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December 2004 Letter from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

This is a December letter so I will wish you all a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and joyous salutations for whatever other winter-solstice-time holiday you choose to celebrate. But while Christmas is a pleasant topic, what I think I want to discuss with you this time around is Shakespeare and Negative Capability and strategic opacity and disinterestedness. Not exactly a holiday-theme, I agree, but one that I’m interested in. (In other words – I’m interested in distinterestedness.)

We’ve all just survived one of the toughest political years in living history, and one of the few things we might all agree upon is that toward the end there, it was becoming very tiresome being told what to think. From that professional vulgarian Michael Moore’s ham-handed propaganda to the resurgence of the Swift Boat Veterans (headed up by the same man chosen by Richard Nixon 34 years ago to be sicced on a young John Kerry,) the media pros and pols had a palpable design upon us.

Perhaps you recognize that last phrase. John Keats wrote those words to his friend Reynolds after reading Wordsworth’s “Hymn to Pan” and after coming away from the experience with some doubts about the poet’s greatness, especially when compared to Shakespeare. “For the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages,” wrote Keats (and perhaps he meant “dramatic” there instead of domestic – his letters were wonderful but very hurried), “are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist – We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us – and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket.”

There’s a lot of that going around today – that peddling of poetry, or more commonly of film, fiction, non-fiction, and personal opinion, that has a palpable design upon us and which puts its hand in its breeches pocket in a sulk if we don’t instantly agree with its all-too-obvious prejudices. (Mark Twain used to say that the rarest of things was a lawyer who kept his hand in his own pockets, but I digress and we aren’t here to gang up on lawyers. Not yet.)

It’s possible that Keats’s sensibilities here had been influenced by a lecture he’d heard just days before by William Hazlitt criticizing what he later called “the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” but we also know that Keats had been trying for some time to work out an explanation for the peculiar genius of Shakespeare – what he was later to call “Negative Capability.” Six weeks before this note to his friend Reynolds, young Keats had been walking to town with his neighbor Dilke to see a Christmas pantomime and Dilke – who was an opinionated so-and-so – had held forth on various topics during the entire walk to town.

“Several things dovetailed in my mind,” Keats wrote to his brothers, “& at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

A lesser poet like Coleridge, Keats goes on to explain, “would let go by a fine isolated versimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery,” because a lesser poet (or novelist, or filmmaker, or visual artist) insists on – well, actually has no other choice -- impressing his own limited interpretation on reality. Keats recognized Shakespeare’s almost unique ability to suspend judgment in viewing all things human and natural – Keats called it Shakespeare’s “capacity of submission” – and realized that, in artistic terms, it went beyond mere submission into the unheard-of ability to “annul self.”

This sounds a little esoteric, vaguely Buddhist, but it’s not – it was a literary strategy and the very real and compelling secret to why Shakespeare stands alone not just in the pantheon of English playwrights but among all men (pardon me, persons) of letters. Keats explained to his brothers that the tiresome neighbor Dilke was “a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing.”

Sound familiar? Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers, the Car Guys on NPR, point out that we men have to answer every question put to us – whether about cars, sports, directions, politics, or the origins of the universe, regardless of whether we have any knowledge on the subject at all – because we suffer from MAS* (*Male Answer Syndrome.) More and more, it seems, novelists and filmmakers – and not just the men – suffer from Male Answer Syndrome, shoving their puny little opinions ahead of them like hostages in a botched getaway.

Hazlitt once said of Shakespeare – “He was nothing in himself, but he was all that others were, or that they could become.” Keats developed this idea of artistic self-annulling into his theory of Negative Capability, a poetic-creative attempt to empathize and understand others – other human beings, the sparrow pecking at gravel outside his window, a nightingale, Nature, the living and the dead – through the cool lens of what Keats and other Shakespeare-admirers of his era called disinterestedness, (which means, of course, a passionate interest in the behavior and character of these others, but analysis without judgment, observation without opinion, and perception without preaching.)

In the last couple of years I’ve begun to read Shakespeare in earnest – really read him – and I’ll be damned if I can find the man’s opinions on such issues as religion, marriage, royalty, revolution, politics, money, sexual orientation, love, hate, women, war, fate, happiness – little things like that. I look forward to making my next decade, if I’m allowed a next decade, into the Simmons-Delves-Deeper-Into-Shakespeare Decade, but I have little doubt that I’ll emerge not much the wiser about the Bard’s personal opinions.

On the other hand, in an enjoyable discussion with my daughter Jane last night over dinner and a good cabernet, she made a strong argument that the reputedly invisible William Shakespeare left plenty of footprints in his 37 plays, and that his opinion on certain things -- including his enchantment with the green wood, his skepticism about marriage, his celebration of powerful female personalities such as Beatrice and Rosalind, his aversion to tyranny (even of that of the mob) but preference for authority, and his attraction to real estate – all come through clearly enough.

Perhaps so, but in this age of the bestselling Left Behind Series peddling its predigested pablum to fellow believers and of “serious fiction” like Franzen’s Corrections being hailed as the Great American Novel for beating us about the head and shoulders with obvious opinions and posturings, not to mention the most recent obscurant proselytizing from whichever unknown Marxist that’s just been awarded the last Nobel Prize for Literature, a little breeze of disinterestedness would be a welcome relief.

