Coils: Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare
Published 2002 by Wesleyan, Paperback, 712 Pages, ISBN 0819565482, List Price $39.95.
Reviewed by Laura Steele
We put on our comedy ears and take this book down from the shelf. Two volumes in one Complete Bottom. The first, by Louis Zukofsky, is a library-eye in which textual collage carries perception into the texture to allow the formation of an Active Anthology interlaced with the annotations of a fretful poet in pursuit of a definition of love. The poet pursues this definition as if it were a hart, quotations from "Shakespeare" becoming the ground on and into which a dispersive essay or filled-full room of arranged perceptions rests and interjects. The form of time present here is a static one, a structure in which history is held as a reserve.
Benjamin's Arcades try to wake up from the 19th century; Bottom begins with Bottom's famous lines upon waking, "God's my life, stolen hence, and left me asleep! I have had a most rare vision...", continuing with a rollicking parody of 1 Corinthians 2:9ff1, "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, not his heart able to report, what my dream was." A synchronic philology of rhetoric which would pick up on this hearty Pauline laugh and perhaps compare it to the revelatory comedy of Apuleius's own Ass would be exactly the form of critical time that Bottom sits on and attempts to squash; instead, we're dragged across thematic linkages as Shakespeare becomes a "context", one which spins out in all directions into a myriad of other texts.
A tradition of the locus communis in which people of learning began assembling their particular commonplace book2 at school and would add to it over a lifetime was, before printing, a copying to form a personal library enabled by the manufacture of paper in Europe in the 15th century. "A" is the poem of "a life"; Bottom is (part of) the education of a life.
Zukofsky's thesis is an emblem as much as Graves' is for The White Goddess, "All of Shakespeare's writing embodies a definition, a continuing variant of it over so many years. It is a definition of love that the learning of the later (specifically English) Renaissance had forgotten : the definition of love as the tragic hero. He is Amor, identified with the passion of the lover falling short of perfection – discernment, fitness, proportion – at those times when his imagination insufficient unto itself is an aberration of the eyes; but when reason and love are an identity of sight its clear and distinct knowledge can approach the sufficient realizations of the intellect." This is deliberately set against the more usual idea that Shakespeare is, in all the variations of the word, anarchic; that he does not consist3. Instead, one grid is lifted out from the Works and the a mass of discontinuities and dramatic sensibility drops back, like a fire moving through the plays to burn relations and drama, performed as well by the reader than by players.
Perhaps it is Frank Kermode who accidentally provides the most penetrating insight into the politics of Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare, noting that the Shakespearian signature of the verbal repetition first appears in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Here it is the insistent talk of eyes, the patterns of blindness and insight, wood and city, phantasma and vision, love vulgar and love celestial. The juices of love-in-idleness and of "Dian's bud" are there as complements to the talk of eyes and sight; Bottom's dream as the complement or opposite of the rationality of a prince of the world."4 (Kermode's book is not quite called Shakespeare's Language Poetry) The complement, opposite, and the re-awakening – a grand – of love to the eyes, against the prince, so human action can be real again.
Volume two is Celia Zukofsky's setting of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. I have not heard this performed, and it is printed as hand-written notes on the staves with hand-written play-lyric beneath. Though I can read music, this still becomes rather tiring to read, particularly when one is also listening with an inner ear to the music generated. The piece is an ongoing recitative, which is how Pericles is sometimes heard, I think, the audience surprised that there were no instruments present; Northrop Frye is the one who argued that this play foreshadowed opera, though he thought that the narrative recitatives gave way to occasional arias, whereas Zukofsky is not interested in such outbursts. A melody would be a falling back, the words no longer seen. When it comes to the great revelation moment, so long delayed, Pericles sings "I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping", with a rise from middle C to E flat for the "deliver weeping", the unrevealed tears that this maid reminds him of wife and daughter rising in an echo of Marina's unrevealed truth, as Zukofsky also sets a diminuendo on this rise, an awe before Venus of the sea.
Bottom reads best as an experimental horror novel, a precursor to Danielewski's House of Leaves, full of quotes and a mad thesis on poetry (on the figure of echo in House; this endless and, after fifty pages, naggingly tedious idea of "eyes" in Bottom). The plot involves kidnapping all of Shakespeare's characters and forcing them to all say the same thing under duress of being snipped up and rearranged. Spine-tingling.
When considering the rush to either fall in love with Zukofsky (Zuk to young U.S. fans) or disparage him, I find myself wanting to make this discernment: I think "A" and 80 Flowers and the essays on kettles and so on collected in A Useful Art are all fascinating; but Bottom falls far short in any of the too-often made comparisons with the work of that shopping-mall ghost, Walter Benjamin. The organising method of Bottom is not as audacious as that of Benjamin, or of Jennings in his Pandemonium; Zukofsky's rhetoric is one arrow which points from everywhere towards his idea of the definition of love. In contrast to these other collage works, politics and society keep going missing. The result is a rather dull crystal where the facets only look inwards, turning in its own ahistorical slow spin.
Zukofsky is himself presumably the "reader who is inclined to feel that one book judges and is judged by all other books" (in that dusty library-crystal). His reconstitution of Shakespeare is as profound as that brief vogue for collage-collections of Shakespeare's Insults. "What a coil's here, serving of becks and jutting out of bums!"
Peter Riley, at the end of a review of Peter Minter (at Jacket), expresses an anti-Zukofsky sentiment which is probably typical of Zuk-detractors, "Do Australians really still take poets such as Zukofsky seriously? Shallow hobbyist manipulation of word-play?" Take the latter sentence and put it in a different paragraph and it could be praise – wide and shallow not falsely deep; hobbyist lover not odious professional; and I would have thought "manipulation of word-play" is an odd accusation between poets (between Riley and the soi-disant "Zoo-zoo-kaw-kaw-of-the-sky"). But I think Riley's comment does apply to Bottom. Much of Zukofsky's commentary on music and on Spinoza here is glossed from various standard accounts of the time, and has dated because the sparks of comprehension which might renew these critical pieces of prose are largely absent (as they are in most of the pieces collected in the Prepositions volume.) His attempts to reconstitute everything he touches are cemented by sentences characteristic of the bore with a thesis, "It seems obvious to me. . ."
As a whimsical scholar of the eye in literature, Zukofsky collects a huge trove of quotes but, jammed eagerly together, one quote never sees eye to eye with the next despite the short pieces of commentary intended as the passage of judgement between texts: "purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight."
1 "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." T.M. Speller notes this in his 'Bottom's Elisions', a contribution to the Buffalo 'Re-Reading Louis Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare' symposium of 2003. Speller relies on Frank Kermode's insight in his Early Shakespeare (London: Edward Arnold, 1961. 211-227)
2 Marjorie Perloff calls it "the commonplace book Bottom" in her essay 'Playing The Numbers: The French Reception of Louis Zukofsky'.
3 For example Henry Adams' own Education (elsewhere quoted in Bottom though Z turns to A more frequently elsewhere) in which it is reported that Adams "read his Shakespeare as the Evangel of conservative Christian anarchy, neither very conservative nor very Christian, but stupendously anarchistic."
4 Shakespeare's Language (2000), London: Penguin, p 64