An excerpt from my new book Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction is up at the Walrus website. You might even want to buy a copy!
In Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs he describes Napoleon entering a Moscow abandoned and on fire: “Only a few French tutors, actresses and lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets as Moscow burned for six days.” If you know Latin, or if you’re just good at guessing based on cognates, you’d figure (correctly) that “lethiferous” means “deadly” or “lethal.” Still, it’s an obsolete word I don’t recall seeing used before. Another one for the word bank!
(1) There was no Titus Andronicus. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. Of course there was no Prospero. There probably was no King Lear (or Leir). But in Lear’s case you can at least place the character in a historical context (pre-Roman Britain) and give the story a source (Holinshed’s Chronicles). And Shakespeare’s other Roman plays are all about real historical figures and draw on sources like Plutarch. But Titus Andronicus is a made-up figure living in a fantasy world. The presumed source dates the events to the reign of the Emperor Theodosius, but that’s nothing more than a wave of the hand. In many ways this is a more primitive Rome than that of Coriolanus, which is set half a millennium earlier.
Like I say, this shouldn’t matter. Shakespeare’s Rome, like his England in the history plays, is a fictional place. And yet it’s always made me uncomfortable. Perhaps I just don’t like fantasy, or fantasy that plays fast and loose with history. It’s the same sort of feeling I get from the Nibelungenlied, which has its germ in actual historical events but really can’t be thought of in those terms. Burgundy might as well be Middle Earth. What you’re getting isn’t an interpretation or mythic re-imagining of history but something entirely other. And by breaking that link it seems to me that you end up with a play that loses some of its connection to the present as well.
(2) When Marcus discovers Lavinia after she has been raped and mutilated, he exclaims
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopped,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.
This is very well observed. Physically, Lavinia is incapable of speaking her sorrow because her tongue has been cut out, but we can see her silence as metaphorical as well. One response to rape is shame, and when the victim doesn’t speak out her rage often does turn inward, expressing itself later through other emotional disorders. With no outlet, the victim’s anger is directed back upon itself. The heart consumes itself in silence, but it does burn.
(3) Titus makes Lear’s mistake of giving up power. He could have been emperor but he turns the job down. Richard II is another example of a Shakespearean king who flubs the same test, effectively deposing himself. This was an important lesson in leadership for pre-modern rulers: If you’re the king you have to be a king. But I wonder if such a message resonates as much today, when institutions take precedence over individuals.
I think it is still relevant, though perhaps not in the way it is most often taken: to do unto others before they do unto you. In Shakespeare such situations lead to more than just a passing of the guard; they toss the whole world into chaos, and begin cycles of violence with long tails. That’s a pattern we should be familiar with today, though twenty-first century blowback is less of a family matter.
From The Invention of Russia (2015) by Arkady Ostrovsky:
The new class of businessmen that emerged from the rubble of the Soviet economy thought of themselves as the champions of capitalism as they understood it. In some ways they were the victims of Soviet propaganda that portrayed capitalism as a cutthroat, cynical system where craftiness and ruthlessness were more important than integrity, where everyone screws each other and money is the only arbiter of success.
Russian capitalism was far removed from the concept of honest competition and fair play or Weber’s Protestant ethics. It was not built on a centuries-long tradition of private property, feudal honor and dignity. In fact, it hardly had any foundations at all, other than the Marxist-Leninist conception of private property as theft. Since Russia’s new businessmen favored property, they did not mind theft. The words conscience, morality and integrity were tainted by ideology and belonged to a different language — one that was used by their fathers’ generation. “For us these were swear-words which the Soviet system professed in its slogans while killing and depriving people,” Vladimir Yakovlev said.
The tenets of socialism were removed only to reveal a vacuum of morals — in itself the result of the Soviet experiment in breeding a new being. The transition from Soviet to post-Soviet society was accompanied by a change in perception of what makes one succeed in life. In 1988, 45 percent of the country felt it was “diligence and hard work.” In 1992 only 31 percent felt these would get you anywhere. The factors that gained importance were “good connections,” “dexterity” and “being a good wheeler-dealer.” The first Russian businessmen had all those qualities and boasted about them.
