Trying to get Celine out of my system is a bit like having a stubborn virus that just won’t give up, that keeps coming back and annoying you just at the time you thought you’d finally got over it. Lugging that madman around in my spiritual kitbag is a nuisance I can assure you, dear reader. While I am trying to find some other little nugget of wisdom to guide me through my day and my life, out pops the crooked grin of that very, very crooked fellow leering up at me…
“Will you go away, please?”
“Well, I am just going to ignore you, you dirty old man.”
“I am the elephant and you are the gnat. Here is a jar of vaseline to help you through the experience.”*
“Thanks ever so much.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“I will come back to you, later…when I’ve done this, and I’ve got some time to kill.”
“You always will…”
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about “greatness” – in literature, and any other way. Partly this was prompted by a remark in a comment on one of the posts to this blog that Shakespeare is “over-rated”. That made me think. To me Shakespeare is the greatest writer ever, and I have felt blessed by the fact that he wrote in my native language. Unlike Celine, who wrote in a French argot already passe by the time he picked up his pen, Shakespeare’s English is recognisably the English we use today.
That’s misleading, and it matters both for our appreciation of the man and his work, and for our understanding of what greatness is and is not. Shakespeare’s English is recognisably but far from precisely our English. Language changes over time in lots of ways – in the words we use, in their meaning, in grammar and punctuation when writing, in accent and more when speaking. Chaucer’s “English” is unintelligible to us today, or nearly so – and may have even been to Shakespeare, who was born less than two hundred years after Chaucer’s death.** So it is quite natural that about four hundred years after Shakespeare shuffled off, his English is quite a bit different from ours. Most editions of Shakespeare “modernise” the poems and plays, and the skeptic is not wrong to say this opens a door to changing our perceptions in ways that editors may not have intended and that would astonish any Elizabethan or Jacobean including the Bard himself.
But the fact is that we want to understand Shakespeare, which is why we go to all that trouble to make him “accessible”. And we want to, because something in his work has an appeal that goes beyond even its limitations, whether of language, or other aspects of his work.
Here is a very current example that has been in the news in the past week. In Leicester, in England, the bones of the last Plantagenet English king, Richard III, have apparently been discovered under a carpark. Richard was the subject of the concluding part of a cycle of eight plays by Shakespeare***, and his character all these years later is indelibly associated with the play. We do not know whether the real Richard was all that phyically deformed as the hunchback Shakespeare made him; if he was really so evil as all that; if he caused the two young boys under his protection in the tower of London to be murdered; if he had his brother “drowned in a butt of malmsey”…there are many legends surrounding this last Plantagenet whose death in battle marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, the beginning of the Tudor dynasty and symbolically the English renaissance.
Whatever the truth, Shakespeare’s version is OUR version. He has so coloured our imaginations that no “real” Richard can ever crawl out from under the blanket of evil tossed so artfully onto his crumpled corpse.
Richard ruled for only a few years; Macbeth, whose reputation Shakespeare similarly set in concrete forever, ruled for 17. The evidence for Macbeth’s villainy is dubious, and for Duncan’s saintliness, equally suspect.
We can know that Shakespeare had his own reasons for casting these two monarchs as evil. Richard was head of the competing house of York for the crown of England held by the Tudors who ruled for much of Shakespeare’s life in the person of Elizabeth I. Macbeth was the loser of a struggle for the Scottish throne, whose victor’s family came to London to rule Scotland and England as James I for the last fifteen or so years of Shakespeare’s life. Shakespeare plainly had very strong reasons for writing these plays the way he did. The politics of his time made pleasing the powers that be important for many reasons including life and limb. Yet knowing this doesn’t reduce our appreciation of Shakespeare; if anything, it enlarges it, or so say I. We can be aware of the dodgy history and enjoy the portraits of Richard and Macbeth even more: these are universal, they reach from some cultural substrate so deep that they touch and affect all who encounter them. If Richard wasn’t the evil man Shakespeare made him, some man, somewhere, was, is; we feel it in our souls.
Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew he was “one out of the box”, a unique sensibility whose writing would last and last. Jonson’s remark that he was “for all time” was a summary of what others thought. There was something, that is to say, that in his own time set him apart from the other poets and playwrights whose work crowded bookstalls and the theatres: Marlowe, Jonson, Chapman, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, Webster and Tourneur…these were writers who were gifted, who jostled for attention with Shakespeare, who knew him, collaborated with him, and competed with him for attention, favours, patronage, audiences…Scholars and people who are really into it – yes, that includes me – read these others today, but talented though they were, they did not match the Bard, they knew it, and so do we.
This case, for Shakespeare, only puts flesh on bones that are as yet unidentified. If we say that Shakespeare was a great writer, what are we then saying? What is this “greatness”, not only of Shakespeare but of any person we call great, of any writer?
In classical times – meaning the Greeks and Romans – if anyone ever thought that a writer, or indeed a philosopher, would be considered “great”, I haven’t known about it. Then greatness was pretty much military, and was about “honour” – dying in battle, even in a lost cause, that was great. And it was desirable…die in battle, conquer the known world, and your memory would live forever. Writing a dialogue on love that would be read two thousand five hundred years later, or a play about the love of a wife for her husband so fine and noble she would die for him, that was not great, though the gesture was.
In classical times the literature that remains to us shows many men aiming for greatness, and by it they meant a lasting memory in the world at large. Over time, that basic idea has stayed but we now pass out the gong*** of greatness rather more broadly, and more easily, as we do “genius”. As one of the characters in my novel Evilheart says of contemporary Germany, “There are so many geniuses!” Greatness in the arts is a given; great painters, poets, sculptors, film-makers, musicians, composers, and writers surround us with a healthy regard for their talents.
Yet if we take “greatness” to mean “lasting” and “popular” there aren’t that many great writers, and the crowded landscape of 20th century literary greatness bestowed by critics acting as self-appointed holders of the right to invoke “common consent” is likely to be seriously depopulated by the time the 22th century rolls around.
Does it matter? Well, I reckon it does matter. We need – and want – scales to judge merit, and “greatness” just happens to be at the top of the scale. Yet we discover the acme too easily.
Sadly, the top end is getting crowded by the new technology combined with human nature, and the market. Evilheart was in fact prescient – there are so many geniuses! E-publishing – like this post you are reading – means anyone who can string two words together can write a book, and that probably means, write a novel. And nearly everyone has friends and they will review the novel and give it five stars or whatever the maximum is, and shazam! another great writer. You can’t go higher than the highest can you? This phenomenon has become a problem in that anyone who might review books on a more sensible basis risks hurting the author because so much lesser quality work gets the highest mark possible. My way of dealing with this is to give five stars to anything I like, and not review anything I don’t.
Greatness as I’ve already said in literature is about “lasting” and “popular”. “Lasting” implies value – that it is worth something, so people keep reading and/or seeing it in the case of say drama. And “popular”, when combined with “lasting”, implies something more too – that the value that is there is accessible. So a great writer reaches us, the common herd, and affects us, reveals things about reality, about life, about what is important, that we had not realised, and goes on doing it. When Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare that he was not merely of the age but for all time, he was saying that – that Shakespeare had somehow penetrated the mysteries of life and come back to tell us about them, and that repeated exposure to him yields more clues to the mysteries.
We don’t know much about Shakespeare the man. His life story isn’t a complete blank, but the “facts” don’t really yield much about what kind of person he was. Jonson – again – referred to him as “gentle” in such a way as to imply he was known as a very decent chap. But that’s about it. What we get about him from his plays is his sensibility, his way of looking at the world, through the language he uses, the plots he chooses, the heroes and villains he uses and abuses.
