On drips


Detail from Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christus am Kreutz (c. 1520-1522),  CC-BY 2.0.

Leaks have been in the news lately (and it might be interesting to think about why “leaks” became a term in English for improper disclosures of information in the 1950s, or how “blowing the whistle on” an activity used to imply also bringing the activity to a sharp conclusion), but, whereas leaks imply loss and injury, drips are more ambiguous.

Stanley Lombardo translates one of Sappho’s fragments (#37 in Campbell’s standard collection, but #64 in Lombardo’s version) as “in my dripping pain.”  Just that.  That’s the entirety of the fragment (although there may be a related piece).  “In my dripping pain.”  What might Sappho have meant?  Where was this verse leading?  Whose pain was being given a voice here?

Anne Carson, with more typographical license, and perhaps more focus on textuality generally, adds parentheses: “in my dripping (pain)” (If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 75).  In a wonderful endnote, she points to three significant contexts for thinking about what Sappho might be doing here.  The first is its provenance: we have the fragment because an ancient etymologist was discussing words for pain.  The second is a line from the chorus in Agamemnon, describing their anxieties in the night: “And it drips in sleep before my heart / the grief-remembering pain” (Qtd. 365).  The noun Sappho uses for dripping is, Carson notes, cognate with the verb for dripping Aeschylus uses here.

Richard Lattimore translates the full strophe from which this line was taken as follows:

Zeus, who guided men to think,

who has laid it down that wisdom

comes alone through suffering.

Still there drips in sleep against the heart

grief of memory; against

our will temperance comes.

From the gods who sit in grandeur

grace is somehow violent.

(Aeschylus II, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, 26-27)

And here is Peter Meineck’s version:

He set us mortals on the road to understanding,

and he has laid down his law:

“Man must learn by suffering!”

Not even sleep can relieve the painful memories

that fall upon the heart, drop by drop,

discretion comes even to the unwilling.

The grace is forced upon us

by sacred spirits who reign above.          (Oresteia, 9-10).

I can’t adjudicate the accuracy of any of the translations, but I can see that Meineck’s offers a much clearer line of interpretation than Lattimore’s.  The “road to understanding” is what is laid down in the quoted law.  Suffering is the path to understanding.  Painful experience engraves itself upon the heart in ways that sleep (and by implication even dreams) cannot stop.  In a wonderful inversion, grace is “forced upon us.” (Was Yeats thinking of these lines when he was writing “Leda and the Swan”?).  “Sacred spirits” is a bit distracting to my ignorant ear: even in the plural, it brings “grace” too close to later Christian meanings that any translator is already hard-pressed to avoid, or make strange.

Lattimore’s translation, by contrast, is harder to make sense of, but is much more rhythmically striking and — at least on a first reading — impressively undecided.  That is, it has the sound of the Chorus still thinking things through rather than presenting a report of their conclusions.  The exact relationship between “thinking” and “wisdom” and “suffering” is not at all clear, however tightly linked they become in the mesmerizing prosody of “alone through suffering.”  Whatever its accuracy as a translation of the Greek, beginning the next line with “still” is a masterstroke for performance.  It opens up the possibility that the Chorus is itself here doing what Zeus laid down: thinking, suffering, attempting to bring its concrete experience to painful consciousness.  Likewise, I’m struck by Lattimore’s registering the confused hesitation in the chorus’s realization that grace is violent “somehow,” and his having pain teach not “discretion,” but “temperance.”

The sense of a drip-dripping sequence of pains tempering a body, giving it a particular texture and character, returns us to Carson’s gloss on Sappho’s fragment.  The other significant context she offers for “dripping (pain)” comes from Hamm’s lines in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

There’s something dripping in my head.


A heart in my head.

In Aeschylus, a somatically engraved anxiety contorts dreams and brings before the heart — the seat of soul and mindedness for the ancient Greeks — “grief-remembered pain.”  There’s more than a hint in Hamm’s lines of this sense of long-weathered, ill-comprehended experience carving his destiny.

But, of course, in Hamm, any such sense of his own fate is bathetically shrunk.  His line has the sound of the comically literal.  Maybe that’s all consciousness is: something dripping in the head.  All the lyricism of existential confrontation seems to be leached out of Hamm’s statement: it seems to be a bare attempt to describe the phenomenological sensation.  Of course, he doesn’t say it feels as if something’s dripping in his head.  Nor does he declaim it in a way that might give “dripping” a melodramatic, lurid cast, i.e. having the actor leap up onto the battlements, etc.  (In fact, as ever, Beckett’s scenic imagination — including here Hamm’s blindness and restriction to his chair — seems designed to prevent or dismantle such earnest declamations.)  What would it mean to have a heart in your head — and does Hamm mean something like a yearning soul or something like a mere pumping muscle?


