March 9, 2008
Saw a remarkable documentary, Into Great Silence. It’s about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. The monastery is called Grande Chartreuse, and produces Chartreuse liqueur.
It’s a long movie — more than two hours — and there’s almost no talking. One might describe the film as meditation. It’s not only about spiritual life, it is itself spiritual. It shows the monks cutting firewood, ringing the bell, and watering the garden. It dwells lovingly on everyday objects, reminding one of a Chardin painting. It begins and ends with the following quotation:
One of the most remarkable, one of the most spiritual films ever made. Highly recommended.
Near the end of his life, in 1909, Twain wrote an essay called “Is Shakespeare Dead?” in which he discusses the Shakespeare controversy. He tells us that he has been interested in this controversy for fifty years — ever since he read a book by the American writer Delia Bacon. Twain devotes most of his essay to demolishing the Stratford Theory. Twain argues that the Stratford man’s environment and education weren’t the sort to produce Hamlet. Twain describes Stratford as
Twain notes that whoever wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of law:
The true author was steeped in the law; his legal knowledge was such as couldn’t have been acquired by mere reading, mere socializing with lawyers. He had a “perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms, and maxims, but the technicalities of English law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault.”2 Twain describes how Stratfordians have struggled to explain the poet’s legal knowledge — how they’ve supposed that he was a clerk in a Stratford law office, etc.
Twain argues that the Stratford argument is based on conjecture:
Stratfordians resort to conjecture because evidence is lacking. “We can go to the records,” Twain writes, “and find out the life-history of every renowned race-horse of modern times — but not Shakespeare’s!”
Twain describes the Stratford man’s will as
Twain notes that the reaction to the Stratford man’s death wasn’t the sort of reaction that you’d expect to the death of an illustrious poet:
Twain doesn’t try to build a detailed case for Bacon, he simply argues that Bacon had the wonderful education, and the amazing talents, that one would expect to find in the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Twain quotes from Macaulay’s essay on Bacon:
Such vast ambitions, such vast knowledge, such an inter-disciplinary approach, is what one would expect to find in a first-rate philosopher. Bacon was the Aristotle of England, and he possessed an eloquence, a rhetorical gift, that we don’t find in Aristotle. Surely Twain is correct when he says that Bacon is a stronger candidate to be “Shakespeare” than the Stratford man.
Twain points out that Bacon was fond of humor — as “Shakespeare” was. “It is evident,” Twain writes, “that [Bacon] had each and every one of the mental gifts and each and every one of the acquirements that are so prodigally displayed in the Plays and Poems, and in much higher and richer degree than any other man of his time or of any previous time.... There was only one of him; the planet could not produce two of him at one birth, nor in one age. He could have written anything that is in the Plays and Poems.” As Twain was writing these lines, Looney was building his case for Oxford, and soon Looney would show that the planet could produce two such geniuses in one age. What an age!
Twain understands how difficult it is to overthrow the Stratford Theory, weak though it is:
I recently glanced at Looney’s book, the book that first set forth the Oxford Theory in 1920 (“Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, by J. Thomas Looney). I was impressed, as I have been in the past, by the depth of Looney’s thought and the force of his reasoning. Discussing Oxford’s education, Looney says
Looney understands that Shakespeare was very well-educated, but he didn’t carry his studies too far, he didn’t become a pedant. He didn’t just learn, he also lived. In this respect, Shakespeare was similar to Kafka and Proust; as I said in my sketch of Western literature,
We should give Looney credit for understanding Shakespeare’s learning, and for finding a Shakespeare quotation that supported his view.
After reading Twain’s Shakespeare essay, I read his essay, “Concerning the Jews,” which he published in Harper’s Monthly in 1899. Exploring the sources of anti-Semitism, Twain makes what might be called a Marxist argument — that is, he emphasizes economic factors, rather than religious factors: “I am persuaded that in Russia, Austria, and Germany nine-tenths of the hostility to the Jew comes from the average Christian’s inability to compete successfully with the average Jew in business.”
Twain argues that business success requires honesty, therefore the Jews must be exceptionally honest: “The basis of successful business is honesty; a business cannot thrive where the parties to it cannot trust each other.”
Jewish success, says Twain, is due to brains and honesty:
Brains and honesty led to success, and success bred anti-Semitism:
Twain says that Jews have failed to acquire political power, even where they have the vote: “In Austria, and Germany, and France he has a vote, but of what considerable use is it to him? He doesn't seem to know how to apply it to the best effect.” He notes that the Irish, despite small numbers, have managed to acquire political power by organizing. He says that, ten years ago, Jews comprised 9% of the population of the Austrian Empire. “The Irish would govern the Kingdom of Heaven if they had a strength there like that.”
