September 20, 2005
A. Our book group recently read Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, in the Penguin Classics version. It was a popular choice; it’s clear, concise, readable — everything you’d want in a philosophical work. Perhaps the book’s weakness is that it doesn’t help you live. One member of the group was looking for something in the book that would help him in his life, and I said, “it isn’t that kind of book. It has various strengths — intellectual and literary strengths — but it doesn’t help you live.” Perhaps this is why Schopenhauer is rarely read today; though he’s a great thinker and stylist, few people regard his chief theories as true, and fewer still are inspired to live by his theories.
B. I recently discovered a book that may be of interest to parents and teachers: A Little History of the World, by the famous art historian, E. H. Gombrich (1909-2001). This fall, it’s being published in English for the first time. It was originally published in German in the 1930s; it was “an instant success and has been translated into 18 languages, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.”1 “A Little History is under 300 pages and its 40 chapters move quickly from Earth’s formation to the Cold War era.”2
Gombrich was an Austrian Jew who spent most of his life at the Warburg Institute in London, eventually becoming director of the Institute. His best known works are The Story of Art (a survey of art history), and Art and Illusion. In his last years, Gombrich worked on an English translation of A Little History, but he left the project unfinished at his death; his granddaughter, Leonie Gombrich, finished the project. “‘He had this tremendous faith in the civilizing forces, in the power of ideas, that there would always be people who carry on with the Enlightenment,’ Leonie Gombrich says. ‘But he was incredibly depressed by the attacks [on 9-11]. After 9-11, he stopped work and never went back.’”3
C. I’ve been enjoying Harvey Mansfield’s interview with C-SPAN. Mansfield is Harvard’s most prominent conservative. He has been a professor of politics at Harvard since 1962. His specialty is political philosophy; his favorites are Machiavelli, Tocqueville, Burke, etc. He’s a disciple of Leo Strauss. His interview with C-SPAN is part of the “In Depth” series, and it lasts three hours, so it may be several weeks before I finish it.
Mansfield edited a book that I think would be worth reading: Selected Letters of Edmund Burke. Burke is known as a conservative political thinker, an intellectual with broad interests, a great stylist, a friend of Samuel Johnson, and a critic of the French Revolution.
I’d like to continue discussing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the last issue of Phlit, I mentioned that I found several excellent studies of Conrad’s novella. One of these studies looks at Dante’s journey to hell, and compares it with several modern “journeys to hell,” including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.4 The author, Charlotte Spivack, makes some interesting remarks on the nature of evil, the nature of sin:
Attempting to define “moral evil,” Spivack says “the evil choice enslaves.” Jesus made the same point: “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.”5 The evil and the damned have lost the power of choice. Dante has depicted this graphically:
If the evil and the damned have lost the power of choice, can we infer that the power of choice is the ultimate good, that freedom is the ultimate good, that the highest goal of personal growth is the achievement of freedom? At a recent meeting of our Socrates Café, the question being discussed was, “are there any absolutes?” Inspired by Spivack’s reasoning, I suggested that freedom is the absolute good.
Before I read Spivack’s essay, I wrote an aphorism on virtue that resembles her argument. I began with her view that “all men are sinners” and then argued that virtue is the capacity to mend one’s ways:
One can have the power of choice even in a dictatorship, even in a situation where freedom seems to have been completely stamped out. For example, when Americans were imprisoned in North Vietnam, they often gave in to their captors’ demands for information, but the next day, they would again refuse to provide information.7 They knew that this refusal would result in torture. But by refusing, they preserved their humanity, their dignity, their power of choice. Broken today, bouncing back tomorrow, always beginning. The evil and the damned lose the power of choice, the power to begin afresh.
My wife and I adopted our daughter in China when she was one year old. On our way to China, my wife bought a small ball in the airport. When we met our daughter, I played with her, using this ball. I would throw it up, then give it to her. Then I would ask for it back, and she would have a choice whether to give it to me or not. I think this was the first time that she had a choice about anything, and I think it made a deep impression on her. One might even say that it was a second birth—the birth of her dignity, her humanity, her freedom.
