03/14/13

The Consolation of Literature


For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading.

And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. He opens by saying:

There are as many legitimate ways of reading Shakespeare’s plays as there are of having a conversation, making a meal, or rearing children.

I suppose we assign meaning to whatever we read – the Bard and everyone else – according to our circumstances and moods. I might read Othello now with a different eye than when I read it a few years ago. I might perceive Iago as a more real, more cunning and more malicious villain today than I did then. Iago – who at one point swears by Janus, the two-faced god – tells Roderigo:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Announcing himself to be a deceiver. Later in Act One, Iago contemptuously says of Othello:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Such villainy, such deception. But of course, without Iago, there would be no drama. We want drama in literature, if not always in life.

Similarly, in The Tempest, which I recently restarted, Caliban seems a darker, more monstrous figure than he did when I first opened the play. Prospero mutters quietly about,

…that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates…

Although there is some redemption to be had, towards the end of the play. There often is redemption in literature. It cleans things up, closes the circle, completes the cycle. But life isn’t like literature – more’s the pity. Redemption does not always pour oil on our troubled waters in life.

Meaning, of course, derives from context, and separate quotes cannot convey that properly. Everyone’s understanding is different, so we read into things what we want to see. Intent and meaning may not be parallel paths. The fullness of the play carries the real meaning, not simply lines drawn at random.

Over the weekend, I read these lines in Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust (part one). Faust himself speaks:

Ah, happy he who can still hope to rise,
Emerging from this sea of fear and doubt!
What no man knows, alone could make us wise;
And what we know, we could well do without.

They seem deeper, richer than I recall them from my first reading. A few pages further, Mephistopheles comments to the audience after the deal with Faust has been signed:

So, knowledge and fair reason you’ll despise,
The highest powers by which you mortals rise.
The Prince of Lies it is that edifies you,
With all the flash of magic he supplies you

Ah, that crafty Prince of Lies. The opposer who leads humankind astray. Satan, if you believe in that sort of thing. Me, I see it as a metaphor for more human manifestation, something archetypal: Coyote, Loki, and Trickster. Br’er Rabbit with evil intent. Or is it Br’er Fox? Either way, a deceiver also creates drama in literature.

Is what we read really what the author intended, or is what comes through the veil of our own circumstances the truer meaning? Literature as the psyche’s mirror? Is it more valid to read Shakespeare, indeed any playwright, novelist or poet, looking for your own intent rather than the author’s?

Meager seems to think so. He says we can never really see the author’s true intent, no matter how we strive to find it:

…a search for the author’s intention is not a proper way to read a text…

I think Harold Bloom might disagree somewhat with him. In his book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverside, New York, 1998), Bloom wrote:

…no other writer, before or since Shakespeare, has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating utterly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly distinctive minor personages. The more one reads and ponders the plays of Shakespeare,the more one realizes that the accurate stance toward them is one of awe… They abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us…

Which suggests to me that he means our own contextual understanding, the through-the-personal-lens view, is limited, and we must search for the greater, even universal, meaning in the author’s intent. Look for the intrinsic, not the extrinsic.

Of course, trying to understand Shakespeare at any reasonable level of comprehension depends on having some grasp of the author’s own background, his education, his cultural, political and social influences, and his language. What I read into, say, Julius Caesar’s comment,

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Or Casca’s description to Brutus of Caesar being lauded by the crowd:

Why, there was a crown offered him: and being
offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand,
thus; and then the people fell a-shouting.

…is filtered through my own experience. My derived meaning may not be even close to Shakespeare’s intent. Shakespeare’s references might be not to historical (Roman) times, or even to the general human condition, but to characters or events at Elizabeth’s contemporary court. It could be a veiled comment on politics of his day.

Reading Shakespeare is always like that: layered. Yet four hundred years later we can still find resonance in his writing. Which is why I still pick him up and read him with awe.

Whether what I read in those words reflects the author’s intent or is merely a mirror to my own imagination I can’t say.

All I know for sure that, opening the pages of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer, Cervantes, Austen or any of a number of works by great writers, gives me respite from the daily turmoil. Consolation and reflection.

~~~~~

* From Wikipedia:

Consolation of Philosophy was written during a one-year imprisonment Boethius served while awaiting trial … for the crime of treason … This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God (the problem of theodicy), and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as “by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.”

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