Afterthoughts: Week 6

Our question this session was about telling time in Hamlet, and we began with an exercise: what are the times we can recognize in Hamlet’s greeting to Ophelia, after the “to be or not to be” soliloquy: “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.” Jackie started us off with a problem that would haunt us all afternoon, how Hamlet projects into the future an injunction to remember the past; this projection felt both entirely ordinary and quite strange, and related to many of the play’s problems about remembering, promising, swearing. That you must remember a promise seems to cross up our tenses badly; a problem that arises only when you think about it, but that, once you have thought about it, is hard to dispel. Scott pulled out a couple of words, “nymph” and “sins,” observing that they were from different registers, classical and Christian, and that their adjacency might speak to a particular historical moment. “Orisons” would serve as well as “sins,” and it had a more sacramental, Catholic association in Reformation England. The EEBO ngram generator suggests that “nymph” is coming into wider currency ca. 1599 (as a commonplace of humanist-inflected poetry) and “orison” going out. We also talked about what Nevalainen calls the “core vocabulary”—“be,” “my” etc.—and wondered if they were words without time. The syntax, in its mild disruption of SVO word order, seemed mildly backward looking. (More about such syntactical matters next week.) What to make of it all? Is this student of Reformation Wittenberg ironically committing himself to a Catholic prayer-custom; is his latest sin the very address, “nymph”? What if we were to take Hamlet out of it—what time-music would we be left with? Is there some pleasing, or just attention-getting, dissonance in the juxtaposition of these temporalities? In the sentence’s out-of-phaseness with itself? (Like Steve Reich? Well, not really, but still…)

From there, I did a riff on some influential recent thinking on the polychronic (the simultaneity of different times) and the multitemporal (the juxtaposition of different kinds of time, ways of reckoning it). I cited Bruno Latour (We Have Never Been Modern) and Michel Serres (a good place to start is Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, with Latour). I offered my coffee cup as an example, its ancient form, its more recent design (Japanese? Or not really?), its clayey stuff, the signs of use and wear—an object that collates a variety of different historical moments. It has been a tendency of such thinking about time to focus on material objects. What does it get us if we apply it to words?

From there the conversation forked, as I remember it; one line having roughly to do with literary attention, the other with polychronic language. The attention conversation was asking about the possibility, and the value, of developing such a sensitivity about any particular moment of the past, any moment not our own. Can you use technical means, such as we have adopted, to attain something like the feel you have for the music of your own lifetime, its stylistic affinities and schisms? What will that attention be like? I mentioned F. R. Ankersmit’s Sublime Historical Experience, which understands such transport to the past, the feeling of being then, as being the basic motive of historical inquiry. Is that what we are up to? Or might be?

There was some interesting talk, too, about what we’re interested in when we are attending to multiple temporalities—are they coequal, a free collation, Jeewon asked; or are they always interesting in relation to some particular moment, the moment when the thing was made, the text written? The historicist project tends to identify that moment of emergence and understand the other times in relation to that moment. So, if there is a medieval strain in Hamlet, our interest is in the play’s medievalism, its attitude toward that part of itself, where the “itself” is understood to be situated in 1599. That’s the usual historicist project, and nothing wrong with it—it could nearly be said to be constitutive of humanism—but we noted that there are alternatives out there, which allow those different times a freer relationship to one another, free in particular from chronology and from cause and effect. Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” is interesting here—his sense of the emancipatory potential of historical connections that defy or exceed historiographical narrative. Benjamin is more interested, perhaps, in the frictions and irruptions of the polychronic and what they can provoke in the present (more interested than Ankersmit, who wants to be, as Bottom might put it, translated).

Mary brought us back to Hamlet by observing that Hamlet’s scene with Yorick’s skull puts him eye to eye with a polychronic object. Maybe this is a moment to make a quick list of the various kinds of word-time we encountered. (We were mostly concerned with words; syntax next week!)

  • Archaisms (which can be per Munro both nostalgic and forward looking).

  • Neologisms (ditto, and which depend so much on what they’re made from: from Latin? from a European vernacular? by means of affixes? compounding? grand style or inkhornism? etc. etc.).

  • Particular allusions or stylistic affinities, e.g. to Chaucer (and what Chaucer? Theseus’s nobility or choice words from Troilus for the courtier?).

  • Sententiae (with their classical pedigree, but also their smell of the lamp) and proverbs (with their folk-time, common wisdom, orality).

  • The different temporalities of genre (to which Mary N introduced “epic time”).

  • The temporality of the lifespan, especially childhood (impatience? impulsiveness?) and age; they have their idioms.

  • Speed and delay, with particular attention to the way in which some characters (Polonius, the Player King) can filibuster; there were some interesting remarks about wasting time.

  • Versification: the clear old-fashionedness of the play-within-a-play; and we were starting to see changes in enjambment etc. that seemed to be a real departure from the verse of the earlier plays. Especially in Hamlet himself…

Andrew and John led us into some passages where we could explore these times; the imitations, after the break, brought us to the “rugged Pyrrhus” speech (again Mary’s “epic time,” which seems to be so particular to that episode). There was some great Virgil, Chaucer, and a final prophecy of the eighteenth century.

At some point I asked, in a somewhat gnomic way (gnomic, at least, to myself), is anyone ever present in this play? What would it mean to be present? Maybe we can take that question up next time.

Leave a Reply