Aristotle said that the first goal of a tyrant is to break the spirit of his subjects. This is the goal of torture, and this was the goal of the North Vietnamese guards: to break the spirit, to destroy freedom, to make you do what the tyrant (or the torturer) wants you to do. Can we reverse this and say that the first goal of a parent is to develop the spirit of the child, to set the child free, to give the child the power of choice?
But we’ve all known children who are too spirited, too free, too willful. Perhaps the goal of the parent should be not only to set the child free, but also to instill in the child a love of the good. And finally, a child needs to have a certain repose, the ability not to act. (In the last issue of Phlit, we discussed Kurtz’s lack of repose, or as Conrad put it, his lack of restraint.)
We said earlier that the evil and the damned are un-free, the “servants of sin.” This doesn’t mean, however, that those who are free are necessarily virtuous. In the last issue of Phlit, we discussed the ethics that go beyond ethics, beyond good and evil. Is freedom, too, beyond good and evil? “Freedom from the Law”: doesn’t that suggest that the highest freedom is beyond law, beyond the rules of virtue and vice?
Luther said “sin boldly [pecca fortiter].” And this is Kurtz’s strength, this is why Kurtz stands above the ivory traders, with their small virtues and small vices: Kurtz sinned boldly. “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle,” wrote Blake, “than nurse unacted desires.”8 Kurtz didn’t nurse unacted desires, he acted his desires. Kierkegaard wrote,
Kierkegaard would have understood Marlow’s admiration for Kurtz. Kurtz sinned, he sinned boldly.
If Kurtz lacked restraint, others have too much restraint — they never do what they want. Joseph Campbell’s favorite maxim was “follow your bliss.” He loved to tell of the man he overheard in a restaurant: the man reproached his son for something, his wife said, “let him do what he wants,” and the man said, “I never did a thing I wanted to do in my whole life.” Perhaps there are slaves of virtue, as well as slaves of vice.
Zen speaks much of freedom, but is silent about virtue and vice. Zen is restraint, meditation is restraint — sitting still with back straight. But through this self-imposed restraint, Zen sharpens the feeling of freedom. Zen is a union of freedom and restraint. In Heart of Darkness, restraint is symbolized by the cannibals who endure hunger stoically while traveling up-river; restraint is also symbolized by the seaman who writes a manual on marine matters, a manual that shows “simple-hearted devotion to the right way of doing things.”10
One Conrad commentator, Jerome Thale, says that “in the depths of Africa Kurtz is not hampered by outside restraint.... Away from the grooves that society provides for keeping us safely in a state of subsisting, we can discover that we are free to be, to do anything, good or evil.”11 Thale speaks of Kurtz’s “radical freedom” and Kurtz’s “acceptance of his freedom.” “Kurtz commits himself totally to evil, the manager keeps up appearances. Kurtz throws himself into action, though evil; the manager, ruled by caution, murmurs, and does evil by omission.... [Kurtz’s] choice is for evil, but it is a human choice — and it is to this humanity that Marlow turns with positive relief, even though it is a nightmare.”12
Another essay by Thale compares Heart of Darkness to The Great Gatsby. Thale argues that both of these works have a main character who is an onlooker, rather than an actor. In Heart of Darkness, the onlooker-narrator is Marlow; in Gatsby, it’s Nick Carraway. The onlooker learns by observing someone else, by observing “a bizarre figure,” by observing Kurtz/Gatsby.