That claim about 1910


Paul Cézanne, Medea (after Delacroix), c. 1879-1882.

Virginia Woolf gets a lot of grief for having claimed, with some to-be-debated level of irony, that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (Selected Essays 38).  This is often misquoted as a claim that human “nature” changed, sometimes by folks who should know better, but usually in the context of some self-regarding cocktail party dismissal of Woolf as being herself hopelessly snobbish and self-involved.  Harumph, they say, a few crazy paintings change our biological nature?  Indeed, what silliness.  Of course the fact that Woolf was carefully staging what she called her “intolerable egotism” for the benefit of the Heretics Society at Cambridge in 1924, and that her sense of “character” in this paragraph is a carefully qualified, but nonetheless savage assault on earlier novelists’ practices of characterization, usually goes unremarked.

Yes, for those of you who’ve read the essay (and if you haven’t, you should), she’s probably being gratuitously unfair to Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  And, yes, she’s probably being hasty (but this was 1924!) about lumping together the ungainly assortment of writers like Forster, Strachey, Lawrence, Eliot, and Joyce.  In hindsight, this generational distinction obscures as much as it illuminates.  And paradoxically the rise of Woolf’s own status as a canonical modernist has drawn attention to the women absent from her formulation: Mansfield and Richardson, but also, in different ways, Wharton, Loy, HD, and Stein.  Still, there’s something powerful about Woolf’s claim, and I think it goes well beyond misunderstandings of its seriousness.

In context, she was widening our understanding of what we do when we read “characters” in a novel.  Judging character, she suggests, is one of our most common activities.  It’s part of our everyday life and it ranges in intent and complexity from malicious but delicious gossip to sustained attempts to understand the inner workings of another person.  “It would be impossible,” she said (or writes that she said), “to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art” (38).  Notice how what sounds like a strident assertion at the start–it would be impossible–depends on a series of much more pragmatic-sounding qualifications.  Could you go for a year without trying to interpret someone’s character?  Can you really become a mature adult–whatever that means–without having some skill in guessing people’s motives and tendencies?  But before her assertion entirely dissolves into platitude, she makes what I think is a much more interesting claim that usually gets obscured by what follows:  “Our marriages, our friendships depend on [the art of character-reading]; every day, questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  So what is the sense of character in play here?

We might think that, if our marriages and friendships–and we might want to generalize here to all manner of our serious emotional and cognitive partnerships–if such significant relations depend upon reading it, then “character” might be the essence of another person.  Or, if like the Edwardians we’re entertaining doubts about Romantic claptrap about knowing “essences,” then we might take it to be the sturdy accumulation of sometimes contradictory but eventually conclusive empirical evidence about another person’s habits and proclivities.   “Character” would be the “deep” and consistent personality underlying a person’s ambiguous but ultimately superficial actions.  We might think that, but we would be wrong.  After all, as we are about hear, character can change.

I’m still trying to figure out for myself whether Woolf’s subsequent attempt at, as she says, “abstracting” her claim by looking to the change in the attitude of “one’s cook” is as rankly class-bound as it sounds, but, for the moment, I want to stay with the “character” side of her claim.  That is, I’m not interested in defending what seems to be her argument that because Wells (et al.) don’t pay much attention to middle-class women’s emotional lives, they’ve missed a fundamental shift in “human” character.  Clearly, as Raymond Williams (and many since) have pointed out, there’s a problem with regarding a “fraction” of human relations (i.e. Bloomsbury’s or Oxbridge’s raised eyebrow at their servants’ new uppityness) as somehow standing in for the whole (“The Bloomsbury Fraction,” in Culture and Materialism).  What I am interested in defending, or at least further exploring, is the last part of the sentence.  (I excuse myself for the moment from dealing with Woolf’s entirely subversive inclusion of “our business” as also one of the major forms of human relation that depend on — but this only “largely”!–on the art of reading character.  Thinking about the forms of character read in marriage and friendship versus business, in Britain in the 1920s or generally, would take at least a book to sort out.)  Against both the clichéd romantic ideas of “essential” character or more recent “disenchanted” views of character as an accumulated property, Woolf asserts that the importance of reading character comes from its ordinariness and its dailiness: “every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  What sorts of questions might these be?  How might our ad hoc, impromptu attempts to cope with them amount to a skill?

Woolf ends her talk by demanding that her audience (Heretics, but still, perhaps, deserving of a slap) not expect “just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment” of her famous example, “Mrs. Brown” (54).  “Tolerate,” she says, “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” (54).  She is partly alluding to what she calls Eliot’s “obscurity” and Joyce’s “indecency,” but here their methods have been subsumed into a larger call for an explicitly ethical form of attention.  The methods they discover, however distasteful or obsessive they seem to Woolf or her listeners, might open the way to “one of the great ages of English literature”–but only, Woolf says, “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (54).  How are the skills of character-reading, skills honed and created in response to different problems every day, connected to this ethical demand?  Would cultivating our ability to, as recent narratology has it, “read minds” really improve us?  Would it make us less likely to desert Mrs. Brown–or would it make us more likely to exploit her, as if she were another “problem” to be solved?

