Monday, September 12, 2011

Time and the Other in Proust and Shakespeare, part II

“Father!” “Son!” “Father I thought we’d lost you
In the blue and buff planes of the Aegean:
Now it seems you’re really back.”
"Only for a while, son, only for a while.”

What does awkwardness really mean (to continue my previous post)?

Say that what drives a scene in fiction, in any fiction, is some encounter which counts, an encounter that starts something going, introduces a tension. Or it resolves a tension, brings something to a close.  So the awkwardness I ended my last by invoking is an encounter that does... nothing.  It doesn't count for anything beyond its own discomfort. The dreaded or dreamt of moment doesn't change things, except to erode our sense that anything can change this unresolved relationship anymore, that anything will change it.  We've had, like another, our story ("Elle avait eu, comme une autre, son histoire d'amour." --"Un Coeur Simple").  And then what?  Not much. Because all of that's now in the pluperfect, and what's left, one way or another, is intermittent awkwardness.

I think psychoanalysis is supposed to teach you to accept awkwardness, to stop expecting that transferential relations will allow you to make up for the past.  Think of the awkwardness of meeting your shrink later in life (or teacher or coach or whomever).  For psychoanalysis that's the goal: "the ordinary unhappiness of everyday life."  You come to accept awkwardness, intermittence and all, not as a local accident, but an ontological condition, the only form of ontological possibility left.  It's a kind of genuinely resigned hopelessness, hopelessness which doesn't retain the hopefulness, the desperately energetic willing, the exigent need to be wrong, that is part of the grammar of the word hopelessness, part of what that self-description conceals and cherishes.  Awkwardness is hopelessness without hope.

So I don't mean the awkwardness we feel early in life during the so-called awkward age: a form of intense transference onto the person one's awkward before: "I am shy, bring this right, make it happy." I mean posterior awkwardness: if and when this awkward moment is over, that will be a middling improvement, a reversion to the mediocre.  That's what we fear in the awkward age, but what comes true later in life, and isn't even worth fearing. And, writers like Henry James (think of Caspar Goodwood's ridiculous, pointless return to Isabel Archer) or Cormac McCarthy keep showing, this kind of awkwardness occurs at the level of a life or even of history.

Thus, at the end of Blood Meridian, the Kid (a kid no longer) meets the Judge again, having escaped the fate the Judge threatened him with when the Kid was still a kid.  He escaped that fate for a while, anyhow.  But now the Judge is back, and to the Kid's penultimate outburst -- "You aint nothing" -- he responds, "You speak truer than you know."  The Judge is the embodiment of Nothing; he is Marías's "Sir Death" (Marías' English phrase in Tu Rostra Mañana; he claims to get it from medieval English drama but I certainly can't find it).  Like Sir Death, the Judge is the narrative opposition to all narrative possibility, to the bargaining that makes narrative. He doesn't bargain. Nothing is remembered, nothing escapes obliteration. The Judge and Sir Death stand for narrative impossibility, the complete and utter end of the story.

It was inevitable that the Kid should meet the Judge again (the Judge dances and he is everywhere and he will never die), and that no escape can shape the story's end.  That's the Judge's final lesson for the Kid:
A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man's destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

He poured the tumbler full. Drink up, he said. The world goes on. We have dancing nightly and this night is no exception. The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together? Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.

He took up the tumbler the judge had poured and he drank and set it down again. He looked at the judge. I been everywhere, he said. This is just one more place.

The Judge arched his brow. Did you post witnesses? he said. To report to you on the continuing existence of those places once you'd quit them?

That's crazy.

Is it?  Where is yesterday? Where is Glanton and Brown and where is the priest? He leaned closer. Where is Shelby, whom you left to the mercies of Elias in the desert, and where is Tate whom you abandoned in the mountains? Where are the ladies, ah the fair and tender ladies with whom you danced at the governor's ball when you were a hero anointed with the blood of the enemies of the republic you'd elected to defend? And where is the fiddler and where is the dance?
No witnesses but the Judge who witnesses in order to obliterate (as we learn in an early scene).  There is nothing and no one left to show that Shelby or Glanton or Brown or Tobin (to quote Marías again) "trod the earth or traversed the world" before ending up in "one-eyed oblivion."

