|by L. James Hammond|
|© L. James Hammond 2017|
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5. Simplicity La Bruyère, knowing that many writers make the mistake of expressing simple things in a complex way, gave this advice to writers: “if you want to say that it is raining, say: ‘It is raining’.” Simplicity is the mark of good prose, and it’s also a virtue in other branches of culture.
The Greeks regarded simplicity as both a cultural virtue and a moral virtue. “Beauty of style,” wrote Plato, “and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character.”1 If there is one quality that is lacking in modern culture, it is simplicity.
6. Clarity Serious writers strive to be understood, strive for clarity. Bad writers, on the other hand, aren’t afraid of being obscure as long as they can make the reader think, “What an extensive vocabulary! What learning! What talent!” The surest sign of bad prose is the use of uncommon words where common words would suffice.
Clarity can be achieved by the repetition of certain words. Repetition is more comprehensible for the reader than variety. As Anatole France said, “You will find in my paragraphs a word that comes over and over again. That is the leit-motif of the symphony. Be careful not to delete and replace it by a synonym.”2 One of the most common stylistic mistakes is avoiding repetition, and replacing a previously-used word with a synonym.
But clarity alone doesn’t make good prose; clarity must be combined with brevity. Good prose is so concise that every word has the importance of an italicized word.
7. Henry James As Henry James grew older, his style became more obscure. Here’s a quote from James’ Turn of the Screw: “My question had a sarcastic force that I had not fully intended, and it made her after a moment inconsequently break down.”3 My objection to this sentence (and to James’ style in general) is that it is obscure. The word “inconsequently” is unnecessary, it muddies the water. Mark Twain said that if you see an adverb, kill it, and “inconsequently” is richly deserving of death. “But you just used an adverb yourself: richly.” But “richly deserving” is a common expression, easily understood, while “inconsequently” is an unusual word, almost never heard in spoken English, and “inconsequently break down” is a strange, obscure phrase.
Here’s another example of James’ style: “It was impossible to have given less encouragement than he had administered to such a doctrine.”4 This sentence would be clearer, easier for the reader to grasp, if James had written “it was impossible to have given less encouragement than he had given...” Repetition is easier for the reader to grasp than variety, and repeating the word “given” makes the sentence clearer than replacing “given” with “administered”. Furthermore, who ever heard of ‘administering encouragement to a doctrine’?
One final example: “I dare say I fancied myself in short a remarkable young woman and took comfort in the faith that this would more publicly appear.”5 This sentence is wordy, in my view, and could be improved by deleting the phrase “in short”. “But the phrase ‘in short’ is needed for the sake of summing up and concluding.” Then move ‘in short’ to the start of the sentence, and delete “I dare say”, so the sentence would run: “In short, I fancied myself a remarkable young woman...”
James forfeits the right to use the phrase “in short” because he’s never “short”, he always chooses to take the long way around. James’ prose has no music, no rhythm, no force. James’ prose is obscure, and for a writer, obscurity is the sin against the Holy Ghost, the sin for which there is no forgiveness.
An Englishman once asked Tocqueville, “What do you consider your Golden Age?” Tocqueville responded, “The latter part of the seventeenth century.... Style then was the mere vehicle of thought. First of all to be perspicuous, and then being perspicuous, to be concise, was all they aimed at.... In the eighteenth century... ornament was added.”6 A writer should aim to be clear and concise, he should aim to communicate something to the reader. James, however, seems to regard style as an end in itself, not as a vehicle of thought.
8. Five Techniques A good writer makes skillful use of five techniques: he addresses someone, gives orders, asks questions, makes exclamations, and repeats certain words. Addressing someone is sometimes described as the vocative case, while ordering someone, telling someone what to do, is sometimes described as the imperative case.
Shakespeare uses the vocative case, followed by the imperative case, when he makes Juliet say, “Romeo, doff thy name.” Melville gives us an example of exclamation when he writes, “Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.” This passage also uses the imperative case. Thoreau gives us an example of the repetition of certain words when he writes, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.” This passage also uses exclamation. In one line of poetry, Virgil uses three techniques: he repeats a word, he addresses someone, and he asks a question: “Ah, Corydon, Corydon, what madness seized you?”7 In a passage in his novel, The Castle, Kafka uses four techniques: he addresses someone, asks a question, makes an exclamation, and repeats certain words: “Do you hear that, Frieda? It’s about you that he, he, wants to speak to Klamm, to Klamm!”
9. Style Though it’s possible to lay down rules for style, though it’s possible to describe the ideal style, it’s impossible to teach someone to write great prose. Style is an expression of personality. Great prose writers don’t follow rules, they follow their taste. Great prose writers are born, not made.
Style and content are of equal importance; literature is a combination of style and content. Only a philistine would overlook style, and only a pedant would overlook content. If style is pursued for its own sake, it becomes artificial; style should be the vehicle of thought. In order to write well, one must have something to say. If one has something to say, if one has profound ideas and strong convictions, style comes naturally.
Great thinkers are great stylists, and great stylists are great thinkers. Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are considered models of Greek style, Danish style and German style respectively, and they’re also the deepest thinkers that those three nations have produced. Emerson is the deepest thinker that America has produced, and also America’s best prose writer.
11. Reader and Writer Reading is often a kind of friendship. The reader gets to know the author, and if he likes him, if he feels akin to him, a kind of friendship develops. (The saying “opposites attract” may apply to love, but it doesn’t apply to friendship; friendship is based on kinship, on similarity of character.) Sometimes reading leads to actual friendship, friendship between living people; Emerson and Carlyle, for example, became friends after Emerson read Carlyle’s writings. More often, however, reading leads to friendship at a distance — a distance in space or a distance in time.
The writer is sometimes a father-figure rather than a friend. Shakespeare was a father-figure to Goethe, and Schopenhauer was a father-figure to Nietzsche. When a young reader idolizes a writer, he often wants to imitate the writer, to model his whole life after the writer. The young Victor Hugo, for example, said that he wanted to be “Chateaubriand or nothing.” The young reader envies the accomplishments of the writer he admires, he wants to accomplish as much himself, and he’s discouraged when he thinks of the great distance that separates him from the writer he admires. Like a hiker setting out to climb Mt. Everest, he feels that he must work hard, and strain himself to the breaking point, in order to reach his goal.
The sons of today are the fathers of tomorrow, and the youth who reveres a writer may someday become a revered writer himself. Nietzsche realized that he would someday be an idolized and envied father-figure, just as Schopenhauer had been a father-figure to him. Thus, Nietzsche makes the young man say to Zarathustra, “it is envy of you which has destroyed me.”8 While self-satisfaction makes life easy and pleasant, envy makes life difficult and painful. Greatness is forged in suffering. Dissatisfaction with oneself, coupled with reverence for someone else, spurs one to great accomplishments. Envy has positive effects when it aims not to lower someone else to your level, but rather to raise yourself to someone else’s level. Every great man was once a youth who envied someone else, was dissatisfied with himself, and was spurred to great accomplishments by his envy and dissatisfaction. Every great man was once a youth who revered greatness.
12. Two Worlds There are two worlds: the literary world, and the world that’s known as the “real world.” A serious writer is consumed by literature, hence the literary world is more real for him than the “real world.” As Kafka said, “My whole being is directed toward literature.” When Thomas Wolfe was 22, he wrote,
|There is nothing so commonplace, so dull, that it is not touched with nobility and dignity. And I intend to wreak out my soul on paper and express it all.... I will know this country when I am through as I know the palm of my hand, and I will put it on paper and make it true and beautiful.... This is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing, and I will do it or die.... I will write, write, write.9|
It’s impossible for a writer to explain his attitude toward literature to someone who lives in the “real world.” As Kafka said to his fiancée, Felice, “you were unable to appreciate the immense power my work has over me.”
13. What is the purpose of literature? The purpose of literature, like the purpose of art in general, is to make life more palatable to people, more interesting, richer. Art provides pleasure, stimulation, inspiration. Art doesn’t have to teach, it doesn’t have to be moral or religious or political or philosophical. There are great imaginative writers who don’t teach us anything, just as a composer of music doesn’t teach us anything.
14. Is Beauty Universal? Beauty is neither universal nor timeless, it fades with distance and time. An imaginative writer from ancient Greece has little appeal for most modern readers; ancient Greek writers appeal only to scholars. Westerners find little enjoyment in Eastern culture; the poets of China and Japan are enjoyed only by a few Western scholars.
