Polonius On The Necessity Of Authenticity And Self-Discovery

A Facebook friend asked on her timeline for some clarification of Polonius‘ famous lines in Hamlet, which he offers as–perhaps sententious–advice to Laertes:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

[Act 1, Scene III, 78–82]

Polonius here finds the roots of our dishonesty, our moral failures, in our inauthenticity: we are disingenuous in our dealings with others because, fundamentally, we are dishonest with ourselves. We maintain masks and put-on affectations in social interactions; we are comfortable in these maneuvers because we have practiced them with our own selves. We often ignore messages from within that inform us of who might be in favor of something else altogether: perhaps a dimly glimpsed and poorly understood vision of some socially desirable personality, perhaps some aspirational ideal that is not in concordance with our desired ends and aims and our actual capacities and talents.  It is a commonplace wisdom that the telling of one lie facilitates and makes possible the telling of many others. We lie frequently to ourselves about who we are, about what our motivations for an action or utterance are; we then go on to invent self-serving rationalizations intended for consumption by others. So we should expect dishonesty, double-dealing, backbiting, lying, and many other sins in a world whose actors and moral agents are not even honest with themselves; honesty begins at home. Cure a local affliction, much else follows.  Polonius then, is bidding us to do no less than to undertake a project of self-discovery as a means of ensuring greater honesty in our dealings with the rest of the world. Without those efforts we are destined to repeat our ‘local errors’ on a global scale.

Of course, Polonius seems to think that the authenticity we might derive from such discovery will automatically and necessarily authenticate our interactions with others. Of this, I’m not so sure. It seems possible to me that we might invent yet other reasons to be dishonest with others; we might find some of our ends realized by precisely such falseness. Our experiences have many shades and complexities to them; who knows how these might exert compulsion on us? But at least then, in those cases where we are dishonest with others, we will be transparent to ourselves; we will not be able to convince ourselves that we acted honestly when we did not. This has great value for projects of ‘self-improvement’; when we cast a retrospective glance backwards at our lives and sift through its events, looking for points of departure, we will be able to pick out genuine examples of dishonesty on our part, which may then serve as correctives for the future. Someone deluded in their dealings with themselves will already have covered up the past with layers of self-serving dishonesty, thus making correction and emendation impossible.

Unsurprisingly, as always, self-discovery appears fundamental and necessary.

Note: I realize that this is a charitable reading of a character Shakespeare intended to be understood a little less charitably.

Falstaff As Zarathustra

There is much that is admirable in Falstaff. He is funny; he has a flair for verbal pyrotechnics; he is lustful; he enjoys food and drink, he is a good friend; he might commit highway robbery, but it is not clear he would want to hurt anyone in the process. Moreover, one suspects he would only rob those who could afford to be robbed by him. Most admirably, he appears entirely unconcerned by the opinions of others; he is secure in his estimation of himself. We may–like Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One–mock him endlessly and mercilessly but it is unclear whether our barbs really do sink in, whether they cause more anguish to the reader than they do to Falstaff himself. Falstaff might be fat, out of shape, and a liar, but he seems to be malice and resentment-free; and those are not inconsiderable blessings. He mocks the so-called ‘kingly’ or ‘noble’ values in disdaining the notion of honor; the only time that he will deign to speak in the pompous, affected manner of the landed aristocracy and those who ascend to thrones is when he is role-playing. He understands that those who occupy such stations are engaged in a similar sort of acting and dissembling. He is artful and slippery; when caught in a lie, he quickly extracts himself from the social disaster that has resulted and quickly turns it to his advantage.

This sort of take on Falstaff’s character is not novel; germs of it appear in many assessments of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. It should be evident though that these descriptions show that Falstaff also embodies many Nietzschean virtues: he does not seek to bring others down to his level but walks along his own chosen path; his qualities and traits might be out of sync with the surrounding normative order of appropriate speech and behavior, but Falstaff cares little for that; he has an acute understanding of his strengths and limitations and knows how to deploy them in a concerto of sorts so that he may ensure for himself the life he wants. Falstaff, in sum, even though appearing to be a ‘low-life’ in some respects is possessed of many ‘noble’ qualities; his character has its own distinctive ‘style‘ and it is his own ‘will to power‘ applied to the particulars of his life that has brought this style about. Falstaff’s presence in the ‘low scenes’ of the Shakespearean plays he appears in serve as an acute counterpoint to the values visible in the ‘high scenes’; thus through his actions and his words does he instantiate a peculiar and particular ‘inversion of values.’

Falstaff could be understood as a prophet heralding the presence of an alternative way of being, which could be ours if only we could shake off the encrusted weight of centuries of slavish obedience to inherited values. But we are bound too tightly to this mast; our socially constructed ambition drives us on. And so, like Hal, we must discard him, and bid him farewell. The time is not yet right for him. Perhaps it never will be.

The Shock Of The New (Entry On A Class Reading List)

Teaching a new entrant on a class reading list is always a fraught business. It is especially so when the entrant is a well-established member of analogous canons and you have come late to the game. You are dimly aware you’ve ‘neglected a classic,’ and thus rendered your education–in several dimensions–incomplete; you are well aware banana skins might lie ahead. The classic might turn out to be unexpectedly abstruse and not-classroom-discussion friendly.

This semester, I have taught Machiavelli for the first time, ever; I have taught Political Philosophy twice before and have managed to compose syllabi that did not feature a reading from that source. In my first incarnation of the class, I concentrated on readings stemming from a trifecta of revolutions–the French, American, and Haitian–and in the second, I concentrated on nineteenth and twentieth century sources. This semester’s emphasis on political realism and Shakespeare means that Machiavelli and Hobbes set the stage for our reading of Shakespeare’s Henriad; time permitting, we’ll read a little Nietzsche–from Beyond Good and Evil–to close out the semester.

The reports are in: assigning and discussing Machiavelli was a success. The psychological foundations of politics, the separation of politics and morality, the concentration on the manipulations and distributions and managements of power, taken to be the fundamental political quality and quantity–these all made for engaging class discussions, especially when it became apparent that Machiavelli’s examples and analysis applied to modern political realities as well. Machiavelli’s writing style–which dispenses with elaborate constructions of arguments and consists instead of a series of free-wheeling psychological and political claims riding on a selective historical narrative–turns out to be a teacher’s delight; students respond to his ambitious generalizations and dry skepticism about human nature with anything but indifference.

I’m considerably less sanguine about teaching the Kierkegaard portion of my ‘Existentialism’ syllabus–which kicks off today. (I have never taught Existentialism before and neither have I had the opportunity to assign Kierkegaard on any other class’ reading list yet.) Kierkegaard has never been an easy read, and it was with some trepidation that I placed sections from Fear and Trembling, The Sickness Unto Death, Against Christendom’ on the list of reading assignments. I have made matters worse by picking long passages (but is it really possible to restrain yourself in this regard when it comes to a writer who was always incapable, in his writing, of being restrained similarly?) There is a lack of directness in Kierkegaard which might be off-putting for my students; I have prepared myself by highlighting passages of text I will direct the class to in order to focus the class discussions. As you can tell, writing this blog post also serves to ‘gee myself up’ for my class, which begins in less than four hours. Perhaps a joke or two about ‘dread’ might be in order.

Note: Sometimes, a ‘classic’ remains unassigned because you anticipate too many difficulties teaching it; such was the case with Heidegger, who got bumped off my Twentieth Century Philosophy reading list last year, and suffered the same fate this semester. On that problem, more anon.

A Literary Semester To Look Forward To

This fall semester, I will teach three classes; all feature literary components. They are: ‘Political Philosophy,’ ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature,’ and ‘Existentialism.’ The following are their course descriptions:

Political Philosophy: Shakespeare and Political Theory

In this class, we will read Shakespeare’s famous ‘history plays’—Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, Henry V–as political theory texts. We will set up our reading of these texts with ‘realist’ classics from political theory—Machiavelli and Hobbes to begin with, and then after reading Shakespeare, Nietzsche–and investigate their resonances with Shakespeare’s writings. We will be primarily concerned with that prime political entity, power: its seizing, sharing, retaining, usurpation, and deployment.

Existentialism:

Rare is the philosophical doctrine that straddles literature and philosophy as effortlessly as existentialism. Sometimes thought to be a purely French twentieth-century phenomenon, existentialism is both a philosophical position with a long pedigree and a literary movement with global presence and presence. In this class, we will examine literary and philosophical works in an effort to unpack existentialism’s central theses, understand their significance, and evaluate the works from a moral, political and metaphysical perspective. Among other things, we will explore why existentialism is held to be an atheist philosophy, why it resonates with Buddhism, and how it avoids charges of nihilism.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Legal Novel

In this class we will read several ‘legal novels’ closely to examine their particular literary take on issues of philosophical significance: What is the nature of law? Why do we obey the law? What obligations does it impose on us? Must we always obey the law? How we should interpret a legal text? What is the relationship between law and morality? What is the moral and political significance of the gap between the theory and the practice of the law? Are the pretensions of the law a sham? Is the law just an instrument of the strong to keep the weak in check? Can the law ever find the ‘truth’ in its courts? And so on.

Reading List:

I have taught both ‘Political Philosophy‘ and ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature‘ before but this semester’s syllabi are new. ‘Existentialism’ is a new venture for me. Which means that I have three new classes to teach this semester, a task intimidating and exciting in equal measure. Moreover, I have never taught Shakespeare before, so I face a particularly interesting challenge in taking that task on. (I have recommended that my students watch Sam Mendes‘ The Hollow Crown to supplement their readings of the history plays; these cinematic versions are absolutely superb and bring Shakespeare’s words and characters to life most vividly.)

Much could go wrong in the weeks ahead; but if things come off the way I’ve hoped and planned, this could be one of my best semesters of teaching here at Brooklyn College. Well then, once more into the breach, my dear friends.

Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.

 

Waiting for Jury Duty: Crowd Observation Notes

A curious fact about the crowd enduring the interminably long wait to be called for jury duty selection  at Brooklyn’s State Supreme Court building today was how its interactions slowly began to resemble those of passengers on an airliner stranded on an airport tarmac.

Before lunch, some folks had already dozed off (I had taken a nap myself thanks to a 0530 AM rising induced by my daughter’s wails); many others sported the ubiquitous pair of headphones (tinny notes of hip-hop, metal and dance music could be heard issuing from these);  some had laptops open on their, er, laps, and indulged in either entertainment or work; some played cards; and yet others read newspapers, books, and magazines.

It was a garden variety crowd in waiting; patient, occupied,  indulgent of the judicial system’s call on them to perform their civic duty. (The orientation video, though hokey in many ways, was also curiously moving in its sincerity.)

But after lunch, despite having sought and procured nourishment qualitatively and quantitatively better than that available on the floor’s vending machines, the mood was more disgruntled. Some, like me, wondered whether we’d be called for a second day of waiting (this query was loudly answered with indignant “No way!”s); some muttered about the wages lost for the day and refused to find solace in the news that they would be paid $40 per day of jury duty;  some veterans were telling war stories of much longer waits ‘back in the day’; one young man struck up a conversation with the young woman sitting next to him and seemed to be keeping her reasonably well entertained with his quip-a-minute manners. Little groups had started to form; boredom and exhaustion was writ large on most faces, threatening to turn at any time into full-blown irritation.

One gentleman paced about, complaining about how he had exhausted the bag of tricks he had bought with himself to keep himself entertained; his work was taken care of and he had finished reading his book. On hearing this, a young woman spoke up, “I can loan you a book to read if you want.” Our hero was suitably responsive, “Sure, what kind is it?” The young woman almost giggled, “Do you like Shakespeare? I have Romeo and Juliet if you want.” A little nonplussed, the seeker of  diversions quickly recovered, “Sure, what the heck, hand it over. I’ll give it a read.” The young woman beamed, reached into her bag, and did so.

An hour or so later, the master of ceremonies for the day walked out, pulled the microphone to her and wished everyone a good afternoon. The waiting throng answered in unison; it was like being back in grade school. When she made the announcement that we could go home, that we had fulfilled our jury duty service requirement for the next eight years, a loud cheer broke out.

A few minutes later, I had left the courthouse, my certificate of service secure in my backpack; my civic duties were done for the time being.

Childcare duties still remained, but at that moment, they seemed considerably less tedious.