3 Hamlets, or splicing Shakespeare

We didn’t plan it—it somehow happened to us, that we ended up watching three versions of Shakespeare’s play spliced together in equal parts to make a whole.

First came the newest, Andrew Scott’s of 2018, a well-received theatre production reconceived for television. It began with a gimmick but a hypnotic one, a pretend-report on Danish television of the funeral of a king, big black cars driving away from a churchyard avoiding the photographers. Then the security guards’ windowless cave dominated by a chessboard of surveillance screens tuned on the castle ramparts, where the Ghost soon appeared, grey, indistinct, and uniformed like a bureaucrat. The scene was enlivened by electronic noises, especially a loud crack like a fuse blowing which signaled the Ghost’s disappearance.

This version easily beat the nearby competition, Kuznetsov’s Russian of 1964, recently taped from television, lugubrious, pompous, with endless stone corridors after promising footage of the sea washing against cliffs, and, worst of all, extreme faithlessness to the text*, of which it didn’t even attempt an approximation. In fairness, it’s a mood-piece, the furthest thing imaginable from a precise rendering.

So we rejoiced in how the Scott version left every word clearly distinct, and Hamlet, mainly silent, made a strong positive impression on me (though not on E) with an Irish accent and mobile face that reminded me of an Irish friend and seemed to exude intelligence.

We settled into this, intending to see it through, but before long Scott’s way of speaking the verse began to grate. He was breaking it into the smallest possible pieces, waiting between words as if to see how long a silence he could get away with, as if he was thinking out the sense of the line on the spot and discarding unused possibilities before settling on the one he liked best, as if the character’s famous hesitation and delay had infected every second of his existence and made him aware of choices a hundred different times in every utterance. He filled up the unexpected silences with moving his hands like birds fighting strong currents of air and with widening his eyes at one surprising thought after another. It was a convincing picture of mental liveliness but it pulverised the discourse and made you feel you’d had a series of memory lapses, a strong but painful experience.

Like many or even most people I come to Shakespeare with lots of baggage. As a student I had to learn some of these speeches as a way of getting inside the language, which my extremely charismatic teacher thought was what the plays were all about. I agreed with him then, and have only partly diverged even now. Without the language, what have you got? But I can only say this as someone who has been comprehensively defeated by Shakespeare’s language.

Reading Shakespeare in intense bouts which last a few months at roughly ten-year intervals has been one of the great experiences of my life, and the last time it happened I thought the time had come to write a book about the plays. The months stretched into a year or more, and bigger and bigger mountains of notes grew up. Intimidated, I decided I had to begin writing with one of the plays which interested me least. Except that, as often happens with this writer, when you look harder, his most awkward or mechanical product reveals new depths, and the despised Comedy of Errors, instead of a heartless manipulation of its creatures, conjures up an existential abyss in which human personality is dissolved by the simple device of taking away a couple of its customary props. In spite of this encouraging discovery, that lonely first chapter was all I ever wrote.

Unable to bear the destruction of all continuity in Hamlet’s soliloquies, we gave up on Andrew Scott’s version after an hour and 19 minutes (about a third of the way through) and resolved to carry on after a Spartan supper with Laurence Olivier’s film of 1948.

It wasn’t easy to make an exact splice so I tried to find the arrival of the players at the castle, a subject undoubtedly dear to the author’s heart, but an easy place to make cuts. Hamlet even goads one of the old players to deliver an old speech he remembers, very histrionic and completely out of context, but the actor is so carried away by the grotesque rhetoric that he ends in tears. This preposterous speech about wandering around the burning ruin of Troy coated in layers of other warriors’ (I think) blood like a basted roast is a favourite of mine and one of the purest demonstrations of the irrational magic of language. It is cut completely from the Olivier version, so it was a waste of time looking for it.

Olivier’s troupe of players is a huge throng (as against Scott’s 3 or 4), with clowns and jugglers galore, and creates an enormous diversionary hubbub. To a degree that surprises us, Olivier’s is a thoroughly diversionary version of the play. You get the words clearly enunciated but you get a lot else, especially yards and yards of heavy and expensive fabric. Gertrude drags a large and bulky train. Important characters like Hamlet and Horatio are dressed like Roman generals, wide in the chest, plastered with metal arabesques and hung with garlands of braided cord that remind me of our Christmas tree. I am seriously distracted by Hamlet’s costume and wonder what an experienced actor like Olivier can be thinking of to allow people to be upstaged by their clothes.

