Vulnerability, At the Present Moment

If I had given this blog a title, it would be the vulnerable reader. Both those words need specification, but today I’m stuck on what it means to think of oneself or others as vulnerable. By now–March 30–I assume everyone being kind enough to read this is living with some level of dislocation, whether of work, relationships, living arrangements, provision of services…and a long list of ‘and so on’. Shakespeare’s plays all begin, and I actually think all is warranted here, with some dislocation that is both individual and collective. Sometimes one or more characters has incurred this dislocation themselves: Lear’s division of his kingdom or Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Others have dislocation apparently forced upon them: Viola in Twelfth Night gets shipwrecked; Rosalind in As You Like It and Hamlet both have to deal with dislocations caused by the older generation’s misbehaviour. And maybe the most interesting are characters among whom I’d place Shylock and Coriolanus (not usually conjoined in one sentence) who both act and are acted upon. Shylock and Coriolanus seem to me to fit perfectly the human condition as famously described by Karl Marx: each makes his own history, but neither does so in conditions of his own choosing. Here’s a Shakespearean zen koan: in Macbeth, are the three sisters (a.k.a. the witches) of his choosing? Say either and you’re doomed.

Thinking about these characters, maybe even thinking with them, we can see ourselves as vulnerable both to our circumstances and to our selves. And pace Epictetus, it is not so easy to separate what we can control from what we cannot. Living in a pandemic especially blurs that distinction. Living now can make a word like control seem crudely naive about the human condition. Control is an illusion, and most dangerous when we most need to exercise whatever control we can. On my account of things, none of us ever controls much of anything, and that’s the beginning of our vulnerability. We are vulnerable both to illusions of control and to despair at our lack of control.

Erving Goffman’s Stigma, which might now be receiving the most attention of any of his works, seems to me to understand vulnerability as the ultimate absence of control over how one’s self is understood, both by oneself and by others, and human attempts, sometimes heroic and sometimes comic, to control information about the self. So far as we can control some people’s access to some information about ourselves, we stave off vulnerability. But there’s always what Goffman calls discreditable information out there, and so we’re all vulnerable. It’s comic in the sense that it’s funny watching Buster Keaton racing downhill, trying to outrun the giant snowball behind him. What, exactly, do we find funny? What about ourselves are we laughing at?

The situations of Edgar and his father, Gloucester, in King Lear are both distinctly not funny. The former is falsely accused by his brother and on the run, living disguised as a madman, mortifying his flesh to embody the identity he must assume to survive. Gloucester has had his eyes gouged out by Regan and Cornwall. Then they fall in together, and that doesn’t strain my imagination. I wrote, a number of blogs ago, about how the critic Jan Kott imagines the stage image of Edgar telling his father that although the ground might feel flat, they are climbing a steep incline to cliffs from which Gloucester is determined to thrown himself, ending his miserable existence. Two figures on a flat stage, struggling up an imaginary hill, one hoping to end a life that has proven too vulnerable.

Although King Lear ends with Lear holding the dead body of Cordelia, for me the more immediate lesson for us is Edgar and Gloucester, learning to live with what they now know as their own vulnerability. I distrust the word resilience and try to use it only to discuss what it obscures. I prefer to think of Edgar and Gloucester gaining tragic knowledge: that what you can control can never be disentangled from what you cannot control, and you are always vulnerable. But you choose to persevere. Shakespeare’s works multiply variations on characters choosing to persevere through the dislocations that they have variously caused and had imposed upon them. I like best those endings that leave us in doubt how this will work out.

The big difference is that in Shakespeare’s worlds on the stage, we the audience know that there will, within a couple of hours, be at least the sense of an ending, and we project that knowledge onto the characters in the plays, at least I think we can’t avoid treating our expectation as their knowledge. The most immediate anxiety of the pandemic, more immediate I think than getting sick and dying, is not having any idea when it might end, or what an ending will look like. It’s not knowing whether we will see some people again or do some things again. It’s not knowing what version of life as we knew it might again be available to us, when. I recently read a review by James Shapiro, writing about a new book that places Shakespeare in times of recurring plague, which the book’s author argues is the ever present background of concern in the plays. Plague was a predictable but always unexpected aspect of life for a long time, as in centuries. Shakespeare’s plays are both respite and reckoning with plague. How do we, now, use them to live with the newly recognized vulnerabilities that the present moment makes palpable in our lives?

Shakespeare’s Storytellers

“Ian considered O and Dee, holding hands under the trees as she fed him another strawberry, and Casper, watching Bianca with a proprietary air as she jumped Double Dutch. They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight. And Ian held the thread” (p. 126). That’s from Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy, which is her retelling of Othello in the Hogarth Press series of modern Shakespeare. Ian is the Iago character, and I think Chevalier catches Iago’s sensibility as a storyteller: how Iago sees others as characters in a story that he writes, directs, and plays a leading role in. I follow Erving Goffman in believing that one part of the presentation of self in everyday life is the manipulation of others to play out a story in which that self can be what the storyteller imagines being, or perhaps discovers who they can be. Manipulation covers a wide range of actions, with Iago/Ian representing the worst. We recognize how stories are co-constructed. We acknowledge less often how enacting stories involves manipulations; there’s a fine line between these categories.

This blog is a much condensed version of what was planned to be plenary lecture I was scheduled to give at the Narrative Matters conference in Atlanta this May. That event, like everything else these days, won’t happen, and by the time of next year’s conference, I sincerely hope I’ll want to speak on something else–it’s depressing to think that a year from now, I might have the same thing to say. So this blog becomes a useful venue to set down a bit of what I would have said in Atlanta.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters who either overtly stage stories, as Hamlet does when he organizes the players to perform The Mousetrap, or like Iago/Ian, enrol others as the cast in a story the protagonist designs. In The Tempest, Prospero designs such a story with the goal of setting back in order what had been dislocated by his brother’s usurpation of his Dukedom. Prospero’s cause may be fundamentally just: usurping the rightful ruler is a bad thing, especially setting him and his child adrift in a leaky boat. But The Tempest is an edgy play because Prospero is–to use the key word again–manipulating everyone else. Miranda and Ferdinand may feel they are genuinely falling in love, and they may have a great future together, but we know that Prospero is setting them up. Social scientists, at their most annoying, like to point out that most choices we humans make are far more predictable, and easily manipulated, than we imagine. In Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental phrase, we make unchosen choices. In social science, the Prospero role is called society. What’s amazing is the pleasure with which we watch The Tempest, compared to the annoyance we feel when told our choices are less our own than we supposed.

So we might array Shakespeare’s storytellers into categories like the good, the bad, and the ugly. Iago is clearly the ugly. Who’s good and who’s bad gets complicated. Hamlet stages The Mousetrap for reasons that seem good–to determine whether the Ghost is honest by observing Claudio’s reaction to a murder that mirrors what the Ghost accuses Claudio of doing–but Hamlet is less in control of how he performs his “antic disposition”. His viciousness to Ophelia puts him in the bad category–he needs professional help, even if we think he’s aware of being watched an is performing for those spying on him.

My favourite, in the sense of most fascinating and perplexing, good/bad storyteller is the Duke in Measure for Measure. In a remarkably short first scene, he conscripts Angelo and Escalus to play his part, to be Duke, while he leaves town for unexplained reasons. The Duke doesn’t leave, but rather disguises himself as a Friar and plays that part in the story that he as Duke has instigated, but that Angelo proceeds to act out. The Duke thus acts closest to how I think people in so-called everyday life design stories. What makes Measure for Measure so engaging is the constant question how fully the Duke has predicted what would happen and remains in control, and when he’s genuinely surprised by his cast taking the story in directions he hadn’t anticipated. I find the Duke more interesting than Prospero because of his tenuous control–he has no Ariel to make him effectively omnipotent.

Measure for Measure is based on the old folktale of the evil judge who offers to release a woman’s loved one if she sleeps with him. In MfM, when Angelo acts this way–thus taking an established part in a story that precedes him–the Duke has matters in control; he might even have predicted Angelo’s behaviour. In the eventual assignation with Angelo, the part of Isabella is played by Mariana, who is (inexplicably) still in love with Angelo, despite his having jilted her over an unpaid dowry. Then comes the fascinating moment: Is the Duke surprised when he learns that Angelo has reneged on his bargain and despite believing he possessed Isabella, has ordered the execution of her brother, Claudio, to proceed? An actor can play the Duke’s reaction either way: has he suddenly lost control of the story, or did he anticipate even this turn of events?

The Duke will regain control in his endgame move of staging his own return, and that’s when he most blurs the good/bad line. Part of bringing down Angelo, before ultimately forgiving him, involves not telling Isabella that Claudio is alive (another head is sent to Angelo, in another deception). Then, having pushed Isabella to her limits, the Duke asks her to marry him, which is at least his idea of a happy ending to a story in which most of the people have been seriously unhappy. In what may be Shakespeare’s greatest silence, Isabella never gives him an answer, and different productions can cue the outcome in either direction with more or less certainty. I’m left with a question that’s a Shakespearean version of a Zen koan: Is the Duke’s proposal to Isabella honourable? And what counts, then, as an honourable proposal? What counts as honourable storytelling, with real life characters?

We tell stories not only at bedtimes and firesides, but also in how we enrol/enlist/conscript others into parts that set them acting out plot scenarios that we, the real life storyteller, have more or less in mind; that is, we expect and desire more or less specific outcomes. As the stories we have instigated play out, we watch, intervene, and maybe manipulate, accounting for that in different ways. We decide which characters need what extra scene, and we half believe we can hold the thread that pulls them; sometimes, we do hold that thread. Shakespeare shows us the continuum and complexity of what counts as manipulation, and how easily honourable manipulation turns creepy. Different periods of response to Shakespeare react differently to the protagonists’ manipulations. At the extreme, nobody has ever condoned Iago. But Prospero has been idealized and condemned, both. In MfM, Lucio describes the protagonist as “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.156), and I wonder how truthful that is. Which brings me back to my usual sort of questions: How much of ourselves does companionship with the Duke enable us to see? Into which of our own dark corners does MfM shine some light?

Lear’s 100 Knights

When King Lear resigns his kingdom to his daughters (spoiler alert: Big Mistake), one of his conditions is that he retain 100 knights as his entourage. The knights are not speaking parts, although they sing, led by the Fool. Different productions put more or less knights on stage, acting more or less riotously. At one extreme, they literally bust up the furniture, leaving the stage a shambles and making it seem justified when Goneril tells her father that his knights are no longer welcome. He storms off in a huff, expecting no such restrictions from Regan. When Regan takes the same line, and then Goneril shows up and the sisters join forces, Lear knows he’s in trouble. When Lear departs into a literal storm, the knights seem to disappear. Regan speaks of him being “attended with a desperate train” (2.2.495), suggesting she’s still worried the knights might put up an armed resistance, but then they’re just…disappeared into the storm, as the Fool will later disappear.

