Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Imagined Life

I wrote the other day about the difference between Shakespeare as presented and Shakespeare as imagined.  Here's a particularly forceful expression of the point:
How many a woman who sees or reads As You Like It either believes in secret that she does resemble Rosalind or wishes that she did! And how many a man projects on its heroine the image of the woman he loves best, or, if not, the memory of some lost first love who still embodies the purest instincts of his youth, and hears her voice instead of the words on the printed page! Which is why the imaginative man will always prefer to read the play rather than to have some obliterating actress come between the text and his heart. ... In her own way, and on a lower level, Rosalind contributes her mite to our understanding of why Dante chose the Rose as a symbol of the ultimate paradise.
--Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare I 292-3 (1951)

Goddard may be offering nothing more than a special case of a more general point.  Consider: 
Chaque homme porte en lui un monde composé de tout ce qu’il a vu et aimé, et où il rentre sans cesse, alors même qu’il parcourt et semble habiter un monde étranger.
Every man carries within him a world which is composed of all that he has seen and loved, and to which he constantly returns,even when he is travelling through, and seems to be living in, some different world.
From Chateaubriand, Voyages en Italie, entry dated December 11th. It's from his entry for his outing to Tivoli outside Rome.  In the 21st century, Tivoli is still a tourist spot, though you have to change busses to get there so you wind up with mostly Italians. I ran across the observation in the first chapter of Claude Lévi-Strauss' Tristes Tropiques.  I see in my battered paperback that I underlined it (I think in 1979).  I tend to think Chateaubriand is right, although I suspect I have believed it moreso since I read it than I did before.

Lévi-Strauss quotes Chateaubriand in a long meditation,  puzzling over the construction of his own vision of the world. Here's a taste:
Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories.
As I write, I'm remembering what might be the flip side:  a passage from (Walker Percy?) where he says we can never see the Grand Canyon neat because on our first trip we will have already seen a post card of the Grand Canyon and will be measuring our reality against the post card.  And there's this:
I once knew a man from Khartoum
Who kept a live sheep in his room.
"It reminds me," he said,
"Of a lover long dead,
But I never can quite recall whom."
Saddest poem in the English language. 


dilbert dogbert said...

Re: Grand Canyon
My memories of my first sight of the canyon beat any postcard, photo layout, book, TV or video.
We arrived in a snowstorm and the clouds obscured the views. Went to the Ranger talk and as we sat waiting with a view out a window showing the fog, the scene slowly changed as the fog and clouds lifted and there was the canyon frosted with snow. Stunning!!

Buce said...

Actually, I think Percy acknowledges that kind of special case. If you can trick yourself into forgetting you are seeing the Grand Canyon, then ka-BAM, it will take you by surprise (still working my memory here).

PS: "...a fun read at times." At times? Sheesh.