Last Monday I gave a brief account of Mark Edmundson’s disillusioned dissection of our culture based mainly on his introduction. I promised to follow this up with a sampling of two other issues he takes up in his Quixotic attack on the windmills of materialism: the demolition work of Shakespeare and of Freud.
Edmundson warned me in his introduction of what I would find when we come to Shakespeare (page 10-11):
What is true is that Shakespeare helps change our sense of human life and human promise through an almost complete rejection of ideals. Like his contemporary, Cervantes, Shakespeare has only contempt for the heroic ideal. . . . . .
Shakespeare, as Arnold Hauser argues, is a poet of the dawning bourgeois age, who has little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honour.
This was not a problem: the militarily heroic holds few attractions for me. However, as I discovered later Shakespeare, according to Edmundson, is not just attacking heroism, though that is a main target: he is (page 140) writing for
. . . . a class that has little use for deep religion, the religion of compassion. . . . . . And he writes for a class with no real use for high thought – though Shakespeare is from time to time tempted by the ideal of contemplation.’
He then analyses in detail plays including Titus Andronicus, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, and Troilus & Cressida that ruthlessly deconstruct the hero.
Interestingly, it is not just Cervantes who influenced Shakespeare away from ideals. Montaigne, it is possible to argue, as James Shapiro does in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, was also an influence on Shakespeare (page 332), as perhaps he was on Freud as we will see, and an influence particularly relevant to Hamlet:
He had surely looked into Montaigne by the time he wrote Hamlet – intuitions of critics stretching back to the 1830s on this question should be trusted – but he didn’t need to paraphrase him or pillage essays for his ideas. . . . . . . There was more than enough scepticism and uncertainty to go round in England in the final years of Elizabeth’s reign . . .
What is more important, perhaps, is the influence of Montaigne on the development of the soliloquy (page 333):
Redefining the relationship between speaker and audience, the essay also suggested to Shakespeare an intimacy between speaker and hearer that no other form, not even the sonnet, offered – except, perhaps, the soliloquy.
This may help explain why the one exception, which Edmundson detects to the reductive pattern he has identified, is Hamlet.
One of the reasons for this may be, as Shapiro suggests (ibid.), that:
Probably more than any other character in literature, Hamlet needs to talk; but there is nobody in whom he can confide.
Perhaps this is why Edmundson can find in him (page 174) ‘the free play of intellect’ he values so much. Hamlet can ‘think in quest of the Truth.’ And a truth that holds for everyone across time, not just pragmatically for the specific situation in some particular play.
It may therefore be no coincidence that this is my favourite play.
Edmundson argues that we feel that Shakespeare does not advocate any specific value system because the ones that live in his plays (page 12) ‘simply echo the anti-idealist values of his current audience and of the current world almost perfectly and, so, are nearly invisible.’
In the end, however, I do not accept his contention that Shakespeare does not value compassion, whatever we argue his audience might think and no matter that we can find evidence from his life that he fell short of that ideal in person. For instance, as a grain hoarder himself, his real life position on the 1607 food riots was rather different from the empathy for the rioters that comes across in Coriolanus.
How, though, can the man that wrote,
The sense of death is most in apprehension;
And the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.
(Measure for Measure Act 3, Scene 1, lines 76-79)
. . . . the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother’d up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again . . .
(Venus & Adonis lines 1033-36)
not understand and value compassion? And I am not equating this with the uncanny empathy that allows him to enter the shadowy mind of an Iago or an Edgar.
So, at this point, I am more or less convinced that he despised the heroic. I can accept that he might not have been strong on contemplation, though I do need to think more on that one. AD Nuttall would apparently not agree, given that he has written a whole book on Shakespeare, the Thinker and clearly feels that his truths are valid across time (page 22):
Shakespeare’s response is, precisely, intelligent rather than a mere cultural reflex. He thinks fundamentally, and this makes him a natural time traveller.
Even so, he may not be a million miles apart from Edmundson, as he also acknowledges that (page 12) ‘we do not know what Shakespeare thought about any major question, in the sense that we have no settled judgements of which we can be sure.’
I absolutely disagree though that he did not value compassion, while I do accept that, as a dramatist, he could have gone a long way to creating his vast range of convincing characters with high levels of cognitive empathy alone.
I am left, though, with a slightly uneasy feeling. Maybe there’s more to Edmundson’s case than I am happy to accept. This nagging doubt goes back as far as my reading of Anne Glynn-Jones’s book, Holding Up a Mirror: how civilisations decline. I am always a touch sceptical about confident claims to explain how complex entities such as civilisations operate, even though I keep getting drawn to reading them, as my posts on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation testify. Glynn-Jones builds a case against Shakespeare on the basis of Pitirim Sorokin‘s social cycle theory. I would have found it easy to dismiss her case had I not felt that elements of Sorokin’s model made a great deal of sense to me as a Bahá’í.
The core of what she feels relates to Sorokin’s concept of the sensate society. He classified societies according to their ‘cultural mentality’, which can be ‘ideational’ (reality is spiritual), ‘sensate’ (reality is material), or ‘idealistic’ (a synthesis of the two). The relevance of those categories to the current issues is obvious.
She feels the Shakespeare is a dramatist of a sensate society. She quotes many examples of where Shakespeare can clearly be argued to be pandering to the basest sensation-seeking instincts of his audience. She quotes Tolstoy (pages 264-65):
Shakespeare exemplifies the view ‘that no definite religious view of life was necessary for works of art in general, and especially for drama; that for the purpose of the drama the representation of human passions and characters was quite sufficient. . . . . .
And he concludes, ‘The fundamental inner cause of Shakespeare’s fame is . . . . that his dramas . . . . corresponded to the irreligious and immoral frame of mind of the upper classes of his time.’
Because I felt that to be a distorted misreading of Shakespeare’s audience as a whole and a very selective reading of his work in its entirety, I dismissed this view of Shakespeare completely at the time, though I could also see what she meant.
I agree he side-steps directly addressing religion but feel this is because it would have been too dangerous – and almost certainly unprofitable of course as well. That does not prove that he did not have a transcendent sense of the value of all life, and I believe he was deeply aware of its interconnectedness.
I accept that he loathed the heroic. He was definitely no philosopher. But a deeply felt compassion, rather than a mercantile value system, is what for me has ensured that he lives on, and continues to attract audiences across the world. It’s just that he does not explicitly teach compassion: he demonstrates it, though, in almost every word that he writes.
And so the pendulum swings on. Enough of that for now.
In his introduction Edmundson states (page 12) that ‘Freud takes the enmity with ideals implicit in Shakespeare’s work and renders it explicit.’ He argues (page 14) that ‘Freud stands in the tradition of Montaigne, affirming the belief that the life of sceptical, humane detachment is the best of possible lives.’
Freud, Edmundson claims, takes this to an altogether different level (page 165):
One of the main functions of Shakespeare’s great inheritor, Freud, is to redescribe the ideals of compassion and courage and the exercise of imagination as pathologies and forms of delusion. . . . . Freud makes the middle-class people who live by half measures feel much better, allowing them to understand that the virtues that intimidated them are forms of sickness and that normality – clear-eyed and stable – is the true achievement. What a reversal!
I have read almost no Freud in the original, so strong has been my distaste for his views as they have reached me through secondary sources, many of them his admirers. However, I am aware that it is possible to share my suspicion of his value without seeing him as exactly the kind of reductionist Edmundson identifies.
Take Richard Webster for example in his book Why Freud Was Wrong, in its way as brilliant as Edmundson’s. In his introduction he outlines his case against Freud. After explaining his sense that psychoanalysis is to be valued, if at all, not because it is truly scientific and valid, but because it enshrines imagination, something which has been side-lined by modernist reductionism, he makes a second telling point (page 9):
There is another reason why the vitality of the psychoanalytic tradition should not be taken as confirmation of the validity of Freud’s theories. This is because a great deal of it is owed not to any intellectual factor but to Freud’s own remarkable and charismatic personality and to the heroic myth, which he spun around himself during his own lifetime.
This is intriguing in the light of Edmundson’s case that Freud was a debunker of the heroic, but is not incompatible with it. In fact, it suggests that Freud failed to analyse himself dispassionately.
Webster takes this a step further (ibid.):
Freud himself consciously identified with Moses, and the prophetic and messianic dimensions of his character have been noted again and again even by those who have written sympathetically about psychoanalysis.
So, not just a hero, then, but a quasi-religious figure in his own eyes. Even more intriguing. Webster even goes on to claim that Freud (page 10) ‘went on to use the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a church whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked.’
His final point on this thread is hugely ironic in the light of Edmundson’s claims that Freud demolished the cult of the heroic ideal (page 11):
If Freud has not been seen in this light it is perhaps because the very success which he has enjoyed by casting himself in the role of intellectual liberator has brought with it the kind of idealisations and projections to which all messiahs are subject.
Towards the end of his book, Webster draws another conclusion about where this has helped to take us, which resonates with my recent explorations of Shelley, and with Edmundson’s rants against the aridity of much current lyric poetry in Poetry Slam. He argues for redressing the current bias against imagination and states that (page 504-05):
. . . . [u]ntil we have done this it seems likely that we will remain in thrall to the dissociated intellectual culture which we inhabit today, where an austere and politically influential scientific and technological culture, devoid of human sympathy and understanding, exists side by side with a weak literary and artistic culture which, because it has unconsciously internalised the image of its own superfluity, is prepared both to the stand back from the political process and to concede to the natural sciences the exclusive right to explore reality systematically and to pronounce authoritatively upon it.
Returning in more detail to Edmundson’s attack upon Freud, he defines the main focus of psychoanalysis as being on one ideal in particular (page 232):
History (and Shakespeare) have dealt with the myth of courage; history (and the Enlightenment) have dealt with the myth of faith. Love is Freud’s primary antagonist among human ideals, and he attacks it from every plausible direction.
In terms of love’s great exemplars, including Jesus and the Buddha, Freud argues (page 237) that they are ‘asking too much of human beings.’
How can we love our fellow men? Freud asks. Our fellow men, in general, have at best a mild contempt for us; at worst, they nurse murderous rage. . . . . There is only Self. Soul is an illusion.
I have dealt already on this blog with Matthieu Ricard’s utterly convincing refutation of such debasing cynicism in his book Altruism, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt, and on the basis of a huge amount of systematically gathered data, that we are innately capable of developing high levels of altruism, fairness and compassion. My last sequence of posts revisited his brilliant book from a different angle.
Edmundson goes on to quote Karl Kraus (page 243): ‘Psychoanalysis… is the disease of which it purports to be the cure.’ He goes on to explain what he believes this means. Having listed various ways human beings can rescue themselves from meaninglessness, such as love, creativity, compassion, courage or idealistic thought, he rounds his cannon upon Freud’s benighted cul-de-sac (page 244):
… all these activities are out of the bounds. Embracing them, for Freud, causes only trouble.
It is possible that to deny human beings these primary satisfactions makes them sick. It causes a disease, it does not cure it. If you live life without courage, compassion, the true exercise of intellect and creation through love, then you will not feel very well. You may even get quite ill.
before he delivers the coup-de-grace:
Then, when the banishment of ideals has made you ill, Freud can show you, through psychoanalysis and through the ethical program of his thought, how to feel a little better than you do. Psychoanalysis helps the culture of Self create a disease. And this disease psychoanalysis will happily help cure.
He feels the legacy of this, for psychotherapy as a whole, is deeply damaging (page 245):
Therapy can have many values, but they will never be idealistic. All therapies are about learning to live with half a loaf.
He is probably selling psychotherapies such as Psychosynthesis short when he uses that dubious word ‘all.’ But his point is valid for mainstream approaches. Spirituality and idealism are seen by them as suspect.
I hope this all too brief helicopter review inspires you to buy the book and read it, and I hope you then enjoy it as much as I have. Life is a lot richer than our materialistic gurus would have us believe, thank goodness.
 This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.
. . . . . [R]esearchers at London’s Tavistock clinic published results in October from the first rigorous NHS study of long-term psychoanalysis as a treatment for chronic depression. For the most severely depressed, it concluded, 18 months of analysis worked far better – and with much longer-lasting effects – than “treatment as usual” on the NHS, which included some CBT. Two years after the various treatments ended, 44% of analysis patients no longer met the criteria for major depression, compared to one-tenth of the others. Around the same time, the Swedish press reported a finding from government auditors there: that a multimillion pound scheme to reorient mental healthcare towards CBT had proved completely ineffective in meeting its goals.
So I need to clarify, perhaps, that it is Freud’s quasi-mythical beliefs such as the Oedipus Complex that repelled me as being too absurd to qualify as a universal truth. Other aspects of his thinking, taken over and used by other schools of therapy, have their place, such an projection and denial, as well as the acknowledgement that for some people it can be imperative that they understand their inscape deeply before they can move on, and that this can take years. Even so these are not universally applicable components of an effective therapy at all times. There is no one size fits all panacea – not psychoanalysis, not CBT.
I don’t think Burkeman would disagree with that as he concludes ‘. . . . . many scholars have been drawn to what has become known as the “dodo-bird verdict”: the idea, supported by some studies, that the specific kind of therapy makes little difference. (The name comes from the Dodo’s pronouncement in Alice in Wonderland: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”) What seems to matter much more is the presence of a compassionate, dedicated therapist, and a patient committed to change; if one therapy is better than all others for all or even most problems, it has yet to be discovered.’
Stuck in memory from my first degree in psychology, there was an interesting piece of meta-analysis from 1979 that pulled together all the studies of the efficacy of psychotherapy that had included an advance measure of how credible clients found the therapy they were undertaking. When all other variables were controlled for, the strongest predictor of effectiveness was how much the client believed the therapy would work. Unfortunately I have not been able to track that down recently.
And for me, if it has no place for a spiritual dimension, such as can be found in Jungian analysis and Psychosynthesis, there is still a major defect in the approach.