The knights can be understood as a plot necessity: they provide the pretext for the daughters’ hostility, and different productions make this pretext credible, although later events show it was a pretext. I find the knights more significant than that; they earn a place in how I think about myself and people around me. We all have our own version of 100 knights, and a lot is at stake in the maintenance of whatever those knights are. Our claims on others to recognize the legitimate importance of those knights are foundational to our relationships with those others. We expect those closest to us to willingly contribute to the maintenance of those knights, even if that requires them to accept some disruption.

When Lear’s daughters question why he needs the knights, his reply is, to me, one of the most poignant lines in the play: “O, reason not the need!” (2.2.453). Functional need can be reasoned; it admits “I need it because…” statements. We might call the need that cannot be reasoned identity need. We need what we have decided makes us who we are, and King Lear is all about characters either making claims to be someone more than they have been (the evil Edmund, plotting to gain his brother’s title and lands), or realizing that in order to survive, they must give up what they have claimed (the threatened and displaced Edgar), or subordinating their claims to the needs of another (Kent assuming the disguise of a servant in order to continue serving Lear), or struggling to maintain their sense of who they are, as that identity is threatened. “Does any here know me?” Lear asks rhetorically, or maybe not so rhetorically. He then turns to irony: “Why, this is not Lear. Does Lear walk thus, speak thus?” (1.4.217-18). Lear asks ostensibly for others’ recognition, but he may also be asking how he can know himself, in the circumstances he is suddenly thrown into.

Once again, I’m back where I started, a very long time ago, with the early work of Erving Goffman–The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Asylums, and Stigma–in which the core problem is how people sustain the claims we humans are constantly making to be a self that is entitled to others’ acceptance of those claims. Goffman’s word for that acceptance is deference; for Hegel it was recognition; for many philosophers and bioethicists the words are dignity and autonomy. Goffman’s insight is that claims for the self are literally propped up; we need material props that substantiate our claims.

What I think Goffman didn’t spend much time thinking or writing about is what happens when people can’t see why certain props are necessary to someone else’s claims. I’m interested to imagine an alternative Lear in which the daughters are honestly intentioned toward their father. In this alt-Lear, Goneril and Regan are not the sort of people who poison and torture, respectively. The daughters just want what they start off claiming to want: household peace. That seems like the everyday situation we all find ourselves in when we question someone else’s need to something that’s disrupting the household and is, to us, excess baggage.

I notice that when Lear’s daughters are being, at face value, not unreasonable, he’s the one who pushes back disproportionately, cursing them in what may be the play’s most virulent language. To some extent, this scenario can play out at any stage of life. But in King Lear, age counts. After telling, or pleading, not to reason the need, Lear says: “You see me here, you gods, a poor old man, As full of grief as age, wretched in both” (2.2.461-2). A person of any age might protest, “O, reason not the need,” but Lear’s age intensifies that line; it somehow counts more, and exactly how tells me something about the vulnerability of old age. Although if you ask me what that is, I either babble some embarrassingly simplistic cliché or I have to tell you the story of Lear again.

I think these thoughts because of just spending time with my father, who is well beyond Lear’s age. I reflect on how easily I can find myself playing the Regan/Goneril part, questioning his need for something that seems to me to cause not only significant trouble for the household, but from my viewpoint it makes him unhappy. At such moments, it’s useful to stop and tell myself, O, reason not his need. Having 100 knights in attendance makes Lear feel like he’s a King, King Lear. We all need our 100 knights.

I myself am increasingly full of age though not, right now, feeling any particular grief. I write this surrounded by piles of all my belongings taken out of the rest of the house while we endure a once-in-a-lifetime repainting and flooring. Things had gotten pretty well worn, to put it nicely. It was an interesting enough experience piling everything into my study, one room we’re not redoing, and it will be more interesting putting things back, or I hope deciding what not to put back. There’s an awful lot that doesn’t stand up to any reason of need. I have to ask myself what self it sustains, what it props up. King Lear teaches me that aging well means not putting one’s children in the position of having to question their parent’s need in order to preserve the peace. Shakespeare eventually raises the bar so high on Regan and Goneril’s bad behaviour that when Lear claims he is more sinned against than sinning, we tend to believe him. But when I reflect on the play, it’s a close call.

I hope that as a companion story, Lear gives me greater patience not to reason the needs of others, but also greater willingness to reason my own needs. The 100 knights are a good metaphor with which to live a vulnerable life.

Risk, Lear, and Life

Not the least interesting reason for choosing to work on Shakespeare is that it introduces me to people at what may be, for many of them, the top of their game. Falstaff famously says that not only is he witty himself, he is the cause of wit in others. Shakespeare might have been writing about himself. I hope he may still be the cause of wit in me, although I appreciate the challenge, even for Will.

Which brings me to S.L. Goldberg’s 1970 An Essay on King Lear (Cambridge). Reading as I do, by snowball sampling, I read somebody else quoting Goldberg and found his book cheaply online, used. Such is my late style of scholarship. I started the book, got bored or bogged down, then went back to it and was glad I did. After finishing it I looked up Goldberg, or Sam as he was known. He was born in Melbourne in 1926; his father was a tailor. He eventually worked his way to Oxford, where the critic F.R. Leavis had a great influence on him. I don’t know as much as I should about Leavis and those known as Leavisites, but the idea of someone’s name becoming a school does not sit well with current sensibilities. Although we write about some argument being Foucauldean, Foucault hated boundaries; no acolyte academic group has formed. Bourdieu railed against what he called consecration. Anyway, Goldberg returned to Australia, went through several marriages and as many different departments, upset a lot of people, and along the way published his Essay on King Lear to mixed reviews, critics suspicious of what they perceived as its moral rigidity, which seems to have been his problem as a departmental chair. The world being a small place, I discovered I know at least two colleagues who worked with Goldberg. One degree of separation, as always. Goldberg died in 1991, heart problems.

