Saturday, August 14, 2010

Terence Hawkes, Temlah, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory

Shakespeare & the Question of Theory, Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Routledge, New York and London, 1991.

(Telmeh, Terence Hawkes)

On the train, a man is opening his mail. Among his letters he finds a square envelope containing the issue of the Modern Language Review (Vol. XII, No. 4) for October 1917. Leafing through it, he finds himself attracted to a particular article and “all unconscious of impending fate,” as he puts it, begins to read. /
The effect, to say the least, is odd. In fact, he later uses the term “overwhelming” and speaks of the experience as capable of throwing “any mind off its balance.” The man was the scholar and critic John Dover Wilson, then aged 36. The article was by W. W. Greg and it was entitled “Hamlet’s hallucination.” /
The thrust of Greg’s article lies in his clear perception that something goes badly wrong with the prince plans right at the beginning of The Mousetrap. Claudius fails to make any response to that initial and vital “action replay,” the dumb-show. The “full significance” of this, Greg argues, has never been appreciated. [318] … Greg concludes, “we have to choose between giving up Shakespeare as a rational playwright, and giving up our inherited beliefs regarding the story of Hamlet.” (318-319)

What cannot be disputed is its effect on Dover Wilson. I have described this as odd: a better phrase might be “seriously disturbing,” even “mind-blowing.” He himself describes it as “an intensely felt experience” which resulted in “a state of some considerable excitement.” It filled him, he reports, with “a sort of insanity,” and cast upon him, in his own words 18 years later, “a spell which changed the whole tenor of my existence, and still dominates it in part.” Give up Shakespeare as a rational playwright indeed! Give up our inherited beliefs! Having read the article “half a dozen times before reaching Sunderland,” an almost Pauline sense of mission seems to have descended upon him: “from the first [I] realized that I had been born to answer it.” … We might, of course, pick up the not-quite-covert hint that the response is itself engagingly Hamlet-like. Dover Wilson describes what he calls his own “spiritual condition” at the time as “critical, not to say dangerous, a condition in which a man becomes converted, falls in love, or gives way to a mania for wild speculation.” The war had its pressures, we are given to understand, and it perhaps did not seem inappropriate—it might even seem appealing—that a personality so highly charged might experience a reaction to such a situation which could be, as another critic was to put it of Hamlet, “in excess of the facts as they appear.” (319)

We can begin with the fact that, in November 1917, the war was not the only source of deep-seated disturbance in the world. In fact we could point out that, on any of the Saturdays in that month, news of the impending or actual Bolshevik revolution in Russia was likely to have been competing with news from the fronts. We have Dover Wilson’s own statement that “I found it difficult to concentrate upon anything unconnected with the War” (319)

…his reason, that is, for being on that particular train at that particular time. / Dover Wilson’s main employment then was as a school inspector of the Board of Education, stationed in Leeds. But, in common with other inspectors, he was also from time to time used in some war work: specifically, as an inspector for the Ministry of Munitions. [320] … For “trouble” to occur at any time in the munitions industry was obviously bad enough. Negotiations at local level with what were later indeed called “Bolshevik” shop stewards must have been, if you will pardon the expression, a potentially explosive business. (320-1)

In short, the revolutionary proposals of Greg’s article on Hamlet must have fallen into a powder-keg of a mind already in some degree prepared to be “blown” into “a sort of insanity” by them just as, in the wider context which the Leeds-Sunderland train seemed to be speeding, certain events were already shaking the world. (321)

Dover Wilson’s revised Russian World Picture of 1914 has developed, since his essay of 1906, features which surface regularly in our century as part of a recurrent siege mentality. It thus has much more than a coincidental resemblance to E. M. W. Tillyard’s well known war-effort, The Elizabethan World Picture of 1943. A discourse which, seeking for the final, confirming presence of authority, nominates the linchpin of the political structure as “God’s representative on earth” is clearly heard in both. Each represents, less an accurate picture of the world it purports to describe, than an intimate, covert measure of its author’s fears about the fallen world in which he currently lives, and in the face of which he has constructed a peculiarly English Eden. (324)

