Showing posts with label T.S. Eliot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T.S. Eliot. Show all posts

Saturday 21 March 2020

How the World Ends

"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper."
                                            T. S. Eliot  "The Hollow Men"

Asteroids and comets

The world will end.  The only questions are how and when.  On average, the earth is struck by an asteroid big enough to reshape if not devastate the planet every 100 million years.  The last major impact was 66 million years ago.  You might want to keep an eye on the sky for the next 34 million years or so.  Sudbury was hit nearly 2 billion years ago, so maybe we in Ontario, Canada, will be spared next time.

The Grapes of Wrath

Even if you are one of those people who believe that the speck of space dust we all live on, and everything else, was created by a fair-skinned old man with a long beard who made us "in his image and likeness" (though vice versa seems more likely to me), you must still accept that his Angel of Death will eventually cut us down with his sickle and cast us into "the winepress of God's wrath." The Biblical Apocalypse does promise heaven for some, the endless euphoria of "being with God," which, I have to admit, sounds like a drug-induced coma to me.  Descriptions of hell are a lot more motivating.

Galaxies in collision

The sun, which we depend upon for everything, will burn out someday.  However, before that happens it will get hotter, making this planet uninhabitable in about a billion years.  However #2, before that happens we are scheduled for another ice age in 50 thousand years--which might be delayed by another 50 thousand years by the build-up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Whether the prognosis is burning or freezing, we need to be looking for a new place to live.  So far, astrophysicists have their eyes on one of the moons of Jupiter.  Unfortunately, long term, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is predicted to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4 billion years.  Eventually, we'll have to look for a gated community in a more distant galaxy.

Based on data from the Hubble telescope this image of Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way was produced by NASA.  So much for Eliot's claim of the world ending "not with a bang."

The Covid-19 paradox

Every year, in round numbers, 60 million people die on planet Earth.  As the mortality rate increases, with an aging population, and the birth rate declines, a zero global growth rate is being predicted.  Good news for the planet, but bad news for the stock market. Despite or rather because of the Corona-virus and the steps being taken to mitigate its impact, the morality rate for the year 2020 is likely to be lower than average.  With business, sport and entertainment venues closed, social distancing and heightened awareness of basic hygiene like hand washing, cases of Covid-19 will be reduced, and so will many of the other top causes of global mortality:  the flu, automobile accidents and tuberculosis.  Unfortunately, precautions against Corona-virus seem unlikely to affect the planet's 9th-leading cause of death, lack of clean drinking water, but we can anticipate a reduction in the number of airplane crashes and mass murders.

Political will

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has belied the typical claims that we cannot solve global problems like man-made climate change, pollution, or poverty, or tuberculosis and malnutrition which are products of poverty.  The Covid-19 response has demonstrated what is possible when there is political will--and by "political will" I don't mean just the "will of politicians" but the will of the media, institutions, businesses, groups and all the way down the line to individual citizens' willingness to cooperate.  The response has demonstrated that we, as a species, are collectively better at avoiding self-annihilation than had previously been predicted.

There is no word for killing a human species

I was struck to learn from Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that millennia ago there were numerous species of humans, and a hint that we may have done away with our siblings--including the Neanderthals who had bigger brains than we did.  Quick and brutal beats brainy and reflective, apparently. There are many words in the English language to categorize types of murder--genocide (a race or nation), omnicide (everyone) and xenocide (others)--but no word for killing a single human species.  Of all the ways the world might end, doing it to ourselves is obviously the worst--and has always seemed the most likely.

Nuclear war

When I was ten, students at my elementary school were given instructions to crouch under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack.  A punch line to the instructions began to circulate that once in position to "kiss your ass goodbye."  In the small town where I grew up we even had a a super-loud siren to warn of an incoming nuclear-missile attack.  At the height of the Cold War, some genius decided it would be a good idea to test it.  I remember I was alone at the tennis courts where I was paid a healthy salary of 10 dollars a week to do the basic maintenance on three clay courts.  For about six and a half minutes, I believed the end of the world was imminent. I felt strangely calm.  I thought I should run home to be with my family.  Upon reflection I knew there was nobody home and our little A-frame house would provide no protection against a nuclear blast.  I just stood there until the siren stopped and the end of the world did not come.


Since that day, I have thought and assumed we would get better at avoiding self-destruction.  On the contrary, we humans seem endlessly creative in coming up with ways and reasons to kill each other and ourselves.  Religions, cultures, states, nations, identities, ideologies, wealth, power, and plain old short-term self-interest provide endless justifications for mutual destruction.

Is Corona-virus the common enemy we've needed?

It has long been hypothesized that what the human race needed was a common enemy to unify us all.  Maybe this Corona-virus will do the trick and we will finally turn the corner away from planetary suicide.  To paraphrase the poet, Fernando Pessoa, we are on the cruise ship Earth without knowing its port of departure or its destination.  Our only certain obligation is to take care of one another.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Holding a Mirror up to Hamlet

It was the worst of plays; it was the best of plays

Hamlet is either the best play ever written or the worst, depending on your perspective. I have, at different times, held both opinions. T.S. Eliot was very critical of the play and of critics of the play. Ultimately he was categorical that “the play is most certainly an artistic failure” (Hamlet and His Problems. T.S. Eliot. 1921. The Sacred Wood; Essays on Poetry and Criticism).