Eastern painting is more enjoyable to Westerners than Eastern literature. The beauty of fine art reaches further, and lasts longer, than the beauty of literature. And the beauty of music lasts longer than the beauty of fine art. Music is the most universal, the most timeless, of the arts.
15. Educated Laymen A culture of scholars isn’t a healthy culture. A culture that is preoccupied with recapturing the faded beauty of old classics isn’t a healthy culture. But a popular culture that appeals chiefly to uneducated people is also unhealthy. The best culture is a culture that appeals to educated laymen. The best culture respects the old classics, but it also respects the pleasure that contemporary artists provide. The best culture avoids the sterility of scholar culture, and also avoids the barbarism of popular culture. Modern culture isn’t healthy, it isn’t a culture of educated laymen. Modern culture is divided between sterile scholar culture and barbaric popular culture.
16. Goethe Goethe’s novels have little interest for modern readers. Gide described one of Goethe’s novels as “unbelievably silly”; Gide said that Goethe “could not have written it at present.”10 Like Goethe’s novels, Scott’s novels strike modern readers as dull, though they were once considered immortal classics. There is a certain progression in the history of the novel, a progression that has relegated many early novelists, including Scott and Goethe, to obscurity. The history of the novel casts doubt on the old theory that art, unlike science, is timeless and never progresses.
Goethe’s poetry, like most poetry, holds little attraction for those who read it in translation. (As Robert Frost said, “poetry is what gets lost in translation.”) Goethe’s best works, for those who read him in translation, are his autobiography and his conversations, as recorded by Eckermann. His autobiography is as pleasurable to read as Rousseau’s autobiography, and his conversations with Eckermann are more interesting than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Nietzsche said that Goethe’s conversations with Eckermann was the best German book.11
17. Letters During the early 1500’s, collections of Erasmus’ letters were in greater demand than any other book. Voltaire’s letters from Ferney were so lively and witty that they were handed around Paris. It is said that Voltaire’s writing is at its best in his letters. Letter-writing affords writers a freedom that they aren’t afforded by any other type of writing.
Wilde said that criticism (commentary on someone else’s writings) is the highest form of autobiography.
“Next to the originator of a good sentence,” Emerson wrote, “is the first quoter of it.”
20. Valuable Service One of the most valuable services that a writer can perform for a reader is to call his attention to good writers. This isn’t only a service to the reader, it’s also a service to the writers — developing a reputation for an unknown writer, or reviving the reputation of a writer who is sinking into oblivion. Regarding his translation of Ruskin, Proust wrote, “I believe that each of us has charge of the souls that he particularly loves, charge of making them known and loved, of avoiding for them the slights of misunderstandings, and the night... of oblivion.”12
21. Maturing Taste Psychologists often say that the individual repeats, in his own development, the development of the human race as a whole. The individual repeats the religious history of mankind by beginning life with the earliest forms of religion, animism and totemism; that is, he begins life by believing that inanimate objects and animals have feelings and thoughts similar to his own.
The individual repeats the literary history of mankind by beginning life with the earliest forms of literature, fairy tales and animal fables. By age ten, we’ve graduated from fairy tales to myths, just as mankind once graduated from fairy tales to myths. At fifteen, we’re able to read early novelists like Defoe and Dumas. At twenty, we’re able to read later novelists like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Not until twenty-five are we able to read modern novelists like Proust and Joyce.
22. Keats is one of the most remarkable talents in English literature. His life was short (he died at 26), and his complete works would scarcely fill a thin volume. Though he is best known for his poetry, his letters are also literary works of considerable value.
Born into the working class, Keats had little formal education. At age 14, he fell in love with literature, and began to read voraciously. His enthusiasm for the classics, especially poetry, was such that, at age 21, he stayed up all night with his former teacher and read Homer in Chapman’s translation. In the morning, still without sleep, he composed the immortal sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”
Keats knew that poetry was his calling; he was determined to be a poet. He also knew that he would die young; “even while his health was good, Keats felt a foreboding of early death, and applied himself to his art with a desperate urgency.”13 Keats asked
for ten years, that I may overwhelm|
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.14
Keats said that his models (in life and in art) were the “mighty dead.” Keats had confidence in his own work: “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”15
All these traits are characteristic of a great writer: the enthusiasm for literature, the determination to be a writer, emulation of the “mighty dead,” and confidence in one’s own work.
23. Chekhov depicts people whose romantic visions are shattered by day-to-day living. No matter what they’re doing, they always wish that they were doing something else, and no matter where they are, they always wish that they were somewhere else. They remind one of Socrates’ comment about marriage: if you get married you’ll regret it, and if you don’t get married you’ll regret that, too. Chekhov’s characters also remind one of Flaubert’s character, Madame Bovary, who found that reality never lived up to her expectations; Chekhov must have been influenced by Flaubert.
Layevsky, a character in Chekhov’s story, “The Duel,” is typical of Chekhov’s characters. “Two years ago,” Chekhov writes, “when [Layevsky] fell in love with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, it seemed to him that he had only to join his life to hers, go to the Caucasus, and he would be saved from the vulgarity and emptiness of his life; now he was just as certain that he had only to forsake Nadyezhda Fyodorovna and go to Petersburg to have everything he wanted.”
Like many modern writers and painters, Chekhov doesn’t depict reality as it is, but reality as it is perceived. Instead of describing a woman’s personality, Chekhov describes the impression that she made on people; he says of one of his characters that since she was always seen with her dog, people thought of her as “the lady with the dog.”
Chekhov believed that art should be realistic and true to life; in this respect, he’s similar to other late-nineteenth-century writers, such as Ibsen, Flaubert and Zola. Chekhov’s specialty is detail; in Chekhov’s stories, the parts are more important than the whole.
Chekhov depicts the absurdity of life, as Kafka does. But Chekhov is more realistic and less imaginative than Kafka. Chekhov composed his works from notes that he jotted down during the course of his daily life, while Kafka composed his works during inspired periods, periods in which he surrendered himself to his unconscious.
In the case of Kafka, this central theme is the overwhelming of the individual by huge institutions, by huge inanimate objects, by huge crowds, and by the absurdity of the world. This theme is especially evident in The Trial and The Castle. In Kafka’s Amerika, and in some of Kafka’s short stories, this theme, although it isn’t as pervasive as it is in The Trial and The Castle, recurs again and again. Examples of huge institutions in Amerika are the Hotel Occidental and the Theatre of Oklahoma, which has “almost no limits.” An example of a huge inanimate object is the ocean liner, with its “endlessly recurring stairs” and its “corridors with countless turnings.”
While Joyce’s prose is innovative and eccentric, and Proust’s is precious, Kafka’s prose is simple, pure and classical. Hence Kafka is more readable and popular than Joyce or Proust.
While many modern writers stayed close to reality, and drew on their own lives, Kafka created worlds that were far removed from the real world; Kafka’s work has rare imaginative power. A book of aphorisms could be compiled from Shakespeare’s philosophical comments, from Tolstoy’s psychological observations, and from Proust’s remarks on art. Kafka’s work, however, doesn’t contain any such comments or observations; Kafka is impossible to quote. Kafka doesn’t try to understand reality, he creates fantasies that contain psychological truth.
One factor that shaped Kafka’s work was the development, in recent times, of large institutions and bureaucracies; Kafka himself was a government bureaucrat. Another factor that shaped Kafka’s work was Gogol’s stories, which often begin with the protagonist finding himself in a strange and absurd situation, just as some of Kafka’s stories — “The Metamorphosis,” for example, and The Trial — begin with the protagonist finding himself in a strange and absurd situation. A third factor that shaped Kafka’s work was that his father was an aggressive, dominating personality who instilled in him a feeling of guilt, inferiority and powerlessness. A fourth factor was that Kafka was Jewish; being Jewish increased Kafka’s feeling of powerlessness.
