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Doing Time: Shakespeare’s Weasel, Chao-Chou’s Dog, and the Melancholy Lyric
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If narrative is about what happens next, lyric is about what happens now….

Jonathan Culler, “Why Lyric?”

To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be realized by all things.

13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen, “Genjokōan”

I’m doing time with the inmates this weekend.

As I sit on my round black meditation cushion, my zafu, deep into our second day of this three-day retreat, the foggy patch behind my eyes starts to thin and clear a bit, like smoke leaving a room through an open window. The late afternoon light spilling into the prison chapel pixilates for a moment on the floor in front of me. I have that familiar sense of the room’s ceiling and walls pulling back from the floor, of the room gently emptying upward and outward—a sense of opening and widening, hollowing out, like pupils dilating. This is, for me, what sinking into the presence of the present moment feels like. Another fock of Canadian geese honks by outside the prison walls, their voices rolling first low in the distance, then thrumming in crescendo as they pass directly overhead, impossibly loud and passionate. It’s almost March; they’re heading home.

But even now, as I write these words (and these) after the moment is past, using the convention of the present tense to convey this afternoon’s (now past) presentness, employing the resources of memory to recapture an experience that, even when first experienced as experience, by dint of being noted as such, had already doubled over on itself even now, as I struggle to sharpen my words, my fingers pausing over the thin plastic keyboard of my iPad case, the cool gray light of the screen only barely illuminating my hands while my bunkmate Aido sleeps in the darkness after our very long day with the men even now, the weight of my details only further thickens the earlier memory, folding the present into the past like folding the new into the batter of the old. The moments agglutinate.

Everything I know about lyric, I learned from Petrarch and Shakespeare. And, perhaps in keeping faithful to my subject—the Petrarchan lyric in all its irreducibly fragmented non-narrative sequentiality—this paper is really just a sequence of beginnings.

With Shakespeare, it all begins in melancholy: in the recognition of the “crease” that folds into plenitude, revealing the dark ravage of loss in the midst of abundance:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory… (1:1–4)

The first sonnet of Shakespeare’s 1609 sequence begins with a seemingly universal desire (“we desire…”), and an indubitably universal truth: all that lives will merely ripen on the path to rotting. Everything passes away. In such a world, the work of a love poem is very simple: to preserve the beautiful in the name of the temporal. What we desire, first and foremost, is neither ideal beauty nor a particular beloved; rather we desire increase of both: the procreation that will preserve the ideal (“beauty’s rose”) in the wake of time. Unfortunately, such thriving, such “thrift” (as Shakespeare also calls it, forcing us to hear the economics of this metaphysics) immediately bespeaks the truth of loss. We cannot have increase without the crease carved through it via the passage of time. On the most basic level, every generation has a rotting riper; every generation has a tender heir. The problem of mortal desire is reproduced ad infinitum, one rose at a time.

Elsewhere Shakespeare parses this logic through the figure of melancholy. Shakespeare’s melancholic is the one who knows how to transform more into less—whether it be the moralizing Jaques in As You Like It, Orsino surfeiting on the food of love in Twelfth Night or (to shift our register somewhat) Hamlet encountering mere dirty wind where others see a brave o’erhanging firmament. The melancholic pulls back the curtain on an empty stage; he bores through this world...



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