An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525
My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature. His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks. All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.
One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda. They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society. In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.
But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.
Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.
The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her. As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate. A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer. She pursues Bertram relentlessly. As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her. Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play. Quite the opposite, as I shall contend. Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i]. And yet, does obsession ever end?
When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i]. She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.]. Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father… I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.]. All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.
Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i]. Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status? I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated. I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.
When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii]. Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii]. No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be. Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii]. Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram? Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram. Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him? Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.
The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram. As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play. The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.
And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive. And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.
Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram. Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage. She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].
Why not take Helena at her word? On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her. She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart. On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own. She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law. All’s well that ends well. She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body. Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]? She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband. She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.
It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana. He is revolted by Helena. The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea. Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her. In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii]. He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].
Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century. Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor. Again, he finds her physically repellent.
Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent. Is this not rape? According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.
And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology? There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother. But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother? They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.
The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v]. Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.
Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv]. Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate. When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.
Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences. Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality. Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors. The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]). The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii]. A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status. One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena. Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i]. She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays. Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated. His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time. This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii]. The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think. Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL. Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.
For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v]. (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena. Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.) (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena. He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].) Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around. (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.) Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.
Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France. When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more. The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.
When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition. It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.]. It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.
The King is revived from the dead. Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena. Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram. In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena. I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.” The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision. Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority. Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne. This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.
Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction. Desire cannot be systematized. We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.
Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not. Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection. Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her. Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii]. When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired. It is not a statement of resignation. Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal. Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.
It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her. However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy. Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.” Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother. To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement. She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.
Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him. The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective. The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern. Treachery is circular; treason is circular. This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:
We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].
I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves. We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal. As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.” According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603. All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605. If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.
All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves. We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.
Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.
Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage. She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society. In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong. Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win? Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality? A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else. No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.
Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself. He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.
From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case. In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin. All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner. It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii]. And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v]. “Fine” here means “ending.” The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it. The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning. The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.
No one is innocent, and no one is guilty. Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii]. The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.
One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite. Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii]. Language kills. That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean. When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication. When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.
Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect. For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii]. He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.]. He often cannot finish his sentences. Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis). And yet there is some sense in his nonsense. When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar? When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i]. And yet are they gabbling? Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest. Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble. Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless. There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning. Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.
At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii]. In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.” He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion. Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father. The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test. It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law. Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.
Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage? Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition. But was Kant incorrect? All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.
When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii]. This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.
“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine]. There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending. Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy. All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well. All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s ill that ends well.
Polyptoton: Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their [sic] War on You (Greg Gutfeld) by Joseph Suglia
Greg Gutfeld writes with all of the elegance of a demented leprechaun, with all of the sophistication of a gutbucket guitar. Gutfeld, a writer without a working gut-hammer, is gutted of all integrity. I have guttled down thousands of books in my life, but this is the only one that seems gutlessly written. To be charitable, perhaps Gutfeld has reserved his gutsiest staves for his television program. I found it difficult to gut it out and finish his book, which is a complete gutter ball.
An Analysis of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979)
by Joseph Suglia
Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.
“Whatever is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft / Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) is less a film about the struggle between Good and Evil than it is a film about the triumph of all-consuming Eros over theology. Each of the film’s personages–Count Dracula, Lucy, Jonathan Harker–are seized by a destructively violent passion. Their desires are one. They are victims of a violent desire that exists on the other side of mortality, on the other side of Good and Evil.
All three characters mirror each other at certain crucial points.
Kinski’s Nosferatu is He-Who-Desires: an incarnation which is curiously effeminate but also strangely virile, virtually androgynous, neither man nor woman. His vampire is leech-like, parasitical, much frailer and sicklier than other, more robust screen vampires (Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, etc.). When Jonathan eats his dinner, Nosferatu stares at his quarry’s neck like a hound in rut. He has no existence outside of the living beings upon whom he feeds. So intensely enamored of Lucy’s neck is Nosferatu that he is willing to leave his castle in Transylvania just to be near her. And when Nosferatu comes to Bremen, he brings the plague with him. His untrammeled desire for Lucy is pestilential, a cloud of rats. His all-enveloping love, his polymorphic attraction, is what brings the pestilence. Sexual desire is the plague. In this film, desire is figured as disease. A plague that ends in the “festive” destruction of Western civilization, a round dance in which animals and humans mingle, a joyful plague of “perverse” sexuality.
Jonathan Harker is Nosferatu’s double–willing to give up everything, willing to risk death, to go any extreme for the sake of his beloved, Lucy. And at the eerily open-ended conclusion of the film (and this is Herzog’s most drastic departure from the original), Jonathan assumes the vampire’s role completely. He effectively becomes his nemesis. There are no end credits; the film continues infinitely. The final image is of a spreading desolation, the reign of negativity and the annihilation of civilization (which, as usual in Herzog, is affirmed as a joyous event—from what we see of civilization in this film, it doesn’t appear worth saving; the annihilation of all social laws is here seen as something positive). Nosferatu nowhere dies in the space of the film. Indeed, Nosferatu’s tragedy is not death but the impossibility of death.
In her conversation with Nosferatu, Lucy makes a startling proclamation: She is willing to refuse to God the love that she gives to Jonathan. Her unreserved, unholy desire for Jonathan surmounts her piety, her faith in God. Does this not bind her intimately with Nosferatu, the force of entropic negativity? By refusing God the love she gives to her man, she migrates to the country of darkness. With her spectral pallor, she is uncannily resemblant of Nosferatu. When he visits her in the bedroom, she embraces him, her dark lover, pulling him to her neck. Is this nothing more than a self-sacrifice for the sake of the people of Bremen? For Jonathan’s sake? Perhaps. But after Nosferatu is vanquished, why does the blood rush to her cheeks? And why, after Nosferatu has sapped her blood, why does she bask in what seems to be a post-coital glow?
Each of these characters is a victim of the suicidal character of all sexual desire.
There are so many details in this film that will haunt your mind. Kinski’s ghastly rat-like features, the murine parasite. The way in which the camera makes you his victim, fresh for vampirization. The way in which all relations are inverted. Sickness surmounts health. Survival surmounts both death and life.
Unlike F.W. Murnau’s 1922 original, the images in Herzog’s film are not symbolic–that is, they do not subserve character or language. The images are restored to their purity and form a pre-conceptual, pre-rational, pre-critical visual language all their own.
Ultimately, Nosferatu‘s (1979) greatest virtue is that it includes an acting performance by one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century, someone who is never acknowledged as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century. His name is Roland Topor.
An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Nicht, dass gekämpft wird, ist das Tragische der Welt. Sie selbst ist das Tragische.
—Christian Morgenstern, Stufen
Troilus and Cressida (circa 1603) does not seem to belong in the age in which it was written. This disenchantingly sordid play belongs to modernity. It demythologizes war, it demythologizes love, it demythologizes heroism, it demythologizes the supernatural. The sour luridness of the play, its fetid atmosphere, is so suffocating that it has obscured its status as one of the greatest works that Shakespeare ever composed.
