December 12, 2007

1. Three Movies

Paris, Je t’aime is a French movie made up of 18 mini-movies. Each mini-movie is set in a different Paris neighborhood, and each has a different director. When I began watching it, I was confused, repelled. Then I watched the last of the 18, which is easy, accessible, hard not to like. After enjoying that piece, I went back and watched several pieces for a second time. I began to like the movie more and more, and now I look forward to returning to it. On the whole, it’s tasteful and intelligent, though I still find some pieces repellent. It’s a dense movie, and the first time you watch it, it may be hard to get a handle on.

I saw a movie called Year of the Dog. It begins as a pleasant, witty comedy, but it limps at the end — as if the creators of the movie didn’t know how to conclude it. It has good lines/scenes, but it doesn’t form a whole, it doesn’t go anywhere or achieve anything.

I also saw a movie called Broken English. It has the wit and intelligence of Year of the Dog — and more. It ends well, it forms a whole, it goes somewhere and achieves something. The protagonist grows, finds her center, finds herself, perhaps as a result of talking with a wise old man, perhaps as a result of experience and suffering.

Like Year of the Dog, Broken English is about a young woman’s adventures in love, her failures and successes in love.

2. The Secret

Broken English says, Love yourself first, then your relationships with others will work out. This is also one of the messages of The Secret, a wildly popular film about the power of positive thinking. The Secret teaches “love yourself, feel good, visualize the attainment of your goal, and then you’ll reach your goal. Don’t worry about how your goal will be reached, let the universe arrange that.”

According to this film, the secret that all wise men have grasped is The Law of Attraction, which says that your thoughts and intentions have a kind of magnetic power, and attract what is akin to them. If, for example, you think about your debts, you’ll “attract” debt. On the other hand, if you think about being rich and driving a fancy car, you’ll “attract” wealth and a fancy car. Like inspirational literature (self-help literature), this film pays much attention to material goods. But like inspirational literature, it also contains deep truths, occult truths. It has aroused the ire of those who scorn the occult — Reason Magazine, for example, and The Skeptic. In an earlier issue, we mentioned “Goethe’s promise that what one ardently desires when young one will realize in old age”; Goethe’s promise closely resembles The Law of Attraction.

Some of the sages mentioned are favorites of mine — Campbell, Jung, Emerson, etc. The power of positive thinking is an ancient truth that seems to be growing more widespread, more popular. This film does a good job of explaining this important truth, and encouraging people to practice it. But this film stays on the level of pop culture. I’d like to see a film that treats the same subject on a higher level — perhaps a Ken Burns film on the power of positive thinking. Or better yet, a Ken Burns film on the occult in general, with one section on the occult power of thought.

Perhaps there’s no subject that Phlit has discussed more often than the occult power of thought. I’ve discussed this in relation to Proust, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Melville, James Allen, etc. I’ve probably discussed the power of negative thinking more than the power of positive thinking, perhaps because literature deals with negative thinking more often, perhaps because I have more experience with negative thinking. When I discussed Bruno, I said that he believed in the power of images to change your mind and your world. The Secret does a fine job of describing the power of images.

3. The Surge

Something remarkable is happening in Iraq: The Surge is working. When Bush increased the number of American troops about eight months ago, few people believed that the new approach would work as well as it has. It seemed that the situation in Iraq was so chaotic, so intractable, that no strategy could bring about dramatic improvements. Many people said we should leave, we should cut our losses and leave, we shouldn’t increase our bet, we shouldn’t “double down.” Of course, we’re not out of the woods yet, it remains to be seen what sort of government will ultimately be established in Iraq, but we seem to have turned a corner, the forces of moderation seem to be stronger than the forces of mayhem. Bill Kristol is happy because he had been advocating a surge for many years, and now the surge is working as well as his magazine (The Weekly Standard) had said it would. When Bush first proposed The Surge, my attitude was, “Though it may not work, we have to try it, we can’t just cut and run.” Unfortunately, I didn’t support The Surge publicly, so now I can’t say, “I told you so.”

