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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: May ::
Re: Ideology/Biology; Leontes' Illness; Peripety
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0539.  Tuesday, 6 May 1997.

[1]     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Monday, 05 May 1997 08:42:29 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Ideology

[2]     From:   Syd Kasten <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 6 May 1997 16:19:59 +0200 (IST)
        Subj:   Leontes' Illness

[3]     From:   Harvey Wheeler <
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        Date:   Monday, 5 May 97 18:10:42 UT
        Subj:   Peripety


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Monday, 05 May 1997 08:42:29 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Ideology

I am grateful to everyone who responded to my remarks on sociobiology;
they dignified my remarks by taking them seriously, and raising
thoughtful objections to them.

I'm afraid I gummed up the issue a bit out of laziness by sometimes
using "evolutionary biology" as a synonym for "evolutionary
sociobiology."  They are not quite the same thing; and my objections
were and are against the latter only.   At this point in time it is
silly, I think, for anyone to object to evolutionary biology.  And I
agree with Benkert-Rasmussen that Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary
biologist but not a sociobiologist, is a very fine writer.  Gould is
probably a better writer than most English professors, present company
included. Certainly he's more productive than most of us.

But sociobiology still seems to me to be oxymoronic; and if I remember
correctly Gould himself, a rigorous anti-teleologist, has argued much
the same thing.  What is social in us is precisely what biology cannot
fathom; biology can only fathom what is biological in us.  Now some will
say that it is important to use the tools of biology to find out where
biology ends and sociality begins; and the general notion is that we
will find that a lot of what we take to be social is actually
biological.  But I remain skeptical. My reading on the subject, as I've
indicated, is slight, yet everything I've seen so far has suffered from
crass reductionism and circularity.  Everything I've seen begins with
assumptions about social behavior which are themselves social rather
than biological, and therefore invested in a particular ideological
framework, although the claims the sociobiologists are trying to make
are exactly that what they are finding is pre-ideological, biological
truth.

I still stand by my original position: there is no selfishness in
nature, nor is there altruism in it either, since both terms demand a
moral agent, which is to say (among other things) a social being.  I am
not bothered by the implication that cats and dogs might be considered
moral agents and social beings; certainly they are not lumps of matter.
We know that they are sentient and communicate by signs.  We allow
ourselves the luxury of experiencing empathy for cats and dogs and of
assuming moral responsibility for their welfare.  We suspect that cats
and dogs, in their own way, form moral attachments to us.  As far as I
can see, the position of social constructivism does not require an
absolute separation between humans and animals, or the limiting of
morality to human interaction only, although on analysis it might be
found meaningless to apply the moral categories of human behavior to
animal behavior.  But constructivism does require resistance to the
notion that what is social can be reduced to the biological.  (On this I
follow Levi-Strauss and some his haunting passages about "natural man"
in _The Savage Mind_ and _Tristes Tropiques_.)

But one last point, which may help explain my position: I don't think
appeals to Chomsky help.  Most linguists, I believe, will tell you that
Chomsky's attempt to find a "universal grammar" has failed-indeed it
failed a long time ago.  And if, as the evidence then suggests, there is
no universal grammar, there is therefore no universal linguistic
structure of the mind.  All humans have language, yes.  And all humans
therefore have a certain kind of mental potentiality.  But it is in the
nature of human language, as it were, that it is always realized under
conditions of social contingency, and always socially constructed, a
non-social language being unthinkable.  The mind that thinks and speaks,
in and through language, is a social mind.  I sincerely believe that we
will never find the natural apparatus subtending human language that
Chomsky once thought we could find (I doubt that even he still believes
this anymore) since we have never been able to find the natural language
being subtended.  It's elephants all the way down.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Syd Kasten <
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Date:           Tuesday, 6 May 1997 16:19:59 +0200 (IST)
Subject:        Leontes' Illness

Thanks to Jay Johnson for his kind response to my letter on Leontes, and
for highlighting the passage in which Leontes refers to his courtship of
Hermione:

>                  Why, that was when
>        Three crabbed months had soured themselves to death,
>        Ere I could make thee open thy white hand
>        And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter,
>        "I am yours forever."

He observes that

>This account of the courtship period between Leontes and Hermione
>suggests anything but idyllic romantic submersion.  Rather it implies an
>egoistic campaign not to win over and persuade a desirable love-object
>but to overwhelm and dominate, a campaign which was not pleasant but
>"crabbed" and "sour."  Is there not a possible connection between the
>young Leontes courting Hermione in this frame of mind and the older
>Leontes descending into the pit of morbid paronoia?

I don't read this passage as a description of the "campaign" but rather
as a description by Leontes of his subjective emotional state over the
period of courtship.  Nor do I see in the language anything strong
enough to justify the terms "overwhelm" or "dominate".  I take the
metaphor to be botanic rather than military: "crabbed" implies to me
crab apple tree, whose abundance of pink blossoms yield sour fruit.
(The "crabby" person is a sourpuss not a crustacean.)  For some reason
the image that is evoked for me is that of the frame of mind of Jane
Austen's Darcy during his courtship of Eliza Bennett to the time she was
able to give him some indication of regard. Leontes is telling Hermione
now how much he suffered then until he could *make* her open her white
hand.  Surely not "make" as in struggle but rather as the sun "makes" a
blossom open.  " "Clap" thyself my love" - surely not applause at
victory.  Perhaps someone out there can confirm the sense of the word.
"Cleave", in the sense of adhere closely (kleb in the germanic? or
"name"? - (all those knights who were yklept Sir this or that).

Leontes rhetoric certainly contains a kind of reproach to Hermione for
keeping him in such painful suspense, but no less admiration for her not
being a pushover.

I would agree that Leontes might just as easily have experienced the
period as peaches had he been a more optimistic person at the time.
Instead he remembers his mood as having suffused the very space and time
in which he existed, but take note that the mood was deeper than sour.
The line ends in the word "death" - an endogenous (not aggressive)
death.  I would say that Jay has certainly picked out an element missing
in my analysis, but present in the text, namely a preexisting depressive
tendency.

Note should be taken as well that the lines are spoken in the plays
present.  The first thought that I would like to share in this regard is
that the very comparison of the Hermiones' convincing Polixenes to
extend his stay another week, a trivial matter at most to the observer,
with her recalled declaration of devotion seemed to me a gross
overvaluing of Polixenes presence by Leontes. I can't see it as sarcasm;
I see it as consistent with a lessening of his ability to modulate
emotion.

Secondly, the reproach implied towards Hermione in the dark first line
of the passage for cruelly allowing him to remain in suspense, is
followed by the light cast by "thy white hand".  I can make out a
tension between the germinating depression and the ultimately
short-lived ability to temper it.

Thirdly, on reading this short passage I am impressed with the
repetitions of the "th" sound and the closing with the word "forever",
that to my ear lends the passage a softness and tenderness that can only
come from the heart.  I wonder if any actor could utter these lines with
other than heartfelt tenderness.

Best wishes
Syd Kasten

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harvey Wheeler <
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Date:           Monday, 5 May 97 18:10:42 UT
Subject:        Peripety

I am very much interested in Peripety and would like to be in your loop
on the replies.

Harvey Wheeler

(If you don't know them you might want to look into the "Cambridge
Ritualists" - at least I've found them very helpful concerning dramatic
structure.)
 

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