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Cultural cohesion, p.42
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.42

           Clive James
 

  As a hanging judge, Schnitzler was sitting behind a shaky bench. He himself pursued brilliant young females more ardently the older he became, and his series of wonderful, untranslatable plays concerning that very subject of intergenerational affections was based on a private life that would get him pilloried today. But before saying that Schnitzler was unwarrantedly tough on Casanova, one must admit that there is plenty to be tough about. Casanova did indeed rape at least one servant girl. (“I resolved to have her by using a little violence.”) And he was indeed a cradle snatcher, on a career basis: Roman Polanski was threatened with a stretch in Chino for a lot less. Of Casanova’s registered victories, twenty-two were between eleven and fifteen years of age, twenty-nine between sixteen and twenty, only five were over thirty, and only one was over fifty. That he loved women for their individuality should not be doubted—his sketchy prose condenses into lyricism when evoking a woman’s character—but the point needs to be qualified by the consideration that he preferred their individuality to be in its formative stage, so that he could, as it were, get in on it. He had an automatic, full-throttle response to anything, seen from any angle, that might conceivably turn out to be a beautiful young woman—a shadow in the alley, a light footstep on the stairs. His incandescent love affair with Henriette began when he had seen nothing of her except a bump under the coverlet. But, with all that admitted, when we read what he has to say about his love for, and with, Henriette it is hard to remain suitably censorious. When, to cap the effect on him of her beauty and her gift for philosophy, she unexpectedly reveals her prowess on the violin, he is not just further delighted with her, he is delighted for her—a crucial plus.

  She did not thank the company for having applauded her; but turning to the professor she told him, with an air of gracious and noble courtesy, that she had never played a better instrument. After thus complimenting him, she smilingly told the audience that they must forgive the vanity which had induced her to increase the length of the concert by half an hour.

  This compliment having put the finishing touch to my astonishment, I vanished to go and weep in the garden, where no one could see me. Who can this Henriette be? What is this treasure whose master I have become? I thought it impossible that I should be the fortunate mortal who possessed her.

  In moments like this—and his enormous book is abundantly peppered with them—Casanova’s prose is energized by the sort of spiritual generosity made possible to a man only through the recognition that the woman he adores has a life separate from his, and can be “possessed” only in the metaphorical sense. Casanova, cuckolding honest husbands right and left, never more than one step ahead of the law and continually dogged by inopportune doses of the clap, might seem an unlikely candidate to be a moralist. But, given the times, he was. He had scruples about passing the clap on, and not just because it would have got him into trouble. For reasons too complicated to repeat here but fully recorded in convincing detail, he nobly refrained from seducing a desperate young beauty who had escaped from her troubles by flinging herself into his practised arms:

  To restore her courage and to give her blood a chance to flow freely, I persuaded her to undress and get under the covers. Since she had not the strength, I had to undress her and carry her to the bed myself. In so doing, I performed a new experiment on myself. It was a discovery. I resisted the sight of all her charms without any difficulty. She went to sleep, and so did I, lying beside her, but fully dressed. A quarter of an hour before dawn I woke her and, finding her strength restored, she did not need me to help her dress.

  He also admitted, in cold print, if with a hot flush, to sixteen separate instances of having his attentions rejected. Since no mere rake ever admits to anything except progress, this statistic alone should be enough to prove that Casanova was something other and better than a heartless monster. For the rake, the woman is not really alive. For Casanova, nothing could be more alive: that was his problem, and it lies at the heart of the problem he presents us with today. His success as a philanderer was dependent in part on his acuity as a psychologist. Conventional behaviour, without which civilization cannot exist, closes out possibilities. The faithful, while no doubt attaining satisfactions that the faithless can never know, must doom themselves to realizing some of our most haunting dreams only as fantasies. Casanova, by living those fantasies, knew their force.

