Tag Archives: late style

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.

Late Style II

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

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

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

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

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

Late Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Style, Pending a Birthday

“Others are bright and clear: I’m dark and murky. Others are confident and effective: I’m pensive and withdrawn, uneasy as boundless seas or perennial mountain winds.”

That’s from verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by David Hinton, and it’s how I feel reading the scholarly journal articles that I’ve been working through recently. Some are on Shakespeare and some are on bioethics. They are all filled, brimming, with references to other people’s ideas, not that they don’t have plenty of ideas of their own, because they do. It’s writing I genuinely admire, but I read it and ask, couldn’t it be said more simply, and might it be more effectively said, if simpler.

Here’s another dark, murky fellow, Du Fu, known until recently as Tu Fu. “Tomorrow I leave my fortieth year//my life has started to race//downhill, toward its evening” (trans. David Young). Du Fu died at 58. In a couple of weeks I turn 73. I don’t feel I’m racing downhill. Unlike Prospero, my every third thought is not my grave. But I do ask who is going to keep doing this work. Then I remember that’s not my problem.

Six or seven years ago, in anticipation of retirement, I set before me Edward Said’s book, On Late Style. It was getting time to find my own late style, and that remains a work in progress. I ask people what late style means; I compile a list, which begins here: “And what is the use of caution//the value of constraint?” Du Fu asks, not rhetorically. Late style studies all that cautions and restrains, while–and more important–trying to model how to work without such restraints.

Last night I read a published exchange of letters between two Shakespeare scholars, one complaining about the other’s review of his book, and the other complaining about the complaint. “Let be” as Hamlet says. Each knows so much, far more than I’ll ever know, but their letters display their lower selves, in a metaphor I find useful. After so much Shakespeare in their lives, how could they not learn that? I felt cheated of all that they could have used so much energy to tell me. But the worlds in which they move make them feel they had to engage in such an exchange, writing that way. It’s their habitus, to fall back on Bourdieu once again. Which explains nothing and everything.

At this point, Du Fu would recommend getting drunk, which I gather is both a stock metaphor and literal practice among his circle. Late style gets drunk on its own simplicity; its intoxication is from stripping away. Late style defines itself by what it leaves out. Tell the stories, let the stories carry the argument, trust the stories. One of the great Taoist metaphors is uncut wood, its perfection, and what’s lost once it’s made useful by cutting it. Late style seeks to cut as little as possible. All these journal articles are so confident and effective. I am withdrawn and uneasy. Exchanging appreciations with a few friends. Just where I want to be.

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.