December 1, 1999

Welcome to Phlit, the e-newsletter that flits once a month through the world of philosophy and literature.

1. Shakespeare

The word “newsletter” suggests news. Is there any “news” in the world of literature? The pursuit of culture requires that you turn your back on news, that you limit your intake of news. News is now so abundant that if one doesn’t make a policy of avoiding it, it can easily crowd out all literary pursuits, like a weed growing in one’s life.

There is, however, one kind of news in the literary world: our own discoveries of little-known books that deserve to be well-known. A few years ago, I discovered an English poet and dramatist named Shakespeare. I was watching a television documentary called “The Shakespeare Mystery,” and to my astonishment, the Earl of Oxford gradually emerged as the real author of the works attributed to “Shakespeare,” and the traditional Shakespeare appeared to be a hoax. I decided to pursue this issue in greater depth, and I read Charlton Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. The case for Oxford is strong and detailed, the evidence is abundant, all the clues point to Oxford as the perpetrator, the mystery can be unraveled.

When I read Tolstoy, I wanted to learn about Tolstoy himself, when I read Proust, I wanted to learn about Proust himself. Now, finally, I was learning about Shakespeare, I was reading a real biography of Shakespeare. And I wasn’t alone: many people nowadays are discovering the real Shakespeare, and are as excited by the discovery as I was. The Oxford theory is getting more and more publicity, and seems destined to become the mainstream view of Shakespeare in the not-too-distant future. If you haven’t yet discovered Shakespeare yourself, a fascinating intellectual adventure lies in store for you, and once you discover Shakespeare, you too will spread the “news”!

2. Kafka

I’m now reading Kafka’s novel, The Trial. It’s described on the back cover as a “terrifying tale,” but it strikes me as playful and humorous. Example: K. is walking to his “first interrogation.” As he climbs a flight of stairs, he has to push his way through children who are playing on the stairs; “he had actually to wait for a moment until a marble came to rest, two children...holding him meanwhile by his trousers.” A “terrifying tale”?

Kafka’s work is sprinkled not only with humor, but also with poetry. In the first chapter of The Trial, K. comes home from his job and speaks to his landlady, Frau Grubach. Frau Grubach assures him that Fraulein Bürstner’s room is in good order, despite having been used by court officials earlier that day. She invites K. to look at the room himself. “‘Thanks, I believe you,’ said K., but went in through the open door all the same. The moon shone softly into the dark chamber.” This soft moonlight is, in my view, poetry of the highest order: natural, realistic, and described in the simplest possible language. Surely such passages meant much to Kafka, and surely they contribute much to his place in world literature. As Kundera said, Kafka not only described the situation of modern man, he also found beauty in it.

Kundera writes like a professional writer: every step is planned, and every plan is executed. Kafka, on the other hand, wrote like an amateur: nothing is planned, nothing is finished. In Kafka’s work, the parts mean more than the whole; Kafka was in love with the trees, and lost sight of the forest. Kafka didn’t seem to think about his novel as a whole, he wrote without knowing where he was going, he was preoccupied with the act of writing, he sought the perfect sentence, he tried to make every sentence perfect.

3. Crisis of Faith

The 20th century has been scarred by two movements, Communism and Fascism. Since Fascism is a subset of Nationalism, I should perhaps have said, “Communism and Nationalism.” Both Communism and Nationalism originated around 1800, when religious faith was crumbling, and atheism was spreading. Communism and Nationalism were new religions, created to fill the void left by the decline of Christianity. Communism is a species of Rationalism, Communism is based on the notion that human reason can arrange society, without recourse to faith or tradition. Rationalism has been growing since the Renaissance, and Rationalism finds it difficult to accept Christianity. “A cracker is the body of Christ? How absurd!” Thus speaks the Rationalist, and then he turns his back and walks out of church.

There have been several responses to the crisis of faith. One such response is that of the older Tolstoy, who tried to strip away the irrational, mystical elements of Christianity, and develop a new religion based on Christian morality, a religion that would not offend reason. Another response is that of Kierkegaard, who rejected reason, and embraced the irrational elements of Christianity. Kierkegaard argued that whether Christianity is true or not, we must believe it in order to live. “The postulate [of God],” said Kierkegaard, “far from being arbitrary, is a necessary act of self-preservation.”1 A third response is that of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who rejected Christianity completely. Schopenhauer admired Indian philosophy, while Nietzsche admired Greco-Roman civilization. A fourth response is that of Jung, who respected the irrational elements in religion, and believed that religion, like psychotherapy and art, could contribute to spiritual health.

Western civilization has been plagued by a crisis of faith since it couldn’t fit Christianity into its rational-scientific worldview. The non-Western world has also been plagued by a crisis of faith because it acquired a rational-scientific worldview from the West, and found it difficult to fit its native religions into this rational-scientific worldview. Russia and China discarded their traditional faiths and opted for Communism. The Islamic fervor that is found in many Arab countries is not, in my view, a genuine religious faith, but rather a desperate attempt to establish a cultural identity distinct from the West. Perhaps Japan’s adoption of Shinto was also a desperate attempt to establish a cultural identity distinct from the West. The crisis of faith is more than a Western phenomenon, it’s a world-wide phenomenon.

Does wisdom come from suffering? Have the sufferings of the 20th century made us wiser? I think we understand now that a complete rejection of religion is fraught with danger. We understand that human reason, divorced from faith and tradition, can’t create Utopia. We understand that there isn’t one Truth, one Way, that will work for everybody; different nations, different individuals, will find spiritual peace through different means. Zen is, in my view, the ultimate spiritual wisdom, but if my neighbor finds peace in the Catholic Church, or in psychotherapy, or in art and music, why should I preach to him?

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, IV, 1 back