Shakespeare’s body, Shakespeare’s ghost: erasure, canonicity, and the apophatic self

Andrew David King
September 22, 2012
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I’ll begin with a claim: that every text produces in its writer a sense of the self becoming unglued—that one creates, or expunges, meaning in the form of a literary work with the hope or sense that it will amount to something “of” oneself. Not a mimetic copy, per se—not a perfect replica of the “I,” if such were possible. But a shaving-off, maybe; some conception of the work in relation to the writer that is at once reflective and independent. What’s the nature of the string, if there is one, that ties them together? Memory, at least—memory facilitated by a notion of authorial ownership, a comprehensible though not necessarily clear conception that I’m me, and you’re you. Setting aside whatever one might say about someone else, about the “other,” I want to consider the relationship of an author with his or her work on the most primal level, one that doesn’t reference learned or absorbed models of authorship that we then ourselves adopt. I want to consider the act of poetic creation—which is, as so many of the erasures I’ve already examined seem to demonstrate, a more or less direct interpretation, appropriation, and editing—as an act of not just making language “separate” (taking out of the ineffable, almost incomprehensible store of meaning several particulars and designating them, however temporarily, as not part of the whole or of oneself) but of making the self separate as well. Lyn Hejinian, whose poetry and poetics have dealt so extensively with the materiality of objects, of perception, and of literature itself, once expressed this sensation with resounding clarity in the fifth edition of the publication Aerial: “I myself feel that the physical body is astoundingly alien—as if I had the amazing possibility of being intimate with my own otherness, which is an animal.” I’m not sure what part of that declaration is more interesting to me: the notion and state of “being intimate with my own otherness,” or its “animal” qualities—its profound rootedness in what Jack Spicer would call “thing language,” a term he uses as the title of a sequence of poems. (“No one listens to poetry. The ocean / Does not mean to be listened to,” one of those poems reads.) But perhaps more interesting than a consideration of the physical fact of our bodies engaging with the physical fact of language as well as its metaphysical un-facts, or a consideration of “one’s own otherness,” I think, is that Hejinian qualifies all of this as a possibility. It is not embedded, not automatic, but can be attained. And if it can be attained, then maybe there are strategies for attainment: does one think one’s way out of the box of the self, without conscious or active reference to the external world or the voices in it, or might one use others—other writers, other thinkers—as levers, as handholds to climb out of the self and view it, with the end goal of climbing back inside and wearing that skin, as it were, as one’s own?

I want to deal mainly with the second approach, though not because the first is definitively impossible (I think it might be misled, though certain lone and romantic geniuses might envision themselves as living it out in their voluntary isolation). And I want to look at the second approach through the lens of canonicity—those “elevated selves” (and “elevated shelves”) who, through both their own work and the work of many, many nameless others on their behalves, have been allowed and sometimes earned the privilege of a voice louder and larger than the rest. The canonized are at once human and inhuman, or superhuman; New Critical methodologies aside, we seem to be unable to cleanly parse their biographies from their poetries—or, at the very least, we seem too interested in the human-ness “behind” this very extra-human but human-possessed thing, which like us is both physical and extra-physical: language. Any English writer whose presence in the pantheon is more hyperreal than human, more theological than anthropological, would function as a good example. Take Shakespeare—both the man and his sonnets, which become the subject of Jen Bervin’s not-entirely-obliterating hand in her collection of sonnet erasures, Nets. There’s a human presence “behind” (again) the work, but one that we, despite our best scholarly efforts, seem unable to fully excavate; the question of whether or not Shakespeare actually was who he was believed to be for so many centuries is still being asked, though the commotion around it is more a rustle than a clamor. The answer to that particular question, anyhow, is not the point: the point is contained in the impossibility of its answer. In reaching out to other literary selves to engage with them—ostensibly “through” their texts, or coextensively with their texts—one could say that we seek humanness, but that the flavor of the humanness we seek, called biography, is obscured by the mediating text. What’s relied on for connection and conduction is that which bars the circuit from completing. What the text prevents is a view toward what lies beyond it, but at the same time it blocks this view.

