Category Archives: Shakespeare

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Shakespearean Wisdom for Trump

Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably the key to the birth of “literary lew” in the mid-eighties.  A friend gave me a copy of the Bard’s sonnets and my confinement in a linear world began to crack immediately, a “cracking” which continues! I remember Leonard Cohen telling us in song,  “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 begins with, “As an unperfect actor on the stage of life, who with his fear is put beside his part…”  Shakespeare saw through us all.  He did this because he saw through himself and realized that in so doing he had insight to the human predicament, that we are merely actors on a stage playing some role that we were given early in life.  His grasp of the human heart is a gift that some poets have, a gift eloquently put into words by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who wrote, “The poet, in whose mighty heart, heaven hath a quicker pulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”

Shakespeare’s literary gift to the ages is a scanning of the heart.  With modern technological wizardry, we can “scan” the physical heart in ways that Shakespeare could have never imagined but our modern mental wizardry cannot “scan” the heart like Shakespeare did.  For Shakespeare knew that the heart was something intricately subtle and complex, so much so that most people live their lives without any awareness of having one, or at least without any awareness of its infinite depths.  And, it is the experience of “infinite depths” that introduces one to the spiritual realm which people usually prefer to avoid, opting for words instead of the essential realm that words point to.  Infinity is scary which is why T. S. Eliot declared, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” for in the depths of our heart we are intrinsically aware of this infinity…and, therefore, our mortality.

The social contract is the stage that Shakespeare put on the table for us. This contract is best illustrated for us in today’s world by Donald Trump who flagrantly disregards this contract, refusing simple rules of civility and decorum on the “playground” that we all play on.  Most of us very early opted to “make nice” with each other in return for the knowledge that others would reciprocate.  This “making nice” is upon closer scrutiny, insincere in some fashion as beneath the surface we chafe under the daily grind and would prefer the disinhibition of a tragic figure like our President.  On some level I think that is why so many of the “low-information voters” pledged their troth to him for they sorely resent on some level the lack of freedom that the “social contract” they have signed imposes upon them.

Some hypothesized that perhaps the office that Trump was assuming would modify his whimsical and capricious nature, that he would begin to “act” Presidential as ordinarily one must.  But this ability to “act” to fulfill any role on the playground requires a deep-seated, heart-level restraint that some people lack. Shakespeare described Macbeth penchant for acting out as being wont to “crown his thoughts with acts,” noting later that, “He cannot buckle his distempered (or swollen) cause within the belt of rule.”  Shakespeare knew that some men could not “subdue” or harness the energy referred to in the Arnold poem quoted above.  Shakespeare knew that dark energy of that sort, unleashed, was dangerous to all.

If we could only get Trump see the wisdom of Shakespeare’s advice, through the mouth of Hamlet:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. 

 

 

Shakespeare and Jesus Heard the Same Call!

Shakespeare’s wisdom in Sonnet 46, “Within be rich, without be fed no more,” brought to my mind the teachings of Jesus who clearly understood the presence of a dimension of life that most people are oblivious to which He called the kingdom “within.”  The “call” of this inner voice that Jesus heeded, as did Shakespeare and many others, can easily be misunderstood as purveying an “us” vs. “them” paradigm in spirituality—“some of us have heard the call, the rest of you haven’t.”  The temptation of this egoic arrogance always presents itself to those who have heard this “call,” for the ego loves the knowledge that it is special and others aren’t.  There is a certain intoxication to ferreting out truth in literature…or in life in general…and realizing that most people do not see or understand this “truth.”  And that awareness is understandable if one can avoid the temptation of then sitting in judgment of those who view life in more prosaic terms.  Jesus recognized there were distinctions in his world but he did not subscribe to the temptation of bifurcating his world neat categories of “us” and “them, or “right” and wrong,” or even “saved” and “unsaved.”  Those who insists on this bifurcation have been intoxicated with binary thinking and cannot see beyond this limited view of the world.