So let's say, then, that this is Cormac McCarthy's view of tenses : "The past that was differs little from the past that was not" (his view of punctuation is for a later post).  Then the end of Blood Meridian, despite all of McCarthy's contempt for Proust, and presumably for Flaubert, is not essentially different from the end of that other helpless, hopeless coming-of-age novel L'Education sentimentale (the Kid too knows the melancholy of waking up in tents).  The Judge's words gloss that ending: "The straight and the winding way are one and now that you are here what do the years count since last we two met together?"  This is Holden's version of Flaubert's tremendous blank.

The straight and winding way end at the same place.  Dickinson knew this, knew that Shakespeare knew it.  "Since Cleopatra died," says Antony, "I have lived in such dishonor, that the gods / Detest my baseness."  She died, he thinks, moments ago, and so he too has invented a new tense: the passé composé of perfect difference from the past.  "That engulfing since" Dickinson calls it.

But Cleopatra hasn't died.  Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra are to see each other again, to speak to each other again.  The forlorn hope of reunion comes true.  Their way to death is more winding than they think.  And yet, like Ashbery's skaters, they are only elaborating their distances to a common and inescapable end.

I remember reading a study which graphed anxiety about medical tests against the likelihood of their coming out positive (likelihood of bad news, that is).  Essentially as you get older, your anxiety about any specific test decreases, even as the likelihood that what you're worrying about actually will be true increases.  You get less anxious (you get used to the routine, you become less of a hypochondriac), but the negative results become more and more uncertain.  You're pretty confident, maybe too confident, that this test will come out negative.  But what about the next one? How much good does it do you to get this negative result? Considering the alternative, a lot.  But life becomes more and more filled with the sense of a temporary reprieve, not a happy ending.

"Every catching of the breath / Is the sickness unto death" writes John Bricuth in his great poem "Hypochondria as the Basis of Conversion," each stanza of which ends with a Kierkegaard title.  In fact hypochondria of the soul increases as you grow older.  Every crisis of anxiety passed only brings you deeper into the world of crisis.

In Shakespeare the worry is not hypochondria but anxiety about other people, about love and loss.  A Midsummer Night's Dream ends in blissful ignorance about the coming disaster: that "the issue there create," in Theseus and Hippolyta's bed, will lead to Senecan tragedy.  So too Henry V ends the second Henriad with hopeful marriage, Hal and Kate's happiness undimmed by what we know is coming, the scene that takes place only a year or so later, and which Shakespeare wrote ten plays or so earlier at the beginning of The First Part of Henry VI.  Marriage is about everything's working out.  The fact that nothing works out for good is beside the point.  For the young.

But the parental generation (the later Shakespeare's generation) is always aware things work out only for a while, son, only for a while.

For "the worried well" (to go back to hypochondria for a moment), the equivalent of things' working out is the negative test result.  That's what we want: let it be negative this time.  As we get older, we know the positive result will come.  But we bargain: let it come later, but not now.

Heidegger (as John Limon points out) -- the early Heidegger, anyhow -- had contempt for this kind of bargaining, which he thought characteristic of "They-being," the mode of being of the fearful evaders of truth who cannot attain an authentic being-towards-death.  Kierkegaard thought of this sort of bargaining as one of the kinds of despair

But what I'm interested in here is narrative, not the anti-narrative stance of being-towards-death.  Narrative is about bargaining, and the question is what you get out of the bargain.  In life, and in narrative that seems adequate to our experience of life, we start out bargaining for some quit-claim, but later on what we want, what we know as the only possibility, is deferral.  Let the moment be awkward, not final.

Sure, all bargaining, in even the most naive stories, can involve characters' deaths; it often does, but death there means a bad narrative outcome, which we'll accept, if we have to, along some of the byways narrative takes as long as we get what we want at the end of other pathways.  Babar's mother, Bambi's: they die.  Little Paul Dombey may die, if he must, but then their father had better give Florence the love she needs and deserves.  And we do have to accept the bargain.  We have to accept the fact that we're bargaining if we're to participate (as we do) in any narrative experience beyond pure wish-fulfilling daydream: the interest, the emotional involvement in narrative comes from the bargaining and negotiating we put our souls into.  (It's characteristic of Shakespeare's generosity in the comedies, by the way, that at the end he tends to throw in some added gift we hadn't bargained for.)  If we could get everything we wanted, we wouldn't be bargaining; narrative experience is the experience of bargaining, ergo we can't get everything we want.  One of the manifestations of what we don't get may be death.  But death here just stands for an element of the bargaining outcome, where what's important is the bargaining.  At least in most narratives.