William Shakespeare

And how can one not “view” a writer whose works are as largely read as Shakespeare? I  remember my first encounters with his sonnets in my English classes as a high school sophomore, when the prose-like sensibility anchoring their prosody and semantics was still a mystifying, abstruse thing to me. But if one’s looking for “the self outside of the self,” so as to understand literary identity and then shape one’s own accordingly, why not go to the top of the canon? To its spires, to its crowns? It goes without saying that the works of Shakespeare “launched a thousand (literary) ships,” to appropriate Marlowe’s phrase, in the sense of emulation and competition: here was a new standard, a new vanguard,  something to judge with and be judged by. But the category of works I’m more interested in, in terms of erasure, are works that directly confront Shakespeare’s life and creations—either by tackling one or the other, one through the other, or both at once. Just as obviously, not everyone admires (or admired) the aesthetic, moral, or technical disposition of Shakespeare; Ron Silliman, in a 1984 interview in The Difficulties, spoke of Shakespeare as not being “very good” and as an example of what amounted to unproductive aesthetic indoctrination in American public education. George Orwell, in an essay on Leo Tolstoy’s notes on King Lear, quotes some of the Russian novelist’s most caustic quips: that Shakespeare demonstrates “a complete absence of aesthetic feeling,” that his texts “have nothing whatever in common with art and poetry,” that his tendencies were “of the lowest and most immoral [sort],” and that “he was not an artist” nor even “an average author.” Besides demonstrating the impossibility of critical unanimity, what these quotes from Tolstoy really emphasize is the falsification of the haloes over the heads of the canonized. Almost half a millennium after his death, we receive Shakespeare as we receive his poetic form, the sonnet: as an establishment, as something that, if not untouchable, resists our efforts to touch it. As something that bounces back from our proposed changes. There’s this other self—a dead writer—through which we might hope to gain the tools with which to forge our own selves; but looking toward the marble bust, so to speak, we see that it has already entered into such thing-ness as to be as “alien” to us as our own bodies, as Hejinian said. There is hardly any human there, and the material is too hard or even sacred to efface.

This, at least, is my impression of a first impression—my way of phrasing the experience of being daunted by the startlingly Brobdingnagian proportions of the works and lives of those preceding me, those whose names are more literary mantras that signifiers of individual personhoods. They have been inflated, in a sense—though this phrase makes it seem as if someone has actively undertaken the act of inflating when I think that it might be more accurate to say that this distance between the self of a canonized writer and the literary selves we hold (or aim to form) inflates it. These presences seem not smaller from a distance, as everything in the field of sight does, but larger; up close, we can observe the cracks, the fissures, the multiple valences, the digressions, the seams. The molecular structure, the atomic composition, of the work becomes more apparent. It hardly resolves itself, but the mystifying perplexity it once held, the frightening shadows it cast, are over—these veils are pulled off and its “thing”-ness is revealed instead. And though the writer may no longer live, as is the case with Shakespeare, the living and the dead speak the same language—inasmuch as the self can use text to perpetually speak, even when the body has ceased to be anything, has ceased even to exist. The search for the self that can be found embodied in projects which physically confront canonical texts can then be seen as something more, perhaps, than interrogations of their canonicity or frustrated attacks on their perceived status as works of art exempt from criticism because their worth has already been fully established.

A preliminary sampling of modern phrases originating from Shakespeare’s works (TRF_Mr_Hyde; Flickr/Creative Commons)

The avant-garde, as Stephen Broqua has pointed out in Jacket, has a minor history of confronting Shakespeare on the level of the text, and while I can’t speak to intentions or motivations—besides what the below-quoted writers might say or have said about their relationship with Shakespeare’s work prior to taking on their projects—I do think it at least somewhat plausible to say that these works, whether they were meant to or not, exhibit some sympathy toward Shakespeare as a sort of stand-in for the writer and his or her text in general: there is an observable affinity in form and structure, and a correspondent sympathy called for by that affinity. In other words, the materials and presentation of a large swath of the literary avant-garde is materially similar, in a basic sense, to the works of Shakespeare; and the act of turning toward a text to engage with it on any level, from the level of external analysis to the level of effacing the actual material of the page, can never be seen wholly as an affront. For to truly attempt to destroy a text is to eliminate its existence, and the unfortunate occurrence and recurrence of book burnings throughout history illustrates that there is a not insignificant quantity of people whose objectives are truly hostile and who hold no sympathy for the targeted text, however unfairly elevated or disparaged. It is with such a framework for situating these Shakespearean avant-garde works that I turn to Jen Bervin’s Nets, an erasure of a good amount of Shakespeare’s sonnets in which Bervin maintains a range of tones while fluctuating her technique to allow herself and Shakespeare’s self, respectively, to wane and emerge in turn. Instead of removing the text entirely and compressing the space between leftover words—as I’ve cited Matthea Harvey and David Dodd Lee as doing—or preserving the spatial structure of the page and allowing erased words to “hold their space” on the page despite being gone—as Janet Holmes and Ronald Johnson have done—these works take a different tack altogether: they ape the eye’s focus by bolding the selected words and dimming those meant to be “excluded” from the work. Here, Shakespeare’s third sonnet receives just such a treatment:

