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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: March ::
Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0534  Thursday, 25 March 1999.

[1]     From:   Ethan Wells <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 11:24:07 -0500
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

[2]     From:   Tad Davis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 12:10:44 -0500
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

[3]     From:   Matthew Gretzinger <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 12:15:44 -0500
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

[4]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 13:24:23 -0500
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

[5]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 11:41:43 -0800
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

[6]     From:   Stephanie Hughes <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 23 Mar 1999 22:08:48 +0000
        Subj:   Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ethan Wells <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 11:24:07 -0500
Subject: 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

It seems the debate Stephanie Hughes has recently inspired on this
listserv is one that invokes important questions of source and referent.

For instance, Mike Jensen writes (and I have missed quite a few
listings, so forgive me if I fail to appreciate the context of the
debate), "Unless there is evidence of a real life person to inspire a
fictional creation, why take sides?  The only intellectually respectable
answer to the question, "Is this character based on a real person?"
without evidence that there is, is to say, "I don't know.  At this time
I have no reason to think so."  Or for the terse amongst us, a great
big, "Who cares?""

Now it is no doubt due to my own
structuralist/post-structuralist/deconstructive leanings, but this whole
debate, and particularly the rhetorical question "who cares?" raised an
eyebrow.  To quote (wildly out of context) John Brenkman's "Narcissus in
the Text" (Georgia Review, 30 (1976)): "The moment we are drawn into a
logic of source and referent, we are tempted to assume that the
"original" text has an undisturbed and stable significance..." Yet, as
Brenkman will go on to argue, the "original" text is not stable but is
constituted by what Barthes calls "le scriptible" and Derrida, "la
differance" (forgive the lack of accent - my mail program forbids such
things).  Now this of course is an open debate but the argument, it
seems to me, is equally valid to the relation between the "real life
person" - or what we might call the "original person" - and his/her
"fictional" representation, and invokes important questions of what we
might call the fundamental undecidability of such queries as "Is this
character based on a real person" etc.  However, to dismiss this
undecidability with the rhetorical question "who cares?" is to miss the
point.  Indeed, this very question might be seen to invoke this
undecidability even as it dismisses it.  For the question "who cares?"
might be read not as rhetorical but as asking, with some urgency "WHO
cares?"  For the assumption of the "real" person might itself be
questioned, the textuality of identity might be underscored, and the
question of the "who" given some prominence.  The relation between
representation and the "real person," in other words, might be far more
problematic than simply matching Column A of historical personages with
Column B, their fictional "representations."

My point, however, is merely to indicate that undecidability, rather
than being something to throw out, or the grounds for throwing something
else out (which means we would have to throw out the question "who
cares?"), might very well be what should draw our interest most.

ethan wells

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tad Davis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 12:10:44 -0500
Subject: 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

I've read much of the discussion on this point, and while I'm not sure I
have anything new to contribute, I want to explore some of the issues it
raises for me.

My graduate playwriting advisor used to say he could read a play and
know whether the author had actually experienced what he was writing
about. He got a glint in his eye when I raised the question about
"Macbeth": "Well, Shakespeare, you know.... I don't know about him.
Maybe he DID kill somebody." It was a joke. But I think there is a truth
here: I think a writer, like an actor, must be able to imaginatively
project himself or herself into the experience of another person and
write "as if" the experience were real. That is, to me, one of the chief
pleasures of writing, as it is one of the chief pleasures of reading
(and of watching plays on stage). If I can't somehow imaginatively enter
into Hamlet's experience, and have a vicarious emotional response to the
events on display, why bother? What would be the point? Intellectual
stimulation? I can get that from contemplating Einstein's general theory
of relativity. Watching "Hamlet" through the lens of some critical
stance seems to me a dry and unwelcome way to respond. The point (for
me) is to feel, and through that feeling to know something in a way that
can't necessarily be expressed in words.

I realize by saying this, I'm putting myself out of court in some
respects and exposing my naivete. If this is an immature response, so be
it. I have no desire to adopt a critically detached stance from what I
read (or see on stage). I don't read "Ulysses" for the symbolism, the
ingenious literary parodies, and the correspondences (although I've
certainly studied those quite a bit). I read it because it helps me
enter imaginatively into the experience of people who are unlike me,
living in a milieu that is unfamiliar to me, and connect on an emotional
level with a sense of shared humanity. I feel, as I read it, that if I
were a person like that in similar circumstances, I would feel and act
that way too. The critical apparatus is useful and interesting to me
only to the extent that it supports and enhances that response.

This is not so different from the process an actor goes through in
preparing for a role, and not so different from the experience I've gone
through as a writer in trying to create roles for actors to play.

