Death, Politics, and Poetry

I just finished David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry, which I’ve written about in at least one previous blog. Hinton narrates the life of the great T’ang poet, Tu Fu (712-770 C.E.) through close readings of nineteen of Tu’s poems. Each poem is printed first in Chinese pictographs with literal English translations, and then in Hinton’s translation. Much of the commentary is about the untranslatability of the Chinese, with two problems emphasized. First, Tu’s language uses no first-person I, but English requires a subject who sees, feels, and so on. Tu’s ability to write in the no-first-person means the poems can enact what Ch’an Buddhism seeks, which Hinton describes as mind that mirrors the cosmos; a mind through which the cosmos awakes to itself.

The second untranslatable feature of Tu’s language is that his written characters retain traces of their original analogical drawings: the word looks like the thing, instead of being an abstract signifier of the thing. In my favourite example, Hinton explains how the pictograph for anxiety is a composite of two elements. One is the image of a tiger, and the other is what translates as think, but itself decomposes into an image of the heart muscle and an image of “fieldland”. Hence, for anxiety, Hinton suggests the pictograph shows, analogically, “heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields” (119). Having spent these decades struggling to put into words the anxieties of illness, I feel a sense of epiphany–“Yes, that’s it!”–reading that cumbersome but evocative phrase: heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields. That’s what I’ve called deep illness.

These translation issues explain why Tu’s poetry is always on the verge of dissolution; it’s language undoing itself, in constant awareness of its insufficiency. Language already fading back into a pre-linguistic real, just as the landscape in paintings of the same period show the emergence and dissolution of forms. All that is solid melts into air, not just in modernity which is what Marx was describing in that phrase, but always.

Tu lived a refugee life–sometimes well patronized and other times starving–because of his vulnerability to the politics of his day, and in that we today feel an immediate kinship. My Provincial government announced this morning a commissioned report that describes how to cut 1.9 billion from the health budget. The Opposition critic pointed out that the government wouldn’t need to do that, if it had not begun its mandate by cutting corporate taxes by more than twice that amount. He didn’t add that the tax cut seems to have had no effect increasing employment. He also didn’t add that to the extent the health budget could stand cutting, what’s most worth trimming is the result of previous governments using health spending as a form of electioneering, especially building rural hospitals. So that’s my problem, and wherever you are, you can fill in yours. Compared to Tu’s problems, mine are civilized, at least so far. I may consider my government wrong-headed, but Tu saw heads literally rolling as civil wars precipitated invasions.

To sustain a life within this chaos, Tu wrote. He was the consummate vulnerable writer, and we read to know ourselves as vulnerable; to acknowledge our condition.

Politics is the contingent vulnerability of the day. Death is humans’ existential vulnerability. If you understand yourself as a transient form, emerging out of Absence to be, for a brief while, one of the Ten Thousand Things, and certain to return to formlessness, then death is the ultimate homecoming–and Tu spent his life trying to get home, which was both a real place and a spiritual condition. In his poems he dies and is reborn many times. And if we read him right, our vulnerability to death changes.

“Is this the promised end?” asks Kent at the end of King Lear. It may be the most bitter line in Shakespeare. Kent has suffered in the belief that a promised end will come, and for a moment it seems possible. Cordelia has returned, leading an army. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. But then the battle is lost, Cordelia is murdered, and Lear dies, at best holding to the delusional hope that Cordelia still lives. Shakespeare gives us another ending later, in Cymbeline, where the battle is won, all are pardoned, and the old King blesses the young lovers. Vulnerable reading can hear, in each of these endings, the echo of the other. Both endings are always happening, emerging and dissolving.

As I finish David Hinton’s book, with the greatest regret that it’s over but knowing I can soon return to it, I imagine Tu still out on the boat in which he probably wrote his last poems, trying to get somewhere but knowing he was already there. One practice of vulnerable reading is to keep rethinking what I want to read when my vulnerabilities become embodied realities; what to read if dying admits reflection. Awakened Cosmos is definitely on my list. The end it promises is neither Lear’s resounding nothing nor Cymbeline’s pardons. It’s mind dissolving into the reflection of the moon on a lake. The tiger, hearing Tu’s poem, sleeps in the field.

