Monday, April 19, 2010

"All the Subtle Demonisms of Life and Thought"

I wish to elaborate on some lines which I began tracing in the previous chapter.

It occurs to me that in noting some of the psychological reasons for the friction which eventually developed between me, Booth, and Augustys, I neglected the supernatural entirely. Lately I feel I’ve acquired from the Holy Spirit a certain measure of understanding on the nature of subtle, insidious demonic influences—what Carl Jung called “autonomous complexes,” by which he appears to have meant transpersonal entities acting on the psyche (“devils” or “demons,” in the common tongue). I’ve been continuously picturing knots for several days now. When you start feeding on an obsession, be it lust or rage or bitterness or excess of sorrow, it’s as though you’re chewing on things which aren’t entirely digestible. Your spirit wasn’t created to sustain within itself the noxious fruits of sin. But over time, as appetite increases, that evil begins to accumulate. It builds inside of you in knots. In the way that a cat, when in the act of cleaning itself, will swallow incidental bits of fur, so sin accumulates; and, if unchecked, the end result will be the same. Sin is a knot that grows with morbid pace, and often undetected haste.

Yes, that’s close to the feeling of what it is I’m trying to express. I’m finding that sometimes the easiest, most thorough way of understanding sin is watching it within yourself, though it makes you something like a specimen beneath a microscope—yourself the student and the subject! If you pour enough grease into a sink, it eventually coagulates and clogs the drain. We can take, for a useful example, the dream about Cassie which I had last week. In this dream (amid several other surprising events), I dated a girl who was wispy, clingy, ghostly, airy, insecure, and half-idiotic. The girl represents what some (myself included) would label a spirit; others (myself included) a psychological complex of sin. Practically and functionally, the truth is that I gave lenience to particular sins in the past (and sometimes even to the present day); yet in praying about it God showed me that the path to deliverance wasn’t exorcism, but sustained pursuit of holiness. So is it demonic? There’s certainly a greater capacity for interference by transpersonal forces; I’ve opened what many Christians call a “window” (or a “door”) to the workings of evil; yet the way to dispelling the complex is untangling the knot—in other words, making conscious decisions every day to follow righteousness. And doing so has banished it almost entirely (for the time, at least), in the space of only a few days.

Thus the simple wisdom of James begins to make profound sense: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

Shakespeare actually wrote about this in Hamlet—in a passage blazing with inspiration and holiness, as in most of the play—though the metaphors are different:

Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whiles rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what’s past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker…

O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!

O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half!
Good night: but go not to mine uncle’s bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise puts a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
And either [master] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

I felt something just now in the act of reading over everything I’ve written to this point in the present entry. Surprisingly, it’s not a feeling that I feel with regularity. I was struck by the seeming anachronism of the juxtaposition between my psychological descriptions of the spiritual processes at work in myself, and my (relatively cautious) understanding of demonic power; between the earnest, unquestioning citation of a verse in the New Testament of the Bible, in one paragraph, and the immediate transition to Hamlet, in the next—with the inevitable allusion to Jungian theory.

I feel that this kind of combination isn’t very common in Christian America: Those from the relatively orthodox denominations (evangelicals and, increasingly, Charismatics) have pursued their faith with such ferocious, combative tenacity that they haven’t developed a lot of understanding in what we would normally consider the “extra-religious” realms, with the possible exception of politics. Our reaction to the cesspool of immorality which constitutes so much of modern culture has been to barricade the culture out, but what have we brought in? I haven’t seen this argued in very many places, but I would guess that one of the primary reasons why there’s such a dearth of heritage in the modern American evangelical community is because we’ve been continuously embattled for a generation. The American Pageant quotes John Adams as saying, “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain” (from a letter to his wife, dated 1780).

Not that this is the only reason: Much of it, I feel, is either sin or ignorance. That’s a strong claim, but I make it in the memory of what I endured at [Nameless Bible Institute], during what Bethany called my “Siberian exile,” and what I saw of the state of learning at what I had believed to be one of the foremost evangelical graduate schools in the nation. The professors there appear to have been under the delusion that Christianity didn’t begin until around 1950; in all my classes, we were never assigned to read a book written earlier than that (and several of my assigned texts had been written by the professors themselves). So it tears at my heart, not only that the average devoted, zealous Christian has so very little concept of the history and literature of the world, which in many cases he already views as irredeemably evil, but he isn’t even being taught the history of his own faith. Oh, I could forgive the generation of my peers their single-minded study of religion, if it meant that they were really learning it; but in many respects they aren’t. In this I indict myself along with everyone else. We know more about Creationism than the Council of Nicaea, more about the pre-Tribulation Rapture than we do about Polycarp. And we’ve never even heard of Dante! Lately whenever I reference the Comedy, I have to preface the allusion with a lot of elaborate explanations about how there was a man in the middle ages who wrote a long poem about heaven and hell, etc… (having to leave out any mention of Purgatory, of course, as Papal nonsense). Dante is possibly the greatest, and was, at one point, the most famous poet in all Christendom. So not only do we as a body not know history or literature, etc., etc., but we don’t even really know Christianity. I believe that the Christian culture in this country is embattled, but at least from my own experience it seems their preferred method of fighting is to ignore the whole history of warfare, and to focus their attention on inventing completely new weapons made out of straw.

I can see how a person might receive the impression, from reading over everything I’ve written so far, that my purpose is for Christians to acquire an astonishing and (to their enemies) intimidating superflux of knowledge. Well, this is definitely MY aim, but to limit it thus would be missing the point. There’s nothing which the modern world possesses in greater abundance than knowledge, and nothing to which it puts more scattershot, destructive, undiscerning use. The things we need are simple curiosity, coupled with a sense of wonder, and an understanding of God which surpasses the bounds of religion to find Him in every good thing.

And what I finally began to see in my own writing (though of course I’ve witnessed it developing and taking root in other mediums as well, particularly in the modest, but significant, Christian intellectual and artistic flowering of the last decade) is a millenarian, fundamentalist Christianity which seemed not even a little out of place in the context of the whole philosophical and literary history of the culture which it helped to create. It shouldn’t feel out of place, at all, and that’s my point. The Bible, even now, is ahead of our time; as Chesterton said, in another context, “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” The great things of history, the things which we as a generation, Christian and non-Christian alike, have so callously disregarded, are the fruits on the tree of a spiritual history and a spiritual heritage which Christians are no longer willing to claim, and non-Christians are no longer willing to acknowledge. It is impossible to imagine the last 2,000 years in Western painting, sculpture, literature, philosophy, architecture, or any other of a dozen areas without Jesus. Yet we as the body of Christ have done so; as if we could burn down the first floor of a house because we liked the second better. At the end of the day, all we’re left with is ashes, and the scorn of the nattering multitudes.

Ashes and scorn—this is our cultural inheritance. Brethren, these things ought not so to be.

Yet it goes even beyond that; this is a far bigger issue than just cultural literacy, though that’s important, too. The thing that gets me about it, more than any other practical or even theological consideration, is that it maligns the character of God and makes Him only vaguely, coldly knowable. The most prominent symptom, and most injurious result, of an over-attachment to religion, as opposed to the person of Jesus, is an inability to conceive of God in anything but narrowly-confined religious terms. Thou all-creating, everlasting, and transcendent God! Chiefly known to us through Thy Son, and by His cross—Thou madest all things, and for Thy sake they are and were created. Thy way is in the whirlwind and the storm—in the fox and the flower—on stage and on screen! There is no place so dark that is not lit with some spark of Your radiance. And Your kingdom will cover the earth—not merely with laws and proscriptions—but in every conceivable way.

That is the revelation burning in my spirit which, more than any other revelation, with one significant exception, I feel called and bound by love to release upon our generation. Until we can see God and learn of Him, with Spirit-directed understanding, no less readily through a tulip or a tiger than a testimony, no less deeply through an actual examination of the seas, than through a fruitless and unevolving debate about their age and origins—until we have, if not the ability, than at least the willingness, to see as the work of His hands the witness of George Wishart (1513-1546) or Latimer & Ridley (d. October 1555), no less than the men and women who initiated and carried the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1915); until we can recognize His Spirit peering out at us, as from behind a veil, through the faces sketched by Rembrandt and Van Gogh; until we come to view the world and its possessions as gloriously alive with His presence, for ever and ever, the inheritance of saints, we have not yet fully grasped the heart of that universal law laid down by the Psalmist and the prophets, even in the centuries of pre-incarnate darkness: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” “The whole earth is full of His glory.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Newton's Laws of Motion

What does the work of an economist tell us, not about the financial transactions, but the souls of men? What would a “shifting comparative advantage” look like when shifted, so to speak, to the realm of the spirit? These are the questions we must ever have in view. For example, in one of the key scenes in The Count of Monte Cristo, the old priest in the prison is teaching Edmond Dantes economics and science. He strikes two stones, one against the other, and says, “For every reaction, there is an equal reaction, in physics—and in life…” to which Edmond concludes, “My quest for vengeance is a reaction against the evils committed by Mondago and Danglars.”

“Precisely,” says the priest.

That was the exact realization which I had myself yesterday when I was reading about the flowering of the Scientific Revolution in The Age of Louis XIV. Actually I had the revelation several days ago, in regards to the nature of pride, but hadn’t yet made the connection to the laws of science, till my studying suggested it. My revelation ran thus: The nature of pride is to oppose itself in others; so that two prides are ever striking against one another, like the clashing rocks that at one point threatened to destroy Odysseus (the Symplagledes, I think they were called).

This is how it works: Let’s imagine that I’ve developed, for reasons owing both to my own insecurity and defensiveness—a defensiveness which has been long building from a combination of disillusionment with the Church, frustration with authority, and irritability at the chafing limitations imposed on the vainglorious ambitions of my spirit by the mere fact of my own finitude, which I then turn around and blame on the farcical, footling confines of the narrow and repressed society in which I live—let’s imagine, I say, that I’ve developed a grudge against religion; subtle and unseen, in that even I’m not much aware of it. If you had asked, I’m sure I would tell you I’m a pretty churched-up chap; and I would think that the truth.

It’s an axiom among religious types, that anyone I find to be more radical than I am, is a fanatic. We’re pretending that I have a slow-accreting, subtle, in-built grudge against religion, and against religious folk. And, to continue with the fantasy, another person comes along; this person is religious in a particularly irritating sense, meaning he harbors the sort of religion most provoking to my pride, by conjuring up, in my own fancy at least, if not in the reality, everything that I find unsavory about my religion (which I half-despise already, without even being aware of it). He quotes from the Bible; claims that certain men and certain women have, at certain times, been given the ability to hear the voice of God; blushes at the thought of nudity or sex; gives long lectures on the nature of prophecy and the nobility of waiting; listens to the most appalling music; in sum, does things which seem inspired by some devil in the depths of hell to chase me from my own religion, by exaggerating its worst aspects, as the convex lens on the inside of a telescope, to an unsustainable degree.

And why would this malevolence be accumulating, all the while, like an obscene pearl, on the small dust of my original irritation? Because of an angry, unrighteous pride, born out of a defensive sense that in everything my fanatical fool of a friend is doing, he’s passing a cool, corresponding unspoken judgment on me and all my ways.

Meanwhile, what is my religious friend thinking? Well, my religious friend is angry and defensive. My religious friend views every mere breath of an argument blown, even but lightly, in the face of his faith, as an affront to his dignity, and not only to his own, but, far more, to the glory of the cosmos—the glory of the heavens—the glory of God! My religious friend is insecure because he doesn’t even believe in his faith as much as he would like; still regularly questions his most cherished tenets, though he would never admit so to me, whom he already more than half-suspects of harboring hatred towards him; sees the world but as a sinister, ignoble shadow-show, where evil, cackling men (who constitute the majority) beat up on the lesser, meeker men (comprised of himself alone, primarily) who become so flustered and angry whenever argument is joined that they can’t even defend their own positions, but retreat into personal attacks, and pointed, irrelevant allusions to their own superiority (“Who wins the Quizbowl tournaments? I ask you!”).

My meek, intelligent, religious friend considers himself, in the secret places of his heart, neither meek, nor intelligent, nor religious, which is why he becomes, at times, so wildly self-assertive in defense of each. He’s painfully sensitive to slights and injuries; grows angry when another person, like myself, wonders aloud whether Handel really saw the heavens opened, when he wrote Messiah, or notes the corruption inherent in religious institutions. He has actually taken on himself the responsibility for all religion, through the ages; and thus feels a corresponding need to defend it all, from paving-stone to spire.

Why does he feel thus freighted with such dreadful weight of purpose? The truth is, because of his own pride. If I’m sometimes going to rile him, by questioning the tenets of particular religions, he feels that he has to lock himself into a solidly religious position, by defending everything. He can’t accept the culpability of Catholic priests in abusing children, or at any rate can’t accept that the hierarchy of the Church was responsible for provoking, and stoking the problem. Why? Because in order to do so, he must needs agree with me! When he knows, or thinks he knows, that all the while, I’m really attacking the Church because I hate religion; and so consequently, inevitably, the implication is that I must hate him.

Thus irreligious pride, and its religious cousin, shove against each other; and one pride takes particular pleasure in riling another’s. And each of us takes particular pleasure in condemning the passions of the other as useless, like the two popes who both held the throne of Peter, at the same time, and each of whom damned the other to an everlasting hell. And just as Newton discovered that the force applied to a body in physics produces a proportional (and opposed) acceleration, so that one ball slamming against another will provoke a precisely-corresponding level of violence as it flies in the opposite direction; in the same manner, my own pride, bounding against the pride of my erstwhile companion (now my foe in all but name), provokes that in his nature which causes him to rebound against me with the same vehement loathing.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Devil and Descartes

Here are a few other things that I’m pondering of late. Look at how rapidly Melville alternates between the comical, the expository, and the Sublime in the middle portions of Moby-Dick, and how effortlessly he manages to meld the three:

"Still, we can hypothesize, even if we cannot prove and establish. My hypothesis is this: the spout is nothing but mist. And besides other reasons, to this conclusion I am impelled, by considerations touching the great inherent dignity and sublimity of the Sperm Whale; I account him no common, shallow being, inasmuch as it is an undisputed fact that he is never found on soundings, or near shores; all other whales sometimes are. He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture over my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition."

Note also the shift between long and short clauses, as when he says, “all other whales sometimes are.” It brings the whole passage back to earth with a clear, crisp focus; it narrows the attention to this one point, and thereby keeps you reading till the end.

Strangely, I stumbled upon some rather pointed affirmation regarding the developing focus and theme of the chapter I’m writing (the focus and theme which I explained at length in the entry previous to this one). In one of my favorite passages in the second book of Paradise Lost, Milton is describing the delightful dalliances of devils:

"Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,

In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high

Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,

Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,

And found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost.

Of good and evil much they argu’d then,

Of happiness and final misery,

Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,

Vaine wisdom all, and false Philosophie…"

In analyzing the plot, themes, and dynamics of the sixth chapter, I’ve discovered that every person I encountered that day, or in the few days following, had a theory they were anxious to relate about the nature of prophecy, man, magic, and the imminent end of the world. I mean, really: Booth and I were standing around and talking in the bookstore, when a man in a long coat and a fishing hat appeared from beneath the stairs, as though from empty air, and presented us an extended discourse on the uses of Finnish magic. Petunia, Priscilla, Corey, Mortimer, Amy, and the Finnophiliac professor, each of these people had secrets they were eager to disclose.

I’m beginning to think that this wasn’t merely a curious circumstance. In the fourth chapter I discovered that there was a subtle and insidious but nonetheless very real evil in the hollowness of airy spectacles, contrived infinitudes, and unutterably endless connections. What happened in the two or three weeks before the end of that trimester appears to have been an outgrowth and extension of this. Because what Milton is doing in Paradise Lost is showing where the subtle, insidious evils which infest our ordinary, human lives in historical time derived their devilish origins. Thus, when he wants to foreshadow the vain philosophies and meandering, endless conversations of the ancient Greeks, he has the devils sitting on a hill, engaged in sportive feats of chatter. It’s a trick he employs throughout the poem.

This wasn’t a coincidence at all. But I would like to know what it means [[ But I should like to have known what it meant ]]. It’s very subtle, and for six years it completely escaped my attention. You wouldn’t normally imagine a lot of people sitting around and talking about philosophy and theology as being the result of some heinous diabolical scheme, and when it occurs in the right context I imagine it’s fine, but I also remember several of the tedious classes I had to endure as an undergraduate, where de Acosta would stand up and start ranting about the great, big, enormous handkerchief that created the universe, and how everyone would argue about whether the universe was more like a handkerchief, or a FAT bowl of ice cream, [[in language so clotted with obscurity, it but clarified the fact that their pretensions had been heightened to the direst limits of endurability]], and [[ ask yourself if you didn’t feel, at the very least, some half a dozen inches closer to that exasperating tedium and numbing, monotonous circularity, which men have ever asserted is among the lesser nuisances of hell, there in the sluggish, Sisyphean torpor of that endless hour, than you did on emerging later into the bright, mild sunlight, and the tranquil, thinly-clouded sky.]]