In earlier times, Twain says, some Jews didn’t have surnames, so government officials gave them surnames. Those who had enough money to bribe the officials were given pleasant names, such as Blumenthal (flower-vale), others were given unpleasant names.
Twain has no inkling of a coming genocide. He says that persecution will continue
Twain also has no inkling of a coming assimilation: “You will always be by ways and habits and predilections substantially strangers — foreigners — wherever you are, and that will probably keep the race prejudice against you alive.”
While Twain had no inkling of genocide or assimilation, Nietzsche anticipated both possibilities. Nietzsche said that Jews wanted to be “absorbed and assimilated by Europe,” and that this desire should be accommodated.3 On the other hand, Nietzsche saw genocide as a definite possibility: “In almost every nation — and the more so the more nationalist a posture the nation is again adopting — there is gaining ground the literary indecency of leading the Jews to the sacrificial slaughter as scapegoats for every possible public or private misfortune.”4 And this: “Among the spectacles to which the coming century invites us is the decision as to the destiny of the Jews of Europe. That their die is cast, that they have crossed their Rubicon, is now palpably obvious: all that is left for them is either to become the masters of Europe or to lose Europe as they once a long time ago lost Egypt.”5 Nietzsche’s predictions regarding the future of the Jews were far more accurate than Twain’s.
In his famous treatise on war, Clausewitz said, “There is no human activity that stands in such constant and universal contact with chance as does war.... Of all branches of human activity, [war is] the most like a game of cards.” It’s characteristic of a rational thinker to emphasize chance, just as it’s characteristic of a non-rational thinker to emphasize fate. Clausewitz has a rational-scientific worldview, and he likes to use mathematical terms like “laws of probability,” and scientific terms like “centers of attraction” and “the principle of polarity.” Doubtless Clausewitz would be uncomfortable with the idea that a mysterious fate shaped the outcome of wars.
But Clausewitz’s contemporary, Napoleon, felt that fate was leading him to victory early in his career, and he felt that fate had turned against him at Waterloo. Perhaps what we call “chance” doesn’t really exist, but is shaped by fate, just as Freud argued that we can’t think of a random number, because our choice of a number will be shaped by unconscious factors. The ancient practice of divination uses chance events to learn fate, and predict the future. The ancient Chinese text known as The Book of Changes (or I Ching) uses dice and other random events to get advice and predict the future; Jung said this book never erred.
Clausewitz said war was like a game of cards, but modern playing cards originated from Tarot cards, and Tarot cards were used (and still are used) for divination. Perhaps neither war nor cards are matters of pure chance, as Clausewitz thought.
A. Received an e-mail from Jim Fedor, a Phlit subscriber:
B. Finished Shakespeare’s Tempest. I didn’t enjoy it a lot; I probably enjoyed the commentaries more than the play itself. I read an old Signet Classic edition that had a good essay by Tillyard, and a very good essay by Coleridge. Coleridge praises Shakespeare to the skies, and concludes with a memorable sentence: “Yet, with all these unbounded powers, with all this might and majesty of genius, he makes us feel as if he were unconscious of himself and of his high destiny, disguising the half god in the simplicity of a child.” Coleridge is one of the major Shakespeare critics, though his Shakespeare lectures only survive in the form of notes taken by an auditor.
A new edition of Shakespeare is being published. Llumina Press, which specializes in self-published books, is publishing Shakespeare plays that are “Fully Annotated from an Oxfordian Perspective.”
C. My wife recently read Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, by Ian Stevenson. It’s a classic in the field, but she found it neither interesting nor persuasive. The cases it discusses are from India, Sri Lanka, etc., where many people believe in reincarnation.
D. I read part of Clive Leatherdale’s Dracula: The Novel and the Legend. The section on Tarot was interesting, but on the whole, the writing seemed hasty, careless, unscholarly, hack work. You might also consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula, part of a series called Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations.
I finally found a top-notch Dracula essay. It illuminates the novel, it raises one’s opinion of the novel, and it makes one glad that one read the novel. It’s called “Dracula: The Gnostic Quest and Victorian Wasteland.” It’s by Mark Hennelly, and it was published in 1977. (Leatherdale discusses Hennelly’s essay in his Dracula: The Novel and the Legend, but the essay itself is far more interesting than Leatherdale’s summary of it.)
According to Hennelly, Stoker depicts both Victorian England and Dracula’s Transylvania as wastelands. Both areas need the other in order to be rejuvenated. Victorian England needs the passion, energy, and spontaneity of Transylvania, and Dracula needs the “man-brain”, the self-consciousness, of England. On the surface, Dracula is a quest to kill a vampire, but under the surface, according to Hennelly, it’s a quest for spiritual growth, for knowledge, for “gnosis.” Dracula advocates open-mindedness: “The action of the novel,” Hennelly writes, “dramatizes the Gnostic value of this ‘open mind.’”
