Learning about the Occlusion from the Insight
Eric Lindstrom, Professor of English
“Great thing of us forgot!”
About once per semester, regardless of what I am teaching, there comes a moment in class when I am compelled to utter the line from Act 5, scene 3, of Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Great thing of us forgot!” Spoken by a supporting player in the drama (Albany), this statement follows immediately upon the attention-encompassing climactic trial between the enemy brothers, Edmund and Edgar. It arrives with the appearance of the character Kent (“I am come / To bid my king and master aye good night: / Is he not here?”). Even before these words come out of his mouth, doggedly faithful Kent’s step on stage triggers a momentous thought about the sovereign to whom Kent is so faithful. What Albany does not even so much as expressively say, as in fact realize and blurt out, in this moment — which is awkwardly flat as a line of prose exclamation, but in fact is a staggering event — is that all present on stage have forgotten about the two characters even more centrally at the heart of the play than Edgar and Edmund; that is, about Lear and Cordelia.
The order to execute Cordelia in prison had already been sent on its errand of death, and so the whole time the combat between Edgar and Edmund was going on is now reinterpretable as utter blindness: a wastage of the preciously limited time at hand to act; murder by inattention, a deeper and just as inexplicable tragedy within the tragedy of King Lear’s expulsion of love and onset of civil war. Not just the evil and ungrateful usurpers, but everyone present is now implicated in having squandered the lives of those most vulnerable. First, one life has already been lost offstage due to the command issued before its repentance (Cordelia’s life); then the second (Lear’s) is given the horrible but expected time of a tragic death in consequence, in his own storm of words, onstage.
At the point when it comes in any class, this moment is admittedly very performative. (And although I don’t clearly remember, I am pretty sure I learned the performance of its still arresting force from Jacques Lezra, one of my two teachers of Shakespeare during my time as an undergraduate at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.) But what triggers the performance, and its content, aren’t rehearsed or known in advance.
Is there a common theme or thread that describes the “Great things of us forgot!” in Literature, or indeed, within the Humanities? If not, if that spaced-out “thing” is variably historical and contingent, what kind of stories might that prompt us to listen to better (more than to tell)?
To borrow some terms I recently heard used by the ecological historian Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, the common point of “great things of us forgot!” may be understood to relate to the dynamics — perhaps a dialectics, perhaps messier— of an alternate tempo of occlusion and thematization in the big learning of the Humanities. Often what gets occluded and then thematically targeted are the prior enabling conditions of thinking and labor, and the stupendous “natural” (non-human) donations at the start and heart of what humans then transmute into value.
In my own literary contexts, it might be that analogies to global warming are the most monstrous thing in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or that to “lighten” the “burden of the mystery” in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey” can refer not to deep thoughts but to the accumulated affective and embodied weight we carry as mortal bodies; or that Jane Austen’s Emma suddenly knows herself susceptible to deep attachment to another person as a thing not played with at will, but already well underfoot and totally beyond her command, so that she experiences the cliché of an arrow-pierced heart with the wildness of desperate love. In such repeatedly spontaneous moments that can feel like and in fact be true models of how to realize the forms of love, or indeed of trauma, the notion of what we think of as private “reading” carries insufficient implications. Teaching and writing about literature will further heighten the stakes, as well as raise the alertness and receptivity of not only what can happen in a classroom, but literally of our account of what is being said — what “information” is there to take in.
“Great thing of us forgot!” This so very unpoetic line “plays” in theatrical performances of King Lear because Shakespeare knows the scene of combat in his unfolding tragedy has cast its spell, has created a story from which his audience cannot look away, or even, in the moment, think and remember past to the main event, with much stable continuity. A version of that absorption is felt by everyday readers. By and large, though, and by virtue of its medium, reading Lear in a book allows and facilitates the endless cross-checks of greater (because more diffusively embodied and supported) textual memory. Literature in this way can exist in, and permit us to perform and critically examine, the blind spots of humanity and of the Humanities.
Yet for readers the sort of time private reading requires, and commits us to, also can be dangerously close to the theatrical time spent watching Edgar and Edmund have at it, while great things get forgotten behind the back of our consciousness, as the philosopher Hegel might say. The “Great thing of us forgot!” of such exciting and painful reader-realizations is also a thing occluded and thematized. The modes still alternate, of keen attention (both practiced and sudden) and of obtuse, malingering inattention. And our very attention-giving practices of “analytical” and “close” reading must necessarily involve some blinders: if these need not be disciplinary blinders, they are, in some measure, physiological. To sort out and attend to our primary cares as readers can take precious time — all the time we have and more: not moments but generations, eras and centuries. However, due to its typical standing, a bit awkwardly and uselessly, outside of the regular experience of empirical time, saving realizations can also happen in literature in those “great” irreversible moments where things and events collide.