Critical Inquiry 17 (3):609-615 (1991)

Years ago, before Arnoldian poetic touchstones had become quite as unpopular as they are now, I and my fellow college undergraduates found a touchstone of sorts in a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The cherished line read:Plato alone looked upon beauty bare.For us, this line became the touchstone, not of poetic sublimity but of being poetic, which is to say of attaining a consummate inane pretentiousness in poetic diction and intellectual attitude alike. Millay, we thought, had done it once and for all.Today, of course, nobody has any use for touchstones, and if we erstwhile undergraduates were to reread Millay we might well come away feeling ashamed of our former arrogance, juvenile conceit, and no doubt sexism. Still, Millay’s line has a memorably vacuous, oracular ring to it. That is the ring I keep hearing in Gerald Bruns’s “Stanley Cavell’s Shakespeare” . “Cavell … alone perhaps with Martin Heidegger, has a sense of what is at stake in this quarrel [between philosophy and poetry]” . “Exposure to reality is what happens in Hamlet, although it occurs nowhere so powerfully as in Lear” . “This was the later Heidegger’s idea: poetry … puts everything out of the question” . “The face, like the world , requires me to forego knowing” . “Proving the existence of the human proved to be a separate problem that did not get clearly formulated until Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’” . Philosophers and cultural historians may make what they will of these vatic disclosures, but it may strike those who study Shakespeare that Bruns is recycling lugubrious clichés about Hamlet and Lear while simultaneously upping the philosophical ante for them. This, however, is roughly the procedure that Bruns wants to pass off as Cavell’s. Jonathan Crewe, professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author of Trials of Authorship: Anterior Forms and Poetic Reconstruction from Wyatt to Shakespeare
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DOI 10.1086/448600
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