I didn’t know this while I was reading the book, but retrospectively it makes sense. What I like about Goldberg’s Essay are the questions that he finds the play asking; they’re big questions about life and how to live it. What I found tedious is that Goldberg can’t let himself fully like any of the characters: Edgar he finds always “besides the point” in his speeches; Cordelia’s importance he cautions against overrating. Goldberg opens himself to big questions, but also holds himself back, which holds back the reader. It’s brilliant…and annoying. Maybe that’s a deal we have to live with, fairly often.

Goldberg is most rewarding, to me, not about characters whom I want like, but rather about Goneril, one of Lear’s evil daughters, although the more intelligent of the two. What defines Goneril, for Goldberg, is “how little reality she can bear to acknowledge” (184). That’s what I mean by Goldberg focusing on how to live: it’s not a specifically literary question; it’s a question that unpacks what colleagues mean when they use, or over-use, and fail to circumscribe, the word moral. Who we are, as moral beings, depends on how little or how much reality we can bear to acknowledge. Maybe Goldberg got this idea from T.S. Eliot’s line in the Quartets, whatever. It opens a different perspective on Goneril. I’d never thought about her in those terms, and then I have to think about myself in those terms. And I think they’re good terms in which to think about oneself.

Goldberg goes on to say that Goneril “continuously chooses the terms on which she will risk herself, but hers are so sharp and narrow that they leave her a correspondingly brittle kind of security” (184). She can, he writes, “afford to surrender only a very little of herself”. Maybe it required Goldberg’s own disposition to be able to recognize that, but it’s a good recognition. It’s good to think about Shakespeare’s characters in terms of how much of themselves they are willing to risk, to surrender even if only provisionally. Rosalind in Much Ado About Nothing risks inhabiting a male self, in the Forest of Arden where people can explore who else they might be (in the Forest of Arden, there is no really be). We love Rosalind for her risks. Then we could list Shakespeare’s brittle characters, and what it costs themselves and others to defend what they cannot surrender. Leontes in Winter’s Tale is a simpler example than others, and clearer for that. Othello is more complex. Ophelia risks and loses her mind, which is why I agree with Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster about liking her more than Hamlet, in whom brittleness and risking might have the most complicated alternation.

“The terms on which [Goneril] is herself are the only ones in which ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are real to her”, Goldberg writes (184). That’s a big sociological, or moral, question: what defines different people’s senses of success or failure? I hear in it Bourdieu’s question of what counts for different people; what can they take seriously? What any of us is willing to risk both derives from and affirms what we can–are able to–take seriously. We define ourself through our risks (or unwillingness to risk) in taking-seriously. I realize the tautology in all this: a good risk, a risk that leads to some success, is understood as good because of what counts as success, which depends on who a person is, and what a person is defines their capacity for risking. That tautological quality should not, I think, put us off what’s valuable in this way of thinking. The characters willing to risk more of themselves–Edgar and Cordelia, or Rosalind and Viola–find a success that fits my sense of success. But the point is: in affirming their sense of success, maybe I expand the terms on which I am myself (to paraphrase Goldberg). Maybe I make myself a bit less brittle.

Death, Politics, and Poetry

I just finished David Hinton’s Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry, which I’ve written about in at least one previous blog. Hinton narrates the life of the great T’ang poet, Tu Fu (712-770 C.E.) through close readings of nineteen of Tu’s poems. Each poem is printed first in Chinese pictographs with literal English translations, and then in Hinton’s translation. Much of the commentary is about the untranslatability of the Chinese, with two problems emphasized. First, Tu’s language uses no first-person I, but English requires a subject who sees, feels, and so on. Tu’s ability to write in the no-first-person means the poems can enact what Ch’an Buddhism seeks, which Hinton describes as mind that mirrors the cosmos; a mind through which the cosmos awakes to itself.

The second untranslatable feature of Tu’s language is that his written characters retain traces of their original analogical drawings: the word looks like the thing, instead of being an abstract signifier of the thing. In my favourite example, Hinton explains how the pictograph for anxiety is a composite of two elements. One is the image of a tiger, and the other is what translates as think, but itself decomposes into an image of the heart muscle and an image of “fieldland”. Hence, for anxiety, Hinton suggests the pictograph shows, analogically, “heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields” (119). Having spent these decades struggling to put into words the anxieties of illness, I feel a sense of epiphany–“Yes, that’s it!”–reading that cumbersome but evocative phrase: heart-mind when there is a tiger nearby in the fields. That’s what I’ve called deep illness.

These translation issues explain why Tu’s poetry is always on the verge of dissolution; it’s language undoing itself, in constant awareness of its insufficiency. Language already fading back into a pre-linguistic real, just as the landscape in paintings of the same period show the emergence and dissolution of forms. All that is solid melts into air, not just in modernity which is what Marx was describing in that phrase, but always.