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

We have, in other words, not the ghost of the ghost of the text, which is what Holmes or Johnson—whose works give us evidence that a word was there once upon a time, but which refuse to give us any indication of what, precisely, the word was—but the actual ghost of the text. Like the popular conception of a ghost as a figure dressed in long white sheets who is an apparition of a given body (a mimetic representation), Bervin’s erasure (if we can call it that—what gets erased, actually?) flickers between the image of the object—in this case, a text-object—and the object itself. Each points toward the same “original,” but the representation is, as a symbolic device, necessarily removed from that original; the bolded words give the sense that they’re rising out of the text, almost Phoenix-like, the grayed lines that cushion them being the ashes of some other existence. The bolded, fractured fragments of verse that emerge are not so much an independent new self, though, as much as they constitute a self inside another self. It may always be the case with literary lineage that authors are, in some way, encapsulated by the traditions of their predecessors and the language they encounter at birth, but even if this isn’t so, Bervin’s modification of Sonnet 3 belies this conceptualization of inheritance: authorial intention emerges literally within the source, and is placed in such close relation to it it’s difficult to tell if the bolded text is really “rising out of the text,” as I said before, or if it’s struggling to sustain its own differentiation. It seems, rather, impossible to tell which option is the right one—or more accurate to say that both hold; the words continue to rise out although they can never fully sever the umbilical cord tying them to Sonnet 3, and Sonnet 3 continues to restate its historical precedence by reclaiming those words, by pulling back on them with the leash-like gravity their wholeness commands.

The word “you” appears frequently in Bervin’s Nets as an atavism of Shakespearean address; many of the poems incorporate it, which is both unexceptional—the source text has so many instances of “you”—and intriguing: why choose to emphasize something already in the source text itself if an at least general, oblique goal of effacing, modifying, or erasing a work of literature is to differentiate oneself from it and thereby provide a differentiated lens through which to see it? Many of these pieces offer fleeting (even pithy) inversions, extrusions, and expropriations of Shakespeare’s original language or sense: “count the / trees / green… girded up in sheaves” (Sonnet 12); “the stars / the selfsame sky / for love of you” (Sonnet 15); “hours / and / bareness / distill / their substance” (Sonnet 5). Livid political comment even forces its way into the collection; Sonnet 55 reads, “sluttish / wasteful war / you / wear this world out.” Though a re-envisioning of Shakespearean syntax and a unmistakable updating of the sonnets to the present day seem to be two of Bervin’s main modes in Nets, a good number of the poems seemingly comment on the process that generated them. The remaining texts of Sonnet 49 (“mine own desert, / this hand against myself”), Sonnet 64 (“loss loss”), Sonnet 68 (“map / the / shorn away”), Sonnet 69 (“that mend / farther then / measure”), and Sonnet 96 (“those errors / translated for true”) all appear to comment, either directly or indirectly, on the methodology, ethos, and effects of the practice of literally effacing the text of a preceding author—in this case a foremost literary giant, a founder of the modern English canon—to create (if “creation” is still an acceptable term) one’s own works. There is, in other words, a pull in two directions. On the one hand, many of Bervin’s erasures seem to resemble plants whose roots are being pulled from the earth by their stems; with these erasures, Shakespeare’s influence seems more active than latent, more an influence than a conduit. But on the other hand there exists a non-trivial quantity of erasures that insist on using their reality as poems to speak about their poem-ness. This is noteworthy because it allows, potentially, for more meta-level revelations about the process of receiving and dispensing literary inheritance. Though this isn’t to say that these poems “about” methodology put forth hypotheses in the sense of notions the author is committed to, or that they even shed any light whatsoever on authorial intention—they emphasize, rather, that Bervin’s employment of erasure or “lifting” the text from Shakespeare’s sonnets (because they rely on variances in ink opacity to distinguish what’s “erased” and what’s “leftover” for the reader) is a self-conscious act. It is not, as many avant-garde critics might argue about more mainstream work, largely unaware of the constraints and parameters of its activities or their consequences.

