Radical Tragedy was a fierce and (as it turned out) effective assault on an essentialism in English studies that Dollimore perceived as complacent and inherited (rather than freshly thought) and as lazily conservative--aesthetically, existentially, and politically. One reason still to value the book more than twenty years after its first publication is that it has atmosphere: a complex and affecting mood of grim, melancholy desire, come to think of it, not unrelated to the affect of Jacobean tragedy itself. The passion for the future that propels Dollimore's debut isn't simple; it's always born out of and dialectically intensified by a lucid apprehension of the deep structures of the world we inherit. Dollimore stresses, in his introduction to the third edition, that "the historical conditions of thought matter" and it was Thatcher's Britain that hurt intellectuals like him into hope as burning as it was beleaguered. (1) Radical Tragedy reads Jacobean tragedy for the complication, contradiction, and disorder where the promise of an alternative life lies lurking, but that promise is never overestimated: Dollimore recognizes the amazing contingency of the social order--that which isn't natural CAN be changed!--only to realize simultaneously that the social order, contingent though it is, may be harder to refashion than nature itself. And Radical Tragedy is a historical book, so its epiphanies have to be regarded as moments of possibility that Opened like flowers in the night of what actually, historically prevailed. Dollimore resists the temptation to elaborate these into anything more, in implicit recognition perhaps of the almost unprecedented luck and labor needed to redeem such lost potentialities in the actual achievement of a better world.
But one of the most important reasons to value Dollimore is that he's continued to think. Almost uniquely in a context in which academics are expected to maintain a consistent position, Dollimore changes his mind. While he does claim a certain continuity for his project, he's not afraid to rearrange it all around a new and startling inspiration. Looking back at his introduction to the second edition of Radical Tragedy published (also by Prentice Hall / Harvester Wheatsheaf) in 1989, one notes a willingness to develop and consolidate his original case in relation to succeeding work and debates; but in the new introduction to the third edition, Dollimore stakes out a position that is shockingly disjunct, not just from the contemporary critical consensus he ignores but even from his own earlier position as Radical Tragedy records it.
While he is still, no doubt, opposed to the corruption of particular political regimes, Dollimore is now disposed to see order as such as fundamentally necessary, as a form of identity without which we are flooded by apprehensions of loss and chaos that are endemic to our culture. (2) Concomitantly, he entertains a darker, more generally libidinized view of subversion as the upwelling of suppressed disorder, and more inclined to violate and wreck civilization than reform it. Dollimore is now more interested in deformation than reform, in self and society imperiling desire, in what Nietzsche thought of as "death-welcoming moods" (RT, xxxii). (3)
And what he presents is nothing less than a vision of the full sweep of human history. It is a vision and a history of human beings on the rack of their own self-constituting repressions, of civilization barely, precariously, and inconsistently maintained.
Dollimore locates this startling new view in relation to the history of humanism, and his narrative makes for extremely interesting reading, not least because it fundamentally challenges contemporary criticism's conception of itself. Such criticism, including Radical Tragedy, defines itself squarely against humanism. But Dollimore now argues that, at least in its strongest forms, humanism is intellectually, ethically, and existentially admirable and interesting. This is because it confronts "what is refractory and intractable in human history and human desire," even if only to overturn it (RT, xii). One of the more sensational surprises of Dollimore's recent writing is its sudden sympathy for such woefully unfashionable figures as Herman Hesse and F. R. Leavis. Like them Dollimore acknowledges the destructive power of dissident desire, and like them he equally acknowledges the need to repress it in the name of civilization, sanity, ethics, identity, and love. He differs from them in arguing that "the aesthetic vision has been most captivating precisely when it exceeds and maybe violates the humanitarian one," and that "[t]o take art seriously must be to recognize that its dangerous insights and painful beauty often derive from tendencies both disreputable and deeply anti-social" (RT, xi). Dollimore deliberately takes up the suppressed intensities of an avowed inhumanity as his special critical and existential field, writing as follows, "Let us say at the very least that the ethical and the humane, in order not to atrophy, must be constantly exposed to their own vital exclusions--exposed, that is, to what allows them to be what they are. But without any guarantee they can survive that exposure. That is the promise and the danger of art" (RT, xxxiv). How does current criticism fit in here? Well, for all its self-defining animus against humanism, Dollimore argues it in fact is humanism by other means. Far from ditching humanism's ethical program, it has pursued it on the extended terrain of the political. To this extent it is humanism reinvigorated. But modern criticism is also a weak form of humanism inasmuch as it is complacently blind to the daemonic forces that undermine human history and personality from within.
