Thomas De Quincey, insists Pykk. All right, all right. “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823), less than two thousand words. Here are the first 6%:
From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate, which succeeds to the murder of Duncan, produced to my feelings an effect for which I never could account. The effect was, that it reflected back upon the murder a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity; yet, however obstinately I endeavored with my understanding to comprehend this, for many years I never could see why it should produce such an effect.
To crush De Quincey’s masterpiece, what he is doing is trying to pin down a particularly sublime moment at the end of Act II, Scene 3, sublime in the Burkean sense, the aestheticized fear caused by “Sound and Loudness” and “Suddenness,” the titles of Sections XVII and XVIII of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), although De Quincey, by making a devious argument about readerly sympathy actually inverts Burke.
We are almost tricked by the immediacy of fiction into sympathy with the now-murderous Macbeths, aided by the difficulties they are having in being evil, and thus experience the sudden, inexplicable knocking at the gate as fearfully sublime with the “transfigured” Macbeths, while at the same time the knocking is a sublime relief to us in our more ordinary human capacity as non-murderers, a merciful restoration: “the human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live, first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.”
Well, I don’t think my mangling of this little masterpiece was too severe. But I have skipped the point, and the long paragraph about how De Quincey made the above argument.
… my understanding could furnish no reason why the knocking at the gate in Macbeth should produce any effect, direct or reflected. In fact, my understanding said positively that it could not produce any effect. But I knew better; I felt that it did; and I waited and clung to the problem until further knowledge should enable me to solve it.
“[I]t is a dream-mystery, and a dream needs someone to dream it,” writes Pykk. Now that his essay exists as a text, I can treat it as an object composed of an argument and supporting evidence. But the essay’s insight comes from somewhere else.
De Quincey’s essay is a little too visionary to be a good example for me. I will close this little series, then with Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), which begins:
In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was for this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood.
What could be more personal? Reading, says Stevenson, is a continual attempt to recapture a childhood love. Of course modern readers, amateur critics, and bloggers writing their personal reactions and nothing but, nosirree, want to share that love whenever they are lucky enough to find it again. Of course they want to gloat.