Tag Archives: King Lear

The Metaphor of Wind, as Chaos Narrative

I’ve measured my adult life by affiliations with a succession of French intellectuals–Camus, Barthes, Foucault, Bourdieu, Latour, and now François Jullien. Jullien is a sinologist who writes specifically about the landscape painting of the literati, among whom Shitao (1642-1707) might be the culminating figure. For these artists, poetry and painting were necessary complements; they also wrote treatises on art. One of Jullien’s titles In Praise of Blandness describes the style of these paintings. On another level, Jullien is using painting as a medium for exploring radical cultural difference and the difficulty of thinking that difference. But I want to get to a specific quotation. What I am actually writing about is research, and beyond that, the problem of writing about people living lives at some extreme, suffering.

Late in The Great Image Has No Form (the book is about how to understand that enigmatic line), Jullien quotes the painter Tang Zhiqi. He describes, as all these treatises do on Jullien’s account (which I’m in no position to question), how the goal is to depict “the very aspiration to come about” rather than “seeking to describe and represent”. So: “If you want to paint the wind passing through the landscape, Tang Zhiqi continues, you will have to keep from trying to characterize it externally–picturesquely–by making all the branches bend in the same direction.” If you do that, or only that, “You will still not feel the wind blowing.” Here we reach a crucial question about both research on suffering and clinical work: do people want to feel the wind blowing? Or, I ask myself of what I read: is this another way of “characteriz[ing] it externally” so that you won’t have to feel it?

“If you are to feel it,” Jullien continues, “the image must contain internally the ‘impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it,’ as a tension running through it and orienting it intentionally.” That’s the key phrase for me: the impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. If I were asked what one single idea I might wish to preserve from all I’ve written, it would be the naming of the chaos narrative in The Wounded Storyteller. What I meant and mean by chaos is living with this impossibility of facing it head on and resisting it. What cannot be faced head on is the condition that has brought someone to believe that only this way of speaking can evoke her life. But to write or speak of “the condition” is already to render it external. Chaos is embodiment coming to speech and speech resolving back into the body. It is the speech/condition relation, blurring boundaries. To depict chaos is to contest the separation of one into cause and the other into effect. In English we can contest that separation, but we can never fully evade it without losing syntax, which chaos stories often do. The epistemology/ontology relation of Chinese art can prepare us for that refusal, especially as Jullien shows how Western translations of the treatises reinstate a subject/object opposition that the Chinese is all about doing without, in the sense of simply not needing it. That last idea takes a long time, at least for me.

These thoughts lead me to King Lear, because if the next question is when, in language, has the wind of suffering ever been evoked, I turn to Lear. Lear opposes the storm; he rails against it, discovering a language. But he is undone by what he faces but cannot face; he resists but cannot resist. His chaos becomes madness, flowers in his hair. He is rescued temporarily by Cordelia, and then things get worse. In the original source story, Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. Shakespeare’s refusal of that resolution, when Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage, shocked the first audiences, literary historians tell us. Shakespeare went for an ending so without hope that for several centuries it was rewritten, because only that made the play tolerable, watchable.

The landscapes of Chinese literati painting are placid, bland, places to rest. Apparently. Shitao spent his life on the run; his royal birth made him a target for execution by those who had disposed his lineage. His is a Shakespearean story. The bland ink-wash of the scroll paintings is a form of witness to periods of horrific violence. If I can make any sense of this word resilience, it looks to those paintings, in which things are perpetually coming into being and fading back into mist, and there is no world beyond this one. King Lear is one solution to the depiction of chaos. The landscape in which all is internal tension is another.

I’m off to visit my 99-year-old father. Be back in a couple of weeks, if that is willed.

Praise of Minimal Criticism

A problem shared by social science research and literary criticism is how much to say about the voices that are … what? Text, data, stories, material, sources–each of these words implies a different response: texts and data are to analyzed; sources are points of departure, to be elaborated; stories, at least on my account, are to be responded to. A central problem of the project of vulnerable reading, which this blog is trying to figure out, is how to write in dialogue with, rather than about. It goes back to what I recommended in 1995 in The Wounded Storyteller. How do we think with stories, rather than thinking about them. The dialogue is two sided. On one side is a work of literature, maybe Shakespeare, not as a text but as partner in conversation, to which you leave space to talk back (apologies for that syntax, which I can’t immediately improve). The other side of the dialogue is your reader, who also deserves space to talk back.

All of which is why I respect how the eminent critic Harold Bloom chose to write his King Lear: The Great Image of Authority (2018), in Bloom’s “Shakespeare’s Personalities” series. What’s worth noting is how little of the text (as in words and column inches on the page) is Bloom’s words. It’s more measurement work than I’m up to, but it would be interesting to count both what proportion of King Lear Bloom quotes–I’m guessing at least half–and what proportion of Bloom’s book is quoted Shakespeare; I’m guessing more than half. Bloom’s primary critical method–call it his late style of criticism–works by representing Shakespeare in chunks that Bloom has chosen, interspersing those with minimal commentary, and thus slowing down our reading, calling on us to see and hear as we have not before. What matters is not his ideas but our seeing and hearing Shakespeare. This is pedagogy without ego. It’s also elegant publishing by Scribner.

At the most crucial junctures, Bloom steps back, choosing silence. After quoting the reconciliation scene in Act IV, when the rescued Lear wakes in Cordelia’s tent and recognizes her as he returns to himself, Bloom simply says, “We are at the limits of art. Even Shakespeare never surpassed this. The love of daughter and father reaches absolute expression.” Then he allows himself this bit more: “I sometimes think that all of Shakespeare moves toward a reconciliation scene, one that would be total and transcendent.” Thus he lets Shakespeare be. No interpretation, just his own admiration bordering awe. Bloom allows his readers their own intimacy with this moment, their own form of reconciliation. He enables them to feel a measure of what he allows himself to feel.

The idea of the writer allowing him or herself to feel, and thus enhancing the reader’s feelings, would still be regarded as a niche enterprise in social science; in medical scholarship, it would require editorial gestures of containment. In the 1970s feminist sociologists especially became rightly concerned with honouring the voices of those whom they studied; the shift in anthropology to more participatory forms of research reflected the same ethical awakening. Today, humanities in healthcare struggles against the pervasiveness of the dichotomy between professional and patient, knower and known, active and presumed passive. What’s gained or lost in this struggle may be what defines this work. I would love to read a journal article about illness experience that just stops and says, as Bloom does, ‘we are at the limits’. That would be honouring the stories of the ill. And yet Bloom is always with his reader, guiding us, opening for us.

Bloom’s model is only one way of practicing dialogue in writing; consistent with the idea of dialogue, there is no last word. I am also grateful for those scholars who say a great deal more, filling in historical and textual details. But there’s a purity to Bloom’s approach that is deeply moving to me; a respect. He makes the ending of Lear, on the page, more emotionally resonant than I have found excellent stage performances to be, because–I think–Bloom gives me more space to feel. It’s minimalism in the finest sense of achieving so much more with so much less.