June 26, 2003

1. John Stuart Mill

Our book group recently discussed Mill’s On Liberty. Now we’re reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera; we’re alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Mill was well received by people in the group; it’s a refreshing change to read a rational thinker, a champion of reason. When we finish Kundera, we’re going to read Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

I took a peek at an e-text of Mill’s Autobiography, and was very impressed by the following passage:

I am now convinced, that no great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought. The old opinions in religion, morals, and politics, are so much discredited in the more intellectual minds as to have lost the greater part of their efficacy for good, while they have still life enough in them to be a powerful obstacle to the growing up of any better opinions on those subjects. When the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion, or can only believe it with modifications amounting to an essential change of its character, a transitional period commences, of weak convictions, paralyzed intellects, and growing laxity of principle, which cannot terminate until a renovation has been effected in the basis of their belief leading to the elevation of some faith, whether religious or merely human, which they can really believe: and when things are in this state, all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation, is of very little value beyond the moment. Since there was little in the apparent condition of the public mind, indicative of any tendency in this direction, my view of the immediate prospects of human improvement was not sanguine. More recently a spirit of free speculation has sprung up, giving a more encouraging prospect of the gradual mental emancipation of England; and concurring with the renewal under better auspices, of the movement for political freedom in the rest of Europe, has given to the present condition of human affairs a more hopeful aspect.1

This passage calls for a new religion. Mill shows wisdom and modesty by not saying precisely what this new religion should be; he speaks of, “some faith, whether religious or merely human.” Mill says that the old world-view is “discredited in the more intellectual minds”; this is true today, as it was in Mill’s day. (Nietzsche, who writes in a more prophetic, more poetic tone than Mill, expressed the same thought when he said, “God is dead”.) Mill says that the old religions, discredited though they may be, are still a “powerful obstacle to the growing up of any better opinions”. As one reads this, one thinks of Arabs and Israelis, both imprisoned by ancient religions, religions which obstruct the growth of a new religion, a new religion in which “the more intellectual minds.... can really believe.”

Mill says that “all thinking or writing which does not tend to promote such a renovation [in philosophy/religion], is of very little value.” This leads me to think that Mill would approve of Phlit, since Phlit is always groping its way toward a new religion — drawing on Zen, drawing on Jung, trying to combine East and West, etc., etc.2

Mill says that “a spirit of free speculation has sprung up”, and he finds this encouraging. Clearly, Mill is on the side of the “free thinkers”, the critics of Christianity, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. It’s likely that Mill heard the name “Schopenhauer”, but he doesn’t seem to have read him.

Mill is encouraged by “the movement for political freedom”, he remained a liberal to the end. While many intellectuals became disillusioned with democracy and liberalism (Ibsen and Shaw, for example), Mill kept the faith, perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to see the triumph of democracy and liberalism.

2. Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

My reaction to this book was similar to my reaction to Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being: the story didn’t engross me, but the book is highly readable, the ideas are interesting, and the union of plot and idea is often impressive.

One of the most interesting ideas in Laughter and Forgetting 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”3, a state of feeling miserable and humiliated.4 Litost awakens a desire for revenge, a desire to strike back at the cause of one’s misery and humiliation. In my opinion, 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, and places a curse on the newborn child.

Othello may provide another example of litost. 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 “leaped into my seat”. Perhaps commentators have paid too little attention to Iago’s litost, too little attention to the misery and humiliation caused by his failure to be promoted to lieutenant. “But surely Iago’s revenge is out of proportion to the slight he suffered.” Perhaps, but litost doesn’t concern itself with exact proportions, it longs to strike back, and the blow it inflicts may well exceed that which it has suffered.

