More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work only from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

When the Statue Nods

stoneguestIn anticipation of Don Giovanni, which the Budapest Festival Orchestra will perform at Lincoln center on August 17, 18, and 19, I reread Alexander Pushkin’s dramatic poem The Stone Guest, which was inspired by a Russian-language version of Mozart’s opera. I had not read it in years; this time, I was amazed by the part where Don Juan (spelled “Дон Гуан” in Russian) orders Leporello to invite the statue of Donna Anna’s deceased husband (whom he himself murdered) to come watch Don Juan meet with her in her home. (In Don Giovanni, it is the father of Donna Anna, not the husband, whom Don Juan has murdered and who later appears as a statue.) Leporello starts to speak to the statue but can’t finish; the scene is rendered in tense, broken iambic pentameter, where the silences hold little time and great weight. Leporello finally works up the nerve to invite the statue, who nods his assent. Don Juan does not see this; he finally invites the statue himself and, seeing him nod, cries, “Oh God!” Leporello: “What? I tried to tell you…” Don Juan: “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s the Russian text of this passage (you can see the trepidation in the broken lines themselves). You can listen to a recording too; the quoted lines begin at 35:38 and end around 37:45. This is from a 1962 performance by the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

Лепорелло

                                Охота вам
Шутить, и с кем!

Дон Гуан

                            Ступай же.

Лепорелло

                                                Но…

Дон Гуан

                                                        Ступай.

Лепорелло

Преславная, прекрасная статуя!
Мой барин Дон Гуан покорно просит
Пожаловать… Ей-богу, не могу,
Мне страшно.

Дон Гуан

                        Трус! вот я тебя!..

Лепорелло

                                                    Позвольте.
Мой барин Дон Гуан вас просит завтра
Прийти попозже в дом супруги вашей
И стать у двери…

Статуя кивает головой в знак согласия.

                            Ай!

Дон Гуан

                                    Что там?

Лепорелло

                                                    Ай, ай!..
Ай, ай… Умру!

Дон Гуан

                        Что сделалось с тобою?

Лепорелло
(кивая головой)

Статуя… ай!..

Дон Гуан

                        Ты кланяешься!

Лепорелло

                                                        Нет,
Не я, она!

Дон Гуан

                    Какой ты вздор несешь!

Лепорелло

Подите сами.

Дон Гуан

                        Ну смотри ж, бездельник.

(Статуе.)

Я, командор, прошу тебя прийти
К твоей вдове, где завтра буду я,
И стать на стороже в дверях. Что? будешь?

Статуя кивает опять.

О боже!

Лепорелло

                Что? я говорил…

Дон Гуан

                                                Уйдем.

There’s comedy and horror in this scene; both Leporello and Don Juan must each experience the statue alone; hence the eruptions and ellipses. Yet for all its jagged appearance, this dialogue keeps up the iambic pentameter as if propelled along. In the recording, the statue’s nod is signaled by music, which both interrupts and intensifies the rhythm. There are references to nonsense, death, God, and madness; exclamations of “ay!”; and a simple yet terrifying nod. The statue is more than a likeness, more than a stone carving. It holds hidden life; it traps time in a solid.

Having started to think about statues, I think of Charlottesville, yet the connection here seems tenuous. For Don Juan, the statue becomes his witness and demise; confronting it, he spirals into himself. It’s the poetry itself that nods. This statue moves in verse.

For us today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, a statue holds the history that will not go away, that shows up at the door. Even without great historical significance, even at its most mundane, a statue pulls at the imagination. Because of its dimension and its presence among us, because of its gesture (sometimes seeming in motion), it tempts us to sit on its lap, shake its hand, take pictures with our arms around it, put a cap on its head, and so on. Or it can offer much more. Simulating a body, it simulates hidden thoughts.

The white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville claim that nonwhite and non–”Aryan” groups (e.g., blacks and Jews) have robbed them of their rights, that life would be much better for them if others were put in their place or destroyed. For people who hold this view, a Confederate statue holds the restitution they desire. To move the statue is to rob them of their imagined rights; they will sooner kill other people than let that statue go. The statue becomes their defender–theirs, not other people’s. It is their fantasy, oxidized and towering, astride a seemingly permanent horse.

A statue strangely joins life and death; it takes something that can never walk again in the world and puts it in our midst. But it matters how we regard it. We can have a free relation with it, taking it on its own terms and coming to understand it better. Or we can see it as an emblem of our rights and wishes, in which case we are bound to it. At its best, education moves toward free relation in its many languages and forms.

Image credit: V. Favorsky, to “The Stone Guest” by A. Pushkin.

I revised this piece substantially after posting it. I am still not satisfied, but the dissatisfaction itself is on the right track.

Krasznahorkai’s Ken

woodchuck

Yesterday I did two things for the first time: saw a woodchuck on these particular steps of Fort Tryon Park (I have seen many woodchucks in the park, but not there–a stranger pointed him out excitedly), and read László Krasznahorkai’s story The Last Wolf (which I followed up with Herman this morning). The two events are related in that this woodchuck reminds me of the “noxious beasts” of his stories, the beasts that arouse human cruelty and remorse.

Just a few lines into The Last Wolf, I knew that I was faced with great literature–great, that is, in the reading itself. But what makes it great? It is the way of unraveling and revealing thoughts that I recognize as my own but that catch me off guard with their undertones and contradictions. The stories’ threads combine, diverge, combine: the narrator’s story to the bartender, the many stories he gathers, despite himself, of the last wolf, and then the story of his own mind, revealed only to the reader–all of this in a single sweeping sentence.

… and he remembered that the strange thing about the article was not only the way the oddly poetic sentence stood out in the text but that anyone would know when “the last wolf” had died, for how would anyone know, and beyond that, the verb itself, “perished” for did any scientist speak like that? no, there was something not quite right about the article, about the sentence …

This is introspection filled with the world. You start reading, and from then on, with all the twists and turns, you’re balancing on thin logs; nothing sags, nothing lets you quit, and with just a slip of the foot, you’re trapped.

It wakes up my mind; as I read, I become the game warden, the enthusiastic interpreter, the sleepy bartender, the repeated phrases, the changes of the conscience. Herman is fantastic too; the story’s two parts contradict each other in places, leaving me to suspect that people are lying, that stories are not fully told, that people rumored to have disappeared are dead or vice versa, that something magnificent has happened against our knowledge, and that the public imagination can’t hold a single solitude.

It’s possible to read these stories as allegories, but is it necessary? I would say no; the meaning lies in the things themselves, not in what they might represent. An allegorical reading would evade some of the meaning (and give the reader an escape).

Some readers find Krasznahorkai’s prose too dense and slow. I have a different reaction; his prose holds me much more than some lighter styles do, not because it’s dense, but because the density is so involving. The language sings, but with the pain of someone confronting himself like a stranger. Krasznahorkai has been compared to Gogol, and with good reason; he also reminds me a little of Borges. But these comparisons are slant; he has a ken of his own. I can’t wait to read The Melancholy of Resistance.

 

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Present and Future News

rootsAfter a beautiful July at the Dallas Institute, I have resumed preparations for the ALSCW Conference in Dallas at the end of October. I will be leading a seminar on Shakespeare in the K-12 classroom; in addition, I will present a paper on cantillation (of two verses in Megillat Esther) in David Mikics’s seminar on slow reading. If you are interested in attending this conference, go ahead and register! It should be intellectually and artistically invigorating.

Speaking of the ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers), I was just elected to a second three-year term on the council. I am honored and excited to continue this work.

Stay tuned for more (big) news; I don’t want to tell it before it’s confirmed, so I’m holding back for now. In a week or two I should be able to say something.

Who Is the Ashik on Istiklal Street?

istiklalasikI have come one step closer to learning the name of the musician I heard on my first day in Istanbul, whose music I loved in those few minutes and later. He plays the bağlama (or saz). The photographer who took the picture on the left (Ali Enes Mollaoğlu) refers to him as an âşık (ashik, which means approximately “minstrel”–but that is an inadequate translation). Turkey has a long and rich ashik tradition, about which I am just beginning to learn.

In Istanbul, I learned that this musician plays many songs of Âşık Veysel. Yesterday I found several videos of him (the unnamed musician), besides the one I recorded. Today I found some photos–but no name and no further information.

I love what I have heard of his music for its gentle rhythms and rumination, its subtle inflections; without understanding a word, I find it traveling into my memories, thoughts, and yearnings. I have looked up phrases (in my rough spelling), but nothing has come up.

Here is one of the videos:

Here’s another (of the same song I recorded, but several years earlier):

Another of the same performance, or one close in time, but a better recording (this song begins at 2:11):

And here’s another:

He is clearly admired and beloved. Someone out there will know his name. I will keep searching and asking.

Photo credit: Ali Enes Mollaoğlu.

I added substantially to this piece after the initial posting.

“Suspended, like a prehistoric fly”

pollux2

The title of this post is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Black Cat” (“Schwarze Katze“). Although the cat in this photo (Pollux, guardian of the Dallas Institute) is orange, not black, the poem suits him at times and through time.