Odysseus Resting (I)


Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?

Sojourning settlers


E.M. Lilien, Hebron (1922), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

After Sarah died, Abraham went before the Hittites to ask for permission to bury her, an important act not only for the grieving husband, but also for the identity of the nation and the people that the stories of Genesis were meant to bring together.  It isn’t only ancient cultures who believe that burying ancestors in a place gives heirs a sacred claim to it.  But what sort of a claim?  Today, we would want to make a distinction between legal or political claims and moral claims, of the sort that might entail visitation rights but not ownership.  This is a complex issue, and two translations of Genesis suggest how difficult it is for us to understand the underlying grammar (legal? moral? religious?) of the narrated actions.

Abraham begins his speech by declaring himself an immigrant.  In the translation of the Oxford Annotated Bible: “Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites: I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight” (23:3-4).  This translation gives Abraham’s claim the sound of a precise legal matter.  He is asserting residency status and requesting a grant of property.  (It’s also easy to read too much into “out of sight” which makes Abraham sound as if he’s making an appeal to the Hittites’ pragmatism or perhaps their disgust, hinting that this whole display of the bodies is somehow theatrical.  But other translations make this much less plausible, so we should probably ignore that aspect of Abraham’s voice here.)  So is this a legal claim?   According to Robert Alter, the “bureaucratic coloration” of the term “resident alien” (and, by extension, the sense of the Oxford translation) “misrepresents the stylistic decorum of the Hebrew” (Genesis: Translation and Commentary 129).

Alter devotes much more attention to the poetry of parataxis and diction.  For Alter, the seemingly excessive “ands” that attach one sentence to the next and one phrase to another are a significant part of the vision of the world underlying the writing of Genesis.  Likewise, subtle shifts in tense and register.  Attempting to catch these modulations of decorum, Alter distinguishes Abraham’s voice from the narrator’s, giving in his translation a much more resonant (and morally complex) beginning: “And Abraham rose from before his dead and he spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a sojourning settler with you.  Grant me a burial holding with you, and let me bury my dead now before me'” (23:3-4).  The subsequent dialogue with the Hittites, Alter suggests, actually presents an exciting and nuanced negotiation over the definition of Abraham’s status (is he “with” them or “among” them?) and over his claim to a “holding.”

the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

lam visage cubiste-1939

Wilfredo Lam, “Visage cubiste” (1939), distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license

At what point do Cubism and the various early twentieth-century avant-gardes intersect with “real” history?  In the post-WWII, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq War(s) era, it can seem as if earlier experiments with genre and medium are a luxury the world can no longer afford.  Fredric Jameson, with characteristically two-edged irony, calls modernism “our classicism” — suggesting that our nostalgia for those wilder forms of abstraction and performance is motivated by a bad faith that at once preserves and entombs.  What do we today, multi-national and polyvalent as we are, have to do with attempts to get at the essence of painting, or ethnicity, or embodiment?

I started thinking about this question while reading Aimé Césaire’s “Avis de tirs” (“Gunnery Warning”) from Les armes miraculeuses (1946).  Is this poem surrealist?  Or, like Lam’s face above, cubist?  Some combination of the two or something new?  First of all, I’m struck by the way Césaire knocks all the conventional interpretations of Dalí’s overfamously oozing watches out of my mind:

délacent avant temps

le corsage des versus

et la foudroyante géométrie du trigonocéphale

pour mon rêve aux jambes de montre en retard

pour ma haine de cargison coulée […]

And in Clayton Eschleman and Annette Smith’s translation:

unlace prematurely

the bodice of bolts

and the lightning geometry of the fer-de-lance

for my dream with the legs of a slow watch

for my sunken cargo hatred.

(The Collected Poetry, 89)

Césaire, somehow suddenly, translates all of surrealism’s infatuations with dream-machine technology and its semi-profound speculations about time into a more historically concrete experience: the material legacies of colonialism in Martinique.  What can sometimes seem to be surrealism’s apolitical associative anarchy or, worse, reactionary escapism, fleeing in all directions away from what is right in front of your nose, here instead constellates, pulling together a set of phenomenologically rich images with a history of “sunken cargo hatred.”

And notice that the speaker is talking about “dream-legs” or a dream “with” the legs of a slow watch, not a dream of a slow watch.  Césaire’s watch is the form, not the content — not the material being worked on, but the practice of working.

