January 30, 2008

This is the shortest issue of Phlit that I’ve released in recent months (wild applause). Since part of it deals with current events, I wanted to release it before events passed it by.

1. Pundits and Politics

I pity the pundits. Voters seem to purposely overturn their predictions, and embarrass them. I myself recently played pundit, and got burned. I’ll never venture another prediction. In the January 14 issue of Phlit, I said, “As for the Republican primary, it looks like a race between Huckabee and McCain.” No sooner did I say that than Huckabee faded, and it became a race between Romney and McCain. After the Florida vote on January 29, it seems like McCain will coast to victory.

Before the Florida vote, polls showed McCain and Romney neck-and-neck; in fact, most people thought that Romney had the momentum, and would probably defeat McCain in Florida. Then McCain accused Romney of advocating a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. It was clear that Romney didn’t advocate such a timetable. Romney promptly labeled McCain’s accusation “dishonest.” McCain himself, when he made his accusation, lowered his head, as if ashamed. When I watched FoxNews, Brit Hume said that McCain’s accusation was indeed dishonest, but Chris Wallace acted as if it didn’t matter whether the accusation were true or not. Hume was aghast at Wallace’s attitude, and lectured him on the responsibilities of journalists. As for Bill Kristol, he remained silent; as a staunch supporter of McCain, Kristol couldn’t bring himself to call McCain to account, though he must have known that his accusation was false.

The incident raises some interesting ethical questions: should a candidate for President stick to the truth, even if he believes that his opponent isn’t? Do the ordinary rules of ethics apply in a Presidential campaign? Doubtless the rules of ethics are suspended in time of war. No one would blame Churchill, for example, if he lied to a Nazi diplomat about the American atom-bomb program, and no one would blame a general if he lied to his troops, if he said to his troops, “they’re scared of you, you outnumber them.” If the rules of ethics don’t apply in time of war, do they apply in a Presidential campaign? And if they don’t apply in a war or a campaign, can we call them “rules”? Perhaps there are no rules of ethics, perhaps every ethical judgment is a subjective judgment about a unique situation. Perhaps we can’t say that McCain’s false accusation against Romney violated “the rules of ethics,” perhaps all we can say is that it was distasteful (and it makes it hard for conservatives to accuse The Clintons of dishonesty).

2. Beyond Ethics

In my book of aphorisms, I said, “Great prose writers don’t follow rules, they follow their taste.” In art, as in sport, only the beginner follows rules. “The beginner at golf,” wrote Wilson Knight, “is usually guilty of ‘thinking too precisely on the event’; but not so the expert, whose thought is embedded in, sunk in, dissolved throughout, the living action, mind and body functioning as a unit.”1 The Zen master teaches the archery student to become one with his bow — not to consciously follow rules, not to consciously release the arrow, but to let the arrow release itself, to become unconscious, to become spontaneous, “mind and body functioning as a unit.”

Hamlet is like the beginner at golf; Hamlet is too thoughtful, he can’t act spontaneously, he can only make a rational calculation of pros and cons. But Shakespeare shows us an image of spontaneity, of “mind and body functioning as a unit”; he describes Lamord’s riding skills thus:

   he grew unto his seat;
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse,
As had he been incorps’d and demi-natur’d
With the brave beast: so far he topp’d my thought
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did. (IV, vii)

Lamord is unconscious and spontaneous, beyond description, beyond technique, beyond rule.

What is true in sport and art is also true in life: the beginner follows rules, ethics, but the highest goal is spontaneity. To achieve wholeness, to act out of our center, is to go beyond ethics. If we combine the active and the passive, the masculine and the feminine, the conscious and the unconscious, we go beyond rules, beyond ethics. The New Testament calls this “freedom from the law.” It is this freedom that eludes Hamlet; Wilson Knight says that Hamlet is “sunk deep in the knowledge of good and evil and clogged by ethic.”

3. Contraries

In an earlier issue, I discussed Shakespeare’s view of the ideal man. I began by quoting Antony’s remarks on Brutus:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”

Notice that phrase, “the elements so mixed.” This phrase suggests that the ideal man is a mixture of elements, a mixture of traits, a collection of disparate tendencies that form a balanced whole.

Consider this passage from All’s Well That Ends Well:

Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners, as in shape! thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee...! (I, i, 24)

“Contend” is in the imperative case (equivalent to “may your blood and virtue contend for empire in thee”). Shakespeare seems to have felt that “blood and virtue” can’t coexist harmoniously, they can only coexist contentiously. The highest degree of harmony that we can achieve is a stand-off between “blood” and “virtue.”

A Pakistani, Ismail Wali, found my website, and sent me e-mail. He lives in northwest Pakistan, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Peshawar University. His thesis is a Jungian interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream; he says, “the play dramatizes union of opposites on different levels.” He surveys critical reaction to the play. Pepys called it “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life,” and vowed never to see it again. The Romantics, however, appreciated the play’s mystical/Jungian significance:

William Blake is the first who captures the mystic association in the union of the opposites like Titania and Bottom. Blake’s own words show that no balance is imaginable without opposites. He says:

“Opposites: without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to human existence. The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of mind.”

