Tag Archives: Macbeth

Julia Kristeva, Shakespeare, and the Unconscious

Julia Kristeva, the Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst is one of the primary influences on my intellectual and spiritual life.  Recently her term, semiotic chora, has been falling into place for me, tying together for me a variety of spiritual/intellectual themes that have drawn my attention for most of my adult life.

She borrowed this term from Plato’s “Timeous”, using it to describe a “space” between being and non-being.  This buffer zone might be thought of as the pre-conscious, a murky realm where our animality conjoins the symbolic realm, the domain from which will spring consciousness.  And between this chaotic, “non-sensical” realm there is discontinuity with consciousness which is related to the Oedipal transition and, in my estimation, the Biblical “fall” from Grace.  This is the domain of experience that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was aware of when he lamented, “My dull brain is racked by things forgotten.”  Here Shakespeare was revealing one of the reasons for his literary brilliance, his “dull brain” was always teeming with effluvia from the semiotic depths of his heart which is why his work speaks so powerfully to the human heart even today.

With this foray into linguistic intricacy, I admit I am a bit over my head.  Let me be safe and put it into laymen’s terms…being a layman myself…there is a region of experience beneath the surface of our life which is unconscious.  All of us know about it though when it surfaces we often dismiss it with a simple lament, “Now why did I do that?” or “Why did I say that?”  And occasionally the playwright of this drama in which we each have a bit part brings along a character like Donald Trump who glaringly demonstrates this unconscious element of our individual and collective psyche.

Awareness of this unconsciousness could be completely stifling.  For example, the words I am spitting forth here are coming spontaneously.  They are flowing from my heart, driven by this unconscious dimension I have put on the table.  I am mentally healthy enough to not be so worried about my unconsciousness that I am fretting about every single thought that I convey here, or every single word I choose.  For, should I do so I would very quickly be so stymied by the resulting hypertrophied self-reflectiveness that I would not be able to do anything but sit here and, and, well…., ahem, alas and alack…probably just burst into tears at some point, a complete meltdown!

Mental health, or actually spiritual health, will allow us to recognize the presence of an unconsciousness in our life but not be so terrified of it that we feel out of control.  Recognition of this dimension of our life is merely acceptance of our human-ness and with that might come a dollop of humility which would allow us to be less strident with our viewpoints and more accepting of those who see things differently.


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







“Tale Told by an Idiot” Still Being Told

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

This famous Shakespearean wisdom from Macbeth has stuck with me from the first time I heard it in high school when, stuck in a literal mindset at the time, I found Shakespeare and literature…other than the Bible…horrifying.  This wisdom is frightening as it takes the reader right into one of humankind’s worst fears, “Is anything real, and if so, am I participating in it?”

But now after three decades cavorting about in the delightful realm of Shakespeare’s imagination, I’m not as frightened or even daunted when I come across one of his glimpses into the scary parts of our psyche.  Here he was certainly telling us that we are all mad but the body of his work conveyed the conviction that there is “method to this madness” that we call life, that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  Shakespeare recognized what we now call “consensually validated reality” as a stage play in which we play various roles throughout all of our life, all of them amounting in some sense only to “performance art.”  And he knew that this social facade was necessary but he liked to point out to us in his plays and sonnets just how given it is to duplicity, hypocrisy, dishonesty and the rest of the ugliness of the human heart that reigns in us all, though we are hard-wired to keep it covered up beneath the surface of this “dog-and-pony show” that we call reality.  But occasionally the gods will send along a vivid illustration to let us see just how much non-sense we are mired in and then it is our task to have the courage to learn from this object-lesson that is being provided us and amend our ways.  But we must always remember the wisdom of W. H. Auden on this note, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand, and he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”


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




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’s Advise to the Wounded Soul

Shakespeare offered wisdom for all dimensions of the human experience.  For example, here he offered insight into maladies of the soul still relevant to modern times:

MACBETH   Cure her of that. 
                Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 
                Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
                Raze out the written troubles of the brain 
                And with some sweet oblivious antidote 
                Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff 
                Which weighs upon the heart?

PHYSICIAN  Therein must the patient minister unto herself.

Shakespeare was one of the greatest spiritual teachers we have ever had.  He certainly realized the value of “the healer’s art” I’m sure but he knew that ultimately each individual is alone, left with the responsibility of “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”  Others may assist us, and should, but ultimately we have to muster up the courage to confront the demons that haunt us in our inner most depths.

In religion and in the mental health profession, the quick cure is always fashionable.  These two enterprises often proffer only fads and fashions designed only as a band-aid that can only temporarily cover an existential crisis that needs to be “lived” through.  As someone put it, matters have the heart cannot be resolved by “thinking” through them but only by “feeling” through them.

Here I include a modern translation of the above Shakespearean quote:

In a modern translation, this part of the scene would say “Cure her of that. Can’t you treat a diseased mind? Take away her memory of sorrow? Use some drug to erase the troubling thoughts from her brain and ease her heart?” This is describing how Macbeth is pleading for his wife’s health. He feels compelled to treat her and is saddened when he hears from the doctor that one cannot mend the emotionally ill. This leads Macbeth into a rant that almost accuses the doctor of not being a doctor at all because he’s not able to cure someone emotionally sick. Macbeth is needing the doctor to be able to do something, use some drug that can help her in any way


“The Joy of Being Wrong”

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all,” declared Hamlet though in modern English, Shakespeare would have had Hamlet call it “consciousness.” Shakespeare saw that the awareness that consciousness brings is stunning and tends to give us pause to the point that his projective characters Hamlet and Macbeth were often stymied into inaction with their “pauser reason.” Shakespeare had Hamlet note that his obsessive thinking, which created his hyper consciousness, was actually cowardice when he admitted that if all his wisdom were “quartered,” it would be, “three parts cowardice and one part wisdom.”