4. First Names

In the heyday of Protestantism, first names were often based on virtues, and names like Charity, Faith, and Prudence were common. When China was fervently Communist, children were given names like Hong-yu (Red Universe) and Kang-mei (Fight Americans). The character of our consumer culture is apparent in the popularity of names like Lexus, Chanel, Porsche, etc.

5. Nicholas Negroponte

Nicholas Negroponte became well known as

  1. the founder and head of The Media Lab at MIT
  2. the author of a book about the digital revolution called Being Digital
  3. the founder and head of One Laptop Per Child, which aims to distribute inexpensive laptops in the Third World

His father was a Greek shipping magnate, and young Nicholas attended private schools in Europe as well as the U.S. His brother is the American diplomat John Negroponte.

Nicholas Negroponte was recently interviewed by Brian Lamb. He’s interesting, lively, impressive. He thinks he can change the world with his laptops, and he wants Bush to give one to every child in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In two earlier issues of Phlit, I questioned the idea of “peer review.” I said it was an organ of the establishment, and inhospitable to revolutionary ideas, such as The Oxford Theory and the occult. In his interview with Brian Lamb, Negroponte criticized “peer review” for the same reasons that I criticized it:

I was always apprehensive of the peer review system. And I still am to this day, because, if your peers are reviewing you.... they’re doing it from a point of view that is to some degree the establishment....

The peer review system suffers from often dismissing things, because they don’t fit into what we’re currently doing.

6. Lionel Trilling

Trilling is tremendous. I never realized what a fine writer he was, and what a deep thinker. One of his chief concerns is a subject that I’ve often pondered: the place of literature in modern life, the possibility of a literary culture in modern society, the task of fostering a lay culture — a culture that isn’t confined to academia, a culture that rises above pop culture.

Unfortunately, Trilling seems to be interested in politics. He dreams of, “a new union between our political ideas and our imagination.”1 Perhaps his interest in politics was shared by Irving Kristol and, in our time, Bill Kristol. Trilling doesn’t seem to realize that politics distracts people from culture, that culture should exist on a plane above politics. Also, he doesn’t seem to realize that both politics and culture are shaped by religious attitudes, spiritual attitudes. He’s unaware that new approaches to religion are stirring in our time — Eastern, Jungian, etc. He appreciates Freud, but not Jung.

But whatever his shortcomings may be, Trilling has a sure grasp of literature, and the challenges that it faces today. And he isn’t content just to complain, he looks around to see if anything can be done to improve the situation. He tries to describe what a small magazine can do to foster a lay culture. As Thucydides praised Pericles for not pandering to the populace, so Trilling cautions writers against pandering to popular taste:

In a true democracy nothing should be done for the people. The writer who defines his audience by its limitations is indulging in the unforgivable arrogance. The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them. He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie. The writer serves his daemon and his subject.

I recommend Trilling’s book, The Liberal Imagination, a collection of essays and literary criticism. I came across The Liberal Imagination because I was interested in the Huck Finn essay that it contains. One of the essays in The Liberal Imagination is called “The Function of the Little Magazine”; it’s a fine essay. Trilling published several volumes of essay-collections, and two full-length studies — one of Matthew Arnold, and another of E. M. Forster. Trilling taught at Columbia for many years. He often taught with Jacques Barzun, to whom he dedicated The Liberal Imagination.

One of Trilling’s students at Columbia was Norman Podhoretz, whom I mentioned in an earlier issue of Phlit, and also in my book, Realms of Gold. Podhoretz was one of the original neoconservatives, along with Irving Kristol. Podhoretz was even more political than Trilling, though he still retained some of Trilling’s respect for literature. Podhoretz published a collection of essays called The Bloody Crossroads: Where Literature and Politics Meet; this title is a quote from Trilling.