  What are these dreams of unbridled bliss doing in our poor minds? Casanova didn’t know, either, but he did know that they are as intense for women as for men. In that regard, he was a kind of genius, and his book remains a ground-breaking work of modern psychology. Freud was a back number beside him. Freud thought that the fine women of Vienna who didn’t want to sleep with their husbands were mentally disturbed. Casanova would have solved their problems in an hour on the couch.

  Casanova’s pretensions to morality are absurd not because his moral sense doesn’t exist but because it is based on his desires. As if life were art, he deduced his rules of conduct from the pursuit of beauty. What made him irresistible, apart from his looks and his charm, was the poetic power of his visione amorosa; his women thought, correctly, that they were his inspiration. What made him reprehensible was his conviction that love could justify any and all conduct. But no less reprehensible is it for us, today, to deny that desire, with an awkward frequency, can be felt with all the force of love, and with enough of love’s poetry to convince the person feeling it that he is in a state of grace—which is always a flying start towards convincing the person at whom he directs it that she might as well join him. Giving in to desire is not the only, or even the best, method of dealing with it, but failing to admit its power and all-pervasiveness is a sure formula for being swept away by it when it floods its banks, as sooner or later it always does. Casanova, by contriving, against all the odds posed by his chaotic personality, to transfer his awareness of that perennial conundrum from life to print, attained his literary ambitions after all, and lives on in his magnificently ridiculous book as some kind of great man—the most awkward kind, the man we call a force of nature because he reminds us of nature’s force.

  The New Yorker, August 25 and September 1, 1997;

  later included in Even As We Speak, 2001

  POSTSCRIPT

  The glaring fault in the above piece is that I didn’t mention the equally glaring fault in Schnitzler’s story about Casanova’s journey home. If I had had the extra space, I would have asked the question that brings the narrative crashing down in answer. How could the girl have mistaken the old roué for her young lover, even in the dark? His teeth were in ruins. He would have had to kiss her with his mouth closed. Also he was gone in the hams, and in every other muscle except, presumably, one. (Actually, considering his well-attested prostate problem, he might have been in trouble there, too.) She would have been holding a bag of loose bones. Schnitzler was an experienced amatory operator who must have recognized the absurdity, but perhaps he was depending on a decorous readership who wouldn’t.

  2003

  26

  HAMLET IN PERSPECTIVE

  Fifteen years ago I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and then later on I stuck around for a while as a postgraduate. I hope I was too weather-beaten to fall for the mystique that these old dens of privilege supposedly generate, but I can’t deny that I’ve got the sort of affection for Cambridge that anybody feels for a place where he read a lot and thought a lot and wasted a lot of time. Hamlet feels the same way about his university—Wittenberg.

  Hamlet has to act out his destiny on the sleet-spattered battlements of Elsinore, while Horatio makes regular trips back to Wittenberg for the port and walnuts and the relative safety of academic intrigue. Many a time in Fleet Street, as I’ve sat there sucking my typewriter and waiting desperately for inspiration, I’ve envied those of my contemporaries who stayed on to become academics—the Horatios. In other words, I identify with Hamlet. In my mind’s eye, he even looks a bit like me. Perhaps a couple of stone lighter, with blond hair an
d more of it: one of those rare Aussies who happen to fence quite well and stand first in line of succession to the throne of Denmark.

  I don’t think this is mad conceit because I think all men and most women who’ve ever read or seen the play feel that its hero is a reflection of themselves. What’s more, I think Shakespeare felt the same way. All his characters in all his plays—men or women, heroes or villains—are aspects of himself because his was a universal self and he knew it inside out. Shakespeare was everybody. But Hamlet is probably the character who comes closest to reflecting Shakespeare’s whole self. When I think of what Shakespeare was like, I think of Hamlet. Shakespeare probably didn’t behave like that, and he almost certainly didn’t talk like that. Hamlet talks a great deal and Shakespeare probably spent most of his time listening. At the end of the night’s revelry in the tavern, he was probably the only one sober and the only one silent. Nor was Shakespeare famous for being indecisive. From what little we know of him, he was a practical man of affairs. But he was a practical man of affairs in the theatre, which gave unlimited scope to his imagination. He was an art prince, like Michelangelo. If he’d been the other kind of prince, his imagination would have become his enemy, the enemy of action.

