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Wittenberg: First Conversation

Ok, yes, I'm sure you've read at least half a dozen other first meetings of Hamlet and Horatio, but (by golly!) here's mine, somewhat sporadically in the works for about four years. Several elements are derived from old, half-forgotten conversations with gignocum, and one or two are flat-out stolen.

Title: First Conversation
Characters: Hamlet, Horatio
Rating: G
Summary: Hamlet has, for a time, been aware of Someone with a Book, and finally takes an opportunity to try to learn something about him.

On a whim, Hamlet had strolled into Wittenberg's library to see what was happening there and who was doing it. The answer to the first, disappointingly, was nothing, and the second was on its way to becoming nobody of interest. Having passed through all the stacks without finding anyone who was likely to be receptive to the latest flurry of ideas beating about in his brains, Hamlet emerged along the windows to discover the Student of the Eternal Book settled in one embrasure, reading as serenely as any other person would at a desk or table.

Now this was a stroke of fortune. Some time ago---he could not have said how long or even whether it had been a sudden revelation or a gradually dawning awareness---Hamlet had discovered that Someone was often to be found in a window, with a book. It happened most commonly in the library, though once Hamlet had learned to look, he began to find this Someone in other windows as well. He had not learned well enough, though, for surely this unobtrusive personage had taken his place well before Hamlet had entered the library, and yet had escaped Hamlet's notice until now! He might or might not be well-disposed to receiving a string of Hamlet's ramblings, but either way it was a chance for Hamlet to learn more of him.

Hamlet approached his prey circumspectly, ambling along without particular intent of arriving anywhere. He paused at the window in which his quarry sat, still engrossed in its book, and looked out beyond the glass as if something outside had caught his attention. It was a common gesture, one Hamlet often employed in earnest, though just now there was nothing more remarkable than the heavy grey clouds that loomed over the town. He studied them intently just the same, and traced over his recent thoughts for a suitable place at which to begin. Satisfied at last, he addressed clouds and student indiscriminately:

`Consider, for example, the heliocentric model of the heavens.'

The recipients of this unpresaged imperative had undoubtedly been contemplating no such thing: the clouds had more likely been engaged in the question of whether to rain or to snow, while the human's attention and thoughts were, to all appearances, very much employed in the text in his hands, where he had surely expected them to remain until he himself chose to extricate them. Yet, when he raised his eyes over the top of his book to meet Hamlet's, they held only the faintest of surprise, and even that did not reach to the rest of his face. Well, Hamlet had been stationary and nearby for the minute or so before he spoke, so perhaps his sudden comment was not, in fact, as unanticipated as it might have been if this withdrawn man had been wholly lost to the world beyond bound leaves and ink, let alone the worlds beyond that. Even the single, minute movement that shifted his gaze from book to fellow human had been as calm---and, in an odd way, confident---as that of any man wholly comfortable in his surroundings. Perhaps (oh, and wouldn't that be an exhilaratingly tantalizing sort of perfection?) this man was the picture of tranquility, even when startled, or else . . . who knew, really? Not Hamlet, not yet, nor, as he had discovered, anyone else within his circle. Nonetheless, the Sitter in Windows had acknowledged Hamlet's opening play even if he had not answered it. It was a good deal more than the clouds had done (which put him ahead of some people, at least, of Hamlet's acquaintance), and for the present it was enough. Hamlet continued.

`In this contemporarily---though not absolutely---novel view, we find certain ideas of our existence called into question. But this thing that is now a question had been a certainty to other ages, and, whichever way it is settled, it will be a certainty again, and people of another time will wonder that there was ever anything at which to wonder. Perhaps, too, there are things that we know now that people of another time will wonder at: they may wonder if we really breathe the air, or if there are people on the moon or on the sun. They may even know that something we know is wrong: we know that there is one God, but the Ancients were sure they knew that there were many gods---as do plenty of Not-So-Ancients, for that matter. One day maybe people will know that there is no God. Or perhaps instead they will know . . . that we are not made up of earth and air and fire and water but rather,' and here he waved a hand vaguely, `something else.

`But even setting aside specific cases, is it possible for anyone to know something for a true certainty? How do you, for example, discern when you know the truth of something?' For whether the earth went around the sun, or the sun around the earth, Hamlet did not especially care. What mattered to him was that someone had found something to wonder about in an established truth, and the question of how to confront questions was more interesting than any one particular question---though this one was not too bad, as far as such things went. He looked expectantly at the student in the windowsill, waiting to discover how this uncommon specimen of humanity confronted the question of a question.