A third example of litost is Ahab, who is ‘miserable and humiliated’ as a result of his wound. Ahab’s leg-and-foot injury may be symbolic castration — an extreme form of ‘misery and humiliation’. Ahab longs to strike back at Moby Dick, who has caused his wound. “Wait a minute, wait just a minute. In your 5/3/03 issue, you discussed Ahab, ascribed his behavior to a ‘shadow power’, and quoted a disciple of Jung, who said that shadow drives are very difficult to overcome. Now you’re ascribing the same behavior to litost!” Litost is clearly a close relative of Jung’s shadow, and the two concepts illuminate each other. Both litost and the shadow affect people in general, not just those who are “bad” or “evil”, they affect Hamlets as well as Iagos. Is it possible that we all possess the malice of Iago, or at least the potential for such malice? Is it possible that there’s nothing special about Iago? The noted Shakespeare interpreter Wilson Knight argues that there’s nothing special about any of us, that on a fundamental level, people are alike.5

Kundera, however, argues that some people are particularly susceptible to litost: those who have a high opinion of mankind, and are therefore crushed by their own weakness. Kundera writes thus: “Anyone with wide experience of the common imperfection of mankind is relatively sheltered from the shocks of litost. For him, the sight of his own misery is ordinary and uninteresting. Litost, therefore, is characteristic of the age of inexperience. It is one of the ornaments of youth. Litost works like a two-stroke engine. Torment is followed by the desire for revenge. The goal of revenge is to make one’s partner look as miserable as oneself.”6

Revenge takes different forms, depending on whether one is stronger or weaker than the other party. If one is stronger, one can attempt direct injury; this is the approach of Ahab, and of the fairy in Sleeping Beauty. If, on the other hand, one is weaker, one attempts indirect injury; this is Iago’s approach. Another form of indirect revenge is injury to oneself — killing oneself instead of killing the other party. “The child plays a wrong note on his violin over and over until the teacher goes mad and throws him out the window. As he falls, the child is delighted by the thought that the nasty teacher will be charged with murder.... A man possessed by [litost] takes revenge through his own annihilation.”7 In Chinese history, suicide has often been used as a way of striking a blow at someone; women, especially, being the weaker party, have often used this method of revenge.

Kundera says that, despite the numerous types of revenge, there are times when revenge isn’t possible. If one can’t hurt the cause of one’s litost, the result is “litost block.... It is the worst that can happen.” Kundera describes a case of litost block as “like a tumor growing by the minute, and he did not know what to do about it.”8

The misery and humiliation that produce litost is sometimes of a sexual nature. Kundera describes a celibate character who “detests happy lovers,” and Kundera speaks of, “the terrible litost that comes from hypercelibacy.”9 We’re reminded of Ahab, whose injury may be symbolic castration. We’re also reminded of Iago, who failed to gain the favors of Desdemona, and who fears that others have gained his wife’s favors.

So much for litost. Another interesting idea in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is the idea of borders — more specifically, the idea that there is a border separating the meaningful from the meaningless, and we’re always close to that border, we’re always close to the feeling that life is meaningless:
The woman he had loved most (he was thirty at the time) would tell him (he was nearly in despair when he heard it) that she held on to life by a thread. Yes, she did want to live, life gave her great joy, but she also knew that her ‘I want to live’ was spun from the threads of a spiderweb. It takes so little, so infinitely little, for someone to find himself on the other side of the border, where everything — love, convictions, faith, history — no longer has meaning. The whole mystery of human life resides in the fact that it is spent in the immediate proximity of, and even in direct contact with, that border, that it is separated from it not by kilometers but by barely a millimeter.10
As Hamlet put it, “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,/Seem to me all the uses of this world!” We have all felt this way at one time or another. What is the meaning and value of human life? This is a question that philosophy has never completely answered, and it’s also a question that people ask themselves many times in the course of their lives.

Is this idea of “borders” an original idea? Or did Kundera get it from another writer? We find the same idea in Sainte-Beuve: “Extreme happiness just barely separated, by a trembling leaf, from extreme despair — isn’t this life? (L’extrême félicité à peine séparée par une feuille tremblante de l’extrême désespoir, n’est-ce pas la vie?)”

3. Oxford vs. Stratford

I recently looked at Frances Yates’ book on the occult in the Elizabethan age. I noticed that one of the prominent figures in the book was John Dee, and I wondered if Shakespeare knew John Dee. I regard “Shakespeare” as the pen name of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. An English professor at Berkeley, Alan Nelson, has researched the life of Edward de Vere, though he doesn’t believe that de Vere wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. I sent Prof. Nelson the following e-mail:

I understand that John Dee is an important figure in occult matters, during the Elizabethan age. Did Edward de Vere know Dee?

