Cross-cultural Contact Is Homework for Science Fiction

By John Hertz: (some of this appeared in No Direction Home 6-7) I realize that with the word homework I’ve lost half my readers.

I’ll go on talking to the other one.

The notion in the title I’ve been proposing for years. I propose it to you.

I can’t say whether other sapient (not sentient, please) beings exist in the Universe. If yes, I can’t answer “Where are they?” If no, I can’t answer “Why not?” But that’s hardly our business in s-f — ­ which is fiction. We imagine things. In one of Forry Ackerman’s greatest puns, we’re the Imagi-Nation.

The pit along the road, into which we keep falling (a moving pit? O metaphor!), is to imagine aliens feebly. Our Gracious Host in another context memorably wrote “Strangers Just Like Me”.

Well, we can work it up. Meeting another culture here on Earth, its people, places, and things, can be alien all right. Fascinating. Exciting. Humbling. Exalting — ­ no, I don’t mean Look how much better we are (let’s save for another time whether any of that might be false ­ — or true — ­ and How could we know?) ­ I mean, as John Campbell and Larry Niven independently said, Minds as good as you but different.

Morris Keesan once said he liked hanging around with me because I might say “I just happened to re-read Henry IV Part 1, and — ­” I do read Shakespeare. I read lots of things. Maybe you do too.

Shakespeare is good for this present purpose. You can decide for yourself how good a candidate he is for greatest writer ever. We know his plays were hugely popular in his day. Folks kept asking for more of them. Everybody went to see them, rich and poor, high and low, sophisticated and un. So he reached people.

Four hundred years have made him somewhat alien.

His English is nearer to ours than is, say, Chaucer’s. We still need footnotes ­ for example, we’ll miss “So shines a good deed in a naughty world” unless we understand that naughty in Shakespeare’s day was closer than now to the root naught: it meant worthless, with an overtone of wicked (which also didn’t mean what some of us mean by it now): it wasn’t a slap-you-on-the-wrist line, it was a punch-you-in-the-gut line.

His characters love and hate and strive and succeed and fail. But they pack their lives into different baggage from ours.

Let’s save for another time Puck and Ariel and the Hamlet ghost and whether, as of the time of their writing, they were fantasy.

So let’s take that step. Here’s another. For our present purpose, as well as for itself, I recommend T. Kishi & G. Bradshaw, Shakespeare in Japan (2005). Kishi is Professor Emeritus of English at Kyoto University and was (1999-2001) President of the Shakespeare Society of Japan. Bradshaw teaches at Chuo University and is Editor of the Shakespearean International Yearbook.

That such a book as S in Japan exists at all is exemplary. What basis do you suppose there would be for a book Zeami in the United States (Z 1363-1443, perhaps the greatest exponent of Japanese theater)?

As our authors note early on, “Shakespeare first arrived in Japan with Ibsen, Chekhov, Gorky, George Bernard Shaw, and trams [p. 2].” By then Japan had two long-established theatrical traditions, and Kabuki, three counting the puppet theater Bunraku, none of which had anything to do with Shakespeare or Elizabethan theater except to the extent of “two eyes on top, nose in the middle, mouth under” (L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass ch. 6, 1871; Humpty Dumpty the enormous egg explaining why human beings look alike to him).

The language, Anglo-Saxon attitudes, theatrical conventions, all had to be explored and some corresponding points found. Our authors not only discuss this ­ — in just 150 pages! — ­ but provide insight.

When Othello collapses into prose in the eavesdropping scene [Act IV sc. 1], is the character Othello choosing to speak prose, or is his prose … really … a poetic-dramatic and shaming measure of the character’s unconscious degradation [p. 69]?