Bervin isn’t the only author to toy with Shakespeare’s sonnets via erasure, however loosely defined. In 1989, poet Stephen Ratcliffe published his own series of sonnet erasures, [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANG. As Vincent Broqua notes in his article in Jacket, Ratcliffe borrowed the phrase “writing through” to describe the process of encountering the poems, and mining “new” poems from them, from John Cage; what’s not clear is whether or not “writing through” should be taken to mean “writing out of,” or “writing within,” etc.—if the author ever achieves (though I suppose his own ideation of his achievement is immaterial to critics) an upward “escape” from the text, if such an escape is desirable, if such an escape demarcates a new, individuated space via a textual disembowelment of one of the canon’s most prominent figures. Ratcliffe went through the sonnets and underlined words he wanted to keep as opposed to blacking out those he didn’t want; the final product truly erases, in the sense of Ronald Johnson and Janet Holmes (whose works I’ve written about before on this blog), the unwanted text from the final product while preserving its spatial placement, i.e. the erased text is removed as text but continues to exist as space: nothing can inhabit the plot it had staked out on the page. Ratcliffe’s “writing through” of Shakespeare’s sonnets produces a cumulative effect very similar to that of Bervin’s work. As Broqua states, Ratcliffe’s reading (as he terms it) of the sonnets “weaves other threads, suggesting that millions of other poems are contained in the density of Shakespeare’s text and that we hear all these poems at once, though they are never revealed explicitly.” Though in the case of each particular erasure they are revealed explicitly—one possible semantic and sonic inheritance out of the near-infinite permutations is made clear. To demonstrate, I want to examine a passage from [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANG, Ratcliffe’s erasure of Sonnet 61:

Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near

For an erasure, Ratcliffe’s work takes on a surprising numerical consistency: it adheres to some sort of fourteen-line structure, even as it spreads starfish-like across the page. Despite its spatial jaggedness, its usage of one- or two-word phrases lends each individual line a vague sense of symmetrical affinity with the other lines in terms of length. Interesting, too, is its thematic affinity to Shakespeare’s poem—which, as I noted in the case of Bervin, isn’t always something to be surprised at, but is interesting if only because it represents i) an intentional inclusion of pre-existing themes or ii) the inescapability of those themes. The first two lines of the sonnet read: “Is it thy will thy image should keep open / My heavy eyelids to the weary night?” A reference, one learns if one reads to the fourteenth line, to love’s anxiety. But it might as well be a paean-cum-lamentation to literary genetics: it is “thy image” that tortures the speaker, whose responseless addressee is also, via “image,” made body-less or secondhand. Like Ratcliffe’s erasure, the addressee in Shakespeare’s poem is a ghost of sorts, one that manages to arise even in the ghost of Shakespeare’s text (a less present ghost than Bervin’s because, unlike the specter she permits to be present, the source text is removed from Ratcliffe’s pages). The “anxiety of influence,” to loosely paraphrase Harold Bloom, is what both torques the literary impulse and drives it forward—a notion correspondent to Eliot’s thesis about the canon rearranging itself in relation to a new talent, and that new talent being itself determined in one or multiple ways by that canon. The “ghost-ness,” then, is dialectical; on one end it is the canonized who are the ghosts, the physically dead, and on the other hand it is those writing in the present who look like phantoms, living as they must in the shadows of those giants. In the hands of both Ratcliffe and Bervin, even the unit of the word is subject to elision and modification: “thee” becomes “the”; “ear” emerges from “weary.” Parts of speech encode other parts of speech, just as poems encode other poems. To get some sense of the multiplicity one sonnet—Sonnet 61—can contain, allow me to cite Bervin’s treatment of it in Nets:

Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake    
       elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

For two poets both “writing through” (if we take Ratcliffe at his word) one of the most common received forms in English poetry, the sonnet, Ratcliffe and Bervin manage to arrive at almost spectacularly different conclusions. Or unspectacular ones: as Broqua writes, and as is true of either case, “some of the words and syllables from Shakespeare’s sonnets are left to their vibration, just as our memory sometimes retains a few words from a text and allows them to echo.” “Our memory” is the phrase used here in a general sense, but it implies relentless specificity. I cannot read the poem you read, nor can you read the poem I read, even though we’re faced with the same set of black ink marks on the same white page. So perhaps it is not shocking that the results of these two erasures of Sonnet 61 are so disparate. But their disparateness is worth noticing. Whereas Ratcliffe opts for consistency in the length of the words, phrases, and syllables he excerpts, Bervin’s edits produce a tension between the beginning and end of the poem by “leaving out” its middle; whereas Bervin seems to summarize some of the main points of the “plot” of this sonnet, however intentionally or not, Ratcliffe seems to have found a new and disordered system of percepts out of which emerges some vaguely familiar thematic affiliation. Most crucially, perhaps, is the difference in the methodologies of treating the “excluded” text, for in Bervin’s case the source text is never really excluded, only dimmed; with Ratcliffe, the text becomes, as I’ve written before, the “ghost of a ghost,” and the only proof that a given selection from [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANGis an erasure of Shakespeare comes from our store of tattooed-on knowledge about Shakespeare’s prior-determined importance.