So Blake agrees with Shakespeare that the ideal man is a mixture of elements, a blend of contraries.

Ismail discusses Wilson Knight:

He is the first critic to note the symbolic associations of the disastrous images in Dream: “Unruly floods, disorder in the seasons, storms and mud and all natural confusion result from the dissension in fairyland. And the tempest is at the heart of the play, sending ripples outward through the plot, vitalizing the whole middle action. Hence our dissension and mistakes, our comedy; in fact, our drama: most of the action is related to the Oberon-Titania quarrel.”

While Ismail is aware of the connection between nature and man, he fails to note that this agrees with Jung’s idea of synchronicity, and that this sort of synchronicity is found in Macbeth, Hamlet and many other Shakespeare plays.

When I discussed The Hermetic Shakespeare, I forgot to mention divination — that is, predicting the future using a random process such as rolling dice or drawing cards. I don’t recall any mention of divination in Shakespeare, though Shakespeare often discusses prophecy, the interpretation of omens, etc.

4. Approaching the Romantics

Blake is a deep thinker whom I’ve neglected for too long; in fact, I’ve neglected all the Romantics. Forster, who knew the Victorians well, said that the great periods of English literature were the Elizabethan period and the Romantic period; the Victorian period can’t match those two periods. The Romantics are particularly interesting to me because of their Hermetic/Jungian worldview.

Perhaps the best way to approach Blake is by way of Northrop Frye’s study, Fearful Symmetry, in conjunction with the Norton Critical Edition of Blake. As for approaching the other Romantics, the Norton editions can be useful here, too. Bate wrote a well-regarded biography of Keats.2 Knight discussed the Romantics (especially Byron) in several different books; a Hermetist himself, Knight grasps the Hermetism of the Romantics. An American named Lowes wrote a classic study of Coleridge called The Road to Xanadu (Forster recommends this book). Carlos Baker wrote a study of Shelley called Shelley’s Major Poetry. Maurois wrote biographies of Shelley and Byron (in my sketch of Western literature, I praised Maurois’ biographies of Voltaire, Proust, and Napoleon).

Some of the best books on the Hermetic worldview are those by Frances Yates. Some of the best books on the Newtonian revolt against Hermetism are those by Marjorie Nicolson, such as Pepys’ Diary and the New Science.

5. Miscellaneous

A. Saw a Danish movie called “Italian for Beginners.” Wikipedia calls it a “romantic comedy,” but I was struck by its harsh realism; it’s more of a lemon than a peach. It fails to draw you in, and the humor clashes with the bitterness. It is, however, mildly entertaining; if I were a teacher, I’d give it a B or B-.

B. On the cover of a Harvard magazine called The Yard is the headline, “The New Social Science.”3 When you open the magazine, you find an article called “Knowledge in Action: Confronting Social Problems.” One of the professors discussed in the article is the director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Here we have two popular trends in social science, and perhaps in the humanities as a whole: the trend toward “applied knowledge,” practical knowledge, and the trend toward numerical knowledge (statistics, etc.). The old approach to the humanities was “knowledge for its own sake,” literary knowledge, the classics, ancient languages; this old approach goes against the grain of modern scholarship. These new scholars use computers to collect vast amounts of data; for example, they collect millions of blog entries, and try to deduce what people are thinking on a given day. Doesn’t this miss the most important thing, the human spirit?

C. Tried reading Gulliver’s Travels with my daughter. We read the version that was edited by Padraic Colum. In my book Realms of Gold, I recommended Colum’s abridgement of Homer (The Children’s Homer), and I’m sure Colum’s version of Gulliver’s Travels is good. But Swift’s language is challenging for a youngster (Colum doesn’t change it much), so we tried White Fang, by the American novelist Jack London. Jack London concentrates on the contest between man and animal, between man and the elements — the struggle for survival; he draws on his experiences in Alaska, at the time of the Yukon Gold Rush. I recommend his work for a teenager or an adult, though I doubt it will appeal to a child.

D. We sometimes blame someone for conduct that we think is annoying or unethical, and then find, after consulting our memory, that we ourselves have done something very similar.

6. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold —
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away —
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

This sonnet has little connection to the Oxford Theory or to the Prince Tudor Theory. The love mentioned in line 13 isn’t necessarily paternal love. On the other hand, the emphasis on the poet’s old age is consistent with the Oxford Theory, and a problem for the Stratford Theory (as we said in an earlier issue).

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. The Wheel of Fire, ch. 15, #2 back
2. Bate also wrote a biography of Samuel Johnson. As a Harvard freshman, I took Bate’s class, “The Age of Johnson.” back
3. Fall/Winter 2007 back