I was going to post a hawk picture (taken here in Dallas), along with a quote from Robert Penn Warren’s “Evening Hawk“–but the picture was too dark. The poem is magnificent and pairs well with the Rilke.

On Friday we celebrated the conclusion of the Tragedy and Comedy course at the Summer Institute. The joy and gratitude are still all around me, in the sunlight and coffee, in the well-packed books. In just a few minutes I head out to the airport to return to New York City. My cats await.

From August 2 through 7, I will be guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs (as I have done in the past). Expect some pieces on languages, teacher education, literature, international education, pseudoscience, logic, and more. (If I write a piece on each of these subjects, there will be room for just one “wildcard,” assuming I post twice on one of those days. Let’s see what happens.) I may also post a piece or two here during this time–but look there first.

Like Pollux above, I am on a threshold, but I don’t know what’s on the other side (or on this side, for that matter). I have been applying for jobs for the fall, some within NYC, some elsewhere. Nothing definite has come through, nor do I know my chances. As the uncertainties grow, I open myself to more possibilities. I believe that something good and unexpected will come through.

But first: the flight.

“Za kaplishchei kaplishcha”

drops

After yesterday’s post on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям” (approximately “Kindness to horses”), I was left thinking of the lines,

Подошел и вижу –
за каплищей каплища
по морде катится,
прячется в шерсти…
И какая-то общая
звериная тоска
плеща вылилась из меня
и расплылась в шелесте.

which I translate (differing substantially from Andrey Kneller here):

I step close and see —
drop after drop
falls down the face,
hides in the fur,
and some kind of common
animal yearning
splashing spilled out of me
and shook into stream.

The “face” of the horse (морда) is beautifully ambiguous; the word typically means “face of an animal,” but it can also refer to a “mug,” or unappealing face of a person. The horse is not named here, so already horse and human seem to overlap. The horse’s tears are matched by “какая-то общая / звериная тоска” (some kind of common (universal, general) / animal yearning.”

But most beautiful of all (in these lines) are the words “за каплищей каплища,” “drop after drop,” or, more accurately, “after drop, drop,” because of the way they sound, and the way they echo the earlier “за зевакой зевака.”

As for the photo above, I took it this morning in Dallas.

“I alone did not mix my voice with the howl”

peasant-and-horse-1910

This Thursday, at the Dallas Institute (at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers), I will give faculty remarks on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям,” translatable as “Good Treatment of Horses,” “A Good Relation with Horses,”  “Kindness to Horses,” or something similar. I will not duplicate my remarks here; instead, I will comment on what came out of memorizing the poem.

To memorize a poem, you have to learn its architecture and interior; you learn to find your way in the dark. You know what comes next, because it must come next; moreover, you know where it may pivot, sweep upward, or drop down. Some lines and words hold up the entire structure; when you know them, you know the rest.

For me, these were the lines in which the speaker separates him from the crowd laughing at the fallen horse. They change the rhythm and direction of the poem.

Лишь один я
голос свой не вмешивал в вой ему.

I alone
did not mix my voice with the howl.

“Лишь один я” is difficult to translate. It has triple emphasis; “Лишь” means approximately “only”; “один,” “one” or “alone”; and “я,” “I.” Each of the three words suggests singleness and separation; together, they proclaim it. This separation from the crowd opens up into introspection and relation, where the horse and speaker shed tears in parallel, and the speaker tells the horse that “each of us is in his own way a horse” (каждый из нас по-своему лошадь).

Then the horse comes with new strange vigor–maybe, the speaker thinks, she didn’t need this nursing at all, maybe even the idea seemed vulgar to her–but all the same, she dashed, stood on her feet, neighed (“rzhanula”), and took off. (The words for “vulgar” and “took off”–пошла–are homophones and homonyms, one of various kinds of twins in the poem). Maybe the horse is independent of the speaker; maybe the words meant nothing–but all the same, something has happened, a lift back onto the feet, into the stall, into work and life and youth. But this becomes the speaker’s own song; the near-homophones “стойло” (“stall”) and “стоило” (“it was worth it”), coupled with “встала” (stood up) and “стала” (“stood”) create a secular yet mysterious hymn of dignity.

So my recitation (recorded just now; to be perfected later, when I am back in NYC) has a quieter tone than some. I love the performance by the actor Georgy Sorokin (and was somewhat influenced by it); it sounds to me the way Mayakovsky himself might have wanted it. It makes pictures of sounds; it bursts through the usual and dares us all to do the same. But the poem can be heard in many ways; much depends on the phrases that the reader singles out, which in turn bring out the others and the whole.

