Edward Albee: An Interview and Essay; Edited by Julian N. Wasserman; University of St. Thomas; Houston, TX.
Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Don Quixote; Edited by Fredson Bowers; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.
We often hear that language is under siege in America today, that it is being assailed on all sides by people who, either unwilling or unable to use it, are only too happy to abuse it. The observation is true enough, and we would be ill-advised to allow ourselves to become complacent about a very real phenomenon exercising a corrupting influence on our society. Once language breaks down and is no longer intended to mean, but becomes a vehicle by which people are enchanted into a state of intellectual stupor and so can be cynically manipulated and have their moral consciousness brutalized, then the noble game of civilization is up.
In the Western tradition, the literary artists, those who have devoted their lives to the creative advancement of the word, have often been the most conscientious protectors of the integrity of language. They have kept language alive and lively by their deep-seated (and sometimes unconscious) commitment to it as depository and perpetuator of meaning. In the early decades of this century, however, something happened. Many writers underwent a profound change in their attitude toward and understanding of the very nature of language. They seemed somehow to lose heart. Instead of priding themselves on being the guardians of the sacred fire and doing everything in their power to keep it burning high and lucent, they seemed to take an almost perverse de light in dampening it. In their hands language became disoriented. It turned in upon itself Instead of being a way to the real, a link between the mind and what stands outside the mind, language formed the habit of hermetically sealing itself up within the mind, and solipsistically setting itself up as an echoer of echoes.
The American playwright Edward Albee, most critics — with what often amounts to reverential unanimity — agree, is a writer very much concerned with language. This can be discerned from Edward Albee: An Interview and Essays, edited by Julian N. Wasserman. Furthermore, the consensus seems to be that Albee’s concern for things linguistic and epistemological is happily redounding to the benefit of us all, if not always aesthetically, then at least ethically. Albee, among other brave souls whose altruism is presumably exceeded only by their perspicacity, is engaged in the admirable task of raising the consciousness of the American public, telling us things about ourselves and our society which other wise we would not know.
We should be permitted to be skeptical about such claims. Certain things about the man and his work are unarguable enough. While on one level it is obvious that Albee is very much interested in language, and that this interest is reflected everywhere in his plays, on another level he is not interested in language at all. Or, to speak more precisely, he is interested in language but in the wrong sort of way. What is evident in the major portion of his plays are the sad effects of his misdirected concern. The first thing that needs to be said about most of Albee’s plays is that they are not plays at all because they lack that with out which a play cannot be a play: dramatic verve. They lack dramatic verve, in tum, not because there are too many words and not enough action, but be cause the words themselves lack action. The language in his plays has a self-defeating tendency not to reach out toward the real, but too often contents itself, in a daze of self-mesmerization, to revolve around and around itself, like a dog chasing its tail. Watching a dog chasing its tail can be amusing-for a very short time. Then one feels obliged to get on to more important things.
Perhaps Albee missed his true calling. He got off to at least an interesting start as a playwright; he showed promise. But then, instead of continuing to perfect the difficult craft to which he had committed himself, he began to look at language in the wrong way. Rather than seeing it for what it is, a means, he began to regard it as an end in itself — not an unusual reaction of people who, for whatever reason, come to lose faith in the real, people who make a vocation out of doubting. That was one problem. Another, scarcely less serious one, was his succumbing to the most blatant kind of didacticism. In his later “plays” Albee has distanced himself from drama and is writing what amount to heavy-handed tracts. Might not Albee have been better off as a psychologist or a counselor? Or perhaps as a philosopher of the stripe of certain analytic types. He would have been right at home among those daring intellects whose notion of doing philosophy is to sit around wondering if it is possible to do philosophy.
There are some observers who consider Albee profound. By way of demonstration they point to some of the more opaque passages he has written — not to explicate those passages in any intelligible way, mind you, but simply to stand awestruck and mute before them. In a sense, their reaction is appropriate, for the inexplicable speaks for itself. But how can they determine Albee to be profound when they, apparently, cannot determine what he is talking about? It’s easy to be perceived as deep if one uses language as a barrier rather than a bridge. If the river of reality between two minds is impassable, our imagination can allow us, sometimes completely without warrant, to suppose that what is found on the opposite bank is important and valuable. The ultimate test of the worth of any writer is twofold: (1) Does he speak in order to be understood? (2) Does he speak the truth? Because Albee does not always qualify with respect to the first issue, it is difficult to advance an opinion on the second.
Vladimir Nabokov was a faithful guardian of the sacred fire. He was a genius of language, indicated, among other things, by the fact that he accepted language on its own terms. The artist of language is someone who is fully cognizant of the basic truth that human beings are born into language, and he accepts the truth with equanimity. Nabokov never felt himself under compulsion to invent that which was already in his pos session, and as a gift.
During the academic year 1950-51 Nabokov filled in for an absent regular and taught the Humanities 2 course at Harvard, part of the General Education requirement there. Cervantes’s Don Quixote was on the syllabus for that course; by way of preparing himself to discuss the novel, Nabokov wrote a series of formal lectures, made some interesting diagrams and sketches, and, most impressively, composed detailed chapterby-chapter notes on the entire work. The material has been collected and edited by Fredson Bowers.
