Do we still do this?

When Schoenbaum considered 400 years of scholarship on Shakespeare, he couldn’t help notice that the authors of this scholarship had posted portraits of themselves.

It was as natural for Samuel Butler and Oscar Wilde to depict [Shakespeare] as a homosexual as for Frank Harris to depict him as an unabashed sensualist.  It is natural for Catholics to seize on the phrase “he died a papist”; for Bernard Shaw to confess that Shakespeare was like himself and for Malone to suppose that Shakespeare had been a lawyer’s clerk.  [Muir, ref. below]

And this is something we are inclined recognize as entirely human.  Everyone sees the world through their own lens.  We understand the other as we understand ourselves.

Right?  Wrong.  Thirty years downstream the thing that Schoenbaum and Muir thought “natural” seems to us a little tedious, clannish, and unsophisticated.  These days I think, we are more interested in the Shakespeare who isn’t like us than turning him into someone who is like us. 

There is an epistemological problem here.  If we have no categories with which to understand the other, well, we are inclined to assimilate that other to the categories we do have.  But this caveat aside, it seems to be we are less likely to be that figure from the old joke: the man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. 

Something has changed.  We are a little bored with making the world into an image of ourselves.  We are no longer this provincial.  We are no longer this hostile to difference.  We are much more actively curious about how someone can depart from our expectations and ourselves. 

Think of it this way.  In the old model, we wanted to use a conversation as an opportunity to talk about ourselves.  But these days I have seen conversations grind to a halt because both parties are more interested in listening than talking.  When you ask why, they will tell you something like, “well, I already know what I am going to say, so I’d rather listen.”

I don’t know that we are any more selfless.  It’s just that our curious demands a richer diet than anything we have access to when we make scholarship and conversation a self portrait. 


Muir, Kenneth.  1971/2008.  Review of Shakepeare’s Lives.  Times Literary Supplement.  Originally published January 22, 1971.  Republished August 15, 2008.

Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1970. Shakespeare’s Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.

5 thoughts on “Do we still do this?

  1. alsomike

    I think we’ve just become more solipsistic and moved the conversation inside our own heads. What goes on in conversation between people is about carefully preserving each individual’s right to have this private conversation, a private reality.

  2. peter spear

    i think of Charles Tilly and his analysis of how we structure our responses and the somewhat finite purposes they serve. it sounds, to some degree, as if we are too well-trained, our toolbox ill-equipped to improvise.

    i wonder, as well, to what degree that lack of a clear future upon which to base one’s conversation calls into question our ability to accept or even recognize novelty? (or perhaps, as you allude to, it is immune to anything that is not novel?) where are the codes? what conventions do we turn to? this would appear to be especially true for the specialists.

    what can be said that will be entertaining and novel enough for oneself?

  3. missS

    Grant, I so wish this were true. But with every facebook post, every text sent, listening becomes an overlooked, underappreciated art-form. A conversation actually stopping b/c people were too busy listening? Because they were texting is more likely.

  4. Peter H

    This is an interesting observation, but one which does not seem accurate over the entire spectrum of communication. I don’t necessarily disagree that, among people who are similar, this is a growing truth, but I don’t agree that it is true once the difference gets wide enough. In other words, two white women (men still tend to talk over everyone else) who are listening to each other more than, say, their mothers might have 30 years ago, fits your observation. But white people (broadly speaking) are still not listening to the experiences of people of color. That what all the nonsense about ‘now we live in a post-racial America’ is about: white people are not listening to the experiences of people of color. We, as white people, are still understanding everyone else (people of color, the LGBT community, etc.) through our own lens, which is why we still claim — with a straight face — that things like sexism and racism and homophobia don’t exist anymore (except, of course, in a few ‘extremists’). Unless I have misread your post, I think this state of reading others in our own vision is still thriving in our culture. We’ve merely managed to convince ourselves we’ve changed when the underlying structures haven’t.

  5. peter spear

    i returned to this because i had been thinking about listening in light of this post when i read the post on dollhouse – in which you raise the question of our understanding of engagement. as you well know, engagement with others is a fascinating and magical experience that happens when one (oops) ‘engages.’

    perhaps we are at a point where we know that we need to listen and are tired of the way our own thoughts and engagements are framed. in which case, the engagement needs to precede the listening. i just read roman czarnic’s ’empathy and the art of living’ and the challenge of cultivating empathy seems to make the opportunities for “invitation” to be powerfully relevant.

    i’m not sure if this makes sense, but i think it’s fair to say that we’re listening, but are we engaging?

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