This is what I mean when I say that the absence of any mention of the Bolshevik revolution in Dover Wilson’s account of his train journey strikes me as significant. What it signifies is of course that the Bolshevik revolution is in effect being responded to, coped with in that “intensely felt experience,” that “spell which changed the whole tenor of my existence,” and that “sort of insanity” provoked by Greg’s article on Hamlet. /
Greg’s attack, after all, is on the smooth surface of the play seen as the product of Shakespeare the “rational playwright,” but effectively, of course, created by an “orthodox” interpretation which seeks for unity, progression, coherence, and, if possible, sequential ordering in all art, as part of a ruthless and rigorous process of domestication. [324] … It is directly, violently Bolshevik. (324-5)

Dover Wilson’s defense took various forms. There was an immediate diagnostic response to the editor of the Modern Language Review in the form of a postcard dispatched upon alighting from the train at Sunderland, which went so far as to nominate Greg as an unwitting agent of the arch-revolutionary himself: “Greg’s article devilish ingenious but damnably wrong,” it twinkled, and offered a rejoinder, which duly appeared. There followed two major salvoes: the edition of Hamlet prepared by Dover Wilson for the New Cambridge Shakespeare in 1934—a series which, provoked into editorship by Greg’s article, he says, he had become general editor in 1919—and the book What Happens in Hamlet, which purports to release him from thrall to the problem, by telling all. Those interested in the details of his argument can pursue them there. Suffice it to say that I do not myself find them convincing, so much as replete with the charm and ingenuity of the truly desperate. To suggest that Claudius does not notice the dumb-show, engaged as he is in the conversation with Polonius and Gertrude, seeks to “naturalize” the situation out of existence. … these salvoes represent Dover Wilson’s defense again Bolshevism in its specifically displaced Shakespearean form, (325)

My point is a simple one. Dover Wilson’s response to Greg’s article on that train to Sunderland in 1917 is an excellent example of the sort of interaction between literary interpretation and political and social concerns that always obtains, but normally remains covert in culture. Confronted by what I have called a manifestation of Temlah—i.e. by the disruption of the normally smooth and, in terms of individual “personality” (Hamlet’s or Shakespeare’s), explainable surface of a text that our society has appropriated as a manifestation of great (and thus reassuring) art—he replies with vigor and an emotionally charged nervous energy appropriate to it as what in fact it must have seemed to be: an attack or an offensive mounted against the structure of civilization as we know it—in short, an attack on our ideology. (328)

In short, I am not going to suggest that we can approach Hamlet by recognizing Temlah, or that Temlah is the real play, obscured by Hamlet. That would be to try to reconcile, to bring peace, to appease a text whose vitality resides precisely in its plurality: in the fact that it contradicts itself and strenuously resists our attempts to resolve, to domesticate that contradiction. I am trying to suggest that its contradiction has value, in that a pondering of some of the attempts that have been made to resolve it, to make the play speak coherently, within a limited set of boundaries, reveals the political, economic, and social forces to which all such “interpretation” is respondent, and in whose name it is inevitably, if covertly, made. I am not suggesting an “alternative” reading of Hamlet, because that would be to fall into the same trap. I offer my title of Temlah as what it is: a sense of an everpresent potential challenge and contradiction within and implied by the text that we name Hamlet. In this sense, Temlah coexists with, is coterminous with Hamlet, in a way that must strike us, finally, as impossible. A thing, we are taught, cannot be both what it is and another thing. But that is precisely the principle challenged by Temlah. (350)

And yet, to conclude, we only have to step beyond the shores of Europe to encounter a quite different notion of interpretation which will allow exactly what I propose: the sense of a text as a site, or an area of conflicting and often contradictory potential interpretations, no single one or group of which can claim “intrinsic” primacy or “inherent” authority, and all of which are always ideological in nature and subject to extrinsic political and economic determinants. /
The abstract model I reach for is of course that of jazz music: that black American challenge to the Eurocentric idea of the author’s, or the composer’s, authority. For the jazz musician, the “text” of a melody is a means, not an end. Interpretation in that context is not parasitic by symbiotic in its relationship with its object. Its role is not limited to the service, or the revelation, or the celebration, of the author/composer’s art. Quite the reverse: interpretation constitutes the art of the jazz musician. The same unservile principle seems to me to be appropriate to the critic’s activity. (330)


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