25 October 2008

In Defence of Sidney

To Maggie, this in spite of myself!
To Samarth Chandola, the only one who believes the author is still alive!
“I just want to make you guys aware of other interpretations.”

Interpretations. Interrogations. Connotations. Analyses. Criticism.


Why? Why do we always have to analyse, critically comment on, discuss with reference to the text every single piece of literature that we come across? Why! Why! WHY!

OK, I know I’m being too passionate, too warm for the cold, rational, balanced critic that I’m supposed to be, that of all of us Literature students are supposed to be. I know I’m letting my emotions unhinge me, that they’re making me narrow minded and with every passing alphabet clouding my judgement. I know too that you, you being the immaculate critic, just smirked maliciously at this and possibly dismissed this as the ravings of a completely deranged lunatic. Yeah, yeah, I know that.

But still, why?

Why can’t we for once let a work, or ‘text’ as we prefer calling it, be? Is it that big a crime to take things at their face value, to dismiss a complex derivation when a simple when will suffice?

“No, that cannot be!”, our critics will cry. It is the critic’s job to dispel illusions, to push back the boundaries of darkness and illumine reality with all its complex paraphernalia of layers and overtones and so on. To accept things as they are will be to give in to mortal temptation- that we cannot do; nay, we must constantly rise above and have nothing but the bare, stark, cold truth.

And when it comes to something as artificial as romantic sonnets, we certainly cannot do with anything else.

The way we critics rave and rant-hold your horses critical reader!-about interpretations and connotations and what not is enough to make me feel sorry for Sir Philip Sidney, the English Petrarch. Poor fellow painstakingly composed a series of 108 sonnets and 11 songs and what does posterity judge him as?

A clever versifier, a shrewd manipulator, an ambitious aristocrat...

Anything but a sorrowful lover.

History tells us that Sidney started writing Astrophil and Stella in 1581, after the marriage of his childhood love Penelope Devereux-whose father’s last wish too had been for her to marry him-to Lord Rich. Is it so very unnatural for a man to lament the marriage of his life-long beloved to another? For him to escape thus into fantasy with his grief and there attempt, as best as he could have, to express all the ramifications of his love in words? Consider the following…
“The first that straight my fancy’s error brings
Unto my mind is Stella’s image, wrought
By Love’s own self, but with so curious draught
That she, methinks, not only shines but sings.”

And these…
“True that on earth we are but pilgrims made
And should in soul up to our country move
True, yet true that I must Stella love.”
And these...
“Peace, foolish wit! with wit my wit is marr’d
Thus write I while I doubt to write and wreak
My harms in ink’s poor loss. Perhaps some find
Stella’s great powers that so confuse so my mind.”
And yet these…
“Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lover’s ruin some thrice-sad tragedy
I am not I: pity the tale of me.”
And finally these…
“I call it praise to suffer tyranny;
And now employ the remnant of my wit
To make myself believe that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.”
Are these not brilliant professions of love, of devotion, even idolatry? Are not the lover’s pangs, his great sorrows and dilemmas patnelty visible? Is this not beautiful, uplifting, noble?

No, it’s all make believe, unreal, with dark, covert purposes. Sidney’s not really in love you know, he’s just pretending. He’s this cunning, foxy player of words, he’s lulling his readers into this fell trap of believing he’s madly and desperately in love- he’s actually projecting his own grand ambitions, he wants to impress everybody but Stella. Stella’s not even a real person- she’s many people: Penelope, the Queen, some unnamed Lady of the Court…in fact, she doesn’t even matter in these sonnets: she’s really more, much much more of an afterthought than a significant presence in the sonnets.

Bosh! If this be the truth, then I would rather believe in lies!

Yet, supposing all this were true, that Stella was just a medium through which Sidney-Astrophil was articulating his desires, his ruthless ambitions, supposing all of this was true, even then I would believe in what the critic decries as base illusions. Do not all of us need some sort of opium, some illusion, maya, to keep on living? Is truth really all that desirable? What would you rather have, a beautiful lie or a tormenting truth? Beauty, it must be remembered, lies in the yes of the beer-holder: not, certainly not, in the eyes of the cold, rational critic.

In any case, there is not value of Sidney’s sonnets today, some 500 years or so after they were composed. Yes, yes, one can glean out lots of socio-cultural stuff out of them, establish the position of women, find out the attitudes towards gender and ascertain a zillion such like fantastic things of topical interest from them. All that can be done, is done- it is the natural province of the insufferable busybody of a critic. To the normal student, the real charm, if any, of a work as artificial as romantic sonnets lies in its aesthetics, in the oh-so-romantic sensibilities which it expresses. Who has not dreamt of the knight in shinning armour, of the damsel in distress? Sure, patriarchy is bad and oppressive, but is one justified for being so when the same is so universal? Is one justified in condemning Sidney for being so when it was the only mode of being in existence?