I’ve just finished a fascinating book by Stephen Greenblatt called Will In the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. (If you have any doubts as to whether Shakespeare is the Writer Among Writers and will remain so for millennia more, read this book along with Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and perhaps Park Honan’s Shakespeare: A Life and – for the sheer fun, energy, and speculation of it – Anthony Burgess’s amusing and sensual novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun.)

Greenblatt – also the editor of the great annotated Norton collection of Shakespeare that has, with its 20-pound heft, put a permanent crease in my abdomen – has been criticized for speculating too much, but with a personality as elusive (historically and opinion-wise) as William Shakespeare’s, some informed speculation is called for and Greenblatt’s is wonderfully informed.

Greenblatt suggests that the playwright’s “annulment of self” came about not just because of artistic reasons, but out of shrewd calculation as to the best way to keep his head and body connected. We know that the young Shakespeare had left Stratford-on-Avon at the height of the persecution of closet Catholics and commando-Jesuits sneaking into newly (and fanatically) Protestant England – Shakespeare’s own father left a secret testament after his death asking for Masses to be said for him. The first sight to greet young Will as he crossed the amazing London Bridge into the city would have been the heads of at least 37 men on pikes on that bridge – and not just any men, no common thieves or pickpockets or murderers, but the rotting, mummifying heads of men of importance, including nobility. Traitors. Heretics. Men who had SPOKEN OUT.

Christopher Marlowe – a man exactly Shakespeare’s age and the playwright we know had the most impact on the budding author, even if much of that impact was negative – met his end with a knife through the eye, and while many thought it was just over a “reckoning” of a bill in a bar, we know now that Marlowe was a spy and died in a house filled with spies and informants. It may have been an execution. Kit Marlowe was a man of strong opinions. He was a man who SPOKE OUT.

But perhaps the most interesting element of Greenblatt’s book is a look at another aspect of Shakespeare’s persistent Negative Capability, a different sort of lacunae. It’s the analysis of the leap of genius in the Bard’s work when – in Hamlet and never abandoned after that – Shakespeare learned what to leave out of his narrative. Which logic not only to abandon but to defy. Which backstory (in ugly Hollywood parlance) not to tell. Which motive not to make visible.

In Greenblatt’s words –

                 Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.

In real terms, Shakespeare was trusting the audience to exert the same Negative Capability – the same talent at allowing diametrically opposed tensions to remain unresolved – that he himself used in his writing. In this sense, no writer before or since has ever demanded so much from an audience or had an audience receive so much in return. We are all gifted collaborators when we enter deeply into one of Shakespeare’s creations from Hamlet on.

But what are these “strategic opacities” that Shakespeare dares to place between the audience or reader and the play? In Hamlet they are legion – Why does the young prince feign madness when it only draws attention to himself at a time when he should be invisible to the king and court so as to plot his revenge? Why does he not take his revenge – why does he become sidetracked into his own expansion of consciousness, obsessed with his own overhearing of himself? How can a basic revenge plot – the Hamlet plays were a theatrical cliché even before Shakespeare wrote his version – evolve and grow into the ultimate experience of consciousness?

In Othello, the “strategic opacity” is precisely the lack of a motive for Iago’s scheming and hatred. Iago never does reveal his motive – in fact, he revels in having no motive – and vows to remain silent until his death as they drag him off to torture. In King Lear, the plot would make sense if told as previous versions of the play had been written – with the old king demanding his “test of love” from his daughters before he divided up his kingdom. But Shakespeare starts his version of the play with the map already drawn, the three segments of equal size. The test of love that ends up killing Cordelia and driving Lear himself into nihilistic madness and death makes no sense whatsoever.

I’m currently working on a screenplay version combining my novels SUMMER OF NIGHT and A WINTER HAUNTING, and every time I get to one of these necessary flashbacks or bits of dialogue which exist to shore up internal logic and show motivation, I rebel. (Some screenwriters call these “rubber ducky scenes.” As in the movie Pretty Woman where Richard Gere and Julia Roberts are in the bathtub and Gere explains – in essence – that he’s become a cold-hearted corporate raider because his unloving father used to come into the bathroom when he was a little boy and sink his rubber ducks. The gorge becomes buoyant writing these scenes . . . strike them out!)

But I am no Shakespeare – I’m not even a Shakespeare wannabe. Such genius of lacunae and Negative Capability is almost beyond my ken, much less beyond my talents. I am, at best, one of the Coleridge types who “would let go by a fine isolated versimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery.”

But consider how breathtaking it is to have had a writer among us who not only could apply such disinterestedness to his observations and writings but who could bring characters alive who – unlike most of us who live and breathe – became “free agents of themselves.”

What courage it took not only to develop this Negative Capability into the heart of one’s art, but to trust living audiences and generations not yet born to enter into such daring collaborations with him – to exalt such willing suspension of disbelief into the most subtle and powerful of psychological insights.

In a real sense, the energy released from Shakespeare’s placement of “strategic opacity” which demands the full use of Negative Capability – in the audience as well as the tale -- was the literary equivalent of triggering the device at Trinity Site.

Nothing has ever been the same since.

Merry Christmas.


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