Tu lived a refugee life–sometimes well patronized and other times starving–because of his vulnerability to the politics of his day, and in that we today feel an immediate kinship. My Provincial government announced this morning a commissioned report that describes how to cut 1.9 billion from the health budget. The Opposition critic pointed out that the government wouldn’t need to do that, if it had not begun its mandate by cutting corporate taxes by more than twice that amount. He didn’t add that the tax cut seems to have had no effect increasing employment. He also didn’t add that to the extent the health budget could stand cutting, what’s most worth trimming is the result of previous governments using health spending as a form of electioneering, especially building rural hospitals. So that’s my problem, and wherever you are, you can fill in yours. Compared to Tu’s problems, mine are civilized, at least so far. I may consider my government wrong-headed, but Tu saw heads literally rolling as civil wars precipitated invasions.

To sustain a life within this chaos, Tu wrote. He was the consummate vulnerable writer, and we read to know ourselves as vulnerable; to acknowledge our condition.

Politics is the contingent vulnerability of the day. Death is humans’ existential vulnerability. If you understand yourself as a transient form, emerging out of Absence to be, for a brief while, one of the Ten Thousand Things, and certain to return to formlessness, then death is the ultimate homecoming–and Tu spent his life trying to get home, which was both a real place and a spiritual condition. In his poems he dies and is reborn many times. And if we read him right, our vulnerability to death changes.

“Is this the promised end?” asks Kent at the end of King Lear. It may be the most bitter line in Shakespeare. Kent has suffered in the belief that a promised end will come, and for a moment it seems possible. Cordelia has returned, leading an army. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled. But then the battle is lost, Cordelia is murdered, and Lear dies, at best holding to the delusional hope that Cordelia still lives. Shakespeare gives us another ending later, in Cymbeline, where the battle is won, all are pardoned, and the old King blesses the young lovers. Vulnerable reading can hear, in each of these endings, the echo of the other. Both endings are always happening, emerging and dissolving.

As I finish David Hinton’s book, with the greatest regret that it’s over but knowing I can soon return to it, I imagine Tu still out on the boat in which he probably wrote his last poems, trying to get somewhere but knowing he was already there. One practice of vulnerable reading is to keep rethinking what I want to read when my vulnerabilities become embodied realities; what to read if dying admits reflection. Awakened Cosmos is definitely on my list. The end it promises is neither Lear’s resounding nothing nor Cymbeline’s pardons. It’s mind dissolving into the reflection of the moon on a lake. The tiger, hearing Tu’s poem, sleeps in the field.

Survival and Its Distinctions

Continuing to read David Hinton’s book about the poet Tu Fu, Awakened Cosmos, I get to a poem in which Tu, on the run with his family from the armies that rebel against those who have been his patrons, writes about being in a boat on a river very early one morning. It’s a short poem, four lines in English or 28 characters in Chinese. Nothing much happens: the moon shines on the river, the egrets sleep, a fish jumps. Hinton reminds us throughout the book that in Tu’s Chinese there is no personal pronoun, no I. So it’s not Tu that sees these things; rather, they happen, and he is there but not as the sort of subjectivity that an English language poem would virtually require. Not as a presence distinguished from absence.

Hinton comments: “In evolutionary terms, language enables us to make the distinctions that help us to survive more successfully. Tu’s own struggle with survival, and that of his war-torn country, echoes behind the poem’s image-complex. And yet, in this moment of reprieve, those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring, a blurring that carries us into profoundly ontological depths” (87). For someone trying to do what this blog calls vulnerable reading, those couple of sentences overflow, which takes us back to the title of the poem, “Brimmed Whole”, or Hinton’s literal translation of the Tu’s title, “brim-over complete”.

Vulnerable reading is for moments of reprieve, not for the times of being in flight. It’s about being in those moments, not so much using them as being able to inhabit them fully. In such moments of reprieve, when the flight is both close behind and awaiting ahead, “those distinctions essential to survival begin blurring.” I’ve written about holding one’s own in life. Illness is one of those conditions that makes us self-conscious of how we are always holding our own. We hold our own through distinctions. I remember when I had cancer–so long ago now–how I had to learn to distinguish between what I needed, what sustained me, and what torn me further down. That might be food or different people’s companionship. It might be chairs or clothes. Or it might be thoughts, imaginations, day-dreams of future possible scenarios. I had to learn to make distinctions between whose words I would take seriously and which words I regarded as bizarre curiosities, perhaps to be used later in something I might write. Healthcare professionals were distinguished between the nurturing, the merely useful, and the toxic. Survival depends on making distinctions and finding ways to act on those distinctions.

But then, as Hinton writes, distinctions blur. Here is the Tao of Tu Fu, or anyone holding their own. We need distinctions but we eventually need to get past them, because living in a world of distinctions is ultimately false, even insidious. Tu, in wartime, needs to distinguish places that are safe from those that are unsafe. But he equally needs to recall, in moments of reprieve, that all these places take form from the same formlessness. Distinctions are not an illusion, but they are not fundamental either.

All this leads me to ask, of King Lear, what happens to Lear in the storm, after his daughters have shut their doors against him, and he, his Fool, and the loyal Kent (in disguise) are out upon the heath where “for many miles about, There’s scarce a bush.” At first, Lear is pure subjectivity, setting himself as a force of will against the will of the storm, daring it to do its worst. Later, in a moment of reprieve after the storm, he wears flows in his hair. Those flowers are believed by scholars to be one of Shakespeare’s few original stage directions; he seems to have meant something by those flowers. Eventually, after Cordelia’s armies have been defeated and she and he are being taken to prison, “We too will sing like birds i’th’cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down And ask thee forgiveness.” The distinctions on which all depended in Act I, majesty and fealty, loving or unloving, endowed with wealth or without dowry, have blurred. In the cage blurs with being at court, which is its own kind of cage. There is the briefest glimpse of a life beyond distinctions.