Kafka found relief for his sufferings, his guilt and his powerlessness in humor. Kafka is an extraordinary writer because he had an extraordinary sense of humor. As Freud said, “It is not everyone who is capable of the humorous attitude: it is a rare and precious gift.”16
25. Flaubert While the dominant note in Kafka’s personality was humor, the dominant note in Flaubert’s personality was pride. Flaubert was proud of his devotion to art, regardless of whether his books were acclaimed or not: “As for the outcome, or for success, who cares? The main thing in this world is to keep one’s soul on the heights, out of the bourgeois noise and the democratic mire. The pursuit of Art makes one proud, and one can never have too much pride. That is my philosophy.”17
Flaubert despised the materialistic values of the middle class; he satirized the middle class in his Dictionary of Platitudes, and also in the character of M. Homais. Like Ibsen, Flaubert rebelled against the democratic trend of his time. Flaubert had little regard for universal suffrage or for equality: “I am grateful,” he told Renan, “for your protest against ‘democratic equality’; which is, to my mind, a seed of death in the world.”18
Like other great writers, Flaubert studied the classics and scorned journalism. His scorn for journalism prompted him to wish that printing were banned: “If the Emperor were to abolish printing tomorrow, I’d crawl to Paris on my hands and knees and kiss his behind in gratitude.”19 Flaubert anticipated that democracy and the mass media would put the future of culture in doubt.
26. Objective or Subjective? Flaubert believed that literature should be impersonal, that literature shouldn’t be a vehicle for the author’s feelings and experiences. This was a widespread view in the late nineteenth century; it was a reaction against Romanticism, against the Romantic tendency to write in a personal, subjective way. Since Flaubert’s time, the view that literature should be objective has been embraced by many writers and critics.
In support of the objective theory of literature, one could argue that some of the best literary works are objective; Homer’s works, for example, don’t express their author’s feelings, or describe their author’s experiences. In opposition to the objective theory of literature, one could argue that some of the best literary works are personal and subjective. Most of the outstanding Western writers since the Middle Ages have been subjective. Ibsen, for example, was subjective; Ibsen said, “If you want objectivity, then go to the objects. Read me so as to get to know me!”20 Great literature can be objective or subjective, just as great literature can be realistic or unrealistic.
27. Dostoyevsky wrote in a subjective way; many of his characters are based on facets of his own personality. The main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, for example, are based on facets of Dostoyevsky’s own personality: Dmitri is a losing gambler (like Dostoyevsky), Ivan a journalist tormented by religious doubts (like Dostoyevsky), Smerdyakov an epileptic (like Dostoyevsky), etc.21 Many of Dostoyevsky’s characters possess the sadistic and masochistic tendencies that Dostoyevsky himself possessed. The protagonist of “A Gentle Creature,” for example, says, “I tormented myself and everybody else.”
Masochism leads many of Dostoyevsky’s male characters to love crippled women. The severe super-ego of these characters prevents them from loving normal women. Masochism also leads many of Dostoyevsky’s characters to be buffoons, to make fools of themselves; such characters derive a certain pleasure from publicly humiliating themselves. One can compare Dostoyevsky with Johnson’s biographer, Boswell: both had tyrannical fathers, both developed defective super-ego’s, both experienced bouts of masochistic severity toward themselves, and both had tendencies to make fools of themselves.22
Dostoyevsky’s greatest fault is that he carries his psychological analysis to an excessive and morbid point. This fault is particularly evident when Dostoyevsky is compared with Tolstoy. Tolstoy has Dostoyevsky’s profundity and keen insight and, in addition, Tolstoy has a simplicity and serenity that Dostoyevsky lacks.
28. Tolstoy While Dostoyevsky is famous for his psychological insights, Tolstoy’s greatness as a psychologist is sometimes overlooked. Dostoyevsky could understand others because he probed his own complex, neurotic personality. Tolstoy was less neurotic than Dostoyevsky, but he lived with exceptional intensity, energy and animal vitality. Tolstoy experienced many things, and was familiar with his own rich personality, hence Tolstoy understood others as few people ever have. Understanding of others comes from understanding of oneself; psychological insight comes from self-consciousness.
If one compares Tolstoy’s observations on human nature with Freud’s, one finds a striking agreement between them. Tolstoy said, “[Levin’s] conception of [his mother] was for him a sacred memory, and his future wife was bound to be in his imagination a repetition of that exquisite, holy ideal of a woman that his mother had been.” Likewise, Freud said, “A man... looks for [a woman] who can represent his picture of his mother, as it has dominated his mind from his earliest childhood.”23
Tolstoy spoke of “the vindictive fury which can only exist where a man loves,” and Tolstoy said, “where love ends, hate begins.” Likewise, Freud said, “Love is with unexpected regularity accompanied by hate [and] in a number of circumstances hate changes into love and love into hate.”24
In his case history of Dora, Freud said, “the usual sexual attraction had drawn together the father and daughter on the one side and the mother and son on the other.” Tolstoy discusses this “usual sexual attraction” in the following passage: “The little girl, her father’s favorite, ran up boldly [and] embraced him.... ‘Good morning’, he said, smiling to the boy.... He was conscious that he loved the boy less, and always tried to be fair; but the boy felt it, and did not respond with a smile to his father’s chilly smile.”25
Great thinkers often reach the same conclusions independently of each other. A thinker’s ideas usually come from his own experiences, or from his observations of other people. Since human nature remains much the same in different times and places, the experiences and observations of different thinkers are often similar. Truth agrees with itself and confirms itself.
Just as great thinkers often agree with each other, so too one’s own experience often agrees with the observations of great thinkers. Here again, truth agrees with itself and confirms itself. An idea drawn from experience is confirmed when one finds the same idea in a book. Likewise, the ideas in a book are confirmed when one finds that they agree with one’s own experience.
29. Joyce While the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky express ideas and reflect their authors’ struggles for spiritual peace, the novels of Joyce have a different purpose. Joyce said, “Ulysses is fundamentally a humorous work,” and Joyce said that Finnegans Wake was “meant to make you laugh.”26 Ulysses and Finnegans Wake belong in the comic tradition of Petronius, Rabelais and Sterne. Joyce’s short stories, on the other hand, remind one, by their simplicity and by their realism, of Chekhov’s short stories.
Joyce had no interest in politics and little interest in philosophy. He disliked Shaw’s plays, which set forth ideas. When World War II was breaking out, and his brother asked him what he thought about the political situation, Joyce said, “I’m not interested in politics. The only thing that interests me is style.”27
Like many imaginative writers, Joyce observed and wrote about the occult. In A Portrait of the Artist, for example, Stephen Dedalus is lying in bed, thinking of his girlfriend, and he wonders what his girlfriend is doing: “Might it be, in the mysterious ways of spiritual life, that her soul at those same moments had been conscious of his homage? ....Conscious of his desire she was waking from odorous sleep.” Joyce’s interest in the occult sets him apart from Kafka; Kafka never discusses the occult or aesthetics or religion. Kafka stays in the world of fantasy, and never leaves it for a moment.
Like Joyce, Ibsen discussed telepathy, non-verbal communication. One of Ibsen’s characters says, “If I happen to look at her when her back is turned, I can tell that she feels it.... She believed I had said to her what I had only wished and willed — silently — inwardly — to myself.”28 Dostoyevsky was also fascinated by telepathy, by the power of the mind; one of his characters says, “I did not speak of it directly.... I spoke almost without words. And I am an old hand at speaking without words. I have spent all my life speaking without words. I have lived through whole tragedies without uttering a word.”29
Sound is as important in Joyce’s prose as it is in the work of modern poets. It isn’t surprising that Joyce himself wrote poetry. Joyce erased, or at least blurred, the distinction between poetry and prose. Just as poetry is impossible to translate, so too Joyce’s prose is impossible to translate. Just as poetry can be read over and over, so too Joyce’s prose can be read over and over.
30. Proust One might describe Kafka as humorous, Joyce as comic, and Proust as nostalgic. Kafka’s humor conceals suffering and seriousness; one cannot imagine Kafka telling the bawdy jokes that Joyce tells. Joyce’s comic sense expresses not suffering but joy; Joyce said that literature “should express the ‘holy spirit of joy’.”30
Proust’s nostalgia has two sources: his detachment from the present, and his attachment to his mother. Proust wrote his magnum opus while he was entombed in his cork-lined Paris apartment, isolated from the world. Such a detachment from the present has the effect of awakening memories of the past. Proust had an unusually strong attachment to his mother. After his mother had died, Proust told his maid that, “if I were sure to meet my mother again, in the Valley of Jehosaphat or anywhere else, I would want to die at once.”31 Proust’s attachment to his mother, and his detachment from the present, combined to form the nostalgic tone of his work.