LOVE IS WAR / WAR IS LOVE
Seven years deep into the Trojan-Grecian War, the Grecians and the Trojans alike are wracked with fatigue, demoralized, and insensitive to rank (e.g. Achilles is so arrogant that he dallies in bed with his male lover Petroclus instead of strategizing with the general). Shakespeare reminds us, again and again, the war is not the glorious campaign that it is in Homer.
There is in this play an erotics of war. By this phrase, I do not intend that the play beautifies war; I mean that it eroticizes war by conflating the martial and the erotic. There is in the play a kind of erotic bellicosity and bellicose eroticism. We see this when Aeneas issues a challenge to the Greeks: Let one of them defend the wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of their lady (Greece) against the superior wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of Hector’s lady (Troy): “[Hector] hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did compass in his arms” [I:iii].
The entire Trojan-Grecian War is based on one man’s libidinal desires: Paris’ lust for Helen, Menelaus’ stolen wife. The play suggests this to us through its raisonneurs, Hector, Thersites, Cassandra, and Diomedes. So much blood is spilled over a “whore and a cuckold” [II:iii], as the divine slave Thersites phrases it: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V:ii]. Blood and death eventuate from one man’s sexual itchings.
Of course, Paris says the opposite. “Sir,” Paris says to his father, the King of Troy, “I propose not merely to myself / The pleasures that such a beauty [Helen] brings with it” [II:ii]. But who believes him? “[Y]ou speak / Like one besotted on your own sweet delights” [Ibid.], Priam says of his son Paris. And is it not true? Paris believes that the capture of one woman, the woman for whom he lusts, is worth infinitely more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men who are canalized into the slaughterhouse of war. He also believes that his own ecstatic transports are worth more than the sorrow of the men and women who will mourn over the dead.
It would be facile to say that the play is anti-war. It is anti-war, but it is anti-love in the same measure. Love leads inexorably to betrayal—or, at least, to the perception of betrayal. It is never entirely clear whether Cressida betrays Troilus or Troilus betrays himself. Young Troilus ends up hating the woman he once loved, which spurs him to hack away at the enemy. Its disenchantment with love removes the play from peacenik causes.
In all love, there is war, but one could evaginate this proposition: In all love, there is war, and in all war, there is love. Troilus and Cressida suggests the interpenetration of love and war in each scene. Empedocles knew well that love and conflict, attraction and repulsion, Philia and Neikos, were intimately bound together, and we see this Empedoclean dialectic bodied forth in Shakespeare’s play. War issues from love, as love is riven by war.
Before his love transforms into hatred, Troilus sees Cressida as a spoil of war, as booty that is worth fighting over. His infatuation with Cressida is the economic infatuation of a war-profiteer. He says of Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” [I:i]. She is an exotic land to be conquered. Helen is first likened to semen-stained bedsheets, then also likened to a pearl. Troilus says of Helen, “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant / When we have soiled them” [II:ii]. Then: “Why, she is a pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” [Ibid.]. Troilus is likely a virgin—or one who has been revirginized in the Virgin Machine—and, like many virgins, conflates the ecstasy of love with the ecstasy of death: “What will it be, / When that the water’y palates taste indeed / Love’s thrice-reputed nectar? Death, I fear me, / Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, / Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, / For the capacity of my ruder powers” [III:ii]. As Troilus reminds us earlier, there is a battle going on within the walls of Troy—it is a battle for Cressida’s desire. “[P]ress it to death,” Pandarus says of the bed in which Troilus and Cressida will couple [III:ii]. Again and again, there is war-in-love and love-in-war.
The paradox of war-in-love and love-in-war can be seen in the antiphrasis of friendly enmity that runs throughout the play. The warriors are friendly enemies and hostile friends. Grecian embraces Trojan, as Trojan embraces Grecian. The Trojan Hector embraces his Grecian cousin Ajax. Ulysses and Troilus become Best Friends Forever, despite the fact that Ulysses is Grecian and Troilus belongs to the other side. Enemies volley a fusillade of affectionate insults at one another. They insult one another fondly. Paris, overhearing Aeneas and Diomedes railing against each other lovingly, says that this is “the most despiteful’st gentle greeting, / The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of” [IV:i]. Diomedes, speaking to Paris, is never more admirable than when he condemns the unholy carnage of the war for the losses that it has inflicted on both sides. “For every false drop in [Helen’s] bawdy veins,” Diomedes says to Paris, “A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain” [IV:i]. The Grecian general Agamemnon gives Aeneas, emissary of the Trojan army, a feast and the “welcome of a noble foe” [I:iii]. Hector, on safe conduct, feasts with the Grecians, etc., etc. Characters are friendlier to their enemies than they are to their friends; there are fractions within factions. Enemies are loyal to one another with the piety of traitors.
PANDARUS, THE INCOMPETENT MEDIATOR
Pandarus panders—as his name suggests, he is a pimp, a procurer. He solicits his own niece Cressida to Troilus and seems to care more about the promise of Troilus’ erotic victory than he does about Cressida’s state of mind when Pandarus learns that Cressida has become a commodity that will be gifted to the Greeks in exchange for the enfranchisement of the prisoner Antenor. This comes about thanks to the traitor Calchas, Cressida’s father, who is every bit of an agent of mediation, every bit of a “broker-lackey” [V:xi], as Pandarus is. Calchas solicits his daughter Cressida, as Pandarus panders Cressida his niece.
Troilus cannot come to Cressida except by way of her uncle Pandarus. This is yet another instantiation of what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third”: The one cannot relate to the other except by way of the mediator. And yet, even though Pandarus is a mediator, he is a mediator who mediates nothing. All of his intercessions, all of his intermediations, are in vain.
Whenever the two lovers meet, Pandarus is there, hovering in the background. “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress,” he urges Troilus [III:ii]. “Have you not done talking yet?” [Ibid.], he says to the young lovers and “Go to, go to” [Ibid.], egging them on to put on a sex show while he slaveringly leers. He is clearly prostituting his niece—presenting her as a “picture,” as a pornographic icon for his scopophilic pleasure: “Come, draw this curtain, and let’s see your picture” [III:ii]. Pandarus’ scopophilia extends so far that he projects himself through the medium of the imagination into his niece’s body. “Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body” [I:ii], Pandarus says of his niece.
Shakespeare keeps reminding us, unto the final line of the play, that Pandarus is a syphilitic pimp. “My business seethes,” he says to the subtly deprecating Servant [III:i]—but the Elizabethans knew what the word seethe connoted. Shakespeare does not let us forget that seething connotes STDs and the sweating treatment that was used to cure them. In the play’s last verse, Pandarus threatens to “bequeath [his] diseases” to the spectators [V:xi]. It is indeed a sodden and sordid play that ends with the imaginary transference of venereal diseases to the audience.