I keep coming back to the beginning, with its ablaut-filled play on sounds and words:

Били копыта.
Пели будто:
– Гриб.
Грабь.
Гроб.
Груб.-

The hoofs beat.
It seemed they sang:
–Grib.
Grab’.
Grob.
Grub.–

Each of those syllables (grib, grab’, grob, grub) suggests (or is) a word with meaning; they suggest mushrooms, the imperative “rob,” a grave, and something or someone coarse, respectively. But because of the vowel gradations, they seem like pure sound as well, the sound of hoofs on slippery streets. From the outset, there are two poets: the speaker and the horse, trading roles, joining together, interpreting each other.

You can read the poem in Russian and English here. Thanks to Andrey Kneller for translating so many poems and posting the Russian and English together.

As for my recitation, when I re-record it (in early August), I intend to refine the pronunciation and maybe the interpretation too. This one is a start.

 

Image credit: David Burliuk, Peasant and Horse (Крестьянка и лошадь), 1910.

“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person may not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that the reason we “skip” parts of the service on Rosh Hodesh is that repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or else these things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.

 

I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“The time is out of joint”

fuseli hamlet boydellThis is the second of my blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction and first post.)

Hamlet is not about the conflict between moving on and looking back, but it’s tempting to see it that way. It has more to do with the conflict between expedient and many-layered language, but there are thousands of possible tiltings.

Early on in the play, Claudius and Gertrude both press on Hamlet to move beyond mourning; Hamlet, for his part, ensures that they remember precisely what they wish to forget (by staging a play that draws out Claudius’s guilt).

Claudius tells Hamlet (in Act 1, Scene 2):

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; ’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! ’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
‘This must be so.’

His argument has as much baseness as logic: he says, anyone will mourn the death of his parent (as a matter of filial obligation, for a term), but to drag it on too long is a sign of immaturity and unmanliness, a stubborn protest against heaven, man, and nature. All fathers die; Hamlet’s father’s father died too, and his father before him. A father’s death is the “common theme” of heaven, nature, reason, and the dead; what grown man would oppose it?

Hamlet insists on remembering–not by erecting a memorial or delivering a speech, but by giving the lie to others’ evasions and euphemisms. If this were all he did, if he had no internal struggles, he would come across as arrogant–but all this wit takes place within an overwhelmed consciousness. His words to others can be sarcastic (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables”), cryptic (“for yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward”), scornful (“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”), or teasing (“the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he gaffs his kibe”). On his own, and with the Ghost, he shows still more capabilities, and near the end, when speaking to Laertes and Horatio, still more. His knowledge goes beyond what he knows.

He stages a play, The Murder of Gonzago, into which he inserts his own lines; he not only instructs the actors and arranges the event but provides his own commentary during the performance itself. It is precisely after his explanation (“He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”) that the King cries out, “Give me some light: away!”

It is easy to ally oneself with Hamlet and decry the Claudiuses of the world, those who brush over their actions with the rhetoric of “moving on.” We hear plenty of that rhetoric in politics and workplaces, and it doesn’t inspire trust. In December 2016, in response to inquiries about Russian meddling in the election, Trump said that “we ought to get on with our lives”; he has said similar things since. But the phrase is not purely Trumpian; it’s common coinage. In workplaces after mass layoffs, the managers speak of “going forward”; at least two distinct advice books have the title Moving Forward.

Still, any alliance with Hamlet is artistic, not literal; we can find ourselves in Hamlet again and again, yet no one of us is Hamlet, and the play’s conflicts do not map exactly onto life. Hamlet’s integrity lies not in “looking back,” but in seeing that “the time is out of joint” and seeking “to set it right.” He is endlessly complicated; he goes about things in circuitous ways, evading questions, concocting elaborate scenes, and killing the wrong person. I find an odd comfort in his ruminations, but it is not the “useful” comfort of a sweater. It stays slightly at odds with uses.

Moreover, while the play allows us to believe that Hamlet is not wrong “in the main” (Claudius did kill King Hamlet, and the Ghost was seen first by others), with a little twist of the mind, he could be catastrophically wrong. Suppose his father had died a natural death, yet he imagined Claudius the killer and sought his life. Suppose, moreover, that Claudius had gained the throne legitimately. Hamlet would then threaten not only the stability, not only the people, but even the laws and principles of the state.

Therefore, while one can look to Hamlet for poetry, tragedy, and personal resonance, one cannot look to it for direct life lessons. When it comes to “moving on” and “looking back,” the play offers no guidance. Hamlet offers a language of grappling, but not an answer. There can be no absolute answer; any life moves backward and forward, right and left, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes with long pauses.

In the last post on this topic I will talk about the zigzags of return and progress.

Image: Robert Thew, after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and the Ghost (1796). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.