My understanding of Hamlet when I first read it in a high-school English class shared little with my teacher’s or fellow students’, and remains so. The Prince is a spoiled brat, forever throwing tantrums. A psychologically minded reader might diagnose him a narcissist, and like many narcissists he is intelligent and can be eerily charming. He flatters intelligent readers and playgoers. Other people for him are objects of varying degrees of usefulness. The play’s most sympathetic character is Polonius, the supposed gasbag. Like all the other characters, he didn’t deserve to have Hamlet in his life. To this day I’m intolerant of arrested adolescence, in literature and life.
“Nor does a text belong to some distanced aesthetic realm; our most intense experience of literature tells us that this is a fiction. It follows that our beliefs can never simply be set aside when we read.”
As a sophomore, a few years after first reading Hamlet, a professor attempted to convert me to Gertrude Stein. Flattery didn’t work. Neither did guilt and shame. To all honest readers, Stein’s writing is monstrously tedious and contemptuous of would-be readers. No one could read The Making of Americans for pleasure or instruction. It’s a text designed to be lied about by graduate students.
“Where do we read from if not from the center of our own being? Certainly we can entertain a variety of views about the world; it is part of the task of education to enlarge our limited range of opinions.”
The university taught me to be an autodidact. I came there ignorant, convinced of my learning. A few professors and my first access to a university library changed all that. I was given the gift of following any lead I wished. Long before the internet I could get my hands on virtually any book or journal. I was no scholar but I discovered that I loved to dig among the stacks, bang books together and make connections. In its vastness, the world could, on occasion, become intelligible.
The sequentially quoted passage above is from “Center of Resistance” (Instaurations: Essays in and Out of Literature, Pindar to Pound, 1979) by the late D.S. Carne-Ross. Even at so early a date, four decades ago, the literary tradition and the human essence it sustains were corroding. By now, we can no longer assume that the bearer of a college degree can read let alone parse a sonnet by Fulke Greville. No, the center stopped holding a long time ago. Resolute readers build their private canons, but its best to calibrate them with the canons of the past. Only the arrogant self-righteous ignore the tradition. The rest of us can’t make a move without it. Later in his essay, Carne-Ross tells us “literature provides not simply experience but knowledge.” He quotes Edgar in King Lear – “I would not take this from report—it is” – and writes: “This is how we respond to great literature. Though it can please beyond all pleasing, we turn to it not for aesthetic pleasure but for its power of ontological disclosure.”