Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mikhail Naimy on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare

 I'm reading the early (collected 1923), mordant book of literary-critical essays Al-Ghirbal (The Sieve) by Mikhail Naimy (ميخائيل نعيمة). Trained in Nazareth, Poltava, and Seattle, Naimy is a fascinating case study of the place of modern Arabic literature in the currents of world literature.
Here he's interesting on the subject of "What is Art" and the role of the critic.  In the opening essay he seems to accept, without any fuss, that standards of beauty and goodness (unlike Tolstoy he doesn't worry about distinguishing the two) are conventional, even subjective: critics will differ, and there are no fixed rules a reader could apply for himself, or why would we need critics at all? Yet he holds that a sincere and careful critic's judgments are somehow true nonetheless. And valuable for society. He draws an analogy to the metallurgist or geologist who, while he cannot create gold or diamonds "in the sense that God creates things out of nothing," does point them out where they were unknown before, "and thereby 'creates' them for whomever was ignorant of their value before."
From chemistry and value, inevitably, to Shakespeare. Here's a quick translation:
[The critic performs] a creative work when he lifts the veil, in a work he is writing about, on a jewel no one has noticed before. Perhaps even the author himself.  I've frequently asked myself: Did Shakespeare know, when he penned his plays and poems, that they would be eternal? Or did he compose them to satisfy some need of the moment, believing they would die with him? I am among those who hold the latter opinion. Therefore the critics who "discovered" Shakespeare after his death deserve the same acclaim as Shakespeare himself. But for them, there would be no Shakespeare. I believe that the spirit can follow and seize all the turns and subtleties of a great spirit, following its path and capturing its inspirations, climbing with it and stumbling with it, is a great spirit as well.
I'm about to teach a Global Shakespeares class where our opening unit deals with what I termed (to the dismay of someone on the university-wide Curriculum Committee) "the Shakespeare Brand."  Cultural studies has spent the past few decades, nearly half a century, criticizing not Shakespeare but the widespread civic religion of Bardolatry (as exemplified by Harold Bloom and public school systems) as conventional, based on cultural prejudice, not to say Eurocentric or even colonialist.  Two generations of my elders and betters have engaged in this deconstruction with the joy of children jumping on beds and tearing apart fluffy feather pillows.  Yet Shakespeare's special status in academia AND public culture has not withered; if anything, it has thrived.
It's fun to look back at earlier critics who have no problem with the cultural constructedness of the value of Shakespeare, or anything else. For Naimy, it's self-evident that a later critic posthumously "created" Shakespeare's greatness. Not only self-evident, but kind of wonderful, since now we have this cultural treasure and before we didn't. Acknowledging this doesn't make Shakespeare less great, just lets the critic bask in reflected glory.
As a young Arab critic's hic sum, this appropriation of Shakespeare is both audacious and effective.

No comments: