Wednesday, December 26, 2012


IntoxeratedIntoxerated by Paul Dickson

Ah, the holidays. The end of the year. When you celebrate by a cozy fire with the shiver of time in your fillings. When you cozy up to those you love best and those who therefore make you crazy. In other words, time to drink.

Melville House Books's "Definitive Drinker's Dictionary," Intoxerated, a fun compendium of annotated synonyms for the word drunk, provides the literary drinker with a smidgeon of words to go with his smahan of whiskey. (Smeahán being Irish, according to the OED, for a drop of whiskey; see James Joyce's wonderfully woeful drinking story, "Counterparts.")

Herman Melville himself, however, took a somewhat dryer approach when he launched American literature "on the high seas" (one of many sailing metaphors for drunk according to Paul Dickson's book). Having adopted some of the abstemious spirit of old Nantucket, perhaps, Melville introduces alcohol in chapter 3 of Moby Dick with a barkeep named Jonah who "dearly sells the sailors delirium and death. Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison." One sailor there in the Spouter Inn abstains from drink, and when the sailor (named Bulkington) reappears in chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," it's as the type who eschews the false comforts of shore for the raw, cold, hard truths of the ocean. Under the terms of the allegory that spans chapters 3 and 23 of Moby Dick, alcohol counts among the false comforts.

Certainly, alcohol blunts reality, not least the reality of one's own self; isn't that why people need it? The many euphemisms for drunkenness are a further evasion. But as much as drinking is an honorable literary pastime, the many euphemisms for it appear relatively uncommon in literary works, perhaps because such works deal in undiluted truths, and in novels and stories alcohol is either the antidote to realities too acutely perceived or the disinhibiting solvent that liberates a character from his blinding fear.

Ernest Hemingway's hard-drinking characters in The Sun Also Rises seem to chase from bar to bar partly in flight and partly in search of liberation from self-deceptions much deeper than mere intoxication. Drinking in that novel is like a portal through which a tortured soul might claw back some semblance of pleasure, aggression, instinct, sincerity. Perhaps as a consequence, Hemingway relies mainly on the self-sufficient term "drunk," which is like onomatopoeia for the sound of the soul denting its rear fender on the telephone pole of life. There's one exception in the dialogue toward the beginning of part II: when Jake judges Bill much drunker than he is and calls him "pie-eyed" (p. 78).

Euphemisms for drunkenness are equally scarce in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. A multi-faceted Shame has driven the mental patients in that book into the unhealthy safety of Nurse Ratched's psych ward, and alcohol enters as a sort of holy reprieve from Shame. Drunkenness sets up a cataclysmic change in Chief Bromden that ultimately emancipates him from fear:
As I walked after them it came to me as a kind of sudden surprise that I was drunk, actually drunk, glowing and grinning and staggering drunk for the first time since the Army, drunk along with half a dozen other guys and a couple of girls--right on the Big Nurse's ward! p. 260.

Daisy Buchanan appears “drunk as a monkey” on p. 70 of The Great Gatsby, and the phrase is duly noted in Dickson’s Intoxerated, but otherwise F. Scott Fitzgerald too treats inebriation with a certain sobriety. Alcohol flows through his novel’s pages as through a human bloodstream. It’s the medium through which the characters think, a disorienting twilight between dream and reality. Of note, neither Daisy nor Gatsby are heavy drinkers (see pp. 71 and 91). They are not content to live in dreamy drunken twilight, but strive to escape into a hypothetical place where dreams turn solid and come true.

In Joyce’s story “Counterparts” and in others in Dubliners, alcohol seems to purify the element of self-destruction in characters, but the penultimate story, “Grace,” celebrates a bit of drinking, even to excess. In a spirit of self-sympathy rather than self-destruction, Joyce makes use of one of those funny synonyms for drunk: Mr Cunningham calls Tom Kernan "peloothered" (Dubliners Viking Critical Library edition, p. 160; Dickson may want to add this one, as he has "plootered" but not "peloothered" on p. 134!). Kernan was so peloothered that he fell down the steps to the lavatory and bit the end of his tongue off. The funny euphemism seems to handle Mr Kernan’s indignity with a certain care and gentleness—perhaps because Kernan and his friends have already made their peace with instinct. "Glasses were rinsed and five small measures of whisky were poured out,” Joyce writes on p. 167. “The new influence enlivened the conversation." And on p. 169 comes one of my favorite lines on drinking: "The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude." “Grace” is a wonderful story about moderation, and it very consciously applies the principle of moderation to moderation itself. In other words, to be perfectly moderate, and not too abstemious, you must also be immoderate now and again.

When I arrived in Connecticut for Christmas, my brother-in-law had a nice bottle of sipping tequila, a Centenario añejo, waiting for me. It stood me in good stead through four and a half hours of assembly of a “wired control robotic arm kit” for my older son, and through other minor holiday travails. So let’s raise a glass and face the New Year ah-wat-si (“crazy-brave,” according to the Blackfeet Indians, Dickson p. 16), if not completely jugged, lock-legged, and shot in the mouth. :*)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doublethink, Consciencethink

19841984 by George Orwell

George Orwell's famous dystopian novel 1984 could be the best prose ever written in the science fiction genre. Its anti-fascist themes remain relevant too. This description of an overzealous patriot beset by "war hysteria" may sound familiar to anyone who's watched Bill O'Reilly on Fox News: "a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph." (1984, p. 192) Yet the novel's purview is bigger than just politics, and its outlook might be summed up like this: what is righteous is not necessarily right. Or, as the emancipated Roman slave-turned-playwright Terence wrote two millennia ago, "The strictest justice is sometimes the greatest injustice."

An immoderate conscience is like a totalitarian conspiracy against the self, and Orwell's totalitarians are conspicuously interested in their subjects' inner lives after the manner of conscience. When Big Brother, the face of 1984's totalitarian regime, stares at protagonist Winston Smith from the cover of a doctored history text, Orwell writes:
It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you--something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. p. 80
What is that if not a description of conscience--of that bullying spokesperson for society within our heads? Orwell takes great pains, in fact, to show Big Brother's means of getting inside citizens' heads in the manner of conscience, of controlling not just speech or actions, but thoughts. "[I]n the eyes of the Party there was no distinction between the thought and the deed." (p. 242) Orwell calls the governmental agency that gets inside people's heads the "Thought Police"--an immortally apt descriptor of bully conscience.

If that were not enough to convince you of the connections between the political and the psychological in Orwell's writing, Orwell also assigns the Thought Police a rather unexpected preoccupation with sexuality.
The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it. p. 66

The sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion. Desire was thoughtcrime. p. 68
A member of the Thought Police even makes this startling prediction late in the novel: "We shall abolish orgasm." (p. 267)

By contrast, Winston describes the chief virtue of "the Proles," who have largely escaped the Party's suffocating influence, in the following way:
They had held onto the primitive emotions which he himself had to relearn by conscious effort. p. 165
The Thought Police are so aggressive in their puritanism that they demand a good number of thoughts be extirpated from consciousness entirely. To satisfy the Thought Police, "Zeal was not enough. Orthodoxy was unconsciousness." (p. 55) Party members are even equipped at their desks with "memory holes" for the incineration of intolerable information, usually data that might reflect the Party's practices of destroying facts--a practice that has all but "abolished" the entire temporal category of "the past." (p. 143)

This is exactly the theory of conscience according to psychoanalysis: the conscience polices one's mental contents and rejects and suppresses those that offend conscience, such as, I hate my (big) brother, leaving behind a cleansed mental landscape of inoffensive contents like: I love my brother. Orwell all but tips us off that his political parable recapitulates an intrapsychic relation: "Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your own nervous system." (p. 64) And again: "one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one's own body." (p. 103)

1984 is a fantasy more thoroughly paranoid than Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and more unrelievedly chilling than any of Kafka's, to which Orwell is directly or indirectly indebted. Both master Kafka and disciple Orwell concern themselves with the life of the individual inside the group--what might be called social psychology, which ought to be the psychology of conscience, since that's the internal institution that brokers relations between the individual self and society. While abuse by political or religious authorities is probably sufficient to corrupt a child's conscience, it's by no means necessary. I'd guess that's why Orwell's nightmare speaks to so many people who live more or less free of the sort of propaganda he describes. We all know what it is to feel guilt, suppress thoughts, and to run from the merciless Thought Police.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Confessional Poetry

The Collected Poems The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

You'd think with all the cocktails, a cocktail party ought to be more fun than a hole in your head. Twitter has been called a global-scale cocktail party. Unfortunately, it seems to lack the essential ingredient of the cocktails. To put it another way, it's confessional poetry without the poetry.

What people sometimes call "confessional poetry," by contrast, may be personal and autobiographical, but it's neither a low artform nor symptomatic of commonplace vanity--at least not when it's practiced by a great writer like Sylvia Plath, author of some of my favorite poems. There's something deeply artistic going on in Plath's tortured imagination.

Confessional poetry, like much else that is modern, is not modern. Catullus wrote it in ancient Rome and there's poésie intime in France going back at least as far as Joachim du Bellay, who wrote in the sixteenth century. Du Bellay was an early advocate of writing in the vernacular (in his case, French) as opposed to Greek and Latin, because the vernacular was the language of direct experience--the language learned as a child through direct experience of the world.

Modern confessional poetry is part of this long tradition in paying heed to direct, personal experience, hard though it may be to look it in the eye.

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Owl at Home in the Wilderness

Owl at HomeOwl at Home by Arnold Lobel

As a child, I knew children's author-illustrator Arnold Lobel for his fabulously funny, slyly philosophical Frog and Toad books. Lobel died young (downer), but he did create at least one other iconic animal character to help kids and adults alike through this bumpy journey called life: Owl.

Owl at Home shares the Frog and Toad books' virtues of empathy and humor, coziness and comically unfounded terror. Both of my kids loved Owl.

When he was 7, my older son saw me typing up my thoughts on Owl at Home and asked me, "Is this review going to go to the person who wrote the book?"

"No," I said authoritatively, "unfortunately the man who wrote it died a long time ago."

"How do you know he died?"

"Uh, I looked it up on the internet," I mumbled, ashamed.

"Did he make another chubby owl story?"

Alas, no. In any case, it would have been a tough act to follow. This is the finest group of chubby owl stories ever written. "He made the owl so chubby," my son said. The owl is indeed very cute and also, according to my kids, "very, very crazy" and "very stupid." But endearingly so. "Tear-Water Tea" is as funny as anything I've come across in a children's book, including the wickedly funny George and Martha. So is "Strange Bumps." It's perfect as is--one would almost hate to see a sequel involving an arrogant badger or annoying weasel (even as a fan of stories with a good annoying weasel). Owl's character is wedded to a confrontation with nature that he must carry out alone, without weasels and badgers to aid or hamper him. That's because, behind the children's illustrations and large type and simple words is a rather profound reflection of the confused and eager state of the human being alone with himself--and even of the human condition altogether, so eager and confused and alone in the wilderness.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in JamaicaA High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Like The Once and Future King and The Secret of Santa Vittoria, A High Wind in Jamaica straddles the disparate worlds of literature and entertainment, but it's darker than either of those other books--somewhat less malevolent than Lord of the Flies maybe, but mordant in a way that Lord of the Flies isn't because of the special skill with which Richard Hughes fixes reality on his imaginative screen. Hughes is a master realist like Christopher Isherwood. He had a whole litter of his own children eventually, but not until after he made this fine study of the mechanics of childhood imagination. Perhaps not being a parent he could play the naturalist even better, could watch the amoral clockworks of that imagination amorally like a naturalist watching a lion tear up a springbok by a baobab tree. The neatest trick is that he sees the children's imaginings and cognitive failings from without so that the narration itself is never for a moment mired in confused imaginings. Dramatic irony galore--we see what the children do not: a real world whose crass indifference to children is readily matched only by the children's tyrannical indifference to reality. A menagerie of animals fills up the book--a half-wild cat hunted by totally wild cats, a monkey with a gangrenous tail, a fussy pig, a goat with a "beard flying like a prophet's," etc.--and the animals seamlessly prefigure what will happen to the children with the subtlety of Ovid, to whom Hughes refers several times, and with the delicious sadism of a Martin Scorsese film.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Second-Highest Heaven (Big Bang Part II)

descriptionDarrel Abel was born in Lost Nation, Iowa in 1911. He taught American literature at Purdue for many years, and at some point, working from the obscurity of Lisbon Falls, Maine, he produced a rather lovely little paper called "Robert Frost's 'Second-Highest Heaven'," which he published in 1980. The paper's title refers to a piece of Frost's prose on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Frost wrote:
Everybody votes in heaven but everybody votes the same way, as in Russia today. It is only in the second-highest heaven that things get parliamentary.
Abel goes on to quote one of Frost's letters, which expresses a similar sentiment:
whatever great thinkers may say against the earth, I notice that no one is anxious to leave it for either Heaven or Hell. Heaven may be better than Hell as reported, but it is not as good as earth.
Frost was an American who knew the pioneer's feeling of diminution before the vast inhuman wilderness, "An emptiness flayed to the very stone," as he describes an abandoned, clear-cut piece of land in his brilliant 1923 poem "The Census-Taker." Like his predecessors Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Melville, he saw in the American situation a figure of the human situation in the universe itself. And like those former masters of American modernity, Frost refused despair any lasting purchase. They refused despair not because they were plucky and upbeat, but because they saw too deeply to ignore the true proportions between chaos and beauty, emptiness and humanness, in this complex, mysterious world of ours.

As Abel points out, Frost's famous poem "Desert Places" consciously rebuts Blaise Pascal in his terror at the emptiness between the stars. Here is Pascal worrying about space in his Pensées. You've heard of "penis envy" and "castration anxiety"--call this pensée anxiety:
When I consider the short duration of my life, an eternity that stretches behind and before, and the little space which I fill and even see, engulfed in the immensity of spaces I know not and which know not me, I am frightened and astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.... The eternal silence of the infinite spaces--it frightens me. Quoted in "Robert Frost's 'Second-Highest Heaven'" by Darrel Abel, Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 16: Iss. 2, Article 3, 1980

The Big Bang can amplify the terror Pascal describes, which is in the first place not so easily dismissed. Paul Tillich, according to Abel, called such cosmic queasiness modern man's "real vertigo in relation to infinite space." Big Bang astronomy of course implies that those spaces, those desert places are not just infinite but stretching out, and so they're diminishing our physical stature in the cosmos. (To diminished stature, I say, so what? Short people achieve amazing things nowadays. Who cares how big or small we are in relation to the cosmos? Why should an electron care if it's smaller than the atomic nucleus? And would my funny bone feel any better if my elbows were the size of the Horsehead Nebula?) The vertigo is the more horrible thing; the Big Bang theory creates it by explaining so much without successfully delivering us from the painful tautologies with which we began our search for knowledge. It's the intellectual equivalent of whirling around and around.

Infinity and eternity aren't problematic because they're big (and they're not always big--a finite space may be infinitely subdivided), but because they're at once inescapable and nonsensical aspects of the cosmos. Mathematics seems to acknowledge as much since the symbol for infinity, ∞, also means "undefined." (As in 20 divided by zero = ∞.) The universe appears to have begun at a point in time. But how does something come from nothing? What was before? Something else? Some other universe? None of the alternatives appeal to common sense, and so the Big Bang theory pictures a universe whose perfectly comprehensible laws lead to perfectly incomprehensible conundra of origins and endings, limits and infinity. That's how I interpret Tillich's vertigo, and the theme of Frost's poetry--in Abel's words, "man's lostness in space." Not only do we not understand the limits of the universe in time and space, but it seems they are constitutionally inaccessible to understanding. They are non-parameters, they are outside reason and experience, yet reason and experience lead us straight to their door.... This is a miserable and untenable state of affairs.

In the last decades, the mental health field has often and without good reason blurred the traditional medical dividing line between symptom and diagnosis. I would argue that pensée anxiety, Tillich's vertigo, Big Bang-o-phobia, etc., is not a diagnosis. It's not even its own symptom. Rather, it's but one instance of a more commonplace problem I call "under-the-hood nausea." (For a fuller discussion of under-the-hood nausea, here is another blog I wrote on the subject. Under-the-hood nausea, in turn, is but a manifestation of neurosis.)

Science reaches out, by instruments and inferences, into planes of reality that exist on different scales from our own. This is what creates under-the-hood nausea. The Big Bang was named by Fred Hoyle, an important physicist who happened to despise the theory and applied the phrase "Big Bang" in derision. But the theory is perhaps rightly named in the sense that it bashes you over the head with under-the-hood nausea like nothing else. It's looking under the hood of the cosmos, and just as looking inside the body at the guts makes some people feel sick, looking under the hood of the cosmos can fill you with vertiginous questions: What is infinity? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a god? If there is, can I still masturbate? Why are so many cosmologists named George?

Scientists must look at reality on every plane, at every magnification, but if we can't relate our findings to our own scale, our own plane, then the work of comprehension isn't done. If we can't interpret and appreciate our knowledge in human terms, then the science may have the effect of urging us on in our despair--despair which belongs to our own homely little world of birth and death and not to the vacuous spaces between the stars. Help me, Mr. Frost:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Wittgenstein was a very fine doctor for treating sickening cosmic questions. He suggested that such questions must have bad syntax--just like the meaningless proposition twenty divided by zero. If you look out into the cosmos and feel despair, remind yourself that despair is 100% human. If our understanding of physics is too incomplete right now to relate the cosmic to the quantum to the human scale of affairs, our psyches do it for us in a crude way--with despair. Yet the more we look, the more order we see in the universe. In that sense, the universe appears to be a more and more hospitable place the more we learn about it--a more human place, since humanity and life are founded on a principle of order and the development of more of it.

Fred Hoyle, the Big Bang skeptic, discovered how heavy elements are forged in the furnaces of the stars and he did it by an anthropic inference: we exist; we're made of carbon; therefore nucleosynthesis of carbon must occur; therefore stars must have a way of doing it; therefore certain isotopes of helium and beryllium must react quickly to form an excited conformation of carbon-12. He was right. Multiple generations of stars must refine lighter elements in their breasts to make heavier ones like carbon. The stars are our mothers and fathers. The universe has music in it. It has despair in it. But it's all ours.

Like the joke says:
There was a costume party where everybody was instructed to dress as an emotion. The party hosts greeted the first guest, who was dressed from head to toe in red, and asked him, "What emotion are you supposed to be?" He said, "Rage." The next guest was dressed all in green--green tights, green leotard, a green hat. When they asked what emotion she was supposed to be, she said, "I'm envy." Then a guy came to the door completely naked, with a pear stuck on the end of his penis. The hosts asked, "What emotion are you?" He said, "I'm fuckin' despair."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Begin the Cosmic Beguine (Big Bang Part I)

Big Bang: The Origin of the UniverseBig Bang: The Origin of the Universe by Simon Singh

It generally takes a child no more than three or four ingenuous questions to reach a humbling horizon beyond which no intellect, whether adult or child or Stephen Hawking, has passed: the question of how the universe began. Whatever we learn about the past, the answer to the next question--what came before that--rears up on the horizon, ever out of reach. I used to lie in bed as a child and imagine infinity until my head hurt.

We do know more than ever before, however, and some of that knowledge has arrived within my own lifetime. Books really do help, especially when written by a science writer par excellence like Simon Singh, who sets out to teach you the subject for real. Singh doesn't water everything down to the point where it makes no sense. He trusts his readers' intelligence and their natural childlike curiosity, and he has the writerly skill to make the real science into a fascinating story--a story which begins not with a bang but a person--Einstein.

Einstein's theory of relativity predicts that matter causes the space of the universe to contract or expand--a dynamic notion of space that cannot be tested by everyday experience, but can be (and has been) tested by data collected from telescopes. Around 1920, Jewish-Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann applied Einstein's equations to cosmology in order to predict what was happening to the size of the whole universe; he predicted it was expanding. Georges Lemaître (a physicist who was also a Catholic priest, pictured next to Einstein in his white collar!) descriptiondid the same and deduced that if the universe has expanded, it must once have been compact. The idea was not that the matter of the universe exploded like shrapnel from a bomb (one reason "Big Bang" is an imperfect name), but rather that the empty space of the universe itself was once compact and ever since has been stretching out like silly putty.

The general theory of relativity is evidently very difficult to translate into plain English, and I don't understand it any further than physicist John Wheeler's famous statement that "Matter tells space how to curve, and curved space tells matter how to move." (It also tells light how to move. I'd like to see if it could get my kids to put their shoes on.) I do know this: whereas matter can't move through space faster than light, space itself can change size faster than the speed of light. It's often said that light from billions of light years away is showing us something billions of years in the past; light from afar is very old; that's putatively because the light has been traveling for billions of years to get to us. I never understood how this could be, since I assumed that distant galaxies must have taken billions of light years to get so far away from our common Big Bang point of origin in the first place. Singh does not address this particular question, but other sources confirm that the universe seems to have expanded much faster than light in the beginning; I presume that's how the infant universe could have blown out to a size billions of light-years across in less than billions of years, and how light from 14 billion light years away therefore could show us baby pictures of the universe. At any rate, Edwin Hubble's observations of the skies, made on freezing nights through a giant telescope in Pasadena, and his analyses of observed Doppler shifts of spectra emitted by familiar elements like helium in distant stars, confirmed that the universe is indeed expanding, with the speed of expansion apparently increasing at farther distances out.

More support for the idea of the Big Bang came from particle physics. Russian refugee George Gamow concluded that the relative abundances of elements in the universe (90% hydrogen, 10% helium, trace amounts of heavier elements, as determined by spectroscopy on the heavens) could best be explained if the universe's matter was once a condensed ball of plasma hotter and more pressurized than that inside stars--he called this universal primordium of subatomic particles ylem. Gamow's young collaborator Ralph Alpher made mathematical models of the primordial universe; they showed that the early universe would have had the right conditions for the right length of time to support "nucleosynthesis" of 10% of the loose protons into helium. Then, with colleague Robert Hermann, Alpher theorized that the early universe should have cooled from plasma to gas 300,000 years after creation, an event called "recombination" (because it was now cool enough for electrons to "recombine" with atomic nuclei instead of flying all over the place? but were they ever combined before that?); they predicted that recombination should have allowed the early universe to radiate light instead of merely scattering it and the light should still be flying through space in every direction and that the expansion of the universe should by now have stretched the wavelength of the extant light of recombination to the point where it would be in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum--the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB radiation).

At this point the Nobel committee was paying serious attention to the Big Bang theory. In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who worked for Bell Labs in New Jersey, confirmed the existence of the CMB radiation with a radio telescope and later won the Nobel prize. Finally, George Smoot got NASA to launch a satellite with a radiometer on it so that he could look for miniscule variations in the CMB radiation. These would reflect the existence of condensates of matter in the early universe--the precursors to today's stars and galaxies; NASA launched it in 1989, the radiometer detected it, Smoot too won a Nobel prize for it. I am pretty sure that the variations in the CMB radiation do not explain why half my noodles are hot and half are cold when I reheat a bowl of pasta. Nonetheless, I blame the Big Bang. The end of the story of how we understand the beginning.

There are so many wonderfully human aspects to this history of an idea. The history of astronomy as Singh tells it is a history of passionate, suffering dreamers, of political refugees converging on England and America where they could think in peace. 20th century physics is also a history of the Jews, whose numbers in the Big Bang story far exceed those of helium in the stars (Einstein, Friedmann, Alpher, Hermann, and Penzias are among the Jewish free thinkers who built this progressive theory). The Big Bang is both an elucidation and a revelation of mysteries and cosmic order. Why then, does it hold such potential to make your head hurt and your soul ache with a sense of the empty, senseless, inhumanity of the universe? I feel this anxiety, yet I don't trust it. See Part II.

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ovid Part IV: Metamorphose This

descriptionThe speaker of Ovid's "Contrite Lover" elegy in Amores reflects on a quarrel in which he struck his lover. Full of remorse, he asks this of his own hands: "What have I to do with you, servants of murder and crime?" (Amores I, 7, 27). As Hermann Fränkel puts it, the speaker "feels estranged from his own self of a moment before. His identity is broken up...." (Fränkel, Ovid: A poet Between Two Worlds, pp. 20-21) The great classical scholar considers Ovid's representation of inner conflict a historic literary achievement:
[I]t was an unheard-of novelty for the ancients that a person should no longer feel securely identical with his own self.... There is no sign of a previous emergence of these possibilities; Ovid took them for granted and used them freely in his poetry.... [W]ith the self losing its solid unity and being able half to detach itself from its bearer, a fundamental shift had taken place in the history of the human mind. Frankel, p. 21
Before Ovid came along, Plato and other ancient philosophers had postulated a self divided by competing faculties of passion and reason. But who had ever represented the subjective experience of these internal divisions with Ovid's level of modern realism? Even among later poets, who but Shakespeare has represented our divided consciousness so well as Ovid?

Indeed, in Ovid's representations of mental life, schisms of identity and clashes between wishes and realities precipitate solutions where a troubling aspect of self or world is rejected from consciousness. "Time and again," Fränkel writes of the Amores, "we find Ovid bent on concealing from his own eyes a disagreeable fact; but he also sees to it that the cloak is transparent." (Fränkel, p. 31) In the Heroides, one of Ovid's heroines, Phyllis, attests to the same phenomenon: "one is slow to give credence to that which brings pain.... Often I lied to myself...." (quoted in Fränkel, p. 42)

True, there are antecedents to Ovid's notion of denial, too. Consider his telling of the famous story of Jupiter and Io, first in the Heroides and again in the Metamorphoses. Ovid seems deliberately to echo Sophocles. "What is the reason for your flight?" Ovid writes of the nymph Io in the Heroides. (To hide his affair from Juno, Jupiter has turned Io into a cow and Io goes mad trying to run from her new form when she cannot.) "You will never escape from your own face.... You are the same who both pursues and flees. It is you who lead yourself, and you go where you lead." (quoted in Fränkel p. 79) Whether or not Ovid intended it, the lines certainly call to mind Teiresias's stunning words to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex: "I say you are the murderer of the king whose murderer you seek."

Ovid, however, accomplishes with his fantastic tales what Sophocles did not attempt: he converts the ancient wisdom written on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi--gnothi sauton in the original Greek (nosce te ipsum in Latin, "know thyself" in English)--into psychological realism that not only depicts inner conflict and denial in personal terms, but actually examines what Freud later called defense mechanisms.

That is to say, not all transformation in Metamorphoses is supernatural. In many cases Ovid in fact dispenses with the fantastical metamorphoses and depicts in straight realist terms an emotion being actively revised or altered by another. For example in Book II Phaethon asks his father Apollo whether Clymene (Phaethon's mother) lied when she said Apollo was his father. His exact words are nec falsa Clymene culpam sub imagine celat (Metamorphoses, II, 37), "if Clymene is not hiding her shame beneath an unreal pretence." Here Ovid makes the pattern of pain and emotional flight more intricate, more subtle: the particular pain in this case is shame; the particular means of evasion is hiding.

At times Ovid upstages Freud to the degree that he uses Freudian terms like "repression" and "transference" in connection with pretty much the same phenomena Freud sought to describe.
erebuit Phaethon iramque pudore repressit, "Phaethon blushed and repressed his anger in shame." (I, 755)

Iovis coniunx ... a Tyria collectum paelice transfert in generis socios odium, "the wife of Jove had now transferred her anger from her Tyrian rival to those who shared her blood." (II, 256-259)

The Phaethon episode in Book II, one of the best in the Metamorphoses, tracks Apollo's changing emotions in sequence like a psychoanalyst would. After his son Phaethon's death, Ovid tells us, lucemque odit seque ipse diemque datque animum in luctus et luctibus adicit iram officiumque negat mundo, or "He hates himself and the light of day, gives over his soul to grief, to grief adds rage, and refuses to do service to the world." (Metamorphoses, II, 383-385)

After Jupiter goads Apollo into climbing back into the chariot to light the world, Ovid writes: Phoebus equos stimuloque dolens et verbere saevit (saevit enim) natumque obiectat et inputat illis, "in his grief Phoebus savagely plies the horses with lash and goad (so savagely), reproaching and taxing them with the death of his son." (II, 399-400) It's true that the horses were an instrument in Phaethon's demise, but Apollo knows that they are innocent beasts, that the fault lies most of all with Phaethon himself and with Jupiter, who threw the thunderbolt that killed him--and who, after making a brief apology, had the audacity to threaten Apollo if he didn't resume his duties. Ovid implies quite unambiguously that Apollo whips the horses in Jupiter's place, in Phaethon's place, in his own place.

When Jupiter rapes Callisto, one of Diana's maidens, Ovid writes, huic odio nemus est et conscia silva "She loathed the forest and the woods that knew her secret." (II, 338) She seems to hate the woods in place of Jupiter (again), because Jupiter is too terrible to attack directly. Perhaps Callisto also hates the woods in place of her own guilt. Ovid continues, quam difficile est crimen non prodere vultu! "How hard it is not to betray guilt in the face!" (II, 447) Freud teaches us that guilt is a major, if not the major, stimulus to repression. Guilt causes people to hide emotions from themselves and from others. More often than not, transformation of ideas and affects does the hiding. Shakespeare knew this before Freud. And Ovid evidently knew it before either one of his great intellectual heirs, as transformative defense mechanisms of displacement and identification abound in his Metamorphoses. I found it most interesting that Ovid describes Nyctimene, a woman who slept with her father and was punished by turning into a bird, as being conscia culpae--literally "conscious of her guilt." (II, 593) It implies she might also have been unconscious of it. Ovid would have had little trouble understanding Shak and Freud, and it's obvious that "Ovid's amazing candor" (Fränkel, p. 58) imparted much psychological wisdom to later ages.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ovid Part III: Thought Letters

descriptionOvid was "revered among Elizabethan pedagogues" according to R.W. Maslen (Shakespeare's Ovid, p. 17). It sounds like a terrible fate, to be revered by a pedagogue, let alone a bunch of Elizabethan ones. I don't know for certain what happens if one reveres you, but if one kisses you, I think you get warts. Or am I thinking of frogs? In any case, like many Elizabethans, Shakespeare purportedly encountered Ovid in grammar school. The Roman poet seems to have left an impression on the Stratford boy who lived an age and a half later.

The Metamorphoses in fact figures into Shak's early tragedy Titus Andronicus in an unusual way for a Shakespeare play: "In perhaps the most self-consciously literary moment in all Shakespeare," as Jonathan Bate puts it (Golding trans. frontmatter, p. xliv), a physical copy of Ovid's book appears onstage. Young Lucius is reading it and his aunt Lavinia, who like Philomela in the Metamorphoses has had her tongue cut out, tries to communicate her own story by turning the pages to the story of Philomela and Procne. Philomela had to weave a tapestry to communicate, but Lavinia's attackers had also chopped her hands off, so in place of weaving a tapestry, she uses Ovid's story about the tapestry!!!

Shak famously ate up source material both high and low and incorporated it all into his works, but I find it striking that the Metamorphoses alone (?) turns up in this undigested form--whole, as it were, with its binding still on it like some piece of literary roughage that even Shakespeare's omnivorous guts could not fully break down. Titus Andronicus does not incorporate Ovid so much as embrace him like a peach pit in the belly of a gull, or quartz in the belly of an oyster.

With Ovid in his craw, Shak made quite a few pearls. Ovid provided Shakespeare with source material that turns up in Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, and many other plays, and in fact, according to Bate (p. xlii), "[s]cholars have calculated that about ninety percent of Shakespeare's allusions to classical mythology refer to stories included in this epic compendium of tales [Metamorphoses]." More importantly, however, Ovid provided to Shakespeare not only material but some of his most important themes and methods. It looks to me like Ovid (and his Greek and Roman antecedents), not Montaigne or Shakespeare, is more nearly the inventor of the inward-looking soliloquy. First, Ovid brilliantly portrayed the mind talking to itself in his Heroides, using what Hermann Fränkel calls "thought letters." (Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds, p. 37) Then he developed that technique into totally "Shakespearean" inner debates in the Metamorphoses. Bate again:
[The Heroides] would have helped the student Shakespeare to take his first steps in the art of dramatic impersonation. John Lyly and Christopher Marlowe, the two dramatists who most influenced him when he began writing plays himself, both made extensive use of the Heroides as models for the art of a character's self-examination at moments of emotional crisis--the art, that is to say, of soliloquy. Bate, pp. xli-xlii

Virgil too narrates characters' thoughts, and even their inner debates, such as when the jilted Dido contemplates suicide; repeatedly gods and mortals in The Aeneid 'turn things over in their breasts' as though the heart could buffet with a convoluted motion like that of the sea. But even when Virgil spies on his characters' thoughts, he seems to do so from a more Olympian height. Ovid brings, I think, an unprecedented focus and worldly detailed comprehension to inner life. He's also got a fairly systematic theory of psychological transformation, the like of which I am not aware of in Virgil or Homer or any place, really, besides Shakespeare, who evidently absorbed Ovid's philosophy and applied it in his own work.

Fränkel notes that Ovid's "thought letters" derive their character in part from the suasoria--the rhetoric of persuasion--he had learned while training to be a lawyer or civil servant (as his father wished him to, of course). But according to Fränkel, Ovid puts suasoria to a use that was fairly new to literature. He has the eponymous heroines of the Heroides draft letters to lovers who cannot or will not reply, so that the letters effectively rehearse conversations or arguments inwardly without enacting them. The stakes in each case are only this: love. Fränkel describes a thought letter as
a special kind of letter, the kind which in actual fact we rarely put down on paper and would hardly ever drop in the mailbox. Nevertheless we did carefully prepare that letter in our own mind, silently arguing out the issue with our remote and unwilling partner, perhaps for hours on end; anticipating his objections and thwarting his evasions; and with each repetition we improved on the clarity of our reasoning and the moral force of our appeal, until eventually we had perfected our unwritten letter so as to render it, on its own merits, irresistibly convincing. Unfortunately, we had no means of communicating with the person we were thus addressing; or, if he were to receive such a letter, he would not be greatly impressed, because he was already prejudiced in the matter; or he would not open it, because he was not interested in anything we had to say; or, perhaps, it was not proper for us to tell him how we felt, for tact and shame forbade it. For one or another of these reasons, our letter never materialized; and yet for our own sake we worked it out mentally.

Fränkel, pp. 36-37

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid takes the thought letter one step further. Characters now argue in their heads not with another but with themselves. In Book X, Ovid writes of a girl, Myrrha (namesake for the myrrh tree and mother of Adonis), whose incestuous love for her father torments her. See how "Shakespearean" is her soliloquy?

She indeed is fully aware of her vile passion and fights against it and says within herself [secum inquit (X, 320)], "To what is my purpose tending? What am I planning? O gods, I pray you, and piety and the sacred rights of parents, keep this sin from me and fight off my crime, if indeed it is a crime. But I am not sure, for piety refuses to condemn such love as this. Other animals mate as they will, nor is it thought base for a heifer to endure her sire, nor for his own offspring to be a horse's mate; the goat goes in among the flocks which he has fathered, and the very birds conceive from those from whom they were conceived. Happy they who have such privilege! Human civilization has made spiteful laws and what nature allows, the jealous laws forbid. And yet they say that there are tribes among whom mother and son, daughter with father mates, and natural love is increased by the double bond. Oh wretched me, that it was not my lot to be born there, and that I am thwarted by the mere accident of place! Why do I dwell on such things? Avaunt, lawless desires! Worthy to be loved is he, but as a father.... It is well to go far away, to leave the borders of my native land, if only I may flee from crime; but an evil passion keeps me from going.... But you, while you have not yet sinned in body, do not conceive sin in your heart, and defile not great nature's law with unlawful longing. Grant that you wish it: facts themselves forbid."

X, 319-355

Of the thought letters, Fränkel writes, "The idea of verse epistles of this sort was new, and Ovid felt justly proud of his originality." (Fränkel, pp. 45-46) Ovid accomplished enough to satisfy his grand ambitions, and he ought not to be overshadowed by his genius pupil Shakespeare. In the final poem in his third book of Odes, Horace boasts that his poetry will outlive any physical monument: Exegi monumentum aere perennius. ("I have made a monument more lasting than bronze.") Ovid makes a similar boast at the end of the Metamorphoses:

Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
...perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

And now my work is done, which neither the wrath of Jove, nor fire, nor sword, nor the gnawing tooth of time shall ever be able to undo.... And through all ages in fame, if the prophecies of poets have any truth, I shall live.

XV, 871-872, 878-879

Ironically it's the truths in Ovid's poetry, not his prophecy, that made the prophecy come true.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ovid Part II: Ovid and Science

descriptionBook XV is more than the coda to the Metamorphoses. It too is a transformation. Here at the end of Ovid's poem, he turns from fable to the real historical figure of Julius Caesar so that mythology itself metamorphoses into history. In this same Book, Ovid invites Pythagoras into the narrative as spokesman for the new age, offering a vision of the world that seems to be shedding itself of the old mystic fog even as we read. As Simon Singh tells us in his book on the Big Bang (Big Bang, p. 7), Pythagoras helped initiate the "new rationalist movement" that dawned on the world in the 500s B.C.E. And Ovid shows he's quite alert to the transition into modernity which began with the Greek Enlightenment and continued with the Roman one of his own day; such an awareness explains the sophistication with which Ovid re-invented the old fables as realist studies of the intricacies of emotion and behavior.
Not for a moment, of course, would Ovid take water nymphs and miracles for anything but figments of imagination. We have his own word for it that the transformations of his Metamorphoses are not to be believed (Tristia II, 64).... And yet he gave ancient mythology its unexcelled, final, comprehensive expression. Hermann Fränkel, Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds, p. 89
The human heart and its world unite in Ovid's scientific mind. Both art and science depict change--art through drama, and science through calculus; art the changes that pertain to people's mental introjections, and science the changes that pertain to the mineral world of humanity's origin and habitation.

Numa, the second king of Rome, we are told in Book XV, wishes to know "what is Nature's general law," or quae sit rerum natura (XV, 6), a phrase that echoes the title of Lucretius's great scientific-minded poem De rerum natura. The poem influenced Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, and we can only read it ourselves because Poggio Bracciolini rescued the last remaining copy of De rerum natura from a decrepit monastery in the 15th century. Similar measures were required for the first edition of my physiology textbook.

The main law of Nature, according to Ovid, is caelum et quodcumque sub illo est, inmutat formas, tellusque et quicquid in illa est (XV, 454-455): "the heavens and whatever is beneath the heavens change their forms, the earth and all that is within it."

Throughout the poem, Ovid proves himself an astute observer and thinker about the changing natural world, an ambassador like Lucretius for the enlightened scientific values of the great Epicurus.

For example, he knew the earth is round (two centuries before Ovid’s birth, Eratosthenes, chief librarian at Alexandria, had already correctly measured the diameter and circumference of the earth, moon, and sun as well as the distances between them, Singh pp. 11-20). Ovid furthermore suggests the earth was shaped into an orb, glomeravit in orbis (I, 35), by a cosmological force--today we'd call that gravity. He knew that waves are caused not by Neptune but by wind (I, 36-37). He says that what look like falling stars are actually something else (II, 321-322). In a simile in Book II, he gives a fairly modern account of cancer: utque malum late solet inmedicabile cancer serpere et inlaesas vitiatis addere partes "And, as an incurable cancer spreads its evil roots ever more widely and involves sound with infected parts...." (II, 825-826) When he writes sanguine defectos cecidit conlapsus in artus (V, 96), or "he fell fainting, his limbs all drained of blood," he gives a modern account of syncope that implies the incumbency of consciousness upon blood pressure. He says, quite rightly, that rainbows are caused by sunlight passing through wet air (VI, 63-64). With an appreciation for embryology, he asserts that "in its mother's body an infant gradually assumes human form," or as he puts it, hominis speciem materna sumit ... infans (VII, 125-126). He describes what sounds like a zoonotic plague in Book VII with a sophistication both epidemiological and epistemological; "Since the cause of the disease is hidden," he writes, "the place itself is held to blame" (VII, 576). Always Ovid considers natural first causes, whether known or unknown: a river swells due to snowmelt (VIII, 556-557); snow in turn forms from rain chilled by cold air (IX, 220-222). Further discussion of the elements reflects Ovid's fairly accurate understanding of density and its importance to the phases of matter. (XV, 237-251)

His metaphors and details frequently draw on fine naturalistic observations: of lunar eclipse (IV, 330-332); of sunrays (IV, 347-349); of translucent glass (IV, 355); of eagles and sea anemones preying, and ivy twining (IV, 362-367); of horticultural practices like grafting (IV, 375-376); of bats (IV, 414-415); of rainbows (VI, 61-67) (his metaphor on rainbows, which he calls upon to describe the fineness of Athena and Arachne's work weaving tapestries, expresses an aesthetic appreciation for detailed imitations of nature); of exposed, palpitating entrails, salientia viscera (VI, 390); the way that prey reverse course to evade a predator (VII, 782-784); the way a boar (in this case, Calydonian) whets its tusks on a tree trunk (VIII, 369-370); storm and wreck at sea (XI, 475-572).

As the poem nears its conclusion, these observations yield a prescient theory of geologic and biologic change that begins to sound like the theory of evolution. He discusses erosion (XV, 262-272) and other changes in the landscape and moves on to the metamorphoses that take place in the animal world (XV, 361-390): carcasses breed maggots; flightless larvae become mature airborne insects; tadpoles become frogs; blobby babies grow into well-formed adults; eggs become birds. Sea creatures at one point (XIII, 936-937) come forth onto land in a passage that seems to contain some intuition about that moment in evolutionary history when lungfish learned to walk on tidal mudflats. Perhaps Ovid was influenced by Horace, who wrote:
When living creatures crawled forth upon primeval earth, dumb, shapeless beasts, they fought for their acorns and lairs with nails and fists, then with clubs, and so on step by step with the weapons which need had later forged, until they found words and names wherewith to give meaning to their cries and feelings. Horace, Satires, I, iii, 99ff
One gets the sense that the Roman intelligentsia had an altogether more sophisticated grasp of the world around them than many of the voters who decide elections two millennia later.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ovid Part I: A Delicious Fränkelburger

descriptionThe middle of summer -- July -- if you walk west on Montague Street toward the harbor at around 6:30 in the evening, carrying your bag of black plums, the water is a gigantic cauldron of fire that sets upon every head a backlighting halo. It's like something out of On Golden Pond except that it smells like garbage and there's dogshit all over the sidewalk. You see more fire dripping from a top floor air conditioner and exploding on the awning of an Italian restaurant like ore dripping from a smelter. You see girls with bare arms and bare legs. Up, down, and sideways, you see boobs boobs boobs.

Ah, summer! "For there is no hardier time than this," Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses, "none more abounding in rich, warm life." Bk XV, ll. 207-208.

In August you drive to the beach with the windows down and the "where do we go now" part of "Sweet Child o' Mine" breaking down on the car stereo at an almost painful volume, and you have a vanilla ice cream cone in each hand and are driving with your knee (not really, I can't digest milk, but you get the idea), and you're watching the girls with their bikinis and their cover-ups, and you're thinking to yourself, "If Norman Mailer was here, I would karate chop him in the neck" and you don't even pity Slash for being less of a bad-ass than you are. And your boys are in the back seat in their bare feet, without their seatbelts on and you don't even care.

Or maybe you ride a bike and you have no urge to karate chop Norman Mailer. Anyway, I am more bad-ass than Slash because, in addition to sometimes not forcing my shoeless kids into their seatbelts, I read Ovid's Metamorphoses this summer, as well as Hermann Fränkel's magnificent Sather Lectures on Ovid, given at Berkeley 65 or 70 years ago.

Frankel calls Ovid "a poet between two worlds," because in many ways he is the first truly modern writer--a writer with an enlightened, scientific, expressly psychological worldview--even more so than his great predecessor Virgil:
[H]e was leaving behind him Antiquity as we know it and traveling on the path to a new age of mankind.... [H]e candidly voiced his experiences in the same modern spirit in which he lived through them, ignoring established traditions and the code of wary discretion. Fränkel, p. 23.

Ovid's reputation has suffered under the general hailstorm of postmodernism raining down on the classics, but he's suffered much more undervaluation than Homer and Virgil ever have, in part because he's been misconstrued as a mere anthologist of old myths and been outshone by the many artists whose careers he shaped and in the first place made possible. However, he is no Joseph Campbell. On the contrary, Ovid reinvented old myths in a great tapestry of modern art, and his particular artistry and modernity probably have much to do with later artists' fascination with his work. As Fränkel says, "the poet has turned a primitive fiction into a symbol for a substantial truth." (p. 78)

For having done so, the greatest of later poets took Ovid as their master. John Frederick Nims tells us, "Goethe probably knew Ovid better than he knew any other poet. So, we suspect, did Dante.... So too did Shakespeare. One wonders if any other poet can claim so many devoted followers among the great?" (Introduction to the Arthur Golding translation, p. xix) Ovid's "metamorphoses"--transformations that sometimes punish and reflect crimes--provided to Dante the contrapasso method that's the chassis for the Inferno. Ovid not only influenced Shakespeare but invented the inward-looking soliloquy for him. Though he doesn't appear in Henri Ellenberger's comprehensive history of the unconscious and though Freud barely refers to him, Ovid is probably the first and most influential commentator on unconscious ideation. In its psychologically sophisticated fantasy, his work draws closer to modern magical realism than anything else in the ancient world, a fact which may be reflected in Kafka's conspicuously Ovidean title, The Metamorphosis. John Donne's famous poem "The Sun Rising," which Carol Rumens calls "one of the most joyous love poems ever written" is very clearly influenced by Ovid's elegy "The Dawn." Renaissance painters used the Metamorphoses like they did the Bible, and in fact, knowing Ovid through his autobiographical works (like Ex Ponto and Tristia, almost unique in the ancient world) is equivalent to knowing the human authors of the Bible.

My edition of Fränkel's Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds is literally stained with summer delight; it has a faint discoloration on its green cloth binding from where a delicious Prime Meats hamburger exploded on it. (I have since sterilized the spot so you can't get E. coli from reading about Ovid.) The book has a stamp on the bottom that says "Niagara University Library" and the card catalog stamps say it was taken out 4 times between 1970 and 1981. Now this particular copy has been taken out for the last time, by me. It is a grand gateway into Ovid, who was arguably the father of modern literature. This is the first of several blogs celebrating Ovid, this life-affirming poet, in this livingest of seasons--summer.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

C Is for Contradiction in Hebron

Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in IsraelCompany C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel by Haim Watzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Haim Watzman’s memoir of his years in reserve Company C of the Israeli infantry is a fine work of microscopy on the granulomatous sore of our modern-day Hundred Years War—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With prose that’s both poetic and journalistically economical, Watzman chronicles the larger conflict by looking closely at the small patch of it he’s seen up close in his company and on his patrols. He gives the vivid sense of place and physical materials that characterizes the best narrative journalism (and the best accounts of Israel). Yet the book is less a war story than an Augustine-like self-inquiry. Watzman is a man of contradictions: an American emigrant to Israel trying to balance the “western humanism” of his secular background with the orthodox Judaism he adopted; a self-described klutz who’s also a fitness fanatic and rugged soldier; a soldier devoted to his reserve unit’s details in the occupied territories and a citizen opposed to the West Bank settlements.

The “West Bank” is itself a contradiction in terms—being that butterfly wing of land east of Israel proper, but so named for its position west of the Jordan River. There the Tomb of the Patriarchs lies, according to Judaeo-Christian tradition, amidst millions of modern Palestinian Arabs. This contradiction encysted in Israel’s left flank has inflamed a paradox inherent to democracy, which Winston Churchill famously described as the worst form of government except for all the others. It’s probably the sanest, most fair and rational form of government, but it’s also vulnerable to abuse by particularly loud, shrill, or demagogical voices, even when those voices are wayward and irrational minorities without their own respect for democracy. Governments like the old Mubarak regime in Egypt abjured democracy in part to resist such extremist influences. Israel, meanwhile, cannot seem to overrule its loudest and most doctrinaire voices, and history’s bad examples trail behind like buzzards—Periclean Athens, which devolved into the chaos of the Peloponnesian War, and the Roman Republic which devolved into that doomed, annoying empire. The poets fall silent shortly thereafter.

The American democracy feels a bit frayed by demagoguery in much the same way, but the stakes are always higher in Israel, which arose and remains in the mouth of its enemies. Furthermore, Israeli democracy bears the burden of sentiments particular to Jewish history. Lengthy exile as a persecuted minority has called us Jews together like a family. The Holocaust has excited an indwelling fear of extinction beyond any reasonable proportion. When I visited Israel in 1988, just after the first Intifada began, I heard the baying of the wolves outside the family circle and the answering call of my people. I felt the magnetism of Jerusalem’s stones, worn with ancient footsteps and impregnated with the blood and romance of the ages. For a Jew, there is no more romantic place on earth.

Israel’s founding father David ben Gurion told Shimon Peres that Israel was a family—and a family feeling of ‘us and them’ probably animates all patriotism on some level. Yet patriotism is a slippery slope to unsavory modes of civic being, to war with ‘enemies’ without, to oppression of minorities within, to rigid orthodoxies of who and how that directly contravene the core values of democracy. The settlements in the West Bank are absurd by most calculations, but Palestinian terrorism against innocents--and the many cases of unrepentant apologism for it among Palestinians--only inflames the patriotic paranoia and rigidity that sustains the occupation. Thus the Hundred Years War and one of history’s most painful granulomata.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

More on the Imperfect Science of the Heart

New Introductory Lectures on PsychoanalysisNew Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every modern, educated person should read this book's predecessor, the (old) Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. For those interested in learning still more about psychoanalysis, the New Introductory Lectures are also vital. The latter work reflects clarifications in Freud's thinking since the original lectures given from 1915 to 1917 at the University of Vienna.

His daughter Anna Freud's book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense is also a very clear, very helpful and common sensical treatment of the subject of psychological defenses--i.e., the varieties of ways the mind lies to itself to protect itself from painful feelings and ideas.

There is at least one chapter in the New Introductory Lectures that is completely bizarre--Freud at his most cavalier and speculative, bordering on ridiculous--and it will do little to dispel the common canard that psychoanalysis is a "pseudo-science." It suffices to say that Freud wasn't perfect. But many great scientists make mistakes or fall prey to ideology; Einstein did (see this article, "The Master's Mistakes" from Discover Magazine); Linus Pauling, one of two people ever to win a Nobel prize in two different areas (Chemistry and Peace), had fairly lunatic ideas about vitamin C; and Isaac Newton wasted a lot of time in foolish speculations about alchemy. But we don't throw out what Einstein and Newton had right and we shouldn't throw out what Freud had right, which is about as revolutionary and beautiful as either of those physicists. Freud's works ought to be read like any other thinker's, not like orthodox readings of a Bible--that is, readers have no reason to try to retrofit reality to correspond with his scriptural errors--and just the same readers have no reason to dump the baby with the bathwater.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012


GrendelGrendel by John Gardner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant, savage satire of existentialism and postmodernism. Gardner wrote against his times and hated other famous writers publicly (see for yourself here), and one ought to admire him for his iconoclasm. He was an uncommon man with real balls. To understand Grendel it's necessary to know of Gardner's disdain for what he called the "winking, mugging despair" of a writer like Thomas Pynchon. What a thing--to reimagine the monster Grendel, to imagine archetypal evil, as a sophomoric whinging nihilist philosophy major. Conversely, Gardner depicts Beowulf more or less without irony--he trusts in old notions of heroism as Yeats did and so Beowulf is the real deal, and the most heroic thing about him is that he means what he says and his words effect deeds in the real world on behalf of human dreams.

Grendel is funny and intermittently moving but it suffers from a certain coldness; there are limits to Gardner's sympathy for his protagonist, so we have a book like Madame Bovary about someone the author himself dislikes. The belated retelling of old myth--not modernist allusion but postmodern 'retelling'--reflects this compromise with the enemy. It becomes what it hates to a degree. Gardner's prose too is polished cold and smooth. We watch humanity from the uncivilized darkness with Grendel and appreciate the brilliance of the Shaper's words without being able to feel much of his joy.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back at Library Budget Cuts

descriptionLast Sunday morning a little before 9 o'clock, my wife and kids and I trooped up the front steps of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. As Hemingway would say, "It was hot." It was also so humid, the sun seemed to float in the air and it felt like you could have swum up the steps to the library. It's a beautiful Art Deco building that looks a little like the Superfriends' Hall of Justice. ("... Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, Zan and Jana battle the budget cuts by turning into a lion and a rifle made of ice.")

I was there for my 15-minute slot during the 24-Hour Read-In in support of the New York City public libraries. Sunday morning was devoted to kids' story time and for that reason, the organizer had judiciously asked that I refrain from showing up high or drunk and that I not read any porn. "Of course," I said, quickly shoving my crack pipe and latest issue of Hustler into my desk drawer. I told him how my elementary school librarian made me sit on the other side of the card catalog from the rest of the class for a month for talking, but that was the last time I had caused any trouble at a library.

