03 January, 2006

Shakespeare and Asia

This essay is an attempt to decanonize two monolithic entities—Asia and Shakespeare—in their ideational and performative contexts, through an examination of their potentially conflictual relationships: Asia in Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Asia, Asia without Shakespeare, and Shakespeare without Shakespeare, among other permutations and combinations of a complex cultural dynamic.
These are the first words of an article by Rustom Bharucha entitled 'Foreign Asia / Foreign Shakespeare', in a recent-ish edition of Theatre Journal. I came across this article in the course of my job, which involves reading articles like this and summarising their contents. I found the rest of the piece somewhat impenetrable: something about the staging and adaptation of Shakespeare's drama in Southeast Asia. (Matters were not aided, of course, by my total lack of interest in Asia, and my almost total lack of interest in Shakespeare.) This sentence, however, made me laugh out loud when I first read it, and it continues to fascinate me.

Fine nonsense is an art, and at its best can be highly entertaining. Most fine nonsense derives its appeal from a zealous imagination: one thinks of Paolo Soleri, L. Ron Hubbard, and the supreme master, Salvador Dali. This academic example, however, is not imaginative, but exerts its power in a subtler, probably less intentional manner.

Most obvious here is the jargon: 'decanonize', 'monolithic', 'ideational' [pertaining to an abstract notion or concept], 'performative', 'complex cultural dynamic'. It is a dense array, but nothing untypical—that said, 'ideational' is a particularly fine tool in the bullshitter's arsenal, though perhaps lacking the general applicability of a 'hermeneutic' or a 'textual strategy'. Acutely, the jargon works against itself: after the first comma, the reader is already asking whether a 'monolithic entity' can in fact be canonised, or decanonised for that matter. How can anything be decanonised? Three words later we ask whether Shakespeare and / or Asia really are 'monolithic entities', whatever the phrase might mean, and six words further we wonder how either Shakespeare or Asia might have either performative or ideational contexts. The words here, clinging tenuously to sense even before usage, rapidly lose their meaning in the flow of the sentence, becoming mere sound. I've rarely seen such an efficient example of this technique.

But the marvels of the sentence are yet to come. After 'Asia and Shakespeare' have been drawn outside the period with em-dashes, presumably so as to heighten their 'monolithic' natures, we find the rhythm of the period heightening as it approaches the colon. What happens next is very special. The measured, gently-nonsensical syntagma of the first half, with its balanced prepositional clauses ("in..., through...") suddenly breaks into a flurry of paradigmatic permutations, reminding me rather of structures from Beckett's Watt. The colon here has an ostensive effect: look at the possible relationships!

These permutations constitute the raison d'être of the present post. They begin to effect a logical structure: first Asia in Shakespeare, then its counter, Shakespeare in Asia. Bharucha then turns the tables with 'Asia without Shakespeare', and, just as the reader is expecting 'Shakespeare without Asia', hands us the far more nonsensical 'Shakespeare without Shakespeare'. If 'Asia without Shakespeare' is meaningless, 'Shakespeare without Shakespeare' is freakishly illogical, and the musical punchline of the progression. Note, importantly, that both 'Shakespeare' and 'Asia' are trochees, in addition to their alliteration and assonance: this lends the repetition a blunt, bracing belligerence. By now, the reader is listening only to the jangle of nouns, clinking against each other, without signification. The poet and the continent have been long forgotten: it is the words, not the things, which have become 'monolithic'. After this, the final comma can only be anticlimactic.

What makes this sentence such fine nonsense—what makes it poetic, having lost any ability to communicate—is its pacing. Bharucha draws the reader in, he lulls him, and then suddenly points him down a path of permutations, leading to an absurdist dead-end. In this respect, his period shows careful craft: nonsense as process. Let us, then, encourage our academics, at home and abroad, or at least those with nothing to say, to pursue similarly intricate structures in their nonsensical sentences.

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