One prominent theme in Proust’s work is idealism, that is, the notion that the world is one’s idea of the world. Proust isn’t as concerned with depicting Balbec and the Duchesse de Guermantes as he is with depicting how the narrator perceives Balbec and the Duchesse de Guermantes. Proust’s main subject is the narrator’s mind, the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Thus, he’s akin to Cervantes, whose main subject was not the world as it is, but the world as it is perceived by Don Quixote.
But while Don Quixote is always the same, Proust’s narrator changes over time. The narrator’s attitude toward Albertine, for example, changes over time; though the narrator is obsessed with Albertine, and is crushed by Albertine’s flight, he eventually puts Albertine out of his mind and becomes indifferent to her. Proust depicts how time changes one’s idea of the world, and also how time changes the world itself.
Proust’s work contains much character analysis and little plot. His narrative ambles along at a leisurely pace, and often stands still; it reminds one of two people who go for a walk, and then become so involved in their conversation that they come to a stop.
Proust’s peculiar style is related to his peculiar personality; the style marks the man. Proust’s prose is precious, convoluted and obscure.
Proust created his own personal religion, a religion based on literature and art. Like all religions, Proust’s religion justifies life, makes it possible to accept death, and holds out the hope of life after death, of immortality.
Proust is a profound thinker, and can teach one much about life, about the passage of time, and about death. But Proust isn’t the sort of thinker that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were, and his work doesn’t contain discussions about the existence of God. Proust’s thinking isn’t speculative, like a philosopher’s thinking; Proust thinks with his heart (as Tolstoy said of Ruskin).
31. Proust and Ruskin One of Proust’s favorite writers was John Ruskin, who wrote mostly about architecture and painting. Proust translated two of Ruskin’s books into French, and when Ruskin died in 1900, Proust wrote an obituary. Proust took several “Ruskinian pilgrimages,” visiting cathedrals that Ruskin had written about. Proust even read Ruskin’s Stones of Venice while sitting inside San Marco.
Ruskin believed that a craftsman shouldn’t be just a laborer, like those who built the pyramids. A craftsman should express his creativity and individuality, he should have his heart in his work, like those who carved the ornaments on Gothic cathedrals:
|I believe the right question to ask [Ruskin wrote], respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment — was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible... but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living.32|
We can ask of a literary work, too, “Was it done with enjoyment?” And if we ask that about Proust’s work, it’s clear that the answer is yes, he wrote with great enjoyment. Hence he said it was easy to write his novel, and hence he wrote so much. Wilde said that Henry James wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty, but no one would say that about Proust. Proust wrote with a light heart, and with deep affection for his subject. Indeed, nothing was closer to Proust’s heart than the childhood memories that he drew upon in his fiction. Proust’s affection for his subject communicates itself to the reader, and helps to explain the reader’s affection for Proust’s work.
32. Proust and Detachment One part of spiritual growth is detachment — detachment from emotional entanglements, detachment from life in general. Detachment shouldn’t be confused with pessimism, with turning against life. Meditating means practicing detachment; meditating doesn’t mean turning against life. In a detached mind, wrote Jung, “the fullness of the world which hitherto pressed upon it has lost none of its richness and beauty, but it no longer dominates.”33
Alchemy is about spiritual growth, about achieving detachment. Alchemists used the image of a “diamond body” to represent one who is detached, one who is unaffected by “emotional entanglements and violent shocks.”34
Proust helps us to understand detachment by describing its opposite — the state of attachment, the state of unhealthy obsession. Swann is obsessed with Odette, and Proust’s narrator is obsessed with his mother and later with Albertine. Proust’s narrator escapes from his twin obsessions through the death of the two people he’s obsessed with. These deaths bring him great suffering, but they also bring him wisdom, detachment.
Just as Proust’s narrator detaches himself from people, so too he gradually detaches himself from places — the places that he has romanticized and longed for. Both forms of detachment prepare the narrator for death.
Detachment is a natural part of the process of aging and dying. As Jung put it, “A consciousness detached from the world.... sets in after middle life and is a natural preparation for death.”35 If this is so, then perhaps Proust’s narrator would have eventually achieved detachment even if his mother and Albertine hadn’t died. Conversely, if his mother and Albertine had died when he was young (say, twenty), their deaths wouldn’t have led to detachment and wisdom, since he wasn’t old enough to achieve detachment. Is wisdom a function of time?
One can interpret Proust’s work as beginning with attachment, and ending with detachment, resignation, and an acceptance of death. In other words, one can interpret Proust’s work as a study of spiritual growth.
33. Shakespeare and Detachment Like Proust, Shakespeare treats detachment as a part of spiritual growth. Shakespeare depicts detachment in the character of Horatio, who is steady and cool-headed. Hamlet says to Horatio,
thou hast been|
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks....
Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core.
Shakespeare’s portrait of Horatio reminds us of Jung’s portrait of the detached personality that “suffers only in the lower stories, as it were, but in its upper stories is singularly detached from painful as well as from joyful happenings.”36
34. Blood and Judgment While detachment is one part of spiritual growth, another part is balance — balancing mind and body, intellect and feeling, conscious and unconscious. Hamlet praises Horatio for balancing “blood and judgment,” for mixing the “elements,” rather than repressing some and favoring others. Antony praises Brutus in similar terms:
His life was gentle, and the elements|
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”
Elsewhere Shakespeare speaks of mixing “blood and virtue”; in All’s Well That Ends Well, Bertram’s mother says,
|Be thou blest, Bertram, and succeed thy father|
In manners, as in shape! thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee...
The phrase “blood and virtue” reminds one of “blood and judgment.” “Contend” is in the imperative case (equivalent to “may your blood and virtue contend for empire in thee”). Shakespeare seems to have felt that “blood and virtue” can’t coexist harmoniously, they can only coexist contentiously. The highest degree of harmony that we can achieve is a stand-off between “blood” and “virtue.”
A mix of contrary tendencies is as healthy for the individual as a system of “checks and balances” for the state. “Without contraries,” wrote Blake, “is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to human existence. The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of mind.”
Just as Shakespeare’s view of detachment resembles Jung’s view, so too Shakespeare’s view of balancing/mixing resembles Jung’s view (though Jung used the term “functions” rather than “elements”). Shakespeare’s view of spiritual growth is similar to Jung’s, and is as relevant for our time as a book written yesterday.
35. The Power of Thought Thought alone can bring about results. Negative thoughts, though buried in secrecy and silence, can bring about negative results. Marie-Louise von Franz, a disciple of Jung, said “by nursing secret destructive attitudes, a wife can drive her husband, and a mother her children, into illness, accident, or even death.”37 Such destructive attitudes can also lead to self-destruction, suicide, which is sometimes concealed beneath the appearance of accidental death. Negative thoughts may be conscious or unconscious, or they may be semi-conscious, occupying that borderland between conscious and unconscious.
Proust had a destructive attitude toward two people, his mother and his chauffeur, and when both of them died, he felt that he was guilty of a double murder. (Proust would have understood Oscar Wilde’s paradox, “we always kill the thing we love.”) Proust’s love for his chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli, ended when Agostinelli left Proust, went to the south of France to learn flying, and died in an airplane accident.38
In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator’s love for Albertine follows the same pattern as Proust’s love for his chauffeur. But the first draft of Proust’s novel, including the death of Albertine, was written before the death of Agostinelli. Thus, the whole history of Proust’s love for Agostinelli existed in Proust’s mind, and in Proust’s novel, before it existed in the external world. The mind shapes circumstances.
Was Hamlet also a negative thinker, a person who committed thought-murders? The literary critic Wilson Knight argued that Hamlet is obsessed with death, infected with nihilism; Knight argued that Hamlet’s nihilism spreads through the Danish court, and results in a pile of corpses.39 Some critics reacted to Knight’s argument with indignation, insisting that Claudius, not Hamlet, is the villain. But if we reflect on the importance of negative thinking, in life and in literature, we become receptive to Knight’s argument.
