Stanley Fish’s article in the NYT struck a chord, given the way that I so often “miss” the glory of Shakespeare:
Shakespeare does many voices but identifies with none of them. (His, as Keats said, is a negative capability.) He’s hard to find, as his would-be biographers well know. Milton has many characters, but they all speak with one voice — his. You don’t have look for him; you can’t get away from him. Despite the variety of scenes and genres there’s always just one guy talking to you; the conversation goes on and on and it is a conversation in which, as Barrow first said, everything is at stake. This is a poetry that reads you.
One of my great flaws as a reader is my inability to track massive casts of characters during a story—I’ve always been drawn to lyric, to one voice that sings its own song. Conversation, in my experience, is always more rewarding in small groups rather than massive crowds. Fish continues:
The same conversation is the content of Milton studies, although the requirements for entering it include a mastery of vast bodies of literary, theological, historical, political and economic materials. But even when the conversation is arcane as it was in a paper surveying the practices of publishers who, by listing titles by other clients at the back or front of each book, worked to create a community of like-minded readers (much as Amazon does when it tells you that if you’re interested in this book, here’s five more you’d also like), in the end the most technical and apparently remote discussion winds its way back to the great issues Milton raises. Peter Lindenbaum of Indiana University, the author of that paper, remarked to me that “There’s no point keeping up with Milton criticism because it keeps repeating itself.” But that is the point; the questions posed by the poetry are few, a finite set, but the ways of answering them are infinite, and because they are the ultimate questions, we want always to be returning to them. Sure we’ve heard them before, but we haven’t quite got it right, so we’re eager to give it another try.
From viewpoint of a photographer, it seems to me that the problems raised by humans in the world are the richest subject for composition,though others might disagree—and one never quite masters or finds solutions to them. But each generation tries, bringing something new to the table if we are lucky, in exploring the problem of representing ourselves in the world. The world, though in flux, is generally an image’s focus. It is easier and more rewarding for me to see photographs as a conversation between the photographer and the world, rather than a conversation with self or social structure. I am not Shakespearean, and I have problems with Keats as well.
But there is an anniversary approaching less prestigious than Milton’s 400th—my third anniversary with my wife. We didn’t meet in a Shakespeare seminar that we both attended, sitting blithely unaware of each other for a semester. So we thought we would celebrate by going to the Great River Shakespeare Festival.
But today, I think we’ll head down to MIA to see the Friedlander and Alec Soth exhibitions. I persist in being more receptive to the power of individual voices over choirs, to lyric over theater, and it seems like the right thing to do today.