The Joy Of Not Understanding
Last night I was talking with a friend about Shakespeare. She had recently seen a production in Vancouver’s ‘Bard on the Beach’ festival, and had felt the need to explain the plot of Hamlet to her brother, who was unfamiliar with the play. To her surprise, he quickly got the gist of the play and looked forward to seeing it again so that he could understand more.
There is, in today’s culture, a need for the info-dump that gives you everything in one big pre-digested lump – it’s absurd to expect to understand everything at once, of course. Shakespeare continues to reward right through your life. The recent production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ has proven a massive hit in London, breathing fresh understanding into the play, and proving to many that it’s not just Shakespeare who continues to release layers of understanding.
Plays can be endlessly re-interpreted but books are personal, and many reveal new insights as you age. There are novels I come back to at different times of my life that give new insights which are linked to one’s own experience and handling of personal crises. Life is an iceberg; so much of what we need to know is yet hidden. Why shouldn’t literature reflect this? The author and critic Ken Tynan said; ‘You do not need to know why two people fall in love, only that they do.’ Part of our humanity is our unknowingness.
I struggle with period books, TV shows and films that present times and places unknown to me as something easy to understand. Charles Wood put this right with his extraordinary take on ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1968) which used accurate period language and proved a revelation. Whereas TV’s ‘Ripper Street’, great fun though it always is, has as much to do with Victorian times as it has with Narnia.
And books expand you by adding to your knowledge. My favourite classic crime novelist Edmund Crispin had an astonishing vocabulary which he saw no need to curtail for his readers. You have a dictionary; look it up (not on Kindle, though, as most arcane words don’t seem to be covered by theirs). How wonderful to run across words and phrases with which you are not familiar! Travel books can be utterly eye-opening, from William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’ (about being a student in New Delhi) to Jan Morris’s ‘Heaven’s Command’, about extraordinary Victorian lives.
I look forward to not entirely understanding a book. In fact, the book I can ‘get’ in one sitting no longer interests me. Accessibility isn’t everything. Even popular fiction can be strange, if the worldview of the author is allowed free rein. Accessibility is also why readers like comfort books like ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’. Sometimes people don’t want to feel challenged. Although I’d mitigate that with this conversation, initiated by a reviewer friend of mine at a Harrogate literary festival.
REVIEWER: (Noting that woman next to her is reading ’50 Shades Of Grey’) Are you enjoying that?
WOMAN: It’s the first book I’ve ever read.
REVIEWER: What do you think of it?
WOMAN: It’s absolutely brilliant.
REVIEWER: So, what will you read next?
WOMAN: I’ll just read this again.