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While the World Burns

Today I have a clear view of the Rocky Mountains; a week ago, the smoke from fires in Oregon and south affected us: for a couple of days, we had an air quality alert. Fires don’t care about international borders; smoke doesn’t care. Compared to life down there, we’re lucky. I have often thought of Calgarians as being like Tolkein’s hobbits in their Shire, gloriously oblivious to the grand conflicts around them. But the smoke blows up here, too, reminding us what we’re part of. Climate emergency and political crisis, which also blows up here from the south, are part of our lives, and we are responsible.

In such times, I make yet another attempt to reread Heidegger. Who?!? you say–did I mean Heidegger, the most unrepentant of ex-Nazis, a philosopher most obscure in his generalities…him? For me, at my age, Heidegger’s fall into Nazi collusion, which I believe was both personal and philosophical, is a reminder of the ever present potential of any system of thought to be used for evil as for good. The key word in that last sentence is system. It’s when thought is systematized that it becomes dangerous. Heidegger wants to present a system of thought, but he also offers a critique of systems of thought.

I’ve sought many guides to Heidegger over the years, because for me, his work requires guidance. My current guide is Mark Wrathall’s little book, How To Read Heidegger, in the how-to-read series edited by Simon Critchley. Wrathall begins each chapter with a couple of page extract from Heidegger’s writing, and then he explains it. I am most appreciative. What, then, does Heidegger via Wrathall help us with, in terms of understanding our current vulnerability? And by the end of this post, how can we better understand what we need from Shakespeare, in our vulnerable condition?

Wrathall begins with what Heidegger means by saying that humans live in multiple worlds. A world, in this sense, is “a particular style of organizing our activities and relations with the things and people around us” (20). To understand our current crises, whether these involve climate, or lack of political leadership, or racial conflict, we need to see each issue as part of a world that first instigates this crisis and then makes it difficult to respond. Response is difficult because we still are enmeshed in the style of organizing our activities and relations that produced the crisis. Example: a little more than a mile west of our house, the Province of Alberta is building a large bridge over the Bow River, as part of an expanded ring-road project, so yet more vehicles can drive around Calgary, heading west (it’s a marvel of technology and seductively fascinating to watch being built). The not-so-old bridge will become east-bound only; the new bridge will be west-bound. A world is the way of seeing, relating to, and finally acting that makes that bridge seem necessary. In the present world called Alberta, building it as a rail bridge is unthinkable, a non-starter. We need a bridge for cars and trucks. Some people, in their worlds, need a conviction of racial superiority, and in more people’s worlds during the last decade, they are willing to be self-conscious and public about that. Simply proclaiming a different world in opposition to theirs will only intensify conflict. You have to begin by understanding the world that makes such thinking, relating, and acting not just possible but necessary, their world. To get ahead of myself, Shakespeare is noted for making the most awful characters’ worlds plausible. His significant talent was for taking multiple points of view, or in Heidegger’s terms, provisionally inhabiting multiple worlds.

A second of Heidegger’s concepts is mood. “Heidegger is pointing to the way that while we are in a mood,” Wrathall writes, “everything shows up as having a certain unified ‘tone’ or ‘flavour’ or ‘feel'”. Moods “do this by deciding for us what will be salient in a given situation” (36). Moods establish salience. Here we get to what is for me, after a career of teaching sociology, the most interesting problem: “The way things matter to us, Heidegger says, is not something we are free to decide, but is imposed on us by the way the world is arranged and the ways that we are disposed for the world” (36). The way things matter to us–that’s the crux. Here my example can be why bioethics, so far as I can tell, has had so little impact on actual clinical practice in medicine. How healthcare professionals do this activity of medicine is disposed–they are disposed to act–by the way their world, the physical spaces of hospitals and clinics, is arranged: what’s there for use, and how the things they use are at hand. Settings impose, a verb to take seriously. Things at hand impose and then dispose for further use. That disposition includes what people consider salient: what matters, what counts, and what is effectively invisible, including sometimes pain. Effecting change requires about affecting mood, which is formed in material circumstances, amid things that are arranged.

Three is enough for a blog posting, so third and last I turn to art: the work of art, in the sense of what distinctive work art does. On Heidegger’s account, art works by uncovering. Uncovering is his translation of the Greek word that’s usually translated as truth. One of Heidegger’s most useful tactics is to turn substantive nouns into verbs; to emphasize that what’s involved is not a substance, as in the truth, but a process, as in continuing uncovering. It can make Heidegger’s writing confusing at first, but Shakespeare does the same thing, as Philip Davis has pointed out. A book of my formative youth was Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to Be a Verb, which is a great title.

“Works of art help us to grasp the character of a world,” Wrathall writes, glossing Heidegger (75). “The art work shows us the essence of the thing purely and simply, so free of distraction or adornment that we can see what is really at stake in the world” (83, emphases added). To see what is really at stake, and at the same time, to see what others, living in their worlds, believe is really at stake, as their worlds dispose what they are able to see.

The tyrant creates a world based on fear and its corollary necessities. Tyrants understand, intuitively, that humans need worlds perpetually reconstructed for them. It’s remarkably easy to guide that reconstruction so that the tyrant appears necessary as the only possible remedy to the fears that same tyrant has not invented, but rather has exploited and made central to people’s world. Art, including Shakespeare as a paramount example, can uncover what a world conceals. Art may be the best available human means of uncovering.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are simple as storytelling for an audience that was mostly illiterate and had to get it the first time through. It’s why the plays are constructed from folk-tale motifs and recognizable character types. There are also infinite complexities that require later reading, but the action is right out there, in the audience’s face. And the action, with help from the language, uncovers. Many, maybe even all, the plots hinge on layers of uncovering. Shakespeare uncovers weakness and evil, prejudice and fear, forgiveness and joy. Participating in one of the plays–staying with the story over a couple of hours of sustained engagement–is a form of therapy. A therapy of stripping away and restoring: entrenched dispositions are stripped away, and we are restored to seeing possibilities that were obscured. Shakespeare offers no system. He does what Heidegger argues language does: he shows us pictures, sometimes of tyrants and sometimes of true love. His pictures uncover.

