Tag Archives: vulnerable reading

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.

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.

Lear’s 100 Knights

When King Lear resigns his kingdom to his daughters (spoiler alert: Big Mistake), one of his conditions is that he retain 100 knights as his entourage. The knights are not speaking parts, although they sing, led by the Fool. Different productions put more or less knights on stage, acting more or less riotously. At one extreme, they literally bust up the furniture, leaving the stage a shambles and making it seem justified when Goneril tells her father that his knights are no longer welcome. He storms off in a huff, expecting no such restrictions from Regan. When Regan takes the same line, and then Goneril shows up and the sisters join forces, Lear knows he’s in trouble. When Lear departs into a literal storm, the knights seem to disappear. Regan speaks of him being “attended with a desperate train” (2.2.495), suggesting she’s still worried the knights might put up an armed resistance, but then they’re just…disappeared into the storm, as the Fool will later disappear.

The knights can be understood as a plot necessity: they provide the pretext for the daughters’ hostility, and different productions make this pretext credible, although later events show it was a pretext. I find the knights more significant than that; they earn a place in how I think about myself and people around me. We all have our own version of 100 knights, and a lot is at stake in the maintenance of whatever those knights are. Our claims on others to recognize the legitimate importance of those knights are foundational to our relationships with those others. We expect those closest to us to willingly contribute to the maintenance of those knights, even if that requires them to accept some disruption.

When Lear’s daughters question why he needs the knights, his reply is, to me, one of the most poignant lines in the play: “O, reason not the need!” (2.2.453). Functional need can be reasoned; it admits “I need it because…” statements. We might call the need that cannot be reasoned identity need. We need what we have decided makes us who we are, and King Lear is all about characters either making claims to be someone more than they have been (the evil Edmund, plotting to gain his brother’s title and lands), or realizing that in order to survive, they must give up what they have claimed (the threatened and displaced Edgar), or subordinating their claims to the needs of another (Kent assuming the disguise of a servant in order to continue serving Lear), or struggling to maintain their sense of who they are, as that identity is threatened. “Does any here know me?” Lear asks rhetorically, or maybe not so rhetorically. He then turns to irony: “Why, this is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?” (1.4.217-18). Lear asks ostensibly for others’ recognition, but he may also be asking how he can know himself, in the circumstances he is suddenly thrown into.

Once again, I’m back where I started, a very long time ago, with the early work of Erving Goffman–The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums, and Stigma–in which the core problem is how people sustain the claims we humans are constantly making to be a self that is entitled to others’ acceptance of those claims. Goffman’s word for that acceptance is deference; for Hegel it was recognition; for many philosophers and bioethicists the words are dignity and autonomy. Goffman’s insight is that claims for the self are literally propped up; we need material props that substantiate our claims.

What I think Goffman didn’t spend much time thinking or writing about is what happens when people can’t see why certain props are necessary to someone else’s claims. I’m interested to imagine an alternative Lear in which the daughters are honestly intentioned toward their father. In this alt-Lear, Goneril and Regan are not the sort of people who poison and torture, respectively. The daughters just want what they start off claiming to want: household peace. That seems like the everyday situation we all find ourselves in when we question someone else’s need to something that’s disrupting the household and is, to us, excess baggage.

I notice that when Lear’s daughters are being, at face value, not unreasonable, he’s the one who pushes back disproportionately, cursing them in what may be the play’s most virulent language. To some extent, this scenario can play out at any stage of life. But in King Lear, age counts. After telling, or pleading, not to reason the need, Lear says: “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age, wretched in both” (2.2.461-2). A person of any age might protest, “O, reason not the need,” but Lear’s age intensifies that line; it somehow counts more, and exactly how tells me something about the vulnerability of old age. Although if you ask me what that is, I either babble some embarrassingly simplistic cliché or I have to tell you the story of Lear again.

I think these thoughts because of just spending time with my father, who is well beyond Lear’s age. I reflect on how easily I can find myself playing the Regan/Goneril part, questioning his need for something that seems to me to cause not only significant trouble for the household, but from my viewpoint it makes him unhappy. At such moments, it’s useful to stop and tell myself, O, reason not his need. Having 100 knights in attendance makes Lear feel like he’s a King, King Lear. We all need our 100 knights.