Revolutionary planetaria

starry night shoes

Surely Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting is one of the top candidates for thinking about what Benjamin called “aura.”  It’s splashed on billboards, coffee mugs, buses, and shoes.  It’s used to clinch TV dramas about depressed artists and to sell movies about perceiving the world “differently.”  I’d really like to be sanctimonious and turn my nose up at this kind of savage commodification of a work of art, but what happens when, as in the case of the shoes above (made by Arkham Prints), the reference is to an episode of a show (Doctor Whoabout Van Gogh and not quite to the painting at all?

At a certain point, an image becomes so ubiquitous that it’s hard not to perceive the world through its filter.  When I look up at the night sky, all these images of starry nights (in variously distorted hues and shades) come clustering into my awareness.  Maybe stories of time travel and adventure become part of what I see in the constellations, but there’s also a nagging sense that I’m supposed to see “another realm.”  Other people’s notions of beauty and genius and mental illness, which I don’t often share, crowd into the way the moment means for me.

But imagining that I could cut away all these kinds of associations and confront the night sky alone, in rational or geometrical isolation, is also a fantasy.  In one of my favorite short pieces, “To the Planetarium” (1928), Benjamin warns that the ancients and the moderns look to the stars in very different ways.  Whereas modern astronomy, after Kepler and Copernicus, places “an exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe,” the ancients’ “intercourse with the cosmos” required “the ecstatic trance.”

Characteristically, Benjamin swerves from this seemingly nostalgic insight (i.e. “dude, those Greeks really knew how to stargaze”) to give a startling gloss on what it means to experience this kind of trance:

For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other.  This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally (58).

For Benjamin, the spine-shaking experience of an ecstatic perception is inescapably social.

What does a life reveal?

holbein The_Body_of_the_Dead_Christ_in_the_Tomb_Detail

Detail from Hans Holbein, “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520-22)

Reviewing Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, Rowan Williams suggests it’s time to revisit the saint’s status as a “patriarchal villain.”  Augustine, Williams says, can be more to us than the source of the West’s deep structures of self-punishment.  Like Paul, Augustine created new ways of imagining another world, a better realm, beyond, somehow elsewhere but nearby, governed by other forms and practices of justice.

Garry Wills likewise points out what we would today call Augustine’s contributions to psychology and philosophy of mind, both of which Lane Fox tends to downplay in favor of a broad-stroke picture of late Roman culture.  From a modern point of view, it’s easy to read about Augustine or Augustinian ideas of original sin and see holdovers from late antiquity, but it’s much harder to read the Confessions without being struck by the entanglement of self and writing.  It’s a cliché to say that this entanglement feels “modern,” but I think this is a case where the cliché results from unthinking repetition rather than untruth.

William Franke argues that what the text of the Confessions has revealed to generations of readers is the process of “reading as revelation”:

[…] Augustine’s way of addressing God personally and questioningly provides what he is seeking by his very asking: for he asks that he be given to converse with God, to invoke and so to know him.  This self-validating conjuring of divinity by an apparently autistic linguistic act is tantamount to a discovery of God immanent within the self-reflexive faculty of self-consciousness in language. (The Revelation of Imagination, 239)

Brian Stock has also argued for Augustine’s invention of reading as a form of life.  Our acts of reading involve much more than passive reception or linear scanning.  We take signs as significant while also trying to keep open their potential for continuing (or changing) significance.  We want to pin down a meaning even as we want to keep open our experience of that meaning as something we could, sometime down the road, change our mind about.  There’s a creative integration at work in every act of reading we undertake, imagining the world of the words before us and testing the words we’ve learned by the measure of that new world.

But what happens if we compare the subject of the paradigmatic Confessions and shaping force on almost every subsequent would-be autobiographer in the West, with another, very different, sort of life?   With, for example, an anonymous anchoress who lived in a small cell adjoining St. Julian and Edward Church in Norwich for perhaps thirty years in the late fourteenth century?  (I happen to be teaching Julian this week, so she’s on my mind…)

The faithful from Norwich came to ask advice, but mostly they seem to have been seeking the comfort of knowing that someone could perfect a life devoted entirely to God.  Called “Julian of Norwich,” this anchoress’s Revelations of Divine Love are famous for suggesting that sins are somehow “behovely” (befitting, appropriate, or advantageous).  Like many strains of the Augustinian tradition, Julian regards vices as modeled on virtues: out of proportion or misdirected, but basically revealing important structures of our nature.

At the same time, like many later medieval responses to the Black Plague, Julian further regarded suffering from diseases and illnesses as a valuable source of knowledge as well.  Before she received her revelations, she had prayed seriously for serious, life-threatening illness.  Bodily dissolution and pain offered a way of imitating and understanding the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.

What happens to reading–and to the meaning of a life in writing–under these more (pardon the pun) excruciating conditions?