The manner in which Nabokov approached this project is an edifying object lesson for all who are in the business of teaching and criticizing literature. What too many would-be critics forget as they launch out into the deeps of ex plication and analysis is the most important prerequisite for the process: a thorough knowledge of the text. It’s a safe bet that when Nabokov took the podium to talk about Don Quixote there was very little anyone could tell him about the work he didn’t know. Obviously one cannot talk intelligently about what one doesn’t know, yet it is amazing how many bold people are willing to hold forth on the subject of literature with only the scantiest knowledge of what they are talking about, with the predictable result that many unintelligent things are constantly being said about literature. What underpins Nabokov’s meticulous, thorough approach to Don Quixote is the foundation of all good criticism, appreciation. At first blush, appreciation seems not all that weighty a matter, but in fact it is the sine qua non, for without a basic respect for the work before him and a concession to the work’s essential seriousness ( the work should be assumed innocent in this respect until proven guilty), the critic, good intentions not withstanding, is not going to come up with a worthwhile critical response.
To nurture a first-line appreciation of and respect for a given work of literature does not presuppose a favorable response to it. It does guarantee that the response will be honest, considered, and based on criteria to which all have access. Ideally, criticism is not unlike a scientific endeavor in the sense that its conclusions are not whimsical but based on solid evidence-the text. There is no denying the value of Nabokov’s conclusions in response to Don Quixote. For Guy Davenport those conclusions constitute not only a new reading of the work but “an event in modem criticism.”
Nabokov does not allow himself to be stunned into disingenuous responses by reason of the fact that he’s dealing with a “classic.” So he avoids the tiresome tack of simply elaborating on the conventional responses to the work. He will grant that Don Quixote rates consideration as a landmark, in that it stands as effectively the opening work in the tradition of the European novel. Too, he grants the pricelessness of the work because it gave birth to one of the great characters of modern literature. He is not at all impressed, however, by the structure of the novel; in fact, noting its looseness and at times almost haphazard quality, he quite refuses to go along with the idea that it is one of the great novels of world literature. But his most pointed criticism has to do with what he frankly calls the “brutality of the book.” From the viewpoint of the book’s cruelty, which he discusses in pointed fashion, it is for him “one of the most bitter and barbarous books ever penned.” Don Quixote is simply not funny, and of Sancho Panza the same can be said but more emphatically. Nabokov seems to imply that if consciences can be corrupt so too can senses of humor, and anyone who would consider to be funny the pathetic condition of Don Quixote, and the systematic cruelty to which he is subjected in the various episodes of the tale, would have to be suffering from a seriously impaired sense of humor. This judgment is so sound, so cleanly correct, that one is puzzled over why, seemingly, it has never been arrived at before. Maybe it takes a genius to detect the faults of a genius. Nabokov is variously amused and miffed by the many critics who have seen fit to call this a humane, sensitive, and humorous book. It is, he says, nothing of the sort.
However, Nabokov favors, even admires, Don Quixote. He sees him as a pathetic character, to be sure, for his helplessness in the face of the grand delusion that leads him painfully from pillar to post, but, for all that, he takes Don Quixote as someone who is possessed of an essential dignity, a nobility, as a man who manifests a basic — albeit bizarre — brand of integrity. Also, according to Nabokov, Don Quixote is a man of courage. At this point, admittedly a minor one, I balk What counts towards Don Quixote’s courage, in Nabokov’s estimate, is often activity which is simply crazy. He wants to praise him for behavior which is essentially irresponsible. Nabokov would have done well here to recall Aristotle’s sound notion that true courage stands at the middle point between cowardice and foolhardiness. Don Quixote is certainly not a coward, but admitting as much should not be tantamount to claiming that he is a courageous man, for he certainly is not one. If the world were liberally endowed by people who showed his kind of “courage,” we would all be in deep trouble. The most elemental of facts about Don Quixote which has to be remembered is that the man was mad. Nabokov was perfectly aware of this fact, of course — most of the time. But in his sentimental regard for Don Quixote he allows himself to forget the sad state that the erratic knight errant was in, except for occasional brief periods of lucidity, throughout the tale. His forgetting it while considering the matter of the knight’s courage led to his completely misconstruing the quality of that courage. Given the fact of Don Quixote’s madness, the question to be asked, then, is this: Can a madman display true courage? The answer to the question is No. A madman, by definition, is unable to discriminate. Thus, fools rush in …
Related to Nabakov’s misconception about Don Quixote’s courage is another of his reactions, equally odd, to the antics of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance. As already noted, Nabokov sees Cervantes’s masterwork as being pervaded by cruelty. But he displays a disconcerting inconsistency in this matter. He stresses, fittingly so, the manifold cruelty to which Don Quixote is subjected, but he has a blind spot for the cruelty that Don Quixote perpetrates. Cruelty is cruelty, and this benighted knight can give as well as he can take. It does no good to try to get him off the hook of ultimate responsibility for his actions by calling attention to the fact that he is deluded. We cannot forget and remember the man’s madness selectively. Nabokov, in his reluctance to acknowledge the cruelty of the madman from La Mancha, would seem to be falling into an old but peculiarly seductive trap: distinguishing between “their” cruelty (bad) and “our” cruelty (good). The world has suffered much from that specious distinction. cc