Let me illustrate from the ministry of Jesus in Matthew ch. 11.  He and his disciples were walking along the shores of Gallilee one morning and one of them wanted to delay heeding the call to follow Jesus, explaining that he needed to first go bury his father.  Jesus responded with, “Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.”  In my youth, I understood this to mean that Jesus was saying that those who did not heed his call were “dead” in the sense they were “lost and going to hell.”  My understanding at that time was that Jesus was promulgating a cognitive gospel, a set of teachings to which one could merely intellectually assent and then take comfort in knowing that he had done so.  But the Truth that Jesus offered when he said, “Come follow me” was not offered in any creed or body of dogma but in a relationship that his ministry and the whole story of his Incarnation was an elaboration of in terms of flesh and blood, i.e. “human life.”  “Come follow me” did not mean to Jesus, “Come tag along behind me and be one of my groupies” but “Come follow me” and participate in a relationship with a spiritual Presence that I have embraced, one that can include you and one that does not emphasize “ex-clusion.”  His message was one of “in-clusiveness, not “ex”-clusiveness which has been the tradition in Western Christianity, especially Protestantism.   By describing those who were not following him that day as “dead”, those who were busying themselves with the important responsibility of burying a dead man, Jesus was not condemning them to exclusion from the Kingdom but merely telling the hesitant follower that a more important responsibility was beckoning him that morning.  Those left behind, dutifully “chopping wood, carrying water” are equally covered by God’s grace and those who consider themselves so spiritually “sublime” as to think that those with a different, “less enlightened” lot in life are “lost and going to hell” are not reading the gospel closely. Truth, when embodied and not merely an idea, offers unity, not disunity.  “Oh God, guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone.  He who sings a lasting song will think in the marrow bone.” (W. B. Yeats)

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are:

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

“Literary License” and Personal Narrative

I became “literary” lew when I started this blog about six years ago.  I increasingly realize that the choice of that moniker was more astute than I realized.  These six years have helped me explore further the inner recesses of my heart and I’ve learned that my early grasp of the world was very “literary.”  Then I was taught that the world I lived in was a very literal, linear-thinking world.  I dutifully complied and I’m glad I did, but wish I’d have done so with less passion! But now, pretty late in the old “ball game”, I’m using this literary license very freely and enjoying the freedom to interpret life from a less rigid perspective.  The world is multi-dimensional and I’m finding life much easier and pleasant, having slowly allowed this wisdom to sink in.

Decades ago friends introduced me to the notion that life itself is but a story and approaching it as such makes it easier to pose the question occasionally, “Now what’s the point of this story going on here, the one I’m being presented with, or the one that I find myself immersed in personally.”  This is simple use of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which, if employed here and there, can allow us to make better responses to parts of the story that we are presented with.  Otherwise, we will be unwitting participants in a narrative that is, unbeknownst to ourselves, setting the course for our life.  One simple example, drawn from my clinical practice of the past, is the “martyr complex” of someone who finds himself/herself constantly playing the role of the victim throughout life, not realizing that some unconscious need is being fulfilled.  When one self-created crisis has resolved itself, this person will seem to ask upon awakening the next morning, “Hmm.  Now what’s underway in my life today that will allow me to perceive myself being the victim, allowing me to start the drama mill of my life to going again?”  This person seems to pray daily, “Give us this day, our daily crisis…”

Though most of us aren’t martyrs or victims, we inevitably play some role that we are only barely aware of if at all.   I’ve found this “literary license” helpful in gaining some degree of awareness.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

Ego Integrity Amidst Constant Change

Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me
Gabriel Marcel

This French philosopher echoes Shakespeare who assured us that “There is a divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.” It is easier to a linear-thinking mind to extrapolate from this the presence of “mind” (i.e. “god”) who is calling all the shots. I understand that line of thinking but I think it reduces God to finite terms. But I like the idea of being “rough hewn” and having the hope that there is some “method to the madness” of what I’ve called, and do call, my life which is working out the loose ends. And I really like Marcel’s description of “a mysterious principle which is ‘in connivance’ with me.” I like the idea of having a hand in my fate, being in “conniving” with this “mysterious principle” which I still like to call “God.”

A similar theme as presented here was put into words by the poet Stanley Kunitz in his poem “The Layers” when he posited the notion that through the vortex of changes that characterize our life there is some “remnant of being from which I struggle not to stray.” Psychologists call this consistency “ego integrity.”

BY STANLEY KUNITZ
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Here is a link to the entirety of “The Layers”: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/54897)

Shakespearean Wisdom for This Moment

Hamlet is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean character.  He was such a sad, tragic figure allowing what Eckhart Tolle would call his “pain body” to tyrannize him, often moping about the castle with his nose in a book trying to escape through literature.  At one point his mother, Gertrude, noted of him, “Look yonder, the poor wretch comes reading.”