Thus Heidegger helps me understand how Shakespeare works, and why his work has a claim on us, not as time out from the crises of the moment, but as what we need to encounter those crises in their multi-perspectival complexity.

Interdependence in Motion

Once upon a time, I’d guess 1989 or 90, I was at a conference attended by some former students of Kenneth Burke (1887-1993). One asked another how the old man was doing, and the reply was that Burke was bitter, because he felt that many “new” ideas that were circulating were little more than what he’d written years ago, and he wasn’t being properly recognized. At the time, what little I knew about Burke was mostly from reading Goffman, who drew heavily upon Burke’s idea (which he credits to Aristotle) that what we think of as motives depend on distinct rhetorical presentations; motivation is less an internal state than an effect of self-presentation. I only actually read Burke recently, specifically the volume of his disparate writings on Shakespeare, collected by Scott Newstok. Burke isn’t fun reading for me; his thoughts seem to outrun his pen. But I have to place him among those few authors who have changed the way I read. And after all these years, I now agree that his sense of not being properly recognized was fair enough.

Burke argues that we tend toward what he calls a novelistic reading of Shakespearean drama. In reading that way, we miss the drama, the push and pull. If we read as if we were audience members, what we see are characters playing parts that are required by a plot, and each’s part takes shape in relation to the other characters. Consider what Burke writes about Coriolanus, and if you don’t know that play (it’s about ancient Rome), fill in his name and the other characters’ names with characters from whatever story you like; there’s a generalizable principle here. Or fill them in with players in a medical drama: patient, doctor, nurse, worried family member, clinical student, technician. All these people are playing parts in their understanding of what the plot is. Burke writes:

“The citizens [of ancient Rome] have the mixture of distress, resentment, and instability that enables them to help Coriolanus get into the kind of quandaries necessary for him to enact his role. As for the Tribunes, besides their function in making Coriolanus’ bluster look admirable in comparison with their scheming, they serve to carry the play forward by goading him into the rage that leads to his banishment, and thus eventually (as one thing leads to another) to his death.” There’s much I love in those lines: the idea that we each help others to enact their roles, as we ourselves are helped; that drama is always about carrying forward, the never ceasing movement of life; and Burke’s understanding of narrative as being about one thing leading to another. But then he writes what I appreciate most: “All told, in being the kind of characters they are, the other figures help Coriolanus be the kind of character he is; and by their actions at precisely the times when they do act, they help lead the appointed…victim to the decision required, by the logic of the plot, for his downfall” (136-37).

What Burke characterizes as novelistic understanding (which may be unfair to readers of novels) is taking characters as individuals who have self-contained identities, although of course as they bounce off each other, different things happen. Coriolanus isn’t who he is, except insofar as other characters help him (in Burke’s ironic usage) to be that person, and this person is whom the plot requires, if the play is to move forward, relentlessly. Not only are characters brought into being through dialogical relations, but the dialogue is always in motion, speeding up and slowing down. The challenge is not only whether we can read with that in mind; it’s whether we can experience our own lives, with their relationships and plots, as interdependencies in motion. Living during a pandemic should make that easier, and maybe some people’s pandemic panic results from being brought up against the recognition that none of their choices is or can be entirely their own. That shouldn’t be scary, but for many people, it is.

“And when he is threatening to lead an army against Rome,” Burke writes about Coriolanus, “he does not know himself” (140). For me that recalls Regan’s line about her father, Lear: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (I.1.308-9). Is it too gross a generalization to say that the Shakespearean drama is always a drama of self-knowledge, and the effects of whether it is slender or sufficient? The plot’s tension is whether self-knowledge can be attained before something inestimably valuable is lost. That goes all the way back to Oedipus, who literally doesn’t know who he is, and maybe further back: Achilles only realizes who he is when he gives Hector’s body to Priam. In the present, the writers of illness memoirs realize how partial their previous knowledge of themselves had been; these too are dramas of self-knowledge. But because these narratives are memoirs, as a novelistic genre of story, most writers don’t go as far as Burke in realizing how other characters “help” them to enact their parts in…what? In dramas where the tension is between different characters’ commitments to different plots: who is willing to go how far to make the action to lead where.

Burke radicalizes my understanding of how vulnerable humans are in our dependence on others who shape–Burke’s “help”–the characters we enact, and in that enactment, become. In Coriolanus, the characters help the protagonist to his destruction, which makes that a tragedy. In As You Like It, Rosalind helps Orlando to become the character whom she marries; that’s comedy. In the forward movement of our own lives, who is helping toward what?

Mysteries of Fragility

“The play conceals a mystery” (42). That’s the Romanian theatre director Aureliu Manea (1945-2014), from the recently published collection of his writings, Imaginary Performances in Shakespeare (Routledge, 2020). I’m not nearly competent to assess Manea’s contributions to theatrical performance. I write about how, as he imagines productions of different Shakespearean plays, he appeals to the vulnerable reader, or vulnerable theatre goer, because Manea clearly distinguishes experiencing performance from reading. “Ordinary reading is unsatisfactory” (69), he writes; “Like a layer of snow, the words written by the playwright conceal future fruits.” As Manea writes about how he would stage different plays, he suggests–he wouldn’t want to do more than to suggest–these fruits. His constant theme is mystery: the mystery of theatrical performance that can transform a text that “has something apparently cold about it” (69) into performances that live not only on the stage, but in the experience of the audience participants.