Prof. Nelson responded as follows:

Well, Dee knew Edward de Vere! It’s contained in a letter written by Dee in 1590. de Vere was also deeply involved in the occult, as I show in my forthcoming book, around 1570 [when he was 20 years old].

I wrote thus:

Might not this be an argument for de Vere being the real “Shakespeare”? Frances Yates argues that the occult is a prominent theme in Hamlet and other works by “Shakespeare”, and Wilson Knight finds a mystic vision, a mystic philosophy, in “Shakespeare’s” works, especially in late works like The Tempest. The occult and the mystical go hand-in-hand.

Prof. Nelson:

If de Vere was the only person who had that interest in all of England, then, yes; but he wasn’t.

I responded thus:

But if we believe, as most people do, that “Shakespeare” was either de Vere or the Stratford man, then de Vere’s interest in the occult can be seen as an argument for de Vere, since it matches “Shakespeare’s” interest in the occult. Similarly, de Vere’s visit to Venice can be seen as an argument for de Vere, since it matches (in general and in details) “Shakespeare’s” remarks on Venice. It seems to me that de Vere’s claim to be Shakespeare is made up of a hundred arguments, none of which prove de Vere’s claim, but all of which, taken together, build a very strong case.

Prof. Nelson:

I don’t accept your argument, as nothing in the world prevented William Shakespeare from taking an interest in the occult.


But my argument doesn’t rest on the premise that the Stratford man wasn’t interested in the occult, just as it doesn’t rest on the premise that the Stratford man never visited Venice. My argument is that if there are two candidates, Stratford and Oxford, and we know for certain that one of them (Oxford) visited Venice and was interested in the occult, while the other merely may have visited Venice, and may have been interested in the occult, then Oxford’s claim becomes somewhat stronger, Stratford’s somewhat weaker.


The trouble with Oxford is that we knew he was a mediocre poet. In fact, the evidence that Oxford wrote Shakespeare is zero. No fact or document connects him to the plays.


But the evidence was enough to convince some of the best minds of the 20th century — Freud, for example. It also convinced many Supreme Court justices, who had no previous commitment in this matter.

The trouble with Oxford is that we knew he was a mediocre poet.

But judgments about the worth of poetry are always somewhat subjective, and some eminent intellectuals have praised Oxford’s poetry — Macaulay, for example, said that Oxford had “won for himself an honorable place among the early masters of English poetry”.


William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote the plays and poems traditionally assigned to him. I know of only one professional Shakespearean who disagrees with this proposition, and hundreds if not thousands who agree. Freud was not a professional... in fact, if you read recent biographies of him you will discover that he was not one of the greatest but only one of the most grotesque and self-deceiving minds of world history.

To the academic profession, “anti-Stratfordians” are the equivalent of creationists for academic biologists.
Thus ended our e-debate. In the end, Prof. Nelson had no arguments left, only bald statement (“William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote the plays...”), name-calling (“the equivalent of creationists”), and counting English professors (“hundreds if not thousands”). But English professors are already committed to the Stratfordian position, and can’t view the question impartially; furthermore, an Oxfordian would have little chance of obtaining an academic position — the doors are only open to Stratfordians.

Click here to visit Prof. Nelson’s home page.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Ch. 7 back
2. Like Mill, Ortega believed that Western man needed a new religion/philosophy; he said that “a genuine philosophy [is] the one thing that can save [Europe].”(Revolt of the Masses, ch. 13) back
3. p. 167 back
4. p. 172 back
5. A fourth example of litost is Achilles; Achilles felt insulted when Agamemnon took the beautiful Briseis, so Achilles refused, for a long time, to join the Greek war effort. back
6. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, part V, p. 168 back
7. ibid, pp. 206, 207 back
8. ibid, p. 207 back
9. ibid, p. 212 back
10. ibid, part VII, ch. 6, p. 281 back