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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: October ::
Re: Politics
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 7.0754.  Thursday, 17 October 1996.

(1)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Oct 1996 09:37:00 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0750  Re: Politics

(2)     From:   Thomas Bishop <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Oct 1996 12:41:31 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0750  Re: Politics


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Oct 1996 09:37:00 -0400
Subject: 7.0750  Re: Politics
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0750  Re: Politics

Terence Hawkes asks:

> Can anyone nominate any work of
>literature that didn't, at its inception, engage with 'politics' to some
>degree? Can they point to any subsequent realisation or 'reading' of a work of
>literature, in any form, that isn't, to some extent, also involved in
>'politics?

And he replies to his question: "We can't step outside society."

What we need here is a series of definitions.  What are "politics" or what is
"politics"?  What is the meaning of "at its inception"?  And how does "any work
of literature . . . engage with 'politics'"?

These are genuine questions, and I will not presume to provide any answers. But
I would like to know.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Bishop <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Oct 1996 12:41:31 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 7.0750  Re: Politics
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0750  Re: Politics

Reluctant though I am to tiptoe into this minefield, Terence Hawkes' challenge
seems to me one worth thinking about.  He writes: "Can anyone nominate any work
of literature that didn't, at its inception, engage with 'politics' to some
degree?"  The truth he would assert in this, perhaps rhetorical, question is
either a truism or needs very careful handling (like a rabid dog).

On the one hand, it is indisputably true that human intercourse is always
interinvolved with questions of human sociality, even in the mode of radical
denial, say by desert hermits and the like.  Aristotle insisted, and Hawkes
would presumably agree, that politics is one of the master discourses of human
activity and subsumes other social discourses into it "to some degree".  (But
Aristotle also insisted that what he called "metaphysics" was an equally valid
master discourse). All our language is learned in a social, and hence
political, environment we cannot altogether slough off.  To that extent Hawkes'
challenge rests on a truism.  It is important to repeat truisms now and then
because we sometimes forget them. But by the same token, and with just as much
truth, one could demand "Can anyone nominate any work of literature that
didn't, at its inception, engage with 'biology' to some degree?"

There are, pace Hawkes, some facts about language that are not themselves
political, though the mode and timing of their framing or assertion may have
political implications (but I think that's a different story). The fact that
English uses phonemic stress whereas French does not, or that languages that
shift stress routinely onto first syllables tend to develop alliterative
meters, or even that all known human societies practise the composition and
exchange of narratives: these are not in any useful sense "political" facts by
themselves.  But they are facts relevant, and even necessary, to the study of
poetry or, if you prefer, "literature".  And one can get quite far indeed with
such facts before running full tilt into "politics."

The difficulty concerns how and where to locate the relevance of "politics" to
a particular work. For some works, it is neccessary to rebuild a "political
context" almost entirely from scratch, and then point to the work and say: "See
how much of the truth has been left out!"  This I sometimes find a rather
unhelpful tactic, as the reconstruction of the context may be done in
contentious and debatable ways, at which point I find myself rematerializing in
a Department of History, or perhaps Economics and feel like Doctor Who on
Skaro.  To take a well-known example: the poem "O Westron Wind", a pungent
little lyric with a long history of its own in poetry and music.  One could, I
suppose, with great care, recover the moment of its composition (though this
may be impossible), trace its history through MSS and printings, through
Taverner's music, and into its use as an exemplary text of a certain kind of
Callimichan small-poem aesthetic in this century, leading up to this email
message. To do so would "engage with politics to some degree."  But one would
also want, I think, to pay attention to the impulse of the poem to bracket such
an endeavour and to turn attention elsewhere, to recognise that weariness and
longing are also a part of the landscape of human being, possibly even of the
landscape of politics.

The insistence on integrating poetry into politics often turns out to be a
covert plea for the -reduction- of poetry to (someone's) politics, and it is
this, I think, that I want to be wary of.  And here poor old Granville-Barker
and his "Lear" become relevant. It is absolutely true that that production took
place at a time of unprecedented social, political and military crisis in
English history.  What is not clear to me is that the production, because it
didnt somehow directly inveigh against Germany, or exhort its audience to
earnest war effort, or revolutionary action, or putting up air-raid shelters,
or contemplating the Dialectic, or whatever, did nothing useful to further the
ability of the English polity to resist Nazi incursion. Weariness and longing,
and many other emotions, are available in "King Lear" and perhaps their
confrontation in that play, with its evocation of the coast of Kent, and even
its championing of a foreign invasion, were more rather than less effective
than some other means would have been. That an aged actor should choose to
speak of "taking our minds off it" fifty years later is neither here nor there.
He has his idioms and perhaps understands better than we can what such a moment
of relief might have meant then.

Politics is general; one cannot simply conjure it away. But its presence is
also variable and it presents itself not just "in some degree" but in various
degrees and with various inflections, sometimes in the tiniest of whispers,
wishing -- justifiably -- for its own absence.

Cheers,
Tom
 

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