Friday, January 08, 2010

A cliff note for deconstruction

Deconstruction, the literary theory that "attempts to demonstrate that any text is not a discrete whole but contains several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings" (Wikipedia - a definition as good as any) has been popularly regarded as an arcane, perverse bit of wizardry on the border between fraud and rocket science. I always felt that it demonstrated itself pretty well empirically (though logically, it should also unravel its own propositions...).

One Shakespeare sonnet, No. 24, always seemed to me to capture the idea in a line - the one bolded below.

Mine eye hath played the painter and hath stelled
Thy beauty's form in table of my heart.
My body is the frame wherein 'tis held,
and perspective it is best painter's art.
For through the painter must you see his skill
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom's shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.

The bolded line is I believe the ultimate Shakespearean pun, and a fine demonstration that poetic assertions do in fact unravel themselves. Its second meaning: "to find where your true image...pictured... lies." As in 'does not tell the truth.'  That's the sonnets' backbeat -- or, if you prefer, their dominant chord. Over and over, the poet insists that his word portraits immortalize the inner beauty, the "worth and truth," of the young object of his love. Over and over, he questions, doubts, undercuts and reasserts that basic claim.

After some dazzling inside/outside pyrotechnics, this particular sonnet ends with a lament that courses throughout the 154-sonnet sequence:

Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done.
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, wherein the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
  Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art:
  They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Remember, it's the unknowing eye that "stelled" the portrait.  Perspective shows the painter's skill, but the true image, pictured, lies.

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