THE LOGIC OF EXCHANGEABILITY
Troilus and Cressida contains a logic of exchangeability: Characters are fungible, and they interchange with one another. Paris substitutes for Menelaus as Helen’s new lover. Cressida substitutes for Antenor (her transference to Grecians liberates the imprisoned Antenor), and Achilles is replaced by Ajax. As Ulysses says, “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” [II:i]. Calchas and Ulysses are both agents who effect substitution. Calchas solicits his daughter in exchange for Antenor; the ever-crafty Ulysses exchanges Ajax for Achilles.
Most interestingly, we see the logic of substitutability, of taking-one-for-another, in the romance between Troilus and Cressida. Cressida is the replacement for Helen, as Troilus is the replacement for Menelaus, and Diomedes is the replacement for Paris. Just as Menelaus was cuckolded by Paris, Troilus will be cuckolded by Diomedes. One cuckold replaces another cuckold; one conflict replaces another conflict. Here is the dreary repetition of war prompted by sexual jealousy. The conflict between Troilus and Diomedes repeats the conflict between Paris and Menelaus—this suggests that erotically generated war will never cease.
When he lines up to Kiss the Girl with the rest of the Grecian army, Menelaus is the only suitor who is refused by Cressida. Could this be because he is superannuated, irrelevant, having been replaced by a newer cuckold—namely, by Troilus?
Such is the cosmic irony of the play: The Trojans refuse to give up the Queen of the Greeks, Helen, but willingly give up Trojan-born Cressida. Troilus presents specious arguments against giving back Helen to the Greeks, and yet his own beloved Cressida is given to the Greeks instead. History is presented as a series of infinite permutations; the same elements are infinitely rearranged.
FAKE NEWS FROM TROY
Characters refer to themselves in the third person, a practice which is usually coincident with a beclouded mind. “O foolish Cressid” [IV:ii], which Cressida says of herself, is one example of this.
Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus historicize themselves—or are conscious of their being-in-history. Troy claims to be as “true as Troilus”; Cressida says that she should be known as “false as Cressid” [III:ii], if she betrays Troilus. Pandarus affirms, “Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders” [III:ii]. And this auto-reflexivity is unimpugnable: Literate people today do indeed associate faithful men with Troilus, faithless women with Cressida, and officious mediators with Pandarus.
When Achilles kills Hector, he does so by way of a trick. He waits for Hector to unarm himself. Achilles does not even kill Hector himself—he has his Myrmidons do the dirty work for him. His Myrmidons ambush Hector when he is vulnerable. The murder of Hector and the grotesque desecration of his carcass are recreant and dishonorable—and yet this is championed and broadcast as if it were the result of valor and fair play.
“On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, / ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’” The quotation marks are important. This is an act of speech and an act of writing that will be transmitted to the ages—the news is fake, but the fake news will be memorialized. All historical memory is fake news, Shakespeare appears to suggest.
The characters have historical consciousness—that is, they are conscious of their place in historical memory. They anticipate their reception in the future. They are conscious of their own status as representations in the future perfect; they are conscious of their readers and spectators. They are conscious of their reverberations through the abysses of time.
DEMYTHOLOGIZING THE GODS AND THE HEROES
There is almost no supernaturalism at all in the play. Whereas in Homer, the gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Aphrodite, intervene in human affairs and shape the Trojan-Athenian War, there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida. The closest we, as readers, come to the supernatural is by way of the brief appearance of the Sagittary—who is half-horse, half-man—the only creature who could be described as mythopoeticized. All of the other characters are human, all-too-human.
The play demythologizes both gods and heroes alike.
Most of the so-called Grecian and Trojan “heroes” are lazy, languid, lethargic, including Paris, who lounges about with his stolen mistress instead of battling against the enemy: “I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so” [III:i], he says to Pandarus.
Ajax, who is best known for having been bedeviled by Athena and bewitched into slaughtering sheep, is a “blockish” blockhead [I:iii].
Shakespeare’s Achilles is not the great warrior of the Illiad. Shakespeare’s Achilles is a layabout, lying in bed with his ladyboy Petroclus, who is described by Thersites as Achilles’ “male varlet” and as his “masculine whore” [V:i]. In the first scene of the second act, Petroclus is characterized by Thersites as a “brach,” an obsolete word that means “bitch hound,” “fawning hanger-on,” “prostitute,” or “catamite.”
In Hellenic mythology, Cassandra was cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo for refusing his advances. In Shakespeare, however, Cassandra is believed by Hector, at least. He commends her “high strains / [o]f divination” as genuine signs of prophecy [II:ii]. Her ravings are dismissed by Troilus as “brain-sick raptures” [Ibid.]—but this is the imputation of pathology. The point is not that Cassandra’s augury is pathologized by Troilus; the point is that she is not divinely sibylline. There is no evidence that she was ever gifted with prophecy by Apollo or cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo. Shakespeare breaks with the myth.
The general of the Greek army is openly slighted by Aeneas and Achilles, Menelaus is presented as a drowsy cuckold, and Helen, who hardly appears at all, appears as a non-entity. Achilles and Petroclus mock their fellows in the Grecian army, “break[ing] scurril jests, [pageanting them] with ridiculous and awkward action—which, slanderer, [Achilles] imitation calls” [I:iii]. Thersites mocks everyone indiscriminately. All of the great heroes of Greek mythology are subjected to deposition.
Troilus and Cressida is a fractured, disjointed play. The failed romance between Troilus and Cressida, which is itself elliptical, is elliptically presented. Instead of a sustained, continuous presentation, the play appears as a series of vignettes or tableaux vivants.
Not merely is the form of the play fragmentary; the characters are fragmentary, as well. Ajax is described by Alexander, Cressida’s man-in-waiting, as the agglomeration of scissile animal parts (he is of elephant, lion, and bear) [I:ii]. In the fifth scene of the fourth act, Ajax is characterized by his cousin Hector as the agglutination of fissile Grecian and Trojan parts.
And what of Cressida? Who is Cressida, in herself? The answer is that she is self-doubling. At first, it might seem that either she dislikes Troilus or she is pretending to dislike him. But this is a false dichotomy. One of her selves likes Troilus; another one of her selves dislikes Troilus. She has a fissiparous self—that is to say, she has a multiplicity of selves rather than a single self. She is divided into a “kind of self” and another “unkind self” [III:ii], a self that is loyal to Troilus and a self that betrays Troilus. She says to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you, / But an unkind self that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” [Ibid.].
The self-duplication of Cressida prompts Troilus to say, “This is and is not Cressid” [V:ii], when he sights her at Diomedes’ camp. One should observe her ambiguous conduct: She both gives and snatches back the sleeve that Troilus pledged to her—she is both faithless and faithful, both disloyal and loyal.
There is a misogynistic logic in Troilus’ thinking: If one woman is impure, he suggests, then all women are impure. “Think, we had mothers” [V:ii], he says to Ulysses. Since mothers are pure, he implies, and since mothers exist, how could any one woman be impure? Epexegesis: It could not have been Cressida that he saw, since Cressida is a woman, and if the Being He Saw were a woman, this would impugn all womanhood.