In an earlier issue, I quoted a philosopher from India, who described Western thought as a ‘life-giving leaven.’ I asked, “Isn’t this how Westerners regard Eastern thought? Perhaps the beneficial influence operates in both directions.” This mutual benefit is, according to Hennelly, what we find in Dracula: England needs Transylvania, and Transylvania needs England.
In folklore, when a king ages, his kingdom declines into a wasteland. There’s nothing left for the king to do except go fishing, hence the motif of the Fisher King. Hennelly views Dracula as an aged Fisher King — energetic in his younger days, but now in decline. He must be replaced by someone young and vigorous. At the end of the novel, the new king is born, “the Harker child through whose veins run not only the Victorian blood of his parents but also the vitality of the Count whose blood Mina has drunk.” The Harker child is “appropriately born on the anniversary of Dracula’s death.”
Hennelly argues that other Victorian novelists also describe a “Gnostic quest,” a quest for knowledge and spiritual growth. Hennelly quotes another critic: “[Victorian novelists] stand as transitional figures between the confidence in objective fact that characterizes the age of reason and the unabashed solipsism that came into fiction in the present century through the stream of consciousness technique.” Hennelly points out that Stoker uses neither an omniscient narrator, nor a stream of consciousness, but rather a collection of diaries: “The disappearance of an omniscient narrator in Dracula reflects the atrophy of God and traditional faith so symptomatic of the Victorian wasteland.” Hennelly’s essay not only teaches one about Dracula, it also teaches one about the society that produced Dracula.
Hennelly devotes a paragraph to each of the novel’s major characters:
The novel teaches a Jungian message: “There are darknesses in life, and there are lights.” Victorian society stressed the lights, and Dracula restores the balance by stressing the darknesses, just as Jung stressed God’s darkness.
I read an essay on Dracula called “Bram Stoker and the Crisis of the Liberal Subject”; it’s by David Glover.6 A rather confusing essay, but it touches on some interesting topics. Classical liberalism, Glover argues, emphasizes the autonomy of the individual; as Mill put it, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” But as the 19th century was drawing to a close, a new liberalism was emerging, which Glover describes as a “collectivist philosophy built around concepts of positive liberty, social justice, and a new economics.” The difference between the old and the new liberalism reminds one of the difference between today’s Republicans and Democrats.
The old liberalism was being challenged by a new psychology, as well as a new economics. Psychology was beginning to talk about unconscious forces, forces which called into question old ideas about character and individual autonomy. As Glover puts it, “not only was classical liberalism undergoing a crisis of identity in the years between 1880 and 1914, but liberalism’s crisis was precisely about identity, taking the form of a sustained debate around the question of the true dimensions of human agency.”
Stoker was a student of physiognomy, a science that tried to grasp human nature by studying the shape of the face. The Swiss writer Lavater had pioneered this science around 1780, and it enjoyed considerable popularity in Stoker’s youth. But it wasn’t the same science that Lavater had developed, it had changed during the course of the 19th century as a result of an interest in race. “The world of Dracula,” Glover writes, “was very much a world of ‘ethnological physiognomies’ in which racial identities were assumed to be plainly readable from appearances and, more than this, these readings could be used as data from which to extrapolate judgments as to a nation’s social and moral wellbeing.”
Stoker was a fan of Whitman, wrote him letters in his youth, and visited him when he went to the U.S. In an early letter to Whitman, he spoke of his interest in physiognomy, and he described his own appearance. In Dracula, Stoker is careful to describe the facial features of his characters; Glover says, “not only are Count Dracula’s malevolent powers recognizable from his ‘fixed and rather cruel-looking’ mouth or his ‘peculiarly arched nostrils,’ but when we meet Dr. Van Helsing, the man who will orchestrate the vampire’s downfall, moral fitness can be immediately discerned from his ‘large, resolute, mobile mouth’ and his ‘good-sized nose... with quick, sensitive nostrils, that seem to broaden as the big, bushy eyebrows come down and the mouth tightens.’”
|1.|| Twain is quoting the anti-Stratford writer George Greenwood, who is quoting a lawyer named Lord Penzance. back|
|2.|| This, too, is a quote from Lord Penzance. back|
|3.|| Beyond Good and Evil, #251 back|
|4.|| Human, All Too Human, #475 back|
|5.|| Dawn, #205 back|
|6.||New Literary History, 1992, 23: 983-1002 back|