The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1301  Tuesday, 27 June 2000.

From:           Tony Burton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 27 Jun 2000 11:59:22 -0700
Subject: 11.1290 Senile Dementia, Living Art,
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1290 Senile Dementia, Living Art,
and                 Shakespeare as Religion

The discussion of senile dementia in respect of Polonius, and the way
his habits of thought and expression are expressed, has focussed on the
more superficial similarities between various medical notions of
geriatric mental failings, or else issues of how his lines lend
themselves to effective techniques for onstage enactment.

Florence Amit's comments on art as either living or eternal introduces
the useful notion that art has a capacity to be "harmonious and
consequential" that exceeds what we ordinarily encounter in life -- and
in literary criticism.  Yet, what does this mean to us now?  Since the
mid-20th century interest in organic form, structuralism, and the like
is not now fashionable, we rarely see a serious attempt to ask
"harmonious with what?" Yet Amit's observation requires us to do so, and
the discussion brings us over to the subject of Shakespeare's work as a
modern religious text.

For a materialist, the question "harmonious with what" has no great
meaning.  But life is not purely material; life and living thought are
rooted in spirit.  The spiritual world has laws of its own for which we
rarely find concrete examples; but I wish to suggest that Hamlet's "The
time is out of joint" points to a way of understanding Polonius that
creates a bridge between spirit and ordinary experience.  It reflects an
important historical context, a great shift in the spiritual nature of
man in the period between, say, the mid-15th century and Descartes;
during that period the great inherited wisdom of the ancients was
understood less and less even though it was repeated piously, and people
felt more and more that it was a kind of self- betrayal to act on
external authority.  For Hamlet, it was like being reduced to an inert
muscal instrument, to be "played upon" by others.

Polonius's much admired set-piece, his parting advice to Laertes, is far
from admirable; in fact, it dramatizes the way in which the ancient
wisdom had ceased to be understood in the 16th century, and was
preserved as pious gibberish only.  It consists of nine balanced pieces
of good advice followed by the famous "This above all: to thine own self
be true. . ."  If we read this materialistically, or computer-style, as
a collection of useful adages (and they are each in quotation marks in
Q1) that can be rearranged at will without changing the nature of the
"set", we miss the deeper point.  Polonius's  sequence defeats his own
purpose because, if Laertes guides every moment of his life with the
memorized wise counsel of the first nine instructions, he can never be
"true to himself".  He will have lost all freedom to be "himself"  and
become no more than a clever automaton.  Indeed, Shakespeare shows the
consequence of Polonius's kind of rote "wisdom" in the last scene,  when
Laertes cannot even accept Hamlet's apology on his own, but defers to a
time when "masters" of honor can instruct him what to think.

If Polonius has begun in the reverse order, with "to thine own self be
true," he might have found the right track and gone on to say it
followed from that starting point that his son would choose his friends
wisely, be restrained in conversation and dress, careful in borrowing
and lending, and so on.  But he represents an earlier time, now out of
date and "out of joint", which must be replaced by one where individual
responsibility is the standard and not reliance on the sonorous wisdom
of the revered "auctores," the great sages of the past.

We can recognize two kinds of thinking.  There is one that can be
reproduced in bits and bytes, and assigned to a computer, but it has no
inner life.  The other is spiritual and is imbued with a life of its
own, but is nearly impossible to express in words; gnomic utterances,
riddles, and koans come closer than prose, and most literary criticism
isn't even in the running.  Like every other living entitity,  it has a
natural form of its own that must be discovered and honored, if the life
in it is not to be destroyed.  The commutative law does not operate in
spirit or in life, as it does in algebra and logic.  If we say "seed,
seedling, plant, flower, fruit, seed," we make sense, but if we say
"flower, seedling, fruit, plant, seed, flower" anyone will notice the
absence of harmony and understanding in the second sequence, like an
alphabet recited by an infant, with the letters out of order.  Yet even
a person who might not have been able to come up with the proper
sequence will  recognize and appreciate the correct one, once it is
given.  So it is when an artist depicts the world in a way that we find
"harmonious;" he or she is expressing the forms of living thought, in
which the spiritual, historical, and narrative converge with each other
so as to conform with our own deeper sense of order and rightness.   And
in that moment,  the artist becomes priest, art's beauty becomes the
truth that makes us free, and we experience the spiritual world brought
down to and incarnated in the everyday world.

We do not have the same sense of rightness when it comes to thought, and
the garbled order of Polonius's advice still goes unnoticed.  If we have
no sense for the forms of life, if we perceive only the outer, dead husk
of that which is truly meaningful only when it is alive, then we are
left with no other tools for understanding Polonius except  those that
turn him into a medical case study, or a challenge for histrionic
technique.  But if we apply only these tools, we inevitably extract
Polonius from the play "Hamlet," and destroy the very conditions that
make him interesting in the first place, and give rise to the questions
we wish to answer.   We find ourselves admiring his wisdom  to the same
extent we share his spiritual dementia, and thus repeat the very mistake
which his example of consistent misperception warns us to avoid.

It is Shakespeare's  depiction of that which escapes the grasp of
everyday thinking which constitutes the living and eternal in his work,
or that of any other supreme artist.  It is the same living and eternal
with which religions are concerned.  And when we cite Shakespeare as if
he were a religious text, we are recognizing and paying  reverence to
his capacity to put our own thoughts in harmony with universal thoughts
that underlie both religion and science.  And it is that harmony in
which the human being becomes a thinking, feeling, and willing bridge
between the purely spiritual and the purely material, and in whom each
of those separate realms can experience the reality of the other.

Tony B

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