When Manea writes that ordinary reading is unsatisfactory, he is not going in the direction of suspicious readings. That way of reading is given a thorough discussion in Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary, and I won’t go off on that now. Against the background of academic “critical” suspicion, Manea can seem almost naive in some of his understandings. About The Merchant of Venice, he writes: “I do not see any Jewish problem in this text” (7). Manea’s Prospero in The Tempest is not the colonialist, patriarchal figure some now understand him to be, but someone who “dedicates his final wonder to his beloved daughter” (11). In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio comes to liberate Katherine from her stultifying family, not to gaslight her into submission to himself. “The process of becoming, accompanied by music and strange gestures, will symbolise the birth of a free soul,” he writes about how he imagines staging Shrew. “Everything will be enveloped in mystery, as if it were something difficult and cumbersome, a forging of new relationships between man and world, between man and his fellow man” (49). The gender biased language in that quotation probably isn’t innocent, and Manea’s claims for what some consider Shakespeare’s “toxic” plays should certainly give us pause and maybe offend us. Maybe I’m being too generous in looking elsewhere, at what’s of immense value in his imagined performances.

The job of Petruchio in Shrew is to wake up Katherine, whom Manea understands as a Cinderella character. Or better yet, as I understand his argument, Briar Rose, who sleeps in a castle that is spell-bound in time, until she is awakened…–and that’s the problem: it’s another story about a woman needing a man to wake her up. Can we get past that to a human dilemma: we of all genders need someone, or something, to wake us up; the soul needs awakening, and constant reawakening. That goes back to Joseph Campbell’s idea of the great mythic tension between stasis (Briar Rose’s sleep or the dragon’s hoarding) and renewal brought by the hero.

For reasons I don’t understand, Manea doesn’t understand Rosalind in As You Like It as playing this hero role; he passes her by, which I regret. Nor does he discuss Cymbeline, in which Imogen exemplifies the hero who revitalizes a moribund court and country. He does imagine a properly heroic role for Viola in Twelfth Night: “In my production, Viola will arrive here in Illyria through a tunnel in time. She will be dressed in the fashion of the unknown…. She is a vulnerable being, so delicately frail that we feel an urge to protect her. After her arrival, things will carry on as if nothing has happened, but at the same time, imperceptible changes begin to alter the age-old provincial way of life” (54). Yet it ends sadly: “Swallowed by the city, Viola will follow the path of sacrifice out of too great a love for man” (55).

I simply don’t know how Manea can recognize this about Viola, but not apply the same insight to Katherine in Shrew. But he’s an artist: he sees his imagined production. He sees Viola one way, and Katherine another. That, so far as I am learning, is what it is to be a director. And the production then has to make his way of seeing compelling for his audience. I’d love to have seen his Shrew, if he ever staged it. Maybe he does me the greater service by leaving me to imagine his production.

All this is about vulnerable reading on several levels. The distinguished philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote a book called The Enigma of Illness that disappointed me, because as I read, at the time I read it, I missed him developing the sense of enigma that overlaps with Manea’s sense of mystery. In the enigma of care, specifically in hospitals, the drama of stasis and renewal is endlessly played out, but the ending is often that the patient, who arrives like Viola in Illyria, frail yet capable of instigating change, ends up being swallowed by the institution. Physicians and nurses are too often like the Petruchio who violently gaslights Katherine, depriving her of rest and sustenance until she submits to his view of reality, and not like Manea’s Petruchio who “should resemble the enchanters in Fellini’s films, those strange directors, those seekers of the beautiful, wandering through utterly ordinary towns, true creators of modern enchantments” (48). As usual, I ask far too much of people who are, especially now, not only overworked but literally endangered. This is an especially poor moment to desire a recognition of the enigma that illness is. But such poor moments are also the best moments, because that’s when everyone realizes their shared vulnerabilities, and when institutionally proclaimed certainties are shakiest and most readily questioned.

Here’s Manea’s other contribution to vulnerable reading. He reminds us that we should never stop looking for enchantment, beauty, the casting off of “an unfavourable guise” and the “true arraying of the body” (49). I cannot ignore, but I can set aside, Manea’s occasional indifference to the toxicity in Shakespeare when I read the following, and consider a life dedicated to offering people experiences that might reawaken them: “The mission will be the more wonderful the closer it comes to the stars. It is true that we do not always grasp that the sky above us is starry. But that is why there is art, in order to reveal such truths” (70).

Two Modes of Consolation

Vulnerable readers, whose needs are the topic of this blog, need consolation. I realize how, without much thought, I have defined vulnerability as a need for consolation. My question has then been what sorts of consolation can be offered by reading generally, and by participating in Shakespeare specifically. So, imagine my sense of anticipation when I saw that the Folger Shakespeare Library has in its excellent podcast series Shakespeare Unlimited an episode titled “Shakespeare and Solace”, posted online last April. It’s an unusual episode, longer than most and including multiple contributors rather than a single interviewee. Michael Witmore, the current Folger director, and Gail Kern Paster, Director Emerita, are interviewed by regular host Barbara Bogaev, with contributions from multiple actors, directors, and other previous guests on the podcast. I recommend listening to it; some of the readings from Shakespeare are wonderful to hear.

What interests me in this posting is how, as I listened, I realized that I hadn’t distinguished between two complementary but significantly different ways that people find solace in Shakespeare–how the plays console. I realized that how I look for consolation in the plays is not how most people find solace. That difference is my topic.

Both Paster and Witmore speak of specific lines as a source of consolation. Paster: “lines emerge in your head or they come out of your mouth without you’re ever really thinking.” Witmore follows by saying: “I tend to think of short phrases. They sometimes jump out at me, and they’re not really…what I want to hear from them or not the same as what they mean in the passage” (ellipsis in original transcript). What I think he’s getting at, although they don’t specify it, is the difference between how Shakespeare’s words and phrases can sound out of context, versus how we understand them as spoken by a particular character who’s in a specific situation. Let me offer an example that is not in the podcast, but it speaks to both solace in Shakespeare’s lines and the difference between a line in or out of context.