Dollimore kicks off his introduction to the latest edition of Radical Tragedy with a surprising celebration of Hesse's "fierce spiritual flame" (RT, xix). The German author stood, in the midst of the First World War, for "an international world of thought, of inner freedom, of intellectual conscience" and a belief in "an artistic beauty cutting across national boundaries" (RT, xiv). (4) In addition, he insisted, "I shall always, incorrigibly, recognize in man, in the individual man and his soul, the existence of realms to which political impulses and forms do not extend" (ibid.). (5) Much later he explained in his Nobel Prize letter of thanks that "the hardships of the National Socialist period" had wrecked his health but testified, as Dollimore emphasizes, "Still, my spirit is unbroken ..." (ibid.). (6)
Dollimore admits, "Radical Tragedy ... attacked just these ideas: essentialism in relation to subjectivity, universalism in relation to the human, and the belief that there was an ethical/aesthetic realm transcending the political" (RT, xv). But what he now admires in Hesse is his ethical intensity, and the existential and rhetorical intensities it enables. Such passions show up the relative insipidity and meaninglessness of much right-minded current work, and they derive from their real opposition to something: all the daemonic political barbarism of the last century. Dollimore writes, "the full significance of an aesthetic humanism becomes apparent in relation to artists like Hesse in a way it doesn't in, say, the squabbles within the English literary critical tradition in the last quarter of the last century. More specifically, the critique of humanism never properly engaged with people like Hesse, preferring instead easier targets in academic literary criticism" (RT, xv). But if Dollimore admires the "high European humanism" of Hesse, he has less respect for the more muted version that is revealed in W. H. Auden's eloquent poem "1st September 1939." Auden's "affirming flame" is expressly weaker than Hesse's. Rather than being fired by spirituality, according to Auden, human beings are "composed ... [o]f Eros and of dust," "[b]eleagured by... negation and despair." The most "the Just" can muster up are "[i]ronic points of light" (RT, xix). (7) Dollimore observes:
Together with its near cousin ambiguity, irony becomes the crutch of "late humanism," at once guarantee of its sophistication, and confession of its uncertainty; irony provided the intellectual with a rationale for non-commitment, and enabled the academic critic to contain anything which disturbed, by putting it in an imaginary, neutralising tension or balance with what didn't. Yeats saw through this kind of irony, which is why it's almost obligatory now to cite him: the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity. (RT, xix-xx)
In other words, a sophisticated, ironic, or liberal response avoids or elides the lived antimonies of life. Dollimore prefers a humanism that lives out of such contraries, strenuously opposing the obscene energy of what it regards as evil. What he prefers to that is an existential and epistemological stance that counts the cost of desublimating repressed desire and chooses to pay it anyway.
The daemonic is domesticated by the sort of ironic humanism that half allows it but, for Adorno 'to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (RT, xxi): (8) the devil is dancing through the ruins of the humanism creed. And not just because, after such knowledge, art can only be a sick mystification of evil and suffering. As George Steiner observes, "We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach or Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding, or that his ear is gross, is cant" (RT, xxi). (9) This raises for Steiner what for Dollimore too is "a compelling question": "[w]hat are the links, as yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy, and the temptations of the inhuman?" (RT, xxii). (10)
After the Second World War, the daemonic was pushing perceptibly through "the mental, psychological habits of high literacy" so that Steiner and others struggled to redeem and fortify the humanist faith. Perhaps foremost among them, in Dollimore's narrative, is Leavis. According to Dollimore, Leavis saw the need to "strengthen his ethical humanism by injecting it with a dose of diluted vitalism, thereby suggesting its origins in the life force with which, in reality, it was in permanent tension." "The truth is," Dollimore writes, "that the ethical order which we all live by and utterly depend upon, repeatedly turns away from life's energies." He contends that "humanism is most compelling when it honestly acknowledges the price, in terms of repression, renunciation and control, of adhering to humane values; when, in other words, it takes upon itself the responsibility for limiting human aspiration and acknowledging that humane values and human desire will always be in tormenting conflict" (SLC, 123). And yet Dollimore doesn't finally convict Leavis of dodging this sort of agonized honesty and responsibility; rather he finds it etched on his face in "a memorable picture" taken in June 1973: "Looking austerely fragile, still indomitable yet deeply exhausted, he recalls Mann's Aschenbach, burnt out by the unsustainable effort of speaking on behalf of civilisation. Wrecked by discrimination" (ibid.). It is a moment of particularly pressured intensity in Dollimore's recent work, and one that bespeaks a strange and telling identification. Thomas Mann's Gustav von Aschenbach from Death in Venice ultimately and fatally succumbs to daemonic desire, and the reference to him here confounds Leavis, the heroic victor over such tendencies, with his own opposite. There is also a strange symbiosis between Dollimore's prose and its subject here, with the exceptionally careful writing--each word really counts in this passage--itself expressing Leavis's exhausting discrimination. Such self-wrecking restraint is curiously akin to self-imperiling indulgence, and it is impossible to resist the thought that Dollimore sees himself and his own struggle reflected back at him in Leavis's strained visage. It is partly a matter of having a worthy enemy, partly a genuine sense of sharing much common ground, if not common cause, with Leavis's existentially troubled and committed work. Dollimore wants criticism that really matters to the writer--and, indeed, how else could it matter to its readers? As a result he seems now to feel closer to Leavis than to many who would suppose themselves his followers and fellow travelers.
But if Dollimore finds a perverse refuge in the "high humanism" of Leavis and Hesse, he can find no such thing in its current manifestations. In some circumstances the humanist faith seems to have disappeared altogether from contemporary life. Dollimore comments, for instance, on the aftermath of 9/11: "Whereas in September 1914 Hesse passionately affirms the humanist aesthetic as an answer to war, in September 2001 it was as if such a vision had simply been forgotten: one listened in vain for significant voices promoting art as an articulation of civilised values transcending cultural, racial and religious conflicts" (RT, xviii). What we heard instead were appeals to "cultural and racial difference," epitomized by the fact that "Britain's Prime Minister, as he commuted the world in October 2001, shoring up support for the coalition against terrorism, allowed it to be known that, as he travelled, he read translations of the Koran" (RT, xvii). A vogue for the ethics of difference has equally swept through the academy in recent years, and to this extent the academics and the politicians are singing from the same hymn-sheet, which absolutely wasn't the case when Radical Tragedy challenged Thatcherism. It's notable that, although he acknowledges the need to correct the blindness and exclusivity of the old humanist universals, Dollimore does not celebrate the intensity of ethics of difference in the way that he celebrated the ethical humanism of Hesse. This is partly because such ethics seem implicated in a global capitalism that simultaneously spices up the market by selling "ethnic" or "gay" products at the same time as cultivating racial and social minorities as special-interest markets. It is also because where global capitalism has become "an aggressive economic and military imperialism which exacerbates cultural antagonisms ... the multicultural can shift very quickly from being the imagined resolution of these antagonisms, to being the ground where they intensify" (ibid.): hence, for instance, the escalating tensions between the British government and British Muslims. If, beyond this, Dollimore seems to feel that ethics of difference can't sustain the sort of fierce spiritual flame shown forth by Hesse, that's perhaps because difference, as such, just isn't very lovable. Love is highly particular and correspondingly exclusionary. You love this and/or that singular thing or things; unless you're a post-structuralist philosopher or a mystic, it's difficult to love an open array of differences, which is largely why the ethics of difference, both beyond and within the academy, often degenerate in practice into the pieties and lip service of political correctness. By contrast, humanism knew what it loved: an elevated, theoretically universal human nature that was nonetheless concretely defined in experience by what it refused and excluded.