The problem of many Hamlets

Eliot reminds us that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a “revised” version of earlier Hamlets, most notably one by Kyd—and Eliot seems convinced that the play is inferior for this among other reasons. Eliot also points out the tendency of “creative critics” (he mentions Coleridge and Goethe) to imagine a Hamlet character rather than the one actually in the play. Hamlet is so vague and inscrutable that the character invites speculation, confabulation and imaginative interpretations of his “true” nature.  Hamlet is a young man's play--at least, that's when it spoke most deeply to me.  Suicide is a young man's disease--the second leading cause of death in the 15-to-35-year-old age group behind accidents, but a lot of accidental deaths could easily be interpreted as suicides.  "To be or not to be" is bound to have purchase with this age and gender.

Hamnet and depression

In Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in a fit of depression over the death of his 11-year-old son, Hamnet. I see lots of evidence in the play to support this view. When you stop to consider, as objectively as one can, the various elements of the play, it turns out to be incredibly self-indulgent. 

Hamlet:  the model not to follow

If you were giving a play-writing course and wanted a model to show students how not to write a play, Hamlet would work. We teachers of English are accustomed to referring to "Hamlet's procrastination," but what about Shakespeare's procrastination?  "Come on, Will, get to the point!" The play is too long, the mood is morose, meandering and depressive, the plot travels all over the place (literally) without any sense of direction (Eliot suggests it was written by a committee), the playwright (through his central character) criticizes the audience (the Globe theatre smells foul) and actors (they tear an emotional line to shreds).

Holding a mirror up to Hamlet

 It amazes me that Shakespeare uses the play to give fairly condescending instructions to actors. It amazes me even more that in the typical production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directors don’t seem to know what Hamlet’s instructions about “holding a mirror up to nature” mean. The allusion is to Renaissance painters who used mirrors as a trick to get the proportions right in large scene painting. The instructions are "don’t exaggerate the emotions" and "maintain perspective," but still I’ve seen Hamlet writhing on the floor over and over again in paroxysms of emotions in both amateur and professional productions. On the other hand, in this play, the playwright didn’t seem to follow his own advice either.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the   [enunciate, don't mumble]
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air [don't shout]
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; [no excessive gestures]
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it [understate emotions]
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who [don't shout, then Shakespeare/Hamlet insults the audience]
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it. [overdoing exaggerated characters]
First Player
I warrant your honour.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is  [don't exaggerate]
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the [maintain perspective, get the proportions right, as they are in nature, "nature" here means in the neoclassical sense]
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful [overdone is lowbrow]
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o'erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature's journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably. [act normally; in short, avoid exaggeration, avoid excess in volume, manner and gesture]

Tuesday 16 October 2018

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." What's Not to Understand?

Writers and Company

Listening to Anne Carson and Eleanor Wachtel on Writers & Company discussing Keats's famous aphorism, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," I was taken aback to hear both women reveal how little they appreciated what it might mean.

Wachtel: And you quote a passage from Keats before each tango or section, and it was Keats of course who wrote famously, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” How does beauty speak of truth?

Carson: I don’t think it does. I think that’s all a big mistake, but there’s so much power in believing it, and so many of the decisions of life, especially early life—with the adolescent emotions—identify those two, and think that the person who’s beautiful is also true and the feelings that come from beauty lead you to truth. I don’t believe it works out usually.

What's not to understand?

Wachtel and Carson are, of course, two of the most well-read, articulate people on the planet.  Nonetheless, this was an expression I typically taught to first-year undergrads in "Introduction to Literature"  and I struggled to understand how Carson/Wachtel's exchange could go so far astray from Keats's meaning.

Opposition to "beauty is truth"

As I re-researched the expression, I came across quite a phalanx of opposition to Keats, including T.S Eliot's claim that the lines were "meaningless" and "a serious blemish on a beautiful poem." (This from the poet who left us wondering what tahell does "Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow" mean?)

What does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean?

So, what does "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" mean? Beneath this aphorism is the unspoken, sub-textual question, "What is truth?" The search for an answer has gone on for as long as Sapiens have had the wherewithal to ask questions and no agreed-upon, final answer has ever been reached. The knee-jerk response to the question is the "correspondence theory." Something is true if it corresponds to reality. The problem is that there is no agreement on what constitutes "reality." We are left with the coherence theory. Something is true because it is coherent with what we already know. (For further elaboration see Does Knowledge Require Truth?) Descriptions of this theory tend to reduce it to statements which are coherent in relation to other statements; however, I adhere to an expanded notion of coherence which subsumes correspondence. For example: "John loves Mary." This statement is true if it is coherent with other statements (like John saying so) but also if it is coherent with how John behaves (he sacrifices himself for Mary's benefit, etc).

The Truth about truth

What is coherent today isn't necessarily coherent tomorrow. Truth, like beauty, is temporal, temporary, even ephemeral. We only judge as true (or false) those things that have meaning. We judge as true whatever fits with what we know. Our knowledge of truth is always limited and fragile. When we see something that has a meaning, and that meaning connects coherently with other meanings, we see it as true. We will also see it as beautiful. In this moment, beauty and truth are one, just as Keats concluded.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"

The line is a conclusion in Keat's poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn. (Once upon a time, every junior high-school student was expected to know this poem.  Hence, the pubescent joke/pun:  Q: "What's a Greek urn?"  A: "About a buck, fifty an hour.")  

If you read the poem, about the urn's telling of an ancient story of love, faith, and art, against the idea of coherent truth, you will discover the logic of Keats's claim that, given our limitations, beauty is a good--maybe even the best--way to judge truth.


If you've read this far and are still not getting it.  Here's the argument in the form of a straightforward syllogism.  Bearing in mind that we are talking about things that have meaning:

1. We judge as beautiful those things that fit together.

2. We judge as true those things that fit together.

3. What is beautiful is true, and vice versa.


Among the opponents of "beauty is truth" we must now include the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder.  See, for example, "Physics Isn't Pretty."

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