If we accept Knight’s argument, must we abandon the traditional view that Hamlet is an intellectual, a noble heart, etc.? No, Hamlet can be both an intellectual and a “negative thinker,” both a sweet prince and a shadow prince. As Jung said, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. For every Faust, a Mephistopheles.”40 For every intellectual, a devil within. Doubtless Shakespeare himself, who resembles Hamlet in so many ways, was both a genius and a “negative thinker.” The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
“Shadow” is Jung’s term for the dark side of human nature, the impulses that are hidden from society, and even from ourselves. The shadow arranges things, while the conscious mind is only partly aware of what the shadow is doing. In Ibsen’s Wild Duck, Gregers gives a young girl, Hedvig, a gun, and she later shoots herself. Does Gregers consciously intend to cause Hedvig’s death? No, his destructive impulses are below the threshold of consciousness. Sometimes, however, an event like Hedvig’s death causes one to become conscious of impulses that have hitherto been unconscious.
Many writers, realizing the power of thought, have urged their readers to control their thoughts, organize their thoughts, focus their thoughts on a positive goal. This argument has spawned an entire literary genre: inspirational literature, self-help literature. One of the most well-known writers of inspirational literature is James Allen, author of As A Man Thinketh. According to Allen, “Man is the cause (though nearly always unconsciously) of circumstances.... Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.... He will find that as he alters his thoughts towards things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him.”41 The genre of inspirational literature is based on a deep truth — namely, that thoughts can bring about results in the external world.
36. Shakespeare depicts the shadowy world of semi-conscious impulses. Shakespeare goes beneath the surface, beneath external appearance, beneath the image that we present to the world and to ourselves. He deals with the passions that lurk beneath our character, our self-image. The word “personality” comes from persona, meaning mask; Shakespeare tears off the mask of personality, and depicts the primal drives that everyone shares.
Shakespeare’s harshest critic was Tolstoy. Tolstoy excoriated Shakespeare for his vague characters and vague motives; Tolstoy spoke of “an obvious and glaring defect — particularly evident in Hamlet — namely, that the chief person of the play has no character at all.”42 Hamlet is universal — both good and evil, both a noble heart and a negative thinker. He lacks a clearly-defined character because he’s universal, because he’s Shakespeare’s greatest creation. That is, he’s Shakespeare’s greatest creation for the very reason that Tolstoy criticized him — his lack of character.
Hamlet’s world is upset, disturbed — “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” This disturbance extends to the heavens; Horatio says that Denmark has witnessed “stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood, disasters in the sun,” and he points out that similar things were seen in Rome “a little ere the mightiest Julius fell.”43 In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare emphasizes the disturbance in the natural world that accompanies the disturbance in human affairs; as Knight put it, “we are confronted with things apparently beyond the workings of causality.”44 In Macbeth, the weather is stormy, birds behave strangely, horses eat each other, etc.
This is more than a literary device, this is a worldview. According to Jung’s theory of synchronicity, there are meaningful coincidences between the human world and the natural world; synchronicity is an “acausal connecting principle.”45 For thousands of years, the Chinese noticed that certain events cluster together; instead of looking for causes, they looked for clusters. If an earthquake coincided with the death of an emperor, the Chinese saw this as a “meaningful coincidence.” Shakespeare shared this worldview, and he describes all the “meaningful coincidences” at the time of Caesar’s death; Shakespeare says, “when beggars die there are no comets seen.”46
Are Shakespeare and Jung the only Western thinkers who had this worldview, who saw clusters rather than causes, synchronicity rather than causality? No, this was a widespread worldview in the West until the Age of Reason, until the Scientific Revolution, until Western man got into the habit of rational, cause-and-effect thinking, until Western man got into the habit of dismissing the occult, and dismissing “meaningful coincidences,” as mere superstition.
In Macbeth, the future is predicted by the witches, and in Julius Caesar, the future is predicted by the Soothsayer. Shakespeare’s plays are full of prophecies and hunches that anticipate future events. Again, this is more than a literary device, this is part of Shakespeare’s worldview. Again, this is consistent with Jung’s worldview, and consistent with the worldview that prevailed until rational-scientific thinking became dominant. Jung argues, following Kant, that space, time, and causality are merely categories of the intellect, they don’t exist in the thing-in-itself; space and time are relative not absolute, the future is embedded in the present. If prophecy has a long history in literature, it’s because prophecy has a long history in the world itself; prophecy is more than a literary device, it’s part of a worldview.
Shakespeare was content with a world that was mysterious and irrational. As Keats said, Shakespeare was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats called this capacity “negative capability”; he said that every great writer needed this, and Shakespeare possessed it in a high degree.
Modern thinkers like Jung are skeptical of the rational-scientific worldview, and are coming back to Shakespeare’s worldview, coming back to a worldview that has long been dismissed as superstitious. Lichtenberg said, “There is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again. Still to believe that the moon affects the plants reveals stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again is a sign of philosophy and reflection.”47 Modern thinkers are again believing in the occult powers, and synchronous happenings, that Shakespeare believed in.
Those who are part of the rational tradition don’t understand Shakespeare’s Hermetic worldview. They think that Shakespeare was a skeptic, that he had no worldview, no philosophy. T. S. Eliot, for example, said, “Dante made great poetry out of a great philosophy of life... Shakespeare made equally great poetry out of an inferior and muddled philosophy of life.”48 Shakespeare’s Hermetic worldview is beginning to be grasped, just as Shakespeare’s identity is beginning to be grasped. The mystical works that Shakespeare wrote in his last years were scorned by a rational age, but are becoming increasingly popular today. Soon it will be said that Shakespeare made great poetry out of a great philosophy of life.
37. Hamlet and Prospero Hamlet shapes circumstances by the power of his mind, by the power of his negative thoughts. Prospero, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Tempest, also shapes circumstances by the power of his mind, but his thoughts are positive, and lead to a positive outcome, not to a pile of corpses. If magic is the power of the mind to affect the external world, both Hamlet and Prospero have magical power. Neither Hamlet nor Prospero are “characters”; they represent the universal rather than the particular or the characteristic.
38. Growth from Disaster Hamlet ends with a pile of corpses. Since Hamlet himself is part of this pile, he can’t learn from the experience. Often, however, one learns from the disaster that one has created. Indeed, the unconscious arranges disaster in order to foster spiritual growth, in order to force a recognition of its own rights, in order to force the conscious mind to compromise, to share power. Once power is shared and wholeness is achieved, the unconscious no longer arranges disaster; it becomes a wise friend instead of a mischief-maker. One might say that we create disaster in our thirties in order to become wise in our forties.
When Max Weber was thirty, he was an aspiring academic. “He had an enormous load, working until very late. When [his wife] urged him to get some rest, he would call out: ‘If I don’t work until one o’clock I can’t be a professor.’”49 Clearly, this is a man ignoring his unconscious. If a healthy psyche has competing powers, a mix of elements, “checks and balances,” Weber’s mind was unbalanced, consciousness tyrannizing over the unconscious. And so the unconscious is aroused, seizes power, and begins to arrange Weber’s life, trying to force Weber to come to terms with his unconscious, to become whole. In his early thirties, “Weber became fevered and ill with a psychic malady.... ‘He could not read or write, speak, walk, or sleep without pain; all mental and part of his physical functions refused to work’... For hours he sat and gazed stupidly, picking at his finger nails, claiming that such inactivity made him feel good.” Weber realized that his illness fostered his personal growth. “Such a disease [wrote Weber] has its compensations. It has reopened to me the human side of life, which mama used to miss in me.”
Sometimes the unconscious leads one into a feeling of being stuck, into a situation that has no resolution. The conscious mind is baffled, consciousness is at its “wit’s end,” and the unconscious has a chance to express itself.
Since the feeling of being stuck can lead to spiritual growth, is it possible to create this feeling artificially? Zen tries to create this feeling by asking the student to solve a puzzle, a koan. The koan is insoluble by rational means, hence the student is baffled. When his conscious mind gives up, the answer comes by itself.
39. The Hermetic Tradition There are two competing traditions in Western thought: the rational-scientific tradition, and the Hermetic Tradition. These two traditions have left their mark on imaginative literature, as well as on philosophy.
The term “Hermetic” comes from Hermes Trismegistus, who was originally an Egyptian god (Thoth) and was later incorporated into Greek culture, and associated with Hermes. The god was called megistos (great), and he was addressed three times, hence tri-megistos, or Trismegistus; Milton calls him “thrice great Hermes.” The term “hermetic” can mean “pertaining to alchemy and magic,” but its more common meaning is “tightly sealed” (from a seal supposedly invented by Hermes Trismegistus).