But if humanism has lost force in the political arena, Dollimore observes that in exhausted if not cynical form it nevertheless continues to underpin the humanities education system and the culture industries. Dollimore quotes Sir Claus Moser expressing its core belief--that art is a profoundly civilizing force--in October 2000 and comments:
In short, I have deep respect for Hesse's advocacy of humanism in 1917; but I can't but regard Moser, writing in 2000, as deeply complacent. Far from being liberating, the humanist aesthetic has become a way of standing still amidst the obsolete, complacent and self-serving cliches of the heritage culture industry, the Arts establishment, and a marketdriven humanities education system. The aesthetic has become an anaesthetic. (RT, xxii)
Whereas the humanism Dollimore now admires confronted, even while it refused, the most recalcitrant and troubling dimensions of human life and politics, in its current, degenerate and empty form, it merely props up a range of vested interests.
But, according to Dollimore, a healthier mutation of humanism survives within the academy: as the radical materialist criticism of the '80s and after, to which Radical Tragedy itself powerfully contributed. This movement represents not so much the final defeat of humanism it proclaimed as a late development of that creed. There is a fundamental moral continuity between humanism and contemporary materialist critics. For even while they have tended to despise humanism as benightedly ideological, such critics have fiercely competed with it for the high moral ground. To the extent that they have been able to raise humanist ethics onto the extended plane of politics, they've won an important victory, although often at the cost of the sort of ethical and existential intensity Dollimore admires in Hesse and Leavis. Moreover, even if they have fortified humanism by enlarging its political scope, they have weakened it in another important respect. Because whereas traditional or "high" humanism did real battle with the refractory forces of barbarism and evil, radical criticism has for the most part refused even to recognize the adverse impulses and conditions of human nature. As Dollimore puts it:
With laudable political intent, and real insight into the ideological underpinning of supposedly natural and inevitable inequalities, political critics, like philosophers, rationalize reality. For instance, human violence is regarded not as the unavoidable manifestation of an innately violent human nature, but as the pro duct of unjust social conditions: by altering the conditions we control the violence. This works. Yet if doing that leads us to believe it is only a question of social conditions, we deceive ourselves. (SLC, 126)
He's right, of course. The pitfall for political criticism is a naive optimism that humiliatingly fails to have much impact on a recalcitrant world.
The best of such works, like Radical Tragedy itself, don't underestimate the terrific difficulty of making a difference. But they do underestimate, where they do not entirely discount, what Dollimore now insists on: the dark and retrograde potential of desire itself. This is most flagrantly the case, as Dollimore shows, with queer theory.
Every individual experiences the struggle to a greater or lesser degree: instinct, id and the unconscious are always there to wreck what precious equilibrium is achieved by the ego. But the sexual radicals argued that this force, instead of wrecking the individual through repression, might be liberated and turned against the society doing the repression. It's a momentous turn-about: now sexuality is not the reason we are radically unfree, but the impetus for a radical vision of freedom. Instead of being the source of torment, guilt and death, sex now involves liberation and happiness. It is hardly surprising that this reversal involved a taming of desire which amounted to a new kind of repression. Sexual radicalism wanted desire to subvert some things but definitely not others; it had to destroy the old order but serve the new. The hope is that liberated desire would, as it were, civilise itself. But it is unwise to rely upon desire to discriminate between good and bad social orders, and the very radicalism which made so much of the idea of the return of the repressed would repeatedly encounter the return of its own repressed. (SLC, 77-78)
To put it bluntly, desire isn't simply good. To see it as such is not only ethically complacent and inevitably very harmful (both to the un-self-censoring subject of desire and to anyone unfortunate enough to come in his or her way), it also denies the complex and often painful astringencies involved in the real experience of desire, and sex.
In some elusive and incomplete way we are the embodiments of something called sex. "Desire" is the correct word, but let's for once use "sex" if only because it has a density, directness and yet a degree of indeterminacy which makes it occasionally right. We cannot step outside the force-field of sex any more than we can step outside the language we speak. Sex is profoundly cultural and not simply a natural given. And yet any attempt to explain exclusively in terms of culture will always fail. And when it does, we relive the experiential complexity of sex, and realize the futility of trying to evade it via the spurious complexities of theory. To be alive is to desire; to desire is to be deeply and maybe destructively confused, sooner or later. (SLC, 36)
"Theory": the word confesses the weakness. Dollimore now stresses that theoretical thought will tend to rationalize, and therefore censor, reality. Theory must therefore always, and urgently, be exposed to experience, and potentially transformed by it. That's why where once Dollimore attacked the complacent essentialism of English studies, he now has in his sights the complacencies that attend its more recent anti-essentialism. Thus, for instance,
[t]he historical approach to death insists that it is not some essential thing, but a socio-historical construct; it tells us that to look for the transhistorical continuities in the human experience of death is fundamentally misguided; on the contrary, we must understand death as something which changes across time within any one culture and which fundamentally differs between cultures (and religions). So, in the latter case there will be, e.g., a Buddhist conception of death, and a Christian one; in the former, there will be a medieval way of dying and a Victorian one, and so on. Difference is all. This is true, as far as it goes. But as is often the case, the agreeable truth (diversity and difference) is used to evade the less agreeable (the anguish of mortality). (11)
Which is to say, Dollimore's case against the salient historicism of recent literary studies is that it collects historical differences as a way of ignoring the most terrible facts of history. He goes on:
Historicism performs this evasion not just with respect to specific topics like death, but in its very methodology, and especially in its assumption that anything in the past can be explained if its full history can be retrieved. Of course historicism knows that full history is rarely if ever retrievable, but the assumption that all would be revealed if it were, is the ideal to which the historian aspires. In other words, nothing of itself, and in relation to us, is inexplicable in principle, only in practice. Nothing more than inadequate historical data stands between us and a full understanding of the past. To the extent that this assumption pervades historicism of all kinds it entails a certain irony: this most empirical of procedures has at its methodological heart something of the a priori. (12)
As I have implied already, Dollimore is himself a rationalist inasmuch as he is a markedly lucid thinker and writer. But to think lucidly about reality is not the same as reproducing reality in the image of such thinking. The nub of Dollimore's critique of modern criticism is this: for all its savvy transcendence of a tweedier past, it's frightened of life. Of course, Dollimore's own work, as well as the best humanist scholarship, has shown there's good reason to be. The high humanists tried strenuously to wrest life's humane elements from its persistent inhumanity. Dollimore is different in that, although he admits life is indeed frightening, disturbing, even partly evil, he remains fully intellectually and even spiritually committed to it. To that extent he's a movingly affirmative thinker.