WHOA! I had forgotten. There is, in fact, a corresponding passage in Melville:

"And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head."

(This is incredible! But he goes on: )

"Beware of such an one, I say: your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber…

"But lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature: and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

"There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!"

Well, that’s exactly what I was trying to say; though perhaps said a bit better than I would have done.

Here’s John Calvin, warning of the dangers of attempting to understand God’s election in time:

"The discussion of predestination – a subject of itself rather intricate – is made very perplexed, and therefore dangerous, by human curiosity, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths, and soaring beyond its sphere, as if determined to leave none of the Divine secrets unscrutinized or unexplored. As we see multitudes everywhere guilty of this arrogance and presumption, and among them some who are not censurable in other respects, it is proper to admonish them of the bounds of their duty on this subject. First, then, let them remember that when they inquire into predestination, they penetrate the inmost recesses of Divine wisdom, where the careless and confident intruder will obtain no satisfaction to his curiosity, but will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no way to depart. For it is unreasonable that man should scrutinize with impunity those things which the Lord has determined to be hidden in himself; and investigate, even from eternity, that sublimity of wisdom which God would have us to adore and not comprehend, to promote our admiration of His glory. The secrets of His will which He determined to reveal to us, He discovers in His word; and these are all that He foresaw would concern us or conduce to our advantage."

Presumably the labyrinth is going to become a central symbol, at least of the first part of the novel, and potentially the second as well. Even now I have pictures on Facebook of the labyrinth through which we all wandered together at the beginning of our last semester; I’m sure I could dig up the notes from that venture, as it would be a foolish waste of a maze to have been actually lost in one, in the middle of all this capering madness, and not to employ it somewhere in the story.

And look at what Carl Hovde says about Melville’s use of imagery and allusion in Moby-Dick:

"Melville takes us off the ship by extended similes of the kind so frequent in The Iliad, in which action is similarly constricted to the patch of beach before Troy’s wall. In “Squid” (chap. LIX) ‘the seamen rushed to the yard-arms, as in swarming-time the bees rush to the boughs’ (page 327). We are on dry land again for a moment with an image familiar in country life… All these similes take us off the Pequod’s deck and momentarily ventilate the closed-in scene of action on the ship.

"By far, the most frequent means of widening the stage is the novel’s great allusiveness; the book is a magpie’s nest of information, and these references take us to many other people, ideas, and places in the world. It is hard to think of another work of fiction that so frequently makes overt use of history, geography, travel writing, literature, philosophy, religion, and the science of the day. And it is less remarkable that Melville acquired such wide knowledge than that his imagination could so readily call it up to enrich the narrative by similarities, precedents, analogies, contrasts, contradictions, and illustrations by anecdote."

Heed it well!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Brows of Grace

“Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the ‘wonders’ of creation, but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat, we cannot wonder at it.”
– G. K. Chesterton,
“A Defense of Nonsense” (1902)

It’s all there. Everything I need is laid right out in front of me. I had a revelation last week, while I was reading Coleridge, about the tendency of men to become so enamored with the supernatural that it leads them on from evil to evil, and how they don’t care about the nature of the direction in which they’re headed, because their eyes are focused on the light in front of them; and then, while I was fasting from talking, a revelation of a similar nature on the diabolical evil of charts and maps to a person of monomaniacal leanings, which became tangibly connected, in my mind, with not only crazy old Ahab (this seems to have been the driving idea behind the chapter entitled “The Chart” in Moby-Dick), but also with the authors of the Left Behind books, and with Willy Wonka.

All of that awaits a separate entry of its own, but my point in noting this is to announce that my next set of chapters is developing the kind of solidity which anchored the fourth chapter and gave it its ballast. Curiously, at the same time this is happening, my conception of the next set of chapters is becoming much less portentous and overly-grand than it was. Now that I’ve realized I can combine the chapter about my calling and career, with the chapter on Career Day, I’ve eliminated an entire chapter of exposition, meaning the next two chapters will continue carrying the plot, and presumably the reader’s attention. Additionally, my understanding of the once-and-current seventh chapter has been growing from a mere religious/philosophical rant/meditation on the nature of Jesus’ return into something more psychologically-centered and more “universal” in the worldly sense. I’m still planning to describe some of the wild ideas which fired my thinking in that hour, from the Book of Enoch and the like, but I’m weaving it into an admonition on the perils of becoming obsessed with maps or charts, or any kind of web of connections, in an un-relational manner. As such, it feels a lot less like I’m jamming something into the text, and it’s much more in keeping with the tenor of the story at that point in the novel, so that I can easily work in the scene at the end of the year where I talked to Mortimer and Petunia about the year to come, and the end-times they were causing.

This brings me to something I’ve been meaning to rap about for a while, which is the originality of Shakespeare’s thinking. People all seem to have an idea that Shakespeare was great because of his cathedral-like magnificence of language (which at least in the minds of many translates into a sense that he was great because he was the best at producing a kind of ridiculous stuff-shirted pomposity), and while it’s true that he was the greatest of all stylists ever to have written in English, and, well, think of all the characters the man came up with! What a genius—all these things considered, I’m afraid we still overlook the cleverness of his thinking.

One can see better what I mean through an examination of a much-beloved passage in Richard the Second, to which I’ve always had a certain incurable attachment. The protagonist is King Richard, an elegant, poetic, brooding, vain, self-centered king, who shares the affliction of Theoden in being more enamored with the possibilities of speechifying than the responsibilities of service. His nemesis is Bolingbroke (later to become King Henry IV, father of the rascally ne’er-do-well Prince Hal), who in the scene under examination has just ridden in and stolen all of Richard’s fighting men.

Says Richard to Scroop, the man who bears the news:

“Mine ear is open, and my heart prepar’d.
The worst is worldly loss thou canst unfold.
Say, is my kingdom lost? Why, ‘twas my care,
And what loss is it to be rid of care?
Strives Bolingbroke to as great as we?
Greater he shall not be; if he serve God,
We’ll serve Him, too, and be his fellow so.
Revolt our subjects? That we cannot mend;
They break their faith to God as well as us.
Cry woe, destruction, ruin, and decay:
The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

As with so much of Shakespeare, I feel that this scene can only be fully appreciated through hearing it or watching it performed. At least for my own part, when I read this on the page, as opposed to hearing the words pronounced by an accomplished actor, my inclination is to imagine Richard (in the manner of dear old Alex Rutledge) placing one hand mock-heroically in the air and declaiming the lines in a stultified, sonorous fashion. (“The cookie is but one part of the beautiful world… and to understand the world, you must first understand the cookie.”) I imagine all the other characters speaking in like manner.

Happily, two springs ago, before I left Southwestern, I ordered the entire Arkangel audio-dramatized Shakespeare collection for the library (a six-hundred dollar investment!); one of the highlights is Rupert Graves’ petulant, over-earnest, determined, vindictive, angsty portrayal of Richard the Second. (Rupert Graves also plays Inspector Finch’s partner, the police officer knocked out by Natalie Portman in the “BTN tower” scene from V for Vendetta). He plays the beleaguered monarch in the manner of a self-enamored, bitingly sarcastic adolescent: “God save King Henry, unking’d Richard says, AND SEND HIM MANY YEARS OF SUNSHINE DAYS!!”

But, none of that is to the point. Look at the simplicity of language, the complexity of thought! “Why, ‘twas my care, and what loss is it to be rid of care?” Shakespeare says what no one else had ever thought, and says it in exactly the manner demanded by the character and scene. What a cheery defense for a king who’s watching his kingdom crumble all to ruins around him, like… like Louie, the ape-king from The Jungle Book, and to console himself with such sophisticated sophistry! He reasons well.

The passage that follows, however, does him one better:

Scroop: “Like an unseasonable stormy day,
Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores,
As if the world were all dissolv’d to tears,
So high above his limits swells the rage
Of Bolingbroke, covering your fearful land
With hard bright steel, and hearts harder than steel.
White beards have arm’d their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty; boys, with women’s voices,
Strive to speak big, and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown;
Thy very beadsmen learn to bend their bows
Of double fatal-yew against thy state;
Yea, distaff-women manage rusty bills
Against thy seat: both young and old rebel,
And all goes worse than I have power to tell.”