Survival and Its Distinctions

Continuing to read David Hinton’s book about the poet Tu Fu, Awakened Cosmos, I get to a poem in which Tu, on the run with his family from the armies that rebel against those who have been his patrons, writes about being in a boat on a river very early one morning. It’s a short poem, four lines in English or 28 characters in Chinese. Nothing much happens: the moon shines on the river, the egrets sleep, a fish jumps. Hinton reminds us throughout the book that in Tu’s Chinese there is no personal pronoun, no I. So it’s not Tu that sees these things; rather, they happen, and he is there but not as the sort of subjectivity that an English language poem would virtually require. Not as a presence distinguished from absence.

Hinton comments: “In evolutionary terms, language enables us to make the distinctions that help us to survive more successfully. Tu’s own struggle with survival, and that of his war-torn country, echoes behind the poem’s image-complex. And yet, in this moment of reprieve, those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring, a blurring that carries us into profoundly ontological depths” (87). For someone trying to do what this blog calls vulnerable reading, those couple of sentences overflow, which takes us back to the title of the poem, “Brimmed Whole”, or Hinton’s literal translation of the Tu’s title, “brim-over complete”.

Vulnerable reading is for moments of reprieve, not for the times of being in flight. It’s about being in those moments, not so much using them as being able to inhabit them fully. In such moments of reprieve, when the flight is both close behind and awaiting ahead, “those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring.” I’ve written about holding one’s own in life. Illness is one of those conditions that makes us self-conscious of how we are always holding our own. We hold our own through distinctions. I remember when I had cancer–so long ago now–how I had to learn to distinguish between what I needed, what sustained me, and what torn me further down. That might be food or different people’s companionship. It might be chairs or clothes. Or it might be thoughts, imaginations, day-dreams of future possible scenarios. I had to learn to make distinctions between whose words I would take seriously and which words I regarded as bizarre curiosities, perhaps to be used later in something I might write. Healthcare professionals were distinguished between the nurturing, the merely useful, and the toxic. Survival depends on making distinctions and finding ways to act on those distinctions.

But then, as Hinton writes, distinctions blur. Here is the Tao of Tu Fu, or anyone holding their own. We need distinctions but we eventually need to get past them, because living in a world of distinctions is ultimately false, even insidious. Tu, in wartime, needs to distinguish places that are safe from those that are unsafe. But he equally needs to recall, in moments of reprieve, that all these places take form from the same formlessness. Distinctions are not an illusion, but they are not fundamental either.

All this leads me to ask, of King Lear, what happens to Lear in the storm, after his daughters have shut their doors against him, and he, his Fool, and the loyal Kent (in disguise) are out upon the heath where “for many miles about, There’s scarce a bush.” At first, Lear is pure subjectivity, setting himself as a force of will against the will of the storm, daring it to do its worst. Later, in a moment of reprieve after the storm, he wears flows in his hair. Those flowers are believed by scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s few original stage directions; he seems to have meant something by those flowers. Eventually, after Cordelia’s armies have been defeated and she and he are being taken to prison, “We too will sing like birds i’th’cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask thee forgiveness.” The distinctions on which all depended in Act I, majesty and fealty, loving or unloving, endowed with wealth or without dowry, have blurred. In the cage blurs with being at court, which is its own kind of cage. There is the briefest glimpse of a life beyond distinctions.

Of course this reprieve doesn’t last. At the end, all that matters to Lear is the distinction whether Cordelia lives or not. Alive or not is the last, crucial distinction. Taoism, Ch’an, Stoicism are all about getting us past that distinction; the blurring of the life/death boundary is perhaps the crucial moment of what we can call enlightenment, as a word merely standing in for what language cannot express, because language is the arising of distinguishing. The beyond-distinction can have no name. Things merely are: the moon, the river, the egrets, the fish. Mind merely mirrors them, without distinction.

Wild, in Shakespeare and Health Humanities

I’ve been preparing to offer a workshop on King Lear next week in Tromso, Norway, and at the same time starting to read David Hinton’s new book, Awakened Cosmos (Shambhala, 2019). Hinton returns to and revises one of his earliest translations, Tu Fu (a.k.a. Du Fu in other translations; see especially David Young’s book). Each chapter presents one poem in Chinese characters with literal English translations of each, then Hinton’s translation, and finally a commentary of several pages. It’s a wonderful book, saying again what was said in Hunger Mountain (2012) and Existence (2016), but–and this is the point–there isn’t really that much else to say. What matters is how the poems, and the visual arts in Existence, might allow us actually to hear or see how little needs to be said, or can be said. Paradox is one of Hinton’s themes, as a crucial device of Ch’an teaching: how do you say something about what language cannot express? That idea exists in multiple forms in different traditions, from theology to Wittgenstein.

But my concern is reading Lear alongside Tu Fu, and the key word to that juxtaposition may be Hinton’s usage of wild. Hinton does not attempt to define wild but allows our sense of what he means develop through accumulated usages. In one passage that seems especially important, he writes of “wild forms” that “are not themselves part of our systems of human meaning.” That’s an idea we find elsewhere, but then Hinton adds a layer: “and since our linguistic human meaning-making is just one more of these forms, it too is wild and meaningless”–which seems another paradox. “Hence,” he concludes, adopting an uncharacteristically (ironically?) philosophical turn of speech, “the human is wild, and meaning is meaningless” (42). Tu Fu, at least one aspect of Ch’an, and Hinton’s own work, are about getting us not to nod in agreement at this reasoning, but internalize what wild implies, where it leads us, as a lived practice.

Lear is a terrifying play. It’s not just what humans are shown capable of doing–people do horrible things to each other in other plays. But in Lear there’s no bottom to it. Horatio calls upon flights of angels to sing Hamlet to his rest. No angels at the end of Lear, only the echo of Lear’s dying words: “Thou’lt come no more. Never, never, never, never, never” (V.3.326). No wonder the play was presented in rewritten form for 150 years, with Cordelia living to marry Edgar. The wild had to be tamed. That’s the issue we have to confront.

Maynard Mack, whose King Lear in Our Time I find most valuable, quotes approvingly Winifred Nowottny (1960), who writes: “The play is deeply concerned with the inadequacy of language to do justice to feeling or to afford any handhold against abysses of iniquity and suffering” (99). Wild, indeed. Lear is Shakespeare’s dark enigma, which is Hinton’s translation of the emptiness of mind that recognizes emptiness is itself a description, a form, an act of meaning making that is–in my understanding–an evasion of what is. Not what is as Presence, but what is before Presence divides from Absence.

This week I was also writing a blog posting for The Hastings Center and so thinking about bioethics, and I was engaged in conversations about health humanities. So I take these thoughts back to those pursuits. My recurring, comically recurring, objection to much of bioethics as well as much of social scientific research is its failure to reflect on how it positions itself in relation to the wild. Especially the banality of the policy or clinical practice recommendations with which research articles conclude. Well intentioned and often desirable as such recommendations are, they protect writers and readers from the wild that the observations risk opening up. In this denial, they obscure what they ought to make observable: the abysses of iniquity and suffering. Take abyss seriously, in what the word seeks to convey.

My current work depends on the hope that by bringing either Lear or Tu Fu into the conversations, bioethics and health humanities can at least resist acting to repress the wild. I seriously doubt if bioethics could be bioethics–could do its job–if it were, itself, wild. But I also don’t think it can do its job responsibly if it represses the wild, because human life at its extremes tips into the wild; it’s where we end up. That’s what Lear and Tu Fu’s poetry both show, in utterly different ways. Health humanities could be where the wild receives recognition, if we can learn wild reading. Perhaps, in the form of critical response to literature that is distinctive to health humanities, the crucial gesture is silence. But I’m an old man, and it’s winter.