Of course this reprieve doesn’t last. At the end, all that matters to Lear is the distinction whether Cordelia lives or not. Alive or not is the last, crucial distinction. Taoism, Ch’an, Stoicism are all about getting us past that distinction; the blurring of the life/death boundary is perhaps the crucial moment of what we can call enlightenment, as a word merely standing in for what language cannot express, because language is the arising of distinguishing. The beyond-distinction can have no name. Things merely are: the moon, the river, the egrets, the fish. Mind merely mirrors them, without distinction.

Wild, in Shakespeare and Health Humanities

I’ve been preparing to offer a workshop on King Lear next week in Tromso, Norway, and at the same time starting to read David Hinton’s new book, Awakened Cosmos (Shambhala, 2019). Hinton returns to and revises one of his earliest translations, Tu Fu (a.k.a. Du Fu in other translations; see especially David Young’s book). Each chapter presents one poem in Chinese characters with literal English translations of each, then Hinton’s translation, and finally a commentary of several pages. It’s a wonderful book, saying again what was said in Hunger Mountain (2012) and Existence (2016), but–and this is the point–there isn’t really that much else to say. What matters is how the poems, and the visual arts in Existence, might allow us actually to hear or see how little needs to be said, or can be said. Paradox is one of Hinton’s themes, as a crucial device of Ch’an teaching: how do you say something about what language cannot express? That idea exists in multiple forms in different traditions, from theology to Wittgenstein.

But my concern is reading Lear alongside Tu Fu, and the key word to that juxtaposition may be Hinton’s usage of wild. Hinton does not attempt to define wild but allows our sense of what he means develop through accumulated usages. In one passage that seems especially important, he writes of “wild forms” that “are not themselves part of our systems of human meaning.” That’s an idea we find elsewhere, but then Hinton adds a layer: “and since our linguistic human meaning-making is just one more of these forms, it too is wild and meaningless”–which seems another paradox. “Hence,” he concludes, adopting an uncharacteristically (ironically?) philosophical turn of speech, “the human is wild, and meaning is meaningless” (42). Tu Fu, at least one aspect of Ch’an, and Hinton’s own work, are about getting us not to nod in agreement at this reasoning, but internalize what wild implies, where it leads us, as a lived practice.

Lear is a terrifying play. It’s not just what humans are shown capable of doing–people do horrible things to each other in other plays. But in Lear there’s no bottom to it. Horatio calls upon flights of angels to sing Hamlet to his rest. No angels at the end of Lear, only the echo of Lear’s dying words: “Thou’lt come no more. Never, never, never, never, never” (V.3.326). No wonder the play was presented in rewritten form for 150 years, with Cordelia living to marry Edgar. The wild had to be tamed. That’s the issue we have to confront.

Maynard Mack, whose King Lear in Our Time I find most valuable, quotes approvingly Winifred Nowottny (1960), who writes: “The play is deeply concerned with the inadequacy of language to do justice to feeling or to afford any handhold against abysses of iniquity and suffering” (99). Wild, indeed. Lear is Shakespeare’s dark enigma, which is Hinton’s translation of the emptiness of mind that recognizes emptiness is itself a description, a form, an act of meaning making that is–in my understanding–an evasion of what is. Not what is as Presence, but what is before Presence divides from Absence.

This week I was also writing a blog posting for The Hastings Center and so thinking about bioethics, and I was engaged in conversations about health humanities. So I take these thoughts back to those pursuits. My recurring, comically recurring, objection to much of bioethics as well as much of social scientific research is its failure to reflect on how it positions itself in relation to the wild. Especially the banality of the policy or clinical practice recommendations with which research articles conclude. Well intentioned and often desirable as such recommendations are, they protect writers and readers from the wild that the observations risk opening up. In this denial, they obscure what they ought to make observable: the abysses of iniquity and suffering. Take abyss seriously, in what the word seeks to convey.

My current work depends on the hope that by bringing either Lear or Tu Fu into the conversations, bioethics and health humanities can at least resist acting to repress the wild. I seriously doubt if bioethics could be bioethics–could do its job–if it were, itself, wild. But I also don’t think it can do its job responsibly if it represses the wild, because human life at its extremes tips into the wild; it’s where we end up. That’s what Lear and Tu Fu’s poetry both show, in utterly different ways. Health humanities could be where the wild receives recognition, if we can learn wild reading. Perhaps, in the form of critical response to literature that is distinctive to health humanities, the crucial gesture is silence. But I’m an old man, and it’s winter.

Generosity in the 20s

So we all enter a new decade. I haven’t written recently, in part because of enjoying the holidays, and in part because I’ve been working hard to assimilate Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine (now reissued as Stay Illusion). I finally read this book just as my article “‘Who’s There?’ A Vulnerable Reading of Hamlet” appears in Literature and Medicine (37.2, Fall 2019, 396-419, currently online). If I’d read Critchley and Jameson earlier (the book appeared just as I submitted the manuscript), I would have written a different article. Which may be what makes Hamlet perennial: more than maybe any story, it never stops opening into different understandings. C&J read Hamlet very differently from Harold Bloom, but they left me thinking that Bloom’s title gets the point of it: Poem Unlimited. But that’s an apology and update, not what I want to write about today.

