Thursday, March 01, 2007

O Horror!

"O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!"

Shakespeare class moves on to Macbeth today. This is where I introduce historical considerations: Does the contemporary audience/reader really need to know anything about who Shakespeare was, what was on his and his contemporaries' minds? I argue that in some cases it immeasurably enriches the play (as when recognizing the religious around ghosts and purgatory, revenge and justice, in Hamlet gives the perspective of a very different worldview and opens the mind to new (because old) ways of conceiving of reality, selfhood, morality. In other cases, it simply offers the play as evidence of an issue of interest to historians and not to theater audiences, or worse, becomes a mere test for licensure in criticism.
Today I do a background talk on the biographical Shakespeare and on what we know of the historical circumstances that affect our understanding of Macbeth: the succession crisis, the Gunpowder Plot, equivocation and the position of Catholics in James I's world (including the role of the papacy and emergence of a concept of a real national church, which, as an editorial in the NY Times today explained, is entirely relevant in the current controversy about the American Episcopal church's ties to worldwide Anglicanism); witchcraft; gender issues "the female body"; original performance conditions; and Nicholas Brooke's great discussion of Macbeth as a baroque play.
Brooke's introduction to the Oxford edition of the play and Marjorie Garber's book Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality are two primary sources for the way I've been thinking about the Uncanny. I've been keeping some notes on what's most important to me. The first thing is to examine and to some extent challenge the fad ion the last 10 or 15 years to base discussions on Freud's one essay on the topic--a really unhealthy effect of the continuing influence of Freud and Lacan in the academy. Even when the ideas are good, it's stultifying to have all discussions go back to some classical, revered source in Freud or Marx or Althuser. There's a lot I don't know about this topic and I will obviously start by going back to Todorov on the Fantastic and getting to know Nicholas Royle and Marina Warner's books; there is probably something in Bakhtin that is relevant. On topics like this the writers are usually more inspiring than the critics, and writers like E. F. Benson and M. R. James--or Lovecraft, I guess, wrote essays on the ghost story and horror that are probably good places to start; so did Henry James, for that matter, but his ideas are always so quirky.
I have been thinking about the stories and books that would matter most to me. I'd probably introduce the topic with scenes from:
R&J, Macbeth, Hamlet
(In R&J, for example, I think of Juliet looking down on Romeo and seeing him as if in his grave--it beings up first of all the idea of the uncanny as an unpredictable surge of perception beyond the presentation of the ordinary senses, and it's important tyo start with such a basic idea in order to demystify it and locate it within theories of how we acquire knowledge of the world. One has to remember that a problem in teaching a course on The uncanny is the number of people likely to believe in the objective existence of supernatural phenomena, as opposed to looking at them as products of our epistemology.)
Romantic poets: Keats, Isabella or the Pot of Basil, or St. Agnes' Eve or one of Byron's eerie poems like Darkness or The Dream. Coleridge, Christabel.
One of the things students won't know--an amazing number of theorists of the postmodern seem to ignore it, too--is how much German Romanticism set the tone for everything that later gets considered self-reflective, disjunctive, uncanny and "postmodern" in art. Schiller on the sublime is more interesting and readable than Kant.
I would think a major emphasis on E. T. A. Hoffman, The Sandman--still a story so weird it's hard to theorize--and on Poe.
Maybe The Manuscript Found at Saragossa, which is ambitious for a class but very enlightening, and maybe recognizably a precursor to some of the fantasy literature they enjoy (as well as to the plot structures of films like Memento or The Matrix that self-consciously play with timelines and levels of reality).
James, The Turn of the Screw along with The Innocents is the best possible opportunity to discuss the conditioning of the sense of the uncanny by the possibilities of the particular medium. Sometimes that movie looks strangely like Days of Heaven in its way of telling the story.
A lot of possibilities: Gogol, Dostoevsky (The Double), Dracula, Borges, Calvino.
The topic makes me want to think about Pirandello, too. The recent film Stranger than Fiction is clearly Pirandellan; I don't know yet if it's any good.
It's an opportunity to think about the whole career of Philip K. Dick as an exemplary author, and especially Ubik or The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, books whose subject really is the experience of the uncanny as an authentic dimension of our experience of the world, which is what I'd like to get at.
But that would have to be severely cut down cause I'd want to give a lot of attention to the uncanny on film, particularly the early influence of the topic, as part of the whole thing of challenging the realist paradigm. Especially:
The Golem
Student of Prague
Dybbuk (It'd be great to finally have a chance to use it in a class)
Cat People
The Uninvited
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Total Recall
Ring vs. Ringu
The Box: Twin Peaks, X-Files

Off to Prague on March 10 and I have no idea yet what we'll do there. I'm sure there's some kiind of Golem tour available, and plenty of Kafka tours.
By the way, I showed the Simpsons Golem in class with excerpts from the 1920 German film.

Speaking of the uncanny:
Go over to: Dennis Cooper's blog and scroll down to yesterday, Feb 28, to look at the pictures from Dennis' collaboration with a dance ensemble, Kindertotenlieder, premiered in Brest last night.

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