When Shakespeare Read Montaigne

Danny Heitman takes a stroll through Shakespeare’s Montaigne, a new edition of John Florio’s 16th-century English translation of the Essays that almost certainly made its way into the playwright’s hands:

Many of the details of Shakespeare’s life are unknown, and how closely he might have read Florio’s Montaigne is unclear. But in a couple of plays, Shakespeare’s debt to Montaigne seems obvious. In “Of the Cannibals,” an essay about people recently discovered in the New World, Montaigne writes admiringly of natives who “hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority.” Very similar language appears in The Tempest, when Gonzalo considers the kind of society he wants to establish on the island where he and others have been shipwrecked. There’s another apparent instance of borrowing in King Lear, which includes a passage that seems cribbed from Montaigne’s observations about the ideal relationship between parents and children.

Beyond that, the question of Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare becomes more speculative. [In his introduction, scholar Stephen] Greenblatt shrugs at that ambiguity, concluding that whatever the possibilities, the mere existence of these two men was a miracle in itself: “Two of the greatest writers of the Renaissance—two of the greatest writers the world has ever known—were at work almost at the same time, reflecting on the human condition and inventing the stylistic means to register their subtlest perceptions in language.”

An excerpt from Greenblatt’s introduction on the connection between the two great writers, in which he notes that “what is a problem for the scholarly attempt to establish a clear line of influence is, from the perspective of the common reader, a source of deep pleasure”:

And though, as we have noted, they came from sharply differing worlds and worked in distinct genres, they share many of the same features. Both Montaigne and Shakespeare were masters of the disarming gesture, the creation of collusion and intimacy: essays that profess to be “frivolous and vain” (“The Author to the Reader”); plays with titles like As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing. Both were skilled at seizing upon anything that came their way in the course of wide-ranging reading or observation; both prized the illumination of a brilliant perception over systematic thought; both were masters of quotation and transformation; both were supremely adaptable and variable. Both believed that there was a profound link between language and identity, between what you say and how you say it and what you are. Both were fascinated with ethical meanings in a world that possessed an apparently infinite range of human behaviors. Both perceived and embraced the oscillations and contradictions within individuals, the equivocations and ironies and discontinuities even in those who claimed to be single-minded and single-hearted in pursuit of coherent goals. Montaigne and Shakespeare created works that have for centuries remained tantalizing, equivocal, and elusive, inviting ceaseless speculations and re-creations. In a world that craved fixity and order, each managed to come to terms with strict limits to authorial control, with the unpredictability and instability of texts, with a proliferation of unlimited, uncontrolled meanings.

Love Letters From A Literary Great

Reviewing Letters to Vera, Philip Hensher marvels at what Vladimir Nabokov’s correspondence with his wife reveals about his talents as a writer:

The letters are full of rapturous comment, of course, but their substance, and the reason they are so absorbing, is Nabokov’s intense interest in the world around him. He knows that when you are in love, the slightest detail of the beloved’s world and days are interesting: what he might have learnt, through writing these letters, is that the specific is always interesting for readers, too. All through those 1926 letters, he remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.

Nabokov is such a great letter writer because he wants to interest, not just pour out his emotions. These letters must have been a joy to receive. He keeps his eyes open, and concentrates on recording what he sees:

Alongside the paths coloured stripes are daubed on beech and oak trunks, and sometimes simply on the rocks, like little flags to show the way to this or that hamlet. I noticed too that peasants put red earflaps on their percherons and are cruel with their geese, of whom they have plenty: they pluck off their breast feathers when the geese are still alive, so that the poor bird walks around as if in a décolleté.

Love, and intense care for what will interest his readership of one, directed Nabokov’s writing, and shaped it for the future. The clarity of observation here about a moment of terrible animal sadness holds in it the flash of insight at the beginning of Lolita, the parable about the monkey learning to draw and producing an image of the bars of its own cage.

Kafka On The Web

“Kafkaesque” refers not just to bureacratic nightmares, notes Joshua Rothman, but “his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent.” In other words, he continues, Kafka “described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute”:

There’s a surreal humor to the Kafkaesque—a sense of lurid, unhinged exaggeration. But, at heart, it’s a sensibility based on straightforward observations of human behavior. One observation is simply that punishment is pervasive. … A second, related observation is that, in many cases, innocence and guilt are determined by context. Often, the punishers are guilty, too—perhaps not of the crimes in question but almost certainly of other, more personal “crimes” not recognized by the law. If the court had a wide enough jurisdiction, everyone would be guilty of something.