Everybody writes an op-ed on what to expect in the coming decade. I’m trying to hold together two back-pages stories that have been in my newspapers during the last month and one recent experience. The first news story was about the city of Vancouver levying a 12% increase in property tax, with most of the money going to infrastructure upgrades in anticipation of weather emergencies. Especially increasing storm sewer capacity. Not dramatic, until you need it, which I believe they’re correct in assuming they will. That, to me, exemplifies good government. Second, on my first visit of the new year to my doctor’s office, I was offered a petition to sign; it will be forwarded to the Alberta Medical Association, to present to the provincial government. The details are complicated and will change anyway, but the bottom line is that the Province wants to cut billings in primary care by 30%, at least as their opening bargaining position. So maybe they’ll eventually settle for a 15% cut. Whatever, it’s a lot of clinical time, and it’s indicative of social care budgets in the coming decade. The third story gets at what the Province is more worried about, which are “orphan wells”. These are oil wells of various sizes that have been abandoned by the companies that drilled them. Many of these companies are no longer in business. The wells are leeching toxicity into the ground; they need cleaning up. The bill is one of those unthinkable amounts of money. Allowing this situation to have happened exemplifies bad government. But the bill is coming due. Nobody wants to run for office on the slogan of making Alberta more toxic again, but it is becoming more toxic.

Welcome to the 2020s, and I’m sure each reader, wherever you are, has your equivalent local stories; well, maybe a few live in the more privileged countries that still escape having equivalent stories. It’s hard to imagine that the 2020s are going to be like the “roaring” 1920s; more like what Albertans call the dirty thirties. I keep thinking of the Alberta songwriter Ian Tyson’s line, “The good times now are gone.” I think about the question so many editorialists and commentators have asked in the recent years: how to avoid despair?

That takes me back to Simon Critchley, but this time to his earlier book, Infinitely Demanding. Critchley begins with how the 19th century framed its despair, which was Nietzsche’s question of how to avoid nihilism. Critchley divides the problem of nihilism into two responses: passive and active. Active nihilism is expressed in acts of terror, in which I’d now include the apparent acceptance of governments carrying out extra-judicial assassinations with full acknowledgment. “Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it, the passive nihilist,” Critchley writes, “focuses on himself and his projects for perfecting himself” (p. 4). Critchley elaborates a list of such projects, and I wonder whether my project of vulnerable reading belongs in that list. Of course the passive nihilist doesn’t accept the dichotomy of changing the world or perfecting oneself; instead, the latter is understood as necessary, to save the former from becoming the forms of violence that do change the world, but for the worse. I emphasize this is only the bare beginning of the more complex argument Critchley proceeds to develop–I plan to engage that argument elsewhere.

The perpetual risk of vulnerable reading is that it can become a project of passive nihilism, retreating from the need to effect good governance in the face of overwhelming demand, due in large part to past acts of collective imprudence. Blame should be apportioned for that imprudence, but blaming won’t clean up the orphan wells. Neither will reading Shakespeare.

But perhaps in reading Shakespeare, and others, we can find ways to live in despairing times without either the violences of active nihilism or the withdrawal of passive nihilism. By living with his stories, we can find new ways to tell our story so as to make it habitable. At least that seems a reasonable goal for those of us who are too old to dig storm sewers. In our present crisis of how to avoid nihilism, vulnerable reading is not a project of self perfection. Rather, it’s the work of group reincorporation, which may be what theatre has always been about. Changing the world may need to begin with a firm recognition that only the outward manifestation of our problems is new. We need respite from the present in order to return to it, and an active form of respite is seeing ourselves reflected in old stories. The good times have always been fleeting and poorly distributed. Looking back can be one form of moving on.

The Tao of Shakespeare?

Consider these two lines, so far removed from each other in time and culture. First, from King Lear, the anguished cry of the dispossessed and blinded Glouscester: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, They kill us for their sport” (4.1.37-38). And from the Tao Te Ching: “Heaven and Earth are Inhumane: they use the ten thousand things like straw dogs” (David Hinton, trans., verse 5). The difference, and it’s a Big Difference, is that Gloucester is complaining about how the universe is ordered. Lao Tzu is telling us that’s how it is, and it’s nothing to complain about. Also, Lao Tzu situates humans among the other “ten thousand things”, which was a standard expression for saying everything. Gloucester seems to believe humans deserve special treatment; not so Lao Tzu.

Who is being mean to Gloucester? Within the play, Regan and Cornwall have gouged out his eyes and expelled him onto the heath, but on the next level it’s Shakespeare who’s putting this character through so much. Asking what Shakespeare is doing leads to the next lines in Tao, 5: “And the sage too is Inhumane: he uses the hundred-fold people like straw dogs.” Is Shakespeare inhumane? To express why not–and to realign our thinking along lines that seem to me to be necessary for encountering the particular humanity that Shakespeare both exemplifies and engenders–I turn to a commentary on a different verse from the Tao. Here is Yen Tsun, about whom I know nothing: “Free of love and hate, they [Sages] are not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. They are not the protector of truth or the adversary of falsehood. They support like the earth and cover like the sky” (quoted by Red Pine in his Tao Te Ching, verse 49). That, for me, describes Shakespeare.

It’s not that Shakespeare doesn’t have clear preferences about evil and good; we who attend Lear react with horror at the actions of Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall, and we react with admiration to Edgar, Kent, and Cordelia. Yet what makes Lear worth calling profound is that as Shakespeare tells the tale, he is not the enemy of evil or the friend of the good. Instead, Shakespeare’s business is to show what consequences follow from particular acts, depending on who gets involved as consequences play out. Contrast how Shakespeare tells the tale with how it’s told in his source material. In that telling, Cordelia lives at the end, marries Edgar, and the gods seem less liable to Gloucester’s complaint. And that’s how King Lear was revised and performed for over a century, after the theatres reopened during the Restoration. Both the original teller and the revisionists were enemies of evil and friends of the good, and that required an ending in which good wins.

