shakespeare

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?

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On Horatio’s russet

Caravaggio_Judith_Beheading_Holofernes

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?