Monday, December 12, 2011

Tasks and answers

(A short post to keep my hand in, while I write the two overdue things I'm writing and finish up the semester....)

One of the great and difficult things about King Lear is its fairy-tale quality.  Writing gripping and unmotivated situations - nothing seems easier, but nothing is harder. Even the Mariner's shooting of the albatross doesn't quite do it, as Coleridge himself acknowledged when Anna Letitia Barbauld complained of the story's want of moral point:
Mrs Barbauld tole me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were — that it was improbable and had no moral. As for the probability — to be sure that might admit some question — but I told her that in my judgment the poem had moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader, It ought to have no more moral than the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the
Genii's son.
It's worth remembering that Barbauld was an innovative and charismatic teacher as well as poet, and that she wrote a good deal, and successfully for children. But Coleridge was after that near-impossible quality: gratuitous narrative that brings you in so quickly that you don't have time to wonder why or how such situations should ever arise.  To see what I mean notice how well Kafka achieves something akin to the great beginning of the Grimms's "Town Musicans of Bremen" --

A man had a donkey, who for long years had untiringly carried sacks to the mill, but whose strength was now failing, so that he was becoming less and less able to work. Then his master thought that he would no longer feed him, but the donkey noticed that it was not a good wind that was blowing and ran away, setting forth on the road to Bremen, where he thought he could become a town musician 
-- in the opening of the Metamorphosis:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.  He was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like brown belly divided into corrugated segments on top of which the bed quilt could hardly keep in position and was about to slide off completely.  His numerous legs, which were pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, flimmered helplessly before his eyes. [Nabokov's modified translation of the Muirs with one reversion to their version; "flimmered" is his portmanteau of flickered and shimmered]
Shakespeare achieves what Coleridge doesn't at the beginning of King Lear.  His source -- the Chronicle History of King Leir -- has the King set the love contest up as a trick.  He is sure that Cordella will vow her absolute love and obedience to him, which will then enable him to require her to marry the husband he has picked for her rather than the man she loves (cf. the less fairy-tale-like Midsummer Night's Dream).  In Shakespeare's version, Lear simply asks the question:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?

He means the question to set him up as the judge of their answers - a finely fatherly thing to do. But the question is deeper than that, I've just been realizing: it's the question of the play.  Which daughter will he say loves him most? And the answer comes only at the end, when he finally says that it's Cordelia.  That question is answered for us, but for her also: "Which of you?" The second person matters: it's when he says it to her that the question is answered.  We wait, and she waits, for the answer during the whole play. It is then that he gives the answer to the question he has unwillingly posed himself.  He had no idea that the question was not simply the catalyst of what comes next but the question of the play.  Will he say it? About Cordelia? When?

The "shall" turns out to indicate the whole temporal span of the play: Lear's fairy tale question and fairy tale crisis also shows him setting himself the task that it will take the whole play to fulfill: saying who loves him most.  And when he does that, everything's over.  But the second person also matters because he's setting her the task (in proper Proppian form): make him say it.  And that takes the whole play and her whole life, and his whole life too.

I think this is all obvious, and yet I think somehow it's not: that the story is simpler and deeped than anything in Tolstoy, which is why he (Tolstoy) disparaged it.  The best fairy-tale writer of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy's works have the fairy-tale slyness of the Chronicle History of King Leir.  Perhaps they sometimes rival the the austere complexity, that is to say the simplicity, of King Lear.  But it's King Lear that they rival.

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