Dollimore respects humanism but insists nonetheless on "that underlying longing to reject prudential living ... in favour of its opposite: risk, and an ecstasy inseparable from destruction including self-destruction" (SLC, 64). He doesn't romanticize this: humane values are essential to the health and well-being of any self or society. They've fallen into ideological disrepair, but, as we have seen, modern criticism has struggled to redeem them, even while defining itself against humanism. Within the ruins of that still necessary creed, Dollimore descries what is always there as humanism's opposite and occasion: "the aesthetic where dangerous knowledge crosses with dissident desire" (RI, xxiv). Art, according to Dollimore, unceasingly confesses and explores the dialectic between humanism and the inhumane; and whereas philosophy, and all more rational discourse, censors the latter, art recklessly tests and even privileges it. Of the thrilling agonies of the inhumane, Dollimore has made himself the lonely critical laureate, but we mustn't imagine any easy, self-congratulatory sneer. For he reckons the cost, envisions the blazing world, and then goes ahead and lights the match, writing grimly, "we are most ourselves when we are in this destructive, dangerous and suffering state of freedom," not only "violating the restraints of the very history which has produced us" but living to the full the intensifying contradiction of human nature (RT, xxxi).
Dollimore's great philosophical precursor is Nietzsche, but he in turn looks back to Shakespeare. Dollimore notes that whereas "[t]he rationalist might regard the accumulation of knowledge as a progressive and irreversible consolidation of civilisation," Nietzsche finds in Shakespeare "another kind of knowledge, one which does not consolidate civilisation, but threatens it." Its final revelation is "that civilisation is at heart illusory" (RT, xxxi).
That is the burden of Nietzsche's reading of Hamlet--"he has 'seen through' the illusions by which his culture maintains itself; inaction derives not from confusion and doubt, but too much certainty" (RT, xxxii). But whereas Hamlet stands at the wan end of the civilizing process, Macbeth is as much about "affirming what has been repressed, of desublimating the life force itself, of holding it up against civilised morality, and even celebrating its destructive power" (ibid., my italics). Dollimore goes on as follows:
So it's a mistake, says Nietzsche, to think that Shakespeare's theatre was aiming for moral effects. In this regard Macbeth does not warn against hubris and ambition; on the contrary it affirms their attraction. And the fact that Macbeth "perishes by his passions" is part of his "demonic attraction." By demonic [damonisch] Nietzsche means "in defiance against life and advantage for the sake of a drive and idea" [Gedankens und Triebes]. He adds "Do you suppose that Tristan and Isolde are preaching against adultery when they both perish by it? This would be to stand the poets on their head: they, and especially Shakespeare, are enamoured of the passions as such and not least of their death-welcoming moods." Shakespeare, like other tragic poets, "speaks ... out of a restless, vigorous age which is half-drunk and stupefied by its excess of blood and energy--out of a wickeder age than ours is." But the guardians of high culture in our own day disavow this: they seek to "adjust and justify the goal of a Shakespearean drama" precisely in order that they (and we) "not understand it." (RT, xxxii) (13)
Dollimore explains how Shakespeare and his critics "fall on opposite sides of Nietzsche's great divide between those who affirm the life-force and those who turn away from it: between, in other words, the demonic and humanitarian" (RT, xxxii). And he observes that, in The Gay Science, "this distinction is expressed in terms of two distinct kinds of sufferer--those who suffer from a superabundance of life and those who suffer from an impoverishment of life" (ibid.). In Nietzsche's scheme, Shakespeare willingly confronts "the terrible and questionable ... every luxury of destruction, decomposition, negation," while his critics prefer "mildness, peacefulness, goodness in thought and deed ... a certain warm, fear-averting confinement and enclosure within optimistic horizons" (RT, xxxii-xxxiii and "Afterword"). (14)
Dollimore now concurs exactly with this pitiless recognition of critical bloodlessness and bad faith, but his reading of Shakespeare and of life isn't exactly Nietzsche's. He points out, for instance, that the philosopher "wilfully misconstrues Macbeth," agreeing that it "is indeed a profound exploration of the daemonic" but insisting "its tragedy is the deep and recalcitrant conflict between the daemonic and humane, between the Macbeths' 'black and deep desires' and the 'milk of human kindness'" (1.4.52, 1.5.15; RT, xxxiii). (15) Such conflict is what Dollimore proclaims the subjective truth we all inherit and the dialectic of civilization itself.
