Friday, December 26, 2008

HAMLET: The Death of Ophelia

Modernity has thoroughly institutionalized Hamlet ; we've lost our sense, if we ever had it, of its essential strangeness. A friend of mine asked me an innocent question the other day that snapped me to attention. It was a question about the Queen's--Gertrude's--description of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them;
There on the pendent bows her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, a while they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her won distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

If Ophelia has enough to time to sing songs before she drowns, said my friend, and someone (the queen presumably) is there to hear them, then there should be time enough for that someone to pull her out of that brook. Most brooks aren't deep enough to drown in and the spot where Ophelia falls, under a willow tree, is close to shore. Something doesn't make sense.

Maybe the only thing that Gertrude knows is that Ophelia drowned and is trying to explain how it happened? In other words, she's making it up?

These questions have been asked before but no one seems to have made much of them.

How did Shakespeare get himself into this little tangle of contradictions? Think about the dramatic problem he was trying to solve.

The tragedy is getting ready for its final bloody conclusion in which nothing is concluded, but it needs a proper place and occasion where the chief personages can be assembled for one last confrontation before the final cock-fight. Hamlet has to have a time and place where the jokes inspired by the death of Polonius can be suitably polished and delivered. He needs a cemetary, some grave diggers, and a body. Polonius is already dead and buried; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are also out of the way. That leaves Ophelia. But what is she to die of? People don't--as Rosalinde says--die of broken hearts. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves but not out of heart-break; they die because of a series of accidents and misunderstandings and because they think they have no other choice.

So the death of Ophelia is a problem. It can't be accidental because that would make it meaningless and it can't be intentional because that would be unbelievable. And her death has to connect with the rest of the play. Shakespeare solves this problem (more or less) by having her lose her wits: she becomes even more helpless than she has been all along, and that's saying a lot. (Ophelia is a lost motherless child who is used by her father and brother for their own purposes; they are not thinking of their own welfare when they tell her to stay away from Hamlet but their own. Her name, appropriately, is the ancient Greek word for 'advantage.') Does she kill herself or doesn't she? Hard to say. This necessary ambiguity--the fact that Ophelia's death is neither accidental nor intentional--is put to use in the conversation of the grave-diggers that opens that wonderful and insufficiently appreciated scene.

But the problem remains because it is a logical problem. Since the death of Ophelia had to be narrated instead of enacted, it doesn't quite make sense; the fact that her death is ambiguous only makes it worse. Since she doesn't know what she is doing, the observer is in a position to interfere. And Shakespeare must have known this, for he deals with it by so richly elaborating the Queen's account that the bare facts sort of disappear in the beautiful pathos of her poetry. And pathos, clearly, is what Ophelia's story is all about.

Please don't misunderstand me. I want to understand this play not score points off it. This play gives us a hero who doesn't want to be a hero, and an actor who doesn't know how to act, in a play that goes about as far as it can to create the illusion that it is not a play at all. In this play, it is not always easy to say what makes sense and what doesn't. The death of Ophelia is not the only thing that doesn't make sense. Maybe some things aren't supposed to make sense? This work of art goes where art had never gone before.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes From the Underground (2)

What did Dostoevsky mean by the word 'underground'? The political meaning, familiar to anyone who remembers the Nazi or Soviet 'occupations' of the 20th century, is clearly irrelevant; the Underground Man has no political beliefs, belongs to no political organization. Nor is he a criminal; the current meaning of 'underworld' can also be ruled out. Yet, though the word has to be a literal translation of some Russian word, Dostoevsky's use of it is clearly metaphorical--unlike the Paris underground in Les Miserables which is literal. While the reader can think of the Paris sewers as a metaphor for the dark, fillthy places inhabited by the forgotten wretches of world, Hugo does not himself insist on it. He doesn't have to.

Dostoevsky's Underground Man is so far beneath the notice of the various social and political establishments that he might as well be living under the ground. That is not, however, quite how he sees himself. I don't think he ever uses the term 'underground' as a metaphor for his place in the world; the word he uses is 'insect.' Franz Kafka, fifty-one years later, would take him literally in a story he entitled The Metamorphosis (1915). Why does the hero (so to speak) of that tale, Gregor Samsa, wake up one morning as a giant bug? Because that's how the world, including his father, sees--or doesn't see--him. He is beneath notice, a nobody, a person of no significance. He might as well be a bug. And how does one become such non-person? Or, rather, what does one have to do not to become such a person? The answer is obvious, is it not? Since the powerful, not the meek, inherit the earth, get power anyway you can. Some are born powerful, others seize power, others have it thrust upon them. Money is power as long as you know how to use it, or as long it lasts. Inherited social status helps a lot; luck and natural ability count for more: the 19th century is an age of (a few) self-made millionaires and tycoons; Napoleon, the greatest of them all, became the hero of poor but energetic and ambitious young men everywhere. But those young men would have had a tougher time of it in mid 19th century Russia than anywhere else in northern Europe--and Russia did in those days consider itself a part of Europe.

