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Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Is he crazy?"--a covert answer, and close but no cigar

    Clawing through the high stack of current newspapers, I randomly pull a September 14 Edmonton Sun--and accidentally stumble on a feature by Michael Platt of the Calgary Sun, headlined:


The editor in me cringes at the awkwardness of the double-stack (especially the split "Franklin pioneer" which is somewhat vague to begin with), but the story it tells (yes, online too) is a fascinating tale of dullards thinking inside the rut, until after a century and a half a sharp mind o'erleaps the mucky track and rolls to proper conclusions. I would headline it:


John Rae in fact was the seaman who in 1854 discovered some remains of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, including evidence of cannibalism among the desperate Franklin crew before they perished; and also the final link of the Northwest Passage, the Rae Channel, which Amundsen used (with full credit to Rae) in his pioneering voyage through the Passage in 1903-4.
    All of which is interesting in itself, as are the literary heroics of Ken McGoogan in telling the whole tangled tale in a number of books (he also spoke at the laying of a ledger-stone to Rae in Westminster Abbey).
   But for me the punchline is the 150-year delay in recognition--a classic case of shoot-the-messenger. Because Rae had concluded and reported cannibalism, he was rendered persona non grata and shunned. No one likes to hear horrific things (unless the horror is safely contained in Hollywood claptrap).
    This verity strikes close to home, as it may help explain a curious puzzle in my Bob Dylan research. If, as I concluded in my investigation into Dylan's wholesale expropriation of Shakespeare for the Basement Tapes, Dylan has effectively solved the "Hamlet problem" which has dogged scholars for centuries, why did he plant the solution with extreme obscurity in his song "Crash on the Levee"? (aka "Down in the Flood"). Couldn't he just have, um, written a letter to the editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly or something?
    In theory, he could have. Except that would be obtuse and boring. And Dylan is dealing with (and is probably fully aware that he is dealing with) a double-horror: first, the appalling news that Prince Hamlet is not a tragic hero but a vicious schmuck, a prince who is not just "melancholy mad" (with the emphasis on the melancholy, please) but actually crazy. It is a helluva jolt when one discovers this, and it is notable that almost all the scholars pussy-footing around the fact--and there have been quite a few--tend to avoid the conclusion or gloss over the evidence supporting it--wherein the second horror, that our critic-psychologists "who prophesize with the pen" have been routinely diagnosing Lord Lunatic as merely... stressed-out? For 400+ years. Has our western brain-trust really been so dense and derelict for all these centuries??
    With the exception of a handful of critics, yes. And even these few approach and circle the question most gingerly, never quite uttering the unthinkable. Perhaps the most notable of these hesitants is T. S. Eliot, who wrote a famous-in-academe essay on Hamlet (my most recent rediscovery of it came in a criticism textbook) wherein he lists the numerous ways in which the play Just. Doesn't. Add. Up.
    Included is the perennial question of "what's bugging the Prince of Denmark?" (if you have the time and a weird sense of humor, check every scholarly explanation of why Hamlet kills Polonius, sight unseen). At the end of the essay Eliot tosses up his hands, supposing it is just Shakespeare being his usual sui generis self, breaking all the rules for tragedy, God knows why. But still basically composing a tragedy. Go figure.
    To give a modicum of credit, Eliot clearly had good intuitive suspicions, even if they never found footing. My own literary lion, H. L. Mencken also had a few stray remarks about Hamlet, if not an entire essay; in one of them he flatly calls Prince Hamlet a "sophomore" which may be the lowest estimation of Hammie's character I've ever encountered. Clearly he had suspicions too. Maybe the two had even read Voltaire, who entertained some of the earliest and most extensive hunches about Hamlet not being quite on the level. (In his memoir My Life As Author and Editor, Mencken describes a casual meeting with Eliot where the two discussed the technicalities of their respective magazines; we can only speculate what they might have accomplished if they had butted heads about Hamlet instead).
    In any case it is easy to imagine Bob Dylan sitting dismayed at his ugly discovery and mulling how to handle it (he mentions the Hamlet-problem glancingly in his book Tarantula) until finally deciding to deflect the rotten Dane into another of his opaque cryptogram-songs.
    Yep, who needs the headache of sorting out the details of Shakespeare's closet-satire, and answering the yowls of the dull academics?-- leave THAT noise to posterity. Most astute.
    And in another century or so Will and Bob, those two sly speakers of the unspeakable, may get rehabilitated enough to get ledger-stones in Westminster Abbey too.

    PS: The title of this post comes from an very sharp English professor, who asked "Is he crazy?" as the very first comment on teaching the play to us. She asked the question as intently as if it really mattered, and it does.