Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Court and the Castle

I'm sure it'll will be weeks if not months before I get around to reading Rebecca West's The Court and the Castle, a volume of lectures delivered at Yale in the 1950s, although I definitely want to do so. But I wanted to give a heads-up on the book now since it appears to be one that would appeal to quite a few (and is unfortunately out of print): lots of attention given to Hamlet and Proust and quite a few authors whose names have been popping on classics tbr lists over the last several days.

Here's a taste from the first chapter:

"For any authentic work of art must start an argument between the artist and his audience. The artist creates that work of art by analyzing an experience and synthesizing the results of his analysis into a form which excites an appetitie for further experience. If the experience which he has chosen as his subject is felt by his fellow men to be unimportant, the work of art is likely to be forgotten, even though his analysis may be intelligently conducted. A large number of modern novels fall into this category. If the experience be not important, and the analysis incomplete, but the symthesis be contrived in an enticing form, the work of art will be noted and will be subjected to a criticism of a purely superficial nature. This is the most popular form of art, and is rewarded by contemporary acceptance. But if the experience be one generally felt as important, the analysis scrupulous and searching, and the synthesis exciting, criticism will become a matter of either surrender or attack on the part of the reader. A major work of art must change the aspect of reality, for it is an experience of the order which breaks up the present as we know it, transforming it into the past and giving us a new present, which we may like better or less than we liked the one just taken from us. It must have a bearing on the question which concerns us most deeply of all: whether the universe is good or bad. If a work of art should make a revelation which discredits what most human beings wish to believe, they will try to expose it as unsound. If they cannot do that, if the point the artist makes is incontrovertible, they may undertake the defense of their shattered universe in another way. They may pretend that he wrote something quite other than what he did. Then it is that the long life-span of literature is a source of danger, for though it gives the writer a many-branched and deep-rooted tradition to uphold him, it also gives time for his readers to repeat these defense tactics to the point of success. The repetition may be carried on so extensively through the centuries that in time a very large number of persons among those who have relations with literature, who move within the sphere of culture, may be under the impression that the content of a famous work of art is not that which the artist has carefully set down on his page.

This is surely what has happend to the play of Hamlet, and it is unfortunate that it should be so, for there has thus been obscured Shakespeare's development of a theme which runs through Western literature and has often provided genius with its material. This distortion was far from inevitable, for there is nothing obscure about the content of Hamlet. The action, though it follows an arbitrary time-scheme, is definite enough; and the language is as sharply explicit as it is in Macbeth, more so than it is in Othello or King Lear. But the practice of misreading the character of Hamlet, and hence the significance of the play, had been carried on by generation after generation of persons interested in the play on widely different levels, all over the world; by many scholars, by people who are true readers--that is, who read all their lives--as well as by people who read only when they are at school or the university, by people who do not read at all but who have see a version of the play acted in a theater or as a film or on television or heard it on the radio, and by people who have no immediate knowledge of the play at all but have simply acquired a knowledge of it by repercussion from these other classes. A host of such people, vastly as they differ from one another intellectually and socially, misread the character of Hamlet in exactly the same way. They see him as a symbol of irresolution; and their unanimity is remarkable if it be considered that there is no justification for this view in the text.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading lectures like this. I have noted the title and will keep my eyes out for it!


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.