An answer was not immediately forthcoming, though to be fair---and Hamlet's sense of curiosity was, for the moment, benevolent---it really was not a query which he himself could have answered with anything less than half an hour's rambling discourse. The reply that presently came was very nearly adequate for the brief space of thought that had been allowed to precede it, and might easily have thwarted another man: `The practice has been established of declaring that one knows nothing,---'

Even as the words were spoken, numerous possible replies to them flitted through Hamlet's mind, beginning with critiques of established practices, glancing past the distinction between words and deeds, wallowing for a long instant in all things Socrates, and at last very nearly settling in reservations regarding absolute uncertainty---let alone ignorance---during the brief pause that Hamlet assumed marked the end of the statement.

`---my lord.'

That one final phrase scattered each of Hamlet's imagined retorts and left him to ask, somewhere between amazement and dismay, `Do you know me, then?' He had grown accustomed to scholarly debates, free from deference to his title, and was irked to find that this man, so exquisitely removed from the world, still heeded its official rules.

`I cannot claim your acquaintance, my lord---' and again he employed that formal courtesy, `---but I know who you are.'

Hamlet's irritation dissipated and his interest in pursuing the question of a question was set aside for the moment, usurped by the very intriguing game that had just been presented to him. Masking his delight, Hamlet inquired, `And who am I?'

A pause, as made by one uncertain upon what ground his fellow conversant stood, and then, `You are Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark.'

`So I am. But who am I?'

A longer pause, as made by one uncertain upon what ground he himself stood. `A student of Wittenberg, my lord.'

`That won't do. It makes you and I and every other aspiring scholar in this city entirely indistinguishable from one another. You might at least separate those who study willingly from those who do so by compulsion or those who do not attend to their books at all, but even that does not say much of any of us.'

`My lord, you are a clever man with a keener wit than I.'

`Hmph. You come nearer the mark, but not by much. Confess, now: you do not know who I am.'

The man in the window looked thoughtfully a long while at his interlocutor, and although his countenance revealed no moment of epiphany, his words made it clear that he at last understood the meaning of the repeated question. `I do not think that anyone but you could claim to know that, my lord.'

Elated at this most satisfactory answer---quite intelligent, after all, or at least able to shift perspective and adapt as circumstances required---Hamlet embarked upon a new course. `Well then, tell me who you are. Or what you are, if that is more in keeping with your method.'

`My name is Horatio, my lord. I am from Poland,' this Horatio answered with calm simplicity, placidly defying the preceding discovery of intelligence. Hamlet was both amused and vexed.

`His name and nation he tells me, as if that were all that defined him! There is more to you than that, I am sure. But look here, Horatio: if you are a Pole, and we both know I am a Dane, then I am not your lord.'

`But the purpose---'

`A fig for the purpose! I won't have it . . . nor anything else you can think up.'

`Given that the plant is better suited to the Mediterranean region than to the local climate, that is a tempting offer.' The end of the sentence was, perhaps, a trifle abrupt, but there was certainly no more to be said, not even the accursed courtesy. Oh, and it was rather clever, in its way; Hamlet would not have supposed such a quietly studious man as this Horatio to be capable of making a joke . . . though of course he did sit in windows. Perhaps that counted in his favour.

`Take the leaves, at least; they go with knowledge.'

`And sin.'

Hamlet shrugged. `You can still buy your way out of that back in Poland.'

`The practice of employing one policy at home and another abroad is hardly a commendable one.' And, given that the more lenient policy with respect to indulgences was to be found in Poland, that place would hardly be the one to be opprobrious in judgement.

`You attempt to define yourself with your Polish nationality, and yet you call Wittenberg your home?' Horatio raised his eyebrows in a simple shrug---a suitably understated gesture in so unassuming a man. `See? I told you there was more to you than name and nation, and already I have found out some of it.'

`And are you contented with what you have learned?'

`Not at all!' the Dane answered with a grin. `So, Pole, what do you think of Copernicus?'

`Just because he is also Polish does not mean that I have met him.'

`But does it allow you to understand his writings better, even though they are in Latin?'

`I have never read anything of his.'

`You are familiar with his ideas, aren't you?' The alternative was quite inconceivable.

`I have heard the general tenor of them, but only through hearsay.'

`And what is your opinion of them?'

`It would be foolish to speculate with such incomplete information as I possess.'

`You cannot mean you don't think of it at all!' This continuous avoidance was becoming absurd.

`I do not mean that.'

`Very well, then. What are those thoughts?'

Thus backed into a corner, Horatio reluctantly answered the question he had so far evaded. `Numbering our world among the wanderers, each of whom traces a precise circle around a stationary sun, would be a more perfect order than a system which requires some---and only some---of the objects orbiting the Earth to perform an extra, retrogressive loop to accommodate our observations---'


`---but I have seen little enough to convince me that there is simple order in the world.'

`And,' Hamlet suggested amiably, `there is also the trifling detail that the heliocentric view is hardly in favour.' He certainly found the politics of knowledge frustratingly obstructive when they frowned upon some otherwise quite interesting idea.

