Tuesday, August 20, 2013

800 Words: A Rare Word in Praise of Ignorance

Homeless guy sees rich man on the street. He asks for some change.

The rich man says “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. - William Shakespeare”

The homeless man replies “Fuck you. - David Mamet”

William Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare. Edmund DeVere didn’t write them, neither did Christopher Marlowe, neither did Francis Bacon, neither did Queen Elizabeth, neither did Elvis.

People like to allege that William Shakespeare, a middle class tradesman with barely a grammar school education, could not have written the Shakespeare plays, but the truth is that only a middle class tradesman with barely a grammar school education could have written them. No member of the ruling class would ever be let within any offstage proximity to a troop of tradesmen/players like those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, nor would any nobleman but a rapscallion as great as Prince Hal have any cause to come within any distance of the vagabond posse of Sir John Falstaff's in Henry IV. Furthermore, an aristocrat would have been well-traveled enough to have better knowledge of geography than Shakespeare, in The Winter’s Tale a character states that Bohemia has a ‘coast-line’, and in two plays separated by twenty years he has characters sail from Milan.

But most importantly, Shakespeare’s frame of literary reference, while reasonably impressive, was clearly a bit limited by the standards of his day. Shakespeare, the world class plagiarizer who pilfered from so many earlier sources, would surely telegraph any scrap of material he read which left any impression on him. And clearly there are eminent writers of former generations who influenced certain works: Chaucer in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Trolius & Cressida, Montaigne in The Tempest, Plutarch in the plays about Classical Rome (Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar), Boccaccio in All’s Well that Ends Well, Plautus in The Comedy of Errors. Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus show that he might have read some Seneca and Cicero, and clearly there is no way he’d have written the sonnets without reading Petrarch. But where does Homer show up? Or Aeschylus? Or Sophocles? Or Herodotus? Or Plato and Aristotle? Or Livy? Or Virgil? Or Tacitus? Or Dante? Or Ariosto? Or Erasmus? Or Tasso? Or any other number of eminent writers which any educated aristocrat would be expected to read and quote liberally in Shakespeare’s time. Had Shakespeare read Homer, or Dante, or Sophocles, then surely there be a lot more evidence of his reading in the text. Wouldn’t there?

In any event, Shakespeare showed precisely what he thought of such extensive learning with Polonius, who demonstrates extremely well what an idiot a well-educated man can be. Meanwhile, Shakespeare is at great pains to show that his ‘fool’ characters are often the most sensible people in the show: the Fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night, the First Gravedigger in Hamlet. If such characters were main characters, there would be no play because they would lead lives too sensible to be remarkable. There are plenty of lower-class characters (far too many frankly) on which Shakespeare heaps contempt. But Shakespeare clearly has as much contempt for over-education as ignorance.

Perhaps if Shakespeare knew better the work of writers like Homer and Dante, they would have overpowered his imagination. No writer too familiar with truly extraordinary imaginations would ever be able to equal their imaginative flights unless he were conscious of trying to do outdo them. In the way that Wagner tried to outdo Beethoven, or Milton tried to outdo Shakespeare, or Caravaggio tried to outdo Michelangelo (or Dante tried to outdo Virgil), we see imaginative works which are almost fried by overstimulation. In order to surpass the genius whose shadow treads so heavily on them, every moment, every emotion, every expression of these ‘later geniuses’ has to be outsized to the point that its epic scale obliterates the influence of what came before. But there is little evidence of such gigantism in Shakespeare - the stakes are rarely ever apocalyptic. Even Macbeth and Iago never killed more than a handful. A sense of momentous tragedy is present in many Shakespearean plays, but rarely if ever does such tragedy obscure the human expression, and in no play does an impersonal sense of ‘world events’ obscure the human tragedy. Shakespeare created a language of human expression, a language upon which human beings chewed for half a millenium. But now that the world has moved past written language, perhaps the world has moved past Shakespeare as well.

For at least two centuries, Shakespeare has been the very center of humanist education. Contrary to popular belief, the list of books which must be read grew ever longer until quite recently. In former centuries, the ‘polymath’ or ‘universal man’ who seemingly achieves all the knowledge of the world was also expected to be a man of action. Aristotle counseled Alexander the Great, Leonardo was a military advisor to Cesare Borgia, Franklin and Jefferson were instrumental in forming the United States.  But by the early 1900’s, the list of ‘Great Books’ was so long that an ‘educated man’ could only be a man who devoted his entire life to his education. How could the world possibly add to the store of great learning in a world where no one who achieved universal knowledge could add to it? It is simply not feasible to make education the highest priority in a world with so much knowledge that no one can possibly accumulate it in one lifetime.

