Art and the Void

As a student I wondered at it. As an English instructor I find it an indispensable font; a reminder I can dip into again and again that the goal is to practice empathy, not dogma. Empathy is a lesson one has to learn again and again, especially at a college with over half of its students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds. "It" is “Sonny’s Blues,” in my opinion James Baldwin's opus. My students nod their headsthe lessons contained here are familiar to them. But I wonder anew with every rereading.

Baldwin's short story (publication date, 1957) is a tapestry, tightly woven of complementary motifs and themes, rich and dense. Not a word out of place. How to land on a single topic to discuss? Here is one obvious motif: on it’s surface, it’s a story of the prodigal’s return. A comfortable trope, certainly rife with cultural resonance, and still worthy of exploration. The unnamed narrator—the straight brother—has escaped his circumstances through stalwart moral rectitude: he fights for country, marries well, educates himself, and teaches at-risk boys in his old, ailing neighborhood of Harlem a few decades after its Renaissance and before the Civil Rights movement. He is circumspect in all things. Emotional distance is the cost of his prudence. He grapples with ungenerous feelings toward his dreamier, more inward-looking and self-destructive brother, Sonny. Even though his mother has entrusted our narrator to look after the wayward boy, he can’t bring himself to reach out. Sonny confounds him. The narrator commits the sin of silence, which, the story suggests, is complicity with the void. He doesn’t even write when Sonny, a heroin addict, goes to prison. Sonny, to the narrator, is merely a ghetto stereotype, is an affront to him, the escapee, and all the work he's done to elevate his people. But ultimately it is the narrator’s moral righteousness that the story questions, not Sonny’s transgressions, just as the bible story stacks our prejudices against the resentful brother, angered not to have been granted primacy in the family hierarchy as payment for his piety.

Baldwin carefully crafts a world of sinister, inhuman evils. In Harlem, unnamable malignancies bare their teeth from every tenement building. They poison the very air. They drag the inhabitants into darkness, even the ones that have escaped (through drugs or through education or through music). Against this evil, Baldwin’s people have only communication—art, music, stories—to fight with. It is Sonny, the narrator realizes, who has all along been battling these ominous forces. The narrator apprehends this while Sonny is playing his blues, and his moment of epiphany is heartbreaking. Over the course of the song he experiences a sudden dilation of perception. The chasm between himself and his brother is bridged a little, for a little while. It is, the story suggests, the best we can hope for: a rickety, temporary bridge between people.

“Sonny’s Blues” remains above cynicism, even though it suggests that life—not just life in economically depressed areas, but everywhere—is unbearable. This gives the story its power. As we face the abyss, we develop coping strategies. We escape however we can. The narrator escapes through what he deems proper channels. Sonny escapes with drugs and music. The narrator is surprised to find that his own strategies are not qualitatively better. His erudition is not superior to the strategies he condemns. Sonny, with music, talks back to the void. He tries to explain it. “There’s no way not to suffer,” Sonny tells the narrator. “But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it."

Image courtesy of enotes.com

The first relief from drowning in it occurs when the narrator hears, between the derisive cursing and laughing of adolescent boys, one boy whistling. He likens it to birdsong, barely holding its own through all the evil talk. The paragraph serves as a miniature of the structure of the story itself, in which a thin, futile good threads through all the reduplicated evil. Empathy breaks open in the narrator’s heart, if only for a moment, a break of sunlight through a crack in the blinds. This boy’s whistle initiates a metaphor carried through the story with remarkable consistency (because in Baldwin, not a single word is missing or extraneous). The whistle is a rebellion, and a refuge. Later, the narrator listens to the singing of a barmaid whose life is otherwise doomed. Another refuge. Sonny sends a condolence letter from prison, conferring sympathy for the death of the narrator’s daughter (both events precipitate a change in the narrator’s worldview: create the conditions for deepening empathy). Finally, in the ultimate scene, music provides temporary sanctuary from the darkness outside. These coping strategies are communiqués in both directions. They speak to the chaos that exists beyond our control, darkness beyond words, saying you will not have me yet. And of course, they talk to the living. The narrator’s tale, the reader realizes by the final paragraph, is the last of these communiqués, shared with us, and we are duly honored by it.