The architecture of the castle suffers from a similar excess of detail, as if trying to include everything it knows about the Romanesque in an arcade glimpsed briefly, like a dish with too many ingredients. How perceptions change—formerly this must have conveyed a wonderful fullness; now it seems out of place and much too much.** Now we run to another recent version that I’m pleased to find I have a DVD of, with David Tennant as Hamlet from 2008-9. This suits us perfectly, pared down to an essence. How long will it take for this one to acquire its weird period flavour too? Ophelia’s grave is like an incision in a road leading to a sewer and the Gravedigger is a municipal employee. This seems a very apt analogue for Shakespeare’s salt-of-the-earth guy shut in the prison of his specialised trade. By the end, like the old actor playing Pyrrhus, I’m fighting off tears contemplating Hamlet’s fate.

 

 *based on a translation by Boris Pasternak, which is then translated back into English, and must have more value, at least in Russian, than I found in it.

 **in 2012 I loved the Olivier version.

Oceania—art of the Pacific islands

 

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A moment of vertigo as you realise that by allotting a whole wall to a map of these scattered islands, you’ve drawn attention to the vast expanses of empty space between them.  Once you’ve left the land masses at either end of 6000 miles of ocean behind, there’s almost nothing there. It is the most dispersed series of human habitations on earth, given a flimsy coherence by the comforting (comforting and embarrassing) 18c names, reminders of European monarchs, like Caroline or Mariana, or far away and inappropriate places, like the Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Britain or Ireland (with New tacked on in front) and quaintest of all, Easter Island (now Rapa Nui) after the purely accidental day of European landfall.

The adventure properly begins with the ocean, represented in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy by a huge, nearly featureless blue hanging, crinkled like a calm sea and cascading toward the viewer. This was followed by a vast space where three slender canoes were suspended in the dimness. The largest was never meant to touch the water, a soul-canoe, already full of crouching wooden passengers–fierce birds, quiet turtles and human figures knotted together at both ends, where they hung out over imaginary sea-water.

DSC04791 copy.jpgAround them were grouped embellishments of canoes: splashboards inscribed with wave patterns that turn into birds biting each other, or a menacing crocodile prow with a demonic face on a canvas shield looming over it (see opening image). There were also three navigation charts like a cross between maps and abstract art, made of sticks (the main stems of coconut-palm fronds) lashed together into lattices dotted with tiny shells tied on in asymmetrical sequences. It’s the asymmetry and minimal means that make them feel like abstract art, and the diagrammatic arrangements of lines and dots that recall maps.

Western observers cannot help trying to match up the pattern of shells with islands on a map (a German attempt illustrated in the catalogue), an effort that can only ever succeed in part, because ‘lines’ on these ‘charts’ represent ocean-swells not distances, a subject long studied by island navigators, and classified into four types according to various resistances like undersea ridges, island shapes and prevailing winds. The charts aren’t taken along on voyages (hence their picture-like scale) but studied ahead of time and used in teaching. They are only the tips of icebergs of esoteric knowledge which have drawn occasional Western sailors to devote years to fathoming them.

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The precarious situation of islands which barely stick out above the sea often finds an echo in the islanders’ art, in headdresses formed of thousands of tiny feathers loosely mounted on flimsy cane frames, forming gigantic quivering auras 7 feet across over the dancer’s head. These rarely survive and are meant to be thrown away after a single performance, like those much solider island products, the malangan carvings made for funerals, depicting big fish entangled in little fish and threading their un-fishlike tusks among the fins. Their painted gaudiness seems almost another sign of a short life, of going out ablaze. Malangans turn up surprisingly often in museum collections, apparently because their makers think that selling them to the anthropologists is just another kind of destruction.

DSC04682 copy.jpgFlimsiness, undependable materials and the prospect of a short life can also lead to delightfully casual effects, as they do in barkcloth masks stretched on light bamboo frames which are hard to control precisely. The resulting wobbliness of forms can look like beings who are changing shape before your eyes, as in the lopsided duck or bird above, who seems to make space for a large spider living on his forehead at the centre of a web that covers the bird’s face. Its enormous eyes are not used for looking at the everyday world but at something further off. The wearer can see only through the bird’s beak, which must give everyone, dancer and spectator alike, a dislocated idea of where reality will be found.

