Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Roving eyes

Gentleman. O, the noble conflict that 'twixt joy and sorrow was fought in Paulina. She had one eye declined for the loss of her husband, another elevated that the oracle was fulfilled. (Winter's Tale, 5.2)

Claudius. Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in wedding,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife. (Hamlet, 1.2)

Claudius's 'noble conflict 'twixt joy and sorrow' is not really noble; even in this early stage in the play, we suspect that his 'dropping eye' is not causing him too much bother. Paulina's conflict is, though, more troublesome. Her sadness pervades the ostensibly comic ending of the play, reminding us that some things are lost irrevocably: Hermione will never regain the chance to watch her daughter grow through childhood; Mamillius remains dead. Yet the Gentleman suggests more than simply an underlying sadness to the reunion of Perdita and Leontes. Rather, as one eye is elevated as the other declines, we must imagine an absolute co-existence of the two states of joy and sorrow. This paradox is enormous; even the image of roving eyes, used by both the Gentleman and Claudius, is an impossibility. Surely this image prompts us to ask whether the comic resolutions of marriage or reunion are possible or even desirable in the face of tragedy.
Edgar's narration of Gloucester's death suggests that the meeting of these two emotions is, indeed, unsustainable:

But his flawed heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support,
'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and sorrow,
Burst smilingly. (King Lear, 5.3)

Thursday, May 05, 2005


This morning I finished Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It's taken me a long time to read (although I *have* been reading one or two other things in the meantime) but I certainly enjoyed it. I read The Name of the Rose after reading Eco's brilliant book on translation Mouse or Rat. However, the person who recommended Mouse or Rat to me, did so with the caveat that 'it's fabulous... not like his novels'.
With Pendulum, I feel now as though I'd like to read the whole novel again, to try to understand Eco's exploration of 'the Plan' more fully. Because what he does is simultaneously show the arbitrariness of theories imposed on the past (Dan Brown would have learned a lot from Eco, but probably would then have sold far fewer novels) and to create a real tension about the fulfillment of the ideas that his protagonists have either created or exposed. Can we be sure where or whether fact exists?
This ambiguity is at the centre of the novel and perhaps explains my desire to reread: after all, the reason that conspiracy theories emerge is (in part) humanity's deep need to 'explain' everything. If, like practically every other person in the country, you have read The Da Vinci Code, reading Pendulum will show you the echoes of Eco in Dan Brown [even though these echoes are, no doubt, unwitting - I'm not implying any sort of plagiarism, just thematic similarity]. Eco's work explores many of the ideas that emerge in Brown's narrative - the very ideas which lead people to say 'I know it's badly written, but don't you think it's interesting that...?' - but more profoundly, and more challengingly.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

but I shall see

Rereading King Lear last night (no, I didn't feel moved, as Keats did, to write a sonnet), I started to think about the blinding of Gloucester. For me, this has always been the key to the tragedy. I saw a production of the play in 2002 at the Almeida. It was a play I had not read (going back to my childhood prejudice against Shakespeare: "Why doesn't he write happy endings?"), and, deliberately, I chose not to read it before the performance.
So the blinding of Gloucester was profoundly shocking to me. It remains a scene that I physically find difficult to read. Like the impulse to pull my arm away from a blood test, I pull my eyes away from the page.
Last night, I think I reached a more clear idea as to why this is at the centre of the play. It's not just the eye/sight imagery which builds from the very first scene or, as I decided and wrote two years ago for the Shakespeare paper, that sight is unmediated humanity and is thus opposed to the artificiality of speech, i.e. Lear needs to learn to trust his basic senses, to trust that he is loved and can love, rather than requiring proof through speech. The emotional truth (as represented in the play by sight) and speech's shifty potential reach a symbiosis in Edgar's closing words: Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
But now I've got another idea!!! And it relates to the 'comedy = tragedy + time' equation. The primary/immediate motive for Gloucester's blinding is his defiant line to Cornwall: 'but I shall see/ The winged vengeance overtake such children'. By blinding him, Cornwall symbolically denies this future to him. He stops time from being able to turn the tragedy of the present into a comic future since Gloucester will be unable to look back. Somehow, we need (or I need) the possibility of the future in order to make the tragedy bearable. Cornwall's actions make Lear unbearable not because Gloucester is denied future through death, but because he has to go on living, to enter a bleak future in which his scarred and bloody eyes deny him (and us) hope.