I’m not much on understanding history as a progress narrative, but I do recognize the ability of audiences and readers to tolerate Shakespeare’s telling as a sign of collective maturity. To return to Gloucester, if we hear him with the Tao beside us, we understand that he’s empirically correct but misguided to complain against the gods. The gods, or Heaven and Earth, are not Inhumane in the same sense that humans who kill for sport are inhumane. Only humans can be inhumane, and to believe otherwise is to seriously misunderstand the order of things, which people do all the time. I’m thinking of people whose response to illness and other misfortunes is to ask why questions. My rejection of such questions is partial: we can’t blame everything on the inherent a-humanity of Heaven and Earth. Too many misfortunes are caused by other humans, sometimes intentionally but more often, I think, as collateral damage required to enact a business plan, whoever’s plan that is, in war, commerce, or family life.

What I’m dealing with is the on-going question of why I focus on Shakespeare as my exemplar of authors who lend themselves to vulnerable reading. In one sense the choice of Shakespeare is arbitrary, but I’m inclined to believe there’s something about Will, and what Yen Tsun says about sages gets at what that is. Vulnerable reading is about finding your place in the order of things, when that place is not where you want to be. That’s the illness problem, in a nutshell. I don’t say refinding because for many people, their previous and quite functional sense of place was a tacit default position, much like Gloucester’s unreflective sense of entitlement before his downfall. Illness can require a new sort of active finding–which over the years is what keeps it interesting for me.

In the end, the play’s end, Gloucester dies knowing that his son Edgar is alive and might make it through the horror. Lear dies with Cordelia dead in his arms, possibly hoping she might possibly still live. But we know that stretches possibility too far. Shakespeare knows better. Heaven and Earth are not like that. For the master storyteller, the characters are straw dogs, and the story shows us how to live with that.

Homeopathic Tragic Theatre

Once again there’s been a gap in this blog, partially due to travel and family commitments, but also because I keep forgetting that this blog isn’t about me saying anything. Rather, it’s about sharing quotations, especially, that I want to share. So let me take up a book that I imagine few people read these days, Maynard Mack’s King Lear In Our Time, published in 1965, my first year in university. If Mack is best remembered as one of the founding editors of the Norton anthologies, that misses the depth of his own critical writings–critical in both senses. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia that draws me to the literary scholars who were prominent in my early days. They had a different understanding of what scholarship was for, and who it was for. Dare I say, a broader view. Kenneth Burke’s phrase literature as equipment for living might summarize this view. But as always, an example is better than a description.

Mark writes: “In what kind of world do we go on a mysterious journey of which we do not altogether understand the reason, arrive in places whose topography seems to be psychological and spiritual, commit actions and make gestures which have a profound ritual meaning, face logical improbabilities and indeed impossibilities with total equanimity, all in the company of persons whose reality is absolute yet seems to consist in something beyond themselves which after the experience is ended we can no longer recapture? In what world do people and events possess circumstantial reality for each of us, yet at the same time … function ‘really’ as huge cloudy symbols of a history generic to all human beings…” (78).

I don’t find writing like that in recent Shakespeare scholarship; maybe I’m reading the wrong people, but I think times have changed. I won’t begin to unpack the quotation phrase by phrase; I offer it as something worth contemplating for a while. But I will say something about what kind of world Mack describes. He goes on to say it’s a dream world, which it is, but it’s also the sort of dream that the best theatre creates. Specifically, it’s the world of King Lear, as an experience of theatre. But as you might have already guessed, given my obsessions, for me it’s also an uncanny description of the world of illness, or a description of how illness precipitates uncanny experiences. It’s the world of the quest narrative, as I called it in The Wounded Storyteller. The quest narrative isn’t only different claims about what it is to be ill. It’s experiencing illness on a different plane of experience and signification, those two being intertwined. It’s a different topography, in Mack’s phrase.

This leads me to consider how what I call vulnerable reading–to which Mack’s statement is a fine epigraph–does its work, and maybe how narrative medicine works. We enter a literary world that condenses and intensifies the ‘real’ world we struggle to inhabit. Being in that second-order world has a medicinal effect that can be suggested by the metaphor of homeopathy: treating like with a small dose of like. It’s not that the sufferings of the characters in Lear have direct analogies to the sufferings of people in the theatre of health care. It’s that we, real people, can recognize ourselves differently after spending time in the theatre of Lear. It’s not catharsis, as differently understood as that term is. It’s more a pedagogy, to return to a word I’ve often leaned on when I was hard pressed to express a form of supportive relationship.

The pedagogue was, I’m told, originally less a tutor than someone who walked the child to school; a sort of older companion in the literal journey of education. The pedagogue guided and maybe protected. Accompanied by the pedagogue, I imagine the child being able to relax and take in aspects of the journey that might otherwise be missed. But I’m probably pushing my own agenda onto an ancient practice. What I want to say is that the pedagogue of my imagination held the child, in D.W. Winnicott’s sense of holding as offering a foundational security that makes exploration seem safe in a world of unforeseeable hazards.

Homeopathic theatre allows us to experience, from the comparative safety of our seats, a world that is both magical and yet even more real. It allows us to see both the circumstantial and the generic, in Mack’s words. It enables doing something that we should not take for granted: experiencing, when what is being experienced is beyond unwanted.