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Under the sea’s influence Oceanic art, like Shakespeare’s late plays, is possessed by the idea of transformation, of things turning into other things, as in a carved board of uncertain purpose that starts with a large moon-like face at the top and then becomes a trellis of small faces melting into others, and then larger, more indistinct ones like Rorschach blots, with mirror-selves upside-down below. The overall effect is not unlike the mazes of Northern interlace, and all the piercing makes every perception insubstantial.

Next to this screen happened to be another mythical transformation, in which a long-tailed bird dug its talons into the scalp of a man it intended to carry aloft or devour and subsume on the spot. Already its claws were turning into human hair combed into parallel ridges. The leaning form of this roof finial foreshadowed the gentle motion of the bird’s flight and its acceptance of the composite creature it had become.

DSC04670 copy.jpgTattoos, and especially Maori face-tattoos, are indisputably an art-form, but difficult to include in an exhibition consisting of objects anchored in one place. There’s a remarkable drawing made in England in 1818 by a Maori artist suffering climate and culture shock. He depicts his brother’s face-tattoo as a single exploded view which flattens out the parts of the design that would disappear around the corners on the cheeks or over the top of the forehead. He makes it easier to grasp how this process consumes a part of the body and transforms it into a work of art, or rather how the body and the design are fused into a new being and a new work, a deeper idea of what writing lines on the body might achieve than most tattooists dream of.

DSC04985 copy.jpgIn 1896 a museum director in New Zealand solved the problem of how to display tattoos in a gallery that conveyed their vividness and power. He commissioned a sculpture from a noted Maori artist that would give him a three-dimensional rendering of tattoos. The resulting work looks as if it is carved from a single piece of dark wood left largely uncoloured to represent with defiant strength the darkness of native New Zealand skin. It shows three fully rounded heads emerging from a flat background deeply carved with traditional patterns, stained red and including two fierce birds with mother of pearl eyes. The heads are arranged in rows, two men at the top, a woman at the bottom. The men stare straight ahead, sightlessly; the woman looks down but her eyes are closed. You can study the tattoos as the director intended, but the expressions of the three and their asymmetries are unnerving.

Tattooing is not universal across the islands. One of the most rewarding aspects of studying all these tiny self-contained cultures is finding out how un-homogenous they are. New Guinea alone, the largest land mass in Oceania, contains or contained over a thousand languages and a dizzying variety of forms. In the middle Sepik region on the north coast appeared one of the most surprising simulacra of a tattooed face, sitting atop a special stool which commemorated a famous orator. It wasn’t a stool for sitting on, but a kind of effigy for contemplating the departed, which envisages him expressing his power with circular designs that start from the eyes and spread hypnotically over the whole face, which takes on a new concave form to accommodate them. Are these lines the spreading ripples of the orator’s voice, a visual analogue for sound waves?

DSC04701 copy.jpgThere is often a strong impulse in Oceanic art to dissolve solid bodies and obliterate the distinctness of forms. One of the most perplexing works shows a human body become almost two dimensional, a graphic squiggle of concentric curvelets enclosing an essence receding toward the status of a dot. In a world without writing there is no letter C, but in a world with drawing there is certainly this empty but enclosing form of a shallow curve with more copies of itself within.

DSC04849 copy.jpgIn the same company belongs the astonishingly featureless figure from Nukuoro in the Carolines whose head is a spinning top like one of Oscar Schlemmer’s, spherical at the back, narrowed to the point of a cone at the front, its chin. I imagine that I see on this ‘face’ the most delicate concentric tattoos and even almond-shaped openings in the pattern for the eyes. From Tahiti comes another way of blanking out the person with strong shapes and textures, ones which do not belong to personhood, large flat pearly shells instead of face, hands and breasts; stiff rectangles of alien substances covering the rest of the body. Appropriately this is a costume for the chief mourner at a funeral, someone who cuts off from all connection while the ordeal lasts.

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How is the deity A’a from remote Rurutu recognisable as a person at all? He has a head, sort of, and a body, but has been so colonised by parasites which he exudes like beads of sweat that he himself is obliterated. I had known him a long time before I’d been anywhere near the British Museum or had any idea what he looked like, except what I could glean from William Empson’s poem. Apparently he has functioned as a totem for many unbelievers who have little or no other contact with Oceanic art. He exercised his sway on the missionaries who brought him back to England instead of incinerating him, as had been their custom with the other idols which local people submitted to them to confirm their trust in the new creed, Christianity. The anthropologist Edmund Leach thought A’a’s visual power lay in his resemblance to an erect penis, an emblem of fertility, sweating lots of copies of himself which don’t resemble him exactly, but suggest increase, rather alarmingly.

