/ 23 September 2008

Of Shakespeare and detachment

At work a few weeks ago I began to see sudden flashes of light, which was strange for a cloudless day in Port Elizabeth.

Literary types (like me) might think this was a metaphor for inspiration, but when the lights were slowly replaced with an eclipse-like half-moon crossing one eye I thought a visit to the ophthalmologist advisable.

“Retinal detachment — seen a lot of them lately,” was the perfunctory verdict. “Caused by?” I inquired meekly. “Excessive myopia, over-enlarged eyeballs that break out of their sockets. We’ll get you into surgery as soon as we can; sort it out.” Does that mean I see too little, or too much, I wondered.

So, a couple of days later I found myself prone on a stretcher under the (less myopic I hope) eye of the anaesthetist, before going in to have my puncture fixed. Without my spectacles he was only a vague outline hovering over me, prodding my arm for a vein. “What you do for a living?” Conversation amid prods. “Teach English at varsity. You know, Shakespeare and stuff.” Silence. The prods stop. “They still do that?” “Um, yes, we do, well, we try anyway, against the odds most of the time.”

More silence. Prods resume. So I’m just some (idle) curiosity, lazy academic, I think to myself. I’m used to it.

“How many students do you have?” “About 400; not too many. Understaffed though, only five of us.

Pharmacy has 12 staff for 400 students. They won’t give us more because they don’t think we deserve more.” I don’t say I have recently been retrenched too. I wince as the needle breaks (this too, too sullied?) flesh.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I personally love Shakespeare. Been reading his biography. Bit of a bastard wasn’t he, I mean knocking up his girlfriend like that and then leaving her with the kids to go off and have a good time, with girls — and boys, too, nogal. Then only leaving her the second-best bed in his will?”

I’m so impressed I can hardly dis­agree. Hamlet and Lear were gay, I think to myself. Mercifully, he doesn’t ask what my students will do with their degrees in Shakespeare or whether they really like what I dish up. He presumes the question unnecessary. Will there come a time when he will have to apologise for his profession or when popular taste will dictate the medical syllabus?

“Where did you study?” I ask. “Wits.”

“You ever have Phillip Tobias for anatomy?” “Yes, brilliant!”

I’m tempted to ask, sarcastically, if they still teach anatomy in med school, but instead say: “Tobias (Sir Toby?) was the only academic ever to offer me tea when I used to rep medical books 20 years ago.”

“A true gentleman, a great man,” he says. I wonder if Tobias reads Shakespeare. I can’t imagine Shakespeare offering me tea.

So, why do I try to teach that stuff about “sullied flesh” and is Shakespeare not, as one colleague has it, “past his sell-by date”? I’m still thinking, when a tingling, whirly, melting feeling overcomes me, and it seems I’ve just had Puck’s fairy drops put on my eyes.

“Don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay, just a little prick here and the eye will go to sleep.”

“To sleep, perchance to dream.” To be fully anaesthetised so that your eyeballs don’t blow out on you! You can only rest in hands you can trust and would I trust Shakespeare with my eyesight, my future? No answer comes. I’m too drowsy.

When the tingling passes I rise out of half-sleep. My eye goes comfortably numb and blind and they cover up the other one: “Come sealing night, scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day.”

I am moved into theatre, hear other actors strutting their hour upon the stage under the whirr of machines and the clink of metal — our brave new world. Some sights are not to be seen.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I am glad I can’t see the scalpel. I am glad my surgeon studied anatomy. Why do I teach? Maybe because of TS Eliot’s pompous apology: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”, and literature is a comfortable anaesthetic. Or maybe because of Gloucester’s blinding insight: “Out vile jelly”; or maybe because of Lady Macbeth’s “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh” over her soiled hands. But that way madness lies.

Will it make the world a better place? Well, at least, some time after my operation, I could help the economics 101 student in the exam hall understand a question when he could not fathom the English — something about goods and the elasticity of value. I must learn detachment.

Dr Kevin Goddard was, until recently, senior lecturer in English at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University