In David Schalkwyk’s Hamlet’s Dreams: The Robben Island Shakespeare, he quotes Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, where Mandela talks about the solace he found in Shakespeare’s line, “Be absolute for death; for either death or life shall be the sweeter.” In prison, facing the possibility of death every day, Mandela lived the truth he found in this line. But, the line’s from a speech in Measure for Measure, and in that context, it’s layered in complicity. The Duke, disguised as a Friar, tells Claudio to be absolute for death. The disguise is one level of falseness. Another level is that the Duke has no intention of letting Claudio die; he has a plan that will rescue him (although that doesn’t work out as he anticipates, but that’s another issue). And then it matters that Claudio rejects the speech, and his speech about the utter finality of death possibly trumps the Duke’s eloquence, especially because Claudio is actually scheduled to be executed. Schalkwyk describes the context as the Duke’s “cynical manipulation of Claudio” (64), which sums it up well. And then, after discussing another of Mandela’s favourite lines from Shakespeare, Schalkwyk concludes, and I agree: “Mandela pays little attention to the context of the speeches from which he draws his lessons or comforts” (65). But that isn’t a mistake Mandela makes; it’s not a shallowness of reading. Instead, and going back to what Witmore says about lines out of context, how Mandela uses Shakespeare is more than fine: he takes what he needs, and Shakespeare lends his words to that purpose.

Paster’s example is the Duke in As You Like It saying “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” She adds that in the play, “it comes off as sheer rationalization,” which might be a bit strong but she knows far more than I. What she adds is a fine example of vulnerable reading: “I think for those of us who are trying to cope with isolation and solitude, we better find the sweet uses of adversity or else we’ll be really in a bad place.” Her context is speaking about a month into the lockdown resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, a time when everyone was learning a whole new dimension of vulnerability in their lives, as we still are when I write this.

The complementary but different form of consolation finds its source not in individual lines from Shakespeare but rather from the adaptability of Shakespeare’s stories, most of which are already adaptations. I’ve written (in Literature and Medicine) about how the character of Hamlet consoles, on the one hand, by mirroring the plight of someone who is thrown into a situation of irresolvable conflict, and on the other hand, Hamlet also consoles by being a cautionary example of how not to respond when finding oneself suddenly vulnerable. Or to go back to Measure for Measure, in a short piece I co-authored in the medical journal The Lancet, we write about how the play describes different characters’ struggles to maintain integrity in situation of endemic craziness, and as such, the story can be a survival guide to those who work in hospitals. In reading for the story, if individual lines are remembered, they matter as part of telling that story, although that story can morph into one’s own story.

The consolation of what we can call reading for the story can take the form of fan fiction, which has a considerable tradition in the production of Shakespeare. Until the mid-18th century, those performing Shakespeare felt free to rewrite to an extent we today would find simply wrong. Mostly famously, the poet Nahum Tate revised King Lear so that Cordelia lives, marries Edgar, and reigns as Queen. That version (1681) remained the standard performance text for a century and a half (although Tate died in hiding from his creditors, so maybe some higher power disapproved). My point is that any reader of Shakespeare can adapt the story to fit her or his needs: write yourself a new part in the story, or adapt a character to be your alter ego and change how she or he acts. Make the story be what your consolation requires. You will be doing a version of what Shakespeare did, and as long as you’re not planning on producing your version in public, there’s no criterion of how well you do your adaptation.

I was writing recently to a friend who’s a therapist. I compared the space in which therapy takes place to the Forest of Arden, from As You Like It. The Forest of Arden is not filled with spirits–no Puck or Ariel–but it has its own magic. The deposed Duke and later his exiled daughter Rosalind go there in desperation. Rosalind plays with her identity: she dresses as a young man, Ganymede; for a while, she is a man, albeit a man whose main occupation is to teach another man how to properly love the woman whom he is infatuated with, who is of course Rosalind. You go to the Forest of Arden in your complete vulnerability; it shelters you, and it offers a space for identity play that becomes transformation. It is being in the Forest that consoles. Not quoting the story, but being in the story, as a space that holds you and frees you–the freedom depends on the holding.

People need both modes of consolation, reading for lines and reading for the story; both have value. But it’s useful to recognize their difference.

Time, Death, and the Perfect Novel

In Jane Tompkins’s Reading Through the Night she offers a lovely description of how she felt after reading a memoir: “And when I finished it, I wanted to read it again. I wanted to remain within the aura of the book. And I wanted to discover why it fascinated me so” (24). Why it fascinated me so–maybe that’s as good a short phrase description as I’ll find of whatever method informs what I’m trying to do. Figuring out why a book so fascinates me may require a form of close reading–asking exactly what happens, exactly where in the text–but this close reading is in the service of a project that Tompkins describes as looking for how a book “could help me live my own life” (33).

I write today wanting to remain within the aura of Daniel Kehlmann’s 2005 novel Measuring the World. It’s an historical novel about the German Enlightenment and the parallel careers of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. The novel has been much praised and translated, and I needn’t add to that. I want to ask Tompkins’s question, or at least begin to ask it. I’m not a science person. My resolutions to read books about science peter out with depressing consistency. It’s a sort of habitus thing: I just can’t get myself to make it a priority, a choice within a life that requires choosing. So my engagement in a book about two scientists is worth reflection. Kehlmann’s art as a storyteller is to make Humboldt’s and Gauss’s respective obsessions not just credible but habitable: we live within those obsessions–vicarious living at its limit–and very strange choices become more than reasonable. These characters live the only way they could live, and we readers now know that as necessity.

Let me single out two passages that affect me especially. Both can be quoted without spoilers. In the first and briefer, a journalist is interviewing Humboldt’s traveling companion and colleague, Bonpland. “So why,” the journalist asks, “had he remained this man’s collaborator through all these trials, for years on end?” Bonpland thinks of many reasons; the journalist asks for an example. “Well, said Bonpland, he’d simply always wanted to get away from La Rochelle. Then one thing led to another. Time went by so ridiculously fast” (168). The journalist replies that isn’t an answer. For me, it’s exactly the answer; the irreducible answer to most of the why questions about my life. I often wanted to get away from something, not necessarily a place, then one thing led to another, and time has gone by so ridiculously fast. Reading Bonpland’s reply, my life flashes before my eyes. I realize why my father, when he was about my present age, started talking about a sense of the inevitability of decisions in his life. Which, if inevitable, shouldn’t really be called decisions, a word that misses the point Bonpland is making. The journalist wants to hear about decisions. Bonpland has a more subtle understanding,

The second passage is longer. Humboldt, now old and much honoured, concludes an after dinner speech to a collection of dignitaries. For someone obsessed with measurement, he waxes philosophical.