He appeared in Roland Penrose’s exhibition of 1948-9, 40,000 years of modern art, after which the curator had a cast made. Seeing him in the Penrose studio, Picasso wanted one too, as did Henry Moore. Occasional visitors from Rurutu have come to see A’a in the British Museum, and a copy of him finally made it back to his birthplace and sits beside sports trophies in the mayor’s office. Recent scientific conclusions that he is made of sandalwood were debated by the island elders, who reaffirmed their adherence to the traditional belief that the material is pua wood, a species of tree noted for its sweet-smelling flowers.

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Homage To The British Museum

 There is a supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, dolls, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.

Attending there let us absorb the cultures of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.

 

William Empson

 

In the exhibition A’a was shown with his back removed and his internal cavity exposed. I came at him from behind and received a tremendous shock. I did not know that he was hollow.

Harry’s ‘Spider’ again

Just had the unlikely idea of mounting a new assault on Harry’s poem every morning, for a couple of reasons. Because I was defeated yesterday and fell into a patchwork of quotation and line by line description which if carried on would end up longer than the poem and make this very untedious work tedious.

Because, even more, I felt the poem would be spoiled if you said right out what it was about, like knowing the identity of the murderer too soon in a detective story. How to preserve the marvelous sensation of being at sea with a huge set of unfixed possibilities, without keeping too much uncertainty for most readers’ tastes? Maybe by the third or fourth assault you could say what you thought the poem was about – that The Spider was an account of a drug trip which lasted around four hours (as the poem told you near the end), though one of the strongest impressions it left you with was a rush of sensation with no gaps between. Above all else it was experience unrolling in front of you at natural speed, or as they say nowadays, ‘in real time’.

Someone must already have written that book On Difficulty which I have long wanted to write*, which would explain and justify the fascination with works of art like puzzles that hid themselves and needed disentangling, disentangling that you might or might not actually buckle down to. Sometimes, as with late Geoffrey Hill, you could almost count the number of specific allusions you weren’t penetrating, but still insisted on rushing past, not wanting to lose momentum and buoyed up by the amount you were not getting, because there wasn’t time or because the writer hadn’t bothered to name the subject of a whole section, because he knew there was a special pleasure in grasping a structure without knowing what it was the structure of.

The Spider isn’t obscure in the way The Waste Land is, an elaborate structure worked out, then deliberately buried, and waiting there for the reader to disinter. Harry’s poem isn’t premeditated to nearly that degree, isn’t nearly so gnomic. The Spider feels more accidental, at the mercy of chance thoughts and especially of associations stirred by the last thought that lead on to the next one.

Images follow each other in an unforeseen order, yet are at the same time the record of an experience, narrating an afternoon, in a place teeming with other presences, yet we’re sure there’s no one else there—it’s the teeming brain of the poet.

harry fainlight 2.jpgA future assault might tackle the relation of Harry’s sad life to the poem. Is it, as I sometimes think, not just the record of a freak episode located in a moment far back in time, but an accurate picture of his mental life in the present? Or, more exactly, a sketch of what his life had become under the spell of the ruinous drugs he had needed to travel to New York to subject himself to?

I hadn’t known Harry before the drugs, in those Sussex days when he was an outstanding cricketer, unimaginable by the time I knew him (only slightly, just barely). By then he made such a strong impression of a delicate mechanism which, though ruined now beyond a doubt, was still capable of striking insights. One day he looked at our cat-flap with its rounded corners and decided it was where the TV had gained entry to the house.

I take this observation as a loose fragment of an unwritten poem, the kind of thing that The Spider strings together in almost unmanageable density. Maybe the trouble with the poem is that it is too pure, too undigested, and that its transformations happen with a speed impossible for ordinary consciousness to keep up with. It sounds wonderful that sentences should change their subjects and objects their shapes from one word to the next, continually. But maybe there is just too much going on in this poem. And maybe this is part of what went wrong for Harry, that his idea of poetry and of himself as a poet demanded that every moment take place at peak intensity, leading to an exhaustion that was truly permanent.