Three themes for (nonviolent) study and play


Folio from an early Qur’an (8th-9th c. BCE)

At a time when the delegate leader for the nomination of one the major political parties in the United States is blatantly and falsely tarring Muslims as violent extremists and social media is making it easier and easier to thoughtlessly advocate genocide, it seems worth remembering the bewildering range of ways that the Qur’an is present in our world.

Here are three examples.  First, I have no idea what to make of the progress of Dubai’s Holy Qur’an Theme Park.  Immersive faith experience?  Blasphemy?  Fun Fundamentalism?  (Would it fit in some strange subgenus with the kids’ activities at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky?)

Second: admittedly, I have a professional bias for books brimming with footnotes and scholarly commentary, but just hefting the weight of the new “Study Qur’an” (described breathlessly here by CNN and in more detail by Muslim Matters) belies reductive characterizations of Islam.  The commentary tradition itself, aside from its relation to worldwide practice, contains multitudes.  Fragments of one of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an were discovered just last year, stowed away, safely misclassified, in the collections of a British university library.  Even the complicitous orientalisms of Anglophone scholarship exist in multiple streams, fanning out into criss-crossing rivulets of appropriation, collection, dissemination, and–often overlooked–mutual transformation.

And, third, here’s a 2013 NPR interview with the author of Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.  As I read about what Jefferson may have learned about pluralism through his encounters with Islam (even as he may have owned Muslim slaves), I wonder how many of our public officials today would be willing to abide by Jefferson’s response to a would-be biographer who was attempting to pry a late confession from the Sage of Monticello.  In an 1817 letter to Adams, Jefferson writes (surely with one eye on posterity and one eye on Adams’ own pieties):

[…] say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my god and myself alone.  Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life.  If that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”  (The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester Cappon, 506)

On circumstances in which bears would be frightened

fuseli macbeth witches

Henry Fuseli, “Macbeth, Banquo, and the Witches” (1793-94), distributed by CC-BY 2.0 license.

Deep in the wilderness of his account of skepticism in The Claim of Reason (1979), Stanley Cavell plucks out two moments that, he says, might plausibly count as the beginning and end of philosophical Romanticism.  First, Cavell points to a particularly difficult scene from that particularly difficult philosopher Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages (never completed but begun in 1753), and, second, to an infuriatingly self-assured generalization from a book full of them: Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821).  In many ways, Hegel’s generalization summarizes and domesticates the wicked problems that Rousseau’s earlier scene imagines.  But sometimes paraphrase produces its own monsters.

Before we move on I should probably note that Cavell isn’t at all interested in policing the dates of the term “romanticism”: just the opposite!  (He describes himself at this point in his carefully eccentric text as “rummaging” around in these texts rather than “possessing” them.  Possession is what happens to him after reading Austin and Wittgenstein, Shakespeare and, perhaps, Blake.)  But he is interested in charting the family resemblances between these two texts and contemporary analytic philosophy’s approach to “the problem of other minds.”  Whereas we often tend to treat our knowledge of other minds as a (relatively) universal problem for epistemology or even neuroscience, Rousseau and Hegel in their strikingly different ways both present this “problem” as thoroughly entangled in history.  Roughly, we could say that Rousseau imagines “other minds” in a detailed (if speculative) anthropological context.  Hegel, as we’ll see, puts the experience of other minds in the context of much vaster timescales, tracking historical transformations in our rational categories from the ancient to the modern world.

Cavell calls our attention to the Rousseau’s attention to the dramatic and expressive dimensions of the “first” human encounter with an “other”:

Upon meeting others, a savage man will initially be frightened.  Because of his fear he sees the others as bigger and stronger than himself.  He calls them giants.  After many experiences, he recognizes that these so-called giants are neither bigger nor stronger than he.  Their stature does not approach the idea he had initially attached to the word giant.  So he invents another name common to them and to him, such as the name man, for example, and leaves giant to the fictitious object that had impressed him during his illusion.  That is how the figurative word is born from the literal word, when our gaze is held in passionate fascination; and how it is that the first idea it conveys to us is not that of the truth. (Quoted in Cavell, CR 466)

For Rousseau, the complex somatic, emotional, and cognitive response of fright “remains the basis of the knowledge of the existence of others; only now we no longer interpret the threat as a function of the other’s bulk or body” (466).  So a kind of existential fright is part of the history and grammar of our experience with others.  We had initially seen other humans as giants, then by later intellectual operations distinguished ‘reality’ from the ‘myth’ of giants, creating what T.S. Eliot called a “dissociation of sensibility.”  Our words for giants lose their attachment to our real fears encountering others, and our words for other people lose the somatic charge and perceptual distortion that came with the contexts where we learned them.  (Does this myth apply also to children, encountering adults?)

