Saturday, February 21, 2009

Quote of the Day: Mark van Doren

The end of comedy is self-parody, and its wisdom is self-understanding. (Mark van Doren, Shakespeare 67)

With this line, Mark van Doren writes about the play within a play, "Pyramus and Thisbe" within A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Pyramus and Thisbe," however, does not really parody A Midsummer Night's Dream so much as it does his slightly earlier play, Romeo and Juliet. Parodying his highly successful early tragedy on love within the hall-of-mirrors comedy, van Doren claims, Shakespeare has reached a new level of self-awareness as a poet, seeing that the whole is greater than the parts. This whole is not just the play itself with the parts being the various characters, the various soliloquies or exchanges and poetic reflections, but the play itself is the part within the whole of plays; one play as a single entity interacting with all other possible plays, latent or actualized, by the poet himself, who is just one part of another greater whole:

Never again will her work without a full comprehension of the thing he is working at; of the probability that other and contrary things are of equal importance; of the certainty that his being a poet who can do anything he wants to do is not the only thing to be, or the best possible thing; of the axiom that the whole is greater than the part--the part in his instance being one play among many thinkable plays, or one man, himself, amogn the multitude that populate the world for whose size and variety he with such giant strides is reaching respect. (ibid.)

Mark van Doren interests me. He was originally from a small town in Illinois and then came to Columbia to become one of its preeminent literature professors. He was one of the early pushers of the "great books" movement. So, in a way, my life mirrors his (from small town in Illinois to Columbia) and has influenced mine (I now teach Literature Humanities, which is the result of his promotion of the great books movement). And his brother, Carl van Doren, wrote a spectacular biography of Benjamin Franklin, which I used in my undergraduate honors thesis. In some ways, my intellectual journey has taken me from Carl to Mark, which is only natural since my own writing oscillates from history to literature without thinking I should ever choose between them.

Mark van Doren was especially known to be an outstanding teacher--I believe that hte highest award for teaching excellence at Columbia is named for him. After taking a class with van Doren, Jack Kerouac decided that literature and writing might be a more worthwhile pursuit than football. He also taught Thomas Merton and many other later writers and poets. Van Doren writes very beautifully as he moves between probabilities, certainties, and axioms. His work, Shakespeare, is a joy to read because van Doren's prose about Shakespeare sings perfectly in counterpoint to Shakespeare's poetry. It has a spontaneity about it. You can hear him speaking to his students, almost as in a moment of pedagogical inspiration, through this book as he gives short bursts of meditations on each of Shakespeare's plays as well as his poems.

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