As good old Mr Kitto said, to understand is not necessarily to forgive completely. Yet, one can still try and understand…


Ishaan Mital said...

Dear AP, Firstly a big congratulations on having written something(my congrats hold value since they come from a mere teller of tall tales whose articulation stops short of writing)and having the courtesy of mailing us the link to it,since it provides a much needed change from the well crafted specimens of literature that at present engulfs our lives.And now for the post: Why? why? why? o Why do you start this work on such a pessimistic note?I understand that you've written this piece being possessed by the spirit of SC,but then why the guilt? And to stoop so low as terming this malady..oops! frame of mind as the'ravings of a completely deranged lunatic'? If you have a leit motif to this piece of critiquing a certain malady(yes since that's what it is)its fine,otherwise be full of yourself and confident even if you're conscious that you'll end up making a fool of yourself. I'd like to remind you that it is the critical aspect that differentiates us as students of English Literature from students who study English.The critical paraphernalia provides us a separate plane for understanding a text,wherein the text doesn't remain a mere story but becomes a document of sociological processes over a history of time. Even before we got involved in the business of critiquing didn't we as lovers of the language form our own interpretations of a poem?Now I've realised that these are the exact reactions and interpretations that the writer looked to extract from us,something he/she achieved through an understanding of the society and its psyche,which again inevitably was enabled through a personal probe into and critique of the norms of society. I'd like to bring to your notice that a critique can't be cold and frosty nosed since that takes away the human aspect of the text and limits and stereotypes ones approach rather than broadening the scope of enquiry, as is the case with most revered SM.The will to and ability to critique inevitably stems from the will to appreciate and understand a text and therefore has to subjective.Even as we were kids and amateur literateurs our interpretations were encouraged not blasted and therefore our subjectivity perpetuated with a few suggestions nevertheless.That our teachers teach us to critique is attributable to the fact that their job demands it but at the same time we listen to it since it does open our minds about the approach towards a text.As we have observed in SM's classes,the critique offered is a perfect stereotype of what a critique should be and the general retort is a counter critique that endorses, despite all the inferences and socio-political connotations, that Stella is still the central figure of Sidney's poetry, an affirmation of sorts of his apparent motif of expressing his love for long lost Penelope. Yet at the same time time I' d like to state that to let the text be implies the death of the text, since it thrives on human imagination post its production. Whatever interpretation is derived is a result of human imagination and any in the reading of any text the enjoyment derived is a result of our own imagination which is triggered even as we read the first of a text.What I mean is that it is mind mature to be puzzled and to probe and therefore even as we rush to derive connotations so as to understand a poem or story the critique of any text is a result of the basic need to go deeper into the meaning of text and better understand it. All in all a good read. Here I abruptly rest my case.

AP said...

My dear fellow,

As you very rightly point out, this was a piece of counter-criticism, a reaction, almost instinctive, against “the prefect stereotype of what a critique should be”. One of the motives was most certainly to vex that revered lady…

I happened once to write a letter to a certain Ms Taneja; the following passage from the same might interest you:-

“Perhaps you have heard me say that being too much of a literature-wallah takes out the pleasure of reading and watching movies/serials, that you start analysing as soon as you begin your leisure activity. While brooding about the same a few months back, an idea struck me. This it was- the secret is that first you reach that level of analytical prowess, the pinnacle, the top: first you develop your powers to that great extent and then, after you’ve reached the zenith, you deliberately come down, detach yourself from the cold analytical self and sit back to enjoy. That, to me, is the ultimate challenge to us Literature-wallahs, the final end of our journey through time and space.”

In writing this piece I was fully aware of what I was doing, fully aware that I was espousing a stand in which I myself don’t believe. While writing one always has that brilliant opportunity of adopting other personalities and airing views which are not fully one’s own, even venturing into hitherto unexplored avenues to forge new personas, or, at very least, project new aspects of oneself. In this I have done something very similar…

All of this may for some make myself culpable to the charge of hypocrisy…be that as it may, this is just a very clear re-affirmation of the fact (which you highlighted) that no writer writes anything instinctively, each and very piece being a very deliberate effort to make readers react in a certain manner(s).

Thank ye for this- my best criticism yet!