But Rousseau’s account has a further twist.  The fear here is also, Cavell points out, a matter of being “frightened by an expression of fright” (italics in original, 467).  The reason the “savage” invents a name common to them and to him is that the “giants” express fright also, “as if he were the giant, or anyway possessed of some form of the monstrous” (467).  Rousseau’s speculative anthropology reveals a wrinkle in our experience of the strangeness of “others.”  They appear as objects of horror, fear, and anxiety, but in addition–as it were, inside these feelings–we see horror, fear, and anxiety as responses to us.  The possibility that we could dig into our own present feelings so deeply that we extract truths about our “savage” selves, that we could mine our souls for truths about the past or about humans generally, is what puts Rousseau on the map of romanticism.  Hic sunt leones. 

By 1821, post-Kantian philosophy had developed various strategies for snaring the lions and no one more systematically so than Hegel.  In section 124 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel is tackling the infamous “emptiness” of Kantian morality: subjective satisfaction (something like ‘personal happiness’ or ‘fulfillment’) has to be found in implementing “ends which are valid in and for themselves“–but this looks like awfully thin gruel as a motivation to do the right thing (PR, ed. Wood, 151).  But it’s misleading, Hegel says, to think of “subjective” and “objective” ends as mutually exclusive.  Even more misleading is the idea–very tempting within Kantian frameworks–to assert that, because a subjective satisfaction is present, then the objective end must have been merely a means.  In other words, if you’re getting pleasure from what you’re doing, it ain’t purely moral.  It’s this kind of fanatical (or hypocritical) self-policing that Hegel is attempting to find a way out of.  Just because you feel good about finishing a task (say, writing a paragraph or building an arch), should you suspect that those good feelings and not the merits of the task itself were your real motive?

Hegel answers that “[w]hat the subject isis the series of its actions” (151).  Your “real” motive isn’t something concealed in a secret, private intention (i.e. I really, really love the frisson of a finished paragraph or the balance of the last keystone dropping into place) that vitiates your participation in a more public good end (i.e. paragraphs persuading someone to vote for justice, or an arch completing a state-sponsored university).  Rather, the whole sequence of your actions, including the pleasure you take in participating in and completing projects with others, is what constitutes your intention: “if the series of the individual’s deeds are of a substantial nature, then so also is his inner will” (151).  With the scene from Rousseau in mind, we can see how Hegel is showing us something equally uncanny about a feature of our inner lives.  We usually think of our intentions in terms of present feelings: emotional dispositions we currently feel convinced of or compelled by, or else beliefs we can call to mind–beliefs that we take to be causing what we do.  Yet the sequence of our actions may turn out to express an intention far more plausible and significant for us.

To sample the complexities involved here, we might think about the way we discount many of the things Macbeth says about his intentions, however deeply felt and passionately expressed, because of what the sequence of his actions shows.  Two worlds seem to be competing as explanations of Macbeth’s motives: the primeval otherworld of the witches and the more modern (and creatively anachronistic) world of Jacobean political intriguing.  On the one hand, Macbeth’s “subjective feelings” are tragic because they are ultimately determined by the occult force of the witch’s prophecy.  On the other, Macbeth’s hemming and horror at his own deeds may actually be extenuating, because of course the baroque layers of political machination will catch and crush even the most scrupulous “prevaricator.”  Macbeth’s final fate is set by a pun, or by the minute registrations of pointless flexing against the interminable sequence of ambitions set up by monarchical sovreignty.

At a still higher level of abstraction, Hegel notes in an addition to section 124 that “the pivotal and focal point of the difference between antiquity and the modern age” is “the right of the subject’s particularity to find satisfaction, or – to put it differently – the right of subjective freedom” (Wood, ed. 151; Cavell quotes a different translation at 467).  The “infinity” of this right to subjective satisfaction (a version of my being happy about finishing this paragraph or that arch) is Christianity, what Hegel calls “a new form of the world.”  There are some particularly tricky moves in this passage where Hegel says that this satisfaction is “just as much identical with the universal as distinct from it” (152), but Cavell pinpoints the way that Hegel is starkly historicizing the concept and the experience of subjective satisfaction.  Somehow, Christian and/or post-Christian history is a sequence of “concrete expressions, shaping, of this right” (468).

Setting aside Hegel’s here-unargued attribution of the “universalization” of this right to Christianity, Cavell uses the possibility of this kind of massive historical transformation–a mutation of human agreements about what counts as satisfying, even of our sensation of what is satisfying–to ask about the possibility of something he calls, after Wittgenstein, “soul-blindness.”

(Wittgenstein explores the possibility of “aspect-blindness” in Part II of the Philosophical Investigations: the idea that, as in the diagram of a triangle that we might see as a leaning mountain or as a three-sided hole, we might see all there is to see but still have to learn how to see it in a new way.  And the related possibility that we could forget a way of “seeing-as.”)