Babe the Blue OxI strolled around. A bronze screen, bearing bright gold figures from American literature, towered high above the front gate of the library. There were proof copies of kids' books available for free and I picked out some for my kids--and my older one actually started to read one of the books with great interest, and my younger one actually listened to the other readers reading kids' stories! At right is Babe the Blue Ox from the Legend of Paul Bunyan.

I chose to read from Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein. There were only five kids there, including my own, when I read, so you could say my 15-minutes were not exactly of fame--though I did have a microphone. When I introduced the book, I told the kids I wrote it. The story is about a young, naive lion who encounters a hunter and tries to make friends but is rebuffed. ('You don't have to shoot me to make me into a rug,' he says, 'I'll just lie on the floor.') The hunter says that's not very lionlike and prepares to shoot Lafcadio. Lafcadio decides to eat the hunter after all, takes his gun, practices with it, and when he runs out of ammo, he eats more hunters. He becomes a celebrity among the other lions and eventually a world-class sharpshooter. I looked up at this point and realized this was not a very "Park Slope" sort of story. I quickly reminded the parents of the kids that I didn't really write it, Natty Bumppothat was just a joke. Lafcadio then joins the circus, becomes world-famous, develops the sort of ennui I imagine Shel Silverstein felt after too many parties at the Playboy Mansion, and goes back to the jungle, unsure whether he's a man or a lion. That is Natty Bumppo over there on the left.

Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot BackThere's no one quite like Shel Silverstein. He's hilarious and yet there's something literary and unfrivolous deep in the grain of his work, even his funniest and most joyous work--something faintly wounded, debauched, not quite settled, something prodding him forward a little ways across the normally observed boundaries. You can see it in the irisless eyes of his illustrations, those minuscule zeroes ellipsed with ellipses and unable to look back at you. There's an obstinately missing piece.... But that's part of what I love in the urbane, unsettled, honest, restless poetry and prose of Shel Silverstein.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

King of Daydreams

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apparently, the entire Stephen King industry was spawned by a daydream about naked teenage girls in the shower, pelting another girl with tampons. And there's a great lesson in that: a creative writer can't censor himself--more than that, he has to pay close attention to his own imaginings and memories without shame, has to go beyond that and take those imaginings and memories seriously as the possible basis for an entire novel. Stephen King's slightly perverse little daydream turned out to be worth several hundred million dollars. Daydreams about naked girls: there's gold in them thar hills. But writers of every stripe, not only commercially oriented ones, should check this book out.

"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing," says Stephen King. True dat. A practical, unpretentious, useful guide to writing and a well-written, entertaining, sometimes moving memoir of the writing life all-in-one. It includes one of the best accounts around of a writer's imaginative process, illustrated with a fantastic case study of how King came up with the idea for his first novel, Carrie. (It involves aforementioned naked girls and tampons.)

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Epiphany in Dubliners

Dubliners: Text and Criticism (Viking Critical Library)Dubliners: Text and Criticism by James Joyce

Dubliners was James Joyce's first book, and it's his most accessible, and possibly his most influential. The critic A. Walton Litz called Dubliners “a turning point in the development of English fiction.” Marc Wollaeger, editor of the Oxford Casebook on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, writes that “Dubliners … virtually invented the modern short story.”

I don't know if Joyce invented the modern short story, but I can see pretty much everywhere in contemporary fiction the influence of Dubliners, of its Shakespearean / Chekhovian trope of self-discovery affixed with a technique of beautiful naturalistic symbolism--the blend of ancient artistic modes which Joyce called "epiphany." Joyce's writing style in Dubliners has more in common with Hemingway than it does with Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner (and Hemingway's best short stories clearly reflect Joyce's influence), but the characters in Dubliners are generally somewhat warmer and more vulnerable than Hemingway characters and Joyce depicts men and women with equal grace.

Brewster Ghiselin said in 1956 that the stories are organized according to the seven Christian virtues and the seven deadly sins, with each of the first fourteen stories assigned to a virtue or sin and the fifteenth story, the masterpiece "The Dead," thrown in for a delicious baker's dozen of tales of inner torment. I think it's obvious that Joyce did use that structure, though he turns vice and virtue on its head in the manner of Henrik Ibsen as he attacks the damaging institutions of psychological paralysis and self-mortification.

"The Sisters," the first story in this collection and the one that formally introduces the topic of psychological paralysis, is my personal favorite, but the two most famous stories, "Araby" and "The Dead," deserve all the praise they get.

I like the Viking Critical Library edition, at least the one that was published in 1976; the essays in the back are unusually helpful.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tolstoy, Brontë, Loss

Childhood; Boyhood; YouthChildhood; Boyhood; Youth by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Leo Tolstoy was two, his mother died; when he was eight, his father died; and he writes movingly of a child mourning the death of both mother and father in his first novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. It's one of the few novels that addresses the subject of childhood loss directly and realistically. The theme would echo throughout Tolstoy's later works. Marya Bolkonski in War and Peace borrows her name from Tolstoy's dead mother (which was identical except that her maiden name started with a V not a B). Some of the most magnificent and moving parts of War and Peace depict the death of loved ones. For example, Tolstoy describes Princess Marya like this at the moment she realizes her father is dying: “[S]he saw that hanging over her and about to crush her was some terrible misfortune, the worst in life, one she had not yet experienced, irreparable and incomprehensible—the death of one she loved.” (W&P, p. 346) Poet Carol Rumens suspects that Emily Brontë, like Michelangelo, used her longing for her dead mother as inspiration for her depiction of the divine: "By giving such importance to the terms 'creates and rears,' " Rumens writes of the Brontë's poem 'No Coward Soul Is Mine,' "the poet suggests her deity is maternal as well as fatherly, enfolding, perhaps, the qualities of the mother she had lost in early childhood.... So closely acquainted with death and loss, Emily Brontё can be almost terrifyingly on the side of life." Much the same could be said of Tolstoy.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pinkwater's Blue Moose

Blue MooseBlue Moose by Manus Pinkwater

" 'Dave is very shy,' the moose said. 'He would appreciate it if you didn't say anything to him until he knows you better, maybe in ten or fifteen years. He knows about your gingerbread and he would like to try it.' While the moose spoke, Dave blushed very red, and tried to cover his face with the owl, which fluttered and squawked."

This is a telling of that timeless old story of a man who owns a restaurant in the woods, serves clam chowder to a moose, and inspires the moose to volunteer as his head waiter. The man is named "Mr. Breton"--Andre, perhaps?

Daniel Pinkwater has a wonderfully unique and funny style that's at once absurd and deadpan (as my wife says of the moose, and that's exactly what he is, a deadpan moose--and if you think about it, if a moose were to have a sense of humor, it would have to be deadpan, wouldn't it?). Even his name, Daniel Pinkwater, has a deadpan absurdity about it. Others have tried to pull off what Pinkwater does with lesser results, and Pinkwater himself can be a little uneven, occasionally following creative freedom into a cul-de-sac. But generally speaking, he's inspired. I remember him well and fondly. He writes for a range of ages; this title works for kids as little as 3 or 4, but is probably more completely appreciated once you're at least 6 or 8.

"The next night Dave was back, and this time he had a whistle made out of a turkey bone in his hat." You could see that coming.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Faulkner the World-Builder

Absalom, Absalom!Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Biographer David Minter relays a fitting anecdote about Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, when Faulkner was less than ten years old. Young William and his grandmother, who he called “Damuddy,” liked to build “miniature villages in the family’s front yard,” Minter writes, “using sticks, grass, stones, and glass.” As an adult, Faulkner carried on building imaginary worlds: he invented a fictional Mississippi county named Yoknapatawpha, a hand-drawn map of which appears in the back of Absalom, Absalom, and he wrote many novels detailing the interwoven family histories of its inhabitants, the Sutpens, the Compsons, the Sartorises, and others. You sense the childlike pleasure of creation in this adult project when you notice that the grown-up Faulkner has written on the map: “Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor.”

Faulkner thinks like God, in about as much detail as God, and his goal is to create a second universe standing aside our own, as persuasively real, complex, and unyielding, but more saturated with meaning and beauty. Through characters embedded in this second reality as we are in ours, he recreates subtilitas naturae (“the subtlety of nature”), nature’s intricacy, its fineness of shade and texture, the baroque complexity of forms and change found in nature and in the way our own natures observe, absorb, record, and even add to this complexity.