Horatio evidently caught Hamlet's underlying commentary and admitted, `Yes, there is that as well.'

Well! So they had very nearly admitted to one another that they each approved of possible heresy, so long as they could pursue their own thoughts. That, Hamlet decided, was an excellent answer to how Horatio addressed the question of a question. It had been a very subtle sort of revelation, to be sure, but it fitted Horatio; it seemed very much of him, in a way that his remark about knowing nothing had not. Hamlet cast about for something else to learn of this student. `You know, if I had not come across you sitting in a window, I should have taken you for a fellow who is subject to no whim.'

`I believe we all have deeds which we suppose we perform with the utmost reason, yet others consider mere fancy.' It was one of the most loquacious replies Hamlet had received, and was not even made in response to a direct question. There was, too, something rather like acerbity in his tone. Hamlet probed deeper.

`What? Do you disapprove of fancy, then?'

`I must not deny that the jester makes me laugh, for such would not be the truth; but I am not the jester. Any man, judged out of his sphere, is a very poor man.' No, he was not being defensive, as Hamlet had first suspected; rather, he was justifying himself. There was no longer any of the self-doubt that had pervaded their earlier conversation.

`And your part in the world is to sit---with the utmost reason---in windows?'

`From a window I may watch the events within and without and not be a participant in either.'

`What, then, do you observe in these dramas?'

`The development of the mind; the progress of life,' and Horatio nodded in turn to the library and then to the street visible without the window. There was something tantalizing, just a little further beyond what had been spoken, that seemed very like the solution to . . . to Horatio, perhaps.

`What is it that you see in these?'

`When I have made my findings, I shall, as a good scholar, make them known,' he stated with greater affability than he had thus far employed, and yet his manner was much more closed in comparison to his most recent replies. A curtain had fallen between his words and . . . his soul, perhaps? The yet-veiled glimpse of it had been brief and retrospect made it more uncertain. Horatio seemed aware of Hamlet's frustration at the inadequacy of his answer, for he added, `For the present I will say this: that people within something seldom have the most accurate view of that in which they are participants.'

Which, Hamlet finished, a man on the outside, such as Horatio, would be well positioned to observe. `Perhaps, then, it ought not be surprising that we as a whole are not the center of things anymore than we as individuals?'

`Perhaps not,' and a faint smile accompanied the admission.

`If that is the sort of thing one is able to discover by sitting in a window, then I think I should give it a try.' He received a look that, in another man---one more externally judgemental---could qualify as skepticism, but which from Horatio revealed nothing more than the unobtrusive interest of a man unobtrusively interested in everything that passed around him. On the instant, Hamlet resolved to undertake this study, to prove to himself---if not to this quintessential observer as well---that he too could make such tangibly profitable use of a windowsill. He claimed the next window with a certain confidant arrogance, and settled himself with his back toward the Pole, that his observations of the world might not be distracted by his observations of one man.

Outside the window sparse flakes drifted down, melting as they landed. The clouds had decided on snow after all, though the season was early yet. There was no one about in the street; perhaps this was why the Watcher in the Window had turned instead to his book. Hamlet drummed his fingers idly, waiting for something to happen. After a while he remembered that the library, too, was fair field for observation. He turned his attention that direction, only to realize belatedly that he had positioned himself such that little of the room came within his view. Ruefully, he reflected that the Pole, through whatever combination of intuition, experience and timing, had already selected the most advantageous location from which to perceive both of the worlds that offered themselves here.

In the street a trio of young men finally appeared. Now, what would a dedicated observer make of them? They were students, not locals . . . French, to judge by their dress. They had no books or parchments about them, so they were probably pursuing some activity of leisure, rather than anything academic. Given that their clothes and the weather were what they were, the French students were probably headed to some form of indoor entertainment, rather than the enjoyment of any undertaking out of doors. In fact, they appeared to have already partaken of the delights of at least one tavern, though Hamlet could not determine whether they were bound to sample the offerings of another, or else were interested in wares of quite another sort. If they were Danish, it would, at least by common opinion, be the former; Frenchmen, however . . . with Frenchmen, it just might be the latter. Surely, though, they would not be headed homeward after such half-complete carousing as they had managed so far. Hamlet wondered if Horatio would be able to determine whether their next destination was ale-house or brothel.

Then again, would Horatio even be able to conceive of the second possibility? It was not that Hamlet had characterized the Perpetual Reader as entirely a prude or an innocent, but he could easily have possessed enough of the two qualities together, or perhaps somehow existed so entirely independent of either of them, as to present something of a similar effect. But, no: a frank and indifferent observer fit better with what he had said of himself and what he claimed to see. But, yet again, there was his remark on the folly of speculation. Did he . . . stop short at observation and draw no conclusions therefrom? How was such a thing possible? Oh, Hamlet wouldn't have figured out everything he did about those French students had he not been looking, but since he had looked, he had found, and the deductions had followed down most naturally from the observations. So, then, Horatio would not speculate about where the students were going; he would instead content himself with noting that, at the moment, they were drunk. No, even that required an assumption: he would observe that they were unsteady on their feet, sometimes wavering, sometimes propping one another up. What usefulness was to be gained from that?