As the play opens, Troilus urges the gods to reveal her selfsameness to him: “What Cressid is” [I:ii]. And yet Cressida is not One Thing, not a unified substance, not a substantialized, hypostatized self. On the one hand, she is dedicated to Troilus. On the other hand, she is doubtful of Troilus’ bedroom performance skills and seems hesitant to take things further with him: Men “swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform,” she says to Troilus [III:ii].
Cressida herself will be inaccessible, for she knows the finitude of male desire: Once a man gets what he wants, he doesn’t want it anymore. Once a man gets the woman he wants, he doesn’t want her anymore. Cressida says in the one scene in which she is alone: “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” [I:ii]. She will be inaccessible, therefore; she will never be only One Thing.
Disenchanting love, disenchanting war, disenchanting heroism, disenchanting theophany, disenchanting the world of the supernatural—all of these forms of disenchantment make of Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s most curiously futuristic play. It looks backward in order to look forward.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of STUCK! (2009) by Joseph Suglia
If you want to properly understand Steve Balderson’s fourth feature film, Stuck! (2009), you must disabuse yourself of the illusion that it is all a joke. Balderson is not engaging in parody, or satire, or camp. His film is blissfully free of irony. There is no smugness here, no attempt to levitate above its story with postmodernist cynicism. Balderson’s film demands to be taken seriously, despite its more felicitous moments.
The easiest way to describe Stuck! would be to say that it follows the downward slide of a Midwestern girl named Daisy (played by the angelic Starina Johnson) from innocence to corruption–or her ascension from fragility to strength. Daisy is the victim of the trumped-up charge of killing her mother (September Carter in one of the film’s strongest performances), sentenced to death by hanging, and incarcerated. In prison, she keeps company with a religious fanatic (Mink Stole), a predatory obsessive (Pleasant Gehman), a serial widow (Susan Traylor), and a withdrawn infanticide who suffers from echolalia (the Go-Gos’ beautiful Jane Wiedlin). All these women have to make their lives tolerable are music, passion, storytelling, and the desire for revenge.
From a narrow perspective, there are clichés–because clichés are unavoidable when developing any story that is set in a prison. Balderson and screenwriter Frank Krainz had a difficult decision to make. They could have resolved that no clichés would materialize in the space of their production (and thus have fallen prey to them). Instead, they made the more intelligent decision and welcomed and affirmed the women-in-prison conventions that appear in their film. They do not sneer at the clichés, affecting the smug, self-complacent revisionism of Jonathan Demme (Caged Heat) or John McNaughton (Girls in Prison). Rather, they expand the clichés to their breaking point, infuse them with new life, and thus reinvent them from within. Balderson’s world is not an etiolated world: Every cliché is richly personalized, defamiliarized, transformed into something other than a cliché.
The film is absolutely beautiful to watch, from the Dreyeresque close-ups of Starina Johnson, whose suffering is palpable in nearly every frame, to the Godardian jump-cuts, to the painterly images of the prison cells, which the inmates decorate with talismans and totems. Seldom has black-and-white been used so colorfully.
It would be impossible to do justice to Stuck! without meditating on its more carnal elements. This is a very erotic film, but it is not a work of eroticism. Eroticism, by definition, is not erotic. Why? Because eroticism focuses upon the body and ignores the soul–and nothing is less erotic than a soulless body. Cinematic eroticism, in particular, is a mass spectacle of stinking, putrefying carcasses. If Stuck! is erotic, that is because we, as viewers, come to know Daisy as a dreaming, feeling, thinking, LIVING human being. Starina Johnson gives off erotic sparks for reasons that have nothing to do with soma, for reasons that have nothing to do with physicality. She represents the perfect synthesis of innocence and sexiness, radiating a light-heartedness and deep sensuality in everything that she does, in her every gesture and delicately nuanced facial expression. Her character only gradually becomes conscious of what we notice from the very beginning: the power of her charm. “What is sexy?” Balderson asked in a parvum opus, Phone Sex (2006). He never asked me, but if he did, I would have replied: What is “sexy” is self-consciousness, the consciousness of one’s own sexiness. And Stuck! is sexy because its characters–particularly those of Starina Johnson and Pleasant Gehman–are conscious of the electricity of their sensuality and especially in a stunningly powerful lovemaking scene in which neither lover removes her clothing. By unwrapping the body only after he reveals the soul, Balderson, same-sexualist, has proven that he has greater insight into the dynamics of heteroerotic desire than any heterosexual filmmaker.
To say that Stuck! is the finest women-in-prison film ever made would be to say too little. It recalls not primarily the women-in-prison genre, but rather the German Expressionist-inspired American noir of the 1950s and 1960s. If you have seen Daughter of Horror (1955), Carnival of Souls (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), or Spider Baby (1968), you know that to which I am referring. If one insists upon calling it a “women-in-prison film,” then it must be conceded that Stuck! is easily the only women-in-prison film that could justifiably be called a serious work of art.
An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible. Love comes about as a conspiracy. That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy. A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other. Love-relations are arranged by the community. They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness. It is the community that decides who loves whom. It is the community that makes love-relations possible.
We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play. Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato. Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject. He will be Claudio’s intercessor:
The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit. ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].
Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.
Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero? Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name? Why does Claudio not do the courting himself? Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata? Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?
The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third. A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary. Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.
Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i]. Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”
As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers. (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.) And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor. Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).
Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:
I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].
Notice the use of the verb “fashion.” Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors. What chthonic beast will he slay? Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.
And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:
I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].
Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends. Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.
This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio). This is a conspiracy of marriage. Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?
Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him. He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice. Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):
I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].
“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice. When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect. His superior desires Beatrice. So must he.
In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped. Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.
The exact scene is replicated in the third act. Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her. Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:
“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].
Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.]. “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.
Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].
She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing. / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.
Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda. And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)? Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not. The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will. The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will. Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil. The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard. A melancholic bastard. And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.
What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations. Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.
My analysis was cited in Marco Caracciolo’s article “Narrative Space and Readers’ Responses to Stories: A Phenomenological Account,” Style. Vol. 47, No. 4, Narrative, Social Neuroscience, Plus Essays on Hecht’s Poetry, Hardy’s Fiction, and Kathy Acker (Winter 2013), pp. 425-444. Print.
An Analysis of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) by Joseph Suglia
“When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it…”
—Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) is something of an undergraduate exercise. It is a Faulknerian pastiche and, above all, hedonistic. Hedonism, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of art. Whereas Blood Meridian is verbally expansive, the language of McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is strictly delimited.
We follow a nameless father and son as they wander through a post-American void, a “blastosphere,” to use J.G. Ballard’s term. (Blastosphere = Not the blastula, but the “implicit shape of the way matter is perturbed by an explosion” (Will Self)). They scavenge for food and tools. They encounter those who seemingly show their seamiest impulses and who behave in an unseemly manner.
And yet I suspect that this is less a novel about a post-apocalyptic future than it is one about our atheological present. It is a theological allegory about a world from which the gods are manifestly absent. Eine gottesverlassene und gottesvergessene Welt.