“What, ladies and gentlemen, is death?” Humboldt asks, not rhetorically. “Fundamentally it is not extinction and those seconds when life ends, but the slow decline that precedes it, that creeping debility that extends over years: the time in which a person is still there and yet not there, in which he can still imagine that although his prime is long since past, it lingers yet. So circumspectly, ladies and gentlemen, has nature organized our death” (225).

What backs up these words within the novel is that we see the older Humboldt still very much in the world, doing a great deal, yet increasingly not there. He takes a final trip, collecting plants and minerals across Russia, reaching the Chinese border. At one point his entourage–he now, inevitably, has an entourage–put masks over their faces to protect from the mosquitos. Humboldt doesn’t. “They didn’t disturb him,” Kehlmann writes; “they reminded him of his youth and the months [discovering rivers in South America] when he had felt most alive in his entire existence” (243). When, I ask, was that for me, and how doubtful I am now of feeling that way again. That is what is called old age. Not that it’s a bad way to feel; it’s just another way of feeling, inevitable.

Humboldt is honoured because he went places that others had the excellent good judgment not to go. Gauss went places others could not imagine. I’d like to see one of the many edited volumes on research methods end with a short coda, asking the presumably young reader: So, realize that how you utilize any of these methods will bring success depending on these final questions: exactly how far are you willing to go? What are you willing to sacrifice and suffer for the journey (although if you need time to consider this question, reconsider going)? Above all, must you go? Research, not only science, Kehlmann’s novel reminds me, is what some people must do to feel most alive, and that feeling is the final measure of the research.

Can Occasions Think?

Paul Krugman used to add a parenthesis to the title of some of his New York Times economics columns warning the reader to expect “geekish”. This blog posting may be my most abstract to date, but the implications of the issue are real, especially in my longterm quest to understand what happens in clinical encounters.

I begin for the third posting in a row (and it will stop after this) with the writing of Philip Davis, this time from his book Shakespeare Thinking. That title is literal: Davis’s project is to show how Shakespeare’s language creates spaces in which though is elicited; at the extreme, how Shakespeare creates, or generates, or even evolves the possibility of thinking, which sounds hyperbolic, until you see Davis showing how it happens. But let’s begin with something easier to hold onto. Here’s an observation that restates what others have suggested about Shakespeare:

“Shakespeare is closer to Renaissance tricks of double perspective. For the shape of a thing depends on the perspective–shift it ever so slightly and the ‘object’ changes. So, Edgar on Dover cliff [in King Lear] has different perspectives in the same painting. In that sense Shakespeare is more like a cubist in action: taking multiple points of view almost simultaneously until it is not two or three people separately inserted into one solidly external situational container so much as two or three reciprocally overlapping situations within one complex blended happening” (Davis, Shakespeare Thinking, p. 86).

Now imagine, please, a familiar hospital scene: a patient in bed, a physician standing over the bed, delivering news maybe about test results or whether a treatment is succeeding, a nurse standing slightly back, and a family member on the other side of the bed from the physician. Apply what Davis says about Shakespeare: “it is not two or three people separately inserted into one solidly external situational container so much as two or three reciprocally overlapping situations within one complex blended happening.” Most healthcare studies of what’s called “doctor-patient communication” assume the narrational privilege of one actor, the physician, and measure how well the patient understands and retains the information conveyed by that physician. More enlightened studies go further, recognizing that each person in this situation has her or his own interests and agenda; each not only comprehends (or not) the content of information, each assesses and interprets what is said, including messages that are enacted, not spoken (Goffman’s signs given off, beyond signs consciously given). Davis calls upon us to understand the situation as more complex still: “three reciprocally overlapping situations within one complex blended happening.”

The ethical question this raises–at least ethical is the best I can think to call it, although the word seems inadequate; should I just say human?–is whether the participants in this situation can each remain self-aware that the other participants do not share their perspective. Something beyond empathy (a word I seek to avoid) is involved here; it’s rather an awareness of the limits of fellow-feeling, the limits of what George Herbert Mead called taking the role of the other. To return to Davis’s metaphor, can we put ourselves inside a Cubist painting and live with the fracturing of the lines that, in normal perception, make the scene around us cohere?

Davis continues, and here is where I find his thinking going beyond anything I remember from all that sociologists have written about interaction and situational framing: “It is as though the occasion itself, like a living thing, knows nothing about the parts within itself being separate or, at least, thinking themselves to be so. It is we who habitually think in terms of subject and object…” (86, my emphases). Sociologists have talked for nearly a century about how people define situations. Goffman showed how situations frame interaction, but that only shifted the emphasis from human actors actively defining to definitions being culturally given as resources for humans. What Davis offers is the idea of the situation itself as one of the actors, like a living thing. But this thing is not fully self aware. It cannot understand that the people in it think themselves to be separate: subjects perceiving others as objects of their perception.

In what I think was one of the great observations of clinical medical practice, Anatole Broyard pointed out that his doctor did not realize that as he was examining Broyard, so also Broyard was examining him. Or Montaigne asking whether, as he played with his cat, the cat understood itself to be playing with him.

Neither Davis nor I is doing philosophy, so we don’t aim at a resolution. What I at least want is a change in perspective, or an opening to multiple perspectives. Decades ago Alfred Schutz wrote about multiple perspectives, drawing in part on William James. There’s nothing new here. It’s more a question of whether we can ever take seriously what’s been recognized all along. Whether it’s Edgar and his father on the Dover cliff in King Lear or an everyday hospital room consultation, there’s a dramatic tension that makes all the difference. Edgar actually can–he has the grace to be able to–see the cliff from above (the perspective he’s playing, for his father, Gloucester), from below (the perspective of Gloucester who believes he has fallen), and no cliff at all (which is reality to anyone observing them). Shakespeare’s art is to enable us, as we experience the play, for just a moment to see from all three perspectives at once.