There was something else, though, that Hamlet had been ignoring: the Observer had not had nothing to say of Copernicus' theories. He had conceded that he did think of them, though he did not deem his thoughts at all complete, and what he had at last been coerced to reveal had been little more than a possibility. Were possibilities, then, what he gained from his observations, with each option viable and manifesting some `could be' state of the world? Under such circumstances, the French students might not have been French at all, but perhaps had stolen the clothes of French students; their ungainly progression, then, might be caused by laughter at their successful coup. Maybe, instead, their clothes had been stolen by Frenchmen (who, in some measure of courtesy, left behind the clothes they had worn), and the trio walked as they had as a result of whatever circumstance had left them vulnerable to such a prank.

A curious cloak out in the street caught his eye. It was not impractical for the weather; indeed, if anything, it was overly practical---an eccentric shape, shrouding the man or woman beneath it entirely from view and surely suitable for keeping its wearer warm and dry in much harsher conditions than a mere flurry of snow. Hamlet had come to a halt to look out at it, and it was only when the cessation of motion registered that he realized he had deserted his resolution of stationary observation in favour of pacing to follow one course of thought. That was . . . well, not precisely surprising, all things considered, but perhaps just a trifle embarrassing. He looked back to Horatio's window, abashed, to see what that far more devoted observer thought of Hamlet's abandoned endeavour, only to discover that that man had disappeared altogether sometime when Hamlet was lost in his own thoughts.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2010 08:31 am (UTC)
Oh, that was incredible. Very, very dense, but in a very, very good way. I particularly liked the expression of "the question of how to confront questions was more interesting than any one particular question". I love the intellectual poking around by Hamlet in his attempt to get to know Horatio. And his observations at the window just made me think that he's a regular Sherlock Holmes.

Nicely done, thanks so much for sharing!
Dec. 14th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
I'm delighted you enjoyed it and that it worked so well for you! And I'm having little squees about having pulled of a Holmesism; I always feel so stupid about that sort of perception the rest of the time, but it's somehow satisfying that I can at least manage in writing. ;) (Not that a Holmesism was really intentional, but it probably is unavoidable when discussing observations and deductions.)
Dec. 23rd, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Apologies for the belatedness of this comment --- as you know I have been indisposed, but have appreciated this without sufficient expression of that appreciation for some time. Some sporadic comments on moments that struck me, then:

Your execution of the first exchange --- Hamlet's 'consider …' and Horatio's silent response (though I was already familiar with the idea of it) --- is lovely, especially the description of Horatio's expression, and Hamlet's analysis thereof . . . (the parenthetical comments amusing and very Hamlet :P). Also appreciated was the extended personification of the clouds as the other recipient: I cannot say how amusing other people might find it, but it is, as you probably know, the sort of silliness that is very amusing to me :P.

Oh, and congratulations on finally managing the substance of Hamlet's rambling.

Horatio's placid defiance = win!

'back in Poland' --- harsh! (heeheehee) :P

The Copernicus exchange: If ever I am having difficulty explaining to someone the basic principles of my idea of Horatio, I may well point them towards these lines. A very classic (and reasonably succinct) demonstration of Horatian exactitude and inscrutability.

LOL at Horatio silently ditching Hamlet :P.
Oh and regarding the Observing Practice narrative at the end . . . I have for sometime been contemplating how well this might tie in to the sorts of things that are bothering Hamlet in the play --- appearances and the conclusions they encourage, 'actions that a man might play', the whole 'God has given you one face and you paint yourself another' thing. . . . In which case it is easy to see why even in his disillusionment he trusts and admires Horatio, because Horatio --- however inconceivably --- cannot be taken in by the suggestions of appearance, and is himself almost absurdly insistent in not appearing to know or think anything that he does not.
Jan. 19th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
Apologies for even further belated response to your comment. I have, I think, no such excuse as you.

Oddly, I seem to have another substance for Hamlet rambling running around. It turns up every now and then, and I think Oh, that would be useful someday, but then it disappears. I think I saw it just last night, in fact, but I've already forgotten where I found it. Ah, well.

Anyway, I'm delighted, of course, that you liked it. Especially the Horatio stuff . . . very . . . very fulfilling, that is.

A very classic (and reasonably succinct) demonstration of Horatian exactitude and inscrutability.

Oh, yay! Thank you!!

I hadn't been thinking at all about Hamlet's issues with appearances and illusion, but I'm glad to see this happens to fit in well with that, in a way. :)

Anyway, thanks, even at long last.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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