Can a new form of civilization really replace another?  “In particular,” Cavell asks,

is it being replaced by one in which nothing that happens any longer strikes us as the objectification of subjectivity, as the act of an answerable agent, as the expression and satisfaction of human freedom, of human intention and desire? […] They would not (any longer) be human.  They would not, for example, be frightened upon meeting others – except in the sense, or under circumstances, in which they would be frightened upon encountering bears or storms, circumstances under which bears would also be frightened.  And of course particular forms of laughter and amazement would also no longer be possible, ones which depend upon clear breaks between, say, machines and creatures. (468)

Where is Macbeth on this scale of fright?  Does he experience the frightened recognition of fright of him in the forms of the witches’ grasping hands?  Or does he simply register surprise, like the armored, almost robotic or ghostlike Banquo?

On Horatio’s russet


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome (1598-1599), distributed by a CC-BY 2.0 license.

I’m looking at a traditional RYB color wheel (although I admit I’m unsure about what makes it “traditional”) and my first thought is that vermillion looks much more orange than I thought.  According to the geometrical analogies, vermillion is a tertiary color, a midway blend between primary red and secondary orange.  But “vermillion” reminds me of the scarlet leaves and blood that Hopkins evokes in “The Windhover” or the bright spot of a smashed clover mite.  I could (and can) easily imagine how grinding up cinnabar, with its veins and blushes of mercury, would be a first choice for dyers making sumptuous robes.  But if you combine secondary orange with secondary purple instead, you get “russet,” a reddish-orange, but also brownish, color.

Like the other quaternary colors (buff, sage, slate, plum, citron), russet allows for the presentation of a very different mood than the reds and vermillions Caravaggio uses (above, for example).  Our attention is caught, on the left, by the dynamism of the dark, composed folds above and the brighter spurts below the suddenly severed head.  Yet on the right, more ordinary browns, blondes, and greys dominate more intricate, seemingly less schematized folds.  I’m tempted to say that an ancient, sensual, dramatic world on one side is being vivisected by a very different mood or atmosphere on the other: the melancholy of the quaternary colors.  (And see how the hands and the faces make a drama out of ambiguities and complexities rather than immediate oppositions!)

Russet seems to be an altogether more affordable color than vermillion, something that occurs more often in our daily routine.  The coarse wool cloth dyed with woad (for purple shades) and madder (for reds and oranges) was favored by Franciscans because of its associations with plainness and virtuous Christian humility.  We probably think about the color of the potatoes before a particular type of cloth, but the glowing brown of the tuber carries many of the same overlapping senses: connoting sturdy, earthy nutrition more than luxury taste.  Some clever Wikipedia contributor also cites Biron from Love’s Labour’s Lost saying “Henceforth my wooing mind shall be express’d / in russet yeas and honest kersey noes” (5.2.434-435).  Biron is foreswearing “taffeta phrases, silken terms precise, three-piled hyperboles, spruce affectation, figures pedantical” (partly exemplified in the play by a schoolmaster named Holofernes).  Then, in a turn worthy of Holbein’s famous anamorphic death’s head, he says that “these summer-flies / have blown me full of maggot ostentation.”  So the question becomes: does russet, for all its peasant plainness, also convey the sense of what it rejects?  American readers are probably aware of the death’s head somewhere behind the later attire of the Puritans (Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil” still haunts many high school reading lists), but can we also begin to see a sense of melancholy in the browns of the poverty of the Franciscans, or of the peasants of Breughel’s worlds?

In the first scene of Hamlet, when Horatio sees the ghost with his own eyes, he says that its likeness to the dead King “harrows [him] with fear and wonder” (1.1.47).  But however harrowed, Horatio is skeptical enough to question whether the “fair and warlike form” of the king has been ‘usurped’ together with “this time of night” (50).  Horatio asks a fascinatingly complex question, implying that the ghost is untimely in three ways: demanding an unnatural watchfulness late at night (i.e. time of day), returning the figure of a man already buried (i.e. mortal time), and reminding them of past military campaigns (i.e. historical time).  After the ghost leaves the first time, Horatio doesn’t quite admit that he fully believes what he saw: he hedges, saying that belief would require “the sensible and true avouch” of his own eyes, and that its likeness to the king was “as thou art to thyself” (60, 63).  Horatio’s first thought is that, instead of presenting a particular figure, the ghost “bodes some strange eruption of our state” (72).  The ghost quickly becomes an objective correlative for all the unsettling recent events pervading the kingdom: abrupt shifts in political power, rumors of invasion, questions about lingering national ethnic and religious traditions–in short, an atmosphere resonant with late Elizabethan and early Jacobean anxieties.