Do writers write directly from personal experience? No: of course not.
Or at least, no: not necessarily. But on some level they must be able to
imagine what the personal experience would feel like, in a visceral,
nonverbal way, and create a structure that allows others to do the same.

There are passages in Shakespeare-Macduff's lament for his children, for
example, or Cordelia's attempt to comfort Lear ("no cause, no cause")
that I can't even think about without having tears well up in my eyes.
My throat constricts; my lips tremble. My body assents to the
presentation as true, and has done so from my first exposure to those
plays, long before I had a real-life experience of aging parents or
threatened children to confirm the response. The reason? Shakespeare's
writing enabled me, or even forced me, to imaginatively project myself
into that situation; my body responded as if I were there in the flesh.

I've had the same experience with some of my own writing for the stage.
There are a couple of passages in one play in particular that draw a
strong, visceral response, even though I know what's coming-better than
anybody-and know also, intellectually, that I have never actually lived
through anything close to what's being enacted. The words and actions
were not composed in cool intellectual detachment: the design that
brought me to that point was laid out with detachment, maybe even a
certain Machiavellian glee, but the writing itself was a difficult and
heavily emotionally charged experience. (Actors and audience members
have sometimes singled out those same passages as particularly powerful,
so I think this is not just a matter of self-hypnosis.)

As I said earlier.... otherwise, why bother? There is no sensation so
deliciously satisfying as that of heartstrings vibrating to a certain
frequency. The experience that invokes it need not be real, but it has
to be real enough to be imagined, by both writer and audience.

Tad Davis

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Matthew Gretzinger <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 12:15:44 -0500
Subject: 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

In response to Stephanie Hughes' recent post:

>The great writer writes, as the great painter paints (when they can afford to)
>from the need to relieve their hearts.

Describing the progress of feeling, experience, & observation as they
evolve into a formed bit of writing or acting is for me as difficult as
deciding when a fetus becomes a person.  I'm not sure I'm versed in this
text.  The distinction seems to be between the creation of art as
informed by passion and the creation of art as conceived by passion.  I
don't think one can say with finality that the "great" artist creates
"from the need to relieve [her] heart."

I would venture to offer that the creation of art is often
intellectually conceived - I could say that many books and plays were
authored but for a satisfaction of their authors' thought (albeit
informed by emotion) - but then I would be rightly asked for proof &
example, which I can't give, because I do not know the authors'
thoughts.

Why could not a writer's intention simply be "to write," and actor's "to
act?" Does an elevation to greatness change this?

This word "great," as in "great art," or "great poetry" - how is it
defined?  It reminds me of acting teachers who insist that some
performances are "believable" and some not.  Strasberg once told a
teacher of mine that he wasn't "convinced" by her performance - perhaps
the acting wasn't "great."  The problem is that such terms in art are
undefinable (or seem so, to me).  In the theater there is what pleases
or moves the audience, and what doesn't.

>Where does the energy come from that is expressed in excellent satire such as
>Blackadder? From emotion! Usually anger, and the more fierce the anger, the
>better the satire. (That is, the better the satire with a good satirist!)

Perhaps the energy comes from a desire to make people laugh.  Comedy is
an aphrodisiac, among other things, and those who do it well are often
intoxicated by its power.  I agree that you can't separate a human from
her emotions, but it does not necessarily follow that emotion is the
primary impetus of art.  Emotion is often the subject of art, and some
art is wrought to be the cause of emotion in others.  My thought is that
artists need a certain coolness - the aforementioned distance - in order
to practice the technique or craft that makes the form that engenders
the feeling.

Thanks for the discussion, and for the patience,

-Matthew Gretzinger

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 13:24:23 -0500
Subject: 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

"We know more about Shakespeare than we do about most other Elizabethans
except for the biggies, like Queen Elizabeth herself."

Stephanie Hughes responds:

>This is simply not true. We know more about most of the figures of
>interest from that time than we know about Shakespeare, but that's not
>the issue. The issue is that none of what we know has anything to say
>about his life as a writer. By contrast, we see a writer's life in every
>page of Ben Jonson's substantial biography, and have writer's bios for
>such lesser figures as George Peele and even Thomas Kyd. These men
>played a part in the literary life of their times. Shakspeare's
>documented life shows us nothing of the sort.

