Sunday, September 04, 2016

`The Immense Burden of the Whole'

In his chapter on King Lear in Shakespeare (1939), Mark Van Doren writes:

“Line after line carries in its apparently frail body the immense burden of the whole. Such lines—or they may be less than lines—come everywhere, but naturally they thicken towards the close.”

In Lear and elsewhere in Shakespeare, and occasionally in the work of other writers, especially poets, we find density of meaning wedded to brevity and grace. Packing a sentence or phrase is easy if you think of it as an infinitely over-stuffable suitcase. The trick is concision and precision, travelling light. Spend a week or a lifetime contemplating “the excellent foppery of the world.” There’s a fractal-like logic to Shakespeare’s language. Smaller units – words, phrases, lines -- are reflectively self-similar to the whole, like variations on a theme in music. Each resonates with the other. Gary Saul Morson in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel (Stanford University Press, 2012) observes a similar phenomenon in other prose works:

“The author of a long work can take the side of one genre against another or create an unresolved dialogue among several of them. Many short genres play a role in War and Peace. Although this work respectfully explores the wisdom of proverbs, maxims, and apothegms, Tolstoy treats the summons with irony and the witticism with contempt. Tolstoy regarded the sense of life expressed by witticisms as supremely shallow for valuing mere cleverness above all else.”

And yet Tolstoy, whose bête noire was Shakespeare, excels, like the playwright, at both ends of the scale. As Van Doren says: “If the whole is as vast and shaggy as the cosmos is to fearful man, the parts are fitted in with wonderful refinement.” This is why War and Peace, despite its bulk, surprises readers with its ease of reading. There’s no Modernist obfuscation. Any reasonably literate person can read War and Peace. Van Doren might almost be writing of Tolstoy’s “large, loose, baggy monsters,” in Henry James’ phrase, though James was, for once, wrong. Morson makes me aware of something. I’ve always felt the pull of the aphoristic, as writer and reader. I like language that is charged with thought, not inert, but not only in the formal context of an aphorism. Pithy writing is not an end in itself. Morson writes:

“Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire contains many brilliant sardonic maxims, but it does considerably more. Maxims themselves achieve a new richness as Gibbon’s very long book deploys them. In Middlemarch [and even more so in Daniel Deronda], George Eliot formulates maxims worthy of La Rochefoucauld and apothegms as good as Samuel Johnson’s. But the books could hardly be considered just an expansion of these.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

“Leisure” had a different connotation in the 19th century. At a time when there was little or no regulation of labor, and workers would be on the job for ten or twelve hours, or more, six days a week, to the liberal-leaning middle-class, like Melville, “leisure” stood for the relief for the working class which eventually came about with the forty-hour work week. Also, “leisure” did not – as it does today – imply lounging around, but an opportunity for self-improvement. Melville would not have approved of using ones’ leisure to be a couch potato in front of the TV. I’m not sure, but I believe he would even have frowned on using leisure time to go bowling or go out with friends for a few drinks. For Melville’s “leisure” read “leisure time” for a better sense of what he was talking about.