Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Imagination and Will

Sometime around the middle of the time my daughter and I lived in Athens, the Greek television network broadcast the whole series of Jewel in the Crown, and like public broadcasting in many places— strictly rationing their available funds— they did as they usually did with many worthy imported programs. Which is to say, not dubbed into Greek— which was expensive and time-consuming— but with Greek subtitles merely supered over the scenes. My English neighbor, Kyria Penny and I very much wanted to watch this miniseries, which had been played up in the English and American entertainment media, and so she gave me a standing invitation to come over to hers and Georgios's apartment every Tuesday evening, so we could all watch it, and extract the maximum enjoyment thereby. We could perhaps also make headway with our explanation to Kyrie Georgios on why Sergeant Perron was a gentleman, although an enlisted man, but Colonel Merrick emphatically was not.

On occasion, the Greek broadcasting network screwed up, and the next episode of Jewel didn't air. Penny and I would talk for a while, and Georgios would encourage my daughter to all sorts of rough-housing; pillow fights, mostly. (Blessed with two sons, the Greek ideal, Georgios rather regretted that he and Penny didn't have a daughter as well.) On those Tuesday nights when Jewel in the Crown didn't air, the Greek network most often substituted something appropriately high-toned, classical and in English. Brought out from their library and dusted off, most likely— the Royal Shakespeare Company, in all their thespian glory. And Penny and Georgios and all I noticed on one of those warm spring evenings, that Blondie was sitting on a cushion on the floor, totally absorbed, wrapped up in one of the Bard's duller history plays. She was then about four years old— but she was enchanted, bound by a spell of brocaded velvet words, swirling cloaks and slashing swords, glued to the television while we sat talking about other things, drawn in by a spell grown even more lightening-potent over the last 400 years. And it happened, the next time that Jewel was preempted - it was the RSC again, and Blondie was glued to the television, her concentration adamantine, and almost chillingly adult. I was quite sure she had never seen anything of the sort before, I wasn't one of those frenetically over-achieving mothers, stuffing culture down the kidlets' throat. I barely had time and energy enough to be an achieving mother: we hardly watched TV at home, VCRs were barely on the market and her favored bedtime reading was Asterix and Obelix, although we had branched out as far as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. No, it was not anything I had done - it must have been something innate in Shakespeare, a spell that has been cast, and drawn them in since Shakespeare himself was a working actor and playwright.

A couple of years ago I got "Will in the World" as a book club bennie. It's a good book, a speculative book by necessity, since we know so very, very little for certain of the real William Shakespeare. The author is dependent on speculation and imagination, much given to assuming that if such and such were happening in the neighborhood of Stratford-upon-Avon in the lifetime of the glove-maker's son, then he possibly would have known about it, and might have reason to weave it into one of his spell-plays. Did he have a good education, or not? Might he have been a school-teacher? A soldier? A clerk? Might he have been a Catholic sympathizer? Might his marriage been unhappy, his father a drinker - we have no way to know for sure, in ways that would satisfy the strict accountants of history. In fact, many have been the symposia, the experts, the finely honed intellectual authorities who have insisted over the years that the Shakespeare who was the actor, the manager and entrepreneur, the son of a provincial petty-bourgeois, simply could not have written the works attributed to him. Such expert knowledge of statecraft, of law, of international polity, of soldiering and the doings of kings and nobles - no, the tenured experts cry - this could not be the work of any less than an intellectual, highly placed and noble, gifted with the best education, and extensive mileage racked up in the corridors of power! Any number of candidates, better suited in the eyes of these experts to have written the works attributed to Wm. Shakespeare of Stratford are advanced, with any number of imaginative stratagems to account for it all, but every one of them I have read, leaves out the power of imagination itself.

Imagination, which takes us out of ourselves, and into someone else— the common thing all these great experts disregard, as if it were something already cast into disrepute, something useless, of no regard, but it is the major part of the actors - craft and entirely the part of the writers - that part that is not given up to intelligent research. All those great experts seemed to be saying, when they credit other than Shakespeare, the actor and bourgeois householder of Stratford and London - is that imagination is worthless, null, of no account or aid. It is impossible for a writer to imagine himself, or herself into anything other than what he or she is. One cannot imagine oneself convincingly into another time or place, gender or role in life. Imagination is dead and you are stuck with writing about what you are. How sterile, and how horrible. How pointless and boring—
but that is what the highly-educated would have of us. We must not, under pain of what the academicians judge, imagine what it would be like that it is to be whatever we were born to be.

When I was about 17, or so, I wrote a story for a high school English creative writing class, incorporating an account of a historic event which I couldn't possibly have witnessed— because I had been born fifteen years after the events I described. But I had done research, and even at 17 I was pretty good at writing description and I had the gift of imagination. It creeped the hell out of the creative writing teacher. He knew of the events that I had written about, and I had gotten it pretty well right. So, imagining again; what would have prevented a young actor from sloping up to a friend of his, in a tavern someplace, a friend who was a soldier, or a law clerk, a priest or servant in the house of a noble, and saying " Say, I've got this thing I'm working on - what d'you say about it? What do you think, how would it work, really?"

Which was the creepy, magical part, the part that academicians and writing teachers cannot fathom - how far the intelligent and well-researched imagination can take us. To insist that Shakespeare couldn't have written Shakespeare, is to deny the power and authority - even the authenticity of imagination.

Which may explain the relative shittiness of novels written by all but the most deviant of academics. Education— all very nice, but nothing will take a writer farther than imagination and some good contacts in other fields. Imagination - it' s what we have that separates us from the beasts. Never underestimate it, use it what you must. Especially when it's necessary to get out of what you are, and see through the eyes of someone else.

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