Conrad Aiken praised Faulkner’s “sheer inexhaustible fecundity” (quoted in Robert Alter’s illuminating chapter on Absalom, Absalom! in his 2010 book Pen of Iron, p. 84). Alter adds that Faulkner has two nearly opposite stylistic modes at his disposal: the “labyrinthine-poetic” and the “pungently vernacular.” (p. 83) From the beginning Faulkner was also hugely ambitious; he once said his collegiate poetry suffered because “he had one eye on the ball and the other eye on Babe Ruth.” (Minter, p. 37) All these attributes enabled Faulkner to assemble an oeuvre that on the whole recreates the world and its characters with more breadth and depth than any oeuvre since Shakespeare’s, and Absalom, Absalom! may be his most world-like novel unto itself. Alter calls it “arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, as Moby Dick is of the nineteenth century.” (p. 79) Cleanth Brooks called it the greatest Faulkner novel—and the “least well understood.” (Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County, p. 295) “Admittedly,” Brooks wrote, “the novel is a difficult one, but the difficulty is not forced and factitious. It is the price that has to be paid by the reader for the novel’s power and significance.” (p. 324)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said Faulkner “walks blindly through his biblical universe, like a herd of goats loosed in a shop full of crystal.” (Marquez, NYT, July 26 1981). There is after all a 23-page parenthesis in Absalom, Absalom (from p. 152 to p. 175), and there are many pages in the book where a reader confronts paired rectangles of opaque, unindented, and under-punctuated text. There’s also a funny self-conscious scene on p. 225 where chief narrator Quentin Compson’s roommate Shreve criticizes Quentin’s storytelling, but Faulkner tells us that “Quentin did not even stop. He did not even falter, taking Shreve up in stride without comma or colon or paragraph....”

There is a certain sure-handedness, however, to this jungle of narrative. The characters stand fixed as Kapok trees in this jungle. That’s because Faulkner's modernist cubist obscurity, like Joyce’s, serves to represent the aforementioned complexity of the universe and the self, not postmodern, gnostic uncertainties. I’d add that if Faulkner is messy, he’s messy in a distinctly Shakespearean way. Like Shak, he creates “a cloud of alternative or overdetermining explanations round his figures” that imply a reality so complex it can only be approximated in words (as A.D. Nuttall says of the Shakespearean trope “variatio,” Nuttall, A New Mimesis, p. 180). You might say that where Hemingway persuades by punching you in the ribs, Absalom, Absalom! attacks you like a thinking ape, it pins your wrists and ankles and licks your forehead all at once until you cry, “I believe!”

It took me over two years of fits and starts to read this greatest of modernist American novels, and my paperback’s scratches, white flames of wear at the spine, stray pen marks, and water damage are together like a photogravure recording the many abuses it’s been subjected to. This is somehow fitting for a book whose lofty goal seems to be to crawl into the belly of human history and feel it digest time.

The chaos Marquez noted reflects the disordered experience of time through memory, experience that Faulkner nicely captures with the objective correlative of “a big flat river that sometimes showed no current at all and even sometimes ran backward” (p. 184). Robert Alter sees the book as a dialectic between two time-obsessed books of the Hebrew Bible—2 Samuel (featuring Absalom) on one hand, which values aspiration even when catastrophe endangers dynasty, and on the other, the despairing book of Ecclesiastes, which disavows progress with its sense of futility and eternal repetition.

This dialectic of attitudes to progress unfolds on the scale of family drama—between the unforgettable Thomas Sutpen, ambitious yet without vanity, and his son, the disinherited Charles Bon, worldly yet naïve, confident yet in need of a father. (As Quentin Compson speculates on p. 222, “a man never outlives his father.”) And it also unfolds on a national scale. Faulkner’s South has fallen because it lost the Civil War, but also because of its sins. Slavery is the original sin in the historic memory of the South, the sin that disorganizes the mind, a self-inflicted wound that anchors the mind among the mysteries of the past. There, the War never ends but is always ending at a gallop with “the shot-torn flags rushing down a sky in color like thunder” (p. 231).

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sea Changes

Richard III Richard III by William Shakespeare

Richard III was Shakespeare's first great play, and it casts its touchstones across his oeuvre all the way into the forms of his last great play, The Tempest. Seas, storms, and a misbegotten devil are the ensigns that bookend the greatest literary oeuvre of all time like components of a recurring dream.

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

The deformed body of Richard, a "bunch-backed toad," "rudely stamped" by nature, reminds me more than a little of The Tempest's deformed Caliban, the "freckled whelp, hag-born" to a storm-wracked island. And what else should the toad Richard speak of in the play's first lines but sea and storm? Furthermore, the references to the sea in Richard III do not stop there.

In Act I scene iv of Richard III, Shakespeare delivers one of his most beautiful set pieces--the Duke of Clarence's dream of the bottom of the sea, which seems to be a virtual first draft of Ariel's song in The Tempest. Both use naturalistic description to convey the splendor of the physical world and simultaneously to represent the geography of human thought and feeling in symbolic form. Here is the imprisoned Duke of Clarence telling his keeper the dream in the Tower of London shortly before his brother Richard has him murdered:

Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;

Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:

Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,

As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,

Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,

And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

And here is Ariel singing in The Tempest.

Full fathom five they father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

In both plays, the treasures and the horrors that lie at the bottom of the sea--"the secrets of the deep," as Clarence's keeper Brakenbury puts it in Act I scene iv--are psychological treasures, psychological horrors; they are secret thoughts. Richard says so directly in Act I scene i: "Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes." Later, in Act III scene iv, Lord Hastings denies knowledge of Richard's hidden motives with a nautical analogy: "I have not sounded him." In Act IV scene ii Richard refers to a councilor he suspects of treason as "deep-revolving, witty Buckingham"--as if a person were an ocean. The burial of things rich and strange in the sea, Shakespeare suggests, mirrors the burial of rich and strange feelings in our hearts that we would not show to others, or in some cases would not show even to ourselves.

Similarly, the strange transformations and unfamiliar forms under the sea mirror the metamorphoses of feeling underneath our social exteriors. Ovid's Metamorphoses--from which Shakespeare quotes directly in The Tempest--were the clear inspiration for Shakespeare's interest in transformation; but Shakespeare treats metamorphosis as an explicitly psychological phenomenon. Literal metamorphoses (like "sea change") only represent psychology. Like fish, wishes and fears enter that shadowy, aquatic simulacrum of the outer world that we keep in our heads and they go to work on it--they change it. The mind (and the tongue) change a winter of discontent into glorious summer and bury louring clouds in secret depths. In Act I scene iii, Queen Margaret observes how the mind may even turn self-hate outward, into hate:

What were you snarling all before I came,

Ready to catch each other by the throat,

And turn you all your hatred now on me?

Conversely, hate and sorrow turn to self-hate in the metamorphic waters of the mind. In Act II scene ii, after King Edward IV dies (apparently of guilt--he allowed the death of his brother Clarence), Queen Margaret says: "I'll join with black despair against my soul,
 / And to myself become an enemy." And in Act II scene iv, the Duchess of York comments that her sons "Make war upon themselves; blood against blood,
 / Self against self...."

It is the conscience that directs these oscillating reversals of hate and self-hate like a conductor with a baton. And this is where the deformed imp enters the metamorphic seascape.

In the first place, Richard III and Caliban are caricatures like those in moralizing political cartoons. They are drawn as fanged animals, literally. In accord with Thomas More's famous account of the historical Richard III, Richard's fellow characters make much of his having been born with teeth. Hallett Smith meanwhile observes that the name 'Caliban' derives, by way of anagram, from 'cannibal'.

And everywhere in Richard III Shakespeare depicts conscience as a mouth that not only bites the self but tells distorting stories to the self, about the self, on behalf of shame and guilt.

In Act V scene iii, in the most moving soliloquy on guilt in all Shakespeare to my mind, Richard tongue-lashes himself with painful cycles of self-recrimination:

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.

This dark confrontation with conscience brings to fruition Queen Margaret's curse from Act I:

The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,

And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!

The many-tongued conscience gnaws on men as the fishes gnawed on men in Clarence's dream, and as it gnaws it transforms. (J.R.R. Tolkien plainly borrows his treasonous councilor Wormtongue from Richard III.) The wormtongue of conscience creates paranoid distortions and inspires this fantastic riff on conscience from Clarence's Second Murderer:

I’ll not meddle with it: it is a dangerous thing: it makes a man a coward: a man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; he cannot swear, but it cheques him; he cannot lie with his neighbour’s wife, but it detects him: ’tis a blushing shamefast spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom; it fills one full of obstacles: it made me once restore a purse of gold that I found; it beggars any man that keeps it: it is turned out of all towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and to live without it.

For the rest of his career Shakespeare thought hard on the wily ways of this mental faculty so near to the pulse of human identity and imagination. In later plays he ventured so far along the path of realism as to show figures like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet who mutinied against themselves even without having stolen or cheated. By the end of his life's work, he had in mind a character who had mastered the inner cannibals of desire and conscience and their sea changes--a magician named Prospero whose imagination responded to his command and not the other way around. Prospero is a man of subtle power like Shakespeare himself, who wielded a quill like a wand with phoenix feathers.

Yet Prospero's final words are, like Puck's, an entreaty for forgiveness. The couplet at the end of Shakespeare's long and glorious career reads: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free."

What was Shakespeare's crime, I wonder? What could it have been except a life of art, a life spent in London perhaps, away from his family in Stratford? Power, even "good" power, makes people nervous. And Shakespeare attained a conjuror's imperial power over the knowledge, imagination, and expression that course through the written word.