It is most completely embodied in Angelo, "A man of stricture and firm abstinence" who "scarce confesses / That his blood flows" (1.3.12, 51-52) and one who, as Dollimore says, "has hitherto been sublimating his own sexuality into strict government not just of himself but of his society, such that the opportunity to suppress illicit sexual desire in the community in his new capacity as deputy is a self-realization more than usually charged with libidinal energies." "But," Dollimore goes on, "this is also why the executing of power, initially a compensation for repression, becomes the occasion for its return" (SLC, 80). In Angelo we see how "desublimated desire has a virulence which is not the opposite of civilisation but its inversion"; we see "desire returning via the 'civilising' mechanisms of its repression, mechanisms it is still inseparable from even while it violates them" (SLC, 80-81). As Dollimore emphasizes, "only the highly civilised can be truly daemonic": lillies that fester.... (16) Here is Shakespeare's severe judge in the midst of his agonized arousal:
Having waste ground enough, Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary And pitch our evils there? ... Dost thou desire her foully for those things That make her good? (2.3.174-76, 178-79)
Angelo exemplifies the coalescence of the political and the personal, the formal coincidence between social form and the individual identity that is vested in it. In violating the civilized world, he violates himself--and what is so starkly true of him would be fundamentally true for all of us. In Angelo, as Dollimore writes, desire "is hardly conscious." Moreover, "it is a pressure not so much for fulfilment, but to be free of something in itself which it cannot fully understand, something which, in effect, it does not desire" (SLC, 81). We approach a strange and compelling truth here: desire both is and is not mine, both is and is not me. As Dollimore writes, "'Angelo", devastated by the ferocity of his own vicious passion, is doubly mutilated: first by the repression, then by the return" (ibid.). Desire wrecks everything I am, not just my body, but also my spirit, and yet in so doing seems bitterly to introduce me to myself as if for the very first time.
The intense mysteriousness of this example evinces the phenomenological possibility of Dollimore's position as a way of allowing, accessing, and analyzing aesthetic and life experience. In this respect, Dollimore's recent work could be characterized as expanded humanism, one that entails a fuller accounting both of humanity and of the energy and authority that humanism derives from the challenge of the inhumane. This entails an important corrective to what might be described as the ethical kitsch of much modern scholarship. No ethical criticism deserves the name that doesn't involve the rigorous examination of its own conscience, but an absolute (if not unthinking) righteousness comes easily to the politically correct. Dollimore is more responsive to the ethical densities and provocations of life in general and of aesthetic experience in particular.
A case in point is his extraordinary analysis of the following lines from Othello:
Othello. And yet how nature, erring from itself-- Iago. Ay, there's the point; as, to be bold with you, Not to affect many proposed matches Of her own clime, complexion, and degree, Whereto we see in all things nature tends. Foh, one may smell, in such, a will most rank, Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural! (3.3.232-38)
Dollimore first observes the amazing compression, suggesting that if "poetry is, in essence, language at its most powerfully concentrated, this is pure poetry"; but he further observes that "it is also pure evil of a most modern kind: here in just a few lines racism, xenophobia and misogyny are imaginatively fused" (SLC, 131). He goes on:
Desire and revulsion: both are there, feeding the other. That is one of the things that could give this scene its intensity. The disgust is concentrated in the multiple meanings of "will"--which could mean volition, sexual desire and sexual organs--and "rank"--which could mean lust, swollen, smelling, corrupt, foul: "one may smell, in such, a will most rank." Such words make for an imagery which is intensely voyeuristic even as it is so dense as to be beyond visualisation. Compressed in the next line is a pornographic fantasy of "foul disproportion": the monstrously phallic black man violating the white woman. Again there is an allusion here to Iago's earlier taunt: "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88-89). If Shakespeare dramatizes a pornographic imagination through Iago, it is also as a dramatist that he reveals how central is that imagination to a certain kind of ambivalent racism in which disgust and desire escalate dialectically (SLC, 132)
Fearlessly disclosed here is an intense and tangled imbrication of the personal and political. It could not be more political: as Dollimore writes, "[t]he lynched, castrated black man is prefigured here, in this scene from Othello" (SLC, 132). But nor could it be more personal, and not just for the dramatic characters but equally for any audience or reader: "One kind of political critic is inclined to say that Shakespeare is complicit with the racism of Othello, another that Shakespeare is clearly repudiating the racism he represents. Either view is too comfortable, and each ignores the element of fantasy in this scene" (ibid.). Dollimore's uncompromising point is that to read over the dialogue at this point in the play is, however fleetingly, to entertain a hateful pornographic fantasy. He goes on, "It seems bizarre to think of a play, performed on a stage, as a sexual fantasy: the one is overtly public, the other essentially private. But the language of the play is at this point steeped in fantasy. And anyway, fantasies, like plays, are typically visualized; they are enacted in a scene. Here the scene is what Iago/Shakespeare imagines" (ibid.). Othello is undeniably concerned with hateful fantasy; it is hateful fantasy that overruns and prevents Othello's life and love at their source, like foul toads who knot and gender there (cf. 4.2.63-64). In the very temple of true love Shakespeare forces a connection between desire and depravity. And yet, if Dollimore is right to stress that our best impulses are complexly entangled with their opposites, he is also right to say that there is no decadence without its ethical contrary and substrate: the most obscenely delicious depths are tasted in the same cocktail as the highest spiritual transports. This is because perverse desire depends on and solicits what it violates. It also stimulates the humanism it offends to respond with all the reinvigorated energy of outrage. The Good is inseparable from that which it seeks to defeat for good, and at once the fundamental dimension of human experience and a mere aphrodisiac. Art knows this, and keeps telling its knowledge in spite of the evasions and embarrassments of criticism.