We find grounds for this supposition in those passages in which the grey waste is described as “godless”  and “coldly secular”  and wastes of human flesh are named “creedless” .
“On this road there are no godspoke men” .
The worst thing that could be written about The Road is that it is a sappy religious allegory. Nabokov wrote of Faulkner’s Light in August:
“The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which also spoils Mauriac’s work.”
I would write of McCarthy’s The Road:
The book’s pseudo-religious rhythm I simply cannot stand–a phoney gloom which does not pervade Faulkner’s work.
This does not mean that the book is unredeemable, however. What might have been a pedestrian trifle in the hands of a lesser writer has become something genuinely pedestrian with author McCarthy. The most distinctive feature of The Road is not the story that is told, but the manner in which McCarthy tells it: that is to say, the narrative. He writes so magically that a grey empty world is summoned forth vividly before our eyes.
It needs to be said and emphasized that McCarthy has almost completely superseded standard English punctuation in the writing of this novel. He strategically, willfully omits periods, commas, semicolons, and apostrophes throughout the work in order to equivocate, in order to multiply meanings, in order to enlarge the literary possibilities of language.
The relative absence of punctuation in the novel makes the words appear as if they were the things themselves. Of course, one could seize upon the conscious, literal meaning of the words. But does language not slip away from us? Are its meanings not dependent on the interpretive framework of the listener, of the reader? And is it not conceivable that the linguistic elisions reflect the consciousness of the central character?
Proper punctuation would disambiguate and thus flatten the sentences–sentences that are, liberated from such restrictions, both benign and lethal. We have before us a rhetorically complex novel, a work of literature that is rife with ambiguity.
And the non-punctuation makes us feel. If the “sentences” were punctuated in the traditional manner, we, as readers, would feel nothing. We would not feel, viscerally and viciously, the nightmarish world into which father and son have precipitated. We would not be infused with the chill of post-civilization.
The absence of standard punctuation in The Road is a fruitful, productive absence. It is a writerly, stylistic choice.
I hope I have persuaded my readers that McCarthy’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation is stylized. It most certainly is not unnecessary. One of the lessons that we can derive from the novels of McCarthy is how to apply typography in literary craftsmanship. Punctuation opens or closes the doors of meaning. Let me invent my own ambiguously commaless sentence for the purposes of elucidation. If I write, “I want to eat my parrot William,” this would seem to signify that I want to eat a parrot named William, a parrot that belongs to me. However, what happens if the comma is explicitly absent? Three contradictory interpretations are then possible: 1.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her, a parrot named William; 2.) The narrator, apparently, wants to eat a parrot that belongs to him or her and is addressing this remark to someone named William (“I want to eat my parrot, William”); 3.) The narrator may be expressing the desire to eat in general, and this comment is directed at his or her parrot, the name of which is William (“I want to eat, my parrot William”). Punctuation, depending on how it is used, can restrict or expand meaning. Commas articulate, determine meaning. The absence of a comma, on the other hand, opens up semantic possibilities inherent to language. Its absence opens the doors of ambiguity.
As I suggested above, McCarthy’s refusal to punctuate in the conventional manner is also intimately connected to the internal struggles of the main character and, perhaps, the psychology of the author. The narrator eschews commas because he fears death. I suspect that, similarly, McCarthy’s aversion to punctuation bespeaks a futile desire to escape his mortality–a charmingly fragile and recognizably human desire.
“[E]ver is no time at all” .
The ephemerality of the instant. Hence, the relative commalessness of McCarthy’s statements. A comma would pause an enunciation, rupture its continuity, the incessant flow of language, the drift of language into the future. What, after all, is a comma if not the graphic equivalent of a turn in breath, of an exhalation or an inhalation? Commas do not merely articulate a sentence. Commas stall, they defer, they postpone, they interrupt without stopping. A speaking that speaks ceaselessly, without commas, in order to outstrip the nightmare of history. McCarthy’s language moves forward endlessly, without giving readers a chance to catch their breath. This is a writing that is unidirectional and decidedly equivocal.
The thrusting momentum of McCarthy’s language fertilizes my suspicion that The Road is also a book about time. More precisely, a book about time’s three impossibilities: the impossibility of ridding oneself of the past completely, the impossibility of eternalizing the present, and the impossibility of encompassing the future.
The future is essentially unpredictable for the son, and the reader has no idea, at the novel’s close, what will become of him. Will the son survive? Will he be bred for cannibal meat, for anthropophagous delicacies? An infinitude of possibilities… And here we come to yet another strange intimacy between McCarthy’s singular style of punctuating and not punctuating and one of the leitmotifs of his novel: The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of THE ROAD is no conclusion at all, a conclusion without a period. And the novel lives on inside of the reader’s head and heart, growing within as if it were a vicious monster fungus.
FREEDOM (Jonathan Franzen)
by Joseph Suglia
Patty Berglund is one of the good people. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her husband–his name is Walter Berglund–is also one of the good people. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, too. He is greener than Greenpeace. Then the Berglunds move to Washington, District Columbia, and Walter works for a man named Vin Haven, a big oil-and-gas guy. A Republican with ties to the Bush-Cheney regime. One of the conformists. One of the conservatives. One of the evil people.
Vin Haven’s a funny kind of person. He and his wife, Kiki, who is also evil, they, like, love birds and stuff. Vin got a lot of money by losing money on oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. He’s kind of old now, and so he’s decided to blow a lot of dough on the cerulean warbler, a songbird on the Endangered Species List. There’s a real healthy population of warblers in West Virginia and so to keep the bird off the List and garner some good press, Vin Haven has a dream: to build a cerulean-warbler conservatory in West Virginia and finish building the Pan-American Warbler Park in South America, which is below the U.S. That dream is Walter’s dream, too. And it can only come true through properly managed mountaintop removal–blasting mountain peaks so that coal-mining companies can mine coal. Walter believes in a Green Revolution–a revolution that would be painless to him.
In 2004, Walter starts working on an anti-population crusade. He struggles to get an intern. program going before the nation’s most liberal college kids all finalize their summer plans and work for the Kerry campaign instead. Even though he’s got kids, Walter wants to make babies an embarrassment because the planet’s overpopulated, like smoking’s an embarrassment, being obese’s an embarrassment, like driving an Escalade’s an embarrassment, like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot’s an embarrassment. The evil people just want to make more evil people.
The Berglunds’ son Joey moves in with the neighbors–who are really evil people–and eventually becomes a Republican war profiteer. One of the evil people.
Then there’s Richard Katz, Walter’s old friend from college. He’s a rocker and a roller, was in a band called The Traumatics, and he knows that rock ‘n’ roll ain’t nothing but the selling of wintergreen Chiclets, man, and ain’t it the truth. He’s not a real rebel, and he knows it. He’s a closet Republican, shilling merchandise, just like everyone else in the entertainment industry. A poseur. One of the evil people.