“Sonny’s Blues”, notably, has no human cruelty in it. The void, discrete from human agency, does have a metonymy within the story: it is silence. It is a formless, motiveless entity that does harm, but makes the communion between souls all the more precious for its inevitability. Death takes us; terror and loathing win in the end. The transcendence of the story is not mastery over the inevitable. There is, however, transcendence in the temporary staving off. The antidote to cruelty is not its eradication. Rather it is the creation of spheres of intimacy, patterns of survival. Silence is the story’s villain. Silence is redeemed through art, a sanctuary. A sanctity.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.

The Abyss Gazes Back

Madness, Blindness, and Armageddon in King Lear

…nothing himself, [he] beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

The 20th century finally invited King Lear in off the heath. Its post-industrial bleakness found him apt company, bid him come out of long exile to rest his weary bones next to his spiritual brethren: “The Snow Man,” Endgame, Beyond Good and Evil, and all the other nihilistic works of existentialism, deconstruction, and Eastern ideas of “nothing” as a desirable state—much of the work to spring from the late Victorian era to the present. It took long enough. Early modern audiences found the play’s godless rejection of Christian eschatology unbearable; Nahum Tate produced a grotesque comedy out of it (which was what people read and produced for centuries); Samuel Johnson could stand to read it only once, after which he quickly edited it; even A. C. Bradley, who admired the play, called it “Shakespeare’s greatest work, but not… the best of his plays” (248). In “King Lear or Endgame,” Jan Kott remarks of Lear that “All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding” (112), and that, like the listener in “The Snow Man,” fits just fine in the 20th century. We can take it. God is dead, after, all; the world is brutal and uncaring and ruled by competition for survival; and we all know that, in Beckett’s words, “We give birth astride the grave.” The very fact that the word “nothing” appears 34 times in the play makes it a great fit within the worldview of late-stage capitalist meaning-making, where we watch the procession of simulacra with horror, but without recourse. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents an abyss that, when we gaze into it, truly gazes back into us.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play, for its raw, crazed energy, is Lear in his initial stages of madness on the heath, provoking the storm to do its worst:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned our cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man. (III.ii.1-9).

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Lear’s rage at the storm is pointless… and admirable. Lear, abandoned by his children, fallen, in less than a month, from king to pauper, makes believe that he is controlling the weather, in a heartbreaking negotiation with the pathetic fallacy. He is at once child-like and god-like. On the one hand, he exercises a child’s omnipotence fantasy, imagining he has control of forces out of his control; on the other, the audience wonders if he is indeed controlling the weather—if the tempest in his own mind has actually been expressed outside himself. It is an act that inspired awe in the Romantic poets. This is a roiling I suspect we all feel at times: faced with the void, what are we to do but imagine we can control it? In King Lear in Our Own Time, Maynard Mack comments on the universal appeal, to 20th century man, of Lear: the “…abysses of the play,” he says, “are in fact wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peals echo with cries of triumph and despair so equivocal that we are never sure they are not ours” (84). One can see why the suggested meaninglessness in the cosmology of the play would have distressed early modern audiences (and Restoration audiences even more), leading to its exile. After all, the Medieval and Renaissance worldview was one of an ordered universe with a just and comprehensible God. Lear offers no such comfort. Mack goes on to opine that the play has no true hero in the traditional tragic sense. Moreover, the lack of a hero, he says, sits “…more easily with our present sensibility (which is pathologically mistrustful of heroism) than the heroic resonances of the usual Shakespearean close” (Mack 84). We don’t believe in heroes, and, as in Waiting for Godot, the play gives us none, just the all-too-human struggle of a man stripped bare and forced to confront the often-malign indifference of the universe.

Blindness, too, like frenzied madness, is a current that runs through the play, this time exemplified literally by the story’s secondary plotline. Blindness and madness seem to be the only clear paths to a rarified kind of sight: self-knowledge, true love of others, and freedom from the fear of death. They, metaphorically or literally (the play does not make it entirely clear), prepare the old for a peaceful—at least a resigned—death. Lear’s ally Gloucester, blinded and, like Lear, abandoned by his child, somehow finds the mad Lear on the heath, and there begins a journey of the blind truly leading the blind. The culmination of Gloucester’s plot is his “suicide” off the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is with his disguised son, Edgar, but does not recognize him. Edgar describes the terror of the void below them:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
…The murmuring surge
That on the unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong (IV.vi.11-24).