I'm not sure how we can determine whether we know more about Jonson than
we know about Shakespeare.  But, surely, a writer's life can readily be
constructed for Shakespeare.  Don Foster has recently drawn conclusions
about his reading from a computer analysis of his plays.  And Park
Honan's recent book emphasizes how Shakespeare's life influenced his
writing.  During his active career, Shakespeare wrote about two plays a
year, acted on the stage, became a businessman, wrote non-dramatic
poetry (in his spare time?!), had time left over for kinky love affairs
(some of us believe), not to mention a wife and family back home. I
doubt if he had much time left over for drinking at the Boar's Head or
elsewhere with Ben Jonson.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 24 Mar 1999 11:41:43 -0800
Subject: Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        SHK 10.0522 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

Stephanie Hughes wrote:

>We know more about most of the figures of
>interest from that time than we know about Shakespeare, but that's not
>the issue. The issue is that none of what we know has anything to say
>about his life as a writer. By contrast, we see a writer's life in every
>page of Ben Jonson's substantial biography, and have writer's bios for
>such lesser figures as George Peele and even Thomas Kyd. These men
>played a part in the literary life of their times. Shakspere's
>documented life shows us nothing of the sort.

What do you mean by  "none of what we know has anything to say about his
life as a writer?"

I you disallow a mountain of evidence, the fact that the poems and plays
were published under his name, that there are contemporary references to
him as a writer, that most hand writing experts who have examined those
three pages of THE BOOK OF SIR THOMAS MORE have identified the
penmanship as Shakespeare's, then no there isn't a lot.  Most people DO
allow this evidence.

If find the quote above deceptive.

Mike Jensen

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephanie Hughes <
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Date:           Tuesday, 23 Mar 1999 22:08:48 +0000
Subject: 10.0512 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0512 Re: THINKING, Feeling and Meaning, and Writing

>Wiliam Ringler thought (in his OET edition, as I recall; I don't have it
>to hand at the moment) that Astrophil was to look into his heart, where
>he would find Stella's image, impressed upon it by the operation of the
>penetration of the rays by means of which the beloved's physiognomy is
>seen.

The operation of the penetration of the rays? (What rays?) Anyway, had
Sidney NOT intended to convey the sense that his feelings were dictating
his poetry, he would have used perhaps another portion of his anatomy,
or a crystal ball, or a copy of Petrarch. Or did the Elizabethans regard
the heart as the source of image storage, and not, as we do, the source
of feelings?

>I imagine a logical
>positivist shouting "Metaphysics!!!!"

I can understand that.

>>The matter of being "well educated" depends on how you define that
>>term.  No, he didn't go to university, but from what evidence exists of
>>grammar schools, such as the one in Stratford, I doubt that many of my
>>current crop of undergraduates would have been able to hack it in that
>>educational environment.  Also, like many other intelligent people, then
>>and now, Shakespeare seems to have read widely (as has been noted in
>>some other recent postings).  Reading need not occur only in the
>>classroom.
>
>Well said.  Incidentally, it is sometimes argued (more in the spirit of
>a lawyer than a scholar) that no records survive of Shakespeare's
>attendance at the grammar school, but the fact is that no records
>survive of anyone's attendance there in that period.

Take a look at "Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare" by
Geoffrey Bullough. That's one heck of a lot of reading, the kind of
reading that could only be done at a university or in the library of one
of the great earls or scholars of the period. It is also the kind of
reading that must be done over a long period of time and under the
tutelage of a true scholar. Had Shakespeare had such a connection it
would be very unlikely that it would have escaped scholarly notice at
some point in four hundred years of searching. It also seems unlikely
that the Shakspere's, in financial difficulties, could have spared their
eldest son to a life immersed in such reading. Not totally impossible
perhaps, but certainly unlikely.

>Ms. Hughes provides what she seems to believe is the final arbiter of
>interpretation:
>>the heart provides another level of evidence, one far more convincing to
>>me personally.
>
>Gee, if my high school students tried this approach in my classes or in
>their history classes-not to mention their science and math classes!--
>they'd be hard-pressed to pass their courses.

Math and science? I thought we were discussing poetry.

>While Transcendental truths may feel wonderful (Emerson certainly found
>them to be soul-satisfying), they do not serve as defenses in rational
>argument.

That the heart is the source of most great poetry (together with
technique, the mind, yadda yadda, we've been over this and over this),
is not a claim based on reason, but on experience, personal experience,
the experience of great artists who have confessed as much, and the
testimony of the biographers of great artists. I don't exclude reason,
but let's not give it more than its due.

>Picture a jury room: eleven people say, "The evidence in the
>case is clear: the accused has been placed at the scene of the crime at
>the time thereof, her fingerprints are on the murder weapon which had
>been polished just before the murder and on all the stolen property, she
>has motive demonstrated in the series of threatening letters to the
>victim which are in her own handwriting.  She is guilty."  The twelfth
>juror says, "But my heart tells me she's innocent!"  Hung jury-accused
>walks out a free woman.  That scenario leaves me feeling VERY
>uncomfortable.

First it's history, math and science, now it's a murder trial. I thought
we were discussing the sources of inspiration in the creation of great
works of art.  If you're looking for metaphors, how about carrying a
child to term and giving birth, one of the favorite metaphors of
Elizabethan poets for the process of creating poetry.