But at least Richard knows it, man. And gets sick of livin’ The Lie. So he gives up rockin’ and rollin’ and goes back to what he used to do, building decks. Back to doin’ the only honorable thing he can think of. He tries to become one of the good people.
* * * * *
Jonathan Franzen is to liberalism what Ayn Rand is to neo-conservatism. They are both doctrinaire writers who employ fiction as a means to an end.
Whether reactionary or liberal, ideologically charged fiction is sickly writing designed to proselytize. Its plot and characters are dependent on an easily identifiable political program. Jonathan Franzen is an ideologizer and a slick pseudo-literary entrepreneur.
Poetic language does not produce characters that are good or evil, politically right or politically wrong. It creates an imaginary world in which it is impossible to draw such easy distinctions.
* * * * *
When did writing stop having to do with writing? When novels became nothing more than precursors to screenplays.
It is time, and high time indeed, that American letters stopped having to do with propaganda, cinema, etc., and started having to do with writing again.
A review of Oblivion (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
When I was in graduate school, I was (mis)taught literature by a man who had no ear for poetic language and who had absolutely no interest in eloquence. I learned that he held an undergraduate degree in Physics and wondered, as he chattered on loudly and incessantly, why this strange man chose to study and teach literature, a subject that obviously did not appeal to him very much. I think the same thing of David Foster Wallace, a writer who probably would have been happier as a mathematician (mathematics is a subject that Wallace studied at Amherst College).
A collection of fictions published in 2004, Oblivion reads very much as if a mathematician were trying his hand at literature after having surfeited himself with Thomas Pynchon and John Barth–-not the best models to imitate or simulate, if you ask me.
The first fiction, “Mr. Squishy,” is by far the strongest. A consulting firm evaluates the responses of a focus group to a Ho-Hoesque chocolate confection. Wallace comes up with some delightful phraseologies: The product is a “domed cylinder of flourless maltilol-flavored sponge cake covered entirely in 2.4mm of a high-lecithin chocolate frosting,” the center of which is “packed with what amounted to a sucrotic whipped lard” . The external frosting’s “exposure to the air caused it to assume traditional icing’s hard-yet-deliquescent marzipan character” [Ibid.]. Written in a bureaucratized, mechanical language–this language, after all, is the dehumanized, anti-poetic language of corporate marketing firms, the object of Wallace’s satire–the text is a comparatively happy marriage of content and form.
Wallace gets himself into difficulty when he uses this same bureaucratic language in the next fiction, “The Soul is Not a Smithy,” which concerns a homicidal substitute teacher. I could see how a sterile, impersonal narrative could, by way of counterpoint, humanize the teacher, but the writing just left me cold. The title of the fiction simply reverses Stephen Dedalus’s statement in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Wallace never composed a sentence as beautiful as Joyce’s. Indeed, Wallace never composed a beautiful sentence.
“Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” simply duplicates the title (!) of Richard Rorty’s misguided polemic against representationalism (the misconceived idea that language is capable of mirroring the essence of things). It concerns a son who accompanies his mother to a cosmetic-surgery procedure. The son, who is also the narrator, says: “[A]nyone observing the reality of life together since the second procedure would agree the reality is the other way around…” . The narrator might or might not be one of the deluded representationalists against whom Rorty polemicized. For Rorty, “the reality of life” is not something that we are capable of talking about with any degree of insight. Unfortunately, this is the only point in the text at which the philosophical problem of representation arises.
The eponymous fiction “Oblivion” and the self-reflexive “The Suffering Channel” (which concerns a man whose excreta are considered works of art) are inelegantly and ineloquently written.
After laboring through such verbal dross, I can only conclude that David Foster Wallace was afraid of being read and thus attempted to bore his readers to a teary death. His noli me legere also applies to himself. It is impossible to escape the impression that he was afraid of reading and revising any of the festering sentences that he churned out. Because he likely never read his own sentences, he likely never knew how awkward they sounded. Infinite Jest was written hastily and unreflectively, without serious editing or revision, it appears. It is merely because of the boggling bigness of Infinite Jest that the book has surfaced in the consciousness of mainstream America at all (hipsterism is a vicissitude of mainstream America). We, the Americanized, are fascinated by bigness. To quote Erich Fromm: “The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers…”
Speech is irreversible; writing is reversible. If you accept this premise of my argument (and any intelligent person would), must it not be said that responsible writers ought ALWAYS to recite and revise their own sentences? And does it EVER seem that Wallace did so?
The prose of Oblivion is blearily, drearily, eye-wateringly tedious. The hipsters will, of course, claim in advance that the grueling, hellish tedium of Wallace’s prose was carefully choreographed, that every infelicity was intentional, and thus obviate any possible criticism of their deity, a deity who, like all deities, has grown more powerful in death. That is, after all, precisely what they say of the Three Jonathans, the sacred triptych of hipsterdom: Foer, Franzen, and Lethem, the most lethal of them all.
One thing that even the hipsters cannot contest: David Foster Wallace did not write fictionally for his own pleasure. Unlike Kafka, he certainly did not write books that he ever wanted to read.
A valediction: The early death of David Foster Wallace is terrible and should be mourned. He was a coruscatingly intelligent man. My intention here is not to defame the dead. I recommend that the reader spend time with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and leave his other writings alone. As I suggested above, he probably didn’t want his prose to be read, anyway.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Perhaps the first of the Shakespearean comedies, and doubtless the least-performed and least-read, is The Two Gentlemen of Verona (circa 1590?). Even the bardolaters seem embarrassed by the play, and it is not difficult to see why. There are very few memorable lines. (Some exceptions: “Truly, sir, I think you’ll hardly win her” [I:i]; “In love, who respects friend?” [V:iv].) Groan-inducing clichés about love that were commonplace even in Shakespeare’s time: “Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all” [I:ii]; “Love is blind” [II:i]. Inhumanly sudden changes of heart (I will return to this problem below). A parade of puns, all of them halting and limp. Some interesting canine imagery (man is a dog)–the play has more to do with Dog than with God. To summon forth Harold Bloom, little of the “hearing-oneself-speak” that gives depth to Shakespeare’s more human inventions. When the characters do listen to themselves speak, it is strange that they don’t burst into laughter. (One remarkable exception: Act Two, Scene Six.)
Valentine and Proteus are the Veronese aristocrats of the title. Valentine is the loverboy. Proteus is the rake. Valentine is the constant one. Proteus, as his name implies, is inconstant (“Proteus,” of course, refers to the god of mutability).
Here is the logic of desire in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:
Valentine desires Sylvia, a Milanese lady. Sylvia desires Valentine. Julia, a Veronese lady, desires Proteus because Proteus “despises” Julia [IV:iv]. Proteus no longer desires Julia because Valentine does not desire Julia. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia.
Let me pause over this final proposition. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia. Proteus states this clearly:
Is it my mind, or Valentinus’ praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus?
She is fair; and so is Julia that I love–
That I did love, for now my love is thaw’d;
Which like a waxen image ‘gainst a fire
Bears no impression of the thing it was [II:iv].