The problem? He is lying. They are not at the cliffs of Dover, but on a small rise near the cliffs, and he is not describing what is actually below them: he is describing a seascape to a blind man, in order that he might jump, and survive, and be metaphorically reborn. Gloucester does jump, and does survive, and is reborn in what Edgar (now pretending to be a fisherman down on the beach) labels a marvel: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again,” he says (IV.vi.55). This prepares Gloucester for a loving reunion with the former king, and finally, his own actual death. A cold comfort, perhaps, but the only one afforded the old man, even though the audience feels more ambivalent about his ordeal. In our contemporary world, within the Weltanschauung of existentialism/deconstruction, we can hope for little more than a brief access to grace before we die. The play understands us—clearly more than it understood our antecedents.

Along with human disaster—blindness and madness—the entire world of the play seems to be careening toward eminent catastrophe, and the ending does not correct that trajectory. Everywhere are allusions to Armageddon. As Mack says, “Intimations of World’s End run through [the play] like a yeast. In the scenes on the heath, elements are at war as if it were indeed Armageddon” (85). Armageddon has agency and energy, unlike the passive depression of, say Hamlet, which presents a foul, stilted world in need of resurrection. The characters in Lear, in contrast to Hamlet, (and at times the weather and the environment are characters), all seem to be heading toward a precipice of non-being, but it is a place of creative action, not stasis. Says Mack:

Under [the play] run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed… To this kind of situation, we of the mid-twentieth century are… sensitively attuned (86).

This apocalyptic rhetoric also includes, in Mack’s words, a “strong undertow of victory” (87). In Gloucester’s case this victory arrives with his rebirth on the false cliffs; for Lear in his erroneous belief that his daughter, after their heartrending reunion, has been resurrected. For both, the victory is illusory, but no less poignant—and no less real a triumph—for not being true. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear finally abandons his power and releases himself into the care of family, and to true grace:

…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies (V.iii.8-13).

When Cordelia perishes, and Lear holds her in his arms, he says, “Do you see this? Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii.312-13). He then expires. In all the “nothings,” this small hint of a “something” must suffice… a hint at redemption, or resurrection (though perhaps not in a Christian sense). Lear dies, perhaps, thinking that his child lives, and as such he dies happy. The world, at the end of Lear, is not restored to rights by a tragic death (for Mack is right: there is no hero here to sacrifice himself for the restoration of equilibrium). Rather, we are in a world still heading we know not where—a world of teleological uncertainty—that eerily resembles the world that we now know ourselves to inhabit. After revolutions in science, after World Wars and cosmological upheaval, after the invention of massive weapons of destruction, and the knowledge that we are the tiniest speck in an immense universe, after the knowledge that the universe will likely end with a whimper and we will not even be a footnote—in this world, the barren heath of Lear finally makes sense to us.

King Lear confronts the abyss, is chewed up by it, and finds a way to make meaning anyway. It finds a way to live with it. Finding a way to live with it is something we are all of us trying to do: existence is, by definition, uncertainty. We have left the garden of blissful ignorance, and no system of beliefs feels complete any longer: religion, once comprehensive and far-reaching, has been sufficiently contradicted by science for reasonable doubt to creep in (except in our most stalwart adherents to faith—and maybe even in them). If we need to deceive ourselves into surviving in all this uncertainty—whether through the pathetic fallacy, through intentional blindness, through madness, through (ideally) love and kindness, or through self-delusion—so be it. Welcome home, Lear.

Cited Sources

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuan, 1963, pp. 100-33.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Routledge, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. Helen Zimmern. Millennium Publications, 2014. 41.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Signet Classic, Published by New American Library, Penguin Group, 1972.