There is another way to make the world notice you: invent or join a political party; acquire a group or corporate identity. But the Underground Man does not want to be successful or noticed or happy; having consciously internalized the world's contempt for powerless people such as he, he welcomes it, embraces it even in order to prove a point--or rather to disprove one: the argument of modern utilitarian economics that each of us, acting in his or her own self-interest (within the rule of law) will automatically bring about the greatest good of the greatest number. And so the Underground Man repeatedly demonstrates his power to act freely against his own interests by going out of his way to humiliate himself--thus making a sort of political point, despite his own intentions. Doesn't he warn us from the beginning that he is a sick man, a spiteful man? But of course the political point is Dostoevsky's.

If that were all, this little book would not matter as much as it does. You want to know what its like down in the belly of the beast, down in the guts of our modern, urban Leviathans? Let the Underground Man tell you about life in that dismal Hobbesian state where everyone preys on someone weaker, powerlessness leads relentlessly to humiliation, and the humiliated take it out on those who are more powerless still.

The UM is willing do anything no matter how shameful to make people notice him; why does he want to be noticed? So he can shit on them.

What makes this book such a discomforting and painful read?--it has no equal in this way, nothing else is quite like it. Dostoevsky has managed to write a book that does to the reader what the Underground Man does to himself.

Like any story written in the person, this one draws you in; you begin to identify with or at least share the teller's point of view. Dostoevsky takes advantage of this literary habit to trap the reader in the skin of a man who despises him or her as much as he despises himself.

Why is Dostoevsky trapping his readers in this way? I don't know.

If there is one person the UM despises even more than himself--if that's possible-- it is the French novelist and romantic, or romantic novelist, George Sand, who stood up for the rights of women and taught what Keats calls "the holiness of the heart's affections." She taught generations of young readers, men and women, that love is a divine instinct: follow the dictates of your heart and you can't go wrong. (She practised what she preached, with results that were not always entirely happy.) The UM does not believe in any of this; he is a cynic: he does not believe in virtue or the goodness of the human heart, which he thinks is capable of nothing but humbug and hypocrisy. He believes in nothing.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dostoevsky: "Notes from the Underground" (1864)

Two years separate Dostoevsky's short book (you could hardly call it a novel, even a short one) from Hugo's long one, Les Miserables (1862) but these two writers inhabit different literary as well as moral and philosophical worlds: Hugo is a 19th century Romantic who looks back to the revolution that had occurred before he was born and forward to the brave new world of modern, enlightened, democracy which he knows in his heart is just around the corner. Dostoevsky, living in a land that had never had a revolution, a more feudal, more rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian place than anything Hugo could have known, writes as if he has seen the future and concluded that things can only get worse--but worse in a way that the big-wigs & power-brokers, the rich & the beautiful, or those who aspire to enter that world of power and privilege, will never appreciate; only a fellow spirit, another underground man, Kafka for example, can understand what Dostoevsky means by 'worse'--or what he means by that word, 'underground'.

Dostoevsky, thinking the title of his tale required some explanation, has this to say in a foot-note: "The author of the Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the author of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances under which our society was formed... In this fragment [he] introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst."

How often have you heard explanations that don't explain very much? That raise more questions than they answer? Dostoevsky writes as one who is even more detached from his tale than his readers. He writes as one who belongs to the very upper-crust world that the nameless character he has invented (whom we can only identify as 'the underground man', or OU) is not merely excluded from but has willfully excluded himself from.

If you have read this tale, you may remember that the OU is not someone who makes detachment easy; he grabs you from his opening words, "I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man": he holds on to you and makes you listen; whoever or whatever he is, he is real, authentic. (Don't underestimate the magnitude of Dostoevsky's achievement here.)

What does Dostoevsky mean when he says that the existence of such a man is inevitable "in our society"? What is it about our society that virtually requires an underground? Who is included in that word 'our'?