marriage is left unresponded to.

Late style, for me, is a willingness to recognize–a capacity to tolerate–that one useful task of writing is to offer temporary respite. But late style realizes how temporary that respite is–as if that were going to be a durable solution. The beauty of late style lies in the fragility of its self-consciousness that respite will be temporary. Said’s On Late Style seems to me to have greater political relevance today than when it was published in 2006. Rightings of wrongs that we imagined were secure have proven temporary. We need Said’s clear vision of the darkness.