So here’s the ethical question, so far as Davis concludes it, or maybe as far as anyone can conclude it, and here also is another take on what Davis means by thinking: “…it is thought that has to come out there, in the world, rightly taking its anomalous place amid the whole intervolved reality to which it so uncomfortably belongs and refers” (87). It’s not the communication, or the definition of the situation, or the frame–although each of these attends to something–rather it’s thought, taking its anomalous place, so uncomfortably. Having seen this enacted on Shakespeare’s stage, can we experience our lives as thought arising?

Narrative Medicine or Lyric Medicine?

Most of the medical Covid stories I read involve hospital work; here’s a different scene. My 100-year-old father used to get monthly B12 injections from his doctor. That ended in March when the physician shut his practice due to Covid. They’ve now reopened, but not the actual office. My father gets driven into a designated parking spot by his doctor’s building. His doctor then comes out, looking like what my father describes as a “spaceman” in protective gear, syringe in hand. He gives my father a shot through the car window, asks (through mask and visor) if there’s anything else, and retreats back to his office, presumably to shed the gear and suit up for his next patient. That’s a sort of story, but the narrative in such medicine is not between patient and physician.

I now make a big jump–or is it so big?–to Clive, which is the name that Philip Davis gives to a physician whom he writes about in Reading for Life, which was the topic of my previous blog post. Both Clive and Davis admire and are influenced by John Berger, especially his study of a rural physician, A Fortunate Man. Davis’s discussion of Clive is richly nuanced, including poems they read together. But let me focus on one moment, at risk of taking that out of context. Clive dislikes, or is suspicious of, what he understands as “narrative medicine”. What’s he mean by that? “He is referring,” Davis writes, “to the common belief that people must be able to have access to their own story, that they suffer without it, and that one way to realize it is by telling it to their physician who won’t otherwise recognize their individual depth” (144). Readers may want to take a deep breath, reread that, and ask how far it fits their previous ideas about what narrative medicine is. Clive’s sources for his understanding of narrative medicine are not specified.

My own reaction begins by noting that what Davis, maybe Clive, understands as a “common belief” has become common only fairly recently. Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity is still the best genealogy of this belief that I’ve read, and the best critique of what’s inadequate about the idea of people having “their own” story. Taylor turns, as I do, to Mikhail Bakhtin to understand personal stories as never our own individually, but always dialogical, held between persons in relations of response. Davis doesn’t cite Bakhtin specifically, but Bakhtin’s dialogism is consistent with the process philosophy Davis aligns with. That limitation of how much a story can be anyone’s “own” is not, however, what Clive worries about. Clive actually listens to people, and what he hears disrupts the idea of what’s “narrative” in narrative medicine, or, what kind of story people are prepared to tell, or maybe what they are all too well prepared to tell.

What Clive hears, and what troubles him, are people “losing their initial insight, thinking it down into a more conventionally normalized and stereotyped account of their lives”. That’s the problem with the stories people tell in self-help groups on the AA model. One’s “own” story becomes a conventional narrative. Becoming a member consists in learning to tell your story that way, and the group enforces expectations for telling the story just that way. So let’s go back to what Clive means by “their initial insight”.

“I want the clue of the lyric glimpse,” Davis quotes Clive saying about his clinical practice; “the vestige or the fragment to begin from, not the self-conscious spelling out of an over-clear narrative.” Following Clive makes narrative medicine seem an odd name for what he’s perpetually looking for. There isn’t and won’t be and even shouldn’t be a narrative, in the sense of a sequential events connected by some sort of immanent logic of sequence (even if, in a particular sequence, time is out of joint). What there are instead, maybe, are moments of seeing through conventional, normalizing narratives to something beyond. Clive speaks of “the lyric glimpse”, so let’s call this beyond the lyric, which is momentary, a perceptual and affective instant, rather than the narrative, unfolding in longer durations. Clive, as I understand Davis’s understanding of him, wants what would be better called a lyric medicine. He wants people to stop at the moment of some initial insight and just stay there; don’t turn it into a narrative or a story.

I find much to recommend the idea of lyric medicine. There was a time, back in the late 1980s, when I would have aligned with the common idea (although then not so common) that people have a story and they suffer for the non-recognition of that story. That’s true, but maybe less so about personal illness experience; it may better fit collective stories, like the national identity stories that Charles Taylor was most interested in. For people whom illness makes feel radically alone, there’s not, I think, a story as much as a swirling confluence of narratives competing to direct how ill persons make sense of people and demands around them. Narratives appear and speak in fragments more than as wholes. These fragmented voices from narratives can be powerfully directive. Some are helpful, others not at all. What Davis, channeling Clive, calls the conventional normalizing narratives are often least helpful, and I think Clive is correct in suspecting that institutionalized storytelling, whether in dyads with professionals or in groups, often regresses to the conventional.

A serious problem for narrative medicine is whether it can survive not Covid, although that certainly presents challenges to clinical relationships. But more fundamentally, whether narrative medicine can survive what degree of institutional acceptance, with normalization being a price for support. Lyric medicine remains fugitive, practiced in small acts of affirmation such as repeating a phrase that the other person might want to hold onto, not to develop another narrative, but to find within the confluence of narratives something that can be called one’s own. Lyric medicine may be best practiced in significant pauses, moments of eye contact, shared silences: holding time in suspension, to allow what was said to resonate.

A Second Life in Literature

I’ve neglected this blog for a month due to other writing commitments, and one of the most rewarding of these was a review essay on Philip Davis’s Reading for Life (Oxford, 2020). I hope this will eventually appear in Literature and Medicine. Pending that publication, I’d like to offer some outtakes, especially Davis’s idea of how in reading fiction and poetry, we have the opportunity to develop what he calls a second life: in his words, “trying to make a second smaller world, a warmer human environment, in which to do better thinking” (7). But let me back up and say something about Davis and what reading means in his project.

