Is the life of the world, supposing the world survives, a big responsibility? Its burden is not its size but its specificness. It is no bigger a burden than the responsibility for what Emerson and Thoreau might call the life of our words. We might think of the burden as holding, as it were, the mirror up to nature. Why assume just that Hamlet’s picture urges us players to imitate, that is, copy or reproduce, (human) nature? His concern over those who “imitated humanity so abominably” is not alone that we not imitate human beings badly, but that we not become imitation members of the human species, abominations; as if to imitate, or represent – that is, to participate in – the species well is a condition of being human. Such is Shakespearean theater’s stake in the acting, or playing, of humans. Then Hamlet’s picture of the mirror held up to nature asks us to see if the mirror as it were clouds, to determine whether nature is breathing (still, again) – asks us to be things affected by the question.
Every now again, you come upon a book that cuts through you like a sword, and you feel yourself bleed from organs you did not know you had – and more than feel; you see, through the gash the pages made, into your very vitals.
I’m now finishing up Stanley Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, and there is blood a-pooling on the floor beneath my chair.
Saying what the book is about doesn’t really do justice to my reading experience, but for what it’s worth, the originating conceit of the book is that Shakespeare’s representation of human relations bears a kinship to Descartes’ and Hume’s skepticism; that philosophical skepticism is a kind of narcissism, a wilful denial of the world and of the reality of other minds in particular, in the guise of doubts about the world’s and other people’s existence; and that Shakespeare’s great tragic characters – Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Leontes – are similarly engaged in a wilful denial of others’ reality, and of the reality of their relations with them, enacting in the realm of human relations what skepticism enacts in the realm of pure reason. I’ve still got the Macbeth chapter to go, but when that’s done I’m sorely tempted to re-read all seven plays he treats, and to read (along with Descartes and Hume) the Freud, Nietzsche, Emerson and Thoreau with whom Cavell seems to be on such good terms, and who are his main guides for his enterprise.
Speaking of holding the mirror up to nature: returning from my analyst across the park, I came upon a woman, nude, propped against a tree, her hands bound behind her head, her eyes occluded by a paisley scarf, her body shielded mockingly by the reflective disc placed there by her photographer. I do love New York.