Category Archives: Shakespeare

Faith and Truth, per Carl Sandburg

 

WHO AM I?
By: Carl Sandburg

MY head knocks against the stars.
My feet are on the hilltops.
My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of 
universal life.
Down in the sounding foam of primal things I
reach my hands and play with pebbles of 
destiny.
I have been to hell and back many times.
I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God.
I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible.
I know the passionate seizure of beauty

And the marvelous rebellion of man at all signs
reading “Keep Off.”
My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive 
in the universe.

All of us have a body of thought rattling around our skull which constitute “truth” and is taken for granted.  This is a necessary, though in a sense specious, certainty that allows us to function in our consensually-validated reality.  But within the noisy “rattling around” in our skull, there are certainties and premises that need to be examined occasionally and Sandburg was telling us this is especially so with those posted with the sign, “Keep Off.”  Sandburg did not mean there are no “Keep Off” dimensions to our heart and mind but that we need to pay attention to this signage and occasionally entertain the notion, “Well, maybe I should look at that idea a little further?”  This is related to my often-cited favorite bumper sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  One simple little example from my youth in central Arkansas was the certainty that blacks were inferior to whites.  There was no need to question it for it was a definite, and, “The Bible said it.”

I have watched so many truths fall by the wayside in my life time and have long since given up any faint belief that I own the truth, that at best there is some primordial Truth that lies beyond the grasp of our finite mind and that yes, in a sense that “Truth” even has us!  And if I ever start trying to explain that to you, flash the sign of the cross in my face and run away quickly as this is a matter that eludes the grasp of human cognition.  This “Truth” involves faith, but not of the escapist faith that is so common, but faith that there is a, “Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may,” as Shakespeare told us.  And I personally think that those who are the most obnoxious about objectively knowing about that end…and usually the end for others…are doing the roughest hewing!

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Reality Tightens its Noose on Trump.

I kick the subject of mental illness around a lot in this venue due to my career as a clinician which has given me a perspective to “sniff out” madness pretty readily.  Oh, we are all “mad” to some degree but then there are times when one’s madness goes beyond the pale and then the Shakespearean question is relevant, “What’s mad but to be anything else but mad.”  There are times when the ordinary madness of day to day life approaches the pale and threatens to go beyond it and enter the realm of “nothing else but mad.”

Trump is demonstrating this.  Here and in my other blogs I have noted often of his need to isolate himself in a private world, to cut off any criticism from those who see the world differently than he does, best illustrated with his hatred of, “fake news.”  But now as his “fake news,” known by most of us as “reality,” continues to tighten its noose on him, he is taking even more desperate moves.  The news about the non-disclosure agreements with his advisers and now the “cleaning house” with his staff and cabinet reveal a heightened need to cut off feedback from the outside.  Like Hamlet, overwhelmed with the duress of everyday life, expressed a desire to, “flee to a nutshell and there be the king of infinite spaces,” revealing Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human need to occasionally want a complete escape, even that of lunacy.

Trump as an Instrument of the Good???

The evangelical Christian support of Trump has been a sore point for me, given my background in fundamentalist Christianity and a continued emphasis in personal faith.  The evangelical trope, “The Lord has raised him up” to restore our country to greatness, (i.e. “Make America Great Again,”) has always been a really irksome bit of their rhetoric for me.  But, I now can certainly accept the notion of “the Lord’s” hand in “raising him up” as he has brought to the surface the full extent of our collective and personal shadow.  Here is a bit of wisdom from Francis Bacon (1561-1626) relevant to our collective unconsciousness’s intent in bringing this darkness to the light:

“We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do . For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced. Nay, an honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to reclaim them, without the help of the knowledge of evil.”—Francis Bacon

This “knowledge of evil” is something we prefer to see in others, having a very human aversion to recognize that it lurks beneath the surface of us all.  This is particularly difficult for persons of faith to accept, especially the Christian faith, as being a “person of faith” often convinces one that he has “seen the light” perfectly and has clear judgment.  Trump has clearly shown all of us, even the whole world, just how impaired our judgment is; yes, even in the area of religion. W. H. Auden, in his narrative poem, “New Years Letter,” presents the, “Prince of Lies” as being a god-send as in spite of its evil intent, and often being necessary to, “push us into grace.” Trump is one of these opportunities for us if we could ever manage to pause that linear-thinking monstrosity of our collective Western thought and let it dawn upon us, in the words of Pogo, “Uh oh, we have met the enemy and he is us!” We could then be “pushed into Grace,” kicking and screaming every inch of the way.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Shakespeare on Narcissism, Commitment,and Marriage

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth.  This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.”  Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person.  This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.”  And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”

Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it.  Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”  In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.  Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot)  was the source of the Infinite.  But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it.  Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it.  And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Emily Dickinson and Consciousness

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

This little ditty by Emily Dickinson was one of my first imbibations of this delightful New England poet of 19th century America.  The poem reveals the vulnerability of Dickinson which in turn gave her the perspective which allowed her to offer such a wry glimpse into the human enterprise, a glimpse that is so relevant to any generation.

Dickinson was herself a “little boat” on the “gallant sea” of life and her poetry reveals that she frequently feared she was going to be swept away by the current.  And the second stanza vividly conveyed the fear that any of us have of getting “swept away,” the fear of being “lost” and having no awareness of it.

Consciousness is a perilous adventure and as Hamlet told us it does make “cowards of us all.”  To be conscious is to realize, cognitively and emotionally, that we live our life strung out on a narrow precipice above an unabiding void.  It is fear of this void, i.e. “Void,” that makes us “cling to these ills that we have, (rather) than fly to others that we know not of,” borrowing from Hamlet again.  Dickinson spent her adult life on one of these narrow precipices, ensconced in the attic of her father’s house, where she explored the vast riches of her tender heart and shared her findings with posterity.

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Julian Jaynes, Consciousness, and Meaning

Julian Jaynes published a very controversial book in 1976 entitled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind.” I bought the book back then, delved into a mite, and then let it catch dust until I eventually discarded it.  But for some time the book title has been coming around in discussions with friends and I finally found me a cheap cast-off version of the book in a locale resale shop.

Forty-one years later, I find the book very arresting.  He argued that “consciousness” as we know it began to evolve  during the time of The Iliad and involved a newfound capacity of “self” awareness, a subtle grasp of the phenomenon modern psychology describes as the “I” vs the “not I.” Jaynes noted that this “internal difference” made possible an internal dialogue which, I think he would agree was probably related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”  For with an internal dialogue as part of consciousness, mankind could begin to develop a moral and ethical compass in his heart and not be driven merely by unmediated impulses.  It was the event in the evolution of our consciousness that “meaning” also appeared on the scene which is relevant to the “internal difference” mentioned above.

And the subject of meaning and difference brings to my mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –