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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The first part came out yesterday.

Yesterday 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.

Shakespeare:

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.

ShapiroInterestingly, 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.[1]

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)

and

. . . . 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.

NuttallSo, 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 declineI 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.

Freud:

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[2] 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.

WebsterTake 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.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [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.

 

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.

(White Egrets: page 10)

white-egretsThe other recurrent theme on my blog recently, apart from psychosis, has been death. No surprise then that I’m going to use that as an excuse to re-publish this post from 2010. Still, I’m glad it gives me another opportunity to plug one of my favourite poets.

For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.

Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an  inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest: I won’t explore here the conflicts inherent between an artist’s life and his art – there’s more than enough on this blog already. Suffice it to say, his poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)

The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.

Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .

(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)

In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

(W.B.Yeats: Politics)

If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.

Strozzi: Old Woman at the Mirror

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

(Thomas Hardy)

There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.

Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.

Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d 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 . .

(Sonnet 28)

That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.

O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Arabic Hidden Words: No. 40)

So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?

He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:

. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.

(page 33)

And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:

He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”

(page 41)

He also has command of the elegaic tone:

. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .

(page 29)

You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/’errors’, ‘else’/’bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.

In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:

. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.

(page 85)

This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:

I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.

(ibid.)

It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.

And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walcott’s book of poems is like an extended examination of that idea. It opens with a reference to an astonishing work of art:

The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .

(Page 3)

It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:

The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!

(page 8)

The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.

. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

(page 9)

Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:

Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.

(page 70)

As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.

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EdmundsonLast 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.

Shakespeare:

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.

ShapiroInterestingly, 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.[1]

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)

and

. . . . 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.

NuttallSo, 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 declineI 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.

Freud:

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[2] 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.

WebsterTake 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.

Footnote:

[1] This side of Shakespeare was revealed in research done by Dr Jayne Archer, a lecturer in medieval and renaissance literature at Aberystwyth University.

[2] I am aware, from January’s Guardian article by , of the recent study which goes some way toward rehabilitating psychoanalysis as a treatment for depression.

He writes:

. . . . . [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.

 

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EdmundsonAs I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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A new film Anonymous is parading an old theory. The BBC reports:

Shakespeare’s name is being removed from signs in Warwickshire in a campaign against a new film which questions whether he wrote his plays.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is taping over nine road signs for the day to coincide with the premiere of Anonymous at the London Film Festival.

It criticised the film as an attempt to “rewrite English culture and history”.

A memorial in William Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon is being covered with a sheet. . . . .

The trust said it wanted to highlight the potential impact of the film’s “conspiracy theory” that William Shakespeare was the “barely literate frontman for the Earl of Oxford“.

Shapiro is clearly in no doubt about Shakespeare’s being the true author of his plays. Before swallowing the film’s thesis I suggest a careful read of his book (for my review see link). Despite this conviction, he manages to convey, in a thoroughly engaging fashion, a sympathetic view of why it seemed so plausible to some otherwise intelligent and well-informed people that he could not have written them.

His journey covers issues of identity, reality, scholarship and literature that are of concern to us all. It sheds much light on how any of us could come to entertain misguided ideas. That these ideas about Shakespeare do not directly entail patterns of action that threaten anybody’s life does not devalue this investigation of them. In fact, the Looney advocacy of Oxford’s authorship cannot be separated completely from his views about how society should be organised.

This is a very good read indeed for any one concerned about these things. It is not just for Shakespeare fans like me!

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[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.

(White Egrets: page 10)

For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.

Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an  inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest. His poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)

The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.

Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .

(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)

In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

(W.B.Yeats: Politics)

If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.

Strozzi: Old Woman at the Mirror

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

(Thomas Hardy)

There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.

Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.

Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d 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 . .

(Sonnet 28)

That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.

O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Arabic Hidden Words: No. 40)

So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?

He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:

. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.

(page 33)

And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:

He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”

(page 41)

He also has command of the elegaic tone:

. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .

(page 29)

You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/’errors’, ‘else’/’bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.

In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:

. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.

(page 85)

This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:

I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.

(ibid.)

It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.

And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walcott’s book of poems is like an extended examination of that idea. It opens with a reference to an astonishing work of art:

The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .

(Page 3)

It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:

The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!

(page 8)

The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.

. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

(page 9)

Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:

Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.

(page 70)

As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.

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