Latter-day critic is critiqued Write View by M.L. Raina
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino and translated from Italian by Martin McLaughlin. Pantheon Books, New York. Pages x+278. $ 26.
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom. Riverhead Books, New York. Pages xx+745. $ 35.
CRITICISM is the oddest and most parasitic of activities. Dr Johnson denounced it in his periodical The Idler and worried about those less gifted than himself setting up shop and trading in the critical equivalent of prejudice, pettiness and malice. "He whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant may yet support his vanity by the name of critic." A statement eminently applicable to much academic criticism today.
Johnson’s archetypal critic, Dick Minim, apprenticed to a brewer, "proses on about Shakespeare’s faults". The Dick Minims of the academe, also apprenticed to a heady concoction of theory and prejudice, similarly prose on about the canon and its "vice-like grip on the reader". In his 1779 play, "The Critic", Sheridan’s hero Mr Puff uses his puffery to peddle whichever side of the critical debate he happens to be on. Today’s descendants of the irrelevant Minim and the unregenerate Puff would lose "the very spring of thought and action", to quote Hazlitt in "On the Pleasures of Hating", if they did not hate the universally accepted classics of literature. Indeed, Bloom sees today’s academic critics thriving on "plain resentment".
Calvino and Bloom provide the much-needed reminder that the cannon is not dead and that classics such as Shakespeare and the ones Calvino so lovingly writes about are perennial sources of insight and instruction, as are the great epics of our own culture with their intricate tapestry of narrative layering calling for rare attentiveness and open-mindedness.
A novelist of uncommon perception, Italo Calvino is also a discerning critic. Just as his novels are models of economy and concentration both in conception and execution, so also his criticism of literature is marked by a relaxed sense of pleasure derived in short and tasteful doses. His critical comments are meditations on what he thinks are the books that have survived through the centuries and become classics. In critical collections such as "The Uses of Literature" and "Six Memos for the Next Millennium", he displays and intellectual playfulness that is far removed from the grim formality of academic criticism.
As he says in "Uses of Literature", "Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of politics, an eye that can see beyond the colour-spectrum of politics". In the present collection, possibly the last posthumous one, he just evesdrops on his writers and looks under their verbal surface to both hear the voice of the solitary individualism of the writers and to discover through close looking the unique quality of their work. There is no attempt to coerce meanings or to distort them through debunking partisanship. All that he aims at and masterfully succeeds in conveying is the peculiar salience of the works in question. Their power to draw us outside ourselves in order to see patterns of vision and craftsmanship that constitute their claim to greatness.
The title essay (as well as some others in the present volume were published before in "Uses") lays down criteria that define a classic. Though he lists several, the more important are durability, re-readability, innovativeness and unmatched stylistic daring. As Calvino puts it, "a classic is one which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse about it, but which always shakes the particles off".
On this basis, you make the book your own, discovering new things every time you re-read, reading into and beyond it, as Bloom does with Shakespeare’s plays. The element of surprise that accompanies successive re-readings makes you aware of the different tonalities that generate different trains of thought and perception.
In other words, every time you read a classic, you read a new book no matter how often you have already read it. In spite of the droopy academic hatchet-men chafing under their collars, age hardly withers or custom stales the kaleidoscopic variety of a classic.
Calvino is a voluptuary of literature, but a chaste one. Not for him the eroticised play of Barthes’ jouissance. He savours his authors with a caressing concern for their inviolate individuality. In Ovid he sees many "constants" rather than simply the compulsions of male and female desire. In Homer’s "Odyssey" he discovers several stories and not just the main one of Ulysses’s departure from or return to his wife Penelope. In Ariosto’s poem, he spots the "emblem for the society of present or future readers". In Pliny he traces the difference between the poet and the philosopher and regards "Natural History" as both an etymological marvel and a poetic work whose scientific content draws upon the poet’s sense of "beauty and harmony".
In the Italian novelist Gadda, Calvino feels the outbursts of phobias and misanthrophy behind the hard carapace of courtesy and good manners. My own recent reading of this novelist does not, however, support the above reactions, and I am sorry not to see Elsa Morante, a powerful voice in modern Italian writing, in Calvino’s pantheon of Italian classics.
Though Calvino ranges through a wide swathe of writers from Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, James, Conrad and many others, it is to the Italian writers that he pays his deserved fealty. Dante is the paradigmatic poet just as Gadda is the novelist who draws Calvino’s warmest affection and attention. Ovid and other classical writers in his language attract his best critical sympathies in a way that recalls Leavis’s inwardness with the English tradition, but without the latter’s vitroil and censoriousness.