About forty books are ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. These books were written between about 200 BC and 200 AD; it appears that they were written in (or near) Alexandria. They deal with alchemy and astrology, and also with philosophy. The “Hermetic Tradition” isn’t simply the Alchemical Tradition, it’s a literary-philosophical tradition in which alchemy, astrology, the occult, and the philosophy of Plato are all interwoven. All European alchemists may be said to be part of the Hermetic tradition, but philosophers and poets with no interest in alchemy may also be considered part of the Hermetic tradition.
One of the basic tenets of the Hermetics is that the world is one (unus mundus), the world is an organic whole, and each part of the world is connected to all other parts. “Every human being, beast, plant or mineral is influenced... by one or more of the celestial bodies. It is the influence of Mars which distinguishes a wolf from a lion (the latter being a solar animal).”50 Earthly things are connected to heavenly things, have affinities with heavenly things; “as above, so below” said the Hermetics. What the Hermetics refer to as “occult correspondences” is closely related to what Jung refers to as “acausal connections” and “synchronicity.” Jung is part of the Hermetic Tradition.
The Hermetic Tradition can be traced from ancient Egypt, through Hellenistic times, then through the medieval alchemists, then to the Florentine Neoplatonists. The most famous of the Florentine Neoplatonists were Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino. The Neoplatonists were one of the most influential philosophical schools in Renaissance Europe. After the Neoplatonists had left the scene, the Hermetic Tradition was carried on by the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, a contemporary of Shakespeare. It isn’t surprising that we find Hermetic thinking in the works of Shakespeare.
The Hermetic Tradition survived in the works of 17th century English poets — Marvell, Herbert, Donne, and the other “Metaphysical Poets.” These poets were known for their elaborate metaphors, which connected things that seem far apart. These lines from a poem by George Herbert may serve as an example of Metaphysical poetry, Hermetic poetry:
Man is all symmetry,|
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And to all the world besides.
Each part may call the farthest, brother;
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides.
By comparing the world to the human body, Herbert argues that the world is an organic whole, an inter-connected whole, unus mundus.
Samuel Johnson complained that, in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together,” and Johnson noted that the Metaphysicals were fond of the “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.”51 Johnson was writing in the mid-1700s, when the Hermetic Tradition had fallen out of favor. In the 1700s, the mechanical worldview of Newton and Locke was more popular than the Hermetic worldview. The inter-connected world, the unus mundus, had been broken into pieces.
At the end of the 1700s, during the Romantic period, the Hermetic Tradition came back into favor, and again inspired poets. Coleridge and Blake rejected the mechanical, Newtonian worldview, and admired mystics and Hermetists like Boehme and Swedenborg. Coleridge argued that analogy and symbol could be used to make the world whole again.
New England Transcendentalism was a younger brother of English Romanticism. Emerson was influenced by Coleridge and other Romantics, and Emerson liked to look for correspondences between nature and man.
|Every appearance in nature [wrote Emerson] corresponds to some state of the mind.... Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.... The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.52|
Goethe, the most prominent of the German Romantics, was also in sympathy with Hermetism, and had a strong interest in alchemy and the occult.
In the mid-1800s, the Hermetic Tradition merged with the Spiritualist movement. A French writer named Éliphas Lévi published a study of the Hermetic tradition, a study that had wide influence, especially in France. Lévi probably influenced Baudelaire, one of the prominent Hermetics of the time. Baudelaire spoke of “universal correspondence and symbolism, that repertory of all metaphor,” and Baudelaire wrote a poem called “Correspondances.”53 Lévi also influenced Rimbaud and Mallarmé, the leading Symbolists; the Symbolist movement can be considered Hermetic.
By the late 1800s, the Hermetic Tradition enjoyed wide popularity among literary people. Ireland was a hotbed of Hermetism. The Irish poet Yeats joined various Hermetic societies, including the Theosophists, who were led by Mme. Blavatsky, and the Rosicrucians. Many of Yeats’ works deal with Hermetic subjects, such as his stories “Rosa Alchemica” and “The Adoration of the Magi.” Joyce was also deeply affected by Hermetism. Joyce’s work abounds in analogies and correspondences; in Ulysses, chapters correspond to parts of the body, and also to branches of knowledge.
The Joyce scholar W. Y. Tindall argues that Joyce’s “maze of correspondences” is merely a literary device, that Joyce was concerned with aesthetic unity, not cosmic unity, and that one must go all the way back to the Metaphysical Poets in order to find writers who believed in cosmic unity. In Tindall’s opinion, Hermetism no longer survives as a worldview, but only as a literary technique.
It’s true that some writers, including Joyce, are only concerned with aesthetic unity, but it isn’t true that Hermetism is a thing of the past. Tindall fails to understand that Hermetic thinking has long flourished in China, not as a mere literary technique, but as a view of the world. Tindall also fails to understand that Jung has breathed new life into the Hermetic Tradition; Jung’s theory of synchronicity revives the Hermetic search for occult connections, acausal connections. The Hermetic tradition will live again — not only as an inspiration to novelists and poets, but as part of an attempt to grasp reality itself. Thrice-great Hermes is not dead yet.
40. Character Pairs Fictional characters often come in pairs. The author seems to represent his bright side and his dark side in two separate characters. Combine these two characters, and you have a whole person. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for example, seem to be a pair — one idealistic, one earthy. The same is true of Faust and Mephistopheles, Othello and Iago, Adonis and the boar (in Venus and Adonis). If one views religion as literature, one can add another pair to this list: God and the devil. Since Hamlet represents both sides, bright and dark, we argued above that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most lifelike character.
According to Jung, each of us has a bright side and a dark side; he calls this dark side “the shadow.” In light of Jung’s idea, it isn’t surprising that positive characters are often matched with a negative double, an evil twin.
Conrad creates paired characters, and explicitly refers to one member of the pair as a “shadow”. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow refers to the savage Kurtz as a “shadow”; Conrad sometimes draws attention to the term “shadow” by capitalizing the S. Conrad uses the word “shadow” just as Jung uses it. This is a striking example of two great thinkers reaching the same insight independently. Perhaps the shadow is an archetype that both Conrad and Jung perceived.
In Conrad’s Secret Sharer, there is a “character pair.” As in Heart of Darkness, one member of the pair is a criminal, and is explicitly referred to as a “shadow.” In Conrad’s work, the encounter with the shadow helps the protagonist to grow and mature. Likewise, Jung says that encountering one’s shadow, acknowledging one’s dark side, is an important step in personal growth. One of Jung’s disciples wrote:
|Until a year or so ago there lived among the Navajo a wise man who had to go on all fours because of a congenital lameness. His people called him “He-who-walks-close-to-his-shadow,” a name that does indeed denote a wise one.54|
41. Kundera Some writers start slowly, and write their best work in their old age. Others begin their career with a bang — their first book is their best, and they lose inspiration as they get older. Milan Kundera began his career with a bang; his first novel, The Joke, was an international bestseller. His later works are somewhat contrived and uninspired.
Kundera deserves high marks for clarity and polish, for organizing and presenting his thoughts. He also deserves high marks for his non-fiction works, his works of literary criticism and philosophy; The Art of the Novel is excellent.
The chief inspiration for Kundera’s fiction was Hermann Broch. Following Broch’s example, Kundera wrote idea-novels, novels that fuse fiction and reflection, novels that interrupt the story with essays on philosophy, music, etc., novels that don’t aspire to recreate life, don’t aspire to create a realistic world. Kundera thinks that too much praise is lavished on Joyce and Proust; he prefers Central and Eastern European writers like Broch, Musil, Kafka, Hasek, and Gombrowicz. Kundera is also a fan of early novelists like Sterne and Fielding, who don’t aspire to mimic reality, who precede the realistic trend of the 19th century.
One of the ideas that Kundera explores in his fiction is the idea of kitsch. Kitsch is a sentimental view of the world, a view that excludes everything dark and doubtful. Kundera says that Communist kitsch is exemplified by the May Day parade in which everyone smiles; “the unsung motto of the parade [was] ‘Long Live Life!’”55 Kundera avoids sugary sentiment, lest anyone accuse him of kitsch. Like many modern artists, Kundera dwells on the dark and morbid; an example is his fantasy of women forced to march around a swimming pool, being shot by a man suspended above the pool in a basket.56 This preoccupation with the dark and morbid, this anti-kitsch, is a more common vice among today’s artists than kitsch.
