What the Editors Are Reading

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I’m enmeshed in reading all of Shakespeare, using the The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition (Oxford University Press, 2016). Within 3,180 pages, it contains all the Bard’s writing in chronological order, from The Two Gentlemen of Verona to The Two Noble Kinsmen, and everything in between, including his sonnets.

This edition has a splendid general introduction, but in a daring move by the editors, no introduction to the individual plays. It instead gives brief assessments of each play by past and contemporary critics, which remarkably, brilliantly, and often pungently put the plays in perfect context.

This book makes clear precisely how and why Shakespeare was the greatest master of the English language. Yet he was also master of something more than language. The great, bloviating Yale Shakespearean, Harold Bloom, had a point when he credited Shakespeare with “the invention of the human.”

Moreover, nobody understood politics as well as Shakespeare did, as is clear from his Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and the multiple Henry plays.

Nor has anyone penetrated the secrets of the human heart as ably, as anyone who reads Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet will appreciate.

More delightfully, nobody does human weirdness as well as Shakespeare, as a reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Othello, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, or The Winter’s Tale will show.

Shakespeare, a believer in tradition, in hierarchy, in monarchy, and in aristocracy, indeed, of the whole “Great Chain of Being,” was anything but politically correct. He is worth reading for that reason alone—but if the pure beauty of his poetry and prose doesn’t move you to both laughter and tears, call for medical intervention.

        —Stephen B. Presser

Viewed as the greatest sculptor of modern times, or the finest since Michelangelo, often placed on a footing with the Greeks, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) comes to life in Frederic V. Grunfeld’s Rodin: A Biography (Henry Holt, 1987). Well-written, rationally organized, informed by good sense and taste, and not impressionistic, it presents the career and art of the “Master” in their historical context, when Paris was the capital of artistic vigor and achievement.

Grunfeld’s thorough study was not premature. It stands in contrast to earlier biographies based on personal acquaintance, including the 1948 memoir by Judith Cladel, a Rodin family friend. These provided a foundation but were marked by partiality and omissions. Grunfeld’s extensive research benefitted from many eyewitness accounts by men such as the German poet Rilke and the Irish playwright Shaw—perhaps similarly error-prone, but complementary, at least. The passage of time, meanwhile, furnished better historical and artistic perspectives on the sculptor’s circles and milieu.

Nor did this biography come too late. One may ask what I mean by ‘too late,’ since surely one wants scholarship to be up-to-date! Ah, but so much modern art criticism is skewed and perverted in the name of postmodernism, Marxism, feminism, multiculturalism, Christophobia, and anti-white racism.

Consider this: Rodin’s legacy is huge, and includes, for example, 7,000 drawings left to the French state and 53 busts of a single model. He also created countless erotic works, some amounting to anatomy lessons. This corpus (if one may say so) mirrors his sexual obsession, to which witnesses testified and which he rarely disguised. Certainly many women, including but not solely young models, took off their clothes for Rodin. Certainly they knew what they were doing. Many came from the better classes; they were not impecunious. Those few who declined his attentions left his studio with no harm done, except perhaps to their dignity. Some among the larger number may have thought the game was well worth the candle. Talented sculptresses could learn from him. The passionate Gwen John, for example, may have owed him much. Camille Claudel surely benefitted from his lessons, her eventual rebellion notwithstanding. She might have repaid Rodin’s lessons in full had not her brother Paul, a high-ranking diplomat and poet, hypersensitive to appearances, succeeded, after their father’s death, in consigning her to an insane asylum.

Indirectly, Grunfeld’s book, valuable in itself, is an object lesson. In the 1980s, a biographer could treat the human and artistic consequences of Rodin’s conduct in a matter-of-fact manner, without sermonizing; the older practice of dissimulation no longer obtained, but feminism, while militant, could not yet control discourse. 

Today, when the #MeToo movement has succeeded in dominating rhetoric concerning relationships between men and women, critics must have difficulty in getting a hearing for a commonsense approach to sexual topics, among others. How a written work is received and interpreted is dependent in part on the publishing industry (including reviewers), but is also determined by what the reading public will tolerate, welcome, and blame. Although older is not necessarily better, readers will do well to consider the warping effects of today’s absurd pieties on modern writing and publication.

        —Catharine Savage Brosman

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