I don’t deny that literature and politics sometimes intersect, as in the work of Solzhenitsyn, and I don’t deny that some important philosophers have had a keen interest in politics, such as Mill and Locke. But most imaginative writers — Joyce and Proust, for example — pay no attention to politics. Modern philosophical writers like Freud and Jung pay no attention to politics. In an earlier issue, I quoted Elie Kedourie:

What the peculiar satisfactions of scholarly activity are we may begin to appreciate if we bring to mind such works as Edward Gibbon on the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Jakob Burckhardt on the Italian Renaissance, Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient city, Gustave von Grunebaum on medieval Islam, or S.D. Goitein on medieval Mediterranean society. These monuments are indeed, in Schiller’s words, “completely self-contained, and as if existing beyond space, neither yielding nor resisting.” By no conceivable stretch of the imagination can they be said to work in favor of a political cause or against it.

Kedourie quotes Goethe with approval: “Let us leave politics to the diplomats and the soldiers.”

It saddens me to see The New York Intellectuals gradually lose sight of literature. The first generation, led by Trilling, maintained a balance between literature and politics. The second generation — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, etc. — became increasingly preoccupied with politics. The third generation — Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, etc. — writes political commentary and political speeches, and pays almost no attention to literature. In many issues of Phlit, I’ve lambasted The Left for politicizing culture — for focusing on race, gender, etc. Perhaps The Right also politicizes culture.

Trilling doesn’t champion the irrational, as I do, but he does caution liberals about rationalism. In the preface to his Liberal Imagination, he says that liberals try to “organize the elements of life in a rational way,” and to “simplify” the world. Trilling reminds us that Mill, a classic liberal, suffered a nervous breakdown because liberalism restricted his emotional life, and made the world seem “prosaic.” Coleridge’s poetry stirred Mill back to life. According to the epigraph of one of Coleridge’s poems, “a judicious belief in the existence of demons has the effect of keeping the mind from becoming ‘narrow, and lapsed entirely into mean thoughts.’” The occult makes the world infinitely interesting. Trilling understood that the “liberal imagination” could be desiccated by rationalism.

7. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 63

Like Sonnet 60 (discussed in a recent issue), Sonnet 63 deals with aging, and the changes wrought by Time, and the ability of literature to overcome Time, and achieve immortality. People who subscribe to the Oxford Theory will note that the poet describes himself as “crushed and o’erworn” by “Time’s injurious hand.” This is consistent with the Oxford Theory, which says that the poet died just a few years after this sonnet was written. On the other hand, it’s difficult for Stratfordians to explain how the poet can be “crushed and o’erworn,” yet not close to death — in fact, in the prime of life. Stratfordians believe that Oxford’s early death is a problem for Oxfordians; Stratfordians are as fond of saying “1604” as Captain Flint was of saying “pieces of eight.” On the other hand, Oxfordians believe that the Stratford man’s late death (1616) is a problem for Stratfordians.

In line 1, “Against” means “before.”

Against my love shall be, as I am now,
With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn;
When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travelled on to age’s steepy night,
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight,
Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life.
   His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
   And they shall live, and he in them still green.

In line 9, “fortify” means “erect fortifications.” In line 12, “lover” means “beloved” (or, “my sweet love”); in other words, line 12 means that Time can take away my son’s life, but it can’t take away the memory of his beauty.

The reference to “king” in line 6 will be noticed by people who subscribe to the Prince Tudor Theory (according to the Prince Tudor Theory, the poet is addressing the Earl of Southampton in Sonnet 63, and in many other sonnets; furthermore, the Prince Tudor Theory says that Southampton was the son of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, hence he was heir to the throne, hence “king”).

8. Memories of G. Wilson Knight

As every reader of Phlit knows, I’m a fan of G. Wilson Knight, an English writer who is best known for his commentary on Shakespeare. About a month ago, I was thinking that it might be possible to contact people in England who had known Knight, who had been students of Knight in 1950 or 1960. Then I received an e-mail from a student of Knight, Robin Hallett, who had chanced to visit my website. Here we have a strange coincidence that’s probably not a coincidence. Robin knew both G. Wilson Knight and his brother, Jackson Knight. Robin refers to Wilson Knight as “Dick” (his real name was George Richard Wilson Knight). Robin wrote thus:

In 1962/3, my final year at Exeter University, I lived with Dick and his brother Jackson Knight in their home — Caroline House in Exeter. Jackson Knight was a Reader in Classics at Exeter (of international renown for his Penguin translation of the Aeneid) and Dick had just retired as Professor of English at Leeds University. At the time he was researching John Cowper Powys.