Julia, his first love in the play, might be a melting wax figure, but so, too, will Sylvia be. Proteus will exchange Sylvia for Julia in the final act of the play and assert that both are equally beautiful, that Sylvia is not more beautiful than Julia. One woman is interchangeable with any other, one woman is exchangeable for any other (according to Proteus). Proteus declares Julia dead not once, but twice–the second time, Julia listens to the man she loves declaring her dead–because of the protean character of (his) desire, the inconstancy of (his) desire. The image that love produces is a melting wax figure or an ice-image dissolving into water [III:ii]. If one woman is as good as any another, for Proteus, it is very likely “Valentinus’ praise” that incites Proteus’ desire for Sylvia, not any of Sylvia’s intrinsic qualities.
If anything, the play is suggesting that heterosexuality is a modification of homosexuality, not the other way around.
And what if this were the case? What if homosexuality were not a deviation from the norm of heterosexuality? What if heterosexuality were a deviation from the norm of homosexuality? What if men desired women not because of women’s intrinsic beauty or favour (Shakespearean for “charm”)? What if men desired women because women are desired by other men? What if desire for the beloved were mediated by the desires of others for the beloved?
If this were the case, then heteroerotic desire would be fundamentally homosocial.
The play concerns the war between Eros (other-sexual desire) and Philia (same-sex friendship), and it is male Philia that wins out in the end.
As the passage cited above suggests, Proteus desires simulations of women more than he desires women in the flesh. In our cybernetic culture, Proteus would be a pornography addict. Consider the fact that Proteus is more amorous of Sylvia’s portrait than he is of Sylvia-in-the-Flesh. Consider the fact the Proteus asks for an image of Sylvia–an image to which he can masturbate. Much like Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Sylvia can never be apprehended in her divine nudity. The goddess is impalpable and divinely invisible–what Proteus-Actaeon sees is only the human shape that she assumes. (Shakespeare’s text supports this equation–at one stage, Sylvia is described as the “Queen of the Night,” which is one of Diana’s appellations.)
Not merely is Proteus a rake. We learn early on that he is a blockhead, as well. In his discourse with Valentine’s servant Speed:
“The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep” [I:i].
Of course, this is a specious, merely colorable argument. The sheep do not follow the shepherd for food. They can eat it from the ground. The shepherd follows the sheep. The shepherd tends the sheep because he wants to shear the sheep, eat the sheep, sell the sheep’s meat, sell the sheep’s wool, or befriend the sheep.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN CIRCUIT
The most remarkable aspect of the play is what I call the “Shakespearean Circuit” or the “Loop of Desire.” It functions in this manner: 1.) A giver gives a gift to a recipient. 2.) The recipient returns the gift to the giver. 3.) The gift is now directed at the giver, not the recipient.
Here is the first instance of the Shakespearean Circuit in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Valentine (very reluctantly) writes a love letter on behalf of Sylvia. The letter, Sylvia tells Valentine, is intended for one of her suitors. Valentine presents the letter to Sylvia. Sylvia returns the letter to Valentine. The letter that Valentine wrote on Sylvia’s behalf is now addressed to Valentine.
This is how the Circuit works in this context: 1.) A lover writes a letter on behalf of his beloved–a letter that is addressed to the lover’s rival. 2.) The beloved returns the letter to the lover. 3.) The letter is, then, addressed to the lover, not to the lover’s rival.
Here is another example of the “Shakespearean Circuit”: Julia gives Proteus a ring. Proteus asks Julia, when she is disguised as a man, to give the ring to Sylvia, which she never does. Julia returns the ring to Proteus. End of circuit.
The Loop of Desire is not endemic to this particular play–one can find the Shakespearean Circuit in much of the dramatist’s work (e.g. The Merry Wives of Windsor). One character gives his desire to another character–and this expression of desire ends up being directed to the giver, not the intended recipient.
I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that the characters of The Two Gentlemen of Verona have “inhumanly sudden changes of heart.” Some instances of this:
A band of outlaws accosts Valentine and his page in a forest. Thirty-two lines later–may the reader count them–the outlaws coronate Valentine, making him their king!
Proteus attempts to ravish Sylvia. Valentine frustrates the ravishment before it is accomplished. Twenty-three lines later–may the reader count them–Valentine forgives the would-be rapist and then just as quickly offers him his fiancée!
Even Shakespeare’s idolaters cannot ignore the slipshod construction of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Unless the play is intended as a spoof (and not merely a “comedy” in the Shakespearean sense), it is indefensible. Then again, one of the play’s leitmotifs is metamorphosis, which might also explain why the valiant Sir Eglamour rescues the fair damsel Sylvia and then runs away comically as the bandits come near.
Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the English literary canon. If one takes The Two Gentlemen of Verona in isolation, one can only conclude that it was written by an unworthy versifier and not by a major poet whose talent exceeds that of Andrew Marvell. Its virtues are meager in comparison with the theatre of the great Scandinavian, Ibsen, and of the great Russian, Chekhov. It is time to explode the myth that Shakespeare was always a great writer, when, in plays such as this, he is an unimaginative, fatuous hack. A poet, yes, but a poet with the soul of an entertainer.
Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Libertarianism is conservatism that is ashamed of saying its own name.
Criticism is the stratosphere of the mind.
The whole enterprise of psychoanalysis is to turn aliens into pets.
An Analysis of Only Revolutions (Mark Z. Danielewski) by Joseph Suglia
The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award. And it is an endless circuit, literally. Columns of words loop and spiral, making the text all but unintelligible. We have two narratives–though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006–that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen. If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam’s narrative, there you will find Hailey’s upside down. The size of Sam’s text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey’s. Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy’s assassination) to 22 November 2063. History is circular, don’t you know! The book’s one motif is the stupidity of circularity.
Despite Danielewski’s transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here. It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered. The huge “S” with which Sam’s narrative begins was stolen wholesale from Ulysses, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of Finnegans Wake), the typographical tics recall Derrida’s Glas and La dissémination, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both Finnegans Wake and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Vaguely resemblant of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, Only Revolutions is enslaved to its precursors. Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities. There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia. It is a book not to be read–though I have read every silly, jingling phrase–but to be looked at.
How bad is the writing? At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst. At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded Finnegans Wake as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a “found poem”–the “found” part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters–or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method or of surrealist automatism. To say that Danielewski’s versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little. When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as “I outrace furry. Populate worry” [H 24]; “All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool” [H 43]; “Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity” [S 9]; “I’m the heist. The impersonal price” [H 13]; “Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump” [S 83]; “Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps” [H 55]; “Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet” [H 53]; “Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest” [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.
By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski’s language is too difficult–far from it. His banter is not so much “difficult” as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.
It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design. This is because the book IS its typographical design. Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every “O” in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked. This not an insignificant matter. The internet impresses itself upon every page of Only Revolutions. And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book’s verbal properties. But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.
ANALOGY BLINDNESS by Joseph Suglia
Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases. Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It). I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:
analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents. To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.