J.A.K. Thomson’s Shakespeare and the Classics (1952) is another book I recommend both for itself and for its help with Cross-cultural contact is homework for science fiction. Its author begins,

If, about the time when Shakespeare began to write, you had visited the universities, or consulted educated people anywhere, inquiring where you should look for the leading figure in contemporary literature, whom must we suppose that most of them would have named? Calderón [1600-1681] or Tasso [1544-1595] or Montaigne [1533-1592] or Spenser [1552-1599]? None of these, but Joseph Scaliger [1540-1609], whom men called princeps literatum. To what did he owe this eminence? To his classical scholarship. If you had asked Scaliger himself (who was not ignorant of England and English writers) whom he considered the head of English literature, he might have replied in the words of Henri Estienne [1528-1598] that George Buchanan [1506-1582] was poetarum nostri saeculi facile princeps, ‘easily the first poet of our time’. This judgment was formed entirely on the basis of Buchanan’s Latin verse. Or take Isaac Casaubon [1559-1614]. He was an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare, and he was living in England, chiefly in London, during the very years when Shakespeare was writing his great tragedies. Who except a handful of scholars now remembers Isaac Casaubon? He was a man of vast and accurate learning, which he applied with discretion, and he had the rare virtue among Renaissance scholars of personal modesty. Alas … it is not possible to discern any element of greatness in him. (This could not be said of Joseph Scaliger, who was a man of genius and in his own field a very great critic.) Yet on no other ground than his classical, especially his Greek, learning the possession of this amiable little gentleman becomes an object of contention between France and England. He is the personal friend of Henry Quatre [1553-1610], and of James I [1566-1625], who could never have enough of his conversation.

Such an estimate of relative values in literature is so far from any [which] could now be made that even historians, although they know the facts, hardly grasp their implications. Yet a little reflection will show how important they must have been…. when Shakespeare was young…. roughly… nothing was studied at the universities that was not studied in Latin. Of the grammar schools it might be said that their primary function was to teach the rudiments of Latin [hence their name]. To know Latin was the same thing as to be educated.

Thomson (1879-1959), then Professor Emeritus of Classics at King’s College, London, knew whereof he spoke. And that was decades before the College Board discontinued the Advanced Placement examination in Latin literature (2009). He ends (p. 254),

The spirit of great poetry transcends not merely the form but the language in which it finds expression. What I have written is a little chapter in the history of European literature.

Meaning no disrespect for his modesty, few of us today have, without his help, this perspective of the man we are likely to consider the foremost poet of that time — ­ meaning, as I do, and I believe I may say most now do, another surprise for the audience then were they to know it, the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays, not Venus and Adonis or The Phoenix and the Turtle (and we need mental discipline to remember this meant a turtledove).

We struggle with smoking and sexism, to name just two, in s-f of even a few decades ago. I hardly say a knowledge of Latin is immoral! nor contrariwise suggest that When in Rome, do as the Romans do never implicates one’s own moral standards. But look how much trouble we have with Hal Clement’s Iceworld (1953), which if it is trying to tell us anything ­ and we may well be unfair to art if we insist art has a message ­ is trying to tell us about culture-bound assumptions. How about Remember, when in Rome, to see what the Romans see?

I write on the day most often thought to be Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd. Have a happy one.

4 thoughts on “Cross-cultural Contact Is Homework for Science Fiction

  1. I gather that even scholars don’t know all that we’ve lost in Shakespeare. But for the common reader, only an annotated edition can be understood. The “windmill” that Falstaffe & Co. “lay in” one night, was a brothel. I needed that footnote.

    I’ve read a number of editions of Henry IV, Part 1, but only one, annotated in mid-19th Century (by Knight, if I remember correctly) explicated the following triple pun: Falstaffe is trying to persuade Prince Hal in joining them in robbery. He cries, “There’s neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in thee, nor thou camest not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shillings.”

    Here he’s striking at Hal’s insecurities; Shakespeare’s Hal thought his father seized the throne illegitimately. To “stand for” here can mean to fight for the victims’ money. It can also mean “to represent.” A “royal” was a coin worth ten shillings.

    All that would have been lost on me without explication.

  2. I’ve found the best way to experience Shakespeare is to listen to a full cast production while walking. The language really needs that level of being paid attention to for me to fully get it in its fullest meaning. BBC has done some sterling audio productions.

    I do adore live Shakespeare as well but oft times as just sheer spectacle.

  3. Shakespeare is of his time; we fail to cavil at the sexism for the same reason some of us tolerate Austen and the Brontes (and I’d argue that none of the latter have heroines as bold as those in several of the comedies). Rereading Iceworld was a shock because I’d forgotten how much it was of its time — and unlike much SF, it has the excuse of not being in the future.

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