Another of the ideas that Kundera explores in his fiction is the idea of litost. Kundera tells us that litost is an untranslatable Czech word; “litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” a state of feeling miserable and humiliated.57 Litost awakens a desire for revenge, a desire to strike back at the cause of one’s misery and humiliation. An example of litost can be found in the tale of Sleeping Beauty: the King and Queen have a baby, and invite everyone to the christening — everyone except one fairy, whom they forget to invite. This fairy feels slighted, humiliated; she crashes the party, and places a curse on the newborn child.
Another example of litost can be found in Othello. Iago seeks to be promoted to the rank of Othello’s lieutenant, and several people intercede for him. But Othello gives the position to someone else. Many commentators have argued that Iago harms Othello out of “motiveless malignity,” while others have said that Iago is consumed by jealousy, believing that Othello and others have slept with his wife. Many commentators have overlooked Iago’s litost, overlooked the misery and humiliation caused by his failure to be promoted.
Litost can also help to explain animosities in the political sphere; an insulted nation may be as eager for revenge as one that is physically injured.
At the start of his Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera discusses Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence:
|The myth of eternal return [Kundera writes] states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.58|
This is a misinterpretation of Nietzsche; in fact, it stands Nietzsche on his head. Nietzsche opposed the notion that life — everyday life, life as we know it — is meaningless. Nietzsche opposed nihilism, he was the champion of life, of reality, just as Zen is. Kundera converts Nietzsche’s formula of affirmation into a formula of negation. It was because Nietzsche believed in life that he willed its repetition. If we accept the “lightness of being,” it ceases to be “unbearable”; it’s only unbearable if we want it to be other than it is. The message of Nietzsche and Zen is to perceive the lightness of being, to accept it as it is, and to celebrate it.
Some have argued that the novel, as a literary genre, is exhausted, dying. Kundera, however, is optimistic about the future of the novel, and one shares that optimism after reading Kundera’s fiction and criticism.
One reason to be optimistic about the novel is that the Philosophy of Today, by being receptive to the occult, encourages novelists to explore the vast, mysterious realm of the occult, a realm that is fertile ground for imaginative literature.
42. Whitman and Zen Whitman often reminds one of Zen. Other 19th-century writers — including Thoreau and Pater — also remind one of Zen. The West first became acquainted with Zen around 1900. In the decades before 1900, there are signs of an Eastern drift in Western thought, as if the West might have developed Zen on its own, if it hadn’t imported it from the East.
What first strikes the reader about Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is its mystical quality, its feeling of union with all of nature, its love for all of nature — even something as humble as “a spear of summer grass.” Thoreau noticed this mystical quality in Whitman’s work, and when Thoreau met Whitman in Brooklyn, he said that Whitman’s work was “wonderfully like the Orientals.”59 Thoreau asked Whitman if he had read the Oriental classics. No, Whitman responded, he hadn’t. (Thoreau, recognizing a kindred spirit in Eastern literature, had obtained a card for the Harvard library in order to study Eastern literature.) Like Thoreau and Pater, Whitman had abandoned Christianity and the Christian worldview, and had begun to see the world in a new way.
Like Zen, Whitman has no use for moral judgments:
What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?|
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me.... I stand indifferent,
My gait is no faultfinder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.
Like Zen and other mystical worldviews, Whitman takes a positive attitude toward life:
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;|
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.
Whitman sees the world as it is, accepts it, and celebrates it, instead of seeing the world as a preparation for something else, a tryout for the Afterlife. Whitman would have understood the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam who, when asked what he worshipped, pointed to a flower. And Whitman would have understood the story that Meister Eckhart liked to tell: when he met a peasant on the road, and said “good morning,” the peasant said, “Every morning is a good morning.”
Whitman often takes the passive attitude of meditation:
|I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,|
And accrue what I hear into myself.... and let sounds contribute toward me....
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease.... observing a spear of summer grass.
Whitman’s work has the inspired, prophetic tone of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Like Nietzsche, Whitman saw himself as the prophet of a new religion. Whitman saw Leaves of Grass as the Holy Scripture of this new religion, and he planned to expand it into 365 chapters or psalms, one for each day of the year.60
43. Milosz and Zen While Whitman reached Zen on his own, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz studied and admired Eastern literature. “His reading of East Asian poetry confirmed Milosz in his preference for poems that ‘honored the object, not the subject’.... He extolled ‘the holy word: Is.’ All that he required for a justification of existence was a description of existence.”61 In the darkest days of World War II, Milosz wrote “The World,” a series of poems that describe the elements of a child’s world: the road, the gate, the porch, the dining room, the stairs.
Milosz believed that the struggle against totalitarianism was a philosophical struggle, a battle of ideas, just as the current struggle against Islamic extremism can be viewed as a philosophical struggle.
While he was respectful of religion, Milosz was impatient with church orthodoxy; “wandering on the outskirts of heresy is about right for me,” he wrote. He admired mystics like Swedenborg.
Like Whitman and Zen, Milosz took a positive attitude:
|You gave me gifts, God-Enchanter.|
I give you thanks for good and ill.
Eternal light in everything on earth.
As now, so on the day after my death.
44. Mark Twain Like Whitman and Thoreau, Twain broke with Christianity, referring to it as “an odious religion.”62 But while Whitman and Thoreau reached a mystical affirmation of life, there are dark streaks of pessimism in Twain.
Twain was fond of history, especially the French Revolution. His favorite book was Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, which gave Twain history with a literary flavor, and with philosophical depth. Twain probably read Carlyle’s book more than twenty times; he was reading it on his death-bed. One might say that Twain didn’t learn by reading, he learned by re-reading; he read Carlyle until his mind was saturated with him, until he could re-create Carlyle’s scenes in his own fiction.
It was probably his study of Carlyle that gave Twain a sympathy for all his characters, even the “rapscallions.” When Carlyle’s villain, Robespierre, is finally brought to justice, Carlyle expresses sympathy for him. Likewise, when Twain’s villains (the “King” and the “Duke”) are finally brought to justice, Twain’s narrator says, “I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals.”63
Twain was a keen student of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare had considerable influence on him. Like Whitman, Twain tried to rival Shakespeare, and was disappointed and jealous if he thought he didn’t measure up. There are many echoes of Shakespeare in Twain’s works. One of the most notable passages in all of Twain’s works is the passage in Huck Finn where Huck considers whether to give up his slave-companion, Jim. This passage is modeled on Claudius’s soliloquy in Hamlet:
|Pray can I not, though inclination be as sharp as will.||I about made up my mind to pray... But words wouldn’t come.|
|And, like a man to double business bound, I stand in pause where I shall first begin.||I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come ...it was because I was playing double.|
|I am still possess’d of those effects for which I did the murder.||I was letting on to give up sin, but ...I was holding on to the biggest one of all.|
|Bow, stubborn knees.||So I kneeled down.|
|My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.||I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing ...but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie.... You can’t pray a lie.... All right, then, I’ll go to hell.64|
Twain took a dim view of conscience, perhaps because he himself was troubled by an overly severe conscience. He felt that society and education could train conscience to approve of anything. When Huck decides to protect Jim, he does so not because of his conscience, but despite his conscience. As one critic wrote, “What is still sound in him is an impulse from the deepest level of his personality.”65 Twain himself described Huck Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers a defeat.” In Twain’s world, virtue is a matter of the heart, not the head, a matter of spontaneous feeling, not rational judgment. “In a crucial moral emergency,” Twain wrote, “a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience.”66 We saw earlier how Macbeth makes the wrong choice by listening to his conscious thoughts rather than his feelings.67 Conversely, Huck makes the right choice by listening to his feelings, his heart, “the deepest level of his personality.”
When Shakespeare praises someone, he does so unstintingly; one might say that Shakespeare glorifies man. For example, Hamlet speaks thus of his father:
He was a man; take him for all in all;|
I shall not look upon his like again....