Stephen Ratcliffe’s erasure of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 61

In either case, it is the weight of the excluded that lends these works so much of their odd gravity—and by this I mean the excluded text within particular poems as well as those texts that were excluded in a much more pervasive sense from the annals of English literature. There is a sense, both in Nets and in [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANG, of the fundamental incompleteness of even the purportedly complete; a sense that Shakespeare’s sonnets are but temporal snapshots of a constant transaction between the whole of language and an individual author. (All of this is complicated, of course, by Shakespeare’s immense, almost non-human, reputation, which bears its own patina of being beyond improvement and refinement, and inhabiting some un-editable realm.) And what is outside of the frames of these snapshots will be as much of interest to us as what’s inside. In his study of, as Stephen Orgel says, “what does not happen in Hamlet”—or, more accurately, what happens offstage or is implied in dialogue—Ratcliffe takes on precisely this idea. Reading the Unseen reads Hamlet as an instrument of its own apophasis: not undertaking the surely-impossible task of delineating itself but efficiently and sophisticatedly referencing the reader to its outline until the object at hand becomes apparent via silhouette. In that book-length meditation, Ratcliffe considers the visuality of the theater in comparison to the experience of reading on the page—reading “as a form of looking at pictures.” He agrees with art critic and scholar T.J. Clark when he writes in Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism that “the moment of maximum visual information in a picture is that at which the object goes out of sight,” and so it becomes clear how authorial absence, or the struggle against such an absence, can in fact be an enlightening one. Most important, perhaps, is the parallel Ratcliffe sets up between “reading in the play” as a motif and a random individual’s “reading of the play” as a literary object here, in the world of readers and not of characters. He suggests that “the physically ‘missing’ offstage action about which we as readers and audience can only speculate may be understood in relation to the ghostly presence of the ‘missing’ author, ‘Shakespeare’ himself, who is indeed also ‘offstage,’ about whom we know so little other than his words…” Like Broqua, Ratcliffe is very much interested in how Shakespeare the man is present, absent, or ghoulishly present (a sort of absent presence) in a contemporary consideration or presentation of his works. He characterizes Shakespeare’s written words as “all we have to ‘show’ us who Shakespeare the man really was, that person who has disappeared into his words despite an engraved image on the First Folio’s title page…” And that man, as Broqua points out in his article, “Living-with Shakespeare,” seemed to insist on his relevance but also (and perhaps contradictorily) on his immutability; his headstone is quoted to read as follows, though Broqua begins by asking “What if Shakespeare were dead?”:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

“It therefore seems that the angst of the future readers is inscribed in the very diction of the dead and that the deceased speaks in the future of their text,” he observes afterward. He goes on to talk of the frustration of American and British poets in the wake of hyper-canonical figures, “baffled as they are by an author who, it is often supposed, has written everything because he is the essence of all literature, the universal oeuvre, or, in other words, the untouchable body.” If this hyper-canonicity possesses an almost a theological aura—one such that any attempt to efface or alter it would be, as Broqua says, viewed merely as jealously from those unable to face “the timeless grandeur of his genius”—then questioning it takes on devilish connotations: “cursed be he that moves” those bones. But even for Shakespeare, whose narcissism seems apparent in the self-references of his work. (Bervin, playing into this, erases Sonnet 135 to include every instance of “will”/“Will” in the poem; there are thirteen, and she dedicates her project to him—another tongue-in-cheek move.) But though the premise of the canon might be based on the idea of its selections lasting through prolonged periods of time, and hopefully through history and all its changing tastes, there are also apertures—weaknesses that let in the possibility of revision. Once these are pinned down, the bones must move, whether at the hands of another poet or by their own looseness. Harryette Mullen, in her 2002 collection Sleeping with the Dictionary, takes on the obstruction that the lyric voice experiences at its own behest: how the speaker of the sonnets must face the reality of the limited vocabulary, audibility, and efficacy of (presumably) his own incantation. She “rewrites,” one could say, Sonnet 130, which begins:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

At the lyric “I”’s very outset is a disavowal of positive description, which is traded for affirmation by way of negation, comparison, and if-then statements instead. Out of this, Mullen crafts a poem that corresponds almost entirely to Shakespeare’s on the level of the line, while simultaneously excising the source text of its pretense to lyric and the delicateness of its tone. Here are the first four sentences of “Dim Lady,” which ditches the iambic pentameter for the lush sonic smorgasbord that modern-day colloquialism, slang, and metonym:

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin.