Both Kurtz and Gatsby are paradoxes — evil yet great. In the beginning of both stories, Kurtz/Gatsby are seen in a positive light, but as the stories progress, they’re seen in a negative light. At the end of both stories, however, the original positive view is vindicated. “We are asked to accept as great, a gangster full of romantic delusions [i.e., Gatsby]. We are asked to believe in the moral worth of a man who has abandoned all standards [i.e., Kurtz].”13 Gatsby is “glamorous and vulgar, but he is also... heroic.” Most of the characters in the story see nothing but the glamour and the vulgarity; only Nick Carraway sees the heroism. Likewise, only Marlow sees Kurtz’s heroism. In both stories, the paradoxical heroism is conspicuous because the hero is surrounded by flawed, mediocre people. At the end of Gatsby, Nick returns to the Midwest, a wiser man. Likewise, Marlow returns to England, a wiser man.
Heart of Darkness As Myth
The last essay that I’d like to discuss is one that compares Heart of Darkness to myths, using Joseph Campbell’s theory of myth. Just as Burke’s essay could serve as an introduction to Jungian psychology, so this essay could serve as an introduction to Campbell’s theory of myth.
The author, James Mellard, was influenced not only by Campbell, but also by the famous Canadian critic, Northrop Frye. Frye argued that literature is based on archetypes. Frye’s best-known work is The Anatomy of Criticism. Frye attained such prominence that he appeared on a postage stamp — a rare distinction for a literary critic.
Mellard says that Heart of Darkness “contains at least twelve of the twenty-four possibilities Campbell lists on his graph for the ‘adventure of the hero.’ Including, of course, the basic threefold plan of separation, initiation, and return, Heart of Darkness shows these elements: the call to adventure, the threshold crossing with the aid of helpers, the night-sea journey or wonder journey, underworld tests and helpers, father atonement, the elixir theft, flight, and threshold struggle, resurrection, and return with the possibility of granting the elixir.”14
Mellard says that the elixir in Conrad’s story is the “bundle of papers” that Kurtz gave to Marlow, and that Marlow brings with him when he returns to the “upper world.” Mellard describes Marlow as a “savior or redeemer” who replaces Kurtz. Kurtz was once a redeemer himself, but he has aged and weakened and become a “tyrant ogre.” So Marlow and Kurtz are both redeemers — Marlow is ascending, Kurtz descending. The youthful redeemer replaces the aged tyrant. This is a common motif in mythology: “inertia, dissolution, age, death, are followed by vitality... renewed youth and life.” As Campbell put it, “a regular alternation of fair and foul is characteristic of the spectacle of time.” The golden age alternates with the wasteland. (A similar alternation can be found in my theory of history.)
Although Marlow replaces Kurtz, Heart of Darkness doesn’t end on a positive note, and doesn’t emphasize “renewed youth and life.” On the contrary, Heart of Darkness ends on a negative note, and emphasizes “the downward movement of the cycle.” Thus, Conrad probably belongs among the many modern writers who are gloomy and pessimistic.15
Questions and Answers
I received an e-mail from someone who appears to be new to the Prince Tudor theory:
I admit, Sonnet 20 doesn’t strengthen my argument; I didn’t refer to it in my essay. But I don’t think it refutes my argument; I don’t think it proves that the poet’s love for the Fair Youth is a homosexual love. I would argue that the poet is addressing a man who is young, handsome, and perhaps somewhat effeminate in appearance. I admit that there is a suggestion of erotic feeling in the lines,
...by addition me of thee defeated,
But I wouldn’t describe this as explicit homosexual feeling; I might rather describe it as explicit heterosexual feeling.
A prominent Stratfordian, the late A. L. Rowse, quoted Sonnet 20 in the Frontline documentary; according to Rowse, the poet’s love is “very clearly a platonic love.... William Shakespeare makes it perfectly clear that he wasn’t interested in Southampton sexually at all. Southampton was a rather beautiful and rather effeminate young man.... [Shakespeare was saying, Women] can have you sexually, I’m not interested in that. He was interested in the young man’s nature.”16 Rowse’s notion of a platonic love is consistent with my view; if the Fair Youth was the poet’s son, then the poet’s love was indeed platonic. A parent’s feelings toward his child are often tinged with eros — even if the child is of the same sex as the parent — but it’s a platonic eros.