  In Shakespeare’s time, the biggest question of the day was how the Prince should rule. When Hamlet was being written, as the sixteenth century turned into the seventeenth, the stable reign of Queen Elizabeth, amid universal trepidation, was drawing to its end. The Earl of Essex, “the glass of fashion, and the mould of form, the observed of all observers,” had dished himself through not knowing how to do what when. Essex died on the block somewhere about the time that Hamlet was being born on the page. Shakespeare was a keen student of these weighty matters. He was a keen student of everything. Not that he ever went to university. His university was the theatre. The same has held true for a lot of our best playwrights, right down to the present day. Osborne, Pinter, Stoppard—they were all educated in the university of life. Shakespeare was a gigantic natural intellect who had no more need of a university than Einstein had, who didn’t go to one either. But Shakespeare did have a contemplative mentality. We know that much for certain because we’ve heard so little about him. Only in the theatre did Shakespeare create experience; in the outside world he was content to reflect upon it.

  Shakespeare knew that he was a man of outstanding gifts. Talent of that magnitude is never modest, although it is almost always humble. He knew that he could dream up a whole kingdom and breathe so much life into it that it would live in men’s minds, perhaps for ever. But he also knew that he didn’t have what it took to rule a real kingdom for a week. He lacked the limitations. He wasn’t simple enough, and it was out of that realization that he created Hamlet, who is really a changeling. Hamlet is what would happen if a great poet grew up to be a prince. He might speak great speeches, but the native hue of resolution would be “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

  “To be, or not to be”—I wish I’d said that. By now that speech has been translated into every major language on earth and most of the minor ones, and it is remarkable how the first line always seems to come out sounding the same. “Sein, oder nicht sein,” runs the German version, “das ist die Frage,” which perhaps lacks the fresh charm of the English subtitle in the recent Hindi film version—“Shall I live, or do myself in? I do not know.” Today, Hamlet belongs to the world. He’s come a long way from Elsinore. And there’s no reason why not. After all, Shakespeare not only didn’t go to university, he didn’t go to Denmark, either.

  The plot he inherited. A Scandinavian scholar called Saxo Grammaticus wrote an early version. Hamlet was called Amleth and his wicked uncle Claudius was called Feng, who sounds like the leading heavy in Flash Gordon Conquers Denmark. Saxo’s story was the basis for a later English stage version by Kyd, of Spanish Tragedy fame. Shakespeare took over the property and transformed it out of all comparison, although not out of recognition; that old warhorse of a plot is still there inside it. Shakespeare civilized it. He moved it inside the mind and inside the house. He updated Hamlet into the Elizabethan age.

  One of the things that makes Shakespeare a great man of the theatre is that he knew the real thing when he saw it. He knew that power couldn’t be wished out of the world. If power were used wisely and firmly, then everyone might thrive. If it were mismanaged, corruption ensued as surely as rats brought plague, and the whole State went rotten. Shakespeare believed in order and degree. He believed in justice, too, but he didn’t think there was any hope of getting it unless the civil fabric was maintained. The idea of social breakdown was abhorrent to him. He knew that he was a kind of prince himself, but he had no illusions about how long his own kingdom would last if the real one fell into disarray. To Shakespeare, Hamlet’s tragedy was not just personal but political. Like Prince Hal in an earlier play and like Mark Antony in a later one, or even King Lear, Hamlet has responsibilities. And because Hamlet can’t meet those responsibilities he gets a lot of good people killed for nothing and loses his kingdom to the simple but determined Fortinbras.