Generosity in the 20s

So we all enter a new decade. I haven’t written recently, in part because of enjoying the holidays, and in part because I’ve been working hard to assimilate Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine (now reissued as Stay Illusion). I finally read this book just as my article “‘Who’s There?’ A Vulnerable Reading of Hamlet” appears in Literature and Medicine (37.2, Fall 2019, 396-419, currently online). If I’d read Critchley and Jameson earlier (the book appeared just as I submitted the manuscript), I would have written a different article. Which may be what makes Hamlet perennial: more than maybe any story, it never stops opening into different understandings. C&J read Hamlet very differently from Harold Bloom, but they left me thinking that Bloom’s title gets the point of it: Poem Unlimited. But that’s an apology and update, not what I want to write about today.

Everybody writes an op-ed on what to expect in the coming decade. I’m trying to hold together two back-pages stories that have been in my newspapers during the last month and one recent experience. The first news story was about the city of Vancouver levying a 12% increase in property tax, with most of the money going to infrastructure upgrades in anticipation of weather emergencies. Especially increasing storm sewer capacity. Not dramatic, until you need it, which I believe they’re correct in assuming they will. That, to me, exemplifies good government. Second, on my first visit of the new year to my doctor’s office, I was offered a petition to sign; it will be forwarded to the Alberta Medical Association, to present to the provincial government. The details are complicated and will change anyway, but the bottom line is that the Province wants to cut billings in primary care by 30%, at least as their opening bargaining position. So maybe they’ll eventually settle for a 15% cut. Whatever, it’s a lot of clinical time, and it’s indicative of social care budgets in the coming decade. The third story gets at what the Province is more worried about, which are “orphan wells”. These are oil wells of various sizes that have been abandoned by the companies that drilled them. Many of these companies are no longer in business. The wells are leeching toxicity into the ground; they need cleaning up. The bill is one of those unthinkable amounts of money. Allowing this situation to have happened exemplifies bad government. But the bill is coming due. Nobody wants to run for office on the slogan of making Alberta more toxic again, but it is becoming more toxic.

Welcome to the 2020s, and I’m sure each reader, wherever you are, has your equivalent local stories; well, maybe a few live in the more privileged countries that still escape having equivalent stories. It’s hard to imagine that the 2020s are going to be like the “roaring” 1920s; more like what Albertans call the dirty thirties. I keep thinking of the Alberta songwriter Ian Tyson’s line, “The good times now are gone.” I think about the question so many editorialists and commentators have asked in the recent years: how to avoid despair?

That takes me back to Simon Critchley, but this time to his earlier book, Infinitely Demanding. Critchley begins with how the 19th century framed its despair, which was Nietzsche’s question of how to avoid nihilism. Critchley divides the problem of nihilism into two responses: passive and active. Active nihilism is expressed in acts of terror, in which I’d now include the apparent acceptance of governments carrying out extra-judicial assassinations with full acknowledgment. “Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it, the passive nihilist,” Critchley writes, “focuses on himself and his projects for perfecting himself” (p. 4). Critchley elaborates a list of such projects, and I wonder whether my project of vulnerable reading belongs in that list. Of course the passive nihilist doesn’t accept the dichotomy of changing the world or perfecting oneself; instead, the latter is understood as necessary, to save the former from becoming the forms of violence that do change the world, but for the worse. I emphasize this is only the bare beginning of the more complex argument Critchley proceeds to develop–I plan to engage that argument elsewhere.

The perpetual risk of vulnerable reading is that it can become a project of passive nihilism, retreating from the need to effect good governance in the face of overwhelming demand, due in large part to past acts of collective imprudence. Blame should be apportioned for that imprudence, but blaming won’t clean up the orphan wells. Neither will reading Shakespeare.