One could argue that this sonnet is staying within the tradition of love poetry, that the poet is concealing the real nature of his love behind a mask of traditional amorous feelings.
I agree that Sonnet 42 can be read as a love triangle:
That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
These lines could be read as a reference to Elizabeth imprisoning Southampton:
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
And these lines fit perfectly with the view that the Fair Youth (Southampton) is the poet’s son:
But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
I’m not sure what to make of Sonnet 144, beyond what I said about it in my essay. While it may seem that the poet is speaking of an affair between the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, I don’t think he’s explicitly saying that they’re lovers:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
In my opinion, Shakespeare is often obscure, and I find this sonnet obscure.
Thanks, Howard, for calling my attention to these sonnets. As you might expect, these sonnets haven’t shaken my confidence in the views expressed in my essay.
Howard sent me a second e-mail:
Good question. I think I put the same question to Hank Whittemore, when I was a budding Tudorite.
Let’s begin by asking, Was Oxford tolerant toward incest? I doubt it. He uses “incestuous” as a pejorative term in Hamlet (and probably elsewhere). I think there’s a deep-seated taboo about incest — a strong repugnance. (This is one reason I’m skeptical of the theory that Oxford was Elizabeth’s son, as well as her lover.) If anyone can adduce evidence that Elizabethans were tolerant toward incest, I’d like to see it. Until I see such evidence, I’ll be inclined to believe that both Oxford and William Cecil would have opposed a marriage between Oxford’s son and Oxford’s daughter. Ergo, I don’t think “Oxford’s daughter” was really Oxford’s daughter — or rather, I don’t think Oxford believed that she was his daughter. Perhaps he believed that as he grew older, but I don't think he believed that at the time he was urging the marriage. In fact, I think there's evidence to suggest that Oxford was convinced she wasn't his daughter at the time he was urging the marriage between her and Southampton.
When the young prince entered the Southampton household, the Southamptons “acquired a gentleman of the bed-chamber by the name of Thomas Dymocke. Dymocke was a cousin of the Queen.”17 According to the Prince Tudor theory, Dymocke was placed in the Southampton household by the Queen, to look after the young prince.
The 2nd Earl seems to have been concerned about his real son (who was shipped off to make room for the young prince). His will “provides for the education until the age of twenty-one, of ‘William, my Beggar boye.’ He could do no more for his own son without revealing the royal secret.”18 (These quotes are from Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose, by Elisabeth Sears, which I recommend as a short, readable, interesting book.)
|1.|| “Beloved History Book Gets Translation,” by Hillel Italie, Associated Press, Wed Sep 14, 12:57 PM ET back|
|2.|| ibid back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| “The Journey to Hell: Satan, The Shadow, and The Self,” by Charlotte Spivack, Centennial Review, 9:4 (1965): pp. 420-437 back|
|5.|| John, 8:34 back|
|6.|| See ch. 4, #27 of my book of aphorisms. back|
|7.|| I discussed this in an earlier issue of Phlit, 2001-06. back|
|8.|| Quoted in R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature, ch. 21, p. 318 back|
|9.|| Either/Or, Part I, “Diapsalmata” back|
|10.|| “Marlow’s Quest,” University of Toronto Quarterly, XXIV (July, 1955), pp. 351-358 back|
|11.|| ibid back|
|12.|| ibid back|
|13.|| “The Narrator As Hero,” Twentieth-Century Literature, III (July, 1957), pp. 69-73 back|
|14.|| “Myth and Archetype in Heart of Darkness,” by James Mellard, Tennessee Studies in Literature, 13 (1968): pp. 1-15 back|
|15.|| I mentioned several of these writers in an earlier issue. back|
|16.|| see the transcript of the Frontline documentary back|
|17.|| Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose, ch. 1, p. 11 back|
|18.||ibid, ch. 2, p. 16 back|