Philip Davis is a well-known literary critic whom I first heard of when I read a piece in the New York Review of Books on his biography of George Eliot, which has the fascinating title, The Transferred Life of George Eliot. The word transferred in this title surprises me; I would have expected maybe transformed. Unexpected words figure large in both Davis’s own writing and the way of reading he recommends. The writing he most admires finds ways to wake us up by surprises that force us to take a different perspective. We’re momentarily disoriented by a word like transferred–how can a life be transferred, from what? is that a transitive verb?–and in the space of this disorientation, we have to find ourselves anew. All of that opens up a potential for what I call vulnerable reading. But I keep getting ahead of my story.

Davis is professor emeritus at the University of Liverpool, where he directs the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS), a collaboration across multiple disciplines including psychology and neuroscience. CRILS especially studies what happens in groups organized by The Reader, a charity founded in 1997 by Jane Davis. The Reader runs shared reading groups in multiple settings; Davis lists community centres, schools, hospitals, drug rehab units, dementia care homes, and prisons, among others. Until Covid-19 has endangered the project, there were over 500 of these groups meeting each week in Britain, and more in partner European countries. “Within these local communities,” Davis writes, “literature is read aloud to those [and by those] who for a variety of reasons might not otherwise read it, to give glimpses of how life is or might be, should have been or has to be, in a renewed sense of purpose or dignity or concern for themselves” (7). That, again, could describe what I mean by vulnerable reading, which is why I am excited to have found Davis’s work.

Most of the chapters in Reading for Life describe Davis and one of the readers associated with The Reader reading together different poems and novels that Davis has asked that reader to choose for their meeting. The relationships between Davis and those with whom he reads often go back several years. In these meetings, he tries “to find out what sort of reader [this person] is” (109). And that involves the converse: the reader is learning what sort of reader she is, or to press the point further, what sort of reading is necessary in the life she has led, and what sort of reading can help her to lead a life that reading helps her to imagine living. It’s crucial for Davis that we cannot yet imagine–that’s why it’s not useful to readers to digress into what he calls confessional stories; shared reading groups try to stay clear of these. The point is the yet scarcely imaginable story, and that requires avoiding retelling the too often retold life story.

Davis describes the reading that he seeks to instigate, and that people readily come to, as responding to the “need to create time-out for an inner life, a second world within this world, not in simple retreat from it but for the sake of attempting a better return to it” (13). The second life is Davis most recurring metaphor, as he circles around what it means to read for life. Davis describes one reader who suffers from chronic illness. When she is ill “everything…looks flattened–and garish at the same time”. And then: “there is poetry and a second life for life” (122). Now as I quote that, it’s an empty testimonial. The richness of Reading for Life is being privileged to participate in the shared reading that Davis and different readers do together, in responsive dialogue with each other. We see them bringing a poem or novel to life as it rekindles the life of the reader. And for me, it reanimated my reading of some long neglected poems and novels; the book taught me to read differently.

Ultimately, the second life in literature creates a new space of being: “There is now a third thing, a reader aware between the two, going to and fro in various relations between himself and the book, in that area of imaginative feeling that the book had opened up” (30). Davis makes reading a “to and fro” work of multiple voices. Imagination is what is opened up in the space those voices create for themselves.

I should note that Davis’s readers do not read literary works that speak directly to the content of what they face in their lives, whether that’s illness or a history of abuse, or personal losses. They read works we’d call canonical–John Bunyan George Herbert, Wordsworth, John Clare, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad–but their readings liberate these books from imprisonment within the canon as an academic constraint on reading. The literature has to prove itself in the life of the reader. In my favourite moment, a reader named Georgina describes taking Lord Jim with her to an appointment in the hospital. “I got it out with a sort of ‘OK, come on, show me something then'”. And the book does. Georgina, who has had a difficult life, deserves the last word: “I do not like deliberately ‘positive’ messages, the unconvincing will in them. But to me the negative is not nihilism: it means first of all not being able to make something cheer up or cure all too easily. It is a sort of respect for the real as resistant: the inconceivable, unconsolable, incomprehensible” (222). That’s vulnerable reading.

Consolation Without Reassurance

I admire the music critic Alex Ross. In a recent issue of The New Yorker he wrote about the death of his mother last February. Ross describes choosing to listen to Brahms on his overnight flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. His experiences frame comments he makes about Philip Kennicott’s book Counterpoint: A Memoir of Bach and Mourning, and it’s Kennicott I want to focus on, because the sentences that Ross quotes made me realize that while I’ve spent some time exploring what vulnerablility means, the idea of consolation is almost as important for the project of vulnerable reading. I’ve often claimed that the arts, literature, Shakespeare can console–I believe that. So Ross’s quotation from Kennicott disrupted a line of thinking–an idea or maybe ideal of healing arts–that I had become complacent about.

“I bristle at the idea that music is consoling or has some healing power,” Kennicott writes, taking me back several decades to when I used to be invited to conferences on alternative and complementary medicine, where serious people made claims for the physical healing power of music. Kennicott calls this “a cliché of lazy music talk”, and it has the potential to be that. “Music, if anything, makes us raw, more susceptible to pain, nostalgia, and memory.” Most of Kennicott’s book, on Ross’s reliable account, is about how he responded to his mother’s death by immersing himself in Bach, specifically the Goldberg Variations. That also took me back. A cassette tape of Glenn Gould playing the Goldbergs was my constant nighttime listening when I was hospitalized with cancer surgery and then treatment.

So I found myself immediately agreeing with Kennicott, insofar as he seems to be calling for more nuanced consideration of what consoles, and beyond that, what is worth calling healing? But I want to hold onto the belief that music, or other arts including Shakespeare, can console; that claim need not be lazy. The value of Kennicott, at least for me now (I hope eventually to read his book), is to make me be more explicit about the consolation that works–that does its consoling work–by making us more susceptible to … what? Here we reach his triad of pain, nostalgia, and memory, which seem to be not such good things, or, we’re led to ask, what kinds of pain, nostalgia, and memory might be good or bad? Let’s take only nostalgia, because I’m at risk of opening up way too big a topic for a blog post.

