Living, Loving and Party-Going in Shakespeare
by William Flesch
Here’s a song by John Ashbery, or maybe a poem about song, or both, entitled “Song”:
The song tells us of our old way of living,
Of life in former times. Fragrance of florals,
How things merely ended when they ended,
Of beginning again into a sigh. Later
Some movement is reversed and the urgent masks
Speed toward a totally unexpected end
Like clocks out of control. Is this the gesture
That was mean, long ago, the curving in
Of frustrated denials, like jungle foliage
And the simplicity of the ending all to be let go
In quick, suffocating sweetness? The day
Puts toward a nothingness of sky
Its face of rusticated brick. Sooner or later,
The cars lament, the whole business will be hurled down.
Meanwhile we sit, scarcely daring to speak,
To breathe, as though this closeness cost us life.
The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations,
And the purpose of many stops and starts will be made clear:
Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow
Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways
Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love.
I’ve always disliked facile talk of the green-world/real-world distinction in Shakespeare. Belmont, the Athenian woods, the Forest of Arden, Bohemia. As though Shakespeare was acknowledging fantasy while gently tutoring us in the reality principle that moralist critics, each a mini-Leavis, valued most.
Of course there’s something to the contrast of moods that Shakespeare is after, a contrast to which locale contributes. But I think the contrast is temporal: it’s a different kind of experience of time that he’s after, the suspension of action, the ritardando slowing the impetus with which cause attempts to burn the stages of effect to achieve its final purpose, that I wrote about here. It’s how Shakespeare manages theatrical time, makes theatrical experience into something other than a causal nexus. Our relation to time changes, we live (to alter Beckett slightly) a Shakespearean pause. That’s the point: not the contrast between green and real (urban, ordinary, everyday, whatever) world, but the access to that pause.
Here’s the moment in Beckett I was I alluding to, the narrator’s description of Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks:
He lived a Beethoven pause, he said, whatever he meant by that…. He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.
The pause is where the serious is suspended. It’s not unlike (especially in More Pricks Than Kicks) Deleuze’s evocation of alcohol as the world of the passé composé, the suspended, timeless, lost and present-in-its-loss world that is other than the careening, unfolding, continuous, exorbitant present. It’s the achievement of a non-serious relation to time.
The achievement, that is to say, of parties. Proustian parties we know about, but it’s been striking me how many parties there are in Shakespeare, how (as in Proust) they seem to occur mid-play. Not only in the green-world comedies (the “green world” is the place they occur), but in the histories and tragedies as well: the Mousetrap—and the graveyard—, the feast to which Banquo so unexpectedly returns, Pompey’s feasting of the triumvirate (among many others in Antony and Cleopatra), drunkenness in Cyprus, the hovel scene in Lear, the various strange gatherings in Titus. Parties in Shakespeare generally include us: we’re not watching for some underlying dynamic (James Bond avoiding the noose tightening around him as he plays Baccarat against his antagonists), but spending time with the play, which gives us, allows us to share, a “time which is our own,” to quote Shelley in his great poem of suspension, the “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici.”
Shakespeare’s plays tend to follow the dynamic of the convergence of all surviving characters which Dan Decker describes so well in his great book Anatomy of a Screenplay. But the really interesting thing is the two-step rhythm of that convergence: first at a party mid-play (the Mousetrap, Cyprus, even the hovel, where the joint stool can’t deny that it is Goneril), and then again at the end. The party is a false-ending, often (as it certainly is in the Mousetrap), but in another sense it’s the other possible ending, the one came there for, the experience of the play and not of its resolution. The duration of that experience, in all genres, takes shape as a party.
These thoughts are partly inspired by listening, elegiacally, with just this sense of suspension, to Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” which is of course about what it’s like to be moved to sing “Heroin.” All true songs are about what it’s liked to be moved to sing them: The old way you lived, relive it,* at least during the song: tomorrow is just some other time. As Ashbery suggests, what the song promises—a promise it keeps in making it, and doesn’t break by not keeping it in any other way—is that you can always bring it with you, always sing it again tomorrow. Blanchot finds sublime the moment that Achilles offers Priam bread or death, hospitality or the end of things. Plays have to end, but no one so well as Shakespeare understood how to use them to offer the hospitality of time, the interim of friendship.
*Children, while you can, let some last flame
Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them.
Piece originally published at Arcade |