Each of Shakespeare’s characters revealed a glimpse into his own heart and how he saw the world of his day.  Hamlet’s famous lamentation, “The world is out of joint. O cursed spite that I was born to set it right” revealed that in Shakespeare’s astute judgment his world was pretty well “out of joint” and probably always had been.  With Hamlet’s arrogant claim of responsibility to “set it right”, I think Shakespeare was pointing out the silliness and arrogance of anyone thinking he could “set it right.”

Shakespeare was clearly an idealist and had keen understanding of the heart of man leading him to describe our collective machinations as “a tale told by an idiot” on one occasion.  This wisdom helps me at present moment in my “idiotic” world to remember to “chill out” when I’m getting too over-wrought with the Trumpian lunacy, not even being close to taking the ego’s bait that I “was born to set it right.”

I think that Shakespeare realized that in describing life as a “tale told by an idiot” he himself was part of the fabric he was describing and therefore not spared idiocy himself.  The world at any moment has a “world-view” which is taken to be the valid way of seeing things but Shakespeare was reminding us, “Hey, keep in mind that beneath the surface there is idiocy lurking.”  And that is always true on a personal level as well as a collective level.  With most of us, if we could subscribe to this wisdom, would merely have to recognize occasional internal conflicts which will never become “idiotic” if we simply have the presence of mind, and humility, to recognize their presence.  “Awareness is all” says a bumper stick on the car of a friend of mine.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

 

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

I am a Writer

I’m a writer.  It has taken me 65 years to make this bold assertion though this blogging experience of the past five years has been a very tentative, left-handed way of making this announcement.  And “endeavor” was a deliberately chosen term as it has been and always will be a struggle as writing of any substance must come from the heart; and anything that flows from that bastion of “beastly little treasures” will be a struggle.  The heart is the innermost recess of our being, so “inner most” that, if you will let me slip into Zen for a moment, it is a “No Thing” and can best be described as emptiness.  Therefore, if you “know” what your heart is…that is if you cognitively grasp your heart, or think that you do…I would beg to differ with you.  For the “heart” always lies beyond our conscious grasp.  And this “emptiness” is very much related to the Christian teaching of “losing your self to find your self” and finding our “self” in the sense that Jesus had in mind is much more than a cognitive, rational, linear-thinking enterprise.  You could even say it is a “work of the cross” but not in an intellectual way but in the constellation of archetypal energies which will often feel like a crucifixion.

Acknowledgement that anything is beyond the grasp of our conscious mind is frightening to most people, especially those of us in the West.  Since the Descartes dictum, “I think, therefore I am” the West has been worshipping thinking or reason and we have slowly come to be convinced that the whole of life can be reduced to linear thinking, i.e. reason.  And this has made us technologically and scientifically great but left us with a spiritual emptiness that will soon leave my country, the United States, with a man who is egregiously mentally ill as its President.  “They call it Reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” (Goethe)

But writing and all artistic enterprises can only spring from a heart that novelist Toni Morrison described as “petal open.”  That is where spirituality flows from, other than the “letter of the law” variety which is only what the Apostle Paul called a “work of the flesh.”  My favorite description of this vulnerable heart was written by Shakespeare whose character Hamlet, with great intensity lamented to his mother that he could never unburden his heart to her because it was, “bronzed o’er with the damned cast of thought so that it” is a barrier against “sense” (or feeling) and thus not “made of penetrable stuff.”  Shakespeare knew that an open heart can be “penetrated” while a closed heart, one shrouded by an enculturated verbal patina will be reduced to mindless palaver, “the well worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken)

But words do have the capacity to furrow into the depths of our heart and there we can use them to “unpack our heart.”(see footnote below).  But the unopen heart will only reflect from its patina a slough of jargon and packaged, formulaic speech in accordance with what the speaker perceives will gain him the greatest approbation.  Here is the opening stanza of a poem by Irish poet W. R. Rodgers who in 1942 recognized the “post-truth” dimension of language that is currently plaguing our world.

WORDS (an excerpt)

By W. R. Rodgers

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

(FOOTNOTE:  For you Shakespearean scholars, I am misapplying this line of “unpacking my heart with words” to describe something useful, when in the play “Hamlet” it described prostitutes deliberately plying their trade knowing that they could then go and perfunctorily confess their sins.  Hmm!)