Of course, Dollimore's view of art and life is a particular one. He wavers between recognizing that it's limited--truer at certain times than others, truer of certain literary forms or works than others--and asserting its validity for all. It seems true that mortality and its legacies of desire are freshly and inimitably troped in every authentic human life and action, though a full account of such tropes is beyond the scope even of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. Dollimore's view can account, as we have seen, for Angelo the severe judge as well as Angelo the would-be rapist, and to that extent it has plasticity and extensiveness sufficient to drama. But if Dollimore's freshly felt and perceived opposition between law and desire defines an "objective" position from which you could write a play, he equally stakes out a subjective position, making an open-eyed choice for desire at all costs. Dollimore is a thinker who insists on the existential consequence of viable theory and carries it in the direction of the lived truth. Reading him is an induction into a certain philosophy of life and a vicarious experience of it from a highly personal point of view. Such reading is perhaps above all an experience, and its fraught inconsistencies are indissociable from its meaning.
The energy of Dollimore's recoil from the merely academic derives from his tragic commitment to life. If he admires the existential consequence of Leavis's ideas, he also admires Nietzsche "for trying to live ... a spirituality ... at once austerely severe and romantically excessive" even though it cost him his sanity and he would otherwise have probably killed himself. (17) Such fierce subjectivity seems germane to drama inasmuch as theater gives human selfhood its own concentrated present in a body within a thoroughly embodied context--I take the animation of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale to enact this profoundly basic process of the art. Theater is a laboratory for testing and dramatizing subjective truth, by which I mean not so much what is merely true for me (such as that I like or dislike orange or oranges) but truth as it declares itself inwardly and to the world in its subjective experience and aspect. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Angelo are names of truths more complex and intensely felt than any that could be conveyed by a mere abstract noun or systematic analysis. Bradley knew this but modern theoretical criticism has, for the most part, forgotten. Shakespeare's characters have become anemic ciphers for dramas of ideas less vivid and compelling than those originally embodied in them. Recent criticism has been insufficiently based in the passions of the individual human being--and after Dollimore we're in a position to see that all the scholarship lavished on their alien embeddedness in the early modern period may in the end be a way of evading them. Such remoteness from experience explains why mainstream modern criticism has ceded its popular appeal so entirely and totally to the biographers and to Harold Bloom. In this connection, one massive gain in Dollimore's recent work is that it enables him to write directly about Shakespeare's major characters and with an existential inwardness that is one with the terrible appeal and force of the plays themselves.
Dollimore's recent work has freshly identified a structure of human experience that is so basic that it underpins both individual identity and civilization itself. He's no doubt right to say that art gives the daemonic more house room than more rational discourse, and perhaps even right to imply that art is ultimately the devil's house. I have indicated that he's always moving between an "objective" perception of an essential problematic of human nature and a fiercely subjective preference for desire over the law. As a result, during certain, more heated passages, it can seem that the devil not only has all the best tunes in Dollimore's work, but that there isn't any other music at all; but, as in a more philosophical mode he recognizes, there are Apollonian intensities in life and art. As his own portrayal of Leavis no less than his example of Angelo makes clear, the form-seeker isn't necessarily a dispassionate man. Nor is he always simply in flight from his real daemonic nature. Aeneas forsakes a self in forsaking Dido but gains a better one in founding Rome; and that is at least partly true of Hal's sacrifice of Falstaff to become the great King Henry V--although he, admittedly, is a daemonic figure of desire as much as an Apollonian bringer of new light and order.
In Dollimore, the underlying principle of life and literature is the violent dialectic between order and energy, law and transgressive desire, and we all are gored on its horns. But is there really no escaping this fate? Not in Dollimore, and yet one thing traditionally transcends his tearing contraries: love. St. Paul writes in terms that are surprisingly reminiscent of Dollimore's in the Epistle to the Romans:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law, for I had not known lust, except the law had said, "Thou shalt not covet." But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not; for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that I do. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing, for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Romans 7.7-24) (18)
This, of course, is written from a position opposite to Dollimore's grim advocacy of desire: that is, from an agonized and failed commitment to the law. But such opposites resemble each other closely, and Paul portrays much the same structure of experience that Dollimore evokes. If we gloss "sin" and "evil" as transgression--and in doing so we lose, along with a more archaic sense of convinced and absolute values, a certain ontological density that Dollimore would probably want to retain--this becomes apparent. In Paul as in Dollimore, identity is impossible. The law simultaneously begets the desire to transgress it. That desire wrecks the law-abiding, civilized self yet simultaneously reveals or even manufactures an alternative, daemonic--or, according to Paul's Judeo-Christian view, a specifically demonic or satanic--self: "sin that dwelleth in me." This presents another way as well as another form of being, "another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind," a violently oppositional ethics. Entertaining movingly wistful fantasies of an anterior wholeness--"I was alive without the law once"--the subject, tragically, experiences itself as its own ruination: "the body of this death." No wonder Paul cries out, "O wretched man that I am!", expressing some of the morally honest and representative self-division that is equally and importantly a feature of Dollimore's work.
No text, to my mind, resonates more with Dollimore's recent output than this amazing passage from Romans. But of course Paul doesn't end there. The agonized, self-gnawing subject he pictures is suddenly lifted into overflowing bliss by the love revealed in Christ: and this private effect has salutary ethical and political consequences since the bliss overflows as loving thankfulness. After reading Dollimore, the question is whether this specifically credal solution to the violent dialectic of human being can work--can be translated in any way--in our secular present. The subject can't fulfill the law, Paul argues, but it is instead fulfilled by a divine gift of unconditional love. No longer under the law, its loving response to this gift now nonetheless fulfills the law easily and incidentally, because love (which always puts the other or the many before self) is the spirit of the law. It's a brilliant maneuver, whereby the subject is saved and made whole at the same time as the law is not just divorced from the ruinous impulse to transgress it but actually united with that impulsiveness which opposed it in its unregenerate state.
But does it really work? Does a gift of love really abolish the impulse to transgress? Doesn't it at least potentially produce, together with the loving thankfulness, the opposite impulse: a desire to strike out--to strike back at--the one to whom one is so profoundly indebted? Isn't something very like that what motivates Milton's Satan? Even so, the Pauline model of love does have considerable experiential plausibility outside its religious context. In happy, loving relationships (whether of an erotic or a filial character), we do feel somewhat "justified," more indifferent to social or professional judgments. "Being in love" is typically characterized by feelings of freedom, capacity, benignity, boundlessness. Of course, such feelings aren't permanent, but they can recur and breathe through a human life or relationship as its atmosphere or guiding light. Indeed, a certain continuity and interpenetration between divine and human love is expressed in the Song of Solomon, in Dante's love for Beatrice, and in the Persian poet Rumi's love for Shams; and it's worth remembering here that the love of Christ is always partly love for an embodied, wounded, mortal man. In the tenderness of love, desire isn't opposed to but largely coincides with the humane. In Shakespearean terms, much of this is visible in Romeo and Juliet, where the immature principals are completed in love and become tragic vessels of its boundlessness and beneficent influences. Paul's religious solution to the dilemma Dollimore poses seems worth taking seriously.
Love does powerfully surface in connection with sexual dissidence at the end of Dollimore's book on that subject. (19) But Dollimore otherwise has to exclude love, because to dwell on its humane gratifications would soften the terror of desire, which is his subject and inspiration, and perhaps fatally weaken the specifically aesthetic force of his grim vision. And if such love as Romeo and Juliet's remains an experiential possibility for all, in truth it is rarely achieved or sustained--hence its glitteringly poignant rarity and short lease of life in the play. Similarly, if Apollonian intensities are glimpsed in Hal's progress or in Prospero's project, they're admittedly less vividly and importunately dramatized in Shakespeare than are daemonic temptations. Dollimore's exclusion of such things keeps faith with the terrible regularity with which a ruinous price for desire is exacted in art, life, and history.
Dollimore's conspectus of the history of criticism is also a form of valediction. It is not just that he has left the academy, although that in itself is powerful testimony to his alienation from current criticism. Given the excessive professionalization of English, we need people like Dollimore to write from outside the field. But Dollimore now lines up with art rather than with those who comment on it. All criticism is humanism; indeed, all reflective or heuristic discourse is, insofar as it simplifies and tidies up experience according to the dictates of a reasonable intelligence. Art has more body than this, and is more written out of one. It lets in the mess and intensity of experience and is exposed to the concomitant ethical and existential challenges. In the end then, it's not the nobly beleaguered humanists with whom Dollimore most identifies, surprising though it was to see him lean in that direction. He stands ultimately with those creative writers with the power to effect "a shattering of the self into a vulnerable, receptive authenticity" (SLC, 105). Among them are Shakespeare, Yeats, Gide, Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and not the Hesse of the high humanist priesthood so much as the one who wrote the daemonic Steppenwolf. Dollimore also makes less already canonical selections, like Oscar Moore, who wrote A Matter of Life and Sex in the first aftermath of the AIDS crisis.
We are a long way from the prescriptions and prejudices of current scholarship. Dollimore rejects the narrowness that confines you to your specialism, whether medieval, early modern, antebellum American, crime fiction, the long poem, or whatever. And surely he's right to do so: rehearsing even so many prohibitively restrictive classifications is almost infinitely wearying. And it's equally refreshing to read Dollimore's analysis of Shakespeare and then this extraordinary passage he excerpts from James Baldwin:
He stood there, wide-legged, humping the air, filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? ... This, anyway, was the question Rufus heard, the same phrase, unbearably, endlessly, and variously repeated, with all the force the boy had. The silence became strict with abruptly focused attention, cigarettes were unlit, and drinks stayed on the tables; and in all of the faces, even the most ruined and most dull, a curious, wary light appeared.... And yet the question was terrible and real; the boy was blowing with his lungs and guts out of his own short past; somewhere in that past, in the gutters or gang fights or gang shags; in the acrid room, on the sperm-stiffened blanket, behind marijuana or the needle, under the smell of piss in the precinct basement, he had received the blow from which he would never recover and this no one wanted to believe. (SLC, 166) (20)
The compelling message in this saxophone solo of desire's affinity to lack, obscenity, and suffering expresses a whole life and captivates and troubles everyone who hears it. It tells its own story but, like Shakespeare, is also a particular revelation of a much larger one. Utterly of its own historical and cultural context, it nonetheless draws all the ardent sadness of human history into its own supercharged density, the expressive density of each screaming note. It exemplifies the extraordinary expressive power of art and literature as Dollimore now sees it. Who really reads, for pleasure and edification, only early modern texts? Dollimore's transhistorical perspective combines with his respect for experience to allow for the intense copresence of works from different traditions and periods in the minds and lives of passionate and intellectually curious readers. In any case, there's a name for those who read essentially by period: historians.
As we have seen, Dollimore also rejects the historicist faith that everything changes historically as a frightened evasion of our mortal conditions. But, most devastatingly and profoundly, he fingers criticism's cornerstone claim to privileged and illuminating power over literature as self-serving fraud. In his view, literature speaks wild truth, which criticism will always evade. Nor is this any kind of mysticism, for the wild truth he points to bears intimately and ultimately on all kinds of human identity and conduct.
But where does this leave him? Or to put it another way: if that's the way he sees criticism, what's left for him to do? Well, Dollimore now is orientated toward that which can't be explained. He avowedly admires "a spiritual perspective," which "might (for example) accept in principle that the object of its understanding may be ultimately incomprehensible, or comprehended fully only at the cost of undermining what currently counts as understanding." (21) Such epistemological openness is certainly pertinent to the literary, whose own resistance to paraphrase bespeaks its utter incommensurability with even the most responsive formulation. Dollimore propounds a self-deposing criticism always laboring at its own frontier.