Shakespeare knew, as would T. S. Eliot centuries later, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” This is the reason that the gods graciously gave us blinders and we sure as hell better hope we never lose them for we will be face-to-face with what poet Wallace Stevens called, “the fatality of seeing things too real.” But I have found it very important to acknowledge that I have these blinders and to realize that this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that, “we see through a glass darkly.” Acknowledging our blinders is merely acknowledging our human-ness and that is so very hard to do.   Just ask Isis. Just ask the extreme right-wing of my country’s Republican Party!

Acknowledging my blinders has been actually quite liberating! I no longer have to be “right” for I know that being “right” is merely self-deception. “Right” is a Presence in the human experience that visits us from time to time but none of us can claim it and pontificate about it. This is probably related to what the Catholic priest Charlie Alison had in mind with his book, “The Joy of Being Wrong.”

Waging the War I Am

I quote W. H. Auden’s observation “We wage the war we are” so often that I think it should be the name of my blog. And, it is so readily available for my “usage” because it is so relevant to me personally, revealing to you and the millions who read this blather each day that my heart is a war zone. (Oh, well…hell…let me be truthful, the number is far less than “millions”.!)

My heart has always been a war zone, a battle field where conflicting impulses sought for primacy and dominance in my life. But I could not handle that duress, the “duress” of being an “alive” human being, and solved it very early in my life when I adopted the stance that I now refer to as “literal lew.” “Literal lew” allowed me to live above the fray, ensconced in my analytical cocoon, obsessively “standing in the rear of my affection, out of the shot and danger of desire.” (Hamlet) But even then, looking back on my life, the underlying tension and duress was trying to seep through, just as it did with Macbeth who lamented, “my dull brain is (was) racked by things forgotten.”

But in my mid-thirties, “literal lew” began his “Damascus road” conversion, a process which is still underway and will always be underway; for spirituality is not an accomplished fact but a process, the “process” of being human. So now I am very conscious of this duress that I earlier could not handle and it comes to me in the form of…for want of a better term…anxiety. Rollo May called this “existential anxiety” and said it is the experience that we “feel” when the battle between a basic drive in the heart comes to the surface—“to be” or “not to be.” This is the conflict between the Spirit of God leading us to authenticity, i.e. “be-ing” and the antithetical drive to remain inauthentic, desperately clutching our fig leaf and trying to cover our nakedness.

I just recently realized that what is happening is that my ego, that part of our heart which I so often castigate, is gaining maturity. With this maturity, my ego is not so “full of itself” and can be a bit more humble, allowing the experience of reality to seep in. (I like to think of this as “the Spirit of God” seeping in.) My ego can now handle this duress which used to scare the hell out of me though as I make this assertion, I’ve given pause and want to add, “Knock on wood!” Another dimension of this ego maturity is that my mind can now more or less comfortably live with contradictions, realizing that in my heart diametrically opposite things are present; such as, I am “good” and “bad” at the same time, ultimately meaning that I simply “am.”

The most important dimension of this ego maturity which I purport to be finding is that I can now handle the tension and at the same time realize that what is most important is not my internal tension, not the “war” inside, but what I do in the outside “real” world which always leads me to the wisdom of the Buddhist notion of “chopping wood, carrying water.” Though the internal machinations of the heart are powerful and important, I find that I can remember to focus most of the time on the mundane responsibilities of day to day life, tending hearth and home– loving my wife, doggies, friends, and family–and hoping that my feeble efforts each day will make the world a bit more hospitable for others.


Living in the Past must be Past

It is so easy to live in the past, our life story being a litany of the various misfortunes that have fallen our way. And no doubt there are misfortunes and worse, the Shakespearean “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” But at some point we have to make an effort to let it all go and accept responsibility for our life, to live in the moment and recognize that we can make choices in the present that can mitigate if not eliminate the impact of past experiences. And I admit that I feel it is mostly going to be “mitigation” rather than elimination. Read what Marianne Williamson said last week on a Facebook post re this subject:

There is nothing about your past that determines who you are in the present, unless you yourself choose to drag the past with you. That is why the Light — our connection to God, Christ, Buddha, by whatever name we call it — is our salvation: it’s the eternal remembrance of who we really are, unencumbered by any false beliefs within ourselves or others. Now, in this moment, you are who you have always been and will always be. All spiritual practice — forgiveness, meditation and prayer — is for the purpose of training the mind to see through the illusions of a world that would convince you otherwise.

And then, of course, Shakespeare always has wisdom to offer on everything. Here Macbeth wonders why a physician cannot purge the mind of Lady Macbeth of the demons that haunt her, only to be informed that ultimately only the individual can do that:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuf
Which weighs upon the heart?

The Doctor responded, “Therein the patient must minister to herself.”