[Dick] was for some years a Housemaster at Stowe, the boys’ Public School, and wrote a book about it which he gave me. His biography of Jackson Knight (to which I contributed) is a mine of information about those two extraordinary people.

[Dick and Jackson] were complete contrasts, Jackson being anarchic, witty, hyper-sociable, sensitive, working when the mood took him. Quite likely to leave his socks soaking in his bedroom wash basin, and being distracted by something else, forget and water come through the ceiling. Actually he began to play up to his own image and had a cartoon quality, larger than life, high pitched voice and dropping epigrams (“Wherever you are, you’re never very far from somewhere else”).

Dick was physically a big man, but sensible, structured in his work methods which never varied, courteous. I asked Dick about his acting career and have never forgotten his reply: “Acting is more important than living!” His work in Canada [as an actor/director], especially Othello, was remembered with warmth and he would “grow” in the telling from his normally quiet self. Dick spent much time dealing with Jackson’s eccentricities (Jackson once broke a teapot, and in a panic purchased a dozen more sets, which Dick had to take back!). He was humble, always willing to listen as if on equal terms and gently discuss, thoughtfully.

Dick was a bachelor who to use a cliché had chosen to be so, telling me that there had been a special woman who seemed to have challenged him “It’s either me or your work!” He chose work (whatever that meant). I think he was happiest on his own terms, with literature, ideas and a theatrical audience for whom he could illuminate Shakespeare as an interpretation physically (the actor) or through his writing but not in his own persona (he was comfortable in front of a large audience, but he didn’t enjoy interacting with small groups). Perhaps when you become immersed in Literature to the extent he was you forget who you are yourself!

You mentioned the occult. Both Dick and Jackson were ardent Spiritualists, and there were quaint chats at breakfast, notably by Jackson who was “in touch with Vergil”!

We had a range of gurus talked about at breakfast, including the “Angry Young Man” movement. Colin Wilson often visited Caroline House, and the Knight Brothers encouraged his work.2

9. Miscellaneous

A. “Hiring Smiling Faces” reads a sign at McDonald’s, and doubtless many companies follow the same policy. What chance does a poor philosopher, who rarely smiles, have of landing a job? Don’t melancholics deserve an equal opportunity? Should we be discriminated against just because we were born under Saturn? Should doors be closed against us because we’re saturnine, not jovial?

B. Back in January, Harvey Mansfield published a book review in The Weekly Standard.3 He reviewed a book called Plato and the Virtue of Courage. It’s a Straussian review in a Straussian publication of a Straussian book about a favorite Straussian subject. Mansfield calls his review “The Forgotten Virtue: How Plato Perceived the Importance of Courage.” Contemporary intellectuals, Mansfield argues, are preoccupied with the self, while courage seems to forget the self: “Whether we think of gain in the terms of economics, or of esteem in the language of psychology, the self is a kind of deity and our theorists are its theologians. They seem to be afraid of courage.” Mansfield seems unaware that Eastern philosophy is popular today, and Eastern philosophy looks beyond the self, minimizes the self. The Straussians are trying to do the impossible: make Plato popular today. Mansfield writes, “Plato is still relevant today — indeed needed — and all the more because we are so chary of courage.”

10. Two Psychiatrists Look at Hamlet

A. Richard Waugaman

Richard Waugaman wrote an essay called “Unconscious Communication and Literature.”4 It discusses the Oxford Theory, hence it was mentioned on an Oxfordian forum, where I heard about it. Waugaman’s essay discusses an essay on Hamlet by Dinko Podrug.5

Waugaman says that, in its early years, psychoanalysis focused on the mind of the patient. Now, however, psychoanalysis focuses on the interaction between patient and therapist: “Psychoanalysis has gradually emphasized a relational, two-person frame of reference, which expands its previous one-person psychology of the mind of the patient.” Likewise, Podrug’s essay focuses not on the character of Hamlet, or the character of Gertrude, but rather on the interaction among characters. This reminds me of Knight’s focus on “Shakespeare’s world” rather than his characters. It also reminds me of quantum physics, which emphasizes particle-interaction rather than particles-by-themselves. And finally, it reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh, who replaces “being” with “inter-being.” Can we summarize by saying, “Everything is a part of the whole, and nothing exists in a vacuum”?

Waugaman says we can’t separate a patient from the people he interacts with. Some of these people may have a place within the mind of the patient: “Important relationships become internalized in the patient’s own mind.” This is particularly true, Waugaman says, of patients who have multiple personalities (Waugaman speaks of, “the ‘alters’ of patients who have dissociative identity disorder”). In an earlier issue, we argued that Hitler had “dissociative identity disorder”.

Waugaman urges people to be open-minded toward the new view of Shakespeare, toward the Oxford Theory. He suggests that some people may be innately open-minded: “One’s personal reaction to [the Shakespeare] debate might also provide an interesting case study for Sulloway’s observation that first-born children are more close-minded to paradigm shifts than are later-born children.”

Waugaman is aware of the numerous parallels between Oxford’s life and the character of Hamlet. As a result of these parallels, Hamlet has a special significance for the Oxford Theory. The Oxford Theory says that Hamlet is based on the author himself, has much in common with the author, hence Hamlet is such a life-like character: “If de Vere wrote Hamlet, the parallels between the play and de Vere’s own life would greatly illuminate Graham Bradshaw’s contention that ‘Hamlet can seem an actual person who somehow has been caught inside a play’ as well as [Harold] Bloom’s own remark that ‘Hamlet is [his author’s] own consciousness.’”

Hamlet is life-like because he isn’t a character with one undivided personality. Hamlet is contradictory, as real people are; Hamlet is both good and evil, as real people are. As Bloom put it, “‘Shakespeare created Hamlet as a dialectic of antithetical qualities.’ Bloom calls Hamlet ‘a dance of contraries.’”

I’ve always been attracted to clarity and simplicity, but Waugaman defends ambiguity: “Successful works of art need to have some of the qualities of a Rorschach card, whose ambiguous stimulus invites the projection of our internal contents.”

B. Dinko Podrug

Waugaman’s essay inspired me to read Podrug’s. Podrug says that understanding people means understanding their interactions: “Reality is constructed not by one or another character or narrator, but by their mutual exchanges.” Podrug speaks of, “The most complex aspect of [being] a psychiatrist, namely, comprehending and managing the emotional valences of the therapist-patient relationship.”

The Hamlet that emerges from Podrug’s essay is a rather dark character, not unlike Knight’s interpretation of Hamlet. Podrug discusses Hamlet’s rough treatment of Ophelia immediately after the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Samuel Johnson described Hamlet’s behavior as “useless and wanton cruelty.” According to Podrug, Hamlet’s cruelty to Ophelia is the greatest puzzle of the play, “so inexcusable as to endanger the very life of the play.”

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. The Liberal Imagination, “The Function of the Little Magazine”
Note that the full title of Trilling’s book is The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. Trilling writes, “The word liberal is a word primarily of political import.... A writer of literary criticism involves himself with political considerations. These are not political essays, they are essays in literary criticism. But they assume the inevitable intimate, if not always obvious, connection between literature and politics.” back
2. I’ve made some slight alterations in Robin’s notes.

I discussed Colin Wilson in my Realms of Gold. A younger version of Colin Wilson is Gary Lachman, author of A Dark Muse: A History of the Occult. Click here for Robert Anton Wilson’s interview with Colin Wilson (the two Wilsons aren’t related). back

3. 1/29/07 back
4. Psychiatry, Fall 2003 back
5. The Podrug essay is in the same issue of Psychiatry (Fall 2003) back