The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant. Both are inadvisable.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!
The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football? That’s great!
The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work. You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!
Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.
An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins. The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed. Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist. 2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence. Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting. The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master. 3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.
It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place. The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity. Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother. There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus. Hilarity ensues.
The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte. The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.
A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt). Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus. One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:
They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].
Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques. The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play. Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.
* * * * *
A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus? And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?
Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:
There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].
If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus? One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm. Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).
However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act. She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her. They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus. “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother. How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”? And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?
There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?
Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother. Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin. If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?
The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:
1.) In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant. The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money. The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.
2.) Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her. The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.
3.) Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner. Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.
4.) Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.
5.) Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.
6.) Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.
7.) Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement. Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus. Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship. (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)
8.) Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.
Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse. Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself. Doubled, he does not know himself. The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss. Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own. The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:
He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].
One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself. This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].
The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.
Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
SO LONG, PLANET EARTH!: An analysis of “Ode to the West Wind” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Bad news, humans! The Andromeda Galaxy is barreling toward the Milky Way, the sun of our solar system will explode, will extinguish itself, as all stars do, and, long before either of these things happen, most of the Planet Earth will become uninhabitably hot. All of the planets within our galaxy, with the exception of Earth, are unlivable, which means that the human species, if it is to survive at all, will have to trickle away the rest of its existence in spacecraft. Otherwise, we are hurtling toward our extinction and oblivion as if we were a suicide of lemmings.
Percy Bysshe Shelley saw all of this coming and wrote a poem about the destruction of our world, in the autumn of 1819, when the poet was twenty-seven, entitled “Ode to the West Wind.” It recalls an earlier poem by Albrecht von Haller entitled “Incomplete Poem on Eternity” (1736), which was quoted by Immanuel Kant in his youthful essay “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and of the Sublime” (1764). (It is not entirely certain whether Shelley read Kant, much less Haller. See Hugh Roberts’s article “Shelley among the Post-Kantians.”) Both poems—that of Shelley and that of Haller—are chillingly apocalyptic and yet also celebratory of the apocalypse, the coming of what Haller described as “the second nothingness” that will “bury” us all.
The ode is divided into five groups. Each group contains five stanzas. The first four stanzas in each group are three lines long; the last stanza of each group is a rhyming couplet. The entire poem is written in iambic pentameter: Each line has ten syllables; the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed. It begins thus:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!
The West Wind is like an invisible exorcist that expels leaves in the way that an exorcist expels ghosts. Thus far, the poem seems to be nothing more than the description of a natural phenomenon that uses a supernatural simile: A natural phenomenon (the West Wind) is likened to a supernatural force (the enchanter) that drives away another supernatural force (ghosts). Until we read of the “pestilence-stricken multitudes” who are escorted to their mass-death. “Multitudes” evokes human beings, not leaves—sick human beings, poor human beings.
When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, England was horribly impoverished. It was a time of famine, grave poverty, and deep unemployment. Thanks to the Corn Laws of 1815, the import of corn was blocked and the multitudes were starving.
At this point, one of the meanings generated by the poem is clear: This is an ode that welcomes the death of humanity (as it was in the early nineteenth century) and the birth of a new humanity. The poem suggests that the Apocalypse might not be such a bad idea, after all. It is not a misanthropic poem, however, since Shelley is not opposed to humanity as such; indeed, he (the paper Shelley) affirms the advent of a better humanity. I hesitate to use the word nihilistic, since the poem is not absent of value. Value-building is all that the poem does. There is a value presented in the poem, and it is the value of preservative destruction: The westerly wind is named a “Wild Spirit,” at the close of the first section, and both a “destroyer” and a “preserver.” It is the unseen presence that destroys the immiserated multitudes and the regal chariot that bears the seeds of a new humanity to their wintry sleep, to be awakened by the Spring Wind. The West Wind, then, has two functions: to destroy lost contemporary humanity and to plant the seeds for a stronger future humanity.
At the close of the first stanza, as at the close of the second and the third, the narrator sounds a clarion call, a plangent summons to the West Wind (which is apostrophized by the familiar “Thou”): “oh, hear!”
Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!
The focus of the poem shifts from the ground to the sky. To be precise: The view of the poem moves from the leaves that are being dispersed, as rioters in a mob, to the clouds that are being dispelled by the aerial force of the West Wind. No longer does the poem look down upon the poverty-stricken multitudes; now, the poem looks up at the Castlereaghs and the Eldons. No love is shown for the upper classes, which are likened to a bacchante’s tresses.
It is important to place the poem in the age in which it was written. Shelley had already condemned the government of Lord Liverpool for butchering the British people at Peterloo, Manchester (16 August 1819), in a rage-incented and rage-incenting poem entitled “The Masque of Anarchy.” Shelley was no nihilistic, ennui-drowsy elitist wishing for the death of the poor and uneducated masses. The paper Shelley, at least, wishes for the West Wind to sweep away everyone and everything that currently exists, both low and high.
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!
The tyrannies of the world—the violently repressive British government among them—are overthrown by the annihilating gust. The great wind dreamed, and this is what it dreamed: The wind envisioned the “old palaces and towers” reflected in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And these “old palaces and towers” were “all overgrown with azure moss and flowers.” Swathes of invasive vegetation colonize the city, which is transmuting into a jungle—an ever-growing, ever-flourishing, ever-blossoming jungle.
This is the last time that the prophet will summon the West Wind. Now, it is the prophet himself who will become the focus of the poem. I use the masculine pronoun because it is clear that the narrator is a he in the fourth section:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
The prophet, far from exempting himself from the wind’s sweepings, calls to the wind to carry him along as if he were a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. At first, it seems as if the prophet were calling for his own self-negation, but then notice how he quickly calls himself a “comrade” of the wind in Stanza Three and then identifies himself with the wind in the second line of the couplet: “[o]ne too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One cannot escape the impression that the prophet sees himself as something more than a leaf, a cloud, or a wave. If anything, this is self-deification, the raising of the Self to the godhood. This is anthropotheism, similar to the anthropotheism that Feuerbach saw in Christianity: Christians attribute the best parts of themselves to God.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Translation: Let my leaves emerge from the nothingness that the wind will leave in its wake. Let me be revivified after the wind’s many destructions and annihilations. Let my poems revitalize the dead Earth. Like any good Romantic figure, Shelley’s prophet desires to unify himself with nature, but this does not mean that he would be swallowed up by nature–it means, rather, that he would swallow nature, engulf nature, interiorize nature, transform nature into the Self: “Be thou me.” This is, again, not self-obliteration; it is anthropotheism, the aggressive self-assertion of the human will. The poet’s song will outlast the wind.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. German Romanticism (of the Jena period) is nostalgic for the reunification of subject and object, self and world. English Romanticism seems to want the same thing, except, in the English Romantic imagination, the Self dominates Nature. It wants Nature to capitulate to the Self.
Compare Shelley with Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
Are not the mountains, waves, and skies, a part
Of me and of my soul, as I of them?
Dr. Joseph Suglia