It is often quite obvious why a particular text speaks to us in a particularly powerful way at a particular time in our lives. As with anything human, however, the reasons might be obvious, but they are not always clear or clearly linear. We might be sad and look to something uplifting; or we might seek to find consolation in something that mirrors our melancholy.

I have no wish to parade the details of my own recent, continuing and sometimes crippling grief here, but I have been thinking a lot about why certain texts have touched me so profoundly of late and why others have left me cold -- left me, that is, how they found me and offered me no way out of my grief nor any way into themselves with the concomitant comfort that that might gift.

My grief has been all the usual and varied colours of sadness and madness. It has been searing, voluptuous, numbing. I foresaw that it would be -- I have been unhappy, unsettled, unbalanced before (who has not?). I did not foresee that, this time, for much of the time that I was most antic and most lost, most peculiarly undone, I would have taken from me (I would, I suppose, take away from myself) that which had always been of such solace to me. Quite simply, I could not read.

The chapter and verse of what caused this unsettling self-loss, all the tawdry trivia that led me to lose one of the things that has always been one of the anchors by which I keep myself tethered and focussed, are of no importance. But I lost much, not least my home (not my house, this is not a tale of financial woe, corruption or swindling) and my "girls" (my beloved dogs, who now live away from me and with my family) and more besides. These are quotidian losses: people lose more than I lost everyday. Indeed, my loss is hardly fully loss: it is a subtraction of excess tied to a form of self-imposed internal exile. These are slender removals, unrare ravages, commonplace catastrophes. They are, in truth, unworthy of comment or further delay.

Moving away, I presumed a royal road, if not to health, at least to non-grief. I hoped some enforced quiet would allow time for restorative reflection and, almost the same but not wholly synonymous, time for reading. But I could not read. I could not settle. I could not sit still. I could not read. (I could, as ever, drink -- and drink I did.) Later, when I could settle, when I could sit still... still, I could not read. I became adept at staring into space. I hadn't realised it was such a skill. I did not realise that it could become something so exceptionally honed. I never imagined it could be preferred over anything and everything; most especially, over reading. But sitting still and staring is not a story. So I shall move past my unmoving, and move on.

In early December, I picked up a cheap paperback copy of "Hamlet". I'd never read "Hamlet" nor even seen it performed. The play has such cultural weight that a presumption of familiarity is attributed to anyone who might by considered by others to be "well read" (or some such). But the play -- the play that Harold Bloom calls a "poem unlimited" -- had almost wholly passed me by.

I'm not sure why I picked it up. I'm not sure why of the countless books in my book-lined, book-overloaded little flat, this tatty copy of "Hamlet" suggested itself as the book that might awaken me to books. But it did. And it did so insistently. You will all, I'm sure, know the outlines of the story of "Hamlet" better than I did. And, surely, unconsciously, half-consciously, I knew that something in the story of Elsinore's Prince would unsettle my settled misery, would unencumber me of grief's sometimes comforting carapace, would make me aware that my own madness was merely the mildest confusion, a pale mania, cousin to mourning but a distant relation worthy of consideration but not the insistent indulgence I had been giving it.

Hamlet runs ahead of Hamlet. And the rest of the players are, at least, two steps further behind. Why does the Prince overmourn a father it seems likely that he loved dutifully and diligently but not excessively? The Fool Yorick gave him more love as a child than did his uxorious, unfatherly father. It was Yorick who played with him ("He hath borne me on on his back a thousand times") and Yorick who received the child Prince's tender love ("those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft"). And why does the Prince bait and berate Ophelia? Unable to love her, it seems, and able only to play with her feelings (played, perhaps, and perturbed, for sure, by his own feelings) and then able to put on a play for her, Claudius and the court, a play that seems to suggest that our several performances of our own, presumed self-same selves are always aware of an audience and are doubly inauthentic -- to our never self-same selves and to those hypocrite lecteurs ever beyond and baying.

Hamlet is a study in the negotiation we each make with the (in)authenticity of our self, and our grief, and with what that self loses even as it becomes more madly itself via the very losses it witnesses and articulates. Further, we witness the loss that articulation itself is -- and non-articulation too: Ophelia's madness leads to her early ruination and death, and to one of the play's most beautiful set-pieces in Gertrude's speech about her drowning. We witness ambiguous double-binds and, binding, rooted ambiguity.