  Nowadays we tend to see Hamlet’s blond head surrounded by the flattering nimbus of nineteenth-century Romanticism, which held that Hamlet was a sensitive plant with a soul too fine for the concerns of this world. But Shakespeare was too realistic to be merely romantic. And, of course, he was too poetic to be merely realistic. He knew that there was more in this world than the mere exercise of power. He could feel it within himself—imagination, the supreme power. But even that had its place. In the wrong place it could have tragic consequences. The first reason Hamlet hesitates is dramatic. If Fortinbras were the play’s hero, it would be all over in five minutes instead of five acts, with Fortinbras heading for the throne by the direct route—over Claudius’s twitching corpse. But the second reason Hamlet hesitates is that he has puzzled his own will by thinking too precisely on the event.

  Throughout history, the thoughtful onlooker has been astonished at the man of action’s empty head. Napoleon and Hitler, to take extreme examples, did the unthinkable because they lacked the imagination to realize that it couldn’t be done. With Hamlet, it’s the opposite. More than 300 years before Freud, Montaigne, a great student of the human soul, whose essays Shakespeare knew intimately, identified the imagination as the cause of impotence. Because Hamlet can’t stop thinking, he can’t start moving. Hence his melancholy. Happiness has been defined as a very small, very cheap cigar named after him, but really Hamlet is as sad as a man can be. He’s doubly sad because of his capacity for merriment. Clowns don’t want to play Hamlet half as much as Hamlet wants to play the clown, but always the laughter trails off. He loses his mirth and the whole world with it. He does this with such marvellous words that he stuns us into admiration. No actor can resist turning Hamlet’s defeat into a victory.

  From the moment the part was there to be played, every important actor has looked on his own interpretation of Hamlet as defining him not just as a talent but as a human being. And every Hamlet has studied the Hamlet before him in an almost unbroken succession from that day to this. Burbage, the original Hamlet, gave way to Joseph Taylor; Taylor gave way to Betterton. Pepys saw Betterton play Hamlet in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in 1661, and said that Betterton played the Prince’s part beyond imagination, “the best part, I believe, that ever man played.” Pepys spent a whole afternoon learning “To be, or not to be” by heart. And as the seventeenth century became the eighteenth, Betterton was still playing Hamlet in his seventieth year, when Steele saw him and said that, for action, he was perfection. Hamlet was at centre stage all over the world. In London he was at Covent Garden, he was in the Haymarket, but, above all, he was at Drury Lane, where great actor after great actor strove to convince the audience that to play Hamlet stood as far above ordinary acting as Hamlet in the play stands above the Players.

  In the early eighteenth century, the great tragedian Wilks played Hamlet at Drury Lane. According to contemporary accounts, when the Ghost ca
me on, Wilks climbed the scenery. When he climbed back down again, some time later, he used his sword not to fend off his companions who were trying to keep him from the Ghost but to attack the Ghost. And he did this while wearing a complete tragedian’s outfit—full-bottomed wig, plumes and a cape. The outfit was the only complete thing about his performance because, like most of his successors, he cut the text drastically. When Garrick came on, he came on in elevator shoes and stole one of the Ghost’s best lines. “O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!” Dr. Johnson thought Garrick was over the top, but most of the playgoing public concurred in the opinion that Garrick was unbeatable in the role.

  As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, Kemble arrived and the romantic interpretation of Hamlet began to arrive with him. Hazlitt didn’t think much of Kemble in the role. He thought he played it with a fixed and sullen gloom, but I think we recognize that gloom as the beginning of the romantic interpretation of Hamlet which has persisted almost down to our own day. Hazlitt didn’t think much of Kean, either. He thought his performance was a succession of grand moments, but had no real human shape. Everybody else thought Kean was marvellously natural, especially in his appearance, and he looked like the Hamlet we know today—short hair, black clothes, white lace collar. And on they came—Macready, Barry Sullivan, Edwin Booth, whom some people thought was the ideal Hamlet but who had his thunder stolen by Irving—and the total effect of the nineteenth-century actor-managers was to establish Hamlet as the romantic, alienated outcast, the poet who perhaps couldn’t write poetry but could certainly speak it, the man who was just too good for this world.

 
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