 

*George Steiner published an essay On Difficulty in 1978, which traces a line of modernist obscurity through Michelangelo, Góngora and Wallace Stevens (Mallarmé a constant presence throughout), to end in Heidegger and Paul Celan.

‘The Spider’, or the case for incoherence

Harry Fainlight’s The Spider is a poem in the way that Willem de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s are pictures. It starts in a room, with a speaker looking at the thread of a spider’s web hanging from the ceiling. But then all hell breaks loose, and the dangling thread (without an actual spider anywhere to be seen) spawns a whole host of monsters, beginning with an ominous quotation about what happens when spiders are fed a certain drug–is it the one the speaker has just taken? This sentence doesn’t hold still but rewrites itself twice as nonsense, nonsense full of smirking lewdness (Monsters 2 & 3).

Then the radiator throbs as if with a huge entrapped insect trying to get out, which reminds the speaker of the giant spider which his tape recorder became ‘last time’ when his voice shook a shadow on the ceiling like a fly caught in its web. His stomach throbs now and he longs in capital letters to vomit up a spider. He would feel better afterward and stagger weakly back up onto his legs and walk away, and so would the spider, in the very same phrases.

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The poem is like one of de Kooning’s paintings in the way it is fragmentary, suggesting much and completing little. References tumble over each other and collide. Something like frenzy is the dominant mode. Certain forms in the painting are almost recognisable, borrowings from cartoons or other low sources, like the spotted dog sitting bolt upright in the lower left corner. The poem’s equivalent is elusive traces of familiar clichés. Which of the two is harder to pin down or be sure that one has comprehended? Could it be that the greatest feat of both poem and painting is to resist analysis and elude the reader or the looker in some deep and final way? De Kooning has an advantage here. His forms are inevitably more incomplete and more obscured by smudges and interference from nearby bodies than anything made of recognisable words can ever be. On the other side, the painting has the comprehensibility of being there all at once and thus not reliant on our keeping hold of parts which have already disappeared.

Harry and the spider are indistinguishable or not easily disentangled. He has an ulcer which is the centre of a web and wants to speak, vomit, be unraveled. The ulcer has twists like ‘this writing–the sick clutches of my signature… all its wrinkles of old age and tiredness that make a kind of brain—for what is a brain but certain muscles contorted into the stratagems of their tiredness. AN ULCER IS THE BRAIN OF COMMERCE.’

I have now got myself completely tangled in the web of the poem. I thought I could pick out a few of the threads and give a sharper sense of its movement than by external commentary. One of its most wonderful features is its lack of continuity, which also makes it hard to keep up with or describe. Its own phrases or its most insubstantial events seem to influence or determine what will happen next.

The ulcer has layers or ‘twists’, like the writing so far. Writing calls up handwriting, and your signature which is a form of you, which looks old because it is twisted or ‘wrinkled’ and not unlike the brain in layout, the brain now seen as the most contorted and inflexible of bodily tissue. This line of thought ends in a dreary capitalized aphorism, which almost swallows the speaker, who is saved by a series of lips breaking out on his hands, which might be able among them (as pronouncers of words) to think up a name for what is happening, which would help the speaker keep the first stab of pain to the scale of ‘a tiepin or the chirp of a bird outside, and not, or not yet the birth pang of this monster inside me kicking to get out’.

Giving birth is an overarching figure in the poem, seen most often as a hideous eruption, but the speaker can also imagine being born as an adorable young female spider or returning home as ‘a fat successful old spider.’ Contented visions are liable to turn sour, though, and sinking back into the ‘concentric pleasure of being a spider’ doesn’t last.

The Spider ends where it began, with the light bulb on the ceiling, which looks at him ‘like some Deva’s asshole—its rays just aching to be spread—to be opened out into some huge, gruesome Vision of the Universe, which common decency rightly forbids.’ It is typical of the piece that the most comprehensively gloomy statement picks itself up and relishes a final flippant flash of wit.

Now when it is too late I wish that instead of falling in too easily with the ragged style of the poem (much more exhilarating in the poem, which is in reality not anything so orderly as a poem), I had got serious about showing how thoroughly The Spider breaks down the continuity of the web and keeps the reader continually off balance with a series of devices I have left uncharted.

 

I’ve read this poem in a samizdat copy, so I am unsure about line divisions. I would like to include the entire text in the blog but have no permission to do this. I will try again tomorrow…

 Willem de Kooning. Asheville, 1948, Phillips Collection, Washington