Re-reading Shakespeare: Cymbeline

(1) Those opening lines are difficult. I get their sense but can’t precisely take them apart to see how they work. Their difficulty is instructive though, because it’s a pair of courtiers talking and they’re talking like courtiers. The theatre director Dominic Cooke was asked specifically about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s late style in this play and said the speech in the first scene is convoluted precisely because “the characters are speaking in a courtly code. It’s as if everyone is nervous about being overheard and potentially incriminated.” Let’s face it, even if a spy was writing down everything word for word, what would anyone make of this:

You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
Still seem as does the king.

Try translating that into English. What makes it even more difficult is that the two gentlemen are talking about the dissembling that is going on at court, and their mixed feelings at Innogen not marrying Cloten and Posthumus being banished. So are the frowns real or feigned? Are the courtiers in sympathy with the king, or pretending?

The contrast between the world of the court and the natural world of Wales, where real men live in caves, was standard stuff even for Shakespeare, but I feel like this is one of his most cynical takes on the theme. Everyone at court schemes and lies and backstabs as they try to get ahead. Iachimo has Posthumus pegged as a hypergamous toy-boy and tries to talk him down to the international set in Rome. It’s a special kind of jealousy he feels for Posthumus, a young man on the rise. Belarius was right to get the boys away from court life. It’s wicked!

(2) Of course the Queen – unnamed because she’s a type of the wicked stepmother – is a bad one. But what’s new here is that everyone knows she’s bad. As soon as she turns her head they’re telling us that they’re on to her villainy. “I do suspect you, madam,” Cornelius says, staying one step ahead of her poisoning scheme. Innogen knows she’s “a stepdame false,” while the Second Lord calls her a “crafty devil” as soon as he’s left alone. I think the only one who doesn’t see through her is Cymbeline, which makes his expostulation at the end when her machinations have been revealed – “Who is’t can read a woman?” – all the funnier.

Is she meant to be a comic figure? She’s not like Edmund or Iago. Tamora in Titus Andronicus is her most obvious precursor, but Tamora was far more fearsome, and Aaron, Demetrius, and Chiron more threatening than Cloten, who sounds perfectly awful but is all wind. He gets some shockingly violent and vulgar lines, talking about fingering Innogen or trying her with his tongue, or fantasizing about raping her beside Posthumus’ corpse, but in the end he’s as harmless as his mom. So are we just meant to laugh at them?

(3) Poor Lucius. In the final scene’s mad rush of recaps and revelations he gets brushed aside pretty quickly, even after standing up for Fidele/Innogen. “Save him, sir,” he asks Cymbeline, “And spare no blood beside.” Cymbeline does save him/her but immediately adds that Fidele should not thank Lucius for this mercy. Then, after Cymbeline grants Fidele in turn the chance to spare a prisoner Lucius says “I do not bid thee beg my life, good lad, / And yet I know thou wilt.” Ha! Talk about wishful thinking. “No, no, alack. / There’s other work in hand,” is how Fidele responds, leaving Lucius to bemoan such ingratitude in one so young.

The boy disdains me,
He leaves me, scorns me; briefly die their joys
That place them on the truth of girls and boys.

I’m pretty sure this is another point where we’re supposed to laugh. Fidele’s “There’s other work in hand” is part of the whole spirit of “Get on with it!” that dominates the final scene. For a long time Cymbeline was seen as being the work of a burnt-out writer, or one grown lazy. I think that’s possible, and maybe even likely, but if so it’s a burnout that Shakespeare could still have some fun with.

Another trip to the dictionary

There may be all sorts of reasons for my not knowing a word. It might be really old and not have been in use for a while. It may be slang that I don’t recognize. Or it may be part of a specialized branch of knowledge that I know nothing about.

The latter is my excuse for not knowing “dehiscence” when I came across it in H. G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods. In the context of the novel it’s clear that it refers to the bursting open of pollen sacs and that’s what I figured it’s only meaning was. On looking into it, however, I found it’s also a fairly common bit of medical terminology, referring to the rupture or splitting open of a suture or surgical wound. I suppose if you’re a medical professional you’d know this one right away (and maybe not know its botanical meaning), but I’ll confess I pulled a complete blank on it. Seems like the kind of word that could get plugged into a lot of other contexts though, so I’m going to keep it filed away.

Maigret: Maigret’s Dead Man

A series of panicky phone calls leads not to a whodunit but rather into a police procedural, as Maigret tracks down a gang of brutal killers who are described as being little better than animals: “Where, in what lower depths, in what world of poverty, had their group been formed? . . . Given the way they were and behaved, they would in earlier times or other climes have lived exactly the same lives, naked, in forest or jungle.” They don’t even kill for money, but only to eat, drink, and rut.

“Civilized men fear wild creatures, especially wild creatures of their own kind who remind them of life in the primeval forests of ages past.” The gang’s well-dressed leader, however, is “an even more dangerous wild animal” for practicing a more refined and dangerous form of viciousness. Alas, we never get to hear any of these wild things speak, making them a lot less interesting than their countryman Radek from A Man’s Head. And what did Simenon have against Eastern Europeans anyway? [Note: In Maigret’s Memoirs he (Maigret) tells us that “on average, sixty-five per cent of crimes committed in the Paris region are committed by foreigners.” I’m assuming Simenon was pulling that number from somewhere, and if so it may help explain what’s going on here.]