I myself am increasingly full of age though not, right now, feeling any particular grief. I write this surrounded by piles of all my belongings taken out of the rest of the house while we endure a once-in-a-lifetime repainting and flooring. Things had gotten pretty well worn, to put it nicely. It was an interesting enough experience piling everything into my study, one room we’re not redoing, and it will be more interesting putting things back, or I hope deciding what not to put back. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t stand up to any reason of need. I have to ask myself what self it sustains, what it props up. King Lear teaches me that aging well means not putting one’s children in the position of having to question their parent’s need in order to preserve the peace. Shakespeare eventually raises the bar so high on Regan and Goneril’s bad behaviour that when Lear claims he is more sinned against than sinning, we tend to believe him. But when I reflect on the play, it’s a close call.

I hope that as a companion story, Lear gives me greater patience not to reason the needs of others, but also greater willingness to reason my own needs. The 100 knights are a good metaphor with which to live a vulnerable life.

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.

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.

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.

Another ‘Found’ Vulnerable Reading

This blog is about what I call vulnerable reading. But the point is not to claim to invent vulnerable reading. The point is to practice it, which includes appreciating others who express my project as well as I have. It’s reassuring that others already know what vulnerable reading is and can express it perfectly well. Not feeling alone is a significant goal.

My appreciation today is for Maura Kelly’s article published in the New York Times “Voices” series, February 6, 2019. Ms. Kelly begins with a darkly funny telling of a dialogue between herself and a crisis-line volunteer. She had called because she felt at risk of committing suicide. The volunteer is either a therapeutic genius or a lucky amateur, because after some false starts, she makes a life-saving suggestion: “Then how about, do you have something good to read?” In fact, Ms. Kelly does; it’s Anna Karenina, which she has read up to just before Anna’s suicide.

“Fear Anna’s darkening thoughts would darken my own, I’d stopped reading,” she writes. Given the way my mind works, that reminded me of reading Grimms’ tales to my daughters. A reasonable parental fear would be that taking small children through the dark forest of childhood–and often adult–fears would not be comforting to small people. But it is comforting; it has been for generations. Sensitive children listen peacefully to horrific violences (my favourite might be Snow White’s evil step-mother being put into iron shoes that had been baked in the fire, and then made to dance until she died–that didn’t make the final edit of Disney’s version). Then these children go to sleep. Nothing like a good story before bed.

“I knew Anna would kill herself by kneeling before a train,” Ms. Kelly writes, “so I urged her to stop and turn around: You poor fool! Look at all you have. Look at all the people you’ll hurt.” Then she expresses the value of vulnerable reading: “In saying that to her, I said something similar to myself: I’m not utterly alone.” Ms. Kelly does not exactly identify with Anna, although there’s an element of identification when she writes that Tolstoy “call[ed] on me to talk back to Anna, and to the Anna in myself.” That balance of identification–the “Anna in myself”–in tension with distance–“to talk back to Anna”–gets at the effect of vulnerable reading.

Ms. Kelly not only exemplifies the practice of vulnerable reading. She also offers a succinct statement of about as much theory as it may need: “A good novel is great company, less an escape from life than a different way to engage. A good novel is reassurance that other people have endured tragedies….It’s evidence I’m not alone….A good novel is a form of hope.” Nobody ever says it all, but that says enough. I especially like her phrase, “a different way to engage.” That may be, most of the time, as much as you can and possibly should offer people.

If I have any reservations about the Times article, these concern the sub-title, which I’d bet was written by a staff person, not Ms. Kelly herself. It subtly simplifies Ms. Kelly’s words: “A good novel can be a reminder that other people have endured tragedies, long ordeals, bad odd.” Except, Anna doesn’t endure. It’s in Anna’s non-endurance that Tolstoy creates an opening for Ms. Kelly to talk back to Anna, and to the part of herself that needs talking back to. A work of art becomes good when it offers characters, tragic or comic, enduring or not enduring, who can be companion-helpers to those who struggle to endure. I am being picky, but the Times subtitle emphasizes identification–novels’ characters as role models in endurance–and misses the need for distance.

Somewhere, in all those pages getting to Anna’s fatal moment, had Tolstoy been preparing his readers to be able to talk back to her? What was his implicit pedagogy that had such therapeutic force, to which Ms. Kelly is witness?