But perhaps in reading Shakespeare, and others, we can find ways to live in despairing times without either the violences of active nihilism or the withdrawal of passive nihilism. By living with his stories, we can find new ways to tell our story so as to make it habitable. At least that seems a reasonable goal for those of us who are too old to dig storm sewers. In our present crisis of how to avoid nihilism, vulnerable reading is not a project of self perfection. Rather, it’s the work of group reincorporation, which may be what theatre has always been about. Changing the world may need to begin with a firm recognition that only the outward manifestation of our problems is new. We need respite from the present in order to return to it, and an active form of respite is seeing ourselves reflected in old stories. The good times have always been fleeting and poorly distributed. Looking back can be one form of moving on.

The Tao of Shakespeare?

Consider these two lines, so far removed from each other in time and culture. First, from King Lear, the anguished cry of the dispossessed and blinded Glouscester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). And from the Tao Te Ching: “Heaven and Earth are Inhumane: they use the ten thousand things like straw dogs” (David Hinton, trans., verse 5). The difference, and it’s a Big Difference, is that Gloucester is complaining about how the universe is ordered. Lao Tzu is telling us that’s how it is, and it’s nothing to complain about. Also, Lao Tzu situates humans among the other “ten thousand things”, which was a standard expression for saying everything. Gloucester seems to believe humans deserve special treatment; not so Lao Tzu.

Who is being mean to Gloucester? Within the play, Regan and Cornwall have gouged out his eyes and expelled him onto the heath, but on the next level it’s Shakespeare who’s putting this character through so much. Asking what Shakespeare is doing leads to the next lines in Tao, 5: “And the sage too is Inhumane: he uses the hundred-fold people like straw dogs.” Is Shakespeare inhumane? To express why not–and to realign our thinking along lines that seem to me to be necessary for encountering the particular humanity that Shakespeare both exemplifies and engenders–I turn to a commentary on a different verse from the Tao. Here is Yen Tsun, about whom I know nothing: “Free of love and hate, they [Sages] are not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. They are not the protector of truth or the adversary of falsehood. They support like the earth and cover like the sky” (quoted by Red Pine in his Tao Te Ching, verse 49). That, for me, describes Shakespeare.

It’s not that Shakespeare doesn’t have clear preferences about evil and good; we who attend Lear react with horror at the actions of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall, and we react with admiration to Edgar, Kent, and Cordelia. Yet what makes Lear worth calling profound is that as Shakespeare tells the tale, he is not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. Instead, Shakespeare’s business is to show what consequences follow from particular acts, depending on who gets involved as consequences play out. Contrast how Shakespeare tells the tale with how it’s told in his source material. In that telling, Cordelia lives at the end, marries Edgar, and the gods seem less liable to Gloucester’s complaint. And that’s how King Lear was revised and performed for over a century, after the theatres reopened during the Restoration. Both the original teller and the revisionists were enemies of evil and friends of the good, and that required an ending in which good wins.

I’m not much on understanding history as a progress narrative, but I do recognize the ability of audiences and readers to tolerate Shakespeare’s telling as a sign of collective maturity. To return to Gloucester, if we hear him with the Tao beside us, we understand that he’s empirically correct but misguided to complain against the gods. The gods, or Heaven and Earth, are not Inhumane in the same sense that humans who kill for sport are inhumane. Only humans can be inhumane, and to believe otherwise is to seriously misunderstand the order of things, which people do all the time. I’m thinking of people whose response to illness and other misfortunes is to ask why questions. My rejection of such questions is partial: we can’t blame everything on the inherent a-humanity of Heaven and Earth. Too many misfortunes are caused by other humans, sometimes intentionally but more often, I think, as collateral damage required to enact a business plan, whoever’s plan that is, in war, commerce, or family life.

