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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0422  Sunday, 2 August 2009

[1] From:   David Bishop <
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 >
     Date:   Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 20:53:17 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0417 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

[2] From:   Conrad Cook <
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 >
     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 01:41:28 -0400
     Subj:   Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the Nature 
of Thought

[3] From:   Arnie Perlstein <
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 >
     Date:   Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 08:48:26 -0400
     Subj:   Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the Nature 
of Thought

[4] From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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 >
     Date:   Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 00:16:44 -0400
     Subj:   SHK 20.0417 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on 
the Nature of Thought


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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 >
Date:       Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 20:53:17 -0400
Subject: 20.0417 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0417 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and 
on the Nature of Thought

I am sorry that Hardy found my last post to be snide, since that is not 
what I meant, at all. But maybe I just can't help coming across that 
way, sometimes. Others will judge for themselves. In any case, I'm 
grateful, as always, to Hardy for publishing my remarks, despite his 
opinion of them.

Nevertheless, we have some real, and even interesting, disagreements 
here, though from what Hardy writes, one might think that he does not 
believe any honest disagreement with his position is possible. This is 
not just Hardy. He expresses ideas that appeal to the Shakespeare 
professing establishment today. I seriously disagree with a number of 
these ideas, and even on this list I am, though perhaps in a tiny 
minority, not quite alone. For example, I admire, and keep trying to 
learn from, Appropriating Shakespeare, by Brian Vickers, a member of the 
list.

 From what Hardy says, the New Critics were out only to serve their own 
egos, or imperial ambitions, and had no real interest in the truth, an 
opinion some might find offensive, even arrogant, even though Hardy is 
ostensibly speaking in favor of humility. Talk about an ad hominem 
attack! It's possible to profess that one has the truth and not to have 
it, as it's possible to espouse humility in an arrogant way, though 
perhaps Hardy didn't mean it to be taken quite this way.

He makes this judgment, it seems, on the basis of his reading of their 
work. I think this is what we do, and can't help doing: constructing our 
ideas of people's intentions, or motives, from what they do and say -- 
and write. We naturally do it even with dead authors, like Shakespeare. 
And we can argue, citing evidence, about whether Shakespeare intended 
this or that. We can, and do, conclude that some people's ideas about 
his intentions are wrong. To say that some people profess a desire for 
truth but are really in the grip of ego, or prejudice, is one common 
argument, often supported by evidence. To lump together a large group of 
people and attribute to them a set of prejudices predictable from the 
fact of their being privileged white men will no doubt work well, in a 
lot of cases. But not all. Apparently Hardy thinks a dishonest 
generation of professors has been superseded by an honest one. I think 
the truth is considerably more complicated.

Speaking of intentions, in the case of Doubt we might agree that the 
author did not intend to reveal the guilt or innocence of the accused. I 
don't think we need to interview the author to find this out. We do 
argue about the intentions of authors, and about the effects of plays. 
One thing we're trying to do, often, is learn how to recognize mistakes, 
including prejudices, for example of the kind we expect to find in white 
men. We see what they say, we study the play, and we see that they are 
wrong. If someone says that Desdemona is a bad character, because she 
married a black man against her father's wishes, we might argue that to 
portray her that way was not Shakespeare's intention. We make these 
arguments about characters as we also make them about human beings.

What does it mean to say that characters are not human beings? It might 
mean that they're not intended to be realistic, as for example in 
Beckett. But I think we generally enjoy plays, as I think Joe Egert was 
saying, because they enable us to enter into a kind of illusion, a 
suspension of disbelief. We enter into the spirit of the story, while in 
another way we retain a sense that these characters are not actual 
people. This enables us, among other things, to experiment: to react to 
characters and situations and compare our reactions to those of others, 
in the play and out, while keeping these discussions and judgments, to a 
degree, experimental and speculative: concerned with characters who are 
not people, and therefore don't carry quite the full human moral weight. 
As with practicing CPR on a dummy, it can make us better able to deal 
with the real thing. Discussing the dilemmas of characters may throw 
light upon our thinking about the dilemmas of people. In both cases we 
argue, and cite evidence. But if you say, for example, that OJ was 
innocent, or George Bush was right to invade Iraq, I might actually 
believe that you were wrong. I might believe that as strongly as Hardy 
believes, for example, that the New Critics were wrong.

The statement that no one has the absolute truth is often accompanied by 
the statement that some interpretations are so far wrong that they need 
not be considered as part of the circle of the equally respectable. But 
between these extremes there's a wide field of action, where a lot of 
judging goes on, and, I believe, should go on. I believe that progress 
in criticism is possible, a possibility that seems closed off by the 
kind of postmodern theory which Hardy, and others, seem to regard as the 
last and final truth: the ultimate goal of unprejudiced vision beyond 
which no progress in better understanding Shakespeare's works, for 
example, can be made. Meanwhile, I think these believers continue to 
argue, often, much as critics have always argued. It's just that their 
theory doesn't seem to line up too well with their practice.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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 >
Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 01:41:28 -0400
Subject:    Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the Nature of 
Thought

Hardy M. Cook <
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 >wrote:

 >My first response is to ask anyone moved to write back about what I had
 >written to please be sure that you are responding to what I actually
 >wrote and not what you imagined that I wrote.