We all live in ignorance of a large majority of what the world has to offer, and as such, the world is a smaller place for us all than it is. In a world where a basic level of knowledge is a given, the world begins anew in deciding what to learn is worthwhile. The twentieth century began a process which we might as well call ‘The Great Relearning” (Tom Wolfe’s term), in which everything began with basics.

If any century before ours took so much pride in exhibiting the same level of ignorance in so many areas of endeavor, in the basics of math and science, of literacy, of the humanities and the arts, civilization itself would have collapsed and we’d still be travelling during the day by horse and wagon so we could huddle around the fire at night. But whether or not we want to ignore them, the achievements of past centuries are here to stay - we are so beset by history, so imprisoned by it, so utterly calcified by maintaining it, that we can’t possibly view it as anything but a burden. We live in a society so sophisticated that we dream of little but a primitive resurgence. None of us consider ourselves whole unless we find a way to go back into nature. We listen to simple primitive music with symmetrical beats and a thousand-word vocabulary on technology which goes from our computer to us via space and its the music we call ‘genius,’ we watch stories of the most basic outline on film that produces twenty-four photographs per second and it’s the films we call ‘brilliant,‘ we go camping and bring with us lights which generate their own energy and we think we’re returning to the primitive. The more sophisticated technology grows, the more we yearn for it to express something more primal. Does technology accomplish that primal emotion for us? Can it?

I don’t think we yet know, or can know, the answer to that question. Life’s rules have been completely rewritten. In the computer, mankind leaped arithmetically, and experienced the most revolutionary invention since the printing press. But in the Internet, mankind leaped exponentially, experiencing the most revolutionary invention since books themselves. Or perhaps the internet may prove still more influential, being the most important invention since the invention of writing. Or perhaps the internet is the most historic innovation in history since the invention of history itself. If human nature changes, it changes so gradually that we can’t possibly be aware of change in the span of a lifetime. But there is an enormous probability that life after the invention of the internet is so exponentially different that life after it will be as different as life was for agrarian societies after the invention of recorded information - with exponential improvements in quality of life simultaneous to exponential improvements in the capacity of destruction. Mankind has entered into a new era with undreamt of rewards and risks. No endeavor without risk is worth undertaking, but a risk is a risk because the endeavor runs the risk of failure.

In this brave new world, we are yet again children - adrift in a world we are only beginning to understand. It is in childhood that the learning curve is fastest, and the rules are rewritten which hopefully carry us into adulthood with a mature understanding of the world. In the meantime, there is still potential for disaster unseen. Steven Pinker may argue that the world is safer than ever before, but he doesn’t account for geological and ecological disaster, multi-drug resistant bacteria, loose nuclear and biological weapons, and finite natural resources. The world always seems to be safest right before undreamt of disaster, but it is unfortunately from such undreamt of disasters that the world learns its new lessons which make it safe again. The relative stability and prosperity of today’s world was forged from two world wars, a great depression, and a half-century cold war-by-proxy. The lessons of the Great Depression have staved off a depression which could have dwarfed it, the lessons of two world wars have thus far prevented a single nuclear weapon from being dropped on civilians ever since, and the lessons of the Cold War by proxy has thus far prevented more than half-a-dozen cold regional conflicts from turning hot. These lessons were learned at a terrible price, but the lessons learned have thus far prevented the worst mistakes from repeating themselves. Whether in the cultural lessons of Shakespeare, or the political lessons of Roosevelt, or the scientific lessons of Galileo, or the internet lessons of Al Gore, or a baby hitting his head on the floor after his first attempt to stand up, it is only by blindly groping around in ignorance that we gain any chance of doing better.  

...This was originally supposed to be a post about Breaking Bad….

Note: I of course forgot the Player King's speeches about Priam and Hecuba, which are taken liberally from Virgil's Aeneid. Even so, if Shakespeare were better acquainted with a work as monumental as The Aeneid, wouldn't we get a play about some stories from it? Or given his opinion of the Players in the 'Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I' speech, maybe he read Virgil and simply didn't like it. I don't blame him...

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