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s penchant for unstinting praise inspired Twain, who lavishes praise on the aristocrat, Colonel Grangerford:
|He carried a mahogany cane with a silver head to it. There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud. He was as kind as he could be — you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence. Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows, you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards.|
Another of Twain’s hero-aristocrats, Colonel Sherburn, faces down a mob, and lashes it with his contempt. Sherburn may have been inspired by Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who defies the Roman mob, and says, “You common cry of curs... I banish you!”
45. The Desire to Die Tragedy depicts suffering, suffering that drives the tragic hero to desire death. Why do we derive pleasure from tragedy? Why do we derive pleasure from the depiction of suffering?
Suffering is a universal human experience; it is impossible to live without suffering. When suffering reaches a certain degree, one wants to die, one wants to commit suicide. Almost everyone, at one time or another, has thought of committing suicide. Suffering, and longing for death, deepen and strengthen one’s character. “No man is educated,” said William James, “who has never dallied with the thought of suicide.” As the result of suffering and longing for death, one resolves to act decisively. Suffering and the desire to die make one fearless, and this fearlessness translates into decisive action. As Johnson said, “after a man has taken the resolution to kill himself... he has nothing to fear.”
One decisive action that is often preceded by suffering and by the desire to die is a religious conversion. Tolstoy described his pre-conversion state thus: “Behold me... hiding the rope in order not to hang myself.”68
Crime is another decisive action that is often preceded by suffering and by the desire to die. The criminal often resolves to commit a crime after suffering has driven him to ask, ‘what have I got to lose? Since I no longer want to live, why don’t I fulfill my criminal desire at the same time as I end my life?’ Mass murderers often end their killing sprees by killing themselves. When Stendhal was contemplating suicide, he thought of assassinating Louis XVIII, in order to “make something of your misery,” instead of dying to no purpose.
Sex is a third decisive action that is preceded by suffering and by the desire to die. Sex is closely related to death; people often fear sex, just as people often fear death. Lower animals, such as insects, often die during the sexual act. Orgasm is sometimes called, “a little death.” Rank said, “the compulsive neurotic... abstains from sexual intercourse in order not to die.”69 According to the Book of Genesis, sex brought death into the world.
In addition to religious conversion, crime and sex, many other decisive actions are preceded by suffering and by the desire to die. Suffering makes one fearless, and thus prompts one to act decisively.
Tragedy depicts suffering, suffering that drives the tragic hero to desire death. The tragic hero’s suffering and his desire to die instill in him courage for decisive action. The spectator, empathizing with the tragic hero, vicariously suffers and desires to die. The spectator’s suffering and desire to die, though they are vicarious, instill in him courage for decisive action, and an appetite for living.
|1.|| Plato, Republic, 3 back|
|2.|| Jean Jacques Brousson, Anatole France Himself, “The Scissors” back|
|3.|| Ch. 16 back|
|4.|| Ch. 13 back|
|5.|| Ch. 3 back|
|6.|| Correspondence and Conversations of Alexis de Tocqueville With N. W. Senior, 8/26/50 back|
|7.|| See Melville, Moby Dick, 14; Thoreau, Walden, 2; and Vergil, Eclogues, 2. back|
|8.|| Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Of the Tree on the Mountainside” back|
|9.|| Letter to his mother, written when he was 22. back|
|10.|| The Journals of André Gide: 1889-1949 (edited and abridged by Justin O’Brien), 7/25/40 back|
|11.|| The Wanderer and the Shadow , #109 back|
|12.|| The Cambridge Companion to Proust, “Ruskin and the cathedral of lost souls”, by Diane R. Leonard back|
|13.|| The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Fourth Edition back|
|14.|| “Sleep and Poetry” back|
|15.|| letter of 10/25/18 back|
|16.|| “Humor,” 1928. “When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.”(Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Harper & Row (paperback), V, 2, p. 104) back|
|17.|| Letters, 2/23/73 back|
|18.|| ibid, 5/76 back|
|19.|| F. Steegmuller, Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, III, 4 back|
|20.|| M. Meyer, Henrik Ibsen, ch. 15. back|
|21.|| See “Dostoyevsky: Epilepsy, Mysticism, and Homosexuality,” by J. R. Maze, American Imago, summer, 1981. back|
|22.|| On Boswell, see E. Hitschmann, Great Men: Psychoanalytic Studies, “Boswell: The Biographer’s Character.” Three of Dostoyevsky’s characters who loved crippled women are Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Alexei Karamazov; three who made fools of themselves are Fyodor Karamazov, Captain Snegirev and Semyon Marmeladov. back|
|23.|| See Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, I, 27, and Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, III, 5. back|
|24.|| See Tolstoy, War and Peace, VIII, 3, and Anna Karenina, VII, 30. The Freud quotation is from The Ego and the Id, 4. back|
|25.|| See Freud, “Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” I, 2, and Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, I, 3. back|
|26.|| On Ulysses, see Conversations With Joyce, by Arthur Power, 11; on Finnegans Wake, see James Joyce, by R. Ellman, ch. 36 back|
|27.|| James Joyce, by R. Ellman, ch. 36 back|
|28.|| The Master Builder, I back|
|29.|| “A Gentle Creature,” I, 3 back|
|30.|| ibid, ch. 2 back|
|31.|| Monsieur Proust: A Memoir, by Celeste Albaret, ch. 12 back|
|32.|| The Seven Lamps of Architecture, ch. 5, sec. XXIV back|
|33.|| Psychology and the East, “Commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower”, ¶65 back|
|34.|| ibid, ¶68 back|
|35.|| ibid back|
|36.|| ibid, ¶67 back|
|37.|| Man and His Symbols, part 3, p. 191 of hardcover edition back|
|38.|| See Marcel Proust: A Biography, by George Painter, vol. II, ch. 10 back|
|39.|| G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet” back|
|40.|| Jung, C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, Princeton University Press, 1977, p. 165, “On Creative Achievement” back|
|41.|| As A Man Thinketh
5. ibid, p. 33 back|
|42.|| quoted in G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “Tolstoy’s Attack on Shakespeare” back|
|43.|| I, i, 112 back|
|44.|| G. W. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, “Brutus and Macbeth” back|
|45.|| See Chapter One, §20 back|
|46.|| Julius Caesar, I, iii, 128 back|
|47.|| The Lichtenberg Reader (Boston, Beacon Press, 1959), “Aphorisms”, 1775 back|
|48.|| See Eliot’s Introduction to G. Wilson Knight’s Wheel of Fire. back|
|49.|| From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Intro., 1 back|
|50.|| See Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, ch. 5 back|
|51.|| S. Johnson, The Lives of the Poets, “The Life of Cowley” back|
|52.|| R. W. Emerson, Nature, ch. 4, “Language” back|
|53.|| W. Y. Tindall, “James Joyce and the Hermetic Tradition”, Journal of the History of Ideas, January, 1954 back|
|54.|| “The Shadow,” by Esther M. Harding, Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 1945 back|
|55.|| The Unbearable Lightness of Being, VI, 6 back|
|56.|| ibid, VI, 10 back|
|57.|| The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Part V back|
|58.|| Part I, ch. 1 back|
|59.|| Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, ch. 17, §5 back|
|60.|| Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Penguin Classics, Introduction by Malcolm Cowley, p. xxviii back|
|61.|| See “Czeslaw Milosz, 1911-2004” by Leon Wieseltier in The New York Times, 9/12/04 back|
|62.|| Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “So Noble... and So Beautiful a Book” back|
|63.|| Walter Blair, “The French Revolution and Huckleberry Finn,” Modern Philology, Vol. 55, No. 1. (Aug., 1957), pp. 21-35 back|
|64.|| James Hirsh, “Samuel Clemens and the Ghost of Shakespeare,” Studies in the Novel 24, no. 3 (fall 1992): 251-72 back|
|65.|| Henry Nash Smith, “A Sound Heart and a Deformed Conscience,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn back|
|66.|| See “Society and Conscience in Huckleberry Finn,” Leo B. Levy, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Mar., 1964), pp. 383-391 back|
|67.|| See Chapter 2, #2 back|
|68.|| On William James, see Louis Untermeyer, Makers of the Modern World,“William James”; on Johnson, see James Boswell, The Life of Johnson, Aetat. 64; on Tolstoy, see William James, Varieties of Religious Experience, VI, 7. back|
|69.|| On Stendhal, see his Memoirs of an Egoist, §1; on Rank, see his Psychology and the Soul, 6 back|