Monday, 4 April 2011

More on Hamlet

George Steiner mistrusts commentary:
Commentary is without end. In the worlds of interpretive and critical discourse, book engenders book, essay breeds essay, article spawns article. The mechanics of interminability are those of the locust. Monograph feeds on monograph, vision on revision. The primary text is only the remote font of autonomous exegetic proliferation. The true source of Z's tome are X's and Y's works on the identifcal topic ... Essay speaks to essay, article chatters to article in an endless gallery of querulous echo. At present, in fact, the principle energies and animus of the academic-journalistic outpouring in teh humanities is of a tertiary order. We have texts about the possibility and epistemological status of preceding secondary texts ... Our talk is about talk,and Polonius is master. [Real Presences (1989), 39-40]
To go off at a tangent from Steiner's thought: I know Polonius has this rep., but, when I come to think about it I find myself thinking: hey! Hamlet is the one we see actually reading a book. He is the one whose talk is full of quotation from previous sources, and whose life is hagridden by anxiety over whether he is being true to the authority of that past, those old books. The play as a whole, we might say, is in the largest sense 'commentary' -- upon the forms, conventions and textual authority of 'the revenge play', for instance; as rewriting of the ur-Hamlet -- so locustlike a commentary, indeed, that the ur-Hamlet has been all eaten up and no longer exists, except in the majesterial belly of Shakespeare's play. Contra Steiner, in other words, Hamlet is commentary as art.

Later in his essay, Steiner contrasts the locust-commentary of academia with the healthful Kabbalistic commentary upon the Talmud. 'In Judaism, undending commentary and commentary upon commentary are elemental' he says, but in a good way: 'it liberates the life of meaning ... [and] represents the foremost guarantee of Jewish identity'. This is because, he says (in a nice phrase)
The hermeneutic exposition is not an end in itself. It aims to translate into normative instruction meanings indwelling in the manifold previsions of the sacred message. As centuries pass, the Torah is not only preserved literally. It is a safeguarding from the threat of the past tense. [41]
I like this. As a commentary upon his own life, and state of mind, we might wonder why Hamlet asks himself 'to be or not to be' rather than (for instance) 'to have been, or not to have been ...'

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