>>No one can possibly know for a fact whether Ovid's Corrina was a real
>>girl or not.  And no committee of scholars can make it a fact. It is a
>>matter of sheer opinion. I think it's likely she was real. Does that make
>>me a fool? No, it makes me a person with an opinion.
>
>If no one can possibly KNOW, then of course your "heart" can tell you
>anything you like.  But I wouldn't call it a "fact" or an "opinion"-I'd
>call it a "feeling" or "gut reaction" instead.

No, it isn't a "gut reaction." It's an opinion based on my experience of
life.

>I'm not at all knowledgeable about Ovid's Corrina.  But I'm willing to
>bet that if a body of scholars has said she is real, that body has used
>significant contemporary evidence from a variety of sources to reach
>that conclusion-and if these scholars say she is fictional, then they
>have reasons to say so.  In neither case is it "sheer opinion,"  it's
>reasoned opinion based on solid evidence considered in a context of
>other evidence by scholars who have some skill in understanding and
>interpreting that kind of evidence.

It's opinion all right, but based on a context of no evidence
whatsover.  As for reason, well, one would think the reasonable thing
would be to use their common sense.  Ovid writes of his love for
Corinna, describes her naked body, her sexy behavior, his feelings about
her, but is very ambiguous about who she is or whether she is a real
person or not. Well, of course he does! Do you think he is going to tell
us the truth about his lover? And then generations of scholars nod and
agree that she must have been imaginary since he gave us no hard facts
about her, and neither did anyone else. Puh-leese!

>Of course it's much more romantic, as well as Romantic, to believe that
>the heart is the final arbiter.  But it's not particularly useful in
>scholarly debate.

I'll agree with you there.  This is a question to be answered by
experience and common sense.  It is clear that scholarly debate is all
at sea with this question, and has been for a long time.

>>That great art is written from personal feelings and experience?  Every
>>writer that writes confesses the truth of this.
>
>WHOA THERE!  I've seen broad generalizations, but this one is so broad I
>could WALK from Connecticut to Stratford-upon-Avon.

Well, maybe not ALL writers.

[more discussion of why I don't know what I'm talking about]

>In fact, in a sense I am agreeing w/
>Ms.  Hughes in one very limited way: that my heart knows when a piece of
>art is "true"-b/c it is true for ME, even if not for anyone else.  And
>even when it is not "true" in the sense of an actual life experience.  I
>can't ever hear Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" or "No One is Alone"
>without crying.  Yet neither song reflects a literal life experience of
>mine-and probably not of his, either.  Nonetheless, I offer them as
>examples of Great Art.

Why "probably" not of his? I say that it does reflect something from his
life, though not exactly in the form it took in the show, and that it
does reflect something in yours, though not perhaps in that form
either.  Sondheim is writing from, and about, a universal feeling (and
it jolly well isn't about stubbing his toe). Your heart "knows" it's
true. Add what your heart knows to scores of others whose hearts also
"know," and you've got, if not great art, then certainly art. When
thousands, or millions, of hearts all over the world respond in that way
for centuries, then you can call it great art. What other criteria is
there?

>This debate about the source of Great Art continues to be fascinating.
>I appreciate Matthew's contributions from the performance perspective.
>His insights have helped me enormously as I've grappled with how to
>communicate my understanding of this issue.
>
>But in the end, what we seem to have is on the one side, the argument
>that if I feel it to be true (whoever "I" am), then regardless of all
>the evidence to the contrary, or lack of evidence to defend my position,
>it is true.  And on the other side, we have those who argue that art
>comes from a wealth of sources that may well begin with some personal
>experiences, that magnify and interpret personal experiences, that add
>observational experiences, and that transcend by light years those
>simply personal experiences in creating the art.
>
> Phew!  That's more like my $20 worth!

And well worth it, says I.

>I just finished a novel and a couple of editors have
>remarked that they can tell from the writing that I lived in Tennessee
>for a number of years and that I'm an avid sportsman.  I've flown over
>Tennessee 4 or 5 times and I've never hunted in my life.

Good for you.  You did your research well, and no doubt it adds a great
deal of interest. But the thing that makes your novel live or not live
has to do with character development and plot, which have to do with
experience. At the heart of your book are experiences, and whether these
depict your personal experiences directly or not, at their core they
must be derived from them in some way. You can't raise corn without
planting real seeds, and those seeds come from experience and the heart,
not from something experienced and written about by someone else.

I think it's time to give Hardy a break.  I'm going to bow out.  I've
made my points several times, and with apologies to any I may have
offended, think it's time I went on to other things.

Stephanie Hughes
 

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