Letter from Elsinore

Dear Ophelia—

Elsinore isn’t quite what I expected, or maybe there’s more than one, and I’ve come to the wrong one.The high school football players here call themselves “The Fighting Danes.” In the surrounding towns they’re known as “The Melancholy Danes.” In the past three years they have won one game, tied two, and lost twenty-four. I guess that’s what happens when Hamlet goes in as quarterback.

The last thing you said to me before I got out of the taxi was that maybe we should get a divorce. I did not realize that life had become that uncomfortable for you. I do realize that I am a very slow realizer. I still find it hard to realize that I am an alcoholic, though even strangers know this right away.

Maybe I flatter myself when I think that I may have things in common with Hamlet, that I have an important mission, that I’m temporarily mixed up about how it should be done. Hamlet had one big edge on me. His father’s ghost told him exactly what he had to do, while I am not operating with instructions. But from somewhere something is trying to tell me where to go, what to do there, and why to do it. Don’t worry, I don’t hear voices. But there is this feeling that I have a destiny far away from the shallow and preposterous posing that is our life in New York. And I roam.

And I roam.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 34-35 (1965, 2006).

We watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) last night (it’s hard not to drink while watching that movie). The story begins with the violation of a trust, the disclosure of a secret imaginary story shared by an academic couple (George and Martha, America’s founding parents, played impressively by Liz Taylor and Richard Burton). It doesn’t take long to figure out that the form of the scathing banter is the point— not its content. The outsiders, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, furnish the only “trustworthy” content. You grow to expect that Burton and Taylor are simply confabulating from every fact they can get their hands on. The posing is all quite cruel and as a side effect, somewhat funny. It’s hard to look away, once this expectation is aroused in the audience.

This effect, interestingly, is precisely where Kenneth Burke begins his excursus on “Psychology and Form” (1931) in Counter-Statement (1931, 1953, 1968). Burke uses Hamlet as an example, painstakingly describing how Shakespeare sets up the audience to receive, indeed to expect the ghost that drives the narrative ahead. In retrospect, Burke sees his own early approach as an oversimplification:

Counter-Statement shows signs of emergence out of adolescent fears and posturings, into problems of early manhood (problems morbidly intensified by the market crash of ’29). The role or persona of the author seems not that of a father, or even of brother, but of conscientiously wayward son (whom the Great Depression compelled to laugh on the other side of his face).

He had early decided that ideally, for each of Shakespeare’s dramatic tactics, modern thought should try to find the correspondingly critical formulation. But he soon came to see that any such orderly unfolding of the past into the present would be greatly complicated, if not made irrelevant or completely impossible, by the urgencies and abruptness of social upheaval.

Kenneth Burke, “Curriculum Criticum” published in Counter-Statement, p. 213 (1953, 1968)

It is interesting to me that Vonnegut’s Rosewater and Albee’s Woolf both address dealing with the past through the distortions of alcohol and questionable deployments of history. Albee’s past is a mixture of fabrication and fact, while Vonnegut’s approach is clever punning. Eliot Rosewater is writing from the Elsinore California Volunteer Fire Department. His grasp on reality is under scrutiny as we meet him through the revelation of certain facts about his life, always a mixture of fact and fabrication. Vonnegut invented word that suits it: chronkling. He explains it in the dedication to his collected essays:

This book is dedicated to the person who helped me regain my equilibrium [his wife, documentary photographer Jill Kremenz]. I say she chronkled me. That is another coined word. She came to me with an expressed wish to “chronicle” my wonderful life from day to day on photographic film. What eventuated was much deeper than mere chronicling.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “Preface,” Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons p. xxi (1974)

Even here, Vonnegut is punning with newscaster Walter Cronkite (most trusted man in America!). Both Vonnegut and Albee self-consciously interrogate the ends of literary form. What Burke, Albee, and Vonnegut (in the sixties, at least) have in common, though, is a celebration of the conscientiously wayward son. I’m not familiar enough with Albee to know if he rejected this eventually, but Vonnegut and Burke do conclude that this approach is fatally flawed.

The excuse for lying and behaving badly? In all cases, it’s a matter of form. The villains (or heroes, it’s hard to tell through all the irony) are always champions of impecable form. As opposed to what? It seems fair to ask. Content might be the easy answer, but I think Burke nails it down better than that. For Burke it isn’t that content is somehow unimportant or bad, but rather the scientization of content as information which they seek to vilify. This is strikingly similar to the bit I posted a few days ago from Werner Herzog.

One of the most striking derangements of taste which science has temporarily thrown upon us involves the understanding of psychology in art. Psychology has become a body of information (which is precisely what psychology in science should be, or must be). Similarly, in art, we tend to look for psychology as the purveying of information. . . .[Joyce, Homer, and Cézanne are summoned as examples]

. . . Thus, the great influence of information has led the artist also to lay his emphasis on the giving of information— with the result that art tends more and more to substitute the psychology of the hero (the subject) for the psychology of the audience. Under such an attitude, when form is preserved it is preserved as an annex, a luxury, or, as some feel, a downright affectation. It remains, though sluggish, like the human appendix, for occasional demands are still made upon it; but its vigor is gone, since it is no longer organically required. Proposition: the hypertrophy of the psychology of information is accompanied by the corresponding atrophy of the psychology of form [emphasis mine].*

Kenneth Burke, “Psychology and Form” published in Counter-Statement, p. 32-33 (1931, 1968)

There’s a lot to digest in this short essay. One of the key things, I think, is his claim that information is intrinsically interesting but not necessarily intrinsically valuable. This tends to be borne out by the focus on the commonplace by many modernists like Walker Evans and Edward Weston; it’s as if they sought to provide a sort of value-added by reintroducing form to an audience’s perception of common objects. Of course, Evans did so with great irony and Weston might be considered irony-deficient. Both were uncomfortable with any sort of psychological criticism. I suspect it’s because, as Burke claims, people are too interested in the psychology of the hero (or artist) while ignoring the psychology of the audience.

I suspect we’d all be more comfortable if Hamlet’s father’s ghost would show up to tell us what to do.

And I roam, too.

*I’ll have to come back to that— I think that we might have swung to far the other direction in the ensuing years.