After the second appearance of the ghost, Horatio offers a humanist gloss, describing the cock’s crow as a warning to erring spirits that the god of day is awakening.  Marcellus counters with a Christianized version, with appropriate qualifications given as if to address Horatio’s skepticism: “Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated […]” that the cock’s crow indicates the beginning of a “hallow’d” and “gracious” time, when planets, faeries, and witches lose their powers (163-164).  Again, we can hear a slip, or tension, between different temporalities as offering different perspectives on the same moment.  The moment itself is interpreted so as to be perceived in almost cinematic slow motion: when the ghost was “about to speak” (Barnardo, 152), when it “started” (Horatio, 153), and when it “faded” (Marcellus, 162).  Each interpreter also brings different temporal scales to bear: simple subjective expression (Barnardo), diurnal/mythological patterns (Horatio), and seasonal/eschatological history (Marcellus).

Horatio responds with one of those Shakespearean lines that leaves actors wide, wide scope to determine meaning with gesture, cadence, tone, and emotional coloring: “So have I heard and do in part believe it” (170).  (This is fun line to run through its paces with an old rehearsal and classroom experiment: saying the line ten times with a strong emphasis on each of its ten words.  “Do” and “part” are the ones an actor will have to make clear decisions about.)  How we hear this line will depend on how much we think the ghost’s appearance has been a threat to Horatio’s emotional tenor, humanist vocabulary, and practical skepticism.   Roland Greene suggests that, in the late sixteenth century, certain words (like “blood,” “world,” and “language”) consolidated the intense pressure being put on older allegorical conventions: each of these words derives its force, especially in literary contexts, from an awareness of its being “a marker under revision – the power of which draws from its materiality as well as its figurative associations” (Five Words, 109).  Here, in Hamlet, we see a conflict between ways of materializing or confirming belief: roughly, Marcellus appeals to a system outside himself while Horatio is attempting to legislate his belief for himself.  The matter of the ghost (as physical appearance, but also as foreboding or mood) becomes forceful and memorable because it, too, becomes a “marker under revision,” acting in the audience’s memory at the same time as and through the medium of the characters’ subsequent interpretations.

(Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy [1621] offers a wonderful palimpsest, in Greene’s usage, of the complex materialist and allegorical senses operating in early modern responses to color: one of the curious facts Burton notes about people suffering from “the lascivious dance,” Chorus Sancti Viti or St. Vitus’ dance, is that “[o]ne in red clothes they cannot abide” (Anatomy, ed. Jackson, 143).  Is this a throughly materialist reaction based on Galenic humoral theory, or a deeply moralized, allegorical reaction?)

So: the material associations of a color and a cloth, the overlapping temporalities of mood and mortality, and the interplay of residual Catholic, belated humanist, and emergent Protestant practices of belief.  Can we bring all this to bear on a single line of the play?

Horatio, perhaps taking back his partial acquiescence to Marcellus’ view, or perhaps registering a new moment after the contested instant of slow-motion ghostlight fading, says: “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill” (171-172).  Is the personified morning comfortingly identifiable despite or because of its russet mantle?  In contrast to the ghost’s armor, the morning’s mantle seems to be available to stable allegorical conventions.  If only for the moment of the dawn itself, the appearance of the color matches its time–the material appearance does not seem “out of joint.”  The russet appearing on the hillside indexes the morning in a reliable way, confirming the allegorization of the Morn ‘walking’ by matching the slow but quickening pace of sunlight’s approach.

Ezra Pound also takes this line as exemplary of Shakespeare’s mastery of cadence and rhythm.  Warning would-be poets against being “viewy,” Pound pushes us away from trying to visualize the russet cloak wrapping itself around the hillside, or at least away from taking this as visual description only.  “When Shakespeare talks of the ‘Dawn in russet mantle clad’ he presents something which the painter does not present.  There is in this line of his nothing than one can call description; he presents” (“A Retrospect” [1918], in Koloctroni et al., Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, 376).  Like a scientist, Pound says, the poet is acclaimed for discovering something.  For him, this means a particular rhythmic structure, the aural features combining words, syntax, and figuration in a way that cannot be translated.  What is discovered or presented in Horatio’s russet mantle?

I think Pound would say it has something to do with the return to sturdy iambs after the long night, the complex consonance of t’s and l’s, and the way the diction of “russet” subtly downshifts the higher levels of “mantle” and “clad.”  Not “clad” in knightly armor nor wearing a royal or religious “mantle,” morning is here perceived through a different rhythm of experience: plain relief as much as salvation.  Extracted from context, especially to our modern ears (which don’t often hear talk of more than primary colors outside specialized artisan’s, decorator’s, or curator’s argots), “russet” might sound like a conventional “literary” word.  But, in the instant of its utterance, either in its late Renaissance moment or within a performance of the play, Horatio’s russet mantle might be the cloth held tentatively between Caravaggio’s maid’s hands: will it help cover up evidence of a murder, or is it what will be dropped, in an emergency, to help?