To read a headline designed for the social-media age is to see these Kafkaesque aspects of life expressed in a new idiom. (From the Washington Post: “Stop congratulating yourself for opposing the Redskins’ name. You’re not helping the real problem. We’re finally paying attention to Native Americans, but it’s for the wrong reason.”) Stories like this aim to startle you with your own guilt—and to enable you to blindside others with theirs. They employ a paranoid style of accusation: you may think you know what you did wrong, but what you’re about to find out will surprise you. Facebook, like much of the Web, is officially designed to encourage positivity; there is no “dislike” button, and the stated goal is to facilitate affiliation and belonging. But, over time, the site’s utopian social bureaucracy has been overwhelmed by the Kafkaesque churn of punishment. … Facebook has become a dream space of judgment—a place where people you may know only in the most casual way suddenly reveal themselves to be players in a pervasive system of discipline. The site is an accusation aggregator, and the news feed is the docket—full of opportunities to publicly admire the good or publicly denigrate the bad, to judge others for their mistakes or to be judged for doing it wrong.

Afghanistan’s Missing War Lit

“Afghanistan veterans are writing and publishing,” observes Brian Castner, noting the many memoirs inspired by the conflict, but “they just aren’t publishing fiction”:

What impulse … is missing, that would cause a veteran to write fiction, as opposed to memoir? “Deep brooding dissatisfaction,” [Lieutenant Colonel Peter] Molin said, “more indicative of Iraq than Afghanistan. People have got to believe in what a novel can do, that more official forms of speech can’t.” In addition to teaching literature at West Point, Molin is an infantry officer who served as an advisor to the Afghan National Army in 2008 and 2009. And while he says that at times the Afghan War can feel endless,

the lived experience of average soldiers there is invigorating. They can come home feeling good about themselves. There were some horrible things that happened on my deployment, and yet my sense of satisfaction, maybe regrettably so, is actually pretty safe and solid.

The war itself in Afghanistan lacks the standard fiction catalyst that has propelled such writing since Vietnam, namely, in Molin’s words, “that little seed of despair and futility” that informs our understanding of Iraq.

“Iraq was such a disaster,” Molin continued, saying many veterans seem to come back with a “plague on both your houses” mentality.

The whole enterprise was overlaid with defeat and futility and amazement on the part of its participants, that they were involved in such a messed up endeavor. It was such a botched operation from the top down. People generally don’t feel good about their service in Iraq, and the writerly types and artistically minded types are left to question: what is my culpability, how has this affected me, I’ve been witness to all this and I’ve been subjected to all this, and it’s troublesome.

Previous Dish on American war literature since 9/11 here.

A Short Story For Saturday

by Matthew Sitman

It seems fitting to feature a story about depression this week, and few wrote about what it feels like with more acuity than David Foster Wallace. Here’s the opening paragraph of his “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To The Bad Thing” (pdf), published in 1984 in The Amherst Review:

I’ve been on antidepressants for, what, about a year now, and I suppose I feel as if I’m pretty qualified to tell what they’re like. They’re fine, really, but they’re fine in the same way that, say, living on another planet that was warm and comfortable and had food and fresh water would be fine: it would be fine, but it wouldn’t be good old Earth, obviously. I haven’t been on Earth now for almost a year, because I wasn’t doing very well on Earth. I’ve been doing somewhat better here where I am now, on the planet Trillaphon, which I suppose is good news for everyone involved.

Read the rest here. Check out another story of his we highlighted, “The Depressed Person,” here. Previous SSFSs here.

A Future Without Fear

by Dish Staff

Surveying the last decade’s plethora of dystopian sci-fi narratives, Michael Solana urges writers to chill out and embrace tech as an ally rather than enemy:

Certainly dystopia has appeared in science fiction from the genre’s inception, but the past decade has observed an unprecedented rise in its authorship. Once a literary niche within a niche, mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity by nuclear weapons, computers gone rogue, nanotechnology, and man-made viruses in the pages of what was once our true north; we have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague. Ever more disturbing than the critique of technology in these stories is the casual assault on the nature of Man himself. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was people walking through a black and white hellscape eating each other for 287 pages and it won the Pulitzer. Oprah loved it. Where the ethos of punk is rooted in its subversion of the mainstream, famed cyberpunk William Gibson’s Neuromancer is no longer the flagbearer of gritty, edgy, counter-cultural fiction; ‘life will suck and then we’ll die’ is now a truism, and we have thousands of authors prophesying our doom with attitude….

Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them. We must stand up and defeat them. Artificial intelligence, longevity therapy, biotechnology, nuclear energy — it is in our power to create a brilliant world, but we must tell ourselves a story where our tools empower us to do it. To every young writer out there obsessed with genre, consider our slowly coalescing counterculture, and wonder what side of this you’re standing on. Luddites have challenged progress at every crux point in human history. The only thing new is now they’re in vogue, and all our icons are iconoclasts. So it follows here that optimism is the new subversion. It’s daring to care. The time is fit for us to dream again.


Quote For The Day

by Dish Staff

“What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable… It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly…. whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent.

That is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us,” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.

(Hat tip: Sage Mehta)

From Pulp To Proust?

by Dish Staff

Does genre fiction act as a gateway to the hard stuff, to Woolf and Nabokov? Tim Parks challenges the conventional wisdom behind the “‘I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things’ platitude”:

[W]hy do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue? …

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Responding to Parks, Emily Temple calls out a snobbery she sees as unique to literary types:

We don’t have to argue about the fact that trash is a gateway to better tastes in [television, film or music], we just accept that most people discover Ace Ventura before Godard and Top 40 … before Lou Reed and Wagner. And we don’t have to dissect what it means to continue consuming both — there’s much less of a stigma attached to watching The Wire and The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Inferno II in the same sitting than there is to reading both Silas Marner and The Da Vinci Code. Literary fiction used to be the province of the people, and somehow, over the years, it has become deeply alienating to many would-be readers.

True, there are music snobs, but the world of literature is uniquely snobby, and the art of literature is elevated to a kind of pedestal that no other entertainment-based art form is expected to reach (I’d put performance art and painting in another category) — hence the alienating quality. But it does early readers a disservice to suggest that once a Twilight reader, always and only a Twilight reader. Such snobbery can turn off or intimidate readers, and despite the fact that, as Parks says, literature is not the key to life, it is a pretty good and important thing. So beginning readers of all sorts should be encouraged.

Blogging About Books

Rohan Maitzen revels in it:

Blogging allows for a wonderfully open-ended kind of criticism: there’s no pressure to account for or include everything, no need to position yourself theoretically or as part of a bookclub-beagle-trpre-existing critical argument. You can do any kind or degree of contextualizing or theorizing that you want, of course (it’s useless to generalize about blogging as a form, since there are no rules or norms), but you can also just look directly at the book in front of you and say what you think about it, show what you observe in it. Everything else you know—all your habits of reading and thinking—will affect what you think and see, of course, but for me there has been something very liberating about writing a post knowing that I’m just writing as myself, for other interested readers, not trying to establish anything definitive but rather to offer what I can to the broad conversation about books that the internet enables.

Maitzen goes on to discusses how her academic training in Victorian literature connects with writing for a broad, public audience:

Just as I was starting to blog in 2007, for instance, Cynthia Ozick wrote a piece in Harper’s on the current state of criticism in which she said:

Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.

Even though I was restless with the pressure I felt to produce increasingly specialized kinds of criticism, comments like these struck me as depressingly (and insultingly!) mistaken. I began to hope that I could use my blog to show that academic expertise is valuable, and that it can be worn lightly and used to further good conversations about literature, which is really what I see as the fundamental purpose of all criticism. Because negative stereotypes about “politically correct idiots” overrunning “lit departments” are pretty widespread, I also wanted to counteract them in my own small way by showing what really happens in at least one person’s classroom: I blog regularly about my teaching, and I’d be surprised if anyone could conclude from these posts that I have “forgotten the text.”

For more, check Novel Readings, Maitzen’s blog about literature.

Debased On A True Story

Michelle Huneven recalls feeling “a sense of powerlessness and an utter lack of recourse” once she realized the novelist T.C. Boyle had based a character – whom she describes as a “talentless airhead poseur” – on her. Her advice for the fictionalized:

Go fetal. Give the writer a good talking to. Write a letter of complaint. Write your own book, your way. Keep it to yourself and seethe. You can sue, but the bar for libel lawsuits involving fiction is very, very high. And so is the cost. According to the libel lawyer Elizabeth McNamara, the fictionalized, like all litigants, sue for one of two reasons: because they feel wronged, or for money.

Your ex-girlfriend has put you in a story; you’re unmistakable—that’s your hair color, your tattoo, your speech impediment—only she’s made you a rapist. Or your cheating, lying ex-boyfriend has written a best seller featuring you, your family, and all your best lines; he’s sold the screen rights, he’s raking it in. Why shouldn’t you have a share of the pot?

“Since time, immemorial writers have used real life to inspire them and build upon their experience,” says McNamara. “But invariably, characters diverge from reality.”

There’s the rub. And there goes your case, out the window.