The bargains we make with narrative are often more gratifyingly framed versions of the bargains we make in real life.  We worry, and we are willing to give up some of our happiness in order not to lose it all.  We think in terms of negotiated satisfaction; we signal our willingness to accept lesser but still saving and even gratifying states of affairs.

(My mother was once very anxious about where my father was - he was terribly, unaccountably, uncharacteristically late.  The phone rang and it was the police!  They identified themselves and made sure who she was.  Then: "Your husband's in jail."  Her response: "Oh, thank God!"  Because he wasn't dead.  [He'd cussed out a cop who had pulled him over for speeding.]  The phone's ringing, and I'll accept a compromise: bad but not terrible news.  I'm a reasonable person, a serious man.)

Tragedy and comedy represent two different bargaining equilibria: we give up a little in comedy to get a solution we're satisfied with (maybe even a better solution than we ever expected: we get a surplus reward).  We give up a lot in tragedy to get to a solution that at least leaves us calm of mind, all passion spent.

I think Aristotlean unity is about the straightest way to whatever equilibrium is achieved.  (There's a reversal, yes, but the reversal is the start of that straight path.)  Shakespeare is interested in the winding ways.

And this is where things change, this is where he thought his way through to a new narrative representation of real experience -- the representation later to be found in Flaubert and Proust, e.g.  In his later plays, the winding ways become more and more his subject, and not only the itinerary of its exposition. Romeo and Juliet part, never to converse again.  But in the later plays, look what happens: Lear is reunited with Cordelia! Antony with Cleopatra! The Macbeths reign for a long time, longer than they ever dared to hope: everything they sought they get, except the immortality they never believed in anyway.  And then, there's the original for Dombey and Son, The Winter's Tale.

Mammilius, a senex puer like Paul Dombey (and Miles), has to die, but for that loss we get the recompense of Perdita's happiness, and the reunion of Hermione and Leontes in overplus.  And yet, they're old. The play begins with a lamentation over lost youth: how much more lost is it at the end!  The happy ending of the play isn't the real, true end, final end of everything, but that final ending isn't far away from the parental generation there.

I think what Shakespeare was thinking about more and more was the way all our real-life bargains with fate (or life or God) become modes of temporizing, seeking extensions on the loan, a raise of the credit limit, not the impossible forgiveness of the debt.  As we become aware of time in the Proustian, Flaubertian sense - as we become aware that the future is continuous with the present and not something whose existence is absolutely deferred (which is how we thought of is as children) - we become aware that all that our bargaining achieves is, at most, renewals on harsher and harsher terms and for shorter and shorter periods of the crushing debts we owe.  There is no happy ending for Antony and Cleopatra, or Paulina and Camillo (far from it) or Lear and Cordelia or the Macbeths, despite their unexpected reunions. The Kid can escape Judge Holden for years, for as long as he could possibly hope for, and yet he cannot escape.

We bargain and bargain and usually get the extensions we want; we usually get more than we'd allowed ourselves to hope for. Usually. Until we don't. It's all okay! Until it isn't.

That's what's awkward about getting the terms of the extension.  It's the awkward gratitude you express to the debt collector for giving you another month.  The awkward fact that we can more or less clumsily affect not to notice, in order to save the moment, is that the debt is still due, and harder to pay than ever. Maybe we can save the day. But only the day. How awkward for the poor servant to meet Death in the marketplace in Baghdad.  But the man manages to get out of the situation, and lives to keep his appointment in Samarra.

And it seems that for Proust, maybe for McCarthy, the only cure for that is remembering, which is to say writing - being lost in another world.  But is that a cure that lasts? How long?  A lifetime? Why did Shakespeare stop writing?

[A bit more on Proust, in my next which will be, I promise, shorter.]

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