In my own minimal madness, I read "Hamlet" and I heard Hamlet call. Heard him speak to himself, of himself and half-realise he could hardly keep up with even that utterly, definitionally, self-limiting performance. I realised, along with Hamlet, lesserly, that my own disquiet was perforce undone by its (limited) creativity and coherence: the coherence of my incoherence mocked my incoherence. But, better, more simply, I read. I sat still and I read. And I read some more.

It turns out that almost every other line in "Hamlet" one already knows. The play reads like a sourcebook to all that has been written since. Bloom suggests that Shakespeare invented the human (a sense of the secular, self-questioning subject). I doubt that. Hamlet uninvents the (notion of a) coherent self even as the most fully human character the stage has ever seen steps forth -- at the birth of subjectivity, Hamlet, our extreme contemporary, shows the subject to be a kind of fiction. Hamlet validates and allows for the self's self-incoherence; the undoing of the self is the self's own self-making. My local madness will pass. Our general madness will not. Something comforting therein is almost claimed.

Readers Comments

  1. Michael Richards Thursday 14 January 2010

    This post stopped me in my tracks. Those of us who look at thousands of words a day in our working life - often important and moving words in the glamorous world of publishing as well as the humdrum wash of e-mails and memoranda - can become a little blasé about words and about reading. However this post gets to the heart of why we read. Even more, it points to the power of art which is all too easy to forget these days. Without hyperbole, it reminded me of the scene in Henry James' 'Portrait of a Lady' where Isabel Archer drops her 'secret sadness' into the ruins of Rome, and begins to come to terms with her life and all that has happened to her. Thank you for such a thoughtful post and continued good fortune for your own journey back.

  2. matt (mountain7) Thursday 14 January 2010

    Great post, Mark. And I hope you are well, and working with and against what ails you.


  3. Lovely piece.

  4. Thanks for this moving post - particularly since I once had a similar experience of picking up a tattered copy of Hamlet and starting to read it for no good reason. And I remember the same uncanny realisation that I already knew half the lines despite the fact that I'd never read it or ever seen it performed. And the same curiosity about the intense subjectivity and interiority of the text, countering the prevailing notion that these things are somehow the mark of post-enlightenment romanticism and modernism.

  5. Life is so bloody hard sometimes. I'm so pleased you're finding a way through. Here's to words, or whatever works. Thinking of you, Mark.

  6. This is a truly moving piece of writing, Mark. Hamlet has been a touchstone for me throughout my life, for myriad reasons, high and low. I salute you.


  7. My introduction to Hamlet was this Winter, too. Pleb that I am, I didn't read it, I saw the BBC/RSC production on telly. I too was moved and surprised by the play, and felt very glad to have seen it.
    It's good to read you back on form in your natural habitat, Mark. Hope to catch a pint with you soon.

  8. You are brave and generous in writing this piece, Mark.
    All good wishes to you.

  9. Your post strikes a chord with me, and I imagine with many readers. Reading is a difficult thing, at the same time as being an easy thing. The words on the page are simple - our brains process them automatically - but together they become, in the form of a novel or a play or a poem, something only our heart (or our soul or our spirit or however we want to signify our unnameable, unquantifiable humanity) can read. I suppose this means that, sometimes, we have to read the thing our heart/soul/spirit needs to heal itself before we can move forward.

    Here is hoping for a fruitful 2010. :-)

  10. This was such a moving piece of writing that, as Michael says, made me pause and breathe and read it in a new and sharper way.

    Sending good wishes your way


  11. What a moving post Mark. I'm glad you found something to bring you back to reading, and I hope you continue to overcome your 'local madness'.

    Kirsty x

  12. Chris Routledge Friday 15 January 2010

    You may have forgotten how to read, but you sure as Hell haven't forgotten how to write. Here's to a 2010 of writing and reading.

    I hated 2009 as well. Glad it's gone.

    Best wishes

  13. What an extraordinary and poignant post, Mark. It moved me so much, as does the person, the thinker, the critic behind it. That would be you. And I think if not for literature, I, too, wouldn't know how, not feel so alone in my madness, also!

  14. didn't realise that things had gone pear shaped for you. Sometimes we forget the things that words can do. Thanks for bringing that home again.

  15. Beautiful post Mark. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Here's Tolstoy:
    "Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here."

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