The literary community has long considered Shakespeare with shares of admiration and ire, but mostly from a distance; such abrasive (and here I mean “abrasive” in the sense of effacement and confrontation, not petulance or offensiveness) poems as those by Ratcliffe, Bervin, and Mullen all demonstrate a sustained interest in moving closer to the Shakespearean text and thereby, perhaps, moving closer to the body or the self behind it. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on “Historical criticism” cites the 2001 Handbook of Biblical Criticism by Richard N. Soulen et al. as containing a foremost, if reductive, point about its approach: to hunt down and uncover the “world behind the text.” Presuming that there is such a world behind the text, and that it is separate from the world of the text, is a frequent but not unproblematic assumption (I imply “problematic” here not as a value judgment but as one might describe a paradox; I don’t intend to create, as of yet, a hierarchy that either vindicates or shuns so-called historical criticism). It seems, moreover, to be a question of time—and a particular question of time, at that: time on a larger scale. Not time within the temporal scale of the text, if there is one, and certainly not the time created by the reader’s linear (and lineated) engagement with it. But time in the sense of accrual and of solidification. What these works achieve are a few noble steps back toward the dissolution that must and will occur anyway should Shakespeare not turn out (as he inevitably will) to be the “untouchable body” Broqua hints he’s seen as. But the consideration of him as just such a body runs through centuries of English criticism. Edward Young, in his 1759 work Conjectures on Original Composition, asserted that “Shakespeare gave us a Shakespeare, nor could the first in antient [sic] fame have given us more! Shakespeare is not their son, but brother; their equal; and that, in spite of all his faults” [italics in original]. More than one hundred years later, John Dryden, in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, speaks through his character Neander to say that Shakespeare “was the man who of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul,” lending the Bard of Avon the privilege of ahistoricity, the power to wander through—and be judged higher than—other epochs. All of this despite the resemblances Hamlet bears to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and before any of the above authors could see the way a handful of Shakespeare’s plays (Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, and Hamlet) become fodder for T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land—a poem that includes, in its last few lines, a reference to the subtitle of the Tragedy (“Hieronymo’s mad againe”). And so the circle turns again.

What becomes of the “you” in all of this—and what, by extension, becomes of the “I,” that lyric stronghold that stands in for the body-less self of the writer on the page? “How are we to know that person whose eye/‘I’ looks out from the title page of the First Folio, whose words fill pages?” Ratcliffe asks in Reading the Unseen. What of this, especially when the words “take on a life of their own,” independent of their author? Bervin seems to want for the same ahistorical privilege Shakespeare and his texts enjoy (but separately), and says as much in her erasures: Sonnet 22 is made to read, “I am / of one date / in time’s furrows”—and 122, “Beyond all date / bold.” Constant passage and stillness, the stillness of the printed text anesthetized on the page, are not mutually exclusive concepts. It is in their transaction, as in the emptied parenthetical of Sonnet 35 that Bervin leaves hanging like two hands cupped and empty, that the possibility of carving out a niche for the new self is realized. Language blockades, but it also facilitates this transition: “Wanting to know the man behind the text,” Ratcliffe writes, “we instead find language: blank, oblique, evasive, impenetrable, the surface ‘I’ embodies but will not explain.” But perhaps the self is as fluctuant a thing as the possible interpretations its left-behind (and just as readily inherited) materials offer. Perhaps this blankness and obliqueness is not a permanent obstruction but a slate on which other sentences, today’s sentences, might be written. The process of composition roots itself in decomposition, and vice versa—of text and body alike. And so “writing through” a segment of the canon, as Ratcliffe has, reveals more porosity than is present in an initial survey, during which the eyes of its marble busts seem veneered and impenetrable. The title of Ratcliffe’s collection of erasures provides readers with a reliable indication of what to expect in terms of technique, but Bervin’s is this hypothesis unto itself: Nets connotes a detainment and a release that happen at the same time. The old bodies—the text-bodies, the bodies of text, as we call them, which may not be altogether unlike the psychological entities we seek in others and seek, also, to own—dissolve into water, and the bits of them that catch we call ourselves.

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