Midsummer, the Summer Solstice, June 24 or thereabouts, that time when the world is seen “mysteriously anew.” Where better to experience that mystery than in those woods outside Athens in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when “the soft moonlight,” as Isaac Asimov says in his Guide to Shakespeare, “will make things seem not quite as they are.”
In Act V. Scene 1 we meet Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, his betrothed, just as they have heard the tale of the lovers lost in the woods all the moonlit night.
Hippolyta – “Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus – More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, and from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name ”
But for all the Duke’s rational eloquence and Athenian logic, so dismissive of the imagination, it is Hippolyta, in her brief but thoughtful response to her espoused lord, who understands the truth that lies at the heart of the irrational events that the lovers describe.
“But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds were transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And it grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable. ”
These few words of Hippolyta’s are, perhaps, the heart of the play. Hippolyta is the mortal mirror image of the fairy Puck, he who will “put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes” (Act II, sc. 1). They each, at once, in their own way, inhabit both worlds, the moonlit woods and the banqueting hall.
This scene came to my mind when I was reading Stuart Vyse’s informative and engaging new book, published this May by Oxford University Press, “The Uses of Delusion: Why It’s Not Always Rational to be Rational.” As one reviewer puts it, “With his usual crisp and delightful prose Vyse explores the tension… between our rational and irrational impulses.”
He has us walk in company with a whole pantheon of thinkers, writers and philosophers – beginning with William James and ending with Homer. In between we meet Camus, Pascal, Descartes and Aristotle among others, with fascinating stories woven throughout, including that of the discovery and translation of the text of Gilgamesh.
In responding to Camus’ complaint about “ridiculous reason,” Professor Vyse looks at “the ridiculous bits of unreason that are… central to our humanity.” His concluding words tell it all – “One of the goals of this book has been to remind us that we are all complicated people. We are a mixture of reason and magical thinking, intelligence and emotion. ”
This connects perfectly with our other new book, Jonath.an Post’s “Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction,” also published by Oxford University Press. (The US edition is available this month.) An enthusiastic review in the Los Angeles Review of Books (May 2) points out that out of some 700 titles “Elizabeth Bishop is the only 20th Century poet to receive her own volume in the OUP VSI series – she is in company with Chaucer, Dante, Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare. That’s some company Elizabeth is keeping. ”
Indeed – but no surprise to those who have come to know and love her work.The English publication of the book had already received strong praise in April on the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Blog. The reviewer notes the “vast knowledge of the poetic tradition through the centuries” that marks the study and yet, with Professor Post, ‘one feels in the company of a master’ who makes the act of reading a poem seem easy.
The connection to Stuart Vyse’s book might seem unlikely perhaps, but then my Notes this month are all about the unlikely likely, the rational irrational that is life.
In his discussion of surrealism in a chapter on “Poetry and Painting,” Jonathan Post describes Bishop’s poetry as “characterized by a fascination with the bizarre, the incongruous and the irrational, including the subconscious and dreams.” One of his many close readings is of “The Filling Station”, an example, he writes, of “thought in process,” and which concludes with the phrase “Somebody loves us all.”
The final line, he notes, “seems so simple and yet it is among her most mysterious in a stanza that is among her most enchanting, literally.”
After listing a number of readings of this last line, he notes, “I think it is possible to read this gesture rhetorically; that is, on its own terms, as an evocation of hope by someone momentarily ‘filled’ by what she has just seen. Bishop’s poems often end in an open space, leaving us not so much reaching irritably after facts, as simply recognizing, as in “The Moose,” that ‘Life is like that.’ “
The “perceptive mastery” (Bishop Blog Review) of his discussion of “Brazil January 1, 1502” could just as equally apply to “The Filling Station” and so very many of her poems – poems that reveal “a world long familiar to the reader but now seen mysteriously anew, as only the closely woven fabric of her marvelous art can do. ”
But back to The Uses of Delusion in which the famous 19th Century philosopher, William James, figures large. His major writings cover the spectrum of the rational and irrational. On the one hand is his transformative treatise Pragmatism and, on the other, his transcendent Varieties of Religious Experience – its lucid prose still widely read by those seeking to explain life beyond the purely pragmatic. William James, a brilliant and rational mind, was driven to distraction by his equally famous younger brother, Henry, by his convoluted sentences with their many subordinate clauses. In his writing Henry James echoes Emily Dickinson’s “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” A mindset well outside the orbit of his brother.
“Not a thought, but a mind thinking” was the way Elizabeth Bishop described the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, while of James one critic wrote “he wants you to see, to visualize, the inner life of his characters – all the action is inside… ”novels that are“ existential mysteries, stories you understand piece-meal, along with characters (quite often) thinking their way through. ”
This description of James’s novels recalls, surprisingly perhaps, certainly in the realm of the unlikely likely, Elizabeth Bishop’s poems that, as Jonathan Post says, “often end in an open space… simply recognizing” Life is like that. “
“Portrait of a Lady” is the one that most immediately comes to mind as ending “in an open space”, along with his last major novels, especially “The Ambassadors.” Many of his short stories are disturbing, frightening even, in their evocation of the unexplained presence.
Virginia Woolf wrote in the Times Literary Supplement (December 22, 1921) that “His ghosts have their origin within us – wherever the ordinary appears ringed by the strange.” She continues “James’s ghosts remain always a little worldly – we cannot feel afraid. What does it matter then if we do pick up ‘The Turn of Screw’ an hour or so before bedtime? After an hour of exquisite entertainment we shall…. end with this fine music in our ears, and sleep the sounder. ”
But, an hour later – “We are afraid of something, perhaps in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light. ” Henry James, she writes, “has conquered. That courtly, worldly, sentimental old gentleman can still make us afraid of the dark. ”
The essays that Virginia Woolf wrote for the TLS are collected in The Common Reader – quirky, thought provoking and fun. Where they fall in the rational / irrational spectrum I will leave you to decide, but they are pretty safe as bedtime reading. Though for “fine music in (your) ears,” it is Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” that takes us, most beautifully, back to the dreaming, moonlit woods where we came in.
“A moose has come out of / the impenetrable wood…. Grand, otherworldly. ” In his close reading of this great poem, which he suggests recalls the woods of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Jonathan Post writes: “Whatever was simple earlier has become suddenly complex, the synoptic view growing to something of great constancy” (Hippolyta’s beautiful phrase again), ‘Why, why do we feel / (we all feel) this sweet / sensation of joy ?. ” “A long moment of magical transformation…” that “ends… typically, with a question that hovers over everything.” Again, that gift of the “open space.”
Sweet delusions, perhaps, but so very useful – with “such fine music in our ears,” our imaginations filled with moonlight, need we, just for this moment, be afraid of the dark?
Dates for your calendars – upcoming Sunday Evening Lectures at the Library. On June 12 poet Sue Ellen Thompson will be returning to Stonington to speak about the American poet Jack Gilbert (1925-2012) “The Man Who Loved Women.” Sue Ellen writes “The lecture will explore how his relationship with women influenced Gilbert’s work and will include a close examination of several of his poems.”
Sunday, July 10, Professor Stuart Vyse will be talking about “The Uses of Delusion: Why It’s Not Always Rational To Be Rational.”
Sunday, Aug. 14, Professor Jonathan FS Post will talk about his new book, “Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction.”
Belinda deKay is the emeritus director of Stonington Free Library.