What I’m dealing with is the on-going question of why I focus on Shakespeare as my exemplar of authors who lend themselves to vulnerable reading. In one sense the choice of Shakespeare is arbitrary, but I’m inclined to believe there’s something about Will, and what Yen Tsun says about sages gets at what that is. Vulnerable reading is about finding your place in the order of things, when that place is not where you want to be. That’s the illness problem, in a nutshell. I don’t say refinding because for many people, their previous and quite functional sense of place was a tacit default position, much like Gloucester’s unreflective sense of entitlement before his downfall. Illness can require a new sort of active finding–which over the years is what keeps it interesting for me.

In the end, the play’s end, Gloucester dies knowing that his son Edgar is alive and might make it through the horror. Lear dies with Cordelia dead in his arms, possibly hoping she might possibly still live. But we know that stretches possibility too far. Shakespeare knows better. Heaven and Earth are not like that. For the master storyteller, the characters are straw dogs, and the story shows us how to live with that.

Homeopathic Tragic Theatre

Once again there’s been a gap in this blog, partially due to travel and family commitments, but also because I keep forgetting that this blog isn’t about me saying anything. Rather, it’s about sharing quotations, especially, that I want to share. So let me take up a book that I imagine few people read these days, Maynard Mack’s King Lear In Our Time, published in 1965, my first year in university. If Mack is best remembered as one of the founding editors of the Norton anthologies, that misses the depth of his own critical writings–critical in both senses. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that draws me to the literary scholars who were prominent in my early days. They had a different understanding of what scholarship was for, and who it was for. Dare I say, a broader view. Kenneth Burke’s phrase literature as equipment for living might summarize this view. But as always, an example is better than a description.

Mark writes: “In what kind of world do we go on a mysterious journey of which we do not altogether understand the reason, arrive in places whose topography seems to be psychological and spiritual, commit actions and make gestures which have a profound ritual meaning, face logical improbabilities and indeed impossibilities with total equanimity, all in the company of persons whose reality is absolute yet seems to consist in something beyond themselves which after the experience is ended we can no longer recapture? In what world do people and events possess circumstantial reality for each of us, yet at the same time … function ‘really’ as huge cloudy symbols of a history generic to all human beings…” (78).

I don’t find writing like that in recent Shakespeare scholarship; maybe I’m reading the wrong people, but I think times have changed. I won’t begin to unpack the quotation phrase by phrase; I offer it as something worth contemplating for a while. But I will say something about what kind of world Mack describes. He goes on to say it’s a dream world, which it is, but it’s also the sort of dream that the best theatre creates. Specifically, it’s the world of King Lear, as an experience of theatre. But as you might have already guessed, given my obsessions, for me it’s also an uncanny description of the world of illness, or a description of how illness precipitates uncanny experiences. It’s the world of the quest narrative, as I called it in The Wounded Storyteller. The quest narrative isn’t only different claims about what it is to be ill. It’s experiencing illness on a different plane of experience and signification, those two being intertwined. It’s a different topography, in Mack’s phrase.

This leads me to consider how what I call vulnerable reading–to which Mack’s statement is a fine epigraph–does its work, and maybe how narrative medicine works. We enter a literary world that condenses and intensifies the ‘real’ world we struggle to inhabit. Being in that second-order world has a medicinal effect that can be suggested by the metaphor of homeopathy: treating like with a small dose of like. It’s not that the sufferings of the characters in Lear have direct analogies to the sufferings of people in the theatre of health care. It’s that we, real people, can recognize ourselves differently after spending time in the theatre of Lear. It’s not catharsis, as differently understood as that term is. It’s more a pedagogy, to return to a word I’ve often leaned on when I was hard pressed to express a form of supportive relationship.

The pedagogue was, I’m told, originally less a tutor than someone who walked the child to school; a sort of older companion in the literal journey of education. The pedagogue guided and maybe protected. Accompanied by the pedagogue, I imagine the child being able to relax and take in aspects of the journey that might otherwise be missed. But I’m probably pushing my own agenda onto an ancient practice. What I want to say is that the pedagogue of my imagination held the child, in D.W. Winnicott’s sense of holding as offering a foundational security that makes exploration seem safe in a world of unforeseeable hazards.

