Tag Archives: Tao Te Ching

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.

Inhabiting, not reading

I still have my Dell paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (95 cents, cover price). I think I read it in 1969 and didn’t understand much. When she gets to her big finale of the title essay–“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”–I had the scarcest idea what hermeneutics was. But as Bob Dylan sang, there was revolution in the air, and replacing something as multi-syllabic and teutonic as hermeneutics with erotics sounded good. Replacing anything with erotics sounded good in 1969.

Forty years later, and ten years ago, I wrote about hermeneutics in Letting Stories Breathe. I was struggling with the necessity of interpretation, our human inability to hear without interpreting, versus the problem of interpreting. Interpretation presupposes a stance outside what becomes the object of interpretation: the text, whether that’s words, pictures, or sounds, becomes an occasion for the knowing subject to exercise her knowledge upon it, and perhaps add to that knowledge, notching up another text on the reading list. The worst of Shakespeare criticism treats his writing as occasions for displaying knowledge, albeit very impressive displays of considerable knowledge. Then to remind myself why Shakespeare matters–why I and others show up at the theatre–I go back to writing by actors and directors. For them, interpretation is merely instrumental to what counts, which is inhabiting the character and the story: being part of it, and letting it become part of you. Which is why Macbeth is regarded with suspicion. Some stories you have to be careful about inhabiting.

What instigated these thoughts was reading two books that make me question how to read. Today I finished another cycle of reading the Tao Te Ching, which I keep reading through, without any beginning or end to the reading, which seems to be the point of what the Tao is, learning to think without beginnings or endings. No primal cause or act of creation, and no telos, transcendence, or Last Judgment. The point seems not to read the book, first page to last with whatever level of attention. Rather, the point is to inhabit the book as an embodiment of the mind of the Sage, although that statement is nothing but metaphors. What we call reading is an active surrender, a forceful giving-up-to. As one example, take the last line: “the way of a sage is to act without contending.” Scholars lapse into contending; establishing one’s difference from others’ work is often contention. The hermeneutics of suspicion–Marx, Freud, Derrida, Foucault–is contentious, except in those rare moments when each gets beyond that. Scholarship is a perpetual struggle to rise above contention. How do I inhabit the Tao, while writing about the issues of bioethics and healthcare? How do I retell testimonies of violences against the ill, without contending? As we live in a moment when the politics of contention threatens us, it requires discipline to hold to a rejection of contention.

The other book is Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls. I waited for the right moment to read this, anticipating that it would preoccupy me, as it has. If you’ve missed it, Barker retells the story of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Briseis (Breye-see’-is, I believe). Briseis is a young queen in one of the towns near Troy, raided by the Greeks. She is taken as a war trophy, awarded to Achilles, then stolen by Agamemnon. Here the pawn speaks. Briseis’s story opens up the women’s world that is the silent background in Homer: all these women, taken as slaves, who served the Greeks doing the cooking, laundry, nursing, and being “bed girls”. Homer has recently reappeared in two translations by women: Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. Barker, when read with Alexander and Wilson, gives us the same turning of Homer that the Globe theatre effects when it plays Shakespeare with gender-blind casting. But no, Barker effects a far more extensive shift of perspective; while sticking to Homer’s plot, she rewrites the story. She gets into my dreams. Putting me into the Greek camp, seeing it as a slave inhabits it, she creates an encounter more than a reading. It’s not a question of interpreting her book. What seems required is allowing the book to have its most extensive effect on how to live, which begins with seeing the world around me. Or better yet, seeing me in the world I participate in recreating.

Is some of that what Susan Sontag meant by an erotics of literature? What is the shift of responsibility as we move from hermeneutics to such an erotics, as a duality of inhabiting and being inhabited?