Ross proceeds to distinguish between reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia can be called sentimental; Ross describes it as envisioning “a return to home”. Reflective nostalgia is more fit for a sociologist like me. Ross quotes the literary scholar Svetlana Boym: “Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity,” Ross argues that Brahms’s music exemplifies reflective nostalgia. If music opens us to reflective nostalgia, that does console and heal.

In Shakespeare, I think marriage, true marriage, represents reflective nostalgia. Marriage as an ending recognizes the human need for longing and belonging, but the home that this marriage will create will retain the ambivalences of the relationship that have made the road to marriage difficult traveling. Moreover, the marriage will be situated within “the contradictions of modernity”, which for Shakespeare include both the tenuous legitimacy of monarchs and the increasing prevalence of money as a common denominator of value, but again, that opens up way too much. Suffice it to say that we in the audience both want the lovers to get married, we want to imagine them reaching a home of their own, but we don’t forget our ambivalences; there’s no happily-ever-after. That ambivalence seems most explicit at the end of Measure for Measure, when it’s left open whether or not Isabella will accept the Duke’s proposal of marriage. I want her to take his hand … but I share her doubts.

Might we think, then, of reflective consolation, following the Boym/Ross usage of reflective nostalgia? This consolation is not pastoral; there’s no shepherd who will keep the wolves away, so we may safely graze. Speaking most personally, for me it’s the consolation of feeling my participation in an old story that continues to unfold in my life. If terrible things happen to me, so they have happened and will happen; I participate in a shared narrative that is worth calling a drama. This consolation offers no reassurances. Its only promise is that the story will go on.

To get myself out of a discussion that’s opened up more than I can take on here, let me defer back to Alex Ross. He describes sitting with his mother, in her library, when her illness made speech near impossible. “So we listened together, and Brahms listened to us both.” That’s the consolation of vulnerable reading.

Love, Order, and What Lear Earns

By April in Alberta, the snow that brought a certain enchantment back in December has deteriorated into being a nuisance. It’s hanging around too long, and it just prolongs the ground being muddy. Which is one way of thinking about the older generation in King Lear. Lear does not present a very positive image of old age: Lear and Gloucester, the complementary figures of old age (noted, both male; we have to look elsewhere for old women), both mess things up–their actions set the tragedy in motion. Maybe both have always been only marginally competent, there are signs of that. But as the play begins, they create problems that those who are younger suffer through and eventually sort out. That also happens in Hamlet. Lear has hung around too long, or so the weather here draws me toward thinking; blame it on the snow.

After that depressing start, what’s good? I just finished a book edited by the excellent scholar Frank Kermode, published in 1969, collecting critical essays on Lear from Nahum Tate’s dedication and preface to his 1681 rewriting of Lear through Coleridge and Lamb to the twentieth century, ending with Northrop Frye and Jan Kott. The collection makes an interesting chronicle of changing sensibilities, not just toward drama. Tate, the Restoration poet laureate, found the death of Cordelia too much to bear, so he rewrote it: in his version, she lives and marries Edgar. In changing that, Tate restored the play to its historical origins. In those days, if you didn’t like what the original author wrote, then rewrite it. Tate’s version played for over 150 years.

Times change. Frye, with a turn of phrase that reminds me how much I admire him, writes that “with Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, [Lear] finds himself staring into the blankness of an empty world”. I think of the newspaper photos we see almost daily, showing empty public spaces. We also stare into the blankness of an empty world, and it isn’t just physical spaces. It’s also the blankness of a future that we have no idea about. Our expectations for tomorrow are, we are forced to realize, groundless. By 1969, when Frye wrote, we theatre goers could tolerate blankness. We could not only assent to, but even find a form of comfort in what Tate found intolerable. I haven’t found a good working name for that form of comfort; catharsis won’t do at all. I’ll have to return to that problem on a later day.

I realize, reading Kermode’s collection, how fixated I remain on an earlier generation of literary scholars and critics. My suspicion is that this has to do with their writing being developed in lectures to undergraduates at a time when professors understood themselves engaged in the work of their students’ development, Bildung, maybe we could say their developing personhood or capacity for living. Literature was a medium through which to say something about life; or, put another way, what’s said about Lear matters insofar as it says something about how to live. I could provide quotations specifying that. It was taken for granted that literature was, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, equipment for living. Consider, as a good example, what John Holloway, professor at Cambridge, wrote in 1961 about love in King Lear.

Lear ends in reconciliations that are all too brief: Edgar with Gloucester and Cordelia with Lear. Holloway writes that these reconciliations “may also be seen as meaning more than the word ‘love’ can easily mean, at least in our own time; and being, in the end, one with the whole of what happens at the close of the drama” (emphases added). He then qualifies what risks being too easy: “Good … is far from enjoying a triumphant restoration: we are left with the spectacle of how suffering can renew itself unremittingly until the very moment of death.” Yet Holloway finds a form of hope in Lear’s ending.

“Below the spectacle of suffering everywhere in possession,” he writes, “is another, inconspicuous but genuine: that the forces of life have been persistently terrible and cruel, but have also brought men [and one crucial woman] back to do things it is their part to do” (emphases added). I’d like to quote more, but to cut to what seems the point: “In this play, love is not a ‘victory’; it is not that which stands at ‘the centre of the action’ … it does not rule creation. If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairbreadth) simply rule itself. What order restores, is order. Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last.”

Men (gender intended) tangled humanity into the current pandemic. The untangling will come only at a price. As to what Holloway means by “rule itself”, I think we have to hold a lot of stories in our head at once. Shakespeare’s plays, together, form a sustained meditation on the multiple possibilities and failures of ruling, those two always separated “by a hairbreadth”. Cordelia is right, not merely correct, when she says, in the speech that brings chaos, that she loves her father according to her bond. Holding to bonds is part of the work of self-untangling. This love is not romantic, but perhaps it is the bare, even stark love in Lear that earns both the love in the earlier comedies and in the later romances. Behind romantic love is love according to one’s bond. And behind that is people doing what it is their part to do. In those doings lies a hope for a future that in plague times can seem as blank as the dense whiteness of the April snow in Alberta.