When I was away over Christmas I couldn’t watch Dr Who — sorry David Tennant — playing Hamlet at the time of its showing. I’ve only just got round to watching my recording of this Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production now in the middle of this second big freeze of the winter — its power took me by surprise. At the same time I’m in the middle of reading Peter Taylor’s demanding but rewarding book Chill. Much to my surprise these experiences are for me connected, each echoes the other.
Perhaps I need to clarify from the off that it’s not the ‘bitter cold’ referred to in the first ten lines of Hamlet that I’m thinking about here though it is a strongly common element. It’s to do with seeming, actuality and action. Both Hamlet and Chill at their core share a concern with the relationship between appearance and reality and the implications of that for both understanding what is likely to happen and deciding what to do. In both works there is a political dimension to complicate the way things work themselves out.
I realise of course that there are a small number of trivial differences. The Danish court that Hamlet experiences as a prison is not wracked by angst about its carbon emissions or living in fear of a rising sea disrupting its conspiracies: regicide trumps CO2 for them. Similarly, Chill is not written in blank verse, there are no kings and queens, no ghosts appear and no one, not even the Chair of the IPCC, is poisoned in an orchard while asleep. So, am I forcing the point here a bit?
I don’t think so.
On page 200 of his book Taylor writes:
. . . we need to be clear that it is the duty of science to state clearly the boundary conditions of its knowledge and to draw attention to what currently lies upon the fringe – the place where breaking knowledge will inevitably appear and transform the current view. If science strays from this duty, it becomes a tool of the political or religious order of the day.
In Hamlet, the eponymous hero is confronted with a stark choice: to kill Claudius or not. Whether he does so depends upon what view of appearances he takes. Is the apparition that discloses his father’s murder to him really the ghost of his father or is it the devil come to tempt him to destruction? The wheels of the first two acts of the play revolve around this axle. After his encounter with the players at the end of Act II and his decision to have them stage a representation of his father’s alleged murder, he knows he has set up an experiment of a kind to determine if at all possible where the truth lies (I’ve always found that those last two words have an interesting double meaning in our language).
. . . . The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this; the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
(Act II, Scene 2: lines 530-537)
The word ‘relative’ here is used more in the sense of ‘relevant.’
It is interesting to note that it is through a play, not through a controlled scientific experiment, that Hamlet proposes to test for the truth. Jonathan Bate, in his introduction to Hamlet in the carefully researched and beautifully presented RSC edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, points this up very clearly (page 1920):
[Hamlet] comes to the truth through a ‘fiction’ and a ‘dream of passion.’ In this he can only be regarded as an apologist for the art of his creator.
Is there no hard distinction then between imagination and reality? Perhaps it is not as absolute as we would like.
Chris Frith (The Psychologist: October 2009: page 843) reminds us of some fascinating points about the reality/perception issue:
This Helmholtz/Bayes framework had a number of interesting implications, and I suspected that many people might be quite shocked by them.
*Our experience of having a direct perception of the world is an illusion. This illusion is created by our lack of awareness of the inferences being made by our brain.
*There is no qualitative difference between perceptions and beliefs. A perception is a belief about the world that we hold to have extremely high probability.
*Perceptions are created by combining bottom-up, sensory signals with top-down, prior beliefs.
*Our perceptions are an estimate of the state of the world and never the true state of the world. However, we can constantly improve our estimate by making and testing predictions. For survival it is more important to be able to predict the state of the world than to have a very good estimate of what it was in the past. Furthermore, for survival all that matters is that our model of the world makes useful predictions.
But this issue of prediction is a tricky one when we are dealing with complex global phenomena like climate change. Taylor argues (page 220):
We have to ask the question whether there is any value in prediction when the science is so uncertain. In my view the answer is no. In fact, any pretence at prediction may proffer an unreliable knowledge upon which quite counter-productive policies could be based.
But that does not mean we are powerless to act.
. . . it is better to assume no knowledge of the future climate, but to examine current vulnerability to change in any direction. This is the concept of resilience or robustness that ecologists apply to ecosystems. We need to know what a robust human support system looks like. We certainly do not have one now . . .
In terms of possibly counter-productive policy, Taylor feels that there is a high probability that we are in for a period of global cooling which will, for example, have a massive impact on food production exacerbated by such measures as the extensive use of land for the production of bio-fuel. He explains this at some length in the following YouTube video along with the sociopolitical dynamics that in his view are perpetuating the probably erroneous opposite view (more fascinating footage can be found at this link):
There is at least as much at stake here for us as a collective as there was for Hamlet as an individual. Much will depend upon the choices we make as a society. Claudius’ murder of a king who was his brother and Hamlet’s reaction to that crime cost Polonius (Laertes’ father killed by Hamlet, who by that act became as culpable in Laertes’ eyes as Claudius was in his), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother who married his father’s killer), Claudius, Laertes and Hamlet their lives, and Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter) her sanity as well as her life. The personal scale of these consequences plays to the strengths of our way of processing experience and assessing risk (see Gardner’s excellent book for a full analysis of this).
The havoc we could wreak by responding wrongly to the rise in global temperature experienced in the final two decades of the 20th Century (and Taylor does not dispute that there was such a rise — he simply does not accept the case as proven that CO2 played more than a very minor role in that rise) would dwarf the ‘havoc’ (i.e. mound of bodies) confronting Fortinbras in the final moments of the play (not in the TV version sadly). If so much damage can be done when the situation is basically confined within a court and our stone-age brains are well adapted to calculating the risks involved, just think what we can do when the whole world is our stage and we don’t really have a clue what’s going on.
At this point it is hard to be absolutely sure who is right but the next few years will tell. What I am clear about is that, in confronting the choices we have to make, we need to remain as open-minded as possible. Keats defined an attitude of mind that is very relevant to this. To describe this quality, Keats used the term “negative capability” in a letter to his brother dated Sunday, 21 December 1817. He says:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
O SON OF BEAUTY! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.
However, as other posts on this blog have attempted to describe (see the link for an example), our understandings are enhanceable by dispassionate and principled consultation, the difficult art of spiritual conference whose usefulness extends to all realms of human discourse including that of science, especially when such consultation is conducted in the light of experience.
So, here we stand at a crucial choice point. Perhaps we can empathise with Hamlet when he groans:
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
(Act I, Scene 5: lines 205-206)
Fortunately, we are not bound by the conventions of a Revenge Tragedy and do not have to murder anyone to solve this problem. We just have to do the best we can to make sure that as few people as possible lose their lives as a result of our making a bad situation worse, and making this bad situation situation worse is what we will do if we end up combining a failure to recognise the extent of our ignorance with that most dangerous fuel of all with which to power the juggernaut of human action – an absolute conviction born of panic.