Homeopathic theatre allows us to experience, from the comparative safety of our seats, a world that is both magical and yet even more real. It allows us to see both the circumstantial and the generic, in Mack’s words. It enables doing something that we should not take for granted: experiencing, when what is being experienced is beyond unwanted.

Harold Bloom’s Late Style

Far more knowledgable people than I have written memorials to Harold Bloom, whose death left me with a sense of a hole in the world. I feel his absence, although I never met him. Ever since I was an undergraduate I’ve had Bloom’s books on my shelf, but I scarcely read them until I started studying Shakespeare several years ago. I don’t know if Bloom is my favourite critic of Shakespeare, but he may be the most prolific and reliably insightful, for my purposes. Bloom affirms my belief that we read literature for a combination of pleasure, fascination, and edification that can be called moral. Just as Shakespeare is always about getting people to come to the theatre (and pay for their tickets), Bloom never loses sight of reading as something people choose to do, in a world that offers other choices. He helps me understand what I want, and maybe even need, from Shakespeare, or the Bible, or whatever he was writing about–why I should choose them.

Bloom helps me articulate a different version of late style than what Edward Said proposes, which I have written about in earlier postings. My paradigms of late style are painting, especially the late Turner, in which recognizable figures–ancient ruins, mountains, ships, and coastlines–disappear, leaving us with colour, swirling on the canvas, evoking without representing. I also think of the late works of Titian, which evoked questions of whether the paintings were unfinished, or maybe the old master was losing his eyesight. In Bloom’s last books, the Shakespeare’s Personalities series, more than half of each volume is quotation from Shakespeare. The critic is present but seems to be fading away. After I wrote an earlier posting about the volume on King Lear, I realized how unconvincing my quotations from Bloom became, once taken out of the context of his long quotations. To read each book is like watching a performance of Shakespeare with Bloom sitting next to you, and during intervals when the actors go silent, he comments on what you might choose to notice. His late style is to be the voice beside you, speaking just above a whisper, telling you just enough. As opposed to critics who want to take centre stage and shout down the actors who perform the play. Bloom, at least the late Bloom, never usurps. In the fewest brushstrokes he captures what is essential.

If I ever write my joke book, it will definitely include the one told by the family therapist Paul Watzlawick. This huge ocean freighter has a knock in the engine, and the company calls in the expert on such engines–they’re losing vast amounts of money from the ship sitting at the dock. He wanders around the engine room for some time, looking and listening, and finally he takes a small hammer out of his pocket and taps a couple of times in a particular place. The knocking stops. Then we get the Pied Piper narrative. He sends the company a bill for $2000 (the joke is from the 1960s). They demur, asking him to itemize his services. He sends a second invoice: “For tapping on the engine, $.50. For knowing where to tap, $1999.50.” Late style is knowing where to tap.

The same point in made in Laurence Olivier’s advice to the young actor, that she might have gotten twice the effect with half the effort. Actors can take for granted knowing what “the effect” is and why they want it. Academics are often less clear what effect they seek. Harold Bloom, in his later works, seemed to know exactly who he was writing for: those who might come to love literature, and especially its characters, as much as he did, if they listened to him. The effect he sought was to make us want to read, and to live more fully with what we read.

Harold Bloom may be dead, but his books are all over my floor; they resist being shelved. The spirit that emanates from those books will, I hope, remind me to think about how little I need to say, and to speak more softly. That will not get my writing placed in scholarly journals, whose referees encourage exactly the opposite. A risk of late style is to raise questions about whether you’re losing it, or your work is simply unfinished. At the end of the joke about the engine knocking, it’s worth noticing that we’re left with a silence that is anything but empty. It’s exactly what we need, all we need. And we’re grateful.