A good read, and you can tell why it was one of the novels chosen for the short-lived ITV Maigret series starring Rowan Atkinson. The opening game of telephone tag plays well, so much so that you don’t stop to ask why Albert doesn’t just tell Maigret what’s going on. Only the business with Maria’s baby feels like a misstep. I think it’s the first time in the series that I found things getting corny. Something I’ll have to keep an eye on as I continue.

Maigret index

The great forgetting

I was recently reading a brief critique of the 1619 Project by Phillip W. Magness and I was a bit troubled by something he says about the misuse of a 1944 book by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery. Apparently writers of what’s called the New History of Capitalism often refer to Williams’ book to support their thesis that capitalism today is a natural outgrowth of the plantation slave system in the United States, when in fact what Williams meant was something nearly the opposite. “If anything,” Magness writes, “they cite it for its pairing of the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘slavery’ and then unintentionally invert its thesis.”

The suggestion, and Magness is not alone in making it, is that NHC scholars haven’t actually read Williams’ book but only grabbed hold of the title. This brought home to me an issue in the Humanities that has been growing for some time now. The basic problem is this: no person can hope to read more than a small fraction of everything that has been published on any given subject. Also, because of the way scholarly research is supposed to work, most of one’s research has to be given over to staying up-to-date and reading only recently published work. This may be part of the reason why the New History of Capitalism has been accused of being a silo, failing to engage with other work in the field. It also may explain why so few people have actually read a book written nearly 80 years ago. As scholarship advances (at least in theory) a lot of previous research just drops off into the abyss of the unread. It’s a great forgetting.

What Magness says reminded of a similar feeling I had when reading the chapter on King Lear in Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All. Garber cites very few secondary sources in her book. Indeed, in her essay on Lear she only references one:  an essay by Henry Turner that appeared in the journal Renaissance Drama in 1997. But why, I wondered, did she even bother? The point that the note provides authority for is wholly parenthetical: that in the text of the play the heath Lear rages on is never called a “heath.” The implication seems to be that nobody had noticed this before Turner, but in fact it’s long been common knowledge. It’s a point that A. C. Bradley mentions in passing in his Shakespearean Tragedy. Bradley’s book, however, is old. It first came out in 1904. So it doesn’t get cited.

I’m sure Garber has read Bradley. But Shakespeare is a good, perhaps the best, example of what I’m talking about here. Even fifty years ago it was understood that nobody could ever hope to read everything that had been and was being written on Shakespeare. As a result, there’s a cull when it comes to scholarship, which in turn means that wheels keep getting reinvented.

I think Garber citing a modern source for what was a commonplace observation more than a century ago is an interesting instance of how these things drop off the radar. I’ve often found myself reading contemporary literary criticism, or listening to a lecture or podcast, and thinking that the author or lecturer was saying nothing new while wondering if they were aware of that fact. It seems to me that a lot of American literary criticism in particular has now forgotten classic interpretive works from the mid-twentieth century, especially since author criticism and close reading has gone so much out of fashion. Large swathes of the Humanities now seem to be engaged in this great forgetting. It helps people get published, but it also leads to embarrassing mishaps like the kind Magness describes.

Maigret: Maigret’s Holiday

I guess this one is from the Maigret files before he retired, because otherwise I don’t know why he’d be on holiday. Either way, it’s not much of a getaway since Madame Maigret immediately comes down with appendicitis, which lands her in hospital for surgery. While visiting her there the Chief gets drawn into yet another squalid, and murderous, family drama.

Unlike Saint-Aubin in Inspector Cadaver, in the seaside town of Les Sables d’Olonne everybody knows who Maigret is. Unfortunately, this turns out to be just as irritating as not having anyone recognize him. Celebrity is tough.

Good atmosphere that I thought was building up to something special but it kind of fizzles at the end. I’m not really sure what clues Maigret was drawing on, or if he was just following his inimitable “method” of putting in the legwork, knocking on doors and interviewing subjects, until the solution reveals itself. “Had he ever bothered with footprints?” he wonders at one point. Probably not. Or fingerprints. He has almost no interest in forensics. Certainly far less than Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan. This leaves an awful lot up to intuition. But then he’s French.

Maigret index

Mall talk

Over at the Canadian Notes & Queries website my review of Pasha Malla’s Kill the Mall is up. Interesting book for fans of bent, supernatural stuff.

I’m not sure what it’s specifically responding to, but the genre of Weird fiction is really having a moment. A few years ago I had a piece in the Literary Review of Canada on the direction things were heading that talked a bit about this. Seems like the kind of thing that scholars might want to look into, if that’s the sort of thing scholars still do.

Maigret: Maigret in New York

You can take Maigret out of Paris, and even out of France, but wherever he goes he’s still investigating the same sort of crimes using the same method. Even in NYC we have “the social mechanism” at work: a great fortune rooted in a historical crime that will only gradually come to the surface. Then, when it’s time for wrapping up, Maigret will realize that nothing has been accomplished so he’ll just let things go.

