Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Assumptions and associations

In my dream last night John and I were drowning in the cabin of a rusty trawler on which we were travelling to God knows where.

Of course I know why I dreamt that dream. See, I have to review this book about Shakespeare and the sea, and reading its preface yesterday somehow seems to have set my mind on maritime matters. Though I didn't expect to be troubled during my sleep by the author's references to the Titanic, as I was more disconcerted during reading the book by his bold assumptions and wild associations (bold assumptions and wild associations, I hasten to admit, that are entirely characteristic of recent research in the Humanities).

The bold assumptions start about four sentences into the book's preface, when the author claims that "we need a poetic history of the oceans."

Well do we? How can a "poetic history of the oceans" improve upon a humble (traditional) "history of the oceans"? Why would an "offshore perspective" review our understanding of "terrestrial literary culture", as the author maintains it would in a later chapter - especially since that perspective is that of terrestrial beings whose view of the sea is inevitably second-hand and imagined?

And anyway, to tell you the truth, what we need is more reason and less rhapsodising, but that's just me being a boring old fart.

This bold assumption is complemented by the claim that one could call, with reference to a not uncontroversial book by Peter Laslett, "the maritime world we have lost" motif. "We need Shakespeare's ocean, now," the author claims, "because late-twentieth-century culture has frayed our connections to the sea." To "postwar Anglophone culture" we are told, "the sea is less important [...] than to prior generations" - you only have to consider how in a city like New York the harbour has changed location: "On the southern tip of Manhattan island, where sailors and longshoremen once walked, bankers stride in isolation."

"In isolation"? So, its communal sailors versus monadic bankers? All very evocative stuff, this, but how true is it, say, when applied to life in nineteenth-century Barnsley or Des Moines?

The wild associations come on top of this rather forced conceit. They're erudite, yes, but they fail to convince at least this reader:
Less obsessive than Melville and more variable than Walcott, Shakespeare presents an always-moving ocean whose full meanings emerge through counterpoint with his literary heirs. Reading these authors together produces multiple visions of oceanic meaning, so that the doomed hunt for Moby-Dick speaks to Walcott's historicized sea and both reconfigure the sea-music of Shakespeare's depths.
We're back to the old "Did Shakespeare read Joyce" question - and we all know how unimpressed I am by academics' clever-clever reconfigurations of logic and chronology. Did Shakespeare read Walcott? Only in the mind of a scholar who had read both and realised that Walcott had read Shakespeare.

Look, this is nought but a shell game for academics!

Still, I'm kind of prone to associations myself, so I know what it's like. Here is a run down of what I had to think of while reading the book that I shall not name:

a) A bit of Purcell

b) A bit of 1970s Brit-Trash

c) Les Demoiselles de Rochefort

Now, thass how cool I is.

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