Temperamentally unlikely to go in for mysterious Heideggerian gestures toward the ultimate mystery, he hunts after the intolerable rather than the ineffable. Or, more precisely, his argument is that some things are ineffable because they are intolerable; unamenable to the ordered system of reason, they're quite literally unspeakable, and to that extent they can't straightforwardly be thought at all. But it is just such things, Dollimore maintains, that come to vivid and unique life in art: "I disagree with Plato when he says that art does not tell the truth about reality (the deep truth). The kind of art I am describing might be said to undermine reason precisely because it searches for the deeper truth. Put another way, Plato wanted to ban art not because it told lies about reality, but because it refused his own censorship of the real" (SLC, 150). The question--what to do?--remains. Criticism laboring at its own frontiers must always point beyond itself toward the dissolutely threatening truth of art. This is the sort of criticism Dollimore has offered in recent work alongside his theoretical argument. Much of it, as we have seen, has been brilliantly illuminating, but it has also been somewhat short-winded. Dollimore has not, for instance, offered a full-length reading of a Shakespeare play recently.
Dollimore is moving away from criticism as it has been traditionally practiced. The other thing he could do, of course, is write creatively. Of the aesthetic where dangerous knowledge crosses with dissident desire, he has written--"One might promote this as a manifesto--as a demand for what art should be now"--and, unlike academics as a tribe, he's always been a talented writer (RT, xxiv). I've tried to indicate that his recent work has to be read partly aesthetically, because it is unusually concerned to adumbrate a vision, but also because its expressive densities and intellectual rhythms are basic to its meaning. Dollimore's style is also significant. His characteristic idiom is reticent, distinguished by salient and sustained syntactic and lexical brevity: it has snap. It's marked by a preference for natural language and, where necessary, a philosophical vocabulary distinguished by a tough concreteness as well as a skeptical and killing wit. But equally Dollimore is unbridled. Famously (or notoriously) sexually frank, he's been just as open about suicidal depression. And he flouts Anglo-American decorum in other ways as well: he's seriously interested in eros, religion, spirituality, and other such "deep" subjects, and his crisp and disciplined prose is permeable to passions of, for example, desire, solidarity, scorn, and hatred. The overall effect is of tension, a paradoxically passionate carefulness, struggled truth, exploding concentration.
Of course, the effect of all this taken together is of character. An irony of recent critical history is that it's been so preoccupied with subjectivity and yet so bare of the "subjectivity effect" itself. One of Dollimore's achievements is to have reflected and reflected on his own experience in a way that is a reminder of human self-experience as such, in all its quiddity, flux, and force, and of the sort of effects that reading--that is, really reading--can have upon identity. Although recent critics have been alert to the external conditioning of the self, they have been strangely indifferent to the subjective power of literature itself over the existentially susceptible and changing reading subject. I have commented already on Dollimore's powerful restraint, and it would be a mistake to see his self-revelation as in any way absolute or indulgent. The effect of passionate and even scandalous inwardness under such control as to be raised to representative, even symbolic power is reminiscent of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath. And perhaps we should also think of Rimbaud. Dollimore's life bears comparison with Rimbaud's in certain respects, but I'm more interested in the fact that Rimbaud's successive impulses to speak and be silent coexist in a fascinating and telling tension in Dollimore's work, which is reflective of the dialectic between freedom and restraint he writes about.
It may seem embarrassing to compare a critic to creative writers. But we've seen that Dollimore opposes art and criticism and gravitates to the former as a domain of secret and forbidden knowledge. After the attenuated abstractions of theory, criticism could learn much from art's embodied choreography of thought, its "musical" properties (of rhythm and of counterpoint) that are one with its subtle process of truth. Dollimore insists on the truth of art, but art's truth and credibility depends on form, and it is time for current criticism to pay more attention to its own formal processes. Dollimore's recent work persuades substantially because, as much in its style as in its content, it dramatizes its own struggle, but it is clear that Dollimore has the potential to go much further beyond conventional critical forms. I hope he will. Academic prose and production--from refereed journals, to career-making monographs, to textbooks--have become too exhaustively professionalized. If they lack experiential force and intensity, as Dollimore claims, that's partly owing to their standardized corporate forms. Dollimore calls for a more exposed encounter with literature. I believe the only way of fulfilling his demand is for criticism to come to resemble its subject more closely. There's a long way to go.
(1.) Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, 3rd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), xv. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text as RT followed by the page number.
(2.) See Jonathan Dollimore, Sex, Literature and Censorship (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 35. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text as SLC followed by the page number.
(3.) See also Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality , trans. R. J. Hollingdale, intro. Michael Tanner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 140-41.
(4.) See also Herman Hesse, If the War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics , trans. Ralph Manheim (London: Pan Books, 1974), 16-17.
(5.) See also Hesse, If the War Goes On, 11.
(6.) Ibid., 141.
(7.) See also W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, rev. and reset ed. (London: Faber, 1994).
(8.) See also Theodor W. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), 34.
(9.) See also George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (New York: Athenaeum, 1977), ix.
(10.) See also Steiner, Language and Silence, ix.
(11.) Jonathan Dollimore, afterword to Spiritual Shakespeares, ed. Ewan Fernie (New York: Rout]edge, 2005), 213. Hereafter referred to as "Afterword."
(12.) Ibid., 213-14.
(13.) See also Nietzsche, Daybreak, 140-41.
(14.) See also Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science [1882/1887], ed. B. Williams, trans. I. Nauckhoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 234.
(15.) All quotations are from The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisaman Mans (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997).
(16.) "Afterword," 217.
(17.) Ibid., 218.
(18.) I quote from the Authorized or King James Version.
(19.) Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 356.
(20.) See also James Baldwin, Another Country (London: Michael Joseph, 1963), 16.
(21.) "Afterword," 214.
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|Title Annotation:||sociologist Jonathan Dollimore|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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