"Why read the Classics" is a leisurely ramble through the enduring works of literature. It disturbs us mildly in that it makes us rethink our settled reactions to them. But it compensates us with its unusual finds and trawls of wisdom, like the plants and other fauna Calvino discovers for the first time in Pliny.
Shakespeare does not figure in Calvino’s book under review but he has written feelingly about him in "Six Memos" where he describes the Bard’s penchant for "weightless gravity" as also his "particular and existential inflection that makes it possible for his characters to distance themselves from their drama". Harold Bloom’s involvement is as a defender of the Bard against the depredations of post-modernists, new historicists, cultural critics, feminists and other flaming bands of iconoclasts.
Claiming in an earlier book "The Western Canon", that literary criticism is an "elitist phenomenon" as against cultural criticism — a "dismal social science" — he proceeds in the present book not only to rescue Shakespeare from ideological criticism of all hues, but, more to the purpose, to establish the Bard’s centrality in humanising us by inventing us as whole beings. Bloom is a messianic critic seeing in Shakespeare the essence of western culture. Avoiding Calvino’s gentlemanly engagements with literature, the proselytiser in him would nonetheless support the Italian’s concern for the classical heritage in which the Bard figures conspicuously.
Bloom disarms his interlocutors by daring them to answer the question: why must Shakespeare be the cognate one, who else is there? "Shakespear’s eminence was located in a variety of persons. No one, before or since Shakespeare, made so many separate selves," he claims. This is not the boast of a xenophobe holding out for his country’s most prominent literary icon. Nor does it connote an exaggerated sense of national prestige which the Bard embodies both in himelf and in the fact that he has become the most profitable cultural export. This is a claim put forth as a result of decades of teaching the plays and thinking about them inside and outside the classroom. Not surprisingly, though Bloom is a hard-driving quintessential academic, this book is a lucid exposition of the plays presented without the least concession to academic prudery.
Though universalism is not a fashionable word in the current critical lexicon, particularly with the post-modernists, it is on that basis alone that Bloom offers Shakespeare a pride of place in world literature. The very ubiquity of Shakespeare’s presence, "here, there, everywhere" testifies to his acceptance by the world and, I think in that sense, his universalism is more a phenomenon than a value. Not simply through performances on stage and film but, more interestingly, through parody and burlesque we have internalised him and made him coterminous with our sentient being. Bloom calls this absorption by us "invention of the human", which I understand as a capacity on the part of Shakespeare to project in his characters what is distinctive in humanity without any external trappings.
For Bloom the Bard embodies paradoxes which account for the protean quality of his character-creation. Speaking of Hamlet, he says, "Over-familiar yet always unknown, the enigma of Hamlet is the greater enigma of Shakespeare himself, a vision that is everything and nothing, a person who was (according to Borges) everyone and no one, an art so infinite that it contains us..." by suggesting the paradoxical nature of the Shakespearean plays, Bloom forestalls the possibility of reading them through the tinted glasses of ideology or any other predetermined programme. Ironically, it was Marx who felt the paradoxes in both Greek drama and Shakespeare and remained a blinker-free admirer of the playwright.
In Shakespeare, as in Jane Austen, the real world is resolutely intransigent and incapable of achieving completeness that it seemed to point to. There is in both a tough-minded realism which allows both to navigate through this world with a clearsighted acceptance of the problematic and the defective. Bloom sees this quality in Shakespeare as a response to the multiplicity of character and circumstance and credits Shakespeare with the superior faculty of embedding this multiplicity in the many dimensions of character — as he implies in his references to Lear and Hamlet.
"Hamlet ceases to represent himself and becomes something other than a single self...a universal figure and not a picnic of selves." Similarly, Lear, Macbeth, Timon (to a lesser degree) and Falstaff (that total embodiment of the sins and sincerities of which human beings are capable) become more than themselves.
Shakespeare, as Bloom concedes and as Calvino would say of all classics, achieves "secular transcendence" — a mode of being themselves and yet representative of a larger humanity. The two critics help us proceed in the direction of that keen insight. Though both books are in the nature of personal responses to great writers, they yet possess a copious comprehension which enables them to take in the judgments of other critics, so that the personal does not become merely personalised.
To modify one of the French Lords in "All is Well that Ends Well", the two between them confirm our belief in "the web of life" being a "mixed yarn" which the classic artists not only weave but also unweave for us with all its irreducible intricacy.