Maigret is out of his element in the Big Apple but he sticks to his plan of putting in lots of plodding footwork until the solution comes to him. “I let myself drift with the current, clutching here and there on a passing branch.” Which is actually a pretty good way of going at things. Claiming that he knows nothing (until he knows everything) is the same as saying that he likes to keep an open mind. The problem with most police investigations that go wrong is developing tunnel vision in the early going.

I thought that there might be some connection made to Cécile is Dead because in that novel an American had come to Paris to study Maigret’s method and Maigret looks up an American he’d met in France a few years earlier when he comes to New York. But they are different people (in Cécile is Dead the American had been Spencer Oats of the Philadelphia Institute of Criminology, while here it’s Special Agent O’Brien of the FBI). Also of some assistance is another one of those weird secondary characters scattered throughout the series, in this instance a sad, alcoholic former clown named Ronald Dexter. He makes up for the fact that the villains of the piece are mostly kept off-stage and aren’t very interesting anyway. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure at the end what wickedness had happened all those years ago. But, much like Maigret himself in the end, I didn’t care a whole lot either.

Maigret index

Fossick this!

New word day! Fossick. Was stumped by this one when it came up in John Man’s The Gutenberg Revolution. Man uses it for the act of searching through a library. Apparently it’s a bit of Australian or New Zealand slang originally referring to looking for gold or gems by picking over abandoned mine workings. Its more general meaning is to search for by rummaging around. “Rummage” actually has a strange etymology as well, having its roots in a Middle English word for the stowing of cargo.

Giving up on philosophy, a bit

I don’t know why I can’t read philosophy. I find the subject matter interesting. And I can read about philosophy. I like books pitched at a general audience and surveys running from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to Anthony Gottlieb’s more recent The Dream of Reason and The Dream of Enlightenment. But when it comes the primary texts I find I can’t get more than a few pages — and I mean that literally I’m lucky to make it to page 3 — into works like Spinoza’s Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Most of Plato outside of the shorter dialogues is a tough slog and Aristotle even harder. Hegel and Wittgenstein I’ve given up on. The Pragmatists are more approachable, but I still find myself just wanting a précis or a book about them so that I don’t have to bother reading what they actually wrote.

I wonder if this is why Existentialism became so popular. I do like reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most of the time, and Dostoyevsky and Camus were first-rate novelists. I read all these guys, and Sartre, because I enjoy them. The rest of the philosophical tradition comes to me by way of the aforementioned general histories and listening to lectures.

Some of this might be a temperamental difference. I didn’t care about literary theory or the philosophy of language when I was at school, and I still don’t. I found most of it both impenetrable and, what was even worse, irrelevant to any deeper understanding of the literature I was studying. But I do find broader questions about subjects like ethics and epistemology interesting. I’m at least curious about a lot of what philosophy does, or used to do.

I’m left to wonder though if I’m really missing anything by just reading summaries of these other major works rather than trying to engage with them directly. I think anyone who tries to get by reading a summary (most likely a Wikipedia page) on Paradise Lost is never going to understand the poem at all. Is the same the case with not reading Quine?

This is a question that bothers me a bit, but at this point I just have to accept that I’ve given up on reading much philosophy. I’m going to have to engage with these thinkers second-hand. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to figure them out on their own terms. Maybe I don’t have the attention span necessary to follow them (I like to browse Schopenhauer’s aphorisms, but have never tackled The World as Will and Idea). Or maybe philosophers just can’t express themselves clearly enough, or in a way that’s interesting enough, to make me want to pursue them any further. Life is short, and getting shorter all the time.

Maigret: Maigret Gets Angry

I don’t know if there’s a through narrative holding all of these Maigret novels together. As this one begins he’s two years into his retirement. Was this his second retirement? I wonder if anyone has worked out a Maigret chronology. They probably have but I’m too lazy to look for it. [Note: This is an issue that’s later addressed in Maigret’s Memoirs, where “Maigret” complains about the way Simenon jumbles up the chronology of his life.] I also wonder if the mention of an earlier investigation in the Haute Seine was a reference to Lock No. 1. How well do these books hold together?

In any event, Maigret gets tempted out of retirement here not by the big pile of money he’s offered but because the case interests him. Soon, however, it disgusts him. It’s yet another case involving “the social mechanism,” a.k.a. “the dodgy dealings of those who [grow] rich.” Ernest Malik is one such riser, and as so often happens (see what I said in my notes on The Cellars of the Majestic) he’s done it in ways that at best show a lack of scruple.

The crimes are described as a “vile business, which, from start to finish, was all a filthy matter of money.” If you’re born with money you’re decadent; if you have to get it you’re a crook. Either way, money just provides a sham façade to hide family skeletons behind. “For that is all there was behind those beautiful houses with their immaculate gardens: money!” Note how, at the beginning, the lady who hires Maigret mistakes him for a gardener. Detective or gardener, in either role he’s just cleaning up after rich people. I’m not surprised he’s sick of it.

Maigret index