Yet accessibility has its limits as a definition of greatness. Shakespeare put bums on seats in the theatres – he had something for everyone. But part of that something was a secret, coded message or messages that only initiates in the cults of the time Shakespeare was presumably part of or at least aware of would understand. Ted Hughes wrote memorably of this in his amazing book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, but there are other takes on it: that he was a closet Catholic the most prominent, but also a “Rosicrucian” British imperialist, or a member of pagan cults sprung up as a result of the translation of the great Greek writers…People argue about this now, but what seems to me to be important is that Shakespeare delivered even on this level, without leaving the “groundlings” who just wanted a good story, out of the loop. It’s all there for you – you don’t have to do anything but sit back and enjoy the most superficial story unfold before you. But if you want more, there is more – always. The measure of Shakespeare’s greatness is that there is always more; he was not just “the spirit of the age” but also “for all time”.
There have been other writers who captured the flavour of their time, and beyond, people recognised at the time: Balzac in France, Mark Twain in the United States (“the Lincoln of our literature” another writer called him, and truly), Dickens in England…Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in Russia. Others were perhaps less lauded in their own lifetimes, their worth discovered only later, sometimes much later.
In our time? Perhaps I am jaded, but I don’t see many novelists who have emerged since 1945 with that sort of cachet apart from two of the “Celinists” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass – and Solzhenitsyn. With the 20th century barely receding over the hills at the back of our consciousness, the writers who were lionised in their own times have for the most part fallen away. In my mind there are few post-war writers, in any language, who will be read in a hundred years. Yet at the same time, we find five star greatness virtually everywhere we look.
This evident contradiction is partly, I think, because of cultural changes. Poetry, for example, has become rarified, inaccessible to most people. The truly popular “poets” work as musicians, and it is likely that Bob Dylan’s work and possibly Leonard Cohen’s will be listened to for generations. Dylan is the one artist of our time whose work has something of the cachet that Shakespeare had in his time – someone who is recognised by his peers, writers and public, as expressing “the soul of the age”. Yet Dylan, whose art is partly based on a conscious artlessness that throws his words into focus, is often treated with contempt by the “educated” and ignorant.
I know that my books aren’t “great” and I don’t think that in two hundred years, as Celine was so certain he would be, I’ll be “helping the kids through high school”. My aims in writing are to entertain and to provoke interest – in Shakespeare and Dostoevsky among others, but in lesser known characters I think people might get something from: Berdyaev, Giordano Bruno, the whole renaissance “white magic” movement. There’s moral force, too, of a sort, and my interest in evil, what it is and what it means – the obverse of greatness.
My wee list of great writers troubles me – so many of them had personal foibles that set them apart too. Celine and Dostoevsky were virulent anti-semites, and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice plays to anti-semitism too. Tolstoy was more than a bit of a nut. Solzhenitsyn had, shall we say, very unusual political views of the “Great Russian prejudice” variety. Balzac? A reactionary. Twain and Euripides seemed on the side of the angels – unless you count Twain’s Mysterious Stranger…it does matter: if we say that greatness involves deep penetration into the “meaning of life”, how can we square the wisdom with the weirdness?
We are back to the beginning and that ratbag in my kitbag.
“In two hundred years I’ll be helping the kids through high school.”^^
This is the first post I have written on wordpress but the twentieth of this blog, which is mainly about writing. The posts will be copied back to Goodreads, or they’re meant to be. But if they aren’t I will copy them myself.
You are a great reader if you’ve got here – ha! How many stars would you like? Forty-three? It’s a good number – take them. You can get them in any shape you like from the star shop, spray paint them new colours if you like, and stick them in delicate patterns on the door of the fridge.
Thanks for reading.
*This is a joke deriving from Celine’s so-called pamphlet that is the subject of my previous post.
**Shakespeare wrote a play, Troilus and Cressida, that was also the subject of a long narrative poem by Chaucer, so it is assumed the playwright was familiar with the poet. But there is little if anything of Chaucer in Shakespeare’s version.
***gong: British empire expression for award.
^Machiavelli through his analysis of statecraft, The Prince, had become a synonym for evil by Shakespeare’s time – he died about forty years before Shakespeare was born – and he is referred to in that way by the Bard on a few occasions. But the Italian was also a poet and playwright and arguably wrote the first renaissance play, Mandragola, and a second, Clizia. Both are sex farces. Machiavelli was not the great writer that Shakespeare was, but then neither was anyone else.
^^From Celine’s Rigodon, his last book.