From Deliverance (1970) by James Dickey:
There is always something wrong about people in the country, I thought. In the comparatively few times I had ever been in the rural South I had been struck by the number of missing fingers. Offhand, I had counted around twenty, at least. There had also been several people with some form of crippling or twisting illness, some blind or one-eyed. No adequate medical treatment, maybe. But there was something else. You’d think that farming was a healthy life, with fresh air and fresh food and plenty of exercise, but I never saw a farmer who didn’t have something wrong with him, and most of the time obviously wrong; I never saw one who was physically powerful, either. Certainly there were none like Lewis. The work with the hands must be fantastically dangerous, in all that fresh air and sunshine, I thought: the catching of an arm in a tractor part somewhere off in the middle of a field where nothing happened but the sun blazed back more fiercely down the open mouth of one’s screams. And so many snakebites deep in the woods as one stepped over a rotting log, so many domestic animals suddenly turning and crushing one against the splintering side of a barn stall. I wanted none of it, and I didn’t want to be around when it happened either. But I was there, and there was no way for me to escape, except by water, from the country of nine-fingered people.
My review of Jeff Bursey’s collection of essays and reviews, Centring the Margins, is up now at the Canadian Notes & Queries website. My own tastes in literature are rather different than Bursey’s but I think voices like his are essential. We need more such critics if any culture of value is going to survive this profoundly anti-critical age. For various reasons, I’m afraid we’re not going to get them.
(1) I’m not a big stickler for reading Shakespeare the right way, but I acknowledge (as I think you have to) that there is a right way. Or at least that there are wrong ways. It was a performance of Julius Caesar that first brought this home to me, during the opening harangue by Marullus when he launches into the mob celebrating Caesar’s homecoming: “O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome.”
As I read it, the only way to deliver these lines is to emphasize “hard hearts” close to equally, giving both words the same weight so as to draw out the near rhyme and emphasize the admonitory tone. I can see Marullus shaking his head at the crowd. “O you hard hearts.”
I may be wrong in this, but I know they’re not meant to be rushed together, as they were in the production that I saw, where they were almost elided as in “hard-hats.” Perhaps that was the intention (the rude mechanicals of Rome are proto hard-hats), but I doubt it. And it sounded awful!
(2) The tag “et cetera” (“and other things”) is designed to make your eye and mind wander, sort of like “yadda, yadda, yadda.” That’s my excuse for never really being aware of the fact, until this most recent re-reading, that when Brutus is considering the letters that have been thrown in his window “et cetera” isn’t his own gloss on what Cassius has written but actually part of the letter itself. I know this should have always been clear to me from the punctuation and the rest of the line — “‘Shall Rome, et cetera.’ Thus must I piece it out . . .” — but it never really twigged. I always read it as Brutus just skimming over the rest of the letter’s contents.
I think part of the reason why I read it like this is that it’s hard to figure out why Cassius would have written the letter in such a way. Just saying “Shall Rome, et cetera . . .” doesn’t make a very persuasive case. I guess the point is that Cassius wants Brutus to do all the work of persuasion, making him imagine the worst that could happen. This isn’t a bad approach, but just writing “Shall Rome, et cetera” seems a remarkable way of going about it.
(3) So true:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
The last two lines aren’t always included by people quoting this, but they strike me as the most meaningful, the ones that really seal the deal. That said, how ironic is it that Brutus’s advice in this instance is wrong? He should have skipped this particular tide and avoided Philippi. Or maybe his reasoning was correct and the larger point is that even if you do catch the right tide, it’s not always enough. Such an irony underlines something I’ve often observed during meetings when canvassing for opinions on the best way to move forward. Invariably the argument that wins the day is the one that is best expressed, not the one that is the most reasonable or most likely to succeed. Good rhetoric is meant to be seductive — that’s its whole purpose, really — which is something to keep in mind whenever you can feel it working.