K. Richard: “Too well! Too well thou tell’st a tale so ill!”

(“Is Shakespeare complimenting himself?” asked Jonathan, when we listened to this scene together).

Well, it’s bad news all around for Richard—but great news for the world, because look at the delightful cleverness of Shakespeare’s vision here. We have the boys with their peculiarly un-masculine physique in early adolescence; hearts more hard against their ruler than the silver mail they wear; old, peaceful clergymen serenely carving into shape their instruments for war—part of the elegance of the description of the “double-fatal yew” is how pithily, how concisely it combines two deadly functions of the yew tree into a single devastating phrase, because not only can the yew be hewn down and made into bows, but its foliage is poisonous.

See, that’s part of the magic of Shakespeare, and it’s one of the points that I’m getting at in writing this entry: He saw the world as no one else could see it, and a lot of what we call modern civilization is the world’s attempt to see what he was seeing. You think of a line like the one in Hamlet where the prince is lamenting his father’s death and mother’s “o’er-hasty marriage”: “Thrift! Thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.” Or Malcolm’s words to Macdonald: “Though all things fair would wear the brows of grace, yet grace must still look so”—meaning, that grace will continue to look what it is, though evil counterfeit it to the day of doom; or the convoluted images of light and mirroring in the elegant discourse of the creeper Jachimo, as he steals into Imogen’s room late at night:

The flame o’ the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids,
To see th’ enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure lac’d
With blue of heaven’s own tinct!

It’s an often-overlooked testimony to the genius of Shakespeare, that the most famous speech in literature begins with a line made up almost entirely of monosyllables—Hamlet expressed his existential query in the simplest of all possible terms:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep—
To sleep, perchance to dream—aye, there’s the rub…

So the question becomes, given the absolute purity and simplicity of this language, how can it be that in the intervening four hundred years no one has written anything to top it? Is it because there have been no greater stylists? That’s partly true. But the more accurate truth of it is, that there have been no greater thinkers. And all that we call “great thinking” is just a matter of seeing keenly—sometimes what lies just in front of you, and often, just beneath that.

He pared the world down to its essentials. Like Chesterton, Shakespeare was never content to allow other people to tell him who he was and where he came from. What is this thing called the world? As Tyler noted yesterday in another context, why do we not consider it supernatural that our planet is given its light, life and energy by an enormous ball of fire in the sky? “Well, in Florida, we call it the sun…” I know it’s called the sun. But “the sun” doesn’t say what it is; that’s merely a name it’s been given. Dig deeper! See beyond the surfaces of things, as Thoreau did, and Booth.

So when we’re sitting in the driveway at Chik-fil-A, and Booth tells me, “Boze, I’ve thought of a way to trick the people in the window! I give them these little green pieces of paper, and they give me food!” I say that in that moment, Booth is seeing things as they are. When Chesterton calls a house a gigantesque hat to shelter a man from the sun, and a chair “an apparatus of four wooden legs for a cripple with only two,” I take my own hat off and hail him as a prophet. When Melville, bless him, has Ahab and anguish lying “stretched together in one hammock,” or when crazy Ahab cries, “The prophecy was that I would be dismembered, and aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer! Now be the prophet and the fulfiller one…” or when he raves to Starbuck, “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks!” or when Ishmael methodically sets apart seven pages for the purpose of asserting the verity of his unearthly fear of whiteness, in the process bringing in not only heaven and hell, but the whole cosmos besides, and when, in the reflection of the golden doubloon, nailed to the masthead, each man sees inscribed the signature stamped on the mettle of his own doomed soul—then, all that being so, you can be sure that his soul was uncommonly grooved; it was not made to run on tracks with other men.

Yet so much of the cleverness of seeing in the examples above is situational: that is to say, it stems from seeing a situation of an unprecedented nature, say, a madman vengefully hunting a sperm whale at sea, in a manner that would still have been unprecedented, even if sea-beast vengeance stories had a genre of their own in our literature.

Which brings me back, once again, to my novel, and to my ultimate purpose in writing this entry. No one disputes that some uncommon things have happened in the last six years; if that weren’t so, there wouldn’t be a lot of point in writing it. Yet the scope of my imagination, in looking back over the sweep, the surrealism, and the chaos of those early days, has been, from first to last, confined, flat, earthy, dull, and common. I was given the ingredients to make a royal seafood banquet, and I served blancmange instead. It’s time for that to change.