Die to Live

Tragic heroes have death to purify them. Death sets all to rights. Comedies have no such recourse: whatever transgressions have upset the social balance must be restored to rights by a wedding, a trope of the comic genre. But some comedies delve into waters too murky to fix with marriage alone. While no one can speak to authorial intent, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare’s interweaving of the two narratives into Much Ado About Nothing as an exploration of such murky waters, deliberately contrasting two different philosophies of love. In our sympathies, the text critiques one and exalts the other. One constellation of characters represents a Medieval template of chivalric love, wherein men of solid virtue (galvanized by war and homosocial bonds) woo women of blemishless honor—women who deign to step down from their pedestals only in acceptance of a decorous marriage proposal. Reputation weighs more, in this lofty love-trope, than human trust and respect. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero are of this category, and they are doomed to failure within the worldview of the play. In fact, their decisions go so terribly awry that a simple marriage isn’t enough to redeem them. A tragic death is necessary. Hero doesn’t really die, but her faked death, like the real death in a tragedy, restores the play’s moral equilibrium, and with it the play makes its main point: that the false ideal of courtly love should—indeed must—“die” to give room to more human-scale notions of sympathy, parity, and understanding in conjugal relationships.

To help us to this valuable lesson, we get the play’s other love prototype, Benedick and Beatrice. These lovers woo on equal footing to one another, and are well-matched in intelligence, agency, individuation, and humor. They are people, not abstractions. Their relationship is based not on any template of love, but on the true meeting of minds. The audience relishes their courtship, and the stilted relationship between Claudio and Hero becomes a low-fidelity shadow in comparison, moving to the back of the viewer’s mind. It is almost as if Beatrice and Benedick have been imported into Much Ado from a different play. To sweep out the cobwebs, perhaps?—to shine light into the dark corners of convention? They do to the language of the play what they do to its ethos—queer the pitch; lend their all-too-human wit and vitality to the tired rhetoric of courtship; fuel the drama with their inexhaustible, bawdy joy—and they do it with such panache that they are, for many viewers, the only memorable part of the play. See how, when Benedick is in the room, the language of the others changes. In Act I, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak, they follow the script of chivalric codes: Claudio asks of Hero, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” To which Benedick quips, “Yea, and a case to put it in” (I.i.175-6). Don Pedro attests to her “worthiness” as well, in a lordly dialect that matches Claudio’s (I.i.220). But within a few pages Benedick has them all talking with low-brow humor of sexual appetites, women’s infidelity, brothels and “horn-mad” husbands, making the mannered jargon of the previous pages feel stilted and out-of-date (I.i.250-60): he cannot help but replace ideals with life, real life, and this makes the audience his ally. This happens virtually any time Benedick is in the scene, and when he isn’t, the characters fall joylessly to their practiced scripts. Likewise, Beatrice runs circles around her dullard cousin with her wit until she fluffs Hero up into the same kind of boisterousness that keeps her real and lovable—and too large and human to fit into the two-dimensional “virginal maiden” schema.

It is unsurprising that masks and masquerades thread through this play, for the conflict between role-playing and authenticity lies at the crux of the drama. The scales fall from the eyes of our beloved hero and heroine when they trade in their sharp tongues—tongues that have insulated them from vulnerability—for self-knowledge and the authentic love of and for one another. For the characters still beholden to the Platonic shadows of the Romance genre, the transformation comes at a greater cost. The audience watches in horror as Claudio publicly shames Hero. We don’t cringe because he is wrong (though he is—on virtually every level), but because, the play suggests, this outcome is the inevitable result of holding a lover to unrealistic standards. The chivalric code forces us to be perfect, and to expect perfection from our potential spouse. That, Shakespeare suggests, isn’t tenable. We fall hard when we have that far to fall. Claudio becomes nearly irredeemable at his public humiliation of Hero, but Hero, for agreeing to play the part of the slandered maiden, is culpable as well. After all, if you play in a world where masks are more important than reality, a seeming betrayal, hid by the “sign and semblance of… honor” (IV.i.41) makes you as guilty as a real one: the seeming is everything. So she must be punished (it’s rather a shame that Claudio isn’t punished more, for his cruelty to a grieving father if not his unnecessary cruelty to a lover). She, like the de casibus hero (Hero?), must die. But her death is a kind of purgation, releasing the play from the stranglehold of the past, allowing her and her lover to be “re-born” into the more winsome world of Beatrice and Benedick.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Signet Classics, 1998.