I find this a remarkable chastisement, coming as it does from someone 
who goes on to say:

 >. . . All three of these
 >critics are not offering readings from critical perspectives, but
 >fighting to determine which of their interpretations is THE
 >INTERPRETATION. I am urging us to see our contributions as being
 >readings from our perspectives not expressions of THE ULTIMATE TRUTH.

I counter that, just as much as when we respond to you, we are in best 
form in responding to Shakespeare when we strive diligently to respond 
to what he actually wrote, not what we like to imagine he wrote. This is 
"interpretation" in its true sense:  we are to preserve the intended 
meaning while translating into a better-understood language.

To do otherwise is to do a disservice to our great and beloved poet, no 
less than it would be a disservice to you yourself to take your meaning 
at what we would, rather than what you would.

As I understand you, your greater point is not that we are to abandon 
the quest for the ultimate truth, as it applies to a correct 
interpretation of any of Shakespeare's plays, but to urge us to focus on 
the "quest" side of things. And that's a point well-posed; but the 
purpose of the quest is nevertheless to find, or at least come closer 
to, a correct interpretation.

Quests by their nature have goals, and we must not compromise those 
goals. We are looking for the Grail here, and we must not be satisfied 
with any old chalice, nor tell ourselves that the journey's the thing 
and make ourselves tourists.

If it's a fool's errand, or if a few of us get bruised in a jousting 
match, what of that?  We all knew what we were in for when we signed up.

Conrad.

PS: David Bishop <
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 >wrote:

 >Maybe we should all carry around in our quivers an assortment of
 >generalizations, of high sentences, for use on appropriate occasions. No
 >one knows the absolute truth, for example, or, Sometimes a mind can get
 >so open the brains fall out. Or maybe Look before you leap and He who
 >hesitates is lost. These can all be helpful reminders when we swerve too
 >far one way or another ..

It seems to me that there's a character in _Hamlet_ who this pretty well 
describes.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Arnie Perlstein <
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 >
Date:       Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 08:48:26 -0400
Subject:    Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on the Nature of 
Thought

"Arnie Perlstein appears to be in accord with me, teasing out the 
implications of what I have maintained."

Hardy, I would say that I am taking a position re interpretation of 
Hamlet that takes your point to a radical new place. I.e., I do believe 
that it is possible to discern in Hamlet a deliberate decision by 
Shakespeare to create at least two distinct parallel universes, with the 
interpretation of the Ghost being the fork in the road.

When the reader reaches that fork in the road, at the same time Hamlet 
does, at the end of Act I, I argue that those readers who read the play 
as if the Ghost is a real ghost will be taking one road, and will be 
talking about the story of Hamlet that has been the subject of the vast 
majority of interpretations of the play, where the Ghost really is a ghost.

Whereas I have taken the road less traveled, the one where the Ghost is 
a hallucination, and I have uncovered, painstakingly, a version of the 
story of Hamlet that is VERY different, and in several ways topsy-turvy, 
from the one that the rest of you, who have taken the other fork, have seen.

So, every time a reader of Hamlet claims the Ghost is a real ghost, and 
that therefore the Ghost is not a hallucination, I assert that such 
reader is making a fundamental epistemological error, because the play 
has been constructed as one giant hendiadys. And I think Shakespeare 
wanted his readers to face that epistemological dilemma, and so he 
enacted it for us, putting us in Hamlet's shoes.

So, when Hamlet muses, "To be or not to be", he is, on a metatheatrical 
level, a representation of the puzzled reader of the play, who is 
asking, "Does the Ghost exist, or does it not exist?". And the reader 
will be unable to escape from deep confusion until (s)he realizes that 
it's not a question of "or" but of "and" -- -in the play, the Ghost both 
is (when you take the first road) and is not (when you take the second 
road). Two parallel fictional universes. After the fork, you can't be on 
both roads at the same time.

In short, then, I urge you to keep those two universes separate in your 
minds -- when you want to talk about one, don't mix in the other.

Arnie Perlstein
Weston, Florida

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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 >
Date:       Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 00:16:44 -0400
Subject: Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on 
Comment:    SHK 20.0417 Ramblings on the Instability of Meaning and on 
the Nature of Thought

I have read what others have written in response to my musings and am 
astonished at what I perceive as misreading of the points I am making. I 
do not claim to have access to the TRUTH, claiming to have access to the 
TRUTH is what I am remonstrating.  ["To urge strong reasons against a 
course of action, to protest against; to expostulate with a person, on 
or upon an action." (OED) v. 4.]

I do not think that I can add to what I have already written. What I 
claimed the other day is so self-evident *to me* that I do not believe 
it needs defending. This is not to say that I could not defend what I 
have written or the critical/theoretical positions I have chosen to 
align myself with if I were so inclined. I simply chose not to. Right 
now, I have better things to do than to roll stones up hills just to 
have them roll down again.

Despite what some might think, I do not enjoy arguing for the sake of 
arguing. And I am not interested in being the last one standing to prove 
that I am RIGHT and the other person is WRONG. That some threads on this 
list go on and on and on and on, well passed what seems to me their 
usefulness indicates to me that there are some, however, who are as 
interested in arguing for the sake of arguing. My preference is to 
present my ideas and let those ideas speak for themselves.

    No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
    Am an attendant lord, one that will do
    To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
    Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
    Deferential, glad to be of use,
    Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
    Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
    At times, indeed, almost ridiculous-
    Almost, at times, the Fool.

The rest is silence.


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