Because his plays express no sense of a nearly divine vocation, of a mission to save humanity by transmitting ethical truths, Shakespeare cannot be the equal of Dante or Milton or Goethe, of the Greek dramatists or the Russian novelists, all of whom wrote to commune with the divine and to bring light to the world. What had in the Romantic tradition long been seen as Shakespeare’s unique strength — what Keats famously called his “Negative Capability,” his capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” — on this view becomes a liability, a social irresponsibility, a feckless acceptance of humanity’s doomed and ignorant lot without any attempt to improve it. Shakespeare can be seen as the paradigm of the apolitical artist, the dissolute aesthete reviled not only by the religious conservatives of all faiths but also by those who nurse radical political hopes, such as the anarcho-pacifist Tolstoy, the Soviet sympathizer Wittgenstein, and even the socialist-feminist Lynn Stuart Parramore. From this perspective, we find Shakespeare at the origin of that dangerously aloof aestheticism for which Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile has given us the most memorable picture in contemporary letters: the literary soirée above the torture chamber.
…Hamlet’s — and Shakespeare’s — charismatically demonic knowledge of the void at the heart of reality, the death that is the essence of life, catches something very real in our experience (or mine, anyway), a basic metaphysical uncertainty that should disturb all of us, a faithlessness and despair that no doubt has the poisonous potential to ruin the plans of our reformers and revolutionaries, of our dispensers of Christian charity and our disseminators of socialist-feminist politics, but a grim knowledge that nevertheless murmurs constantly beneath the busy clamor of everyday life and that seeks passionate expression in the face of all protest. Maybe Shakespeare sucks because — and to the extent that — life sucks. It doesn’t and shouldn’t please us if we want to believe in a better world, and it may not cheer the fans of NPR, but Shakespeare’s visionary perception that precisely nothing is at stake in each of our lives will probably continue to worry us as long as there are playgoers and readers to experience it.
It’s fascinating, this divide between those who feel artistic genius is timeless, above and beyond mere political reproach, and those who would place it in service to society’s contemporary mores. Even more fascinating is the way in which both types could be contained in the singular figure of Beethoven, who, despite having done more than anyone to free “the artist” from the bonds of church, state and aristocratic patronage, and despite almost singlehandedly creating the template of the Romantic artist, tormented by earthly misfortune but convinced of his posthumous importance, storming the empyrean gates to steal a bit of transcendence from God himself, nonetheless was quite the moralist when it came to the social function of art. As Harvey Sachs wrote:
To Beethoven, the word “philosophy” could probably have been defined as ethical guidance; when he said that music was a higher calling than philosophy, he meant that it was potentially more important as a moral force. Artists, he believed, must strive to contribute to humanity’s well-being — must help mankind to find the right path. This is why he condemned Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni on moral grounds, despite his admiration for the opera’s music, and why the Viennese triumph of Rossini’s operas, which, by Beethoven’s lights, lacked moral fiber, greatly upset him, as did the local public’s adoration of vocal and instrumental virtuosity for its own sake.
Most of those who share his hectoring tendencies can’t be redeemed by anything like his talent, unfortunately. As for me, I am one of those who believe that there is an amoral, trickster-like quality to great art that keeps it forever one step ahead of the socially responsible types who seek to yoke and domesticate it in service to this or that cause. That’s probably inseparable from the fact that I’m also one who believes in the cyclical nature of human existence, as opposed to those who imagine some sort of teleological dialectic at work in history, carrying us through progressive stages of development toward some moral/cultural apogee. Wisdom and transcendence, to me, are more like mountain peaks than broad plateaus — briefly attainable, but not fit for settling and building upon. King Lear and the Ode to Joy do not represent a state which humanity as a whole will one day achieve collectively; they are the awe-inspiring peaks from which we must inevitably descend to return to the chores and tribulations of daily living.