Today was not so unbearably hot in my neighborhood, thanks to an influx of clouds early this afternoon accompanied by a fine breeze. Which means I might be able to wear long pants tonight, and avoid adding to my new bug bite collection on my legs (eleven, at last count).
So instead of obsessing over the temperature all day, I watched two or three episodes of Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS (yes, I am that much of a geek; I also watch Antiques Roadshow sometimes . . . sue me). I was an English major, and I studied a lot of Shakespeare, so this was a great way for me to spend an afternoon. Anyway, one of the episodes was on Hamlet, with David Tennant doing the hosting duties (you can watch it here). Hamlet is a favorite of mine, and Tennant was my favorite Doctor, so it was win-win all around for me. But there was one scene which just stood out to me.
The program explores Shakespeare from a variety of angles–historical, biographical, literary, etc. At one point, Tennant goes to the British Museum to view original copies of the three different existing versions of Hamlet. The librarian tells him that the so-called “bad quarto” is one of only two existing copies, and Tennant gets this delighted, gleeful look on his face. He seems genuinely overjoyed that he gets to lay hands on something so incredibly rare (I was vaguely horrified that they let him touch it without gloves, but that’s another story). I found his reaction deeply affecting; I know I would’ve reacted much the same way. To touch history like that, to be connected to one of the greatest writers of the English language, seems so glorious and overwhelming. It made me think of all the ways there are to be a part of the world, of history, of culture. Of the dreams I have of being remembered for my words.
Which led me to this quirky little song by Josh Ritter. “Bone of Song” is a meditation on creativity and inspiration. The character, let’s call him Josh, finds the bone of song, “a jawbone old and bruised, and worn out in the service of the muse. And along its sides and teeth were written words.” The bone tells Josh to share his song, and it will be recorded along with all the other music inscribed there. It’s a magical object, meant to give the holder a place in the world of music, but no control or ownership over the muse: “It said leave me here, I care not for wealth or fame. I’ll remember your song, but I’ll forget your name.”
This is the experience of the artist. It is the search for your spot in the larger world you enter, to find a way to honor your predecessors while carving out a niche where you can be remembered, too. One of the themes that kept coming up in Tennant’s discussion of Hamlet was how an actor can find something new in a role and play that has become utterly ubiquitous. How do you make a role like that your own? How do you write words that stand up to those of Shakespeare or Joyce (or anyone, for that matter)? How do you paint a picture or take a photo that shows the world anew? There’s really no way to tell. You just do your best, and hope someone cares after you’re gone. That’s why the best artists and performers don’t create for an audience; they create for themselves. What they see and hear and know to be true. And they hope that one day, they will stumble on the great inspiration that will transform not only their own experience, but the world’s.
“Lucky are you, who finds me in the wilderness. I am the only unquiet ghost who does not seek rest.”